Eric Lindsay's Blog 2005 May

Sunday 1 May 2005


The highly efficient Queensland sugar industry is producing a lot of sugar that can't compete with Brazilian prices, that can't be sold in the USA (due to quotas supporting corn syrup), and that can't be sold here. Burning the stuff seems like a good idea, if the price is right. Ethanol blend fuel was subject to an oil industry scare campaign a while ago, and ethanol fuel blends have not caught on with motorists. There are only 40 service stations selling the blend.

Ethanol as an E10 blend raises octane ratings slightly, but reduces energy content to 97%, burns cleaner and has a solvent effect. However in older cars (pre 1986) it can damage rubber seals. It can also damage aluminium and magnesium alloy in the fuel system of earlier cars.

There are three ethanol plants in Queensland. Bundaberg Distilling Company at Bundaberg, Wide Bay. CSR Distilleries at Sarina. Heck Group at Rocky Point in Woongoolba in SE Queensland.

Brazil is world leader in ethanol, producing it at under US$30 a barrel. The USA is more like US$40 a barrel. Meanwhile, China uses billions of litres of ethanol, the USA imported 160 million litres, and Japan and Brazil signed an ethanol supply agreement. The USA produced 13.29 billion litres of ethanol in 2004. Queensland tends to use about four billion litres of fuel a year. Australian ethanol production is about 154 million litres a year, mostly not for fuel.

Back in 1979 (Science NewsVol 116, p182 15 Sept 1979), there was a report by Melvin Calvin of a relative of a Brazilian rubber tree, the copa-iba tree (Copaifera langsdorfii) which produced diesel fuel (actually sesquiterpene hydrocarbons) if you cut a bung hole in the trunk. A 100 year old tree a metre in diameter, 30 metres high, produces 10-20 litres from a single bung hole within two hours. They can be tapped every six months. Maybe you need patience, rather than machinery.

Monday 2 May 2005

Top 100 Books

I was reading Angus and Robertson's Top 100 book list. Five J.K Rowling, four Bryce Courtenay, two Dan Brown, two Tolkien. Even Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged just made the list. Lots of fantasy, and no science fiction, unless you count Douglas Adams' Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

Dumb and dumber

Smoking pot can drop your intelligence around 4 points while under the influence. The Times claims a sleepless night can drop your IQ up to ten points. However infomania does at least as much harm, due to the distraction of always on technology, as you tap away sending and receiving text messages from a mobile phone. Hewlett Packard funded a study by Glenn Wilson at University of London.

The message seems clear. Constant contact isn't all that great an idea.

Tuesday 3 May 2005

Melbourne Trip

We flew off to Brisbane on the only Virgin Blue flight of the morning, changed planes at Brisbane, and then continued to Melbourne. We had several hours to try the Virgin Blue Room at Brisbane, where they had nice spots for sitting with your computer. Power points and phone jack with free local calls to your ISP number. Very handy for business travellers. A remarkable number of business travellers were complaining loudly via mobile phone to their support people that they couldn't connect correctly to their business network. Like, this is a surprise? I read a book during the flights. Virgin's tray tables are really not compatible with working on a notebook computer, whereas they were fine when I was using a PDA.

Jean was attending the Australasian Online Documentation conference at the Hilton on the Park in Melbourne.

Star Wars Revenge of the Sith by Matthew Stover

Century (Random House), 1 April 2005, 419pp, A$49.95 ISBN 0712684271 0712684271 Amazon link

The novel of the story and screenplay of the last of the StarWars films to be producted. This tells the adventures of the characters of the chronologically later but earlier films. In particular, how Palpantine got to be emperor, how the clone wars ended, how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader, and how his children Luke and Leia were spirited away. I commend the author for trying to add character to what seems a fairly thin story. Also, I am relieved that there doesn't seem to be a Jar Jar character. However since the first film pissed me off so much that I didn't see the second, I don't find this novel pushes any buttons enough to make me see this third film. Your parsecs may vary.

Wednesday 4 May 2005

Academic Salaries

Reports of university professors making A$100,000 a year being A$35,000 a year worse off (after allowing for inflation) than in the 1970s, brought comments from Education Minister Brendan Nelson. Not one to miss a chance, Brendan seems to be looking to publicity, probably to fuel his political ambitions while Prime Minister John Howard and Treasurer Peter Costello are deciding whether to lock horns in the party room about leadership. Anyway, Nelson used the report to claim universities should embrace flexible working arrangements. He claimed universities were failing to attract and retain talented academics. Meanwhile, the government plans to cut university funding by A$280 million for universities that fail to offer Australian Workplace Agreements and reduce union power. Universities were said to oppose the plan. The Australian Vice Chancellors Committee said universities were not funded properly and this limited pay rises. If pay rose, government funding needed to be indexed, or students would have to pay more.

Meanwhile, Ted Murphy of the National Tertiary Education Union claimed academic salaries in Australia are higher than most Commonwealth countries, including Canada, UK and New Zealand, but lower than Singapore.

Is it only me who thinks that the paymaster saying salaries should be higher, and the union saying they are already plenty high is a bit of a reversal of the usual?

No one seems to point out that in the 1970's there were only a handful of universities in Australia (now there are about 40). In the 1970's a tiny percentage of school leavers went on to university, whereas now at least half do so. In the 1970's having a university degree was uncommon, and now it is not. In the 1970's most courses required high standards to pass, and essentially took the most academically inclined and gifted students. Now many courses aim at a much lower standard.

Hilton Hotel Musings

Hilton at the Park is way too upmarket for me. I don't mind beds as large as helicopter landing pads, but A$6 for a small bottle of water from the mini bar is way over the top. At least hotel rooms in Australia always have a small fridge, unlike in the USA. We checked bar and room service prices, and are not likely to use any of them at those prices. Just up the road are a couple of small restaurants, a closed at 8 p.m. bottle shop, and an overpriced 7-11 store. I got milk, orange juice and coke from the 7-11, and we had brought some cereal from home just in case we didn't like what was available. At Rydges Lakeside in Canberra last week we bought their full breakfast every day. Here we won't buy anything at all. Call us cheap, or say we like value for money. Either way, this hotel didn't get extra money from us.

The bathroom was a typical hotel one, next to the hall, no windows, and thus totally black at night. I plugged our small neon night light into a wall socket in the bathroom. Why someone doesn't build illuminated light switches or illuminated power sockets for hotel bathrooms is beyond me. There are some great electroluminescent panels available. Do they think everyone can see in the dark? Do they think we all leave the lights on all night? Do they think we all carry a torch (flashlight for US readers) with us when we travel? Well, actually, we do, but that is because hotels keep getting bathroom lighting wrong.

New Apple iMac G5 computers announced

There was an Apple store further along at 192 Flinders Street, so I went in to see if anything new had appeared. It didn't take a lot of time to notice a $200 price reduction on some iMac models. However on the other side of the same table was the old prices. I took a closer look at the new price flyer. Not just a price drop. It was the product revision I'd been expecting for the past month or so. It has been a couple of years since I've had a working desktop computer, so everything has been running on my laptop. I prefer to have two working computers, so that one can backup the other. Also, the keyboard and display on a desktop can be a lot easier to use.

Not before time for the doubling of memory to 512 megabyte, given 256 megabytes is really pretty tight for OS X. I hope that Apple will do that for all their computers in future. Bluetooth was now included, and it was the recent version 2. I didn't expect Bluetooth, however it means you can easily add a wireless mouse and keyboard, as well as a mobile phone. WiFi (802.11g) was now standard (another thing that had been needed as standard). I was however surprised to see Ethernet now quoted as being gigabit Ethernet. The clock speeds had a minor 200 MHz increase, to 2 GHz, which didn't surprise me.

More interesting was the changed video support, altered from nVidia FX 5200 to Radeon 9600, and with the video memory doubled to 128 megabyte. I think Quartz 2D Extreme will need even larger video memories, as caching video becomes more and more important to keeping video executing in the GPU rather than the CPU. The hard drive sizes had also gone up in all models, from 160 gigabytes to 250 gigabytes in the model I wanted.

I am still wondering whether Apple have fixed the slow hard drive access, which made the SATA drives act like they were notebook drives. Unless some serious problems are reported, I think I'll be buying one of these revised iMac G5 models. The size suits a small apartment, and the performance should be more than acceptable for my needs. Plus that model looks gorgeous, as Apple's designers intended.

Thursday 5 May 2005

Labor Politicians Must Be Crazy

Craig Emerson, Federal Labor member for Rankin, and Chairman of the Caucus Economic Development committee wrote an article which appeared in The Courier Mail on Thursday 7 April 2005 on page 17. Emerson pointed out that federal and state parliaments take more than a 30% cut of all income in Australia, an A$264 billion dollar slice. Emerson points to a report from the Centre for Independent Studies, which claims the wealth of Australia has doubled since the Hawke and Keating reforms, however welfare dependency on handouts has increased five fold.

The report, The $85 billion Tax Welfare Churn, asks where the welfare is going to, and finds much of it goes back to the same people who are paying for it. Families on A$100,000 a year can get welfare payments. The interesting thing about Professor Peter Saunders report from the conservative think tank is that Labor politicians mentioned it. The radical report says 67% or A$85 billion of the A$264 million collected by governments is spent on welfare benefits. If taxpayers could keep their own money, welfare could be cut by A$85 billion. At least half of all welfare payments are churned, paid back to the same people who paid excess taxes. The remaining half for welfare benefits could be targeted at only the poor and the disabled.

Personal income tax at a flat 10% rate, with the first $20,000 not taxed. On the average wage of $50,000, tax would be $3,000 not the current $11,172.

High rates of income tax don't encourage work, but do encourage creative tax accounting. The bureaucracy to collect A$103 billion of income tax is considerable, with some estimates of costs and lost productivity as high as 20 cents for each $1 collected. Do we really want to lose A$20 billion a year in make work? Surely individuals should control how their own money is spent?

Emerson asks why Malcolm Turnbull and others agitating for tax cuts at the high end are not also agitating for welfare cuts at the high end. It is a good question. The present government seems to have reform fatigue, and isn't willing to dump the electoral bribes they hand out to the middle classes, paid for by taxes that are far too high. However my surprise comes from the past few years of Labor tactics of claiming taxes are too high, when Labor traditionally have been the high taxing party in politics. This rhetoric makes a real change. I don't believe Labor would reduce taxes, but I am surprised they would claim it is a good idea.

Friday 6 May 2005

Bacteria Produce Hydrogen

I have a note that if you heat soil to just over boiling point you kill most hydrogen absorbing bacteria. However the spores of hydrogen releasing bacteria are said to survive. Feed them on food wastes and sugars. Take hydrogen continuously for power production, and have water as a by product. I doubt the economics would work, but it is an interesting plot (as it were).

Saturday 7 May 2005

Back to Airlie Beach

We flew back to our apartment at the Whitsunday Terraces at Airlie Beach. I was impressed at being able to get a direct flight from Melbourne on Virgin Blue's red plane, even if it is probably only once a week. It also lets me get more books read.

Smoke Screen by Kyle Mills

Coronet, 2003, 453pp, UK6.99 ISBN 0340734302 0340734302 Amazon link

Suddenly promoted to spokesman for the US tobacco industry, about to be buried under lawsuits, just what can you do? The tobacco companies close their factories, leaving millions unemployed, ten of millions of addicts without their drug of choice, and a US government without hundreds of millions in taxes. Everyone hates the new tobacco industry spokesman. Fast paced and highly amusing ideas.

Sunday 8 May 2005

Sphere of Influence by Kyle Mills

Coronet, 2002, 522pp, E6.99 ISBN 0340734272 0340734272 Amazon link

FBI agent Mark Beamon is killing himself with booze in a dead end office job, while wondering whether he shouldn't have put political expediency ahead of truth. A new terrorist threat gets him back in the field, undercover, and gets another agent killed. However his enemies are not the terrorists, nor even international criminals, but renegrade CIA operatives. Beamon finds that crime does pay, and that he is very good at it. Fast paced read with some nice treatment of just what a crime is.

Monday 9 May 2005

Geographical location of web pages

One handout at the Linux conference was ZDNet's Builder Magazine, for software developers, which I'm not. Having read their short article on RSS web site syndication I went looking for more tutorials, as I know I should organise an RSS feed from this blog. Part way through this bit of web surfing, I managed to get diverted to GeoURL and web site location mapping. Although GeoURL have their own web page metatags to indicate your physical location on earth, they also pointed to Geotags, another location based web search. I just had to add additional metatags to the head of my HTML pages, giving latitude and longitude, a regional code, and a placename, as below.

"geo.position" content="-20.26;148.72"
"geo.region" content="AU-QL"
"geo.placename" content="Airlie Beach"

After the revised pages are on the web, you can use a form at each of the above sites to have your pages added to their search spider list.

Alas, that small change diverted me from learning more about RSS for the moment.

Tuesday 10 May 2005

Federal Budget 2005

Another pork barrel budget, but less so than during election campaigns. Everyone knows top personal tax rates are way too high, and promote evasion and avoidance. The salary at which top rates and next to top rates start is to be higher, leaving only 3% in the top rate. This should reduce the use of negative geared investments, and slow spending on residential investment. Superannuation surcharge is gone, which should increase use of superannuation. The incentives to dodge taxes remains, while top personal tax rates greatly exceed company rates.

It seems obvious that by putting the tax changes for the well off through now, and next year, the complaints about that will be muted over the next two budgets. If the economy holds up, the government can put through the changes for the low income earner just before an election. Say drop the percentage a little more, and perhaps raise the threshold.

None of the reforms that are really needed. Neither side of politics will ever index tax rates at all. That leaves no bracket creep to hand back as a grand gesture. Welfare and tax rates are so tightly bound that welfare payments to families exceed tax until family income is probably something like $30,000-$40,000. It seems obvious that removing vast amounts (say A$85 billion) of middle class welfare, and dropping taxes by A$85 billion would mean a more efficient tax system, a smaller bureaucracy and a greater say by families in how they spend their own money. Bah, humbug.

Apple iMac G5 ordered

As foreshadowed on Wednesday I ordered one of the newly revised Apple Macintosh iMac G5 desktop computers by phone from Apple today, there being no dealers in town. I normally order Apple software and peripherals direct from their web site, but they have a price match offer. I was able to get a small discount by talking to a human being rather than using a mouse.

The iMac G5 specifications are not all that startling, especially compared to a top of line games computer such as some of my friends prefer. Twenty inch 1680 x 1050 wide screen LCD display, 2 GHz IBM 970FX PowerPC CPU, ATI Radeon 9600 video chip with 128 MB of video memory, a meagre 512 MB of main memory (I optioned to a gigabyte), 400 GB 7200 rpm serial ATA hard drive, dual layer DVD read write optical drive and both Bluetooth 2.0+EDR and 802.11g wireless networking built in.

The connectors are a fairly standard Apple set. Two IEEE1394 Firewire 400 ports for video camera and hard drive, 3 USB 2.0 connectors for everything else, RJ45 for 10/100/1000 gigabit Ethernet networking, RJ12 from a 56K V92 phone line modem, a miniVGA port with adaptors for VGA, SVideo and composite for mirroring the display to a monitor or TV. I think the Apple designers must be anal retentive; even the iMac connectors are all neatly lined up in order of their size! Or someone is very picky about design details.

Apart from the built in microphone, there are 3.5mm stereo audio sockets for audio line in, and headphone line out. The line out also includes optical digital output for connection via TOSlink to an amplifier. The built in stereo speakers at the bottom of the iMac are designed to reflect sound from the desk surface, and are driven by a 12 watt digital amplifier. I think Apple have some sound engineers in their design team. If you look at the Apple iMac G5 developer note it lists very reasonable audio specifications.

The Apple Macintosh range do not include most traditional Windows computer connectors such as serial ports for GPS, X10 home control and microprocessor SDKs. They lack parallel printer ports, PS2 keyboard and mouse ports, IrDA for phone and PDA connection. The Macintosh doesn't even have a floppy disk drive. Three years ago I cared about support for these legacy peripherals. After I bought an Apple Powerbook about a year ago, I threw out most of my legacy peripherals. Eventually I'll replace the ones I actually miss with something else that works with a Macintosh. Anything to avoid switching my Windows laptop on ever again.

Wednesday 11 May 2005

Flerd of Pegasi

Something I've long wondered about with the rise of fantasy novels. If you have more than one Pegasus style flying horse, should you call them a herd or a flock? Jean says a flerd of Pegasi.

Thinking of the End User, Part 1

When wondering about bad products and bad service, you should consider whether you are the customer or the end user. For example, the customer of a TV station or newspaper is the advertiser, not the viewer. The viewer or reader may be the end user, but since they are not the paying customer, what they need will be secondary to what the actual customer needs, which is buyers of advertised products. The same applies to commercial web sites and many other industries. A working stiff getting stuck with a new software package is not the customer, the customer is the IT department that made the decision. If you are not the person who says what to buy, and pays for it, you have no control over the quality of what you get.

Real estate agents have property sellers as their customers, and the sellers want money. Commissions rise with the price, so you would think the real estate agent would want the highest price. Not really, because if the real estate agent can sell two properties in a month by dropping the price 10%, they are ahead 80%. What the buyer wants or needs is utterly irrelevant to the real estate agent, except in as far as ignoring it may mean a missed sale. Stepping back up the chain a little, if a developer builds say a resort as a speculative venture, the developer's interest ends when the real estate agent makes a sale of each apartment. For best results, the developer wants to sell off plan, before the thing is even built. The builder contracted by the developer wants the maximum gap between his costs and the contracted price. He is out of the loop when the developer pays up. So when you buy property, no-one is looking after your interest in it.

At a less costly level, computers are a trap. The shop selling it wants you to pay the maximum price, and accept the minimum service. Warranty repairs cost them money. Repairs after warranty expires can be a profit center. Answering questions costs them money, and most computers these days are sold on very tight profit margins. They are a commodity, like a loaf of bread. Once you get them home, they are your problem. Come back in a year or so and buy a new one. The chip manufacturers want you to buy new ones. The people writing the operating system want you to replace it, so they need to keep adding features. So each operating system gets larger, and slower, and more ornate. The chips to run them need to be bigger and faster. So the system forces you into buying new computers.

Thursday 12 May 2005

Thinking of the End User, Part 2

What is one of the biggest problems when you do get a new computer? If you are an ordinary user, it is moving all those programs you accumulated, all those collections of files you put on your old computer. Many computer shops make good money having their technicians migrate your old files into your new computer.

What stops many people doing it themselves? Fear of failure. It can take from a half day to a week to do a good job of moving from one computer to another. Reinstall all those programs, each from their original disk (you do have the original disk, don't you?) Find the scrap of paper for each program with the magic activation code that says you own it. Phone the company when it turns out you have to uninstall it from the old computer prior to putting it on a new computer. Get your email, and network, and news feeds and RSS all working again, and your address book and so it goes, on and on.

You can find programs to help change from computer to computer. However you have to think about looking for them. More accurately, someone needs to think about doing that. Interestingly, the Apple Macintosh comes with some very simple tools for doing exactly this migration.

It used to be that the most complex thing many people ever learnt to do was drive a car. Now it is drive a computer. Except many people can't really drive them, partly because they get minimal help from the computer. Once you buy, it is your problem.

Friday 13 May 2005

Preserving Museums

Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that in 2000 there were 2049 museums in Australia. This seems rather a lot when you recall that the British Museum was founded in 1753. Note that preserving the past is only important when you have people with a surplus of funds. When travelling in Britain, we noticed many cottages built from the stones from old Roman walls and so on. Once the Romans were gone, their mighty works became merely a convenient source of building material.

Museums are no longer being considered as a social good. Governments probably don't ask why should you bother to preserve your old culture? If preserved, then what is the appropriate degree of public access? Can the collection be of value for research and scholarship. Governments tend to look at the number of people who visit museums, how many exhibitions they do, how many publications.

Visitors aged 25-34 made up 27%, while 35-44 made up 29%. 53% of visitors made only one visit. 3.6 million people visited, with a state attendance rate of 20.8% in Queensland up to 27.4 in South Australia. Only the ACT had a high attendance, at 51.1%, but that also contains massive special purpose museums. Museums had an income of A$716 million, of which A$487 came from government.

Museums are in trouble, as their expenditures are increasingly seen as expedient measures to gain visitors. There is not much of a mandate for their to preserve culture any more.

Saturday 14 May 2005

Old Programmer Humour and Lapel Buttons

Why can't programmers tell Xmas from Halloween? Because DEC(25) = OCT(31)

TRS = terse in C

One for Forth users: :decay rot rot rot ;

MaBell runs a baudy house

Bugs are sons of glitches

Floppy now, hard later

I do so have a memory: It's in /usr

I have not lost my mind: It's backed up on tape somewhere.

Sunday 15 May 2005


The definition of unemployed used for the past 40 years in Australia is that if you have one hour a paid work a week, you are not unemployed. If you are not also actively seeking work, you are not unemployed. So if you have given up, you aren't in the workforce. If you have a part day cleaning at a local motel you are not unemployed.

It does put a different perspective on just how many people are really employed, when you realise many people are underemployed. The trouble with the Australian Bureau of Statistics figures is that they ask how long you worked, and don't continue on to ask the more interesting question of how long you would have liked to have worked. 600,000 unemployed, each given one hour of work a week, costs the same as employing 15,000 people full time. Makes a big difference to your statistics. At least a quarter million Australians were working less than 16 hours a week. It is likely a half million would take work if the job were not immediate.

Monday 16 May 2005

Separate weapon type uranium U235 isotope cheap?

Long time ago, Columbia University chemists Nicholas Turro and Bernhard Kraeutler noted chemical reactions in which a magnetised isotope had an advantage over a non-magnetised one. Starting with dibenzyl ketone compound, mostly carbon with 1% carbon-13, 99% carbon-12. Trapping the compound in soap molecules, exposing to sunlight, leaves carbon-13 recombining into dibenzyl ketone, while carbon-12 escapes into the soap micelle solution. Given the magnetic properties of uranium-235 vs uranium-238, is there a set of simple chemical steps that would separate these isotopes. Does not seem impossible.

Tuesday 17 May 2005

Vaccine against Tobacco

News of a vaccine against nicotine seemed widespread. When I was a child 60% of men smoked. Now it is under 20%. An effective vaccine against nicotine may help addicts and finally destroy the economic power of the tobacco companies. Given multiple reports that smoking related illnesses kill one person in five in the United States, some 430,000 people a year (New England Journal of Medicine 31 March 1994), I can't see why society isn't making strenuous attempts to destroy the entire tobacco industry. Just the cost of medical treatment, some US$6,000 extra for a smoker, despite their shorter life span, makes tobacco a social cost.

Cigarette designers have managed to increase the addictive nicotine concentration by blending tobacco (such as the Y-1 strain that has 6% nicotine by weight, twice the usual) even in low tar cigarettes (Science News Vol 145, pp314-317, and 330). Philip Morris dropped their own studies by Victor J DeNoble when it became clear nicotine was addictive. Up to 700 additives may be used in cigarettes, to change the taste, reduce tar, hold moisture and replace sugars lost in curing tobacco. Ammonia can free up nicotine in tobacco to produce almost twice the nicotine transfer ability of untreated tobacco.

Acetaldehyde is a constituent of tobacco smoke, and at 8 micrograms per kilogram of body weight (one cigarette) appears to lead to even greater self administration in animals than does nicotine. It is the first breakdown product of alcohol, and may be responsible for alcohol addiction (although possibly not intoxication). This may explain the observed link between drinking and smoking. Nicotine boosts dopamine levels, the signalling chemical linked with euphoria from heroin and cocaine. Either heroin is merely habit forming, or nicotine should be considered addictive, as both make similar changes.

Wednesday 18 May 2005

Electric vehicle conversions

How horrible would a standard car be if converted to electric power, without any really fancy technologies? The US Department of Energy did a 1978 to 1986 trial in Dallas, using about 20 cars, such as Ford Escorts, Pontiac, Dodge. Top speeds of 70 mph. Full charge range of 45-55 miles. Reasonable acceleration to 20 mph, about 0.1g after. Battery life exceeded 10,000 miles, with range falling to 65%. The batteries were 6 volt lead acid golf cat batteries in series to produce 120 volts. Efficiency claimed to be 0.3 kWh/mile DC, 0.5 to 1 kWh/mile if measured from the AC used by the charger.

The cars had forced air ventilation of the steel battery boxes, to prevent hydrogen buildup. Manual kill switch under the dash. Ground fault interrupters acted if 1mA of current leaked to ground. The usual car electric gear ran from an unchanged 12 volt system.

Towards the end of the 1980's, California required their top seven car sellers to make 2% of vehicles emissions free by 1998, rising to 10% in 2003. Didn't happen, did it?

Thursday 19 May 2005

Drive on the Left to Stop Tornados

Tornado numbers in the USA appear to have increased sixfold since 1935. Northern hemisphere tornados mostly spin anticlockwise. Driving on the right sets up eddies between opposing lanes of traffic, and these eddies also spin anticlockwise. Could this enhance the number of tornados? Driving theoretically produces more vortices that the Earth's rotation. Models suggest a wider distribution of more tornados, tornado activity should move to the east, and activity should be periodic, with fewer on weekends when fewer trucks are moving. Records show this is happening. See a report by John Isaacs, James Strok, David Goldstein and Gerald Wick, Nature, vol 254, p 254.

Friday 20 May 2005

Mosquitos and DDT

The World Health Organisation aimed to halve malaria cases in Africa by 2010, when the Roll Back Malaria campaign started in 1998. Instead, malaria cases have increased 10%. USAID spent US$70 million of its US$100 million budget on US consultants, rather than on insecticides. WHO in Africa support spraying, while the Geneva Head Office does not. Richard Tren wrote this all up in the Johannesberg Business Day. Uganda wanted to spray DDT, but was threatened by a EU ban on its agriculture. Mozambique does not use DDT, but does spray. Swaziland and Zambia spray the inside walls of houses with DDT. All countries doing insecticide spraying show falls in mosquitos and in malaria.

Another case of environmental correctness killing off massive numbers of poor black people, so we can sit in our lounge rooms congratulating ourselves on not decreasing the eggshell thickness of some threatened predator bird.

Saturday 21 May 2005

Pay to Propagate

Parenthood is a personal lifestyle choice, with costs and consequences, rewards and sacrifice. Provided fertility can be controlled, and abortion available where contraception fails, then having a family is just as much a choice as not having one.

It is true that those who have families have less discretionary income, less free time, and more responsibilities. However, if the rewards of doing so were not also great, why would so many people do it?

If a family is a personal choice, why should the childless face discrimination in favour of families? Why should the childless subsidise those who choose a different path? Government funding of health, education, child endowment, tax rebates for families, for up to eighteen years of the child's life.

It could be argued that the taxes of these children will be used to supply social security to the childless in their old age. However we are already taxed for government services, and have been repeatedly told we must provide for our own old age.

In an overpopulated world, what justification is there in subsidising reproduction? There are any number of willing, skilled, English speaking migrants available from a variety of countries, if there is a need to increase the population of Australia. Whereas a child represents a drain on the public purse, and may not even turn out to be skilled, or even employable.

Sunday 22 May 2005

Digital TV a Dud

Digital television is a technology seeking a problem. It is being pushed by some businesses, and being mostly rejected by consumers. If left to the free market as it should be, digital television would die. The public is understandably showing little interest in spending hundreds of billions of dollars on expensive digital TVs to replace a working and very cheap analog TV system.

In the USA it appears the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is planning to force a change on the public, despite being supposed to represent the public interest. There are suggestions Congress will legislate the removal of analog TV before 2010. In Britain the digital deadline is 2012.

In Australia analog TV will also be banned by 2008. This is despite very little interest being shown by consumers in buying the equipment, or even by broadcasters in transmitting high definition signals. In May 2005, Communications Minister Senator Helen Coonan hinted that full introduction of digital TV might be delayed until the mid 2010's, after concerns only half of Australians might have digital TV sets or set top boxes by 2008. Despite some limited digital programs appearing in 2001, by 2005 only a half million people out of Australia's 8 million families had digital access.

One reason for the lack of interest may be that most viewers don't notice the difference between a 625 line display and a 1000 line display when the distance to the display is more than six times the height of the display. Another is that the only good reason for the reforms is to give the existing big media barons more places in which to place advertising. This isn't about public interest, it is about appeasing big media. About the only networks likely to offer anything of value would be the ABC and SBS, which may (if their budgets allow it) be able to present a less restricted range of material.

If the consumer electronics industry wants to sell digital TV, let them compete with much cheaper analog TVs. There should be absolutely no reason for government intervention. Indeed, there is no reason not to allow anyone who wants to run a TV channel from doing so, whatever their reason for wanting it. If the available spectrum is insufficient, let an auction decide who gets it, with renewals by auction every ten years or so.

As for my TV viewing, when my analog set breaks, I don't intend to replace it.

Monday 23 May 2005

Unfair Dismissal

Proposed changes to the Keating government unfair dismissal laws so they didn't apply to companies smaller than 100 people should make life easier for small business. The problem isn't the law, or the ruling. The problem is litigation takes so much time and effort that owners of small businesses have to pay go away money when new employees don't work out. This stuff makes small employers reluctant to employ new staff at all.

Australian Industrial Relation Commission figures show 56,755 cases between December 1996 and 30 June 2004. 10,873 (19.2%) were withdrawn, settled or discontinued, 1745 (3.1%) were dismissed at preliminary (possibly for technical reasons, like not being lodged in time). 31,451 (55.4%) were settled by conciliation, and 11,496 (20.2%) were not able to be settled by conciliation. Of these 11,496, 1723 (15%) lapsed, 7026 (61.1%) were withdrawn settled or discontinued, 2445 (21.3%) were arbitrated, and 1492 (4.7%) are not yet finalised. In short, 2445 (4.3%) reached the point where the commission had to decide the case.

Tuesday 24 May 2005

Corporate Blogs

They are all over the place, tolerated, used as a market tool, if not always officially supported. Bob Lutz, vice chair of General Motor, has one. Microsoft has bloggers, like Robbie Scobie. Jonathan Schwartz, president of Sun Microsystems, does a better than average company blog. However how spontaneous can a corporate blog be? I'd imagine that every spontaneous word they type has to be checked by corporate legal. You can imagine how their April Fools day blog entry looks after corporate legal get through with it!

Wednesday 25 May 2005

Streets Magnum vice cream Chocolate Addiction

We discovered this Unilever product while driving around Australia in 2004. And we did get addicted, but only to this one product in the range of seven Streets ice creams. It was about flavour and taste, not about advertising, which we mostly don't see. We bought Chocolate Addiction fairly frequently while travelling. While at home, it probably couldn't stand up against the Royal Copenhagen product, and we have a Royal Copenhagen store a block or two from home.

In 2005 we looked for more Chocolate Addiction Magnums. They didn't exist. Not in the supermarkets, not in the convenience stores. Been withdrawn, and replaced by a new range. I tried one of the new range, and didn't like it. I want what I want, not what the advertising industry are pushing this year, in a new marketing campaign. The result is that I don't buy any of the Streets Magnum range of ice creams these days. They are a discretionary item - I can easily buy a substitute or something entirely different. So I do. Brownes make a satisfactory substitute, in their Chocolate Indulgence, albeit it is harder to find. If I can't find what I want, I'll go without.

Thursday 26 May 2005

The Decline of America

Despite the bumbling constitutional crisis of Europe, and the socialist driven sick economy of Europe, it is clear that the USA is being challenged for world leadership. There is no doubt that the USA is the only superpower in terms of its armed forces. It spends more than the next twelve countries combined. America was involved in the founding of many of the most influential institutions in the world, including the United Nations and the World Bank. For most of the past century, the USA has been able to project not just economic power, but also moral ascendancy and cultural leadership.

After the 2001 Jihadist attacks, America changed, and its position in the world changed. Whatever the rhetoric about alliances and coalitions of the willing, it could not bring its European allies along into Iraq. The admiration and respect in which the USA was once held for its liberal democratic values is changing. I have never seen such widespread public hostility to US policies. Resentment is rising, and the motives of the US leadership are widely mistrusted, even among allies. Unilateral USA actions abroad no longer has any legitimacy. The lies told about Iraq (not that getting rid of Saddam wasn't a good thing for Iraq), the repudiation of the international justice system, and the entire concept of Guantanamo Bay are symptomatic. Meanwhile the conflict of interest at the top of the US administration is getting harder to ignore, with Cheney and Haliburton. The moral capital of a century of (mostly) good deeds is being squandered.

In Australia, a Lowy Institute survey showed only 58% of people had positive feelings towards the USA. 68% thought Australia takes too much notice of the USA in foreign policy. Given Australia can never retreat to its former cosy Commonwealth relationship after Britain joined the EEC, and that we have no common culture with nearby Asian countries, America is our natural ally. Language, culture, political systems all have much in common. This was acknowledged during WWII. But increasingly even Australians find themselves rejecting the actions of America.

Friday 27 May 2005

Capitalists Together

I was interested in Treasurer Peter Costello declaring himself part of the working class, on the basis that is anyone who derives their income from labour is part of the working class. He is correct. How much you earn doesn't change the fact of working. Meanwhile Prime Minister John Howard declared himself a better friend to workers than traditional Labor ever was. Full time adult employee earnings 47%, while prices rose 23% in the nine years since Howard was elected, resulting in a 24% real wage increase, or 2.6% a year. The comparison with the Hawke Keating was 15.3% or 1.2% a year for Labor's 13 years. You could argue that the many reforms of the Labor years set the scene for these Howard year benefits.

You could also argue that inequality has increased, and it is certainly true that managerial and especially professional rises have been faster than blue collar, while sales and service shows the smallest wage rises. However the middle has improved. The already small number receiving less than half the average weekly earnings (AWE) has halved. Half to AWE has dropped slightly. These gains showed up in AWE to 1.5 AWE. It is true that the small minority on over 2 AWE has increased, and now exceeds those under half AWE.

Capital did very well, with incorporated company income rising from 23% of income to nearly 27%, however if you include unincorporated businesses the share remained steady at 34%. Wages went from about 54.5% to 53.5% (with about four swings of about a percent anyway). Meanwhile, share ownership rose from less than 1.75 million people to nearly 3.5 million, probably largely as a result of superannuation ownership and privatising of government enterprises like Commonwealth Bank and Telstra. Trade union membership fell from just over 2 million to just under 2 million. More people own shares than join unions.

Self employment rose to nearly 35%. Self employed contractors dropped slightly from 13%. Unincorporated owners and managers went from well under 7% to just over 10%. Incorporated owner managers from under 2% to 8% before declining to about 7%. Outsourced employees went from under 1% to 4%.

Saturday 28 May 2005

School Costs

Teacher's unions seem to continually be claiming that funding for education is falling. They blame John Howard and the conservative Federal Government, which is a bit of a reach considering education is a State matter, and all state governments are Labor. Official figures are always well behind reality, however in 2000 Australia ranked third in the OECD for the percentage of GDP spent on schools.

I'd suggest that reducing the bureaucracy at the top, and increasing local autonomy in schools would produce better results than ever increasing funding. Releasing competitive school results is an obvious step, so that parents can compare them. Paying extra to teachers who get better results is another. I'm not sure there are any sanctions against poor teaching performance at the moment, but everyone who went to school is aware that some teachers are substantially better at it than others.

Sunday 29 May 2005

Entertainment Grants

Money from the government to promote the arts, except it tends to finance committee members, and the results are not entertaining. Look to the Film Finance Corporation (FFC), which promoted some real duds last year, so bad that only 1.2% of the box office went their way. However three of the eight member FFC got their own grants. In the alphabet soup of the Australian Research Council, the Humanities and Creative Arts panel gave five of its 12 members grants. What is the word for nepotism, when the recipients are not family members? Even banning members of boards from all consideration isn't going to help. Rodney Hall got several grants from the Australia Council both before and after he was their boss (no, I haven't read him either).

Isn't it well past time this artist class welfare subsidy was abandoned? Artists will do whatever their thing is whether it brings in much money or not. They will work odd jobs if that is what it takes. Some will do well out of their art (Ken Done) and some will be ignored. Governments shouldn't be trying to pick winners.

Monday 30 May 2005

Infrastructure a Vote Loser

No government ever funds infrastructure except to win an election. Infrastructure isn't something where a voter gets something every week to remind them who gave them a handout. Recurrent expenditure is where most government money is wasted, because that is what buys votes. Also, infrastructure often takes a long time to build; the next government may claim credit. It is always easier politically for a government to defer capital spending than to curb recurrent spending.

Look at long time (10 years) Premier Bob Carr in NSW. Statesmanlike pose, public intellectual, leaking diarist when it is politically opportune. With the biggest pool of money of any state, he can't afford to fund water infrastructure, hospitals or transport, but can pay 44% of his income in wages and superannuation.

Premier Peter Beattie (7 years) in Queensland exceeds this at 45.6%. Despite getting a great deal on GST and Commonwealth grants, and a 63% increase in infrastructure spending since 2001, Queensland has problems with rail transport (Dalymple Bay and other coal lines), electricity (extra power stations will be needed, and they take ten years to build).

Tuesday 31 May 2005

Middle Class Taxes Too High

Given the company tax rate is 30 cents in the dollar, and this can be manipulated, the top personal income tax rate of 47% is probably way too high. Capital gains profits are around 23.5%, plus you can use negative gearing or even almost opt out of the taxation system. Bill Shorten, national secretary of the Australian Workers Union, points out that a two income family earning 1.33 times average wages, you have a marginal tax rate of 61.5%. This is an amazing disincentive to earning more. You can pay tax at 47%, 1.5% Medicare levy, and then 10% GST when you spend what is left for you. It is about time personal income tax thresholds were increased, the tax rate lowered, and indexed to inflation. Bracket creep is just theft.