About David Walker

David Walker is the principal of publishing consultancy Shorewalker DMS (shorewalker.net) where his current projects include editing Public Accountant magazine for the Institute of Public Accountants. David has previously been chief operating officer of publishing firm WorkDay Media, director of communications and advocacy for the Business Council of Australia, director of policy and communications for the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, site director for online finance start-up eChoice and an editor and columnist at The Age. He has written professionally on economics, business and public policy since 1987 and spent three years in the Canberra Press Gallery. Contact him on 03 8899 7790 or email [email protected]

Fact check: The Iran Air Flight 655 non-apology

There are reports today (12 November 2014) from Fairfax and News Ltd that Prime Minister Abbott is urging Vladimir Putin to follow the example of the US government after the Iran Air Flight 655 shootdown — and that he has said the US both paid compensation and apologised. In particular a spokeswoman for the prime minister is quoted thus:

“The Prime Minister observed that when the United States had inadvertently shot down a civilian aircraft it had duly apologised and made appropriate restitution …”

I am hoping the spokeswoman erred on this point. Because I cannot find any reliable reports that the US ever formally apologised or made any payment which it was willing to describe as compensation.

Indeed, based on the reports I can find and my own faulty memory of the time, the US very pointedly avoided apologising or paying compensation.

All I can find in reports is that the US “expressed regret” over the shootdown and made an ex gratia payment. These are the words you use when you are not admitting anything. And this all happened as part of a settlement at the International Court of Justice in 1996, eight years after the shootdown took place – a shootdown unequivocally, albeit mistakenly, launched by the US military.

The PM is said to have “commended the precedent” of the US Flight 655 actions to Putin. It’s a lousy precedent. George H. W. Bush (i.e. Bush the elder), vice-president and campaigning for the presidency at the time, was moved by the shootdown to say in August 1988:

“I will never apologize for the United States – I don’t care what the facts are … I’m not an apologize-for-America kind of guy.”

We are holding Russia to a higher standard than that to which the US was held in 1988. That’s entirely appropriate.

It would be preferable, though, to end the pretence that the US behaved impeccably over Iran Air 655 or that it set an example Russia should follow. On the available facts, the US behaved shamefully.

Twisting the truth is one of the things that has gotten Putin regarded as a thug. Australia and its leaders should be able to adopt a higher standard.

The Rocket Equation’s never-ending tyranny

Soyuz

A Soyuz spacecraft docking with the International Space Station. As the picture makes plain, typical human-occupied spacecraft orbits are very close to Earth; SpaceShipTwo wouldn’t get even this high. NASA photo.

So the latest Scaled Composites/Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo test flight has ended badly, killing one of its two test pilots.

Meanwhile Orbital Sciences, another private space firm, suffered an expensive accident this week as well when one of its (unpeopled) Antares cargo rockets blew up seconds into an ISS resupply mission. Of the three main private human space travel players, only Elon Musk’s SpaceX has survived the week unscathed.

These are testing times for human space travel. When Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X Prize for private spaceflight a decade ago, it gave the field a huge shot in the arm. There was a feeling that private enterprise might triumph where government investment was faltering.

Scaled Composites/Virgin Galactic is a notable pioneer, the first organisation ever to send people to space with a hybrid engine. SpaceShipOne literally burnt rubber, while SpaceShipTwo had recently switched to a new design burning, essentially, nylon. Hybrids don’t pack quite as much energy into each gram of fuel as the traditional rockets that have powered the Soyuz (kerosene-oxygen) and Saturn (kerosene-oxygen/hydrogen-oxygen) launch vehicles. However, hybrids are simpler, which seems like a useful advantage.

But hybrids may just not work at scale. Virgin Galactic was once scheduled to start taking passengers up as early as 2010, and there was talk of doing it by this year, and last week the schedule said 2015, and that’s not going to happen now either. (And in a sense they were not going to space anyway: their sub-orbital flights have recently been planned to fall well short of the Kármán line, 100 kilometres up, which is generally treated as the start of “space”.) With the only existing SpaceShipTwo craft destroyed, the project may chose to substantially change their design. Or Virgin may walk away from what remains a risky and expensive exercise. Continue reading

Happy 20th birthday to blogging!

Just a note to record the fact that blogging is 20 years old this month, maybe. New media legend Dave Winer, a rare combination of great writer and programmer, started posting at DaveNet on 7 October 1994, as Philip Greenspun points out. There was no announcement that Winer had invented a new genre, but I can’t really find anything that looks like a blog going back much earlier than that – though writer Jerry Pournelle’s Chaos Manor got started around the same time and Justin Hall was also getting busy.

DaveNet started as the web version of Winer’s email newsletter, but having found the web-based format was popular, he started pushing through classic weblog fodder – short thoughts, links, and reflections on stuff other people were saying.

Having invented the weblog, Winer then helped to develop RSS and co-invented podcasting, proselytised for proper web content management systems, built outliners and basically helped invent the media landscape we have today. What a guy.

As Greenspun puts it:

The standard HTTP/HTML Web was and is great for 3-30-page ideas. Winer was perhaps the first person to see that the world needed some different technical standards to deal with three-paragraph ideas.

People frequently see blogging as something completely new. In fact, though, it has quite a few media predecessors, notably the personal diary. From one perspective, a blog was simply a way of publishing your own diary to a mass audience. But it also had a number of new aspects: for instance, it frequently used links to exploit the availability of huge numbers of online media sources.

Blogging was also one of the first online media products to showcase online brevity. Facebook and Twitter* then came along and underlined this unexpected development. Indeed, for all the talk about the wonders to come from ultra-fast broadband, the big online media developments of the past two decades have to a surprising degree been about short written content.

* Fun online media “fact”: I read somewhere long ago – and perhaps it’s even true – that the average Victorian-era diary entry would fit comfortably within Twitter’s 140-character limit.

Matt Levine helps you understand the bank regulation problem in 1800 words

If you want to understand what bank regulators were doing in 2008, and what people like APRA and the Reserve Bank worry about here, try reading Matt Levine’s latest column.

Leviine’s piece is nominally about a weird court case involving AIG, the insurance behemoth which almost blew up the world financial system in 2008. But in the process of explaining the court case, Levine sets out with admirable clarity why our current banking system doesn’t allow easy, perfect regulatory solutions to banking problems like we faced six years ago. (A different banking system might do that, but so far no-one has come up with anything even faintly convincing enough to make us re-architect the entire financial world.)

Extract:

Simplifying a lot, a bank is a thing that allows some people (“savers”) to put money somewhere, get paid interest on it and be confident that they’ll get it back, and that allows that money to be invested in the real economy. That is: Banks have risky claims on the real economy and hand out risk-free claims to their savers.

This is a bit of magic that works most of the time, but not all of the time. Sometimes people realize that their risk-free claims are backed by risky assets, and might be riskier than they thought, and then they panic and pull their money out of the banks and that’s a big problem for the rest of the economy. This has been an extremely well-known problem for centuries, and the solution has been extremely well-known for about 140 years. It’s for the central bank to lend the banks money until the crisis passes.

This has nothing to do with subprime, or derivatives, or too-big-to-fail banks. It’s just a feature of banks, which are where the money is, but only in a probabilistic sense. Sometimes they are not where the money is, and that’s a crisis. But if the central bank (or, sort of equivalently, the government) lends them money, then the crisis will pass, and they’ll be able to pay it back with interest.

Many people dislike this, and it is sort of unseemly, but it really is a well-known set of facts. You can reduce the risk of banking crises happening, but not to zero, because of that core mismatch between banking’s risky assets and savers’ expectations of safety. And if crises do happen, central-bank support seems to be the only effective way to solve them.

Among other things Levine points out, in his copious and typically excellent footnotes*, that what we call “bail-outs” are less about helping bankers and more about helping the people (“bank creditors”) who have lent a lot of money to banks. In Australia these days, of course, people who have lent a little bit to banks are generally covered by a government guarantee.

Read the whole thing.

* I have no idea why so few journalistic articles in online-only publications have footnotes. They seem like a terrific idea for dealing with thoughts that aren’t core to your main narrative. Levine’s footnotes are a series of tasty hors d’ouevres sprinkled through the main meal.

Offences against good government: a Troppo list challenge

So the Senate will conduct an enquiry into the Queensland government – on the pretext that, to quote Senator Glen Lazarus, it has made “many questionable decisions”. Never mind that state governments are elected by the same people who elect senators, or that senators are elected to conduct national business. A bunch of senators is going to go poking around state affairs, because the Queensland government did things with which some of those senators disagree.

This silliness comes courtesy of a deal between the Palmer United Party, Labor and the Greens. The Greens’ Senator Larissa Waters was on Radio National this morning doing a great job of not answering questions about her party’s trampling of good governance while gabbling about Newman’s “brutal agenda” – but to her credit, she at least put her head up above the parapet. Labor initially seemed mightily embarrassed, as they should be.

The excuse they’re all using for this departure from convention is that Queensland has no upper house. (Back in the day, much of the left was dedicated to eliminating upper houses as unrepresentative, but apparently this is now Not Canon, as they say in the comic-book business.) In real life, a more important factor appears to be that Clive Palmer hates Campbell Newman’s guts.

The senators’ decision is a procedural obscenity not just because it is transparently payback but because it builds a path to a future where parliaments inquire endlessly into each other simply because they are run by different parties. I disagree with a bunch of the Newman government’s decisions, but the medicine for that illness is an election, which is actually not that far away.

This sort of convention-busting idiocy traditionally gets debated for a few days, decried by commentators from one side or the other, and then buried. There’s no real constituency for maintaining decent conventions and processes of government, compared to the constituency for, say, cutting taxes.

But it’s worth an occasional attempt to remind everyone that our existing system of government has its good points and that slowly degrading it does the country no favours. Especially since we seem to be getting more of these breaches of convention over time.

So here’s the challenge to Troppodillians: Name one or more actions of governments over recent years which have junked useful conventions and eroded the capacity of governments to simply govern prudently and well.

Nominations in the comments, please. Continue reading

Iraq: 10 things that seem to be true

As we head back to Iraq, I’m struck by the way in which those making the case both for and against are avoiding certain ideas which seem to me to be true:

This is not 2003 all over again. At least on a moral level, and at least as far as action in Iraq goes. We have been invited in by the Iraqi government, giving the military campaign a legal and moral basis for action that the 2003 war lacked, and IS is thoroughly dominated by murderous zealots. Tony Abbott has been careful to say that attacking IS in Syria would be very different to what we’ve signed up for so far, which it would, and he deserves credit for that.

IS is not an existential threat to Australia. No kudos to George Brandis, who claimed this week that IS “represents or seeks to be an existential threat to us”. Brandis’s statement avoids outright lying only by his addition of the phrase “or seeks to be”. This has strong echoes of the 2003 b.s. about how Saddam could threaten the world with nuclear weapons, It is not quite as stupid now as it was then, but that’s not saying much. Lots of loony zealots seek to be an existential threat to the Australian state. There’s a world of difference between the wish and the capability. IS currently appears weak on capability, though that could change. There’s more chance of Australia being seriously damaged by a mutated Ebola virus, and we react to that threat with a few million dollars every so often.

We have some responsibility to help make Iraqis’ lives better. In 2003 we invaded their country and failed to do what we said we’d do. The military did its best, but we needed other tools in the kit, didn’t have them, and like some blundering amateur, didn’t even know we needed them. We helped make their country vulnerable to the violent zealots. Those violent zealots are now trying to impose upon millions of Iraqis a particularly nasty brand of theocracy. We seem to have alarmingly little national shame about this, and remarkably little sense that by creating the mess, we created a lasting responsibility to fix it. This is what Colin Powell once explained to George W. Bush as the “Pottery Barn principle” – you broke it, you own it.

We will run into unintended consequences. The idea of unintended consequences is hard enough to keep in people’s minds in the economic debate. But in the foreign policy debate people seem ready to discard it at a moment’s notice. And when things go wrong, instead of reassessing, they defend the purity of their motivations. Chris Berg of the IPA has dubbed this the “it’s the thought that counts” school of humanitarian intervention. It is probably too much to expect, but we ought to conduct this debate with an honest acknowledgement that things are not likely to go to plan. To use Donald Rumsfeld’s admirable observation, we face both known and unknown unknowns.

Continue reading

An overarching theory of sexual abuse scandals

Ross Douthat in the New York Times presents a compelling theory about the waves of sexual abuse scandals, from Roman Catholicism to Rolf Harris to Rotherham. Remember that these scandals are scandalous precisely because their perpetrators all got away with rape and abuse for long periods of time:

[I]nstead of looking for ideological vindication in these stories, it’s better to draw a general lesson. Show me what a culture values, prizes, puts on a pedestal, and I’ll tell you who is likely to get away with rape.

In Catholic Boston or Catholic Ireland, that meant men robed in the vestments of the church.

In Joe Paterno’s pigskin-mad Happy Valley, it meant a beloved football coach.

In status-conscious, education-obsessed Manhattan, it meant charismatic teachers at an elite private school.

In Hollywood and the wider culture industry — still the great undiscovered country of sexual exploitation, I suspect — it has often meant the famous and talented, from Roman Polanski to the BBC’s Jimmy Savile, robed in the authority of their celebrity and art.

And in Rotherham, it meant men whose ethnic and religious background made them seem politically untouchable, and whose victims belonged to a class that both liberal and conservative elements in British society regard with condescension or contempt.

The point is that as a society changes, as what’s held sacred and who’s empowered shifts, so do the paths through which evil enters in, the prejudices and blind spots it exploits.

So don’t expect tomorrow’s predators to look like yesterday’s. Don’t expect them to look like the figures your ideology or philosophy or faith would lead you to associate with exploitation.

Expect them, instead, to look like the people whom you yourself would be most likely to respect, most afraid to challenge publicly, or least eager to vilify and hate.

Viewing the broadband future

The latest cost-benefit analysis of various Australian broadband proposals is out. It’s part of a report from an inquiry chaired by former Victorian Treasury head Mike Vertigan.

And it says in essence that Australia’s expected growth in demand for bandwidth is big enough to make the NBN viable, but small enough to make the government’s alternative look better.

I would have expected to hear the report’s authors out there defending it, but Mike Vertigan has never been keen to put himself forward in the public debate. So today much of the media I saw has been dominated by critics, and they’ve mostly been saying that a useful cost-benefit analysis is impossible, so we should just build the NBN. Paul Budde was making the claim this morning on ABC Radio, and lesser-known experts such as Sydney Uni’s Kai Riemer have been saying the same thing.

This claim – that we can’t usefully analyse the NBN’s costs and benefits – is hooey.

We can’t do a precise cost-benefit analysis, given how much Internet use is likely to change over the next decade or two. And whatever analysis we do should be up-front about how much guesswork is involved. But cost-benefit analyses are not just helpful; they’re also inevitable. Indeed, everyone who says “we should just build it” actually is doing a cost-benefit analysis. Typically they’re just doing a really sloppy cost-benefit analysis in their head, and setting their median estimate of the benefits at, approximately, Unimaginably Huge.

And Unimaginably Huge is almost certainly an overstatement.

“We can’t begin to imagine what people could do with upload speeds on an industrial scale,” Riemer told News Limited.

But of course we can begin to imagine that. Here’s how. Continue reading

Iran Air Flight 655: How did Australia react?

A question for Troppodillians: does anyone have a record of the Australian Government’s response to 1988′s accidental US shootdown of Iran Air Flight 655?

I ask because the parallels with the MH17 shootdown are so clear.

At a political level the government’s response has so far been well-judged. There are few negatives in getting upset about the deaths of Australians overseas, particularly at the hands of a group aligned with a nation whose policies we rightly dislike, whose statements we quite sensibly distrust, and with whom we have few important links.

But at a moral level, it seems to me difficult to judge this episode more reprehensible than the Flight 655 shootdown. MH17 was shot down by untrained yahoos informally but closely connected to the Russsian government, probably by mistake. Flight 655 was shot down by the USS Vincennes on the orders of a formally trained US warship commander, fairly certainly by mistake.

The US, remarkably, never apologised to Iran or anyone else over the shootdown.

And my dim recollection is that the Australian Government responded that it was all a regrettable accident. Hansard’s online search doesn’t return anything from 1988. Does anyone have more detail?

A reminder of the response to Flight 655, from the careful-with-the-facts for Age journo Tim Colebatch (who was a foreign correspondent in Washington at the time): Continue reading