11 September 2010

stolen honour and falsehoods

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in United States vs Alvarez has struck down the federal Stolen Valor Act of 2005, which criminalised falsely claiming to have received US military honours, including 'unauthorized wear, manufacture, sale or written or oral claim of military decorations and medals'.

Xavier (aka Javier) Alvarez was convicted under that statute in 2007 after claiming during a local government meeting that he was a retired Marine who had received the Congressional Medal of Honor, ie the highest US military honour. Alvarez had not been awarded the decoration and indeed had not seen military service ... the same sort of dishonesty uncovered in Australia, where for example Gordon Tisdell (featured in The Australian and in the Sydney Morning Herald as a Vietnam veteran) was recently revealed to have not served in Vietnam - or indeed in any war. Rather than participating in fighting against the Vietcong, he spent his time on a dairy farm in New South Wales. 'Colonel' Michael John Nicholson used fake documents to access Randwick Barracks in Sydney for a spot of official tailoring.

Alvarez was investigated by the FBI after an alert by a fellow board member (we might presume that investigation was fairly quick, given that the FBI has a special 'stolen valor' squad and has access to the register of Medal of Honor recipients). After being charged under the Act he agreed to plead guilty in the district court (a US$100 special assessment, a US$5,000 fine, three years of probation and 416 hours of community service), appealing the conviction on First Amendment grounds. He appears to be the first person charged and convicted under the current version of the Act.

The Ninth Circuit has now held, in a 76 page judgment, that the speech prohibited under the Stolen Valor Act did not fit within the narrow categories of false speech held to be outside the First Amendment's "protective sweep". The Court indicated that the statute -
imposes a criminal penalty of up to a year of imprisonment, plus a fine, for the mere utterance or writing of what is, or may be perceived as, a false statement of fact — without anything more.

The Act therefore concerns us because of its potential for setting a precedent whereby the government may proscribe speech solely because it is a lie. While we agree with the dissent that most knowingly false factual speech is unworthy of constitutional protection and that, accordingly, many lies may be made the subject of a criminal law without creating a constitutional problem, we cannot adopt a rule as broad as the government and dissent advocate without trampling on the fundamental right to freedom of speech.
It held that the district court's expansion of existing categorical exceptions to First Amendment protection would open the door to criminalization of false statements that were never intended to lie outside the amendments protective ground, indicating that -
if the Act is constitutional ... there would be no constitutional bar to criminalizing lying about one's height, weight, age, or financial status on Match.com or Facebook, or falsely representing to one's mother that one does not smoke, drink alcoholic beverages, is a virgin, or has not exceeded the speed limit while driving on the freeway. The sad fact is, most people lie about some aspects of their lives from time to time. Perhaps, in context, many of these lies are within the government's legitimate reach. But the government cannot decide that some lies may not be told without a reviewing court's undertaking a thoughtful analysis of the constitutional concerns raised by such government interference with speech.
The Court concluded that the Act was unconstitutional because "not narrowly tailored to achieving a compelling governmental interest". The US Attorney's Office is likely to appeal the decision.

Alvarez, like similar people in Australia, appears to have a history of embroidering his life story, often in ways that both invite incredulity and inspire anger among those with a respect for bravery. He is reported to have separately claimed to have won the Medal of Honor for rescuing the US ambassador and US flag during the Iranian hostage crisis, been a Vietnam War pilot who had been shot down but managed to get his chopper back into the sky, to have been a police officer, married a Mexican starlet and played hockey for the Detroit Red Wings.

Tisdell - who claimed to be a survivor of the Battle of Long Tan - was quoted by AAP on Anzac Day this year as stating "You remember the times you had in the army and the mates you went away with. Some of them didn't come back." That statement is at odds with the SMH's report that this month he explained -
I've never been a fraud in my life. I was just wearing my relatives' medals ... Defence came here today to see me. They said I'm not allowed to say anything. They brought the photographs out and showed them to me. They said not to say anything otherwise I get six months in jail.
Four years ago Michael John Nicholson pleaded guilty in Sydney Central Local Court to seven charges, including falsely representing to be a returned soldier, wearing service decorations to which he was not entitled, possessing a prohibited weapon, trespass, and obtaining a financial advantage by deception.

In 2005 Nicholson led an Anzac Day march at Bronte, wearing a full colonel's uniform and several medals (including an Order of Australia and an active service medal). Nicholson used false ID to repeatedly enter Randwick army barracks, where he gained a tailored full dress uniform and name badge. He celebrated in the officers' mess at HMAS Watson on Remembrance Day that year. Unfortunately he had not fought for Australia and indeed had never served in the army. No entitlement to pass himself off as a colonel, no entitlement to the honours.

Magistrate Carney commented that Nicholson
deliberately misrepresented himself to the men and women of our armed services to be a member of an important and highly regarded group of our community … including our veterans. 
Men and women have died under our Australian flag … Their memory didn't deserve to be denigrated by the actions of the offender on Anzac and Remembrance Day. His audacity in leading the 2005 parade had caused significant hurt to the servicemen and women who marched with him.
Carney noted that  uniforms defined a person's "role and task in society and bestowed a degree of importance and authority", commenting that  Nicholson "acquired that authority through furtive means".

GI in Australia

I am reminded that the 221 page Agreement Between Australia and the European Community on Trade in Wine [PDF] (signed in Brussels on 1 December 2008) came into force on 1 September 2010. As the name suggests, it is a formal agreement that regulates trade in wine between Australia and the European Community, replacing the 1994 Agreement between Australia and the European Community on Trade in Wine.

The 2008 Agreement has been promoted as offering significant advantages to Australian producers/exporters through EU acceptance of Australian winemaking techniques and simpler requirements covering labelling requirements, blending rules and the display of Australian awards. Implementation of the Agreement has involved amendment of the Trade Marks Act 1995 (Cth) and Australian Wine & Brandy Corporation Act 1980 (Cth) through the Australian Wine & Brandy Corporation Amendment Act 2010 (Cth) [here].

The Register of Protected Geographical Indications & Other Terms, which features the full list of Europe's Geographical Indications and Traditional Expressions and Australia's GIs, has been published.

Implementation results in formal protection within Europe for Australia’s 112 registered Geographical Indications.

Postmortem Privacy and Plastination?

The current issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics features 'Without 'informed consent'? Ethics and ancient mummy research' by I M Kaufmann & F J Rühli, an article that has been construed by some readers - eg a comment by J Marchant in the New Scientist - as involving rights for the long-dead. Do Egyptian mummies - and presumably other dead entities - have "a right to privacy", particularly a right that overrides other rights and that can be enforced?

The authors express concern regarding the "lack of rigorous ethical discussion and scientific argumentation about ancient mummy research" (eg x-ray, MRI and DNA examination of those delightful cadavers-in-cartonnage from Pharaonic Egypt). Kaufmann & Rühli comment that the lack of discussion -
is particularly striking due to various factors. First, any modern examination on historic corpses is done a priori without informed consent of the deceased.
Quite so, unless you've booked a seance and taken off your alfoil beanie the dead don't speak. The authors go on to say -
Second, the research undertaken on such a body is often invasive either in terms of technological aspects or in terms of personality traits. The recent enormous methodological evolution — both in the social sciences and particularly in the natural sciences — allows researchers to gain more intimate information about historic personalities, often by means of 'invasive' (tissue-destroying) methods. Third, public and scientific reports about such findings do not follow the common criteria of medical privacy, by explicitly and specifically naming major diseases or causes of death of a famous ancient individual, such as a former king or pharaoh.
From an Australian legal perspective Tutankhamun, Ramses or another personage from the Nile has no privacy rights in law and - being long gone, without discernable survivors - has no means of enforcing any claims. (If you accept some of the claims by quantum mystics regarding communication with the dead, dismissed elsewhere in this blog, that may not be an issue - acceptance if consistent is presumably accompanied by belief that Tut will strike dead the impious archaeologists, MRI operators and publishers who tamper with his corpse or tell tales out of school.)

The article is characterised as an -
attempt to advance the ethical debate in ancient mummy research. The aim of our study is to conduct a stakeholder analysis showing the pro and contra arguments of ancient mummy research for the various involved interest groups (eg, the mummy itself, descendents and researchers) and with respect to various cultural concepts. The study will be theoretically based on the literature about stakeholder theory and linked to the normative theory of ethics. ... We will not consider specific short-term legalistic definitions of when a body has to be dealt with forensically as a mummy and when the legal rights of individuality expire. By identifying stakes and stakeholders of ancient mummy research, we implicitly refer to the concept of the stakeholder theory without taking the theoretical heterogeneity into account.
Well, that's a swag of problems out of the way.

Kaufmann & Rühli note that -
The international code of conduct of the International Council of Museums actually strongly encourages research on museum specimens. Thus, from a legal point of view, research on mummies, which is of benefit for the advancement of science, should be performed. Since there are no clear guidelines about how to specifically perform research on ancient mummified samples, there is no legal basis on how to best perform such studies, similar to the 'good clinical practice' — guidelines (as issued by the US Food and Drug Administration or the European Commission). In the future, mummy research guidelines shall address issues such as personal rights of the dead (medical data), who shall possess such data and how one may present it within and outside of the research community. Also, the diagnostic validity and invasiveness of the major methods used shall be addressed.
I'm inclined to think that law is not going to award privacy rights to the pharoahs or enshrine a right of integrity that reflects a recognition that "investigation methods are sometimes invasive and destroy tissue or the investigations are conducted without the informed consent of the deceased". The authors invoke Kant in favour of a right of integrity for mummies, suggesting that -
disregarding a person's right of integrity incorporates harming this person or violating their right of autonomy. With regard to ancient mummies, the problem of violation is different compared to those of a living person. Is it possible to harm the dead? Is the bodily integrity of the mummy to some extent at stake through modern research efforts? ... offending the right of integrity is as much about the possibility of harming the dead, as about the autonomy and interests of the dead. Partridge holds the view that posthumous harm is impossible because no one can retain interests after death. Levenbook is more in favour of the possibility of posthumous harm. Also Levenbook stresses the metaphysical and meta-ethical difficulties in defending a fully developed concept of posthumous harm.
The authors do acknowledge some of the challenges, noting that -
The definition of a mummy's descendants as adequate proxy decision makers is full of pitfalls, too. As Holm highlights, a culturally well informed scientist may have more ethical insights into the cultural beliefs of an ancient mummy than descendants who do not share a common cultural belief, but only ethnical proximity. In some cases, such as for the Neolithic Iceman, based on modern DNA analysis it could be proven that genetic proxies no longer exist today. Thus, 'fake' claims of descendancy could be repudiated by genetic analyses.
If undergoing an MRI is an offence against dignity, what about being plastination - the grand guignol vended by entrepreneurs such as von Hagens? One perspective is provided by Marett Leiboff's 'A Beautiful Corpse' in 19(2) Continuum (2005) 221-237 which -
considers the legal status of artistically posed human corpses that are displayed in public exhibitions, in particular in Gunther von Hagens' 1990s Bodyworlds exhibition. The uses that may be made of human bodies post mortem is a legally as well as a culturally vexed question: when does a body become an object available for exhibition or trade, and what is the difference between art and the improper use of human remains? The law, as it has been created by the courts in common law countries during the last 500 years, has sought to preserve the dignity of the human body in death. In doing so, it embedded Christian morality and practices of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries into the body of the law itself. So, as a basic proposition, the law establishes the principle that there can be no property in a human body after death, meaning that bodies cannot be owned by anyone, while other principles indicate that bodies are not to be tampered with, and are to be treated with dignity. The status of dead bodies, it seems, is far from clear.
Leiboff goes on to comment that -
However, the law has also allowed some use to be made of bodies and body parts, provided they are used for some kind of social benefit, such as for health or educational purposes. For this reason, there are a number of permitted exceptions to the basic principles set out above, either developed through decisions of the courts or through legislation created by parliament. Some of these changes deal with the impact of new technologies, and sometimes they were instituted in order to rectify some unforeseen adverse consequence created by the general principles.

But does the law say that it is acceptable to anatomize a human corpse, and then pose it artistically in a public 'blockbuster' type of an art or science exhibition? There is no straightforward legal answer to this question. To find out if anatomized corpses can be displayed in artistic poses, such as in the state of Queensland in Australia, it is necessary to traverse the law that has developed in England, Australia, and Queensland over 500 years.

What may seem surprising is that no specific law says anything directly about the display of artistically posed anatomized corpses. For this reason, it is necessary to look at legal decisions in similar situations seemingly unrelated to the situation at hand, in order to work out what the law may say about this sort of display. This process involves looking at a broad range of laws in the countries mentioned, including criminal law, the law dealing with the ownership of objects, obscenity law, and the law dealing with the ability to access parts of bodies post mortem, such as transplantation and anatomy law. Legal decision making may also be driven, in part, by underlying moral or ethical questions that have been built into the law over time, or through recourse to liberal humanist principles such as autonomy or rights.

The kinds of legal questions that will be asked build on a range of existing legal decisions. For instance, given that there can be 'no property in a body', can their creator claim ownership of the posed corpses? For nearly 100 years the law has accepted that a modicum of skill and labour used to preserve human remains will allow them to be 'owned'. This principle comes from an Australian High Court case of 1908, and is the 'law' on this point, having been accepted by Australian and English courts. This may seem to be the beginning and the end of it — the artistically posed corpses have been preserved, so they may be owned. But the situation is not so straightforward — the decision in this case does not consider 'posed' corpses which have been subjected to some kind of enhancement or transformation. Nor does the case necessarily accept that it is permissible for a preserved body to be displayed. Law here unwittingly confronts the difficulty of trying to establish clear boundaries around the shifting cultural categories of 'art' and of 'humanity'.

Consequently, this article considers whether the law, as developed by the courts, may allow for the ownership and display of bodies that have been transformed. For this reason, it will also look at the developing law concerning the interference with a human corpse in the seemingly unrelated area of semen harvesting. The difference between a bare preservation and an active transformation of a body may be of marked significance for the development of legal rules and principles. Based on the underlying principles of the law, while preservation may be acceptable, transformative techniques may be considered unacceptable because human remains have become, in effect, nothing other than a raw material for a new, adaptive purpose, and not for a benefit or use to society. This article suggests that, if asked to answer this question, the courts in Australia may not accept the validity of this type of transformation of human remains.

Plain Paper Astroturf

Anne Davies in today's SMH comments that -
If your bulldust detector is twitching over outraged retailers warning that plain packaging for cigarettes "won't work, so why do it", you are right on the money.

The tobacco industry is not only funding the campaign being run by the Alliance of Australian Retailers to stop plain packaging being introduced, it is employing the public relations firm to run the campaign, approving who will do media interviews and managing the strategy for lobbying government.
Her generously-titled 'Big Tobacco hired public relations firm to lobby government' questions astroturfing by the cigarette industry in response to proposals for plain paper packaging of cancer sticks, highlighted earlier in this blog.

Davies suggests that Chris Argent (director of corporate affairs at Philip Morris) is controlling the advocacy campaign by the ostensibly independent Alliance of Australian Retailers -
down to approving who will do which interviews, approving the words to be used by the heads of the various retail organisations and approving email responses to journalists.
Philip Morris, rather than the Alliance, is paying for the multi-million dollar campaign, "as invoices and contracts of engagement show".

The Alliance's marketing adviser is reported as blithely commenting to the SMH that the Alliance had been upfront about funding from the tobacco industry: "This support includes the funding of professional services such as public relations".

Philip Morris Australia stated that
We are pleased to join with and support the efforts of corner shops, service stations and milk bars to stop implementation of this unproven policy which lacks any credible evidence that it will work. Our efforts with the Alliance will include ongoing financial support and public relations advice.
Support that involves the Alliance acting as a sock puppet raises questions about the credibility of the Alliance's statements and the legitimacy of its advocacy.

Those questions are significant, given the SMH's indication that the phase of the Philip Morris cum Alliance $9.37m advocacy campaign
will involve information packs and letters to all MPs in the coming weeks. Now that the minority government is confirmed, the group plans to step up a government and opposition relations strategy, to block the legislation.

Argentine exceptionalism?

'Six Reasons Why Argentina Legalized Gay Marriage First' by Javier Corrales & Mario Pecheny in Americas Quarterly discuss amendment of Argentina's civil code to permit gay marriage and adoptions, asking "Why Argentina, of all places?"

They comment that -
conventional arguments help, but only to a point. No doubt, Argentina has many of the conditions that, research has shown, go hand in hand with more pro-gay legislation. It has high levels of urbanization and schooling (the modernization hypothesis) as well as a vibrant constellation of civic organizations (the social movement hypothesis), but so do most countries in the Americas. It has a ruling party that sees itself left of center (the partisan hypothesis), but this is also true of most countries in the Americas today, including the United States. And it has a super gay-friendly main city, but this is also true of at least Brazil, Mexico, the United States, Colombia, Uruguay, Peru, and Costa Rica.
They go on to suggest six factors -
1 Catholics don’t go to Church and Evangelicals are (still) small in number ... the key statistic to know about Argentina is not so much that it is predominantly Catholic (it is), but rather that church attendance is low—approximately 22 percent of the population attends church services weekly—and secondly, that the Evangelical population is tiny (only 2 percent ). This is perhaps the most important structural difference with the United States and Mexico, where church attendance is high (approximately 45 percent) and Evangelicalism is growing. ... Low church attendance and low Evangelicalism helps predict pro-LGBT legislation because it reveals the extent of societal secularism as well as the mobilizational weakness of the churches. Argentina is distinctive on both counts.

2 separation of church and party. It is not enough to have separation of church and state, as do most countries in the region. It is vital to have separation of church and party. Although the church’s officialdom is powerful in Argentina, the country has not had a strong confessional party for the past 100 years. ... There is no party with strong connections with Evangelical groups as the Republicans in the United States (and arguably, the Labor Party in Brazil and most parties in Central America and the Anglo-Caribbean). This is one reason that so many legislators in Argentina, from all parties, risked voting against the pulpit.

3 transnational legalism. Much has been written about how globalization helps to promote LGBT rights. But Argentina shows that there is a type of globalization that is especially helpful, and which incidentally, is scarce in the United States— transnational legalism. This term refers to the ease with which a country’s legal system borrows from international cases to set legal precedents domestically. While most countries in Latin America have a strong tradition of transnational legalism, Argentina is no doubt a regional champion. It is both an avid importer of international norms (since 1994, most international human rights treaties have had constitutional status), and also a voluminous exporter of legal norms, playing active roles in helping international organizations and foreign countries bolster their human rights norms and helping countries establish "truth commissions." Thus, Argentina’s pro-LGBT forces were quite comfortable emulating norms from abroad, even borrowing verbatim wording and arguments from actors fighting elsewhere to approve LGBT rights. In the United States, this form of international emulation is frowned upon. In Argentina, it actually bolstered the emulators, in part because of the country’s tradition of transnational legalism.

4 domestic legal resources. It would be incorrect to say that Argentina’s pro-LGBT groups drew exclusively from abroad. They also drew from domestic sources. The agenda of the LGBT movement was cast as part of the country’s broader agenda on behalf of feminism, gender, reproduction, health, and sexuality. ... Furthermore, a strategy was developed by different LGBT organizations, particularly the Federación Argentina de Lesbianas, Gay, Bisexuales y Trans (Argentina Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Trans) to encourage gay couples to request marriage licenses, in order to get an official refusal and then challenge the official decision on constitutional grounds. This strategy proved effective. ... The issue was framed as a question of equality before the law, the domestic law. In contrast, the Catholic Church almost took pride in presenting itself outside the law. Its discourse against LGBT folks became so aggressive and discriminatory that even those who were unsure about the morality of the bill were appalled by the extra-constitutionality of the Church’s position. The key lesson is therefore that in addition to transnational legalism, a country needs to have a well grounded legal tradition of equality, liberty and human rights, as well as a set of social movements with expertise in the use of that tradition to its advantage.

5 democracy, yes; referendum democracy, no. Perhaps the most important victory by pro-LGBT groups in Argentina was to avoid the referenda trap. Enemies of Argentina’s gay marriage legislation, including the Catholic Church, offered a populist compromise — submit the issue to a popular vote. In Latin America, at the moment, the concept of participatory democracy is in vogue. But LGBT groups and its allies in Argentina were smart to recognize the problems with this form of populism. Submitting to a majority vote questions of minority rights is inherently a biased process — against the minority group, naturally — and this makes it undemocratic despite its reliance on the popular vote.

6 the president presides. Ultimately, what made the law possible was the President's decision to take the risk of backing the bill. This courageous act is the one factor that is more ad hoc and specific to the case, and yet perhaps it was the most indispensable of all. Analysts debate why at this particular juncture president Cristina Fernández decided to take the risk of a public fight with the Church and a possible split within the ruling party. Perhaps she did this because of the Peronist tradition of confronting the Church openly (while secretly negotiating other agreements). Perhaps this is one more example of this administration’s penchant for open confrontation. Perhaps she did it because the opposition was fragmented and likely to split even more severely than the ruling party. Perhaps she did it because the government needed to recover lost ground among the young and the urbanites, who had abandoned her. Perhaps she ultimately developed a principled conviction of the correctness of gay marriage. Who knows? What matters is that the president took the risk.
Corrales & Pecheny conclude that -
the Argentine case suggests ways to refine our thinking on the conditions that make LGBT rights expand. It is important to live in a democracy, of course, but it is more important to avoid referenda democracy. It is important to have separation of church and state, but it is also vital to have secular citizens and secular parties. It is important to have a strong civil society, but civil society must operate in a pro-human rights legal environment that is both globally connected and domestically entrenched. And finally, the country’s maximum leader must show some guts.

Ultimately, gay marriage is a piece of legislation that is transforming the way we have thought of democracy for the last three centuries, and it would be disingenuous to believe that this effort can occur without courage.

10 September 2010

Caste Classifying

The Wall Street Journal reports that in 2011 India will conduct a discrete census identifying the caste of its population.

That exercise is independent of next year's broader national population census, the data collection exercise highlighted in my 6(8) Privacy Law Bulletin (2010) article on that nation's ambitious national ID card scheme and in a recent ANZSOG law seminar paper on 'Technological Identity Gothic'.

Home Minister P Chidambaram indicated that -
A separate house-to-house enumeration of caste will be done during the period June 2011 to September 2011. This satisfies all the various requirements that have been projected and discussed and debated extensively.
The caste census is estimated to cost around US$650 to $850 million.

Identification of caste in a national census represents a major policy shift, with caste identity data not having been collected on a comprehensive scale for over 50 years.

The WSJ indicates that the national government has not provided a specific rationale for polling people on their caste, although proponents reportedly claim that the information will facilitate the delivery of income support and other welfare to members of the lower castes (positioning in the hierarchy typically reflecting economic status).

Other sources suggest that participants in the census, which as noted earlier in this blog is mandatory, will be asked "What is your caste?". People will reportedly be free to report "No caste".

The WSJ reports that -
In a statement announcing its decision, the cabinet of the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the caste "of all persons as returned by them would be canvassed" in a special census in mid-2011.

India's Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner will first measure people on their caste and tribes and the information then will be classified by an expert group that the Indian government will form at a later date, the government said.

The last time a full caste census was conducted was under British rule in 1931. The government acknowledged it was changing a practice that "had been given up as a matter of policy after independence."

It said it made the move "in response to the demands for enumerating castes." India's regular decennial census started in April and will conclude in March 2011.

The government currently reserves 22.5% of all jobs in its offices and seats in government colleges and universities for Dalits and students from India's indigenous tribes, who also receive special benefits under the constitution. The percentage is based on 1961 census data.

In the early 1990s, the government decided to put aside a further 27% of government jobs for people socially and economically marginalized due to the caste system, known in demographic parlance as "other backward classes."

That policy concession was forced by the political momentum built on the claim that these groups constituted 52% of India's total population based on the 1931 census data. That government move met with number of violent protests around the country mainly by upper-caste youths who saw it as limiting their career prospects.
The report notes comments by Bhakta Charan Das MP that government recognition of caste through the census comes at a time when India should have -
legally abolished the caste system ... it's time to abolish the caste system and let the Indian nation live in dignity ...

the caste census will disturb the peace and progress in India's villages where people were slowly coming out of the caste prison and over 70% of India's youth whose liberal minds will now get imprisoned in the petty caste issues.
Surjit Bhalla in the Indian Business Standard of 22 May commented that -
On the grounds that more information is always good, or at least cannot hurt, the Indian government is about to embark on a new social experiment — caste will be included as a question in the forthcoming 2011 Census. This will be a first in independent India; the last time caste was included as a question, and the only time, was in 1931. At that time, several castes petitioned the government to classify them as a caste higher to one they actually were. Census 2011, if it does include caste, is likely to show a race to the bottom, with at least 20 percent of the Hindu population declaring themselves as Other Backward Castes (OBCs) when they actually belong to an upper caste. The question the social engineers in the political parties have to answer is whether gathering of this false information serves any purpose.

Most of the arguments over the inclusion of caste in the census, whether made by politicians or the so-called liberals and/or so-called intellectuals supporting this crass exercise, centre on the following two propositions. First, the government targets a large segment of the population for redistribution of income. The government has, over the last 60 years and starting with our fundamentally flawed Constitution, allowed for reservations in access to education, jobs, etc. for the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs). Note that our flawed Constitution did not talk about the need for affirmative action to tackle the justifiable cause of redressing inequality; no, the social engineering objective then, as it is today, was to mandate equality via quotas. In the 1990s, an additional quota was added — a quota for the OBCs. Together with the SCs/STs, the quotas corner at least 60 per cent of the population (approximately 27 per cent SCs/STs and 36 per cent OBCs).

09 September 2010

Na naah, na naah

An overseas reader has pointed to claims by US academic Courtney Brown regarding industrial activity on Mars. [video here, complete with references to "military grade remote viewers", ie psychics, and not to try remote viewing at home.]

(Actually it's in Mars, as the facility is apparently located underground in the Red Planet ... discernable, oh dear, by adepts at remote reviewing - the nonsense that cruel readers such as myself dub as parapsychology or as deliciously reminiscent of the mumbojumbo from Madame Blavatsky or L Ron Hubbard.)

I'm reminded of a 1996 critique by one of Brown's colleagues, who wrote -
The Courtney Brown affair and academic freedom

Academic freedom -- the right of faculty members to pursue and discuss whatever interests they wish, no matter how outlandish or repugnant others might find them -- is a cornerstone of institutions of higher learning. Without it, the very rationale undergirding that remarkable democratic organization we call a university crumbles. Nevertheless, there are inevitably times when academic freedom conflicts with a university's best interests. When this occurs, vexing pragmatic and ethical questions arise.

The most recent example of this conflict at Emory involves Dr. Courtney Brown, an associate professor in the political science department. Brown's actions and words have, to put it mildly, aroused considerable ridicule and controversy at Emory and in the broader academic community. In his new book, Cosmic Voyages: A Scientific Discovery of Extraterrestrials Visiting Earth, Brown claims to use powers of "remote viewing" (an alleged psychic ability permitting individuals to "see" objects at enormous distances) to visit Mars and observe the actions of aliens. He purports to have uncovered indisputable evidence that two races of extraterrestrials, Martians and Greys, left the red planet centuries ago and have taken up residence in the dark recesses of Earth.

But Brown does not stop there. His remote viewing methods, which are "as rigorously controlled as those used in any solid social science text," have revealed that Adam and Eve were architects of a genetic engineering project and that numerous Star Trek episodes were written with the assistance of aliens. In one of the book's more remarkable chapters, "The Grey Mind," Brown claims to have "entered the mind" of an extraterrestrial and investigated its psychological make-up. Brown, who directs the "Farsight Institute" in Atlanta, offers seminars--at a cost of $3,000 per head--that promise to provide attendees with the psychic abilities he has mastered.

One hardly knows where to begin. Brown's book is remarkable for its virtually complete absence of any data that would qualify as scientific by even the most liberal evidential standards. His "findings" consist entirely of unverified subjective experiences, and the reader searches in vain for anything vaguely resembling a controlled experiment. Brown neglects to mention either the results of a recent government-appointed scientific panel on remote viewing, which concluded that "evidence for the operational value of remote viewing is not available, even after a decade of attempts," or the critiques of Ray Hyman, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, who has shown that the scientific evidence in support of remote viewing is seriously flawed. Philosopher David Hume maintained that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence; Brown's evidence is, to be charitable, singularly unimpressive.

In light of Brown's claims, I recently challenged him to a test of his alleged psychic abilities. I proposed that he appear at a meeting of my undergraduate seminar on Science and Pseudoscience in Psychology, where my students and I would subject him to a simple controlled experiment examining his capacity to remotely view stimuli in an adjacent room. I assured him that he would have considerable input regarding the selection of stimulus materials, and agreed to publicize the results of this test in both Emory newspapers regardless of its outcome.

But Brown categorically refused. His reasoning was curious: In his e-mail response to me, he asserted that "tests of the type you have talked about are very old hat" and that the current status of remote viewing "goes light years beyond that which your letter suggests." But if Brown's psychic powers are as advanced as he claims, shouldn't he be able to pass an elementary test of these powers with flying colors?

Brown also declined my offer on the grounds that he did "not want to drag Emory into my other activities" and that he is "rigorous about not mixing what I do elsewhere with what I do at Emory." This rationale seems disingenuous at best. If Brown did not wish to involve Emory in his exploits, why did he list his academic affiliation with Emory in his book and on his web site? Brown apparently wants to have it both ways: He publicizes his association with Emory when it might afford him the imprimatur of academic legitimacy, but refuses to submit to scientific tests by Emory colleagues on the grounds that he does not wish to "drag Emory" into a firestorm of controversy. But it is too late: Emory's reputation has already been besmirched. As George Armelagos of the Department of Anthropology notes, "Brown is naive if he believes his fantasies do not affect the image of the University."

Why should we at Emory care about Brown? Many of his Emory colleagues will surely suggest that he is best ignored. But such an attitude would be misguided. As Carl Sagan argues in his recent book, The Demon-Haunted World, the public's inability to think critically about scientific issues is an unappreciated source of our educational and social woes. By remaining silent on Brown's shenanigans, we do our students, who desperately need role models of clear reasoning, a serious disservice. Moreover, we leave ourselves open to criticisms such as those of Robert Baker of the University of Kentucky, who suggested that the Brown affair "bring(s) into question whether Emory has any high scientific standards."
Brown's claims regarding parapsychology are in my opinion less meritorious than the work done by fellow-Emory academic Deborah Lipstadt in taking on David Irving and fostering research into Holocaust denial, another belief system that - like claims regarding witches - has a pernicious effect.

08 September 2010

Parliamentary Privilege

Rachel Macreadie & Greg Gardiner of the Victorian Parliament's Parliamentary Library have produced a 63 page research paper titled 'An Introduction to Parliamentary Privilege' [PDF].

The paper examines the law and practice of parliamentary privilege in Australia and in other jurisdictions. It also contains a discussion of the historical background to parliamentary privilege and examines the issues and tensions associated with parliamentary privilege. The paper features a 12 page bibliography.

The authors comment that -
While many issues prevail regarding the law of parliamentary privilege there is one area which is rarely contested, and that is the significance and centrality of parliamentary privilege to parliamentary democracies. Parliamentary privilege has long been considered essential in enabling parliaments to perform their functions as representative institutions, in creating effective legislation and in scrutinising government activity. As discussed in this paper, these privileges, which are an exception to ordinary law, are comprised of freedom of speech and debate, freedom from arrest, exclusive cognisance of the Houses, and the power of Houses to punish contempt. Immunities, belonging to individual Members acting in a collective capacity, such as freedom of speech, are seen as protections that allow parliamentarians to perform their duties without fear of intimidation or constraint. The powers belonging to a House of Parliament to punish contempts and regulate its own constitution are, as noted in Erskine May, 'for the protection of its own authority and dignity'.

As this paper has demonstrated, the law and practice of parliamentary privilege is complex and many issues and tensions have arisen from its practice. Issues such as sub judice, search warrants and subpoenas, the power of Houses to punish contempts, citizen’s right of reply, immunity of non-Members and the scope of freedom of speech have, on occasion, brought parliaments in conflict with constituents and the executive and have resulted in numerous court cases. However, as Griffith notes, ‘Recent cases on parliamentary privilege may not point in any discernible direction or reveal any definite trend, turning as most of them do on the particular facts at issue’.

The structure and practice of privilege in other jurisdictions has elucidated the conflicts and tensions that exist in maintaining an effective separation of power between legislatures, the judiciary and the executive. Centuries of developing statutory and procedural frameworks with regard to privilege have still left many uncertainties as to the role each arm of government is intended to perform. Presumably, the only certainty is that these ambiguities will continue to exist. Indeed, the idea that parliamentary privilege is a complex topic of which there are still persistent 'grey areas', some of which may never be resolved is echoed in the literature and resources examined throughout this paper, such as in Erskine May, Campbell and Griffith and Ryle. Governments based on the principle of separation of powers will inevitably encounter tensions in striving to attain an ideal balance between accountability, transparency and effective governance.


Having turned down a fan's offer of a 'zero point energy wand*' I am rather enjoying Fairfax Media Publications Pty Ltd v Reed International Books Australia Pty Ltd [2010] FCA 984, aka the 'Headline Case'.

Fairfax, as the publisher of The Australian Financial Review (AFR)[published in paper form to the general public and electronically in digital form to subscribers in Australia and elsewhere], alleges that Reed - publisher of the ABIX abstracting service - has infringed Fairfax's copyright in AFR headlines.

Reed's ABIX involves the provision to subscribers of abstracts of articles published in various newspapers and magazines, including AFR articles. Those abstracts include the headline of each article (typically without alteration), the by-line of the journalist who wrote the article and a short summary of the article written by a Reed employee. Typically, abstracts of around 40 to 60% of the articles in each edition of the AFR are provided early on the same day as the relevant edition.

Bennett J commented that -
It is important to appreciate that the appearance of the Abstract is not the same as the appearance of the original article as published in the AFR. Further, while the Abstract does include the headline and by-line of the corresponding article, the ABIX service does not reproduce the advertisements, the photographs or the quotes from the articles which appear in the AFR. The arrangement of the Abstracts within the ABIX service as presented to subscribers is not the same as the arrangement of those articles in the AFR. Nor do the headlines appear in the same order as they appear in the AFR. However, Fairfax argues that the Reed database reproduces the arrangement of the articles and headlines in the AFR.

Fairfax alleges that, by reason of the provision of such Abstracts as part of the ABIX service, Reed has infringed its copyright in a number of different works comprised in each edition of the AFR. Fairfax contends that each of the following (the contended works) are original literary works in which copyright subsists pursuant to the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) (... and that Reed takes the whole or a substantial part of each of these works in preparation of the Abstracts:

1. Each individual headline in an AFR edition
2. Each article, including its headline and by-line, written by journalists employed by Fairfax and published in an AFR edition (Article/Headline Combination)
3. The compilation consisting of all of the articles, including their headlines and by-lines, in an AFR edition (Article Compilation)
4. Each entire edition of the AFR (Edition Work)
Reed denied any infringement, arguing that none of the contended works, other than the Edition Work, is capable of being a work within the meaning of the Act or is a work in which copyright has been proven to subsist, and that even if copyright subsists in each of the contended works, the Abstracts do not reproduce a substantial part of any contended work, other than the individual headline. Reed also raised defences of fair dealing for the purpose of reporting news under s 42 of the Act and the defence of estoppel.

Bennett indicated that
The primary issues in dispute are:

1. whether copyright subsists in any of the contended works pursuant to the Act:

• Is each of the contended works a “work”?

• Is each of the contended works an original work?

2. whether, in the preparation of the Abstracts, Reed takes the whole or a substantial part of any of those works in which copyright subsists
He concluded that -
* None of the ten selected headlines are capable of being literary works in which copyright can subsist.

* Fairfax has failed to prove that any of the ten selected Article/Headline Combination is a discrete work of joint authorship in which copyright can subsist.

* Copyright subsists in the Article Compilation and the Edition Work in each of the June and November editions as original literary works and this copyright is owned by Fairfax.

# Reed takes the whole of each headline. As to whether Reed, in reproducing and communicating headlines of the AFR as part of the Abstracts, takes a substantial part of any of the contended works:

* Even if the Article/Headline Combination constitutes a copyright work, Reed does not take a substantial part of such a work.

* Reed does not take a substantial part of either the Article Compilation or the Edition Work.

# Although it is not necessary to decide whether Reed is entitled to rely on the defences claimed, I nonetheless consider that:

* Reed’s conduct in reproducing and communicating the AFR headlines as part of the Abstracts is a fair dealing for the purpose of reporting news such that Reed’s conduct would not constitute an infringement of copyright by reason of s 42(1)(b) of the Act;

* Fairfax is not estopped from asserting that Reed’s reproduction and communication of AFR headlines in the Abstracts as part of the ABIX service amounts to infringement of its copyright in the contended works.
* And the wand? It looks - to my untrained and alas deeply sceptical eye - like a ball point pen but has the sort of properties that enthuse devotees of the Akashic Field.

One vendor thus indicates that the -
Wand is a device that is able to imprint subtle energy patterns into one of the energetic layers of our body known as the etheric field. It has been demonstrated that there are independent etheric fields for each vibrating unit of life and for the physical body as a whole.

Energy healers have long used the etheric field as a map to understand areas in which we are experiencing blockages in our body. The etheric field links the physical body with other subtle bodies (mental and emotional), serving as the matrix for physical growth. As Barbara Brennan, a contemporary expert on this subject, suggests, the etheric layer actually exists before the cells themselves grow! By working on them, we can have a direct and profound impact on the physical body.

The Crystals and Minerals in the wand are able to hold and store these energy patterns for long periods of time, helping entrain your cells to their vibration. ...

The Zero Point Energy 'Freedom' wand is amazing because it works. It combines ancient knowledge of subtle energy with advanced technology in a way that generates a healing frequency that improves the condition of living organisms it comes into contact with (animals, humans, foods, liquids). For those who are ready to embrace a worldview that acknowledges that we are beings of energy, and that all diseases are related to flow of energy, then we encourage you to be bold and join the self-care revolution and take the leap towards an optimum health care approach that encompasses energy tools.

Strange people

From 'sociology of belief' territory, via Danijel Sinani in 10(1) Antropologija (2010) -
One of the most controversial and therefore, one of the most interesting figures in the UFO movement that appeared in public during the late forties and the fifties of the twentieth century, is certainly George Adamski, an American of Polish descent. Adamski is the prototype of the new type of contactees, and he was among the first who gained enormous popularity with his testimonies about contacts with UFOs, claiming that he was chosen to deliver important alien messages and wisdom to humanity. We don’t know much about his life before he became famous as a contactee and as an author of several books and articles on this subject. After he served shortly in the U.S. Cavalry on the Mexican border, Adamski got married and situated on a ranch in California, where, with the help of like-minded people, he later bought a piece of land and opened a cafe and an observatory.

Clearly interested in mysticism and metaphysics from the earliest age, Adamski founded the Royal Order of Tibet in 1936 and began to teach the "knowledge" of the occult nature. However, Adamski quickly shifted his interest to the ideas related to UFOs and he revealed his first contact with UFOs on October 9th 1946. Three years later he published his first book which made his way clear to a significant position in the circles of people interested in the UFO phenomena (Adamski 1949). However, Adamski gained a worldwide fame by publishing his second book in 1953. In the book he presented Orthon to the public – a tall, blond inhabitant of Venus, with whom Adamski allegedly established a telepathic connection a year earlier.
It's unclear whether that telepathy involved the notion, espoused by Ervin Laszlo of World Futures, that the brain is - or will shortly become - a 'quantum wave transceiver'.

Sinani reports that -
Through Orthon, Adamski was then given hieroglyphic, encrypted messages from the "Space Brothers" who were interested in the future of the Earth and its inhabitants.
Now of course he'd be invoking nonsense about the Mayan Calendar.
Adamski claimed that he learned, through the contact with the Venusians, whose aircraft he managed to see up close, that they have been secretly present on Earth for some time. He also stated that their mission was a peaceful one and that they were concerned about the human inclination towards war, especially the nuclear arms race, which threatened to disturb the harmony of the Universe (Leslie and Adamski 1953).
Can't have too much harmony, with or without quantum mysticism
Adamski allegedly possessed a number of photographs that were supposed to support his stories about seeing UFOs, as well as the encounters with extraterrestrial beings. In the vastness of testimonies about the contacts with aliens, Adamski became famous for claiming that the government scientists had evidence of the existence of intelligent life on other planets, that he travelled to Saturn on a space ship he boarded in a U.S. military base, that he held secret meetings with the Pope in the Vatican and the United States president John Kennedy and the people from his administration in connection with the "Space brothers" and, finally, that the Venusians, by using the flying saucers rushed to provide him with transportation even on shorter distances on Earth (O'Leary, 2000). Due to these, often extravagant and even bizarre testimonies, Adamski was suspected of fraudulence and discredited by a number of UFO researchers. He was accused of plagiarizing ideas from the old science-fiction books and movies, doctoring photographs and a few of his close associates eventually admitted that some of Adamski’s claims had been invented and redesigned (Melton and Eberhart 1995).
You don't say!
However, despite the controversies that followed him and the odium of the UFO researchers circles he brought upon himself, Adamski was able to gather a significant number of followers, forming in 1957 a club "International Get Acquainted" which brought together both those interested in UFOs and those who wanted to receive the "knowledge" and "wisdom" that Adamski, allegedly received from the "Space Brothers".
That sounds quite contemporary.
In the late fifties and early sixties, Adamski made a world tour with his lectures, he initiated a periodical, while his books became some of the most widely read books about UFOs.

Today the "Adamski Foundation" which was established in 1965 still exists and continues the tradition of his teaching and a number of individuals and smaller groups all over the world operate under the influence of the "secret knowledge" which Adamski believed he had been conveying.

07 September 2010

Evidence Act 2008 (Vic)

An interesting experiment at http://evidenceact2008.blogspot.com/ regarding the Evidence Act 2008 (Vic) -
This is not a blog in the conventional sense, where an author's thoughts and ideas are entered as and when they think of them, like pages of a diary. Instead this site reproduces the Evidence Act 2008 section by section. Over time, it's expected that decisions in the Victorian jurisdiction and elsewhere will assist in interpreting its many provisions. As that happens, some of those decisions will be noted and discussed beneath the provisions they consider.
An example of associated commentary is the post on DPP v Nicholls [2010] VSC 397.

I see with my little eye

From Culture Unbound: Journal of Current Cultural Research an article by Kelly Gates on 'The Tampa Smart CCTV Experiment'. [PDF].

Gates indicates that -
In June 2001, a neighborhood in Tampa, Florida called Ybor City became the first urban area in the United States to be fitted with a "Smart CCTV" system. Visio-nics Corporation began a project with the Tampa Police Department to incorpo-rate the company's facial recognition technology (FRT), called FaceIt, into an existing 36-camera CCTV system covering several blocks along two of the main avenues. However, this "smart surveillance" experiment did not go as smoothly as its planners had hoped. After a two-year free trial period, the TPD abandoned the effort to integrate facial recognition with the CCTV system in August 2003, citing its failure to identify a single wanted individual. This essay chronicles the experi-ment with FRT in Ybor City and argues that the project's failure should not be viewed as solely a technical one. Most significantly, the failure of the Ybor City "Smart CCTV" experiment reveals the extent to which new surveillance technol-ogies represent sites of struggle over the extent and limits of police power in ad-vanced liberal democracies.
Her article is complemented by Toby Miller's overview on 'Surveillance: The "Digital Trail of Breadcrumbs"' [PDF] in the same journal.

There is somewhat more bite in articles in 3(1) Identity in the Information Society (2010) ('The Diversity of National E-IDs in Europe: Lessons From Comparative Research').

The introduction by James Backhouse comments that -
When change in eIDs is initiated, rarely is there a completely fresh departure, but instead there is found incrementalism which builds gradually on the previous infrastructure of technology, but also of regulation and cultural norms. Great strides in the adoption of technologies such as the esignature or qualified certificates do not appear to have happened, rather the picture seems still to be of gradually setting in place the groundwork for future more sophisticated applications.

Finland was the first country in the world to introduce an electronic identity card in 1999, but their card has not progressed towards replacing other online authentication devices such as bank ID cards. It serves as a travel document and is intended to aid access to eGovernment services and for electronic signing. Even in states such as Belgium, the relatively strict privacy framework ensures the use of data is not accessible through the eID. Belgium has however achieved complete rollout but still experiences low usage rate for e-government services perhaps because its eID solution offers weaker authentication procedures. Some states, such as Sweden, have worked hard at integrating a market-based initiative within the eID creation and development. Others, such as Denmark, have developed the card largely from health-sector beginnings, with a gestation period of nearly 20 years. Still others, such as Estonia, are seeing ID cards used in connection with e-ticketing and as a partial replacement for driving licences, but interestingly as a support for voting through the Internet. As in other EU states the card is used to aid online tax declaration.

Many European states have developed electronic ID cards with a host of mechanisms for the increased security and protection of personal data. With these cards, authentication requires possession of a physical eID card AND knowledge of a PIN code—hence two-factor authentication. In both Belgium and Spain authentication allows the service provider to check the identity of citizen using the digital certificate on the card by means of the card reader and PIN.

But in Germany authentication is double-sided—the citizen can check the identity of the service provider as well. The service provider must get an access certificate from a federal agency in order to access the eID data on the card. In line with data minimization, the access rights granted only cover the data required for that particular service: say citizen’s name, age or address. The card is also an electronic travel document (e-pass), an alternative to a passport, that holds biometric data including a mandatory photo while fingerprints are optional. Each ID card has a registered serial number but this number cannot be used to identify the holder in any other administrative procedure. The prize for data minimization must go to the Austrian Citizen Card (Burgerkarte) which carries no personal data at all, only a personal link used to produce sector-specific PINs for the respective service in each transaction. In effect, the Austrian system provides technical means against merging citizens’ data from different sectors of government. ...

Two further papers mine the material brought together by these diverse studies focusing on the path dependency questions introduced in the framework and exercising them on selected groups of country cases. One entitled The path dependency of national electronic identities contrasts four national eIDs (Austria, Belgium, Germany and Spain) highlighting the differences between these systems conceived as socio-technical systems with regard to the eID itself, the eID cards as tokens, the authentication processes as well as the procedures for distribution and personalisation, the support provided for installing the technology and any provider-related regulation. ...

A second comparison examines the cases of Denmark, Finland, Estonia and Sweden in order to check the validity of generalisations derived from the first four cases.

05 September 2010

No junk, no emos

From the great Edward Mendelson's Literary Humanities, Fall 2010, Section 46 unit guide at Columbia (via Matthew Rimmer) -
Absolutely no laptops, iPads, tablets, cell phones, messaging devices, personal information managers, digital assistants, iPods, MP3 players, CD players, video players, game devices, satellite or other radios, portable televisions, still cameras, video cameras, sound recorders, headphones, virtual-reality headsets, or global positioning devices; absolutely no electronic devices of any kind unless required for medical reasons. No texting. Silent wristwatches only. Absolutely no baseball caps; no head coverings of any kind unless required by your religion or for medical reasons. No passive-aggressive questions (for example, the kind that begin "My problem with this book is" or "Speaking as a"). Bathroom visits during class are strongly discouraged.

breaking up and credulity

Ilana Gershon's 214 page The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting over New Media (Cornell University Press, 2010) describes US college student use of Facebook and other 'new media' to "communicate important romantic information - such as 'it's over'".

The publisher characterises The Breakup as opening up -
the world of romance as it is constructed in a digital milieu, offering insights into the ways in which different media influence behaviour, beliefs and social mores. Above all, this full-fledged ethnography of Facebook and other new tools is about technology and communication, but it also tells the reader a great deal about what college students expect from each other when breaking up - and from the friends who are the spectators or witnesses to the ebb and flow of their relationships. The Breakup 2.0 is accessible and rivetting.
In my opinion it is also poorly edited and somewhat thin. The book would have greater authority if the author had interviewed more than 72 people. Call me a grinch but infelicities such as the following could be fixed before the book went out into the 1.0 world -
As Lisa Gitelman, a historian of media, points out, things we now take for granted about the telephone took a while to be established.

[quote from Gitelman]

As Gitelman explains, much of what we take for granted about older communicative technology like the telephone had to be established.
I preferred the more modest 135 page Kids and Credibility: An Empirical Examination of Youth, Digital Media Use and Information Credibility (MIT Press, 2010) by Andrew Flanagin & Miriam Metzger, which draws on representative sample of 2,747 US minors (ages 11 to 18) with internet access plus a survey of one parent of each child to obtain household indicators of digital media use, parental involvement and various demographic factors.

The researchers conclude that -
+ The vast majority of children began using the net between 2nd and 6th grades, with a majority online by 3rd grade. 97% are online by 8th grade. Children use the net ("not including email") for an average of almost 14 hours per week. Usage generally increases with age, from an average of 8 hours weekly among 11yr-olds to 16 hours per week for 18yr-olds.

+ Overall, the US children rely fairly heavily on the net, with the most important general uses include social networking, "virtual usage" ("gaming and the like") and "information contribution" in various forms (eg file sharing or creating personal sites and blogs). Although the children generally acknowledge that information overabundance might pose a problem, nearly two-thirds report that their life would be either a little or much worse overall if they could not go online again, which is more pronounced with age. The children believe that they are highly skilled net users, with "even 11-year-olds believ[ing] that their technical skill, search skill, and knowledge about Internet trends and features are higher than other Internet users".

+ 75% of the parents control their child’s access and use of the net by placing the computer in a certain location in the home, limiting sites the child can visit, limiting the time spent online or controlling access in other ways. Parental oversight decreases as the children get older, with each method of control reported about half as frequently by parents of older children compared to parents of younger children.
In relation to 'information credibility' (a matter that would, alas, not be wasted on some grownups who confuse correlation with causation or go into a trance when encountering pseudo-scientific jargon) the authors report that -
+ Young people are concerned about credibility on the net, yet they find online information to be reasonably credible, with 89% reporting that "some" to "a lot" of information online is believable. Although the amount of information they find credible increases with age, their concern about credibility does not. That concern could stem from the fact that 73% of children have received some form of information literacy training, and the majority of parents report that they talk to their kids about whether to trust internet information.

+ A third of the minors reported that they, or someone they know, had a bad experience due to false information found on the net or through email. Nearly two-thirds said that they had heard a news report about someone who had a bad experience because of false information online. These experiences affect the extent to which minors are sceptical of online information.

+ Among several options, the net was rated as the most believable source of information for schoolwork, entertainment and commercial information, as well as second most believable source for health information and third most believable
for news information. Notably, the children report that the internet is a more credible source of information for school papers or projects than books.

+ Kids are not very trusting of blogs, but they do find Wikipedia to be "somewhat believable". Many children report believing information on Wikipedia substantially more than they think other people should believe it.

+ The children differentiate in reasonable ways among entertainment, health, news, commercial, and school-related information online when deciding which credibility assessment tools to use and with how much effort to employ them. Although this is generally encouraging, children also report finding entertainment and health information to be equally believable online, suggesting a suboptimal degree of skepticism between information types that have potentially quite different consequences. Older minors also show greater diversity and rigor in assessing the credibility of online information. Moreover, young people who are less analytic in their processing of information report trusting strangers online more and are more likely to be fooled by false information online.

+ Children’s concerns about credibility appear to be driven largely by analytic credibility evaluation processes, which involve effortful and deliberate consideration of information. By contrast, actual beliefs about the credibility of information they find are dictated by more heuristic processes, by which decisions are made with less cognitive effort and scrutiny. This suggests that while most kids take the idea that they should be concerned about credibility seriously (by invoking a systematic and analytical approach), many also exhibit a less rigorous approach to actually evaluating the information they find online.
The authors go on to report that -
+ There was no clear evidence of a "digital divide" in terms of the credibility beliefs and evaluations of kids from different demographic backgrounds. Instead, the rigor with which kids evaluate information they find online drives much of their credibility beliefs and concerns.

+ A majority of children displayed an appropriate level of skepticism when presented with hoax sites, a trend that contradicts prior research about this type of site. Nonetheless, approximately 10% still believed hoax sites either "a lot" or "a whole lot", indicating some lingering and important concerns.

+ Children found encyclopaedia entries that they believed originated from Encyclopedia Britannica to be significantly more believable than those they believed originated from either Wikipedia or Citizendium. The actual source of an online encyclopedia entry (ie from Wikipedia, Citizendium or Encyclopaedia Britannica) was irrelevant to the credibility of the entry However, encyclopaedia entries were assessed as less believable when placed on Wikipedia than when placed on the other sites. Entries actually originating from Wikipedia were perceived as more believable when they appeared on Citizendium than if they appeared on Wikipedia and even more believable if they appeared to have originated from the Britannica. Thus, ironically, while children find the content of Wikipedia to be most credible, they find the context of Wikipedia as an information resource to be relatively low in credibility.

banging on pots

From a new book by Stephen Hawking on God, Science and the Origins of the Universe -
According to Viking mythology, eclipses occur when two wolves, Skoll and Hati, catch the sun or moon. At the onset of an eclipse people would make lots of noise, hoping to scare the wolves away. After some time, people must have noticed that the eclipses ended regardless of whether they ran around banging on pots.

Ignorance of nature's ways led people in ancient times to postulate many myths in an effort to make sense of their world. But eventually, people turned to philosophy, that is, to the use of reason — with a good dose of intuition — to decipher their universe. Today we use reason, mathematics and experimental test — in other words, modern science.
Some of us, of course, want to appropriate the authority of 'modern science' for a mysticism that features claims that we can communicate with the dead via valve radios, deal with bodily ills through 'remote healing', have precognition (aka fortune telling) and prove the reality of reincarnation through reports from people who have been administered LSD.

Those claims would be derided if made by a practitioner of Scientology or Theosophy and aren't different to past nonsense about witches or hobgoblins but gain credibility when packaged with terms such as mesodomain, supervening and interstitiality. Very sad, very sad.

As noted earlier this year, it is difficult to see an Australian barrister getting very far in the High Court with claims that people actually do get messages from the dead via valve radios (irrespective of whether they're wearing an alfoil beanie or a bone through the nose), that mass meditation changes the weather, that the adept can levitate (particularly when the gurus continue to fly first class in a conventional aircraft rather than floating into the aether while seated on a tea towel or prayer mat or pile of hundred dollar bills from their acolytes), or that the brains of true believers have indeed become "quantum wave transceivers" attuned to the Akashic Field. (The requisite "health warning" regarding that scepticism is here.)

I'm reminded of the virtue of occasionally questioning whether emperors have new clothes, Akashic or otherwise, in reading Jane Smiley's tribute to Jessica Mitford's Poison Penmanship, which notes that Mitford's -
weapons of choice were factual accuracy and a tone of amazement.
As the great and underappreciated Julien Benda noted in La Trahison des clercs, who would have thought clever people could believe such silly things. It is amazing and more than a little downheartening in world where, as one reader pointed out, nonsense kills and where scholars or journalists have spent a century debunking nonsense from gurus such as Cayce and Blavatsky.

Smiley rightly describes Mitford as -
a toiler in the muck who cared about facts and believed in the idea that her fellow citizens were generally honest and expected the same of business and government.
Would that we held each other to Mitford's standard.

Jonathan Mirsky, in a LR review of Frank Dikötter's Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62 (London: Bloomsbury 2010) highlights why truth may be more useful for law reform and for the advancement of human rights than fantasies regarding communication with Cleopatra (reincarnated or otherwise).

Mirsky notes that Edgar Snow's The Other Side of the River featured the statement that "I saw no starving people in China ... Considerable malnutrition undoubtedly existed. Mass starvation? No. ... Whatever he was eating, the average Chinese maintained himself in good health, as far as anyone could see." Perhaps people chose not to see very far.
In brutal fact, between 1959 and 1962, at least forty-three million Chinese died during the famine Snow didn't bother to see. Most died of hunger, over two million were executed or were beaten or tortured to death, the birth rate halved in some places, parents sold their children, and people dug up the dead and ate them.

The cause of this disaster, the worst ever to befall China and one of the worst anywhere at any time, was Mao, who, cheered on by his sycophantic and frightened colleagues, decreed that before long China's economy must overtake that of the Soviet Union, Britain and even the US. Mao suggested that 'When there is not enough to eat people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill,' and declared that anyone who questioned his policies was a 'Rightist', a toxic term eventually applied to thirteen million Party members.


Warwick Mules in the latest issue of Transformations -
'This Face: a Critique of Faciality as Mediated Self-Presence'

In this paper I develop a concept of the face that begins with a simple idea: the face is that which withdraws from self-presence, thereby enabling the possibility of self-relation with others. The face is the mark of the self in the sense proposed by Walter Benjamin, as the medium that manifests the sign by withdrawing from it (“Painting”), thereby opening up possibilities in the materiality of the medium itself for future self-configurations unseeable in current forms of self-identity. This idea, I argue, leads to an affirmation of the self as other, as the self “to come,” opening up possibilities for critique from the place where the face withdraws. My aim here is to counter two tendencies in theoretical work: one in which the face is taken to be the sign of simple self-presence, and the other where, in its withdrawal from self-presence, the face disappears into a system or conceptual scheme, losing its singular specificity as this face, and hence its potential for being something other than what it is.

To make my case I offer an analysis of the conventional face-to-face situation of direct communication with another (the I-you relation), showing how it necessarily depends on a mediation that retreats as it makes this relation possible. I argue that this retreating mediation is the face in its withdrawal and hence resistance to self-identity and conceptual determination. Furthermore, I will demonstrate that the withdrawing face cannot be elided or sublated into an idea or material affect without losing sight of the fact that it happens. My argument counters the material-idealist concept of faciality proposed by Deleuze and Guattari as a “redundancy” within a field of pure material affectivity (A Thousand Plateaus 168). Instead, I argue for a situated critique (critical praxis) of the face opened to otherness in the finite place where it happens — as the mark of withdrawal from self-presence. To demonstrate this, I will discuss photographic work as a creative political art practice that makes a face appear as such, thereby enabling new self-relations motivated by renewed democratic concerns for global “matters of concern.”
Theory is the opiate of the academics?