Monday, 30 June 2008

A genuine test of our governments' ability

News of a recent low in the outer suburban housing market due to reduced cheapness of petrol shows Australia to be a country at the crossroads.

The very fact that statistics prove so well that public transit which would qualify as ecologically sound in Australia’s fragile environment (one-or-two-minute rail or services at least to semi-rural areas) would make housing tremendously unaffordable, shows that the present fall in the cheapness of petrol is very likely to lead to overwhelming pressure from a stronger and stronger ultraconservative majority in the outer suburbs.

As the gap in house prices between areas with relatively better public transport and those with utterly disgraceful services keeps rising, pressure to make petrol cheaper again via abolition of taxes and removal of restrictions on refinery capacity is sure to increase. Historical trends of the cheapness of petrol in the United States suggest clear potential to make petrol as cheap in real terms as in 1998 (when I had my memorable argument with a rude Melbourne University ice cream salesman over whether petrol was cheap) and the only thing I can see stopping it is the fact that oil exploration in Australia today has been unusually ineffective at finding new deposits. What the low rate of discovery in Australia shows - aside from the fact that a geology which creates superabundance of many metals is unconductive to oil formation – is that Australia’s submissive outer suburban population that seems never to protest over even crucial issues has permitted the road lobby to virtually become outright owners of Australia’s transport system. This means nothing – no matter how ecologically essential – can be done that would lessen the wealth of the road lobby.

As I see it, the most likely possible solution is the development of a fully unified rail transit netowrk to cover the entire continent, or at least that area covered by its major population centres of:
  1. the Swan Coastal Plain (Perth-Fremantle-Rockingham-Mandurah)
  2. the Gulf of St. Vincent (Adelaide)
  3. Port Phillip (Melbourne-Geelong-Ballarat)
  4. Central East Coast (from Woollongong to Bundaberg and inland to the Nandewars)
  5. the Wet Tropics from Townsville to Cairns
A single-gauge fully duplicated rail system covering these areas and land linking them, along with fast and more frequent road transport over routes between them, might offer genuine hope of more sustainable transport without the soaring property prices that have virtually destroyed Europe and East Asia. Real efforts to build a new, effective rural rail network have to take up all Federal and State transport expenditure so that people, no matter where they live, have some alternative to the car. This may require specialised bus services that do not have fixed routes, but I hope and imagine that even in quite remote regions they could be vastly better than the dreadful TeleBus of outer Melbourne.

Sunday, 29 June 2008

"the average language" and possible rarity

One site, n= true, aims to look based on the brilliant World Atlas of Language Structures to see what the most "average" language would theoretically be like - from its phonology to its basic vocabulary.

Although if you look many of the features seem strange or unfamiliar and I am not foolish enough to deny that some of the samples are terribly biased and unrepresentative (especially the ones on colour terms), I did a calculation of the rarity index for a language with the characteristics (minus a few inconsistencies) of the first post mentioned above, and found its rarity to be about 0.525666302.
According to the rarity graph at the site above (unfortunately my efforts to download it failed), which is done based upon natural logarithms of the average rarity index, the lowest rarity indices are seen to be:

- about 0.75 for circa 120 features
- two cases of about 0.71 for circa 105 features
- about 0.60 for circa 90 features
- about 0.55 for circa 47 features
- about 0.52 (the level of the "average language") for circa 41 features
- about 0.50 for circa 38 features
- about 0.45 for circa 19 features

In all, there were fourteen languages with at least 25 features coded that lie below the 1% mark of minimum rarity, which means their mean rarity is less than 990 of a thousand randomised imaginary languages based on the WALS data. Although the rarity map below shows most of these "ultra normal" languages likely to be in New Guinea or the Himalayas and extinct or spoken by extraordinarily small numbers of people, it would still be fascinating to find out the details of where the most "normal" of languages are located and even their actual identity. The lowest rarity areas are almost always de-skewing zones - where isolation causes a reversion to the universal default, unhampered by areal skewing brought about by contact between languages spreading outward.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

For the first time ‘The Age’ tell the truth as it is

The Age are to be praised for pointing out what the simplest of statistics should have shown to the as far back as 1981: that the less cheap petrol becomes, the lower a country’s emissions will be. Anybody back during the 1970s energy crisis who looked at the fuel consumption of cars in the US versus Europe ought to have realised that the 50 percent lower fuel consumption of cars in Europe prior to the energy crisis reflected the fact that petrol was and remains less cheap in Europe owing to higher taxes.

The slight fall in Australia’s appalling vehicle emissions in the past few years – whilst not something we should be complacent about given that the majority of Australians should have began a real war to permanently destroy the road lobby a full thirty years ago yet have not begun and indeed vigorously oppose doing so – should make those who do not drive anything but apathetic about making petrol even a little less cheap.

We should campaign indeed to do more than the modest steps of re-indexing petrol excise and abolishing the diesel rebates and concessional tax on “AvGas” (the colloquial name for aviation fuel). That alone would make petrol around $2 per litre – still very cheap. We need to use such increases fuel excise to fund first-rate, integrated public transit in both urban and rural areas and the demolition of roads that have caused increased congestion through demand for road capacity responding in a highly elastic manner to supply: if supply is gradually cut, people will begin to use public transport outside peak hours as they did before wasteful monsters like the Tullamarine Freeway were built.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Australia: a soft culture

The recent poll that 80 percent of Australians believe Rudd should make petrol even cheaper than it is shows how obsessed so many young Australians are with stabilising their families and preventing the emotional despair that would result if from not longer affording to keep it up through less cheap petrol trickling to other commodities.

I must state here that stabilising families is by no means a bad goal: indeed I do despair at the difficulties of family formation outside Australia. However, with Australia’s unique ecology, the threat of environmental destruction is already so great and the power of groups opposed to what might cause real improvement in our appalling environmental record so great that one can only call it negligent, lazy and soft for Australians to think as they do. They should instead consider the certainty unless the car is completely abolished and a first-rate rail network take over every single motorised journey across the continent, we will have an arid zone covering the whole winter cropping belt and even Tasmania within a quite short span of time.

My recent sad experiences with the law over assault are undoubtedly emotional despair, yet I know that Australian families will experience even more emotional despair from dry dams and huge polluting desalination plans or higher electricity prices from greater competition for supply.

As Richard Glover and Ross Gittins are pointing out so easily, people in almost every other country are certainly tougher and more willing to see beyond pure sentiment than Australians. It is almost like Australia – really the “unlucky country” likes to see itself as “lucky” because its monopoly on the globe's inorganic resources gives its settlers an immediate high standard of living without them having to fight for it as people in Europe did with their wars for socialism.

What people in the academic and environmental communties have to do is to educate in a highly personal manner how Australia is a remarkably fragile environment and that low petrol prices are simply unacceptable if we want to mitigate catastrophic climate changes that have already began to affect us. This will hurt the communities our politicians depend on so much for support, but there is no other way.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

The lighter side of being a student

As I finish my university course in a manner so unspeakable I fear for my life if I talk about it and just as much for having lost my opportunity to find a job and a future aside from wandering around and being banned from every place I frequent, it is perhaps better that I look on the lighter side of my experience of thirteen years as a student.

One of the most shocking and dreadful things I have ever seen in universities is toilet wall graffiti devoted to sexual attacks on other people. I have a recollection of a day at Monash where I saw  graffiti painted with liquid paper in my toilet and with my nails removed it completely because of the extraordinarily obscene language about sexually active young people. I actually have a clear recollection that the liquid paper I removed made my fingers extremely off-white.
This piece about the founding of Israel, hated not for anti-Semitism but anti-Americanism, certainly shows that there opinions about the country different from what I have been familiar with at university. Since I left Melbourne, I have become aware of more conservative groups whose members’ ability to think of other people I desperately envy and always will. These groups say Israel has succeeded because of this dedication and its ability to create a free market in which nobody has a special privileges.
This diagram from the same location illustrates what I always assumed to be a very popular viewpoint about Israel. Even if you accept the viewpoint that there was some legitimacy in the way Jews bought land from Palestinian Arabs, there can be little doubt that there was discrimination against the Palestinians by the Israeli army and government, who were dedicated to the establishment of a Jewish state even against the Palestinians’ will.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

When will someone learn we're living in a new climate?

Recent forecasts by senior climatologists in Australia seem to suggest that after a long run of warm, dry winter southeastern Australia is set for a more historically normal winter. Some other articles have even suggested a decently cool and rainy winter is likely.

The problem is, as Tim Flannery points out in his essential The Weather Makers, the atmospheric circulation, owing to the increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, is in a completely different state from most of the instrumental records. In the long term unless the level of carbon dioxide is completely stabilised through phasing out fossil fuels we will move to new metastable states via “magic gates” very frequently. What is a definite trend is that the winter rain belt is moving poleward with each new “magic gate”, and these “magic gates” appear to be occurring more often than at the lower carbon dioxide levels of the 1980s. By 2020 there can be little doubt that the southern winter rain areas that historically form Australia’s major cropping region will be firmly within the arid belt. Melbourne, Adelaide and even Perth will be as arid as, say, Coober Pedy has historically been.

Whenever El NiƱo should return, near-rainless winters over wheat areas of Victoria and South Australia will result. Already realistic people are saying there are no prospects for useful planting rain in southeastern Australia.

What will they be saying if there has been no significant rain in the wheat areas by July or August?

The sensible response to the new climate from both sociological and ecological perspectives of complete revegetation of southern wheat lands with native flora is viewed too costly and politically risky. However, there is nothing we can do on present or even immensely lowered carbon dioxide emissions to prevent further reductions in rainfall over southern Australia.

This means there is no use trying to base our agricultural planning for on historical climates. Instead, we should plan for southern winter rainfall much lower than the record dry year of 2006, as this is what will be expected with the cold fronts even further south than for the past three winters.

For example, we should plan for average May to August rainfall of 50 millimetres in southern wheat areas and about 100 millimetres in more humid zones like the Adelaide Hills and Melbourne and Perth catchment areas. These rainfalls would fail to provide minimal wheat crops or urban water supplies, and Flannery’s work and recent climate events both clearly demonstrate farmers and water managers should not be given short-term advice for one season, but much longer-term advice to produce the adjustment needed to cope with Australia’s twenty-first century climate map. For all the talk of a highly variable climate, the difference between Melbourne’s mean rainfall between 1858 and 1996 and that since 1997 is more than two standard deviations.

The full contours of this map have not yet drawn themselves, but will undoubtedly involve replacement of the southern winter rain belt by an arid belt extending to the Victorian coast and probably Cape Leeuwin. Should farmers and water supply managers know this, they would certainly become much longer-term in their planning and realise patterns of primary production must change completely. Most especially, neither irrigated nor rainfed cropping can exist in a climate with perenially dry streams and a growing season rainfall of 50mm, and intensive pastoral farming will suffer the same fate, leaving a pastoral economy on properties much larger than exist today as the only possibility.