The event that changed the world? (Five years on)

As we remembered the tragedy in the US of September 2001 I am once again pondering the assertions of those who so soon forget history and the lessons it can teach us. Sometiems we just plain forget. But subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) rewriting helps as well. Some of the rhetoric has the sound of “If I say it, it makes it so”.
One of the most repeated phrases is “the event that changed the world”. It is commonly stated that the world changed on Septemer the 11th 2001. Well – yes, but the world changes every day. Today for the family of the many people dying in car accidents the world is changed. For couples getting married the world is changing. Such joys and tragedies the world changes every day. What made this particualr date so different?

Maybe the number of people, hardly. The bombing of Dresden in February 1945 during the second world war killed in excess of 35,000 men women and children. The dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed in the order of 200,000 men women and children each. These are only isolated (if extreme) examples of single incidents resulting in large numbers of civilian deaths.

Oh but, you say, these examples are of milatary campaigns, the attacks in the US were terrorist! What is the difference? Certainly we were in a declared war during WW II. But does being in a declared war preclude terrorist acts? According the the extremists who perpetrated the act, they are at war with the west. Their complaint is the infiltration of the islamic states with the west. Is this a legitimate complaint? Well to them it is. It may seem unreasonable to us but they are defending their religion. So to them they are in a declared war.

So then what actually defines a terrorist act? I have seen it defined by the US administration as one where terror is created amongst a general population by act of acts of an agressor. One could hardly say that the bombing of Dresden did not create a state of terror amongst the German population. The carpet bombing of an entire city over two days would terrify the soutest heart. The complete destruction of Dresden was the intent and it was calculated to induce terror in, and completely demoralise the general population. It certainly terrorised the population.

Wether by the sword, the gun or the plane terrorism has been with us since the dawn of civilisation and will be with us till its sunset, that much is certain. To say that the world has changed is somewhat of an overstatement. It is no more changed than after any of the other countless terrorist attacks. We should not fool ourselves. The world is the same place now as before September the 11th 2001. The US may be different – at least one would hope so.

That is not to say that the act was not deplorable, as were the Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki incidents. To justify one is to justify them all. To condemn one is to condemn them all. Whatever the excuse for these acts they were all conducted with the moral backing of the people who perpetrated them. Each of them against a perceived agressor who had to be defeated seemingly at any const. Each of them led to the loss of thousands of lives of people who had no say in the matter, who were themselves non-agressors, men women and children.

Sometimes we need to step back and view these things in perspective and in a historical context.

My Hero!?

With the sad passing of Steve Irwin it got me thinking as to what constitutes a hero. Why is it that we single out a very small group of people and elevate them to almost god like status. And we seem to do this almost to a man.

I suppose we are always seeking heroes to lift us above the mundane. Of course Hollywood offers us any number of heroes and in many guises. They are pre-packaged and served up to us in neat containers of film stock. This is the substitute hero that does not elevate us but diminishes us. It takes away our humanity, substitutes our morality with a pre-fabricated version that reduces everything to a comfortable level of mass ignorance. No I am talking about real heroes. The people with heads of gold and feet of clay. Those people who rise above us to elevated heights, and at the same time seem to reflect some of our worst flaws. These are the true heroes.

Steve was universally acknowledged as a great Australian. He was an ordinary bloke who did things in a way and with a personality that seemed to capture our imagination. He championed the cause of the environment. We all loved him and identified with him. We were not at all surprised that his family declined a state funeral, in fact almost expected it. He was one of us which was one of the reasons we made him our hero. But – yes he was flawed. We all recall the baby incident, and the criticism it drew. However, we expect our heroes to make mistakes, that way they are no so different from us.

Of course we all remember Martin Luther King Jr. No man did more to highlight the plight of the African American. He was a focal point for civil rights during the 60s. I did then and I do now consider him one of my heroes. Flawed – oh yes. Wether the stories put about were a concoction of that arch hypocrite JEH or no it was probably the case that he was not perfect. Yet in a contest of virtue I know who would come out on top. It is interesting that arguably the most powerful person in the US at the time is now one of the most reviled. And the person who was the expert at besmirching people’s chanters was himself one of the most corrupt.

The there was that other icon of the 60s, JFK. Would he have reached such elevated status had he lived? Certainly, there is no doubt King would have. Kennedy, I’m not so sure about. That he was in a politically difficult position – there is no doubt. That his hands were tied by circumstance – is certain. That he would have achieved his agenda – possibly not. However, I think he was the right man at the right time and stands as a giant amongst the Presidents who could have been so much more and I believe achieved so much had he not had such an untimely demise.

Getting back to the start again, why was it that Steve Irwin had such an elevated status? There was really nothing to set him apart. He was just an ordinary bloke that captured our imagination. He was one of us, and could have been any of us. I suppose that this was what made him special – that he was not, special that is. He reflected that which we as Australians value the most. He loved the bush, the Australian wildlife, that sense of being one step away from danger, family and his own country. He was us in other guise. In the end he was quintesentially Australian, and I suppose that is why the Americans loved him too. He was larger than life but not so large as to alienate.

The Schlock of the View

One of the characteristics of western civilisation is its sanitisation. My sanitisation I mean the desire and ability to hide things which are difficult to cope with. I suspect that the rise of sanitisation began in the early 19th century in Victorian England where there was a desire to regularise the unpleasant and uncomfortable things in society. It started before that, and I suppose there has always been a desire, more or less, to sanitise the uncomfortable but we have almost achieved a state of societal perfection at hiding the unpleasant.

We have done this by creating institutions to hide all the unpleasant things in society, employing a special caste of people to deal with these difficult things and then pretending that they do not exist. The media has been complicit in this by romanticising these unpleasantries to make these things easier to cope with. Even our language has been sanitised.

What I am talking about is death, disease – both physical and mental, procreation, bodily functions and human aberrance. We have created institutions for each of these in order to rid ourselves of the personal responsibility of them and to hide them from view. We have commissioned people to staff these institutions and deal with the unpleasantness for us.

Last night I watched a documentary on the Twin Towers disaster in the US and more specifically on the “Falling Man” image that appeared in newspapers the next day. Following the publication of that image there was a huge outcry against its publication. As they were discussing the reaction it seemed to me that the problem was that the general population of the US were in denial. The concept of people having to jump to their deaths was expunged from the public record. Instead of admitting its existence it was replaced with the more heroic aspects of the tragedy. There were heroes yes, but we are more ordinary people that heroes and even our heroes are flawed people. To admit this is wisdom not weakness.

This is a result of the syndrome of the institutionalisation of tragedy. We construct memorials to the heroes and forget the ordinary people who could not cope – the rest of us. We lock them away in hospitals, psychiatric homes, gaols and conveniently forget them. We employ firemen, paramedics, doctors, nurses, funeral attendants and police to deal with them and hide them for us. The media is complicit in this. It censors, sanitises, packages and then presents these nice little bite sized packages for our consumption. We have a criminal, an investigation, then a court hearing all conveniently summarised in a 1 hour (excluding promotions) program for our enjoyment. Then there is the genius doctor who, when faced with the most obscure, baffling and complex case can solve it in exactly – oh well … one hour, and he gets these regularly in weekly intervals. But they are never too distressing or gory. Then there are the journalists. The professional liars if you will. Am I being too harsh? Maybe but we ask nay expect them to lie to us. This is what we have demanded from journalists and they faithfully oblige.

We have come a long way in the last 200 years. We no longer maintain workhouses and treadmills, but in some ways the situation is worse. Because the gross inhumanity has been ameliorated our consciences have been sated and we feel far more comfortable.

You’re innocent? Prove it!

One of the characteristics of our system of justice is its fairness. A great deal of trouble has been taken over the years to ensure that the law gives every person fair play. This has not always worked in practice and however well our laws were crafted there have been times when it has not worked as intended. This will always be the case but the intent has been there. It has taken hundreds, if not thousands, of years to evolve but what we have today stands as a fine example of a fair and equitable system. There are a number of important principles which go to this system of fair play. One of the most important is the presumption of innocence.

One of these principles, the presumption of innocence has been a golden thread running through the British justice system which has been enshrined in law. It is one of the crowning achievements of our justice system. Many of the rights of the individual are based on this presumption. The right to silence is one instance where the guilt or innocence cannot be implied from an accused person’s refusal to speak. Another is the burden of proof, which rests on the prosecution, who have to prove the guilt beyond reasonable doubt. Of course the problem here is that many guilty people will go free but it is better that 1.000 guilty people go free than one innocent person is incarcerated.

What was once considered and inalienable right is now been cast aside as no longer appropriate. The first erosion of this principle that I noticed was with the introduction of unmanned speeding cameras. There have been many criticisms of these but I have heard no one question what I perceive to be the real issue here, the erosion of the presumption of innocence. The owner is presumed to be guilty wether he was driving the car at the time or not. The owner has to prove he was not driving the vehicle to avoid the fine and the loss of points. It is not sufficient for the prosecution to prove guilt, the owner is presumed guilty. At first lip service was given top the presumption of innocence by only applying a fine. Now you get the demerit points regardless, unless you can prove your innocence. No big deal you say. A few hundred dollars and a couple of points – and you fill out a sat dec to say that you were not driving. Then it is the next person’s responsibility to prove their innocence. But it is not the magnitude of the injustice – it is the subtlety that I object to.

This is fine when you are talking about citizens, but what about people who are not citizens? There is much talk bandied about “illegal aliens”. Who are these mysterious people? How have they been deemed to be illegal? Which court of law has decided on this person’s guilt? Of course they are not illegal since their guilt or innocence has not been determined. In fact no court can determine guilt or innocence; all that the court can do is find that sufficient evidence exists to prove the charge against the person. They are no more guilty or innocent than before the trial. I am most amused when people who have been found not-guilty stand up and declare their innocence. No; the court did not decide that you were innocent; they merely found insufficient evidence to convict. You may be guilty as mud! But to return to the point, people arrive here who are in danger of their lives, with nothing more than the clothes on their back, and we shuffle them off to inhumane living conditions to languish for years without hope, and label them unjustly as “illegals”. And we call ours a civilised society. If they cannot prove their innocence they are presumed to be guilty and sent back, in many cases to face unjust imprisonment (again), torture and sometimes death.

The last example, and perhaps the worst, is the further erosion of our rights with the anti-terror legislation. I cannot recall anybody raising objections due to the loss of the presumption of innocence. All we were told is that these are extraordinary times, requiring extraordinary measures. That is exactly how injustice is perpetrated. There is always a group of people who, because of their desire for power, see natural justice as an impediment to their cause. They will distort the facts in order to promote their cause. I can just picture the ASIS briefing now. Maybe not deliberately, but they would have subtly emphasised certain aspects of that briefing to scare the poor MPs into accepting this legislation.

No one seems to care that this time honoured principle has been thrown out the window, possibly never to return. Why is this so important? It is quite simple. Once the presumption of innocence is lost there is no reason that any person cannot be presumed guilty. It is only sufficient that we be charged that we are then determined to be guilty. It is then up to person charged to find evidence to prove their innocence. What if the evidence has been lost, or even worse – deliberately destroyed. A person can be incarcerated on no more than the presumption of guilt. This right was established for good reason and to cast it aside with so little consideration is a travesty.

In the past legislators have framed legislation on the principles of justice with an eye to the long term, to serve us for posterity. It seems today that short term expedient is more important than justice. I fear for generations to come where all of the rights we have come to expect will be eroded as this one has.

There? What is this thing called? There!

About two years ago now I read in the NYT about an on line environment in which you can interact with other people, join groups and clubs, fly, ride, go on adventures and generally have a pretty good time. I was rather curious but not curious enough to actually join and see what it was like. I thought that I was not really my thing. I had seen (what I thought was) similar things and they did not really take my fancy.

However, what I did not know was that my son was actually a member of this thing. Soon after he started telling me that I should check it out. Yea yea….. whatever.

Well as was my son’s want, he joined under yet another user on January the first last year. He already had 2 accounts but he is funny like that. He decided to reactivate his other accounts and told me that I could have his new account. After about a week of pestering I took it just to shut him up. The environment I am talking about is called There. Or in the There parlance “There and not There”.

Well I have to admit when I first went into There I was completely lost. I was knocked about, I found platforms I could not get onto, I did not know how to navigate this world, in short I was a regular noob (newbie). Not to worry. I met some great people who showed me the ropes and told me how to get around. They showed me how to get some clothes, gave me some stuff to get on with, helped me get into some cool activities, but it did take some time to find the activities that I enjoyed. I also met some people who were not so nice. But There is big enough that you do not need to put up with that and there are plenty of great people.

Well – after a few weeks of this I was hooked. Three of the first people I met and buddied in There are still my closest friends in there and have proven to be truly great friends. I meet more people in There all the time but as with real life there is a small circle of people that you tend to spend most of your time with. The funny thing is that I thought that the majority of There would be 16 to 22 but I have met many people in the 45+ age range and many people even older than me! I have friends who are 13 and I have friends who are over 70 – go figure.

What There is Not

There is not a game. You can play games in There but it does not come under the heading MMPRPG. There is not for children. It is PG 13 and anybody 18 or under must be signed up by their parents. This does not always work but the There staff do take seriously the PG 13 status. There are limits on designs that can be submitted, and there is a swear filter. There is not a charity. There offers free membership but to be honest you really have to pay the US$9.95 for premium membership to get the full advantage from There. In addition many of the activities cost.

What There is

There is an on line 3d environment. People can;

Play cards (only spades at this time). Two teams of two people each pit their skill against each other and the first team to 500 wins.

Chat using text or voice. You need to be a premium member for voice chat. You also need to have a broadband connection otherwise the voice is problematic.

Listen to music. The music systems can pick up any shoutcast stations which include any genre of music you can imagine… as well as some other stations which are not strictly classified as music.

Quest, race – aginst the clock, other people or cross country. There are a number of forms of transport which IMHO are extremely well thought out and well designed.

Join clubs of like minded people. Some of the clubs are racing clubs, cards, music, religous groups, clubs of like minded friends.

Or you can just sit around and shoot the breeze with your mates.

There is also a skills system whereby engaging in various activities results in an increase in various skill categories. Gifts are awarded when you move up in skill from one level to the next. There are 5 levels in all and any number of different skills. Some examples are cards, socialiser, merchant, dog handler and buggy driving. There are many more. There has been much criticism of the gifts given for skills, and admittedly some of the gifts are rather naf but many are quite good, and especially in the early days when you do not have much they are generally appreciated.

Romance and There

It happens ok? Obviously some people like to hide their identity, and it becomes apparent very quickly who is a fake, who is genuine and who is genuinely hiding. The fakes get no brook from me. Those who feel uncomfortable revealing too much on the other hand, I can well understand. I have a number of friends in There who are shy about their identity. But romance in There is fraught with danger. I have seen many people come to grief over broken romances with all of the angst and the upset from broken commitments. Online romance can work but its success is very limited. Don’t go into There with an eye to meeting the one, because you will get your heart broken; almost guaranteed.


There is a great way to meet people of diverse backgrounds from all over the world. It can cost quite a lot but does not have to. You get grief – especially if you are looking for it, but all in all you can meet a great group of people. Give it a try.

The uneasy truce with life….

I was interested to hear that the journalists kidnapped in the Middle East, and recently released were supposedly converted to Islam. This got me thinking about belief systems, and our world view. How do most of us feel about our beliefs?

There was a time when most of civilisation took their beliefs seriously. This attitude now seems to have contracted to small pockets of fundamentalism outside of the developing world and the Middle East. In the west anybody who actually believes anything is labelled a fundamentalist and is ostracised. To be without paradigm is to be smart and modern – chic if you will. This shift in attitudes can be traced back to the enlightenment. Simplistic I know but this is not a treatise on the breakdown of traditional belief systems, just some random thoughts. We traded blind (so we are told) belief for a more rational approach using evidence and rational based thinking. Hence many so called “religious” people pretend that their beliefs are based in rationalism, which gives rise to such things as intelligent design and participation in discussions on ethical norms.

So, once we abandon or old beliefs what do we have left? It was perfectly natural for people without conviction to become Moslems. In all likelihood they would have declared an undying commitment to the Vulcan belief system if it meant their release. Don’t get me wrong; I am not criticising them. On the basis of our abandonment of belief this is not at all unreasonable. However – what this does mean is that we have to abandon our right to criticise anybody for their belief. To have a humanistic position that declares the sanctity of life is no more or less moral than the suicide bomber that justifies his destruction of innocents on his devotion to his god. The Christian devotion to helping his fellow man is no more or less right than the megalomaniac ruler who holds power through gross abuse of human rights.

You see high minded ideals are really only relative to our philosophical position. Above I suggested that in the west we have no paradigm. This is not true – however much we like to fool ourselves. We all have a paradigm; it is just different for each of us. I listen with amusement to scientists who criticise those who believe in creation and then go on to make morel judgments that are equally based on arbitrary belief systems. It is so much self delusion to think that we are so more rational than the billions who have come before us. We cannot be purely rational and live. The two things are mutually exclusive. There will always be one sense in which every living person is irrational.

I have a belief system and I do not apologise for it. I know what I believe and have a reason for that belief. You see, the scientist who denies the possibility of an intelligent creator has no reason for that denial. He has an indefensible position because he cannot say that there is no intelligence without proof and he has no proof. Proving a positive is far easier than disproving an existence without evidence. If the scientist says that there is no evidence of intelligence then the best he can do is to plead ignorance. However, if you claim to see the hand of design and the influence of the creator then those who deny that perception are at best naysayers.

I think it is about time to stop pretending that we are being a tolerant society when exhibit so many aspects of intolerance. I freely admit that I am intolerant but I know the nature and bounds of my intolerance, most people do not. We need to stop fooling ourselves and come clean. We do have irrational beliefs. We are intolerant. Be honest and stop hiding behind so called rationalism or humanism and be honest about our belief system.

The Recording Industry vs The Rest Of The World

A long time ago there was this man called Thomas Edison. Our friends across the sea hail him as a genius and he certainly was quite a remarkable man. One of the wonderful inventions to come out of his laboratory was a machine which could take sounds and put them onto a wax cylinder.

We have come a long way. Through the 78, the vinyl, the reel to reel, cassette, CD, Video, DVD ….. and so it goes. An amazing journey. Enough superlatives.

For as long as I can remember the recording industry has been predicting their own demise due to piracy. Back in the cassette days I can remember the recording industry attempting to restrict the sale of blank cassettes to the extent that they levied 20 cents for every blank cassette sold which went straight to the artists associations to compensate for piracy.

But no sooner had this happened when the CD burst onto the market.

In the mean time the video cassette emerged and with it the predictions of the end of the theatre and the ultimate the demise of the movie. Why? Because people will be able to record and copy movies so easily.

Then there were the CD burners. Once again the demise of the recording industry was predicted.

What happened to all of these predictions? Recording artists are recording more, selling more, movie theatres are being built as we speak, DVDs are lining shop shelves in their billions. Why, despite the most dire predictions of the recording industry? The answer is simple. Consumerism. People love the look of the flashy DVD on their shelf. Teenagers take great pride in their CD collection – or did until the iPod. Oh yes. That latest trophy. There may be many cheaper and more versatile media players but it is the iPod that is selling. And with it the paid downloads, despite the fact that they could obtain the music for nothing from pirate sites.

I have heard these predictions for thirty years and they sound as ingenuous now as they did thirty years ago. I am not sure if they believe their own publicity but I suspect that the primary motivation is greed. I am not in any way justifying piracy or saying that profiting from others hard labour is right. People who produce and knowingly sell pirate material should be prosecuted, but the claims of the recording and software industries of losses in billions of dollars are laughable. In the first place they are using the retail price of each unit, knowing that a large proportion of the items are sold at a discount through competition or in the case of software, site licenses. Second most of the sales actually are to people who would not actually buy the product if they had to pay say $500. So it is not a loss, or a lost opportunity. It is in fact nonsense.

I recently read that more money is made from DVD releases than theatre releases. So how does this square up against the assertion that the movie industry is loosing huge amounts of money? Absolute rubbish.

So. They have used this as an excuse to introduce macro vision. Has it stopped people copying DVDs or Videos? No. It means that if we want interference free vision on our TV we have to shell out for a box to remove the interference from the signal. There are a large number of instances where certain combinations of equipment require the installation of a filter. I had to buy a $100 video switch to overcome deliberately introduced interference from my DVD player in order to play legitimately purchased DVDs.

We cannot make “fair use” or backup copies of recordings. If the recording deteriorates prematurely, or is scratched, or refuses to play on my multimedia computer then we have to shell out another $35 to buy another one or do without. And what of the stripping programs that allow people to make copies of their legitimately bought recordings. Oh no you have to buy one for your car and one for your home (assuming it will play on your car).

What then is the motivation for such a policy. I can only see one, greed. Artists have been conned into agreeing to encrypt their audio recordings for the sake of a marginal theoretical increase in income. In fact I suspect that it does not make a scrap of difference. I remember the first copy protection I encountered was on the so called killer app for the PC. Lotus 123, the definitive spread sheet program of the 80s. If I recall correctly, the original floppy had to be placed into the drive to start the program. Lotus soon produced a crack to their own program so that the original floppy was not needed. They discovered that it was pointless since if people wanted to copy the program then they only needed to download a crack from their local bulletin board. As soon as the industry devises a new method of protecting data a means of defeating the protection will soon follow. But it makes little impact on the industry and I doubt if it ever will. Better to spend that money on pursuing the real cheats. Find the people that mass-produce illegal copies for profit and leave poor John Citizen Consumer to go about his own business in peace. To misquote Mark Twain the death of the recording industry has been greatly exaggerated.