Sunday, August 27, 2006

Conference over

It's done. Yesterday was the banquet to mark the end of the 6 day conference. It has been exhausting and tough, but also very fruitful. My talk went well, and people have come to me afterwards to tell that they'd enjoyed it, and of course to ask questions.

We had only 15+5 minutes, which is too short. Especially the 5 minutes for questions. People have flown it for hours from all the corners of the world, just to have 15 minutes to speak and the chance to answer 2 questions from colleagues they are not likely to see until in the next conference in two years time. And perhaps for that reason, the social side was so important - every coffee break and dinner was spent in discussions about current and future projects. Of course, under the italian sun, and the starts on warm nights, it is impossible and undesirable not to digress to all sorts of issues... And that is why, in this time of broadband internet, webcasting and blogging, we still make the effort to convene in a piazza somewhere.

The conference was of a good quality, although not ground-breaking. And the conference digressed as well, as in the end of it a "political meeting" was organised. We discussed the role of scientists in the world. I'll write about it later. Now I must go and see Bologna. It's very beautiful and so far I only know the route from the hotel to the conference venue, and I really would like to see more of it.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Political purge

Sorry, have to do this every now and again... Purge my thoughts about Finnish politics - or about the impression I get from the papers, when I have time to read them.

First, news just out: the parliamentary groups of the two main parties in the coalition government have started their summer meetings. These have to do with the state budget plus other policy issues for the autumn (I was tempted to resort to an awful pun and use the word "fall") - last before the elections early next year.

The Center Party has praised how well the coalition works, while the social democrats have praised themselves. Hmm. Sounds like a happy marriage.

While this was just a joke, there is a more serious issue that emerged last week. The social democrats will try to woo the green party voters by trying to profile themselves as an "environmentally friendly" party. This must be the world record of hypocrisy. As just one example, the social democrates, the workers' unions that support them and the leading faces of the party were the key players when Finland decided to build more nuclear power. And in general, these guys have previously only cared about "keeping the factories running" and even loathed the more eco-friendly knowledge-industry (ICT, services etc.) for being elitistic, not to mention opposing all environmental taxation, conservation and anything that might cause their contingency to "lose jobs". So, when their current head-honcho Eero Heinäluoma, the finance minister, preaches green values, it reeks of election tactics.

For instance, in the interview by Suomen Kuvalehti, he suggested that as Sweden tries to get rid of it's oil addiction by 2020, Finland should do the same, but by 2030. This means that we can start scoring political points on this, but as Sweden will try to do it in 14 years, and we set our aim to 24, we don't actually need to do anything for ten years. In 2016 Heinäluoma will be 61 years old and ready to retire, so he won't be there to carry any responsibility for this. I hope voters will see through this.


Ahh... I've decided again that I never fly Ryanair again. I had unfortunately bought these tickets already before my first ever experience of the budget airline, which made me swear never to fly them again. After today's endless queuing and delays I can renew the decision and hopefully now be more resolute about it.

This morning, at about 4.15 I started the journey to Stansted Airport to take a 7.15 flight to Bologna. Or actually, to Forli, which is supposedly at least a bit closer to Bologna than Cambridge, but judgeing my the time it took us to get from Forli to Bologna proper, not much so. With all the recent commotion about security, we were adviced to be at the airport two hours before the flight. We were there, and so were all the other passengers. But Ryanair wasn't. The check in didn't open until later, and then due to a conveyer belt failure they couldn't check people in, as their luggage was just piling up at the desks.

This was only the second or third time I take the express lane through security control, as I got my boarding pass only 5 minutes before the flight was due to depart. Of course I already knew that we weren't going to depart any time soon, as all the luggage was still piled behind the check-in counters. But, with Ryanair you never know if they will just take off without your luggage... As I got into the plane, they announced a 40 minute further delay. Having not had time for breakfast or even a cup of coffee in spite of early arrival to the airport I decided to try to sleep through it, which of course is difficult in the non-reclining seats. At least I had the leg room as I was sitting next to the emergency exit.

I don't know if it's funny or just sad, but they didn't have water in the plane. Some people were asking for cups of water while wew were waiting to depart, and all they could come up with was a cup of hot tea water with ice. The ice had of naturally immediately melted leaving the water lukewarm.

Finally we arrived, to a terminal which is almost as horrible as the one in Pirkkala, Tampere. The loos were in a container unit outside the building, for example... No frills indeed. The bus, as always, was much more comfortable than the plane, but we hit some standing queues on our 40-minutes-became-2-hours busride.

But boy, was it worth it! This city is so beautiful and charming.... It might be that not having anything to eat or drink for 15 hours made me a bit less critical than usually, but the food we had was also divine. I wasn't looking forward to this conference trip, partly because I haven't yet written my talk, but now I'm looking forward to it. More than 500 papers in 5 days will be tough, but the surroundings more than make up for it.

Also, the historical centre of Bologna is covered by a free wifi network... Very civilised.

(Pic: the venue of our conference)

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Look, a parus major, another, loads of them...

I was doing some final planning of my experiment that I'm running today and tomorrow (not a moment too soon, as the conference starts on Monday...). As I was sipping the oilpan-boiled coffee I'd got from the campus buttery, I was sketching the various factors of my experiment to make sure I had all the bases covered and all the stimuli in the right place.

I needed to make sure that my two participants (t1 and t2 for short) were assigned correctly in the right conditions. So I started with an empty sheet of paper, jotted down the levels of factor 1 vertically, cross-tabulated with the levels of factor 2 horizontally, noting t1 and t2 to the various slots as I went along. And once I had managed to fill all the slots with with 't1' and 't2', I took a long sip of the coffee, glanced around the central lawn and the raised faculty building; builders at work here, a few people there, going to the library with their transparent plastic bags (UL is years ahead of Heathrow and Stansted in screening your hand luggage upon your entry to the premises), some early-bird tourists taking photographs of Lord Foster's Law Faculty building... Ahh, such a nice, early summer morning on the Cambridge Sedgwick site. Another sip of coffee and a glance to my satifsactorily filled notes - a page full of handwriting, seemingly repeating tits, tits, tits, tits, in a nice 5-by-5 array...

Luckily I managed to avoid choking on my coffee, and no-one else saw my Freudially (Freudianially? Freudistically? Freudianisically? in-a-Freudian-way?) loaded notes, and not many people were scared by my manic chuckles as I was heading back to the faculty squeezing my notes.

(Pic: Richard Ford,

Monday, August 07, 2006

Milton Keynes

Ahh, the city of roundabouts!

We made a Sunday excursion to Britain's newest city. Unlike the other human habitations in Britain that still have most of their pre-Norman architecture in place (and in use), Milton Keynes is about two weeks old. It was built overnight according to a master plan involving roundabouts and shopping malls using a compass, a ruler, a lot of UPVC-glazing and concrete tiles.

It is the fabulous place where the indoor skiing facility is conveniently located next to an indoor beach, for maximum contrast. There is no city center apart from a huge mall. All roads are straight, named with two-digit codes and have a lot of roundabouts. In fact so many, that they don't need an amusement park, all they need to do is take their cars and drive around town. In about 30 minutes everyone is feeling sick enough.

It's a plastic town. While in normal cities you have layers of history, an old building here, a new development there, in Milton Keynes everything is new. While in most parts of the world there are buildings with some shops at the bottom and housing on the top, in MK there is a central mall and housing areas a few roundabouts away. While in other towns there might be some bare land, grass, gravel etc., in MK there is conrete, asphalt, and landscaped lines of trees with flowerpots in between. All placed according to a plan: this should look nice.

There is a football team in all English towns and villages. They were all established about a hundred years ago and have grown as the villages that fed them grew. They have changed names, getting the right to use the term "City" in the name after the town they are in grew up, were re-named "United" after two or more of them merged. In Milton Keynes, however, you have MK Dons. A club that used to be Wimbledon FC, got into financial trouble and was bought by businessmen in MK and replanted to a hockey stadium with plastic grass in it. I don't know how many fans they bought and replanted in the process, but it wasn't that many. Many people did the unthinkable and moved to support the old arch enemy, Wimbledon AC, that was playing a few leagues lower than the former FC.

MK is a weird experience. It feels very American somehow. I mean, the mall could be anywhere in America and is every bit as sumptuous and excessive. Shops, services, entertainment, and a matching number of parking spaces. Some housing areas are actually quite nice and the Open University main campus that's on the outskirts is very pretty. And I had a fun day, made some good purchases from discounts, and am actually a bit tempted to try the indoor skiing, but I can't help that I was feeling a bit weird, like there was something wrong. If that would be my "world", I'd be seriously thinking that I would be in a Truman Show or some other human experiment. It's too smooth to be real, too new to be charming and too concrety to be comfortable.

Any real town has the signs of the numerous compromises the planners have had to make over several generations - here it seems like one group of constructors has planned the whole thing on a tabula rasa. No problems with old buildings being a bit too close together for this, the roads being too narrow for that... No controversy, no quirkiness, no fun. MK is like adult-oriented soft rock, Michael Bolton (before hairloss), Eros Ramazzotti and Il Divo on tour, Helmut Lotti goes Shopping. All that white keys only, please drive carefully and buy 2-for-1 -niceness. I can stomach it in small doses only. Or perhaps it's the roundabouts.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Summer reading

One of the best things about summer holiday is that there's nothing to do. So there's nothing stopping you from reading, book after book...

Richard Muller-Freienfels (1941): Menschenkenntnis und Menschenbehandlung - Eine praktische Psychologie fur Jedermann I read this in Finnish, the translation is from 1953, and it was already 4th Finnish reprint. I found a German original from a German antiquariate web site, and that opus was printed in 1941. RMF's main work seems to be focused on soul and its mysteries - which explains why the only people who have ever taken him seriously (based on looking at who refers to the book) are some esotericists and art psychology people keen to explain how art is more than its physical features.

RMF:s writing is a collection of culturally-biased examples and rule-of-thumb types of solutions to anachronistic problems. It makes a funny summer read.

He can be counted as one of the cultural psychologists, and he was vehemently opposing the behaviourist school and their reductionism. While his Russian colleagues and contemporaries such as Lev Vygotsky actually managed to provide a viable alternative to the behaviourists, RMF - well, didn't. He is committed to the idea of a soul separate of the body, so it is unashamedly dualist, or Cartesian. He argues how important and special the human soul is and how we will never fully understand it, and how it doesn't reside in any of our physical organs.

Oddly enough, he then takes a full turn and a rather comtemporary view by explaining how our cognition is embodied. Not using those words, obviously, as they are a later addition to the psychology jargonator. And his argumentation for embodiment is OK, too bad he still insists on hanging on his dualist views... And as his starting points are skewed, the progress on the slippery slope takes him to funny places. He deals with graphology and physiognomy, believing in them as well as in the many sexist, ageist, racist and cultural stereotypes as useful psychological categories. Interesting, and even funny at times.

Oh, and not completely useless: I have to thank RMF for pointing me to Théodule Ribot's (1839-1916) work on attention. This is a glaring example of the black spots that are left when only reading stuff in English - I must admit that I don't even remember hearing the name before, even though he is considered as the father of French psychology... How sad is that. (Note to self: must do a literature search or two in French)

Dan Brown (2003?): Deception Point
Of course not all summer reading is high-brow, even if it's tongue-in-cheek. It needs to be feet-up and hands-down, also hopefully bottoms-up and eventually eyes-closed. So, I read a couple of thrillers as well. First, the best-selling book in Finland in May 2006: Dan Brown's Meteorite. I read it in Finnish, so some blame might go to the translator, but still I must say it was the worst book I've read in ages. I mean, most tabloids are more thrilling to read. On their bad day. The only consolation is that it didn't take me long to read, but it was still a total waste of time. It is also a waste of time to write any more about it, but I'll do it anyway. Might be that someone reads this and decides not to read it, and for that worthy cause I'll spend a couple of more sentences. The characters are one-dimensional, stereotypical and uniteresting. It's been a week now, and I can't remember one single character from it. I didn't really care what happened to them. From after about 5 pages I was sort of hoping they would all die very soon.

The plot is predictable and the screenplay style of the writing is annoying. With very short chapters that are like scenes in a bulk b-movie. And shorter sentences. Plus, the technical details and lists of things that are supposed to provide the credibility sucked. For instance, it just stands in the way of the story and annoys me if you list 10 symptoms of hypothermia when someone in the book is supposedly freezing. No, it doesn't make me symphatise with the character. In one word, this book is cheap. In another, it's bad. Don't read it. Ever. If it's the only book you have, burn it. I promise you, it's better that way.

Boris Akunin (2005): Turkish Gambit

Next book was by Boris Akunin, the second in the series of detective novels starring Erast Fandorin, a young, talented detective from St Petersburg. These adventures take place in the second half of 19th century, and have all the humour of Wodehouse's Jeeves stories, all the wit of Christie's Poirot's and all the suspence of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, and it all takes place in the sort of 19th century jamesbond-esque international espionage scenarios. Brilliant stuff, brilliantly written. The characters are crazy, there are so many counts and barons and whatnot that you start losing track. Plots, schemes, conspiracies, lies, hidden identities and all that are abundant and the reader has to constantly update the list of good guys and bad guys (and gals). The only one you can trust is Erast Fandorin, very polite, determined and quiet character.

Ilkka Remes (2006): Hiroshiman Portti
So, Akunin has mixed genres, has crossed detective stories with tales of espionage and peppered the whole hting with humour and flamboyance. This already is more interesting than the techno-thriller that Brown put together. But, as Alistair MacLean and Tom Clancy have shown (and James Bond films continue to show), no matter how strictly your genre defines what you need to have in a book and how you write it, you can do it right, or you can do it wrong. Brown failed, but Ilkka Remes has succeeded. His new book (only available in Finnish so far), Hiroshiman portti (Gate of Hiroshima) is a good techno-thriller. It reads well, is not annoying even though it shows that Remes's team has done their homework of the details, and you actually only disentangle the plot in the very end. It is entertainment rather than "high" literature, but it works.

Karel Capek (1936): War with the Salamanders
The name of the author sounded vaguely familiar. But I never connected the dots until looking him up in wikipedia. Yep, he's the Czech science fiction writer who's credited as being the father of the word "robot". While the term was actually coined by his brother, Josef, Karel went on to write great books, including the "dystopian satire" that has been translated as "War with the Newts" as well as "War with the Salamanders". I read the Finnish translation, "Salamanterisota".

A Czech sea captain (yes, from the country that has as much coastline as Switzerland) discovers a new species of newts, finds them very clever, trades with them (knives to pearls), and things start to roll. International cartells exploiting a monopoly of newts, them being recruited to do underwater constructions in ports etc. And the newts spread around the world, learn to speak, write, do science... The title tells the rest. The book is very daring in its satire, and both communism and fascism get their share of it, and so do all European powers, industrialists and businessmen, and politicians. And while it was written just before WW2, it is still very topical and feels fresh. Partly because the themes it discusses are eternal, partly because the book is so well written. I especially liked the guy who worked as a custodian in the house of the indusrial magnate who financed the first pearl-trade operations. He blamed himself for the whole mess, because he had let the captain in to present his idea, even though he didn't have an appointment. Meanwhile, all the nations, politicians and businessmen were busy blaming everyone else...


Guns, Germs and Steel

Why are human societies in different parts of the world so different? Why do the Europeans and the North Americans have more than they need while many Africans have nothing? Why do some societies have very complex political and social structures while other peoples consist of bands and tribes and no central government? Some say it's genetic. They point out to the colour on people's face and make a racist conclusion that those with lighter pigment are smarter inside, and therefore their societies are more "advanced". Others conclude that if you live further north you need to build things to adapt to the colder environment or you die, therefore the countries in the North are richer than those further down south. This is the favourite explanation of modern Finns and Swedes but unfortunately almost as wrong as the first one.

Jared Diamond provides a compelling explanation in his book. The book is almost ten years old now, and a bestseller, but for some reason I hadn't read it before. I must say that I hadn't really given much thought about the "civilisation-level" dynamics of world dominance, apart from playing Civilization myself... But, I've had more interest in the individual and small group cognition and "intelligence". And so I've refuted racist claims that tap into these issues without trying to find alternative reasons from the large-scale dynamics.

For instance, some people claim that there are IQ differences that are associated with "race" or nationality. I've not wasted much ammo to showing how tedious the whole notions of "race", ethnic group or nation are, instead I've gone straight to attacking the validity and reliability of the IQ-tests themselves. There are several problematic issues about them. First, they (and there are various around) only measure a narrow band in the vast spectrum of human intelligence. No matter how narrowly you define "intelligence" (leaving out for instance the now fashionable "emotional intelligence", which BTW is a stupid term as such) you will still end up with a definition that outreaches the test's subject matter. Second, they are very culture-specific. The whole idea of pen-and-paper tests is very Western, but even beyond this slightly patronising notion, the tests fail to cover what's considered significant or natural in other than the Western schooling/oriented societies. Even within our societies the test only manages to measure stuff you learn at school the way you learn to learn at school; and, the way you have learned to be tested on stuff you learned at school. That's why you can't even directly compare scores from different times. The scales are adjusted following the overall rise in schooling in the population.

So, if you can't really use the test to compare how smart you are compared to your 15 years older cousin, how can you possibly compare scores across continents, to people who don't share your language, have different societies and schools, and value different things? In short, you shouldn't. The IQ tests also only measure your current performance which might differ from your actual abilities because you're tired etc. The test results have been shown to change along with your arousal level, and for example when you get to listen to your favourite music prior to the test you are likely to score higher points. The test results always need to be taken with a pinch of salt, but the pinches for cross-cultural comparison would need to be so big that they would constitute an unhealthy dose.

I'm babbling again, but as you see, nowhere in here do you need to actually answer the counter-arguments most racists are too stupid to make, but that have influenced them in the first place: the human societies are vastly different in today's world, others are undeniably more advanced, with almost any measure (not only the elusive IQ; I say almost any measure because "happiness" seems to correlate somewhat negatively with "wealth" which correlates positively with health, education, level of technology use and other measures that usually are associated with "development"). Diamond answers to those claims. He shows how today's uneven situation is a result of historical trends over at least the last 13 000 years, and that these trends were molded by environmental factors, not differences in the faculties of the people who make up the populations of these societies. He poses questions like 'why was it the Spanish conquistadores who with a relatively small troops in short time conquered the Inca and Atztec civilisations after 1492, and why didn't Atahuallpa's Incas sail to Portugal and Spain and take over Europe instead'.

The parts that are most detailed and convicing are his explanations about domesticable plants and animals in each of the continents. He sees the transition from hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agriculture as the main driving factor, as this allowed people to release some of their time from providing sustenance to themselves to innovation, political organisation, war, etc., and also motivated them to develope technology, tools and larger structures (such as irrigation and castles etc.) as they didn't need to constantly move with all their possessions or use all their time collecting food. As it turns out, the Eurasian continent is by far the richest in plants that could be (and eventually were) domesticated, and similarly boasted the best selection of domesticable large mammals, essential for agricultural lifestyle as providers of food, power, hides etc. But this is only the start, what follows is the interesting bit.

So, the folks in Eurasia had cows, pigs and sheep while the South/Americans only had their llamas. What is interesting is the fact that so much of the "technology" was adopted from others and so little was self-developed. In the whole world, the main crops were domesticated only a few times, the rest of the people got them through trade and conquest. Again, Eurasia won the race as everyone else very quickly adopted the cereal crops and animals that were domesticated in the Middle East. Here comes the second environmental accident: as the main axis of the continent lies in the east-west direction, the length of the growing season is more or less the same across a wide area, which facilitated the spread of the plants, animals, and pleasant life at the countryside. Much more effort was needed to trasfer crops in north-south direction due to rapidly changing circumstances. These, Diamond argues, are the ultimate causes for the different trajectories of human societies, on their way to becoming the haves and the have-nots of today.

Oh, the germs-part might need an explanation. Pizarro and the other conquistadores didn't need a big army, as they had people who carried smallpox and other deadly diseases. These diseases wiped out much of the population in those ancient, Southern and Meso-American empires, including their emperors. Not much was left to conquer, after the little bugs had done their part. These germs originated from the animals that European peoples shared their shelters and living spaces for thousands of years, and while they did their damage in the European populations as well, the Europeans had already developed some resistance to them, over the thousands of years of exposure. The incas hadn't, and the result was almost a total annihilation. This was unintended biological warfare, and another "gain" coming from the domesticated, settled lifestyle and the combination of animals there was initially available or easily adoptable. Malaria and other tropical diseases in Africa and Southern Asia are of course working "against" the Europeans, and as a result these areas were colonised much later, with the aid of modern medicine and the instant "adaptation" they provide to these illnesses.

The picture Diamond paints is compelling and manages to convince the reader of his main point: geographical features of the continents and the environmental "accidents" are responsible of the "ultimate causes" behind the different trajectories of the development of human societies around the world. He sees the increases in complexity of human societies a direct result of increased population size, increased technological standard as a direct consequence of the available resources and time to exploit them, and the transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture as the major shift in the history of humanity. At his timescale of 13000 years and his scope of the whole world this might be (at least for a 400+ paged popular science book) fair enough. It is however important to also look at what he leaves out.

In human evolution (which of course takes place over longer timescales than what Diamond looks at, and it can be argued that no significant evolutionary changes have taken place at least during the last 30 000 years) the emergence of language, tool use etc. have been posited to much of the same causes that Diamond discusses. Growing population sizes, food availability etc. have been seen as factors that have on one hand driven evolution as it exerts a pressure to select for certain traits, and on the other as the consequences of these evolutionary advances. Now, with this mill churning for thousands, even hundreds of thousands of years, humans had overtaken the world from other species, and thus it was the humans domesticating the pigs and not the other way around. Just as the evolution tends to be a complex mixture of forces and factors creating consequences over longer timescales, the later developments within the species homo sapiens sapiens are similarly increasingly complex.

If it's not the genes, it's the environment, but how about cognition? The early humans developed cognitive abilities far more complex than any other species, and these skills seem to be inextricably linked to the social environment of the individuals. Language, theory of mind, intentionality, music... just name any cognitive ability that humans seem to be especially good at and I show you how it benefits living together in larger and larger groups and more and more complex societies. While Diamond would argue that there are no significant differences between the cognitive capacities of a modern hunter-gatherer in Kalahari and a university professor in Cambridge, and I would agree, it would still be interesting to see how the different development trajectories were influenced by the ways these "universal" cognitive capacities were used in different places. Diamond discusses different languages and to some extent religions on a very superficial level, but leaves the rest of it to others. Of course, these are only proximal causes, as he says, not the ultimate ones, but I firmly believe that while all humans share the same mental machinery we use it in very different ways, and those differences are interesting and important. I don't like our understanding of our most fascinating organ and at the same time our understanding of ourselves as humans to be solely driven by research on Western brains and their users.

Finally, as I opened provocatively with comparing "Western" riches to African poverty, I must emphasise that any understanding of the causes of current distribution of wealth on the earth can not be taken as a valid excuse to leave things as they are. Europeans, not Africans were the ones to colonise the others' continent, and the development leading to the differences in the societies until then can be explained by Diamond's factors. But what happened then and keeps happening now was caused by political, military, and religious decisions and deliberate choices rather than "forces of nature", and the responsibility of those decisions still lies on the hands of the nations that took them.

Moreover, just as cultural evolution took over biological evolution as the shaping force of the humanity, the industrial and technological revolution should take over environmental and religious determinism and we should fulfill our moral obligation to rid the world of poverty and undue suffering. We are the first generation that can afford to do it. I believe that we can't afford not to.

Jared Diamond 1997. Guns, Germs, and Steel: A Short history of everybody for the last 13000 years. London: Random House.

(Pic of the cover of the original edition, published by W.W.Norton & Company Inc.)

Friday, August 04, 2006

Poor use of percentages

One of today's top "news" stories in Britain has been that Britons, especially in the north of England, are drinking themselves to death. This we knew already, but now the Centre for Public Health has made local profiles in an effort to bring the issue closer to people. Also, to illustrate the seriousness of this, professor Mark Bellis, the director of CPH was saying that everyone in Blackpool and other northern regions is currently throwing away 23 months of their lives as a result of their heavy drinking habits.

And this was the mistake. When some happily drunk party-goers were interviewed for tv news, none of them thought this was serious. As one of them said, if you are going to live to be 77 or 78, what's 76 compared to that? Indeed. When you are 20, you don't exactly look forward to those last years of your life, and the difference between dying at 76 and 78 is small, or the first would actually be favoured, as it would mean that you need to spend a shorter time being a boring old-timer.

Unfortunately, this is not how it works. They were simply saying that the life expectancy in the Northern regions is 23 months lower than the national average is, and that the biggest contributing cause they can see is drinking. I think. There might be some more sophisticated stats involved, they might be able to factor out the alcohol-related deaths and the 1 to 2 years was arrived to by looking at the impact of these to the average life expectancy. I can't be bothered to check, beacuse it's irrelevant to my point. Which is that 23 months on the level of averages means that it covers all tea-totallers and church-ladies who take one sip of sherry after Sunday service. And the difference to the average is contributed by those who binge every week, meaning that they are actually likely to die at 50 when their livers implode, and not at all likely to make it to 76. Many of them actually die accidentally much earlier, and their drinking habits contribute to this either directly or indirectly.

While scare-tactics (and showing swollen livers, clogged arteries and mangled bodies in tv-ads etc.) tend to turn against themselves as well, I think that the message of this study will be thoroughly misunderstood. While the CPH was trying to say that binge drinking is very dangerous and its effects can be measured, and what is discovered is unsettling, the message the bingers take home is that what they do is relatively safe, and party on.

I'm beginning to think that differentiation on your heath (insurance) costs based on your drinking, smoking and eating habits is the only way to make a difference. While this would be nearly impossible to implement, not to mention very unpopular as a policy, perhaps threatening with it works better than threatening with liver failure and heart disease.


Thursday, August 03, 2006

Top irritants

A more clever way of using "research" to promote your product: Lactofree, a milk drink fro those suffering from lactose intolerance, commissioned a survey about what irritates Britons. Lactose failed to make it to the top ten, but I'm glad to see that James Blunt *gag* is officially the most irritating person on earth.

Cold callers top the list. Yesterday, yet another telemarketer called me to offer mobile phone upgrades and discounts on my contract etc. etc. I told her to call me back in the office hours. If she does, I tell her again to call me back on office hours. Et cetera. The only time I was left alone by these people for several weeks was when I actually asked them to call me back. I was planning to upgrade my phone and wanted to hear more about the deal, but couldn't talk at that time, and wanted to check the details of my current contract. So I asked the person to call me back next Monday. He never did.

In Britain, queues are sacred, and queue-jumping is the worst thing you can do. At least now that plotting against the throne is exclusively done by the members of the royal family themselves.

Traffic features high with three places in the top ten (four if you count queue-jumping). Caravans are universally loathed, and the summer holiday months have boosted their ratings. I've always seen traffic wardens as tragicomical figures, but that's probably because I don't own a car and have never got a parking ticket. People who tailgate are usually men with white vans, and as my recent driving experience was driving various white vans (I was moving house), I was doing the tailgating myself and can't really understand the small-minded slow-driving caravan-towing people in their Ford Fiestas who must have voted for this.

Ex-smokers? Surely they are the irritated ones, not the irritating ones. Ex-smokers are the people with perma-frown and no nails who make teethmarks on desks and doorframes, but I can't really see them as being annoying. It's the not-yet-ex-smokers who are annoying. Like the one who lives somewhere in our new apartment block. For a non-smoker, there's nothing as annoying and irritating as someone polluting your air and smellifying your home with cigarette smoke. It can really wind you up, and perhaps that's what this refers to - the ambulance and the police arrived too late and the irritating b***ard is now an ex-smoker.

Two people from Big Brother are also on the list. Does this mean that there are people out there who'd enjoy watching the show but whose experience is now ruined because two of the housemates are annoying? What a worrying thought.

(blasted Blogger, can't upload the top-10 list as a pic... will try again later.)