The Plague of Hazy Photos

Does it ever annoy you that every photo at the centre of conspiracy theories is unfocused and ready to be creatively interpreted?

The famous photo supposedly depicting the head and neck of a sea monster rising out of a lake in Scotland, has always seemed to me more likely to be the arched arm of some slightly overweight skinny dipper — caught in mid freestyle stroke. Or it could be a sinking swan.

The fact that human beings are pattern seeking animals, and the eyes often see a face in the clouds, or in the distorted geometric patterns on some horrific old curtains. In the early days of YouTube (before the term ‘viral’ became common) there were dozens of clips from the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center that depicted the fireball and billowing smoke from the impact of the second plane. The people posting the videos were convinced they could see the face of satan in the smoke.

Superstition of this kind is to be found in many layers of conspiracy theories, and when it shows its stunted crown I feel comfortable dismissing their theories at face value. It becomes obvious rather swiftly when you speak to a conspiracy theorist and find them either worth speaking to or not. Those that stick with determination to broad assumptions about the world; that it is run by some shadowy corporation, or worse a Jewish corporation, and they justify their commitment to conspiracies by appealing to those assumptions.

However, I must not paint too broadly, and I have swum enough in the waters of conspiracy to believe that all theorists are nutters. I think that a mind that is suspicious of information, that does not accept the official line as a matter of course, and that takes the opposite view on an issue of importance to the one commonly held, is intrinsically valuable. On the latter point the ability to play the other side, to be the devil’s advocate, is to reignite the flames of rhetoric and the dialectic. It is crucial to have the decisions and actions of the powerful subjected to this kind of intellectual challenge.

The parliamentary opposition is supposed to achieve precisely this, and I appeal to you to decide whether the various iterations of the ‘opposition’ around the world are effective.

Ultimately, if the centre of an argument, or a supposed conspiracy is a collection of hazy photographs then it is doing the noble oppositionist a great disservice. On this note I now stop.


Climate gains

At the tail end of a miserable year for President Obama, he has scored a gain on the most stagnant political debate this century. Climate change.

Domestic politics is a presidential graveyard since the mid terms put republicans in charge of the Senate as well as the House. Unlike Bill Clinton, Obama cannot use US military action for political advantage. His foolish withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 allowed the ISIS cancer to grow out of the carcinogenic Syrian civil war.

It is probable that a few trade agreements, like the Trans-Pacific-Partnership-Agreement, will tolerably round out his legacy. But it’s not the stuff Mt Rushmore’s are made of. A very pleasant surprise then to discover this week that the US and China have agreed to cut carbon emissions by a quarter by 2025, and cap carbon emissions by 2030 respectively.

Then Obama arrived in Brisbane for the G20 and warned of the dangers of ignoring the threat of global warming. Over the muffled objections of the Australian Abbott government, whose strategy for dealing with climate change is to find the nearest pillow and scream defiance into it, Obama has had climate change added to the final communique, with an urging for member nations to take material action.

This is not the breakthrough the environmentalists seek, and it shouldn’t be overstated. But it is significant in that China is on board. The last Time magazine featured an analysis of Chinese president Xi Jinping, who is regarded as the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping. If he agrees to something, he can move all of China behind it. Unlike the managerial and thoroughly blank former president Hu Jintao. Much of Obama’s final two years in office could be spent zooming about in airforce one on the diplomatic circuit. Foreign policy is the one area an American president has almost undisputed authority. Given Obama’s tact and charm in dealing with foreign leaders, he should play to his strengths in the last quarter.

With a flick of the pen the dogs of war let slip unmanned

Interstellar (review)

I have to state first of all that this review contains no spoilers. That explains its brevity.

Like all Christopher Nolan films, Interstellar’s plot is an elegant arc — one that is able to carry various inconsistencies that find their way into any film featuring time travel. Most of the niggly bits are unimportant, but it was fun to draw them out in discussion after the screening.

Matthew McConaughey is superb. Yes I wrote that, and yes he seems like an arsehole in real life. But dammit the man can act. He approaches the ludicrousness of situations in Interstellar (I’d be more specific, but spoilers) with such honesty, that he never is trite or feels inauthentic. I would certainly place his performance on a par with Dallas Buyers Club. While Interstellar isn’t the best Nolan film in his redoubtable oeuvre, it easily beats almost anything else (Gravity was a mere space walk in comparison), and certainly merits watching again.

All the supporting cast members give solid performances, with the occasional exception of Anne Hathaway. At times she feels somewhat hollow and unconvincing, but I may be being much too critical. Her character does have its own particular story arc that winds up convincingly.

Visually Interstellar is stunning. The patiently slow pacing reminded me starkly of 2001: A Space Odyssey, only it was better (sorry Stan). The utter remoteness of deep space travel, and the soul crushing silence of that environment, is very effectively conveyed.

If I had to isolate the main theme of the film it would be human love. The one thing that Hatheway’s Amelia Brand says can transpose the constraints of time and space. Without disclosing plot details it is the driving force behind Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper. Love for his daughter above all else. And it is convincingly portrayed, Jessica Chastain did well in this regard as the older version of Cooper’s daughter Murph. But the standout is the younger Murph, Mackenzie Foy. Her performance is faultless, and the ‘chemistry’ between her and McConaughey is very realistic.

Interstellar is a good film, a very imaginative one, but maybe not quite a great one. I think it ranks with AI/Artificial Intelligence, a very interesting concept movie, one that other filmmakers build on. Well worth seeing though, multiple times. Even if Neil deGrasse Tyson wants to tear it a new wormhole.

Thoughts on Euthanasia part II

I am compelled to return to the topic of euthanasia so soon because I fear the abruptness with which I closed the last essay may have limited the strength of my argument. I said at the last that I hadn’t had the opportunity to rebut the points raised by Deborah Penk on the vulnerable in society facing the greatest damage from euthanasia.

Her shout on stuff was was a rather straightforward cry for old conservatism. George Eliot writes of such conservatism in Middlemarch as believing “that everything that is, is bad, and any change is likely to be worse.” Exigent for hopelessness, sure of nothing by our own human evils, and limitations. It is a pathetic piece of writing, but nonetheless it has annoyed me sufficiently to warrant another essay.

I want to first of all point out a slight error in the grammar of her argument. That is that the vulnerable in society will lose out if the law changes. My point, I hope it is obvious, is that the vulnerable in society lose out in everything. That is why they are the vulnerable, euthanasia is not a special case. On disability I can write from a personal perspective, and I find it incomprehensible that I may be any more likely to off myself with the aid of a doctor than any of my contemporaries.

Rooted in Deborah’s thinking is an assumption that people with disabilities live less fulfilling lives. I will not be thought of, or spoken to in this way. I cannot run on the beach, but I still enjoy lying in the sun. I enjoy wine, good food, both of these immeasurably improved by company, and entertaining people in conversation with wit and curiosity. I live for making young women laugh, for reading, for writing, and who is going to tell me that my life in unfulfilling.

Maybe I should grant Deborah a degree of doubt on this question, and assume that she means that the elderly, the disabled, and those from dysfunctional families, are all at risk of the same thing. That is, they will face unrelenting pressure from loved ones to remove themselves from the picture. I find this argument hard to get off the ground even if I suspend the laws of physics. Is a loved one, who is exerting pressure on you to die, still a loved one? Furthermore, if the requirements followed by the Dutch — that the decision to die is voluntary, that the condition is terminal with no possibility of recovery, that pain or discomfort is chronic and severe, and that alternatives to euthanasia have been offered and time taken to consider them — are followed properly, there is little chance of a patient being euthanised by pressure.

Perhaps I am naive on this point, I appeal to the comments to further consider it. The matter remains the same, death is inevitable, but it does not have to be squalid. Knowing that it becomes an ethical imperative to reduce the instances when it is squalid as much as possible. Sigmund Freud chained smoked cigars for decades and suffered oral cancer for years. In 1939 after he had fled the Nazi’s to settle in London, he decided that the pain was no longer bearable, and requested an overdose of morphine. It was administered and he peacefully died.

Freud succeeded in his life to propel psychoanalysis, and psychology more generally, to revolutionary heights. Counselling practiced in modern times has its root and heart in the talking cure that Freud pioneered. But look at the lack of respect paid to him now. Freud is trashed and repudiated by feminists and new-age psychology students who have never glanced at his books or lectures. They react to his reputation rather than his substance. This is the problem with the euthanasia question, it gets rubbished by people on the basis of what it represents, not what it is. Euthanasia represents a rejection of the concept of god or nature projecting its will on you by choosing the hour of your death, and is the ultimate act of emancipation.

Thoughts on Euthanasia

Since the death of Brittany Maynard, who had terminal brain cancer and invoked her right granted by the state of Oregon to die before the loss of her critical faculties, the euthanasia debate has sparked up again around the world.

This spark has yet to become a flame, and just as there are many fanning the smoky tinder, there are those trying desperately to drown it. Deborah Penk is one of the latter, and in a 242 word snarl on, she gave her reasons why. Check that out here. Deborah warns that the challenges of writing effective legislative safeguards means that euthanasia will be too easy. She says that the vulnerable of society, the elderly, the disabled, and (bizarrely) those with dysfunctional families, will be disproportionately affected. Deborah goes on to say that countries practicing euthanasia; The Netherlands and Belgium, are slipping down a terrible slope.

Deborah also cries havoc at the prospect of child euthanasia, which she incorrectly asserts is legal in The Netherlands. It is not. A procedure has been created for children who are horribly disfigured and/or terminally ill, but it remains illegal. Near the end of the distressed article is a warning for what legal euthanasia will mean for the non-terminally ill, such as those with depression. To continue with the Dutch example, depression would not warrant euthanasia because it does not satisfy the requirement that: “the patient’s suffering is unbearable with no prospect of improvement.”

A person with clinical depression cannot see any prospect of improvement, even if they have experienced depression many times before. But their doctor can. Therefore a person with depression would not be able to be euthanized by their doctor. While Deborah maintains that the Dutch have little safeguards in place, the practice is actually nothing but safeguards. Euthanasia is still illegal in Holland, but through this procedure the doctors cannot be charged.

I am just taking Deborah’s piece as an example of the opposition, I do not mean to characterise the whole debate in reaction to her. But she is doing something callous, even if it is for righteous reasons. She is trying to shut down the debate. To me that is intellectual cowardice. However, if we do move the matter to the public forum, are we even capable of having the debate?

Death scares most people. It is the genesis of all fear, and the fact that it is the one thing that binds us all does little to mitigate this fear. If we break it down though, and separate dying and death, the former is the more frightening. Being dead is fine, since we won’t know we are dead there is scant reason to worry, but getting dead is a whole different story. It can happen in infinite ways, from the glorious perishing of Lord Nelson at Trafalgar, cut down by a sharpshooter as he watched his greatest victory, to the banal drowning in a bowl of onion soup. It is the last possible experience, it could be terribly painful, or you might miss the whole thing by having a myocardial infarction when you’re fast asleep.

Of all deaths it is Edmond Halley’s (namesake of Halleys Comet) that strikes me as the most suitable. On board a ship at the age of eighty-five in 1742 the great mathematician asked for a glass of wine. He drained it, smiled to himself, and died. Hopefully when ruminating on death without resistance you can let go of some of the fear.

So we have funnelled the fear down to being afraid of certain kinds of dying, namely a squalid death. That is what the death with dignity cabal campaign on, they don’t want their ends to be painful, undignified, or drawn out. Some in this cabal overreach just as much as Deborah Penk, and advocate for such a liberal use of euthanasia so as to remove the element of surprise from the equation. I caution you to not think they all champion their cause quite so enthusiastically, and don’t let it sully the important points of their argument.

Deborah thinks New Zealand should not go down this road altogether, but she misses the point that we have already crossed the threshold. It is called suicide. Solitary, tragic, and incredibly hurtful to loved ones. For those that would qualify for the Dutch version of physician assisted euthanasia, their only recourse is to find a way to end their lives on their own. And they have to be alone. Anyone present can be charged with homicide. This can’t be right. There has to be a way to allow limited euthanasia without falling down the proverbial slippery slope.

To arrive at this happy conclusion we should dispense with any mythologies clung to by advocates and critics. First of all, pain is not unmanageable. If someone is in their last weeks — palliative — and is in terrible pain, strong medications can be administered that relieve the pain without necessarily hastening death. For patients at the palliative stage that time is often crucial, to unite their friends and family, to make important arrangements, to give the dying person dignity. This is where the death with dignity crowd goes astray; death is not the provider of dignity.

On the other side — the one that trades in fear — it is not the case that the elderly and the disabled will be the ones to lose. If one has any experience of families at the bedside of a dying relative (and I confess most of my knowledge here is vicarious) often the family are hostile to attempts to treat the clearly dying person palliatively. They want doctors and nurses to jump on the chest of granny should her breathing falter, no talk of an advance care plan, no consideration as to whether granny wants her ribs broken and her organs bruised by resuscitation. Families such as these need to be managed and communicated with so they can understand through their grief that the dying process is present, unstoppable, and that it would be better to bring out the guitar and tearfully serenade their dear stricken loved one to peace.

Oh dear, I’ve gone past 1000 words and haven’t had a chance to rebut Deborah’s point on the disabled. I’ll have to expand upon that at a later time — if I am spared! No matter, the important points are made and I leave the seeds in your mind, dear reader, to germinate if they may. I think we should have the euthanasia debate, and we can start here if you want to comment. Disagreement is welcome!

Gorbachev Warns World ‘On Brink Of New Cold War’

The elderly former leader of the Soviet Union, who presided over its dissolution, is bleating of a new cold war. Like the last, this one again centers on Russia, with the USA at fault.

Although Russia is a major player with regards to energy, they are economically irrelevant, and their military capacity only goes as far as bullying and intimidating smaller eastern European nations.

Their military hardware is rusting and obsolete, their government riddled with the stultifying effects of corruption. Any economic edge they have gained under Putin sits in the shadow of China, which will continue to rise even as its GDP growth slows.

The China-USA relationship is what will decide the world order, not some revivalist Tsar with a penchant for martial arts. And it is not the Chinese way to repeat the past mistakes of others without a particular sino-spin. The relationship is a working one, and is not paralleled by the old cold war dichotomy.

Sorry Gorbachev, I know you want to be relevant, but the past is dead and gone.

Lit.Cologne 2013

Gorbachev Warns World ‘On Brink Of New Cold War’ –

Worse economic outlook and no way Labour gets traction.

This years budget deficit is $79 million larger than expected, and John Key is warning that the promised surplus next year may be delayed. Normally this might be a problem for a third term government, but the nation is far from tired of the Key government.

It could happen that the media turns on him out of sheer boredom, I thought they would’ve been more impatent than they are. Perhaps it is simply comfortable for them to pursue relationships with ministers that last a long time. They don’t have to do as much work, and in an industry that faces a cloudy future that is understandable. The torrent of clichés that spews out of Fairfax and Media Works every day is enough to cause serious environmental harm through an excess of stomach acid.

It is not just formulaic headlines. It is the usage of terms like ‘bloodletting’ or ‘shambolic’ to describe the Labour leadership contest. It follows the same laziness that leads entertainment reporters to write of ‘troubled’ actress Lindsay Lohan, and reinforces a media party line rather than actually trying to tell the public anything new.

However, I have learned to not expect high standards from the media, and instead await the new leader of the opposition to sent a blanket email to all Labour affiliates with the claim that the government is ‘tired and out of touch’. Go figure. The governments focus on housing and national security seems perfectly attuned to the collective pulse of NZ. After three successive election losses it is pretty clear which party is out of touch.

Annette King has been doing her best to lead question time as the acting deputy leader of the opposition, really the de facto acting leader of the opposition, and has kept the Prime Minister under pressure. But he is still able to bring out Helen Clark’s tenure as PM as a club to bash Labour about. They should make it clear to everyone that Labour in 2014 is a very different beast from its 1999-2008 incarnation. Successfully doing this would deny John Key the use of one of his choice weapons.

It is interesting to note the lack of media coverage garnered by the current leadership contest and the one last year. In 2013 the charade was used as a siren call to unite the bleary left, keep your own judgement on how well it did that. If the left did unite it only shows how small a political force it is. The new leader may emerge from this media blackout the better for it, and I am really past caring who it is. What matters is what they do from here on. Do they move to the centre and a fighting chance of governing again, or do they go further left and stumble, with neither grace nor apology, into their freshly dug grave.

Republican’s take the Senate; tis the dawn of just another day

The midterm election on Tuesday reminded me of the 2010 midterms when the Democrats yielded control of the House of Representatives. In the weeks leading up to the election I was talking to a then-friend of mine about the possibilities that lay ahead. He was adamant that should the Republicans win it would signal the end of everything. When I refused to agree he started yelling at me. In my own hostel room.

The intervening years has seen the US government shutdown twice, and the federal government is currently funded through a continuing appropriation rather than a budget. In the last year 124 laws have been passed, the fewest ever. But Obamacare was upheld, and the proverbial sky did not fall.

Democratic Presidents have not always found it difficult to work with a Republican Congress. Bill Clinton managed by behaving like more of a Republican than Ronald Reagan. He would promise the Democrats one thing, then deliver the GOP the opposite, then come back to the Democrats and say ‘It could be worse, I could be a Republican’! The lesser of two evils game that liberals play when they vote was in Bill Clinton’s favour.

Has anyone noticed the fawning over Clinton practiced by the gay community today? Sure he publicly supported gay marriage in 2009, recommended the Supreme Court strike down the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013, and he signed some executive orders as President to the effect of combating discrimination in the workplace. But he was also behind the notorious Don’t ask, Don’t tell policy for the armed forces. He is a man that will do anything and everything in his own interest.

Barack Obama is not cut from the same wretched cloth. And though the Republicans have a small majority in the Senate, and continue to rule the House, successfully overturning a presidential veto will be a stretch. And Obama doesn’t have to worry about reelection, so his political maneuverability is enhanced. Given that he has just over two years left to create a lasting legacy, I expect him to be extremely tough from here until January 20, 2017.

Don’t worry, the sky seems pretty stable to me.

John Key’s speech to make us all snore

John Key’s address on national security was mild in implications, and carefully crafted to head off any political obstacles. You can read the text of his speech here.

In terms of legislative changes he has said that the Minister of Internal Affairs will be able to cancel someone’s passport for three years instead of one, and that they will be able to stop someone travelling for ten days without any documentation if they need to. This seems prudent, and it brings New Zealand in line with Australia. There is also a UN mandate for taking action to prevent people travelling to join the Islamic State (Key is still using their old acronym ISIL). Bringing that up seems to satisfy a big proportion of the public on any affairs involving conflict abroad. Helen Clark used the lack of a specific mandate from the UN to justify NZ staying out of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and Key bringing the UN in here should placate many.

Slightly more dicey is the expansion of video surveillance to allow the SIS to issue warrants allowing for the use of video surveillance on private properties. The Director of the SIS will also be empowered to authorise warrantless surveillance for up to 48 hours as long as they are sure a warrant will be issued eventually. It is meant to cover instances in which time is a factor. To make this politically palatable John Key has said the use of these powers will be subject to annual reporting to parliament on when they have been used, and there will be a sunset clause. This implies that the laws will become inactive at some point, probably when the Islamic State has been ‘downgraded’.

New Zealand is to play no combat role in Iraq. The SAS will not be deployed. Instead our army may be useful for the training of Iraqi forces, and we will play a humanitarian rebuilding role. Three unarmed military personnel have gone to Iraq to further ascertain how we can contribute, bizarrely Winston Peter has taken this as confirmation that we are already at war. Quite how he manages to be so stupid and still so politically successful is a mystery deserving analysis by a PHD student. That would be a brilliant thesis.

No mention was made of cyber surveillance, perhaps this will come later once John Key has cured himself of the Dotcom head cold. I would think it likely since the Islamic State is not only the best funded terrorist organisation in history (excepting the USA when it comes to its nightmarish espionage in South America last century), but also the most tech savy. Combating them will inevitably involve fighting on the internet, and with NZ tied into the Five Eyes security alliance it seems likely that we would take any lead from Australia and the United States.