The Pencil Guy: Hourann's illogical blog

Throwing money does not a good policy make

Wednesday 31 January 2007 at 7:59 pm

In Federal politics today: allow me to congratulate Kevin Rudd for actually proposing a new tertiary education policy, the first real offer from either side of the House in, what, three years?

(This comes on the back of a TV ad from last week that surprised me — election propaganda already?!)

But I reckon that the proposal to reduce HECS fees for maths and science will achieve little. (It deeply, deeply disturbs me that this means I’m agreeing with Julie Bishop.) One part of his proposal — reduced HECS for people who study science and then teach — already exists here in WA, and while that policy has made a little difference, it hasn’t exactly been spectacularly successful.

As part of a bigger set of policies, then yes, reducing HECS costs is a good idea. But since price was far from my first consideration when choosing degrees, I think the money would be better spent elsewhere — on scholarships, or on promoting science in schools, or on creating specialist centres that attract students by conducting cutting-edge research.

At the local level: the deputy mayor of the City of Perth has announced he wants a review into central-city parking. Apparently there’s not enough, and he says that building more should be a high priority.

There’s a name for this kind of behaviour: blatant revenue-grab. “More parking” is, of course, a synonym for “more dollars in parking meters”. Never mind the fact that there’s more than fifty thousand parking bays in the CBD for about a hundred thousand workers — a much higher ratio than any other Australian city.

How about taking the money for building carparks and using it to ease the pressure on CAT services at peak times? Or how about actually doing something towards the Western Foreshore development (which recently disappeared from the council’s official Web site)?


Awesome tennis, but not on TV

Sunday 28 January 2007 at 9:08 pm

Roger Federer at Australian Open 2007; Creative Commons licence doesn't apply to this image

Props to Roger Federer for an utterly awesome Australian Open win. And also for being a great bloke — signing autographs, cracking jokes in his speech, chatting to his opponent after the match — putting to shame a certain Australian tennis player.

But a thousand curses to the WA management of Channel 7, who decided that the men’s final wasn’t important enough to show live. Using the three different live functions of the official site (each with slightly different delays!), this is how I ended up “watching” the final:

The Australian Open online scoreboard, PointTracker, and radio playback window; Creative Commons licence doesn't apply to this image

I can understand the reason why the telecast was delayed (which doesn’t make it forgivable) … and the more I think about it, the more I look forward to a future where TV is delivered over the Internet. Whether it’s GooTube or Yahoo! or Apple, or even Microsoft or AOL, the day that the first major sporting event is streamed live and in full will be a great one for fans.

Freed from the shackles of conventional please-everyone-in-one-stream broadcasting, I reckon that day will also spell the death of traditional TV corporations. They’ve lifted their game (in the US at least) because they’ve realised that DVD and video games let people see what they want when they want it. But unless there’s a massive change in TV industry politics, the quality new shows seem to be too much stopgap and not enough cure …


They call this rag a newspaper?

Thursday 25 January 2007 at 9:46 pm

The front cover of yesterday’s West Australian wasn’t all that unusual by tabloid standards — an emotive and sensationalist caption that calls out a prominent State politician, a nondescript photo that could really have been anything, and a reiteration of past problems.

Not unusual, that is, until the revelation by TV journalists yesterday that in fact, the entire thing was false. The person in the picture was neither frail nor a grandmother, she had asked to rest on some hospital chairs rather than being forced, and it wasn’t for “several hours”. The Health Minister wasn’t at fault at all. So I was expecting some form of apology today — because that’s what tabloids do to retain reader trust.

But the only indication they gave that they were wrong was half a dozen words in the fifth paragraph of an article. They didn’t even print the letter from the person in the photo that had been quoted on TV. Maybe Paul Armstrong, the editor, thinks he’s on some kind of moral high-horse, crusading against a corrupt State … nevermind those pesky facts that suggest otherwise.

I’m no big supporter of the State health system — there are clearly capacity problems and management issues, and the Reid report doesn’t strike me as a particularly comprehensive fix — but this is beyond irresponsible. The Health Minister was understandably annoyed yesterday … if I was one of the parties involved in this, I’d totally be calling lawyers.

And while I’m ranting about our local daily, did I mention it’s a dinosaur that simply doesn’t get the Internet, and is therefore likely to be trounced by it in the coming years? Tuesday’s edition included an article about the Web 2.0 education software Moodle, which has a connection to Perth. All good and well … except that I remember reading about this on TechCrunch months ago. “WE get it first”, indeed.

That same edition had an article about a City of Perth committee and Perth Arena, which mentions how the West supposedly broke the news last Saturday of a plan to build apartments over the arena carpark. Which is kinda true … except that I mentioned it on this blog a fortnight before they did, my source being a picture from the masterplan that I included in that post. And better yet, I first saw that picture on the SkyscraperCity forums in December.

(Unrelated postscript #1: there’s a new compromise proposal for the commercial precinct at Fremantle Harbour, where the Rottnest ferries currently dock, which has come out of a community forum process. This one cuts back on office space a bit and offers Maritime Museum-style architecture in two buildings of six stories. While I can already hear the cries of the local “nothing over two stories!” crowd, I think this proposal is largely a good one, since it clearly has strong community support and also gives Fremantle some much-needed density.)

(Unrelated postscript #2: This is pretty cool — a searchable recording of Bush’s State of the Union speech.)


Comet! (and some tennis ramblings)

Wednesday 24 January 2007 at 11:17 pm

I’d been thinking of mentioning the flag “ban” at Sydney’s Big Day Out, but everything I thought of has already been said.

So I shall post a photo I took last Friday of Comet McNaught, from an outstanding location for amateur astronomy — namely, the roof of my parents’ house.

Comet McNaught

(Awesome pictures by the dude who discovered it may be found here.)

Unrelatedly, the Australian Open has been throwing a few surprises. The biggest of these, for me at least, was seeing Marcos Baghdatis play a weak game to lose in the second round. At first I thought that Gael Monfils was going to replace him and become, if you will, the Baghdatis of this year’s Open (Jim Courier was right to describe him as “fun to watch”) … but then he lost his next game. Against Baghdatis he had the same determination and spark that got Baghdatis through last year, but against the (admittedly more experienced) Gasquet, all that energy seemed to vanish.

Later, the awesome game between Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal (why on Earth did it start at 10pm?) had me thinking that Murray might become this year’s Baghdatis, because he was playing an awfully clever strategy. But then he lost his nerve in the fifth set and it all fell apart.

Tonight’s game, though, saw Nadal fall (surprisingly quickly!) to Fernando Gonzalez. This has me thinking I’ve found my new source of Baghdatis-style awesomeness for this year — particularly considering the players he’s beaten so far.

Thus, what I’d like to see in the men’s final: Gonzalez versus Federer, in a clone of last year. The upstart won’t be good enough to dethrone the ice man, but we’ll all be amazed at how well Gonzalez plays regardless.

And for the women’s final: a three-set thriller whereby Serena Williams plays well enough to prove that she’s made her comeback, but Kim Clijsters scrapes through to end her career on a high.

P.S. thank you Adobe for finally updating the Linux version of Flash Player! (But curses for taking so long.) This allowed me to actually use the official Open site enough to make the links above …


EAS, round 2: energy deals grab broader attention

Saturday 20 January 2007 at 10:47 am

(Admittedly, this post is several days late; I blame family.)

Leaders at the second East Asia Summit, Cebu, Philippines. Creative Commons licence does not apply to this image.

So the East Asia Summit for 2006 (er, 2007? 06-07? or something?) has drawn to a close, and although the institution is still new and finding its feet, this year has presented a few good signs that the Summit will have a successful future in encouraging regional cooperation.

Aside from several measures to promote regional trade, the big announcement was a declaration that promises cooperation on “energy security”, which is to say there’ll be a big push for investment in transmission and generation infrastructure. Assuming the declaration is followed through, there’ll also be a few token measures towards bio-fuels and renewable energy (though admittedly that’s better than nothing).

I think it’s illustrative that our local daily gave a big chunk of space on the business pages to an AP story about the energy pact, which seems to mirror several other news services I’ve checked. In other words, talk of energy deals makes business leaders (or at least business press editors) stand up and take notice — which, if nothing else, has the benefit of giving the Summit some more widespread attention than it’d otherwise earn. On that front, the EAS has already done better than APEC meetings of recent years, none of which have produced anything quite as noteworthy.

Within that context, the Japanese government has already stepped forward with a donation of US$2b for energy research, yet another component in its long-term programme of being the region’s aid financier. Similarly, the AusAID announcement earlier in the week of $5m to combat bird flu was soundly trounced by a Japanese pledge of an additional US$67m. These donations are important in the sense that they’re giving substance to the decisions being made at the EAS — which suggests that to some extent, the EAS is already getting things done. (On the other hand, though, Japan was donating money for disease prevention long before 2005.)

Speaking of Japan, simmering resentment between it and China earned barely a mention in most media coverage of the second Summit — unlike last time — and this is pretty much entirely due to Shinzo Abe taking over from Junichiro Koizumi as PM. Abe has made little in the way of significant changes to Japan’s dealings with China, but simply by not visiting the Yasukuni Shrine (as PM) he has defused tensions enough that an entire section of my thesis is rendered obsolete. But that’s a good thing, because I argued that a rift between the region’s largest economies was the single biggest issue in the way of a successful EAS.

Interestingly, Russia wasn’t at the table this time around, even though its presence would have actually been relevant on the question of oil supply (so I suppose that ends the speculation from 2005 about whether it’d become a fully-fledged member!).

The broader ASEAN Summit (of which the EAS was one part) earned headlines for a declaration about terrorism and progress towards an ASEAN Charter, but otherwise there was little reaction to the events of the last 12 months. It is the ASEAN Way to not criticise any country’s domestic affairs in public, so there was nary a whimper about the fact that Thailand was represented by a military general. North Korea and Myanmar were both told off, the former about the 6-party talks and the latter for lacking democracy, but these announcements have become yearly stalwarts. Beyond that, the only announcement that struck me as interesting was the plan for new university courses as part of the cultural component of the forthcoming ASEAN Community.

As a final note, the most prominent mention that the Summit got in Australia was John Howard’s stopover in Broome on the way back. Frankly, were I in his shoes, I’d probably do the same — although I’d have covered my back for the inevitable “who paid for this?” squabbles ;-)

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Airliners, crackpots, bird flu and phones

Saturday 13 January 2007 at 11:48 pm
  • The best news I’ve heard so far this year: Tiger Airways, a Singaporean discount carrier modelled after Air Asia, is starting flights to Perth in March. And just like Air Asia, they have ridiculous discounts: $20 one way to Singapore, plus (obscene) taxes, on selected dates until October. This more than plugs the hole left when Valuair stopped its Perth flights after a merger with Qantas (mutter grumble), and makes it wonderfully cheap to travel around Asia. I’m already planning a trip to relatives in Penang for about $400, less than half the current cost. Hopefully this will also be a good thing for West Australian tourism — the State government had better take advantage of it!
  • Who decided that this guy was so important anyway? (Just like Christianity, Islam is divided into different factions and schools of thought, and he’s only one mufti …) I don’t think we should ban him from returning or revoke his citizenship (now that’s a horrid idea: how do you decide who’s a bad citizen?), and he’s entitled to freely travel and express his views. But if I flew overseas and told some people that all Australians are idiots, somehow I doubt there’d be such a swarm of coverage. The media need only stop paying attention in order to transform him into Yet Another Harmless Crackpot.
  • The ASEAN summit in Cebu, postponed from last December, has just started. Impressively, our government has used this as a chance to pitch in a $5m donation to combat bird flu, which gives some meat to the rather hollow Declaration from the last East Asia Summit, and fits in nicely with the argument made on page 29 of my thesis ;-)
  • Finally, after more considered analysis, I’m not sure the iPhone is as awesome as it first seemed. It’s far and away the best phone interface ever, that much is certain, but it won’t be able to run 3rd-party software (perhaps not even Web 2.0 apps), we know little about the camera, and there’s a case to be made that hardware keyboards are better (they’re good for blind people — such as me, when SMSing while half-asleep). Speaking of which, this is an awesome response to everyone’s reactions.