peteg's blog - noise - talks

Rick Perlstein in Conversation with Garry Wills: The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan

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At the Chicago Public Library at 6pm. I sprinted down there after work, which turned out to be unnecessary as the auditorium only got half full. Garry Wills is elderly now but quite entertaining, often batting away Perlstein's attempts to corner him with brevity and perspicacity that the author was lacking. The audience was clearly liberal and perhaps for that reason the talking was long on assertion and short on empiricism. My present lack of consciousness precludes me from reading the book itself.

Pankaj Mishra uses the book to gesture at notions of freedom. It reminded me of the quotation he pulled from Tanpınar (intro, p xvii):

The privilege I most treasured as a child was that of freedom ... Today we use the word only in its political sense, and how unfortunate for us. For I fear that those who see freedom solely as a political concept will never fully grasp its meaning. The political pursuit of freedom can lead to its eradication on a grand scale — or rather it opens the door to countless curtailments.

UNSW Justice Talks: Nicholas Cowderey

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Cowderey was famous for taking it to the politicians while he was the Director of Public Prosecutions for NSW back in the 1990s and early 21st century. I read his book Getting Justice Wrong sometime back then. As a semi-retired visiting professor at UNSW, tonight he spoke on those old themes, and gave us his backstory: assisting the Commonwealth in prosecuting R&R drug violations by visiting American soldiers, and four years or more in Papua New Guinea as a prosecutor. Contrary to Fraser et al, this was not a mea culpa: he acted on his beliefs while he had power, though he often found the law and justice to be at odds. We heard of the husband who assisted his wife (suffering from advanced MS) commit suicide who later owned up to it all, forcing the police to charge him with murder. The result was a conviction for assisting suicide and a twelve-month good behaviour bond; some kind of justice in his eyes. He claimed the Greens have "an excellent policy" here. There was also the young Vietnamese bloke who gave a clean needle to a junkie who overdosed later that night, yielding a manslaughter conviction.

Broadly Cowderey explored the schism between justice and the law, and advocated for more discretion for judges etc. — which is cold comfort for those of us outside the legal arena who so easily see the costs and obfuscations and not so often the progress. I got the impression that he felt much of his work as DPP in prosecuting drug offenders was a waste of time, though he was careful to say that the other laws are already strong enough to handle organised crime, black markets and all that. I heard the same about the terrorism laws back in the day.

The Milner Symposium, April 2012

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Over the past few months I have been chugging my way through the videos of this meeting of computer science luminaries. Gérard Berry is very funny. (I must watch the other videos on his home page.) Gordon Plotkin's talk is quite abstruse even by the standards of this audience. Philip Wadler shows how to run a panel. Gérard Huet and Larry Paulson give great accounts of the early days of interactive theorem proving systems, and John Harrison shed some light on what he does at Intel.

Milner's last innovation in his process algebraic tradition — bigraphs — don't look like gaining much traction from what I saw here.

UNSW Gandhi Oration: The Honourable Michael Kirby AC CMG

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Michael Kirby reminded me that no matter how much mathematics and science I study, wisdom lies elsewhere.

Whitlam Institute: Getting to grips with the economy: John Quiggin, Steve Keen, Guy Debelle

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Trekked out to the Riverside Theatre at Parramatta with Pete R.. Took us a bit more than an hour to get there, with heavy traffic on Parramatta Road and the M4 even around 4:30pm; I find it hard to believe that anyone would do this every day.

We got there perhaps ten minutes into Quiggin's keynote talk, which sounded a lot like he was reading directly from his blog. Generally he focussed on what the institutional response to the global financial crisis should be, in structural terms. I guess the guts of it is in Quiggin's paper, and in brief, the idea is to get the public sector to take a larger role in the areas where markets have not shown themselves to be superior. A sample argument: the government can always borrow at better rates than the private sector (presumably axiomatically: the private sector is underpinned/regulated by the Government, and hence cannot be a better risk) so there is no real (as compared to political) gain in financing via public-private partnerships. A lot of the nuance was beyond my limited understanding, but as always he sounds at least plausible and often irrefutable.

Of the two respondants, Steve Keen, A/Prof at the University of Western Sydney, stridently claimed the economy is fuelled by debt to a much larger extent than the government admits, and that it has a pervasively pernicious effect. Pete R. was suspicious about his charts and simulations, which were difficult to interpret in such limited time. Most interesting was his claim that all decreases in unemployment since the great depression have been funded by debt that has yet to be paid off; in other words, we have no story for sustainable growth. One man's debt is his countryman's investment?

The other respondent was Guy Debelle, who cursorily dismissed a lot of what Keen had to say. It was difficult to take him for more than a technocrat, playing the reassure-the-sheep role that the Reserve Bank is generally adept at. Not much light, and the heat was a bit tedious.

Clive Hamilton and Sarah Maddison: Silencing Dissent: How the Australian government is controlling public opinion and stifling debate.

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A talk by the authours at Shearer's Bookshop in Leichardt. For mine the corrosive effect the Howard Government has had on Australia's public institutions is both its most important and most troubling legacy. Due to our general disinterest in matters civic, the manifest concern has been economic and occasionally social, rarely structural, perhaps because such things make few people relaxed and comfortable. I find this very irritating.

If one has a rough idea where these people are coming from (traditional liberal democracy, Westminster accountability, etc.) then I expect there is little that will surprise in this book. (I haven't read it yet, I'm going on past Clive Hamilton form.) One may then wonder what the point is in producing a record of the debasement of public institutitons if it will only be read by those who are worried in the first place.

(The authors were careful to note that the Hawke and Keating Governments also engaged in nepotism, neutering, playing favourites, etc. and spent a long time disavowing the "Howard hater" tag. Clive Hamilton made reference to Judith Brett, an academic studying the Liberals, and I think there is a lot they could learn from her about wrestling their way to the centre of the public political debate.)

John Pilger asked the final question of the night, asserting that the situation is not so very different in the other Anglo democracies. Clive Hamilton's response was that the democratic processes are much stronger elsewhere. I also think it's important to note that our party structures are so much more rigid than in (say) the U.S; from Peter Garrett of the ALP we get a toe-the-party-line cop-out, as if dissent on the issues that made him famous politically would be the most heinous and damaging act imaginable. The "broad church" of the Liberals can sometimes show evidence of an internal debate, but Howard is always calling for more discipline. Are people so scared of democratic processes?

There's a review in the Smage by David Marr. I note Peter Andren patronised the book launch at Parliament House, and that Marr will publish a Quarterly Essay in June this year entitled His Master's Voice: Public Debate in Howard's Australia.

Ross Gittins, Gittinomics launch at Gleebooks.

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Ross Gittins is the editor of the business section of the Smage and writes the occasional edifying column on economics. (Andrew Norton observes that he tends to alternate commentary on social policy with demystification.) This was the launch of his book, a distillation of (mostly other people's) wisdom apropos living a good, or perhaps even happy, life in an age of excessive consumerism and dearth of time.

Richard Glover was his partner in conversation, and was quite a bit sharper than I would have expected by his Saturday Smage columns, particularly when he was summarising questions for repetition through the microphone. We heard about an itinerant childhood, being the son of two Salvo officers, and much was made of the recent work in behavioural economics. I asked Gittins at the end if we would see a return to collectivism, and earnt a very Maynard-Keynes response: "Just wait, it will be back".

There's a review from the Smage.

UNSW Alumni Brainfood: Professor Michael Archer, Dean of the Faculty of Science at UNSW on fossils.

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The UNSW alumni association has been organising these talks for a few years now. I thought I'd give it a go, partly because of the topic:

Professor Archer will present a fascinating discourse on Australia as the home of the world's biggest, weirdest and oldest fossils. Hear all about flesh-eating kangaroos and bizarre creatures that go back to the dawn of life on earth.

but mostly due to idleness. Yep, he described all kinds of weird ancient creatures, mostly at a level that would impress a primary school student. More interesting were the implications he drew from the fossil record, such as the relative success of marsupial and placental animals and the possibility of human inhabitation of this continent going back millions of years (and not just thousands). Political sensitivity made him pull his punches on the latter, unfortunately.

These stories of empirical science — the field work, the cross-discipline collaboration, arguments about the balance of probabilities, the broad interest in the results — make me realise just what a weird field computer science is.

The Commonwealth Chief Scientist speaks at UNSW.

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David Malouf: Every Move You Make at Gleebooks

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Another book-launch of sorts. Malouf is in fact slight in stature; I always envisaged an amiable six foot string bean. I especially liked the glasses-for-reading and glasses-for-looking-at-people.

TED: Technology, Entertainment, Design.

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There's a whole bunch of interesting VODcasts over at TED. Daniel Dennett's is a little disappointing as he only reacts to a creationist tract — he's capable of a lot better than that. Steven Levitt's is hilarious.

Peter Singer: The Ethics of What We Eat

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As part of the Sydney Writers' Festival (2006) at the City Recital Hall, Angel Place Sydney.

Brendan Gleeson: Australian Heartlands at Gleebooks

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Went to Gleebooks in the evening to listen to Peter Garrett and Brendan Gleeson talk about the latter's Australian Heartlands: Making Space For Hope In The Suburbs. Elizabeth Farrelly makes some interesting comments about it, but some are a bit off: yes, the book did win the John Iremonger Award for Writing on Public Issues (surely that's not his real name?), and that was why it got published, at least I understand it.

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Philip Wadler gave a talk at the University of Technology, Sydney today on the subject of his Links programming language (or more precisely, some details of his plans for it). I'm not sure just why he's in Australia; I heard along the grapevine that he was visiting Peter Stuckey (associated with NICTA) at the University of Melbourne. As Manuel and Gabi are in New York presently there was no UNSW connection, and the Sydney NICTA nodes aren't doing functional programming in any serious way. So... that leaves the category theory angle, of course, and that leads the Sydneysider to C. Barry Jay's door.

The talk was probably no different to any of the others he's given on this topic. What I find interesting is that the project is inherently messy, building on a lot of people's work rather than trying to investigate self-contained super-specialised research problems. It is as if Philip Wadler (amongst others) now thinks the question is not so much "how do I do X?" but "how do I do X for practical instances of X?". I wish them success from afar.

Sean told me that he also gave a talk at Macquarie Uni yesterday, which I didn't hear about - roughly on the unusual effectiveness of logic in CS, I'd hazard to guess.