Friday, July 25, 2003

Ken Parish has a new contest.

Something Pleasant, for a Change

It's sometime between 7.30 and 8.00 pm at the corner of Collins Street and Spencer Street. THere's a young cat crying out across the road, but I haven't been able to work out where and, anyway, my tram is going to arrive soon. It's the 109 to Port Melbourne and I don't want to miss it, despite my self-serving interest in maybe picking up a stray moggy that I can carry home later on in the bag of library books I've got tucked under my left arm. The tram arrives so I can quite conveniently put aside the caterwauling moggy as somebody else's problem, and carry on with my plans for the eveneing.

I get on the tram at the last door. It's not peak-hour crowded, but I still habve to look around for a vacant seat. I walk to the back of the tram - you look up at me and smile. Maybe it's not the full smile you'd give to an old friend, but it's enough to let a complete stranger know that you'll tolerate him in your space. I sit down and pull a silly library book out of the bag under my left arm. I already know that it's a silly book - that's why I borrowed it. I'm looking forward to ripping it to pieces here on mhy blog, later.

We rattle through south-west Melbourne. I'm reading. I'm making it very obvious that I'm reading, so you won't get the idea that the only reason that I'm sitting here opposite you is that you're an attractive young woman who's made it pretty clear that you don't mind my being here. I read through the silly first chapter of the silly book, making it very obvious that i'm just some guy who happens to be on the same tram, who has business of his own. Like reading silly books. As soon as I see the chance - as soon as the seat on the opposite side of the aisle is free - I move, so you'll know that I'm not assuming that there's anything more between us than that we're a couple of strangers on a tram who are prepared to put up with each other's company. If I was seriously thinking about it, I'd probably say you're too young for me anyway. It's easier than admitting that I'm too old for you.

The tram reaches my stop. I'm too late getting up, and I nearly fall into the lap of a Chinese guy sitting on the seat next to me when I get up to get off. It's your stop too, but I don't know that until I'm walking past you and you say "Excuse me, I've just had two red wines, but I just wanted to say that you looked like an interesting person. You seem very thoughtful." I'm not sure that that's exactly what you said, but it's close. Right now I'm reconstructing events from memory and the notes I took down a little later. After a short delay, I reply: "Thanks. maybe I should speak to people who have had a couple of reds more often."

The conversation goes on a little longer - we both have to walk in the same direction, at least for a little while. You tell me that you have to read up on joint occupancy. I say something whichisn't too bright, like "Oh. Legal stuff. Well good luck with it." Our ways separate for a short while: not because either of us really wants it, but because I think it's the courteous thing. You walk on down the street - I turn into the door of the pub, confidently expecting to get my arse kicked in tonight's trivia challenge. And that's that.

Except for one thing - if you happen to read this, I'd just like to make it very clear that I didn't write it because I want to go steady or anything. OK?

Thursday, July 24, 2003

Simply Irresistible

Geoff Honnor has noted a couple of interesting ironies which occurred recently in the world's leading constitutional gerontocracy. I'm in a more parochial mood today, but here's an exquisite little home grown example I found through a quick visit to Tim Blair's little corner of spleenville. Tim gives us a sizeable citation from Miranda Devine's column in today's Sydney Morning Herald. Here's where Tim starts his quote:

The secret of Howard's success is, as always, his enemies. No one likes a bully, and the cowardly, unimaginative pack-bullying practised by what passes for intelligentsia in urban Australia, whether they are writers, artists, academics, journalists, John Hewson or Paddington wives, whether you call them the left, or elites, as David Flint has in his new book, is particularly repugnant.

There's plenty more where that came from, but the ending is a real cracker:

But, despite Howard's apparent success, and perhaps contributing to it, is the fact he allowed his enemies to win the culture wars. They have successfully colonised the universities, the arts and parts of the media, a process which has continued almost unchecked during his term in office.

It is futile to try to reverse those victories, as the Communications Minister, Richard Alston, did so ineptly with his 68-point "dossier" of objections to the ABC's Iraq war coverage. It is like trying to hold sand in your hands. You just have to look at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, built with $155 million of taxpayers' money on Howard's watch, with its sneering black armband treatment of our history, its irony overload of upside-down Hills hoists and digger statues, and its Holocaust architecture.

It was designed as a big "f--- you" to Howard and his supporters and there is not much Howard can do about it, no matter how many $200,000 reviews he tries. You can't legislate for attitude.

Better to write off the NMA as an expensive folly and rename it the "OzKulcha" museum to better reflect its contents. As for the ABC, the Bulletin columnist and blogger Tim Blair will tell a Quadrant magazine dinner next week that ABC types should be calling for the privatisation of their beloved institution because then it could be as biased as it likes without the pesky intervention of Alston and co. Sneering right back is the best revenge.
[my emphasis]

Pity I can't make it to the Quadrant dinner next week - it sounds like it's going to be a real ripper of a leather breech-clout and tom-toms fest. I think Miranda might have a point on the subject of sneering back - it's bloody good fun. Still, it's always wise to remember the old saying about he who sneers last ...

Update: I've just been back to fix up the link to Tim's site. For some reason I can't fathom, he's added the text of a letter that one of his readers received from John Howard, in response to an E-Mail and remarks that several US readers have received similar letters. It makes me almost (but not quite) curious enough to write one myself, to see how similar a response I'd get. And whether it comes with an elephant stamp.

Gary has been trying on the sneer over at public opinion.

At Last, a Weird(ish) Search Request

From here on, it can only get better.

Oh Sod It!

I'll admit it, I had a good giggle at Media Watch on Monday Night. Forgot about Tim Dunlop's sister-in-law being one of David Marr's pet targets and I had no idea of the correspondence between Alison Broinowski and David Marr revealed by Stanley of the Billabong. So I'm feeling a bit pissed off right now - first with myself, for getting sucked into enjoying the cheap shots, but especially with David Marr.

A couple of weeks ago, I actually e-mailed Media Watch via their "tip-offs" link and using my real name too. It was about this article by Andrew Bolt, which I commented on in this post. I thought the Media Watch crew might actually take an interest in why Andrew Bolt seemed (at least to me and at that time) to be the only journo in Australia to have written about Andrew Wilkie's secret report on Iraq for the Office of National Assessments. I might have to re-Google it, just to make sure, but I think I might have noticed if there had been reports of Wilkie's work being tabled in Parliament, or of it falling out of the secure documents bin on its way to the shredder.

Curious as I am about the question, I won't be holding my breath waiting for Media Watch to look into it. And I'm not sure that I'll be watching next Monday night - I'd rather get my weekly dose of the macabre from watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer than watching the corpse of a former journalist decompose to a voice from the beyond soundtrack. I'd rather remember Marr for his coverage of Seidler v Cook in The National Times, back in the seventies. In my opinion it gave the best explanation of the technicalities of libel law ever published in an Australian newspaper. If I can track down a copy of the article, I might see if I can put a few selected excerpts on line, as a reminder of the greatness that might have been.

Privatisation for the Home Scientist (Part I)

I've had this post at the back of my mind for a while but I haven't found an excuse to post it. So thanks to Chris Sheil at Troppo Armadillo for his post "Score this One for the Elites": at last I can pretend, at least to myself, that these musings are more or less topical and up-to-date, with-it, hip F-A-B Scott, F-A-B Virgil and goodnight John-Boy.

Here's a little experiment you might like to try at home. You'll need a pair of 1.5 volt batteries (one EverReady Energiser, one Duracell), some ordinary copper wire and two flashlight bulbs. If your resources run to a couple of ammeters, so much the better - you can try the quantitative version of the experiment, but if you only have ordinary household resources, the qualitative version will have to do. Strictly speaking, if you have the sort of ordinary household resources I have, you're probably stuch with the gedanken version of the experiment but that shouldn't deter you. It was gedanken experiments which helped to make Einstein what he is today - the world's greatest dead physicist.

Your mission, should you accept it Jim, is to wire the two batteries, and the two light bulbs, into a single electrical circuit with current from both batteries flowing from the batteries to the bulbs along a single wire. The return from the bulbs to the batteries is also to be a single wire. You're not allowed to wire one battery to one bulb and one to another - the current to the bulbs must come from both batteries. You may, however, wire either the bulbs or batteries in parallel as long as a single wire connects the battery sub-circuit to the bulb sub-circuit. Now here's the tricky part: you have to design your electrical circuit so that (subject to the small restriction I've outlined) all the current from the Duracell battery goes to one bulb and all the current from the Energiser goes to the other.

Actually, it might be better to use a couple of fairy lights, say a red one and a green one, so that you can tell them apart. In that case, you'd want all the current going from the Duracell going to the red fairy light and all the current from the Energiser going to the green fairy light. Or vice versa, as long as there's no mixing of current.

If you have the two ammeters, you want to achieve something similar - with all the rated current output of the Duracell going to one ammeter and all the rated current output of the Energiser going to the other. If you're the sort of person who owns two ammeters that's probably blindingly obvious to you, but I thought it might be useful for the fairy light people to know. Oh and if you're stuck in the gedanken experiment group just try to work it out in your head, or by drawing a few diagrams on a sheet of paper.

There's no time limit on this, so take as much time as you need. It's not a contest. On the other hand, if you're still stuck at the end of next week it might be wise to give it up and contact former Victorian Treasurer Alan Stockdale. To be truthful, I've no idea how it can be done either, but apparently Alan does. One of the economic advisors told him how when he privatised Victoria's electricity industry. It's not really a problem of physics at all it's a matter of economic policy, and the solution is in how you structure the market.

Get it right, and you can have two households right next door to each other in the same street buying electricity from two different retailers and both getting the benefits of lower prices through competition. Even though the the two houses are both wired up to the same grid. And that's not the end of it - the retailers get to buy the electricity that they on-sell to the households from competing generating companies, so they get the benefits of lower prices through competition too. This is either a triumph of human ingenuity over refractory facts of nature, or the most successful confidence trick since two anonymous Frenchmen sold the Eiffel tower for scrap, by tender. Twice.

I know what you're going to say (especially if you're pro-privatisation): an electricity supply grid isn't a pissy little electrical circuit, with two batteries and a couple of fairy lights. That's very true. An electricity supply grid is a bloody great big electrical circuit, with generators and high voltage cables strung across the landscape on pylons, sub-stations, step down transformers, overhead wires in your local street and an electricity meter on every house. And it runs on AC, rather than DC so there's no need for a complete circuit but, when you consider the basic physics, the idea that you and your neighbour can buy different electricity from different retailers is revealed as an elaborate and rather ridiculous fiction. There's simply no way to provide every household with a genuine choice of electricity retailers, unless you duplicate the transmission infrastructure. The real choice for the householder is between different brokers, each of whom is essentially selling electricity out of a common pool.

The same is more or less true at the supply end: unless you duplicate the high voltage transmission cables that connect the generators to the retailers, all the power that goes into the grid goes into the same supply pool. Different retailers may, nominally, have contracts with different suppliers for electricity supply, no doubt doing the best they can to negotiate contracts which allow them to sell to end users at a reasonable profit, but simple physics dictates that if you have two generators putting power into the same length of high-voltage cable, what comes out at the other end is the combined output of both stations. There simply ain't no way to separate out a component for each generator. More crucially, it's impossible to work out which retailer any given kilowatt hour of electrical power "belongs" to. You can't put a despatch label on electrical current.

I suppose that, having used the words "Part I" in the title, I shall now have to go on to produce a Part II. That will have to wait until next week, but in the meantime, ask an economist (there are one or two good ones in the blogosphere) to explain the concept of "moral hazard" to you. I need to refresh my knowledge on this too, so if you get a good explanation, please drop me a line.

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

(Ante)penultimate(?) Words on Windschuttle

Once again, I've been beaten to the punch. I was thinking over another post on the Windschuttle Kerfuffle this morning (for purely personal reasons, I want to get The Popular Front for the Liberation of East Dorset off the top of my Technorati Links Cosmos List), but Christopher Shiel at Troppo Armadillo got in first today with "History, Giant Ants and Flying Snakes". In it, Chris manages to combine his studied indifference to the Windschuttle kerfuffle with a gloomy prognostication for those who want the whole thing settled one way or the otter, damn it. Still, as experience shows that a good Windschuttle post is likely to generate at least one link, it's worth a try. It has to be better than a cheap shot at Kylie Minogue's battle with cellulite: we all know where that could lead.

I've been reading Lyndall Ryan's The Aboriginal Tasmanians over the past 4 weeks (I'm now 3 days into my one week period of grace before the overdue fines kick in) and I have the nagging feeling that maybe I've been reading the wrong book, or perhaps the wrong edition.

This is not a new experience: having heard that Roland Barthes wrote a book called The Fashion System, in which he analyses the meaning of clothing, I went out and bought a copy. I'ver long had a soft spot for Barthes. But instead of an extended analysis of how the three-piece suit expresses a deontological theory of ethics, or some such nonsense, I got an extended semiological analysis of fashion writing. In fact, in hisa introduction, Barthes specifically rules out the possibility of sitting down with a bunch of fashion photos (or even the latest Balenciaga collection) and analysing them for the signs and signifiers beloved of semiologists. On the other hand, a critical analysis of fashion writing and journalism is eminently possible, and that's what The Fashion System is. Sort of.

I've decided to put aside some time this weekend to get my mitts on a copy of Windschuttle's book - either at the State Library or Border's. Frankly, I'm losing track of what Keith's main point is, although I'm starting to wonder if he has one. Norman maintains that the academy refuses to deal with Keith's central argument, preferring instead to focus either on trivia such as footnotes and minor details of Keith's case or dismiss the whole enterprise on vague historiographic grounds. So far, the impression I get from the secondary debate is that Keith's case is built up precisely on trivial detail and vague historiography, so maybe a look at the book is in order to get at the meat of things. Certainly, Keith's own entries in the "secondary debate" haven't been helpful, such as his speech at the University of New South Wales, which begins:

In her book The Aboriginal Tasmanians Lyndall Ryan claims that British colonists killed 100 Aborigines in Van Diemen's Land between 1804 and 1808.

So far I've read 10 chapters of the book, and I still haven't come across this figure. There is a table in the appendix, listing total aboriginal deaths over a thirty year period, so right now I'd like some chapter and verse. Where exactly does Ryan make this claim? Maybe Windschuttle's book will help answer this question. It might also clear up another issue that bothers me about Windschuttle's speech: his concluding remarks on the need for a new "paradigm" for aboriginal history:

For the past thirty years, the left-wing historians who have dominated Aboriginal history have created a paradigm they all have shared. The concept of a paradigm, as I'm sure everyone here knows, derives from the history of science and from Thomas Kuhn's notion that, for most of the time, scientific inquiry remains confined within a common set of assumptions about how to investigate a field and what the researcher expects to find. The NSW Premier, Bob Carr, recently said some unkind words about the use of the term "paradigm" by academic media analysts. He said those who used the term, were speaking "contentious ideological claptrap". In media and communication studies, I am sure he is absolutely right.

But in real academic disciplines like science and history, a paradigm remains a useful concept. Kuhn observed that the history of inquiry is often punctuated by "paradigm shifts", which occur because researchers eventually produce too many anomalies and inconsistencies that question the dominant perspective. If there are enough of these findings, they produce a crisis in the field. Some researchers then abandon the dominant paradigm for a better one, but others, usually older investigators, cling doggedly to the now, outworn stereotype.

I've written previously about Windschuttle's concerted (and botched) intellecual assault on Karl Popper, Thoma Kuhn and others in The Killing of History. It seems to me that Windschuttle is showing more front than Myers in recruiting ideas he has so thoroughly bagged to support his case now. It would be interesting what, beyond the immediate convenience of the occasion, created his newfound belief that Kuhn's ideas about paradigms and paradigm shifts are useful. Perhaps I'll find the answer in the historiographic portions of The Fabrication of Aboriginal History.

Finally a few words for those commenters who have expressed concern over the fact that "the academy" remains silent on Windschuttle's fabrication charges.

Firstly, as Christopher Shiel points out, next month brings not one, but two academic responses, both in book form. This might not be as prompt as, say, the scientific community's response to Fleischmann and Pons' claim to have discovered cold fusion, but history isn't physical chemistry. The principle reason that cold fusion got debunked so quickly is that other scientists were able to reproduce Fleischmann And Pons' experiment very easily, with standard laboratory equipment. Try doing that with original archival sources, and you might begin to see the problem with claims that "the academy" is dragging the chain on this issue.

Secondly, it may be true that "the academy's" apparent indifference to Windschuttle's claims reflects a widespread orthodoxy or mindset. It doesn't follow that this orthodoxy or mindset is wrong, any more than the generally dismissive attitude to Fleischmann and Pons claims was wrong. Nor is the academy's failure to confirm Windschuttle's evidence an indication that the truth is still being suppressed. A lot of people who wanted cold fusion to exist made the similar accusations against the experimenters who failed to reproduce Fleischmann and Pons' results: they weren't trying hard enough. It wasn't until someone accidentally mishandled his laboratory equipment in the same manner as Fleischmann or Pons had that the results were reproduced.

On a personal note, if the best you can do is, purely on the basis of reading The Fabrication of Aboriginal History and only that book, complain that you have lost faith in history and historians, don't bother. Unless you enjoy looking like a lazy fool. A useful corrective might be to read the works that Windschuttle has slagged and decide for yourself if he has described them accurately. It's one thing to believe your own bullshit - it's something else entirely to accept someone else's purely because you're too precious to step up and take a quick sniff.

Curse: Bloody Blugger!

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Into the Woods with Iron John

Prime Minister John Howard said today that public opinion would not sway any decisions on Australia's future involvement in Iraq.

Mr Howard said he believed many Australians were "not feeling strongly either way at the moment" about potential war against Iraq.

"I will take what I think is the right decision in Australia's long-term interests," he told radio 3AW.

"I will weigh public opinion, I will listen to the public.

"In the end, however, on this as on other issues such as the introduction of a new tax system and a number of other things, I won't just be swayed by the latest opinion poll."

But while Mr Howard said public opinion would not be the ultimate deciding factor, he would not disregard it either.

"You can't make great national decisions based on that (public opinion), but equally you have no right as a Prime Minister to be contemptuous of public opinion," he said.

"I've never been that, I'll always respect the opinion of Australians because they're very commonsense people."

The Age, January 24, 2003.

More than two-thirds of Australians believe the Howard Government misled the public over Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, according to a new poll.

The Australian newspaper's Newspoll of 1,200 people found 67 per cent believe the Howard Government misled Australians on the issue and 36 per cent thought it did so knowingly.


Mr Howard says he is not surprised by the survey. He says the percentage who believe the Government misled the public is the same as those who opposed the war in the first place.

"We did not mislead the Australian public because we did have those assessments - I stand by those decisions," he said.

He says he still believes the Government made the right decision.

Mr Howard says no-one should leap to a judgment until the search for evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is complete.

And, in all fairness, we ought to wait for those drowned kiddies to turn up too. It's only a matter of time.

Monday, July 21, 2003

Culture War Fizzles

Depending on who you read, the Review of the National Museum of Australia Its Exhibitions and Public Programs has either confirmed that the National Museum is a disgrace and not worth a Captain Cook, or basically unbiased but could do better.

In the report's conclusions, the review panel states:

... the Museum’s principal weakness is its story-telling - the NMA is short on compelling narratives, engagingly presented dramatic realisations of important events and themes in the Australian story. And there are too few focal objects, radiant and numinous enough to generate memorable vignettes, or to be drawn out into fundamental moments.

Having searched the web for suitably radiant and numinous objects, I think the museum could do worse than to acquire a few natty hats and perhaps a gorgeous frock or two (the latter might also be a source of inspiration for anyone with an unwanted wedding gown or two on their hands).

Update: here's another natty hat which would look very good next to one of those Bradman baggy greens.