The climate science isn’t “in”

aka back and better than the same as ever

MK has been dormant since June 2013 — almost 2 years! It’s been a while since I wrote a bona fide blog post, but I miss doing that, so I figured I would, and on one of my favourite old topics (see HERE). This one is dedicated to my handfuls upon handfuls of readers.

I believe in climate change. I also am not all that bothered by it.

That attitude seems to raise a few eyebrows. Most people assume that if you believe in climate change, then you must see a desperate need to “take action” against it and, conversely, if you do not care much about climate change, then you are obviously one of those “climate change deniers” (a term that’s a little too close to “Holocaust denier” for my liking).

I don’t fall into either category. My thoughts can be encapsulated quite neatly in three points (and I think I may be paraphrasing John Humphreys):

  1. Is the climate changing? Yes.
  2. Are humans causing that? Probably.
  3. Is it as bad as we think? No.
  4. Does it warrant drastic government intervention? Almost definitely not.

As points 1 and 2 have been adequately canvassed elsewhere, and point 4 follows from point 3, I’ll concentrate on point 3 for the balance of this post. Before I do that, I should give this qualification: I’ll admit that I can’t claim to be an expert on the subject, but I do have a statistics major, so I am at least somewhat qualified to comment on the research findings that people like to throw around. And I have read the most authoritative material out there, like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports and the major Royal Society reviews (see HERE).

So with the power of that limited knowledge and drawing on my hours of research, here is what i think:

The future hasn’t happened yet

People have been predicting the end of the world for as long as there have been people, and that includes in this “enlightened” age of “science” that we now live in. Yet the doomsayers have been proven wrong each time.

The problem with predicting the future is that it hasn’t happened yet. That may seem obvious, but it is constantly overlooked by “scientists” the world over. The standard way of predicting the future using maths, “time series analysis”, boils down to this: take what has happened in the past, figure out what the average was, and assume that the future will be the same.

This might seem intuitive — after all, the best indication of what will happen in the future that we have is what has already happened — but it is in fact an extremely flawed way of looking at the world. The best and most well known critic of the formula is probably Nassim Taleb. He makes the following criticisms:

   1. Outliers

The past is peppered with what Taleb calls “Black Swan” events and what everyone else calls “outliers”. Outliers are rare events that are different to all other events, and therefore cannot be predicted. It is impossible to predict the unpredictable, therefore any statistical projections will invariably miss the outliers, especially if it is predicting the future based on the past average.

This results in things like financial analysts missing the Global Financial Crisis (bad outlier), or Thomas Malthus predicting that all the food would run out and missing the productivity improvements of the industrial revolution (good outlier, back in Malthus’s time).

   2. Knowing it all

Time series predictions involve a degree of hubris. They assume that we understand the past and why everything in the past has happened, and can confidently reduce the infinitely complex universe into a few variables that will inevitably explain anything, and so if we know how one or two of these will behave then we can comfortably predict everything else.

We give ourselves too much credit. Our actual understanding of complex systems is much weaker than we’d like to think. “Experts” modelling complex systems mathematically are constantly even getting the past wrong, so how anyone thinks they can predict the future with much accuracy I have no idea.

   3. Proxies and correlations

Some things are easier to measure than others. Whenever an analysts wants to measure something complex that cannot really be measured they will use a “proxy variable” that would generally correlate with the unmeasurable variable. For example, it is not possible to measure “health”, so if you want to measure the health of a population, you might measure their average life expectancy. After all, if people tend to live longer, you would assume that they are healthier.

Makes sense right? Well maybe. One problem is that you might be missing some other variables that are affecting the situation. For example, maybe your “unhealthy” group are actually super fit and super healthy, but have an unfortunate habit of dying in car crashes. So perhaps life expectancy doesn’t correlate as well with health as you would expect.

But assume that the two variables correlate perfectly. That itself may be a problem.

Take this example: Christian Rudder from online dating website OK Cupid has found that regardless of gender, OK Cupid users who like the taste of beer tend to prefer having sex on the first date. That statistic is quite amusing, but no one would seriously suggest that this means that drinking beer changes the way someone thinks about sex, right?

Wrong. “Scientists” do that all the time, and the journalists who report their findings do it even more.

That example makes it especially obvious that the correlation between beer and sex is not causative. Liking beer does not cause someone to want to have sex on a first date, and wanting sex on a first date does not cause someone to like the taste of beer. More likely, there is a third factor at play that causes a lot of people who like beer to also want sex on a first date — probably youth culture or something. Or it could simply be a coincidence.

But that doesn’t stop people saying that hormone replacement therapy can help stop heart disease.


4. The Wayne Swan error*

Ever wondered why the government’s budget always seems to blow out? Here’s why. Say the government projects that next year’s budget will balance, with a 2% margin of error and 95% confidence. This means that there is a 95% chance that budget will be within 2% of a balanced budget (a pipe dream right now, I know).

In reality, it is almost impossible that the budget will come in below the projection — as once allocated money to spend, very few (if any) government departments will choose not spend it. On the other hand, it is quite likely that the budget will blow out, as government departments have many unforeseen expenses. So there is not so much a 95% chance that the budget will be within 2% of balanced, there is a 95% chance that there will be a deficit of 2% or less, and a 5% chance of a deficit of over 2%. I like to call that the “Wayne Swan error”, after the former Australian Treasurer who seemed to manage to blow out the budget every year that he was in office (it is also fast becoming the “Joe Hockey error”).

Getting to the point

The reason I don’t think that climate change is so bad is that the predictions that I have seen of the impact of climate change fall into all of the above traps, along with an unhealthy dose of confirmation bias. Arctic sea ice at record lows? We’re doomed! Arctic sea ice at record highs? We’re still doomed!

Remember Professor Tim Flannery? The “climate expert” who predicted unending drought when we had a drought, then unending floods when we had floods? My point exactly.

Even the most respectable science journals make outlandish predictions about mass-extinctions, rising sea levels, and economic misery based on people trying to predict the future from past averages and assuming that they understand complex systems.

Their predictions are constantly wrong. It turns out that nature is a lot more robust than we give it credit for. We forget that life on Earth has not been eliminated despite ice ages, periods of warming, super-volcanoes, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, and everything else that nature throws at us. I seriously doubt that the atmosphere warming a couple of degrees will mean the end of the world as we know it.

Further, as a result of nature being more robust than we think, as well as humanity’s propensity for alarmism, climate scientists’ projections are subject to the “Wayne Swan error”-style second order effects that I was talking about earlier.

Scientific papers wrongly predicting the end of the world are much more likely to be published than ones predicting that everything will carry on the way it has in the past, and are much more likely to attract attention once published. Also, scientists are more likely to miss mitigating factors than exacerbating ones, and therefore overestimate both global warming and its effects. We know what causes warming — greenhouse gas levels — but not what mitigates it. Accordingly, our measurements of warming are biased towards warmer rather than cooler, and our projections are biased towards “worst case” rather than “best case” scenarios.

The biggest problem with the way we think about projections is that people are not held to account for getting it wrong. Climate forecasts made 20 years ago have proven woefully inaccurate, yet they are somehow touted as being correct. A couple of years ago, the IPCC released a report saying how accurate their 1990 projections were, and headlines around the world said “climate predictions come true”, when what had in fact happened was that the world had consistently warmed more slowly than the IPCC’s projections, but (big woop!) the warming had been within the range that the IPCC predicted. See this graph:

Now, remember that the predictions were made in 1990. Notice how the model “predicts” that temperatures before 1990 (which would have been factored into the model) would be roughly evenly distributed around the middle line, but that temperatures since 1990 (which obviously were not known when the projections were made) have been consistently below that line.

Sure enough, according to the IPCC’s projections, the world should have warmed about 0.55 degrees between 1990 and 2010. It actually warmed 0.39 degrees. That’s 30% less than projected — a pretty dismal result really. Although I’ll admit that sea levels seem to have been rising at the top end of what was projected, despite the rise in temperature being lower than projected.

Anyway, the point is that a PhD in climate science is about as useful as a crystal ball and a red and white tent when it comes to making soothsayers. Meanwhile, both humanity and nature constantly surprise with their ability to not be destroyed by whatever calamity we are predicting at the time.

All this is not to say that we shouldn’t be reducing our CO2 emissions and switching to renewable energy. But a carbon tax? No.

Taleb makes some other criticisms which are a lot more technical and would be lost on most readers without a mathematical background. I encourage everyone to read his books, where he explains his ideas in a very accessible way.

For people who do understand this kind of thing, the Wayne Swan error is this: Most models use a 95% confidence level to compute “statistically significant” findings. If you’re lucky this will be at 99%. Not only does this a priori overlook the 5% or 1% of outliers which can have a far more significant impact on whatever the model is measuring than the 95-99% of “normal” cases, another common oversight make it likely that the confidence level is substantially underestimated: namely the assumption that the error terms are random. Often, the error terms are actually non-linear, which adds unseen biases to the model.

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Public official makes precedented announcement

A senior public official today announced that over the coming months a large government department will be following more or less the same policy that it has been following for as long as anyone can remember.

“We are proud of our department’s record, and see no reason to change anytime soon,” said the official in the press statement accompanying the department’s quarterly report. “Over the next few months, the people of this country can expect more of the same mediocre services at the same almost-but-not-quite exorbitant prices.”

No party seems to be proposing any real changes to the current policy, however the announcement has sparked the storm of controversy in the political chattersphere that regularly follows these reports.

In response to the announcement, the Opposition’s spokesperson for the portfolio lashed-out at the government, saying that this was yet another example of the “brazen mismanagement” that we have come to expect, and warning that if something does not change soon, the fabric of our society might collapse.

The Minister responsible for the department backed the announcement and refuted the attack from the Opposition. The Minister said that the government has a “commendable record” in this area, and that the Opposition’s complaints were “nothing more than a self-serving political exercise”.

“If they don’t like it, they can come up with a better idea!” the Minister declared. “This is just empty posturing from an Opposition with no real ideas and nothing to do except attack the government.”

The department’s field has seen very little change over the past few decades, yet it has consistently been the subject of much debate amongst public figures. That debate is alive and kicking, as seen when the media’s go-to expert in the field expressed ambivalence about the recent announcement when interviewed on the evening news.

According to the expert, it is positive that the government has not gotten rid of any of the good work that the department is doing, but it is disappointing that the government has not taken the opportunity to take on board the changes that the expert has been recommending for the better part of the last decade.

“I’ve been telling them for years: listen to me,” the expert told Major Karnage, going on to lament that “my last three reports on this issue have been completely ignored, even though the government gave me million of dollars to conduct them.”

That expert’s regular sparring partners took their usual stance against the proposed changes.

“Those reports were rubbish!” said a renowned newspaper columnist, insisting that the “so-called expert” had no idea what the policy was even about.

Many other public officials made such comments as “why are we still talking about this?” and “seriously? That again? Don’t we have better things to look at?”

While no tangible change in policy is likely to eventuate, the issue is expected to fill many a newspaper column-inch over the coming days, as journalists find more and more public figures to give quotes that sound a little controversial when taken out of context.

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Boston Bombings: looks like Tamerlan and Dzhokhar were homegrown terrorists

Turns out the spurious-sounding rumours that I reported earlier were, in fact, incorrect – meaning that Alan Jones was wrong. Who saw that one coming?

The bombers were not actually radical leftists. It turns out to have been Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tzarnaev – two Muslim brothers from Chechnya.

As of writing, Tamerlan has been shot and Dzokhar is apparently holed-up in a house, surrounded by police and National Guard. There is not a huge amount of information out there about them, but it is coming in drips and drabs – and everything that I have seen so far points to homegrown terrorists.

One of the quickly cobbled-together reports comes from Foreign Policy‘s David Kenner (my bold):

Who is Tamerlan Tzarnaev? | FP Passport.

Tamerlan was apparently a boxer who hoped to gain citizenship by being selected for the U.S. Olympic team: “Unless his native Chechnya becomes independent, Tamerlan says he would rather compete for the United States than for Russia,” Hirn wrote.

Other captions paint Tamerlan as a devoted Muslim. “I’m very religious,” he says at one point, noting that he does not smoke or drink alchol. “There are no values anymore,” he says, worrying that “people can’t control themselves.”

Tamerlan also appears isolated and bewildered by American life. “I don’t have a single American friend,” he laments, despite living in the United States for five years. “I don’t understand them.”

At the time the photos were taken [2009], Tamerlan’s life did not seem all bad: Hirn writes that he was competing as a boxer, enrolled in Bunker Hill Community College and pursuing a career as an engineer, and had a half-Portuguese, half-Italian girlfriend that converted to Islam for him. “She’s beautiful, man!” he said.

At some point, though, it all went wrong. In 2009, Tamerlan was arrested for domestic assault and battery after assaulting his girlfriend.

Dzhokhar, meanwhile, was a second-year medical student.

I don’t have a link for this, but I just listened to an interview of their uncle and I picked up a couple of other facts. Their uncle claimed that it is likely that Tamerlan had been influencing Dzhokhar, and that Dzhokhar was a sweet boy but Tamerlan had problems. He also said that their parents worked extremely hard and were only concerned with putting food on the table, although they both returned to Russia a year ago.

Also of interest is Tamerlan’s social media page. There are not many posts, but one includes a video entitled “Chechnyan accents”, and another has this joke:

Inside a car sit a Dagestani, a Chechen and Ingush. Who is driving?

The police.

According to this photo by photojournalist Johannes Hirn – who did a series on Tamerlan – Tamerlan was not doing too badly for himself. At least according to the designer clothing and the Mercedes he was driving:

Tamerlan by Johannes Hirn

Finally (and most significantly), according to Adam Serwer at Mother Jones, Tamerlan had been consuming and distributing Islamist propaganda.

Putting this all together, we can build a profile of the two boys (well, more so for Tamerlan):

  • Second generation immigrants (they both went to high school in the US, so more or less second).
  • Relatively affluent.
  • Devout Muslims with an Islamist bent.
  • Well educated.
  • Socially isolated – had trouble integrating into America and did not really feel as though they belonged.
  • Viewed Western culture as amoral.

What you have right there is the textbook profile for homegrown terrorists. They tend to be young second or third generation Muslim immigrants feel like the don’t belong anywhere – they can’t relate to their new adopted country, but have grown up there, so don’t fit in back in their old country. They feel lonely and isolated, so begin searching for meaning – and find it in extreme Islamism. This requires that they are affluent/educated enough to read and understand the jihadi propaganda, and to navigate the complex online network that jihadi groups operate in.

The truth remains to be seen, but from what we do know, my bet is that this is more or less the story of the Brothers Tzarnaev.

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Boston Bombing: Alan Jones was right!!!

***UPDATE: turns out this was all a false lead. For my analysis of the real story, click HERE. I’m going to leave this up though, because it was funny while it lasted.

Everyone’s favourite Australian ‘shock jock’ Alan Jones has been widely criticised recently for these comments:

Alan Jones Boston Bombing Comments.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a conspiracy amongst students, left-wing radical students in Boston, and I think we have to think also very seriously here about our own student numbers,” Jones said on Sunrise.

“We’re very keen to have foreign students pay the way of universities in this country without a lot of discernment about who comes in. But I think the fact that we’ve been spared this kind of thing, touch wood, for so long highlights, as I said, the relentless work done by ASIO and all our police organisations.”

For example, one hipster blog had this to say:

Alan Jones Blames “left-wing radical students” For Boston Bombing – Pedestrian TV.

Australia’s leading expert in poor taste and bad timing has struck again after talkback radio host Alan Jones suggested that there could be a link between the tragic Boston Marathon bombings and radical left-wing student groups. Speaking on Channel 7’s Sunrise program, Jones was eager to speculate as to who could be behind the blast despite the assertion from US authorities that they were yet to have any suspects. …

Shut up Alan Jones!

But lo and behold, he may have actually been right about this one!

The Boston Police Department has reportedly identified the two suspected bombers as Mike Mulugeta and Sunil Tripathi:

One Boston Bombing Suspect Reportedly in Custody, One Remains at Large – Adam Clark Estes – The Atlantic Wire.

Update 3:00 a.m.: There was a mention on police scanners recently that the suspects in custody are Mike Mulugeta and Sunil Tripathi. The latter is a missing Brown student who was identified on Reddit as a possible suspect earlier this week. However, the chatter is not confirmed.

So who are these two? Well Mulugeta is proving a little elusive, but there are a few photos of Tripathi doing the rounds on social media. This one, for example:


That would be a Che Guevara shirt that he is wearing.

Guevara is not really an icon of Islamist terrorists or of right wing terrorists, so Tripathi does not seem to affiliate with either of the groups widely believed to be behind the bombings.

Who does idolise Guevara?

That’s right: left wing radicals. Just like Alan Jones said.

Who’s laughing now?

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Roger Ebert, the Walking Dead, and the decline and fall of Fairfax Media

The list of what can be better described as “tributes” than obituaries marking the passing of film critic Roger Ebert (including one by President Obama) reflect the tremendous impact that he had on the cinematic world. To pick just one, the New Yorker‘s Alex Ross said that:

Learning from Roger Ebert : The New Yorker.

The wonder of discovering “Aguirre, Wrath of God” or Errol Morris’s “Gates of Heaven” redounded on the man whose enthusiasm led you across the threshold. It could have been anyone, I suppose, but for quite a few of us, it was Ebert. There was some kind of missionary fire beneath the easy, conversational surface of his writing.

Ebert knew cinema better than anyone else. One of the most touching pieces of writing that I have ever read was his reflection on losing the ability to speak due to cancer, which meant that he could no longer get to know actors, directors, and producers the way he used to. Still, he wrote some of the most insightful reviews out there – as well as some of the most scathing. Take, for example, this excerpt of his review of the goddawful second Transformers movie:

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen :: :: Reviews.

The plot is incomprehensible. The dialog of the Autobots®, Decepticons® and Otherbots® is meaningless word flap. Their accents are Brooklyese, British and hip-hop, as befits a race from the distant stars. Their appearance looks like junkyard throw-up. They are dumb as a rock. They share the film with human characters who are much more interesting, and that is very faint praise indeed. …

The human actors are in a witless sitcom part of the time, and lot of the rest of their time is spent running in slo-mo away from explosions, although–hello!–you can’t outrun an explosion.

Reading this review and others brought to mind another critic’s review that I had seen recently: the review of The Walking Dead season 3 finale written by Giles Hardie, the Entertainment Editor at the Sydney Morning Herald‘s website.

The comparison was not exactly flattering.

You see, reviews serve two purposes for readers. The first and most obvious is for people who have yet to experience whatever is being reviewed (for the sake of convenience, I will assume a TV show from here). Here, the reviewer’s job is both to give their audience a sense of what the show is about, and to say whether or not it is worth seeing.

The other purpose is for those who have seen the show already. Here, the reviewer is there to help their audience to process what they have just seen. For this reason, I always look up reviews straight after I see anything very thought-provoking. A good reviewer is there as an expert speaking to the masses. They can point out techniques used that most people would miss. They can put the show in context and explain how it relates to other shows, what its makers were trying to achieve, and what kinds of themes it had beneath its surface.

Roger Ebert was not just a good reviewer, he was a great reviewer. Whether or not I agreed with his assessment of a movie, his reviews were always entertaining and insightful. They were easy to read and, without fail, I would walk away with a better understanding of the movie.

That brings me back to Giles Hardie.

Hardie is currently trying to fill the shoes of Doug Anderson – the Herald‘s long-time TV critic, who was recently one of hundreds of layoffs that the Herald‘s parent company Fairfax Media made last year in order to cut costs. I can only assume, therefore, that Hardie is being paid a lot less than Anderson was to do more or less the same job. If that is indeed the case, boy are they getting what they pay for.

The review starts out with the sub-heading “So what happened?” It then proceeds to not so much “run” through the episode as “trawl” through it – he quite literally reprises every moment in the entire episode, pausing to interject with “funnies” like this:

Over at the prison Carl is angry. It isn’t clear if this is because Rick almost betrayed Michonne, if it is the first signs of post-apocalyptic puberty, or if it is because Rick called Shotgun on the road trip they are packing the cars for.

Get it? Because Rick called shotgun? Hilarious right!!!

And there’s the reflection on the episode, which comes across as completely brainless (I’m really sorry, I couldn’t help myself). For the benefit of those who haven’t seen the episode, I’ll give my thoughts on the episode, as well as a more extensive critique of Hardie’s thoughts, below.

I do want to say, however, that I do not have any animus towards Hardie. He isn’t a great TV critic, but not everyone has to be – I’m sure he’s not bad at being the online entertainment editor for the Herald. What is sad to me is that the online entertainment editor also has to double as the TV critic these days after the real TV critic is laid-off. Critics do an important job, and good ones definitely draw me (and I’m sure others) to a publication.

Publications like the Herald are taking exactly the wrong approach to the digital age. They are resisting change for as long as possible, then cutting their biggest assets – their writing staff. Fairfax is still delaying putting up a paywall around the Herald and the Age, years after everyone else did it, and its pages seem to be filling with more and more syndicated content instead. All that means is that when the paywall does finally go up, there will be no reason to subscribe.


*****SPOILER WARNING*********

So what did Hardie love about the season? The Governor:

The beauty of this season was they gave us a villain, a live villain, who could have his own character arc and ambitions. This was always the struggle while the zombies were the main threat, they are not only nearly inanimate physically, they are entirely unmoving as characters. … The Governor is a great character, who posed an evil-genius threat. He also gave a standard by which to measure all other evil, and this as much as anything facilitated Merle’s journey back to… well his own approximation of goodness.

Before I talk about the Governor, I want to address that Merle comment. I didn’t see Merle going on a “journey” to some kind of goodness, so much as Merle being the same old Merle, then suddenly going “hey, you know what would be a great idea? Why don’t I suddenly do something really dramatic and completely out of character, without any real explanation?” Merle’s journey was not facilitated by the Governor, it was facilitated by bad screenwriting.

As for the Governor, I don’t necessarily disagree that having a human villain is a good idea. The problem is that the Governor was about as one-dimensional as the zombies. It took a few episodes for the show to tell us just how evil and twisted he really was – and that was some entertaining television. After that, it started to feel like the Governor could just jump out in front of a crowd wearing a t-shirt saying “I’m a bad guy” and start mowing people down with an assault rifle and nobody would notice that he was a bad guy.

In fact, it took the governor jumping out in front of a crowd and mowing people down with an assault rifle for them to realise quite how bad he was. Here was Hardie’s take:

The Governor’s genocidal betrayal of his people was, well, necessary from a narrative perspective. It was also terrifyingly believable from what we knew of his character. That was the final chapter in The Governor’s journey from beatific leader with a room full of heads and a zombie-girl in a pillowcase to out-and-out bad guy.

I do want to say that I find the use of the term “genocide” here to be quite offensive. The Governor shot a few deserters. There are a lot of words to describe that: homicidal, sociopathic, psychopathic, insane, murderous, brutal, massacre, etc. What he did not do was try to wipe-out any race of people. Ergo, not a genocide. Genocide is a very serious thing and it’s not a word that should be thrown around like this.

Also, this little massacre was not “terrifyingly believable” and it does not complete any journeys. The Governor has been an “out-and-out bad guy” for half a season already. The only “journey” this may complete is the journey from a smart bad guy to a dumb bad guy. Until now, the Governor had killed when he wanted to, but had also been careful to preserve his power. Here we have him firstly leading his people into what can only be described as the Most Obvious Trap In The History Of Television (I mean, seriously! “Hey, where is everyone? I know, why don’t we follow this note that they left us into those narrow and unlit corridors  What could possibly go wrong there?”) and then doing the one thing that he could have done to show the morons in Woodberry that he’s not actually a good guy (see above).

Most annoying of all, the Governor then drives away with Unquestioning Henchmen A and B, without being killed. This episode was supposed to be the one where the Governor and Rick had a big show-down and the Governor was killed. There were so many options: dramatic shoot-out with Rick in the prison; Andrea lunges in a final moment of desperation; Michonne sneaks up on him from behind and twists the knife a little; Tyreece finally does something interesting. The writers were spoilt for choice, but instead they decided to keep this past-his-sell-by-date villain around for God knows what reason. Yes, killing him would have been the obvious choice and we didn’t expect him to not be killed this episode – but this is one time where I wish they had done the obvious thing.

Speaking of obvious things, I need to mention Andrea’s long drawn-out demise (and to his credit, Hardie did mention this one). The set-up to the situation at the beginning of the episode actually worked very well. The Governor torturing Milton was pretty powerful, the scheme of leaving Andrea tied-up while Milton slowly dies was clever and built a lot of dramatic tension.

Problem is, the show’s writers decided to squeeze every last drop of dramatic tension out of that scenario and then keep on squeezing just in case. This meant Andrea casually shooting the Breeze with Milton for a while, then looking over at him a lot, then checking on him – and more or less spending all of her time worrying about Milton instead of, you know, escaping. It even got to the point where poor Milton’s last words were something like “uh, Andrea, you should probably try and escape now”.

And THAT was good characterisation. Where a lesser character would have been screaming “FOR THE LOVE OF GOD! SHUT UP! NOW IS NOT TALKING TIME, NOW IS GETTING OUT OF HANDCUFFS TIME!”, Milton is polite and reserved as ever. It’s a shame really, Milton was a genuine, well-written character with a compelling character ark. I would have liked to see him hang around. This was another poor choice by the writers – there was no shortage of boring characters to kill off, why take the one interesting one?

As you can probably tell by now, I thought this was a very weak episode, capping off a weak half-season. That’s a huge shame, because the first half of season three was great. TWD has a huge amount of potential, it just needs to rid itself of the mediocre writing and it would be a great show.

I’ll leave you with the words of Jeffrey Goldberg, who along with JJ Gould and Scott Meslow has written reviews of TWD worth reading all season:

‘The Walking Dead’ Season 3 Finale—in 1 Word – Jeffrey Goldberg, J.J. Gould, and Scott Meslow – The Atlantic.

A post-catastrophe world dominated by zombies would be, if nothing else, an interesting place to observe. Somehow, The Walking Dead has made such a place boring.

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Gawker blogger gawks at high school teen’s humour

While trawling Facebook recently, I clicked through to a link leading me Gawker‘s Caity Weaver delivering a vicious and biting Fisking to an op-ed by high school student Suzy Lee Weiss in the Wall Street Journal in which Weiss complains about not getting into university. Here is a little extract of Weaver critiquing a little extract of Weiss:

Attention Students: ‘Just Being Yourself’ Isn’t a Skill That Should Earn You Admission to College.

The gist of Suzy’s opus: while some try-hards spent their high school career trying—hard—to build an impressive résumé so that they could get into their dream colleges, Suzy opted to take a more virtuous path; the path of just being herself and hoping for the best. It didn’t work. And that is unfair.

Like me, millions of high-school seniors with sour grapes are asking themselves this week how they failed to get into the colleges of their dreams. It’s simple: For years, they—we—were lied to.

Colleges tell you, “Just be yourself.” That is great advice, as long as yourself has nine extracurriculars, six leadership positions, three varsity sports, killer SAT scores and two moms. Then by all means, be yourself!

Suzy’s mistake, it seems, was interpreting the advice “Just be yourself” literally. Like perhaps someone told her, “Applying to colleges? Ah, just be yourself,” and she accepted this as an instruction to pursue no activities other than being herself.

Being yourself is not a talent. If you worked two full-time jobs all the way through high school and one of them was “being yourself” and the other was “trying your best,” you actually worked zero full-time jobs. It’s important to make time for yourself, of course, but you should be making other things in addition to that. Like goals and plans and effort.

By the way, why are “killer SAT scores”—a very reasonable requirement for college admission—sandwiched between “three varsity sports” and “two moms” on that sarcastic list of things college students “ought,” but could not reasonably be expected to have? Is demanding good test scores really as ridiculous as demanding participation in nine extracurriculars?

Right, a high school student complaining that having bad grades is a bar to university admission? It almost seems too ridiculous to be true.

Well, actually it does seem too ridiculous to be true. And that’s because it is. Here is the last paragraph of Weiss’ piece – also the one paragraph that Weaver figured she wouldn’t address:

Suzy Lee Weiss: To (All) the Colleges That Rejected Me –

To those claiming that I am bitter – you bet I am! An underachieving selfish teenager making excuses for her own failures? That too! To those of you disgusted by this, shocked that I take for granted the wonderful gifts I have been afforded, I say shhh – “The Real Housewives” is on.

Now it would seem to me from that paragraph that Ms Weiss did, in fact, know how she came across in her article. She is very openly playing the character of an “underachieving selfish teenager making excuses for her own failures”.

So what Weaver has essentially succeeded in doing is spend 1,000-odd words explaining Weiss’ joke to anyone who didn’t get it in the first place, except without acknowledging that it was a joke (I guess maybe Weaver herself was too indignant to get it).

What Weiss has managed to do is actually quite impressive: as a high school student, she wrote an entertaining article and had it published in one of the world’s top newspapers. Yes (as Weaver points out) her family connections may have had something to do with it, but it is nevertheless an impressive achievement.

On the other hand, Weaver is using her podium on a fairly widely-read blog (not nearly in the WSJ’s league, but sure as hell bigger than Major Karnage) to bully an innocent high school girl. For shame.

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How the ‘Kashrut Racket’ drives Jews away from practicing Judaism

Olive Oil

Olive Oil (Photo credit: desegura89)

Note for my non-Jewish readers: please refer to the glossary at the end if you don’t understand any of the Hebrew/Yiddish terms.

I would say it’s time to blow the whistle on this, but what I am about to write about is such an ‘open secret’ in Australia at least that the whistle has been well and truly blown by now. What has not really been considered enough are the ramifications of what has been going on.

I’ll begin with a personal story.

A few years ago, I was organising an overnight event for young Jews in NSW. As a matter of practice, all such events should be kosher-catered – clearly, not to do so would exclude all of the more practicing members of the community, which is not something that Jewish organisations should be in the business of doing.

For some background: the extremely stringent standard of kashrut kept by Judaism’s current brand of Orthodoxy (which is not the same as has always been practiced) mandates that people like the leadership of Jewish communal organisations cannot be trusted to make sure that the cooking is done correctly. Instead, all food preparation must be officially certified by, in this case, Sydney’s Kashrut Authority (‘KA’).

This meant that in organising the camp, I had the extreme displeasure of having to gain approval from the KA. Fortunately for me, a friend of mine at the time was a certified moshgiach with the KA and he had agreed to supervise the camp’s kitchen on a pro bono basis.

Of course, having a certified moshgiach is still not sufficient for Orthodoxy Inc., which requires the KA’s actual stamp of approval.

That left me with the task of calling the KA and asking for approval to call the camp ‘kosher’. Naturally, the woman on the other end of the line was *shocked* that we were contemplating having a kosher event with a moshgiach and not paying the KA. It wouldn’t stand, she quote a figure of several hundred dollars and hung up the phone.

The organisation that I was working for is not particularly wealthy. Those several hundred dollars were much more than we could afford if we hoped to charge a cover fee that our members would actually pay. I had to call back and practically beg for an exception to be made, given the service we were doing for the community and the fact that we were doing this in order that Orthodox Jews not be excluded etc. etc. I think we got away with it in the end, but I left the affair with a very sour taste in my mouth.

This story was far from unique. It is, in fact, just a tiny example of the extortion racket that the KAs in Sydney and elsewhere have become.

There is a vegan restaurant that I know of in Bondi, which pays thousands of dollars each year to the Melbourne KA in order to be kosher certified and so appeal to the large Jewish clientele in the area (the Sydney KA were outside their budget). Now, kosher laws only really govern meat/seafood. If there is a restaurant that is completely vegetarian, you can be more or less certain that all of the food it serves is kosher. Vegan, even more so.

Anything that is vegan necessarily complies with every single law of kashrut bar one. What one would that be? The one requiring large cash payoffs to the KA. This is how there are such arbitrary differences between what different KAs will and will not accept as kosher.

For example, for those following the Melbourne KA, here are the Australian oils you can buy this Pesach:

*Extra Virgin Olive Oil
*Extra Virgin Coconut Oil, *Virgin Coconut Oil
*100% Natural Extra Virgin Olive Oil
*Extra Virgin Olive Oil
+Arbequina Extra Virgin Olive Oil, +Fresh & Fruity Extra Virgin Olive Oil, +Rich & Robust Extra Virgin Olive
Oil, +Novello Extra Virgin Olive Oil, +Pictual Extra Virgin Olive Oil, +Premiere Extra Virgin Olive Oil
*Extra Virgin Olive Oil
+Australian Extra Virgin Olive oil
+Extra Virgin Olive Oil
+Extra Virgin Olive Oil, +Novello Extra Virgin Olive Oil
*Extra Virgin Olive Oil
*Extra VirginOlive Oil
+Extra Virgin Olive Oil
+Cold Pressed Extra Virgin Olive Oil, +Fresh & Fruity, +Mild & Mellow
*100% Natural Extra Virgin Olive Oil
+Extra Virgin Coconut Oil Spray, +Extra VirginOliveOil Spray
+Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil
*100% Natural Extra Virgin Olive Oil, +Extra Virgin Olive Oil Spray

As for Sydney, you can pick from this list:

P Premium Australian Cold Pressed Extra Virgin Olive Oil – Delicate
P Premium Australian Cold Pressed Extra Virgin Olive Oil – Lemon Infused
P Premium Australian Cold Pressed Extra Virgin Olive Oil – Robust
P 100% Natural Extra Virgin Olive Oil
P 100% Natural Extra Virgin Olive Oil
P Macadamia Oil
P Cold Pressed Extra Virgin Olive Oil – Fresh and Fruity
P Cold Pressed Extra Virgin Olive Oil – Mild and Mellow
P 100% Natural Extra Virgin Olive Oil
P Cold Pressed Almond Oil
P Cold Pressed Apricot Oil
P Cold Pressed Avocado Oil
P Cold Pressed Macadamia Oil
P Cold Pressed Olive Oil
P Cold Pressed Walnut Oil
P Extra Virgin Olive Oil Spray
P Cottonseed Oil ONLY when bearing a Diamond KA – Kosher for Pesach Logo
P 100% Natural Extra Virgin Olive Oil

So why exactly are, for example, Adelphia and Banaban oils kosher in Melbourne but not in Sydney? This is conjecture, but my bet would be that, similar to the vegan restaurant in Bondi, they could afford the Melbourne KA’s fees, but not those of the Sydney KA. I don’t believe for one second that it’s about ‘higher standards’ and not higher fees.

Why does this matter?

I’m glad you asked.

Essentially, keeping kosher these days is not an easy thing to do. If you live any distance away from the Jewish population centres in the major cities, you had better get used to eating plain chips and the tiny selection of chocolates and other goods with the official KA stamp. If you want to eat anything that can vaguely be described as ‘interesting’ – especially any meat products – you need to be prepared to spend 2-3 times what you would pay for the same item without the kosher stamp.

More to the point, if you want to go out for a meal, you are essentially restricted to four overpriced restaurants in Bondi. When you are at functions or parties, you have to either bring your own food or make sure that the host has ordered you a ready-to-microwave meal from Lewis’ Kosher Kitchen. For this reason, most of my friends who intend to keep kosher will still go out and eat a vegetarian meal at a non-kosher restaurant. Also for this reason, most of my other friends do not keep kosher.

The exorbitant costs of being kosher-certified ensure that there is little competition in the kosher catering industry. In order to remain officially kosher, new restaurants or caterers have to increase their prices and push-down their profit margins so that they remain competitive in an already difficult market.

Further, the arbitrary way in which products are designated ‘kosher’ or ‘non-kosher’ – not much to do with the preparation of the food, but everything to do with who the company has paid-off – makes the whole kosher enterprise lose credibility in many eyes.

In essence, thanks to the KAs, being kosher in Australia is both expensive and unappetising. The KA extortion racket is reducing the culinary choices for practicing Jews in Australia and, in doing so, ensuring that fewer Jews in Australia could be described as ‘practicing.’


Kashrut: refers to Jewish dietary laws. You probably know the word ‘kosher’ – same kind of idea.

Moshgiach: a person who is employed to supervise the preparation of the food in order to ensure that it is being done in accordance with kashrut.


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Reshuffling the gargantuan cabinet

Something seemed curious to me, looking at the list of new ministers in Australia’s recent government reshuffle:

Julia Gillard loads up senior ministers in her sixth reshuffle | The Australian.

The Prime Minister used her sixth ministerial reshuffle to merge the Department of Climate Change with the Department of Industry, creating a new Department of Industry, Innovation, Climate Change, Science, Research and Tertiary Education.

Dr Emerson has been appointed Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research – the role relinquished by Mr Bowen – while continuing as Minister for Trade and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Asian Century Policy.

Mr Albanese, a Rudd supporter who escaped demotion after last week’s events, has taken on Mr Crean’s former portfolio of regional development and local government, while remaining Minister for Infrastructure and Transport and Leader of the House.

Mr Gray, a West Australian with close mining industry links, has been awarded Martin Ferguson’s old resources and energy and tourism portfolios. He also takes Mr Bowen’s vacated small business ministry.

Mr Gray’s special minister of state responsibilities go to Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus.

Mr Clare, the Minister for Home Affairs and Justice, becomes a full cabinet member with his current roles. […]

Mr Albanese will be supported by Victorian MP Catherine King, who has been elevated to the outer ministry as Minister for Regional Services, Local Communities and Territories, and as Minister for Road Safety.

Gillard supporter and so-called “faceless man” Don Farrell has been promoted to the ministry as Minister for Science and Research, while fellow backer Sharon Bird becomes Minister for Higher Education and Skills.

Queenslander Jan McLucas steps into Kim Carr’s role as Minister for Human Services following his resignation last week.

Environment Minister Tony Burke becomes Arts Minister in addition to his current responsibilities, taking on Mr Crean’s other portfolio following his sacking last week.

Ms Gillard also appointed a number of parliamentary secretaries to assist ministers with heavy workloads…

I’m not going to even bother getting into the Parl Secs. Let’s have a look at that ministry.

Apparently the departments of Industry and Innovation are different from Small Business. We also have a Department of Higher Education and Skills, and a Department of Science and Research, both of which are different from the new Department of Industry, Innovation, Climate Change, Science, Research and Tertiary Education.

Oh, and apparently that mammoth “Industry, Innovation, Climate Change, etc” portfolio also does not encompass Climate Change, which needs its own separate department as well. Or, for that matter, Resources and Energy.

Then there’s the fact that “Human Services” and “Regional Services” are different — perhaps because regional Australians are not human?

One would think that there is some doubling-up going on between all of these public service departments. Perhaps the government’s failure to deliver a budget surplus, despite record terms of trade, would have something to do with this gargantuan bureaucracy that they have been constructing?

Nah, couldn’t be.

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Five reasons why everything you have heard about the Israeli election results is wrong

This is getting to me.

1. There is an even left-right split

This seems to be a the conventional wisdom, even amongst Israeli publications that should, and do, know better.

Haaretz: “right-wing to take 61 seats, center-left 59.”

Jerusalem Post: “Final election count: Right bloc 61, Center-Left 59 seats.”

Or in graphic form (which is slightly outdated – before the last seat had been properly allocated):


This is a lie, don’t believe it. The real picture looks like this (although I don’t fully agree even with this one):


Courtesy of Shmuel Rosner.

You see, Israel does not simply have ‘left’ and ‘right’ parties like we are used to in two-party system countries like Australia, the US, the UK etc. Israel has a lot of different factions, none of which the media seem to be aware of. I can only pin this down to lazy journalism and/or media groupthink. Below are a few of the incorrect assumptions that are being made in this calculation.

2. The Arab bloc

For starters, it is useless including the Arab parties in the ‘left’. This is because ‘Arab parties’ is not really what they are, a more accurate description would be the ‘anti-Zionist parties’. A lot of the Zionist parties have Arabs on their tickets, and Chadash – the communist party that is normally counted in the ‘Arab bloc’ – has Jewish candidates. Meanwhile, a lot of the Arab voters in Israel actually vote for Zionist parties because, believe it or not, many of them care about domestic economic and social issues, and aren’t just driven to destroy Israel like Arabs are ‘supposed’ to be.

The point here is that at least Balad and Ta’al, and probably Chadash too – which hold 3, 4, and 4 seats respectively – would never join a governing coalition with anyone from the Zionist left. That means that the ‘left bloc’ could win 71 seats and still not be able to form government, as 11 of those seats would refuse to join the coalition.

3. The right-religious bloc

Supposedly, 61 seats went to the right. The breakdown of these were: Likud-Yisrael Beitenu, 31; Habayit Hayehudi, 12; Shas, 11; Yehudat Hatorah, 7.

Once again, this is by no means a cohesive bloc. It is true that, while there is a very significant ideological difference between the secular-nationalist LYB and the national-religious HH, they are both on the right of politics. The other two, however, are not really. Shas and Yehudat Hatorah represent the Haredi (ultra-orthodox) community, the difference between them being that Shas is Sephardi (from Middle Eastern countries) and YH are Ashkenazi (from Eastern Europe).

Both are more accurately described as ‘interest groups’ than ‘right-wing parties’. They are happy to join any coalition so long as their demands are met – which are primarily that they continue be able to study torah instead of having paid work, be exempt from national service, have generous government benefits for having a lot of children, and generally have their lifestyles subsidised by the Israeli taxpayers. In essence, the left could deal with them if they were willing to accept these conditions, which has often been the case in past governments. It is a little dishonest, therefore, to include them in the ‘right’.

4. The centrist bloc

At the moment, there are four parties that are referred to as ‘centrist’: Yesh Atid (Yair Lapid’s party), 19; Avodah (Labour), 15; Hatnuah (Tzippi Livni’s party), 7; and Kadima, 3. The one party I have yet to mention is Meretz, which is unambiguously on the Zionist far-left and won 6 seats.

Here’s the rub: I do not remember any other point in history where Avodah was referred to as a ‘centrist’ party. In fact, looking at their platform coming into these elections, they would be giving Trotsky a run for his money. Shelley Yachimovich’s plan to save Israel seems to be along the lines of ‘put everything under government control, tax successful businesses, and increase the size of every public service department’. I am fairly sure that would make her ‘left wing’.

Meanwhile, Hatnuah is essentially comprised of former Avodah leaders who left Avodah because they weren’t being chosen as leaders anymore. I think that qualifies as ‘left’ too.

5. Israel’s new ‘centre-left’ sensation

Now that is in contrast to Yesh Atid. As explained by Michal Koplow, Yair Lapid was not running on a leftist platform at all. In fact, his platform was more in line with the traditional Likudniks than anything else – that would be the Likudniks like Dan Meridor and Ruben Rivlin, who were purged in the primaries due to heavy branch-stacking by the settlement movement. Lapid is actually much closer ideologically to Netanyahu than most of the current MKs from Netanyahu’s own party. He has also been running this entire time very openly intending to join a Likud-led coalition once elected. Yesh Atid are a centre-right party.

So what really happened?

I think Yossi Klein-Halevi said this one best:

Yair’s ideological challenge will be to clarify the political center and give coherence to the instincts of a majority of Israelis. That centrist majority seeks a politics that isn’t afraid to acknowledge the complexity of Israel’s dilemmas. These voters agree with the left about the dangers of occupation and with the right about the dangers of a delusional peace. Centrists want a two-state solution and are prepared to make almost any territorial compromise for peace. But they also believe that no concessions, at least for now, will win Israel legitimacy and real peace. Centrists want to be doves but are forced by reality to be hawks.

I voted for Yair because, as a centrist Israeli, I have no other political home.

Netanyahu, who accepted a two-state solution in principle and then imposed a 10-month settlement freeze, tried to turn the Likud into a center-right party, more pragmatic than ideological and able to attract voters like me. But the ideological right within the Likud revolted. Today’s Likud appears more hospitable to the far rightist Moshe Feiglin than to centrists like Dan Meridor, denied a safe seat in the Likud primaries.

The Israeli media is speaking relentlessly of an even divide between the left-wing and right-wing blocs. That’s nonsense. Yesh Atid isn’t a left-wing party; half of its voters define themselves as right of center. Instead, the rise of Yesh Atid affirms the vigor of the center. Despite the historic failure of every centrist party—Kadima, the last attempt, virtually disintegrated in this election—centrist Israelis continue to seek a political framework.

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I was pondering over whether or not to publish this comment.

Then I figured it probably deserved its own post.


Any race that puts itself ‘above’ others in any way, or worse, holy than thou, or even worse, just outright lie and follow a lie of being chosen is ignorant and perhaps the most racist of all. Your own ignorance is overwhelming on basic issues let alone ‘broader issues’ of religion. You say government is evil and should be kept out of our lives …then in the next sentence ..I do believe that government is very important for law enforcement and national security. Dear Lord which is it? You either have gov creating or enforcing law or you don’t. Which is it Mr Science/Law expert? You are farcical. Why not be honest? And just admit Judaism is ‘just another’ (of many) Race related philosophies geared mostly around self interest and on occasion, broader philosophy. Of which there are far better philosophical paths to follow and which are more developed eg buddhism. If a politician came out today and said ‘my people are chosen’, we would all laugh, yet for some reason such a view is held prophetic if it comes from ancient times. Grow up. This entire blog is littered with racism and ignorance.

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