“Temperatures could halve…”


I just read this headline in an Australian newspaper: “The mercury could plummet by as much as half this weekend.” In the same story was the caption: “Temperatures could halve in some places.”

This is stroppy-making balderdash!

Having read the article it was clear that its author was referring to a drop from 20°C to 10°C. If the Fahrenheit scale were used, the drop would be 36%, not 50%. But the only sensible scale to use in this way is the Kelvin scale, in which zero corresponds to absolute zero – colder than which it is impossible to go. On that scale the drop would be a mere 3.4%. That wouldn’t make much of a headline, would it?

This isn’t an isolated instance. Journalists seem to lack basic scientific understanding, and their sub-editors are more interested in concocting clever puns (“Lion Park Roaring Success”) than ensuring accuracy.

Here’s another example. Elon Musk is going to build the world’s biggest lithium battery in South Australia, my home state. It has been variously described in the press as a 100MW battery and a 100MWh battery. The former makes no sense. A watt is a rate of flow of energy. A watt-hour is a unit of energy analogous to a volume of fuel. In fact 1 litre of diesel oil contains about 10,000 watt-hours (or 10kWh) of energy.

This is not actually me

An aside…

When I use the rowing machine at the gym I can maintain an energy flow of about 140W (or 0.14kW). So if I rowed for a living, selling the energy I generate for 23 cents per kWh (which is roughly what I pay for electricity in my home) I would earn 0.14 x 0.23 x 40 = $1.29 for a 40-hour week.

Selfies – No, not that kind


We’d all agree that self-discipline is the best kind of discipline; self-control is the best kind of control; and a degree of self-respect is necessary to win the respect of others.

But self-regard, self-importance, self-satisfaction and self-aggrandisement are to be treated with suspicion. So too, in the world of business anyway, are self-regulation and self-assessment.

This brings me to today’s stroppy-maker: a story in the Sydney Morning Herald about alleged rorting of an Australian tax-break for research and development – a tax-break that involves paying ‘tax offsets’ totalling A$3 billion per year. There is a list of R&D activities that qualify for these offsets.

The picture alongside is taken from that article. It shows Jamie McIntyre, one of the people against whom the allegation of rorting is made, a sum in excess of A$500,000 being mentioned.

“And how,” I hear you ask, “does the Australian Tax Office assess the validity of claims for these offsets?” Ah, well, there’s the rub. It seems the ATO relies on taxpayers to self-assess and, amazingly, some people are motivated by greed rather than an urge to add to the sum of useful human knowledge.

I’m sure you are amazed as I am – and as the ATO and the lawmakers who passed this piece of legislation must be. Who would have guessed that some people are prepared to tell lies in order to swipe an undeserved share from the public purse?

Let’s hope that this revelation – or allegation as I suppose I must call it – provides a valuable lesson in human nature to those who are responsible for managing honest taxpayers’ money.

The word ‘rort’ is an Australian colloquialism for a swindle; or, as a verb, to swindle.

When humans are over


Many marvel at my magnanimity, as well as my alliteration. I set up my blog to promote my own writings, yet from time to time I use it to draw attention to the work of my competitors. Today I’m doing it again.

“When humans are over, and have become just another geological stratum, the entirety of our existence will be represented by a layer no thicker than a cigarette paper. Now I find that rather beautifully humbling.”

That is the closing passage of an article in the Guardian Weekly by Philip Hoare (pictured) whose works include Leviathan and The Sea Inside.

These words resonated with me so strongly that I clipped them out immediately. It is exactly this sense of the fragility of our species, combined with its uniqueness, that inspired me to write The Eeks Trilogy.

“What ‘uniqueness’?!” you may protest. “We share Earth with millions of other species that feed, grow, reproduce and die just as we do, and throughout the universe there may be billions more!”

“Aah,” I reply, “but we have yet to meet, or find the skinniest of evidence of, another species with anything approaching our capacity for abstract thought, for curiosity, for imagination or for reasoning. How many dolphins have figured out the Laws of Motion? How many daffodils have made it to the moon?”

If we are unique, if ours are the only minds that have even asked the fundamental questions, we really should take better care of ourselves.