Monthly Archives: August 2009

STS-128: Just Your Average Shuttle Mission.

Last friday the shuttle Discovery launched into orbit signalling the beginning of STS-128. The launch couldn’t have gone smoother, as you can see from the video below:

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There’s a couple things about this mission that I’ll note later but for the most part, this is what I’d call a stock standard mission for the shuttle. In essence this mission is about gearing up the International Space Station to cope with the larger crew it has been carrying of late, with the majority of the payload dedicated to upgrading existing facilities whilst replacing some of the more worn out pieces of gear. You’d be surprise then to learn that I consider this one of the more exciting missions as this is what space should be for everyone: routine.

The shuttle was conceived with the idea of having a fleet of 4 shuttles each capable of 10 launches per year. As we don’t see a launch like this every other month you’ll know that this didn’t happen. The story behind this is a blog post for another day but the idea behind the shuttle was to bring down the cost per launch for space travel. Speculation runs wild as to whether or not the Challenger and Columbia disasters are to blame for this but even prior to these incidents the launches per year were well below the 10 that the fleet was designed to accommodate at inception. With the fleet nearing retirement it is unfortunate that they will never reach their intended goal of significantly reducing cost to orbit and has lead us back down the path of the original Mercury and Gemini ideas (I.E. non-reusable craft).

STS-128 brings with it the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module Leonardo, named for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and not the famous artist and inventor. Inside is a few racks of life supporting equipment, crew quarters that are to be installed in the Kibo laboratory and something of a booby prize for one eager comedic news presenter, Stephen Colbert. Back at the start of the year NASA held a competition to name the new module that is now known as Tranquility. Colbert, who has a legion of fans who love to help out in situations like this, implored his viewers to send in votes to name the new module after him. Whilst he did win the vote NASA retained the right to name it with whatever name they saw fit. However, they recognised the service that Colbert had done to popularize space and offered to name their new treadmill after him. Colbert was elated and accepted the offer and the C.O.L.B.E.R.T is flying aboard the shuttle right now. It will be installed in Tranquility when the module is launched early next year on STS-130, but for now it will reside in the Harmony module.

This mission also brings with it a few science experiments, looking at fluid behaviour and heat pipe technology. As this is the main focus of the ISS it is good to see new experiments being brought up constantly as there is no end to the amount of work that could benefit from being conducted in the absence of gravity. Again this is nothing revolutionary, but it does show that we are making progress.

Whilst I may lament the fact that I can’t waffle on for pages about why this is such a significant flight due to the new hardware or some such it is still none the less exciting for me. Every launch is a beautiful tapestry of engineering, science and human engineering that NASA lays out for the world to see. Despite the bureaucratic boondoggles that have marred the shuttle program I’m still grateful for the progress it has brought humanity. I know the day will come when the shuttle launches for the last time and I hope to be there to watch it. Until then though I will shout its successes from the rooftops, even when they just routine like STS-128.

Subconscious Biases.

Is there something that you’ve always believed, whether it was something told to you as a child or a fact you just “know”, that despite evidence to the contrary you can’t for the life of you change? As a man of science I’m always researching many topics that I usually start out with little to no idea about, so my opinions generally follow the scientific community’s general consensus. However for a very long time I’ve had this uneasy feeling about climate change. Now I can’t remember when I formed the opinion but every time I see evidence about the subject (and even if you ask me, I’ll say that we humans are responsible for the majority of the drastic change in climate over the past century) I get this uneasy feeling that the scientific community is wrong somehow. Try as I might to educate myself on the matter, reading article after article and journal after journal, something in my head tells me that they’ve got it wrong. It’s like I have a climate change denier constantly whispering in my ear.

I’ve found this with a lot of other things too. Usually it stems from an insignificant fact that I might have learned many years ago and never got around to questioning or doing some research on. One of the biggest sources of these sorts of ideas is the media, who will usually report something without doing the proper fact checking. It is rare that a media outlet will publish a clarification when they’ve got something wrong and when they do it is often given a fraction of the time that the original was given. I think this is probably one of the biggest sources of frustration for the sceptic movement, since a lot of their time is dedicated towards fighting this unquestioned ideas.

Another more prevalent example is an expert in one field giving advice in another. We see this a lot when celebrities start giving out advice about things like government policy when in fact they’re no more qualified to speak on the subject than your average Joe on the street. I must admit that I fall victim to this to as people will come to me for advice on many different subjects and whilst I try to make sure they know I’m not the best person to talk to I’m sure a few of them took what I said as fact. I see it happening a lot in corporate environments with large projects being hinged on advice from a single person. It is all too easy for this kind of thing to happen, since everyone will go along with the expert they can all also point the finger at them when it doesn’t work out the way it should.

It’s a very introspective thing to question every little thing that might pass through your head but for someone like myself it has become an automatic ritual. If I think of something that I can’t explain how and why I “knew” that I’ll make sure I look into it. I can get into a bit of a loop when this happens though, since there’s a lot of things that I just know without any explanation.

I remember an experiment that a first year psychology student described to me where they found these subconscious biases during a lecture. I can’t for the life of me find it but I’d love to see if anyone has a link to the methodology or even a video of it being done. Either leave a comment or drop me a line at therefinedgeek@gmail.com

Return of the Modern Gentleman.

Maybe I’m just a chauvinist but I believe that many of the chivalrous behaviours and values that the traditional gentleman upheld still ring true to this day. Whilst I am all for empowering a person regardless of their gender I still hold in my mind that it is my responsibility to provide for and protect my family. Whether this is out of some notion of pride or merely a testosterone fueled male response to the modern world is a question left to debate. But for me as a man who is about to undergo one of the most life changing events in his life, the ideas of chivalry and courtly romance are something that will form the basis of my ever-lasting devotion to my fiancee.

I would caution against confusing the ideas of chilvary with that of gender inequality. More the idea is that anyone, regardless of their gender or gender of their partner, should be courteous and respectful towards their significant other. The traditional gentleman would not concern himself with the idea that his actions could be misconstrued as patronising, as long he himself knew they were moral and just. Too often does the idea that a man should provide for his family turn to a debate on gender equality when in reality, it is merely our sense of pride and devotion that drives us to feel responsible for providing for and protecting our family.

It was then with great pride that I was able to turn to like minded individuals. The mix of serious issues dabble with light hearted entertainment enables everyone to understand why some of us cling to what some would call out-moded ideals. The modern gentlemen represents many desirable qualities that we can all strive to achieve and the Art of Manliness community shows that even today there is a strong support for bringing old tradition back into the modern world.

Maybe I’m just nostalgic for times gone past. Maybe I’m just aspiring to an ideal that has no place in this modern world but for myself adhering to them has, I believe, lead me to becoming a much better man. Having my fiancee by my side brought out characteristics in myself that I never knew existed and showed me how much I respected my father and his relationship with my mother. If anyone is to blame with this idea that all men should aspire to be gentlemen it should be my father as it was not his teachings but manner which instilled in me the ideals that I aspire to today.

And for that, I am ever grateful.

George Orwell, 25 Years Early.

I’ve never really been a big reader of books. Whilst I read through reading that was assigned to me during my studies I rarely ventured out and looked for books that might have intrigued me. In fact the only bit of leisure reading I’ve done in the past few years was Peter F. Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy which I enjoyed slowly over the course of a university year. The works that I have then read stick in my mind quite clearly and one of those was George Orwell’s 1984. I’ll admit that I did not seek this book out myself, but I still think it was the beginning of my journey into the world of politics and the path to my libertarianism.

For those of you who haven’t read it I’d highly recommend you do. The political commentary was a warning of what was to happen should we give a ruling government too much power. It would seem that while most people are familiar with the book its message goes almost completely unheard leading to situations like this:

Only one crime was solved by each 1,000 CCTV cameras in London last year, a report into the city’s surveillance network has claimed.

The internal police report found the million-plus cameras in London rarely help catch criminals.

In one month CCTV helped capture just eight out of 269 suspected robbers.

Whilst this is far from the dystopian future that Orwell painted for us the once untrodden path to his future is now looking a lot more clear, and I for one can’t stand to see it pass. Once granted power a government rarely gives it up and situations like the one in London are amongst the worst offenders in regards to impinging on personal freedoms.

Like the rhetorical catch cry “think of the children” many of the powers granted to governments are born out of the collective’s desire for safety. This was made extremely clear when the USA brought in the PATRIOT act in response to the September 11 attacks of 2001. The use of fear from external threats allows the government to eat away at the liberties of its people and it is with every small loss of liberty for the sake of “safety” that we step ever closer to our Orwellian future.

I think this is what attracted me initially to the no clean feed movement as I saw that once government brought such power down upon Australia at large the potential for abuse was just far too great. Talking amongst my close family I realised that unless the public at large is made aware that their freedoms are being chipped away in this fashion they will naively let it happen.

So I implore you, become involved in politics so that our freedoms are not sacrificed for the bolstering of government power.  As Ed Howdershelt said:

“There are four boxes to be used in defense of liberty: soap, ballot, jury, and ammo . Please use in that order.”

Gershon Report: Metrics Gone Wild.

As the old saying goes the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The Rudd government in their infinite wisdom and lust for slashing government spending after election turned their eyes onto my bread and butter: IT. This lead to the creation of a report that can send chills down any IT contractor’s spine when you utter its name, the Gershon Report. Released on 16th of October last year it coincided with some of the worst hits to the world economy in recent times and this proved to be disastrous for people like me who make a living out of providing IT skills for an hourly rate. Whilst I have managed to sneak under the radar of the Gershon report for almost a year now I know that I am not a typical case, and in most cases the report has lead to an erosion in capability for the Australian government.

Whilst the Gershon report has been in full swing I have worked at 2 government agencies here in Canberra, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and the Australian Trade Commission. Both of these agencies have very specific requirements for their infrastructure and as such find it hard to attract people with the expertise required when salaries and benefits of the public service are far below what is available in the private sector. The remedy for this is of course contractors, as whilst their salary is higher there are no costs associated in providing things like sick/annual leave, superannuation or insurance. Additionally it is usually easier to bring a contractor on board than a permanent employee, with turn around times measured in weeks instead of months. Both of these agencies had a stable contractor workforce that was working well for them, until Gershon cast its eyes on them.

This is what sounded the death knell for many contractors’ jobs in Canberra:

Reduce the total number of ICT contractors in use across FMA Act agencies by 50% over a 2-year period and increase the number of APS ICT staff. This should save the Government an estimated $100 million (across both BAU and project-related work).

The above recommendation was made on the basis of submissions from the 100 FMA agencies as well as meetings and a couple visits to the local data centers in Canberra. The figure then was derived from primarily financial figures, giving little to no heed to the actual needs of particular agencies and whether or not they could attract the people required with the standard APS pay structure. This then lead to an outrageous backlash which decimated the Canberra contractor market by around 30%. Whilst at first this may seem like a good idea since the agencies are following the recommendations of the report there’s an underlying issue that didn’t make the headlines.

Initially many government departments offered contractors what they considered equal opportunities as permanent employees. Unfortunately for most government agencies their pay scales are unable to cope with high level specialists in any area and hence use contractors. This is in part due to the ingrained mentality that once you’re above a certain pay grade in the public service you are required to have some management responsibilities as well, something which the specialists generally do not have and do not wish to take on. Therefore many of these offers were simply turned down, and contractors continued to work out their current contracts.

When renewal time came along there was a mixed reaction from the agencies. In a shock turn around any contractor that could not be directly linked to a project or capitalizable expense was not renewed. The remaining ones were usually offered a reduction in rate and a much shorter contract. As a result many contractors then decided to take their business elsewhere, with many of them leaving for greener pastures in the private sector away from Canberra. Not only did this then leave Canberra wanting in terms of skills require for IT related projects it also drained many agencies of their corporate knowledge. Any skill gap that required filling would also require a lengthy period of corporate knowledge transfer, which typically costs around 1~2 months worth of employee time.

The Gershon report wasn’t all about contractors however, there was also a keen focus on the efficient use of IT resources. Talk to any IT expert and they’ll tell you it’s not a good idea to run something at 100% of its capacity 100% of the time. You need to build in some fat and redundancy in order to ensure that the system operates as expected without any surprises. Unfortunately the Gershon report, which used numbers more than anything else, saw this as a lack of efficiency and required extensive proof that the tolerances built into large corporate systems were required. This flies in the face of the ITIL principals of capacity management which dictate that you should plan for future requirements and build systems as such. Thus any ITIL aligned agency was then told that they had to increase utilization of their resources, which in some cases was just not possible.

The report itself was a good idea however the nature of the report is far too general to be applicable to all agencies. Specifically the smaller agencies were hit particularly hard as there is less room for them to improve their IT expenditure and efficiency. The lack of intangible cost considerations also leads to questions of the reports applicability as we have already seen that there are numerous hidden costs in trying to apply some of the recommendations.

Personally though I have been lucky to be able to duck and weave my around the reports various swings at me. Initially I did this through proposing large capital projects that would provide tangible benefits to the business, which did eventually get implemented. More recently I’ve been targetting direct cost reductions which, whilst not part of my specialist skill set, help keep me in a job for the coming months. Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that us contractors have it easy, especially the ones of us who are still doing well in these harsh conditions.

And no, this isn’t a call for sympathy :)

A Sashay Into Silverlight.

Back in the early days of my experience with IT I wasn’t much of a programmer. For the most part my experience was limited to tinkering with various bits of hardware and doing house calls for my local IT group Grade A Students (who unfortunately seem to have removed themselves from Canberra and re-branded).  However this all changed when I started my university degree with my first course being an introduction into programming with C in Linux. It was an odd affair for me as I of course knew about programming but hadn’t paid much attention to it. Since then I’ve dabbled in many other languages with varying results, the latest of which is Geon.

Recently though it became clear to me that the end goals I had for Geon and the language I was using (ASP.NET) were probably a bit too ambitious. The work required in order to get that “Web 2.0″ look and feel to the application that most users online have come to expect was prohibitive for a single person only working on it on weekends, so I started looking around for something else. I was tempted by the lures of Flash however I haven’t had any experience with the tools or design work of that particular language with most of my skills lying in the Microsoft/C# space. So in essence there was only one choice, Microsoft’s Silverlight.

From a business perspective anything you can do to lower the barrier to entry for consumers is a big thing for business and this was the first mental hurdle I had to overcome when deciding to develop using Silverlight. Flash is fairly ubiquitous amongst Internet users however Silverlight, even though it is at version 3.0 now, is still uncommon. When it first came out I installed it as a mere curiosity to see how Microsoft intended to dethrone Flash as the rich web application provider and there are few big name sites out there that have adopted it as their development framework. However after weighing up the time it would take me to develop in Flash vs my current target audience (which, let’s be honest here, isn’t huge) I conceded that anyone who wanted to see Geon in all its new sparkly wonder would give Silverlight an install. Plus its a small download and from memory doesn’t require admin privileges to install.

I then spent the weekend learning the ins and outs of developing for Silverlight. It’s an interesting blend of desktop application development with UI design that’s heavily based on the flow model. Initially this took a bit of getting used to as making sure the elements were generated properly took a bit of wrangling but the reward was an interface that scales very well with any browser size. This was one of my bugbears with ASP, since they had no easy way to accomplish this. I did run into some roadblocks with Silverlight only being a subset of the .NET and WPF frameworks but there wasn’t anything I couldn’t work around. Although there were a few moments of me yelling incoherently at the monitor when things refused to work the way I wanted them to.

And thus the end result is this, Geon in Silverlight. If you don’t yet have Silverlight I’d urge you to install it and have a look at what it’s capable of. This version is somewhere between 1.0 and 1.1 in terms of functionality (live updating for Twitter, News and Blogs works) however the main stay of Geon, which is Geologically based information, is currently not in. I only just got around to getting the base framework in last night to handle the IP based look-ups before I decided that was it for the weekend so I believe I can have it up to 1.1 level of functionality fairly quickly.

Overall I’m happy with the results and I believe that the future of Geon will lie within Silverlight. It’s a very powerful framework for developing rich web applications and the tools available are growing by the day. Who knows, maybe Geon will one day be that killer app that gets Silverlight everywhere!

A man can dream….. :D

Twitter: Information With a Short Lifetime.

Last night during my weekly drinks with friends the topic of Twitter came up. Whilst I can’t profess to being one of those ahead of the trend hipsters who were into Twitter before it was cool I did manage to find a good use for it to be part of the glue logic between this blog and my Facebook page. For a while I was content that I was using Twitter in a way that kept me at arms length from the twidiots but still gave me some value. However more recently I’ve come to use it quite a lot more as a place to get information that I don’t typically find elsewhere and my conversations last night showed how little value this information has outside of personal consumption.

The first thing that pops into people’s heads when you mention Twitter is a universe filled with crazy people shouting random meaningless messages at each other in the hopes that someone will listen to them or that what they’re saying has some importance. It’s the same idea that first came about when blogging was first introduced so it’s no surprise that the new way of blogging (“micro-blogging“) suffers from the same initial teething problems that its forefather did. What of course happened afterwards was also identical to what happened to blogging, famous people started using it. Once it became cool to be on Twitter everyone and his dog (and even his taser rifle) hopped on as well. Today Twitter is one of the top 20 most visited sites on the Internet and because of this volume it has started to show some value.

I follow about 20 odd people on Twitter. Most of them are friends or people who I find interesting. Usually the things I find on there are the kind of thing your work colleague would call you over to have a look at when they find something interesting or cool and as such their value outside that area is limited. A great example of this was Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame posted up a pic of Kari Byron and her daughter Ruby. For someone like me who follows the show religiously this was a pretty cool thing to see, however outside of actually seeing it directly on Twitter that information has limited value. This became ever so clear last night when I was trying to describe what I use Twitter for to someone else and used that as an example. They had watched the show but really didn’t know who I was on about. It would then seem that such information is really limited in usefulness to those who are directly involved in consuming it.

Additionally due to Twitter’s encouragement of short but frequent information bursts the usefulness of any information conveyed through this medium is time limited. Rarely would anyone hop on Twitter and read through a week’s backlog of tweets and in fact unless you use a third party Twitter app you’re going to be loading a set number of tweets at a time. I know with following just 20ish people I can find myself sifting through 3 or 4 pages of tweets just for one day. As such information published through this medium will not live long, as soon it will be buried under the torrent of the next big Twitter twitch.

What I believe Twitter and its related micro-blogging services can become is a bridge between the intial event of breaking news or release of information and the reporting done by traditional sources. Whilst there are some outlets experimenting with the Twitter platform currently the array of different approaches taken shows that this kind of service still lacks the maturity of traditional information sources. With the advent of something like Google Wave I can see this kind of pre-news idea gaining more ground, but right now it seems like the medium is limited to interesting but limited lifetime information.

And with any blog post about Twitter here’s my chance to pimp my profile and beg you all to follow me ;)

Orbital Competitor Swaggers In.

It’s not everyday that you get a company coming forward and firmly stating that they are going to provide orbital capabilities to anyone who has the money. Space Adventures is the only company thus far that has put a paying private space tourists into orbital space, and they are technically just a travel agent. Just recently though we’ve had another company lay its goals on the table, and boy are they shooting high:

The previously top secret reusable reentry vehicle for the Soviet “Almaz” manned military space station will form the backbone of a major new U.S./Russian commercial venture to carry paying research crews on one week missions into Earth orbit by 2013.

The reusable reentry vehicle (RRV) venture is being announced today at MAKS, the annual Moscow Air Show at Ramenskoye air base.

The project is led by Excalibur Almaz Limited (EA), an international space exploration company that has teamed with the Almaz RRV spacecraft manufacturer and other Russian and U.S. companies. EA is led by Art Dula founder and CEO of the venture.

I’d heard about the vehicle they’re planning to use before, mostly because it is to date the only known space vehicle that was weaponized. The Outer Space Treaty restricts the use of most weapons in space however conventional weapons, such as the aircraft gun on the Almaz station Salyut 3, are still allowed. For the most part this would restrict anything in earth orbit to blowing up other stuff in orbit which is not the most useful thing you can do. In essence you would be creating a debris field  that you would then have to work around and it’s much easier (and cheaper) to take out a satellite with ground based lasers or missiles. Other than that the capsule is interesting because of its design.

Russia as a space nation is known for producing reliable vehicles that can only ever be used once. Whilst on the surface this may seem wasteful it does help to keep costs down as reusable architecture, like the Shuttle, requires a lot more work to ensure the structures are reusable. Almaz is different as on the surface it looks like a typical Apollo capsule whilst being reusable, something which a budding space company would require in order to keep costs down. Excalibur Almaz has already bought two complete hulls and the interesting part is that Russia is quite capable of making more of them. This is in stark contrast to other capsules of its time period like Apollo or even Skylab, as all the tooling and manufacturing lines are gone.

There is just one slight detail that’s bothering me about the whole proposal; they are lacking a launch system. Whilst there are many companies that would be quite capable of launching this thing into orbit it appears that the sourcing of a launch vehicle will be left up to an exercise for the purchaser. Whilst I don’t doubt the capabilities of the companies like SpaceX to deliver such a craft into orbit the announcement of a new “orbital” space company is a bit of a stretch when realistically they’re just giving you the tin can that will keep you safe. Additionally the man rating of rockets is well, rocket science and choosing a launch vehicle instead of letting the buyer source one himself would make the whole operation a lot safer.

The aggressive time schedule of 2013 is something that I will be watching closely. By that time I would expect that the SpaceX Dragon would have conducted several flight tests and would be their main competitor. However SpaceX haven’t announced any plans to use the Dragon for space tourism purposes and the design of the capsule reflects that (lack of windows and large interior volumes). This doesn’t rule them out though as Bigelow Aerospace will eagerly take the opportunity to use the Dragon to ferry its customers up to their space hotels, something which the craft is completely capable of doing. Actually it looks like the future is going to be filled with many companies fighting it out in the private orbital space tourism industry.

Maybe, just maybe in our lifetimes the everyman will get his chance to go to space.

Lies, Damn Lies and Small Sample Statistics.

It’s easy to get lost in the idea that the whole world is close to what you have experienced. Realistically the only thing we have to go by is what we see and hear day by day and philosophically we can’t even really prove that anything else exists outside our own sphere of influence. Before I derail this post into a lot of hand waving about cognition and awareness I wanted to explore the world of misrepresentation of data through the use of either cherry picking results or through sample bias using small or particular populations.

Cast your mind back to 2004, for the Australians among us they would remember that this was the time of the federal election, and the last time that John Howard would win his bid for Prime Minister. Back then I was still a teenager but it was the first time I was eligible to vote in the election. Speaking to all my friends and family I was convinced that this year we would oust Howard and usher in new blood to revive what I saw to be a stagnant government. You can then imagine my shock as not only did the Liberal party win, but did so by taking 5 seats away from Labor. The politically inclined among you would realise that typically Canberra is a Labor electorate and if took nothing but opinions from the people within Canberra you would come to the same conclusion. This was classic sample bias and it led me to become more involved in politics, as I now knew that I couldn’t trust just the people I talk to in order to extrapolate to Australia as a whole.

Just today a good friend of mine sent me this article that also used flawed logic and small sample size to make wild accusations about the general health of the gamer population:

ADULTS who play video games may suffer higher levels of depression and weigh more than non-gamers, according to a study released today.

The study, conducted by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Emory University and Andrews University, found “measurable correlations between video-game playing and health risks”.

The study – “Health-Risk Correlates of Video-Game Playing Among Adults” – is being published in the October issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

The researchers surveyed 562 adults ranging in age from 19 to 90 in the Seattle-Tacoma area of Washington state. A total of 45.1 per cent of those surveyed reported playing video games.

The sample is, to say the least, incredibly biased. Let me just pick out a couple of the problems with the data set they have used:

  • The sample size is incredibly small to be able to draw any substantial conclusions.
  • The use of weasel words like “may” and “measurable correlations” are not something you find in well researched scientific reports.
  • The sample is taken from one area, which according to this lovely animated graphic from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention shows that they have an obesity rate of greater than 30%.
  • Repeat after me, correlation does not equal causation.

If we were say to apply this to my group of friends (of which the sample size is approximately equal in gamer/non-gamer distribution with a fifth of the size) you would probably find that gaming has little to no correlation to obesity and depression. In fact you’d see that gamers on average tend to be healthier, but the problem is that whilst we all identify as game players we each have our own reasons for keeping fit and healthy. The numbers used and conclusions drawn are misleading at best and anyone who’s spent even a small amount of time working with statistics will tell you that using a sample size of 0.0094% (564 people divided by 6 billion in the world) of the population can not be relied on.

Statistics are the one thing that everyone is familiar with but no one seems to understand completely. All too often I’m seeing reports being made or news articles being published that use fatally flawed mathematics and unfortunately this often misleads people to believe things they otherwise would not. For the mathematically inclined among us it then becomes a battle of education to give people the tools so they can break down the arguments analytically, however there’s only so far you can go before people stop listening.

As usual there’s a slight anti mass media bias to this post but what I truly desire is for people to question information that is given to them. We humans are wired to turn off our sceptical parts of our brain when an expert tells us something and this is why we need to build up our bullshit detectors so we don’t get fooled by the people who wield the power of statistics. It just so happens that the biggest abusers of this power are the media.

And yes the irony of using statistics to disprove statistics isn’t lost on me. I’ll still take the moral high ground on this issue however :)

The Engineer’s Folly.

Engineers are special people when it comes to normal everyday things in life. Pretty much anything that’s brought before them is instantly seen as a system that can be worked out or a problem that can be solved. Everything from relationships to politics to anything that needs to be installed or can be modified you can guarantee that your engineering pal will dive in head first and try to work out how they can complete something even if it doesn’t need to be done. Last weekend I realised that this was more true than ever when it comes to everything in my life.

The first part of my weekend was spent fumbling around with the Aion client trying to get it working on Windows 7. I had read numerous posts that said people had got it working so I thought that if there was at least one other person out there I could get it going. After my first attempt I ran into the error 114 issue which told me to turn off my firewall. Funnily enough I had already done that but after a while of fiddling around I managed to change the error I was getting to the error 170 problem, which had me deleting the folder. It seemed every time I tried something different I would get one or more of these errors and that’s when I resided to reinstall vista so I could play the darn thing. I wasn’t going to get stuck in a sunk cost fallacy for a game I could only play for the weekend.

After gleefully playing through the first few hours of Aion I was greeted by my beautiful fiancee who looked like she’d just got in trouble for something. Cautiously I asked what the problem was and the reply was something I wasn’t really expecting:

I broke the toilet.

We’ve had problems with our loo before and I knew that the last solution I had was a hack job involving some cable ties and a little hope and I thought that it had just all come apart. The first thing I do is rush in there and rip the top of the cistern to see what could be done. Unfortunately my first inspection showed that I’d have to replace the whole mechanism, as a critical part had completely snapped.

Que a trip to our local hardware supply store where I seek out the parts I need. I was hoping that I could just replace the flushing bits inside the cistern but as it turns out it’s cheaper buy a whole new one (thank you throw away society). So what I thought was an hour or so job turned out to be 4 hours of grunting, pulling and leaking taps and fittings. This wasn’t my first foray into plumbing either, as I had similar “fun” installing our dishwasher. In the end I managed to chase away all the leaks and get our new cistern working, but it got me thinking: why did I even attempt to do this in the first place?

I guess the first part is simple male pride. Whilst I’m a big believer in that a professional is always worth the money when you can’t do something yourself if I think I’m even slightly capable of completing a task I’ll have a crack at it myself first. This has lead to a few times when I’ve tried, failed and then called a professional to come in. I don’t usually admit that I tried to do something first, but I’m sure they knew. Especially considering I’m a big fan of duct tape and cable ties. ;)

The second part I believe comes down to the analytical ideals that are drilled into engineers from the first day they step into university: if a problem is too big break it down into smaller tasks until they can be completed (usually by a single person). I remember many of my university assignments and projects were given to us right at the start of the semester, long before we had been taught the skills needed to solve them. Our lecturers did this so that we’d begin to look at the problem from day one and identify what we could and could not do and work out strategies to tackle them. Once you get into the habit of breaking problems down into their simplest forms it becomes hard not to apply it everywhere else. This is becomes especially true with things that are in essence just abstract representations of whatever engineering discipline you studied (pipes and water flows are used extensively as an analogies when introducing budding engineers to electronics).

This is what constitutes the engineers folly; the idea that everything is merely a system of inputs and outputs that can be solved if broken down far enough. We engineers are passionate about problem solving and it is that which drives us to do things that most times would be better left to the professionals. Sometimes people mistake this for us being arrogant because we say something is simple, but that’s far from the point. It just looks simple to us since we’ve broken it down into 1000 simple pieces.

I’d better stop here before I get stuck in a recursion loop looking at myself.

(For a bit of fun type recursion into Google, it seems the engineers there have a sense of humour :D)