Wednesday, February 28, 2007

When China whispers, the world catches a cold

Dangerous to comment on a breaking story, isn't it? Here goes!

Roughly: there was a rumour in China that share market investors were about to be taxed 20% on capital gains. (have I got it right so far?)

As a result, stock markets around the world dip sharply. Why? On fears that the good times were about to end, and the perception that those good times were largely financed by China's powerhouse growth in recent years.

Australia's tradition is that it has ridden on the sheep's back - ie wealth from agriculture. It's currently riding on the dragon's back: trade has been particularly good due to China's insatiable demand for raw material - minerals especially - which Australia has in abundance.

So, riding the dragon, Aus shares take a tumble too.

That's the way it works. Share markets are irrational and inherently unstable. They're particularly suceptible to simple human sentiment - perceptions drive reality.

Last I heard, people were calling the market drops a "necessary correction". Undoubtedly. Especially with hindsight.

But it is true - ironic and true - that China's performance is now in a position to affect the global economy. Of course, they don't have an interest in driving down the filthy capitalists - their fortune is now inextricably tied to those capitalists - and in a capitalistic way.

What drove the rumours? Maybe they came from someone in the know - ie they're true. Fact is, the Chinese government does have an interest in moderating economic activity - capitalism works best when simmering, not overheating. It's plausible there was a plan to use such a tax to cool things down. It's also plausible the government had some desire to extract its share of the good times [more directly].

But as the Chinese government is coming to realise, capitalism is a genie that doesn't step back in the bottle too easily. And in the process of fostering untrammelled economic activity, it has effectively removed from its own power some of the levers of control of the economy - a situation western governments know all too well. If it wants to regain some of that control - or if it wants to [belatedly] redistribute the wealth more - it will find it surprisingly difficult.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

How to make friends online - literally.

I love it. Make your own friends online. For your myspace page. (or even your blog :)

Only 99c at buys you a friend who you can post up, and who will send you a couple of comments a week - made to order, if you like.

Why do I like it? I guess it has something to say about the depth of a lot of networking on the web. Of course, it would appeal more to teens, so maybe it says something about the process of growing up.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Harvard's model for learning

An interesting article in Time on changes to Harvard's teaching regime.

In fact, it's rather radically different from the university learning I know. Better - much better.
Whereas I once had some foolish notion that an undergraduate degree represented the pinnacle of my training, Harvard's model suggests something that a lot would concur with: it's just a basic introduction to learning.
(Notwithstanding that I did complete a graduate degree later - in a different subject.)

In Harvard's plan, there are eight primary subject areas for all:

- Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding

- Culture and Belief - Empirical Reasoning

- Ethical Reasoning

- Science of Living Systems

- Science of the Physical Universe

- The US in the world

- Societies of the world

When I first went to university, I was heavily focused on my core interests: mathematics and computer science. Now that I am older and hopefully wiser, I recognise that the above schema can approximate a fundamental basis for understanding the world. I didn't want that when I was young: I wanted the subjects directly relevant to my future career.

But now, I would treasure such a rounded education - at the start of my life. Maybe I have absorbed the basics of the above - albeit not always in a systematic way. But when I think how much more of a head start I would have had with that base... I would expect to be more knowledgeable and wiser by now.

Exposing just one of the above is quite illustrative. Whatever course one is doing, I would think it is fundamental to have a grounding in maths, logic, and statistics. That's empirical reasoning. And so it goes.

Ethics: fundamental. Physics: fundamental. Exposure to a variety of cultural contexts: fundamental.

The best I can do is foster in my kids such an openness to knowledge and learning - that I lacked when young and impatient.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Polls: the story between the lines

We’ve seen plenty of news in recent times that PM John Howard has been overtaken by opposition leader Kevin Rudd in the opinion polls.

The latest, from Newspoll, puts Rudd 10 points ahead of Howard in the crucial ‘preferred Prime Minister’ question. This in an election year (due around October).

That in itself is not necessarily decisive. In 2004, Mark Latham was similarly ahead of Howard, before plunging in the only poll that mattered. Rudd’s numbers are significantly ahead of where Latham was – but that’s no indicator either.

Betting is often said to be a more reliable indicator than polling. That a collation of five betting sources places Rudd ahead of Howard speaks volumes.

(You can read all about the betting – and polling - on an excellent psephological site, The Look for the charts specifically.)

Yet there’s a couple of very interesting points from that poll that commentators didn’t pick up on.

First, preference for Howard shot down in December, just as soon as Rudd replaced Beazley. That strongly suggests that many people were seeking any viable alternative to Howard (and Beazley wasn’t it). At first, a large number were uncommitted. But that number slowly shifted all the way to Rudd.

So, contrary to conventional wisdom that Oppositions don’t win elections (Governments just lose them), a) Howard is losing it, and b) Rudd is actually winning it.

Second, in a week of verbal sparring, where sentiment could have gone either way, numbers for Rudd shot up. Which suggests that it’s not the message that’s key, it’s the messenger. And people have decided which messenger they favour.

Eight months is still a very long time in politics. But Rudd has provided a very intelligent, witty counterpoint to Howard, while maintaining a conservative demeanour. And barring a debacle worse than the ‘children overboard’ rort of 2004, Rudd only has to stand his ground to win.

The Amazing Brain 5: I'm autistic and I can prove it!

Simon Baron-Cohen is a specialist in autism, one of the scientists who has examined Daniel Tammet's abilities.

Baron-Cohen has developed an Autism Quotient test. It's not definitive, but it can measure people against statistical averages. For a set of 50 questions, the average score is 16.4. Of those who have been diagnosed with an autism-related disorder, 80% score 32 or more.

Try it.

I scored about 34!

Of course, that doesn't make me autistic. It just means I share a number of traits with those diagnosed as autistic. The cluster of symptoms doesn't preclude a (relatively) normal, functioning person scoring high. This can include: a fascination for numbers, a preference for detail work, lower social aptitude (or interest), etc.

In fact, on those scores, I'm getting more autistic as I get older. For example, I'm less interested in socialising than I used to be, but that's because I have my networks already, and in particular a family which soaks up all my enthusiasm for human interaction. And it certainly doesn't help to ever count things I see when walking down the street, or look at car number plates!

Furthermore, my work (and aptitude) is focused on analysis (business, data, technical). On the basis of that test, I might suggest a high proportion of Information Technology professionals might score highly. (It's your stereotypical geek industry, with your stereotypically geek types. Admittedly, as the demand for IT workers has increased, the industry has widened to take in many more people outside the narrow range of types that inhabited it in the past.)

Have I insulted everyone yet? In fact, I know someone who said he didn't talk before he was about 4 years old, whereupon he gushed full sentences; let us not forget all the Nobel science winners... and, in fact, it could be said that that test is, to a fair extent, a test of maleness, as males in general are less socially adept than females; furthermore, autism is to a high degree the province of men; there are statistically few autistic women.

What does all this say? In part, I'm suggesting a re-appraisal of autism could focus on its abilities as much as its disabilities. I'm also lauding the fact that so-called geekdom has in the past ten years seen a significant boost in acceptability, particularly for what the internet has brought us.

I would also suggest that anyone who feels they lean in that direction should read Daniel Tammet's book, Born On A Blue Day. They may well empathise with a lot of the situations he describes. Perhaps we can all pick up on ability as the flipside to disability, and better see the humanity in all.

The amazing Brain 4: What it can do!

I mentioned previously some special traits of Daniel Tammet’s mind. In particular, memory, calculating ability, and synaesthesia. What is their relevance? Are they related? Are they due to brain damage, either in vitro or due to epilepsy?

These are significant questions because of what we may be able to find out about the brain. Tammet is in a unique situation. Most people with his disabilities/abilities have in the past been either consigned to institutions or not given sufficient stimulus. His book details fairly clearly that his behaviour as a child was abnormal, dysfunctional to the point where it was a gamble to attempt to send him to school. Would he be unable to cope? Would he learn nothing? Would he be too disruptive for everyone else?

In fact, the answers to these questions was both yes and no. But he had a supportive family, and numerous siblings to learn from. And it was only as he went forward, and absorbed numbers, books and language, that his abilities began to be appreciated. But it’s been a constant battle to cope, for him and those around him.

He was fascinated with numbers from an early age. He saw numbers as particular shapes, sizes and feelings – his synaesthesia. This gave an extra dimension to his brain’s ability to work with them. In fact, as he describes it, his calculating ability manifests itself this way. Given two numbers, which he sees as shapes, he sees the multiplication product of those numbers as the shape that forms in between those shapes, when put side by side.

Many people just “see” 8 x 9 as 72, without calculating anything. Tammet’s ability means he can “see” the answers to much larger calculations. He knows the shape (his shape, it must be stressed), for all numbers up to 10,000. Anything larger requires calculation, but for him it’s actually visualisation.

This is associativity. His brain uses the automatic associations between numbers and shape/size/feeling as a kind of short cut to the result.

An extraordinary memory is one of Tammet’s key abilities. That in itself is shared by a small handful of people around the world. It is unclear how his abilities are connected, but it’s possible that his associative/synaesthetic ability is a way to access that memory.

Dali's Persistence of memory

Associativity is particularly important for scientific and technological advancement, as people explore paradigms from other disciplines to try to forge a deeper understanding of their own.

It should be stressed here that Tammet is not a 'maths whizz' per se. The second post of this series details a puzzle outlined by him in his book. He effectively gave the wrong answer, and I would suggest this is more because, as with autistics in general, he can more easily look at small detail than the bigger picture, and so miss aspects of a situation.

Yet if one person without specific training can do what Tammet can do, why can’t we all benefit somehow?

Well, maybe we can, maybe we can’t. Maybe that short cut is a short circuit, that is necessarily intrinsic to brain damage that has had less desirable results.

But then again, maybe it isn’t. We just don’t know.

But the very fact that the brain can do these things says an awful lot about our untapped abilities, and how much there is still to be discovered.

Tammet has detailed a number of tests run on him by scientists, seeking a deeper understanding of the brain. Yet those that he details in his book sound relatively trivial. He’s been very good-natured about it so far, but I doubt he would have enough time to respond to all such requests.

Still, as long as he has the time, and retains that patience, there is a lot to learn. If the key to these abilities can be identified, why should others not be able to access memory, associativity, and calculation ability as he can?

Still, his abilities and disabilities include something else more fundamental that we could all do with: honesty and humility.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Amazing Brain 3: Daniel Tammet (again)

I've just finished reading Daniel Tammet's autobiography, Born On A Blue Day.

It's a very easy read, very engaging, and fascinating.

Tammet was born with high-functioning autism in England in 1979. It's a significant disability, beyond question, but there are compensations.

He has found it hard to manage many aspects of life, because of the way his brain is wired. It could be said that it has been difficult for him to apply an appropriate amount of focus to many day-to-day tasks. On some, he spends too much time because he is over-stimulated by the physical or numerical aspects of the task. On others, he doesn't understand enough of what is required, because it's something in which his mind simply doesn't engage.
For example, human interaction has been particularly difficult for him. His mind doesn't process the simple physical and verbal cues that most of us take for granted.

On the other hand, he has a special affinity for numbers - and languages. An overcompensating affinity, in some ways, yet something that enables him to appreciate beauty. Albeit of a different type to what most people understand.

He has eventually learnt mechanisms to deal with many of his obstacles, and to make the most of his abilities.

He first came to notice when he offered to memorise and recite pi for over 22,000 digits, as a fund-raiser for epilepsy, which he has suffered.

That illustrates two aspects about him: his ability and his humanity.

His abilities includes a prodigious memory, very very high maths calculation capacity, and synesthesia. The latter is a tendency for some senses to bleed into others. For example, he sees words as particular colours, and numbers as particular shapes.

He can calculate the product of two large numbers by visualising the two numbers as shapes, where the space between them is another shape, which is the answer.

And incredibly, despite his difficulty with human interaction, he is a very humble, honest, warm person. Something we should all be striving for.

More to come about his abilities. Meanwhile, I thoroughly recommend the book.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Amazing Brain 2: A different right answer??

Here's another puzzle:

Someone has two children. One of them's a girl. (sound like you've already heard it?)

What's the probability the other one is a girl?

How about this answer: there are four possible combinations of boys and girls: BB, BG, GB, and GG. Now we know one of them is a girl, so that leaves three possible combinations, BG, GB, and GG, so the answer is one in three, or 33%.

Hold on, you say... well, I say it could be any of those combinations, and I didn't say which one of the two was the girl. Look at it this way. In an average population, there will be each of those combinations in roughly equal measure. So if you rule out BB, one third of the time the other child will be a girl.

So, bearing in mind yesterday's answer, how can you have two different answers at the same time?

Answer below. Think about it.

In fact, it really depends how you ask the question. The above question wasn't really phrased precisely enough at the start.

The pivotal issue is whether you're talking about probability, or sampling from a population. They're not exactly the same thing. The two puzzles yesterday were one question on sampling, and one on probability. Which is why there are different answers. On any one toss of a coin, the probability of heads will be 50% (all other things being equal, of course). But if you have a population of four coin tosses where two are heads and two tails, and you take away one of the tails, any given coin left that you choose blindly will have a third chance of being the other tail.

Probability vs sampling from a population.

What's this got to do with the brain? More anon. I read yesterday's two puzzles in a book, and it gave the same answer to each (ie, one third). I knew the answer to the first was 50%, but when I revisited the book, I could see the reasoning. It actually took me a couple of train stops to reconcile the two competing, apparently correct, answers.

The point in the book was that statistics is not always intuitive. How true.

The Amazing Brain 1: Two quick puzzles

In preparation for a series of posts, I have two puzzles on probability:

1) If someone has two children, and one is a girl, what is the probability that the other is a girl?

2) I have two cards. One is white on one side, and red on the other. The other is red on both sides. If I pull one of them out of a bag, and you only see one side of them - and it's red - what is the probability that the other side is red?

Answers below. Think about it first.


1) You have one known, and one unknown. The sex of the known child has (effectively) no influence on the sex of the other. Thus the probability that the other is a girl is 50%.

2) I'll spell this out painfully to make this clear. In enumerating all possible situations, I'll refer to the seen face first, then the hidden face, then the faces of the hidden card. I'll call the faces R1, R2, R3, and W1. In general situations, when you have two cards where the position matters, you can have eight possible situations:
R1R2 (R3W1)
R1R2 (W1R3)
R2R1 (R3W1)
R2R1 (W1R3)
R3W1 (R1R2)
R3W1 (R2R1)
W1R3 (R1R2)
W1R3 (R2R1)

Now, in the puzzle in question, we can't have the last two, because we know the face up card is red. (In fact, it doesn't matter which way around the card is in the bag, but I enumerated them anyway.) Simply looking at the above set, you can see that there are six possibilities, and the hidden face will be red in 4 of those six, so the probability the hidden face is red is 33 1/3 %.

Did you get both the answers right?

Monday, February 12, 2007

Flowers For Algernon - a fresh look

Familiar title? It is to me - I've read the story several times.

But not the novel - until now. And it turned out to be an eye-opener.

Daniel Keyes wrote the short story, which won a Hugo Award in 1960. The story is told strictly as the journal of a retarded man who underwent an operation that improved his abilities substantially. In an insightful way, it tracks the man's progress through a rapid awakening, to the point where he - and only he - can take the experiment to its conclusion.

What was engaging as a short story was made even more worthwhile when Keyes expanded it into a novel in 1966 - whereupon it won a Nebula Award.

The novel attempted to encompass a substantial cross-section of the human experience, as it is rapidly acquired by the protagonist. The scope of the book has turned out to be far more wide-ranging than the original story, and is certainly more complex a work of fiction. Although it sometimes descends almost into cliche, that can be excused, given the task attempted. The achievement is all that more impressive, considering Keyes never produced anything as substantial again.

Interestingly, although I know the story well in the context of my science fiction reading, I have never encountered it outside SF circles. Yet it did escape its (artificial) bounds into general awareness in its heyday. It was filmed as Charly and subsequently put on school curricula in several countries.

Well worth a read.

Why care about WiMAX?

WiMAX is Yet Another Telecommunications Protocol.

For what it's worth, it stands for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave ACCess. I'm nowhere close to being on top of all them protocols, but I attended a presentation recently (by a bloke from Nortel) that suggested there was a big future in WiMAX at least. From that presentation comes a few points of interest.

WiMAX emerged as a standard for wireless broadband. Its appeal in the protocol wars is primarily an issue of speed.

The presenter indicated that wireless broadband and mobile phone technology are converging: the first is focused on data transmission, with an increasing voice component, while the second is voice transmission with an increasing data component. Thus, “3G” is a mobile phone standard for data delivery (voice with data), and WiMAX is a data with voice. However, Wimax doesn’t need to be backward compatible with legacy protocols, as does mobile transmission standards. So it emerges as much faster, much cheaper. And as a technology, it’s said to have a two to three year lead over 3G.

Among the interesting side points to arise from the presentation: latest US figures: 60% of new broadband installations are wireless. Wireless will only get bigger, as the economies over running cables hits home.

A further interesting point was a method for increasing bandwidth (speeding up the internet connection) - increasing the number of antennae on a device (!). It’s called MIMO –Multi Input, Multi Output. The presenter mentioned four antennae as an increasingly accepted standard. This doesn’t mean four different prongs sticking out of your laptop; just four different receivers. The antennae themselves would be secreted within the computer itself, as they are now.

If I understood correctly, the presenter indicated that there’s an effective monopoly on use of WiMAX in Australia. There were two players with access to the technology – and one had bought the other out. Apparently one that slipped under the radar of the regulatory authorities.

The most significant message to emerge (or be reinforced) from this presentation is that we should expect to see a convergence between all these different technologies, to the point where it’s relatively unimportant what’s transmitted, how it’s transmitted, or what device receives it. And we should expect it to get cheaper, faster, easier, and more permanently connected.

On the flipside of that, will be the absolute proliferation of devices that are connected. The internet fridge was a premature concept, but given a few decades, we can’t say what won’t be integrated into our everday life.

Update 19-Feb-07: Big Investment in WiMAX
Heavyweight tech companies Nokia and Siemens - about to merge their Network divisions - has indicated to Australian telecommunications newsletter Communications Day that they plan to invest as much in WiMAX as in all traditional mobile technologies combined.

A significant boost for the technology.

The sensible solution to Water Blues

The drought’s been with us for at least seven years. It’s older than my kids.

There’s been some rain in some years, but not enough to break it. Other years have been full of rainclouds that come and go without delivering. Sydney’s water supply is under 40% full – the lowest on record, I believe.

(That’s a somewhat glib thing to say. The truth is, Sydney’s expanding population has also strained the water supply.)

Solutions. Queensland – coming off a state election – bit the bullet and said they’re going to have recycled water, like it or not. PM Howard tried to take control of the Murray – Darling river systems, but the States didn’t trust him.

Meanwhile here in New South Wales, the State government keeps returning to the agenda an expensive desalination plant. Well, that won’t turn the tide of global warming, and it’s not really a holistic solution.

The State government has been in denial on water recycling, due to a two-year-old survey that came back negative. Was the question loaded? It asked if people were "very comfortable, mildly comfortable, mildly uncomfortable or very uncomfortable with drinking recycled sewage, including toilet water, that is treated to drinking-water quality".

Nevertheless, the drought may break in their minds, if the latest poll is heeded: in NSW, 80% were favourable to recycled water. Time for the State government to stop spinning, and get real.

(Ironically, we’ve just experienced a heavy deluge in Sydney. Still, this has happened before, and the response has always been: “not enough to break the drought.”)

15-Feb-07 Update: The abovementioned rain has shot up the dam levels by 3%! Doesn't sound like much, but it is. And the State government intends to push ahead with the desalination option regardless.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Wrong, wrong, wrong Prime Minister

Had to laugh when I saw the headline: “PM: I could free Hicks - but won't”, followed by:

“John Howard has told his party room he could secure the release of David Hicks any time but says that would be wrong.”

Howard has a long history of U-turns in election years. Particularly on policies he has said it would be “wrong” to abrogate. In 2004, I believe it was, he said it would be “wrong” to remove (reduce?) a fuel excise, at a time of galloping petrol prices. Sure enough, a short time later, he implemented a “wrong” policy. Now who can still say he is a man of principle? I have said for a long time that he only has one core value – and that is to get re-elected. Everything else is up for auction.

He’s had abrupt U-turns on two issues I’ve commented on more than once: he now “believes” in global warming, and he now “believes” it is wrong for Australian David Hicks to be incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay without a trial for five years.

It’s a sucker bet to say that he will secure the release of David Hicks. “Wrongly”. It is, after all, election year.

18-Feb-07 Update - Going... going
Latest news from one of Howard's "senior advisors" is that Howard plans to do whatever it takes to get the issue out of the way before the election campaign starts. Is it still wrong, Prime Minister?

Monday, February 05, 2007

Babel (US, 2006): much talk about little?

This portmanteau film has garnered a heap of praise. It encompasses four groups of protagonists (not three, as some reviewers claim) in three different countries, whose stories are united, sometimes tenuously.

It is a film, I have to say, that I got less from than expected, given the hype. The title refers to people out of their depth in their need to communicate - language is a barrier.

However, this doesn't apply to all the sets of protagonists, and therein lies some of the problem. It unites all the stories through an incident where an American tourist is accidentally shot. It deals with the shooter (and family), the victim (and husband), the victim's children, and the daughter of the man who originally owned the gun. But the attempt to create a unity is strained, by the sometimes tenuous nature of the connections. Moreover, any attempt to apply a symmetry to the four (not three) stories is always going to be doomed. In varying permutations, you can apply a philosophical point to three out of four of the stories, but not the fourth.

You could say that language divides - but not in every story, and it's not always a fulcrum of the story. You could say that there are bad decisions made by some people (but not all), whose echoes ripple on. Yet there is one point that does seem to be made consistently by the filmmaker: all may suffer, but the ones who continue to suffer [after the film ends] are only those protagonists that come from the third world. That is an unsurprising point from a director who comes from Mexico, however I haven't seen this discussed in any other reviews.

Nor have I heard talk of a significant continuity error. From the external perspective, the shot is fired at the right-hand side of the bus, yet from the bus' internal perspective, it comes from the left-hand side. Any attempt to explain this away would be weak.

However, to give the film some credit, have a look at this review. Rather gushing, but it does play to the film's strengths, much as this post plays to its weaknesses. There are, after all, a lot of redeeming features.

PS Great credit must be given to the actor who plays the deaf japanese girl: Rinko Kikuchi. A superlative performance.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Bandwagonesque climate change

A recent article in the Herald drove home some of the pitfallsof joining the climate change bandwagon.

In fact, a number of bands and promoters globally have made a point of offsetting their carbon-emitting activities with carbon offsetting. It's worth namechecking a few of those putting their money where their ethics are: The Big Day Out concerts; Dixie Chicks, Pearl Jam, Rolling Stones, the Cat Empire, Coldplay, and Foo Fighters.

I mentioned this practice last month: when you've done what you can to reduce your carbon footprints, carbon offsetting is the last step. Generally, this involves paying an organisation to plant trees on your behalf.

I also briefly mentioned there were issues with this approach. One big issue is that it's all very well planting trees by proxy, but how do you know your payment will result in the carbon offset actually happening? Do the trees get planted? Do they get maintained so that they don't die? And is that offset in turn offset by land clearing prior to the planting? Problems have happened in the past on all these points.

In New South Wales, however, you can get government-approved Greenhouse Gas Abatement Certificates. The question may then become, how do you audit the auditors?, but in fact that's a great deal better than taking on trust.

But again, I said offsetting carbon emissions is the last step. Two very valid criticisms of this process are that

a) it can lead to complacency, which “diverts attention and funds from the more significant tasks of developing clean sources, improving energy efficiency, and reducing consumption";

b) it is akin to the rich “buying indulgences”.

There's no substitute for reducing consumption and increasing efficiency of energy use. Only when you've done everything else possible does carbon offsetting appear much more than bandwagonesque.