Communications Research and Strategy Forum

I spoke at this forum on Monday on the topic “Where to now for Telstra?”. There was an interesting session on the future of the Internet, with a paper by Alex Burns and Darren Sharp which included a screen shot of this blog; the discussion of blogs and wikis was spot on, though it was striking that even with a communications-oriented audience, these concepts seemed to be new to many.

I’ll try to upload my presentation soon.

The Unsustainability of Trade Deficits

I’ll be talking on this topic to the Economic Society of Australia (Queensland branch) on Thursday night at the Exhange Hotel, a well-known Brisbane cultural centre. I’m preparing a presentation and I found this graph of the US trade balance at the St Louis Fed

Bopbgs Max

The graph is in billions of dollars per quarter, unadjusted for inflation, so the pattern is exaggerated. Still it’s a good illustration of how the recent massive deficits are historically unprecedented, something which is true even when the more appropriate measure of percent of national income is used.

Australia’s experience is less dramatic, but we are, nonetheless hitting new records in terms of deficits and debts.

fn1. No animals were harmed in the preparation of this talk.

Just Google it?

The availability of search engines like Google provides an easy way of checking on factual claims you may find questionable – just enter the relevant keywords into a search engine and see what comes up. If such a search produces nothing to support the claim, or evidence to refute or qualify it, then it’s time to start demanding evidence.

This started me thinking about a more general problem with search engines. Using search engine results in the way I suggest rests on the assumption that a given query will produce given results. The same is true if I want to say “Site X is the top result on engine Y for query Z”. But what happens if, as is already possible, search results are personalised, based on, say, previous search history and choice among search results. The same search, undertaken by someone else, might produce completely different results.

Personalisation has some obvious benefits. if I’m searching for bus routes in Brisbane, I probably don’t want results about Brisbane, California. But it undermines the usefulness of search engines results as evidence in analysis or argument.

Full-scale personalisation might get us to the point feared by writers like Cass Sunstein. Dogmatic leftwingers or rightwingers, supporters and opponents of the Iraq war, and so on, might be presented exclusively with search results that confirmed their prejudices, and might never realise that they were looking at a completely different Web to that seen by someone with different views. This process would work only for people who usually don’t follow search results that lead to views contrary to their own – personalisation would reinforce this tendency until it became automatic.

Why do they hate America?

In the leadup to the Iraq war, we were repeatedly told that anyone who disagreed with the rush to war, or criticised the Bush Administration, was “anti-American”. It now appears that the majority of Americans are anti-American. A string of polls has shown that most Americans now realise that Bush and his Administration lied to get them into the war and that it was a mistake to go to war. The latest, reported in the NYT is this one from the Pew Research Centre.

It has a lot of interesting statistics on the views of Americans in general, and various elite groups. The truly striking figure is Bush’s approval ranking among leading scientists and engineers, drawn from the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. In Aug 2001, it was 30 per cent – not strong but not negligible either. In Oct 2005, it’s fallen to 6 per cent, with 87 per cent disapproving. I’d guess that the scientists in the sample are more hostile than the engineers (though, obviously, the engineers must be pretty hostile). Looking around science-oriented blogs and websites, I’d say that the attitude of Academy members is pretty representative of scientists in general. Anytime you find a favourable remark about Bush you can count on it that the site is an astroturf operation like Flack Central Station or the aptly-named Junk Science.

Scientists and engineers are not generally seen as a highly political group, but they can recognise enemies when they see them, and no government in US history has been more anti-science than this one.

Update: In the comments thread at CT and elsewhere, it’s been denied that anyone ever asserted that opposition to the war was anti-American. This post from Media Matters gives a number of instances, and there are more in the CT comments thread. Others, like Instapundit, preferred objectively pro-Saddam


I saw a fascinating doco running over the last two Sundays on the ABC, called 1421: The Year China Discovered America?. This is the title of a book by Gavin Menzies, described as a “historian and former submarine commander”, who claims that the fleet commanded by Zheng He, and known to have sailed to India and East Africa, actually continued on to America and circumnavigated the world.

The first episode gave the historical background on Zheng He and a reasonably sympathetic outline of Menzies’ theory. In the second episode, the pieces of evidence advanced by Menzies were presented in more detail, along with responses from experts on a wide range of topics, nearly all of whom tore Menzies’ claims to shreds (though in a very polite way). He didn’t seem to be fazed and was busy mounting an expedition to look for more evidence.

What struck me, watching this, was how different everything would have been if it had, for some reason, been politically useful for the US Republican Party and their Australian offshoots, to support Menzies’ claim. Then we would have had opinion pieces from Andrew Bolt and the like denouncing the experts as elitists only concerned to suppress dissenting views, claims of ABC bias, blogospheric recycling of bogus quotes, claims that many scientists support the 1421 theory and so on. The whole panoply of postmodernist tricks would be pressed into the service of a patent absurdity, just as we’ve seen with Intelligent Design, global warming denialism, defence of CFCs and so on.