Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Purporting wisdom

Turkey makes you sleepy. You only use 10% of your brain. You lose 40-45% of your body heat through your head. You can cure a hangover.

Popular wisdom is constantly fed to us day in and day out without anyone ever questioning it's origins, usually purported by a friend or acquaintance whom you believe only has every one's best interests in mind. The problem is that it is a rariety for someone to actually back up such a claim with any supportive evidence.

In a series of two articles published by the British Medical Journal, two professors known as Rachel C Vreeman and Aaron E Carroll have compiled a list of common myths that refute the claims at the beginning of this article with evidence and several sources. The articles are available here, as Part 1 and Part 2.

The reason for this article wasn't simply to link to an article, but to make a point. People (And I do mean anyone, academics and doctors as well as plumbers and housewife's) perpetuate claims that can be harmful or just useless without ever researching the origins of these claims. It is a silly and dangerous exercise, and yet we continue it without regard for the consequences of our action.

It is not primarily a human endeavour to misinform others that trust us, but it seems that individuals will actively repeat claims to others that have a modicum of respect for the individual as a way to actively define themselves in their own conscious, or simply to benefit themselves through an active exchange of supposedly helpful information. which explains why your doctor will tell you you need eight glasses of water a day, or why your grocier will always tell you the most expensive cheese is the healthiest.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Lack of posting

Sorry for the lack of posts lately, I've been experiencing serious writers block, and coupled with final exams I haven't been updating the blog. new articles to come soon.


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Popular distortions

Today's post is just a simple reflection on how society distorts perceived truths to make them more palatable, and make life easier for the individual by effectively reducing the psychological impact that it is negligible.

A simple example is the way society looks at hell. We're told that it's a dark place bad people go, but only bad people, not you. The devil is a red man with big horns and takes joy in poking you in the orange flames while twisted little black pixies laugh and giggle as they poke and torture you, and that if you do end up there from your nights of debauchery, you can just find all your damned friends and party in hell, or even take it over from the devil.

This seems to be a rather enjoyable fate when you compare the biblical definition of hell. The biblical definition is a much more frightening place, you're immersed in absolute darkness, there is absolutely no light, there is no sound, you are alone, immersed in black sulfurous heat, with no one, not even the devil to keep you company. Also, that's not even technically hell, hell is actually more of a holding room until your thrown into what is normally considered to be hell, the lake of fire.

The devil is also a much different character then what we consider him (if you'll allow me to, I will continue to refer to the standard gender definition of the devil to be male) to be, we, again, see him to be a red man with big horns who enjoys partying, encourages everything that we enjoy and is basically the guy you want to party with.

The biblical definition, is, again, different then the one we perpetuate. The bible does refer to him as satan, but there is no reference to a pitchfork, red skin or horns. In reality, the only image we have of him is before his fall from grace is really one of something in direct contradiction to the popular image of satan, in it he is considered to be radient, glorious, and the most beautiful of all of god's angels. It's not hard to imagine, if we take the christians point of view, that he has changed much, sin lives in the heart, not the skin, as they believe. And as christians believe, the devil does enjoy your partying, but not because he likes people partying, but because he knows that people who disobey god will be taken from god, and left to suffer in the lake with him, to burn in darkness and crushing solitude for eternity.

It's no wonder that we would distort such a concept. The question is, is this a good thing? Is it alright for us to distort a (perceived) truth in order to live a easier life?

If we apply this only to a religious difficulty, then we would seem to only have to worry about our immortal souls, which many don't believe in anyway, and few would argue that it makes better people. The problem is we keep using it, we used it to mock Nazi Germany both before and during the second world war, it was applied to demonize the Vietcong in the 1960's, we are still using it today, although it's no longer a state spnsored activity unlike it used to be in the 1940's, to insult and diminish Muslim individuals and practices so that we don't have to feel so bad about attacking and killing other human beings.

But the problem isn't that the methods don't work, they work spectacularly, propaganda against the third reich in world war 2 did allow the public to feel good about bombing and killing thousands of soldiers and citizens, but then it also made the German public feel good about murdering the gay, jewish and roma. It's a double sided sword, it enables us, yet it also degrades us.

Distortion, it can be argued, is necessary for a society to live. But what sort of society is absolutely required to distort it's surroundings for it to survive? It seems that after examination, it's not that there is a certain form of society, but that in order for there to be a society, we have to demonize others.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Evolutionary model as applied to world economics

  Evolution can be defined as a system in which the organism that is most adept to survive it's conditions will outlast those that are not as adept as it, or simply, the fittest survive.

 There's also a concept called Punctuated Equilibrium, which attempts to explain large expansions of speciation in the fossil record in certain periods of time. 

 The question I wish to give, is it possible that the latest crises is an example of the evolution of our financial system going through something similar to punctuated equilibrium? The world economic system in it's entirety can be likened to an evolutionary system, where hundreds of different forces affecting it's system force the components of the system ill-suited to it's surroundings die off, and the parts of the system best suited to the surroundings will survive.

 Tell me what you think.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Random concept: looking for ideas

 The idea behind random concept is to take two things that have no obvious relation to one another, and through logical derivation, attempt to find a link, however possible. I need suggestions for random topic, basically any two concepts that seem to have no immediate link to each other. If you have any ideas, please write it in the comments.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

When expectations are blinded by education, or why professionals make life harder

 Back in the 70's when nuclear was a much more intriguing concept for the general population as a means of energy production, someone was designing the controls for the reactors at three mile island. Considering the relatively simplistic design of the reactor, the team desiging the controls felt no special precautions were required to explain the operation and effect those operations would have on the reactor. They considered that, since the Babcock and Wilcox reactors were so stable and safe, the operators never needed to touch the controls.

 This meant anyone could run the plant. Anyone, apparently, included high school graduates with little to no training on the reactors. They were told they didn't have to worry about the controls, and that the reactors could pretty much run themselves without the controllers interference.

 This was obviously wrong. while the specifics of controlled fission are somewhat simple, the operations in place to control the fission of the materials and the resultant cooling systems are fairly complex. For instance, it is sometimes necessary to control the depth of the control rods to increase or decrease the reaction volatility. Failure to do so could potentially cause he reactor to meltdown. 

 In one famous case involving the control rod depth controls, the technicians placed two beer cans, both of different brands on the control levers so they would be able to tell which controlled the depth of the rods.

 let me clarify, this didn't cause the accident, but it is indicative of the thoughts of the design engineers.

 They were highly trained professionals who understood every facet of their jobs, but failed to understand that the people who were going to run the reactor did not necessarily have that same understanding. On march 28, 1979, a small event caused a pressure release valve to release, and through an error in the warning system, to not close. The valve allowed the escape of coolant in the TMI-2 reactor, and the system overheated. this may have been avoided, had it not been for the deluge of information given to the operators, that was largely irrelevant or erronous. The reactor had a partial meltdown, and the rest is history.

 This story illustrates a simple fact; well informed and well educated people can be ignorant of the fact that the people they are building, designing, or repairing their systems or devices for are not always as informed of the particulars as they are. 

 The explanation for these errors in  judgement are many, whether it be that knowledge is power; giving more information then is required to deal with the problem at hand causes confusion for the unprepared, while the informed can use that large amount of information to their advantage. Arrogance can cause it as well, the belief that the operators should understand the systems they design, no matter how complex. Or, just overestimating the experience and training that the user will have in dealing with the system.

 To properly address and avoid the problem such assertions create, has been readily addressed, and made seemingly complex operations imple for the user. A good example was the advent of MS-DOS, Bill Gates realized that the system was exactly what the computing industry needed at the time, an accessible, capable, and widely accepted single format for widespread use. This was a revolution for the industry that had up until that point been using several proprietary formats of OS to address the problem of access.

 Simply put, a lack of information both causes problems, and creates them, even when the creation is due to an excess of information.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Annoyed Reading: The Economic Gangsters

Why is there such an economic disparity between North and South Korea? How about Indonesia and China? Poverty is a really big issue and it's causes are many. To chalk it up to just one group or one idea is a little idealistic and lot naive.

So we begin to list off the issues. The big ones cited are lack of proper drinking water, lack of education, inadequate labor laws, rampant spread of disease and war. The one that we don't always think about is the effect of the economic gangster.

Hold the phone there...economic gangster?

If you've read Freakonomics you'll know that being a drug runner for your local gang in a highly contested piece of turf in New York or Chicago is a bad gig. The chance of death is extremely high and unlike some of our more northerly drug dealers the money is horrible. It's not that the drugs are sell low -- they are quiet expensive. These guys are punished for using drugs by the next guy up the ladder, so drug use isn't the reason why your typical corner-standing drug runner is poor. (It should be noted that I've met a few current and former drug dealers in northern Canada over the years. As it turns out the money is fairly good for them up here, but it's hard to buy anything too major with drug money. It takes a daft hand to persuade the bank that 5 grand a month you make in mortgage payments is legit. But I'm not talking about them, I'm about the drug dealer in more competitive environments.)

The reason he or she is poor is because the job pays rather poorly. Just like the actress working on community plays or the guy slinging lumber into the planer mill at the saw mill, the drug runner isn't there for the job they are doing at the time but rather the job they could be doing in a few years when they move up the ladder. The dirty little secret of the ghetto fabulous drug-dealing, blow-snorting, womanizing high life is that it only exists for those who have worked their way up the ladder. These gangs are run just like corporations. They have managers, grunts, and even book keepers.

This shouldn't surprise anyone. There is a reason that corporations keep books and have this structure to them. It's a highly effective way to manage assets and ensure that as much cash as possible flows up the corporate pyramid into the pockets of the fat cats at the top. Gangs don't use this structure to work in the confines of any stockholder or to keep the tax man happy -- they do this quiet simply because it just works.

The object lesson here is Al Capone. Al Capone or "Scarface" lead Chicago's North Side Gang in the 1920's to his own great fortune. Before he did that though, he was a book keeper and was trained in accounting.

So Al Capone is then our object lesson, the example that we point to when we say "economic gangster." An economic gangster quiet simply is someone who gets business and is motivated like many of us by the thought of money and power. What makes them special is that unlike the rest of us they aren't constrained by petty morality. These guys will kill, abduct and otherwise coerce in order to get the job done that need be done. We deal in oil, wheat and silicon; they deal in racketeering, prostitution and drug running.

It is about this dark underbelly of the work, these forces that take what could have been a successful country and turn it awry that the book "Economic Gangsters" is all about.

I've only just begun it, but so far it's a real page turner.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Does the media influence elections more than the issues do?

 Case in point, Sarah Palin on SNL, will this be a boost to her campaign, or will it actually make her look uninteresting in comparison to Tina Fey's undoubtebly perfect impression of her? Could this actually affect how people will see the governor, and could it affect how they vote?

 The reason I say this is because Sarah Palin's popularity is nearly the same as Barack Obamas, and it's easy to forget senator John McCain is the one who's running the presidential race and not her. Her popularity is massive, Newsweek, The Times, Maclean's (a Canadian current affairs magazine), NewStatesman and several other publications have had nearly as many articles about Sarah palin as about Barack Obama, and few about senator McCain, and good luck finding one on Joe Biden, though his lack of gaffes lately means he's probably not going to be noticed much, but that's just fine.

 Or is it just the opposite? could it be that media coverage simply reflects which way the public will vote? for instance, in the Canadian elections the conservative party, the Liberals and the NDP all shared a fair bit of nedia coverage, but it was undoubtebly in that order you saw articles about them, and the elected parliament, in descending order, goes Conservatives, Liberals, NDP, Bloq, and two independents. On the other end of the spectrum, the party that recieved the least amount of media coverage was the Greens, and they didn't end up with a single seat minus the fact there leader Elizabeth May was allowed in the televised debate.

 What do you think?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Is the economic downturn good for the news media?

 Judging by the mass amount of time and space being devoted to the economic crisis, is it possible that this is actually good news for the news media? 

Monday, October 20, 2008

Why are people so inclined to consider cows disgusting when biologically we are even worse?

 A long time ago, I asked an old classmate why she became a vegetarian. She answered that on a tri to a farm, she saw how the cows lived and what they ate and said she just couldn't stomach it anymore.

 That's odd, considering that they live much healthier lives then we do. In fact, although I'm having difficulty finding the link, Randy read an article a while back that showed that human meat could never pass the FDA's food safety requirements due to our highly varied diets and the large amount of chemicals we consume in the form of medication's and foodborn chemicals.

 But if you're so inclined to try it, it is available:

More really big numbers

Keeping with the theme of macroeconomic issues in our last post, I'd like to add another podcast to your iTunes/RSS reader feeds. NPR has an excellent podcast out called planet money. In fact, the guys who were primarily responsible for the episode of This American Life in the aformentioned post are also the same guys who run this podcast.

Planet money is basically a blow-by-blow commentary on the current economic crisis, but it's dumbed down so even I can understand it.

Update: Fixed Link

Exploring the roots of the Economic Crisis

 A while ago, i discovered an intelligent, entertaining, and extremely well produced podcast by the name of This American Life. A few weeks ago, they put out a show about the economic situation we find ourselves in, sadly, you must either purchase it or listen to it for free through your browser.

you can find it here:

 This American Life is published by Chicago Public Radio, and is hosted by Ira Glass and produced by Alex Blumberg and Jane Feltes, with the assistance of several others at Chicago Public Radio. It can be found at

Another Intro

Hey, you there. Yeah, you, reading this. Let me introduce myself. I'm gonna be helping Scott by co-piloting this super-blog of adventure and quirk. Notice I still haven't introduced myself. Well, you're just gonna have to wait and see by reading the little thing at the bottom of the post that says "Posted by _____" BURN. Anyways now for this: Japanese Defense Program Develops Mobile Suits

Economic crisis as an Arctic expedition

 Hats off to Freakonomics for finding this: 

 freakonomics is an economics blog with a sense of humour and a nack for looking at the toher side of things, and is one of my favourite sites on the internet.

Blog's up

 First blog's up, here I'll be posting about topics that interest, annoy, or entertain me, although this blog's first and foremost goal is to be informative and stimulate discussion. I will also be posting about questions that I have answered recently, and am hoping you'll give me some hard ones to answer.