Sunday, 21 August 2016

Melbourne: Most Insecure City in the World

Eureka Skydeck, 2013

The Economist Intelligence Unit has named Melbourne the "Most Liveable City in the World" for the sixth straight year. Huzzah! Break out the champagne, but just make sure it's a 1996 Bollinger La Grande Annee Brut. What? You can't afford a $600 bottle of champers? Then too bad, because these rankings aren't for you.

Despite social media crowing from every civic leader from the Premier down, the "Global Liveability Ranking" means very little by itself and means even less to those who already live in those benighted cities fortunate enough to make the cut. Melbourne, like the rest of Australia, is desperate for external—preferably foreign—validation, has taken these rankings and run with them for decades, without actually thinking about what they mean. 

The beneficiaries of this aura of "liveability" are the executives earning a whole heap more than you. These global rankings are generated by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the sister company to the more well-known magazine. The goal of the EIU is to help "businesses, financial firms and governments to understand how the world is changing and how that creates opportunities to be seized and risks to be managed". Translation: they don’t care whether your local public school is falling down, only whether there are quality private schools nearby for executives with expense accounts to send their little darlings to.

The rankings are devised for senior executives schlepping into town (in business class, of course) for a two-year stay to restructure the local business (synergise efficiencies and such, the action formerly known as sacking people) before leaving with a well-earned pay raise and a promotion.

The people for whom these rankings are divined will not be searching for an affordable home within a 60 minute drive of the CBD, nor will they be worried about the quality of public education from their nearest state school. They won't be struggling to find amenable employment or efficient public transport because the issues that matter to you and me will be looked after by their cashed-up, tax-dodging multinational employers. 

Don’t just take my word for how meaningless these rankings are, take a look at this quote from EIU themselves on the top 65 “Most Liveable” cities: “Although 17.2 percentage points separate Melbourne in first place from Warsaw in 65th place, all cities in this tier can lay claim to being on an equal footing in terms of presenting few, if any, challenges to residents’ lifestyles."

Soooo basically, tax-dodging multinationals, you can send your overpaid staff anywhere in that top 65 and they will likely not be stabbed or robbed or fleeced and <zinger>will be free to do same to the local government </zinger>.

This is not to say Melbourne isn't a great city—it is. We have great healthcare by international standards, pretty good schools and an abundance of decent coffee [note to self: pitch EIU Global Coffee Index]. But it's strange to think of Melbourne being up there with Vienna. Both are nice cities, but Vienna has a proximity to Europe that Melbourne simply can't match. It is also the home of many international institutions and global initiatives that are simply more important to the world than, say, the Australian Open. It also has dumptruck loads more culture than Melbourne, a functioning public transport system (one that has been updated since the 1930s) and, most importantly, the Leica Shop.

But remember, regardless of how relevant this ranking is, we still beat Sydney. And that’s the important take home lesson from all this: Sydney sucks.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Imperial Evidence

Well done, voters of Queensland (ABC)
I'm usually fairly derisive of Q&A. I regularly admonish its fans and audience as being part of #QandAland, a happy land where harsh political realities cease to exist and we all sing kumbaya around a camp fire, holding hands with a leather-jacketed Malcolm Turnbull who has taken his rightful place as the leader of the Liberal Party (polite applause).

Most of the time, it is a pretty terrible exercise in inertia that gives Fairfax its main news stories for the next week. Sure, it's fun seeing Richard Dawkins and "Big" George Pell field incendiary questions about how evolution is just a "theory" or if an atheist can be a good person, but it's less a debate than a sideshow. There will never be a middle ground reached—there can't be—and the producers are perfectly happy to keep it that way.

Occasionally, however, the show can be revelatory. Duncan Storrar's questioning of a hapless Kelly O'Dwyer demonstrated how out of touch the Turnbull government was (and is), and how low the Murdoch papers will stoop with ad hominem attacks on those who disagree with their noxious world view.

Last night's National Science Week-themed Q&A also offered some gems, along with a great lessons in how to deal with the incurious, ignorant, chemtrail-addled obscurantist bore in your life (c'mon, we all have at least one).

Simple rule: don't argue with Professor Brian Cox unless you are discussing something which is impossible for him to have knowledge of, like the number of cracked Ikea coffee mugs in your cupboard (although he could probably give you a global mean) or on the finer points of Australian New Wave cinema.

One Nation lunatic-elect Malcolm Roberts gave a textbook performance as a conspiratorial nutjob. He challenged Professor Cox to present "empirical" evidence of climate change (it's almost like Malcolm knows what those words mean), and when presented with said evidence, claimed it was doctored. It's classic conspiracy believer stuff, with evidence against their tinfoil worldview appropriated as evidence for their conspiracy.

Think moon landing hoaxers: for them, the extensive photographic and data record of the Apollo program is fabricated, therefore this evidence the average person considers supports the moon landing is seen as evidence against the moon landings in the conspiratorial mind. Any evidence presented by authorities in inherently untrustworthy because it comes from Big Pharma, Big Farmer or the Guvment or Big Space (which is how I assume they refer to NASA).

Even though Brian Cox would have known he would be unlikely to alter Roberts's unfalsifiable position by presenting actual evidence, Cox's approach is a good one to keep in the critical thought toolbox when dealing with nutcases.

First off, Cox presented data. Now, presenting data almost never whips your a conspiracy-minded opponent into contrition, but it's worth a try. At least you know you have evidence to support your contention.
Secondly, when Roberts inevitably objected to the data, Cox asked specific questions as to why he objected. When Roberts claimed the data had been "corrupted" and "manipulated", Cox asked "by who?" By NASA, of course.
For many observers, this will be enough to demonstrate your opponent is a loon. Indeed it was enough for the residents of #QandAland to start laughing. Conspiracy theorists are, by and large, great at creating a compelling macro-scale worldview, but are woeful at detail. Once again, this doesn't change the mind of the conspiracy theorist, but it does deny them credibility among reasonable fence-sitting people.

For #QandAland, this is probably just the first appearance of many by this particular One Nation loon-elect. In an effort to concoct a sense of "balance", the ABC has gone out of their way to make sure fringe individuals like Pauline Hanson and Lyle Shelton get oxygen on programs like Q&A and The Drum. It is even less reason to engage in the alleged "debate" the show engenders.

I think Brian Cox said it best last night on the show when trying to communication the Australian Academy of Science's climate change report to Sovereign Idiot-elect Roberts: " can never get any sense on programs like this. They're adversarial things..."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Ultimately, you're unlikely to change the closed mind of a deliberately ignorant individual. As a rational being, you're already at a disadvantage compared to the science denying loon because you require evidence to support your claims—the denier does not adhere to such inconvenient niceties. No amount of peer-reviewed evidence is going lead someone like Roberts along the road to a Damascene conversion.
But not everybody out there is intentionally ignorant. Sometimes, people just receive bad information and carry it with them. So here's advice from UQ PhD student Diana Lucia, as offered on Radio National's Ockham's Razor: time you’re at a dinner party and find yourself sitting next to a science denialist, return the favour, latch onto every illogical inconsistency they throw at you and force them to address it. Find out exactly what they object to and where they have been getting their information from. I doubt you’ll force them to have a sudden epiphany by the time dessert is served, but you can be part of the process that breaks down the barriers to begin to change people’s minds. 

Until next dinner party...

Good resources:
How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic: Responses to the most common skeptical arguments on global warming,
Science deniers use false equivalence to create fake debates, Skeptical Raptor
Don’t let denial get in the way of a good science story, The Conversation

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Telecom Australia's "Fun & Knowledge Telephone Book"

Consider this my gift to the world.

I have a saved search in my eBay app for "Telecom Australia". Don't ask me why, but I think it has something to do with a time long gone when governments actually owned and built things, rather than making excuses for why they can't or shouldn't.

I'm not saying government-owned monopolies didn't have there problems, but on the other hand, there's little doubt the decades-long regimes of privatisation have left a lot to be desired. With privatisation has come the privation of job security and indeed labour security of any kind.

At Telecom's privatised and <sarcasm> greatly loved</sarcasm> successor, Telstra, a new CEO is installed every few years and undertakes the review to end all reviews. They try to find new efficiencies (read: people to sack) and ways to "foster relationships with [their] key stakeholders, operate at best practice in issues management, build [their] reputation through ongoing promotion of positive activity, and leverage our technology and expertise to make positive contributions to the community" (actual line from Telstra's 2015 Annual Report, p.17).

After all, what else screams "SUSTAINABILITY" than embedding " and environmental considerations into our business in ways that create value for the company and our stakeholders" (ibid. p.27).
But I digress, on one of my eBay searches, I found this delightful publication: Your Fun & Knowledge Telephone Book. It's a freaking Telecom colouring and activity book. How could I not?

Ostensibly I have bought it for my son, but really I have bought it to gift to all you as well so that the imperfect past can be remembered into an uncertain future.

I've scanned each page using my Epson V700 and lovingly cleaned it up so that you too an learn about the history of the telephone and the new technology called "touch tone".

After you've read the books, colour in the pages!