Thursday, March 31, 2005

Beating the Same Old Drum, Again, Still

This is just a gloss on the last few sentences of Emma Tom’s article in the Australian yesterday.

Our response to the expired will never be egalitarian. But to avoid accusations of living in a persistent vegetative state, we should have a robust argument to justify why we give some dead or soon-to-be-dead people so much more attention than others.
Like unwanted fetuses, the brain dead and the suicidal terminally ill, for instance. I'd love to know why right-to-lifers think these humans (who either don't know they're alive or are actively choosing not to be) warrant so much more time and money than those boiling Congolese sisters, who are bound to have been all too aware of their fate and must have protested most terribly.

Now, the brain dead are dead, full stop. One must just be careful that they really are brain dead first before turning out the lights. This is something that is now easily amenable to empirical observation. Pop them in the MRI and find out. As for the sucicidal terminal ill, good riddance. I am wary of legalising suicide for such folks only because of the Dutch example that it encourages doctors- already far too prone to delusions of omnipotence- in homicide of the non-suicidal terminally ill, and of the non-suicidal not-quite-so-terminally ill.

But, I most emphatically would say that there are far more unwanted fetuses in the world than there are civilians at risk in the Eastern Congo, and thus quantitatively they warrant more time and money. Why, if as Emma says, they don’t know they’re alive?

Because the bad thing about premature death is not suffering. Suffering is not the greatest of evils. This is an ancient heresy, like the priests say in A Canticle for Liebowitz. This is the heresy of the giant brain thing in A Wrinkle in Time. No, the bad thing about premature death is the loss of potential. Whether you think humans are destined for some immortal existence outside of space-time, or whether you think the locus they trace through space-time is a unique and valuable thing in itself, the premature truncation of their path through space-time by other humans must be considered something abominable. At least, it is by me.

Just taking a stab at this same thing from a slightly different angle in hope of making my position clearer, if further clarification was needed...

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

A sense of proportion, again...

There’s this ethnic group, see, one of the first to embrace a monotheistic religion, which is dispersed all over the world, predominantly urban, predominantly engaged in trade, with a disproportionate economic influence in many nations. Last century, they are the victims of an unprecedented genocide, then establish a nation state in their ancient homeland in the middle east- a place where they haven’t had a country of their own for hundreds and hundreds of years- though most of them continue to live elsewhere. They fight a war with their muslim neighbours and end up occupying a swathe of territory- 6000 to 8000 square kilometers- as a result of which a lot of their muslim neighbours- 600,000 to a million- are forced to leave their homes.

But who wants to hear about the armenians and Nagorno-Karabakh [], anyway? I can’t remember seeing a single newspaper article about them in the last decade.

Area of West Bank and Gaza: 6220 square kilometers.
Area of Nagorno-Karabakh: 4400 square kilometers.
My guess as to area of additional Armenian-occupied territory in between Armenia proper and Nagorno-Karabakh: ~3500 square kilometers.

1948 refugees (Palestinian numbers): 750,000
1990-1994 refugees (Azeri numbers): 1,000,000
1990-1994 refugees (neutralish numbers): 792,000

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

I don't believe we're on the eve of destruction... that guy told him over and over and over again back in 1965.

Quoth Dave: I'm curious about both your views on (4) that we shouldn't do anything about global warming - what's the rationale?

My first assertion is grounded in all the projections of global CO2 levels I have seen. The Kyoto protocol will not make a hell of a lot of difference to world temperatures in 2100, even if everyone implemented it seriously today. It is just a ruinously costly sentimental gesture. Anything less ambitious than Kyoto will have even less effect, and will be a proportionately less ruinous but equally sentimental gesture.

My second assertion is that the rate or degree of global warming to be expected if we burn all the coal we know about in the next century is not unprecedented; it is not even unprecedented in a ‘happens once every major extinction event’ way. Any reasonable big series of volcanic eruptions, or asteroid impact dislodging a lot of methane hydrates, could be expected to have a similar effect. It almost certainly happened within the last twenty thousand years. An event that is that common doesn’t really amount to a hill of beans to the environment, geologically speaking. Thus global warming is not going to mess up the environment in some unprecedented ‘naughty humans messing with things they should not wot of’ way.

Basically I see two ways to fix the problem:

(1) A massively coercive one in which Al Gore seizes power, conquers the world and sterilizes everyone, reducing the worlds population so that it can be supported on a ‘pre-fossil-fuel era’ technology. This is unacceptable to me for a variety of reasons.

(2) An innovation-driven one in which we whisk through as quickly as possible to the ‘post-fossil-fuel era’, keeping economic growth high to improve the standard of living in India and China et al. I strongly believe that any half measures like Kyoto will just slow this process and are hence a bad thing in absolute terms. Even if the West is taken over by New Age fruit loops- case in point, my university now offers degrees in homeopathy- I am pretty sure India and China c.2050 will invest in developing the technical fixes that do exist, and that are/will be economical. Anyone who reads New Scientist knows that possible technical fixes to one aspect of the problem or another are bubbling up all the time.

Essentially I am in agreement with
Bjorn Lomberg
, of ‘Skeptical Environmentalist’ infamy. Our descendants (mine and Marco’s, I mean) will be richer and smarter than us, and can solve the problem.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Ten things I believe that I don't think anyone reading this does

Yes, it's a cheap knock-off of a Livejournal meme, more in keeping with the ‘Accidental Blog’ spirit. And gosh, it’s really hard to do...

1. Bacteria are continually raining down on Earth from space.

2. Electrons are moral agents.

3. The Islamification of Europe is desirable.

4. Anthropogenic global warming is a fact, but we shouldn’t do anything about it.

5. There are only two valid responses to criticism of a creative work: ignore the criticism, or throw the work away and start again.

6. The traditional Catholic position on contraception is pretty much correct.

7. All forms of insurance should be abolished by law.

8. We should start genetically-engineering ourselves into as many diverse phenotypes as possible as soon as we have figured out how to do it safely.

9. Humans passed through a semi-aquatic stage late in their evolution, at the time we diverged from the other apes.

10. Jenny really is an alien from the planet Bloorg.

Which State?

This really ought to be a comment on Marco's blog, but Blogger says it does not exist when I try to comment. Granted for the purpose of argument that the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri has the hallmarks of a state-sponsored killing, Marco has raised the question 'which state?' and has suggested 'France' as an answer. My position is that this answer is silly. France is basically just inner western Sydney expanded to the size of a country, and Marrickville council would never do such a thing.

My suggestion was that Iran is the state most likely, as they are the only one that benefits from the assassination whatever happens.

Who would want to assassinate a universally popular, secularly oriented Sunni Lebanese leader? Someone with an interest in maintaining political division in Lebanon. Hezbollah would want this; they do not want a strong central government that would make them give up their weapons and mini-state. Iran, Hezbollah's main backer, would want this. If- as it looked already a few months ago- international pressure is hotting up on Syria to get out of Lebanon, it becomes more urgent to plan for the post-withdrawal power struggle and get rid of opponents.

Iran would not be concerned about getting Syria in trouble, notwithstanding recent signs of co-operation, because Iran is the country in the world with the most reason to hate Ba'athist regimes. Saddam killed more people in Teheran in one air raid than died in Osama bin Laden's attack on the United States. The insurgency that Syria is covertly supporting in Iraq is continually killing Shi'ites and delaying the departure of coalition troops necessary for the formation of a Shi'ite islamic republic of Iraq.

Iran has more freedom of action against the United States than Syria, and thus is a more likely candidate to rock the boat. I believe they are confident the US will not move against them, because their co-operation is necessary to maintain relative stability in southern Iraq, and also because they are on the brink of having a Kim- Jong-Il style nuclear deterrent. An invasion of Syria would be, in purely military terms, a fairly straightforward extension of the war in Iraq; an invasion of Iran would completely over-extend the US. Even if their hand in the assassination is exposed, therefore, Iran has relatively little to fear.

Iran knows that the Arab Street will believe Israel was behind the bombing, and immediately moved to encourage this belief. Unlike the frontline states who are beginning to realise that Palestinian-Israeli peace is in their best interests, Iran cannot be directly threatened by the ongoing disorder and has every interest in maintaining a demonised Zionist entity for its five-minute-hates. From Al-Jazeera again: "An organized terrorist structure such as the Zionist regime has the capacity for such an operation whose aim is to undermine the unity of Lebanon," Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi was quoted as saying by the official IRNA news agency.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

At home among the Dinkas

Quoth Marco: "I think you are in denial about knowledge. Whether it is public or private, people who teach and research need to be paid. Knowledge can be used to gain market advantage in industry, hence earn money. In these ways, knowledge has a certain convertibility hence value (intrinsically). Admittedly, there are non-convertible kinds of knowledge worth learning, but that may well be funded by curious rich people as well. Whether the government pays for higher education through taxes, or students pay for it directly is immaterial - it is still a market. Students paying the universities directly is just cutting out the middleman of the government. The government could then concentrate the money saved on scholarships for the clever poor."

I am admittedly biased, in that I believe truth and beauty are the ends of civilisation and society, not means to anything. Due to my brief and cryptic blogging style, I seem to have conflated a number of different issues related to research and education which are therefore all mixed up in Marco's reply to me.

First of all, our original discussion was about higher education and people paying to learn stuff. Basically, I have no inherent objection to people paying for university degrees- whether the university is a public institution ultimately accountable to their fellow citizens or a private institution ultimately accountable to the House of Sa'ud, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a consortium of Japanese pension funds seeking safe offshore investments, or whatever- so long as there are plentiful shcolarships for clever poor folks. To drag irrelevant personal material into the argument, my father went through university on a scholarship from General Motors.
Until relatively recently (until about the same time I underwent a 180 degree switch on the Israel/Palestine thing, oddly enough)I used to openly mock the whole 'education should be free' rants of the Union idealogues. Education was already free, I said: anyone off the street could walk into any university library in the country and stuff themselves with knowledge until their ears bled. What was not free,and what should not be free, was qualifications: people who had a University degree in Aromatherapy from Mark Phillopousis University (formerly the West Wyalong College of Hairdressing) would obviously earn more than their unqualified brethren, so why shouldn't they pay for the privilege? But I realised: skilled workers are also a public good. As constituents, we should try to select the best candidates to fill professional positions in our society, regardless of whether they can pay. I think a sensible constituent-accountable govenrment body would do a better job of predicting our future requirements than a bunch of 17 year-olds who think maths is too hard taking wild stabs in the dark about what the future employment market will be like.

I read sometime around 1997 in New Scientist an analysis by a fellow who demonstrated that the main benefit of industrial research to the companies that produced it was that it meant they had trained people on board who could understand the research that everybody else was doing, and that they became more profitable by being able to quickly apply the results of other people's results. While this was part of an overall argument that government should not fund research at all... I forget the details... I think it is good evidence that absolute free trade in ideas will lead to the most rapid economic growth. Obviously I was going over the top in saying that the notion of intellectual property should be eliminated root and branch, but it properly belongs to the applied end of research, not the basic end.

Okay, I've remembered some of the argument, which is quite consistent with my experience: if government funds research that industry would do anyways, industry gets out of doing research and lets government do it. The result is that fewer options are available for skilled graduates, and because government is less in touch with the market, its spending is less efficient, and the overall result is negative. 'Market-driven' university and CSIRO research is just an expensive way of subsidising Australian industry and making it fat and slow and lazy.

I believe research should be funded according to a paradigm something like this:

Basic research: Publicly-funded research institutes and universities.
Strategic Basic research: Collaborations on an industry level, funded by contributions from a particular industry, that openly disseminate their results throughout the industry.
Applied research: Individual companies, with traditional intellectual property protection.

Friday, March 04, 2005

I knew an objective journalist once

She was introduced to me by an honest lawyer on a bitterly cold day in Djibouti. It was on the eve of the annual ‘Pork and Liquor’ festival to celebrate Eid-al-Adha, and the locals were shooting down migrating flocks of pigs to barbecue and filling calabashes from the whiskey streams that trickle down the sides of the Big Rock Candy Mountain.

Young Marco has once again claimed that the Economist is an example of objective journalism, in response to my discovery of a more than usually biased Economist article on the corporatisation of higher education.

I am just going to go through the article and cherry-pick a few unsubstantiated statements that betray an extreme bias against the state-subsidised higher education model:

“The more that universities tailor their offers to foreign students, the more attractive they become.”

All this is saying is that by making themselves more attractive to foreign students, institutions attract more foreign students. Similarly, the more that fast food outlets tailor their products to people’s natural addiction to high-sugar and high-salt food, the more attractive they become. Attractiveness does not equal effectiveness- though in a perfect market with perfect flow of information about the future usefulness of a degree, it would. Australian universities tailoring their offers to fee-paying foreign students is a major factor in reduced course content, grade inflation and increased corruption.

“In Europe and many developing countries, the customer in education for most of the past century has been the government: it wanted the nation's brains educated in the most useful disciplines and in a cost-effective way. Universities may have seen themselves as temples of learning, but the taxpayer was often paying for incense as well as priests and disciples. In short, the system resembled a Soviet-style planned economy.”

Let’s just re-write this statement in an equally objective way:
“In the United States, the customer in education for most of the past century has been the individual student: they want to be educated in the most useful disciplines and in a cost-effective way. Universities may have seen themselves as educational corporations, but the customer was often paying for CEO skiing holidays in St. Moritz as well as supervisors and workers. In short, the system resembled a fly-by-night-Texan-Savings-and-Loan-in-the-1980s-style laissez faire economy.”

“The second big problem is government interference. In many countries, the idea that the state should control higher education is barely challenged.”

Well, the author hasn’t challenged it, either. They have just assumed it is a bad thing.

“So the direction is clear: competition can raise standards for home and foreign students alike, and the speed with which it emerges depends to a large extent on universities' freedom from government.”

Absolutely no data supporting a link between competition and raised standards has been presented.

“That will be strongest where student choice is strongest—ie, courses whose prices are deregulated, for which there is no state-subsidised alternative and whose connection to future earning power is strongest.”

How can the absence of a state-subsidised alternative- i.e., the removal of a choice- make student choice stronger? This is just doublethink jargonese.

“The danger for old-style universities, particularly in Britain and continental Europe, is that government subsidy and control continues at a debilitating level, but is not quite bad enough to be intolerable.”

Where is the evidence that government subsidy and control of old-style universities has been debilitating? Not in this article. On the ground, it has only been debilitating since governments themselves began to adopt this kind of cash-cow attitude to higher education. The best university system in the United States, from the science point of view, is the state system of Schwarzeneggeristan, which produces far more Nobel Laureates than the grade-inflation-plagued big-name private universities of the Cheese-eating Surrender Coast.

“Competition and internationalisation in education have already benefited a wealthy, brainy minority. Plenty more students should gain similarly in future, if only universities are free to fly.”

Should they? How? Surely a market-driven system will charge what the market will bear, and quality education will remain the preserve of a wealthy minority.

Subjects and Constituents

Marco asks why I want to nationalise the banks.

If you are the absolute ruler of a country, then it will often be easier to let your subjects starve then to take more difficult action to solve a problem. They're subject to you, after all. If you are a democratically elected leader, you do not have the luxury of letting your constituents starve. This is why the last serious famine in India was in 1945.

If you are a business, customers that you can make money out of are in the position of constituents; customers who will only ever cost you money are in the position of subjects. Human nature being what it is, you will suck up to the first, and treat the others with the minimum amount of consideration you can get away with.

Generally speaking, any service that absolutely everyone needs to consume should therefore be provided by an organisation into which everyone has input- i.e., the public sector. Privately-owned banks will always have an innate tendency to piss on the poor, as long as these uneconomic customers are foisted on them. If everyone had the option of taking their wages or government benefits as cash, and opting out of the banking system, then by all means let it be private. But if people are going to be forced to participate, for the love of God let them participate as constituents, not subjects.