Wednesday, January 31, 2007

First day at school!

Here's the youngest, taken today just before his first day of school, in a photo he chose himself for this post. He's been looking forward to school for ages ("but not till I'm five").

This time last year, it was his sister's first day at school. You can see her first-day excitement back then.

She was brim-full of enthusiasm, whereas he's keen, but more relaxed, almost stoic. They both have confidence, but in different ways.

It's worth showing a photo from yesterday, taken just after his sister's first day back at school:

He's often quite natural in front of a camera, albeit less so when he's asked to pose.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Offloading: Telcos, Energy, Politics, US and Physics

I waver sometimes about the objectives for this blog. In particular, I am torn between recording events/issues that strike me at the time, versus attempting some useful, coherent comment on same (ie, adding value to the information). A lot of it comes down to time constraints. I could make an entry every day if I allowed myself to be brief. A lot of interesting points go down the gurgler because of those time constraints.

So today I’m going to offload a few brief points. Noteworthy recent items:

Issues on privatising telecommunications:
1) Telstra (Australia’s erstwhile government Telco) seems to find it cheaper to drag out litigation of unwinnable cases than to share infrastructure appropriately
2) Thailand is claiming a Singapore-owned Telco is being used for spying. (an idea not beyond the pale)

Alternative energy:
1) On wind power, I’ve never heard discussion of the environmental effects of wind turbines slowing down the wind. One solitary article/paper found on the web, by David Keith of the University of Calgary.
2) I read that roof-installed solar power is 8-14% efficient. Max efficiency is in desert: 50%. Still a way to go (didn’t save source, maybe Wikipedia).
3) See Eu energy policy - very forward thinking

Heard both opposition leader Kevin Rudd and PM John Howard talking on ABC tv. The difference could not be more stark. Rudd is intelligent, articulate, and to the point; Howard is evasive and politicking. For the first time, a major politician is clearly exposing Howard’s weaselness (something like “I may have been guilty of some circumspection on climate change”). Expect signs of sinking, desperation as the election approaches late this year.

An interesting piece on BBC radio overnight. Americans were interviewed on results of a survey showing an appallingly low regard for the US internationally. Interviewees were young, articulate (university setting?) and keenly aware of problems with US foreign policy. The tide may be turning.

Some interesting parallels drawn in the New Scientist between symmetry groups and dimensions – might there be 26 dimensions? Memo to self: brush up on string theory!

Monday, January 29, 2007

Deja Vu (US, 2006): failing cinema language?

My thoughts keeps returning to the film Deja Vu - for the wrong reasons.

It's not often am I wrenched into consideration of cinematic language, and how storytelling works.

This film starts out as a Hollywood "action" film, then partway through it takes a sudden 90 degree turn, and we're into science fiction territory.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for the mainstreaming of science fiction. And the original script must have been considered exciting - it garnered a multi-million dollar sale.

I didn't complain about the science fiction turn in The Prestige - with which this film shares some mind-twisting similarities.

Simply, the language of cinematic narrative seems to have been abrogated here. Out of the present-day, down-to-earth realism - and violence - of a detective story an out-of-genre plot device is suddenly thrust upon us.

It was jarring. More importantly, it had me pulling back from the suspension of disbelief that narrative requires. I was suddenly thinking about a film, how it was written and made, rather than following a story.

My feeling is that the director - Tony Scott - and producer - Jerry Bruckheimer - share culpability for what was created, how it was created, how it was shot and cast. Denzil Washington, for example, is quite a capable actor. But it needed someone who could pull the film out of the everyday, helping to ease the transition before the plot device kicks in. Tony Scott, too, is at his ease in a crashing, wrecking Hollywood film, and he didn't work on the transition enough.
As a team effort, it fails - but culpability goes to the top. This is a shame, because in other respects it was an engrossing film.

(On the other hand, the pre-film logos of the two production companies were quite impressive :)

Friday, January 26, 2007

Virtual Reality gets real

Virtual worlds on the internet are forging a new paradigm that has unlimited possibilities. We simply can't know where they'll take us.

Create your own character, and you can interact in real time with people from around the world, but in a world which is only limited by imagination. The representation is like an animated movie (albeit -to date - with clunkier graphics), but the world is three dimensional and you can explore it and interact with others via your character (avatar).

Second Life is the biggest virtual reality environment, with over a million users accessing it. It is already being used by corporations and organisations with an aim of finding additional ways of interacting with people, via created environments and avatars. For example, IBM can have conferences, publicise their products and services, and so on.

And now: virtual violence. France's racist political Party, Front National, has a presence in Second Life - which has now been disrupted by anti-racist activists. The potential for real violence is nil, of course, but the potential for disrupting the activities of others is real.

The real point here, is that interactions in virtual reality are getting more and more sophisticated. That real people and organisations recognise the benefits of a presence demonstrates the enormous potential behind this new paradigm - a full-on blend of the real and the imagined, to the point where real outcomes can be generated - in effect, negotiated, developed through interactions - that would never have been possible in real life.

Another new fixture on the internet firmament, another new environment to be learnt, another reality.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Some insights into mental illness

An article in the latest New Scientist gave some really new and fresh perspectives on mental illness, especially bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and paranoid delusion.

I'll briefly summarise the insights that struck me as meaningful.

There is a main difference between schizophrenia and bipolar disorder: the apparent lack of emotion in the former, and extremes in the latter. However, it's unsurprising there's some conflation of the two: in reality, there can be considerable overlap.
Although there has been some effort to identify a genetic basis for these, nothing significant has been found so far...

On to paranoid psychosis. This can include delusions of persecution and grandeur, and auditory hallucinations. In fact studies have shown that about 10% of the population will experience those "voices"at some point in their lives. Research has linked these voices to inner speech, or verbal thought, as when children learn to think in words by talking aloud to themselves.

Patients have been shown to subvocalise when “hearing voices”, suggesting they can’t distinguish between their own thoughts and external stimulus.

Trauma has also been linked to paranoia. For instance, two studies have shown a high rate of sexual abuse in patients who hear voices.
There is also evidence that delusions follow long-term experiences of persecution, perhaps leading to oversensitivity. Further, persecutory people have been shown to form conclusions (often wrong) more quickly than average people. [perhaps that reflects higher stress levels due to trauma.]

Delusional people often experience difficulty understanding others’ feelings and beliefs.

All these factors can combine to produce full-blown paranoia.

Much of this may sound rather obvious [in hindsight], but it serves to demystify the illnesses.

The article mentions an interesting experiment involving two jars of beads, one with mostly red (over white) and the other with mostly white. Lay out a sequence from one jar, and ask a subject to decide which jar the beads came from. My thought: it may be helpful to demonstrate to patients the quicker rate of decision making than average, and the greater propensity to incorrect choices.

Cognitive behaviour is also canvassed in the article. An example of this is to encourage a patient to gather concrete evidence of their beliefs, then use experimentation to test that evidence.

The article concludes that these insights pave the way for a greater range of options in treating people with these illnesses.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Greenpeace founder gone brown – why?

For the second time I caught a bit of a Counterpoint program on Radio National, and again I have significant problems with what I hear.

The bloke talking was Patrick Moore, one-time Greenpeace founder, and the transcript is available here.

I caught him talking about people manufacturing scares over PVC, and saying it’s a big beatup.

So I looked up PVC in Encyclopaedia Britannica. Nix. Just some technical details on its manufacture and use.

Later, I looked up Wikipedia. If there’s controversy, it will be listed.

Sure enough. In PVC manufacture, dioxins are released. When PVC is incinerated (as much waste is), dioxins are released into the atmosphere. The simple answer is not to incinerate it? Too difficult to remove from the waste stream, so it will happen. And dioxins are particularly toxic, infiltrating the ecosystem and degenerating flora and fauna for decades. Agent Orange is a notorious example. (not that this is a simple issue: dioxins are present in a lot of manufacturing. But that certainly doesn’t make PVC harmless.)

Next, Moore said GM crops were a beatup. Personally, I’m not sure that they constitute a health hazard, but I am particularly concerned about their ability to escape controlled environments (as they do in most cases) and eventually affect the ecosystem, potentially crowding out indigenous flora.

Moore’s views are consistently scary, and include:
- Pro-nuclear power (potential for hazard in use and in waste is significant, and lasts millennia)
- being one of the last remaining climate change sceptics

I find it difficult to understand why a one-time environmental activist can be so consistently on the wrong side of environmental issues. I’m quite averse to conspiracy theories (Occam’s Razor encourages simpler explanations in most cases), but the only thing I can suggest is that he’s built up an environmental consultancy on the back of his initial reputation, and he’s captive to certain corporate interests. His Wikipedia entry is here; his corporate web site is Green Spirit Strategies. Judge for yourself.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Integrate your computing future

IT analysts IDC* recently dared some predictions for the Australian telecommunications market** for the following year. A summary is available here, but a couple of emerging technology areas caught my eye: fixed-mobile convergence, and mobility management suites.

The former refers to integration of fixed-line and mobile technologies, and the latter refers to the management of mobile technology in all its forms. Perhaps this is less daring than a prediction I read in a science fiction story*** recently (personal wireless access devices), but they speak to a future that is substantially different from our current experience, yet entirely plausible.

example of a mobility management suite

On the one hand, we are seeing integration of various technology areas, but on the other hand, we may see some necessary decoupling of some others. I’ll illustrate.

I have access to several devices that are each very useful in different ways, and each have different levels of portabilility. They include a desktop computer, two laptops, a PDA (pocket computer), a mobile phone, a camera, and several different memory devices (including SD cards and USB sticks).

It’s not easy to juggle these, and in fact I find myself having to switch between them, moving between environments, transferring data, etc.

Yet there are a few fundamentals that are common to the use of them all: network connection, data storage, and input/output devices.

Ideally, I would have each of those aspects available to me wherever I go. To one degree or another that science fiction story depicted aspects of all of these. Perhaps in the future we will find the following:

I will have some attribute that will grant me connectivity wherever I am personally located. I will also have access to my data/applications anywhere (this is currently available, albeit not ideally structured and usable). Lastly, I/O devices would be ubiquitously available for me to access the first two – enabling connection and disconnection with considerable more ease than we currently have.

None of this is unrealistic today. It’s just not as effortless as it could be. As it eventually will be.

*IDC is one of three companies with significant profile that analyse the general I.T. market; the other two are Gartner and Forrester. In addition, specialists The OLAP Report focus on OLAP/BI/databasing. This blog has quoted all four at various times.

**One of the more ambitious predictions was for HD DVD format to die a betamax death [succumbing to the Blu-ray format].

***Megan Lindholm's Cut

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Peter Foster: A clean getaway for a thorough crook

Peter Foster is an Australian conman who has been jailed on at least three continents, and added another two countries to his tally, when he skipped bail in Fiji, but was caught in Vanuatu.

He’s obviously got something going for him. He's a thorough ratbag, yet he had the military onside in Fiji, and was helped out by ‘business partners’ in both his escape from Fiji and safe haven in Vanuatu. He was then caught, yet circumstances conspired to give him a clean getaway. Vanuatu fined him something over $1000 for customs evasion, then deported him (paid for his airfare) to Australia, where he has no outstanding warrent, rather than to Fiji, where he's still wanted. It's like Brer Rabbit getting thrown into the briar patch: please don't fly me at your expense to Australia, it's the last thing I want (heh heh).

He has an exemplary notoriety around the world, yet he still manages to persuade people to help him. His schemes pretty much always involve some form of illegality, yet he still finds new investors.

He must be a particularly persuasive person. The extraordinary high degree of risk associated with investing with him should be a deterrent for most. Perhaps there’s also an element of greed – but as they say about internet scams, if it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t.

About 10 days ago, the Herald engaged someone to run a psychological profile on him. The specific words used were narcissistic and paranoid, but the actual issues are that he has an overvalued sense of self, coupled with a complete lack of empathy for others. However, he is extremely good at feigning that empathy, which is what sucks people in.

The particular irony in his makeup is that his skills are so very good, but since he can’t work with people properly, he never fails to get on the wrong side of the law. Yet if he could understand properly how ethics and legal frameworks are tied together, he could make a serious fortune in legitimate business ventures. But for the life of him, he simply can’t recognise when he’s overstepping the mark.

Quite a combination of personality traits. Unfortunately, not as unusual as it sounds. He's just so persistently nefarious.

5-Feb-07 The report of his deportation was inaccurate at the time, but that's substantially what happened. He ended up in jail for about three weeks, before being sentenced to 2 months in jail. But he sweet-talked an official into allowing him a greater than average sentence remission, and was booted out of the country immediately.

Fiji didn't want him because he was an embarassment, since he fooled the authorities into letting him. The interesting point is that he demonstrated an incredible skill for discerning what his jailer most desires [dirt on the political opposition] then giving a credible impression that he could deliver.

Of course, once deported to Australia, he was promptly arrested for money laundering (something else altogether). His chickens eventually come home to roost; it's just staggering how much of the time he can talk his way out of something, despite his nefarious past.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Obama, ahead of his time?

It’s no surprise to hear Barack Obama has put his hat into the ring for the US presidency race – nearly two years early.

If you said Who? then you’ve already missed the boat. Time magazine picked him for its cover – for this reason – some time back.

Neither should it be a surprise that there was such a flurry of hats shooting into the ring in the wake of the mid-term elections. The Democrats can smell blood – that of Bush, his cronies, and anyone who comes within an ideological whiff of being tainted by the neo-conservative agenda, the oil agenda, or even the very mention of Iraq.

Ah, Iraq. Yet another chance for America to get confused, without even knowing why. Hey, we’re meant to be the good guys, remember? So why’s everyone being mean to us?

Why indeed? You didn’t, after all, create the war on terrorism. ...did you? Well, You certainly made it more of a, well, war, and less of a dialogue. And there’s that little matter of that bastard child of yours, that you keep giving pocket money to, so it can, well, play the bully.

Ahh, I digress. But why not? These people need a bit of a kick in the reality.

No, I was talking about Democrat presidential candidates. At this point in the cycle, the race has never been so NOT wide open.

Obama may have captured some people’s imagination. Partly because he’s the first black (yes, I know his mother’s white) to get a realistic lookin as a major party candidate. Partly because he has a young, dynamic turn of phrase, and seems to say the right things, if sometimes too generalistically. And partly because some relish the Great American video Game turning into Obama versus Osama (although, the sophistication of American politics being what it is, some will think he is Osama).

Yes yes, that’s a bit glib. Harsh, even. His achievements as Senator suggest there is substance behind him. But capturing imagination is one thing. It’s another thing (or two) to:

  • As a relative novice, avoid stumbling under the intense media blowtorch that turns to ash most candidates;
  • Capture the warchest that Hilary has.

Ah Hilary. Synonymous with “polarizing”. That’s another post, another day. And we’ve barely even started on Obama. Good luck to him on that blowtorch thing – I’m quite curious to see how he weathers it. Maybe in a few races time, Barack. Oops, I almost forgot you were black. And America just couldn’t vote for a black. Even harder than voting for a... woman.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The mystery of the Venice pastiche

We got a painting a few years ago. It's no masterpiece, but it sits quite well in our library.

At first glance, it's a picture of Venice.

But it's not. There is a limited number of larger bridges in Venice, and this is not one of them.

A friend of my wife has indicated that it's a pastiche. The main buildings come from a variety of different places; the fishing boat shouldn't be there; and the gondolas aren't Venetian.

The signature is J Glenn, for what it's worth. A competent amateur at best, given the pastiche nature, and the attempted fixup of the building at left. But someone must have been happy with the painting, because it's been given quite a good frame.

I'm curious to know the exact origin of the various elements - in particular, the bridge, and the building at left. Bonus points for the non-descript building second left, and the foreground vista. (I will post some closeups of these.) I would be surprised if the painting doesn't contain some elements of Venice.

Still, it lends good ambience to the room it's in, anchoring the library and bringing that space closer to what we envisaged in the very first place.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Zeugma and the uncertainty of language

Your word of the day is zeugma.

"Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana"

A slow odyssey was kicked off some time last year, when this old joke appeared in a rather apocryphal column in the Herald. It was cited as an example of a figure of speech called a zeugma, and attributed to Groucho Marx.

After some reflection, I've come to doubt the latter, and disbelieve the former.

It often seems to be ascribed to Groucho, but I've read and seen a lot, both by him and about him, without coming across this.

Zeugma is a literary or rhetoric device originating with the Romans (who borrowed the term from the Greek for "yoke"). How does it work? That's where the odyssey comes in, because I've found any number of different definitions of it, and the related term syllepsis.

The consensus definitions seem to be as follows:
zeugma - one term governs two different parts of a sentence.

"during the race he broke the record and his leg" (Take our word)

"to wage war and peace" (Macquarie Dictionary)

syllepsis - one term governs two clauses in different, sometimes inappropriate senses.

"he fought with desparation and his trusty sword" (Macquarie Dictionary)

"he carried the strobe light and the responsibility for the lives of his men." (Wikipedia)

Any more than those definitions, and there's disagreement. Mostly on whether the yoke term applies equally, differently, or incongruously, to the two object (acted upon) clauses.

But the "time flies" joke would seem to be neither zeugma nor syllepsis, because the pivotal term appears twice, albeit in different senses. The only source that accepts it as a zeugma is the one that originally piqued me, and the column in which it was included was certainly no expert.

I have to say that in the six-odd months since I first looked at it, I've seen the definitions on various web sites modify - particularly Wikipedia's entry. Its latest take is that syllepsis is a type of zeugma.

You pay your money and you take your choice. For such an ancient term, it's surprising to see how much disagreement there is. Check out these sources yourself - if you dare:

Sylva Rhetoricae
Take Our Word

16-Jan: PS If the joke needs explaining, it's about those pesky fruit flies.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Cancer: maybe a cure is not the point

Are we coming any closer to beating cancer?

Cancer is, roughly, an uncontrolled division of cells that invades other tissue. An article in New Scientist [same issue as two posts back] presents a number of ideas to suggest a cure for cancer is not much closer than it ever was. However…

It’s been long known that cancer is treatable if caught early enough. And the article suggests that increases in cancer screening has played a part in a significant increase in early diagnosis over the past 30 years. Further, there’s been a reduction in post-mortem diagnosis, because hospital autopsy has declined (at least in the US, which is where the article takes its data from), which means cause of death is less often identified as cancer.

The gist of the article is that an apparent reduction in cancer death is due to a large extent to a shift in diagnosis closer to the onset of the cancer.

This may not tell the full story. Although there’s no silver bullet, I’d say improved treatment of early-stage cancers has played a part. As has a) improved identification of – and awareness of – the causes; and b) a reduction in smoking rates [in the developed world].

But it may be right that we’re no closer to a cure per se. Particularly for late-stage cancer.

The Wikipedia article on cancer indicates environment (including diet, obesity etc) is the chief culprit, although heredity plays a part in a number of cancers.

I cannot recall any cancer in my family or in the family tree. Most seem to die of cardiovascular causes.

So all I need is a regular checkup an a comprehensive list of carcinogens :)

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The 23 Enigma, and meaninglessness

It took me a while to realise the significance of my working on the 23rd floor. Then I remembered: I also live at number 23, and my birthday's on the 23rd.

Now 23 is a good number: it's a prime, so can't be broken down. And it isn't that common. Or is it?

Then I found the 23 Enigma. So there's even a name for it!

Of course, there's a name for that, too: Apophenia. The seeing of patterns in random or meaningless data.

That's also the premise behind Umberto Eco's book Foucault's Pendulum, where the protagonists take a shopping list and build up a conspiracy theory out of it. Which comes back to bite them.

(Ah, Foucault's Pendulum. One of those books that - at the time - everybody had but nobody read. That's when Eco began his downhill slide into esoterica for its own sake. I stopped reading his fiction after Island Of The Day Before. I recommend you stick to Name Of The Rose.)

Still, the concept of apophenia is worth remembering. Especially when confronting numerologists or muddled conspiracy theorists.

Part of the problem is that people often find it hard to handle coincidences, and try to make sense of things by ascribing meaningful patterns to them. Well, good luck to them, and I hope it keeps them out of trouble.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Biodiversity loss: there are reasons

Letters in a recent issue of New Scientist (16 December 2006) gave reason for great pessimism over biodiversity.

The gist of both letters was that the international drop in tiger populations has been due to loss of habitat, rather than poaching for the market in body parts. One letter tells of a recent symposium on tigers, and said there was general agreement that tigers occupy 40% less area than they did 10 years ago. This is an alarming figure, particularly considering awareness of the issue has been global for considerably longer than that. Decades of concern from the developed world has done nothing. Year by year, habitat has been steadily shrinking and will continue to shrink.

It’s easy to blame those countries with a tiger population for their indifference or their weak legislation or enforcement. It’s considerably harder to foster the requisite political will where it matters though.

Developed nations have largely destroyed their native habitat in the march for wealth and progress, and they expect poorer countries to do what they could not do. There is really only one solution: an increase in wealth in those countries with significant remaining wilderness. How that happens is up for debate. But at the very least, the West can give them a step forward: technology transfer would certainly help. But we richer countries are loathe to do what it takes to even feed developing nations, let alone aid them on the path to development.
In fact, it has been demonstrated that human populations stabilise - family sizes reduce - as wealth increases. One more reason to expect better wilderness preservation with escape from poverty.

Without proper partnership between the developed and the developing world, there is a lot more wilderness destruction to come.

The author of one of those tiger letters suggested the tiger population could be saved by fostering the market in tiger body parts: “…the tiger can in effect pay for its own survival”.

Well, that’s one approach. It may ultimately be necessary. It’s a good argument for those who don’t understand the value of biodiversity: appeal to its value in exploitation by humans.

But I’m not convinced that farming such animals is a good substitute for wilderness areas sufficient to enable the full diversity of local fauna to fully interact. We are immeasurably poorer for the loss of wilderness.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Hicks: US anti-democracy is a plague

David Hicks is an Australian incarcerated for five years at Guantanemo Bay. No trial, and if/when one does happen, time served doesn't come off a sentence.

We are infected with the US's disease of anti-democracy, simply because our current Prime Minister is a) a US toady, and b) hopes to benefit from free-trade agreements that are one-sided in favour of the US.

Where else in the western world would you see someone rotting on remand for five years with no trial in sight?

Our government's response has gradually shifted from total disinterest to feigning concern for the time spent without trial. Today's response (from Attorney-General Ruddock) is that they're pressing for a trial to be held, and it will happen very soon. They've been saying that for at least six months now.

Australia's new Director of Military Prosecutions is more direct: it's an abomination.

Hicks is probably a ratbag, and may or may not be guilty of anything. But this is a disgrace. And any government that perpetuates this disgrace is fundamentally hypocritical.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Climate change: The final step in personal action

In the past, I've assembled a list of personal action points (reproduced below) on climate change. They range in scope from the effortless to the consciously proactive. The following can be considered a final step, although it is currently quite difficult, both in analysis and execution:

It's the final step simply because most other actions on the list offset this. There's a lot more that can be done (apart from spreading the word), but personal action revolves around reducing one's personal impact on climate change - in other words, reducing carbon emissions. Yet no matter what you do, you're not going to be able to eliminate all carbon emissions you are personally responsible for.

Once you've taken the easy steps (of reducing your carbon footprint),
a) calculate your remaining impact in carbon emissions;
b) purchase offset credits.

For the first, there are a number of web sites that enable individuals or businesses to calculate their nett carbon load: try, for example, CarbonCounter, ClimateCrisis, NativeEnergy, or Australia's Origin Energy. Typically, they try to make it easy by focusing ot the signigicant carbon-emitting activities, rather than attempting to ferret out all emission sources.

The second step typically involves paying an organisation to do the offsetting, for example by planting trees. It pays to do a little homework though, as it's not easy to do this economically. Recently in Australia, an offset organisation was shown to have difficulties with its model, since it only leased out areas planted in trees, so the tenure wasn't stable.

Suggested steps for reducing your own emissions:
1. Buy your electricity from renewable sources (eg "green electricity" from your supplier)
2. Use public transport where possible.

Suggested steps for personal action:
3. Use your vote to target those with the strongest commitment to action on climate change.
4. Move your superannuation to a green (ethical) fund/manager.
5. Talk to others.
6. Offset your carbon emissions.