Monthly Archives: March 2009

Newsbots.

I recently made a comment about Newsbots and gave a brief definition of the term. Whilst that was appropriate in the context of the article I feel that the subject warrants a more further investigation into the culture of blogging, journalism and the ability for people to self-publish and re-publish news on the web. The last few years has seen an explosion of Newsbot type blogs, in both number and popularity. Whilst I generally feel disdain towards these types of news regurgitation machines they do have their place, as I will attempt to explore here.

First let’s consider the origins of the modern Newsbot. A great example of such a site, which has been around for many years, would be Slashdot. Formerly know as Chips ‘n’ Dip back in the pre 2000 days it quickly became a hub for the technologically inclined to gather and share news reports for one another. Over the years it formalized its reporting style and is now a giant news reporting site focused on generating (not always constructive) discussion between the geeks of the world. They are in the very essence of the term a Newsbot, as they seek out (or more accurately are sent) news from various sources which they then add their own little bit of flavour text to. Since this site is designed around this ideal and people use it as such I don’t consider their newsbotting a bad thing. I am in fact a daily reader and poster on the site.

However it would seem that the popularity of such sites spurred others to try and mimic the success, often by blatantly copying the style. Just to see what I mean about this head on over to Google’s Blog Search and have a look at the technology section (tech people are often the worst offenders since they can set up a blog in minutes). When I went there not 5 minutes ago the top 10 results were about Skype coming to the iPhone or Blackberry. Searching through the blogs shows that probably half of them are just dedicated to reporting news (why is it a blog then?) and the other half add no more then about a paragraph onto the actual story itself, most of them just quoting it from another news site verbatim. It would seem that many of them are content to rehash news that anyone in the field would know about already, and hope that they will go to their site rather than someone else’s.

It’s this kind of low value reporting that adds to the noise of the Internet. When I first created this blog (and its many predecessors) I wanted to create an unique aspect on subjects that peak my interest. Initially I fell into the easy world of newsbotting, but I quickly realised that the people I was writing to (mostly my friends) would have heard the news from other channels, and my small bit of flavour was of little to no value. After struggling with the idea of providing original content for this blog I eventually found my muse in analytical education on my various interests, something which has proven to strike a chord with like minded individuals.

I won’t hide behind the fact that many times I’ve become inspired by a certain news article or other blog. However, when I do I try to find the unique aspect behind the inspiration and bring it out to explore on this blog. In these days of instant information it is so hard to find content that isn’t just rehashed or paraphrased from some other source, and I hope that this blog provides just one more bit of signal in the noise that is the Internet.

It would be ironic if this post was newsbotted, however flattering that might be ;)

Becoming an Astronaut.

For a good part of my adult life I always thought my future would lie in the realms of IT and computer hardware. I’ve been a gamer for as long as I can remember and a hardware enthusiast ever since I was able to earn enough money to buy my own computer. About 2 years ago though I discovered my passion for aeronautics, which after a very short time led me to find my love for space and all things aeronautical. At first I was surprised by this path that I followed, until I delved into the realms of space further.

Back in the hay days of space everything was uncharted territory. The first artificial satellite of earth, Sputnik 1, was launched upon what basically amounted to a retrofitted ICBM and most of the early days hardware for NASA’s missions were also re-purposed military hardware. It was only during the Apollo era that NASA started developing rockets purely for space, although they did continue to source other things directly from the military.

Pilots and mission specialists alike have been chosen mostly from the Air Forces. Initially this was due to the pilots’ skill with experimental craft, which is what all of the space craft were classified as at the time (with good reason!). More recently however we’ve seen more and more crew of current space missions being picked from the ranks of civilian staff, such as the crew of the last space shuttle mission which included only 3 military/ex-military personnel with the rest being picked from either the Educator in Space program or from NASA’s direct recruiting schemes.

Unfortunately for someone like me the ranks of NASA are probably a little far off. My technical expertise doesn’t really lend itself to the skill set required  to make it as a mission specialist (unless they start hosting Windows servers up there!), although if they ever want to get an Australian into the educator program I’d definitely be the first in line. There are other opportunities for me to become an astronaut however.

Private space flight companies are begining to pop up all over the place with the most advanced out of the lot being Virgin Galactic. The pilots of the first craft, SpaceShipOne, are primarily from civilian ranks with one exception, Brian Binnie who happens to share a similar heritage to that of the first astronauts in military test piloting. It is within these ranks that I intend to find my way into space. Whilst the market only barely exists at this point in time for people who wish to fly others into space I believe that by the time I’m ready to undergo training in piloting such an aircraft there will be a healthy niche market established, allowing me to fulfill my dreams of flying myself and others into space.

But what will I do with myself until then? Of course there is only one answer, follow in the footsteps of those who came before me. Over the next couple years I will be undergoing certification for my Commercial Pilot’s License, which in turn will lead me to piloting all sorts of aircraft. By the time I’m done with this I’m hoping Virgin Galactic will be looking to be recruiting, and there I’ll be.

It is that thought alone that will keep me going through any challenge that I may face.

Science Reporting vs Actual Science

It seems every other day we’re bombarded with promises of new technology or scientific breakthroughs that can revolutionize the way we work, live and play. Whilst there is a great amount of research being done around the globe which will in turn lead to tangible benefits for all of us it would seem that we’re always told of technology that’s “just around the corner” or “at least a decade away from practical implementation”. It would seem on the surface that scientists are spending most of their time 10 years behind where they should be, rather than working on something that will provide real benefits now.

However it is prudent to note that the media is great at drawing wild conclusions from even small scientific discoveries. The majority of them fell under the umbrella of wild speculation, and I’ve got a couple of examples to show you.

One of the best I’ve seen is Resveratrol. Here’s a quick blurb on what it’s effects are:

YouTube Preview Image

A quick googling of this term brings up over 3 million sites with 10 or so links for you to buy the product. Even though this is completely unproven we still have people heralding this compound as a cure for many human ailments. The main reason it has taken off so well is probably due to its life extending properties, which has only been proven so far in mice.

Another more recent one was the re-ignition of the cold fusion debate, seen here:

Twenty years to the day that two electrochemists ignited controversy by announcing signs of cold fusion at an infamous press conference in Utah (watch a video of the 1989 event), a separate team has made a similar claim in the same US state. But this time, the evidence is being taken more seriously.

Back in 1989, Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons at the University of Utah announced the tantalising prospect of abundant, almost-free energy, but their claims of fusion reactions in a tabletop experiment were dismissed by nuclear physicists, not least because such reactions normally occur inside stars. The few watts of extra energy they found were widely considered a fluke.

Now Pamela Mosier-Boss and colleagues at Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR) in San Diego, California, are claiming to have made a “significant” discovery – clear evidence of the products of cold fusion.

Most people will read the top half of the article and not see the clarifications that come at the end. Whilst New Scientist usually does a good job of reporting on science discoveries articles like this are so easily picked up by regular journalists and turned into sensationalist dribble that only causes people to think that scientists are promising more then that can deliver.

If you read over the article you’ll discover that they in fact haven’t discovered anything to do with cold fusion, just evidence of energetic neutrons which are unlikely to be created in such a reaction. If it did turn out to be a cold fusion reaction I’d be among the first to congratulate them on freeing us from our energy constrains, but call me skeptical when I see something that doesn’t even actually generate power as being heralded as cold fusion. I would have much preferred to see this article under the heading of “Energetic Neutron Creation in Room Temperature Environments”, although that’s not as sexy or provocative as “Neutron tracks revive hopes for cold fusion”.

So to all those people out there who are wondering where our flying cars are or why we haven’t cured the common cold yet please remember this: The media is not a factual source of scientific information and any breakthrough you hear about has more then likely been sensationalised. There are many great people working on pretty much every aspect of our lives without us knowing about them, and it is they who will bring about real progress to the world.

Financial Fallacies.

Let’s face it, the global economy isn’t in the greatest shape due in no small part to some magical hand-waving and corporate greed. With the scale so large there isn’t much your average go can do to sway the global markets one way or the other. It would seem that right now the best thing to do is batton down the hatches, make sure you’ve got a secure job and pay down all that debt that you’ve gorged yourself on in the past decade. Sounds sensible right?

For the majority it is. Many of the people I catch in financial trouble have racked up giant credit card debts and think that the monthly repayment is enough to get them through. It takes a little stern talking to get them to realise that they’ll be paying off that new widget¹ for the next 5 years, without being able to use that credit card again. Anyone who talks to me about financial planning usually walks away with a gift bag filled with a budget, a pair of scissors (to cut up their credit card) and a note telling them I won’t lend them any money.

However there are quite a number of people who have the potential to make good in the current economic turmoil and are still skittish about investing for exactly the same reasons now as they were 2 years ago. In particular I point the finger directly at the media and people like Steven Keen who, whilst ensuring his statements are very well researched, are focused on spreading a healthy dose of doom and gloom with nary a scant of what we could do to either avoid economic meltdown or soften the blow. Steve has even posted about that point:

Hi TommyT,

That raises the vexed topic of the theory of comparative advantage–a notion that almost all economists agree with, which should tell you there’s something wrong with it.

I think in the washup to this crisis governments will be forced to reconsider this one too–it’s all very well to have economists telling you it’s bad to promote domestic industry, but when you have 20% unemployment (and the need to retrain hundreds of thousands of financial advisers so that they can do something useful) it’ll be rather harder to avoid the public clamour.

At that point it might be time to attack this shibboleth, but taking it on as well now might be suicidal to the issues I’m raising on debt. If you want to see why comparative advantage–the theory of free trade–is a load of nonsense, check out this blog by Dani Rodrik, the leading (non orthodox of course!) economist developing what he calls New Trade Theory.

Funnily enough he would rather wait for the world to fall in on itself and then he might suggest a way around it. But anyway, I digress.

What spurred this post was someone who was decently well off and was considering buying a new house was told:

Buying a house now to get the First Home Owner’s grant is like having a baby for the baby bonus.

If you’re financially inclined you’ll see this non-sequitur for what it is. I’ll humor the notion that both of the things are big life decisions and will change the way you live your life for a long time to come. What I will not humor however, is the fact that someone is comparing a child to a house in the context of financial gain. Whilst I can appreciate that there are some unscrupulous people who have done such a thing I can’t entertain the thought of comparing the two. For one, if you decide 10 years down the track that you just can’t afford the house, you can sell it. I hate to see what would happen to you if you attempted the same with a child.

The point I’m trying to drive home here is that whilst this world is facing some of the most difficult economic times it has ever seen that does not mean you can’t make the best of this bad situation. Years ago I formulated a plan for growing my own wealth and the crisis has done nothing to change that. Take whatever people are telling you with a grain of salt and make sure you do your own research. If you can grow your wealth in times like these you will prosper even greater when the times improve.

¹ I just want to make a point here that I detest anyone who says that “plasma TVs” or any consumer goods are responsible for all our consumer debt. It is not the fault of a particular product that someone has bad spending habits, they are just another desirable item that financial analysts love to bash. I feel widget is more appropriate here, since it can dictate any non-descript item and places the focus back on the person doing the spending, not the item being bought.

The Science of the Human Condition.

I’m not usually one to newsbot¹ but this article got me thinking in a direction that I wanted to share:

People with strong religious beliefs appear to want doctors to do everything they can to keep them alive as death approaches, a US study suggests.

Researchers followed 345 patients with terminal cancer up until their deaths.

Those who regularly prayed were more than three times more likely to receive intensive life-prolonging care than those who relied least on religion.

The team’s report was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

It suggests that such care, including resuscitation, may make death more uncomfortable.

Just over 30% of those asked agreed with the statement that religion was “the most important thing that keeps you going”.

Let it be known first that I like religion, it does a lot of good things for otherwise lost and direction-less people. It is very interesting to note this funny little bit of science and it does give rise to some interesting philosophical points.

It would seem that believers in religion would at the time of their deaths be more comfortable with the idea of passing onto the next plane of existence. Since they are guaranteed by their faith that there is something waiting for them on the other side that should put their mind at ease.

Or does it?

The time leading up to your death really becomes the ultimate test of your faith. You start thinking about your legacy, how you led your life and what will become of the world when you depart it. Then if that isn’t enough you will then start to think about whether or not you’ve lived your life close enough to the rules that were set out by your religion, and more likely then not all the things you’ve done wrong in that time. Needless to say this would lead to desperation more then acceptance, since you would want more time to reconcile your faults before passing on and receiving your final judgement.

Atheists on the other hand believe that there is nothing after death just as there was nothing for them before birth. If you’re truly in touch with that kind of belief (Atheists have faith to you know) then you know there’s nothing you can do to change it. Although I would postulate that before  the point of no return, I.E. before the doctors have tried everything to save you and haven’t said “x days/hours to live”, they would behave much the same as the religious attempting every possible avenue to extend their mortal existence.

It may just be that the religious have more reason to continue living, since they have more work to do before they pass on.

After reading some discussion on this topic someone posted a quote that I’ve believed in most of my life, ever since I left Christianity as my religion:

“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.” – Marcus Aurelius

It is interesting to note however the one flaw in this line of thinking. That the Gods and us share a similar line of thought, and our definitions of just and unjust are similar. Therefore, we can only assume (take in faith) that should the Gods be just and you live a good life that Marcus is correct.

¹Since I can’t find a definition for this word, I shall coin it now. Newsbot, when used as a noun, refers to a person/blog/entity that takes a story directly from the news and then takes some or all of the content and posts it on their site/medium with a small amount of additional detail, usually an opinion or drivel. When used as an adjective it refers to the process of hunting down news to regurgitate somewhere else in order to appear that you’re actually producing content, when really you’re just repeating someone else’s hard work and trying to add a bit of flavour. If you can’t guess already I think people who produce newsbot blogs don’t add any value, but that’s another post for another day ;)

The Wrong Side of the Internet.

Back in the early days of the Internet we didn’t have things such as Youtube or Facebook, so we had to make do with such wonderful technologies as good old HTTP and Usenets. The Usenets in particular were pretty niche, and most people wouldn’t know of them, let alone use them. It really was a golden age for the Internet, since you really needed to know what you were doing in order to get something online and you had to look pretty hard to find and cross over to the wrong side of the tracks.

These days with it being so easy to set up a website or blog anyone can throw up a page or just perform a quick search to find what their looking for. Modern day search engines do a good job of filtering out most of the chaff, but when you’re looking for something obscure it’s very easy to get something that looks genuine but is nothing but utter dribble. I remember a good example from a while back on the Holy Grail. A teacher of mine knew quite a bit about the subject and decided to see what material was available. Out of the myriad of sites he found about 2 where factually correct, 3 were misguided and the majority were plain wrong or bordering on delusional.

Sometimes however, people are drawn to this kind of insanity. Whether it is the freedom of anonymity or just a desire to cause and experience choas, places on the Internet exist for those among us who seek to see the taboo side of our humanity. I make no secret that I am one of those people, and I’ve spent many hours seeing what us humans get up to when all the rules are left at the door.

Probably the most famous example of a place such as this is 4chan. Whilst on the surface it would appear to be a clucky little clone of the Japanese imageboard 2Channel delving deep into its recesses shows a dark underbelly. In the early days of this board it was particularly famous for its /b channel, which is void of a general topic of discussion and is deemed to be “random”. It is in here that people from all over the world post things that would normall be taboo, wrong or downright illegal. It is also the gathering ground of the online group Anonymous, who delight in causing mischief for corrupted organisations or just the general public. Strangely enough it has even started a trend, with other sites carrying the *chan identifier popping up all over the places wishing to emulate its success (or even drive deeper into deprativity).

It is interesting to note the places that because of their size, attract a great number of people who aren’t there for the board’s purpose. The BodyBuilding website appears normal on the surface but digging down into their forums will show that their largest forum, Misc, has the most threads (in excess of 800,000) and as a consequence the most rubbish. Whilst it isn’t as removed from reality as the likes of the *chan boards, due to the sheer volume of people on there it attracts people who aren’t interested in body building at all, and sometimes even those who are at the end of their rope.

A more regulated but none the less interesting place to visit is the Something Awful and its forums. What makes this place interesting is its dedication to comedic material, which sometimes leads it to strange and whacky places. Over the years it progressed from a personal site for the creator “Lowtax” to a bustling news site with a set of forums renowned for their online shenanigans. Whilst it is probably closer to the right side of the railroad then the other sites I have mentioned you can still see some people using the freedom of anonymity to spew forth their misguided opinions at each other.

Often I would wonder as to why I would visit these places, why I would revel reading the vulgar reality of the human condition. That was, until someone else summed it for me:

Lampkin: The horror of the age. The great ugly material. The cloak of deceit.
Apollo: The truth. Hmph. Kind of overrated, I guess. You know, when I was nine, maybe ten, my grandfather… he would wave me over. And he’d do this all the time. And then he’d say, uh, “Lee, be a good boy. Just don’t be too good.”
Lampkin: Everybody has demons. Them, Baltar, you, me. Even the machines. The law is just a way of exorcising them. That’s what your father’s father told me. You want to know why I hated him? Because he was right.
Apollo: So you hated him because he was right, and I hated the law because it was wrong. Because of what… Of what it put him through. I mean, he defended the worst of the worst. I remember reading about him. The outrage. Helping murderers go free. What I don’t understand is why he put himself through all that abuse.
Lampkin: You think he gave a flying frak? Joe Adama cared about o­ne thing. Understanding why people do what they do. Why we cheat our friends, why we reward our enemies. Why we go to war, sacrificing our lives for lost causes. Why we build machines in the hope of correcting our flaws and our shortcomings. Why we forgive, defying logic and the laws of nature with o­ne stupid little act of compassion. We’re flawed. All of us. I wanted to know why, so I did what he did. I spend my life with the fallen. The corrupt. The damaged. Look at you, you were so ready to get o­n that Raptor with me today. The bad boy, the prodigal son.

Bonus points to those who recognised that exchange from the TV series Battlestar Galactica.

Sometimes, to truly understand ourselves we have to delve into the most extreme parts of our humanity. It’s just amusing that the internet, which was created for only one thing has given us this opportunity.

The University Experience (or The Bitter Engineer’s Creation)

Many moons ago I graduated from the University of Canberra as a Bachelor in Engineering in Computer Engineering. If you’re brave enough to click that link you’ll will notice that it’s dated 2003 and that you should check the university’s site for more information. Attempting that will lead you down a long and convoluted path which eventually leads to this page, saying that this course is no longer open to enrolments.

Like many young people who are destined to leave college I looked towards university to further my education in the hopes of improving my career prospects whilst doing something that I enjoyed. At the time I was fascinated with consumer IT hardware and after attending the open day I was convinced that the computer engineering degree was the way to go. It felt like there was quite a bit of freedom to specialise after the first year and they even offered programs with languages, which really intrigued me.

The first year of my degree went like any other. I spent the first month trying to figure out the university way of life and settling in with the people who would form my university friends for the next 4 years. After that it was a bit of a roller-coaster with my first semester seeing me barely pass all my subjects, which seemed to be the norm for all of us. The second semester went quite a bit more smoothly, with me finally figuring out how to fit into the university mould. I was an energetic little go getter ready for second year.

I do count the second year of my stay in university as the best out of the 4. With a full year of experience under my belt I didn’t feel bewildered walking into a classroom and I’d worked out all the basics (note taking, tutorials, etc) so I didn’t have to spend time on that as well as the subject material. Everything was looking up, I even managed to dux a test and get myself inducted into the Golden Key Society, who recognises the top 15% of students (of which I’ve made little use). Things were definitely looking up then, but the problem with being up so high is that there’s only one way to go afterwards.

Towards the end of second year one of my lecturers walked into the class with a sad and dejected look on his face. We’d seen this before, when he had announced earlier in the year that the Computer Engineering, Software Engineering and Electronics and Communication Engineering courses would all be merged into one degree; with the third year onwards determining a “specialisation” into the respective merged areas.  To be honest, the writing was on the wall from first year for this to happen. The total influx for engineering students in my year was only 15, with the makeup being 2 computer, 7 electronics and 6 software. Although these degrees share a common basis there are specialty subjects that only apply to the specific areas, and you can’t run a subject with only 2 students willing to take it.

The news he brought on this occasion was far more grim. The university was closing the entire engineering branch, and whilst our degrees would be taught out to their fullest extent most electives would not be available. As it turned out, none of them outside the general IT and programming electives were and we were relegated to the ranks of glorified software engineers with separate titles. Whilst our initial education had given us skills in other areas the last 2 years were filled with software courses, useless mathematics courses (3rd year Engineers doing Introduction to Statistics and Introduction to accounting which are both first year subjects? Surely you jest!). Although I did enjoy some of the management and economics education I received some of these courses were clearly a complete joke and felt like a personal insult to someone like me who had to take a beginners class next to something along the lines of say, multi-variate calculus.

This was then coupled with what I call the “Third Year Blues” which was introduced to us by the engineers who preceeded us. At the start of the third year most university students will end up questioning why the hell they’re in their degree. This is amplified in IT related degrees since from beginning to end technology will have rapidly changed and you could find yourself working from a basis that is no longer relevant. It was strange to see the once highly energetic engineers questioning their very foundation, we even lost a couple since they couldn’t bring themselves to finish the degree off.

Feeling thoroughly dejected I started looking for answers. After questioning many of my lecturer’s the story became very clear, but it only worked to deepen my bitterness towards the situation.

Approximately 10 years before the close the Australian National University opened up its doors to Engineering students for the first time. Whilst they have a superb reputation in all the fields they foray into they do have a distinct taste for the more academic side of subjects. Engineering was no exception to this rule, and many discussions with ANU branded engineers showed that whilst they had a great theoretical understanding, they lacked a lot of real world implementation. Many of the subjects they were learning used out-dated tools and languages, and the practicals were very lacklustre. However, the opening of a competing engineering university in Canberra more then halved the numbers that the university of Canberra saw, especially those with post-graduate aspirations.

Looking into the ANU’s books brought up some astonishing figures. They were in as much trouble as UC, with numbers dwindling at a similar rate. However their post-graduate programs showed no decline, whereas UC’s were declining. My lecturer’s confirmed that ANU pushed for people to go to the post-graduate level, where they focused closely on employment. This is why ANU continued to run whilst UC died ever so slowly.

Maybe it was a misplaced sense of patriotism towards UC but I’ve never really let go of that fact. The true essence of engineering is solving a problem and then iterating to improve it. ANU’s lack of practical focus went against what I feel is the true sense of engineering, and their continued existence just adds salt to the wounds.

All of these factors made the day when I was given my degree bitter-sweet. I was elated that could now call myself a true Engineer, a thing that my father had scoled me for calling myself before I had finished. However, looking over the sea of graduates that day I knew only a handful were engineers, and all were the last of their breed to exit those halls with a UC degree under their arm.

Whilst I may be bitter about the experience that university gave me I’m still thankful for it. Although the content of the degree might not be what I wanted the meta-skills (problem solving, time management, critical thinking, etc) have proven themselves to be far more valuable.

And thus, the bitter engineer was created. Sometimes I wonder if all university students turn out this way, but even that’s too cynical for someone like me.

Financial Minimums and the Global Financial Crisis.

With the Global Financial Crisis savaging our world’s trade and capital markets people are looking for more ways to scrimp and save in order to whether these tough times. This got me thinking; what are the financial minimums that are required for a person or family to maintain a reasonable level of living whilst still being able to save for times such as these? Of course the government has figures on this since that is what many of the welfare payments of this country are based on, but they don’t really provide any insight into what the makeup of that payment is.

For this blog post I will attempt to explore the minimum costs involved in living as a single person, and then as a typical 2 parent 2 child Australian family. I will draw the majority of my figures from online sources of public information so that there’s as little guesswork as possible.

So let’s tackle the easy one first, the single bachelor/bachelorette, what do they need? I will for the moment assume that they have most things like furniture and appliances, but I will show what would be needed if they don’t:

  • Shelter: Since they’re single we can assume that a 1 bedroom 1 bathroom apartment will do. A quick search on Allhomes reveals this property for $150 a week. We can assume this is about average, as many people can share accommodation for around this much (3 bedroom for $450 a week would net them something quite a bit better, if they’re willing to share).
  • Food: Estimates of average daily intake for an adult peg it somewhere between 1940 (for women) and 2550 (for men). Let’s make it easy and put it at 2200 so we get an average. Breaking this down into 3 average meals a day could be done with: Breakfast: 2 weet bix or similar, milk coffee (300 calories)Lunch: 2 Sandwiches, salad or left overs (950 calories) Dinner: Meat, pasta and vegetables with premade sauce (950 calories). Plugging this all into an online shopping website gives a weekly cost of about $91, but I’d probably bump that up to $110 just to be on the safe side.
  • Clothing: I could take the easy route here and say that they could go to the local op-shop and clothe themselves for $20 per year but that’s just not typical. For myself I’ll usually end up buying 1 set of work clothes (2 pairs of pants, 5 shirts, 1 set of shoes) and various casual clothes (5+ shirts, 2 pairs of pants, 1 set of shoes). If we go cheap then that comes to about $830 a year, or $16 a week.
  • Transport: I’m going to assume they have a job of some sort and will have to travel to get there. If they grab a monthly bus ticket their travel costs come to about $21 a week for unlimited travel on the buses.
  • Entertainment: As much as all the financial experts will like you to cut out things like this I know that most people won’t, and so it doesn’t get left out of the calculations. Whilst I can’t speak for everyone on this (since it is so subjective) I’ll put in a rough $50 a week on this. That could be movies, a night out with friends or just a couple drinks at home.
  • Utilities: My house, with 3 people in it, averages around $42 a week in electricity, $5 in phone and $25 in internet. Cut this down to single person size and you have a grand total of $24 a week.
  • Necessities: Just to make things interesting let’s also assume this single person is just starting out and doesn’t have all the required furniture to live. If we budget around $5,000 for this and say they get one of those interest free deals (which are fine if repaid before the interest free period is up) and repay it over 3 years we’re looking at another $33 a week or so.

Putting this all together gives us a total of $371 or $404 if they are just starting out. If we want to save about $50 a week this means their yearly income will have to come to somewhere between $25,000 and $30,000 a year. This does not take into consideration unexpected things like medical bills, which would put that further up the scale to $35,000.

Looking towards the family we can take that yearly income and double it just for starters (2 adults). A child costs about AUD$800,000 to raise from 0 to 17. Putting a weekly figure on a weekly basis is a whopping $980 a week, or almost $2000 for the 2 kids. I’m going to scale that figure back to about $700 since there are savings to be made on housing, clothing and food in a family situation. It is still a phenomenal cost, which brings the family income up to a required $150,000 per year, or $75,000 per parent. It’s no wonder that Australians on the average wage with a family will be doing it tough.

I’ll be honest and say that I wasn’t too surprised by the single people figures, but the family ones really blew me away. I’m fairly well off, but if my fiance wasn’t working because she had a child we’d be below my required income threshold, putting us in an awkward position. It’s really quite telling about the current economic situation as the ones who are losing their jobs are the least likely to have savings, due to the costs they incur just to survive.

Taking this into consideration I believe that a portion of the economic stimulus package should be used in either increasing the minimum wage or cutting tax for just the lower to middle income brackets (of which I’m not a part of, so there’s no vested interest there). Whilst I don’t need to explain what tax cuts would do for the lower income brackets I should mention what I mean by raising the minimum wage.

The government could provide subsidiaries or incentives for minimum wage earners. This could come as a payment to both the employer and employee, along the lines of Newstart allowance. This could even be done with a reform to the current welfare system, changing the income thresholds for wage earners who are on Newstart allowance or similar.

Whilst I don’t believe that all of the stimulus package is going in the wrong places I do believe that its target is a little fuzzy. Sure some of it is well placed (aligning with my objectives pretty closely) however there’s a lot of places where money is going and no tangible benefit is being projected. Whilst I can understand that such legislation has probably be done a little hastily you’re still talking a good $42 billion of Australia’s dollars, which requires a little more then 2 months thought into spending.

Technological Solutions to Human Problems.

It would seem as more time passes the more we are in control of the restrictions that have been placed on us by our ancestors. Natural Selection did a pretty good job of giving us a foundation of a large brain relative to our body mass, giving us a leg up on cognitive functions. Yet the more we progress we also find ourselves stuck with problems that are intrinsically human and as such will probably not be solved technologically.

The Turing test is a simple example of one such problem. In essence the test seeks to develop a computer program “intelligent” enough to fool a human observer into thinking it’s human. At its heart this is a human problem, communication with another being at a meaningful level. If you’ve ever tried to talk with a chat bot as if it were human you’ll notice some characteristics after a short period of time:

  • Lack of memory: Most chat bots won’t remember the conversation you had with them past the last sentence. This can lead to some silly conversational loops since they’ll ask you to clarify points they appeared to understand not two sentences earlier.
  • Can’t be taught: A lot of chat bots are based on Natural Language Processing where they’re using algorithms based on grammatical constructs and the sentence structure. Whilst you can use this to form some sort of idea about what the other party is saying you can’t teach this dog any tricks once you’ve programmed it. I had a lovely conversation with the “winner” of last years Turing test about regolith. After teaching it what it was I then asked it to describe it back to me. Needless to say it couldn’t, and asked me what I was talking about.
  • Spout nonsensical gibberish: If you hit one of the mid points in some of the NLP algorithms you’ll notice that most chat bots come back with a question which takes part of your sentence and regurgitates it back at you. If you said something like “Well I do enjoy opera whilst knee deep in peanut butter” they will come back with something like “What makes it that you enjoy opera whilst knee deep in peanut butter?”. Forgive the awkward grammar and you might be able to pass that off as normal conversation, but no one talks like that normally.

No program has yet completed this test successfully, although there are many good candidates.

The old saying “when all you have is a hammer all your problems look like nails” is something that applies here. Using technology to solve our day to day problems and better our lives is the hammer, and our problems arising from the human condition can all look like nails. Whilst I believe that no problem is above being solved, given enough time and resources, there are some things about life that are just so intrinsically human that technology will struggle to overcome them. Sometimes it is easier to adapt ourselves to overcome such problems; akin to a kind of artificial evolution.

So, what’s the point of trying then? Well I can put it down to two reasons. The first being our insatiable desire to overcome any obstacle that is placed in front of us. Routinely in our past we humans have been faced with problems that appeared monumental. Just on 100 years ago international travel took many months across the sea and was frought with danger. Now you can walk up to almost any airport and choose a country and be there in less than a day.

Secondly, on a time scale that we experience evolution makes negligible changes to us. We are at the stage where we have evolved to a point that if we want to go any further mother nature’s course will take thousands of generations for us to get there. If the human species is to survive and thrive in this barren universe we have to learn to master the world we exist in and then continue the process throughout the solar system and beyond. This is the only way to ensure that our race can survive through catastrophic events such as the loss of the entire earth.

Overall, we seek to overcome our shortcomings due to our innate desire to thrive.

Why you shouldn’t hire me.

In today’s rough and unforgiving economic climate many companies are seeking to reduce costs and improve their return on all previous investments that they’ve made. This, combined with several reports from market experts (Gershwin being a good example), has lead to an overall decrease in the amount of temporary workers hired and a push to bring a lot of talent in house. It would seem that the best option would be to secure employment now and skill up during these hard times and cash it all in when times come good again. You’d be crazy not to do it.

That is, unless you’re like me. I’m an IT contractor, and businesses will look at me first for the chop.

But what does trimming the contractors actually net for my employer? In my current position I’m doing what a contractor is supposed to be doing, filling a skill gap for either a temporary vacancy whilst they find a full time employee or bringing in additional skills required to implement various projects. Reducing your numbers of people like myself isn’t a bad thing, but it will reduce your capability to deliver on required projects. It would seem however that there are some places that are content to use contractors as full-time replacements. Using contractors in such a way is going to cost you much more than it would to properly fund the rightly skilled full time employee. However short term budgeting will show a cost saving with the contractor, since you’re not going to have to pay things like superannuation and insurance.

So what should employers be doing in order to whether these tough times? The answer isn’t what most employers want to hear, since they’ll be looking to reduce costs in the short term in the hopes that everything will come good. However, these are the factors that I have seen grab and retain exceptionally skilled people:

  • Attractive salary packages: The old saying “Pay peanuts, get monkeys” is appropriate here. Too many times I’ve seen employees with great skill and corporate knowledge walk out the door for something as small as $5,000 a year more at another company. On average it will cost your employer 1.5x your yearly salary to let you go. Grabbing someone early with a higher wage will keep them interested for longer, save any workplace issues.
  • Clear career paths: This was the reason I left most of my previous jobs. I always made it clear where I wanted to be heading with my superiors. However when it came time to make good on a described career path I always hit a dead end. It was at that point I would start looking for another job, since it was obvious that they made promises that they couldn’t keep.
  • Flexible working arrangements: Nothing says you trust your employees more than allowing them to work from home a day or two a week. We place an extremely large value on face-time with each other and that’s not a bad thing. However options such as working remotely can be a huge benefit to your employees, and will more then likely have them staying on for longer. As long as you establish clear deliverables for your employees does it really matter whether they complete them whilst at work or at home?

All these things will cost the employer something but in return they will get an employee who is loyal and willing to go that extra step for the company. I’ve seen many places with just one of the 3 above and they think that will keep their employees going. It will for a time but eventually they will start to desire more of these options, and if they’re determined they’ll find it.

I think this is why the Australian Public Service has a track record for keeping people for large periods of time. Whilst the salaries might not be the greatest (although they are pretty amazing for entry level workers) the flexible working arrangements and very clear career paths tend to keep people on for many years. I was a public servant for almost 3 years before I turned to private industry, and I couldn’t of done uni and full time work without the arrangements they had available.

After all this, if you still want to hire me remember this: I’m not a permanent replacement and I work for the highest bidder. It’s capitalism in its purest form, but I’ll be sure that you get your moneys worth.

I can’t guarntee that from all contractors though :)