Archive for November, 2004

Postmodern spam

November 16th, 2004 1 comment

The latest trend in comment spam, at least on my blog, is self-referential stuff of the form

2 much spam in here 🙁

The links appear to be to sites that try to download viruses or spyware as .exe files (having a Mac, I’m largely immune, so I sometimes do risky things like clicking on dubious links).

Categories: Mac & other computers Tags:

Glass houses

November 16th, 2004 10 comments

If I were called Tim Dick, I don’t think I’d write columns making fun of men called John.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Monday Message Board

November 15th, 2004 19 comments

I’m already getting polite reminders that it’s time for the Monday message board, where you are invited to post your thoughts on any topic. Civilised discussion and no coarse language please.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Iraq: A War of Liberation

November 14th, 2004 23 comments

Supporters of both sides in the war in Iraq, and particularly those who are or were associated with the left, have described it as a “war of liberation”. Here, for example, is John Pilger and here is Norman Geras. Presumably Geras and Pilger each think the other is wrong.

The obvious position for an opponent of the war is that both are wrong. On reflection though, I think that Geras and Pilger are both right.
Read more…

Categories: World Events Tags:

What I’m reading

November 14th, 2004 28 comments

Contact by Carl Sagan. It’s a novel (his only one?), now apparently out of print, about contact with extra-terrestrial intelligence. I’ve decided to start a process of discarding books I’m never going to read again, and I recall finding this one a bit disappointing the first time I read it, so it’s a candidate for the recycle bin. I’m only a couple of chapters in, and it starts off well enough, so maybe I’ll keep it.

This got me thinking about SETI in its various manifestations. It’s of interest as a distributed computing project, but I don’t know much about that side of things. More relevantly, I think the fact that nearly all the visible sky has been searched for radio signals, with no result, leads to some interesting and disturbing thoughts. A useful place to start is the (in)famous Drake Equation, which might be better referred to as the Drake Identity.

I won’t spell out the details, except to say that I think we can now assert, with high confidence that there are many planets (billions) and very few radio-using civilisations (probably none within thousands of light years of us[1]).

One implication that is fairly solid, I think, is that, either intelligent (radio-using) life arises extremely rarely (say once per galaxy) or interstellar travel is impossible. Otherwise some species would have colonised some planet in our neighbourhood. Either way, it seems certain that we will never have either physical contact or meaningful two-way communication with any other species.

The other implication is that radio-using civilisations either don’t arise often or don’t last long. I tend to favor the first implication. Even now, it would probably be possible for humans to set up a radio beacon in space that would last more or less indefinitely, and would serve as a permanent memorial if we managed to blow ourselves up (or back to the Stone Age). But even with civilisations lasting 100 000 years and arising on thousands of planets in our galaxy, the chances of actual contact (say, two civilisations existing simultaneously within 100 light years of other) would be minuscule.

fn1. In reference to planets a thousand light years away, it would be more precise to say that there were none a thousand years ago.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Parkinson’s Law

November 13th, 2004 48 comments

Tony Parkinson raises an important issue as to whether the principle of not bombing civilian targets can survive conflicts like that in Fallujah. But in rightly condemning the tactics of the insurgents, he makes absurd claims on behalf of the Americans, who are already violating this principle on a massive scale. Estimates of civilian fatalities, mostly arising from American bombing range from a minimum of 15 000 (these are deaths credibly reported in news media) to 100 000 (based on a recent population survey). In this context, something like this is just absurd

The Americans, in conjunction with Iraqi officials, have steadily built up networks of informers in the Sunni cities. They have trained small, mobile units to set up sophisticated aerial and ground surveillance, and have been studying extensively the counter-terrorism methods used by the British and Israelis in urban settings. Here is perhaps where comparisons with, say, Grozny, begin to falter.

Far from having sophisticated networks of informers, the Americans have consistently shown that they lack even basic knowledge about the insurgents, even in places like Baghdad which are more or less under their control. They don’t know who the insurgents are or what their objectives might be, let alone where to find them. They had no idea how many were in Fallujah, or whether the (unidentified except for Zarqawi) leaders had stayed or fled.

Yet in the leadup to the Fallujah assault, the Americans mounted nightly bombing raids, supposedly on targets precisely identified by intelligence in a city to which they had had no access for months. The targets included restaurants and many private homes. It’s obvious that the claims about intelligence were lies, used to justify a major breach of international law. The Americans were bombing to wear down the resistance of the locals, hitting any target that might possibly have an insurgent connection, regardless of civilian casualties. There is only one word for the practice of using bombs, aimed at civilian targets, to terrify your enemies into submission.

If Parkinson had really been concerned about the principle of excluding civilian targets, he would have opposed the war from the outset, or at least from the point, some months ago when the Americans started using air raids in an occupied country, a clear breach of all the relevant laws and conventions.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Weekend reflections

November 12th, 2004 17 comments

This is your chance to make comments on any topic of your choosing, to be written and read at the leisurely pace of the weekend. I welcome pieces a little longer than the usual comments, but not full-length essays. If you want to draw attention to something longer, try an extract or summary with a link. As usual, civilised discussion and no coarse language.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

The greatest of crimes

November 11th, 2004 19 comments

November 11 marks the armistice that was supposed to bring an end to the Great War in 1918. In fact, it was little more than a temporary and partial truce in a war that has continued, in one form or another, until the present. Hitler’s War and the various Cold War conflicts were direct continuations of the first Great War, and we are even now dealing with the consequences of the Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot agreement.

The Great War was at the root of most of the catastrophes that befell the human race in the 20th century. Communism, Nazism and various forms of virulent nationalism all derived their justification from the ten million dead of 1914-18. Even the apparently hopeful projects that emerged from the war, from the League of Nations to the creation of new states like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia ended in failure or worse. And along with war, conquest and famine came the pestilence of the Spanish Flu, which killed many more millions[1].

And yet this catastrophe was brought about under the leadership of politicians remarkable for their ordinariness. Nothing about Lloyd George, Clemenceau, Bethmann Holllweg or the other leaders on both sides marks them out for the company of Attila or Tamerlane or Stalin. How could men like these continue grinding their populations through years of pointless slaughter, and what led people to follow them? In retrospect, it is surely clear that both sides would have been better if peace had been made on the basis of any of the proposals put up in 1917 on the general basis of of “no annexations or indemnities”. The same was true, in reality, at any time from the outbreak of war in 1914 until the final collapse of the Central Powers, and even then the terms of 1917 would have been better for all than those of Versailles.We should think about this every time we are called to war with sweet-sounding slogans.

War is among the greatest of crimes. It may be the lesser evil on rare occasions, but it is always a crime. On Remembrance Day and always, this is what we should remember.

fn1. It’s not clear whether the War exacerbated the pandemic, for example through massive movements of people and widespread privation. But it seems right to consider them together when we remember the War.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

US trade deficit

November 11th, 2004 7 comments

The US trade deficit came in marginally lower in September, but still above $US50 billion. There’s some evidence that the appreciation against the euro over the last four years is finally having an effect, and the more recent decline of the dollar to record-low levels against the euro may have more. But the improvement also included some surprising features like a decline in the value of oil imports, unlikely to be repeated any time soon. As General Glut notes

September’s trade deficit was still the third largest in history. The four largest in history have all occurred over the past four months.
He has a lot more posts with useful and interesting details

Categories: Economics - General Tags:


November 10th, 2004 23 comments

For those with fond memory of the good old days of university student politics (and for that matter, for any younger readers who are still looking forward to these delights) the blogosphere brings you Pandagate, a ripping yarn which combines all the usual fun of the fair, including incomprehensible diatribes and juvenile electoral dirty tricks, with the Internet refinement of spurious identities. An added bonus is observing supposedly serious journalist, Andrew Bolt, join the fray, exchanging vitriolic emails with a spurious prankster. Robert Corr’s Kick & Scream is a good place to start.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Risk and government

November 10th, 2004 5 comments

I was in Canberra on Monday, giving a talk at a symposium for the Academy of Social Sciences on Government and the Risk Society. Those interested can click on the link for the PowerPoint presentation. As is my current pattern, I’m promising to write it up as a paper, in due course.

Also, I talked to a workshop here in Brisbane about abolishing our fuel subsidy and using the proceeds to finance infrastructure investments. As I well, I did my usual critique of Public-Private Partnerships. For this one, I’ve already written the paper, which is here.


Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Whole language (crossposted at CT)

November 10th, 2004 60 comments

I have no particular axe to grind in the war between advocates of whole language and phonics as methods of teaching reading. In the spirit of wishy-washy compromise, I suspect that both have their place.

But it strikes me as a rather odd feature of the debate that advocates of phonics should also be the ones most concerned about spelling. The vast majority of spelling errors arise from the use of the obvious phonetic spelling rather than the “correct” spelling that is part of the whole language. So one of the costs of the phonic approach is the need to learn, by rote, the vast number of exceptions and special cases that make spelling English such a miserable experience for the uninitiated.

Phonics phans never seem to recognise this.
Read more…

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Legitimate spammers

November 9th, 2004 8 comments

It’s not the death penalty as demanded by Stephen Landsburg for hackers, but the nine-year sentence handed down to megaspammer Jeremy Jaynes should mark the beginning of the end for spammers physically located in the US. But that’s small comfort, since spam can be sent from anywhere. A less mobile target can be found in the businesses that ultimately sell stuff through spam. These include some very large firms indeed.

Read more…

Categories: Mac & other computers Tags:

A Soviet-style election ?

November 9th, 2004 52 comments

With Fallujah being pounded to bits, jihadi and insurgent attacks everywhere and a state of emergency, this may seem like a bad time to discuss the Iraqi elections, but there’s no reason to suppose that there’s going to be a better one.

In the Washington Post, Marina Ottaway develops concerns I’ve expressed previously about the possibility that the Iraqi election will degenerate into a Yes-No vote on a unified slate of candidates with a predetermined sharing of the spoils (thanks to Jack Strocchi for the link). Apparently the US Embassy/shadow government is backing this idea. It seems unbelievable that anyone on the US side could see this as a good idea (of course, it makes great sense for Allawi who would be wiped out in a competitive election), but this kind of thing has been the pattern at every previous stage of the occupation

Categories: World Events Tags:

Monday Message Board

November 8th, 2004 31 comments

It’s time for the Monday message board, where you are invited to post your thoughts on any topic. Civilised discussion and no coarse language please.

Reader Mark Upcher has suggested that this item be moved to the weekend, when readers might have a bit more free time. In the spirit of free competition, I plan to run both for a while. The weekend board might be a better one for longish, more reflective, pieces.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

What I’ve been reading

November 7th, 2004 11 comments

Queen Victoria by Lytton Strachey. The dustjacket quotes a contemporary as saying that Strachey’s Victoria will become the Victoria, displacing the earlier myth, and this is indeed correct. I was watching an ABC documentary a week or so ago, and it could have been taken directly from Strachey.
Read more…

Categories: World Events Tags:

A tiny bit of good news

November 6th, 2004 13 comments

Putin has signed the Kyoto protocol, which brings it into force. For the foreseeable future, constructive international action of this kind is going to have to be undertaken without the support of the United States, and therefore of US client states like Australia. However, a designed system of emission credits and taxes may put pressure on non-ratifying countries to cut their emissions – Howard has promised that Australia will do this anyway, which doesn’t make much sense as far as I can see.

Categories: Environment Tags:

New on the website

November 6th, 2004 2 comments

I’ve been working on the website, putting up most of my journal articles from 2004. I’d appreciate any info on broken links, comments on possible improvements and, of course, substantive comments on the papers themselves.

I’ve also added the following newspaper articles from the leadup to the Australian election

* Time to recast health roles Australian Financial Review,23 September 2004.

* Demonising the greens Australian Financial Review,9 September 2004.

* Labor must stand firm Australian Financial Review,26 August 2004.

* Doubters warm to detail Australian Financial Review,12 August 2004.

* Don’t fear a greens senate Australian Financial Review,29 July 2004.

My Fin column on the US election is up at Australian Policy Online

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

Keeping track of stuff

November 6th, 2004 7 comments

In the aftermath of the elections, it doesn’t look as if anyone in government will be calling on me for frank and fearless advice[1] any time soon. So this seems like a good time to get my records in order. My piece on time management elicited some follow-up discussion along these lines, notably here, with followup here . For those who are looking for moderately constructive routine activities in the wake of recent catastrophes, here are some (not very organised) thoughts.
Read more…

Categories: World Events Tags:


November 5th, 2004 15 comments

According to numerous reports, Yasser Arafat is near death. I don’t wish him ill, but I hope that, should he recover, he will not return as Palestinian President or in any other active political role. With the break between Sharon and the expansionist settlers over the Gaza withdrawal approaching the critical point, a new Palestinian leadership that can distance itself from the failures and crimes of the past, is exactly what is needed if there is to be a chance of a successful resolution. Of course, there’s no guarantee that this is what will happen – chaos or Hamas could easily emerge to replace Arafat.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Would Gephardt have won ?

November 4th, 2004 35 comments

Most of the post-election discussion I’ve seen has focused on the impact of religion, and quite a few commentators have suggested that the Democrats need to shift their policies to appeal more to religiously-motivated voters. This approach would entail some fairly substantial compromises in the search for marginal votes.

If we’re the mood for pragmatic populism, there’s a policy option that might well have delivered the Democrats the election, without the risk of fracturing the Democratic base as an appeal to the religious right would have done. That option is protectionism, of the kind espoused during the campaign by Gephardt[1]. Gephardt had his electoral problems, but I think he could have carried Ohio and his home state of Missouri, as well as having a good chance in West Virginia and even Indiana. He might have lost some coastal states but overall he would have had a better chance of a majority in both the popular vote and the electoral college.
Read more…

Categories: World Events Tags:

The next four years: realistic version

November 4th, 2004 32 comments

While I’ve tried to be open to more optimistic possibilities, it’s far more likely that the second Bush Administration will be more of the same, and worse. The problem for the winners is that the consequences of the Administration’s policies, still debatable in 2004, will be grimly evident by 2008, and there will be no one but Republicans to take the blame. In purely partisan terms, as I argued several times before the election, this was a good one to lose.
Read more…

Categories: World Events Tags:

The optimistic scenario

November 3rd, 2004 23 comments

At this stage, as I’ve said, I think a Kerry victory would produce the worst of all possible worlds – responsibility without power. The alternative looks awful, but I thought I’d sketch out the optimistic scenario, which is, roughly speaking, a repeat of Reagan’s second term.

In his first term, Reagan was, in many respects, worse than Bush has been. His buildup of nuclear weapons, undertaken with the support of advisers such as Perle, ran a severe risk of destroying the entire world. In economic policy, he discarded the mainstream Republican economic advisers and went for what George Bush senior called “voodoo economics”, massive tax cuts undertaken on the basis of the supply-side economic theories of people like Arthur Laffer and Jude Wanniski. This produced a peak deficit equal to 6.2 per cent of GDP in 1984, considerably higher than the peak under Bush so far.

In his second term, Reagan ignored his foreign policy advisers and signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Gorbachev. Whereas Perle and others saw Reagan’s rhetoric about bargaining from a position of strength as mere words, covering the creation of a nuclear capacity that could fight and win the inevitable showdown with Russia, Reagan actually believed it, and when he found a suitable partner in Gorbachev he put it into practice. START I, initiated by Reagan and Gorbachev, followed in 1991.

Meanwhile, on economic policy, Reagan listened to his mainstream advisers and took steps to wind back the deficit. He left the US with a big increase in public debt, partially unwound under Clinton, but the outcome was far better than it would have been if he hadn’t changed course.

At about the same time, the Plaza Accords produced a concerted policy of depreciating the overvalued US dollar and reducing the trade deficit.

What are the chances that we’ll see something similar from Bush? In foreign policy, this would entail a shift towards bilateral or multilateral peacemaking, and in domestic policy, a serious attempt to balance the budget and the trade account. In my judgement, close to zero. But I’d be interested to hear what others have to say.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Not a good way to win

November 3rd, 2004 17 comments

If Kerry does win after all, it will be under the worst possible circumstances. A minority of the popular vote, a hostile Congress and the need to prevail in a vicious legal dogfight in Ohio. The Republicans will be out for impeachment from Inauguration Day, if not before that.

All things considered, I’d prefer a Bush victory at this point. That said, I think a second Bush Administration will be a disaster in all respects, economically, socially and internationally. To those who supported and voted for him, I’ll say “be careful what you wish for”.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Bad news so far

November 3rd, 2004 12 comments

Kerry is definitely doing worse than the exit polls suggested. However, it’s very hard to tell what’s going on with partial counts. None of the US networks appear to do the kind of matched-precinct counts that are standard in Australia, so the results may reflect the fact that rural and suburban votes are counted faster. In addition, there were large numbers of prepoll votes and the very limited evidence that came out suggested they were heavily Democratic. It appears these votes are counted after all the others, but no-one seems to be quite clear about this.

Of course, it’s a tight race but it appears that the networks have been burned by their experience in 2000 and are unwilling to take the chance of making a premature call. So we may be waiting a while. This is not good for me, as I have to write a column about the economic challenges facing the winner (they are huge!)

Update 2:30Well, I’ve written the “Bush wins” version. Unless something startling happens with the prepoll votes, Bush is safe in Florida. That means, if I’ve worked out the rules correctly, that Kerry has to come from behind in both Ohio and Wisconsin to win. Not impossible, but a long shot at this stage.

Further update 2:52 Kerry is now leading in Wisconsin. If he wins in Ohio (still against the odds), it will be on absentee and pre-poll ballots, which implies a gigantic legal bunfight for the second time running.

Yet further update 4:05 Most pundits are calling Ohio for Bush, though his lead has narrowed in the last half hour. Just in case, I’ve written my “Kerry wins” piece, which is very pessimistic about the prospects for a Kerry Administration (see post above this one).

Final update 5:36 Premature calls. Now I’m working on the “cliffhanger” version. Even with Ohio, where Kerry hasn’t conceded, Bush is still one vote short according to MSNBC. I assume he’ll win at least one of New Mexico and Nevada, which will bring it all back to Ohio. I still can’t see Kerry winning, but I wouldn’t concede either in his position.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Good news so far

November 3rd, 2004 8 comments

Early exit polls are showing Kerry ahead in nearly all the swing states – I don’t know how much weight to place on this. Slate is releasing exit polls as they come to hand, and is rather hard to reach as a result. The major networks have agreed not to release exit polls until voting has finished.

A more solid positive indicator is very high turnout, particularly in Democratic precincts.

Good coverage is at myDD or you can tune into the NRO Corner to see what the Bush camp is making of all this.

Access to US sites with any data is getting steadily worse. So I’ll post these numbers leaked to Wonkette – usual caveats apply

FL: 52/48 – KERRY
OH: 52/47 – KERRY
MI: 51/48 – KERRY
PA: 58/42 – KERRY
IA: 50/48 – KERRY
WI: 53/47 – KERRY
MN: 57/42 – KERRY
NH: 58/41 – KERRY
ME: 55/44 – KERRY

NM: 49/49 – TIE

NV: 48/49 – BUSH
CO: 49/50 – BUSH
AR: 45/54 – BUSH
NC: 47/53 – BUSH

For those who haven’t been following obsessively, this means (with the usual kilo of salt) that Kerry is leading in all the main swing states, and some that were seen as leaning to Bush.

Update Rather belatedly, the betting markets are swinging heavily to Kerry – they’re also hard to reach. You can follow updates in this thread at Crooked Timber

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Eight per cent swing to Kerry!

November 2nd, 2004 4 comments

The results for Dixville Notch are in !. Bush 19, Kerry 7. In 2000, Bush got 21 to Gore’s 5. There was a similar swing in Hart’s Location. Repeated nationwide, this swing would give Kerry a thumping victory[1].

fn1. As bases for spurious predictions go, I’d rank this one somewhere between the Washington Redskins home games and Ray Fair’s econometric model.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

A successful arbitrage

November 2nd, 2004 5 comments

Having plunged a massive $25 in the office Calcutta[1] to buy Makybe Diva, I came out well ahead in the Emirates[2] Melbourne Cup this year. By my calculation, I’m now $20 ahead on a lifetime basis. A nice bottle of red should bring me back to par.

fn1. The pool was over $150, and the mare started about 5/1 so I could have made a neat $25 in arbitrage profits if I’d had time to run to the TAB. Since I didn’t, I stuck with my position and pocketed a neat $100.

fn2. I really can’t take this. The Fosters Melbourne Cup was a bit strange, but at least Fosters Lager is a quintessentially Melbourne product. What’s next? The McDonalds Anzac Day march?

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Police and peacekeepers (crossposted at CT)

November 2nd, 2004 5 comments

This post by Chris Bertram made a point that’s central to a post I’ve been planning for some time, so I may as well jump in and complete it. Talking about US airstrikes in Iraq, he writes

The risk of the operation is transferred by deliberate and systematic policy from soldiers to bystanders. Such a policy runs contrary to traditional views about who should bear the risk of operations: we can’t insulate civilians completely but where there’s a choice soldiers both in virtue of the role they occupy and the fact (here) that they are volunteers should take on more exposure in order to protect civilians. It is hard to escape the thought that were co-nationals of the people dropping the bombs the ones in the bystander position, different methods would be used.

An obvious comparison is with the police force. If any of us were involved in a confrontation between police officers and armed criminals, we would expect the police to risk their lives to save us[1]. A police force that viewed protecting the safety of its own members as the primary priority would not be very effective. A police force that was prepared to pursue criminals with deadly force, and treat deaths among the general public as “collateral damage” would be worse than useless. But that is, in essence, what has been given to the Iraqi people.

This raises, I think, a fairly general point in relation to the kind of liberal/humanitarian interventionism exemplified by Bosnia and Kosovo, and (from the viewpoint of some of its backers, particularly on the left) in Iraq. Unless the intervening powers have the willingness and capacity to provide peacekeepers who will operate as a police force, with the associated attitude that protection of the civilian population is the top priority, then intervention is bound to produce bad outcomes.
Read more…

Categories: World Events Tags:

Tomorrow’s race (crossposted at Crooked Timber)

November 1st, 2004 6 comments

As usual before the first Tuesday in November, Australians are closely studying the papers, trying to predict the winner in tomorrow’s race, and planning the well-lubricated parties that are essential as we wait for the results. A critical question here, and one that has been the subject of vigorous debate, is whether betting markets are efficient predictors. While some have argued strongly in favor of the markets recently, long-standing Australian tradition holds that they are utterly unreliable. There’s also a lot of debate about whether the whole turnout may be affected by the weather, and if so, in whose favour.

The level of interest is so high that the event is almost impossible to avoid. Even those who are completely apathetic have found it easier to pick an allegiance at random than to admit to not caring one way or the other.

Work will stop around the nation as we try to digest the results, and the champagne. Victorians, who take all matters of this kind more seriously than other Australians, will take the entire day off.

Update 2/11 A triumph for the betting markets, as the favorite Makybe Diva came home on the inside, the first mare to win two successive Cups. I managed a successful arbitrage on the office Calcutta buying the favorite for $25 in a pool of over $150, as opposed to market odds of 5/1 or less.

fn1. This is mainly intended as a mild leg-pull for the international audience at CT, but I thought I’d post it here as well.

Categories: Regular Features Tags: