Category Archives: Uncategorized

Solar – US input to the grid exceeds Germany for first time

So last week an ostensibly minor (but arguably major) event occurred to little fanfare – the US, for the first time, put more solar energy into the grid than Germany.

Germany, as you may know, has been a world leader in green energy (specifically solar – in July they added 5.1 terawatt hours of electricity from solar energy) but the US getting to this point is significant due the country’s famous reliance on fossil fuels. Admittedly, the US has a larger population and larger surface area so on a per capita basis it may not beat the Germans but let’s not take away from this event.

Solar is not a perfect means of generating energy on the one hand, but that ignores its multitude of benefits. Your average solar panel is only about 20-40% efficient, meaning you have 60-80% “wastage” due to reflection and other factors. To compensate for lost volume you often need substantial solar farms comprised of expensive and delicate receptors. Once you overcome this obstacle, then you have to deal with the limitations in battery technology. But, this ignores that Solar as a source is free; and that is has no harmful biproducts. There is no noxious pollutant produced from the conversion into energy of solar radiation; nor are you left with a substance that’s lethal to all life for decades, even centuries to come, after the fuel is spent.

Australia’s long been known for its sun-drenched landscape; poet Dorothy McKellar referred to it as a “sun-burnt country; a land of sweeping plains.” Yet progress on solar research here, despite a thriving start up industry, continues to lag behind where it arguably should be. This is an area where the government can show real leadership – and why I argued for the Clean Energy Finance Commission to be retained. The government claims to be a friend of innovation and capital; letting capital innovate and take on environmental policy gives jobs, GDP growth, and easy political points. Sadly it looks that despite no tangible economic benefit, the Fund (long known as “Bob Brown Bank”, which is a frankly churlish title) looks to be shut down.

Progress on solar is tied really to developments in super conductors and battery technology. Our latitude, and exposure to the sun, provides a fertile (pun intended) environment to become a leader in this field. Imagine having proprietary technology to export to energy intense neighbours to our north – and what advantages we could eke out being a leader here.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s coverage of the Indonesia spying affair managed to run the gamut from laughable to naive without getting near accurate

Ah, the Sydney Morning Herald. There’s nothing quite like reading an overgrown and angry student newspaper, written with the same worldliness only a late teen can muster. The Herald is on a crusade right now, and the only appropriate adjective for this improvised windmill tilt is “Quixotic”.

If you are interested in insightful analysis, objective news or simply a modest tally of bullshit at best, you would do well to avoid the Herald at all costs.

The Herald’s main objective, fixated on its demands with myopic determination, is to undermine or harm the government of the day. They work very hard at making sure the least experienced or most idealistic commentators get time to write gibberish on the topic – witness Jacqueline Maley’s callous theft of time and bandwidth here: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-opinion/shurley-not-yudhoyono-musters-superior-forces-for-twitter-stoush-20131119-2xteo.html. Maley is apparently the Parliamentary sketch writer for the Herald, so I’d call into question what deep reserves of experience in diplomacy are being drawn upon here?

Similarly we have Philip Dorling saying Abbott must apologise to Indonesia. He stops short of saying he should apologise for a Rudd/Smith decision taken because Rudd and Smith fucked up the bilateral relationship in the first place. Dorling, it should be noted, was an adviser to ALP MP Laurie Brereton, and in 2000 was accused by the Australian Federal Police of leaking information about Australian plans regarding East Timor to Indonesia. No charges were laid. It would be nice to note your partisan and other loyalties, Mr Dorling?

It should be noted, since none of this hacks will do so, that the relationship goes through these brinksmanship dances every so often. In 2006 the Indonesian ambassador was recalled over Australia’s decision to grant asylum to 42 West Papuans. Yet, the Bali Process – which, in addition to being a crucial diplomatic victory for the Howard government, was instrumental in making Indonesia a partner of Australia and in making people smuggling a regional issue – continued in 2006 and 2007 unaffected (see also: http://www.baliprocess.net/workshops#twenty-six).

So, what am I getting at? Despite the “experts” at the Herald bleeding their idiotic commentary all over the place and generally making bigger assholes of themselves, there’s a pattern to this. A dance with choreographed moves. And so long as the relationship continues at the operational level, out of the public eye (i.e. Ambassador Moriaty can be recalled too, or expelled but Imigrasi and DIAC continue to cooperate on people smuggling) then it’s just politics. Posturing. It’s only when the practical collaboration stops that you have an issue. Calling on the PM to apologise for his predecessor’s actions (which I should note, I don’t disagree with) or trying to damn his refusal to apology belies an infantile understanding of diplomacy and history. This is nothing new, so making it more than it is serves no purpose.

A real journalist would know this. 

Hence the quality of the Herald’s coverage.

Violent, broiling storms in teacups – spying allegations and wounded pride

By now the damage done by self-aggrandizing narcissist whistle-blower Edward Snowden is not news. Angela Merkel has already been in our papers and on our TV, translators telling us of her views that allies don’t spy on one another. And now, courtesy of the ego of Mr Snowden, we have revelations that Australian intelligence – likely ASIS at the behest of DSD – attempted to bug the phones of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife.

In response, and with adroitly feigned indignation, Indonesia has recalled its ambassador to Canberra and noted that ‘the damage is done’. All sorts of diplomatic fallout is threatened.

In response, I’d like to firstly accuse Indonesia of hypocrisy and bullshit martyrdom, then suggest they invest less in histrionics and more in moving on from the incident. Every nation collects intelligence on other nations. Even their leaders! That’s right, as we speak you can bet money that intelligence is being collect from HUMINT and SIGINT sources on both Tony Abbott and 1920’s union hero Bill Shorten. American, Russian, Chinese, even Indonesian agencies will have a hand in it. As they damn well should, and as we should too.

Remember when ASIO, the agency responsible for maintaining domestic security (comparable to Britain’s security service, MI5), was caught bugging the Chinese embassy in the 90s? And when it emerged that Chinese government hackers had in turn sourced blueprints for ASIO’s new headquarters? Business. As. Usual.

The reaction in Australia has been mixed. Labor, predictably, aren’t owning up to this though the operation would have been made known to the minister by way of a briefing memo before it was undertaken. The Coalition’s trying to downplay it and maintain the relationship – which, under the previous Coalition government, was quite robust. Former ONA analyst and current MP Andrew Wilkie has spoken about it, saying in a perfect world of course such incidents wouldn’t happen (and therefore, implying it’s a regrettable necessity); and Greens leader Christine Milne issued a statement determined to show the Greens are manifestly fucking useless.

Wilkie, unsurprisingly, is the most honest and in my view, most accurate.

“Give the agencies a break. Of course they’re out there spying. Of course they’re out there trying to listen in to conversations of important people in other countries. The issue for Australians is whether their rights are being protected by Australia’s legislative framework. The issue for citizens of the United States is that whether or not their rights are being protected by the US legislative framework.

You know the fact that another country might spy on Australia, we can’t tell the other country to stop. We’re kidding ourselves if we think we can.”

Wilkie, as I mentioned, came from the Office of National Assessments. It may be instructive for me to briefly expand on which agencies are part of the intelligence community in Australia.

ASIS – The Australian Secret Intelligence Service – this is our foreign intelligence collection agency. In that capacity it’s like Britain’s SIS (aka MI6) or the US’ CIA. ASIS does not conduct any analysis of its own.

ASIO – The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation – our domestic security service, comparable to MI5 (as mentioned) or parts of the FBI. This agency is responsible for monitoring domestic threats to Australian security.

ONA – The Office of National Assessments – Australia’s primary agency for analysis of both collected intelligence as well as publicly sourced information. The CIA has a division of analysts (Tom Clancy’s character Jack Ryan started out as one) who perform similar functions.

DSD – The Defence Signals Directorate – This agency collects and analyses all intercepted communications. It’s also responsible for ensuring Commonwealth cybersecurity protocols are current. Comparable to the GCHQ in Britain or NSA in the US.

DIO – Defence Intelligence Organisation – Provides advice and analysis of intelligence related matters to the chiefs of the defence force and the Minister.

DIGO – Defence Imagery and Geospatial Organisation – DIGO’s mandate is to assess imagery of key strategic areas, ranging from photos to satellite imagery.

This may seem like a lot, but there’s probably counterparts in every other major allied nation (or just nation, full stop) out there. In some instances, functions are combined – both MI6 and CIA analyse their own Product, but in our case this is done by ONA (which makes sense as it removes analysis from organisational politics and bias’). And why do we have these? Because despite what academics tell us (or taught me), all states act purely in their own self interest.

Which, incidentally, was a rude awakening after all those units in international relations theory. Despite studying the liberal, realist, constructivist and Marxist paradigms, it turns out the only true one is realism. Morgenthau nailed it – though  Marxism is a useful tool for critique (see previous post’s reference to Lenin’s essay for an example). Accepting this, whether it’s right or wrong, is what makes this entire event so overblown. Every nation spies; most don’t get caught or dobbed in by assholes like Snowden.

(For the record, I think Snowden and Manning are cowards, not heroes. Snowden is clearly doing this for him and his own sense of worth; and Manning? I’ve seen REFTEL cables live. In not redacting any of it, he and Wikileaks ensured that lives were in danger. It’s not a conservative soundbyte to say it – it’s a fact. People who don’t want their day to day activities spied on have an insight into who is betraying them and you can bet a generous severance package isn’t how they terminate that relationship…)

The reason I called Indonesia a hypocrite is because BIN, Indonesia’s State Intelligence Agency, has undoubtedly sourced intelligence from our government and officials. I haven’t got proof of this, though if I did I wouldn’t be able to tell you either!

But, I’m convinced it’s true. We spy on Indonesia and will continue to do so, as they will continue to spy on us. The US will continue to collect intel on friend and foe alike. To borrow from the Bible, let whichever nation is not collecting, collating, and analysing intel on its friends and enemies, cast the first stone. Indonesia reaction might play well for the domestic market but it’s pretty tiresome from where I’m sitting.

NME’s “Greatest Albums Of All Time” – #500-470

OK so I’m not going to review all of the albums, I’m just going to comment on ones I’m familiar with. If I liked it before it was popular, and happen to have a beard, it doesn’t make me a hipster. Right?

#500 – Outkast, “Stankonia” 

I’m not going to lie to anyone here; this is a good album, an enjoyable album, and a very well written album. But to argue there are only 499 albums better out there? Pffft. This is here because of “Ms Jackson” and you know it.

#499 – Belly, “Star”

Belly are one of those outfits which I associate with a time and place – the early to mid 90s, when I started to really get into music properly – and whilst it’s a band fronted by the well known Tanya Donnelly (also of The Breeders and Throwing Muses), that’s about all I have to offer…

#498 – Lou Reed, “Berlin”

#497 – Daft Punk, “Random Access Memories” 

‘Nuff said?

#496 – Girls, “Album”

#485 – Killers, “Hot Fuss” 

Aaaahhh… really? Don’t get me wrong, Mr Brightside and Somebody Told Me are fantastic, energetic, memorable songs. But I feel like as good as they are, they’re not that dissimilar to a bunch of other bands who released something euphoric that gets sung in bars by every single drunk idiot the second it comes on. Maybe in time, if it still held up, I’d agree but like with Outkast… what, only 484 albums are better than this? Please.

#484 – The Cure, “Head on the Door”

#483 – This Mortal Coil, “Blood”

#482 – These New Puritans, “Hidden”

#481 – Pet Shop Boys, “Actually” 

Yeah, ok, I could see an argument for PSB being included on a list like this, given that what they did, when they did it, was pretty far ahead of the curve.

#480 – MC5, “Back in the USA”

Without MC5, where would we be? Plus, this was the one where they covered Tutti Fruitti.

#479 – The Wedding Present, “George Best”

#478 – Leonard Cohen – “I’m Your Man”

I can’t say I know this one, but he’s released like a billion albums, so…

#477 – The Jam, “Sound Affects”

#476 – Bjork, “Homogenic”

Bjork can’t appear in print anywhere without the word “weird” being used to describe her, her sound, or you know, the whole experience. Regardless, this is actually a brilliant album and you should probably have heard it if not own it.

#475 – Kendrick Lamar, “Good Kid M.A.A.D City”

#474 – Bruce Springsteen, “The River”

Yeah, fair call. Probably about the right place as well.

#473 – Elvis Costello and the Attractions, “Blood and Chocolate” 

#482 – Billie Holiday, “Lady in Satin” 

If you know nothing else about Billie Holiday, you know she can sing. So listen to anything off this record and understand exactly how well she can sing.

#481 – Brian Wilson, “Smile”

#480 – Aretha Franklin, “I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You”

Same comment as Billie Holiday.

#479 – Throwing Muses, “The Real Ramona”

#478 – The National, “Trouble Will Find Me”

I feel like I should have listened to this band by now…

#477 – Crystal Castles, “Crystal Castles”

#476 – Foo Fighers, “Foo Fighters”

I remember when this album came out. Expectation surrounded the release because Kurt Cobain had only so recently ended his life and here was a new David Grohl band. Would it be any good? Would it deliver?

Well, yes, it would. And whilst I feel the Foos only got better, this is a fair inclusion.

#475 – Kurt Vile, “Smoke Ring For My Halo”

#474 – Fuck Buttons, “Tarot Sport” 

Yes! Not just a pretty name, Fuck Buttons are deliriously fun electronica. Now, if Boards of Canada miss out on this list…

#473 – The Verve, “A Storm in Heaven”

#472 – Smashing Pumpkins, “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness”

This one, I feel, should have been higher. No doubt “Siamese Dream” will be up there when the rest of the list comes out, but this is such a beautiful record. It defied expectations at the time, mostly because the first single “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” was more closely aligned with expectations than, say, “1979” or “Tonight, Tonight”. Yet the latter are more broadly in tune with the kind of introspective brilliance of Corgan’s writing. Really should be higher.

#471 – MGMT – “Oracular Spectacular”

Ummm…. really, NME? I love “Electric Feel” – we’ve all had trips like that. “Kids” and “Time to Pretend” are as infectious as smallpox too. But you’re trying to suggest by your list, your reckoning, that only 470 albums surpass this and everything else is inferior?

Wow.

#470 – Kayne West, “Graduation”

Yes. Look, I don’t like the guy, I think he’s an insecure twat with a god complex and a hugely inflated sense of his own creative worth. But, before he became a huge narcissistic cock, he made records like this.

Conclusions so far:

* I don’t know a lot of these albums

* I disagree with most of the selections

* I think it’s a bit early to call any album from 2010 onwards “the best of all time”. Doubly so for a 2013 album. Part of the longevity of a record is not how it made you feel when you first listened to it but how you feel 1, 2, 5, 10 years later when listening to it. If an album can still strike the same emotional chord as it did then, and if it still feels as vital to you… then it’s a classic.

NME names the “greatest albums of all time”; loveable, misanthropic British vegan and his pals top list

So, lists. We love them, because they help us make order of things. Strangely, if we don’t make a list of the 50 Singers Who Would Have Been Singers In A Past Life Too, we’ll certainly argue with the merits of the list and who should be ranked higher or lower. Every list is problematic, subjective… and utterly compelling.

NME have picked their top 5 albums of all time, but as I go through the list and get reminded of bands from my teenage years (#499 is a Belly album! Sweet Jesus I haven’t heard that name since 1994!) that I’d long forgotten I will try and comment further. Let me instead leave you with the top 25 and note that the producer of #1, though chuffed, didn’t agree with it:

http://www.nme.com/news/the-smiths/73363

. The Smiths – The Queen Is Dead

2. The Beatles – Revolver

3. David Bowie – Hunky Dory

4. The Strokes – Is This It

5. The Velvet Underground & Nico – The Velvet Underground

6. Pulp – Different Class

7. The Stone Roses – The Stone Roses

8. Pixies – Doolittle

9. The Beatles – The Beatles (White Album)

10. Oasis – Definitely Maybe

11. Nirvana – Nevermind

12. Patti Smith – Horses

13. Arcade Fire – Funeral

14. David Bowie – Low

15. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

16. Joy Division – Closer

17. Public Enemy – It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back

18. My Bloody Valentine – Loveless

19. Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not

20. Radiohead – OK Computer

21. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

22. Blur – Parklife

23. David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

24. The Rolling Stones – Exile on Main St

25. Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On

Globalisation, minimum wages and measuring what it all means

I caught the tail end of Gruen Planet tonight and the discussion was framed around the tragic collapse of the Rana Plaza complex in Savar, Bangladesh. The complex was home to what is best known as sweatshop labour and was, at the time, manufacturing clothing and other garments for a variety of Western sources. A total of 1,129 people died as a result of the collapse and the associated working conditions.

The point was made that whilst blame is directed at companies (the argument being these abhorrent conditions are the result of corporate greed), none of the blame is directed at the consumer who has created this condition in the first place. That is, companies didn’t start looking for cheap labour and we said to ourselves, “oh, bonus! A bargain!” We wanted bargains and they sourced increasingly cheaper labour.

That’s probably a whole blog post in and of itself; that, and the view that it’s actually ok at the moment if the “third” world is paid low wages because you can’t build a middle class over night. What I did want to focus on was a point that participants touched on – how the minimum wage in Bangladesh is US$38/mo.

These kinds of figures – others include the standard metric for poverty of US$2 or less – carry substantial emotional weight for people in the West. The standard response of any individual, immediately, is “how barbaric, for I could not live on this little money each month!” This is likely true, but they’re actually not living on that per month.

Of the ways we measure wealth in a country is per capita GDP. This is a meaningless statistic in real terms, since it’s averaged out and therefore skewed by volumes at the top and bottom end. We could look at median income – a bell curve which shows the figure by which as many people earn more as earn less than this amount. Useful, but without context. In order to process these amounts (the $38/month amount) we need to reference an economic theory that, without realising it, you’ve used many times before: purchasing power parity (PPP).

The way PPP works is like this (and I’m going high level for expediencies sake): you create a hypothetical exchange rate between currencies that measures the value of constant goods and services so you can work out not just how many widgets of Currency X you can buy using widgets of Currency Y, but what things cost in Currency X vs Currency Y. The Economist has a table which tracks this know as their Big Mac Index – showing that in US$, a Big Mac might cost, say, $4 in the US but $2 in China, illustrating that the US$ can buy more goods and services in China than it can in the US.

We do this when we travel. We work out that we can buy a good that’s available in our country for less in another country, which is the same principal – goods cost more or less depending on where we are, irrespective of the cross rate or what the USD trades against our currency for.

This doesn’t imply that in actual fact, Bangladeshis are paid a princely sum for their minimum wage. I’m merely hoping people might try and work out what $38/mo will buy you in Bangaldesh, rather than saying “I couldn’t live off that amount.” No, you couldn’t – but the minimum monthly wage according to Fair Work Australia is $622.20 per week for full time adults. This works out at $2696.20 before tax per month. So, whilst living standards are going to be better here than in Bangladesh, the question is – if the minimum wage is designed to provide the minimum amount to workers to survive, does this $38/mo do this?

And I know people are genuinely distressed at the comparative wage gaps between the developed and developing world – my advice to you is to study your history and study your economics. Wages are rising in China because they started low, had comparative advantage in labour, and built industry around that. A middle class was born as a result and when we look at the typical inequality measurement – the GIni coefficient – we can see a move towards greater equality in the PRC. Bangladeshis will be, over time, better off as a result of what they’re going through now just like we are better off from going through it during the Industrial Revolution. If there was a way to ensure the creation of a middle class without this process, that worked, I’d be all ears. But given how successful Bangladesh is now in relative terms, I would argue it’s only a matter of time and sadly, significant human cost.

The real casualty of the abolished climate change regime could be the Clean Energy Finance Commission

Consistent with their election pledge, the Coalition government in Australia has axed all the climate change policies of their predecessors. I’m understating things when I say that I’m not sure that was such a good idea.

The Climate Commission was axed and plans are in motion to repeal other Rudd/Gillard era policies such as the carbon tax, the carbon change authority and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.

Taking the assumption that none of this is ideal and that like it or not, action needs to occur – and as Malcolm Turnbull best said, if you want action on climate change, someone’s going to have to pay for it (i.e. the carbon price). But if you have to pick something to save, then my argument is in favour of the finance corporation.

Australia is uniquely placed in many ways to lead in the fields of green tech and alternative energies. With our abundant open space and saturation with sunlight (as a lover of grim, cold, overcast rainy days I find the latter diabolical), we should be looking into developing solar technologies and effectively harvesting that energy. Solar suffers in two main areas – the first being that the collection mechanisms aren’t as efficient at retaining energy as we’d like (both due to reflection and the energy source itself), and the second being that battery technology needs improving so that any stored energy retains its charge.

Similarly our proximity to Asia leaves us with access to a potential marketplace for cheaper, consistent energy sources. As anyone who’s spent a lot of time in Asia (both north and southeast Asia) can attest, energy consumption in this part of the world is high due to both the climate (busily compensating for >35°C/95% humidity days) and population density. Whether there is grassroots support for greentech there or not is irrelevant – cheaper, more efficient technologies that take less from a consumer’s pocket will always be attractive.

We also have the scope to invest in biofuels, learning from the US’ mistakes in this area. I am referring to the ethanol subsidy here. It is  a noble idea to add incentives to produce cleaner, cheaper fuels but the side effect is that more land has been given over to fuel production than to food production. With the rising wealth in the developing world leading to increased meat consumption, and about 7kgs of grains required per 1kg of meat, the US has unintentionally undermined food security at a time when key grain producers are recovering from floods and drought. Knowing this, we can certainly learn from it in our own pursuit of biofuels.

Having a funding model that kickstarts an infant industry is, therefore, essential. Even if it pledges to match private sector funds dollar for dollar the money is essential and vital. As the Commission itself says:

The objective of the CEFC is to overcome capital market barriers that hinder the financing, commercialisation and deployment of renewable energy, energy efficiency and low emissions technologies…The CEFC will not provide grants.  It is intended to be commercially oriented and to make a positive return on its investments.“.

This approach is consistent with the Coalition’s appreciation for the power of free markets and to contemplate abolishing it seems, even in light of the current economic climate (pardon the choice of words), a myopic decision.