Friday, 17 April 2009

Obama and Nuremberg

I'm simultaneously admiring and critical of President Obama this week over his handling of the Bush-era policy towards torture.

I'm glad he released documents revealing the extent of torture practised by the CIA, but I'm not happy about his desire to move on without affixing responsibility and culpability for the same.

CIA director Leon Panetta is believed to have told his operatives that "the interrogation practices had been approved at the highest levels of the Bush administration and that they had nothing to fear if they had followed the rules."

“You need to be fully confident that as you defend the nation, I will defend you,” he said.

Someone needs to tell these people that the Nazis' excuse of Befehl ist Befehl (orders are orders) was emphatically rejected at Nuremberg.

No, Mr. CIA Director, your operatives cannot be excused because they "merely" followed orders. Human rights violators must always be punished, from George Bush and Dick Cheney down to the cretins who did the dirty work.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Another Government-owned Telco?

It's strange how the Australian government has shelved months of effort that went into a tendering process to finally announce that it would be setting up its own company to build a next generation high-speed broadband network for the country.

Part of me rejoices that the Telstra monopoly has suffered a major kick in the groin. Part of me (heck, all of me) always rejoices when monopolies get a well-deserved kick in the groin (When will you double over in agony, Microsoft?).

But I don't know if this was a well thought-out plan or an oh-forget-it act of exasperated desperation. Has Communications minister Stephen Conroy finally done something right after committing gaffe after gaffe? Others are confused too.

Time will tell whether this gargantuan initiative will turn out to be a waste of money or a wise spend that will keep the economy ticking during the global recession and will also provide a much-needed force-multiplier for the smart, networked nation that will arise after the recession.

But I guess the bottomline is that the privatisation of Telstra was a mistake in the first place. If you must privatise a government-owned monopoly, at least break it up into a dozen pieces so there's no more monopoly. If there's anything worse than a government-owned monopoly, it's a privately-owned monopoly. Will history repeat itself with this new incarnation of Telstra?

Friday, 3 April 2009

Education is Cool

Socialism (beyond the point where it rights historical wrongs) is the great leveller - downwards.

In contrast, I've always believed that education is the great leveller - upwards. One of the saving features of Soviet-era socialism was that it educated its citizens.

Hats off to Michelle Obama for putting this into words. Mrs Obama visited a girls school in London this week and said this:

If you want to know the reason why I am standing here, it's because of education. I never cut class. I loved getting A's, I liked being smart. ... I thought being smart is cooler than anything in the world.

Judging by the news reports, the girls at the multicultural school were inspired by that, especially in the days before their GSC Exams.

Smart behaviour should be seen as cool. Self-destructive behaviour should be seen as something for losers. These are lessons that teenagers need to be taught. As a teenager, I too tended to glorify negative behaviour to an extent, although I thankfully didn't go overboard and ruin my life.

It's great to have positive examples like the Obamas in this world. Youngsters need to see for themselves that working hard to build up one's education and communication skills is something to be admired and emulated, because honest success is not nerdy but cool.

Excerpt from Wodehouse's "The Small Bachelor"

It'll soon become obvious why I'm posting this excerpt from P.G. Wodehouse's novel.

"Ouch!" cried Mrs Waddington.

She had not intended to express any verbal comment on the incident, for those who creep at night through other people's kitchens must be silent and wary: but the sudden agony was so keen that she could not refrain from comment. And to her horror she found that her cry had been heard. There came through the darkness a curious noise like the drawing of a cork, and then somebody spoke.

'Who are you?' said an unpleasant, guttural voice.

Mrs Waddington stopped, paralysed. She would not, in the circumstances, have heard with any real pleasure the most musical of speech: but a soft, sympathetic utterance would undoubtedly have afflicted her with a shade less of anguish and alarm. This voice was the voice of one without human pity: a grating, malevolent voice; a voice that set Mrs Waddington thinking quiveringly in headlines:


'Who are you?'


'Who are you?'


'Who are you?'

Mrs Waddington gulped.

'I am Mrs Sigsbee H. Waddington,' she faltered. And it would have amazed Sigsbee H., had he heard her, to discover that it was possible for her to speak with such a winning meekness.

'Who are you?'

'Mrs Sigsbee H. Waddington, of East Seventy-Ninth Street and Hempstead, Long Island. I must apologize for the apparent strangeness of my conduct in...'

'Who are you?'

Annoyance began to compete with Mrs Waddington's terror. Deaf persons had always irritated her, for like so many women of an impatient and masterful turn of mind, she was of the opinion that they could hear perfectly well if they took the trouble. She raised her voice and answered with a certain stiffness.

'I have already informed you that I am Mrs Sigsbee H. Waddington...'

'Have a nut,' said the voice, changing the subject.

Mrs Waddington's teeth came together in a sharp click. All the other emotions which had been afflicting her passed abruptly away, to be succeeded by a cold fury. Few things are more mortifying to a proud woman than the discovery that she had been wasting her time being respectful to a parrot: and only her inability to locate the bird in the surrounding blackness prevented a rather unpleasant brawl. Had she been able to come to grips with it, Mrs Waddington at that moment would undoubtedly have done the parrot no good whatsoever.

It's interesting that I came upon this passage just days after the news item about the parrot that saved a little girl's life. Knowing what we now know about the intelligence of parrots, perhaps Wodehouse's avian character was having a good laugh all the time.

Truth is stranger than fiction.

The Intelligence of Parrots

When I was at school, we were taught that parrots had no real intelligence. One could not carry on an intelligent conversation with a parrot because the birds only repeated sounds without understanding their meaning.

However, later research seems to show that parrots are in fact highly intelligent creatures that understand what they're saying.

The recent case where a parrot repeatedly cried, "Mama, baby!" to draw the attention of a babysitter to a choking child is just the latest evidence that parrots do not just "parrot" what they have heard. They probably understand the meaning of the words, too.

It takes significant intelligence to recognise that a child is in distress, to understand that an adult human must be alerted to save the child, and a particular combination of words is the most appropriate to describe the situation. Also, it speaks highly of the emotional quality of empathy, to want to save a fellow living being. It makes us pause to think about what it means to be human.