Friday, 31 October 2014

Things That Drive Me Nuts - The Human Race

I find it so difficult to believe that there are still climate sceptics around. It also scares and angers me. There seems to be a growing tide of scepticism of science and downright ignorance of it. Now this would not be such a bad thing - if it wasn’t killing people.

The anti-vaccine brigade started by the evil Andrew Wakefield has created epidemics of whooping cough and measles in many Western countries and some children die of these infections.

The ignorance and fear of the Ebola virus has made some politicians bring in some ridiculous policies such as forcing uninfected people to go into quarantine even though they show no symptoms. A person suffering with the Ebola virus is not infectious if they show no symptoms. Also it can only be transmitted by direct contact with bodily fluids.

This unsupportive environment is probably preventing many people from helping to control Ebola. The Abbott government continues to ignore pleas from health professionals and scientists to commit some of our resources to control Ebola.

I think the people that are the most dangerous are the climate sceptics. These people do not realise that we rely on this planet for everything - we need to look after it. The climate has already become one degree warmer and we are seeing increasingly wild weather. Any honest person that spends time outside will agree the weather now is different to what it was 10 years ago. Add two, three degrees the ice caps could collapse raising sea levels by three metres inundating large areas of the Earth’s surface displacing hundreds of millions of people. The gulf stream could stop making winters in Europe longer and harsher.

Climate denial scares me, because of the utter devastation that could be caused by human induced climate change. If the worst does happen it could completely change our world and not for the better. Millions of people could die, many will be displaced and it could also destroy the global economy. The knock-on effects could spark disease outbreaks, made worse by all the children who have not been vaccinated, and start wars further destroying the planet.

Part of me thinks, sure have your silly beliefs, but for God’s sake be logical about them. Be a climate sceptic, but still put solar panels on your roof because it saves you money. Stop investing your money with coal miners, because it’s dirty and pollutes the environment. Vaccinate your children because it’s what your doctor advises - they didn’t go through medical school for nothing. Governments send every resource you can to stop Ebola so it doesn’t arrive on our shores.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to happen. The current approach of simply repeating that global warming is a threat, that vaccines have saved more lives than any other medical intervention and that Ebola is not to be feared does not work.

I believe it is time to get nasty. Tell them they are stupid idiots endangering the planet - because it’s the truth. Politicians don’t shy away from calling ISIS fighters dickheads. I think climate sceptics and their ilk need to think twice about bringing their views up in public similar to the way we treat racism (yes I think it is potentially that bad). They aren’t going to change their views even if the Earth turns into a second Venus (That's a joke by the way is very unlikely that this will occur), so we need to limit the air these views get as much as we can.

Sometimes, I am ashamed to be a member of the human race.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Democracy 2.0

Many people are losing their faith in democracy these days with continuing corruption scandals plaguing Australian politics and the balance of power in the Senate being bought by Australian billionaire Clive Palmer.

In the late 19th and early 20th century when modern democracy was still getting going many European nations were still ruled by royalty and those that were democracies were only partially so with only certain ethnic groups, the landed gentry or males entitled to vote.

In this atmosphere it was not certain that democracy would become the dominant form of government throughout the world. German sociologist Robert Michels believed that all representative democracies would end up being an oligarchy. Oligarchy is defined as: “a small group of people having control of a country or organization.” Michels believed democracy was of a waste of time as the powerful would simply manipulate the democratic process and remain in power. Michels solution to this was to ditch democracy in favour of fascism - and we all know how that turned out.

After humanity’s failed experiment in fascist dictatorship Europe was being reconstructed and much of it was under control of another totalitarian regime the USSR. Spain after a bloody civil war remained under the control of fascist dictator Francisco Franco. It wasn’t till the 1980s that it became apparent that the USSR could not continue, by that time the remainder of Europe had transitioned to democracy, the Berlin wall came down and Germany was reunified.

For all its success modern parliamentary democracy still has that problem identified by Robert Michels. The election of Clive Palmer and the Palmer United Party in the Senate proves that a democracy can easily be turned into an oligarchy. The rich and powerful in almost all democracies have special access to politicians. Would it be easy or even possible for you to speak to the Prime Minister? Rupert Murdoch has dinner with the Prime Minister every time he visits the US. I bet Tony picks up the phone every time Rupert calls.

The oligarchic nature of our democracies is particularly apparent in the United States. Many people from the big Wall Street investment banks have been appointed to prominent positions such as the board of the US Reserve Bank. In 2008 when a ridiculous sub-prime mortgage bubble exploded taking down the majority of the world’s economy it was the criminal actions of Wall Street bankers that were to blame.

Not one of these people has been brought to justice - in fact many of them received multi-million dollar golden parachutes and bonuses and now live in the lap of luxury never having to work again. Meanwhile, the small-time mortgage brokers, who were bullied into obtaining fraudulent loans at threat of losing their job, are now in jail for what their superiors ordered them to do.

Why haven’t these people been brought to justice? Because, they are the real power behind the American government. With the American two-party system it is incredibly difficult for somebody to get elected without having huge amounts of monetary support from the military industrial complex and Wall Street. These large corporations spend billions of dollars supporting American politicians - and they want value for money. If those politicians don’t do what their benefactors wish they can forget about being elected next time.

This allows corporations to have an enormous amount of influence over, if not complete control, over the direction of American policy. In fact the whole sub-prime mortgage crisis was caused by insufficient regulation. This lack of regulation was introduced because of pressure from former executives now appointed bureaucrats, lobby groups and big business. When it all went bad, as many economists predicted it would, it wasn’t a problem for big business as the government just bailed them out and they continued getting their million-dollar bonuses.

Australian governments are similar to this but we do have some laws to keep money from influencing politics - with not much success look at Clive Palmer. The government listens way too much to big business. Just have a look at what is currently happening to the mining sector. There has been huge investment and huge government support for the mining boom over the past 20 years. Now many of these new iron ore and coal mines are coming online and starting to push the value of iron ore and coal down which in turn has caused the collapse of several small mining companies.

The mining boom has also inflated the price of the Australian dollar which has caused many manufacturing businesses to close or to move overseas. Car manufacturers also manipulated the Australian government into giving them greater and greater subsidies with the promise that they would continue to build cars in Australia. They took the money and then reneged on the promise to continue Australian operations.

So now Australia is faced with a collapsing mining sector and a manufacturing sector that is a shadow of its former self. The reason why we have got in this mess is because Australian Federal governments of both major parties have been more concerned about big business and the economy than the Australian people who elected them.

How can we fix this? For starters we need to take money out of politics. Ultimately, I think Robert Michels was probably accurate in his depiction of representative democracy. The solution is not totalitarianism and there are a number of things we can do to make the current system more “representative.”

Maybe we need to take the representative out of our democracies and create direct democracy systems that allow the general public to participate directly in politics. Parliamentary representative democracy is hundreds of years old - it’s time to update it.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

The Abbott Government’s Response to Ebola Is Evil

I believe it is the responsibility of every government of this planet to commit resources and people to fight Ebola in West Africa. By doing this they will save thousands of lives and prevent cases of Ebola in their own countries.

Tony Abbott’s excuse for not committing people to the fight against Ebola is that they will not be able to evacuate them if they catch the virus. This sounds reasonable when you don’t think about it, but what it is really saying is that somehow Australians are worth more than the Africans they are going to save.

There are lots of individuals going on their own to West Africa to help, but governments have far more resources than individuals. Many more people would voluntarily sign up for a mission to Africa if it was supported by the Australian government. If they got Ebola and couldn’t be evacuated well they would be treated in the same clinic they were working in.

The Australian government’s view on the Ebola crisis is stupid and shortsighted. This disease would be doing tremendous damage to the affected countries wreaking havoc worldwide.

Other countries are committed to fighting Ebola with the UK and the US sending thousands of people and setting up multiple treatment centres. Australia doesn’t have the resources of the US but they will understand if we send a smaller force. The world will remember Australia’s response and be less likely to help us when we need it.

Like it or not we are now a global society. The world is interconnected in a way it has never been before. We all have responsibilities as global citizens. Our governments also have global responsibilities.

Basically, ignoring Ebola like our government is doing borders on evil. It means that more people will die from Ebola. It also damages our reputation. Do we want to be seen as a petty and cruel country, only concerned about ourselves, valuing our citizens above any other, a country that lets people die when it could render aid?

I have signed a petition telling our Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop to send aid to Liberia.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Things That Drive Me Nuts - “Serious” Artists

I recently saw the trailer for the movie Whiplash which made me psychotically angry. This movie, according to the trailer, is about an aspiring jazz drummer and his drill sergeant Hartman like teacher.

Why did this trailer make me so angry? Well, go back several years to when I was at Boxhill Institute studying professional writing and editing. I was in a class to learn about the classics of literature from the Iliad to Shakespeare. Our teacher dragged us to a performance by the Bell Shakespeare company at a tiny theatre at Monash University in Clayton.

We were a little late, but my brother and I paid at the box office and were immediately refused entry even though they were letting other able-bodied people in through the rear door which gave access to a flight of stairs. Being in electric wheelchairs we needed to go around outside and gain access through a side door. We were told this would “flood the stage” with light and ruin the performance. Apparently the creator of the Bell Shakespeare company John Bell has certain requirements when performing at a venue one is complete control of that venue when his company is performing.

He was quite willing to discriminate against two disabled people for his “artistic vision”. What a cunt. Anyone else who did something like this would be raked over the coals, but it was just sort of accepted as being his right as an artist. He takes his art so seriously that he is willing to completely ignore the feelings of other human beings that get in his way. Where have we heard this sort of thing before? Oh that’s right Nazi Germany.

Yes I am calling John Bell a Nazi.

In a similar way the so-called teacher depicted in Whiplash is a rude son of a bitch browbeating and humiliating his students. But he is doing it for the student’s own good to bring out their best! This sort of behaviour is unacceptable, always has been and always will be. You don’t need to be brutal to get the best out of people. The best way is to support people with humour, compassion, imagination and equality. To give them the confidence to be who they want to be and to pursue their dreams. But that’s another story.

When it all boils down to it artists like John Bell are entertainers. They might try to believe what they are doing has tremendous artistic and cultural significance - pull your head out of your arse. Even if you do believe that, why can’t you have fun doing it? Why is art more important than people? What gives him the right to discriminate?

I hate humourless serious artists almost as much as I hate Nazis, as in a similar way they believe they are superior to the majority of human beings and that somehow they can behave in a way that would simply not be accepted in the wider community. I think it is about time they learnt how to behave themselves.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

A War We Can Win

There is a lot of talk about terrorism, the new Not So Islamic State and a particular obsession over exactly how many bombs Australian Super Hornets have / have not dropped on Iraq and/or Syria.

But haven’t we been here before? It seems whatever the West does in the Middle-East it just seems to get worse. It is a chaotic and unpredictable system with the many competing, and often contradictory, agendas of those involved.

When the "coalition of the willing" tried to recast the 2002 Iraq war as, “We didn’t find weapons of mass destruction, but who cares Saddam was evil anyway,” many said, "Yeah ok." But 12 years later, not many would argue that the average Iraqi was probably better off under Saddam.

The Not So Islamic State makes Saddam look like a kindergarten teacher, but it is still difficult to predict the long-term consequences of wiping them from the face of the earth.*

This begs the question. Is there such a thing as a just war? Yes there is!

In West Africa there is an enemy just as evil as IS that is capable of killing even more people in circumstances just as hideous. It spreads via bodily fluids that that flood out of the bleeding orifices of victims. When they die they become virus factories that take advantage of West African funeral practices to infect ever more victims. This enemy is called the Ebola virus.

This war isn’t complex, it won’t have unexpected future consequences and it is one we can win. So why isn’t the rest of the world putting in the needed resources to stop this virus in its tracks? Australia will probably spend $500 million on combat operations in Iraq and Syria but have only spent a measly couple of million to fight Ebola.

Our family has donated money to Doctors Without Borders to help fight the spread of Ebola and I believe it is our responsibility as human beings to help those in need, if we can. We can only do so much, but governments and multinational corporations have greater responsibilities due to their massive economic power.

World leaders need to get off their antiterrorism high horse and do something about a war they can actually do something to win.

When the fight against Ebola is finally won, there will still be work to do. In many West African countries the Doctor per capita ratio is ridiculously low. Consequently, many people in those countries are ignorant about basic sanitary behaviour and are even distrustful of Western medicine. In European countries our cultures evolved to cope with repeated deadly pandemics such as cholera and the plague. For example, a taboo developed against the touching of dead bodies. This never happened in this area of the world, meaning their culture is still very susceptible to diseases such as Ebola that would never gain traction in a Western environment.

So we should not abandon these people after the war against Ebola is won, but make great efforts to improve the medical deficit that allowed this problem to appear in the first place. The Western world should also be aware of the direct consequences of their skilled migrant programs, where a country such as Nigeria pays to train a doctor only to lose them to a Western country.

You can donate to Doctors Without Borders here: (Donations over $2 are tax deductible.)

*I'm not saying we should/shouldn't do something about IS, just that our resources might do more if directed elsewhere.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The Problem with Patents

You will hear a lot of people complain about patents in the maker community. Meanwhile governments and especially big business are constantly telling us that patients are the foundation of our economy and that if we mess with them the economy will collapse and the sky will fall.

I personally think there is a huge problem with patents that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.

A patent is given by a sovereign state to an inventor to give them exclusive rights to that invention, so they can profit from it. In exchange the inventor must publish a specification for public viewing. To be patentable an invention has to meet certain criteria such as novelty, non-obviousness and usefulness. A patent also needs to be of patentable subject matter. For example discoveries, scientific theories and computer code cannot be patented in most countries (although the latter can be protected by copyright). Generally patents last for 20 years. It is also possible for a patent to be given for an improvement of an already existing patented invention.

Patents were introduced to encourage innovation by protecting the rights of inventors by allowing them to profit by their inventions and allow the public to see the invention and potentially spur further invention and innovation. During the time of the industrial revolution inventing could be an expensive and time consuming endeavour. The industrialists of that time employed child labour and workers often toiled in conditions that sent many of them to an early grave. It isn’t that much of a stretch to say they wouldn’t have a problem with stealing someone’s invention if they could get away with it.

Even in the early days patents were misused. Some monarchs of this time used patents to bestow monopolies on their favourite courtiers. But over the past 400 years patents have been of great assistance in creating the world we live in today. Patents gave inventors the ability to keep inventing and not worry too much about somebody stealing their invention.

Yeah, patents sound great, but there are a few problems that have cropped up in the past 30 years. New information and biological technologies have appeared that the current patents system wasn’t designed to cope with. This means we have started to see discoveries being patented.

In February 2013 in the Federal Court of Australia Myriad Genetics won a court case over the patent of the BRCA1 “breast cancer” gene. In my mind this should not be a patent on two counts. 1. It is a naturally occurring gene and just like anything else in nature (e.g. the Moon) cannot be patented. 2. Really a gene is a piece of code that codes for a particular protein, sounds like a computer algorithm to me and we know how hard it is to make such patents stick. (It can’t be copyrighted either just as if you found a 2 million old rock that just happened to have an amazing science fiction novel chiselled into it (in English!) - it would still be plagiarism if you copied and disseminated your publication with profit in mind.)

This is rather disturbing. All of us are currently breaking patent law just living! Living organisms have cells which divide every division makes a new copy of the BRCA1 gene and any others that are patented. It’s bloody ridiculous.

Okay, I’m very angry, but this is only the start of it. The world has completely changed from when patents were first introduced. I believe the majority of patients are now holding us back. In our interconnected world it is no longer an advantage to lock your inventions up. The open source movement greatly accelerated the development of many hardware and software devices. When the patent dropped from 3D printing many businesses started creating 3D printers. Some of them did not patent or copyright their improvements to 3D printing technology but made them available to the general public. This resulted in an explosion of 3D printing ideas and 3D printers. The companies behind these machines could then use the ideas from the public for their next iteration of 3D printers. Yes, there was a minority of people creating their own printers from scratch, but this didn’t impact the bottom line too much as many of these makers were most prolific sharers of their ideas.

With the sum of human knowledge at our fingertips many ordinary people are becoming interested in what makes their gadgets work. It can be legally dubious to crack open something like an iPhone and play around with its insides. One of the worst things that a maker can hear is the P word, proprietary! Consider this fictitious example, a maker has just created an amazing robot, it just needs one little thingamewhatsit to make it work. It is a pretty basic thing that should only cost 50c. There is no open source gizmo that would do the job, so he has to import thingamewhatsits at $200 a piece.

So he imports the thingamewhatsit and finds out that it doesn’t quite work as expected, but with a couple of tweaks to its software it would work just fine. But the makers of the thingamewhatsit refuse to share the source code and only distribute it as a pre-compiled binary file. So our inventor puts his intervention on the shelf and waits for an open source equivalent that arrives surprisingly quickly. Meanwhile the inventor has been bagging out the makers of the thingamewhatsit on Twitter Facebook and Google Plus.

Some “open source” systems have integral parts that are protected by patents. Most of the time business will overlook the infraction, give permission or charge a fee, but it is theoretically possible they could yank the program or update it so no longer works on your open source system. The much loved Raspberry Pi contains proprietary hardware and software which has caused a number of heated debates on open source forums.

Tools that allow creativity to flow around the globe from brain to brain almost instantly has already changed the way world works. Couple that with, 3D design, 3D printing, hackerspaces and cheap electronics, Ideas can now turn into usable products in unbelievably short periods of time. Often patents are a roadblock to development which could sometimes damage the patent holder as much as it does the end user/developer.

If large patents holding Multinational corporations wish to stay relevant they need to be wiser when new technology starts upsetting their bottom line. With the blurred line between users and developers, corporations need to make their products hackable, provide a datasheet, code and maybe an API.

Western governments also need to be wiser as they are out manoeuvred by the swiftly developing economies in Africa and South America and the rising superpowers of India and China. Many of these countries do not respect patent law and their citizens may even be free to mine the publicly disclosed patents and steal them.

The world has changed and something needs to be done to either change the way patents work or ditch them entirely.