Thursday, November 27, 2008

Journalistic bent 2: on the NSW child protection report

Like many government agencies around the world with a child protection brief, the New South Wales Department of Community Services is greatly understaffed and underfunded to achieve such aims. This is a tragedy for both individuals and the community. On the one hand, children are utterly precious: their innocence, joy and freedom is something we all aspire too, but mostly lose as we get older. Everyone deserves the opportunity to experience those qualities as long as possible. On the other hand, studies repeatedly show that investment in early intervention (education, income support, parental training, etc) is more than repaid for, in the subsequent adult-span cost savings on health, mental health, crime, and the like.

So to the Herald, front page of Tuesday, November 25:

'High-risk only' child protection (by Adele Horin)
"ONLY children deemed at "significant" risk of harm will need to be reported to the Department of Community Services' help line under a radical plan to reshape the state's overwhelmed child protection system. Others will be referred to a new service to receive assistance.

The higher threshold under the state's mandatory reporting laws - achieved by inserting the word "significant" to the law - is designed to potentially triage tens of thousands of calls to the department to enable it to focus on the minority of children in serious danger."

That story survives on the Herald website here, albeit with the toned-down headline 'Mandatory laws to be eased' (a sub-head on the front page). It was indexed via the 'National' section of that day's web pages.

A more conciliatory version of the same article is accessible (here) at, via the 'Breaking news' section of the day before:

Inquiry recommends changes to DoCS [bylined AAP]

Only children at risk of "significant harm" will be investigated by NSW child protection officers under reforms that will also see other at-risk kids outsourced to the private sector.

The special commission of inquiry into child protection on Monday finalised its year-long investigation, releasing findings that said the Department of Community Services (DoCS) was swamped by reports that don't warrant its time and effort.

Inquiry head, retired Justice James Wood, has called for changes to the mandatory reporting system so DoCS is only notified of cases where a child is at risk of "significant harm".

Horin's a longtime Herald reporter and columnist on social issues. Looks like she rewrote the original wire story for the front page of the following day. That later, more alarming version probably got read by more people than the online version. At my count, the later version appears on 14 websites, all of them owned by the Herald's owner, Fairfax. The original wire story appears on 7, three of which are Fairfax. It looks to be standard practice that re-written wire stories gain the byline of the re-writer.

I have not attempted to analyse other media's overall response to the event, the release of the report by the Special Commission of Inquiry into Child Protection Services in NSW. However, the head of the inquiry was Justice James Wood, who also headed the Royal Commission into the NSW Police. Without knowing his sociopolitical bent, he seems to have a reasonable reputation.

The Herald beefed up the story for the front page. Was it the right thing to do?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Poor journalism on executive pay

A minor quibble? Rather, an exemplary tale of how sloppy journalism can completely skew information, and thus understanding.

Edward Liddy is the new CEO of American International Group, an insurer that was just recently bailed out by the US government. A Herald report, a wire story from Associated Press, headlined the fact that Liddy was being remunerated just $1 per year for the next two years. (The only rider mentioned on this was "he may be eligible for a special bonus for 'extraordinary performance' payable in 2010".) All this accords with the general narrative run through the media that fat cat executives have been wallowing in luxury while the world is in turmoil and pain (a fair blow, if you read the spa story here, 'standard industry practice' with impeccably bad timing) - and that their deeds are only just catching up with them.

But. Don't expect executives to work for no pay, plus maybe performance-based extras. Altruism has its place, but it's not to be found working as chief executive for capitalists.

A little ferreting around uncovered a Bloomfield story explaining the situation. It reveals Liddy will also receive "an unspecified number of equity grants". That's where the actual money is hiding.

In fact, that AP wire story has been published elsewhere (examples here and here) with an additional sentence: "In addition to his $1 a year salary, Liddy will be getting an unspecified amount of stock." (The missing sentence can be found in other places, too, for example .)

It is clear that the Herald sub-edited out that sentence - for dramatic effect? To harmonise with the heading? The effect is, however, dissonant, as the end result - depending on how it is received by the reader - either conveys the wrong impression or just doesn't make sense.

One could say Not very bright. Unprofessional, even. But the impact is more than just a reflection of poor work. Such an omission of detail may leave people with a very different take on an issue. Ideological impact aside, such egregious misinformation can have as bad a nett effect as disinformation.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Firefly: The drop Inara Club

I'm not going to be melodramatic about this, but Firefly would be much better off with a different person playing the Inara character.

The commentary indicated that the original Inara actor was shot mostly in one-shot, because Joss Whedon had anticipated replacing her.

Well, he replaced her with the wrong actor. I would advocate - when the off-the-shelf software is commonplace - someone splice in another actor as Inara. We could have a competition for the best Inara performance. It would enhance the original.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The great spam drought

Just a brief, anecdotal observation about spam. McColo, a US 'web host', was shut down last week. Said to be a major originator of spam, there were wildly varying estimates of the subsequent drop in spam traffic, from 50% to 88% down.

I have an older email address and a newer one. The older one was compromised at least five years ago, and I barely use it now. Current status: three spams in the past week.

With the newer email address, I was more cautious about giving it out willy-nilly. I only used it for sites/contacts I felt I could trust, reverting to the old one for sites I couldn't trust so well, but which wanted an email address.

This worked well for some time. But eventually the newer address was compromised, despite my best caution. Dead curious to know how this came about, but I guess I'll never know.

Earlier this year, I started using Spamfighter, which builds and updates its own database of email to block (said to be based on "a community filter where the users help each other to report spam"), as opposed to the traditional Baynesian (or similar) algorithms used to attempt spam detection. This tool came at the right time, because this year the trickle of spams to my newer email address became a torrent. Most of that was useless Russian-language emails, with a smattering of Viagra-type hawkers. Curiously, the Nigerian-style scammers didn't appear here - but they had slowed down substantially at the old address anyway.

McColo was shut down Wednesday 12 November (Sydney time). The recent spam record is as follows (nearly all these were caught by Spamfighter):
November 3rd: 5
November 4: 5
November 5: 17
November 6: 5
November 7: 10
November 8: 9
November 9: 15
November 10: 16
November 11: 17
November 12: 9
November 13: 2
November 14: 2
November 15: 0!
November 16: 3
November 17: 3
November 18: 1
November 19: 1
November 20: 0

- that's 10 in the past 7 days, compared to 78 in the 6 days prior. Roughly a drop of 87%. The estimates of professionals vary depending on methodology, which may relate to honeypots and how old the population samples are - ie the server shut down may have been responsible for the more recent proliferations of spam.

Although it's sobering to note that that loose community known as spammers will regroup around other servers, maybe we're in for a breather for a while. And it's good to know that one simple action can have such a beneficial effect. It would be rather pleasant to see spam reduced to a minor annoyance rather than a deluge.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Obama's ethical reforms

"I have said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantanamo, and I will follow through on that."

"I have said repeatedly that America doesn't torture. And I'm going to make sure that we don't torture. Those are part and parcel of an effort to regain America's moral stature in the world."

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

New and unusual Ediacaran fossil

Recent news report of an unusual fossil from the 'home' of pre-Cambrian biota, the Ediacaran Hills (in the Flinders Ranges) in South Australia.

In the fifty years since this fossil period was confirmed, the Hills have been well scoured. But fossil finds are often enough a matter of luck, and this species, called Eoandromeda octobrachiata was not discovered until recently.

There are several odd aspects about this discovery. Firstly, it has eight arms; the discoverer, Dr Jim Gehling of the South Australian Museum, referred to it as having eight-fold symmetry, which is rare.

But a few months after the discovery, Gehling went to China, and opened up his laptop to show the fossil to Maoyan Zhu, of the Nanjing Institute of Geology. Zhu opened his laptop and - snap! - an identical discovery made at roughly the same time in China.

Further, the two rock types preserving the specimens were quite different: sandstone in South Australia, and black shale in China.

From my perspective, I didn't even know there were any Ediacarans with arms (let alone eight). That's a good deal more sophistication than was originally thought for the period: time was, Ediacarans were thought to be sponge-like intermediaries between plants and animals (as we know them). Again (viz Richard Dawkins), this would make the Cambrian explosion somewhat less explosive than thought, in terms of sudden evolution of radically new and varied body shapes (phyla). That would make sense.

(Thanks to Mark for the tip.)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Australian government hypocrisy on execution

The government's foreign minister, Stephen Smith, waited until after the Bali Bombers were killed by firing squads before calling for a moratorium on execution.

Not exactly evidence of a principled stance.

Mobilise your goodwill, Obama

Some are still euphoric, some are still somewhat sober, some are both.

It's a bad time to inherit the presidency.

Obama's win, however, is not only fundamentally historic, but it represents a historic cachet of goodwill throughout the world. He has already flagged positions that are far more enlightened than Bush's. And so most of the world seems to have cheered his election; the responses of world leaders on the whole is a level above the form-letter congratulations.

Much more can be achieved by working together than through belligerence. Iraq notwithstanding, there is enormous potential in what Obama can achieve internationally.

And domestically. Not only was Obama's campaign the best funded in history, it was also packed with a huge mass of volunteers. There is a great corps of people who have already demonstrated their commitment to change. Obama began his career as a community organiser; now he can surely tap into what must be one of the largest grassroots corps ever, as supreme community organiser.

He has shown himself capable of drawing people together. Now to guide their co-operative spirit.

(I note that in an odd but meaningless coincidence, that Obama is a scant five days older than the incoming Prime Minister of New Zealand, John Key, who was elected three days later. Because transition is much quicker in NZ, Key will be in the driver's seat earlier.)

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Reversing extinction via DNA

A recent study published in PNAS reported that mice had been cloned from frozen DNA (journal abstract here; press report here). This had been thought impossible: that cellular ice crystals would destroy the DNA.

This does not constitute a universal panacea for recovering extinct species, but it has implications for DNA recovered from unfossilised remains recovered from permanently frozen locations, especially Antarctica, Canada, and Russia.

There would remain a number of scientific hurdles, including incubation, but the puzzle pieces are starting to fall into place. Yet there are a couple of ominous tones in this news.

First, we may be running out of time. Permafrost regions have begun thawing already. (And this is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it will make scientific discovery easier for a period of time, but on the other hand, it will likely hasten the warming process as masses of organic matter will also thaw, rot, and release more atmospheric carbon to hasten the warming process.)

Second, it would be tragic if scientific progress bred complacency towards looming extinctions. Prevention - preserving whole ecosystems - would be so much easier and less fraught than attempting to recreate the systems. But our form of democracy is traditionally geared to the dissonance of desiring an outcome but not making the hard decisions. A recipe for complacency.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Bali bombers and the brutality of execution

Sometime in the next few days - if it hasn't already happened - Indonesia will execute three Bali bombers. They were found responsible for the deaths of 202 people in Kuta in 2002.

Australia's media always mention in the same breath that the toll included 88 Australians, but 38 Indonesians also died. The bombers were quite willing to kill their own kind for their cause.

None of this excuses execution in any circumstances. It meets brutality with brutality, and it further brutalises society. It sends the wrong message to children, to those contemplating violence, to everyone.

Australians seem to be divided on the matter, with about as many favouring execution as disfavouring it. I'm sure the results would be rather different if the polling included the fact that Indonesia also plans to kill some Australian drug traffickers - yet in an ethical world, that should make no difference.

Our Prime Minister should show leadership on this. But Kevin Rudd has been quite reticent, to his discredit.

There are many reasons to not execute. If one condoned life imprisonment, for example, those people would have a lifetime to live with their deeds, and to contemplate atonement.

If polls were conducted with sufficient consideration, people would inevitably prefer atonement to brutalisation.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Tuesday's great horse race, and the world's fate

Tuesday is the day of that great horse race, traditionally the day Australia stands still and celebrates. Ostensibly the world will also stand still on that day, but the US election happens on Wednesday our time, and so doesn't clash with the Melbourne Cup.

I'll be deferring celebrations until Wednesday, and watching that race; it'll be thoroughly enjoyable.

Twenty-seven years ago, US history professor Allan Lichtman (using statistical methods from Vladimir Keilis-Borok) developed a predictive model, 13 Keys to the White House, which has successfully forecast every outcome since then. Those factors, largely relating to incumbency, economy and war, point to victory for Obama. On the other hand, this campaign is not in the realm of the ordinary. In fact, many have characterised it as the pivotal election of our time.

I don't know that those 13 indicators are necessary. Possibly all the factors needed here are charisma, coupled with no significant negatives - and Obama's one 'negative' is proving simply not enough. But more, he has integrity, which comes through in his responses to criticisms, and his responses to some of the negative criticisms on his opponent by his own side. Personally, I'm barracking on the basis of policies as much as anything else - but that doesn't seem to be an influential factor in the US public picking a president. Given the notable lack of political engagement, subtle factors like policy don't filter through to the average voter's consciousness. [that's a bit unfair for the millions that are informed, but more a reflection on how the ultimate decision is really played out only at the margins.]

There are pivotal differences: on climate change, on equity, and on the candidates' different levels of grassroots community engagement, both well before the election, and during the campaign.

All factors point to a landslide.

Skin colour is clearly a factor, although as was pointed out on ABC's Insiders today, the US media has been remarkably restrained in dealing with this issue. But it's plausible that the outcome will be much tighter than the polls predict: what people say is not the same as what they do, and there's surely a lot of people who will nominate Obama in the polls, but will find it harder to actually vote for a black man. On the other hand, the grassroots efforts of Obama's people will see a much larger turnout than usual, predicted to match that of 1960 - where Kennedy, too, presented an option of hope and charisma.

Yet there remains the usually unsaid: Obama is and will be a target for domestic extremists. So far, this has been restricted to those without a clue or a plan. But as events move forward, those with more determination will be a constant threat - throughout Obama's presidency. That remains a pall on what will bring new hope globally - even if he is able to deliver only a part of what he promises.

Good luck.