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Sun, 2008-Mar-16

Kevin Rudd and Brendon Nelson

Kevin Rudd and Brendon Nelson, Kennedy and Nixon

Read into it what you will. Apologies to those outside the Australian federal political sphere.

Image sources: Rudd, Nelson, Kennedy and Nixon.

Sat, 2005-Sep-10

Embryonic Nucleus Transplants

Jason Parker says "yay, science!" in regards to recent permission given to scientists in the UK to produce embryo with three genetic donors. I think the knowledge to do this sort of thing is valuable to science, and may lead to useful treatments for genetic defects in mitochondria. It is however not without ethical concerns. Reading Jason's post and some of the news articles available on the subject you may read this as being a technique to allow two women to have a baby together, each donating some part of their DNA to the mix. That is not the case. My understanding of this trial is that two embryo will be created with possibly two sets of parents (four individual donors). The nucleus of one embryo with its two genetic donors will be transplanted into the other embryo and its original nucleus discarded. The discarded nucleus contains DNA from both its donors, but the rest of the cell does not. The cruicial mitochondria that live outside the cell and act as power sources for all animal life are inherited from the mother only.

If you have moral objections to early term abortions, it would seem reasonable to have the same objections to this trial. Two embryos enter, one embryo (a combination of parts of the two) leaves. Views differ on this subject. Arguments range from "it is genetically human, so it is worth the same as a human life", to "it has the potential to be a human being, so is worth the same as a human life", to "it hasn't been implanted into anyone's womb, so doesn't really have the potential to be human life" to "it doesn't matter whether it has potential or not, it's just like any other cell or cluster of cells". Where you sit along that curve may guide your level of comfort or disquiet of the mechanics of the operation. Then there are the issues of what it is you are creating. These embryos will be discarded and will not implanted into a human womb. The end target of the research is clearly to make that happen using the same basic technique as they are attempting to master. Only if this happens will mitochondrial disease be cured.

Some ethicists would argue that it isn't "right" to alter human life at all. Francis Crick took an extreme alternative view and postulated that if humans don't seek to direct their own evolution then noone else would, so we would be foolish not to. Whichever way you lean it is probably reasonable from a neutral scientific viewpoint to say that despite the embryo continaing genetic material from three individuals that for all intents and purposes it still has a single mother and father. They are the donors who created the embryo who's nucleus was used in the transplant. Mitochondria is an essential building block of cell life but if functioning correctly does not contribute to hair colour, eye colour, intelligence, height, or any other trait that we could say defines a human in terms of its relations to the people around it. From this perspective the manipulation of mitochondrial DNA is a low hanging fruit both technically and ethically. It's easy to argue that only a part of the cell machinery and not the things which make a human human that are being replaced.

Genetic manipulation is technically and ethically a complex area of research. It is of untold value to understand genetics, but there are many mines to avoid tripping over along the way. What we accept today will be different from what our children will accept, and extrapolating one from the other is hard. If our children come to accept the creation and destruction of embryos without moral qualms and the manipulation of genetics as just a matter of recoding a computer program then they will see many technical benefits. The big questions of what is moral and whether slippery slopes exist in this area probably won't be answered until we have a more complete picture of what is actually possible and several lifetimes of experience in where the slopes lead.


Sun, 2005-Aug-07

Terrorism in the United Kingdom

I was recently in Crawley on business, away from my usual Australian haunt. I was only there breifly (I didn't have a weekend to go sightseeing), but I did get an interesting time slice of the local news and talk shows. My stay landed after the successful and failed bombings in the London Underground and bus systems and overlapped the ceassation of violence declaration by the Provisional Irish Republican Army.

I'll try to steer clear of discussing the exact politics, but I will say that the juxstaposition of sentiment was strange to watch. On one hand the IRA was to my mind being portrayed by the British press as a reasonable party that we can now do business with to sort out any remaining problems. At the same time the hard line was being pushed on any form of Islamic fundamentalism. On a television show I didn't catch the name audicence participation lead the flow of discussion. The question was posed specifically about whether the Brits should think about Al Qaeda the same way as they had now leared to think about the terrorism from Northern Ireland. The answer to me was telling. The panel expert said (and I can only paraphrase, my memory isn't perfect) that the two sources of terrorism were not the same and shouldn't be given the same kind of mindspace. They said that the Irish terrorists had a clear political objective behind their acts of violence, but that the Islamist terrorists had none. The Irish wanted Britain out of their back yard, but the Islamists only objective was to bring down the west and destroy our "values".

I get nervous when someone on television talks about values. The special hairs I reserve for propaganda detection start to spike up. These people in the middle east are supposedly so different to us that they share none of our values, even though many people with middle-eastern backgrounds and religions are able to live peacefully and happily in our countries. On the other hand the Irish terrorists held the same values was "we" do while continuing their thirty year campaign of resistance that lead to the loss of so many innocent lives. They uphold our values, while the Islamic threat is one of soul-less barbarism. I'm not sure I can quite see where the lines have to be drawn to make that picture make sense, myself.

So what are western values? If you take what was being said on that program literally you would have to assume that they are decadance and self-obsession. After all, according to those experts that is what they say that Osama Bin Laden wants to kill us all over. I don't believe I rate those values high on my list. My values are mostly built around minimising harm to others while living a reasonably happy life myself. I'd even throw in some faith-based values in there. I'm not sure that Osama's list of values would be very different from my own, although the order and intensity of some values may differ significantly.

So what benefit, terrorism?

While hearing the backlash against Islamist terror and the exitement about engagement with former Irish terrorists I was also privy to retrospectives of the last 30 years of the Irish conflict. I was fascinated to hear former British Prime Minister Sir John Major talk about what he was thinking during secret negotiations with the IRA during his term in office. A bomb killed two children while the negotiations were going on (I believe he was referring to the Warrington explosions in 1993), and in the interview he said that the only reason he stayed in the negotations was the thought of more children being killed.

Did I hear correctly that the threat of terrorism caused a government of the day to stay at the negotating table? It's a different message to the one they presently want to convey. The news services had more. They said that the Provisional IRA's recruiting base grew out of a protest movement for Catholic equal rights. They wanted equal participation in the work force, in the police force, and generally in society. In contrast to that expert on the discussion panel's view, it seems that that movement sprang not fundamentally out of a political goal to get the British out of Northern Ireland but out of inequity. Inequity shaped around a common rallying call.

When we look back towards the middle east, it seems clear that inequity does exist. Is this the source of terrorism, rather than the desire to bring down the west? Is bringing down the west more of a rallying call than the actual source of terrorism? As well as trying to apply a stick to the situation to root out the most violent and the most influential of the movement, wouldn't we be served by solving the inequity?

The final wind down of the Provisional IRA's history of violence on the BBC coverage included an observation. The IRA's involvement in the struggle didn't make the problem of Northern Irish politics easier to solve, but it did make it a more immediate problem. After first fighting the IRA the British came to accept the IRA and to deal with the IRA. It gives me cause to wonder whether something akin to the stages of greif that there are stages of dealing with a human threat. Perhaps after the fighting will come the negotiation, and perhaps after a combination of negotation and work to improve the underlying causes a resolution will eventually emerge.


Sat, 2005-Jan-29

Swastika ban

Since Prince Harry's gaffe of wearing nazi paraphanalia to a costume party the segments of the world population have been up in arms. Now we see attempts to ban nazi symbolism as part of the European Union's effort to stamp out racism.

It's an admiral goal, and an important one given Europe's history. Europe has long been a set of fractured nation states with racist tensions used to incite war and violence. If a united European people is to ever emerge they must not continue their internal hatreds. Ideally, at the same time, they would improve their view of all human peoples and everyone would live happily ever after in a humanist paradise. But how do we get there, again?

I'm no psychohistorian but I think that one method of stamping out behaviour that has proved ineffectual in the past is the use of a unilateral ban. Prohibition showed that a ban not supported by the people can't be forced onto the people. It's much more complicated than that, and requires generations of painstaking social manipulation.

Issues of freedom of speech aside, I think we need to be careful about what we're banning. If individuals identify themselves with a banned trait and feel that they can't be separated from that trait then the ban of the trait is a ban on the person. Be it christianity, communism, neonazism, or any other trait that identifies an individual as belonging to a group the ban is not going to stop that person being part of their group. More than likely it is going to make the community tighter-knit than before, and more exclusive. People can feel special when they as people are banned. They are outsiders. Noone understands them but their peers. They're unique together. It plays right into the teenage angst thing.

It makes me wonder if acts like that of Prince Harry are actually more of a solution than a problem. When we make the traits that identify someone as part of their clique generic we may go some way into breaking up the clique. When we take from someone the thing that made them unique they may have to adapt to become part of a wider society again. On the flipside, of course, is the danger that spreading their symbolism throughout society would make them bolder and more dangerous as a group. It may give them the impression they are more widely accepted than they really are or have a wider support-base than they really have.

The response to Harry's gaffe has been overwhelming (although much of it has come from the world media), reminding us that it is not just people in racist cliques that we need to think about when trying to solve the problem that racist symbolism stirs. We must also think of those who were damaged in the name of those symbols in the past. Many have suffered enough and there is no excuse for increasing their trauma. Sensitivity to those people dictates that the problem of the symbolism may not be able to be solved constructively or conclusively until they are gone. Their existence morally binds our hands in what we can express and limits the ways in which we can approach racism head-on.

Sun, 2004-Oct-10

The Federal Election

I'm one of those people who like to sit home on the night of a federal election and watch the results come in. Last night, after the bowls (Ruth "Less" took the inaugural women's title in stunning style) I watched the bloodsport in real time. Bloody it was. The ABC is still showing that labour has pretty-much matched it primary vote from last time (a +.03% swing with 77.7% counted) but has consistenly lost ground in important marginals. I live in the suddenly-marginal seat of Bonner. It's a new seat based on redistributions, but it seems the sitting member Con Sciacca had his choice and believed it would be a safe bet. He's currently behind by a very small margin in counting.

It has been an interesting campaign. One based on "trust", which in politics is code for "mistrust" and for "fear". A cabbie on morning television described the situation simply with the familiar phrase "If it ain't broke, don't fix it". It's a fair comment. When we have had a booming economy for so long, and noone you know is suffering from particularly bad times... well, why change?

In acknowledging the oncoming defeat throughout the night several Labour stalwarts talked about the Liberal interest rates scare campagin, calling it a lie. A lie that was swallowed by the electorate, but a lie nonetheless. It was a lie, but only if taken on face value. The Liberal party knew what it meant, and the electorate knew what it meant. I suppose the Labour party knew what it meant, also. It again was code. Code for "He's crazy". For, "He's got an economy and he doesn't know what to do with it!". "He could ruin everything you've built!". It was not a lie. It was simply hysteria-building. Interest rates are a great trigger for hysteria, because it is something outside the influence of individuals that they tend to have sleepless nights over. It's something that affects them far more than tax policy, but which they don't understand and can't control.

Those two messages, the "You feel safe with John" message and the "He's got a gun!" message penetrated deeply. Labour's response of "Money's not being spent on the right things", and "The rich are getting richer" didn't really have the same impact. In the economic and political climate of today, it is far easier to vilify those who aren't keeping pace than to vilify those who are too far ahead. We aren't a nation of people who want to live at the same standard as our neighbour (were we ever?). We want to be ahead.

In comes family first, and the collapse of the democrats. A polarising campaign in the Senate. To me this is the big news of the election. We knew that the democrats have been falling apart. I personally wasn't particularly aware of the emergence of family first. On the surface they appear to be the beginning of the emergence in Australia of an american-style christian right. Most commentators are comparing their probable behaviour in the senate to that of Brian Harradine.

I didn't vote for this party. It's not because I don't want to see christians in positions of political power. It's that in my opinion most christians who actively seek political power are not worthy of it. This is no doubt true of all people, but when secular politicians seek power I am not pressured to vote for them as individuals by those I know. When secular politicians make bad decisions it doesn't impact negatively on the perception of my faith. When secular politicians fail, it is not translated into a failure of my people.

I come from a grass-roots church where power is rarely sought. People are chosen, but they are not seen as gods on earth. They serve. That's what leaders are supposed to do. When service opens the door to a power trip everything starts to go to hell. I don't want to be identified with that.

I suppose now is a good time to throw in my results from a "personality test" :

One Nation 25%
National Party 27%
Liberal Party 47%
Labor Party 69%
Democrats 77%
Greens 75%

I voted pretty-much according to that table (I voted before taking this test). On the house of representitives paper I voted for the greens, democrats and labour before liberal. I had to think carefully about the last three spots. Family First scares me at the moment, but it was that against One Nation and the "Citezens Electoral Council", a US-based political cult who's policy agenda is "A national bank: A people's bank", who think that the royal family of Britain is behind the global drug trade and behind global organised crime, and who believe that everyone but them are "facists". Tricky choice.

I didn't number all 50 spots on the senate paper. I figured that believing in a strong senate and seeing a Democrats collapse I'd go with whatever the Greens wanted to do with our beloved upper house. I guess that wasn't the opinion of most, though. The real news of the election evening was that its possible that by July the government will have a real or effective balance of power in the sentate.

I'm almost looking forward to that prospect, to be honest. We've seen three terms of the Liberal government so far, but each has been tempered by moderate voices. I'm almost looking forward to seeing the Liberals in full swing. I think that that exuberance, combined with a likely downturning economy next time might just be enough to get a change of government in this country regardless of what Labour does.

Oh well. In the end it has been a poor showing for the parties I would have liked to see in power, but like many Australians the pit of my stomache is actually leaning towards the liberals again this time around. I hate what they've done with the good name of Australia internationally over the last three terms, but it's hard to argue Labour in the same position would have acted differently. I hate what they're doing to the health and education systems, but maybe if they could get their whole agenda through things would balance out. I favour their industrial relations policies to some extent. I favour some of their economic policies to some extent. I think they're the right people to have in power during an economic upswing. When it comes to the bust, though... I think Labour is the better party to have in power.


Sat, 2004-Jul-17

If we really lived in a capatalistic political system

Our political system is rife with corporate interference. Corporations and individuals donate money to our political parties in order to gain sway when issues that affect them are discussed and decided on. Politicians should represent the people, not just the shareholders of major companies, so what is the solution?

Let's think about political parties as businesses. They set out to make money so that they can have influence and they set out to have influence so they can make money... at least for the country... or something. Anyway.

If a political party is a business, it will ultimately serve whoever gives it money. The people, therefore, should essentially be the only source of income for political parties.

My naieve understanding of the current political system is that we currently give political parties money in accordance with the number of vote they get. This is obviously not enough, because political donations are a reality and skew our whole sense of politics

"What's the solution? Let them keep the surplus! What's that? Let them keep the surplus? The budget surplus? Yes! The budget surplus!"

Political parties should be able to fund themselves from the money they save the people. They should control the tax rates and ensure that they put enough margin in for themselves to make a profit, but also have a reason to push for increased productivity and lower costs.

"That's crazy", you say... and I say "Oh, let them pay for the deficit too".

Yes, I'm a crazy man, but this is something I have to write. It's been bugging me for a while. If we believe in a capitalist system we should apply the same to our politics. Existing govenment infrastructure should be privatised and used for outsourcing to the govenrment business that vie for our "four year contracts" to set our law and to provide our services.

Whenever an election rolls around, the competing political parties must prepare tender documents for their role in governing the Australian people. The tender includes a statement of the tax they intend to collect over the period, and the services they intend to provide for the money. If voted into office, a binding contract exists that the government must satisfy. Based on the taxes and services the Austrlian people will select between the companies.

To avoid having one party or the other starved while out of office, I suggest a system where we tender for different government functions. There would be one tender for defence, and another for health. One tender for education and another for environmental management. Each would be individually tendered for and won with a mix of contracts awarded to different political parties. On the ballot form we'd have something like this:

Tax collection:
Voters for the first time would have control over a direct link between their tax and rates and their services. Because of the increased control, voters might even become more interested in politics and take note of how the amounts change from year to year.

In the end, you have a bunch of subcontracting organisations who run various major services in Australia and real power in the hands of the people. The final element is the group of people who enforce the contracts and set the basic conditions which contractors must abide by... a kind of micro-government. This role, too, might be dealt with in the same way where the people put more money into this group when they have distrust for the other arms of government and less money in when their trust level increases.

That's my second blog entry for the day, and tangent from my usual musings. I hope I've said something to make someone think a little more about how government itself works and should work