Thursday, May 29, 2008

From donuts to Jihads

Thanks to Alison Parsons for this link.

Say what now?

Please discuss!

On mice, men, and memorials

So the article I'm writing at the moment (currently overdue to my own self-imposed time frames, but hey) deals in part with memorials and representations of pivotal events in history. Primarily, with our conceptions of war, and the life of the soldier.

However, when this article appeared on my Google Reader page, I got a bit reminiscent, and a bit thoughtful.

For those who haven't been to Berlin recently, there is a memorial there to the murdered Jews of Europe, in fact, the new memorial, to the homosexuals who suffered at the hands of the Third Reich is apparently across the road from it. Now, I deplore most modern art, but the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe ("the memorial") is quite astonishing. Never in my life have I been to a place that is quite of eerie. While I'm sure that a tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau or the like will provide an even greater sense of loss, I was truly moved by the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe. To do the night tour and visit the underground museum below the Stelae is an even more moving experience, and I strongly encourage everyone to make a visit, should your path take you to Berlin.

What I wanted to talk about, however, is the concept of a memorial. Now, as an Australian who has done his fair share of mind-numbing car trips across this great, flat, desolate country, I've seen many, many memorials to fallen soldiers: Philip D'Alton, who I mentioned in a previous article had a somewhat critical perspective on them. Sifu, I feel, was right. Memorials in our country are often muted versions of the truth, sanitised and commericalised in such a way that feeds us images that warp our perspective on the horrors of war. Not so in the memorial. Devoid of images so tacky as images of concentration camps, starving Jewry and corpses, the memorial instead conveys a deep sense of loss, by it's starkness. the particular concrete-esque substance of the Stelae soaks up sound, and turning corners is disoriented in the uniform field of Stelae and slowly undulating paths between. it is an inspired memorial that hopefully will continue to inform and challenge people on one of the horrors of the previous century.

So my question to the wider world is: what function does a memorial serve? Memorials in Australia are usually to commemorate battles and fallen citizens, while The Memorial instead commemorates a far different part of history: it remembers the sins of a nation. In light of "sorry," and all its press coverage, it gives one pause for reflection as to the status of the "sins of a nation." can a nation have sins? Are there things so terrible that a body of citizens can do that we become bound to our history? I think so, but I'd be interested to hear from others. It's my view that we have a moral obligation to remember history, lest it (please for give my cliches) repeat itself.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The rapture and the job market

So my only question about this: does the Antichrist need ethicists?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Follow-up to yesterday's post


This is why I love the Daily Telegraph.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Children and consent: the artist as pornographer

Is it right to let childrens' parents consent to them being photographed naked and displayed in public? This question has become a hot topic after an exhibition due to be displayed of the renowned photographer Bill Henson that was closed down before even opening due to the controversial nature of the photographs. They showed a 12-year-old girl naked in a series of non-sexual photographs. The full story can be found here, with a followup of obscenity and potential child pornography charges here, but in this article former models of the photographer say that there was no way he had ever sexualised the photography he did of children, and always made sure to get the consent of the parents and the child:

"Bill asked my mother at an exhibition opening if I would like to pose for him and we talked about it and decided to do it," says Ms Elenberg, now a 34-year-old mother. "We went to this old building in Melbourne. It was quite dark but I never felt uncomfortable. Bill made you feel incredibly safe and calm. I was involved in the artistic process and I never felt that I wasn't in control.

"I absolutely support Bill Henson. I'm a parent myself and I abhor child pornography, but this is not child pornography. It's artistic and creative."

So the question is, though, can a child consent to something like this? Where is a line drawn between nudie pics in the bathtub put online for all to see and photographs of artistic merit, and child pornography? In the above article, the CE of Child Wise, Bernadette McMenamin says: "It is clear from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that parents do not have the right to make that decision on behalf of their children. And children, at the age of 12, 13 or 14, do not have the experience or the understanding to make an informed consent. They don't understand how those images will be used or re-used. When they're 18 or 20 or 30 they may look back and say, 'My god, I made a mistake.' "

It seems to me that the difference between naked pics in public and pornography is largely intention. The creeps who get off to children in the first place are unfortunately likely to find catalogues of childrenswear sexually gratifying as well, so there's not a lot we can do about that (except deal with them as we currently do when we find them, because that sort of thing is just revolting). But these photographs are apparently non-sexual (I cannot verify personally, I haven't seen them). How then are they different from anatomical photographs for public medical use, or the aforementioned baby bathtub pics? I personally would be more embarrassed to know that my parent had been showing naked pics of me on their laptop at each talk in public they gave as their background wallpaper (not mentioning any names here person who gives talks in CAPPE!) than to see artistic photographs of me when I was younger that were tasteful and associated with pleasant memories.

Basically what I'm getting at is that yes, I think children can be part of a consent process here, but with their parents who should be properly informed. The argument given by McMenamin above is just silly, because it means that nobody would be able to make decisions for their children at all. A good informed consent process should take the mental status of the parents and child, the understanding of the parents and child into account, and above all put the child's interests first, and it sounds like this was exactly what Henson did. This whole kneejerk reaction to something that touches society's nerve can be used to draw attention to the problems we have in society and maybe work on dealing with them rather than shutting them up in a cupboard. And that's one of the wonderful things about art, is that it often does that to great effect. Perhaps they should start up a fund to help children in developing countries, or something, rather than get on their high horse about all this.

Art is art. Erotica and porn are usually quite obviously so, through the intention of the photographer. Perhaps next time Henson, to avoid controversy, should paint or draw his subjects instead of photographing them? Would that be more acceptable?

Go Blog About It!

As I sit down to a healthy helping of yet another book on the questionable activities of highly funded US Government Agencies, I pause to reflect upon my weekend, and a particular incident comes to mind which I feel could serve as an interesting blog post. Now, I don't like blogging about personal experiences: the whole process seems somewhat self indulgent. So hopefully I'll be able to get past that quickly and on to a broader issue that made me consider this particular scenario.

The self indulgent setup:

So on Saturday, post training, I sauntered over to Commonwealth Park on the shores of lake Burley-Griffin, to partake in the inaugural Canberra Ride of Silence. The Ride of Silence, originally started some years ago in the USA, is to remember the cyclists injured or killed on the roads of this world, and raise awareness about cyclists and our status as road users.

The ride itself was good, but it's not really the foundation of the story. What happened to me after is: I was cycling (funnily enough) home, when I stopped at some traffic lights, because I'm one of those nice, law abiding cyclists. I was in the right lane, as is my right, to turn right, because this particular road had no cycle lanes or shared path. I'm waiting, minding my own business, when a cement mixer (known to others as a Concrete Transport Truck) comes up behind me, and attempts to run me over.

Now, I'm aware that such vehicles are not only on a limited schedule due to the possibility that their load will dry. However, I saw this guy leaving a construction site, so I'm going to say that this wasn't a priority. Next, I'm also aware that these things weigh many, many tons, so their braking is not exactly the same as, let's say, a bicycle. However, I was stopped. At a red light. With traffic flowing quite steadily in the perpendicular street. So this guy is beeping his horn, and I'm forced to hop a median strip into the opposite flow of traffic and get to the sidewalk. The guy flips me the bird (for those who are not familiar with this colloquialism, it is the sign one makes with one's middle finger that indicates your patent disregard for another), then waits at the red light another 15 seconds until he turns right onto London Circuit and moseys off.

Well, I, somewhat irate, head to the local police station, more in the spirit of inquiring whether there is any chance I can get this grade-A [insert favourite profanity here] put into a spaceship and fired into the sun, or at the very least slapped over the wrist. And I'm informed that there is nothing they can do. it'd be my word against his, no witnesses I could rack up, and no property damages. That, and there is no real classification that fits into the "the bastard tried to kill me!" category that he'd fit into. Reckless driving, maybe. And, when all things are considered, the only crime admittedly committed is that I hopped a median strip into the opposite flow of traffic to make my escape. So, that was that. I'm going to ring the company he belonged to (the joys of advertising on the sides of one's trucks), quote his vehicle rego and the time, and demand that they utilise one of their own spacecraft to launch him into the sun, or at least the unemployment line.

The somewhat less self indulgent point:
It would appear to me that an immoral act was committed. This particular verminous piece of automobile driver put not only mine, but potentially others lives in danger. 1 If I had been a car driver, I would have been a) crushed, or b) forced into the perpendicular stream of traffic which, contrary to normal Canberra traffic, was actually rather busy. However, because I had the good sense to save myself, there is no legal recourse for the sheer venom with which this human approached me. Now, I'm not particularly worried about such things for my own person (shot-into-the-sun aside), but it intrigues me that this man had no way of knowing the quality of my bicycle riding skills. So his malice was directed at me either with no concern as to my status as any type of human being, or directly as my status as a person on a bicycle. Both unsettle me.

So pose this question, because I have no ideas of my own: what type of justice is there for those with no legal recourse for an evidently immoral act committed against them? Is it enough that they know? What in the case of someone who obviously takes a disinterest in your continued living? How does one explain this apparent discrepancy between someone in my society trying to off me and my societies inability to a) protect me or b) prevent this from happening again/to someone else?

1 - On reflection, the ultimate tactical decision on my part would have been to hop the median strip myself, and leave my bike to be run over, demand compensation and get that fixie I've been wanting. But I am somewhat attached to my current bike, both in the quasi-romantic sense and in the quite literal sense, in that I use high-tension clipless pedals. Regardless, I'm not willing to get myself killed just on principle, either to score a new bike or to demonstrate this man's error.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Democracy In-Action


I was reading the newspapers again (like a child picking at a scab that won't heal) and stumbled into a lovely article about the current U.S. election. There was a lovely quote in it, which I will repeat here:

Joe Trippi, a Democratic consultant who pioneered some of the successful grassroots and internet techniques when he ran Howard Dean's campaign in 2004, said Senator McCain was already in "deep, deep trouble" because of a poor organisation and an anaemic fund-raising total of about a fifth of the $US500 million ($A519 million) raised by Senator Obama and Senator Clinton.

Now, I don't know about you, and I couldn't care less about partisan/bipartisan/cis or trans/partisan poilitics here, but this stinks up my nostrils like unwashed sasquatch genitals. What kind of democratic process is being developed here, when one of, if not the central aspect of an election campaign is the funds that are thrown into it? Policies? Integrities? Democracies?
Not to mention that this current U.S. election is expected to top US$ 1,000,000,000.00 spending on the campaigns. Call me a breeding heart liberal, a conservative whackjob or an ignorant prick, but couldn't that money be spent elsewhere, on something better? I need me beer and pickles dammit.
Fortunately, the solution is simple. Limit total campaign spending to AU$50. Have each campaign puppet actually be a puppet. And if anyone contravenes these simple rules, trap them, skin them and require their nominated family member or friend to wear their skin for a period not less than 300 days. Simple.
Why am I not god?


Friday, May 16, 2008

Beer & politics post: Alcopop tax and the dumb dumb dumb

What on earth is Brendan Nelson smoking? I thought the Liberal party was supposed to be the economically conservative party. Reducing petrol costs by 5c/L is just dumb -- the market will just float around it and prices will still be high. Thanks for the shopping centre docket though? Getting rid of the alcopop tax is just gimmicky too. Doesn't stop your average salaried worker buying a premix drink, but stops kiddies on low pocket money incomes a lot more! And a tax on luxury cars is quite sensible, especially given that those are often the worst polluters...

Stop with the stupid gimmicks, Brendan. It's not helping your image in the slightest.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Meta-Blogging: Simon Blackburn and his Myths

Simon Blackburn, a philosophy professor from the University professor, late last month appeared in the Times Higher Education series on academics talking "off-piste," i.e. on subjects that were beyond the realms of a) the status of higher education, or b) their primary area of expertise. Blackburn went on a nice bit of polemic, and he's caused a bit of discussion, whether it be cranky philosophers, inquisitive scientist-cum-philosophers, or (my personal favourite) being turned into a football game. As always, the comment sections are a joy to peruse.

As Catherine mentioned in the comments section of her last post, we do have those pesky things called doctoral theses to get back to, but I'll spend a bit of time talking about one of my personal favourites, Blackburn's myth #4- the myth of the scientist:

This claims that there is an expertise, science, and that people who are good at it deserve a lot of attention. This is almost wholly false. There is no such thing as a scientist, and it is a shame that William Whewell, a rather patchy philosopher (although a Cambridge man), invented the term. There are only biologists, chemists, physicists, mathematicians and so on. These may be very bright people, but the moment one of them steps a millimetre or two outside their special area of expertise, they are no better than the rest of us.

Problems such as foot-and-mouth disease, global temperatures and badgers, to name but three, need different baskets of expertises, if indeed there are any to be had. A fortiori, there should be no such thing as The Government Scientist. A version of this myth is that something called science is a self-propelled self-governing activity of special virtue, dedicated solely to truth. This ignores the huge proportion of physical scientists who work for the misnamed Ministry of Defence, and the biological scientists who work for big pharma, trying to get around the patents on drugs that do little for the disease burden of the world but that can be sold to the rich. Scientists have one catch-all answer when confronted with such unfortunate facts, which is to claim that the critic must be some kind of relativist. This is a Berkeleian term: nobody knows what it means, but everybody knows it is bad.

I love this, because it plays in precisely with the entire point of this series in The Times. Blackburn is correct, I believe: there is a growing trend of hyper-specialisation in the sciences. But that's not enough to be an answer for us, and I'm going to separate Blackburn's initial comment regarding the non-existence of the scientist into two factors: The scientist as a taxonomic term, and the scientist as a lifestyle.

If, as some in the above articles would suggest, believe that Blackburn is referring to the taxonomy of humans into respective fields of endeavour, then it is safe to say that Blackburn has misstepped. Of course there are scientists. Blackburn's myth #1 plays strongly into this: we give the word meaning to class a certain range of endeavours: physics, chemistry, biology, geology, (some think) psychology, even medicine, and many more, plus the sub disciplines of each. Where there is the behemoth of a field of discovery called science, a way of gaining knowledge about the world termed the "scientific method," there will be scientists. In this way, the term scientist exists, but far removed from the idea of a scientist , which is far more controversial.

The second part of Blackburn's article outlines what he seems to perceive as a number of conflicting positions scientists fill in this world which eat away at the image of the scientist. I'd go so far to say that this is correct, and a little sad for the scientific enterprise. To be sure, I've met men and women of science in the true sense of the words: disinterested, sharing, skeptical, and humble. Everything Merton could have dreamed. But there aren't many, and indeed Merton has many, many critics. Scientists as a group of people are diverse: there are the near-monastic scientists who are aware that they have ethical obligations to the larger community for the trust placed upon them in their expertise. There is also a legion of science-jerks out there. And for better or worse, their skill cannot inform us on which ones they will be.

Should this idea, "the scientist," exist? I think so. When you look back on the history of the sciences, those who embody the scientist tend to achieve greatness on a level that exceeds mere publication record. They also make a contribution to the society in which they reside, and occasionally even to the world as a whole. This is not to say that they are the only ones, but their contributions are often startling. And, in line with The Times' point regarding academics talking "off-piste," the "scientists" of history were often generalists. We can't all be, because sometimes, that's not the set of tools we are born with. Some people are designed to do one thing, and do that with a skill without peer. But for the rest of us, to learn more about the breadth of the experiences in this world makes us more conscious of our place within it. And if my thesis works out, that could solve some problems within science at the moment.

This was a little off track, but hey. In summery: Blackburn's piece reeks of polemic and rant. That's cool, but he's fallen prey to his first myth: he's incited responses that don't consider the full import of a situation, but instead react based on the meaning of words. That said, he has some points worth discussing, even if he may be a little extreme at times.

Back to the thesis!

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Informed consent trumped by backward crazy Oklahomans

Nothing gets my goat quite as much as pro-lifers. But y'know, I'm happy for them to stand around with their placards and waste money on stupid videos and pamphlets I'll never see or read, as long as they don't impose themselves on me or anyone in fact. Peaceful protest and all. It's when they manage to wangle their way into legislature and practise at clinics or when they start up their own clinics masquerading as medical centres for pregnant women that I really start to get annoyed.

I won't go into the amazingly detailed annoyances I have with their whole outlook on this issue, because it'll just make me even more mad than I am already, but today I found this article which just makes me livid. In short, Oklahoma has brought in legislation that requires women seeking an abortion to have an ultrasound.

Under the guise of obtaining informed patient consent, this new law requires doctors to withhold pregnancy termination until an ultrasound is performed. The law states that either an abdominal or vaginal ultrasound, whichever gives the best image of the fetus, must be done. Neither the patient nor the doctor can decide which type of ultrasound to use, and the patient cannot opt out of the ultrasound and still have the procedure. In effect, then, the legislature has mandated that a woman have an instrument placed in her vagina for no medical benefit. The law makes no exception for victims of rape and incest.

Argh. I can't even begin to explain how wrong this whole thing is. Consent is about taking into account specific situations and giving people the choice about violations of ethical norms, empowering people to act with their own best interests in mind, not imposing unnecessary restrictions and backward religious beliefs on people.


Friday, May 2, 2008

Starting fires as a form of political expression...

This article in Nature seems to have started a number of rants.

I'll get around to writing something meaningful about this, and related phenomena, a bit later (I've got a number of books due back to the library that can't be renewed, and I need to finish them- a task that has and will require many more hours of reading, and coffee, to accomplish). In the meantime, I'd love to hear people's thoughts.

What interests me about articles and research like this is not the Nature article itself, but the comments to the article. Nothing says ruffled feathers, angry bloggers, and general nastiness like pulling Internet users into a sexism debate.