Category Archives: law

Religion is a very serious business.

It’s not always easy being an atheist.  Too often I get caught in religious debates.  The same old stuff comes out; Pascal’s Wager1, Darwin didn’t prove life came from nothing, so evolution isn’t true2, our eyes are proof of intelligent design3, and so on it goes.  As an atheist, I’m not one to jump down believers’ throats and shout at them to tell them they are deluded.  It’s one of the fundamental human rights as laid down in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; people have the right to observe their religion.

I don’t believe religion is intrinsically a rort. However I do believe it’s protected by the Law more than secular belief such as humanism and is easily corrupted.  Yes, believe in whichever deity you want and you should not be persecuted by the state for that belief.  I say “the state” because it’s perfectly reasonable for any individual to question the integrity of such a believer; if such a believer is honest with nothing to hide, then the answers should flow freely, as any statement of faith should.

Yet this isn’t what really happens.  The very well publicised Harold Camping said the rapture would occur on 21st of May 2011.  He was (not surprisingly) wrong, and not for the first time on this matter, either.  Conservative Christians in the US, UK and here in Australia oppose gay marriage using 2 common arguments as a basis; 1) it would undermine heterosexual marriage by removing rights from heterosexual marriages, and 2) the law (at least in Australia) defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.  Both these arguments are, to be fair, weak.

Now I wouldn’t personally mind this kind of debate if it were on a fair playing field.  Dare I suggest most religious conservatives believe it is, or if not it’s slanted in favour of the “homosexual agenda.”  If only it were!  Organised religion is exempt from discrimination laws; religious schools can expel students and sack teachers on the basis of being gay, pregnant and unwed, or even being nonbelievers of the school’s religion e.g. a Buddhist can be sacked in a Catholic school.  That wouldn’t be such a problem if governments didn’t give such schools no strings attached subsidies!

This is nothing short of hypocrisy.

For all that, my biggest beef is that religions don’t pay tax.  Religions hold the cards here, because in nearly all democratic nations, religions are exempt from paying tax.  They are assumed to be not-for-profit organisations.

(Now to be fair, most religious organisations are not-for-profit, but how do we know if the books are kept in secret, and religion is exempt from Freedom of Information laws?)

These exemptions have their basis in medieval law, when the church and state were cosy bedfellows.  The church even had powers to tax.  That may have changed since the French and American revolutions and the resultant separation of powers, but religion remains untouchable when it comes to tax. It’s unreasonable, and unjust.

To make things a little more fair, organised religions should be taxed like non-religious charities, trusts and companies.  If a registered religious group is truly not-for-profit, then nothing changes; they won’t pay tax.  If they do make profits, or accumulate wealth through property, gifts, bequeathments, grants and so forth, then they should have to declare their income, assets, fringe benefits, etc., and thus pay tax.  Like anyone else.  The same rules should apply equally to all.

To demonstrate the hypocrisy, the Church of Scientology was taken to task by a few individuals who believe the organisation is quackery and fraudulent, claiming that Scientology is not a religion but a philosophy.  This may be true, and as an atheist I have little doubt that the accusations are true.  However the means of attack against Scientology was about their tax status, not values or ideology.  The High Court of Australia ruled that Scientology is a religion and therefore exempt from being taxed.  Anyone can form a religion as long as there is a belief in a supernatural something, and cannons of conduct exist and are accepted by the believers.  That’s all.

I’m not going to try to figure out how much governments – and therefore citizens – miss out by religious organisations not paying any tax, but as a guestimate the figure would be in he order of $1 billion.

In the meanwhile, approximately $600 million is being spent by the Federal Gillard government to place chaplains in all schools; private religious and government secular alike.  The Victorian Baillieu government is injecting a further $200 million.  These chaplins aren’t allowed to teach or proselytise, so what is the point of them being there?  I can only see them as bargain basement counsellors with no qualifications at all other than to have a working with children check like this or this.  Seriously, no teaching, psychology or any tertiary qualifications are needed at all; equivalent experience is enough.  Far from being representative of the non-secular make-up of Australia, these chaplains are all Christian4.  It’d be interesting if an atheist was appointed as a school chaplain under the NSCP.

Is it not galling enough that that secular entities don’t pay tax and yet many are given government grants, or paid contracts to provide essential services?  How is it fair that a church can “syphon” off funds from government to build a chapel instead of, say, a computer lab for students?  How is it fair that an organisation like The Salvation Army can purchase a vehicle tax free to provide for a Salvation Officer or employee in lieu of income?  (In any other context this is seen as Fringe Benefits and is thus taxed.)  This is a double dip that no other business can get away with.

I specifically mention the Salvos because they have many government contracts to provide services to the community, such as employment and food, clothing and transport.  It goes without saying the Salvation Army don’t do it for nothing, but we won’t find out how much profit they earn from these deals because they are exempt from FOI because they are a contracted service provider (and a religion).

Why can’t a secular charity or organisation provide these services?  Well, some do, but without the tax breaks afforded to them that religious organisations automatically get, secular organisations aren’t competitive in a bidding process.

All this makes me uncomfortable.  I’m not suggesting all nonsecular organisations are corrupt, but they are certainly open to corruption and have more mechanisms at their disposal to cover up any corruption.  It’s difficult to prosecute when wrongdoing is exposed, too.  Such as when a private religious school principal and his brother were taken to trial for fraud, but they were acquitted on appeal despite the obvious rort.

It’s time to stop giving religious organisations a helping hand at becoming asset rich whilst they cry poor.  Praying should not be conceded to be a public service.  Religious charities should not be allowed to discriminate when they are contracted to provide a government service to all members of the community.  Most of all, it’s time for the books to be open and tax paid in the same way, under the same rules, that secular organisations have to.

1. Pascal’s Wager suggests it’s a good idea to “hedge one’s” bet and believe in God.  If God doesn’t exist, then no harm done.  This logic fails because there is more than one god.  Also, any god who chooses humans because of their gambling habits over their value as humans is vain and capricious and therefore not worth aspiring to be with.

2. Darwin’s seminal work On the Origin of Species isn’t about first life, rather how new species evolve from common ancestors by natural selection.  It’s not just an idea, but a testable theory with observable predictions, just like Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.  Further, debating anything in science using the premise “but x isn’t true” does not negate a theory in it’s entirety; just because science doesn’t explain everything doesn’t mean it can’t explain anything.

3. Human eyes are terrible at many things.  They aren’t like camera at all, and only a small part near the centre of the retina, near the blind spot, can detect colour.  Even then it’s not very good.  If the eye were designed, then the designer did less than a half-arsed job.

4. This blog here does an excellent job of dissecting chaplains in school, and why the commissioned report (which I linked here) for Access Ministries should be viewed as propaganda, or the very least, extremely subjective and biased.  Not one acceptable metric was used.

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>A drug induced lucid dream and other dramas

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This isn’t going to be easy, and it’s not worth pretending otherwise.  It’s more stream of consciousness than a thought exercise or well thought out opinion piece on one subject.
Inception.
Finally I decided to overcome my fear of a DiCaprio film.  Each character, bar Romeo in Romeo+Juliet, I saw DiCaprio and wilfully wished his character would die, and thankfully most of them did.  Christopher Nolan’s Inception would be the test, even though he probably thought the main character, Cobb, would have been filled by Heath Ledger at a guess.  I don’t know how long Nolan has been working on this film.
To my surprise, It was easier to let go of DiCaprio and see him as Cobb, a former “architect” and extractor driven by the desire to see his children.
A mysterious Japanese industrialist Saito (Ken Wantanabe) allows Cobb to assemble a team to do one last job, promising that should Cobb succeed, he’d make the charge that Cobb killed his wife Mallory (Marion Cotillard) vanish, so that Cobb can reunite with his children in the USA.  In Return Saito wants Cobb to perform an inception on his rival Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the son of the dying Maurice Fischer (Pete Postlethwaite).  Fischer is haunted by his father’s disappointment in him.  Keeping the massive business going is Fischer’s driving force to prove his father wrong.
Inception is planting a seed, a thought, in the subject’s mind without them knowing it.  By a process of drug induced sleep in which the extractor and his team share the dream with the subject, the extractor can find the information the subject has locked away in a metaphorical safe in their subconscious.  The subject creates their world, however each member of the team contributes to the dream to make it more plausible than reality, and by this process the subject unwittingly opens the safe or exposes it to the extractor.
The team consists of the architect Ariadne (Ellen Page), a graduate student of Cobb’s father-in-law and mentor (Michael Caine) whose responsibility is to create a world for Fischer, the forger (Tom Hardy) who researches Fischer’s associates – mainly his godfather and Fischer’s fellow executive Peter Browning (Tom Berenger) – to keep the inception going by adding another layer of reality to the shared dream.  Yusif, the chemist (Dileep Rao), is needed to make the right combination of sedatives to keep the team dreaming.  Finally Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is Cobb’s associate and lookout, searching for possible ambushes and other threats inside the dream.
But there are complications in this one last job. Cobb’s deceased wife “Mal” frequently appears due to Cobb’s unwillingness to let her go from his subconscious.  She feels betrayed by Cobb after they shared a dream together, in which she believes Cobb abandoned her in Limbo, breaking their promise they would grow old together.  As a result, she’ll do almost anything to make Cobb suffer in his inceptions, even trying to sabotage them.
The only way to wake from the dream is either by being killed in the dream, or by “the kick”; the sudden unexpected sensation of falling.  It’s Yusif’s job to make the sedatives strong enough to induce sleep, but enable any member of the team to feel the kick when needed.
Additionally each team member must have a token with unique properties that only they know about; in the real world they work as expected, such as Cobb’s small spinning top which eventually slows down and stops.  In a dream, the top continues spinning forever.
The timing of the dreams must be precise, as during a dream as much as a few hours can pass in 5 minutes of real time.  This precision is required as Cobb usually uses the technique of a dream within a dream for his extraction, planting a second inception in the second dream to delve even further into the subject’s subconscious by layering the deception but further dilating time.  Arthur as the lookout uses Edith Piaf’s Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien as an auditory cue to so he can induce a kick within a dream to the others.
Fischer is constantly travelling between Sydney and Los Angeles, a 10 hour flight across the Pacific, and this provides the necessary time window needed for Cobb and his team, including Saito – insisting on being a tourist on the job – to ambush Fischer into being an unwilling subject so that Cobb can conduct industrial espionage for Saito.  But things go awry very quickly, and every member has to think fast to find a way of avoiding the very real hazard of ending up in limbo forever, unable to wake up.
Inception is reminiscent of The Matrix or Memento. What appears to be real frequently isn’t and vice versa. It’s definitely not a fluffy film one would watch casually as it requires attention to detail and an attention span greater than a few minutes.  I enjoyed Nolan’s attention to detail; for example Fischer’s private jet in Sydney is registered in Australia (its tail registration begins with VH-.)  Also the detail of Paris and other cities is first rate.  The suspension of disbelief is easy (even if for me Cobb does become DiCaprio a little too often).
The story of Cobb’s wife, Mal, as the antagonist, and defenders – the parts of a subject’s mind which try to kill the the team and thus the inception in much the same way as a bodies’ immune cells detect and kill foreign invaders – ensures there is never a dull moment.
Well, there is one dull and extraordinary boring world; Cobb and Mal’s dream when they achieve limbo and survive.  The architecture is amazingly boring, uninspiring and copy-paste repetitive.  It looks like a grey never-ending Gold Coast without a single plant of any description. (In the real world the Gold Coast is remarkably unimaginative and dull with plants.)  As an architect in the dream world, the impossible isn’t, such as the Penrose Stairs (the most famous example being by M.C. Escher) which Arthur demonstrates to Ariadne as an example of how dreams aren’t constrained by logic or physics.
Fortunately Inception isn’t as boring or as predictable as Cobb’s architecture.  Right down to the the last millisecond.  It’s not flawless and it won’t win DiCaprio an Oscar (thank god), but it’s possibly worth seeing more than once since it takes a minute to understand the difference between dream and reality; possibly most of the whole film for some.  I’ll probably watch it again even though I know I won’t get the same experience of surprise and satisfaction of knowing which depth of dream the film is in.  I found the plot remarkably easy to follow yet is it solid and interesting in its own right.  Also there are some scenes due to the CGI or fast-paced action that would be worth looking at again.  Unfortunately for me, the cinema had the sound levels all over the place, with the score often much louder than the dialogue, which was very annoying, often distracting.  I doubt there will be much debate over a coffee about what actually happened after the movie.
4 stars (just) from me.
Who is the real Meryl Dorey?
It came as no surprise to me that the self proclaimed leader of the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN), Meryl Dorey, has disappeared from view after the NSW Health Care Complaints Commission upheld a complaint that the AVN “…the AVN provides information that is inaccurate and misleading.”  Instead of providing information to parents about vaccines – the benefits and the risks – Dorey and the AVN chose to be anti-vaccination crusaders, which is fine, but one can’t be an anti-vaccination advocate while spread mistruths, lies and the distortion of facts and claim to be giving a balanced view on vaccinations to parents.
It gets worse for Dorey.  The AVN is registered as a charity with the NSW Office of Liquor and Gaming, which audited the AVN books after complaints that the AVN wasn’t acting as a charity, or properly declaring income and expenses, as well as improperly fundraising.  The AVN has just under 3 weeks to show cause as to why it should be allowed to continue to hold its charity licence.
Is that enough?  Not for me.  The AVN and Dorey have been referred to the NSW Department of Justice for possible offences.  It will be up to the NSW Director of Public Prosecutions to decide if there is a case for Dorey and the AVN to answer.  I would imagine this would include fraud, deception and possibly stealing as a servant.  Also the AVN operate all over Australia and are not confined to NSW.  This is a matter the Commonwealth Agencies such as the ACCC and the AFP should be investigating in cooperation with NSW.
If not for the continued pressure by victims of the AVN, Australian sceptics, balanced investigative journalism by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Four Corners (using the BBC’s Horizon program the 7:30 Report and Lateline, and other media organisations, and a properly conducted campaign by various people, including Twitter users with the hashtag #stopAVN, the issue would never have come to light.  (Without wanting to pump up my own tires, I’ve blogged a little about the AVN before in oblique references.)
The legal and moral issues are not solely on the AVN’s shoulders.  Since way back many, many scientists and the organisations they have worked for have breached the public trust.  It’s now at a point where distrust of science is very high.  This is somewhat unfair in that it has been sham or ill-motivated scientists and pseudoscience that have brought disrepute,  not science itself.  Nonetheless, the public have turned more to woo, such as homeopathy or naturopathy.  However any prosecution of the AVN is welcome in a sceptic, scientific light, as well as a legal one, such as Alastair Hope’s Coronial Inquest into the death of Penny Dingle involving homeopathy.
It’s not the role of science to tell people how to live their lives, or in the case of medical science which course of action must be taken by the patient.  Rather, it’s there as advice for an adult audience to take on board, so that the pros and cons can be properly considered.
The difference between science and woo is simple; woo makes claims that can’t be verified and only have positive testimonies to back it up – negative testimonies are simply discarded – while science is a sceptical, logical approach, testing using the randomised double blind methodology whenever applicable and peer reviewed before being accepted for publishing by reputable journals (e.g. Nature).  Journals such as Nature or Lancet often insist on further investigations and trials before publishing, as they don’t want their reputation tarnished in any way.
So, back to Dorey.  Now that the regulators are clearly not happy with her or the AVN, why has she refused to refute the claims against her and the AVN?  Why has she stopped giving media interviews? (Self promotion has been her strength.)  Hardly the actions of someone who believes what she is doing is right and proper, I would allege.  Or perhaps her legal counsel has told her to wait to see if charges are laid against her, using her right to silence.
Despite my anti-AVN stance, I’m hoping she has been simply stupid, foolish, incompetent or a combination thereof, rather than being malicious and deliberately irresponsible.
Mad dogs and Englishmen.

It’s fair to say that when all else fails, hug your teddy.  I wrote about mental health issues, specifically depression, in my last blog, so I won’t repeat all of that here.  Instead I want to chronicle as best I can what’s been happening to me.
The short answer is it’s getting worse, despite doing everything right.  I’m exercising more; walking, gym, hydrotherapy all courtesy of Royal Perth Hospital’s LEAP at Shenton Park Campus for my ongoing rehabilitation of my spinal injuries.  I’m hoping that a fitter, leaner more active me, plus all the surrounding issues about chronic pain management, will mean more control and less medication.  In theory that should mean I should be happier.  Indeed the staff and other patients in the programme are very supportive.
Yet despite this, my mood is deteriorating rapidly.  I’m finding it harder to engage.  I’m not enjoying most things I’m doing.  Gym has become a little refuge as I can do that on my own with the physiotherapists simply looking on and only giving advice when necessary.  Using the rowing machine I can block out the world to some extent, and focus on the rhythm which can be hypnotic.
Today has been the first time in nearly a week I’ve turned on my MacBook Pro.  I’ve had so many brilliant (I hope) ideas for writing and I fear that if I begin it will consume me, as there seems to be a strong link between low mood and a desire to write a lot of material.  Perhaps it’s catharsis; writing somehow purges the darkest realms of my mind, or releases months of pent up frustrations or is simply a relief valve for my passive-aggressive habitat.  Whatever the reason, the end result is a counter intuitive burst of productivity to the detriment of my health.  There comes a time when the burst bursts, the fingers no longer type or the mind no longer creates.
If by some circumstance I become famous due to my authorship, the last thing I want is to be seen as a tortured soul or some tragic figure, brooding and dark.  Which is a problem since that becomes a voice that persuades me to submit less work than I should, or worse, not finish the umpteenth draft when I should.  The obsession with words is intoxicating.  The way they look written down, how they sound, the juxtaposition against other words. The interaction of rules and knowing exactly how to break them and when.  Knowing what’s clever and what’s pure compositionally wank.
That aside, the more tangible elements of my world are visible to anyone; the strangely teary eyes for no apparent reason, the pessimism, the seeking of comfort or solace in meaningless events, the total disregard to diet by either becoming unable to eat or gorging on fast food, unabashed anger over the insignificant contrasting with an impotence with the crucial, being unable to sleep for days on end despite a combination of exhaustion, sedatives and hypnotics, and dark thoughts that are both a comfort and alarming.  When the alarm stops the real danger begins.
Why write this publicly?  That I don’t know.  I’m not asking to be rescued, pitied, or derided for that matter.  There is some disconnect here; when I think of how I look and compare that image to what I think I see in a mirror or photo, the contrast could not be more stark, akin to believing oneself to being a thoroughbred race horse at the pinnacle of it’s career but seeing a dying elephant and knowing the dying elephant is closer to the reality.  A deep imbedded loathing of everything said, done and thought of myself.  A hatred of everything ugly and beautiful and not able to tell the difference.
Somewhere a long time ago the train derailed.  So long ago the reasons are obscured or forgotten and it matters not which.  The question becomes how to continue wading on in this waist deep rancid treacle that is my life.  A distant but powerful beacon tells me it will get better, it will, yet it is difficult to believe and harder see each time I see a glimpse of it.  These are the times I want to sleep forever.
Everything is robotic now.  I do because an alarm tells me when to get out of bed.  A timetable tells me when to catch a train.  A schedule tells me what I am to do for whichever day it is, and all the bloody days may as well be the bloody same because none have any joy about them.  Why celebrate a Friday when Monday is only a blink away, and the process begins all over again?
Depression is different for everyone.  The depth, the length, the breadth, the obstacles, the cycle and the outcomes of each episode.  Some may only experience it once (thankfully), for others they find a therapy that stabilises their life.  The possibilities don’t bear thinking about for the moment, at least they don’t for me.
Now I don’t want anyone thinking of this as a document of despair, or a hopeless confession or a cry for help.  In times past I couldn’t think straight enough to bother writing a suicide note, which was a pointless exercise anyway since my track record of suicide is woeful.  It must be since I’m writing this.  In any case I’m lucid for now, and acutely aware of the assistance available to me.
The unexpected positive is that I could not care less about any physical pain I have, as if it simply isn’t there.

>The New Gutenberg Press

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There is no other way to say this, so I’ll just go right ahead and indulge myself.
We are well into the age of the New Gutenberg Press.  I was around when there was an internet, at university in fact, at a time when the internet was only text.  Unix was the OS and C was the language.  Computer Science was still a “fringe” subject at the Sandstone University I was enrolled at: or at least those who did Computer Science were the nerdiest of the nerds and the geekiest of the geeks.  Real students studied maths, physics, chemistry, arts, law.  Which is amusing because that’s exactly what computer science encompasses now, more than two decades later.
While I was there, I witnessed the birth of the World Wide Web.  No longer were we restricted to text, or packets of data that couldn’t be viewed in situ.  And being the nerdiest geeks we could not imagine the political ramifications this subtle change with the use of the web would allow.
A tad over 20 years later, and we are now seeing governments trying, and failing, to control both the web and the net on which it resides.  Governments don’t like this: they are used to being in control.  They like us to have “free speech” but on their terms.  The Criminal Code Act Compilation Act 1913 (Western Australia) still has sedition as a crime, that is in broad terms to criticise the Sovereign (Chapter VII section 44)  (The Commonwealth of Australia has a similar offence listed.)  I particularly find offence in Chap VII s44(e) “To promote feelings of ill-will between different classes of Her Majesty’s subjects… is a seditious intention…”  To begin with I don’t believe in her god, that her god exists, and therefore she has some divine right to enslave me as a “subject”.  Secondly this law is more about protecting the position of the Government.  Further, what is this “different classes” notion?  I want the society to which I belong to be classless, even though I understand that in practice this hasn’t happened: to whit the plight of indigenous Australians, and the incredible stupidity of the WA Police to charge an Aboriginal child with receiving stolen goods.  A chocolate worth AUD$0.70. No non-Aboriginal child would have ever been charged with such a serious offence for a trivial item.  Even the owners of the 70 cents of chocolate didn’t want to press charges.  Finally after the outrage of sensible citizens and journalists overwhelmed the “bring back the stockade and flog them” shock jocks’ points-of-view so that the Police Commissioner Karl O’Callaghan withdrew the charges.
Now let’s make this point perfectly clear.  This child has never been convicted of any crime during his 12 year life.  More than that, various legislation means that imprisonment either before a trial, during or after a hearing is a matter of last resort, and in particularly with children imprisonment is the very last resort and then only after a conviction due to a serious crime.  Yet this child was locked in a prison cell for a few hours while the charges were being typed up.
Some may think “that will teach him a lesson”, but a lesson in what?  That being Aboriginal mean he has less rights before the law than anyone else?
So what this seemingly minor incident have to with the web?  Everything.  It is true connectivity and immediacy and intimacy.  That someone like myself can tell part of the story, that someone can google it or subscribe, that they can find out more because no matter how much any government tries, they cannot control the content I aggregate and publish, nor the thoughts I write down, nor who reads it.  I am part of a mass of millions of digital Martin Lutherers, nailing my list of aggrievences to the Church’s door, and by mysterious mechanism it becomes available to be viewed over and over again, cheaply, and in a way that is impossible to control. I know how this much idea irritates Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. and I don’t care.
Well, perhaps not.  If governments so wished, they could burn every single New Gutenberg Press they find.  Except now governments themselves have a problem: how to cheaply and reliably disseminate public information.  Perhaps governments could licence every New Gutenberg Press: an army of inspectors would check every piece of information that it publishes.  Don’t discount this: governments have a habit of creating absurd laws to deal with absurd situations they themselves have created.
I was lucky to be there at the birth of this silent revolution, and thus in a fairly élite group of people that have seen the rise of the digital culture and of social media.  By no means am I an expert, however by knowing how life really was before, during and after this new social order, I know I can survive if somehow the plug is pulled.  Which is more comforting than you may think.