28 June, 2007

Child Sex Abuse Online is Nothing New

It's interesting that the American military is asking the Australian government to 'waive its authority' in the case of one of their sailors charged with grooming an Australian child for sex over the internet, to send him home and let them deal with it. (Of course, they didn't send David Hicks home – or even charge him with anything for five years – but then, the Australian government didn't actually ask for him back.) And now the media is in a froth (again) over how paedophiles are stalking children in chat rooms, etc.. Apparently, the situation is so bad that the police only have to post a pretend profile of a 14 year-old girl, say, on MySpace (or wherever) and they are immediately bombarded with offers of offers of friendship by Strange Men. Like shooting fish in a barrel.

The pundits are out with their folk psychology suggesting how the feeling of anonymity the internet gives these men encourages them to pursue their child molestation fantasies past the point where they are normally able. They are alarmed that this predation and stalking of children is on the increase. They are shocked that paedophilia seems to be getting more popular as a mental disorder. The ones that make the news are just the tip of a large and growing iceberg. And so on.

But the whole internet stalking thing seems to require a simpler and less dramatic explanation.
Sociology is not for the faint-hearted. In fact any student of human nature is likely to learn lots of things they might have preferred not to know. For instance, I once learned that sexual abuse of girls by their fathers is far more common in situations where the children and adults have to share the same sleeping area. Thus, in the UK, this kind of incest was far more common in the heyday of the industrial revolution when squalid overcrowding was the norm in the big cities. Today, it is more common now in poor societies than in rich and in the poorest segments of rich societies than in the wealthiest. (No coincidence then that the Australian Federal Police and the Army are forming a task force as we speak to go up to the Northern Territory and quash alleged rampant child abuse in Aboriginal communities.) What can you conclude about this except that the amount of temptation and opportunity to commit incestuous child abuse is all that separates the perpetrators from the rest.

In fact, it seems to be the case for child sex abuse in general (typically, we're talking about adult males preying on under-age females here – although little boys also get their share of the unwanted attention). Which is probably why our societies just happen to be organised so as to keep men and girls apart – on the whole – and why it's in those areas of life where men and girls are brought together that the most sex abuse occurs (the home and schools).

So why is it a surprise that the internet – a great big place where adult males and children are all squished together in close proximity – is proving to be such a hotbed of child sex abuse? Suddenly, all these men – whom history has shown need only to get enough temptation to start yielding to it – are surrounded by the little cuties they are normally kept away from. Isn't it obvious that they are going to go on a feeding frenzy?

And there's only one tried and tested remedy for the situation. Do what we do out in the physical world and arrange things online so that the men and the girls (and the boys) are kept apart.

26 June, 2007

Intelligent Design Defeated By Intelligent Politicians

I see from The Register (and elsewhere) that the UK government has declared its intention to keep Creationism out of the classroom. Specifically, they concluded that “intelligent design” is a religion and should not be taught as science in British schools. To quote them:

The Government is aware that a number of concerns
have been raised in the media and elsewhere as to
whether creationism and intelligent design have a place
in science lessons. The Government is clear that
creationism and intelligent design are not part of the
science National Curriculum programmes of study and
should not be taught as science.

It is so rare that a government ever does anything so sensible and praiseworthy, that I'd like to take this opportunity to express my congratulations to the people who made this decision. 'Intelligent design' is a pernicious, fraudulent and disgraceful attempt to deceive people into accepting magic as legitimate science. It is extremely heartening to see that there are people in the British government who are clever enough and level-headed enough to reject it out of hand.
The decision comes in response to an online petition organised by James Rocks of the Science, Just Science campaign. From the bottom of my nouveau-Australian heart, I'd like to say, “Good on ya, Jim!”

Over in the USA, it's another story. The outcome of the battle there between good sense and religious mania is still moot and the cowardice and, sometimes, the insanity of American politicians has given succour to the forces of madness. The amazing fact is that the USA is a country where three of the Republican presidential candidates do not believe in evolution! (The mind boggles! Do they also think the Earth is flat and the Sun revolves around it? If not, why not?) Perhaps this seems just normal or even reasonable for an American (or maybe most Americans don't even care) but, from the outside looking in, American religiosity just looks crazy – like looking at ranting Muslim leaders condemning 'the great Satan', or the old Soviet regime's attempts to deny the evidence of genetics for ideological reasons. This kind of head-in-the-sand Christianity belongs to an ancient, unenlightened world and to see it flourishing in the USA is somewhat scary.

Yet I'd be happy to leave them to it (except that it will eventually bring down their economy – look at how research has been weakening under George Bush). However, the American churches are funding the lobby groups and the 'research institutes' that are distributing Creationist propaganda around the world. So it's not just their problem anymore. It's everybody's. Which means more governments ought to take a stand, like the UK has just done, and keep these crazy people out of our kids' heads.

24 June, 2007

War, What Is It Good For?

Today, I offer you a few quotes on the subject of war. Let's start with one of my favourite thinkers.

"He who joyfully marches to music rank and file, has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would surely suffice. This disgrace to civilization should be done away with at once. Heroism at command, how violently I hate all this, how despicable and ignoble war is; I would rather be torn to shreds than be a part of so base an action. It is my conviction that killing under the cloak of war is nothing but an act of murder." (Albert Einstein)

“What a country calls its vital economic interests are not the things which enable its citizens to live, but the things which enable it to make war. Petrol is much more likely than wheat to be a cause of international conflict.” (Simone Weil)

“It is well that war is so terrible - otherwise we would grow too fond of it.” (General Robert E. Lee)

“I can picture in my mind a world without war, a world without hate. And I can picture us attacking that world, because they'd never expect it.” (Jack Handy)

“You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake.” (Jeannette Rankin)

“Our first and most pressing problem is how to do away with warfare as a method of solving conflicts between national groups within a society who have different views about how the society is to run.” (Margaret Mead)

“I'm glad I didn't have to fight in any war. I'm glad I didn't have to pick up a gun. I'm glad I didn't get killed or kill somebody. I hope my kids enjoy the same lack of manhood.” (Tom Hanks)

“War is a cowardly escape from the problems of peace.” (Thomas Mann)

“War is delightful to those who have never experienced it.” (Erasmus)

“There never was a good war or a bad peace.” (Benjamin Franklin)

“I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.” (Dwight Eisenhower)

Fun, eh? The penultimate word goes to Kevin Rudd. Why he took so many years to come to see what was blindingly obvious to many of us before the invasion of Iraq ever began, is between him and his political ambitions.

“[The war in Iraq] has been the greatest single misfire and miscalculation of Australia's national security interests since Vietnam.” (Kevin Rudd, leader of the Australian Labor Party)

And for the last word – and my all-time favourite war quote – let's go back to Albert Einstein:

"I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones." (Albert Einstein)

23 June, 2007

Soul vs Brain

How long will it be before we believe that robots have souls?

I can understand where the idea of an immortal soul comes from. A human life is a very strange thing. Snuff it out and the pile of meat and bones it used to animate flops down, useless and empty. To anyone familiar with the sight of people dying - as I suppose ordinary folk were not so very long ago - it must seem as if a vital spark inhabits the body and, once it is gone, leaves behind a hulk, a mere shell. And if this animating spirit can inhabit a body to bring it life, why not suppose it can leave the body and go elsewhere after death?

Of course, there is a better explanation but one that is so much more complicated and difficult to grasp, that most people find it hard to believe. The idea that the brain is an information processing device running a series of programs than manage and control the body is just too hard for many people to accept - especially when you throw in the strange reflexivity of the device that gives us the impression of consciousness, self-awareness and free will. The brain is the most complicated mechanism that we know - orders of magnitude more complicated than we have ever built. It makes our cities and phone networks, supercomputers and the Internet look like child's-play. It works in ways we have only recently begun to understand and much of what it does is still a complete mystery.

Why is the brain-as-computing-device a better explanation for how a person can be alive and then dead than the soul-as-animating-spirit explanation? Simply because there is masses of evidence that a person's life depends on a functioning brain, the mechanisms by which the brain works all operate on the self-same principles as other biological, chemical and electrical systems (so our understanding of the brain ties in precisely with our understanding of chemistry, physics and biology and therefore all the evidence for those disciplines has to be heaped onto the balance in favour), the simulations of brain functions we have begun building in computer software and in electronic devices actually work to produce the results we would expect, and the brain explanation is detailed and accurate enough now for us to build useful devices which interface to the brain to provide sensory input (hearing and eyesight in particular), to allow mental control of other devices, and even to replace bits of damaged brain. The soul explanation, on the other habd, stands isolated and unconnected to anything else we know. It is simply magic, it doesn't help explain anything else, and it has no useful applications.

Yet people still prefer the simplistic, magical, soul explanation. And this in spite of a very common demonstration of how the brain explanation works, which most of us see every day. When we turn on a computer and run a piece of software, the machine becomes 'alive' in a very limited way. It responds, it behaves, it does things. Turn the computer off and it dies. Where did that life go? It was conjured up out of nothing - or so it seems - and then disappears into nowhere. The thing is, a computer is so obviously not alive that most people miss the analogy altogether. They just don't see themselves as the same type of thing at all, being unable to abstract away from the obvious differences to the core similarities.

But that may well change when we have humanoid robots - something which is not too many decades away now. Then the superficial similarities will be overwhelming and the machine will seem so much more alive than a car or a TV or a desktop computer. That's when I think people will begin to suppose robots have souls, that they are truly alive, and that they share with us our supposed divine nature. Perhaps, if the robots themselves are clever enough (but not too clever) they will come to share our simple-minded beliefs.

20 June, 2007

A New Climate For Australia

Tim Flannery, Professor of Earth Sciences at Macquarie University and Chair of the Copenhagen Climate Council, wrote the editorial in this week's New Scientist (16th June 2007) and I'd like to summarise what he said, just because if it is repeated often enough, our cloth-eared politicians might just hear it.

  • Southern and eastern Australia has lost about 20% of its rainfall in the last 50 years.

  • The decline in flow of Australian rivers in the same period is about 70% (no, that's not a typo)

  • Flannery says we should stop talking about 'the drought' – the worst in a thousand years, some say – because it is a transient phenomenon. Instead, we should start talking about 'the new climate'.

  • Although rainfall has increased in the sparsely-populated north-west, the likely cause is Asian haze shifting the monsoon. Politicians wanting to pipe this water south and east, or move people up to where the water is, are therefore gambling on Asia not cleaning up its air pollution.

  • The only way for Australia to survive is for it to make far more efficient use of the little water it has left.

  • The price of water needs to reflect its value in the new climate – so that industry and individuals do not squander it.

  • Australia needs to shift to a new energy economy – and fast. That means shutting down the old water-guzzling, pollution spewing, coal-fired generators and finding clean alternatives.

  • Australia needs a new and efficient irrigation system. Fixing up the existing one just isn't good enough.

  • The cities need to catch their own water instead of relying on dams which can no longer do the job. Installing water tanks for every house is not only more economical than building new dams but with the river flows falling at three times the rate that rainfall is decreasing, catching and using rainwater in the cities is the only long-term solution.

  • Recycling of water and building desalination plants are measures that should be put in place at once (Brisbane, for example, may have only 18 months before it runs dry).

  • Finally, Australia should throw its voice and influence behind global efforts to cut carbon emissions. It should ratify the Kyoto treaty (and sod the USA). As one of the early casualties of global warming, instead of dragging its feet, Australia should be out in front, urging on global efforts to save us all from the even worse times that lie ahead.

I don't think Flannery could have put it any more clearly but, just in case you missed the message Australia: We're in trouble. We need to act fast. There's an election coming next year. Vote to save the country. Meanwhile, save water.

19 June, 2007

Moving House? How Did That Happen?

What's the collective noun for a group of estate agents? Well, whatever it is, I just had one tramping through my house.

Yes, after seven years in Karana Downs – the forgotten suburb of western Brisbane – I'm selling up and moving on. At least, I think I am. There is so much uncertainty about how much to ask, whether anyone will make an offer, whether the people I want to buy from will accept my offer, whether the timing will be right, and so on, that it seems just as likely to me that I'll still be here next year as that I'll actually sell up and move. Which could be OK because the last three times I moved house, Ivowed never to do it again.

So, if I seem a little distracted over the next few weeks, it could be because I'm juggling the 8,000 things I need to do with my obligations to you, dear Reader.

Y'know, it funny. Ten days ago I didn't know I'd be moving soon. Wifie and I have vaguely thought about it – especially since I retired and I'm no longer tied to the city for work. We've even started browsing estate agents' windows when we go travelling, to see what might be on offer wherever we happen to be. Which is how we came across a particular property while we were down south last week, popped out to have a look at it, and thought 'What the hey? Let's go live there.'

It's a nice house. Nothing fancy. But it is set 1,000 metres up in the granite hills of the New England Table Land and the views are spectacular. It also has 46 acres of unspoilt forest and is surrounded on three sides by State Forest with a gigantic fruit farm on the fourth. It's the kind of place where a man could grow old watching the sun set over the distant mountains, keep himself active walking in the forests and chopping wood for the stove, and watch the wallabies and parrots outside his office window whilst writing his blog. (That is, I'd be writing the blog, of course, the wallabies would be, well, bouncing and stuff. Honest. This is really written by me. No wallabies are involved at all, except, perhaps, in an entertainment capacity, if the buying and selling thing works out.)

Another thing about living at 1,000 m is that you get real seasons. Sometimes, it even snows up there! That'll be nice.

Meanwhile, I'm in a sort of daze. The decision to go just sort of made itself and, having kicked the machinery into action, I'm now being carried along by it from one hugely expensive activity to another – and I probably will be for the next few months, until the wheels stop spinning and I find myself sitting in a house full of boxes at the top of a granite hill, blinking at Wifie in amazement.

17 June, 2007

Scramjets Are Taking Off

I've been watching Australia's work on scramjets with interest for a few years now, mildly pleased that the country is doing something vaguely space-related. A recent milestone in this work is a successful test-flight, a couple of days ago, of a scramjet that took off from Woomera, South Australia and flew at Mach 10 at a height of 530 km before falling to the ground (as planned).

Now Mach 10 is fast but not nearly as fast as these things could go. Speeds of up to Mach 25 are considered possible, and this, they say, would dramatically reduce the cost of putting a payload into orbit (for which a speed of Mach 30 is needed – just a bit of an extra nudge from a rocket booster would do the trick) and would revolutionise commercial air travel.

But would it?

Scramjets are essentially simple devices. You push air into one end of a tube at supersonic speeds (between Mach 5 and Mach 7 – so you need to strap on a rocket or a ramjet to get them started), pass it through a constriction to compress it a bit, then burn a fuel with it (hydrogen, say) and vent the exhaust gasses (now moving much faster than the intake speed) out the back. The complexity lies in managing the supersonic flow of air and burning fuel in the engine, ensuring a complete mix and burn of the fuel within the engine during the very brief period that is available, and finding designs, materials and cooling systems that can cope with the extreme heat that is generated by friction with the air. Pushing a scramjet along at Mach 25 generates similar amounts of heat to a spacecraft re-entering the atmosphere – and for considerably longer if the often-quoted trip-times of 2 hours between Sydney and LA are ever achieved.

So, you need to use a rocket to get it airborne and going fast enough to work, when it's working, you're barrelling through the upper atmosphere like a meteorite, and then you need some other kind of engine to get it back to a safe landing (unless you glide it down like a space shuttle – with all the air traffic control problems that would cause!) Even if you weren't considering putting people inside such a vehicle and planned to use it to put payloads in space, you now need two rocket engines (one for take-off and one for orbital insertion) and you have two periods of re-entry-style heating to worry about (a scramjet can't just go straight up like a rocket – it hasn't got the thrust required – so it needs to travel along in the atmosphere until it has built up enough speed). Given the problems NASA has with the shuttle and its ceramic heat shield, I can't see a future scramjet being any less problematic.

Nevertheless, once all these difficulties have been surmounted, scramjets should be able to get into space more cheaply than a rocket could, and they should be able to get from one point on the Earth to another in dramatically shorter times than even the best military jets. Which sort of explains why, despite all the talk of revolutionising commercial air travel, it is the USA's Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency and Australia's Defence Science and Technology Organisation which were the collaborator's on Saturday's test.

15 June, 2007

Art For Art's Sake

I don't suppose I'll ever understand Art. I mean, I get the representational painting stuff – especially all that soft porn that artists have always churned out for rich guys who like to con themselves it's somehow cultivated to ogle fat, naked broads, or cute little ballet dancers. And it's the same with sculpture – naked boys and women mostly – depending on the patron's taste. It's when it all gets abstract, when it's all about ideas, or moods, that it goes beyond my ken.

I remember when I first noticed that Art was getting weird. It was an exhibit in the UK's Tate Gallery – called something like '49 Bricks' – which was, quite literally, 49 bricks. There was also, some time later, a life-sized submarine made out of old car tyres. Later on still, 'artists' became more shocking and often quite disgusting. The work of Damien Hirst springs to mind – you know, the guy who sticks whole or parts of animals in formaldehyde and then puts them on show. Or they're just odd, like the recent sculpture 'My Sweet Lord', a life-size statue of Jesus done in chocolate by Cosimo Cavallaro. I can see how this would offend people (especially the artist's view that visitors to his exhibition might like to lick the naked statue) but I can't see what makes it Art.

There are people who cover cliffs in white plastic, others who sprinkle used condoms and other detritus on their own unmade bed and exhibit it around the world, and then there's artist Mark McGowan who just last week ate a corgi as a piece of 'performance art'.

Is it just me, or does this parade of freakishness simply signify that artists are desperate and unimaginative these days? Or could it be that The Art World has gradually come to be dominated by emotionally disturbed exhibitionists and, since the people who get to define what Art is are the people who produce it, Art has come to mean something altogether different from what it used to? Art seems so far removed now from what ordinary people can understand or enjoy, it seems very much to have gone the way that 'serious music' did in the 20th Century, which ended up in chaos and disarray. Serious music is pretty much dead now. It left its audience behind many years ago and sailed off, unlamented and largely ignored, into the sunset. Art is pretty obviously going the same way, with 'serious' artists talking among themselves and to themselves as the world turns away and leaves them to it.

Meaning the real artists of our age must be doing something else now – making films and TV shows, perhaps, designing software and electrical appliances, or taking photographs, building cars, designing new viruses. To find them, we probably just need to look to see where the audiences have gone.

Commitment Ain't What It Used To Be

Daughter alerts me to the fact that something interesting is going on with relationships among the young. It seems that men have started chastising women for their lack of commitment!
However normal this might sound to you under-25s, to those of us brought up in the unenlightened '70s, this is a very weird turn of events. Lack of commitment, you see, has always been what women accused men of. In the good old days, men were the ones wanting to 'play the field', 'sow their wild oats', and generally enjoy their sexual freedom for as long as possible before being 'tied down' to a single partner. Now, it seems, men are getting a taste of what it's like on the receiving end – and they don't like it at all.

And not only are they bewailing their womenfolk's lack of commitment but they are advertising their own willingness to commit as a 'selling point' in the sexual marketplace! Not only has the world gone mad but none of these New Men seems to be questioning the value of this 'commitment' they all now prize so much.

After all, what does it mean? If a man commits to a woman (or vice versa), are they saying something equivalent to the marriage vows? That they will stick to their partner no matter what, till death do them part? With the average marriage lasting under ten years these days, it hardly seems likely. And, anyway, there are plenty of darned good reasons to call a halt to a relationship: infidelity, cruelty, or just plain incompatibility, for example. The idea that you would stay together despite a serious problem like that is just madness – only more pain and unhappiness could possibly ensue.

No, the only sense in which commitment makes sense is an agreement to commit to try your best. This is the agreement Wifie and I have (and it's one we are still committed to after 17 years). No-one should ever commit to staying together no matter what. It's an insane notion. It would mean staying together despite the misery that one or both of you felt, it would mean staying together in a relationship that was damaging or degrading or disgusting. And it would mean making any children live through it too! Which is even worse!

I know women have always gone on about how they want a man 'who isn't afraid to commit.' Now, it seems, the guys have taken up the lament and, in what looks like a rather pathetic attempt to model themselves as 'what women want', they are even offering commitment as an inducement. But take a closer look at what this all means, people! Commitment is a truly hideous notion (like many notions left over from our pre-sensible past) and should be banished from your vocabulary. Ask for someone who will like you, someone who will care for you, someone with a willingness to work through difficulties, someone who will be honest with you and treat you with dignity and respect. But don't ask for commitment and don't offer it, unless you are willing to risk a life without happiness and without love.

Be careful what you wish for!

10 June, 2007

The Tin Men

Birthdays are great. People give you things. And if there's one thing I like, it's things. If there's another thing I like, it's ideas. So a thing full of ideas is the perfect gift for me. Something like a book, for example.

Among the haul this year, I got a book I've been vaguely searching for for years and years; The Tin Men by Michael Frayn. This is Michael Frayn's first novel and was published in 1965. As you may know, Frayn is one of my favourite authors. As Wikipedia so dryly puts it, 'His works often raise philosophical questions in a humorous context.' Well what a start he made with this one. I first read it when I was 11 or 12 and it had me in stitches. I couldn't put it down and read it from cover to cover in a single sitting, laughing aloud for most of that time.

For many years now, I've had a hankering to re-read it, curious as to whether I'd still find it funny. One of the reasons I might not is that The Tin Men is set in a computer automation research institution (what we might now call an Artificial Intelligence Lab) and I spent a lot of my own career in AI Labs. So what seemed a fascinating comic premise at the age of 12 might, 40 years on, just seem silly and ill-informed. So I settled down with feelings of excitement and trepidation to re-live my boyhood experience.

Of course, the writing was excellent – even in his first novel – and the fast-paced, farcical plot, was just as much fun as I remembered. Sadly, the book had dated but, strangely, not in relation to artificial intelligence (which is still stumbling about in the same sort of fields as Frayn's hapless researchers) but in the extent to which attitudes and language have changed since the sixties. Thankfully, this didn't detract from the pleasure of reading this great little book again. And, despite being so much older and so much more jaded than I was then, I still laughed out loud in places. Perhaps what I have lost in freshness and naïveté, I have gained in experience and sophistication. I may not have been rolling on the floor but I greatly appreciated the wit and cleverness of the book.

The AI thing was curious though. While I don't know of any real life stories quite like Frayn's ethical robots wrestling together as they each try to throw the other out of a sinking boat (with a crowd of research assistants making bets as they watched) much of what has gone on over the years has been quite silly. Also, I was astonished to find that the newspaper-headline generating program I wrote in the mid 1980s was straight out of The Tin Men. I had thought I was being original, yet must have had Frayn's idea lodged in my subconscious all along. Similarly, there is Douglas Adams' electric monk from the first of the Dirk Gently novels, which was built to believe all the improbable things an over-automated society could no longer make the effort to believe. There it was, also described by Frayn more than twenty years before Adams re-invented it!

Nice to be in such good company.

09 June, 2007

Equality Beyond Humanity

Should the great apes be granted rights to life, liberty and freedom from torture? Well the Great Ape Project says they should. There is almost no doubt that, like human beings, the other great apes are clever, self-aware, emotionally complex and horribly capable of suffering. There is also no doubt that they, unlike human beings, are quickly going extinct. If the wild populations of chimps, bonobos, gorillas and orang utans are not gone in my lifetime, they will be gone in my daughter's. Something has to be done urgently if we want to save them.

Of course most people don't want to save them and that's the main problem they face. Some people are eating them. So called 'bush meat' is not just popular with starving people in remote jungles, it now has a worldwide customer-base - about 12,000 tonnes of bush meat (not all of it great apes of course) is imported to the UK each year, for instance.

But even if people don't eat gorillas and chimps, the chances are they are totally indifferent to their plight. Scientific work and medical research around the world is the very least of it. It is the huge, global habitat destruction that is crushing these creatures out of existence. And the political debate is on the effects of deforestation on global warming and therefore on our own economies. Never mind the world-wide genocide that is happening.

A recent news article about a rebel group threatening to kill mountain gorillas in the Congo is indicative of the contempt in which so many people hold the lives of our poor cousins. But it also shows up the enormous problems organisations like GAP face in securing rights for the great apes. This same rebel group killed a wildlife officer and wounded three people just before making their threat about the gorillas. If they don't care about human life, why should we expect them to care about the lives of apes? If we think cheap paper and furniture is so incredibly important that we have to chop down the world's forests, then of course we're going to let these almost-human relatives die for the sake of it. If we let people sit in our city streets and beg for food, or let our police and intelligence agencies torture our enemies, or lock up poor people for crimes that rich people get away with, what are the chances we will show compassion to any creature unable to speak out for itself - however much like us it is?

02 June, 2007

A Few Of My Favourite Things

How rich a source of research material the Web must be for sociologists. I imagine sociology departments in universities no longer train people in field observation techniques since no-one there ever leaves the building anymore. They just sit in front of computer screens, surfing. And, let's face it, the stuff that's out there – especially in blogs – must be so much more revealing of people's lives than 'structured interviews' and 'semantic differentials' ever were (or even my favourite sociological technique: 'micro-phenomenological sabotage').

So, in the spirit of feeding these 'surfiologists' a bit more data, and in order to recommend some great websites, I list here the ten most frequently-used links on my browser's 'favourites' list:
  1. Google. Of course, I need say nothing about this site as you know it well already. It used to be better before the sponsored links appeared but it's still my favourite search engine. I like to use the local version (google.com.au, rather than google.com) because it's biased to local content (although this can sometimes be a disadvantage.)
  2. Wikipedia. Anyone who has read my blog and followed any of the links will know I love Wikipedia. Yes, there are many who say this online encyclopaedia isn't quite as good as Britannica but so what? It's free, it's easy to navigate, the coverage is pretty damned good, and I've yet to find a single article I seriously object to.
  3. Technorati. This is a curious but very popular site. People with blogs register with Technorati and then Technorati tracks those blogs, ranking them for 'authority' (how many other blogs linked there recently) and providing a search engine that returns only blog postings. If you have a blog register it here. Or if you just like blogs, this is a fascinating site.
  4. The Dilbert Archive. Without my daily fix of Dilbert, I go into withdrawal. I know it's not everyone's cup of tea but when you have spent your whole career working in large, high-tech corporations, as I have, Scott Adams' take on it rings very true. Sometimes the jokes are so close to the knuckle, I've suspected he must have spies working in the same building.
  5. Astronomy Picture of the Day. Run by NASA, this site is a mine of information on astronomy but, more than this, it is an endless source of beautiful pictures of our gorgeous Universe. I know I'm very nerdy about this but it seems so cool to me that I can have a photo of a methane ocean on Titan as my screen background one day, and the incredible M65 spiral galaxy the next.
  6. Slashdot. 'News for nerds, stuff that matters' is this site's slogan and I suppose that says everything about me because I find Slashdot's daily news round-up usually has several interesting items. Today, there was a piece about metamorphic multijunction concentrator photoelectric cells. Now where else am I going to find news like that?
  7. Pageflakes. Yet Slashdot cannot supply all a nerd's daily news intake. For that, you need an RSS feed reader. I've tried a few but by far the best is Pageflakes. That's because it is a customisable, personalised site with hundreds of different widgets to choose from. The feed reader is just one of them. So I have several pages full of RSS feed widgets (categorised into; international news, local news, tech news, tech zines, etc.) plus other, useful ones that (for example) do currency conversions, show me my local weather, display random photos from Flickr, present selected quotes of the day, even a clock. Have a look at my Pageflakes home page.
  8. Blogger. Blogger is Google's blog service. You can go to Blogger and start up a blog for free, then manage and maintain it with the tools they provide. It's all pretty easy. There are many, many other blog services around but I like Google. You can even get free blogging software to download and install on your own website – but why bother when Blogger takes all the pain out of it? It's on my list because I go there nearly every day to add a new blog posting.
  9. Itools – Language Tools. This gives me a multi-dictionary search and a multi thesaurus search. What can I say, I'm a writer, this is an essential tool.
  10. W3Schools Online Web Tutorials. The Web is just full of fantastic free stuff and this collection of tutorials on web programming is one of the best examples. It's where I learned HTML, XML and PHP and I stop by fairly frequently when I need to learn new stuff (like the 'server-side includes' I needed for the Save The Wesley Pool site I did recently).

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