Having watched a bit of the Rugby World Cup, and read a little bit about it, I’ve reached the conclusion (not an original one) that the structure is radically defective. Most of the games I’ve seen so far have had all the tension of the annual grudge match between the Brisbane Lions and the Toowong Under 12s (Reserves). There are only half a dozen teams that are serious contenders,and, as I understand it, the pool + elimination final setup means most of them will never play each other. Meanwhile, we get to watch game after game with scorelines like 300 to minus 10.

What’s needed here is two top pools of four (the finalists from the previous cup) with the bottom team in each pool eliminated after the pool matches, and two second division pools with the top qualifiers making it through to the finals. This would mean that most of the interesting matches would actually be played.

Then there’s the estimate that 4 billion people will watch the Cup. Those who’ve seen such statistics in the past know that this is calculated by counting the same people over and over again as they watch different matches. Even so, there are no more than 40 games scheduled, implying an average audience of 100 million. The only hard number I’ve seen is the Australian audience for Australia’s first game, against Argentina, which was about 2 million. Let’s be very generous and suppose that the same number of people watched in Argentina (a soccer-mad country where rubgy is the pastime of a tiny minority). That still leaves us short 96 million – presumably these are people who are passionate enough about rugby to watch a game in which they have no direct interest. Where in the world are that many rugby fans going to be found? The New Zealanders, Pacific Islanders and the Welsh are pretty keen, as are white South Africans, but that’s only about ten million people altogether. Rugby is a significant minority sport in the rest of the British Isles and in France and you might get another ten million potential viewers there. The US and Japan may have teams here, but I doubt that the average American or Japanese is even aware that the Cup is being played.

To sum up, if you supposed that the entire rugby-following population of the world, men, women and children, all watched every match, you might get something approaching a billion viewers in total. I’d guess, though, that a realistic estimate is closer to 100 million.

Bullets win!

I went to the basketball last night, passing up the alternative of the Rugby World Cup (on which more soon). I had some mixed feelings. Having made the move to Brisbane, I’ve committed to supporting the local teams at least in the sports I follow to any extent (AFL, basketball and cricket) but the Bullets’ opponents tonight were the Townsville Crocodiles, the first basketball team I followed, during my stint in the tropics in the mid-90s. Unlike the relatively tepid supporters of the Bullets, Townsville had and has a large and fanatical fan base, to the extent that they outnumbered (or at least outshouted) the Brisbane supporters in their (our) own stadium. At least part of me wanted to be with them.

On the other hand, Australian basketball, more than any other sport, is lacking in any notion of club loyalty. As a result, there are three or four players on the Brisbane team whom I’ve previously cheered as players for my local (Tville or Canberra) team. They include Derek Rucker who is, I think, the most skilled point guard the NBL has seen, though his career has never been crowned with the big prizes such as championships or Olympic selection (he was MVP back in 1990).

Despite any mixed feelings, it was a great night, with a convincing win by the Bullets, and was made better by the fact that you can go to and from the games by ferry, avoiding the traffic jams that usually accompany any sporting event.

The long road back

Britain has taken another small step back from privatisation, with the news that the renationalised owner of the rail network will cancel contracts with private firms for maintenance. (The best coverage I’ve found, oddly enough, is in the New York Times. This has been on the cards for some time. For the background to all this, you can’t do much better than watch Ken Loach’s film The Navigators, which I reviewed for the Canberra Times (my hope that this would lead to a new career as a film critic proved baseless). You can read the review at Australian Policy Online. The NYT article notes that the private contractors whose work proved unsatisfactory on the rail network are the same ones who got jobs under the biggest privatisation initiative of the Blair government, that of the London Underground, and that a partial reversal of this initiative is also on the cards.

In my assessment, the evidence shows that privatisation of “natural monopoly” infrastructure has been a failure. The only cases where the public has got a reasonable price for the sale of their assets have been those where the private buyers have paid too much in the expectation of getting high rates of return. In some cases (for example, Australian airports), the response has been to change the rules to give the buyers what they want at the expense of consumers. In other cases,the buyers have taken their lumps and resold at huge losses. In still other cases, they are still trying to extract higher payments with the threat of withholding capital investment.

The best long-run solution to this is a return to full public ownership. The likely alternative is the kind of quasi-private solution favoured by the Americans when they need a public enterprise but aren’t willing to admit it (Amtrak, Fannie Mae etc).

A modest proposal on WMDs

Things are not going very well as far as the proliferation of nuclear weapons (the only real weapons of mass destruction) are concerned. They are also not going brilliantly for Tony Blair, whose professed concern on this subject with respect to Iraq now looks pretty bogus.

I offer a proposal that might make a contribution in both directions. The United Kingdom should unilaterally abandon nuclear weapons. This would make little practical difference since Britain’s weapons are effectively under American control. But symbolic actions are important.

During the Cold War, the symbolism of unilateral disarmament was problematic, to say the least, since Britain had a major potential adversary that was bristling with nuclear weapons and had plenty of them targeted at British cities. Disarmament was seen as a sign of weakness in the face of this threat.

In the current situation, however, Britain has no nuclear-armed enemies and no reason for keeping them, except national pride and a feeling that they might come in handy some day. Since these are precisely the motives that are driving India, Pakistan, Iran etc, a British decision to disarm could have a big psychological impact in discouraging proliferation.

Of course, as the title of this post indicates, I’m dreaming. But perhaps someone could explain why this proposal doesn’t make sense.

1,500,000 swimming pools later

The idea that a megalitre of water is the amount in an Olympic swimming pool has been repeated endlessly. Here’s what happened when someone actually checked.

Leaving aside the fact that Olympic swimming pools vary in depth and width, I find the metaphor almost useless. The old acre-foot (about 1.1 ML) at least gave an idea of how a given volume of water might be used in practice. You can do the same the fact that 1ML will supply 10cm of irrigation water to 1 hectare of land.

While I’m on this topic, my piece in today’s Fin (subscription required) is about the Murray, but regular readers will have already seen most of it in bits and pieces on the blog. Thanks to all who helped me sort out my thoughts on this

Coffee update

A rather silly article in the Fin (Gloria Jean’s, purveyor of crap coffee in paper cups is described as ‘the leader in the specialty coffee market’, on the strength of its 140 food-court outlets), contains the gratifying news that Starbucks’ assault on the Australian market has been a failure so far. After opening 37 stores out of a promised 50 the purchaser of the franchise has given up and handed it back to Starbucks Central.

A couple of indicators of the problems ahead of Starbucks here.

First, the Qantas in-flight magazine I read on a recent trip had lots of restaurant reviews for visitors to Australian cities. Most included advice on both the brand of coffee served and the quality of preparation and service – the wine list was mentioned only occasionally.

Second, there’s the ubiquity of high-quality espresso. The Fin article I mentioned claimed that the number of cafes had declined marginally in the last couple of years, but if that’s true it’s only because espresso machines have become a universal feature the landscape. In my little corner of Brisbane I have a choice of buying my coffee at the Faculty rooftop cafe, the fish-and-chip shop, the bakery, the deli, the bookshop and the garden centre, not to mention a couple of dozen cafes and restaurants. Meanwhile, judging by the average news story on the subject, Starbucks thinks it’s competing with Gloria Jeans and McCafe.

Fridges with webcams!

I’ve just had my first experience of public WiFi (I’ve had a little home Airport network for some time) and I think this may be, as others have suggested, the Next Big Thing. (First poster to say “Huh! I was doing this five years ago!” does not get a prize!)

It’s still expensive (though I understand there are ways of getting access for free if you know what to do) and coverage is still very limited. The other problem in getting properly untethered is the limited battery life of full-scale laptops – alternatives with miniature screens and keyboards/keypads are not for me.

Having got enthusiastic over one technology, I have to maintain my generally technosceptic stance by debunking another, and what better than yet another Internet-enabled fridge story. This is one about a proposed fridge with a webcam inside it. I’ve got used to the idea of bedroom and bathroom webcams by now, but a fridge webcam sounds as if it could be truly gross!

In any case, this got me thinking: What is it with gee-whiz technology journalists and fridges ? I suppose the answer is that it’s marginally less implausible than an Internet-ready microwave oven. But as a public service, I’m going to attempt a once-for-all debunking of the idea of Internet-enabled white goods and similar appliances.

There are two potential applications worth considering. The first is the idea of a fridge that will check its contents, note shortfalls and time-expired items and order replacements from the supermarket. This is silly for two reasons. First, the fridge can’t tell whether the milk is all gone or whether the kids forgot to put it back after making their breakfast cereal. Second, a superior technology is available now if anyone wants it. All you need is a barcode scanner and off-the-shelf inventory software. You swipe items as they enter the inventory and again when they are used. Assuming the existence of stores set up for automated phone orders, the last bit would be easy.

This approach covers all grocery items not just refrigerated goods, and is cheap and relatively easy. If you’re prepared to work a bit harder you can home-brew the software, do the data entry manually and you get the whole thing for free. My Dad actually implemented such a system a decade or so ago and ran it for several years, but got tired of it in the end. For most people, even cheap and off the shelf, this would not be worth the effort.

The other possibility is remote control – telling the oven to turn on an hour before you get home for dinner and so on. Again this is pretty much feasible already, using home automation systems such as X-10 and again very few people bother. The problem is that a disciplined person can achieve most of the required functionality with simple timers and a disorganised person will generally find it easier to wait until they get home.

The big exception to all of this is communications and entertainment. I’m not talking here about the silly idea of convergence in which the TV set, computer and phone would merge (if you think about, the potential benefit of this is the saving of one screen). Rather its the idea that instead of having to negotiate a badly-designed interface, different for each system, whenever you want to control, say, a video, you should be able to manage all your digital media from a system designed for flexible control, that is, a computer.


Thanks to the magic of Trackback, I’ve been prematurely alerted to a new blog setup by Chris Sheil, late of Troppo Armadillo. The name Back Pages, and the fact that at least some of the posts are recycled suggests that this is still in the testing phase and may be some sort of “Best Of” site, but hopefully the fact that it’s on air means that Chris will be back in full voice shortly.

Update It was, as I speculated, a test site, and I’ve removed the link at Chris’ request. The Real Thing, he promises will be coming Real Soon Now.

Iraq importing immigrants?

I was stunned by this piece from The Economist when it came out, and expected a furore. But, with the inevitable exception of Tim Dunlop and the unsurprising exception of Nathan Newman, no-one else seems to have noticed (Nathan’s post did get one link, from

I find this startling. Far more than debates about imminence or WMDs, and even more than the daily drip of guerilla attack and counterattack, the success or failure of the US policy in Iraq depends on getting the economy moving. Any attempts in this direction are doomed to failure, if, as The Economist asserts, the occupying forces have a policy of not employing Iraqis

If this story is correct, and representative of the policies of the occupation forces in general, it’s time to abandon the “you broke it, you own it” stance I’ve advocated previously. Rather than pursue a strategy that is doomed to be an expensive failure, it would be better to pull out immediately, and let the chips fall where they may.

UpdateSteve Edwards also has a good comment on this, and on the US Democrats proposal to turn half the aid to Iraq into loans (I anticipated this some time ago, but not that it would come from the Dems).

More cost-benefit on road safety

The debate on road safety has been lively, and has certainly helped me to sharpen my ideas on the subject. In particular, I’ve gone back to the most recent source of controversy, the proposal for banks of speed cameras on the Victorian section of the Hume Highway which would be able to check a driver’s average speed over sections of the Highway. The main effect would be to make it impossible to speed consistently (given fixed locations, the cameras don’t have much affect on such things as speeding up to overtake and so on).

This is a relatively straightforward case for cost-benefit analysis. People who formerly travelled at above the speed limit will go slower and take more time. On the other hand, since this will reduce both average speed and speed variance, there will be less accidents.

For the costs, I’ve assumed 15 000 cars per year, 20 per cent of whom speed consistently, maintaining an average of 130km/h (vs a limit of 110). I’ve given them a value of time saved of $20/hour (higher than is standard), and I estimate an annual cost of $10 million per year from enforcing the limit.

As already noted, the cost per life lost is above $20 million, between $5 million and $10 million so we only need to prevent one or two fatalities per year to get benefits>costs (there have been about 8 deaths per year in the last five years).

A slightly more involved calculation shows that the net externality generated by speeders and other dangerous drivers on the Hume is around half the total damage incurred from accidents (the actual cost incurred by safe drivers + the extra costs of defensive driving). On standard “pollution tax” arguments, the fine revenue that ought to be collected from the Hume, net of enforcement costs is therefore around $50 million per year.

This post has been updated to correct for an erroneous value-of-life calculation in the original version