26 June 2004

Inquiry into the Marriage Legislation Amendment Bill 2004

On 23 June 2004, the Senate referred the above Bill to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee for inquiry and report by 7 October 2004.

The Bill seeks to:

  • amend the Marriage Act 1961 to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life; and to confirm that unions solemnised overseas between same sex couples will not be recognised as marriages in Australia; and

  • amend the Family Law Act 1975 to prevent intercountry adoptions by same sex couples under multilateral or bilateral agreements or arrangements.

Latham has mucked this issue up completely. Labor voted in favour of the bill in the House. They did not need to. A Senate inquiry was always the best way to deal with this issue. Dorothy Mcrae-McMahon asked legitimate questions today, of Latham as well as Howard:

"Why on earth would heterosexual people be so nervous about us threatening their relationships?" she said.

"If families are in trouble at the moment, it's none of our doing.

"It's related to all sorts of complex situations and issues which lie with heterosexual relationships today and, to some extent, with ours as well."

Bush's Mistaken View of US Democracy

If, in the president's view, the goodness of Americans and the nobility of our mission are self-evident, then the failure of peoples around the world to see the struggle in Iraq the same way we do means that they are 'enemies of freedom.' Fighters opposing American power, even if they are residents of occupied countries, do not merit the protections of international law. Institutional restraints on the exercise of power by Americans in detention centers and prisons can, in this view, safely be relaxed. Moreover, constitutional protections can be denied even to American citizens, arrested in the United States, when they are suspected of being 'enemy combatants.'

From James Madison's point of view, on the other hand, the abuses of Abu Ghraib would have been entirely explicable. The founding fathers, and great American leaders ever since, understood that without institutional restraints, voluntarily followed and supported by the top leadership, such abuses are virtually inevitable. This doesn't mean that Americans are 'bad' people, just that they are human - like Iraqis, Afghans, Germans, Japanese, and every other nationality and race.

If the struggle against terrorism were to be carried out consistently with the institutional theory embedded in the U.S. Constitution, America's leaders would be well aware of the potential for abuse - even by decent patriots. They would have ensured not only that the Constitution was upheld at home, but that the more limited protections embodied in international law would have been conscientiously applied to people living under American occupation, or otherwise within U.S. control.

Behind the debate about the conduct of the war in Iraq, and the occupation, is a larger divide - between those Americans who believe that their unique virtues should permit them to act above the law, and those who believe that people in authority, necessarily imperfect, must be constrained by institutions and by law. Those who understand and believe in the theory of the American Constitution should reject the Bush administration's political theory of personal good and evil. We must continue to insist that the United States is a 'government of laws and not of men.'

Australia does not have the same tradition of checks and balances, even through our constitution is an adaptation of the US constitution. Some of us do have the Manichaean view of the world.

As Howard told parliament on 23 October 2003:

The President of the United States and I first met face-to-face on 10 September 2001. As we celebrated at the naval dockyard in Washington the shared partnership of the ANZUS alliance neither of us knew what lay ahead. The next day the world did change, and we saw arising out of those events the character and the strength and the leadership of the man we welcome today. George Bush, the 43rd President of the United States, rallied his own people and the people of the world in the fight against terrorism. He reminded us then, as we should be reminded today, that terrorists oppose nations such as the United States and Australia not because of what we have done but because of who we are and because of the values that we hold in common, and that terrorism-and we should remind ourselves of this again and again-is as much the enemy of Islam as it is the enemy of Judaism or Christianity.

If you substituted 'the West' or 'the coalition' for 'United States' you would describe exactly the way the Man of Steel views the world. I think it is a deeply flawed view. It is as though we took the form, without the content, of the Madisonian tradition and shaped it into something much less impressive. Just as Bush does.

Parliament passes changes to voting laws

Australians enrolling to vote will need to produce identification under changes to electoral laws which passed Parliament today.

Members of the House of Representatives today took part in a rare Saturday morning sitting. The Senate sat until 2am.

The Parliament dealt with a backlog of business ahead of its winter recess and a possible early election.

The changes to electoral laws passed today will require people enrolling to vote to produce a driver's licence or two witnesses to serve as enrolment identification.

The Senate knocked back a Government proposal which would have given Australians who were not enrolled to vote only until 6pm on the day writs were issued for an election to get their name on the electoral roll.

Currently, Australians have seven days in which to enrol from the time writs are issued.

The Senate also rejected a proposal to reduce to three working days after election writs were issued the time allowed to change address details with the electoral commission.

The Senate knocked back a Government amendment to ban all full-time prisoners from voting.

I am very glad the prisoner disfranchisement and the close of enrolment were rejected.

Internationally, the trend is to recognise that voting is a human right and that prisoners are human beings. The Prisoner vote is also some slight guarantee against the kind of incarceration society the US has grown where they have 6.19 per 1000 people. Australia has 1.1 prisoners per 1000. Disfranchising all prisoners would also fall heaviest on indigenous Australians, a group that does not have a strong record of electoral support for the present government.

Equally there is nothing sacred about the day the writs are issued. In fact it would be better to allow people to enrol at any time, including election day itself. With new technology and the new checks on identity that should not be a problem.

The joint committee on electoral matters had unanimously rejected both ideas. The electoral act should not be about keeping the government of the day in power.

25 June 2004

Federal government advertising

Sally Young, a Melbourne political scientist, has argued that these arrangements have placed incumbents at a �massive advantage� and challengers at a �massive disadvantage�.(21) She argues that governments have the capacity to run a �permanent campaign� using the highly effective electoral tool of direct mail-outs. In the absence of restrictions on the format of these advertisements, Young sees modern government advertising as blatantly self-promoting.


Tables 1 and 2 support this claim of pre-election spikes in expenditure on government advertising. The 1993, 1996, 1998 and 2001 federal elections were preceded by sharp increases in government advertising outlays:

  • the bulk of the Keating Government's $3 million advertising campaign on Medicare Hospital Entitlements was spent the month before the 1993 poll(14)
  • the Keating Government spent $9 million in the three months prior to the 1996 Federal election campaign(15)
  • the Howard Government spent $29.5 million in the three months before the 1998 election campaign.(16) Half this expenditure ($14.9 million) was on the GST campaign. Still, pre-election spending on GST advertising accounted for only 13 per cent of total expenditure on the GST campaign, and
  • in the four months before the 2001 election, the government spent roughly $78 million.(17)

This trend of pre-election spikes in government advertising seems likely to continue. A May 2004 Senate Estimates Committee heard evidence of various plans for commencing new and continuing existing government advertising campaigns (see Table 2, shaded).

Both sides abuse government advertising. Neither side follows principles advocated by the auditor-general in Victoria. The obvious reform is either bipartisan membership of the Ministerial Committee on Government Communications or requiring opposition approval for advertising more than 30 months into the parliamentary term.

Antony Green Election Guide

In 2004, the fate of the Howard government will largely be determined by two states, New South Wales and Queensland.

Of the 78 seats north of the Murray, the Coalition holds 48, the Labor Party's 26, with 3 Independents and a Green. Of the 72 seats in the rest of the country, Labor already holds a majority of 37 seats to the Coalition's 35. In effect, the Howard government's majority is built in New South Wales and Queensland.

On current polling it looks likely the election will be decided in the Coalition's marginal seats. Apart some Marginal Labor seats in Perth, it is hard to see a Labor seat at risk of being lost to the Coalition.

The ABC has it's election guide up. I think Anthony Green is an analyst worth following, because I happen to agree with most of his conclusions. I'd point to the Northern Territory and Queensland as the place where Labor is likely to find most of the 11 seats. I doubt they are places where the free trade agreement with the US will prove all that popular.

24 June 2004

U.S. Immunity In Iraq Will Go Beyond June 30

In Iraq, Washington had originally hoped to achieve a formal Status of Forces Agreement to grant immunity, but that was effectively vetoed when Sistani and other Iraqi politicians said no unelected Iraqi government could enter into a treaty with other countries. The United States now hopes to negotiate a status agreement next year, after a government is elected.

In the current negotiations over Order 17, a senior Iraqi official said, the basic concept is to cover 'soldiers and foreign nationals working in operations conducted by mutual consent or understanding with the Iraqi interim government and the command of the multinational force. But what that means remains to be seen.'

The United States hopes to include some foreign contractors, many of whom are engaged in security operations, the Iraqi official added, while Iraq is pressing to retain sovereignty.

'It's going to be a political hot potato, and we're worried it'll be used as a hot potato in a way that is not good for either the interim government or the multinational force,' the official said.

As a legal basis, Iraq's transitional law, which was worked out between Bremer and the now-disbanded Iraqi Governing Council, may be considered too weak a foundation for granting immunity. Sistani argued against it because it was not the work of elected officials.

The U.N. resolution also has no direct reference to immunity for foreign troops. The only reference is in a letter from Powell to the Security Council attached to the resolution, which says contributing states in the multinational force must 'have responsibility for exercising jurisdiction over their personnel' but does not mention prosecution or other specific activity.

The Transitional Administrative Law continues all CPA orders and regulations until such time as the elected Transitional National Assembly can amend or revoke them. Between 30 June and the election the Iraqi Transitional Government has no legislative power at all.

Sovereignty, apparently, does not extend to the dangerous idea of an Iraqi judge issue a writ of habeas corpus to the prison at Abu Ghraib.

US war crimes immunity bid fails

The US has given up trying to win its soldiers immunity from prosecution at the new International Criminal Court.

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan had warned the Security Council not to renew the measure, partly because of the prisoner abuse scandal.

Washington withdrew its resolution after it became clear it would not get the required support.

For the last two years it had secured special status for US troops, arguing they could face malicious prosecutions.

The BBC's Susannah Price at the United Nations says the latest move is a major climb-down for the Americans, who rarely face such united opposition on the Council.

Good news for the rule of law and good news for cutting back impunity. Impunity is central to the practice of torture, whether it's an outgoing dictatorship 'decreeing itself amnesty, the White House decreeing itself above the law, or any government decreeing that despite the Torture Convention's ban on exceptional circumstances there are exceptional circumstances.

Australia has signed an Article 98 impunity accord which exempts US forces from the ICC's jurisdiction. We should abrogate that accord, especially as it grants legal protections to US troops which are not available to ADF troops.

Druid demands return of Stonehenge

The Archdruid of Wales is calling for Stonehenge to be pulled down and carted back to the principality where it belongs.

Dr Robyn Lewis wants the stones at the centre of the world heritage site returned after 4,300 years.

Experts have long known that the ancient bluestones used to form the site came from Pembrokeshire, in west Wales. But the discovery this week that remains found near the site appeared to be those of prehistoric workmen, almost certainly from Wales, has prompted his call.

But how does he fell about Elgin marbles?

23 June 2004

What causes some people to be left-handed, and why are fewer people left-handed than right-handed?

These theories of hand preference causation are intriguing because they can account for the fact that the side of hand preference of individuals with the C gene (most left-handers and some right-handers) can be influenced by external cultural and societal pressures, a phenomenon that researchers have documented. These theories can also explain the presence of right-handed children in families with left-handed parents and the presence of left-handed children in families with right-handed parents. If the familial genetic pool contains C genes, then hand preference becomes amenable to chance influences, including the pressures of familial training and other environmental interventions that favor the use of one hand over the other. The proposed genetic locus that determines hand preference contains an allele from each parent, and the various possible genetic combinations are DD individuals who are strongly right-handed, DC individuals who are also mostly right-handed, and CC individuals who are either right-handed or left-handed. These genetic combinations leave us with an overwhelming majority of human right-handers and a small, but persistently occurring, minority of left-handers.

Schools once went through a phase of forcing lefthanded kids to write with the wrong (right) hand. The history is ancient:

Most animals are fifty/fifty right handers/left handers. Two million years ago all humans became right handed - that's one hundred percent of them and that had its advantages. And then about a hundred thousand years or so ago another mutation occurred which meant that left handedness could come into being and it must have had some advantage to it and left handers have stayed around since then. So they�re there not because they're an evolutionary throw back to a primitive state, but because they're a recent mutation with additional advantages. Now what they are is anybody guess.

I don't remember anything at school, but family pressure can work just as well. there is also a considerable religious pressure:

Moreover, the Scriptures themselves amply attest to the preeminence of the right hand and the depravity of the left. Thus the right hand confers blessing and signifies strength, while the left hand is treacherous and deadly (Gen. 48:13-20; Exod. 15:6; Eze. 21:22; Rev. 1:16-17; Judg. 3:15, 20:16; 2 Sam. 20:9-10). A place at one's right hand is the seat of honor and dignity (1 Kings 2:19; Ps. 45:9, 110:1). Sagely does Qoheleth teach that "a wise man's heart inclines him toward the right, but a fool's heart toward the left" (Eccles. 10:2). In like manner, both the passivity and the inferiority of the left hand are apparent in the solemn injunction forbidding us to let our left hands know what our right hands are doing (Luke 22:50). And it is by no accident that the elect are to stand like innocent sheep at the right hand of the Eternal Judge, while the reprobates cower and whimper like noisome and tick-infested goats on His left, awaiting their dizzying descent into sulfurous fumes and unfathomable miseries in the mind-bending agonies of eternal damnation (Matt�25:31-46).

I think I'll stick to the recent mutation with evolutionary advantages. It sounds about right left to me.

It's neck and neck, but on paper they're still polls apart

Thirteen million Australians are eligible to vote. Therefore, any opinion poll that claims, in a period of just two weeks, the Government went from 390,000 votes behind Labor in primary votes (ALP 44 per cent, Coalition 41 per cent) to 1.3 million votes ahead (Coalition 47, ALP 37), and then, a further three weeks later, to lose 520,000 votes while Labor magically regains 780,000 votes (Coalition 43, ALP 43), is massively kidding.

In other words, the Newspoll of three weeks ago couldn't possibly have been anything but a cock-up somewhere. You don't get huge voting shifts like that, back and forth, in just a matter of a few weeks. Newspapers, though, aren't going to admit it. Thus we get silly stories that get overexcited in the first place and then, when the next poll comes along and voting trends regain credibility, we get equally silly stories that pretend there has suddenly been a huge turnaround in public sentiment.

It is just the most grievous twaddle.

Far more reliable is the long-term trend. And this shows that in each of the past four elections (1993, 1996, 1998 and 2001), newspaper polls invariably, in their research in the months before election day, underestimated the Labor vote and overestimated the Coalition vote, sometimes quite markedly. The political parties know this and so do those analysts who know what they're talking about.

And if you take a line from the last election, then understand Labor's primary vote, say both public polls, has gained between four and five percentage points (between 520,000 and 650,000 votes) since the last election, while the Government has gained nothing.

Think hard about that. You can bet the Prime Minister does.

Ramsey says the election must be between 31 July 2004 and 16 April 2005. That is what the constitution says. I doubt the Man of Steel will want to face waking up one morning and discovering that George Bush is a lame duck. I'd place the chances of the election being held after the first Tuesday in November at zero.

There are a number of election furphies we can expect in the next few weeks:

1. The Senate does not have the most complex system of election in the world

2. The Man of Steel is not putting off the election. Howard is doing what every other prime minister of Australia does and trying to set the election date to his own advantage.

3. Polls are a wholly owned- and -operated device for increasing newspaper sales. Sometimes they're outright wrong. The trend line and the pattern are all that really tell us anything.

4. No matter who wins here and in Washington the US alliance will continue after the election.

22 June 2004

Rain tanks, recycling in water pipeline

The report, by the House of Representatives Agriculture Committee, precedes a meeting on Friday to decide on a national approach to water-rights reform.

Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson was reluctant to say yesterday whether he would commit to a plan where farmers, the states and the Commonwealth would each pay one-third of any water-rights buyback dictated by future scientific discoveries.

His spokesman later welcomed the report calling for mandatory rainwater tanks and said the Government was still considering the idea of water bonds. Controversially, the report renews the committee's call to hold back a plan to put another 500 gigalitres into the ailing Murray River until more research on the environmental impacts of extra flows is complete.

'The committee is not swayed by commentators who portray the river as dead or dying,' wrote chairwoman Kay Elson. But South Australian Liberal MP Patrick Secker, representing the Goolwa electorate, said: 'I believe the science in many areas of the Murray-Darling basin is adequate.'

Wow, a newspaper that actually identifies what a parliamentary committee is doing. Water reform is not a sexy issue ad does not often make the floor of the House but a mountain of work is done in the back rooms. I've read the committee's chapter on the Murray-Darling. It's not quite a snow job, but it comes very close. The precautionary principle alone suggests the 500 megalitres cannot harm the river.

Hill won't release abuse dossier for risk of offending US

The Federal Government has refused to make public a detailed 61-page dossier outlining what Australians knew about prisoner abuse in Iraq, with the Minister for Defence, Robert Hill, claiming some details would offend the US.

Senator Hill was yesterday censured in the Senate for his role in misleading Parliament and his failure to take responsibility for the false statements made by him, the Prime Minister and senior Defence officials.

Senator Hill had been asked why he chose to make a 5 page correcting statement when Defence had given him the comprehensive report plus nine large folders of supporting documents.

'The so-called [61-page] report ... was a brief to me,' he said. 'It is not the practice of this Government or previous governments to table its briefs,' he said, adding that Parliament had been 'fully informed'.

Among the material was a scathing assessment of US detention practices, in the form of a situation report, written by Australian military lawyer Lieutenant-Colonel Paul Muggleton, who was stationed with the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad.

Senator Hill said Colonel Muggleton's situation report was not released 'because I did not think it was in the best interests of our relationship with the US'.

A government that is basing its claim for re-election (among other things) on White House support is declining to embarrass its political ally. Diplomatic manoeuvres are not n exception to Australia's obligations under international humanitarian law. The depth of Hill's ingenuousness emerged last week in the Senate estimates hearings.

Moreover no-one in government will say why the Australian government did not make any representaitons to Washington to end the abuses the government knew about. More later.

Torture Didn't Work for the French in Algeria Either:

France won key battles by torturing suspects for intelligence. But the bigger lesson is that it lost the war. The fact that French military leaders resorted to the extensive use of torture shows that they had lost the support of the populace at large. It is a lesson that seems to have been ignored by American leaders as they prosecute a war in Iraq.

The French use of torture in Algeria didn't happen overnight. It was a reaction to a deepening crisis in which the French military, originally looking for suspect Algerians, came to see all Algerians as suspects. A signatory to the Geneva Conventions on war, the French government nonetheless insisted that these conventions weren't applicable to the Algerian situation. Its rejection of Geneva protections, and the consequent acceptance of harsher methods of interrogation of prisoners, proved to be fertile breeding ground for torturers.

Since late 2001, because the attacks against al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan, the U.S. government has, like the French in Algeria, displayed a clear ambivalence toward the Geneva Conventions. At times it has professed adherence; at others, it has scoffed. Even the reasoning for rejecting these conventions is identical to earlier French arguments: like the United States today, the French military argued that countering terror required harsh methods.

In Algeria, concerned about countering a 'revolutionary war,' French generals increasingly seized authority from civilian leaders. They ran roughshod over legal protections for the population. The main opposition to French rule, the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), seized the initiative. But the FLN was not simply the virtuous revolutionary force beloved of the left; like many weak revolutionary forces (for example, the Vietnamese Viet Minh at the beginning of its war against the French), it too resorted to terror to achieve its aims.

It's probably trite to say also that the French in Algeria insited that their interrogation methods did not amount to torture because of fine distinctions advanced by the French military. The difference in the US case is that it is the civilian leaders in the White House and the Pentagon who are advocating fine distinctions to exclude themselves from the Geneva Convention and the Torture Convention.

Fighting a War in Name Only

With the third anniversary of the war on terror fast approaching, the administration has not expanded the armed forces and apparently has no plans to do so. It categorically rejects proposals to revive the draft. It has left untouched the rituals of consumption deemed essential to the American economy. It has studiously refrained from curtailing corporate profits or prerogatives. Old-timers will recall when big wars meant rationing and higher taxes. Not this time. Through deficit spending, we will slough off the cost of war onto future generations.

Thus, for most Americans, the global war on terror has become a little like global warming: We sense dimly that we ought to take it seriously, but in practice we go about our daily routine as if it didn't exist.

Pass through a major airport, visit a mall, shop for a new car and look for signs that this nation is engaged in anything approximating a great struggle. There are none.

Which suits Bush just fine. Real wars -- those that engage the passions of the American people -- energize politics and subvert the established order. Change is the last thing this administration wants. For despite the high-sounding talk, the overriding aim of this war is not to march toward freedom but to dissuade Americans from peering too deeply at the events of 9/11. Were they to do so, they just might pose discomfiting questions about the competence of our leaders, the organization and purposes of government and the rationale of U.S. foreign policy.

The contrast with World War II is instructive. To fight that war Franklin D. Roosevelt mobilized the nation. The result was decisive victory. But with victory came other, largely unanticipated consequences. Roosevelt's crusade to liberate enslaved nations raised questions about the meaning of freedom at home. As such, it gave impetus to the embryonic civil rights movement. It undermined old notions of a woman's 'place.' It affirmed workers' rights to organize and bargain collectively. It extinguished old forms of religious bigotry. It created a new class of politically aware and upwardly mobile citizens -- 16 million returning veterans.

Australia is in the same boat. In fact, the Man of Steel announced we had withdrawn from Iraq and were not an occupying power, until Labor said it would withdraw the remaining troops. The Australian presence then suddenly became the central pillar in the occupation of Iraq.

The truth is that Australia never withdrew. We reduced the ADF Iraq commitment from (roughly) 1800 to 850. Essentially we pulled out the SAS. Labor will not withdraw the troops in any real sense and very little apart from symbolism separates the major parties. In Australia, as in the US, the War on Terror and the War in Iraq are being fought with press releases aimed at domestic opinion.

The 'debate; about the US alliance grossly exaggerates the positions of Australia's major parties and also grossly exaggerates the threat to the alliance. Neither party opposes the alliance. Neither party is going to threaten the US bases -- Pine Gap and North West Cape -- we already host. Pine Gap will have crucial role in missile defence. It's unlikely a Labor Government would even refuse the US plans for bases in northern Australia. Equally the US is unlikely to strain the alliance to a point where the existing bases come under question.

Alliances are always a two-way street, under Labor governments as much as Coalition governments.

Australians tell Bush: stay out of it

A majority of Australians say President George Bush was wrong to criticise Labor's pledge to withdraw troops from Iraq by Christmas and the nation is evenly split on whether the relationship with the US is too close, a Herald Poll has found.

In the poll taken last weekend, after Mr Bush and other senior figures in his Administration publicly savaged the stance by the Opposition Leader, Mark Latham, on Iraq as 'disastrous', 56 per cent of those surveyed, and more than one-third of Coalition voters, said the President was wrong to comment on Australia's domestic politics.

The Herald-ACNielsen poll found that only 29 per cent agreed that, as leader of the coalition in Iraq, Mr Bush had the right to comment on policies affecting the coalition. But 41 per cent of voters said the Australian-American alliance would be weakened if Labor won the election, and only one-third believed that it would be unaffected.

This suggests that the public disagreement between the White House and Mr Latham created disquiet in the electorate about the implications for the relationship of a Labor victory.

A couple of things make the alliance issue dangerous for the coalition. The most obvious is that if the alliance between nations becomes a party issue then the alliance is in danger every time a Labor Government is elected. The Bush endorsement did not help the pro-war government in Spain and it looks like it is not going to help the pro-war government in Australia. It's worth recalling the massive swing against the Spanish right was not predicted by any poll taken before the election. Later research has showed the electoral impact of the Madrid bombing was to outrage swinging voters at the manipulation of the issue by the Aznar government. Aznar himself has since admitted this error.

Howard would do well not try and manipulate the issue here. Bush could not be elected to a shire council in Australia and I just cannot see why his endorsement is seen as a good thing by the Man of Steel.

20 June 2004

Torture | Because I could...

Torture's dark allure
In fact, as George Browder explains in his powerful book 'Hitler's Enforcers,' 'the Gestapo, like police anywhere, could not do its work without public support.' The Gestapo's enormous success against the resistance, first in Germany and then elsewhere, depended heavily on bureaucratic files, police informants (G-men or V-men) and collaborators in foreign countries. 'Increased reliance on interrogation through torture during the war years reflects the declining professionalism of an overextended staff much watered down with neophytes,' Browder writes.

The priority in America's war on terror should be on developing human intelligence. Working one's way into a terror cell is not unlike working one's way into organized crime in the United States. One has to turn potential terrorists into double agents and to win the confidence and cooperation of the communities that shelter them. Technology is no substitute for this. Nor is torture.

Abu Ghraib should teach us what America's founders would have told us: that we are our own worst enemy. Leaders of dictatorships sign on to the Geneva Conventions only out of prudential fear of what other states might do to their POWs. Leaders of democracies sign on to them because they understand the evil that lurks in the heart of all human beings. Those who choose to abide by the rules do so not simply to restrain others but to restrain themselves.

Unrestrained power leaves behind a legacy of destruction that takes generations to undo. Torture, like incest, is the gift that keeps on giving. Democratic societies that legalized torture or tried to constrain its use have come to two ends. Some, like the Greeks and Romans, created tiered societies where authorities could torture whole classes of people (slaves or lesser citizens) and those who were beyond torture. Others, like the Italian city-states, were unable to prevent the executive branch from torturing more and more citizens and in the end fell to its dictatorial power.

The first result is hardly a model for modern democracies, and the second serves as a warning. In modern times, France routinized torture in Algeria, producing a racist, tiered society and an aggressive military government that almost overthrew French democracy. Proponents of torture would argue that destroying democratic institutions -- and the individuals involved -- is worth it if torture, as for the French in Algeria, succeeds in defeating terrorism.

Bill Clinton was interviewed by CBS on 17 June about his affair with Monica Lewinski.

RATHER The central question, if I may, and I know this is difficult, the central question is why?"

CLINTON I think I did something for the worst possible reason -- just because I could. I think that's the most , just about the most morally indefensible reason that anybody could have for doing anything. When you do something just because you could ... I've thought about it a lot. And there are lots of more sophisticated explanations, more complicated psychological explanations. But none of them are an excuse ... Only a fool does not look to explain his mistakes.

It would be laughable to compare Clinton's affair with Bush's launching an unjust war on untrue premises and with inadequate resources, and then trying to substitute torture for policy failure, but then it's laughable that Clinton faced impeachment and Bush has not. Bush also has a record of projecting himself (somewhat inaccurately) as a strong man in politics.

I'm the commander - see, I don't need to explain - I do not need to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being the president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation.

911 did not change everything. The law is still the law. The Bush administration may think that everything changed.

There was a before-9/11 and an after-9/11," as Cofer Black, the onetime director of the CIA's counterterrorist unit, put it in testimony to Congress in early 2002. "After 9/11 the gloves came off." Many Americans thrilled to the martial rhetoric at the time, and agreed that Al Qaeda could not be fought according to traditional rules. But it is only now that we are learning what, precisely, it meant to take the gloves off.

As the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment provides:

Article 2
Each State Party shall take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction.

No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.

An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture.

No exceptional circumstances whatever... And if, as Darius Rejali argues, torture is ineffective as well as unlawful, then the real question is why the Bush administration not only thinks it's above the law, but that what failed for the Gestapo and the KGB will work for them.

Railways and the roots of relativity

The young Einstein was not, of course, employed in the academic world but in the Swiss Patent Office. And Switzerland, as we know, was a centre of invention and innovation in clock technologies. The patent office at Bern was a clearing-house for new timing technologies, and Einstein's job afforded him a veritable grandstand seat from which to become acquainted with new electro-technological advances.

Moreover, every day Einstein saw an abundance of public clocks on his way to and from work - on storefronts, on baroque towers, at the train station. How to synchronize such clocks was a widespread concern all over Europe and America. Engineers, scientists and businessmen needed to synchronize clocks effectively in order to solve important problems, ranging from determining longitude at sea to preventing train crashes.

Galison's book is thus about the history of the problem of co-ordinating clocks, from the 1800s to the early 1900s. As he points out, this period was characterized by many efforts to unify, by convention, a plethora of standards of lengths and time. Geographical regions - even within a single country such as Germany - were distinguished by their own 'local times'. Railway lines defined and distributed time, bringing distant times into conflict with local times. Engineers struggled to pinpoint and unite locations and times. Chronometers transported aboard ships failed to keep the time of stationary clocks. Underwater telegraphic cables were laid across the Atlantic Ocean to transmit not only messages, but also time, from observatories in Europe to Africa, Newfoundland, Brazil and beyond. Poincar�? was even a member and sometime president of the French Bureau of Longitude, where he laboured to revise time-keeping conventions.

Local times, synchrony conventions, moving clocks that do not keep proper time, the diversity and unification of lengths and time. Were these remarkable coincidences? Or were there causal connections between breakthroughs in theoretical physics and prior techno-cultural developments? Galison's narrative implies a resounding 'yes', but he cautiously avoids any outright claims of historical causation. His aim is not to reduce the emergence of relativity to such developments, but to place it in a context where the interests of engineers, physicists, philosophers, entrepreneurs and even politicians converged.

Despite Galison's good intentions, his middle-of-the-road outlook does not counterbalance the direction of his research and the drift of his book. While claiming that special relativity emerged from physics, philosophy and technology, his book highlights the technological dimension, seemingly at the expense of the others. Readers who are not well acquainted with the roots of special relativity in optics and electrodynamics might therefore get the exaggerated impression that its crucial origins lay in the techno-culture of clock synchrony.

Be warned, moreover, that the patent offices were not the only possible source of technological imagery. Even before 1900, discussions of kinematics included references to clocks, observers, the measurement of length and time, and even trains. For example, in the 17th century, imagery of ships cruising rectilinearly served to illustrate the equivalence of physical processes on board to those on land, while by the late 19th century imagery of trains had become widespread. Such factors have to be subtracted before injecting Galison's circumstantial findings into a general history of physics. How much weight to give to the techno-cultural aspects will now challenge historians of special relativity.

Fortunately the young Einstein did not have to deal with the complex temporal leakages in the blogosphere where 'I'll just check my newsfeeds for a minute' can turn into several hours of densely (or loosely) argued post. Britain was the first government to make the time run on trains.

Britain was the first country to set the time throughout a region to one standard time. The railways cared most about the inconsistencies of local mean time, and they forced a uniform time on the country. The original idea was credited to Dr. William Hyde Wollaston (1766-1828) and was popularized by Abraham Follett Osler (1808-1903). The first railway to adopt London time was the Great Western Railway in November 1840; other railways followed suit, and by 1847 most (though not all) railways used London time. On September 22, 1847 the Railway Clearing House, an industry standards body, recommended that GMT be adopted at all stations as soon as the General Post Office permitted it. The transition occurred on 12-01 for the L&NW, the Caledonian, and presumably other railways; the January 1848 Bradshaw's lists many railways as using GMT. By 1855 the vast majority of public clocks in Britain were set to GMT (though some, like the great clock on Tom Tower at Christ Church, Oxford, were fitted with two minute hands, one for local time and one for GMT). The last major holdout was the legal system, which stubbornly stuck to local time for many years, leading to oddities like polls opening at 08:13 and closing at 16:13. The legal system finally switched to GMT when the Statutes (Definition of Time) Act took effect; it received the Royal Assent on August, 2, 1880.

At least that was easier than reforming the European calendar, where the retrograde Catholic south went Gregorian 170 years before the scientifically advanced Protestant north.

In an age of intense religious passion, the simple fact that the Pope instituted the reform was enough to make Protestant countries reject the change. The greater part of Protestant Germany did not switch to the Gregorian calendar until 1700, the Protestant Cantons of Switzerland and Protestant Netherlands until 1701. The Swedish dithered. In 1700 they began what was intended to be a gradual switch to the Gregorian calendar. They planned to stop observing leap years until their calendar was in line with the Gregorian one. They did omit the leap year in 1700, but observed the leap year in 1704 and 1708 (apparently they forgot the plan). Thus they were 10 days out of step with the Gregorian calendar and 1 day out from the Julian. Then, in 1712, they changed their minds, and went back to the Julian system by adding two leap days to February. Somewhere in Sweden, there are probably some unique baptismal records of people whose birthday was on a date never to be seen again: February 30. Lithuania and Latvia, which were under Polish rule at the time of the reform (and hence changed in 1582), actually reverted to the Julian calendar, so strong were the feelings. They did not change back again until the 20th century.

Now about that blogospheric temporal leakage...