Archive for July, 2005

Weekend reflections

July 15th, 2005 76 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.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Water, again

July 15th, 2005 43 comments

My piece on water in last week’s Fin (over the fold) got a couple of interesting responses. Before talking about that, thanks as usual to everyone who help me sort out my thoughts and particularly to Jason Soon at Catallaxy who noticed the interesting difference of views between Costello and Howard on the issue of urban-rural water trade.

One response was a letter from Gary Nairn, Howard’s Parliamentary Secretary, backing away a bit from the comments I quoted and criticised here and in the Fin piece. This was interesting, as I don’t often get ministerial responses to Fin pieces, and my criticism was pretty moderate. I suspect it was not so much the criticism of Howard as the praise of Costello that elicited this.

Also a writer from Canberra argued that, rather than buying water from Murray irrigators (the ultimate recipients of flows from Tantangara) Canberra should simply take more out of Googong Dam and leave less for the Murrumbidgee irrigators downstream. I’ll need to look up the relevant agreements to see who is supposed to own this water. Independent of who pays, though, there’s the argument as to whether extra water for Canberra is better sourced from the Murray or from the Murrumbidgee. I’ll need to look at this again.
Read more…

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Unexplained spam

July 14th, 2005 5 comments

Comment spam seems to be resurgent at present, disappointingly since the nofollow tag ought to make it pointless. I deleted a whole bunch of the usual stuff today, at least the fraction that got through the Textdrive outer defences and my moderation rules. But there were a few I couldn’t make much sense of, like this one

I can’t work out what gives here. The spurious poster links back to, presumably not the source of this spam. Can anyone explain this to me.

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

Back in Brisbane

July 14th, 2005 12 comments

After a month in which I seem to have been travelling more often than not, and cold almost constantly, I’m settled back in Brisbane, enjoying, as Tex Morton put it[1] “our beautiful climate! Where we never see ice or snow!” I was talking to a taxi-driver who mentioned that he’d been attracted to Queensland by this song, also a favourite in my household.

fn1. Or, more precisely, pinched it, from Pappy O’Daniel

Categories: Life in General Tags:


July 12th, 2005 6 comments

Via Chris Bertram at CT, here’s a novel way of overcoming free-rider problems. You can promise to do something socially desirable, conditional on a certain number of other people doing the same thing. This pledge asks you to give one per cent of your income to charity.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Asleep on the job

July 12th, 2005 27 comments

I’m not a huge fan of scandals, and I haven’t followed the Plame spy scandal very closely. Still, anyone who reads blogs has known for at least a week that Karl Rove, Bush’s closest advisor, leaked the name of Valerie Plame, a covert CIA operative, as part of a political vendetta against her husband, Joseph Wilson. Bush has presumably known this for many months, the media similarly have known for a long time, and so on. This is a serious offence, at a minimum requiring Rove’s resignation. Yet the average American, reliant on the mass media knows nothing about it, and, as noted at Obsidian Wings there seems to have been no interest in finding out about it.

The NYT has finally woken up to the story, but what took them so long?

If I thought this meant that US journalists were going to give up covering scandal and focus on serious issues, I’d be cheering them on, but there’s no indication of this. Instead, as with the Downing Street memos, the Washington press seems to have been cowed into silence by the Bush machine.

Categories: World Events Tags:

A pleasant surprise

July 11th, 2005 9 comments

While I was in Adelaide for the Festival of Ideas, the Advertiser ran a piece I wrote on blogs and wikis, aimed at a general audience (it’s over the fold). I was going out for breakfast the next day, and the guy behind the counter said “Don’t you write for the Advertiser?”. It turned out he’d read my piece which ran with a small picture of me from the News Limited archives, used as a dinkus.

What was particularly nice about this was that they used quite an old (that is, young) photo, so it seems age is not wearying me too much.
Read more…

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Monday message board

July 11th, 2005 28 comments

As usual on Monday, you are invited to post your thoughts on any topic. Civilised discussion and no coarse language, please.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Festival of Ideas

July 10th, 2005 45 comments

I’ve been at the Festival of Ideas in Adelaide and I’m very impressed, both by the quality of the speakers and presentations and by the turnout. Quite a few of the events I’ve attended have been full houses, with lots of people being turned away. That’s with four events going in parallel, two of them in large (Elder and Bonython) halls. Among people I haven’t heard of previously, I’ve been particularly impressed by P Sainath and Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf.

It’s also great to meet people like Jack Mundey whom I’ve admired for many years, but never met in person.

Brisbane has a similar event next March, at which I’ll be speaking.

I’m talking today on Blogs and Wikis in the Art Gallery Auditorium at 1:45 and then as a late ring-in for the final session “What is to be done?” at 5pm in the Elder Hall.

Categories: Books and culture Tags:

Class of ’05

July 9th, 2005 126 comments

The New Republic has a gloomy but, I think, accurate piece by Spencer Ackerman, focusing on

the disturbing prospect that future attacks against the West will be carried out by those who have gained a wealth of experience fighting U.S. forces in Iraq’s western, Sunni-dominated Anbar province–the premier location for on-the-job terrorist training on the planet. The CIA calls this the “class of ’05 problem.” Such future attacks may very well make yesterday’s carnage seem amateurish in scale.

At this point, I think there’s very little chance that we [in Australia and elsewhere] will escape the attentions of the Class of ’05 indefinitely, whatever policy decisions are taken now with respect to Iraq.

I think the best option is to announce, and adhere to, a timetable for withdrawal of US? Coalition troops from Iraq, and hope that the Iraqis can reach some sort of solution among themselves. But the inevitable short-term consequence of that is that Anbar and other places will be a fairly safe haven for foreign jihadists, until they become more of a liability than an asset for the Sunni nationalists who still appear to dominate the insurgency. The hope is that they won’t get many new recruits, in the absence of US forces to fight.

The alternative is for the US to “stay the course”, and fight the jihadists in Iraq. So far, any successes on this front have been more than offset by the boost to Al Qaeda recruiting provided by the US occupation, and by the stimulus to the domestic insurgency created in part by the mere fact of foreign occupation, and in part by civilian casualties, arbitrary arrests and detention and so on. There’s no reason to think that holding on longer will make things any better – even if the insurgency winds down eventually, the Class of 05 will just disperse aroudn the world.

Either way, there’s every reason to expect more and worse terror attacks. We will endure them, as we must, and we will pursue and bring to justice those responsible. But we have created a rod for own backs in Anbar, as the Russians did in Afghanistan.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Weekend reflections

July 8th, 2005 65 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.

If anyone has any thoughtful comments about how we should respond to terror attacks like the one we’ve just seen in London, I’d be glad to read them. Unfortunately, the thread below went into partisan pointscoring at the second comment, and was derailed thereafter, despite a few attempts to focus on what we have in common. I’ve been too busy to respond today, but from this point on I’ll delete or disemvowel anyone who, in my judgement, is more concerned with scoring points against domestic opponents than about dealing with Al Qaeda.

That said, part of the fight involves carrying on with normal life, so feel free to comment on other topics.

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:

Another terror attack

July 8th, 2005 46 comments

As usual, I can’t find much new to say in response to the latest terror attack, this time in London. Our thoughts will be with those killed and injured, and their families and friends.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Crowds and market caps (crossposted at CT)

July 7th, 2005 3 comments

I happened to reread a passage from James Surowiecki’s “The Wisdom of Crowds in which he discusses the stock market’s reaction to the Challenger disaster, the crucial point being

Did you know that within minutes of the January 28, 1986 space shuttle, Challenger, disaster, investors started dumping the stocks of four major contractors, Rockwell International, Lockheed, Martin Marietta, and Morton Thiokol, who had participated in its launch? Morton Thiokol’s stock was hit hardest of all … the market was right. Six months after the explosion, the Presidential Commission on the Challenger revealed that the O-ring seals on the booster rockets made by Thiokol became less resilient in the cold weather, creating gaps that allowed the gases to leak out.”

It struck me reading this, that I’d heard of Rockwell, Lockheed and MM in many contexts, but I’d never heard of Morton Thiokol. It turns out that they are a specialist builder of booster rockets and similar items (they’re now a division of ATK).

This seems to suggest a prosaic explanation of the market reaction. Whatever the cause, the space shuttle program was going to be shut for a long time. This would do a bit of damage to everyone involved, but much more to the rocket specialist Thiokol than to the other three big diversified companies.

The ATK website indicates that they still have plenty of shuttle contracts, so it seems as if the faulty O-rings didn’t do them much long-term damage over and above the effect on the shuttle program.

I haven’t got the full book or the study cited there, so it may be that this explanation has already been ruled out in some way, but I thought the easiest way to find it was to post and see what response I got.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Urgent WordPress upgrade

July 6th, 2005 3 comments

Nicholas Gruen kindly alerted me to a security hole affecting all WordPress blogs, and Tim Lambert’s post reminds me that I should spread the word about the need to upgrade to version My experience and Flute’s commenting at Tim’s is that it’s a very simple job (10 minutes or so) and if you’re starting at 1.5 there should be some additional stability benefits

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

Anonymous comment in peril ?

July 6th, 2005 30 comments

I’ve just come back from an appearance before the Parliamentary Electoral Matters Committee Inquiry into the Conduct of the 2004 Federal Election and Matters
Related Thereto, where I presented a submission arguing that blogs, and commenters, should not be required to identify themselves when commenting during an election campaign. It was a pretty vigorous session, and some members of the Committee were clearly not convinced. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see an attempt to restrict anonymous Internet comment coming out of the Committee’s report.

My immediate analysis is that, if anonymous comments were prohibited, the only way to be safe would be to close down comments during election campaigns. Even if people gave full names and addresses, I don’t have the resources to verify them.

Anyway, it would be good to hear other views: I’ll need to think more about my own views.

My submission (PDF file) is over the fold
Read more…

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Elasticity and progress

July 5th, 2005 29 comments

The question of whether technological progress is slowing down has been around for a fair while, and is up for discussion again (hat-tip Jack Strocch(. In many sectors of the economy, notably transport, the answer is very clearly “Yes”.

On the other hand, Moore’s Law (speed doubling every 18 months) still seems to hold for computer chips and they are playing an increasingly important role in the economy. So although progress in most areas is slower than the historical average, progress in this central area is faster.

In the end, it all comes down to the long-run price elasticity of demand for computation. If this is less than one, total revenue from the sale of computational services will eventually decline relative to national income, and the ultimate situation will be one where computation is effectively free, but no longer an important source of progress. If the elasticity is greater than one, the computation-based share of GDP will rise over time, as previously separate sectors like music, video and so on are computerised.

My reading of the evidence is that the value so far is very close to one, which accounts for some of the ambiguity surrounding this question

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Squaring the circle (crossposted at CT)

July 5th, 2005 20 comments

Reading John and Belle’s blog, not the place I would usually look for unfamiliar maths results, I discovered that the circle can be squared in Gauss-Bolyai-Lobachevsky space . Checking a bit further, I found this was not a new result but was shown by Bolyai back in C19.

I haven’t found a link that shows how the construction was achieved, though. Can someone point me in the right direction, please?

Categories: Science Tags:

A blog without comments is like …

July 4th, 2005 3 comments

… a club with one member.

The winner of the impromptu contest is my old friend Jim Birch. People naturally tried for a risqué analogy and that would have been my first thought, but none of them quite worked. Jim’s entry is simple but hits the nail on the head, I think.

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

Assume we have a can-opener

July 4th, 2005 7 comments

A lot of my work at the moment is bound up with a model of the Murray-Darling River system. As all students of economic methodology know, such models involve more or less unrealistic assumptions designed to allow us to calculate some results while maintaining some connection with reality. One tricky issue in the model, and in reality, is what to do about demand for water for residential use in Adelaide. A member of my research team (who shall remain nameless) has proposed a drastic simplifying assumption, with a very pleasing implication

Here are the model results excluding Adelaide.

I have assumed that Adelaide doesn’t exist.

Therefore the Lions actually won 4 straight.

if only!

Monday message board

July 4th, 2005 34 comments

As usual on Monday, you are invited to post your thoughts on any topic. Civilised discussion and no coarse language, please.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Withholding witnesses

July 4th, 2005 3 comments

This NYT report on the Italian case in which a number of CIA agents have been indicted for kidnapping a cleric suspected of involvement in terrorism has one item of particular relevance to Australia.

In addition to their objections to the American rendition policy [sending suspects overseas for torture], European counterterrorism officials also partly blame a lack of access to terrorism suspects and information held by the United States for their failure to convict a number of their own high-profile terrorism suspects.

The acquittal on most serious charges of Abu Bashir, spiritual leader of the Indonesian terrorists responsible for the Bali bombing was due primarily to the fact that the operational chief Hambali was not a witness, since the US Administration which holds him would not hand him over, even temporarily.

The Hambali case completely undermines for the official rationale for the US policy of rendition. In theory, the claim is that terrorists suspects, wanted in their own countries, are transferred there. But here’s a case of a leading Indonesian terrorist, wanted by Indonesia for crimes committed in Indonesia, and the US Administration won’t hand him over.

The demands of justice in relation to the Australian victims of the Bali bombing were similarly ignored.

It seems likely that Bashir will be released soon, and the operation of the rendition policy is largely to blame for this travesty of justice.

Categories: World Events Tags:

What I’m reading

July 3rd, 2005 8 comments

“The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time” (Jeffrey Sachs).

Broadly speaking, I think Sachs makes a convincing case about the feasibility of ending extreme poverty, given sufficient political will. Things like last nights Live 8 concert may help to motivate this.

Sachs is very good on the specific issue of malaria. We’ve just had a rather ill-tempered debate (I was a bit ill-tempered myself) over who said what about DDT and malaria five years ago. Regardless of views about specific technology choices, the big problem is inadequate funding. It would be nice to think that we could all get behind calls for a big increase in funding, including this one from George Bush (only a promise at this stage, but still a good sign).

I plan a full scale review of Sachs, as soon as I get a round tuit.

Categories: Books and culture Tags:

Work time and play time (crossposted at CT)

July 3rd, 2005 41 comments

Another interesting feature of last night’s was a strong turnout of trade unionists, handing out balloons and footy-shaped brochures about the dangers for working life arising from the government’s proposed industrial relations reforms. The central theme was that unions had fought for the rights that gave us a decent balance between work and family, allowing us to do things like enjoy a football game, in contrast to the 24/7/365 flexible workplace being pushed upon us today. They seemed to get a pretty positive reaction, and it was a great idea for getting volunteers to turn out, given the opportunity to go to the footy afterwards.

This is a big and complex issue, of which I’ve only scratched the surface. But more soon, I hope.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

They’re ba-a-ack!

July 2nd, 2005 7 comments

This time I managed to get tickets to the footy and headed down to Indooroopilly station where the train was packed as expected. I noticed, however, that lots of people seemed to have the wrong colours: green and gold instead of maroon, blue and gold. All was revealed when they got off at Milton. Apparently they were attending a Franco-Australian cultural event, which went well by all accounts

Continuing on to the football, we settled in and had a great night. It was a good match, combining an excitingly tight first half with a satisfyingly crushing victory in the second. There was nothing to match Aka’s miracle goals of last week, but he bagged five and Bradshaw got nine! We can start looking forward to the finals with confidence now.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Multiple rationales (crossposted at CT)

July 2nd, 2005 20 comments

A piece by Noam Scheiber in The New Republic , prompted me to get to work on a piece I’ve been meaning to write for ages, not so much because I have new and original ideas, but because I’d like to clarify my thoughts, with the help of discussion. The piece is subscription only, but the relevant quote is a point that’s been made before

The problem with [criticism of Bush’s handling of the Iraq war] is that there’s a difference between expecting the administration to fight a war competently and expecting it to fight an entirely different kind of war than the one you signed onto.

My starting point, then, is the observation that, in the leadup to the Iraq war there were numerous different cases for war, some publicly avowed at different times, and some not. These included WMDs, the War on Terror, humanitarian intervention, democracy promotion, the strategic importance of Iraq’s oil and simple vendetta. It might seem that the more reasons for war, the stronger the case, but the problem is that different cases for war imply different strategies for the war, and especially for the postwar period.

The ostensible basis for the war, WMDs, implied the need to act fast, since Saddam might use his weapons at any time, and implied a simple success condition: once the WMDs and the supporting infrastructure were found and destroyed, the US could withdraw and leave the Iraqis (minus Saddam) to sort own their own problems. Roughly speaking, this was the war we were sold, and this was the war we got, at least until it turned it there were no WMDs, and an early exit wasn’t really feasible.

Although the Iraq war seems to involve this problem to a high degree, it arises all the time. For example, there are a lot of different reasons for supporting reform of the House of Lords in the UK (the old structure was anachronistic, inefficient, anti-democratic, biased against Labour and so on), but they imply different kinds of reform.

Concern with democracy suggests an elected House, more representative than the Commons, where the first-past-the-post system turns minorities into majorities. By contrast, the main motive for the reforms around Blair seemed to be that hereditary legislators were bad for Britain’s image and occasionally obstructed Labour PMs – hence the preference for a weak upper chamber with appointed members.
Read more…

Categories: World Events Tags:

Weekend reflections

July 1st, 2005 30 comments

This regular feature is back again now that I’ve worked out what I was doing wrong with comments. 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:

Creative Commons license

July 1st, 2005 16 comments

Shamed into action by my imminent presentation on the topic at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas, I’ve finally got around to licensing the blog under the Creative Commons (it’s at the foot of the page – the layout still needs a bit of work). The license I’ve chosen is Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.1 Australia, which pretty much sums up the standard expectations for a blog. Anyone can use as much as they like for a non-commercial purpose, as long as they allow others to do the same with the derivative work, and acknowledge my original authorship, either by name or with a link back to the original post.

The Creative Commons is a crucially important initiative. The most important innovations of the past twenty years, those associated with the rise of the Internet, have been driven primarily by bottom-up creative collaboration and not by intellectual property or centrally planned research. On the whole, patents have actually obstructed the process. Government funding for research has helped a bit, but it has been a secondary factor.

Categories: Intellectual 'property' Tags:

Comments out of action

July 1st, 2005 16 comments

For some reason, comments have stopped working. I (and presumably other readers) can post them but they don’t appear. I’m looking into this. Meanwhile, a prize for the best completion of the analogy

“A blog without comments is like …”

Update Comments appear to be back, so you can post your entries now

Further update I’ve now worked out what I was doing wrong. Blocking the IP number of some spammers caused all comments to disappear. Death to spammers!

Comments should now be working again, and I’ll try to avoid further interruptions

Categories: Metablogging Tags: