Guantanamo Bay recidivism

I just happened to stumble across this article (from about a year ago), which talks about the recidivism rate of inmates of Guantanamo Bay. That is to say, the number of inmates who then go on to join or return to militant activity.

It seems to me that given the gloriously wonderful conditions of Guantanamo Bay, it would be surprising if inmates didn’t rise up to fight against the oppressive Americans.

If the goal is to turn people against the US, you have certainly succeeded. Well done America!

Culprits may face costs of putting out reckless fires

As reported by The Age, people who start bushfires in Victoria (Australia) may be forced to pay the cost of extinguishing them. It then explains how putting out a large fire could cost millions of dollars.

Now I’m no expert, but it seems to me that the number of multi-millionaires starting bushfires is probably very small. So I’m curious to see how the policy would be implemented. The article references the Sentencing Act 1991, but the Act says that the court must “as far as practicable” take into account the financial circumstances of the offender. So they might squeeze a few bucks from them by that avenue, but not a lot in the grand scheme of things.

The article also mentions it opening the offender up to civil lawsuits. That is just going to lead to bankruptcy. I’m not so worried about the offender, but if they have a family then the family’s lives will be ruined too. Let’s assume it’s a bloke for the sake of pronouns (there is apparently a 6:1 ratio of males to females in the arson world, but I’m only talking about accidental arson so that figure is not applicable). So he goes to prison for a while and when he gets out can’t find a decent job, because who wants to employ a criminal? Meanwhile, his wife and kids are at home – no wait, their home got sold as part of the bankruptcy proceedings. The kids now have an unstable home life; they’ve lost their Dad (for a while at least) and have had to move into a rental house, maybe even changed schools. Their single mother is now working full time to support them, and probably struggling to make ends meet. It sure sucks to be the daughter of an angle-grinding enthusiast!

At the end of the day, maybe that’s not so bad. He did a bad thing and he got punished for it, with a little collateral damage which society is willing to accept. Even without the bankruptcy, the kids would still suffer. But I wonder how much of a deterrent seeking compensation will be? Let’s look at how this might play out both before and after the crackdown:

You are a man, living in country Victoria. It’s a 43°C day, hot, windy, and a total fire ban. You suddenly decide to do some welding.
Before: You think to yourself, “If I do the welding and start a fire I could go to prison! I’ll do it anyway.”
After: You think to yourself, “If I do the welding and start a fire, I could go to prison and go bankrupt! I’ll do it anyway.”

The main problem I see is not the strength of the deterrent, but in the failure of the man to accurately assess the risk of what he is doing. You can tell him it is dangerous, but that won’t necessarily mean he makes the mental connection that it really is dangerous. Humans suck at assessing risk! He has probably been welding for 20 years and never had any problems. Even if an errant spark gets out, he is probably pretty confident he can put it out. And maybe most of the time he can. But it is the one time in 20 years that he didn’t that is the problem.

So will the new sentencing guidelines help? I’m guessing that by themselves, almost certainly not. It is the marketing/advertising campaign that surrounds them that will have the real impact, so long as it is successful in making people evaluate the risk of their actions better and thus avoid dangerous activities on fire danger days.

Gun ho!

I’ve seen this picture doing the rounds on Facebook lately:

Guess which is banned: a Kinder Surprise or an assault weapon?

I reason that the issue is all about design faults. A gun is designed to kill people, so when it does that it is behaving exactly as expected. A Kinder Surprise is designed to entertain children, and it is only entertaining for adults to watch a child choke to death so it fails in its purpose…

Seriously though, I find the US obsession with having guns really strange. I can understand the point that if everybody is educated properly in gun use, then theoretically nobody will be accidentally killed by guns. However, according to this report there were 851 deaths in 2011 by accidental discharge of firearms. That’s 2.3 people every day. Obviously education is working very well. I’m only going to talk about accidental gun deaths here; the issues of suicide and homicide deserve their own discussions.

The only surprising thing about the number of accidental gun deaths is how few there are. There is a well-established hierarchy of controls for dealing with workplace hazards, but there is no reason why they can’t apply to hazards in the home and community as well. The controls, in order from most effective to least effective, are:

  1. Elimination
  2. Substitution
  3. Engineering Controls (Safeguarding Technology)
  4. Administrative Controls (Training and Procedures)
  5. Personal Protective Equipment

As you can see, educating people on gun safety is 4th on the list, it is definitely not the most effective method!

So what are our options?

The simplest answer is to ban or restrict guns. However for a number of reasons this is strongly opposed, and to consider this would require more analysis into whether reducing legal guns reduces deaths. Even assuming that elimination is not possible, that still leaves…

Is there a better tool that can be used to achieve the required goal? Why do people need guns? If for self defense, can the gun be substituted for something less lethal like a taser (which can still be deadly, but is safer than a gun) or pepper spray?

Engineering controls
Can you put an engineering control on the gun to make it safer? There already are some, for example a trigger guard and a safety catch. But can we do more? There is already fingerprint technology to prevent a gun being operated by an unauthorised user. And hey, it seems that several US states have already passed a law requiring guns to have this technology. Why don’t the rest of you get in on the act?

Administrative Controls
Here is where your education and licensing fit. They work great in practice, but they are very easy to get around.

Personal Protective Equipment
We could of course require that everybody wears a bulletproof vest (and helmet, and gauntlets, and greaves!) but that would make going to the beach a lot less fun.

So what is the best answer? From an outsider’s perspective, it seems that the best (but hardest) thing to do would be to change the US culture to be less eager to embrace guns. It’s a matter of the US as a whole agreeing that it’s worth making a few concessions to save up to 851 lives per year. That’s 851 unlucky mothers (or 849 unlucky mothers and 1 really unlucky mother).

What goes around comes around

I am a firm believer that what goes around comes around*.

*Terms and Conditions

  1. The belief (hereafter referred to as “the Belief”) is expressed without warranty by the author (hereafter referred to as “the Author”) and constitutes a belief only under the terms and conditions expressed herein.
  2. The Belief may be applied to any non-physical idea, concept, personal attitude or other metaphorical construct (hereafter referred to as “the Subject”), except in the following circumstances:
    (a) The Subject is not travelling on a fixed, circular metaphorical track; or
    (b) The Subject lacks sufficient forward momentum or a metaphorical fuel source and metaphorical energy transformation mechanism capable of transporting the subject through the remainder of its metaphorical journey; or
    (c) The Subject is interrupted in its journey by any external force, including but not limited to natural or other unforeseen emergencies, weather conditions, natural disaster, acts of god, terrorism, war or any other reason (at the Author’s sole discretion)
  3. The Belief may also apply to physical and non-metaphorical objects capable of movement, except where the conditions of that movement violate the physical and or non-metaphorical equivalent of clauses 2(a) – 2(c)
  4. Except as provided by law, the Author may not be held liable for any personal injury, or any incidental, special, indirect or consequential damages whatsoever, including, without limitation, damages for loss of profits, business interruption or any other commercial damages or losses, arising out of or related to this Belief.
  5. Where the Belief conflicts with reality, real or perceived, or the personal beliefs or values of any other person, group, entity, or self-aware animal, alien, or computer program, that person, group, entity, or self-aware animal, alien, or computer program shall agree to accept the Author’s claim of any evidence supporting the Belief, regardless of how satisfactorily the evidence supports the Belief or any contrary evidence that has been ignored or unobserved due to confirmation bias.
  6. If a provision of these terms and conditions is or becomes illegal, invalid or unenforceable in any jurisdiction, that shall not affect the validity or enforceability in that jurisdiction of any other provision of these terms and conditions or  the validity or enforceability in other jurisdictions of that or any other provision of these terms and conditions.

Restaurant Websites

What is the deal with restaurant websites? So many of them just get it so wrong…

Why? They focus too much on looks, and forget about usability.

When designing a website, the first thing you have to do is work out why you are doing it. So what is the goal of a restaurant website? To get you to come to the restaurant! The sole purpose in nearly all cases is to convince you to walk in their door.

So you are planning on going out to dinner. You visit a restaurant website. What are the key pieces of information you will be looking for? In no particular order:

  1. Where it is?
  2. When it is open?
  3. What is the atmosphere like?
  4. What food will it serve?

Food cost may or may not be a factor, depending on your target demographic.

Most websites dwell heavily on point 3, and don’t consider the rest. The pictures, colours, fonts, and layout are your visual clues to the atmosphere. A well-designed website will reflect in an instant whether it is the sort of place to have quiet dinner with mum or a place for a raucus night out with your friends. But that doesn’t mean you can’t answer the other three questions.

Then of course, there is accessibility. Visually impaired people are perfectly capable of browsing the web, and typically do so with the aid of a screen reader. However, screen readers cannot read any text embedded in images or Flash plug-ins. So any time you see a website predominantly in Flash, it is basically saying “Screw you visually impared people, you are unimportant to us”.

It also means you can’t copy and paste text, for example to copy the address into your favourite mapping website to get directions.

I’ve gone through about 30 Melbourne restaurant websites, to put together this list of some things that have been done wrong. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, but it’s sad that I came up with so many examples from such a small sample size:

  • Two Birds One Stone cafe – The website is all flash, and despite the abundance of empty space, it puts the link to the menu off the screen.
  • Ohmahs – Hooray! When I go to visit a restaurant website, I want to sit and wait for a stupid animation to finish before I can see the content. Remember, one second seems longer when I am impatiently waiting for a site to show content.
  • Rockwell and Sons – More flash. Can’t copy and paste that address to Google Maps (don’t bother trying to type it because it got replaced by a picture of pastries pretty quick). And what’s with that combination of text and background colour? It’s too hard to read!
  • Quaff – This one is truly terrible. Flashing pictures are distracting. You have to wait for a silly animation before you get to see the text. To see a menu you have to click through two links. The address and opening hours are tiny. And it’s all in flash! Sorry blind people, we don’t want you here!
  • Attica – Why use white text when the background is so pale? Unreadable! Finally some specific clouds for me to shout at.
  • Matteos – And of course, there is this one. The menu is a whole bunch of pictures that don’t tell you squat about what will happen if you click them. And if you have glasses and a large projector, you may just be able to read the tiny, pale-grey-on-white, text with the actual address.


Gay marriage legal in New Zealand…I can’t holiday there anymore!

Congratulations to New Zealand, who have become the 13th country to legalise gay marriage.

This presents a real problem for me though. I was planning to go on holiday there one day, but I am already in a straight marriage. According to my understanding of the issue, if I go to a country where gay marriage is accepted then my own marriage will get ruined somehow.

Fortunately, there are some other options. The Cook Islands is self-governing – in “free association” with NZ – but has their own Queen’s Representative. I could holiday there and only get into a mild tiff with the wife.

Or I could try Niue. That is also in “free association” with New Zealand but is a little closer, for example they share a Governor-General. The old lady and I might have a slightly bigger argument there.

I could take a risk and visit Tokelau, which is less independent than Cook Islands and Niue. Strong arguments and a night or two on the couch are likely to ensue.

Or if I’m feeling really adventurous, I could have a crack at the Ross Dependency. It is constitutionally a part of New Zealand, so we would have some serious, marriage-damaging fights there. I’m talking about big issues, for example me having an affair. I don’t know what would be worse for her: the trauma of her whole world-view being shattered by my callous breach of her trust and the permanent emotional damage that it would do, or the shock of catching me screwing a penguin (because who is there to have an affair with in Antarctica?).

Terrorism, Muslims, and the Media

Dear Media,

I understand that the world is changing, we are in a 24 hour news cycle, and everything is 2.0 now. But during the period between when there is a tragic event, and when some information about it is known….you actually are allowed to shut your metaphorical mouth and say nothing.

Here, using the awesome power of Microsoft Word, I have put together a rough flowchart demonstrating what the sequence of events should be:


(Of course, if it were an ideal world, step 1 wouldn’t occur in the first place!)

The key point I am trying to make is that between steps 2 and 3, you are under no obligation to report anything. If you absolutely must, you can repeat the most recent bit of news for people who have just tuned in or turned on or tapped in whatever kids do these days.

But please, I implore you, don’t fill the gap with empty, baseless speculation! Yes, a bomb is a terrible tragedy. And yes, a lot of scared people are looking for answers… but if you don’t know who set it off, or why, then don’t start trotting out tired old anti-Muslim sentiments. Why even mention Muslims? The vast majority are harmless, law-abiding individuals. Why not mention Jews? From 1980-2005 More terrorist acts in USA were committed in the name of Judaism than Islam.

The fact is that even mentioning Muslims in this context helps reinforce the confirmation bias that is already simmering in some people’s minds. I noted that the 7:30 Report, a show on ABC (an Australian public tv station, not the US one) had a segment reviewing the history of US terrorist attacks done in the name of Islam…they devoted much more than 6% of their time to that line of enquiry. I dread to think what the commercial networks are saying…

I am not a Muslim (in my mind every religion is as silly as the next…well, maybe some are a little sillier!). But I do hate the idea that any particular group of people is being tarred with a brush because of something that a small number of brainwashed people who claim to be in that group (but really aren’t) may or may not have done, especially when it is 15 times more likely that the act was committed by some other group, and especially when the insinuations being made are based on no absolutely no evidence but cultural/racial bias and stereotypes, and especially especially when the insinuations are being perpetuated by a publicly funded broadcaster in one of the most multicultural countries in the world!

To summarise, if you don’t have anything to say then just don’t say it.

Yours Sincerely,

An angry voice
Shouting at the clouds

Time zones and usability

Every so often I’ll stumble across a website that is referring to an event I’m interested in that occurs in the local time, and I’ll have to go through an annoying scramble to work out exactly what time zone they are in, what time zone I am in, and figure out the difference.

Kudos to, whose website happened to be undergoing maintenance when I tried to visit them. They very kindly told me not only the start and end time of the maintenance but also the current time in their time zone:

Simple Usability improvement

They could have just shown the scheduled start and end times in CST, which would be mildly frustrating to users. They could have attempted to calculate the user’s time zone, but that would be complex, prone to error, and would have required additional development and testing (and thus cost). They’ve come up with a great balance.


One of the great privileges of being a man, second only to escaping childbirth, is that we are able to urinate standing up. As someone who leans towards the OCD side of the hygiene scale, I pity anyone who has to sit on a public toilet any more than absolutely necessary!

I work in an office, and every so often I have to make an appointment with Dr John. On those occasions when I’m not the only visitor, I always cringe in fear of a dreaded sound. It’s not the squeaking of the door or the click of the latch. It’s not the  occasional pre-flush or the clatter of the seat dropping. It’s not the jingle of the belt, the bzzzzp of the zip, or the rustle of the pants coming down. It’s not even the auditory palette that accompanies polite, middle-aged posterior perflations…

No, I can handle all of those sounds with aplomb.

The one sound that haunts my darkest dreams defies onomatopoeic description. It is that strange hybrid combination of “plop” and “splash” that heralds the occurrence of a phenomenon colloquially known as “splashback”. Let me explain: when you drop a solid object into a liquid of low viscousity from a height, some of that liquid is going to splash, as demonstrated in this video of someone jumping into a swimming pool. It doesn’t take a physics degree to figure that out.

How anyone can stand to have urinary and fecal soup splashed all over their hindparts is beyond my comprehension. If you are one of those people, then this is a personal plea to you: please don’t subject others to the sound of splashback. Use toilet paper, eat more fibre, use a cork! I don’t care, just don’t make that sound!