God of the Gaps.

I’ve always been fascinated by people who are incredibly smart and religious. To me they seem to be diametrically opposed as education goes up the evidence for God’s existence starts to come under question, usually to the point of pushing people to be either agnostic or atheist. For me it was mostly my distaste for the study of religion (I found it boring) and the ham fisted approach that my science teacher had to reconciling the Anglican school teachings with actual science.

For those both gifted and religious the most common explanation I get is the things we can’t yet explain come under the purview of a god or the God. I watched a video of an interview with Neil DeGrasse Tyson recently that sums up why that approach is fundamentally flawed:

Taken to its logical extreme, as in as our knowledge approaches the limit of all we can ever know, God then can only exist in infinitesimally smaller gaps. Logically then the belief in such an entity seems irrational as God is then just an ever shrinking pocket of ignorance. You can of course neatly sidestep this argument by saying you fully believe in your faith regardless of what science says and I’ll neatly sidestep any argument with you on the matter because I’m sure neither of us will walk away happy from it 😉

James Cameron’s Avatar: More Than a Movie.

About a week ago I went and saw James Cameron’s return to the big screen in the form of Avatar. I’m the worst when it comes to seeing movies in the theatre but I knew that I needed to see this one in the cinema since everyone I had talked to had urged me to go. Even 2 weeks after its release the cinema I was in (Dendy Canberra) still had every seat occupied. I’d never seen this before, even with the big names like The Matrix and Lord of the Rings, which were packed on the first days but were basically empty a few weeks later. I knew I had made the right decision coming to see Avatar while it was at the movies.

We went to Dendy because I had heard that they used shutter type 3D glasses (in fact they were the XpanD ones pictured in the link) which were supposed to provide the best 3D. Since almost everyone has asked me this question already here’s a breakdown of the three main types of 3D and their respective qualities:

  • Anaglyph (Red/Blue): This was the first kind of 3D to hit cinemas and the technology itself has been around for over 100 years. In essence 2 images are laid over the top of each other with separate colour layers that are separated in order to produce the 3D effect. I saw a couple movies done in this way almost a decade ago when I visited Tokyo Disney land and it definitely provided the feeling that things were jumping out of the screen. Still the image quality suffered somewhat and the colours looked all off, but it’s definitely the cheapest way of doing 3D since you don’t need a new projector to do it.
  • Lens Polarization: A more recent development that has been making its way through cinemas for the past few years is glasses that have different polarizations for each eye. You can tell these ones from the other kinds of 3D because the glasses used look just like regular sunglasses, albeit cheap looking. They come in 2 forms: vertical/horizontal and circular polarization.

    In the vertical/horizontal glasses one eye is polarized vertically and the other horizontally, meaning that one eye can only see light that is coming at you vertically and the other horizontally. In the circular polarization one eye will only see light that is circling clockwise towards you, the other anticlockwise. If this all sounds confusing it is (I usually do a lot of hand waving explaining this) but the Wikipedia article on it is very good if you’re looking for a better explanation.

    If you’re wondering what kind of polarized glasses you got there’s a simple trick you can use to find out. Grab your phone or any device with an LCD screen in it. Look through the glasses at it and turn them slowly, does the screen change brightness? If so you have yourself a horizontal/vertical pair, if not circular. This happens because LCDs work by polarizing light coming from behind it and since the glasses are polarized there’s a sweet spot where they’re polarizing in opposite directions, blocking all the light. Polarized glasses like this are also very good at picking out weaknesses in glass, have a look at your car window through them for a hidden rainbow!

    The better of the 2 of this type of 3D is the circular one, since you can tilt your head and still get the 3D effect. The others rely on you basically staring dead on at the screen, which can be a bit annoying when you’re reaching for the popcorn 😉 These also require a special projector (or more commonly, 2 of them aligned) to project the dual images, but it’s still not the most expensive of the lot.

  • Shutter type: These are the most advanced form of 3D glasses and they’re supposed to be the easiest on the eyes, since there’s no fooling around with the incoming light. In essence you have a pair of glasses that can completely block the light from one eye whilst the other still sees. In order to make sure that the eyes are seeing the right images most of them use a infrared dot somewhere in the movie theater to sync the glasses with the projector. This can be both a blessing and a curse since the cinema I visited only had one infared source which was somewhere to the bottom right of the cinema. This meant I had to aim my head in that direction (I was up the back left) for the whole movie lest I lost the 3D effect. Annoying, but if I had know I would’ve bought seats accordingly.

    This kind of 3D needs yet another kind of projector, the most expensive of the lot. This is because it has to display one image at a much higher rate than the other technologies, usually greater than 120 times a second. This is about double the rate of normal movies and traditionally would only be done with digital projectors. Up until recently most of them would still be good old film projectors and as such, would need to be replaced in order to provide this kind of 3D. That’s also not mentioning the cost of the glasses, since they’re not the throw-away kind and run about $100 a pop. For a cinema seating 100 people that’s quite an expense, and the ticket price certaintly reflected that.

The result? Absolutely stunning 3D. The world of Avatar is an expansive place with many high cliffs and aerial scenes. Without the 3D effect you wouldn’t get that feeling of being really high up, or surrounded by mountains on all sides. Thankfully those “zomg you’re watching 3D” moments are few and far between, with only a few casual occurances happening (like when one of the technicians is rinsing a container and he sprays water towards the camera). Depth of field is something that only recently got adopted into computer games and Avatar makes extensive use of this, with characters who are close up in focus while the background fades out gradually. It really was something to behold.

As for the movie itself? A beautiful space opera. Whilst it’s not the hard sci-fi we had been spoiled with this year in the form of District 9 and Moon it still tickled my science side in just the right way. The world is beautiful and the realism imbued in the world is awe inspiring. Granted Cameron takes some liberties with science but they are all in aid of the story, not ignorance of the actual science. I had a good chuckle at the unobtainium reference, although I think I was of 5 in the theatre who got it. Overall I’d highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t seen it and to not put it off any longer. Because if you do you’ll be waiting a long time before you can get the same experience at home, that is unless you pony up a substantial amount of cash.

The reason why I say it’s more than a movie is for the same reason I spent half this post explaining a technology: the 3D. Cameron has been wanting to make this film ever since he saw Star Wars and cursed George Lucas for making the blockbuster he wanted to make. After pulling success from the jaws of defeat with Titanic he was ready to make the film, but the technology was behind. He spent the next 10 years pioneering the latter 2 3D techniques I described, pushing cinemas to install the technology and encouraging other film makers to use it. The result is that today every theatre in the world worth their salt either has polarized or shutter type 3D installed and James Cameron’s name is now cemented in all cinema go-er’s heads.

It’s this kind of dedication to an idea that I and everyone else can aspire to. Truly Cameron has shown dedication far exceeding that from his peers when it comes to realising a dream. If you had listened to his ideas 30 years ago everyone would’ve thought he was bonkers, but it seems more often than not it’s those crazy people who end up making real change in the world. It reminds me of a quote from Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw:

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

Indeed, and this is why Avatar is more than just a movie. It’s the realisation of a dream, a turning point in visual media and of course, an amazing 3 hour experience.

Prohibition: Illogical.

The Libertarian in me always gets riled up when it comes to the topic of prohibition. It is my firmly held belief that the state has no right in dictating what I or anyone else does to themselves, as long as it will bring no harm to others. Here in Australia we’re tolerant of small scale recreational usage (for the most part) but it’s still illegal with much of the power left in the judgement of the police. The legality is but a small part of it for me however as the capitalist in me also sees a strong opportunity for a new government regulated industry that would take away power from underground drug traffickers and significantly line the coffers of the government.

It seems I’m not the only one who holds such a viewpoint either. Here’s a great info-graphic that shows the costs of enforcing prohibition vs the revenue that could be raised by treating marijuana as any other agricultural product:


Whilst another $778 million might be a drop in the bucket for an economy as large as the USA the money spent in enforcing the prohibition of all illegal substances, some $14 billion, would be far better spent on education and health programs. History has shown us that prohibition does nothing to stop people from indulging in these activities so why try so hard to stop them? It’s right up there with abstinence only education which has been proven time and time again to be ineffective. But here I am just ranting on a subject, there’s no proof that legalising all these recreational drugs would work right?

As it turns out there’s quite a substantial body of evidence that legalising any and all recreational substances has an enormous positive effect for both the country and the people:

“Judging by every metric, decriminalization in Portugal has been a resounding success,” says Glenn Greenwald, an attorney, author and fluent Portuguese speaker, who conducted the research. “It has enabled the Portuguese government to manage and control the drug problem far better than virtually every other Western country does.”

Compared to the European Union and the U.S., Portugal’s drug use numbers are impressive. Following decriminalization, Portugal had the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use in people over 15 in the E.U.: 10%. The most comparable figure in America is in people over 12: 39.8%. Proportionally, more Americans have used cocaine than Portuguese have used marijuana.

This isn’t a new experiment by Portugal either, they’ve been at this for almost a decade now. The numbers are quite telling as initial fears mirrored those of any country; legalising drug use would increase usage, bring in the dreaded drug tourists and damage their international reputation. Drug usage overall saw a decrease (although there was a slight increase in marijuana usage), 95% of those arrested for drug misdemeanours were Portuguese (I.E. they were not drug tourists) and internationally Portugal has not been seen any differently due to its liberal stance on these issues (I found it hard to find direct evidence of this but since the majority of the world doesn’t know Portugal has such laws I’d say their reputation is in tact). Probably one of the best outcomes this program had was the doubling of people seeking treatment for drug addiction, something which many will not seek out of fear for what might happen to them. Truly Portugal has shown the world that the decriminalization aspect of recreational usage is viable and effective (more information at https://legalaed.com/about/).

There’s still a lack of hard data on what a government regulated and taxed drug industry would look like. The Netherlands is as close as they come to an actual regulated industry however it’s still extremely ambiguous due to the laws saying one thing, but the enforcement being another. Thus we end up in the situation where it’s not illegal to grow (although you have to hand the plants over if they’re found), coffee shops are allowed to sell it but not buy it (so how do they get it?) and separate registers need to be kept for the sales. Still the government rakes in around $600 million a year from this confusingly regulated industry and the case can be made that such revenue could be used in a similar vein to that derived from the tobacco industry. Seems a lot better than spending an order of magnitude more on trying to make everyone stop.

All this being said I’m in support of a careful, measured approach to implementing such an idea. Whilst I applaud Portugal’s progressive stance on decriminalising all recreational use the implementation of a new industry is something that is not to be taken lightly. A good old fashioned iterative approach starting in well known territory and then expanding (I.E. start with marijuana and move onto others afterwards) would ensure that this fledgling industry was properly regulated and taxed just like its sister industries of tobacco and alcohol.

I haven’t even mentioned the affect that this would have on crime rates in Australia. The data is a bit vague on how many crimes are directly related to drugs but 41% of detainees in Australia attribute their crimes at least in part to drugs (this also includes alcohol). The data seems to show that around that half of them would attribute that directly to alcohol, leaving around 20% of our prisoner population being there for some sort of drug related offence. Even if we’re conservative and say that at least three quarters of those offences would have been committed anyway that’s still a potential crime rate reduction of 5% which would be coupled with the benefit of adding revenue. There just doesn’t seem to be a downside to this equation.

Australia is in a really good position to attempt something like this. We’ve already got the basis in the lax enforcement of the laws and I’m sure there’s more than a handful of people out there with the infrastructure to provide for such an industry should their current activities become legalised. Still we’re in the midst of many other more pressing issues so something like this won’t get any airtime for a while to come. Maybe next term.

But then again I am relying on logic to dictate politics, and we all know how well that works 😉

Scepticism, Liberty and Cognitive Dissonance.

I’ve always considered myself somewhat of a libertarian when it comes to matters of politics and personal freedoms. I strongly believe that for the most part the government or any large establishment generally has no right to poke around in my private affairs unless I’ve explicitly allowed them to first. That or there’s a potential for me to do harm to others through my actions. There’s also this other part of me that can’t stand misinformation like what we see coming from the anti-vaccination movements that seemed to have popped up everywhere. However more recently I’ve been dealing with a bit of cognitive dissonance when it comes to the rising sceptic movement and their dealings with religious folk.

Whilst I’ve been struggling with the idea for a while this video I saw yesterday caused the dissonance I had felt previously to rise up again:

There’s also this post for a little bit more background on the matter.

First off let me say that if I was walking into that creationist museum I’d probably be doing the same thing as their group was doing. When it first opened I saw some of the pictures online I can’t say I didn’t make fun of them (this one is particularly amusing) and I probably would have been laughing the whole way through. Walking into a creationist museum wearing a Dawkins t-shirt was probably stirring the pot a little bit but I’ll concede that they could have reacted in a much more dignified way. But this is where everything starts to get all murky for me as the libertarian and sceptic in me start to duke it out.

The museum itself really isn’t doing any damage to anyone nor impinging on the freedoms of those who visit it. The funding to build the museum came from Answers in Gensis a non-profit organisation who makes do mostly on donations and for all intents and purposes are a transparent organisation. People giving money to them know what they will do with it and there seems to be no ill intent from them. In fact I had never heard of the organisation prior to this date (I somehow missed it in the first press releases) so they can’t be too bad.

Sceptics would probably argue however that the museum itself is a tool to spread misinformation. Now whilst the museum title is a little misleading you’d have to be relatively naive to be able to blast past the fact that this place is firmly rooted in Young Earth Creationists ideals. As such something that states its goals so plainly before everyone can hardly be classified as a tool of misinformation. It would be like saying the National Air and Space Museum is nothing but a tool of the aviation industry, it’s not quite like that.

I guess the problem I have here is that when some sceptics come up against people don’t believe in science is that on the surface they appear to be fighting for fact based reasoning but once you get down to it, they’re just zealots for another cause. I’ve come to realise that sometimes you can never convince someone of your viewpoint and that it is better to just lay out the facts as you see them and then leave it at that. At least that way you’ve had your say, they’ve had theirs and you can all agree to walk away from it. If either of you have a compelling argument it will stick in your opponents mind and you might end up with another ally rather than someone who dismisses your ideas as petty zealotry.

Religion does have its place and I came to accept that many years ago. Destroying people’s faith is not something I’ve seen help a lot of people but if they are presented with some facts and they decide to do some research on their own then that is the true power of an idea. Ravenously campaigning against people’s faith does nothing but strengthen their resolve and the best method of defense is to their the facts stand up for themselves.

Maybe I’m just a pacifist at heart.

The Engi-not-so-neer (or Why I hate IT “Engineers”).

Take anyone from your IT department and have a look at their job title. About 90% of the time there will be at least one person who has the title word engineer thrown in there, usually at the end (Network Engineer or Systems Engineer). Now to someone like myself who is an actual engineer this is a bit of a poke in the face, but the IT industry seems to get off scott free when it comes to abusing registered titles something which gets my and many other engineer’s guards up. We put a lot of work into becoming the people we are and having our title watered down by those who don’t care to look up and recognise its importance is a sore spot for us all.

I first came across this when I started studying engineering. I gleefully called myself an engineer in front of my father (a radio and telecommunications engineer himself) and was instantly met with scorn. He then took me through the history of what the engineer title was, and why calling myself one prematurely was unprofessional. I took this under my hat and didn’t mention again until I graduated. It was a very proud day for me since I knew the weight that my new title would carry when I began my first tenuous steps into the professional world. Needless to say I got a bit of a rude shock.

It’s hard for me to pin down where this whole debacle started, since the IT industry is pretty lax when it comes to defining roles with a standard nomenclature. I can identify with the notion that when you’re recruiting for a position you would want someone with engineer like qualities (which are pretty much standard for most positions within the IT industry) however giving the engineer title to a position is a slap in the face to those of us who have pursued a career in the field of engineering. I guess I should be pointing the finger at recruitment agencies and HR departments, since they’re the ones who are responsible for actually assigning names to roles (and would explain the lack of understanding of what an engineer is).

It may seem like a minor point to get upset about but just imagine the same thing being pulled with the Doctor or Architect titles (shamefully the IT industry has diluted the meaning of Architect as well). The title is supposed to carry with it a sense about the person who carries it, and having people use it so broadly only detracts from its purpose. If anything it shows that we’re capable of putting up with University for 4 years.

I guess it’s the bitter engineer coming out of me again but I do feel a great deal of respect for those of us who have gone through the hoops in order to call ourselves engineers. We form a select group of people who are expertly skilled and I dont like to see the engineer title diluted by those who don’t cut the mustard.

Understanding Your Readers.

As we’ve seen previously I’m no marketing guru. I started this blog out of a slightly delusional and naive idea that everything I had to talk about was in some way interesting, as I think most blogs do. After a while I came to realise that it was a creative way for me to try and get some educational information online for people. While I’m no sceptic who goes around fighting all of the scientific injustices that might be committed around the world I do hope that some of my articles give people enough background to understand  the content; and hopefully spur them on to do some reading themselves.

It was then interesting to note then how other people got into blogging and how they carve out a readership online. I think I can break them down into about 3 different categories:

  • Transitioners: The ones who came to online web logging from some other medium. These people have the experience in other media to make an online presence work quite well for them, and their blogs tend to have a high level of polish. Some of them are even created out of spite for the old medium, with these bloggers seeking freedom from their editors and publishers so that they can publish their ideas more freely. They also come with an installed readership, which helps to get the site rolling.
  • Famous/Celebrity/Pop Icon: We’ve all seen these kinds of blogs. Whilst I doubt the majority of them are actually the people themselves posting (that’s what a PR department is for) you do get the occasional one where they’ve decided to become more involved in an online way. Some of them are great to show the person behind the fame, as we often forget that celebrities aren’t always the people we see on TV.
  • Journalers/Aspirers: People like myself who for one reason or another decided that a blog was a good idea. These make up the majority of online blogs and they all usually have something in mind. A lot will just be a personal web space to share with friends, others will start with great aspirations for stating a claim on some online territory.

The first two categories come with a built in audience, and I think that shapes what people will expect from them. One of my favourite blogs, The Dilbert Blog by Scott Adams, shows that he knows he’s readers tend towards the slightly nerdy and politically active crowd. Much like his Dilbert comics which satirise office life so does his blog about the real world. He sums it up pretty well with his definition philosotainment.

Due to my training as an engineer I tend to put a lot of trust in the raw data that this site generates. Having a look at the stats for the site it seems like most of my readers are technically inclined, love their games and have a head for political debate. That fights quite well with the overall aim I have for this blog, and I love a good discussion.

Managers, Metrics and Misanthropy.

When I was a young and naive lad I had firmly set my sights on becoming a project manager. It seemed like a great place to aim towards, the money appeared to be good and you’re not bound to one industry so there’s no end of jobs and new opportunities. I even managed to convince two groups of university students to make me their project manager, with one of them garnering a mild success with the other failing horribly (which I will admit was pretty much all my fault). Still this didn’t deter me and I continued to pursue a career as a project manager, working my way up from low level IT work in the hopes I could make the jump into projects sometime in the future.

Roll forward a couple years and I found myself working for Unisys as part of the outsourcing arrangement with the Department of Immigration and Citizenship here in Canberra. It was a good work environment and I quickly improved my skills over the first 6 months or so. I even thought I had the skills to take a shot at one of the specialist positions, something that I hoped would lead me onto more project work. Talking to the current specialists I was led to believe it was a very client facing position, and I marketed myself as someone who was capable of managing client relationships well and proving to be a valuable project resources. I didn’t get the position however they did offer me a role as a technical lead in the new projects section they were creating, something which sounded pretty cool at the time. Eventually it turned out that this position was really a junior project manager role, and for the first time in a long while I was put in charge of projects. I was in for an awakening of sorts, since the corporate world was nothing like the academic.

My first few months in the position started off well. Our section consisted of 2 other people who were in positions just like me. Our focus was small projects that wouldn’t require the involvement of the solutions architect and could be resourced internally. Most of these were IT projects that weren’t covered in the out-sourcing contract, something which I’ve blogged about previously. We were basically a pure profit centre since all of us were hired as system administrators (fully paid for by DIAC) and were moved to the projects team due to them being able meet SLAs without us. I got to work on some pretty cool projects there with my favourite being the deployment of digital fingerprint scanners and cameras to the detention centres in Australia. The house of cards started to come tumbling down when the higher ups needed a “clearer view” of what we were doing and of course bungled the whole thing.

Since we had come from the administrators team we still used the majority of their systems for all of our daily activities. Requests for new projects would come through the same incident management system and this was the first place management decided to look for to derive some metrics. The problem here was that a typical project can’t be judged under the same SLA as an incident, since one of them is a problem that needs to be resolved ASAP and the other could stretch out over many months depending on the scope. We copped a fair beating over the way the tickets were being handled, so we fought back saying the system was inadequate for accurately tracking our progress. This led to a lengthy battle between us and the Projects Management Office (which at the time was technically the Asset Management area) as they had promised us as system that would allow them to get the metrics they desired. We eventually got our way by not going through the “proper channels” (we called a meeting with them directly without involving our managers) and got a system in place. This happened a few weeks before I left Unisys, and was still suffering from teething problems when I left.

My short time as a project manager taught me many things. The first was that I never wanted to be a project manager ever again. Most of my time was spent either chasing clients for money or asking them whether or not they actually wanted the project they asked for. Also project managers should never be taken from a group of people they will be managing as they need to be at least 1 step removed to avoid any contention issues. There’s nothing more awkward than trying to force your friends or former colleagues to do some work, something I encountered a few times.

The second, and probable one of the most valuable lessons, was that you have to be careful in how you define and apply metrics to anything as improper use of them will skew your vision of what is really happening. One of the often use metrics that I despise is the time taken to close a call when on a help desk. The poor operators were pressured into closing their calls quickly which usually meant that if the problem wasn’t solved there would be a severe lack of information, transferring the load from the call centre to the more costly second level support teams. Closing calls quickly is great and all, but what they what they were really doing is costing the company more to get the same outcome.

It was all summed up pretty succinctly for me in this one quote I came across on Slashdot:

Management gets the behaviour that it rewards, not necessarily the behaviour that it pretends to ask for.

Metrics are supposed to encourage people to achieve goals that align with the company’s vision. However they more often than not reward people for doing something completely different and that’s where the problem lies. I guess it all comes from that culture of wanting to boil everything down to a nice chart for the higher ups, but that’s a story for another day.

The Changing Face of the Modern Geek.

Just as the IT industry continues to reinvent itself every 10 years so it also appears do the people in that industry. Whilst the term IT is relatively new when compared to many other trades it has still managed to capture a stereotype. What is interesting however is how the image of the typical IT geek has progressed over the past few decades from a lab worker to now something completely and utterly different.


Image courtesy of the Computer History Museum.

In the early days of large computational clusters many technicians would look like this. Well dressed and with an almost business like demeanour. It was part of the culture back then as many of these types of systems were either for large universities or corporations, and with big dollars being shelled out for such systems (this was the IBM 7030 Stretch which would cost around $100 million in today’s dollars) this was kind of expected. I think that’s why the next generation of geeks set the trend for the next couple decades.


Image courtesy of Microsoft.

A young Bill Gates shows what would become the typical image conjured up in everyone’s heads when the word geek or nerd was uttered for a long time to come. The young, tall and skinny people who delved themselves into computers were the faces of our IT community for a long time, and I think this is when those thick rimmed glasses became synonymous with our kind. It was probably around this time that geeks became associated with a tilt towards social awkwardness, something that many people still joke about today. What’s really interesting though is the next few steps I’ve seen in the changing geek image.

davidfilojerryyangImage courtesy of JustTheLists.

Jerry Yang and David Filo, the first of a generation of what most people call Internet pioneers. Whilst I can’t find a direct link to it Yahoo had a bit of a reputation for a very casual work environment, with t-shirts and sandals the norm. It was probably because of their success from coming straight out of university and into a successful corporate world, where they grew their own business culture. This kind of thing flowed onto many of the other successful Internet companies like Google, who lavishes their employees with almost everything they will ever need.


Image Courtesy of Robert Scoble.

Tom Anderson, one of the co-founders of MySpace is not what you’d call your typical geek with a degree in Arts and a masters in Film. You’d struggle to find him even associated with such titles, yet he’s behind one of the largest technical companies on the Internet. Truly the face of the modern geek aspires to something more like Tom Anderson then it does to a young Bill Gates.

I found this interesting because of the company that I keep. We all love computer games and the latest bits of tech, but you’d be hard pressed to find among us anyone you could really call your stereotypical geek. I think this is indicative of the maturity that the IT industry has acquired. The term IT Professional no longer conjures up an idea of a basement dwelling console hacker with thick glasses, more it gives the impression that you’d expect from a professional in any industry. Something which carries with it a decent chunk of respect.

I guess the next step is when we start seeing Joe the IT Professional used in political campaigns.

(Dis)Trust the Experts.

I make no secret of the topics that I have absolutely no idea in. Sure I’m able to make an educated guess about most things but I will usually seek an expert or experienced person in a field if I want to know something about it. This is why I always find it strange when people start bashing doctors or lawyers when they themselves have little to no experience in their field. Whilst I thought that this was probably the right way to rationally think about things it turns out I might actually be following my natural instincts closer than I thought:

Financial advice can make us take leave of our senses, according to research that shows how the brain sets aside rationality when it gets the benefit of supposedly expert opinion.

When a bank manager or investment adviser recommends a financial decision, the brain tends to abdicate responsibility and defer to their authority with little independent thought, a study has suggested.

Such expert advice suppresses activity in a neural circuit that is critical to sound decision-making and value judgments, scientists in the US have found.

Their results may explain why people are so apt to follow experts’ recommendations blindly, when a little reflection might be sufficient to suggest an alternative course of action.

This also brought up a good point about leadership in the workplace. Working as a contractor I’m often asked my opinion on matters to see what someone from outside the organisation thinks. However whilst I may bring a different opinion to the table I’ve noticed that people do tend to switch off the critical thinking whilst they’re talking to me, and become far too agreeable to some of the things that I propose. I’ve seen this happen with big projects as well, once an external agency wins a contract they will usually do work their way and the client will usually adapt themselves to agency rather than the other way around.

So thinking back to my distrustful friends it became clear that the best way to deal with a subject that you have no experience in is to first educate yourself about it. Wikipedia is great for this as it provides a good overview of a topic with links to further reading should you wish to pursue the topic any further. Once you know a little bit about the subject you can then ask the right questions of the experts, and get a feeling for when an answer is out of line.

I think the main problem with naively trusting the experts is that whilst they might be very well versed in their particular field of study they probably aren’t the definitive source on that topic. I know when people ask me about certain topics (virtualization is a great one) I’ll be able to answer 95% of questions off the top of my head. After that my answers start to get peppered with “I think” and “should be” but most people don’t hear this and will take that 5% of answers as expert opinion. Having a little knowledge in that area would hopefully give them enough scepticism to see when I started to walk outside my expert boundaries and trigger them to do their own research.

Overall developing a base level of knowledge and treating experts with a small dose of scepticism will ultimately leave your more informed and will keep your brain from switching off it’s critical thinking when someone floods you with facts. Wikipedia and Google are your friends here, but remember to treat them just as you would any other expert.

Social Networking – The Voyeur and Exhibitionist Unleashed.

With the increasing prevalence of social technologies more and more of our daily life is becoming part of an online community. Increasingly spending leisure time at the computer is no longer a “geeks only” activity and what we’re seeing is the transition of what people would regularly do through another, less public, medium onto online sources viewable for almost anyone who would want to see them. What is truly surprising is how people willingly share some of this information, until you consider the origins of these social applications.

Take a social group (friends, colleagues, etc) what are some of the main activities that such a group might carry out? Going out to places, sharing experiences about recent events, chatting about topics and so on. In essence social networking tools have just enabled a greater audience to use the Internet as a more convenient place for them to gather, and as such they will use it as they would say a table in a coffee shop, sharing experiences and the like. This is the two sided coin of exhibitionism and voyeurism, we all want to share our lives with other people and we’re also intersted in learning about others.

Sites like Twitter and MySpace take it one step further. Instead of it being focused directly on a circle of friends it’s more about your own personal space on the Internet that you can just happen to share with your friends (and let everyone else know who your friends are). These sites are more suited to people who’s personality tends towards the exhibitionist in them, as it’s basically an open invitation for anyone to come in and have a look at their life. They’re also a boon for the more voyeuristic types as well, since they can get a glimpse of someone’s life without them knowing about it.

It’s this strange combination of unleashing two sides of a (usually) socially taboo coin that drew a lot of people to these sites in the first place. We all know someone who has 300+ friends on Facebook and know full well that at least half of them are just on their to bump up their friends count. However this is exactly what would attract them to the site, since they now have a captive audience of 300+ who will get all their status updates and delightful quiz requests. On the other side there are those who want to see what people they used to know are getting up to, sometimes out of a slightly twisted desire to see if they’re doing better then them (basically a real time high school reunion, with all the lovely embarrassment/embellishments that come with it).

Personally I got into this whole social networking thing for two reasons. The first was that a lot of my friends were on it and were using it increasingly to organise events and get togethers. This got my foot in the door so to speak, and I stayed as it became a great tool to keep in touch with my friends in far off lands. The second was after I discovered LinkedIn, as I began to use social networking professionally. Although I do question the benefits of doing so currently.

In essence these online social networking sites are just another playground for groups of people to do things that they would normally do, just through a different medium. Whatever attracted them to these sites originally existed in the real world first and it’s no surprise that these sites have brought their real world problems along with them.