Friday, October 31, 2014

Philippa condemns scary dress ups

I see that Philippa Martyr, the Latin mass loving, contraception condemning, uber Catholic writer for Quadrant (the "conservative" magazine that is now unsuited for service even in an ablution block) has low regard for the increasingly locally popular day:
I’m going to Mass tonight, so I look forward to the church being attacked with eggs.
Not that Halloween is anti-Christian or nuffink. I mean just because it’s now a Pagan and Wiccan festival, and just because it’s an opportunity for people to celebrate everything that is connected with darkness and evil in human legend and myth (and occasionally reality), shouldn’t upset anyone.
The only 40 something year old Catholic man alive today who still thinks it's 1954 joins in:
It has always surprised me that the supposedly churched and conservative Americans ‘celebrate’ evil once a year. It’s no good for children, any of it. And let’s be honest – it’s not about Da Children anyway. It’s for creepy adults who like dressing up.
It's a very precious little group of Catholics that they evidently believe have the right way of thinking about this.

I'm starting to think the Catholic schism is too slow coming... 

Interesting detail easy to miss

Catcalling video: Hollaback's look at street harassment in NYC edited out the white guys.

I was pretty surprised by the video - I really thought male conduct of this kind had reduced since (say) the 70's and 80's.  Obviously, not so much, at least in New York.

I wonder what conservatives have been saying about it. Here's Hot Air:
Well, two minutes of catcalls over 10 hours. Still, you get the point —
in America’s biggest city, a young woman is never without unwanted
attention for very long. Most of this is boorish but seemingly benign,
just loudmouths shouting “smile” or “damn” etc. as they pass, but watch
for the creep who sidles up next to her and walks along, saying nothing,
for five full minutes. Two words, ladies: Concealed carry. (Which, by
the way, is basically illegal in NYC.)
Um, yeah.  Seems the the problem is not cast as "how do we get men to respect women" but rather, "every woman should be ready to kill - men are just like that."  

The American Right remains as nutty as ever.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

China getting hot - good

I didn't notice any media reports earlier this month about this study in Nature Climate Change indicating that Eastern China has had a very clear increase in temperature since the 1950's.   This is good, if it means that anyone in the Chinese government is left with little room for climate change denial.  (Mind you, the article talks about adaptation at the end, not reducing CO2.  Still....)

Here's the synopsis:
The summer of 2013 was the hottest on record in Eastern China. Severe extended heatwaves affected the most populous and economically developed part of China and caused substantial economic and societal impacts1. The estimated direct economic losses from the accompanying drought alone total 59 billion RMB (ref. 2). Summer (June–August) mean temperature in the region has increased by 0.82 °C since reliable observations were established in the 1950s, with the five hottest summers all occurring in the twenty-first century. It is challenging to attribute extreme events to causes3, 4, 5, 6. Nevertheless, quantifying the causes of such extreme summer heat and projecting its future likelihood is necessary to develop climate adaptation strategies7. We estimate that anthropogenic influence has caused a more than 60-fold increase in the likelihood of the extreme warm 2013 summer since the early 1950s, and project that similarly hot summers will become even more frequent in the future, with fully 50% of summers being hotter than the 2013 summer in two decades even under the moderate RCP4.5 emissions scenario. Without adaptation to reduce vulnerability to the effects of extreme heat, this would imply a rapid increase in risks from extreme summer heat to Eastern China.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Splitting wave functions

For once, here's a pretty clear report of an experiment about quantum mechanics which remains  understandable all the way through.  The implications, though, remain unclear.

It appears that shooting electrons into helium gives rise to bubbles, some of which (so it is argued) are just partial bits of a wavefunction:
In the case of electrons and helium, it works like this: When an electron hits the surface of the liquid helium, there's some chance that it will cross into the liquid, and some chance that it will bounce off and carom away. In quantum mechanics, those possibilities are expressed as part of the wave function crossing the barrier, and part of it being reflected. Perhaps the small electron bubbles are formed by the portion of the wave function that goes through the surface. The size of the bubble depends on how much wave function goes through, which would explain the continuous distribution of small electron bubble sizes detected in the experiments.

The idea that part of the wave function is reflected at a barrier is standard , Cooper said. "I don't think anyone would argue with that," he said. "The non-standard part is that the piece of the wave function that goes through can have a physical effect by influencing the size of the bubble. That is what is radically new here."
The background is well explained in further detail in the article.  As for the odd implications:
But it does raise some interesting questions that sit on the border of science and philosophy. For example, it's necessary to assume that the helium does not make a measurement of the actual position of the electron. If it did, any bubble found not to contain the electron would, in theory, simply disappear. And that, Maris says, points to one of the deepest mysteries of quantum theory.
"No one is sure what actually constitutes a measurement. Perhaps physicists can agree that someone with a Ph.D. wearing a white coat sitting in the lab of a famous university can make measurements. But what about somebody who really isn't sure what they are doing? Is consciousness required? We don't really know."

A general call out for emails

So now that a News Ltd paper has started a "tit for tat" story going on about Nova Peris, here's some politicians whose private emails I would be particularly keen to read:

Those between Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin
Christopher Pyne (and especially those to James Ashby or anyone concerned with the Slipper affair)
Anything from Mal Brough at the same time
Anything at all from Kevin Rudd with excessive sweary bits (just for fun)

Come on, people with access to politician's email accounts - give us better stuff than this piffle.

As for Andrew Bolt - what a drama queen when it suits him.   Feels "queasy" after reading Peris's emails. 

Didn't notice him mentioning any "queasiness" after reading Spurr's "she should have her mouth sewn shut" commentary on a rape story.  

If Coalition politicians are sensible, they'll leave this story well alone.   Athletics Australia was "thrilled" with Boldon's trip - it clearly was a success as far as they were concerned.  

And as if people like Peris haven't sought funding before for something in which there was personal benefit as part of the mix.  

So, if Coalition politicians are going to thrill to what's in Peris' emails, they had better watch their step for some further embarrassing leaks against them.  

And suddenly, magic happens!

You know a Coalition idea is fanciful when it is immediately ridiculed in readers' comments in The Australian.   I mean, seriously?:
UNEMPLOYED ­Aborigines in remote communities will be forced into work for the dole five days a week, with tough new sanctions for failing to participate, under changes that have in-principle cabinet agreement.
Under the new policy, un­employed people with full work capacity would be forced into 25 hours of “work-like” dole activities spread over the week. Sources said there would not be any activities that allowed people to spend their time “painting rocks”. Instead the activities would replicate real work to ensure unemployed Aborigines were “work ready”.
The scheme will force all ­remote Aborigines into work for the dole but there will be people who will be allowed to do less than 25 hours a week based on their ­“assessed capacity”, which will ­acknowledge that some ­people who are on the general ­unemployment benefit, Newstart Allowance, are parents or disabled.
Sources said the joint cabinet submission by Employment Minister Eric Abetz, Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews and Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion greatly increased the sanctions placed on unemployed Aborigines in remote areas who failed to meet their new mutual obligations.
The larger package, including new spending to pay for the massively expanded scheme, must still go back to cabinet for final endorsement.
The big question is:  why does this government think it can make such a scheme work when it sounds like exactly the same thing that has been tried with but minor variations for decades?  Wave a magic wand?   

Someone in comments notes this from the NSW Aboriginal Board in 1941:
‘Self-help. For many years the aborigines have been regarded as people needing protection and not capable of meeting successfully the economic stress of our more civilised daily life, and a system has grown up whereby aborigines have been provided with the necessities of life at the hand of the Government .The free distribution of benefits, however, has resulted in a tendency by a section of the aboriginal community to lean almost entirely upon the Government, without making any serious attempt to provide for themselves.The Board will continue to supply needy aborgines with sustenance and other social benefits, but those who are capable of working are, and will be, urged to become proficient and to obtain employment, thus enabling them to support themselves and their families.’
 But suddenly, 73 years later, the Abbott government can make it happen?  Colour me unconvinced.

By the way: one thing I don't quite understand about issues with remote aboriginal communities is this.  In old footage we see of mission settlements back in the mid 20th century, it seems that some (or many, or all, I don't know) had community farms which grew at least some of the food they relied on.   One gets the impression that this doesn't happen now.   If the impression is right, why isn't there more emphasis on local employment and training based around local self sufficiency in food and meat?   It would seem obvious that it would be a useful, meaningful thing for locals to be engaged in. I guess water supply is in an issue in some places, but not all, surely.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A rather odd idea for a quantum internet

Why Quantum "Clippers" Will Distribute Entanglement Across The Oceans | MIT Technology Review

I sense a one term government

The AFR is saying this:
An international competition will be staged to buy new submarines for Australia with the fleet to be largely built offshore confirming a blow to South Australian jobs.
This is (apparently) what the defence minister said before the election:

“We will deliver those submarines from right here at ASC in South Australia. The Coalition today is committed to building 12 new submarines here in Adelaide.”
Senator Johnston, Press Conference, 8 May 2013.

Given the departure of other manufacturing in South Australia, I would like to know what industries the Abbott government thinks are likely to fill the void in an already financially moribund State; given they are doing their best to also kill renewable energy.   

Rupert instructs the world

Well, I'm sure someone will be out soon with a more detailed take on this than I have time to do, but Rupert's message to the G20 is quite a shermozzle, isn't it?

First of all, credit for acknowledging the issue of rising inequality and calling it bad.  You'll have to get on the phone and convince your libertarian mates about that, though.  Same with your criticism of global companies which pay inadequate tax too, although I'm not sure how your own companies look in that regard...

But no credit for adopting the libertarian/dumb American Right  "solution".   Yes, I can just see how labour market deregulation (which, for the most part, wants lower wages, certainly low minimum wages) will help out with the inequality issues, especially in the States.   Oh yeah, and your faith in lower taxes is touching too.  Care to explain to Kansas how that works?  

And of course, lower energy costs, with no care as to carbon.  'Cos nothing helps global inequality like having entire, poor nations hit hardest by global warming in 30 years time.   (If it takes that long...)

Update:  OK, here's Alan Kohler, giving the sort of commentary on this that I was looking for.

New movie review

Hey, I see that the first reviews of Interstellar are out, and it's not convincing everyone. 

Given it's a Matthew McConaughy vehicle, I'm primed to dislike it; and I suspect that Nolan is like a more intellectually upmarket Tarantino - a director with a following whose enthusiasm is so excessive it makes me just way more inclined to see an emperor with few clothes*; but maybe I will see it so I can confirm my prejudgement.

On Nolan, I see that in the comments following this very so-so review in The Guardian, quite a few people are coming out to diss Nolan to a greater or lesser extent.   A lot of people didn't care for Dark Knight Rises, apparently...

* OK, in the case of Tarantino, an outright ugly nude dude.**

**  with a micropenis, if there is any justice...   

Monday, October 27, 2014

Late movie review

I never got around to seeing The Lone Ranger at the cinema, but caught up with it on the weekend.   You know, this one:

As I suspected, I liked it a lot more than most critics did, and so did my son.  In fact, we both enjoyed it, with a couple of reservations.

Given that (as my son said) it has the same DNA as the Pirates films, if  you liked all of them well enough,  you should almost certainly like this too.  For my money Gore Verbinski does physical, large scale comedy very well; and Depp is the man for eccentric comedy characters.

Sure it's not perfect:  it's at its best for the first half (in fact, it's really great, which means it's impressive for quite a long time, given its total length), but it does take too long in the second half to establish what is going on before the climatic action sequence.   (Unfortunately, this train chase too  often looks a little bit too reliant on CGI, if you ask me - but I liked the way it ends with poetic justice).

The Tonto-centric story contains a couple of jokes which are genuinely surprising and absolutely hilarious for it - almost worth the admission alone, as they say.  And it is a film which, like the Pirates movies, is so full of incident that it could be rewatched on DVD with some pleasure.   My son wanted to watch it again the next day, so that's a sign of its quality, if you are 14.

One credit I noted at the end said that the odd Tonto makeup was inspired by a painting.   An article showing it, which was only painted in 2006, and an interview with the artist, is here.   (Yes, there is a magazine called "Cowboys and Indians".)   It's not meant to be historically based on anyone, so it was a brave decision to use it throughout the movie. 

No matter, it's a largely enjoyable movie which deserved to do better.

And if you get the DVD, make sure you watch the short blooper scenes in the bonus features.  It gives an insight into how certain stunts were done.

Springtime garden activities

All taken in the backyard:

Temperatures rising

After the recent news that NOAA considers September was globally the warmest on record, it appears that its been hot in quite a few parts of the world in October, including Australia. It may reach 40 degrees today at Ispwich, and it's been terribly dry for many months in Brisbane.

It almost seems as if el nino weather has started already, at least in Australia.   (Not in other parts of the world, though, where California is still in a severe drought which an el nino might relieve.)   I see that they are now saying a weak el nino may be officially declared with a month or two.

Hey I see my feeling is right - here's the SMH a few days ago:
Australia is already experiencing unusually warm temperatures and rainfall deficiencies typical for an El Nino year. Clear night skies in inland areas are also leading to frost – another symptom, Dr Watkins said.
Adelaide's maximum reached 37.3 degrees on Tuesday, its warmest October day in eight years and the city's fourth day in a row of 30-plus weather.
Melbourne warmed to a top of 28 degrees while Sydney's cool patch will end with a string of warm days reaching into next week.
The real heat, though, will be on show over outback Australia with "very high temperatures" predicted for Friday to Monday, the Bureau of Meteorology said.
If a proper el nino does develop soon, it will be interesting to see what happens to the global average temperature, given where we are now.

Kindly stop eating the wild life

I'm rather surprised to find that, despite being a pretty regular viewer of David Attenborough over the decades, there's a creature that I don't recall ever seeing before, and it is rather weird:
It's a very scaly mammal, called a pangolin, and apparently rich Chinese are eating it to excess.   Very unfortunate.

There's a line you don't often read in a paper

UTS gives pees a chance with urine-diverting toilet trial | The Saturday Paper

From this somewhat interesting article about urine collecting toilets, which I have blogged about in the past:
I found it exhilarating to wee in that toilet, contributing in a tiny way to solving a huge problem.

Getting real on new dams

Dam hard: water storage is a historic headache for Australia

I see John Quiggin is a co-author of this article that puts some perspective on the the familiar (and always dubious) right wing claim that goes "If only it weren't for those damned environmentalists - we'd have double the dams and development everywhere in Australia." 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The future seems to be here

Hard not to feel that you were looking at something from science fiction when watching the beating "heart in a box" video this week, when the news was about how they can now revive for transplant hearts that have stopped:

What can I say? Just very watchable

I think this must be the third year that we've watched X Factor (which ended last Sunday), and while it didn't have quite the same excitement as watching Dami Im last year knock songs completely out of the ballpark each week, it was better than the year before that.

For the record:  like probably half of Australia, I reckon Marlisa was too young to be a winner, even though she is obviously a strong singer for her age.  Whether she is a success will all depend on the songwriters and producers who latch onto her - speaking of which, I have been pretty unimpressed thus far with Dami's song choice so far, but I think she said that she does actually write or co-write them.  That's a worry.   Dami, there is no shame in powerful singers using other writer's songs.  Please do so...

I take it from conversations at my office that everyone warmed to Dean once he stopped doing the silly "I'm a very serious rock star" act that was notable for his early appearances.  Or was it the X Factor producers who told him to exaggerate his seriousness early on.  There's a fair chance of that - it is "reality" TV show after all.  I would have been more comfortable with him winning, though, seeing he's already got an idea of a show biz life.

I tend to agree with those who say that he version of Budapest is better than the original:

The show does tend to do staging of songs very, very well, doesn't it?  And the most watchable of all this season was probably that by a certain young guest whose work I am only vaguely familiar with (being over 50 and all).  She's kinda skinny, but very hard to look away from:

I will now resume normal transmission....

Update:  Gee, even The Guardian gets excited about the new Taylor Swift album.  It must therefore be respectable for me to post about her...

Ocean acidification worries noted, yet again

This BBC report paints a worrying picture of some recent research on ocean acidification.  First the UK's chief scientist:

“If we carry on emitting CO2 at the same rate, ocean acidification will create substantial risks to complex marine food webs and ecosystems.”
He said the current rate of acidification is believed to be unprecedented within the last 65 million years – and may threaten fisheries in future.

The consequences of acidification are likely to be made worse by the warming of the ocean expected with climate change, a process which is also driven by CO2.

Sir Mark’s comments come as recent British research suggests the effects of acidification may be even more pervasive than previously estimated.

Until now studies have identified species with calcium-based shells as most in danger from changing chemistry.

But researchers in Exeter have found that other creatures will also be affected because as acidity increases it creates conditions for animals to take up more coastal pollutants like copper.
The angler’s favourite bait – the humble lugworm – suffers DNA damage as a result of the extra copper. The pollutant harms their sperm, and their offspring don’t develop properly.

“It’s a bit of a shock, frankly,” said biologist Ceri Lewis from Exeter University, one of the report’s authors. “It means the effects of ocean acidification may be even more serious than we previously thought. We need to look with new eyes at things which we thought were not vulnerable.”

The lugworm study was published in Environmental Science and Technology. Another study from Dr Lewis not yet peer-reviewed suggests that sea urchins are also harmed by uptake of copper. This adds to the damage they will suffer from increasing acidity as it takes them more and more energy to calcify their shells and spines.

This is significant because sea urchins, which can live up to 100 years, are a keystone species - grazing algae off rocks that would otherwise be covered in green slime.
The article does go on to make this comment, too, but I think it is actually too optimistic a take on some recent, but still very limited, studies:
At the bottom end of the marine animal chain, tiny creatures like plankton and coccolithophores reproduce so fast that their future offspring are likely to evolve to cope with lower pH.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

A new quantum interpretation - Hurrah

An appealing idea is being worked on that may make for a whole new understanding of what is going on with quantum phenomena:
Theorists have tried to explain quantum behaviour through various mathematical frameworks. One of the older interpretations envisages the classical world as stemming from the existence of many simultaneous quantum ones. But that ‘many worlds’ approach, pioneered by the US theorist Hugh Everett III in the 1950s, relies on the worlds branching out independently from one another, and not interacting at all (see 'Many worlds: See me here, see me there').

By contrast, Wiseman’s team envisages many worlds bumping into one another, calling it the 'many interacting worlds' approach. On its own, each world is ruled by classical Newtonian physics. But together, the interacting motion of these worlds gives rise to phenomena that physicists typically ascribe to the quantum world.
Read more explanation via Howard Wiseman himself at The Conversation.

But the weirdest idea is that a dramatic breakthrough in understanding the universe could come via Griffith University.  [Heh].

Friday, October 24, 2014

Read it for the Tol bashing, if nothing else

The 2 degree threshold | …and Then There's Physics

Richard Tol appears in the thread, and cops a bit of a pasting from the others for his disingenuous approach.

Awesome engineering of Tokyo

Speaking of Japan, if you like to see large scale engineering, you really must watch this story from last night's Catalyst, regarding the jaw dropping flood mitigation system that runs under Tokyo.

Sounds dull?   No, it's stunning - and not something you are ever likely to have heard of before.

Catalyst has had (with few exceptions) a brilliant run of fascinating stories this year.

But back to Tokyo - here's hoping their drainage system is going to survive the next big earthquake.   If it collapsed, I imagine it could affect a lot of what's on the surface above it.

Still not encouraged

Colossal volcanic eruption could destroy Japan, study says
"It is not an overstatement to say that a colossal volcanic eruption would leave Japan extinct as a country," Kobe University earth sciences professor Yoshiyuki Tatsumi and associate professor Keiko Suzuki said in a study publicly released on Wednesday.

The experts said they analysed the scale and frequency of in the archipelago nation over the past 120,000 years and calculated that the odds of a devastating eruption at about one percent over the next 100 years.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Spurred on

Wow.  An extraordinarily effusive piece by a former female Chinese student from Sydney University appears in The Australian today defending Professor Spurr.  In fact, it is so enamoured of the Professor, and so full of the same defences that the Right immediately tried on (before we read the fuller extracts of the emails) that the first thing that comes to mind is whether it was actually written within hours of the first report by one of his "abo" trashing friends.

Look. Lily, I hate to break it to you, but if a professor engaged to do a curriculum review, when said curriculum has been controversial because of the extent to which it attempts to incorporate indigenous issues, turns out to refer in private to the PM as an "abo lover", it's pretty damn clear to (I would say) 95% of Australians that he is not an appropriate person for the job.   As such, New Matilda does have public interest on its side. 

I was interested to note in Lily's article, though, that he is apparently supportive of, or active in, some religious group.   I thought one comment in his emails indicated he might be Catholic, but it is not clear.

I would not be surprised if he turned out to be a conservative, latin loving, Catholic of the kind who turn up at Catallaxy, with their ugly lack of charity.  

And by the way, doesn't The Australian ever get tired of defending jerks?

Update:  on the matter of the way New Matilda got the emails, I thought it was interesting to note this from a recent post there:

One more time, for the record. The information technology policy of the University of Sydney – of which all staff are explicitly warned – is that their university emails are not private. It is a public institution.

Generally speaking, New Matilda does not comment on issues related to sources and leaked documents. However, Ms Markson’s story – and the allegations leveled within it - are demonstrably false, and the public record requires correction.

The first error is a suggestion that Professor Spurr’s email account was ‘hacked’. This is false. It did not occur. Neither New Matilda nor the source in the story hacked Professor Spurr’s account.

The second error relates to a suggestion in Ms Markson’s article that the source was motivated by “payback” for Professor Spurr’s involvement in the National School Curriculum review. This is also false.
While the source was broadly aware of Professor Spurr’s involvement in the review, the source was unaware of the contents of Professor Spurr’s submissions. What motivated the source to come forward was two specific email exchanges.

One of those exchanges relates to Professor Spurr’s views about a matter of substantial public importance. At this stage, New Matilda has decided not to divulge the contents of this email. The comments, however, are extreme and reinforced the view of the source that Professor Spurr’s involvement in the National Curriculum Review was a matter of substantial public interest.

The second email, which also reinforced this view related to Professor Spurr’s comments in relation to the sexual assault of a woman.
The email exchange regarding the apparent sexual assault of the woman is, in my view, the worst by far of what is in the emails.  It presents an extraordinary challenge for the University as to how to respond.

Update 2:   even Andrew Bolt concedes the seriousness of the matter, although he does not discuss the sexual assault email:
But those emails are now public, like it or not, and the racist abuse is deeply unpleasant. I do think this badly damages Spurr’s credibility when pontificating on how the curriculum deals with Indigenous issues, and could damage the credibility of his teaching at university, too, depending on the subjects taught and, indeed, the ethnic and religious background of his students. 
I actually think that, despite what a female Chinese fan may say, the matter is probably going to be resolved by enough students (especially female ones) saying that they cannot in good conscience engage with the Professor given his disclosed private commentary.

Update 3:  just thought I should mention the last para in Lily's article:
He should not be made a scapegoat for an ideology of which he is not an advocate. He is not the parody the media presents. The university should not lose a jewel in its crown. If I, a small, sensitive, feminist, patriotic Chinese girl, am not offended by these leaked emails, why should anyone else be?
A laughably strange feminist if she is not bothered by the email exchange regarding a sexual assault story.

Update 4:   I see an interesting Comment is Free piece on the Professor appeared at The Guardian a few days ago, too.

Update 5:  a bit of Googling indicates he is Anglican, perhaps of the Anglo-Catholic variety.  He has published (quite some time ago) an entire book on "Anglican and Catholic Reactions to Liturgical Reform".  As well as a book on TS Elliott and Christianity. 

Wow.  Further confirms my view, expressed here before, that liturgical worriers are often the worst representatives for their faith.

Update 6Ben Pobjie's column on this today is right.  It appears a near certainty that Barry Humphries did not know of the detail of the emails before his defence, and I suspect Lily has not gone through them so carefully either.

Update 7:  Well, thank God for that - I can stop being embarrassed by having Bolt on my side, because he's been swayed by Lily's testimony (or something) and now has seemingly reversed position!   Read what Bolt was saying before (update 2 above) and what he says now:
This country is going mad. A gifted professor is publicly vilified by people claiming to be outraged by rude words said in private.
Ahahahaha.  What an inconsistent moron you've become, Andrew.  I don't need to use an email to express that...

Update 8:  Jonathan Holmes agrees:
It seems to me a lay-down case of a breach of privacy justified by the public interest. 
Update 9:   professional hyperventilating contrarian loudmouth, Brendan O'Neill, does his stock standard double standards/moral hypocrisy shtick in a laughably unconvincing column that starts of with criticism  for those who think hacking naked photos of a celebrity is wrong, but think there is an obvious public interest element in knowing the contents of some work account emails of Spurr.  The article is so full of bad argument, it's hardly worth the effort, but I'll put a minimal amount in:

a.  Brendan seems to have not noticed that there is no attempted justification by anyone, anywhere, on the grounds of public interest for the breach of privacy of a celebrity's nude photos held in the celebrity's iCloud account.  

b.  He ignores the basic point in this post - would anyone in their right mind, knowing the contents of these emails (at least those with racial comments) beforehand, think that they could avoid the perception of bias (if not actual bias) in appointing Spurr to review a curriculum that was notable for the amount of indigenous issues raised? 

I also see that, as with Lily, O'Neill mounts a vigorous de facto defence of Spurr but does not go near the "rape" email.  Gee, I wonder why they won't there, and explain the "linguistic game" in that exchange?

Update 10:  quite a reasonable column in Fairfax about it all by Rick Feneley, including this paragraph:
"I think there is an irony in all this," says Catharine Lumby, a former acting head of school at Sydney University, now professor of media at Macquarie University. "Both Professor Spurr and Kevin Donnelly [heading the National Curriculum Review] are on the record strongly advocating the western literary canon on the basis it has a civilising influence on us. That may be the case. However, I don't see the evidence of that in Professor Spurr's emails."
That Spurr was prepared to send them to his colleagues, Lumby says, raises questions about his judgment, an important consideration given his role on the curriculum review. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

I'm not encouraged...

The last ten years have been a remarkable time for great earthquakes. Since December 2004 there have been no less than 18 quakes of Mw8.0 or greater – a rate of more than twice that seen from 1900 to mid-2004.
Don't think I had heard that before.  Source here.

Whitlam spending went where?

While it seems that everyone from Ken Henry to the IPA says that the Whitlam increased Federal government spending to levels to which it has roughly stayed the same since, I was interested to see where the increased spending went.  This series of graphs from a 2007 paper is perhaps the best summary I can find:

It's curious how the second chart shows the Whitlam "real spending" was far from exceptional when you look at the long term trend.   The first chart indicates how closely government spending since then has bounced around 24% - 25% of GDP.   (And no, Rudd/Gillard spending did not significantly deviate from the range, either.)

And the last two charts show Whitlam spikes on spending as a proportion of total spend did show up mainly in education, health and social security.   However, the country did get Medicare and much broader access to higher education, money which many would say was deservedly spent compared to the pre-1972 situation.

International comparisons indicate that the 25% range for spending is well within mid range of what other countries have been doing for a while now, with some economically successful countries spending far higher (see Germany, Scandinavia.)    In fact, it's probably true to say that with very few exceptions, spending below 20% of GDP indicates the sort of poorer country most Australians would not care to emulate in terms of services.  

Of the exceptions, I think we can pretty much ignore Singapore, as a case of a city state which only has to deal with providing services to a dense population on a tiny area.  

Canada seems truly exceptional, though, as a country of similar size to ours that has been spending considerably under our rate.  I wonder what's going on there...

Update:  Stephen Koukoulas made much the same point today, but without the graphs.   I think my post was up first!

Some straight talking from a physicist

Remember Garrett Lisi, who had a brief period of high publicity some years ago for his novel work on finding a Theory of Everything?  He's still working on it, as this interesting interview shows, and thinks he is making some progress.

But the most amusing part is here, where he talks about string theory hold-out Ed Witten:
Horgan: Edward Witten, when I asked him in a recent Q&A if string theory had any serious rivals for a unified theory, replied, “There are not any interesting competing suggestions.” Comment?

Lisi: That stings a little. I don’t imagine other physicists working on fundamental non-string theories appreciate it either. Ed Witten has done incredibly impressive work, opening new doors with his insights in mathematics and physics. His papers are things of beauty. He, his students, and his colleagues have dominated the high-energy theoretical physics community with string models for decades now. However, even the most enlightened foresight from the most brilliant mind can be wrong, so it would be better if he wasn’t a dick about it.

Labor Prime Ministers and their ego

I was watching Annabel Crabb's very entertaining show with Bob Hawke last night, and it left me wondering about the string of Labor Prime Ministers we've had with very big egos.

Whitlam, Hawke, Keating and Rudd - all big ego men, and none of whom I found especially likeable personalities.  Julia Gillard genuinely broke the ego mould, and this has a lot to do with my regard for her.   But Beazley was also OK in this respect, and it helps explain why he never made it to PM.

Of other Labor Opposition Leaders who didn't make it:   not sure how I would categorise Simon Crean, and Mark Latham is just rather generally oddball. 

The Liberals don't seem to suffer from this to the same extent, with the exception of Turnbull, perhaps.  Yet for me he manages the trick of having a very high self regard but retaining likeability.  His eulogy yesterday in Parliament for Gough was a fantastic example of his very endearing ability to engagingly speak off the cuff with great charity towards everyone:

As for Howard, his modest demeanour was always his most endearing feature.

But going back to Fraser, I remember being told by someone who was a former Liberal staffer in Canberra that at the time he acquired the leadership he was shaking like a leaf.   So it appears he gave off an arrogant air, but covering a modest ego.

Technology and poverty

What Role Does Technology Play in Record Levels of Income Inequality?
Here's a lengthy article looking at the debate over the role of technology in rising income inequality.   Even the opening, scene setting, part is interesting, talking about inequality in Silicon Valley.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A reasonable decision

White House suspends enhanced pathogen research : Nature News Blog

On Gough Whitlam and social and cultural change

A lot of obvious things will be said about Gough Whitlam:  tried to do too much too quickly; big on ideas, not so good on their implementation;  let down by his cabinet colleagues who badly needed some prior experience in being part of an actual government; but he was still the Prime Minister we had to have both culturally and (to the extent that a general shake up was overdue) economically.

From the cultural point of view, his government came at a very distinctive period of change, and his personal life of a long (and as far as I know, happy and scandal free) marriage, and military service, stood somewhat at odds with the social ideas of free love, marriage as a redundant institution, and great cynicism over the value of the military per se which were swirling around the Left at the time.  That Jim Cairns appeared to be living up to the "anything goes in love" standard was a scandal to social conservatives, and I still think that a PM appearing in a Barry McKenzie movie was sort of undignified.   (As was going to that sex education movie - the name of which escapes me for the moment - with Margaret.)  He was a man who presented as both very serious, but sometimes self-deprecating, even if still in a self-congratulatory sort of way. Rather like Keating, now that I think about it.

I was just listening to someone on Radio National saying that he was a champion of the arts, but also shouldn't be seen as valuing Australian art merely because of parochial bias:  his encouragement of the National Art Gallery to acquire good international works went beyond Blue Poles, apparently.   I personally don't see much value, culturally, in the Australian movie industry he is said to have revived - the claustrophobically Left leaning, secular naval gazing nature of most of the output has always left me cold; and after 40 years, perhaps I can feel justified that most of the population now seems to agree, given the tiny following Australian movies tend to have.  Still, economically it has been of some value, as it allows decent enough foreign films to be made here.  

I'm not sure that there was ever really a "right" way for politicians to respond to the social changes underway at the time, but the Whitlam Labor government represented (I think) a particular challenge to Catholics.  The social programs which they (Catholics) could have approved of were always at risk of being overwhelmed in their minds by the apparent embrace of too rapid a change to views about sex and family.  I don't think the Church was particularly enamoured of the idea of no fault divorce, either, although no doubt many Catholic women in difficult marriages welcomed it.

It perhaps only took to the 1980's until a bit of equilibrium had returned, and some of the extreme ideas of the theorists of the swinging 60's were recognized as not really being realistic.   (If one took some ideas of the 60's seriously, we'd all be living in open or group marriages now with communal child raising, and be able to walk nude to the shops if we felt like it.  Or perhaps I've just read too much bad, later Heinlein!)  Sure, there is the matter of gay marriage which has seen another remarkable turn around in cultural attitudes, but there is the view that it is in a sense a vindication of the conservative value of marriage - even though I am not convinced.

The wild, very parochial, enthusiasm for "Australian stories" to be told in schools and cinema had also died a bit by then, I think.   This cultural aspect of the 70's was always going to be somewhat stymied by the fact that our national history actually had little in the way of great drama, compared to most other countries, anyway.  But as with the later Keating, it seems a tad ironic that a PM who is seen as the champion of all things culturally Australian was very keen on knowledge of European history and arts (or so I take it, given his later work as European tour guide that I have heard about.)  

In a way then, I think it a bit unfortunate that Gough's turn as PM came when it did.   Even if he was in power in the second half of the 70's, instead of the first half, it might have felt somewhat different.  But who knows - we don't get a choice in these things.

PS:  Can someone tell Sinclair Davidson that it is rather ridiculous of him to be incorporating an attack on the ABC for letting a guest on a TV show make a disrespectful comment on the death of Margaret Thatcher (how Tony Jones was meant to prevent it remains a mystery), when we all knew that the very same thread at his own blog would contain some of the greatest bile that we will see with respect to the death of Gough.   As indeed it already does...

Update:   this is one of my posts where I keep doing minor re-writes for a while to try to improve it, so perhaps it's a bit better by now than the last time you read it!

Ken's thinking big

Ken Parish writes at Troppo about the idea of a "charter city" for refugees in Northern Australia.

It's the kind of big idea that has appeal, but as some people in comments are already noting, shoving a bunch of people from very disparate cultures and races into a new, small, remote, settlement "city" would be a pretty novel social experiment with potential for some major social problems...

Monday, October 20, 2014

Being able to fly didn't help

Century After Extinction, Passenger Pigeons Remain Iconic—And Scientists Hope to Bring Them Back

I heard someone talking on Radio National about this last week:  the remarkable extinction of a North American pigeon breed which numbered in the billions, and was (reliably) said to darken the skies for at least hours, if not days, during its migrations.

Here's a description from another article:
In May 1850, a 20-year-old Potawatomi tribal leader
named Simon Pokagon was camping at the headwaters of Michigan's Manistee
River during trapping season when a far-off gurgling sound startled
him. It seemed as if "an army of horses laden with sleigh bells was
advancing through the deep forests towards me," he later wrote. "As I
listened more intently, I concluded that instead of the tramping of
horses it was distant thunder; and yet the morning was clear, calm, and
beautiful." The mysterious sound came "nearer and nearer," until Pokagon
deduced its source: "While I gazed in wonder and astonishment, I beheld
moving toward me in an unbroken front millions of pigeons, the first I
had seen that season."
These were passenger pigeons, Ectopistes migratorius, at the
time the most abundant bird in North America and possibly the world.
Throughout the 19th century, witnesses had described similar sightings
of pigeon migrations: how they took hours to pass over a single spot,
darkening the firmament and rendering normal conversation inaudible.
Pokagon remembered how sometimes a traveling flock, arriving at a deep
valley, would "pour its living mass" hundreds of feet into a downward
plunge. "I have stood by the grandest waterfall of America," he wrote,
"yet never have my astonishment, wonder, and admiration been so stirred
as when I have witnessed these birds drop from their course like meteors
from heaven."...
In forest and city alike, an arriving flock was a spectacle--"a
feathered tempest," in the words of conservationist Aldo Leopold. One
1855 account from Columbus, Ohio, described a "growing cloud" that
blotted out the sun as it advanced toward the city. "Children screamed
and ran for home," it said. "Women gathered their long skirts and
hurried for the shelter of stores. Horses bolted. A few people mumbled
frightened words about the approach of the millennium, and several
dropped on their knees and prayed." When the flock had passed over, two
hours later, "the town looked ghostly in the now-bright sunlight that
illuminated a world plated with pigeon ejecta."
 Update:  from another article, talking about the ease of getting dinner when a gigantic flock was overhead:
These flocks were so densely packed that a single shot could bring down 30-40 birds. He birds could be brought down and killed just by hitting them with pieces of wood as they flew over hilltops. The bird's only natural predators were hawks and eagles. As they flew, they covered settlements with droppings, once an important way of spreading seeds, but viewed as a nuisance by settlers.
 The massive, industrial scale over-hunting for food and fun in the 1800's is also described:
After 1830 the pigeons were hunted for sport, hog feed and even for agricultural fertiliser. In the 1870s, 250,000 Passenger pigeons a year were released from live traps for shooting practice. Its decline began in earnest with the onset of large-scale commercial hunting carried out by well-organised trappers and shippers supplying cheap meat to the developing cities on the east coast of the USA. The opening of railroads linking the Great Lakes area with New York meant 300,000 Passenger pigeons were sent to New York during 1855 alone. The most devastating killings were during the 1800s and 1870s. Th figures were recorded as a normal part of commerce: 23rd July, 1860 (23 July) saw 235,200 birds sent east from Grand Rapids in Michigan; 1874 saw 1,000,000 birds shipped east from Oceana County in Michigan; 1876 saw 1,600,000 shipped east from Oceana County (400,000 per week during the season). In 1869, Van Buren County, Michigan, shipped 7,500,000 birds to the east. In 1880, 527,000 birds were shipped east from Michigan.
 I'm surprised I hadn't heard the details of this extraordinary animal and its extinction before...

Cross dressing soldiers

Earlier this year that I noticed a story of an Australian woman who had got on board an Australian troop ship heading off to World War 1.  She was found out fairly early, but it appears that in the American Civil War, some women managed to carry out the subterfuge for a very long time.

I think this review of a book on the topic might have come out earlier this year, but it's just turned up on my Zite account, hence I have only noticed it now.  I was particularly struck by this part:
Though once found out, these female soldiers were discharged from the army for “congenital peculiarities,” “sexual incompatibility,” or the unambiguously termed offense of “unmistakable evidence of being a woman,” most of these women went undetected, at least for a while — a fact not all that astounding in the context of Victorian society where the single most revealing litmus test, nudity, was a rarity given bathing was a rare occurrence and people often slept in their clothes. (But today, in an age when the tip of the devastating iceberg that is sexual assault in the military is only beginning to emerge, one has to wonder what happened to the women who did get found out.)

Thanks to the poorly fitted uniforms, some women were even able to disguise their pregnancies until the very end, startling their male platoon mates with the delivery. Others chose to continue dressing as men after the end of the war, raising gender identity questions also not discussed in the book. But perhaps most interesting of all is the question of how women got the idea for this in the first place. Blanton argues that much of it had to do with cultural influence — cross-dressing female heroines permeated Victorian literature, with military and sailor women often celebrated in 17th-century ballads, novels, and poems.
I'm guessing that 17th century reference, coming after talk of the Victorian era might be a mistake, but in any event, I was not aware of the general popularity of cross dressing women stories from back then.

I also think this is part of what makes the true stories of pretend male soldiers so remarkable - because if we see it in a movie, it always looks so improbable.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

More tales of the Saudi religious police

Married couple mistakenly arrested |

Members of the powerful Saudi Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice were left red-faced after they arrested a married couple thinking the husband and wife were not related.

Acting upon a report that a man and a woman who were not relatives were spotted inside a house in the Suwaidi neighbourhood in the Saudi capital Riyadh, members of the
Commission rushed to the place and proceeded to arrest the couple. Dismissing arguments by the man and woman that they were husband and wife, the members took them to their office on the grounds that they were caught in khilwa, local daily
Okaz reported on Sunday.
The khilwa offence in Saudi law consists of being in private with a member of the opposite sex who is not an immediate relative.
Don't worry, they got an apology, and a kiss on the nose:
“It looks like it was a malicious report targeting the couple, and the Commission should never follow up to the end without verifying the claims,” she said. “Even though there were apologies and traditional kisses on the head and nose to show regret and sorrow, there is always the negative feeling of bitterness that hit the couple in this case,”
she said.

Great nature news headline of the day

Cannibal harlequin ladybirds now threaten native species with STDs

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Germs, sex, minds, behaviour, maths, philosophy and religion. (Not necessarily in that order.)

I am reminded, via a link tweeted today by J Soon, that I don't think I have ever noted here the odd theory of Greg Cochran that has been around for a few years that exclusive male homosexuality has arisen via an infectious agent.  I am not sure whether Cochran ties his theory to the "modern" version of the homosexual, but Peter Frost, at the last link in the following paragraph, certainly does, and he argues that it might be either an infection or an environmental chemical which led to what he thinks is a change in homosexuality since about the start of the 20th century.

Here's the first link from Jason (more generally about how certain sexually transmitted diseases might affect behaviour), and then you go to Frost's blog, and follow his series of posts on the topic.

It seems to me that the idea of Frost becomes unreliable at the first step, where he argues that it was only from the late 19th to early 20th century that there arose a lot of exclusively homosexual men.  Sure, the argument goes, there has always been homosexual behaviour, but:
In the Middle Ages, this behavior was seen as a ‘vice’ of older heterosexual men, typically with young boys or men of a servile status. In contrast, far fewer men were exclusively homosexual in the sense of being uninterested in women and resembling women in their sexual orientation (i.e., having a woman’s search image and desired self-image). This relative rarity is implied by the astonishment that European explorers felt on encountering Amerindian berdaches during the 18th and early 19th centuries (Désy, 1978).
Now I know Foucault argued that the idea of "the homosexual" is a modern construct (basically, a fundamental change in the way people understood sexuality and themselves), and I have written before that much of his theory sounds plausible;  but this "gay virus" idea (at least as adopted by Foster) takes it a step further, and suggests there is a biological reason as to why people started experiencing sexuality differently.

Surely, this is an improbable step too far.   For example, isn't it very likely that the matter of "third sex" categories turning up in quite a few indigenous societies must have encompassed not just what we would now call transgender individuals, but at least some exclusive homosexuals?   

And what of the difficulty of judging the experience of homosexuality based on historical records?   Just because most of the contemporary commentary we have of homosexual behaviour in a society might be about (say) the pederasty of older married men (see Greece), it may simply never have occurred to anyone to research carefully what men as a group felt about their own experience of sexuality over a lifetime.  I mean, it's even controversial now, the scientific studies of bisexuality that involve trying to work out what gets certain men subconsciously aroused.   (There was a good article about this earlier this year in the New York Times.  It seems that a study a few years back which got widely reported as showing that bisexual men really did respond more as homosexual is now accepted as having a particularly poor experimental set up.)

The point is this - what hope do we really have of a detailed understanding of subjective experience of sexuality across a population of men from 2000 years ago, before anyone really had ideas of objective, scientific surveys or any other detailed form of psychological research?

Foster is especially unconvincing when he argues that the "flapper" fashion of the early 20th century - where women strove to look more boyish and flattened breasts were in vogue - indicates anything meaningful about the heterosexual male "search image".   Doesn't the advent of Marilyn Monroe and other famous, buxom stars of a mere 30 years later put a serious dent in this suggestion?  

We certainly know there has always been a lot of concern in Abrahamic religions through the centuries as to how much homosexual behaviour was going on.   The article "The Experience of Homosexuality Across the Middle Ages" gives a good idea of that.   (And interestingly, its author now says in an updated preface that he has changed his mind about many of the paper's conclusions.  I don't really know what he believes now.)   My point would be:  who knows whether a monastery which had a particular reputation as a haven for homosexual activity in 1500 CE was that way because it had attracted exclusive homosexuals, or because of jail-like opportunistic homosexual behaviour, or in what proportion it was a case of one and the other?  Bishops and saints didn't really care to psychologically investigate it before condemning it.

In any event, not that I have made any detailed study, but it still seems to me that no one really understands the interaction between gender identity, sexual identity and sexual experience.  Sure, there is strong reason to believe the widely reported phenomena of a gay man who has "always known" he was different from other boys - but why does the difference sometimes manifest in conviction that they are the wrong gender, not just attracted to their own gender?

It's something of an understatement to observe that the brain and mind are complicated.  For example, I find anorexia as a psychological disorder incredibly hard to fathom - how it is that the rational part of the mind cannot convince the other part of something that I would have thought obvious from looking in the mirror, along the lines of  "OK, this is really getting unhealthy now, you look like skin and bones and as the doctor says, you're going to die unless you start getting food into your body."   I have a similar attitude towards late onset transgender cases - come on, fellas, you've been married, climbed mountains, had kids and presumably quite a few orgasms with your wife.  Why is changing gender now going to be some kind of fulfilment?  Can't you just take up quilting, or something a bit less dramatic?

In any event, history at least teaches us that varieties of same sex activity have always had some appeal to some people, and anthropology also indicates that people who want to be the other gender have always been with us .  It seems that in some societies, homosexual behaviour was treated as a mere matter of taste and not the subject of much in the way of analysis.   So much of the controversy about it since then seems to have come from attempted overanalysis which may well be forever doomed to be an example of one of the suggested implications of Godel's incompleteness theorem, that the mind may never fully understand itself.  See this quote from Hofstadter:
The other metaphorical analogue to Gödel’s Theorem which I find provocative suggests that ultimately, we cannot understand our own mind/brains … Just as we cannot see our faces with our own eyes, is it not inconceivable to expect that we cannot mirror our complete mental structures in the symbols which carry them out? All the limitative theorems of mathematics and the theory of computation suggest that once the ability to represent your own structure has reached a certain critical point, that is the kiss of death: it guarantees that you can never represent yourself totally.
No wonder the current Synod is fretting about what to do, if (as I suspect) our whole understanding of sexuality, being an aspect of mind and personality, is always likely to be incomplete.

Update:   on re-reading this post, I think I need to clarify my position, because it perhaps got lost a bit in the ramble:

a.  it may be that a lot more men in the 20th century have started thinking of themselves as exclusively homosexual, but the reason for this is most likely the Foucaultian explanation about the change in thinking about sexuality - broadly, along Freudian lines that there is a large hidden element to it that people sooner or later uncover.  

b. But as to whether the number of pretty much exclusively practicing homosexual males has changed over history is very much guesswork, given the lack of any detailed interest in anyone until about the 20th century in trying to work out such numbers.

c. Even current thinking, of what we think to be enlightened modern thinking on sexuality, is very much a work in progress, and one in which people seem always too sure of themselves that they understand it and its intersection with gender, sexual experience and culture. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Cheap at half the price!

Virgin buys low-cost airline Tigerair Australia for $1 | Business | theguardian.comgay

I was told by a gay Virgin flight attendant (comments made below by readers from Catallaxy will likely need to be culled)  some months ago that this is what would happen:  Virgin would finish an acquisition of Tiger to allow it (Virgin) to operate as the upmarket equivalent of Qantas, and use Tiger as the "downmarket" equivalent of Jetstar.

A conclusion that defies its elements

Ambitious foreign policy push yet to coalesce

Michael Fullilove's article in the SMH this morning seems to me to reach a conclusion that is rather at odds with the details.

He thinks Abbott has done well on foreign affairs, yet notes that in two respects (being a "globalist" not a "regionalist", and enthusiastic use of the UN Security Council) he is doing quite the opposite to what he indicated in Opposition.   Maybe "Windvane Comes Good" should be the true title of the piece.

But it gets worse.  Fullilove acknowledges that Abbott has had at least one really crook idea, but fortunately was been talked out of it:
A related concern is that Abbott shows a tendency towards imprudence.
The shirt fronting saga is a trivial example, but there is a more
serious one. According to news reports, in the aftermath of the MH17
crash he wanted to put one thousand Australian troops onto the crash
site in Eastern Ukraine. Such a deployment would have presented
unacceptable risks to Australian personnel as well as unprecedented
logistical problems for the Australian Defence Force. Why on earth would
we put so many of our people between such bitter enemies? Luckily,
cooler heads prevailed.
So Fullilove thinks the "shirt front" episode was just a bit of trivia:  I would have thought it a sign of stupid imprudence in language, which tends to be important in foreign affairs.

I really don't get how Fullilove then gets to the conclusion that Abbott has been impressive in foreign affairs:   especially since I think this week lots of people are probably starting to question what an odd look it is to be willing to spend hundreds of millions on a military deployment to Iraq that appears to be doing very little*, while at the same time looking scared and shy of getting meaningful assistance to the Ebola affected nations up and running.**

I will grudgingly agree that Bishop has performed better than I expected in her role.  It seems odd, doesn't it, the way some people turn out to be reasonable as foreign ministers - I always thought that Downer was a surprise success as well.  I think it probably just takes lawyers who are good in face to face "people skills", and perhaps being too intellectual (hello, Bob Carr) works against a foreign minister.

Anyway, I am rathered surprised at Fullilove's article, and have to view him with suspicion from now on!

* since I wrote this, it was announced that the RAAF had a couple of terrorist "kills", but we don't know any details.

**  And when, by the way, are any journalists going to start questioning the wisdom of sending over ground advisers who have nothing to do for weeks until the lawyers get the status of forces issue sorted out with the Iraqi government?)  

Fusion in 10 years? I don't think so....

People who don't want action to reduce CO2 like to promote any report that all of our clean energy problems are about to be solved by new forms of nuclear power.   "No need to worry, folks, the climate change [stage whisper:  which isn't real anyway] solution is just around the corner and you don't have to do anything now."

So we see the headline in The Australian today "Nuclear Fusion on the way" above an article by the ever unreliable Graham Lloyd, with the first line "THE “true atomic age” of limitless electricity without any radioactive waste or carbon dioxide emissions could be a reality within a decade."  As is usual with The Australian, Lloyd's writing contains some reservations further in, but the headline never gives that indication.  

Sounds good, hey?   But have a read of the somewhat more realistic take in Wired, a magazine not exactly known for its technological pessimism:
McGuire designed a magnetic container that shifts the strength of its magnetic field to match those plasma ripples. “If we have a perturbation or a ripple that sends it closer to the wall, the magnetic field gets stronger and stronger, so it has the right kind of feedback to keep it stable,” McGuire says.
The problem with that reactor? It doesn’t exist yet. “Some key parts of the prototype are theoretical and not yet proven,” says Nathan Gilliland, CEO of Canadian fusion company General Fusion.
And there are more skeptical takes on the matter from scientists in the field in this report in Business Insider.

As for the other new energy source, the mysterious E-cat, ridiculous anti climate science website NoTricksZone was keen to promote the paper that claimed it had been "independently verified".   But for some detailed response to how inadequate that paper is, have a look here and here and here and here:

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Re-watching Fiddler

Last weekend, having an idle Saturday afternoon to kill, I noticed that ABC was showing Fiddler on the Roof.  I'm pretty sure it was the first time I had watched it since I had seen it in the cinema in 1971.

I remember my parents were a bit underwhelmed by it, as was I at the time.  I think the basic problem was that, after The Sound of Music, there was a particularly high expectation that big musicals should end happily, and ones that didn't felt a tad unsatisfactory.   And it certainly seems, looking back on it, that with the end of Rodgers & Hammerstein, the not-quite-so-uplifting musicals seemed to be quite in vogue in the 60's:  Camelot, Sweet Charity, that little seen Julie Andrews movie Star!, Paint Your Wagon (which I haven't seen, but my mother said it featured lots of mud); and even Oliver and Mary Poppins have a somewhat melancholy feel about their happy endings, if you ask me. 

Re-watching Fiddler, though, I did enjoy its music more than I remembered, and was reminded of its strong thematic relevance to the 1960's. The same challenges that Tevye, the father, faced in terms of his daughters not following his authority and that of "tradition" were certainly the same ones you could see sweeping the West, particularly (I think) in Catholic households.   Yet the Broadway musical was from 1964, pretty much at the dawn of the sexual revolution and all the angst about contraception, and de facto relationships, etc.   It seems in retrospect to be a pretty prescient work.      

There's a very interesting recent article about the show up at the Guardian, written because it is its  50th anniversary.  (Perhaps that why it showed up on TV too?)    I see that the movie version was a big commercial success, although I wonder whether it was to the same extent here,  since at that time I don't know that Australians had had all that much cultural exposure to Jewish humour and characters.

I do still think the story makes one regrettable choice which doesn't work as well as it should.   Why couldn't Tevye's final scene with his 3rd daughter, the one who rejected tradition in the most direct way by marrying a Christian, have been more emotional?   He is packing his cart, about to leave the village forever, and cannot bring himself to look directly at his daughter and her husband who have come to say goodbye.  Tevye finally mutters softly, "And God be with you", which is relayed on by his other daughter, who is upset at her father's behaviour.  

And that's it.  Now, Tevye's attitude may be realistic, but if he is going to be shown to still care for his daughter, wouldn't it work better if he could soften just a bit more and look at, or embrace, the child who he may never see again?  I think it sort of also sours a little the final appearance of the Fiddler metaphor, where Tevye invites "tradition" along with him as he heads his way to America.

Still, a very worthy movie musical.

The "race to the bottom" question

I see that the headline is: Ireland moves to close corporate tax loophole" Well, about time, I think most people would say.

But I did note on his twitter feed a couple of days ago that Jason Soon thought that Bono defending Ireland's low tax regime was "sensible".

I would have been more sarcastic myself:  "Super rich tax minimiser thinks countries that charge less tax are great."  I generally would go along the line in this article.

Bono argues that lower tax is the only thing that Ireland has got going for it on which to build prosperity.     Yet aren't there plenty of other small countries that are doing OK in fairly niche fields?   Some of Scandinavian ones, with their corporate tax rates that range from about from 20 to 27%.  Even New Zealand, which (as far as I can tell - correct me, anyone) is riding high on the cow's back, of all things, to be doing OK, and with a corporate tax rate of 28% (versus Ireland's "standard" rate - before the offshore business - of 12.5%.)     International corporate tax rates all appear at this site.

They make for some interesting reading, and (as one would expect) national economic health is not always  co-related to the corporate tax rate.   Obviously, infrastructure and security issues matter.  The oddest example is at the extreme, where it would seem Vanuatu looks particularly attractive to companies at 0%, but then again, the note contains this summary:
Corporate income tax is not levied within the Republic of Vanuatu. Furthermore, there are no income taxes, estate duties, gift duties, capital gains taxes, tax treaties or withholding taxes.
I'm not at all sure what this means for how the country runs...

The main question I have to lovers of competitive tax regimes (who, largely, by not so odd co-incidence, also want governments to be as small as possible) is this:    how do you avoid the "race to the bottom" - that if all governments undercut each other, they must at some point develop the problem of not raising enough revenue to do the things reasonable people expect governments to do.

And don't just give me some rubbish that is along the lines of "well, government can just never get small enough, and people have to adjust to that."  Only a tiny minority of science fiction loving libertarians go along with the extreme views of how small government should be - the rest of the world is happy with the role of government in welfare developed over the 20th century, in a broad sense.

We know that governments can suffer from cuts that are too severe - look at Kansas, which seems to have Laffer-ed itself into some serious fiscal trouble.   (By the way, I know that the Right's answer to that is "just you wait and see.  They'll work....eventually."   Unfortunately, Stephen Moore, when defending himself on these grounds against Krugman seems to have made some embarrassing mistakes in his figures which had to be publicly corrected.)

And of course there has been much commentary that the Bush tax cuts just didn't work, and have cost "trillions" in revenue.

So tell, me, international tax competition advocates:  how does your theory avoid a race to the bottom that is going to harm countries?  

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Sensible and Rotten

Johnny Rotten and I agree: neither of us wants Russell Brand’s ‘revolution’ | Polly Toynbee | Comment is free | The Guardian

I really don't care for Johnny Rotten's perpetually angry/aggro act (or genuine demeanour?), but he comes across as rather sensible and astute on politics in this interview. 

It's also remarkable to note how few young people vote in England.   Compulsory voting has a lot going for it.

Fear and loathing of divestment

I'm rather confused about the Right wing fury over the ANU divestment campaign.   I'm not sure Judith Sloan is sleeping at nights:  she seems to be too busy practising attempts at satire, perhaps because her "logic" is not gaining ground?

Back in February, Sinclair Davidson posted about how the South Africa divestment campaign was not actually a financial success.  (And he got very cross that anyone should argue that being anti fossil fuel mining is in any way a worthy cause - or at least worthy in the sense that being anti-apartheid was.) 

So if that's right, why is the divestment campaign against all that lovely, lovely coal being burnt such an outrage?   Are they worried for the universities losing money, or for the mining companies?

For the university, the ANU shares are apparently only 2% of its investment portfolio.  How much trouble can that cause?

For the mining companies, the hope is that divestment campaigns causes public pressure for them to move away from fossil fuel mining, but how bad does reputational damage have to be before it really does hurt them when there is a market paying good money for their product?

Given the fury on the Right, the suggestion is that this is a sign the campaign can have serious effects.  The best look at the issue seems to me to be this one by Frank Jotzo, who obviously thinks they can ultimately "work", but also notes the points I made above - the current reaction from the Right is rather over the top, and (in reality) probably works to give encouragement to those pushing divestment as worthwhile.

A good case can perhaps be made, then, that the Right wing hand wringing about it is actually counterproductive to their "interests".   Hee hee indeed, hey Judith?

Update:  Sinclair Davidson has missing out on the hyperbole, so he adds to it in a column on the Drum:
Australian universities simply do not have the social licence to trash the domestic economy or place the livelihoods of thousands of Australians at risk on a whim.
 Yes, it's economic apocalypse because a university made an investment decision he doesn't agree with.

And by the way:  the Drum article just contains the usual by-line that he's a Professor of Economics at RMIT.  Isn't it especially relevant to this topic that it also disclose this:
A paper to be released on Monday by the Minerals Council of Australia says the campaign "may contravene the letter or me spirit" of the Corporations Act, and calls on the corporate watchdog to assess tile potential breach.
The council commissioned Sinclair Davidson, a professor of institutional economics at Melbourne's RMIT University, to write die paper, in its most aggressive push-back to the anti-coal collective's urging investors to sell shares in coal companies.
'To the extent that stigmatisation deliberately causes investors to make valuation errors and consequently rebalance their portfolios away from fossil fuel stocks, a violation of the Corporations Act has occurred," Professor Davidson writes.
Has anyone other than an economist associated with the IPA ever found that Corporation Act argument convincing?   How did that other IPA big legal claim go - that tobacco companies could get $3 billion a year in compensation from the government for plain packaging laws?   Oh, that's right:  a complete bust.   (Well, subject to the outcome of a rubbish Hong Kong arbitration.)    Come to think of it, perhaps the Australian government should be sending Davidson over to the arbitration to give evidence - he's the one who thinks plain packaging hasn't had any effect on smoking rates, after all.  As with divestment, the Right can't seem to keep its argument straight.