Archive for December, 2007

Science, and antiscience, in action

December 28th, 2007 90 comments

It’s a familiar story. A striking, though minor, scientific finding, is used to illustrate a well-established scientific theory, and becomes the target of those opposed to the theory, and to science in general, for political or religious reasons. Minor errors in and procedural criticisms of the work supporting the finding are conflated into accusations of fraudulent conspiracy that are then used to attack the theory as a whole. Distorted versions of the whole story circulate around the parallel universe of antiscientific thinktanks, blogs and commentators, rapidly being taken as established fact.

This time, the story looks set to have a happy ending. The case of industrial melanism in the peppered moth was long used as a textbook example of evolution (I remember it from high school). Before the Industrial Revolution, the peppered moth was mostly found in a light gray form with little black speckled spots. The light-bodied moths were able to blend in with the light-colored lichens and tree bark, and the less common black moth was more likely to be eaten by birds. As industrial pollution increased, blackening trees, black forms became more prevalent. With more recent declines in pollution, the process is set to be reversed.

But in the late 90s, it turned out that some of the experimental work used to establish the bird predation hypothesis had been unacceptably sloppy, at least by modern standards. Under ferocious attack from creationists, some textbooks stopped mentioning the peppered moth. Claims of fraud proliferated, and the creationists celebrated a famous victory.

Now for the happy ending (which I found via New Scientist (unfortunately paywalled).

Read more…

Categories: Science Tags:

New government, old tricks

December 27th, 2007 34 comments

Coming back from a very lazy Christmas, I find the comments threads full of hyperventilation about “jackboots” and “communist roots”. While this was a bit OTT, this SMH story about a message from the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research requiring that all press releases from CSIRO and other organizations be vetted at ministerial (or maybe Prime Ministerial) level certainly suggested that the new government was already up to the tricks of old governments.

I had hoped we would have had a bit more of the reformist phase before this kind of thing started and indeed it appears that there has been at least a partial backdown. With any luck, this misbegotten idea will be buried as a product of the silly season.

But the central point is clear. If we are going to get any moves towards open government and transparent processes out of the Rudd government, we need to demand them now, while the criticisms they made of the last government are still fresh. All longstanding governments seek to centralise power, which is one of the reasons why changing government every now and then is a good idea.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

End of year reflections

December 21st, 2007 27 comments

It’s the end of the working year for me, and I’ll be taking a break in January, so posting will be unpredictable (probably light, but maybe I’ll get bored and produce a mammoth post or two). Anyway, this thread will be open for a while, so post away. No real length constraint, but I’d appreciate it everybody would get into the spirit of goodwill towards all, and particularly fellow-members of this little community.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Iemma’s power failure

December 21st, 2007 24 comments

Over the fold, my column from yesterday’s Fin, on NSW electricity privatisation, which ran under the title above

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Categories: Economic policy Tags:

A lot or a little?

December 21st, 2007 15 comments

A dollar is not very much money. A billion dollars is a lot of money. Twenty billion dollars is an awful lot of money.

For most people reading this (though not for Bill Gates or for the billion or so people living on a dollar a day or less), these statements should seem pretty obvious.

But all of these can be (and have been used as) different ways of measuring the same thing. If every Australian receives, or pays, a dollar a week, the total amount is very close to a billion dollars a year. And if you have a cash flow of a billion dollars a year, and your interest rate is 5 per cent, the present value of that cash flow (the amount of extra wealth you would need to generate the flow) is twenty billion dollars.

It’s easy to stretch this gap even further. A dollar a week is about fourteen cents a day. And, if we looked at the US (about 300 million people), or the entire developed world (around a billion people, depending on your definition), the total would be that much larger. Fourteen cents a day for everyone in the developed world has a present value of one trillion dollars.

The fact that the same flow of money can be presented in such radically different ways, and that each of them is appropriate in certain contexts, is one reason public policy debates get confused.

Having posed the problem, I’ll leave it for discussion, and hope to come back with some relevant examples and suggestions on how to improve our understanding of these things.

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Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Waiting for the tsunami

December 19th, 2007 76 comments

The sudden collapse of shares in the Centro group following the announcement that they were having trouble refinancing their debt (there’s been a partial recovery today) reminds us that no-one really knows what is going on in global credit markets. Bad debts have been buried under layers of collateralised debt obligations, and seemingly sound companies may (or may not) have all kinds of off-balance sheet obligations, liable to be called in at short notice.

Given that we are collectively among the most indebted people on earth, we probably ought to be more worried than we are. But, as Costello and Howard found during the election campaign, it’s hard to stir up concern about a possible crash when we’re still worrying about whether strong growth will overheat the economy.

Individually, the only real preparation for a possible jam in credit markets is to make sure that we are not relying on the availability of credit on easy terms in the near future. For example, if you are planning on refinancing a home loan and locking in a fixed rate, you might think about doing so sooner rather than later (note: I’m not a financial adviser, and this isn’t financial advice – if you’re actually in this, or a similar, situation, consult a professional).

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Pons asinorum – CIS edition

December 18th, 2007 95 comments

The scientific debate regarding global warming has been over for some time, and the Australian policy debate has moved beyond the point where delusional pseudoscience has any impact. What remains of the scientific debate is a screening device in which individuals and institutions identify themselves as so lacking in intelligence, judgement or honesty as to cast doubt on their contributions on any topic. As with Euclid’s fifth proposition failure on this test distinguishes the donkeys.

The latest to self-identify as a donkey is Barry Maley of the Centre for Independent Studies whose latest piece in the Oz states, among other pieces of nonsense scooped up from teh intertubes

Beyond a relatively small concentration, the effect of additional carbon dioxide decreases logarithmically, almost to vanishing point.

As Wolfgang Pauli would have said, this is not even wrong, since “decreases logarithmically” is a contradiction in terms.

Maley identifies himself as a “former academic” and his CIS bio describes him as a former senior lecturer in Behavioural Science who has worked on family and social policy. It’s a safe bet that he wouldn’t know a logarithm if it bit him, and that the simple exercise in logarithmic differentiation required to convert the claim above into something that can be assessed and refuted (here’s a good post that covers several more of Maley’s talking points) would be utterly beyond him.

Clearly he’s scrambled together a bunch of nonsense from delusionist Internet sites, and published it along with his “research” on family issues. Since he invites us to treat the two as being equally credible, I’m happy to accept. And since the CIS invites us to treat Maley as a serious researcher, the same goes for them.

Read more…

Categories: Environment Tags:

The culture war: time to mop up

December 17th, 2007 89 comments

Both before and since the election, commentators of the centre-left, including me, have pronounced the end of the culture wars that have dominated a large stream of Australian political commentary for the past fifteen years or so (for a further sample, here’s Polemica and LP). These pronouncements have not been well received. Rather, in the manner of this (according to family legend) distant relation of mine, those on the losing side have taken the view that news of their defeat is a deceitful ruse de guerre.

In a tactical sense, this is all to the good. With no share of political power anywhere in the country, the culture warriors can’t do any actual harm, except to the conservative side of politics. So, there’s an argument that they should be encouraged, rather than persuaded to give up the struggle. But it doesn’t seem like a good idea to encourage vitriolic debate about side issues, while letting the big questions be settled by default. In relation to climate change, for example, as long as the delusionist and do-nothingist culture warriors dominate one side of the debate, serious discussion about questions like how best to combine adaption and mitigation will be drowned out.

So, it seems like a good idea to survey the culture war and consider what can be done about it.

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Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Monday message board

December 17th, 2007 44 comments

It’s Monday again. Post on any topic. Civilised discussion and no coarse language please. If in doubt, read the discussion policy.

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

A big win for the planet, and others

December 16th, 2007 60 comments

The outcome of the international climate talks in Bali has been a huge win for the planet. Given the participation of the Bush Administration, we were never going to get firm short-term targets in the agreement of this round of negotiations (except as the result of a US walkout, and a deal struck by the rest of the world). But on just about every other score, the outcome has been better than anyone could reasonably have expected, including:

* Agreement in principle on a 2050 target of halving emissions
* Agreement to negotiate a binding deal in 2009, when Bush will be gone, and short-term targets back on the table
* Agreement to provide assistance to developing countries for both mitigation and adaptation
* Agreement by China to pursue emissions-cutting actions that are “measurable, reportable and verifiable.�

There are of course, some individual winners too, of whom the most notable is undoubtedly Al Gore. His intervention, correctly blaming the US Administration for the lack of progress at the talks, and putting effective pressure on its remaining allies, the governments of Canada and Japan, made it clear that the political price for a failure would be paid by the US, and that those who backed Bush now would find themselves alone in the near future.

Kevin Rudd has also been a big winner. Until his election, Australia, as the only other significant country not to ratify Kyoto, was Bush’s most important supporter. After the switch, Australia was able to pursue a negotiating strategy which sometimes seemed to accommodating to the US, but ultimately produced an excellent outcome.

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Categories: Environment Tags:

Blogging knols and wikis

December 15th, 2007 2 comments

After reading lots of discussion of Google’s knol initiative, I finally got around to actually looking at the example screenshot, which is about insomnia. Naturally, I was interested to look at the competition provided by the Wikipedia article on the same topic.

The Wikipedia article starts with a cleanup-needed tag (maybe Google’s choice of example topic wasn’t accidental in this respect), but doesn’t look all that bad. What’s startling is that wiki and knol disagree on some fairly basic points.

The knol, written by Rachel Manber states, without citation, that insomnia affects about one in ten US adults, which I would guess to be about 25 million people. Wikipedia says ’60 million Americans suffer from insomnia each year” and supports this with a link to the NIH which says “About 60 million Americans a year have insomnia frequently or for extended periods of time, which leads to even more serious sleep deficits.” . This WebMD article says “In a 1991 survey, 30-35% of adult Americans reported difficulty sleeping in the past year and 10% reported the insomnia to be chronic, severe, or both” again consistent with Wikipedia. It looks as if the knol introductory sentence should have stated “chronic or severe”.

There’s also disagreement over classifications of transient, acute and chronic insomnia. The knol classification is purely on duration, while the Wikipedia article offers a rather confusing mix of duration and causative indicators. A quick search of the web suggests that there’s lots of different definitions out there.

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Categories: Metablogging Tags:

The 75 per cent solution: tourism

December 15th, 2007 54 comments

A lot of discussion of climate change is based on the implicit or explicit premise that, since we use energy in everything we do, and most energy is derived from carbon-based fuels, large reductions in CO2 emissions will require radical changes in the way we live. Some people welcome this prospect, but most do not.

Having looked at this problem in various different ways, I’m convinced that this premise is wrong, and that quite modest changes, many of which would follow more or less directly from the imposition of a suitable cost on CO2 emissions, could achieve large reductions in emissions. I’ve argued this at the macro level, based on demand elasticity estimates, and also at the micro level in terms of road transport. I thought it might be a good idea to attempt more micro estimates and, while I was visiting Cairns last week, my thoughts naturally turned to long-distance tourism.

So, this is hoped to be the first in a series where I consider the question: Could we reduce emissions in a given sector of the economy by 75 per cent in a way that wouldn’t substantially change the services delivered by that sector?

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Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Weekend reflections

December 14th, 2007 20 comments

It’s time for another round of weekend reflections. Feel free to post your thoughts at greater length than in a standard comment thread. Before you do so, be sure to read the discussion policy

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

The future of coral reefs, if any

December 14th, 2007 7 comments

A report in the Australian summarises an article in Science, stating that coral reefs are unlikely to survive the next few decades. The meeting I went to in Cairns had a marginally more optimistic view. If we can drastically reduce other pressures such as overfishing and nutrient pollution, reefs might be sufficiently resilient to recover from bleaching events and other consequences of global warming.

All of these pressures act cumulatively. Bleaching kills corals, excess nutrients encourage the growth of algae which prevent new corals from establishing themselves and overfishing removes herbivores that eat the algae. A big reduction in nutrient and fishing pressure might offset the more frequent occurrence of bleaching events.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Less bad news from Iraq

December 13th, 2007 26 comments

Over the last few months, the volume of bad news from Iraq has diminished. For example, the number of US troops killed in November (about one per day) was the lowest in a couple of years. While it’s much harder to measure Iraqi casualties the number seems to be declining, at least in Baghdad. What does this mean for the policy choices facing the US and its allies?

The short answer is ‘Not much’

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Categories: World Events Tags:

NSW electricity privatisation – a quick look

December 12th, 2007 57 comments

There’s nowhere near enough evidence in the public domain for a proper evaluation of the announced privatisation of NSW electricity, but there’s enough to do a quick retrospective evaluation of the last such proposal, under the Carr government in 1996 and 1997. At the time, estimates of the sale price for the whole industry (generation, distribution and retail) were “up to” $22 billion (an overoptimistic figure based on extrapolation from Victoria). If entirely used to repay debt (unlikely, this is NSW after all!) that would have saved the government around $1.5 billion per year. Instead the government got dividends of around $1 billion a year, and also extracted at least $5 billion in special capital repayments. So, the total stream of payments was about the same, and the present value was, if anything, a bit higher since the capital repayments came early.

Coming forward to 2007, the government looks set to get more than $15 billion for generation and retail alone, even with a range of restrictions that would reduce the sale price substantially. In general, distribution accounts for at least half the value in the industry, implying a value upwards of $30 billion.

Short analysis: By not selling in 1997, the public lost nothing in terms of cash flow, and accrued at least $8 billion in capital gains.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

State of decay

December 12th, 2007 33 comments

In response to my observation that “… the Labor government in NSW is cementing its reputation as the country’s worst fiscal manager.�

Ken Lovell ups the ante, pointing out

I don’t think you need be so narrow in your description of its incompetence. ‘Country’s worst government’ is fine.

Let me see him and raise him. It seems to me that, looking back as far as I can remember (to the late 60s), NSW has had consistently worse political leadership than any other state.

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Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Privatisation, 80s style

December 11th, 2007 49 comments

I haven’t had time for a detailed analysis of the Iemma government’s proposed privatisation of the NSW electricity industry, though what I saw of the Owen report suggested that the case was weak.

Fortunately, the announcement that the sale will .help pay for a “new vision” for urban transport, a European-style metro rail line, better country roads and improved water management.’ tells us everything we need to know. The quotes in that link should be around “pay for”, not around “new vision”. There is no meaningful sense in which selling an income-generating asset allows you to pay for anything. The sale price merely offsets the loss of income.

As a matter of public policy, either a metro rail line is a good investment or it isn’t. Whether or not electricity assets are sold can make no difference to this. However, lots of evidence suggests that when people get money that they can regard as ‘free’, they generally squander it.

This is all set to be a repeat of the 1980s and 1990s privatisations when the proceeds of asset sales were sprayed against the wall (I’ve slightly bowdlerised the picturesque description offered at the time).

Following on from the Cross-City Tunnel fiasco, the Labor government in NSW is cementing its reputation as the country’s worst fiscal manager.

Categories: Economic policy, Oz Politics Tags:

Monday message board

December 10th, 2007 31 comments

It’s Monday again. Post on any topic. Civilised discussion and no coarse language please. If in doubt, read the discussion policy.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Charter of Rights

December 10th, 2007 22 comments

In the aftermath of the election, it’s striking how much the dullness of the campaign reflected the fact that a lot of issues weren’t even debated. Labor’s proposal for a Charter of Rights provides one example. From Labor’s viewpoint, those who liked the idea were probably already aware of it, so there was no payoff from pushing it hard. And while the culture warriors would have liked nothing better than to try and make a big deal of it, even Howard could see that running against human rights would be a risky tactic, especially in view of the government’s record.

Having tried and failed to wedge Labor on rights issues (notably gay marriage), the Liberals were quiet on the topic during the campaign. Now they face the risk of being wedged themselves. The rightwing fanatics who delivered the leadership to Nelson will find it hard to back down quietly, but I can’t see Nelson himself wanting a fight on this.

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Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Weekend reflections …

December 9th, 2007 19 comments

… is late again.

Comment on any topic of interest, and feel free to make posts a little longer than ordinary blog comments. As always, civilised discussion and no coarse language .

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

The end of the Pacific solution

December 8th, 2007 116 comments

Without a great deal of fanfare, the new government has ended the shameful ‘Pacific solution’ under which refugees were held in offshore camps, located on the territory of neighbouring countries which the Australian government bullied and bribed into hosting them. Most of the refugees held at the Nauru camp have been allowed to settle in Australia.

Defenders of the Howard government can make whatever claims they like about this evil system, whether to say that it was justified by results or to claim that Labor’s policy isn’t really all that different. The fact remains that this was a cruel and brutal response to community panic; panic the government itself did a great deal to stir up, and even more to exploit politically. Those responsible, most notably Howard himself and Phillip Ruddock, will carry the stain of the Pacific solution to their graves and beyond.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Good and bad starts

December 7th, 2007 14 comments

The Rudd government has made a good start, but only a start, on improving standards of governance. One move that is particularly sensible is the complete ban on ministers having personal shareholdings. Any other rule is bound to create grey areas, and politicians being as human as they are, attempts to push the boundaries. That said, I’m sure someone will be found who is silly enough to breach even a clear-cut rule like this. When this comes to light, it’s crucial that Rudd should bite the bullet and sack the person concerned, regardless of their other merits. I’m struck by the extent to which the Beattie government has come unscathed through a string of scandals, largely because, once a breach of the rules became apparent, those responsible were sacked.

The big problem of ministerial accountability remains to be addressed, but at least we have some hope of an improvement in standards of financial probity, which is long overdue. More on this from Tim Dunlop.

Meanwhile, even allowing for a difficult position, I’ve been disappointed by Brendan Nelson so far. Surely, for example, it would be better to leave a frontbench position vacant than to appoint Bronwyn Bishop. On a more serious note, having supported the ratification of Kyoto, Nelson appears to have shifted to opportunistic opposition to anything that would build on this first step.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:


December 6th, 2007 11 comments

One of my newer research tasks is to look into ways to offset the damage caused to coral reefs by global warming and other aspects of climate change. I’ve been in Cairns at a workshop on this issue, and yesterday we went for a day on the reef snorkelling and diving. Mainly R&R but the trip brought home the severity of the damage caused by the bleaching events* in 1998 and 2002. While the reef is still colourful and full of life, and new visitors have a great time, we were told on the tour that returning visitors often express disappointment. So, climate change is likely to have economic impacts on the tourism sector in the near future.

I made a foray into underwater photography, with results that could charitably be described as “mixed”. Here’s an example of the conseqences of bleaching.


Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Troppo best blog post competition

December 6th, 2007 Comments off

Club Troppo’s Best Blog Posts competition is closing soon.

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

Australia ratifies Kyoto

December 3rd, 2007 51 comments

Almost immediately after being sworn in as Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd has signed the instrument of ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. Of course, it’s only a first step, but one that seemed well beyond us only a couple of years ago.

The formal ratification process will take 90 days, but the effect is that Australia can take part in the Bali conference as a full participant, leaving only one significant holdout – the Bush Administration in the United States.

A significant side benefit for Australia is that our attendance at Bali as a participant rather than a spoiler will help to cement the improvement in our often fraught relationship with Indonesia, evident since Rudd replaced Howard.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Monday message board

December 3rd, 2007 37 comments

It’s time, once again, for the Monday Message Board. Civilised discussion and no coarse language, please.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Retrieved from the memory hole

December 2nd, 2007 24 comments

The NY Times says that Iraq is the third most corrupt country in the word after the failed states of Somalia and Myanmar (Burma). The article gives plenty of examples at all levels, but is striking in the way it represents US forces as dismayed, but largely helpless, onlookers.

It’s time, obviously, to dive into the memory hole, and point out that the looting that started the downward spiral was a matter of deliberate Coalition policy. As this report in the London Times stated in April 2003

The British view is that the sight of local youths dismantling the offices and barracks of a regime they used to fear shows they have confidence that Saddam Hussain’s henchmen will not be returning to these towns in southern Iraq.

One senior British officer said: “We believe this sends a powerful message that the old guard is truly finished.�

This report focuses on the British but the US and Australian governments were at least as culpable

Read more…

Categories: World Events Tags:

Weekend reflections

December 2nd, 2007 25 comments

A slightly belated edition of weekend reflections. Comment on whatever you like, but I’m particularly keen to open up space for discussion of the choices going forward with a Labor government.

As always, no coarse language and civilised discussion. (If you’re in doubt about this, you probably don’t want to post. Check the discussion policy page for details).

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

John Howard open thread

December 1st, 2007 126 comments

This thread is designed to accommodate anyone who wants to write their own retrospective on John Howard. I won’t impose length limits, or do much moderation, but I remind everyone that the rules regarding civilised discussion remain in effect. If you don’t recall them, please read the comments policy, linked at the top of the page.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags: