Archive for the ‘Personal’ Category

Rain

Thursday, 21 July, 2011

Wow, it’s wet outside. I haven’t been out in rain that heavy in a year or two, at least. I was dry when I got off the train, literally 2 minutes walk from home. I had a heavy knee-length raincoat and an umbrella. By the time I got home, I was soaked through to the knees.

Sydney has had 160 mm of rain in the past 48 hours. There’s an enormous subtropical storm of some sort hanging off the coast. Apparently the swells out to sea are 10 metres, and waves up to 5 metres are hitting Sydney beaches.

Buying fruit

Sunday, 10 July, 2011

So I was buying groceries at the supermarket and they had some odd looking fruit there that I didn’t recognise. Wife thought they looked interesting and grabbed a few. Then when we got to the checkout, the guy at the register put them on the scales, looked for a second, then asked me what they were. I said, “I have no idea.”

He had to get the woman on the next register to come over and identify them.

(They were nashi pears, although of a variety that I hadn’t seen before. I thought they were similar to nashis, but they looked different enough that I wasn’t sure. And it was cool to just say I had no idea.)

Breakfast cereal

Sunday, 3 July, 2011

I can’t believe there’s such a thing as Milo breakfast cereal. Why don’t they just drop all pretence and sell Violet Crumble cereal, and Mars Bar cereal, and Toblerone cereal?

New York dream

Sunday, 5 June, 2011

Dream from the other night:

I’d been on a trip to New York, and as usual I’d taken a lot of photos. In particular, there was one street scene of the surrounding architecture that I’d been pleased to spot, and had composed a lovely photo to capture it. But when I got back home and reviewed my photos, that one shot hadn’t turned out exactly as I’d planned it, for some reason.

So the next weekend, I left work on Friday afternoon, went to the airport, and hopped on a flight to New York. Some 24 or so hours later I was in New York, left the airport, got a taxi to the exact same location on the street, recomposed the photo, took it, hopped back in the taxi and went straight back to the airport, where I hopped on a flight home, just in time to go to work on Monday morning.

I didn’t even get to see how the re-taken photo turned out.

Senators Online?

Saturday, 7 August, 2010

The Australian federal election is in two weeks. Someone pointed out to me one of the relatively new political parties running for positions in the Senate: Senator Online. It turns out they’re running two Senate candidates in every state.

Here’s the interesting part. They have only one policy. That policy can be summed up as:

For every bill that comes up for vote in the Senate, our senators will vote according to the results of a web poll that we run on that bill.

The fine detail is that this will happen on a state-per-state basis, there is a minimum threshold of registered Senator Online voters to get the senator to do anything, and the web poll result must be a 70% majority otherwise the senator will simply abstain. (And they’re going to be very careful to avoid web poll stacking.) But basically it’s opening up the Australian Senate to what is effectively an Athenian style direct democracy, where very voter has a direct vote in every bill, rather than letting elected representatives decide.

My initial reactions to this, in order, were:

  1. Oh dear. It’s going to end up like California, encumbered under the weight of direct citizen-enacted legislation that has mass-appeal but which is actually economically or socially irresponsible.
  2. Or maybe not. Actually, this is an interesting idea. If there were one or two Senator Online senators elected, it could actually be very interesting. It might shake up Australian politics.
  3. Hmmm. If one of these guys does get elected, will the Parliament let the senator be dictated by the whims of an online poll? They might introduce legislation to make this sort of thing illegal. Although… it’s hard to see what could be inherently illegal about it.
  4. While one or two of these senators might be interesting, if all of our Senate was directed by web polls of the general public, the country would quickly degenerate, with populist but disastrous policies being enacted. You know, thinking about this makes me glad, in a surprisingly non-cynical way, that our government works the way it does, and that our elected representative actually do know more than Joe Q. Public about economic theory, foreign relations, social justice, and other stuff. It’s easy to be cynical about how incompetent politicians are, but realistically, they do a better job at running the country than 90% of people could do, or that would be done by Athenian-style democracy.

Anyway, realistically speaking, it’s very doubtful that Senator Online will get a senate quota in any state. But still, it’s interesting to contemplate.

Trusting in Science

Thursday, 8 April, 2010

Why do so many people distrust science, scientists, and informed scientific consensus so much?

Maybe it’s old news, but I had an insight into this when looking at some stuff about Riedel wine glasses. (This is not a wine post, really.) These glasses are marketed as “scientifically” designed to maximise the experience and enjoyment of drinking a glass of wine. What’s more, they have dozens of different glass shapes, each “designed” to work best for some particular type of wine. The upshot is – if you believe this – that to enjoy your wine to the maximum you need to buy about 8 different sets of Riedel glassware.

Many people can spot the conflict of interest here. Obviously it’s to Riedel’s advantage if it’s true that to best enjoy your cabernet sauvignon you need a different glass to the one you drink merlot from. So if they say it’s true, then even the mildly cynical can easily come to the conclusion that they’re just making it up.

And what about those wrinkle creams? You know the ones, that are advertised as “scientifically proven to reduce wrinkles by 78%”. How do you even measure that wrinkles have been reduced by 78%? Does anyone really believe that?

The culprit here is advertising. Advertisers like to use “science” to promote their products, because it has a veneer of authenticity that gets some people to trust their products. But most of us have become habituated to “scientific” claims by advertisers and just mentally filter them out or assign a low weight to them and evaluate the products on our own criteria. Science has become something that you can choose to believe if you want – and maybe you’re gullible if you believe it.

Unfortunately, that’s a misguided representation of science. When hundreds or thousands of experienced scientists agree that something is most probably true because of all the research, data collection, analysis, and peer review that they’ve put in, it’s not the same as a claim on a commercial. It actually has serious weight behind it, and you better take on board the idea that what they’re saying is more likely to be true than not. Yes, there are counterexamples, but they are few in a vast edifice of consistent, established scientific knowledge. The odds of any given piece of scientific consensus turning out to be incorrect are very small indeed.

The problem is, large swathes of laypeople who don’t fully understand how science operates simply look on it as another marketing move. They feel free to be cynical, and to completely disregard what the scientific consensus says. Especially if they don’t like what the message is, or it makes them uncomfortable in some way.

Science is about uncovering the truth, not about concocting stories designed to sell a product. Stories can be made palatable. The truth is different; it doesn’t always fit the way we want the world to work. Disbelieving it won’t make you immune from it. Science has checks and balances to make sure that mistakes or lies don’t get propagated. That’s why it’s such a huge scandal whenever a scientist is found to have falsified data or lied about a research result. This is the absolute capital sin of science, and when it is discovered it is treated accordingly. Careers in science can be ruined by one instance. You can be pretty sure that the vast majority of scientists out there are keeping their noses clean, and when they say they have research to support some conclusion, that they really do have solid data behind it.

Advertising is a completely different beast. Judging science by the standards you use to judge advertising is simplistic and misguided. But it’s a trap that more and more people seem to be falling into, alas.

Left turn on red

Tuesday, 23 February, 2010

I was very nearly in a car collision on the weekend. Firstly, remember for context that we drive on the left in Australia.

I was approaching a crossroads intersection intending to go straight ahead, and had a green light. Normally this means nothing should be getting in your way – all of the traffic in the cross street should be stopped at a red and waiting for the lights to change. Except one of the cars on the left side of the cross street wasn’t. It was creeping out into the intersection. As I was about in the middle of the intersection (with my light still green) and about to enter the ongoing street, the car on my left suddenly accelerated and made to turn into the same street I was heading into. Into the same lane I was in (two-lane street, with the leftmost lane was full of parked cars).

This was so shocking I didn’t have time to do anything. I had no time to brake. I couldn’t even reach the horn fast enough to sound a warning blast. Fortunately the driver of the other car must have (finally) spotted me and screeched to a stop, it must have been millimetres from crashing into the passenger side of my car, and my wife.

There’s absolutely no doubt the other car was facing a red light at the time. The only question is why did it attempt to make the left turn? I know that right turn on red is a common permitted action in North America, and the local equivalent would be left turn on red – but left turn on red is illegal in Australia. Except at a few quite rare intersections where it is explicitly allowed by a sign.

The number of intersections where left turn on red is allowed in Sydney is minuscule. I can think of only two intersections that have the relevant signs, in all of the intersections that I regularly or occasionally drive through. (That number is now three, assuming the intersection in question actually had such a sign and the other car’s driver wasn’t doing something completely illegal.) But the thing is, this is not the first time I’ve been in a near collision at one of those intersections, caused by another car attempting to turn left on red and not paying enough attention to the oncoming traffic.

The problem is that Sydney drivers are not used to this rule. It’s illegal at something close to 99% of the intersections in the city. So when it does appear, it’s unfamiliar, and leads to not being fully aware of all the relevant traffic conditions when attempting the manoeuvre. I’m aware of it myself, when I am caught by the red light and permitted to turn left by the sign – I’m trying to watch the oncoming traffic to see if it’s safe to turn, while also keeping an eye on the light in case it actually goes green, and trying to ignore the idiot behind me beeping at me for being too slow. It’s a combination of attention factors that never occurs at any other intersection in the city, and it makes it difficult to judge when you should go. With the inevitable result.

I’ve felt for years that these intersections are accidents waiting to happen. Now that my near misses at those intersections have gone from 2 to 3 in the past decade or so, I’m convinced of it. Perhaps in jurisdictions where turning on red is normal, drivers are more used to it and so better able to avoid problems – although a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report might indicate otherwise. It finds an average of 84 fatal collisions per year at “right turn on red” intersections across the USA.

The report stresses that the data don’t include details of whether the turning car had a red or green light and wants to claim that the “right turn on red” crashes may therefore be as low as zero – but really, when are you more likely to have a crash, turning right on red when there is a good chance of oncoming traffic getting in your way, or turning right on a green, when there should be nothing else in your way? Weirdly, the report then goes on to say that 84 fatalities a year is peanuts compared to the overall road toll anyway, so “the impact on traffic safety is small”.

I hope someone has a nice job telling that to 84 families a year.