Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Caution: May contain Americans

I have watched in gaping horror as mass killings in the USA seem to have become a weekly occurrence, differing only in degree since the slayings in Newtown. Prolonging this travesty, I see that American gun clubs are shrilly screaming that their rights will be trampled if they are not allowed to own assault weapons. Weapons made for the sole purpose of killing human beings by profiteering arms manufacturers. One shouldn't blame the arms manufacturers though. The only reason they stoop to making these assault weapons is because they aren't allowed to sell grenade launchers and nerve gas to the general public.

The Americans, by and large, seem to be persuaded by gun clubs that not only is it their right, but their duty to have an arsenal of murderous weapons to protect themselves from 'these insane killers.' Maybe 'belief' is a better word than 'persuade' as is evidenced by the unquestioning obedience of their followers and a parroting of every utterance from Wayne LaPierre, the CEO and spokesman for the National Rifle Association. May God help you if you criticise these beliefs. You would be launching a "hostile attack against the U.S. Constitution" by attacking their second amendment right to bear arms. Never mind your first amendment right to free speech. You're probably just a damn foreigner anyway. 

The American contagion: the dogmatic belief that the only way to cure mass shootings is to get more guns is like treating a rotten foundation by adding termites. Their ability to maintain these dangerous beliefs in the face of contrary evidence is astounding. They are unable to see that by making it easy to purchase assault weapons for themselves as protection against mostly imaginary threats, they are creating real threats.

I propose we limit this contagion. Those of us living in the rest of the (real) world need to put up barriers. To protect us and keep this toxic culture from escaping, Americans travelling internationally should be subjected to extra security measures at their point of departure and a psychological evaluation. This would help ensure that, if given the chance to leave the USA, they won't try to infect the rest of us with their warped values. Every international flight which originates in the USA should have a warning sticker attached to the cabin doors, "Caution: May contain Americans."

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Biased News

Bias in news reporting. This road to hell doesn't even have good intentions.

Maybe other cultures have different values on truthfullness in the media. Heck, maybe my culture has different values on truth in journalism. I believe that in the west there has long been this notion that reporting the news is some kind of sacred trust and the thought of fabricating the news is outrageous and that staging the news is just unthinkable. This is because a requirement for a healthy democracy is that the citizens have access to genuine, trustworthy unbiased information. This knowledge allows them to make informed decisions for their own good and the good of their democracy.

Enter Fox News. They have managed to not only get away with making up the news, they got the Supreme Court in the US to agree that there is nothing even wrong with disseminating this 'fiction' as long as it is for 'entertainment' purposes. Somehow it is still sold as 'truth' which is where fiction reverts to 'lies' but the Supreme Court doesn't seem to make this distinction. I never managed to get my head around that one. Just one more big lie on top of a bunch of other lies.

Thanks to Fox News, if one can thank that miserable cauldron of scum for anything, I now manage to accept that a news organization can not only twist the news to their unique bias, but to make it up. Recently I have been shown that an al-Jazeera journalist, Khaled Saleh, has been staging the news. A news reporter representing al-Jazeera being shown in various roles as a protester, rebel, wounded civilian, corpse, leader, – even a reporter. This isn't too far a stretch to believe if you have Fox News Fantasies as a stepping stone.

If a story appears about a news organization staging the news, then couldn't this story have in fact been fabricated as well? I did some checking and found that al-Jazeera has lost a number of top drawer reporters in the last year complaining of bias. Most of these reporters left since the news organization's Director General Wadah Khanfar unexpectedly resigned in September of 2011 and was replaced by Ahmed bin Jassim Al-Thani bringing al-Jazeera under tight control of the Qatari royal family.

Now the Qatari government is backing rebels of the Assad regime in Syria. Any news you get from al-Jazeera would then have to come through that colored lens. Serious allegations for an organization which has become the primary source of news for western media - a media which has reduced or eliminated their investigative reporting abilities in favor of cutbacks, perhaps in order to provide a greater bonus for their board of directors.

Which brings me back to my original thesis, I believe that truth in news reporting is fundamental to the health of a democracy. It is a crime against democratic principles to make-up, embellish or otherwise stage the news. This form of information is a sacred trust to empower the citizens of a democracy to make informed choices. The penalties for violating this trust should be as severe as any which endanger the democracy.

So let me introduce my gradient of truthful news reporting, hereafter know as Sheldon's gradient of grotty news reporting.

  1. First there are the news-organizations which attempt to give the facts without embellishment. A difficult and noble undertaking as news sources and personal biases are hard enough to remove.
  2. Second there are the biased news organizations which do not attempt or minimally attempt to remove bias from their content. They report the news from a personal or cultural bias. Most news organizations in the USA are biased in some form or another. To see this, all you have to do is look beyond the US borders.
  3. Third there are news organizations which make up news stories to fit their personal agenda or to gain rating through sensationalist reporting, e.g. FOX News. This gradient of news is generally reported with some pundit injecting their opinions into the news items.
  4. Fourth there are news organizations which stage the news. Apparently this now includes elements of al-Jazeera.

Note: I have followed al-Jazeera since their first attempts at an english language website. There are still many good people who work there. However, I suspect that some of them have lost their way.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Apnoea or Allergy?

When you have a medical problem, the kind of treatment recommended will vary according to whom you ask for help. A chemist will give you drugs, a surgeon will offer to cut the problem out, a faith healer will give you bullshit and a sleep clinic will fit you with a CPAP machine to keep you breathing at night.
For instance, if you happen to have a little sleep apnoea like me, you first take a sleep test to determine the severity of your symptoms. You go to a sleep clinic with your pillow and favourite teddy bear and they stick wires on your skin to your head and chest. They attach a blood oxygen sensor to your forefinger and tuck you in for an uncomfortable nights' sleep.
Once the severity of your symptoms are determined, you are fitted for a mask. A CPAP machine is calibrated to force enough oxygen into your airway to ensure that every night is as uncomfortable as can possibly be. After a couple of weeks of sleepless struggling as the CPAP machine tries to explode your sinuses with cold air, you toss the CPAP machine out. This is called being 'non-compliant'.
If you are unfortunate enough to have a GP who is savvy on up to date remedies for apnoea you will be chided on being non-compliant and then given a referral to see a maxillofacial surgeon as a possible alternative to CPAP. The surgeon will tell you to have a radiology scan of your head to see if the state of your sinuses and the size of your bank account will justify nasal surgery. After the surgeon carefully looks at the speed boat brochure laying next to your radiology scan he recommends carving up your sinuses to allow you to sleep easier and 'relieve' your suffering.
On the gurney you calmly recall your boss telling you that her nasal surgery left her in daily pain for the last seven years, but that 'rarely' happens. The surgeon and the anaesthetist give you winning smiles as they lean over you and say, “you will hardly notice anything.”
You wake up an hour and a half later and it was true, you didn't notice anything and everything is fine, until the local wears off. In the middle of the night you have to demand the nurse give you a shot of morphine as she doesn't really believe that Tylenol 'doesn't do anything' for you.
A week later, after removing five kilometres of gauze from your nose, you are ready to try out your new sinuses. Things are different. There is a clean, cool breeze every time you inhale through your nose and your sinuses drain like a faucet. When you bend over a little, a river of liquid snot runs out of your nose. Well, maybe that's an improvement. It is certainly much more entertaining than it used to be. But you still suffer from a light to moderate amount of sleep apnoea and you chalk it up to being a little overweight. So you resign yourself to taking a spontaneous nap every afternoon and needing more sleep than everyone else. Yeah, fuck it.
A couple of years later, you try some allergy pills for a couple of days while on holiday in the states. The pollen season is in full bloom and being in the Willamette Valley, you can hardly breath.
You are apprehensive about taking allergy meds. The last two kinds allergy pills you tried left you feeling like shit. Pseudo-ephedrine left you sleepless and benadryl put you to sleep. This new stuff, fexofenadine, really works without obvious side effects. So you take your new meds for a couple of days, until you leave Oregon and head off to other parts.
A few weeks later you take your daughter Anna to an allergist to look into desensitisation. You watch the doctor verify the diagnosis of dust mite and cat hair using a scratch test. The control, histamine, is put on the skin in one spot and then a sample of dust mites and of cat hair in liquid form is put on her skin in other spots. After a few minutes the skin becomes inflamed and swells up at each of the spots.
It occurs to you that this stuff runs in the family as you tell the allergist that the sniffling daughter leaves a trail of tissues behind her everywhere she goes. The ever-present bandanna hanky weighs heavy in your back pocket, and not just metaphorically. Maybe, just maybe, your sleep apnoea is caused by a reaction or swelling in your sinuses, throat and lungs caused by the dust mites which have bothered you for decades. But this doesn't occur to you until after you have left the allergist's office. If I bring it up to the allergist, I am sure he will agree and recommend a course of allergy treatment. Just like the sleep clinic and CPAP, the surgeon and surgery, this will be the end all of my problems. Except, all sarcasm aside, there is possibly a ring of truth to this.
It seemed intuitive to experiment with some allergy meds after suspecting there is some link between my allergies and sleep apnoea. So I took up a regimen of allergy meds for a couple weeks. I noticed that after a week that I felt more rested than I had been for ages. My relationship with food seems more relaxed. I am able to concentrate better. Very interesting.
I went to the Google and looked this up. It appears that there is also a link between my allergies and anxious behaviour. I read somewhere that ADHD and sleep apnoea are connected, where ADHD is claimed to be a consequence of the loss of sleep suffered by sleep apnoea. I have also read that loss of sleep associated with sleep apnoea is also blamed for overeating.
This whole chain of shit was started from the epiphany of seeing the inflammation caused by the scratch test being administered to offspring Anna and linking it to little observations I had made.
Then again, maybe it's just the yoga.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Queensland driving lesson

I have long suspect that hooning, i.e. street racing, pealing out or driving like an idiot is not only legal but mandatory in Queensland. This conversation came to mind this morning after I saw this car go by with the car's name smartly painted on the door panel just above the trim-lights.

“May I see your license sir?”
“Certainly constable. Was I doing something wrong?”
“You are aware of the hooning laws in Queensland?”
“Why I wasn't speeding or anything. I was going 5k under the posted speed.”
“That is exactly what I am talking about.”
“You mean I am supposed hoon? Drag race down main street?”
“Especially in the school zones.”
“Fish tails and doughnuts?”
“The more tire smoke, the better.”
“But that just seems wrong.”
“It's the law sir. I will have to write you a ticket.”
“But I didn't know I was doing anything wrong.”
“Ignorance of the law is no excuse. You do have a Queensland drivers license. What is the name of your car sir?”
“Like Holden?”
“No, like 'Eat My Dust' or 'Lil Speed Demon'. For the ticket I need to know the name of your car. It should be clearly displayed on or under the drivers door panel.”
“I didn't know my car needed a name.”
“An unnamed car is in violation of local motor vehicle law. Your car also appears to be unmodified, is that true?”
“Oh yes, my car is as pristine as it was on the show room floor.”
“Unmodified vehicles are not considered roadworthy in Queensland.”
“What should I do?”
“You will need to have your car towed to a local mechanic to affect repairs.”
“What kind of repairs?”
“You will need rims, high performance mufflers, shocks and window tinting. I would also recommend you have the engine bored and a nitrous tank installed just to keep you out of further trouble.”
“It sounds expensive.”
“If you are on the dole, the government will pay for the modifications out of your hoon allowance. Except the window tinting.”
“Why not window tinting?”
“The tinters didn't have enough money to bribe the MPs.”
“People accept bribes here?”
“How else do you get things done?”
“It sounds screwy.”
“Sir, have you had anything to drink today?”
“Oh no. I never drive after drinking alcohol.”
“I was afraid of that. Please step out of the car sir.”

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Depression, Mania and Novel Writing

People think of bipolar disorder as a bad thing. Well, maybe it would be an improvement over depression. No doubt I would jump at the chance to be irrationally happy about something. Writing a novel can be lonely, depressing work.
When you think about it, how does the human race go on without some mania in the mix? If everyone were completely logical, would they have taken the risks people took for air travel, space travel or jump rope? And what about enthusiasm? Isn't enthusiasm just a bit of hypomania anyway? For that matter, what about optimism?
I stipulate that sometimes we need some irrational hope or false optimism. A touch of mania here and there to keep us going when we have the urge to quit, to give us hope when things are down.
In fact, I further suggest that a degree of mania is required to be a starting writer. When you are a first time novelist, you know vaguely what the end product should look like; an idea turned into a book with beautiful sentences which people want to read. You don't know what the road to this goal will be like nor do you have any idea if anyone will actually want to read your book a-priori.
Consider that 95% of novels never make it to publication. It takes either a lot of conceit or a lot of self confidence to sit down, write a book, and think that anyone will want to read it. What is self confidence after all, but the rational self assurance, based upon previous achievement, that you have the skills to finish the job and finish it well. Any belief beyond that is irrational or should I say some kind of mania?
Does success have no other definition than to sell your novel? You work on this novel for a year or three, mostly without feedback. The grade is either pass or fail. You have a 5% chance of passing. Add to that the capricious nature of the publishing industry where good writing can be rejected and bad writing can be put upon a pedestal. Admit it, you have seen it!
So I say, you should be fitted for a straight jacket if you presume to set out to be a successful, published author.
Where does that leave us? Well, there is evidence which suggests that persistence, more than any other ability, produces successful authors. In the face of the odds, what is persistence here but an irrational belief that you will succeed. A mania, a faith, an unreasonable notion that you will produce a novel worthy of publication. 

Monday, February 14, 2011

Writer's WRage!

Recipe for Writers' Wrage

Mix 2 bushels of frustration with 1 peck of raw irritation. Simmer until it smells unpleasant.

Slowly stir in a handful of isolation

Add, alternating, massive amounts of self doubt with freshly scaled floundering. Mix until scabrous between each addition

Simmer until unbearable, skimming off any bits of hope which may float to the top

Take a sack full of recriminations and whip until bleeding. Fold into other ingredients and slowly grind until you stare out the window in apathy.

Take resulting mixture and push into casings made from bitter inner voice.

Basting with pity, bake in a lack of measurable success for 12 months or until entire thing explodes.

Serve on a bed of shredded self esteem; garnish with wilted ego.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Grad Study in Australia

If you are from the United States and are thinking about a graduate degree (PhD) in Australia, you should take a hard look at the program of study. I have looked at the system for three years now and have come to conclude that, for me, it is not the best decision.

1. The degree is paid for by the govt. Once accepted the program is paid for but the schools do not get paid anything the student's dissertation is approved (accepted). This is good in that there is no fees for Perm Res. and Citizens (like me). Problem: there is a motivation to push the PhD student through as fast as possible. Some schools are referred to as battery farms, USYD School of IT for example.

2. It is difficult to get research funding. Where it is/was widespread in the USA in Computer Science, it is the exception here. This means that most students must have part time jobs to feed themselves or acquire fantastic loan balances. Few RA positions and no TA positions. This also impacts the amount of research the student can do. I believe you get a better student and subsequently better graduates if you immerse the student in their field of interest rather than have them foraging for food and shelter half the time.

3. The dissertation is not defended in a semi-public forum like most US universities. The requirement is usually to have three journal/conference papers before you can submit your dissertation. Your stature here depends upon the number of journal publications you make and the quality of the journals (yet another problem which I will not discuss). This has a side effect of creating many publications which contain minimal content or changes - little signal with a lot of noise. The US institutions require publications as well, but I think a rigorous evaluation in an open forum by my committee and my peers is an additional valuable test.

4. There is no comprehensive test to gain entry in PhD programs I have seen here. It is done by evaluating your transcripts in an ad-hoc manor. The do however take Honors programs very seriously here. But the point I would make is that there are major difference between the way schools teach Computer Science and there is no check and balance to see how broad the knowledge base is. Additionally, this tendency to weight transcripts towards honors is faulted. The honor student may well be preoccupied so much with grades that they tend to take the "safe" classes and avoid the growth they might achieve by taking a more interesting, yet possibly more difficult class as an undergrad or a Masters level student. As a Masters student, the concept of honors was foreign to me and so I took a variety of painful yet very interesting classes. These classes in turn gave me a broad-based education which I believe is superior to the equivalent Australian institution.

5. A PhD from most Australian universities is perceived as less valuable than from a university in the USA, possibly because of previous points I brought up. But consider this: an Australia PhD ~= 3 years while USA PhD ~= 4 years. Does time make a better graduate?

6. In Australia you can't choose your dissertation committee, it is chosen by the school. Either way this can be a disaster, but I would rather it be MY disaster. I want to choose the best people to evaluate my work. In the same vein, where in the USA you have a thesis advisor, in Australia you have a thesis supervisor. The system is more authoritarian to be sure.

7. Some PhD students in Australian universities work in comparative isolation. They aren't generally required to give colloquia although PhD students are expected to speak at conference. A friend of mine, a kiwi who just graduated with PhD from Sydney Uni felt completely alone. I prefer to be in the thick of things, being a social animal.

8. There is no teaching requirement. In fact, you will not go far if you state that you are even slightly interested in teaching. I would like to do some teaching just to get down the subjects I like the most (which are most of Computer Science).

What Australian universities do well:
The Australian universities are very good at research and they teach their students how to do it right. USA universities could take some pointers on that score. Graduates here tend to be very narrowly focused and can do brilliantly if you don't expect too much lateral thinking.

Both in the USA and Australia funding is being hacked away by the government and by an unproductive overburden of administration. I think the Australians are micromanaged by their system and that they waste a good deal of time and money with useless planning and then trying to account for every bit of funding. This creates in some research environments like CSIRO the feeling that you are working in some kind of research gulag or futuristic dystopia. Details of your life, interests, future plans, and research known and tracked by "the man".