I have a bugbear for people who believe they know better than those who’ve made a career out of being experts in some field. For me in particular its doctors as I know that I’m rubbish when it comes to figuring why things are happening in my body so I defer to their expertise. People I know seem to harbour a deep mistrust for them however, believing that everything they’re telling them is wrong and only they have the right answers. Whilst everyone has a story of when a doctor might not have got things quite right they always seem to forget the times when they got them spot on, which I’ll argue is more often than not.
The reason why they don’t get it right 100% of the time is due to the very nature of medicine and, more generally, the principles they and all other science based professions engage. For highly complicated systems like the human body it’s nigh on impossible to control for every input and thus we instead rely on statistical models that pull from large data sets so we have a good idea of the effect something will have given a certain input. These models are far from perfect and this means that edge cases won’t respond in the same way but that does not invalidate the model, it merely identifies another factor that needs to be incorporated into it.
It was these very principles that lead a group of scientists back in 2009 to make a prediction that there was a low risk of an earthquake in the small town of L’Aquila in Italy. Months prior to them making the prediction L’Aquila had been rocked by many small tremors which is what caused the local government to convene a panel of experts to determine whether action was warranted. L’Aquila lies on a fault line and using seismic models they had available at the time the scientists concluded that the risk of a larger quake was unaffected by the recent tremors, but there was still a risk. Forced into the situation of giving a yes or no answer they opted for no as earthquake predictions of that nature are incredibly disruptive events for all involved. Unfortunately for them not 6 days later a magnitude 6.3 quake hit L’Aquila and over 300 people lost their lives.
When something devastating like this happens it’s human nature to look for someone to blame. The people of L’Aquila turned their sights on the scientists and politicians who had were involved in making the predictions and yesterday saw 7 of them convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 6 years jail, 2 more years than what the prosecution was asking for. The conviction is assuredly done in order to placate the larger public of L’Aquila who are still struggling to rebuild after the quake laid waste to their town and many of them are seeing this as some small form of justice for those who perished.
This could not be further from the truth.
The predictions they made (which were then announced by a government official with no seismological experience) were based around the models and data they had available at the time and all of them pointed to there being no increased risk of a large quake at that time. Whilst there’s an argument to be made that in the hours leading up to it models in use then would have predicted a massive increase in risk (on the other from 1 in 200,000 to 1 in 1000) that doesn’t change the fact that the prediction they made was sound. To turn around and prosecute them means that in future all scientists who are approached to make predictions of this nature will err on the side of caution and any mild risk will turn into an absolute or, more chillingly, they’ll simply refuse to make any prediction at all lest they face litigation.
The fact of the matter is that there are many factors that lead up to this disaster being as bad as it was and laying all the blame on the scientists who made a prediction based on good data and science shows that they were only looking for a scape goat. There are numerous other individuals who could be held as equally responsible for this such as the builders who built and maintained those houses (magnitude 6.0 proof buildings can be easily constructed, just ask Japan), the regulators who didn’t mandate certain construction standards and anyone else who could be tangentially involved. We won’t do that though because it sounds like madness yet throwing scientists in jail seems reasonable, something which I will never understand.
I am so sorry for the losses the people of L’Aquila have had to endure but blaming the scientists for this is not the right course of action. Instead they should focus on ensuring that the risk is fully mitigated rather than relying on predictions that can and will be wrong from time to time. From now on no scientist in their right mind will make any predictions unless they can be granted immunity from prosecution and when that doesn’t happen they’ll simply refuse. It is one of the most chilling effects modern science has experience in recent memory and I can only hope that the verdict is overturned.
Not just for the scientist’s sake, for the sake of science at large.
Whilst the only current smartphone platform I’ve had any decent experience with is Apple’s iPhone I’m still not completely tied to it. Sure the platform is great and I’ll always be keeping an iOS device around for as long as I keep developing for the platform but my next handset purchase is more than likely not going to be another Apple device. The case is strong for a Windows Phone 7 handset thanks to its great tool set and general esoteric-ness (I don’t yet know anyone who’s bought one) but that same air of mystery is a double edged sword. Sure most of my general applications will be available on it, like Twitter and Facebook, but past that there’s not a whole lot of interest in the platform.
It’s not surprising really considering that slice of the mobile market pie that Microsoft commands is only a mere 5.5% according to the IDC, which includes all handsets that come under the Windows umbrella. The nearest rival to them is RIM (creator of the Blackberry handset series) who nearly triple their share at a whopping 14.9% and even they don’t seem to command a 3rd party developer army comparable to that of Android or Google. Still with them sealing the deal on a partnership with Nokia recently the IDC has reported that Microsoft’s WP7 platform will begin to surge ahead, overtaking iOS and being second only to Android.
The intial reaction to this was of course, utter disbelief:
In the close to six months that WP7 has been available, it has failed to set sales on fire. In fact, Microsoft hasn’t provided any metrics on how many WP7 handsets have been sold. Also, the 5.5% market share that Microsoft has now represents both WP7 and the old Windows Mobile 5.x and 6.x systems, which are still being sold on enterprise handhelds.
Further, Microsoft has stumbled badly with the first two system updates for its smartphone platform. First by delaying it for nearly two months, and second by bungling the actual delivery of the updates. Things are not going so smoothly for Microsoft. Heck, WP7 champion Joe Belfiore actually wrote a public apology to its WP7 customers about the whole update debacle.
Zeman makes some good points about the WP7 ecosystem and the troubles Microsoft has faced in dragging their Windows Mobile platform into the modern age. The sales figures aren’t that impressive when you compare them to iOS and Android, heck they’re not even that impressive compared to single handsets on either platform. Still this ignores the fact that WP7 is still a nascent platform and it will be a while before it reaches the maturity level that everyone’s expecting of it. If we’re fair and compare the initial WP7 sales to the initial release of Android you’ll actually find them quite comparable with the G1 selling some 600,000 handsets in the first couple months and WP7 cracking 1.5 million in its first 6 weeks. It took quite a while for Android and even the iPhone to hit the fever pitch that they have today so the current market share of WP7 devices shouldn’t really come as a surprise.
I can’t provide an excuse for their botched update schedule however. Apple seems to be the only major competitor that’s nailed this completely with Android and WP7 both suffering from the same carrier induced delays and fragmentation problems. It’s actually one of the reasons why I haven’t already lashed out for a WP7 handset since the main carrier of them here in Australia, Telstra, is still testing the pre-update update and has no schedule for the release of the coveted Nodo update. Since there doesn’t seem to be any way to route around the carrier and install the patch manually (although I’ll admit I haven’t done a ton of research on this) it means I’m wholly dependent on someone other than Microsoft to get my handset updated. With Telstra’s track record that doesn’t exactly inspire much confidence in the platform.
Both Android and iOS faced similar problems in their infancy and I’m sure WP7 will be able to overcome them in the future. Whether it will become the second most popular platform though remains to be seen as whilst the Nokia relationship means they have a strong possibility of gaining some serious traction it’s not a sure bet that every current Symbian customer will convert over to WP7. With Microsoft being particularly coy about their sales figures its hard to get a good reading of how their new mobile platform is trending but it will definitely be interesting to see how their market share changes as Nokia begins releasing their WP7 handsets.
Despite my tag-line explicitly mentioning finance I haven’t really been harping on the subject much recently. I’ve always managed to find something else far more interesting than boring everyone to death with dollar figures or the latest news on how the Global Financial Crisis is unravelling itself. More importantly however the big ticket financial issues haven’t really caused any waves and as such I really haven’t had anything to say on the matter. Yesterday however a juicy little nugget in the form of recent GDP growth has given me a little something to talk about:
The economy grew 2.7 percent from a year earlier, the report showed. Economists forecast a 2.4 percent expansion.
Signs that Australia’s economy outperformed other nations made its dollar the best performer among the most-traded currencies in the past year. The currency has climbed 42 percent versus its U.S. counterpart since March 2009 and this week hit a 25-year high against Britain’s pound.
Faster-than-anticipated growth was a key reason policy makers increased the overnight cash rate target to 4 percent yesterday from 3.75 percent and prompted Governor Stevens to say rates should be closer to “average,” which he last week signaled may be 75 basis points higher than they are now.
It was just under a year ago when I did my first analysis of how Australia was reacting to the GFC and I did a followup a few months later. Back then I made the point that Australia was well placed to whether the fallout from the USA’s failings and we would for the most part be unaffected. Here we are many months along the track and my predictions have come true, despite the air of skepticism that abounded in the media and amongst my peers. I can’t say that I blame them though as the media was pushing the story that everyone wanted to hear and the everyman would have to actively seek out the opposing viewpoints, something which most of them don’t have the time or resources to do.
The follow on effect of economic growth is of course higher interest rates. Whilst I appreciated them at the time (and managed to lock in a home loan at an absolutely ridiculous rate for the next 2 years) I feel there might be a mini housing crisis on the horizon when the interest rates ramp up and flood of first time home owners start to feel the pinch. The First Home Owner’s Grant boost definitely kept the low to mid range of the property market from feeling any effects of the GFC however it may have come at the cost of long term price stability in the future. I’m really just speculating here as if interest rates stay away from their 2008~2009 highs then most of them will be fine. However I know many who took advantage of the boost to crack into the property market without thinking about the long term consequences, especially when concerning higher interest rates. Time will tell if this mini-disaster comes to pass (it will be short, as the glut of cheap homes will be snapped up by investors) but I’ll be watching the low to mid range market carefully over the next few years.
Another factor to take into consideration is the current unemployment rate, which has shown an interesting turn recently:
I made the observation back in September that the unemployment rate was steady to that month, which was a good sign. However in the same breath I also cautioned about another metric, underemployment, that showed there was still some work to be done. Recent figures show that in fact things are improving with the underemployment rate dropping 0.4% to 13.5% a small but marked improvement. The article I just linked echoes the feelings I was trying to get across many months ago but also fails to recognise that underemployment and unemployment will track each other quite closely, with minimal lag between changes. The stability of the previous 2 quarters plus the trend down in the quarter just past shows that not only are we creating more jobs but we’re also able to ramp people back up that had to cut back their hours for economic reasons. Both these metrics are trending in the direction that you’d expect when the economy is on the way up, which for all intents and purposes it is.
Additionally the mass media has been generally free of any major doom and gloom stories regarding the economy. The last interest rate hike went past without even a second glance from the major news outlets when just under a year ago it would’ve spurred days worth of debate. It seems that we’re far more interested in Rudd’s latest health care plan than whether or not our houses are going to be worthless and our mortgages untenable, which means the consumer sentiment is improving.
After spending the past year telling everyone that it wasn’t going to be as bad as the news made it out to be it’s good to finally get some vindication on the matter. This year will see Australia drive itself forward and will hopefully let the Rudd government start to really get their teeth into some real initiatives, rather than fighting an economic fire. With an election not far off it’s going to be interesting to see not only how the post GFC Rudd handles himself, but also Australia at large.