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Archive for February, 2012

Tracking things for no good reason

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

Could someone explain to me the use of documenting one’s parents ethnic and language groups on a child’s birth certificate is? What possible use can that information be other then for discrimination – either denying something or granting something on the basis of one’s or one’s parent ethnic or linguistic group? The only thing I can think is that it could be used for statistics, but that could just as easily come from the census. I think this information is a hold over from when it was used for discrimination, and they just have not removed it, because why would they unless someone forced them to?

Science proves the rich drive worse

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

“Our findings suggest that if the pursuit of self-interest goes unchecked, it may result in a vicious cycle: self-interest leads people to behave unethically, which raises their status, which leads to more unethical behavior and inequality.”

Paul Piff, quoted from Shame on the Rich [sciencemag.org] about research into ‘whether dishonesty varies with social class’.

For my own experience, I can state that, without doubt, people in Singapore who drive expensive cars (one of the things studied in the research), drive like they own the road. I remember this was the case in the US too, but in Singapore when we talk about expensive cars we are talking about 50% of the cars on the road (BMW, ‘Benz, or more expensive!). That many ass hole drivers makes the traffic in the tiny island of 5 million, with very good infrastructure, as bad as the traffic in New York City with it’s much larger population!

Western Wall Prayers

Monday, February 27th, 2012

The sound is not terrific on this one, but it’s the sound of services at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Bukit Brown Cemetery

Saturday, February 18th, 2012

IMG_0812

There has been some debate in Singapore over the fate of Bukit Brown Cemetery [wikipedia.org] – the old Chinese Public Cemetery which opened in 1922 but has been mostly abandoned for a long time (the last burials were in 1972). The government wants to start developing the land covered by the cemetery and surrounding undeveloped woodland. Many people don’t want it developed, they enjoy the peaceful nature filled setting and some are worried that it will exacerbate the flooding problem when it is all paved over. And I expect residents of the more exclusive and rich neighborhoods around it don’t want a 40,000 person HDB, or public housing, development in their backyard.

I thought I would go and check the place out since the government has decided to go ahead with redevelopment, so I visited it with Nir [flickr.com] to take a few photos. I have driven past the few graves that are close to the main road many times, often thinking if they would be nice to photograph, but I have never stopped. I also never realized, from the few graves that can be seen from the main road, how big the cemetery is — according to the National Archives of Singapore there are more than 100,000 graves. Unfortunately we didn’t stay very long, 40 minutes or so, as we both have other commitments. If I have a chance I may try to go back, the place deserves to be explored. There are many graves now so overgrown with trees and bush that you can stand a meter away and not see them. I’m sure there are some amazing photos waiting to be taken.

Click on the photo above to view the entire set on Flickr [flickr.com].

Of black swans, flying pigs and the financial crisis

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

The Guardian has a great article [guardian.co.uk] about the mathematical basis (or lack thereof) of the derivatives market explosion which lead to the financial meltdown when the sub-prime mortgage market collapsed.

As with most things that eventually come crashing down spectacularly we should have seen it coming… between the hubris:

“[the equation] allowed derivatives to become commodities that could be traded in their own right. The financial sector called it the Midas Formula and saw it as a recipe for making everything turn to gold. But the markets forgot how the story of King Midas ended.”

and the eye watering numbers:

“[the equation] underpinned massive economic growth. By 2007, the international financial system was trading derivatives valued at one quadrillion dollars per year. This is 10 times the total worth, adjusted for inflation, of all products made by the world’s manufacturing industries over the last century.”

All that because of the abuse of mathematics by people who don’t understand math. When people who do understand (scientists) math abuse it you end up with nuclear WMDs. When people who don’t understand it (traders) abuse it you end up with financial WMDs.

To quote:

“market traders copy other market traders. Virtually every financial crisis in the last century has been pushed over the edge by the herd instinct. It makes everything go belly-up at the same time. If engineers took that attitude, and one bridge in the world fell down, so would all the others.”

My favorite quote in the article has nothing to do with finance or math:

“In ancient times, all known swans were white and “black swan” was widely used in the same way we now refer to a flying pig. But in 1697, the Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh found masses of black swans on what became known as the Swan River in Australia. So the phrase now refers to an assumption that appears to be grounded in fact, but might at any moment turn out to be wildly mistaken.”