Billionaires in space

With its unsubtle allusion to a 1980s cult classic, that’s the headline for my latest piece in Independent Australia. Key points

Nothing has changed in the basic physics that makes space travel, beyond the minimal scale achieved in the 1960s, essentially impossible. On the contrary, advances in physics have shut off every theoretical loophole that might have permitted us to exceed the limit imposed by the speed of light. Nor has there been any reduction in the massive amount of energy needed to propel even a single person into space.

The world is facing challenges that threaten our very existence, from pandemics to climate catastrophe to nuclear war. We can’t rely on fantasies of escaping into outer space. Nor we can afford a system that delivers a huge proportion of our collective income to a handful of irresponsible adventurers.

What to do when you’re wrong

We all get things wrong from time to time, particularly in relation to fast moving events like the pandemic. So, how can you respond when this happens. Here’s a list of possibilities, generally from best to worst in terms of intellectually responsibility and from least to most common in terms of frequency

  1. Admit error, look at why you were wrong, try and do better next time (let’s get real, we are talking about human beings here. this almost never happens
  2. Go quiet for a while, and don’t return to the topic until you have done some rethinking
  3. Argue that you were right, but that circumstances have changed
  4. Claim that, despite appearances, you’ll be proved right in the end
  5. Go quiet and scrub as much of your past track record as you can
  6. Claim you always held the opposite position to the one you previously supported
  7. Keep fighting, focusing on how being right has made your opponents even more discreditable
  8. Double down and claim a conspiracy against you

I’m planning to do a few posts soon looking at positions I’ve taken that appear to have been wrong, and trying to stay in the top half of this list

One failure too many

That’s the title of my latest piece in Inside Story , also printed in the Canberra Times under the headline Sydney’s coronavirus outbreak highlights hard choices“”

Key para

Poor understanding of uncertainty was evident in the rush to label New South Wales as the gold standard and assume that a handful of successes was evidence that there was nothing to worry about. This conclusion didn’t take account of the fact that the policy could not afford even one failure. All high-risk strategies share two key features: they work until they fail, and they are likely to be hailed as the product of genius until they are not.


A new sandpit for long side discussions, conspiracy theories, idees fixes and so on.

To be clear, the sandpit is for regular commenters to pursue points that distract from regular discussion, including conspiracy-theoretic takes on the issues at hand. It’s not meant as a forum for visiting conspiracy theorists, or trolls posing as such.

The Great Melbourne lockdown in retrospect

Now that much of Australia, but not Victoria, is locked down, it seems like a good time to reconsider last year’s epic lockdown in the light of subsequent experience. What have we learned that is useful?

  1. Hotel quarantine doesn’t work. Immense amounts of effort were devoted into working out who made what mistakes in setting up Melbourne quarantine, whether it was bad contracting, security guards fraternsing with the inmates returned travellers, or something else. After a dozen or more leakages, in every state in the country, it’s evident that this effort was a waste of time. The correct response was for the Commonwealth government to accept its constitutional responsibility and set up purpose-built quarantine facilities as fast as possible. A year later, this is finally starting to happen.
  2. Localised lockdowns with arbitrary boundaries don’t work. They failed in Melbourne and again in Sydney. The one success (Avalon) was the exception that proves (tests) the rule: a peninsula, with only a few roads in or out, lots of single family homes for professionals who could work from home.
  3. Lockdown needs to be early. It’s forgotten now, since it doesn’t fit the “Dictator Dan” stereotype, but Andrews waited a long time for full lockdown, though less than in the earlier national lockdown.

What remains to be seen is how much difference contact tracing makes, and whether Delta offsets this. The standard line is that NSW was much better than Vic now, and has improved greatly since then. But they never found the index case for Avalon, or the links between the known source and a couple of mystery cases a few weeks ago. If the current NSW outbreak is controlled quickly, that’s a big win for contact tracing. If not, it might be Delta or maybe tracing was never as good as claimed.

Finally, the obvious point. If Morrison and Hunt hadn’t made a mess of buying vaccines, then played down the urgency of getting vaccinated, we would be a great deal better off.