Archive for March, 2006

Weekend reflections

March 17th, 2006 24 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 comments.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Communications reform

March 17th, 2006 13 comments

My piece in yesterday’s Fin is over the fold. I go into full free-market mode attacking the government’s deal with the monopolists. Ken Davidson in the Age goes the other way, arguing for tight regulation in the public interest, but I can’t see this ever happening to Murdoch or even Packer jnr. On the other hand, I guess we’re not going to see their spectrum taken away and auctioned off either. On the whole, though, I think the only useful intervention here is support for a strong public broadcasting sector. As far as the commercial networks go, the best hope is to encourage the kind of outside competition made possible by digital technology.

The point on which Ken and I agree, I think, is that we now have the worst of both worlds: lots of intervention, but in the interests of monopolists, not the public.
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Categories: General Tags:

The traditionality of modernity (crossposted at CT)

March 16th, 2006 18 comments

As was pointed out in the comments to my karate post, the observation that most traditions are invented is getting somewhat traditional itself, going back as it does to the exposure of the Donation of Constantine as a forgery.

So maybe it’s time to turn all this around, and make the point that we are now living in a society that’s far more tradition-bound than that of the 19th Century, and in some respects more so than at any time since at least the Middle Ages.
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Categories: Books and culture Tags:

Malaria Appeal

March 16th, 2006 Comments off

Over at Deltoid, Tim Lambert is holding a malaria appeal for The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. It’s the same deal as those we’ve had here. Tim will match contributions up to $300. Go on over and give what you can.

Categories: Environment Tags:

TV time

March 15th, 2006 29 comments

I don’t watch a lot of commercial TV these days. Apart from the news, Futurama is pretty much it. But I’ve noticed that programs no longer seem to start and end at the advertised time. I heard somewhere that this is a deliberate strategy to stop people changing channels. If correct, this is both deplorable and self-defeating. Deplorable because the TV networks have been given a monopoly by the government: if they want to keep it, they should at least act responsibly.

Self-defeating because there are so many alternatives, including DVDs and the internets, not to mention good old-fashioned books. The collective effect of this kind of gaming is that commercial TV as a whole is even less attractive.

BTW, I’ll be in tomorrow’s (thursdays) Fin, responding to Coonan’s media package. Shorter JQ: It s*x.

Categories: Economic policy, Life in General Tags:

Guest post

March 15th, 2006 6 comments

Reader Jane Harris addresses the vexed question “How many umpires?”, first in econospeak and then in verse. The occasion is an AFL proposal to allow goal and boundary umps to award free kicks.

Comments welcome (rhyming couplets please)
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Categories: Sport Tags:

The interest rate bears …

March 14th, 2006 45 comments

… of whom I am one, are starting to growl again.

The cenral tenet of interest rate bearishness is that if interest rates are low enough to generate negative savings, as is the case in the US and Australia, they are too low to be sustained. The counterargument, put most forcefully by Ben Bernanke is that someone must be willing to lend at these low interest rates, and this lending must reflect a “global savings glut”. Bears respond that the supposed glut does not reflect savings by households or business, but is really a liquidity glut created by expansionary monetary policy around the world, which must eventually come to an end, or be dissipated in inflation.
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Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Anyone but Beazley, yet again

March 14th, 2006 62 comments

With the news that Kim Beazley now has the support of 18 per cent of Australian voters, relative to the solid, but still unimpressive, alternative of John Howard, hasn’t the time come to bring his sorry political career to an end?

After a ministerial career distinguished only by longevity, and a series of failures as Opposition leader, the one thing Beazley had going for him was his reputation as a good bloke. Whether or not this reputation was deserved in the past, Beazley has trashed it by his support for the vindictive purges organised by the Victorian Right against independents and Latham supporters. Typically for Beazley, having done the wrong thing, he couldn’t even deliver the goods, as Simon Crean managed to convince enough of the voters stacked in by Conroy that they should think for themselves.

My first preferences for a replacement are, not surprisingly, Kevin Rudd or Julia Gillard. But I’d settle for anyone (except Conroy, I guess) who could muster a majority of the Caucus.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:


March 13th, 2006 3 comments

A bit late I’ll remind people that the first of the “BrisScience” lectures is on tonight. The lectures will involve a number of excellent scientists giving lectures on their topics of interest for the general public. The website is here. All of the lectures are free, there is one talk a month, and they will all be held in the Judith Wright Center of Contemporary Arts in the Valley.

The first lecture is by John Mattick on “junk” DNA, which IIRC has been the subject of a very dubious intellectual property claim by an Australian entrepreneur. But the talk won’t be about IP, which should make it more interesting for about 99 per cent of the potential audience. John argues that the extra DNA is the opposite of junk: it may be ultimately responsible for the development of all life more complex than bacteria.

Categories: Science Tags:

Monday message board

March 13th, 2006 22 comments

It’s time, once again for the Monday Message Board. As usual, civilised discussion and absolutely no coarse language, please.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Milosevic is dead. Hooray?

March 12th, 2006 52 comments

Like John Howard, I won’t be shedding any tears over Slobodan Milosevic, whose death, apparently from natural causes, has been announced.

An obvious question raised by his death is whether (and how) his trial on a variety of war crimes charges could have been accelerated. The fact that he will never be properly convicted is certainly unfortunate. Even if it would have had no short run impact on opinion among Serbian nationalists, it would have helped to set the historical record straight. Milosevic’s death increases the urgency of capturing his main instruments, Mladic and Karadzic, whose connection to the crimes of the Bosnian war is more immediate, and whose trial could drive home the evil of Milosevic’s policies.

Still, the long trial in The Hague is better than the alternative on offer in Baghdad, where Saddam Hussein, whose wars cost millions of lives, is being tried, and may be executed, for a comparatively minor crime, but one which is politically convenient for the purposes of victors’ justice.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Saving the Macquarie Marshes

March 12th, 2006 5 comments

I’ve been arguing for some time that we won’t have a coherent water policy until governments accept the need to buy water back for the environment. Here’s a good example

Categories: Environment Tags:

Something you're not likely to see too often

March 11th, 2006 36 comments

A favorable citation of my arguments at Tech Central Station. Normally, I’d be pretty concerned about this, but it’s from Tim Worstall, the sole exception, AFAIK, to the otherwise uniform hackishness of that site[1].

Tim quotes my discussion of the Baumol effect to argue that the fact that the US spends so much more on health care than other countries is not necessarily a bad thing. At the aggregate level he’s right. We should expect the share of income spent on services like health and education to rise as income increases, driven by productivity growth in the goods-producing sector. In the case of medicine, the regular discovery of new and costly treatments adds to the problem (there’s an argument that this technological innovation is an endogenous result of the way health care is financed but I’ll leave that for another day).

Worstall is also right to imply that systems of public provision have, at least in some cases, led to pressure to hold expenditure below the socially optimal level. This was most obviously true of the National Health Service in Britain, though expenditure and service provision have increased greatly since the election of the Blair government, and are set to rise further. The same pressures are evident here in Australia.

That said, when you look at the US system in detail, it’s clearly not a matter of paying more to get more. While the health care available to the top 20 per cent of Americans (those with unrestricted Blue Cross style insurance) is probably the best in the world, the average American (insured by an HMO or a fee-for-service insurer with restrictions) doesn’t get any better care than in other developed countries and the uninsured are much worse off.

The real problems are the financing system (Worstall gets off a neat crack at the expense of JK Galbraith here, but the real problems go back to the 1930s, as discussed by Robert Moss in When All Else Fails) and the very high salaries of US doctors compared to those in other countries, reflecting both higher inequality in the US and the huge cost of becoming a doctor through the US higher education system.

One result is that, despite relying primarily on private, employer-provided insurance, the US government actually spends more, relative to GDP, on health than most others.

Finally, there’s the balance between medical care and public health, broadly defined. It’s well known that the US has a lower life expectancy than other countries that spend much less on medical care. This isn’t however, primarily due to inadequate access to lifesaving treatments (the poor miss out on lots of routine health and dental care, but they can usually get emergency treatment). Rather, it’s the result of unhealthy living conditions broadly defined to include guns, car crashes, the consequences of obesity and so on. These things aren’t easily fixed, but there’s more resistance to doing anything about them in the US than in most other places.

fn1. Why he keeps writing for them, I don’t know. Tim would do much better as the opposition writer in residence at a left or liberal site, a slot that is very hard to fill in my experience. He makes good points, is willing to admit that he’s wrong on occasion, and is gracious when he catches someone else in error, as he has done with me. Still, that’s his business.

Weekend reflections

March 10th, 2006 44 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 comments.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Factions, yet again

March 9th, 2006 17 comments

One of the points coming up in discussion of the ALP faction issue is the claim that while factions are destructive in the Federal Party they have worked well at a state level. I think this is the reverse of the truth. The faction system worked reasonably well at the Federal level throughout the Hawke-Keating years. At the state level, the system has been poisonous and destructive ever since it took its current form around the time of the Split in the mid-50s.

Full-scale factionalism has been most dominant in Queensland, NSW and Victoria. In Queensland, the AWU and Old Guard factions kept Peter Beatty and the reformers out for years, promoting instead a succession of hacks and no-hopers, most notably Keith Wright, later convicted of sex offences against young girls.

The NSW Right has been similarly dismal, failing miserably to beat the corrupt Robin Askin and losing horribly whenever it put up one of its own favored sons as a leader or contender for any position of substance (Pat Hills, Barrie Unsworth, Michael Lee and almost certainly Morris Iemma as well). Labor in NSW has only succeeded when outsiders like Wran and Carr (a member of the Right, but not a Sussex St hack) have managed to get the top job.

Victorian factions have been a source of grief and disaster for fifty years, and obviously nothing has changed. From Santamaria & Kennelly[1] to Hartley to Conroy, whatever the ideology, the style hasn’t changed.

Labor’s performance at the state level is, and always has been, inversely proportional to the strength of the factions.

fn1. I always remember my father describing how, as a returned serviceman, he joined the ALP (along with my uncle) in the hope of doing something for the good of the working class, and how Pat Kennelly (the “Kingmaker”) led them to quit in disgust.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

The great purge

March 9th, 2006 4 comments

The Brisbane Bullets have sacked their captain Derek Rucker, having already axed Daniel Egan and Lanard Copeland. It seems pretty clear that Bobby Brannen will go as well. While Copeland has probably reached the end of his stellar career, the others still have plenty to contribute. They seem to have paid the price for the fact that an all-star team didn’t live up to expectations. Given that all of them turned in some superb performances at times, I would have thought the blame for the team not coming together lay most obviously with the coach or management.

I grew up following suburban club football in Adelaide. In those days, there were occasional changes but, broadly speaking, you took on a club for life, either as a player or a follower, and vice versa. I know times have changed, but I can’t say I warm to the wholesale shifts that characterise Australian basketball in particular. Not only do players move all the time but clubs come and go at a great rate, mainly for financial rather than sporting reasons.

Having moved to Brisbane just after the demise of the Canberra Cannons, and just when Derek Rucker (whom I’d previously followed in Townsville) returned, I thought I was in for a bit of stability. Instead reform and structural adjustment are the order of the day. I’ll find it hard to muster much enthusiasm for the Bullets next season.

Categories: Sport Tags:

Call for help (I refuse to type bl*g)

March 9th, 2006 20 comments

I’m trying to get started on a reasonably substantial analysis of the economics of policies to mitigate climate change. I thought this would be a good time to acknowledge a couple of readers who’ve sent me useful links, and ask if anyone has any others. Of course, I’ve already got a mountain of stuff to get through.

Waratah points me to this link suggesting that California could achieve a net benefit from a program generating a substantial reduction in emissions, and SimonJM has pointed to this useful site.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Factions (repost from 2004)

March 9th, 2006 3 comments

Reading the comments thread, I notice a few themes that seemed familiar, and checking back I found this post from 2004, which seemed worth reprinting

Given that Labor obviously has to do something more than wait for the housing bubble to burst, one simple (but not easy!) organisational step would be to abolish factions. That is, membership of any organised factional grouping ought to be treated like membership of a rival political party, as grounds for automatic expulsion. Of course, it would be impossible to prevent informal or secret factions from operating, as they do in all parties. But, to my knowledge, the only major political party anywhere in the world with a faction system comparable to Labor’s is the notoriously corrupt Liberal Democratic Party in Japan, and even here PM Koizumi is largely independent of the factions.

There was a time (from the 1950s split to sometime in the 1980s) when the factional groupings corresponded to ideological divisions. But that has long since ceased to be true. It’s probably true that the average member of the Left faction is a little more likely to favor a ‘progressive’ line on social issues than the average member of the Right and Centre, but that’s about the strength of it. Each of the major factions is subdivided into smaller groups, often little more than extended families, with their retainers and servants.

Nowadays, the factions exist because they exist. No-one is willing to bell the cat. However, this is the kind of thing Latham could take on, and perhaps even win. It would certainly be more in his line than Simon Crean’s lame achievement of changing the union voting ratio from 60 to 50 per cent[1].

fn1. While I’m dreaming, I’d like an end to the formal link between the unions and the ALP. And a pony.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

The invention of tradition

March 8th, 2006 12 comments

CP Snow once said that all ancient British traditions date to the second half of the 19th Century, and his only error was to limit this claim to Britain. The great majority of real traditions having been swept away or reduced to irrelevance with the rise of capitalism, the 19th century saw the rise of a whole set of new ones, which were then fixed in shape by the system of nation-states, each with their own newly-codified language and officially sanctioned history that took shape at the same time[1]

Via Barista and an interesting link on the theatrical origins of the ninja, I came to this great piece by Craig Colbeck on Karate and Modernity, a lot closer to my own interests than black-clad stage assassins. Although the jargon is a bit heavy going in places, there’s a pretty clear argument to show that the Okinawa karate tradition developed in the late C19 and was derived from China.

Living in the 21st century, and in Australia, I can’t say I’m too worried about the invention of tradition. Anything more than 100 years old is old enough for me.

OT PS: At my local shops at the weekend, I passed a woman (20s?) wearing a T-shirt that stated “Kickboxers are Nancy Boys”. I was struck by the rather antique slang (unless it’s come back in while I wasn’t paying attention), but also a bit bemused by the subtext. Worn by a man, the implication would presumably be one of aggressive bravado, but I don’t know what it means worn by a woman. And what about women kickboxers?

fn1, This process began a bit earlier in Britain and France and still hasn’t reached finality, but the crucial period, including German and Italian unification and the creation of the US in its current form, took place between 1850 and 1900.

Categories: Life in General Tags:


March 8th, 2006 53 comments

This event, in which a prominent indigenous opera singer suffered a stroke at a Griffith University bus stop and was left semi-conscious and vomiting for hours on end by commuters and bus drivers alike, is a source of shame for Brisbane, and should be one for all Australians.

Obviously, despite being a well-dressed visitor to a university, Delmae Barton’s skin colour was enough to create the assumption that she was drunk. I don’t want to throw too many stones at the individuals involved: the fact that we live in a society where drunken black people are a fairly common sight is just as shameful as the episode itself. And I don’t have any easy answers. But it’s something for which all Australians need to take some responsibility.

Categories: Life in General Tags:


March 8th, 2006 46 comments

Julia Gillard and Simon Crean have both had good things to say about factions in the ALP lately. As Gillard observes, it’s no longer factions but fractions.

This would be a good time for Gillard in particular to put her arguments into practice by proposing the dissolution of the Left faction in the Parliamentary party and, failing that, withdrawing from the group. It’s been at least a decade since the “Left” has had any distinct policy position, and unlike the Right, the faction doesn’t justify its existence by delivering the top jobs to its members. Far from providing effective opposition to the Right machine, the Left justifies the existence of the Right.

If, say, 40 per cent of the Parliamentary Party were independent of any faction, and agreed to vote against candidates generated by intra-party factions, it wouldn’t be hard to peel off enough members of the Right to bring the whole corrupt system to an end at the Parliamentary level. And if the Parliamentary leadership was anti-factional, their votes would control the National Executive and permit intervention to break the factions in the state branches.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

No surprises here

March 8th, 2006 31 comments

It’s a while since I’ve done a full-length post on the AWB scandal, so I thought it might be time to see if anything surprising had emerged. Based on past experience, it seemed pretty clear that we could expect to find out that

1. Both Downer and Howard knew that the AWB was paying kickbacks to the Iraqi regime

2. This information was transmitted in a way that preserves deniability, so no conclusive proof will emerge

3. No government minister will resign

4. Endless hair-splitting defences of the government’s actions in this matter will emerge from those who have previously made a loud noise about Oil for Food.

The only surprise has been how thoroughly each of these has been confirmed.
Read more…

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:


March 7th, 2006 1 comment

Occasional commenter “mick” has been in touch to advise me of a public lecture series to be held in Brisbane. The lecture series is entitled “BrisScience”, and will involve a number of excellent scientists giving lectures on their topics of interest for the general public. The website is here. All of the lectures are free, there is one talk a month, and they will all be held in the Judith Wright Center of Contemporary Arts in the Valley.

The first lecture is by John Mattick on “junk” DNA, which IIRC has been the subject of a very dubious intellectual property claim by an Australian entrepreneur. But the talk won’t be about IP, which should make it more interesting for about 99 per cent of the potential audience. John argues that the extra DNA is the opposite of junk: it may be ultimately responsible for the development of all life more complex than bacteria.

Categories: Science Tags:

Blonde joke

March 6th, 2006 32 comments

The latest evolutionary psychology[1] theory to do the rounds is that blondeness evolved as a selection strategem for women trying to attract scarce mates in the harsh and male-scarce conditions of Ice Age Europe. According to this report in the Times, the theory has been formulated by an anthropologist, Peter Frost. His supporting argument is that blondeness is a signal of high levels of oestrogen. I suppose I should wait for the article which is supposed to come out in Evolution and Human Behaviour, but I can’t resist pointing to an obvious hole and an alternative explanation.

The obvious hole is that blond(e)ness is not a sex-linked characteristic. If light hair colour signals high oestrogen, blond men should have a lot of trouble attracting mates. Tempted as I am by this hypothesis, I can’t say I’ve seen any evidence to back it up.

The alternative explanation (not at all novel) is that fair hair arose in conjunction with pale skin, as a straightforward physical adaption to the move away from the tropics – less need for pigment, or maybe more need to absorb vitamin D.
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Categories: Science Tags:

Monday message board

March 6th, 2006 58 comments

It’s time, once again for the Monday Message Board. As usual, civilised discussion and absolutely no coarse language, please.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

What I've been reading

March 5th, 2006 15 comments

The Feynmann processor: an introduction to quantum computation by Gerard Milburn. Like (I expect) most of us, I’ve never understood anything about quantum computation and have been vaguely suspicious that the whole project involves some kind of spurious informational free lunch. On the other hand, having read Feynmann’s excellent QED, I’m reasonably comfortable with the basic ideas of quantum electrodynamics (though I’ve never got on top of the nasty integrals required to actually work anything out). Feynmann’s discussion in terms of probabilty amplitudes steers clear of all that Heisenberg-style mysticism that seems to make the whole subject incomprehensible.

Anyway, this post by John Holbo at CT, and particularly this comment, led me to a Wikipedia article which made it clear how you quantum processing could yield impressive gains without any magical mumbo-jumbo, so I went on to look for more, and found this book in the library. It’s very easy going for a general reader, and makes things pretty clear, though I took a couple of readings to get the details straight.

As it happens, Gerard is at UQ and got a Federation Fellowship at the same time I did, so I’ll probably be pestering him for more info on all this.

Categories: Books and culture Tags:

Weekend reflections

March 3rd, 2006 28 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 comments.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Good timing

March 3rd, 2006 33 comments

My opinion piece in yesterday’s Fin (over the fold) was about Ministerial responsibility, drawing on the discussion we had here. My central point was that Ministers should be esponsible for their own offices. That is, if a Minister’s personal staff are complicit in breaches of the law, or fail to act on information, the Minister should be presumed responsible for this.

Today comes the news that Howard’s office got a cable about the AWB scandal in 2000, but neglected to tell him about it.
Read more…

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia

March 2nd, 2006 123 comments

When I first saw this Fox caption capture from Media Matters linked at Surfdom, I thought it was some sort of aberration. But the idea that civil war in Iraq would be a good thing has already made it into the opinion pages of the Oz, propounded by Daniel Pipes. The same from James Joyner and Vodkapundit, though Glenn Reynolds demurs mildly.

Meanwhile, as Tim D notes, doublethink is SOP at Fox. As far as I can tell, the official pro-war position now emerging is

* there is no civil war in Iraq
* there will be no civil war in Iraq
* if civil war comes, it won’t be our fault
* when civil war comes, it will be a good thing

Unfortunately, at this point there’s not much anyone can do. The US and Uk have long since lost control of the situation, and the dynamic has gone beyond the control of any individual or group in Iraq. We’ll just have to hope that the Iraqi leaders (Sistani and Sadr on the Shia side, and the various groups contending to represent the Sunni Arabs and Kurds, among others) can pull something out of the fire between them.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Wikipedia and sausages

March 1st, 2006 39 comments

Sometime in the next couple of days, the one-millionth article will be added to the English-language version of Wikipedia. It’s an impressive achievement for a project that’s only five years old , and it’s already clear that Wikipedia has surpassed its main competitors, Encyclopedia Britannica and Microsoft’s Encarta in many important respects. Neither Britannica’s 200-year history and expert staff nor the Microsoft juggernaut have proved a match for Wikipedia’s ten thousand or so regular contributors, and thousands of occasional helpers. While many criticisms of Wikipedia have been made (as with most things, the most comprehensive source for such criticisms is Wikipedia, none has really dented either Wikipedia’s credibility or its growth.

Still, as Bismarck is supposed to have said

If you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made.”

The process by which Wikipedia entries are produced is, in many cases, far from edifying: the marvel, as with democracies and markets, is that the outcomes are as good as they are.

I’ve been active on Wikipedia for several months now, and found out some interesting things.
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Categories: Metablogging Tags: