All posts by Peter Rohde

Quantum computer scientist, Mountaineer, Adventurer, Composer, Musician, Public Speaker, DJ

The case for industrial relations reform

Recently, here in Australia, there has been an enormous amount of controversy surrounding the government's proposed reforms of the industrial relations system. While details of the proposed changes are still scarce (or at least I'm not particularly up-to-date with them), I will present a broad case for the need for industrial relations reform and labour market deregulation, and attempt to dispel some of the myths perpetuated by its opponents. I will speak generally, without specific reference to the changes being proposed. However, much of what I say is directly applicable to the proposed reforms.

The motivation for labour market deregulation

  • Improved competitiveness
    In today's world it is not possible to consider Australia, or any other country for that matter, in isolation from all others. When determining any sort of economic policies one needs to consider them in the context of the world economy, not just in terms of any single country. This said, there is no denying that many other countries, particularly developing ones, are becoming increasingly competitive. For this reason, if Australia is to remain competitive internationally, the artifical inflation of labour costs (i.e. labour market regulation) needs to be systematically eliminated.
  • Create jobs
    Whether we like it or not, it's a simple fact of life that employers, whether they be governmental or in the private sector, have finite financial resources at their disposal with which to employ people. It is clear that if labour costs are higher then employers will be able to employ fewer people. In my opinion, so long as there are people in society who are unable to find work, the priority of labour market policy ought to be to create full employment, not to artificially boost the incomes and entitlements of those who have jobs at the expense of those who do not. Moving towards a deregulated labour market model is more conducive to this goal than the regulated and protectionist model advocated by social democrats and the union movement, which prices people out of jobs.
  • Improved productivity
    Government imposed regulations and, in particular, collective bargaining decouple employee income and benefits from productivity, thereby undermining incentive. Both have the effect of placing all working class citizens in the one basket, labelled 'workers'. In practice, some workers work harder than others, some are more productive than others, some are willing to work longer than others and so on. For this reason, adopting a system which encourages individually negotiated workplace contracts over regulated collectively bargained contracts is desireable.
  • Respect for personal liberty
    In addition to the economic motives, labour market deregulation is desireable simply from the point of view that it advances personal freedom. In a free society every individual should be entrusted to make all personal decisions for themselves. Nobody other than the individual is better qualified to decide what terms of employment are favourable. Labour market regulations, on the other hand, shift this decision making responsibility from the individual to the government, undermining individual discretion.

Myths about industrial relations and labour market policy:

  • Mandatory entitlements create prosperity
    There seems to be a widespread misconception in society that by legislating employee entitlements and benefits the living standards and working conditions of the working class will be improved. This couldn't be further from the truth. In practise, mandatory entitlements serve only one goal, to artificially inflate the cost of labour. By inflating the cost of labour people are priced out of jobs, resulting in increased unemployment. Prosperity cannot be legislated or regulated into existence. Rather, it is economic growth which creates prosperity for the working class. There is only one way to advance living standards, and that is to embrace pro-economic growth policies.
  • Legislated job security creates job security
    Job security is a benefit like any other, and, like any benefit, it carries a cost to the employer. For this reason job security is best left open for negotiation. There are plenty of people in society who would be more than happy to accept a job without guaranteed security, if the alternative is no job whatsoever. What about people who presently have jobs with guaranteed security? Would these people stand to loose such security under a deregulated system? The answer is no. If peoples' jobs are economically viable with guaranteed security now, so they will be tomorrow, and there is no reason why an employer would be unwilling to negotiate the same terms into an employment contract tomorrow. So what's the difference then? The difference is that some jobs which presently don't exist because they are economically unviable to employers, would become viable. Legislated job security, like other mandatory entitlements, prices people out of jobs, inhibits peoples' ability to freely negotiate, and creates unemployement.
  • Unfair dismissal laws prevent unfair dismissmal
    As I see it, there are two types of dismissal: dismissals which are made in the interest of the employer (e.g. for financial reasons); and, dismissals which are not in the interests of the employer, but which are made anyway for personal reasons (e.g. racial, sexual or religious discrimination, or personal disagreements). Allow me to address both of these types of dismissal individually.

    The former type of dismissal is not, in my opinion, unfair dismissal. Instead, while certainly unfortunate, it is a perfectly legitimate act. It is of fundamental importance that employers be able to act in their own financial interests. If their ability to do this is limited, so too is growth, which, in the long term, costs more jobs. Alternately, the employers might just take their business somewhere else, which, again, costs more jobs.

    In the case of the later type of dismissal, which I refer to as unfair dismissal, it is highly dubious that any sort of government regulation or legislation can be effective. If an employer is genuinely discriminatory, rather than hire and fire someone, they simply wouldn't hire them in the first place. In the case of an employer firing an employee on personal grounds, even if such acts are prohibited there is simply no way of stopping a determined employer from finding some other pretext by which to fire the employee, or make their life so miserable that they'll leave on their own accord. Truly unfair dismissal is something which is near impossible to legislate against, serves to discourage legitimate dismissal and exposes employers to spurious unfair dismissal claims.

  • Minimum award wages protect the battlers in society
    Minimum award wages are simply another form of legislated benefit and achieve the same result, to price people out of jobs. While it is clear that there is a subsistence level below which people cannot survive financially, it needs to be kept in mind that whenever the minimum award wage is increased, there will necessarily be people who loose their jobs as a result. For this reason, award wages ought to be kept as close to the subsistence level as possible.

Having stated my views on these issues, I will suggest policy goals which, in my opinion, will reduce unemployment and boost productivity.

Peter's policy recommendations:

  • Eliminate all minimum award wages and unemployment support, replacing it with negative income tax for people with incomes below the subsistence level
    By completely eliminating all minimum award wages, nobody who is willing and able to work will be unable to find work. Why, if I could employ someone for one cent per hour, I would single handedly take a big bite out of the country's unemployment level (my house could use a paint). To counteract the problem of there being many workers left below the subsistence level, and as an alternative to unemployment support, negative income tax could be employed to boost the effective income of such people back up to the equivalent of the minimum award wage. This would cost the state no more than having these people sitting on the dole and claiming the same benefits. However, productivity would be massively boosted.
  • Eliminate all forms of mandatory workers' entitlements, including job security
    All terms of employment contracts ought to be left open for negotiation. This will encourage a more competitive and productive labour market and not price people out of jobs.
  • Enshrine in law the right of employees to negotiate individual employment contracts
    Freedom of association is a fundamental human right. For this reason closed-shops should be outlated. Under such a system individual workplace contracts would become more common, resulting in an increase in performance based pay, which is more conducive to high productivity.

Climbing the Zugspitze

To finish off my holiday in Germany, where I have been visiting relatives in Berlin and Baden-Baden, I made a short detour to the German Alps, where I climbed Germany's highest mountain, the Zugspitze (2964m). I have only ever visited the Alps in winter for a skiing holiday and visiting in summer is a completely different, yet equally beautiful experience.

The climb started from the German-Austrian border town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen at 700m. From there the route follows through the Partnachklamm, an extraordinary narrow gorge created by the runoff from molten snow off the Zugspitze. The route then continued up the Rheintal, a beautiful valley between two long rock-faces. The Rheintal leads directly up to the Zugspitz plateau (Zugspitzplatt), a popular skiing destination in winter, where I learned to ski about five years ago. From the plateau the summit is reached by ascending a steep snow slope followed by some rock-scrambling. At the summit of the Zugspitze is the famous Münchener Haus (Munich House), a bar/restaurant, which can be accessed by gondola or cog-wheel train from Garmisch-Partenkirchen. For this reason, unlike most Alpine peaks, which are secluded and solitary, the summit of the Zugspitze is teeming with tourists. This is not quite the atmosphere that a mountaineer hopes to be rewarded with, although I have to confess that it is quite nice to able to sit down and have a coffee after climbing for 7 hours.

Only an hour into my journey, while still on the completely flat part of the Rheintal, my right knee, which I injured several months ago during the Brisbane Marathon, began playing up again. I was determined not to give up, even though I had virtually the entire ascent ahead of me, so instead of turning back I started experimenting with different ways of walking so as to try and remove the strain from the painful part of my knee. I tried everything from walking with a rigid leg to taking very long steps and must have looked like something from Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks skit. I eventually discovered that by walking 45 degrees sideways and cross-stepping I could walk without any pain in my knee whatsoever. So this is how I continued for the rest of the 22+ km journey, looking like Zorba the Greek turned hiker. This must have been quite amusing for the seven other parties I met along the way.

I was very fortunate to have had extremely good weather on the day making for an incredible view. From the summit I could see as far as Munich, the Großglockener (Austria's highest mountain), the Italian Dolomites and the Swiss Alps.

View from the summit of the Zugspitze (2964m), looking towards the German-Austrian town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen.

The ins and outs of quantum cryptography

This post is based on a conversation with Bill Munro from HP Labs.

One of the few uses for quantum information theory which is accessible using existing technology is quantum cryptography or quantum key distribution (QKD). QKD gives us a means by which to - in principle - share random bit strings with complete security, by which we mean that any attempt to eavesdrop on the communication can be detected and there is no way of circumventing this. So what's the use in sharing a random bit string with someone? There is only one completely uncrackable encryption protocol, known as the one-time pad or Vernam cipher. By 'completely uncrackable' we mean that - hypothetically speaking - even with infinite computing power at one's disposal, it is not possible to crack. The one-time pad protocol relies on a completely secure random bit string as a resource. The caveat is that the random bit string must be as long as the message being encrypted. For this reason the one-time pad is rather impractical in most situations, since if we had the means by which to securely share a random bit string we could have just used it to share our secret message in the first place. QKD solves this problem.

There have been many experimental demonstrations of QKD over increasingly long distances and recently commercial cryptography systems based on QKD have become available, most notably by MagiQ. Companies which manufacture commercial QKD systems tout the incredible security of QKD which is 'guaranteed by the laws of physics'. In principle such a claim is correct. However, Bill drew my attention to a very interesting point recently. The rate at which commerical QKD systems can communicate random bit strings is very slow - on the order of a hundred bits per second. Since the one-time pad requires a random bit string as long as the message to be encrypted, it should be clear that such a system is not going to be useful for anything but the smallest messages. For this reason, these systems don't actually employ the one-time pad algorithm at all. Instead they employ conventional cryptographic protocols such as triple-DES and AES, which require much smaller keys. Of course this completely undermines the security of QKD, since QKD inherently derives its security from the fact that the one-time pad is the only completely secure cipher.

When I first learned this I was extremely surprised, since, while it may not be explicitly advertised, it is taken for granted that any QKD system will employ the one-time pad cipher. My take on all this is that customers of current QKD systems are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for cryptosystems no more secure than freely available software packages like PGP.

New paper: Optimal photons for quantum information processing

Photons - particles of light - are not like the particles we encounter in everyday life, like say, a marble, which is localized in space. Instead, photons are distributed across space. The way in which a photon is distributed, which we can loosely think of as its shape, is characterized by its so-called wave-packet or wave-function. There are many different ways in which photons can be produced experimentally, and the wave-packets of the produced photons varies enormously between these different schemes.

In my previous paper ``Quantum gate characterization in an extended Hilbert space" (discussed in my previous post), we examined the effects of mode-matching upon the operation of linear optics quantum gates. During this research, one observation we made was that the significance of mode-mismatch in a circuit depends very heavily on the wave-packets of the photons used in the experiment. Naturally, every experimentalist wants to minimize the effects of mode-mismatch since it destroys the operation of their gates. This motivates the question ``what type of wave-packets minimize the effects of mode-mismatch?". In this paper - joint work with Tim Ralph and Michael Nielsen - (pre-print available at quant-ph/0505139) we address this question and establish two criteria which minimize such effects:

  • Photons should be Gaussian in shape (i.e. they should look like a Bell-curve)
  • Photons should be as broad as possible (i.e. the Gaussian curve should be stetched out as much as possible)

From a practical perspective this means that experimentalists should try and employ photon sources which produce photons of this type. In principle this should improve the operation of experimental quantum gates.

New paper: Quantum gate characterization in an extended Hilbert space

This paper is joint work with Tim Ralph, who assisted with the theoretical component, and Jemery O'Brien and Geoff Pryde, who performed the experimental work. In fact, this paper isn't so new. It's been sitting on the arXiv for quite a while now (pre-print available at quant-ph/0411144), but I haven't had the chance to write a post about it yet.

In my previous post on my paper ``Frequency and temporal effects in linear optics quantum computing", I discussed the importance of photon distinguishability on the operation of linear optics quantum gates (see my previous post for an introduction). In this previous work we considered the effects of input distinguishability, which arises during the production of photons. In reality, while this is a very significant problem worth considering, photon distinguishability can arise in more ways than just during preparation. Specifically, it can arise internally within gates, a phenomena referred to as mode-mismatch. This is one of the most significant problems facing the experimental realization of linear optics quantum computing. In this paper we consider this more general problem of mode-mismatch. We develop a means by which to model it theoretically, and demonstrate this by applying it to a model of the controlled-NOT gate which was experimentally demonstrated at the University of Queensland Quantum Technology Lab.

Using our model for mode-mismatch and experimental data obtained from the laboratory, we were able to use a fitting procedure to estimate the parameters characterizing the magnitude of the mode-mismatch at different locations in the circuit. This is very useful as an experimental diagnostic tool, since it allows us to non-intrusively gain insight into what's going on inside experimental gates using data measured from the gate. This information, which gives an indication as to where things are going wrong, can then potentially be used to tweak experimental gates and improve their performance.

Travel debacles

Today I have two bitter rants:

  • After spending approximately 24 hours travelling from Brisbane to Baltimore, via Auckland, Los Angeles and Chicago, and feeling somewhat tired from lack of sleep, I was naturally most delighted to find that American Airlines had lost my luggage. When I fly, there are exactly two things I expect:
    • The carrier should get me to my destination
    • The carrier should get my luggage to my destination

    I don't care about bags of salted peanuts and hot towels, just those two things. Failing on one half of my quite reasonable expectations is, needless to say, a little irritating. Almost a day after arriving, American Airlines still apparently has no idea where my luggage is. Apart from being just plain annoying, this leaves me in a somewhat awkward situation. Tomorrow morning I am due to give my presentation at the CLEO/QELS conference here in Baltimore, and it goes without saying that I would prefer not to deliver this talk to an audience including many prestigious people and potential future employers wearing hiking boots and my crinkled Hawaiian t-shirt that I have been wearing for the last two days.

  • A word of advice for presenters: never deliver a presentation using Microsoft PowerPoint. While I typically refuse to present talks using PowerPoint, instead opting for PDF which is much more stable across platforms, on this occasion I had to submit a PowerPoint file for my talk. Being as paranoid about this prospect as I am, I made sure to go and test my presentation on their computers before delivering the talk. Oh and what a surprise it was! Who would have thought that none of the pictures would display? Surely not using PowerPoint? So, I asked to be allowed to submit a PDF instead. If any conference organizers read this, please accept this advice: phase out PowerPoint. Not only does it not operate across platforms, it does not operate between computers of the same platform, or even the same computer full-stop.

Update: Well, after 24 hours I finally have my luggage back and I once again have the luxury of wearing clean clothes.

Heading overseas: US, UK & Europe

On Saturday I'm heading off to Baltimore, Maryland, for CLEO/QELS, an international optics conference, where I'll be giving a presentation entitled "Quantum gate characterization in an extended Hilbert space", based on the paper with the same name (pre-print quant-ph/0411144). This is joint work with Tim Ralph, Geoff Pryde and Jeremy O'Brien.

Following the conference I'll be heading to the UK, where I'll spend two weeks visiting Ian Walmsley's group in the Physics Department at Oxford University. I'm very excited about this and it should be a fantastic opportunity to work with new people with similar research interests, who are outstanding in their field.

Finally, following my visit to Oxford, I'm taking two weeks holiday leave to visit friends and family in Germany. With any luck I hope to briefly head down the the German Alps and climb a few peaks, most notably the Zugspitze (2964m), Germany's highest mountain. I had originally intended to go to the French Alps and have a shot at Mt. Blanc (4810m), the highest mountain in Western Europe, however time was too short. I'll leave it for next year, when I hope to be back in Europe again.

The buzzing world

I discovered an interesting new site today called Buzztracker. The site refers to the Google world news directory and constructs a world map superimposed with differently sized red dots representing the number of stories associated with geographical locations. Differently shaded lines between dots represent the stength of relationships between stories associated with those locations.

This provides a very interesting depiction of what's happening in the news around the world. Even more interesting is seeing how the relationships change from day to day as new world events unfold.

Buzztracker daily image

Brisbane marathon

On Sunday I entered my first marathon, the annual Brisbane "Lest We Forget" Marathon, organised by the Returned and Service League (RSL) as a charity fundraiser. The course (below) went up and down the Brisbane River on both sides, and looped through the Botanical Gardens, making for quite a scenic route.

Entering a marathon was quite a leap for me, since I've never run anything close to this distance before. In fact, my only training for this event was my usual twice-weekly 7km runs, exactly one sixth of the marathon distance of 42km. Needless to say, by the time I crossed the finish line, which thankfully I did, I was a complete and utter cripple and barely able to walk. The first half-marathon went without a trouble, which I completed in exactly 2 hours. This isn't too bad and I was extremely happy. At this point I was feeling fine and keeping pace with a large group of runners. The next 10km began to become quite strenuous on my legs, but still went by without any dramas, although at a slower pace. It was the final 10km that really knackered me. My leg muscles were becoming extremely tight and I had to periodically make short stretch stops to avoid complete cramping-up of my legs. By this time my knees were in absolutely agonizing pain, which only became worse once the race had finished *, and my legs were numb and tingly. I had fallen right back and completed the second half-marathon in an appalling 2 hours and 39 minutes, for a total time of an abysmal 4 hours and 39 minutes. Nonetheless, being horrifically slow was hardly my biggest concern. My aim was to run a marathon, not to be competitive. Now I can finally cross 'marathon' off my list of things I have to do in my life, and I can finally move on to the next item on the list... winning a Nobel Prize in Physics. Alright, here we go, starting... now!

What impressed me most about this marathon was not the winner, but one of the people who was amongst the last to cross the finish line. He was in his mid 70's or so, was recovering from two knee operations, and finished only 15 or 20 minutes after myself. Being a mere 23 year old, I naturally found this quite depressing, yet simultaneously very inspiring. Never use age as an excuse!

*When I arrived at work two days later I was greeted by laughter from certain academics - ahem - who compared me to an 80 year old when they saw me trying in desperation to get up a flight of stairs.

Some interesting facts about marathons:

  • According to a calorie calculator I found on the internet, which estimates energy consumption during running based on speed and body mass, I consumed approximately 3023 calories. This is equivalent to three pepperoni pizzas, four and a half hamburgers, or five and half sundae's with hot fudge. Of course, this means none other than now I have a very legitimate excuse to go an eat five and a half (we'll round it up to six) sundaes with hot fudge.
  • According to recent research, a major health hazard facing marathoners is hyponatremia, caused by drinking too much, whereby blood salt levels fall too low. This can result in death. Apparently this condition affects as many as one in eight marathon runners. See this article for more information.

The course of the Brisbane Marathon. The half-marathon does one loop of the circuit. The full-marathon does two.

Googling it up

Many people these days use the well known Google search engine on a daily basis for finding things on the world-wide-web. In recent months, however, Google has extended their search functionality to include much more than just old-fashioned web-searches. In particular, Google has just launched Google Maps, which gives the user an interactive map of all of North America. Satellite imagery can be enabled (see picture below of lower Manhattan Island and Ground Zero), which gives an end result similar to NASA's WorldWind program, which I discussed in a previous post. In addition to imagery, the user can ask for directions from one place to another and be given a complete itinerary and map for the journey.

Another extremely useful search facility, tailored for academics, is Google Scholar, which allows for searching through journals, pre-print archives and many other sources.

Finally, something which I haven't had the opportunity to try for myself, since I'm a mobile phone-less cave-dweller, is Google SMS. This allows for the user to perform searches for businesses, weather forecasts, movie times, product prices, and a multitude of other things using their mobile phones. One particularly novel use which I heard one of the Google co-founders discuss in a recent television interview was the ability to search for product prices within specified geographical constraints. For example, you could dial up the price of a product and be given a list of all the locations within half a mile where that product is sold and what the prices at the respective outlets are. Innovative uses of mobile search technology such as this could potentially have the power, in the long term, to completely revolutionize consumer behaviour and inject a whole new level of competitiveness into markets.

These new search technologies, in my opinion, are perhaps just tip of the iceberg of what is to come. There are countless potential uses for search technology, particular mobile search technology, and it will be very exciting to see what developments arise in the future.