Archive for April, 2008

When good spamcatchers go bad

April 30th, 2008 4 comments

Akismet, my spam filter, is going a bit wild at present, after a long period when it worked fairly reliably. I’ve rescued six comments from the spam queue just now, but I may well have missed some.

As noted in a previous post, I’ve also become much harder on trolls, so there’s more going to moderation. If you’ve been banned and want to be readmitted on a promise of better behavior in future, you can write to me and ask. If you’ve been banned and you think your previous postings were just fine, post them somewhere else – I’m not interested.

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

Videoseminar today at ANU

April 29th, 2008 16 comments

Sorry again for late notice, but I’ll be presenting a video seminar 1pm today at ANU on intergenerational equity. For details contact Ralf Steinhauser on ph: 61 2 6125 4667.

Report: This was a bit of a bleeding edge experience, though it worked OK in the end. The big problem was presenting slides at the same time as video of me talking. ANU was expecting a hardware solution (dual video) while UQ was expecting a software solution (NetMeeting or Bridgit). Fortunately, I had sent the presentation ahead of time, so someone at the ANU end was able to run it for me. But I’ll have to develop a standard procedure for this.

I’ve attached the presentation (in PDF format)here

Read more…

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

One less stupid idea to worry about

April 29th, 2008 23 comments

The Queensland government has abandoned the idea of piping water from the Burdekin to the Southeast corner. A $350 000 study by GHD concluded that the proposal would be ruinously (as in $14 billion) expensive. I could have told them that for free, just by looking at the studies on Colin’s canal. Still, the Beatty government originally announced plans to spend $3 million on a feasibility study, so the GHD study is a bargain. And the big news is that the proposal is dead, once and for all.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

War crimes trials?

April 28th, 2008 132 comments

It’s not that surprising to read that former Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad has called for an international tribunal to try Western leaders with war crimes over the war in Iraq, nominating Bush, Blair and Howard in particular. Mahathir is well-known as a provocateur, with a fondness for extreme statements, which have included anti-Semitic attacks on George Soros and others. So it’s unlikely that anyone will pay much attention to him.

Still, his views on Iraq as a war crime are widely shared. It scarcely seems beyond the bounds of possibility that someone like Baltasar Garzon might find a legal way to file criminal charges (Wikipedia says he’s already threatened a civil suit.

Such charges would have enough factual and legal support to make the outcome unpredictable if they ever came before a tribunal. Apart from the general question of the legality of the war itself, the US in particular has openly denied the applicability of the Geneva Conventions and has engaged in many actions (torture of prisoners, bombing of occupied civilian areas, reprisal attacks of various kinds) that at least arguably violate the Conventions.

On the other hand, the prospect of Bush, or any US official, for that matter, actually standing trial, let alone being convicted or punished, seems unthinkable. The only consistent inference that I can draw from this is that, if charges are ever laid in any jurisdiction, the governments concerned will find a way to abort the process without allowing the substantive issues to come before a court. Since most of the doctrines that might be used to achieve such an outcome (sovereign immunity, non-interference in internal affairs and so on) have already been repudiated, it seems as if such an outcome could only be justified in terms of a bald claim of “reasons of state”.

Are there any legal experts who can help me out here? I have two main questions:

1. Where if at all, might charges be brought against Bush and others?
2. How would the hearing of these charges be prevented?

Categories: World Events Tags:

BrisScience tonight: animals and colour, sex and violence

April 28th, 2008 Comments off

Very late notice, I know, but I thought I’d put in a plug for tonight’s Bris Science lecture at City Hall, on


Details and future events over the page

Read more…

Categories: Science Tags:

Monday Message Board

April 28th, 2008 17 comments

It’s time once again for the Monday Message Board. Please post your thoughts on any topic. Civilised discussion and no coarse language, please.

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

We shall remember them (reposted from 2005)

April 25th, 2008 38 comments

On Anzac Day, there are two important things to remember

* Thousands of brave men died at Gallipoli and in the Great War and we should always honour their memory

* The Gallipoli campaign was a bloody and pointless diversionary attack in a bloody and pointless war. Millions were killed over trivial causes that were utterly irrelevant by the time the war ended. The 1914-8 War only paved the way for the even greater horrors of Nazism and Stalinism. Nothing good came of it.

From what I’ve seen of the last surviving Diggers they were fully aware of both of these things. At one time, it seemed possible that, as the generation who fought in the war passed on, we would forget the first of them. Now the danger is that we will forget the second. We should judge as harshly as possible the political and religious leaders who drove millions, mostly young men, to their deaths, and honour the handful who stood out against the War, including Bertrand Russell and Pope Benedict XV.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Keating haters

April 24th, 2008 45 comments

Throughout the days of the previous government, its media cheer squad denounced anyone who dared to criticise the government as a “Howard-hater”. This seemed to me to be either a silly piece of rhetoric or just plain wrong. To the extent that it was simply a label for anyone who disliked the government’s policies and therefore disliked the government and its leader, it was just a silly piece of hyperbole. A more natural reading is the claim that people who had no particular quarrel with the government’s policies opposed it because of a personal hatred of Howard. This seems to me to be just plain wrong. I don’t think I ever met anyone who liked the government’s policies but strongly disliked Howard himself (by contrast, other government ministers like Abbott and Costello were widely disliked on a personal basis). It’s notable that the only hostile nickname for him that ever really stuck (the Rodent) was due to one of his own backbenchers and didn’t emerge until 2004. The flipside was that very few people loved Howard in the way that many other political leaders have been loved. Liberal supporters stuck to him as long as he won elections, and forgot about him as soon as he lost one.

The only personal hatred that has any real force in Australian politics is hatred of Paul Keating. This emerged very clearly in relation to the 2020 summit but it’s true more generally that Keating has remained an energising figure for right wing culture warriors more than a decade after his departure. Whenever they go on about the chardonnay-sipping or latte-drinking elites it’s patently obvious that this stuff bears no relation to the current generation of Labor leaders. I have no idea what kind of drinks Kevin Rudd or Anna Bligh or any of the others favor, and Rudd is certainly more intellectually cultivated than Keating ever was, but the idea that they are members of some cultural class distinct from the ordinary Australians is patently silly.

Update: I posted this partly completed, there’s more over the fold now
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Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

The flame of nationalism

April 24th, 2008 58 comments

As the Olympic torch touches down in Australia, it is hard to see how any good can come of the entire exercise.

After Kevin Rudd’s visit to Beijing, which seemed to herald a newly mature relationship between Australia and China, we’ve spent a week or more embroiled in a petty squabble, of a kind which is all too familiar in international relations, over the role of Chinese torch attendants/security guards, with the Australian government insisting that all security will be provided by our police and the Chinese saying that the attendants will “protect the torch with their bodies”.

George Orwell observed over 60 years ago that

Even if one didn’t know from concrete examples (the 1936 Olympic Games, for instance) that international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred, one could deduce it from general principles.

and history since then has given plenty of examples. It looks as if the 2008 Olympics will join them.
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Categories: Politics (general), Sport Tags:

RSMG blog back on air

April 23rd, 2008 Comments off

After a period of quiescence, the Risk and Sustainable Management Group blog is back on the air. Some recent posts:

David on Monopoly Buyers and Market Based Instruments looks at the buyback of water from irrigators

David on Aus gets bigger but has funding increased? asks whether the expansion of our territorial waters will be matched by an increase in management capacity. (JQ notes:Certainly the responsible minister, Martin Ferguson, seems concerned only with the possibility of striking oil).

Peggy reports on the International salinity forum

Wander over, read and discuss!

Categories: Environment, Metablogging Tags:


April 21st, 2008 108 comments

The most amusing outcome of the 2020 summit has undoubtedly been the spectacle of Alexander Downer, grandson of Sir John Downer, son of Sir Alexander Downer, old boy of Geelong Grammar, former Director of the Australian Chamber of Commerce, former Foreign minister, now enjoying retirement on full salary at the expense of the Australian taxpayer, denouncing the participants as “elites”.

Of course, Downer has been backed up by his leading rival in the “anti-elitist” toffee-nosed snob stakes, Professor David Flint.
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Categories: Oz Politics Tags:


April 21st, 2008 77 comments

The 2020 summit kept me too busy to blog. Looking back on the weekend I have a range of impressions.

* Rudd’s opening speech was inspiring, one of the best I’ve heard from him. The same was true of the opening ceremony as a whole.

* As numerous speakers said, the sense of new possibilities and a new openness to ideas has been one of the striking outcomes of the change of government, to an extent that has certainly surprised me.

* In many areas, including the water and climate change sessions, the real message was not so much the need for new ideas (though there were some good ones) but the need to act much more urgently on what we already know

* From the government’s point of view, the Summit had a couple of effects. One was to shake up the policy agenda, giving Rudd the chance to pick up a lot of ideas that are broadly consistent with Labor’s policy platform but got crowded out of discussion in the course of me-too election campaigning. The other is to raise expectations that the government will actually achieve things in areas like climate change and indigenous policy, rather than putting a better spin on marginal changes to the policies inherited from Howard.

* It was already obvious that, with Howard gone, and Labor in office, the Republic issue would return to the agenda. It’s something we have to come to anyway, and is just awaiting the right mood of national optimism. To sustain what is bound to be a fairly lengthy debate, we need more than the natural optimism of an electoral honeymoon. For that reason, I hope, and expect, that concrete moves towards a Republic will be deferred for a while, until the government has some concrete achievements to celebrate.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Monday Message Board

April 21st, 2008 11 comments

It’s time once again for the Monday Message Board. Please post your thoughts on any topic. Civilised discussion and no coarse language, please.

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

Guest post from John Mashey

April 18th, 2008 58 comments

I got a very long comment from John Mashey caught in moderation, so I’ve decided to put it up as a guest post. John makes a number of important points, but doesn’t convince me that oil is essential to economic activity, for reasons I hope to spell out in a reply. In the meantime, readers are invited to chew on this. As always, but particularly for guest posts, civilised and courteous discussion please.
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Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:


April 16th, 2008 85 comments

The big increase in food prices over the last six months or so raises lots of issues, of which I’ll try to cover a few.

The first arises from the fact that prices for commodities, including oil as well as most ag commodities, are typically quoted in $US. In a situation where, for obvious reasons, the value of the $US is declining against all major currencies, this can be quite misleading. Measured against the euro, the currency of the world’s largest unified economy, the increase looks a lot less steep. The declining usefulness of the $US as a unit of account is another step in the process of transition away from a world in which the $US is a reserve currency. More on what will replace it soon, I hope.

In substantive terms, the increase in $US commodity prices is a big problem for the many Asian economies that have pursued some kind of peg to the $US as a means of maintaining export competitiveness. The adverse impact on domestic consumers is now becoming obvious, and the only solution is to abandon the dollar peg and allow an appreciation. China is already moving in this direction.

A second important point is the impact of demand from the biofuel sector, particularly for corn in the US. The idea of making biofuels from food crops was always problematic and the subsidy regime in the US makes it more so. The current food crisis should make subsidies for food-based biofuels politically and economically untenable, pushing the industry away from this easy short term solution and in the direction of sources such as switch grass, grown on marginal or non-arable land.

Finally, the biggest increases have been in wheat prices, reflecting the drought in Australia and in some other wheat producing countries (Kazakstan?). It seems likely, though it’s still impossible to prove, that human-induced climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of drought. So, it’s important not to regard climate change as a problem for the future. In all probability, adverse effects are already here.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:


April 15th, 2008 40 comments

I’ve become much less tolerant of trolls lately and have banned several, here and at Crooked Timber. Simply put, after blogging for six years, I’m no longer interested in, and no longer have time for, dealing with people who are rude and insulting, particularly if they are rude and insulting to me (biased I know, but I do the work to produce this blog and it comes with my biases). I’ve given such people lots of warnings, but in most cases it hasn’t worked. So, from now on, trolls will get one warning if I’m feeling generous and none if I’m not.

Anyone who would like to whine about censorship is welcome to do so, but not here. There are many services offering free, and easily established, blogs where your complaints about being silenced can be published. This is my blog, and I publish what I feel like publishing.

I am interested in serious discussion from all reasonable points of view, from classical liberal to radical socialist in economic terms, all kinds of different positions regarding environmentalism, and so on. However, I no longer have the patience to deal with recirculated talking points from the rightwing parallel universe on the Iraq war, climate change and so on. If people sincerely want answers to such points, I’ll try to set them straight, but I’m not going to engage in prolonged debate on this kind of thing, or encourage it in comments threads.

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

Monday Message Board

April 14th, 2008 12 comments

It’s time once again for the Monday Message Board. Please post your thoughts on any topic. Civilised discussion and no coarse language, please.

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

The sustainability of improving living standards

April 12th, 2008 97 comments

I’ve been a bit under the weather for the last few days, so I thought I’d get my readers to do the work for me. Here’s a piece I’ve been working on for the Fin. Comments and criticism much appreciated.
Read more…

Categories: Environment Tags:

Weekend reflections

April 12th, 2008 2 comments

It’s time once again for weekend reflections.Feel free to write at greater length than for a standard comment thread. As always, civilised discussion and no coarse language.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Iraqi interpreters coming to Australia

April 10th, 2008 19 comments

I only saw this item flashing briefly across the TV screen, but it’s an issue that has been vigorously debated in the UK and over at Crooked Timber. The new Australian government, which is withdrawing combat troops (though not some troops guarding our embassy) from Iraq, has announced that Iraqis who have worked with Australian forces in Iraq will be offered resettlement in Australia. The estimated number of Iraqis to receive visas, including family members, is 600. Australia had only about 500 troops on average, so that gives an idea of the scale of commitment that might be expected from the UK and US if they met their obligations in a comparable fashion.

The decision to accept the interpreters ahead of other refugees has been criticised, but I think this is justified. The essential point should be to treat this intake as additional to, rather than part of, our general obligation to accept refugees.

On the same point, this Times story indicates that the first three workers to be accepted under the much more restrictive British program have finally arrived in the UK, and that the program has so far delivered visas to a total of 12 Iraqis and their families. The total estimated intake is 2000.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Lomborg on the mythical DDT ban

April 7th, 2008 50 comments

One of the great themes (or maybe memes) of rightwing delusionism in recent years has been the alleged ban on the antimalarial use of DDT, supposed to have cost millions (or, on some accounts, billions) of lives. It’s not hard to prove that this ban is totally mythical and that the failure of DDT to eradicate malaria, evident well before the 1972 ban on agricultural use in the US, was primarily due to resistance and cost factors. It’s also possible to trace the myth to its roots in rightwing fringe movements like the LaRouchites and the John Birch Society, and document its popularisation by tobacco lobbyists like Roger Bate and Steve Milloy, who used it to attack WHO. (Search on DDT here or over at Tim Lambert’s site for the details) But it’s harder to tell when this fringe conspiracy theory became part of rightwing orthodoxy.

This 2001 debate between Bjorn Lomborg and Tom Burke in Prospect is unfortunately paywalled, but you can read much of the text here. The money quote from Lomborg

DDT has helped wipe out endemic malaria in both Europe and north America, and its cheap protection still works wonders for third world malaria

It’s unsurprising that Lomborg takes a favorable view of DDT. What’s notable here is that, as of 2001, he hadn’t got the memo about evil environmentalists banning it. On the other hand, as this old post of mine shows, the myth had made it into more general rightwing circulation by 2003, and it was taken as incontestable truth by most rightwingers a year or two later.

Categories: Environment Tags:

How the Liberals can survive

April 7th, 2008 58 comments

As a supporter of political competition, I don’t like the idea that the Liberals/Nationals/Libationals* will remain as irrelevant as they are now. So my Fin column a couple of weeks ago gave them some (unsolicited) advice on how to appeal to a generally social democratic electorate. Feel free to offer your own suggestions.

* This appealing name for a merged party was suggested by commenter Basilisk, who is hereby announced as the winner of the contest I proposed on this topic.
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Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Monday Message Board

April 7th, 2008 6 comments

It’s time once again for the Monday Message Board. Please post your thoughts on any topic. Civilised discussion and no coarse language, please.

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

Peace is for losers part, 2

April 4th, 2008 116 comments

In my last post on Iraq, I concluded with a somewhat snarky reference to pro-war bloggers who reasoned that, since Sadr offered a ceasefire, he must have lost the fight in Basra, and therefore the government must have won. As it turned out, the ceasefire was the product of some days of negotation, brokered by the Iranians, which made the original point moot.

Still, given that the same claim was made by John McCain, who said”Very rarely do I see the winning side declare a ceasefire., I think it’s worth making a more serious point about the fundamental error in pro-war thinking that’s reflected in claims like this.

As usual with McCain’s statements in his alleged area of expertise, the claim is factually dubious (see below). More importantly, the implicit analysis here, and in nearly all pro-war thinking is that of a zero-sum game, in which one side’s gains equal the other side’s losses. The reality is that war is a negative sum game. Invariably, both sides lose relative to an immediate agreement on the final peace terms. Almost invariably, both sides are worse off than if the war had never been fought. With nearly equal certainty, anyone who passes up an opportunity for an early ceasefire will regret it in the end.

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Categories: World Events Tags:

Videoconferencing news

April 2nd, 2008 17 comments

I’m doing my first videoconference presentation for the year on Friday, appropriately enough at a University of Sydney one-day seminar on the economics of sustainability. My talk will be on “Uncertainty, awareness and the precautionary principle”. Anyone interested can get details from Michael Harris [email protected] I’ve lined up two more videoconferences for the first half of this year, and I hope to do some more in the second half. Having been invited to the 2020 Summit in a few weeks time, and with some more bookings already in place, I don’t plan to accept any more invitations for physical travel this year.

The other part of my plan to reduce my carbon footprint and the amount of time I spend travelling is to make one trip cover multiple events. I’m in Melbourne right now, for a visit that includes three presentations and several meetings.

With all this, I’m still travelling a fair bit more than I would like. But I think there is a network effect here. The more people get used to videoconferencing as an alternative, the better it will work, and the more demand there will be for technical improvements.

Update I’ve just given the presentation and I thought it went pretty smoothly, certainly a lot easier than a trip to Sydney. The picture quality for my presentation was fine, and the computer link (using BridgIt) went well. The video and sound quality from the other end (a large lecture room as opposed to a talking head studio presentation) was adequate, but that’s certainly an area of potential improvement. Here’s the presentation in PDF format

Categories: Environment Tags: