Sunday, October 13, 2013

Queen's Birthday Long Weekend Post, Extra Bonus Bit

Besides looking at the set of stable democracies, there are other representative sets of countries that illustrate the same point.

Take the Arab-speaking world, for instance. Which countries would you feel reasonably comfortable  spending a few years working in? Which could you conceivably imagine yourself buying a holiday house in, if you came into a mess of money? I am going to take a wild guess and answer the question for you. The Arab-speaking countries that fit this description, IMHO, are:

The United Arab Emirates

Until a few years ago, I would have put Tunisia on the list, too. And it would have been the only one that was not some sort of monarchy.

Which brings me obliquely to one more of the many evils resulting from the American Revolution. When the occupying forces set up a new government in Afghanistan, the logical thing would have been to invite the king back to form a government. After all, the only period Afghanistan has been a reasonably recognisable member of the modern 'family of nations'was under Mohammed Zahir Shah.
The failure to restore the monarchy - an institution that had moral legitimacy, and still lived in the memories of the older generation - was an act of gross negligence that led directly to the current mess.

I am a Selfish Old Bastard

Probably moving house soon.

How do I feel?

About 9% as bad as this guy, I guess.

Monday, September 09, 2013

NSW Seats Swinging to the ALP, 2013 Federal Election

Seat, Last Name of ALP Candidate, Last Name of Lib Candidate

Blaxland, Clare, Khouri
Fowler, Hayes, Nguyen
Gilmore, Reilly, Sudmalis
Greenway, Rowland, Diaz

Consequence of ethnic branch stacking leading to unsuitable candidates?


Nationally, of 16 seats swinging to the ALP, there was only one where an ALP candidate with a less Anglo name beat a Lib candidate with a more Anglo name. And that was:

Blair, Neumann, Harding

Friday, June 21, 2013

Queen’s Birthday Long Weekend Post, Somewhat Delayed

I have always been immersed in history, so what appears as ‘progress’ to many of my contemporaries seems to me one more lurching step in a blundering random walk across idea space. Take, for instance, the question of ‘Republic vs. Constitutional Monarchy’, which floats to the surface to trouble our lives every now and again like a bloated corpse insufficiently weighted with rocks floats to the surface of the Murrumbidgee. None of the reasons offered for changing our form of government have ever made any sense to me. I voted informal in the referendum, but that was only because I felt I was unduly influenced by my background as an ‘American’; now that I have resolved to believe that the United States of America is an imaginary country invented by Nabokov as a setting for his novel “Lolita”, as the latest step in a program to expunge all American-ness from my soul, I would have no compunction about voting “over my dead body” in any future referendum.

The only important question to ask about any system for providing stable democratic government where the rule of law is respected is “will it work?” Every other question is a distraction. To that end, let us consider the historical evidence, and make a little list of nations that are stable and democratic  today, and have been so continuously for a hundred years (excepting short periods of being conquered by unpleasant neighbours).

Costa Rica
New Zealand
San Marino
The Netherlands
The United Kingdom
“The United States of America”

Let me know if I’ve forgotten any. Now, of the countries in this list, one is a tiny relic of the Renaissance Italian republics (San Marino) and one is a rather larger example of the same kind (Switzerland). Two are attempts to revive the institutions of the Roman Republic, which have been plagued by the same tendencies towards civil wars and degenerating into Empires, though thankfully not to a significant degree in the century of interest (France and the ‘United States’); and one is an imitator of the Franco-American forms of government  that I have included in the list despite one brief dictatorial interlude early on in the hundred years (Costa Rica). None of the other imitators of these forms of government, now so ubiquitous, make the grade. 

All the other countries in the list are constitutional monarchies. (Even though one has half-a-Monarch provided by the elected head of state of a neighbouring country. People come up with wacky ways of doing things.)

This is not any proof that the current imitators of the Franco-American republics will not be stable into the future, of course; but they do not have proven staying power. And it is apparent to outsiders that the moderately successful French and American republics have peoples who are, or were, uniquely and passionately invested in their republican experiments. 

Now what struck me quite strongly this Queen’s Birthday long weekend was how two of these very stable democratic constitutional monarchies used to be republics, and gave it away.

The Commonwealth of England, 1649-1660, governed what is now the United Kingdom.

More significantly, the Dutch Republic, 1581-1795, governed what is now the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

So history doesn’t flow in one direction.

People make the argument that replacing the Governor General, appointed by Parliament and rubber-stamped by the Monarch, with a President, appointed by Parliament and rubber-stamped by no one, is a minimal change; but it’s not the most minimal change, and it doesn’t replace the Queen as a focus, albeit a diffuse and divisive one, for non-partisan patriotism.

There is a minimal change to our system that I would strongly endorse, which would be to replace our current dynasty of dwellers-in-the-Antipodes with a dynasty that actually lives here. And we are lucky enough to have the perfect candidate for Queen who I am sure would have overwhelming bipartisan support.

Catherine I, Future Queen of Australia

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

The Olympic Ideal (or, Day Jobs FTW)

From time to time I read complaints from professional artists of one stripe or another complaining that people giving their work away, or selling it too cheaply, is bad because it makes it harder for people to make a living selling their creative work. To which my immediate visceral response is always, “cry me a river, Princess.” 

This complaint irritates me on many levels. First, you may recognise it as the same whinge Engels has against the Irish in “The Condition of the Working Class in England” and every coddled economic sector has against “those dem furriners stealing our jobs”. I am down with the “Invisible Hand” and believe that price-fixing almost invariably has a net negative impact both on the world in general and on the sector that implements it. If changes in technology or society mean an activity becomes uneconomic, so be it. I won’t be upset if market forces sweep away the possibility of people earning a living by selling art. For that matter, I won’t kick up a fuss if market forces sweep away the possibility of me earning a living by doing what I do. I will just figure out some other way to earn a living.

Second, I actively believe the disappearance of a professional artistic class would be a good thing. Is this mere sour grapes, or the kind of crude class animosity epitomised by TISM’s iconic, “If you’re Creative, Get Stuffed”? Maybe. But obviously I am going to argue “no.”  Here goes. 

Professionalism is a Necessary Evil.
And like that other necessary evil, government, the less necessary it is, the more evil. I see the point of the division of labour; I recognise that it enabled the development of civilisation, by freeing a privileged caste from the necessity of spending all their time scrabbling for a living, and can see that it would not make sense for everyone to synthesise their own polypropylene and perform their own gall bladder surgery. I invoke the importance of the division of labour myself, on the frequent occasions when my superiors want me to be an accountant or an advertising copywriter rather than a scientist. 

But the ideal of humanity I aspire to is that of the jack-of-all-trades Renaissance man. I believe practically anyone can do practically anything, and that if they want to do it, they should do it. I don’t like people taking things that can and should be done in a million different ways and ring-fencing them with rules about the “right” way to do them. Professionalisation of activities that everyone can do is a sign of societal sickness. I’ve said before... or maybe that was my alter ego... this is one of the things I agree with Schopenhauer about:

Dilettantes! Dilettantes! – this is the derogatory cry those who apply themselves to art or science for the sake of gain raise against those who pursue it for love of it and pleasure in it. This derogation rests on their vulgar conviction that no one would take up a thing seriously unless prompted to it by want, hunger, or some other kind of greediness. The public has the same outlook and consequently holds the same opinion, which is the origin of its universal respect for the ‘professional’ and its distrust of the dilettante. The truth, however, is that to the dilettante the thing is the end, while to the professional as such it is the means; and only he who is directly interested in a thing and occupies himself with it from love of it, will pursue it with entire seriousness. It is from such as these, and not from wage earners, that the greatest things have always come.

I would not lament the decline in commercial brewing and resulting loss of jobs if everyone suddenly got into home brewing in a big way.  I would not lament the decline in commercial hairdressing and resulting loss of jobs if it was suddenly in vogue for couples to cut each other’s hair. I don’t lament the fact that there are no longer 30,000 sex industry workers in Omaha, as was the case in the Prohibition Era.

There are some things where having a professional caste is neutral; there is no real harm done by commercial brewing or hairdressing, for example. But there are some activities where professionalisation can be pernicious. These are activities where mass participation is a public good.

Take sport, for example. If the example of the highly-paid professional footballers of Biederburg FC inspires the young people of Biederburg to get out on the weekend and kick a football around, it is a good thing; if it inspires them only to sit at home and watch the football on television, it is a bad thing.

Or music. If the Biederland Symphony Orchestra inspires Biederlanders to buy their own nose-flutes and form groups for the performance of Biederlandisch folk music, then it is a good thing. If it sets up an unattainable musical ideal that Biederlanders feel inhibited from aspiring to, it is a bad thing.
Sport and music are recreational activities that are supposed to be fun and that everyone should do if they like. So is drawing pictures. And telling stories.

If writing by professionals inspires people to tell each other their own stories, it is good. If it doesn’t, it is not a good form of entertainment. A professionalism that inhibits people from telling each other their own stories by erecting a whole lot of artificial rules about how you should tell stories is a  pernicious thing that should be torn down.

I will harp on about writing for two reasons. First, writing is the art I practice myself, having let my drawing skills atrophy since I was 14 and never having been any good at music. Second, on the interwebz I detect a current of disdain among professional writers for amateur writers[1] that professional sportsmen would never have for amateur sportsmen, professional musicians would never have for amateur musicians, and professional painters more rarely seem to have for amateur painters.

You (a hypothetical professional) might say, “I have no disdain for amateurs. However, I want to be one of those high-fliers that inspire other people; an Ussain Bolt or Edith Piaf of writing.” That is an audacious ambition. And I am not one to discourage audacious ambitions. However, I still think it would be better if you had a day job.

You will always come to writing as a joyous relief from whatever else you do to put bread on the table; it will never be in danger of even temporarily becoming a tedious ‘job’, performed in a mental atmosphere discouraging to the muses.

       You will never be tempted to let something that could be a masterpiece into the world unfinished, just because by experience you know it is good enough to make you a gazillion dollars.

       You will not have long hours to fill with unnecessary saleable words, making the later books in your series bloated and rambling compared to the early ones.

Most importantly, an Ussain Bolt or an Edith Piaf of writing should have *something to say*. You should not just be an entertainer providing mental chewing gum. And the probability of you having something worthwhile and interesting to say to people will be greater the more things you do and the more you get out among people who do not live in a bubble of writing and reading and writing about reading and reading about writing.

You may well say, “Sheesh, I don’t want to be some great inspirational paragon. This is just the thing I love doing. I want to write, and don’t want to do anything else. Providing mental chewing gum is just fine by me.”

Fair enough. Everyone should be free to have a go at earning a living however they like. Go right ahead, being aware your role is not a particular noble or useful one. And follow the advice given in Pasolini’s immortal “Getta la Mama el treno”:[2] “A writer writes.”  The lesson of NaNoWriMo to me is that any regular busy person with a full time job and small children and a punishing role-playing schedule can write 50,000 words capable of getting four-star reviews on Goodreads in a month. You, a professional without all these distractions, should be able to write 2 million saleable words a year easy. Compete with these amateurs flooding the market on productivity. Be Pedro Camacho. Or, at the least, Robert Silverberg in the 1960s.  Do it, and you will make a good living. Don’t whinge about market forces making life hard.

[1]: To be fair, this disdain is more evident in the class of useless parasites that surround professional authors.
[2]: I may not be remembering the details of this film *exactly* correctly.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Genesis 22

My link to this revision of Genesis 22 went dead, so I thought I would put it here.

Some time later the Evil One disguised himself as a still small voice and went out to test Abraham. He said to him: ‘Abraham’.

‘Here I am,’ Abraham replied. ‘Here I am, O Sovereign Lord’.

And then the Evil One said: ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about. 

And Abraham went out to do this thing. Early the next morning he got up and saddled his donkey . He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place the Evil One had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants: ‘Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.
Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his Father Abraham, ‘Father?’

‘Yes, my son?’ Abraham replied.

‘The fire and the wood are here,’ Isaac said, ‘but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’ Abraham answered  ‘God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering., my son.’ And the two of them went on together. When they reached the place Abraham had been told about, he built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. he bound his son Isaac - his only son Isaac, whom he loved - and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.

Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the Angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, ‘Abraham! Abraham!’ And the Evil One made to speak, but was prevented.

‘Here I am,’ Abraham replied.

‘Lay down your knife’ said the Angel of the Lord. ‘Do not do a thing to the boy. How could you believe that the Lord your God would ask such a thing of you? Only the Evil One would ask such a thing. Now I know you fear God, but you do not know God, for you were prepared to do such a thing in the name of He who created heaven and earth in pure love!’

And Abraham looked up, and say a ram with its horns caught in a thicket; and he took the ram, and offered it up as a burnt offering on the altar where he had bound his son.  So Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will provide”; as it is still said today, ‘On the mountain of the Lord He will provide’.
The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, ‘I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this, and not withheld from the Evil One your son, your only son, whom you love, your descendants will drink to the full the cup you have filled today. In your blindness you would have killed your only son at the command of the Lord; you will mourn not one son, but sons and daughters beyond counting. As numerous as the stars in the sky will be your descendants; as numberless as the sand on the seashore; and they will not be withheld from the Evil One. You fear God, but you have not known God; In every land and in every time your sons and daughters will be slain by those who  fear God, but do not know God. They will make burnt offerings not of one boy, but of cities and nations, and the face of the earth will be darkened with the blood of your children’.

And Abraham fell down before the angel of the Lord and cried out ‘ O Sovereign Lord! This is more than any man can bear! If you lay this curse upon me, you must  be even as the Evil One who commanded me to slay my son Isaac!
And he lay in the dust and covered his head, and waited for the fire from heaven to devour him. 

And the angel of the Lord spoke: ‘The Lord says: know that no curse is laid upon you, but only the knowledge of that which you foreordained when you lifted your hand. Do not despair; for your children have the better part. How much easier is it to walk the road of the oppressed than that of the oppressor! On the last day, your descendants shall possess the gates of their enemies, and theirs will be the power to bind and to loose, and through them only shall all nations of the earth be blessed.’

 Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham dwelt at Beersheba.

Monday, January 21, 2013


My bicycling on Saturday was notable for two reasons.

First, my seat somehow fell apart, meaning I lost my balance very shortly afterwards and buggered up my wrist. But it seems to be coming good.

Second, and much more interesting, my virtual 'Cycle across the Sahara' brought me to Arlit. I make a point of not looking too far ahead on Google Earth, so after 200 km of following a poorly defined track across an utterly featureless plain, was expecting another tiny cluster of houses like Assamakka. But no: it is a great big city of 80,000 or so people, built to service an enormous uranium mine that provides approximately 1/3 of Niger's exports and is critical to the French nuclear power industry.

It seems very tenuously connected to civilisation. It does not look from Google Earth like there is much in the way of a great big security fence around the uranium mine nor the expatriate bits of town. There is nothing but distance separating it from the heartland of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib, in the Kidal region of Mali. A lot less distance than there is between Kidal and In Amenas. I think we will hear more about Arlit soon.