Overzealous comment moderation

Quite a few recent posts have triggered either moderation or an apparent bug producing an error of the form

Precondition Failed

The precondition on the request for the URL /wp-comments-post.php evaluated to false.

Investigating, I found that my moderation wordlist included such items as “casino” and “pharmacy”, frequent occurrences in comment spam, but also in ordinary posts. I’ve deleted them, but “casino” also seems to trigger the Precondition Failed bug.

Since the move to WordPress 1.5, the inclusion of the “Nofollow” tag in links means that they no longer count towards Googlerank. This seems to have reduced comment spam, but not eliminated it. I’m going to trim my list and see if I can found out what gives with the “Precondition Failed” problem

Monday message board

As usual on Monday, you are invited to post your thoughts on any topic. Civilised discussion and no coarse language, please. It being a long weekend, I’d be interested in suggestions for new and better public holidays.

What I’ve been reading

Quite a few different things this week, no doubt reflecting the fact that I am spending the week assessing ARC Grant Applications, and am therefore engaged in displacement activity on a massive scale. It’s a job I find very hard going, as there are far more worthwhile applications than can be funded. Assessors don’t actually have to approve or reject, thankfully, but we have to give numerical grades, and only the topscorers get supported. So, rather than do the job in one big hit, I tend to spin it out and find lots of excuses for procrastination.
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Duffy on refugees

Jack Strocchi points me to this interesting piece by Michael Duffy, comparing the case of Chinese diplomat and would-be defector Chen Yonglin with the horrific treatment meted out by a series of immigration ministers to Peter Qasim, to whom could be added equally outrageous cases like those of Al-Kateb and Al Khafaji sentenced to indefinite detention because no country will take them, not to mention the many innocent children locked behind barbed wire.

Duffy, says correctly that Chen is a queue-jumper[1] and that the government’s position[2] is inconsistent with the tough stand it took on refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan. He says

This tide of toughness has lifted the ship of conservative government to ever new levels of success. Refugees have been locked up to deter others overseas, and the voters have given their thanks. The careers of people like Costello and Abbott have blossomed and rightly so, because they are strong men prepared to stand behind the beliefs they hold so passionately.

So he says, Chen and his family should be locked up with all the others.

I agree with Duffy that the inconsistencies are glaring, but not on how to resolve them. We should give Chen asylum and end mandatory detention immediately.

Of course, there’s a big problem here for refugee policy. As Duffy says, Chen brought his exposure to political persecution on himself by denouncing the Chinese government. But, of course this is commonly the case with refugees. Except during (sadly too common) outbreaks of genocidal madness like the Holocaust and Stalin’s purges, the subjects of dictatorships are usually safe enough if they keep quiet. That’s why we used to use the category of territorial asylum, which, as I understand it, said that anyone who could get out of, say, the Soviet Union, automatically counted as a refugee.

But if we allowed anyone from China who denounced the government to seek asylum here, there could well be quite a lot of applicants. I don’t have an immediate answer to this other than to say that it’s a reminder that we shouldn’t get too cosy with the current Chinese government. They may like capitalism now, but its still a communist dictatorship they’re running.

A final point: Duffy coins the neologism “neocoms”, and offers the following explanation (which I missed in the original version of this post)

What a sudden about-face, what a strange and unexpected burst of compassion from tough politicians and commentators who have supported mandatory detention for so long. It needs a name, and I suggest we call it the new compassion, and those who express it the neo-coms.

To any who recognise themselves in this description, I can only say, “Welcome back to humanity”.

fn1. That is, if you accept the bogus claim that there exists a queue, and that potential refugees are in a position to take their place at the back of it

fn2. As far as it can be discerned among a fog of evasions

Update In comments, Andrew Bartlett suggested that Duffy was writing ironically. That was my first reading also, and seems to have been the impression of others. But the text is clear enough, and Duffy has consistently supported a hard line on asylum-seekers. As I’ve discovered before now, irony is a dangerous weapon. Still if Duffy has turned against mandatory detention in general, I’ll be happy to congratulate him.

A guest post on Condorcet voting

Regular commenter Benno (Benedict Spearritt) has sent in a guest post advocating Condorcet voting, a favorite theme of his. My own view is that our current system of (preferably optional) preferential voting (AKA the single transferable vote) is as good as any of the single-member alternatives and drastically better than First Past the Post. It’s a Word document so I’ve tried an HTML translation but I’ll try to upload the file also when I get a moment.

Try this location for the word file and this Try this location for the HTML file

PM Lawrence has sent another version, which I’ve pasted in
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Weekend reflections

This regular feature is back again. The idea is that, over the weekend, you should post your thoughts in a more leisurely fashion than in ordinary comments or the Monday Message Board. On the occasion of the Queen’s Birthday, I’d be interested in thoughts on our relationship to the British monarchy.

Please post your thoughts on any topic, at whatever length seems appropriate to you. Civilised discussion and no coarse language, please.

How to lose your column

As a generally left-wing columnist for a generally right-wing paper, I naturally spend a fair bit of time thinking about how to keep my spot. So I was interested to see this piece by Gerard Henderson on why he got sacked from the Age (Hat-tips to Philip Gomes and Tim Dunlop), where he had the converse position. Henderson’s explanation is that the Age is moving to the left and attributed his sacking to the fact that the Left was offended by his last three columns, which
* said that Evatt was to blame for the Labor Split of 1955
* attacked the Labor Party’s opposition to the Vietnam War
* claimed that Australia’s involvement in the Gallipoli campaign was justified.

Having read the columns, I’d say Henderson was half-right. They probably contributed to his sacking, but on commercial rather than political grounds.
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$200 trillion

That’s a rough estimate of the volume of outstanding contracts in financial derivatives, mainly interest swaps (some year-old and incomplete data here totals $175 trillion). As the name implies, these are usually matched, so that the actual net exposure of any party is a tiny fraction of the gross. But if the counterparty on one side of the swap should default, things could get very nasty. And, given the volume, default on a small proportion of the contracts would overwhelm the resources of the world’s central banks. To get an idea of magnitudes, US GDP is about $11 trillion or 5.5 per cent of outstanding contracts. When Long Term Credit Management went bust in 1998, threatening the stability of the world’s financial system, its gross position totalled $1.25 trillion, or about 0.6 per cent of the amount outstanding today.

Of course, the central bankers and prudential regulators have everything under control, and have simulated all the possible things that can go wrong. As for experimental tests of the stability of the system, we haven’t really had one yet, apart from LTCM. The last time the US financial system came under any real stress was the 1990 recession (or maybe the 1987 crash) at which time the volume of derivatives was maybe $1 trillion.

Still, as Eeyore said in a rather similar situation, “That’s what makes it so terribly interesting. Not really knowing until afterwards”.

Canals and powerlines

It’s nice when blogging pays off in the form of published output, but it rarely happens as quickly as this. On Tuesday night Ken Parish alerted me to an amazing infrastructure proposal, similar to Colin’s canal. The plan is for a 3000-km transmission line connecting Darwin to the National Grid. Even a cursory examination was sufficient to show that the economics of this idea were crazy, and some late-night work produced an analysis ready for publication in today’s Fin (article over the fold).

I’m grateful to Ken for pointing this post out to me in the first place, and to commenters Robert Merkel and Derrida Derider (both regulars here) among others, who raised points that help me clarify my argument. Unfortunately, you can’t give this kind of credit in an opinion piece, but I can do so here. This is the kind of thing that shows the power of blogging.
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Is aid worthwhile ?


When we were discussing, not long ago, whether foreign aid could be useful in countries with corrupt and incompetent governments, I wasn’t imagining stories like this (see also this).

As a comparison, here’s a report from December 31, 2004 of aid finally reaching a city in Aceh, close to the epicentre of the earthquake/tsunami that struck on Boxing Day, 5 days previously. That’s in the middle of a war zone in a Third World country, with few roads, and thousands of kilometres from the countries giving most of the aid.

One further comparison. Ten days after the New Orleans disaster, the US has received offers of aid totalling $US1 billion. The total amount given by the US government in response to the tsunami was $950 million.