Sun 31 May 2009
Posted by andrew under Musings1 Comment
Last week I gave my ninth Toastmasters speech. Since the CC#9 project is Persuade with Power, I thought I’d make it easy for myself by picking an easy topic: persuading people to eat more chocolate.
In doing the research for the speech, I found out some cool things about chocolate. Well, I think they’re cool, and since I’m writing this, I get to decide.
- Carl Linnaeus, the guy who came up with the system scientists use today to name and classify all living things, decided that the name of the cacao plant was not particularly descriptive, so he gave it the name Theobroma, which means in Latin, “food of the gods”. This continues to be its scientific name today.
- For most of history, chocolate was a drink. This is what attracted it to a bunch of English Quakers, who promoted it as a healthy alternative to alcoholic drinks. The names of some of those Quakers are still well known today: Fry, Rowntree, Terry and Cadbury. Ironically, chocolate only became available as a chocolate bar in the 19th century, courtesy of the inventions of one of them: Fry.
- An important chemical in chocolate is theobromine, which is present in chocolate in quantities several times that of caffiene. Unfortunately, it is the chemical that makes chocolate poisonous to animals, but in humans it is known to be a stimulant, a better cough-suppresor than codeine, and helpful to asthmatics.
- While 90% of the world’s cocoa is produced in small farms, the chocolate industry is dominated by major manufacturers such as Hershey’s, Mars and Nestle. To address this imbalance in bargaining position, the Fair Trade system is also applied to chocolate, and Cadbury has recently committed to source all their chocolate for the Dairy Milk chocolate bar in the UK from Fair Trade sources.
Oh, and the speech went well, by the way. Only one more to go before I’ve completed the basic set of projects. The last one will be a bit trickier – it has to be an inspiring speech. Wish me luck…
Tags: cc9, chocolate, facts, speech, toastmasters
Sun 24 May 2009
Posted by andrew under MusingsNo Comments
I’ve just finished listening to a podcast of a seminar put on by the Long Now Foundation, on endangered languages. It was fascinating for many reasons, but just one was the concept put forward that a language is a codified form of the culture that produces it.
For example, the many different words for various trees known to a people indicate a need within their culture to be able to distinguish them, or a culture that uses plant poisons would probably have words for plants that reflect their importance in producing poisons. If you knew what those words were and what they meant, it would give you knowledge. The latest evolution of a culture’s knowledge of the world and philosophy is captured in their language.
Which is why it is a shame when languages die. We don’t just lose a particular way of expression, but potentially also useful learnings about the world.
It reminds me of the story of how ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics were decoded after being undecypherable for centuries. Sure, the Rosetta Stone helped, but if it wasn’t for the realisation that the Coptic Language preserved the ancient Egyptian linguistic forms, I suspect we’d only be able to decode a few words and that would be it. In a real way, the culture of the ancient Egyptians is open to us now only because it was carried forward to us in the form of Coptic. If Coptic had died out (and it is nearly extinct), so would’ve our opportunity to understand the ways of an ancient people.
Tags: coptic, culture, egyptian, linguistics, the long now
Sat 16 May 2009
Posted by andrew under Musings Comments
Back in the 80s, I read Robert Heinlein’s sci-fi novel Friday, where the main character did an amazing trick with a computer. She discovered a correlation between a number of seemingly unrelated factors and the incidence of the plague – information that allows her to avoid the next plague outbreak. I thought it would be pretty cool when computers reached the point that this sort of thing could be done.
I suspect Heinlein and Stephen Wolfram had a similar idea. Wolfram has just launched a web site called Wolfram Alpha that provides a way for non-sci-fi-characters to discover strange and interesting facts. It is sort of a cross between a cloud-based version of Mathematica and the CIA World Factbook. You can ask what is “2+2″ or the “Population of Australia / New Zealand”. They state they have “10+ trillion pieces of data” in their database already.
But the most interesting thing about it for me is that it can answer questions that have never been asked before. Unlike Wikipedia or Google, which offer up information that people have already written down somewhere, Wolfram Alpha computes answers from its data. For example, I asked it for the “next solar eclipse in Melbourne” and got back the answer Friday, July 13, 2018 (along with a heap of other information and charts). Such information is not easily obtainable from Google.
However, while it is clear how ambitious and innovative this project is, it’s not clear to me when people would typically use it. Why would someone use it to, say, find weather information rather than going to a weather website, or movie details rather than going to a movie website. Given that Wolfram Alpha has to gather and “curate” the data in their database, specialist websites are likely to have an advantage in timeliness or breadth of their data. This is indicated in a TechCrunch article that shows they are sometimes using 2006 statistical data when 2009 data is available.
Even if ordinary people won’t regularly use it, perhaps it could get used for specialist projects or assignments. However, another issue is the black box nature of Wolfram Alpha. While Wikipedia considers itself a “tertiary source” and Google is more of a catalogue than a source, Wolfram Alpha may be the only source of a particular piece of information, given that it computed it. So, how would this data be referenced? Can it be considered a trusted source? Will specialist projects or assignments be able to use it if it isn’t? And if it can’t be used by them, then by who?
Given that Wolfram Alpha is so cool, I hope it doesn’t prove to be a folly. I enjoyed reading Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science, which he ended up provided online for free as a bit of a philanthropic service. I really wonder if that could be possible for this new project.
Tags: innovation, stephen wolfram, wolfram alpha
Sun 10 May 2009
Posted by andrew under Reviews Comments
I really enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, and now he’s churning out the books. His is an appealing formula that is part psychology, part economics, and part science. :) This month’s book club will be looking at his latest book.
An interesting theory of why individuals succeed based on their circumstances rather than their talent.
In “Outliers”, Gladwell provides anecodes, scientific studies, and personal history to support the idea that exceptional individuals (the outliers of the title) are more due to the circumstances of their birth and the amount of practice they’ve put in, than being due to exceptional talent. It’s a quick read, and engagingly written, so easy to enjoy.
However, is it a controversial idea that success comes from more than just talent? Do I need to give any examples other than former US President George W Bush? Perhaps in (some parts of) the US, it is a widely held belief that success comes solely from individual merit, but I hope that most have a more nuanced view. So, the author does not have to work very hard to convince us.
Although, perhaps he should have, as the book is written to build out the theory rather than the demonstrate the theory’s truth. There is little scientific method in such a treatment, as even though we are shown some successful individuals meet Gladwell’s criteria, we aren’t shown if all individuals that meet Gladwell’s criteria are successful. In this way, it is a bit like The Millionaire Next Door (which I reviewed here) – a book that proposes the attributes of millionaires but doesn’t show how many with those attributes achieve millionaire status.
These are minor quibbles. Perhaps it is more concerning that the book has a somewhat racist message. Jews are successful lawyers, Koreans are poor pilots, and Asians are good at maths. Although supported by his research, there is a moral tangle with accepting such claims, and this isn’t dealt with in the book.
That said, it is an enjoyable and interesting read. I didn’t find it as good as The Tipping Point, but given the potential for debate, I think it will be a good book-club book.
Tags: book, malcolm gladwell, outliers, review
Mon 4 May 2009
Posted by andrew under MusingsNo Comments
We know that prices move due to an imbalance in supply and demand. If supply is unchanged but demand increases, prices will rise.
Back in 2000, John Howard and the federal government introduced the GST. At the same time, he also introduced the $7,000 First Home Owners Grant (FHOG) with the aim of offsetting the effect of housing price rises due to GST being added to contruction costs. Understandably, the FHOG was rather popular.
State governments took note, and added in their own grants. For example, in 2004, The Victorian government began offering a $5,000 First Home Bonus. Then in October 2008, Kevin Rudd and his federal government sweeteed the pot further with a $7,000 First Home Owner Boost ($14,000 for new homes). Everyone’s been seen to offer first home owners a hand-out.
But it isn’t clear that it was actually helping first home owners. As these grants didn’t directly affect supply, but they did affect demand, the prices of housing for first home owners would naturally rise. It’s not immediately clear how much prices actually rose, but we might be able to take a guess.
There are two basic ratios that banks look at when deciding whether to grant a home loan: the LVR (loan to valuation ratio) and DSR (debt to service ratio). The LVR (amount of loan divided by value of property) is typically limited to between 90-95%. The DSR (periodic interest payments divided by periodic income) is typically limited to 30-40%. So, the more deposit you have, or the more income you have, the more you can borrow for a particular property.
According to this Fairfax article by Jessica Irvine, banks will require as much as 5% of your deposit to be real savings, but the rest can be government grant. So, for a Victorian first home owner, eligible for $26,000 in grants to build a new home, if the DSR is not limiting them, and they are taking out a 90% LVR loan, then the grants allow them to borrow an extra $260,000 than they would otherwise be able to receive.
In practice, the DSR would limit our hypothetical first home owner, even with the historically low interest rates on offer at the moment. But the above exercise does go to show how significantly the FHOG and its successors can move house prices.
This might all seem pretty good: the government subsidises new home owners, and existing home owners and developers get more money for their properties. However, here’s the rub – the rumour is out that Kevin Rudd is going to rein in these grants, and perhaps even end them after this financial year. I didn’t think it would ever happen – it’s very hard to unwind these things once you’ve put them in. Anyway, he’s going to tell us in the budget announcement this month.
However much the FHOG has stimulated demand, removing the FHOG will undo it. If supply is unchanged but demand decreases, prices will fall.
Tags: fhog, first home owners, grant, property, real-estate