Archive for the ‘Opinion’ Category

Now and the 80s

Saturday, 21 January, 2017

So, I realised what the current world situation feels like.

I remember growing up in the 1980s. As kids we were existentially worried about a lot of things.

  • We worried about AIDS – a frightening disease with no cure that could turn into an unstoppable epidemic.
  • We worried about the ozone hole – a major environmental issue that could lead to vastly increased rates of cancer and deleterious effects on plants and animals.
  • We worried about global nuclear war – a political danger that threatened to kill pretty much everyone in horrible ways.

It seemed like there was a pretty good chance that none of us would have the chance to grow up to be adults, because civilisation might well not last that long. It was this background of all-pervading existential angst that underlaid the 80s.

But now isn’t an exact parallel to the 80s. The difference back then was:

  • We had medical science that people trusted to do life-saving research and less ineffective folk remedies, anti-science, and unhealthy paranoia about “germs” leading to rampant overuse of antibacterials.
  • We had an international agreement to ban ozone-depleting chemicals, and every nation carried through with it within a few years, rather than ignoring it as “too hard”.
  • We had Russian and American leaders who were actually working together to try to defuse hostilities and reduce the threat of a major war.

Oh, and the other good thing about the 80s was that angst led to a decade of cool protest songs and other music. :-)

Wikipedia’s protest shutdown

Wednesday, 18 January, 2012

Does nobody else see the irony in this?
English Wikipedia anti-SOPA blackout
Do not disrupt Wikipedia to illustrate a point

Sure, protest. But to do it by flouting one of Wikipedia’s own strong principles is undermining their credibility. And annoying. Organise a protest march, petition people, whatever. But to deliberately make things inconvenient for millions of people just to make a point is childish.

Soft, what toothbrush through yonder window breaks

Wednesday, 21 December, 2011

For about the past six weeks now, every time I go into a supermarket I check for toothbrushes. And I haven’t been able to find any suitable for use in our bathroom. There are two problems:

  1. We want toothbrushes with soft bristles. Our dentist and all tooth care advice I’ve ever seen, anywhere, ever, says you should only ever use soft toothbrushes. They’re gentler on teeth and gums, they clean just as well, and they don’t cause problems of abrasion or irritation. Every dental professional I’ve ever heard has repeated the same thing. Never, ever, for any reason, use medium or hard toothbrushes, always use soft. The problem seems to be that (a) everyone has heard the exact same advice, (b) except toothbrush manufacturers. They seem to make toothbrushes in roughly equal ratios of soft, medium, and hard. Combine this with (a) and the result is what I see at least 90% of the time I’m out trying to buy toothbrushes: The sections for medium and hard brushes are absolutely full of brushes, while the section for soft brushes is out of stock. Why don’t the manufacturers make more soft brushes??
  2. Toothbrush manufacturers are kind of like razor manufacturers. They seem to love adding new features to toothbrushes. Tongue cleaners, rubber massagey bits, spiral bristles, colour indicator bristles, ridged bristle shapes, micro-textured bristles. At some point it became de rigeur for toothbrushes to be made with big, chunky rubberised grips, moulded to the contours of your hand, presumably for easier gripping and manipulation. The problem is these enormous chunky grips don’t fit into the slots in our incredibly expensive and lovely gold-trim chrome toothbrush holder that matches all the other fittings in our bathroom. It seems only the el cheapo brands of toothbrush have plain handles that fit any more. And of course they’re only available in hard bristles…


Oh, and I had a dream last night in which we found a hidden stash of soft brushes lurking behind some hard ones in the store. We grabbed every single one to buy and hoard. I presume this is what everyone else does when they see soft toothbrushes in the store…

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?

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.