Burke's Law

This page written circa 28 August, 2008.

I remember my mother watching Burke's Law. I was then about 9, and I could tell that it was contrived and hammy but fun. I liked that Amos would tell his minions his little rules, the Laws that formed a pun with his police activity. I suspected he made them up as required. It's funny the characters that stick in your mind, give you ideas that impact your life. I remember some scenes as if they happened yesterday.

Hans Rosling must stick in a lot of people's minds. His brilliant lectures at TED in 2006 and 2007 have so much to say. I have them downloaded onto my desktop, I look at them or show them off so often.

Richard Stallman came to Hamilton, and spoke at a large gathering last month. He gave a 90-minute talk, and it was quite perspicacious on the state of copyright in the world. He convinced me that it no longer fullfills its stated aim of encouraging creative works but has been perverted to protect business profits, but could be fixed by sensible changes welcome to artists. Before and during the lecture he pours gallons of coke and coffee into his hide, so much so that he has to stop the lecture halfway through to take a leak. At the beginning he apologised in advance, saying that he was desperate for sleep, and felt as if he could just doze off mid-sentence, so someone should shake him if he fell silent. Some wit in the audience yells out "Yeah, Hamilton does that to you".

Rosling's software, GapMinder (named from the tube station message, "Mind the Gap!", and designed to mine a database and give insight), does what I so love to do, namely get a lot of data and propel it in a Tufte-esque way into people's minds. (Tufte is described as "the DaVinci of Data".) A good view of things enables the best decisions. Stallman must love this software, issued under his GNU/GPL. Everyone to whom I have shown Rosling's videos has commented "I wish I had his software!" Well, now you can look at the OECD database using it, see http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/25/0/40679627.html.

There is sooo much information in the OECD database. Look at the Gapminder screen capture at left. Not nearly as useful as the original, animated, mouse-responsive plot, but informative. The Y-axis is basically "money spent on having fun", with the X-axis showing national GDP per capita. Common sense would lead you to expect a hockey-stick graph, with Luxembourg at the top. My colleague Mike summed up what England and the Antipodes have that does it for him in terms of time and choice in having fun in many words, the graph at left points in one glance: They are into fun beyond their means. You can tell that Hans and I would have different priorities, he plots African Infant Mortality, I plot Toys and Dollars and Freeway fractions... and R&D investment, see below.

Much has changed for Australia in the last two years, the OECD database is patchy beyond 2005, but ranking based on the Y-axis at left is largely invariant compared to GDP.

When I came to interview for this job as Foundation Professor, I took care to take time to check out Hamilton, local Real Estate, and various Facilities. Amongst the critical facilities was the Uni's commitment to EE, so I went to the library and I asked if they held IEEE publications. "Why yes", answered the lady at the help desk, "I actually have one here on my desk that I am about to reshelve", and sure enough there was a copy of IEEE Transactions on Computing Machinery or some similar thing. I asked if the library had electronic access, and she assured me that they did, but some people liked the paper as well. Seemed good.
Cut to about 6 months later, I go to the library to sort out how to get electronic access to the T-MTT journal I want. I was told that they did not have them, in either paper or electronic format. But I came and asked! It turns out that they have just that one IEEE journal, at the special request of the dean of Maths (who happened to be an EE). I had been totally mislead. The data looked good, but I got snowed. There are plenty other examples, take the fight to get broadband. It was on a par with Moses parting the Red Sea, you had to have friends in high places (thanks Bruce and Grant).

Speaking interleavedly about R&D investment, here is a plot from a recent government document on NZ R&D. It is grim. Plot GDP% spent on R&D in NZ is low, well below Aus, sick compared to Finland and Israel.

The plot is neatly designed to show the shortfall in Business and Gross R&D, but the polar scales conceal the extent of the nastiness. Only venture capital looks worse.

This article puts the R&D spending into more stark context.

It also shows how the populace here in NZ are so easily snowed by the politicians. Look carefully at the comment (made by Helen Clark) and it really is silly and superficial. Field goes on to point out how misleading it is, failing to account for student numbers or inflation, but this is not a widely-circulated document. This is all politicians seem to have to do to convince the voters here. Point out a positive-looking figure, and trust that nobody will put it in context.

Roger Field can say it, but the minions who prepared the graph above can do no more than that for fear of getting unlinked.

Yet another example of Kiwi technical inadequacy was literally drilled into the concrete outside the offices occupied by Rainer and myself just last month. Some pratt decided that building CD would look better illuminated in red. Ignoring that this might not be the most aesthetic idea or the best colour, they sent some idiot tradesman who bolted simple fluorescent light fittings to the ledges outside our windows. No considerations about the guidelines for the illumination of buildings, or the control of glare. These lights pour more light into our offices than they spray onto the outside of the building, and the glare makes the room all but unusable after dark. Emails explaining the finer points of the science of lighting are being exchanged.

I have my own rules these days, "Scott's Laws" let's say. Some describe how people work, others are shorthand to help me make decisions. By way of example, consider "The Penguin Effect": Ever noticed how people seem to be straining in a boring lecture, then one gets up and walks out, and loads follow when they see that the first did not get embarrassed? One person in a meeting wants to question the wisdom of the boss's suggestion, but it is silence until finally some guy voices a doubt, then there is this avalanche of dissentive babble? I call this The Penguin Effect, after the motions of penguins on the ice in the morning. They crowd and mill about, scared to dive in for breakfast, in case some large penguin-eater lurks under the ice. Eventually these little birds loiter and jostle so close that one falls in... there is a sudden freeze of activity, then if he comes back up with no panic message they all pour over the edge, seeing that he did not get munched. People work the same way.

So here are some of Scott's Laws relevant to recent events:
Never leave a tradesman alone on the job.
You do a better job than most tradesmen.
A good grasp of the numbers is necessary but not sufficient for good decisions.
Money may be the root of all evil, but lack of accountability is the stem required to support the flowers.

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