Internet Commentator archived

March 18th, 2008

Internet Commentator is a blog I maintained from February 03 up until October 06. I thought I’d archive it here. I may return to commentary blogging at some stage in the future but I don’t think it will be as a revived Internet Commentator

Didn’t know that

October 17th, 2006

Sort of following on from the post below: I knew that the Brazil football team were very popular in Japan, but I didn’t realise that Brazil hosts the largest Japanese community outside Japan which numbers around 3 million, (compare to the Japanese-American population of 800,000 or so).

Why aren’t Haitians Latin?

October 16th, 2006

John Fay at Irish Eagle mentions a letter to the editor of the Miami Herald which pointed out that Portuguese-speaking nations such as Brazilians, for example, weren’t “Hispanic”. In the course of noting that this was the reason for popular use of the more inclusive term “Latino”, it occurred to me that while it would be reasonable to infer that the latter term embraces speakers of all Latin tongues, in practice, it refers exclusively to speakers of Spanish and Portuguese.

The island of Hispaniola contains two countries: Haiti and The Dominican Republic, the former Francophone, the latter Spanish-speaking. So far as I can tell Dominicans are, like their fellow Caribbeans from Cuba, considered to be Latinos, while those from the western half of the island, like other French-speaking Caribbeans, aren’t.

Moody Monochrome Metropolis

October 13th, 2006

The photographer behind the Disillusioned Duo’s masthead image, Phil Pankov has some fantastic photos of Dublin at night, including this one of The Customs House:


David Stewart

October 13th, 2006

I’m saddened to learn that David Stewart of the Science Friction blog whom I was fortunate to meet back in 04 passed away on Wednesday night.

Carbon taxes cannot be progressive

October 11th, 2006

I was listening to Green party TD Ciarán Cuffe on Today FM a few weeks ago trying to make the case for Carbon taxes. His case was weakened by his attempt to weasel around the issue of precisely who would be hit by an addition Carbon tax. Despite the cliché, it isn’t really possible to hit two birds with the one stone and one major difficulty a leftist environmental party like the Irish Greens are going to have is the fact that Pigovian taxes are not always going to neatly align with taxes aimed at redistributing wealth.

The purpose of a Carbon tax (assuming that the problem I identified below is somehow addressed) is to correct for the fact that the “costs” of emitting carbon dioxide are not internalised – these costs are spread and don’t depend on level of use – and therefore provide no incentive to cut back. The only Carbon tax which will work is one which is blind to other considerations and applied equally. It’s either meant to tackle carbon or not. The climate doesn’t know whether emissions come from an SUV, a Jet plane, an industrial plant in India or some old lady’s clapped out diesel boiler.

There is this popular view that the rich and powerful are the greatest “polluters”, but what if they weren’t? There is no direct relationship between pollution and wealth and no particular reason to believe that the rich emit more than the poor. What if the rich young man in his well insulated home is responsible for considerably less emissions than an elderly woman in a poorly insulated home with that clapped out diesel boiler? The Carbon tax, to work properly, must “punish” her more than him. This is a conclusion the Greens would prefer to shy away from, but there are always going to be cases where the interests of the environment are opposed to the interests of “social justice”, and they are going to have to decide whether they are primarily a leftist party or an environmentalist party.

Canute and Climate

October 11th, 2006

Poor old Canute. In apparently seeking merely to demonstrate to sycophantic courtiers the limits of his powers he has been remembered for an act of preposterous hubris: ordering the waves to retreat. The proper lesson from this tale ought not be that one cannot hold the sea at bay. The sea can indeed be held at bay by Dikes or Levees, otherwise Holland, for example, wouldn’t exist. One key feature of a dike is that it is an all or nothing solution. It would be an act of pointlessness equivalent to the popular version of Canute’s command to build half a dike – the sea would simply engulf it around the incomplete portion.

Imagine a curved bay, subject to coastal erosion, composed of adjoining strips of property perpendicular to the shore. Let’s say there are 50 landowners and a majority agree that coastal erosion is a bad thing and a proper solution to the problem would be to build a sea wall, the entire length of the bay with each landowner responsible for his or her own portion. As I note above, the sea wall is all or nothing. The landowners who do build their walls might as well take the money it cost to build them put it in a big oil drum and burn it for all the good it would do, if the remainder don’t also complete their walls.

A sea wall is an expensive bit of construction, let’s say some landowners are poorer than the others and have more pressing needs than building a seawall and, further, rely on the eroded coast for fishing. It’s not much consolation as you lie starving to know that in the future the full extent of your land will be protected from the sea. We could also posit that there are other landowners who are rich enough to afford the wall but aren’t sufficiently bothered by the rate of coastal erosion to spend the money on the wall, perhaps they plan to incorporate a marina in the portion of their land projected to be engulfed.

It should be clear that the only way that coastal erosion may be forestalled in this scenario is a) for there to be unanimous agreement that this is a good thing and worth the cost and b) for the wall to be continuous and complete. There is no point in one “virtuous” landowner “setting an example” to his peers by constructing his wall ahead of schedule – even if he does manage to convince a large number of landowners to follow his example – nor is there any point in excusing poorer landowners from building the wall. It either gets built or it doesn’t and, if it doesn’t get built, any effort or expense on construction of a partial wall is a) a waste of money and b) distracts from adjusting to the eventuality of coastal erosion, particularly by engendering a false sense of “doing something”.

Even assuming everything that is said by activists about the cause of climate change is correct, it’s still going to be a mistake to follow their policy prescriptions unless and until there is a) consensus agreement that this is desirable and worth the cost and b) some method to ensure full compliance by everyone. I see no evidence for a) or b).

[Edit: based on a comment from Jon below, posit that the proposed sea wall is a line of defence a bit out into the sea rather than on or behind the current high water mark]


October 6th, 2006

Picked up a couple of gongs at the Louth Design & Conservation Awards last night. There was some stiff competition (including O’Donnell & Toumey’s RIAI award winning house at Chapel Pass) in the category of Best New House in a Town or Village – given the location of those that made the shortlist it could have been retitled Best New House in Blackrock – but we managed to scoop both the winner and the highly commended in this category for, respectively, John McGahon’s house at Hamilton Drive and Oona Kenny’s house at the Ferns.

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“Liberal”s, planning and problem solving

October 4th, 2006

I mentioned below that I had come across a piece referencing an old post of mine at Samizdata on why architects might lean left. I had intended to comment on the post but it seems as if registration is required so I began to compose an email, which turned into something reasonably post-worthy and considering this blog has been starved of content for quite a while now I thought I’d put it up:

Jason (having incorrectly labelled me as a “libertarian conservative” and tendentiously described Samizdata as “right wing web site”) in response to my conclusion – “Architects are planners. […]there is little that the architect imagines cannot be planned. If you can design a house, you can design furniture for that house or the city in which that house is located, so goes the thinking. If a chair, a house, a city, why not an economy?” – writes:

Of course, design is fundamentally about problem solving and problem solving is not a traditional concern of those of a conservative bent. In the last century at least, the main political battle was over the issue of preserving continuity with the past versus constructing a better future.

I think he has misinterpreted my point and I fear that the conflations of “right wing”, “conservative” and “Libertarian” on one hand and “liberal” and “left wing” on the other hand are leading him astray.

The first thing is that while conservatism is indeed about preserving continuity, that isn’t really the case for libertarians/liberals (using the latter term correctly). One of the most influential liberal thinkers Hayek addressed this very issue as early as 1960 in his essay “Why I am not a conservative

Let me now state what seems to me the decisive objection to any conservatism which deserves to be called such. It is that by its very nature it cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving. It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance. It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing. The tug of war between conservatives and progressives can only affect the speed, not the direction, of contemporary developments. But, though there is a need for a “brake on the vehicle of progress,”[3] I personally cannot be content with simply helping to apply the brake. What the liberal must ask, first of all, is not how fast or how far we should move, but where we should move. In fact, he differs much more from the collectivist radical of today than does the conservative. While the last generally holds merely a mild and moderate version of the prejudices of his time, the liberal today must more positively oppose some of the basic conceptions which most conservatives share with the socialists.

The second thing is that liberalism and left wing are not the same and that a commitment to freedom of speech/expression, tolerance for diverse others, strident individualism etc. does not require an equivalent commitment to, say, a planned economy or extensive government intervention in all sorts of interactions between people. Indeed the traditional liberal argument is that a commitment to the former is incompatible with a commitment to the latter. The reason is that it simply isn’t possible to implement the type of programs required by the left wing, social democrat without interfering with, and preventing many of the voluntary interactions entailed by freedom of expression, strident individualism etc. The standard response to this is to try and carve a distinction between social and economic interactions. The problem is that these distinctions evaporate on close inspection. Take, for example a series of voluntary interactions:

1. Paying a prostitute/escort for sex
2. Buying drugs
3. Paying someone in cash for a nixer
4. Smoking in a bar by consent of the owner and all patrons
5. Arranging for risk-based health insurance
6. Agreeing to work for nothing – voluntary work
7. Agreeing to work for a rate below the minimum wage
8. Engaging in sex acts proscribed by the state.
9. Hiring/working for someone born in a different jurisdiction

Assume that in each case, no coercion or fraud is involved and that each party is fully consenting and happy with the interaction. The simple liberal argument is that so long as there are no “externalities”, and no third parties harmed by such interactions, the government has no business interfering in such voluntary interactions. Now, it may well be the case that for many of these, there are externalities, and third parties harmed by such exchanges. But if so, a soi-disant liberal is compelled to make the case for such externalities. In my experience, most soi-disant “liberals” do not make that case but instead argue that the greater good is served by such interference. That is, that there is no externality, but rather, the common good requires government intervention. This is a position incompatible with liberalism and provides a justification for all the type of reactionary conservative restrictions rightly abhorred by liberals and “liberals”, such as sodomy laws and restrictions on freedom of expression.

As to his interpretation of my point. The idea is not that there is anything wrong with “problem solving” but the instead the insight is that “planning” and “problem solving” are not the same thing and as it happens, central “planning” is a pretty poor way of solving problems. The “problem” of designing almost anything is best left to individuals in the market. There is no Department of Computing which specifies and designs computers to be used by everyone. It oughtn’t be too difficult to imagine how such computers would compare with the ones we actually use today.

The point I was trying to make is that designers like to plan everything they are involved with and casually, unthinkingly, assume that this can be scaled up to an entire economy. The problem is that a given economy is unimaginably complex and there is no central body which could possibly process the vast amount of information embodied in the price system. This, again, was another insight of Hayek’s explained in his essay “The use of knowledge in society” in 1945

We must look at the price system as such a mechanism for communicating information if we want to understand its real function—a function which, of course, it fulfils less perfectly as prices grow more rigid. (Even when quoted prices have become quite rigid, however, the forces which would operate through changes in price still operate to a considerable extent through changes in the other terms of the contract.) The most significant fact about this system is the economy of knowledge with which it operates, or how little the individual participants need to know in order to be able to take the right action. In abbreviated form, by a kind of symbol, only the most essential information is passed on and passed on only to those concerned. It is more than a metaphor to describe the price system as a kind of machinery for registering change, or a system of telecommunications which enables individual producers to watch merely the movement of a few pointers, as an engineer might watch the hands of a few dials, in order to adjust their activities to changes of which they may never know more than is reflected in the price movement.

This is why central planning has never worked in practice and why, I think, designers oughtn’t to scale up their instinct to plan above that which they are actually designing.


October 4th, 2006

It’s not something I do that often, but some ennui-inspired auto-googling unearthed a few oddities for me:

1. Someone has uploaded a few of my dj mixes from my mixes blog, and gone to the trouble of pasting a (not hugely flattering by the way) photo of me, presumably elicited from google image search, (taken by Bernie Goldbach in the Market Bar in 2004 while I was communicating something to Dick O’Brien), copied the bio from my mixes blog and put it all together here.

2. Yet another of my mixes appears as the solitary audio at English Pound Radio

3. Jason at Digit, refers to an old piece of mine at Samizdata (of which, more anon)

4. My recent 32 Tune mix has also been picked up by a Drum and Bass forum in Bulgaria, complete with added cover art, a House music blog in Bosnia, and on Freshout Media with photo of vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson added.