Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Windows XP of brains

I find interesting our ability to predict people using empathy. It's not so useful with inanimate objects. With animate ones, if you put yourself in their head you can tell what they're going to with a fair degree of success. You stop reacting to their actions and start preventing their intended actions. Like being CovOps in Enemy Territory.

The most remarkable thing about this is that humans operate on a regular rhythm. We're unable to perform actions outside of this rhythm, based on the heartbeat. The most obvious example is how you can't walk out of rhythm when a car goes by with blaring music.

This is also why it's impossible to catch a chipmunk. Their hearts beat maybe 6 times faster than ours. As such they can make 6 decisions, perform 6 actions and move in 6 different directions in the time it takes our 'sophisticated' brain to react to the first.

We are the Windows XP of brains: feature-heavy, more advanced than before, but a bit slow, clunky, with many bits we don't need or use.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Not the Lion King

"Started 30 minutes late then read a crap story from his book" - the verdict of one punter last night on the talk by Malcolm Gladwell. Starting his session with a description of how he cons people into attendance by inserting historical thinkers into the event description perhaps didn't bode well.

Over 2,500 people paid £35 each for an hour of his wisdom last night at the Lyceum Theatre: so his techniques are working! Problem was they all turned up at the same time to collect their tickets. The staff, presumably more accustomed to coaches of bluerinse ladies from the Midlands obediently queuing for the matinee of The Lion King, seemed slightly stressed by the influx of all these Londoners seeking intellectual enlightenment, fast.

In the end it wasn't so enlightening but at least moderately entertaining. Gladwell explained how 'mitigation' - his lingo for failure to be direct and clear due to power relations within a team - causes all sorts of problems, particularly air crashes. He emphasised that in technical fields such as running a nuclear power station, it is often not technical but social problems that create disasters.

He added that it's usually not one catastrophic failure, but a sequence of unlikely, unrelated coincidences that add up to a showstopper: the 'average' air disaster has 7 such factors. This is certainly true, making it difficult to either assign responsibilities or create a technical process (such as a check-list) to prevent it happening again.

At one point Gladwell seemed to be advocating a new racism. It was caveated, but worrying to hear the logic that cultural differences are real and predictable so systems should take them into account. This with the explanation oft provided by those with unshakeable faith in the hard sciences, that it's not the speaker or their opinion, it's the undeniable 'facts': they must acknowledge the objective 'reality' that different races (though he used the world 'culture') have different aptitudes, predilections and capabilities. That's the kind of logic an insurance company could use to price higher premiums for black people: not the sort of thing I'd risk going anywhere near. I thought it careless, a bit over-excited saying something controversial without thinking it through.

Some lovely anecdotes, but it was light on real information: I'll have to assume that's in the book. You got the impression he was having a great time wandering around the world talking to interesting people, writing populist books then giving 'profound' talks to paying audiences - but that makes him a modern-day campfire storyteller, not a leading light of progress. Substantial insight, analysis and thoroughness of approach wasn't in evidence. Overall: not a bad way to spend an hour of my time, but I reckon there are better thinkers out there.

Watch Malcolm in action at TED

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Life, but not as we know it

My colleague from GALHA on News24 recently debating the Embryology bill against The Religious:

Watch on YouTube.

Pharkie: now available in Pescetarian

I've gone veggie. Or more accurately, Pescetarian. There, I've said it. Meat no more.

Why? I could no longer hold back the tide of the unstoppable logic that killing animals for food is wrong. As Aristotle predicted, now I have that knowledge, I can only act one way. It's not being worthy, it's being rational.

Why still fish? Because they're an essential source of rare nutrients in a way that meat isn't. If I had the money and time, I'd give them up too: but I don't, so I won't. And I'm not going to feel guilty about it. Hello? Yo Sushi delivery?

Why still plants? Jainism conceptualises 6 levels of sentience, with water being a '1' and humans being a '6'. Plants are around a '2' I reckon. Chickens and pigs maybe 4 or 5. My argument is around cost/benefit analysis. Does eating X gain me more than the suffering it costs the thing being eaten? With plants, fruits and nuts, the answer is 'yes'.

This shows itself in the violence involved. Killing a pig is a pretty messy affair: I'm sure you've seen the documentaries. Grinding some mint into my mojito is relatively devoid of violence (though you should see me make a mojito).

Robert Winston will tell you humans needed to start eating meat to develop their enormous brains. Time to evolve!

I think I've always been vege/pescetarian. My mother will tell you the story: around 6 I thought it perfectly nice of the lambs bouncing around the field to be generous enough to hand over some lamb for us to eat. She didn't have the heart to tell me they gave a lot more than I anticipated. My logic then was clearer than it's been for twenty years, despite me supposedly becoming an adult inbetween.

So it's taken me this long to develop some integrity and stop the hypocrisy of claiming to be a decent human being while thoughtlessly purchasing the murder of other sentient beings. The market does more than that: it brings these animals into the world for the very purpose of creating their death. I find that distasteful - literally.

I'm not going to campaign for it, I'm not going to hassle my friends: it's a personal decision. Be the change you want to see in the world and all that.

I'm not saying I will never eat another piece of meat in my life: if I was on a desert island and there was no other food available, I'd do it (I might even enjoy it). But I'm not: I'm surrounded by Tesco. Actually, maybe I should try 'Fresh and Wild'.

A final dig (never one to miss an opportunity) at those religions that don't explicitly support vegetarianism, notably Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Given the obviousness of the problem with eating meat, I simply have no idea how they present themselves as the leading lights of ethics.

Any regrets? Sunday lamb? Bacon sandwiches? The thought is always better than the reality, isn't it?

No: I'm quite looking forward to it. I'm now driven to try new foods, new combinations, new restaurants. This is the start of an interesting adventure. Never mind the mooted health benefits: I feel more alive already.

I'll let you know how I get on..

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Eh P R?

Up until at least July last year, Zopa offered a £1,000 loan over 12 months at less than 7% APR.

Last month, a 12 month loan of £1,000 would cost between 15 and 20% APR. They rank your credit risk A - C: that rate's for an 'A*' grade customer.

This morning the minimum term has become 36 months (the only other choice now being 60 months, whereas before it was more flexible).

Credit card companies are now automatically reducing credit limits; before they used to automatically increase them.

It's the economy, stupid.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Overegging overdrafts

Last month I went into the red on my bank account: silly me. I was £11 overdrawn for 3 days. My bank kindly included a letter with my monthly statement (they couldn't afford a separate letter - or to call me) informing me of a £28 charge being applied to the account.

Not great, but fair enough: they fine me for breaking the rules. They don't make much money out of me other ways, so I let them have this from time to time to stop them getting any ideas about charging me for a bank account (like First Direct do).

Anyway: the next month I received another letter with my monthly statement. Apparently they intended to take another £28. Why? Because the 3 days I was overdrawn happened to span two (arbitrary and unknown to me) statement periods. To their mind, I'd been overdrawn in two reporting periods, so 2 x £28.

I spotted this, called them and was happily told my Customer Service Representative would 'discuss it with the branch manager': it remains to be seen if the second charge applies.

So I'm happy to read today that 'Banks lose overdraft charges case'. Why? Not because I think £28 as a fine is too large for the crime (which I do). Not because I despise the money-grabbing, immoral capitalists that are bankers (which I do). I'll tell you why:

The banks rewrote their terms and conditions about a year ago when all this hoohaa over charges was bubbling to the surface. They brought in some kickass lawyers. Previously, the £28 was straightforwardly a charge for going overdrawn - and therefore subject to regulation over what can be charged. They now claim when you attempt a transaction that will put you overdrawn you are requesting an overdraft, a service from the bank. The bank charges you £28 for considering this request for a service. It's not a fine: certainly not! It's a service - and thus not subject to regulation: voila.

I wouldn't often make financial service requests after 5 pints at 4.30am via the keypad of some underground tavern; my bank apparently disagrees.

Let's hope the courts introduce a little common sense back into the equation.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

It'll never work, that communism capitalism

The state has already bailed out the greedy banks, to the tune of £50 billion (with the possibility of £100 billion). It's now announced that the state is bailing out homeowners.

I don't own a house: I rent. I'd stayed out of the house market for a reason. I'm not smug about it, but I saw this coming. I spent many evenings, about 3 years ago, sat in Excel: the increase in property prices vs earning was clearly unsustainable. The best we could hope for was a soft landing - and indeed we've had one so far. But I steered clear altogether.

So.. do I get to enjoy the winnings on my bet? Do I get to benefit from my prudence and foresight?

No: I get to subsidise (via my taxes) all those that jumped in with both feet and are now feeling the heat. The state is actively engaged in removing my opportunity to benefit; to e.g. snap up a property that would be repossessed. That's what the 'market' would have happen. It's what I thought I had a right to expect to happen.

But Alastair Darling has intervened in the market, created an imbalance: chosen homeowners over me. Chosen to protect the foolhardy, the overindulgent; the ones that bought into the capitalist, credit-driven boom without a thought to their own future. To save people from their own bad decisions. At my expense! And a double whammy at that: I can't get a bargain house, saving money, because I'm subsidising those in the houses via my taxes, costing me money.

Thanks very much, Gordon Brown!

Beyond the personal, one must ask: where's the free market now? Why isn't it being left to self-destruct? Why are its problems being solved by the state, thus it given oxygen as 'something that works'? This model that our whole society is based around..

Because the government believes in, indeed the global consensus is that: Capitalism Works.

Despite all this evidence to the contrary: the system collapsing around our ears, the inability of it to protect itself, the headlines every day: Capitalism Works.

Does it? If so, why is the state having to intervene massively to keep it working?

I hope this clear and distinct failure of Capitalism to prevent or resolve its own issues isn't lost on people. Though I wish I could name someone out there making this point to them.

They tell me Communism will never work. Capitalism ain't doin a great job either.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Credit Crunchie

The MD of Egg has had to step down after 'presiding over a PR disaster'. That's right, since she didn't engage a decent strategy to handle the obvious backlash from withdrawing credit cards from 160,000 customers.

But the nature of the backlash deserves a critical eye. Egg stands accused of dropping customers that were perfectly responsible with their accounts. They feel hard done by - but they acknowledge they may have been unprofitable for the company. Credit cards aren't provided by the state, no-one has a right to them. In the end, fewer credit cards around is a good thing: so what's the problem?

Maybe it would have come across better, PR-wise, if Egg had gone with this honesty, rather than telling us it was something about helping people avoid bad debt. But "if this is a case of them ditching long-standing credit worthy customers because they make no money out of them ... perhaps this is an issue that requires an Office of Fair Trading investigation." (This is money)- why is it?? Egg is entitled to remove accounts from people that aren't making it money, isn't it?

But I wonder: is this more about the peculiar Western Capitalist tradition of self-esteem and position in society being understood by the credit card(s) one owns? Such that those whose accounts have been withdrawn see it as a negative assessment of their character. They've had to phone the agencies to console themselves their credit 'rating' is 'excellent', as if desperately seeking some kind of parental approval. If true, I find it both ridiculous and sad. Sad for the individuals who might want something more substantial in their lives by which to value themselves (good deeds? family?) and sad for society if it engenders such economically-biased judgment of human worth.

For me, the idea that a credit card conveys some kind of status and standing largely disappeared a few years ago. When a mailer drops through the door that says 'You've been carefully selected for us to offer you credit! Need a new hat? Think of all the nice things you can buy with our credit. We're offering you our extra premium Platinum credit card: apply now!'

..I substitute, in my head, 'debt' where it says 'credit' - and somehow the appeal disappears.

A vested interest here: I'm an Egg customer of several years standing. So far, my card seems safe!

Monday, February 11, 2008

Microsoft Project 2007 vs Merlin 2.5

In my day-job as Project Manager at a London Digital Marketing agency, I turn around a great number of project schedules. A solid tool to create these is indispensable to my armoury.

I tried out MS Project 2007 (for PC) over the weekend - and for the first time realised how far Merlin 2 (for Mac) is ahead of it. Who'd have thought? It seems to me that Project Wizards with Merlin are leaders, when I had assumed they were followers.

I identified several things in MS Project that are poor compared to Merlin:
  • You don't seem to able to zoom in to days or zoom out to weeks/months easily (or even at all) in MS Project. This 'scaling' is something I use all the time in Merlin.
  • In MS Project: no library of commonly used project elements, or templates or ready-made schedules to get you started, that I saw. (the MS Project 'Project Guide' says it's helpful and intuitive: it isn't).
  • The presentation of the GANTT chart in MS Project, even in '2007' remains awful. No drop-shadows, no anti-aliasing, no soft edges. This isn't a fluffy or subjective point: I like my project documentation to have substance and style.
  • The way MS Project shows 'completion' is not as intuitive as Merlin. Thin lines inside a bar vs shading the whole bar.
  • No task names on the bars within the chart part: being able to print just that, without the task list, is again useful day to day.
  • Whereas Merlin has an application-specific, well thought-out Print dialog, MS Project uses a system-wide one, with the Preview needing a whole different screen/window and none of the helpful options Merlin provides to quickly print just what you want.
  • Merlin's helpfile is remarkable in that, instead of the usual 'Pressing the 'OK' button will accept the settings', you get a thoughtful and well taught mini-course in Project Management principles, each part mapped to the application.
  • Merlin is Microsoft Project compatible (and I've relied on this in a Production environment) - but MS Project doesn't run on a Mac.
  • Merlin costs less than MS Project (in most licensing situations)
In summary I could see a number of serious drawbacks but very few reasons to prefer MS Project. OK, perhaps it's server-based components/team collaboration tools and integration with other MS/PC products - and even those are mostly available with Merlin 2.5.

Merlin is less a 'challenger brand' and now a better, more comprehensive tool that too few people have yet discovered.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Feed the world?

A quick comment on this:
Guardian article on World Population

Monbiot can be an annoying so and so sometimes. Quoting a figure of '134 trillion' as a figure of what the population may reach then saying 'oh ignore that figure' is irresponsible at best and misleading at worst. The world population will stabilise at 10 billion.

His key concern that the rich will be the problem contradicts a well-known pattern: developing countries have less kids. The more developed the country, the less its fertility rate. The problem corrects itself. Why are we worried about the expansion of China and India? Because they are developing countries, while we are not. They will get bigger, we will get smaller.

"Surely there is one respect in which the growing human population constitutes the primary threat? The amount of food the world eats bears a direct relationship to the number of mouths. After years of glut, the storerooms are suddenly empty and grain prices are rocketing. How will another 3 billion be fed?"

The short answer is GM crops. Ah but we can't have them because of the environmental problems, can we? I find it intellectually frustrating to have both the problem and the lack of solution created by the same restricted mindset. George makes not a single mention that technology might solve this seemingly interminable problem.

I agree with his basic point that the poor, the masses, are not the source of the problem. But the idea this is a problem no-one's been talking about or that his analysis is the only true voice out there seems naive.