The first was Clive Thompson's latest opinion piece in Wired, "Why We Should Learn the Language of Data," where he argues for significantly more education about stats and probability in school, and in general, because:
If you don't understand statistics, you don't know what's going on—and you can't tell when you're being lied to.
Climate change? The changing state of the economy? Vaccination? Political polls? Gambling? Disease? Making decisions about any of them requires some understanding of how likelihoods and big groups of numbers interact in the world. "Statistics," Thompson writes, "is the new grammar."
The second article explains a key example. At the NPR Planet Money blog (incidentally, the Planet Money podcast is endlessly fascinating, the only one clever enough to get me interested in listening to business stories several times a week), Jacob Goldstein describes why people place bad bets on horse races.
After exhaustive statistical analyses (alas, this stuff isn't easy), economists Erik Snowberg and Justin Wolfers have figured out that even regular bettors at the track simply misperceive how bad their bets are, especially when wagering on long shots—those outcomes that are particularly unlikely, but pay off big if you win, because:
...people overestimate the probability of very rare events. "We're dreadful at perceiving the difference between a tiny probability and a small probability."
In our heads, extremely unlikely things (being in a commercial jet crash, for instance) seem just as probable, or even more probable, than simply somewhat unlikely things (being in a car crash on the way to the airport). That has us make funny decisions. For instance, on occasion couples (parents of young children, perhaps) choose to fly on separate planes so that, in the rare event that a plane crashes, one of them survives. But they both take the same car to the airport—as well as during much of the rest of their lives—which is far, far more likely to kill them both. (Though still not all that likely.)
Unfortunately, so much of probability is counterintuitive that I'm not sure how well we can educate ourselves about it for regular day-to-day decision-making. Even bringing along our iPhones, I don't think we should be using them to make statistical calculations before every outing or every meal. Besides, we could be so distracted by the little screens that we step out into traffic without noticing.
Our minds are required be good at filtering out irrelevancies, so we're not overwhelmed by everything going on around us. But the modern world has changed what's relevant, both to our daily lives and to our long-term interests. The same big brains that helped us make it that way now oblige us to think more carefully about what we do, and why we do it.
Last week, reporter Theresa Lalonde from CBC interviewed me at my house about how people can plan for what to do with their online presence after they die. The TV video report is now online, and soon I'll post the audio radio versions she did as well.
The topic is similar to a much longer interview I had with Nora Young at CBC's "Spark" last year. There are basically two components to the whole enterprise: figuring out which online activities of yours to shut down and how, and figuring out which ones to keep going and how.
The original version appeared in the spring, and a documentary edition was broadcast this morning on the Canada-wide radio show "The Current." You can listen to both. They might work best in headphones, even though they weren't broadcast in stereo.
I'll be on the radio again, but it's not about cancer this time—I get to nerd out instead! This afternoon, CBC Radio Vancouver's "On the Coast" drivetime show will be talking about the City of New Westminster's feasibility study/pilot project to create a citywide Wi-Fi network (from the May 11 New West council meeting). I'll be on the panel by phone, not in the studio as in the photo.
The broadcast panel begins at 5:40 p.m. Pacific Time on 690 FM or 88.1 FM in Vancouver, or you can listen to it online. I'll try to record the stream and post the panel to my podcast shortly. Municipal Wi-Fi was a big idea a few years ago, but many of the utopian early predictions of free wireless service across big cities haven't panned out, and the rise of high-speed cellular data coverage (such as with the iPhone), more free hotspots in cafés and such, and commercial WiMAX networks like Rogers Portable Internet have made it seem a little less necessary.
If you have any thoughts about this topic that you think I should address on the air, leave a comment below, email me, or send me a message on Twitter in the next couple of hours and I'll see if I can incorporate your ideas.
Christopher Hitchens was his usual bombastic and arrogant self on CBC's "Q" today (MP3 file). That's no surprise, since he is perhaps the angriest—or at least the most provocative—of the angry New Atheists who have had bestselling books over the past few years. Many religious people, and a good number of my fellow atheists too, think Hitchens's take-no-prisoners approach is wrong and counterproductive. Why, they ask, should atheists antagonize believers the way he and others, like Richard Dawkins, do?
"Q" host Jian Ghomeshi asked Hitchens a similar question today:
Tell me who you think your audience is, because you're quite aggressive with your argument. [...] If you really want to change things, it might take some effort to overcome organized religion in the world, but I'm wondering if [...] being a little softer in your approach might be more effective?
It's true that most atheists would prefer to be more conciliatory towards the world's religious majorities. But I think Hitchens and his compatriots serve a valuable purpose. With their polemics, their public profiles, indeed with their anger, they have made atheism visible in this new century, especially in America. Without them, we might not have heard Barack Obama's acknowledgment of non-believers in his inaugural address.
The angry New Atheists are like the activist vanguard of the LGBT rights movement, and of other civil rights movements before it. Not every gay person wants to march in protests, or make films outing hypocritical homosexual politicians. But the demands and self-righteousness of the vanguard are why same-sex marriage is a reality in Canada, and in several European countries and American states, today, rather than decades from now.
I grew up in an ostensibly secular Canada in the '70s, but we still said a prayer every morning in public school, and the Lord's Day Act prevented stores from opening on Sunday. Those rituals didn't offend me at the time, but as a non-religious youngster, I still felt like an outsider. The assumption seemed to be not only that everyone was religious, but that we were all Christians too. That has changed, largely because of Canada's increasing multiculturality.
High-profile writers like Hitchens and Salman Rushdie and Douglas Adams and Barbara Ehrenreich; scientists like Richard Dawkins and David Suzuki and Richard Feynman; comedians like Julia Sweeney and Ricky Gervais and George Carlin; musicians like Ani DiFranco and Mick Jagger and Eddie Vedder; actors like Omar Sharif and Eva Green and Emma Thompson and Ian McKellen and Katharine Hepburn; and others from Penn and Teller to Linus Torvalds to the MythBusters to Nigella Lawson—around the world, all profess their atheism.
In doing so, they affirm that the non-religious and non-spiritual among us are part of the full and honourable diversity of human society. So the audience for Christopher Hitchens need not be religious people he is trying to de-convert (even if that is his goal). Rather, it can be the millions of us who believe in no gods or spirits, and who are comfortable saying so, because Hitchens is shouting it too.
UPDATE: Biologist Jerry Coyne, who is outspoken in his assertion that science and religion are incompatible, has an interesting post on this same topic.
Last year, I wrote about CBC's two radio tech shows, "Spark" and "Search Engine", and how they were sometimes hard to tell apart. CBC management felt the same—"Search Engine" was downgraded from a full radio show to a podcast only last year, and recently got cancelled altogether, despite being one of the network's most popular podcasts.
Fortunately, TVOntario picked it up, and host Jesse Brown has now put out two episodes at the podcast's new home. (You can subscribe using the RSS feed or at iTunes.) The Facebook group stays the same, with the new name. If you were a "Search Engine" listener before, I encourage you to subscribe at the new feed.
And I do have to say, Brown's new clean-shaven look is a big improvement over his old scruffy '70s rock star beard.
After I took some pictures of the taping of CBC's "Q" last night, I let CBC know about them, and this morning, here was the result:
CBC Radio's "Q" is a national, Toronto-based, daily arts, culture, and entertainment show hosted by Jian Ghomeshi. For some reason I don't quite understand, I wasn't too fond of him before—I'd garnered a bad impression and it just stuck with me. (Maybe it was a Moxy Früvous hangover.)
Anyway, tonight my daughter M and I trotted down to the CBC building in Vancouver for a live-in-front-of-an-audience taping of "Q," to be broadcast on the radio tomorrow. The show has been in Vancouver all week before the Juno Awards (Canada's equivalent to the Grammys) on Sunday, which my wife and I will be attending. I took some photos:
Musical acts performing tonight included Hawksley Workman, Divine Brown, and Hot Hot Heat. Bif Naked also dropped in for an interview, as did Torquil Campbell of Stars. And I have to say, in person Ghomeshi is engaging, open, and personable. I think I've become a fan.
My friend and sometime co-musician Adam Woodall has been part of the music scene here in Vancouver for over 15 years, and he's finally getting some radio play: his song "Coming Home Soon" from the 2006 Adam Woodall Band album Silver Ring.
Virgin Radio DJ Buzz Bishop has posted his interview with Adam online. Give it a listen to hear about Adam and the AWB, and for a couple of mean live solo acoustic versions of "Coming Home Soon" and "Hit Me Baby One More Time" (yes!).
Don't forget to check out Adam's YouTube harmonica lessons too. He's not only a great singer and a tasteful and talented guitarist, but an awesome harmonica player. In fact, the first time I ever met Adam back around 1994 or so, I got his business card, and all it said was "Adam Woodall - Harmonica."
Finally, if you're wondering about his appearance in the Flavor-Blasted Goldfish commercial, here it is:
Adam's on the left. Yes, he really did get coated in orange powder for that.
If you missed my interview on CBC Radio earlier today, I have an MP3 file of it available now (5.2 MB, about 12 minutes). I spoke with host Stephen Quinn about all the drastic stuff I've been through since June 2007, including my major surgeries and several chemotherapy regimes, as well as the new phase of my cancer treatment, that of living with the disease rather than simply trying to destroy it.
Incidentally, I had intended on publishing the audio to my Penmachine Podcast too, but Apple's iWeb software, which I use for that, has a nasty bug that's been around since April, and which doesn't seem any closer to being fixed. It prevents me from updating the podcast without a lot of extra work, so I think I'll just plan to switch over to a less awkward podcasting tool in the near future. I'll let you know when that happens—and I'll have some new original music to post there too.
Finally, a new episode of Inside Home Recording should be online tomorrow too.
AUDIO ONLINE: I've posted audio from the interview online late this evening, in case you missed the broadcast.
For the first time in almost a year and a half, I'll be appearing on CBC Radio Vancouver's On the Coast afternoon drive-time show to talk about my ongoing cancer treatment, this time with new host Stephen Quinn.
I'm recording the interview this morning, but it will go to air later this afternoon—I'll update this post once I find out precisely when. If you're not in broadcast range of CBC Vancouver in southwestern B.C. (690 AM in Vancouver, also currently experimentally at 88.1 FM), you can listen to the high bandwidth or low bandwidth Windows Media stream (Mac users can use the free Flip4Mac plugin).
UPDATE: My interview, recorded before lunchtime this morning, will be broadcast just after the 5 o'clock news today, around 5:10 p.m.
I'll do my best to post the audio to my podcast afterwards as well. You might also want to listen to a related interview I gave to the national CBC Radio show Spark this last spring, which was rebroadcast just a few weeks ago too.
A couple of months ago I noted that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has two technology-focused radio shows, "Spark" and "Search Engine," and that I couldn't always figure out how they were supposed to differ. (In the comments, Darren Barefoot noted that one way to tell is that "'Search Engine' almost always comes with a sense of righteous indignation, which gets a bit old after a while.")
It looks like CBC also wondered why they had both shows, and has now dissolved "Search Engine" as a radio show by having host Jesse Brown report on technology for other CBC Radio programs. This despite "Search Engine" being one of the network's most-downloaded podcasts. So there will still be a compilation podcast, and the blog will continue too.
That's not a bad solution. Of the two shows, I prefer Nora Young's lifestyle-focused "Spark" over Brown's more politically obsessed "Search Engine" anyway, and "Spark" is coming back in much the same form as before. "Search Engine" will be quite different, since Brown will be working on his own without a team of correspondents, producers, and researchers. We'll see how that goes.
It's worth listening to the last regular show of "Search Engine," however. In it, Brown interviews Canadian Industry Minister Jim Prentice about the lousy new Canadian copyright legislation currently before the House of Commons. Prentice doesn't come across well—but in this case, I think the righteous indignation is appropriate.
There's a certain type of rock-n-roll song that bypasses your intellect and goes straight for the gut—or a bit lower. One that makes you want to shake your ass, or your head, and sing along, even if you don't know the words, because the words don't matter all that much. They're dumb and sophomoric, anyway, or at least unintelligible—probably about sex or cars or girls or something.
Such a song features guitars, bass, drums, and singing, but probably no keyboards and definitely no strings, horns, or children's choirs. It probably has about three chords, or sounds like it does. The guitars are distorted and loud, and there's almost certainly a guitar solo too, but a short one. You want to turn it up. You know what I'm talking about.
Here is my top 10 list of such songs. Yeah, they're all very mainstream, and you may disagree with me, but I don't care—go ahead and leave a comment if you have further suggestions. I'll include some of my own runners up in a later post. It's a stupid list of stupid songs, which is the reason they're great to begin with:
After much discussion in the comments to this post, I must also add an honourable mention for Sweet's "The Ballroom Blitz" (I can't figure out which other tune to replace with it), from 1973. Brian Connolly's singing is so off-the-hook frenzied, so Rocky Horror Picture Show over the top that it's almost yodeling, and as Bob noted in the comments here, it's hard to beat an intro like, "Are you ready Steve? Andy? Mick? All right fellas, let's GOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!"
You already heard the full-length unedited version of my interview with Nora Young (pictured) of CBC Radio's "Spark." Now here's the edited version in the latest complete episode of the show, with extra bonus material including me reading some of my blog posts, and my podsafe tune "Striking Silver" as background music.
You can download the whole episode as an MP3 file, or if you're subscribed to the Spark podcast, you'll get it automatically. If you prefer to hear "Spark" on the radio, it airs Wednesday, April 30 (tomorrow) at 11:30 a.m. and Saturday, May 3 at 4:00 p.m. (a half hour later in Newfoundland, of course), on CBC's Radio One network, which is 690 AM in Vancouver. This episode also features internetfamous blogebrities such as Merlin Mann and Amber Mac.
As part of my slightly twisted effort to use my cancer treatment as leverage to get me the kind of exposure and fame my more modest general talents haven't done, I was interviewed on Wednesday for the show "Spark" on CBC Radio (as I've already flogged).
You can now hear the full-length talk between me and the always sultry-voiced Nora Young—a voice made even huskier by her fighting a cold at the time. Here's a direct link to the MP3 file (24 minutes, about 33 MB) too. I'll probably link that up at my podcast after the edited version goes to air next week.
I like that "Spark" doesn't have the traditional media attitude of holding on to its source material like a state secret. It's unusual enough for a radio or TV program, publicly funded or not, to post full-length versions of edited interviews online. But to do it days before the final version appears is still more innovative. I'm not sure I'd even do that.
Every weekday on the radio, and weekly on its podcast, the program spends an hour delving deeply into its title. Its documentary producers talk to politicians, physicians, scientists, theologians, philosophers, poets, artists, writers, historians, and others about topics as diverse as China's 15th century naval fleet, the modern relevance of Don Quixote, theoretical physics, Picasso and the musical avant-garde in Paris during the 1920s, and golf.
And that's just this week. I heard bits (alas, only bits) of the Chinese navy broadcast last night while I was running errands, and was entranced. I sat in the drugstore parking lot for a few minutes because I couldn't tear myself away.
There is a separate feature page (with RealAudio streams! Who still uses that?) and podcast (with proper MP3s) for the ongoing series "How to Think About Science," which started last year. There are already 17 hours in that group of shows alone.
"Ideas" will grow your brain. I recommend you dedicate some time to it.
Now that I'm going to be on the radio, again, "Spark" host Nora Young has asked me to pick a couple of my blog posts that I can read out (at least an excerpt, if it's a longer entry) on air—one related to my cancer treatment, one not. I just did a quick skim through and found a few candidates.
If you have a bit of time, take a look and tell me in the comments which of each type you think might sound good on the radio:
And of course, if you prefer something else I've written, let me know. Thanks!
CBC Radio has two programs (also available as podcasts) that confuse me a little: "Spark" and "Search Engine." I like them both, but they seem to cover a lot of the same territory of life in the digital age. Sometimes I can't remember which one had a particular segment—was it host Nora Young at "Spark" who interviewed the guy who edits Hillary Clinton's Wikipedia entry? No, it was host Jesse Brown from "Search Engine."
I suppose it doesn't matter. I'm glad there's enough of an audience for my kind of techie social nerdity that CBC has two shows about it. Yay again to Tod for helping the network get on the podcasting train after jump-starting it with the CBC Unplugged show almost three years ago.
Anyway, I'm going to call "Spark" my favourite of the two shows now, because it looks like I'm going to be on it. Nora—that's her on the bike—indirectly heard about my recent talk on life, death, and my blog, and contacted me through Facebook (appropriately enough) to see if I might like to be on "Spark."
One of my weaknesses is appearing in the media. I've always loved seeing my name in print, or being on the radio or TV. So my immediate thought was, "hell yeah!" We'll likely record something next week for the "Spark" episode airing (and podcasting) at the end of the month. More details to follow.
Incidentally, Nora's other podcast, The Sniffer (not affiliated with the CBC), has been on my subscription list for a couple of years now. I recommend it.
Many months ago I said, about my cancer treatment, that I'm not brave, even though people say it. Bravery is facing danger head-on when you have other choices. Here have been my choices over the past year and a bit:
The basic choice has been: Treatment or death? Yes or no?
That's a pretty easy decision.
My real choices have been pretty small, and the choice to blog (and appear on the radio) about all this stuff was also an easy one, because this was the question: Write about my cancer like I write about everything else, and keep the information flowing? Or live two lives, and try to remember whom I've told and whom I should be hiding stuff from every single damn day?
Why would I choose to keep it private? Given who I am, how could I possibly do that and stay focused?
I said in that radio interview and elsewhere that, as far as relating to other people goes, cancer is an easy disease. People don't judge me for it. (Perhaps if it wasn't colorectal cancer, but lung cancer from smoking or liver cancer from drinking, some people might judge me. But even so, cancer is no longer "the C word.") They're sympathetic, and cut me a lot of slack.
What takes some bravery is what fellow Vancouver blogger Corinna is doing at her site Gus Greeper: writing in painful, wrenching detail about her depression, anxiety, and therapy. And her trip to the hospital yesterday after she downed a handful of pills and some wine.
Depression and other mental illnesses still have a big stigma. They shouldn't. For someone who has never experienced them, like me, they are tremendously difficult to understand, but that doesn't make them less real. And let me tell you, until you've been close to or had cancer yourself, you don't understand it either.
Stay brave, Corinna. It's worth the fight.
Finally, don't forget the Mythbusters Christmas Rube Goldberg Machine:
It has Diet Coke and Mentos, as well as a holiday beef roast propelled right out of an oven. Thanks to my daughters for finding that one.
Today's my 38th birthday. Thank you to everyone who's wished me well, and to everyone who's coming to the party tonight (and to my wife, who's organizing the whole thing). If you insist on a gift, go to my friend Gillian's donation page for the Underwear Affair cancer fundraising run, which takes place next Saturday, July 7, one day after I get my major surgery. Send some money for research on cancers below the waist. That would be good.
If you missed the interview my wife and I had with Paul Grant on CBC Radio yesterday, I've now posted the audio to my podcast (MP3 file). Thanks to my dad for recording it. I think our podcasting experience pays off—we sound pretty good on air.
Also one more reminder that at the HBC Run For Canada tomorrow, my band will be playing at the start/finish zone on Coal Harbour near the north foot of Jervis Street in downtown Vancouver, between 9 a.m. and around noon. With upcoming surgery and stuff, it will be my last performance with the group for some time, so if you're up for some rock 'n' roll in the morning, that's a good chance for a free show and to see me play the drums.
If you happen to listen to it on the radio (AM 690 in Vancouver) or via the live online stream, available in high bandwidth (direct file link) or low bandwidth (direct file link) (Windows Media format), and if you get a chance to record it, I'd appreciate a copy. I'm on the air almost as much as Tod these days, although of course he gets paid for it.
My wife will also be joining me on the show for the first time. We'll be talking about my cancer and how the news has just kept getting worse, but I continue to blog about it. Listen in if you can.
It describes how, in 1988 or so, you could follow a methodical plan to get a #1 single in Britain with no musical talent whatsoever. In the intervening years several people in several countries have modified its instructions to do just that, or come close.
I loaned the book to my other friend Sebastien and never got around to asking for it back, but it turns out the whole text is online anyway, so have at it.
Last week I mentioned that I'm not using Facebook yet, and why. My wife does use it, and likes it. So CBC technology columnist Tod Maffin interviewed both of us about it. You can listen to his mini-documentary (MP3 file) as part of his Todbits podcast, or you might have heard it on CBC radio today.
I have to say that the peer pressure for me to get on Facebook is certainly an order of magnitude stronger than it has been for other social networking sites (except maybe, briefly, Twitter)—but I'm still holding out. I'm busy enough now as it is.