Thursday, March 29, 2007

Mickey Mouse on Climate Change

The Australian government’s recent responses to climate change have been bizarre. But not out of token for a government that’s paying lip service to the issue, for a public that it believes is also paying only lip service.

The tragedy is that this posturing may fool a good number of people.

The new Environment Minister is Malcolm “Climate Change. Live with it.” Turnbull, who happens to be the richest federal MP in the richest electorate, with attitudes to match.

His first initiative: phase out old style (energy inefficient) light bulbs in two years’ time.

His second initiative: claim that Australia is leading the world on climate change. Because of the above.

His third initiative: pledge $200m to reduce deforestation in Brazil and Indonesia.

This is by way of rebuff to Nicholas Stern, who is in Australia pressing the need for real action. Bad luck, mate, you’re talking to the wrong government.

(The Herald recently gave a good rundown on the history of this government’s response to climate change. The bottom line was that John Howard had been fully in thrall to the line fed to him by a set of Australian business leaders, in particular, Hugh Morgan of WMC.)

First: Australia has been indulging in land clearing for some time. The government’s response is thoroughly hypocritical: we want others to stop, but we won’t.

Second: Tossing money at Brazil and Indonesia won’t do a thing. Open slather deforestation is fuelled, quite simply, by corruption in both countries. They already have a money pit, and they’re happy to take more. In Indonesia in particular, deforestation in intrinsically linked to military interests, and the military is tantamount to the most powerful institution in the country. Laws already exist, but the military has always acted with impugnity.

Howard is running the same old story that ameliorating climate change is bad for Australia’s economy.

Fortunately, that sort of reckless short-termism has a counter. We currently have an Opposition Leader, in Kevin Rudd, that makes Howard look like the mickey mouse politician that he is.

I doubt Rudd will deliver all the solutions. But on current record, he’s brought the government to book on its trickery. Hopefully, his clear-thinking and enunciation will filter through to the electorate.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Dregs of the NSW State election

It's not been particularly edifying trying to draw conclusions from the results of the NSW election. It was a tawdry affair by anyone’s book, and all the spinning doesn’t hide anything.

Try this:

a) Everyone's suddenly saying the government was hopeless; it deserved to die. However, when Bob Carr suddenly stepped down as Premier 18 months ago, there was no chorus of “thank goodness he's gone, he was a blight on the State”. There was surprisingly little dissent on his ten years as premier. Was he a spinmaster? Did he leave a rotting legacy that was bound to surface shortly? Were there a bunch of crises in the past 18 months? Or is everyone finding it so easy to criticise Morris Iemma because he's so colourless?
Possibly a combination of all the above.

b) Mixed signals on whether the Greens were winners. True, they increased their upper house seats to four, and primary vote was strong – 20%, by some reckoning. But there was surprisingly little increase in their vote, given the high prominence afforded to environmental issues (read: climate change) over the past year. However, a recent poll may answer this one: effectively, everyone's concerned, but nobody wants to do anything.

c) What does it mean for November's Federal election? Certainly the Howard government's industrial relations legislation was abhorred enough that it was a factor in the State election, despite it being specifically a federal issue. I doubt Howard will resign or get forced out of office by his own party – they're too wimpy. Yet Howard will do several things between now and the election to appease all those up in arms. Preferably a little something for everyone, as he has done before. Expect:
- Howard to force the US to free David Hicks at the last possible moment (if he isn’t already out of Guantanamo by then);
- a minor rollback of some of the worst excesses of the industrial relations legislation;
- and the only tricks the Liberals have left: attack the Opposition leader mercilessly; and throw around a whole bunch of bribes. Hey, it worked before.

One ominous development that will increase the ugliness of the Federal election: attack ads. They’ve been here before, but apparently they’ve turned several shades more vicious. As the saying goes, nobody likes them, but they work.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Climate Change: Leadership

Governments that are climate change laggards (specifically, Australia’s and USA’s) are having an impact far wider than their domestic sphere. They are influencing other governments – such as that carbon emission time bomb, China - into complacency, or at the very least giving them excuses to defer action.

Still, there are some recent examples of leadership to be celebrated:
- The European Union is committing itself to a 20% cut in carbon emissions by 2020;
- The United Kingdom has drafted legislation for a binding commitment to a whopping 60% cut by 2050.

The Europe-wide plan is wider-reaching, but the UK plan is pure leadership – nothing more nor less.

Although they have actually acknowledged this will be quite difficult, it is radical – far more than the Kyoto target of 5%. Arguably, it’s revolutionary.

It is also a minefield.

At least three schools of thought will emerge on this. The first is that, given today’s technology, such a move can only be seen as crippling on the economy. The second is that it will foster the acceleration of new technology in energy generation and conservation. The third is that it is not enough.

There’s clear truth in all those reactions.

It is risky to impose such regulation on a national economy – especially risky to lead the world. It trumps the EU’s commitment: for 2020, the interim requirement is a 26% to 32% reduction by 2020. That is, depending on how reduction ramps up over time.

The problem with such leadership is that it will, in the short term, significantly increase all production costs in the UK, effectively dragging down their economic performance compared to the rest of the world. In turn, that can result in an explosion in imports that will be cheaper than domestic goods, while domestic production crashes. Theoretically, that can render the initiative academic, as domestic economic activity is replaced by unhampered foreign activity.

That is the challenge. It is risky. But at the same time, it can lead to: massive improvements in energy conservation; significant shift to cleaner energy sources; and significant investment in clean technology. From there, they can export to the world.

The initiative could beg the question: why bother? That’s what happened when the BBC did a straw poll in London on March 13th. There was a clear feeling of indifference on the street, with other issues seen as more pressing, and even lingering uncertainty over the veracity of global warming.

Yes, climate has changed before. In fact, there have been at least five mass extinction events in the lifetime of this planet, the last – and largest - of which wiped out non-avian dinosaurs. But this time it’s anthropogenic, rapid, and comes at great human cost. As the Stern Report said, it will be far cheaper to avoid global warming than to live with it. Who wants a severe reduction in biodiversity, an unmanageable increase in refugees, and a drastically impacted lifestyle, not to mention a thoroughly more hostile environment?

Furthermore, that last mass extinction event left only small creatures (some of which evolved into the mammals of today).

Not to say that this event would necessarily match that. But those survivors were much smaller than us.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Australia: the first Europeans were Portuguese

Peter Trickett, from Canberra, has offered new insight into the European discovery of Australia. Cristóvão de Mendonça, of Portugal first mapped the eastern coast in 1522, well before either the wreck of the dutch ship Batavia and Cook’s expeditions.

The theory is not new, but Trickett has added new weight*, by slicing a reproduced map from the Vallard Atlas to produce a close approximation of the eastern coastline. It seems the Dieppe cartographers (in France) put together two parts of Mendonça’s maps incorrectly – at right angles to the correct placement - hiding for a long time its similarity to the Australian coastline.

an example from the Vallard Atlas

Mendonça lost one of his ships on the expedition. Correspondingly, there’s tales of a shipwreck in Warnamboo, Victoria – the Mahogany Ship – in the 19th century. It was sighted several times, and the description matched that of Mendonça’s lost ship. However, government expeditions in the 1890s finally failed to find the wreck.

There are two keys that make sense of all this.

First, Portugal had an agreement with Spain on the division of the explorable world, and Mendonça at the time was in Spain’s territory – so the discovery was kept secret. Then, about 1718, a distaster struck Lisbon – earthquake, tsunami, and fire – and all original records were destroyed. Fortunately the Dieppe cartographers had managed to make a copy – but without any useful context left.

Second, why wasn’t the Mahogany Ship found? Taken for firewood or hidden again by dunes? Mark Maddison has a more interesting explanation: again, political.

“Possibly a bit of skullduggery coverup, as the Brits would not have liked the idea of another colonial power having any claim to any part of this continent.”

It's possible the government expeditions were tasked with hiding the evidence. It's really guesswork. If it were 1800, they might want to hide it, but rationally you'd expect that by 1890 the motivations would be much more archeological than historical. Still, you never can tell how uncivilised a particular government of the day was.

*Beyond Capricorn by Peter Trickett, East Street Publications, $35

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Venality and Victims

The events unfolded thus:

- The opposition leader Kevin Rudd was soaring high in the polls ahead of an election
- Howard’s government tried to bucket him by harping on his meetings a couple of years ago that were sullied by the presence of Brian Burke, a notoriously corrupt ex-politician
- As part of the pressure on Rudd, Howard then secured the resignation of one of his ministers, Ian Campbell, on the strength of his meetings with Burke a few years ago
- New polls came out, showing opposition leader Kevin Rudd still soaring high
- Another Howard minister, Santo Santoro, was found to have undeclared shares that were directly related to his portfolio. He wasn’t asked to resign.

Howard’s government, like many, started out with a pledge on ministerial conduct, and a few heads rolled early on. But none have rolled for more than five years now, until Campbell.

Letters to editors, blogs, internal party polling and focus groups uncovered the obvious. The mud wasn’t sticking because after all this time, it was seen for what it was: muckraking by someone who wasn’t untainted.

One comment on a very good web site, the Oz Politics Blog, was: “there may be an underlying principle that voters will return governments they don’t like when they don’t trust the opposition… When the opposition becomes credible, or at least fresh and untainted, the rip-tide/backlash can be catastrophic”

Thus Howard’s attacks on the basis of ethics have little effect. Maybe he’ll turn to policy.

The only victim, apart from the electorate’s faith in political integrity, was Ian Campbell, and they’re back to square one.

Keep an eye on the Oz Politics Blog. The comments, partisanship aside, yield good insights.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

What TV will be

We should seriously expect to see a merger between tv and internet.

You will have simply an internet-enabled television and a remote control. Rather than selecting a channel, you will access a web page that will act as a channel. These pages will link to either content or other pages. Content will be television quality (High Definition, by then).

There will also be new paradigms to redefine the televisual experience These will provide a blend of the passivity of tv-watching with the flexibility of web browsing. This might be, for example, some sort of hybrid of the three paradigms of tv channels, web pages and DVD selection menus. You might also find methods of choice that involve: programming ahead, linking (shorter) content, and generating targeted random programming based on selected criteria.

There’s a lot of reasons we’re not there yet, but just as many reasons that we will eventually get to that point.

The overriding driver is that people – as a broad mass – want that combination of passive spectatorship but greater choice, and greater access to content.

We’re seeing a few baby steps towards this.

Microsoft, for example, has tried it with its Windows Media Center (sic), but it’s going to remain a halfbaked toy while hardware, web sites, and viewing patterns remain unchanged.

In fact, many people are already presenting internet tv as a fait accompli, but they mostly tend to be varieties of watching tv on the internet, whereas the endgame will be watching the internet on tv.

Of course, the clearest barrier to this is that broadcast is broadcast, whereas datacasting is directed to a single receiver. The bandwidth demands would be absolutely crippling with current technology.

Babelgum is a product that has tried to solve this. It’s a variety of P2PTV – peer-to-peer tv, where each user, while downloading, also uploads to other users. This is still unsatisfactory, as the bandwidth demands remain mighty. The solution may or may not be down this path.

The net has flexibility, and some rudimentary televisual content (few people watch tv-length video streamed from the web). Television has full-length content and broadcast reach, but rudimentary flexibility. It is only a matter of time before the technology is solved. Watch for the blur in the space between the tv and the computer.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Oracle swallows Hyperion

In a poetic mood, perhaps, Oracle Corporation is taking over Hyperion Solutions.

But it's a hard fit to make sense of it in the context of Greek mythology. The Delphic Oracle was a divine presence; Hyperion was a god, father of Helios the sun, and the twain never met.

Oracle is best known as a database company, maker of the eponymous Database Management System. However, it has been on the warpath in recent years, expanding its reach into all areas of database and business software.

Hyperion is a software company, focused on Business Performance Management and Business Intelligence products.

A few short years agon, Hyperion took over the Business Intelligence company Brio Software.

Brio once had a nifty little desktop client (back in version 6) called Explorer. It was particularly good for two reasons.

First, it could actually operate standalone. It didn’t need server-side software to dish up databases or functionality. It could provide querying, analysis and reporting on anything you could configure via ODBC (or import). This could be a database (such as Oracle), but it could also work on an excel file – or even a text file.

Second, you could create a .bqy file that could operate as a standalone application with data behind it. Once the file was refreshed during the day, the sales manager could take it home over the weekend, and query and analyse that data, if necessary via a high-level user interface that duplicated the functionality seen in web browsers (eg listboxes, dropdown menus).

I don’t know if the new version of Brio (now called Hyperion Intelligence) has that functionality. But I know Oracle bought Hyperion for its Business Performance Management capabilities, not Business Intelligent. Oracle already has its BI tools – such as they are – and may not be interested in the Brio tools it acquired in the process of swallowing Hyperion.

And right now, I’m longing for some decent standalone software that I can use as a database query, analysis and reporting tool. And I’m remembering HP who swallowed Compaq who swallowed Digital, who had a few nifty products at the time.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Firefly sparkles

Firefly is a hidden gem. A tv series that was either unceremoniously cancelled (US) or run in a nighttime oblivion (Australia).

Why? A bit hard for tv execs to categorise, maybe. Being a peculiar blend of science fiction and western.

It may be a bit low-budget for a typical sci fi series, but for my money it worked particularly well – despite its potential for being treated as Yet Another Space Opera. But the writing and the acting were at best outstanding, and at worst, quite watchable. In fact, I can’t think of another SF programme I’d prefer to watch. It had the advantage of Josh Whedon on the helm, who was undoubtedly responsible for much of the cleverness. His previous projects had included Buffy (a peculiar blend of vampire and high school genres) and Angel (a peculiar blend of vampire and detective).

Whedon’s hand resulted in a series with the level of engagement of a serial, but with each episode self-sufficient. The milieu is, as a whole, quite engrossing, the flourishes are impressive - even little ones, like the accurate silence of the ship travelling through space- and the captain’s role is especially well-acted (by Nathan Fillion – watch out for him) and well-written.

Looking at the chat on the web, I found the feedback was about 80 – 90% gushing, and about 10% fully disparaging. Frequent complaints were the exact opposite of the praise – around the acting and writing. Looking more carefully, there are some people who are largely space-fillers, and the occasional treadmill dialogue. But the plotting overall is high quality, and the dialogue - and delivery - is often sheer poetry.

I’m not looking forward to finishing it. A mark of its success is the subsequent film Serenity – which I saw first, yet it’s the (likely) conclusion to the series. On the one hand it stood alone quite strongly; on the other hand it’s an excellent finale.

Thoroughly recommended.