Stability Alone Is Not Enough

Ever since Australian voters couldn’t make up their minds about who they want to run the country, I’ve gotten a bit sick of hearing the word “stability”. The independents say they want it, both parties say they can deliver it, and the other team can’t. Everyone’s focused on making sure that whatever government forms out of the democratic no-man’s land we’ve created, it will be built to last.

Since when has that been all that matters?

There’s no point being in power if you’re not going to do anything – or worse, do bad things that damage the country. The new government will need forward-thinking policies and a plan for real progress – two things mostly lacking in the campaign. With such a small minority, it’ll be hard to get any major legislation passed, and anything visionary will be watered down to the lowest common denominator that gets approval from everyone. A government of slow, stable, mediocrity.

French intellectual and writer Joseph de Maistre once famously said “every nation gets the government it deserves”. Marieke Hardy says that’s exactly what happened, and the government we got was: “half of each plus a couple of farmers, a hippy, a whistleblower and the unclassifiably deranged Bob ‘Many times I’ve gone to bed as a cockle-doodle-doo and woke up the next morning as a feather duster’ Katter”. It’s a brilliant (and delightfully poetic) analysis. Nobody has any confidence in the leaders of either major party. The Greens, with their first ever seat in the lower house, are too new and inexperienced to lead the country. And an independent as Prime Minister makes about as much sense as a Family First member – none at all.

I can’t see a minority govenment lasting very long. The last hung parliament we had, 70 years ago, the government formed from that lasted less than a year. But maybe that’s what we need. A year of doing nothing, while the parties take a good long look at themselves. And after a bit of navel gazing, perhaps next year we can have another election. An election where each party realigns its policies with the core values of its members and supporters – not the latest poll results. An election where all parties campaign on their strengths, not the weaknesses of their opponents. An election with substance. With vision.

And hopefully, by then we’ll deserve it.

Film Review: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Graphic novels are all the rage in Hollywood. Every year since 1981, at least one comic book has been made into a feature movie. And it’s happening more and more – in 2011 there will be eight comic book adaptations hitting the theatres. Who said Hollywood’s running out of ideas?

The latest is one you may not have heard of – Scott Pilgrim. First released in 2004, there have been only six issues of the black-and-white graphic novel. It was widely well received, winning several awards, and developed a strong cult following. The film centers around 23 year old unemployed layabout Scott Pilgrim. He plays in a band called “Sex Bob-omb”, is still getting over a bad break up a year ago but finds himself dating a 17 year old high school girl, Knives Chau (“She’s Chinese!” Scott has to continually explain). But when delivery girl Ramona Flowers moves in, Pilgrim falls in love with her. Little does he know that if he wants to date her, he must battle to the death her “seven evil exes”. What follows is a fantastic Mortal Kombat style series of battles complete with level-ups, bonus lives and – of course – coins!

If you think that sounds far fetched – you’re right. Such is the nature of all comic books, I suppose. I’ve never really been into them, myself. I never collected them, I don’t think I’ve ever even bought a comic book. Except for Frank Miller’s Sin City series – and I bought them AFTER seeing the movie! But the beauty of comic books is that they force us to suspend our disbelief and immerse ourselves in a different world. They drag us through the story by our imaginations.

And on the surface, Scott Pilgrim vs The World is a cookie-cutter Hollywood action-romance film. There’s the Ben Stiller-esque ‘ordinary bloke’, a love interest, a series of hurdles the hero needs to overcome, a brief crisis-of-confidence before an epiphany, an epic final battle scene and ultimate victory. There’s even a training montage at one point. But really this movie is SO MUCH more than that. There’s very cool special effects (complete with comic-book onomatopoeic sound effects like “Pow!” and “Thunk!”) and great martial arts sequences. It’s at times goofy, other times deadly serious.  I mean, it’s a LOT of fun. It’s very much in the spirit of Kick-Ass, with zany characters in danger, and you really find yourself cheering for them. But on top of all that, the dialogue is extremely tight. Funny, entertaining and very “geeky”, the language and style is very well done and rarely predictable.

But what makes Scott Pilgrim so great is that it’s a totally unashamed geek-fest. It’s packed full of video-game references, mostly the old-style arcade and console games. Even the theme tune from Zelda is recreated, and lots of the music has definite 8-bit overtones. Yahoo!Games has a summary of the video-game aspects here. Shortly after seeing this film I tweeted that it was “thousands of tiny geekgasms rolled into one giant geekgasm.” If you’re into comic books or video games, or if you were EVER into comic books or video games, you will love Scott Pilgrim.

Made for geeks, by geeks, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is easily the best film I’ve seen this year. Go and see it.

The Problem of Authority

When Too Much Information Is A Bad Thing

We’re inundated with information all the time, from every source imaginable – traditional media like newspapers, television and radio; new media like blogs, forums and podcasts; conventional in-person interactions and a host of other forms. That’s a fantastic thing. To think that now I can type “vaccination” into Google and get more than 15.2 million results in less than one-fifth of a second is phenomenal. Twenty years ago, we could only dream of such a huge volume of information. It was amazing back then, when a complete and searchable encyclopedia could fit on a compact disc. Now, of course, just the English version alone of Wikipedia (only 3.37 million out of a total 16 million articles for all languages) is over 230.3 gigabytes – or 337 compact discs. This, as The Wire’s Marlowe Stanfield would say, “sounds like one of them good problems”.

But the problem isn’t that there’s so much information, the problem is that the quality doesn’t match the quantity. Of those 15.2 million vaccination results, some will be from blog posts saying “today I took Billy in for his vaccination, he was very brave” while others will be useful, factual information from peer-reviewed medical journals. Sure, search engines do an incredible job of finding and sorting relevant information. That blog post isn’t going to get nearly as many links as the Wikipedia page or the website of the Australian Vaccination Network – the top two search results – so it will be buried further down in the results. And right there is the problem – that’s relevancy, not authority. Yes, those sites are more relevant to most people, but are they the most informative, authoritative sites? There’s no way for a search engine to know if the Australian Vaccination Network gives accurate, scientific information or not.

And guess what, it doesn’t.

After investigating the group, the NSW Healthcare Complaints Commission (HCCC) has released a damning report that claims “the AVN provides information that is inaccurate and misleading”. The report reveals that the group “provides information that is solely anti-vaccination” and that it “quotes selectively from research to suggest that vaccination may be dangerous”.
The story is best covered by Walkley Award winning journalist Steve Cannane on Lateline:

The problem of authority is obviously a problem not just on the internet, but in real life as well. And just as finding relevant information online was a challenge before Google came along, I think finding authoritative information is our current – and much harder – problem. But at least on the internet it’s easy to reference the sources of information and determine its accuracy. That’s perhaps what the quest for authority demonstrates – the awesome power of the link. By showing sources, by linking to the facts, a site demonstrates its authority. It’s self-regulation, and clearly not particularly effective, but for now it’s the best we can do.

Election 2010: What Matters To You?

Politicians and the media love dictating the issues to us. But in a democracy, it should be the people who decide what’s important and where the debate should be.
Kevin Rudd was big on that, hosting the Australia 2020 Summit to decide how the country should be run. But only 1,002 out of more than 22 million people got a chance to attend, so it’s likely you weren’t there. Julia Gillard also seems to like the idea, promising a “Citizens Assembly” of 150 people if she’s elected, that will determine her climate change policy. Elections, of course, give us a chance to have a general say on many issues.

Triple J’s brilliant current affairs program Hack has opened it’s “Straw Poll” where you can vote which issues matter most to you. Last week Mia Freedman asked her staff and readers what matters to them. Part of the ABC’s fantastic election sentiment site, Campaign Pulse, gives you the choice to rank ten issues (the results of which so far put everything except defense above immigration).

If I had to break my priorities down to a list of 10, here’s what matters most to me:

  1. Climate Change
  2. Foreign Aid
  3. Health
  4. Same Sex Marriage
  5. LGBT Rights (adoption, etc)
  6. Internet Filter
  7. National Broadband Network
  8. Education
  9. Economy
  10. Population, immigration, on-shore processing.

Some of those were extremely hard to rank in order, but it’s a rough approximation. How about you? What issues will decide who you vote for this election? What’s your Top Five (or ten, or twenty)?

The Truth About (Some) Men

That self-appointed voice of masculinity, AskMen.com, has released it’s annual “Great Male Survey” for the year. “Great” is their adjective, not mine. With over 100,000 responses, the survey proclaims to “shed serious light on how the modern man thinks and behaves — professionally, romantically and in his downtime – in 2010”. But nobody seems to be questioning the actual survey itself.

It’s filled with “great”, although often trivial, insights into the AskMen.com readership. For example, I found it particularly interesting that presumably, the modern man in 2010 is 100% straight.  The questions were all loaded with a clear heterosexual bias, like “Would you dump a girlfriend if she became fat?” (54% are shallow bastards). There were some questions that left the door open to everyone, such as “Of the choices listed below, which one thing would you change about your partner?” (57% were either single or wouldn’t change anything). Now I understand AskMen.com may think only stereotypical heterosexual neanderthals with beer, breasts and football obsessions surf their site, but how would they know? The point of a survey is to ask questions, not make assumptions. And gay men might have some interesting thoughts on the “Do you believe in the institution of marriage?” question (67% of survey respondents do and the rest don’t or don’t want to be married).

Putting aside the hetro slant, I was surprised at how the survey was reported in the media. There seemed to be some very alarming results that were completely ignored, while trivial responses were reported everywhere.

Forty-nine percent of men said that if there were no repercussions, they would happily punch a colleague in the face. Forty-nine per cent! I couldn’t find any news report that mentioned that. Nearly half of men want to get violent on a coworker, and that’s not important? Nobody’s asking if we have aggression issues, or what’s happening in our workplaces to get us riled up?

Given the stereotypical obsession men have with sex, it’s surprising how uncomfortable we are about it. Forty-two percent of respondents haven’t told their partners any of their sexual fantasies, and 45% have only discussed some of them. Similarly, one in two men are uncomfortable having their genitals examined by a doctor. That’s during an appointment, I should add – I’m sure most people would be uncomfortable if a doctor came up to them on the street and asked to examine their bits.

The survey shows that only 16% of men are logical and rational people, since 84% believe in either aliens, angels, ghosts or vampires. I’m not making this up! 52% of men seriously believe Aliens exist, but 17% think angels are more likely. I suppose this isn’t really all that surprising, if you remember back in April I wrote that 49% of Americans believe that have had a ‘mystical or religious experience’. When I also consider the success of scams such as PowerBalance bracelets, I find myself wondering what happened to people’s critical thinking skills? Do we now just believe whatever we see on television?

I realise, of course, that AskMen.com is a Lowest Common Denominator type of trash site – the online equivalent of Zoo Magazine or FHM. But when you brag about being “approved” by internationally recognised statistics company Ipsos, I expect the questions to be phrased without bias or loading. I also expect that the media, when covering a survey with over 100,000 respondents, to draw attention to serious or worrying results. But then, maybe I’m wrong and the public does need to know that every second man wishes he was James Bond.

Cash For Clunkers Could Be Too Effective

Yesterday, Prime Minister Gillard has promised a “cash for clunkers” scheme that Labor will introduce if re-elected. The scheme will give people $2,000 if they trade in an old, pre-1995 car for a new car that meets current emissions standards.

It’s not a new idea – Cash For Clunkers was a program Obama introduced eleven months ago to boost the brink-of-bankruptcy US auto industry. So I thought it might be interesting to have a look at how that went, and it turns out it was actually pretty successful.

For analysis, here’s America’s most trusted newscaster explaining that success:

Click Here

The PowerBalance Scam

I saved a workmate from wasting $20 the other day. Granted, it’s not a huge sum, but there’s a global financial crisis and every bit helps. You see, she was bidding on eBay during her break, and I asked what she was trying to buy. Turns out she’s buying a magic product designed to make her stronger, more flexible, and more balanced. It could probably make her invisible, able to fly and see through walls.

It’s a kind of magic.

PowerBalance bracelets are the latest craze in town. Particularly in the sports and gym industries, where people will buy any gadget or gizmo if they think it might improve their performance. There’s not much information on the official site, but here’s how they say it works:

They “embed” some “naturally occurring frequencies” into a hologram on a silicone bracelet.

And that’s it.

Even basketballer Shaquille O’Neal endorses them, saying: “I don’t really do a lot of testimonials, but this really works! … I kept feeling something when I wore the bracelet, so I kept wearing it … I want to do everything to get the slightest advantage; wristbands, necklaces, t-shirts, band-aids, everything and anything we can get our hands on. I’m here to tell you it works!” Well that should be enough to convince anyone. I wonder if they do PowerBalance band-aids?

Of course, it’s likely The Shaq only says such nice things because I assume PowerBalance is paying him a lot of money to do so. But he says on the website he “did the test” and was convinced of their ability. What test is that? Well here’s a promotional clip that shows you. It’s very convincing:

See, I told you it was convincing. And I can understand why my coworker wanted to get one. She said someone did the flexibility test on her and she was really impressed with the results. And for only $20, it’ll be worth it!

Unfortunately – and you knew this was coming, didn’t you – the bracelets are nothing but a scam. They don’t work, all they do is take away your money. Even just ignoring the ludicrous “science” used to describe how it works, the “tests” they do are well-known tricks used as part of applied kinesiology. Applied Kinesiology is a method chiropractors and other “alternative medicine” practitioners use for diagnosis. Richard Saunders, vice-president of Australian Skeptics, made this video to demonstrate how it’s done.

So there you go. The usual adage of “if it’s too good to be true, it probably is” holds firmly. When Today Tonight ran a story on the amazing bracelets, they got such a response they did a follow-up a week later. The second time they got Richard on the show as well to run some tests, which proved the PowerBalance bands don’t work. The story was badly edited, and doesn’t show all the tests, but it’s still clear enough.

The lesson here is, as always, to think things through rationally and objectively. The internet’s a great resource for researching suspicious claims. And never be satisfied with someone telling you “it just works”. Find out how it works. Learn about it, and investigate the science behind it.

Have you ever been conned by a gimmick, or come close to it? Ever busted a myth?

A Label Can’t Tell The Whole Story

If you’ve never heard of Courtney Roulston, it’s probably because – like me – you don’t pay attention to anything about Masterchef. But she’s a contestant on the popular cooking show and, apparently, she has a girlfriend. That in itself is not unusual. What’s strange, to some people at least, is that she doesn’t call herself a lesbian. She had a boyfriend for seven years before hooking up with her current girlfriend of three years. Social commentator and blogger Mia Freedman found this situation surprising. She writes:

“I found what Courtney says so interesting on so many levels. I’m of the belief that being gay is not a choice or a lifestyle decision.

Does one relationship have the power to label you? Are women like Courtney and Cynthia lesbians or are they just in love with individuals who also happen to be women?”

Kinsey ScaleIt’s important to remember, as I’ve said before, that we don’t live in a binary world. We’re not gay or straight, Labor or Liberal, black or white. We’re mostly all somewhere in between. Yes, some people are going to be 100% straight, or 100% gay, but research shows they are actually the minority. Most of us have some degree of same sex attraction. In the late 1940s Dr. Alfred Kinsey developed what became known as the Kinsey Scale. Essentially, 0 is completely heterosexual and 6 is completely homosexual, and most people fall somewhere along that scale. Another category, X, was added for asexual people.

So the popular concept of gay/straight/bisexual labels aren’t accurate, and don’t suffiently describe someone’s sexuality. But even the Kinsey Scale is still too simplistic. It only covers basic physical attraction, and at one point in time. Sexuality is so much more complicated than that. It’s about activities, fantasies and frequencies, not just gender. Sexuality is fluid, it changes over time. I do things now I never would have done ten years ago. And in ten years time they might not interest me anymore, and may be doing things I couldn’t dream of now.

Labels are simple tools for quick communication. They’re for getting to the ‘important’ bits quickly, without the “well, it’s complicated” talk. When I talk about my sexuality, I usually just say “I’m bisexual” because that’s an umbrella term that covers me best. But in reality it IS more complicated than that. Sure, I’m attracted to and have slept with both men and women – but that’s a purely physical thing. I’ve never been in an emotional relationship with a guy, and at the moment it seems unlikely – I have trust issues when it comes to men. But I’m certainly not ruling it out. And rather than give a long explanation like that, most of the time I’ll just say I’m bisexual and that covers it. People have the option to either question me further about it, or direct the conversation elsewhere. Because that’s all a label is – a quick and dirty way of describing something complicated.

To put any more stock in labels, or to be ‘shocked’ when someone doesn’t fit completely in a label, is to over-simplify our complicated lives. I am who I am, and you are who you are, and that’s it.

Some Food Tax Funnies

I posted the other day about moves to introduce taxes on junk food and soft drink, and it stirred up an interesting and thought-provoking discussion in the comments. But it was getting a little heavy, so I thought I’d introduce some levity on the subject from two comedic acts I very highly admire: Penn & Teller, and Jon Stewart.

I’ll start off with  a clip from a recent episode of Penn and Teller’s Bullshit! This clip is not safe for work, and contains some fairly strong language!

The full episode is available on YouTube.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart also gave their take on the issue here.

I hope that added some levity and perspective on the debate. 🙂

Don’t Tax Our Drinks

It’s a debate that’s been a part of political discussion since the Magna Carta in 1217. A debate about the role of government in our everyday lives – how much say, if any, the government has over our individual rights and liberties. Essentially, it’s Big Government vs Limited Government. Most people would agree there needs to be some form of government: there needs to be rules (laws) to stop people stealing each other’s stuff and being bastards. But above that, there’s an awful lot of debate.

Libertarians like The Cato Institute, or conservatives like the US Republican Party and the Australian Liberal Party advocate for a small, limited government. It is not up to government, they say, to intrude upon how we as individuals run our lives. That notion is anathema to the Free Market principles they champion. As a result, they almost invariably call for low taxation: after all, it’s our money to do with as we please, not the government’s.

The opposing view, taken by progressives like the Australian Labour Party and the US Democratic Party, is that government can do some things better than individuals or private enterprise. That there are some things a government has to do, to provide for citizens who cannot afford it: public education, health and transport for example. These are all expensive services, so advocates of bigger government are usually calling for higher taxes to pay for them.

I should at this point make clear I am speaking principally about fiscal policy, not social policy. Politicians of all sides of the spectrum tend to be only too happy to dictate moral choices, such as abortion or same-sex marriage.

But this, like most debates of political position, is a shallow debate. To break the government of an entire country down to two schools of thought is simplistic and unworkable. Not everything in politics is Big Government vs Small Government, or Left Wing vs Right Wing. Labor or Liberal. It’s not one or the other, because we don’t live in a binary world. We need some Big Government ideas, such as a minimum level safety blanket: healthcare, housing, food. But need room for entrepreneurialism, capitalistic incentive and free markets. As with most things, it’s a matter of balance. And it’s a debate which needs to be applied on an individual case-by-case basis.

Take, for example, the debate taking place right now in the US and other countries about taxes on fast food and soft drink. Thirty-three US States have a ‘soda tax’ aimed and curbing the consumption of high-sugar drinks, and a number of lobby groups are campaigning for taxes on high-fat foods such as pizzas and burgers. The taxes are designed to reduced the level of obesity and related health effects. That’s the Big Government view: individuals need help But it’s not up to the government to decide what we, as citizens, should eat. That’s an individual choice, a decision we can make for ourselves.

Aside from animal-welfare or environmental concerns – which are an altogether different debate – if I eat a burger, the only person I’m possibly doing harm to is myself. Nobody else suffers from my eating habits. To tax junk food, therefore, serves only two purposes: to dissuade people from eating it, or to raise money. If it’s to raise money, it’s a sneaky, nasty way to do it that opens the door to other taxes and levies on our lifestyle. If it’s to manipulate our eating habits, it’s an affront to the ideals of liberty and personal choice.

Similarly, in today’s The Age, health experts are calling for a tax on “energy drinks” – drinks laden with sugar and caffeine and various other stimulants. On the surface of it, this is the same sort of debate as the junk food or soda tax: we can decide for ourselves if we want to drink them or not. The problem in this case, however, comes from the increased health risks from high-caffeine drinks – especially to teenagers. And teenagers, with less developed frontal lobes (responsible for forethought and impulse control) are less equipped to make considered judgement calls on how much is too much. But how high would the tax have to be, to deter teenagers? Dramatically high, I think. So much so that you wouldn’t just be inconveniencing teenagers, but sensible adults as well. Perhaps a restriction on sale to under-18s should be looked at.

As with most things in life, moderation is key. We do not need a Big Brother government that will dictate what we can and can’t eat or drink. But we need some form of regulation to look after those whom the free market fails, and we need better education and critical thinking skills to enable people to make smart, informed choices.