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30 April 2007


I wanted a little Mail Transport Agent thing for the virtual server. Mostly just because the blogs need to send emails sometimes. I had postfix installed, but it used so much memory. I probably could have reduced that if I was clever, but I am not. I tried exim, but I didn't understand it. Exim4 seemed the same. I tried xmail because it sounded lightweight, but the installation didn't work. I wasn't even sure if I was installing the right things. I don't know which part of postfix actually does the sending. I think part of the problem is that I don't have a smarthost because it's hosted at a budget sort of place. So the server has to do all the work of sending mail itself. Postfix can do that because I've seen it do it, but I'm not sure that everything can.

Anyway, eventually I tried smail and it worked straight away. It doesn't even have a daemon. In theory it would probably try to do something if mail was ever sent to this server (with inetd), but they probably won't and smail would probably vomit if it happened anyway. But happily, I can send mail. It all works and I got a bunch of memory back (I only have a tiny bit). I'll have to keep a record of how many times smail offers friendly hackers root and see if it's worth it.

The Queen

Unlike Emily, I didn't like The Queen. It was well made, quite funny and very interesting, but I felt so voyeuristic all through it. I really like the queen, and this movie only made me like her more, but I can't help but feel that she must have been pretty sad to see this film made. If the film hadn't spent so much time and dialogue emphasising how important privacy was to the queen (I lost count how many times Helen sad "private and diginified"), the intrusion might have been less confronting. The film managed to be dignified, and clearly the film-makes have a lot of time for the queen, but that doesn't make it any less invasive. Maybe it's a good thing that more of the story has been told. But I still wish they had waited until the queen wasn't around to watch her life be dissected like this.


Who needs the IMF?

It's been interesting to watch the gradual demise of the IMF. Countries have gradually stopped borrowing money from it, presumably because they no longer want it to run the show. They've started building up foreign reserves of their own, which I think is the only real solution to the problem of financial stability. For me. the IMF highlighted what is wrong with spending other people's money. The lenders have a problem when you're unable to observe from the outside whether a policy is good or bad. Instead of trying to work this out (which probably would have failed anyway) they picked some academically appealing set of policies and decided that everyone would have the same ones. It punished good and bad leaders alike. Sometimes it was probably an improvement, but I suspect that in the countries with good leaders it made things worse and in the countries with bad leaders nothing changed at all. Financial policy doesn't exist in a vacuum.

I think countries are realising that if they have the money to pay back IMF loans, then they don't actually need IMF loans. IMF loans aren't intended to help a country develop (although that may have changed more recently), just to get countries through tough periods. Countries figure that if they can accumulate the more before the crisis instead of having to accumulate it after the crisis, they can cut the IMF out of the picture altogether. And the country receives interest on its reserves instead of paying interest on its loans.

The idea of poor countries hoarding foreign assets in a bank has always been unappealing because people thought that poor countries needed that wealth out in the economy, helping to develop the nation. I think that people have since realised that the theoretical potential for huge investment returns isn't the same thing as actually having huge investment returns. On the whole, money invested in poor nations doesn't ending up returning that much more than anywhere else. Which is encouraging in one sense because it means that it makes as much sense for poor countries to have reserves as for rich countries.

So the IMF is experiencing something of a crisis. It feels like all the sucker poor countries have finally realised they've been duped all along, and don't want to play anymore. The IMF is doing everything it can to persuade the world that it is still needed. Apparently IMF interest income is way way down from what it was 10 years ago and it can't afford the glittery lifestyle it once led. I wouldn't be surprised if IMF lenders are under enormous pressure to make loans wherever they can. The IMF is going to have to tighten its belt. The first thing I would recommend is eliminating all health insurance for IMF workers and lengthening the employee work day to 12 hours. It will be tough at first, but all those who suffer will surely be grateful in the long run.

29 April 2007

Blogfeed Atomfeed

Blogfeed now has it's own Atom Feed. Given that I just forgot (for a minute) how this post was different to my post a few days ago about Atom and Blogfeed, most of you will probably also wonder. Chris asked for this, but I'm certainly not convinced that it provides any value. Hopefully it does for Chris. At least I learnt about Atom.

27 April 2007

Ankle Crashing

Yesterday morning Jo was amazingly patient with me. We'd been planning to go for a run at Coogee at 9am. So when she woke me up at 10am I was already feeling a bit bad. I got dressed and made it out to the car. But then I decided I should come in and get my university work stuff so I could get dropped off on the way back. I was very speedy packing my bags, but a little too speedy running down the drive way. I tripped over the little gate lock hole in the middle of the driveway, sprained my ankle, did a funny roll across the footpath and wound up out on the road. I limped back to the house and Jo went off for a run by herself. I iced my ankle with frozen wedges. Which I later ate.


So last night, at about 1am, I was sitting quietly in my room, graphing away at some time series when this large owl crashes softly into my bedroom window. It hovered there for a moment and flapped away.

And now a pair of turtle doves are hanging out on my roof. Birds are awesome.

26 April 2007

Art School Confidential

Art School Confidential was pretty good. I think I expected it to be better. It had a lot of funny moments, but most of it was about making cheap shots at art students. Bits of it were pretty annoying to. I can't remember what they were, but I went to bed with a funny mix of satisfaction and frustration in my head.


Bullies and shootings

Beyond the finger on the trigger

Miranda Devine has a good article about the boy who shot those students in Virginia. His story is so familiar, and mostly me makes me wonder why attacks like his don't happen more often. I could have been him when I was younger. Leaving school was one of the best decisions I've made. I had a couple of other friends when I was 13, but my social experiences were predominantly at school. Students hide out in libraries and bathrooms to minimise the number of interactions they have with other students. I suppose I took that minimisation problem to the logical extreme.

Schools suck and I wouldn't argue with anyone who thought that spending 22 hours a day in their bedroom by themselves was less harmful to their psyche than going to school.

A Praire Home Companion

I really love Robert Altman. I just watched A Prairie Home Companion (with Jo until she went to bed). Nothing happened in the film at all. It was just a movie about a radio show. But it was wonderful. It was funny, and gentle and so friendly.

25 April 2007

New Atomic Blogfeed

Blogfeed is now Atom-enabled. SimplePie is approximately four billion times better than PEAR fricking XML Feed Parser. And after a brief romance, I've concluded that PHP date() is much, much better than PEAR Date. If only PEAR wasn't so neatly integrated and standardised I'd abandon it altogether.

If anyone is wondering what all this means, it is that Tom, Steve and Anmol can now all come to the Blogfeed party.

Highway Engineer Pranks

24 April 2007

Soft drinks in schools

Are there any arguments for selling soft drinks in school tuckshops (or have drink machines)? In theory, I would say that tuckshops are there to make life easier for the parents rather than to cater to children's demand for food. School is probably the place where children have the most control over what they eat. They are given money to buy lunch, but can spend it on whatever they want. Especially for young children, in other situations disposable income is likely to be low and often there will be an adult present. You could argue that an adult is present at the tuckshop, but if they are selling soft drinks they obviously aren't going to prevent children from buying them.

I'd be interested if anyone can think of a reason to have soft drinks at school.


A bizarre sort of a winner of a film. I can't imagine anyone fully liking it. Very little about the whole thing wasn't weird, random or disturbing. But unlike Tom and Emily, I had a good time watching it. Helen Mirren was great, and so was Cuba. Even Stephen Dorff was pretty nifty. Not particularly likeable though.

Yahoo Pipes

Yahoo Pipes is a thing of beauty. So tastily intuitive and flexible and practical.


R is really quite a lovely piece of software. Compared to Stata and Eviews, which both do try very hard, R makes you feel quite happy inside.

22 April 2007


I stuck up an Irrepressible page a while ago, but forgot to link it. This is mostly just for Google I guess.

Drupal and the rest

I'd be inclined to support a worldwide ban on PHP content management systems that aren't called Drupal. Everything else is kind of shite.

20 April 2007

Argumentum Ad Hominem

It strikes me that I have only ever heard capable, wealthy people talk about the virtues of libertarianism. This does not invalidate the theory, but does call into question that value of their opinion. If you assume that there are "good" and "bad" outcomes for society, and we must pick an economic/social system which obtains the "best" outcome, then how do you choose it? You probably ask people what they think and what they themselves would prefer. In practice, no one really knows what the impact of most policies is on social welfare, so it is a difficult problem to test. So we tend to rely on the intuitive appeal of different ideas.

How much do you discount the opinion of someone recommending a policy that dramatically improves their own welfare? In most cases you discount the value of something someone says if it serves their own interests. However, if you have different people saying the same thing you are more likely to listen. The class of people recommending libertarian economics is very narrow. Mostly white, mostly male, mostly rich, mostly educated, mostly very capable of fending for themselves. Typically people who would do quite well in a tax-free, government-free utopia.

People recommending income equality and government intervention come from many different backgrounds. The majority of the poor. Many capable, wealthy individuals. Men and women. White and not. My question is do you put more weight on the opinions of 100 people from a diverse backgrounds (many of whom will be harmed by their recommendation) than the opinions of 100 people from the same background (all of whom will benefit from their recommendation)?

Let's say you set up an experiment. You ask people how much redistribution there should be. They can pick a number between 1 and 5 where 5 is complete income equality, and 1 is complete inequality. My intuition would be is that the people picking 1 and 2 would be far more homogeneous than the people up the other end. I suspect it would something like 95% high-income individuals.

Can you devise a weighting scheme that discounts votes based on the mean personal benefit of an option to the people choosing that option? Does mean personal benefit serve as a good proxy for the mean contribution of selfishness to a vote? Probably not, but maybe it is good enough to use. Of course, the wealthy would say the idea is foolish. It's a coincidence that the policies they support happen to benefit them personally. They don't support them because they are rich, but because they are clever. It's an unfortunate outcome that the correlation between cleverness the income makes them look self-seeking. If you could educate the poor, then they too would see the virtues of economic liberalism. Sadly, the poor are probably too stupid to ever understand. Perhaps we could develop a weighting system where high IQ led to higher weights. We could use income as a proxy for IQ. Or even the amount of land you own.

The poor are probably no less selfish than the rich, but the poor don't have the luxury of supporting ideals and policies that harm them. The many wealthy who support greater redistribution do have the luxury and they are the ones who bring down the mean personal benefit in the high redistribution categories.

I obviously support income redistribution. But that isn't evidence-based. I'm not completely sure that redistribution doesn't harm the poor. Sometimes I come up with ideas that would benefit me personally. I discount them a lot for that. Because I know how my mind works. Policies that are good and make my life better are far more appealing to me than policies which are good and make my life worse. Given that it's almost impossible to tell the difference between good and bad policies, I'm inclined to think that selfishness weighs in pretty heavily in most decisions. I doubt that this effect is much less for other people than it is for me. If I ever start recommending that we send old people to aged-care homes in Nauru for their own good, I hope someone will remind me that I've probably pulled the idea out of my arse.

This rant has all the hallmarks of the logical fallacy, except that I'm suggesting this in the absence of empirical arguments. If you're only data is the opinions of voters, then it might be reasonable to "attack the person". Committing the "fallacy" might result in better outcomes. If you're a benevolent alien dictator choosing between socialism and capitalism and your only data were people's preference and their incomes, you'd probably choose socialism.

All that can by summarised by the thought that there are capable and not so capable socialists but only capable capitalists. More importantly, I think that this is significant and not just interesting.

19 April 2007

Death by truck flip

When I was in Cambodia I riding along on a motorcycle and I saw a truck that had driven off the side of the road and flipped over. The violence of it made me assume the driver had probably died, although it's possible he hadn't. There were people milling about and moving the cargo from the overturned truck to a number of other smaller vehicles.

I tend to think about the likelihood of various things happening when I'm overseas. I tried to work out the likelihood of being kidnapped in Colombia. I tried to work out the likelihood of my truck falling into the river on that hairy mountain trip from Peru to Bolivia. Or the likelihood of my five hours on a motorcycle containing a fatal accident. These things are hard to figure out. You can't really extrapolate from one event. I could look at the one month in Cambodia before the crash as a sample size of one. In that sample there was one bad car crash. Maybe that is a lot, but maybe it isn't. In one sense, it is definitely a lot, but it doesn't really tell you anything definitive about Cambodia. I have been in Australia my whole life, and have never seen a truck on it's back on the side of the road. How do I compare one crash in one month, to zero crashes in 24 years? You could multiply that one crash by the right proportion to have a guess at how many crashes there would be in 24 years. But you're not really supposed to.

Most people would look at that crash and get a bit worried. Statisticians would look at it and dismiss it because the sample size is too small. People are probably right to be worried, even though they don't have maths on their side. Although the only reason I think they're right to be worried is because I have a whole lot of other associations in my head about car crashes and third world countries.

If I try to ignore all the other associations there probably aren't any useful conclusions I could have made about that one bad crash. So when I saw another bad crash a couple of days later I felt a bit more confident. Two deadly crashes in four days had to mean something. Surely my fears were concretely justified. But they still aren't. Two crashes, even in one day, doesn't really count for anything. Statistically speaking, I reckon I'd have to spend many months on the backs of motorcycles scouting around for truck crashes before I could be confident about anything.

It all does make me wonder how much more likely statisticians are to die in violent crashes. Someone should do a paper on that. I'm obviously not very good at statistics, so I'd probably stuff it up.

UN “peacekeepers”

I get annoyed at the way the left always puts inverted commas around the word "peacekeeper" when they're talking about UN peacekeepers. Sure, going off to keep the peace with a Steyr has as element of contradiction, but it's not so different to lots of other things we do. In theory, police officers carry guns to enable them to keep society safe. A lot of violent offenders are arrested violently. People generally accept the idea that it's possible to use violence to prevent violence. Or more constructively, that the threat of violence can prevent violence. I suspect that UN peacekeepers actually haven't killed that many people in the past few decades. But I reckon they've still discouraged a lot of other people from doing so.

Perhaps you don't believe that it's possible for someone with a gun to foster peace. It is possible that peacekeepers are only making things worse. But I don't think the evidence is so strong (if there is any at all) that the idea of an armed peacekeeper deserves the sneers and ridicule that it often gets.

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