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(click on links or just scroll down for all... also for articles written 2006 onwards, click here)

  1. Invisible hand of the markets?, 28th June, 2006
    External Link: Against force-feeding
  2. The school positives, 6th Mar, 2006
  3. A historical paralell, 15th Nov, 2004
  4. A picture of Heaven, 9th June, 2004
  5. Some thoughts on culture, 9th June, 2004
  6. Bush fighting the subversive elements, 2nd June, 2004
  7. Consumption for consumption's sake, we're led to believe
  8. What does FTA really stand for?
  9. Iraq-Powell-Cheney revisited
  10. Do governments/banks have an on-going benefit from inflation?
  11. Does the US benefit from owning the global currency?
  12. What sort of airports do you build?
  13. A recent pleasant experience with an atheist
  14. When did you last hear about "Fractional Reserve Banking"?
  15. The attraction and damage of pornography
  16. Eleven reasons (just to name a few) why evolution cannot happen
  17. Next time politicians talk about "helping" and "friendship" think...
  18. Things that enervate the joy in our lives
  19. Just where do our priorities lie?
  20. Why do Christians irk the hell out of people
  21. Its all in the words
  22. Bush asks Europe to forgive Iraq debt
For articles written 2006 onwards, click here

Invisible hand of the markets?, 28th June, 2006

We all know the phrase. Adam Smith coined it when he said that leave it to the markets. Distribution, price, supply, quality will be all worked out magically by this impersonal force, better than any intelligent body can (didn't he? in any case isn't it true? haven't we seen the collapse of centrally planned economies?)
Well, He didn't, it is not and we haven't.
Smith's phrase has never meant to say all that. As Chomsky pointed out, Smith believed in human compassion. The only time he's used this phrase was in relation to British industrialists who's compassion, he has claimed, would not allow a complete disintegration of working conditions and pay of british workers by exporting jobs to lower paid colonies. That is all Smith said in relation to the invisible hand (and this dynamic turns out to be patently wrong: the era of imagined compassion, if ever existed, is well and truly over. The naked truth is plainly seen: capitalist and leaders who "care" are out of business in matter of what seems seconds).
Centrally planned economies are not a failure. In fact, today's most succesful economies have started out as the most protected ones. These succesful economies, even when dominating the world, are still protected where they are not the strongest and are centrally planned: for instance, the american taxpayer is heavily subsidising hi-tech companies (mostly through military and tertiary education expenditure) through central planning and distribution and and despite all the talk of FTAs, the american economy is well protected with quotas, tariffs and internal subsidies in areas where they are not as strong as the trading partners. But the legend of the invisible hand lives on and is claimed to be guiding all areas of the economy-modes of operation the author has never claimed.

A good example of how twisted our reality got is medicine.
The invisible hand of the market causes pharmaceutical companies to spend most of their research dollars on things like:
- Impotence drugs and other drugs playing on our vanities
- Drugs involving life long treatment (like that of high blood pressure, lowering cholesterol), as the customer becomes a lifelong cash cow

But never on things like:
- New antibiotics. Apparently one off, lifesaving drugs don't pay.
- Drugs that deal with the cause of our epidemics. We much prefer to mask the symptoms
- Anything natural, low cost, easily reproducible. No royalties, no help. An illustration of that is below:
Hundreds of thousands of chidren in the poorest countries die of dehydration! Because there is no clean drinking water, they get incessant diarrhoea which saps their bodies of water. If one survives these bouts in childhood, they get stronger and are OK as adults..all they need is a bit of help when at a vulnerable age.
A simple intravenous drip to replenish their bodies with water would save them, but most people can't even afford that.
It turns out that some lab in Korea found out that an easy to make mix of water, sugar and salt, when mixed in the right proportions allows the bodies of these children to absorb it sufficiently quickly to survive the bouts. Water, sugar and salt...when would the high tech corporations come up with that one? Yet in the next few years millions of childen will be saved, more than any improvement in any drug produced by them, no matter at what cost.

Are we still holding onto the magic of the market? When the nightmare gets sufficiently bad, we will we realise that it is nothing but a bedtime story.

School positives, 6th Mar, 2006

I can see you thinking: there has to be a positive article here somewhere, where is it? Well, you've found it.
For a while, I've been compelled to write about the great things my daughters surprise me with so often. You see, coming from eastern European background, for a long time we were angry at the low level of academic requirement, haphazard and shallow delivery of material. But in the last few years we started to see the positives, the great ideas...as we get to know their time spent at school better, we are often amazed, especially when comparing it to our shool days.
So, here's the rundown of the unexpected changes:
There is a huge emphasis on positive reinforcment. Often they bring home stickers or a praising comment for us to sign. There are a number of student of the week each week and their names are published in the schools newsletter.
Different group sizes allow different personalities to develop. At assembly, they might need to speak to many hundred peers. In a small group, even the most painfully shy gets to contribute.
Within the class it is normal to segregate students with differing level of competency in certain subjects. This ensures that everyone can be challenged and boredom is reduced.
Everyone belongs to one of four "houses", siblings in same house and are in competition with one another to gather points (and not to lose some through bad behaviour) for their house. Their points are added up schoolwide, forging a sense of wider community.
The buddy system involves grade 6 students being assigned to prep kids, grade 5 students to grade 1 kids, etc. They look after each other at playtime, their classes have get togethers, activities, etc. The young ones open up and gain confidence and the old ones enjoy the responsibilities.
An extension of the buddy system is the penpal system, where students write to others in other schools, and towards the end of the year, organise an excursion to the other school. This year, Timea's class wrote to residents of a nursing home with unbeliavable benefits to both parties. The oldies couldn't wait to the end of the year and came to visit the class in the second term!
Parents and people from the community are encouraged to come and help in whatever capacity they can. Some people come to simply tell a little bit about their profession, or perhaps values or life stories. Policemen and firemen are the stars, but even an office manager's story can be interesting and if a limodriver brings his limo and gives a ride to the classmates, his son or daughter will be very popular for a long time. Apart from steering the school via the parent commitee, parents regularly help in more practical ways, like help the teachers help those that need extra time with reading, fix IT problems, run woodwork workshops, o rganising canteen, staff the uniform shop, etc. Many programs just wouldn't exist without these volunteer parents.
Show and tell is an interesting social experiment as well.
Disciplining can be creative, like "pick up a bag of rubbish during lunch break".
There are more educational games and computers, internet are tightly integrated into the curriculum.
Project oriented work teaches time management and longer term planning with more indepence. At year 5 Timea's grade get weekly wages for certain tasks, from which they pay taxes, rent, etc, closely modelling ideas such as bank, goverment, tendering, demand-supply, etc.
Effort is made to make things interesting. The swimming school for instance gives out certificates and names the participants after fishes (level one is goldfish, two is salmon, three tuna, etc.)
This is a huge contrast to what I've received just 20 years ago: authoritarian, dry delivery of discreet subjects. It's like we've learnt the ingredients, but today the kids learn the foods. Good on them.

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A historical paralell, 15th Nov, 2004

Please compare the map from 1850 where slave states and free states are compared, and in 2004 when Bush strongholds and Democrat states are coloured in different colour.

As you can see, the states are divided the same way, with the exception of Iowa, which turned out to decide the election. Wow.

Questions:
-Is US really united as its name says or is made up of two distinct parts?
-As N. Agi from HU quoted Talleyrand, speaking of the Bourbons "They have learnt nothing and they have forgotten nothing". Next time someone speaks of progress, this could be raised...there's nothing new under the sun. We are still being driven by the age old impulses, only the techniques get more sophisticated.
-How can it be that slavery and rendition/pre-emption is supported by the people supported by the christian heartland instead of the supposedly evil liberals? What does the love of God have to do with these things? God, I hate hypocrites...

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A picture of Heaven, 9th June, 2004

I know that we, christians on earth, make a bad job of representing our heavenly Creator. It is only through his sustaining power that the church still exists. Has he not prepared my heart miracoulosly, I'd not be a professing christian, no matter how eloquent a street preacher or door knocker I would've met.
I think that there will be more people in heaven than the approximately 10% of humanity that are professing, active christians in the world today. The bible says the battle has been won, what the first Adam did wrong, the last Adam (Jesus) has righted. What sort of victory would it be if the large majority of people have to be separated from God forever? Separation of man and God is exactly what the serpent (the devil) has achieved in the first instant.
Jesus determines whether we go to heaven or not. How? A lot of the big guide is written in the Bible, but imagine yourself as a just and compassionate person in position of power. People whose hearts you know very-very well and love are lined up in front of you. If you pay their debt, they'll be your servants, if not, they'll be miserable forever. Some people's debt you could pay over and over and they would rack up debts again, over and over. Not matter how long, their hearts would still not be with you, so you don't. Others will be eternally grateful for any help coming from your powerful position, and of course you do help them.
I'm not saying for a minute that evangelical work is not important, that we should not try to lead people to Jesus and to my great relief, this thinking has not affected my zeal to see people's thinking converted one iota (hence articles like these!). The eternal outcomes in heaven are determined by our actions during the fleeting existence on earth. That is why angels rejoice about events in this arena; in a sense this is the adrenalin-fuelled real deal, the stakes are high and a lot happens in very little time.
An overlooked issue of real importance is, however, where in heaven we will exist. This is often under-emphasised by christians: They only ask "Are you saved". Thnking about heaven as a more organic place, where some places are more privileged/closer to God than others (much like on this Earth, but with real justice and meritocracy behind it) has helped to get a better sense of the great plan.
Christians are fond of saying: You cannot get to heaven by your works, only by faith. This is true, but at the same time this neglects the question of ranks in heaven and how earthly works will determine the glory in heaven. How far will we be from God? In what regard will you be held in a place where there are no secrets and everything you did is on permanent public display? This quote from the Bible is so revealing: "If your works do not stand the test of fire in Heaven, you will still be saved but you will suffer a great loss". Distorted fragments of this truth can be found in the Moslim faith, for instance (the martyr gets the virgins, etc.).
Great many you wouldn't expect to be in heaven will be there. Maybe someone you would will not. Since God's heart is so much bigger than ours, the latter is not likely to happen, but can, as we don't see the full picture hidden in every heart.
I theorise that especially people raised in christian homes, who have a much reduced appreciation of the forgiving and compassionate side of God Will be surprised. Those picked up from the symbolic gutter in their very much fallen state know the uplifting love of God and will be closer to the truth in this regard.
Some supposedly God-ordained leaders will be at the back rows, even behind some well known, eternally sorry "faces of evil". No doubt some wordly alcholics, carnal homosexuals and murderers will have authority over some arrogant and cold-hearted christians. People revered for their works (for example, inventions, or musical talent) realised that they have simply used what God has given to them and that they might have nothing to show for those in heaven, unless the spirit in which they have conducted themselves was the tight one...their reward might have already been received on earth.
Ex-Muslims, ex-Buddhist and ex-atheists (and to be fair, christians) will need to undergo a religious renovation and take their place according to the works they have carried out in the light they have been accorded. Luke 12:48 says "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked." This is not a standardised test, we all have different hurdles but the FINAL RESULTS ARE STANDARDISED!
I can imagine the "stars", the heavenly heroes walking to take up their places close to the throne, still shaking their heads, as if saying: "I don't deserve this". And some quite the opposite. We're not the ones to judge.
Two outcomes of this thinking are:
1. Our attitudes to the un-saved is going to be less grating and more productive (see article above titled Why do Christians irk the hell out of people
2. The great plan makes more sense and is in character with the just and loving Creator
3. We don't have to stress about loved ones (and that should include all of humanity), as no-one will lose out because of our imperfect earthly representation of our loving and powerful God. Rest assured, we won't feel that eternal justice has not been done because of an earthly accident or human shortcomings.

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Some thoughts on culture, 9th June, 2004

I have realised that pretty much all my life, I have never belonged to a homogeneous cultural majority. Born into an ethnic minority in Yugoslavia (itself a container state of nations that didn't fit the plans of the powers of early 20th century), having studied in Hungary during, and migrating to New Zealand straight after my formative years, making the move with my family to Australia, I had plenty of painful adjustments to make.
I'm not whingeing, these have been very useful lessons. But here's how I view culture from this station in my journey:
Firstly, I have a a view that many things began with a sharply defined state, but steadily and irreversibly losing information and energy. Humans and other life forms were created highly fit for their environments and with a lot of ability to adapt through natural selection, and since then, we're degenerating, losing some definition and information from one generation to the next. The same is happening to our planet and all it's sub-systems.
The linguistic divides happened at Babylon, this is clearly recorded. We all name Babylon as the cradle of our civilisation-this is why. The sudden increase of linguistic information at Babylon runs counter to this trend. If say, a physicist was told the Earth is suddenly increasing its angular momentum, he would look to an extrenal force htat could cause that. The same way, the explosion of languages points to an injection from God. My strong hunch is that God has handed down the cultural divisions at this same time, that the task of learning a foreign language and learning a foreign culture is of a same complexity and difficulty.

Think of culture as a solution to a complex problem that has many solutions...or a protocol to navigate through life. Because the complexity of the solution/protocol humans find it hard to compare them with others and a simple solution is to discard anything other than one's own. Racial, religious wars result from similar shortcomings of our understanding.
An interesting corollary is that by learning about other people, we should reduce the severity and frequency of these conflicts. What makes this harder is that the solutions/protocols might contain irreducible complexities, which might prevent adopting parts of another culture, and thus ensuring the survival of cultural divides.

We can cause plenty of pain to each other through our cultural differences. The best illustration I can come up with is this:
Imagine you are in a crowd. There is a bit of pressure, a bit of push and shove (maybe everyone wants to go through a gate or to get to the fron row at a rock concert). You all have hard and soft parts on your body and they largely match up, shoulder to shoulder, elbow to elbow, and it is easy to work out your space with those around you with very little pain.
Imagine someone from a different culture to have different hard and soft parts. So, when your hard elbow ploughs into his soft tissue, you won't even feel it-but believe me, you ARE causing pain. Similarly, the other will not know why you're writhing in agony after his knee went into your crotch, but there will be not an ounce of doubt about that one in your mind.

Some dynamics of how cultures survive can sound very naturalistic, as my verbal sparring partner has pointed out. Seems to me that since humans have a need to belong, cultures are naturally sustained. Over and above that, stronger ones seem to become more prevalent like planets that attract other smaller rocks as their gravity increases (and through that, their gravity increases further). However, there is a limit to this. I suspect either the big ones weaken in the attracting power after a certain size, or are limited by human limitations (corruption, say) or we tend to defend the little ones instinctively, otherwise the wonderful diversity we see today wouldn't exist.
It pays to keep in mind that in our finite world, placing emphasis on one thing means that we are de-emphasising another. No matter how much these individuals loathe to admit, an on-fire patriotic is actually de-valuing countries other than his own, together with their culture and sadly, their people. The religious zealot ditto. The cultural freak is a weaker force, but very similar to the others in effect.

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Bush is fighting subversive elements, 2nd June, 2004

Picture is from www.theage.com.au. No other comment necessary.

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Consumption for consumption's sake, we're led to believe

The following article is a shortened and lightly edited version of Ross Gittins' article called "Why reading is more fun than TV", published by The Age. Ross seems concerned with the often overlooked aloofness of theoretical economist and is keen to impart some sense into their theories. Go Ross...

A strange thing about economists is that, although their ministrations exalt consumption above all things, they show remarkably little interest in it. They're obsessed by maximising it, but utterly uninterested in studying it. It's assumed to be satisfying and that's it.

But I think if we're going to live in a society so preoccupied with consumption - as we surely do - it makes sense to give attention to the efficiency of the act. And for this, believe it or not, we have to turn to the psychologists. They've become quite interested in consumption as part of their burgeoning study of happiness.

Did you know, for instance, that you're likely to gain more satisfaction (utility, as economists call it- what a satisfaction-killer, Z :) from buying services than from buying goods?

Professor Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University and Dr Leaf Van Boven of the University of Colorado in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology say that "experiential" purchases - those made with the primary intention of acquiring a life experience (go to a concert, go skiing, go on a holiday, even go out to dinner) - make people happier than material purchases (clothes, jewellery and all manner of "stuff"). The good life, they say, is better lived by doing things than having things.

The good life, the researchers say, is better lived by doing things than having things.In a way, this is a surprising finding. When you've spent money on an experience, pretty soon you've got nothing tangible to show for it. When you buy something material, however, it lasts for years.

So why should doing things be so much more satisfying than having things?

First, because experiences are more open to positive reinterpretation and we tend to forget the minor annoyances. In contrast, is is found that people quickly adapt to material advances and we need continuous material purchases to maintain the same level of satisfaction.

Second, because experiences are more central to our personal identities. People's lives are the sum of their experiences.

Third, because experiences have greater social value. We enjoy talking about our experiences much more than about our possessions. Talking about our experiences - including our shared experiences - is the stock in trade of our relationships with family and friends. And good relationships are strongly associated with happiness.

This finding about experiencing rather than possessing is refined by the finding of another psychologist, Professor Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, in his wonderful book, Authentic Happiness.

Seligman warns against the snare of pursuing "shortcuts to pleasure". Such as? Drugs, chocolate, loveless sex, shopping, masturbation, television and spectator sport.

The point is not that these things are necessarily bad for us, nor that we should give them up entirely. It's that we completely overlook the fact that they yield only the briefest moments of good feeling and when it is gone, we're left with craving for more of the "unreal" high.

Every wealthy nation produces more and more of these shortcuts, forms of instant pleasure that require a minimum of effort on our part.

And that's what's wrong with them - they're too easy. They're passive rather than active. We seem to have been built in such a way that things requiring more effort yield more satisfaction.It seems that you get out what you put in.

It is interesting to note that Seligman relied on the innovative research by the noted psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who gave pagers to thousands of subjects and then beeped them at random times during the day and evening. Whenever beeped, the subjects to record what they were doing and how they felt about it.

It's from such research that we learn an unsettling fact: the average mood while watching sitcoms on television is mild depression. Reading a book, however, gets a tick. It's a lot less passive than being slumped in front of the box.

In Seligman's schema, the next step beyond the pleasures is the gratifications, which are not feelings but activities we like doing: reading, rock climbing, dancing, good conversation, volleyball or playing bridge, for example.
The gratifications absorb and engage us fully. They block consciousness of self and felt emotion, except in retrospect ("Wow, that was fun!").

When we progress to the gratifications, however, we're still in the foothills of satisfaction. Beyond conventional consumption in search of the good life lies the meaningful life in which we use our strengths in the service of something much larger than ourselves.

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What does FTA stand for?

Australia has recently entered into a FTA agreement with the USA. A large part of the negotiation was centered on the PBS. This gives us a really good way to examine what the Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) are really about.

First, a little on PBS:
Australia has a brilliant system that helps to determine what drugs the government subsidises. It is called "Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme", or PBS for short.
We have an aging population that has access to ever increasing number of ever more costly ways to live longer. However the budget (collected from an ever shrinking base of people still working) is unable to follow the spiralling costs, so clearly some things have to give and we have to prioritise.
What fairer way to solve this (otherwise very hard) ethical problem than to say:
Each drug brings certain benefits, as established by clinical trials (and not ad campaigns or pharmaceutical companies "educating" doctors about their own drugs).
Each drug also has an asking price.
When considering different fields of drugs (trying to answer question like: should we include anti-cancer drugs using immuno-suppression, to make up a stupid category), we have to see how much does this category help in achieving quality life and how much it costs. Simply list the categories from the best benefit/cost ratios to the worst and finance as many as the budget allows (estimating the likely quantities dispensed).
For drugs competing in the same category, again we simply have to pick the one with the best benefit/price ratio.
Simple? Yes. Common sense? You bet. Is it considered protectionism, and therefore barrier to trade? Not in this galaxy, it isn't! It is simply saying, we have these needs, we have this amount of money, who can offer what?
What raised the ire of the powerful pharmaceutical companies is that they were forced to compete and the reasons for decisions were irrefutable, the strings held by the customer (AU government) and the race is conducted in the open.
From multinationalist's perspective, if their product makes the list of sudsidised drugs, prescriptions (and sales volumes) increase many-many times and the government foots the bill- no questions asked. If they don't, their sales for that drug will languish (patients can purchase at full price on what's called "Private Script" but not many will). This forces them in some cases to compete to make the list (something they are not used to) and as a result, Australia has been paying less for drugs than probably any country in the world, and drug companies' profits looked a little more conventional (maybe as low as double digits? :)

What is the Trade in FTA?

So, how can the US negotiator say this: "I'll remove some tariffs on some goods if you ditch your policymaking tool"? Where is the link? We're comparing a business model with trade barriers here. How would the US public react if say, Australia worked out that by remodelling the social welfare system of the USA we could get these people consume more Australian wine or agricultural produce and demand that change in exchange of some tariff breaks for Boeing? I suggest they would have thought we're nuts, yet we are talking the same sort of thing. The FTA might have something to do with trade, but it is not its primary issue. FTAs are mainly concerned about establishing a playing field more conducive for powerful corporations and concetrate power over issues affecting all of us in faraway places that we have no control over.
The only explanation to the lopsided situation described above is that Realpolitic rules and as the saying goes "If you get in bed with an elephant, you get squashed"-The USA can demand unreasonable things and no-one even notices. Not to notice this, we must have really been indoctrinated very deeply.

What is the agreement bit?

While our PM called the deal "historic" for us and the success that was the FTA dominated the OZ media, it was not even mentioned on the US news bulletins (at least the ones we get here). The only US analyst an Ozzy news service interviewed who was visibly ashamed, because in his words, the US has got everything and gave away only little, none of the big ticket items. Imagine what the ones who didn't get interviewed would have said.
The voting public has, despite all the media machinations that governments can dish out, always rejected these FTAs making them politically very expensive. So why do governments do it? To suit their powerful backers.
We see that the populations of the coutries don't want it, and it is never a fair deal where both sides benefit. So why the word agreement in the FTA? Surely, the "A" is more likely to stand for agression, no? Or I can imagine the junior party saying "I agree to give up my position freely to this elephant so that he wouldn't bulldoze me down completely", so it has nothing to do with the usual sense of the word.

Surely, F is for Free, not?

Well, it is also interesting to note how the US (as any superpower worth its salt would) only enters into FTA agreements with individual countries (ie. making sure it is always an elephant in comparison) AND works against WTO which seeks to introduce international trade agreements that would set the same rules for all. So, while two countries entering in a bilateral FTA might increase their trade (although the real reasons weren't just about trade), these "FTA"s simply divert a country's output from one market to another, leaving the overall barriers for international trade largely unchanged.
Incidentally, this diversion of trade can be seen (quite rightly, too) as an agressive move by those who are left out, so it does little to calm this crazy planet we're on.
There is nothing Free about the FTA.

PBS is a brilliantly simple and fair system of prioritising, nothing more. Oh, and the biggest fear of the drug companies, quivering at the thought of the PBS being copied by other countries. But is should never have been used as an argument to balance tariff reductions-and we should have seen through that the real nature of the FTAs.

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Iraq-Powell-Cheney revisited

On the 4th of Feb. 2005, the White House and Secretary of State Colin Powell scrambled to present a united front about the war in Iraq, after Mr Powell said he was not sure if he would have recommended an invasion had he known that Saddam Hussein did not have stockpiles of banned weapons.

Let's examine this for a second:
In February 2003, a transcript of a leaked United Nations debriefing of Iraqi general Hussein Kamel, revealed that both the US and British governments must have known that Saddam Hussein no longer had weapons of mass destruction. General Kamel was no ordinary defector; he was Bush and Blair's star witness in their governments' case against Saddam. A son-in-law of the dictator, he had overall authority for Iraq's weapons' programmes, and defected with crates of documents.

When Secretary of State Colin Powell made the Anglo-American case for an attack on Iraq before the UN Security Council, he relied on and paid tribute to the reliability of General Kamel's evidence. What he did not reveal, as the transcript of the general's debriefing reveals, was this categorical statement by Kamel: "I ordered destruction of all chemical weapons. All weapons -biological, chemical, missile, nuclear - were destroyed."

The CIA and Britain's MI6 of course knew about this; and it beggars belief that Bush and Blair were not told. But neither of them let on - just as Colin Powell suppressed his informant's most sensational information, which would have contradicted all his spurious claims. General Kamel (who was later murdered by Saddam Hussein) corroborated Scott Ritter's statement that Iraq had been disarmed "90 to 95 per cent".

Iraq was attacked so that the United States and Britain could claim its oil and its assets. Only Mary Poppins would believe otherwise. For the latest in a catalogue of evidence, turn to the Wall Street journal, the paper of America's ruling elite, which has obtained copies of the Bush administration's secret plan to privatise the country by selling off its assets to western corporations while establishing vast military bases.
Excerpts from the British Mirror newspaper's article.

Powell has been more measured in his support for the Iraq war in the past, which cleary irritated Cheney and Rumsfeld no end. Now he is bowing to pressure and joining the chorus of war apologetics. To me it is clear that the Bush (or is it the Cheney) admin is feeling the pressure and is panicking, or at very least feels that any dissent is a luxury they can no longer afford.

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Do governments have an on-going benefit from inflation?

This one seems too easy for a real problem, I'm probably just too ignorant of this field. So, economists out there, where do I go wrong on this:
We all know that a given amount of money is slowly losing it's value unless we invest it due to inflation.
Here's the crux of my question: Inflation increases the need for more money, whether in notes or electronic form. Banks can increase the amount of money because they have a licence to operate on Fractional Reserve Banking, but I presume this can only go so far and we would have reached the limits of this expansion by now? If so, this means that the the government/central bank has to issue more money. That money is not given to you and me...I assume that goes to the governments coffers. The value all monies represent stay the same, but each unit is worth a little less. So, in effect 2 or 3 percent of the value of all monies out there each year changes hands from you to government through this invisible hand, even if the notes themselves do not.
Could this be an additional 2-3 percent tax (or whatever inflation is-sometimes a lot more) on all monies in circulation that no-one ever talks about?
In addition, if this mechanism is real, this would mean that countries whose money is used by other countries for international transactions enjoy double the benefit, as their money devalues while it is sitting in federal banks all around the world. See Does the US benefit from owning the global currency?
So, could this really be happening? If so, side questions:
-Investments work by making money work and bringing a return that is hopefully, above inflation. Shouldn't we pay tax only on the returns above the inflationary loss (i.e. in real terms)?
-Any money not invested clearly suffers. Having to invest and hoping for returns over and above the inflation seems such a rat-race to me. I hate having my arms twisted into taking part in the seedy investment economy (and now my pension (superannuation) depends on it, too!). I'd much prefer life with constant values and no hint or thought of inflation. If I don't want to gain financially, I'd prefer not to be forced into the commercial world by this threat of loss.
So, what causes inflation? Is it unavoidable? Is it beneficial? How many of us think about it? feedback welcome.

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Does the US benefit from owning the global currency?

I do not pretend to know much about currency politics, this is purely a theoretical train of thought.
We all know that there are lots of US dollars in circulation outside the US. Estimates put this in the range from 2/3 to the same amount to what is in circulation inside the US economy. There is simply no doubt that USA dollar is the "Global currency", although the Euro is putting up a good fight at the moment.
As countries stocked up on cash reserves (in US dollars), this would have created demand. More money could be printed without causing inflationary pressures, as indeed it had to be done to keep money supplies at optimal levels. From the time of no US dollars in the international trade to the current level, this effectively gifts trillions of dollars (in today's terms) in newly printed crisp notes to the US government to spend on whatever they wished! This could have boosted apparent growth by a couple of percentages each year since second world war...a one off, but sizeable push in the back.
The danger of this growth is that the economy gets used to a cash-cow which is not sustainable. Worse, as the rest of the world's economic output is shrinking when compared to US in percentage terms, it's ability to absorb US dollars shrinks as well. Much worse is the threat of the Euro becoming the global currency, when the glut of US dollars would reverse all the gains made while in the expansion phase.
Yes, I know that the lower dollar would make the US economy more competitive, but there is no getting around the fact that the US workers will have to get off their butts and can't expect their salaries to be twice that of the Germans and 30 times more than the Indian's while paying the same prices for the same products.
Oil producers can stipulate a big demand for US currency. However, Venezuela, Iraq, Iran, and Syria have started selling a lot of crude oil in Euros. The US was quick to step in in each of these countries internal affairs in the most brutal ways, if needed. Still, the exchange rate has been damaged, which I think is the consequence of dominance shifting away from the US dollar as the global currency.
I would especially value feedback from anyone with insight into this matter.

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What sort of airports do you build?

I've heard this once in a sermon. The pastor may have read it in a book...During second world war, allied forces have decided to use a Polynesian Island as an military base. So, some soldiers got transported by sea and started to clear a strip for a runway, build observation towers, fuel storage, communication facilities. The natives just watched on curiously.
Soon airplanes started to land, bringing food, water, and more amazing things no-one on the island has ever seen before.
It wasn't long before the natives got busy building another airport. The soldiers must have wondered what those guys were up to busily cutting trees, erecting poor copies of structures, raising bamboo aerials and sitting up high with half coconuts on their ears, talking to no-one particular.
The natives just wanted the amazing planes to bring them the same blessings as they were bringing to the allied forces. They have gone about it the wrong way, though, because they lacked the personal relationship necessary to make this all work.
And in similarly futile, even comical ways do millions of religious folk go about their spiritual life today.
This story is now on the internet. Strong ones tend to survive like this...

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A recent pleasant experience with an atheist

I reckon if this was the norm, there'd be more honest, on-fire christians in the world.
Recently, I read an article, written by an atheist (let's call him A.), which questions the need to fund indoctrination in public schools (in the form of religious education or RE) with taxpayer's money. A reasonable question from his point of view, it needs to be reckognised.
As expected, a counter article appears soon after, starting with "when was the last time you sat in on a RE period". One gets a strong feeling the two parties will never move each other 'till hell freezes over (if there's such a thing :).
Luckily, A.'s article includes a reply e-mail address and I've sent something similar to the following:
"Your article has raised the biggest and most controversial question. I think we need more on big questions in our media.
I also hope the coverage will be balanced and each side will provide the best arguments. This is what all of us should hope for, unless bias clouds our judgement or ulterior motives distort the "truth" or our version of it.
It is not easy to be 100% honest with ourselves and detect and denounce every shred of bias in our thinking, but this is our only hope if we're to reach common ground.
As an atheist turned christian and involved in natural sciences, I can assure you that both worldviews are positions of faith as they involve assumptions. My science background tells me that the "burden of proof" is nowhere near on one side, even if the popular science media buries the many problems of theories of historical science. Really.
It is much harder still to prove an atheist or a christian wrong. If evolution didn't happen as we think it did, that doesn't prove God exists, simply that there might be a different mechanism by which we came about that we don't know about yet. Similarly, if the fossil record tells us what we think it does, how can we exclude an outside force we call God pumping some more info into our DNA?
Indoctrination happens whatever we teach. The best system we can aim at is teaching both views, with their achievements as well as faults, in their appropriate contexts and let everyone decide what sounds like the more reasonable explanation of the universe we live in."

And the reply?
"Thanks for your balanced email Zoltan.
I certainly accept that science doesn't have all the answers. I do think the evidence is one way in particular, but maybe that is me jumping in the direction of my own faith.
Thanks for adding to my understanding on this topic."

What a lovely exchange! Two adults behaving as...well, adults. Freely taking because the other freely takes. Also, being consistent with ourselves and directing the discussion where it really matters, challenging the underlying assumptions.
Just a lovely chap allround A. is, really.

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When did you last hear about "Fractional Reserve Banking"?

I believe this information to be a fundamental piece of knowledge everyone remotely interested in the economy should know. It's importance is only matched by its omission from public forums...well, now we just have to have it on this column, don't we?
In medieval ages, gold was deposited with goldsmiths, who gave certificates to testify that. As more and more people used this service, they started exchanging certificates, rather that picking up the gold, handing it over only for the other party to deposit it again. This is how our banknotes originated.
As a result of ever-larger operations and the practice of exchanging certificates, goldsmiths realised that they were able to issue notes for more than the amount of gold held, as it was increasingly unlikely that everyone would come and redeem their gold at the same time. No doubt it was a nice little earner for them but as long as the customer got their gold when they wanted it, who cared?
Few people realise that today, banks still operate the same way. They are allowed to lend more money than what their clients deposit. Ten-to thirty times as much. The fractional reserve becomes really a tiny fraction of money lent, as little as 2-3%.
This means two things. They pay us interest on our deposit. They charge us interest on money lent, which is ten to thirty times as much. To put it another way, they charge for something they don't have. I know I'd go to jail if I ever attempted such a thing, but for banks it is legal.
Secondly, if banks act in a concerted way, they are able to increase the amount of money in an economy by giving loans more easily or reduce money in circulation by calling in and not extending loans and making them harder to get in the first place. This directly affects the growth of the economy, perfomance of sharemarkets, etc.
This is serious, because it should be the government's task to regulate money supplies for common good and to act in an anti-cyclical fashion. Fractional reserve banking effectively takes this power away from the government and hands it to private institutions, who's sole purpose is to make profits. These institutions are in position to see into the future of shares, etc. if acting together-scary!
This last paragraph is on less than solid foundation, but is worth investigationg:
There's evidence to suggest that the great depression (and the preceding huge growth) was manipulated by banks in this exact way. Perhaps since then the methods are more refined (and admittedly other factors can affect the world radically, like events on Sept 11.), but the "business cycle" has since became the pump that is manipulated and always pumps one way.

p.s. Some time after I wrote this article, I have found a broader and more scientific paper on this topic (which also has to do with the inflation article below). Download Fractional reserve.pdf from here

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The attraction and damage of pornography

C. S. Lewis, way back in the 1940s, identified a tell-tale sign of (I'd say, non-physical) addiction: "An ever-increasing desire for an ever-diminishing pleasure." Wow. That is insight.
I suggest that humans are easy prey to highly stylised stuff removed from reality: daytime drama, hollywood syrup or action, wrestling, etc. Pornography seems to belong to this group, with its conventions and internal reasoning and rules. Running from reality? A psychological equivalent of substances like alcohol?
Maybe coupled with addiction to excitement (physical addiction to adrenalin?) making it an irrestible double header to many, much like gambling.
I think humankind is in denial when trying to make it the new reality and believing there's nothing wrong with that. It steals joy by fatiguing, replacing the real value with something flashy but ultimately not satisfying, raising unreal expectations, promoting promiscuity, prostitution, etc. There will always be some who, inclined to perversion, would normally control themselves but material available will fuel them and they'll go on harming real people (paedophilia is on a rapid increase and has already been linked to internet porn).
The ability to access porn in its many forms has increased dramatically in the last few years. Some estimate that blue material accounts for 70% of internet traffic. I hope that many of the excesses humans display in this arena stem from our inability to relate to what is new, a bit like aboroginal tribes becoming slaves to alcohol that the whites learned to control (?) through the centuries.
And we might not have to wait that long, or hope for a partial solution, either. If we focus more minds and more attention to the damage, the sad end results, then pornography can be defeated, and the battle is worth it.
I feel the need to balance this article. I wrote this article because porn is such an ubitiquous and yet under-reported destructive force. But there is a more ingrained and accepted influence with much worse effect on lives oozing out of our screens and all around us: violence.
Sex in itself is not a bad thing (can be downright awesome, better than pizza!), the problem is that it is used the wrong way. But violence has no justification, we should condemn it every single time. We rarely get up, shaking our head in disapproval after watching violent shows and action movies, and more often with adrenalin rushing and admiring the winners abilities.
USA (and to a lesser degree, Australia) is a prude country, but violence pervades every pore of the media. We need to recognise the absurdity of the situation.
And if you are thinking I'm speaking against all the fun, sorry, I disagree. Sex and violence are the lowest, basest level of fun that like weeds, grow over the more lasting values. It is easy to slide down, but it takes effort to lift up someone-don't take the easy road!

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11 reasons why evolution cannot happen

I must admit that I'm incredulous about intelligent people with integrity willing to believe that nature as we know it today "became" through chance and a mindless process known as evolution. Consider:

1. No proven transitional forms found in fossil records. People, we'd have to see almost unlimited number of life-forms, in-between the ones alive today as well as ones we have never seen. Instead we find clearly discreet species, most of them alive today and unchanged in supposedly millions of years!

2. In many cases the imaginary "in-between" forms are so laughable that no sane mind can imagine how it represents an improvement over the "original" and lead to its extinction (front legs turning into wings???).

3. (This is a biggie!) No method observed, even imagined that can increase the amount of information stored in genes. Natural selection and mutation only reduce information! Duplicating genes give repetition, not more information.

4. There are innumerable cases of irreducible complexities, that is cases where a complex system A will only work if a system B is in place, but without each other, both are meaningless. It is clear that small, accumulative steps through random chance can not bring about systems of such type of complexity

5. There exist of around 100 stable physical process that are happening sufficiently slowly and about which we can reasonably assume starting conditions (such as the salinity of the oceans increasing, starting at best with no salt whatsoever, see here ) that makes them usable in estimating an upper age limit to the planet earth or heavenly bodies visible to us. More than eighty would give a maximum age of only thousands, maybe millions of years, but certainly not the billions of years popularised by Big Bang propagators. Trouble is, these are never mentioned in textbooks

Reasons up to here make evolution simply impossible, but these arguments are just not published. But there are problems with areas well publicised, although the problems are harder to grasp.
Imagine a person with IQ of 150. This person will understand a problem requiring differential equations, can learn the math needed to solve it from good textbooks, and come up with a mathematical model and a solution. A person with IQ of 80 might never attain such insight, no matter how long or hard he/she works on it. Sometimes (or often?) quantitative differences turn into qualitative, but this is always overlooked in the simplistic evolutionary models (does the mantra "given enough time" sound familiar?). So, areas to consider are listed below:

6. As we uncover new levels of complexity in the inner workings of the human body and the animal kingdom, we're asking more and more of the "never-observed" magic mutations. Darwin certainly didn't know about cells, let alone genes or the wonders of the human brain...given today's knowledge, his theory might have never taken off.

7. Evolution is not only asking more changes, but asking increasingly unlikely constructive information building of the "never-observed" magic blind mutations as the design in our genes proves more complex and irreducible. Random mutations will less likely to be constructive and more likely to destroy information. At the living organism's DNA complexity level no known information-building mutation has ever been observed, but plenty of destructive changes (which in rare circumstances can be beneficial, but that is a diff. story). Or, in other words, if I write a two line "Hello World" program, it is fairly likely that a random change could give me a more complex program, but how likely is it that changing a letter in the code of a powerful chess program will make it better (if it compiles at all)? 'Cause if it would work, we've discovered a new way to write programs, my friend!(see practical proposition below)

8. Sticking with our chess example, imagine a program that only calculates the next step. This is all evolution can hope to do. Yet we're finding our bodies have built in responses to situations that could never have arisen in the past

9. In fact evolution would be even more shortsighted than to look at the next step in whole. It only makes sure one has the advantage up to the point of sexual maturity. So if a harmful mutation leaves someone predisposed to degenerative diseases (or anything that would likely to affect someone at some point after reaching sexual maturity or bringing an offspring to this world), he or she would happily spread this new info into the population. Evolutionists should be surprised we don't drop dead as soon as stop being sexually active!

10. Each small advance needs to ensure the survival of its carrier. But this has a flipside: the rest of the population of the species in question needs to die or the lucky carriers will have to "pull away" by in-breeding, becoming a different species altogether (in the process greatly reducing the depth of the gene-pool, but that is another story)! The time taken for the rest of the population to die out gets longer as the population increases and the benefits of the mutation proportionally get smaller compared to the overall adaptation (as they must do in a more complex and advanced system). We know that the human race is incredibly tightly joined as far as genes go (for amazing discoveries by mainstream science on this, click here), so every supposed advancement would have had to wipe out the rest of humankind to assure its existence...how likely is that and long would that have taken? Certainly more than a mere 1,000,000 years!

11. Finally, consider a practical proposition:
*Start with two copies of an open source chess program that will react differently in some situations (not all matches are the same).
*Verify that if playing against each other, rotating the colours, results come out about even (highly likely).
*With a high quality quasy-randomiser, repeat bits of the source code, change characters randomly, swap them around and change it in any random way. It is up to you how many random changes you want to effect in one go. In fact, randomise that as well.
*If the new code does not compile, try again randomising.
*If it does compile, let it play against the original program. If it loses more, discard, and try again randomising
If fully automated on a fast computer, one could go through many million permutations, etc. every year. It would be interesting to see if any improvement can be achieved at all. But...imagine if the mutant program had to fend for its life in a population of thousands of chess programs, where it would have to extinguish them all in matches that have very different situations, say, earning a "son" for every win, losing a copy with every loss. Impossible!

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Next time politicians talk about "helping" and "friendship" think...

"no nation can be entrusted further than it is bound by its interests" and "there can be no greater error than to expect or calculate on real favours from nation to nation". George Washington

Lord Palmerston's dictum: "We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow."

And again, George Washington: "Permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments to others, should be avoided."

"Without the controlling principle that the nation must maintain its objectives and its power in equilibrium, its purposes within its means and its means equal to its purposes, its commitments related to its resources and its resources adequate to its commitment, it is impossible to think at all about foreign affairs." 1940s, Walter Lippmann

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Things that enervate the joy in our lives

When did you think about them in these terms last?

I could go on.We accept these things as progress (and pay money for them). It happens all the time. It uniformly has the same depressing outcome. I reckon I could put up with an arm chopped and an eye gauged if the joy destroyed by our way of life was given back...and if we are not mutilated, we'd be streets ahead.

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Just where do our priorities lie?

www.wsws.org has pointed out, when you add together the $368 billion for routine spending, the $19 billion assigned to the department of energy for new nuclear weapons, the $79 billion already passed by Congress to fund the war in Iraq and the $87 billion that Bush has just requested to sustain it, you find that the US federal government is spending in 2003 as much on war as it is on education, public health, housing, employment, pensions, food aid and welfare put together.
P.S. In addition to the above, the 2004 budget calls for 10% increase to the dept. of homeland security and 7% increase to military spending, the only programs receiving boost in funding. All other budget items are reduced. 65 government programs are discontinued. This is madness!

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Why do Christians irk the hell out of people

No matter where you stand on this issue (and to make it clear, I am a christian), you'll be well aware that the status of evangelical christians prowling through the neighbourhood is on par with Amway peddlers or worse. I wonder, why? They don't stand to gain anything financially, or any other way...is going for selflessly what you believe in no longer the honorable thing to do? Why are these people so vexing?

I know that Jesus is the only way to salvation. That has been proved to me through the many things, from "coincidences" to the downright miracoulos that happened to me and people around me.

I also know of a (that's an a!) way Jesus saves. I know it because I've chosen that path and it has been confirmed to me. This is the best way, as the restoration starts happening straight away (you'd not want cancer spreading right through your body, no matter how well medicine can treat it, right?), and besides, this is how the creator of the world prescribed it!

What we don't know is if there is any other way Jesus decides to save. The fact that billions of people lived and died before having the chance of hearing the salvation message makes me think there has to be.

Of course, the safe thing is to teach people what we know works. But even when we talk to people who are trying to be good, if our attitude comes accross like "unless you heard the message of the bible (or our version of it) and responded, you're lost forever", it will go against every grain in their bodies. The very same grains God made.

There will always be those who will blacken the reputation of evangelical people because they don't want to hear that there is a creator who sets the rules and judges. But this is a another story...

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Its all in the words

Next time you try to persuade someone, try the power of emotive words. Say, in a political conversation, refer to the good guys as "the administration", and the baddies as "regime". Their "security forces" and the "henchman" or "intelligence officers" v plain old spies. There are times when military analysts fight covert or "liberating" wars, other times they're mercenaries or aggressors. The old favourite "engage in friendly fire" compared to "massacre" always fires up people (BTW, that massacre can be genocide or an incident). If you fight against overwhelming odds, with courage, ready to sacrifice your life, you'll be called a hero by one side and a terrorist by the other (somehow having high tech weaponry makes the job of killing OK). "Embedded journalists" are somehow independent and the enemy always employs a "propaganda machine".
If the general public doesnot need to imagine certain events, then bombs become systems, soldiers "human assets", civilians "support structure" and dead civilians "collateral damage".

Apply this power to the uneducated and bewildered masses of US folk quivering in fear of the terrorists and the big, bad world and you'll get an idea how easy it is to manipulate the masses in a dumbed down, two party democracy.

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Bush asks Europe to forgive Iraq debt

US President George Bush called the leaders of France, Germany and Russia to ask them to forgive Iraq's debts (presumably as the country is unable to repay them, due to it being bombed back to the stone ages, but the request doesn't deal with this side issue, Z.)- just a day after the Pentagon excluded them from bidding for the $US18 billion Iraqi reconstruction projects.

Pentagon's explanation that the restrictions (which exclude some close allies, like Canada) were required "for the protection of the essential security interests of the United States" (just how glib can we get? Z).

Mr Bush and his aides had been surprised by the timing and blunt wording of the Pentagon's declaration, but not at its substance: White House had approved the policy, after a committee of officials agreed that the most lucrative contracts must be reserved for political or military supporters . (Source: www.theage.com.au, Melbourne's leading publication)
Lately, US foreign policy is such a soap opera. I'll call it soap-box opera.

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