Saturday, March 31, 2007

Insanity plea for Hamlet?

Was Hamlet mad or did he contrive madness?

A Washington jury have recently sought to determine whether Hamlet was sane or not and whether, accordingly, he should be held criminally responsible for the fatal stabbing of Polonius. The trial took place on March 15 in a sold-out, 1,100-seat theater at Washington's John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The trial is part of the capital's 6-month Shakespeare festival.

‘Justice Anthony Kennedy faced a problem he never had in his day job at the Supreme Court. The defendant has been dead for 400 years, ordinarily reason enough to dismiss criminal charges. But the show, as they say, must go on. So Kennedy had to dream up a way to bring Hamlet back to life, at least long enough to put him on trial for an unusual evening that mixes Shakespeare and the law.

Kennedy will preside for the fourth time at the trial of Hamlet, an unscripted performance that tries to determine whether the Danish prince is insane or should be held responsible for the death of Polonius.

The purpose is to make Shakespeare more accessible, and also to explore vexing modern legal issues, like the insanity defense.

‘Hamlet is the greatest dramatic composition in the history of literature. He continues to perplex us. It is so difficult’, Kennedy said in an interview in his court office. ‘If people can be interested in that, then the easier plays follow’.

I saw some televised excerpts of this mock trial on SBS television yesterday. The coverage spliced the news coverage with excerpts from the 1948 movie-length version of Hamlet directed by Sir Lawrence Olivier who also played Hamlet. By some quirk of fate I had been watching this film over the past few nights. It’s a moody, eerie version of Hamlet that treats Hamlet as indecisive and leaves it at that. I had earlier watched the widely-acclaimed version of Hamlet starring Derek Jacobi made by the BBC in 1980.

I much prefer the Olivier version – I like the smoky scenes, the non-minimalist theatrical approach and the indecisive Olivier as Hamlet. A complete set of reviews of film versions of Hamlet is here - I have only seen the two I mention.

Hamlet did kill Polonius in the mistaken view that he was his Uncle Claudius who, as everyone in the Danish court must have known, had enjoyed an adulterous relationship with Hamlet’s mother Gertrude, immediately prior to his father’s mysterious death and who remarried Claudius only two months after the death. Everyone, including Gertrude and Polonius, must have suspected that Claudius was involved in murdering Hamlet senior.

So there was justification for Hamlet’s attempt to kill Claudius even if he did get the wrong man, Polonius. But ignoring this: Was Hamlet mad and should he be held responsible for the murder?
Hamlet says several times during the play that he will feign madness so that his Uncle will not expect revenge. Even Polonius remarks ‘Though this be madness, yet there is method in it’.

But Hamlet is devastated by his father’s death even before he sees what he believes to be the spirit of his father’s ghost. Moreover, he is disgusted with his mother’s behaviour – he remarks they could have served up the scraps from his father’s funeral at her remarriage! But Hamlet is self-aware – he knows he is horribly upset and even rational enough to see suicide as an immoral way out of unhappiness.

Hamlet sees the ghost with Horatio and the guards although he is confused as to whether it represents his father or some evil spirit. The ghost tells him to avenge his father’s death but to spare the mother. Hamlet is smart enough to be cautious about following the advice of this apparition. He is also broadminded enough to consider the possibility of Donald Rumsfield type ‘unknown unknowns’ (also here). ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’. What will happen if I do undertake revenge?

Hamlet’s at tiimes hostile treatment of Ophelia doesn’t seem to be madness though it is cruel. He realizes that his future with her will be bleak if he does kill Claudius and feels conflicted. Hamlet must be thinking, why not forget about his evil uncle and just marry her? Hamlet does bear some culpability for driving Ophelia mad but was also using ambiguity in perceptions of his feelings for her, rather than his father’s death, to conceal his true feelings. Ophelia said that Hamlet was mad but she had just been rejected by him.

Hamlet was pretending to be crazy to survive and to achieve his objective of killing Claudius providing that he can prove to himself that Claudius must die. He was experiencing emotional conflicts with Ophelia and was in an atrocious environment but did not seem mad at all to me. As he tells his friends ‘I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.’ In fact when his friends are around he is lucid – it is with schemers such as Polonius that he feigns madness. In devising the crafty plot involving the play within the play (and in enlisting the support of Horatio) he is acting very rationally.

That Gertrude didn’t see the ghost when Hamlet did is not evidence for the lack of a ghost since several others, including Horatio, had already seen it. Moreover, Hamlet had just accused his mother of being a slut who was implicated in the murder of her husband. It then made sense for Gertrude to report back to Claudius that her son was mad, irrespective of the ghost. Hamlet’s subsequent remarks that fat kings and lean beggars both end up as food for worms – simply as different menu items, sounds like fairly inspired madness not crazy utterances.

Reluctantly therefore I’d probably find Hamlet guilty of murdering Polonius so I would reject any insanity plea. Of course I would let him off with a warning because, as a character, he is so likeable.

Polonius himself was a schemer and a fool and Hamlet was rather cold about his death even if he did repent afterwards. Hamlet also showed a sense of recognizing the evil of murder by not killing Claudius while he was praying because he believed that, if he did it then, Claudius might go to heaven rather than hell. But overall Hamlet was a likeable, honest character.

Judge Anthony Kennedy has judged Hamlet four times since 1994 and, as far as I know, the verdict has always been indecisive. This occasion was no exception – the jury was split.

After the verdict, Kennedy remanded the Danish prince to ‘the pages of our literary heritage.’ Pretty good call Judge.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Endurance test for Godwits

It has just been discovered that common migratory wading birds, Bar–tailed Godwits, make a 10,000 klm. non-stop journey from New Zealand to the Yellow Sea, refuel for a month and then head off to Alaska. This is an interesting site with a link to a site enabling tracking of flight paths.

The Godwits take 6-7 days to make this mighty 10,000 klm leap, flying 2 kilometers above sea level. They lose half their body weight during this leg of their migration – the juveniles photographed are obese as they start off their journey from Alaska. The annual return flight from Alaska to Australia/New Zealand keeps the Godwits in continuous summer and helps with their food supply. It is obviously an enormous journey but not by any means the longest – Artic terns fly 35,000 klm. journey between the poles each year though definitely not non-stop.

The Godwit record is quite amazing - up until a few years ago the longest intercontinental, commercial aviation flight was about 14,000 klms.

By the way, the Yellow Sea stopover site used by the Godwits and numerous other migratory birds has been seriously damaged by a South Korean land reclamation project. The landfill, perhaps the biggest in human history has destroyed a wildlife habitat of area 2/3 the size of Singapore. I think it is an environmental disaster although some would see this habitat as expendable in the interests of economic development.

Despite being an economist, who teaches students endlessly about the importance of tradeoffs, I find it difficult to justify the destruction of important and intriguing aspects of our natural environment irrespective of short-term economic priorities. The Asian region, with its rapidly growing populations and economies, is a major area of economic opportunity but is, as a result of not restraining these developments, a significant global threat to migratory bird species and biodiversity generally.


I have been working for the last couple of weeks on smoking. If you want to get a good feel about the dimensions of the global smoking epidemic I recommend this site.

If you wish to become very well informed about harm reduction approaches to dealing with the smoking catastrophe I recommend this site. It is an excellent source of information - 50 live links that will introduce you to a vast literature much of which is genuinely surprising.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Is anyone entitled to their own opinion?

I enjoyed this piece in The Australian Higher Education this week – ‘Opinion trounces fact’ by Gary Olsen. We have become so obsessed in our education system with eliciting opinions (‘what do you think?’) that we neglect understanding:

Not long ago, a scholar of postmodern thought delivered an honours seminar on the French philosopher Michel Foucault to a class of juniors. Twenty minutes into her explanation of his theory of discourse, one of the students sneered:

‘Well, that's his opinion. I don't agree’

Stunned, the professor explained that, given the fact the class had only just begun reading the philosopher's work, the first task was neither to agree nor to disagree but to understand exactly what was being argued. Agreement or disagreement was a privilege earned only after having mastered and reflected on the material.

Annoyed, the student replied,

‘everyone is entitled to an opinion, and my opinion is that he is wrong.’
The glorification of opinion has gone too far in my opinion but, that’s only my opinion.

Seriously, I regret to say that I have often had the experience that Olsen has with many of my colleagues and students. They seem to regard any argument propounded that disagrees with their precepts not as something to be refuted or agreed to but merely as ‘your opinion’ and, of course, ‘everyone is entitled to their own opinion’.

James Whyte’s Crimes Against Logic discusses the inane ‘everyone is entitled to their own opinion’ fallacy. You don’t have the right to your own opinion and, apart from being false, this invocation is always being invoked even when it is irrelevant even if it were true.

Whyte’s example involves X telling Y that ‘President Bush invaded Iraq to steal its oil’. When Y disagrees and provides a host of counterarguments X explodes and says ‘That’s your opinion’. This is an irrelevant claim. X and Y disagreed over Bush’s reasons for invading Iraq. Y did not assert that X had no right to an opinion. For all it contributed to the question at issue X might have said that 'John Quiggin looks younger with his beard cut off'. If X’s claim is that we are entitled to a conclusion which might nonetheless be false, this entitlement to an opinion adds bugger all to resolving the original issue. It does nothing to show that X’s original claim is true.

Interpreting the claim that we are all entitled to our own opinions if they are true has two problems. First it is ridiculous and second it does not make clear which of the two parties has the correct view.

As Whyte concludes: When your opponent in a debate declares ‘I am entitled to my opinion’ …you should realise that it is simple rudeness to persist with the matter. You may be interested in whether or not their opinion is true, but take the hint, they aren’t’.

David Hicks guilty

David Hicks has pleaded guilty to providing ‘material support for al-Qaeda terrorism’. I felt a moment’s sorrow for this deluded nitwit who hates Jews and who sees misogynist, hateful Taliban thugs, with nappies around their heads, as the future of civilization. It is the same type of sorrow I feel for a drunken teenager who kills his companions in a car crash. A wasted life after a poor judgment by someone young and immature.

Hicks was a dummy who boned chickens, did drugs and found in Islam some point to his fairly pathetic life. But he was prepared to kill people on behalf of murderous thugs. He deserves a hefty jail sentence and the bulk of people’s compassion can be better placed elsewhere.

As The Australian remarks:
‘ the suburban boy from Adelaide who left his family to join the cause of violent Islamic fundamentalism has not spent the past five years jailed at Guantanamo Bay because of a youthful misadventure, but rather because he committed some very real crimes with very real consequences’
The US is fighting a war against international Islamic terrorism. It could never have said to David Hicks ‘We know you are an immature prat. Now go home and don’t do it again’. It is the standard rationale for a judically-imposed punishment – to deter future adventurers from such ill-conceived actions. The most plausible basis for a terrorist attack in Western countries will come from deluded residents of Hicks' ilk.

The cries of injustice in Australia are ludicrous – a ‘traversty of justice’ The Age proclaims. It wasn’t. I’ll wait to see the wailing and the gnashing of teeth that occurs when he is transferred back to Australia. Not matter how small his prison sentence is there will predictably be a clamouring to get him out of jail as soon as possible.

Update: Hicks will come home to Australia to serve 9 months. His scatterbrained leftwing supporters must derive pleasures from SA Premier Rann's anguish over the crime problems associated with releasing a known terrorist into the community. Peter Costello got it right: This guy is no hero - he joined a terrorist organisation which killed Australians. He does not deserve much sympathy.

Update: The lunatics in the Australian Democrats had said they would welcome David Hicks as an election candidate. John Howard rightly slams Rann's nervousness about having a terrorist back as a member of the community - wasn't every state branch of the ALP in Australia clamouring for his return! Finally, in Amnesty's The Human Rights Defender, April/May 2007, p. 15 David Hicks' father Terry Hicks describes his terrorist son as 'just a kid going overseas'. Delusions compound delusions - as I suggested in the original post we will come to treat David Hicks as a hero. It is a disgrace.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The sick rose

Oh Rose, thou art sick!

Oh Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

William Blake
This poem comes from William Blake's Songs of Experience. I have always enjoyed it but not because of any deep message I can, with any confidence, unravel. Indeed it always seems to me a bit whining. The rose here has a ‘bed of crimson joy’ so the ‘joy’ here has to do with love. But the rose is ‘sick’ because of an ‘invisible worm’ which represents a ‘dark secret love’ and the love is ‘crimson’. The mystery is why love should involve death?

I enjoyed the poem partly because it is mysteriously simple and partly because I once heard a rendition of it by Allen Ginsberg which is mantra-like – you can listen to it here but it is with a lot of other stuff. In the Ginsberg version the words ‘storm’ and ‘destroy’ are stretched out while the rest is staccato and the punctuation doesn’t follow that given above. I can remember taking a bus trip through the Queensland countryside 30 years ago and repeating it endlessly in my head along the lines of Ginsberg’s recitation.

There are numerous discussions of this beautiful, enigmatic, poem. Most relate to the way we think about sexuality when experience or seduction destroys innocence. It could also be a satire on puritanical attitudes toward sex.

Land degradation in 400BC

The Importance of Forest Preservation

'Contemporary Attica may accurately be described as a mere relic of the original country, as I shall proceed to explain.

In configuration Attica consists entirely of a long peninsula protruding from the mass of the continent into the sea and the surrounding marine basin is known to shelve steeply round the whole coastline. In consequence of the successive violent deluges which have occurred within the last 9,000 years, there has been a constant movement of soil away from the high altitudes; and owing to the shelving relief of the coast this soil, instead of laying down alluvium, as it does elsewhere, to any appreciable extent, has been perpetually deposited in the deep sea round the periphery of the country or, in other words, lost; so that Attica has undergone the process observable in small islands and what remains of her substance is like the skeleton of a body emaciated by disease as compared with her original relief. All the rich, soft soil has moulted away, leaving a country of skin and bones. At the period however, with which we are dealing, when Attica was still intact, what are now her mountains were lofty soil-clad hills: her so called shingle plains of the present day were full of rich soil; and her mountains were heavily afforested - a fact of which there are still visible traces.

There are mountains in Attica which can now keep nothing but bees, but which were clothed not so very long ago with fine trees producing timber suitable for roofing the largest buildings; and roofs hewn from this timber are still in existence. There were also many lofty cultivated trees, while the county produced boundless pasture for cattle. The annual supply of rainfall was not lost as it is at present through being allowed to flow over the denuded surface into the sea, but was received by the country, in all its abundance, into her bosom, where she restored it in her impervious potter's earth and so was able to discharge the drainage of the heights into the hollows in the form of springs and rivers with an abundant volume and a wide territorial distribution. The springs that survive to the present day on the sites of extinct water supplies are evidence for the correctness of my present hypothesis.'

Plato, Collected Works. Oxford Text, Vol IV. Critias, 111 A-D.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Unions want to turn back the clock

The Business Council’s Michael Chaney has a short piece in this morning’s AFR (subscription required but see the BCA press release here) on WorkChoices which came into operation a year ago on 26th March 2006.

That was the day mass sackings were due to commence with pay and conditions destroyed throughout the workforce. But that hasn’t happened – since that time 200,000 new jobs have been created while wages have continued to rise as they have through the 1990s.

Unemployment is at its lowest level for 31 years with (horror-of-horrors) skilled labour being in short-supply. Class war between unions and pitiless bosses hasn’t worsened either - industrial disputes remain at their lowest level since 1913.

With wages more closely linked to productivity wage increases send out useful signals about where labour can most valuably be employed. This helps to create jobs and to improve general productivity and living standards.

Mr Rudd and his union mates have switched from trying to identify victims in these developments to building a campaign identifying potential victims of workforce reform. We are, according to these ninnies, all potential victims from WorkChoices - its just a question of time.

We will be real victims if the opponents of WorkChoices are successful in winding back industrial laws to those that prevailed in the 1980s. According to Access Economics reforms over the 20 years to 2004 have directly created 315,000 Australian jobs.

John Howard is right in refusing to retreat from labor market reforms even given the unfavorable election outcome in NSW. The Age, today, predictably emphasizes the unpopularity of IR reform in the face of union propaganda rather than its benefits. Their review of the outcomes of WorkChoices emphasizes the opposition campaign against it rather than its practical benefits.

We will all be worse off if the union-Labor scare campaign successfully turns back the clock. Skilled, unskilled and female workers will all face reduced labour market opportunities if the link between what they can produce of value and what they are paid is muddied by trade union backed Labor Party stupidity.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Harm minimization & effective drug policies

Harm minimization (HM) drug policies focus on reducing the harmful consequences of drug use rather than attempting to directly limit use itself.

To the extent that drug users factor in expected harms when they make decisions to use illicit drugs one can reasonably suppose that reducing harms will, in itself, increase use. Thus a larger group of people will use drugs after the HM policy is introduced but, if the intent of policy is realized, they will each individually be exposed to lower expected harms.

It is unclear a priori that HM policies will necessarily reduce aggregated social damages.

If users before the policy are n with individual expected damages d and after the policy they are N greater than n with individual expected damages D less than d then the change in total social damages with implementation of the policy is nd-ND = n(d-D) + D(n-N) which can be positive or negative. Debate over the value of HM hinges on the sign of this last expression. This resolves into two effects: (d-D) which measures the extent to which individual damages will fall and (n-N) measuring the extent of the induced demand increases. Pro-HM thinkers claim (d-D) is relatively large numerically while anti-HM supporters suppose (n-N) is large numerically.

Two comments:

1. There are comparable issues in social welfare policy outside the drugs area. Providing unemployment assistance reduces the financial hardship faced by the unemployed but increases incentives to live on the dole, increasing allowances to single mothers reduce the disadvantages their babies will face but increases the number of such babies, and so on.

2. Those opposed to HM favor strongly prohibitive policies which have symmetric though opposite policy effects. A stringent legal penalty will reduce numbers using from n to N’ with N’ larger than n but damages per illicit drug user are likely to rise (because of induced higher prices, increased needs to commit crime) from d to D’ with D’ larger than d. Again the net effect on social damages depends on nd-N’D’= n(d-D’)+D’(n-N’) with supporters of prohibitive policies claiming the positive term n-N’ dominates and with opponents claiming the negative term d-D’ is more important.

Debates over the value of HM policies often turn into shouting matches about the size of these effects based on strong a priori claims and little evidence. Indeed evidence is difficult to get so this type of response is hardly unexpected. One reason evidence is hard to come by is that the markets in which drugs are sold is illicit so observations of policy effects are difficult to come by.

That anti-HM brigade who emphasize the demand effects of HM – the effect of policies in driving increased use - can easily be boxed into an ethical corner. If one believes that harm reduction has strong demand effects, and opposes HM measures on this account, why should medical assistance be offered to those facing the prospect of overdose death and why should one distribute ‘fits’ by means of safe injecting rooms and so on? Taking the anti-HM position to its logical extreme would involve leaving overdosing addicts to die because the implied harm acts as a disincentive to use.

Few would seek to push things this far but opposition to such policies as use of safe injecting rooms involves precisely this type of tradeoff. It is an awkward and difficult issue but there are grounds for limiting the extent of social approval given to the consumption of dangerous drugs and for facilitating the means for their safe consumption.

I’ll pursue these ideas issue further in future posts on HM as a basis for drug policy.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Chop chop

A tax on tobacco will encourage the use of illegal, untaxed sources of tobacco or chop chop*. Smoking chop chop means that the Commonwealth Government loses out on revenue (in 2003 the estimated loss was $500 million) but, more importantly, that the tax on legal tobacco to avoid health problems will indirectly create new health problems since chop chop is, in many ways, a less healthy product than legally-produced tobacco. Fungi spores, caused by inadequate drying of tobacco, cause severe medical conditions (in addition to those caused by legal tobacco) in the use of chop chop that might be related to what are called ‘tobacco grower’s lung’ problems.

This means that the tax set to restrict legal tobacco use must be set lower than you would otherwise set it in order to restrict tobacco consumption**. To put the matter equivalently: Tobacco consumption could be better controlled by taxes if substitution towards chop chop could be reduced.

There has been some work done in the past on chop chop consumption by Gilbert Geis , The NSW Cancer Council and Renee Bittoun. Today I went to RMIT University too learn some more about chop chop consumption from Professor Tim Fry. I learnt that in the past, chop chop consumption has been concentrated in the tobacco-growing states Victoria and NSW. This suggests that chop chop is illegally diverted tobacco from commercial plantations. As in previous studies Tim found that chop chop consumers tended to believe it was healthier to smoke chop chop than legally sold tobacco because it was free of industry-added chemicals – an incorrect belief.

That all tobacco production will cease in Australia, from 2008, suggests that a dramatic reduction in the supply of chop chop will occur, so that taxation revenue from tobacco should be boosted. So too should the demand for legally-produced tobacco increase. This also means tobacco taxes can be raised further to reduce cigarette consumption with less concern over substitutions towards chop chop.

One thing that occurred to while I was listening to Tim was whether it is in fact easy to grow and cure tobacco. There are plenty of websites out there showing you how to grow it, how to cure it and marketing seed for the home grower (they will export 600 cigarette tobacco seeds to Australia for $24). If it is as easy as it seems then the disappearance of diverted chop from commercial tobacco plantations may be replaced by backyard production. If it is imported then it will presumably be expensive enough so that the supply restriction will still bite.

I’d be interested if readers have experience of chop chop. I am particularly interested if you have ever heard of it and, if so, on information about where it is sold, its quality and how much it costs.

* The term most likely originates from use of the expression 'chop chop' in Australia to refer to chopped up fodder and sugar cane fibre used for feeding animal stock.

** To the extent there are complementarities with other untaxed, socially-undesirable goods, such as cannabis or alcohol, one might wish to set the tax higher than without such complementarities.

Rudd on broadband

I am too lazy to post something original myself today. I'll settle on this gem from Peter Martin on how Kevin Rudd will do the bidding of Murdoch and Packer in raiding the Future Fund to pay for an expansion of the broadband network that will reward the commercial interests of these major media players. The Australian began its campaign to encourage the spendiing today. They have young Kev-vie convinced. Helen Coonan would just be too smart.

Rudd is having a dream run and might well be our next PM. But, what a clot. Stupid proposals to reregulate our labour markets that are performing about as well as they ever have, daft industry and protection policies, daft handouts to the motor assembly industry, a cowardly and opportunistic policy on Iraq. Where is the serious thinking?

And there will be more infrastructure projects - fast train, renewable energy - one can guess that none of them will pay the FF a reasonable return. Politicians should never have created the FF cookie jar - it will inevitably be raided and abused. It is easy to spend other people's money when you do not need to account directly to shareholders.

It was members of the Left who advanced the idea of a Future Fund. A major criticism, scoffed at when it was discussed, was that opportunistic politicians would use the forced-savings in the FF to buy their way into government. It has already happened. The cookie jar is already being raided to pay for 'infrastructure projects'. Thanks Kev-vie.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Milton Friedman on legalising dope

Commentator Shawn pointed me toward this marvellous interview with Milton Friedman in America's Drug Forum. Friedman's argument for the legalisation of all drugs is not an argument I agree with but the source of disagreement is empirical not ideological.

Friedman acknowledges that the single adverse effect of legalisation may be to increase demand. I would prefer to say will almost certainly be rather than may be given that illegality increases user costs considerably in terms of health risks, legal risks and even in terms of direct price effects. That is the key empirical point of disagreement. I suspect Friedman would not quibble on this point - he would argue that the harm avoided through legalisation (in terms of reduced crime and health costs) would more than compensate for costs associated with more use.

But I think argument reflects mainly on the US legal system where penalties toward drug users are excessively severe. Prison sentences should, in my view, never be the type of penalty that is applied to illicit drug users. In addition comprejhensive health services should also be available to illicit drug users. You should not use death probabilities as a disincentive to use.

I find Friedman's suggestion that legalisation would encourage use of less dangerous drugs to be pure conjecture. In countries where opiates have been legal a significant fraction of the population have ended up addicted. The more dangerous drugs (cocaine, heroin) are pleasurable - if people have access to them they will use them.

Friedman's counterargument would be that drug use involves self-inflicted pain. He is much more concerned with protecting other people who suffer harmful effects from prohibitions. He claims that drug prohibitions kill 10,000 innocent Americans each year. Thus the drug issue is primarily a moral rather than an economic issue with government perpetuating the immorality by killing 10,000 people per year.

A fascinating film clip by an economist I admire more than most. It is only a half-hour clip - please take a look and if you can find the time report your observations here.

Benefits of a solid religious upbringing

Children of Palestinian Suicide Bomber Rim Al-Riyashi on Hamas TV: Mama Killed Five Jews and She Is in Paradise.

Film clip here.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Rebutting errors in the Great Global Warming Swindle

Good articles in the latest New Scientist sort out fallacies in The Great Global Warming Swindle. See here and here.

The main errors:

1. Volcanoes do not as TGGWS suggest emit more CO2 than human activities combined. If they did, the curve showing the rise in atmospheric concentrations of CO2 would show irregular jumps, representing each volcanic eruption. Instead, it is smooth.

2. The latest IPCC report shows that the combined radiative forcing - i.e. warming impact - of all human activities, from greenhouse gas emissions to aeroplane contrails, is 10X that of natural factors, namely solar irradiance. See here.

3. The period of cooling 1940-1970, which TGGWS claimed was proof that the global warming hypothesis is flawed, has a simple explanation. It was caused by industrial sulphate emissions, combined with a cluster of volcanic eruptions, which also emit sulphates. The industrial sulphates have since been partially cleaned up thanks to clean air laws adopted in developed countries. This figure, published by Gerald Meehl of the National Center for Atmospheric Research shows how climate models can reconstruct 20th century temperatures, including the mid-century cooling, by accounting for factors that contribute to both warming and cooling.

4. TGGWS, like other denialism, is pushing the theory that fluctuations in solar activity explain the rise and fall in temperatures over the past few centuries. The argument is that when cosmic rays hit the earth’s rising water vapors they cause clouds which shield the planet from solar radiation causing it to cool. The sun's magnetic field dampens the effect of cosmic rays reducing cloud cover and causing warming. Thus an active sun makes for a warmer planet. But this is just not borne out by evidence. The climate system is complex and many factors affect it, cosmic rays among them. But to claim they are a major influence is disingenuous. There is far greater evidence suggesting CO2 is the major cause of warming.

5. TGGWS claims that in the long-term history of climate, variations in atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have lagged variations in atmospheric temperature so human-produced greenhouse gases cannot cause warming. But while the history of major ice ages and interglacial periods is set by earth's orbital variations, known as Milankovitch cycles, not by greenhouse gases, these cycles trigger feedback effects - such as changes in atmospheric CO2 levels which amplify temperature changes.

6. There is no question that the more CO2 there is the warmer things become. We are now adding CO2 and other greenhouse gases at much higher rates than ever before so it is not surprising that temperatures have been rising over the past 40 years. From the comprehensive models that climate scientists have built up, only human-made greenhouse gases can explain this. Other factors, such as solar variations are insignificant in comparison.

7. This debate is not just about science. Implicit in the sceptics' message is the suggestion that scientists are lying about the role of CO2. The impression is of a conspiracy that climate scientists have launched because of their political motivations or their desire to attract research funding. This is unsupported by evidence.

8. The problem with debating the science of climate change is that it is hard for the public to assess all the arguments. Hence the IPCC periodically publish a scientific assessment thats draw together knowledge. That is not a political process. It is science.

On climate change, in general, NewScientist’s Fred Pearce’s updated Instant Expert feature provides a useful tutorial.

'Climate change is with us. A decade ago, it was conjecture. Now the future is unfolding before our eyes. Canada's Inuit see it in disappearing Arctic ice and permafrost. The shantytown dwellers of Latin America and Southern Asia see it in lethal storms and floods. Europeans see it in disappearing glaciers, forest fires and fatal heat waves.

Scientists see it in tree rings, ancient coral and bubbles trapped in ice cores. These reveal that the world has not been as warm as it is now for a millennium or more. The three warmest years on record have all occurred since 1998; 19 of the warmest 20 since 1980. And Earth has probably never warmed as fast as in the past 30 years - a period when natural influences on global temperatures, such as solar cycles and volcanoes should have cooled us down. Studies of the thermal inertia of the oceans suggest more warming is in the pipeline.

Climatologists reporting for the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) say we are seeing global warming caused by human activities and there are growing fears of feedbacks that will accelerate this warming.

Global greenhouse

People are causing the change by burning nature's vast stores of coal, oil and natural gas. This releases billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) every year, although the changes may actually have started with the dawn of agriculture, say some scientists.

The physics of the "greenhouse effect" has been a matter of scientific fact for a century. CO2 is a greenhouse gas that traps the Sun's radiation within the troposphere, the lower atmosphere. It has accumulated along with other man-made greenhouse gases, such as methane and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

If current trends continue, we will raise atmospheric CO2 concentrations to double pre-industrial levels during this century. That will probably be enough to raise global temperatures by around 2°C to 5°C. Some warming is certain, but the degree will be determined by feedbacks involving melting ice, the oceans, water vapour, clouds and changes to vegetation.

Warming is bringing other unpredictable changes. Melting glaciers and precipitation are causing some rivers to overflow, while evaporation is emptying others. Diseases are spreading. Some crops grow faster while others see yields slashed by disease and drought. Strong hurricanes are becoming more frequent and destructive. Arctic sea ice is melting faster every year, and there are growing fears of a shutdown of the ocean currents that keep Europe warm for its latitude. Clashes over dwindling water resources may cause conflicts in many regions.

As natural ecosystems - such as coral reefs - are disrupted, biodiversity is reduced. Most species cannot migrate fast enough to keep up, though others are already evolving in response to warming.

Thermal expansion of the oceans, combined with melting ice on land, is also raising sea levels. In this century, human activity could trigger an irreversible melting of the Greenland ice sheet and Antarctic glaciers. This would condemn the world to a rise in sea level of six metres - enough to flood land occupied by billions of people.

The global warming would be more pronounced if it were not for sulphur particles and other pollutants that shade us, and because forests and oceans absorb around half of the CO2 we produce. But the accumulation rate of atmospheric CO2 has increased since 2001, suggesting that nature's ability to absorb the gas could now be stretched to the limit. Recent research suggests that natural CO2 "sinks", like peat bogs and forests, are actually starting to release CO2.

Deeper cuts

At the Earth Summit in 1992, the world agreed to prevent "dangerous" climate change. The first step was the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which finally came into force during 2005. It will bring modest emission reductions from industrialised countries. But many observers say deeper cuts are needed and developing nations, which have large and growing populations, will one day have to join in.

Some, including the US Bush administration, say the scientific uncertainty over the pace of climate change is grounds for delaying action. The US and Australia have reneged on Kyoto. During 2005 these countries, and others, suggested "clean fuel" technologies as an alternative to emissions cuts.

In any case, according to the IPCC, the world needs to quickly improve the efficiency of its energy usage and develop renewable non-carbon fuels like: wind, solar, tidal, wave and perhaps nuclear power. It also means developing new methods of converting this clean energy into motive power, like hydrogen fuel cells for cars. Trading in Kyoto carbon permits may help.

Other less conventional solutions include ideas to stave off warming by "mega-engineering" the planet with giant mirrors to deflect the Sun's rays, seeding the oceans with iron to generate algal blooms, or burying greenhouse gases below the sea.

The bottom line is that we will need to cut CO2 emissions by 70% to 80% simply to stabilise atmospheric CO2 concentrations - and thus temperatures. The quicker we do that, the less unbearably hot our future world will be'.

Second life

I was fascinated by the last edition of Four Corners, You Only Live Twice.

It is about living in virtual online worlds where you enjoy making money, adventure and sex. Participants in this world are other real players and the game interacts with the real world – game money can be converted into US dollars, clothes you try on virtually can be purchased and so on.

Regulatory and legal issues abound. Should unconventional sexual practices in this world be banned? How are contract violations and identity theft dealt with? Given that real profits are being earned with real investments in virtual stocks and property assets, should they be taxed? Who should tax them given that players are distributed globally? Can such games be used to simulate real world behaviour to determine what will happen to the economy if Ben Bernanke raises interest rates?

The limits of living are set by your imagination and these games allow your imagination to run riot.

The main game examined was Second Life which is extraordinary. I got into it last night (it’s a possible substitute for blogging!), have an Avatar identity and am in the process of learning the rules.

I’d be interested in reader experiences of such games.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Benefits of cigarette smoking

As the biggest preventable cause of death in developed countries today (lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, emphysema) smoking nevertheless, has numerous benefits for smokers. I thought I’d articulate them.
Smoking provides pleasure in terms of euphoria and, of course, reduced withdrawal symptoms from those addicted to nicotine.

Smoking produces decreased tension and an anxiolytic effect – a tranquilising effect and reduced muscle tension. It implies Nesbitt’s paradox - smoking generates physiological and psychological changes normally thought of as incompatible, namely increased arousal and awareness with decreased stress. It stimulates concentration but keeps you calm. A great combination!

Smoking also acts as an appetite suppressant by reducing the desire for sweet food and carbohydrates.

Nicotine probably helps ADHD sufferers reduce their ‘attentional deficits’.

Smoking probably reduces problems associated with Alzheimer’s disease and perhaps schitzophrenia.

(Smoking also provides libertarians with the opportunity to parrot on about their rights to freedom of choice, even if they make mistakes, and the opportunity to attack anti-smoking fascists like me).
But the news is not all good even for this somewhat restricted class of benefits!

Attentiveness improvements decline (fairly slowly it must be admitted) when nicotine addicts are deprived of their nicotine.

The accuracy of cognitive performance and memory is impaired among adolescent smokers irrespective of how recently they smoked.

Adolescents with prenatal maternal exposure to nicotine experience greater cognitive deficits relative to smokers without prenatal exposure suggesting long-term cognitive impairment. Did your mum smoke and do you? If so, seek help.

Nicotine seems to have a negative effect on brain function well into young adulthood that result from the fact that the brain is slow to mature. Nicotine seems to be neurotoxic with negative impacts on the prefrontal cortex of the brain that has long-term damaging effects. In short, there is evidence several years smoking during adolescence causes permanent brain dis-function.
On this last point scientists agree that chronic smoking might cause cognitive damage among older smokers as well although there are animal studies suggesting that the damage is concentrated among the young (here, page 167).

If you do wish to access the health and other benefits of smoking cited above wait until you are at least in your mid-twenties. If you last this long you probably won't smoke anyway.

Irony aside, from a public policy viewpoint, every effort should be made to stop young people (young here defined liberally, say up to age 25) from smoking. Vaccination is an option.

Sugar dummies provide advice to sugar daddies & sugar mummies

A Deakin study has found that kids who drink fruit juices are twice as likely as kids overall to get fat. Has that got something to do with the fact that fruit juices contain nearly as much sugar as soft drinks? Is is just that loving parents, teachers and government bureaucrats 'encourage' kids to drink this poisonous rubbish in the name of health?

Dr Suzy Honisett, manager of the Victorian Government's child health program, Kids Go For Your Life, said many parents and carers wrongly believed juice and fruit drinks were a healthy alternative to soft drinks. "We are certainly aware of the issues around soft drinks and their role in childhood overweight and obesity, but fruit juice has slipped under the radar," she said.

Oh really! Slipped under the radar? How on earth could Dr Honisett, or parents for that matter, be fooled into believing that fruit drinks provide a healthy alternative? And why the need for a ‘survey’ by the Deakin researchers? What is the point of banning soft drinks in Victorian schools on the basis of sugar content when sugar-dominated fruit drinks remain on sale. The sugar content of these fruit drinks is no state secret - it is printed on the containers in which they are sold? Moreover

I quote from an earlier post:

Victoria has just banned the sale of high sugar soft drinks in its 1,600 public schools from next year. The sale of fruit juices is encouraged as a substitute. The rationale is that the consumption of even a single bottle of soft drink more than exceeds the recommended intake of calories from sugar per day for a 14 year-old child. Irrespective of whether this nutritional objective is sound or not (I think it is sound) if the objective is to reduce sugar content the proposed ban might help but probably not by much.At lunch today I bought a 600 ml small Coke. Its sugar content per 'serving' (defined to be 200 ml) was 21.2 grams. But I don't ever recognise people drinking 1/3 of a small coke. Theytypically scoff the lot so in fact they get 63.6 grams. This is equivalent to 8 teaspoons of powdered sugar or over 15 teaspoons of sugar from a sugar bowl. By the way, I didn't drink this rubbish - I poured it down the drain!

My friend John bought a healthy Just Squeezed Orange Juice in a 300 ml container. The 'serving' size is now more honestly taken as 300ml which contains 21.3 grams of sugar. 600 ml of this healthy drink contains, yes, 42.6 grams of sugar. This is equivalent to 10 teaspoons of sugar from a sugar bowl.

It is not rocket science to make choices which avoid overwhelming sugar loads – the sugar content information is on the label.

No future for Australian car assembly?

Peter Martin has a good article on troubles in the Australian car industry. I'll comment on a few points.

Australians have traditionally had a liking for large medium cars. This was the market segment where our manufacturers had a comparative advantage. We then imported small cars and exported, with for a time growing success, larger cars. I assume the local preference for large gas-guzzlers has fallen with the current, seemingly permanent, escalation in petrol prices.

Peter is accurate in criticising the enormously expensive and stupid set of production subsidies that continue to be given to the Australian car assembly industry. He mentions some recent handouts but the worst part of the protectionist system is ACIS, the Automobile Competitiveness and Investment Scheme, which is an expensive way of keeping Mitsubishi afloat. ACIS subsidises output not exports and, because the subsidies are subject to binding caps, amounts to a set of lump-sum handouts to foreign multinationals. The fallacious arguments for retaining low levels of tariff protection might offer some short-term palliative for the industry at the expense of local consumers but, increasingly, are an irrelevancy as cheap labour costs and economies of scale in emerging NICs swamp any possibility for the local industry to survive with anything less than towering levels of tariff support.

By the way in assessing performance of some players declared profits are poor guides. For example, one must also take with a grain of salt the published profit figures of firms such as Toyota given evident proclivities to transfer price. These moves transfer taxation liabilities offshore and provides local offshoots of international firms to bleat and threaten for further handouts from naïve State and Commonwealth Governments.

A decade ago the Button Plan looked like it might provide the Australian car assembly industry with a future. By concentrating output among a smaller number of producers and by reducing numbers of models it has certainly improved industry efficiencies and, if nothing else, delayed the industry’s local collapse. But increasingly I agree with Peter that the Australian industry probably does not have much of a future despite the concentration of relatively low-cost design skills here. In my view the shift in car design and assembly in the future will lead away from all traditional production venues to a heavy concentration in China which, by 2020, will might well be the biggest car market on earth. This is one forecast I would happy to be proved wrong about but I am pessimistic.

I generally liked Peter’s arguments though I choked a bit when I saw his support for Kevin Rudd’s plan to hand out $500 million to build a ‘green car’ locally. Why should government be involved in picking winners in this way? Where are the possible market failures here?

It frightens me that Rudd can promote populist industry policies of this type. Generally, the Labor Party’s populist ‘industry policies’ frighten me - I expect there will be more of the same in the future in a variety of manufacturing settings. Indeed as the election draws near there is the possibility of a protectionist bidding wear with the Coalition.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Keep cannabis illegal

Those who enthusiastically urge the decriminalisation of possessing and growing cannabis – in Australia primarily the Green Party – are engaging in an unethical advocacy. It is just far too risky.

The Independent argues that, in the UK, modern forms of cannabis are unambiguously linked to psychosis and to addiction. The evidence in Australia for increasing levels of addiction to high strength cannabis and of a link with psychosis is strong. As I have argued in the past, the causality of the link with psychosis is questionable but it certainly can trigger psychosis among those predisposed and it is particularly dangerous among teenagers (and here). On the basis of a sensible precautionary principle, cannabis use should not be legalised - if you foolishly do wish to use it at least wait until you reach age 25+.

As The Independent remarks, in the UK ‘More than 22,000 people were treated last year for cannabis addiction - and almost half of those affected were under 18’. ‘Robin Murray, professor of psychiatry at London's Institute of Psychiatry, estimates that at least 25,000 of the 250,000 schizophrenics in the UK could have avoided the illness if they had not used cannabis.’

A major study is about to appear in The Lancet supporting this analysis. The Independent’s article was an apology for its campaign over the past 10 years to legalise cannabis.

Maliki better than Saddam

It isn’t surprising that Iraqis prefer their present government of Iraq to that of Saddam.

‘Despite sectarian slaughter, ethnic cleansing and suicide bombs, an opinion poll conducted on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq has found striking resilience and optimism among the inhabitants.

The poll, the biggest since coalition troops invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003, indicates that by a majority of 2 to 1, Iraqis prefer the current leadership to Saddam Hussein's regime despite the collapse of security and lack of public services’

But 53% of Iraqis believe security would improve with the withdrawal of foreign forces, while only 26% think it will get worse.

Despite claims in The Age to the contrary there are perceptions of a generally improving security situation in Bhagdad.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Santo Santoro

He resigned as Minister and needed to resign. A disgrace – one oversight is not easy to explain but 72 are totally impossible. JWH was angry and rightly so – this undermines him and the government. The Liberal Party faces annihilation in Queensland with the scandals there and the faction-driven politics.

Santoro has a record of attacking bias at the ABC. Indeed, last week his office contacted me and complained about inaccuracies in a post I made on his business alliances. At the time I did not assert anything. Given the share deal fiascos these alliance issues should be investigated.

This isn’t mud-throwing – it’s the stand-alone issue that MPs are supposed to declare their financial interests with ministers having the additional requirement of declaring them to the Prime Minister.

Update: Commentator Sir Henry C. points out that Santoro's share deals include deals that seem to overlap with concerns of his portfolio including aged care. A reasonable question is whether insider trading has taken place or not.

Lovely day

The world has just enjoyed its warmest period on record during this year’s Northern Hemisphere winter. The temperature was 0.72 degrees C warmer than the previous record in 1994. This continues past climate change trends.
According to The Guardian:

‘During the past century, global temperatures had increased at about 0.06C each decade, but the increase had been three times larger since 1976, at about 0.18C per decade…

The 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 1995.’

2006 as a whole was one of the 5 warmest years on record. Moreover, the world has a 60% chance of having its warmest year on record during 2007 – beating the previous record in 1998.
Australian temperatures in 2006 were well above average - the 11th warmest since 1910. A fairly complete picture is here.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Make them an offer they cannot refuse

Cowbirds like cuckoos* are brood parasites. They lay their eggs in the nests of other birds and leave the hosts with the hard job of raising their young. But cuckoo chicks normally** kick the original nestlings out so they can monopolise the food supply. Cowbird chicks however tolerate their nestmates. Moreover, while eggs of cuckoos mimic those of hosts, the eggs of the cowbirds look completely different. What’s going on?

The victims of the racket are warblers. These birds don’t reject cowbird eggs even though they look different. The reason is that if the warblers tolerate the cowbird eggs they are allowed to breed with reasonable success but if they were to attempt to get rid of the cowbird eggs the adult cowbirds attack the nest destroying most of the warbler eggs. This was verified by ornithologists who deliberately removed the cowbird eggs from parasitised nests.

Providing food to the cowbird nestling amounts to paying ‘protection money’ which proves to be a good deal from the warbler's view. On average, they raise 3 of their own chicks when they support a cowbird chick. Yet they raise only 1 of their own if a cowbird egg has been rejected. This also explains why cowbirds don’t need to disguise their eggs to look like those of warblers.
The overall effect is that the cowbirds bully the warblers into ‘an evolutionary state of acceptance’.

The cowbirds' dirty tricks don’t stop here. Many warbler nests that never have cowbird eggs in them also get destroyed. This is something like ‘farming’. If warblers lose a clutch, they will often produce a second so if a female cowbird female fails to lay in a warbler nest in time for her egg to hatch with those of the host, she can reset the clock in her favour by killing the first clutch.
Thus warblers who lay too early for the cowbirds to cuckold them suffer retribution. The cowbirds spy on the warbler parents, find out where they were nesting anew, and sneak in to lay an egg at exactly the right time.
Even the Mafia never thought of that one.

* That humans suffer intra-specific cuckolding is the basis of the dads’s rights movement. This week the Bulletin features the Liam Magill incident. Liam raised 3 kids believing they were his own only to find up from a paternity test that two of them were fathered by another dads. His wife Meredith Magill, in her own words, ‘messed up big time’ but is angry with Liam for ‘taking it out on the kids’. The kids – even his biological son - also say they hate him. Liam’s initial award of $70,000 damages against Meredith has been overturned on appeal. He will get nothing.

**The Great spotted cuckoo runs a mafia-style protection racket against magpies living in Andalucia, Spain. If a magpie rejects a cuckoo egg laid in its nests, the cuckoo promptly returns to destroy the magpie's own eggs or kill its chicks.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Steve Irwin's replacement

Here? Thanks Bernd.

Pricing rejected - Melbourne's congestion will worsen

The Victorian Government in their response to the VCEC Final Report , Making the Right Choices: Options for Managing Transport Congestion, have come down decisively against moves to implement (or even think about implementing) road congestion pricing. I made a submission to VCEC supporting pricing so I am disappointed but not terribly so. I half expected this outcome.

The Government does not seem to have much of a clue about dealing with congestion in Melbourne and Mr Pallas seems to be a poor Minister for Roads and Ports. While the Government refuses to allocate road lanes on St Kilda Road to bicycle traffic on the grounds that this would limit access to Melbourne by cars (‘People have a right to drive their cars, and they have a right to do it without being impeded up on … for the purposes of looking after 2000 cyclists’) at the same time it levies a levy on parking in Melbourne city to do exactly that.

The Government’s response states ‘Government policy on road use charging is clear on this point: the Government will not toll existing roads and will only accept the use of tolls to fund new roads in defined situations…’. Thus any road pricing that is introduced will target cost-recovery rather than congestion – a flawed approach that means tolls are too high and do not address congestion.

It bears repeating even if it has been said many times. Road pricing to address congestion seeks to internalise external congestion costs – not to recover the cost of road projects. User-pays is the inappropriate principle to achieve efficiency in managing traffic flows.

The Government’s response does support various supply measures but refuses to even trial tolled high occupancy lanes on new lanes constructed (Response 16) or to even undertake a feasibility study of road use charging (Response 17). It does not want to learn since the ‘Government’s policy on tolling roads is well known’. Nor will it allow an external advisory board to be established to consider a ‘broad range’ of congestion control options (Response 31). The cat will not be allowed out of the bag!

On the positive side The Government accepts the need to monitor and report on the success of the parking levy (Response 18), it will discuss with the Commonwealth ways of eliminating ‘fringe benefit’ arrangements that encourage citizens to drive cars rather than use public transport (Response 20) and, most importantly, it will consider off-peak fares for public transport (Response 22) and time-of-day charging for CityLink and EastLink.

The opposition problems the Government has experienced over pricing traffic on EastLink have made it phobic about any form of road pricing. This has not been helped by opportunistic sniping from the sidelines by dills in the Liberal Party trying to make some cheap political capital. Neither major political party has shown any willingness to display principle and support the only measure that will satisfactorily deal with Melbourne’s congestion problems - to charge motorists the full cost of making journeys on congested roads.

The refusal to accept VCEC’s suggestions on congestion pricing is discussed in the Age.

The weather again

There is an interesting post over at Steve Edney's site Criticality on trends in temperatures and rainfall in South Eastern Australia since around 1910.

Temperatures show a secular increase that is of the same order as that predicted by climate change theorists. But just eyeballing the rainfall data doesn't suggest much of a trend at all.

As a somewhat naive observer this suggests to me that the current drought can be best understood as an errant event rather than a consequence of climate change. It also helps to explain to me the vast range in forecast rainfall effects of climate change.

The Bureau of Meteorology website has much useful information. There are no doubts here about the realities of climate change:
Australia and the globe are experiencing rapid climate change. Since the middle of the 20th century, Australian temperatures have, on average, risen by about 1°C with an increase in the frequency of heatwaves and a decrease in the numbers of frosts and cold days. Rainfall patterns have also changed - the northwest has seen an increase in rainfall over the last 50 years while much of eastern Australia and the far southwest have experienced a decline.
Steve's comment challenges this last sentence - at least for Eastern Australia. I'd be very interested in getting commentary on this one.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Chemical dependency from birth

7% of 5,000 babies born in a Perth hospital (King Edward Memorial) have chemical dependency problems stemming from maternal illicit substance use. This has prompted the House of Representatives Families Committee to take evidence in WA tomorrow as part of its inquiry into the impact of drugs on families.

Chairman Bronwyn Bishop said it was important to hear from practitioners at the hospital about the problems faced by babies whose mothers have a drug dependency. They will give evidence on how maternal use of illicit drugs such as amphetamine, heroin, ecstasy and ice can affect fetal development and infant health.

I thought this was a stunning statistic given the extensive evidence on the effects of drugs on the unborn and infants. Consumption of drugs during pregnancy is responsible for 2-3% of birth defects and use of illicit addictive drugs raises the prospect of dependency and withdrawal as well as long-term adverse health effects for the child.

How can these irresponsible women live with themselves? Why do they have kids if they are dependent on drugs? What about the future of these unfortunate children?

Agricultural and biodiversity adaptations to climate change

I have been thinking about adaptive policies for managing biodiversity in the face of climate change and, at the same time, becoming interested in the same types of adaptive policies for agriculture. Some politicians see possibilities of exploiting new regions to take advantage of the global impact of climate change. I am interested in thinking about synergies and substitutabilities between biodiversity and agricultural adaptation policies.

Given dramatically high levels of climatic uncertainty and of the adaptation capabilities of agricultural and biodiversity systems it is probably unreasonable to suppose that very specific management plans will be provided by considering the underlying economics. The best that probably can be hoped for is an improved broad understanding of how planning might proceed.

In the limit, with high uncertainty, specific policies might be replaced with plausible parables such as seeking to promote overall environmental resilience or pursuing new sustainability objectives. With less uncertainty more specific prescriptions should be possible.

Suppose for example one was planning for joint conservation and agricultural land uses in a region subject to climatic change. Planning to improve the resilience of environmental systems in such a setting might have competitive or complementary roles with agriculture in terms of land use policy. The roles might be competitive to the extent that biodiversity seeks to relocate to a region where agriculture is expanding in the face of climate change. The roles are complementary if, as seems less plausible, land that was used in agriculture becomes less useful for that purpose but is suitable for biodiversity conservation.

Similarly pursuing measures to strengthen the resilience of biodiversity resources in a region might increase the productivity of agriculture in that region – for example measures to improve a salinity problem or to invest in improved water resource endowments. This could a source of ‘no regrets’ policy advantage for agriculture if realized climate changes turned out to be less severe than anticipated and hence unnecessary for conserving biodiversity.

In an obvious sort of sense cultivated plants and animal husbandry are human-supported species that depend on sunshine and rainfall as inputs in the same way that natural populations do. Apart from flagship species rarities which can be shifted by human-generated ‘assisted migrations’ to new habitats however most biodiversity will need to relocate naturally in response to climate change. Cultivated plants and animals however will relocate on the basis of decisions taken by individual farmers and governments.

Generally it makes sense to try to optimize the adaptive response jointly. But it is reasonable to suppose that government will attach a lower priority to biodiversity adaptations.

By the way adaptations to climate change impacts on agriculture are discussed in an attractive recent paper from ABARE. It makes some nice points which I summarize in no particular order:
Existing strategies to manage climate variability provide opportunities for adapting to climate change. The same is true for biodiversity. Existing migratory and relocation moves as well as adaptations to drought and exogenous events such as bushfires are useful in thinking about biodiversity adaptations.

Key agricultural strategies for adapting to climate change include crop diversification, species changes, shifting planting seasons and changing crop management practices such as spacing, tillage, crop rotation, erosion and salinity management, moisture conservation and pest management. For livestock production adaptations include changing livestock breeds, managing pastures, pests and diseases. Many of these ideas are suggestive of corresponding biodiversity policies and many have direct implications for biodiversity.

Improving water use efficiency and water trading improve the flexibility of agriculture to adapt.

There is a debate about the role of public and private sectors in promoting agricultural adaptations. Clearly government can support agricultural research in, for example, developing new crop varieties that will be resilient in different temperature envelopes. Government can also provide information on climate change impacts.

Price and income subsidies and fixed or guaranteed water allocations will reduce the incentives of farmers to make behavioural changes in response to change.
The paper discusses many other things including a case study of the wheat belt area of Western Australia that I am interested in. It has an excellent bibliography on agricultural adaptations.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Swindled by global warming denialists

Global warming is an extraordinary public policy issue. The citizens of the world are being induced by almost all reputable climate scientists to urge their governments to take collective action to limit their CO2 emissions while a smaller group of scientists are denying the hypothesis and doing whatever they can to delay action on CO2 emissions.

The denialists gain publicity not because their claims are necessarily substantial but because of the inappropriate idea – promoted by the media - that a ‘debate’ is being held where pros and cons of a scientific argument are being evaluated. For the most part it is not a debate – climate scientists overwhelmingly endorse the warming hypothesis. This doesn’t mean the science is settled – it does mean there is widespread backing for the notion that anthropogenic global warming is a reality.

The denialists claim that those supporting the global warming hypothesis are motivated by greed for grants and that their case is being delivered as a quasi-religious crusade.

Mr. Average Joe in the street listens to the denialist case because of the ‘debate’ fallacy and because he or she is aware of past propensities of those in the environmental movement to ‘cry wolf’. He is also subject to irresponsible assertions by the denialist camp and by an irresponsible mass media that promotes such views.

Last night I watched BBC TV’s Channel 4 show The Great Global Warming Swindle which denies anthropogenic global warming. It is a polished, well-presented instance of denialism. The basic claim is simple - climate change is not being driven by anthropogenic CO2 emissions. The evidence isn’t there or the evidence that is there contradicts the hypothesis. Climate change is occurring but it is natural and driven by solar and cloud activity. Global warming is a swindle engineered by climate scientists seeking to sell science by creating extreme stories and who benefit from larger research budgets. Its all a ‘lie’ and a ‘conspiracy’.

The film thus attacks the global warming orthodoxy. The arguments are familiar – the film apparently took 10 years to make so, in fact, many of the arguments have been addressed and thoroughly refuted. The film ignores all evidence and views supporting the global warming hypothesis and the extensive literature setting out these refutations.

But I think the film is worth viewing – if for no other reason that I am certain this that it will have an impact and this needs to be accounted for and understood. It already has had some impact as this morning’s editorial in The Australian makes clear:

That climate change politics represents the new front line for anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation campaigners is not new. This is why the Government is right to reject climate change demands that risk economic wellbeing, both for Australia and the developing world. And it is why Labor must be careful how it handles the debate. While Australian commercial television networks are jumping on the climate change bandwagon with sophisticated graphics showing tornadoes ripping through Sydney Harbour Bridge, debate is increasing about the quality of the science underpinning global warming hysteria. A recent Channel Four documentary in Britain, The Great Climate Change Swindle, presents a coherent argument for why governments must hasten slowly in responding. The British documentary highlights the anomaly that temperatures are rising faster at the earth's surface than in the upper atmosphere, directly contradicting the greenhouse hypothesis. It also highlights the fact that ice core data relied on by global warming alarmists actually shows world temperature increases occurred hundreds of years before corresponding rises in the level of atmospheric C02, again contradicting greenhouse theory. The program puts forward evidence to show the world's climate is controlled by clouds, which are controlled by cosmic rays, which are in turn controlled by the sun.
The Australian is my newspaper but it is disappointing to again see it give credence to thoroughly discredited viewpoint since it weakens the case against dealing with what is almost certainly a very real problem.

The very polemical director of The Great Climate Change Swindle, Martin Durkin, is discussed here. He is a film maker with a history of producing extreme, dubious documentaries.

Critiques are here , here with, guess what, claims of misrepresentation from Carl Wunsch here. The Guardian and RealClimate provide a thorough debunking of this show's claims. John Quiggin comments on the strange mix of left and right wing politics that created the film here.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Facts on smoking - incidence & health issues: reposted with bloopers corrected

Summary information on the incidence of smoking in Australia is provided for the period 1991-2004. It’s an interesting picture with some obvious policy successes in reducing smoking but with clear problems emerging for women, children and indigenous Australians. Comments welcome.

From 1991-2004 the proportion of people aged 14+ in the Australian population who smoke cigarettes daily has fallen from 24.3% to 17.4%. For men, the fall was from 26.7% to 18.6%, for women, from 22% to 16.3%.

Men are slightly more likely to be smokers than women though this gap is closing. Among 14-19 year olds, more women smoke (11.9%) than men (9.5%).

Of the age groups 14-19, 20-29, 30-39, ….,60+ daily smoking is most heavily concentrated in the 20-29 year group for both men and women with 23.5% smoking compared to the proportion over all age groups oof 17.4%.

Across the whole population the fraction of ex-smokers across age groups increases with age. For women alone, however, it peaks in the 40-49 year bracket simply because older women were less likely to have initiated smoking.

Overall 26.4% of the population aged 14+ are smokers. Among school children aged 12-17 years smoking has declined over 1999-2005 with those having smoked in the week before a survey falling from 19% to 9%.

The average age at which smokers have their first cigarette remained fairly constant from 1995-2004 at 15.9 years.

Smoking is concentrated among the unemployed (41% smoke compared to 23% among employed) and among those of low socioeconomic status (27% in the most disadvantaged socioeconomic quintile smoke compared to 15% among the most advantaged quintile).

AIHW estimate that smoking is concentrated among aborigines (39%) about double the rate of non-indigenous Australians. Other estimates identify smoking prevalences among aboriginals at much higher levels than these – at 51% among aboriginal men and 49% among women.

Men increase their cigarette consumption from around 68 cigarettes per week at age 14-19 to 129.2 at ages 50-59. Likewise, women’s smoking increases in intensity up to age 50-59 (106.3 cigarettes per week), decreasing thereafter. Men smoke more intensively than women in all age groups except in the 14-19 group where women smoke 70 cigarettes weekly compared to men who smoke 68.

Cigarette smokers were 3 times as likely to have ever consumed illicit drugs as non-smokers while 22.8% of drinkers had recently smoked compared to 9.8% of non-drinkers.

Smokers as a group are trying to change their behaviour. In 2004, over the previous 12 months, 39.2% of smokers had tried unsuccessfully to quit, 22.5% had managed to successfully quit for more than a month, 50% had successfully reduced the amount they smoked in a day while 21.6% had failed to cut back their daily smoking. About 26.5% of smokers had successfully switched to a lower tar or nicotine brand. In terms of achieving objectives it was easier to cut back than to quit.

Among the reasons for seeking to change behaviour 51.1% cited health reasons while 43.9% cited cost. Smoking restrictions in public places affected 9.6% and the workplace (5.7%), pregnancy (11.8%) and anti-smoking advertisements (20.5%) and warnings on health packets (16.4%) all exerted powerful influences on the decision to change behaviour. Strong impacts were due to family and friends urging a smoker to quit (26%) and worries that it might impact on the health of others (21%).

On passive smoking about 17.2% of 12-15 year olds live in households where someone smokes within the home. There are severe health damages associated with passive smoking – about 8% of childhood asthma cases are caused by passive smoking and non-smokers who suffer long-term exposure to environmental tobacco smoke have a 20-30% higher incidence of lung cancer. Passive smoking within the home however has fallen dramatically – in 1995 31.3% of households involved smoking within the home while, in 2004, the figure was 12.3%. This is partly due to reduced smoking but also to a big shift in behaviour towards smoking only outside the home – in 1995 only 16.7% only smoked outside the home whereas 28.1% now smoke only outside the home.

Nearly 40% of non-smokers always avoid places where they might be exposed to the cigarette smoke of others. Women are slightly fussier than men – 43% of women always avoid such places whereas only 35% of men do so.

On policies for reducing the problems caused by smoking, smokers are more reticent than non-smokers in enforcing restrictions although both groups favour stronger enforcement of laws against supplying minors (92% of non-smokers, 81% of smokers). Around 28% of smokers favour high tobacco taxes which is surprising!

On health impacts

In 2003 smoking was estimated to be responsible for 7.9% of the total health burden of Australians. In 1998 15% of all deaths – 19,019 people – were due to smoking.

Cancer, and mostly lung cancer, was responsible for 40% of tobacco-related deaths. Coronary heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other causes, including stroke, were responsible for the remaining 60 per cent of tobacco-related death.

The diseases underlying COPD are bronchitis and emphysema. A smoker’s risk of lung cancer or COPD is >10 times that of a non-smoker. The incidence of lung cancers among men has fallen from 80.6 per one hundred thousand in 1985 to 62.1 in 2000. Among women the incidence has risen from 19.2 to 27.4 over the same period parallelling the increase in female smoking.

Giving up smoking helps to reduce lung cancer risks although half of all lung cancers are detected in ex-smokers.

I’ll comment in a separate post on the economic costs of smoking and the policies Australia and other countries have adopted to deal with smoking. There are particular concerns with indigenous Australians, with rising rates of smoking among women and with children being exposed to passive smoking.

Lee Smith collected this information in her work for the 'Harm-Minimisation and the Economics of Controlling Illicit Drug Use' ARC Project. A full report will be published on this project's website.