an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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why I’m not a conservative

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Probably better to read this highly recommended book than my article, but you’re welcome to do both

There are many ways of answering the above question. I might state the obvious – conservatives tend to be stodgy, boring, backward-facing selfish naysayers with a limited social conscience and little interest in, if not an outright fear of, scientific and technological development.  End of story.

But of course, that can’t be the whole story. We’re not as free to develop our own views as we think. I’m a product of a particular environment, a very working-class environment, though very bookish within the family. The recent Kavanaugh kerfuffle reminds me of my rough and ready high school days, though I was more often a victim than a perp. All through high school I was the smallest and probably lightest kid in my class, male or female, so I was the target of pranks, mostly ‘good-natured’. For example, on two occasions I was held out upside-down by the legs over the first-floor balustrade by my fun-loving schoolmates. Had they lost their collective grip, I suppose I would’ve dropped head-first to probable death. Yet, though I’m sure my heart-rate was well up at the time, I had a pretty strong faith in my friends – all boys of course – and their benign intentions. I never lost any sleep over it afterwards. 

I’m not suggesting this was working-class hijinx – think of Eton and Harrow ragging, etc – but there was more, including stuff I’m far from proud of, as I strove to fit in with the anti-intellectual and often nihilistically violent environment around me. The quality of teaching was pretty poor, our headmaster was an outright fascist, and I was happy to be a high school drop-out at fifteen. I got occasional assembly-line work, and my spare time was spent either failing to ingratiate myself with a gang of local vandals, or reading Jane Austen or encyclopaedia entries on Isaac Newton, etc. Not to mention wanking myself silly to fantasies of any local beauty I happened to clap my eyes on. Another great solace and opening to a wider world was the wordsmith musical artists of the early seventies I obsessed over, such as Dylan, Cohen and Bowie. 

So what has this to do with my politics? Well, the region of my childhood and youth was, and still is, one of the safest Labor electorates in the country (Labor, for international readers, is the party of the left here in Australia, as it is in Britain). I can’t imagine it ever going the way of the conservatives. In Australia, the urban/suburban working-class tend to vote left, while the rural working-class tend to vote right. It’s perhaps different from the USA where the working-class in general tend to vote right (though this seems to happen here in some parts, notably Queensland). This kind of pro-union us-and-them mentality, an atmosphere of both togetherness and despair, was what I breathed in as I wandered lonely as a cloud through the streets of my town. I engaged with others in petty theft and pointless vandalism, got caught and was placed on a bond, and felt self-servingly that the law was the principle weapon of the rich to beat down the poor.

In the early seventies a downturn in the economy hit our region particularly hard, and I felt it in the air of neglect and dilapidation, the family breakdowns, the beginnings of generational unemployment. I saw a neighbourhood of victims, unable to climb out of their situation, as if they’d been sold a pup and didn’t know quite who to blame. 

I didn’t hang around, I moved to a bigger smoke, and a more variegated, bohemian-student world. My problems of ‘fitting in’ didn’t exactly go away, but I was becoming more reconciled to my ‘loner’ identity. And of course I was educating myself more about politics, economics and history. But always I’ve been concerned about the most vulnerable, the least advantaged, those who ‘lucked out’ in our society. This goes with my views on free will, and on nationalism. We don’t get to choose our parentage, or the where and when of our birth. I politely decline to sing songs about how wonderful and unique ‘my’ country is, because I know that if I was born in another country on the other side of the world I’d be pressured to sing songs about its splendour and specialness. I feel lucky to be a citizen of two peaceful and developed countries, just as I feel lucky to have been born a human rather than a mosquito. I feel lucky to be alive when all this new knowledge is being uncovered, in astronomy, in neurology, in palaeontology and so much else, though I feel unlucky to have been born in 1956 rather than 1996, or even later.

But the implications of this matter of luck seem to me enormous, and they’re essential to my political views. For example, they largely define my views on education, health, welfare, immigration and the justice system. To me, one of the major roles of a political state is to do its best to mitigate, for its members, the destructive effects of bad luck. 

Broadly speaking, the history of politics has ever been the battle between the left and the right – patricians v plebeians, socialists v libertarians, progressives v traditionalists, Labor v Conservative, Republicans v Democrats, with independents ranged across the political spectrum. Those who want to do more for their people v those who want to let people do for themselves, and various other polarities. Of course, not all these categories are the same on each side of the v sign, which raises all sorts of questions. Where does business and capitalism fit in? What about the environmental movement? What about globalism and its detractors? 

My views on many of these matters aren’t well-formulated – or I should say, in a more self-boosting way, they’re not hard and fast. However, the application of a basic rule of thumb – ‘try to reduce the effect of bad luck’, is, I think, a useful starting point. For example, a taxation system that tries to reduce disadvantage in terms of education and healthcare is important, but one that heavily reduces incentives for businesses and entrepreneurs may ultimately affect productivity and the wealth from which taxation can be drawn. At the same time it’s dangerous to fall for the line of the ‘haves’, that tax breaks for the ‘deserving rich’ will ultimately benefit all through greater employment and opportunity. The rich, I’ve noticed, like very much to keep it in the ‘family’ – gated communities being the most in-your-face symbol of the trickle-across effect. 

Governing isn’t easy, especially under the constant scrutiny of vested interests – and that means everyone. One of the major difficulties I’ve noticed is that some scrutineers, e.g. the Rupert Murdochs of this world – are vastly mote powerful than others, so money and influence are always at play – and those in most need are always those who have least influence. It’s easy to lose sight of that – though many conservatives aren’t worried about that, they often see their rich supporters as a natural elite, and the strengthening of that elite as their natural duty in government.

I know this is a bitsy sort of essay – I don’t have an ideology as such, but I do have some strong views, against ideology and for pragmatism, against adversarialism and for collaboration, against realpolitik and nationalism and for the more voiceless and lucked out members of our species – often the victims of realpolitik. I’m also for the progress of science and technology against the fearful or dismissive or wilfully ignorant naysayers. I know I’ve just contradicted myself, seemingly, in speaking for  collaboration and then couching issues in for/against terms, but of course you must have core beliefs to bring to a negotiation, which you can present for consideration while considering and questioning the views of the opposition, as they question yours. And those who aren’t prepared to listen – and I can name quite a few – shouldn’t be allowed at the table. 

I like the approach of Aristotle – first you work out your ethics (the particular or individual) then apply it to politics, the general. Of course, the first thing to note, as you try to work out what you should do, is that it must be in relation to others, the general. Without that ‘general’, which is life itself, not just humanity, as natural selection has taught us, we individuals wouldn’t be here. So the relationship between the individual and the general is necessarily dialectical, but it starts off with that personal question. And there is always that tension, for progressives – those who believe in pushing forward not yearning backward – between that forward movement and responsibility for the luckless strugglers, those so easily left behind. It makes for a very difficult task for those well-meaning politicians I admire. Scientific, technological and intellectual progress is happening at a more rapid clip than ever before, but it’s spreading the spectrum ever wider, not just between the haves and have nots, but between attitudes towards and against that progress, between adoring enthusiasm and hate-filled fear. 

So. I’m not a conservative. I want to embrace the future, to help make it happen. I want it to improve the lot of the majority, especially of those whose lot needs most improving, so that they can share in enthusiasm for the future. I want women to rule the majority of the world, because I believe this would improve humanity, and the world. I want to avoid warfare as much as humanly possible, because the costs are always borne by those who can least afford them. I want to challenge the power of self-serving elites, and to shake their complacency. I want people to think about and recognise the consequences of their actions – especially those with power over others. The future will happen, and we can choose to face forward, and put our hands to those shaky and complicated controls, or to look away and pretend it’s not happening. It’s not much of a choice really. 

Written by stewart henderson

September 23, 2018 at 2:25 pm

the movements of the Earth, the ecliptic, the celestial sphere…

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Why does the Earth spin? Initial conditions plus Newton’s first law is the basic explanation. And from these it should be easy to guess that it’s slowing down as tiny but inexorable forces act upon it, and it will continue to do so unless something unforeseeable happens. The tidal friction caused by the moon, which itself is decreasing over time (or at least I assume so, since the moon is spiralling away from us) is the Earth’s principal brake. Some say that Earth has been gradually slowing down since the last great collision, which created the moon, and which left the planet spinning full circle every six hours, but I think that’s still speculative.

Anyway, we don’t just rotate (in an anti-clockwise direction), we revolve (anti-clockwise) around the sun on a plane tilted at 23.4 degrees from our spin – that’s tilted from the perpendicular. But why? And there’s this thing called precession, right? Spin a top, as I did as a kid, and the most successful spin will have the least precession – the smallest circle (actually a cone) around which the axis of rotation wobbles, but as the top slows that cone will widen until all falls in a heap. In the Earth’s case, it’s most commonly called the precession of the equinoxes, or ‘the wobble’ (maybe).

So the Earth moves in mysterious ways, and I’ve barely begun. It orbits the sun – why? Its orbit is elliptical – why? Its rotational and revolutionary speed vary – why? And what about other movements – the solar system, the galaxy, the universe?

A cool video I’ve been watching tells me something I’d never known or thought of before. We’re all on meridian lines, which pass through us in a north-south direction, from the north pole to the south pole. Lines of longitude. When the sun is at its highest point in the sky, at noon, it’s aligned perfectly with our meridian. The shadow it casts, our shadow, thus points precisely to the north or south pole, depending on the sun’s position north or south of ‘directly overhead’. If the sun is directly overhead, congratulations, you’re on the sub-solar point, and your shadow will disappear beneath your feet, so to speak. Right now the sub-solar point is a circular area in the Atlantic, a little north of the equator, and just touching land in west Africa. I doubt if we ever experience it here in Australia, as it seems to hang close to the equator.

The point to make here is one about time. As there’s a meridian line for just about everyone, it follows that everyone on a different meridian is experiencing a different time. Noon, or any other time, isn’t the same for everyone – but that’s massively inconvenient, so we’ve regularised time via zones, so we can do our business.

Looking again at our rotation, we might think we have it nailed at very close to 24 hours per full rotation, but not quite, for all is relative. The sun, for example, has its movements too, as does everything else. We’ve found that, measured from a distant star, one meridian completes a revolution in 23.9 hours, also known as a sidereal day. Our calendars, though, are based on the solar day. As the Earth turns, it moves forward in its revolution around the sun. So by the time it has turned 360 degrees it needs to spin a little more for the same spot to be facing the sun as was the case 24 hours before. That slightly greater than 360 degree turn is what we call the solar day. From our perspective it seems like an exact 360-degree turn because we’re facing the sun again, exactly as the day before. Or so it seems.

We revolve around the sun in an ellipse. Or not precisely around the sun. Kepler’s first law of planetary motion, presented to the world without fanfare in 1609, had it that all the planets traced an elliptical orbit around a focal line, with the sun as one of its end-points, or foci. And while we’re at it, let’s look at Kepler’s three laws and how they were arrived at. The second law, presented in the same year, states that ‘a line segment joining a planet to the sun will sweep out an equal area over an equal time interval’, and the third law, announced to a largely indifferent world in 1618, is perhaps less linguistically elegant, or at any rate simple: ‘The square of the orbital period of a planet is proportional to the cube of the semi-major axis of its orbit.’ I ripped this from Wikipedia, the greatest gift to all dilettantes and autodidacts ever developed.

Kepler’s laws improved on those of Copernicus, but of course they accepted Copernicus’ heliocentric system as the basis. All Kepler really added was the eccentricity of planetary orbits, a minor detail really, but certainly an improvement. His laws weren’t presented as such at the time: they weren’t described as laws until Voltaire’s  publication of Eléments de la philosophie de Newton, no doubt largely the work of his intellectual superior, Emilie du Chatelet.

So, the first two laws. Kepler was given access to some of the detailed astronomical data of his employer Tycho Brahe, who asked him to calculate precisely the orbit of Mars. Tycho apparently withheld the bulk of his observations from Kepler, because he suspected him of being one of those upstart heliocentrists. Kepler wanted, for largely mystical reasons, to define the Mars orbit as a perfect circle, but after years of trying the calculations wouldn’t work out. What he did discover was that, although the orbital path wasn’t circular – the sun was sometimes further away, sometimes closer –  if you drew a line from Mars (or any other planet, including Earth) to the sun, and then another line, say exactly six days later, the triangle created always had the same area, no matter where you were in the orbit. For this to happen, the planet must be moving faster nearer the sun than when further from the sun. This was Kepler’s second law, which helped him to calculate the first. The planets’ orbits appeared to be elliptical. If the sun was offset from the centre of the planetary orbits, but still obviously essential to those orbits, then the offset could be calculated precisely such that all the planetary orbits fitted. And so it was. Most astronomers consider this to be his greatest contribution.

Kepler’s third law, with its interesting mathematical basis, provided the greatest inspiration to Newton:

The square of the orbital period of a planet is proportional to the cube of the semi-major axis of its orbit.

P2 = a3

I rarely do maths here, but surely this one’s simple enough even for me! The orbital period (p) of a planet is the time it takes to make a complete revolution around the sun. Note that it’s a measure of time, not distance. The semi-major axis of an ellipse is half its longest diameter. In the special case of a circle, it would be the radius. This law enables us, apparently, to determine the distance of planets from the sun, though it appears to entangle time and space. Generally these distances are given in relative terms. with the Earth’s distance from the sun given the value 1 AU (astronomical unit). By that reckoning, the outermost planet, Neptune, has a value of 30.06 AU, approximately, according to one site providing such data. Similarly, we reckon the orbital period in Earth years. Neptune’s orbital period is 164.79 years. So, for Neptune, 164.79² = 30.0611³. Try it on a calculator and you’ll find it doesn’t quite work out, but this may be due to eccentricity of orbits, in time and space. Other sites have different figures. The Kepler equation seems to capture the pattern rather than the precise detail. It’s probable that the publication of logarithmic tables between Kepler’s calculation of the first two laws and the third was vital.

I’m of course no expert on any of this – go to more reputable sites for a more complete story, though you’ll probably find what I found – a fair amount of interesting confusion.

I’ll finish with the ecliptic. The Earth’s orbit sketches out an elliptical plane, which we call the ecliptic. Then again, the ecliptic is also described as the apparent motion of the sun in the sky with respect to the fixed stars – not to be confused with the apparent daily movement caused by Earth’s rotation. In fact Wikipedia describes the ecliptic as ‘the mean plane in the sky that the sun follows in the course of a year’, and Wikipedia is always way more right than I am in these matters, but it’s confusing. The plane can be visualised as stretching out into space, way beyond the actual orbit around the sun and bounded within a celestial sphere, with a ‘celestial equator’, on the same plane as Earth’s equator, also marking a circular section of the sphere at 23.4° from the ecliptic. The north-south celestial axis, an extension of Earth’s axis to the celestial sphere, is again at an angle of 23.4°, on average, from the north-south ecliptic axis, which runs perpendicular to the ecliptic plane.

There’s more, but I’ll stop at this. The ecliptic plane for Earth is an average, as there are always perturbations. The other planets don’t follow this ecliptic precisely, but they’re not too far away, probably as a result of uniforming forces at the creation of the solar system.


Written by stewart henderson

September 8, 2018 at 9:43 pm

a deeper dive into the shallow waters of Emu Bay

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Jacinta: So Emu Bay, shale, Cambrian, trilobites, early complex life, Kangaroo Island, why Kangaroo Island, where do we begin?

Canto: Well, let’s just begin. Apparently the first fossil finds, the first signs that there was something significant, date from the fifties, but it wasn’t until the seventies that real excitement grew.

Jacinta: And these finds were from the Cambrian. Can you give us some background on the so-called Cambrian explosion, and the geological epochs as they pertain to life forms?

Canto: The Cambrian explosion dates to around 530 million years ago. The most celebrated evidence of this comes from the Burgess shale in British Columbia, Canada, though the finds there date to about 510 million years ago – the middle Cambrian. Emu Bay’s fossils have been dated further back in time, though as always there’s some uncertainty as to precise dating. Another famous deposit, the oldest, is in southern China, the Chengjiang fauna.

Now, briefly, the planet’s life-span has been divided into six eons, which you can take as seriously as you like: first, the Hadean, from Earth’s formation 4.6 billion years ago to the end of the late heavy bombardment around 4 billion years ago; second, the Archaean, when life began and then photosynthesis evolved; third, the Proterozoic, from 2.5 billion years ago to 540 million years ago; fourth, the Paleozoic, to 250 million years ago, then the Mesozoic, to 65 million years ago, and finally the sixth, Cenozoic eon, up to the present day. Though the last three are sometimes called ‘eras’ under the title of the Phanerozoic eon.

Jacinta: So how does the Cambrian and other epochs or whatever, map onto this – the Cretaceous, the Jurassic and so forth?

Canto: Well, these are called periods, but let’s not get too caught up in all that, and let’s start with the Cambrian period, as we’re concerned with more or less recognisably modern complex life. It’s generally agreed to date from 540 million years ago, following on from the Ediacaran period, and has been divided into Early, Middle and Late, at least by some, and was followed by the Ordovician some 485 million years ago…

Jacinta: Okay, enough, let’s get back to Emu Bay and the Cambrian explosion.

Canto: Just look online and you’ll find a ton of info on this and the other Cambrian deposits, so I’ll provide links to those sites that have helped me.

Jacinta: And a glossary, maybe.

Canto: Arthropods – from which modern spiders, insects and crabs evolved – and molluscs came into being in the Cambrian, and they’re well represented in the Emu Bay shale, dating from around 520 million years ago. Trilobites (three-lobed critters), a type of arthropod, are particularly well represented. They’re the earliest known creatures to have developed ‘full’ eyesight, I think, which would make them pretty devastating predators at the time.

Jacinta: Eyesight’s an interesting one, and it seems complex sight requires brains as well as good lenses….

Canto: Yes it is complex, and sight is obviously going to be one development among many in the fight for advantage, and developed and used differently in different environments. Anyway, one of the most interesting and important things about Emu Bay is the preservation of soft tissue – crab muscle, trilobite antennae for example. The types of antennae are very revealing apparently. And they’ve even found the turds of these creatures…

Jacinta: So how is it possible for muscle tissue etc to be preserved for over half a billion years?

Canto: That’s a very good question. It’s obviously a rarity – unless there’s an explosion of such finds in the future. A Catalyst program on Emu Bay from 10 years ago puts it this way:

Why this rare occurrence happens is not entirely clear. But it appears that, 520 million years ago, the bottom layer of the sea was depleted of oxygen; no scavengers could disturb the dead and no bacteria could survive to decay the soft tissue.

Jacinta: But one of the big differences between this site and the Burgess shale is that these were shallow water creatures, and the Burgess shale preserved deep water creatures, is that right? So these might have been more exposed to air?

Canto: Well the issue we’re looking at here comes under the heading of ‘taphonomy’ – the branch of palaeontology that deals with the processes of fossilisation. And taphonomy seems very much a work in progress – progressed further by analysis of this site. But it does get very technical. Let me give you an example, from a paper published in the Journal of the Geological Society in 2016:

The EBS [Emu Bay Shale] seems to have been rapidly deposited in a relatively nearshore setting adjacent to an active tectonic margin that generated continual syndepositional faulting and slumping. The Konservat-Lagerstätte interval appears to form part of a localized, deeper-water micro-basin succession on the inner shelf that was subject to fluctuating oxygen levels, at least in the bottom waters (Gehling et al. 2011). This depositional setting is in stark contrast to the majority of other Cambrian Konservat-Lagerstätten, specifically Burgess Shale-type deposits that formed in outer shelf environments, either near or immediately adjacent to the seaward margins of expansive carbonate platforms (e.g. Burgess Shale), or offshore of broad clastic shelves (e.g. Chengjiang) (Gaines 2014).

Jacinta: Hmmm, I think I get the continental drift.

Canto: As to the oxygen question, that’s still being worked on. And as to the deposit being ‘adjacent to an active tectonic margin’, I don’t get that. The whole of Australia sits on a large tectonic plate, the Australian plate, which stretches way south of Kangaroo Island. Perhaps plates can be sub-divided into micro-plates, I don’t know.

Jacinta: Perhaps an active tectonic margin just means a fault-line. But enough of the geology, tell us about the creatures themselves – some of the first predators – and their well-developed eyes.

Canto: More than 50 separate species have been found there, though in terms of specimens, the trilobite Estaingia bilobata dominates. Trilobites are incredibly common in the fossil record, with some 17,000 species known. The earliest ones found seem already highly diversified but their origin in the pre-Cambrian is very much a mystery.

a heap of Estraingia bilobata trilobites found at Emu Bay. I’m guessing from the rule on the right that each one is 2-3 cms long

Jacinta: And do these trilobites have amazing eyes?

Canto: They’re among the first animals we know of to have complex eyes and their lenses were made of calcite, which fossilises well. It’s also hypothesised that the early success of trilobites with their weaponised, prey-catching eyes helped to trigger or speed up the Cambrian explosion of diversity. But the big story about eyes fossilised at Emu Bay isn’t trilobite eyes. An abstract from Nature describes a creature with eyes more complex, and better preserved than any others for the following 85 million years:

The arrangement and size of the lenses indicate that these eyes belonged to an active predator that was capable of seeing in low light. The eyes are more complex than those known from contemporaneous trilobites and are as advanced as those of many living forms. They provide further evidence that the Cambrian explosion involved rapid innovation in fine-scale anatomy as well as gross morphology, and are consistent with the concept that the development of advanced vision helped to drive this great evolutionary event.

Jacinta: I seem to remember reading about this a few years back.

Canto: Yes, Ed Yong of not exactly rocket science did a great post about it. The animal is called Anomalocaris, meaning strange shrimp, and it has been discovered, or uncovered, bit by bit over more than a century, in the Burgess shale and elsewhere. Its 3cm-wide eyes, stuck out on stalks, were about 30 times more powerful than those of trilobites, with at least 17,000 lenses in each eye – all of which was discovered from a single specimen at Emu Bay, the only place where soft tissue was preserved, though specimens of Anomalocaris have been discovered around the world. Including many specimens found at Emu Bay itself.

Jacinta: So, this discovery, of the eyes, really put Emu Bay and Kangaroo Island on the map for a time.

Canto: Well, sort of, among the cognoscenti. But yes, it was exciting to think of such a marvellous find so nearby. And there may well be a lot more to discover.

fossilised eyes of Anomalocaris


Written by stewart henderson

April 15, 2018 at 9:42 pm

online shaming, some problems and perspectives

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Canto: So what exactly is online shaming, and do we need to worry about it?

Jacinta: It’s an extension of any kind of shaming, like in primary school when we picked on some misfit and ostracised her, because she was fat, or ugly, or ‘smelly’ or seemed somehow dysfunctional and a soft target. It was easy to do because we were in a group and our target was too weak to retaliate.

Canto: Did you really do that?

Jacinta: Mildly, peripherally, briefly, when I was very young. But the problem today with social media is this large-scale ganging up, because social media does tend to separate people into their own in-groups, which dehumanise those belonging to their out-groups. The example Jon Ronson gives in his book So you’ve been publicly shamed, and in various talks viewable online, is of a woman who makes a careless joke mocking views on AIDS and Africans is first taken to task by a ‘right-thinking’ in-group, and then character-assasinated in a sort of race to the top, or bottom, in terms of high dudgeon or indignation. All of this occurring on Twitter in a matter of hours, unbeknown to the target.

Canto: And you’ve given a fairly generic example there – a person tweets something careless, someone takes umbrage and retweets it, sometimes distorting it slightly, or adding some dark colour to it, and a kind of holier-than-thou hatred gets unleashed. But I must say, I’m not a Twitter user, so I’m very much out of this loop. What Ronson tells me is about the horrific power of Twitter, which makes me glad to be out of it. I like to think that I wouldn’t engage in that sort of thing myself, I’ve always been wary of crowds and of saying things to be popular, which is what this is partly about isn’t it?

Jacinta: Yes, part of it is about displaying your ‘virtue’ and allegiance to your in-group, but it often becomes very violent, and because of the online aspect, it can spread more rapidly and involve far more people than ye olde public square shaming. Reputations can be shredded and victims may find it difficult to recover.

Canto: But isn’t there good public shaming? I mean, I don’t know much about the Volkswagen scandal, how they duped the system and presented false data about diesel emissions, but you can imagine a scenario in which a car manufacturer tries to keep something dodgy about their data secret, and a disgruntled employee blows the whistle on Twitter, creating a firestorm of indignation and retribution.

Jacinta: That’s a good point but even that is very likely to get out of hand, with solid factual information mixing with bullshit and personal grievances. As a weapon, public shaming is always going to be a bit of a loose canon. Think of a company like Monsanto, which to a particular in-group is synonymous with Pure Evil, and just seems to bring out the worst of responses from the loopy left, no matter what it does.

Canto: So what’s the solution?

Jacinta: Not surprisingly, finding solutions is far easier than creating problems. But before I get into that – and you’ll probably guess what they are – thinking before you tweet, giving the benefit of the doubt, respecting diversity, watching out for mob behaviour… before I get into that, let’s look at the various forms or techniques of public shaming.

Canto: Well, there’s doxing – which comes from documents. Publishing or posting documentary info on someone, often private info, to harass, shame or expose something about them. This can be done for good or ill of course. There’s naming and shaming, which is often used against paedophiles or people released on parole or after serving a sentence, who are perceived as a danger to the public by some vigilante group or individual. There’s revenge porn – nude or ‘compromising’ photos often posted by jilted lovers, but also by computer hackers for various nefarious purposes. This, along with doxing and other forms of online targeting, can have permanent effects on the target’s career and reputation.

Jacinta: Yes, and there’s the ‘shaming’ of restaurants or products, often done in an organised way, and groups like ‘GetUp’ and ‘’ who drive online petitions against companies or decisions they don’t like, and as you can see, this shaming can shade into ideological disputes such as environmentalism v big business, or even conspiracy theories. But I do notice that, in terms of individual shaming, women usually come out of it worse than men. The Justine Sacco shaming is an obvious example. The tweet she sent was extremely mild compared to those sent about her…

Canto: Apparently some black people found it offensive…

Jacinta: Well, come on, the ironic nature of the tweet has been explained countless times. It wasn’t hilariously funny, sure, but if you remain ‘offended’ then you’re one of those serially offended people who blight the lives of everyone who likes to engage in a bit, or a lot, of self-and-other-mockery.

Canto: But I’ve read that Sacco has recently been reinstated in the job she was sacked from as a result of the tweetstorm, and before that she was doing well in another job of a similar sort. So she hasn’t suffered much.

Jacinta: Clearly she’s very talented in her line of work, and good luck to her, but the level of abuse she suffered – often sexualised – tends to be reserved for women. And take the case of Adria Richards, also dealt with in Ronson’s book, which I haven’t read, but there’s an interesting online article about her. She was at a conference and heard two guys nearby having a private but loud conversation which included such sexual terms as ‘I’d fork his repo’ (I’ve no idea what that means) and ‘big dongle’ (not a term I would use – I prefer cock and prick). She found this offensive and tweeted as much, including a photo of the guys. One of the guys was sacked as a result, but when he himself tweeted about what he considered the underhand nature of what she did, the Twitter world turned on Richards big-time. She was sacked after a campaign by hackers launched a ‘distributed denial of service’ attack on her employer, and internet trolls gave her a horribly hard time with the usual disgusting invective that tends to get directed at women.

Canto: Well, I’ve read the article, and I agree that she was treated horribly, but I would say the over-reaction was on both sides. I must say that, to start with, if she was so offended by the lads’ remarks, why not turn round and ask them to shut up? And second, I don’t understand what’s so offensive about forking and repo and dongles, whatever they are. I presume they’re sexual terms but like you, I was brought up in a working-class environment where a cock was called a cock, a cunt a cunt and a fuck a fuck. Most euphemisms aren’t even comprehensible to me, let alone offensive.

Jacinta: Well I can only agree. I think it’s an American problem. But the first thing she should surely have done was ask them to desist if she was offended. It’s quite likely that they would have complied. There’s no mention of her ever doing that. And posting photos of someone online without their permission should be a big no-no. I already have friends who refuse that permission – they’ve become very wary of social media and I don’t blame them. So it was a ‘classic over-reaction’ as one commentator out it, but then to go after Richards in revenge was also wrong.

Canto: It’s a classic example of what’s being called the ‘weaponising’ of social media, people’s lives getting messed up because they can’t engage in straightforward communication, and need to parade their offendedness to the world. Let me tell you a story about trash-talking from my younger days. I was at a party with my girlfriend and we ended up staying the night, sleeping on the floor in a spare room, along with another girl, an old friend of my girlfriend, whom she hadn’t seen in ages. The two women ended up talking much of the night, or rather my girlfriend’s friend held forth in a long monologue about her high-octane sex life, describing a host of encounters in detail, comparing tackle and performances ad nauseum, all with a degree of contempt and mockery that made me wonder why she hadn’t switched to a more enjoyable hobby. However, it never once occurred to me to complain. I was no doubt fascinated at first, but the relentless inhumane carping soon turned me off. Now imagine if this hadn’t occurred way back in the eighties, imagine I was a different sort of person, and I’d recorded the whole thing on my smartphone and posted it online…

Jacinta: She would’ve suffered hell, which even she wouldn’t have deserved. Which brings us again to solutions. And really, at the moment it’s self-imposed solutions. I don’t know if there are any laws preventing us to post images of others without their permission, but they might have to be created. And of course it would be just about impossible to impose laws preventing people from making false or injurious statements about others online. Laws about hate speech are endlessly controversial, for obvious reasons. We’re only just waking up to the power of these social media sites to destroy reputations based on the tiniest of infractions, often misunderstood. The Adria Richards case perfectly illustrates this. Of course the owners and managers of these sites need to be part of the solution, but they’re loath to impose severe restrictions. I suspect it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

etcetera etcetera etcetera etcetera

Written by stewart henderson

March 31, 2018 at 5:17 pm

Trump’s downfall: he won’t go quietly

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The attack on Andrew McCabe, including his precipitate firing, isn’t really a new low, but the fact that it was accompanied by so much Trumpeting invective, followed by the old – but less often seen recently – invective against Team Mueller, all stems IMHO from the subpoena on Trump’s businesses and their financing. This spells Trump’s doom, but it may take some time. Meanwhile Team Mueller is faced with a speedy assault, and a possible attempt to fire Mueller while whipping his scarily loyal base. The attempt by his lawyer, Dowd, surely at the Trump’s urging, to get Mueller to close proceedings, was predictably met with silence, and the promise of a (small) number of Republicans to protect Mueller. But Trump’s behaviour seems to be closing off all options. After his rantings, what can he do but fire his inquisitor, which I believe he has the power to do, though both Sessions and Rosenstein have expressed their support for Mueller. Congressional Republicans appear to be all at sea on the issue. They tried to introduce bipartisan legislation to protect the enquiry but it has gone nowhere. Trump will no doubt try to appeal directly to ‘the people’, his base, as he always has. That’s what his tweeting is all about.

The point is, Trump is no Nixon. He’s no ideologue, he’s pure demagogue. He doesn’t care about his cluelessness, he just wants to be in control, with the power of a Putin or ‘kill all drug dealers’ Duterte. As such, he’s hoping that the people he’s conned will back him against Mueller and co, with violence if necessary.

Trump won’t resign. Never. If they come for him, he’ll lock himself in the White House toilet, and they’ll have to knock the door down and taser him. So how will his dumping be dealt with? But before I explore that thorny issue, what if Trump somehow fires Mueller, which now seems highly likely?

First, there’s the question of how that process will work. I think it starts with Sessions, who has said not so long ago that he has full faith in Mueller. However, he could switch, and probably will. So then, with Mueller fired, what would congressional Republicans do? One pundit argues, from recent Republican responses, that they’ll do nothing. If that’s so, I don’t know what will happen. Others talk of a constitutional crisis, but I honestly don’t know what that entails.

I don’t know how Trump can get out of this. He might be thinking if he keeps slugging it out, demonising his pursuers, he might improve his popularity. Some polls are registering an improvement, though the one I regularly use hasn’t changed much at around 40%. There just seems no way his popularity will surge. And at some stage there will be a request that might turn into a subpoena, or an indictment of someone much closer to him than heretofore. As another pundit suggests, he might try to legally resist a subpoena, and this could drag along for months. Meanwhile the mid-terms are approaching, and however they go he’ll be faced with a far less supine congress by year’s end.

I don’t know much about impeachment, and I don’t particularly want to go there, because it’s a political process and I’m more interested in the law and criminality. I find it hard to believe Team Mueller won’t find any indictable offences when trawling through Trump’s finances. I do have concerns about what the Trump Organisation will hand over. It just seems to me unlikely that they’ll come clean about all their dealings. So money laundering and other financial crimes are likely. Obstruction too, with evidence from Comey, McCabe and others. The Wikileaks connection could be another factor, and Kushner’s dodgy business connections, and the horribly complicated Clinton emails controversy.

So again we’re left to wait for another dramatic move from Team Mueller. It’s hard not to be distracted by the Trump’s melodramatics though, as we try to work out how to hook the slippery old fish. Many pundits are saying he’s his own worst enemy, but is he? This is a guy who’s been involved in shady business dealing for decades, a guy who has fucked over many people, who has been high-handed and amoral throughout his life, and has gotten away with it. He has never really suffered any punishment. Will it be different this time? Nobody knows at this point. That’s the morbid fascination of it. I note that he’s looking to add more lawyers to his team as Mueller, Avenatti et al come after him. My guess is that he plans to surround himself with an ultra-thick layer of lawyers so that they’ll have to use a chainsaw to eventually get to him. It’s going to get grizzly.


Written by stewart henderson

March 22, 2018 at 6:06 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Trump’s downfall – like watching a slow-mo train wreck

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the demise of Richard III

So after something of a lull (but not in the offices of the DoJ’s Mueller and his team) everything’s hotting up in the Russia investigation, and my prediction seems now a dead cert. The indictment of the thirteen was a fascinating read, and we’ve yet to find out if any Americans close to Trump were wittingly involved in this trolling affair. There’s likely more to come from that direction, but the most recent guilty plea and co-operation deal from former White House aide Rick Gates lands a decisive blow, and we still haven’t heard from Flynn – though there may be nothing much to hear.

The Mueller team’s strategy in this investigation, or perhaps I should say the pundits’ attempts to comprehend the strategy, makes for irresistibly compelling viewing and listening, especially as we’re now getting reading material from the team, and very deliberately so, as the American public, or that part of it that matters, need to be made aware of the real and serious nature of the Russian threat and the relationship between the Trump campaign and presidency, and Russian oligarchs, government officials and supporters, such as former Ukrainian dictator Viktor Yanukovych. I should mention the most compelling of the pundits, for me, who include Rachel Maddow, Laurence O’Donnell and Ari Melber for MSNBC, and Anderson Cooper, Don Lemon and Chris Cuomo for CNN and their numerous expert guests.

What has been tantalisingly suggested in the most recent indictments of Manafort, Gates and the Dutch lawyer Alex van der Zwaan is a possible/probable connection between 1: Manafort’s financial problems and the many swindles he engaged in after the deposing of Yanukovych in 2014 and the sudden reduction of those problems when he became Trump’s campaign manager in 2016, and 2: the financial connections between Trump and members of his family and Russian oligarchs. One key to that reduction seems to be the millions of dollars of loans received from a Chicago bank headed by a Trump supporter, who apparently was hoping to be made Secretary of the Army in return. Didn’t happen of course.

And the crises keep on coming in Trumpland. I’ve not written here for a few days, and the latest, just in, is that Kushner has been effectively demoted due to his lack of a security clearance, which will mean a battle between him and John Kelly, which will involve Trump, but more importantly it will focus attention on just why Kushner is deemed a security risk. And of course the clearance issue involves a scandalously large number of White House staff besides Kushner. Another shemozzle. There was apparently a conversation between White House counsel Don McGann and Deputy A-G Rosenstein (initiated by the White House I’ll bet) a couple of weeks ago about Kushner’s clearance. I’d love to have heard its substance. It’ll be interesting to see how Trump handles this particular debacle. He presumably won’t fire Kelly, because that’ll do nothing for the clearance situation – it’s people like Mueller and Rosenstein he wants to fire. My guess is he’ll try to continue with business as usual, defying Kelly’s order that Kushner not be allowed access to top secret documents. The media need to be watchful on this.

But getting back to Manafort-Gates, this appears to be the main game re Trump’s downfall. According to all the legal analysts, the case against Manafort is more than extremely strong, and his only hope of getting a lighter sentence is to plead guilty and co-operate with the Mueller investigation – though perhaps he’d prefer to live his life out in jail than leave himself open to Russian hit-men. He’s showing no sign of cracking as yet, but I can’t imagine it’s due to loyalty to Trump. Meanwhile, reports are that Trump is very worried about Manafort spilling the beans. Again it’s all about following the money.

For the rest of this piece, though, I want to focus on whether Trump will be kicked out, how will he be kicked out, the obstacles and a little bit about the aftermath. First, let me focus on an article in the New Republic, by Matt Ford, published in late January, entitled ‘Trump is Here to Stay’. It’s not a pro-Trump piece, but it questions the likelihood of indicting a sitting president. This is a key question, because I’ve never taken much interest in the political process known as impeachment, which is a more or less uniquely American thing. To me, it should be all about the law – laws being similar (or more similar than different) in all advanced western nations. And no single person, regardless of station, should be above the law. So I would be expecting that Trump would be removed by the Department of Justice, not by Congress, but there’s no precedent for this. But there’s no precedent for Trump either. I wouldn’t want Trump to be removed by a political process, I’d want him to be removed for breaking the law, or laws.

So what laws would he have broken? Obstruction of justice and perjury are two obvious ones, and others would have to do with his finances, and how they tie him closely to Russian oligarchs and their extreme anti-democratic ambitions and their interference in the recent elections – for which one Russian oligarch has already been indicted. Of course my disagreement with Ford and his article is driven by optimism and an unwonted love of fireworks, but I think that, though he accepts Mueller’s thoroughness, he underestimates it. He might also think differently now that these Russians have been indicted, and Gates has pleaded guilty. The Mueller team have come out in public a lot more in the past month, and more is surely expected, nobody can really predict what will come out next. Indictments against, say, Kushner for his financial dealings may change the picture, especially if they’re comprehensive. And Manafort may yet change his tune under pressure. And remember that the Mueller team can look at any wrong-doings that turn up in the course of their investigations, which include the dodgy profits Trump is certainly deriving from simply being the President. I think Ford also underestimates the groundswell of resistance, which may lead to unprecedented national action throughout 2018. The mood against Trump may turn more and more ugly, and if a Mueller indictment comes on top of that, we may witness a true constitutional crisis. For example, I don’t see Pence as being acceptable to the American public, so we’ll be in uncharted territory. Americans might at last see that their political system needs some serious revision – too many personal appointees of America’s CEO and not enough elected officials running things – not enough democracy, in effect.


Written by stewart henderson

March 1, 2018 at 11:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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watching Trump’s downfall – follow the money

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veteran federal prosecutor Andrew Weissmann, bullish criminal fraud expert and key member of the Mueller team

Canto: The good thing about the Mueller investigation, or ‘special counsel enquiry’, is its broad terms of reference, as we Australians would describe it. The brief of the enquiry is to investigate any links and/or co-ordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump, and any matter that arose or may arise directly from the investigation…

Jacinta: So that would include obstructing justice, but I’m not sure that the firing of James Comey, then head of the FBI, in May 2017, will fit the ‘obstruction of justice’ category.

Canto: But the FBI were investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, and Trump more or less admitted, just after firing Comey, that it was because of the ‘Russia thing’.

Jacinta: ‘More or less’ isn’t good enough, and it could be argued that justice wasn’t obstructed because Comey’s firing led directly to the Mueller investigation.

Canto: Okay forget obstructing justice, at least for now, I was going to talk about money. That’s to say, matters arising directly from the investigation. That’s how Paul Manafort and Rick Gates were indicted. They were lobbying for the pro-Russian faction in Ukraine, in particular the disgustingly villainous Viktor Yanukovych, but were involved, not incidentally, in massive money-laundering schemes. So they’re in big trouble, and it’s well known that Trump and his family are up to their ears in Russian money, and if Trump’s finances aren’t dodgy, then the term dodgy surely has no meaning. Mueller’s team, detailed here, ‘possess a vast array of experience investigating financial fraud, corruption, money laundering, foreign bribery, and organized crime’. A perfect bunch to catch out Trump.

Jacinta: You’re making a few assumptions here about Trump’s corruption. Yes he’s a bullshit artist, he doesn’t have any normal concept of the truth, he’s ignorant, he’s inhumane, he’s a bully and much more. That doesn’t make him a criminal. If he was involved in the kind of activities Manafort was involved in, he surely would’ve been indicted by now.

Canto: They may have enough to indict him, but doing so would bring the investigation to a spectacular halt. His indictment might be the cherry on the cake, the last thing to add. First they’ll be spiralling in on the family, Kushner and Trump Jr…

Jacinta: You’re sounding like the most optimistic anti-Trump pundit, imagining they already have mountains of evidence, they’re just adding to the pile to make this the most spectacular house-of-cards downfall in US history, for which their names (I mean the Mueller team) will be covered in eternal glory. I’m a little sceptical.

Canto: Trump has never produced his tax returns and I’m assuming he has much to hide. His companies declared bankruptcy four times in the early nineties, and two more times in the 2000s. It came to the point where the only bank that would lend to him was Deutsche Bank, a financial institution that was at the same time heavily into laundering Russian money. And it’s no secret that Trump and his family are heavily indebted to Russian oligarchs – super-rich members of Putin’s kleptocracy. Naturally they’re expecting a quid pro quo. This is where the interference lies – Trump’s indebtedness and the Russian government’s expectations.

Jacinta: But has Russia really benefitted, apart from Trump’s fawning over Putin? There was talk of the Trump administration going easy on Russia in exchange for dirt on Clinton, but it hasn’t actually happened has it? Trump’s personal indebtedness to Russians, if proven, doesn’t prove that he or his team conspired with Russians to subvert the US political/democratic system. I mean, there’s no doubt the Russians have been trying to subvert the American, and British and French and other western governments, and they were working toward a Trump victory in 2016 for obvious reasons, but whether or not they conspired directly with the Trump team, that’s unclear. Certainly the Russians would’ve tried to, but did they actually succeed, and what evidence has there been of a quid pro quo?

Canto: We don’t know, but it’s likely that Mueller’s team does. They’ve subpoenaed Deutsche Bank for documents relating to Trump and his family’s finances, though this has been denied by Trump’s lawyer Jay Sekulow. Deutsche Bank is about the only major bank in the world willing to lend to Trump, and it was found guilty of laundering some $10 billion dollars of Russian money last year. Kushner received a loan of $285 million from Deutsche Bank in 2016, just before election day. The Mueller investigators will know much much more about this than we or any reporters do. It’s about connecting the dots, to quote one reporter, between the Trump and Kushner finances, Deutsche Bank and Putin and his billionaire kleptocrats. Apparently Trump and his companies have received no less than $3.5 billion in loans and loan-guarantee agreements from Deutsche Bank since 1998. It’s impossible to believe that Mueller’s lawyers aren’t shining all sorts of lights on all this murkiness and making more sense of it than has ever been made before. I look forward to the next indictment. It might be the most fateful one yet.

Jacinta: Okay, here’s a question. What exactly is money laundering?

Canto: Well, as the term suggests, it’s about turning dirty money into apparently clean stuff. Ill-gotten into ‘legit’. Though the term has become envaguened in recent years,

Jacinta: Good word.

Canto: Thanks, so now it just about covers all kinds of dodgy financial dealings, including terrorist financing. But the key, usually, is to give the appearance of legitimacy to money obtained illegally or wrongfully. And of course the variety of ways this can be done is just about endless. So let me tell you about the Deutsche Bank ‘mirror trade’ system. It was about accepting two trades at once that looked essentially equal and opposite, one in roubles, the other in dollars or other western currencies. These trades looked innocuous but their real purpose was to convert money, and to shift it out of Russia. This, inter alia, helped to ‘clean up’ the money, which was more often than not of dubious origin, given Putin’s kleptocracy.

Jacinta: Just a quick read of Deutsche Bank’s history reveals scandal after scandal, a history of corruption – fraud, price manipulation and so on… which makes me long to get off the topic of money-grubbing and kleptomania and political jiggery-pokery and back to sciencey subjects. I’ve had enough.

Canto: Okay, I’ll try to get my mind off the Trump spectacle – what will happen will happen. No more, I promise – for a while. Just let me end with a list of dictators Trump has lavished praise on. Of course there’s Russia’s Putin and Duterte of the Philippines, but there’s also Nursultan Nazarbayev, dictator of Kazakhstan for the last 25 years; Xi Jinping, long-time leader and now dictator of China, lover of execution and other forms of repression; Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Egypt’s new repressive macho-man; Recep Erdogan, the Turkish bag of shit; and he’s expressed approval of Kim Jong Un and even Saddam Hussein. In fact, anybody who doesn’t seize power for himself (no women allowed) and hold onto it for a long time is considered a lightweight…

Jacinta: Okay calm down, let’s look at different sorts of power in the future…


Written by stewart henderson

January 4, 2018 at 10:53 am