Wednesday, 1 September 2010

There is no such thing as a "will of the people"

I have tried to avoid this. I really have.

Commenting on this farce of an election.

I was not an angry voter, but I was not an undecided voter either.

I was disappointed by Kevin Rudd's managerial style after being elected, but pleased by many of his policy initiatives. I was disappointed when he caved on emissions trading, but more by his failure to more vigorously pursue the carrot approach of incentives to manufacture clean power plants combined with a nicely predictable timeline to phase out the manufacture of dirty plants. I was disappointed by the way he was deposed, but didn't feel personally betrayed by it since I, as a voter, don't remember ticking a box saying "I want Rudd as PM", it was just a consequence of the way we all voted, and maybe a factor in it as well. I'm not that impressed by Julia Gillard, frankly, but she has done some good things.

On the other side, I am personally disgusted by a lot of what Tony Abbott believes and find him, as an individual, to be just a bit creepy. I don't like many of his colleagues either, but then again I don't have much respect for many Labor parliamentarians so I suppose that's all right.

In actual fact, I maintain that the only two major figures who got through the entire campaign with dignity intact were Malcolm Turnbull and Bob Brown.

The simple fact is that I have progressive social views, a strong sense of social justice and a firm belief that the job of a government is to govern, lead and develop not sit back and let private enterprise do it for them, so I am constitutionally inclined, if forced to choose between only the two majors, to pick Labor.

But I'm not impatient or annoyed or upset by the outcome. 
I'm more interested by this hung situation than I could have been by any other outcome. This horse-trading currently going on as the two parties sit just short of majority and three traditional conservatives plus one (now Adam Bandt has formally sided with Labor) are desperately courted by two leaders who would prefer to ignore their existence, is the best show we've had in politics since Rudd spanked Howard (not literally, we should be so lucky) at the last election. 

It's certainly more interesting than anything that happened during the actual election campaign itself, leaks included.

And, bizarrely, it's shown Bob Katter to be a reasoned, considered man of noble principles and not (only) the half-crazed loon the city-centred rest of Australia thought he was.

But there is one thing I can no longer keep silent about (yes, there was a point, I was getting here, honest).

"The Australian people spoke."

May I just say: Piss off.

What is this "Australian people" of which you speak?

"Australians managed to engineer the only result which made sense." How? By colluding? Sorry, I don't remember getting instructions to vote this way so the result would go that way.

This idea that the outcome of millions of individual decisions reflects a group-think is old-fashioned, very wrong and, in my view, deceptive, discourteous and probably disingenuous as well. It's a convenient shorthand but it reflects sloppy thinking and it shouldn't be used.

The result is the result of many factors, possibly including a protest-vote which may have been influenced by a belief that Labor would win anyway so it was safe to do so. Possibly including a genuine sense of dissatisfaction with the major parties and a turn to minors, yet I notice the major parties did still manage to win 145 out of 150 seats (at present counting). Possibly including a genuine lack of compelling electioneering which resulted in people defaulting to party lines and sorting out the swinging voters into who they really do lean towards.

I don't know, and frankly I don't care. What I do care about is that we stop saying "the will of the people" was expressed, or "Australians wished" or "The electorate decided" or, more appropriately, "the electorate failed to decide".

This member of the electorate made a decision. So did millions of others. Independently of all save maybe family members or friends. And the result of all of those independent decisions, when filtered through an electoral system incorporating preferences, electoral boundaries and a system of government predicated upon a mini-democracy of seats voting along party lines, is a hung parliament.

There is no "will of the people" involved. There is the consequences of the wills of the people.

Termites build geographically aligned mounds without a guiding intelligence. Flocks of birds or schools of fish stay together without traffic control. Ants find and exploit food by each individual ant following a hierarchy of simple rules, not a grand centrally-coordinated master plan.

Please don't take the easy way out of thinking and accuse me of insulting voters' intelligences: I wish to point out that simple rules, expressed many times, produce complex outcomes.

The "will of the masses" is an illusion, albeit a very powerful one. It is a ghost arising out of the machine. It is pareidolia of politics. It is a chimera constructed from millions of individual inputs, each one meaningful, together adding up to a result which is not meaningful, it simply is.

Both major parties failed in their bid to convince a sufficient majority of voters across a sufficient majority of electorates to vote for them. This is the real and only message here.

If we work backwards from that, asking why not, we may begin to pick apart the reasons, we may begin to find the policies that, through popularity, reflect a majority of opinion.

But please, for the love of whatever deity, faith or otherwise vow of passion you believe in, don't put the cart before the horse and think that "Australia" "passed judgement" or that "the electorate wanted this". I suspect you would find, if you could survey all individual voters, that instead of being satisfied with this outcome they're alternately annoyed, sick of it and apathetic.

Don't ask if the electorate would pass a Turing test - not because it might not, but because it's the wrong question to ask. "The electorate" is only intelligent if an ant heap is intelligent. It's just far, far more complicated and difficult a job to engineer a result from a collection of voters than to engineer a result from a collection of ants.


Nokia N97 mini: SlideIT and LightNotePad

(Prescriptus: I finally fixed Blogger's formatting bizareness: There is a button for "remove formatting", which finally returns things to nice, simple HTML. I have no idea why, after I copied the text from a plain text file, it was messy, complicated and wrong HTML in the first place.)

Part of the challenge faced by smartphone manufacturers is how to get text from the user's mind onto the screen. The N97 mini has a slide-out QWERTY keyboard, but it's only really average in quality and sometimes you just can't be bothered.

There may also be better options.

So let's look at this, shall we: How do we get text into the phone, and where do we put it?

Text entry

Take the very shiny SlideIT keyboard.

Like the somehow more famous Swype, you draw a line connecting the letters of the word you want - in order, obviously - and the software works out what the word is. It's like supercharged predictive text. You can also tap out words and then add them to the dictionary from the keyboard instead of having to drop into another dialogue first.

And it works really well and I'm not sorry I paid for it - although I wish it had dropped in price before I paid up. There are paths that cover quite a lot of words and there are subtleties of usage which you learn over time to improve prediction, but you can also tap out letter-by-letter and be offered predictive suggestions as well as the option to add or delete that word from the dictionary. These blog posts were mostly written using SlideIt.

It is, indeed, very shiny and quite the most relaxed way of entering text I've ever used on a small screen. But its integration with the system leaves something to be desired.

When called it doesn't resize the window you're entering text into but floats over it instead, which inevitably means that it's going to end up covering the text, and quite quickly.

Luckily, there's a button to switch it between top and bottom of the screen, which is a functioning workaround but still feels like a last minute "Oops, we really should fix that!" kludge.

However when you switch the phone to landscape mode the SlideIT interface changes to have its own entry area and replaces the application itself in the same way the system keyboard does.

Unfortunately, although the keys are nice and big in this mode, it introduces an extremely annoying performance bug. The screen has a visible refresh rate. You have to wait for words to be drawn on screen before entering the next one, and gods help you if you want to change the system's selection - it deletes the old word one. Letter. At. A. Time, then draws the new one in.

The grammar model could also do with some work: it automatically capitalises the first word after a full stop, but not after exclamation marks. At least, not always. Generally, when it feels like it. 

It also insists upon capitalising the first letter of some text fields but not all, and refuses to let you capitalise in the middle of a word, both of which make entering decent passwords impossible. You have to disable it, even on the N97 family where the hardware keyboards don't work, by launching a separate application - you can't do it from within the keyboard interface itself.

It would have been nice if they had put the word "Symbian" in the dictionary for the Symbian version.

And one more thing - I CANNOT get it to give me "this". At first I thought I was just being a victim of a particularly common path, but then I found out that said word wasn't in the dictionary. "This," wasn't in the dictionary.

So, of course, I added it.

The next time I needed it, it had disappeared. I had to add it again. And again. It has become a saga in its own right.

The final problem is that it doesn't work with the two programs I most often need text entry in - Gravity the uber Twitter/Facebook/Google Reader client, and LightNotepad the barely-adequate-but-best-choice text editor (see below). Which leaves me at the T9 entry. And that's really, really annoying.

On the the whole however it really is a very cool system, and really would make the difference between me living with a touch only device and me throttling someone.

Text Editors

As far as I'm concerned, every computing device needs a text editor. It's the ultimate basic tool. With a basic text editor you can write letters or emails away from a word processor or an email client, replace a note book, take phone numbers or addresses or other contact details easier and usually faster than using the device's contacts application, and even use it as an ebook reader for device agnostic formats like pain text or html.

So what's available on Symbian? Stuff all, actually.

The built-in Notes application can handle large quantities of text, but that's about it. There's no find, no undo (which has already made my life unpleasant) and this is how you get files in or out to work on them: 

  • In: open in the built-in file manager (or select "Open with system" in Xplore), which thinks it's dealing with an email attachment and asks if you want to save it to Notes.
  • Out: you can't "export", you have to "send". Yes, send via bluetooth, MMS or email, but not actually dump it to a text file on the phone's file system. Yes, you have to email it to yourself.
The only reason I am using Notes at all is that SlideIT doesn't work with most non-system software - when I've finished a chunk of text, I select the text on screen and copy it across to LightNotePad. Unless it's too much, and it doesn't all get copied at once. I have a sneaking suspicion this is due to SlideIt not a system limitation, but I keep forgetting to check.

Then there's DEdit. If you have a non-touch Symbian device, stop looking now. Jbak's text editor is incredibly powerful and has more features, keyboard shortcuts and options than I got close to using.

And it has one very, very useful feature. It can remember your location in a file, and go back there when you next open it.

This makes it an almost complete basic ebook reader if you're desperate, and is invaluable if you have large files.

And it doesn't work in Symbian with touch. Jbak's other invaluable tool the TaskMan task manager does but DEdit hasn't been updated in a while and I'm afraid he may have lost interest in it.

Or, probably more likely, it would be a huge effort to make all the keyboard hotkey combinations work on touch and he hasn't, or hasn't finished, or won't.

I was most upset when I found out I would have to search for a replacement.

Without paying slightly stupid sums of money for a mobile office suite, which would be complete overkill not to mention potentially less actually useful, I only really found one alternative - LightNotePad. The "light" part may refer to its inability to handle files greater than 200kb, which goes beyond short story territory into small novel.

It's fairly basic. It has a find function, a page down button but page up using the green key (which launches the phone dialer at the same time, whoops) and, very useful, the ability to set a bookmark for the file.

No undo, however, which is slightly annoying.

You may think I'm being a bit obsessive with this bookmarking feature but navigating through a file on a small screen can become tedious in the extreme and you can save yourself an enormous amount of time by not having to do so.

And besides: there's ebooks. (quick note to say; on Symbian, if you do want an ebook reader: ZXreader. It's a Russian site, so use Google Translate or something. I use Google Chrome or Chromium, which detect the non-English and offers to translate it for you, very seamless).

I started off being astonished there was such a small selection, but I'm forced to concede I shouldn't be. The number of people who want a text editor on a handheld device and don't want it to read Microsoft formats is, in all honesty, very, very limited.


Sunday, 29 August 2010

Motorbike accidents in the media - Part 14

No, I don't know of any 14-cylinder motorbikes, either.

Also: Yes, I know the formatting is a little strange. I don't know why, it's Blogger's fault.

Something strange happened.

Stories dried up.

I'm not sure if I just missed a lot, or if there really was a late-winter lull, or if suddenly they weren't being reported, but August was a barren month for motorbike crash stories.

Then, suddenly, they appeared again.

So hear we go. Again.

I shall begin with a story from the Courier Mail, way back on July 26.

It is called, wait for it:

Motorbike rider killed after hitting 170km/h before slamming into car and crashing through sound barrier on M1 at Ormeau

I have mentioned the CM habit of excessive headlines before, but this is just a joke.

Also: sound barrier? I'm guessing they mean a concrete barrier to prevent houses near the motorway getting all the noise, but the term does have one other meaning. Ambiguous is not good.

The opening paragraph is:

AN allegedly speeding motorcyclist has paid the ultimate price, after slamming into a car then catapulting into sound barriers on the Pacific Motorway at Ormeau last night.

Is this news, or editorialising? Or script-writing perhaps?

Spot the distinction between the headline's "hitting 170km/h" and the opening paragraph's "allegedly speeding". Spot the useless euphemism of "ultimate price". Spot the equally useless verb forms "slamming" and "catapulting".

Rewrite: AN allegedly speeding motorcyclist has died after hitting a car and sound barriers on the Pacific Motorway at Ormeau last night.

See? Says just as much but doesn't waste time, space or punctuation.

Second paragraph: informative and brief.

Third paragraph:

His large high-powered road bike was spotted prior to the crash travelling northbound on the M1 at estimated speeds of between 160 and 170km/h.

This is trash journalism, it really is. If you know what the bike is - put it in. If you don't - leave it out. Saying "large high-powered" not only begs for an "and" or a comma - both of which should be telling you to consider rewriting a news sentence - but is meaningless. A Honda Goldwing is "large high-powered". A BMW K1200LT is "large high-powered". They are also both luxury tourers ridden by wealthy retirees. Come to that, a Range Rover is "large high-powered".

Not only but also, it is possible to hit speeds in excess of 170km/h on bikes that are "small" and, comparatively speaking, "modest powered". In fact, it's more likely on a small bike. Superbikes these days are the size of yesterday's supersports.

My bike is heavier than a sports bike and wasn't super powerful in 1982 when it was launched, but it still has a listed top speed of greater than 200km/h.

Next point: Estimated by whom? Police, who at least have some training, or other motorists, who can't be relied upon to spot bikes at all unless they're speeding, and generally can't judge their own speed let alone someone else's?

That entire sentence can be usefully distilled down to: Other motorists said he was speeding as he headed northbound on the M1.

The final five paragraphs, three of them about the accident and two about the road toll, are brief and to the point. Only the paragraphs dealing with the motorbike are poorly written and should never have been delivered by a competent journalist, let alone passed by a halfway decent editor.

I don't often say this, but that article was rubbish.

Okay. We can trust the ABC not to do that, can't we?

Now if that doesn't grab your attention, I don't know what will.

The gist is that it was off-road, on a farm, and she ran into a cow. The bike and the cow then fell on her and she is alive and being treated for serious head and back injuries.

The first point to make here is that there is no way to write about a cow falling on someone without suppressed laughter. It's just an inherently funny thing to happen, unless it's you or someone you know.

Getting that out of the way: "four-wheel bike". Pedant hat on for a second: A "bike" is from "bicycle" which is from "bi-cycle" which translates as "two wheeled". It's a "quadcycle". Repeat after me: "Quad. Cycle. Quadcycle."


Getting that out of the way, there's nothing I can say to fault this. Not sure how she managed to have a quadcycle fall on her unless she ran up the side of the cow and it flipped, and not sure how she managed to hit it unless she was, to use a technical term, "larking about". 

But the article was brief, to the point, and clear.

Finally, we have one article from the CM again, from August 18:

Motorbike rider dies after losing arm and leg in Bundaberg crash

Strangely, this appeared in the RSS feeds twice, under different headlines. They've done this sort of thing before. Not sure if it's because article publish automatically and somebody then changes the headline, or what the story is.

Unfortunately, the opening paragraph adds exactly two pieces of information and one adverb: "horrific", "died in hospital" and "overnight".

The actual information is in the second paragraph, which gives us where and how, but also gives the bike credit for causing the crash of its own free will.

The rest of the article isn't too bad, with reasonably succinct sentences and a logical flow, although I have issue with this: 

A Department of Community Safety spokesman said the man suffered "traumatic injuries" that included the amputation of an arm and a leg.

If the injuries really did include amputation, the journalist should have rewritten .

I'm intrigued by the comment that speed hasn't been ruled out as a factor but there were "inconsistencies" with that theory, but if it was still under investigation there probably wasn't any more information available at the time.

It's actually a reasonably complete article, and not bad.

At this point in the year the main factors uniting all stories so far have been sloppy or incomplete reporting, and euphemisms. Things like "his bike clipped a guard rail" can be forgiven as standard practice, but "paid the ultimate price" should have been repaid with corporal punishment.

If you want to write like that, go and work for a tabloid.

If you want to comment on the Courier Mail, keep it to yourself.

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