Eric Lindsay's Blog 2005 March

Tuesday 15 March 2005

Privacy, get over it

They Know What You Are Listening To, according to an article by Bob Sullivan. Actually, the handy CD database company Gracenotes knows which CD's a particular IP address attempted to identify the tracks on. Not exactly the same as identifying an individual (unless you have a fixed IP address), nor the same as knowing that you listened.

Does anyone on an internet connection serious expect to be able to avoid leaving a trail of data that could be followed?

Have a Coke (or coal)

Thermal coal prices paid by Japanese power companies to Australian coal producers for the 60 million tonnes they are expected to buy in 2005 went up to around US$53 a tonne FOB, around double the price of a few years ago. The more heavily used coking coal increased up to 120% in December, and iron ore 71.5%. Japan accounts for 20% of the international coal trade. Various increases will cost Japan a trillion extra yen a year ($12 billion). Sea freight charges also increased.

China reduced coal exports from 81 million tonnes to 77 million tonnes, probably because of shifts to domestic use. It sounds as though coal access is tight all over.

Speaking of China, at the National People's Congress Premier Wen Jiabao ruled out imminent revaluation of the yuan, but said further reform of China's exchange rate mechanism "may come unexpectedly". Many developing countries have held their currency at a fixed rate to the US dollar, to make themselves more competitive while they develop. The USA and other Western countries have been attempting to persuade China to stop using a fixed exchange rate. China now has reserves of US$600 billion, and a trade surplus of US$11.1 billion for the month (deficit of US$7.9 billion the previous year). In contrast, the USA trade deficit in January was US$58.3 billion, the second highest ever.

I think if I want any consumer durables, now may be a good time to get them.

Wednesday 16 March 2005

Unlit Rooms desperately seeking light

I went out seeking furniture and lighting around Airlie Beach. What a waste of time and effort!

While in San Francisco for a convention a few weeks ago I was stunned to find the Holiday Inn at Civic Center actually had reading lamps bright enough to read by. At a second convention conveniently around the corner at the Ramada on Market Street, the reading lamps in our room were typical dim hotel style, however one conference suite had great reading lamps. So I carefully checked each of the good lamps. Each of these reading lamps with decent light had incandescent bulbs replaced with one or two spiral compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs. I tried such bulbs a decade or so ago when I lived in a colder climate than the tropics. Back then they were way too heavy for anything except ceiling mount. Also, they didn't tolerate cold, and in an unheated room took minutes to come up to full brightness.

The Sharper Image is one of my favourite shops to visit when I am in the USA, as there is only one Sharper Image in Australia, and it is both inconveniently located and 3000 km away. They had very nice reading lamps, not alas available via their international web site. These used daylight spectrum CFL, and seemed ever better than the hotel lamps.

Google found me all manner of USA lamp and bulb shops. Some had detailed descriptions of the bulbs, not just wattage, but also the more critical lumens output, plus the colour temperature, and often the exact dimensions and weight. Alas, 110 volt USA bulbs are no use in Australia. I didn't find any useful internet leads in Australia.

Most shops I visited understandably didn't have CFL bulbs. The Warehouse specialises in cheap, and had cheap 20 watt bayonet cap bulbs that were way to large. They only had the one size and model. The Home Hardware store nearby had a variety of CFL in bayonet cap, but if physically small enough, the wattage was too low. Also none actually listed their output in lumens, nor usually did they have the colour temperature.

There is only one lighting shop within 150 km, a small part of a small electrical service company. They are real good on spare parts, but lighting isn't their main line. No luck at all with CFL reading lamps, although we swapped views of our catalogues (I took the Sharper Image catalogue with me). They said they had never seen a CFL rated at more than 20 watts. I wanted 30 watts, like I had seen in the USA. I bought a 20 watt screw cap CFL as an experiment. While almost all of my existing lamps and light fitting are bayonet cap, my least inconvenient lamp for experiments is one of the few screw cap types I have seen in Australia.

The screw mount 20 watt Ozone brand Classic spiral CFL bulb cost A$9.25. It claims to be from Keltron, and the bulbs are made in China.

Ozone CFL is listed as 6400K colour temperature, and the box has check boxes for 5000K and 2700K as well. The lighting store person wasn't aware of the meaning of the colour temperature markings, and could not offer me a different model. I would have liked to compare the difference in terms of subjective eye strain between different colour temperatures.

There is nothing on the box or catalogue material regarding output in lumens. The box does say 220-240 volts, 50-60Hz, PF 0.5. It also warns that dimmers will destroy the bulb.

The CFL bulb is at least 20 mm longer than an incandescent, and weights 85 gram against 30 grams for the incandescent (my subjective impression of the USA ones was they were lighter). This bulb protrudes below the level of the lamp edge as a result of the increased length. Hard to judge the light output in tropical daylight, but does seem higher than a 60 watt incandescent bulb (they claim 100 watt equivalent). I'll see what it is like for reading tonight.

Richard Copple sent me an interesting email on Canadian experience with CFL, and points out this informative web site on the technology of CFL operation.

Thursday 17 March 2005

Bionic Warriors and Doonsbury

The Australian had a puff piece by Sarah Baxter a few days ago about prosthetics allowing wounded US soldiers to return to the battlefield. Their example was Captain David Rozelle, who lost his right foot to a mine in Iraq in 2003. He has now returned to combat duty in Iraq. What I want to know is whether BD in Doonsbury will return to combat duties. Well, I also want to know what will happen to Duke, given the real version killed himself. [The tribute appeared here 20 days post events, but we don't see Doonsbury in real time.

Orchestras hit sour note

Former Qantas chairman James Strong's 108 page A New Era: Orchestras Review Report 2005 notes the eight ABC capital city orchestras have accumulated losses of A$7 million. The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, the Queensland Orchestra, and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra in Sydney are the most out of pocket. Five orchestras need to increase income by 10% by 2010, and one by 40%. Orchestras are faced will falling subscriber numbers, shrinking audiences, increased guest artist charges and low cash reserves.

The ABC orchestras are already heavily subsidised, A$44 million by the Commonwealth, and A$12 million by various states. In Queensland the state contribution is a massive 28.5%, while Tasmania contributes only 16.4%. The Queensland Orchestra earns a paltry 21% of its revenue, while Adelaide earns only 36% from ticket sales. The Queensland Orchestra, formed in a merger by the Queensland Philharmonic and Queensland Symphony, has had resignations at the top, new conductors whose contracts have not been renewed, and won't even have a chief conductor or musical director until 2007. Meanwhile subscription tickets fell from 23000 in 2001 to 17200 in 2003, and who knows how low they are now. It sounds like an organisation with problems at the top.

This seems to me yet another subsidy to the silvertails. Strong recommends dropping ABC funding, changing the orchestras to public companies and cutting the size of orchestras (there is a parody somewhere about that idea). A reduction in player numbers by itself is not going to be a solution either. These orchestras don't even have to publish an annual report, so the public doesn't know how they are going.

I'd suggest that orchestras have to get out and sell their services to the public (as some say they are doing successfully), until more people attend performances and want them to be retained. Rock concerts don't seem to have any problem with audience numbers, and are often sold out. [I'd rather go deaf than listen to a rock concert personally, although I gather you can combine these two results.]

[Matthew Westwood, writing in The Australian on Tuesday 10 May 2005, laments the financial pressure on orchestras. He points out that small orchestras as in Tasmania can not earn money by acting as backing bands for rock stars. He asks whether thought was given to expanding the orchestra, so it could present a wider range of music. It still sounds like special pleading from the silvertails to me.]

Friday 18 March 2005

Bigpond dialup internet connection and alternatives

I tried to get online this morning, but the Telstra BigPond connection closed without contact. Tried several times (pay 22 cents, do not pass Go) before deciding maybe the modem in my Airport Extreme needed to be reset. Almost unheard of needing a reset, but worth a try. Powered it down and up without having any luck. Tried moving the phone connection to my internal modem, which isn't as convenient (wire in the way) but does provide more information about progress of the call. I can hear the call go through (proving the modem and line work), but soon after pickup from the exchange end, it tells me the connection is busy!

Since when is the dialup number of the phone company ISP busy in a small town at 7 a.m. (and 8, 9 and 10) in the morning? Especially when Telstra BigPond is the biggest ISP and the biggest phone company in Australia, and still effectively has a monopoly on the phone lines. It finally started working again at 11 a.m.

Connections now are a lot better than when I arrived in this small town of Airlie Beach almost seven years ago. Then you had a choice of a long distance call to a provider in a large city (don't even ask how much trunk calls cost back then), or no connection. Then a local one man ISP started up, and you could connect to one of the dozen modems sitting on his desk, for $6 a hour. Over the years the connection charges gradually dropped to $1.10 an hour, and other ISPs gradually appeared.

The big change was Telstra BigPond offering an under $30 a month unlimited hours connection with a local call number for all of Australia. We travel so much that no purely local ISP number was what we needed.

By the same logic however, we could not use Broadband. Not that it was originally available. Cable internet doesn't exist here, nor outside some non-expanding major metropolitan areas. Indeed, cable TV has basically been a loser in Australia, with less than 30% takeup, and much less than 30% of the TV audience. ADSL would have eaten into Telstra's business ISDN monopoly, so they didn't make ADSL easy to get until relatively recently. Then Telstra promoted 256 kbps as broadband, and never mentioned that most cheap ADSL modems are perfectly capable of not just twice or four times that speed, but 8 mbps if not restricted by the exchange. So far Telstra are still managing to get away with this bullshit.

However the reason we haven't used broadband is that we travel a lot. Unless the fixed location broadband connection also includes a local call dialup number for all of Australia, we might just as well stay with the existing dialup which we can use from hotel rooms anywhere in Australia.

Driving Away Online Customers

Yesterday I located a couple of interesting amplifier kit items in an Altronics catalogue that came with Silicon Chip magazine. Didn't get around buying them, so I tried again this morning after the phone line started working. At a certain point in the checkout process, the Altronics site asked me for a login name and password.

Folks, I'm not at your site to get a flaming login name and password. If I'd desperately wanted a login name and password I'd have organised to get them long ago. I'm at your site to buy something. Putting some restriction, any restriction, in front of me doesn't mean I get added to your email list. It means that I shut down your pages without completing the purchase. Either I go somewhere else, or I don't buy that item at all. Either way, I leave your site mildly pissed off at you.

How about letting me complete my purchase, and then ask me whether I'd like to have an account? Tell me what benefits I might get out of having an account. If it lets me avoid typing in a credit card number, explain how you made this safe for me. But whatever you do, don't make it harder for me to complete my purchase. If you want to see this sort of thing done right in Australia, check out Apple's online store, where it is way too easy to buy stuff.

Saturday 19 March 2005

Airlie Beach Markets

They are supposed to be a farmer's market and local crafts. Actually only some of the food places have local produce, and their range is pretty limited. We get bananas from one of the regulars, stone fruit in season from another, vegetables from a third that in turn gets them from larger real farmer's markets. It is a good excuse for a morning walk, and a bit of socialising with people.

Apartment Living in Vertical Villages

I found an old note about the Tower 101 makeover of Sydney's old Regent Theatre site. High value area, so the tech in the apartments went upmarket, with a note that apartment dwellers are tired of minimalism. I guess that means we don't actually live in rooms like those in interior decorating magazines. That is certainly true for those of us who can't keep a room looking like an interior decorating scene, and where our surroundings are redolent of chaos.

Devices that light the space without needing apertures. Does that mostly mean an alternative to skylights, or does it just mean indirect lighting? Illuminated glass counters in kitchens lit from beneath. Fibre optic lighting strips in skirting boards, uplighting from the floor. Back illuminated panels.

House technology behind living wall, sliding panels with screen printed glass, coloured glass or fabric screens. I do like the idea of hiding anything I can hide.

Concealed shelves in bathroom. Well, doh! This is something surprising?

Kitchen as a transformable box where the cooking area can be closed off to change the character of the living area. Given the exceedingly small space I have for a kitchen, I really like the idea of being able to optionally wall it off, and use some of its floor area as part of my living area. I can see mirror doors here, to make the space seem larger. It isn't like I use the kitchen a whole lot, so having it as more a living area would be better.

Island bench can house a portable mini-bar that can be wheeled to the balcony. Not sure how they power a fridge if it is on wheels - having power cords draped across a floor seems dangerous.

Housing is generally getting larger in Australia, although in the USA it seems steady at 210 square metres for the past three years, after four decades of increases. Smaller households, now 2.59 people, more rooms, that makes sense. The low cost open plan look is increasingly giving way to a maze of separate function rooms. His and her home offices, home theatre, and so on. Privacy as the new luxury item. Great for the family who can't stand each other.

Desperately seeking furniture

I mentioned on Wednesday seeking lighting and furniture for our home at the Whitsunday Terraces. I had stopped at both of the furniture stores, plus the office equipment place. The furniture stores basically stock resort casual cane, in extra large and giant sizes only, or so it seems to me.

Our Whitsunday Terraces resort rooms are lined with Ikea or small DIY radiata pine bookcases, downsized soon after I arrived here from large DIY bookcases. Large furniture makes our rooms look too small. Our rooms are only 4.6 metres wide, and with bookcases on each side wall, there is no place for large lounges. The furniture stores here seem to mostly be aimed at people without books, people with bare walls to fill. Also, most of the recent resorts and homes in Airlie Beach have been larger than in the past. We have about 120 square metres, whereas the new (mostly not yet built) million dollar penthouses are well over 200 square metres.

I wanted a computer table that I could use from a recliner chair. I'd found out the hard way that having the laptop on a folding lap desk for months led to poor posture, and extreme pain when my neck went out. It took me several months to recover from that, and I wasn't anxious to repeat the experience. Perching my laptop on a small table left the display too far away for me to easily read it. I wanted a small table that would swing in over the recliner chair. I'd seen several tiny tables for hobby use in mail order catalogues, mostly unsuitable designs, however the remaining ones couldn't handle the weight of the display I wanted to use.

Today I (mostly) finished building a desk for my Powerbook. This was after weeks of searching for a suitable one I could buy, that I could use from my recliner chair. I have several problems with the desk design, mostly forced upon it by the use of existing timber I had on hand. The wood is way too thick. However it should be good enough to let me work out how the thing should be designed. I'm not convinced making the table top swivel was a good idea. And using the three wheel design isn't as stable as I'd like, but I can't see an alternative when used with a recliner chair. The 50mm nylon wheels are probably a mistake - too noisy on a tile floor.

Given my back and neck problems probably came from using the Powerbook as a laptop, I'll do whatever I need to do to make my desk setup work. If that means I build a half dozen tables to get the right design I'll do it.

Sunday 20 March 2005

Still no TiVo

No TiVo in Australia, but cable pay TV have just released Foxtel iQ, a set-top box with a 160GB hard drive, to be sold for A$395, plus A$100 installation, plus a A$5.95 monthly service fee. Their chief executive Kim Williams says it will be a bugger to market. They hope for 50,000 users this year, from their 985,000 subscribers, of whom 60% are said to now have digital access. Despite the Fox in the name, Rupert Murdock's News Corp has 25% only, as does Kerry Packer's Publishing and Broadcasting. The phone company Telstra owns 50%.

I don't think I'd even consider buying such a restrictive device, even if Foxtel did have cable in country areas.

Monday 21 March 2005

ATM Walk

When I took my early morning stroll (walk sounds entirely too much like exercise), I discovered that the cash machine at the local bank was out of action. It eventually timed out and gave my card back, but in the meanwhile I noticed large cracks in the surrounds where someone must have bashed the ATM. First time I have seen that sort of damage here at the main street. Airlie Beach being a party town, we do get aggressive drunks trying to return to nightclubs towards the dawn hours, but not usually all that much damage done in the Whitsunday Terraces.

Housing Prices

Traditionally housing prices in Australia have been about three to four times household earnings. Now they are around six times. This does tend to explain why two incomes are needed to buy a home. There are suggestions that as long as interest rates stay low, six times income is the new stable buying point.

What happens when the baby boomers retire? If they need or wish to sell high priced homes in cities to finance their retirement, housing prices should go down as all these properties reach the market.

Housing in Australia has traditionally returned about the same as shares. You probably wouldn't be looking at investing in housing for the next decade or so. Rental yields are really low, leaving capital gains. But it seems that capital gains may also be low. I think cash will do better than housing over the next 5 to 10 years.

Electricity Supply

Most Queenslanders are now better off, so we buy more appliances. In hot areas, we increasingly have air conditioning. The population is expanding. Plus electricity is relatively cheap. Peak electricty demand has been growing at around 13% a year, or double every seven years in south east Queensland. However the distribution system has been in decline for decades due to under investment.

Air conditioners are a real problem. The hotter it is, the harder they need to work. The cheaper they are, the less efficient they are. The cheaper they are, the more people can afford them, and they are unlikely to carefully check the cost of running an air conditioner. It is hard to ask someone to buy an expensive air conditioner to help save the electricity distribution system. So it becomes more and more likely that the electricity distribution system will fail on the hottest days.

Does anyone think alternative energy works?

Pacific Hydro did all manner of interesting things on the stock market in 2004. But what do they actually produce? Wind and hydro generation of 227 MW, with a stated aim to expand to 1000 MW by 2008. But they have A$191M in liabilities ($168M in debt), on assets of A$475M. But then there are joint debts off the balance sheet. However the profits pretty much all seem to come in an undisclosed manner from the 15% of its generating capacity (and A$66M investment) in its untaxed Luzon Hydro Corporation joint venture at Bakun in northern Philipines. Also their electricity sale price must be around 30c a KWh, which also seems unlikely since electricity is sold to consumers at under 10 cents a KWh. For the rest, wind power is basically a confidence trick, which needs to have 80% backing from conventional power. Does that sound like a great investment? [There is now a bid from a Spanish energy company.]

British Renewable Energy Holdings and Alan Burns' Seapower Pacific (although the CETO test near Freemantle is in the Indian Ocean) are making yet another Australian attempt to make a viable wave power machine. This time it is a 20 metre steel hull sunk onto the seabed, using pipes to turbines onshore. Tests are due to start in July, so it will be interesting to see how long it takes the waves to reduce yet another gadget to scrap iron.

Tuesday 22 March 2005


Our former neighbour Betty was in the area and visited. As a result, several bottles of wine were consumed, and we all went to Capers for dinner (and more wine). I don't believe there will be anything sensible entered here today.

Hotel Lighting

Why don't hotel bathroom light switches glow in the dark? Strange room, hard to find your way. Where is the switch? Those little electroluminescent panels could be used as part of the switch face plate. I notice Farnell have EL panels. Make them so they are easy to retrofit when maintenance is done. Personally I tend to carry a little plug in night light when travelling in Australia.

Why is it impossible to read in most hotel rooms? When we travel by car we carry a fluorescent lantern, which helps. I may take to carrying one of those bright compact fluorescent bulbs when I travel.

Wednesday 23 March 2005

Notebook table

Revised the construction of my notebook table to get rid of a couple of the larger hunks of wood that were too short for lateral stability. I substituted London pattern steel angle braces. These alas don't have nearly the solidity and bracing effect that a lump of 2x4 wood has. Actually there is nothing like really massive construction for making things feel solid.

Entertainment Industry

Increasingly I find the professional entertainment industry beneath contempt, as they get more and more desperate to extract money from consumers.

Movies on VHS tapes cost substantially less than the same movies on DVD. Yet the cost of producing and selling a VHS tape is significantly great than DVD! It is clear the pricing is arbitrary, set for what you can extract. This is what companies are expected to do. For their part, consumers could refuse to buy. After all, DVD is exceedingly broken, with the disgusting zoning system, and with copy protection. If it were not that I can break both of these on a computer, I would never personally buy a DVD.

If DVD pricing is poor, CD music prices are outright obscene. The sooner the fat cats of the music industry go bankrupt, the better. I'd like to see the RIAA bombed. At least consumers rejected copy protected music disks (they are not CDs, as a true CD can't have copy protection). I haven't bought a new CD this decade, and while the RIAA crap continues, I don't intend to buy anything from any of their members.

iTunes Music Store is in many respects a total disaster for the consumer. One good side is you can buy single tracks rather than be forced to buy a whole album to get a few tracks you like. The other good side is great integration of the music tracks, playlists, a computer database of music, and ease of purchase. No-one doing digital music ever got these all right before. However you pay the same for a significantly reduced quality digital copy of what you can get on a CD in a lossless form. Plus the digital rights management add-on can actually reduce your ease of use if your storage location changes.

Apple sell hardware like iPods, and iTunes probably helps their sales. There are indications Apple make less than ten cents on each music track sold. I guess the rest goes to the record companies, who must regard this as real gravy, since they need only supply a single copy of a track and have no selling or retailing expenses.

In an interesting side thought, I conclude that using an iPod for music is probably illegal in Australia. There is no iTunes Music Store here, so you can't purchase iTunes songs. Copying CDs for any reason is illegal on my reading of Australian copyright law. However iPods are being sold all over Australia. Do you believe every owner has filled them only with music they produced themselves? Or do you believe they ripped their CD collection into iTunes? I have a month of so of my music from (old) CDs as MP3s in my iTunes files. If some RIAA lawyer wants to do something about that, well, I have a baseball bat with their name on it.

Then we have the TV stations so intent on preventing us recording their shows for later viewing (while skipping the advertising) that they keep varying the times enough to make recording difficult. Well, it worked. I don't record them. I also don't watch them.

When you're young, you look at television and think, there's a conspiracy. The networks have conspired to dumb us down. But when you get a little older, you realize that's not true. The networks are in business to give people exactly what they want. That's a far more depressing thought. Conspiracy is optimistic. - Steve Jobs

Thursday 24 March 2005

The Sounds of Silence

Individuals can carry transistor radios, Walkmen (TM), iPods (TM) and any number of MP3 players containing their own choice of music. This being so, just what is the justification for restaurants and stores and elevators playing canned music? Other people are choosing our music for us on street corners, hotel lobbies, and even on aircraft. What is worse, these arseholes all appear to be either tone-deaf or stone-deaf. It is almost as if we are afraid of the wonderful absence of sound, the silence that was once golden.

You can react by carrying your own music, with an iPod or MP3 player full of your own playlists. Many people do. It can also be a profoundly anti-social response. On trains and planes and buses, it is an invitation not to talk to each other.

You can go out of your way to avoid background music. I won't eat in a restaurant nor drink in a pub that insists on piping in music. It is just as intrusive and irritating as some arsehole puffing tobacco smoke in your face.

When I go to a restaurant, it is usually with the intention of conversing with friends over a good meal. I'm not interested in conversation competing with some upstart sound system. A conversation consisting of smiling and hoping you are nodding in the right places, while you shout yourself hoarse at each other and try to lip read replies is not to my taste. No wonder take away meals are popular!

Friday 25 March 2005


In February the Attorney General announced a review of copyright laws, so somewhere in Canberra a discussion paper is being prepared regarding fair use.

Do I need to mention it is about time normal behaviour wasn't a crime?

On my reading of Australian copyright, using a video recorder to timeshift a TV program is unlawful. If so, how come so many VCRs have been sold here over the years?

Copying a CD to a cassette to play in the car is illegal. Copying a CD to an MP3 player or an iPod is illegal. So how come cassette recorders and MP3 players can be sold?

Recording formats are totally irrelevant in the digital age. If you buy a recording of something why shouldn't you move it to a different media? You are buying the experience of it, and the form the recording takes is pretty much of no interest provided you can play it.

The entertainment industry want constantly changing and fragile formats so they can sell us our favourites time after time. When media went digital, formats stopped being fragile, so the industry went to copy protection.

I wouldn't buy any product for which I didn't have a means of breaking the copy protection, so that I can keep using the copy I bought. If that is illegal under Australian copyright, then that is just tough luck. Means yet more proof the law is an ass.

Saturday 26 March 2005

Airlie Beach Markets

It wasn't raining when I walked down to the Saturday markets. However that anomaly meant I was at risk of sunburn as I wandered along. Jean had told me to get fruit and vegetables. Telling a male shopper to get fruit and vegetables, without specifying type and quantity is cruel and unusual punishment in my view. I stopped when my backpack was full.

Jean returned from her lengthy USA trip. Her almost empty flight arrived just after the Sydney airport curfew lifted, so she was through customs and immigration, and over to the domestic terminal very quickly. She phoned me from the Blue Room before seven, just before I headed off to the local markets.

Infrastructure Investment

The Australian points out that the Business Council (BCA) claims Australia needs A$50 billion spent on road, rail and water assets, and A$40 billion on electricity generation and distribution over the next twenty years. They say it needs state and Federal co-operation. Well, they would say that, wouldn't they?

However I recall the electricity brownouts and blackouts in the middle of Sydney when I was a child. Not the sort of thing you want in an industrialised society. BCA says we need better pricing signals. They give as one example high quality drinking water delivered to the door in Sydney at under 1/10 cent a litre. Average Sydney water consumption is 249kL a year, so pricing higher consumption at a higher price would send such signals. Desalination becomes plausible above $2 a kilolitre. Water trading could help move water use to high value areas, such as vegetable growing and urban use, rather than irrigating pastures.

Fluctuation in electricity demand, such as spikes when air conditioners are all turned on, mean 10% of generating capacity is used less than 1% of the time. Coal power stations are great for base load, but ramp power output up very slowly. High cost hydro power is one that works well for peak loads. However there are no pricing signals that electricity costs more when demand is high. If you knew you were paying four times as much in a peak period, you might run the dishwasher in a non-peak period. Interval meters could help provide such signals, especially if an indication of costs were included.

Trucks are vastly undercharged for road use. Damage to the road base is about proportional to the fourth power of the axle loading, so the bigger trucks cause disproportionate damage compared to lightweight cars. Yet pricing does not reflect that. Lots of our freight would be on trains if trucks had to pay an accurate proportion of their road damage costs. Yet another policy decision unlikely to be made.

Sunday 27 March 2005

Easter Survey

The Sunday Mail did a little Easter survey in Brisbane's Queen Street mall. They asked about the reason for Good Friday, the reason for Easter Sunday, and also who betrayed Jesus. Only a quarter of the children asked were able to answer these questions, with one in six unable to answer any of the questions. The idea you shouldn't eat meat on Good Friday was known to some, but the crucifixion was not. Some adults mentioned the musical Jesus Christ Superstar in getting the answers correct. There was a better performance with Easter Sunday celebrating the resurrection, however very few managed to name Judas Iscariot (although Thomas, Paul, Joseph and Jonah got mentions).

I recall when I was younger that TV had religious movies around Easter. Now the closest to religion I noticed was innumerable advertisements for Easter Eggs, a straight commercial link.

Monday 28 March 2005

Telstra Structure

Telstra, the long ago renamed and commercialised version of the Australian government owned telephone monopoly, is once again up for sale now the Government is looking at a majority in the Senate. Having sold two large chunks (one for a loss, the other for a profit), the government now wants top dollar for its remaining 51%. Given Telstra seem totally out of control while majority government owned, it doesn't leave me confident of the ability of any telecommunications regulator to do better when it is entirely commercial.

The relevant ministers (Treasurer Peter Costello, Finance Minister Nick Minchin and Communications Minister Helen Coonan) have declared they will not break up Telstra into functional units. Money talks, so a bad decision, thoroughly against the best infrastructure interests of the country, will again be made. Paul Keating would have done a more competitive job than Kim Beazley's monster, that is shaping up to be a return to an overpriced monopoly. There is no justification I can see in not declaring the copper wires from Telstra phone exchanges as a natural monopoly, structurally separating them from commercial Telstra, and tightly regulating them to maximise access. They are no different to roads, which are not in private ownership.

Meanwhile, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is continually engaged in court attacks on Telstra actions (as well they should). The problem here is that Telstra can outspend ACCC. So just who will regulate Telstra?

The Productivity Commission recommended the 2007 review of anti-competitive conduct in the industry be brought forward prior to sale. It explicitly said structural separation should be considered, and that the Government should await the results of such a review before sale. The government will ignore this.

National Competition Policy seems to require the government to review the idea of structural separation, under clause 4 of the Competition Principles Agreement. The government failed to do so. It is pretty clear that the National Competition Council think structural separation should be reviewed. Back when stonewalling former Communications Minister Richard Alston held an inquiry, I am convinced many of the submissions to that suggested structural separation. I know mine did. The inquiry never produced a report or result to my knowledge.

Tuesday 29 March 2005

Priced Out of Reach

One of the very small local motels wasn't taking bookings for certain days during the holiday break. If they had one day bookings, they needed to bring in their cleaners. However the holiday loading during Easter includes stuff like double time and a half, and a minimum of four hours. Tourists wanted to make bookings (they asked). The owner wanted to rent rooms. The cleaner (who told me about this) wanted to work, and didn't care about four hour minimums. However the law said you had to pay an uneconomic rate for labour. So the owner didn't rent rooms, the tourists didn't stay at one of the better spots in town, and the cleaner didn't get any work that holiday.

Wednesday 30 March 2005

Bookshops Closing

I notice that Collins Booksellers, one of the largest privately owned bookstore chains in Australia, is said to need a large capital injection. Three of their Melbourne stores have closed. Collins are said to no longer be ordering books, and to have cancelled their Mother's Day catalogue. I have happy memories of visiting their Sydney store on Broadway, and carrying away as many books as my airline luggage seemed likely to handle.

[Collins owners, the Slamen family established Collins bookshops in 1922. On 28 April they were reported making a third attempt to reduce a A$7.4 million debt of the third largest bookstore chain in Australia. Publishers are owed A$4.2 million, and have declined further supply of books since March to restock the 23 company owned stores. 31 other stores are owned by franchisees. Administrators were appointed on Friday 22 April, when it appeared Collins was at risk of trading while insolvent.]

Whether this is the impact of better funded bookstore chains such as Borders, or a reduction in book buyer is something I don't know. What I have noticed is that many of my favourite city bookstores have closed. Perhaps rents are too high for a bookstore to survive in a city centre. Yet if in a suburban area, or mail order, fewer customers find them.

I certainly buy far fewer books these days, partly because I don't like most of the product, but also partly because I find the Australian prices insultingly inflated over the USA cover prices. When the A$ buys between 76 and 80 cents US, and the tax built into the A$ price is 10%, there is no excuse for a US$7.50 paperback costing A$19. And I often won't pay that.

Then there is the internet. Whatever else it does, the internet is a time sink. If you don't find time to read existing books on your shelves, the incentive to purchase more is surely lower.

Thursday 31 March 2005

Doctor Who The Legend by Justin Richards

BBC Books (Random House), Nov 2004, 400pp, A$49.95 ISBN 0563486309 0563486309 Amazon link

Four decades of Time Travel. The history of the BBC TV series in a coffee table sized paperback with copious photographs. Obviously told by an enthusiast. Vast numbers of episodes are covered, and information about the doctor summarised. It was fun.