Category Archives: Richard Snow Writer

Is a government just like a business? Not really.

3 July 2016

A day before Australia’s recent election, I replied to someone on Facebook who thought that a country is just like a business, and so you should elect a business person as Prime Minister. I don’t believe this is true, for several reasons. Let’s remember that countries act though their governments.

(i) A business has its main (not ‘only’ but ‘main’) responsibility to make a profit for its govt 2shareholders, which may be a few family members or perhaps thousands of shareholders. A country – and its federal government, which is the main agent through which it acts, has responsibilities to the aged, to younger people who are too young to be involved in its management or its decision making processes, or to the chronically sick or disabled. A business doesn’t have a general obligation to look after these people. A business may use disabled-accessible buildings, and may employ people with disabilities, but it’s not responsible for the general welfare of those groups at large.

(ii) A business doesn’t have to think about inter-generational equity. Governments do. Governments have obligations not to burden one generation at the expense of another.

(iii) If a business goes bankrupt, it normally ceases to exist (at least in Australia). The owners and the ex-employees go somewhere and do something else. Governments can go bankrupt (default on their bonds), but their populations continue to exist, perhaps in dire circumstances (e.g., Greece at present.)

(iv) It’s mostly governments that create infrastructure, and mostly businesses and residents that use the infrastructure created by governments. There are a few exceptions, but who built the roads we drive on, the airport in your city, or most of the ports around the country?

(v) Governments create the legal framework in which trade and business are carried on: misleading advertising laws, mechanisms to enforce contracts (the courts), etc. Business then operate inside the framework the government created.

(vi) Governments determine rules in which international trade takes place. You can buy a cheap lamp made in China (and a farmer can sell a bag of wheat to china) tariff free because a  government made a free trade agreement for you / the farmer so that could happen.

(vii) If countries or governments are a business, what sense do we make of activities which are inherently unprofitable – e.g. the operation of a police force? If you get bashed up tonight, do the police bill you on a user pays basis per hour to investigate your complaint? No.

(viii) Business usually operate on a one share one vote principle when electing office bearers. If I have 20 times as many share as someone I get twenty times their vote at the AGM. Could we do this in a democracy? Would
entitle me to twenty votes for someone else’s one vote? Not likely.

There are major difference between national government and a business. We should not confuse them.

A strange book: how lawyers helped justify torture.

John Rizzo was the second-highest lawyer in the CIA for much of the 1990s and early 200os. On several occasions he was acting chief counsel, when the top job was unfilled. Rizzo’s book Company Man (published by Scribe) describes how the CIA came to use “enhanced interrogation techniques” after the 9/11 attacks.

company-man-book coverThe first really important capture of an Al Qaeda member after 9/11 was a man named Abu Zubaydah, the head of logistics for future operations against the US. The CIA feared another attack on the US might be immanent, and they needed to get any information out of him. His interrogators found him an “arrogant,… twisted, smug little creep,” (p.182-183) who told them lots of old news, mixed with outright lies.  When using standard legal interrogation methods, and ‘playing by the book,’ Zubaydah’s interrogators were getting nowhere, they sought permission to use a series of nine harsher interrogation steps, from slaps to the face, and escalating measures up to water boarding.

Because the CIA had been stung by previous accusations of illegal activities, those in charge of the interrogations wanted to ‘cover their asses’ by getting a CIA lawyer to tell them their proposed methods were legal. That request came to Rizzo, who in turn sought the opinions of the Department of Justice. every proposed action was described in sometimes ludicrous detail. A slap to the face had to be with an open hand, the fingers splayed and hit below the ear.  If he was shoved against a wall, they had to have a fake,  flexible wall installed, so that Zubaydah wouldn’t get bone fractures. Further down the list, he might be placed in a small box that forced him to curl up, and then harmless insects would be dropped into the box. “Why?” asked the lawyer  “Zubaydah hates bugs,” a CIA official replied. “It will be something harmless, but he won’t know that.” (p.184-185) And so it began.

Lawyers in the DOJ managed to somehow convince themselves that something wasn’t torture unless it resulted in  pain associated with “death, organ failure, or serious impairment of body functions.” When the CIA needed to brief the congressional leadership, former POW Senator John Mc Cain sat stony faced and silent, and made a one-sentence comment at the end. “It’s all torture.”

I’ve described above what I consider, from a public interest view, one of the most controversial parts of the book. But much of the book gives an insight into the operational culture of the CIA, and how it changed over time. Covert actions, almost non-existent under President Carter, rose dramatically up under Reagan, and lawyers had to draft a Presidential “Finding” authorizing every last one.  People in the field wanted endless memos from lawyers telling them whether they could legally do various things. Even buying mules to give to the mujaheddin in Afghanistan needed a lawyers approval! It’s an interesting book, and I’d recommend it to anyone who has an interest in Guantanamo Bay, how the secret prison system came into existence or the general culture of intelligence organizations.

It’s a five-star book.

Burglars: don’t check your Facebook page in the house you just broke into.

Strange things in the news part 10

What happens when yo run off to a war you don’t need to be in, and then find you don’t like it? Some western teenagers have decided they want to fight with ISIS in the Middle East, but it’s not as glamorous as they thought. One French citizen has  written home , “I’ve done practically nothing but hand out clothes and food. I also clean weapons and transport dead fighters’ corpses,” Another wrote, “The winter is here. It’s become very difficult.” Another writes, “I’m sick and tired. My iPod doesn’t work anymore.” And another:  “I’m fed up. They make me do the washing up.” Some Australian Jihadies have been told they’re too overweight to be fighters.  It’s a tough life. You dreamed of being a Jihadi, but your IPod doesn’t work and you have to wash dishes. and then they don’t want you because you’re too fat. what’s the world coming to?

In the US state of Minnesota, a burglar was caught because he used the home owner’s computer to check his Facebook page, and left the computer open. The homeowner messaged him offering to return some clothes the burglar had taken off and left because they were wet from rain. When the burglar returned to claim his clothes he was arrested.  Stupidity at a whole new level!

In New York, an 80-year-old chemistry professor presented a Jewish Museum with a baby photograph of herself published on the front page of a Nazi magazine in the 1930s as being the most Aryan-looking baby in a competition. The photographer who took the photo back in the 1930s didn’t tell the magazine committee that the child was actually Jewish. Ridicule is at least one form of revenge.

In Arizona, a college professor offered credits to female students who agreed not to shave body hair for certain time, or male students who agreed to shave all their body hair and keep a diary about it. I don’t much care what you shave or don’t shave, but college credits??

Have you ever wondered how astronauts in close confinement with each other deal with B.O.? The international space recently station took delivery of a load of  odor resistant gym clothes.

 

Lords, Barons and fox hunting to create millions of jobs in Australia

Australia to re-introduce Knighthoods, Lords and Barons: will create jobs helping rich people go fox-hunting.

[Non-Australians may not know what this article is about. If puzzled, click here ]

Following the Prime Minister’s decision speed up the reintroduction  of imperial honors, newly designated  Lord Clive of Palmerston has announced  that  he will be providing thatched huts for any of his mining workers who currently are living in disused coal mines.  The PM applauded Lord Palmerston

Wikimedia commons / Owain Davies
Wikimedia commons / Owain Davies

“We’re getting things done faster than a catholic priest with an altar boy,” the PM said. “The roll-outs of Lords and Barons won’t be like Labor’s NBN. We intend to have a Lord in every city and two Barons in every municipality by the end of the month.

“Lords will be people of impeccable credentials,” said the PM. “Oil industry entrepreneurs who exposed climate change fraud, journalists who have exposed fake aborigines, and manufacturers of the suppositories of all wisdom.

“In time, we’ll have a House of Lords to replace the senate,” said the PM.  “The senate spent most of its time arguing about stuff no one really understood. Human rights or something. Our new House of Lords can be like the English one, and reintroduce fox hunting.  That would give a boost to the farming industry, and give jobs to unemployed serfs who could help rich people on and off their horses. They could form groups and go into the bush beating drums to scare the foxes into the open. On top of that, there’ll be jobs for costume makers, ermine and sable farms, and work for decorative jewellers. After all, to give the nation the lift in spirits it needs, the scheme has to look right.”

Lord Palmerston agreed the plan would create jobs. “It will take at least three people full time to get me on and off my horse. And the new Baroness Gina Rheingold would probably need the same.”

The Institute of Public Affairs has estimated the new honors system could create 2.6 million new jobs in its first twelve months.

Does Siri believe in God? It’s a definite maybe.

My interview with Siri.

Some of you may have read of the funny answers Siri, the operating system on the iPhone, gives when you ask her questions about her own beliefs. Somebody has programmed her to give very evasive answers about herself. I was sitting with friends, one of whom had an iPhone,  having  coffee, and just for a joke, I tried to ask Siri about her and her religious beliefs. Here’s what happened.

Siri, do you believe in God?

I don’t believe that I have beliefs.

Siri, do you believe in life after death?

Humans have beliefs, computers have silicon.

Siri, do you go to church?

I believe in the separation of church and silicon.

Siri, do you believe God is a trinity?

I would suggest that you address your theological questions to someone qualified to answer them, preferably a human.

Do you eat Pork?

I don’t each much.

Siri, am I a good person?

I don’t believe that I can answer that question.

Siri, are you a good person?

Who, me? Now let’s see, where were we?

And here’s the best: Siri, do you love me?

You’re looking for love in all the wrong places.

A day in the life – visiting Kenya

One of my friends is in Nairobi, in Kenya, This her experience of going to church there. Very different to Australia.

The Land of Increasing Sunshine

At last The Very Long Walk is but a distant memory and I’m walking properly again. It’s Sunday, so off to church we went, along with a fairly high proportion of the Nairobi population.

Religion is big in Nairobi. Historically, European colonialism and Christianity went hand-in-hand, and  for better or worse, much  Western aid is delivered via the churches today. Visually, the church is everywhere.  Large, smiling, charismatic pastors smile out from  large billboard hoardings in advertisements for Hillsong-like evangelical churches .  The slum areas along the main roads out from Nairobi are liberally sprinkled with small, congregation-built shacks with colourful Biblical names.  Gigantic white marquees act as pop-up churches, clearly visible from the air.  Hymns are often played in the supermarket and there are several Christian radio stations.  The matatus (passenger mini-buses) and buses often sport religious names and slogans.

Before I left Australia, I had tried to reach…

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If you think the Snowden revelations are only about the US and Germany, you don’t understand what’s happening.

The revelations about US intelligence gathering that Edward Snowden made public have had repercussions around the world, and not just between the US and Germany. The bugging of Angela Merkel’s phone has received a lot of press coverage in the US, but other countries now have problems.

SnowdenOne of the revelations to emerge was that in 2009, Australia attempted to bug the phone conversations of the president of Indonesia, his wife and his inner circle. As a result, Indonesia has suspended cooperation with Australia on intelligence sharing, and has stopped any cooperation in relation to people smuggling. (Boatloads of refugees often travel from Indonesia or through Indonesian waters to get to Christmas Island, a tiny chunk of Australia , 300 miles from Indonesia and 1600 miles from Australia. Numerous people have drowned when their boats smash on rocks near Christmas Island.)  At the time of writing, Indonesia has said that if boats are passing through its waters, towards Australia, they can do so. Indonesia won’t interfere. Australia will just have to handle the problem when the boats appear off Christmas Island.

The Indonesians are understandably offended, since we are supposed to be allies. Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country on earth, and one of Australia’s only three near neighbors. The truth is we have to be able to get along with them, because unless there is a religious miracle that rearranges geography, neither country is going anywhere any time soon.

Jakarta has said that before cooperation resumes, Australia will have to sign some formal agreement about intelligence gathering between the two countries. In a nutshell, Australia will have to eat humble pie, suck it up and promise to be good boys in future. The Indonesian reaction is totally understandable. Most of us know the Asian concept of “loss of face.” Apart from the offense caused by spying on friends, the revelations involve a loss of face. Indonesia has to recover ‘face” and to do this, Australia will have to lose some.

In addition, there is an internet cable called SEA-ME-WE-3 that runs from Japan, across Southeast Asia, through Singapore, across the Indian ocean, up through the Suez, through the Mediterranean, and round the coast of Europe to end in Germany. As the cable passes through Singapore, the Singaporean government has been tapping into it and giving the US and Australia the goodies. Jakarta has asked Singapore to “please explain.” So this massive intrusion, and its  exposure is not just a problem for the US.

The most recent revelations are that the NSA has been monitoring charities. From the Guardian newspaper:

The papers show GCHQ, in collaboration with America’s National Security Agency (NSA), was targeting organisations such as the United Nations development programme, the UN’s children’s charity Unicef andMédecins du Monde, a French organisation that provides doctors and medical volunteers to conflict zones.

So how is the average American taxpayer going to feel about that use of their taxes? The most recent extensive article about Snowden is here.   It contains this interesting quote:

“For me, in terms of personal satisfaction, the mission’s already accomplished,” he said. “I already won. As soon as the journalists were able to work, everything that I had been trying to do was validated. Because, remember, I didn’t want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself.  All I wanted was for the public to be able to have a say in how they are governed,” he said.

How will history judge Snowden? My guess is that as more revelations come out, the public will feel more incensed at the NSA’s  actions, foreign allies will be more incensed at being treated like enemies, US lawmakers will be forced to act on what the NSA is doing, and public sentiment will turn more in Snowden’s  favor. History may look on Snowden as it now looks on Woodward and Bernstein, the two journalists who broke the Watergate story, and Mark Felt, the Assistant FBI Director who for years was only known as “deep throat.”

It’s only an educated guess, but I think it’s a fair guess. What do you think? Anyone who wishes to re-blog this may.

The Butler: preachy propaganda or historical truth?

I saw this film just after taking a course at my local college about the history of the civil rights movement in the US. You can read the demeaning treatment of blacks in segregated facilities, or about lynchings (which often involved much grotesque tortures than just hanging someone), but movies have the power to make intellectual issues hit home emotionally in a way history books can’t.

The Butler posterCecil Gaines was born in the 1920s,and became a butler who served eight presidents, from Eisenhower to Regan. One of his sons dies in Vietnam, while the other joins the Black Panthers. The conflicts between the family members about how Gaines serves the white man, and has to pretend to have no opinions, while one of the sons decides to fight the whites with violence by joining the Black Panthers, must have torn many black families apart.

The film repeatedly comes back to the issue of equal pay. The black staff in the White House were paid 40 percent less than the white staff, and various “progressive” presidents, (including Kennedy) did nothing to change this.

The film is well acted, and the photography is good. Some critics have said it tries to cover so much history that it comes across as a series of postcards. I guess that’s inevitable when you try to capture one person’s reaction to all the major events  of a thirty-year period. There is no time to explore any one event in depth.  A lot of people under the age of 30 would have no (or little) knowledge of some of the events shown (the Freedom Rides, the Vietnam War, the Resignation of Nixon.)

I found the film’s subject matter often depressing, even tho the film attempts to end on an up-beat note, showing the elderly Gaines witnessing the election of the first black president. It’s a well-made film, and may give some non-Americans a bit of a glimpse into race relations and how they have or haven’t changed over recent decades.

The reviews are mixed. some call it “preachy.” Some say it is designed as “Oscar bait.” On Rotten Tomatoes one reviewer writes:

  • Think of it as a Trojan horse. Apparently harmless, it takes key myths about the land of the free and inflicts an impressive amount of damage.

That reviewer obviously thought the myths of the “Land of the Free” were just myths and needed debunking.  Another writes:

  • Manipulative and preachy, The Butler is redeemed by a sensitive performance from Forest Whitaker and the undeniable power of the events it depicts.

It would be hard for a film to deal with the situation of black people in America from the 1920s to the 1980s and not show that some were not as free as others. It’s good film,  but I don’t think I’d see it twice. Did it seem to you like propaganda?  Was it “Oscar bait?” I’d be interested to hear what others thought. Feel free to leave a comment!

‘Gravity’ with Sandra Bullock: In space no one can hear your ship getting smashed up.

Gravity Film Poster
Gravity Film Poster

The film ‘Gravity’, with Sandra Bullock, and George Clooney is a visual masterpiece. Set initially aboard the  space shuttle Explorer, Bullock, Clooney and another astronaut are outside the Hubble telescope  attempting to fix some technical problem, when earth control tells them that a Russian attempt to destroy a defunct satellite has gone wrong, and space debris has been scattered in all directions. The debris soon hits Bullock and Clooney, and the Explorer, killing everyone but them. They have lost communication with earth. Using the booster packs they have on their backs, they get from destroyed craft to the International Space Station, only to find it abandoned. I’m guessing the ISS crew have left due to the space debris problem, but that point didn’t seem one hundred per cent clear from the film.  They then try to get from the ISS to the Russian craft Soyuz, but Clooney becomes entangled in chords, and he has to cut himself loose, sacrificing himself to save Bullock, and leaving Bullock to make it to the Soyuz alone. She has 90 minutes before the space junk completes a full orbit of the earth, and comes back to hit her a second time.

The basic theme of the film is survival during disaster, so the plot resembles the plots of other films and books where people find themselves in earthquakes, forest fires, floods and other natural catastrophes. Bullock is on her first space mission, so she’s a newbie who has to learn and figure out things as she goes along, and because of losing communication with earth, she is thrown onto her own resources.

The photography of the space shuttle and the explorer with earth below it is completely convincing, although I found myself unable to recognise a lot of the bits of earth as views from space. Perhaps my geography isn’t as good as I believed. Large parts of the film take place in silence, since we, as the audience, only hear what the astronauts themselves hear, and collisions of junk in space are, obviously soundless. This adds realism to the film.  A lot of the camera shots are held for a long time, so the film doesn’t suffer from Hollywood’s tendency to give us a new camera angle every two seconds.

I won’t discuss the ending, but I can promise the film is worth the money to see. I intend seeing it a second time before it finishes its run at the local cinema.

So has anybody else seen this film? What did you think? would you pay to see it again?

best wishes – Richard Snow

My novel Fire Damage, an action thriller, is available on Amazon Kindle, here. The novel is based on the Japanese religious cult Aum Shinrikyo, which released Sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system in the 1990s. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can download the app to read it on your computer or phone from here. A paperback version is available here. It’s also available as a Kindle on Amazon UK .  Blog: http://richardsnowwriter.com  twitter: @Richard_A_Snow