Archive for April, 2004


April 14th, 2004 5 comments

Just a note that anyone interested in the issues of intellectual property and the Internet could usefully look at JSTOR: A history by Roger Schonfeld. JSTOR was the first big attempt to put complete series of academic journals (including back issues) online and free[1]. Despite a lot of missteps, JSTOR survived and prospered while well-funded commercial ventures failed. I’m pleased to say the economics profession played a prominent role, with the American Economic Review, Econometrica and others being among the early participants.

The success of JSTOR is an illustration of the proposition, put forward most clearly by Clay Shirky that the economics of the Internet favour the free provision of content by those seeking fame (taken generally to include anyone who has something to say and wants others to read it) over fee-based content created by those seeking fortune.

fn1. Quite a few commentators over at Crooked Timber have pointed out that JSTOR isn’t free or easily accessible to individuals, though it is non-profit and the charges for library subscriptions are modest – less than a single commercial journal in many cases.

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

Breaking the circuit

April 14th, 2004 7 comments

Since the situation in Iraq seems to have stabilised momentarily, this might be a good time to think about measures that could prevent a renewed downward spiral. An essential starting point, and a relatively easy measure, would be to dump both Bremer and Chalabhi. Every major decision Bremer has made has been a disaster, from the dissolution of the Iraqi army to the failed attempt at rigged elections based on “caucuses” to the decision to pick a fight with Sadr. The cumulative result is that the Coalition is stuck with a promise to hand over power on June 30 and no-one remotely credible to hand it to. The other party in all of this is Chalabhi, who is still apparently Bremer’s preferred candidate, despite the fact that he has zero credibility in Iraq or, for that matter, anywhere outside the Pentagon. It might not be feasible to remove him from the Governing Council, but he should be dumped from any administrative position he holds, and particularly from his role in the disastrous de-Baathification campaign.

My suggestion for the next step would be to send Powell to Baghdad to take personal charge of the proposed transition. Although he’s been compromised like everyone else in the Administration, he’s by far the most credible person they have.
Read more…

Categories: World Events Tags:

Does Gerard Henderson own a dictionary ?

April 13th, 2004 12 comments

In today’s SMH, Gerard Henderson writes

Few now disagree with the proposition that the international community should have acted pre-emptively to stop the Rwandan genocide of Tutsis of a decade ago. Few disagree that it was proper for the US-led NATO forces, without the approval of the United Nations, to intervene pre-emptively against Serbia in support of the Muslim Kosovars.

Both the events Henderson refers to showed the international community in a very poor light, for failing to respond to terrible crimes when they were taking place, but, as far as I know, no-one has ever suggested that the countries in question should have been invaded in advance, to forestall the mere possibility that such things might happen. i can only conclude that Gerard has forgotten the meaning of the word pre-emptive.

In relation to Iraq, there would have been a strong case for doing something about Saddam’s worst crimes against humanity in the 1980s. The only problem with such a proposal is that Donald Rumsfeld might have been caught in the crossfire.

Categories: World Events Tags:

What I did on my holidays

April 13th, 2004 7 comments

I went to the National Folk Festival in Canberra. This always gets me into the kind of utopian mood where you think that the troubles of the world would be over if only we would all be like brothers and sisters to each other[1]. And lately, it always seems to coincide with particularly bloody events in the real world, making me very reluctant to get out of this mood and back to reality.
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Categories: Books and culture Tags:

Monday Message Board (on Tuesday)

April 13th, 2004 9 comments

I’m slowly getting back on deck after Easter. For starters, here’s the Monday Message Board, a day late, again. Please post your comments on any topic (civilised discussion and no coarse language, please). My suggested discussion starter “What I did in the holidays”.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

You know your kid's a teenager when …

April 11th, 2004 2 comments

He sleeps in on Easter morning

Categories: Life in General Tags:

A missing gadget ?

April 10th, 2004 23 comments

Brothers and sisters I have none, but that man’s father is my father’s son

Most people can solve this familiar puzzle if they think about it for a little while, but only slightly more complex versions have them floundering. Yet the problem described isn’t much more difficult than naming the day after the day after yesterday, which (I think) most people can do instantly. The fact that such a simple problem can be posed as a puzzle is just one piece of evidence that people (at least people in modern/Western societies) have trouble learning about and reasoning about kinship relations.

I’m generally sympathetic to the Cosmides-Tooby idea of the mind as a collection of special-purpose gadgets rather than a general-purpose computer. The work of Kahneman and Tversky on probability judgements (also my own main area of theoretical research) supports this idea. And I’ve occasionally put forward evolutionary arguments to support the view that people are likely to overweight low-probability extreme events.

So, there is a bigger puzzle here for me. Assuming that the set of gadgets with which our minds are now equipped is the product of evolution, shouldn’t we (at least in some phase of our lives) be as good at learning about kinship systems as young children are at learning about languages? After all, it’s hard to imagine that we can be acting to promote the survival of our genes if we don’t know who is carrying them.

It’s often asserted that modern/Western society has a particularly minimal kinship system and that the systems prevailing in other societies are considerably more complex. This certainly seems to be true of the Aboriginal Australian systems I’ve seen described, but I don’t know whether it’s true more generally. Has the kinship instinct atrophied over time, and, if so, what are the implications?

Categories: Life in General Tags:

The good news

April 9th, 2004 4 comments

For Good Friday, I thought I’d focus on some good news.

First, the Indonesian parliamentary election is nearly all good news. It’s good news that the election was held at all, and was pretty much free and fair. It’s even more good news that the military no longer holds a block of seats as it did under Suharto. And, generally speaking the results have been encouraging. Militant Islamists did poorly and the success of the Democrat party provides a plausible alternative presidential candidate, Yudhoyono. The unappealing prospect that Wiranto would make a comeback as president seems to be receding.

The earlier elections in Malaysia were also reasonably encouraging is showing little support for radical Islamism. But here, as in Singapore, the system can’t really be called democratic until it has managed a change of government. Surprisingly, Indonesia seems to have surpassed its neighbours in this respect. Given the dire state of affairs a few years ago, with Christian and Islamist militias fighting it out, the military fomenting trouble and Suharto still in the wings, this is an impressive achievement.

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

Threaded comments

April 8th, 2004 21 comments

I’m considering adding a threaded comments feature to the site. You can see how it works, here. I’m in two minds about it. I don’t at all like the usual threaded comments systems where you have to open each comment individually, but this doesn’t seem to suffer from that problem. But it might be overkill for the discussions we have here. Any thoughts?

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

The Sistani option

April 7th, 2004 17 comments

I’m going to try hard from now on to avoid debating whether the war with Iraq was a mistake, and to focus on the question of what should be done from here onwards.

I’ve argued for some months that the most plausible option for a stable allocation of power in Iraq is a de facto two-state solution in which the Kurds get effective autonomy and a share of the oil and the rest of Iraq gets a government which will be dominated by the Shiites. With luck, they won’t try and settle too many scores and will recognise the need to keep much of the Sunni professional elite on side. The government would be Islamist, but not a direct theocracy like Iran.

The key to all this, almost certainly, is Ayatollah Sistani. He’s not the person I’d want running my country (or more precisely acting as the eminence grise for its day-to-day rulers), but he seems like the only plausible choice who wouldn’t be an absolute disaster.
Read more…

Categories: World Events Tags:

Doing my bit to clean up the blogosphere

April 6th, 2004 Comments off

I’m reposting this piece by Chris Bertram over at Crooked Timber

It seems that the top-ranked site on Google if you search for “Jew” is an anti-semitic site. So this is CT doing our googlebombing best to correct this by linking to the Wikipedia entry for Jew instead. (See Norman Geras for more details).

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

The back of the envelope model of the FTA

April 6th, 2004 10 comments

Following up on the snippet below, I’ve done an estimates of the impact of the proposed Free Trade Agreement between Australia and the US, as it affects merchandise trade. My bottom line is that Australia loses about $1 billion per year, of which $800 million is a net transfer of tariff revenue to the US and $200 million is the deadweight cost of replacing the lost tariff revenue, net of reductions in the domestic deadweight cost of tariffs.

This estimate may be contrasted with the most optimistic one publicised before the FTA was signed, a benefit of $4 billion over 10 years or $400 million per year, IIRC.

I’d like to thank everyone who’s contributed to the debate so far, notably Harry Clark, Uncle Milton, John Humphreys and PM Lawrence. The discussion has helped me to sharpen up my own thoughts. Obviously what I’ve done is very preliminary, and I’d welcome more comments.
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Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Conspiracy or stuffup ?

April 5th, 2004 13 comments

Perhaps the best informed commentator on the Shiite community in Iraq, Juan Cole asks whether the actions of the Coalition Administration which led directly to the current bloody fighting between Coalition forces and (hitherto relatively quiescent) Shiite militias was Incompetence or Double-Dealing . As he says

The Coalition decision to provoke a fight with Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement[1] only three months before the Coalition Provisional Authority goes out of business has to be seen as a form of gross incompetence in governance. How did the CPA get to the point where it has turned even Iraqi Shiites, who were initially grateful for the removal of Saddam Hussein, against the United States? Where it risks fighting dual Sunni Arab and Shiite insurgencies simultaneously, at a time when US troops are rotating on a massive scale and hoping to downsize their forces in country? At a time when the Spanish, Thai and other contingents are already committed to leaving, and the UN is reluctant to get involved?

As I read Cole, the answer is neither pure incompetence nor double-dealing for its own sake but the fact that the US Administration contains so many competing agendas that its policies are invariably incoherent.

fn1. By closing their newspaper, arresting a leading supporter of Sadr and threatening Sadr himself.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Monday Message Board

April 5th, 2004 14 comments

Another Monday, another Message Board! Feel free to post comments any topic (as always, civilised discussion and no coarse language, please). My suggested discussion starter – What does Easter mean to you?

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Selfish genes, selfish individuals or selfish nations ?

April 5th, 2004 18 comments

Following up a post by Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber, I wanted to look slightly differently at the appeal of evolutionary psychology. As I said in Henry’s comments thread the ev psych analysis is essentially “realist”. This is the kind of style of social and political analysis that purports to strip away the illusions of idealistic rhetoric and reveal the underlying self-interest. The only question is to nominate the “self” that is interested. In Ev Psych the unit of analysis is the gene, in Chicago-school economics the individual, in Marxism the class, in public choice theory the interest group, and in the realist school of international relations the nation.

All of these realist models are opposed to any form of idealism in which people or groups act out of motives other than self-interest. But, logically speaking, different schools of realists are more opposed to each other than to any form of idealism. If we are machines for replicating our genes, we can’t also be rational maximizers of a utility function or loyal citizens of a nation. Clever and consistent realists recognise this – for example, ideologically consistent neoclassical economists are generally hostile to nationalism. But much of the time followers of these views are attracted by style rather than substance. Since all realist explanations have the same hardnosed character, they all appeal to the same kind of person. It’s not hard to find people who simultaneously believe in Ev Psych, Chicago economics and international realism. One example of this kind of confusion is found in Stephen Pinker whose Blank Slate I reviewed here, back in 2002.
Read more…

Categories: Life in General Tags:

What I'm reading

April 4th, 2004 15 comments

I’ve been looking at an interesting report from the National Office for the Information Economy on Productivity Growth in Australian manufacturing (PDF file). Released with no fanfare (not even a press release) recently, it presents results which accord with everyday observation, but not with the ideological assumptions that dominate the policy debate in Australia. The approach used was to examine labour productivity growth in a wide range of manufacturing industries and use regression analysis to explain differences in rates of productivity growth. By far the most important factor was the use of advanced information and communications technology, with additional explanatory power being gained when the education level of the workforce was taken into account. Claims that reductions in tariffs would expose inefficient industries to the “cold wind of competion” (or sometimes the “hot blast”), forcing them to increase productivity and therefore induce dynamic efficiency gains got no support. The coefficient on the associated variable was both economically and statistically insignificant (negative in most cases) [1].

A notable technical feature is the point, which has been emphasised by Brad de Long that it’s not appropriate to focus on multifactor productivity when most technological progress is embodied in capital items with rapidly declining prices, such as computers.

fn1. A mildly surprising result in view of the Thatcher effect, by which average productivity is automatically increased when inefficient factories close.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Unwanted publicity for Australia

April 4th, 2004 23 comments

It’s depressing to reflect that everything in this report is true and that this was an election-winner for Howard. New Zealand readers, facing their own example of a right-wing leader playing the race card can be pleased that, at least for the moment, they are looking like good citizens of the world.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

A snippet on economic modelling

April 4th, 2004 16 comments

Economic analysis of policy proposals may be based either on first principles or on economic modelling. The proposed FTA is too complex to be analysed simply in terms of first principles. Nevertheless, a great deal of insight can be obtained from simple parametric models of various aspects of the proposal.

As compared to a large-scale simulation model, this approach has the advantage of clarifying the processes leading to estimates of costs and benefits. A large-scale model offers greater precision and the capacity to model policy outcomes for particular regions and industries. However, where there is a large divergence in estimates of aggregate outcomes between simple and elaborate models, this divergence is rarely a consequence of greater precision in the elaborate model. More frequently, the divergence is the result of differences between the economic assumptions used to ‘close’ (that is, derive an equilibrium for) the elaborate model and the economic assumptions used in the simple model. Hence, there should be no automatic preference for the results of more elaborate models. What matters is the validity of the core assumptions.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Worst case scenarios 4: Droughts and floods

April 3rd, 2004 4 comments

Another in my series of worst case scenarios. A bit more locally oriented this time.
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Categories: Life in General Tags:

Newsflash: sex invented in 1985

April 2nd, 2004 15 comments

This piece in the Age by Michael Scammell manages to hit nearly all my hot buttons at once. It includes generation-game garbage, postmodernist apologias for the advertising industry, support for exploitation of workers, and heaps of all-round stupidity. The background to the story, it appears, is that a clothing store called Westco required its female staff to wear T-shirts carrying a lame double entendre. One worker refused, and the Victorian Minister for Women’s Affairs, Mary Delahunty protested, with the result that the company abandoned the promotion. Scammell attempts to set Ms Delahunty straight on the subject of postmodernist irony.

The headline (not picked by the author, but a direct lift from the article) is Sex sells. Gen X knows this. MPs don’t. I know every generation is supposed to imagine that it invented sex, but not even the most self-indulgent of baby boomers would have the chutzpah to claim this insight as their own. Vance Packard was making hay with this kind of thing back in the 50s, and it was tired old stuff even then. In fact, the basic point predates the wheel. Hasn’t Scammell heard the phrase “the oldest profession”?

Then he claims that the slogan on the T-shirt “stop pretending you don’t want me” represents ” a dollop of knowing post-modernist irony”. If this is post-modernist irony, I’ll stick with the modernist version, or better still that of the classics like Dr Johnson.

But for all-round stupidity you can’t beat Scammell’s observation that it must be all right because ‘Westco reports a significant public demand for the T-shirt despite its seemingly offensive message”. Can’t he see that there’s a big difference between wearing a provocative T-shirt to advertise your own wares to members of the opposite (or perhaps your own) gender, and being made to wear one to flog the wares of your employer, who is doubtless offering little more than the minimum wage for the privilege. Obviously the Westco worker who refused to wear the shirt and made a fuss about it could do so. (In a non sequitur that’s typical of the piece, Scammell asserts that since this worker was willing to stand up for herself, there can’t have been a problem in the first place).

Scammell goes on about “grid girls” at the Grand Prix, and near-naked models at fashion shows, but these workers know what they are offering from the start and (at least in the case of successful models) are paid accordingly. If he wants to work out what’s going on here, Scammell would be well advised to go back to school and learn some old-fashioned class analysis instead of the 1990s postmodernism he apparently thinks is still hip.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Worst case scenarios 3: Climate change

April 2nd, 2004 20 comments

The big threat to the worlds environment as a whole is global warming. The best-bet projections prepared by the International Panel on Climate Change suggest that, in the absence of substantial action to mitigate global warming, global temperatures would probably increase by about 1 degree C between now and 2050 and by a further 1 degree C between 2050 and 2100.
Read more…

Categories: Environment Tags:

The interregnum

April 2nd, 2004 4 comments

I just attended an interesting seminar at the UQ Law School on the interim Iraqi constitution, a topic that’s been discussed at length by Alan at Southerly Buster, and more briefly by Ken Parish . I learned some interesting things. For example, the Kurds are supposed to be descended from the Biblical Medes [1].
However, there was no discussion of the topic that really interested me.

This is the interregnum between the ‘handover’ of power to an Iraqi interim government, due on June 30, and elections due by January 2005. There is then supposed to be a further interim stage before the adoption of a final constitution, but my problems start well before that.

To begin with, I don’t even know for sure who gets to pick the interim government in the first place. My understanding, supported by things like this article in Time had been that Bremer controlled this, but in discussion with the seminar speaker, Suri Ratnapala, he suggested (or at least I understood him to suggest) that the current Governing Council could make this decision. And since the legal status of the occupation depends on UN Security Council resolutions, it’s at least arguable that the UNSC has the right to nominate the new government. To add to my confusion, I thought I saw a report saying the US was going back to the UNSC to seek a new resolution, but I now can’t find it. Even the excellent Juan Cole doesn’t fully clarify the situation for me.

The next problem relates to the claim that UNSC Resolution 1511 permits US forces to maintain military control of Iraq. It seems clear that this interpretation will prevail from June 30, regardless of its legality. But it’s hard to believe that it can survive the advent of an elected Iraqi government, presumably dominated by the supporters of Ayatollah Sistani. And even with a US-nominated government, there’s every possibility of trouble. It’s hard to believe, for example, that US forces can go on arbitrarily arresting people and detaining them with no right of appeal to Iraqi courts, at least not without discrediting the supposedly sovereign interim government.

At the bottom of all this is my belief that the Bush Administration will never allow large numbers of US troops to be under the authority of anyone else. If this belief is right, I can’t see how a handover can be anything other than a mess whenever it takes place.

fn1. it’s easy enough to Google this once you know to look, but I’d never thought about it.

Categories: General Tags:

Worst case scenarios 2 – The economy

April 2nd, 2004 11 comments

For the next few years, the worst-case scenarios for the world and Australian economies involve a combination of rapidly rising interest rates and rapidly declining prices for assets, particularly in housing and construction. Such an increase in interest rates could begin in the United States, if investors (particularly Asian central banks) lost faith in the capacity of the US Government to bring its burgeoning deficits under control and in the capacity of the US Federal Reserve (that is, Alan Greenspan) to keep inflation rates low. A market-driven increase in US interest rates would rapidly spread to other countries with low savings rates and high current account deficits, notably including Australia.
Read more…

Categories: Economics - General Tags:


April 1st, 2004 2 comments

Among the offerings in today’s special edition of TidBITS, the long-running online Macintosh magazine, I found this item particularly appealing.

Canned Spam Can Can Spam with CAN-SPAM — Hormel is expected to announce today their campaign to can spam using their canned Spam with the aid of the CAN-SPAM legislation. Starting today, Hormel will print the phone number, email addresses, and other information about unsolicited email senders on cans of Spam along the lines of the “Have you seen me?” photographs published on milk cartons. Canned Spam buyers who help to can spam by canning spammers can receive cans of Spam as a reward.

Other important news includes a report that the US Department of Homeland Security is responding to the threat of Windows-specific cyberterrorism, most notably through Trojans such as Phatbot by standardising on Macs.

Categories: Mac & other computers Tags:

Worst case scenarios 1: Security

April 1st, 2004 13 comments

As a result of my Citation Laureate award and the associated write-up in the local paper, I’ve been asked to give some thought to worst-case scenarios for a range of issues, some global and some specific to Brisbane. What I’ve written so far is very rough, so I’d appreciate comments, useful links and so on. My first scenario deals with security and is, in a sense, optimistic. The plausible worst case scenario now isn’t nearly as bad as the one I grew up with – a thermonuclear war between Russia and the West
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Categories: Politics (general) Tags: