29 September, 2006

Michael Frayn

I like Michael Frayn.

I’ve liked him for about 40 years now ever since, at the age of 11 or 12, I took his novel ‘The Tin Men’ to bed and read it cover-to-cover in a single sitting, under the blankets, with a torch. I had never laughed out loud so much reading a book before and (apart from when I read the scripts of ‘Fawlty Towers’) have not since.

There are some writers who never disappoint – L. P. Hartley, Aldous Huxley, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, J. D. Salinger, Edna O’Brien, and the like – and Michael Frayn has a secure place in this pantheon of my all-time favourites. From that first, memorable experience as a young boy, to my more recent and more sober enjoyment of his outstanding novel ‘Spies’, I have loved everything he has done.

So it was with trepidation that I read an interview with him in this week’s 'New Scientist'. After all, sometimes the people one admires so much turn out to have feet of clay when you read their uncrafted and unrefined outpourings in a magazine interview. But I need not have worried. He came across as intelligent, thoughtful and reasonable – all the qualities that go to make a decent human being. In fact, he came across as a nice bloke – someone you’d like to have ‘round for dinner and a chat – someone who wouldn’t try to get the subject back to sport or politics if questions about the nature of the Universe came up.

It pleased me extraordinarily that this was so. In fact, it inspired me to re-read ‘The Tin Men’. And I definitely want to read his new (non fiction) book ‘The Human Touch: Our Part in the Creation of a Universe’.

27 September, 2006

Global Warning

There’s a storm coming.

We’ve had a warning by email here at work and people have become increasingly excited as they log on to their favourite meteorology bureau site to watch the approaching weather on almost-real-time satellite images. It looks like a bad one. I took a stroll down the corridor to a room that actually has windows and took a look out towards the West. Sure enough, there are banks of dark, blue-grey clouds coming towards us from over the hills beyond the city. There is talk of giant hailstones and monsoon rains – all of it quite plausible. People want to get their cars off the street and under shelter but there isn’t anywhere to put them.

I remember a road trip Wifie and I took in the USA some years ago. We started at Denver and went in a 2,500 mile loop through California, Arizona and Colorado, taking in Death Valley, the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley and many other amazing sights. But we had barely set off, just working our way over the Rocky Mountains on the first leg when we hit a road block on the interstate and State Troopers flagged us down. A big guy in uniform leaned in at my window and said; ‘We’re just warning everybody that there’s weather ahead.’

Now, a lot of people might have found that funny. Isn’t there weather everywhere? But Wifie wasn’t going to put up with this sort of linguistic sloppiness. ‘What kind of weather?’ she demanded. I still remember the look on the policeman’s face. It was one of puzzlement, bordering on amazement. Can even foreigners be this stupid? he was clearly asking himself but he politely leaned further in and said, ‘Why, snow, ma’am.’ Of course. What other kind of weather was there?

As it turned out, despite all the fuss, the snow wasn’t that bad – especially for a couple who were living in Switzerland at the time.

It’s a shame, though, that the American authorities aren’t doing the equivalent of throwing up road blocks and warning people about what lies ahead for them as the world warms up and extreme and unusual weather begins piling up on all our horizons. Scientists have been tracking the approaching crisis for the past forty years and all we get out of most governments everywhere – even now – is that they are still considering the evidence. In Queensland, we’re having the worst drought ever recorded. We’re beginning what promises to be the hottest and driest Summer ever known. Despite the rain and hail we’re getting today, the trend is hotter and drier for the foreseeable future. We’re running out of water and the State government says, ‘How could we have foreseen such a drought?’ Oh, I dunno, by listening maybe? By actually thinking instead of posturing?

There’s a storm coming and we’re all going to be caught out in the rain.

25 September, 2006


If you have never used Flickr, let me recommend it to you. It’s a website where people can display their photos – and they do, by the million. Just go to the site and browse around at random. Or, better still, get a widget to run on PageFlakes or Windows Live that will pick out random pictures from Flickr every few minutes and present them to you. Of course, if you don’t have broadband – like many of us living in Brisbane, Australia – the experience can be a little slow but it is still interesting.

When I first heard of the site, I expected it to be flooded with pictures of the kids and holiday snaps. There is certainly a lot of that in there but there is also a lot of material by serious amateur photographers – some of it quite wonderful. In fact, because everyone is able to comment on everyone else’s photos, set up their own collections of favourites and recommend them, a bit of a Flickr culture has emerged that values originality. The most interesting, beautiful and thought-provoking images tend to bubble up to the top of the popularity lists – if only for a brief period – and Joe’ new baby shots tend to stay buried where only Joe and his close relatives can easily find them.

I like to keep a random Flickr slideshow running in the background all day long and I’m often surprised and delighted by what turns up. Yet something else is happening as well. The more tiny glimpses I get into other people’s lives and passions, the more it come home to me how transitory everything is. I saw a photo of a part-demolished house just now with the bathroom fittings – hand-basin and shower – still attached to one wall. The wall behind the shower had been painted blue and the hand-basin had a tiled area behind it. I couldn’t help thinking of the person – perhaps the couple – who had carefully chosen that blue and those tiles, just as I have done with paints and tiles in the past. I imagined the pleasure they had taken in decorating their home and how much it had meant in their lives at that time. And now it was gone – and perhaps they were gone too.

It got me thinking about a school assembly one Armistice Day almost 40 years ago. The story was told of the Flanders fields, hideously churned up and devastated by the battles that had raged there for so long, suddenly erupting into beauty after the war as the poppies emerged that Spring. Whatever the moral I was meant to take away about the evils of war, what I remember thinking was how the human population had bounced back too after the war, that, like the poppies, people had sprung up like weeds in the wake of the destruction, more than replacing the fallen millions in just a couple of generations. Armistice Day from then on became a symbol for me of the cheapness and insignificance of human life. Cut us down and plough us back into the earth and we just pop up again like the poppies did.

And all the things that mean so much to us in our lives – like the tiles on our bathroom walls – mean nothing at all to the Universe and it cosmic wrecking ball.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

How aptly-named then is Flickr, suggesting as it does the blink-of-an-eye moments of pleasure, or insight, or curiosity our cameras capture in our blink-of-an-eye lives. Take a look and see what I mean.

22 September, 2006

In Praise of Nikon

Nearly two years ago, Wifie and I bought a Nikon Coolpix 5700 camera to replace our old Pentax SLR. It has been great. It had all the functionality I needed so that I didn’t suffer withdrawal after using a decent SLR for so long, and it was at the price/quality point I’d been waiting for since digital photography began. It’s true the auto-focus settings are a pain, but you get used to it in the end, and everything else about it was just right.

Until it went wrong – on holiday. It started producing cool but unwanted distortions in the image that were ruining every shot. We’d only had the thing 18 months and for it to pack up with a problem so obviously serious just after it goes out of warranty was pretty upsetting – not least because of all the great pictures I couldn’t take!
So, not expecting much, we called a mender and told them we had a problem. They surprised us by knowing all about it and suggested we send it back to Nikon because they had a bad batch of CCDs at one point and our camera could well have one of them. So we sent it to Nikon to take a look and they’ve just been in touch to say they’ve fixed it – at no charge – and it’s on its way back to us.

Now, I’ve no particular reason to like Nikon, except that they make a very good camera (even if some of them do have dodgy CCDs in them) but the painless and efficient way they fixed the problem for us has earned them my lasting respect. Most companies make mistakes from time to time that cause their customers some inconvenience. That’s just what happens when you have people doing stuff. But when they do, you expect them to be as helpful and as easy to deal with as possible to put their mistake right. It was their mistake, after all, and you did suffer some inconvenience.

The trouble is that so many companies get this dreadfully wrong. Disastrously wrong, you might say. For example, I got a mobile phone from a telco called Optus about six months ago and they made some mistakes in my first couple of bills. I am still feeling aggrieved with this company, not because of the mistakes, but because of the weeks of terrible trouble I had to go to, to get them to admit it and then to fix it – both of which they did in the end, but not without really, really annoying me.

Maybe their CEO should go and take some lessons from the guys at Nikon.

19 September, 2006

C'mon, be reasonable

The big problem with America is that it is just too important to leave to the Americans.

Let’s face it, if the Americans keep raising their interest rate and slowing down their economy, they won’t buy so much. Which means that China can’t sell them all that electronics junk they want to buy. Which means that China’s boom goes stagnant, the factories close, and their demand for raw materials goes flaccid. Which means Australia can’t sell the Chinese so much coal and gas and iron ore and copper, and on and on. With an economy like the USA’s, anything that goes wrong there messes things up for everyone else.

Then there’s the War Thing. Alright, I’m sure it feels great to be the biggest kid on the block and all those little tin-pot countries that won’t kow-tow must be very irritating but when the Yanks go swaggering over there to beat the crap out of them, why does everybody else have to join in? Especially the Aussies!

Then there’s the Coke and the Macdonalds and the Starbucks and the dumbed-down spelling and the dumbed-down films and all their other cultural exports. They’re a marketing phenomenon and their impact on us all is huge!

So, in return, I feel it is only fair that everyone else in the world should get to vote in American elections. That way we would all get some say in who we fight, what we eat, and where we’d like to set our unemployment rate.

18 September, 2006

Every Day, In Every Way...

What does it mean that we all think that we are better than we really are?

I just read an interesting statistic, quoted by Gerry McGovern, that goes: “A study by NFI Research found that 33 percent of senior managers believe that they are receiving significantly more regular communications from both internal and external sources than needed. However, only 3 percent feel that they send significantly more stuff than necessary.” This reminded me of the very similar statistics about people’s driving ability. On the whole, 70% of drivers believe their own skills are better than average. (I’m sure you can spot what is wrong with that statement!)

There is clearly a pattern here – and, in fact, it one that is well-known to psychologists. Wikipedia has it listed as ‘the overconfidence effect’, one of many cognitive biases it lists. (If you have a spare five minutes, you might like to take a look at that list – very sobering indeed!)

In fact, the effect only seems to work for common or easy skills. There is also evidence that most people think their performance is worse than average when it comes to rare events or very difficult skills (like computer programming, or winning a raffle).

Do you recognise yourself here? I certainly do. I know for a fact that I’m a better driver than anyone else on the road (of course, that’s not difficult in Brisbane) and I never win a raffle, ever!

The simple truth is that human beings are not very good at statistical processing. We are easily biased by the restricted set of observations we make (we’ve got a lot more data about ourselves than about anyone else, for example), by recency effects (more recent information carries more weight), the memorability and salience of information (it’s easier to notice and remember other drivers’ stupid mistakes than the far greater number of times when they don’t do anything wrong), and so on.

We like to think of ourselves as perfectly rational and as keen and accurate observers but we are not. The information we store in our heads about the world is biased by the ways we perceive it, by the way we process and store it, and by the ways we retrieve it and use it. If there is so much garbage going into our reasoning processes, it isn’t surprising that a lot of garbage comes out the other end.

So what does it all mean? Well the message I take out of all this is that we can’t – we shouldn’t – trust our own judgements, especially about ourselves. They are liable to be wrong. When it comes to making major life decisions, it is really important that we acknowledge these biases and try to compensate for them. This is as true for me thinking about my driving skills and my email habits as it is for politicians thinking about building a major dam, or interring refugees.

14 September, 2006

That's Progress

Why are governments so stupid? And I don’t mean our elected representatives, I mean the administrators. Let’s face it politicians have no qualifications to govern and there is no particular expectation that they can do the job. They are recruited from the ranks of sports stars, small business owners, entertainers, lawyers, trades unionists, and the children of other politicians. It’s no wonder these people haven’t got a clue. But the civil servants have no excuse. They are professional administrators. Running the country, or the state, or the city is their job. They get trained for it, they make a career of it. So how come they are so bad at it?

I’ve had a lot to do with governments in various countries and at various levels and they are all as bad as each other. The waste of money is shocking – breathtaking! – and the sheer incompetence that causes it is endemic in every department I have ever worked with. (And will the person who just said, ‘Maybe that’s why they keep hiring you,’ please leave the room.) And why am I ranting about this just at this moment when, let’s face it, it goes on and on all the time? Well, it’s because a department I’m working for has just been merged with another in a restructuring program and a lot of people I’m now working with will probably lose their jobs as a result. So I’m feeling rather bitter.

Apparently this restructuring has been rumoured for well over a year but no-one who works here (including the management) had any idea it was really on the cards – until someone spotted an article about it on www.news.com.au yesterday afternoon saying the State Premier had just made the announcement!

Now I know that for most civil servants and politicians “change management” means keeping all your coins in a jar in the kitchen but doesn’t this strike you as unusually shabby? Something like 10,000 people are in this department and some of them will lose their jobs. Is it right that they should hear about it from the newspapers? And why are things like this so damned secret? It’s not like they’ll lose sales to the competition or take a hit on the share price. It’s the government, for Pete’s sake! Would it harm anyone if they discussed their plans openly?

Yet the secrecy has, in this case, as in so many others, added to the waste (along with depressing the already-rock-bottom morale). The team I’m working with builds the department’s websites – mostly its public site and its intranet. The intranet was rebuilt from scratch and re-launched about ten months ago (how old were those rumours?) and the team has recently been gearing up for a major set of improvements. In fact, we’re already three months into that project. Now we don’t know whether the intranet will be needed at all. It certainly looks as if the past two years’ work will be trashed as we merge with a larger department. Chances are, the team will be trashed too.

And why? What is the betting that the government has no objective measures of the performance of the various departments involved, or models of how performance will improve once the restructuring has happened, or how cost-effective it will be to disrupt the work of these departments – for months if not years – and what the costs to the state will be of throwing at least one bunch of people out of work? Think of all that organisational and service expertise that will be lost, the damage to the state’s image in the minds of these, mostly-young people, the customer relationships that will be damaged, the (hopefully temporary) drop in productivity and morale in what remains of the organisations, and the sheer cost of re-branding several departments, merging multiple different IT systems, rewriting business procedures – and learning them – and on and on and on.

Yet Queensland calls itself ‘the smart state’. I’d sure hate to se a stupid one!

11 September, 2006

On The Origin of Species

This is part three of a three-part posting. Read part one and part two first.

It is just a few years since I read The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. It was on my list of books that are so immensely famous that I must get around to reading them one day. Other books on the list that I’ve managed to get to are The Bible (extremely boring but I made it all the way through!), The Brothers Karamazov (very boring and full of right-wing religious opinions that rather spoilt it), Satanic Verses (amusing but what was all the fuss about?), and A Brief History of Time (quite dull, actually). Still on the list are The Koran, War and Peace, The Gulag Archipelago, Das Kapital and many, many others. So, when I finally got around to The Origin of Species, I wasn’t expecting much, something dull but worthy perhaps. After all, a scientific monologue from the 1850’s is hardly likely to be gripping, is it?

Boy was I wrong! The Origin of Species is without doubt the best piece of science writing I have ever read. It is extremely well-written, the argument is beautifully constructed and coherent and the level of detail and sheer quantity of evidence given to support the argument is awe-inspiring. The book is a tour de force, a superb example of how to construct and present an argument. And the material is so diverse, so fascinating and so clearly described that it held my attention from beginning to end.

The really puzzling thing is that anyone could get to the end of this book and not be convinced by it. What Darwin does is to lay out a very large number of examples of plant and animal physiology – each simple observations, so, I would have thought, irrefutable. Along with these, he presents his theory that the differences we can see between species is the result of an accumulation of changes which have occurred during reproduction and which have accumulated through inheritance. This mechanism of accumulating inherited changes is itself irrefutable, he believed – as anybody would who was aware of how animals and plants can be modified through selective breeding. He adds in the idea that, in nature, inherited differences will persevere in a breeding line according to whether the changes help or hinder the animal to survive in its environment and give birth to a new generation like itself. Which seems reasonable to the point of being a no-brainer. New species arise, he then claims, because changes may help those with the changes to colonise a new environment – somewhere where other members of the existing species cannot thrive – or because groups of individuals from one species are separated for long periods from one another and their gradually-accumulating changes make the individuals in each sufficiently different from those in the other.

So far, it is really hard to see how anybody could object to this theory. It is simple, it is logical and it explains all the known facts. Yet, just to make it as airtight as possible, Darwin methodically lists all the possible objections you might think of and addresses them, one by one. In doing so, he brings in evidence from geology and animal and plant husbandry, specific experiments he has devised and run to clarify key points, and so on. The pains he takes to address each and every possible difficulty that anyone might raise are impressive in themselves, as is the honesty with which he judges the adequacy of his evidence and his arguments.

I finished the book with a huge respect for Darwin and what he had achieved. The Origin of Species is rightly considered one of the greatest achievements of science. I now know it is perhaps the best single example of all that is good about the method. The Origin of Species is one huge and comprehensive argument in favour of accepting a particular explanation of a massive number of otherwise disparate facts. It works from data which any reasonable person would accept – the shapes of petals, the lengths of limbs – using only sound and clear argumentation to justify the acceptance of the theory of evolution by natural selection. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece, a work of which all of humankind should be enormously proud.

Yet it is this great achievement of the human intellect that religious fundamentalists want to tear down. And why? Not for any rational reason at all but because to accept this argument would mean that a literal interpretation of the Bible would be impossible. For people like this, we must also reject the theory that the stars are distant objects (otherwise the light from them would not have time to reach us because they were all created just a few thousand years ago!), the theory that deeper rocks are older than ones near the surface (because ‘geological time’ spans far too many years to be consistent with the Genesis myth), that there ever were dinosaurs, that the genetic similarity between ourselves and chimps – or amoeba for that matter – has any meaning at all, that the craters on the Moon are anything other than recent decoration, and so on and so on. All of this, all of the huge diversity and wonder of the Universe, all of the beautiful theories we have so painstakingly devised and tested over and over from cosmological to quantum scales, must be cast aside as obviously untrue because it contradicts the narrow, unimaginative, ignorant speculations (sorry, revelations) of some old world mystics?

Do me a favour!

08 September, 2006

A Critique of Intelligent Design

This is part two of a three part posting. Read part one first.

Intelligent design is an idea intended to provide an alternative to evolution for those who are so bound by religious dogma that they cannot accept that the Universe is more than a few thousand years old. Because the Bible appears to tell them that the Universe is very young and that a magic being created people ‘in its own image’, they are unable to accept the vast and overwhelming geological, biological and cosmological evidence to the contrary. Fair enough. But, annoyingly, they also don’t want the rest of us to accept it either. So they feel the need to challenge science – because science is the ogre that is amassing all this overwhelming evidence and coming up with all these reasonable explanations for it that they don’t like.

The bit of science that Christian fundamentalists hate most is the theory of evolution by natural selection. They have tried for years to criticise evolution, saying it hasn’t been proven, that there are ‘missing links’ that can’t be explained, and so on, but (as is the way with science) the evidence keeps on accumulating and the good ideas, like evolution, just get stronger and stronger because of it. So now they have taken a new tack. Now they say that evolution is fundamentally flawed because one of its fundamental premises is wrong.

The argument for evolution rests on the notion that small variations that can occur when living things reproduce, may help or hinder the organism that inherits them as it attempts to survive and reproduce in its environment. If the changes help, the organism will be successful and will pass them on because the offspring will be like the parent. If they hinder, then the organism will be less successful and, even if it manages to reproduce, its unhelpful trait will eventually be lost from the population. In this way, organisms develop and adapt to the environments they inhabit, gradually changing and becoming better suited to it. A consequence of this argument is that every aspect of any organism alive today must have developed from something that was there before – new bits don’t just appear fresh and whole, they all come from small, incremental changes to bits that were there already.

This is actually quite a hard requirement to swallow when you look at the astonishing complexity and interdependence of all the parts of modern life-forms. For many years, the human eye was held up as an example of something so complicated that it just could not possibly have evolved. It just had to have been made by magic. Recently, however, people like Richard Dawkins have put together convincing stories about how eyes of ever-increasing complexity and usefulness could have arisen from very simple beginnings. Similarly for hands, feathered wings, brains and all the other marvels of modern biology, a path can be traced back through time. To cut a long story short, the anti-evolutionists are finding it ever more difficult to use the ‘impossibly complex’ argument because new evidence keeps accumulating and once-missing links in the fossil record keep turning up.

So the Christian fundamentalists have sought out new examples and new ways of phrasing their complexity argument and they have come up with the notion of ‘irreducible complexity’. The essence of this is that some complex systems cannot be broken down into simpler parts that are still functional. The definitive example of this is the flagellum, used by some bacteria to propel themselves through liquids. A flagellum comprises a long tail that fits into a small cup. The cup is a tiny motor that twirls the tail and pushes the bacterium along. Neither tail nor cup is of any obvious use on its own, say the irreducible complexity proponents, so this system could not have evolved. They then take a massive leap away from rationality and go on to say, therefore, these things must have been designed by an ‘intelligent designer, and that was probably God.

But this step does not follow at all. First of all, just because no-one can see what use they may have been to a bacterium separately, doesn’t mean they were of no use. What kind of arrogance is that? Because we can’t understand something it can’t exists? Because we can’t solve the puzzle it can only be solved by magic? Given the countless examples where we have studied things for generations, scratching our heads, and then finally worked it out, wouldn’t it be more reasonable to assume we just don’t know enough yet? Or that this is going to take a lot of people a long time to work out? This is where intelligent design is clearly nonsense and obviously unscientific. Because something looks ‘irreducibly complex’ does not warrant the conclusion that, therefore, it must have been designed by God! That isn’t a theory, that’s just shrugging your shoulders and saying ‘I dunno, probably God did it.’ It certainly isn’t a theory in the scientific sense of an explanation that covers all the known evidence, is compatible with all the existing theories in this and other fields, and makes clear and specific predictions that can be tested experimentally. So it’s not good logic and it sure ain’t science.

Worse still, even on it’s own terms, it fails as an explanation. Maybe there is some biological reason I’m not aware of but it seems odd to me that intelligent design proponents seem to be insisting that every component in every living organism must itself have evolved. Yet we know that cells of all types often incorporate bits and pieces from their environment – sometimes even other cells or viruses – to use as tools in their struggle for survival and reproduction.

Let’s assume that flagellae are, in fact, irreducibly complex – that the parts have no biological use on their own. That does not prevent them each arising in some other, normal and natural way and then having been adopted by bacteria and put together as cool outboard motors. If you’ve been following some of the nanotechnology research over the past few years, you’ll know that it is quite reasonable to believe that combining complex molecules – using nothing more spooky than the usual laws of physics – can lead to tiny machines that do all kinds of interesting things.

There’s a little machine, for example, that can walk along the inside of a cell wall and carry chemical passengers on its head. It is believed that nerve cells use these microscopic automata to take the building blocks of neurotransmitters from the cell’s body, where they are made, along the long nerve fibres to the synapses, where they are assembled and used. The little walking machine is put together from two molecules – each naturally occurring in the cell’s surroundings – and they form a little V-shaped pair of legs. The V scissors open and closed because of how the chemicals interact at the ‘hinge’ end and as it opens it pushes the front end forwards and when it closes, it pulls the back end forwards. (Put your fingers together on a tabletop with your thumb behind to make an arch. Keeping your fingers still, pull your thumb up to your fingers. Then, keeping your thumb still, push your fingers out to make the arch again. That’s how it ‘walks’.) These machines are assembled (by putting the two ‘leg’ molecules together in the cell body. They then march off down the nerve fibre with their chemical loads attached and are then disassembled and returned to the environment.

The cells that first evolved to use these little robots would have had the evolutionary advantage of being able to grow longer nerve fibres. However, in ‘intelligent design’ terms, they are irreducibly complex. Their components don’t do anything. The point is, these components did not have to evolve – they’re just ordinary molecules. What evolved was the cell that developed the trick of putting them together (and later, evolved longer nerve fibres because that was now possible and beneficial.)

It’s the same for the flagellum; the cup is a miniscule molecular motor, the tail is a long protein molecule. Neither has any obvious use on its own but it could be that versions of these components arose naturally in the environment of the bacteria that developed the trick of putting them together. However crudely they worked at first, some movement is better than none and it may well have conferred a significant advantage. Once incorporated into the bacterium, they would then have evolved towards greater efficiency and better control.

This may not be the right explanation but at least it’s consistent with other things we know, it’s vaguely plausible, and it is testable (if we look, do we find protein strings and molecular motors occurring naturally and in the same environment?)

Ready to read the next part?

Spot the Monkey

I note that the Pope appears to be winding himself up to make an announcement in favour of ‘intelligent design’ and in opposition to ‘evolution’. Of course, the Pope is a raving nutcase who talks to people who aren’t there. In a sane world, the views of such a weirdo would be derided, if they were noticed at all, but this is not a sane world and a pronouncement by this guy could help blight the education of millions of children around the world and set the cause of Being Sensible back another generation.

There are so many ways in which support for ‘intelligent design’ is nuts and so many ways in which denigrating ‘evolution’ is stupid that I hardly know where to begin – and I don’t just want to rant about the evils of religion, however satisfying that might be. So, I’ll confine myself to just two things that I’d like to say:

  • ‘intelligent design’ is a very weak and sloppy idea, and
  • ‘evolution’ is not ‘just a theory’ it is a brilliant and compelling piece of reasoning.

It’s going to take me two posts to fit all this in so, if you’re interested, here is the critique of ‘intelligent design’ and here is the praise for the theory of evolution. I’m sorry that one of them is rather long.

05 September, 2006

Checking my pulse

Dan Saffer just wrote an interesting piece on why someone might want to be an interaction designer. To be honest, this was probably only interesting because I am an interaction designer. To anyone else, it might seem a little dull, if not totally pointless.

In fact, you might even be asking yourself, so what’s an interaction designer when it’s all at home? Well, an interaction designer is the person who tries to understand how you would best be able to work with a piece of software (a website, say, or a word processor, or that database application you use at work) and then works with you and the software folk to come up with the optimal design. Ever heard the word ‘usability’? Well, we’re the people who try to achieve it.

Anyway, the interesting thing was that the reasons he gave for being one of these (an interest in human psychology, lots of variety in the work, lots of problem-solving, it's fun playing with cool new technologies all the time, and, of course, wanting to make the world a better place) are essentially the reasons that motivated me all those years ago when I first got into this game. And it begs the question, are these the reasons I’m still at it, twenty-five years later?

Certainly, you don’t do this job to get rich. Although really good interaction designers are as rare as hens’ teeth and despite the fact that their impact on a project can be enormous and have huge financial benefits, they don’t get paid much more than a halfway-decent Java programmer – which are ten-a-penny and often wear really nerdy T-shirts.

You also don’t do it for the respect of your peers. Most people – including your management, the IT team, even the end-users you work with – don’t quite understand why you’re on the project. ‘Surely we could just let the programmers design the screens,’ they say. ‘No, we can’t afford to spend so much time understanding our users and the tasks they do,’ they say. ‘And why would you want to test the product with the people who are supposed to use it? The people who built it find it easy enough to understand.’ To get good work is an uphill struggle, all the time. Most of the people who buy or build IT systems just assume they will be ‘user friendly’. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times they are obviously and patently proven wrong.

Yet interaction design has given me a comfortable living for a quarter of a century now and that’s not a bad thing. (My English working-class background has instilled in me the absolute imperative to be a steady, consistent wage-earner and to abhor the idea of unemployment. So, keeping me off the dole queue is something for which I’m grateful to my chosen career.)

And, although the sceptics on the IT team may not see the point, on those rare days when I’m running a user requirements workshop, or working with users in their workplace to understand exactly what their job is and how to support it, and one of them says, ‘I’m really glad someone is actually listening to us at last,’ months of rejection and struggle are blown away and I actually feel my life is worthwhile.

So I guess that, deep down, below all those years of cynicism and all the other defences against a world that doesn’t understand or appreciate what I do, it is the chance of doing something that will make a real difference to people’s lives that keeps me logging on in the morning. I hope that enthusiastic youngsters like Dan can say the same thing a couple of decades from now.

04 September, 2006

A Vote Against Human Nature

I tend not to agree much with my compeers. Many of my views tend to be minority views – sometimes a minority of one, it seems. Take religion, for instance. I regard religion as a kind of insanity (isn’t it insane to believe in things that are not there?) Or consider trades unions. It’s popular these days to consider them a vaguely bad thing. People look back to the 1970s when the unions had some power and seemed to abuse it by ‘holding the country to ransom’ and so on. It doesn’t seem to occur to these people that the big corporations and their owners constantly have our societies in a strangle hold and make all kinds of unreasonable demands all the time. Disruptive, even destructive collective action by working people is really the only way they were able to fight the forces that have always opposed and oppressed them. Doesn’t it seem fair that they too get their chance to wreck society in their own self interest? After all, there are rather more working people than there are fat capitalists.

Anyway, the point is, I don’t have popular views, so the populist, centrist political parties we have these days don’t tend to reflect most of the things I believe in. And there is a State election coming up next weekend. So what do I do?

I suppose, like any other minority, I am disenfranchised by our ‘democratic’ electoral process. Yet I don’t want to spoil my ballot paper or anything like that. I want to have a vote and I want it to mean something. I believe in democracy (in the sense that I think it is the best idea we’ve come up with so far for governing ourselves). Yet democracy doesn’t seem to believe in me.

I suppose it’s one of those ‘human nature’ things. It doesn’t matter how fair a system we try to come up with, the evil power-mongers will always work to pervert it to their own ends. It’s only natural. It’s also inevitable that they will succeed since, by definition, they’re evil and have the power. So the governments we elect will always favour the power-mongers over ordinary people. In fact, they will always favour the power-mongers over everything (human rights, the environment, fairness, etc.) because the power-mongers are funding the system (how many political parties take ‘contributions’ from people and organisations with vested interests?) they are corrupting the system (how many senior politicians end up on the boards of big businesses?) and they are working the system (what kind of background do most senior politicians come from?)

So there is a fat chance that I’ll be able to vote for something honest, decent and just – let alone something that is all that and supports the kind of things I’d like it to. Yet here we are, just six days from the election and I have this precious vote to use. And a vote is something so amazingly precious I can hardly believe my luck in having one. So many people all around the world would lay down their lives to get one of these – or to ensure their children could have one. And here am I and I’ve got one and I’m whingeing about not having enough choice in how to cast it. And these wealth- and power-corrupted governments I’m complaining about must look like the most benign and benevolent of institutions to the billions of people living under crazy war-lords and vicious dictatorships.

It’s all a matter of degree, I suppose. But just because my own government is miles better than someone else’s doesn’t mean it couldn’t be hugely improved. A father who only beats his children a few times a year is a lot better than one who locks them in a cupboard and feeds them through a hatch but he still needs to stop beating his children. The question is, how do I use this wonderful tool, my vote, to nudge the next centrist, populist government in the direction of being better than it is?

Maybe I can’t. Maybe this is as good as it gets.

01 September, 2006

Gone! Gone! Gone!

Yesterday evening I turned on my computer, as I do every evening, and it wouldn’t boot. The problem, as far as I can see, is that the machine no longer believes it has a hard disc. Since I didn’t just happen to remove my hard disc drive without noticing, what this probably means is that the hard disc drive is broken. For those of you who have computers at home (all of you?) I don’t need to tell you that this is about as bad as it gets.

I use my computer a lot. I write fiction, I compose music, I email people all over the world, I store all my photos, all the music I listen to, academic papers, business documents. I’ve got tons of software and games, I’ve got half a dozen websites that I work on, a huge collection of jokes and cartoons, all my contacts, templates, application preferences, my priceless set of web favourites. My machine is bulging with stuff – all of it precious to me, most of it representing countless hours of labour.

Now it has all gone.

Did I have a backup? Well, sort of. I have a full backup that is five months old (yeah, yeah, I know) and I have backups of really important things (like my current novel) that are just a day or two old, but some things are gone forever – like all the photos we took on our last holiday on Fraser Island, and all the photos I took with my new phone (which I got just after the last backup – it’s the first time I’ve had a phone with a camera in it and I’ve been going mad snapping and videoing everything for months now). I also have most (but by no means all) my software on discs and it can all be re-loaded, I suppose, but that will take days – just putting on my anti-virus software will take about two evenings because, without broadband (want to know why?), all the stuff it has to get from the Web takes hours and hours to download. And when I have it all loaded, I will yet again have to adjust all my preferences on all my applications.

So it’s not just all the things I’ve lost from the past five months, I am also feeling miserable and daunted at the prospect of all the work ahead to restore my system.

They say there are five stages to grieving - you know, denial, anger, bargaining, appearing on Jerry Springer, etc., etc. (but see http://www.counselingforloss.com/article8.htm). I’ll probably be working through these for the next couple of weeks. I know from experience that I’ll be waking up in the night having suddenly remembered yet another precious item that was also lost.

Being a computer user is a bit of an emotional roller-coaster ride. On the two days a year that everything works, it’s great. The rest of the time it’s one of the many and varied degrees of Hell. Overall, the feeling is one of astonishment that these machines can be so fragile and yet, despite their fragility, so badly designed. Why wouldn’t every computer have at least two hard disk drives and keep a copy of everything all the time? Why wouldn’t every operating system have a simple and robust backup program that automatically saves a full baseline every few days and all incremental changes to this, as they’re made, onto an external drive?

Come to think of it, why doesn’t mine? The extra $500 that it would cost? Am I really so stupid that I’d live with this kind of catastrophe hanging over me all the time rather than spend $500?

I suppose I must be.

The Gray Wave Jukebox

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