Archive for October, 2007

A million tragedies

October 12th, 2007 25 comments

Stalin is supposed to have said “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic”. Like much said by that master of lies, it is a half-truth. A million deaths is a statistic, but it’s also a million individual tragedies.

The death of David Pearce, the first Australian soldier to die in Afghanistan is a tragedy for him and his family. So were the deaths of Marany Awanees and Jeniva Jalal, shot by security guards from Unity Resources Group, an Australian-run security company in Baghdad last week. And so have been all of the deaths in Iraq (as many as a million since 2003) and Afghanistan in the wars and violence that have afflicted both countries for decades.

As someone who supported the war in Afghanistan, as a necessary act of self-defence and as an intervention that seemed likely to have positive effects, I have to accept some share of the responsibility for the deaths it has caused, including that of David Pearce. I can make the point in mitigation that, if the Afghanistan war had not been so shamefully mismanaged, most obviously the diversion of most of the required resources to the Iraq venture, it might well have reached a successful conclusion by now.

But even after that mismanagement, I still, reluctantly, support the view that it is better to try and salvage the situation in Afghanistan by committing more resources, rather than pulling out and leaving the Afghans to sort it out themselves. I draw that conclusion because I think there would be even more bloodshed after a withdrawal, and that there’s a reasonable prospect that a democratic government and a largely free society can survive in Afghanistan with our help. And, even after all the mismanagement, i think most Afghans are better off now than they would have been with a continuation of Taliban rule and civil war.

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Categories: World Events Tags:

The dormitive quality of rational choice

October 10th, 2007 8 comments

This Matt Yglesias post has already made it on to my colleague Andy McLennan’s door. It’s short enough to quote in full

I’m not sure I understand why Greg Mankiw thinks economists “don’t understand tipping.” When I was learning economics, I learned that people are utility-maximers and that whenever you see some behavior that doesn’t seem explicable in purely financial terms that must be because people are deriving utility from the foregone financial advantage. Thus, as any economist could tell you, people tip because of the utility they derive from the tipping in much the way that economists can explain all aspects of human life.

Have I ever mentioned that philosophers tend to think that economics is vacuous? Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t listen to economists. These days, they tend to know a lot of math, and math is a very useful thing.

Matt omitted the irony alerts, but I tried to spell out the same point here.

Given any data on any observed set of problems involving the selection of one or more choices from a set of alternatives, the observed choices can be represented as the maximisation of an appropriately specified function.

Playing straight man to Matt, that doesn’t mean utility functions are useless – the functional representation lets you do lots of math that is much harder if you try to work directly with preferences. But any competent economist knows that utility isn’t an explanation of observed choices, it’s a way of representing them. The representation is simpler if choices satisfy some minimal consistency requirements, like transitivity (if you prefer A to B and B to C then you should prefer A to C).
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Categories: Economics - General, Philosophy Tags:

False positives

October 9th, 2007 4 comments

While the changes have improved the performance of the blog in many respects, one problem is that I’m now relying on Akismet to detect spam, which produces lots of false positives. The first-best solution would be lock every spammer on the planet far away from any Internet-connected device. Since that won’t happen, I’m inviting commenters whose comments disappear into Akismet limbo to email me and I will try to extract them (no promises on this, but I’ll do my best).

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

BrisScience on Water

October 8th, 2007 7 comments

The BrisScience lecture series is on again (Monday 15th at City Hall, 6:30 pm), and both the topic and speaker are closer to home than usual. The topic is Water in South East Queensland. The speaker, Professor Paul Greenfield, is about to become Vice-Chancellor of the University of Queensland.

More details here and over the fold
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Categories: Environment, Science Tags:

Monday message board

October 8th, 2007 20 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:

Optical spin

October 8th, 2007 18 comments

This interesting optical effect is presented as a test for Right Brain vs Left Brain thinking. My sample of one doesn’t support this – I saw the dancer going clockwise which is supposed to indicate Right Brain thinking, and I’m about as Left Brain as they come. But with a little effort you can get whichever one you want. Unlike with static illusions, it’s quite hard to figure out what cues you’re using to orient the motion.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Blasts from the past

October 7th, 2007 5 comments

I’ve been working a bit on the Political correctness article in Wikipedia and I ran across the best “PC beatup” story ever, starting with a claim from last year that nursery school students in Oxfordshire had been banned from singing “Baa Baa Black Sheep”. Among the ramifications were the foundation of a new political party (with a plug from Harry’s Place), and worldwide circulation leading to a claim in the Adelaide Advertiser that “black coffee” had fallen under a similar ban. Having visited Adelaide recently, I can assure anxious coffee-addicts that this is, like the rest of the story, a load of old bollocks. (I will admit that “doppio” has displaced “double-shot short black” in Australia over the last few years, a boon to addicts like me who are really in a hurry for their fix).

Going back even further, I once ran a contest to find a Mark Steyn column without either a gross error or a distorted or misattributed quotation. There weren’t any entries, though I gave an award to Tim Dunlop for coining the term “Steynwallingâ€? (failure to respond to repeated demonstrations of error). But now thanks to Tim Lambert and TBogg, we have a winner. It’s Steyn himself, who states “incidentally, I stopped writing for the (New York) Times a few years ago because their fanatical “fact-checking” copy-editors edited my copy into unreadable sludge.” (John Holbo has a little bit more fun with Tim’s debunking here)

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Weekend reflections

October 6th, 2007 11 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:

Running scared ?

October 5th, 2007 33 comments

The delay in calling the election, combined with the continuous blitz of taxpayer-funded propaganda, is starting to become a story in itself, and not just a Labor party talking point. On the ads, readers Fred Argy and Daggett point to this blistering piece by Steve Lewis in the normally safe Herald-Sun.

On the timing, business is starting to complain. I was interviewed by the SMH for this piece, and got a follow-up from ABC News Radio, which suggests that it will soon be an established narrative.

A correspondent tips Tuesday 9 October as the day Howard will call the election, and I’m inclined to agree. It’s exactly three years since the 2004 election and might be regarded as auspicious. And whatever the Electoral Act might say, running more than three years without calling an election will correctly be viewed as running scared,The last PM to go so long was Billy McMahon, who allowed the Parliament to run for a little over 2 years and 11 months from its first sitting, going down to defeat on 2 December 1972.

A campaign period of much more than six weeks will also be viewed unfavourably so, for what it’s worth, my money is on 17 or 24 November.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Burmese junta shuts off the Internet (or tries to)

October 5th, 2007 10 comments

One of the big questions about the Internet is whether governments can control it, and potentially use it to suppress dissent. Quite a few have tried, most notably that of China, and of course we have no idea how much tapping and monitoring the US government has been doing.

Still, recent events in Burma suggest that such attempts may be futile. Despite having had one of the world’s tightest systems of Internet censorship in place for years, the junta there has failed to stem the flow of reports and images out the of the country and has responded by pulling the plug. It’s not clear that this will work, but in any case, it’s not an option open to any country that wants to maintain more than a minimal level of economic activity. It’s not simply a matter of holding things where they were in, say, 1990, before the Internet came along. Attempting to any sort of international business without the Internet is effectively impossible, and the convergence with telephony makes matters even worse. And other info technologies make life even more difficult. A USB Flash drive can hold libraries full of text or hours of compressed video, and they can be duplicated with ease by anyone with a computer. Unless you have completely closed borders, the delay gained by shutting off Internet transmission is no more than a day or so.

It was a lot easier for the old Soviet Union, when photocopiers were the only thing they had to ban (and look how far that got them).
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Categories: World Events Tags:

Background noise

October 4th, 2007 12 comments

So I thought I’d watch Catalyst as they had a story on fuel cells, but it was unwatchable because of the silly and obtrusive background music. My wife alerted me to this trend a while ago. Background music has escaped from the establishing shots where it’s long been standard, and now continues throughout the program, even when people are speaking. The effect is that any added information from the visuals is more than offset by the added noise of background music, leaving TV providing less than radio, not to mention plain text.

Categories: Media Tags:

More on mercenaries

October 4th, 2007 6 comments

This Washington Post article, describing the killing of Iraqi civilians by Blackwater mercenaries who are, under laws imposed by the US, free to murder whoever they want in Iraq without any fear of adverse consequences, and who have regularly exercised that freedom, makes it clear enough that Blackwater alone has been sufficient to doom the war effort in Iraq (not that the disaster wasn’t a certainty in any case, given that Bush was in charge). Blackwater is no better, and in important respects worse, than the rest of the militias and armed gangs that infest Iraq thanks to the efforts of the Coalition of the Willing.

With any luck, Blackwater will ruin the Republican party of which it is a creature, just as Sandline destroyed the government of Julius Chan in PNG.
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Categories: World Events Tags:

Slicing and dicing $1 million a day

October 4th, 2007 20 comments

Despite Costello’s supposed leak of a late November election date, it now appears Howard intends to hang on until his publicly-funded ad blitz turns the polls around, or, until it gets too close to Christmas to hold off any longer (8 December is mooted, but a sufficiently desperate government could go even later, into the New Year if necessary).

Sensibly enough, Labor has been pointing to what could have been done with the public money Howard is using for mass mailouts on “John Howard Writes to you on a Subject No Parent Can Afford to Miss”, ad campaigns on the theme “Footy fans back government” and so on. Here’s a piece from Tanya Plibersek

One way to keep this running is to say, every day, what could have been done with the million dollars or so the government is spending. But it could be sliced geographically instead of temporally. If I were running Labor’s campaign, I’d take the government’s total ad spending this term (around $750 million, IIRC) and convert that into around $5 million per electorate. Then find, for each electorate, $5 million of spending effectively foregone (two extra teachers at X High School, a local road project etc). Finally, promise to create a fund for worthwhile local projects like these, to be funded by a cessation of large-scale government propaganda.

The nice thing about this strategy is that would have some chance of locking Labor in to ending the downward spiral of ethics in which the bad behavior of one government justifies even worse behavior by the next.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:


October 3rd, 2007 16 comments

Mercenary soldiers have a deservedly bad name in history, both for their conduct and for the fact that they have not generally lived up to the expectations of those who hired them. But, under the more appealing name “private military contractors”, they have enjoyed a resurgence in recent years.

This piece in Salon by PW Singer concludes

If we judge by what has happened in Iraq, when it comes to counterinsurgency and the use of private military contractors, the U.S. has locked its national security into a vicious cycle. It can’t win with them, but can’t go to war without them.

Note: I omitted the link, but have included it now

Categories: World Events Tags:

Bad news for Howard

October 3rd, 2007 20 comments

Most people are still treating the opinion polls, showing a big lead for Labor, with a grain of salt and sometimes more. They may be right – views can change a lot in an election campaign. But this poll undertaken by the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney (PDF over the fold) suggests that Howard will have a fair bit of trouble winding back Labor’s lead. It doesn’t ask anything about party preferences, but it does ask about issues that seem likely to drive quite a lot of votes, including attitudes to Iraq, climate change and George Bush. It seems reasonably to bet that someone who strongly opposes the war in Iraq, strongly supports action on climate change and strongly dislikes George Bush is going to put Labor ahead of the government, and vice versa. People who have neutral qualified views on these issues are likely to decide on other grounds. So, we can use the proportion giving “strongly agree/disagree” answers to get an idea of the core votes for the parties. So here are some results

Australias involvement in Iraq*; Strongly oppose 41, strongly support 10
Climate Change; More serious than Islamic fundamentalism 40, Less serious 20
Overall opinion of Bush: Very unfavourable 39, Very favourable 4

On all these questions, there are around 40 per cent of respondents with strong support for the position most strongly opposed to that of the government. Presumably, the composition of this group varies a bit from question to question, but still it seems fair to say that Labor is going into the election with a base of 40 per cent, while the government’s core support is 5-10 per cent.

* Asking after a question about Al Qaeda reduced this to 34
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Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Bush v Gore in 2007 (antipodean rematch)

October 2nd, 2007 7 comments

My article from last week’s Fin is over the fold
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Categories: Oz Politics Tags:


October 1st, 2007 9 comments

In hopes of improving the site’s woeful performance, I’ve made a few changes, including upgrading to WordPress 2.3. I also changed back to the red theme I had a while back. Most significantly, I’ve removed login requirements. I’m hoping that I’ve been inaccessible to spammers long enough to have reduced the flow to a level Akismet can handle. Please advise if problems with loading the page are better, worse or (most likely, I guess) unchanged.

Update 2/10/07 9pm After some ups and downs it looks as if things are working better. Please comment and advise either way

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

Monday message board

October 1st, 2007 12 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: