Friday, October 31, 2003

Amusing Reading Elsewhere

Maybe it's symptom of intellectual snobbery, but I'm often amused by people whose abilities fall short of their own estimation of themselves. One of my favourite psychological research papers purports to show that highly incompetent people tend to grossly overestimate their own abilities. This explains many things, not the least of them being widespread incompetence in workplaces. Job interviewers usually look for people who present themselves and their abilities confidently, and most of the standard how-to-get-a-job advice emphasises the need to do this. What they should be doing, if they want someone who actually knows their stuff, is taking on the interviewee who hedges, or even has the gaucherie to remark that the job sounds difficult.

I think this amusement is why I keep John Ray on the blogroll; he links to so many people who overestimate themselves. Today (Friday) he's linked to a couple of beauties.

Wendy McElroy at iFeminists has produced a wonderful piece of prose to match the background colour of her web-page:

The price tag for decades of gender warfare is usually expressed in general terms -- for example, through data-filled studies that reflect how "boys" are slighted in education. The ordeal of Michael Wright -- a student at Oklahoma University at Normal -- captures the human factor. And it leads me to a question: What does the devil look like?

Michael's ordeal started when he found another student's ID card at a copy centre. He looked up her details in an on-line student registry and telephoned, then e-mailed her, to let her know that he had the card and to arrange its return. When she didn't respond, he turned to card over to the authorities and thought no more of the matter.

Unfortunately, the card's owner was a little paranoid, and contacted the police, accusing Michael of stalking her. The police visited Michael to investigate the complaint:

two police officers appeared at Michael's house, apparently to investigate his stalking of a female OU student. Stalking is a serious crime which is defined as "the willful, malicious and repeated following and harassing of another person". It can place a young man on a registry of sex offenders that could haunt his future and limit his options in life. Indeed, Oklahoma is a state in which convicted sex offenders must register his/her address, which is made available to the public. No wonder Michael suffered "a great deal of nerve-wracking anxiety" before being exonerated.

Under those circumstances, I'd be worried too. But Michael's ordeal was mercifully short and ended well:

The incident is not a breakdown in "the system." According to Michael, the police exercised both common sense and common decency, with one detective eventually thanking him for "making the extra effort to protect the members of our community" by returning lost property.

From this distance, the whole incident looks like the sort of trivial misundertanding which, with a few days to recover from the nerve-wracking anxiety, you could turn into a good yarn, adding a lot of humorous embellishments over the years. To McElroy, it's evidence of something more insidious:

I was once asked to describe the devil. (I interpreted the question to be about the general nature of evil in man rather than about religion.)

I replied: If the devil is the living flesh of evil, then here is who I think he is. Far from appearing as a hideous demon, he is the average-looking person who walks into a room and shakes your hand with a smile. By the time he leaves, the standards of decency of everyone within that room have been lowered ever so slightly.

Perhaps he offers general statistics on divorce or child abuse to convince you to suspect your husband of infidelity or your neighbor of molestation. No evidence of specific wrongdoing is offered, of course. But since such "crimes" do occur, you are advised to be vigilantly on guard against them in your personal life. And, so, you begin to view your spouse and neighbors with a bit more suspicion, a little less trust, and with the tendency to interpret every action as possible evidence of wrongdoing. The very possibility of an offense is taken as evidence of its presence.

She continues in this vein for a few paragraphs, leading to this proclamation that the Antichrist is among us:

With no religious implication, I say: a devil is at large. He tells us that acts of kindness and common decency do not exist; the worst possible interpretation should be placed on acts that appear to embody those values. Individuals do not exist; only categories.

The other beauty is ChuDogg's refutation of the results of a study reported in the Washington Post which found that Fox News viewers were misinformed on the war in Iraq. The study found the following to be the three most common mistaken impressions about the war:

* U.S. forces found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
* There's clear evidence that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein worked closely with the Sept. 11 terrorists.
* People in foreign countries generally either backed the U.S.-led war or were evenly split between supporting and opposing it.

ChuDogg takes the first apart with the help of David Kay's congressional testimony. Here's a section of Kay's testimony which is totally irrelevant to ChuDogg's case:

We have not yet found stocks of weapons, but we are not yet at the point where we can say definitively either that such weapon stocks do not exist or that they existed before the war and our only task is to find where they have gone. We are actively engaged in searching for such weapons based on information being supplied to us by Iraqis.

And here's a section which is:

A very large body of information has been developed through debriefings, site visits and exploitation of captured Iraqi documents that confirms that Iraq concealed equipment and materials from U.N. inspectors when they returned in 2002. One noteworthy example is a collection of reference strains that ought to have been declared to the U.N. Among them was a vial of live C. botulinum Okra B. from which a biological agent can be produced. This discovery – hidden in the home of a BW scientist – illustrates the point I made earlier about the difficulty of locating small stocks of material that can be used to covertly surge production of deadly weapons. The scientist who concealed the vials containing this agent has identified a large cache of agents that he was asked, but refused, to conceal. ISG is actively searching for this second cache.

There's a photo of the vials, which ought to convince any doubters that Iraq really did have at least one weapon of mass destruction and that it has been found. And here's some photographic evidence that ought to convince you that Italians eat shit.

On the second, ChuDogg cites utterly reliable reorts from National Review On-Line, NewsMax, Rush Limbaugh and The St Petersburgh Times. On the third, he is oddly silent.

(Updated to include the missing third survey result. Well spotted Jeremy.)

Isn't it rich?
Isn't it queer?

Via Tim Dunlop, news that Donald Luskin, a columnist at National Review on-line has
sooled his lawyers on the pseudonymous blogger Atrios. Brad de Long hoists Luskin here.

It seems prudent to mention that no aspersion on either Mr Luskin or his attorneys is intended in any part of this post. Particularly the title.

Thursday, October 30, 2003

Whatever Happened to TFM?

Stewie got into home computers early; his first computer was a Commodore VIC-20 with an AWA television set for a monitor. He was one of the first people I knew to own a PC (a single floppy-disc drive IBM clone) and, as soon as modems hit the market, he was among the first to get one of those too. With it he was able to dial in to the various computer bulletin boards that were starting to appear and ... well he could connect to another computer over the phone line, and this was bound to be useful eventually.

Besides computing, Stewie's other abiding interest in life was thrift. He had a keen eye for a bargain, especially any new science fiction novels that might turn up on his friends' bookshelves. But when his passion for computers collided with his passion for domestic and personal economy, strange things sometimes happened.

In the early nineteen-eighties, Stewie lifted a moistened finger into the air to test the winds of change and decided that it was about time that he learned to program in C. He was already a more or less incompetent programmer in Basic, thanks to his experience with the VIC-20 and the PCs he had owned since. To learn C, he needed a C compiler, a piece of software that was not available as either freeware or shareware. So he got together with a friend, and they split the cost of a commercially released compiler between them.

The arrangement was that Stewie would get the discs to install the compiler, editor and help files on his computer, then they would be handed over to his friend who would keep the installation discs and the manuals. For some reason, Stewie never reached the same proficiency in C programming that he had achieved in Basic. Over the years, I lost touch with Stewie and, not coincidentally I suspect, a lot of classic works of science fiction (like Charles Harness Paradox Men) that are very difficult to find, even second hand. The last I heard of him he'd developed an interest in economics, particularly economic modelling, no doubt because it gave him a ready outlet for his two abiding interests in life.

Although, back then, I was skeptical about Stewie's plan to learn C programming without the then customary assistance of a set of printed manuals, I realise now that he was merely 20 years ahead of his time. These days, thanks to the development of larger hard drives which make it feasible to store the instructions for using a program inside the grey box on your desk, rather than in a set of books which some bastard will always steal if you leave them lying on your desk at work, it's actually possible to do what Stewie wanted to do in the early 1980s. And thanks to the internet, if the help files on your hard drive turn out to be completely useless - the usual story when the world's least popular but most widely used operating system starts to behave like a six weeks old Buerre Bosc - you can get on the World Wide Web and find help on-line. Unless, of course, it's your Windows PPP client that's decided to chuck a wobbly. If that happens, you're on your own.

These days, the manual is dead. Its place has been taken by the inadequate help-files on your hard-drive and on-line resources like the Microsoft Knowledge Base or For those who still have an anachronistic preference for the printed page, there's the ever growing Computing section of your local bookshop, where all that reference material software companies used to provide in the same box as your set of grey 1.44 Mb installation discs can be bought as a "third party" publication. You might think that it's a bit of a stretch to call a company a "third party" publisher when it is a wholly owned subsidiary of a software distributor, it only publishes books about its parent company's software, the books are written by the same technical writers who wrote those help files that aren't helping you and they often reproduce the same unhelpful content. I do.

However irritating it is for us end users, this arrangement makes commercial sense. Microsoft's ubiquitous Office Suite includes a lot of features that most of us will never use, so why include a lot of manuals that we'll never read in the shrink-wrap package? Those of us who decide that it might be easier to create Word document templates and macros if we had a manual sitting beside the keyboard will eventually get off our arses and go down to McGill's and shell out eighty bucks or so for the Microsoft Press printed and bound copy of the help files. Assuming McGill's have it in stock, but if they don't they can usually order it in. It only takes a couple of days to be delivered and they'll phone you when it comes in.

It even makes a weird kind of technical sense; with Windows XP installed on my PC, I'm constantly getting friendly little messages at the bottom right hand side of the screen telling me that I can keep my system up-to-date with automatic updates. You can set it up so that it downloads and installs updates to the operating system on a regular schedule. I think you'd be a bloody fool to do that. I'm also wary of the other options, which notify you when automatic updates are installed. I don't like the idea much at all; it sounds convenient, but what you end up with is an operating system that is continually changing itself. Most of the changes, no doubt, are patches intended to keep the system performing to specification but in the process, the specification itself changes. This makes a printed manual for Windows XP pretty well useless.

Aside: I have tried the automatic updating feature; after the first use I promptly disabled it. The updates might have been installed successfully - certainly the process ran smoothly. But at no time was I told what the updates were or what they were for. I was given the option not to install them, but little information on which to base a decision. As I said, if you set your PC up to run automatic updates without supervision, you're a bloody fool. Especially when you consider Microsoft's outstanding track record on system security issues.

There are a few serious issue posed by the death of the manual, which go beyond the resentment you might feel at being mulcted of eighty dollars for a publication that used to come in the box with the program installation discs. The manual is a little like a contract between you and the software company. If the manual says that "keying Control+S" will save changes to a file, you have reasonable grounds for complaint if, instead, it deletes the entire contents of the file from your hard-drive. But when your manual exists only in digital form, you have no permanent record where you can check whether you are correct in expecting "Control+S" to save, rather than delete, your file. It's stuffed basically. These days, if anyone tells you to RTFM, it's reasonable to ask them "WFM?"

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Treasures in Their Own Lunchtimes

I've had a little time to think over the National Trust's need to find 11 new living ornaments for our national mantelpiece. It's an obvious opportunity for bloggers to make nominations of their own, so without further ado, here's my list.

The world of journalism is an obvious place to start. Paddy McGuiness seems an obvious candidate; no doubt he would welcome the chance to be a Living National Treasure in the same spirit that he welcomed his Order of Australia. However, perhaps out of personal favouritism, I'd rather see the honour go to Janet Albrechtsen whose sardonic wit, keen analytical intelligence and creative research make every Wednesday's Oz something to look forward to. With her legal background she'll fit in quite nicely with Willian Deane, Justice Marcus Einfeld and Justice Michael Kirby.

Elsewhere in the media world, Alan Jones and John Laws have both shown themselves to be broadcasters and commentators whose opinions are highly treasured, especially by businesses such as Telstra and the NRMA. Choosing between the two is a little difficult, so we might as well give them each a spot, and toss in David Marr to keep things lively.

Actor George Lazenby is long overdue for recognition for his outstanding work in films. After achieving international prominence in the James Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service, George continued to work in film and TV, particularly in Hong-Kong. Through his work in martial arts classics such as Tie jin gang da po zi yang guan (aka Man Called Stoner aka Hong Kong Hitman), Chi l'ha vista morire (aka Who Saw Her Die?) and Bruce Lee's Game of Death George forged valuable cultural ties with our neighbours to the North. Lazenby saw that the future was in Asia, for one Australian at least, long before Paul Keating became Prime Minister.

It seems inevitable that at least one of our eleven new Living National Treasures will be a serving or former politician. Among our Several distinguished candidates present themselves: former Minister for Communications Senator Richard Alston, Wilson Tuckey, Bill Heffernan, Senator Santoro, Bob Katter, Nick Bolkus, Mark Latham, Carmen Lawrence and, of course, Alan Cadman. My pick is former Minister for Defence Peter Reith, although I'm hard put to justify it except on the McGuiness principle.

The existing list features two academic historians; Professor Geoffrey Blainey and the pin-up boy of the black armband crowd, Professor Henry Reynolds. It seems only fair that the autodidactic Keith Windschuttle should be included; in the past twelve months he's done much to revive general interest in Australian history. As a National Treasure he's at least the equal of a Murwillumbah Rembrandt.

Finally, all four members of tribute band Bjorn Again. They're Australian, they sing Abba songs, [they make up the numbers] - what more needs to be said?

Update: after reading The Libertarian National Socialist Green Party by Roop Sandhu, at Troppo Armadillo, I'm tempted to bump Reithy in favour of Senator George Brandis, who seems to covet the Billy Wentworth mantle.

Good News for Philistines

Rob Schaap's excoriation of the state of the Yartz, and avante gardism, has brought quite a few of the blogosphere's philistines out of the closet. I don't think I entirely share Rob's view of the state of the Yartz, particularly music. There's nothing wrong with the music of Karl Heinz Stockhausen, for example, that a good melody line wouldn't fix.

John Quiggin has posted briefly, endorsing Rob's position. Through a comment at John's blog from Jack Strocchi, I found this Washington Times article in which Steve Sailer interviews Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve:

It ignited controversy by arguing that IQ scores are one of the most overlooked tools for understanding how American society is structured.

You'd never know from this coy remark that Steve is actually a bit of a Murray fan (just as Jack Strocchi appears to be a bit of a Steve Sailer fan); however visit his website and it becomes clear where Steve stands on the relation between IQ and social status and that Steve is an energetic populariser of the "Science of IQ". He has little time for anyone who argues that IQ is mostly a load of bollocks, as this snide obituary for Stephen Jay Gould shows:

Gould's most famous and influential book was The Mismeasure of Man, which exemplified his trademark combination of antiquarianism and guilt by association in the service of character assassination. In it, he attempted to destroy the modern science of IQ by recounting the stumblings of 19th-century researchers working before the IQ test was even invented. Of course, that line of attack makes as much sense as trying to discredit modern astronomy by writing a book revealing that ancient astronomers thought the sun went around the Earth.

By the last decade of his life, Gould's moment had passed. His theories on human nature had proven sterile. Neo-Darwinism had triumphed. The bright young women on campus were flocking to evolutionary psychology, a field that the old leftist found deeply suspicious. Although Gould's slanders had slowed the scientific study of intelligence by helping starve it of funding, it continued to advance.

Murray has a new book out, Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950. It sounds like the sort of book you might buy if someone gave you an Amazon gift certificate and Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin was out of stock. Murray's book is an attempt to rank the top 4,000 artists and scientists in human history. Steve seems to be fairly keen on the idea of top people; as well as being a working journalist, he's:

the founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute, which runs the invitation-only Human Biodiversity discussion group for top scientists and public intellectuals.

I don't know whether Murray is a member of the Human Biodiversity Institute but it's clear that Steve considers him a top public intellectual, so his line of questioning in the interview is far from aggressive. This works in his favour; his fawning approach allows Murray space to explain his work, and his approach to identifying the world's greatest artists and scientists in a little detail:

Murray meticulously measured how much attention the leading scholars in their fields pay to the top creators and discoverers. Reading "Human Accomplishment" is a little like browsing through the statistics-laden "Baseball Encyclopedia," except that instead of being about Ruth, Di Maggio, and Bonds, Murray's book is about Picasso, Darwin, and Edison.


Q. Can you truly quantify objectively which artists and scientists were the most eminent?

A. Sure. It's one of the most well-developed quantitative measures in the social sciences. (The measurement of intelligence is one of its few competitors, incidentally.)

My indices have a statistical reliability that is phenomenal for the social sciences. There's also a very high "face validity" -- in other words, the rankings broadly correspond to common-sense expectations.

So there you go; thanks to Murray we now have an objective, statistically reliable catalogue of history's intellectual greats. Murray makes it clear at the outset that he didn't allow his own opinions to influence his analysis of the data:

Q. Who came out on top of big categories like Western Literature, Western Art, Western Philosophy, and Combined Sciences?

A. Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Aristotle, and Newton -- the people you'd expect.

In Western music, Mozart and Beethoven were in a dead heat, with Bach third. A rather vocal minority is upset about Bach not being on top. I'm not. I love Bach, but it's awfully hard to listen to Beethoven's later symphonies and string quartets and figure out how anybody could possibly be ranked above him.

However, let me stress: I'm not the one who made those decisions. And occasionally I had to grin and bear it when things didn't come out according to my druthers. Rousseau and Byron are way too high in Western literature for my taste, for example.

You have to admire Murray's intellectual integrity here; a lesser person might have been tempted to fudge the figures, on the basis that Rousseau and Byron receive a lot of attention from leading scholars because their work is great in being bad (like the poetry of William Topaz McGonagall, poet and tragedian of Dundee).

For some reason, I'm skeptical of the idea that by surveying lit crit, music crit and other fields of scholarship you can arrive at an objective list of the world's brightest and best. It reminds me too much of past attempts to assign IQs to historical figures; a topic Gould covers The Mismeasurement of Man. But it's probably better to reserve judgement until I've at least had the chance to flick through the book in a public library or remainder bin somewhere.

Shock and Awe in Early Australian History

"A party, consisting of two captains, two subalterns, and forty privates, with a proper number of non-commissioned officers, from the garrison, with three days provisions, &c. are to be ready to march tomorrow at day-light, in order to bring in six of those natives who reside near the head of Botany Bay; of if that be should be found to be impracticable, to put that number to death."

Just previous to this order being issued the author of this publication received a direction to attend the governor
[Governor Phillip] at head quarters immediately. I went and his excellency informed me that he had pitched on me to execute the foregoing command. He added, that the two subalterns who were to be drawn from the marine corps, should be chosen by myself: that the serjeant, and the two convicts who were with M'Entire, should attend as guides: that we were to proceed to peninsula at the head of Botany Bay; and thence, or from any part of the north arm of the bay, we were, if practicable, to bring away two natives as prisoners: and to put to death ten: that we were to destroy all weapons of war, but nothing else: that no hut was to be burned: that all women and children were to remain uninjured, not being comprehended within the scope of the order ... That we were to cut off, and bring in the heads of the slain, for which purpose hatchets and bags would be furnished.

December 1790, His Excellency was now pleased to enter into the reasons which had induced him to adopt measures of such severity. He said that since our arrival in the country, no less than seventeen of our people had either been killed or wounded by the natives: - that he looked upon the tribe known by the name of Bid-ee-'gal, living on the aforementioned peninsula, and chiefly on the North Arm of Botany Bay, to be the principal aggressors - that against this tribe he was determined to strike a decisive blow, in order at once to convince them of our superiority, and to infuse an universal terror, which might operate to prevent further mischief.

... [he] said, if I could propose any alteration of the orders under which I was to act, he would patiently listen to me: encouraged by this condescension, I begged leave to offer for consideration, whether, instead of destroying ten persons, the capture of six would not better answer all the purposes for which the expedition was to be undertaken; as out of this number, a part might be set aside for retaliation; and the rest, at a proper time, liberated, after having seen the fate of their comrades, and being made sensible of the cause of their detention.

December, 1790. This scheme, his excellency was pleased instantly to adopt, adding, "if six cannot be taken, let this number be shot" ...
[my emphasis]

Watkin Tench, Sydney's First Four Years cited in Frontier by Henry Reynolds (Allen & Unwin, Sydney 1996 p 33)

Update: Geoff Honnor's comment prompted me to haul my bum to the Library, to check out Tench's account for myself. The passage in bold is quoted by Reynolds, in Frontier. Reading Tench's account settled those niggling doubts I was starting to have about whether Reynolds represented this incident fairly. He did.

Update Too: Wendy James (also from Troppo Armadillo) has also commented with a link to this discussion of Phillip's "scandalous orders".

Monday, October 27, 2003

Coming Soon ...

(To a Movie Theatre Near You)

Alien Versus Predator Versus Freddie Versus Jason Versus The Terminator Versus Charlie's Angels Versus Uma Thurman in a Yellow Tracksuit Versus Rambo Versus The Last Action Hero Versus Kickboxer Versus American Ninja Versus The Cook From Under Seige Versus Batman and Robin Versus The Pink Panther Versus Kramer Versus Kramer Versus Godzilla Versus King Kong Versus Highlander Versus The Evil Dead Versus Hellraiser Versus Pollyanna Versus Bladerunner Versus Abbott and Costello Versus Frankenstein Versus The Wolf Man Versus Joe Versus The Volcano Versus Wutang Versus The Ninja Versus The Karate Kid Versus Earth Versus The Flying Saucers Versus People Versus Larry Flynt Versus Gladiator Versus Spartacus Versus Billy The Kid Versus Dracula Versus Marco Polo Junior Versus the Red Dragon Versus The Lion King Versus Pocahontas Versus Shirley Thompson Versus The Aliens Versus Mary Poppins.

I'm looking forward to it. Once it's out of the way, they mighty start producing films again, instead of sequels, remakes and "hommage" riddled pastiches.

Living National Treasures. Or Heirlooms. Or Something.

Geoff Honnor at Troppo Armadillo has noted that:

The National Trust is running low on Australian Living Treasures and would like public assistance in replacing the 11 Treasures who have gone to Immortality since the program was initiated in 1997.

The idea of nominating people as Living National Treasures is a typically great Aussie idea; copied from overseas, adapted for local conditions and stuffed up in the process. The Japanese have been selecting Living National Treasures since (at least) 1955. Several Japanese potters have been awarded the honour (a lot of those listed at the linked page are, sadly, ex-Living National Treasures like the 11 Australians the National Trust proposes to replace), also papermakers and workers in several other crafts.

I was naturally curious to see which Australian artisans, working in traditional arts and crafts had been selected by the National Trust as our Living National Treasures. I was expecting one or two bark painters, those two blokes I saw on the television two decades ago who restored a slab-sided mountain hut using traditional methods or possibly a country baker renowned for his traditional meat pies, pasties, snag-rolls and lamingtons. But, of course, it's nothing like that and it makes you wonder what qualifications are required to be honoured as an Australian Living National Treasure.

Obviously outstanding achievement in the yartz no doubt accounts for the prescence of John Bell, Arthur Boyd (due for replacement), Don Burrows, Ruth Cracknell (due for replacement), Judy Davis, Ernie Dingo, Slim Dusty (due for replacement), John Farnham, Peter Garrett, Rolf Harris, Barry Humphries, Elizabeth Jolley, Thomas Keneally, Michael Leunig, David Malouf, Dr Colleen McCullough, Gary McDonald, Graeme Murphy, Les Murray, Prof Peter Sculthorpe, Dame Joan Sutherland, Anthony Warlow, Morris West, David Williamson, Time Winton and Roger Woodward. And it's not too hard to fathom the reasons for including Sir Donald Bradman (due for replacement), Raelene Boyle, Bart Cummings, Betty Cuthbert, Herb Elliot, Dawn Fraser, Cathy Freeman, Shane Gould, Rod Laver, John Newcombe, Greg Norman, Kieran Perkins, Ken Rosewall and Gai Waterhouse.

A lot of the rest are a mystery, especially Senator Bob Brown, The Hon Don Dunstan (due for replacement), The Hon John Howard, The Hon Barry Jones, The Hon Paul Keating, Cheryl Kernot, The Hon Tom Uren and The Hon Gough Whitlam. That's a substantial job lot of politicians tossed in with our 100 Living National Treasures; obviously they had the numbers to make up the numbers.

Still, there's one name in the list I won't argue with; Margaret Fulton. She knows a thing or two about lamingtons.