The CIS on speeding

The Centre for Independent Studies has published a number of pieces by pro-speeding British sociologist, Alan Buckingham. The site structure doesn’t facilitate linking so you’ll have to look for them individually. Suffice it to say that the standard of argument is well below that usually associated with the CIS. This passage for example, is fairly typical of the general level

If speed did kill then the safest roads would be urban roads where speeds are lowest. In fact, the reverse is true. It is freeways, where speeds are much higher, which are the safest roads.

I hope it’s not necessary to point out that speeding means going faster than is safe on a given road, and that the safe speed is higher on a freeway than on a suburban street, but just in case it is necessary to point it out, I’ve done so.

Similarly, Buckingham praises increases in the speed limit in Italy and the US, not bothering to observe that both countries have worse road death rates than Australia (the US rate has actually been rising over the past decade).

Then there’s the claim that because road deaths in Britain declined more slowly after the introduction of speed cameras than before, speed cameras are ineffectual. Again Buckingham fails to mention the fact that the policies he’s attacking have produced one of the safest road systems in the world. If his arguments prove anything (this kind of casual empiricism is highly unreliable) is that the safety benefit from speed cameras is less than that from previous interventions such as seat belt laws and random breath tests, all of which were vigorously opposed by the Buckinghams of this world.

Buckingham’s work is riddled with sloppy time-series arguments, invalid cross country comparisons and plain non sequiturs.

There are serious issues to be debated regarding speed and law enforcement, and a fair bit of debate has taken place on this blog. Buckingham has done nothing to advance the debate.

Hughes goes American

I made a negative reference to Robert Hughes’ The Shock of the New a couple of days ago. Now this fawning piece by Paul Sheehan (link via Tim Dunlop) reports that Robert Hughes has

relinquished his Australian passport, become an American citizen, and made his self-imposed exile permanent …Exactly three years ago, in the aftermath of the squalls that smashed and permanently damaged him (a near fatal car crash, a hostile reaction to his florid criticisms of the investigation, and a critical pummelling of his TV series about Australia) Hughes told me he was giving up on Australia and applying for American citizenship. When it came through he would quietly hand back both his Australian passport and his AO, and not return.

I can’t say I’m filled with deep regret at this news. Hughes has made some worthwhile contributions in the past, most notably The Fatal Shore, but his behavior over the car crash was very poor (admittedly, not an event to bring out the best in anyone), and his TV series combined an incredibly patronising attitude with an almost total lack of knowledge of, or insight into, Australia.

Tory trouble, part 2

Max Hastings, former editor of the Daily Telegraph and the London Evening Standard, but now writing in the Guardian, says

The Tories will never be electable until they can find a leader who
can offer the British people a vision of the future, not of the past. Britain is now a social democratic country. Barring a national cataclysm, a visibly rightwing party will not again achieve power here.

I think the same is true of NZ and Canada.

In Australia, underlying attitudes are much the same, but it is still more likely than not that Howard will be re-elected in 2004. However, a political party usually pays a price for a long run in office driven by fluke victories and the failings of the opposition, rather than by solid support. Labor paid several times over for “the sweetest victory of all” in 1993, and the Liberals may do the same for Howard’s run.

Tory troubles

Almost unnoticed by the Australian media, the British Conservative Party and the NZ National Party both dumped their leaders in the last couple of days. in one sense, the moves are in opposite directions. Iain Duncan Smith, the British Tory leader was the favourite of the Thatcherite branch membership who have, for the moment at least, a substantial say in choosing the party leader, similar to the Greens and Democrats in Australia. By contrast, the NZ Nationals dumped a moderate, Bill English, in favour of someone identified very closely with the radical free-market reforms of the 1990s, former NZRB governor Don Brash.

I’ve met Brash a couple of times and he strikes me as a decent and honest person. But he was a failure as a central banker, both because of the inflation-only policy target adopted under the National government and because of technical failures like the disastrous flirtation with a Monetary Conditions Index. Finally, although I can’t instantly produce a convincing supporting analysis, I am uneasy at the prospect of senior public servants resigning and going into politics.

What the Tories and NZ Nationals do have in common is that they are in deep electoral trouble. With two election losses behind them, neither party has managed to dissipate the popular hostility generated by periods in office that combined radical free-market policies with an authoritarian style (the Tories are still trying, without much success, to shake the tag of “the nasty party”.)

This is part of a more widespread problem for the conservative parties of the English-speaking world. The most common electoral situation is that in both Britain and NZ with a dominant Labour government, a discredited official opposition and the anti-government vote divided among several mutually hostile parties.

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More on 20th century art

The modern art debate has divided this section of Ozplogistan and not on the usual lines. I’ve now uploaded my 1999 ReView article, which you can read here . I argue that the decline of painting and art music in the 20th century can be traced to emphasis on formal innovation and the Romantic idea, going back to Beethoven, that the artist creates not for the ignorant audiences of today, but for the the future. It is only a short step from this to the vulgarised idea that, the more shocking you are today, the more highly regarded you will be by posterity.

By contrast, with painting and art music, novels and popular music have flourished in the 20th century, precisely because they remain dependent on an audience, rather than on a closed circle of artists and critics. My conclusion:

The other striking characteristic of the novel is the relative insignificance of formal innovation, as opposed to changes in theme or content. A symphony in the style of Beethoven would be a conscious anachronism if composed today, even if it was inspired, like Beethoven’s own works, by contemporary events. By contrast, although there is a wide range of variation, the formal structure of the 19th-century novel remains the starting point for most modern novelists. This is not to say that writers have been constrained to follow this structure – one need only think of Joyce – or to confine themselves to the concerns and conventions of the 19th century novel. Rather, the point is that programmatic formal innovation, such as that of the nouveau roman school of the 1960s, never acquired the kind of institutional dominance it attained in other arts. In the absence of an audience, the nouveau roman withered and disappeared, but the novel flourished.

The experience of the 20th century shows that it is possible for the activity of art to continue, and even to prosper in an economic sense, without an audience. There are also examples like Picasso to show that, in the hands of sufficiently gifted artists, great art will emerge regardless of the underlying theory. In aggregate, however, the 21st century will surely see the art of the 20th as mannered and trivial. If there is to be a revival of art in the new millennium, it must begin with the revival of the mass audience.

Work and babies

This long piece in the New York Times Magazine has lots of stuff about highly qualified women dropping out of the full-time labor force to raise their kids. The money quote doesn’t come until near the end.

the exodus of professional women from the workplace isn’t really about motherhood at all. It is really about work. … quitting is driven as much from the job-dissatisfaction side as from the pull-to-motherhood side….Timing one’s quitting to coincide with a baby is like timing a breakup to coincide with graduation

The changes in work that have driven a good deal of productivity growth here and in the US have required steadily increased work intensity. Particularly in jobs with little in the way of intrinsic reward (most of the women interviewed were MBAs or corporate lawyers) this inevitably generates burnout. Men don’t have the socially acceptable exit of child-rearing, but their participation in the full-time labor force is still declining.

The Next Big Thing

A little while ago, I asked readers to identify the Next Big Thing in blogging. Although not immediately blog-related, it looks like this Amazon initiative may be it. Amazon has digitized about 100 000 books, and offers you the capacity to search within them.

In blog terms, the most notable implication is that it provides bloggers with a vast source of linkable raw material on which to comment. (I assume linking requires you to download the book segment provided by Amazon, then upload it, which is a bit more trouble than linking to a Web page, but no doubt this process will be simplified over time).

Maybe less dramatic, but possibly equally important is the MIT Open Courseware initiative. MIT has made the course materials for over 500 courses, included lecture notes, slides and exams, available to anyone who wants to use them. Here for example is an introductory course on game theory.

One immediate impact is to kill off, once and for all, the most popular version of the commercial online university. During the dotcom bubble, a number of leading universities tried to establish online commercial ventures and many others tried to assert ownership of course materials produced by their staff, with a view to selling it online. Clearly that isn’t going to happen now that MIT is giving its materials away.

A second impact is to make it much easier for a competent lecturer to set up a new course from scratch, even in a relatively poor (but Internet-connected) university in a less-developed or middle-income country. Using course materials developed by someone else at MIT is not a substitute for a well-prepared course in a field where you are already at or near the frontier, but it’s a very good starting point for anyone who is not at that position. And once MIT has done the hard work of setting up a coherent delivery system, there’s every reason to hope that other institutions will join in.

Even for universities that are already in the top 25 (all 50 of them!) there would be big benefits if publication of course materials became as routine as publication of journal articles is today.

They knew it was a lie

This story in the Washington Post makes it clear that US forces didn’t even bother looking for Saddam’s alleged nuclear weapons program. The implication, made more or less explicit at various points, is that everyone who mattered in Washington knew that the claims made by Powell a month or two before the war, and restated in various forms by Bush, Blair, Cheney et al. were untrue. The fact that Saddam couldn’t have a nuclear program was obvious back in January even without the info that has subsequently come out about bogus intelligence and so on.

My guess is that the Administration was confident of finding at least some chemical weapons (Saddam had produced lots of them, had used them in the past, and hadn’t accounted for them adequately), and perhaps some sort of incriminating evidence on germs. No doubt they thought that, given such discoveries, they wouldn’t pay a serious political price for bolstering their case with lies about the really scary stuff like nukes.