Sunday, 16 October 2011

The drivers behind the Wall Street protesters

Do you have friends saying: "I really don’t get what these protestors are on about?”  “But what do they hope to achieve?”   Have a look at these easy to read slides written by a business friendly US website:   Perhaps a more useful question will then arise: why are they and so many others still NOT angry ?  

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Switch from Coal to Natural Gas Won't Slow Global Warming, Study Says

Using more natural gas for fuel could produce leaks of methane, a heat-trapping greenhouse gas more than 20 times more potent than CO2, new research finds

Friday, 9 September 2011

Nine Australia public intellectuals, for the benefit of non-Australia journalists

UK journalists sometimes ask for me recommendations about people to interview in Australia about culture and politics. Here's nine names for the pool:

1. Clive Hamilton, former director of the Australia Institute, now Professor of Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University. Author of "Requiem for a Species"; great radio talent. One of the sharpest intellectual in the country (now that Peter Singer lives in the US), even though I don't agree with everything he says.

2. Stephanie Dowrick, international best selling writer of "Intimacy and Solitude" and other titles, is great on meaning, spirituality in modern life, and of course intimacy in relationships. Also founder of the Women's Press in the UK. Erudite.

3. Prof. Ghassan Hage, highly regarded academic and writer of "One Nation", a provocative take on the politics of multiculturalism and identity in an Australia of migrants ... and many other books.

4. Lindsay Tanner. Former Australian Minister of Finance, one-time leadership contender. Author of a number of books on politics and social issues, including loneliness. Thoughtful economist, deep thinker.

5. Mark Latham. Former Labor Party opposition leader, now writer and irascible critic of that Party. Provocative, garrulous, well-read and learned - with a larrikin's voice. Now writes for the Financial Review.

6. Mike Rann. Former Premier of South Australia after 9 years in the job; former National President of the Labor party. A rare independent (non-factional) leader in the Labor Party. Was a Greenpeace anti-nuclear testing activist in the Pacific before moving to Australia and entering politics - and his last act as Premier is to negotiate a big uranium mining deal. A journey to explore.

7. Dr Tony Moore. Culture studies academic and author on "larrikin" culture, cultural history, public broadcasting. Good on radio.

8. David Marr. Journalist, best-selling author and biographer, public intellectual, political commentator. Brilliant intellectual entertainer; razor sharp. I am a big fan.

9. Prof. Dennis Altman. Pioneering gay rights activist and author; considered one of the global founders of the movement.

Of course I appreciate there are so many great public intellectuals in Australia - this is just a taster from my own address book. Let me know who you think I should add for the benefit of visiting overseas journalists.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Excellent articles by Martin Wolf and Robert J Shiller on the flawed thinking behind government austerity drives in the midst of crisis

Senior Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf today: "What is to be done? To find an answer, listen to the markets. They are saying: borrow and spend, please. Yet those who profess faith in the magic of the markets are most determined to ignore the cry."

Yale Economics Professor Robert J Shiller: "The lesson is simple: We should worry less about debt ratios and thresholds, and more about our inability to see these indicators for the artificial – and often irrelevant – constructs that they are."

Friday, 27 May 2011

Notes from a workshop: 7 miscellaneous ideas for the financing sector market

1. Finance has outgrown national governance; banking reform beyond deposit-taking must be multi-national to be effective. For European countries the EU's "normative power" provides an available and important space to do this.

2. Remember competition policy. We have to manage economic entities so that:
- their failure doesn't threaten the whole system (that means smaller banks, whether split between investment and retail or not)
- their power doesn't create imbalances in our political system (i.e. threaten government's capacity to make decisions in the interests of the whole). Overly dominant institutions use lobbying, funding and PR to drive policy in their interests (e.g. oil companies in the US)

3. The last three years has seen the extent to which banks operate with the implicit backing of governments. We need to make more explicit the conditions of licences to operate. Review, publicise and retool.

4. Introduce a better risk reporting matrix for pension funds. In the light of the huge impact of systemic volatility on pension finds over the past three years, pension funds need to better understand that fiduciary duty means addressing systemic as well as stock risks. Governments need to make explicit their requirement that funds do this (as distinct from telling them how to do this). Requiring reporting on a matrix of risk areas would force them to analyse and exposes long-term issues.

5. The achieve a rapid shift an economy governments need to use Government preferencing tools to better align political policy with financial priorities
- tax credits
- guarantees
- on-lend to local banks (i.e. use their distribution) for targeted programmes (e.g. green businesses)
- regulatory support (e.g. outlaw high-carbon investments)

That applies most urgently to green economy transitions.

6. Improve consumer protection. In the UK for example consumer protections have lagged behind other countries. This has the benefit of limiting opportunities to un-sustainably gouge consumers (it protects financial institutions from their worst tendencies).

The most urgent in the UK is to cap usurious interest rates. Many countries have a cap; Australia has around 50% for example. "", with interest rates in the thousands, should not be allowed in any market.

Equally, mortgage market regulation should mandate maximum lending ratios, capping them at 80% or 90%. This mitigates against practices dependent on upward market valuations.

7. The most important thing we could to encourage more productive capital allocation in anglo countries would be to tax income spent on mortgage payments just as we tax income spent on rent. It would reduce speculative pressure, even up the financial equivalence of renting and home-buying and push capital to other investment options where it's more urgently needed, such as the transition to a green economy.

Great article on teaching methods - how we should run Climate Bonds conferences when the time comes

An alternative vote

Applying science to the teaching of science

May 12th 2011 |

AS DOES much else in the universe, education moves in cycles. The 1960s and 1970s saw a swell of interest in teaching styles that were less authoritarian and hierarchical than the traditional watching of a teacher scribbling on a blackboard. Today, tastes have swung back, and it is fashionable to denigrate those alternatives as so much hippy nonsense.

But evidence trumps fashion—at least, it ought to. And a paper just published in Science by Louis Deslauriers and his colleagues at the University of British Columbia suggests that at least one of the newfangled styles is indeed superior to the traditional chalk-and-talk approach.

Dr Deslauriers's lab rats were a group of 850 undergraduate engineering students taking a compulsory physics course. The students were split into groups at the start of their course, and for the first 11 weeks all went to traditionally run lectures given by well-regarded and experienced teachers. In the 12th week, one of the groups was switched to a style of teaching known as deliberate practice, which inverts the traditional university model. Class time is spent on problem-solving, discussion and group work, while the absorption of facts and formulae is left for homework. Students were given reading assignments before classes. Once in the classroom they spent their time in small groups, discussing specific problems, with the teacher roaming between groups to offer advice and respond to questions.

At the end of the test week, Dr Deslauriers surveyed the students and gave them a voluntary test (sold as useful exam practice, and marked on a 12-point scale) to see how much they had learned in that week and what they thought of the new teaching method. The results were striking (see chart). The traditionally taught group's average score was 41%, compared with 74% for the experimental group—even though the experimental group did not manage to cover all the material it was supposed to, whereas the traditional group did.

According to Dr Deslauriers and his team, their result is the biggest performance boost ever documented in educational research, making the new teaching style more effective even than personal, one-to-one tuition—although measuring the effect immediately after the experiment, rather than waiting for end-of-term exam results (as other research often has), may have inflated the number somewhat. The results are especially impressive given that the deliberate-practice method was applied by teachers with little prior experience of using it, whereas the traditionally taught students had the benefit of a seasoned lecturer with a long record of good ratings from pupils.

One frequent criticism of these sorts of studies concerns something called the Hawthorne effect, an idea which emerged from post-war work on productivity. This is that change of any sort will boost people's performance simply because of the novelty value it offers. But the exact nature of the Hawthorne effect, and even whether it exists at all, is controversial. Moreover, if it is real, it would be unlikely to apply in this case, because it is supposed to occur mainly among people doing routine jobs, for whom any change in working practices is welcome. That is not a description of a typical undergraduate's life.

A more serious objection is that the study's participants may be an atypical group. The sort of people who study engineering may react better (or, indeed, worse) to the deliberate-practice method than, say, those reading fine art or history.

Still, Dr Deslauriers and his team are bullish about the wider implications of their work, which adds to the evidence that it may be possible to improve on the long-established chalk-and-talk method. And the students seemed to enjoy the experience, too. Attendance in the experimental group rose by 20% over the course of the week that deliberate practice was used, and three-quarters of its members said that they would have learned more had the entire course been taught in the same way. In this case, then, the educational hippies may have been right.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Renewable Energy Can Power the World, Says Landmark IPCC Study

"Renewable sources could provide a majority of the world’s energy supplies by 2050, but only if governments dramatically increase financial and political support for technologies like wind and solar power, experts from a United Nations panel said Monday...."

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Have you seen this? - every nuclear explosion since 1945 - month by month

Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto has created a beautiful, undeniably scary time-lapse map of the 2053 nuclear explosions which have taken place between 1945 and 1998, beginning with the Manhattan Project's "Trinity" test near Los Alamos and concluding with Pakistan's nuclear tests in May of 1998. This leaves out North Korea's two alleged nuclear tests in this past decade (the legitimacy of both of which is not 100% clear).

Each nation gets a blip and a flashing dot on the map whenever they detonate a nuclear weapon, with a running tally kept on the top and bottom bars of the screen. Hashimoto, who began the project in 2003, says that he created it with the goal of showing"the fear and folly of nuclear weapons." It starts really slow — if you want to see real action, skip ahead to 1962 or so — but the buildup becomes overwhelming.