An experience most painful

An experience most painful

Sir Winston Churchill was a man of his time. 

He was a British statesman and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the Second World War, a Sandhurst-educated soldier, a Nobel Prize-winning writer and historian, a prolific painter, and one of the longest-serving politicians in British history.

Remembered as the leader the British people needed to repel the spread of nazi fascism, he was at the same time a social reformer, an economic liberal and an imperialist. 

Such a combination may seem odd today but understandable given the late Victorian and Edwardian eras that he grew up in.

Churchill was a canny politician, being an MP for over 60 years, and he knew a thing or two about people and words. 

Here is one quote from his 1948 book The Gathering Storm, the first of his twelve-volume memoir on the Second World War

Most painful.

This is a man convinced that rearmament was essential because the war was inevitable. The House was still hoping for peace because another war so soon after the horrors of WW1 was unthinkable.

How many truth-tellers have the experience most painful?

We can count on many frontline staff and public health experts, from epidemiologists to hospital administrators, feeling that pain right now.

The environmentalists have been suffering for decades.

Now the young are feeling the pain too. Truth-telling over climate and the environment has fallen on their bold shoulders.

Reading Churchill is sobering. Knowing that the House has always been hard of hearing may make it easier to take modern ostrich behaviour from our leaders. Leaders rarely heed warnings.

Although Sir Winston felt despair, he led with irrepressible fortitude through the darkest time in British history, forcing people to listen.

It is time to channel that tenacity again.


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One will help you and the other will hurt you

One will help you and the other will hurt you

Daniel Levitin is James McGill Professor Emeritus of psychology and behavioural neuroscience at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. 

All five books of his books are international bestsellers: This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (2006), The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature (2008), The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload (2014), A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age (2016) and Successful Aging (2020).  

He is also a music producer and sound designer with contributions to recordings that have sold over 30 million copies. 

There is a real worldliness to his writing with many a quotable quote.

Here is one.

The internet delivers one who will help you and the other who will hurt you.

Sharp and insightful this one. The internet will either help or hinder and the responsibility to choose falls on the consumer of the information. 

That’s you and me. 

A ubiquitous and accessible internet is life-changing. We get all the information we need with a few clicks. 

Knowledge is power but with power comes responsibility for ourselves. In everyday web use, it’s in the decision to value or trash the information that the internet coughs up in a millisecond.

In other words, it is not the fault of information access and free speech that we get trolls, alternate facts, deception, and lies. Bad stuff is a consequence of an open platform.

It is what we do with information that matters.

Do we take the time to choose?


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What do you value in life?

What do you value in life?

Ask a thousand people and some version of family, health, education, safety, work, and maybe happiness, are up there on top of the list for everyone. 

The evolutionary biologist knows this already because these values map directly onto fundamentals that apply to all organisms — the blueprint for organic life. 

survival, growth, and reproduction 

Happiness and the many other higher self values that are supposed to be unique to humans are also predictable for an organism that can integrate the basic values into something bigger. 

We can smile when we have the fundamental values met.

What value means

Value when used as a noun to mean one’s judgement of what is important in life is consistent with this evolutionary idea. What is important in life is what gets us to the successful reproduction of our lineage in spite of the drama.

Then we also use value as a verb meaning to estimate the monetary worth or consider (someone or something) to be important or beneficial

This too is consistent with the evolutionary imperative. 

Items and actions that are important, beneficial, and financial all matter to how successful we think we are, be that in the evolutionary currency of reproductive success or the more immediate race against the Joneses.

Value as a verb — the expression of an action or a state of being — is to estimate or assign the monetary worth to an object or service or anything with utility. 

It can also mean to rate or scale in usefulness, importance, or general worth.

Either way, value is linked to the modern expression of evolutionary success, namely money.

All this makes the claim by economists that economic theory is value-free quite absurd.

And yet we let such theory run our society.

Why would we run the show on a supposed value-free premise, when in reality we value everything?


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We do not live in Narnia

We do not live in Narnia

Narnia is the fictional land invented by CS Lewis where he took Alice for epic brawls between good and evil. 

A Goodreads reviewer described Narnia as a land where magic meets reality, and the result is a fictional world whose scope has fascinated generations

Magic crashing into reality.

Fiction is absorbing because it could be true. All we have to do is suspend our disbelief long enough to identify with the characters in the story and we are invested, even with a white rabbit that talks. 

Where the rabbit hangs out, we believe too.

Thank goodness

Life would be strange, but not half as fanciful without fictional lands imagined for our entertainment.

As my wife reminds me, we are in and of this world. That is the real one that we inhabit every day. The one that throws up challenges, curveballs and exposes everyone to COVID.

Sometimes it feels imagined when everyone in the neighbourhood locks down, and the bustle suddenly stops. There are no cars, few buses and dogs taken for more walks than they ever thought possible.

Then previously unacceptable rates of infection that made lockdowns essential are ok after all. Case numbers can grow exponentially. It feels like a 180 because it is — the race that was not a race is not a race again.

Maybe it is Narnia.

CSIRO seem to think so.

In this mythical land, payments for environmental services such as carbon sequestration, clean water and habitat for wildlife would be 80% of the roughly $65 billion in agricultural production worth 6% of GDP.

In a generation, the budget will somehow shift to pay 6% of current GDP on environmental services.

First, let’s make a few context numbers available.

As of 2020, agriculture accounts for 

  • 55% of Australian land use (427 million hectares, excluding timber production) 
  • 25% of water extractions (3,113 gigalitres used by agriculture in 2018–19);
  • 11% of goods and services exports in 2019–20;
  • 1.9% of value-added (GDP) and
  •  2.6% of employment in 2019–20

In other words, Australian agriculture is conspicuous without being the backbone of the economy. 

Services deliver a steady two-thirds of GDP and industry a quarter, whilst in dollars, mining provides around $200 billion.  

The big employers in Australia are health care, retail, professional services, construction and retail, who all have more than 3x the number of workers as agriculture.

Australia is one of the most food-secure nations in the world. Not only is agricultural production diverse across the varied climate and soils of the continent, with an array of nutritious foods grown, but Australia also produces more food than it consumes, exporting around 70% of agricultural production.

As of 2020, around 3.5 million people, 14% of the population, live in rural areas. This population has declined as a proportion of the total population but has doubled in absolute numbers since 1960.

https://data.worldbank.org/share/widget?indicators=SP.RUR.TOTL&locations=AU

In summary

Not a big deal for the economy or employment, already growing enough food with a stable rural population.

Not too many of these fundamentals suggest the need for an environmental market. 

A $48 billion environmental market

Climate change is the only driver to promote a market equivalent to 80% of the agricultural sector.

Somehow, society would decide to seed emissions offsets and other environmental credits to kick start a market where consumers and taxpayers pay for actions that deliver fungible environmental credits.

This would be a fantastic outcome.

Farmers and landholders would be paid to put carbon back into soil and vegetation, hold water on their land, restore habitat, fence off streams and restore habitat for wildlife.

But we fund all of these activities already. Only it is done with a few dollars at the margins.

So what would be different in the next 20 years that has not already been the case for the past 30?

The rhetoric about climate change perhaps?

Delivering on commitments to the Paris agreement?

A 180 on climate policy?

A young girl named Alice falls through a rabbit hole into a fantasy world?


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Always put a number into context

Always put a number into context

Always put numbers into context.

Alloporus has advised to never leave a number alone not least because 

Comparison is always critical when dealing with numbers. On its own, a number makes no sense, it’s naked, self-conscious and insecure. It needs some context for clothing and some friends to compare against.

Makes good sense. 

50 bananas are way too many for one family but nowhere near enough for the local greengrocer.

What then to make of two numbers quoted in a study of feral cats

2.4 billion birds

12.3 billion mammals

2,400,000,000 must be a large number.

Any number with that many zeros must be important.

So I went to the source of the number, the research article

 Loss, S. R., Will, T., & Marra, P. P. (2013). The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States. Nature communications, 4(1), 1-8.

In the abstract, we find that our large number is actually the median value in a range from 1.3 to 4 billion birds killed by cats. 

In other words, the real number could be 1.1 billion smaller or 1.6 billion larger than the one in the quote. There is a distribution of likely true values for the number of birds killed by cats.

The 2.4 billion number was calculated after gathering all the reliable evidence on predation rates by cats from the research literature and multiplying this by estimates of cat abundance across the US. 

More technically, “We estimated wildlife mortality in the contiguous United States by multiplying data-derived probability distributions of predation rates by distributions of estimated cat abundance” (Loss et al 2013). The probability distributions were generated by repeating this calculation 10,000 times using random selections (random draw) of the predation rates reported in the literature. 

Alright, now we are getting somewhere. 

The context is that the key parameters to generate 2.4 billion are predation rate and cat abundance and both these values come from a range reported in the research literature.

We also learn that predation is by predominantly feral cats, that is cats that exist in the wild and feed themselves by doing what cats do best — catch and eat small prey. 

It is the unowned (feral) cats that do the heavy lifting to generate the number and not the moggy taking a saunter out of the cat flap once in a while.

So far so good. 

Now we know where the number came from and can assume that the best available evidence was used to set the parameters in a simple multiplication — predation rate x number of cats.

The number is still naked

Knowing where 2.4 billion came from does not give us the full context.

What we need to know is how many birds are there? How many birds die each year from other causes than predation by cats? 

Then we might ask the really important questions.

  • Are the numbers of birds changing over time? 
  • Is any change in numbers over time (the trend) due to predation by cats?
  • Are there any other reasons why bird numbers might change?

You see 2.4 billion is likely a small proportion of the total number of birds alive in the continental US and perhaps even a small proportion of those that die each year. 

Small temperate-zone songbirds have a life expectancy of around 10 months. This means that many birds in the backyard do not last a year but persist through their progeny. If the bird that gets caught by a cat had already reproduced then it makes n material difference to the bird population.

Equally, there are other predators out there that eat songbirds, notably other birds. Raptors (eagles, owls and hawks) that eat adult birds and a host of bird and mammal species that raid nests for eggs and chicks.

Predation by cats is just another risk. 

Always seek context 

2.4 billion sounds like a very big number and it might be.

We don’t know if it is or if something should be done to change it unless the context is understood.

Any number quoted in isolation and especially those used to provoke an emotional response is naked and lacks significance without all the extra information around it.

Look for the context before taking any number seriously.


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The problem with the mean

The problem with the mean

Here is an outlier for you.

Jeff Bezos 

When it comes to income, Mr Bezos has few peers. Only a handful of individuals earn more in a second than most regular folks do in a month.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, who conduct regular and rigorous surveys, Australians average weekly ordinary time earnings for full-time adults (seasonally adjusted) was $1,737 for May 2021 across a workforce of 13 million people.

What would happen to the average weekly income of Australians if Mr Bezos went down under and we added his weekly ‘wage’ to the calculation of the mean?

The average weekly wage would grow by $116 or roughly 7%

A hundred bucks a week more from one outlier.

There is no rational reason for an individual to have such obscene wealth, and we might get sidetracked by the savage inequality. Still, the example shows what happens to averages when there are outliers.

They get distorted.

Add Mr Bezos to the Australian workforce, and average income goes up materially even though workers would not see a cent of it.

Suppose Mr Musk and Mr Gates also came down under.

The average weekly wage goes up by over 15%, thanks to three outliers in 13 million. 

Try it this way

Suppose we select 100 males at random from a population of college students and measure their height. In that case, we could assume that the average represented reasonably well the height of a typical male in college.

But suppose this was a college with a strong basketball program, and the sample included three of the tallest members of the team. We have outliers again.

The challenge is to know when an outlier is possible — there is a basketball program — and so is part of the population that will now be, on average, taller as a result and when an outlier is improbable. Unlikely outliers add skew to the data and whilst still statistically sound, can make for shaky conclusions. 

The statistical rationale is that very few variables in real life are distributed normally. They are skewed, typically by a few large outliers, so that the mean is larger than the modal (most common) value and the median value (the middle value in a sequence of numbers).

Medians and modes present one of the solutions to the problem. The average is only one measure of central tendency; the middle of the distribution. It is helpful to use the others, especially the median (the midpoint of a frequency distribution of observed values or quantities, such that there is an equal probability of falling above or below it) or the mode (the most frequent value in a frequency distribution).

There is a simpler solution

Statisticians, politicians, and the media are fond of describing the average with a mean. They use them all the time to convey information.

The mean is where you add up all the values and then divide by the number of values.

But be careful. There are outliers everywhere, and they tend to make means larger.

The simple solution is to know about outliers and be cautious of means, primarily when the reporter benefits from it being large.


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