Shark sense

Tragically, a shark killed a person off the coast of Western Australia today. I saw a newsreader report the “horrific” statistic that 15 people have been killed by sharks in the last 16 years. Yes, this is a tragedy. It is even true, according to sharkattackfile.net. But this is not what I would call a “horrific” statistic.

Want to hear a horrific statistic? For the same time period in Western Australia, there were 3179 road fatalities. And, whilst it is purely optional to go swimming in a shark-infested ocean, it’s pretty damn hard to get by without driving a car or crossing a street; especially in a place as freaking huge as Western Australia.

So before people start over-reacting like they did in like they did in 2013, can we please cut the hyperbole and keep a sense of perspective?

 

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The wisdom of our eldests

Congratulations to Emma Morano, for taking the title of “Worlds oldest living person.” Of course, if I were her I’d be getting a little nervous: every other person to hold this title has died!

What really bugs me about this celebration of a person who has lived slightly longer than anyone else is the one question that every person who is not quite good enough to get a real reporting job invariably asks:

“What is the secret to your long life?”

Sure, I get it, they want to find some little tidbit of information, the wackier the better, that everyone can talk about at the water cooler tomorrow. But seriously, can we please put an end to this stupid line of inquiry? I skimmed through the Wikipedia entries for the last ten oldest people in the world for whom the occupation is listed and checked to see what their jobs were. They were as follows:

  • 3 x Factory worker
  • 2 x Maid/Nanny
  • 2 x Teacher
  • 1 x Merchant
  • 1 x Nun
  • 1 x Postal Worker

Where in that list do you see the experts in gerontology, medicine, or biology? What peer reviewed qualitative case study analyses have they undertaken in order to establish that the 1-3 behaviours or beliefs they nominate have formed a majority part of the causal relationship to their longevity, independent of other factors? The anecdotes of a handful of people whose only unique attribute is being a statistical outlier in a specific domain that they are not specifically educated in is not even close to acceptable quality for evidence.

And if you happen to believe it is, then I have a tiger-repelling rock to sell you…

Now please don’t think that I (sitting on my high horse in my ivory tower with my mixed metaphors and tertiary education and easy access to more information than has ever been known to humankind) am trying to put down these wrinkled remnants of centuries past. I doubt that they are any more or less intelligent than anybody else (well, probably more intelligent than anti-vaxxers, but then, isn’t everybody?). It’s a simple fact that by virtue of their age they grew up in a time when tertiary education was far from the norm, and doubly so for females (who tend to be highly represented in the list of the oldest people).

No, this is not a diatribe against the elderly: it is against the writers of the pointless puff pieces which rather morbidly crawl out of the woodwork every time the last oldest person dies. These reporters have a rare opportunity: the chance to tap into the memories of people who have lived through more history than anyone else alive. People who can surely provide amazing insights into the personal impacts of the great political and social upheavals of the early 20th century. But hey, why do something interesting like that when instead you can just suck away the remaining precious hours these people have with unimaginative and pointless questions that add no value whatsoever. Keep up the good work, reporters!

Human error? No, the government hates you!

I saw this article in The Age today, discussing an error that occurred with a bushfire warning system. Apparently, somebody screwed up and put test data in their live database, resulting in false warnings going out to large numbers of people.

Apparently this is the Government’s fault because they just don’t care about people. The Age quote the United Firefighters Union secretary Peter Marshall as saying “Either they are incompetent or they simply don’t care” (emphasis mine). The Age also use it as an opportunity to get quotes from the opposition about how terribly bad and evil the government is.

I work in IT, though I have had no involvement in this project. I would bet with almost 100% certainty that this is not because of any government intervention. The government probably had no idea that this was a risk. Some poor sucker has accidentally hit the wrong button somewhere and put test data in the live database. Chillax people, these things happen; it’s a little embarrassing, and the poor person is probably feeling pretty small right now. But it’s not conspiracy, it’s just human error (of course, it’s a bit simplistic and disingenuous to blame it all on one person – the real error is the weakness in the processes that allowed a single person to accidentally do this).

I once worked at a place that had a government client where a similar thing happened – somebody forgot to turn off the automated email functionality in the test environment, so when some test data was created a bunch of alarming emails went out to some very senior people. It wasn’t the government’s fault; it was just an oversight that was rectified by setting up more robust processes for managing the test databases.

When the government screws up, they should be held to account. But there is no need to get into a sensationalist panic about every little thing that goes wrong.

Exploitation of tragedy

Most days I read the Victorian section of The Age online (no, that doesn’t mean I am reading about Tony Abbott’s election policies, it is referring to the state of Victoria, not the era).

Today when I looked, there were 30 articles available. Nineteen of them were related to the tragic death of Jill Meagher (precipitated by the killer appearing in court for a pre-sentencing hearing). That’s right, nineteen.

Granted, what happened to that poor girl was a tragedy (and I really feel for her family, having to go through such a terrible loss). However, there is definitely a line between a respected newspaper reporting on a news item, and a slowly dying newspaper clutching at any tragedy or hint of moral outrage to exploit in a desperate attempt to stay relevant.

They even had an article talking about how it caused a “burst of outrage in the twittersphere“. How is seven quotes from random peoples’ tweets a “news” article? The mere fact that people have opinions is not news. The fact is, if you give enough people the ability to quickly and easily voice stream-of-consciousness opinions to the world, then of course you will get a bunch of people bleating their outrage over every little thing that briefly crosses their mind (heaven help us if they actually bother to start a blog!).

I wonder how long I will keep reading The Age online.

A man’s life, in 10 judgemental words

I was looking for videos of deaths on escalators (don’t ask, I’m a very strange person!) and I came across this news report by Heather Graf of King 5 news of Seattle. Note: the video does show a man dying, but it is blurry and not graphic.

The thing that struck me about the reporting was the final words of the narration in which Ms Graf said that the victim died “with a half empty bottle of brandy in his pocket”. Why did she feel the need to mention that specific piece of information? It implies that the victim was an alcoholic.

Does this information help the viewer in any way? If the influence of alcohol is what caused him to fall, then that would be useful information as it would remind people of the dangers of using an escalator while drunk. She doesn’t say that though. From her report, we don’t know if his implied  alcoholism is a factor. I can only jump to the wild conclusion that Ms Graf trying to make viewers feel better about the tragedy by saying that even though there was a horrible accident, it happened to a drunk bum so there is no need to get too upset.

If you really must summarise a person’s whole life in one sentence, try not to make it a value judgement.