20 August 2004

We're losing the arms race with North Korea

Clearly, this argument is counterintuitive. It may, at first glance, seem absurd. But stick with me.

The missile-defense complex in Alaska is designed specifically to help shoot down long-range ballistic missiles launched from North Korea. But a limited missile-defense system�which is the most we can expect over the next decade�is more likely to multiply than nullify this threat.

A look at history is useful. In 1972, Richard Nixon signed the ABM Treaty, which severely restricted�and, in a subsequent addendum signed by Gerald Ford, banned�the deployment of ballistic-missile defenses. Why? Contrary to right-wing myth, it was not because of some doctrinal aversion to defenses. True, the theory of "Mutual Assured Destruction" held that the two superpowers should remain vulnerable to nuclear attack so that neither leader would launch a first strike knowing his own country would be destroyed in a retaliatory second strike. But MAD�as the theory was often called�was more theory than policy.

The real reasoning behind the treaty was purely practical. If the United States deployed, say, 50 defensive missiles�and assuming they all worked perfectly�the USSR could outwit the system and break through the defenses simply by deploying 51 offensive missiles. And the cost of those 51 offensive missiles would be a lot cheaper than the cost of the 50 defensive missiles. Finally, the USSR could stay ahead of this game much more cheaply still, because�even under the most optimistic projections�not all of our 50 defensive missiles would work. (For more about the reasoning, click here.)

In short, American, and eventually Soviet, decision-makers realized that missile defenses would trigger a costly offense-defense arms race, which the offense would inevitably win. Moreover, if nuclear war did break out in the middle of this arms race, the damage inflicted would be far greater. Each side would fire many more offensive missiles than it might have otherwise, calculating the need to saturate the other side's defenses. If the defenses turned out not to work so well (as many scientists predicted, back then as well as now), then those extra offensive missiles would simply blow up more territory, spread more radioactive fallout, and kill more people.

The parallel between then and now is not precise. North Korea does not have the resources that the Soviet Union had at the height of the Cold War. But with the deployment of the new missile-defense system, the United States has entered into an arms race with the North Koreans�an arms race we are likely to lose�and nobody in the White House or the Congress seems even to be aware of it.

Missile defence is the kind of strategic drivel which the Man of Steel is eagerly signing up for -- a system that does not and cannot work. There is a certain kind of conservative who fears thought itself. Clear thought about our alliance with the US is not beyond the Man of Steel's capacity. It may just be beyond his character.

Clarke, Dawe and Mastermind

KERRY O'BRIEN: And now, John Clarke and Bryan Dawe with their own version of 'Mastermind'.


Your time starts now.

What will John Howard never bring in ever?



When did John Howard bring in a GST?

JOHN HOWARD: 1st July, 2000.


What are weapons of mass destruction?

JOHN HOWARD: Hang on, is that George calling?


If you know people want a republic, how do you get them to vote against it?

JOHN HOWARD: You ask them to vote for a republic where they don't get to vote for the president.


What is the Kyoto agreement?

JOHN HOWARD: Something to do with coal pricing.


What is the environment?



What were being thrown overboard into the sea just before the last election?


INTERVIEWER: I beg your pardon, I'm sorry, I misread that question.

What did John Howard say were being thrown overboard into the sea just before the election?

JOHN HOWARD: The children of asylum seekers.


And what did he do to prove it?

JOHN HOWARD: Showed film of it not happening.


And who told him the children were being thrown into the sea?

JOHN HOWARD: The Defence Minister said he had been told that by the Navy.


And what did the Minister for Defence do when the Navy denied that?

JOHN HOWARD: He resigned and got a job selling defence contracts to the Australian Government.

INTERVIEWER: And was there a conflict of interest involved?

JOHN HOWARD: No, it was Peter Reith.


What about some of the other people in the Howard ministry when they retired?

Where have they retired to?

JOHN HOWARD: They've got jobs with companies dealing in the area where they used to be the minister.


And would this have been worked out beforehand?

JOHN HOWARD: Shut your face.


What does the expression 'integrity' mean?

JOHN HOWARD: I'm sorry, can you repeat the question?


If you made a promise and don't keep it, what is it?

JOHN HOWARD: A non-core promise.


Who can get married in Australia?

JOHN HOWARD: Marriage is between men and women.

INTERVIEWER: What if they don't like each other?

JOHN HOWARD: It doesn't matter if they hate each other's guts, as long as one of them is a man and one of them is a woman.


Why don't we have to listen to senior members of the Defence community criticise the Government on defence?

JOHN HOWARD: Because they're too old.


Why don't we have to listen to ex-public servants criticising the Government's use of research information?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, they're the scum of the earth, aren't they, public servants?

INTERVIEWER: Can you be more specific?

JOHN HOWARD: Get stuffed.


And at the end of the round, your house is worth three times what you paid for it.

JOHN HOWARD: My house is worth three times what I paid for it!

INTERVIEWER: Congratulations!


Oh, fantastic!

INTERVIEWER: Low interests rates -- you're worth a bloody fortune.

JOHN HOWARD: Jeez, he's great, that John Howard, isn't he?


KERRY O'BRIEN: 'Mastermind' a la John Clarke and Bryan Dawe.

Some things just have to go on the blog record.

But did they blog home?

Russian scientists claim to have discovered the wreck of an alien device at the site of an unexplained explosion in Siberia almost 100 years ago, the Interfax news agency has reported.

The scientists, who belong to the Tunguska space phenomenon public state fund, said they found the remains of an extra-terrestrial device that allegedly crashed near the Tunguska river in Siberia in 1908.

They also claim to have discovered a 50 kilogram rock which they have sent to the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk for analysis.

The blast in Tunguska, a desolate part of Siberia, remains one of the 20th century's biggest scientific mysteries.

On June 30, 1908, what is widely believed to be a meteorite exploded a few kilometres above the Tunguska river, in a blast that was felt hundreds of kilometres away and devastated more than 2,000 square kilometres of Siberian forest.

Tribe without names for numbers cannot count

A study of an Amazonian tribe is stoking fierce debate about whether people can count without numbers.

Psychologists, anthropologists and linguists have long wondered whether animals, young children or certain cultures can conceptualize numbers without the language to describe them.

To tackle the issue, behavioural researcher Peter Gordon of Columbia University in New York journeyed into the Amazon. He carried out studies with the Pirah� tribe, a hunter-gatherer group of about 200 people, whose counting system consists of words which mean, approximately, 'one', 'two' and 'many'.

Gordon designed a series of tasks to examine whether tribe members could precisely count and conceive of numbers beyond one or two, even if they lacked the words. For example, he asked them to look at a group of batteries and line up a matching amount.

The tribe members struggled to perform these tasks accurately after the numbers were greater than three, Gordon reports in Science 1; and their performance got worse the higher the numbers climbed. "They couldn't keep track at all," he says.

This sounds like a really obvious conclusion, but the Sapir/Whorf hyposthesis has been controversial for almost a century. Chomskians get so excitable over it you'd almost think they have a deep grammar for refuting it. I do not think many Chomskians have ever worked in computer support and tried to help newbies without first teaching them any new words.

19 August 2004

What PM's man knew about photos

A senior adviser to the Prime Minister, Miles Jordana, was told in early October 2001 - almost a month before the last election - that photographs purporting to show asylum seekers throwing their children overboard were misrepresented.

The photographs, distributed by the Government to buttress its claims of "un-Australian" behaviour by boat people, were splashed in newspapers and on TV across the country as proof that the alleged incident had occurred.

However, senior Defence officials and the office of the Defence Minister, Peter Reith, were aware that they were not authentic the day they were publicly released on October 10.

The Herald has been told this information was promptly passed on to Mr Jordana, John Howard's international adviser and point man on the issue.

Mr Jordana was told unequivocally that the photos were of the sinking of the refugee boat on October 8 - the day after the Government said the children overboard incident occurred.

The Government never corrected the misrepresentation, or conceded that the event had never happened, until after the November 10 poll which returned Mr Howard for a third term.

This is all bcoming a bit of a problem for the Man of Steel and his groupies in the blogosphere. Expect the customary defence:

  • It didn't happen.
  • Even if it did happen, it didn't matter.
  • Even if it did happen and it did matter, the Australian people are too stupid to understand.

17 August 2004

Latham wrestles back a poll lead

But the poll also shows Labor's primary vote has fallen for the third consecutive month, drifting down from 43 per cent in May to 39 per cent this month. Over the same period, the Coalition's primary vote has increased from 39 per cent to 42 per cent - although it dropped two percentage points this month from its July high of 44 per cent.

Underpinning Labor's rising two-party-preferred vote in the face of a falling primary support is the growing vote for the Greens and the strong flow of preferences to the ALP.

The Herald Poll shows support for Greens is now at 9 per cent - almost twice as high as the 5 per cent it attracted in the last election three years ago. It also shows a surprise 10 per cent surge in support for One Nation in Queensland, but Mr Stirton urged caution because of the small sample size of 300 in that state.

Mr Howard hinted yesterday that the election could be as far away as late November.

Although the two leaders are now level-pegging on their personal approval ratings, Mr Latham has not been able to topple Mr Howard as preferred prime minister all year. Mr Howard is still preferred by a margin of eight percentage points.

The gap between Labor's primary vote and their two party preferred vote is interesting. It's what happens to a party that persuades itself (for example) all those lovely religious right voters are just dying to vote Labor so the gay vote can get screwed because they have nowhere else have to go. It also opens a danger for Labor for the rest of the campaign.

I doubt that the Man of Steel is ever going to have much luck with scare campaigns again. The Scrafton evidence is just too damning. That will not stop him putting a lot of energy into finding a way to drive a wedge straight through the triangulation gap between the primaries and the preferences.

16 August 2004

Howard was told the truth

A central figure in the children overboard affair has broken a three-year silence, directly contradicting John Howard's election eve statements of November 2001 that children had been thrown overboard from an asylum-seeker vessel the previous month.

Mike Scrafton, at the time senior adviser to then defence minister Peter Reith, in three telephone conversations with the Prime Minister on the evening of November 7, 2001, conveyed his view that the children overboard claim was inaccurate.
Mr Howard, in his remarks to the National Press Club the next day and in subsequent interviews until polling day, continued to claim children had been thrown overboard - contrary to the advice provided by Mr Scrafton and air force chief Angus Houston to the Government up to November 7, the day The Australian first exposed the claims as wrong.

The affair was a decisive factor in the November 10 election, with the Howard Government using the incident to stoke public anger against asylum-seekers and divide Labor over border protection policy.

Mr Scrafton's exclusive letter to The Australian is the crucial missing link in establishing the extent to which the Howard Government misled the public about the children overboard affair in the 2001 election.

Mr Scrafton, a former senior defence department bureaucrat, was gagged by cabinet from giving evidence to the 2002 Senate committee set up to inquire into the children overboard affair.

'The question of the extent of the Prime Minister's knowledge of the false nature of the report that children were thrown overboard is a key issue in assessing the extent to which the Government as a whole wilfully misled the Australian people on the eve of a federal election,' the Senate report found. 'Its inability to question Mr Scrafton on the substance of his conversations with the Prime Minister therefore leaves that question unresolved in the committee's mind.'

A spokesman for Mr Howard last night declined to comment until the Prime Minister had read the letter.

This is actually not all that new. Scrafton's gagging more or elss gave the game away when the Senate committee investigated the affair last year. What is new is that the Murdoch press has given it front page treatment and that means the Man of steel has got too grimy for even the Dirty Digger to handle.

This won't decide the election, but it will probably mean that Latham will win this week as decisively as he won the last 2 weeks. It is no wonder Howard told Sunday yesterday that he thought the election would be in October.

15 August 2004

Athens 2004: Opening Ceremony

We can be certain Greek male athletes will not compete in the nude, as Tony Perrottet tells in the just published The Naked Olympics (Random House, $24.95), a book of enchanting detail which explains how these pagan spectacles began in 776BC with a single footrace won by Coroebus, a cook.

There were no team sports, no marathon and no torch-lighting ceremony (introduced in Berlin in 1936).

Corruption began in 336BC, when Euplos of Thessaly bribed three boxers to throw their fights. Cheating became a Games staple; the culprits were fined and the money used for statues of Zeus. False starts earned a thrashing from the official whip bearer.

Women were not permitted to watch the events but off-course sexuality was rife. Perrottet claims details of a sexual position known as 'the lion on the cheese grater' are "regrettably lost".

Australian bloggers seem to be fascinated by the torch. The arguments are running hot between a megaphallos and an unconscious representation of the kind of cigarette that Bill Clinton claims not to have inhaled. Thank God none of us knew about lions and cheese graters when we watched.