Corrections to the blogosphere, the consensus, and the world

Friday, March 26, 2004

Bertrand Russell and the White Australia Policy

"The Chinese and Japanese are industrious and skilful workers, accustomed to a much lower standard of life than that of men of European origin. Given free rights of immigration and competition in the labour market, they would soon oust white wage-earners in any country in which they were tolerated. .... In the end, owing to political democracy, they were excluded from both Australia and the United States. When I speak of democracy in this connection I mean, of course, democracy among white men;world democracy in a world government would have had an opposite result. Those who hold - as I certainly do - that it would be regrettable if California and Australia ceased to be white men's countries, must seek some principle other than democracy to justify their opinion."
Betrand Russell, New Hopes for a Changing World, 1951, Allen & Unwin

Who would ha thunk it?


Thursday, March 25, 2004


Which would make the machines the Palestinian authority (or possibly the other way around) and Smith Hamas. There's a way in which it sort of works.


Sion & Zion

Having watched most of the last sad Matrix movie on an international flight I was once again irritated by the total ineptitude showed by both sides militarily in the human/computer war. The humans congregate into a one-centre bunker society presumably in order to develop an industrial production capacity that enables them to produce enormous quantities of unshielded exoskeleton gun platforms totally specialised for a single battle in a single location and impossible to use in any other context. They then back up this unnecessary walking capacity - the exoskeletons are only going to be operating in a space a couple of hundred yards across; why aren't they fixed gun platforms? - with ammunition suppliers who push small barrows with small wheels across free-fire zones that are covered with rubble. When this tactic fails they have no better idea than all to assemble in one room so that the machines needn't have to hunt for them down those thin passages that they seem to find so difficult and can kill them all in one operation. Haven't they ever heard of the term 'disperse'? Or 'decentralise'? Or 'guerilla'? or indeed 'Flee'?

And then in response the machines
(a) don't hold off their drills so that both can make simultaneous entries:
(b) don't immediately descend to ground level so that the Walkers would shoot each other:
(c) don't use gas, shrapnel, or any other way of taking out the unprotected Walker drivers other than by rather ineffectually scratching at them with long arms.
This both
(1) reminds us what a great movie Seven Samurai was, as if we needed reminding - the only movie battle to make military sense; and
(2) raises the question of whether Sion is in fact modelled on Israel.


Swift's Ostention

In Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen's "What does a Martian look like?" they say (p. 192 Ebury paperback) "it is much easier to say 'crocodile' than to bring one with you to point to".

While that has been true for human history to date, it isn't any more. Any laptop with a couple of terabytes can carry an effective picture/video dictionary, and a few Moores from now a hologram dictionary. And this isn't simply a quibble without consequences; I've just given a conference presentation in which I argued that in the case of Persistent Vegetative State, where the nature of the condition is debated and the diagnostic criteria variable, an ostensive definition made up of a number of video clips would be more satisfactory than the current definition based only in (weasel) words.

Swift's philosophers, who floated
"...a Scheme for entirely abolishing all Words whatsoever; and this was urged as a great Advantage in Point of Health as well as Brevity. For it is plain, that every Word we speak is in some Degree a Diminution of our Lungs by Corrosion, and consequently contributes to the shortning of our Lives. An Expedient was therefore offered, that since Words are only Names for Things, it would be more convenient for all Men to carry about them, such Things as were necessary to express the particular Business they are to discourse on. And this Invention would certainly have taken Place, to the great Ease as well as Health of the Subject, if the Women in conjunction with the Vulgar and Illiterate had not threatned to raise a Rebellion, unless they might be allowed the Liberty to speak with their Tongues, after the manner of their Ancestors; such constant irreconcilable Enemies to Science are the common People. However, many of the most Learned and Wise adhere to the New Scheme of expressing themselves by Things, which hath only this Inconvenience attending it, that if a Man's Business be very great, and of various kinds, he must be obliged in Proportion to carry a greater bundle of Things upon his Back, unless he can afford one or two strong Servants to attend him. I have often beheld two of those Sages almost sinking under the Weight of their Packs, like Pedlars among us; who, when they met in the Streets, would lay down their Loads, open their Sacks, and hold Conversation for an Hour together; then put up their Implements, help each other to resume their Burthens, and take their Leave.

But for short Conversations a Man may carry Implements in his Pockets and under his Arms, enough to supply him, and in his House he cannot be at a loss: Therefore the Room where Company meet who practise this Art, is full of all Things ready at Hand, requisite to furnish Matter for this kind of artificial Converse.

Another great Advantage proposed by this Invention, was that it would serve as a Universal Language to be understood in all civilized Nations, whose Goods and Utensils are generally of the same kind, or nearly resembling, so that their Uses might easily be comprehended. And thus Embassadors would be qualified to treat with foreign Princes or Ministers of State to whose Tongues they were utter Strangers."

- would have loved it. More to Stewart and Cohen's point, treating "with foreign Princes or Ministers of State to whose Tongues they were utter Strangers" is a reasonable beginning to interalien communication problems.

When the point was made to Stewart & Cohen, they replied "An excellent point, well made. Many thanks for your interest. If we ever do a sequel or a new edition, we'll bear this in mind." -- which I suspect to be an automatic reply along the lines of "John Smith is out of the office", but I add it for the sake of completeness.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004


About 50% of every news media could be covered under the following two headlines;


Friday, March 12, 2004

Raw Fish

Until now, I thought the Spam sushi I saw in Hawaii was about as far as one could go in that particular line; up the road at lunchtime, however, I was able to trump that with Deep-Fried Sushi, at the local chippery. A satori moment.


Tuesday, March 09, 2004


One aspect of the way the world works seems to me to have been very much underplayed in political science and management theory.

Let us imagine you are in a position of power. A proposal comes to your desk. One of the options is obviously sensible, is supported by the data, and comes with the recommendation of your experts. One is less satisfactory. One is plainly an almost total wipeout. What do you do?

If you do the sensible thing, you are doing what anyone could do. You don't need power for that. If you want to demonstrate to others that you have power, you have to take a decision that nobody in their right mind would take and push it through against unanimous opposition.

This is in some ways in line with the present trend in evolutionary biology, which explains survival handicaps such as the peacock's tail by hypothesizing that it is a way of demonstrating to potential mates or rivals that you have such potency that you can cope successfully with enormous self-imposed handicaps.

At some point this comes up against the imperatives of simple survival, but if you are Stalin or a top manager in a large corporation you have a very wide range of action before you reach this boundary.

If accepted, this theory explains quite a lot -- perhaps too much, in fact; as in evolutionary biology, it means that any decision, good or bad, can be accounted for under one arm of the theory, making it virtually irrefutable and in Popperian terms trivial.


Bizarro World

We called a taxi to the house on Saturday. I hopped in and said "We want to go to Williamstown."

"From here?"


Friday, March 05, 2004

Really Rotten Ideas, II

While we're on the topic of really rotten ideas, am I the only person who thinks that the foundation of the state of Israel is one of them? Speaking largely from the Jewish point of view. Undoing the omlette now is of course not so clear-cut.


Thursday, March 04, 2004

The one ring and the age of mechanical reproduction

Now that the One Ring is available for $US16.95 we can turn our minds to the necessary disclaimers - "WARNING: this ring will not turn the user invisible" or "WARNING: This ring will not find the other rings of power, bring them, in the darkness bind them, or rule them."

Actually, the ring could have done with some warnings from the beginning. Has anyone pointed out what a spectacularly bad idea it was to make it at all? At the end of TROTK Sauron was on the verge of total victory despite not having had the use of the ring, and only the ring being thrown into the fires of doom stopped him. If he'd simply hung around till the heroic age was over and everybody else in the top rank of the beings had gone home he could have conquered Middle-Earth quite satisfactorily without anything other than an orc extruder and a talent for organisation. All he did was create a needless vulnerability. Though I suppose you could say the same about America and the A-bomb.


Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Here, Spot

Dr. Glenn Young, head of the physics division at Oak Ridge, said "Neutrons are slippery little rascals."


When Complete Meant Complete

A brief mention on Crooked Timber of Randall Jarrell's Pictures From an Institution, which I was rereading the other day.

RJ really deserves one of those whopping victorian complete works that actually were complete works (I have a two-volume swift in 6-point type in two columns that includes works, letters from and to, attributed works, and marginal annotations. Even an orwell-type complete published writings would be better than nothing) rather than the current situation where I have to keep buying selections in editions that overlap by about 80%. Lines like "Xxx hints - and when Xxx hints, pigs come running from miles around - that...." are right up there with Housman's invective.
And that's the only time anybody in this century will read the name of any of these forgettable poetasters like Xxx ...immortality of a sort, I can remember the insult even if not the object.
Incidentally, can anyone out there confirm or deny that ?Harriet? the villainess is based on Mary McCarthy?
And when I say 'insult' and 'invective' I do recognise that RJ tried his very best to be fair and positive, and to avoid the personal; so the effect was, as in Pogo, "His 'howdy' is anyone else's 'drop dead', so when he says 'Mmmm....' that means he really, really doesn't like you."


Tuesday, March 02, 2004

H & E

In a posting about sex education Matthew Yglesias refers to, inter alia,
"heroin addiction, where even 'safe' IV drug use is neither especially safe (you've got your overdoses and so forth) nor something worth doing (even if there was no such thing as AIDS or overdoses it would be better not to be a heroin addict)".

Doesn't that require some further explanation? If (and I have to undeline there that this is a thought experiment, so don't come back with well-reasoned cases about the actual evils of heroin) there were no physical disadvantages (and, me being a weenie, no injections)(and, to be sure, if there were no legal sanctions - but then, why would there be?) why would getting high on H be undesirable per se? It might be too expensive, or too time-consuming, or too distracting, but I seem to remember the same being true of sex. Aren't we accepting too readily the concept that enjoyment is inherently suspect? And the thought experiment does seem to be almost realised in the case of Ecstacy (the drug, not the orgasm), where the physical toll seems to be about level with that from the consumption of bacon.

Monday, March 01, 2004

Fire in the stacks

On Crooked Timber,
"a bit from Margaret Levi’s Consent, Dissent and Patriotism, where she discusses the politics of military archives.

More arcane is the account of a small fire that destroyed relevant materials from World Wars I and II in the Australian War Memorial. The representatives of the British government operate under strict rules of secrecy concerning a very large amount of military-related material, and they uphold those rules rigorously. The Australian government operates with a greater openness. The problem arose because in the Australian War Memorial were records that the British deemed secret and the Australians did not. The problem was resolved by the British, or so my reliable source tells me, by planting a mole archivist in the War Memorial. This mole lit a small fire in the relevant stacks and then disappeared."

Actually, the War Memorial story seems unlikely, in that it posits an uncharacteristic Australian willingness to defy great and powerful friends. When my father retired from the Department of Foreign Affairs he was occasionally called back to do declassifiaction tasks, and one of the things he found was that the Americans generally objected to the Australians releasing under FOI any information involving America even when it would have been accessible under American FOI - indeed, even when the Americans had already released it in America. The problem was not the information; the problem was who was to be master. And the Department invariably buckled under.

Admittedly, the Americans do have more clout in Canberra than the British, but even so.
Though it has to be said that the thought of James Bond doing his ocker librarian shtick does appeal strangely.


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