MITT: the Surprisingly Compelling Documentary

Greg Whiteley was given close access to the 2012 Romney presidential campaign, and made a documentary which will stream on Netflix from January 24th, 2014.

Judging from the trailer, which starts with a scene of Romney as he realises he will lose that is so intimate it looks staged, this will be a must see:

Abandoned Futuristic Monuments in the Former Yugoslavia

Yugoslavian monument

A series of photographs of monuments set up under Tito, now largely abandoned. There is a real sense in these huge concrete sculptures  of a vast optimism in a promised future combined with the blunt assertion of state power which makes so much socialist era art unavoidably tragic.

See the full series of 25 here.

US Federal Judge: NSA Domestic Surveillance Likely Unconstitutional

In the first federal ruling in open court on the constitutionality of the NSA’s surveillance activities, US Federal Court Judge Richard J. Leon has ruled that the bulk collection of phone metadata is likely to violate the Fourth Amendment prohibiting unreasonable searches (via WaPo):

‘I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary invasion’ than this systematic and high tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without prior judicial approval…No court has ever recognized a special need sufficient to justify continuous, daily searches of virtually every American citizen without any particularized suspicion.’

Leon has granted a preliminary injunction against the NSA, stayed pending government appeal.

Edward Snowden, whose leaked documents uncovered the surveillance, on the ruling:

 ‘I acted on my belief that the NSA’s mass surveillance programs would not withstand a constitutional challenge, and that the American public deserved a chance to see these issues determined by open courts. Today, a secret program authorized by a secret court was, when exposed to the light of day, found to violate Americans’ rights. It is the first of many.’

Overseas surveillance, of course, is not substantially affected by the ruling. In Australia at least, there is surprisingly little concern over NSA surveillance when compared, for example, to the response in parts of Europe. Greens senator Scott Ludlam appears to be the only prominent politician to publicly and regularly address its implications in or out of parliament.

The Joy of Data Visualisation

Having spent much of dinner tonight talking about global development, I was reminded of this fantastic clip by Hans Rosling, tracking the income and life expectancy of 200 countries over 200 years in a four minute animated graph.

If the Swedish chef did big data it would look something like this:

(H/T: J.W.)

Mapping our World: Terra Incognita to Australia


A fascinating exhibition, on at the National Library of Australia (Canberra) until the 10th of March, 2014.

The US is Still in the Dark on the Extent of Snowden’s Data Cache

Following on from my previous post, the New York Times reports that after six months of investigation US intelligence and law enforcement investigators still don’t know the full extent of the data Edward Snowden took from the NSA:

“They’ve spent hundreds and hundreds of man-hours trying to reconstruct everything he has gotten, and they still don’t know all of what he took,” a senior administration official said. “I know that seems crazy, but everything with this is crazy.”

Closer to home, the Weekend Australian argues today that the outrage over revelations, via Snowden, of Australia’s bugging of the personal mobile phone of Indonesian PM Susilo Bambang Yudhyono’s wife, Kristiani Herawati, was misplaced: Herawati should not be seen as politically passive, but as one of SBY’s closest advisers.

(H/T: TechCrunch)

Snowden, Assange and the Ancient History of Seeking Asylum


An article I published at The Conversation in July 2013:

As Julian Assange remains inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London and Edward Snowden, last thought to be Venezuela-bound, attempts to avoid capture by an enraged United States, the grant of asylum has become a matter of contemporary global interest and debate. Yet its origins are ancient, and its exploitation in interstate politics was there from the beginning.

Asylum, like many English words, has its linguistic roots in Ancient Greek.

The Greek term was “asylia”, a compound of “sylē”, meaning the right of seizure or reprisal, and the prefix “a-”, denoting the absence of something. A site characterised by asylia was declared to be immune from attack or plunder. The Romans adopted the word and Latinised it into the form with which we are familiar. The noun “asylum” therefore came to refer to a place which afforded such protection.

For the ancient Greeks, the idea of territorial inviolability appears to have originated in the religious sphere. Temples of the gods and the holy precincts within which they were situated were understood to be off limits to the regular plundering raids which were a common reality in the ancient Mediterranean world.

Those who violated the sanctuary of a particular god or goddess risked incurring their divine wrath. This protection extended not only to the temple and cult objects, but also came to include people who entered the sanctuary’s “temenos”, or sacred boundary. Flight to a sacred space became a way for individuals to escape their pursuers, even if the inviolate status of sanctuaries was not always respected in practice.

Yet the Greeks also understood that whatever power the gods might be seen to possess, the credibility of asylia in practice had to be secured through human intervention. In 242 B.C., the citizens of Cos, one of the eastern-most Greek islands in the Aegean Sea, wrote to their neighbours to ask that they recognise the asylia of their city’s sanctuary to Asclepius, the god of healing who was the city’s patron deity. The replies received were engraved on stone slabs and publicly displayed in the city; they included assurances of the sanctuary’s status by some of the most powerful polities of the eastern Mediterranean world.

Such protection was not limited to divine precincts. In 203/2 B.C., the Greek city of Teos (on the western coast of modern Turkey) secured asylia for its entire territory from the main power in the region, the Seleucid empire ruled by King Antiochus III.

Grants of asylia provided concrete benefits to their recipients, both as a mark of honour and as an affirmation of safety from harm. Yet they were also important tools in ancient international relations. When the people of Teos accepted protection for their city, they acknowledged King Antiochus’ power.

When Rome’s influence in the same region began to rival that of Antiochus, the Romans also recognised Teos’ claim to asylia in 193 B.C. in order to assert their own authority. Recognising asylia not only provided benefits to the protected, but also served to emphasise the power and status of those guaranteeing their protection.

Against this historical background, it should come as no surprise that granting asylum to Julian Assange and Edward Snowden has come to symbolise far more than a specific application of international law. Through its sheltering of Assange, Ecuador has implicitly undermined the power of the US and the United Kingdom. The harsher treatment of Snowden – and in particular the recent refusal of transit to the Bolivian president’s plane falsely suspected of carrying the former NSA analyst – demonstrates the extent to which this lesson has been learnt by the international community.

At a special meeting of Latin American leaders, Bolivian president Evo Morales recently commented that “being united will defeat American imperialism”. Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, has suggested that had a US or European head of state been treated as Morales was, it would have been considered sufficient pretext for military action. Both comments make clear the perceptions of power at stake.

The conflict between the US and Ecuador or Bolivia remains a diplomatic one, and the above comments are perhaps best seen as the product of a righteous, if relatively impotent, indignation. Yet were Snowden to reach Bolivia and be granted asylum, the possibility of escalation in a region with a long history of US intervention – while perhaps unlikely – should not be dismissed out of hand.

In 190 B.C., when the people of Teos agreed to support Antiochus III in his conflict with Rome by storing supplies for him in their city, the Romans had no qualms about attacking their territory, despite their affirmation of Teos’ inviolate status only three years earlier.

Then, as now, asylum could be as much a tool of interstate politics as a right which afforded safety to those who claimed its protection.

A Festivus for the Rest of Us

The US states of Wisconsin and Florida have Festivus poles installed in their Capitol buildings. And Fox News doesn’t like it one bit:

For the origins of Festivus, see the article linked above and this:

I’d love to see a public ‘airing of grievances’ take place in every parliament before Christmas.

As usual, Jon Stewart is on it (H/T: E.J.)

After Antibiotics

New Zealand this week recorded its first death of a patient with an infection resistant to all known antibiotics. The implications of a ‘post antibiotic‘ world are huge, and affect everything from surgery to food supply:

If we really lost antibiotics to advancing drug resistance — and trust me, we’re not far off — here’s what we would lose. Not just the ability to treat infectious disease; that’s obvious.

But also: The ability to treat cancer, and to transplant organs, because doing those successfully relies on suppressing the immune system and willingly making ourselves vulnerable to infection. Any treatment that relies on a permanent port into the bloodstream — for instance, kidney dialysis. Any major open-cavity surgery, on the heart, the lungs, the abdomen. Any surgery on a part of the body that already harbors a population of bacteria: the guts, the bladder, the genitals. Implantable devices: new hips, new knees, new heart valves. Cosmetic plastic surgery. Liposuction. Tattoos.

We’d lose the ability to treat people after traumatic accidents, as major as crashing your car and as minor as your kid falling out of a tree. We’d lose the safety of modern childbirth: Before the antibiotic era, 5 women died out of every 1,000 who gave birth. One out of every nine skin infections killed. Three out of every 10 people who got pneumonia died from it.

And we’d lose, as well, a good portion of our cheap modern food supply. Most of the meat we eat in the industrialized world is raised with the routine use of antibiotics, to fatten livestock and protect them from the conditions in which the animals are raised. Without the drugs that keep livestock healthy in concentrated agriculture, we’d lose the ability to raise them that way.

A terrifying prospect and one that deserves more publicity.

No Atheism, please: we’re American


Jennifer Michael Hecht asks why Atheism is seen as such a problematic belief for US lawmakers to hold. 25 years ago being an atheist was a greater black mark, as far as American voters were concerned, than being gay, which is saying something: the late 80s were hardly an enlightened time for gay rights.

In Australia, of course, it’s a non-issue: PM Julia Gillard was open about her lack of religious faith.

(Hat Tip: Andrew Sullivan)

Gold and the Incas


A great looking visiting exhibition at the National Gallery of Australa.

Funding Research in the Humanities: the View from Australia

Parliament House

With a new Australian federal government come new funding priorities. Research funding for the humanities appears to be low among them.

The new Coalition government publicised its plans to reduce funding for the humanities prior to the 2013 election. Part of that effort was devoted to ridiculing past grants for projects which were seemingly frivolous or wasteful.

The parliament is currently debating the Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2013. While this bill’s purpose is to approve ARC funding to 2016/17 and include indexation, an opportunity to mock valuable research was not missed by Craig Kelly, Liberal MP for Hughes in Sydney’s SW suburbs, in a powerful demonstration of the tyranny of ignorance.

Rather than engage in a debate about the merits of funding the humanities and social sciences, or even of individual projects, Kelly’s speech was dedicated to listing grants he didn’t like along with a set of sneering asides.

I want to go through a list of some of the expenditure items that occurred under the previous government. A Queensland university secured funding of $197,302 for a project titled, Sending and responding to messages about climate change: the role of emotion and morality. You have to ask what medical researcher missed out on funding because of that little research grant. A cool $578,792 was granted for a study of credit instruments in Florentine economic, social and religious life from 1570 to 1790. One of my favourites was the $314,000 for a study to determine if birds are shrinking. Another one was the $145,000 to study sleeping snails.

The fallacy that humanities funding – or any pure research funding for that matter – takes money away from medical research aside, that a member of the highest representative body in Australia assumes that this kind of belittling approach to some of the brightest researchers in the country is worthy of the federal parliament is the best evidence for why more, not less, money should be put into research in the humanities.

A spirit of inquiry, of fascination in the people and world around us and the desire to answer why it is the way it is, is exactly what studying the humanities allows to flourish. That is a valuable contribution in itself. But a spirit of inquiry across all spheres of knowledge is also a powerful indicator of an open society and, ultimately, of a humane polity.

That some members of parliament feel that this kind of goal is beyond modern Australia is more of an indictment of their own short horizons than that of the nation as a whole.

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