Thursday, December 30, 2010


The SMH ran part 2 of an NY Times opinion piece tagging the best essays of 2010.

Part 1 explained the awards.

It was in the second part that I found the interesting reference to Lawrence Rosen's interesting article on corruption.

It advances the thesis that one of the difficulties we in the West have with the way other societies are organised rests on different definitions of the word "corruption". We take it to mean acting outside the law or moral bounds.

From Rosen's investigation he suggests the real world definition is;

Corruption is the failure to share any largess you have received with those with whom you have formed ties of dependence.

Think about that a bit. It fits.

The purpose of this post though is to bemoan the poor state of the essay in Australia. Quadrant under Windshuttle has become unreadable, most of the Left stuff makes too many assumptions about the leftist bias of the reader. (I regard myself as left but don't identify with most of the essayist crowd).

Suggestions welcome for the real "Sydney" awards for best Australian essays of 2010.

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est

Thursday, December 09, 2010

An insight into "diplomacy"

The US cables released by Wikileaks tell us something about diplomacy and a lot more about "peddling influence."

Firstly let's think about the US Embassy conclusion that Kevin Rudd is "an egotistical control freak". As this morning's Herald cartoon noted - thank goodness the leak didn't tell us something we didn't already know.

In fact a lot of what goes for background looks like it could (and was) lifted out of the local newspapers. After all, that's ultimately what someone local can do for you.

Diplomats are like any other people - they have a limited range of possible information sources, they need to decide the relative reliability and they need to summarize the information and reconcile points where sources disagree.

The more worrying cables are those suggesting that certain figures, drawn from what could loosely be called the industrial right, were identified as having particular influence with the Government. The article in particular highlighted Mark Arbib.

Now once again the Embassy was only following fashion - everyone thought Arbib was influential. This was especially true amongst professional lobbyists and the gallery.

But analyse further how that influence occurs. Arbib tells everyone outside Parliament that he's influential, so everyone wants to meet with him. Because he meets with so many people Arbib can speak with authority inside the Parliament because of the impressive array of people he can say he's had discussions with.

I'm looking for help here in identifying anything Arbib ever did influence, other than the disastrous walk away from the CPRF. And to the extent that he carried any influence it seems that it was based more on his possession of polling data than personal influence.

So the method is simple - be convincing when you tell people you are influential and people will believe you. It really is that simple!

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est

It is always nice to be noticed

The SMH carried a short item that looked at the possible improvements to telco customer service that might come from the ACMA Reconnecting the Customer inquiry and the Communications Alliance review of the TPC code.

The item picked up on comments I made in an itNews column.

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

A tale of customer service and online marketing

ACCAN's informative weekly newsletter (which you can subscribe to) had a link to what they called the worst online shopping story ever.

The New York Times story was even more interesting than the rating given it by ACCAN. What made it stand out wasn't just the appalling customer service but the explanation of why it can work as a marketing strategy.

The business in question sells discount spectacles, which it in turn only sources online. If you use a search engine to look for a make of frames, this online store features highly. It features highly, however, because it is referred to on so many websites that talk about poor customer service or, indeed, rip-offs.

Searching on the name of the store would show all these links, so poor reputation would hurt you. But it is getting found by people looking for what you do, rather than looking for you that works. Those searching take the high rating in the search engine (or in the old days the display ad in the Yellow Pages) as a sign of "quality".

The lesson is the same as always for consumers. To assess a vendor ask other customers, not the vendor. That is one of the ACCC tips for buying online.

But for me it just works as a really good example of why competition in the market is no guarantee of improving customer service.

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est

Friday, December 03, 2010

A saga worthy of Homer

The title refers to the Greek, not the author.

In an itNews article this week I outline how the structural reform of telecommunications still has nearly a decade to go, and how it has been going on for nearly two decades already.

What I didn't include was my choice of the "hero" of the saga, the name that surprisingly kept reappearing in the battle lists - and always seeming to be there at the significant times.

The single most notable one was a co-author of the Institutional Analysis report that Tanner released outlining the minority shareholder issues of separating a part privatised Telstra, was present at the CCC/AAPT forum, was the architect of the ALPs NBN Mark 1 and finally was part of Telstra's NBN engagement team.

That person is, a follower of this blog, Tim Watts.

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est

What is truth?

The philosophical question of "what is truth" is one of those classic issues that can tie the professionals into knots but leave the public bewildered. The void is probably between the philosophers analytical attempt at definition, versus the normal functional definition.

The functional definition is pretty straight-forward really. In our day to day existence a "true statement" is one on which we can rely, they are the statements that we can reliably use as premises for our reasoning about what we should do (be that something immediate and practical like how to start the car or something more broadly social like how to care for the poor or sick).

The philosophers however get more tied up in it. The "correspondence theory of truth" is tied up with additional commitments to realism, and to a referential theory of language. In this case "truth" means something that corresponds to the real world.

This troika is, however, to a degree vacuous; most notably because it provides no method at all for determining "truthfulness". We have no other direct connection with "reality" to determine the truthfulness of a proposition.

In a short piece on ForaTV New York Times' Anand Giridharadas outlines versions of establishing truth. This covers "whatever our ancestors did is truth", "truth is whatever is in our holy book", and science says "truth is whatever repeatable experiments demonstrate".

He then goes on to suggest that things like Wikipedia are creating a new "revolution perhaps as significant as the scientific revolution" of truth being social. "Truth is what large numbers of people collectively say it is."

This resonated with me because I'd read something similar recently - and I can't place where.

But for me the issue is not really new. The first two versions of "truth" are just earlier examples because ancestors and scriptures are just other versions of truth being what is widely accepted.

But more significantly the dominant philosophers of science support the theories that the bulk of science is conducted by believing what others believe not really an extrapolation of experiment. While Popperian "falsification" is attractive, the vast majority of scientific experiments are not directed at falsification but at utility. They work on the basis of "given what we know what more could we do". They start from the premise that the science that everyone else (in the community of scientists) collectively say it is is true.

This is actually very easy to observe in Physics, the subject of much early philosophy of science. There is even some modern evidence where about 80% of theoretical physicists are engaged in varieties of string theory that seem to generate no observable consequences, and posit more new entities than they attempt to explain. Orthodox economics is much the same, an internally consistent set of theories that don't have a strong record of reliable prediction.

The point is that no matter how "confirmed" a scientific theory is, ultimately its truth is based on its acceptance and its acceptance is based on utility. That after all was the great point of Friedman's Methodology of Positive Economics, it doesn't matter if the theory is true (meaning here something like the correspondence theory of truth) so long as it produces useful results. That particularly spills over into ontology - does the use of the concept of "utility" actually mean we are positing the existence of the universal utility.

Ultimately from a social or biological evolution point of view it is pretty clear that humans couldn't survive any other way. You couldn't really live life not accepting that the bulk of other people's pronouncements are indeed true. You couldn't really at every turn go and investigate all the supposed evidence for any claim.

And even if you do go on an evidence search, it will be artificially constrained. The constraint may be other beliefs you already hold, or it might be cultural values.

The difference in a "digital philosophy of truth" as opposed to the most accepted version of scientific truth is the speed with which new statements can be propagated and the difficulty of challenging those that spread widely with facts (more correctly - alternative better supported observations).

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est