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Free software for students

Published by Matthew Davidson on Wed, 16/11/2016 - 12:53pm in

Pretty much all universities maintain a list of free-as-in-gratis software that they recommend students use. Very little of this is free-as-in-freedom software. There is no technical reason why most computer users should ever have to use proprietary software. Some users simply aren't aware of the drawbacks and dangers of proprietary software, while others are compelled to use proprietary software by institutions (their employer, etc.). It is vitally important that educational institutions do not compel, or even encourage, the use of non-free software, for many reasons.

The following list was initially based on the list of software Southern Cross University recommends their students use. I've supplemented this with other software I've found useful, and removed some items that solve problems that virtually nobody has these days (such as running Adobe Flash applications). Let me know if you've any suggestions.


Software most students will find useful.

Audio players

  • Southern Cross University recommends iTunes, which fundamentally is spyware. However,
  • SCU also recommends VLC media player, and I would as well! According to Wikipedia, it runs on "Windows, macOS, [GNU/]Linux, BSD, Solaris, Android, iOS, Chrome OS, Windows Phone, QNX, Haiku, Syllable, Tizen, OS/2"!
  • I use Totem for playing single audio/video files, and Rhythmbox for organising my music collection. These are only available for GNU/Linux (and other Unix-like OS's).
  • gPodder is a pretty nice podcast downloader/organiser for GNU/Linux, OS X, and Windows.
  • Suggestions, please…

File archiving/compression

  • Southern Cross University recommends 7-zip, which I've used and recommended in the past. Runs on Windows, OS X, and GNU/Linux (though I use tar and gzip from the command line, or the GNOME front end to these). I don't recommend using 7-zip's own format for any important data you want to preserve for posterity. GZIP (or TAR and GZIP for multiple-file archives) is the most cross-platform and future-proof option, IMHO.


  • Most of Java is free software, though some components are proprietary.
  • I use IcedTea, part of the GNU Classpath fully free software Java reimplementation, to run Blackboard Collaborate, and it works fine (that is to say, any problems can safely be attributed to Blackboard Collaborate). Only available for GNU/Linux.
  • Would like to hear from anybody better informed than I about fully free software Java options for other platforms…

Office Suite

  • By virtue of its feature-completeness, LibreOffice is pretty much the only game in town. I rarely used this kind of software before attending uni, and that's where 99% of my frustration with it lies. I've not found anything I've been required to do in three years of uni that it cannot accommodate, though I suppose Microsoft Office power users would face considerable migration strain. Runs on GNU/Linux, OS X, Windows, and even has a document viewer for Android.

PDF readers

If I had a penny for every time I'd heard PDF referred to as "Adobe Acrobat format"…

PDF writers/converters

  • Southern Cross University recommends CutePDF Writer, which has been found in the past to install adware/spyware. Don't touch it with a bargepole.
  • Many free software applications, such as LibreOffice and Mozilla Firefox, are able to export to PDF format without requiring additional software.
  • Suggestions, please…

Nice to have

More specialised or advanced software.

Audio/video editing

  • Audacity is a multi-track audio editor for GNU/Linux, OS X, Windows. A friend and I had a podcast for a while, so I used this all the time for cleaning up audio, and mixing elaborate sound effects from samples. It's brilliant.


  • Dia is a diagram (flowcharts, etc.) creation program for GNU/Linux, OS X, Windows.
  • The GNU Image Manipulation program (GIMP) is a raster (bitmapped — photos, and so on) graphics editor for (according to Wikipedia) "[GNU/]Linux, OS X, Microsoft Windows, BSD, Solaris, AmigaOS 4". I don't do a lot of image editing, but I've depended on it for about 20 years, and have never once found myself wishing I had Adobe Photoshop.
  • Inkscape is a vector (line art, logos, diagrams, etc.) editor for GNU/Linux, OS X, Windows.
  • Dia, the GIMP, and Inkscape all export to PDF, and the latter two do a pretty good job of importing from PDF.

Reference management

  • Bibus is a reference manager for GNU/Linux and Windows. It imports metadata in all the usual formats (Bibtex, etc.), though I've found it pretty poor in automatically generating references you can copy and paste into a list without manually tweaking. I find it principally valuable as a simple searchable database of stuff I can vaguely recall reading, but can't remember where. It has some functionality for hooking into LibreOffice and Microsoft Word, but I've not tried that. It's also unusual in that it doesn't try to hook you into using some proprietary web service, as most other reference managers do, so it wins on privacy.

Scientific/statistical calculator

  • Speedcrunch is an intuitive scientific calculator for GNU/Linux, OS X, Windows.
  • Qalculate! (you can tell it's fun by the exclamation mark in the name) is a plotting calculator that also has a lot more functions (including statistical functions) than Speedcrunch, though to my mind it's rather clunky to use. Runs on GNU/Linux, and a third party has contributed an OS X port.
  • For statistical functions lacking in LibreOffice, and more heavy-duty number-crunching, GNU PSPP is excellent. It's a free software replacement for SPSS for GNU/Linux, though apparently you can get it to compile and run on OS X, if you're the sort of person who doesn't find that too intimidating.

Help wanted

Products that I've never had a reason to find free equivalents for. Suggestions appreciated.

Adobe AIR

A web app development environment. Possible alternatives.


A proprietary online survey platform. I was a web developer in a former life, so I would use (and indeed have used) my own custom-built Drupal site to conduct surveys. I realise this is not a practical option for most students. The best solution for most would probably be a third-party platform licenced under the GNU Affero General Public License.


If you still need any of these, I'm very very sorry.

Adobe Flash Player

There used to be a number of free software alternatives, but as Flash is a dead technology, replaced by superior native web technologies, these projects appear to have died as well. Install the HTML5 Video Everywhere plugin for your web browser of choice, and you can disable (and preferably uninstall) and forget the blasted thing.

Adobe Shockwave Player

Another superceded technology.

Microsoft Silverlight

A development/runtime platform for .NET applications. Not strictly obsolete, since .NET developers do perform the useful service of giving PHP developers somebody to look down upon.

Microsoft Security Essentials

An oxymoron in more ways than one.


Ah, memories.

Sunday, 13 November 2016 - 6:22pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 13/11/2016 - 6:22pm in

This week, I have been mostly reading:

  • Surpluses & deficits are hotly debated – but what about the currency? — Emile Woolf, Renegade Inc: When a British importer buys German goods he must pay for them in euros. For that purpose he (or his agent) will acquire euros from a German bank, and after settling the bill the German exporter (or his bank) is now a holder of British pounds. What will he do them? He can use them to buy British goods, or even UK treasury bonds, or he can exchange them for a different currency – but if, instead, he just sits on them indefinitely he will, just like the retailer who never cashes your cheque, be handing the importer a free gift!
  • John McDonnell is right: we do disagree on macroeconomic policy — Richard Murphy: I said he should not agree to a fiscal charter promising a balanced budget which is wholly economically unnecessary and even destructive. But he did. I also argued against the fundamentally neoliberal concept of an independent central bank that takes control of key aspects of economic management out of democratic control and which was Ed Balls idea. But John bought into it. And as a result he backed off from People’s QE : he was advised that a central bank cannot create money to help ordinary people, job creation or the building of social housing. Instead John accepted that central banks can only use that power for the sake of saving bankers.
  • The macroeconomic challenge of the twenty first century — Richard Murphy: Petrodollars created the architecture of the economies of the world that are now creaking at potential massive cost to us all. Now wise management of the fiscally created dollars, euros, pounds, yen and more can provide the alternative, costless but ultimately liberating source of the lubricant for our future economies. As a result we no longer need to burn the planet to liberate the potential in all people. The fiscal dollar can instead build the foundations for prosperity and social harmony that we all crave.
  • New Paper: Demand-Side Business Dynamism — Mike Konczal and Marshall Steinbaum in Roosevelt Forward: This paper argues that the decline in mobility, dynamism, and entrepreneurship is a result of declining labor demand since 2000. When it is hard to find another job, employed workers stay at the jobs they have, impairing their ascent up the job ladder and the accompanying wage growth over careers that historically led to the middle class. Declining entrepreneurship can also be explained by workers’ reluctance to leave large, stable incumbents to start their own firm or to work at a start-up when they cannot be assured that they will have a more stable job to return to. Thus, we find that the concentration of employment in old firms and in large firms mirrors the timing of declining labor mobility due to declining demand.
  • Understanding Trump — George Lakoff: Private enterprise and private life utterly depend on public resources. Have you ever said this? Elizabeth Warren has. Almost no other public figures. And stop defending “the government.” Talk about the public, the people, Americans, the American people, public servants, and good government. And take back freedom. Public resources provide for freedom in private enterprise and private life. The conservatives are committed to privatizing just about everything and to eliminating funding for most public resources. The contribution of public resources to our freedoms cannot be overstated. Start saying it.
  • How Did We Get Such a Terrible Nominee? — Ted Rall:
    The party candidate isn't true to its basic principles, lies, is ruthless, breaks the law and has record-high disapproval ratings in the polls. How the hell did America's oldest political party wind up with such a terrible candidate? Easy: they plotted and schemed.
  • The Bank of Japan needs to introduce Overt Monetary Financing next — Bill Mitchell: When economists talk of ‘printing money’ they are referring to the process whereby the central bank adds some numbers to the treasury’s bank account to match its spending plans and in return is given treasury bonds to an equivalent value. That is where the term ‘debt monetisation’ comes from. Instead of selling debt to the private sector, the treasury simply sells it to the central bank, which then creates new funds in return. This accounting smokescreen is, of course, unnecessary. The central bank doesn’t need the offsetting asset (government debt) given that it creates the currency ‘out of thin air’. So the swapping of public debt for account credits is just an accounting convention.
  • Economic change will not happen until the left understands money — Ann Pettifor in openDemocracy: The fact is that as western economies try to recover, they are sunk again by a mountain of private debt whose repayment is made less likely by austerity policies. These are policies with the ideological aim of “shrinking the state” but which, in the process contract both public and private sector investment, employment and incomes. The consequence of weak demand built on a mountain of debt is deflation: a generalized fall in prices and wages. Most economists, especially those in thrall to the finance sector, have an obsession with, and an aversion to inflation. The reason is that inflation erodes the value of debt. Deflation does the very opposite: it inflates the value of debt. Creditors are not disturbed by deflation, as it effortlessly, and silently increases the value of their most valuable asset: debt.
  • Education, The Enlightenment, and the 21st-Century — Fred van Leeuwen for the RSA: There is an inherent conflict between blind faith and critical thinking. That is true whether it is religious fanaticism or the imposition of political ideologies or nationalistic or ethnic dogmas in schools. Although I am not confounding barbaric terrorism with the “values” of the market, it is a danger if one grants markets and management thinking unexamined reverence. Placing education in such a straightjacket is having a major impact on development because it is affecting the way in which communities are conceived, justice is understood, and democracy is practised.
  • The DNC Email Leaks: The Gift That Keeps On Feeding Distrust — John Kiriakou in Truthdig: As my friend the State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren said recently, “People are claiming the Russian government risked something close to war to hack DNC emails to embarrass [Hillary] Clinton after her own email shenanigans and to help [Donald] Trump, who maybe would win in November and who maybe would make decisions favorable to Russia? You realize that’s what has to be true for this [Vladimir] Putin scenario to be true, right? We’re back to the 1950s, accusing politicians of being in league with the Russians.” […] The issue is that the DNC colluded and conspired to favor the Clinton campaign and deny Bernie Sanders the Democratic nomination for president. The DNC’s actions were Nixonian, and they read like an account of that shamed president’s actions from a chapter of “All the President’s Men.”
  • Overt Monetary Financing would flush out the ideological disdain for fiscal policy — Bill Mitchell: Monetary policy is really such a blunt and ineffective tool that it should be rendered redundant. The mainstream have never provided a convincing case that manipulating interest rates is somehow the preferable and effective option for stabilising the spending cycle. The GFC experience would suggest otherwise. All the monetary policy gymnastics have had very little impact. It would be much better to set the overnight rate at zero and leave it there and allow the longer term rates (which are impacted by inflation risk) settle as low as possible. Then, manage the spending cycle with fiscal initiatives that can be targetted, adjusted fairly quickly and which have direct impacts.
  • Democrats, Trump, and the Ongoing, Dangerous Refusal to Learn the Lesson of Brexit — Glenn Greenwald: Put simply, Democrats knowingly chose to nominate a deeply unpopular, extremely vulnerable, scandal-plagued candidate, who — for very good reason — was widely perceived to be a protector and beneficiary of all the worst components of status quo elite corruption. It’s astonishing that those of us who tried frantically to warn Democrats that nominating Hillary Clinton was a huge and scary gamble — that all empirical evidence showed that she could lose to anyone and Bernie Sanders would be a much stronger candidate, especially in this climate — are now the ones being blamed: by the very same people who insisted on ignoring all that data and nominating her anyway.

YouTube RSS Feed URIs

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 13/11/2016 - 9:57am in

These appear to still work (for the time being), but it's clear that YouTube/Google/Alphabet want to transition to a world where URIs are just an endpoint where you present your API key, the better to surveil you and your users:


Sunday, 6 November 2016 - 5:54pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 06/11/2016 - 5:54pm in

This week, I have been mostly reading:

  • The Incalculable Cost of our Aversion to Government Debt — Ari Andricopoulos: Thanks to austerity there is both a non-growing pie and workers receiving a smaller share of it (due to austerity forcing interest rates down). So there is low demand because of low government spending and high supply of labour because of benefit sanctions. The inevitable result of this is a low wage economy.
  • The elites hate Momentum and the Corbynites - and I’ll tell you why — David Graeber in the Guardian: The real battle is not over the personality of one man, or even a couple of hundred politicians. If the opposition to Jeremy Corbyn for the past nine months has been so fierce, and so bitter, it is because his existence as head of a major political party is an assault on the very notion that politics should be primarily about the personal qualities of politicians. It’s an attempt to change the rules of the game, and those who object most violently to the Labour leadership are precisely those who would lose the most personal power were it to be successful: sitting politicians and political commentators.
  • Fears For Pauline Hanson’s Health After She Realises Some Asians Are Also Muslim — The Shovel:
  • A comment on Keen’s “Credit plus GDP” measure — Cameron Murray: There are two extremes I have in mind in this analysis. First, if all new credit is directed to new capital investments, we would expect a very close match between credit creation and increases in nominal GDP. Second, if all credit creation is to fund asset purchases, we might expect a much lower relationship between new credit and GDP growth. This idea fits nicely with the story that we should use the banking system to support new capital investment instead of funding asset purchases, which simply leads to asset price growth and speculative cycles. In this story it matters what new credit (money) is used for, not just the levels of new credit. And, related:
  • The Truth about Banks — Michael Kumhof and Zoltán Jakab, in the IMF's Finance & Development magazine: In modern neoclassical intermediation of loanable funds theories, banks are seen as intermediating real savings. Lending, in this narrative, starts with banks collecting deposits of previously saved real resources (perishable consumer goods, consumer durables, machines and equipment, etc.) from savers and ends with the lending of those same real resources to borrowers. But such institutions simply do not exist in the real world. There are no loanable funds of real resources that bankers can collect and then lend out. […] financing, is of course the key activity of banks. The detailed steps are as follows. Assume that a banker has approved a loan to a borrower. Disbursement consists of a bank entry of a new loan, in the name of the borrower, as an asset on its books and a simultaneous new and equal deposit, also in the name of the borrower, as a liability. This is a pure bookkeeping transaction that acquires its economic significance through the fact that bank deposits are the generally accepted medium of exchange of any modern economy, its money.
  • I’m already tired of the ‘lessons’ of Chilcot. What can we learn from a report that ignores Iraqis? — Robert Fisk, the Independent: Yes, [Blair] sure was a nasty piece of work, lying to us Brits and then lying to us again after Chilcot was published, and then waffling on about faith and “the right thing to do” when we all know that smiting vast numbers of innocent people – and even bringing about the smiting of a vaster number of the very same Muslims, Christians and Yazidis up to this very day – was a very, very bad thing to do. For these victims – anonymous and almost irrelevant in the Chilcot report – we cannot say “even unto the end”, because they are dying unto the present day. The real “end” for these victims cometh not even yet.
  • #1236; In which a Reminder is constant — Wondermark, by David Malki!: ''Can you at least make it not sound like a leaky faucet?'' ''Changing the alert tone is an in-app purchase. You want me to set it to a gong? Costs five bucks.''
  • Credentialism and Corruption: The Opioid Epidemic and “the Looting Professional Class” — Lambert Strether in Naked Capitalism: As reader Clive wrote: "Increasingly, if you want to get and hang on to a middle class job, that job will involve dishonesty or exploitation of others in some way." And you’ve got to admit that serving as a transmission vector for an epidemic falls into the category of “exploitation of others.”
  • WBC warns on NZ household debt. What about Australia’s? — Leith van Onselen at MacroBusiness compares the household debt/income levels of us and them next door:
  • Regulator Warns Commercial Real Estate Bubble Is Biggest US Bank Risk — Yves Smith, Naked Capitalism: The reason commercial real estate lending is so hazardous is banks routinely lose more than 100% of the loan when the projects go bad. Not only do all the loan proceeds go “poof,” but when they foreclose, they are typically stuck with a completed or partially completed project. If it is completely and not fundamentally unsound (say an office building in an up-and-coming area), it’s possible to get a partial recovery. But for a white elephant or a half-finished building, the bank will need to clear the property, which means throwing good money after bad, and is stuck with land plus perhaps some general previous owner improvements (if a subdivision, getting zoning and running in plumbing; in an urban setting, doing the assemblage). Moreover, commercial properties are idiosyncratic, so liquidating them is also inherently time-consuming.
  • That Far Left Entryist Takeover of the Labour Party — Craig Murray: At its height in the 1980’s, Militant claimed 8,000 members. In 2013 its descendant, the Socialist Party, claimed 2,500 members and crowed that it was now bigger than the Socialist Workers Party. The SWP replied, not by claiming to have more than 2,500 members, but by saying that the Socialist Party’s claim of 2,500 was inflated. The various manifestations of the Communist Party are smaller. […] I have therefore watched with bemusement the claims that the 120,000 new Labour members now banned from voting, and perhaps half of the remaining 400,000 Labour electorate, are entryists from organisations of the “hard left”. Anybody who believes there are over 300,000 members of “hard left” groups in the UK is frankly bonkers.
  • Robot Bombs: A One Time Thing, Right? — Ted Rall: Micah Johnson, the suspect in the Dallas shooting of 12 police officers, of whom five died, was blown up by a police department robot bomb that had previously only been used by the military in war zones. Given that police agencies around the country have been equipped with similar hardware, look for remote-control murders by police to escalate. Next up, obviously: killing enemies of the state using drones.
  • Paul Krugman’s stock market advice — Dean Baker, in the Real World Economics Review Blog: [Apple, Google, and Microsoft] are companies that depend to a large extent on government-granted monopolies in the form of patent and copyright protection. We have made these protections much stronger and longer over the last four decades through a variety of laws and trade agreements. Of course the point of these protections is to give an incentive for innovation and creative work. But in a period where we are supposedly troubled by an upward redistribution from people who work for a living to people who “own” the technology, perhaps we should not be giving those people ever stronger claims to ownership of technology.
  • The Trojan Drone: An Illegal Military Strategy Disguised as Technological Advance — Rebecca Gordon in TomDispatch: The technical advances embodied in drone technology distract us from a more fundamental change in military strategy. However it is achieved -- whether through conventional air strikes, cruise missiles fired from ships, or by drone -- the United States has now embraced extrajudicial executions on foreign soil. Successive administrations have implemented this momentous change with little public discussion. And most of the discussion we’ve had has focused more on the new instrument (drone technology) than on its purpose (assassination). It’s a case of the means justifying the end. The drones work so well that it must be all right to kill people with them.
  • Why are license "agreements" so uniformly terrible? — at Boing Boing, an excerpt from The End of Ownership: Personal Property in the Digital Economy, by Aaron Perzanowski and Jason Schultz: The current iTunes Terms and Conditions are over 19,000 words, translating into fifty-six pages of fine print, longer than Macbeth. Not to be outdone, PayPal’s terms weigh in at 36,000 words, besting Hamlet by a wide margin. The demands of these prolix legal documents are jaw-dropping. Take Adobe’s Flash, a software platform installed on millions of computers each day. Assume the average user can read the 3,500-word Flash license in ten minutes—a generous assumption given the dense legalese in which it is written. If everyone who installed Flash in a single day read the license, it would require collectively over 1,500 years of human attention. That’s true every single day, for just one software product. Imagine what would happen if you tried to read every license you encountered. […] License terms are not negotiable. So there’s little to gain from a careful reading. […] Adobe is not going to negotiate a new license with you. They won’t even entertain the idea. So your choice is simple. Either use the product—and live with the license—or don’t. Take it or leave it.
  • Sole and Despotic Dominion — Cory Doctorow in Locus Online: If the mere presence of a copyrighted work in a device means that its manufacturer never stops owning it, then it means that you can never start owning it. There’s a word for this: feudalism. In feudalism, property is the exclusive realm of a privileged few, and the rest of us are tenants on that property. In the 21st century, DMCA-enabled version of feudalism, the gentry aren’t hereditary toffs, they’re transhuman, immortal artificial life-forms that use humans as their gut-flora: limited liability corporations.
  • Gnome Ann — xkcd: Gnome Ann

Thursday, 3 November 2016 - 8:35pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Thu, 03/11/2016 - 8:38pm in

Fifteen Key Employment clients have been given the opportunity to complete a certificate II in Horticulture.

The TAFE course has been designed to help clients gain skills, increasing their chances to find work in the Woolgoolga area.

Horticulture? Surely the skills with the highest payoff are those necessary to be a Job Services provider. Add an unemployed person to your books: ka-ching! Give them some perfunctory training: ka-ching! Breach them for some trivial failure of "compliance": ka-ching! Take credit when they get themselves a job: ka-ching! Get them back on your books again when they're illegally sacked: ka-ching!

Actually, I take it back. There are no skills required in order to profit from human misery. Learning to move dirt around is probably more socially useful, or at least not actively harmful.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016 - 1:12pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Tue, 01/11/2016 - 2:00pm in

COFFS Harbour company Janison has today launched a cloud-based enterprise learning solution, developed over several years working with organisations such as Westpac and Rio Tinto.

Really? In 2016 businesses are supposed to believe that a corporate MOOC (Massively Open Online Course; a misnomer from day one) will do for them what MOOC's didn't do for higher education? There are two issues here: quality and dependability.

In 2012, the "year of the MOOC", the ed-tech world was full of breathless excitement over a vision of higher education consisting of a handful of "superprofessors" recording lectures that would be seen by millions of students, with the rest of the functions of the university automated away. There was just one snag, noticed by MOOC pioneer, superprofessor, and founder of Udacity Sebastian Thrun. "We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don't educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product," he said. That is not to say that there isn't a market for lousy products. As the president of San Jose State University cheerfully admitted of their own MOOC program, "It could not be worse than what we do face to face." It's not hard to imagine a certain class of institution happy to rip off their students by outsourcing their instruction to a tech firm, but harder to see why a business would want to rip themselves off on an inferior mode of training. Technology-intensive modes of learning work best among tech-savvy, self-modivated learners, so-called "roaming autodidacts". Ask yourself how many of your employees fit into that category; they are a very small minority among the general population.

The other problem is gambling on a product that depends on multiple platforms which reside in the hands of multiple vendors, completely beyond your own control. The longevity of these vendors is not guaranteed, and application development platforms are discontinued on a regular basis. Sticking with large, successful, reputable vendors is no guarantee; Google, for instance, is notorious for euthanising their "Software-as-a-Service" (SaaS) offerings on a regular basis, regardless of the fanfare with which they were launched. You may be willing to trade quality for affordability in the short term, but future migration costs are a matter of "when", not "if".

Sunday, 30 October 2016 - 6:52pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 30/10/2016 - 6:52pm in

This week, I have been mostly reading:

  • HIA should have backed Labor’s tax reforms — Leith van Onselen at MacroBusiness shows what negative gearing and capital gains tax exemptions haven't done for new housing construction, with this particularly explicit bit of chart porn:
  • 2008 All Over Again — Chris Hedges interviews Michael Hudson, Truthdig: If there is anyone who is responsible for the Brexit it is Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama […] They destroyed Libya. They turned over Libyan weapons to ISIS, Al Quaeda and Al Nusra. It was their war in Syria, where many of these weapons ended up, that created the massive exodus of refugees intoEurope. This exodus exacerbated nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment. Clinton and Obama are also responsible for a huge exodus of Ukrainians. This is all a response to American war policy the Middle East and Ukraine. In central Europe, with the expansion of NATO, Washington is meanwhile demanding that governments spend billions on weapons rather than on recovering the economy.
  • What next after Brexit? — Steve Keen appears to be saying that Brexit will be nowhere near as devastating as Thatcherism. Well, yes, obviously.
  • Syd/Melb house price-to-income ratio hits record high — Leith van Onselen at MacroBusiness. Important to note these are median household, not individual, incomes: In March 2016 the ratio of house prices to annual household income in Sydney was 9.8 and for units it was 7.2. Both property types are currently recording a record-high ratio. 12 months ago these ratios were recorded at 8.9 for houses and 6.8 for units. Note that the data goes as far back as September 2001 and at that time the ratios were recorded at: 6.0 for houses and 5.7 for units.
  • Brexit is a 'heartbreaking wake-up call' – and other meaningless political clichés used this week — Robert Fisk, the Independent: Corbyn […] moved inexorably into this horrible language when he talked, in his first reaction to the Brexit vote, about immigrants’ “skill sets”. […] It was almost a relief to hear poor old Jeremy banging on about the need for the poor to get “a fair crack of the whip”. But why didn’t he just say “equal chance” or, if he wanted to be inventive, use that wonderful Australian expression “a fair suck of the sauce bottle”? Anything rather than whips.
  • Lessons From the Past: The Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) revisited — Phil Zimbardo plugs the new film in Psychology Today: In 2004, people around the world witnessed online photos of horrific actions of American Military Police guards in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib Prison against prisoners they should have been caring for. It was portrayed as the work of a “few bad apples” according to military brass and Bush administration spokesmen. I publicly challenged this traditional focus on individual dispositions by portraying American servicemen as good apples that were forced to operate in a Bad Barrel (the Situation) created by Bad Barrel Makers (the System). I became an expert witness in the defense of the Staff Sergeant in charge of the night shift, where all the abuses took place. In that capacity I had personal access to the defendant, to all 1000 photos, many videos, to all dozen military investigations, and more. It was sufficient to validate my view of that prison as a replica of the Stanford prison experiment—on steroids, and my defendant, Chip Frederick, as a really Good Apple corrupted by being forced to function 12-hours every night for many months in the worse barrel imaginable.
  • Control: beyond left and right — Chris Dillow: Consider some popular political positions. There’s support for immigration controls and fiscal austerity on the one hand but also for nationalization and even price controls on the other: one Yougov poll found (pdf) that 45% of people favour rent controls and 35% even controls on food prices. These positions make no sense if you think in terms of left and right. But they become perfectly consistent once you see that people want things to be controlled: the popularity of austerity, I suspect, arises from the view that the public finances are “out of control.” This demand for control is, if not the sigh of the oppressed, then the sigh of the insecure. When faced with uncertainty – not just about their economic lives but about cultural change too – people want a sense of control. […] Herein, however, lies a massive opportunity for the left. We should be offering solutions to uncertainty – a stronger better social safety net and a job guarantee.
  • (Marketing) Virtual Reality in Education: A History — Audrey Watters: According to the marketing hype – offered with very little recognition of any media research or media history – VR will be a new and unique “empathy machine.” A century after Thomas Edison’s famous assertion that “books will soon be obsolete in schools” thanks to the wonders of film, watching movies in class is re-presented as progressive pedagogy, as technological innovation.
  • The myth of public opinion — Clive Hamilton in the Conversation: When a party leader declares victory by saying “Australians have spoken”, he or she is doing a number of things. Firstly, he is making a claim to personify the collective psyche, the spirit of the nation that rises above all social divisions to express the pure will of the people. It is what gives a great leader a kind of mandate of heaven, and can be a very dangerous thing. Second, he is asserting his right to govern unopposed against the claims of the losers who may see themselves as a powerful voice that must be heard. The claim that “Australians have spoken” is a means of putting the losers in their place even if they secured 49 per cent of the vote.
  • Theresa May, Your New Islamophobic Prime Minister? — Craig Murray: Britain has draconian anti-terrorism laws that would make a dictatorship blush. It is an offence to “glorify” terrorism. It is specifically “terrorism” for me to write, here and now, that Nelson Mandela was justified in supporting the bombing campaign that got him arrested. I just knowingly committed “glorifying terrorism” under British law. It is specifically “terrorism” to deface the property in the UK of a foreign state with a political motive. If I spray “Gay Pride” on the Saudi embassy, that is terrorism. We also have secret courts, where “terrorists” can be convicted without ever seeing the “intelligence-based” evidence against them. We have convicted young idiots for discussing terror fantasies online. We have convicted a wife who “must have known” what her husband was doing (at least that one was overturned on appeal).

Thursday, 27 October 2016 - 3:41pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Thu, 27/10/2016 - 3:49pm

"It says here the US is going to liberate us again."

"Ooh, that's nice. It's been months since we were last liberated. I'll put the kettle on."

"Was that the liberation when we lost the roof?"

"No, you're thinking of the liberation before that. Last liberation we lost your auntie, remember?"

"Oh, yes. Time flies…"

Brian Eno on basic income

Published by Matthew Davidson on Mon, 24/10/2016 - 5:00pm in

From an item in this weeks reading (transcription provided by the author of the item):

"I often get asked to come and talk at art schools, and I rarely get asked back, because the first thing I always say is, ‘I’m here to persuade you not to have a job.’ … My first message to people is: try not to get to a job. That doesn’t mean try not to do anything. It means try to leave yourself in a position where you do the things you want to do with your time, and where you take maximal advantage of whatever your possibilities are. The obstacle is that most people aren’t in a position to do that. I want to do anything to work to a future where everybody’s in a position to do that. … [T]he concept [of basic income] is the closest thing I’ve heard to achieving the kind of future that I would like to live in."

Sunday, 23 October 2016 - 6:00pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 23/10/2016 - 6:00pm in

This week, I have been mostly reading:

  • There has to be a better way — Steve Keen: I knew Abbott and Turnbull in their Sydney University days: they were both active student politicians, while I was one of the leaders of the student revolt against the economics curriculum there. Abbott and Turnbull both tried to play a role in this “Political Economy” dispute—and their approach then mirrors their styles today. One believed he knew the word of God, while the other believed he was God.
  • Treasury analysis supports Labor’s negative gearing policy — Leith van Onselen at MacroBusiness: Now the ABC has received a document from the Australian Treasury, under Freedom of Information, which claims most of the windfall from negative gearing and the capital gains tax (CGT) discount goes to high-income earners: "The modelling said more than half of the negative gearing tax benefits go to the top 20 per cent of incomes in Australia."
  • What should the level of basic income be in 24 European & OECD countries? — Valerija Korošec for BIEN: We don’t want to make the system worse than it is. It’s logical, then, that the minimal level of BI should reach, at least, the level of current Social Assistance (SA): we could call this ‘partial’ BI. All BI proposals included in this analysis satisfy this condition. It follows that implementation of a BI close to the level offered by the current social security system (e.g., the SA level) implies budget neutrality in countries with a more universal system.
  • The Secret to the Incredible Wealth of Bill Gates — Dean Baker in Truthout: The story of Bill Gates' copyright protection, along with patent protection for prescription drugs and all sorts of other things, are a big part of the story of inequality. The key issue is that these protections are created by the government. They don't come from the technology. It is the protections that make some people very rich, not the technology. We grant patent and copyright monopolies in order to provide an incentive for innovation and creative work. It is arguable whether these mechanisms are the best way to provide these incentives. For example, in addition to making drugs very expensive, even when they would be cheap in a free market, patent protection also provides an enormous incentive for drug companies to misrepresent the safety and effectiveness of their drugs. But the key point for the inequality issue is that the strength and length of these monopolies is set by government policy.
  • Humans vs Houses: Australia’s perverse tax system — Cameron Murray in MacroBusiness: I often joke that my investment property earns more than I do. Thinking more about this led me to the realisation that my investment property has a privileged position in the tax system when compared to a measly old human being. […] our current system appears to be designed exclusively for the betterment of the property community, rather than the people community. It’s unreal.
  • Faking it: made up universities and degrees — Paul Greatrix at Wonkhe: It does seem to be a continuing problem and I was struck by this recent example reported in the Manchester Evening News. According to the paper the Manchester Open University claims to have a campus on Oxford Road with 2,000 students but was being investigated by the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau: "The Manchester Open University claims to have a campus based on Oxford Road with 2,000 students from 90 different countries – and offers degrees in history, English, and medicine. But education officials say they can’t find a single trace of the institution and that the IP address used by organisation’s website is hosted hundreds of miles away in France."
  • Smart cities wouldn’t let housing costs drive the worse-off into deeper disadvantage — Emma Baker, Andrew Beer and Rebecca Bentley: The relatively well-off and the upwardly mobile improve the areas in which they live over an extended period. The more economically vulnerable tend to make more frequent, multiple moves – living in slightly less advantaged areas each time. To put it in plain terms, the poor move to poor areas where they may become even more disadvantaged. Meanwhile, the middle classes move through our cities gradually climbing the housing ladder.
  • Straya: Strong on terror…unless you buy a house — Leith van Onselen, MacroBusiness: The Australia Government first agreed to implement the second tranche of AML [anti-money laundering] regulations in 2003. Yet 13 years later, these have been delayed indefinitely by the government. This indefinite delay comes despite the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF) last year releasing a scathing report highlighting that Australian residential property is a haven for international money laundering, particularly from China, and recommending that Australia implement counter-measures to ensure that real estate agents, lawyers and accountants facilitating real estate transactions are captured by the regulatory net.
  • Negative gearing: Myths and facts — John Haly, Independent Australia: Between July 1985 and 1987, the Hawke Government abolished it and rent prices fell everywhere except in Perth, and to a lesser extent, in Sydney. This was not due to the absence of negative gearing but the very low “available” vacancy rates and competition from inflated rent prices (Grattan Report, p 34-34). Thereafter through, a less quarantined negative gearing was reinstated. Housing and rent prices rose but not at the rate they have since 1999. What mitigated the potential effects on the economy of unchecked negative gearing, was the 1985 introduction of a CPI indexed Capital Gains Tax. In 1999, the Howard Government removed indexing and introduced a 50% discount for capital gains for individuals. From that point on, housing prices (and rent) skyrocketed an average of 7.3% annually (Grattan Report, p 31).
  • Who Will Accept It? Currency-Issuing Governments are Constrained by Resources, Not Money — Peter Cooper: When it comes to Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), I think a simple but central point to get across is that for currency-issuing governments the hard policy constraints relate to real resources, not money. We need to convey that money is not the constraint but in almost the same breath call for the focus to be on real resources when pondering questions of economic policy.
  • It’s Time to Base Economics on Human Nature, Not Homo Economicus — Jonathan Rowe in Evonomics: To an economist [Wikipedia] doesn’t make sense. People don’t work for free. Readers are “consumers,” not producers; and consumers do not produce what they consume. Yet they are doing so; and this kind of social co-production is flourishing not only on the Web, but in the society at large. In the U.S. and elsewhere, people are turning their backs on everyday low prices and choosing the social cohesion and productivity of their local Main Streets instead. Researchers and software designers are foregoing property rights – i.e. patents — to their work and are releasing it over the Web for free. So doing they are enriching the public domain that sustains their own work and also that of others. All of this – and more – defies the supposed “laws” of economics.
  • The Economist as...?: The Public Square and Economists — Brad DeLong; an intelligent and honourable mainstream economist muses on the responsibilities of his profession: Of course to provide someone with knowledge of the consequences may be simply to give them the kind of freedom that is necessity: the freedom to do what is the right thing. The old Cold War joke was of the strategist who would offer the president three possible options: immediate surrender to the Russians, total thermonuclear war, and his preferred policy. To the extent that there is no grave disagreement about what the good is and what the ends are, control is exercised not by the one who chooses the ends but rather the one who chooses how the means are evaluated.
  • Economists as public intellectuals — Antonio Callari, guestblogging for David F. Ruccio, picks apart DeLong's piece above: Curiously absent from DeLong’s history are important intellectual thresholds, most notably in late (European) medieval times (e.g., Ibn-Khaldun, Thomas Aquinas) , at which the legal, institutional, and even (and profoundly) cultural foundations were laid out for markets: the general discussions about the nature of property and the embeddedness of prices/incomes in social contexts. It’s not just whole schools of thought (i.e., the Sraffa-Smith tradition) that drop out of DeLong’s purview, but also whole interesting episodes of philosophical and intellectual history that get taken out. This can’t be because DeLong doesn’t know about them: he makes sure we know he reads beyond “economics” (he knows figures I grew up with, Homer and Cicero; figures I know of, Leon Trotsky and Alasdair Macintyre; and figures I frankly don’t know, St. Benedict). So, what is it that makes him, as such a well-read person, neglect the intellectual episodes others (e.g., Schumpeter) found important in the history of economics? A complacent, and problematic, view of the “economist” as “scientist”? A complacent, and problematically orthodox, definition of the core of “economics” as a study of “exchange”?
  • Universal Basic Income, Job Killing Robots, and the Washington Post — Dean Baker addresses robophobia, or Grimwade's Syndrome, as it is known in some parts of the galaxy: What possible difference can it make if a job is displaced by a robot or a more efficient assembly line? We have seen whole industries, like photographic film, wiped out by digital technology. Would the former workers at Kodak somehow be worse off if they had lost their jobs to robots than to digital cameras? The point is that robots are productivity growth. Say that a few thousands times until it sinks in. The impact of robots on the economy is nothing more or less than any other innovation that produces the same amount of productivity growth.
  • Brexit: Clearing Up the Economic Nonsense — David L. Glotzer wields a mean hypothetical (but is wrong about Maastricht; the UK is a signatory): Take the EU “membership fee.” For arguments sake assume that all of it is wasted, on let’s say muffins. What actually happens when over the course of a year £13bn is sent to the EU? What is the impact of this on the British economy? First Parliament instructs George Osborn to send money to the European Commission. George Osborn tells someone who works for him to type a number into a computer (here British Pounds are literally ‘keystroked’ into existence) transferring a certain amount of money to a British bank account held by the European Commission. Since the British Pound is only used as a currency within the British economy the EC can only buy muffins from British Bakers, thereby boosting the demand for British baked goods and increasing British GDP.
  • Basic Income Revisited — Robert Skidelsky in Project Syndicate: The ethical case for [UBI's…] source is the idea, found both in the Bible and in classical economics, that work is a curse (or, as economists put it, a “cost”), undertaken only for the sake of making a living. As technological innovation causes per capita income to rise, people will need to work less to satisfy their needs. Both John Stuart Mill and John Maynard Keynes looked forward to a horizon of growing leisure: the reorientation of life away from the merely useful toward the beautiful and the true. UBI provides a practical path to navigate this transition.
  • Money for Nothing: Confessions of a Payday Lender: “I Felt Like a Modern-Day Gangster” — Gary Rivlin, the Intercept: Spending time with Locke in Michigan often meant listening to long rants about the lack of gratitude among the partners he had brought into the payday business, despite all the money he had made them. “Friends screwing me over,” Locke said. “Business partners screwing me over. People who begged me to get them into the business — screwing me over.” He’s kind of a human Eeyore who wears his disappointment as an outer garment. Of his customers, Locke said, “I feel bad for these people.” But he seemed to feel sorry mainly for himself.
  • Math Education — Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, by Zach Weinersmith:
  • Basic Income, Job Guarantees and the Non-Monetary Value of Jobs: Response to Davenport and Kirby — Kate McFarland, Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN): To take just one example, Zipcar CEO Robin Chase spoke of her research on “passion jobs” a recent White House roundtable discussion on automation an UBI. She has interviewed individuals from a cab driver who wrote music that made autistic children happy (but could not afford to pursue this passion full-time) to a computer programmer who slept on friends’ couches while writing open source software for 3D printers. In her informal research, she has encountered many people who are unable to pursue socially valuable and personally gratifying projects, simply because these projects are not financially lucrative; instead, these people are stuck in “crummy jobs”, detached from their passions. Chase herself supports a UBI as a way to allow individuals to pursue vocations that would give their lives much more meaning than the jobs to which they must resort for income.
  • The Greater Happiness for the More Workers: Basic Income vs Job Guarantee Pt 2 — Kate McFarland at BIEN continues: Neurodivergent individuals, and others who do not fit neatly in the mold of society, can be stifled and inhibited by traditional work environments. Such individuals are better able to flourish personally–and, in turn, become more valuable contributors to society–if they are able to working outside of traditional jobs, or perhaps take the time to a job that is a better match.
  • Socrates on Debt and Ibn Khaldun on the Cyclical Rise and Fall of Societies — Michael Hudson in Naked Capitalism: In Book I of Plato’s Republic (380 BC), Socrates discusses the morality of repaying debts. Cephalus, a businessman living in the commercial Piraeus district, states the typical ethic that it is fair and just to pay back what one has borrowed or received. Socrates replies that it would not be just to return weapons to a man who has turned into a lunatic. Because of the consequences, paying back the debt would be the wrong thing to do. At issue is not the micro-economic morality of paying a debt, but how this act affects society. If a madman is intent on murder, returning his weapon to him will enable him to commit unjust acts. The morality of paying back all debts is not necessarily justice. We need to take the overall consequences into account.