Czesław Miłosz: Alpha, the Moralist

Czesław Miłosz is a Polish writer and Nobel Laureate who first came to Western attention in the early 1950s with the publication of The Captive Mind one of the earliest exposes of the nightmare of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe following WWII. He had not been in the Communist Party but was nevertheless cultural attaché to the Polish embassy in Washington DC from which he defected, or as he preferred to put it, ‘broke with’ the Polish Government.

Czesław Miłosz in 1999 in Krakow, Poland

The introduction and first three chapters are all fascinating analyses of the particular form that Stalinism has taken in Poland, but the succeeding four chapters on Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta are, despite pseudonyms suggesting strains of a pathogen, are portraits of identifiable individuals. In each case the portraits are quite gripping stories of how people of great ability and ambition navigate the whipsaw of life in pre-war Poland, then the Nazi occupation followed by ‘liberation’ and the fairly rapid pacification of the national government to the dicates of the USSR and its system of thought ‘dialectics’.

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Standards Part Two: Comparative Standards

Standards: continued from Part One.

Why is this man smiling?

I. Introduction

Why is this man smiling? He’s smiling because he is Charles Francis Richter and he came up with the Richter scale. And if you have come up with the Richter scale, every time there’s an earthquake, people who want to sound informed mention your name. And scientific tests prove that everyone — even small insects — like having their name mentioned.

But Charles has left the world with two problems. First, as Wikipedia reports:

Because of various shortcomings of [Richter’s]  scale, most seismological authorities now use other scales, such as the moment magnitude scale (Mw ), to report earthquake magnitudes, but much of the news media still refers to these as “Richter” magnitudes.

Still, to retain their comparability to the familiar scale the scales developed in the Richter Scale’s stead “retain the logarithmic character of the original and are scaled to have roughly comparable numeric values (typically in the middle of the scale)”. 

It gets worse. In fact we’re mostly uninterested in all these scales’ measurements, because we’re usually interested in the felt intensity of earthquakes in highly populated places. Thus for instance, one of Troppo’s apex nodes — Melbourne — recently experienced an earthquake which we were assured was 5.9 on the Richter Scale by people who are paid good money to look serious. By contrast, Christchurch’s 2011 eathquake was only 6.3 on the Richter scale and did vastly more damage. As analysis from Troppo’s Epicentre Analysis Division (EAD) reveals, the main reason for the disparity is that the epicentre of the Christchurch earthquake was in a suburb of Christchurch whereas the epicentre of the Melbourne earthquake was in Mansfield.

(Even here it wasn’t long before the Victorian earthquake produced shocks that were felt around the world, for instance in comments from Britain’s famously empathetic Prime Minister, but I digress).

In fact if you want to know the intensity of the earthquake in Melbourne you should be using a quite different comparative standard — a Seismic Intensity Scale. But who’s heard of that? And if you’re paid to look serious, that’s serious enough! You’re not paid to sound serious. Now maybe if Charles Francis Richter had been born to Mr and Mrs Seismic Intensity, we wouldn’t be in this situation.

But he wasn’t.

So we are!  

II. Designing comparative standards that are fit for purpose

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The Melbourne Suburban Rail Loop’s fragile business case shows governments need an Evaluator-General


We have a broken process for evaluating costly government investments. The evolving plan for an underground railway through Melbourne’s middle suburbs reminds us that we need something better.

The Victoria government is currently in the early stages of building what would likely be Australia’s first $100-billion-plus infrastructure project – the Melbourne Suburban Rail Loop. That price tag would make it bigger than the national broadband network, but with the costs borne by just a quarter of Australia’s population.

The Loop is currently wildly popular in Melbourne, as best I can tell. It also seems to be a favorite of Victorian premier Daniel Andrews, who announced it as a fait accompli before it had much assessment at all.

Andrews loves the Loop. Why? It’s a mystery I’ve explored elsewhere on Troppo. The project seems unlikely – a mostly underground and hence expensive rail line through Melbourne’s middle suburbs, whose spread-out nature minimises their potential capture area and dilutes and rail line’s impact. To most transport experts, this doesn’t seem a very good way to improve Melbourne’s transport grid or foster the development of new urban hubs.

And if it doesn’t pay off, the resulting debt could act as a drag on the state’s economy for years.

So it really does merit someone running the ruler over it fairly dispassionately, to see if it will help or hinder the state. And that evaluation needs to look at all the social benefits as well as all the social costs. Those benefits and costs are many and various, so the only really comprehensive way to do this evaluation is to attach a common value to each of them and then compare. In other words, we need a benefit-cost assessment.

Infrastructure Victoria, sidelined

In theory, Victoria has just the body to do such an assessment: Infrastructure Victoria, created in 2015. Andrews said at the time that it would “take short-term politics out of infrastructure planning, and keep our pipeline of major projects full”. It would ensure “Victoria’s immediate and long-term infrastructure needs are identified and prioritised based on objective, transparent analysis and evidence”. It would “prioritise the projects that deliver the best results”.

Here’s the twist: once announced, the Loop quickly became government policy. And at that point, Infrastructure Victoria could by law no longer evaluate it.

So instead, the Loop has what the government calls a “business case”, which it has represented as proof that the Loop makes sense. This business case comes from KPMG, working for the government. It appeared in August 2021 (PDF link).

We’d have a lot more reason to trust the business case if it were done under the eye of a more disinterested assessment group. Specialist bodies like Infrastructure Victoria seem too easily sidelined, and sidelining them won’t attract political penalty: Infrastructure Victoria seems just too small to catch the public’s attention. A better alternative might be Nick Gruen’s suggested independent government-wide institution to monitor and evaluate policymaking and service delivery – the Evaluator-General.

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Standards Part One (And now Part Two): Standards as windows on an alternative universe

I. Introduction 

Some prefer iPhones. Others prefer Android. These are the two standards left standing for what only old guys call smartphones. ‘Standards wars’ like this have arisen throughout history. No doubt readers can provide examples back to the ancient world, but the switch to double entry bookkeeping from 1299 on and from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar from 1582 to 1927 provide us with an early instances of standards warfare. 

Since then the 19th-century gave us standards wars over railway gauges and between AC and DC current, not to mention the fairly rapid rise to sole dominance of simple standards as occurred with the QWERTY keyboard for instance. Things then really hotted up with the growing knowledge intensity of the 20th-century economy. 

Still, even as the 20th-century saw hundreds of standards wars, they were hardly front of mind for most people. That’s particularly so for science and public policy thinkers. Standards played virtually no role in mainstream economics until the 1980s when all those pesky things that got in the way of the discipline’s great quest to understand an imaginary perfect economy were readmitted into polite conversation — things like scale economies, imperfect competition, asymmetric information, cognitive biases and path dependency.  

But I think standards are a much bigger deal than this mild revisionism would have us believe. They provide a way into thinking about the world as if most of our understanding occurs outside our heads. If that strikes you as outrageous, here’s Nathaniel T. Wilcox, a fine behavioural economist and econometrician on the point: 

I suggest that the main genius of the human species lies with its ability to distribute cognition across individuals, and to incrementally accumulate physical and social cognitive artifacts that largely obviate the innate biological limitations of individuals. If this is largely why our economies grow, then we should be much more interested in distributed cognition in human groups, and correspondingly less interested in individual cognition. We should also be much more interested in the cultural accumulation of cognitive artefacts: computational devices and media, social structures and economic institutions.

Standards are a window — though only that — on that parallel universe in which our minds are ‘distributed’. 

II. Standards create worlds 

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Academia: when there’s no ‘there’ there


The university is one of the finest creations of European culture. Alas, as a troublesome fellow once said, all that is solid melts into air. I’m a bit shy of attributing things to a single cause. These things tend to built up over many, many decades. But certainly what might be called the moral collapse of universities, the collapse of morale among academics and the triumph of careerism has coincided with the slide into managerialism

I’ve had my complaints about this in academia generally and in economics. However this post is in response to coming across an article which I was very keen to read because it dealt with a subject I think is of great interest and importance. Alas, I was at a loss to discover any real evaluative content in it whatever. Let me explain. 


Since I first encountered them, I’ve regarded design — particularly co-design — and peer support as powerful means of escaping bureaucratic business-as-usual. Both are brought together in Family by Family an exciting departure for social policy which has nevertheless been left to safely languish on the periphery of our system for a decade. 

So naturally, doing some work on the efficiency and effectiveness of helping people understand the best assistive technology options available to them, I was interested to learn of the existence of a similar combination of design and peer support with the additional feature of another modern phenomenon of great promise — social media platform (and yes, as we’re coming to see, when it’s harnessed for profit and clicks, social media is also a threat). 

So I was keen to learn about “AT Chat” which describes itself as “a peer-led, co-designed community for assistive technology (AT) users to share information and lived experience about AT”. It’s mission?

… to deliver a peer-led information and mentoring service that provides our community with the opportunity to build their AT decision making capability and share their expertise with each other and the broader community.

I then ​ discovered a recent article in the academic journal “Disability and Rehabilitation: Assistive Technology” with this title “Co-creating an assistive technology peer-support community: learnings from AT Chat”. The kinds of questions I’d like to see researchers tackling regarding such ventures include:

  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of co-design compared with more traditional delivery methods and can we come to any general conclusions? If not, how do we tell good from bad in co-design and in more traditional methods? 
  • Ditto between peer and professional support? In so far as there are differences, are peer and professional support compared on a ‘level playing field’. That is, not only do professionals earn a pay-cheque but they are backed by substantial organisational resources. How much better might peer support be if supported in similar ways? What is the effect of paying mentors on their status as peers. And how much benefit might be generated by building effective education pathways from peer-support to professional standing.
  • What opportunities and threats to effective collaboration arises from the greater social distance between people when they encounter each other online compared with in person. (This is an important reason why sampling methods of democratic deliberation seem to work better in person than online).

Alas that’s not what’s in the article.  Continue reading

Posted in Education, Methodology, Philosophy | 2 Comments

You heard it first on Troppo folks: Up from the archives

Reading the publicity for this new book I remembered a name — pathologist Colin Manock — thinking it had been at the centre of some deliberations here some time ago. I was right — it had.

I reproduce the relevant column from the archives in 1910 for your delectation, though the comments thread also contains much that is of interest. Continue reading

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Needing the eggs: The podcast

Here’s a podcast I did a few weeks ago which has garnered more reaction from people than any I’ve done before. That may just be because (as it turned out) I played cat and mouse with the listener by the podcast talking to an essay I’d written that hadn’t been published. In any event lots of people tune into what Tyson Yunkaporta has to say about things and he’s an interesting and astute guy.

Anyway, I’ve had requests from quite a few different places around the world for the essay — to which, as loyal Troppodillians, you’ll know you are also most welcome to. Anyway, I hope you find it of interest. And if you want to download it onto your pod, you can do so from Tyson’s podcast site here.


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