Bits and Pieces
Russell Degnan

It is not a new story that the Commonwealth Games are being used as an excuse to over-ride, or speed-up local council decision making. But it is a new - and unacceptable - thing for a hotel extension to be approved on the same basis. The overall effect is nothing less than a handout to the owners of the Hilton hotel because they put up a depressing eyesore 30 years ago.

The controversy over the plan to deepen the bay channel continues on its merry way. This article provides a nice background to the bay's history.

And via a few places, two articles, one from Salon, and one from Wired both talking about the advantages of chatic transport planning in reducing accidents, improving traffic flow and the shared urban space. most all of Italy's roads are like this - partly because they have no choice, noone pays attention to signs - and they do and don't work as stated.

The problem are roads that have too much of one type of traffic and effectively block out the alternatives. Melbourne's wide streets and relatively sparse pedestrian population mean that people would be very hard pressed to maintain their presence in the street in such a way as to deter traffic. Interesting idea though.

Sterner Matters 24th December, 2004 01:25:53   [#] [0 comments] 

When a Little Mathematics Helps
Russell Degnan

I have been sitting on this article for almost a week, and yet it still riles me enough to write about it. While I am sure that the quality of journalism in Australia, if not world-wide, and the level of critical thinking being applied by people to issues, is no better or worse than in times gone by; sometimes it is so bad as to be despairing.

The word of the booksellers quoted was taken without any further analysis except for an example which, if anything, completely contradicts the entire piece. That is, the comparative difference between shipping - Amazon's disadvantage - and the GST - local bookseller's disadvantage - is $15.66 against $5.45. Entailing that only a third of the difference in prices is the GST, and not something else - whatever that may be.

For it to be the GST making it more expensive to buy in Australia than online the GST must be larger than the shipping cost. Assuming - incorrectly - that it is flat, the books must be more than $172.26. Or, almost up to the $250 mark when customs starts charging GST on imports.

Whatever it is making local booksellers uncompetitive, the GST is only part of the story, and not the major part. And yet the reporter missed this - potentially a real story - in favour of an open forum for uncompetitive business franchises. Lousy.

Sterner Matters 24th December, 2004 01:07:23   [#] [0 comments] 

Ubiquity - Mark Buchanan
Russell Degnan

I was really looking forward to this book. It had not been on my bookshelf long before I read it, but I thought it would be of particular interest. In a sense it was, but it is also an idea in search of a thesis; roughly summarised by the authors own statement near the end of the book:

"But from another more abstract point of view, great wars may take place simply because the collective attitudes, ideas and behaviours of the mass of humanity are subject to the same wild fluctuations of the magnet poised between its magnetic and its non-magnetic phases. It goes without saying that nothing I have mentioned in the past few chapters proves this. The 'take-home' message is simply that this is a real possibility."

The research has not been done, if anything it is a call to do it. Hence the book contains two parts. The first, an occasionally frustratingly shallow look at 'historical science' that look at systems that grow and evolve, where each previous state depends on the previous arrangement of an enormous number of elements. States that are endlessly unpredictable in their consequences, because of their size and chaotic nature, while at the same time having a basic mathematical pattern in their fundamental properties. In particular, the tendency to periodically 'fail' - sometimes spectacularly.

Buchanan's book then goes off the path by focusing on the 'games' that physicists use to describe these systems. He constantly tries to draw the line between these and 'real' systems ignoring the most important fact that in order for a model to be of use they must be useful for prediction. They aren't, not least of which because it is probable that these systems are not, but also because it is very easy to create a game that will act like a system in a critical state if your goal is to create a game that will act like a system in a critical state. And many of the games Buchanan describes seem to do precisely that.

The second part of the book calls on social scientists to once again plumb the depths of scientific analogies by using similar models to understand their own fields. It is an area that has often proven fruitless if not disastrous; that is not a reason not to do so, merely an observation. Again however, Buchanan is short on detail and long on speculation. Far too often he draws a conclusion that can roughly be described as "because this system has a failure rate similar to a power law, it must be in a critical state, and moreover, massive failure may be an inevitable part of the system rather than because of a massive cause". Be that effect warfare, the size of cities, or the collapse of financial markets.

Buchanan makes the - correct I think - claim that major wars are no different from minor ones. The difference is that in a major war, such as the First World War, a large number of actors are poised in the critical state and can set off a chain reaction of events. However, he comes dangerously close to supposing that because noone can predict when a small conflict will become a major war that a major war could occur at any time and at any place. This is incorrect. Under his theory, a large war supposes a long chain of interconnected components. Western Europe is not likely to explode into any sort of war of any size at the moment, even if the Middle East could. If the historian's task is to enumerate a large number of small componenets in a large conflict instead of a small number of large components then that is what they must do. There is no effect without some cause, no matter how numerous or small those causes might be. A similar argument must hold for each of the other areas Buchanan discussed.

Having said that, I still think this book has something to add, if only as a signpost for where something might lie. Unfortunately it was not until the very end that Buchanan gave the hint of where that value may lie:

"Imagine that you lived in that magnetic world, and that its temperature was held below that critical point. [...] The history of your world would have fixed laws and undending peace and lack of change stretching back through time. [...] [T]here would be no history at all, since a record of unbroken sameness is not history, but the lack of it.

"Now suppose that the temperature were raised well above the critical temperature. [...] [T]he past would be a wholly senseless record of absolutely random changes. Again, a boring world, since the only thing you could say of it is - it is random.

"How much more interesting things would be if the temperature were brought close to the critical point. [...] [Y]ou would find a fascinating pattern that had structure and randomness all mingled in some perplexing but intoxicating way."

It has been sometimes supposed, that the second law of thermodynamics - that all systems will tend towards entropy - would suppose that life on earth is impossible, or at least so unlikely as to be nearly so. This is the first "no history" side of the coin. A bouncing ball that bounces a little bit less each time until it bounces no more. An organism that dies precisely after it is comes into being. No growth. The other side of the coin is a world where so much energy is available no patterns occur at all. The world where atoms form into an infinite variety of combinations but are blown apart before they can do anything with it.

There are two elements to the critical state that are vitally important here. The first is that the critical state is necessary for any form of growth to occur at all in any organic system - and earthquakes aside, it is organic systems that are most in need of a better understanding. Without it there will be either nothing or no organisation. History would not be boring, it would be non-existent. To look at the social sciences, in the Ascent of Man Bronowski looks at the remaining nomadic tribes in Iran and describes them as being the same, from generation to generation, wach following the last. This is that sameness in action, a point of equilibrium that will never move without an external push.

The second is that failure - not success - is the predominant theme in these systems. Rocks could potentially move constantly if not for friction. The stresses that build up before an earthquake are the results of those failures, that explode in sudden pockets of success before returning to the way they were.

Similarly, an economic system is one where we constantly fail to trade. In any day, I reject an almost infinite number of potential transactions, because of distance, because of a failure of my demand, of their supply, or because we couldn't agree on an acceptable bargain. When people talk about 'market failure' it is a misnomer, the market fails to transact almost constantly. What appears to be market failure or a collapsing economy is in fact the destruction of previously viable pockets that - like rocks in an earthquake zone, or particles in a particle accelerator - had actually been moving.

These small pockets of success that occur seemingly randomly, but grow and expand on each other are the key to understand the vast range of natural phenomenen - including social phenomenen - that are described in the book. It may, in the future, be an interesting and fruitful area of research, but there is a lot of work to be done yet.

Finer Things 13th December, 2004 22:01:07   [#] [0 comments] 

Waiting for photos
Russell Degnan

Sometimes a city or a place throws its full beauty at you the moment you stand before it; other times it never shows itself at all. But it is most satisfying when you see that moment coming but have to wait for it, sitting quietly while the sun slowly pokes its way from behind the clouds to light up a scene.

On my last trip, in Avignon, as I came back over the bridge from Villeneuve; an otherwise largely miserable day produced a rainbow perfectly behind the city from across the Rhone. It would have been the perfect shot, but the walls were a dull grey instead of brilliant yellow, so I sat and waited. And waited. The sun washed the rainbow out a little, but it is one of my favourite photos anyway.

In Venice this time it was as wet and cold as you could make it. Books ruined, maps stuck together, keys rusting. Late in the afternoon I stood in the Bieannale Gardens in the soft rain. A guy walked past, twice, staring and wondering what sort of madness could possess someone to stand in the rain merely watching.

But I had my reasons, three in fact. The first, because it wasn't raining so hard, and in its own strange way on a day when I was already so wet, it was quite pleasant. Second, because to the south the campanile on San Lazarro Degli Armeni was perfectly silhouetted against the breaking clouds and the perfect stillness of it all was inspiring. And third, because those breaking clouds were shortly going to light up the face of every building along the waterfront, and I wanted to see it.

It took a while, but the hour between the sun breaking out and sunset was as beautiful a display of rainbows, Michelangelo-esque clouds and silhouetted churches and campaniles as you could see. I have great sunset pictures of Venice from last time, but this time was slightly different. This time, except for a few fellow die-hards who scurried around each other getting that perfect photo, I had it all to myself.

Days Spent Away 5th December, 2004 02:34:48   [#] [3 comments] 

Navigating Venice
Russell Degnan

In a city that's tourists are as often as not English speaking, overheard snatches of conversation are a fascinating source of amusing anecdotes for travellers who speak more discreetly. Loud comments of wonder at the beauty or silence of the canals are common, though my favourite was this:

"If it is like this on a disgusting day, what is it like on a nice day?"

No doubt they are very gratifying for the locals, who take an enviable pride in their city - particularly in comparison to other Italian citizens.

But there is a common complaint as well. Everybody apparently gets hopelessly lost, and not all tourists have the time, energy or spirit for walking around lost until they stumble across something they might recognise.

And yet the city is organised in a particularly straight-forward manner. It just happens to be different to every other city in the world - as you'd expect for a place with its unique origins.

There are two important points that have to be remembered. First, like many Italian cities, they are organised around the churches. In particular, a church, a Piazza of sorts outside it, and a small, packed, residential area around it. Second, the canals are designed as the main navigation routes in Venice, which is the big difference with other cities.

The bridges are very important for this reason. Between any two adjacent piazzas, there are only one or two routes where you can get across a canal. And in the case of the Grand Canal, only three bridges in the whole city: the Rialto, the stazione at Ferrova and the Academia.

Getting between places is easy. Trace a route between piazzas taking into account the main bridges you need to cross on the way, and then head in a rough direction you need to, keeping in mind the three important signifiers for avoiding dead-ends. One, the quality of lighting and paving stones, the existence of shops that are on main routes, not (normally) residential alleys, and most important, the flow of people between places.

Once you are familiar with the main routes, you need only find a rough direction from the points - the three bridges, Piazza San Marco and Campo SS Giovanni e Paolo - and try not to get turned completely around; on a cloudy day there is no way to find north as such.

To summarise, Venice seems difficult to navigate because it is organised as a heirachical network with low permeability between adjacent points. Once you realise that though, it is not so bad. The first step is losing the map.

Days Spent Away 5th December, 2004 02:33:59   [#] [0 comments]