3 December 2005

the morrow after today

Alarm over dramatic weakening of Gulf Stream
The powerful ocean current that bathes Britain and northern Europe in warm waters from the tropics has weakened dramatically in recent years, a consequence of global warming that could trigger more severe winters and cooler summers across the region, scientists warn today.Researchers on a scientific expedition in the Atlantic Ocean measured the strength of the current between Africa and the east coast of America and found that the circulation has slowed by 30% since a previous expedition 12 years ago.

The current, which drives the Gulf Stream, delivers the equivalent of 1m power stations-worth of energy to northern Europe, propping up temperatures by 10C in some regions. The researchers found that the circulation has weakened by 6m tonnes of water a second. Previous expeditions to check the current flow in 1957, 1981 and 1992 found only minor changes in its strength, although a slowing was picked up in a further expedition in 1998. The decline prompted the scientists to set up a 4.8m network of moored instruments in the Atlantic to monitor changes in the current continuously.

Yikes. I'll just have to shut my eyes really tightly, clench my fists and incant: 'Global warming has no economic impact" six times quickly.

2 December 2005

somebody tell the Man of Steel and the shadow attorney-general

Constitutional Court of South Africa
The exclusion of same-sex couples from the benefits and responsibilities of marriage was not a small and tangential inconvenience resulting from a few surviving relics of societal prejudice destined to evaporate like the morning dew. It represented a harsh if oblique statement by the law that same-sex couples are outsiders, and that their need for affirmation and protection of their intimate relations as human beings is somehow less than that of heterosexual couples. It signifies that their capacity for love, commitment and accepting responsibility is by definition less worthy of regard than that of heterosexual couples. The intangible damage to same-sex couples is as severe as the material deprivation. They are not entitled to celebrate their commitment to each other in a joyous public event recognised by the law. They are obliged to live in a state of legal blankness in which their unions remain unmarked by the showering of presents and the commemoration of anniversaries so celebrated in our culture.

If heterosexual couples have the option of deciding whether to marry or not, the judgment continued, so should same-sex couples have the choice as to whether to seek to achieve a status and a set of entitlements and responsibilities on a par with those enjoyed by heterosexual couples. By both drawing on and reinforcing discriminatory social practices, the law has failed to secure for same-sex coupes the dignity, status, benefits and responsibilities that it accords to heterosexual couples. Although considerable progress has been made in specific cases through constitutional interpretation and by means of legislative intervention, the default position of gays and lesbians is still one of exclusion and marginalisation.
Sachs J stated that Judges would be placed in an intolerable situation if they were called upon to construe religious texts and take sides on issues which have caused deep schisms within religious bodies. In the open and democratic society contemplated by the Constitution there must be mutually respectful co-existence between the secular and the sacred. The function of the Court is to recognise the sphere which each inhabits, not to force the one into the sphere of the other. The objective of the Constitution is to allow different concepts about the nature of human existence to inhabit the same public realm, and to do so in a manner that is not mutually destructive and that at the same time enables government to function in a way that shows equal concern and respect for all.

Acknowledgement by the state of the right of same-sex couples to enjoy the same status, entitlements and responsibilities as marriage law accords to heterosexual couples, is in no way inconsistent with the rights of religious organisations to continue to refuse to celebrate same-sex marriages. The two sets of interests involved do not collide, they co-exist in a constitutional realm based on accommodation of diversity. Granting access to same-sex couples would in no way attenuate the capacity of heterosexual couples to marry in the form they wished and according to the tenets of their religion.

The silent obliteration of same-sex couples from the reach of the law, together with the utilisation of gender-specific language in the marriage vow, presupposes that only heterosexual couples were contemplated. The common law and section 30(1) of the Marriage Act are accordingly inconsistent with sections 9(1) and 9(3) [equality] and 10 [dignity] of the Constitution to the extent that they make no provision for same-sex couples to enjoy the status, entitlements and responsibilities they accord to heterosexual couples.

The full judgment (large PDF) is available as well. The sections of the South African Bill of Rights the Court speaks about are:


9. (1) Everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law.

(2) Equality includes the full and equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms. To promote the achievement of equality, legislative and other measures designed to protect or advance persons, or categories of persons, disadvantaged by unfair discrimination may be taken.

(3) The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.

(4) No person may unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds in terms of subsection (3). National legislation must be enacted to prevent or prohibit unfair discrimination.

(5) Discrimination on one or more of the grounds listed in subsection (3) is unfair unless it is established that the discrimination is fair.

Human dignity

10. Everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected.

It's obviously a dangerous business, putting equality and dignity into the law.

death in Singapore

Nguyen hanged in Singapore
Masses have been held in cities around the country to mark the execution.

In Melbourne, the bell tolled 25 times at St Ignatius Catholic Church in Richmond - once for each year of Nguyen's life.

Members of Victoria's Criminal Bar Association gathered outside the County Court in Melbourne to observe a minute's silence for Nguyen.

Stephen Shirrefs, the vice-chairman of the association, says they support the fight against the mandatory death penalty.

'We are here to demonstrate our opposition to capital punishment, as a mark of respect to the family of Van Nguyen and as a mark of solidarity for two of our members who in the fine tradition of the Victorian Bar have acted pro bono and for the last three years fought to save the life of Van Nguyen,' he said.

At Martin Place in Sydney, a Vietnamese gong also sounded 25 times.

A crowd gathered and maintained a silent vigil.

Churchgoers in Brisbane have also prayed for Nguyen and expressed hopes the events of today are not taken for granted.

Fr Peter Dillon led the congregation at St Stephen's Cathedral in a prayer calling for an end to executions.

Fr Dillon says he fears today's execution will have little impact on the drug trade.

'I sadly think, unfortunately, and this is the insidiousness of the drug culture, I think it's just another dead body for the drug world. And there's thousands of them everyday, so I don't think they're going to be moved by all this,' he said.

This is desperately sad for the country as well as Van Nguyen's immediate family. That the most Singapore can bring itself to allow is for Nguyen's mother to touch him through a wire grill speaks volumes about the degree of compassion they have exhibited.

Singapore is entitled to its own laws. So is Australia. In future dealing with them, especially on criminal matters, the Australian government should remember that Singapore maintains this repugnant law. Capital punishment is wrong in itself. Capital punishment as a mandatory sentence should shock the conscience of everyone. Singapore has not ratified the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights.

ICCPR Article 6

1. Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.

2. In countries which have not abolished the death penalty, sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes in accordance with the law in force at the time of the commission of the crime and not contrary to the provisions of the present Covenant and to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This penalty can only be carried out pursuant to a final judgement rendered by a competent court.

3. When deprivation of life constitutes the crime of genocide, it is understood that nothing in this article shall authorize any State Party to the present Covenant to derogate in any way from any obligation assumed under the provisions of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

4. Anyone sentenced to death shall have the right to seek pardon or commutation of the sentence. Amnesty, pardon or commutation of the sentence of death may be granted in all cases.

5. Sentence of death shall not be imposed for crimes committed by persons below eighteen years of age and shall not be carried out on pregnant women.

6. Nothing in this article shall be invoked to delay or to prevent the abolition of capital punishment by any State Party to the present Covenant.

The federal parliament should make laws to prohibit police assistance where capital punishment is a possibility or where the other country has not signed and ratified the ICCPR. Article 6 is now the minimum standard in any decent nation. Article 6 should be the only standard on which we will extend criminal assistance to other nations and Section 8 of the Mutual Assistance In Criminal Matters Act 1987 should be amended accordingly. Anyone using Optus or Singapore Airlines should find another company that is not owned by executioners.

12 other Australians face the possibility of execution in Bali, Vietnam and Kuwait.

pass the methane

Scientists cook up cure for cow flatulence

Cows belching and breaking wind cause methane pollution but British scientists say they have developed a diet to make pastures smell like roses, almost.

"In some experiments we get a 70 per cent decrease (in methane emissions), which is quite staggering," biochemist Dr John Wallace told Reuters.

Dr Wallace, the leader of the microbial biochemistry group at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, says the secret to sweeter-smelling cows is a food additive based on fumaric acid, a naturally occurring chemical essential to respiration of animal and vegetable tissues.

A 12-month commercial and scientific evaluation of the additive has just begun, but he says if it proves successful it could be a boon to cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions.

"In total around 14 per cent of global methane comes from the guts of farm animals - it is worth doing something about," he said.

Other big sources of methane are landfills, coalmines, rice paddies and bogs.

Scientists in Australia and New Zealand have also been working to develop similar products amid growing concern about greenhouse gas emissions from cattle and sheep.

In New Zealand the Government in 2003 proposed a flatulence tax, with methane emitted by farm animals responsible for more than half the country's greenhouse gases.

I always wondered how NZ tax inspectors planned to sniff out evasion of that tax.

a taste of paradise for a penny a slice

Passing the pineapple
In his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding”, John Locke asserts the impossibility of knowing the taste of pineapple before you have actually tasted it. This is not just a throwaway remark; he returns to the point in several drafts and in several places. In 1671, Locke wrote that the man who has never had pineapple, that “delicate” fruit, “in his mouth” cannot have a true or “new” idea of it. He can only have an amalgam of “old” ideas based on the descriptions of travellers. Later, he wrote that “we see nobody gets the relish of a pineapple, till he goes to the Indies, where it is, and tastes it”. To think that you could relish a pineapple without really experiencing it was like imagining you could see colours in the dark. The person who “from his childhood, never tasted an oyster, or a pineapple” does not know the particular taste of these things. And again: “let him try if any words can give him the taste of the Pine-Apple, and make him have the true idea of the Relish of that celebrated delicious Fruit”. For Locke, who had never tasted a pineapple himself, this was impossible. Only first-hand sensory experience could give knowledge of the taste – the quiddity – of pineapple.

Locke’s choice of the pineapple to make his point was not random. In a sense, the structure of his argument would have worked just as well had he chosen apples instead of pineapples. But who in England in the 1670s was not acquainted with the particular “relish” of an apple? The pineapple, by contrast, was the ultimate in inaccessible luxury fruit. Unless you were close to royalty, or a traveller to the West Indies, you were very unlikely to have been anywhere near one. Moreover, those who had tasted its yellow flesh, described it as peculiarly complex and elusive. Richard Ligon, in a history of the Caribbean, claimed that “nothing of rare taste can be thought on that is not there”. Some thought it musky. Others thought it combined all that is “most delicate in the Peach, the Strawberry, the Muscadine Grape and the Pippin”. John Evelyn, the courtier and salad expert, disagreed. When he tasted chunks of pineapple cut up by the King himself in 1668, he felt the flavour fell short of the “ravishing” descriptions he had read, having a “grateful acidity” but tasting more of “the Quince and the Melon” than anything more delicious. This illustrates Locke’s argument. The earliest European tasters of pineapple could only describe it by reference to other fruits. They could not summon up its full flavour either in words, or in the mouths of others.

The taste of pineapple, however, is only a part of its charm, as Fran Beauman’s engaging “biography” of the fruit amply shows (for once, the application of “biography” to an inanimate object seems justified). As soon as they saw it, men were wowed by the pineapple’s looks, its mathematically perfect golden shell and its outrageous green spikes. In 1535 the Spanish writer Oviedo confessed, “I do not suppose there is in the whole world any other [fruit] of so exquisite and lovely appearance”. In 1702, a Portuguese Franciscan compared the skin of the pineapple to a “brocade of pinecones” and the green top to a “royal crown”. The appearance of the pineapple, so bizarre it seemed to many observers as if it was artificial, would in turn inspire human artifice and architecture, notably the wonderfully absurd jutting stone pineapple at Dunmore Park in Stirlingshire, constructed some time after 1761, which this splendidly illustrated book contains a photograph of. From Georgian times onwards, there were pineapple gateposts and pineapple follies; pineapple mirrors and pineapple beds. Wedgwood made pineappleware, cream-coloured earthenware, knobbly like the body of a pineapple and glazed in green and yellow.

After this, I may never threaten anyone with the rough end of the pineapple again.

the Canadian dissensus 1

According to Elections Canada:

The number of electoral districts is based on the formula described in the amended section 51 of the Constitution Act, 1867. This formula assigns seats to provinces in proportion to their population, assuring them the minimum number of electoral districts they had prior to March 6, 1986. In addition, each of the territories is entitled to one electoral district.

The results are:

  • Canada 308
  • Newfoundland and Labrador 7
  • Prince Edward Island 4,
  • Nova Scotia 11
  • New Brunswick 10
  • Quebec 75
  • Ontario 106
  • Manitoba 14
  • Saskatchewan 14
  • Alberta 28
  • British Columbia 36
  • Yukon 1
  • Northwest Territories 1
  • Nunavut 1

Eastern and Western Canada divide at the Ontario/Manitoba border. The Northern region comprises Yukon, the Northwest territories and Nunavut. There are also significant differences within Eastern Canada which is usually divided into 3 more regions – Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes/Atlantic Canada. The best way to measure the importance of regions is to look at seats won by the two major parties in Eastern and Western Canada.

  • Total 213 Eastern ridings, 92 Western ridings, 3 Northern ridings
  • Liberal 118 Eastern ridings, 14 Western ridings, 3 Northern ridings
  • Conservatives 31 Eastern ridings, 68 Western ridings

There are 4 parties in parliament:

  • Liberal 135 seats, 36.7% popular vote
  • Conservative 99 seats, 29.6% popular vote
  • Bloc Québécois 54 seats, 12.4% popular vote
  • New Democratic Party 19 seats, 15.7% popular vote
  • Other 1 seat, 1.3% popular vote

The voting system is single member plurality. This forces tactical voting and explains why the Bloc can get less votes than the NDP and win more seats. The Bloc only contests seats in Quebec while the NDP is spread across the country. NDP voters have to choose between voting NDP and perhaps allowing the Conservatives into power, or voting Liberal and keeping the Conservatives out.

The Senate (which I describe only out of a deep-seated pedantry) is appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister. Senators serve until 75. The composition at least shows how long the Liberals have dominated the federal government. The province of Alberta once held an election for an Albertan senate vacancy but the federal government refused to appoint the elected candidate.

  • Liberal 67
  • Conservative Party 23
  • Progressive Conservative Party 5
  • New Democratic Party 1
  • Independent 5
  • Vacant 4
  • Total 105

If Paul Keating was ready to call the Australian Senate 'unrepresentative swill' and 'proof of life after death' one shudders to think what he would have said about the Canadian Senate.

Tomorrow I should have a pendulum done and I'll talk about the parties and issues.

29 November 2005

Canada to polls

The Canadian Liberal government lost a no confidence vote 171/133 about an hour ago. Outgoing Prime Minister Paul Martin told his caucus to get fitted out for snowshoes before launching a fairly blistering (by Canadian standards) attack on the Conservatives and New Democrats.

Election day will be fixed by the governor-general when Martin sees her tomorrow. All 308 ridings (electorates) in the House of Commons are up for grabs. I'll go into a little more detail tomorrow when I've worked my way through the lay of the land when it comes to which seats are at risk. Relatively few ridings are expected to change hands. That would explain why 70% of Canadians believe the most likely outcome is another Liberal minority government.

The last time an Australian government resigned after losing a no confidence vote was 1941. Malcolm Fraser lost a no confidence vote in 1975 but refused to resign. The CBC has a useful backgrounder on How to bring down a government which, given the numbers, would work in Australia.