Quick links

Here are a few of the links I’ve been clicking over the past few days:

When is economic growth good for the poor? At Consider the Evidence Lane Kenworthy reveals the awful truth — governments can make poor people better off by giving them money.

Money and happiness. When people in rich countries get a lot richer, they get a little bit happier too. A nifty chart from the Economist.

A Bully Finds a Pulpit on the Web. Thanks to Google, pissing off customers can be good for business. The New York Times article everyone’s linking to (I heard about it from Ezra Klein).

Buffy the Vampire Slayer returns — but without Joss Whedon. And stranger still, high school student Buffy Summers, will not be played by 33 year old actress Sarah Michelle Gellar. "This is a sad, sad reflection on our times," says Whedon, "when people must feed off the carcasses of beloved stories from their youths—just because they can’t think of an original idea of their own, like I did with my Avengers idea that I made up myself."

Actually, Glenn Beck Is Not Father Coughlin. Despite the comparisons, it turns out that tea party darling Glenn Beck is not in the same league as the notorious anti-Semitic radio broadcaster of the 1930s — but that’s mostly because Coughlin was far worse than most people realise.

Pinchgut 2010

Orpheus and Eurydice by Carlo Cignani (1628-1719)

O everlasting gods! I see your lovely eyes and
your beautiful face, and yet I cannot believe my
own eyes!

These are the sentiments of Orpheus on being reunited with Eurydice in Hades, but they are also the standard reaction to a Pinchgut Opera performance. Or, more precisely: I cannot believe my ears that something so sublimely beautiful could be extracted from that neglected material.

L’anima del Filosofo, Joseph Haydn’s version of Orpheus and Eurydice, is their ninth production, and since all the others have been brilliant I have no hesitation in recommending it without yet having seen it.

Pinchgut is an opera company that stages a baroque opera once a year, for four performances in Sydney’s City Recital Hall in the first week of December.

Rather than produce tried and tasted repertoire, Pinchgut usually resurrect forgotten masterpieces, rarely (or never) performed. When these are pieces by first-rank composers like Vivaldi (Juditha Triumphans, 2007) or Charpentier (Jonathan and David, 2008), the question is ‘How on earth did this get lost?’; when they are by obscure people like Francesco Cavalli (L’Ormindo, 2009), it becomes ‘Why on earth isn’t this guy better known?’. Continue reading

A non-detention, non-bleeding heart asylum seeker policy

The publication of an edited version of my Troppo post about abolition of mandatory universal detention of asylum seekers at the ABC Unleashed site has certainly been an interesting experience. Fairly predictably it attracted the sort of polarised “howling into the darkness” comment thread that used to characterise Troppo years ago before we decided that smaller, more civil conversations were more congenial and useful.

About the only advantage of that sort of forum is that it at least provides a chance to respond to the standard knee-jerk canards of the Great Unwashed in the hope that more thoughtful and open-minded readers, who might otherwise be swayed by ignorant “pub” wisdom, will be provoked into thinking a little more deeply about the subject.

I was instantly labelled a “bleeding heart” “ivory tower” “leftie” academic whose thoughts should on that account be just as instantly dismissed.11. KP: OTO Saint Julian Burnside praised it as a “great article”, which may or may not be a compensating factor depending on one’s viewpoint [] As frequent Troppo readers will be aware, those labels just don’t fit. In fact I was even a cautious supporter of Howard’s “Pacific Solution” some years ago, until it became apparent that it simply didn’t work and achieved little except to inflict additional and pointless suffering on asylum seekers who in the majority of cases were genuine refugees fleeing persecution.

Of course, rejecting mandatory universal detention and offshore processing because they don’t actually work does not make one a “bleeding heart”.  It does however impose some sort of intellectual obligation to propose alternative policies if you expect to be taken seriously.

Continue reading

Web developer bleg

I’m looking for a good web designer who can integrate a web presence with Facebook and Twitter and who also has a working familiarity with higher education learning management systems and in particular Blackboard. Can someone point me towards a suitable candidate?

Glenn Stevens suggests we think about managing the boom

RBA governor Glenn Stevens always goes to the big issues. His latest speech notes that we are becoming more dependent on China and India buying our resources, and adds that these countries will probably have their ups and downs over the next quarter-century. So then he asks: how might Australia best respond if our terms of trade become more variable?

One answer, he suggests, is a sovereign wealth fund.

The speech is here. No point paraphrasing, as he puts the argument with such (cautious) precision:

We could simply accept higher variability, if that comes, as the price of higher average income growth  … Another approach would be to reflect the higher income variability in our saving and portfolio behaviour rather than our spending behaviour. We could seek to smooth our consumption – responding less to rises or falls in income with changes in spending and allowing the effects to be reflected in fluctuations in saving. In the most ambitious version of this approach, we could seek to hold those savings in assets that provided some sort of natural hedge against the variability of trading partners, or whose returns were at least were uncorrelated with them. Of course, such assets might be hard to find – the international choice of quality assets with reasonable returns these days is a good deal more limited than it used to be.

It is possible that this behaviour might be managed through the decisions of private savers. There might also be a case for some of it occurring through the public finances. That would mean accepting considerably larger cyclical variation in the budget position, and especially considerably larger surpluses in the upswings of future cycles, than those to which we have been accustomed in the past. There would also be issues of governance and management of any net asset positions accumulated by the government as part of such an approach, including whether it should be, as some have suggested, in a stabilisation fund of some sort.

Reading between the lines, Stevens is well aware just how challenging it would be for politicians to implement this symmetrical Keynesianism.

Great last line too:

It is sometimes said that Australia manages adversity well but prosperity badly. There will never be a better opportunity than now to show otherwise.

The broadband cargo cult, dissected

Occasionally a report comes along which should give people a whole new way of looking at a public policy debate. A new report on universal high-speed broadband (UHSB) via fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP), titled “Superfast: Is It Really Worth a Subsidy?”, does just that. Written by development economist Charles Kenny and his brother Robert Kenny, a British telecommunications consultant, it makes five points which are too frequently overlooked.

First, the macro-level studies which seek to show that UHSB via FTTP* will bring enormous economic benefits are mostly really ropey. This has been true for a decade and is getting worse. People who understand telecoms mostly don’t know how to do rigorous cost-benefit studies, or (like McKinsey & Co) don’t care.

Second, the micro-level specific benefits claimed for UHSB via FTTP in areas such as education, health and power management are mostly overstated.

Thirdly, many of the supposed benefits of UHSB via FTTP – macro- or micro-level – should be realised with the broadband we already have. It’s amazing how often the debate overlooks this. The report makes particular play of the way in which estimates of the bandwidth needs of electricity “smart grids” have been recklessly overstated. The same is true in other areas, including health. To make the case for UHSB via FTTP, proponents need to show what it can do that currently available broadband cannot.

Fourthly, UHSB over FTTP is frequently claimed as the solution to our toughest problems, the intractable ones with complex social roots. For example, it is supposed to transform health care, while health IT experts battle away vainly to get the industry to digitise its existing workflows (a project that really does look like it would have big payoffs). It is supposed educate our kids and cut our power consumption. At this point, UHSB over FTTP starts to look a little like a developed-world cargo-cult.

Fifthly – and perhaps most importantly – we should be able to see high-speed broadband (HSB) via FTTP at work today. The world has had HSB via FTTP for the better part of a decade in places like Seoul and Tokyo. And Australia, like most other developed countries, has had HSB via FTTP for many years too – not everywhere, but certainly between CBDs, many inner-city areas, and the  universities. The notion that we can only imagine the future is only a half-truth. As William Gibson wrote long ago: “the future is here; it is just unevenly distributed”. So the incremental benefits of extra bandwidth for technologies like videoconferencing should be showing up in communications between different parts of Seoul and Tokyo, and between the Australian capital-city offices of major businesses and professional services firms. They are hard to find – harder, indeed, than I expected ten years ago. This is somewhat surprising, but also instructive. (The Kenny brothers make too much of South Korea’s recent slow growth; the more telling observation is the surprising paucity of new uses for South Korea’s shiny new broadband infrastructure.)

People – especially people poorly-grounded in the history of technology – can be easily misled into thinking that if the improvements of the previous generation of technology were good, then the next generation must be just as desirable. In fact, as the Kenny brothers point out, improvement in technology does not necessarily keep on delivering pay-offs in every successive generation; think of the Concorde, once seen as the logical successor to the turboprop and the subsonic jetliner.

The evidence in the Kenny brothers’ report and elsewhere suggests that the widespread adoption of the Internet in the late 1990s was the first-order communications revolution, and always-on middleband and slowish broadband was a second-order revolution. Both occurred incrementally in a short period of time, without great government command or subsidy; the Internet is well-suited to incremental improvement. UHSB via FTTP is a third-order issue.

I admire Stephen Conroy for his energy, his patriotism, and his courage. But his “national high-speed broadband plan” was conceived largely for the political purpose of aligning the Labor brand with “the future’, and costs far too much for what it delivers. It does not survive close scrutiny. That is why the government has been fighting to keep it away from the Productivity Commission, and why it should go there.

* Sorry, but I can’t think of a better way of putting it than UHSB via FTTP. “National broadband network” is a misleading name; we already have one, in the same sense that in 1996 we had a “national Internet network”. The question is whether we should pay more and restrict competition in order to deliver today’s gold-standard service to everyone.

Update: I had missed Ken Parish’s recent post and the ensuing discussion, which is one of the more detailed and well-informed you’ll find on the merits of the NBN.

Note that the Kenny brothers explicitly say that in many places there will be a commercial case for fibre right now, and that eventually everyone may need it. Their argument is that the case for government to subsidise or control  universal HSB via FTTP is grossly overstated.

Qantas – it’s not just the engines

From: Nicholas Gruen (Lateral Economics)
Sent: Saturday, 20 November 2010 3:12 PM
To: Assistant
Subject: Qantas Booking

Hi there,

I purchased the ticket with details below at Mascot Airport and they said they’d send me my invoice by e-mail, but they’ve not done so.

Can you check with me on Tuesday to see if it’s come through and if not please hassle them.

The details are as follows.

Booking reference: 6W63OS
Frequent Flyer No. QF 0093670
Name Mr Nicholas Gruen
From Sydney
To Melbourne
Flight QF451
Fri 19 Nov 10 17:15-18:50

Cheers, Nicholas

From: Assistant
Sent: Tuesday, 23 November 2010 3:05 PM
To: ‘Nicholas Gruen (Lateral Economics)’
Subject: RE: Qantas Booking


I’ve been on the phone to their call centre on it’s definitely going down as one of my strangest phone calls this week.

They don’t have any record of you being on that flight, the booking reference is coming up as not a valid reference number and they can’t see the flight under your Frequent Flyer number either.
The only other suggestion they had was to log into the web version of your frequent flyer account and see if it’s showing there under ‘my bookings’. I’d do this for you, but don’t know your PIN.

I assume you did actually catch this flight? Have the $$ come off your credit card?

Regards, Assistant

From: Nicholas Gruen (Lateral Economics)
Sent: Tuesday, 23 November 2010 3:27 PM
To: Assistant
Subject: RE: Qantas Booking

Well here’s my activity statement from my access to the Qantas site as a FF.

Regards, Nicholas

From: Assistant
Sent: Monday, 29 November 2010 12:17 PM
To: ‘Nicholas Gruen (Lateral Economics)’
Subject: RE: Qantas Booking

Hi Nicholas,

I’ve contacted Qantas again this morning and I’m still having trouble with them.

They’re telling me that they can now see that booking reference number, but that it doesn’t relate to a flight on 19th November – it relates to some other booking made over the internet later in November. I’ve told them I don’t see how this can be the case, given it’s the number quoted on your flight confirmation but they’re adamant and being quite difficult about it.

Unfortunately, they won’t give me any other details or let me deal with this any further because I’m not the account holder and don’t know your Frequent Flyer pin.

Regards, Assistant

From: ‘Nicholas Gruen (Lateral Economics)’
Sent: Monday, 29 November 2010 1:07 PM
To: Assistant
Subject: RE: Qantas Booking

The pin is xxxx
Regards, Nicholas

From: Assistant
Sent: Monday, 29 November 2010 1:16 PM
To: ‘Nicholas Gruen (Lateral Economics)’

Subject: RE: Qantas Booking

Okay, thanks.

I have contacted them again and they have managed to locate the booking now.

Apparently their process is now that to issue an invoice after the fact, they have to refer the details to their finance department for processing and email of invoice out to the customer. Unfortunately, this can take a couple of weeks (!! Honestly, what is it with these companies?!) Your request has been lodged today, so it should definitely arrive. Obviously, let me know if it doesn’t.

Can wind farms make light aircraft pilots fall out of the sky?

In a recent post, Troppo’s Ken Parish suggested that quality newspapers serve a gatekeeping role, ensuring "at least some measure of quality assurance". So what’s happening at the Australian?

In a recent piece on wind farms, environment editor Graham Lloyd attempted to explain how wind turbines kill birds and why wind farms can’t be built close to airfields:

There is a common misconception that birds are sliced up by wind turbine blades, which appear to be spinning slowly but are actually travelling at speeds of up to 200km at the tip. In fact, birds die when they encounter the windshear and pressure changes caused by banks of wind turbines churning up the air. They literally pop and fall out of the sky. This is why there is a ban on wind farms being built near airfields, lest light aircraft pilots meet the same fate.

Lloyd seems a little confused. While there is some evidence that bats can be killed by a sudden drop in pressure caused by flying too close to the tips of a turbine’s blades, this isn’t how most birds are killed. Birds typically die after colliding with blades.

A study by Erin Baerwald, Genevieve D’Amours, Brandon Klug and Robert Barclay (pdf), reported that "Even if echolocation allows bats to detect and avoid turbine blades, they may be incapacitated or killed by internal injuries caused by rapid pressure reductions they can not detect." These pressure changes cause air in the bats’ lungs to expand leading the small blood vessels around the edges of the lungs to burst — a process known as barotrauma. But according to the researchers:

Birds are also killed at wind turbines, but at most wind energy facilities fewer birds than bats are killed, and barotrauma has not been suggested as a cause of bird fatalities.

As for the idea that pressure changes will cause light aircraft pilots to fall out of the sky like bats, this seems unlikely. According to Baerwald, the zone around the blade tips in which pressure suddenly drops is only a metre or so in diameter. The major reason wind farms aren’t allowed near airfields is because pilots might fly into them — especially at night.