The Slightly Disgruntled Scientist

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Twinkle twinkle

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I made up some more… astrophysically accurate rhymes while settling the baby, because I got a bit bored singing the original one over and over again. At 2am. And 3am. And 4am. And GO TO SLEEP ALREADY PLEEEEEAAAASE


Twinkle twinkle little star
How I wonder what you are
In the depths of space so cold
Fusing atoms into gold
Twinkle twinkle little star
How I wonder what you are

Flicker flicker bright pulsar
Swiftly spinning neutron star
Sweeping out your radiant arc
Lonely lighthouse in the dark
Flicker flicker bright pulsar
Swiftly spinning neutron star

Sue the churches, sue the bakers

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In 2004 it took the Australian parliament less than a day to decide to prohibit marriage between any couple who weren’t man and woman.

It has taken another thirteen years plus the length of a David Kalisch speech to see substantial progress on overturning this discriminatory act. Two weeks ago we got the results back from a survey run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics — a result that has no legal meaning, no statistical rigour and little political sway. However, it has called the bluff of a very work-averse government, and so now we have another marriage equality bill before the Senate.

As I write this, various conservative and libertarian senators are amending the hell out this bill. Their amendments reflect the rhetoric of the recent “no” campaign, which reflects conservative talking points that have been bouncing around for years.

The stated concern is that once marriage equality is restored people will, if refused marriage by a priest, turn around and sue the church.

Good.

It could also be a celebrant whose religion compels them to refuse. Or maybe someone will sue a baker who refuses to bake them a wedding cake.

Good.

GOOD.

GOOD.

Because that is exactly how you hold providers of a public service and business owners to account when they make highly questionable decisions.


One libertarian senator, whose totally consistent libertarian views birthed an extra regulatory body to appease a cargo cult, has claimed that no celebrant should have to solemnise any wedding they don’t want to.

They don’t have to. They can quit.

I mean, let’s think about what would happen even if they don’t resign. No one is going to call the police on them. The police are not going to show up and march them at gunpoint to the ceremony. No couple would exchange vows in front of such a horrific scene! Probably.

No one is going to be forced to celebrant a marriage, anywhere in Australia, ever, amendment or no.

Can I really say they weren’t forced if their only other choices are getting sued or quitting? Well, yes, of course I damn well can. They were not forced to specifically be a celebrant. They are not forced into making the choice as to whose relationship they permit to have legal recognition. They have made a free choice to work providing a public service, acting as a gatekeeper for a special legal status that carries importance in our society.

The public service is required to perform duties without discriminating. If you do not want to do that, do not become a public servant.

What's all the fuss about Centrelink reclaiming debts? A summary and a simple example.

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Centrelink is Australia’s welfare service, responsible for administering unemployment benefits, pensions, and other related programs. This includes making payments, checking compliance with the conditions of such programs, and collecting debts if payments were made when they shouldn’t have been.

So what’s the fuss about? Isn’t it expected that Centrelink will try to reclaim benefits that should never have been paid?

The problems arise from recent changes to how Centrelink detect incorrectly paid benefits. For a few years now, Centrelink have been using an automated system to check reported income against Australian Tax Office (ATO) data. The trouble is, it’s very error prone and makes a number of assumptions about income that don’t hold up.

To put it simply: a large percentage of these “debts” are not really debts, they’re mistakes in Centrelink’s data matching algorithm.

Until recently, Centrelink were issuing approximately 20,000 notices per year for debts calculated under this system, with a manual review process to account for errors. Even so, at least 20% of notices raised by this system did not correspond to a real debt. Now Centrelink have increased rate at which they apply this algorithm to 20,000 per week (roughly a 50-fold increase), while decreasing oversight and review for a process known to be flawed.

An Example

Here’s an example to illustrate the problems:

Let’s say you became unemployed on July 1st 2009. You claim a Centrelink benefit (eg. Youth Allowance) for a few weeks, at $430 per fortnight. (I don’t know what the Centrelink payments or thresholds were in 2009, so I’m estimating from this year’s numbers. It doesn’t really matter.) The rules for each fortnight are: if you earn $430 or below, you receive $430 from Centrelink. If you earn $430-$1173, your Centrelink payment is reduced by $0.50 for each $1 over $430. If you earn $1173 or more, you receive no Centrelink payment.

You eventually find a casual job, getting a couple of shifts some fortnights and none in other fortnights. In a good fortnight, you’ll earn $800. You report this income to Centrelink, and your payments are reduced to $245. In a bad fortnight, you’ll earn $0, so you receive your full payment of $430.

After a few months working at this job, you start to pick up many more shifts, more regularly. Now your income is $2000 per fortnight. You report this income, and since it’s over the threshold for Centrelink payments to cease, you receive no benefits any more.

When July 1st 2010 rolls around, you do your tax return. You’ve earnt $30800 over the year (13 fortnights of $2000, 6 of $800), and you report it as well as your Centrelink payments of $4480. From July 1st 2010 you continue to earn above the threshold and claim no more payments from Centerlink. End of story, you’d think.

Note that everything here is above board. Having reported your income totally honestly and accurately, you’ve only received what Centrelink say you’re entitled to: $430 in the fortnights you earn nothing, $245 in the fortnights you earn $800, and $0 for the fortnights you earn $2000.

Six and a half years later, in January 2017, you receive a notice that you owe Centrelink $4480 plus interest.

Why?

Arguments about privacy and the 2016 census

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Every few years, Australia conducts a nation wide census, surveying every resident about a huge cross section of things, from basic details to cultural and religious background, from socio-economic status to sexuality. This year, for the very first time, they’re (admitting to) keeping our names along with the data they’re collecting.

Many people have voiced concerns about the implications this change has for people’s privacy; many others have responded. And I’ve been a little shocked by how people who are usually in favour of policy that’s (a) evidence based and (b) respectful of people’s rights, are now dismissing critics as “census truthers,” or conspiracy theorists, or worse.

Incivility. ON THE INTERNET. Can you believe it?

The same arguments keep cropping up again and again, and in many ways they’re independent of the census context. I think a lot of this applies whether we’re arguing about the census, or law enforcement, or the conduct of companies rather than governments.

I do not have advice for you on the census; whether to do it or not, and if you do, how. That is for you to decide. This post is about unpicking some of the arguments that have been levelled against critics of the census.

It’s no worse than other government departments

The details that the census ask for aren’t much more than Centrelink, Medicare and the Tax Office already require.

If you think that other governments departments already have the same breadth of personalised, multidimensional data that the census takes, then logically we wouldn’t need the census. We could just use that data. But you know why we can’t — because they don’t. They have nothing like the kind of data the ABS needs. That data doesn’t cover everyone. It doesn’t cover everything. It suffers from biases due to being optional, or gathered under certain circumstances, or any number of other reasons.

You can’t simultaneously claim that we need this extra level of detail now while also claiming it’s nothing new. Any deficiencies in existing data reflect data that is not gathered or linked, and is therefore not a privacy risk to someone.

In other words, if it adds something to our statistical capabilities, it necessarily adds something to the privacy risk.

It’s okay by me, or, people already use intrusive apps

Eh, I don't really care if the government or hackers have that data on me. It doesn't worry me.
Commonly used apps already track and store your identity, location, and many other details about your life. The census isn't as bad as many of them.

(These are pretty much the same argument: I/some people cede control of privacy and don’t care, therefore it’s not an issue for anyone.)

People can opt out of using eg. Facebook. Many do. Or they can use a pseudonym. They can omit their religion and wage, if they like. The worst that happens is they’re kicked off the service. Which can be bad, but not “risking daily fines and prosecution” bad. No app is mandatory. There are no fines for turning your GPS off. It is not a legal requirement to use any of these things, and just because lots of people do, it doesn’t mean everyone does.

Even those who do, and who share things you perceive to be incredibly intimate on public social media still deserve to decide what they reveal about themselves and what they don’t, and to whom.

Disgruntled Science Policy Roundup 2016

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It’s almost time for the 2016 Australian Federal Election, which also means it’s time for an extra special double-dissolution edition of my science policy word tantrum!

Labor and Liberal

Ah who cares.

Look, I don’t want to do the too-cool-for-school crap of saying the major parties are exactly the same, because they aren’t. Spoiler alert: Labor is probably a better science vote than Liberal. But not so much that I can be bothered reviewing them separately.

The Liberals are obsessed with all things agile and innovation. But they have no idea what that means, or how science fits into it. They seem to think startups take a mere couple of years to reach success. They struggle to articulate what a startup is, and why eg. hairdressers aren’t one. They don’t seem to understand what it’s like to have an extremely viable business model that fails before it starts because it doesn’t fall neatly into mining or property development. For a party that’s meant to be all about business, they really seem to be at a loss as to how to help businesses. Except obviously rentseeking, that being the entire basis of their governance.

So they can’t conceive of science beyond making money off technology, and they have no idea how people make money off technology. Meanwhile, funding is cut, investment stops, and the smell of sovereign risk is in the air. Another term or two of the Liberal Party might actually see the end of Australian science altogether.

Labor like to give the knife a more gentle twist, giving passionate researchers just enough hope and praise so that they’ll continue to work for free and pay for their own supplies, just like the union movement fought for.

The cable tie that draws these two together is their complete, total, absolute, abject lack of vision when it comes to the potential of Australians. I have personally seen politicians from both sides be utterly shocked that Australian companies still employ people who eg. solder things, or design solid objects, or ship consumer electronics overseas.

This is obvious in their voices on the National Broadband Network, which is almost never discussed as anything but a consumer product. It is apparent in their involvement in the committee and debate on forcing ISPs to retain users' internet activity. It permeates every aspect of their politics, it informs every policy, it infects every budget.

Under the continued neglect of both parties, agencies have been reduced to empty husks. The CSIRO now hires managers at a six-to-one ratio over scientific support or researchers, because all they can do is churn money through meaningless commercialisation initiatives instead of inventing technology to commercialise. NICTA were eviscerated, haemorrhaging staff who simply could not live with the uncertainty, our successive governments so reluctant to commit to funding that they would rather leave tens of millions of dollars of valuable equipment in the sea to rust.

The fact is, science is not going to swing votes in marginal seats for either party, and this makes it invisible to both. It is the easiest part of the budget to cut, and the laziest piece of policy work for either.

(I would like to make a special point of the fact that a policy of “science funding at 3% of GDP” is pretty much what a six year old could come up with by Googling “what is good science policy” for a class report. It has no currency.)

So yeah, who cares.

The Greens

Last time around, my qualified praise for the Greens focused on their science policy (good), and their anti-science dogwhistling (bad).

These things still exist. The policy is there, it’s just as good as last time, although not updating it suggests a little complacency on their part. The anti-science sentiment still comes through in places, and I doubt it’s going away any time soon.

But I feel like there has been a permanent, albeit subtle, shift in the attitude shared by the Greens' parliamentarians. More and more I see technological proficiency and scientific literacy informing their participation, and a great example of this was Greens Senator Scott Ludlam’s work on the mandatory data* retention policy committee. (*There is no such thing as metadata you weasels.)