Thursday, January 28, 2010

Just leave ET alone

For some reason, there's been a lot of yatter on the BBC lately, for values of 'lately' dating back to 2007, about talking to aliens. Not in the science-fiction sense, but in the real practical sense of transmitting directional signals into likely-looking patches of space in the hope that something will care.

Some scientists really like the idea. I used to work with a guy who earnestly believed that any alien intelligence we encountered would surely be more wise and benign than us, because (basically) that's not a very high hurdle to clear. That was the extent of his argument. "We're nasty and brutish, therefore they must be better than us."

Yeah, the logic eluded me too.

Others, and personally I'd tend to side with this camp, think it's stupid and dangerous. If there's one thing we can learn from playing Civilization, it's that when two or more groups of people are interested in colonising the same patch of space, they will end up fighting each other. Since it's likely that these hypothetical aliens have developed through processes of biological, social and economic evolution that are not entirely unlike ours, it's reasonable to assume they know this. And if they do have any much better technology than we do, they'll use it to crush us like nuts.

So the best we can hope for, really, is that anyone who does hear the messages is even stupider than we are. In which case, I'm not sure there's much point in talking to them.

Not that that will stop anyone... Communication based on the assumption that the other party is a moron has been raised to a fine art in our times.
"Dear Organism, We have been monitoring your excellent planet for some time now, and we are really impressed with the range of topics you cover. We wish to purchase ad space from you in exchange for Earth currency denominated in the highly collectable 2009 Zimbabwean dollar."

"Dear ET, Earn money in your own time! This is not a pyramid scheme and is guaranteed 100% legal in accordance with current USPS guidelines!"


Come to think of it, exactly what are those idiot scientists saying anyway? Are we spamming space already? If so, the aliens will have all my sympathy. Until about 0.3 seconds after their planetary bulldozers uncloak, that is.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Order of the boot

When my employers wanted to experiment with Windows Vista, it was an easy choice to pick the employee whose work they could most afford to lose. Was it, they wanted to know, really as bad as people were saying?

It took me about two weeks to make up my mind about that. Yes. Yes, it was. If anything it was worse than people were saying. Not only had it reorganised some basic functions and obscured others, added enormous delay to simple things such as booting, file copying and even file deletion; it was prone to slowdowns and erratic pop-ups occurring for no discernable reason at all; it would make its own decisions about how to display a file folder (it's convinced that some of my application folders are full of MP3s, and others are photos, and no matter how many times I tell it they're not it always reverts sooner or later); and it broke some of what I considered the best basic features of earlier Windows versions, such as giving the user a warning when they try to delete a file that's marked as "Read Only".

Now, Vista has already been superseded, and I'm seeing the Internet fill up with people commenting "It's not that bad, really".

I have two words for those people: "Stockholm Syndrome". It is that bad, really. Two service packs, innumerable patches and 30 months of use experience later, everything I complained about in the above paragraph is still true. The big difference is that now I know how it sucks.

And so it was with a heavy heart that I rebooted my laptop this morning. See, Windows updated yesterday - presumably that security hole that everyone's been going on about - and that meant that when I woke it from overnight hibernation this morning, it reminded me to reboot. Options at this point are: "Remind me again in 10 minutes/1 hour/4 hours". No option for what I want, which is "Remind me when I click 'Hibernate' or some other shutdown option again, and in the meantime just shut up and work."

Just in case anyone thinks I'm exaggerating about how bad Vista is, I took the liberty of recording what happened next:
  • 8:09 a.m.: I click the "Restart Now" button in the "nagging" dialogue. The dialogue goes away and my cursor changes to the dreaded infinite-looping affair that says my computer will now not respond to anything I do for an indeterminate time to come.
  • 8:11: Dialogue pops up: "Windows Explorer has stopped working". Options are: "Check online for a solution and restart the program", "Restart the program", "Debug the program". No mention of "Just shut the fucking program down already." I ignore it, in the well founded hope that Windows will forget about it.
  • 8:12: Outlook pops up a dialogue asking if I'd like to auto-archive my old items now. Miraculously, this dialogue does have a "No!!!!" option. I click it.
  • 8:14: Screen goes black.
  • 8:17: I get back with coffee. Screen is still black.
  • 8:18: Part 1 of the Windows startup sequence appears. It looks superficially like a progress bar.
  • 8:19: "One of your disks needs to be checked for consistency. You may cancel the disk check, but it is strongly recommended you continue." Windows has said this on every single startup since a new hard disc was fitted about a year ago. CHKDISK has never found any issues. To be on the safe side, I humour it. (In fact cancelling is more trouble than it's worth, because it means pressing a key, which - since Windows is not yet aware of the external keyboard - means opening the laptop, which means Windows rearranging the displays, which would take another 90 seconds at minimum.)
  • 8:21: Screen goes black. Remains black for over 50 seconds.
  • 8:22: "Please wait". Well, that makes a nice change of pace.
  • 8:22: "Configuring updates: part 3/3"
  • 8:24: "Press Ctrl + Alt + Delete to log on". I do so.
  • 8:25: "Welcome"
  • 8:26: Desktop appears, but cursor is still in circling "wait" mode
  • 8:27: Cursor switches to "ready" mode. I click to open Outlook.
  • 8:29: I can see my Inbox! Start trying to read e-mail.
  • 8:35: "Multiple problems exist with your computer security". This dialogue is another thing that keeps coming back like a vampire, no matter how many times I stake it. The "problems"? "Windows Defender is out of date. Update now?"

So, your recommendation is that I go through all that again? I'll pass.

Time taken from switching on to getting a usable desktop: 20 minutes. Time taken to anything like full functionality (i.e. Windows stops interrupting me every 2 minutes to nag about something): over 35 minutes.

I remember when booting a computer meant loading a program from cassette tape. It didn't take one-quarter as long as this.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Short film review

We went to the movies last night. For myself, I wanted to satisfy my requirements to remain a cultural consumer in good standing; I think Susan was mostly looking forward to the popcorn. And we were pleasantly surprised by the Berkley in Mission Bay: clean, reasonable seats, not too big.

And the popcorn was good. This in itself is unusual, possibly unprecedented in my cinema-going experience in this country.

And we enjoyed Sherlock Holmes. It was interesting to see the world's first superhero getting the Dark Knight treatment. Could have done with fewer explosions and without the prizefighting scene, but you've got to allow these creative types some leeway. My biggest complaint was that the ending made the whole thing look like the pilot to a TV series, or (gods help us) a series of movies.

Note to producers: if you make a TV series, I'll give it a try. But if you make it a movie series, don't count on me to keep buying tickets. That's a lot of money.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Whose health is it anyway?

Susan gave me a book for Christmas. Bad Science, by Ben Goldacre, based on his regular Grauniad column of the same name, deals with how the media reports science. Specifically the British media, and mostly medical science, but the principles are fairly generalisable.

This fine read has taught me a bit about experimental design and medical ethics, and quite a lot about the placebo effect. One factette that lodged in my mind: when a new drug is released, older drugs that treat the same condition actually become measurably less effective. That is to say: if they previously had a 60% chance of curing the condition within a certain time, that chance may drop to 40% when the new drug becomes available.

No-one is quite sure why this should happen. Could be something to do with experimental design or sample selection. But Goldacre's money is on the placebo effect - the doctors themselves, being subject to the ferocious marketing tactics of drug companies, have more faith in the newer treatment.

Another case is the story of fish oil. Thanks to the charlatanry of "nutritionists", most journalists now accept as Proven Scientific FactTM that fish oils are good for the brain, and feeding fish-oil capsules to children makes them perform better in class. All over the country, to hear Goldacre tell it, parents are shovelling pills into their children daily; in some schools, not doing so is considered tantamount to child abuse. And yet there's not a shred of clinical evidence to support this superstition.

Big-time win for the drug companies. They've successfully persuaded a whole generation that "taking pills" is a normal activity for healthy people.

I thought of this today when I saw this story in today's paper. "Wear gloves to avoid cancer in the car" says the headline. Even by the Herald's standards, that's a pretty opaque headline - is there some nasty type of cancer that affects drivers, carcinogens in that rubber-like material that coats the steering wheel perhaps? But no. The story turns out to be about exposing your skin to sunlight while driving. Glass, it transpires, doesn't stop all UV radiation.
Plain, clear vehicle glass blocks only 37 per cent of UV-A radiation. The main risk comes from long or frequent trips exposed to sun through side windows.
Intrigued, I did a little more research into UV-A and UV-B.

UV-B is the stuff that causes sunburn, and plain ol' glass stops nearly all of that. But that nasty UV-A gets through, and according to the Cancer Society, that too is dangerous, even though it doesn't burn. I'm not qualified to comment on the health risks of UV-A, but my suspicions were aroused when I came to this line in the story:
The issue was highlighted by sunscreen maker Oasis Beauty, which urged drivers to apply sunscreen before driving.
The Cancer Society, to its credit, is leery of that suggestion. It recommends instead long sleeves and, optionally, gloves. (In summer, no less.) But, I had to wonder, what sort of weight should we apply to health advice from a company that's selling a product?

Even these measures are only necessary if you're driving long distances, because UV-A takes a good long exposure to do harm, and laminated windscreen glass stops 80% of it - it's only exposure through the un-laminated side windows that's really dangerous. So long sleeves should pretty much eliminate the risk, at no real cost.

But as with pretty much everything health-related, there's another side to this story. No UV-B means no vitamin D. And if you're of the male persuasion, no vitamin D is a recipe for, among other things, prostate cancer.

Over 200 people die of skin cancer in New Zealand every year. But roughly 600 men die of prostate cancer. In other words, as a man, I'm approximately six times more likely to die of too little UV-B than too much. So why is all the public-health propaganda telling me to get less sun?

The obvious answer is: sunscreen is bottled, marketed and profitable. Whereas sunlight is, as yet, still free. It's a lot harder to make money by telling people to use less of a product.

And this is why our health advice is so confusing: because it's all coming from people who have a product to sell. Nobody is disinterested. Nobody is on our side.

Health advice I believe in: eat fresh vegetables, don't get too fat or too thin, don't smoke or drink to excess, and last but not least, don't let the bastards grind you down. Everything beyond that, I'm now convinced, is guesswork based on information that is partial in every sense of the word.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Editing the Herald

Since James is, apparently, still on holiday (bloody academics), it falls to me to get angry about today's New Zealand Herald.

"Half of Kiwis doubt global warming: poll" says the headline. Curious, I click to the article. "A Herald survey", it reports.

Oh, excellent. So the Herald has commissioned its very own poll? That means it'll be telling us all the data, not just cherrypicking a few findings that happen to catch the reporter's eye. It'll tell us how many people were surveyed, when and how, what questions they were asked, and how their answers varied with their demographics...

Well, not so much as it happens.
Almost one in five of 2296 respondents said the concept was a giant con, and a further 28 per cent said global warming had not been conclusively proved.
"Almost" one in five? You wouldn't care to be any more precise about that figure? Did they use the words "giant con", or was that suggested to them as Option 1? As for "conclusively proved" - what does that even mean?
An online survey of the Herald Readers' Panel was conducted by the Nielsen Company between December 10 and December 17, as world leaders prepared to meet at the UN climate conference in Copenhagen.

Thirty-eight per cent said global warming was a serious problem that needed action now, 13 per cent said it was the world's biggest challenge, and 2 per cent did not know.
Again, your words or theirs? I'm going to guess yours, but would it hurt you to publish the damn' questions?
Nineteen per cent - including almost 30 per cent of men aged 45 or older - thought it was a giant con and a waste of money.
A giant con and a waste of money. Two separate options, one portmanteau one, or just the reporter's own interpolation? I guess we'll never know.

And that, believe it or not, is all the data we're given about this poll - the one commissioned by this newspaper, for which it has presumably paid good money. No list of questions (let alone answers), nothing about the design of the form, the sample selection process or the demographics of the sample. Without which this research quite literally isn't worth the paper it's printed on.

This is a newspaper, right? Its entire raison d'etre is to report stuff. And this particular stuff is its own exclusive property. If the Herald doesn't tell us this stuff, no-one else even has the right to it.

No wonder Kiwis are uninformed about science, when their leading national daily newspaper can't even be bothered to publish its own original research...

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Star, arts, tsar, tars

Of all the Google searches that bring people to this page, by far the commonest is "anagram rats".

I would've thought that most people would be capable of working those out for themselves - it's only four letters, after all.

Truly, there is no such thing as an upper limit to human laziness.