Sunday, May 29, 2016

Neanderthals, Denisovans and homo sapiens sapiens - and now the Monday Forum post as well

 The mystery of the Neanderthals has long fascinated people. What were they? Why did they vanish? Were they wiped out by homo sapiens? Now we know that human beings carry a proportion of Neanderthal genes that varies but appears to be an average of perhaps 2%. The Neanderthal survives within us.

Given such apparent inter-breeding, the question of when the two groups first had sex exercises a sort of fascination. We can see this in this Guardian headline:
Skull discovery suggests location where humans first had sex with Neanderthals.

The story is by no means as exciting as the headline would suggest. It refers to the discovery of a modern human skull in a cave in Northern Israel dating to perhaps 55,000 year ago, a time when the "region when it was already well populated with Neanderthals. Skeletons of Neanderthals from the same time have been recovered from Amud cave 24 miles (40km) to the east of Manot cave, and from Kebara cave 30 miles to the south."

The Neanderthal are far more ancient than that Johnny come lately homo sapiens sapiens  with a sophisticated tool using culture. Nor, as we now know through the miracles of DNA analysis, were they the only older human species co-existing with and interbreeding with homo sapiens sapiens. 

In March 2010, scientists announced the discovery of a finger bone fragment of a juvenile female who lived about 41,000 years ago, found in the remote Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains in Siberia, a cave that has also been inhabited by Neanderthals and modern humans.

Analysis of the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) of the finger bone showed it to be genetically distinct from the mtDNAs of Neanderthals and modern humans. Subsequent study of the nuclear genome from this specimen suggests that Denisovans shared a common origin with Neanderthals, that they ranged from Siberia to South-East Asia, and that they lived among and interbred with the ancestors of some modern humans, with about 3% to 5% of the DNA of Melanesians and Aboriginal Australians deriving from Denisovans.

DNA discovered in Spain suggests that Denisovans at some point resided in Western Europe, where Neanderthals were previously thought to be the only inhabitants. A comparison with the genome of a Neanderthal from the same cave revealed significant local interbreeding with local Neanderthal DNA representing 17% of the Denisovan genome, while evidence was also detected of interbreeding with an as yet unidentified ancient human lineage. 

In addition to the linked Wikipedia articles, you can find more on the Denisovans (and the Neanderthals too) on John Hawks blog.


I had planned to bring up a post last night on the Finnish school system for the Monday Forum but events intervened. Now it seems that the Neanderthal theme has generated its own comments not connected with the post, so go for it in whatever direction you like! 

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Saturday Morning Musings - deflation

In an earlier discussion, kvd asked why deflation - a fall in prices for the goods and services we buy - was a bad thing.

If you look at the Wikipedia article on deflation, you can see that deflation is often associated with major economic shocks where cause and effect become intermingled. You will also see how conventional economic analysis has focused on changes to the money supply as a cause of deflation. Then, too, you have productivity effects where long term productivity increases cause prices for goods to fall.

Current worries about deflation are a little different. There is plentiful liquidity - the world is awash with money; global economic growth has slowed, but there is not a global recession; and yet, inflation is very low or even negative in many places. It's unusual, with central banks trying to increase inflation rates, something that would have seemed inconceivable a few years ago.

This post traces some of the effects of living in a deflationary world. Nothing profound. Just trying to work things out. For the sake of simplicity, I am assuming that deflation stays in the 2-3% per annum range.

Households know that things will be 2-3% cheaper in twelve months, their money will be worth 2-3%, so they save a little more, parking the money in the bank. There is a transaction cost to the bank in holding the cash and paying it back. If they were just holding the cash, they would want to charge the customer that cost plus a profit margin, a negative interest rate, as some central banks are doing.

The bank wants to lend the money, to make a profit.

As consumers save a little more, business sales drop. The firm knows that its input costs other than labour will be 2-3% lower at year end. It lags investment a little since capital equipment will be a little cheaper. Labour costs are sticky, so firm margins drop. The firm sees to reduce staff or lower wage rates to accommodate this. It borrows less.

Governments can buy a little more with a given dollar, but its tax revenues drop, in part because bracket creep has gone into reverse. Debt servicing costs on existing debt rises as a proportion of government revenue. Some indexed government payments such as pensions drop as indexing goes into reverse. Governments seek to pay back debt because this will save money later. Spending drops.

In the housing market, there is downward pressure on rents to bring them into line with falling price levels.  Those with existing loans seek to pay them back more quickly or to refinance to lower interest rates. Investors who have based their equations on the combination of rising rents with nominal dollar capital appreciation are especially affected.  

Banks facing lower demand for personal, housing and business loans lower interest rates. Loans become shorter term as the rising real value of money is factored into return equations. Credit cards remain, but credit card debt drops as consumers and business reduce their exposure. Credit card fees grow as cards become more focused on transactions. A new credit card structure emerges, with fees for those who just use the cards for transactions, discounted for those who who are use the cards for loan purposes and are still paying interest.

Share prices fall initially, but then stabilise. Dividends probably increase as a proportion of earnings since this gives investors cash that will increase in value.

At this point, I will pause and leave it to you to respond. I am sure that there are errors. And what about super funds?

Friday, May 20, 2016

Election threads - Minister Dutton - and now Monday Forum

Starting tonight with some singing from my old school. Enjoy.

And for those of you with 45 minutes to spare, this is the fascinating story of the relic of Jan Hus, a Czech priest, philosopher and early Christian reformer.

In my last post, I referred to Australian Immigration Minister Petter Dutton's remarkably silly comment that refugees weren't numerate or literate and would take Australian jobs. Apart from derailing Mr Turnbull's main thrust for the week, I think (but am not sure) that that was on economic management, jobs and growth, it's led to a considerable backlash from from former refugees made good. Deng Thiak Adut is an example.

If you look at what Mr Dutton said, the above link includes a clip of those remarks, it was one of those a+b+c+d+e comments intended for political effect where a, b, c etc were not really linked. I have commented before on Mr Dutton's lack of sensitivity and apparent inhumanity. He has become a sort of bother boy of Australian politics. Mr Turnbull's defence of Mr Dutton as an "outstanding" immigration minister says more about Mr Turnbull than  Minister Dutton.

It is very difficult to know how issues such as this will  play out within an increasingly complex and varied Australian society. I was reminded of this while in Melbourne earlier this week.

Sitting on the metro travelling to Box Hill and then at dinner on Monday night at a bar near Melbourne Central, I felt that I was in a different country. Reflecting on that, it was partly that Melbourne has changed so much since I last visited, so there was a sort of shock of the new. Then, too, so much of my recent time has been spent in Sydney that that city has unconsciously and somewhat worryingly become a "norm".

Melbourne and Sydney have always been different, but their increasing diversity is also different, increasing the divergence between them. Then, when you drill down in both cities, the increasing diversity is geographic in nature, concentrated. Each working day, I walk past Parramatta's Arthur Phillip High School. This is visibly melting pot Sydney; 91% of students have a non-English language background.

If you move outside Sydney and Melbourne, their varying patterns of diversity increasingly distinguish them from other parts of the country.The whole country is changing, but in different ways and different rates.

This is not an essay on social change in Australia, although the topic continues to fascinate me. Rather, it can be very hard to gauge  the impact of something like Mr Dutton's remarks because the impact will be so variable. People from all backgrounds and in all places share common concerns. Their political responses will vary with the weighting placed on their concerns given their individual circumstances. However, despite commentary to the contrary, politics is not just transactional but is also about history, values and beliefs.

Despite breakdowns in party loyalties, it remains true that the majority of Australians are loyal to particular political parties. This means that elections are determined by shifts among the less committed at state level (the Senate) and at individual seat level. Generally, votes do not shift on single issues but on an amalgam of issues. Sometimes, however, particular issues can shift votes in a significant way.

We can see this now in New England where Tony Windsor is seeking to capitalise on very specific environmental concerns to gain the seat from the National's Barnaby Joyce. Mr Windsor may not win, but he has certainly been able to mount a major campaign.

We also saw it in Canada where the Harper led Conservative Party's dog whistle attempt to use the migration and refugee issue to attract support backfired spectacularly in those seats, especially in Toronto, with high migrant populations. This is why Mr Dutton's remarks were so unfortunate for the Coalition.

The effect won't be the same as in Canada, for in hosing down the dispute and trying to get the campaign back on message, senior coalition figures have probably muted the impact. However, there are likely to be particular local impacts.

The Vietnamese community, for example, may not be large in absolute terms, but is concentrated in particular seats. I would expect votes to swing there.

Earlier, I called Minister Dutton a sort of bother boy of Australian politics. That may be unfair. What can be said with a degree of certainty is that his background (self-made rising through the police force before going into business) and geographic location (Brisbane) as well as his ideological views (right wing) make him susceptible to a certain type of political response That's fine, but when he speaks nationally he alienates voters that the Coalition really needs to win.

He will be dog collared. Expect him to be allowed out only in the appropriate areas of nearby parks where certain deposits are allowed.


I am leaving this post up now as the Monday Forum post, but would add one thing. In the last of my possible SMH links, this is the apparent result of the new NSW cycling laws.

Postscript 2    

And on Tony Windsor, here is his latest campaign ad. I haven't got a complete list, but there are now more candidates in New England than you could poke a stick at:


Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Election threads - budget cuts, Liberal Party hypocrisy, the LDP and the Streisand Effect, stop the boats is back

Really, just a recording tonight of things loosely linked to Australian politics.

As a consequence of budget cuts, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is to close its Fact Checking unit because of budget constraints.  I find the Fact Checks instructive because they set out the sources so clearly, so that's a pity. Earlier in May, the National Library announced that they were going to stop adding to Trove, the Library's on-line archive, again because of budget cuts. I think that's a real problem because I and so many others use Trove all the time.

The Liberal Party has attempted to force the Liberal Democrats to censor an advertisement because it included footage from Parliamentary debates. LD staffer Helen Dale commented on the continuing Liberal Party legal attacks on the Liberal Deomocrats:
First our name (you lost). Then the LibDem ballot paper logo (you lost). Now our election ads (and you'll lose that argument too, as the Streisand Effect reveals to the world the extent of your hypocrisy).
I hadn't heard of the Streisand Effect. According to Wikipedia, "The Streisand effect is the phenomenon whereby an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely.)  Quite true.

The thing about the ads is that the Liberal Party itself has used Parliamentary footage in ads, so this attempt to use a Parliamentary rule to block the LD ads strikes me as a tad hypocritical. 

Meantime, Malcolm Turnbull has decided to wrap himself in Border Force images and stop the boats rhetoric. No doubt the flags will be next. Down in Canberra, former Immigration Department staff continue to complain about what they see at the militarisation of the immigration function following the merger with Customs and the creation of Boarder Force.The top brass were not impressed. In a joint statement, the heads of the Department and of Boarder Force wrote:
 "We reject categorically the inaccurate and unhelpful meme that the department has a 'militarised' culture: the only staff required to be in uniform and to carry weapons are those whose duties require it and who are properly credentialed and trained," 
The two men also said the transition to a "fresh" culture would not occur overnight, although the culture itself does not appear to have been specified. 

At the same time, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has come under fire. In opposing an increase iin the refugee quota,  he apparently suggested that refugees weren't numerate or literate and would take Australian jobs. I have put and in bold to highlight the tension between the two parts of the Minister's comments linked by that and.

Prime Minister Turnbull and Foreign Minister Bishop have attempted to put a gloss on Mr Dutton's remarks by saying that he was referring to the cost of the refugee program. It remains a gloss and not an especially helpful one. 

I will continue these election threads in a later post.


The BBC is now running the Dutton story with some of the local responses.
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Saturday, May 14, 2016

Saturday Morning Musings - reflections on my return to the not for profit sector

It's been a hectic week, marked at the end by a computer crash. It's power problem rather than the dreaded blue screen of death. My biggest problem is loss of emails. Hopefully the computer guy will be able to do something once I can get the box to him.

For much of the last eight years, the contract work that I have done to support my writing addiction has been back in the government sector, this time at state rather than federal level. This came after a period in both the private sector and not for profit world. It will be no secret to readers of this blog that I found the government work frustrating, triggering some now familiar themes.

I am now back in the not for profit world in a new slice that has linkages to some of the government work  that I was  doing previously. It's a national role, allowing me to see differences in circumstance and approach between the various jurisdictions. Even where concepts and language are similar, geography and political circumstance dictate difference. That's interesting.

It's also interesting looking at the dynamics internally and at a sector level. Increasingly, governments in this country and elsewhere seek to shift or at least delegate service delivery to both private and not for profit sectors. They do so partly to achieve cost savings that depend to a degree on differential tax treatment, partly seeking efficiencies, partly seeking leverage in an increasingly budget constrained environment. The idea of introduced competition is central to policy approaches: competition between public agencies and alternative delivery forms; competition between not for profit and profit suppliers; competition among not for profits.

This approach sets up its own dynamics: new sectors are created with their own culture and approach; organisations form or change to meet the new circumstances; new controls are introduced to try to manage the process; in some cases, previous voluntary activities are regulated or crowded out. I have watched these dynamics mainly as an observer, although my board membership of the New England Writers' Centre has certainly given me an internal feel in the arts space. However, now I am observing as a staff member in a defined role that includes responding to Government as a customer.

Finally, its been interesting and indeed rewarding moving back into a more nitty gritty role. In my Government contract policy work, policy came first, operations second. I could identify operational issues or problems, but there wasn't a lot I could do about them because they were outside scope in a world of choked channels. Now the operational problems, the question of how we might deliver, has to be taken into account as a central issue. There are still scope boundaries, but they have shifted.

One side effect is that I am using personal knowledge and skills that had to be put aside previously. That's actually quite challenging. It's not so much atrophy of the knowledge or skills themselves, although refreshment is required in some cases. Rather, it's the question of selecting what is important in the new circumstances, of determining new scope boundaries.

I suspect I am going to write more on this. I am a reflective person and like to share the things I learn!  

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Four economic questions

Tonight's brief post focuses on four questions as an initial foray.

Can you achieve economic growth when the living standards of the majority of a population are stagnant or declining? If, so how?

Are we using the wrong measures for economic growth, thus skewing the analysis? If so, what should we use?

Have we come, as some would argue, to the end at least in Western countries of the long growth cycle associated with the Agrarian and Industrial Revolutions? If so, what are the implications?

More locally and short term, what does it mean for superannuation if there is no where to invest the cumulative savings, to make a return without taking excessive risks?

I know that it's not Monday, but I would be interested in your response.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Monday Forum - a dash of politics?

So Australia's 2 July election is now confirmed. Really, the election campaign has been on for a while. Now add the eight weeks to the election. It's going to be a long campaign.

I have no idea who will win. The number of Government seats provides a significant electoral buffer, but the opinion polls show the two sides running neck and neck in the national vote, with a trend towards Labor. In the end, its how the vote breaks in individual seats that will determine the results.

Are we talked out on the election at this point?  

We have also talked about Donald Trump before. I didn't expect him to maintain his success to the point of becoming the almost certain Republican nominee. Hilary Clinton looks reasonably safe in terms of her bid, so it looks like Trump versus Clinton. Would anybody care to revisit their original forecasts?

In the Philippines, it looks highly likely that Rodrigo Duterte will become President. He has been compared to Donald Trump. He has also told Australia to but out on some things.

Have we entered another  era of "strong men" in politics?

As always, I leave it to you to go in whatever direction you want.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Sydney's last Chinese market gardens

The Chinese started coming to Australia before the gold rushes, but then they came in their tens of thousands. Many later became market gardeners.

These are the Kyeemagh Market Gardens in Sydney just near where Clare plays hockey. This land has been used as market gardens since the late nineteenth century. These are still associated with the Chinese community.

Not far from Keemeagh is the last market garden in La Perouse.(and here). A friend wrote on La Perouse: This "is the darling Chinese veggie gardens that we are all fighting to save at La Perouse. They don't care much for their property seemingly but they are fighting tooth and nail to save their dwindling veggie plots! People are dying to get into them".

They are indeed. You can see why. They are some of the last "vacant" land in a growing city.I have just lost my local nursery. It would be nice to think that the Chinese gardens could survive. 

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Saturday Morning Musings - the rhythms of life

I arose this morning with very good intentions, a long list of things to do. Then I got sidetracked.

The TAS (The Armidale School) Parent and Friends Queen Victoria Music Hall began in 1969 and continued until 1996. For much of this time I was living in Canberra, but came back for six or seven. This morning I found that highlights of the later ones were included on YouTube.

The video follows. It's a bit over 50 minutes, but do have a browse. Just flick though. The thing that stands out are the production qualities, not in the film, but in the sets, the choreographer and the singing. These are amateur productions, but at a very advanced level indeed. Both the choreographer and the singing are at professional level.

We all experience the rhythms of life. To a degree, these are associated with aging. The pattern varies, but in broad terms we can think childhood, establishment, having our own family, work phases, then wind-down and retirement.

I use the word rhythm because humans are pattern animals. We establish routines, patterns, that mark that phase of our life. Dictated by events at the time, they give us a feeling of familiarity and security even when the world is insecure, Perhaps especially when the world is insecure.

Generally, one phase merges into another, although there can be major shocks that force sudden transition. Examples include sudden illness, deaths, unexpected job losses and marriage break-ups. In some countries, you can add things like wars and famines. It's easy to forget how lucky we are in Western countries.

The next video is Philip Bailey interviewing Jim Graham on the history of the Music Hall productions at TAS. It's a very long video, not far short of two hours, so you need to think of it as a documentary film which indeed it is. Further comments follow the video..

I always struggled a little with Jim. Our personalities didn't mesh. The performance Jim, me in this case. emerged later. I was very insecure, nor could I sing well., so I never sought to join in the annual Gilbert and Sullivan performances that under Jim were such a feature of school life. I enjoyed them, I remember them well,  they were part of the rhythm of my life at the time, but I was an observer, an audience member.

The same applied to the Music Halls, although I was now living away for much of the period.

Aunt Kay, second on the left in this photo, was one of the Grand Dames in the Music Hall and also used to help prepare the boys for the Gilbert and Sullivan productions. "Dear", she used to say to me, "I dressed Peter Cousens". Peter's mum, another Music Hall stalwart, was a friend of Kay and Ron's.

I think that it is only now that I am coming to recognise Jim Graham's contribution. He is a remarkable man.

Rhythms.At secondary school, it was the Gilbert and Sullivan. In Canberra, it was coming back sometimes to the Music Hall. Back in Armidale, it was a bit of both.Now I think that I will finish. I still have some videos to watch!

I am still surprised at the standard. It's only when we go away from our place that we get a comparison.       .


Friday, May 06, 2016

Another Legal Eagle

Just a short note tonight. Our blogging friend Legal Eagle has had a boy, Hamish Michael Thompson. Mother and son are doing well.

I know that you will join me in congratulating LE and her husband on this third addition to the family. 

Monday, May 02, 2016

Monday Forum - a blank slate & the Australian budget

This Monday Forum is a blank slate - take it where you will.


Listening to Australian Treasurer Scott Morrison's first budget tonight, I wondered what you thought. Personally, it's changed my vote, if not in the way the Government would like. I am not voting Labor, mind you.

 Before giving you my analysis, I thought that I should grab your thoughts.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Sunday Snippets - flaneuring, refugees and changes in public administration

Watching Clare play hockey this morning, I did a little flaneuring on the side. I hadn't realised that any of the market gardens near Kingsford Smith Airport had survived. More on that in a later post

So much has been happening in the world that it is hard to know where to begin.

Things continue to unwind for the Australian Government.

Tomorrow before the full bench of the High Court
case Number S77 of 2016 between Plaintiff Robert John Day and two defendants from the Commonwealth of Australia will begin. This is the challenge to the Senate voting changes on which the decision about proposed double dissolution election was in part based. I am not sure how much I agree with the views of Malcolm. Mackerras, I don't know enough on the constitutional position, but one sentence in the story struck a chord. Referring to a letter to the editor, Mackerras writes:
It (the letter to the editor) was by Kevin Cox of Ngunnawal and reads: "Frank Marris (Letters, April 7) misses the point of the Malcolm Mackerras and Bob Day High Court challenge. The constitution says we vote for people, not parties. A person, not a party, should decide how to distribute votes if a voter fails to give preferences."
I said that it struck a chord. I have no idea of the constitutional position on which Senator Day's challenge is based, but in the end we do vote for people rather than parties. Obviously party affiliations are important, but we don't have a list system in which you vote for the party first. You can, of course, but we have the choice not too.

Meantime, the Government has yet another problem on the refugee side. Broad Spectrum, formerly Transfield, is the company running Australia's detention camps on Nauru and Manus Island. It has been under siege from a hostile takeover bid from Spanish company Ferrovial. With the announced closure of the Manus Island camp and the consequent financial impacts, Broad Spectrum had no choice but to accept the Ferroval bid. Now Ferroval has announced that it does not want to run the the centres. I quote from The Financial Review story:
....providing services at regional processing centres was not a "core part of the acquisition rationale and valuation and it is not a strategic activity in Ferrovial's portfolio".

"Ferrovial's view is that this will not form part of its services offering in the future," the paragraph concluded.
Ferroval through Broad Spectrum is legally obliged to continue operating the Nauru centre (and Manus for that matter) until the end of the current contract, but it is clear that the Spanish company wants out. I'ts just another problem for the Government as key aspects of its border protection regime continue to unravel.

Changing directions, Sandra McPhee's report into proposed changes in the Commonwealth Public Service has reportedly been enthusiastically welcomed by Minister Michaelia Cash. Ms Cash is not one of the more subtle ministers. I haven't read the report yet, and certainly there is nearly always room for improvement. However, the discussion around the report ignores a key aspect of the old, the concept of a career service.

There were two parts of that old concept. The first was the role of the public service in providing impartial advice beyond the immediately political. The second was the need to build a career service that reflected both acceptance of limitations if you were to become a public servant, and this does or should impose limitations, and the need to build a career structure that would give best advice and service delivery independent of changes in political masters. We seem to have lost sight of

I know that the world changes, but I would be more comfortable with those changes is I though that we had a system of public administration that actually delivered better results as a consequence of the changes, I just don't see it.