Thursday, February 05, 2004

Look to the Skies

Saturn is looking pretty spectacular at the moment. It's that bloody big bright white star that I can see through the bedroom window when I'm trying to get to sleep. When you look at it in the viewfinder of a Pentax MZ with a 300 mm lens mounted you can even see the rings. Just. This is what it looks like in slow motion replay.

From the New Scientist

I treated myself to a copy of the New Scientist this morning. Here are a couple of snippets which made me sit up and take notice.

What's your favourite example of a big difference between languages?

In English I can tell my son: "Today I talked to Adrian", and he won't ask: "How do you know you talked to Adrian?" But in some languages, including Tariana, you always have to put a little suffix onto your verb saying how you know something - we call it "evidentiality". I would have to say: "I talked to Adrian, non-visual," if we had talked on the phone. And if my son told someone else, he would say: "She talked to Adrian, visual, reported." In that language, if you don't say how you know things, they think you are a liar.

This is a very nice and useful tool. Imagine if, in the argument about weapons of mass destruction, people had had to say how they knew about whatever they said. That would have saved us quite a lot of breath.

Interview with linguist Alexandra Aikhenvald

Many of man's primary diseases are transmitted by flies. These include typhoid, cholera, gangrene, tuberculosis, gonorrhea, bubonic plague, leprosy, diptheria, scarlet fever and amoebic dysentery. [my emphasis]
Gareth Lewis in Southampton's Southern Daily Echo (via "Feedback", New Scientist, 31 January 2004)

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Human Life - How Cheap Is It?

I thought this calculation was a bit shonky but, since reading Strawman's "Value Judgments - The cost of a human life" at the Australian (Self-Styled) Libertarian Society site, I've realised that I have a lot of practice to put in to match Ozblogistan's true masters of shonky mathematics and spurious logic. Strawman poses the question: "How much is your life worth in dollars?" By way of an answer, he presents this equation:

For the maths nerds, VOYL (the Value Of Your Life) is given by

[sic] = Maximum Payment (the most you would be willing to pay)
PSYL = probability of saving your life.

For the mathematically challenged, he presents this simple example, showing how easy it is to derive the monetary value of your life:

For instance if buying an airbag had a 0.1% chance of saving your life ** and you were willing to pay up to $1,000 for it, you have just valued your life at $1,000,000. Not a bad sum, and probably realistic for most people in Australia.


** Note this is not 0.1% chance of saving your life in an accident, but of saving your life. For instance, you had a 1% chance of having a accident, and it had 10% of saving your live in an accident, then it would have a 0.1% chance of saving your life. Don't let the lefties confuse you on this issue.

I doubt whether it would be possible to confuse Strawman on this subject; his cognitive functions appear to operate in a state, or at a level, beyond confusion. Still, it's possible that I might manage to confuse a few of the rest of you, so it's worth a try.

The first thing to note is that Steawman doesn't provide any of the theoretical underpinnings of his "VOYL" equation. There is a link to Strawman's extensive glossary of philosophical, political and technical terms, but nothing in the gloss linked to "life worth" explicitly supports the "VOYL" equation. Perhaps Strawman had one of those late night, ethanol induced epiphanies or, like Archimedes, he discovered it while he was relaxing in the bath. So my first task, before I go on to confuse you utterly on the issue is to attempt to make sense of this "VOYL" equation. To do this, I'll be considering the airbag purchase as a bet.

An obvious objection to this treatment of the subject is that the "VOYL" equation, despite its questionable philosophical rationale, assumes rational choice in relation to costs and probabilities and betting is an inherently irrational activity. Perhaps so, but betting examples provide a way to explain issues involving probabilities in terms that most of us can understand. In addition, while it may be irrational to take your weekly pay packet down to the gee-gees on a Saturday expecting to leave with enough money to retire on, once you've made the decision to bet there are some strategies for maximising your returns (or minimising your losses) which work better than others. To the extent that you are irrational, you'll regularly put all your earnings on the horses or the dogs; to the extent that you are rational you'll try to ensure that the horses you back aren't complete donkeys.

Buying an airbag for $1,000 when there's a 0.1% probability that it will save your life is roughly equivalent to laying out $1000 on Potentially Fatal Road Accident which is running at odds of 999:1 in Race 5 at Eagle Farm. If you laid such a bet, and Potentially Fatal Road Accident won, you can be confident of two things; firstly that there would be a stewards' inquiry and secondly that the bookie with whom you laid the bet wouldn't be there when you turned up to collect your winnings (plus original stake) of 1 million dollars. Unless he'd laid the bet off on someone else, of course, in which case the entire bookie's ring would be empty for the rest of the day.

This presupposes that the 999:1 odds posted on Potentially Fatal Road Accident were in fact fair odds and that the horse had only a 1 in a 1000 chance of winning. "Smart" punters don't back horses on this basis; they look for horses where the bookies are paying out at odds which are above their (the punters') own estimate of the fair odds. Bookies, in turn, adopt a simple strategy to ensure that no matter which horse wins, they come out ahead of the punters at the end of the day; the initial odds are set below the fair odds (so Potentially Fatal Road Accident would only start the day quoted at 180:1) and shorten the odds on horses that are especially favoured by the punters.

This points to a necessary modification to Strawman's theory; "PSYL" represents not an objective measure of the probability that some measure will save your life, but a subjective one. The higher your subjective estimate of the probability that an airbag will save your life, the more willing you will be to shell out $1,000 for one. Suppose, for example, I believe that the probability that an airbag will save my life is only 1 in 10,000 (bookie odds of 9999:1). If I shell out $1,000 dollars for an airbag, by Strawman's logic, I have just valued my life at $10,000,000. On the other hand, if I rate the probability at 1 in 100 (99:1), the valuation is only $100,000. This is starting to look a little nonsensical.

The nonsense gets worse if we substitute a somewhat cheaper life preserver into Strawman's example. The unit price of a condom is, roughly, $1.50. Like Strawman's airbag, it's a one use item. Let's assume that your chance of catching a fatal dose of AIDS is 0.1% (as in Strawman's example, it's the product of your chance of getting a root and your chance of getting a dose in the process). If you're sensible, and use the condom, by Strawman's logic you've just valued your life at $1500. Allowing for inflation, that's probably about the going rate for human life in Casablanca, circa 1942.

Drunken Banker Week Redux

Finally, a true story:

A well-heeled and well-respected investment banker in his late 50s made a small and decidedly unfortunate media splash in October 1995. Gerard Finneran, returning to the United States on an international flight and incensed when he was denied a drink for acting intoxicated, allegedly went on a rampage in the airplane's cabin, terrorizing the crew and passengers before being arrested when the plane touched down in New York. While the most serious charge facing the executive involved physically assaulting a flight attendant, what breathed life into the story was the airline's astonishing charge that, in the middle of his tantrum, Finneran scaled the beverage cart he was demanding access to and, in front of a cabin full of stunned travelers, dropped his pants and defecated on it. According to the airline, Finneran used linen napkins as toilet paper, wiped his soiled hands on various surfaces, and then, charged the criminal complaint, "tracked feces throughout the aircraft."

Erik D'Amato, "The mystery of disgust", Psychology Today Jan-Feb 1998

Tug Boat Potemkin Tops Google

This search came from the domain. It's got me wondering whether there really is such a thing as a "colostomy lug" and, if so, what the hell it is.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

The Bounder of St Huey's

Episode 3: A Sticky Situation

"It wasn't me sir, honest," said John Howard, Head Boy of St Huey's, "It was them. I was only passing on what they told me. 'S not my fault, 'S not my fault at all."

"And anyway, it was true all along," Robert Hill, Captain of the St Huey's Cadet Corps added helpfully. "So there!"

Media Beat Off Up

Julian Gardner, Victoria's Public Advocate was on ABC radio this morning, talking to Jon Faine. Gardner wasn't a very happy man - in fact he was very pissed off.

On Sunday morning, Paul Cudmore, a patient at the Statewide Forensic Centre, "escaped custody", while on a supervised shopping trip to Northcote Plaza. Here's how the ever reliable Hun describes it:

Child molester on the run

A MENTALLY ill child-sex offender regarded as a potentially serious risk was still on the loose last night after escaping during a shopping trip.

Police have warned the public not to approach Paul Cudmore, 19, who was living under a guardianship order at a mental institution in Fairfield.

Cudmore was admitted to Statewide Forensic Service centre in March last year after serving a six-month sentence in a juvenile justice centre for child sex offences.

His escape has again prompted debate about day leave for dangerous mental patients and prisoners.

The Age doesn't do much better:

Victorian police are today hunting an intellectually disabled child-sex offender who fled from a Melbourne shopping centre while on a supervised visit from a government-run facility.

Paul Cudmore, 19, was placed on a guardianship order after serving a six-month sentence in 2002 for a sexual offence with a minor, Department of Human Services spokesman Brendan Ryan said.

Nor does the ABC:

Police believe a mentally ill child sex offender considered a danger to the community could have escaped to the New South Wales-Victorian border.

Paul Cudmore, 19, escaped from authorities during a shopping trip to Melbourne's Northcote Plaza yesterday morning.

The Hun at least gets the fact that Cudmore was living at the State Forensic Centre under a guardianship order right; what they don't mention (because this would spoil the whole story) is what that means.

Last year, after serving a six-month prison sentence, Cudmore was placed under the guardianship of the Office of the Public Advocate. Under the terms of the guardianship order, Cudmore was to reside at the State Forensic Centre, to receive psychiatric or psychological treatment. The trip to Northcote Plaza was, apparently, part of that course of treatment.

A lot has been made of the fact that Cudmore broke his guardianship order by "fleeing" or "absconding" from Northcote Plaza. In all the reports he is more or less made out to be a dangerous escaped criminal (or dangerous escaped nutter). Cudmore hasn't broken any laws; breaking a guardianship order isn't a criminal offence. The police are looking for him because his guardian (the Public Advocate) asked them to find him so that he could be returned to hospital. The same as you would if your aged, dementia stricken, granny wandered off from the nursing home where you'd been keeping her tucked away until she hopped the twig and left you all her dosh. Gardner summarised the situation this way:

"He's not a prisoner and he is not serving a sentence. He is somebody who is living in a therapeutic facility which runs programs for people with intellectual disabilities," he told ABC radio.

"What we've got here is a young man whose had one offence and I do think there is a risk that we are turning this into something that is far more hysterical than it needs to be."
(The Age)

I Lie Awake, Therefore I Calculate

I went on a calculating binge the other night; it was a sort of obsessive-compulsive insomnia thing. I got to thinking about global warming and climate physics and started to wonder how much of the temperature difference between the North Pole and somewhere on, or near the equator, like Nauru, was due to differences in the levels of solar input or whatever it's called between the two locations.

The one good thing about being kept awake by a mathematical or scientific problem, rather than, say, the theological question of whether Jesus died a virgin, is that with the help of a few reference books you can, with a little logical thinking and a few calculations arive at an answer. It may not be the correct answer but, if you're cunning enough to reach it through a chain of reasoning that seems plausible, you can at least get to sleep.

The first thing I needed to do, to bring the problem within a solvable scope, was to make some simplifying assumptions so I started by tossing away the Earth's axial tilt. This gets rid of all the seasonal variations in temperature; every day of the year is an equinox. While I was throwing out complications, I decided that the oceans and major land masses might as well go too. The oceans complicate the problem by feeding cloud formation and clouds, as we know, reflect sunlight so that it doesn't penetrate to the lower atmosphere. They also stuff things up in other ways, what with water being a greenhouse gas and all. It was much easier to work with a homogenous atmosphere, more or less completely transparent to solar radiation.

The first calculation I needed to do was to find the ratio between the distance from the sun to Nauru and the distance from the sun to one of the poles; north or south, it doesn't particularly matter. Memory, various reference works and other sources were consulted to produce the following figures:

Distance from the Earth to the Sun (d): 149,600,000km
Radius of the Earth (rE): 6,376.5 km
Radius of the Sun (rS): 110 times the radius of the Earth i.e. 701415 km

(That last calculation of the radius of the Sun is based on information in the Technical Appendix to The Copernican Revolution by Thomas S Kuhn).

From this information the ratio R between the distance from the surface of the sun to Nauru and the distance from the surface of the sun to one of the poles is fairly easy to calculate. I decided to skip the fart-arsing around with Pythagoras' theorem, and assume that the extra distance that sunlight has to travel to get to the North Pole, rather than Nauru, is the radius of the earth. If anything, this assumption inflates the final figure for the expected temperature difference (the trick with calculations of this kind is to make them just complicated enough that you finish with the feeling that you have dealt with the question thoroughly but not so complicated that you have to stay up all night doing the arithmetic. Remember, the point of this exercise was to clear my head of an annoying problem so that I could finally get a good night's sleep). The equation for calculating R is:

R = [d-(rE +rS)]/[d-rS]

Which works out to 0.999957176.

Just out of interest, at this point I decided to use the result to get a percentage difference between the distance from the sun to Nauru and the distance from the sun to the North (or South) pole. It's 0.0043%, which is chickenshit by any standard. Here I could have said to myself, there you go, whatever it is that makes the difference between Nauru being bloody hot and the North Pole being bloody cold, it's not because the North pole is further away from the sun than Nauru. I tried doing just that, but I still couldn't get to sleep.

The next stage is, given the ratio R, to calculate the ratio between solar input (or whatever it's called) at the equator and solar input at the poles. Memory helped out here, by providing the Inverse Square Law which relates the intensity of radiation to the distance from the source of the radiation. What it says, in essence, is that if you stand one metre away from an open fire, you'll be four times as warm as you would be standing two metres away, nine times as warm as you would be three metres away and so on. The ratio between the solar input at the pole and that at Nauru is, conveniently, the square of R, that is 0.999914353. The percentage difference between the two therefore works out to 0.009% ([1-0.999914353]*100). Which really is chickenshit.

To finish the job, we have to turn that 0.009% into an actual number of degrees Celsius. Actually we turn it into a number of degrees Kelvin, which is the same as a degree Celsius. To convert a temperature on the Celsius scale to a temperature on the Kelvin scale you simply add 273 degrees, which is a hell of a lot simpler than converting from Celsius to Fahrenheit or vice versa.

You might be wondering why convert to Kelvin in the first place. The answer is simple; there's a linear relationship between the temperature of any given mass of matter and the thermal energy stored in it. It takes as much energy (4.2 Joules) to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water from 0 degrees C to 1 degree C as it does to raise it from 1 degree C to 2 degree C. Trust me. I did high school physics and chemistry.

All I finally needed to do to convert that 0.009% into an actual number of degrees Kelvin (or Celsius) was to find out the average temperature at the equator, convert it to Kelvin, and multiply by 0.009% (or 0.00009 if you want to be picky about it). After finding a web-page that said the average surface temperature of the earth was 15 degrees C (288 degrees K) I decided the hell with it, that'll do, and calculated my final figure of 0.025 degrees. Then I went back to bed.

While I was drifting off to sleep, for some reason I thought of PT Barnum's famous saying "There's a sucker born every minute." It got me thinking about how many suckers would be born in a year (525600, or 527040 in leap years) and what percentage of the annual birthrate that would have made up in Barnum's time. If you knew that you could calculate the current sucker production rate and, if you tossed in some assumptions about life expectancy, you could arrive at an estimate of the current world population of suckers and I'm really too tired for this right now, it will just have to wait until later.

Monday, February 02, 2004

Probing Research

This paper models love-making as a signaling game. In the act of love-making, man and woman send each other possibly deceptive signals about their true state of ecstasy. Each has a prior belief about the other's state of ecstasy. These prior beliefs are associated with the other's sexual response capacity...
Hugo M Mialon, The Economics of Ecstasy (PDF format) (link via Crooked Timber and Marginal Revolution).

Couples who jointly seek recreational sex with others while maintaining their emotional monogamy are most often called 'swingers'.1 Swingers' sexual habits are typically characterised by partner-swapping, female bisexuality2 and group sex.3 Full penetrative sex, though common, is not essential.4 Male bisexuality is absent.5 All swinging couples have their own rules of sexual behaviour and these come in an infinite variety from the restrictive,6 through the asymmetric7 to the relaxed.8

Swingers find each other through contact advertisements in magazines,9 newspapers10 and on websites,11 via chatrooms12 and webcam13 interfaces on the Internet, and at swingers parties14 and clubs.15

Apparently, some of them are also footnote fetishists.


THE fog of terror has lifted and John Howard's weakness is again exposed.

The Prime Minister seems like an actor who's lost his lines. No wonder he's been urging his ministers to think up ideas for him to discuss.

But he has always battled to sell his values. To inspire. To make people feel good about themselves and their country.

True, a freedom-loving conservative must be wary of Man-with-the-Plan politics of the kind socialists, and Labor, love. But voters do want to know what a leader is on about -- what motivates him and what kind of sunlit Australia he's working for.

What has Howard given them? In 1996, he simply promised to make us ``relaxed and comfortable'', and won only because he wasn't Paul Keating. In 1998, he promised the GST, so he'd at least look like he believed in something, unlike Labor's Kim Beazley.

In 2001, Howard ran on fear. He'd protect us from terrorists and fake refugees -- which is great, but not a vision. How weak Labor was to have lost.

And now? What is Howard selling now that the war on terror is, for most voters, won?

Colostomy Lugs in The Hun

Just what the hell is going on at The Hun? Did someone finally get to the bugger with an enema bag?