Little to say for myself

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Deals, Blocks and Vetos


Reported in today's NY Times is the news that Bush would veto any attempt to block the takeover of certain US seaport terminals (New York, New Orleans, Miami and elsewhere), by Dubai Ports World. Apparently some members of Congress had said they would campaign to have the takeover blocked on security grounds.

Aside from the obvious implication that Congress believes every Arab to be a potential terrorist, what's fascinating is that there's virtually no mention of something I would have thought was pivotal. It's not until the last 60 or so words of the NYT's 1740-word piece that there is any mention of the fact that the current owner of those terminals is "Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation of Britain" (i.e. P&O) - and it seems to mention that fact only for the sake of completeness. If you'd blinked you would have missed it.

How, may one ask, would the US Congress have gone about blocking the takeover of one foreign company by another anyway? Is this an example of the US Administration believing everything in America to belong to Americans, or that "big business" is the exclusive preserve of (or at least is answerable to) the USA?

I have a theory about why the NYT omitted to mention this crucial aspect of the story. It reported the takeover 11 days earlier, in its business section, and nowhere in that article was there any mention of the fact that this would include US port terminals. My guess is that their highly-paid business staff and editors hadn't twigged the implications of the takeover, and weren't keen to broadcast that fact.

posted by Plig | 15:29 | (1) comments

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Why do I do it?

At first I thought I must have a masochistic streak a mile wide, for why else would I subscribe to the Daily Telegraph's daily news and sport emails? The fact is that they're one of the few mainstream news providers that still offer a free daily service that covers the stuff I want to read about. Most of their news coverage and pretty much all of the sport stuff is fine, but so many of the opinion pieces have me seeing red within the first paragraph.

So, am I a masochist? Well, much as that would be a powerful justification for reading their stuff and writing about bits of it, I'm afraid it doesn't really cut it. What was really happening, I realise, is something I identified (and wrote about) some time ago that I thought I'd given up.

Once again I'd been doing it because I loved being "right" about things, and that was much easier to do when I picked a fight with an idea that was so palpably "wrong" - in my opinion. Where better to look than the Torygraph for fodder?

So, I give that stuff up - again. I logged on here because I was moved to write an indignant post about this opinion piece from today. There was SO MUCH that had me going, "What?? That's such crap! And that! No-no! You're missing the point! Ooooh - how can you SAY these things? etc. etc."

All that was really going on for me was, "A-ha! I can write something really scathing about this, and I'll be RIGHT. I'll have WON!".

Well, that way lies confrontation, posturing and negativity. The very same mindset, in the extreme, leads to riots and the deaths of many mothers' sons over a few cartoons. And that's not what I'm committed to. Read it if you want, and make up your own mind. I'm just going to notch it up to freedom of speech.

posted by Plig | 11:42 | (0) comments

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Home Abortions

This sounds like a step forward to me - news of a successful pilot scheme that may result in women less than 9 weeks pregnant being able to have a chemically-induced abortion at home, rather than have to be admitted to hospital for the treatment.

The bit that concerns me is this:
"it is also likely to provoke controversy from anti-abortion
campaigners who will claim that home abortions would make the procedure easier and therefore lead to more women having terminations"

I realise that this is journalistic speculation ("likely to provoke", "will claim" etc.) about something that hasn't happened yet, but that doesn't stop me having my twopennyworth...

Surely the point about how "easy" the procedure is can be kept separate from the pro-life / pro-choice debate.

I'd be amazed if consideration of the venue entered into such a life-changing choice. Imagine it:

"Well I'd really like to abort this foetus, but I can't be arsed to go into hospital for the procedure, so I think I'll commit to the full pregnancy, the labour, the birth, and eighteen years of child-rearing instead. That'll be the easy way out..."

The outcry from the anti-abortionists, if it ever comes, would therefore have nothing to do with influencing the pregnant woman's choice, and thereby "protecting the unborn child". It would simply be about making it more difficult for her - in other words, punishing her for making the choice they didn't want her to make.

posted by Plig | 14:51 | (0) comments

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

"Intelligent Design" loses again

Nothing fuels my sense of scientific self-righteousness more than another blow to the Creationists and Intelligent Design advocates. OK, so I can give up the self-righteous bit.

In talking about this at the coffee machine just now, I learned two little nuggets which help put things into perspective for me (as if I needed any more convincing).
  1. We must never forget that the Old Testament is a book written during the Bronze Age. Look at the level of knowledge and cultural development in other surviving artefacts from the Bronze Age, and you'll get a good idea of the environment which gave rise to the book.
  2. If you want a good example of evolution at work, just take a look at the way the species "Homo Creatiens" has been evolving over the last few years into the species "Homo Intelligens Designum".

I'm told (but haven't bothered to look) that the New Scientist recently created a graph showing an evolutionary property of the book "Of Pandas and People", which posits the "controversy" surrounding evolutionary theory. The NS charts, over successive editions of that book, the declining incidence of the keyword "creationism" and the rising frequency of the keywords "Intelligent Design".

[Update: I have bothered to look now, and here's a reference to the graph at The Razor.]

They show remarkable similarity to the incidence of the two types of Peppered Moth (Biston Betularia) beloved of many biology students. In Kettlewell's (flawed, but still valid) experiments on these moths in the 1950s, the darker variety Carbonaria (not to be confused with my favourite pasta dish) survived better on the soot-blackened trees of industrial areas, whereas the paler typica variety thrived on the lichen-mottled trees of rural areas. He attributed this to predation by birds who could pick out the worse-camouflaged variant more easily - i.e. natural selection.

In the same way, Creationists are now easier for predatory critics to pick off from today's secular tree-trunk, whereas I-D fans are better camouflaged against the background of cod-scientific and paranormal "entertainments" populating our current media. Interesting...

posted by Plig | 13:30 | (0) comments

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Gender Differences

Yesterday I went to one of my favourite blogs, the Ex-Communicator's Livejournal, which is always a stimulating read, and saw this post about a recent scientific report. The report (from the journal Evolution and Human Behavior) was of observations of vervet monkeys playing with human toys. It seems that male vervets prefer to play with toy balls and trucks, and females prefer toy pots and pans, and dolls.

I ended up writing a lengthy comment on her post, because it seemed that the vast majority of commenters were up in arms that there should be such a finding. They asserted that the experiment must have been flawed, since there can't be such differences in a species that knows nothing of pots and pans or toy trucks. It seemed that the comments came from a reluctance to consider any differences between the human sexes, since this would be sexist.

My first thought about the report was "Oh, that's clever. There's always a debate, especially among right-on parents, about whether their children play with certain toys innately or whether they're influenced by their environment (parents, friends, TV etc.). Here's an attempt at avoiding that debate - by trying it with a species that has none of those influences."

It wasn't until the 29th comment that someone (Temeres) actually addressed the content of the report, rather than simply rail against its existence. To save you the trouble of digging (although I recommend you read The Ex-Communicator's blog), this is what I said:

Bravo Temeres. At least you're looking at the alleged findings of the study and making a stab at interpreting them - rather than just rubbishing the whole thing because it doesn't fit in with a pre-formed, politically correct conviction of gender equality in humans.

I'm all in favour of equality of opportunity for us humans, and I'm constantly on the lookout for those occasions when I prejudge someone on the basis of their gender (yes it happens, and I challenge anyone to refute that they do it sometimes too). But that's all consideration at a SOCIAL level, rather than genetic.

We all seem to accept that, in other species, there are several behaviours that are the domain of either male or female - like young-rearing, hunting, nest-building etc. It's also interesting that for virtually every one of these behaviours, you can find some species where the behaviour belongs to one gender and other species where it switches gender. It should come as no surprise that humans and their immediate forebears might show similar signs of differentiation, given that our genome had to come from somewhere.

What's useful here is to distinguish that we have something the vervet, and every other species on the planet, lacks: language. We can have conversations about stuff (like here) - they can't. It matters much less to me what the vervet or human male and female genetic predispositions are, than it does to know that we can have conversations about gender differences that take them or leave them and create whatever we like around them.

I'm perfectly happy to believe that female vervets play with pots, pans and dolls, and males play with toy trucks. I'm even happy to believe that, if humans were mute, we would show exactly the same behaviours. What makes all that stuff interesting at a biological level, and completely irrelevant at a social level, is that we as a species are not constrained by our genes. We can use language to invent anything we like - from social systems that enforce equality of opportunity for the sexes, to things as counter-biological as breast-milk dispensers for men and strap-on dildos for women.

It's disempowering to deny that there are differences between the sexes (you only have to blunder into the wrong changing room to become aware of the more overt ones). What's powerful is to know that those differences can be taken or left.

We have a choice. Vervets don't.

Hmm, having read that through I've just had troubling thought: I realise that I've resorted to quoting myself as something to write about. Narcissus has nothing on me...

posted by Plig | 13:21 | (0) comments

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Well That's a Relief

With a certain curiosity I just read an opinion piece in the Telegraph, by Simon Heffer, called The Case for Capital Punishment. I clicked on the link purely out of curiosity as to what it might be about. I assumed that it couldn't be what it literally purported to be - as there is no longer a credible case for killing imprisoned criminals beyond a medieval lust for retribution - so it must be a clever play on words about something else.

But I was forgetting that this is the Daily Telegraph - whose job it is to replay arguments lost decades ago to feed the nostalgia of its readership.

What struck me most, given Mr. Heffer's supposed status (his paid job) as one of our foremost articulators of reasoned argument, was how dim and toothless it all was.

How's this for openers? He describes a conference he attended, about 15 years ago, that was concerned with law and order:

We waltzed into a plenary session about the need to curb serious crime - murder, rape, armed robbery, drugs trafficking, all those little things that make life in our inner cities so vibrant today. When I uttered the fact - not at that stage reinforced by an expression of opinion, but simply a fact - that the murder rate had quadrupled since the abolition of capital punishment, an embarrassed silence permeated the room. It was as if my personal hygiene had suddenly taken a turn very much for the worse.

I'd assert that the silence was embarrassed for him. The assembly of crime-prevention professionals - senior police officers, probation officers and criminologists - would be suffciently versed in statistical analysis to know that there's a gulf between the statement of facts and the validity of any causal inference from those facts. It would have been just as accurate (and just as meaningless) to say that the murder rate had multiplied enormously since the Queen's coronation. Has Elizabeth's reign engendered so much more of a murderous rage in us than that of her father?

There have been many studies since that conference, of the deterrent effect of Capital Punishment, which have shown it to be insignificant - but Simon doesn't let that get in the way of a good rant.

(He even pulls off the coup, much later in the piece, of implicating the European Union in the recent murder of a WPC, saying:

Those who mourn WPc Beshenivsky can add to the list of her murderers the high contracting powers of the EU...

Nice one. That's what we're paying you for - now if you could only squeeze immigration and same-sex marriage in there somewhere, we'll be in Pulitzer Prize territory).

So his argument gets off to a pretty weak start. However he soon transforms that when, a few paragraphs later, it completely nose-dives:

For, be in no doubt, although we forfeited 40 years ago the right of the state to impose the capital sentence after a fair trial in a court of law, the state still reserves to itself the right to take life. Ask, for example, the family of Jean Charles de Menezes, shot dead by agents of the state in July this year when he was mistaken for a suicide bomber.

However awful the consequences of such an error, the state must continue to have our power, as part of its duty of protecting us. Yet we have, since 1965, been in the ironic position of having outlawed execution with trial, but continuing to permit execution without trial. I suppose there is a logic there, but I can't see it.

So, he's admitting that he can see no difference between the handling of a convicted criminal who is already safely under lock and key, and therefore of no immediate threat to the public, and that of someone who is a suspected suicide bomber who may be about to press a button and murder dozens of innocent commuters.

So what's the logical conclusion of this line of argument? It's obvious:

The return of Capital Punishment would deter suicide bombers.

Of course! Hooray! Problem solved!

posted by Plig | 10:25 | (0) comments

Monday, October 31, 2005

They've missed the bus again

So, everyone's in a tizz about banning, or not banning, drinking on public transport now.

They're missing the point again. Like the Police spokesperson said, it'd be of limited effect, because most of the drunks on trains and buses are already hammered when they get on board.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: it doesn't work to ban drinking, it works to place limits on the level of blood alcohol (just like when driving) - and leave people to work with that.

That way, commuters can have their "well-earned" homeward tipple, Eurostar passengers can have their champagne, and everyone else can catch a vomit-free last train home.

They're going to have to do something about drunkenness on trains and buses, granted. Although the pubs may be open 24 hours, public transport won't be, and there'll still be a rush for the last ride home - with much necking of final pints and a mad dash, resulting in lots of upset tums and the inevitable flurry of pizzas parked on the garish upholstery. No, not flurry - what's the collective noun for piles of vomit?

Anyway, it's weird how everyone seems to be missing the point. Have they been drinking or something?

posted by Plig | 13:14 | (0) comments

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Free from what?

Pretty soon we're going to be able to sit in a pub or restaurant, in an atmosphere free from.... er, what exactly? Logic? Clarity? Principle?

Most countries' non-smoking policies are drawn up to protect the employee's right to work in a hazard-free environment. It's a simple, clear and powerful stance.

By arbitrarily exempting working men's clubs and working class pubs - er, I mean private clubs and pubs that "don't serve food" (whatever that means) - the Government has sent a clear message that it puts votes ahead of the nation's health.

This is a blatant attempt to secure the Labour Party's shift to the right, by targetting the working class and hardline socialists. Are we going to stand by and allow the voice of the left to be silenced by laryngectomy?

posted by Plig | 10:41 | (0) comments

Forget the sentimental notion that foreign policy is a struggle between virtue and vice, with virtue bound to win.
Forget the utopian notion that a brave new world without power politics will follow the unconditional surrender of wicked nations.
Forget the crusading notion that any nation, however virtuous and powerful, can have the mission to make the world in its own image.
Remember that diplomacy without power is feeble, and power without diplomacy is destructive and blind.
Remember that no nation's power is without limits, and hence that its policies must respect the power and interests of others.
Hans Morgenthau

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts
Bertrand Russell

The release of atomic energy has not created a new problem. It has merely made more urgent the necessity of solving an existing one
Albert Einstein

When you are right you cannot be too radical; when you are wrong, you cannot be too conservative
Martin Luther King Jr.

Our great democracies still tend to think that a stupid man is more likely to be honest than a clever man
Bertrand Russell

I think it would be a good idea
Mahatma Gandhi, when asked what he thought of Western civilization

There are painters who transform the sun to a yellow spot, but there are others who with the help of their art and their intelligence, transform a yellow spot into the sun
Pablo Picasso

Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others
Groucho Marx

Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it
Mahatma Gandhi

Always make new mistakes
Esther Dyson
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