Thursday, July 31, 2014

Stimulus and austerity

I've been reading a few things on the matter of great economic debate of stimulus versus austerity.

First, Justin Wolfers says that survey results show that top flying American economists are nutty outliers (my wording, not Wolfer's) if they hold the position that the Obama stimulus of 2009 didn't help the economy.  They are more divided on whether it was worth the cost, but even then it runs more than two to one in favour of "yes, it was worth it."

Secondly, I stumbled across this article by Florian Schui which I thought gives a nice succinct summary of the intersection of politics and economics on this issue:
This is an evolutionary argument familiar from radical liberal thinkers such as Wilhelm von Humboldt and Friedrich Hayek. Crucially, their perspective does not give great prominence to questions of economic efficiency. Indeed, free societies a likely to experience periods of economic waste: periods of low growth may leave labour, capital and other resources underused. But free societies do better in the long run because they are better at evolving and adapting. The political aim must therefore be to contain the size of the state in order to leave space for the creative forces of society. That remains true even if cutting back the state hurts growth and economic efficiency in the short term. If you accept this view, it makes no sense to adapt the size of the state to the cyclical fluctuations of the economy. Rather, what is needed is a permanently smaller state to unleash the creative powers of society.

This argument has its merits but from an economic perspective there are some substantial problems associated with the Olympian perspective adopted by thinkers like Humboldt and Hayek. Mainly, they do not say how long the long run is. Other approaches to economic policy allow the public to verify concrete results after a few quarters or after a couple of years at the latest and decide whether to continue with a specific set of policies or not. But it is not clear when we can undertake a similar evaluation of the results of this kind of radical laissez faire. Every crisis no matter how long or deep may be interpreted as an unpleasant but necessary stretch on a superior evolutionary path. In practice, this means that economic results become irrelevant as a yardstick against which to judge economic policy. This is exactly what is happening in the case of austerity. There simply is no economic outcome that can convince proponents of austerity that they are on the wrong track. Their cause is not about economic efficiency but about a political goal: the preservation of liberty.

There are also social problems associated with the Olympian perspective of the likes of Humboldt and Hayek. Prussian aristocrats and tenured professors are in a position to look at economic crises, even if they lasts a decade or longer, as a mere transitory phase of hardship that is part of a superior evolutionary trajectory. More ordinary citizens may not be able to afford this kind of detached perspective on the economy. A longer crisis can ruin the life plans of individuals and lead to the collapse of social and political systems. That is why Keynes warned that the ‘long run is a misleading guide to current affairs’.

One may object that there is nothing wrong with giving priority to political values over the pursuit of economic maximisation and social welfare. Why should the defence of freedom not trump economic and social considerations? After all maximising growth and maximising human happiness can be two rather different things and most people would agree that the latter is more important. The preservation of liberty may very well warrant austerity policies that cut the state to size, even if they hurt economically.

While this is a valid argument it is questionable whether the trade-off between the size of the state and individual liberty really exists. The historical experience of Humboldt and Hayek certainly gave them reason to think of states as the enemies of individual freedom. In Humboldt’s time, towards the end of the 18th century, absolutist states such as his native Prussia and republican states such as France were extremely ambitious in expanding their sphere of action, often at the expense of individual liberty. The same is true of the authoritarian states in Europe that Hayek witnessed in the 1920s and 30s.

However, a more complete vision of history also reveals the shortcomings of the simple equation of a larger state with greater oppression. Hayek predicted in the 1940s that planned economies would set mankind on a road to serfdom. In actual fact, the vast expansion of states across the western world in the post war decades coincided with an equally substantial increase of liberty for many contemporaries. Women and black people acquired more freedom than ever before and despite evident lapses western countries did rather well at protecting the individual rights of their citizens.
I think this sounds quite convincing, and goes along with my increasing feeling over the last few years that it is the small government ideologues who are truly ignoring history.   

And finally, this article in The Economist, which I've possibly linked to before, seems to give a very fair and balanced take on the matter.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

History repeats - kinda

Why Did ISIS Destroy the Tomb of Jonah? | Mark Movsesian | First Things

From the post, a brief summary of the branch of Islam that ISIS represents:
ISIS is part of the Salafi movement, a branch of Sunni Islam that seeks to return to the practices of the earliest Muslims – the salaf—who lived at the time of the Prophet Mohammed and just after. The movement rejects the centuries of subsequent developments in Islam as
unjustified innovations–pagan accretions that adulterated the faith. In particular, the movement opposes the veneration of the graves of Islamic prophets and holy men. Salafis see this practice, which is associated most frequently with Sufi Islam, as a kind of idolatry, or shirk, that detracts from the absolute transcendence of God.

Salafi Islam prevails in Saudi Arabia, where it enjoys the patronage of the royal family. On the Arabian Peninsula, as now in Iraq, Salafis have destroyed the tombs of Islamic holy men. Indeed, when the Saudi royal family captured the city of Medina in the 19th century, Salafis
systematically destroyed the tombs of several of the Prophet Mohammed’s companions and family members, leaving only the Prophet’s tomb itself unmolested. There is some thought that the Saudi government plans on dismantling even that tomb, but hesitates to do so because of the uproar that would result in other Muslim communities.

In short, one should see ISIS’s destruction of the tomb of Jonah as an act principally directed at other Muslims, not Christians.
As someone says in comments following:
Can we just get this over with and acknowledge that ISIS is a 21st century version of Cromwell's army?
I initially thought that, given the images of heads on stakes in the media today, this may be being a bit harsh on Cromwell.  But I see that he was in fact ruthless, particularly in Ireland:
The first major town Cromwell and his army encountered when they landed in Ireland was Drogheda. He summoned the royalist commander and invited him to surrender. When he refused, Cromwell's model army seized the town and put the entire garrison of 2,500 officers and men to the sword. It was an act of ruthlessness which sent shockwaves of fear through the rest of Ireland. Other towns surrendered as soon as Cromwell's army approached, and their inmates were spared.

Only Wexford refused. During the siege there Parliamentarian troops broke into the town while negotiations for its surrender were ongoing, and sacked it, killing about 2,000 soldiers and 1,500 townspeople and burning much of the town.
 If one is desperate to find an optimistic take on this, I can try this:   Cromwell was operating pretty close to 1,600 years after the death of the founder of his religion.  ISIS is operating 1,400 years after the death of their's.   On this trajectory, Islam is perhaps 200 years ahead of Christianity's timetable towards becoming "mostly harmless", and everything should be looking good by 2200*.

*  Climate change will have given the world something else to fight over by then, anyway.

Yeah, I'll believe it when I see it...

I really think the sub editor coming up with the headlines at Slate is just trolling its readership with a title like this: 
Look Out Democrats.  The GOP's 2016 presidential hopefuls may be the best field in generations

I'll link to the article itself, not the headline.  The article seems to talk only about possible candidates we already know.  The headline is completely misleading...

Cell work not as careful as it should be

Contamination hits cell work

The article is all about the problem of mycoplasma contamination in laboratory cell cultures.
In fact, the problem is widespread. Hogenesch, a genome biologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and his colleague Anthony Olarerin-George have found that more than one-tenth of gene-expression studies, many published in leading journals, show evidence of Mycoplasma contamination1. The infestations are undermining research findings and wasting huge amounts of money, Hogenesch says.

He should know. His lab quickly overcame an infestation last year, but a previous plague cost it some US$100,000 and a year of research. Mycoplasma takes hold quickly, he says. “All it takes is one person not to check, and — bam — you have it.” The bacterium often comes from lab workers, and is not killed by the antibiotics typically used to rid cell cultures of  contaminants. And unlike many other microorganisms, which turn the growth medium turbid, Mycoplasma leaves no visible signs of its presence.
I somehow thought they would already be more careful than this, but bacteria are hard to see, I guess.

Movie industry news, continued

I've had a few posts lately about how the international (especially Chinese) market is affecting Hollywood.

I'm surprised to read this morning that, within America itself, which is having a rather glum summer season in box office terms, the Hispanic market is really strong for cinema attendance.

You'd never know it from their presence in films, would you? 

For what it's worth, I'll repeat my criticisms of where the movie industry is at the moment:

*  Way too many comic derived superhero films.  Far, far too many.

*  A lack of particularly appealing young actors with clear star quality.

*  Comedy which has become too crude, made by men in permanent adolescent mode.

*  Too many sequels for films which barely deserve it.  More originality, please.

Why fly a stupid idea?

I heard Tony Abbott on the radio this morning saying that the "dole bludgers will have to apply for 40 jobs a month" was not firm policy - it was just a proposal and a "consultative" government does this to take on board public input before it decides, etc etc.

Oh sure.  This was the "consultative government" that gave us an enormous change in tertiary education, Medicare co-payments, and told the States that they're on their own to cover the increasing costs of health care, all without any consultation that I noticed.

This policy was a silly, over the top idea from the start, and it was stupid tactics of someone in this inept government to fly the kite just to watch it being shot down.

It again shows that the Coalition is, in large part, in a time warp when it comes to policy prescriptions.  (Mind you, any new ideas they do have are not that good either.)

What's the free marketeers' answer to this?

One problem with the world economy as noted by one Australian born OECD economist:
Another factor which Dr Blundell-Wignall says is holding back the recovery from the GFC is bank earnings.
"If you go back to 1980 the earnings of the financial sector of the S&P 500 companies was less than 10 per cent."
He says the proportion of Wall Street earnings by finance stocks is now more than 30 per cent, having risen above its share when the GFC hit.
"The financial sector is supposed to be the sector that intermediates between real savers and real investors. That's what greases the wheels of capitalism," he said.
"Where do we get of thinking that the financial sector can just rip one third of the earnings for themselves?
That does sound like a legitimate concern, and apart from letting banks and financial institutions fall when a crisis happens (and impoverishing millions of their customers in the process), I wonder what the small government, let business work itself out, types think about this.... 

An odd duck

Hans Christian Andersen’s painful fairy-tale life | TLS

I've never read much about HCA, but this review of a new biography of him is interesting.  I think I have heard of his disastrous meeting with Charles Dickens before, probably when reading a review of one of the latter's biographies:

Charles Dickens provides the best-known example of Andersen’s startling
capacity to misread the rules of social engagement (Sebastian Barry made the
awkwardness between the two men the subject of a thoughtful play in 2010).
Dickens and Andersen had much in common, both having worked their way from
unpromising beginnings to immense literary success. Dickens’s sympathy with
the underdog made him a natural ally for Andersen, and at first all went
well between them. But in 1857 Andersen went to stay with the Dickens
family, and failed to notice polite hints when several weeks passed, and it
was time to leave. Dickens was exasperated, while Kate Dickens called him a
“bony bore”. Binding passes over the embarrassment hastily, but he does
point out that Andersen must have found Dickens’s boisterous heartiness
baffling. Perhaps he was simply incapable of extricating himself from the
difficulties of the situation. He was an experienced house guest – in fact,
he never had a home of his own – but he was new to the rituals of
middle-class domesticity in England, and his grasp of English was never
strong. Andersen’s visit coincided with the final stages of Dickens’s dying
marriage, and Binding notes that Andersen’s unwelcome presence in the tense
household at Gad’s Hill may have influenced the preoccupations with class
and concealment in Great Expectations (1860), a novel crowded with
examples of people who can never quite fit in.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

About the New York Times legalisation stance

The Injustice of Marijuana Arrests -

This editorial piece in the New York Times promoting marijuana legalisation indicates what I have long thought is right - the overkill in drug criminalisation in that country (with severe compulsory sentences being one of the big culprits) is what is giving weight to the overly simplistic counter swing to the other "extreme" of complete legalisation.

The odd thing is, it seems that both of these two extremes spring from the two strands of the political Right - the conservatives are fond of the severe and disproportionate sentencing legislation, and the libertarian wing is only too happy to promote legalisation.

I remain highly skeptical that either of these approaches is right, and in particular, given the cultural climate in the country, find it hard to believe that legalisation will be good for the nation socially or economically in the long run.

Moving the sun

Cosmic Megastructures - The Shkadov Thruster or How to Move an Entire Solar System - Popular Mechanics

Just in case you want to leave the neighbourhood:
"Shkadov Thrusters are kind of awesome," says Anders Sandberg, a
research fellow at Oxford University's Future of Humanity Institute who
has studied Shkadov Thrusters amongst other megastructure concepts. "You
can use it to move the whole solar system."

The Shkadov Thruster setup is simple (in theory): It's just a colossal,
arc-shaped mirror, with the concave side facing the sun. Builders would
place the mirror at an arbitrary distance where gravitational attraction
from the sun is balanced out by the outward pressure of its radiation.
The mirror thus becomes a stable, static satellite in equilibrium
between gravity's tug and sunlight's push.

Solar radiation reflects off the mirror's inner, curved surface back
toward the sun, effectively pushing our star with its own sunlight—the
reflected energy produces a tiny net thrust. Voilà, a Shkadov Thruster,
and humanity is ready to hit the galactic trail.

Odd but interesting

ANZ: Consumer Confidence Has Fully Recovered From Its Budget Crash | Business Insider

Why would Australian consumer confidence be up, but voters are apparently not returning to the Coalition?

I'm guessing the explanation is that consumers are satisfied Abbott won't get much of his budget through the Senate; and they still want to punish him for coming up with the budget in the first place.

If that's correct - it wouldn't inspire confidence in Abbott to run a double dissolution.   Which is a pity, in a way.

The Right - for old, white men, and stupid younger people

Just as the US Republican Party has become the party for old white folk, and silly younger people who can't believe in climate change and think Ayn Rand had something useful to say about economics, the same dynamic is clearly operating here.

Adam Creighton writes today about some speech 84 year old Geoffrey Blainey gave:
AUSTRALIA’S greatest historian, Geoffrey Blainey, has called for swaths of the Canberra bureaucracy to be farmed out to India or Hong Kong. 
“While protectionism has died in primary and secondary industries, it is still very powerful in tertiary,” Professor Blainey said in a wide-ranging interview that canvassed a socialist revival in ­advanced countries.

“There’s a lot of protectionism still in the professions: Canberra naturally is a protectionist city; there are so many tasks that ­Canberra could farm out to India or Hong Kong — but not for your life. They say if you can’t compete in manufacturing … you must close down, but if you can’t compete in Canberra you’re all right.”
 Well, isn't that weird.  Small government types usually go on a lot about privacy too, but governments shipping private information off shore to India is going to be AOK, is it?  Not to mention wildly popular with the public, who just love to deal with call centres when they are querying their phone/electricity/credit card account.  Getting government functions shipped even further offshore is going to be fantastic.

Julie Novak thinks it's a great idea too, I see from a tweet.  No common sense operating there:  just "if it means smaller government spending, it's great" as per usual.

The report of the Blainey speech indicates he went on about socialism being revived internationally, risks of war, and new States being deserved in Northern Australia.  (Funny, that; given that a new State would involve a new level of that dreaded bureaucracy that should be shipped off shore.)

Either the speech itself, or Creighton's reporting of it, seems to be a complete ramble with hardly any overarching theme.   

I haven't read him, but assume that Blainey's history work was good in its day.   

But it's a sad indictment of the current intellectual decline of the Right in the US, and probably everywhere, that their heroes are all well past their intellectual peak. 

Still learning about Kubrick

Well, I learnt quite a bit about how Kubrick operated by reading this post (which, despite its title, does not concentrate all that much on his last, kinda oddball, movie.)   It really paints a completely different picture of how one imagines a control freak must have worked.  Well worth reading.

The Australian and the magnificent Tony Abbott

How do the writers at The Australian maintain any shred of pride in their work in light of the way they (have to?) spin Tony Abbott?

Case in point:  Dennis Shanahan rotating faster than a neutron star this morning over Newspoll results which show absolutely no change in a  bad TPP vote for the Coalition, but nonetheless (apparently)  it represents a magnificent turning point for Abbott because his negative approval rate has dropped to only -17%!

It's absurd, and undignified in the extreme.   

More realistic take:  "If this is as good as it gets, Tony, you should be worried."

Monday, July 28, 2014

The stunning screen of Samsung

I was in a shopping centre on Saturday and surprised to see that the new Samsung Tab S model tablet is already here.  This is the one that has been getting pretty rave reviews, and being called the possible iPad killer.

And honestly, if you love ogling tablets in the shops like I do, you really must go and see one of these.  The screen is absolutely beautiful, being based on organic  LED's, and you can't help but be impressed.  As one review notes:
Once we switched to viewing photos, the Tab S's screen wiped the floor with both of its rivals. There is just no comparison in terms of shadow detail and richness of colour - the same applies to other graphics heavy content such as games. Backlit LCD displays, with their lower contrast ratios, just can’t compete with AMOLED for sheer visual punch. The iPad and Xperia Z2 Tablet have, by all accounts, excellent screens, so for Samsung's tablet to be so much more impressive is quite an achievement.
My daughter said the screen was hurting her eyes with its awesome ability to stop her looking away, and I know what she means.

Apart from the screen, the tablet has good battery life, plenty of memory and is very thin.

I would like one.  Negotiations with my wife have not yet started, but I hope they go well...

Premature positioning

I'm a bit surprised that political commentators are still staying united on the "Tony Abbott has been impressive in his response to MH17" line, when it is looking increasingly obvious that the number of people he has been sending to Europe (I'm not sure of the total figure now - at least 50 AFP, but seemingly 200 in other reports) to cool their heels while waiting to see if they can ever get to the crash site has been over the top and rather wasteful. 

Surely there are others who have been skeptical of his judgement in this matter, right from the start?

Pot calls out kettle

Judith Sloan, of all people, hates it when someone seems to have a one track mind on matters economic:
Thank God that Joe Stiglitz has left our fair shores: all that ill-informed, gratuitous advice was really getting out of hand.  And all complete tosh: Stiglitz has never come across a problem which is not solved by more government spending or regulation.
I assume it's a matter of great distress to her, then, that her fellow economic commentators at Catallaxy have never met a problem which is not solved by less government spending or regulation?

(To be fair - which is something she rarely is - there was that brief episode a few years ago where Sloan herself did promote the idea of increasing unemployment benefits.  I still don't think it was ever repeated at Catallaxy, as such a radical proposal would upset the small government luvvies no end.)

More significantly, Judith is promoting at that post some research that indicates income inequality in Australia is not increasing (at least if you look at the top 1%.)

Ha!  She says - take that in your pipe and smoke it, Joe.

Of course, what she fails to comment on is the rest of the graph indicating the trend is way different in most other countries, and the fact is, (if these numbers are right) it is something which the Abbott welfare changes look designed to change for the worse.

I don't see that citing this is any reason to ignore Stiglitz's warning that it is not a good idea to move in policy ideas towards the USA.


In the thread, I see that Sinclair Davidson comes on out and proud that income distribution counts for naught:

Can someone of more economic understanding than me explain why income inequality matters so much?
It doesn’t. Neoclassical theory has no view on income distribution. It will follow marginal productivity, so whenever you hear a neoclassical economist crapping about inequality they’re imposing their own preferences or a bolt-on to the theory.

Individuals with low marginal productivity impose costs on the economy through various other correlations with drug abuse and crime and so on. But it isn’t clear that inequality is the cause of those problems.
This is a case of devotion to economic ideology overwhelming common sense.

In anti tattoo news

I missed a piece in The Guardian last week by someone who notes reluctantly that "even nice people" are getting tattoos.  

As with any article that indicates a skerrick of disdain for the all encompassing trend for tattooing, there follows several thousand comments on the subject:  the "inked" complaining about people who criticise their fashion decisions, but a fair few people who seem to be relieved to be expressing their dislike of tattoos generally and their hope that this long lived fad will finally start to fade.

Of course it is true that "nice" people are getting many tattoos.  I think it is also beyond doubt that the artistic merit of what a huge number they choose to have (more or less) permanently inscribed on their bodies fits within the definition of kitsch.   As far as I'm concerned, kitsch is of interest in small doses - it's the ubiquity of it in the form of tattooing that is off putting, as well as the insistence now that it be on parts of the body which are pretty much on permanent display in a warm climate.

I don't quite understand why no one would have a problem with a column in which the number of (say) "dogs playing poker" prints being sold (I assume they hit some peak a few decades ago?) was ridiculed; but write about the number of skulls turning up on "normal" - and yes, quite nice - people's forearms these days and it's now considered somewhat off limits by many. 

In other anti tattoo stories from last week, Catalyst had an interesting one about how it, and laser removal,  works scientifically. 

The sensible Gittins

The "I'm an economist and you're not" folk of Catallaxy hate him, which is a pretty decent sign that he's probably right most of the time.

Ross Gittin's column this morning makes common sense on the budget.  For example:
There are many ways to skin the budget cat – some fairer or more sensible than others – and it's absurd for the government and its barrackers to pretend, Maggie Thatcher-like, that the measures proposed in the budget are the only alternative to irresponsible populism.

Anyone who knows anything about successful "fiscal consolidation" knows it invariably involves a combination of spending cuts and tax increases (including reductions in tax concessions – "tax expenditures").

And anyone who knows much about economics knows there's little empirical evidence to support the ideology that economies with high levels of government spending and taxation don't perform as well as those with low levels.

Yet Hockey and Abbott thought it sensible to propose a 10-year budget plan that relied almost exclusively on cuts in government spending – apart from the temporary deficit levy and much-unacknowledged bracket creep.

Keating points out that, combining all levels of government as a percentage of gross domestic product, Australia already has the lowest budget deficit and public debt compared with Canada, Japan, Britain, the US and the OECD average.

At 26.5 per cent, our level of total taxation seems higher than the Americans' 24 per cent, until you remember their budget deficit is 5 percentage points higher than ours. So the claim that we have a bloated, "unsustainable" level of government spending is itself unsustainable.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The parsnip post

Wikipedia gives a good background to the parsnip, and there are many things about this vegetable which make it rather intriguing:

1.  Cold ground improves it.   Every article I have read about them refers to their sweetness, but this apparently is mainly brought on by their going through frosts before being pulled out of the ground.  This may well explain why I have never considered them particularly sweet - I assume there are few grown in Australia that are held in the ground until a frost has sweetened them up.   I like their flavour in any case:  they have a spicier, earthier vibe compared to the fairly bland carrot (which, in Australia, I would generally consider sweeter than any parsnip I've eaten.)

This ability to winter over in the ground appears to have been a positive for their cultivation.  See this from a column in the Washington Post:
Nevertheless, nothing else does what the parsnip does: rest in the ground all winter with no need for root cellar storage. After a few fall frosts it develops a sweetness that no carrot has ever bested, and it sustains that all the way into mid-spring. You can dig it any time the ground is not frozen, but it is most treasured as the earliest fresh harvest of the year.
2.  Food of the Emperor - we think.   Emperor Tiberius, according to Pliny, took annual tribute from a part of Germany in parsnips.  The only confusion appears to be whether Pliny really meant parsnips, as the carrot of the day could be pretty pale too, and there seems to still be much uncertainly about which of these vegetables any writer of that era was referring to.

There was a detailed article on the philology of the parsnip written in 1958 which you can see in preview.   It appears certain that Pliny was at least sometimes referring to parsnips specifically, but whether the author throws doubt on the Tiberius story remains unknown to me.   Maybe some reader will pay the $4 for the full article and let me know.

In any event, this short explanation (from this book) of the expansion of the parsnip from ancient Roman times into the rest of Europe seems good:

3.  They are unduly expensive everywhere.   Parsnips cost about $10 a kilo in Brisbane at the moment, but if you Google the topic "Why are parsnips so expensive", you'll find that their high cost has been mentioned on the internet in many countries, including England, France and America.  As far as I can make out, they are a finicky vegetable to grow, with low and slow germination rates from seed, and perhaps slow growing generally.   I also guess that if people know them for their sweetness, they may not bother growing them if they can't be sure they will get a frost before harvest.

It's no wonder carrots are the ubiquitous root vegetable - they are frequently so incredibly cheap in the supermarket, I am often surprised that farmers make any profit from them.  I know from childhood that they are dead easy to grow at home too.   

4.  Parsnips lost out to the potato.   The parsnip made a successful journey across to North America, but you can Google up a chapter in a book Disappearing Foods that is called Parsnips - now you see them, now you don't, which talks about how the vegetable slipped out of popular use from perhaps the 18th century particularly in Italy and the Netherlands.  Much of the blame apparently goes to the potato, being a more reliable and easily grown crop.  Apart from this, the book does make this observation about the parsnip in Dutch art:

5.  In art, when is a parsnip just a parsnip?   In my previous post, I have examples of parsnips in various European paintings (although, to be honest, I haven't even looked up yet where the last two oddball paintings come from.)

But one of the more enjoyable posts about parsnips I have read was this one, which speculates whether parsnips were (at least sometimes) deliberately put in paintings to represent sex or lust.  As the writer notes, the carrot and parsnips both had developed a reputation as an aphrodisiac, one suspects for no other reason than their vaguely phallic shape:
In 1563 Culpeper states: "The garden Parsnip nourishes much, and is good and wholesome nournishment,but a little windy, whereby it is thought to procure bodily lust" which is pretty close to similar quotes I found on the net. Of course there are many earlier references, such as in the widely known "Tacuinum Sanitatis" of the 14th century where it attributes the stimulation of sexual intercourse to the Pastinace, a word sometimes used to describe both carrot and parsnip. An other reference I found from the materia medica (the Taylor-Schechter Genizah collection) dating to 11th to 14th century Cairo, depicted the parsnip as an aphrodisiac. What is amusing, as pointed out in much of the above references, is that it was also a wind producing food (it was said to make you fart), this apparently was connected to the excitement (blood flow) of certain areas.

Of course, there is more here at play than just medicinal qualities, it also had a phallic property which pops up in Florio's Italian/English dictionary, 1598, (cited in the OED) as the "pastinaca muranese", "a dildoe of glasse" ... or at least this is what I was able to gather from various sources. This is also brought to light in "Picturing women in late Medieval and Renaissance art" (Grössinger) where she describes parsnips and cabbages representative of male and female genitalia, and given much of what I have read today, am inclined to agree.
The post gives a couple of examples of paintings where the parsnip on the table does seem to fit in with the general lusty context.

She also wonders why they would turn up on the table at the Last Supper, but I guess I've solved that one already in my research - presumably, they are taken to be a symbol of the nails of the cross in that case.  (Either that or else Dan Brown will have some explanation involving sex.)

6.  Eat, but don't touch.   One of the stranger things about the parsnip as a plant is that its sap, on skin contact, can sometimes cause a serious "burn" reaction in sunlight.   Have a look at this woman from England who got bad blisters from her garden parsnips.

Articles from North America talk about the same problem with respect to wild parsnips.  The way the sap hurts sounds complicated:
Wild parsnip is of concern because humans develop a severe skin irritation from contact with sap from the plant. Wild Parsnip plants have chemicals called psoralens (more precisely, furocoumarins) that cause phyto-photodermatitis: an interaction between plants (phyto) and light (photo) that induce skin (derm) inflammation (itis).  Once the furocoumarins are absorbed by the skin, they are energized by UV light on both sunny and cloudy days. They then bind to DNA and cell membranes, destroying cells and skin.

Wild Parsnip burns usually occur in streaks and elongated spots, reflecting where a damaged leaf or stem moved across the skin before exposure to sunlight. If the sap gets into the eyes, it may cause temporary or permanent blindness.
 No wonder they don't seem to be all that popular in the home garden, although Wikipedia does say that this reaction does not happen to all that many people who grow them.

7.   That is all.

Update:   Actually, there was another parsnip story I read some weeks ago about a farmer (English, I think) who made a killing on the sales of parsnips from his field one winter, as they were one of the few crops still available due to their ability to "over winter".  I can't find the source for that now, but will keep looking.   Any story of a person who got rich from parsnips seems noteworthy.

The evolution of the parsnip in Art

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Thursday, July 24, 2014

More root vegetable research needed

My brain has reminded me that I promised a post about parsnips.

I have neglected the research for that - I did download a book (or was it a long article?) about Roman gardens on the tablet that seemed promising, but I forgot to go back to it.

I must stop posting until that task is compete.

I see that First Dog on the Moon has a root vegetable related cartoon up, though.

Past mistakes remembered

The Vincennes’ downing of Iran Air Flight 655: The United States tried to cover up its own destruction of a passenger plane.

I had completely forgotten about this...

Doubts about productivity

John Quiggin � Productivity yet again

My comment the other day about not understanding what calls for increased productivity today really mean seems to get some justification from JQ's cynicism about the issue, too.

Voucher wars, continued

I see that there has been push back against the article in Slate that claimed the education voucher system had turned into a failure in Sweden.

True, I would have assumed that there were more private schools there than is apparently the case, but the argument put forward that it is really due to "radically new pedagogical methods" cops a bit of a pasting in one of the comments (by Damien) that follow the post:
Pedagogical innovation was specifically mentioned as a great feature brought about by school choice. E.g.: - /free_school_reforms_in_sweden_boost_quality_innovation_and_choice.html : Swedish schools free to adopt innovative pedagogical methods. - : “The lack of choice created a lack of innovation regarding pedagogical concept and ways of learning adapted to different students’ needs”, “almost half of the independent schools differ more or less radically from public schools regarding pedagogical concept and methods to fulfill the curriculum.”, “The educational results data speak for themselves.” - : “The variety of independent schools is large in both ownership and in innovative pedagogy and practice” - : “The variety of independent schools is large in both ownership – from parental cooperatives to corporate chains — and in innovative pedagogy and practice”

But, now that it seems that there are problems in Sweden, it turns out that it was all an illusion and that schools really don’t have that much autonomy. And that new pedagogical ideas are harmful anyway. So you can use the pedagogical innovation in Sweden to sell school choice, but, if it turns out that test scores are not so good, you can *also* blame pedagogical innovation. That’s a bit too convenient. Heads I win, tails you lose.
 As the person who comments next says:
But, of course, that kind of analysis is no fun for internet commenters.
I don't think anyone in comments addresses the point I made in my original post:  from what little I have heard, the system in Finland is the complete opposite of a voucher system.  Are free marketeers just hoping that its example of success is ignored? 

Update:  I see another post critical of the Slate article mentions Finland.  But the article is from Cato, and I would want someone who knows the issue well to go through it with a fine tooth comb before trusting anything it claims.  For one thing - he claims Finland is not doing all that well.   Yet, surely the point is the improvements the country has made over time, and the philosophy they followed to get there.  

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

How about "Operation 'Stop Calling Non Military Actions "Operations" - it's Annoying This Blogger' "

I've complained before about the Abbott's government attempts to appear all gung-ho and full of  military-like action in matters that are not actually security threatening.  (See "Operation Sovereign Borders" and the information refusenik LtGen Campbell running it to the government's tune.) 

It's continuing with this fanciful nomenclature "Operation Bring Them Home" coined by Abbott (or his office, more likely) which does not seem to have exactly caught on in the media much yet. 

Sport ghosts noted

Sure, I hate cricket, but I still take an interest in ghostly experiences which cricketers say happened to them.

In particular, the story of the taps turning on and off by themselves in the hotel room would be very freaky if  experienced.   Ghosts aren't normally so...mechanical.   Although I suppose poltergeists are.

Here's an earlier Guardian post after various sports related ghost stories.

Wait a minute - even Kant had it in for bastards?

Good grief.*  I recently had a go at Bentham for his utilitarianism inspired suggestion that women may well be justified in killing their new born illegitimate babies to save themselves the societal problems of being a single mother.

But, just looking around now at some posts about Kant's loopier suggestions (which, with respect to sex and masturbation I have noted here a few times before,) I have turned up this apparent quote:
A child that comes into the world apart from marriage is born outside the law (for the law is marriage) and therefore outside the protection of the law. It has, as it were, stolen into the commonwealth (like contraband merchandise), so that the commonwealth can ignore its existence (since it rightly should not have come to exist in this way), and can therefore also ignore its annihilation (p. 336).
I see in the comments following that it has been speculated that his lack of empathy might have been caused by a tumour (seeing we are talking Kant, you should pronounce it in your mind like Arnie does in Kindergarten Cop):
This reminds me of Gazzaniga's take on Kant in The Mind's Past, page 121-1, where he speculates that Kant developed a massive left prefrontal tumor and then began writing his major works. This might begin to explain the lack of empathy concerning bastards, women and servants etc. Gazzaniga: "Is it possible that all those Kantians have saluted a man who was writing nonsense - a philosophy for those who do not have a normal cognitive and emotional system?". 
The attitude to children born out of wedlock has certainly improved since those centuries, even though just about everyone thinks it has gone way too far in the other direction now.   Can't we just settle somewhere in the middle that we seem to have missed? 

More good grief!:   I blogged about this exact linked post in 2010, even noting the brain tumour theory!   I had a vague feeling I had read it before, but certainly had forgotten the bastards bit.

Can I be excused, with the wealth of material posted here, for forgetting what I have previously written sometimes?

If only Kantian jokes survived

What's So Funny? - The Chronicle Review - The Chronicle of Higher Education

Here's a good article by Mary Beard looking at the various theories of laughter that people have come up with over the years.   It would seem fair to say that the theories are not mutually exclusive, and we all know of some instances where one theory fits, and others were it doesn't.

I lean towards preferring the "incongruity" theory, and the type of humour which is clearly based on it:
The second theory, known as the incongruity theory, sees laughter as a response to the illogical or the unexpected. A big team of philosophers and critics can be marshaled as supporters of this idea, if with a wide range of nuances and emphases. Kant argued that "laughter is an
affection arising from a strained expectation being suddenly reduced to nothing," another of the better-known sayings in the study of laughter. Henri Bergson argued that laughter is provoked by living beings acting as if they were machines—mechanically, repetitively, stiffly. More
recently the linguistic theories of Salvatore Attardo, of Texas University, and Victor Raskin, of Purdue University, have set the resolution of incongruity at the heart of verbal jokes—as in "When is a door not a door? When it’s a jar."
There, my favourite philosopher pops up again.   I thought I had read before that he was considered good dinner table company, and a Guardian article in 2004 indicated this was certainly true when he was a young man:
He has been famously portrayed as a bore, a man whose habits were so regular that housewives could set their watches by his legendary afternoon walk.
But according to three new biographies, the celebrated German philosopher Immanuel Kant was not such a dry stick after all. Far from being a dour Prussian ascetic, the great metaphysician was a partygoer. He enjoyed drinking wine, playing billiards and wearing fine, colourful clothes.
He had a sense of humour, and there were women in his life, although he never married. On
occasion, Kant drank so much red wine he was unable to find his way home, the books claim.
The biographies - which shed fresh light on the party-loving behaviour of the young Kant before his fame - have appeared in Germany ahead of the 200th anniversary of his death today....
"He had a sense of humour. Not a German sense of humour where you have to spell out that you are telling a joke but a dry Anglo-Saxon wit."

According to Kühn, whose acclaimed biography of the philosopher has just been published in Germany, Kant also had "amorous interests" in two women - though there is no evidence these were consummated.

It was only at the age of 57, after Kant had published his most famous work, his Critique of Pure Reason, that he was in a position to support a wife. "By this time it was too late," Kühn

Last night Professor Volker Gerhardt - a leading member of Germany's Kant Society, who travelled to Kaliningrad for today's celebrations - said he endorsed Kühn's view of Kant.

Kant socialised extensively with Joseph Green, an English merchant who taught him about British culture, Prof Gerhardt said. His great achievement was to develop a philosophical system that separated morality from religion, as well as a liberal political theory which anticipated both the UN and modern human rights.
Material for my Kant as proto-Bond may be easier to find than I expected...

Bugs against obesity

New study shows therapeutic bacteria prevent obesity in mice

It would explain a lot....

Inspired, of course, by Ms Lambie's radio appearance yesterday, which international readers can google for themselves.   

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Another Abbott weathervane moment

From The Age, in 2010:
Australia's bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council will be dumped if the federal opposition wins government.

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd was the driving force behind the bid for a temporary seat in 2013/14, although his successor Julia Gillard is continuing the campaign.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said it was not a good use of taxpayers' money in tough economic times.

"There are vastly higher priorities for Australia right now than pursuing a seat on the security council," he told reporters in Melbourne, adding that dropping the bid would save $5.7 million this financial year.
Two years later:
Opposition leader Tony Abbott said he was pleased with the win, but wanted to ensure Australia did not squander the opportunity.

He indicated the millions spent to secure the position could potentially have been better resourced.
"I welcome the win, it was an expensive win and I think it probably owes at least as much to Kevin Rudd as Julia Gillard," Mr Abbott told the Nine Network.

"A win's a win, I welcome it. Let's hope we put the next two years on the Security Council to good use."
The Abbott government's push for a full independent investigation into the downing of MH17 over Ukraine has been backed by a unanimous vote UN Security Council, increasing pressure on Russia to facilitate access to the crash site.

In a joint statement with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop released on Tuesday morning, Prime Minister Tony Abbott hailed the result saying that the resolution lent the Security Council's ''full weight'' in condemning the attack.
His inconsistencies on all manner of policy issues show his judgement is hopeless.  

Then as now?

Asia today echoes divided Europe of 1914

A somewhat interesting comparison by Hugh White of the geopolitics of the world at the start of the 20th century, and those that exist today.

Krugman being optimistic

An Imaginary Budget and Debt Crisis -

Paul Krugman argues that there is reason to be optimistic about America's long term debt position, and notes that budgetary changes would not need to be all that great to make it even better.

I get the feeling that a similar column could be written about Australia.   And the first two points would be -

1.  don't give up revenue that you don't need to (carbon prices and mining tax.)

2.  don't start spending money on one man's pet idea that hardly anyone actually supports.

I might also add (and the same in the US):  don't increase defence spending beyond your means.

As for Australian pessimists, I see that Garnaut has that title currently.   I don't really understand the proposal though - how does a dramatic increase in productivity really happen these days?   He does mention the Australian dollar needing to come down (and even Judith Sloan mentioned that in her eye rolling performance with Joe Stiglitz a couple of weeks ago.   As I complained some time ago - right wing debt obsessed economists complained bitterly about Labor government spending and wages during the Gillard reign but barely mentioned the high Australian dollar which soared during her Prime Ministership.  Now that it's a Coalition government, have they decided it's the right time to acknowledge the problem?) 

No substitution effect

Does marijuana affect sales of alcohol in legal states?

Early figures from Colorado indicate that legal marijuana has coincided with an increase in sales of alcohol.

The suggestion is that this is caused by marijuana tourism.  Either that, or all the discussion of drugs makes all legal drugs look good?

Monday, July 21, 2014

Yet another potential cosmic worry?

Quantum bounce could make black holes explode : Nature News & Comment

So, Nature has a story up about the suggestion that black holes could become "white holes".  The story is more intriguing that I thought:

The theory suggests that the transition from black hole to white hole
would take place right after the initial formation of the black hole,
but because gravity dilates time, outside observers would see the black
hole lasting billions or trillions of years or more, depending on its
size. If the authors are correct, tiny black holes that formed during
the very early history of the Universe would now be ready to pop off
like firecrackers and might be detected as high-energy cosmic rays or
other radiation. In fact, they say, their work could imply that some of
the dramatic flares commonly considered to be supernova explosions could
in fact be the dying throes of tiny black holes that formed shortly
after the Big Bang.
Given that small black holes from the start of the universe might be everywhere, it would seem any planet could be in for a surprise at anytime.  At least, if this idea is right.

The glum world, and the 30 minute survivalist

Gee, it's hard to be cheery about the state of the world at the moment, isn't it?

Israel, Iraq, Ukraine, Syria:  all a mess with no obvious resolutions in sight.   China has had a strong typhoon that has killed 18; barely noticed amidst all the other death and mayhem.

All we need now is for Tokyo or LA to have their long awaited earthquake disasters and people will stop getting out of bed. 

Speaking of which, as a depressing distraction, does anyone else ever think about what they would do if they knew they had to clear out of home due to earth shattering disaster that may mean living off the land for a protracted time?   Being a cheery soul who likes science fiction-y scenarios, I often think of this while driving between Brisbane and Toowoomba, because the geography of that area makes it clear that if one knew that a mini asteroid had hit the middle of the Pacific, and a gigantic tsunami was on the way,  collecting the family and heading up to Toowoomba at the top of the Great Dividing Range would be one of the safest things you could do.  (Or if aliens had started picking off capital cities one by one, War of the Worlds style, getting up to the vast and relatively sparsely populated area west of the range would be a good idea too.) 

But if I only had 30 minutes or so to pack the car with gear that might best equip my family for the end of civilisation for a time, what household items should be given the highest priority?   I keep thinking of steak knives, or any good kitchen knive really;  any axe or shovel lying around; any rechargeable batteries in the house and a radio to go with them; tarpaulins; ropes; sleeping bags; warm clothes (no matter what time of year);  a few substantial saucepans; a magnifying glass (for both starting fires and reading in my old age); and any medicine in the cabinet.   Oh, and water containers.  Buckets and any water container.  And any spare sets of prescription glasses, even if out of date.   Dry food from the cupboard too (pasta and rice especially - perhaps?), but I think I would still have room in the car.  I don't think I would take the family tent - it takes up a lot of space, and long term, you would probably be better off building a shelter.

Beyond those, I have trouble deciding what household items are really going to be valuable, either for direct use, or trade.  I can imagine soap, shampoo and toothpaste being in high demand, but would I be better off taking whatever of that I have in the bathroom, or my binoculars instead?   How much modern stuff would be adequately circulating from ransacked stores amongst survivors?

I wonder if Douglas Adams advice about the importance of towels is really worth paying attention to?

I've been meaning to post about this for some time - the glum state of the world seems to make it an appropriate time to write it.

Update:  as an addendum, you can add the speculation "if you live within five minutes of a supermarket [I do, as it happens], and could get into it, what further items would you take from there before heading off to the mountains?"  

A few things immediately spring to my mind - any vegetable seeds if they stock any, and a range of vitamins.  Also, bandages, razor blades, disinfectant in large quantities.  And more tarps, if they have any.  Matches - but no need to go overboard - you just never let the fire die once it's going.

Tony's mixed bag

Interesting poll results out in Fairfax today show that people still believe Tony Abbott can get things done; it's just that they don't like the things he achieves and don't trust him to do what he said he would.

I can't see his response to the MH17 tragedy helping much here with his popularity - unlike John Howard and his action on guns after one mass shooting too many, it's not as if there is much Tone can directly do. (Beyond, perhaps, agitating to get an uncooperative Putin out of the G20 meeting, but would that count for much in public opinion?)

Tough talk still off putting

Phil Coorey says in AFR this morning:
Tony Abbott’s handling of the MH17 atrocity is being universally admired.
Not by me, or at least in one respect.  I thought his reference to lives being "snuffed out" yesterday on Insiders was a case of him wanting to sound Clint Eastwood style tough, but I doubt it had the right sort of sensitivity to use for relatives of the deceased who may be watching. 

That is my opinion.      

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A foolish thing

He's mildly offended by the title of the post, but my son has been learning saxophone for a year or two now, and here he was recently, doing pretty good once he gets going...

(You have to add something visual to post a file on youtube, and that was just at hand.)

No, it's not. [Alternative title - When nerds try to scare themselves around the campfire]

Slate has an entertaining article up with something that must be approaching the best click bait title, ever:  The Most Terrifying Thought Experiment of All Time

As the many comments that follow it show, normal people tend to be underwhelmed, but amused.   It seems that it may be that the originator of the meme also denies he believed it.

However, I did like the last paragraph:
I worry less about Roko’s Basilisk than about people who believe themselves to have transcended conventional morality. Like his projected Friendly AIs, Yudkowsky is a moral utilitarian: He believes that that the greatest good for the greatest number of people is always ethically justified, even if a few people have to die or suffer along the way. He has explicitly argued that given the choice, it is preferable to torture a single person for 50 years than for a sufficient number of people (to be fair, a lot of people) to get dust specks in their eyes. No one, not even God, is likely to face that choice, but here’s a different case: What if a snarky Slate tech columnist writes about a thought experiment that can destroy people’s minds, thus hurting people and blocking progress toward the singularity and Friendly AI? In that case, any potential good that could come from my life would far be outweighed by the harm I’m causing. And should the cryogenically sustained Eliezer Yudkowsky merge with the singularity and decide to simulate whether or not I write this column … please, Almighty Eliezer, don’t torture me.
There was also a reference to a book or article which I should look up, but later:
(I’ve adopted this example from Gary Drescher’s Good and Real, which uses a variant on TDT to try to show that Kantian ethics is true.) 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Carbon burnout

Bernard Keane's take on the repeal of the carbon pricing scheme seemed pretty spot on to me.  I liked these bits in particular:
It’s an attack, primarily, of old white men, men in complete denial about climate change, on the future and on the young....

But ultimately, this is the result of the right-wing putsch in 2009 that replaced Malcolm Turnbull, a man genuinely committed to action on climate change, with Tony Abbott, a climate denialist and rank opportunist who, in a short period of time, had occupied every single possible position on climate change and what to do about it, except the one he ended up advocating as policy — the risible “Direct Action” policy mocked from the most froth-mouthed climate denialist all the way to the most fervent Trotskyite environmentalist.
And as Lenore Taylor points out:
Perhaps the last word should go to those well-known job-destroying, economy-hating, green-left anarchists in the federal treasury, whose comments in the "blue book" prepared in the event of a Coalition victory in 2010 were released under freedom of information.
Treasury described a carbon-pricing mechanism as "the only realistic way of achieving the deep cuts in emissions that are required".
They went on: ''A market mechanism can achieve the necessary abatement at a cost per tonne of emissions that is far lower than alternative direct-action policies. Moreover, many direct action measures cannot be scaled up, and, for those that can, the cost per tonne of abatement would rise rapidly, imposing further costs on taxpayers and consumers. All of this serves to underscore the conclusion that the sooner an emissions trading scheme can be implemented the better.
"Too much time has already been wasted, for which the Australian community will necessarily pay a high price."
Now everyone knows I think this is the most foolish government lead by a flakey PM, but looking at Abbott last night on 7.30, and on other recent occasions, I honestly get the feeling even he knows he's going to go down as weak and a failure as a PM.  

(And incidentally, the ability of Sarah Ferguson to persist and make all politicians uncomfortable by not having the ability to easily fob her off has become awesome.  She should remain as host.) 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

What he said

Sinclair Davidson, March 27, 2014 (based on tobacco industry claims regarding sales):
What a policy disaster! The situation of the ground must be even worse. These figures only include legal tobacco. So once we add on the illegal stuff – including the sophisticated counterfeiters I suspect tobacco consumption has increased substantially above the 0.3 per cent increase.
Sinclair Davidson, July 17, 2014 (based on national survey results of actual use of tobacco):
The proportion of daily smokers has fallen – smoking in Australia is in long-term decline and has been so since the 1960s.

Furthermore, putting on a brave face that there must be something in the survey results that he can cling to:
What is problematic for the nanny staters is the increase in tobacco consumption by young women. Despite media reports suggesting that “young people” are smoking less, the data do not support inference when looking at women aged 18 – 29.
If I understand the table he posts correctly, the figures do show that of young women who smoke, the mean number of cigarettes they smoke per week has increased by between 2 to 3 since 2010.   Horrors!  The difference in health effects between 77 cigarettes per week and 75 (for that is indeed the type of numbers we are talking about) must be wrecking terrible havoc on those women!  

But why would the desperate professor even bother grasping at that when the very same table shows young men's consumption is down between about 11 to 16 per week, depending on the age group?  (And I would also note that another table in the survey shows that are slightly less young smoking women than men anyway - by about 2%).

No matter what attempt at desperate spin and piffle you put on the tables, total young people's mean consumption is down significantly - about 10% in the case of 25 to 29 year olds. 

What's more, with one tiny exception, the survey confirms the percent of young people smoking at all is down, down, down over time: 

Table 3: Tobacco status, people aged 12 years or older, by age, 2001 to 2013 (per cent)
Smoking status 2001 2004 2007 2010 2013
Daily n.a. 5.2 3.2 2.5 3.4
Occasional(a) n.a. 1.5 0.9 1.3 *1.6
Ex-smokers(b) n.a. 1.7 0.9 1.6 *0.3#
Never smoked(c) n.a. 91.6 95.0 94.7 94.7
Daily 24.0 20.2 16.5 15.7 13.4
Occasional(a) 8.1 5.3 4.9 4.9 5.1
Ex-smokers(b) 10.2 9.5 8.3 7.3 4.7#
Never smoked(c) 57.7 65.1 70.3 72.1 76.8#
Daily 27.0 25.8 25.8 19.3 16.1#
Occasional(a) 6.0 6.5 5.8 5.8 5.5
Ex-smokers(b) 17.5 16.6 16.6 14.8 15.1
Never smoked(c) 49.5 51.1 51.8 60.1 63.3

Hey - daily smokers in the 12 to 17 year group has apparently gone up nearly 1 per cent!   Horrors again - the most immature group of people surveyed just might have had no reaction (yet) to plain packaging.

Of course, a reasonable person might suspect that they will always be some small proportion of young teenagers who will be risk taking and smoke, but if that percentage stays at anything around 3%, it's hardly going to matter as the goal is to get total smoking below 10%.

Obviously, what is important is the percent of young people who are legally able to buy tobacco and can afford it who smoke   The most encouraging thing of all is the number of "never smoked" by age of 24 - now up to nearly 77% and showing no sign of stopping.

The survey also contains no joy for the prematurely hyperbolic Professor's claim that illegal tobacco use is probably soaring.  I'm having trouble cutting and pasting that table, but it shows unbranded tobacco use going down - and quite a lot over time.  (The notes do indicate some caution is warranted due to methodological matters.)   Now whether this just means "chop chop" - or illegally imported but unbranded tobacco - I'm not sure.  But I would guess that illegal but branded cigarettes are counted in the normal smoking figures in the survey anyway.

Here's the thing - not only Sinclair Davidson, but the entire group of Catallaxy and The Australian's "free market" economists and journalists leapt on dubious figures put out by an industry with a reputation for deception on a campaign to stop plain packaging spreading, and made grandiose claims about the policy being a public health "disaster".

Good quality survey evidence shows their gullibility and "ideology over quality evidence" approach to just about every damn thing.

UPDATE:   Heh.   The desperation continues.

The apparent .9% rise in 12 to 17 year olds smoking is latched onto by Sinclair as evidence of the plain packaging not being a success.

Predictable; yet another case of (wilfully) not being able to see the wood for the trees.  

School voucher system not so successful after all

Sweden school choice: The country’s disastrous experiment with Milton Friedman and vouchers.

The term "disastrous" in the heading may be a bit too strong, but nonetheless, the faults found in the Swedish system sounds entirely like what would reasonably be expected if you try an intensely market based system for schooling.

Is Finland, with its diametrically opposite approach to education, still doing well?

How long can this go on?

More than 150 asylum seekers whose boat was intercepted near Christmas Island more than two weeks ago are being held behind locked doors on a customs ship in rooms without windows on the high seas, with no clue to where they are or where the Abbott government plans to take them. 
And all Morrison can do is tell Labor that they are "jellyfish" for not going along with this.  
While fully acknowledging that the moral issues involved in people seeking to enter Australia by boat do not all run in one direction, it is still extremely difficult to see how people, if properly informed, could endorse this government's actions.   That's why the government is doing its hardest to keep people ignorant of what's going on, and in that respect, they are morally bankrupt.

Meanwhile, in an alternative universe

Inspired by today's news:
The daily smoking rate plunged from 15.1 per cent to 12.8 per cent between 2010 and 2013, according to the largest and longest-running national survey on drug statistics.

Most people are now 16 before they smoke their first full cigarette, up from 14 in 2010, and 95 per cent of 12 to 17-year-olds have never smoked. 

Public health experts say the findings of the National Drugs Strategy Household Survey vindicate plain-packaging laws, which tobacco companies recently claimed to have boosted cigarette sales by leading to a price war.... 

The survey of nearly 24,000 Australians was conducted between July and December 2013, before the new 12.5 per cent tobacco tax.

Update:  the website for the Survey itself gives us more detail -
  • People aged 40–49 were the age group most likely to smoke daily (16.2%).
  • People aged 18–49 were far less likely to smoke daily than they were 12 years ago, but over the same period, there was little change in daily smoking by people aged 60 or older.
  • Proportion of 12–17 year olds who had never smoked remained high in 2013 at 95%, and the proportion of 18–24 year olds who had never smoked increased significantly between 2010 and 2013 (from 72% to 77%).
  • Younger people are delaying the take up of smoking—the age at which 14–24-year-olds smoked their first full cigarette increased from 14.2 in 1995 to 15.9 years in 2013.
  • Smokers reduced the average number of cigarettes smoked per week; from 111 cigarettes in 2010 to 96 in 2013. Smokers aged 50–69 continued to smoke the largest number of cigarettes per week on average (about 120), nearly double the number for smokers in their 20s (about 75).
  • About 1 in 6 smokers had smoked unbranded tobacco in their lifetime although only 3.6% currently smoked it, declining from previous years.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Old fashioned Kevin

I forgot to mention that there was an interesting profile of the long time conservative education advocate Kevin Donnelly in the Sydney Morning Herald on the weekend.

Despite his years and years of column space to air his views in The Australian, I didn't know anything about his background.  Here are some key points:

*  gee, in appearance he has a very "Alan Jones" vibe about him, doesn't he?  

*  he was a radical, hippie Lefty as a young man, no doubt under the influence of his Communist Party joining, but alcoholic, father.  It seems he switched, perhaps in his late 20's but it's not 100% clear, to be an aggressive conservative.

This seems to me to be surprisingly common - those who are most passionately ideological and aggro about things having undergone something of a 180 degree conversion from their former beliefs.   Knowing this about someone makes me trust their judgement less, as it shows their emotional commitment to a cause is probably more about being fickle rather than having a balanced and well reasoned view of life.  Whether it be on politics or matters of religion - Centrists who haven't swung wildly from one side to the other Rule, OK? - and are nearly always more trustworthy.

*  He had a terrible relationship with both parents, and also suffered the tragic loss of a son.

*  He's Catholic, apparently, although the article doesn't explain how he got there.  A strong Pell supporter, one would have to suspect.

*  He's nervous about being profiled - having withdrawn co-operation.

Donnelly is also in the news this week for saying that he thinks corporal punishment could be usefully re-instituted in schools, if the school wants it.  Pyne has distanced himself from this suggestion pronto. 

To my mind, Donnelly represents what is typical of the Coalition's sadly redundant "culture war" mentality that seeks to continue a war when it hasn't realised that the Left has already moved to a more centrist position on many matters since the 70's and 80's.  I think this is true in Donnelly's field as with other issues, although pockets of nonsense in education and social theory no doubt still exist - they always will, just like you'll always have libertarian fantasies about how society could or should operate too.

To tell the truth, I think elements of the national curriculum do sound a bit silly, but I am also not convinced that those elements have much effect on teachers on a day to day basis.   Certainly, I am not likely to be on board with an attempt to go to a curriculum that is a reversion to the 1950's either, which seems to me that Donnelly pines for.

Big numbers

I've been getting a bit mind boggled at the numbers quoted for bacteria that we live with.  For example, from the New York Times recently:
We may think of ourselves as just human, but we’re really a mass of microorganisms housed in a human shell. Every person alive is host to about 100 trillion bacterial cells. They outnumber human cells 10 to one and account for 99.9 percent of the unique genes in the body....

Our collection of microbiota, known as the microbiome, is the human equivalent of an environmental ecosystem. Although the bacteria together weigh a mere three pounds, their composition determines much about how the body functions and, alas, sometimes malfunctions.
I take it that our personal bacteria are really small then...

And this from a review of a book at the TLS:
 When pathogenic bacteria were discovered to cause disease in the nineteenth century, the body was assumed to be in a pristine state until invaded and rendered sick. The appreciation of healthy carriers shattered such illusions. Now we learn that a single gram of faeces contains 100 million archaea and 40 billion bacteria.
A gram of poo has 40 billion bacteria?   I thought it might be a typo, but no, I go to the journal Gut and find this at the start of an article about measuring bacteria from the colon:
Antigens, both of dietary and bacterial origin, are abundantly present in the colonic lumen. Bacterial antigens predominate as there are as many as 10^11  bacteria per gram contents while most dietary antigens are degraded. It is important to realise that over 99.9% of the colonic microflora are part of a relatively stable ecosystem consisting of possibly as many as 400 different indigenous species as well as a few recently arrived species. Most of these anaerobic bacteria are not infectious and each person has a characteristic combination of these micro-organisms.
 Yeah, that's 10 to the power of 11 per gram.

But wait - don't go thinking a nice salty dip in the ocean will help you:
A millilitre of seawater from the North Atlantic contains 15 million viruses. 
By way of comparison, I had forgotten how many sperm cells your average male orgasm may release.  The total, of course, varies by volume, but a very detailed article from the Journal of Andrology indicates that it can be up to (a rather surprising) 1.2 billion*.  But it also shows volume varying from .7 to 8.6 ml, so I assume the big numbers come from the high end of the volume scale.    But if a ml weighs about a gram, you're looking at an average of about 100 million cells, which again just goes to show how tiny our gut bacteria seem to be.  (Or is it just that they are packed in incredibly closely in the gut?) 

I'm not sure you should talk about this at work during today's coffee break, but feel free to quote me...

*  it seems that even allowing for a high proportion of dud sperm cells, it should only take a month or so for one male to populate a planet.