I just watched Shadow Prime Minister Tony Abbott at a press conference reiterating at length his simple anti-refugee policy (in case you hadn’t heard, it’s “Stop the boats”. I’m not sure if there should be an exclamation point there). It’s interesting to note that whereas the Liberal Party’s policy used to be a straight appeal to xenophobia (the fear and hatred of foreigners), Abbott now wants to have it both ways: the policy still prevents Australia being invaded by foreigners (AKA potential new Australians), but it is also a humanitarian policy to prevent the “terrible, tragic” deaths of these evil invading foreigners. There’s little doubt that this new angle is simply a ploy to entice humanitarian-minded voters who don’t analyse things beyond their immediate emotions.

Without a doubt, the Labor Party’s revision of previous refugee policy led to increased problems in various areas. While they had good intentions, they didn’t take into account just how complicated the situation is, and how one policy change can have a domino effect of unintended consequences. Once they realised this, they did their best to revert to previous methods, but since this time their early policy has been used as a stick to beat them by both refugee advocates and the Liberal Party. But still it’s hard to believe that towing refugee boats back into international waters is a workable solution; certainly, it hardly lines up with the Liberals’ recent humanitarian pose, to refuse permission to dock to dangerously unstable, leaking boats loaded with women and children.

How much of a danger do unstopped boats represent? For a population of over 20 million, a few thousand extra immigrants does not realistically present a serious problem. Indeed, what is being treated in Australia as an exceptional problem is for countries with land borders (i.e. most countries) just part of the cost of doing business. They expect illegal immigration flow, and have internal services to trace and control such people. How do Australia’s operations in this area compare with other countries? Have we all this time been relying on the sea to do all the work for us?

The issue of conditions in refugee detention camps is similarly an area of confusion and hypocrisy. The same institutions are accused by the Liberal Party of mollycoddling lawbreakers, and by refugee advocates of abuses of human rights. The issue of young people in these places is controversial, but critics seem unwilling to understand the problem in detail.

First, there is the notion that keeping people in detention is inhumane, especially if they are young. This doesn’t bear examination: teenagers generally spend most of their time confined either in school or at home, and this is regarded as normal, nonabusive, non-trauma-inducing. There is no reason that a refugee teenager should be regarded as especially psychologically vulnerable in this situation – indeed, considering these people are supposedly escaping war and deadly persecution, you’d expect they’d just be glad of a bit of peace.

Second, there is the matter of self-harm. Given the above argument that detention should not in itself be considered a cause of gross psychological trauma, what credence should be given to regular reports of self harm? All else being equal, I think we must assume that a lot of people have been advised, either by fellow-refugees or by refugee advocates, that these dramatic gestures are a good way of “gaming” the system – getting special treatment and privileges, even release into the community.

But all else may NOT be equal. One matter that gets little attention is the consequence of keeping a lot of teenage boys and young men confined together (supposedly for the safety of women and young children – does this mean that when infant boys reach a certain age they are removed from their mothers and put into the men’s section?). Those who are aware of how things work in prisons, schools and deprived neighbourhoods, know that unless these situations are strongly regulated a culture of violence and bullying can dominate. And considering these people come from societies with much more old-fashioned entrenched notions of masculine dominance, this is an imminent problem.

In this case, what is needed to prevent psychological problems in vulnerable people is MORE regulation of their lives – closer monitoring and stricter discipline against bullying and gang activities. This might make the more violent inmates feel psychologically repressed and unhappy, but, you know, fuck ’em.
Anyway, I am surprised that this aspect of life in detention has not been reported on.

This linked article collects short pieces on the reconciliation of religion and atheism:
After God: What can atheists learn from believers?

The title is a bit of misdirection, as it’s not suggested that atheists can learn anything useful from what believers in religion may tell them. Rather, the main subject is ways in which the lives of the godless can be improved by elements of religion.

The backlash against the blinkered aspects of the “New Atheists” has in fact been quite blinkered in itself – yes, the NAs may not know every nook and cranny of the theology they are arguing against, and the history of the USSR shows that a (supposedly) godless nation may perpetrate all the horrors of the religious state and then some, but underlying the backlash argument is the thought that, because the NAs deny the existence of God and the spiritual, they are obviously wrong, and any specific citings of St. Augustine are more for the sake of form than necessity of argument.

In terms of cognitive development, both groups are stuck at certain points analogous to those which children pass through. The religious are at the stage of believing that morality comes from authority (i.e. murder is wrong because God forbids it/it’s against the law), of wishful thinking (willpower and prayer can affect the world), and magical thinking (events occur due to will of supernatural entities, morally-determined providence or karma; non-sentient things have moral qualities).

The atheists are at a later step, where they understand the distinction between the world and the self: the world is distinct from the individual’s mind and body and so cannot be moved by will alone; events in the world are not necessarily directed at them personally by benevolent or malevolent powers; the moral status of a thing or event derives from the judgement of the observer, not the thing itself. From this stage naturally arises disbelief in divine will, souls, magic, ghosts, and moral absolutism (not the same as rejecting morality, but rather understanding that other views may exist).

When it comes to intellectual and moral development, we always imagine that we have reached the final stage. The atheists are a step beyond the believers, but there is another step to take: There is no use in knowing the world if you do not know yourself.

It is a fallacy to attribute religion to religious institutions. Obviously the belief came first. Also, I think that if atheists are honest they will admit to the weaknesses of which they accuse the believers. I’ve observed in myself, precisely due to my desire to be a strict atheist, all sorts of thoughts which are supposed to derive externally from religion or superstition. Have you ever willed a car to start or a computer to work faster? Have you ever prayed to get to a destination on time? Do you believe deep down that certain moral standards are indivisible? Have you ever felt that a dead person was somehow still present?

We all think like this, even Richard Dawkins. From this, I think we must conclude that our minds are mystically inclined, even if the world in which we live is not. This is something that Carl Jung recognised and explored (though I think deep understanding of the situation will have to wait for radical advances in neuroscience). Jung suggested in The Undiscovered Self that being denied overt religious experience would cause mental collapse, but I think the mind is more adaptable: if the idea of God is consciously rejected, something else will inevitably fill that mental slot, be it Communism, nation, family, sports, or even the idea of “nothing” itself (to paraphrase The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, some people go to church, some keep birds, and some join the Communist Party). In a similar way, monotheistic religions inevitably develop a crypto-pantheon of prophets, saints or similar venerated figures, because this fulfills an inherent psychological need.

Several secular religious forms have already been observed: performances of Beethoven’s 9th symphony have long been regarded, not always consciously, as a kind of eucharist, if not a downright ecstatic mass ritual. English literary culture rests on both the King James Bible and the plays of Shakespeare (I recently watched a documentary in which an actor talked about audiences speaking Hamlet’s soliloquy along with him, which certainly has something of the church about it, and elsewhere the extended analysis of the play texts was nothing less than hermeneutics). In the U.S.A., the national Constitution is revered on a par with the Ten Commandments. In Russia, the great novelists are regarded as something like national prophets. Experiences like childbirth and mountain-climbing have been called “spiritual” by people who’ve never given thought to the condition of their souls. None of these have been accorded the overt recognition given to the institutions of religion.

(Should these be called secular religions or secular cults? Technically, because they are smaller, more personal and less externally dogmatic, they are cults, whereas totalitarian creeds like Communism and Fascism were religions.)

Can we consciously establish broad-based secular religions, as Daniel Dennett and Alain de Botton have suggested? There are some tricky obstacles to overcome, the trickiest of which is: How can you believe in something which you simultaneously don’t believe? But then, there are plenty of paradoxes in the orthodox religions. They are called “Mysteries“.

First, we must acknowledge what is in our minds, perhaps by a catechism – “I have no soul, and yet my soul is everything. The world has no meaning, and yet is utterly beautiful and profound. Ritual is mere action, and yet it connects me to people, places, and myself. There is no “Good” nor “Evil”, and yet kindness is the greatest virtue, and cruelty the foulest sin. Death is the end, but I feel everything somehow eternally remains. I am an animal – and yet I love, and my mind encompasses the universe.” That’s just an improvised suggestion.

Texts of faith: there is something unsatisfying about religious texts created to be such by an individual. Apart from the problem of personal idiosyncracy being transformed by authority into unanswerable dogma, the work of one person rarely has the richness and sheer size that make older religious canons seem so profound. Whatever the new Bible might turn out to be, it must be complex, and the work of many authors (or an author who contains multitudes).

As for secular ritual, there are plenty of things which serve as ecstatic experiences, but few that offer regular solemn observance, and none that offer forgiveness, acceptance and transformation of pain into transcendence. Perhaps such a thing could not exist until a secular faith is consciously created.

Here is an article in the New Yorker, on belief, atheism, and the populous realms between: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2014/02/17/140217crat_atlarge_gopnik?currentPage=all

Particularly of interest to me is the discovery of Auguste Comte, a French Humanist who indeed founded a Humanist “religion”, the Religion of Humanity. His development of strict and complex doctrines for priests and rituals seems rather oppressive, and therefore a mistake, but I like the idea of Humanist chapels.

Perhaps if I was rich I would build a Hall of Humanity in the centre of the city. It would be a beautiful space, like a cathedral or a great museum, but warm and welcoming, surrounded by a simple garden and with chapel niches containing statues or busts of great people, each with a plaque describing their achievement. Statesmen and public figures would strive for remarkable feats of altruism and expansion of knowledge, in the hope that one day they too would have a place in the hallowed Hall (all appointments would be posthumous, of course). On the other hand, they would be fearful of ending up in the basement of the Hall, where mass murderers and those who have suppressed knowledge, health and opportunity for the sake of doctrine would be placed (I’m thinking now of Tony Abbott and his war on science (and his Health Ministry staffed by alcohol and fast-food lobbyists)). The lighting here would be dark and fearful, and the smell of the sewer would waft up through vents in the floor. Every religion needs its devils.

Bound to be controversial 😀

En dash versus em dash

The en dash is wider than the hyphen but not as wide as the em dash. An em width is defined as the point size of the currently used font, since the M character is not always the width of the point size. In running text, various dash conventions are employed: an em dash—like so—or a spaced em dash — like so — or a spaced en dash – like so – can be seen in contemporary publications.

Various style guides and national varieties of languages prescribe different guidance on dashes. Dashes have been cited as being treated differently in the US and the UK, with the former preferring the use of an em-dash with no additional spacing, and the latter preferring a spaced en-dash. As an example of the US style, The Chicago Manual of Style still recommends unspaced em dashes. Style guides outside of the US tend to diverge from this guidance. For example, the Canadian The Elements of Typographic Style recommends the spaced en dash – like so – and argues that the length and visual magnitude of an em dash “belongs to the padded and corseted aesthetic of Victorian typography.” In the United Kingdom, the spaced en dash is the house style for certain major publishers, including the Penguin Group, the Cambridge University Press, and Routledge. But this convention is not universal. The Oxford Guide to Style (2002, section 5.10.10) acknowledges that the spaced en dash is used by “other British publishers”, but states that the Oxford University Press—like “most US publishers”—uses the unspaced em dash.

The en dash—always with spaces in running text—and the spaced em dash both have a certain technical advantage over the un-spaced em dash. …


As Australia tends to British rather than US customs – and there is a monopoly that essentially prohibits retailers from importing US books – I recall seeing the m-dash on the printed page only once in my life. It looked very strange to me. I still don’t like it – rather than separating words, it seems to draw them together like an extended hyphen. It also seems visually less “airy” than the UK format, somehow more oppressive on the eye.

The m-dash is rarely seen on the internet, except on websites of certain highbrow US magazines, used in an effort to duplicate the look of the printed version. The n-dash might appear then to have won – except that it is very often (almost always?) substituted with the hyphen, which is easier to type. Deceptively, WordPress is smart enough to understand my usage and correct it as required.

Media Release – Wednesday 18 March, 2009

A coalition of health agencies has slammed the Senate’s decision today to reject the “alcopops bill”.

The coalition, made up of the Australian Drug Foundation, Cancer Council Victoria, Turning Point Alcohol & Drug Centre and VicHealth, is adamant that more needs to be done by the Government to promote a safer drinking culture in Australia.

“This is a very sad day for the health of many Australians,” said Alcohol Policy Coalition member Michael Livingston (Turning Point Alcohol & Drug Centre), commenting on the loss of new tax and health measures designed to curb Australia’s heavy drinking culture.

Cancer Council Victoria’s Craig Sinclair: “We are extremely disappointed that binge drinking will continue unabated. The failure of a raft of positive measures to address binge drinking to pass in the Senate is a big win for the alcohol industry. Now the onus is on the industry to live up to its promise to use the funds collected to invest in reducing harm associated with drinking rather than line their coffers.”

Geoff Munro, policy head of the Australian Drug Foundation, believes the Liberals, Nationals and Senator Fielding have failed young Australians. “They have also failed so many people in the health sector who have contributed so much to tackle alcohol abuse and to control alcohol advertising as we’ve approached today’s vote. And now it is all for nothing.”

“This was the best opportunity – the best in a decade – to make significant headway in tackling under-aged drinking and in reducing harm across the country,” Mr Munro said. “Twelve months ago, Fielding was a lone voice calling for alcohol control. Today he stands condemned as the person who could not act on his own advice.

“The Senators who voted against the tax have voted for cheap alcopops, the favourite drink of under-aged drinkers – at the very time when medical authorities are urging young people not to drink any alcohol until they are over 18.

VicHealth’s CEO, Todd Harper said: “It is incredibly disappointing that a majority of senators spoke in favour of more effective controls on alcohol yet they delivered exactly the opposite – a green light for the alcopops industry to continue marketing cheap alcopops to young people.

“The only winner from today’s sorry state of events is the alcohol industry.”

The Alcohol Policy Coalition (the Coalition) is comprised of health agencies – Australian Drug Foundation, Cancer Council Victoria, Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre, and VicHealth – who share a concern about the level of alcohol misuse in the community. The Coalition’s long-term goal is to reduce the negative health and social consequences of alcohol.

A wave of blood

26 August, 2008

Outside my window is a truck which is a mobile blood donation centre. To illustrate this, there is a giant cartoonish wave of blood painted on its side. I don’t know what a hemophobe (person who fears blood) would make of that. (no picture, sorry, you’ll just have to imagine it)

I don’t donate blood because I have psoriasis, and am concerned about any disturbance to my skin (i.e. creation of more lesions).

Beck’s beer has a rather strange ad running on Australian TV (actually, I’ve not sure it’s on anymore). It’s especially strange with the sound turned down. The screen goes black and after a while the phrase “German purity laws” appears in the middle of the screen. Then a picture of a glass of beer appears, and you say, “Huh?” Eventually you figure it refers to regulations governing the manufacture of beer in Germany. It’s actually a fairly common phrase in the history of beer-making, but of course it strongly suggests certain controversial policies of the German government in the 1930s and 40s. Perhaps the phrase sounds more innocent in the original German?

Some nice Jewish lady was rather offended by the Beck’s advertisement. Let’s hope she is overreacting.

The Australian government continues to embarass itself in the Mohamed Haneef affair. After he was kept in jail for a month due to a simcard which turned out not to be his, and after Australian Federal Police tampered with evidence by writing suspects’ names in Haneef’s diary and then grilling him over them, and after his visa was revoked and he was sent to a detention centre in order to avoid releasing him as legally required – after all that, and after he was issued a deportation order* despite being released from custody on complete lack of evidence, and had his leaving the country described as suspicious by the very man who had issued the deportation order (Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews) – after all that too, and after Haneef has been quite restrained and reasonable in his criticism of his treatment, and being responded to with remarkable contempt by Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, who said, “What do you expect them [police and prosecutors] to do, fall on the ground and grovel – eat dirt? I mean, get real.” (And he’s supposed to be his country’s chief diplomat!)

After all that, Kevin Andrews has tried to deflect criticism by refering to secret information which would reveal the basis of the government and police’s strange behaviour. He says he cannot reveal the information as this would jeopardise an ongoing anti-terrorism investigation. Strangely, the information is strong enough to keep a man in jail for a month and then deport him with the slur of “terrorist”, but the information is not strong enough to bring Haneef to trial on even one minor charge, which we can be sure the government would have been eager to do. Andrews says, “This process has been overseen by the judiciary at every step”, and “the director of public prosecutions personally [reviewed] the whole case”. Well, yes, that’s true – in the light of public scandal due to incompetence of police and abuse of power and rights by prosecutors and officials, he stepped in, despite I am sure great opposition from the above-mentioned honoraries, and his conclusion was that Haneef should be released immediately. His conclusion implicitly says that the handling of the whole thing has been unjust, unconsidered and bordering on illegal. As with the deportation order, Andrews shamelessly twists events to support his own empty argument.

The only reasonable conclusion from all the public evidence, including the government’s and police’s behaviour, is that there is no evidence against Haneef. He was imprisoned and questioned for a month. All his property was thoroughly searched (unless this is another area in which the police botched the job). Detectives and evidence were supposedly available from Britain, from whence the original accusations came. The publicly-known charged were shown to be false. The secret evidence which the government hold over Haneef’s head (and ours) is not strong enough to hold him, even on a temporary or trumped-up charge.

Andrews says he has received advice not to release the secret evidence. Who has advised him? The Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, Mick Keelty – the man in charge of the botched operation that embarassed the country and could not produce one usable piece of evidence against Haneef, despite all the time and resources available. Keelty wants Andrews to protect his back with a “cover-up”, and Andrews is only to glad to protect himself as well – the mysterious black box of “secret evidence” apparently can justify any appalling behaviour. As with the deportation order, Andrews has shown himself to be dishonest and shifty.

Of course, Kevin Andrews received the Prime Minister’s full support. “I do know that the charge of [recklessly] assisting was not proceeded with, but as to his other antecedents, I don’t know,” said John Howard. “We are living in a new world and this idea that you can have absolute perfection in fighting terrorism, which is a global threat, is unrealistic. I would rather that be the case than somebody who is a real threat to this country slip through because we’re not tough enough. It is always better to be safe than sorry.” Of course, Haneef has been allowed to “slip through”, because of a lack of evidence.

Remember, the original charge against Mohamed Haneef was supporting a terrorist organisation by giving a phone SIM card to a cousin. This in itself is a laughable accusation, a clutch at straws – “shaking the tree”, in intelligence terms, in the hope of getting further information. None was forthcoming; the tree was bare. Andrews says the cancellation of the visa was based on a “reasonable suspicion” that Dr Haneef had an association with people engaged in terrorist activities. “People” presumably means Haneef’s cousin. So – he is being persecuted on grounds of a “reasonable suspicion” of being related to his cousin.

Sadly, in light of events in the United States, and given Prime Minister John Howard’s constant urge to mimic his conservative counterparts there, we can be sure that this is not the end. Further and worse abuses of the law, the public, and innocent people, are inevitable.

SMH: Andrews keeps dossier under wraps

SMH: He may still be a terrorist, says PM

Guardian: Australia drops terror charge against Haneef

Guardian: Australia drops case against alleged bomb plot doctor

*Not technically a deportation order, but as he was released from detention to find his visa would not be reactivated (on orders of Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews), he was in the position of having to leave before he was taken back to detention as an illegal alien.