The Dim-Post

September 30, 2012

Cunliffe channels Chauncey Gardiner

Filed under: economics,movies — danylmc @ 5:43 pm

Via Imperator Fish, apparently David Cunliffe has given one of his ‘thought leader’ speeches about economics. I’ve admired his previous ones, and haven’t had a chance to read this one yet, but that won’t stop me making fun of it based on this excerpt from the linked post:

If you want a garden to grow, then you have to dig the soil and plant the seeds. You have to feed and nurture the plants and you have deal to the weeds when they grow up amongst the crop.

Which sails awfully close to the main character in Hal Ashby’s Being There, a film about a simpleton who works as a gardener, until his agricultural knowledge is mistaken for economic brilliance, and he becomes an adviser to the US President.

So bad education stories in the Herald on Sunday are now a thing

Filed under: education — danylmc @ 8:50 am

Their story:

Our degrees don’t repay their cost

New Zealand university degrees are the most worthless in the developed world, an international report reveals.

The value of spending years at university has been severely dented by an OECD report that reveals tertiary study adds little to our earning power – less than $1000 a year for women, not much more for men.

New Zealand is at the bottom of the global league tables.

The actual report is here. And the thing that the OECD make really clear is that they distinguish between two categories of tertiary education. Type A – university degrees – and type B: (mostly polytechnics). Taken together New Zealand is at the bottom of the table. But if you look at degrees and advanced tertiary study then New Zealand isn’t doing that badly – and the countries that are doing extremely well on that metric are mostly countries with low rates of type A tertiary education. Their degrees are highly valuable because of their scarcity. Almost every statistic in the Herald story refers to non-university level education, but the entire story is about the alleged worthlessness of degree qualifications!

September 29, 2012

Skepticism and intelligence

Filed under: intelligence,Politics — danylmc @ 7:50 am

The Herald reports:

Former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer says he is astonished John Key was not told about the foreign intelligence agency’s involvement in the Dotcom case much earlier.

Sir Geoffrey said Mr Key should have been told from the start.

“I would have thought if the GCSB was using its sophisticated surveillance methods in a situation like this, it would be prudent to tell the minister. I don’t understand that at all.

“In my experience with them, they were meticulous in consulting ministers when they needed, and should have.”

The problem here is that Sir Geoffrey doesn’t know that the GCSB were ‘meticulous in consulting ministers’, he assumes this because nothing went wrong during the year in which he was Prime Minister and the GCSB reported to him. For each of Key’s previous three years in office he, also, could have assumed that the GCSB were doing a hell of a job and telling him everything he needed to know. (I forget what logicians call this fallacy, which is a shame because it would have made a snappy title.)

September 28, 2012

The coastguard?

Filed under: intelligence,Politics — danylmc @ 12:59 pm

I’ve never understood why intelligence oversight is the remit of the Prime Minister: historically, intelligence agencies in democratic countries tend to be the least competent and most corrupt sectors of the state, because their secrecy makes them less accountable than any other area of government. So you want to keep a close eye on them. But the Prime Minister is always going to be the busiest, most distracted member of Cabinet; traditionally our PMs have little experience in the portfolios that might be useful in running an intelligence agency (Justice, Foreign Affairs, Defense).

Australia’s intelligence agencies look like they come under the ambit of Foreign Affairs and the Attorney General. That makes a lot more sense.

Neuromancer revisited (?)

Filed under: books — danylmc @ 8:17 am

Over the past couple days I’ve been rereading William Gibson’s Neuromancer. I say ‘rereading’ because obviously I’d read it before, some time in the early 1990s, maybe – but once I got past the second chapter I found I remembered nothing about the book at all. I suspect I tried to read it when I was too young – my mid teens, perhaps. (It was released in 1984), couldn’t penetrate it beyond the first few pages, and then it became such a pivotal text over the next decade I just sort of convinced myself I’d read the whole thing. There should be a word for this.

Anyway, for a novel about high technology in the near future there are some charming anachronisms. The main character hopes to get rich selling ‘megs’ of RAM on the black market. Wireless technology doesn’t seem to exist – the ‘matrix’ can only be accessed through physical connections (‘jacking in’). And the sinister AI Wintermute contacts the hero through a ‘pay-phone’. (Obviously the orbital resorts, ubiquitous biotech implants and famous cyberspace virtual reality environments are slightly more robust than current levels of technology.)

The most famous passage in the book – other than the opening line – is probably:

The matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games. … Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts. … A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.

The cliched – unfalsifiable – claim people make about that passage is that by imagining the internet Gibson called it into being. TCP/IP had been around for a few years before the novel was published so there was a certain amout of inevitability about the commercialisation of network technology – but you gotta give him huge points for vision.

Neuromancer is a sci-fi novel – arguably the most famous and influential sci-fi book of all time – but in genre terms it’s a fusion of a 1940’s style crime caper and a 1970s style drug novel. I’ve enjoyed Gibson’s recent books, but Neuromancer is a class above them. I remember Count Zero as being pretty good (or at least I think I do) and I think about it almost every time I write ‘count = 0′ in a line of code, so I plan to chase that up next.

September 27, 2012

Flotsam or iceberg?

Filed under: crime,intelligence — danylmc @ 7:59 am

Graeme Edgeler overviews the extant issues in the Dotcom case and concludes:

is it a function of the Police to intercept the communications of people in respect of offences that they themselves cannot get interception warrants?

As a lawyer, I could comfortably argue that the actions of the GCSB, as I understand them to be, would have been with the scope of the GCSB Act had none of the Kim Dotcom and his colleagues been permanent residents.

People make mistakes. People misunderstand questions, or misunderstand the answers they are given to their questions. They assume other people have conducted the necessary checks, or obtained the right permissions. Such mistakes may rise to the level of incompetence, or even be criminal. We’ll get some information later in the week about how the the GCSB found themselves illegally intercepting the communications of a couple of New Zealand residents.

But short of someone in the GCSB acting as some sort of rogue agent, how that breach happened is not actually our biggest problem. The actions of the Police in using the GCSB as an end-run around laws we have put in place deliberately limiting police powers are of much greater concern.

It does seem to me that high profile cases involving police and intelligence gathering have a tendency to reveal either unethical behavior or downright illegality on the part of the authorities. To turn it all into a clumsy metaphor, I wonder if this is flotsam – ie when they’re dealing with a high profile case the complexity throws up uncharacteristic instances of poor judgment; or is this the tip of the ol’ iceberg: do the authorities break the laws around surveillance on a routine basis, but it only becomes apparent in high-profile cases involving clever lawyers, political oversight and media scrutiny?

September 26, 2012

No surprises please

Filed under: intelligence,Politics — danylmc @ 7:07 am

I guess it’s the job of the opposition to try and hurt Key with this whole GCSB Kim Dotcom thing, but what strikes me as the real issue is that someone in the GCSB must have known that they broke the law, and they kept it quiet for months before notifying anyone. That’s a sacking/resignation level offense.

I’m still a bit unclear on Bill English’s level of complicity. If he simply signed a Ministerial warrant suppressing public release of information about the GCSB then that seems pretty reasonable. If he was informed that they broke the law, still signed the warrant and failed to inform the Prime Minister then he should be stood down as a Minister.

September 25, 2012

The past is another country

Filed under: economics — danylmc @ 8:34 am

Via Stuff:

Christchurch-based Solid Energy has proposed even deeper staff cuts – including half its backroom work force and half its executive leadership – as it tries to weather the plummeting price of coal.

Yesterday the state-owned miner’s new chairman, Mark Ford, announced another round of staff consultation after confirming the company proposed mothballing Spring Creek mine near Greymouth, halting further development of Huntly East mine, and cutting corporate staff.

The company said it needed to axe a quarter of its work force, or about 440 people, because of a severe downturn in global coal prices which would shave $200 million in revenue in the coming financial year.

That does not not include 130 contractors at Spring Creek who would also be out of work.

Depressing? Cheer yourself up with this 2010 press release from Gerry Brownlee and Kate Wilkinson in which they argued that the only future for the New Zealand economy was to dig up our national parks for the fabulously valuable coal they had beneath them.

The fantasy and reality of national standards

Filed under: education — danylmc @ 8:05 am

Via the Herald:

The majority of people polled think schools should publicly release their national standards performance data.

Results from a Herald-Digipoll survey showed 60.3 per cent of people agreed that schools should be forced to release the information.

However, NZ Principals Federation president Paul Drummond said he had spent years telling people why teachers felt the information would not be credible.

The opposition to National Standards has been based on the principle that lots of similar countries have tried this and it always turns into a disaster, but I think this opposition to the idea of national standards has diluted the criticism of the actual policy as implemented by Anne Tolley and Hekia Parata.

The case for national standards is that parents should be provided with meaningful information about schools so they can make informed choices about their children’s education. But National hasn’t done that – instead they’ve provided meaningless information so that parents can make uninformed, and possibly terrible choices about their children’s education. I’m not sure why they’ve done this, but they have, and the Prime Minister has been pretty relaxed about admitting so.

Here’s a graph showing the results of the individual schools performance weighted for decile (I’ll put the methodology in the comments section). It shows roughly similar outcomes across the deciles and a huge range of variation within the deciles. But the raw data doesn’t show this – so will the government’s policy cause people to take their kids out of a high performing decile one school and move them to a low performing decile five school, say, thus reducing the quality of their education? Probably. I also suspect we’ll see problems based on the narcissism of small differences: people seeing that other local schools have higher – but statistically meaningless – results, and moving their children there because they want their kids to have ‘the best school.’ That’ll happen even if the data is robust, but because of National’s incompetence, many of those parents will be moving their children out of good schools – which are close to where they live and filled with their friends – and into bad schools.

(That decile 2 school at the top – technically the ‘best school in the country’ – is the small, mostly Maori Bluff Community School. Congratulations guys.)

September 24, 2012

Stuff I’d like to read in a political column on the GCSB/Dotcom story

Filed under: intelligence,Politics — danylmc @ 6:16 pm

Via the Herald:

The Government Communications Security Bureau did not have a warrant to intercept communications in the lead-up to the raid on the Dotcom mansion in January.

Prime Minister John Key has revealed the GCSB was acting without his sign-off when it was working with police to locate people who were subject to arrest warrants.

He said he had not issued a warrant and was not briefed on the operation.

Mr Key has requested an inquiry by the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security into the unlawful interception of communications by the GCSB, saying it had acquired communications without statutory authority.

When intelligence agencies make mistakes they usually manage to convince their political masters that it’s ‘not in the public interest’ for their incompetence/law-breaking to be revealed. Why hasn’t that happened this time? Did this information come out through the discovery process in one of Dotcom’s court cases, and the government is pre-empting that revelation by announcing it themselves? Or is Key just ‘doing the right thing’?

(I’d also like to go on record predicting no one will be held accountable for this. Any illegality will be due to a faulty ‘process’, that needs to be ‘reviewed’.)

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