An collection of good things from 2012

Everybody else is posting “2012 in review” bits and pieces – so why not have a go.

It is worth reflecting on a more extended basis, IMO; some really good things happened this year. So, in no particular order, here are a few, from the serious to the trivial:

1. The Tesla Model S

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OK, so you can’t buy one in Australia yet. And it’s a pretty pricey vehicle – upwards of $60,000 in the United States, which translates to upwards of $100,000 here.

But an electric car that accelerates like a Ferrari, at least at road speeds (a 12.4 second quarter mile is seriously quick), seats five, and has a practical range of over 300km? I want one. And, by 2020 or so, I reckon the cost will have come down enough that I’ll be able to afford one.

By then, however, I may not need to own a car at all, because driverless taxi services may be well on their way to making the private car redundant. While there’s not a single big development I can point to in that field, there were innumerable small ones showing continued progress.

2. Plain packaging for tobacco

Smoking rates continue to decline in Australia. While it’s too early to tell, it seems that plain packaging might just be helping to ensure that trend continues.

3. The National Disability Insurance Scheme agreement

A massive hole in Australia’s welfare state gets filled. No more disability lottery, where you get what you need if somebody is legally liable, and poorly-funded scattergun support if there’s nobody to sue. Undoubtedly, there will be big teething problems in the implementation. Nor is it the end of the struggle for those with disabilities to get the help they deserve to fully participate in our society. But the NDIS seems now to be an idea that is so broadly supported that not even an Abbott government will be able to kill it.

4. Destroying The Joint

And may the destruction continue in 2013.

5. SpaceX’s Dragon docking with the ISS

OK, OK, so this is listing another one of Elon Musk’s projects, but it’s hard not to be impressed. The technical feat of launching a spacecraft into LEO, docking with another spacecraft and returning to Earth is not, at one level, particularly impressive – after all, NASA managed it back with Gemini in the mid-60s. But what SpaceX has managed to do is achieve it for a fraction of what the Shuttle or even the Russians do. And they’ve done it without any particular magic, just straightforward, even conservative contemporary engineering without 50 years of legacy crap associated with it and with a desire to cut costs rather than bloat them.

Their next technical goals are crew-rating their Dragon capsule, and making their rockets reusable.

6. The war on guinea worm is close to being won

Polio eradication hangs in the balance, in part because of the CIA’s gross irresponsibility. Case numbers in Nigeria have also grown. But the news on guinea worm is rather better. The number of cases has halved compared to 2011, with the vast majority of them restricted to a single province of South Sudan. With any luck, Jimmy Carter will live to see guinea worm consigned to the history books. With a bit more luck, polio eradication, particularly in Nigeria, will get back on track.

7. Statistics 1, gut-based punditry 0

This wasn’t of any great consequence, but it was enjoyable nonetheless and might, hopefully, feed into the way elections are covered in Australia as well.

Nate Silver’s election forecasting methods aren’t revolutionary. As I understand it (I’m not a real statistician) he aggregated state poll information to make a collection of estimators for each state, and then ran a bunch of simulations and counted the frequency of various outcomes, and used the frequency of simulation outcomes to predict the likelihood of a range of outcomes for the election. It’s all in the textbooks, and a number of other groups did similar things and got similar results.

That the results came right slap bang in the middle of the range of predictions was a little bit fortuitous (you can’t judge the accuracy of an estimator based on a single data point), but it did show up the folly of trusting the gut of supposed “experts” when the data is overwhelmingly and unambiguously pointing in the other direction.

Unfortunately, the Australian mainstream media punditocracy still can’t interpret quantitative data to save itself, as shown clearly by the feverish excitement about the random noise that is the fortnight-to-fortnight movement in Newspoll.

8. The Armstrong myth was finally, definitively busted

Look, it was a great fairy tale. But a fairy tale it was, as was obvious once you looked at how fast they were going compared to the riders of yesteryear (and, now, after the introduction of the blood passport).

There’s more to come, by the way. There’s an investigation into the tax affairs of Michele Ferrari, Armstrong’s doping doctor, and his many clients. My guess is that this will go well beyond cycling.

9. Africa’s economic boom

Undoubtedly, much of the economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa is ending up in the pockets of local elites. But poverty rates are reducing in many countries.

10. The Carbon Tax Came – and the wonks were right.

Whyalla is still here. Food costs were, surprise surprise, pretty much unaffected. The miners continued to dig as fast as they could; and where they didn’t, it was due to commodity prices coming off the boil.

In other words, the short-run impact on people’s daily lives was minimal, as anybody who took a minute to look into the issue would have realized, and Treasury predicted.

Yes, action is far slower than it needs to be. But at least we have, to borrow a certain well known arse-selling huckster, real action on climate change. Now, let’s hope that some of the really big emitters get their act together.

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