Monday, February 18, 2008

Language is hard...

...and so the UK Gummint has been wondering about what to do about these "stressful" exams that actually require pupils to talk in a foreign language (but only to their own teacher - back in my day, we had to face up to an external examiner). Apparently they are not going to completely abandon the idea of people having to converse in the language. Which is just as well, since conversing in a foreign language is THE WHOLE POINT of learning it - the UK population certainly does not learn French in order to read Camus in the original format.

Japan isn't giving up oral exams either, but that's because (remarkably) they generally don't do them at all. Some more hints have now come out about the proposed language testing for immigrants, and it sounds like they are really looking for a way to open up a channel for less-skilled workers (who are often brought in under the pretence that they are "trainees", or else "returning Japanese" who as Nth generation Brazilians don't really have a lot in common with anyone here) rather than making things tougher for anyone who already satisfies their current visa requirements. This isn't in principle a bad idea, but the proposed test is bound to be based on the rubbish JLPT which does not test communication ability at all. I guess it has more to do with pacifying the right wing-nuts than actually aiding integration (which as I've mentioned before, might be better achieved by the radical ideas of teaching the children of immigrants, and outlawing racial discrimination).

Incidentally (and apropos of nothing much except the blog post title), I mentioned the "math is hard" story to an American woman not that long ago, and she completely failed to accept that such a thing could ever have happened. OK, Wikipedia says "math class is tough" but that's a detail.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Corbyn on February

Well I promised a post on his Feb forecast, so I suppose I ought to do something about it. Sorry for the delay, which was caused by an intrusion of real life. Even though there is nothing quite so exciting to discuss, I can't retrospectively change my mind without running the risk of being accused of the same cherry-picking that Corbyn excels at, so here goes...

In summary, Feb is supposed to be mild and generally wet. The predicted temperature anomaly of +0.7-1.7C (over the central England region) is using 1961-1990 as the baseline, which has a mean of 3.8C, so anything from 4.5-5.5C would do. Up to now it's averaged about 5.8C and the forecast is for more mild weather. I don't think I'm sticking my neck out too far in saying that there is a strong probability the month will end up warmer than his forecast. On precip he is predicting anything from 120% to 200% - mild winter weather is generally wet, but it's looking extremely dry so far so there is some catching up to do.

On the details, of course there are lots of random weather predictions that have not/will not come to pass. Remember the "severe gales" on the 7th? Nope, me neither. There are supposed to be some more happening right now, and they will return on the 21st, with the current ones "notably stormy with damaging winds espec 14th-16th in West" and the latter "High tides on new moon around 21 with heavy seas from sev gales threaten sea defences in W & S/W". We will see. I assume at least the forecast of a high tide is sound, as I used to work at the institute that generates them :-) The Scotland-France rugby match at the start of the month was "likely off" due to frost and snow, but unfortunately the French didn't read that - maybe the Scots did, cos they didn't seem to turn up for the match! His best effort so far is probably the snow at the start of the month - but he explicitly forecast Friday 1st to be dry, with the snow arriving over the weekend. Sadly for those who were trying to beat the arrival of the bad weather, it caught them on the Friday afternoon, within hours of him releasing his forecast. I wonder whether he will claim this as a hit or not.

Overall, it doesn't look good for him.

Friday, February 08, 2008

The price of everything and the value of nothing.

Or... jules' way to save the planet.

I made two trips to the USA last year and noticed two things: one was the incredible luxury most people live in; the second was how much people groan and complain about how much everything costs even though almost everything is incredibly cheap. It put a bit of a damper on things really. You'd be sitting with your feet up in someone's mind-blowingly gorgeous abode, unable to focus on the walls because they were so far away, and the folks would be whinging about the price of tomatoes or that basically free "gas" they pour into their cars. I suppose it wasn't everyone everywhere, but enough to start me thinking that only the simplest sort of economic model would be required to model the US. On an optimistic note I also wondered whether this dollar-centric existence means that the way to get Americans to consume less is simply to charge them more. Anyway, you'd think they'd all be a little more appreciative of what they have, especially since the third thing that struck me about the US was the plethora of impoverished people begging on the streets.

The Japanese are in some ways the opposite of this. I know people who will choose cheaper alternatives when available but I have never yet heard anyone whine about the price of anything. People also tend to look after their possessions and those of others very carefully. When you give a Japanese person a gift it is first admired from the outside and then unwrapped slowly and carefully. Often it is set aside to be opened sometime later. Even household rubbish is treated with respect, carefully separated and packaged in the ordained manner. My Japanese friends get around by foot, bicycle, bus and train and most live in teeny tiny abodes, where James (he of the long wing-span) couldn't swing a rat, yet alone a cat. While the famed penchant for the new can't be helping save the planet I guess it is probably the only thing that keeps the economy alive since no-one has any room for more stuff. And of course the lack of space combined with high electricity and fuel prices naturally drives progress towards smaller and more efficient everything.

To go down another level there is the Japanese minimalist aesthetic, which is easy to think about in terms of the photographers capturing single blooms at cherry blossom viewing time. To see Japanese beauty you have to turn your brain into a camera-like view, eradicate the hanging wires, the ugly buildings, the noisy traffic, the concrete and focus on the single perfect flower on a single perfectly shaped tree. Wouldn't it help save the planet if we were all happy with a single bloom on a single tree? Sounds good in theory but where it goes wrong in Japan is that the tendency to focus on the small elements results in loss of the big picture and allows the tyrants like the construction companies to pour concrete over almost the entire country.

At the core of the minimalism is of course... nothing. And the appreciation of nothing. This is the influence of Zen Buddhism - hinted at by Kooiti in a post on this blog a couple of years ago when he brilliantly suggested that for humanitarian reasons we should replace the emperor by an empty chair.

But then there is the paradox. In Japan there is no nothing. Take a bicycle into town and try to park it and you soon realise that there is really no space available. It is a bit scary. There is no nothing in the countryside either. Everything that isn't built on cannot be built on - the mountains are huge and almost vertical. They are young and dynamic. If they aren't actually erupting they are still suffering regular dramatic land-slides. People are never really very far away, even in the mountains. So, where to go for some nothing? I guess in Zen Buddhism you find it inside yourself. But can't it be found outside too? To my mind, desert doesn't do it because it is something. It is desert. But this stuff (see mystery photo at left)... this infertile scrubby wilderness. Miles and miles and miles of it. You'd think they people who lived in that country would have no trouble appreciating the value of nothing.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Corbynwatch: The Verdict

So, January is over, and it's time to see how Piers Corbyn did. Remember, he predicted that it would be bitterly cold, in fact one of the coldest 6 years in the last 100, with an average temperature of no more than 0.8C.

The numbers are in...and the average temperature was a whisker over 7C according to the pseudo-CET web page. P Lewis says the real value is 6.7C,which would make it 5th warmest in the last 100 years, or 8th warmest in the last 350 years. Now it's important to note that I'm not claiming that this has any strong consequences for our understanding of global warming - it's just one month in one region, and in fact most of the 7 warmer Januaries were a long time ago. What it does bear on is the validity of Corbyn's "Solar weather technique" for prediction. This forecast was just about as spectacular a failure as it is possible to have. It certainly wasn't a near miss, in fact it wasn't even a bad miss. Had he been shooting for the goal at Wembley, he'd have ballooned it over the Hamden Park. The 5.9C error (and note that 0.8C was the upper limit of his forecast, he said "close to freezing - 0.8C at best") is about as big as the difference between January and late April / early May. It wasn't just the temperature he got wrong, either - precipitation was not "well below normal" but actually extremely heavy, with many areas flooded.

He even revised his forecast in the middle of the month, claiming to have discovered a "data procedure error" - stirring his tea-leaves in the wrong direction, perhaps? - but even so, he blue-inked: "the forecast for some very cold weather in the later part of the month remains". Perhaps he meant to write "remains wrong". In fact the 2nd half must have averaged about 8C, since the running mean was just below 6C at that time.

But no doubt when he next makes some silly "prediction", the same journalists will lap it up and report it uncritically again. And if he keeps on predicting 5% events, then every so often one will come true, at which point he will be able to dine out on it for months...

He has just made his February forecast for the UK public. Once I've extracted the quantitative features from his vague verbiage, I'll report on that too.