Archive for June, 2005

Overzealous comment moderation

June 13th, 2005 Comments off

Quite a few recent posts have triggered either moderation or an apparent bug producing an error of the form

Precondition Failed

The precondition on the request for the URL /wp-comments-post.php evaluated to false.

Investigating, I found that my moderation wordlist included such items as “casino” and “pharmacy”, frequent occurrences in comment spam, but also in ordinary posts. I’ve deleted them, but “casino” also seems to trigger the Precondition Failed bug.

Since the move to WordPress 1.5, the inclusion of the “Nofollow” tag in links means that they no longer count towards Googlerank. This seems to have reduced comment spam, but not eliminated it. I’m going to trim my list and see if I can found out what gives with the “Precondition Failed” problem

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

Monday message board

June 13th, 2005 25 comments

As usual on Monday, you are invited to post your thoughts on any topic. Civilised discussion and no coarse language, please. It being a long weekend, I’d be interested in suggestions for new and better public holidays.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

What I’ve been reading

June 12th, 2005 12 comments

Quite a few different things this week, no doubt reflecting the fact that I am spending the week assessing ARC Grant Applications, and am therefore engaged in displacement activity on a massive scale. It’s a job I find very hard going, as there are far more worthwhile applications than can be funded. Assessors don’t actually have to approve or reject, thankfully, but we have to give numerical grades, and only the topscorers get supported. So, rather than do the job in one big hit, I tend to spin it out and find lots of excuses for procrastination.
Read more…

Categories: Books and culture Tags:

Duffy on refugees

June 12th, 2005 30 comments

Jack Strocchi points me to this interesting piece by Michael Duffy, comparing the case of Chinese diplomat and would-be defector Chen Yonglin with the horrific treatment meted out by a series of immigration ministers to Peter Qasim, to whom could be added equally outrageous cases like those of Al-Kateb and Al Khafaji sentenced to indefinite detention because no country will take them, not to mention the many innocent children locked behind barbed wire.

Duffy, says correctly that Chen is a queue-jumper[1] and that the government’s position[2] is inconsistent with the tough stand it took on refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan. He says

This tide of toughness has lifted the ship of conservative government to ever new levels of success. Refugees have been locked up to deter others overseas, and the voters have given their thanks. The careers of people like Costello and Abbott have blossomed and rightly so, because they are strong men prepared to stand behind the beliefs they hold so passionately.

So he says, Chen and his family should be locked up with all the others.

I agree with Duffy that the inconsistencies are glaring, but not on how to resolve them. We should give Chen asylum and end mandatory detention immediately.

Of course, there’s a big problem here for refugee policy. As Duffy says, Chen brought his exposure to political persecution on himself by denouncing the Chinese government. But, of course this is commonly the case with refugees. Except during (sadly too common) outbreaks of genocidal madness like the Holocaust and Stalin’s purges, the subjects of dictatorships are usually safe enough if they keep quiet. That’s why we used to use the category of territorial asylum, which, as I understand it, said that anyone who could get out of, say, the Soviet Union, automatically counted as a refugee.

But if we allowed anyone from China who denounced the government to seek asylum here, there could well be quite a lot of applicants. I don’t have an immediate answer to this other than to say that it’s a reminder that we shouldn’t get too cosy with the current Chinese government. They may like capitalism now, but its still a communist dictatorship they’re running.

A final point: Duffy coins the neologism “neocoms”, and offers the following explanation (which I missed in the original version of this post)

What a sudden about-face, what a strange and unexpected burst of compassion from tough politicians and commentators who have supported mandatory detention for so long. It needs a name, and I suggest we call it the new compassion, and those who express it the neo-coms.

To any who recognise themselves in this description, I can only say, “Welcome back to humanity”.

fn1. That is, if you accept the bogus claim that there exists a queue, and that potential refugees are in a position to take their place at the back of it

fn2. As far as it can be discerned among a fog of evasions

Update In comments, Andrew Bartlett suggested that Duffy was writing ironically. That was my first reading also, and seems to have been the impression of others. But the text is clear enough, and Duffy has consistently supported a hard line on asylum-seekers. As I’ve discovered before now, irony is a dangerous weapon. Still if Duffy has turned against mandatory detention in general, I’ll be happy to congratulate him.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

A guest post on Condorcet voting

June 10th, 2005 42 comments

Regular commenter Benno (Benedict Spearritt) has sent in a guest post advocating Condorcet voting, a favorite theme of his. My own view is that our current system of (preferably optional) preferential voting (AKA the single transferable vote) is as good as any of the single-member alternatives and drastically better than First Past the Post. It’s a Word document so I’ve tried an HTML translation but I’ll try to upload the file also when I get a moment.

Try this location for the word file and this Try this location for the HTML file

PM Lawrence has sent another version, which I’ve pasted in
Read more…

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Weekend reflections

June 10th, 2005 61 comments

This regular feature is back again. The idea is that, over the weekend, you should post your thoughts in a more leisurely fashion than in ordinary comments or the Monday Message Board. On the occasion of the Queen’s Birthday, I’d be interested in thoughts on our relationship to the British monarchy.

Please post your thoughts on any topic, at whatever length seems appropriate to you. Civilised discussion and no coarse language, please.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

How to lose your column

June 9th, 2005 83 comments

As a generally left-wing columnist for a generally right-wing paper, I naturally spend a fair bit of time thinking about how to keep my spot. So I was interested to see this piece by Gerard Henderson on why he got sacked from the Age (Hat-tips to Philip Gomes and Tim Dunlop), where he had the converse position. Henderson’s explanation is that the Age is moving to the left and attributed his sacking to the fact that the Left was offended by his last three columns, which
* said that Evatt was to blame for the Labor Split of 1955
* attacked the Labor Party’s opposition to the Vietnam War
* claimed that Australia’s involvement in the Gallipoli campaign was justified.

Having read the columns, I’d say Henderson was half-right. They probably contributed to his sacking, but on commercial rather than political grounds.
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Categories: General Tags:

$200 trillion

June 9th, 2005 14 comments

That’s a rough estimate of the volume of outstanding contracts in financial derivatives, mainly interest swaps (some year-old and incomplete data here totals $175 trillion). As the name implies, these are usually matched, so that the actual net exposure of any party is a tiny fraction of the gross. But if the counterparty on one side of the swap should default, things could get very nasty. And, given the volume, default on a small proportion of the contracts would overwhelm the resources of the world’s central banks. To get an idea of magnitudes, US GDP is about $11 trillion or 5.5 per cent of outstanding contracts. When Long Term Credit Management went bust in 1998, threatening the stability of the world’s financial system, its gross position totalled $1.25 trillion, or about 0.6 per cent of the amount outstanding today.

Of course, the central bankers and prudential regulators have everything under control, and have simulated all the possible things that can go wrong. As for experimental tests of the stability of the system, we haven’t really had one yet, apart from LTCM. The last time the US financial system came under any real stress was the 1990 recession (or maybe the 1987 crash) at which time the volume of derivatives was maybe $1 trillion.

Still, as Eeyore said in a rather similar situation, “That’s what makes it so terribly interesting. Not really knowing until afterwards”.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Canals and powerlines

June 9th, 2005 40 comments

It’s nice when blogging pays off in the form of published output, but it rarely happens as quickly as this. On Tuesday night Ken Parish alerted me to an amazing infrastructure proposal, similar to Colin’s canal. The plan is for a 3000-km transmission line connecting Darwin to the National Grid. Even a cursory examination was sufficient to show that the economics of this idea were crazy, and some late-night work produced an analysis ready for publication in today’s Fin (article over the fold).

I’m grateful to Ken for pointing this post out to me in the first place, and to commenters Robert Merkel and Derrida Derider (both regulars here) among others, who raised points that help me clarify my argument. Unfortunately, you can’t give this kind of credit in an opinion piece, but I can do so here. This is the kind of thing that shows the power of blogging.
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Categories: Economic policy, Metablogging Tags:

Is aid worthwhile ?

June 8th, 2005 20 comments

When we were discussing, not long ago, whether foreign aid could be useful in countries with corrupt and incompetent governments, I wasn’t imagining stories like this (see also this).

As a comparison, here’s a report from December 31, 2004 of aid finally reaching a city in Aceh, close to the epicentre of the earthquake/tsunami that struck on Boxing Day, 5 days previously. That’s in the middle of a war zone in a Third World country, with few roads, and thousands of kilometres from the countries giving most of the aid.

One further comparison. Ten days after the New Orleans disaster, the US has received offers of aid totalling $US1 billion. The total amount given by the US government in response to the tsunami was $950 million.

Categories: Life in General Tags:


June 8th, 2005 14 comments

One of the great things about the internets is that you can instantly find song lyrics, even if you only recall one line of the song. In the case of The Kinks, Dedicated follower of fashion there was only one word I couldn’t make out despite hearing the song many times. The crucial line turns out to be

Everywhere the carnabetian army marches on,
Each one an dedicated follower of fashion.

It’s obvious when it’s written out that carnabetian is a reference to Carnaby Street, the fashion centre of Swinging London in the 1960s, but I don’t think I would ever have worked it out by ear.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

An offer you can’t refuse

June 8th, 2005 5 comments

ANZ is offering to match donations to charity made by its Internet banking customers. There’s a choice of eight charities, so their should be something for people of all tastes and ideological views.

And, particularly if you’re a top-bracket taxpayer, it’s an offer too good to miss as the end of the tax year approaches. Give, say, $200 to your preferred charity. ANZ’s matching money will bring it up to $400. Then Mr Costello will refund you $100 (well, $96.80 or thereabouts), so you get $400 worth of warm inner glow for the price of a couple of tickets to the footy.

Banks being banks, I was naturally suspicious. But I tried it out and the documentation came back indicating that everything had gone as promised. I guess you have to sign up as an ANZ customer to take advantage of this. But it’s no big hassle and loyalty to one bank is a thing of the past – there’s no need to scrap your existing arrangements if you don’t want to.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Intel inside

June 7th, 2005 21 comments

Today’s big news, for me at least, is that Apple will be moving to use Intel chips in Macs, in place of the PowerPC chip that’s been used for the last ten years or so. This isn’t good news for Mac users, since the required transitions are always messy and painful. The reason for the shift is that IBM, which produces the PowerPC, has been unwilling or unable to produce a low-heat version of the G5 chip for use in Powerbooks. The shift marks the end of the PowerPC strategy, which began as an alliance between Apple, IBM and Motorola and seemed at first likely to produce a serious alternative to Intel’s dominance of the CPU market.

The good news for Mac users is that, thanks to the massive success of the iPod and the flow-on effects to Mac sales, Apple is in a stronger position to make this move than at any time in years. In addition, the Mac OS itself is easily portable. Still, I expect some of my favorite obscure applications will struggle to make the change.

Another item in the positive column is that this ought to make it easier to run Windows on the occasions I need it (I currently use the Virtual PC emulator which is impressive, considering, but still problematic), and may also reduce the difficulty of porting Windows software to Mac.

Categories: Mac & other computers Tags:

General Glut and Australia’s CAD

June 6th, 2005 26 comments

General Glut turns his attention to Australia’s current account deficit, a topic that’s also being debated in a number of threads over at Stephen Kirchner’s blog. There’s a lot to cover here, so I’ll list the main points I’m going to cover up front

* Martin Wolf makes a point I’ve also been going on about for some time, that the Anglosphere dominates the consuming and borrowing side of the global trade balance
* Although Australia and the US have similar CAD/GDP ratios, the underlying stats are very different
* The claim that Australia’s CAD is being used to finance non-dwelling investment doesn’t stack up well when you look at actual expenditures, rather than volumes derived from dubious price adjustments
Read more…

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Interest rates unchanged

June 6th, 2005 24 comments

In macroeconomic terms, the RBA decision to keep interest rates unchanged looks like a good call. With the levels of indebtedness we have in Australia, the risk of overkill, as seen in 1990, are greater than the risk of delaying for a while to see what happens. Although the evidence is patchy, the claims that economic activity has peaked look quite plausible. On most reasonable estimates, interest rates are still below their ‘neutral’ level and it looks as if they can’t go significantly above this level without producing substantial damage

In microeconomic terms, the decision looks far less appealing. Interest rates represent the price of current consumption in terms of future consumption. If they are permanently held below their equilibrium (roughly the same as neutral) level, the result must be too much consumption and too little saving and Australia has seen this in spades, with negative rates of household savings for some years. Not surprisingly, this has been accompanied by a boom in asset prices, particularly for residential land. This in turn has been associated with a shift in investment towards housing which, since it produces non-tradable services, is not helpful in addressing a huge current account deficit.

When one set of considerations strongly suggests holding interest rates steady and another suggests they need to rise significantly, the obvious conclusion is that we are trying to do too much with one instrument.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Monday message board

June 6th, 2005 94 comments

As usual on Monday, you are invited to post your thoughts on any topic. Civilised discussion and no coarse language, please. As we approach the winter solstice (for Southern hemisphere readers), I’d be interested in seasonal reflections.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Karimov and Saddam

June 5th, 2005 49 comments

Pro-war left site Harry’s Place links to a rather equivocal piece by Christopher Hitchens on the Bush Administration’s backing for the Uzbekistan dictator Karimov, and picks out the following quote, among others

The United States did not invent or impose the Karimov government: It “merely” accepted its offer of strategic and tactical help in the matter of Afghanistan.

This sounded familiar, and I thought it would be interesting to see what happened if “Karimov” was replaced by “Saddam” in a Google search.

No exact matches, but “US did not create Saddam” pulls up a bunch of links from sites like Martin Kramer and defending or downplaying the Reagan Administration policy of support for Saddam during the 1980s, when his foreign wars and internal oppression killed vast numbers of people. “Did not install Saddam” gives more, and no doubt other variants can be found.

Even now, I doubt that Hitchens would accept “the US did not invent or impose Saddam” as a justification for the aid and warm embraces (literal and metaphorical) given to Saddam in the 1980s. But, given his current trajectory, I think it’s only a matter of time.

I am disappointed though, that Harry’s Place, which has generally taken a principled line of opposition to all dictatorship,s should give a favorable link to this weaselly piece, which is more concerned with scoring points against Hitchens’ former allies than in advocating any particular response to Karimov.

PS: Mark Bahnisch is a little kinder, calling Hitchens “confused”.
Read more…

Categories: World Events Tags:

Oil economics

June 5th, 2005 28 comments

So I was reading the less interesting bits of the paper and looked at a report on the price of oil which, as is pretty much routine, contained the suggestion that a shortage of refinery capacity was contributing to the high price of crude. Turning my brain on for a moment, it struck me that economics 101 suggests the exact opposite. Refineries and crude oil are complements in production, so a shortage of refinery capacity should lower the price of crude, while increasing the price of refined products such as petrol and distillate (easy thought experiment to show this: if there were no refineries at all, crude oil would be worthless).

A quick Google shows that I’m not the first person to notice this point, but the erroneous claim keeps on getting repeated.

How does an error like this get started. The obvious reason is that if the price of oil is driven by demand fluctuations (as at present) high prices for oil will be correlated with perceived shortages of refinery capacity. It will be easy to find specific instances to support an apparent causation going the other way. For a refinery working at maximum capacity, a breakdown will cause a supply interruption and will be very obvious. The same breakdown, occurring at a slack time, might be dealt with by rearranging operations and rescheduling maintenance and never reported to customers.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

What I’m reading

June 5th, 2005 12 comments

I just reread “The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia” (Ursula K. Le Guin), which I enjoyed as much as ever. There are a bunch of other books I should be reading, most of them weighty tomes on network theory, real options and so on, but Mark Bahnisch has kindly pointed me to a nearly endless source of distraction, China Miéville’s list of Fifty Fantasy & Science Fiction Works That Socialists Should Read. Le Guin is on the list, of course, along with many of my favorites (though many of the books recommended are new to me) and classics like Bellamy’s Looking Backwards and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Categories: Books and culture Tags:

Heidegger and the Nazis, again

June 4th, 2005 40 comments

Continuing on a European theme, and on recycled debates, the hardy perennial issue of Heidegger and the Nazis has re-emerged.

Back in the Pleistocene era of Australian blogging (2002), there were some interesting discussions of how we should react to the political mistakes and crimes of philosophers. Examples included Heidegger’s involvement in Nazism, Hayek’s support for Pinochet and Sartre’s adherence to the Stalinist French Communist Party . Don Arthur (site long gone, alas), Tim Dunlop (can’t find a link, but maybe still in the archives), Jason Soon and Ken Parish all had some interesting things to say.

Most contributors to the debate were more willing than I was to separate thought and action. I don’t think the idea that the arguments of a political theorist or philosopher can be treated in isolation from their life and work as a whole is, in general, sustainable. There are exceptions to this: a philosopher might collaborate with a dictatorial regime out of fear or ambition, even though this was the opposite of the course of action implied by their philosophical views. But that doesn’t appear to be the situation in any of the cases I’ve mentioned.

Much closer to the centre of the action, controversy over Heidegger has been reignited by the publication of Emmanuel Faye’s Heidegger, l’introduction du nazisme dans la philosophie, which also includes an attack on Carl Schmitt, another thinker associated with the Nazis but now popular on the left (Mark Bahnisch gives some background here). Not surprisingly, Faye’s book has produced a reaction, in the classic form of a manifesto (in 13 languages!). The manifesto announces this site, with many contributions (all in French), , with lots of references to to rprevious contributions to the debate, but without a systematic organisation, which makes it all a bit hard to follow. Some of the arguments focus on the details of the historical evidence, and others on the more general question of whether this kind of attack is legitimate.

I haven’t read Faye, and it sounds as if he pushes his case too far, but I’m not ready to acquit Heidegger of collaboration with the Nazis or to conclude that his philosophical views are untainted by his own apparent interpretation of them as a guide to action. Comments appreciated.

Categories: Philosophy Tags:

It’s the median, but I shouldn’t call people “stupid”

June 3rd, 2005 33 comments

David Brooks resurrects the claim that

The Western European standard of living is about a third lower than the American standard of living, and it’s sliding. European output per capita is less than that of 46 of the 50 American states and about on par with Arkansas.

This was done to death in the blogosphere a couple of years ago, but it’s obviously time for another go.

Update: Oops! Scott Martens points out in comments at CT that the EIU gives US median household income as $57 936, way out of line with the Census Bureau figure, which obviously invalidates my comparison, and casts doubt on their figures for France. I guess I’d better not just rely on a quick Google next time. I’ll look into the EIU numbers some more.

And, as several commentators point out, that will also teach me to be more careful before slagging off others for sloppy work. Time for a dish of crow.

Further update I haven’t yet found out how the EIU gets its numbers, but I’ve fixed the obvious errors in the post and taken the opportunity to remove unfair comments about Brooks

Read more…

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Weekend reflections

June 3rd, 2005 29 comments

This regular feature is back again. The idea is that, over the weekend, you should post your thoughts in a more leisurely fashion than in ordinary comments or the Monday Message Board.

Please post your thoughts on any topic, at whatever length seems appropriate to you. Civilised discussion and no coarse language, please.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Since Tampa ?

June 2nd, 2005 22 comments

I’ve noticed numerous statements lately to the effect that the number of asylum-seekers dropped to zero after the Tampa incident, usually with the implication that the associated policies were tough but effective. Those who want to use this argument should be honest about their history. The Tampa was seized in August 2001. There were plenty of boats after that, including SIEV-4, which was at the centre of the “children overboard” incident. The event that brought the whole process to a halt was the sinking of SIEV-X in October 2001, with the loss of 353 lives.

Most of the Tampa asylum-seekers were eventually recognised as refugees, and many made it to Australia in the end. It wasn’t the use of Pacific islands as detention camps, but the willingness of the government to turn back unseaworthy boats, reaffirmed after the SIEV-X tragedy, that ended the flow of asylum seekers. This policy, reinforced by the lesson of SIEV-X, had the desired effect. That doesn’t make it any less shameful.

More on asylum-seekers from Andrew Bartlett, Tim Dunlop, Nicholas Gruen and Ken Parish

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Industrial relations reforms, part 2

June 2nd, 2005 54 comments

I worked more on the Industrial Relations reform issue last night and I have written a draft paper, which you can read and, hopefully, comment on.

IR is a very complex topic, and for that reason I’ve tended to shy away from detailed analysis in the past. But with major changes inevitable, there’s no alternative but to get immersed in the details. This is going to be a slow process, but at least I’ve now made a start. I’m pretty much flat-out at present, so progress on this is likely to be slow.

Anyway, you can read my analysis, for what it’s worth (PDF file over the fold).
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Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Not so much a meme as a chain letter

June 1st, 2005 16 comments

Rob Corr sent me this music meme. I’ve done my own list, over the fold. Showing my age, again!
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Categories: Life in General Tags:

The Old Man and the Blogosphere

June 1st, 2005 3 comments

There seems to be a renewed interest in blogs among the mainstream media. Here’s one from the SMH, on blogs and influence. Not long ago, The Age Media Blog ran a piece on When are bloggers journalists?.

In both stories, I get referred to as an “elder statesman”. To quote The Bill, it’s a fair cop, guv.

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

IR reform and inequality

June 1st, 2005 42 comments

The National Tertiary Education Union, of which I’m a member, has nominated today as a day of protest against the government’s Industrial Relations reforms, but has left it up to members how to make their protest. For me, the obvious thing to do is to get to work on my long-promised analysis. I’ve written most of a draft, and I hope to get the rest done this evening, but in the meantime, I thought I’d give a short statement of how I see the relationship between industrial relations institutions and inequality, which is my central concern.
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Categories: Economic policy Tags: