Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Index - to be filled later

(this is a space-filler that will eventually index posts)

Monday, December 29, 2008

Australian Leadership - a year without Howard (#4 of 2008)

Alan Ramsey, the Herald's writer on national politics (who has just retired), celebrated the anniversary of Australia's federal election as, more than anything else, a year without John Howard as Prime Minister.

That is indeed cause for celebration. Ramsey has been particularly vehement in his dislike for Howard "the Toad", as someone who was dishonest and mean-spirited. After a period of silence so short as to be uncharacteristic for departing Prime Ministers in recent times, John Howard came out swinging, embarked on a revisionist crusade to entrench his place in Australian history. As we recently saw, there was ample evidence that he was aiming to overtake Robert Menzies' record as the longest-serving Prime Minister. He had to be dragged kicking and screaming from his seat - booted out of parliament altogether, in a "Brucifixion" (after Stanley Bruce, the only other serving Prime Minister to lose his seat). Fortunately, there remains little evidence that history will serve Howard kindly. Few indeed are the ex-colleagues rallying to his defence.

The change in government is more than that, however. Climate change apart, the positive policy and legislative changes of the encumbents is absolutely refreshing. The latest announcement from Julia Gillard (as education minister) involved large-scale extra funding for indigenous education, which in the course of her duties she had direct evidence of its appalling state.

Education, health, infrastructure: all the right investments for Australia's future are being initiated, after a lengthy drought under Howard. Even Rudd's 'conservative' nature doesn't trump the positive. Now, if his own cabinet could roll him on climate change...

Environmental crisis (#3 of 2008)

The eye was off the ball this year, distracted by the global financial crisis.

In the last two decades, habitat destruction has been recognised as the biggest threat to biodiversity - but recognition has not sufficiently translated into action. That very narrative was compounded and magnified by the complete wrenching of the global ecosystem, simply because we vote for leaders who are too lacking vision to grapple with the large-scale industrial revolution needed to counter global warming.

The European Union has been - by and large - a bastion of sensible policy. However, their approach remains far too evolutionary and not revolutionary enough. China and India are slow to respond, but are not helped by lack of leadership from the industrialised nations. In America, we have to wait for George W Bush's pathetic body to be shovelled bit by bit out of the Whitehouse - and then have to wait for Obama's plan to translate vision into action.

Which, as it happens, is where Australia has tripped up in a big way. While espousing mantras on the absolute imperative of combatting global warming, Kevin Rudd's leadership has been characterised by lengthy inaction and delaying investigation - trumped by the release of a policy raft that demeans all Australians in the smallness of its vision - so much so that it has been said to actively encourage dirty carbon emitters to ramp up their destructive practices for some time to come - whereupon they will be handsomely rewarded with government handouts, and have plenty of room to make token improvements.

Kevin Rudd was characterised by a Canberra insider as being especially indecisive. His deputy - and frequent acting Prime Minister - Julia Gillard was in turn described as being particularly intelligent and action-focused. I have heard her performance in parliament several times, and her ability is clear and strong. Waiting for the great leap forwards.

Financial crisis (#2 of 2008)

The second-biggest event of 2008 may not have much long-term impact.

It's salient to note that the most severe global financial crisis ever has not brought about significant innovation in ideas or in actions. It's likely that the effects will not last as long as the Great Depression, for a couple of reasons - both related to lessons learnt from the 1929 crash.

First, international response has centred around large-scale Keynesian increases in public spending, to counter the widespread retreat of private capital. Second, the Depression was prolonged by trade protectionist policies, which isolationism is not being practiced today to any great degree.

But the world's leaders and policy-influencers are too busy reacting to the crisis to re-think their approach to financial systems. Certainly, there is a long-overdue recognition of the need to return to diligent regulation and monitoring of financial markets. It's quite plausible that financial regulation will become tougher than ever - which will make capitalists squeal, as not only is regulation anathema to "free" markets, but it also imposes transaction costs. Yet at the very minimum, regulation should force a far greater transparency to the financial instruments that are traded - which is one of the roots of the crisis: that is, trade in little-understood financial instruments into which were wrapped toxic unsustainable "low-doc" housing loans.

"If you don't fully understand an instrument, don't buy it" - Emilio Botin, chairman of Santander, Spain's largest lender.

But that is typically abrogated by the philosophy that

"If you look for high profits, you have to face higher risk".

Botin clearly didn't follow his own advice. The trouble is, if "everyone is doing it", the risk doesn't seem so great - it's spread around. That's one of the reasons Bernard Madoff got away with the largest financial fraud in history (just the same old pyramid - or Ponzi - scheme where dividends were paid from capital, not from investments, and more and more people were sucked in). Nobody understood how his instruments could make money, but the return was good and Madoff was "reputable". Financial regulation has to go far enough so as to prove or disprove any such scheme before the size gets into the tens of millions, let alone billions.

In the end, risks that were spread around were so great that they spread globally.

Last but most importantly, a very large opportunity has been missed - so far - by governments around the world. In attempting to revive capital formations with large injections of government money, it is the ideal time to foster - force - change in investment patterns to greatly favour lower carbon emissions. Instead, the financial crisis looks to be derailing the cause of remission of global warming in the crucial years in which the environmental crisis is now fully admitted.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Some thoughts on Obama (#1 of 2008)

Two events of 2008 far outweigh in significance all others. I see Obama's election as having a greater long-term effect, particularly as he presents such a stark contrast against Bush's tenure in every possible way.

Obama's victory brings a lot of promises, and no guarantees. Even so, nothing short of revolution could change the landscape of American politics the way Obama has. This makes him the next best.
"I think... our values and and spiritual life matter at least as much as our GDP".
Simply in the manner of political discourse, he has made American politics a less venal, more noble arena. Although this is more a change in spirit than substance (it brings about no structural change), his influence will clearly be felt over the next few election cycles. But more, his presence has encouraged people to be more active in political processes, whether as a volunteer or voter. Disenchantment with "politics" only serves vested minority interests; greater popular engagement means, at the very least, those in power are obliged to a greater accountability to the public. (All this is true regardless of political hue or political system.)

I have found it hard to fault the consistency of Obama's character and vision, as he espouses in The Audacity Of Hope. (The most I can find so far is minor quibbles with use of language*, but there is context to this.) One could say that his efforts to unify views of polar opposition are doomed, but on the other hand he hangs his hat on the 'liberal' end of American politics.
"I am angry about policies that consistently favor the wealthy and powerful over average Americans, and insist that government has an important role in opening up opportunity to all. I believe in evolution, scientific inquiry, and global warming..."

I'm not overwhelmed by the stars. I think, for instance, that some of his appointments to date are going to prove fraught. Hilary Clinton is not the most diplomatic person one could appoint to the top diplomat position. And she will certainly not ease middle east tensions (nothing short of freedom for the occupied territories and removal of all Israeli settlements would achieve this - and that will not happen under her watch). Obama's appointments for science and for climate change are brave, but they are knowledgeable as scientists, not for their ability to navigate the treacherous political waters. The positions need a reasonable amount of scientific understanding, but a particularly strong political nous - not the other way around.

Still, I'm getting some very good signals from Audacity of Hope. It shows great clarity of vision, and it is one of the most pleasant reads I've had in a long time.

* For example: "...and then, with the walls of the status quo breached, every form of 'outsider' came streaming through the gates: feminists, Latinos, hippies, Panthers, welfare moms, gays, all asserting their rights, all insisting on recognition, all demanding a seat at the table and a piece of the pie." Some very legitimate claims are lumped in with some relatively spurious ones; on the other hand, he could be said to be making a characterisation of perception.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Australian's weak carbon emission targets

A smart, visionary government, with a lot of hard work, could come up with a major industrial restructure package that could go a large way towards addressing climate change. For major emitters, a carrot-and-stick approach could include:
a) large financial incentives to move towards carbon-neutral technology;
b) large taxes - yes, taxes - on a sliding scale based on carbon emissions, which would pay for the above.
In general, those initiatives could be supplemented by:
c) major incentives for meaningful research and investment in clean technologies, particularly relating to energy generation and efficiency, coupled with equivalent large disincentives to research and investment in high-carbon-emission activities;
d) a clearly-flagged, steady increase in carbon emission taxes.

It's hard to get it right, and disruption (read: change) is always politically painful. But it is an ideal time. the government is consistently very high in the polls, and can afford to spend some of that political capital - ie it can afford to lose some favour. And economic downturns are accompanied by significant capital and industrial restructure, as companies are forced to adapt, change, or go under. If managed well, the government could direct that restructure process.

But Kevin Rudd is not a great visionary - only a minor one - and he is more managing the affairs of government than propelling Australia forward. He doesn't want to squander his political capital, and he doesn't want to given the blame - fairly or not - for any of that inevitable pain of industrial restructure. Today's announcement on carbon targets maps out a paltry 5% carbon reduction by 2020, with an option of progressing to 15%. And it positively panders to the vested interests that have held Australia back. Although there are elements of my suggestions above, the overall package is designed to follow a path of least resistance rather than lead. Pathetic. It's a tragedy that the announcement has no relationship to the government's frequent declarations of the absolute urgency of the issue.

It has to be said that this issue has never brought out the best in Australian governments, and that could have something to do with our great reliance on the dirtiest of energy generation - coal, in particular, alongside other high-carbon sources such as oil and gas. As Environment Minister in the Keating government, the left-wing John Faulkner was effectively reined in by the large coal producers and consumers. For successive Howard governments, of course, it wasn't even an issue.

But history does not excuse a lack of vision and political will. Those with vision break from the past.

I retain some optimism, however, in looking to Obama for that vision and will. His tasks are Herculean, but he has displayed some of the leadership the world needs right now.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Debussy's romanticism

My first introduction to Debussy's Suite Bergemasque was a Naxos recording by Francois-Joel Thiollier. I was taken in particular by the Prelude, and it was only a lot later that I paid attention to Clair de lune.

Debussy is a particular favourite of mine (albeit it's hard to go past Ravel), and on recommendations, I got my wife a fairly comprehensive collection of his piano pieces by the highly reputed Walter Geiseking.

I thought maybe I was too influenced by the first version I came to know well: Thiollier's. But my wife also preferred the pretender version: she said its syncopation was more in tune with Debussy's romanticism, while Geiseking carried specifically on the basis of his reputation and his technical competence.

Still, while the knowledged world may be listening to Geiseking's Claire de lune, I prefer Thiollier - yet even better, my wife playing on the piano in front of me.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Cancion Mixteca - beauty in Mexican music

For the past week, a song has been invading my thoughts, as sometimes happens. It's Cancion Mixteca, written about eighty years ago in Mexico City by José López Alavéz, a homesick native of Oaxaca State (a place I have visited, although I didn't know the connection at the time).

Que lejos estoy del suelo donde he nacido!
inmensa nostalgia invade mi pensamiento;
y al ver me tan solo y triste qual hoja al viento,
quisiera llorar, quisiera morir de sentimiento.

Oh tierra del sol!, suspiro por verte
ahora que lejos yo vivo sin luz, sin amor;
y al verme tan solo y triste cual hoja al viento,
quisiera llorar, quisiera morir de sentimiento.

It's a real weepy, and a decent singer can evoke the beautiful and the tragic at the same time. Even without knowing the words, it's still possible to appreciate both the sentiment and the beauty of the Spanish language.

Placido Domingo is a particularly decent singer - and a native speaker of Spanish. But I don't get a lot out of his rendition (a low quality video can be seen here). Strangely, for an opera singer, he doesn't seem to have put much emotion into it.

Linda Ronstadt does (seen here) - unsurpisingly, since her background is steeped in the Mexican tradition. Quite a creditable performance, although it has a bounce than rather belies the gravitas of the sentiment.

The best performance I've heard comes from Harry Dean Stanton, the well-known actor. Firstly, the arrangement is rather different from others - and it suits Stanton, who cuts out the high notes without loss. And he sounds so melancholy - as if his rehearsal consisted of conjuring up the most mournful of his memories.

The tune can be heard in the film Paris, Texas - but only as an instrumental by Ry Cooder. Stanton's singing can only be heard on the soundtrack to the film. One could say that Wim Wenders had his reasons for dropping the singing from what is ultimately a very moving film. But Stanton's version is so thoroughly moving that it would have enhanced the film if deftly slotted in.

Well, we live and learn. Meanwhile, we are fortunate to be able to get hold of Stanton's version.

How far I am from the land where I was born
intense nostalgia invades my thoughts

and when I see myself as alone and sad as a leaf to the wind
I want to cry, I want to die of grief.

Oh land of the sun! I sigh to see you now
how far I am now, I live without light, without love


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Future tech: the possibilities in mapping

In the course of a presentation on mapping technologies yesterday, quite a few interesting applications came up.

Mapping technologies freely available today include Google Earth, Google Maps, and Microsoft's Virtual Earth (available to the consumer as Live Search Maps service).

Live Search Maps is a cut-down equivalent to Google Maps - and of less value in Australia thus far. But beyond a simple map service, these technologies have more meaning behind the scenes - in what can be done with the underlying technologies. The mapping engines of Google Maps and Virtual Earth can be used in a variety of contexts, some rather distant from the core consumer services provided. For example, I was told of Virtual Earth being used to navigate ultra-high resolution images of human eyes. In effect, the technology has been transferred to a very useful medical application. By extention, the possibilities are endless.

Under the hood, the technologies simply constitute mechanisms to navigate through a physical landscape of any dimensions or locations. No reason this can't include (with the appropriate data sets) maps of the moon, Mars, the known universe, right on down to any physical form that has been represented in sufficient detail. To this can be added third-party data for a variety of purposes. This is already being done to plot specific sets of geographical points, but it can also include representations of weather information, 3D rendered objects, older photos or created/imagined photos. You could thus superimpose on the present a planned future (and so see a full context for this new wing for Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art), or even an imagined future. You could superimpose the past. It could be quite valuable for analysing history or archaeology. You could also look at a putative past, such as a different plan for the Sydney Opera House.

In a broader sense, this is a demonstration that technologies that have emerged over the past five to ten years are likely to have a much more profound impact on us than some of the comparatively trivial applications available today. If it is surprising that the free distribution (of much of these technologies) is viable in a business sense - and much of it has proven so - then it may also surprise us what we will be able to do with little effort and no cost in the future.

Monday, December 08, 2008

The lying ways of John Howard

The final episode of The Howard Years (shown on ABC on Monday night; available here) was a rather pleasant experience - if you don't mind running through a rogue's gallery of cabinet members from Howard's time as Prime Minister. It was a condensed riffle through the final times of one of the more dishonest PMs Australia has ever had, enabling us to savour the end of him again.

A politician, yes, and so he was adept at bending his words when it suited. But there are few who have been so willing to distort the truth in such words as to satisfy himself that he wasn't telling an outright lie... when he was, really.

He won the 2002 election by exploiting 'national security' and effectively lying about a boatload of refugees that were so heartless as to threaten to throw their own children overboard. So Howard characterised it.

He lied about his intention to commit Australian troops to Iraq. He had fully intended to send them off months before the announcement.

He lied privately and publicly about his agreeing to hand over the reins to Peter Costello.

These are not a comprehensive catalogue, nor perhaps his most egregious set of lies. But they were arguably the lies that defined his time in office.

One more significant detail was added to the litany by The Herald's Phillip Coorey here. Coorey outlines the tale of a monument to Robert Menzies, Prime Minister for 16 years. At the time, Howard's tenure was approaching the ten-year mark. The plaque was to note that Menzies was Australia's longest-serving Prime Minister since Federation. Howard was quite insistent on adding the words 'so far', and would not back down. Finally a compromise was reached, and the words 'to date' were added.

It is thoroughly significant that Menzies was one of John Howard's biggest heroes. He would never have had any intention of belittling Menzies - per se. But as witnesses recalled, this was an obvious signal that Howard - whose aim in life was only ever to be Prime Minister, and who clearly desired for his mark to be recorded on history - was fully determined to break Menzies' record. This puts some perspective on his thoroughly stubborn attempt to cling to power when all the signs were against him. So much so that he lost his own seat.

This would not stand up in a court - somewhat characteristic for this ex-lawyer. Yet to avoid being caught out directly is not always enough to win the case in court. History will not be as kind to him as he wishes.

Marketing; Microsoft; the whiff of the nearly-new

Microsoft is talking up the virtues of their forthcoming release of Windows. In the process, the esteem of Vista is downgraded. Pundits, too, seem to feel freer to hurl brickbats at Vista.

Two of the common complaints are that it's far too memory hungry, and that it asks too many (security-related) permissions of the user. I'm certainly chagrined at the frequency with which it asks my permission twice to perform a single action. Doubtless there are particular reasons for each of those asks, but from a usability perspective, it reflects noticeably poor design - and/or integration.

The broad trajectory of Windows releases reminded me of a similar phenomenon. The general narrative runs as follows. A band would release a new album and pipe up in interviews that it was their "best yet". Pundits, too, would laud it. Yet upon release of a subsequent album, the previous effort would be written off with various excuses for why it didn't pass muster - both the musicians and the reviewers would indulge in this revisionism.

Marketing explains all this. Software publishers, record companies, bands, have a particular keenness to talk up their latest product. Once it is superceded, they have little further need to push the old product.

Of course, some bands have a little more integrity than that. But it remains that they're aiming to make a living from their published output. What excuses for the pundits and reviewers? In part, they may be too hasty in forming their opinions. Yet if they're not at least in part swayed by the material sweeteners of the marketers, then they have simply sold their judgments short.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Creationists - dumb and dishonest

The 2005 Dover trial was a re-run of the Scopes monkey trial - except that the creationists had created a modern vernacular in the so-called "intelligent design".

The broad brush strokes are easy to recall. Reason (rationalism) was ultimately triumphant again, and the Pennsylvania township's creationists on the school board were unceremoniously dumped at the first opportunity.

But a documentary aired tonight (Judgment Day - Intelligent Design On Trial) was particularly adept at the nuances of the case, for which a bald reading doesn't do justice.

For one thing, it gave a clear depiction of the skill of the prosecutors of the case in opposing Intelligent Design's presence in the science curriculum.

It could also be said that the judge was to be commended for not being swayed by the creationists' attempts at obfustication: it's easy to imagine that in both this and the original Scopes trial, the hands of less rational judges would have directed more anti-science a verdict. However, it could equally be said that appeals would ultimately have carried the day in each case anyway.

Particularly funny was a joke that must have done the rounds of evolutionists the world over. The book that was foisted on the school, the ID tract Of Pandas And People, was a core aspect of the defendants' argument that it wasn't about religion. The prosecutors subpoenaed all draughts of the book, and painstakingly analysed them. Turns out the publishers, in their hurry to substitute intelligent design for creationism, slipped up in one cut-and-paste, and ended up publishing the phrase "cdesign proponentsists" - ie someone had attempted to paste in "design proponents" over the top of the word "creationists" (full details here). The joke was that they had found the missing link between creationism and intelligent design.

That wasn't the only creationist dishonesty exposed in the case. The other one (that I remember) came when defendants tried to disguise the funding of the creationist book purchases. When the creationist bagman was caught out in a lie in the trial (no, I did not know the source of the funding), he fumbled for a while before falling back on the excuse that he "mis-spoke". Personally, I believe that there would have been numerous other examples of dishonesty amongst creationists involved in that trial, but it begs the question of what they believe versus what they want to believe. The Discovery Institute must be a seething cauldron of cognitive dissonance.

I very much doubt any other OECD country experiences significant creationist pressure. Only in the USA; and even there it's as much an issue of right wing ideology as it is religion.

Fortunately Obama - a religious man - has been unequivocal in his support for rational science, and evolution in particular.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Minimap: A wonderful locator

Minimap is a thoroughly marvellous extension for Firefox.

Simply highlight an address, and drag it into the Minimap sidebar (or separate tab). It marks that address on a Google Map. Nothing more, but it is an incredibly simple way to find an address. No need for copy and paste; the address text doesn't even need to be in a Firefox window. Just drag and drop.

(Alternatively, you can scroll through a list of open tabs, and locate any or all addresses therein. Many more navigational features that I haven't fully probed yet.)

The resolution was fine enough to locate my own address in the right part of the street. But I've used it several times for places I did need to go, and it completely obviates the need for any navigation. Far simpler than a street directory; simpler than Google Maps itself.

Strongly recommended.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Journalistic bent 2: on the NSW child protection report

Like many government agencies around the world with a child protection brief, the New South Wales Department of Community Services is greatly understaffed and underfunded to achieve such aims. This is a tragedy for both individuals and the community. On the one hand, children are utterly precious: their innocence, joy and freedom is something we all aspire too, but mostly lose as we get older. Everyone deserves the opportunity to experience those qualities as long as possible. On the other hand, studies repeatedly show that investment in early intervention (education, income support, parental training, etc) is more than repaid for, in the subsequent adult-span cost savings on health, mental health, crime, and the like.

So to the Herald, front page of Tuesday, November 25:

'High-risk only' child protection (by Adele Horin)
"ONLY children deemed at "significant" risk of harm will need to be reported to the Department of Community Services' help line under a radical plan to reshape the state's overwhelmed child protection system. Others will be referred to a new service to receive assistance.

The higher threshold under the state's mandatory reporting laws - achieved by inserting the word "significant" to the law - is designed to potentially triage tens of thousands of calls to the department to enable it to focus on the minority of children in serious danger."

That story survives on the Herald website here, albeit with the toned-down headline 'Mandatory laws to be eased' (a sub-head on the front page). It was indexed via the 'National' section of that day's web pages.

A more conciliatory version of the same article is accessible (here) at, via the 'Breaking news' section of the day before:

Inquiry recommends changes to DoCS [bylined AAP]

Only children at risk of "significant harm" will be investigated by NSW child protection officers under reforms that will also see other at-risk kids outsourced to the private sector.

The special commission of inquiry into child protection on Monday finalised its year-long investigation, releasing findings that said the Department of Community Services (DoCS) was swamped by reports that don't warrant its time and effort.

Inquiry head, retired Justice James Wood, has called for changes to the mandatory reporting system so DoCS is only notified of cases where a child is at risk of "significant harm".

Horin's a longtime Herald reporter and columnist on social issues. Looks like she rewrote the original wire story for the front page of the following day. That later, more alarming version probably got read by more people than the online version. At my count, the later version appears on 14 websites, all of them owned by the Herald's owner, Fairfax. The original wire story appears on 7, three of which are Fairfax. It looks to be standard practice that re-written wire stories gain the byline of the re-writer.

I have not attempted to analyse other media's overall response to the event, the release of the report by the Special Commission of Inquiry into Child Protection Services in NSW. However, the head of the inquiry was Justice James Wood, who also headed the Royal Commission into the NSW Police. Without knowing his sociopolitical bent, he seems to have a reasonable reputation.

The Herald beefed up the story for the front page. Was it the right thing to do?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Poor journalism on executive pay

A minor quibble? Rather, an exemplary tale of how sloppy journalism can completely skew information, and thus understanding.

Edward Liddy is the new CEO of American International Group, an insurer that was just recently bailed out by the US government. A Herald report, a wire story from Associated Press, headlined the fact that Liddy was being remunerated just $1 per year for the next two years. (The only rider mentioned on this was "he may be eligible for a special bonus for 'extraordinary performance' payable in 2010".) All this accords with the general narrative run through the media that fat cat executives have been wallowing in luxury while the world is in turmoil and pain (a fair blow, if you read the spa story here, 'standard industry practice' with impeccably bad timing) - and that their deeds are only just catching up with them.

But. Don't expect executives to work for no pay, plus maybe performance-based extras. Altruism has its place, but it's not to be found working as chief executive for capitalists.

A little ferreting around uncovered a Bloomfield story explaining the situation. It reveals Liddy will also receive "an unspecified number of equity grants". That's where the actual money is hiding.

In fact, that AP wire story has been published elsewhere (examples here and here) with an additional sentence: "In addition to his $1 a year salary, Liddy will be getting an unspecified amount of stock." (The missing sentence can be found in other places, too, for example .)

It is clear that the Herald sub-edited out that sentence - for dramatic effect? To harmonise with the heading? The effect is, however, dissonant, as the end result - depending on how it is received by the reader - either conveys the wrong impression or just doesn't make sense.

One could say Not very bright. Unprofessional, even. But the impact is more than just a reflection of poor work. Such an omission of detail may leave people with a very different take on an issue. Ideological impact aside, such egregious misinformation can have as bad a nett effect as disinformation.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Firefly: The drop Inara Club

I'm not going to be melodramatic about this, but Firefly would be much better off with a different person playing the Inara character.

The commentary indicated that the original Inara actor was shot mostly in one-shot, because Joss Whedon had anticipated replacing her.

Well, he replaced her with the wrong actor. I would advocate - when the off-the-shelf software is commonplace - someone splice in another actor as Inara. We could have a competition for the best Inara performance. It would enhance the original.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The great spam drought

Just a brief, anecdotal observation about spam. McColo, a US 'web host', was shut down last week. Said to be a major originator of spam, there were wildly varying estimates of the subsequent drop in spam traffic, from 50% to 88% down.

I have an older email address and a newer one. The older one was compromised at least five years ago, and I barely use it now. Current status: three spams in the past week.

With the newer email address, I was more cautious about giving it out willy-nilly. I only used it for sites/contacts I felt I could trust, reverting to the old one for sites I couldn't trust so well, but which wanted an email address.

This worked well for some time. But eventually the newer address was compromised, despite my best caution. Dead curious to know how this came about, but I guess I'll never know.

Earlier this year, I started using Spamfighter, which builds and updates its own database of email to block (said to be based on "a community filter where the users help each other to report spam"), as opposed to the traditional Baynesian (or similar) algorithms used to attempt spam detection. This tool came at the right time, because this year the trickle of spams to my newer email address became a torrent. Most of that was useless Russian-language emails, with a smattering of Viagra-type hawkers. Curiously, the Nigerian-style scammers didn't appear here - but they had slowed down substantially at the old address anyway.

McColo was shut down Wednesday 12 November (Sydney time). The recent spam record is as follows (nearly all these were caught by Spamfighter):
November 3rd: 5
November 4: 5
November 5: 17
November 6: 5
November 7: 10
November 8: 9
November 9: 15
November 10: 16
November 11: 17
November 12: 9
November 13: 2
November 14: 2
November 15: 0!
November 16: 3
November 17: 3
November 18: 1
November 19: 1
November 20: 0

- that's 10 in the past 7 days, compared to 78 in the 6 days prior. Roughly a drop of 87%. The estimates of professionals vary depending on methodology, which may relate to honeypots and how old the population samples are - ie the server shut down may have been responsible for the more recent proliferations of spam.

Although it's sobering to note that that loose community known as spammers will regroup around other servers, maybe we're in for a breather for a while. And it's good to know that one simple action can have such a beneficial effect. It would be rather pleasant to see spam reduced to a minor annoyance rather than a deluge.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Obama's ethical reforms

"I have said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantanamo, and I will follow through on that."

"I have said repeatedly that America doesn't torture. And I'm going to make sure that we don't torture. Those are part and parcel of an effort to regain America's moral stature in the world."

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

New and unusual Ediacaran fossil

Recent news report of an unusual fossil from the 'home' of pre-Cambrian biota, the Ediacaran Hills (in the Flinders Ranges) in South Australia.

In the fifty years since this fossil period was confirmed, the Hills have been well scoured. But fossil finds are often enough a matter of luck, and this species, called Eoandromeda octobrachiata was not discovered until recently.

There are several odd aspects about this discovery. Firstly, it has eight arms; the discoverer, Dr Jim Gehling of the South Australian Museum, referred to it as having eight-fold symmetry, which is rare.

But a few months after the discovery, Gehling went to China, and opened up his laptop to show the fossil to Maoyan Zhu, of the Nanjing Institute of Geology. Zhu opened his laptop and - snap! - an identical discovery made at roughly the same time in China.

Further, the two rock types preserving the specimens were quite different: sandstone in South Australia, and black shale in China.

From my perspective, I didn't even know there were any Ediacarans with arms (let alone eight). That's a good deal more sophistication than was originally thought for the period: time was, Ediacarans were thought to be sponge-like intermediaries between plants and animals (as we know them). Again (viz Richard Dawkins), this would make the Cambrian explosion somewhat less explosive than thought, in terms of sudden evolution of radically new and varied body shapes (phyla). That would make sense.

(Thanks to Mark for the tip.)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Australian government hypocrisy on execution

The government's foreign minister, Stephen Smith, waited until after the Bali Bombers were killed by firing squads before calling for a moratorium on execution.

Not exactly evidence of a principled stance.

Mobilise your goodwill, Obama

Some are still euphoric, some are still somewhat sober, some are both.

It's a bad time to inherit the presidency.

Obama's win, however, is not only fundamentally historic, but it represents a historic cachet of goodwill throughout the world. He has already flagged positions that are far more enlightened than Bush's. And so most of the world seems to have cheered his election; the responses of world leaders on the whole is a level above the form-letter congratulations.

Much more can be achieved by working together than through belligerence. Iraq notwithstanding, there is enormous potential in what Obama can achieve internationally.

And domestically. Not only was Obama's campaign the best funded in history, it was also packed with a huge mass of volunteers. There is a great corps of people who have already demonstrated their commitment to change. Obama began his career as a community organiser; now he can surely tap into what must be one of the largest grassroots corps ever, as supreme community organiser.

He has shown himself capable of drawing people together. Now to guide their co-operative spirit.

(I note that in an odd but meaningless coincidence, that Obama is a scant five days older than the incoming Prime Minister of New Zealand, John Key, who was elected three days later. Because transition is much quicker in NZ, Key will be in the driver's seat earlier.)

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Reversing extinction via DNA

A recent study published in PNAS reported that mice had been cloned from frozen DNA (journal abstract here; press report here). This had been thought impossible: that cellular ice crystals would destroy the DNA.

This does not constitute a universal panacea for recovering extinct species, but it has implications for DNA recovered from unfossilised remains recovered from permanently frozen locations, especially Antarctica, Canada, and Russia.

There would remain a number of scientific hurdles, including incubation, but the puzzle pieces are starting to fall into place. Yet there are a couple of ominous tones in this news.

First, we may be running out of time. Permafrost regions have begun thawing already. (And this is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it will make scientific discovery easier for a period of time, but on the other hand, it will likely hasten the warming process as masses of organic matter will also thaw, rot, and release more atmospheric carbon to hasten the warming process.)

Second, it would be tragic if scientific progress bred complacency towards looming extinctions. Prevention - preserving whole ecosystems - would be so much easier and less fraught than attempting to recreate the systems. But our form of democracy is traditionally geared to the dissonance of desiring an outcome but not making the hard decisions. A recipe for complacency.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Bali bombers and the brutality of execution

Sometime in the next few days - if it hasn't already happened - Indonesia will execute three Bali bombers. They were found responsible for the deaths of 202 people in Kuta in 2002.

Australia's media always mention in the same breath that the toll included 88 Australians, but 38 Indonesians also died. The bombers were quite willing to kill their own kind for their cause.

None of this excuses execution in any circumstances. It meets brutality with brutality, and it further brutalises society. It sends the wrong message to children, to those contemplating violence, to everyone.

Australians seem to be divided on the matter, with about as many favouring execution as disfavouring it. I'm sure the results would be rather different if the polling included the fact that Indonesia also plans to kill some Australian drug traffickers - yet in an ethical world, that should make no difference.

Our Prime Minister should show leadership on this. But Kevin Rudd has been quite reticent, to his discredit.

There are many reasons to not execute. If one condoned life imprisonment, for example, those people would have a lifetime to live with their deeds, and to contemplate atonement.

If polls were conducted with sufficient consideration, people would inevitably prefer atonement to brutalisation.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Tuesday's great horse race, and the world's fate

Tuesday is the day of that great horse race, traditionally the day Australia stands still and celebrates. Ostensibly the world will also stand still on that day, but the US election happens on Wednesday our time, and so doesn't clash with the Melbourne Cup.

I'll be deferring celebrations until Wednesday, and watching that race; it'll be thoroughly enjoyable.

Twenty-seven years ago, US history professor Allan Lichtman (using statistical methods from Vladimir Keilis-Borok) developed a predictive model, 13 Keys to the White House, which has successfully forecast every outcome since then. Those factors, largely relating to incumbency, economy and war, point to victory for Obama. On the other hand, this campaign is not in the realm of the ordinary. In fact, many have characterised it as the pivotal election of our time.

I don't know that those 13 indicators are necessary. Possibly all the factors needed here are charisma, coupled with no significant negatives - and Obama's one 'negative' is proving simply not enough. But more, he has integrity, which comes through in his responses to criticisms, and his responses to some of the negative criticisms on his opponent by his own side. Personally, I'm barracking on the basis of policies as much as anything else - but that doesn't seem to be an influential factor in the US public picking a president. Given the notable lack of political engagement, subtle factors like policy don't filter through to the average voter's consciousness. [that's a bit unfair for the millions that are informed, but more a reflection on how the ultimate decision is really played out only at the margins.]

There are pivotal differences: on climate change, on equity, and on the candidates' different levels of grassroots community engagement, both well before the election, and during the campaign.

All factors point to a landslide.

Skin colour is clearly a factor, although as was pointed out on ABC's Insiders today, the US media has been remarkably restrained in dealing with this issue. But it's plausible that the outcome will be much tighter than the polls predict: what people say is not the same as what they do, and there's surely a lot of people who will nominate Obama in the polls, but will find it harder to actually vote for a black man. On the other hand, the grassroots efforts of Obama's people will see a much larger turnout than usual, predicted to match that of 1960 - where Kennedy, too, presented an option of hope and charisma.

Yet there remains the usually unsaid: Obama is and will be a target for domestic extremists. So far, this has been restricted to those without a clue or a plan. But as events move forward, those with more determination will be a constant threat - throughout Obama's presidency. That remains a pall on what will bring new hope globally - even if he is able to deliver only a part of what he promises.

Good luck.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

What Liberal Party?

The reign of John Howard from 1996 was characterised by very conservative social policies. It was also characterised by a revolving parade of spineless ministers and caucus members, who were only too happy to swallow their principles for a bit of longevity, limelight, power or extra pay.

Those same jellyfish are now a parade of revisionists, inflicting on us a range of excuses for not raising voice against the prevailing winds set up by Howard and his triumvirate kitchen cabinet (which included his wife and chief of staff).

The latest is George Brandis, who recently trotted out his excuses for inaction. Apparently, Brandis has a history of writing on tradition in the Liberal Party. He lays claim for the Liberals to be liberal - which allegation happens from time to time. And there are a few small L liberals who make a berth in the Liberal Party.

Yet in fact, the Liberal Party is exactly a repository for conservatives. There is simply no other party of opposition for them to be in - the Australian Labor Party is genuinely on the progressive side of the tweedledum-tweedledee that comprises Australian politics, and so conservatives naturally gravitate to the Liberals.

Granted, in this sense Australian politics is not as straightforward as, say, that in England or New Zealand, where the tories are cleary tories, and Labour clearly more left. So here, there's Labor and the rest, and if some liberals end up in the tory party, they are understandably overwhelmed. Hair-splitting aside, methinks Brandis cries poor mouth.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Dylan part two: how some of us (at least) move on

The second part of Scorsese's film on Bob Dylan (No Direction Home) screened here on Saturday, giving further revelation into the man some called the greatest songwriter of the 20th century.

Those who know his music from later periods tend not to understand the fuss over him, or disparage him purely for his singing.

The accolades usually come from those who experienced his early career in the 1960s, when his lyrics were by turns fiercely literary, obscure and kalaidoscopic. That is pretty much the period Scorsese depicts, when his star was brightening.

In fact, the whole project was apparently instigated by Dylan's manager, who located Scorsese to give it a professional standard. Dylan had no specific interest in it, although he gave interviews that were distilled into insights scattered through the film.

Those latter-day comments never seemed to speak directly to an event, but were more general, and very meaningful for that. They contrasted quite strongly with some clips of early press conferences, where the questions were almost universally inane. His responses clearly reflected that: flippant and lacking insight - not Dylan's fault.

Dylan has been several different people. Joan Baez noted that when they were performing together in the early days, she needed to approach him based on what sort of mood he was in at the time, generally either dark or up and jokey.

Then, by the time I first experienced his music in the 70s, he came across as sullen and uninterested in the public responses to his fame. Hardly surprising in itself, but several factors through the sixties could have contributed to this. Doubtless there are plenty of biographers who have made their own tracings of his changes. They may point to the vociferously negative reactions to his 'going electric', or his motorcycle accident, but I would imagine a central theme would be his journey as an artist. He never regained the lyrical peak of his early energetic youth, but he was demonstrably inclined to move forward artistically, exploring new milieus, all the while affected by the burden of his early meteoric fame. He has expressed distaste for the trappings of fame (naturally), but more, he was constantly confronted by the expectations of others. He wasn't really publicly political (Baez knew he'd never attend political events/protests as she did); he didn't really want to be the spokesman for a generation; he even purported to do dud albums in the early 70s specifically to rid himself of public expectations. Truly a chased man.

Yes, his early work was his best (albeit 1975's Blood On The Tracks still garners special mention). But the spark of youth can't last forever, and he had to travel new roads. The story is not new: many artists peak early; many never regain the heights, but still they have to explore. For instance, do we really want another Ok Computer? Many people would say Yes!, but Radiohead have simply moved on, similarly haunted (and harrowed) by their earlier success.

The story is fascinating; so is the period explored in the film - both the life and the times of Dylan. The film is replete with oblique insights; and again, his fiery performance of Like A Rolling Stone was a joy, one of those moments when all pistons were firing.

Friday, October 24, 2008

an anecdote of bravado

It's not a new story. A bloke in Sydney throws a sickie and is caught out online. But you have to admire his bravado, especially when his trousers are down.

He had insisted on his rights in relation to providing evidence for a sick day. Unfortunately, his Facebook page told the true story including, inter alia, "i'm still trashed. SICKIE WOO!"

The part of the story that gave me the biggest laugh was his reaction when caught: "HAHAHA LMAO [laughing my ass off] epic fail. No worries man."

Apparently a call centre worker, so I guess he figured such jobs are a dime a dozen, which they are. The full story - here - is quite funny.

Levi Stubbs leaves a legacy

A short time after one of his contributing songwriters (Norman Whitfield) died, the time came for Levi Stubbs, whose rich vocal presence led the Four Tops.

In a mark of my persistence, to get my favourite songs I had to buy three separate compilations. Early Classics has Baby I Need Your Loving (see an early video here). Motown's Greatest Hits has Walk Away Renee (heard here), a much stronger cover of a Left Banke original. By the early 70s, the Four Tops - like a lot of their stablemates - had left Motown, for ABC/Dunhill. From that period comes Keeper Of The Castle (heard here), from an eponymous compilation (not to be confused with the original eponymous album!).

An interesting rarity is a single they released in 1971, a version of MacArthur Park, which didn't make it onto the mid-period compilation. Stubbs' performance of itself is an inevitable improvement on Richard Harris'; it can be heard here, or seen in a later-period live performance.

It's notable that the Tops were together in an unchanging lineup for their entire history (since high school); a longevity feat matched by few.

And finally, here's Billy Bragg, evoking Stubbs' pleading delivery in a for a bit of comfort in tragedy in Levi Stubbs' Tears. When the world falls apart, some things stay in place...

Saturday, October 18, 2008

In praise of Bob Dylan and Martin Scorsese

Off the top of my head, I would have said my favourite Bob Dylan work was Blood On The Tracks, although I'd always had a fondness for individual songs like Positively 4th Street and Like A Rolling Stone. But the opening sequence of Martin Scorsese's film No Direction Home: Bob Dylan is stunning. Dylan gives a thrilling performance of Like A Rolling Stone, which showcases all that is fundamentally attractive about him.

The Scorsese film cuts the song half way through, then splices in (with Dylan qoutes) a musical sweep through the music that had early influenced Dylan. So many marvellous performances, including Muddy Waters' I Got My Mojo Working. Then there was a cheesy looking hillbilly band from some regional tv's Saturday night hoedown. The voice and rhythm were captivating for a cheesy band... then the caption came on: Hank Williams. This great performance was not my first introduction to Williams (from memory), but the point is that Scorcese has delivered a film with a big punch up front. A music sampling returns us to complete the Rolling Stone song.

Scorsese was privileged to some insights from a contemporary interview with Dylan. One of his quotes up front was roughly that he was born somewhere, and had ever since been finding his way home. A profound muse on the human journey.

And an informative and enjoyable film from Scorsese, with a tight arrangement of music, interviews and archival footage.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

On financial crisis and collaboration

A New Scientist article (The blunders that led to the catastrophe) made yet another attempt to ascribe cause to the global financial crisis.

This analysis focused on risk modellers within the financial industry, and the extent to which they:
- did not attempt to capture sufficient historical data in their models;
- did not model the interaction of disparate risk factors;
- did not successfully model problematic or new products, which have short histories.
Of course, the current situation is the confluence of quite a number of causes besides this.

A point late in the article caught my eye:
"Capturing the degree to which bank fortunes are interconnected, and how this feeds market prices and liquidity, has become much more important as banks and other financial institutions have come to rely on loans from each other and from large investors rather than on customer deposits."

The transaction relationships between banks drive liquidity, and also supercharged the crisis. The closer they work together, the greater the rewards, but also the greater the risks at times like this.

At the government level, there may also be moves afoot. Bretton Woods in 1947 was a meeting in the aftermath of crisis (the war) of a group of like-minded nations, the Alliesthat formulated many fundaments of the international financial system we have today. (Inter alia, it set the US dollar as the internal trade currency, and thereby allowed the US to export its inflation whenever it printed money.) There have been recent calls for a modern-day equivalent of this conference, to realign - if not 'reform' - the global financial system.

Governments around the world propping up financial institutions, absorbing them, part-nationalising them... what could this could this new era of international collaboration bring? Not quite Marx's transformation of capitalism into socialism (apart from all else, aggregate capital has not yet run out of lebensraum). Not quite a mechanism for addressing global warming (money talks, environment sucks). But ideologies have taken quite a battering in recent times. If one locates modern-day class struggle in the nexus between capital and government, then labour is set to flex its muscle anew.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Global financial crisis - a context

Iceland, with a population smaller than Canberra, is suffering a banking collapse that is affecting local councils in England. Australia's Reserve Bank lowered interest rates a full percentage point (rather than the usual one quarter). The UK government invested 50 billion pounds in its major banks - characterised as a 'partial nationalisation'. Central banks in Europe and America simultaneously lowered interest rates half a percentage point.

What could it be but a global financial crisis?

Malcolm Turnbull, as the new Opposition Leader, took the populist line: that Treasurer Wayne Swan should have "put in a good word for borrowers" to get the banks to pass on the full interest rate cut. And when the Commonwealth Bank bought BankWest for a "bargain" price, he complained about reduced competition.

Yes, it did reduce competition, but for governments of the moment, that is not the point: the key issue is stability. Capitalist production is dependent on financial markets are inherently unstable, rising and falling on sentiment - that is, each person's perception of how the other person is feeling. For most commodities in a market, value lies purely in what someone else is willing to pay, and if there are few buyers, value vanishes in the ether. Governments around the world are desperate to restore confidence.

Periodic downturn is normal, but this one is different. Of course, the origins of the current crisis lie in the under-regulated US market, when the mass of bad housing loans was bundled up in poorly-understood securities, then onsold globally like a toxic virus. Lending slows, capital circulation slows, and the resultant liquidity crisis leads to financial institutions faltering.

The extraordinary actions of governments recently show lessons had been learnt from the 1929 crash. A similar pattern of liquidity and financial instability emerged then, but governments didn't intervene, banks collapsed and history ran its inevitable course.

So this time around, governments took action. Thus far, each action has been insufficient to turn confidence around, so governments around the world keep raising the stakes. These actions are counter to current orthodoxy, proving governments are acting on advice from people who have studied history, and yield ideology to practicality when pushed hard enough.

The perception has been that Australia is in better shape than most to weather the storm, due to three factors: one of the world's highest collective credit ranking of its banks; the financial "reforms" conducted in the 80s and 90s, and an extended resources boom due to China's productive forces. But immunity does not exist, and today Chinese purchasers of iron ore are talking of scaling back demand, due to expected dampening of markets. Swan didn't put in a good word for borrowers because bank stability is his crisis priority.

It will be interesting to see how far governments are prepared to go if further challenged - because surely there is more to come.

In the flurry, a major narrative could be missed: governments around the world have demonstrated their ability to respond to crisis remarkably quickly - and collaboratively. And intervention, nationalisation, and re-regulation [talk] shows they can drop ideology for pragmatism in an instant. The rapid reaction (bar the US Congress), and willingness to collaborate and intervene, should be a portent of the possibilities where global action is required. Unfortunately, global warming has engendered the opposite reaction - inaction. We have elected governments that only understand financial crisis, and not environmental crisis - which however less immediate is vastly deeper and longer-lasting. This demonstrates that we are poor at responding to longer-term issues, and that we have subverted too much of what we value as humans to the purely financial. In this capitalist world, environment is just one of many factors that has by default been treated as an ignorable 'externality'.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Halcyon days for South Africa

In amongst one of the historically turbulent times of this global society, South Africa's ruling party has opted for a brief period of lull. Kgalema Motlanthe, as president, is the calm between the surrounding storms of Thabo Mbeki's departure and Jacob Zuma's ascension.

Motlanthe, who will only retain presidency until the 2009 election, recalled his time in Robben Island's community of ANC prisoners as "the most productive years" of his life.

Most importantly, he is not an AIDS denier, and he removed the government's AIDS denier away from the Health portfolio. This alone will help alleviate mass suffering.

There is no report on the reasons for Motlanthe's installation in the role, but he has been officially endorsed as the actual, not "interim" president. As Zuma's erstwhile deputy, there is no expectation he will run for president next year.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Americans, evolution, and survey methods

Early this year, the FASEB Journal [Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology] reported a survey of American attitudes to evolution.

Surveys typically show a surprisingly high proportion of Americans don't believe evolution is a fact - New Scientist has in the past reported a worse result for the US than for most developed nations. However, clearly it matters how the questions are phrased, and the overall context of the survey. Drill down, and it is likely a religion-focused survey will elicit sympathetic responses, where many will be reluctant to support evolutionary theory if it means denouncing their religious beliefs. Likewise, if the questions are posited in a rationalist context, people are more likely to want to be seen to be rational, particularly if the questions aren't seen to be placed in direct opposition to their beliefs.

One example of the difference in survey methods: in the FASEB report, a simple examination of three different surveys gave three different measures of whether Americans thought evolution was guided by natural processes or by a supreme being.

Gallup: 13% natural selection vs 38% supernatural guidance
Pew: 25% vs 18%
FASEB: 36% vs 25% on one set of questions; 32% vs 21% on another
[In each case the remainder didn't accept evolution - as it was phrased. Note that Pew Reseach is not a specifically religious organisation.]

A key finding of the FASEB survey - and a central didactic point of the accompanying article - is said to be that people's support for [teaching] evolution is directly related to their level of understanding of science. Stating the obvious, true, and it doesn't address the disparity between the level of acceptance of evolution in America and other western nations. The obvious response is the difference is due to the particular sociological - political, religious, ideological - pressures in that country.

The full FASEB report here; a press report on it here.

A cat playing music

Something that must be reported: a cat that plays the piano.

Apparently, Nora started taking an interest at one year old, and is now four. The owner must be a music teacher: there are two pianos. Nora is self-taught, and although her style is not too complex, it clearly shows intent and appreciation for what the piano does. She plays for short periods a few times a day. Delightful.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Future cloud computing Googlified

Google's official blog discussed cloud computing 10 years hence - far more eloquently than I did recently.

In a nutshell, most computing power will come from web-based services (effectively, Everything-as-a-Service), and our own computing resources will be mere devices that hang off the cloud. Not quite like the dumb terminals on mainframes of yore, though. They rightly see continued exponential growth in the three mainstays of power: processors, storage, and networking (the essential plumbing). Our devices will certainly be powerful - but not a shade on cloud resources. (I see the power in local devices being chiefly used to drive our interaction with the cloud, in the long run.)

They see a great plethora of devices hooked up, many of them far smaller and more specialised in application than our typical laptops/desktops.

They also dare to speculate on the smarts - intelligence - built into "the cloud". Read it all here.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Volatile capitalism and the short sell ban

The Australian government has banned short selling on the stock exchange for at least 30 days. Although this mirrors similar actions in ny other countries (including the US, Britain, Canada and Germany), few have extended such a ban beyond financial stocks to all short selling.

The stated aims are to reduce market volatility and to improve liquidity.

Short selling is a way of betting on the market: if you think share prices are going down, sell at current prices that which you do not own, with a commitment to supply the shares later - hopefully you buy them when lower.

All manner of Byzantine financial instruments and transactions have been created over the years to allow people to trade all manner of items in all manner of ways. In some cases, the type of transaction emerged as a way for productive entities to mitigate risk; others have their origins in speculative motives - ie gambling.

There would be valid business reasons for some to sell short, but it's clear that such a ban would have at least a somewhat soothing effect on the current turbulent market. Still, it's surprising that governments would countenance market restrictions that would affect legitimate business - but these are uncommon times. In one of the Murdoch papers, short selling is defended as an aid to price discovery. But there are myriad other ways for prices to emerge - if that's what you want - in a slower, more stable way.

Re-regulation is in the air, and the vultures arbitraging a living (or killing) from a position of extra knowledge at the margins (or simply from a willingness to gamble) are going to find their game stifled. Somewhat.

Elsewhere, analysts and journalists, too, are speculating (here, for example) within their metier. what if the world stops buying US currency and securities? How will China's massive surplus holding of same play out? In fact, they wouldn't tip the bucket (and sell US), because it would hurt them too. China is more likely to gradually diversify over time, which suggests an inevitable weakening of US fortunes. With world trade significantly denominated in US dollars, this too can create turmoil. For this reason, and for the current market chaos, we could quite soon see a scurry of central bankers collaborating in a more formal way to realign the financial stars for the new realities. And because of the clear origins of the current mess in the financial toxins released by America, its status could be irrevokably tarnished. Unless its regulatory hand is clearly brought to bear. If the rest of the world could vote on this basis, it wouldn't be for McCain.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Scientific revolution as one of perspective

Jacob Bronowski discussed some scientific revolutions in The Ascent Of Man. Specifically, those of Copernicus, Newton and Einstein.

(In human terms, Bronowski grouped together as social revolutions the American, the French, and the "English", or industrial revolution.)

Elsewhere, Stephen Jay Gould mentioned Freud's take on three pillars torn down in removing humanity from its pedestal as centre of the universe. Freud listed Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud himself (this was meant to be about shattering the illusions of the rationality of humans). To that list, Gould added the notion of deep time as something linking the revolutions of Copernicus and Darwin.

Bronowski was a mathematician by trade, Gould a paleontologist; this informs their choices.

Copernicus' paradigm shift gives us our cultural use of the term 'revolution'.

Bronowski's characterisations illustrated the revolutionary nature of some of these changes. For Copernicus, the observed movement of heavenly bodies could not not be explained with simplicity from where he was located: the patterns were not related to the observer's perspective. The movements made more sense from a heliocentric perspective, and thus humans were not of or at the centre of the universe.

It's inevitable that the spiritual establishment, the Catholic church, would decry, forbid this challenge to established thought, of which they were the sole arbiters. The challenge to authority it represented was bad enough to invoke punishment and censorship for a long time afterwards. The challenge to humanity's position (in the centre of the universe) was intolerable then as it would be in most ages.

Darwin's dislocation of humanity as a unique creation, to become a mere player - albeit a major one - in a succession and a panoply of species is also destabilising. Even now, the Vatican is unapologetic over its reaction, even as it acknowledges evolution as a validity (being "compatible with the bible").

Bronowski characterises Einstein in intellectual flight as imagining he was travelling on a beam of light - in effect, outside the grasp or capability of human life. Again, a paradigm shift invoked by an imagination that was able to think outside the framework of the human scale.

Those I find easy to identify as revolutionaries are Copernicus, Darwin and Einstein. For each of their breakthroughs, the human scale was an emotional barrier, but ultimately proven a simply inadequate perspective. And in each case, the scientist's conception far preceded scientific verification. Those men were revolutionary because they were capable of extending their thinking towards the universal.

I've referred several times to the significance of deanthropocentrism in the study of evolution. It's not a pure necessity in coming to grips with the very basics, but deep understanding is so much more of a struggle where the effort is not made to remove one's human shackles. As a reward, the ability to displace oneself from the human scale has constant application at all levels of understanding of the field.

I cannot claim these three are the only revolutions in this fashion. And I cannot say we are finished. We may never complete the journey because we may never be able to say we have reached the universal.

But our forward progress has an immediate stumbling block. One of the great barriers to successful stewardship of this planet is our perception of our inalienable right to exploitation of the whole of its resources... even to destruction. The pace travelled so far does not yet seem to fast enough to overtake the perils of anthropocentrism.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Climate Change Australia: 450 ppm?

A ray of hope in a recent comment from the Prime Minister.

Kevin Rudd said 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide is a "necessary" goal. This contrasts with the recent government commissioned Garnaut report, which posited 550 ppm, which would likely lead to the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, as well as the critical Greenland ice shelf.

A good signal, although it would still face a rough ride implementing in practice, especially with an obstructionist Senate.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Lewis Black on creation; Bronowski on humans

Something to round off the week. A comedian gives a perspective on creationism that is quite apposite - and funny. Lewis Black doesn't need to engage from a rationalist point of view - but it's not a rationalist argument anyway.

In the process he has a dig at the lack of commitment to solar energy.

Don't know the bloke, but he seems all right on the whole. (Again, thanks to Bill for the reference.)

I also watched some of a BBC documentary series from 1973, Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent Of Man (sic). It's very specifically Dr Bronowski's perspective, and despite the date, I can't fault his take on the emergence of human civilisation. On the basis of what I've seen so far, well worth a wat

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Evolution: clarifying more misunderstandings

Evolution is such a complex dynamic. That it is the intersection, the outcome of the interplay of two separate factors, random mutation and natural [environmental] selection, is sufficient to defeat understanding on the lay level much of the time.

Misrepresentation, such as the depiction of an undifferentiated parade of creatures from fish through to monkey to human, of itself breeds much of the misconception. (two misleading aspects of that parade: its portrayal in terms of modern creatures only, and the lack of bifurcations.)

And without exposure to some of the underlying narratives, it's easy to make assumptions that are unwarranted. I've discussed complexity before (from Gould): how evolutionary increase in complexity of organisms is not a universal trend (some decrease in complexity; some remain remarkably stable over thousands of millenia). Gould discusses this at even greater length in his book Life's Grandeur; there is a more succinct discussion of this at New Scientist.

New Scientist has a whole set of evolution myth-busting articles, worth a scan through. Some of the useful points it makes:

- natural [environmental] selection isn't the only change mechanism - simple genetic drift can result in major changes. This particularly happens with small populations (bottlenecks). New Scientist claims this as the cause of most differences between humans and other apes*.
- adaptions don't have to be perfect. Good enough to survive is enough. Plenty of examples (such as the human eye) are less efficient than they could be (the octopus eye, a case of convergent evolution, developed more efficiently).
- not everything is explicable simply as an evolutionary adaption. The NS article on this discusses male nipples, smell, and behaviours as examples, giving reasons such as unpressured chance, side-effects of adaption, and vistigiality.
- evolution doesn't validate dog-eat-dog selfishness (as some arch-capitalists may posit). 'Survival of the fittest' - not a term from Darwin - is more about fitness for purpose than dominance; co-operative actions can often better favour survival.
- evolution doesn't axiomatically favour survival. The article discusses, inter alia, 'evolutionary suicide'.

That set of articles usefully refines understanding of many other points at risk of debasement by misunderstanding.

* I should note that recently reported claims of a major bottleneck in the human population, reduced to only 2,000 people at 70,000 years ago, have been disputed in a substantial article here. However, this point was not one of evolutionary change in humans, who have been stable as homo sapiens sapiens for a few million years.

Norman Whitfield (1940-2008): songwriter

Billy Bragg's ode to rescuing comfort from desolation:

"Norman Whitfield and Barratt Strong
Are here to make everything right that's wrong
Holland and Holland and Lamont Dozier too
Are here to make it all okay with you"
- Levi Stubbs' Tears

I note the passing of Norman Whitfield, a very significant Motown songwriter, helping write the soundtrack to the late 60s and early 70s. He also produced his songs; from one song (Heard It Through The Grapevine) he made two productions (Gladys Knight and The Pips' then Marvin Gaye's) that in 1967 then in 1968 each time gave Motown its biggest success to that date.

He has a particular influence on later-period Temptations, in the process developing Motown's psychadelic/socially conscious strand from Cloud 9 to Papa Was A Rolling Stone, via Edwin Starr, Undisputed Truth and others. The heavier, more distinctive sounds he created didn't always gel with the people in Motown, but it won him awards.

His songs had sufficient cachet to be covered numerous times. Along with the Motown influence in the UK, Whitfield's sound had a big impact there, with songs covered several times by Rod Stewart and Rolling Stones (both before they wimped out, and after).

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Mugabe's bloody tenacity

Robert Mugabe has brought Zimbabwe, its people and its economic infrastructure, to its knees. He has been the direct instigator of violence, misery and poverty. All in the name of clinging to personal power.

He wouldn't have lasted this long, had it not been for the direct support of the South African leadership for more than ten years. Both South Africa's ANC and Mugabe's Zanu had been at the forefront of liberation struggles in their respective countries, and Mugabe's history still holds a lot of cachet for SA's president Thabo Mbeki.

Now Mugabe has agreed to share power in Zimbabwe with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, whose leader Morgan Tsvangirai was only 28 when the Zimbabwe liberation struggle ended in 1980. He even joined Mugabe's Zanu party.

Surely that is old enough to remember subsequent events: how two parties contested power in the early years of independence, but Mugabe hounded Joshua Nkomo and Zapu and later forcibly merged Zapu party into Zanu. Nkomo's and Tsvangirai's experiences at the hands of Mugabe have in fact been remarkably similar, except that Nkomo's situation is now fully played out (he accepted co-option to avoid further bloodshed by Mugabe, and died in 1999).

In signing the deal, ex-trade unionist Tsvangirai is probably doing what he can to avoid prolonging suffering in Zimbabwe. Mugabe's track record in sharing power is appalling, and any respect he garnered for his role in independence should have been thoroughly crushed by his bloody-minded actions of more recent times. Mugabe stands culpable along with anyone who supports him.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Costello: no doesn't mean no?

Despite his protestations, Peter Costello doesn't necessarily mean what he says.

The Herald's Peter Hartcher believes Costello has firmly ruled out leadership, and is set to exit parliament.

Yet there are a few clues that demonstrate Costello is hedging his bets. Cast into the political wilderness after the Liberals lost office, he retreated to the back bench, but has remained in his parliamentary seat longer than expected; longer than he flagged. He has written and just released a book of memoirs, whose prime aim is generally described as being to blame the election loss on John Howard.

And his exact words on his options for leadership? "I will not seek, nor am I being drafted, and I am not seeking it."

He has expressly refused to actively seek the Liberal leadership. But he has avoided refusing to be drafted - so he is leaving his options open. Brendan Nelson is widely regarded as nothing but a seat-warmer; the only other open option is Malcolm Turnbull - who is a devisive figure for the Liberals' parliamentary team, those who actually vote for leader. They could always choose a dark horse. Or Turnbull. But although Costello has made it clear he will not do the numbers, he has not ruled out allowing someone else to run the numbers for him.

Late News: Nelson is to call a spill at the Liberal caucus tomorrow. I would think it is unlikely to resolve anything because nobody is ready to move against him yet. But I could be wrong: Turnbull lost the last leadership ballot to Nelson by only three votes, and oppositions get nervous in their despair.

Update 16-Sept: Nine months - and Nelson's dismal performance - is enough to win over a couple of votes. Turnbull's in. A recipe for disaster, unless he can rein in his arrogance. A tall ask.
What does this mean for Costello? Don't count him out, says the Herald. But in reality, he will slip out, unless Mal botches it big and fast. Which is always possible - much more so than for Nelson.
Fortunately, this is a win for the environment. Nelson flagged recidivism on climate change resistance - which might have been enough to cost him the leadership. Turnbull has been quite progressive by comparison.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The DNA of NY air

A bloke is sampling New York's air to extract the DNA from its microbes.

A 'microbe' is a rather generic term for a microscopic organism. The sample would encompass bacteria and fungal spores in particular, as well as a few other stray strands. Report here.

The scientist is Craig Ventner, who competed against the publicly funded project to sequence the human genome. He states that only about 1% of the organic matter in the air could be cultivated in a laboratory.

A fascinating experiment for one of the most urban centres in the world. Most of the answers would veer into the mundane, but there may be a few surprises, particularly for bacterial DNA, where mutation can be rapid relative to large-scale organisms.

Ventner has apparently uncovered about a million new "genes" from a similar exercise run in the Sargasso Sea (a mass of seaweed in the middle of the Atlantic). That's not too surprising: it is a unique ecosystem. The NY experiment is unlikely to be as productive, but it strikes me as a useful mission.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The role of the virus in evolution, part 2

To summarise:
Viruses have a wide variety of forms and actions. For just about every type of organism from animals to plants to bacteria, there are viruses that infiltrate them. Some viruses attack a broad range of cells; some are specific to specific kinds of cells: tissue tropism defines the set of cells/tissues that a given virus attacks.

Some viruses attack germline cells (those involved in reproduction); some of those (endogenous retroviruses) can insert their own DNA into the germline cell's DNA, which means some viral DNA can end up getting passed on to subsequent generations by the host organism.

Thus we have Human Endogenous Retroviruses (HERVs). The end results could be quite varied. It's feasible that this is the source of much junk DNA (that is, DNA which doesn't fulfill any [known] function in the developmental process). Yet that inserted DNA could be harmful: HERVs are suspected of involvement in a range of auto-immune diseases, including multiple sclerosis.

On the other hand, the recent New Scientist article on viruses (here, called in the print version Welcome to the virosphere) suggests ERVs have also played a crucial positive role in the human immune system's ability to respond to viruses never encountered before.

And HERVs have been linked to gene regulatory networks, which determine which genes are activated and deactivated. Thus they appear to be a key enabler of evolutionary change: "the main difference between closely related species is not in genes themselves, but how they are expressed" (ie whether and when they are activated).

Patrick Forterre, of Paris-Sud University, has been studying DNA mechanisms since the 1970s. His analysis of DNA across the three domains (bacteria, archaea, and eukaryotes [organisms with cellular nuclei, ie most of us]), found disparate DNA-related connections across each pair of domains that weren't present in the other. His ultimate conclusion (see this PNAS article for some of the detail) is that at an early point in the evolution of life there was "a period of wild biochemical experimentation"; innovative mechanisms were shared between different life forms through gene transfer by viruses. Forterre posits numerous alternative life systems, of which all that is left is the three domains, plus remnants of the rest surviving in the virosphere. Given that viruses are more abundant than any other organisms, and gene flow is greatest via viruses, "it should not be a surprise that major innovations could have occurred first in the viral world, before being transferred to cells".

In effect, viruses have been "sharing the successful [biochemical] experiments" - those mechanisms that survived in the DNA being the successful ones. Forterre goes further and credits viruses for many leaps in complexity of life, including development of DNA from RNA, and the key innovation of cell nuclei.

Ultimately, the NS article concludes that as species, we are "leaky vessels" of DNA, and that the biosphere can be seen as one "interconnected network of continuously circulating genes - a pangenome".

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Kane Kramer's media player: the iPod

Apple has revealed the source of the original design for the iPod - in the course of defending itself against a patent claim from elsewhere.

Apple certainly doesn't come out of it untarnished. But the original designer gets some kudos, albeit very belated.

Englishman Kane Kramer designed a media player that he patented worldwide - in 1979. He bills it as the first MP3 player. In fact, MP3 as a format hadn't been developed yet, but it was the first digital media player nevertheless.

The problem with Kramer's vision was that the technology wasn't advanced enough at the time - the player was only good for three and a half minutes of music. Nevertheless, for some time he attempted to market it to investors. But the patent lapsed in 1988 (reports vary as to whether it was due to business disruptions or inability to raise the finances to renew).

And Kramer's design, which you can see on his website, is startlingly similar to what became the iPod. His work was obviously lifted holus bolus by Apple. He was understandably dishearted to see no credit coming to him; more recently, he was struggling in a furniture design business, which he had to close down.

Meanwhile, a US company called Burst, which apparently makes a living by vaccuuming up the patents of others and suing, sued Apple. In defence, Apple contacted Kramer - who was up a ladder at the time - to help them defend.

Apple paid Kramer to go to California, where the matter between Burst and Apple was subsequently settled out of court. Kramer is currently negotiating with Apple to receive some compensation for the (out of patent) use of his designs.

Concurrent with the outline for his media player, Kramer had also described his vision for services for downloading music over the telephone line. He is still involved in industrial design; it's reasonable to expect the publicity is now doing him good.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Garnaut report: action, reaction

Garnaut's latest report, accepting of climate change disaster, induced s ome strong reactions from the Herald's economics editor, Ross Gittens. He calls it "the most disheartening government report I've read".

Gittens' view: "aim high and let others beat us down from there rather than aim low and end up lower". Full report here, with details of Garnaut's conclusions and why Gittens disagrees.

Unsurprisingly, activists GetUp! have a similar reaction. They've put up a summary of the Garnaut report; they're also running a campaign to encourage key members of the Business Council of Australia to reiterate their earlier commitment to tackling climate change, and to disavow the BCA's stance. From GetUp!'s front page, you can send message to one of those ten companies.