Bad Astronomy is a book by Philip Plait, Ph.D. (creator of the website by the same name: www.badastronomy.com) wherein he explains the common misconceptions, misunderstandings, and questions that you’ve never really thought about in so much depth before.
Why is the sky blue? Why do the stars twinkle? Was the moon landing a hoax? Where is the centre of the universe?
Often his answers start off which what is common knowledge but then supersede that with a bunch of extra detail and insight; such as the chapter about tides, which starts off talking about the moon, then recedes to cover gravity principles, then involves the tidal influence of the sun, and ends with the following paragraph:
So the next time you're at the beach, think for a moment about what you're seeing. The force of tides may take the water in and out from the shoreline, but it also lengthens our day, pushes the Moon farther away, creates volcanoes, eats stars, and viciously tears apart whole galaxies. Of course, the tides also make it easier to find pretty shells on the coastline. Sometimes it's awesome to think about the universe as a whole, but other times it's okay just to wiggle your toes in the wet sand.
Bad Astronomy is essentially an astronomy-specific variant of Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science.
The results from my annual home broadband speed test this year indicate:
The declining download speed is not much concern to me, as it is consistent and more than fast enough for my requirements.
More importantly, I am happy that in the past year we have not had any noticeable degradation or outages, which, alas, means I have nothing further to report on the awesome customer service of O2.
It’s that time of year again: time for some life-admin in the form of renewing the car insurance. It’s the most fun I’ve had since Christmas! Even though I’m now over 25 and have managed to build up two years’ no claims discount, apparently I still need all the help I can get when it comes beating down the price of my car insurance. (Maybe it’s something to do with this incident; though it wasn’t my fault!)
I ended up renewing my policy with Admiral, after discovering that their customer service is absolutely awesome, their renewal quote was reasonable, and they gave me a discount just for asking!
Admiral: Their website is a bit clunky, but the customer service is awesome. These are definitely the people I’d want to be dealing with if I ever need to make a claim. (Now, if only every call centre could be this good.)
To save dealing directly with insurers one-by-one you can go to comparison sites that gather quotes from dozens of insurers at once; and to save having to choose which of the comparison sites to use, you go to Martin Lewis’ Car Insurance Guide. There he will tell you not only which comparison sites to use, but the most efficient order to use them in! (Updated every quarter based on a full survey!) He’ll even optimise your job role: if you’re a software consultant you can save ~5% on your premium just by calling yourself a computer engineer instead.
After some eye-watering “best” quotes from the comparison sites, the renewal quote from Admiral wasn’t looking so bad. To take it down further I took my wife off the policy — she has decided not to go through with getting a full UK license for now, so taking her off the policy as a provisional driver was bound to help.
I also checked in with my friends at A-Plan insurance brokers to see if they could work some magic (don’t bother filling out the form on the website — call them on the phone and you’ll get a ballpark figure in 5 minutes. Ask for Jason Jarratt; tell him I sent you :-) Unfortunately Jason’s quick search yielded similarly eye-watering quotes to what I’d seen before, so much so that he didn’t think there was much hope of finessing down the price with some direct negotiations. He advised me to stick with my current insurer.
In the end, after about half a day of research I was barely able to beat my renewal quote. This came as quite a surprise; I thought insurers were meant to screw you on the renewals to exploit the inattentive and lazy? Maybe they only do that after the first couple of renewals, once they know you’re not paying attention and don’t have enough spare time to shop around...
I had already called Admiral to see about taking my wife off the policy and Tiffany was very friendly and helpful, so I figured there was nothing to lose in calling them again. Much to my surprise they were accepting calls at 8:30pm, how nice! I think their call centre is in the USA since both times I called the person I spoke to had an accent; I guess it makes it easier for them to be so friendly if it’s only 3:30pm where they are (rather than 2am for a call centre in India).
So I called Admiral and said I’d found a slightly cheaper quote; could they match it? After confirming the details of the policy to check everything was up to date (it was), the also-super-friendly Bethann put me on hold and went to speak to her manager. A minute later she was back with the offer of a discount that was almost 10% off the premium! My premium is pretty hefty, so that discount is nothing to scoff at. That’s quite a result for just asking!
It’s a good thing I got that discount too, because before she let me go the super-friendly-Bethann also managed to charm me in to an optional courtesy car upgrade. I got a bit of a spiel from Tiffany as well, before she’d let me go, so I assume it’s their ploy to win you over with awesome customer service then try for the up-sell. It’s okay; she earned it.
It’s been exactly a year since we got the broadband connected here. I ran a speed test at the time and was much impressed with the results:
We’re on the O2 Standard Home package, which is rated at "Up to 8 meg" downstream and "Up to 1.3 meg" upstream, so I was quite impressed to be getting rather close to these ideals.
Let’s see how things are a year on:
So overall marginally worse than last year, but still quite good when you consider the variability of home broadband connection speeds. And given the level of customer service I received recently, I'm in no hurry to switch broadband providers.
It has been nearly a year since we signed up for home broadband with O2. I remember they had top customer ratings at the time, but I didn’t really have any opinions myself — since nothing had gone wrong, I didn’t have any occasion to deal with customer services. Until now.
Thursday Morning 6:30am: Internet connection is not working. Try re-setting the modem (very occasionally we get connectivity problems that are fixed by a reset — this is probably the only thing I could complain about with my O2 Broadband experience to date). Mess around with the computer: try the Windows 7 networking wizard, reset network adaptor, run the O2 Broadband software CD diagnostics, reboot, pray to the gods, cross fingers, etc.
6:45am: Still no joy. Call the Customer Services number on the CD case. Someone picks up on the first ring. Wait a minute, it’s 6:45 in the morning and there’s someone to take my call? I wasn’t actually expecting someone to pick up so it takes me a moment to answer.
Me: Hi, there’s a problem with our home broadband. The “Broadband” light on the router is alternating between being off, and being lit red. I’ve tried resetting it.
CSR: Okay, what’s your home phone number? Let me see... Okay, there was a fault reported at your exchanged 17 minutes ago. Let’s see here... Okay, we have an engineer on-site at the exchange who is working on the problem right now.
Me: Wow, okay. I guess I’ll just wait for it to be resolved. Thanks.
It’s 6:45am and they not only have the Customer Services call-centre up and running, but they have engineers on-site with a sub-15-minute response time on exchange faults? Can you spell LOCKDOWN?
The icing on the cake:
9:05am: (Text message) O2 Broadband: We’ve noticed a line fault that might affect broadband in your area. Sorry. We’re working on it and we’ll let you know as soon as it’s fixed.
(I wonder if this message would have come sooner if the fault had not arisen so early in the morning.)
10:00am: (Text message) O2 Broadband: We got your broadband back up and running at 9:30 today. It should be back to normal now.
Talk about keeping your customers informed!
I’m sure O2 will keep their well-earned top ratings for Customer Service and Reliability — this is by far the best Broadband internet experience I’ve ever had, or even heard of!
In this book Jamie Whyte, a former philosophy lecturer at Cambridge University, does pretty much what he promises in the subtitle: “Exposing the bogus arguments of politicians, priests, journalists, and other serial offenders.”
This book starts off with a very in-depth logical approach that is, at times, a little bit too pedantic even for my taste. For example, the first chapter talks about the cliché “You are entitled to your opinion” and goes through the painstaking logical deduction that, although you are free to hold an opinion, it is obviously not guaranteed to be correct. Therefore, when debating the correctness of your opinion versus another opinion, the cop-out “I’m entitled to my opinion” is entirely irrelevant to the topic under debate. Roughly equivalent in merit to a statement such as “I am wearing leather shoes!”
Later in the book he mellows out a little and gets closer to Ben Goldacre’s style in Bad Science — pointing out public blunders and pseudo-scientific nonsense. Such as New Labour’s 1997 claim that 35% of British children live in ‘poverty’, under the rather unconventional definition of ‘poverty’ as “household income less than 60% of the national median household income”. His analysis is sound and comprehensive, but I’ll be flippant and say that this statistic is about as useful as declaring that 50% of children live in ‘poverty’ because they have a below-average household income. Something must be done! Increase taxes!
Another amusing part that makes a good anecdote is The Times reporting a BMA statistic in 2000, saying that anorexia affects 2% of young women and kills a fifth of sufferers. Jamie ran the numbers and concluded that, at this rate, anorexia is so deadly that it kills sixteen times the number of young women that die from any causes, including anorexia. Something must be done!
Overall this book is an interesting read and at only 150 pages in length, it’s not an epic. Persevere through the beginning — it gets better in the latter half and there are a few great gems waiting there for you.
Ever since reading The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman I’ve looked upon everyday objects with a newfound insight into their subtle yet significant design flaws.
For instance, the elevators at my office have a sleek control panel in brushed steel. Modern in appearance, minimalistic, utilitarian, and robust.
It’s usually the details that make the difference in design, and this interface has some subtle shortcomings:
Not that, I’m not complaining. There is worse design elsewhere.
In Bad Science Ben Goldacre takes the time to carefully demolish a variety of pseudo-scientific myths that the mass media, industry, and advertising, has induced upon us. He doesn’t make a lot of generalisations or sweeping statements, just presents a lot of facts and clear evidence – something the mass media rarely does.
He also introduces the reader to a lot of knowledge about scientific methods, the traits of effective (and ineffective) research: control groups; the role of placebos; double-blind trials; why brand name drugs are no better than generic brands, except by virtue of the fact that you pay more for them which, paradoxically, gives you a greater placebo effect (because, subconsciously, a drug that is more expensive must be more effective)!
Two of the biggest medical abbreviations from UK media in the past decade, in my mind, are MMR (the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella combined vaccination, and its links to autism) and MSRA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, the hospital ‘superbug’ outbreak). In his book, Ben calmly presents some facts and details that the mass media may have forgotten to go in to (perhaps because “just kidding, we’re not all going to die after all!” is not quite as newsworthy).
He also covers common “knowledge” such as vitamins, antioxidants, other nutritionists’ products and claims, homeopathy, and more.
I’m trying hard not to enter into too much detail here because I know that I’ll degenerate into a cynical rant that simply won’t do justice to Ben’s carefully measured words and well-balanced arguments. Instead, here is a quotation from my favourite part of the book:
“What you are seeing here is a tabloid journalist telling a department of a world-class research microbiologists that they are mistaken about microbiology. This is an excellent example of a phenomenon described in one of my favourite psychology papers: ‘Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments’, by Justin Kruger and David Dunning.
They noted that people who are incompetent suffer a dual burden: not only are they incompetent, but they may also be too incompetent to assay their own incompetence, because the skills which underlie an ability to make a correct judgement are the same as the skills required to recognise a correct judgement.
People who performed particularly poorly relative to their peers were unaware of their own incompetence; but more than that, they were also less able to recognize competence in others, because this, too, relied on ‘meta-cognition’, or knowledge about the skill.”
— Ben Goldacre, Bad Science, pp.267-269.
See also: The Dangers of Bread
I went to Heathrow Terminal 5 the other day. Here are some observations:
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld has some well-phrased sentiments on the security of airport bathrooms. (I thought I'd mentioned this years ago but I couldn't find it anywhere so I thuoght I'd dig up the transcript again):
What is the story on the sinks in airport bathrooms?
That they will not give us a twist-it-on twist-it-off, human-style faucet?
Is that too risky for the general population?
Too dangerous? We gotta install the one-handed, spring-loaded, pain-in-the-ass Alcatraz-style faucet.
You know, those ones you gotta go: "Hey I got a little water there"
"Hey I got a couple of drops."
What is it they think we would do with a faucet?
Turn them all on full, run out into the parking lot, laughing, pushing each other into the bushes?
"Come on, the water's on, let's go! I turned it on full blast."
"You idiot! We're businessmen, we're gonna miss our plane."
"Who cares! Water!"
That's how they think we're gonna act.
— Jerry Seinfeld, I'm telling you for the last time
I guess what he was trying to say, a decade ago, is that we have to be careful not to get too over-the-top with airport security.
The Standard Home package is rated at "Up to 8 meg" downstream and "Up to 1.3 meg" upstream, so I think this is the first time I've seen home broadband actually achieve the advertised speeds! (Though it's not exactly a time of peak-demand.)
Now I just have the dilemma of whether to upgrade to the Premium, or even Ultimate package, for 16 or 20 meg of downstream bandwidth... but that's probably overkill.
I'm sure this must mean something, but I can't work out what:
"There are excepted from the effect of registration all estates, rights, interests, powers and remedies arising upon, or by reason of, any dealing made in breach of the prohibition or restriction against dealings therewith inter vivos contained in the lease."
Could one being whether a member of this planetary system or otherwise though generally referenced with the nomenclature including but not limited to "solicitor" or "lawyer" or "barrister" possibly conceive a selection of words and word order and general phrasing as to cause greater confusion to the lay reader or readers than the selection of words and word order and general phrasing as witnesseth in the paragraph herinabove? (Preferably with the containment and inclusion of words suchas: whereupon, hereinabove, hereinbelow, hereunto, witnesseth, whereof, and omgthereforebbqwtf)
I can understand that a watertight contract may inevitably be confusing, but I don't think that the Shakespearian tint and run-on sentences help the clarity.
In the first segment of the show, Jonathan Lethem talks about his essay, The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism, a reflection on creativity, art, re-use, copyright law, and more. He draws on historical examples to contrast with the present day mind set; applied retrospectively, these rules that the organisations such as the MPAA[?] and RIAA[?] are pushing would eliminate The Ren & Stimpy Show, South Park, and even The Simpsons — each based on or inspired by prior works. And if that's not enough of a bee in your bonnet...
...then consider the remarkable series of “plagiarisms” that links Ovid's “Pyramus and Thisbe” with Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story, or Shakespeare's description of Cleopatra, copied nearly verbatim from Plutarch's life of Mark Antony and also later nicked by T. S. Eliot for The Waste Land. If these are examples of plagiarism, then we want more plagiarism.
The essay itself is pretty comprehensive — 8,000 words (exactly) — but it also features nearly 3,000 additional words of attributions, for much of the content was borrowed from other works. Jonathan documents his sources meticulously, and even goes so far as to cover the fact that his idea of mashing up a bricolage[?] of text from previous sources is itself something that has been done before — he identifies similar prior works from five different sources!The article does well to ridicule the current state of copyright law, and also highlights the spooky correlation that that every time Mickey Mouse is about to fall into the public domain, Disney spins up the funding on their political puppets to extend the copyright term even further. This has progressed to the degree that the public domain is now all but unattainable for works that are not explicitly released into it.
(For those listening to the show, there's an comical piece of satire on Mickey Mouse, starting at about 40:10 into the recording.)
The word “copyright” may eventually seem as dubious in its embedded purposes as “family values,” “globalization,” and, sure, “intellectual property.” Copyright is a “right” in no absolute sense; it is a government-granted monopoly on the use of creative results. So let's try calling it that—not a right but a monopoly on use, a “usemonopoly”
I should start using the word "usemonopoly" in place of "copyright" from now on!
Is Barack Obama elitist? Will his middle name harm his campaign? Are voters turned off by his lack of bowling prowess? Did he give Hillary the finger during a speech in Raleigh, North Carolina? When he picks his nose, which digit does he use? And what does that say about him?The first four questions were genuinely posed by US TV news over the past few weeks.
When you stand at a distance and survey this level of nitpicking idiocy, taking in the full landscape of stupidity and meaningless analysis, it's hard not to conclude that 24-hour rolling news is the worst thing to befall humankind since the Manhattan Project. The focus on conjecture and analysis has reached such an insane degree that pundits are chasing some kind of meaning in the way a presidential candidate scratches his face. This is what lunatics do when they think people on television are sending them personalised messages. Where the rest of us see Vernon Kay hosting a gameshow, they see evidence of a conspiracy, and they scan every wink, nod, and eyebrow twitch for veiled threats or coded instructions. Except the lunatics have an excuse: they're lunatics. Lunacy is what they do. It's in their job description. News networks are supposed to offer news. Instead they serve little but loops and chatter. They may as well show footage of passing clouds and invite their pundits to speculate on which one looks most like a kettle and which one looks most like a pony and let the race for the presidency be settled by a bowling match.
My previous cynicism remains undamped.
I recently reviewed the book Jack: What I've learned leading a great company and great people (also known as Jack: Straight from the gut), a book by Jack Welch, who was at the helm of General Electric for two decades through the eighties and nineties.
Chapter 15 presents a particularly poignant account of GE's experience with investment banking: they acquired Kidder, Peabody, & Co 1986, only to find an insane culture gap between GE and the money driven and ungrateful banking industry. "The concept of idea sharing and team play was completely foreign. If you were in investment banking or trading and your group had a good year, it didn't matter what happened to the firm overall. They wanted theirs." The company had a bonus pool 40% greater than the rest of GE, despite having only one-twentieth the earnings!
It was a clear mistake, but whilst trying to devise an exit strategy they got stung in 1995 by a rogue trader: Joseph Jett, who had exploited a flaw in Kidder's computer system to make fictitious trades (to the tune of $350 million) in order to cut out a $9 million cash bonus for himself.
The response of our business leaders to the crisis was typical of the GE culture. Even though the books had closed on the quarter, many immediately offered to pitch in to cover the Kidder gap. Some said they could find an extra $10m, $20m, and even $30m from their businesses to offset the surprise. Though it was too late, their willingness to help was a dramatic contrast to the excuses I had been hearing from the Kidder people.
Instead of pitching in, they complained about how this disaster was going to affect their incomes. "This is going to ruin everything," one said. "Our bonus is down the toilet. How will we keep anyone?" The two cultures and their differences never stood out so clearly in my mind. All I heard was, "I didn't do it. I never saw it. I never met with him. I didn't talk to him." No one seemed to know anyone or work for anyone.
It was disgusting.
With a culture gap like that it was unsurprising that four months after this incident GE sold off Kidder to another company called PaineWebber, which itself was sold to UBS AG in mid-2000 (netting GE over $10 billion for its 24% stake in PaineWebber). Overall this foray into banking gave GE after-tax returns of 10% per year over a 14 year period: Not terrific, but not too shabby, all things considered.
As for Mr. Jett, it wasn't until 2004 that the SEC made him give back $8.2 million in fraudulently-obtained bonuses, fined him $200,000, and told him to keep his nose out of trading. A fairly light slap on the wrist if you ask me — his fraud-bonus for 1993 alone was $9 million (which is more like $13 million in 2004-money!)
As if this wasn't enough, he had the cheek to open his own investment banking firm and continue trading in securities! He was only shut down recently by the SEC, and claimed to be unaware of the restrictions placed upon him (which were sent to him by certified first class mail, and fax).
Some people just don't know when to stop!
I recently had the opportunity to receive a personal tutorial to bring me up to speed on the US electoral system. Like any good holistic learner I elected to draw diagrams to aid my understanding. Here's one of the diagrams I drew:
My two main observations were:
Shower gel with a pulsating glow, powered by several AAA batteries and a Light Emitting Diode (LED). That's three hard-to-remove, hard-to-dispose batteries, full of toxic chemicals, for the sole purpose of presenting an impressive looking product on the shelf.
Sounds like things are getting out of control when we give this much priority to advertising...
(Anti-standby global-warming zealots must be having a melt-down over this.)
Someone was running blind tests with their audiophile buddies, comparing super-duper speaker cables "Monster Ultra Series THX 1000 Audio Interconnects" against plain old copper wire. Unbeknownst to the (blindfolded) participants he actually swapped out the plain-old-copper cable with, now get this, coat-hanger wire. So the participants were trying to differentiate £60 "Monster Ultra" cables from a pair of coat hangers...
Nobody could tell the difference.
I think we have uncovered fancy speaker cables as yet another form of "idiot-tax".
Ah, and they are planning to re-do the experiment with double-blind lab tests, just to make sure.