Ray Monk Lecture at 6.00 pm tonight: Go if you can

Ray MonkAs a council member of the National Library I had the privilege of not only going to this lecture last Friday night but of having dinner with Ray, the benefactors of the lecture (John Seymour – whom I taught Legal Writing and Research alongside in 1990 or thereabouts – and his wife Heather) and some other nice people that night.

In any event, I really loved the lecture which is a tour of biography through the ages and addresses Samuel Johnson’s five questions/issues about biography. What are they? Well you’ll have to come along to the lecture to find out.

In any event, one thing I loved is that in discussing biography, and the question of whether the subject of the biography has a privileged position in understanding himself that the biographer can never penetrate. Monk discussed Wittgenstein’s private language argument in a way that had relevance for my own thinking about private and public goods. Wittgenstein’s argues for the priority of the public and the shared – just as I would put public goods – specifically emergent public goods prior to private goods.

Anyway, go if you can. As you know I occasionally get a bit carried away with enthusiasm for something or other and the chiming of the private language argument with all my priors may have pushed me over the edge into this malady, but I can also report that everyone else I spoke to thought it was a wonderful lecture. And Ray was kept to time (I think 40 minutes) by Anne-Marie, our National Librarian – an otherwise wonderful woman – who nevertheless deprived us of another ten or twenty minutes of the lecture in which Oppenheimer would have been wound into the narrative alongside fellow biographees Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell.

Italian Film Festival: a bit late


Marina Play Trailer

True story of beloved singer, songwriter and accordionist, Rocco Granata, from his early life as an immigrant in Belgium to his emergence as a worldwide musical phenomenon with his 1959 song Marina, one of the biggest international hits of that era.1948 Calabria, in southern Italy, poor local worker Toto Granata leaves his wife Ida and two children to work in the Belgian mines, promising to return wealthier. But like countless others, instead of returning after a few years as planned, his family are forced to join him and adjust to a new life as immigrants in a foreign country. It is here Toto’s only son Rocco discovers his sole joys lie in young love and the music that will eventually immortalise him.

☆☆☆☆ IMDB

Show Timings


Wednesday 17 Sep 7:00pm

Wednesday 17 Sep 7:15pm

Saturday 20 Sep 6:45pm

Sunday 21 Sep 1:45pm

Monday 22 Sep 8:45pm

Wednesday 24 Sep 1:45pm

Friday 3 Oct 1:45pm

Friday 3 Oct 9:00pm

Saturday 11 Oct 4:15pm


Wednesday 17 Sep 7:00pm

Friday 19 Sep 1:00pm

Friday 19 Sep 6:00pm

Wednesday 1 Oct 1:00pm

Saturday 4 Oct 6:00pm

Tuesday 7 Oct 6:00pm

Saturday 11 Oct 1:00pm


Wednesday 17 Sep 7:00pm

Wednesday 17 Sep 8:30pm

Thursday 18 Sep 4:30pm

Friday 26 Sep 7:00pm

Monday 29 Sep 4:30pm

Thursday 2 Oct 9:30pm

Thursday 9 Oct 4:30pm

Saturday 11 Oct 9:00pm


Monday 22 Sep 1:30pm

Sunday 28 Sep 4:00pm

Tuesday 30 Sep 9:00pm

Thursday 2 Oct 1:30pm

Sunday 5 Oct 6:30pm

Thursday 9 Oct 8:45pm

Sunday 12 Oct 4:00pm


Wednesday 24 Sep 6:30pm

Friday 26 Sep 1:30pm

Tuesday 7 Oct 1:30pm

Wednesday 8 Oct 6:30pm

Friday 10 Oct 6:30pm

Lots more films below the fold Continue reading

Why ‘how to’ guides on innovation are of limited use: An ‘untheory’ of innovation

Looking for a graphic for this blogpost, it was amazing how many of the pictures were of besuited men looking anything but innovative. Not a woman or unbesuited person for miles around. But I digress …

Thinking about how to write a fairly substantial review of knowledge and innovation in the urban water industry, I listed all the things that need to go well for innovation to thrive. What began as a kind of memo to self turned into a kind of unmanifesto, which is to say an explanation for why theorising about innovation can’t be taken very far (or, to be more circumspect, perhaps it can, but I’ve never found it very useful.) In fact there’s lots of writing about innovation – far too much – but most of it – including the best of it – is incredibly light on theory and is in fact storytelling. This is a complement to it, not a criticism. If there’s not much point to theory, The thing is, so many things have to work well together that that is the secret of innovation. And this challenge of ‘alignment’ – of purposes, of people of populations (I meant systems, but it didn’t start with ‘P’ and I’m going for memorability here!) – will be particular to particular projects. There’s little of a general nature that can be said about them. Anyway, what began as a memo to self is now an important part of the way I think about this stuff. A theory of the non-theorisable. The things that must be finessed for innovation – doing things in new and better ways – to thrive in an industry or wider system are many and varied. Just listing them gives an indication of the difficulty of the task owing to its complexity and many faceted nature.

From creation to implementation
  • Innovation must be initiated either by those with a problem to solve or an opportunity to seize or elsewhere within the system. Where this is not spontaneous, it may require careful cultivation and the application of financial and other resources.
  • Once innovations are generated, they must become known to those who can use them beneficially including in some situations, those who are unaware of any specific problems, but who nevertheless can use such innovations to advantage.
  • Those who become aware of new knowledge must understand how to implement it to advantage.
Governance of innovation
  • A specific innovation may solve problems for some levels of a system but it may involve new routines, higher costs, inconvenience or disruption elsewhere. There will often (generally?) be no well-accepted means of determining priorities between the various considerations arising. Continue reading

Time for the ‘reform’ mantra to be modernised: My AFR column of yesterday

The Hawke LegacyBy the time economic reform matured as a political project – let’s date it from Paul Keating’s announcement about its popularity with the resident galah in every pet shop – it was already on the slide into the kind of ideological formula of mercantilism that Ken Henry so powerfully critiqued earlier this week.

Australia was a standard-bearer in areas like trade and agricultural protection, the two airline policy and shopping hours. There, with the stroke of a pen, we swept away the detritus of a century’s ad hoc political favouritism. And unlike our peers in the Anglosphere, we also expanded funding for the safety net – bolstering equity.

But beyond that, as we’ve learned (or have we?), considering policy alternatives against a criterion as crude as how ‘free market’ they are doesn’t work so well. In infrastructure, utility and financial reform, where monopoly and asymmetric information problems abound, regulation remains inevitable and new rent seeking political pathologies lie in wait for those unpicking the old ones. Here our reform efforts brought forth excessively priced toll-ways, desalination plants and airports with the political and official insiders championing the changes parachuting into lucrative careers with the corporate beneficiaries of their reforms to lobby their successors. We’ve seen massive over-investment in electricity transmission and under-investment in other infrastructure.

And yet our policy elite speak as if ‘reform’ is well articulated and will take us back to the glory days of the 1990s Australian ‘reform boom’ that preceded the subsequent resources boom. “Gary Banks’ List” assembled by the former Productivity Commission (PC) chairman – is a canonical PC endorsed reform ‘to do’ list. It was – tellingly enough – cobbled together some months after Glenn Stevens assured a Parliamentary Committee of its existence. John Edwards recently suggested, only slightly exaggerating, that its adoption wouldn’t make a measureable difference to growth.

With national income falling in the most recent national accounts, here are some contemporary challenges and opportunities absent from the list – all of which escape prevailing reform formulas: Continue reading

On the cost of foreign exchange: Scottish independence edition

artiste_207Well gentle readers, it’s come to this. Scottish independence is going down to the wire. It is hanging by a thread, though if you are concerned that I am mixing my metaphors, I think you’re flogging a dead horse after it’s bolted.

In any event, in the question of Scottish independence the question of what currency it will use is the elephant in the room – the sporran on the kilt. If you’ve not been paying attention, the Scottish separatists have been insisting that they can pick up someone else’s currency – the Euro or the Pound – and otherwise enjoy independence.

Paul Krugman is horrified that so soon after the debacle of the Euro the Scots could contemplate this. He’s studiedly agnostic as to whether it might be worthwhile if they had their own currency and focuses on the prospect that they might repeat the disaster of the Euro, or imaging that a monetary union might be a Good Idea outside of a political union. I’m in broad agreement though I think he might be overdoing it a bit.

Meanwhile Joe Stiglitz fancies the idea of Scottish independence if it can help carve out of the British Isles a more egalitarian nation leading him to rather downplay the significance of leaving a political union without also leaving its monetary union. I’m sympathetic to his deprecation of economies of scale as being a big part of the decision. Firstly if you want to be a nation, if you incur a few costs in doing so, that shouldn’t be a big deal in your decision. Further, quite a lot of Scottish governance is already different to British governance so the costs are already there. (As Adam Smith thought in the area of education, some Scottish governance may well be superior. When I was in law school my Evidence teacher was very much enamoured of the Scottish legal institution of the Procurator Fiscal [which is nothing to do with fiscal policy by the way]. But I digress.)

Anyway, one thought that seems largely absent from the debate is that, in this age of the internet, it might well be possible to run a separate currency at a tiny fraction of its current economic cost at least as far as access to foreign exchange (FX) in the spot market is concerned. Continue reading

Institutional innovation and ‘demarketising’ economic bads

institutional innovationMiles Kimball, for the uninitiated a sensible centrist commentator on economic policy is also an admirer of John Stuart Mill and has supported the case for decriminalising drugs.  At the same time, since he thinks drugs – certainly recreational drugs or the new ones – are bad news or likely to have substantial social downsides - he wants to hem in the damage they can do with all sorts of legal restrictions.

[We should] do whatever we can to drive down the usage of dangerous drugs consistent with taking the drug trade out of the hands of criminals:

  • Taxes on dangerous drugs as high as possible without encouraging large-scale smuggling;
  • Age limits on drug purchases as strict as consistent with keeping the drug trade out of the hands of illegal gangs;
  • Free drug treatment, financed by those taxes;
  • Evidence-based public education campaigns against drug use, financed by those taxes;
  • Demonization in the media and in polite company of those who (now legally) sell dangerous drugs;
  • Mandatory, gruesome warnings like those we have for cigarettes;
  • Widespread mandatory drug testing and penalties for use of dangerous drugs—but not for drug possession;
  • Strict penalties for driving under the influence of drugs.

I don’t know enough to have a primary view about whether or not drugs should be legalised – or if I do it’s a pretty tentative one that they should be – but if we were to do so, while I’m OK with Kimball’s list I think it doesn’t go far enough. He presumably agrees with plain paper packaging though he’d extend it to nasty pictures and warnings which is all good. But I’d do more. As I wrote on his blog post (I’ve slightly edited what I wrote there):  Continue reading

Creative destruction: Cities edition

Creative Destruction: Barriers to Urban Growth and the Great
Boston Fire of 1872

by Richard Hornbeck, Daniel Keniston – #20467 (DAE DEV EEE EFG LE PE)


Historical city growth, in the United States and worldwide, has required remarkable transformation of outdated durable buildings. Private land-use decisions may generate inefficiencies, however, due to externalities and various rigidities. This paper analyzes new plot-level data in the aftermath of the Great Boston Fire of 1872, estimating substantial economic gains from the created opportunity for widespread reconstruction. An important mechanism appears to be positive externalities from neighbors’ reconstruction. Strikingly, gains from this opportunity for urban redevelopment were sufficiently large that increases in land values were comparable to the previous value of all buildings burned.

Mid-century modern

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I recently visited the National Gallery of Victoria’s exhibition of 1950s furniture. I went to see Fred Lowen’s furniture. Fred was a Dunera Boy – who I became aware of towards the end of his life when he had an exhibition of drawings at Australia Galleries in Collingwood. There was also an illustrated autobiography there which I bought and read.

Lowen became aware of Scandinavian design and visited there and brought back a great enthusiasm for the clean minimalist use of natural materials which he then skillfully worked into commercially very saleable furniture. FLER was the brand started by fred and another Dunera Boy Ernst Rodeck – the brand was a spelling of their respective initials. The picture above is one of Lowen’s

It was quite an emotional experience for me. I doubted it would be just looking at Fred Lowen’s furniture and in fact there wasn’t a lot of it – other modernist designers seem to have been more prominent. Grant Featherstone seems to have been the star and he produced some very fine furniture.

But the thing the whole feel of the display rooms they’d set up was so like the rooms I was a young child in. And then every now and again a FLER chair that was exactly the same design as one I’d taken as just part of the furniture – as it were. My parents were middle class and not much in the way of trendsetters so, while there would have been plenty of homes that didn’t look ‘Mid-century Modern’ to take the name of the exhibition, there were plenty that were. And I was back in that world.

The design above was the most sumptuous and I think the most successful of Fred’s designs, though we never had it in our house. It was modern but not ‘mid-century’. This was a much plusher design from the latish sixties. Oh and if you look carefully you can see some meshing beneath the chair housing the cushions. As part of the design it jumps out at you. It doesn’t jar with the design but somehow it does seem to be calling attention to itself. Lowen was thinking of the hammocks in which they all lay, in the stinking, clammy hold of the Dunera with shit washing around the floor when the latrine bucket rolled over. That was if they were lucky and managed to get a hammock. If they weren’t they slept on the floor.