Shorewalker’s flotsam, April 2014

An experiment in occasional linkage to insights that might outlast the daily news cycle. If you find any of it interesting, let us know in the comments.

  • Prepare for the knowledge automation transition to take decades (ABC Radio National Future Tense) – How long might it take for developed economies to make the transition to knowledge automation in the 21st century? One answer, from Tyler Cowen: About 60 years, the same as it took to transition to muscle automation from 1780. Cowen adds: “In the very long run it will be splendid, but along the way it’s not always going to feel splendid.” The program quotes Erik Brynjolfsson, co-author of The Second Machine Age, noting once again that in the US around the mid-1990s productivity and wealth became decoupled from employment and median income, which stagnated. The concentration of reward in a knowledge economy was neatly predicted by the late Sherwin Rosen in 1981’s The Economics of Superstars, but more and more people are coming to understand it.
  • flakeJust say “no” to flake (Australian Marine Conservation Society) – Never mind the WA shark saga. Misguided as the WA government’s actions may be, they are insignificant next to the issue of commercial shark fishing. Try something else with your chips.
  • Teach your kids to keep trying (Farnam Street blog) – How does a US public school chess program keeps winning national competitions? By teaching grit: “I really believe that’s why we seem to win girls’ nationals sections pretty easily every year: most people won’t tell teenage girls (especially the together, articulate ones) that they are lazy and the quality of their work is unacceptable. And sometimes kids need to hear that, or they have no reason to step up.”
  • Ask yourself whether you want happiness or meaning (Roy F Baumeister) – Psychology professor Roy Baumeister on creating a meaningful life: “Time spent imagining the future was linked especially strongly to higher meaningfulness and lower happiness … If you want to maximise your happiness, it looks like good advice to focus on the present, especially if your needs are being satisfied. Meaning, on the other hand, seems to come from assembling past, present and future into some kind of coherent story.” Baumeister suggests four “needs for meaning”: purposes that guide your actions, justifications for your actions, actually making a difference (efficacy) and feeling you’re a good person. What is the meaning of life? There are thousands of different ones, but they respond to these four needs. A shrewd commenter asks: is it tautological to say that the meaning of life is to find meaning, without deciding what the good meanings are?
  • Opternative wants to bring the eye exam online (Digital Trends) – The range of services challenged by online services grows by the day. The US-based Opernative startup offers online and app based eye tests on your desktop and tablet computer. They are targeting a cost of $20 for an exam. (Optometry offers an interesting pointer to how the market can deliver lower-cost health solutions, since it does not have the same regulation as other medical fields.)
  • Australia is a global payments system leader  (Public Accountant) –Beverley Head on an unexpected success, driven in part by the RBA’s desire for more payments innovation. We lead the world in contactless payments, and new payments mechanisms are proliferating here. “The RBA’s 2012 strategic review of innovation in the payments system made a series of recommendations … [It] spurred the creation of a collaborative payments hub, allowing near real-time settlement. There are also now plans to establish a central addressing hub that could let people transfer funds knowing only the payee’s mobile phone number … The major banks are racing to mobile payments.”
  • Productivity has had its best two years since 2001-02 (AAP) – Remember how the Gillard Government was a disaster for labour productivity? No, it wasn’t. Labour productivity has just recorded its fastest two years of growth since 2001-2002. It’s a productivity boom! So a triumph for Labour then? No, not really that, either. The real answer to the puzzle is the one Bob Gregory put forward some time ago. The worst labour productivity performances are in mining and utilities, and that’s mostly because of all the investment they’re doing which hasn’t yet paid off. Business-people mostly keep going on about labour productivity as a problem because they want to convince us of the need for further labour market deregulation. But as the Grattan Institute’s John Daley has pointed out, there’s no evidence this will provide much of a transformation.
  • Don’t start environmental measures by assuming stupidity (Eric Crampton) – Why carbon pricing works better than fuel standards: “Imagine that you set a fuel economy standard instead of a carbon/petrol tax in a world where customers are forward-looking and not idiots. Well, once they’ve bought the more efficient car, the value they derive from burning another litre of petrol increases substantially: they can drive farther, and they’re not charged any more for that litre of petrol. And so a lot of the reductions in carbon emission you might have expected get whittled away by that people drive more. If you’d done it instead with a petrol tax, the marginal cost of another litre of petrol is higher. People still flip to the more efficient vehicle, but petrol usage doesn’t rebound as much as a consequence because the marginal cost of a litre is higher.” Greg Hunt almost certainly knows this, but the same story applies to direct action efficiency measures promised at some industrial facility.
  • carparkProtecting historic buildings costs nothing, right? Wrong (The Urbanist, Alan Davies) – Uses the debate over Melbourne’s Total Car Park to tell some preservation truths. First, not all ageing buildings will end up loved. Second, “historical significance” is not worth endless money. “Most of the claims to historical significance are arcane [and] aren’t compelling either; in fact they verge on the inconsequential when compared to the cost of protection  … Compared to how most history is recorded – in books, on film, on a plaque, or in a museum – protecting buildings is an extraordinarily expensive exercise.” Maybe it’s time for Edward Glaeser’s idea of a a fixed annual “preservation budget”. (I’d pay good money to preserve Dr Davies intact forever, though.)
  • We can graph stories (Kurt Vonnegut on Youtube) – Kurt Vonnegut explores the shape of stories – an idea which started off as his rejected masters thesis – and explains why Cinderella is like The Bible. “Anyone can graph a simple story if he or she will crucify it, so to speak, on the intersecting axes I here depict.”

  • Most Australians don’t see God as essential to morality (Pew Research Center) – In Australia, just 23 per cent of people say you must believe in God in order to be moral. Only five of 40 countries recorded a lower percentage. And there’s a gulf between the attitudes of high-income and low-income nations. Even the US, an outlier amongst rich countries, recorded a lower percentage than any country poorer than Russia. With one exception – China. But in China the concept of “God” has long carried a different cultural package.
  • The Australian military should not take over the war on asylum seekers (John Menadue) – John Menadue gets it right: the Australian military has made a grievous misjudgment in allowing itself to become central to asylum-seeker policy implementation. “For political purposes the government has deliberately embarked on a policy and a language to militarise the asylum seeker issue in the same way the Howard Government did in the ‘war on terror’. It is designed to highlight the government’s resolve, to play to our fears about a threat and to lessen our rights to be informed … But the ‘war on terror’ and the so-called ‘war on asylum seekers’ would in fact be much better conducted by police, customs and our intelligence services … Senator Conroy has been criticised for saying that General Angus Campbell, the head of Operation Sovereign Borders, has participated in a ‘political cover-up’. In my view that is precisely what the government and General Campbell have done.”
  • Read the greatest opening in journalistic history (The Atlantic) – This essay, titled The Dark Power of Fraternities, loses its way quickly and fails to answer, um, fundamental questions. But the first four long paragraphs have a dementedly poetic dissonance between writing style and subject matter that elevate them to greatness. “It takes a certain kind of personal-injury lawyer to look at the facts of this glittering night and wrest from them a plausible plaintiff and defendant, unless it were possible for Travis Hughes to be sued by his own anus.”
  • Rent Much Ado About Nothing – Filming the original screwball rom-com in noirish modernity, Joss Whedon delivers the most watchable Shakespeare adaptation in decades. The cast, stuffed with Whedon regulars, clearly had the time of their lives filming on a tiny budget, in a 12-day gap before their director went back to editing the tedious Avengers movie. There have been versions with better line readings, but rarely a more convincing spirit. Ought-to-be-huge-star Amy Acker’s smart, vulnerable, wonderful Beatrice commands centre stage, like Whedon heroines before (or is that after?) her. BuffyFirefly and Dollhouse fans already know this, but Whedon takes a Shakespearean delight in wordplay and pace-changing, and it pays off hugely here. Watch with your significant other.

About David Walker

David Walker runs publishing consultancy Shorewalker DMS (shorewalker.net) and is commissioning editor of Acuity magazine. David has previously edited the award-winning INTHEBLACK business magazine, been chief operating officer of online publisher WorkDay Media, held policy and communications roles at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia and the Business Council of Australia, and run the website for online finance start-up eChoice. He has written professionally on economics, business and public policy since 1987 and spent three years in the Canberra Press Gallery for News Limited and The Age.
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