This machine kills fascists, or your money back.

May 1, 2009

Today has been May Day, the international day to celebrate the labour movement. This morning, out of sheer lack of anything better to do, I decided to start posting suggestions for how to celebrate May Day to Twitter. I started out with one of my favourites, carolling. A simple joke, based on the idea that The Red Flag is often set to O Tannenbaum.

I kept this up for a bit, suggesting a number of activities that might be a suitable way to celebrate the achievements of the labour movement. Some were meant to be a bit humorous, but at their core was support for a more socialist outlook.

Over the day, one or two of them were retweeted around the place. And I picked up one or two new followers as a result. Some of the new followers, however, seemed to be a bit odd.

One of my suggestions that I was a bit uncertain of was Number 9. Basically, I suggested that people organise rallies like the recent April 15th “Tea Parties” in the US, and demand higher taxes. I was worried that some of the people I regularly interact with online might misunderstand me and think I somehow supported the recent protests.

It was after this tweet that I picked up a couple of new followers: a conservative blogger, and the Twitter account for the 912 DC movement – a group who intend to protest against the Obama administration’s tax plan on the 12th of September (on the grounds that the administration’s tax plan is a national tragedy on a par with the destruction of the World Trade Centre). This is not a group that I would normally wish to associate with. It seems I was right that some people might misinterpret my intentions of Suggestion 9.

During the day, I also kept track of Tweets tagged #Mayday, as I had done, to see what else was going on. It was here I found out another group associated with the Tea Party movement had retweeted Suggestion 9. However, after checking their feed, it became apparent they were using an automatic filter to find the phrase “tea party” and retweet everything it found, as it had picked up someone’s comment about a basketball game (which had initially been filtered through yet another auto-retweeter with no attribution to the original poster).

Anyway, now I have this new audience, I’m not sure what I should try to do. Do I attempt to make it clear to them that I’m not the person they’re looking for, or do I try to string them along, and attempt subversion of their movement? Sod it, that involves far too much work. Plus when I post this, Twitter will pick it up and they’ll read it.

In case they do: Look guys, no hard feelings? But if you think the biggest middle class tax cut since the depression means Obama is a socialist menace who must be stopped, you really need to get out and meet some real socialists. Also, you should probably have someone actually read the stuff you retweet to check it’s actually relevant.

Anyway, happy May Day to all.

Socialist Shmocialist.

April 21, 2009

As an Australian, I’ve been following the recent political discourse in the US with the sort of detachment one might expect. I mean, just because US politics affects most of the rest of the world is no reason to get involved. Plus, we don’t like it when they get involved in our politics, so I feel it only fair that we should stay out of theirs.

Still, I find it hard to stay out when I see people referring to the US President as a socialist. I don’t want to get into the political reasoning behind such claims, but I feel it is more to do with who he is and what he represents rather than any actual political ideology he might hold.

Anyway, listening to such claims reminds me of rather unpleasant events in my childhood. As a child growing up in Queensland during the 70s with fair skin and red hair, I was often criticised for not fitting into the “Bronzed Aussie” stereotype. One of the most scathing criticisms levelled at me was that I was an “Albino”.

This accusation bothered me a great deal. It was meant as an insult, and it was effective. I hated being called an albino. Not so much from any feeling that albinos are inferior, but more simply because it just wasn’t true. Even as a young boy I knew that albinism meant a deficiency in pigmentation resulting in pale skin, white hair, and pink irises. I had red hair and hazel eyes (I still do for that matter) so I clearly wasn’t an albino. I didn’t like being called something I wasn’t.

Now I’ve matured somewhat, it occurs to me that even more terrifying than being called an albino when I wasn’t is the idea that being called an albino is an insult. I mean, albinos have enough problems with being prone to skin cancer, poor eyesight, and all the other complications that Michael Moorcock forgot to mention. Being reduced to a schoolyard insult is just rubbing it in.

Anyway, to wander back to my point, I feel much the same about the accusations of socialism levelled at Barack Obama. I’m not entirely sure which is worse, from my point of view. That he is being called a socialist when he very clearly is not, or the idea that being a socialist is a bad thing.

Socialism has gotten a lot of bad press over the years. I’m not going to say it’s a perfect system, but I do feel that the almost Pavlovian reaction the word generates in some circles is disturbing. I don’t really want to get into a detailed discussion of comparative economics, but I do wonder, for all the alleged failures of socialism, why we still cling to a capitalist system that seems designed to completely collapse once every twenty years or so.

Anyway, Obama is not a socialist. He might be a liberal, but of course that’s lost its sting since the left in the US embraced the term. Then again, with the economy the way it is, maybe a real socialist is just what the US needs. Shame you don’t seem to have one.

Not only, but also…

February 4, 2009

Yesterday was Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday. There were commemorations of this event all over the internet, and why not? He was very important, not just in the field of biology, or even in science generally, but the impact of his work is still being felt around the world. (Mostly by people still blindly in denial over Natural Selection.)

The interesting thing is that I didn’t see anyone talking about the other person who celebrated their 200th birthday yesterday, who’s impact is arguably still being felt, especially by people in denial. Abraham Lincoln, the great emancipator, was also born on February 12 1809. There was a time when, at least to Americans, his was seen as a more important birth.

To some extent, it’s interesting how closely linked these two are, at least culturally. Darwin’s contribution to science and society was to show that everything is related, and that humans, at least biologically, are nothing special. All the great things about us that raise us above the animals, if only in our own imaginations, are the result of a natural process that can be demonstrated through experiment and through exploration.

Lincoln’s contribution was similar. He started the process that, with any luck, would create a society of equals, essentially saying that the white Europeans of America’s ruling classes (and middle and working classes as well) were nothing special. Or, more importantly, that the African-Americans on the lower rungs of American society were just as special as everyone else.

So, here we are, 200 years later, and Darwin is being lauded, quite rightly, but no-one, not even any Americans, is lauding Lincoln. Darwin is no stranger to overshadowing others. Alfred Russell Wallace’s work on Evolution and Natural Selection is just as important as Darwin’s. While either one of them could have stood alone as the father of modern biology, the fact that they each arrived at the same opinion independently demonstrates the robustness of the theory, and the amount of evidence. But it is Darwin who we remember, although Wallace isn’t really forgotten, Darwin, for whatever reason, remains the public face of Evolution.

Which is kind of my topic for today: how one thing or person can completely obscure something else. It’s a common feeling, especially amongst younger siblings, I am told. But it’s been on my mind of late due to recent events.

Everyone has been concerned about the terrible tragedy ongoing in Victoria at the moment. The fires have been the worst in Australia’s history according to some reports, even the worst natural disaster. The swell of support, and the donations to the relief appeal have been heartwarming, and telling of humanity’s generally generous nature.

And yet, while all this is going on, Northern Queensland is still recovering from the floods of the previous week. The waters seem to be receding from Ingham and other affected towns, but the news reports have dropped away since the start of the fires. Even the subsequent reappearance of Dengue fever, due to the amount of standing water, only really got any coverage in a couple of papers and on The 7:30 Report. The Governor-General, who is from Queensland, is visiting the area today, when she was in Victoria visiting the fire fighters yesterday.

It seems that we are only really capable of focussing on one tragedy at a time. Or maybe it’s just that the floods are old news, and we need to move on to the more recent, shinier tragedy. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t seem that anyone is raising money to help repair Ingham, or rehouse the displaced population.

Anyway, please don’t forget about the people in Ingham as they start to rebuild. Maybe we should try to remember more than one thing at a time.

Happy 200th Abe!


Why Bill Gates is a bonehead. This time

January 27, 2008

Bill Gates got a lot of attention last week at TED for releasing mosquitoes into the theatre where he was doing a presentation on malaria. Many people reacted by declaring it the most amazing thing ever. Others thought it was stupid.

Personally, I thought it was irresponsible. While I’m sure he didn’t release any malaria infected mosquitoes, I would like to know some details about exactly what type of mosquitoes he did release. I haven’t seen anything saying what species they were, or, perhaps more importantly, what sex they were.

If the mosquitoes were all male, then there isn’t a problem. Male mosquitoes don’t bite, therefore don’t transmit disease. However, if they were all male, it’s less effective as a demonstration. Male mosquitoes are unlikely to buzz people because they have no interest in blood.

No-one has said they were male, only that they didn’t have malaria. Malaria is only carried by Anopholes mosquitoes. Transmission happens when an Anopholes mosquito bites an infected host, and then bites an uninfected host. There are a lot of details about how the mosquito’s immune system works which enables the parasite to survive long enough to infect a new host, but let’s not go into that. Suffice it to say that this is why different mosquitoes carry different diseases.

Now, the problem is that, while non-Anopholes mosquitoes won’t carry malaria, they can carry a wide range of other diseases, depending on the species. And recent events have resulted in disease tolerant species resurging in new environments. West Nile has appeared in the North Eastern US, and just in the past week a resurgence in Dengue carrying mosquitoes has occurred due to the flooding in Northern Queensland.

So what species of mosquito did Bill release? What sex were they? Was anyone in the audience infected with mosquito-borne disease (of which there are several – look it up in Wikipedia)? And, really, did he think this through at all?

Maybe he was paraphrasing Al Gore: “At last I get to kill people with deadly mosquitoes, instead of deadly PowerPoint presentations…”


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