Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Australia and Xenophobia

In Australia, whenever a new leaky boat full of desperate asylum seekers shows up, it’s treated with hysteria in the media. If the government of the day doesn’t react with cruelty, it’s considered to be weak on border security. And every time the approach to dealing with asylum seekers wanders further from humanitarian norms, it’s lauded as a solution to he problem.

Well, is it? As former prime minister Malcolm Fraser put it:
no democratic Australia could ever impose penalties or hardships on refugees which could match the terror from which most of them flee
So even if deterrence could work, should Australia attempt that?

And, anyway, is the view that numbers spike when the policy softens and go down when it gets harsher valid?

Correlation isn’t causation. You have to look at the push factors as well, and those definitely are causation. More refugees at source = more arriving at destination. Nothing could be simpler.

Even with the latest increases the numbers are not that high by world standards. If you look at UNHCR stats, 2012 had the highest number of new refugees since 1999. Australian stats for boat arrivals peak in 1999-2000 when numbers at source previously peaked, and they shoot up again over the last year when the number of new refugees shot up.

Some refugee stats here show that Australia does not have a serious problem, and treating a relatively small number of arrivals as a huge crisis for national security is not warranted.

Why is it impossible for any party besides the Greens to be rational on this? Could it be because anything but xenophobic hysteria results in a media beat-up?

Here in South Africa, genuine illegal immigrants (mostly economic migrants from Zimbabwe) amount to 10% of the population, yet all sides of politics condemn xenophobia when it flares up. Australia only leads the world in one respect as far as refugees go: mainstreaming of xenophobia.

Anyway numbers don’t lie so let’s check them. The graph here shows the difference for each year between reported numbers for that year and the year before of refugees (I use the UNHCR’s refugee count, excluding categories like internally displaced persons and Palestinians who are less likely to arrive in a distant country) and boat arrivals in Australia. The UN numbers are for a calendar year, while the Australian reporting period is a financial year (1 July–30 June). This is not a bad thing however as a 6-month delay takes into account the time between a push factor and a boat arrival.

The graph illustrates that upticks in numbers arriving correspond closely to upticks in the number of refugees over the previous year. The green line is the difference between boat arrivals in Australia and the number the previous year, and the blue line is the difference between UNHCR reported numbers of refugees versus the previous year. The lines mostly correspond pretty well, with just the major uptick in refugees in 2006 failing to result in major change in boat arrivals. The 2006 increase may however have arisen from a reporting anomaly (see UNHCR Statistical Yearbook 2006, Chapter 2, p  pp 25–26) rather than a major change in real refugee numbers.

Eyeballing data is risky: we should really do the stats. So let’s look at whether the data correlates. The correlation coefficient is statistically significant: r=0.56, and if we do a t-test for significance, the p-value is 0.006. So yes, this is a real correlation that explains the data well. And we can assign a cause to it, so we are not guilty of assigning causality to a coincidence.

So couldn’t the John Howard “Pacific Solution” actually be the cause of the decline in boat arrivals? That started in 2001 when the number of boat people hit a peak. So let’s mark that on the graph. The red arrow points to the 2001 data point where we can see that the push factors were already declining. And the number of boat arrivals also declined. Given that the correlation is also also strong before 2001 (0.60, though we don’t have enough data points for statistical significance, p=0.057), it is unlikely that being tough on asylum seekers actually had a significant chilling effect on boat arrivals. The only data point that lends comfort to xenophobia is the apparent 2006 increase in refugees but as we have seen that is not a real increase (mostly Iraqi refugees of the 2003 war in Syria and Jordan who had not previously been counted).

Anyway I present the data for you to make up your own mind. To me it looks pretty clear that being harsh on asylum seekers is nothing more than bad politics, dragging the political discourse down to the gutter. Mainstream politics, it seems is presented with no alternative but to go this route for fear of vilification by the commercial media. The Greens are the only party of significance that has resisted the politics of fear and xenophobia. Good on them. I hope they do well this election.

Further Reading

The Guardian has some useful stats on refugees here.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

When is a coup not a coup?

When is a coup not a coup? Answer: when it aligns with US interests – at least as perceived by the government of the day.

Why is the Egyptian coup almost never referred to as such? A democratically elected leader has been ousted by the military. What else does the word coup (as in military coup, or coup d’état) refer to? The fact that he was becoming increasingly unpopular doesn’t enter into the definition. There have been massive anti-government protests in some developed countries, but no one would say that justifies a military take-over.

If this happened in sub-Saharan Africa, you can bet it would be widely condemned, with talk of bringing the conspirators before the International Criminal Court.

This is not the first time something like this has happened. Try putting these words into a search:
Yeltsin Russia Coup
What you get is reports of the 1991 attempt at overturning Gorbachev’s perestroika, which was thwarted by Yeltsin, who heroically confronted the tanks and in effect ended the era of the Soviet police state.

What this search doesn’t pick up is the events of 1993 when Yeltsin was president and the Russian parliament refused to accept his nominee as prime minister, Yegor Gaidar. While it’s true that this parliament was the last elected under the Soviet system, it’s not clear that it was in fact trying to force a return the the old ways but rather trying to ward off “shock therapy” – which subsequently turned out to mean handing substantial parts of the state-owned economy to oligarchs for next to nothing.

Try these search words:
Yeltsin Russia tanks white house
This does bring up the 1993 coup – the one that doesn’t exist according to mainstream media.

If you want to argue that Morsi was a failing president in Egypt, or that the ex-Soviet legislature was not moving with the post-Soviet times, then you can argue for coups in many countries around the world where the government is corrupt, incompetent or broadly suppressing open political debate.

So why are coups bad sometimes, not so bad other times, or don’t exist other times?

Perceived US interests. And I say perceived, because making the rest of the world hate you really is not in your interests.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Microsoft’s Future?

Windows 8 is battling to get traction. And it’s not surprising. Microsoft is a bit behind the curve of Blackberry’s catastrophic decline, but the underlying causes are the same.

I remain unconvinced of touch screens for the desktop. On a recent plane trip, I tried a game on the entertainment system that used touch, and reaching the distance comfortable for viewing the screen was uncomfortable after a while, and touching the screen obscures your vision of the detail in a way that using a touch pad or mouse doesn’t.

Just because tablets are outselling desktops it doesn’t mean desktops should work like tablets. In some parts of the world bicycles outsell cars: should we replace the steering wheel by handlebars?

Microsoft is in an unenviable position. When you hold 95% of a market and it tips away from you, what do you do? Try to tip it back, or go the new direction and lose your status as a leader? Think US auto makers when the Japanese first started to make inroads. They’ve never recovered.
British-style interior
US-style interior
British-style exterior
US-style exterior
At the time, I wondered why the US car manufacturers did not simply adopt their own European designs, some of which were quite good, to US conditions – with minimal changes. For example, putting them through additional ruggedness testing for higher distances and worse roads typical of US driving would really have been enough. To the extent that they tried this, they made the wrong changes. Instead of focussing on reliability, they changed the exteriors to look more American (fatter) and interiors so they looked like folded cardboard, in keeping with domestic designs. The Japanese, meanwhile, forged ahead, keeping their designs consistent across all markets and working on reliability – useful in all markets.

Source: WikiPedia (retrieved 5 July 2013: RIM=Blackberry)
So what is Microsoft to do? Their position is inenviable. Almost anything they do is going to be wrong. If they break away from Windows compatibility in mobile devices, they have no edge to grab attention from the dominant players, Android and iOS. Ask Blackberry how well it works to be late in a market that you used to dominate, then let others redefine the user experience before you end up playing catch up. If they stick with Windows as their starting point, no one wants their devices – except hard-core fans. I tried playing with Microsoft’s Surface range on a recent overseas trip, where I finally found some set up for demo in a shop. They keyboard covers are not brilliant to type on, and one I tried was unreliable in its connection to the device. Putting them on a counter-top to demo illustrates exactly the point I’ve made earlier, that it’s a portable device that you can only use comfortably in a fixed environment – a laptop you can’t use on your lap. If an iPad or Android tablet is set up for demo, you naturally pick it up – the way you would usually use it. I saw no one pick up a Surface and if you did, the keyboard cover and kickstand arrangement would make it awkward to hold.

Apple had it relatively easy. At the time they launched the iPod, the start of their current trajectory, the Mac wasn’t doing particularly well, so launching into a whole new niche that had the potential to leave the Mac behind wasn’t a huge risk. The fact that the iPad ultimately has had the momentum to outsell the Mac by a huge margin wasn’t planned, but it also wasn’t hindered by a desire to bring along the Mac base. That indicates where Microsoft is going wrong: they are obsessed with bringing their base along with any major new platform. As long as Windows dominates the desktop, you can see why. But the desktop is fast shrinking to a minority market – even if it remains large in absolute terms.

The real paradigm shift that could eventually be the killer blow is the shift from corporate-defined equipment purchase to consumer-defined choice. Apple failed in the business market not because the IBM PC was superior, but because business buyers wanted to buy from a trusted source. IBM remains one of the most trusted players because they look after their customers – no one ever got fired for buying IBM, as the saying goes. Microsoft rode in on IBM’s coattails. The problem is, in the consumer space, that sort of preference doesn’t apply, and now that devices have become so cheap that anyone (on a salary) can afford one, they have the same purchase status as buying a pen of a watch. With that paradigm shift, Blackberry and Microsoft, to survive, have to appeal directly to the consumer not to the corporate buyer.

Microsoft has demonstrated that capability to some extent with Xbox, and Blackberry with selling to consumers in lower-income countries on the basis of providing cheap Internet access – but both have yet to show that they can leverage those successes in the broader consumer space. As long as they primarily see themselves as owning the corporate space in their respective segments, they will have a block against shifting to the consumer space. And the fear of losing their major advantage over outsiders in the corporate space further exacerbates that block.