Monday, January 23, 2006

I want to be like Kobe, like Kobe!

If you're a sports fan and you haven't heard the news, read on. If you're not a sports fan, this is probably worth reading anyway - at the very least to marvel at the spectacular skill levels of professional athletes at the height of their prowess.

Today, Kobe Bryant - coming off the back of a month where he scored over 45 points four times in a row, and a career high of 62 points in three quarters of the Los Angeles Lakers' defeat of Dallas - scored 82 points, as the Lakers beat the Raptors into submission, 122-104.

When you consider that the league leader in points averages around 30 points in the modern game (though since his scoring outbursts of late Kobe has boosted his average to around the 35 mark), it is an extraordinary figure.

But it is extraordinary for so many more reasons: because, after the crises surrounding Bryant and a rape lawsuit that he fought and overcame through 2004, many said he would be past his peak; because, after petty arguments made team conditions unbearable, and star coach Phil Jackson quit and Shaquille O'Neal demanded a trade, everybody said Kobe was incapable of bearing the weight of the team's leadership; because it's better than Michael ever did; just because.

This season, after talks-a-plenty with Kobe, Phil Jackson returned to coach the Lakers. Just this week, after advice from NBA Hall-of-Famer Bill Russell, Shaquille O'Neal patched things up with Bryant on court before the Heat, O'Neal's new team, played the Lakers. Perhaps these were the two things Bryant needed resolved, because today's performance is an astonishing feat.

Bryant's total beats nearly all records - only Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point total, set some 44 years ago, betters it. He becomes only the fifth player to record over 70 points in a game, and if his form continues, he might even do it again.

Regardless of what you think of the man, the team, or even the sport, Kobe Bryant's performance today is a remarkable display of human athleticism and talent.

Check out the boxscore here.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Look Ma, I got me some more bombs

Apparently not content with simply bombing the shit out of civilians in countries they're occupying, America has again branched out and bombed the shit out of civilians in a country that they heard might have, somewhere, possibly maybe had something to do with a bunch of terrorists they thought could have done some really bad stuff at some point in time.

As Carlotta Gall's report in the New York Times details, the bombing of a village in Damadola, Pakistan, was ostensibly targeting Al Qaeda number two man Ayman al-Zawahiri. Instead the strike resulted in at least 18 civilian deaths, including six children.

But the report continues:

[A] Pakistani official who spoke of Mr. Zawahiri suggested that the death toll was higher, and he said that at least 11 militants had been killed in the attack. Seven of the dead were Arab fighters, and another four were Pakistani militants from Punjab Province, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the news media.

News that America is doing what it does best - bombing targets indiscriminately and with information so shady it makes Don Quixote look reliable - is not surprising in itself. News that they're doing so in densely populated regions of countries they're supposedly on good terms with though, is something else entirely.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Soon you'll be reading this on a computer screen. Oh, wait

According to a report in Saturday’s A2 section of The Age, it won't be too long until books start disappearing off the shelves - and not in flurry of sales.

Of course, to readers of perpetually obsessed techno-lovers Wired or Slashdot, this news isn't really news at all. Electronic books - or "e-Books" - have been available to download for years now, and "tablets" - the portable devices with which to read them - have been the subject of the techno savvy's dreams for just as long.

Furthermore, this here article is only getting to you through the wonderful magic of the internet.

Still, as much as I - and, presumably, you the reader - have embraced the world wide web and all its marvellous peculiarities, there's something romantic about the tangible beauty of clutching a book, a real book with pages and scuffmarks and dog-ears - not just a computer screen.

I imagine the backlash will be widespread. Like the vinyl fanaticism that resurrected itself after the introduction of compact discs (and the supposed demise of records) one suspects that real books won't die out quickly.

In fact they're unlikely to die at all. Perhaps it's an obvious point, but so many great institutions - libraries, parliaments, universities and schools - have such great collections of literature that a truly bookless world is a virtual impossibility.

Nonetheless it would be reticent of us to laugh in the face of the encroaching technology too haughtily. The obvious advantages hold sound arguments: the chance, as Bill Gates recently pointed out, to spend $400 on a tablet for access to a lifetime of books instead of the endless costs of perpetuating a "real" library; the masses of space that would be saved by these portable devices; the mind-boggling potential for research and referencing for academics - not to mention the rest of us.

But there are sure to be more arguments not yet considered. How long will it be before pragmatic environmentalists realise the advantages of a non-paper based medium and embrace it with militant fervour? How soon will books become just another haven for entrepreneurial advertising companies, selling off strips of our viewing space catered to our personalities and reading habits?

So far, the issues being debated focus solely on the ethical considerations of copyright and ownership. But soon all this and more will come to the fore, and the e-Books debate will be suddenly complex.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Indonesia we love you

It appears that John Howard is about to sign away any last chance that Schapelle Corby, Australia's true blue and much loved convicted drug smuggler, might have had at a final reprieve - however slim that chance might have been.

As reported in today's Age (and here and here too), the Prime Minister John Howard is set to sign a security treaty with Indonesia after lengthy discussion between Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer and his Indonesian counterpart, Hassan Wirajuda.

Corby herself - equal parts stuck up "model" and western suburbs bogan - doesn't concern me too much at all. But where the US's insistence on "liberating" Iraq by any means necessary is taking the idea of forced equality and democracy to disturbing extremes, this bowing down to Indonesia - who have yet to prove any real commitment to human rights beyond a few cursory gestures to their western counterparts - is the other extreme, and frankly just as worrying.

My rather liberal, to say the least, views on drug laws aside, it is now universally agreed among tolerant, progressive nations that a fifteen year sentence for posession of four kilograms of marijuana is punishment far in excess of the crime.

This is but one example however, brought to our attention only because of Ms Corby's photogenic nature and frenzied family (not to mention their slightly insane lawyer; it was all a little bit soap opera-ish, really).

Further examples abound though: human rights abuses by security forces and the Indonesia/Australia/East Timor oil debacle to cite just a couple. East Timor's subjugation at the hands of the Indonesian army (with, unsurprisingly, the backing of the US and muted support from Australia) has long been an issue, but succesfully avoided the Australian media for some twenty-five years. Now things are - at least slightly - on the mend, and even as the actualities of day-by-day events call for objectivity in an arena filled with moral posturing, it's difficult to forget the atrocities that Indonesia have committed in years past.

Certainly, smoothing relations with Indonesia, one of our closest and largest neighbours, is a fine and necessary goal, but when it comes - as this seems to - at the extent of human rights, the issue is much more complex. The fact that the rights at risk here are not those of Australians necessarily is not the point at all: taking a stance and standing up for the rights of people the world over is something that would do Australia, and the Howard Government, an enormous amount of credit. Moreover, it would be a moral stance that few other states have been willing to make, but much overdue and extremely worthy of praise.

Alas, we seem to be heading in the opposite direction.

Monday, January 09, 2006

A disincentive for democracy

I mustn't be a very good lefty.

Well, sort of. I guess I am in that I'm all with the embracing the pinkos and hugging the trees (and I'm even a vegetarian).

But when it comes to waxing lovely about this wonderful representative system that we all call democracy, I'm a bit of a dismal failure. And not just because I adore communism or socialism (I don't, really). I really just think democracy's a bit rooted, to be totally honest.

We're an apathetic bunch, us Aussies. I hate to keep going back to Mark Latham as my starting point, but there's been little better analysis than his in recent times. In the Diaries he talks about politics today as rotten to the core with artificiality, "temporary, shallow and vacuous". The problem is that nobody really seems to give a stuff.

The public noticed the problem, raised a few complaints, then went back to watching Big Brother as the pollies all sat around on their arses laughing at the stupid voters and cashing in their governmental allowances.

People have been talking about the slow decline of social democracy, participatory democracy, for years now. The problem is that there seems no saviour, nobody who really wants to get down and dirty to do something about it. The politicians, as Latham so astutely and depressively announced time and time again, don't give a stuff. And the people don't either; that's the problem.

The general public seems to expect democracy to only take hold at election time. Vote in the people who'll suit you best and then switch off the telly (and the brain) for another three years. Everybody wants the chance to see in the government that they want, but nobody wants the continued responsibility once things start going wrong. And that's just the first problem.

There are further, deep, structural problems with democracy. At its core is a defence of selfishness rather than selflessness, despite everybody shouting otherwise. The flaws show up from the beginning, and when you couple democracy with capitalism, who can be surprised when the result is the most exploitatively selfish system imaginable? Democracy rewards those who vote to look after themselves and those closest to them; is it any wonder that the Liberal party keeps getting voted in?

Democracy is a hierarchal system of minute representation, where each constituent is given a tiny slice of the cake and told to hang on as tight as they can. It's no surprise then that those getting their hands on inordinately large portions all want to wolf it down as quickly as possible. In return, the rich get richer and the poor just keep on getting poorer.

And what about that tricky notion that we actually know what's best for ourselves anyway? Is it not an inherent contradiction? Sure, I know what's best for me, so I'll just vote in this group of bureaucrats to ensure that I'm told exactly what it is that I need to do.

I must have missed something, but it just seems a bit ballsed-up to me.

Of course, the whole thing raises quite a few ethical dilemmas: I know for a fact that I don't always make the best decisions for myself, but I'll defend my right to make those (sometimes misguided) decisions to my last breath. And I guess that's what democracy is really for: our chance to make the decisions that basically just fuck ourselves over.

But what about the others being fucked by our decisions? Those who can't stand up for themselves, or just don't know how?

When the system's skewed so far towards helping those who help themselves, what becomes of the helpless?