Monday, April 30, 2007

The Poodle scam scam

The Sydney Morning Herald reported on a scam in which Japanese – thousands of them – bought sheep under the mistaken impression they were poodles.

It started off:

“Thousands of Japanese have been swindled in a scam in which they were sold Australian and British sheep and told they were poodles.
Flocks of sheep were imported to Japan and then sold by a company called Poodles as Pets,
marketed as fashionable accessories, available at $1,600 each….
The scam was uncovered when Japanese moviestar Maiko Kawamaki went on a talk-show and
wondered why her new pet would not bark or eat dog food. She was crestfallen when told it was a sheep.
Then hundreds of other women got in touch with police to say they feared their new "poodle" was also a sheep.
One couple said they became suspicious when they took their "dog" to have its claws trimmed and were told it had hooves.”

Have a read of the full article - it's great!

Typical ignorant b----- Japanese, you’d think.

Now this was on the Herald’s web site.

And it was an Australian Associated Press wire story.

The first clue should have been where it said: “…Japanese police said, the The Sun reported.”

But I missed it.

But I thought I’d check it out anyway. Scant mention of “Poodles as Pets”. But then I did find this story on Neatorama. Well worth a read.

Totally debunked.

But… but… they were reliable news sources!

But note the reference to The Sun – a British tabloid that is not read for the truth.

I got sucked in, but got out in time. The Herald didn’t – nor did AAP. Unfortunately, it's now all over the net.

Just goes to show. Reliable sources are the simplest way to trust the internet. But a healthy scepticism remains important.

Just don’t get too cynical, or you’ll ruin your life.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Superknowledge on the run

I have a mini-version of Wikipedia on my PDA. It’s called Lexipedia. It takes up a bit of space – almost a gig. Fortunately I have a 2G SD card…

If you only get the demo version (locked pending payment), you can only get a random article – although the links to other articles still work.

So. If you like random information on the run, the demo is great. Somewhat like surfing the net.
On the other hand, if you’re seeking something within the demo version, you could always trace links towards what you’re after. Or randomise and try again.
Still. It’s a slow way to find an answer.
I recommend you test it out first. It's sometimes slow going on older PDAs. But if it works for you, I strongly recommend paying for the unlock key.

It’s massively appealing to have access to such a large body of information at any time.

It’s a glimpse of the future.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

How you will vote

There’s a very interesting analysis of voting in the last Federal election, 2004, courtesy of the Oz Politics Blog website.

The researchers (Stimson, Dr T- K Shyy, and Dr Prem Chhetri) analysed each polling booth, measuring who won the most votes, and who won more than 20% of the total for the booth.

Matching this with the 2001 census, they analysed 46 variables, and were able to explain 96% of the variability between booths, on the basis of

Multicultural/younger vs monocultural/older; and
Advantaged vs disadvantaged.

The simple result:
Multicultural/younger and disadvantaged -> voted Labor
Multicultural/younger and advantaged -> voted Green
Monocultural/older and advantaged -> voted Liberal
Monocultural/older and disadvantaged -> voted National

It’s been charted along those two axes. Of those four, the National’s point in Monocultural/older and disadvantaged was furthest away from the point of origin, suggesting the strongest affinity with that characterisation. The weakest characterisation was for the Liberals.

(It would be interesting to see how it changes at the forthcoming election, since it looks like the current government is headed for a landslide loss. It’s possible the variability doesn’t change, so much as the base vote.)

Have a look at the Oz Politics Blog. The picture makes it clearer.

All this is in the aggregate. So it's not deterministic on an individual level. But it will tell you something about the people around you.

Other political sites I've found interesting include:
Larvatus Prodeo
The World's smallest political quiz
Poll Bludger
The Road to Surfdom
Pavlov's Cat

But you can't beat the banter in the comments on the Oz Politics Blog. Often some useful insights - with a little patience. The Oz Politics site itself also has a good top-down overview of Australia's political and voting system.

UPDATE 20-Apr-2007: Two very interesting comments at the end of that Blog entry are well worth noting.l

First, Anthony Green [Australia's foremost electoral analyst] noted that voting patterns were not, by and large, predicated on age, but on the milieu in which their voting habits emerged. So people voting for the first time in the 1970s would display rather different voting patterns - throughout their lives - than those first voting in the 1950s.

Second, a problem in taking results in the aggregate was illustrated by a finding that in the US, wealthier individuals voted Republican, but wealthier States voted Democrat. Referred to as the "ecological problem", I think? Fascinating, and a principle [of caution] worth remembering.

(If blogs are the obscure minutae, then blog comments are the hidden quarks in the atom...)

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The perversion of a gun culture

It is… sobering... to hear the attitude of the president of the Virginia gun lobby on the radio last night. His simple points:
- when guns are restricted, only criminals have the guns
- if more people had guns, they could shoot back – and save lives

Just to remind this bloke:
- The shooter was a loner, maybe unhinged, definitely disconnected from any real sense of community. He was only a criminal after he used the guns, and would have been quite unlikely to have any criminal contacts for obtaining guns illegally.
- If more people have guns, more people can shoot people. (And thereby turn criminal.)
- In a society where access to guns is restricted, you’d be surprised how few “criminals” have guns.
- Reducing the number of guns reduces the number of murders as a whole. End of story.

It’s easy to say that they’re all mad over there, but of course it’s not that simple. There’s a lot of Americans that are well aware of the dangers inherent in a gun society. They didn’t vote for guns – but the gun lobby has a more powerful voice than they do.

It’s easy to say that you get the government you want. But often enough you get the government someone else wants. More specifically, you normally get a limited choice in a two-horse race, and you get the government that’s desired by the swinging voters in the middle, and when the margin is close enough, enough of those voters are susceptible to some rather base persuasion.

I digress. I think.

Guns in America. You can say it’s a philosophical issue, but it’s deeper than that – it’s a cultural issue. There’s no other developed nation approaching their level of gun ownership – or homicides.

But, as reported on the BBC today, the most likely outcome will be a beefing up of internal security right across the U.S. Defensive spending as a substitute for rational action. It's a logical outcome, and in that country it is a fairly common response out of the panoply of possible actions.

What can a rational person do? Live somewhere else. Somewhere saner. But again, that would be a cultural issue for most Americans. As a whole, Americans seem to think their country is the only bastion of freedom in the world. Yet they would be pleasantly surprised. Although cultural values in Australia or Europe (say) are somewhat different, there is (on the whole) close congruence.

The pervasion of guns is a notable difference.

19-Apr-07 Addendum: I heard on the radio tonight that - ironically - it is very difficult for people in South Korea to obtain guns - especially handguns. This in a country sitting hard up against North Korea, which those in the U.S. government loves to tell us is an unstable and dangerous country.

The thought that immediately followed was that Americans need guns [more than South Koreans do]. To protect themselves from other Americans with guns.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The fascinating brain and Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks is a British-born, US-based neurologist – a specialist in brain physiology.

Most people will know his writings from either the film Awakenings, or the book title The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat. There’s a lot more depth to his work, though, than would be suggested by being associated with either a quirky title or a quirky actor (Robin Williams, who played him in the film). In fact, he’s somewhat taken aback by that strong association with Williams.

His writing is actually very interesting and readable – and he is so darn erudite and philosophical, it would be painful if his writing style was any less lucid.

His books are largely compendia of clinical case studies* – from a thoroughly fascinating discipline. The books are imbued with such meaning that today I was compelled to buy his book An Anthropologist On Mars, despite having a copy at home. (That copy is due back in the library, but the book is of lasting significance, so must be replaced.)

His work encompasses physical disorders of the brain, and the effect of that pathology on the mind, and on behaviour. Who we are, what we perceive, and how we perceive, are strongly influenced by the physical, the chemical makeup of the brain, and this is made most clear where the brain suffers trauma. Through these books, those traumas are depicted as due to either accident, illness (including tumours and epilepsy), or congenital malformations.

Throughout this work, questions are posed as often as answers are posited. Overarching answers seem to be elusive, but there is a theme of working towards a better understanding of how we are what we are. How we are governed by the fact that our minds - our conscious selves – are located in a physical organ.

Although all I have read so far is worthwhile, I favour Anthropologist On Mars, probably because he gives himself space to range more freely on the gamut of ideas raised by each given clinical situation.

One of the subjects of his pondering is the eponymous AnthropologistTemple Grandin, a professor with high-functioning autism, who said she felt like such a person, in her interactions with other people. Typical of autism, but as with others at the higher end, she has to continuously work out how to interact with people, rather than just do it.

All of this encompasses more than can be expressed in a single post. There’s still more to come on autism, as well as:
  • Perception: how do we learn it? Why the story isn’t over when an adult can see for the first time
  • Emotion: how you can feel good after brain damage – are you a better person?
  • Memory: if recall can be perfect in a mis-functioning brain, why is it less so in a normal situation?
And just how does Daniel Tammet – just through visualisations - calculate and remember like a computer ? Brain damage or genius, he has something we don't.

*Interestingly, I recently conversed with someone who also recommended Sacks’ memoir, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. Looks like there are a few erudite people out there.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Australia - world's best voting system

Australia has easily the best voting system in the world. For two reasons:

  • Preferential voting

  • Compulsory voting

The latter first.

Compulsory voting has been quite contentious over the last 80-odd years it has been in place. The biggest criticism has been that it forces voting on people who don’t know and/or don’t care – resulting in a vote that can be said to be wasted – or, even worse, a tool of ignorance or demagoguery.
Yes, it does force people to vote in ignorance, which is bad. But ultimately, I’m in favour of compulsory voting, because:
a) it results in a somewhat better informed electorate, due to those who feel obliged to increase their understanding of the political situation;
b) it confers a greater sense of legitimacy on the outcome that such a high proportion (typically over 95%) of the electorate has cast a ballot.
Those who object to voting per se can always turn up, get the ballot paper, and stuff it into the box unmarked. This is legal. But surprisingly few people do this. Once they turn up, they tend to mark the ballot paper.

Now to preferential voting, aka the transferable vote. There are actually several versions of this around the country, for State and for Federal elections. But the common thread is that the voter is presented with a list of n candidates, which one numbers from one to n in order of preference.
Counting. It’s not hard.

However, this gives rise to the concept of the donkey vote, which consists of numbering the boxes from top to bottom in order, without thought. Although not widespread, it happens enough for the top position to be seen to confer a slight advantage. (Positioning is decided by random draw.)
When the votes are counted, the candidates are ranked in order of votes received. the candidate with the least votes is dropped from the list, and their ballot papers are redistributed to the voters’ second preference. And so on.

Preferential voting is great! It allows people to select a second choice (and so on) if their candidate isn’t the winner. The electorate doesn’t have to put up with a candidate that the majority reviles. At the point where there are only two candidates are left, everyone is exercising their choice of which of the two they prefer.

This is particularly significant in the light of the French Presidential election of 2002. Like a number of countries, the French have a two-stage voting system: if no candidate gets over 50% of the vote, there is a run-off election between the top two candidates. This is very much like a preferential voting, except less efficient, less choice, and sub optimal.

Less efficient: two voting processes. Costs time and money, unnecessarily
Less choice: preference is only expressed twice, not between all the candidates.
Sub optimal: In the first stage of the above election, votes were split between quite a large number of candidates. In particular, the left vote was very fractured – to the point where the runoff choice was between a candidate on the right, and one on the far right. The second-round result was the biggest landslide in French history.
Yet, there were 12 parties whose vote (alone) would have put the other centre party ahead of the far-right candidate. At least five of those were left.

Whether you’re left or right, you can’t be too happy with a situation where 65% of the electorate doesn’t have a say in the run-off. It makes a positive mockery of the system.

And Australia’s voting system would have given a better, more legitimate result.

One further reason I like preferential voting: my vote is counted twice. My first vote is always for a minor party - and primary votes are significant for electoral funding. My preference then flows through to a major party, so my vote affects the final outcome.

Next up: an example of how Australia’s voting can also produce unexpected results. Not because of the core voting system, but because of the way in which deals are allowed to be done by political parties, which can stymie their own intention.