Monday, 26 September 2011

Humphrey B. Bear: intellectual property for sale

I was amused to see an advertisement in The Australian by the insolvency firm BRI Ferrier, who are attempting to sell the intellectual property behind Humphrey B. Bear for $500,000. Interestingly, I can find no mention of this asset on the BRI Ferrier website.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Complexity Graphics

Jake Ross pointed me to Complexity Graphics—a really amazing site with beautiful images and videos. In some ways it reminded me of the Processing Exhibition, though with a more scientific focus.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

How algorithms shape our world

Interesting TED talk by Kevin Slavin, which mentions the role of Physicists writing Black Box trading algorithms for Wall Street:
 Slavin warns that
we are writing code we can't understand, with implications we can't control
but, as Wolfram has argues with The Principle of Computational Equivalence, this is trivially true even for fundamentally simple systems.

Somewhat related, is Eric Berlow's TED talk on How complexity leads to simplicity, especially the dramatic simplification of an overly complicated network diagram to its essence.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The evolution of scientific fame

The evolution of scientific fame suprised me somewhat by the late emergence of Einstein (he first appears in 1930), and the number of people that I had never heard of. I also like the word portrait of Charles Darwin.

Monday, 12 September 2011


From news aggregator site comes the following:

Economist David Harrington (spotted via Tyler Cowan's Marginal Revolution) charges anti-plagiarism service Turnitin with "playing both sides of the fence, helping instructors identify plagiarists while helping plagiarists avoid detection." Turnitin analyzes student papers for suspicious elements in order to spot the plagiarism, scanning for things like lifted quotations or clever rephrasing. However, the same company offers a counterpart — a scanning service called WriteCheck which essentially lets the writer of a submitted paper know whether that paper would pass muster at Turnitin, and thus provides a way to skirt it (by tweaking and resubmitting). Harrington gave these two systems an interesting test, involving several New York Times articles and a book he suspected of having lifted content from those articles.

QS university rankings

Some nice quotes from David Blanchflower on the QS university rankings:
It is unclear whether having more foreign students and faculty should even have a positive rank; less is probably better.
Another way to improve the rankings of UK universities would be to replace the 20 per cent for citations with a 20 per cent weight to any university whose name started with the letters CAM or OXF; the ranking is that absurd.
and, most amusingly,
Or they could weight by the proportion of buildings on the campuses built before 1500.
In response, QS says its product is
among the most trusted world university rankings available
and that
...its rankings "intelligence unit" is "committed to the key values of rigorous integrity, undeniable value and charismatic presentation.
which really says it all.

Deanlets and Deanlings

In the The Fall of the Faculty, Dan Berrett interviews Benjamin Ginsberg on his book about the rise of the all-administrative university. In answer to the question "what ails higher education?", Ginsberg finds a single, unifying cause: the growth of administration. Although writing about US universities, his comments apply equally well to Australia. Some selected quotes:
Ginsberg bemoans the expansion over the past 30 years of what he calls "administrative blight" as personified by what he characterizes as an army of "deanlets" and "deanlings."
...the growth in the ranks of administrators (85 percent) and associated professional staff (240 percent) has far outstripped the increase in faculty (51 percent) between 1975 and 2005.
...a million-dollar president could be kidnapped by space aliens and it would be weeks or even months before his or her absence from campus was noticed.
On "strategic planning" and "public consultation" he says:
I look at strategic planning that takes enormous energy for no reason. Many of these could just be copied; the end result would be the same. The process of putting these plans together is designed rather like elections in the Soviet Union: the process is designed to give people the impression that people care what they think.
Academics have been outwitted, divided and conquered, by administrators. Which reminds me of the popular quote, spuriously attributed to Gaius Petronius Arbiter:
We trained hard ... but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganised. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganising; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Dear Lord Monckton...

A letter to Viscount Monckton of Brenchley from the Clerk of the Parliaments makes interesting reading. This letter follows a recent testy interview of Monckton by ABC Sydney's Adam Spencer in which Monckton repeated his long-stated belief that he is a member of the House of Lords. Following this thread led me to Climate Smackdown and to the slides of Abraham's lecture. Both these links are definitely worth a read.

Tracking Real Estate prices

Google's ability to search within a date range, along with WebArchive, adds an extra dimension to tracking real estate prices. In September 2009 I noticed an advert for 92 Amethyst Crescent in Mount Richon. Although it looked like a very nice house, $1,995k for a house just outside Armadale seemed completely over the top.

It's now late 2011 and this house has still not sold. It's on the market, with the same agent, for $1,195k. There is no mention of this $800k "fire sale" price reduction in the advert. And I'm surprised that the owners stuck with the original agents; how is possible to get the price wrong by so much? Don't say market forces or GFC; this price was clearly wrong back in 2009.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Practicing atheism

Let me begin by declaring I am a practicing atheist (whatever practicing that means?) and a strong advocate of the secularity of public schools—and Universities, Governments, and Defence Services.

The School Chaplaincy Program (the original weblink no longer works—it appears that have no idea of preserving historical information—so this is a link via WayBackMachine) was a Howard government initiative, which commenced in 2007. The Rudd government expanded the program to include secular counsellors, but only if a suitable religious chaplain could not be found by the schools.

The extension and expansion to the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program begins in 2012. The program provides funding to schools to access the services of a school chaplain or secular student welfare worker. Some relevant quotes from Peter Garrett's press release of 7 September 2011, entitled Schools given greater choice under expanded chaplains program:
But we also want to give schools greater choice. This means schools won’t miss out on applying for the program if the school community would prefer to have a secular welfare worker instead of a chaplain.
We had strong feedback for the program to be extended to qualified secular welfare workers, which will empower principals and school communities to choose the right person for the needs and circumstances of their school. This will also provide even more help and support to kids across the country. 
The scheme will be re-named the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program to reflect its broader scope.
Chaplains are not meant to preach or to push their religious point of view (yeah, right!) but act as alternative advocates for children in need of help. However, the National School Chaplaincy Association (NSCA), a network of Christian chaplaincy organisations in Australia is, I suspect, one of the driving forces behind this initiative.

Some parents argue that this program is not about Christianity or religion, but to provide an avenue for children who are being bullied or abused to talk to someone. This was then (and still is) a nonsense—school psychologists are perfectly qualified to deal with such issues.

It is unlikely that a person of any specific religion would be all-encompassing of other points of view or remain secular as would be required. If this were true, it leads to an inescapable conclusion; that schools should support appointing a mufti or rabbi to fulfil this role. Try proposing this at your neighbourhood school and check out the reaction! The response will make it clear what the real agenda is, that indoctrination would inevitably be a consequence, and that most people aren't about to risk Islam or Judaism being presented in this way.

Personally if a choice has to be made, I would recommend Bahai, which is very encompassing and has no dogma. However, the religious "climate" at (some) schools can make children feel like "outsiders" if they do not take part in the "majority" (read Christian) Special Religious Education (SRE) classes. And don't tell me that young children don't keenly feel such peer pressure.

As for programs in ethics, most primary school children learn about ethics in the home, and experientially in school and life environments. In the cases of comparative religions and philosophy, young children get caught up in the "stories" and dogma much more than understand the philosophical differences and issues.

The Stop the National Schools Chaplaincy Program! website, which started up in 2007, clearly argues the case for terminating this program. To conclude, here is a nice quote from Voltaire in Philosophical Dictionary, 1746:
Nothing can be more contrary to religion and the clergy than reason and common sense
Acknowledgement: The origin of this post was an essay by Nick Spadaccini, a good friend and colleague, which I edited and extended.

Snapshot of a nation under stress

In snapshot of a nation under stress, Natasha Bita—in Australia's favourite tabloid—devotes one paragraph to the nation's poorest households before spending half the article reporting on the real issue; a well-off family suffering "financial stress". Stephen Parker, with an annual income of about $150,000, is quoted as saying
We're all hooked up to the internet. It used to be a couple of hundred dollars per month for a family, now it's $1000 for telecommunications
WTF! Apart from pissing off 85% of the Australian population, winging about how hard it is to live on $150,000, Mr Parker needs to have a serious look at his internet plan. Even Telstra can offer something better: we have 3 mobile phones + 50 GB cable internet + 1GB mobile data for $115/month.

Natasha should read her fellow columnist Tim Soutphommasane's much more sensible article well-off nation cries poor, and demands that its government help, which was also published this week. As Tim says
It beggars belief, for example, that some newspapers could seriously suggest that times are tough even for households with an annual income of $150,000 (as happened during the coverage of this year's federal budget). To give some sense of the absurdity, even offensiveness, of this claim, consider that the median household income in Australia for 2007-08 was $67,000, less than half of $150,000.
Well Tim, it's happened again—and in your newspaper. Please go and have a quiet chat to Natasha. Tim goes on to say
It isn't a good idea for the state to protect or subsidise lifestyles that are attained by living beyond one's means. To do so would corrupt the proper role of the state, which is to guarantee equal opportunity, provide certain public goods, and offer assistance in time of genuine hardship. Governments shouldn't be beholden to the demands of the profligate.
Hear, hear

Plain packaging

The latest full-page advertisement by the tobacco lobby states that
International concern has already been raised about the legality of removing branding from a legal product.
The correct response to this claim is to make tobacco illegal ...

Defence Chaplains Needed...

A recent job ad for Defence Chaplains in the Weekend Australian made me think: I had naïvely thought that such positions were paid for by the church. The nexus between religion and war is ever present, but still no less disturbing. The focus of these positions seems to be wholly christian. However, as Wikipedia notes:
While most military chaplains represent a religion or faith group, some countries, like the Netherlands, also employ humanist chaplains who offer a non-religious approach to chaplain support. Some groups such as the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, support the idea of such humanist chaplains in the military, and also work to make all chaplains more sensitive to the needs and rights of those who profess no belief in a god. Others advocate for secular chaplains who have no faith identification but who do have the professional qualifications for the counseling and advisory responsibilities of chaplains.

Have your say...

The latest newsletter posted to my household (it is not clear who pays for the distribution of this) from Julie Bishop, the Federal Member for Curtin, includes a community survey, which is available as a PDF here (but not as an online form). The statements are provocative, the questions are structured (skewed) so as to elicit the desired responses, and the tone of the survey is selfish; how can Julie make things better for the electorate of Curtin? Well, the people in Curtin are already very well off, certainly better than most other Australian electorates.

Although it was probably a waste of my time, I decided to have my say.
  • The issues: With the rising cost of living putting so much pressure on families, please number (from 1 to 4) the four issues that concern you the most:
    • Reducing Australia’s debt—already very low by world standards.
    • Tackling local crime in our community—this really is not a problem.
    • Securing Australia’s borders—they are secure
    • Fixing our local hospitals—QEII is among the best in Australia. 
    • Creating local jobs—is this really a problem in Curtin?
    • Stopping the carbon tax—why? Why not ask about reducing CO2 emissions?
    • A new tax on the mining sector—This is the most important issue and a good idea!
    • Improving local roads and infrastructure—they are already excellent. However, encouraging public transport and cycling, instead of improving roads, would be preferable.
    • Backing small business—is Julie implying that she does not already do this?
    • Reducing cost of living pressures—how does Julie propose to do this?
    • Securing our water supplies—WA is well off here.
    • Protecting the local environment—our local environment is well protected.
  • What would you fix? Our local area is incredibly well off. The focus should be on improving things for those less fortunate that us.
  • In the Parliament: I would like to see politicians to work together co-operatively, in particular to address fundamental issues such as climate change. And stop focussing on issues raised by minorities, or special interest groups.
I am then asked about my politics and which, if any, party I support. Now, I don’t support any political party, but my feeling is that this question should not be asked. Are my views discounted if I don't vote Liberal? Julie Bishop represents all people in her electorate and a significant number of them get annoyed at paid party political announcements (from any party), such as this newsletter.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Perth: houses for sale

I plan to list some interesting local houses for sale here: