Sunday, May 29, 2005

Some Economic Commentary

Haven't posted about the economic situation for a while, so here's an excerpt from the late May edition of a newsletter I subscribe to called The Privateer:
The EU And Russia:
Russia and the European Union announced a breakthrough agreement on political and economic relations on May 10, aimed at defusing years of tension that accompanied the bloc's expansion to Russian frontiers. A statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry said that the two sides had reached agreement on recasting their trade and political ties in a treaty covering four areas, ranging from their economies to their external security. They also agreed to hold consultations on easing all visa regulations and eventually allowing visa-free travel between the two blocs. With this historic agreement, the European Union and Russia are well on the road to having free personal travel, once the visa problem is solved, from Gibraltar to Vladivostok. The Russian/China treaties from last year permanently fixed the vexatious border problems between those two nations. The EU has made its own trade and political agreements with China. The sum of all this is that a simply colossal, more or less free trade region is being born. The US was neither seen nor heard from in any or all these EU/China, Russia/China, or EU/Russia agreements.

Adios - Gringo!:
The Heads of State and ministers from 33 South American and Arab League states gathered in Brasilia, the Brazilian capital, on May 10 for the first ever Arab South American summit. The US officially requested observer status at the summit. The Brazilians politely declined, saying: "It's a public meeting, you can watch it on TV." [Ouch! - Whippy] The South American leaders who attended the summit were from Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, French Guiana, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela. The many Arab leaders who attended were from Algeria, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Mauritania, Oman, the Palestinian territories, Qatar, Syria, Sudan, Somalia and Tunisia. There has been barely a word about this massive summit in the US media, apart from wire service reports on the fact that it took place.

The "Declaration of Brasilia" calls for close political and economic ties between South America and the Arab world. It demands that Israel disband its settlements in the West Bank, including "those in East Jerusalem", and retreat to its pre-1967 war borders. It criticizes US "unilateral economic sanctions against Syria" as violating principles of international law. It condemns terrorism. Israel is also implicitly criticized for holding an undeclared nuclear arsenal. Apart from the condemnation of terrorism, the other political items cut straight across all of President Bush's Middle East projects and policies.

The global sum of all these recent diplomatic and political moves is that the rest of the world is forming their own linkages around the USA, without even seeing it as being necessary to inform the USA at all.

From Politics - To Diplomacy - To Economics:
What is being observed here is a well known sequence in world history which has happened many times in the past. A nation stands forward and openly declares itself to be an "empire", or in today's language, a "superpower". After a while, and with all other nations watching with care, a flurry of international politics takes place. The other nations bury past animosities, followed by the travels of the diplomats as they anchor what has now been politically agreed in new binding agreements and treaties. [..]

Message From South Korea:
The Governor of the Bank of Korea stated on May 18 that South Korea's Central Bank will not intervene any further in foreign exchange markets. "I believe that we now have sufficient reserves to secure our sovereign credibility, so I do not anticipate increasing the amount of foreign reserves further", Mr Park Seung has told the Financial Times. What this means, if action follows words, is that South Korea will buy no more US Treasuries. South Korea's foreign currency reserves now stands at $US 206 Billion, the fourth largest in the world.

©2005 - The Privateer
(reproduced with permission)
Well, it seems the rest of the World is tired of giving the USA a free ride. More than that, they're tired of the US dictating the terms of global trade and so have been making discreet (or not-so-discreet) movements to establish new trade blocs and agreements, bypassing the need for US currency as the middleman. The next few months will prove interesting to watch.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Power Corrupts

Recently I read an article that sickened me to my stomach. A pregnant woman stopped for a speeding ticket was tasered by Seattle police ostensibly for "resisting arrest".
Pregnant woman 'Tasered' by police is convicted


She was rushing her son to school. She was eight months pregnant. And she was about to get a speeding ticket she didn't think she deserved.

So when a Seattle police officer presented the ticket to Malaika Brooks, she refused to sign it. In the ensuing confrontation, she suffered burns from a police Taser, an electric stun device that delivers 50,000 volts.

"Probably the worst thing that ever happened to me," Brooks said, in describing that morning during her criminal trial last week on charges of refusing to obey an officer and resisting arrest.

She was found guilty of the first charge because she never signed the ticket, but the Seattle Municipal Court jury could not decide whether she resisted arrest, the reason the Taser was applied.

To her attorneys and critics of police use of Tasers, Brooks' case is an example of police overreaction.

"It's pretty extraordinary that they should have used a Taser in this case," said Lisa Daugaard, a public defender familiar with the case.

Law enforcement officers have said they see Tasers as a tool that can benefit the public by reducing injuries to police and the citizens they arrest.

Seattle police officials declined to comment on this case, citing concerns that Brooks might file a civil lawsuit.

But King County sheriff's Sgt. Donald Davis, who works on the county's Taser policy, said the use of force is a balancing act for law enforcement.

"It just doesn't look good to the public," he said.

Brooks' run-in with police Nov. 23 came six months before Seattle adopted a new policy on Taser use that guides officers on how to deal with pregnant women, the very young, the very old and the infirm. When used on such subjects, the policy states, "the need to stop the behavior should clearly justify the potential for additional risks."

"Obviously, (law enforcement agencies) don't want to use a Taser on young children, pregnant woman or elderly people," Davis said. "But if in your policy you deliberately exclude a segment of the population, then you have potentially closed off a tool that could have ended a confrontation."

Brooks was stopped in the 8300 block of Beacon Avenue South, just outside the African American Academy, while dropping her son off for school.

In a two-day trial that ended Friday, the officer involved, Officer Juan Ornelas, testified he clocked Brooks' Dodge Intrepid doing 32 mph in a 20-mph school zone.

He motioned her over and tried to write her a ticket, but she wouldn't sign it, even when he explained that signing it didn't mean she was admitting guilt.

Brooks, in her testimony, said she believed she could accept a ticket without signing for it, which she had done once before.

"I said, 'Well, I'll take the ticket, but I won't sign it,' " Brooks testified.

Officer Donald Jones joined Ornelas in trying to persuade Brooks to sign the ticket. They then called on their supervisor, Sgt. Steve Daman.

He authorized them to arrest her when she continued to refuse.

The officers testified they struggled to get Brooks out of her car but could not because she kept a grip on her steering wheel.

And that's when Jones brought out the Taser. Brooks testified she didn't even know what it was when Jones showed it to her and pulled the trigger, allowing her to hear the crackle of 50,000 volts of electricity.

The officers testified that was meant as a final warning, as a way to demonstrate the device was painful and that Brooks should comply with their orders.

When she still did not exit her car, Jones applied the Taser.

In his testimony, the Taser officer said he pressed the prongs of the muzzle against Brooks' thigh to no effect. So he applied it twice to her exposed neck.

Afterward, he and the others testified, Ornelas pushed Brooks out of the car while Jones pulled.

She was taken to the ground, handcuffed and placed in a patrol car, the officers testified.

She told jurors the officer also used the device on her arm, and showed them a dark, brown burn to her thigh, a large, red welt on her arm and a lump on her neck, all marks she said came from the Taser application.

At the South Precinct, Seattle fire medics examined Brooks, confirmed she was pregnant and recommended she be evaluated at Harborview Medical Center.

Brooks said she was worried about the effect the trauma and the Taser might have on her baby, but she delivered a healthy girl Jan. 31.

Still, she said, she remains shocked that a simple traffic stop could result in her arrest.

"As police officers, they could have hurt me seriously. They could have hurt my unborn fetus," she said.

"All because of a traffic ticket. Is this what it's come down to?"

Davis said Tasers remain a valuable tool, and that situations like Brooks' are avoidable.

"I know the Taser is controversial in all these situations where it seems so egregious," he said. "Why use a Taser in a simple traffic stop? Well, the citizen has made it more of a problem. It's no longer a traffic stop. This is now a confrontation."
The last sentence is particularly sickening. Ahh... so it was the woman's fault she received the Tasering, which was simply a product of her not instantly obeying the directives of a law enforcement officer. It had nothing to do with zap-happy cops whatsoever! The agents of the law cannot be to blame! The state is infallible! All hail the Fatherland!

Blame the victim. I recall reading that that particular strategy is a favourite of psychopaths. Blame the victim for what is happening to them so as to avoid the real culprits being discovered. Dr. Robert Hare has done some extremely interesting research in this area. Personally, I find the idea that there may be a substantial percentage of undiagnosed psychopaths running around quite enlightening. It would go a long way toward explaining specimens like the above Taser-touting police officers.

But then, what makes a psychopath? Is it genetic? Is it some kind of disfigurement of the psyche caused by traumatic events? Certainly so-called "normal" people can exhibit a mean enough streak as it is. Consider for instance, the Stanford Prison Experiment.

This was a landmark study done in 1971 at Stanford University regarding the psychology of captivity. One of the key observations was that some types of people, when placed in a position of power, tend to abuse that power. From the site:
There were three types of guards. First, there were tough but fair guards who followed prison rules. Second, there were "good guys" who did little favors for the prisoners and never punished them. And finally, about a third of the guards were hostile, arbitrary, and inventive in their forms of prisoner humiliation. These guards appeared to thoroughly enjoy the power they wielded, yet none of our preliminary personality tests were able to predict this behavior. The only link between personality and prison behavior was a finding that prisoners with a high degree of authoritarianism endured our authoritarian prison environment longer than did other prisoners.
A third of the "guards" in the experiment equals four men. Is it possible that these men were all psychopaths? In terms of strict numbers, it's probably unlikely. From an article by Robert Hercz reproduced on Hare's website:
The most startling finding to emerge from Hare's work is that the popular image of the psychopath as a remorseless, smiling killer -- Paul Bernardo, Clifford Olson, John Wayne Gacy -- while not wrong, is incomplete. Yes, almost all serial killers, and most of Canada's dangerous offenders, are psychopaths, but violent criminals are just a tiny fraction of the psychopaths around us. Hare estimates that 1 percent of the population -- 300,000 people in Canada -- are psychopaths.

He calls them "subclinical" psychopaths. They're the charming predators who, unable to form real emotional bonds, find and use vulnerable women for sex and money (and inevitably abandon them). They're the con men like Christophe Rocancourt, and they're the stockbrokers and promoters who caused Forbes magazine to call the Vancouver Stock Exchange (now part of the Canadian Venture Exchange) the scam capital of the world. (Hare has said that if he couldn't study psychopaths in prisons, the Vancouver Stock Exchange would have been his second choice.) A significant proportion of persistent wife beaters, and people who have unprotected sex despite carrying the AIDS virus, are psychopaths. Psychopaths can be found in legislatures, hospitals, and used-car lots. They're your neighbour, your boss, and your blind date. Because they have no conscience, they're natural predators. If you didn't have a conscience, you'd be one too.
Utilising Hare's estimate of one percent and assuming a homogenous distribution amongst the population, the likelihood that the four men (16%) of the Stanford prison experiment sample were all psychopaths is pretty slim. Indeed, all other factors being equal, the odds of a single psychopath making it into the experiment are at minimum four to one.

Still, the Experiment has several notable criticisms. Psychologist Erich Fromm's analysis is a good starting point. Wikipedia also has a good page on the Stanford Prison Experiment. See also the 'Signs of the Times' analysis which correlates the relevance of the Stanford Prison Experiment with events in Iraq.

This stuff about psychopaths makes for uncomfortable reading, but when one sees articles about pregnant women being tasered by police, it's good to have knowledge that puts such brutality and intolerance into context. It also puts several encounters with certain people in my life in a much clearer perspective as well.

As the saying goes... "Forewarned is forearmed".

Thursday, May 05, 2005

The Lockdown on Dissenting Opinion (Part I)

Some very interesting articles of late regarding the increasing marginalisation of thoughts that challenge the status quo. Firstly, Antony Loewenstein writes an excellent piece regarding the two-faced attitude of Fairfax over John Pilger's recently released book "Tell Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and its Triumphs ". Antony sums up at the end:
I have published the above correspondence and review to underscore the lengths to which dissenting voices are routinely shunned in the Australian media, especially a major figure like Pilger. He is one of our finest reporters, inquisitive, gutsy and consistent. Lest anybody misunderstand my intentions, the above example is a perfect case to me of the need for figures such as Pilger. The Age should be ashamed of its behaviour - I hope this example exposes them just a little.
I won't quote any more than that - go read it now for a good example of how the media marginalises journalists openly critical of the Imperial agenda.

Speaking of which, the Empire's protrusion into cyberspace, Google, looks like it's doing its bit for the eradication of dissenting media:
Now Google, whose name has become synonymous with internet searching, plans to build a database that will compare the track record and credibility of all news sources around the world, and adjust the ranking of any search results accordingly.

The database will be built by continually monitoring the number of stories from all news sources, along with average story length, number with bylines, and number of the bureaux cited, along with how long they have been in business. Google's database will also keep track of the number of staff a news source employs, the volume of internet traffic to its website and the number of countries accessing the site.

Google will take all these parameters, weight them according to formulae it is constructing, and distil them down to create a single value. This number will then be used to rank the results of any news search.

The patent also reveals that the same system could be roped in to rank other search results, not simply news. So sales and services could in the future be listed on the basis of price and the reputation of the company involved.
Interesting how this happens not too long after the blogger scoop on the Jeff Gannon scandal - embarassing not only the Bush Administration, but also the corporate media giants. There is good reason to be suspicious of Google - I also recall reading about problems that alternative media sites Signs Of The Times and What Really Happened both had with suddenly "disappearing" temporarily from Google's search results some time ago.

It appears however that major US newspapers may be losing ground slightly. Although I doubt that the mainstream public will ever turn away from the strobing cyclops in the lounge room for their news and current affairs, if a critical mass of enough people were to seek their information primarily from Internet-based media sources such as alternative news sites and blogs, who knows what kind of trickle-down or effects could occur?

Monday, May 02, 2005

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Review)

I saw this movie the other night.

I have always loved Douglas Adams' work. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy was the first sci-fi book I ever read, and I found it to be entertaining and thought-provoking in a way quite unlike any other "hard" sci-fi story. Despite the clever social commentary, the philosophical ponderings and the wide emotional spectrum of scenes, everything in the Hitchhiker's universe seemed to be underpinned by a limitless sense of the absurb and the comical that ran with its own strange kind of logic.

I was quite curious to see whether Hollywood was going to bastardise this book like it had so many other great works previously, but knowing that Douglas Adams was involved in the creative process (at least, until he died) was a great reassurance. So how did it turn out?

To quote Arthur Dent: "Actually, I rather liked it".

The characters were great, except possibly for Ford Prefect who was "ok" but still seemed a little too clean-cut for the kind of roving hitchhiker-journalist that Adams portrayed him as. Zooey Deschanel was perfect as Trillian - very cute, but not some bombshell model type, strong-willed and intelligent. Martin Freeman was great as Arthur, who I think was always meant to be the archetypal 30-something nervous British guy. I thought Zaphod was also done very well, and John Malkovich was appropriately sinister as Humma Kavula.

What surprised me was how appropriate the Vogons were. I always had a bit of difficulty imagining what they might look like, but IMO it was a fitting representation of their blunt, bureacratic, but not quite "evil" mentality. This kind of leads into a discussion of the special effects, which were nothing short of spectacular. The "factory floor" of Magrathea was pretty jaw-dropping stuff, and the scenes with the supercomputer "Deep Thought" were pretty good too. The animated scenes from the "Guide" itself were also quite well done, fitting in nicely with Stephen Fry's narration of some of the quirkier moments of humour.

IMO the changes to the plot were acceptable, and the introduction of Humma Kavula as the religious nut who ran against Zaphod in the Presidential elections could open up some interesting possibilities for sequels. Dare I say that a nutcase religious fundamentalist as the arch-villian is somewhat appropriate these days?

But it wasn't all good. I thought the whole Trillian-Arthur love story angle was done with no subtlety at all and was a total departure from the trilogy in terms of their relationship. It also crossed my mind a couple of times that Mos Def was trying to be a little too like "The Cat" out of Red Dwarf rather than Ford Prefect.

All up though, I think it was a good adaption of the book and could have been handled a hell of a lot worse considering what Hollywood has done to other books in the past. No doubt a good portion of that was probably due to Adams' input during the making of the film and it will be interesting to see if any sequels can keep to at least an equal standard.

I'd rate it 7.5 out of 10.