Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Even Saddam deserves a lawyer

PNN slags off former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark for offering to defend Saddam at his trial. According to PNN, this makes Clark "genuinely evil".

PNN obviously does not care about justice or due process. Saddam may be an evil mass-murdering bastard, but even he deserves an adequate defence at trial. Ditto for Clark's previous clients. Skimping on this - or allowing the baying mob to intimidate lawyers into not representing unpopular clients - reduces us to the level of Soviet-style show trials. But somehow, I suspect that a "warmongering flag-waving God-fearing conservative" like PNN wouldn't mind that one little bit.

Update: (02/01/04) Right from the horse's mouth: "There's absolutely no need for a trial. Saddam's guilt is beyond doubt." This is the mentality that gave us "justice" by lynchmob.

Some "non-scandal"

Remember the Valerie Palme affair? The White Houe exposing an active CIA agent in order to intimidate her husband and other critics of the administration? The one NZPundit called a "Non-scandal"? Well, Ashcroft has recused himself and appointed a special prosecutor - just like Watergate, Iran-Contra, or Whitewater.

Some "non-scandal". That flapping noise is the sound of the Bush administration's chickens coming home to roost.

Freeloaders claim theft

A group of forest owners is whining and stamping their feet over the government's refusal to give them Kyoto credits. They're calling it "the largest private property theft in New Zealand's history" - which is frankly a load of crap. As the Environmental Defence Society points out, the carbon credits were never theirs in the first place. They exist solely as a creation of an agreement between the New Zealand government and other states. If we take the absolutist propertarian position seriously, the government created them, therefore they belong to the government. EOFS.

If the KFOA wants carbon credits, then there's nothing stopping them from negotiating a deal with other countries or companies to create a tradeable emissions right of so many kg of carbon per hecatre or whatever - but then they'd have to do all the work themselves, rather than freeloading.


"Warmongering flag-waving God-fearing conservative" newcomer Propaganda News Network opens his blog by "fisking" my post on Libya. Those who want the details can go and read them there, but the core contention is that this is a victory and vindication of bullying NeoCon policies, as "Gaddafi initiated diplomatic proceedings exactly as the war started".

Perhaps PNN would like to consult this story from the Washington post, which says among other things:

"What forced Gaddafi to act was a combination of things -- U.N. sanctions after the Lockerbie bombing, his international isolation after the Soviet Union's collapse . . . and internal economic problems that led to domestic unrest by Islamists and forces within the military," said Ray Takeyh, a Libya expert at the National Defense University.

But the money quote is this:

Within months after September 11th, we had the Libyans, the Syrians and the Iranians all coming to us saying, 'What can we do [to better relations]?' We didn't really engage any of them, because we decided to do Iraq. We really squandered two years of capital that will make it harder to apply this model to the hard cases like Iran and Syria," said Flynt Leverett, a former Bush administration National Security Council staff member now at the Brookings Institution.

Just to highlight that: Gaddafi (and others) made significant diplomatic advances after September 11th, but Bush ignored them and sat on his hands for over a year. Meanwhile, the British have pursued a policy of quiet diplomacy, and have managed to achieve exactly what Bush has in Iraq - eliminate WMDs which weren't there - without having to kill ten thousand innocent civillians and an unknown number of conscripts in the process. I am not happy with the corresponding relaxation of pressure on Libya on the human rights front, but the result itself is a good thing.

As for North Korea, I think that it really does display the flaws in the warmonger's logic: threats from America seem to have caused a rush to acquire a nuclear deterrant, rather than a rush to eschew one. It's a massive failure of imagination to think that threats and force will always be met by backing down, rather than with reciprocation - but bullies always seem to have this problem, and when one of their victims meets force with force, they stand around whining and wondering what the hell caused it.

I do have to compliment PNN on one thing though: he has a catchy name, and at least he's honest about what he's spreading.

Circling Apollo is chucking it in.

Silly season

If the blog is looking a bit dull, it's because it's silly season. No substantive news equals no fits of apoplexy at the keyboard equals no frothing at the mouth posts.

In the meantime, I'm wasting too much time playing with my NationState. I've just spent a few days lobbying over six hundred virtual UN delegates to get a proposal on the ballot, only to have it fail to make quorum. < sigh >... maybe next time.

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Positive news from Iraq for a change

Against the background of suicide bombings, death squards and growing sectarian violence comes this piece of good news: the Iraqi Governing Council is incresingly standing up to the Americans. Unfortunately, some of the ways they're standing up are not so good - approving contracts which may have been assigned corruptly, appointing their own stooges in the place of the pentagon's, without any pretence of elections - but in general its a good trend. Iraq needs to be run by and for Iraqis, not for the benefit of Haliburton and Bechtel.

Though judging from this article, both the IGC and CPA have a long, long way to go yet.

Monday, December 29, 2003

And more

Checkpoints Prove Useless Against Suicide Bombers in Iraq

New Fisk

At least 13 die in Iraq suicide bombings

Spinning to war

More dirt surrounding the war on Iraq is emerging, with this report that MI6 ran a long-term campaign, Operation Mass Appeal, to plant stories in the media about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.

Think about that: the intelligence services attempted to manipulate public opinion to build support for the government. Scarily antidemocratic is how I'd describe it.

Fortunately they failed - 80 - 90 percent of Britons opposed the war - but the fact that they even tried tells us that something is seriously wrong with British democracy. The British people should be clamouring for a full inquiry, and for the people who authorised this campaign of spin to be exposed and drummed out of office.

Sunday, December 28, 2003

In the Devil's Garden

This is billed as "a sinful history of forbidden food", and it doesn't disappoint. Stewart Lee Allen - who people may remember from The Devil's Cup, his history of coffee - has an easy writing style, and an excellent eye for the amusing or informative anecdote. In fact, that's all this book consists of - amusing or informative anecdotes about food which is or has been forbidden or frowned upon. So there's stuff about how chocolate "transforms women into sex-hungry whores", the exact number of virgins muslims are guaranteed in paradise (approximately 23 million, not 70 as widely reported), the arousing power of chick-peas (so strong that merely drinking the water they were cooked in grants the imbiber the stamina to "deflower 72 virgin goats"), the politics of bread and the morality of the potato. There's no confessions of art-smuggling in this one, though.

Well worth reading, if only so you can be disgusted at the ability of the French to eat absolutely anything in a cruel fashion, and the way the English can take all the fun out of it.

New Fisk

Hooded Men Executing Saddam Officials

Please continue your petty bickering

Whoops! In his christmas message, Tony Blair claimed that the Iraq Survey Group "had unearthed 'massive evidence' of clandestine [WMD] labs". Today, Viceroy Bremer called him a liar:

The head of the Coalition Provisional Authority said it was not true.

Paul Bremer, said it sounded like a "red herring" made up by someone to upset the rebuilding effort.

Please continue your petty bickering, we find it most amusing...

New Fisk

From joy to despair: Iraqis pay for Saddam's capture


US officials are now blaming Canada for their BSE problem. At the same time, they're still claiming that US beef is safe to eat as "the cow's brain and spinal cord - which is the only part normally infected by the disease - was removed before the meat was processed".

Nobody mention mechanical recovery...

Cuba isn't happy about Guantanamo

Cuba has criticised the US's treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo, calling the facility a "concentration camp". This is a bit rich coming from a regime which incarcerates dissidents and has little regard for due process, but on the other hand if even they think something is bad then it must be pretty terrible.

If Cuba really wants to support the human rights of those in Guantanamo, though, it has a very clear course of action open to it: allow lawyers for those imprisoned to petition Cuban courts for a writ of Habeus Corpus. The US government's chief argument for denying detainees access to American courts is that Guantanamo is not under US jurisdiction. The Cubans should call their bluff, and watch them squirm.

Saturday, December 27, 2003

New Fisk

Iraq through the American looking glass
Deaths mount on both sides on Christmas Day in Iraq

Friday, December 26, 2003

Nasty Hobbitses, we hates them we does

I foolishly showed this abomination to some friends, and now I have been driven away by the bad singing. Evil, nasty Hobbitses, we hates them. Gollum! Gollum!

Stupid fucking bastards

Yet more evidence that Americans are stupid fucking bastards: they process obviously sick animals for food before the test results are received:

The 4-year-old diseased dairy cow in Washington state [the one that tested positive for BSE] was slaughtered into ground beef for hamburger and also possibly sausage and pizza toppings, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

But all is not lost:

Some 10,000 pounds of raw meat linked to the animal and processed by Verns Moses Lake Meats in Washington was recalled.

That would be a voluntary recall, of course - because the US government cannot force a company to recall contaminated food. How do I know this? Because a while ago I read a book called Fast Food Nation, which has some truely scary stories about what goes on in US meat packing houses, and the complete lack of serious regulations surrounding them. Mechanical recovery, for example, which guarantees that material from the central nervous system (where BSE is found, and which according to US Department of Agriculture regulations must be totally removed from the animal and never fed to people) goes into your hamburger. The USDA hasn't banned it because it would cost meat companies US$200 million a year. Consumer safety? Let 'em sue!

This is a pefect example of what happens when you let an industry write its own regulations - safety goes out the window and consumers get screwed. What's worse is that there is a cult of patriotism surrounding US beef; the beef industry is already pulling out all the stops to get people to keep eating, and if their PR campaign fails, they can always fall back on legal threats. Twelve states have "food libel" laws outlawing questioning the safety of perishable goods (most notably Texas, where Oprah Winfrey was prosecuted for talking about BSE and saying that she had eaten her last hamburger); these will be a powerful disincentive to anyone pushing for a serious investigation or regulatory reform.

Oh, and the really scary bit: initial reports said that the cow in question was destined to be processed into animal feed. They still do this after what happened in Britain? Stupid fucking bastards indeed...


No news yet from Beagle-2. I was hoping to cap off my christmas day with some Mars-porn, but once again I am dissapointed.

Thursday, December 25, 2003

New Fisk

Straw reinvents despotic little killer Gaddafi as courageous statesman

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Whiskey Bar has an excellent history of the NeoCons.

Another blog from the random-people-I-know category: Isaac Freeman.

Oppressed minorities

Circling Apollo laments the lack of ideological allies in the latest batch of blogs he's discovered:

It's a shame there aren't a few more libertarian voices amongst the newcomers - but I supposed that's just a sign of the times. Libertarians are like hen's teeth in NZ these days - most Kiwis love being bossed around by Stelen and her pals.

Libertarians are quite fond of this "we're an oppressed minority" meme, but a quick glance at the political compass survey I did two months back will show you that its full of shit. How many of the active political bloggers on the graph are Libertarians? Four - and that doesn't include two that didn't provide stats (KiwiPete, and of course Circling Apollo himself). How many active political bloggers are even on the left? Two - myself and Russell Brown. The fact is that Libertarians are vastly over-represented among Kiwi political blogs - but I guess Circling Apollo would rather pretend he's persecuted.

(Oh, and if anybody wants to be added to the political compass graph, there's a munged email address on your left)

"Queue jumpers"

When the Tampa refugees arrived, the Australian government was quick to label them as "queue-jumpers", and dump them on Nauru where they would not trouble Australian voters' consciences. Several have since been deported back to Afghanistan - a policy that our local "intelligent left" would no doubt approve of.

Unfortunately, it seems that several of those they deported were executed on arrival. Guess they weren't "queue-jumpers" after all, but genuine refugees.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Playing the "Maori card"

The news seems to be in pre-christmas slowdown mode, with little of interest to comment on... but at least I have something for today: that leaked ACT memo about how to play the "Maori card".

Firstly, the fact that they are even considering pitching to those who want to "demonise" Maori shows their moral bankruptcy. Decent political parties simply do not pander to racists in this way. But then, ACT has consistently appealed to the worst elements of New Zealand society - racists and the "hang 'em high" brigade - in order to grub votes, so it's really no surprise that they're considering doing it again.

The substance of their campaign though will center on the claims that Maori get from the Government three times the amount they pay in taxes, and "each working New Zealander subsidises Maori $3300 a year".

On the former point, this is simply redistribution in action. The poor also receive back (either as explicit payments or government-provided services) far more than they pay in taxes; the rich receive far less. We know that ACT objects on principle to any redistribution, but that's one of the chief reasons why they aren't in government and never will be.

But it's the second point that is most interesting. $3300 per "working New Zealander" sounds like a lot of money, but only because its playing on people's ignorance of how much money the government spends. Total crown expenditure in 2003/2004 is estimated at $55 billion (Government 2003/04 Key Fiscal Aggregates); according to stats NZ today there were 1,939,000 in the workforce, meaning that each working New Zealander's share of government expenditure is $28365. If we accept ACT's figure, then expenditure on Maori accounts for 11.6% of this.

Interestingly, Maori make up about 15 percent of the population. In other words, what ACT's figures show is that we are underfunding Maori on a per-capita basis. By ACT's own anti-redistributive logic, that means the government should be giving them more money.

(Yes, "per working New Zealander" is a rather curious way to put things, and the only reason I can think of for doing it that way is that it allows ACT to double the amount of money involved. Misleading figures indeed...)

Monday, December 22, 2003

Scoop has posted Justice Williams' full judgement in the Ahmed Zaoui case.

Justice sometimes takes time

National says "Let's just get on with the Ahmed Zaoui case":

"On the day there's a world-wide warning about terrorist activity, it's absurd that we in New Zealand are still arguing about how to deal with the Ahmed Zaoui case," says National Party Immigration spokesman Wayne Mapp.

Yes - it is absurd, but not in the way Dr Mapp thinks it is. What is absurd is that a country like New Zealand is even arguing that a man should be denied the right to a fair and impartial trial or to know the allegations against him. I had regarded these sorts of issues as having been settled with the Enlightenment, not something that would be seriously debated in this day and age.

Unfortunately, the govenment - acting under legislation drafted and passed by a National government (guilty conscience, Dr Mapp?) - is contesting these fundamental rights, and thus we have to fight them. This takes time, but the cost in injustice of acting swiftly - of allowing Justice Grieg to act according to his prejudices rather than according to law, natural justice and human rights - is intolerable.

Gray ships pass into the west

I saw Return of the King on thursday.

It was both good, and bad. Good, because it captured some of the core of the book, and had some spectacular battle scenes, and bad, because at the same time it missed out some of the best and most important bits. Gandalf does not confront the Witch-King at the gate. Hope does not fail before the Black Gate. Gollum is pushed - pushed! - rather than dying by his own failings. But underlying it all is a sense of melancholy - that this is it, The End, that there is no more Lord of the Rings to look forward to. While there will be an extended cut (containing most of those important scenes, from the looks of it), it will be an epilogue, an afterthought. The story is told, the path has been trodden, and all that is left is repetition.

Sunday, December 21, 2003


Obviously its excellent news. And I look forward to the day when the US, UK, France, Russia, China, Israel, and everyone else will similarly renounce weapons of mass destruction. It's also a victory for Blair's quiet diplomacy, rather than Bush's swaggering bullying (which is working so well on North Korea, isn't it?).

Of course, it also tears the carpet out from under those who felt the war on Iraq was necessary because sanctions and weapons inspections could never work. Whiskey Bar has an excellent post on this, and the Orwellian line-change that it requires. Which, from the look of it, is already being implemented by our friends on the Right. What was "appeasement" for Saddam is now being praised as a "fantastic foreign policy triumph" when applied to Ghadafi. But then, consistency has never really been the Right's strongpoint, has it?

Meanwhile, those who were dumb enough to fall for the human rights rhetoric over Iraq are about to see how much Bush and Blair really care about torture, terror, and police states. It's back to "business as usual"; Libya's human rights abuses will be ignored because they gave way on WMDs. You were fools, you were used, and now all that you care about will be discarded like wet kleenex, until it is convenient to use you again. OTOH, we already knew that from the US/UK's treatment of Uzbekistan, didn't we?

New Fisk

It's not hard for an Iraqi to become schizophrenic... it's a national disease

Only in America

The governor of Connecticut has rejected calls for his resignation over corruption allegations, saying he is in direct contact with God.

Because, obviously, that excuses taking kickbacks to funnel state contracts to your cronies. But I see they've already got the "how dare the plebs question god's annointed" line down pat.

Can you imagine this excuse being trotted out in any civilised country? Anywhere other than a corrupt third-world kleptocracy? But this is where America's insane levels of religiousity have taken it - back to the days of absolute monarchy, when rulers thought they were unanswerable to the people because they were appointed by god.

And while it's good to see that there are Americans nuttier than Bush, it's tempered by the fact that a state governor can only fuck up his own state, wheras Bush can (and is more than willing to) fuck up the entire world.


The Iraqi war crimes tribunal established to try Saddam Hussein and other Ba'athists is taken boilerplate from the Statute of Rome - the ICC which the US vehemently opposes:

"It's very instructive that the Iraqi Governing Council decided to literally cut and paste the definitions of the crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes for their tribunal from the International Criminal Court statute," Richard Dicker, head of the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch, said Friday.


"It's the ultimate irony that the U.S. government, which is the greatest obstacle to the ICC today, helped oversee the drafting and inclusion of the very crimes from the very court that it treats as anathema into the language of the Iraqi Special Tribunal," Dicker said.

That's because the US is not opposed to trying people for war crimes as such; they're opposed to impartiality and the idea that they would be subject to it, along with everyone else.

It's also instructive to note that the Iraqi statute appears only in English, and has not been translated into Arabic... making the puppet status of the IGC crystal clear. Hell, Iraqis don't even need to be able to read their own laws in their own language..

Saturday, December 20, 2003

CYFPS, and government services in general

Andy MacLeod sums it up nicely with this rant:

In this life, sadly, you get what you pay for. And if you under fund critical services, services that are vital for the community, like say... a child protection agency, then bad things will happen. And if over 20 years, you vote for governments that reduce the tax base and remove or privatise public services, then you can hardly be surprised at the results. And when you don't want to pay any more tax, but you still complain on talkback about how the bloody gummint ain't doing its job then, you're either seriously stupid or some bizarre ideologue.

Not that I expect any of our local bizarre ideologues to understand this.

New Fisk

Phantom insurgents pay deadly price for 'liberation'

Make that a triple

The High Court has ruled that Ahmed Zaoui is entitled to a summary of the allegations against him.

This is a fantastic decision and I'm glad to see our courts defending the values New Zealand is supposed to stand for.

Update: I missed this the first time, but noticed it in this morning's Herald article: The Inspector-General must also consider Zaoui's human rights in his review. So it's a quadruple victory...

3D6/1D6 SAN loss

The Green Parrot is a Wellington nightspot, famous for being frequented by MPs, particularly Winston Peters. But while walking through town last night, I noticed it's neighbour for the first time - a strip club. With a large banner advertising jelly wrestling.

For some reason, this made me think of a drunken Winston, glistening with lime jello as he slides about the ring trying to get a grip on Gerry "the bruiser" Brownlee...

Friday, December 19, 2003

Double victory

Hot on the heels of this morning's ruling about Jose Padilla comes one from the Ninth Circuit, that "enemy combatants" in Guantanamo can access the US courts:

"Even in times of national emergency... it is the obligation of the judicial branch to ensure the preservation of our constitutional values and to prevent the executive branch from running roughshod over the rights of citizens and aliens alike"

The Bush administration will no doubt appeal, probably on the basis that aliens don't have rights. Such a long way from those stiring words of the Declaration of Independence, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal"...

And on a similar topic, Billmon has an excellent post on the Padilla ruling and Habeas Corpus, which is however marred by this bit:

Drawing some clear and bright lines -- like, for example: "no American citizen arrested on American soil will be denied their constitutional right to due process -- seems like a prudent safeguard against the tendency of absolute power to corrupt absolutely. Maybe the line should be even brighter, and guarantee all prisoners captured on U.S. soil, citizen and non-citizen alike, access to the courts. I'm open to debate on that.

The United States has sunk far indeed when even those who defend freedom within it defend it only for themselves, and not for all.

New Fisk

Another bomb creates its obscene theatre in Baghdad

Movie Review: Cypher

Predictable. When did cyberpunk get this old?

OTOH, it at least plays with its central theme properly - unlike The Matrix, which does it kindof half-heartedly.

Coming to their senses

A federal appeals court has ruled that Jose Padilla - the "dirty bomb" suspect - cannot be held in military custody as an "enemy combatant" by Presidential decree.

Padilla has been held in solitary confinement in a military brig for over a year, denied access to his lawyer, and has not yet been charged with any crime. The court has ordered that he be released, or transferred to civillian custody and charged. While there is likely to be an appeal to the Supreme Court, this is an important ruling, possibly marking a return to sanity in the US. The Bush administration has been put on notice - if they ignore the constitution, the courts will uphold it, rather than look the other way.

Now, if only there'd be a similar ruling about Guantanamo...

Thursday, December 18, 2003

Surprise, surprise

The first civillian lawyer to visit his client in Guantanamo has told the BBC that there are different standards of justice depending on the prisoner's nationality:

"I see a great destruction of what I would call the rule of law, that people should be treated equally before the law, that they should have the same standard of justice," he said.

"This is a case where the standard of justice seems to have different layers, one for the Americans, there may be another one for the British, there is certainly a different one for Australian - less than the American - and the rest of them in the camp... they weren't [part of] the allies' camp is their rationale and they will get a lesser standard than what the Australians will."

One rule for Americans, and another for everyone else - now there's a surprise.

Unfortunately, the US insists that lawyers sign gag orders preventing them from talking about what they see in the gulag, so I don't expect that he'll be allowed back.

New Fisk

Insurgents or protesters? 18 are killed in clashes with US troops


NZPundit on the death penalty for Saddam:

Saddam should be given the bare rudiments of a decent trial. Then they should hang him. And they should televise the hanging. Live global coverage.

I would make my daughter watch it.

Do we need any more evidence that those who advocate the death penalty (for Saddam, and in general) are monsters?

Grossly illiberal

French President Jacques Chirac has backed a ban on headscarves. I'm with Kiwipundit in calling this completely devoid of morals:

This is straightforward government restriction of religious practice and has nothing to do with secularism or the separation of church and state. It's shit like this that gives atheists a bad name.

Secularism simply means that the State does not favour any particular religion or engage in religious displays. It does not extend to banning citizens from such. This decision is grossly illiberal, and I'm disappointed that a country with the long liberal tradition of France is sinking so low.

"Any demonstration against the government or coalition forces will be fired upon"

Another example of the "freedom" America is bringing to Iraq?

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Foreshore and seabed

I'm busy going through the FAQ and slew of press releases about this on Scoop. On first glance, it looks like Maori come off as the losers. The beaches get transferred to the public domain (in other words, they belong to everyone - a neat short-circuiting of National's campaign), and while there is a process to protect customary usage rights, they are constrained by a prohibition on granting actual or effective ownership. The dreams of certain activists of owning parts of the foreshore and seabed have been crushed.

Of course, they were just that - dreams - but it is of concern. Yes, the court decision which sparked all this talked about the improbability of actually gaining such title, but the possibility was there, and now its not. If there is an iwi or hapu out there with a strong case for actual title, then they've been robbed. I would be happier if there was some mechanism for recognising such strong cases and settling them, rather than a blanket prohibition on any grant of title. (The cynic in me says that its been deliberately left out so the government can concede it to Maori in the next few months)

Other than that, I'm happy with the general thrust. We all get to go to the beach, customary rights can be legally recognised, and the activists who acted as if that possibility granted a certainty get told to fuck off. Everyone but the latter - and the rednecks who think that customary rights don't exist and shouldn't be recognised - ought to be happy.

Update: Yes, I know - according to the news last night, and the Herald this morning "financial redress would be available if the Maori Land Court found customary rights were such that, except for the proposal, would have led to the granting of a private title". So it's not so bad after all.

Good things take time

Blogging was light yesterday because I was making this:

Look on my works, ye greedy, and despair.

Update: OK, so it's not the best of photos. That white stuff on the top is not cheese, but white chocolate ribbons, which I've discovered are rediculously easy to make. And the brown circle thing they're on top of is a pecan chocolate fudge cake, which required about two and a half cakes of chocolate to make. And yes, it tasted every bit as good as it looks...

New Fisk

Luncheon-meat, poetry and skin cream: the cold comforts of Saddam's last hiding place

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

New Fisk

Bandits and bombs keep the new trains of Iraq waiting at the station

State of the WMD hunt

Investigators say Saddam flushed WMD stash down toilet seconds before capture

(And while we're looking at Scoop, Dave Crampton has an article about the government's upcoming Civil Unions legislation).

Bless my beard

When I saw this photo of a captured Saddam with beard this morning, my first thought was how much he looked like someone else:

Saddam Hussein       Gandalf the Grey

Bad press

The Guardian has a story - Not-so-nice New Zealand - about our treatment of Ahmed Zaoui and the rise of Winston Peters.

Less than impressed

Knife is less than impressed with political blogs. It's certainly a good rant...

As for my thoughts: The sameness is mostly because there are only so many political memes in the noosphere... and because the pro-American Randroid Libertarian (as opposed to Nozickian or left- or un-American Libertarian) cluster is vastly overrepresented on the Net. Most political blogs are primarily reactive - they follow the real media - which means that the same issues crop up again and again and again. Taxes. Drugs. Crime. Human rights. Whether a new century starts in 00 or 01. State-funding of this or that. If you're lucky, you get some decent commentary which looks at something from a new angle, or differs slightly from what you see in the newspapers. But normally, you get the same old unoriginal and uninspired crap (and I'm as guilty of this as everyone else). But this is no different from the "letters to the editor" columns in newspapers, or from usenet. There's nothing new under the sun in them, and there's nothing new on the blogs either.

As for people thinking its "up to the blogosphere", most blogs are run by amateurs and have tiny readerships compared to their wider societies. I'm under no illusions that what I do is even close to journalism, or that the few people who read my ravings are enough to have any effect on the public consciousness.

This doesn't mean I'm going to stop, though.

Monday, December 15, 2003

New Fisk

"The Tyrant Is Now A Prisoner"
Saddam's Capture Will Not Stop The Relentless Killings From Insurgents
US Eyes Up Saddam's Baghdad Palace As Site For Embassy

Free education

Darkness has a post on this, in which he attacks NZUSA for wanting a return to state-funded tertary educationa nd universal student allowances. Unfortunately, his argument is centered around a specious claim that a return to state-funding means a return to the days when "university was where rich, white boys went to smoke pot and chant socialist slogans". This isn't necessarily so.

He also attributes the dramatic expansion in tertiary study since the 90's (and the resulting expansion of opportunity) to the loan scheme, which seems to be getting things arse-backwards. What really happened is that the government decided that it wanted far more people to go to university; it (or rather, the business interests directing government policy at the time) also decided that it did not want to pay for the extra places through taxation. The solution was to cut funding per student, and make up the shortfall through fees. The student loan scheme was simply the vehicle by which this shortfall could be temporarily covered, not a causal factor.

What NZUSA is advocating is a return to full state funding, without any decrease in the number of places funded. I'm not sure that this is achievable (my back of the envelope estimate is that it could cost up to half a billion dollars - but then, we're stashing three times that much away for future superannuation costs, so it is really just a matter of political will), but its no worse than advocating for world peace, human rights, or an end to taxation and welfare.

As for student allowances, I am in favour of a universal allowance mainly because I do not think that anyone in this country should have to borrow to eat (which is the situation for many students now). If the cost of doing so is subsidising a few people who could otherwise get the money off their parents, then so be it. But the current system cannot be allowed to continue.

The price of freedom

What did Saddam's capture cost? Four dead and sixty wounded, in Kirkuk alone. Not from anything invloved in the actual capture, but from all those people firing guns in the air in celebration...

Time to bring in the UN

I've been expecting to wake up one morning to learn that a major city has been blanketed in radioactive dust; instead, I woke up this morning to find that Saddam Hussein had been captured.

This is genuinely good news - he's a monster, and he deserves to face justice. But it's also time to bring in the UN, to ensure that the justice he faces is fair, open and transperant. Even Saddam has human rights, and if we are to punish people for human rights violations, we must ensure that we do not violate their rights in the process. Otherwise, we'd be sending a message of hypocrisy, and undermining the very thing we're claiming to protect.

Update: No, this does not mean trying Saddam in the Hague. It means using international expertise in the matter to both ensure that the process is fair, and lend credability to it. If the Americans organise a show trial for Saddam, they will be forever open to the claim that they were merely enacting "victor's justice". The Iraqi people deserve better than that.

Sunday, December 14, 2003

Greens claim New Zealand deceived over army role in Iraq

But the documents they've unearthed don't show anything of the sort. It's been no secret that NZ troops may need to defend themselves, and it's no leap from that to their having detailed rules on when and how they may do so.

Show me something that says that NZ troops are patroling the streets intimidating the local populace into submission or kicking in doors, and I'll be righteously pissed off. But so far I haven't seen anything to indicate that they're acting beyond the role we set for them.

That said, I'd be interested in learning how many times they have had to fire their weapons, and under what circumstances. Though the government will probably try and hide behind "operational security" if the result is at all embarassing.

Britain's shame

The Guardian has details on Britain's own 'Camp Delta'. They should be familiar to anyone familiar with the case of Ahmed Zaoui - men incarcerated without trial, forbidden to see the evidence against them, and denied fair legal proceedings.

The same principles apply here as to the Zaoui case. if the government has evidence, then it should charge these men in a court of law; if it does not, it should release them. But it cannot continue to imprison people without trial and maintain any shred of moral credability or decency.

Saturday, December 13, 2003

Tea from an empty cup

Salon has an article about the Sims Online - and the trials and tribulations of the editor of its online newspaper, The Alphaville Herald. I don't play Sims, but there was some interesting stuff mentioned in the article... most notably on the question of whether crimes can be committed in the game. There are players who specialise in scamming newbies out of their simoleans (virtual cash), and the gut instinct would be that it's all part of the game etc. But the virtual money can be exchanged for real via ebay - does this mean that a crime has been committed and that the scammer should be charged with fraud or theft? Or is it a fake "crime" by a fake person...?

More troubling is the existence of online "prostitution" (netsex for simoleans) performed by players who are minors. The law is pretty much a gray area here...

What fascinates me is the use of online environments like Sims Online to explore the evolution of government from the State of Nature. Sims has rules against physical violence - you literally cannot assault another Sim - but there's plenty of scope for people's behaviour to impinge on others, and for people to club together in an effort to regulate it. Probably the absence of violence makes such clubbing together much weaker than it would be if people were being killed or maimed (rather than simply having their stuff stolen); but its still a fascinating online laboratory nonetheless.

(And believe it or not, there is a link between the title of this post and the content. Really.)


NZPundit on the US denying Iraq reconstruction contracts to the French etc:

While one can chuckle at menstrual teenage girls or boorish teenage boys conducting themselves as though actions had no consequences, to see heads of state in the same state of high delusion is truly baffling.

Indeed. And the consequences for Bush aren't exactly pleasant. The day after he released his blacklist, he had to get on the phone to the French, the Germans and Russians and beg them to write off Iraq's outstanding debt. Strangely, that went down like a lead balloon - as will the next request for these countries to send their soldiers to die in the place of Americans in Iraq.

Bush's move is spectacularly stupid. Yes, it's American money. Yes, they can take revenge if they want to. But the cost is that no country outside the US and its current clique of toadies has any stake in US success - and every reason to want them to fail. And that doesn't just go for Iraq, but for any future project the US is planning (such as, say, North Korea), until they decide to play nice.

But then, Bush is the proverbial "boorish teenage boy", so it's hardly surprising...

Temper tantrums

David Blunkett, the British Home Secretary, has threatened to resign from Amnesty International after they criticised the British government's treatment of terrorism suspects.

(I was tempted to blog about that yesterday, but what could I say? The British system has no place in any civilised country. No democracy should be imprisoning people without trial, denying them the presumption of innocence, or using evidence obtained by torture. The UK, like the US, has fallen a long, long way since september 11th...)

As for David Blunkett: Amnesty is an organisation dedicated to promoting international human rights. They do not exist solely to criticise enemies of the British government while ignoring human rights violations at home - that would be inconsistent, both with the criticism, and with the underlying view that human rights are universal and posessed in equal measure by everyone, everywhere. If Blunkett believes that Amnesty should simply be a tool of British foreign policy, used to beat its enemies, or that the UK's treatment of terrorist suspects is somehow not a human rights violation, then he should quit. But I hope he's a better man that that.

John Roughan has a good counter to Winston Peters' racist anti-immigrant xenophobia in the Herald today.

Iraq Body Count Visual Aid

Many conservatives and supporters of the Iraq War --the mass of Americans who shrug off civilian deaths when they are not American civilian deaths--obviously have a pronounced problem with visualizing numbers and applying moral standards. Or they just don't care.

In other words, they are stupid and evil.

Therefore, the need for a visual aid for the numerically and morally challenged.

Friday, December 12, 2003

Just what Iraq needs

New secret police! (or maybe just the old ones with new paymasters)

Hint to Americans: democracies don't have secret police, and Iraqis know it.

Why I will never be allowed to serve on an ethics committee

Because my first reaction on reading about this was not utter horror at Man's Interference With The Natural Order, but "cool".

Basically, scientists have taken stem cells from a mouse, differentiated them into sperm cells (a significant achievement in itself), and then fertilised an egg with the result. The implications are staggering. If perfected and applied to humans, this could

  • expand the range of infertility problems currently treatable by artificial means. If there are problems with sperm or egg production, they may be able to be differentiated from stem cells.
  • end the reliance on donated eggs; instead we'd be reliant on donated stem cells, but that's a lot less limiting
  • allow homosexual couples of either gender to have children using only their own genetic material. Gay males would still have to find a birth mother, but that's really the only limit.

I think all of the above are good things, in that they allow the fulfilment of human desire and vastly diminish the obstacles in the path of what is for many a central goal of their life.

As for the Natural Order? Fuck it.

And another outrage

The US has been arresting Iraqi union leaders. I guess the American versions of democracy and freedom do not include the freedom to organise for better working conditions.

While Sock Thief is being so big on opinions, perhaps he'd like to consider the "Anti This War Now" position...

Can we get off the list?

Well, can we? Because it seems to be saying "please bomb me", or maybe "I'm a crawling toady to the hegemon". So can we be removed? Please?

Failing that, we'll just have to start sprouting corporate shells whose sole purpose is to front for German and French companies so they can bid for Iraq contracts. If this is anything to go by, we ought to be able to make a healthy profit while still doing things for half the cost of Haliburton...

Latest outrage from Iraq

They're no longer counting dead civillians:

Iraqi Health Ministry officials ordered a halt to a count of civilian casualties from the war and told workers not to release figures already compiled, the head of the ministry's statistics department told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

The health minister, Dr. Khodeir Abbas, denied that he or the U.S.-led occupation authority had anything to do with the order, and said he didn't even know about the survey of deaths, which number in the thousands.

Dr. Nagham Mohsen, the head of the ministry's statistics department, said the order came from the ministry's director of planning, Dr. Nazar Shabandar, who told her it was on behalf of Abbas. She said the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, which oversees the ministry, didn't like the idea of the count either.

"We have stopped the collection of this information because our minister didn't agree with it," she said, adding: "The CPA doesn't want this to be done."

For some reason this is reminding me of a child sticking its fingers in its ears and going "lalalalalala I can't hear you". The conquest of Iraq killed civillians. The occupation has killed more. Not counting them is not going to change that. It's not even going to hide it from the Iraqis - they know when their relatives go missing (hell, half the time they get shot right in front of them). This is primarily aimed at us, at westerners, for whom the deaths in Iraq are nothing but a statistic. By denying us that statistic, they are trying to prevent us from asking whether the war was worth it - and the fact that they're trying to prevent us from even asking suggests that they wouldn't like our conclusion...

Thursday, December 11, 2003

Prosecutorial misconduct threatens terrorism convictions

The convictions of three men convicted of belonging to a terrorist cell in Detroit may be quashed after it was revealed that the prosecution withheld relevant evidence from the defence - most notably, testimony undermining the credability of a key prosecution witness.

Stupid American prosecutors - they're so intent on sticking another conviction on their scorecard that they cut corners. If these men are released, the prosecution will have only themselves to blame.

Who wants to work for the occupation?

After their initial mistake of disbanding the Iraqi army, the CPA started working on a new one. Unfortunately, things aren't going so well - out of the initial intake of 700, over a third have quit:

Touted as a key to Iraq's future, the 700-man battalion lost some 250 men over recent weeks as they were preparing to begin operations this month, Pentagon officials said.

"We are aware that a third ... has apparently resigned and we are looking into that in order to ensure that we can recruit and retain high-quality people for a new Iraqi army," said Lt. Col. James Cassella, a Pentagon spokesman.

At best, these people have decided the pay sucked and that they didn't want to be collaborators and work for the occupation. And at the worst, they've taken their new expertise and knowledge of American methods, and gone straight to the resistance...

Making a difference?

In my earlier post about playing journalist, I cited Matt Robson as saying that the best way to make a difference was to target Labour MPs and convince them to take a stand. But how?

Well, the Clerk of the House has a handy list of MPs, including their contact details and email addresses. That's a good place to start. A polite email reminding them of what New Zealand and the Labour Party are supposed to stand for, and asking them to convince their cabinet colleagues that we're a better country than this would be good.

I'm not sure if this will make a difference; our MPs could all be bastards who don't listen to the public. But we have to try.

The new UN Special Envoy to Iraq is a kiwi.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Today is International Human Rights Day, the 55th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Onion is out of a job

Apparantly Bush signed some important legislation today, to the tune of Sousa's Liberty Bell March - better known to the world as the theme for Monty Python's Flying Circus...

Who will be eaten first? - for those who like John Chick and Great Cthulhu.

Pessimism about Russia

NZpundit asks about problems with the Russian elections, and whether they signify "a new Soviet block in 10 years or a strengthening democracy?"

I'm pessimistic. Putin is an authoritarian, who will gladly misuse state media or start a war to hold power; and unfortunately there doesn't seem to be anyone who can standa against him. Worse, the Russian people are willing to tolerate it.

However, I think NZPundit's fantasies of "a new Soviet block" are just that - fantasies. Putin is no communist (well, not any more), and has no need of ideological props to support his rule. And the electorate aren't communists either - in fact, the communist vote has collapsed, with voters turning to "national and socialistic" parties (an unfortunate combination there...) This resurgent Russian nationalism might lead to an effort to regain past glory and empire - but the only way communism is coming back to Russia is if there's another revolution.

Meanwhile, it seems that NZPundit's commenters have gone been reading way too many Left Behind novels. Next they'll be talking about Kofi Annan in a blue turban...

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

More playing at journalist

I went to a public meeting in support of Ahmed Zaoui tonight, organised by Amnesty International. Two-hundred people packed into a room (coincidently the same room used by Winston Peters to demand direct democracy last time I played journalist) to hear assorted speakers. These included:

  • Tom Scott (cartoonist) - whose chief theme was "we are a better country than this". Our treatment of Zaoui shames us all, and undermines our reputation as a supporter of universal human rights.
  • Gregory Fortuin (ex Race Relations Conciliator) - who was reminded of his time in South Africa, twenty years ago, and felt that he had to stand up and be counted in the same way that New Zealanders had stood up for South Africans.
  • John Shaw (from Amnesty International) - who laid out the reasons why our treatment of Zaoui violated both New Zealand and international law.

Matt Robson was also there, and took the opportunity to slag off his Labour colleagues for "keeping their heads down". In response to an earlier question about the most effective way to protest, he said that people should target those 52 Labour MPs and get them to place internal pressure on the government. Robson has been a sterling defender of human rights over this, and I'm becoming tempted to switch my vote to the Progressives simply in an effort to keep him in Parliament.

Finally, there was an answer to the question posed in my earlier post: "Of course [the police] had an obligation to disclose. That didn't happen". Hopefully someone will be asking the police some nasty, pointy questions about withholding relevant evidence over the next few days.

Update: Amnesty is also holding meetings in Auckland tomorrow, and Christchurch on thursday. Please go along and show your support.

They had it all along

After the weekend's kerfuffle over the SIS "losing" an hour of sound from their illegally-taped interview with Ahmed Zaoui, the police have stepped forward to say that they have a seperate audio recording.

While we can at least be thankful that the police aren't as incompotent as the SIS, it does raise the question of why they sat on the tape for so long. Shouldn't they have declared any evidence held by them to Zaoui's lawyers?

Ken MacLeod (Trotskyist winner of Libertarian SF awards) has a long article about why he isn't one of the pro-war left.

Massive fraud by the pharmaceutical industry

Corporate sponsored science has been a problem for a while, leading to serious questions both about openness and the independence of the results. The pharmaceutical industry has long been the biggest culprit here, paying for studies and then leaning on researchers to ensure that results are cast in the best possible light (and refusing publication and embargoing the data if it is unfavourable). But I never thought they would be this blatant:

[Medical] journals, bibles of the profession, have huge influence on which drugs doctors prescribe and the treatment hospitals provide. But The Observer has uncovered evidence that many articles written by so-called independent academics may have been penned by writers working for agencies which receive huge sums from drug companies to plug their products.

Estimates suggest that almost half of all articles published in journals are by ghostwriters. While doctors who have put their names to the papers can be paid handsomely for 'lending' their reputations, the ghostwriters remain hidden. They, and the involvement of the pharmaceutical firms, are rarely revealed.

These papers endorsing certain drugs are paraded in front of GPs as independent research to persuade them to prescribe the drugs.

In other words, rather than being filled with scientific studies, medical journals are filled with bought-and-paid-for infomercials; it's not science, it's marketing.

This is probably the most widespread and egregious case of scientific fraud in history. It makes every article about pharmaceuticals in every journal questionable, and undermines the output of an entire discipline - and everyone who depends on it.

Monday, December 08, 2003

New Fisk

First evidence of foreign fighters in Iraq.

Botched US Airstrike kills 9 Afghan children

Question to cheerleaders for the "war on terror": how many children is a single terrorist worth? How many is it permissible to kill in an effort to get one man? And does the equation change if you miss?

Giant lizards from another star

From the Independent's view from inside the "Green Zone":

As in their military bases elsewhere in Iraq, the Americans have re-created the world from which they came. Their cafeterias serve burgers with barbecue sauce, peanut butter and jelly, even lobster - all imported, not least as a precaution against poisoning. As for the banks of TV sets, if they are not tuned to American football then they will be showing the neo-conservative, war-mad Fox News. This is channel of choice for the entire US military, as it is for the CPA's Republican-appointed civilian press officers...

This is exactly what the originator of that quote was referring to when he talked about American soldiers being "maintained in self-contained biospheres, like giant lizards from another star". It's as if The Tripods have come, plonked down one of their big green domed cities in the middle of Baghdad, only instead of a methane atmosphere, the US brings Fox News... ideologically and hermetically sealed, and insulated as much as possible from the wishes of their new subjects.

Sunday, December 07, 2003

Zaoui says SIS mocked him in secretly videotaped interview

No wonder they don't want anyone to see it.

A West Bank of their very own

More on the latest US tactics in Iraq:

As the guerrilla war against Iraqi insurgents intensifies, American soldiers have begun wrapping entire villages in barbed wire.

In selective cases, American soldiers are demolishing buildings thought to be used by Iraqi attackers. They have begun imprisoning the relatives of suspected guerrillas, in hopes of pressing the insurgents to turn themselves in.

In plain English, that's collective punishment and hostage-taking, tactics used by Israel in the West Bank, and outlawed by the Geneva Conventions.

It's not just wrong, it's also stupid. Short of Viceroy Bremer going on TV to spit on the Koran and wipe his arse with the Iraqi flag, I can think of no better way to lose the battle for hearts and minds than to behave like the Israelis. Treating Iraqis like the Palestinians will simply drive more people to terrorism and fundamentalism... the exact opposite of what the US claims it is trying to achive.

The US and Kyoto

A British think-tank has figured out how to stop the US from benefiting from its abandonment of the Kyoto Protocol: tax 'em.

At the moment, countries which cut carbon emissions by e.g. imposing a carbon tax or tradable emissions regime run the risk of being at a competitive disadvantage compared to countries who externalise their costs and pollute. The solution is to impose carbon taxes on imports produced in non-Kyoto compliant regimes, thus providing both an incentive for governments to comply, and eliminating their unfair advantage if they don't.

(But the best bit of the article is the think-tank spokesman saying that "there is only a certain amount of time people can go around behaving like teenagers who don't have to care about anybody else". This is both a sadly accurate description of US foreign policy, and indeed of most of our local right-wing bloggers...)

Saturday, December 06, 2003

Two-faced liars

The CPA argues that it can't possibly hold actual elections in Iraq, because they don't have time to conduct a census and prepare voter rolls - while scotching Iraqi plans to do exactly that:

Iraqi census officials devised a detailed plan to count the country's entire population next summer and prepare a voter roll that would open the way to national elections in September. But American officials say they rejected the idea, and the Iraqi Governing Council members say they never saw the plan to consider it.

The CPA are two-faced liars, afraid of democracy because they won't get to dictate the result. But worse for them, Iraqis now know it, and know that all the American talk of democracy and elections is just a mask for the installation of a puppet government. No wonder they're shooting people...

What the hell is going on here?

The SIS has lost an hour from a videotape of their interview with Ahmed Zaoui.

The whole story is outrageous. The SIS and/or the police interviewed Zaoui shortly after his arrival, taped the interview without telling him (a clear violation of police procedure), and of course failed to inform him of his rights. When queried, they point the finger at each other, and the SIS claims that the tape is classified.

But it gets worse. They deliberaely withhold information from the Inspector-General, and don't tell him that the tape exists (shows how effective that "check and balance" is). Then, when the IG is told, they claim that an hour of the tape's audio is missing, and provide him with written reports. They don't provide the original interview notes, because they've destroyed them.

What the hell is going on here? Do we have the keystone cops for an intelligence service, or is there something they don't want the Inspector-General to know?

For an intelligence service to show such disregard for the evidence they're supposed to be basing their decisions off is shocking. For them to then try and hide their laziness or incompotence from the person appointed to check their decisions is worse. It smacks of a service which believes it is unaccountable, and does not have to justify its decisions to anyone. This simply is not good enough in a democracy...

(I'll ignore their excuses about being unable to hide agent's faces if they provide the tape to Zaoui's lawyers, because that's what they are - excuses. They don't want to provide it, and so they trot out something in the hope that people will stop asking...)

This whole sorry affair has exposed both incompotence and some dangerous attitudes within the SIS. They collect "evidence" by uncritically surfing the net; they "lose" things; they think they are not accountable to anyone, and are actively hostile to any attempts to impose democratic oversight. We don't just need a review of the law - we need a full-on purge to destroy these undemocratic attitudes and bring the SIS back into line.

Friday, December 05, 2003

Interview with the resistance


Yet more evidence that those who claim that the resistance are "Baathist dead-enders" or "Saddam-lovers" have their heads up their arses. These people don't love Saddam - they explicitly say they'll fight him if he returns - instead they're pissed that the Americans are running their country, and at their treatment by American soldiers:

Another incident soured Abu Mujhid on the occupation, he says. When a Humvee passed him and his friends one night while they were standing around drinking tea, the soldiers got out and accused them of having yelled obscenities at the troops.

"They cuffed our hands and one soldier kicked me," he says. "Then they released us because we had done nothing. It was that night I went and got my gun. The next night I shot the soldier that kicked me. But his (body armor) protected him. I don't think he died."

There are ways the US can solve this. Actually delivering on the promise of democracy (first at a local level, then at a national one) without trying to stack the result is an obvious step. But the easiest way would be to moderate the behaviour of their own troops so that they don't mistreat the people they're supposed to be protecting. Preventing incidents like the above would deny the resistance their largest source of recruits, and go a long way towards "drying up the sea".

Bush drops steel tariffs

The lesson we can take from this is clear: when a dumbarse US President imposes tariffs for his own electoral advantage, the response should target him, by directly threatening his chances of reelection. "Smart sanctions" for free trade...

Thursday, December 04, 2003

Smokefree Environments Amendment Act

Much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the local Libertarians about this. They see it purely as a matter of private property rights - but then, they see everything that way. To me, it is very much a public health and OSH issue.

Consider this: no other industry in new Zealand would be allowed to expose its workers or the public to chemicals with the carcinogenic effects of cigarette smoke. They would either be forced to provide adequete safety equipment (bartenders in gasmasks!) or to use a different process.

I don't see why offices, hospitals, bars and restaurants should be treated any differently from sawmills, factories and chemical plants in this respect. You're not allowed to expose people to toxic crap, you're not allowed to poison them. People can poison themselves as much as they want in the privacy of their own home (or out in the open air), but not where they're going to affect others. Mill's principle trumps private property rights any day of the week.

Daily Hate

Automated testing software. You know, the type used by HR agencies to screen candidates and see whether they can do complicated things like entering data in Access or creating a formula in Excel.

The problem is that any decent software interface provides multiple ways of performing common tasks, so that people can find their own way of working. There's at least three different ways of changing the number format in Excel, for example... unfortunately, the piece of software I was playing with today recognised only one of them. Mimicing the complete user interface was too much work for the programmer, it seems - so as a result, people who don't do things exactly the way some braindead HR prole does them end up swearing repeatedly at the screen.

Then there's being asked to create a macro to do X, then being told you can't use the VB editor to write it. Grrr.

The best way to test software proficiency is to give people a suitably complex task, and then examine the results. Unfortunately, this would require that the tester actually knew something - and of course, if they knew anything, they wouldn't be working in HR.


Garth George's reaction to Winston's pamphlet? Racism is good, innate, and patriotic...

What sewer do they get these people from?

Update: Russell Brown has a good go at George here.

"St Helena without Napoleon"

The Guardian has an amazing expose on America's gulag-in-the-sun at Gunatanamo:
part I
part II

They're right; the worst part isn't the conditions (which, while appalling and barbaric, are pretty much par for the course in the US prison system), but the way that these people have no rights, no hope, and no way out. These people are detained at the pleasure of the President, and will only be released when he says so. Now what was that revolution back in 1776 all about again...?

And yes, we should all feel threatened by this. There are already three people being held as enemy combatants within the US itself, two of them American citizens. The government has deliberately labelled people as enemy combatants, shifted them to a military jail, and denied access to lawyers when their trial in ordinary, civillian courts looked like it wasn't going the government's way. It has threatened to do such to coerce guilty pleas from suspects. This does not bode well for human rights in America - and because America was previously the beacon everyone looked to, it does not bode well for the rest of the world either.

And now, we wait

After three days of hearings, the judge in Ahmed Zaoui's judicial review has reserved his decision, saying that it may not be possible to reach a decision before christmas.

So, now we wait, and hope that the courts will stand up for human rights when the government so obviously won't

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Direct Democracy III: A people's veto?

So far the discussion of binding referenda has focused on positive referenda - the electorate directing government policy or passing legislation. But there's also another form of direct democracy that hasn't received much discussion: negative or abrogative referenda, in which the electorate challenges laws that have already been passed.

Obviously a system of binding referenda can be used for this purpose (repealing laws in the same way that Parliament does), but it can also be adopted as a standalone measure, a "people's veto" on government legislation.

How does it work in practice? From the Swiss experience it seems to promote wider consultation and compromise over legislation, granting greater power to opposition parties. Any party or group who feels that they are losing out can mount a challenge, and this acts as a powerful moderating influence.

The flip-side is that it also encourages legislative conservatism. Fear of a challenge makes governments unwilling to lead public opinion or introduce potentially unpopular measures. This may be a good thing, but at the same time I can't help but be concerned about the prospects of human rights legislation under such a system; if we'd had negative referenda, homosexual law reform would have been delayed by a decade or two, not necessarily because the public was opposed, but because politicians would have been unwilling to take the risk. There's also a danger that governments will seek to enact measures by administrative decisions (which is how much of Rogernomics was passed) rather than legislation, reducing the opportunity for public input. Obviously though I'd hope that that sort of behaviour was punished at the ballot box.

To a certain extent, the above effects depend on the threshhold required to force a poll. The Swiss make it very easy (100,000 signatures in a country of 7 million, or less than 5% of the electorate), and thus have frequent referenda. Our "traditional" figure of 10% would make challenges much rarer (but at the same time more likely to succeed), and probably give governments less reason to worry about them (which may be a Bad Thing). As before, it comes down to the same question: how much direct democracy do we really want?


A Rotorua judge has issued 63 arrest warrants for people who failed to show up for Jury service.

Jury service is an important and fundamental duty in our society, and it's a shame that not enough people take it seriously. Hopefully this will change the minds of at least 63 of them.

Tuesday, December 02, 2003


So, both Chad Taylor and Debra Daley are packing it in. But at least Circling Apollo will be sticking around...

"But think of the children!"

Yes, NZPols has resorted to this tiresome old line...

Recall that this is in the context of preventing violence against children, something which is usually considered to be a pretty serious rights violation itself.

Yes, it is. But that doesn't mean that you need to intrude into the core of everyone's lives in order to protect them.

Normally, we "protect" people from violence by punishing those who hurt them. In the case of children, we also have mechamisms to remove them to state or foster care if their present guardians are inadequete. While the latter does intrude into that core protected area (people's children are usually pretty important to them), you'll note that it is done on a case-by-case basis on (ideally strong) evidence. We do not squick everyone simply because some are bad parents.

Wasted Maths

NZpols wastes a lot of maths defending presumptive rule consequentialism. I say wasted, because she missed my point completely.

The retreat to rule consequentialism is driven primarily by clashes between consequentialism and justice. The classic example here is that of McCloskey, who points out that consequentialists (well, he talks about utilitarians - hedonic consequentialists - but the argument is applicable to general consequentialism unless an infinite disvalue is placed upon certain actions) must bear false witness against an innocent person if it that would stop a riot. Or use collective punishment to prevent guerilla activity in wartime. Or impose harsh punishments on the guilty to meet public demand for retribution. Or support laws designed to defend an insecure democracy by making it a crime to "arouse the suspicions of the government".

In other words, any arbitrary injustice is allowed provided it makes people overall better-off by whatever metric is used. This is widely regarded as a knock-down argument for act-consequentialism.

So, consequentialists retreat to rules. Instead of asking "would this act make people better off", they ask "what general rules of conduct will make people better off". A society where people routinely bear false witness against the innocent would be fairly unpleasant, so it's better not to. This solves the problem of justice, but at the cost of consistency - because, as NZPols points out, there will be cases where the rule clearly results in "bad decisions" (meaning people will be worse off by whatever metric is used).

The move to presumptive rule consequentialism - having rules, but ignoring them in cases where following them would make people worse off - restores consistency, but brings the problem of justice right back with it. After all, McCloskey's cases are precisely those where violating general rules (specifically those against against injustice) will result in people being better off. In fact, it's difficult to see how presumptive rule consequentialism differs from act consequentialism in any significant way; the only difference it makes is that you should be really, really, really sure about things before you execute an innocent man to please the mob.

Monday, December 01, 2003

No blogging today - I'm off into town to join the throng of screaming fanboys and soak up some of the carnival atmosphere from the Return of the King premiere.

18 days before I can see it. Can I get methadone for this?

Affirming the consequent

Affirmation of the consequent is one of the most common logical fallacies, and there's a perfect example of it here.

A charitable interpretation is that NZPundit cannot distinguish between strict implication and biconditional implication. Alternatively, he's just not too picky about logic if he thinks he can slag off his ideological enemies.

Sunday, November 30, 2003

Direct Democracy II: Stealing my thunder

NZPols has an excellent post on this topic, which has stolen a lot of my thunder. Damn other bloggers!

Along the way she admits to "a rather unpopular lack of faith in the ability of people in general to make good decisions". To a certain extent, I share her lack of faith - but then again, I don't think the purpose of democratic government is to make good decisions, but rather our decisions. And I prefer this to any number of Platonic philosopher kings.

A lot of the specific concerns about affordability and trampling minority rights can be dealt with by proper checks and balances. One method would be formal judicial review to ensure consistency with the Human Rights Act and Treaty of Waitangi, though I'm not sure that it should go so far as a veto (I'm not sure that I would want to give quite so much power to judges); NZPols' method of a formal report an explanation by the government is probably adequete. But the easiest way is simply for Parliament to be able to overturn a referendum on a simple majority; this would enable the government to say "no, we can't afford that", or "no, that's not consistent with our international obligations", or simply "no, it would cripple our policy direction". Like NZPols, I think the PR cost of going on record to vote down a referendum would be a significant deterrant to doing it casually.

So, my preferred version of positive referenda would look something like this:

  • Voting on specific legislation, rather than vague one-liners.
  • Formal judicial review to ensure consistency with the Human Rights Act and Treaty of Waitangi.
  • A minimum turnout for a referenda to be passed (50% of enrolled voters is probably about right).
  • If passed, a referenda would become law after one month, unless Parliament explicitly voted it down (or, I suppose, unless the Governor-General withheld their assent - but how many times does that happen?)

How "binding" this system would be is really up to the public; we can make it strongly binding if we vigorously punish governments who ignore our wishes, or we can cut them some slack. In other words, we can decide how much direct democracy we actually want, and shift that consensus depending on the politicians we elect.

And needless to say, we should have a referendum about it first.

New Fisk

The lies we tell to appease the enemies who are now our friends

Book Review - The Ten Thousand by Michael Curtis Ford

My knowledge of Greek History is pretty sketchy but I'm a sucker for any sort of historical fiction (I'm drooling at the thought of Robert Harris' latest offering on ancient Pompei). The Ten Thousand is set in the chaos that followed the Pelopennesian war in the 5th Century BC. With the war over, there are lots of bored soldiers sitting around with nothing much to do until the Persian Prince Cyrus starts recruiting Greece's finest to do his dirty work for him.

A large mercenary army sets out from Greece and it eventually emerges that Cyrus is attempting to usurp the throne. At Cunaxa, near Babylon, battle ensues and Cyrus is killed. In the subsequent peace negotiations Cyrus' army is betrayed and most of the senior officers killed. Ten thousand Greeksoldiers now find themselves trapped far from home in hostile territory facing an army 10 times their size. Into the breach steps the brave Athenian Xenophon who now has the task of bringing his army home.

The story traces their 10 month journey north as they flee to the safety of the Black Sea struggling against raids by Persian forces and hostile tribes, infighting within their army, starvation, disease and the worst the elements can throw at them.

The story is based on Xenophon's own account of events, the Anabasis, which I would probably find quite daunting reading - from that perspective the author has done well to make an interesting historical tale much more accessable to the average reader and he sets the scene very well giving a good insight into ancient Greece.

Unfortunately the author never quite manages to get the reader emotionally involved in the story or with the characters (with the possible exception of the part where they are reduced to chewing on the marinated sphincter muscles of sheep for sustinance) and the attempt to add a love interest into the story never really works. By the end of the story this reader felt quite flat. Rating 6.5/10


NZPols has responded to my question about forcing people to go to church with a "yes":

At the level of considering the morality of any particular cause of action, I would countenance just about anything. I wouldn't necessarily do it, but I would countenance it. Being a fairly rabid consequentialist, I don't really believe that anything is inherently off limits - it all depends on the situation.

I have a certain fondness for consequentialism as well, but I'm far from rabid about it. While its a useful tool in the moral armoury, there have to be limits on its use - otherwise you run smack bang into the problems laid out by McCloskey. To some extent you can get around this by retreating to a rule-based version, but not if you allow exceptions for the specific case as NZPols does.

As for what those limits are, as a liberal I think there's a wide sphere around the individual which is off-limits to government intervention. Libertarians would justify this on the grounds of natural rights; Rawlsians from the original position; Kantians on the grounds of respect for autonomy; and rule consequentialists on the basis that people are generally happier that way. What's in that sphere will vary depending on your specific basis, but I think all four versions agree that what you believe and who you live with are well and truely covered. "Encouraging" marriage is as illegitimate as "encouraging" people to go to church. These things are simply too important to people's life-plans, their sense of self, for the government to interfere with them - no matter what the benefit.

Good news for a change

Preliminary rulings before Ahmed Zaoui's judicial review have gone in his favour. The Human Rights Commission will be allowed to make submissions, and better yet, the head of the SIS may be cross-examined on some questions.

It's not a total victory for Zaoui's lawyers - the cross-examination is restricted to three questions - but it's a step in the right direction.

The hearing proper starts tomorrow.

Saturday, November 29, 2003

Restaurant Review: The Bangkok Thai

The Pad Thai alone is worth driving to Palmerston North for.

Oh, and did you know that the official hood colour for a Massey University bachelor of Defence Studies graduation gown is "pansy"? Was someone poking fun at the army there...?

New blogs

Welcome to MediaCow, and to Morgue (another Gamer), who is currently hanging around in Europe somewhere.

Thursday, November 27, 2003


I'll be AFK for the next two days. Normal blogging service will resume on saturday.

New Fisk

Attacked for telling some home truths


Sock Thief quotes Andrew Rawnsley in The Guardian:

It is a delusion to think that all that is needed to make the world safe is a change to the occupants of the White House and Number 10. Charles Kennedy could be Prime Minister and Michael Moore might be President of the United States. Al-Qaeda would carry on killing. Because, to them, freedom is an ugly thing.

and then goes on to say:

I can see why some could disagree with his overall argument but to consider this view as something completely beyond the pale is a bit extreme.

But once again he's directing his arguments at a caricature - and an exceptionally poor one at that. Noone I know thinks that regime change in the US will cause al-Qaeda to stop killing people. What they do think is that it is the best way to get a change in policy - in particular to policies that have some hope of actually defeating al-Qaeda, rather than driving people into its arms.

The "war on terror" is a war of ideas. It is not won on the battlefield, with tanks and laser-guided bombs, but in the hearts and minds of those who actively or passively support terrorism. There's that old Mao quote about guerillas being fish who swim in the ocean of the people; they need both the active support of people who hide and fund them, and the passive support of people who look the other way and ignore what they do, in order to operate. Al-Qaeda's ocean is the poor of the Muslim world, the oppressed, and those who despise modernism. The way to defeat al-Qaeda is to dry up this ocean - to "drain the swamp" - and make them rich, free, and fans of MTV.

That's a slow process - and to its credit the US is working on some of it (promoting democratic reforms in several Gulf states, for example). But at the same time, they are doing some extraordinarily counterproductive things. Propping up authoritarian regimes like Saudi Arabia. Blindly supporting Israel. Creating their very own West Bank in Iraq. Threatening Iran - a nation which is relatively democratic, and whose people (as opposed to rulers) are very definately modernist... it's almost as if they want to turn people against them.

Changing the occupants of the Whitehouse and Downing Street won't stop al-Qaeda from killing people, but to the extent that it changes these disastrous policies, and puts the focus firmly back on al-Qaeda rather than Iraq, then it will make the world safer.

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Question for NZPols

NZPols says:

...the question we need to ask is "what is the most effective way of changing this situation?" If attempting to change family structures is it, then we should do it. The potential returns are great enough that it warrants the "intrusion".

And if the most effective way of changing things was to force people to go to church, would you countenance that as well?

If so, then are there any limits at all to State power?

He really is an authoritarian

NZPundit has a lot of handwringing about families and children being murdered by their parents. But his "solution" - effectively stopping people from getting divorced - is a complete non-sequiter. I don't see how this benefits anyone, apart from maybe sad loser men who need to use legal and financial coercion to keep their relationships "intact".

(Likewise his "starve the poor" policies - and he has the gall to call himself a human being?)

I'm surprised that someone who is so anti State-intervention in the economic sphere can be so supportive of the State dictating personal relationships. This is an area which is central to people's life-plans - certainly on a par with religion, if not even more important - and therefore one that the State should steer clear of. It has no more right to dictate family arrangements than it has to interfere with what goes on in people's bedrooms. If people want to live or raise children alone, with a partner, or as part of a larger unit, then it is no concern of the State.

Yes, the State has a compelling interest in protecting the lives and welfare of children, but all it can rightfully demand of its citizens is that they fulfil their duty as parents. How they fulfil that duty - or who they fulfil it with - should be entirely up to them.

"We were doing our jobs"

That's the excuse of one of four US soldiers accused of beating Iraqi POWs.

Maybe someone ought to tell her about the Geneva Convention?

Sock Thief may want to read the latest Monbiot.

Best line: "The genius of the hawks has been to oblige us to accept a fiction as the reference point for debate."

My Precious

I now have a copy of the Return of the King soundtrack. Ho ho ho.

Direct Democracy I: What's wrong with Winston's proposal

A couple of weeks ago I played at journalist and attended the launch of Winston Peters' direct democracy policy. I've been meaning to blog about the details ever since - unfortunately, other people have beaten me to it. There's an excellent article by Tim Bale in the Herald, which points out (some of) the flaws in Peters' proposal, and Russell Brown was appropriately cynical about the whole thing. Like Russell, I think that

It would be easier to feel comfortable with such a proposal if it wasn't being wielded by an incurable demagogue like Peters.

I'd add that I'd also feel a lot more comfortable if Peters' proposal made the slightest bit of sense, and didn't have loopholes that you could run a Mûmak through.

While Winston gives a lot of detail on the logisitics and timing of the polls, there's very little on the precise form of the referenda, or how they would fit into the existing legal structure. In particular:

  • Clarity: Referendum questions must be able to be "clearly understood", but what exactly does this mean? One of the reasons our current referenda system is non-binding is that the questions are one-liners or general policy statements, requiring legislation to implement them. What would it mean for such a statement to be binding on the government? For example, how would the infamous law and order question posed in 1999 have translated into actual law if it had been binding? While there's a clear direction, there's no detail for implementation - in fact, it's so vague that the present government could argue that they've complied with the public's wishes.
  • Amendment? The usual way of solving the above problem is for referenda to be votes on proposed legislation - in other words, they are an alternative way of passing a bill into law. But would a law passed by the public be treated just like a law passed by Parliament, able to be amended by simple majority, or would the proposed 75% supermajority required for a veto also apply to amendments? If the former, then it will be relatively easy for a government to gut any undesirable provision passed by the public; if a supermajority is required, then we have a Californian system, where contradictory referenda progressively bind the hands of government until it is incapable of functioning (now wouldn't the Business Roundtable like that?)
  • Affordability: Winston's scheme would only allow a vote if "the referendum’s objective is capable of being met within the country’s fiscal constraints". But who decides? The government? Bring on the Mûmakil! But if not the government, then who?

Make no mistake - I think there's a place for citizen's initiated referenda in our parliamentary system, but I don't think Winston's proposal is up to it. Unfortunately, as Tim Bale points out, it is difficult to criticise binding referenda without coming across as "a sniffy liberal afraid of real democracy". So, sometime over the next few weeks, I'll try and put together a few posts on how I think it can be done properly...