Archive for October, 2005

Rationality repost

October 14th, 2005 20 comments

Discussion of game theory inevitably brings up the question of whether game theory relies on an assumption of rational behavior, and, if so, whether this is a weakness or a strength. Rather than respond, I thought I’d dig up this old post from my long-abandoned (but still planned-to-be-revived-one-day) Word for Wednesday series.

Shorter JQ: the word ‘rational’ has no meaning that cannot better be conveyed by some alternative term. Avoid it.
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Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Web 2.1

October 14th, 2005 2 comments

Those who follow buzzwords will have seen lots of references lately to Web 2.0. This is the new collaborative interweb, symbolised by the transition from (more-or-less static) personal websites to blogging (other examples are Flickr, Wikipedia and so on).

I’ve always wanted to coin a buzzword of my own, so my idea was Web 2.1. Being the .1 version, this would actually work. Links wouldn’t rot, spammers would be automagically repelled, comments wouldn’t vanish into some ethereal sub-realm of the database and so on.

But, of course, I was too slow. A month ago, this would have been an original idea, but Google already shows 65000 hits for “Web 2.1”, and a fair few of the first 100 are playing variants on the same riff. Here’s a link from Ozplogger Trevor Cook

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

What’s wrong with game theory

October 13th, 2005 23 comments

The latest Nobel Prize award to Aumann and Schelling has generated a bit of discussion about the value or otherwise of game theory. Generally speaking, economists are enthusiastic about game theory and other social scientists less so. Although I admire the work of Aumann and (even more) Schelling, as economists go, I’m a game-theory sceptic, for a fundamental reason I’ll try to explain.
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Categories: Economics - General Tags:


October 13th, 2005 21 comments

Just testing

Categories: General Tags:

Anonymous comment safe

October 12th, 2005 25 comments

I just received the report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters Inquiry into the Conduct of the 2004 Federal Election and Matters Related Thereto. Uniquely in my long experience of making submissions to such committees, all my main arguments were accepted, and embodied in recommendations of a report, with no dissent[1]. My main concern was to protect bloggers from being required to give their names and addresses and those of commenters. I argued that only paid advertisements should be subject to this requirement, and the committee agreed.

My post and submission here
A supplementary submission here
The Committee report here

Update I failed to recognise William Bowe, also quoted in the report as fellow-blogger The Poll Bludger. Well done! He has some comments on the Committee’s proposals for electoral reform here. See also Oz Politics and the Aussie WordPress blog.

fn1. There were as usual, majority and minority reports, with disagreements on topics like compulsory voting and four year terms, of which more I hope. But there was no disagreement on the issues raised in my submission.

Categories: Metablogging, Oz Politics Tags:

Earthquake appeals

October 12th, 2005 2 comments

There are now plenty of opportunities to help those affected by the earthquake in Pakistan. You can donate to the Oxfam appeal here, for example. I’m not going to run a special appeal this time, but if anyone wants to give suggestions for future activities of this kind that would be great. In the meantime, please give generously.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

The end of academic freedom at Macquarie

October 11th, 2005 46 comments

Macquarie university has run into plenty of difficulties lately what with the Fraser case and this one involving economis Peter Abelson . Dealing with repugnant and poorly-argued views like Fraser’s (he’s an unapologetic racist, arguing on the basis of pop sociology, though he’s supposed to be an academic lawyer) presents a university with great difficulties, balancing academic freedom against the need to assure students that they will be treated fairly and will not face the threat of physical violence from his unsavoury associates. I don’t think the university did a great job, but I have some sympathy for their dilemma.

The case of Peter Abelson (whom I know and respect) is a different matter altogether and illustrates the reasons we need a strong commitment to academic freedom, even at the cost of putting up with people like Fraser. It seems clear that Abelson has been punished for speaking out as he ought to in a community of scholars against declining standards in education. As with most Australian universities in the era of refom, Macquarie’s managers have no truck with notions of this kind. Their view is that the bosses of a private corporation wouldn’t tolerate criticism from the hired help, so why should the managers of a university?

If the Abelson case didn’t demonstrate this, the appointment of Stephen Schwartz as vice-chancellor to replace Di Yerbury is proof positive. While many university managers are privately hostile to academic freedom, Schwartz is an open enemy. The article linked is a fine example of the way in which hard cases like Fraser’s can be used to justify a general policy of suppressing dissenters, whistleblowers and so on (note the opening reference to the Steele case)).

I thought we had seen the last of Schwartz when he left Australia to run Brunel university in the UK. But, as happened previously at Murdoch, there was a staff vote of no-confidence and he’s moving on.

While I’m on the topic of education the idea that finishing high school is only for future professionals and that working class kids should drop out at year 10 and try to get a trade has reared its ugly head again (via Tim Dunlop and Andrew Leigh

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

The revolving door

October 11th, 2005 26 comments

According to today’s Fin, Bob Carr has been hired as an advisor by Macquarie Bank, and will work for them out of his (publicly-funded) ex-Premier’s office. The Fin notes that this is “sensitive, given the NSW government’s role in the infrastructure programs that have driven the bank’s growth”, and that is putting it mildly. Of all the post-political jobbery we have seen in the last decade or so, this would have to be the worst, beating out even such egregious cases as Reith and Wooldridge.

The Fin’s editorial calls for a cooling-off period between leaving politics and taking on jobs of this kind, but even a three-year gap, as in the US would not be adequate in a case like this. The Carr government’s dealings with Macquarie have involved billions of dollars of public money, and contributed (probably more than any other government) to Macquarie’s reputation as a “millionaire factory”. Any prospect of future employment when those deals were made, no matter how distant, would have created an unacceptable conflict of interest.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

More Nobel congratulations

October 10th, 2005 10 comments

To Robert J. Aumann and Thomas C. Schelling for the Economics Nobel, and Mohammad El-Baradei for the Peace Prize. Aumann and Schelling are worthy winners. And if people had listened to El-Baradei a couple of years ago, we could have avoided the whole Iraq disaster.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Monday message board

October 10th, 2005 49 comments

It’s time, once again for the Monday Message Board. As usual (in fact, more so than usual), civilised discussion and no coarse language, please.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:


October 9th, 2005 92 comments

Commenter Brigid alerted me to this study claiming that Religious belief can cause damage to a society, contributing towards high murder rates, abortion, sexual promiscuity and suicide. On the other hand, Jack Strocchi points to Niall Ferguson claiming that A faith vacuum haunts Europe.

A striking feature of these completing claims is that the alleged effects are the opposite of what might be expected. According to the Journal of Religion and Society study, religion is supposed to cause things condemned by Christianity, and most other major religions. On the other hand, Ferguson appears concerned (as usual) with the decline of martial ‘virtues’ that are antithetical to Christianity as preached by Jesus. At least that’s the only sense I can make of the leap in his final sentence where he asks

how far has their own loss of religious faith turned Britain into a soft target — not so much for the superstition Chesterton feared, but for the fanaticism of others?

What’s even more striking is how little difference the presence or absence of religious belief seems to make. Americans and Europeans, not to mention Red-staters and Blue-staters, don’t seem to behave in radically different ways[1], and the differences that can be observed don’t have any obvious relationship to the inferences you might make if you supposed that one group believed in the Bible and the other did not. Neither the Ten Commandments nor the teachings of Jesus seem to command any more practical adherence in America than in Europe, while it’s hard to see how free-market economics and military unilateralism have any particular basis in Christianity.

The (apparent) unimportance of religious belief for social outcomes was one the great surprises of the 20th century, although, like most negative discoveries, its significance is not fully appreciated. In the 18th and 19th centuries, nearly everyone thought that religious belief made a big difference, for good or ill. Enlightenment figures like Diderot believed that man would never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest. On the other side of the fence, Nietzsche’s philosophy was built on the observation that “God is dead” and the assumption that some transcendent replacement was required if we were not to collapse in nihilistic despair. Most in the 19th century agreed with Voltaire that if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him, since social order could never be maintained without the availability of Heaven and Hell to supplement earthly rewards and punishments.

So far at least, it seems that neither side is right. As Fergusson points out, the collapse of religious belief in Britain has not produced an Age of Reason – superstitions of all kinds flourish. And Parliamentary politics goes on much as it has for the past two centuries or so, despite the greatly diminished influence of kings and priests. On the other side of the coin, there is no sign of social collapse. Most obviously, crime rates are far lower than they were in the days of Victorian values, let alone in the medieval era when virtually everyone was a believer.

This is, I think a good thing. The more that religion is a purely private matter, with no particular social implications, the less likely we are to fight about it.

fn1. Ferguson briefly concedes this point in relation to sexual behaviour, but ploughs on regardless.

Categories: Books and culture Tags:

Bad news and some good

October 9th, 2005 6 comments

The terrible earthquake in Pakistan is reported to have killed 18000 people and a mudslide in Guatemala has killed 1400. I haven’t found notices of any relief appeals yet, but there will certainly be a great need for aid in both the short and long term. Tragedies like this are both a challenge and an opportunity to demonstrate that rhetoric about our concern for people everywhere in the world has some basis in reality. And remember that, while dramatic events like this grab the headlines, malnutrition, malaria, HIV/AIDS and so on are killing every day.

On the good news front, a UQ research team claims to have developed a 100 per cent effective vaccine against cervical cancer. Assuming this works as promised, it will save many thousands of lives in the long run. The biggest benefits will be a long time coming it appears because of the time lag between infection with human papilloma virus and the development of the disease, but it’s still a marvellous discovery.

Categories: World Events Tags:

The tribute vice pays to virtue

October 8th, 2005 13 comments

It’s worth recording that JI leader Abu Bashir has denounced the latest Bali bombing. Of course this is stinking hypocrisy – Bashir has been up to his neck in terrorism. If he had really changed his views, he would have confessed his previous involvement and repudiated his past actions and words including his praise for bin Laden.

Still, it is significant that Bashir feels the need to make such a statement. Partly no doubt he’s trying to get out of jail as soon as possible. But it’s also an indication that he realises how little popular support he has in Indonesia. If he had a strong support base he would be defying the authorities, and seeking a triumphant release, rather than currying favour with statements like this.

Finally, although it’s unlikely that Bashir has any connection with day-to-day operations, this statement makes it more likely that the latest attack was carried out by a splinter group and that some associated with JI have realised the futility of their resort to terrorism, particularly domestic terrorism.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Weekend reflections

October 8th, 2005 21 comments

Weekend Reflections is on again. Please comment on any topic of interest (civilised discussion and no coarse language, please). Feel free to put in contributions more lengthy than for the Monday Message Board or standard commnets.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Gaia and Intelligent Design

October 7th, 2005 12 comments

I was thinking about various forms of pseudo-science, and it struck me that the Gaia Hypothesis (in its strong version) is probably the most plausible version of Intelligent Design. Google reveals that this thought is far from original, and that something very like it has been pushed by some supporters of ID, such as Dembski.

In my view, the Gaia hypothesis is a variant on the anthropic principle. The fact that we’re here on earth implies that the planet must have developed in a way that sustains life, but this observation is, as Nick Bostrom says of the anthropic principle “too weak to do any real scientific work.”

Categories: Science Tags:

Human Rights Act Campaign

October 7th, 2005 28 comments

New Matilda is running a campaign for Australia to introduce a Human Rights Act. I meant to post about their launch, which was on Wednesday, but I’ve been rushed with work and harassed by spammers. Anyway, have a look at the site and see what you think.

I’ve never given really careful thought to the question of a Human Rights Act or Bill of Rights, but obviously the issue is sharper now, with so many people willing to throw away basic rights in the hope that this will help to stop terrorism. So throw in some comments, and I’ll try to give a considered response later on.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

A paper tiger ?

October 7th, 2005 13 comments

The BBC reports that the first meeting of the Asia-Pacific climate pact, scheduled to take place in November in Australia, has been postponed. I’ve been waiting to see what concrete measures this group (touted as an alternative to Kyoto) would come up with, and not expecting much. Obviously someone has realised that a meeting with no agenda is not going to do much for anyone.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Hard Cash and Climate change

October 5th, 2005 31 comments

Tim Worstall gets us past that pesky NYT paywall to link approvingly to a John Tierney column arguing that the way to encourage energy conservation in the US is not to fiddle with standards but to raise prices. Broadly speaking I agree. At a minimum, getting prices right is a necessary condition for an adjustment to sustainable levels of energy use. Nevertheless, the rate of adjustment and the smoothness with which adjustment takes place can be greatly enhanced by the adoption of consistent pro-conservation policies, or retarded by the adoption of inconsistent and incoherent policies.

This is as good a time as any to restate the point that, given a gradual adjustment, very large reductions in energy use and CO2 emissions can be achieved at very modest cost. Rather than argue from welfare economics this time, I’ve looked at the kind of adjustments that would be needed to cut CO2 emissions from motor vehicle use (one of the least responsive) and argued that price increases would bring this about over time, without significant pain.

Nicholas Gruen has some related thoughts
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Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Singularity draft review (crossposted at CT)

October 5th, 2005 8 comments

My draft review of Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity is below. Comments much appreciated, and thanks to commenters on an earlier post.

Update Lots of great comments here and at Crooked Timber. This will improve the final version a lot, and is one of the ways in which blogging works really well for me.

I’ve finally received my copy of Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity, which was posted to me by its American publisher six weeks ago …
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Categories: Books and culture Tags:

Comment problems

October 4th, 2005 8 comments

Having deleted some comments myself, I now seem to be having problems with comments disappearing by some process I can’t follow. I’m looking into it, but if you have a point of great eloquence to make, save it on your own system before committing it to the ether.

Update The problem seems to have been caused when I IP-blocked a particularly persistent spammer. I’ve gone back to manual moderation (groan), so comments seem to be coming through OK.

Categories: Metablogging Tags:


October 4th, 2005 18 comments

Congratulations to Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, winners of the 2005 Nobel Prize for Medicine for the discovery that stomach ulcers are caused, not by stress as was formerly believed, but by a bacterium Helicobacter pylori. This is a classic Nobel-type discovery beginning with Warren’s acute observation, and continuing with Marshall’s work in culturing and identifying the bacterium.

It’s a striking observation that, thirty years ago, nearly everybody “knew” two things about stress: it was the primary cause of ulcers and it was particularly common among people men in executive jobs. Although widely held, these beliefs had never been properly tested by research and both turned out to be false. Surprising as it may seem, it’s more stressful to be ordered about than to order other people about. More precisely, the prevalence of stress-related diseases increases as you go down hierarchies of authority, status and so on.

The Nobel Prize for Economics[1] must be coming up soon. I have some ideas as to who should win, but as I’m very peripherally involved in the selection process, I’ll keep them to myself.

fn1. Strictly speaking, the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel

Categories: Science Tags:

Solidarity with Indonesia

October 3rd, 2005 15 comments

Most people have made up their minds already about the way the US, Australia and other Western countries should respond to terrorism, and I’ve stated my own views plenty of times, so I’ll focus on a different issue.

The latest terror attacks, although directed at foreign tourists, are first and foremost an attack on Indonesia and the Indonesian people. It seems pretty clear that Bali is a favoured target in part because the local population is largely (though by no means entirely) non-Muslim and the killers regard any of their fellow-citizens who do not share their religious beliefs as worthy of death. Their aim, along with groups like the unlamented Laskar Jihad is to promote civil war and the overthrow of democracy in Indonesia, so that they can implement their idea of an Islamic caliphate.

Fortunately their actions have been counterproductive. The Iraq war has been highly unpopular, but the great achievement of JI has been to make themselves even more unpopular. The Indonesian people have, with few exceptions, rejected terrorism and radical Islamism and the Indonesian government has responded effectively. In both the Bali and Jakarta bombings, there have been numerous arrests and convictions. It’s unfortunate that they couldn’t nail Abu Bashir for his most serious crimes, but it was better to stick to the rule of law than to make this evil man a martyr by violating it (and of course a conviction would have been much more likely if his main lieutenant, Hambali, had been handed over to the Indonesians, instead of being held by the US ).

The outcome we’ve seen is all the more impressive when we remember that only a few years ago, Indonesia was a corrupt dictatorship riddled with religious/ethnic strife in Ambon, Aceh and other places.

Whatever our differences with Indonesia, this is a time for solidarity with its governmetn and people.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Monday message board

October 3rd, 2005 41 comments

It’s time, once again for the Monday Message Board. This is an opportunity for people to state their views on the best way to respond to terrorism, but I’m going to delete any comment I regard as abusive. More generally, civilised discussion and no coarse language, please.

Update There’s been an upsurge in hostile comments, flaming and so on lately, and I’m responding by being more active in deleting comments, some of which I would have let slide in the past. Please stick to civilised discussion of the issues: there are plenty of blogs that welcome flamewars, but this isn’t one.

Further update It seems that some readers can view comments that are “awaiting moderation” (maybe just their own, I’m not sure about this). I’ve now deleted everything in the moderation queue. I’m sorry if people think I’m being overaggressive, but I’m going to run things the way I think best. Anyone with different ideas on how to run a blog is free to implement them.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Bali again

October 2nd, 2005 8 comments

Another terrorist atrocity in Bali, presumably the work of Jemaah Islamiah or one of its offshoots. As usual with JI’s attacks, the majority of victims are Indonesians, but one Australian, a 16-year-old boy, has been killed and a large number wounded. Some commentary later, perhaps, but for the moment I’ll just express my sympathy for those killed and hopes for the recovery of the injured.

Categories: World Events Tags:


October 1st, 2005 46 comments

The New York Times has an article by Brian Greene, a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia about Einstein’s famous equation E=mc². In it he says:

The standard illustrations of Einstein’s equation – bombs and power stations – have perpetuated a belief that E = mc² has a special association with nuclear reactions and is thus removed from ordinary activity.

This isn’t true. When you drive your car, E = mc² is at work. As the engine burns gasoline to produce energy in the form of motion, it does so by converting some of the gasoline’s mass into energy, in accord with Einstein’s formula. When you use your MP3 player, E = mc² is at work. As the player drains the battery to produce energy in the form of sound waves, it does so by converting some of the battery’s mass into energy, as dictated by Einstein’s formula. As you read this text, E = mc² is at work. The processes in the eye and brain, underlying perception and thought, rely on chemical reactions that interchange mass and energy, once again in accord with Einstein’s formula.

I only did high school science, but I’m sure I remember learning the exact opposite of this claim, that chemical reactions like combustion leave mass and energy unchanged, only converting some of the chemical energy in the fuel into kinetic energy, and some into heat, with a net increase in entropy. Only nuclear reactions, I was taught, converted mass to energy. Wikipedia seems to back this up, though it isn’t absolutely unambiguous.

Can anyone set me (or, less plausibly, Greene) straight here?

fn1. As an aside, I also remember reading that a more correct version would be E=M. The term in c² just reflects a poor choice of units in the metric system. But maybe that’s wrong too.

Categories: Science Tags:

Toll opposes privatisation

October 1st, 2005 10 comments

Today’s AFR (subscription only, and not yet accessible on Factiva, but on p 10 of the print edition) reports the head of major private transport companies Toll Holdings opposing the privatisation of rail infrastructure, on the grounds that “

if one of those infrastructure groups got hold of the rail network [owned by Macquarie Infrastructure Group, as noted in the report-JQ] it could go the way of Sydney airport. We could see costs jacked up

Mr Little also said that private infrastructure groups would not invest adequately.

I made some similar points in my piece on Telstra a couple of weeks ago, and in my latest piece (over the fold), but this is the first time I’ve seen a large private corporation acknowledging the poor performance of privatised infrastructure networks.
Read more…

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Weekend reflections

October 1st, 2005 5 comments

Weekend Reflections is on again. Please comment on any topic of interest (civilised discussion and no coarse language, please). Feel free to put in contributions more lengthy than for the Monday Message Board or standard commnets.

Categories: Regular Features Tags: