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.