Thursday, 21 August 2014

The case for clean(er) politics

New Zealand is buzzing right now about Nicky Hager’s new book Dirty Politics. Buzzing so hard, in fact, that it’s sold out, and I can’t see myself getting hold of a copy before the election. (There have been rumours of it being bought up and destroyed by National supporters, but I haven’t seen these substantiated and they seem implausible, given the financial and political costs such actions would incur.) So I can’t quote word for word. But there are plenty of summaries and synopses and juicy tidbits being shared all over the net. For non-New-Zealanders, and New Zealanders currently living under a rock, I gather the basic gist is this:
Right-wing blogger Cameron Slater, he of “Whale Oil Beef Hooked”, has been covertly getting fed information, in various forms, from the very highest levels of government, which he’s been using to smear and slur and manipulate both the National Party’s political opponents and anybody nominally on their own side who they wanted rid of. Among other things, he’s been given Labour Party membership data obtained by hacking their database, and he’s been tipped off when potentially embarrassing Official Information Act requests are being processed, so that he can request the same information, get it first, and blog it himself with a pro-National spin. There’s a summary of the major allegations here.
Details that have been quoted or scanned on blogs and tweets and Facebook reveal a consistently nasty mindset, from calling Canterbury earthquake survivors “useless pricks” to a fundamental disrespect for the rights of young women. Prime Minister John Key has of course dismissed the whole thing as a left-wing conspiracy theory and put Judith Collins, the National Party minister who has worked most closely with Slater, on what I think is her third or fourth final warning by now.
Not having seen the book itself, I can’t comment on it directly. What I wanted to talk about was a much more humane blogger’s take on the situation. Chris Trotter is New Zealand’s foremost representative of what I guess you’d call the Old Left. His response is captured in the title of the piece: Dirty Politics – Is There Any Other Kind? My response to that is: There had better be.

Friday, 15 August 2014

When science and politics collide

Content note: fat-shaming
Today I took notes in a first-year biochemistry lecture. The students are starting a big module on metabolism, it seems, which is obviously a major part of human life and health. First-year health science papers tend to have a different lecturer every time. They’re often grad students or teaching fellows, but today we had a senior lecturer from the Biochemistry department with dozens of publications to her name. So, not somebody who I’m in a position to call out for bad science in her own subject.
And in this introductory metabolism lecture, this authority on biochemistry and health told a hall full of students that there is an obesity epidemic in the Western world and it’s all due to basic thermodynamics – people eating more joules than they burn off – and it’s causing a raft of health problems that she didn’t detail.
Now she didn’t say or imply that obese people are all lazy gluttons; in fact she pointed out that one problem with exercise is it makes you want to eat more. She didn’t say anything whatsoever about willpower or self-control. She did show us a list of countries ranked by the percentage of obese people in the population, and joked (by way of warning the class not to confuse correlation with causation) that speaking English is evidently a major cause of obesity.
What’s bothering me is that I could find dozens of sites, just a click or two a way from this blog, that say obesity is not something you can fix by changing your eating and/or exercise habits, and that weight as such doesn’t cause the health problems, and that the things today’s lecturer said are myths and constitute fat-shaming. And it’s quite clear that shaming people about their weight doesn’t help them in any way. In general, I think if you look at someone who has a problem that you don’t have, and your immediate response is “That’s ridiculous, why don’t they just—” no matter what you think they should just, you’re wrong. Sometimes people are stupid, but millions of people are not so stupid that they live in thrall to something you can solve with a snap of your fingers.
The point is that politically I agree with the latter group of people. Shaming people about their appearance is a heinous thing to do, regardless of whether they have a “choice” about it or not. But I can’t say that they must have science on their side just because they have morality on their side. Reality is regrettably amoral. If it’s true that Western diet and exercise patterns cause obesity and obesity causes health problems, then it’s true and no amount of cultural repositioning will change that. Equally, if it’s not true it’s not true and no number of people who think it is true will change that.
I’ve written at some length about the parallel issues I have with evolutionary psychology. There I concluded that most of what you see in the popular media is indeed bullshit but there is a core of science underneath that isn’t so easily discredited. I don’t know whether that’s the case on this issue. I would dearly love to stand with my political fellow-travellers here, but I can’t if they’ve got the facts wrong.
Of course scientific assertions are always open to correction. If there are facts I’m missing which support the “there is no obesity epidemic” side, I would love to hear them. But they will have to be facts that a published expert in the biochemistry of metabolism are likely not to have heard of.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Election graffiti: anger is one thing, hate speech is another

Content note: racism, NSFW language
It’s election season here in New Zealand. We vote in six weeks. There are election billboards going up all over the place, and naturally some people are taking matters into their own hands.
Party Vote Act(ual Racism): One Country, One Law (One Dillusion)
(Ab)Use Your Party Vote to keep the government on a short leash: Vote Conservative
Vote (Batman) Labour
There’s a collection of them over at Vandalized NZ Political Billboards on Tumblr, which is where I found these images. It’s dominated by attacks on National Party billboards,
Nicky Wagner (Muppets) Christchurch Central: Party Vote National
Working for (Rich People): Party Vote National
some comparatively subtle,
Carter, Port Hills: Party Vote National (The Rich Deserve More)
some very much not.

Monday, 4 August 2014

What have we learned?

A hundred years and a month or so ago, Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip shot dead Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo. This triggered a wave of anti-Serb violence across the Austro-Hungarian Empire, because apparently what one Serb did every Serb was responsible for. As he was a minor, Princip got twenty years in prison instead of the death penalty. He died of tuberculosis just a fifth of the way through his sentence. The Empire demanded that Serbia suppress all anti-Imperial actions and publications and accept Austrian control of their police force. Serbia said “OK,” but they didn’t say “OK” to every single demand, and Austria-Hungary declared war.
Some bits of what happened next, I’m not clear on. The Russians felt obliged to intervene on Serbia’s behalf. The Germans had been itching for a war with both Serbia and Russia for some time. Germany and Austria-Hungary had an alliance with the Ottoman Empire. France and Britain stepped in to help Russia. I don’t know why any of that was the case. I do know that one hundred years ago yesterday, Britain declared war on Germany. At that time, white New Zealanders and Australians identified as British, so from that point on “we” were at war. Which I guess is why my local newspaper dedicated its front page yesterday to the centennial.
Get used to this kind of thing. You’ll be seeing it a lot in the next four years. Thought for the day: World War I was rich countries invading rich countries. Nowadays you don’t see that, “nowadays” here meaning since 1945. Why not? What changed? Why, for the last seventy years, has it only been poor countries being invaded? What trick have rich countries learned in that time for avoiding being warred upon? (It’s certainly not that rich countries no longer go to war.) Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature is required reading here, but has he got it right? He dismisses the popular “nuclear deterrent” theory; I have no problem with that. He also claims that global trade has been a major force for peace, which sits most uncomfortably with my politics but Pinker’s data and logic are persuasive. Basic idea: if country A is a source of trade goods for country B, country B has an incentive not to want country A’s economy disrupted by war.
Something’s missing. One lucrative set of trade goods is armaments, which reverse the incentive structure. If you’re selling guns, you want your customers threatened by wars, so that they’ll buy your guns. Also, protecting trade ships and trade zones has become a major raison d’etre for military deployments. And then look at the protests at all the big free trade conferences; look at the violence governments are prepared to deploy against their own citizens in defence of commerce. Free-trade apologists might reply that the protesters are mistaken or misguided in their choice of political goals, and that trade is a powerful enough force for peace to justify suppressing dissent. But even if trade is a force for peace, so too – taking my information from The Better Angels of Our Nature once again – are democracy and the free exchange of information. Trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement threaten both.
I take Pinker’s point. Economic interdependence links nations together, it helps people put a value on each other’s lives who otherwise didn’t have a reason to care. Yes, that sounds awful, but the reality is no human being could care about every single other one of their seven billion fellow human beings. We care about the couple of hundred people we know personally, and we can have our consciences and our compassion stung by stories and images of a few more, but there comes a point at which it’s just too much. So we can’t hang our plans for world peace on everybody caring, personally, about everybody else. That’s not going to happen.
But granted that economic ties between nations are a good idea per se, is this really the best we can do? Do we have to sign our democracy and our freedoms over to giant corporations and their neoliberal running-dog enforcers? Corporate capitalism is addicted to fossil fuels, which has historically caused shortage crises as well as global warming, and to dirt-cheap labour, which has historically caused large-scale political unrest. Fuel crises and political unrest are both causes of violence. Being better than 1914 is not much to congratulate ourselves on.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

My submission to Statistics New Zealand on gender identity

Statistics New Zealand are asking for submissions on a new standard for doing statistics on people’s gender identity. There’s a submission form here. I filled it out, and this is what I said – being very brief because I didn’t spot the link where you could send Word documents as submissions until I’d already started filling in my answers in the text fields, which only allow 512 characters per question. The one-word answers on the first couple of questions are where I just ticked a checkbox. Italics are where I quote their words.
Do you agree with the proposed concept of gender identity? [Gender identity is defined as a person’s internal, deeply felt sense of being male or female or something other or in between. A person’s gender identity may or may not correspond with their sex (HRC, 2008). Gender identity is subjective and is self-defined.] Yes.
Do you agree with the proposed definitions of related terms? No. If not, please state the definitions you have concerns about, and how you think they could be improved.
I disagree with the definition of “sex” [the distinction between males and females based on the biological differences in sexual characteristics]. I don’t claim to speak for trans people, but I understand that trans women see themselves as female, not “male but feminine”, and likewise, mutatis mutandis, for trans men. Minds merit more attention than genitals in most contexts. And “biological” is too broad and vague a term. Since humans are living things, everything about us is in a sense “biological”.
Are there any other terms you would like to see included in relation to gender identity?
Rather than simply “sex” I would use the terms “anatomical gender”, “physiological gender” or “reproductive gender” when it is necessary to compile statistics on such things (as it might be for medical purposes). “Gender” and “sex” should both, by default, refer to a person’s identity.
The background paper provides some examples of the approaches different countries have taken to collect gender identity information. Do any of these approaches stand out to you as being suitable for use in New Zealand?
No. The simplest and least cisnormative way to collect information on gender would be to remove the tick-boxes entirely, and instead provide a text field for a short written answer.
Is there any other information relevant to the concept of gender identity that you feel is missing from the background paper?
I feel there should be a discussion on the inappropriacy of “biological” essentialism. Genital configuration and the sex chromosomes do correlate with many other features of human anatomy, physiology and psychology, but that does not make either one definitive of a person’s essential nature – any more than any of those said other features.
If you have any further comments about the concept of gender identity or the information in the paper, please add them here.
Should anyone object to the concept of subjective gender identity on Biblical grounds (Deuteronomy 22:5 “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man...”), please draw their attention to I Samuel 16:7 – “...man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.”
A couple of things I would have said but there wasn’t space:
  • In most contexts I can think of where it is necessary to distinguish behavioral or identity gender (or linguistic gender) from anatomical or physiological gender, one also from time to time wishes to discuss sexual intercourse. If you reserve the word “sex” for physiological gender, you can then run into ambiguities due to the fact that “sex” in common parlance means sexual intercourse.
  • Obviously I don’t think it appropriate for Government departments to incorporate the Bible in their documentation. However Biblical fundamentalism is probably the second-biggest source of opposition to getting past the gender binary, after that weird combination of male entitlement and homophobia that says “I should have the right to contemplate having sex with anyone I find attractive, without facing the horrible possibility that she might be in some sense ‘male’ and thus make me in some sense (oh, the horror, the horror!) ‘gay’.” So I decided to include a counter-argument that would give those people pause for thought.

Monday, 21 July 2014

I only have one thing to say about Gaza

Content note: violence
There is a lot of anger coming across my Facebook feed about Gaza. More of my friends are pro-Palestine than pro-Israel, but one of the pro-Israel ones makes up for it by posting nearly as much as all the pro-Palestine ones combined. You know who you are. But it wasn’t him who posted this image:
“We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children.  We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.  We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.” —Golda Meir, former Prime Minister of Israel
I’ve been saying nothing because I don’t know any more about Gaza than any other New Zealander who follows international news, and saying anything would only mean I’d have to deal with a storm of anger from somebody. But I’m getting the storm of anger anyway. So this is the one thing I have to say about Gaza:
It is morally wrong to fire explosive devices at people just because they are of the same ethnicity, and live near the same place, as the people who have hurt you. Even if they are also politically aligned with those people. It doesn’t make a moral difference whether the explosive devices are mortar rockets or missiles launched from planes. It is human nature to think essentialistically, but neither “Israel” nor “Palestine” is a monolithic entity that is collectively responsible for everything an individual might do in its name. Killing innocents does not redress any wrong, it compounds it.
The death toll in Gaza is in the hundreds, if it’s not thousands by now. I don’t think the death toll in Israel has cracked single figures yet. If you don’t think the number of people you kill is morally important, you are no better than a terrorist. So I am opposed to Israel’s actions. And I’m not swayed by Meir’s little piece of spin. Last I heard, Israel had a highly-trained military force called Mossad. If you want to convince me Mossad couldn’t enter Gaza and take out the individuals firing rockets – by “take out” I mean capture for trial in an international court of justice, but even targeted assassination would be better than bombing the whole place and killing children – then you have a lot of work to do.
But just because I’m opposed to Israel’s actions doesn’t mean I support Hamas. Look, when two groups of people are trying to kill each other you can bet they’re also telling lies about each other as loud as they can. In a movie one of them would be snowy pure and telling nothing but the truth, but real life isn’t a movie. So I don’t believe everything I hear that opposes Israel just because I also oppose Israel in this. But I do believe that young Gazans are likely to know more than me about the situation, and during an earlier outbreak of violence a year or two ago I read a manifesto by some young Gazans that began: “Fuck Israel! Fuck Hamas!”
Violence breeds violence. Two wrongs don’t make a right. These are clichés, but they’re clichés because everyone knows they’re true. And that’s all I have to say about that.

Friday, 18 July 2014

What are the odds? Quite good actually

Content note: rape, rape culture, sexualized victim-shaming
Since a lot of you aren’t New Zealanders, you likely won’t have heard of the things this blog post is about. So a bit of quick background. Back in May, Muhammad Rizalman was arrested in Wellington on charges of burglary and sexual assault. His home country of Malaysia, which he had been serving here as a foreign diplomat, recalled him and refused to waive diplomatic immunity. There followed the political buck-passing match that always fills up the news media around things like this. Then last week the woman Rizalman had allegedly followed home and attempted to rape, Tania Billingsley, had her name suppression lifted and spoke to a TV station about what had happened. Being a feminist, Billingsley used feminist terminology such as “rape culture” in her statements to the media. She called out Foreign Minister Murray McCully for his Ministry’s “incompetent handling of the diplomatic immunity aspect”. Jan Logie, Green Party spokesperson for women’s issues, agreed.
Someone who didn’t agree was a right-wing New Zealand blogger name of Cameron Slater, who goes by “Whale Oil” online. His blog is “Whale Oil Beef Hooked”, you see. You have to pronounce it in a New Zealand accent but listen in an Irish accent, I guess. Shamefully for my country, he’s become a major media figure here. Slater of course supports McCully’s party in Parliament and opposes Logie’s, so it’s hardly surprising he would take a critical view. He wrongly believes that he understands what’s meant by “rape culture” – and that it’s something patently absurd – but that hardly sets him apart from most people at his end of the political spectrum. All that considered, however, his response to the incident is still appalling.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Valuing individuals

I’ve decided to change my blogging style. This year up to now I’ve blogged once every two months, and that really isn’t winning me any readership. (My post trashing The Tao of Badass, on the other hand, apparently is.) This isn’t to say that I’m going to stop doing the in-depth articles. I’m still working on a discussion of social constructionism, and there’s the Imponderable series to finish. But those will now be interspersed between briefer, more bloggy posts. I’m going to commit to posting something every week. On the other hand, I’m not going to do what I used to do on my old LiveJournal, which had entry after entry saying “Sorry, can’t think of anything to blog about today.” Instead, I’m going to find something every week, either online or in my lectures at work, which is worthy of comment. And as I can’t really ask questions in lectures, what with being a staff member instead of a student, that’s likely to be a rich source of commentary.
On Tuesdays I have POLS102, which at Otago is a paper entitled “New Zealand Politics – Introduction”. I say “at Otago” because Dr Bryce Edwards encourages people to tweet in class using #POLS102 as a hashtag, and unfortunately there are lots of people from other universities tweeting with that hashtag in reference to completely different courses. Anyway. Today was an introduction to ideology. About the Left and the Right and how the Left is all about collectivity and the common good, and how the Right is all about individualism and self-interest.
Can people stop saying this, please? It’s bollocks.
Look, I don’t blame Bryce for simplifying things for the first-years. And to be fair he did go into more detail than that, and he used the terms “socialist” and “liberal” more than “right” and “left”. But the idea that Left equals collective and Right equals individual is not a simplification, it’s a falsehood.
Seriously. Look at politics at the moment. Pick a rights issue that’s hot right now, an individual rights issue. The right to marry the person you love. The right to identify as the gender you feel you are, and to change your body to suit if that’s what you want. The right not to be raped. The right to move from one country to another. The right to choose whether to carry a pregnancy to term. On every one, socialists and liberals stand shoulder to shoulder to support the rights of the individual. Opposing them are the conservatives, who champion the interests of collective organizations like the Church and communal abstractions like The Family.
Ah, but that’s social liberalism, you might say. On economic issues the Left really is about the collective good and the Right really is about individual liberties. To which I say: nope. In neoliberal economics, “welfare” is a measure of the total monetary value held by society, which is the same amount whether it’s equally distributed among everybody or concentrated in the hands of an élite. Socialists and social democrats are the ones who care about whether each individual gets a fair share. As for individual dignity, I can tell you from several years’ experience that if you were to design a system with the specific purpose of wearing it down through the sheer weight of bureaucracy, you could scarcely do better than Work and Income New Zealand, which was instituted by the National government of the 1990s so as to stop beneficiaries “ripping off the rest of us” – note again the collectivism of the phrase.
But don’t the Right favour the private sector (individual, freedomish) over the public (state-run, collectivitarianismic)? Yes, they buddy up with what is called “the private sector”, but that term is a preposterous Orwellism. Calling vast international organizations like Coca-Cola or Microsoft “private” makes precisely as much sense as calling an Antarctic midwinter blizzard “toasty”. The honest word would be “corporate”, from Latin corpus “body”, into which, the idea is, the individuals making up the corporation have submerged their personal identities. You could argue without absurdity that environmentalism is about preserving the natural resources of the Earth’s biosphere for the good of everybody rather than letting the selfish exploit it. But most of the real damage is being done by corporations, not individuals; and all of the real suffering is being borne by individual people, who, e.g., haven’t got clean water to drink or fresh air to breathe, or whose homes are being destroyed by the effects of global warming.
A worker is a person.  A corporation is not.
On my Facebook page, where it says “Politics”, I’ve written “I endorse the goals of social democracy but doubt the competence of the state to deliver them.” I’m wary of the power of government, but corporations are worse. And a large reason for my wariness is that since I was a child I’ve been watching governments sell off the responsibilities they were sworn to protect. I believe we can do better. In September I’ll be voting for someone who cares about people, and people’s rights, and people’s freedoms. Someone on the Left.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The Last Battle

        
Up far beyond [Jove]

Goes Saturn silent
in the seventh region,

The skirts of the sky.
Scant grows the light,

Sickly, uncertain
(the Sun’s finger

Daunted with darkness).
Distance hurts us,

And the vault severe
of vast silence;

Where fancy fails us,
and fair language,

And love leaves us,
and light fails us

And Mars fails us,
and the mirth of Jove

Is as tin tinkling.
In tattered garment,

Weak with winters,
he walks forever

A weary way,
wide round the heav’n,

Stoop’d and stumbling,
with staff groping,

The lord of lead.
He is the last planet

Old and ugly.
His eye fathers

Pale pestilence,
pain of envy,

Remorse and murder.
Melancholy drink

(For bane or blessing)
of bitter wisdom

He pours for his people,
a perilous draught

That the lip loves not.
        

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

A reply to Elliot Rodger

Yes, I know last time I said next time I would be doing something about social constructionism. It’s about halfway done, I guess. I may even have time to finish it soon. It’s becoming apparent that I need to change my blogging style, seeing as I’m now posting less than once a month. But then this thing happened where Elliot Rodger killed a bunch of women for not having sex with him (and also some men for having sex with them instead), and there’s something I have to say about it before it fades to just another entry on the long list of American mass killings. Elliot Rodger is dead now, but I feel I need to say this directly to him. Content note: violence, misogyny, suicidal thoughts.
Elliot, I’ve read some excerpts from your “manifesto”. I see that, at age 22, you’ve yet to have any romantic or sexual encounters, and that this is hurting you and making you feel twisted up inside and you’re desperately wondering what’s wrong with you. Your school years were a litany of bullying and rejection and loneliness, punctuated by scorn from attractive girls. As a teen you were scared and repulsed by your own sexual feelings, but you found you couldn’t block them by willpower. I gather also that you’ve been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as they’re calling it now. And the first thing I want you to know is that every one of those things is true of me too – except my ASD wasn’t diagnosed until I was 27.
And the second thing I want you to know, Elliot, is that I’ve never killed anybody. I felt the same anger and despair you feel, and there was a point where I might quite likely have tried to kill myself except a favourite uncle of mine happened to die, in middle age, of a respiratory disease about that time, and I saw the grief death causes, and I knew it would be wrong to inflict that on my family again. Never, ever, ever did I want to punish innocent people for my suffering. Never. Not once. It never so much as crossed my mind to think that might improve any aspect of the situation.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Two cheers for evolutionary psychology

Content note: rape, misogyny. Some details potentially NSFW.
You guys will have figured out by now that pretty much everything I write, I write because I read something that I disagreed with and it bugged me. Well, a few months ago now I commented on a guy called Richard Carrier’s blog to tell him that yes, it’s still rape if you have sex with someone whom you’ve plied with alcohol to the point of stupor, even if it so happens that they feel aroused at the time (while being drunk to the point of stupor). He didn’t publish my reply to his reply, and the reason I’m telling you this is that ever since then, I haven’t been able to comment on dozens of blogs. I click “Submit” and the comment disappears. This means I have a lot of bottled-up rejoinders to blog posts I’ve disagreed with buzzing around in my head, and I don’t care if that’s a mixed metaphor.
And one thing that especially gets to me is when people whose politics I basically agree with, try to back them up with crappy science. Or rather, that doesn’t happen so often as when people whose politics I agree with try to back them up by denying non-crappy science. Since I’m a leftist, this generally isn’t global warming or evolution; it’s more often vaccines, fluoridation, and genetically modified food. (I don’t trust big corporations not to poison our food or the environment, but that’s because they already do; GM wouldn’t make it much worse.) But sometimes it is evolution. Especially, evolutionary psychology.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The Magician’s Nephew

        
In the third region

Venus voyages...
but my voice falters;

Rude rime-making
wrongs her beauty,

Whose breasts and brow,
and her breath’s sweetness

Bewitch the worlds.
Wide-spread the reign

Of her secret sceptre,
in the sea’s caverns,

In grass growing,
and grain bursting,

Flower unfolding,
and flesh longing,

And shower falling
sharp in April.

The metal copper
in the mine reddens

With muffled brightness,
like muted gold,

By her fingers form’d.
        

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Imponderable III: The Self

I was a curious kid. I wouldn’t have been more than eight years old when I learned that green things are green because they absorb the light that isn’t green. Not that I’m claiming I understood it fully. For some time I was mystified as to why green cellophane didn’t make things look red when you looked through it, because I thought absorption was basically light going into the object while reflection was basically light bouncing off the object, so that light going through the object was more like absorption than reflection, because it didn’t bounce off, so if green objects absorbed red light then how come...?
In case you are puzzled by this yourself, absorption isn’t about light “going in”, it’s about light going in and stopping (because its energy has been captured and redirected elsewhere, always at least partly into raising the object’s temperature). The primary distinction is between light that stops and light that keeps going; the latter category is secondarily divided into light that passes through and light that bounces off.
However, at least some of my high-school chemistry classmates had evidently missed this information, because when our teacher explained how the red dyes in a plastic ANZAC Day poppy absorbed shorter wavelengths because the electrons in the iron atoms jumped up a couple of valence shells, or something, one of them exclaimed “So it’s not really red? It’s just that it absorbs the other light?”
This isn’t the Imponderable on consciousness, that’s still to come, so I won’t here speculate on why our experience of colour feels so removed from the Newtonian interpretation of light wavelength and frequency. The point here is this idea that photon absorption is somehow cheating – that there must be a “real red” somewhere which isn’t faked up out of all that physics-y stuff. Because people who have got past that, and are perhaps even now chortling at my sixteen-year-old classmate, are still susceptible to the idea that there might be “real” fear, “real” anger, or “real” love floating around in amongst their synapses and neurotransmitters.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

This is how I write when I have a word limit

Earlier this year the Labour History Project held a competition calling for essays on people’s vision for New Zealand. I entered this, but – as you can tell from the fact that I’m blogging it – I didn’t win. My title was “We Can Do Better”, because I’d spent all the time available on the essay itself and had to come up with something vaguely snappy-ish at the last minute. Because it was written for an audience of politically conscious New Zealanders, I mention quite a few things in passing which I would have had to sit down and explain for an international audience. I’ve put in links that hopefully should be helpful there. I wrote this all before the recent revelations about the Auckland rape gang and the beyond-incompetent police response to it, or that would have been the major focus of the essay.
Yes, this is how I write when there’s a word limit. When I worked at a local student magazine my style was described as “brisk”. I guess it makes for quicker reading but I hate not being able to explain all the nuances.


We humans are very good at coming up with solutions to our problems. Unfortunately, the solutions tend to create more problems. Plumbing means cleaner cities but dirtier oceans. Literacy means less ignorance but more squinting. The best we can hope for is that the new problems are smaller than the old ones. Then we can solve those ones, and so on.
So if you want to know what the future looks like, don’t look at the people celebrating existing ideas. Look at the naysayers, the people picking holes in them. Look at the Earth Hour people, not the “Human Achievement Hour” people. They’re where the next wave of improvements will come from.
That’s why I don’t take a Utopian approach to politics – any more than to housework. I’m never going to make the house perfectly clean, and it wouldn’t last long if I did. Instead my philosophy is what’s called meliorist, from the Latin for “better”. You see something that needs fixed, you fix it. You see something that needs cleaned up, you clean it up. You make things better than they were before.

Friday, 25 October 2013

The Silver Chair

Lady Luna,
in light canoe,

By friths and shallows
of fretted cloudland

Cruises monthly;
with chrism of dews

And drench of dream,
a drizzling glamour

Enchants us – the cheat!
changing sometime

A mind to madness,
melancholy pale,

Bleached with gazing
on her blank count’nance

Orb’d and ageless.
In earth’s bosom

The shower of her rays,
sharp-feathered light

Reaching downward,
ripens silver,

Forming and fashioning
female brightness,

– Metal maidenlike.
Her moist circle

Is nearest earth.
        

Friday, 11 October 2013

How you know it’s rape culture: this is still an argument

Content note: rape, victim-blaming, misogyny, child abuse
Most of the time, I have the tremendous privilege of being able to go through life without having to think about rape or sexual assault. Lately, several things have happened that have brought it to my attention. I’m not a rape survivor, though I have experienced some very minor indecent assault as I’ll discuss below. I’m not claiming to speak on behalf of rape survivors. But I’m disgusted to the point I can no longer not say anything.
In particular, I need to speak up about one of the things that have happened because, a year ago, I wrote a pair of Facebook Notes about patriarchy, which I copied over to this blog here and here; and in the first one, I drew on an article by Michael Shermer (who, if you can’t be bothered Googling, is a well-known writer in the atheist community) for ideas on how to break male domination at the corporate executive level. And the thing that has happened is that Michael Shermer has been credibly accused of rape. I don’t want to take the patriarchy articles down, but I can’t just leave them there like nothing’s happened either, not without condemning the crime Shermer is alleged to have committed. I would love to believe he never did such a thing, but that’s frankly pretty implausible.
Another major thing is that here in New Zealand a man attacked two young women. At trial he was convicted of aggravated robbery but acquitted of indecent assault despite his lawyer agreeing that he had, in fact, indecently assaulted them. The sentencing judge speculated that “the foolishness of [the] two victims, venturing out alone at night in a park in a strange city, dressed as they were” had contributed to the jury’s decision. Put together, the verdict of a jury and the words of a judge make what we call “legal authority” – think about that. Then neoliberal icon Bob Jones wrote a grossly offensive commentary on the incident in the New Zealand Herald, which I’m not going to link you to and give him page hits, but here is a rewrite correcting Jones’ hatefulness, courtesy Marama Davidson at The Daily Blog.
And just so as not to be totally negative, a third thing was that I was in the crowd to hear this inspiring speech at the Dunedin SlutWalk.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

In which I argue with myself about abortion

I’ve written on this subject before, but that was a couple of years ago and I’ve had time to think about it more since then. Especially since a lot of the bloggers I read are passionate about it. Mostly on one side but some, including some of those closest to me, on the other. Though – don’t get me wrong – I have firmly picked one side, I’m more convinced than ever that the two sides are talking past each other.
What I’d really like to see is for people from both sides to sit down and have a civil conversation about it, but that’s not looking likely. The last time I saw a debate on the subject, it ended with someone ragequitting Facebook. Failing that, I decided to write a dialogue between a pro-choice character and a pro-life character. It’s been done before, of course; Peter Kreeft’s The Unaborted Socrates was one of the formative books of my childhood. And that brings up the next problem, namely writing a dialogue honestly when you disagree with one side. Who gets to stand for the Wrong side and get zinged? How long will it take before they become a blatant strawman?
Well, in my case I have the perfect candidate. This is an issue on which I have changed my mind; therefore, my interlocutors will both be myself, on either side of the change. I’m not claiming that everybody – or anybody but me – on either side holds the opinion I present on their behalf here. I do promise that they both honestly represent my opinion on the subject at different times in my life. I know myself well enough to know that if I were to meet myself I would ignore any topic to hand and try to figure out how the time loop I’d obviously run into worked. Therefore, the dialogue takes place over the internet and neither side is aware that they are the same person.
TheHatMan is approximately me at age 19, but I haven’t pinned him down to an exact point in my life. Also, he’s magically clued-up on things like Google which weren’t around in 1997. However, a content note: he is even less mindful of privilege than I am and at one point makes an inappropriate rape analogy. VeryRarelyStable is obviously me now, except that wherever TheHatMan discusses things in his own life VeryRarelyStable has conveniently forgotten them (and vice versa).

Saturday, 24 August 2013

The Horse and His Boy

        
Next beyond her [Luna]

Mercury marches; –
madcap rover,

Patron of pilf’rers.
Pert quicksilver

His gaze begets,
goblin mineral,

Merry multitude
of meeting selves,

Same but sundered.
From the soul’s darkness,

With wreathèd wand,
words he marshals,

Guides and gathers them –
gay bellwether

Of flocking fancies.
His flint has struck

The spark of speech
from spirit’s tinder,

Lord of language!
He leads forever

The spangle and splendour,
sport that mingles

Sound with senses,
in subtle pattern,

Words in wedlock,
and wedding also

Of thing with thought.
        

Monday, 5 August 2013

The Tao of bullshit

For some reason a lot of the traffic to this ’ere blog lately seems to be coming from a video advertising The Tao of Badass, a book by someone called Josh Pellicer. He starts out doing the RSA Animate thing of hand-drawing cartoons to illustrate what he’s talking about, but halfway through he seems to have got bored with that and switched to (badly-punctuated) text in the middle of a blank white window. This is far from the only way that Pellicer’s video is a waste of space, so I’m not linking it here. You can Google it if you must. How exactly Pellicer is sending pageviews my way I don’t know, because there’s no link to Very Rarely Stable on the video page. Either it’s on a message board which you have to sign up, presumably having bought the book, to see, or it’s some kind of spambot. Spamming people’s blog traffic stats doesn’t strike me as a terribly effective way to sell a product, but hey.
Josh Pellicer is a man on a mission. A mission to (make money by pretending he’ll) help guys get laid. You can tell it’s dodgy right from the get-go, because there are no controls on the video. You can’t stop it, pause it, or even change the volume. You can only watch. That tells you straight away, same as a telemarketer’s pitch, that this person can’t afford to let you stop and think before you commit to what he’s selling. At the beginning the voice-over tells you the video will be taken down after 24 hours. I’ve now seen it three times, weeks apart – no, I only sat right through it once, but I’d say that’s a pretty good gauge of the quality of what Pellicer has to hand out.

Monday, 15 July 2013

The right kind of equality

Nine years ago almost to the day as I write this, the Māori Party was formally established in this country. Many people, most prominently its co-founder Tariana Turia, were dissatisfied with the then-governing Labour Party’s stance on various issues affecting Māori; the final straw was the Foreshore and Seabed Act. The point is that recently, a bunch of dopey munters have set up a Facebook page and called themselves “the Pakeha Party”, because isn’t it racist to have a Māori Party and no Pākehā Party? Er, since people in other countries do occasionally seem to visit this blog, though judging by my comments filter you’re all spambots, I need to explain that “Pākehā” is the Māori word for the European-descended majority culture of New Zealand.
The other thing that happened recently has been dubbed “the Man-Ban” by the New Zealand media, because the New Zealand media is apparently a fourteen-year-old kid. The Labour Party was considering implementing a quota to ensure equal numbers of male and female MPs, and allowing some electorate offices to seek only female Parliamentary candidates. Read that again: they were considering the idea, and (had they not backed down in the face of the media) some electorates would have been allowed to seek only female candidates. Nothing had been decided for sure, and it wouldn’t have been mandatory. But that was enough to spark a nationwide whinge-storm from people who would never have dreamed of running for Parliament for Labour.
You see the common thread here, right? In both cases the complaints are about what has been called “affirmative action” and “reverse discrimination”. If it’s sexist to keep women out of office, isn’t it sexist to keep men out of office? If it’s racist to give white people special treatment just because they’re white, isn’t it racist to give Māori people special treatment just because they’re Māori?

Saturday, 29 June 2013

The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader”

        
Far beyond her [Venus]

The heaven’s highway
hums and trembles,

Drums and dindles,
to the driv’n thunder

Of Sol’s chariot,
whose sword of light

Hurts and humbles;
beheld only

Of eagle’s eye.
When his arrow glances

Through mortal mind,
mists are parted

And mild as morning
the mellow wisdom

Breathes o’er the breast,
broadening eastward

Clear and cloudless.
In a clos’d garden

(Unbound her burden)
his beams foster

Soul in secret,
where the soil puts forth

Paradisal palm,
and pure fountains

Turn and re-temper,
touching coolly

The uncomely common
to cordial gold;

Whose ore also,
in earth’s matrix,

Is print and pressure
of his proud signet

On the wax of the world.
He is the worshipp’d male,

The earth’s husband,
all-beholding

Arch-chemic eye.
        

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

My brother is wrong

Just in case this is the post where I pick up a reader outside of my circle of family and close friends: My brother’s name is Patrick, he’s five years younger than me, he used to have a LiveJournal but I presume he isn’t using it any more because he posted this as a Note on Facebook instead. It’s set to “public”, so you can read it here as long as you have a Facebook login, but you needn’t worry if you haven’t because I’m going to quote the whole thing in sequence through this response. (Although, as you’ll see, he does take after me to a certain extent in the general area of philosophical wibbling, he doesn’t write to quite the kind of length that I do.)
Patrick’s Note is uninformatively titled “A few ideas” and begins as follows:
In the beginning, the universe was created.
There are two things that together convince me of this:
  1. The physical law of entropy; and
  2. The philosophical ‘First Cause’ argument.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

What’s wrong with economics

When you take lecture-notes for students with disabilities, you learn all kinds of interesting things. Well, it depends on the subject, of course. Fourth-year dentistry is of limited application, given I have no intention of ever becoming a dentist. But last year I took a first-year Economics paper – OK, I only took half of the lectures for that one, the other half went to some other note-taker, but it has given me considerable insight into how and why Western society is so screwed-up. (I also took several ecology-themed papers, so now I know both what we’re doing to our food supply and why we’re not going to change course until it’s too late.)
Lots of things have been suggested to explain what’s wrong with economics, so first of all let me say what the problem isn’t. The problem isn’t that economics models complex real-world situations with mathematical abstractions. Plenty of sciences do that; simplifying complexity is how we come to understand it. The problem isn’t that economics puts a money value on everything. Money is basically a measure of how much of a crap people really give about things, as opposed to wishing other people gave a crap about them; consider the saying “put your money where your mouth is”. The problem isn’t that economists don’t recognise the “intrinsic value” of natural systems (in the landscape, the biosphere, or the body). Value is about choices, priorities, and meanings, and those are people things, not world things. The problem isn’t that the models require people to act “selfishly”. People do act selfishly quite often – that’s why moralists everywhere have always had to tell us not to – but, more to the point, the logic of making and saving money applies regardless of whether it’s for you or for someone else. The problem isn’t that economists are all bourgeois intellectuals seeking to maintain the class structure that upholds their power. That might explain why errors have been made and not corrected, but not what the errors are. And the problem isn’t that economics assumes rational actors whereas people are in fact stupid – but that’s getting closer, except for the “stupid” part. People don’t behave the way economics presupposes they should. I’m going to have to go into a bit more detail here.

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Prince Caspian

        
But other country

Dark with discord
dims beyond him [Sol],

With noise of nakers,
neighing of horses,

Hammering of harness.
A haughty god

Mars mercenary,
makes there his camp

And flies his flag;
flaunts laughingly

The graceless beauty,
grey-eyed and keen,

– Blond insolence –
of his blithe visage

Which is hard and happy.
He hews the act,

The indifferent deed
with dint of his mallet

And his chisel of choice;
achievement comes not

Unhelped by him;
– hired gladiator

Of evil and good.
All’s one to Mars,

The wrong righted,
rescued meekness,

Or trouble in trenches,
with trees splintered

And birds banished,
banks fill’d with gold

And the liar made lord.
Like handiwork

He offers to all –
earns his wages

And whistles the while.
White-feathered dread

Mars has mastered.
His metal’s iron

That was hammered through hands
into holy cross,

Cruel carpentry.
He is cold and strong,

Necessity’s son.
        

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Imponderable II: Free Will

I began the first Imponderable by bagging on Jim Flynn’s ideas about free will. I’m terribly sorry to give an unbalanced impression of Flynn, who is a first-rate political theorist, but I’m going to have to do it again. Some day I will do a political blog post which pays proper tribute to Flynn’s immense positive contributions to human understanding. For now, I’m afraid Flynn’s very clarity and force of expression make him the best starting-point for exposing the confusion in the traditional Western concept of free will.
The concept of free choice is perfectly coherent and easily stated. Free choice, to the extent that it is real, would be an uncaused cause. It is the opposite of what we call an epiphenomenon. A good example of the latter is the reflection of a tree in a pond: if you cut down the tree, the reflection disappears; but if you drop a rock on the reflection, the tree is unmoved. An epiphenomenon is all effect and no cause. If free choice exists, the present self has a genuine choice between (at least) two alternatives and creates a future that would not otherwise have existed. If we decide to pick up hitchhikers as an act of charity at a greater risk to our lives, the world will be different: more hitchhikers will get to their destinations quicker and some extra lives will be lost. Free choice breaks the flow of the world from past to future and thus the result is what philosophers call “metaphysical discontinuity”.
Jim Flynn, Where Have All the Liberals Gone? p. 265

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Busting a (capitalist) myth – with tools you presumably have at home

Back before I had this blog I did a Note about this on my Facebook. It wasn’t all that clearly written, so I didn’t transfer it over to be a blog post. But I referred to that Note in another Note, the one about patriarchy, which I did transfer over, and I find I replaced said reference with a promise to do a blog post on it “soon”. So, um, I hope five months is soon enough to count as “soon”.
I wrote the original when the Occupy movement was enjoying its first wave of enthusiasm. There was a popular photo meme of people holding up placards giving some facts about their financial situation and then “I Am the 99%”. And then, of course, came the reaction; photos of people holding up things saying “I’m not the 99%, I worked to get where I am, get a job you hippie” (I’m paraphrasing, but not unfairly I think).
This narrative goes way beyond a few photos on Facebook. It is written deep into our society’s economic philosophy. Choose to work hard and exercise your talents, and you will be rewarded with wealth. Choose to complain and protest instead of knuckling down and getting things done, and you will be rewarded with poverty, for which you will have no-one to blame but yourself.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

        
Soft breathes the air

Mild, and meadowy,
as we mount further

Where rippled radiance
rolls about us

Moved with music –
measureless the waves’

Joy and jubilee.
It is Jove’s orbit,

Filled and festal,
faster turning

With arc ampler.
From the Isles of Tin

Tyrian traders,
in trouble steering

Came with his cargoes;
the Cornish treasure

That his ray ripens.
Of wrath ended

And woes mended,
of winter passed

And guilt forgiven,
and good fortune

Jove is master;
and of jocund revel,

Laughter of ladies.
The lion-hearted,

The myriad-minded,
men like the gods,

Helps and heroes,
helms of nations

Just and gentle,
are Jove’s children,

Work his wonders.
On his wide forehead

Calm and kingly,
no care darkens

Nor wrath wrinkles:
but righteous power

And leisure and largesse
their loose splendours

Have wrapped around him –
a rich mantle

Of ease and empire.
        

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

On running videos backwards

Not so easy, of course, with DVDs. You can search backwards, of course, but it skips back in little still-frames, you don’t see the action run backwards as you could with a video cassette if you rewound it without stopping it first. We didn’t have a TV at our house, let alone a video, but we got to watch a movie on the last day of school one year (I think it might have been Herbie Goes Bananas) and they ran the tape backwards when it was finished and we six-year-olds just laughed and laughed, it was all so funny.
I’ve heard, though without any titles or names that would help me Google it, that someone once actually made an entire movie that way – acted everything backwards, and also filmed everything backwards, so that when it was played things happened forwards but everything was subtly weird. But what makes it weird? What were we all laughing at when I was six?

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Explaining the internet to C. S. Lewis

I always loved the Narnia series as a kid. It took a back seat when I read The Lord of the Rings, mind you, but it never fell off the bus altogether. I read the Cosmic Trilogy and the Screwtape Letters in due course. Then, as a teenager, being nerdy and a Christian, I got heavily into C. S. Lewis’s apologetic writings – I think his argument for the supernatural in Miracles (the relevant chapter is reproduced here, and I’ll deal with it in depth in an Imponderable some time) may have delayed my atheism by about five years. Lewis became one of my heroes, and I strove to emulate him. Various people have been kind enough, through the years, to praise my writing for its clarity; they have Lewis to thank.
During that time, I got into the habit of having imaginary conversations with C. S. Lewis. This isn’t so unusual. I tend to have imaginary conversations a lot with Richard Dawkins or Steven Pinker or whoever I’ve been reading lately (though mainly only non-fiction; I don’t do this with Terry Pratchett). But I read so much Lewis that it became ingrained. When I became an atheist, the conversations became distinctly more adversarial, but they continued.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Book to film

I confess. I caved. I went in to find out how long The Hobbit was sold out for, and it wasn’t. J. R. R. Tolkien was such a big part of my childhood that I’m afraid my disgust at the union-busting tactics Peter Jackson and the John Key government used him as an excuse for, didn’t beat my deep need to see more of Middle-Earth onscreen. My only (poor) defence is that I do want to support a New Zealand industry that doesn’t involve digging big holes in the wild country or fouling the rivers with excrement. However, I began writing this post before all that, and so this isn’t a post about The Hobbit, it’s a post about the Lord of the Rings movies. I’ll be able to judge The Hobbit properly when the new trilogy is complete.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Dear creationist

First of all, please note carefully that I am addressing you in the singular, Bodie Hodge, in answer to your “Dear atheists...” open letter over at Answers in Genesis. I am not assuming that all creationists are the same. I was one for four or five years, after all. Admittedly I was a teenager at the time and I think I was mostly doing it as a theologically-approvable gesture of independence from my theistic-evolutionist parents. Still, creationism got me into the habit of questioning what I read, without which I would not be an atheist today. Though, come to think about it, you’re not likely to find that a positive thing.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Which way you face

I don’t have the Discworld books handy right now, and I don’t remember which one it was, but at one point Granny Weatherwax says something along the lines of “It doesn’t matter where you stand; what matters is which way you face.”
I’m pretty sure Granny Weatherwax is speaking for her author here, and I think I have an inkling what Pratchett might have meant. And a few different things have reminded me of it recently. (Spoilers for The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia series below the cut, though if you haven’t read The Lord of the Rings or the Narnia series I’m not sure what you’re doing reading my blog.)