Wednesday, 28 May 2008

rising petrol prices - the hype and the facts

Photo: Morguefile

Australia is currently experiencing lively debate, and quite a lot of hype, about rising petrol costs. Petrol has approximately doubled in price in the past decade, with steep rises recently. Politicians are rushing to find ways to alleviate pressures on "working families", with the Opposition proposing to reduce fuel excise by 5c a litre.

How bad is the situation really?

the costs of running a car

NRMA (National Roads & Motorists Association) information and data (for 2007) indicate that:

  • the annual cost of running a car, including depreciation, fuel, consumables and maintenance can vary from about $6,000 (for a light car) to over $20,000 (for a large 4WD), and is about $14,000 for the average "family car";
  • there is significant variation between different vehicles in the same class - for most classes, the annual cost of the most expensive car is about double that of the most efficient;
  • these costs have increased about 40% in 5 years;
  • these costs are made up of depreciation over 5 years (49%), petrol (17%) and other costs (34%).

putting it in perspective

Quick calculations show that:

  • if petrol prices double from 2007 levels, the annual cost of running a car will increase about 13% or $1,800 for the average family car;
  • a 5c per litre reduction in fuel excise will save on average about $80 annually (0.6%);
  • much greater savings could be gained by delaying the purchase of a new car, buying a smaller car, or choosing a more efficient car overall (not just fuel efficiency) - for example, buying a medium sized car instead of a large sedan or a 4WD could save about $1,500 annually, purchasing a small car instead of a medium car could save about $3,000 annually, and purchasing a more efficient car in any class could save similar amounts;
  • as petrol prices rise, a hybrid car may pay for its increased initial cost in about 6 years.

Thus we can conclude that:

  1. Most motorists can significantly reduce their car running costs, even with rising petrol prices, next time they purchase a car, if they choose carefully.
  2. The fuel excise reduction is little more than political tokenism, especially since the Government is already making tax cuts that will return greater amounts to families.

While rising petrol prices are causing problems for some poorer families, the real problems are finding alternatives for petrol, and how much we'll have to change the way we live and build our cities - but that's another story!

Monday, 26 May 2008

ethics - when freedom & responsibility clash

These past few days in Australia we've seen an interesting and difficult ethical issue unfold, as two different ethical values come into conflict.

artistic freedom

Bill Henson is an eminent Australian photographer. I first came across his photos of urban areas at night - everyday and not particularly "beautiful" subjects, but the use of light and dark made them extremely interesting and evocative. But when I went to an exhibition of his work a year or two ago, I found that the majority of his work were photographs of people - people in crowds, ordinary people, and studies of children and adolescents. The way the photos were lit, the repetition of the same subject in many different views, and their age, made many of the photographs slightly disturbing or edgy, and his work has sometimes been controversial.

But this week a new exhibition of Henson's work opened in Sydney, and when it was found to include photographs of nude adolescents, some of them "explicit" (as the euphemism goes), a complaint was made, police took possession of the offending photos, and were considering charges for indecency relating to under age children (although legal advice suggests prosecution would be unsuccessful).

Many people applauded the police action, but others were upset at the censorship, saying that the photographs were not pornographic, and artistic freedom allows artists to push the boundaries.

child protection

On the other hand, Australia, like many other countries, has significantly tightened child protection laws in the past decade or so. Although not always successful, some attempts have been made to limit child access to the internet, penalise creators and viewers of child pornography, and reduce risks to children in other situations by requiring those who work with children to undergo police checks, giving clear and stringent guidelines to how teachers, doctors and others deal with children in their care, and placing age limits on some activities.

All of this can be seen as inconvenient, an insult and a curtailment of civil liberties, but most people believe it is worthwhile to reduce the sexual abuse and exploitation of children.

the two values collide

In this case, child protection laws have collided with the artistic freedom.

Defenders of Henson's work say that, compared to the sexualisation of children and teenagers through mass media, especially music videos and fashion, these photographs are benign. But it seems to me there are two separate issues here.

  1. What is the effect of these photos on viewers? I don't think many people think Henson's work is pornographic in this sense, and few would want to ban them on these grounds.
  2. Have children been exploited? This seems to be the key question. Some art forms are created by the imagination of the artist (e.g. painting, literature), but photography and film also require a subject. Even if we would allow a similar photograph of a 20 year old, should we allow a 13 year old to model, has he or she the maturity to make the choice? Thus economist Clive Hamilton, formerly executive director of the Australia Institute think tank, said: "I think the way childhood has been sexualised so heavily, particularly over the last 10 or 15 years, has inevitably changed the way we see children in their naked form. I've argued that previously when perhaps it was a more innocent age, then artistic representations of children, as is the case with the Bill Henson exhibition, wouldn't have provided difficulty. But in an age where children have been so heavily sexualised by commercial organisations and by the wider culture and where there's so much more alarm about paedophilia then I think the presentation of a 12-year-old girl, for instance, naked to the public, really has quite a different impact and raises new concerns. And I argue that she, the girl, the model, could not possibly understand the implications of being presented naked to the world, even though the presentation is very aestheticised and that therefore she could not give informed consent."

I think it is a great pity that Henson's work has been stigmatised in this way, and if there is a way to amend the law to allow adequate child protection without catching his photographs in the net, then perhaps it should be done. But as it stands, it may be that artists and patrons need to willingly show restraint (e.g. not putting the photos on the internet) for the sake of continued protection of children. Sometimes freedom has to be curtailed for the sake of another principle. It's unclear whether this is one such time, but maybe it is.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

same as it ever was, same as it ever was

When Indonesia declared its independence from Holland in 1949, the Dutch insisted that West Papua not become part of Indonesia as the Papuans were Melanesian and predominantly Christian, while the Indonesians were Malay and predominantly Muslim. So the Dutch remained in the territory, preparing the people for independence.

In 1961 a West Papuan Council was elected, a flag was designed and a national anthem composed. Indonesia invaded and the United Nations intervened to prevent war. But these were also Cold War days. The Soviets had brokered an arms deal with Indonesia and so America, trumped the Soviets by brokering a comparable arms deal and secretly offering to help Indonesia secure control of West Papua.

In New York in August 1962, the US, on behalf of Indonesia, brokered an agreement with the Netherlands by which the territory's administration would be transferred to a UN temporary authority until 1 May 1963. Control of West Papua would then be handed over to Indonesia on the understanding that a plebiscite would be held before the end of 1969 allowing the Papuans to vote for or against separation from Indonesia. Thus the Indonesians had six years to win the hearts and minds of the Papuans.

On 1 May 1963, upon assuming administrative control of West Papua, Indonesia disbanded the elected West Papuan Council, burned West Papuan flags and banned the West Papuan national anthem. An era of colonisation, violent repression, exploitation, murder, racism and human rights abuses at the hands of the corrupt Indonesian military had begun. The plebiscite, an "Act of Free Choice", was totally rigged and West Papua (Irian Jaya) was formally annexed by Indonesia on 17 September 1969.

The intensity of repression has escalated dramatically since Indonesia lost control of East Timor in 1999. In addition, the Islamic revival of the past two decades has added a religious dimension to the Papuans' plight, with Islamists pursuing its full Islamisation. The Laskar Jihad has been set up in West Papua since 2000 and when the jihad in the Moluccas ended, the out-of-work jihadists flooded into West Papua. The Papuans will soon be a minority in their own land.

It is all so clearly wrong, a betrayal by the west as we move less powerful people around like pieces on a chessboard, and leave defenseless people at the mercy of rapacious invaders. Yet how can we complain about Indonesia's genocidal behaviour? After all, we did much the same to the indigenous people in both Australia and the US - and millennia before, it happened in the UK as well, several times.

"And you may ask yourself - did I get here?
Same as it ever was...same as it ever was..."
Talking Heads

Yet somehow, we must do something. Read more ...

Based on info compiled by APN.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

is faith the opposite of reason?

You'd certainly think so if you read what modern militant atheists are saying. Take these examples ....

  • "Faith: Insubstantial, irrational belief..... Belief not supported by evidence or reason, but assumption alone..... Irrational belief in something despite all evidence to the contrary." (Contributors to Urban Dictionary)
  • "'faith', which is the irrational acceptance of things in the absence of, or even counter to, credible evidence and reason" (post on Machines Like Us)
  • "Faith is a non-rational belief in some proposition. A non-rational belief is one that is contrary to the sum of the evidence for that belief." The Skeptic's Dictionary
  • "I think that faith is, in principle, in conflict with reason" Sam Harris on beliefnet.

But is this what believers mean by faith? It doesn't seem so ....

  • The Oxford Dictionary defines faith as: "complete trust or confidence; strong belief in a religion". There is nothing in that to exclude reason as a basis for faith. It is true that some dictionaries say "without proof" or even "without evidence", but clearly these are secondary parts of the definition.
  • The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy makes this dual nature of faith quite clear: "Religious faith is of two kinds: evidence-sensitive and evidence-insensitive. The former views faith as closely coordinated with demonstrable truths; the latter more strictly as an act of the will of the religious believer alone."
  • If it were true that faith was always opposed to reason, then it would appear impossible for believers to be scientists or philosophers. But eminent philosophers Alvin Plantinga and Anthony Flew, writer CS Lewis, and scientists John Polkinghorne and Francis Collins are all both reasonable and believers. Collins says: "Faith is reason plus revelation".
  • The view that faith is opposed to reason also ignores the fact that philosophers have long discussed logical arguments that attempt to establish, or at least support the idea, that God exists (e.g. the cosmological argument and, the design argument).

It seems to me that believers use faith in two ways:

  1. When considering whether to believe, or to continue to believe in the face of challenges, believers will typically consider both reason and spiritual/emotional factors. Many believers will refer to the many established arguments, from Jesus and history, personal experience, human reason & morality and the universe, although often in a rudimentary form. Having decided what seems most reasonable, even though it is not provable, believers use faith to make the jump to a commitment. The balance between reason and faith will vary, but surely almost all use both. (For my personal summary, see ibelieve.)
  2. But having resolved the question of what they believe is true, believers will then try to live a life of day-to-day faith (=trust) in God or in Jesus (or in some other spiritual leader), not dissimilar to how, once a human relationship such as marriage is established, the people trust each other.

So for most believers, certainly thoughtful believers, faith is used alongside reason, not instead of it. The two are complementary, not competitive.

And I can't see how it is much different for atheists, or for all of us in other parts of life. Very little in life is provable (even science has varying degrees of "provability", all short of mathematical proof), and yet we all have to make choices, which we make on the best information we have. Faced with similar evidence to believers, atheists make the choice not to commit to belief, or even to actively commit to disbelief. They too make some sort of jump from uncertainty to choice.

So why do militant atheists characterise the interaction between faith and reason in such a black and white way? Well there is no doubt it makes arguing easier. Their opponents can be dismissed and scorned as irrational and delusional, and their fellow disbelievers can feel superior. Whether this is a deliberate tactic or based on genuine belief is beyond my knowing.

But I do know this attitude is a discussion killer, which is a real pity. And for me at least, it makes it much less likely I could ever become an atheist, for by this tactic they show how little they understand of my thinking, and so their arguments so often miss the mark completely. I would think the tactic also successfully insulates them from theistic arguments.

In the end, it is all a victory for non-reason.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

get your priorities right!

Wearing of seatbelts is compulsory for all passengers in a car in Australia.

Recently, it was reported a man was arrested for driving with a 5 year old child not belted in. However he had put a 30-pack of beer next to the child in a belt.

Monday, 12 May 2008

are some things REALLY right and wrong?

Stephen Pinker is an experimental psychologist at Harvard who has researched and written on language and mind, and has written a number of newspaper articles on ethics, including The Moral Instinct, published in the New York Times earlier this year.

In this article he discusses:

  1. Whether someone who achieves a lot for the disadvantaged in the world (e.g. Bill Gates) is more admirable than someone whose personal motivation is "good" (like Mother Theresa). This is a question of utilitarian ethics vs personal ethics.
  2. Whether it is morally justified to sacrifice one innocent person to save a number of equally innocent people. Studies show that most people think it is in some circumstances, but not in others.
  3. Addressing the dilemma of where our moral sense comes from (see my previous blog, selfish genes?), Pinker supports the idea that it is innate, a genetic result of evolution. He describes five ethical "themes" that are found in societies around the world: avoiding harm, fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority and purity.
  4. He argues that variations in ethics around the world can be explained the different emphases given to these different aspects of morality - for example, some Middle Eastern cultures place greater weight on the community/family aspects, which western people can see as threatening the fairness aspects.
  5. He discusses how altruistic behaviour can, in the long run, result from mutual benefit - societies may find that if individuals help each other, both gain.
  6. Finally, Pinker addresses the question of whether ethical behaviour can be considered objectively right or wrong. He mentions moral realism (the view that ethical truths are a feature of the universe just as mathematical truths are), but doesn't offer any conclusion.

I have no problems believing that the ethical behaviour sanctioned by different societies may have evolutionary origins, though I can't help feeling that many of the evolutionary explanations offered to explain different types of altruistic behaviour are mere surmise, based on the assumption that natural selection has produced the behaviours rather than any evidence.

But it seems to me that Pinker's analysis leaves the most important questions unanswered, for example:

  • Why should I follow an ethical injunction if it doesn't suit me?
  • Are some things (e.g. pedophilia, rape, murder, treachery, genocide) really wrong, or do we just feel that they are?
  • If a society evolves an ethic that we find repugnant - e.g. the anti-Semitism of the Nazis, terrorism, or treachery (as occurred in an Irian Jayan tribal group reported by Don Richardson in Peace Child) - does that make that ethic "right", for them at least?

It still seems to me that evolutionary psychology and sociology explain lots of things about ethics very well, except for many of the things we most deeply hold to.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

no dark sarcasm in the classroom

Photo: Morguefile

Dr Martin Seligman is one of the gurus of positive psychology, the study of what makes people happy, and what doesn't. Currently he's in Australia conducting research, and an article of his in the Sydney Morning Herald is illuminating.

He starts with the following points:

  • When surveyed, people want their children to be happy, or, as Seligman sums it up, have wellbeing. But when asked what they want their children to learn at school, their answers can be summed up as "accomplishment" - to learn discipline, to achieve. he comments that the two lists are totally different.
  • He then points out, what is well known, that accomplishment doesn't lead to wellbeing. After all "almost everything is better now than it was 50 years ago: there is about three times more buying power, houses are much bigger, there are many more cars, and clothes are more attractive. .... there is more education, more music, more women's rights, less racism, less pollution, fewer tyrants, more entertainment, more books, and fewer soldiers dying on the battlefield." Despite this, Australians are no happier than they used to be, and there is greater incidence of depression and suicide.
  • So something is wrong with our thinking, and our education.

Seligman offers evidence that happiness can be taught and learned, and that happier people perform better in life. And he is teaching it, in a program aimed at both teachers and pupils at the prestigious Geelong Grammar school. He thinks all schools should teach and apply the principles.

Studies show that we can be happier if we aim for three things:

  • positive emotion through pleasurable experiences,
  • more important is to be "engaged" or well occupied with things that interest us, especially our work, and
  • most important is building our lives around something that is meaningful, a cause we believe is more important than ourselves.

It is therefore no wonder that people who are generous and forgiving, people with good relationships (especially a good marriage), people happy in their work but not driven by it, people who do voluntary work, and people with a religious faith, tend to be happier than people who seek self-gratification through material wealth.

Read more about what makes people happy and do we REALLY know how to be happy? in an earlier blog.

Saturday, 3 May 2008


Tim Winton is perhaps "Australia's favourite novelist", and he is certainly mine. His latest novel, "Breath", his first for seven years, has just been released.

The reviews are very positive. The Sydney Morning Herald's chief book reviewer says it "may prove to be the best thing Tim Winton has done." He concludes his review: "Winton explores themes that preoccupied many great writers of the past .... though ... Winton articulates his concerns in an almost unsullied Australian vernacular. His skill, control and eloquence are impressive."

I look forward to reading it.

Friday, 2 May 2008

curiouser and curiouser!

Our universe is very curious at the very big scale and the very small. I have already commented on the very small - quantum physics. Now Astronomy magazine reports on two interesting observations at the cosmic scale.

black hole bounced

The General Theory of Relativity predicts that when two black holes merge within a galaxy, gravitational waves rush out of the galaxy at the speed of light. Following Newton's second law, this effectively propels the black hole in the opposite direction, sometimes fast enough to eject it from the galaxy completely.

The magazine reports that a team from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics has observed a black hole with a mass of several hundred million of our suns moving at a speed of 2650 km/sec (more than 9 million km/hr) and completely leaving the galaxy.

looking way back in time

Images of nine ultradense galaxies, 11 billion years ago. Photo: NASA (Hubble telescope)

The universe is believed to be about 14 billion years old. It has expanded fast since the start of the big bang, and earth is now an enormous distance from "the other side" of the universe. So far, in fact, that it is believed that some parts of the universe are so far away and rushing away from us so fast that light from them can never reach us. We cannot see anything that may be beyond this "event horizon".

Almost as far away are galaxies whose light has taken billions of years to reach us. We effectively see them (only in the Hubble telescope and one or two others!) as they were billions of years ago.

Scientists have recently observed several such galaxies 11 billion light years away, and thus seen as they were very early in the universe's life - after only 3 billion years. Astronomy reports that they found that these galaxies had a similar number of stars to our galaxy but are only a fraction of the size. This was unexpected, and would require them to have expanded rapidly in the time since then to look like the galaxies we are more familiar with.

Truly, the more we learn, the more curious it all gets.