Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Stupid town and its strangers

So you've move to a new city and you've left all your amigos behind. How do you make new friends? It's a serious question. In the past I've made friends at college but that's not an option now, and I don't do coursework anymore. Where from now? Knitting-club?

OK. You can make friends at work, but I don't really work with my fellow PhDers per se - and some of them are just plan nerdy. We have the odd beer or two every Friday evening. People ask you questions like "How are you?", "Did you find a place?" and "Are you liking Melbourne". But I get the feeling they don't really care for the answer. They never ask you questions like "Are you doing anything this evening?", "You want to go to a party this weekend?" or "Me and the lads are getting blotto tonight and gonna be crude and obnoxious bastards, you want in?" Those are the sort of questions you want to hear.

The friendliest people I've met so far have been internationals from the mountaineering club (having beers with a couple of Yanks and a German tomorrow night). Even today a Polish post-doc in this building was the first to say "Call in if you want to go for lunch sometime." Obviously, they know what it's like to be in a town full of strangers. Also, is there an age difference requirment for friends/ mates/ drinking partners? The idea of making friends with a 20-year seems slightly, I don't know, strange. Or I am just being age-elitist?

Finally, you don't have to tip-toe around certain issues when you're talking with your mates. You can offend them to your heart's content (afterall, THAT's what they're for). Some people are just too bloody sensitive/ politically-correct/ stupid to make jokes with. This whole "new town" thing is really starting to wear thin.

Lucky my flatmate likes the odd beer (and wine) and live music gig. Pity he's recently moved from Perth.

Globalisation: good or bad?

Walking around your average university campus you'd be convinced that economic globalisation (i.e. free trade and out-sourcing) is the most ruthless and evil concept ever devised by those capitalistic dogs of the West. Alternatively, economically liberal publications such as The Economist and The Australian champion the idea of economic interdependence among countries as the ultimate panacea for the world's ills such as disease, poverty and war (admittedly, an interesting notion that two nations will be reluctant to war with each other because of their bilateral trade agreements).

Who's right? Personally, I had my money on the latter (afterall, Nike doesn't make poor people, it makes shoes) but according to this article, both sides have some valid points. The article is perhaps slightly too long (depending on your attention span) but I found some of the points interesting nonetheless:

Antiglobalizers' central claim is that globalization is making the rich richer and the poor poorer; proglobalizers assert that it actually helps the poor... the World Bank estimates the fraction of the population in developing countries that falls below the $1-a-day poverty line (at 1993 prices)--an admittedly crude but internationally comparable level. By this measure, extreme poverty is declining in the aggregate.

But although the poorest are not, on the whole, getting poorer, no one has yet convincingly demonstrated that improvements in their condition are mainly the result of globalization. In China the poverty trend could instead be attributed to internal factors such as the expansion of infrastructure, the massive 1978 land reforms (in which the Mao-era communes were disbanded), changes in grain procurement prices, and the relaxation of restrictions on rural-to-urban migration.

In poor Asian economies, such as Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cambodia, large numbers of women now have work in garment export factories. Their wages are low by world standards but much higher than they would earn in alternative occupations. Advocates who worry about exploitative sweatshops have to appreciate the relative improvement in these women's conditions and status. An Oxfam report in 2002 quoted Rahana Chaudhuri, a 23-year-old mother working in the garment industry in Bangladesh:

This job is hard--and we are not treated fairly. The managers do not respect us women. But life is much harder for those working outside. Back in my village, I would have less money. Outside of the factories, people selling things in the street or carrying bricks on building sites earn less than we do. There are few other options. Of course, I want better conditions. But for me this job means that my children will have enough to eat and that their lives can improve.

While in Cambodia a young girl with no hands begged me for money on a public bus. The guidebooks claim children are sometimes maimed by their masters so they can entice more money from foreigners. Although I do not believe in mulit-nationals running factories in appalling and squalid conditions and reaping stupidly high profits, the grim alternative truly frightens me. Sobering indeed.

In short, the next time you see a pack of anti-globalisation protestors rallying for their cause, remember the issues aren't as clear cut as they claim.

Update: A couple of days after writing this entry I conversed with a PhD student in philosophy who is studying the ethical implications of free trade. She briefly said it's not as bad as the anti-globalisers make out, but there are some concerns. Well, that's what I think she said. I don't understand philosophy students.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Sex is Good

I had an inkling:

IT DOES not take a degree in medicine to work out that sex is good for you. Anything that is free, feels fabulous and leaves you glowing is plainly a good idea.

But scientists are now beginning to understand that the perceived feel-good effects of sexual intercourse are merely the tip of the iceberg. Sex, they are discovering, can offer protection from depression, colds, heart disease and even cancer.

The latest addition to the body of evidence came last month when Professor Stuart Brody of the University of Paisley published a study showing sex can lower blood pressure.

I knew there was a better reason why I should be having sex more often (or at all).

Sunday, April 23, 2006

A Whinge about Crackpots

Once upon a time there was a con-man named Uri Geller who proclaimed he could bend spoons with his mind. Yes. You read that right. Bend spoons with his mind. Unfortunately, in the absence of critical thinking (or any other thinking for that matter) among general society, Mr Geller made a lot of money by pumping out books and being paraded as some sort of new age avatar on sickeningly inane TV shows.

Well, all except for one. The famous predecessor to Jay Leno on the Tonight Show and former magician, Johnny Carson, would invite charlatans like Geller on his show under the pretense that he actually swallowed their special flavour of bullshit, and then reveal them to the world as the frauds they were. Similarly, former magician and scepticism champion, James "Amazing" Randi, has challenged Geller a number of times to prove his powers, but in true loser form Geller has been unable to do so and has just cried about the unfair conditions. Typical.

Now, with his gob-smacking ability to speak absolute shit evidently not diminishing with age, Uri "Arse-clown" Geller has decided to buy the former house of Elvis. This shows just how much money you can screw out of the gullible masses. From ballroom dance instructor turned communicator with the dead, John Edward to advocates of cryptic and twisted beyond comprehension poetry by Nostradamus, there is no shortage of scam-artists out there. And they always seem to get a spot on TV. Why?


Roughly speaking, economics is a social science that attempts to understand, explain and hopefully predict the flow of wealth that arises from the wants and needs of human activity, I think. The credibilty of economics as a science has been questioned in the past, but it often does successfully what is sets out to do as economists employ tools and techniques to study and forecast economies.

Economists will repeatedy observe a particular phenomena and use these observations to predict future economic trends. Economists will also try to explain the observations with various assumptions of human activity and principles such as supply and demand, and correspondingly design simplified economic models to further their understanding of economics. These models, although simple compared to the complexities of actual reality, can work well and consequently are used to make various decisions.

Unfortunately, all is not well in the land of economics. Exceptions to the repeated observations do occur. Economic models often do fail to predict or explain certain phenomena. Economists' explanations of some observations are dubious at best. Economists make largely more observations than predictions. And surprisingly, while economic thought is arguably centries old, higher-level mathematics only began to play a crucial role in economics post-WW2.

Physics on the other hand has always been steadfastly coupled with mathematics. Physicists will employ every mathematical trick available - much to the chagrin of pure mathematicians - to explain, model and predict physical phenomena. One area of physics known as statistical mechanics uses statistical methods, physical assumptions and the properties and arrangements of the universe's building-blocks on the small-scale to model and predict observations on the large-scale. Statistical mechanics thus effectively explains the large-scale by summing all the actions on the small-scale.

Similarly, economies and financial markets are essentially driven by individual units - humans. With this in mind, two French physicists recently decided they would try to explain the century-old previously-unexplained observation in various societies known as the Pareto Law of Wealth Distribution. This distribution effectively states that a small minority will possess the majority of wealth. The physcists treated individual people as atoms in matter and the amount amd frequency of trading within the economy as temperature. Amazingly, with the application of the methods from physics, the equations of a Pareto distribution arose, thus validating their physial-turned-economical model.

Obvously, these are early days as this new field known as econophysics has only been around for a decade or so. Hopefully, with the right application of mathematics and physics economies will be better understood. As Dr Karl suggests, we might even be able to adjust that Pareto distibution slightly and share some of the wealth around.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Marijuana Debate

I have mixed thoughts about the "marijuna debate", and in particular, its alleged medicinal benefits. If marjiuna does help ameliorate certain medical ailments, then people should be allowed to smoke it. But if it does have detrimental effects such as its supposed potential to induce (or at least, increase the risk of) schizophrenia, then maybe it should not be a prescribed drug.

Regardless, the Scientific American blog outlines an interesting catch-22 in the US - a country that tried unsuccessfully to ban a problem-causing drug known as alcohol. I wonder how our country would fair if pot was legalised? Pizza Hut would be surely smiling and teenagers would need to use something else to rebel with. Maybe we should follow the Dutch and see what happens. But then again, I hear they're thinking of changing that. Strangely enough, the powers that be aren't usually regular takers of the stuff. Another catch-22?

The Film

It's coming. The Film will be here soon. But, perhaps, not soon enough. If the new director has screwed up the third installment of this epic saga, heads will roll.

And here people were thinking I didn't have a life outside the internet. Joke's on them, I think...

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Near Death

Sir Robert Winston mentions in his book Human Instinct that studies have suggested people with frontal-lobe epilepsy are more prone to religious hallucinations. Interestingly, it now appears some people are more prone to "near death" experiences:

Researchers found that adults who said they had had such an experience were also likely to have a history of what is called REM intrusion - where aspects of the dream state of sleep spill over into wakefulness.

People may, for example, feel paralysed when they first wake up, or have visual or auditory hallucinations as they fall asleep or wake.

Of the 55 study participants who had had a near-death experience, 60 per cent had also experienced REM intrusion at some point in their lives. That compared with 24 per cent of 55 adults who served as a comparison group.

The findings suggest that the brain's arousal system predisposes some people to both REM intrusion and near-death experience, according to the study authors led by Kevin Nelson, a neurologist at the University of Kentucky.

Obviously, this is a hard area to collect data on - and even a harder area for performing experiments.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Conservative Queensland?

Last Sunday I was very surpised to learn there's an "adult film" cinema in the centre of Melbourne. Ten minutes later I walked pass a brothel just a hundred metres down from the Uni of Melbourne. At the time I was walking with two international students who were a little amazed by my surprise. I tried explaining to them I was not aware of any cinemas of that nature in Brisbane, and that brothels had only become legal a couple of years ago - and then only in industrialised areas.

Is Queensland that conservative? Did Old Joh really leave that much of a mark? For a while I've had my suspicions. I noticed a couple of years ago most of the morning evangelist TV-shows seemed to have their offices in Mansfield, Brisbane. Then some one told me there was a high number of strong religious groups on the way to Toowoomba. Shortly after I discovered that the British evolutionist Richard Dawkins had been scammed in his own house by a bunch of creationist film-makers from QLD.

Pretty scary, eh? Gets worse. Last year I watched a creationist vs evolution documentary filmed in America. I nearly fell off my chair when a creationist started preaching in a true-blue Aussie accent. The creationist was none other then QLD-borned Ken Ham. And now I discover this:

Next week, an Australian will jet into Heathrow for a lecture tour that will gladden the hearts of the small but dauntless band of British creationists, believers in the biblical account of the origins of the world.

John Mackay, a former science teacher from Queensland, whose photograph shows him looking not unlike Indiana Jones, grinning in bush hat and open necked shirt, is one of Creation Science's speaking stars. He will console believers that Genesis is true, that the Earth is not millions of years old but only a few thousand and that science proves it, rather than the Darwinian theory of evolution accepted by the overwhelming majority of scientists for more than a century.

What's wrong Queensland? Where did all these religious nutters come from? Surely we're not alone? Do other states have this problem? I feel so ashamed. Ah, stuff it. I'm having another beer.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Americans Abroad

Almost all Americans I've met abroad have been friendly, worldly and well-informed people (and mainly anti-Bush). Admittedly, most of these Americans I met in countires like Vietnam and Guatemala - places which are off the beaten track compared to your regular Ameican tourist haunts such as Rome, Paris, London or Cancun. However, I am perfectly aware that there are American tourists that some people may take offence to. Well, America is tired of its poor repuation:

The reputation of the ugly American abroad is not just some cruel stereotype. Rather, says the United States Government, it is worryingly accurate.

Now the State Department in Washington has joined forces with US industry to plan an image makeover by issuing guides on how to behave for Americans travelling overseas.

Under a program starting next month, several big US companies will give employees going abroad a "world citizen's guide" featuring 16 etiquette tips on how they can help improve their country's battered international image.

This is great. No more loud annoying American tourists. Similarly, the Australian government should educate Aussie yobs in etiquette before they are allowed to travel overseas to drink cheap beer in Bangkok or work in a London pub. It's truly saddening when your fellow country men act like complete wankers abroad. In Argentina I considered, ever-so-briefly, telling foreigners I was a New Zealander so I wouldn't be associated with the Aussie drunken fools in our hostel. When an Aussie considers pretending to be a Kiwi, you know there's a problem.

Blasted Scientists

Honestly scientists. This is getting a tad tedious. Another transitional fossil? And this time it falls into the chain of human evolution:

Because the 4.2-million-year-old fossil is from the same human ancestral hot spot in Ethiopia as remains from seven other human-like species, scientists can now fill in the gaps for the most complete evolutionary chain so far.

"We just found the chain of evolution, the continuity through time," said Ethiopian anthropologist Berhane Asfaw, co-author of the study being reported Thursday in the journal Nature. "One form evolved to another. This is evidence of evolution in one place through time."

The species, Australopithecus anamensis is not new, but its location is what helps explain the giant leap from one early phase of human-like development to the next, scientists say. All eight species were found in a region called the Middle Awash.

An amazing find. It's bloody hard work finding fossils. I blame the stupid pre-historic carnivores eating all the evidence. The Earth's unpredictable geological nature and immense age don't help much either in the way of preserving fossils. Hmmm, finding fossils would be much easier if the Earth was only, say, six thousand years old.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Women are good - economically speaking

We've been trumped, lads. The ladies have it:

One longstanding reason why boys have been seen as a greater blessing has been that they are expected to become better economic providers for their parents' old age. Yet it is time for parents to think again. Girls may now be a better investment.

Girls get better grades at school than boys, and in most developed countries more women than men go to university. Women will thus be better equipped for the new jobs of the 21st century, in which brains count a lot more than brawn. And women are more likely to provide sound advice on investing their parents' nest egg: surveys show that women consistently achieve higher financial returns than men do.

Furthermore, the increase in female employment in the rich world has been the main driving force of growth in the past couple of decades. Those women have contributed more to global GDP growth than have either new technology or the new giants, China and India.

Apparently, women need to be exploited more:

Women complain (rightly) of centuries of exploitation. Yet, to an economist, women are not exploited enough: they are the world's most under-utilised resource; getting more of them into work is part of the solution to many economic woes, including shrinking populations and poverty.

Well, it would seem while the woman earns the money, I'll have to sit back from professional work and do my manly duties, which include mowing the lawn, opening jars and pleasuring her. No snickering at the back. We may also be on call to do emergency parallel parks.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Parrots and Politics

I can't believe this is still an issue. A electricity-generation windmill farm was planned to be built in Victoria but the federal environmental minister knocked it back on the alleged grounds it would pose a threat to the endangered Orange-bellied parrot, which migrates yearly between Tasmania and Victoria. What sort of threat are we talking here? Since the windmills won't be in the bird's flight region, the potential risk is that one bird may die per year. Surely one bird per year is OK for cleaner airs? No? And it gets better:

But Victorian Energy Minister Theo Theophanous said Senator Campbell had been unable to find any evidence an orange-bellied parrot had been killed by a wind farm.

"The wind farm in Tasmania is in the flight path of the parrots, and the study found there was a one-in-20-year probability of a bird dying, which when compared with the Bald Hills project, which was a one-in-143-year probability, you would normally say this has no hope of going ahead.

A one-in-143-year chance of dying? Poor little feathered critters. And they're fast too, apparently clocking speeds up to 150km/h while NOT hitting any trees. I reckon if a species is stupid enough to be wiped out by a couple of windmills, it deserves its fate. Same goes for some humans. Darwinism rules.

Sidenote: Just realised I could've looked real smart-like by using the term quixotic in this entry. You know, in reference to that crazy Spanish literary character, Don Quixote, who fought windmills because he thought they might be giants? Ah, forget it.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

I would have never guessed

Apparently, in relation to the recent terrorist raids in Australia, an undercover Victorian Police operative had infiltrated the arrested group of suspect terrorists as part of the operation. As always the media, in this case The Age, has its finger on the pulse:

The Age believes the undercover operative is of Middle-Eastern heritage and infiltrated the group by pretending he shared similar beliefs.

No shit,eh? THAT's how you infiltrate a group of extremist nutjobs. You pretend you follow their special flavour of craziness. And to think they didn't choose an operative that resembled someone of, I don't know, Jewish descent.

Terrorist: "Do you hate all that is Western?"

Operative: "Yeah, sure, why not. Down with the West and stuff."

Terrorist: "Good, good. Everything checks out here. What's your name brother?"

Operative: "Um, Jon Noam Goldberg Leibowitz..."

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Another transitional fossil

It's not looking good; not looking good at all. These machinating scientists keep finding "proof" of evolution:

Paleontologists working in the Canadian Arctic have discovered the fossilized remains of an animal that elucidates one of evolution's most dramatic transformations: that which produced land-going vertebrates from fish. Dubbed Tiktaalik roseae, the large, predatory fish bears a number of features found in four-limbed creatures, a group known as tetrapods.

Neil Shubin of the University of Chicago and his colleagues found Tiktaalik on Ellesmere Island, some 600 miles from the North Pole, in deposits dating to 375 million years ago. Like all fish, Tiktaalik possesses fins and scales. But it also has a number of distinctly un-piscine characteristics, including a neck, a flat, crocodilelike skull, and robust ribs. As such Tiktaalik neatly fills the gap between previously known tetrapodlike fish such as Panderichthys, which lived some 385 million years ago, and the earliest tetrapods, Ichthyostega and Acanthostega, which lived about 365 million years ago. "Tiktaalik blurs the boundary between fish and land animals," Shubin observes.

This sinister scientific cabal is far more influential and devious than I expected. How do they persuade such a vast global network of eminent scientists into believing in this evolution craziness? Something's afoot. Soon they'll be trying to convince us we don't live in a geocentric universe.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

My iMac died

My purple iMac died today. Just wouldn't start. They gave me a newer aqua iMac. With a 400MHz chip, it's considerably faster than my old one.

I'm trying to get the latest laptop from Apple. Only setback is they - the uni IT support - won't give me administrator access, which means I can't configure it properly to run music...and stuff.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Turkey Dinosaur

Last year I saw the "Dinosaurs of China" exhibition at the Museum of Melbourne. Imagine my surpise when I saw their velociraptor (the nasty smart ones in Jurassic Park) was covered in feathers. Their argument was that the closest relative of the velociraptor was covered in feathers so it made good sense that he was as well. Enter his mate:

Fossils from a new species of birdlike dinosaur resembling a 2.1 metre brightly coloured turkey and which could run at up to 40 kph have been found in southern Utah.

Fossils of the meat-eater's hand-like claw and foot found in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument near the Arizona border in Utah, give paleontologists reason to believe some dinosaurs known as raptors roamed from Canada to northern New Mexico about 75 million years ago.

A birdlike dinosaur? Is this more evidence suggesting that birds are descended from dinosaurs? Never. You have to appreciate the irony that this feathered fella was discovered in Mormon territory. The Big G definitely has a sense of humour.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Are you lucky?

This month's Scientific American Skeptic column discusses the merits of being lucky. Well, at least the merits of thinking you are lucky:

"Lucky people are far more satisfied with all areas of their lives than unlucky or neutral people," Wiseman reveals in his charming and insightful book, "The Luck Factor". Does this satisfied state of mind translate into actual life outcomes that someone might call lucky? It does. Here's how.

Wiseman gave subjects the "big five" personality scale, which measures "agreeableness," "conscientiousness," "extroversion," "neuroticism" and "openness." Although there were no differences between lucky and unlucky people on agreeableness and conscientiousness, Wiseman found significant differences for extroversion, neuroticism and openness.

Lucky people score significantly higher than unlucky people on extroversion. "There are three ways in which lucky people's extroversion significantly increases the likelihood of their having a lucky chance encounter," Wiseman explains: "meeting a large number of people, being a 'social magnet' and keeping in contact with people." Lucky people, for example, smile twice as often and engage in more eye contact than unlucky people do, which leads to more social encounters, which generates more opportunities.

Personally, I've never thought of myself as a lucky person. Hence, I try to plan things without factoring in too much luck. Simple. Then again, I suppose I'm lucky this blasted iMac hasn't blown up in my face...yet.

So many puns

In reference to a previous post, it turns out that the Lord Mayor of Melboure, John So, and his not-so-good English are liked by most:

HE is the most popular lord mayor in Australia. Every time his name was mentioned during the closing ceremony of Melbourne's Commonwealth Games, there was a deafening roar of approval that washed over Ron Walker, standing at the microphone, on its way to John So.

And only So. The Prime Minister, John Howard, was not cheered. The Victorian Premier, Steve Bracks, was not cheered. Walker, chairman of the Games organising committee, was not cheered. But just the mention of So's name rocked the MCG.

The next day, as Melbourne thanked the Games volunteers, revellers stood in the street chanting "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, So, So, So". At the Games, people wore T-shirts with the slogan "John So - he's my bro".

Brilliant. Probably only in Australia. Probably only in Melbourne.