Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Bottle in Oz

A recently survey saying that Aussies are losing a lot of work hours - perish the thought - because of the drink. I'm slightly surprised to see how much the girls are, um, representing:

Young women, tradespeople, country workers and those in hospitality are among the most risky drinkers in the workplace.

Females aged 14 to 19 were the heaviest drinkers, with almost 30 per cent drinking enough alcohol each week at levels deemed risky. They, and men aged 20 to 29, had the highest rates of absenteeism due to alcohol.

Suppose it makes sense really. You can't taste the alcohol in those sugar-ladden drinks which women consume. These sort of findings drive me to, um, drink? No mention of maths students. Figures.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Biased Mind

You're in a debate and somebody makes a valid a argument against you. How often do you concede? Usually, due to ego, it's not too often, I'd imagine. Similarly, someone you admire, be it a politician or sports person, does something reprehensible. How often do you rationalise their actions?

Now studies suggest that our minds are unconciously biased towards our beliefs. This sounds fairly obvious. The American sceptic Michael Shermer writes:

I am a libertarian. As a fiscal conservative and social liberal, I have found at least something to like about each Republican or Democrat I have met. I have close friends in both camps, in which I have observed the following: no matter the issue under discussion, both sides are equally convinced that the evidence overwhelmingly supports their position.

This surety is called the confirmation bias, whereby we seek and find confirmatory evidence in support of already existing beliefs and ignore or reinterpret disconfirmatory evidence. Now a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study shows where in the brain the confirmation bias arises and how it is unconscious and driven by emotions.

During the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, while undergoing an fMRI bran scan, 30 men--half self-described as "strong" Republicans and half as "strong" Democrats--were tasked with assessing statements by both George W. Bush and John Kerry in which the candidates clearly contradicted themselves. Not surprisingly, in their assessments Republican subjects were as critical of Kerry as Democratic subjects were of Bush, yet both let their own candidate off the hook.

Next time somebody, perhaps even me, is arguing against something you know they don't believe in, you can use this scientific finding in your argument. Or alternatively, you tell them to piss off and stop being so stubborn. Whatever works.

Note: I believe libertarians tend to support abortion, euthanasia and invididual rights in general while supporting free trade, privatisation and capitalism.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Australia Vs Italy

In the last week or so, I've had a couple of people allude to the fact that I wasn't really a soccer fan and that I just jumping on the band wangon with the rest of Oz. Nothing could be further from the truth. In 1998 I woke up early to watch Germany play, and finally be promptly beaten by Croatia (the bastards). In 2002, I had no doubt that Irish Incompetence (TM) would prevail, allowing Germany through to the next round.

Now, I'm not the sort of person that gets excited at concerts or even passionate about regular sporting events (sorry QLD lads, but the State of Origin doesn't really do it for me - afterall I'm NSW born). But every four years, I find myself yelling at the TV screen, jumping up and down in glee or anger, and cursing at bad referee decisions (and let's face it, all decisions against Oz are bad ;) In short: the World Cup is where it's at.

Indubitably, Australia's days in the World Cup are numbered. But fingers crossed the Italians go down tonight. And when they do, I'm staying clear of nearby Lygon Street and its Italian restaurants.

Nice Work Buffett

People are often quick to sledge Bill Gates. And usually, rightly so. Let's face it. Microsoft products aren't exactly quality goods. But I often forgive old Billie boy because of his charity work. From education grants to investing in cures for malaria, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is always there to lend the largest helping hand. Now the old investor Warren Buffett shares the wealth:

Warren Buffett, the world's second richest man, today announced plans to give away 85 per cent of his estimated $US44 billion ($A60.05 billion) wealth to charity.

Most of the donations will go to a foundation run by Bill Gates, the wealthiest man on the planet.

The shares will go to five foundations. But more than 83 per cent of the stock will go to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which already has a kitty of about $US30 billion ($A40.94 billion) used to pay for medical research and give educational grants.

Buffett and the Gates' are close friends.

Glad the money won't be financing another "Creationism" museum in the States. Hats off to Buffett.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Bring it on Italy

Was there any doubt that Australia would make it to the next round? OK, I could have been grinding my teeth in fear and frustration in the wee hours of this morning. How frustrating was that game? I didn't know what was happening in the last few minutes. Perhaps it was the lack of sleep. Did that Croatian player, who allegedly hails from Australia, deserve a red card (before the end of the game) or what?

The Aussie goalkeeper scared me. Repeatedly.

Finally, I don't care if our man Harry Kewell was blatantly offside when he scored the second equaliser. Good old Hazza. Zoolander style: he's so HOT right now.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Net Filters

I recall as a wayward highschool lad in 97 or 98 having access to all sorts of internet material which didn't exactly pertain to good old-fashion "family values" (viewed by me purely for educational purposes). Apparently, gone will be the halcyon days of internet, um, education for curious youths:

The Federal Government has offered free pornography filters for home computers as it moves to shore up its political heartland with a pitch to families.

It will spend $116 million on PC-based filters for families and public libraries.

A mail and television campaign to promote the scheme is expected to begin next year before the federal election.

I don't get it. Why is this suddenly an issue? Surely parents can guide their children morally without the aid of the federal government. Obviously, this is blatant vote canvassing. But apparently, the government hasn't pleased all:

The package won support yesterday from the backbencher who has led the strike against pornography, conservative Tasmanian senator Guy Barnett.

But it has not gone far enough to satisfy Family First senator Steve Fielding or Christian groups

Family First. No surprises there. Again, it comes down to an over-used but apt Simpsons' reference: Will somebody please think of the children!

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Bad sports?

I hear that the English think Aussies are bad sports. When this news first came to my ears, I thought "bloody whinging poms". But perhaps Australians do take sport a little too seriously. Just look at the enormous pressure athletes and sportsmen alike have to tolerate. Surprisingly, Aushtraya ain't happy with the World Cup:

Australia believes it is being persecuted by World Cup referees in the wake of a public smear campaign leading into the tournament.

The bitterness is likely to ferment after Harry Kewell was yesterday cited for professional misconduct after delivering a verbal tirade at German referee Markus Merk at the end of the 2-0 loss to Brazil.

After a tight call went against goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer in the opening game against Japan, the coaching staff and the players felt Merk all but whistled the Socceroos out of yesterday's match against the world champion.

Brazil received four times as many free kicks as the Socceroos, while there were claims both Brazilian goals should have been ruled out for offside.

Coach Guus Hiddink conceded he had to do "a bit of cooling off" after the match, and was unhappy with the refereeing of Merk, whom he believed had favoured Brazil with some contentious decisions.

Oh well. Such is the game (and life for that matter). Still, if the Croatians beat us, heads will roll.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Australia vs Brazil*

Fingers crossed. Hopefully it won't be complete and utter destruction for the Aussies. I'm staying up late tonight and braving the Melbourne cold by watching the game on the big screen at Federation Square. Should be exciting.

P.S. I hate my London-dwelling friend Luke who will be at the game in Germany.

*The first of two matches ;)

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Google Quote of the Day

Perhaps a little childish of me, but meh:

"If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn't be a bit surprised." - Dorothy Parker

I once met a yank from Yale or Harvard. From her stories, I wouldn't be surprised either.

In other news, I'm just recovering from Monday's bouldering session and a gruelling hour of squash on Tuesday. I have supervisor meetings on Fridays, and he's going to kick my lazy arse. And rightly so.

Lastly, do you think there's any political planning of the World Cup team groups? For example: the US is not in the same group as, I don't know, Iran. Then again, it is the world game. It transcends all else.

Monday, June 12, 2006

World Cup Chances

Think grey England. Think whinging poms. Think die-hard football (or soccer) fans. Think Northern English accents. From Nick Horby's debut book Fever Pitch:

Fan 1: "They were f---ing rubbish last year. And they were f---ing rubbish the year before. And I don't care if they are top of the league, they'll be f---ing rubbish this year, too. And next year. And the year after that. I'm not joking."

Fan 2: "I don't know why you come, Frank. Honest I don't."

Fan 1: "Well, you live in hope, don't you?"

I think that sums it up aptly. Still. Go Aussie, go.

Friday, June 09, 2006


As some of you may know, Engels is not my last name, nor am I a follower of the communist writer Friederich Engels. In everyday circumstances I go by my middle name while my first name, which is very German, remains unknown to most. However, that wasn't to be.

In my first year of uni, a couple of my drunken mates caught wind of the fact that I was going by middle name, and not my first name. In their words "I was living a lie." So naturally they left a drunken message on my phone (at 4 in the morning of course) . They argued that I must tell my then girlfriend (who was attending another uni) my real name and stop living this lie (of course they did all this in very bad Irish accents but I got the point). Finally, they declared that my real name was....they paused for a moment like drunken fools. Then the wittier of the two shouts out, "It's Engelbert. It's Engelbert Humperdinck!"

The rest, as they say, is history. Although, I never listen to the famous singer (though one of my kind college mates bought me a single of his), it has come to my attention that the "King of Romance" is touring Australia. And in fact he plays in Melbourne this Saturday, the 10th of June, which is quite remarkable as that date is indeed my birthday. Funny old world, innit?

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Overpriced Products

Can you taste the difference between CSR and homebrand sugar? I sure can't but I used to have two flatmates who would criticise me for buying home brand products (one of them eventually saw the error of their ways). An economics columnist at Fairfax writes:

Certain shops in London, a cup of "fair trade" coffee costs 25 cents more than an ordinary cup. But investigations reveal that, though the Guatemalan farmers supplying the coffee are paid almost double the market price, the quantity of beans used in a cup of coffee is so small that this extra cost works out at only 2.5 cents a cup. So 90 per cent of the higher price of fair trade coffee ends up in someone else's pocket.

There's no way the difference in price is adequately explained by the differing costs of producing the various styles or sizes.

For instance, I'll bet the higher price of free-range eggs isn't justified by their higher cost of production, just as the extra leg room and better meals don't account for the much higher price of business class air fares.

These cases are from an interesting new book, The Undercover Economist, by Tim Harford.

You see this frequently with overpriced "healthy food". Here's the rationale:

The beginning of wisdom is to understand that profit-oriented businesses want to charge "as much as the market will bear"...

The trick is that each of us has our own maximum price we're willing to pay for a particular item. So the ideal way for a business to maximise its profit would be to charge each of its customers a price geared to his or her maximum willingness to pay.

What's a lot easier and more common is for firms to set differing prices for different groups of customers. In the simplest version of this, they set a low price aimed at people with a low willingness to pay and a high price aimed at those with a high willingness to pay.

The trouble is, they can't just advertise two prices for the same item: $1 for cheapskates, $2.95 for spendthrifts. So they have to find a plausible excuse for charging two or more prices.

Hartford says no-frills products in supermarkets have unattractive labels not to save on printing costs but to discourage purchases by people prepared to pay more for the big-name products.

I'm not suggesting to go out and buy homebrand corn-flakes (because they taste like shit). But to be so blatantly shafted by companies in this manner, it's simply an insult to your intelligence.

P.S. I'm currently considering replacing my Helly Hensen inner fleece - the cheap part of a ski jacket - for $190. The entire jacket (shell and fleece) cost me about $180 in Canada. In Oz it costs over $400.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Mathematics Rant

"What jobs can maths get you? Highschool teacher?" The number of times I've heard these words makes my blood boil. It's up there with "I used to be good at maths but I thought there were no in jobs in it." Mathematics graduates are used in every field imaginable including IT, finance, consulting, accounting, medical, engineering, processing/manufacturing, telecommunications, defence and mining*.

And that's only the industries that employ you purely to use maths. Companies employ maths students (both applied and pure) because they show intelligence, good communication skills and superior problem-solving abilities. Thus, it is no surprise that maths teachers and professors are lamenting about the appalling drop in mathematically equiped students in recent years across Australia. The latest developent in NSW, who are usually quite good at maths, is shameful:

Year 12 students in NSW are choosing a less challenging mathematics course because it can get them a higher university entrance score than a more difficult course, mathematics experts say.

The scaling anomaly had contributed to a steep decline in the number of HSC students studying mathematics at an intermediate level, threatening a national shortage of scientists, teachers, computer and finance experts.

The International Centre of Excellence for Education in Mathematics will publish the new findings today, showing the proportion of NSW students studying 2-unit maths dropped from 30 per cent in 1995 to 20 per cent in 2004.

Nationally, the proportion of students studying intermediate and advanced maths subjects fell from 41.3 per cent to 34.3 per cent over the same period.

Uni of NSW is considered to have one of the best maths schools in the world (they beat Oxford and MIT in one ranking). I wonder how they will fair in a few years time? Numerous lecturers and tutors (including myself) are deeply disappointed at the poor maths skills of the current uni students. Teachers, according to anecdotal evidence, seem intent on reducing the mathematical content in highschools. Why is this? Probably because many highschool teachers aren't that good at maths, comparatively speaking, and thus don't truly understand it.

Another reason for the poor numbers in maths students, I believe, is the guidance counsellors in highschools. When was the last time you met a guidance counsellor trained in higher-level maths? Simple. You haven't. In QLD people are under the false illusion that Maths C is more challenging than Maths B. Rubbish. Probably the other way around if anything. I have a friend studying radiation therapy who wishes he had studied Maths C to illustrate its benefits.

How is Australia suppose to attract foreign investment with a lack of maths skills. There's no shortage of people who can write an essay (resonably well) in this country (or serve food and drinks for that matter). Understanding a problem with a tad of maths, well that's another matter altogether.

*Mmmm, last time I checked there was a *little* boom in this area in Oz.

Coffee, luv?

For my fellow single lads out there, here's some interesting news:

Scientists have discovered why men are so keen to ask their date in for a coffee after a night out.

It seems caffeine makes us more likely to say "yes".

Moderate amounts of the coffee stimulant can increase people's willingness to be persuaded, say researchers.

The Australian scientists found that, after consuming caffeine, volunteers were more likely to agree with persuasive arguments.

This is interesting because I don't particularly like drinking coffee. However, I would ask a lady out for a coffee. Why? Well, because my female friends (no, I haven't driven them all away by my leering, yet) inform me that this is the best type of date. Seeing a film is too anti-social. And a beer is too, I don't know, keen? So the coffee date is the best. And in coffee-obsessed Melbourne, not knowing what a café latte is can get you into some hot-water, so to speak.

Monday, June 05, 2006

New Computer

Yay! I have my new uni-issued PC. It runs ever so smoothly. I going to spend the rest of the afternoon tweaking it so it's 1337. There's no doubting it. I am the coolest.

Um, Canada?

While in Vancouver a couple of years ago, a local claimed that old Dubya had bad-mouthed the Canucks after they had refused to support the US in a military strike (I believe it was against Iraq). Now this troubling news:

The delivery of three tonnes of ammonium nitrate to a group suspected of plotting terrorist attacks in southern Ontario was part of an undercover police sting operation, the Toronto Star has learned.

The RCMP said yesterday that after investigating the alleged homegrown terrorist cell for months, they had to move quickly Friday night to arrest 12 men and five youths before the group could launch a bomb attack on Canadian soil.

Poor Canucks. I thought they were the prime example of multiculturalism working well.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Crikey Lists

Been wasting my time reading some interesting lists compiled by the crew at Crikey. This list shows that my old uni loves giving out honorary doctorates though Bradman declined one:

Griffith Uni wrote to the Don and offered one to him for services to cricket and he wrote back declining saying that the Uni should give his to Menzies instead.

Some brilliant (or appalling) examples of cheque-book journalism listed here. It's good to see that Natasha Ryan, the Bundaberg slapper who hid out in her boyfriend's cupboard for a couple of years as police searched for the "missing" teenager, was handsomely rewarded for her efforts to the tune of $250 000.

If you're interested in knowing where all Australia's mineral wealth is going, check this list out. And finally the rich Aussies list. Frightening how much money some people have. I seriously have to change fields (the CEO of Singapore Airlines has a PhD in probability from Aushtraya).

Here's to procrastination. Enjoy your weekend.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Maths E-mail

I received this email today from some academic. It relates to the American education system but I think it's relevant to our system in general:

Teaching Math In 1950
A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is
4/5 of the price. What is his profit?

Teaching Math In 1960
A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is
4/5 of the price, or $80. What is his profit?

Teaching Math In 1970
A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is
$80. Did he make a profit?

Teaching Math In 1980
A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is
$80 and his profit is $20. Your assignment: Underline the number 20.

Teaching Math In 1990
A logger cuts down a beautiful forest because he is selfish and
inconsiderate and cares nothing for the habitat of animals or the
preservation of our woodlands. He does this so he can make a profit of
$20. What do you think of this way of making a living? Topic for class
participation after answering the question: How did the birds and
squirrels feel as the logger cut down their homes? (There are no wrong

I think English is the worse offender.