The final paragraph: how to identify a nutter

So you’ve been linked to some random weirdo’s blog, and you’re assaulted by an assertion, or better still a muted conspiratorial suggestion, that something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Well, that is mostly the sort of thing we like to read about.

But how do you know whether you’re reading the considered opinion of an expert (or at least someone who is honest about the limits of their own expertise), or one of the Internet’s many millions of over-confident ideologues?

There’s a simple test for this that I feel may be undervalued. It’s simply this: read the last paragraph first. It’s not fool-proof by any means, but it is a useful tool in one’s scepticism kit.

I’m motivated to point this out, because I’ve just noticed how well this test works on this article, on a site I’ve never been to before. Paul Craig Roberts’s contention is that Turkey is lying about the circumstances of its shooting down of a Russian plane. Okay, you say. The article does start out a bit hot-headed, but wouldn’t you be? And he does seem to offer some evidence, including technical details.

But alas, Roberts is betrayed by The Final Paragraph:

Gullible Americans who give money to NPR are supporting lies and propaganda that have resulted in the deaths and dislocation of millions of peoples and that are leading to WWIII. The Western media whores are complicit in the crimes, because they fail their responsibility to hold government accountable and make it impossible for valid information to reach people. The Western media serves as cheerleaders for death and destruction.

Ah, so National Public Radio is responsible for deaths of millions of people, and for World War 3? Okie dokie. I can now confidently file the article, and its author, under “H” for “Hilarious”, without all the tedium of analysing the rest of it. You see how this works?

So, in summary, the Egyptian pyramids are a hoax to cover up a volcano that the English Defence League wants to use to block off the Suez Canal, so that Al Qaeda can’t sail its 4-thousand-metre long dreadnought to Cyprus and foment an uprising amongst the local dinosaur population. You were all in on it — don’t pretend otherwise.

The flying car revolution will never happen

One of science fiction’s greatest mistakes is the flying car. And that icon of the future is under further threat from a real technological revolution, the driverless car.

My mental image of a flying car is shaped heavily by their depiction in the Fifth Element, in which Bruce Willis drives a yellow taxi that is, cosmetically, an ordinary car that happens to drive on thin air. He navigates traffic lanes that form a 3D lattice amongst buildings so tall that we rarely see the ground. A close second in my mental imagery is the “hover converted” DeLorean1 from Back to the Future part II, which we see navigating a “skyway” in the far-off year of 2015.

It didn’t happen, of course. There are certainly people trying to make it happen, but clearly they haven’t made much of a dent in the way our transport systems actually operate. Articles on the subject of flying cars (e.g. this one, and this one) often start by pointing out the obvious, and end by wistfully suggesting “maybe some day”.

No. Here’s my prediction: the flying car revolution will never happen. Not in a decade, nor a century, nor a millennium. The flying car — as portrayed in science fiction, and distinct from today’s commercial passenger aircraft — is a fatally flawed concept. That’s not to say you can’t make one; you just can’t make society adopt them. They will never be a significant component of our transport network.


There are several reasons. The first to spring to mind first is safety. Surface driving is already a significant cause of death; drivers already fail at the delicate art of steering in two dimensions, let alone three. When we do travel by air, we appreciate that our pilots are somewhat more qualified than your average tailgating, drink-driving arseclown who has no understanding of risk. And even when you’re not a tailgating, drink-driving arseclown, driving is still inherently risky.

Would you like to see what a flying car collision looks like? Observe from afar, because there’s no such thing as a “fender bender” in the air. There’s no “five star” safety rating. Seat belts and airbags won’t save you. If you lose control, you’re simply going to die. And in a populated area, people around you are going to die too, not to mention the property damage.

Some quick risk analysis is sobering. The probability (0-1) of something going wrong is bound to be higher. The consequences (measured in dollars or lives) are certainly much worse. We can multiply these to get a quantity called “risk” (also in dollars or lives), which you can think of as the expected cost per flying car, on average, if many people owned them. Since both factors are much higher with flying cars, the risk is catastrophic.


And calculating the probability of an “accident” avoids another very serious problem: what about deliberate crashes? What about criminality, or terrorism? How can you even begin to police a “skyway”? The term “flying car” belies the fact that this thing isn’t just a car but a missile. Should we install automated air-defence turrets on parliament, banks, hospitals, schools, apartment blocks, etc.? We must. If we are not prepared to shoot down flying cars, then inevitably criminals and extremists will use them, whether in a kamikaze attack, or as a remote-piloted weapon. And their targets will always be high-value ones.

Perhaps manufacturers can design safeguards to prevent collisions, and/or prevent entry into unauthorised airspace. But that won’t stop anyone with an aptitude for taking things apart.

And if we are prepared to shoot down flying cars, would you get in one? Moreover, the air defences themselves might prove a tempting weapon for criminals and terrorists. Feeling safe yet?

Physics and fuel efficiency

Flying cars from science fiction generally rely on as-yet undiscovered physical phenomena to keep them airborne. Sometimes “anti-gravity” is mentioned, a force that simply doesn’t exist as far as the current pool of scientific evidence indicates.

Even if anti-gravity were to exist, it would not necessarily be of any practical use. Hypothesised “exotic matter” could have negative mass, ergo negative, repulsive gravity. But it’s Earth’s gravity that matters, not the car’s. The “acceleration due to gravity” near the Earth’s surface is the same for any falling object, irrespective of mass (if we ignore friction). An exotic object with negative mass, even if it were possible, would still just fall downwards like everything else.

Magnets? Well, no. Although magnetic levitation exists (see diamagnetism, as used in maglev trains) there’s a significant difference between levitating a few millimetres above a superconductor and actually flying. You would need an implausibly powerful magnet to hold a car-sized object tens of metres off the ground, and if you had such a magnet, it would probably destroy everything around it. You can’t just tailor a magnetic field to only apply to one specific object. And the ultimate reason for the total futility of this idea: you still need a surface-bound vehicle to hold the magnet (or superconductor) underneath your flying car. What would be the point?2

Obviously, we do have a few real ways to keep something airborne. Balloons use buoyancy, but they are large, slow, and difficult to manoeuvre. Rockets use a controlled explosion, but this lasts for a matter of seconds. The most plausible way to create an actual flying car is as a scaled-down plane or helicopter, with spinning blades and aerofoils to push down on the air.

But “anti-gravity” is used in science fiction to get around a huge problem with aircraft — their fuel consumption. In the real world, fighting gravity consumes energy. Continuously. A surface car needs energy only to overcome friction and inertia. A flying car needs large amounts of energy simply to stay up, on top of the energy needed to actually move it from point A to point B. And in the end, the point A and point B that you’re travelling between are both on the ground, or at least connected to it.

(A side note: there is the interesting phenomenon of electrohydrodynamics, which can create lift by making charged particles push air molecules, with no explosions or moving parts needed. But even this doesn’t get around the problem; it still requires very large energy input.)

So why are you burning up all that jet fuel3 just to keep above the surface, when you could be cruising along the surface at a fraction of the price?

Traffic congestion is perhaps the one genuine reason people might have for taking to the air. It’s certainly tempting to imagine going over the top of all those suckers stuck in gridlock on the bitumen.


But there’s a problem with this picture too. While you’re flying over all the suckers stuck in gridlock on the bitumen, it may occur to you to ask why they aren’t flying too. Consider this paradox: if everyone is flying, by definition there is no surface traffic, ergo no surface gridlock, so then why is anyone flying?

Flying cars are going to be inherently more expensive than their surface counterparts. If we do overcome all the safety and security issues, it’s going to be thanks to some pretty fantastic engineering. That costs an awful lot of money up front, which needs to be recovered in sales. Also, as mentioned, there’s the fuel. And then there’s the servicing, similarly expensive due to the extreme life-and-death importance of keeping the vehicle running. And speaking of extreme life-and-death matters, there are the insurance premiums, if someone is crazy enough to sell you insurance at all.

It all adds up to a fanciful luxury for the vast majority of people. It would be fantastic, we’d all say, right up until we see the number of zeros in the price tag. It would be fantastic, but it’s just not worth it.

Furthermore, getting back to the paradox above, the uptake of flying cars in itself discourages further uptake (the opposite of many other technologies). Every time a person chooses to fly, that’s one less surface vehicle, meaning less congestion. Every person who uses a flying car reduces the incentive for everyone else to do so.

Nonetheless, you might imagine a situation where (a) the population continues to increase more or less boundlessly, and (b) the government makes fewer and fewer investments in surface infrastructure in recognition of increasing numbers of people with flying cars. Perhaps everyone would use a flying car eventually.

But even given that we’ve somehow solved the safety and security issues, I still think this scenario is highly unlikely in any reasonably democratic society. Governments will spend money on infrastructure (whether roads or public transport) because these are tangible things that voters will easily understand and use. Infrastructure makes for compelling election promises, and although it’s a short-term hit to the budget, it’s often easy to justify in real economic terms. To abandon infrastructure spending would be to abandon large numbers of voters who can’t afford the costs of flying.

Indeed, in a hypothetical city that already relies on flying cars, there would be economic pressure to go the other way — to develop efficient public infrastructure in order to minimise costs. Large/dense metropolises tend to have extensive public transport networks, because as the population density goes up, the cost of public transport per person goes down. The cost of flying cars does not.


But even congestion and commute times may not be so much of an issue in the future. Driverless cars represent a rather different and much more realistic kind of revolution.

This innovation could dramatically improve the efficiency of our road networks. On the roads we have constraints: the speed limit, the distance from the car in front, the lane widths, etc. We need these because of our general human imprecision, our slow reaction times, our reliance on mostly a single sense for driving (our eyesight), our blind spots while driving, and our inability to make decisions based on large amounts of sensory information at once. It’s also essentially impossible for a human driver to see what’s happening along alternate routes.

Driverless cars, in principle, have none of these problems. They can be faster and safer and more efficient. They can, in principle, perform safely in situations that would be dangerous for a human driver. (I only say “in principle” because it’s a matter of engineering quality. It may take a while to develop driverless cars to this point, but there’s nothing fundamentally standing in the way.)

To do this, they can take advantage of sensory data that humans simply don’t have — sonar, radar and lidar — to model their surroundings in a level of detail many times beyond our own mental capabilities (which are really very limited in rapidly-changing situations).

Software and hardware can react in a tiny fraction of a second, so driverless cars can safely leave much less buffer space. They can also make the best decision on which route to take based on real-time measurements of traffic density (provided by some external source). As a result, we could squeeze a lot more of them onto existing roads, increasing the total number of trips possible with the same amount of infrastructure.

Many people are doubtless nervous about giving up control of their vehicles, but as discussed, human driving is hardly safe as it is. In making a driverless car safer than a human driver (safer even than you), the bar isn’t really that high. Safety will become one of the principal arguments in favour of driverless cars, not against them. It’s just a matter of design, testing and time. (I don’t doubt there will be accidents, but it’s the accident rate that we must focus on.)

Driverless cars also facilitate cheap, automated taxi fleets, which may allow a lot of people to get by without their own cars at all. No more parking, refuelling, servicing, insurance or licensing (all of which are taken care of for you). No more fines and tickets. No more traffic police, except perhaps for the few DIY holdouts. Unlike flying cars, automated taxis would be a self-reinforcing technology. There’s no huge up-front to commuters, and the more there are, the shorter your waiting times will be, so the more likely you will be to use them.

And when you’re commuting in a driverless car, that need not be wasted time. You could be working on a laptop/tablet, reading, teleconferencing, eating a meal or even just sleeping. Given that you can fill in the commute with useful activities, the actual time it takes may not be so much of an issue any more.

It’s not just that driverless cars are more useful and realistic than flying cars. Once we have driverless cars, the arguments for flying cars will practically vanish altogether.

So, science fiction, let’s put one of those ideas out of its misery.

  1. It’s also a time machine, but that’s strangely unimportant in this context. []
  2. Okay, perhaps you could convince the government to build a grid of super-powerful magnets to keep your flying car aloft, but I suspect some political advisers might prefer to aim for more efficient and less catastrophic infrastructure projects. []
  3. It could be bio-fuel or batteries, of course, so supply is not an unsurmountable long-term problem, but it will be expensive nonetheless. []

What lecturers think when students say…

Now, you might think that I’ve turned into a jaded and cynical old man when you read the following. And you might be right. I should also emphasise that there are many things students say that are not silly or irritating.

As for the rest…

Student: I don’t understand X. [Silence] (Extra points for incoherent babbling between the words “don’t” and “understand”.)

Lecturer: Okay. So you’re going to fix that, right? I mean, there is all that stuff I’ve been saying for the last N weeks, which you’ve been paying money to hear about. Quite a lot of money, if you recall.

Student: What do I write here? (Extra points for saying this after a detailed explanation has just been given.)

Lecturer: What should you write, or what you’re going to write? From the looks of things, you’re going to write total bullshit — oh look, you already have — because your question demonstrates a preoccupation with the mindless act of putting ink on paper to the exclusion of actual learning. Of course, the real trick is to write the correct answer, but this may unfortunately require you to understand all the stuff I’ve been saying.

Student: How should I format my answer? (Extra points for total misunderstanding of where and why marks were actually lost on the last assessment.)

Lecturer: You have two options: you can format it so that I can understand it (looks to the contrary notwithstanding, I am in fact an ordinary human being), or you can make it look like gibberish. Now, having thought carefully about the implications of those two options, you may be inclined to ask how to do the former, to which I humbly advise you to learn your shit and stop conflating your lack of understanding with a mere “formatting” deficiency.

Student: You took X marks off me here — that’s too harsh! (Extra points for inventing a rationale based on a vague and completely fictitious set of Rules of Marking.)

Lecturer: I took X marks off because you were wrong, a fact you’re not apparently disputing. I must now point out that being wrong isn’t a good place from which to be arguing for different marking criteria, since your judgment is now compromised both emotionally and intellectually — a double whammy of fail. In trying to diminish the importance of your first error, you are in fact compounding it with a second one. Perhaps we should revise your mark downwards a bit more…

Student: What do you mean by this question here? (Extra points for not saying anything else at all.)

Lecturer: Is that a trick question? The words are right there on the page. They go together into sentences to represent meaning. Would you like some different words? You know we all love to spend hours flailing around for alternate phrasing without the slightest clue as to what part you don’t understand.

Student: This question is ambiguous. (Extra points for saying “sort-of ambiguous”.)

Lecturer: Ah, now sometimes that does happen. But hopefully it has also occurred to you that a question may well appear ambiguous if, in fact, you have no idea what you’re doing. Let’s not jump to conclusions.

Student: Is the exam going to be hard? (Extra points for having failed everything so far.)

Lecturer: In the far future, science will have unlocked the mysteries of the human mind, and I’ll be able to peer into your head in order to predict the intellectual and emotional challenges that you in particular will face when confronted by a series of questions assessing your personal level of comprehension. Until that time, why are you asking me how hard you will find it?

(In fact, should said future come to pass, I wouldn’t need to give you an exam in the first place, so actually the question never makes sense.)

2nd/3rd-year student: I need some help with [basic introductory concept]. (Extra points for having come to this realisation after an entire semester, or even an entire year, of needing to have already understood said concept.)

Lecturer: Yes, funny thing about university courses (or at least those not yet dumbed down to the point of irrelevance) — you actually need to know the stuff you get taught in first year. Another way to put this might be: you actually need to know the stuff you’ve been paying other people to do for you and fraudulently submitting as your own work.

Student: Yes. (Extra points for saying this in response to something that could not possibly be interpreted as a yes-or-no question.)

Lecturer: You haven’t understood a single thing I’ve just said, have you?

Look everyone, I’m being ethical

It is the fate of all blogs and media outlets to weigh in on #GamerGate at some point. Let’s not pretend now that I stand apart from the Global Media Conspiracy — we all know I’m in it up to my eyebrows.

It has unfolded in a kind of frantic, ongoing information disaster of the scale and fervour that could (probably) only happen via social media. Picture a derailing train of infinite length, where flaming, wrecked carriages pile up around the landscape without end, the rest of the train, with its unlimited momentum, relentlessly ploughing into the crash site.

Except it’s all virtual, right? Nobody gets hurt. Sticks and stones.


Where do we start? The voyeuristic hate-mongering over other people’s personal lives? The doxxing? The miscellaneous death threats? The rape threats? A bomb threat? The threat of “the deadliest school shooting in American history“? Oh yes, and the blessing of the neo-Nazis at Stormfront. (We Hunted the Mammoth provides a rather good record and commentary on such things.)

Nothing to fear except fear itself. And all that stuff I just said.

And yet, there are actual real people who sincerely believe that GamerGate is about ethics. Take @BlackOscuros, who I’m picking on only because I’ve had a conversation with him. It was reasonably civil, and included discourse like this:

Here I’m inclined to call for a little sense of perspective. Precisely how much sexism and harassment — how many rape threats and death threats — must occur before the injustice of an article pronouncing “Gamers are Dead” is taken down a notch on our list of priorities?

It’s also telling that, slightly earlier on, @BlackOscuros had this to say:

I was rather taken aback that someone would place their own movement — one ostensibly founded on ethics — in such ignominious company. Surely any sane person would abandon a movement long before the most positive thing that springs to mind is “it deserves a fair trial, like the Nazis”. Don’t oversell it.

What I can see now is that GamerGate is an issue of identity. That’s why it’s defended so fiercely, despite all that has happened. The “ethics in game journalism” trope serves as justification in the minds of GamerGaters themselves, and that’s it. It’s not the reason for the existence of the movement any more than thetans are the reason for the existence of Scientology, or scientific rigour is the basis of climate change denialism. They’re all about identity — belonging.

It’s not enough, for some people, to merely promote ethics in game journalism. You need to be a GamerGater. You need to self-identify. And then it really becomes about you and your comrades. You’re in it together; all for one.

After all, people have been fighting for ethics in journalism for a long, long time — as long as journalism has existed — and it’s never been a “-gate” before. Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and others enjoy almost cult-like celebrity status as revealers of media dishonesty on a far greater scale than GamerGate deals with, but even they are not a “movement”. Similarly, I’ve witnessed the silliness and dishonesty of Australian media every week on MediaWatch for years, but Paul Barry, Jonathon Holmes and other presenters have never (as far as I know) spearheaded a large amorphous online gathering of armchair media critics. They’ve always just got on with the job.

“Actually, it’s about ethics in video game journalism,” is the refrain now subject to so much parody.

Why do we find it funny? Because the fact that it has to be said in this manner confirms the total failure of the movement to advance the goal. Because a movement that spends most of its time and effort (a) harassing prominent female game developers and critics, and (b) defending itself from accusations of such harassment, cannot simply claim arbitrarily to be about something else.

Nobody listens to a movement so easily discredited by its own adherents (not people like @BlackOscuros, but rather the sort who openly vilify and threaten others). Why should they? There are many thoughtful, rational commentaries on media ethics outside of GamerGate that one can brood over without having to wade through an endless vapid confrontation conducted in 140-character spittle. If GamerGate’s adherents had ideas worth more than their own egos, they would drop the baggage — leave the movement  — and simply talk about their ideas, free from any association to misogynistic dropkicks.

But they don’t. They stay and dig in, fighting an imaginary battle for their own survival.

Insulting Islam

I came to know of Uthman Badar recently via the news that his talk at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, titled “Honour Killings are Justified”, had been called off. It’s certainly a provocative title. My instinct was not to take it at face value, and Badar himself said it would be “ludicrous”, but it’s difficult to make an assessment of a talk that never happened.

Since information is scant on that topic, I’d like to address something else Badar has raised in this article (in a publication called 5Pillarz, which describes itself as “an opinion and analysis-based website which concentrates on British Muslim news but also looks to the wider Islamic world”).

I’ll start at the end, where Badar finally says:

Hence all beliefs and sanctities should be protected from insult, including that which is most sacred to billions around the world: God and His Prophets, peace be upon them all. This should be done, in our present context, by the elevation of values, not imposition of law. You can’t regulate civility. You can’t force people to be respectful. This is about elevating the human condition -reviving the sacred and the most basic value of human decency, which has been eroded by secular liberalism in the most hideous of ways.

(My emphasis.)

Badar would have done well to say this up-front. Up until those final sentences, you get the distinct impression that he is talking about the imposition of a blaspheme law, or something like it.

After all, he spends a fair bit of time tearing down the notion of free speech; indeed, the piece is titled “Free speech is a liberal tool of power”. Badar does make a some reasonable points when he argues against the notion of an absolute right to free speech. Many of us are quite open to being persuaded, in particular situations, that free speech is absolute. It clearly isn’t, though, and there are many times where, for good reason, we simply cannot (or should not) say whatever we please. All of us know this, at some level, but we do not always remember it.

I agree with much of what he says, but his free speech argument doesn’t really support his broader point about the protection of belief from insult. It looks like it does, on the surface, but it’s a subtle non-sequitur. By “protection” Badar means something other than by means of the law. But free speech is fundamentally a legal notion. It implies that we have (at least some) legal protection, not necessarily moral virtue, when we choose to say something controversial. Libertarian defenders of free speech are often happy to concede the moral argument entirely (focusing instead on what they conceive to be a higher principle — individual rights).

The upshot is that free speech is the apples to Badar’s oranges. Badar’s argument that we should encourage (not enforce) civility by the “elevation of values” does not require a step back from free speech. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the legal protection of free speech at all, either in theory or practice. (Some people, particularly committed ideologues, do often mistake criticism of their ideas for an attempt to silence them, but we need not give their complaints credibility.)

Putting the free speech issue aside, Badar also runs into trouble when he tries to distinguish between “insult” and “critique”:

When it comes to critique – as opposed to insult – I’d say, bring it on. Any attempt to quash or stifle serious debate is unacceptable in Islam. Critique of any ideas or beliefs is kosher. It’s halal. Insulting any beliefs or people is not. Critique Islam all you want. Write in measured, considered tones about why Islam is not the truth, or why the Prophet was not a prophet. Such books fill bookstores across the West as it is. Never have any of these books resulted in a riot. But to mock, to denigrate, to provoke, to agitate – that is something else, and is unacceptable.

A very fine line indeed, you might think. Badar tries to make it concrete by praising “critique” and damning “insult” in the strongest terms he can, but that’s emotional reasoning, and doesn’t actually serve to distinguish the two very well.

The real problem here is that the magnitude of the disagreement between religious groups, or the religious and non-religious, is so large that speaking honestly, openly and concisely about what you think of someone else’s beliefs is almost inherently mocking, denigrating and provocative. A debate? What “debate” would you have with someone who sincerely believes that the sky is green, or that we’re inhabited by ghosts who came from a volcano blown up by an ancient extraterrestrial? Your inner voice is not weighing up the evidence and formulating critiques. It’s saying “WTF?! Okay, just smile and nod. Smile and nod”.

Sure, we can, in theory, sit down for a few months (or even years) to meticulously explain in a weighty treatise where some belief system went wrong. “Never have any of these books resulted in a riot”, Badar claims, for those books that address Islam. I don’t actually know if this is true, but there is a logic to it — the longer and more detailed the explanation, the more opportunity the writer has to demonstrate (or fail to demonstrate) that they operate from a position of intellectual rigour and not malice. But writing books is a pretty high bar to set. A little forethought is always a good thing, but I don’t think one should be asked to refrain from commenting on a contentious issue unless or until one has devoted months of one’s life to researching and expounding the topic. This would just create a kind of intellectual aristocracy that shuts out most people.

Of course, we can be diplomatic and simply not point out how absurd we find the claims of (other) religions. For the purposes of maintaining harmonious relationships across belief systems, such discretion is necessary much of the time. But we must also be seekers of truth. Falsehoods have real consequences (see Iraqi WMDs, doomsday cults, vaccine denial, climate change denial, etc.), and we cannot always sit idly by while people are lured into believing something we know to be false. We know people are hurt by having their beliefs questioned, especially if those beliefs are held as dearly as religion often demands. But the same people, or others, or the wider community, can often be hurt even more if those beliefs are left unchallenged.

And so we must at least occasionally speak up, not because “it’s a free country” (as if there was any logic to that), but because we’re sincerely trying to do the right thing. I don’t excuse the trolls whose motivation actually is to upset people by mocking their beliefs. If Badar is only talking about genuine trolls, then so much the better. But removing the trolls will not stop people taking offence at the comments of others; the problem is more complicated than that.

I’ll address other aspect of Badar’s article: his take on “secular liberalism”, which comes off as a little defensive:

But, let’s be honest, the reason this debate over the freedom to insult others is still a live one is because secular liberalism has dominated both East and West, not by the strength of its values, but by the strength of its militaries.

I won’t deny that the military might of the West (and others) has won it great power over the rest of the world. But are we really blaming liberalism for that? Liberalism is just one part of the political spectrum, not a banner under which Western armies march. Consider the internal politics of a country going to war — the nationalistic fervour, the secrecy, the paranoia over enemy propaganda and enemy infiltration. This is not liberalism, nor is it secularism. It was not liberalism nor secularism that advocated for the US invasion of Iraq, nor the Russian war in Chechnya. Liberals in the west are constantly being criticised by conservatives for being too weak to confront Islam, a charge to which they respond (broadly speaking) by calling for peace.

If there is peace to be made between the Western and Muslim worlds, secular liberalism will be a vital ingredient. The whole point of secularism is the peaceful coexistence of different belief systems. Where the word is co-opted to mean something else, this (I think) usually means the speaker feels threatened by such a heterogeneous society. For instance:

This is about elevating the human condition -reviving the sacred and the most basic value of human decency, which has been eroded by secular liberalism in the most hideous of ways.

There is also a certain level of hypocrisy in railing against insult while simultaneously levelling accusations of “hideous” erosion of “the sacred and the most basic value of human decency” at one’s opponents. Surely, if beliefs are sacred, then secular liberalism is entitled to the same basic level of respect as Islam.

Besides, the above statement is simply wrong, and demonstrably so. Consider the changes in Western society over the last fifty or so years. Erosion of human decency? What about the advancement of women’s rights, gay rights and the rights of (at least some) racial and religious minorities? What about the advancement of medicine and health care and the de-stigmatisation and management of mental illness and disability? None of these are fixed problems, of course, but you can’t easily deny that there’s been progress. Are these things not elevating the human condition?

Badar is thinking of Western militarism, and (though he doesn’t say it) he could also be thinking of the widening wealth gap between rich and poor, both of which are arguably erosions of human decency. I’m not sure that Western militarism has any particular philosophical basis, other than the basic tribal instinct to be as big and powerful as you can. You might legitimately blame the wealth gap on economic liberalism — the philosophy of small government. Economic liberalism has tended to ally itself politically to religious hardliners, who are opposed to liberalism in the secular/social sense.

While Badar is right about the limitations of free speech, and right about the importance of civility, he seems bent on hitting the wrong target. But then, the same thing happens when the ABC’s Scott Stephens writes about the perils of the faltering influence of Christianity. The ills of the world are arrayed before us and, whatever they are, we can be sure that it’s the damned secularists wot dun it. The varied religions of the world are getting quite good at this, and it serves their purposes (at least temporarily) to have an adversary who won’t get righteously outraged at being insulted.

It’s not even really secularism that they spurn (because, as mentioned above, secularism is merely peaceful coexistence among religions). Their true adversary is the absence of religion, including atheism and agnosticism, but also apatheism — a category for those who essentially don’t care. Defenders of religion devote so much of their human compassion, morality and civility to their cause that they conflate these qualities with their religion, and they forget, I think, that the same qualities exist outside of religion too.

Don’t mock George Brandis

He’s trying to be intellectual.

In fact, today’s xkcd comic about free speech is delightfully well-timed, considering yesterday’s remarks by George Brandis about free speech in an online magazine called Spiked.

The magazine quotes Brandis as follows:

He isn’t a climate-change denier; he says he was ‘on the side of those who believed in anthropogenic global warming and who believed something ought to be done about it’. But he has nonetheless found himself ‘really shocked by the sheer authoritarianism of those who would have excluded from the debate the point of view of people who were climate-change deniers’. He describes as ‘deplorable’ the way climate change has become a gospel truth that you deny or mock at your peril, ‘where one side [has] the orthodoxy on its side and delegitimises the views of those who disagree, rather than engaging with them intellectually and showing them why they are wrong’.

Quite so, George! It’s deplorable that we’re arresting climate change deniers, gaoling them after secret trials, banning their books, preventing newspapers and TV stations from repeating their claims, and…

Oh wait, sorry, that’s what isn’t happening. It’s confusing, isn’t it?

What’s more confusing is that, while George has identified authoritarianism as the problem, he himself is the Attorney General. I don’t know if you quite understand how authoritarianism works, George, but it usually involves the government, or at least whoever is in control of the military. Is your government in control of the Australian Defence Force, George? I know this isn’t your portfolio, but perhaps you could quickly reassure us that someone else isn’t in control of the military.

And having made said reassurance, perhaps you could then explain how a bunch of scientists and activists can, without military force, engage in “authoritarianism”. Unless said scientists have developed some sort of mind-control weapon with those mysterious fountains of grant money they (apparently) keep swimming around in.

Oh, but I think I see the source of the confusion. You see, it’s not that deniers are being prevented from speaking. Indeed, they are some of the most outspoken people in the world. Rather, it’s that gangs of merciless intellectuals are refusing to take the deniers seriously. Now that is a deplorable violation of human rights if ever there was one. The deniers’ views are being delegitimised, George says. I mean, nobody has even contemplated “engaging with them intellectually and showing them why they are wrong”.

Except, now that I think about it, everyone. It’s a fine line, I suppose. I mean, it’s easy to mistake intellectual engagement for authoritarianism when your arguments are repeatedly shown to be an exemplar of the Dunning-Kruger effect. I say “repeatedly”, because no denier argument, however frequently refuted, ever just goes quietly into the night.

Of course, there is the outside chance, as deniers endlessly regurgitate long-refuted arguments and complain that nobody has “engaged” with them, that some of us may tune out.

Sorry George, I know I shouldn’t be “authoritarian”, but sometimes, when I’ve had a long day, it’s difficult to accord due respect and deference to bullshit, even yours.

WA senate election 2014: allegiances

At first glance, it’s difficult to make much of the group voting ticket (GVT) data.

One of the most important bits of information, I feel, is whether each party preferences the Liberals before or after Labor. Or, to ask a slightly more complicated question, how does each party rank the most likely winners? The answer would allow us to categorise microparties’ own ideology, which can otherwise be tricky. Quite often, the only other readily accessible information on microparties is the blurb they put on their websites.

I’ll look at the top five parties, by primary senate votes received in the 2013 federal election. These are: Liberals (2.7 quotas), Labor (1.9 quotas), Greens (0.66 quotas), Nationals (0.35 quotas) and Palmer United (0.35 quotas). These parties are the main game1.

So, I’ve boiled down the group voting ticket (GVT) data to a set of rankings of these parties2. Based on the results, there are a few clear categories. Nonetheless, there’s a lot of confusion as to whose side Clive Palmer is on (other than his own). However, the person of the moment must be Labor’s Louise Pratt, who has been treated almost as an independent in the preferences of several minor parties.

I couldn’t think of a good way to visualise this graphically, so I’ll just use bullet points.

Allies of the Coalition, enemies of the Greens

The following parties (with a rather libertarian flavour) all put the Coalition ahead of Labor, and the Greens last:

  • Australian Fishing and Lifestyle Party
  • Australian Voice
  • Building Australia Party
  • Freedom and Prosperity Party
  • Liberal Democrats
  • Mutual Party
  • Outdoor Recreation Party (Stop The Greens)
  • Palmer United
  • Shooters and Fishers
  • Smokers Rights

These parties all place the Liberals and Nationals next to each other (one way around or the other). However, they disagree over Palmer United, with some putting PUP first (including, obviously, PUP itself), and others putting it behind Labor, but still ahead of the Greens.

There are four more parties that basically fit this mould, but which seem to be making personal judgements of certain individual candidates:

  • Australian Christians (concerning Joe Bullock and Linda Reynolds)
  • Democratic Labour Party (concerning Louise Pratt)
  • Family First (concerning Louise Pratt)
  • Rise Up Australia Party (concerning Louise Pratt)

These all have a very social conservative flavour. In what seems like a personal grudge, The DLP, FF and RUAP have taken special care to put Labor’s Louise Pratt after even their Greens arch-enemy, probably for being particularly outspoken on social justice issues. And, for reasons that escape me, the Australian Christians have elevated Labor’s Joe Bullock above the Liberals’ Linda Reynolds.

Neutral on Labor vs Liberal, but still hate the Greens

There are two parties running dual tickets, with the order of Labor and the Liberals switched around:

  • Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party
  • Katter’s Australia Party

Both place PUP and Nationals first and second, and the Greens last.

Prefer Liberals, but (perhaps) don’t mind the Greens

Another two parties that stick out:

  • Australian Sports Party (which, of course, won a seat in the recount, and then lost it again when the election was annulled)
  • Republican Party of Australia

These two prefer the Liberals, Greens and then Labor, in that order — a relatively unusual combination recently (though it used to be common practice for the Liberals themselves).

Allies of Labor/Greens, but Labor first

This rather short list of parties (plus independent) put Labor first and the Coalition last:

  • Help End Marijuana Prohibition (HEMP) Party
  • Russell Wolf (independent)
  • Sex Party

HEMP puts PUP ahead of the Greens, while the other two put the Greens ahead of PUP.

Allies of the Labor/Greens, but Greens first

A few more parties put the Greens and Labor ahead of the other three major choices:

  • Animal Justice Party
  • Pirate Party
  • Secular Party of Australia
  • Socialist Alliance
  • The Wikileaks Party, which gives special consideration to the Greens’ Scott Ludlam and Labor’s Louise Pratt, placing them individually before the Greens and Labor.

These parties also tend to prefer the Nationals to the Liberals, except for Animal Justice (which possibly associates the Nationals with shooting and slaughtering things). They put PUP anywhere from 3rd to last.

[ Addendum (2014-03-24): the Animal Justice Party actually has dual tickets, both of which interlace the positions of the Labor and Greens candidates, two-by-two; i.e. two Labor candidates, then two Greens candidates, then two more Labor, etc. One ticket starts with Labor, the other with the Greens. ]

Finally, there are three more special cases:

  • The Australian Democrats have dual tickets, both preferencing PUP and then the Greens, but alternating the positions of Labor and the Coalition.
  • The Sustainable Population Party has three tickets that rotate the positions of Labor, the Greens and the Coalition. At first glance, this appears to be neutral, but if you look closely you’ll see that, on balance, the Greens come out slightly ahead and the Liberals slightly behind. (You could arrange three tickets such that any three parties are evenly-preferenced, so it’s informative that SPP hasn’t done this.) They also put the Nationals first and PUP last.
  • The Voluntary Euthanasia Party has dual tickets, both of which put the Coalition last and favour the Greens over Labor, yet single out Labor’s Louise Pratt again for special promotion. One of the tickets puts Pratt ahead of the Greens, and the rest of Labor ahead of PUP, while the other puts Pratt behind the Greens, and the rest of Labor behind PUP.


If you’re voting below the line, hopefully you’ll find this analysis useful in developing your own preferences. The ephemeral microparties often have very positive-sounding names, but it’s difficult to know at a glance what they’re really all about.

Even if you’re voting above the line, this may still give you a rough idea of who believes what, so that you know what you’re doing when you write that single “1” on your giant ballot paper.

Update (2014-03-24) — full preference list

For completeness, here’s the actual list of major preferences. For each party, the top five parties are listed in order of preference. Numbers in brackets indicate the number of contiguous candidates. Where lone candidates appear separate from the rest of their party, their names are shown.

Party Ticket # Major Preferences
The Wikileaks Party A 1 Greens (LUDLAM), Labor (PRATT), Greens [5], Labor [3], Palmer United Party [3], National [2], Liberal [4]
National B 1 National [2], Liberal [4], Palmer United Party [3], Labor [4], Greens [6]
Independent: Russell Woolf C 1 Labor [4], Greens [6], Liberal [2], Palmer United Party [3], National [2], Liberal [2]
Australian Democrats D 1 Palmer United Party [3], Greens [6], Labor [4], National [2], Liberal [4]
Australian Democrats D 2 Palmer United Party [3], Greens [6], National [2], Liberal [4], Labor [4]
Pirate Party E 1 Greens [6], Labor [4], National [2], Palmer United Party [3], Liberal [4]
Labor F 1 Labor [4], Greens [6], Palmer United Party [3], National [2], Liberal [4]
Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party G 1 Palmer United Party [3], National [2], Labor [4], Liberal [4], Greens [6]
Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party G 2 Palmer United Party [3], National [2], Liberal [4], Labor [4], Greens [6]
Freedom and Prosperity Party H 1 Palmer United Party [3], National [2], Liberal [4], Labor [4], Greens [6]
Voluntary Euthanasia Party I 1 Greens [6], Labor (PRATT), Palmer United Party [3], Labor [3], National [2], Liberal [4]
Voluntary Euthanasia Party I 2 Labor (PRATT), Greens [6], Labor [3], Palmer United Party [3], National [2], Liberal [4]
Liberal Democrats J 1 Liberal [4], National [2], Labor [4], Palmer United Party [3], Greens [6]
Australian Voice K 1 Palmer United Party [3], National [2], Liberal [4], Labor [4], Greens [6]
Building Australia Party L 1 Palmer United Party [3], National [2], Liberal [4], Labor [4], Greens [6]
Mutual Party M 1 Palmer United Party [3], Liberal [4], National [2], Labor [4], Greens [6]
Family First N 1 Palmer United Party [3], National [2], Liberal [4], Labor [2], Greens [6], Labor [2]
#Sustainable Population Party O 1 National [2], Greens [6], Labor [4], Liberal [4], Palmer United Party [3]
#Sustainable Population Party O 2 National [2], Labor [4], Greens [6], Liberal [4], Palmer United Party [3]
#Sustainable Population Party O 3 National [2], Liberal [4], Greens [6], Labor [4], Palmer United Party [3]
Palmer United Party P 1 Palmer United Party [3], National [2], Liberal [4], Labor [4], Greens [6]
Australian Sports Party Q 1 Palmer United Party [3], Liberal [4], Greens [6], Labor [4], National [2]
Liberal R 1 Liberal [4], National [2], Palmer United Party [3], Labor [4], Greens [6]
Shooters and Fishers S 1 Palmer United Party [3], Liberal [4], National [2], Labor [4], Greens [6]
Help End Marijuana Prohibition (HEMP) T 1 Labor [4], Palmer United Party [3], Greens [6], National [2], Liberal [4]
Republican Party of Australia U 1 Liberal [4], National [2], Greens [6], Labor [4], Palmer United Party [3]
Smokers Rights V 1 Liberal [4], National [2], Labor [4], Palmer United Party [3], Greens [6]
Australian Fishing and Lifestyle Party W 1 Liberal [4], National [2], Palmer United Party [3], Labor [4], Greens [6]
Australian Christians X 1 Liberal [3], Labor (BULLOCK), Liberal (REYNOLDS), National [2], Palmer United Party [3], Labor [3], Greens [6]
Secular Party of Australia Y 1 Greens [6], Labor [4], National [2], Liberal [4], Palmer United Party [3]
Rise Up Australia Party Z 1 Liberal [4], National [2], Palmer United Party [3], Labor [3], Greens [6], Labor (PRATT)
Greens AA 1 Greens [6], Labor [4], Palmer United Party [3], National [2], Liberal [4]
Democratic Labour Party AB 1 National [2], Liberal [4], Palmer United Party [3], Labor [3], Greens [6], Labor (PRATT)
Katter’s Australian Party AC 1 Palmer United Party [3], National [2], Labor [4], Liberal [4], Greens [6]
Katter’s Australian Party AC 2 Palmer United Party [3], National [2], Liberal [4], Labor [4], Greens [6]
Animal Justice Party AD 1 Greens [2], Labor [2], Greens [2], Labor [2], Greens [2], Palmer United Party [3], Liberal [4], National [2]
Animal Justice Party AD 2 Labor [2], Greens [2], Labor [2], Greens [4], Palmer United Party [3], Liberal [4], National [2]
Sex Party AE 1 Labor [4], Greens [6], Palmer United Party [3], Liberal [4], National [2]
Socialist Alliance AF 1 Greens [6], Labor [4], National [2], Liberal [4], Palmer United Party [3]
Outdoor Recreation Party (Stop The Greens) AG 1 Liberal [4], National [2], Labor [4], Palmer United Party [3], Greens [6]
  1. Of course, another microparty could slip through once again, as the Sports Party, Motoring Enthusiasts, Democratic Labour, Liberal Democrats have done recently, but that scenario requires a rather different sort of analysis. []
  2. I’ve used an R script to do this based on the AEC’s CSV data. I’m happy to share it if anyone is interested. []

WA senate election 2014: GVT rankings

The senate group voting tickets (GVTs) for the 2014 WA Senate election have now been released in CSV form. This allows me to do what I did last time.

First, here are the median positions of each party among all parties’ preferences:

wa-senate-gvt-pos-2014We’ve lost a few parties since last time:

  • One Nation;
  • the Australian Independents;
  • No Carbon Tax Climate Sceptics; and
  • the Socialist Equality Party.

And we’ve gained a few more to make up for it:

  • the Building Australia Party;
  • the Democratic Labour Party;
  • the Freedom and Prosperity Party;
  • the Mutual Party;
  • the Pirate Party;
  • the Republican Party of Australia;
  • the Socialist Alliance (not to be confused with the Socialist Equality Party); and
  • the Voluntary Euthanasia Party.

And there are two groups of independents:

Of the parties contesting both elections, here’s how their GVT positions have shifted since the 2013 federal election (based on WA GVTs only):

wa-senate-gvt-diff-2014Negative numbers here mean that a party has migrated towards the start of preferences, which is a good thing (for them). Positive numbers mean the reverse.

It’s curious that the established parties: Labor, Greens, Liberal and National are all beneficiaries of the shift. The major losers appear to be a collection of microparties, plus Family First. (In particular, I’m pleased to note the precipitous fall of the Rise Up Australia to the end of just about everyone’s preferences, as well as the complete absence of One Nation.) Perhaps the microparties’ exceptional performance in 2013 has made them seem less cute and cuddly than they were before. Nevertheless, many of them still adorn the prime real estate near the top of other parties’ preferences.

Labor and the Greens have also improved their standing with respect to the Liberals (though the Greens are still the least favoured of all the parties with a realistic possibility of claiming seats). Presumably there is now less of a frantic push to get Labor out, since that goal was roundly achieved last time. The fulfilment of Tony Abbott’s particular legislative ambitions perhaps doesn’t attract quite the same level of urgency.

Democracy sausage 2014

In 2013, a small group of geeks, including myself, began mapping the locations of sausage sizzles and cake stalls on election day. So far we’ve done this for the 2013 federal and West Australian state elections. We were interviewed briefly on ABC local radio. [brushes hair back heroically]

It turns out that these elections just keep coming. We have South Australia and Tasmania on Saturday, and WA again in three weeks. And we’re ready (unless I’m lying, but that hardly ever doesn’t happen).

We have a website — — at which you can plan your route to the nearest sausage/cake-equipped polling booth, or just marvel at the distribution of democracy sausage purveyance.

We also have a Twitter account — @demsausage — and a hashtag — #democracysausage — with which you can notify us of new and wonderful democracy sausage and cake opportunities. And please do! This is how we collect the data to build our map.

So, let us know on election day, or before it, if you spot a sausage sizzle or cake stall, or if you’re helping to organise one.

(I should mention that, for the 2013 federal election, we were somewhat out-gunned by another, unaffiliated group whose website was/is We’re not sure if they’re planning anything this time around.)

Sorry Tony, you fail the Turing Test

It’s election time again, and that means its also incoherent-shouting-about-taxes time. Tony Abbott is quick off the block, claiming that “the carbon tax and the mining tax are anti Western Australian taxes.”

It’s almost too drearily, predictably inane a comment to warrant analysis. But one of Abbott’s skills, I now realise, is his soul-crushing dreariness, the effect of which is perhaps to make his opponents give up out of sheer mind-numbing boredom. He’s even worse when you actually listen to him — I can feel the long seconds of my life slipping away during the exaggerated “ah”s and “um”s that litter his speech, pointlessly punctuating a collection of words that are already drawn out and so devoid of substance that they may as well have been randomly generated. That is, by an “Ab-Bot”, if you will1.

Isn’t it a bit patronising to start calling the carbon tax “anti-WA”, when the fight has always been a national one? Presumably, had the AEC lost 1,375 ballot papers in Victoria instead, Abbott would now masterfully be describing the carbon tax as “anti-Victoria”.

Isn’t it a bit condescending to be attacking the carbon and mining taxes without even trying to offer an argument? He has in the past, of course, but since we’re still having this fight, are we fighting over ideas, or are we now just being assaulted by keywords intended to make us go crazy?

And I always think we let off politicians and commentators rather lightly for their liberal use of the “anti-” prefix. For something to be “anti-WA”, it should in principle constitute a direct existential threat to the state — an issue that brings into question the very survival of Western Australia. But while my last power bill included an estimated “carbon component” of $14.282, I can assure all concerned that I am not, in fact, teetering on the edge of oblivion. We’ve all faced down greater threats to our existence than that.

One of the threats we continue to face, it bears repeating ad nauseam, is climate change itself. The debate over the carbon tax, or rather carbon pricing generally, is lost if we forget why it was implemented in the first place. And no, it won’t instantly make climate change go away — it’s part of a very long term struggle to mitigate the damage we’re doing as a global civilisation. Nonetheless, seen in that light, a few dollars on your fossil fuel power bill, to encourage renewable energy, is not a great deal to ask. That’s the argument that needs to be made, because it’s the truth.

But it’s too risky a strategy, Abbott must think, to inject actual information or reasoning into anything he says. He’s not stupid himself, but he seems to think (or perhaps he knows) that treating us like idiots is his best chance.

  1. I can’t possibly be the first person to have made this terrible, terrible joke. But I am making it. []
  2. Higher for some, no doubt, but I would guess still very small compared to things like food and rental/mortgage payments. []