What I’m reading

As a 19th century bishop is supposed to have said, there’s no better way to spend Sunday afternoon than curled up in bed with a good Trollope. I’ve just been given a beautiful Folio edition of the Barchester novels and am rereading them, beginning with The Warden which, despite some obvious defects, is probably my favourite.

What I'm reading

As a 19th century bishop is supposed to have said, there’s no better way to spend Sunday afternoon than curled up in bed with a good Trollope. I’ve just been given a beautiful Folio edition of the Barchester novels and am rereading them, beginning with The Warden which, despite some obvious defects, is probably my favourite.

The Interregnum

I’m looking ahead to the June 30 “handover” of power in Iraq with increasing trepidation. As this NYT story indicates, the handover is shaping up to be a complete sham (more on this from Nathan Brown, guest commentator for Juan Cole). Anybody silly or corrupt enough to join the new “government” will be in the same position as the Iraq governments of the British Mandate/Treaty period, taking responsibility for policies dictated by a foreign occupying force, while having no effective power over anything that matters.
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Own goals

The big Oz political news of the week was the flap over Mark Latham’s remarks on education, which echoed similar remarks by Bill Clinton and led to claims of plagiarism from the PM. Chris Sheil rightly describes this as a terrific beatup, but asserts that “the Coalition has won the day so far on this one”, while in the comments box, Sedgwick rates it a nil-all draw. I count it as a 2-0 win for Labor, with J. Howard doing all the scoring (own goals in both halves).

First own goal: Latham is shown on TV over and over, making commitments to education. He would never have got such publicity on the strength of the speech itself.

Second own goal: Rather than using one of his taggers, ideally a snarky journo or even a blogger, Howard went for the king-hit himself, thus casting himself in the classic negative role of the carping critic with no substantive policy to offer. Opposition leaders, by virtue of their position, find it hard to avoid this role – for a PM to take it on voluntarily is stupid.

As it happens, I can apply the taxi driver test to this one. I heard this on the radio going to the airport and the taxi driver (middle-aged and not obviously a lefty) said exactly what I thought “So What”.

An obvious logical objection, that doesn’t seem to have occurred to those debating this issue is that any politician who uses a speechwriter is automatically guilty of plagiarism. The implication, I think, is that the term has no real applicability in politics, except in cases where a speaker explicitly claims words as their own (the opposite of the situation in the academic world).

Update: There’s a bit more about this over at Catallaxy. Showing yet again that it’s possible to agree on particular points despite important disagreements on values, Andrew Norton agrees that the kind of plagiarism undertaken by Latham is a trivial offence if it’s an offence at all. On the other hand, writing in the comments thread, Geoff Honnor makes the point that Latham also scored an own goal by denying the obvious. I’ll restate the score as 2-1.

Further update In the comments thread, reader TJW suggests that the story began with Laurie Oakes, who certainly fits the billl as a snarky journo. If this is correct, Howard’s own goal looks even worse. He would have been sensible to leave it with Oakes, rather than to jump in and open himself up to the inevitable finding that he’d done just the same thing himself.

Second-mover advantage

It’s the fate of market innovators to be undercut by new entrants. Bill Tozier has hit on the idea of auctioning co-authorship rights, including the acquisition of an Erdös number of 5. As of this posting, the Ebay high bid stands at $US 31. 354

But Bill has apparently failed to learn the lessons of the dotcom era. The first is to patent everything. As far as I can tell, Bill has failed to file for a business methods patent on his idea, leaving it open to new entrants to imitate him, or even to patent the idea themselves.

The second is that the best way to undercut the competition is to give your product away. Following on this lesson, I’ve decided to set my co-authorship price (including *free* Erdös number of 4) at zero. That’s right, potential co-authors! Send your paper to me with a space for my name on the front page, after yours[1]. SEND NO MONEY! If I like it, I’ll insert my official stamp, and send it off to an appropriate journal. I don’t know why I didn’t think of this earlier!
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A big day out

Among my various activities, I’m a member of the Queensland Competition Authority, which is responsible for regulating a range of private and public monopoly enterprises[1]. I’ve spent the day in and around Mackay, looking at railway yards and coal-loading ports. I’ll be back tomorrow with more posts, and responses to the lively comments threads.

fn1. Just to be on the safe side, I’ll mention that nothing written on this blog purports to represent the position of the QCA, the University of Queensland, the Australian Financial Review or anyone else for whom I might do some work at some time or another.

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Are tax cuts a winner ?

There have been quite a few interesting posts at Catallaxy recently, and I haven’t got around to linking them. I meant to post a response to Jason’s discussion of flat taxes, but haven’t had time to polish it yet.

Instead, I’ll link to Andrew Norton’s response to Alan Wood’s claim that the way to voters’ hearts is via big tax cuts (which includes a further link to Stephen Kirchner. Andrew and I have both discussed this previously, and we agree that Wood is wrong, though of course I’m happy about this and Andrew is not.

One point I’ll make is that Sol Lebovic is quoted, endorsing the Oz party line, and claiming that “while health and education routinely top the list of issues of concern to voters, they don’t swing elections unless there is a clear difference between the parties.” I think this is silly (obviously, there is a clear difference, since Labor is invariably more favorably disposed to public expenditure in these areas). More to the point, I think it’s very unwise for a pollster to run down his own poll results when they yield a conclusion that’s inconvenient to his employer, as Lebovic now seems to do regularly.

If the poll answers were genuinely misleading, the correct response would be to change the questions, the sample, or both. It’s clear that the kinds of changes needed to give the answers the Oz wants to hear would involve blatant rigging that would destroy Newspoll’s credibility for all time. So Lebovic is unwilling to tamper with the polls, but he is willing to tell us to ignore some of the results.

Degrees of separation ( a joint post with Eszter Hargittai)

Following up the links on a post by Eszter at Crooked Timber, I discovered that she shares with me an Erdös number of 3 (Eszter via Aronov and O’Rourke, mine via Fishburn and Wakker). This is pretty good for social science academics.

We thought this was worth a CT post, and came up with another issue. Although Movable Type and other systems encourage group blogging, they don’t, it seems, allow for jointly authored posts. This is of particular interest since it’s at least arguable that a joint post would count as co-authorship for Erdös number purposes (this comes back to the question, frequently discussed on this blog, of whether and how blog contributions should be listed on vitas). But more generally, it would seem as if joint posts would be worthwhile for at least some purposes.

The Erdos number site asserts that numbers as high as 15 have been found, but that, at least for mathematicians nearly all finite Erdös numbers are below 8. This seems about right, though mean, median and modal numbers must grow as those with low numbers die or retire, becoming unavailable for collaboration.


While on my way to the airport, I saw an ad for Wild Turkey bourbon, which said “Anything less is a waste of good ice”. I had that uneasy feeling that something was wrong, but I couldn’t quite say what. Then it struck me that the claim was logically equivalent to “Any worse, and it would be undrinkable”.