Saturday, December 27, 2008

Confirmation Bias

A friend of mine posted this link on her facebook site. It's an article about opening up monogamous relationships. I'm responding, not the article itself, but to one of the comments, which claims: Having been in and known dozens and dozens of people involved with open relationships, I can think of less than a handful for whom it has worked.

Of course defining which relationships "work" and which don't can be pretty hard, but it struck me that a case could be made that most relationships don't "work" at least if your test is having them last for life.

When I was at university I knew of perhaps three openly non-monogmous relationsips, although there were probably a few others who were keeping it quiet. Naturally this was out of hundreds (possibly thousands) of relationships within my friendship circle over the years.

The other day I opened the newspaper to an interview with someone who was part of one of those non-monogmous relationships, who has now become a moderately famous author. His partner is drifting around during the interview, occasionally intervening. And yes, its the same partner. They've been together more than 20 years, since well before I met them.

The thing is, I can only think of four other relationships from my peer group that have made the distance. So the "failure" rate is actually a lot higher for the conventional relationships than the very small sample of open relationships.

But when monogamous relationships break up outside observers seldom blame monogamy. When open or polyamourous relationships don't last, it's the first thing everyone else grabs for.

It's not a very original observation of course. It's called Confirmation Bias. When we see something that supports our prejudices we file it away as evidence, when it counteracts what we expect we often, although not always, disregard it.

But it would be nice if, on a lefty website, people of explicitly progressive politics were not so clearly applying it to bash others.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Psephology of Giving

I am a big fan of the Internet sites that raise money for charities by having ads played to you when you either click the link, or use them as a search engine. Collectively they have raised millions, translating to hundreds of millions of meals for the hungry, thousands of square meters of rainforest saved, hundreds (at least) of children taught to read and so on. Admittedly some of this is illusion, with money shuffled from one charity to another, but it still looks like the net effects are positive.

One of the smaller sites in this regard is Search Kindly. They use the Google Search engine, but get to pass on half the income from sponsors to charities, rather than it all going to Google. Search Kindly differs from other such sites in that you get to choose which charity you want the money to go to. They've tried this in a few ways, but at the moment run polls each month where those using the site can choose from a list of six charities. Whichever gets the most choices gets the money for the month. You don't have to choose when you use the search engine, but I usually do.

Only very rarely do the options include a charity I actually think would be a bad choice, but there is no doubt that some would make the money go a lot further than others. At the start of this month I was pleased to see the Grameen Bank on the list, and enthusiastically voted for them every day. Alas by mid month it was clear they would come third (although at least there are consolation prizes for 2nd and 3rd). I decided to switch to MedShare International, a charity I'd never heard of before, but who sound like they've got a great program, collecting medical supplies Western Hospitals can't use for shipping to aid groups in the fourth world.

The thing that struck me about this is that it is a rare case of voting where you get to see the score as the vote progresses (I mean rare in terms of things that matter, not worthless web surveys). If the vote was run like an Australian preferential secret ballot I'd have voted Grameen 1, Medshare 2, but what if it was a US plurality style ballot? Even if I had known Grameen was probably not going to make it, I might have voted for them anyway. However, confronted with the clear reality of a two-horse race I shifted my vote.

I don't really have a conclusion to this (other than use Search Kindly or Ripple or one of the others out there), but it does provide yet more evidence why preferential voting is better than First Past the Post. It's just crazy that one can be left with this choice between voting for what you really believe in, and voting for what might actually win, sometimes without even the information Search Kindly offers to facilitate.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Maintain Your Rage

I haven't blogged on the disaster that is the White Paper on Carbon Trading. That's simply because the dissection of what is wrong with this abomination has been done better by many more prominent bloggers.

What I don't think has been covered nearly as well is what those who want a biosphere that lasts longer than the warranties on the more reliable dishwashers should do. One of the nasty aspects of the ETS is that it doesn't leave any room for people to take direct action by, for example, acquiring Green Power. All that happens is that the emissions you have saved become available for polluters to snap up at bargain basement rates.

Lobbying is clearly also not effective - if it was we wouldn't have this debacle. As for working the system from within, well Cortney Hocking's line that "Peter Garrett is the only man in history to have more power as lead singer in a rock band than as a federal minister" is now proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Donating to GetUp's ad campaign is a good first step, but seriously, if you want to make a difference in the long run I think the options are down to one: Join the Greens. If you're already a member, up your involvement or donations.

I don't really like saying this because I am a great believer in pursuing multiple strategies, and I always distrust the people who have the same answer to every problem. Since involvement in the Greens has been my primary form of activism for a long time, pushing it to hard makes me feel like one of those Socialist Alternative members chanting "One solution, revolution". But seriously, what is the alternative?

It's not like the Greens don't need your help. Whether it is more bodies on polling day handing out HTV cards, more people willing to put up their hands as candidates or campaign managers, or just someone willing to counteract the nutters who still dominate the occasional branch and working group the party needs people. And it needs money. If you're angry, the link is here.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Shocked I Say

This morning, news radio carried the same story several times (as they do):

"The man whose house was hit by a plane yesterday said he was surprised..."[1]

On one occasion they changed it to "shocked". I can only assume that the writers have taken their Christmas break early.



[1] I may have the way they described him wrong, but the relevant part is right.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

I'm Starting to Relate to Farmers


My house has three trees in the backyard. One is a fig tree, which has been deeply appreciated by many friends. One is an olive tree, which produced nothing the first year I was here, but gave me some very nice olives the second, although salting is a lot of work.

I had no idea what the third one was, and since it looked like it might die the first year didn't pay it much attention, other than putting on a bit of graywater in the hope it wouldn't. Now after, producing nothing at all for two years it has come out in a whole lot of very small plums.

They're not really good to eat, but I thought they might be good soup-making material, having made some wonderful soups from plums you wouldn't eat straight at a former house. A week ago only a few were ripe, but there were scores (literally) that were only a few days off. Then came the rains. Leaving aside the ones that are still a few weeks off, so many of those scores have split that this is what I was able to harvest.

Monday, December 15, 2008

On Beauty

There's a very moving (and beautifully written) post over at Hoyden about the Beauty Myth and what happens to women's self identity as they age and are no longer noticed/praised for being desirable. Although the thread sometimes degenerates there are several comments as insightful and revelatory as the original.

I'm particularly cautious of thread derailment on feminist topics so I thought I'd post over here and just link there.

I'm interested in the other side of the coin - how to avoid perpetuating and reinforcing the message. For a long time I'd almost never comment on a woman's appearance at all, lest it be reinforcing of the idea that this was what matters. More recently I've slipped into sometimes telling a woman how attractive she looks, and it struck me the other day that I've said nice things about one particular friend's looks more often than her intellect/academic success. (Since she's well into a PhD in a hot area of science the latter is considerable, but she's not entirely confident of her abilities, so its not like such comments would be superfluous)

I realised that as a society we're so conditioned to talk about women in terms of their appearance that it takes a fair amount of effort not to. Certainly such effort is pretty minor compared to the efforts women have to go to in order to block out the messages that their worth is measured in milli-Helens[1], but I'm pondering how important this is, and if any comments are too many. May post in more depth later.


[1] In case this is not self-explanatory, the milli-Helen was a measure of beauty proposed at one point on the basis that if Helen of Troy had "the face that could launch a thousand ships" beauty could be measured on the scale of how many ships would be launched to rescue/recapture an individual. I'm not sure how tongue in cheek the idea was, but besides the sexist (and hetrosexist) assumptions, it is does reveal that in a society where cultural notions of beauty are strongly reinforced such a scale is much less use than one in which diverse visions of beauty are encouraged.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sigh

When I started this blog I never expected it to top the readership charts, or draw so many page views I could run advertising that would make me rich. But I rather hoped someone would read it. Thus my excitement when anyone comments.

After a failed attempt to put a tracker on some time ago I made another effort two weeks ago. This time it seems to have worked, and I've been emailed two weekly records of all the visits to the site in that time.

And the figure is....drumroll....none.

Yes, no one at all has visited this site in that time according to the tracking device. No pageviews at all. Either it is filtering out my own visits, or its not working.

It really doesn't do a lot for my efforts to convince myself I can get a book published.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Year To End All Wars

Mark 2068 in your diaries. It’s the year humanity will achieve its crowning glory – an end to war.

OK, I’m not actually serious with that. The date is based on a calculation so rough it barely deserves the name, but I’m trying to make a serious point. Unlikely as it may seem, we are on target to end perhaps the greatest blight on human happiness in history, and in the life time of some people alive today.

I suspect that most people, off the cuff, would say that war is getting more common in the world today, and scoff at the idea we are on a trajectory towards ending it. But this perception is false, based on three factors:

• We have a general tendency to think bad news is increasing, even when it is not
• Wars are now more reported than ever before, so we hear about atrocities in far off lands of which we know little.
• The wars that are occurring may well be becoming more bloody – at least in absolute terms – which creates a perception there are more of them.

There is no doubt new technology is allowing killing on a greater scale than ever before, and as the world’s population grows it is to be expected that death tolls will rise.

But the happier side of the coin is that the number of wars in the world is on the decline, and has been for quite a while. My very rough estimate is that every three years two wars are ended and one new one starts. A slightly less rough assessment is that there are 20 wars in the world today. On this basis it will take 60 years to end war entirely, thus the date above.

Now there are many, many things one can quibble over in these figures. The definition of war is not that easy, as is defining when many conflicts start and finish.. I’m sure I’ve also left out a few wars from the table below, and would be grateful for corrections (although of course I’d prefer that there are no more horrors to confront) I’ve put my definitions at the bottom. Feel freed to disagree with them, but I’m fairly confident that on almost any consistent definition you can use my broad conclusion is robust – the number of wars in the world is in long term decline.

The obvious fly in this ointment is that environmental degradation increases conflict and will lead to more wars. Already the Dafur conflict may well have been caused, at least in part, by desertification of the Sahel.

But against this there is the fact that wars tend to breed more wars, and peace breeds more peace. Conflicts on a nation’s borders lead to destabilisation, most clearly seen in the way civil war in Liberia engulfed surrounding nations. On the other hand, the more countries there are that are free of wars the more support there is for the humanitarian and peace-keeping missions, as well as the trade sanctions and moral pressure which collectively have contributed to ending quite a few of the world’s conflicts.

I think we’re in a race, to get the number of wars in the world down to the point where virtuous circles take over and war is put behind us like smallpox before global warming fans the embers of an unstoppable number of blazes.

I’m far from certain we’ll win this race, but there is a much better chance than most people realise that we might.


Nation’s experiencing wars[1] begun since 1993 (5)
DRC
Dafur
South Ossetia/Abkhazia[2]
Iraq
Ivory Coast

Nations whose experience of war stopped since 1993 (12)
Aceh
Algeria
Angola
Bosnia
Bougainville
Djibouti
East Timor
Guatemala
Liberia
Northern Ireland
Peru
Sierra Leone

Nations experiencing continuing wars (15)

Afghanistan
Burma
Casmance
Chad
Columbia
Eritrea
Israel/Palestine
Kurdish Turkey
Lebanon
Mindanao
Niger Delta
Somalia
Sri Lanka
Uganda
West Papua

Wars that started and ended between 1993 and 2008 (7)
Burundi
Chechnya
Guinea-Bissau
Kosovo/Servbia
Nagorno-Karabakh
Nepal
Rwanda


I’ve chosen 1993 as the starting point because it gives us as long a timeline as possible while still avoiding the events surrounding the ending of the Cold War, which stopped quite a few conflicts, while starting several others. If you take the starting period back to 1983 you’ll find the ratio of wars ended to wars begun is even more promising.

There are also a couple of wars I’ve found difficult to classify. Officially the war in South Sudan is over, but I’m not confident enough to put it in the second column. I’m also not sure whether Pakistan belongs in the first or the third column or should not be listed at all since it is more a powderkeg than an active war. The South Thailand insurgency is another puzzle – it started well before the era, but has spiked since 2004.

On these numbers we’re actually doing slightly better than my estimate, but several of the wars that have been brought to a close were quite small, so I’ll round down.

If I’m right, by 2023 we should have ended around ten of the current wars, although five new ones will have started. This doesn’t strike me as incredible at all. Certainly some of the wars listed in columns 1 and 3 look intractable (it’d be a braver blogger than I who predicted the end to the Israel/Palestine conflict, or peace in Somalia). However, many of these look like they could come to an end a good deal earlier. The peace treaty for Mindanao was defeated on an 8-7 vote. The Columbian FARQ and the LRA in Uganda look close to collapse and I’m pretty confident South Ossetia and Abkhazia will end up as peaceful independent states. It’s quite likely historians will judge that war already over.

It’s true three of the new wars are a whole lot bloodier than the ones that have come to an end, but if we can get the number of active conflicts in the world into single figures I think we’ll see fresh enthusiasm for positive global intervention.

And just think – if we could cut the number of wars in the world by a fifth in a period where George W Bush was president, imagine what’s possible when we actually have a president desirous of peace.


[1]I use the term “Nation’s experiencing war” to refer to situations where a political conflict is killing more than 1 person per hundred thousand per year. I think its important to look at the actual costs, rather than whether war has been officially declared. Of course the cost of war is measured in injuries and economic damage as well, but deaths per head of population are easier to measure and seem a pretty good starting point. The rate of 1/100,000 is completely arbitrary. However, as I have said I think the general conclusion stands up whether you use a higher or lower rate as long as one is consistent.

I have excluded from this definition cases such as Zimbabwe where a government is killing large numbers of its people, but the killing pretty much all goes one way. Whatever this should be called, I don’t think it is war. It’s pretty easy to demonstrate however, that atrocities of this form are also in long term decline – another reason for optimism.

A more difficult exclusion is conflicts that are not based on national or religious feeling, or political ideology, cf the Mexican battles over control of the drug trade. I’ve left these out because they’re harder to track, but also because, horrific as they may be, the death rate is usually lower than “proper” wars.

[2]The conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia are so linked in cause and likely outcome I am counting them as one. Even combined, the death toll is still one of the lowest on the list.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Good News From Switzerland

In Switzerland, over two-thirds of voters supported heroin provision to heavily addicted people. This is good news for those with a heroin problem, as the program saves lives, and it is also good news for the Swiss burghers who won't have their houses burgled as a result.

More importantly, it's good news for people in equivalent situations in a whole lot of countries. The overwhelming nature of the vote will send a message to jelly-backed politicians elsewhere. It is regrettable that a bill for legalization of cannabis went down at the same time, but in the long run I suspect the success will count for more than the defeat.

This is also very good news for the Greens. Personally I don't believe our policies are the major bar to electoral success. Lack of money and an absence of experience in government are bigger problems. Where our policies do get in the way its usually because they are badly written and need to be rethought.

However, there are some policies that do hurt our chances, and drugs and law and order are chief amongst them. The problem is that our policies here are basically right (give or take a bit of tweaking). They would save lives, cut crime and save money. We can't abandon them without selling our soul. Electorally they are a burden we have to bear, although of course writing them more clearly would reduce the damage.

So Switzerland's vote is very good news. For one thing it proves these are not policies the population will never accept. For another it gives us something to point to. Most people won't listen, but for a few, the fact that 68% of a developed nation backed something might make them question their knee-jerk opposition.

More to the point, this is a tide that will be very hard to hold back. Several other nations are considering adopting something similar. In a globalised world it will get harder and harder to scaremonger about a policy that not only exists in many comparable countries, but is demonstrably saving lives.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Are They Really That Dumb?

Today I received two emails about Steve Conroy's mandatory ISP filtering plan. One of them from someone I have a massive crush on, which usually helps when trying to get petitions signed, no? But I just can't get excited about signing the petition (although of course I sign a lot of petitions that make me depressed rather than excited).

Because this idea is so dumb I kind of hope they do it. I imagine at the moment there is a fair level of support for the idea - I mean filtering out child prOn or stopping kids seeing ordinary p0rn sounds like a good idea huh? But the consequences will be so disastrous, and so ineffective, that any government that does it is going to take some serious heat. And not just from a small minority of libertarians and techno geeks who're currently worried. No if they actually do this thing everyone who uses the web will hate them. Which is a lot of voters.

Ok the heat will be shared because the Coalition will have voted for it too, but the government will still get the blame, and the Greens in particular will stand to benefit.

So what is going on? Well one possibility is that they are so stupid they don't realise what a disaster it will be, despite every technical person warning them. Well it is Stephen Conroy we're talking about here, but its still a bit hard to believe.

Next option is that they can see the train wreck coming, but are so stubborn they just won't let go. Ahh, here's the part where the Steve Conroy bit starts to make sense. Still, surely there are more senior ministers who aren't willing to throw away 5% of the vote and the country's economic competitiveness to satisfy one man's obsession.

Which leaves us with option three. They know it is a dog, but for the moment a popular dog. So what they want is to be seen pushing it as much as possible, and then have it sunk by someone else. They can say "we tried, we really tried" to all the people who think it is a good idea until they have to use it, and blame its failure on someone else. Since the Liberals and Greens are both currently opposing the idea that works well. It probably won't hurt the Greens - they'll lose a few votes, but gain a roughly equal number.

On the other hand the Libs will probably be hurt whichever way they go. Vote against it and they will be tarred with supporting kiddie fiddlers or something. Vote for it and they will be part of the problem that put the country into the computer stone age. But if they let it through they'll be a small part of the problem, with Labor getting most of the blame.

So the whole thing becomes a giant game of chicken, watching to see whether the Libs lose their nerve and wave it through.

The country may have changed a year ago, but wedge politics didn't die.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Victory

It's probably impossible to make any genuinely original contribution to one of the biggest stories of all time. So I'll leave it at this short note on one point I haven't seen made explicitly before or after the election:

Besides all the other reasons to celebrate, its worth noting that one of the hardest jobs in the world right now must be being an Al Queda recruiting agent, particularly in Africa. That has to be good for almost everyone.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Poor Will Not Be With You Always

Apparently it is Global Blog Action Day today, or something like that, and the theme for this year is poverty. So...

I doubt we will ever remove relative poverty. Certainly all attempts to create a sufficiently egalitarian society for this to be realistic have failed. But I think we can aspire to end absolute poverty. And since that would rank with ending war in the greatest human achievements of all time, it seems to me a pretty worthy goal.

And clearly this is achievable. Human productivity has risen so much over the last couple of centuries that there now certainly is enough for everyone to have adequate food, clean water, decent if spartan housing and basic medical cover. Yes all that and still enough for large sections of the world to live in unimaginable luxury.

Global Warming will make things much, much tougher, but science isn't going to stop. The productivity of the world, from an economic point of view, will slow, but its unlikely to go much backwards, even per head.

So ending poverty is all about willpower. We haven't done it because, collectively speaking, we simply don't care enough. The developed world giving 1% of its wealth to the poor would do it, just as the UN agreed on it back in 1970. (Note the agreed figure is 0.7% government aid, the rest is to come from private individuals. Indeed, the target is a lot easier to reach these days than it was back then. A goodly chunk of the rich world is now in China and India. The money doesn't even have to flow across national boundaries. The traditionally rich world needs to look after Africa and substantial sections of Asia and Latin America, but it no longer has to worry about the whole rest of the world.

It's true that local wars mean that some regions are resistant to anything the wealthy world can do, but that's actually a pretty small proportion of global poverty. The main thing that is needed now is good aid (not the stuff that ends up with the military and in politicians' pockets) and fair trade. And one of the main things stopping that from happening is the lack of belief that it can work. It really is a case of "nothing to fear but fear itself".

I think the most important thing to do is to keep the pressure on governments to increase aid, or at least not cut it in the face of the credit crunch. But private giving is important as well, and the wonders of the Internet mean you can do that without costing anything but your time.

Most famously. But one can do even better with the search engines that send their profits to charity rather than shareholders. Here or here. You can even feed the world by playing games online. It's true these online measures are a bit of a drop in the ocean. And in some cases the sponsors are other aid organisations, so in a sense the money is just going round in circles, unless they succeed in getting you to actually donate (or buy from their online stores). Which is why its important not to lose site of the main game of putting pressure on the politicians. But these websites do make a powerful point. The rich world is now so rich, credit crisis not withstanding, that it only takes a little of that wealth slopping over the sides to end absolute poverty. So little of the wealth in fact, that we wouldn't even miss it if it was gone.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

A Good Man Died Today, One Of The Country's Best

Last week when Paul Newman died Pavlov's Cat quoted A Prarie Home Companion, "It's never a tragedy when an old man dies. Forgive him for his shortcomings, and thank him for all his love and care."

By that token, Graeme Laver's death a few days before Newman's, but of which we only heard today, wasn't a tragedy either. Nevertheless, its still sad.

I had the honour of speaking with him a few times, and he seemed like a genuinely nice and caring person. However, if there was any sainthood in him, then it was buried from me. As far as I know he never risked his life for his work, or donated most of his worldly wealth to help the poor. Yet in two stunning achievements he dwarfed the good that Newman did the world through decades of joyous acting, long years of activism and $250 million raised for charity.

Laver's first great achievement was so obscure I'd barely heard of it until today. He discovered a better way to break the influenza virus down into constituent parts, without damaging these parts. The second is slightly more famous. He created such large, clear crystals of neuraminidase, (a component of the flu virus) that pharmaceutical companies have been able to design two drugs, Relenza and Tamiflu to lock onto one of the few stable parts of this everchanging virus and make flu treatment drugs that actually work.

Neither Relenza nor Tamiflu are perfect. Relenza is difficult to take, and needs to be given almost as soon as symptoms start to really be effective. Given the difficulties in telling early flu symptoms from the common cold this is pretty hard. Strains of the flu virus are already showing signs of developing resistnace to Tamiflu.

But the fact remains that when you look at things to be really, really scared of an influenza pandemic lies behind Global Warming and Nuclear War, but ahead of pretty much everything else. The Spanish flu killed 20-40 million in a much less populated world. The next one was always going to be worse, unless someone invented a flu drug first (or a way of making vaccines faster than we can at the moment).

The stockpiles of Relenza and Tamiflu built up around the world give us a fighting chance against the next pandemic, even if the odds are still on dead numbered in seven figures. With any luck there'll be another, better drug in a few more years.

And then there's the matter of the thousands who die of ordinary 'flu every year, and the millions who suffer considerably. Tamiflu in particular has made a difference to a lot of them.

Of course we know that if Laver had chosen to wash cars for a living someone would have made his discoveries eventually. But eventually would probably have been decades later. These don't seem to have been discoveries pipping his rivals by weeks. The years Laver gave us could make all the difference.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Sex Sells - And Sometimes It Should

We're all familiar with the use of sex to sell, well everything. It keeps happening because it works. And when you have a worthy cause to sell, it can create something of a conundrum: Use the tried and true method, or hold back through ethical concerns.

Declare yourself, a Hollywood campaign to get young people to register to vote in the 2008 elections (with the sometimes explicit acknowledgment that most who do so will be backing Obama) don't seem to have any qualms. I'm pretty sure there will be mixed feelings from supporters about the pneumatic beauties in skimpy bikinis in some of the ads. However, in this one they've found away around the problem: Make the sex relevant to what you're saying. It's also funny, none of which stops it being hot.

And yes, I know, every blogger worth their salt knows how to embed a Youtube. I don't alright. I never claimed to be technologically competent at everything. Perhaps its just as well there's probably no one listening.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Playing For Peace

At the bottom of this post are links to two of the most inspiring articles I've read for a while. Australian readers may want to go straight there. Anyone from overseas might need a little background to make sense of them.

Australian Rules Football is an odd sport. Until about 30 years ago it was only really played in southern and north-western Australia, areas that include about half the national population. Americans sometimes describe it as a mix of basketball and soccer, although its more accurately a mix of soccer, rugby and a game played by the Indigenous population of Western Victoria. It's most similar modern sport is Gaelic football, which appears to be a derivative created by Irish gold diggers returning from the Victorian gold rush.

In the late 70s the people who ran the major leagues decided a little local game would not survive as more than a curiosity in the face of competition with global sports like rugby and what most of the world considers football. So they started an aggressive expansion campaign, joining up all the state-based leagues and making a push into the rugby playing north-east of Australia. Now they're moving on, trying to spark interest overseas.

Where this really gets interesting is that some of their expansion strategies have caused them to act in ways that are having some remarkable spin-offs. Football is something of a religion in many Aboriginal Indigenous communities, and the league realised that the skills of players from some of these areas form one of the game's greatest attractions. They've set up coaching programs in places that have been desperately under-resourced by the government. Children are only allowed to play if they attended school the previous week, and this has been the most successful program in Australian history in addressing truancy in remote communities.

More suprisingly, the league singled out South Africa as the best prospects for growth. They've approached schools in some of the poorest townships offering to supply sporting gear and administration money on the condition the schools teach Australian rules. For these schools battling parental unemployment over 50%, soaring rates of HIV and drastic underfunding this is a godsend. Some inspirational and hilarious stories have come out of this program.

One aspect of the international push is the creation of an international cup for all nations playing our rules other than Australia. None of these nations are remotely competitive with the local teams, although there is an on-again, off-again competition with Ireland in a hybrid of Aussie rules and Gaelic football. However, for teenagers and young adults from many developing nations getting a flight to Australia paid to come and play is pretty exciting. Soon, the AFL hopes, we'll have players from these countries playing at the highest level.

A joint Israeli/Palastinian team has been created to compete in the cup. Most of the players had never heard of Australian rules football before they were invited to play, let alone seen a game. They'd probably be thrashed by a weak team in an outback country league. One might think that you'd be better off doing the same thing with soccer or basketball teams. I believe such things are happening too, but as one of these articles makes clear, the very fact that the sport is new to the players can be a strength not a weakness, and of course the assistance from the League might be harder to obtain for an established sport.

When your team loses as badly as mine did this weekend its easy to hate football for a few days. But reading these pieces was as good as the best wins.

Ready. Here they are.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

This Should Be Fun

Just recently we've had the spectacle of Global Warming deniers trying to claim that they are the true defenders of the enlightenment. I suspect that this isn't a line their American equivalents would run. The US Right is so interwoven with religious fundamentalists that even secularists don't want to claim the enlightenment crown too fiercely.

That's not true here. Australian fundamentalists are useful to the Right, but they are pretty peripheral, and not powerful enough to get offended when their allies start talking about the enlightenment as a good thing.

But the Australian Right these days is caught up in worship of Republicans. Most decry the fundamentalist wing of Bush's coalition, but also downplay it. In particular, they don't want anything to do with creationism, and want to pretend its not a crucial part of the movement they support. Bush, they say was in an alliance of convenience with creationists because of all the other things they had in common - he didn't really deny evolution.

So it will be interesting to see how they handle the reported fact that Sarah Palin is a creationist, as well as a global warming sceptic. It's no great surprise. In America the two usually go hand in hand. But its going to be fun watching the Craig Emersons of the world explain how it is the environmentalists who are the new church persecuting modern Gallileos, when the new standard bearer for global warming deniers believes the world was created in six days.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Why Is America So Bad At Sport?

Looking at the Olympics medal table I just can't help wondering "Why is America so bad at sport?" The question is seldom asked, and may seem ridiculous - America dominates world sport, dontcha know? They've dominated the Olympics since the East Germans stopped their cheating regime. Even with homeground advantage and 1.3 billion people China's trailing them in the medal count, although they have more gold.

Until you look closer. This is usually done with number of medals per capita, and that's kindof dry. So lets look at it this way - how would things be going if the EU competed as one team.

At the point of typing it would be US 14 gold, 12 silver, 17 bronze, EU 27 gold, 30 silver, 30 bronze.
Bit of a masacre really.

No fair you cry - The EU is bigger than America. Indeed it is. So lets cut it down to first nine nations to sign up, who happen to have a population very similar to the US. That brings it down to 19 gold, 17 silver, 20 bronze.

And this is just the summer olympics. In winter its not unusual for European nations with less than ten million people to outscore America. On a per capita basis including the winter olympics raises the risk of the ultimate humiliation, Americal being beaten on a per capita basis by Canada.

An alternative way to look at it is: How would America go if each state competed seperately. Well whichever one of Michigan and Maryland Michael Phelps chose to reprsent would be doing fine, but everyone else would be feeling pretty grim. Even California wouldn't stack up too well. It's not just Europe of course - Australia smashes America (and everyone else) on a per capita basis, as does South Korea. The Americans may beat impoverished nations (with a few exceptions like Zimbabwe) but that's about it.

Some argue that the problem is that teh best American athletes get snapped up by the big money in Basketball, Football and Baseball. Besides the obvious question why these sports are so much more of a threat than soccer, the fact is that this is a very gendered view of the world. Women athletes are financially better off in Olympic sports than competing in the amateur competitions in football or baseball. Yet America's women are bring home even less gold than the men (mainly for lack of a Michelle Phelps).

This isn't a bag America post. Australia places far too much reliance on sporting results for its national pride. Much better to lead the world in solar cell design or medial breakthroughs than following a black line up and down a pool. I just think its an interesting question.

When Britian's sporting results tanked in the 80s and 90s some lefties delighted in blaming Thatcher. Supposedly she had sold off the sporting ovals many poorer schools used, and this had made it harder for kids to take up sport. I'd love to be able to pin this one on George Bush, but I somehow doubt I can. Anyone with any ideas?

Thursday, August 7, 2008

More Liberal Doom

Having for a long time hidden their declining numbers behind secrecy laws the Vic Libs are now letting it all hang out. Some statistics worth keeping in mind from today's Age (can't find online):

Of the 13,373 "members" almost 2000 became unfinancial recently. Presumably some of them just haven't got round to rejoining, but quite a few may never be back.

6% (not a typo) are under 30, while 27% are over 75. In other words their numbers will be below 10,000 in a few years. There's simply no way they will get the new recruits to replace those who are not long for this world.

A quarter are in 3 electorates - Kooyong, Higgins and Wannon. They don't have a single member or Kororoit. I'm not sure if there is a single seat where the Greens membership is zero. The Age mentions having just 153 members in Gippsland, but this doesn't seem that bad to me - its a National seat and I'd imagine there are plenty of people who will join whichever arm of the coalition is dominant there. But that would only depress their numbers in two seats. Clearly there are a lot of state electorates where they would struggle to have a viable branch going.

And On That Note

Highly relevant to the post below. Since the New Zealand Greens did not ignore the lesson of 1999. Since then they've worked hard to appeal to Kiwis living in Oz.

In the lead-up to this year's election they're even having campaign launches and fundraisers over here, including one 7pm Tuesday August 12 at the Horse Bizarre on the corner of Little Lonsdale and Hardware Lane in the city. It's a great little pub. Entry $7.

Global Voters

One of my obsessions at the moment is expatriates and voting.

Expats from democratic countries increasingly tend to be younger and more educated than the general population. If they don't already have a broader view of things than their compatriots before they leave the country, they sure do once they've spent some time overseas.

In other words they are the people most likely to be concerned about global environmental issues. They're also relatively likely to be concerned about war, human rights abuses, racism and poverty.

Exactly the sort of people I want to vote. Unfortunately most don't. A few have dual citizenship and vote in both their country of origin and of residence, but far more vote in neither. When they do, they can make a real difference. The New Zealand Greens only got MPs because in 1999 Kiwis living in Bondi and Brisbane lifted the Green vote from 4.8% to 5.2%, just above the crucial 5% threshold.

So I'm really pleased to see the Obama campaign is putting resources into galvanising this group, including Youtubes such as this and this (I forgive Gwyneth for taking the oscar that was rightfully our Cate's and giving that god-awful speech.)

I'd encourage beg anyone who is reading this to pass it on to any American expats you know. And if you're an expatriate from somewhere else yourself, remember for when your country goes to the polls. A network of people who care about two countries could be an essential ingredient in saving the world.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Gambling the Future

It's pretty obvious to everyone who understands the basics of climatology (and many who don't) that the plans by some Liberals to oppose an ETS until everyone else has one are a short term move. In a few years time when the current La Nina has faded and global warming is even more in people's faces than today the Libs will be trying to shake off the image of having done nothing about the problem under Howard. Nelson's prevaracating is just going to make things harder.

But that's not the real problem for the Liberals in all this. In a decade people will remember Howard, but Nelson will be a blip on the memory screen. The bigger problem is this. Party membership is down to 13,400 in Victoria (from 45,000 at its peak) and half of them are over 62. Membership would be lower, per capita, in most other states, although the age ratios may not be quite as bad.

I suspect that truly reviving the party membership is a lost cause, but if there is any hope it has to rest with the several thousand students who signed up for university Liberal Club memberships at universities around the country in February and March. Every year thousands of first years sign up, and every year most of them slip through the party's fingertips, never getting engaged or involved.

Now is actually a pretty crucial time for addressing that. Clubs are gearing up for student elections, and the smarter Liberal presidents will be calling all those members and seeing if they can get them to participate in a team. Participation may go nowhere, but its an opportunity to network people in with those already involved, build a bit of experience and love of the contest (or at least hatred of the opposition).

Now the question for Nelson is, who does he want to attract to this year's Liberal tickets: Young people who are politically conservative but concerned about their own future and that of their generation? Or a bunch so scientifically inept they believe everything Andrew Bolt tells them and so lacking in long term planning they can't give a stuff about anything past the next beer?

Either way, these people will make up a goodly chunk of the future of the party. Choose wisely

Priceless

Grafitto spotted today:

There is no emoticon for existential despair.

Personally I think that @( might do the trick if not already taken, but somehow I don't think the author was looking for a suggestion.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Not Getting It

There's an interesting/frustrating discussion over at LP.

One frustrating aspect is that the original poster wanted to have a feminist discussion and it got hijacked by some men drawn like flies to the honeypot at the mention of breasts, who've turned the focus very much to women's sexuality and whether its women's fault they don't like their bodies. No doubt this is frustrating to the women who wanted to take part in the original discussion.

But its also frustrating to me, because I have to admit I'm actually much more interested in issues resembling those the men have been raising than the original topic. On the other hand, I don't want to be part of yet another thread hijack where women are prevented from talking about the issues they're interested in by men coming along and doing a slightly more sophisticated version of "giggle, she said breasts".

So after one post far back on that thread, I thought I'd express myself here, losing 99.9% of the potential audience, but at least not adding to the hijack.

The incomparable Pavlov's Cat sum's up the women's frustration like this
stop assuming that just because men think of women’s breasts exclusively as “sexual apparatus”, women also must think of them that way. Because most of us Just. Do. Not.

To which my response is: I hear you. I understand women don't think of them that way. What I don't understand is how you do think of them.

A lot of the thread is taken up with questions of breast reduction because some of the dimmer men seem obsessed by the idea that women would be doing this in order to make themselves more attractive to men. The point is made, over and over again, that women have breast reduction surgery for lots of other reasons - back pain, ability to exercise etc. You don't have to be too bright to grasp this point. As PC says:

Breasts are objects of desire to most blokes, and to women who fancy other women. To the rest of us, they are a source of constant worry, either because (1) they are large, weighty objects necessitating expensively engineered bras and will give us shocking back and neck problems by the time we’re 40, (2) because the world is full of blokes who think it’s acceptable to comment audibly on (if not actually grab) the breasts of anyone who happens to be passing, (3) because we have good reason to fear either failing to breastfeed our children with them successfully or getting cancer in them

But the problem I have, and i imagine a lot of other blokes share, is that this doesn't explain why so many more women have breast enlargement than reduction operations. None of these reasons, or anything like them, seem to explain why a woman would want to make her breasts bigger unless its to increase their chance of attracting a man.

Dr Cat does offer,

or (4) because we think they are ‘too small’ and we have not yet thought through the logic of this enough to realise that if a bloke’s attitude to you depends on the size of your breasts then the smart thing to do is get away from him as quickly as possible.

But this pretty much takes us back to the women concerned seeing their breasts as ways of attracting men. It's not just the minority of women who have breast enhancement surgery I'm trying to work out, its all those who spend time trying to make their breasts look bigger, make their cleavage more visible etc, when its not actually about trying to score.

Why does this matter? (Besides the obvious point that its another excuse for a straight man to talk about breasts) Well if women did see their breasts purely as sexual advertisements then one could conclude that every time a woman tried to enhance her breasts, make them more visible etc she was trying to pick up. Not necessarily (or even usually) me of course, but pick up someone. In such a situation, it would be reasonable to think that polite advances would receive either a favourable response or something equivalent to "actually I'm chasing someone else, but thanks for the compliment".

Now most men have worked out that this is not the case. A woman wearing a revealing neckline may be distinctly uninterested in advances from anyone, and if we're reasonable human beings we try to respect this. But that doesn't mean we don't have all sorts of trouble trying to work out when a woman is actually interested in being approached, and when she isn't. I certainly do.

Some men deal with this by hitting on every woman they're attracted to, and taking plenty of slaps on the basis that sometimes it will work out. Others tend to respond with great caution, avoiding asking someone out on a date for fear of giving offense, and spending a lot of evenings alone in front of the TV in consequence.

Obviously I fall into the second category.

Presumably if I had a better understanding of what women who want their breasts to look/be bigger, but aren't really seeing them sexually, were thinking I'd be a bit more popular.

Alas I don't think the thread in question has enlightened me much, which is fair enough, since that wasn't the intention.






Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Dying to save the planet

The news on global warming is so bad these days its easy to just lose oneself in a funk of depression. So its important to remember that this is a problem we certainly can solve, if we have the political will.

To replace all electricity sources in the world with renewables, plus back-up storage would cost about 3% of GDP over the next ten years, even if there are no significant breakthroughs in that time. That's a lot of money - about 1.5 trillion dollars. More if you allow for increased consumption. Do it more slowly and the cost comes down a lot, but then again this is just the electricity component. Phasing out petrol and doing something about emissions from agriculture are likely to cost more.

These sort of figures lead the inactivitsts to say its all too hard. They prefer to avoid the fact that the world spent more than this on invading Iraq. Generally speaking most people assume that if we're going to come up with those amounts of money we're either going to have to slash defense budgets, or do things that really hurt.

But I wonder if bequests are not an alternative source of this kind of money.

Very soon, the Baby Boomers are going to start dying in large numbers. The oldest are 62, which is getting close to the point where mortality rates shoot upwards. Let me stress this is not something I am happy about. I don't go in for the Boomer-bashing common amongst my fellow Xers, and those born before the boom. And discussion of Boomer mortality can't but remind me that my parents are pre-Boomers and I don't want them dying any time soon.

But Boomers will die whether I want them to or not, and its worth thinking about the consequences. The Boomers are not just the largest generation in the history of the developed world, and the richest. They are also the first with fewer offspring than themsleves.

Prior to the Boomers, even childless people usually had quite a few nephews and nieces to leave their wealth to. Boomers, generally speaking, do not. They might have one or two, but mostly their younger relatives are quite well provided for by a mix of parents and other uncles and aunts. They are in a position to leave a fair chunk of their wealth to charity without leaving those close to them in poverty.

In most countries this is going to be a huge boon to the state. Death duties haven't raked in all that much up till now, because people with children exploit loopholes to avoid them. But as more and more of those dying don't need to worry about close relatives, that's likely to change.

Australia is stupid enough to be one of the few nations without probate taxes, and we're really going to feel the pinch.

Nevertheless, this is all a bit of a side issue, since probate taxes are usually a relatively small portion of the total. The real test is going to be what wealthy people who don't have kids to provide for choose to do with their money. Many will shower it on relatives who don't need it, or find other ways to fritter it up against the wall. Others will give to art galleries and museums - worthy causes but not world-saving.

But if people get serious about putting the money into a mix of environmental projects and aid to the developing world, we may find that problems that seem intractable are a lot easier to fix than we thought.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Mayo Malaise

After three US posts its time to get back to Australian politics. As noted below I think the Liberals' troubles are far more long-term than most people recognise, and particularly a product of their lack of recruiting talent.

As exhibit A I'd like to present the field for preselection for the Mayo by-election. To understand my case you need to realise that Mayo is not just another seat. For Adelaidean Libs it really is THE seat. Labor holds six seats in Adelaide, and they pushed the other two Liberal MPs pretty close. Were it not for disastrous candidate selection they would probably have taken Boothby, and if the government is returned at the next election its likely they'll rectify that this time.

Sturt was held by less than 1%. Anyone taking over the seat can't count on a long career.

Mayo is a different story. With a margin of 7% in a bad election its not likely they'll lose it anytime soon. Since it's creation the only scare the Libs have ever had there was the truly freak result in 1998, and even that ended up being a wider margin than it looked at first. What's more, its not particularly vulnerable to redistributions - it generally borders Liberal held seats, or the Liberal voting parts of Labor marginals.

The other two Liberal South Australian seats are Grey and Barker, and they'll never preselect anyone who isn't a local. Perhaps some one who grew up there could go back, but otherwise if you want to represent them you have to go the Sophie route, which is a bit too arduous for most people.

So if you're an ambitious Liberal from Adelaide your choice is to win Mayo, go for the Senate (and give up on being leader, deputy or treasurer) or move interstate. So this field is basically the cream of the crop. If a South Australian Liberal doesn't have their hand in the air for Mayo they're not serious.

So lets look at what's come forward: Ian Evans is the current front runner. He's been state leader so the party obviously thinks something of him and he could hit the ground running. However, he's 49 and there is a reason his leadership is ex. They could do worse, but he's clearly no star.

The other candidate who gets lots of mentions is Jamie Briggs, who apparently is one of the geniuses behind Workchoices. It's important to stress here that this was someone who was presumably involved in a lot of the detail - and it was the detail of Workchoices that really bit the Liberals. It was one thing to go for class warfare, another to produce a document so long and complex employers found it a nightmare and were unwilling to go into battle for. He does at least have the advantage of being young, but if he has any other positives no one seems to know what they are.

If there is anything to the other 7 candidates it doesn't seem to be making the media either, other than the millionaire businessman Bob Day. Despite spending a heap of his own money Day suffered an 8.6% 2PP swing against him on his only prior electoral outing, in a seat where scandal had pulled down the Liberal MP's support last time. It's possible one of the other 6 is actually a genius who just hasn't shown their colours yet, but I'm not betting on it.

We all know South Australia is a state in decline, but seriously, this is one of the Liberals' best chances to put some talent on their bench as part of the long rebuilding. If it doesn't happen here, why should one expect it anywhere else.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Has The West Wing changed the world?

In honour of my first real comment (see immediately previous post). I thought I would riff off the comment that Obama "is Jed Bartlett, and I swear to God, his speeches are written by Aaron Sorkin".

I'm inclined to think that, Obama's script actually was written by Sorkin to the extent that, without The West Wing, Obama wouldn't have one the nomination. Even if he had, his chances of winning the presidency would have been a lot lower.

The question of whether art, and particularly popular culture, can "make a difference" is an old one. It's probably the single biggest debate I have with my parents. They just don't accept that politics turns, except to the most flimsy degree, on such fripperies. I have a tendency to overstate the case, perhaps because one of the first campaigns I was devoted to was to get sportspeople and musicians to boycott South Africa, which I believe drastically hastened the fall of Apartheid.

So that bias stated, here is why I think The West Wing cleared the way for Obama:

1) Most obviously the program legitimised liberalism. Millions of Americans who thought "liberal" was a dirty word tuned in because they had the hots for Donna or Josh, or like the snappy drama. They may not have had their politics turned 180 degrees, but it sure made liberal politicians look worthy of consideration. For evidence I'd point to the 2000 poll that showed Jed Bartlett winning a plurality in a theoretical contest against Gore and Bush.

2) It encouraged liberals to fight for what they believed in. Pre- The West Wing (and still to a large extent today) the message we kept hearing was that liberals couldn't win as liberals. They needed to triangulate and abandon at least half their core beliefs to win. Much of the debate was over which beliefs to drop. The West Wing sent a powerful message the other way - when Bartlett tests the water before backing down his popularity plunges. It's only when he stands up for unpopular positions that voters like him again. Of course Obama has compromised on many liberal positions - perhaps because he doesn't believe in them, or perhaps because he thinks disavowing them will get him elected. But he's stood his ground and fought with remarkable toughness on some surprising issues, and I think The West Wing helped his supporters, and perhaps he himself, not go to water at the idea of talking to Iran.

3) The West Wing has broken some of the cynicism about politics amongst leftists. The key to the Obama campaign is the way it has turned voters into donors and activists. Vast numbers of people who have volunteered or sent in money because Obama inspires them. To achieve that inspiration he had to overcome cynicism. I know that this cynicism is vastly lower in the US than Australia (and probably Europe as well) but I'm pretty sure it was a problem. There's no doubt that people around the world have had that cynicism about US politics worn down by The West Wing. I'd imagine the same goes at home as well. By weakening the wall, Sorkin opened people's minds to the possibility the Real Thing was out there, and many of them have decided Obama is it. Take away a few thousand volunteers, a few million dollars and a few hundred thousand people who convinced family and friends to back him and Obama wouldn't be where he is.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Speaking of America

This clarifies a lot of the thoughts that have been swirling round for a while.

I started out pretty sceptical about Obama. He seemed more trustworthy than Clinton but even more moderate, and not in a good way. After a while I came to support him, but mostly on the basis that there was a chance he'd seek genuine change. I didn't think it was all that likely, but there was no way in hell Hilary would.

Slowly however he's got to me. First in Iowa, then Philadelphia and then with the graduation speech filling in for Teddy Kennedy. Was it possible that this man was actually the Real Thing? Could such a thing exist in American politics?

Now I know why. As the article says "
His na├»ve-sounding calls for change are persuasive largely because he’s already managed to improve one of our most intractable political problems: the decades-old, increasingly virulent plague of terrible speechifying."

It's important not to be swept away. We've seen some pretty terrible politicians who could give great speeches. But as the article argues, speechifying style isn't "merely a sauce on the nutritious bread of substance", it can tell us much. The fact that Obama's style is to speak to us as though we are intelligent, at the same time as raising our spirits with soaring rhetoric, tells us that he actually wants to address at least one of the World's most challenging problems.

He may fail, but by God it's nice to have someone who's trying.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

A Word for Jimmy

Over at the Possum Box someone provides their thoughts on why they think McCain will win the US election. Obviously there are millions of such pieces circulating on the web, along with a similar number giving the opposite view.

In the course of this, the author has a few swipes at Jimmy Carter, including claiming that "the fact that the experience of the Carter administration is still fresh in people’s minds" is one of the reasons Obama will lose. Pointing out that 28 years ago is hardly fresh, and about 20% of the electorate were not even born when Carter was president, is easy.

What irks me more however, is that an Australia blog is posting yet another attack on Carter. It's not surprising that most of the English speaking world has a dim view of Jimmy. One-term presidents rarely get a good write up from history, and in a lot of fields he was a particularly ineffective president; although I'd imagine he's better remembered in the countries where his tentative support for human rights got political prisoners released and laid the groundwork for the spread of democracy through Latin America.

But you'd think that Australians could keep in mind Carter's other great legacy. In the 1970s the National Academy of Sciences, feeding off the work of James Lovelock, became concerned that CFCs could damage the ozone layer. At the time there was no proof and Dupont and other CFC manufacturers fought a strong campaign against legislation "until evidence could be produced".

Carter recognised that any evidence might well be in the form of global Armageddon and acted. He got CFCs banned for some uses in the US, and legislated for this to gradually be extended. Reagan stopped the extension, but didn't reverse the existing bans.

We now know just how important that decision of Carter's was. If it hadn't been for Carter, being a fair skinned Australian of my generation would have been not dissimilar to being a gay male American in the late 80s - you would have spent a lot of time at funerals wondering which of you was going to be next.

It's not just that the whole of the ozone layer would have extended over most of southern Australia through spring and early summer, sending cancer rates soaring and making some crops unviable. Ozone depletion has changed wind patterns over the Southern Ocean and the Bureau of Meteorology considers it a major factor in the never-ending drought gripping Victoria (and possibly South-West WA). You think the Murray's in a bad state now - imagine it if Carter hadn't shown the courage to act.

Americans are unlikely to ever really appreciate Carter's contribution to the planet. But Australians, tens of thousands of whom owe him our lives, really should do better.


PS: In searching for links to add to this post one thing that is really obvious is how few progressive or centrist commentators mention Carter's role in this. There is a hint of it on the Wikipedia page about ozone depletion, but nothing on the page about Carter, and when you Google terms like Jimmy Carter + Ozone almost everything you get is rightwing attacks mocking him and Al Gore.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

They’re (probably) not coming back

To be cross posted at LP, where there may actually be some comments.

Everyone knows the Liberals are in trouble, with the possible exception of Alexander Downer. However, looking at the discussion, both on blogs and in the MSM, this seems to be perceived to mean: They can’t win in 2010, probably not in 2013. However, the assumption seems to be that at some point the Liberals will be back (possibly merged with the Nationals). Much advice has been given based on the notion that ambitious Liberal leaders should be positioning themselves to lead in 2013 or 2016, rather than now.

I disagree. I believe that 2010 is likely to be the best chance the Liberals will ever have to get back into government. If they can’t win then, or at least give it a decent shake, there will probably never be another Liberal-led federal government in Australia.

A big call I know, but my thesis is that the Liberals are caught between two crises, both of which will likely see them whither in the long term. Every election will become harder to win, and after a while it will become difficult for them to even sustain the position of official opposition.

There are other, smaller problems, but the first core issue is the savage decline in their recruitment, both in raw numbers and in talent. The second is the way they have put themselves on the wrong side of history on many political issues, creating millstones they will struggle to shake off.

There are obvious questions about what this will mean for the structure of Australian federal politics, and what will happen at state level. I have theories about each of these, but I’ll save these for subsequent posts.

Declining Talent

Anyone who has spent any time around the youth wings of the Liberal party (be it the Young Liberals or the Liberal Students) knows there is a problem. I don’t have reports on South Australia or the territories, but in the larger states and Tasmania it is clear talented Liberals under 30 are such an endangered species those that do exist should have a keen interest in Bob Brown’s EPBC challenge.

Membership numbers are hard to obtain, and estimates of talent are subjective, but whether you look to John Hyde Page’s The Education of a Young Liberal, or survey recent student elections, there’s plenty of evidence that the party has far fewer (non-stack) young members, and those that exist are less likely to be intelligent, articulate and dedicated.

The lack of talent can be seen when younger Liberals get put in positions of authority or leadership. Hamish Jones was perhaps the most high profile such disaster, but others exist, most recently the case of the party staffers sacked for being stupid enough to update their anti-Baillieu blog from Liberal Party head offices.

The problem for the Libs is not that such idiots exist; it’s that these people get preselected or employed in positions of influence because there aren’t enough others to fill all the spots required. At the moment they’re mostly running in unwinnable seats or serving behind the scenes, but as the baby boomers retire from politics people like Jones – with all Buswell’s weaknesses and none of his strengths - are going to start appearing in marginal, and even previously safe, seats.

Even if the Liberals can turn around this recruiting problem its going to be quite a while before people recruited next year will be ready for senior positions. But does anyone really think that, out of power everywhere and with their vote plumbing record lows, the next few years will be a fertile recruiting era? The problem is worsened by the fact that there is now a severe shortage of worthy mentors for any bright young sparks who do come along.

In 2010 the Libs will have a leadership team that includes, in some combination, Malcolm Turnbull, Brendon Nelson, Julie Bishop, Tony Abbott, Nick Minchin, Eric Abetz and possibly Peter Costello. All born between 1953 and 1958. The talent is hardly overwhelming, but it’s not entirely absent either. By 2016, and possibly earlier, many of these will be gone. Almost certainly their replacements will be worse, particularly if the party suffers a wipe-out at the next election and is struggling to fill its front bench. One can expect more Lindsay leaflets, more chair-sniffing incidents, more internal conflict.

The Wrong Side of History

One of the outstanding features of the Howard Government was a preference for short-term advantage over long term planning. This has done incalculable damage to Australia, but it’s not going to be good for the party either.

The most obvious example of this is in regard to Global Warming. People who have been damaged, and are aware they have been damaged, by higher temperatures or rising sea levels will be very hard to persuade to vote Liberal. By 2030, and possibly a lot sooner, this will be most of the population of Australia. With Howard gone the Liberals might try to distance themselves from him in this area, were it not that a fair few of their remaining MPs have outed themselves as denying anthropogenic global warming altogether, a position that in a few years time will be electoral poison.

There are a number of other issues that will individually do the Liberals far less damage, but may collectively add up to a significant problem. Underfunding of education, infrastructure and research are unlikely to really bite with most of the electorate, but the people who will be most concerned will also be those who would be mostly likely to address the talent decline.

In a few elections time the Liberals may once again win votes by demonising asylum seekers, but there won’t be any votes in their record on Tampa per se. On the other hand, the ethnic communities that coped the brunt of this behaviour will by then be a significant share of the electorate, and it’s hard to imagine how the Liberals will be able to win even marginal support from these groups.

A few caveats

All this is probable, rather than certain. Perhaps an issue that favours the Liberals will become significant enough to balance Global Warming. A series of bombings by Islamic fundamentalists in Australian cities would seem the most likely such scenario, but it’s possible to construct others.

Alternatively it is possible that a future Liberal leader will prove so inspiring he or she will single-handedly reverse the party’s membership crisis.

Nevertheless, I maintain that by far the most likely way for the Liberals to ever win government again is for a global recession to affect the Australian economy so badly that, come 2010, the argument that Labor can’t manage money has resonance while there are still enough Liberal MPs with something resembling a clue for them to take advantage of it.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Late 2020 submission

I didn't make a submission to the 2020 summit. Partly I've been influenced by those, like Guy Rundle, who argue the whole thing is undemocratic. Also I figured that any idea I had would have been proposed by at least one other person.

I certainly haven't read all the submissions (who has) but so far I haven't seen any mention of the following suggestion, so I thought I may as well post it here.

My proposal would be a major investment in universities in regional centres. For reasons everyone is probably very familiar with I'm all for a massive increase in investment in the tertiary sector, particularly the research component. I'd like to see Australia reach the OECD average, instead of slipping steadily towards half that level.

That's certainly an idea many summitteers will be pushing. I'm not sure how many will be talking about regional allocation though. Spending the money in the regions has a few advantages. Firstly, with our major cities bursting at the seams its a great way to promote decentralization. It will also help overcome the "elitist tag" that gets dumped on anyone who wants to spend more on knowledge related fields.

We're already putting more (although nowhere near enough) into teaching medicine at regional universities in the hope the graduates will be more likely to stay outside the cities and address the shortage of rural doctors. I think this might work for other fields as well (note the "might").

But finally, I think there is a lot to be said for having at least a couple of university towns - places where the university is the driver of the local economy and everyone knows this. So even people who have no direct connection with tertiary education know that what is good for the university is good for them and feel connected.

There is no way we can establish an Oxford by 2020 even in a regional centre which already has a university. However, I think that by 2020 we can get JCU, UNE or Deakin Warnambool to the point where they are considered as good in many areas as the Universities of Melbourne or Sydney, and they're on the way to being considered in similar terms to many of the American university towns.

I wouldn't want to see any money taken out of the city universities, but I'm happy for them to get a shrinking proportion of a growing pie if the government gets serious about more tertiary funding.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Anybody out there?

Having been at this for a week or so, I do wonder whether I have had so much as a single reader. Can't really blame anyone if I don't. I'm far from sure I've yet said anything worth reading.

However, if by chance you have stumbled on this site and read at least one other post besides this, please do tell me. I can probably manage to come up with a prize for the first comment received, particularly if you actually manage to respond to something I've said.

Is there really a man shortage?

One of the comediennes in the comedy festival said something in passing about "We've got a man shortage in this country". She said it as if it was something we all knew, her value-add was combining it with whatever else she was talking about.

At her age (mid-20s) its clearly untrue, but when applied to people in their 30s and 40s I think it is one of those factoids that is out there, largely unquestioned but probably untrue.
I'll admit I have something of a vested interest in knocking this one down. If there really is a shortage of eligible men in my age-group then my non-existent love life looks even more pathetic than it might otherwise.

Still, I think the basis of the claim is pretty dodgy. Whenever a news outlet refers to a "man shortage" in a particular age group and area they point out either the ratio of men to women in that demographic, or the ratio of single men and women. (These things are a pretty easy story for lazy journalists whenever a new batch of census data comes out).

But its not that simple. Most obviously, such stats leave out people who are same-sex inclined. The general belief is that there are more male homosexuals than female ones, so the supporters of the myth will wail about how this makes things worse - that's if they don't blame the whole thing on too many gay men.

For most people, that's where the situation ends. But it ignores at least two complicating factors, both of which significantly shift the balance IMHO.

Firstly, it assumes everyone only has one partner. I think that honest polyamory is too rare to be a significant factor here (as possible evidence, my spell-checker doesn't even recognise the word). But what about people who are having affairs. There are plenty of cases where married men have at least one mistress, who is sufficiently committed to the man that she's out of the singles market. The same thing happens in reverse of course, but far less often. I googled "infidelity statistics" and came up with claims that:

22 percent of married men have strayed at least once during their married lives.

14 percent of married women have had affairs at least once during their married live

I'm not sure the site is the most reliable, but I don't think there is much doubt about the general trend. Of course, more of the men will have had sex with prostitutes, so that may even the balance a little. Nevertheless, if even 5% more married/defacto men are having ongoing relationships on the side it's enough to soak up all the supposed excess of single women.

The other factor is something I's imagine is harder to back up with research, but is anecdotally pretty strong. The whole "number of men divided by number of women" thing assumes that every heterosexual person wants a relationship.

Its fair to say that pretty much every unpartnered man I know, or have known, wants some sort of sexual contact. Some want an ongoing relationship. Some are just after casual sex. Many would take whatever they can get. And of course some are a lot choosier than others. However, I've only ever met two men under 60 who, for a period of over a month, were saying they didn't want something1. On the other hand, its very common for women, particularly post-breakups, to decide they're really not interested for a while. The while can be just a month or two, but I've known it to stretch out to years.

It always ends of course, but at any one time there's an awful lot of women who're actively avoiding relationships. Account for that, and you'll find the 30s-40s man shortage is just another media myth.


1It may or may not be significant that one of them was gay.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Follow up to Earth Hour

Someone I'd never before heard of called James Bow had a good post on Earth Hour, giving another reason to take part.

This sort of behaviour is actually pretty typical of the right in the US and Australia these days. In America it may not bite them too hard. A range of factors mean there is a receptive audience for it, which may just be large enough to keep them in business.

However, in Australia it just strikes people as weird, and is one of the reasons the Liberal Party does not have a future, a theme I'll return to many times on this page.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Where will the people go?

Australia’s major cities are struggling under the burden of fast population growth. Massive congestion and unaffordable house prices are two of the symptoms. Some people would prefer that we shut the borders to slow the growth, but this isn’t practical for a variety of reasons.

Better town planning, particularly better public transport, would certainly help. However, a big part of the answer has to be, as the wonderful Possum has argued, to encourage more people to move to regional areas.

Possum deals with questions of why this is needed, and how to get people to move, but leaves aside the issue of where we want the people to go. There is no point starting growth in areas where natural limitations will mean we soon run into the same problems, or where any growth will be at the cost of destroying priceless natural areas.

I’ve been trying to think where one would fit an extra ten million people into Australia. I think the figure is pretty realistic. At current rates of growth it is about what we will put on between now and 2050. I don’t think we need to worry too much about population growth beyond that point. By that time Australia’s natural growth will have reversed and the growth will be entirely from immigration. What is more, 2050 looks to be about the point where global population will peak and start to decline.

While it is likely that, even in a world of declining population, there will still be plenty of people keen to move to a wealthy nation like Australia, the moral imperative to take large numbers of people will be lessened, and it is quite likely that we will simply take enough to counter the natural fall in our population from birthrates below replacement.

So where would these 10 million go?

I’d say ideally none to outer Sydney, but infill projects such as Green Square will take a fair few, so perhaps 100,000 there.

Melbourne is straining, but I think with better public transport we could take another 500,000 in the north and west – they still won’t sprawl as far as Cranbourne.
Perth 500,000
Brisbane 300,000
Adelaide 300,000

So the big five cities, that currently hold most of Australia’s population will be able to take less than 20% of the growth before they start seriously compromising quality of life.

Looking at the next tier of cities I’d guess something like this (figures very rough):

Darwin 150,000
Gold Coast 100,000
Townsville 100,000

Canberra 100,000
Newcastle 100,000
Geelong 100,000
Wollongong 50,000
Hobart 50,000

So we’re still barely past a quarter. I agree with Possum that building entire new cities is not a good way to go. Instead we need to bolster regional centres. As I noted on Possum’s blog, I think university towns are the way to go. I think Warrnambool, for example could go from being a city of about 30,000 as it is today, to being a thriving centre of 150,000 people based around a world class university centred on the current Deakin university site.

Still, if we are talking about cities of 100-200 thousand people we will need something like 70 of them to take on the people expected. It seems unlikely doesn’t it? So what’s the answer: Fit more in the big cities, have the new regional centres grow to half a million each rather than 150,000 or actually have 70 new substantial cities?

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Earth Hour

I was always a bit suspicious of Earth Hour. There's nothing wrong with symbolic actions, but people need to understand what they are doing is symbolic, not think they've done their bit to stop global warming by switching off the lights for an hour. I'm not sure a lot of Earth Hour participants get this.

Combined with a general suspicion of a the woofers (WWF) this lent some sympathy for the large proportion of the environment movement who have labled it a croc. When Crikey ran a piece showing how companies could get credit for being part of Earth Hour without actually doing anything (why are office lights on at 8pm on a Saturday anyway?) my suspicions deepened.

Nevertheless, I joined in last night, and realised there may be a quite unintentional benefit to the whole thing: It was really nice. Sitting around by candlelight chatting with friends is a pleasure not a chore.

This is a good thing on several levels:

* I subscribe to the view that pleasure is, of itself, a good thing. Sometimes negative factors outweigh the pleasure gained, but I'm not sure thats the case this time.
* An evening with friends unencumbered by TV is pretty much the textbook case of social capital building.
* If people are reminded how nice it can be to do without electricity for a while it may genuinely produce a change in behaviour, unlike a one off diet that just encourages people to splurge afterwards.

But I still think WWF needs to make companies do something meaningful to get credit for taking part.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

What’s With the Name?

I’ve used Feral Sparrowhawk as a nom de net for a while on other people’s blogs. It may be pretentious, and it’s certainly obscure, but it is my attempt to honour two artists whose work has influenced me more than any others. One of these is reasonably famous, while the other one deserves more publicity than I can provide, but you do what you can.

In both cases the name comes from what I consider a truly stunning work of art. In each case the piece in question is one of those things you can experience over and over again, and find something new each time. Both works referred to served as my introduction to a superb, and hugely influential, body of work. And in each case the piece in question gave me one of those extraordinary moments of revelation and joy you cherish your whole life, although I think those are stories for another time.

The original idea came from Penelope Swales’ inspirational meditation on environmental activism and deep ecology Black Carrie. The song is dotted with references to sparrows. To understand the multi-layered symbolism and references you need to read the full lyrics, or better still hear it performed. However, the pertinent line runs, “Sparrows, although feral, remind me that sparrows are not to blame for what they are…we’re like sparrows, we’re not to blame for what we are.”

A note for non-Australian readers*: sparrows are an introduced species in Australia and something of a pest, taking up ecological space that would otherwise be filled by native species, often endangered.

Feral sparrow was thus the first pseudonym I came up with. However, it doesn’t really sound right, and anyway no one meeting me is likely to consider my totem animal a sparrow.

More people are probably familiar with the other part of the name. Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books are fairly popular with teenage readers, predecessors of sorts for Harry Potter. Some readers come back to them later and discover, as I did, just how deep the waters run. Much as I enjoy JK Rowling, she can’t compare with Le Guin’s wisdom. Btw, stay well away from the abomination which is the television version of Earthsea – it’s worse than you could possibly imagine.

Le Guin’s father was a leading anthropologist and all her writings draw heavily on myths and cultural practices common across many civilizations. Central to the books is that names have power, and the characters only tell their true names to those they trust most intensely and have “usenames” by which the rest of the world knows them. The central character’s usename is Sparrowhawk, because an early sign of his magical abilities was his capacity for calling birds of prey fromt eh skies.

Arguably, I’m not much of a hawk either, but in rare moments of maximum intellectual clarity it can seem that problems I have been struggling with are laid out before me like an open field before a circling raptor. It may not happen often, but I treasure the sensation above almost all others, and aspire to achieve that clarity more often. Feral sparrowhawk gives me, in a sense, a personality to live up to.


* in the unlikely event there are any