Archive for August, 2007

Subprime and PPPs

August 31st, 2007 7 comments

My column from yesterday’s Fin, comparing the US subprime lending boom with PPPs in Australia, is over the fold.
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AAPG abandons delusionism

August 30th, 2007 12 comments

Until recently, the American Association of Petroleum Geologists was the only significant scientific organization with an official position rejecting anthropogenic global warming. Issued in 1999, it claimed that “Recently published research results do not support the supposition of an anthropogenic cause of global climate change”. AAPG has abandoned that position and issued a new position statement.

The new position statement is equivocal, beginning with the observation that “the AAPG membership is divided on the degree of influence that anthropogenic CO2 has on recent and potential global temperature increases”, and going on to say “Certain climate simulation models predict that the warming trend will continue, as reported through NAS, AGU, AAAS, and AMS. AAPG respects these scientific opinions but wants to add that the current climate warming projections could fall within well-documented natural variations in past climate and observed temperature data.”

Still, its a big advance on the embrace of delusionism that led to the 1999 statement and to the embarrassing decision in 2006 to give a science journalism award to Michael Crichton. Of course, this will have no effect on those who get their science from fiction writers, opinion columnists and rightwing thinktanks, but it’s encouraging nonetheless.

Categories: Science Tags:

Socratic Forum

August 29th, 2007 15 comments

Long known as the Athens of the South for its vibrant intellectual life*, Brisbane is treating us to yet another feast for the mind, a Socratic Forum on the topic “That Canberra is taking too much power from the states”, which will be held at Parliament House (6-7:30 pm) tonight. I’ll be speaking along with Andrew Bartlett, Jim Soorley, George Brandis and others.

* A joke of course, but Brisbane is making up for lost time. There’s a lot more enthusiasm for events like this here than I’ve encountered in places where such things have been around for a long time. And that’s reflected in the frequency and range of these events – this is my third plug this week, and there’s plenty more happening.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Ozonomics in Brisbane

August 28th, 2007 11 comments

For any Brisbane readers who haven’t already made their plans for this evening, there’s a book event run by the Brisbane Institute at the Customs House tonight. Andrew Charlton will present a talk on the title “Inside the myth of Australia’s economic superheroes” based on his new book, Ozonomics Charlton is the co-author with Joseph Stiglitz, of Fair Trade for All. Of the new book, Stiglitz writes

Charlton makes a convincing case that Australia’s remarkable performance is not because of the Howard Government – indeed, it may be despite it.’

More details here

Categories: Books and culture, Economic policy Tags:

Total eclipse of the moon

August 28th, 2007 3 comments

It’s on tonight. After a week of welcome rain (floods where we didn’t need it, much lighter where we did, but that’s the way it goes) skies should be clear here in Queensland.

Also on science, last night’s Bris Science lecture on bees was fascinating. It seems bees use the apparent motion of the ground and nearby objects to perform feats like navigating through tight spots, landing smoothly and estimating distance travelled. This suggests some simple algorithms that can be used, for example, by automated vehicles on land and in the air. The PowerPoint presentation should be up at the BrisScience site soon.

Update I spoke too soon, especially considering my generally poor record with astronomical events. It was cloudy after all, though not so as to prevent a reasonable view of the moon going a copper-red colour as advertised.

Categories: Science Tags:

Monday message board

August 27th, 2007 9 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:

Bee Brains at BrisScience Reminder

August 27th, 2007 1 comment

BrisScience on Monday 27th will deal with how bees do such amazing stuff with tiny brains. Details over the fold
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Categories: Science Tags:

In case you missed it

August 26th, 2007 17 comments

A website run by the neocon thinktank the Center for Security Policy (members include Frank Gaffney, Richard Perle and Doug Feith) has published (then removed) a piece calling for Bush to use his military powers to “the first permanent president of America” and “ruler of the world”. Along the way he suggests that the population of Iraq should have been wiped out. The website Family Security Matters also runs pieces by Newt Gingrich, Judy Miller and other luminaries.

The full piece is preserved here at Watching the Watchers. I found it via Wikipedia.

As someone would say (though maybe not in this case) “read the whole thing”. It’s impossible to tell if this is satire by someone who has cleverly infiltrated FSM over a lengthy period (quite a few other pieces by the same author, Philip Atkinson were also removed), a sudden outbreak of insanity, or the actual views of CSP/CFM, accidentally revealed and clumsily concealed.

As things stand, there’s a presumption in favor of the last of these views. The piece was published by CSP/FSM and constitutes, at present, their last word on the subject. If they repudiate Atkinson’s views they should say so openly, and live with the embarrassment of having published him.

Categories: Politics (general) Tags:

Weekend reflections

August 24th, 2007 8 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:

Sensible federalism vs aspirational nationalism

August 23rd, 2007 26 comments

I’ve been thoroughly underwhelmed by the undeclared election campaign over the last couple of months. Labor has been moving towards the kind of small target strategy that performed so well in 2001. Meanwhile, Howard’s complete conversion to pork-barrel politics has now acquired the label “aspirational nationalism”, which is appropriate enough given that the term “aspirational” appears to mean “a shallow person with no ethical values who splashes money about without any clear sense of priorities”.

So I’m pleased to see Rudd taking a step back towards sensible policy with his proposal for a complete Federal takeover of the public hospital sector to be implemented if co-operative Federalism fails to produce an agreed national reform plan. Unlike Howard’s various ad hoc grabs for power, this would actually lead to a more sensible alignment of political power and responsibilty.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Should the sheriff be above the law?

August 23rd, 2007 6 comments

Daniel Drezner (supported by Megan McArdle and Glenn Reynolds, but not by Brad DeLong) has responded to my criticism of his claim that the US should be able to invade foreign countries whenever its “vital national interests” are threatened. Drezner narrows the gap between us a bit, saying that most members of the FPC are more skeptical about the effectiveness of military force than they used to be (though of course, plenty of members in good standing are pushing for a war with Iran that’s even more certain to fail than the war with Iraq), and saying

there is a big difference between not taking force off the table as a policy option and advocating its use in a particular situation. As Quiggin observes, force is a really messy option and carries horrendous costs.

Drezner dismisses concerns about international law, quoting James Joyner’s observation that the UN Charter prohibiting war has mostly been observed in the breach. Joyner only mentions the US, but Drezner goes on to claim that

This applies to every other state in the international system as well. Quiggin wants international law to be a powerfully binding constraint on state action. That’s nice, but what Quiggin wants and what actually happens are two very different animals.

A couple of questions arise here. First, is Drezner’s claim that the international law prohibiting aggressive war is a dead letter factually correct? Second, would the US (more precisely, the people of the US) be better off if the option of unilateral resort to (non-defensive) war was taken off the table or at least put further out of reach?
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Categories: World Events Tags:

Bee Brains at BrisScience

August 22nd, 2007 1 comment

BrisScience on Monday 27th will deal with how bees do such amazing stuff with tiny brains. Details over the fold
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Categories: Science Tags:

A perpetual declaration of war

August 22nd, 2007 21 comments

In the course of a controversy with Glenn Greenwald, Dan Drezner offers the following rewording of Greenwald’s critical summary of the orthodoxy of the US “Foreign Policy Community”

The number one rule of the bi-partisan foreign policy community is that America can invade and attack other countries when vital American interests are threatened. Paying homage to that orthodoxy is a non-negotiable pre-requisite to maintaining good standing within the foreign policy community.

and states:

I suspect that anyone who accepts the concept of a “national interest” in the first place would accept that phrasing. As a paid-up member of the Foreign Policy Community (FPC), I certainly would.

Unless “vital national interest” is construed so narrowly as to be equivalent to “self-defence”, this is a direct repudiation of the central founding principle of international law, prohibiting aggressive war as a crime against peace, indeed, the supreme international crime. It’s more extreme than the avowed position of any recent US Administration – even the invasion of Iraq was purportedly justified on the basis of UN resolutions, rather than US self-interest. Yet, reading this and other debates, it seems pretty clear that Drezner’s position is not only generally held in the Foreign Policy Community but is regarded, as he says, as a precondition for serious participation in foreign policy debates in the US.
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Categories: World Events Tags:

A Sterner Review from RFF

August 20th, 2007 2 comments

Via Joe Romm at Climate Progress this report by Thomas Sterner and Martin Persson from the leading US environmental thinktank, Resources for the Future*, endorsing the key conclusions of the Stern Review. (Given the apt surname of the first author, it’s called “An Even Sterner Review”).

As in my own assessment, Sterner and Persson argue that Stern underestimates nonmarket damages from climate change.

For a related comment on a piece by Ron Bailey, with lots of useful links, including an earlier version of this paper, here’s Tokyo Tom

Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags:

Monday message board

August 20th, 2007 26 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:

The Bernanke put

August 18th, 2007 44 comments

The US Federal Reserve has stepped in to bail out the financial sector, cutting its discount rate and, more importantly, encouraging banks to borrow directly from the Fed to finance mortgage lending. This action demonstrates that the famous “Greenspan put” has survived, and is now the Bernanke put.
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Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Beaucoup de Beauchamp

August 18th, 2007 4 comments

A bunch of rightwing blogs are getting excited yet again about Scott Beauchamp. For those who haven’t followed the story, Beauchamp is a US soldier in Iraq who wrote some pieces for The New Republic which, among other things, described bad behaviour by US troops, such as deliberately running over stray dogs or taunting a woman disfigured by burns. The pro-war lobby has worn out dozens of keyboards seeking to discredit Beauchamp, his story and the very possibility of running over dogs in an armoured vehicle. Now it appears the US Army has denied Beauchamp’s claims. (To reiterate, I don’t care about or intend to debate, the details of this case).

Some might suggest that the truth or falsity of these stories doesn’t matter much in the light of this. or this or this or this, to list just a few of the disasters have taken place while the wingnutosphere has been defending the US Army’s commitment to animal welfare.

But that would miss the point. What matters, in the world of rightwing postmodernism, is not reality but the way the media reports it. One discredited memo is enough to turn George W. Bush from a scrimshank who used his family connections to line up a cushy billet to avoid war service, and then shirked even that, into a war hero.

So, lets stick to media criticism. Not long after Beauchamp’s piece ran in a single magazine of modest circulation, all the major MSM outlets ran a story by well known critics of the war, Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack whose intrepid journey through recently pacified parts of Iraq had convinced them that the surge was working. Here, for example, is their piece in the NY Times.
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Categories: World Events Tags:

How big a slump?

August 16th, 2007 12 comments

With the Oz stock market falling nearly 5 per cent on Thursday, and down nearly 15 per cent in the last few weeks, it’s a good time whether this will have real effects beyond the value of our superannuation. The immediate starting point of the current disruptions was evidence that defaults on US mortgage markets were worse than expected. An obvious question is whether this underlying shock is large enough to have substantial effects in itself, or whether the problem is mainly one of liquidity and confidence.
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Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Tipping point for teleconferencing ?

August 16th, 2007 19 comments

Matthew Warren[1] has an interesting piece on the possibility that teleconferencing will displace air travel as a result of pressure to reduce CO2 emissions. I’ve been enthusiastic about this possibility for a while, with the idea that easy access to video telephony through Skype, iChat and similar will lead naturally to the kinds of innovations, both technological and cultural, needed to make teleconferencing a viable alternative.

This is one of those tipping point things (BTW, this term has itself reached a tipping point, to the extent that it has been banned in our household along with “mantra”, “smoke and mirrors” and others) discussed by economists under the category “network externalities”. If we’re going to make use of these things we need to be connected to lots of other people. One of my projects for the next year or so is to establish a wide range of videolinks. This also includes videoblogging (vlogging). All I need is a bit of free time to get things going, which probably means nothing will happen much before 2020.

fn1. Not someone I’ve liked much, but this shows he can do good work if he wants to.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Delusionist diehards (Fin version)

August 16th, 2007 30 comments

Over the fold is my piece in today’s Fin
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Categories: General Tags:

Delusionist diehards

August 14th, 2007 77 comments

Between the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, the on-air demolition of Martin Durkin and, most significantly, John Howard’s self-proclaimed conversion from ‘sceptic’ to ‘realist’ on climate change, I had the impression that delusionism was finally a spent force within the government. It was known that a couple of senior ministers, most notably Ian MacFarlane and Nick Minchin, remained unconvinced, but they seemed willing to keep quiet most of the time. Even the commentariat seemed to be cautiously backing away.

The report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Science and Innovation suggests all this was premature. Four of the six government members of the committee (Dennis Jensen Jackie Kelly, Danna Vale and David Tollner) signed a dissenting report denying that human activities are disturbing the climate in dangerous ways, and describing those who accept the mainstream view as “fanatics�. If this is the view of government members who have chosen to serve on a committee devoted to science, one can only guess at how widespread such ideas are within the government.

I plan a piece for Thursday’s Fin looking at all this. Of course, I’m not going to bother with silly talking points about climate change on Triton. The real question here is how such beliefs can maintain a hold, long after the corporate push behind them has evaporated and at a time when they are so obviously a political albatross for the Howard government and for the political right as a whole. The right (at least in Australia and the US) has entered the kind of self-reinforcing pattern of disconnection from reality that long characterised the Marxist left.

Update This report has really hit the big time, making it into the Washington Post. Too much blog comment to list everything, but don’t miss Trevor Cook.

Categories: Environment Tags:

While you’re waiting

August 13th, 2007 2 comments

Visit the RSMG blog, where there are lots of interesting posts, particularly this one on avoiding climate catastrophe

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Monday message board

August 13th, 2007 13 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:


August 13th, 2007 1 comment

The blog was pretty much out of action over the weekend owing to problems with my antispam software. I’ve fixed the worst of them, but I’ll need to do a bit more, so posting may be light. If there’s anyone reading who’d like to act as technical support for me, I’m very much open to offers.

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

DDT as a repellent

August 9th, 2007 6 comments

I got an email today from Phillip Coticelli at Africa Fighting Malaria pointing to a study by Donald Roberts (PDF), showing that DDT has a repellent effect in addition to its toxicity. The key finding is that that three out of five DDT-resistant Aedes aegypti mosquitoes avoid huts sprayed with DDT. Roberts argues that this is a reason for preferring DDT to alternative pesticides such as dieldrin. A few points about this are worth making
* First, it’s good to see AFM acknowledging the fact of pesticide resistance, which primarily accounts for the abandonment of large-scale attempts to eradicate malaria-carrying mosquitoes with pesticides. The libel put out by people like Steven Milloy and AFM founder Roger Bate[1], in which it is suggested that the failure of the eradication program was due to a mythical ban on DDT imposed at the behest of environmentalists, who callously caused millions of deaths, depends critically on ignoring resistance.
* Second, although the study is new, the claim is not. Roberts has been arguing the importance of repellent and irritant effects for a long time. And while the reporting of this study suggests that these benefits are unique to DDT, other work by Roberts has found that permethrin and deltamethrin are just as effective in this respect.

How does this relate to the general debate over the use of hut spraying as a strategy to fight malaria?
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Categories: Environment Tags:

Sherman on war

August 8th, 2007 14 comments

Not so long ago, in a discussion on Iraq the question came up of what various people would have predicted at the outset of the US Civil War. It seemed to me that all with the possible exception of Sherman, would have grossly underestimated the length and bloodiness of the war, and that all would have predicted easy victory for their side. Of course, rather than speculate, I should have checked Wikipedia. Fortunately, William Tecumseh Sherman was the featured article yesterday, and includes Sherman’s judgement.

You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you’re talking about. War is a terrible thing!

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Categories: World Events Tags:

Quiggin on Bush

August 7th, 2007 5 comments

Autogoogling, as you do, you find out interesting things about namesakes around the world. My most prominent namesake is Canadian terrorism expert Tom Quiggin, who is a good source of information on quite a few topics. Now he has a blog> His opening posts seem very promising

Why Bush Has it Wrong
Intelligence and the Moral High Ground

Categories: World Events Tags:

Two weeks behind the Zeitgeist

August 6th, 2007 67 comments

I’ve been following the Peak Oil debate with a mildly sceptical eye for some time, and it struck me a while ago that despite high prices, global oil output hadn’t grown much, but hadn’t declined either. I came up with the innovative description of our current position as “Plateau Oil“. If I had bothered with Google, I would have noticed that the International Energy Agency had offered the same description two weeks earlier. And if I’d thought about for more than a couple of seconds, I would have realised that the supply of topographical metaphors is so limited as to make this a forced move (We Australians use “Tableland” to describe the same landform and there’s also “mesa”, but Mesa Oil is taken, and “Tableland Oil” sounds silly)

Anyway, why are we (apparently) observing Plateau Oil and what does it mean?
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Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Monday message board

August 6th, 2007 8 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:

The coming Australian debt crisis?

August 5th, 2007 36 comments

My article in Thursday’s Fin is over the fold. At this stage the US mortgage/CDO/Debt panic is not a likely direct source of major problems for Australia. Still, we are badly exposed to the same general kind of risk.
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Categories: Economics - General Tags: