Saturday, March 23, 2013

Different privacies

The thing Google Glass enthusiasts don't get is this: it's quite possible for privacy to be specific to the medium.

There are things, for example, that someone is prepared to discuss in words, or even publish in text, that they would never, ever wish to reveal in images or live video.

If you read this and know me already, you know that my wife, Ms T, has an immune system disorder that requires heavy chemotherapy. And that chemotherapy has unpleasant side-effects.

Now, she's brave: she gave me permission to blog about the real world of chemotherapy, to try and counteract the images of smiling people with no hair that sell charity gim-gams, and the glamorous world of movie-chemotherapy of Noble Suffering. Chemotherapy, among other things, leads to copious vomiting and bowel incontinence, and it's a living hell when the planets align against you.

But that's text, Sergie. The worst of it – the real-world cleanups, the unscheduled showers, the extra loads of washing, the reassurance that someone isn't repulsive just because they've been injected with a drug that's two steps removed from mustard gas – remains private.

And then there's the Google obsession with its new cargo-cult, the not-yet-released Google Glass, a way to capture everything that happens to everyone if one psychotic company can just sell enough product.

Now imagine yourself in a situation: That someone you loved with nothing more than a disease is caught short during a shopping trip; that she makes a desperate dash to the public toilet, while you head in a different direction to buy underwear; and that some creep decides that this is going to get them a handful of YouTube hits.

Yeah, I can easily imagine that such creeps exist. I've had to deal with creeps with smartphones who thought that “this is the junkie getting to the doctor ahead of me” was a legitimate Tweet (Ms T isn't a junkie; the marks on her arms are symptoms of her disease, and she was at the time 35 kg because she was near death).

I can easily imagine men using video-glasses to upskirt women on stairs or escalators or any other chance that presents itself. Hell, I'm a man: Ms T, discussing this subject said “If you stop looking at women, I'll bury you. If you video them, I'll kill you, then bury you.”

But there are too many people, too vulnerable, who have to be in public. They all have to work, shop, visit the doctor, the dentist, the library, the butcher. They don't need some smug, solipsistic smart-arse with camera-glasses to publish their misery worldwide.

The humiliation of the helpless is the endless preoccupation of the nutless: and with Google Glass, all those guys with no balls will have their perfect humiliation to practise on everyone with more misery than they have.

So I will make this pronouncement: not on my patch. At least on those parts of the world that are my property, I will never permit anything that looks like Google Glass. Go elsewhere, you sad losers, and leave people to their unaugmented reality, with its imperfections and loves and privacy.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Pre-review publication is not outside the scientific method

I've been thinking about this post for a while, and the departure of Martin Ferguson provides opportune moment to actually write it.

Back in November, some scientists conducted research (which is their right), and included some of their research in a submission to a government inquiry (which is their right), even though the research hadn't completed the peer-review process (more on that in a minute).

The research appears to find high concentrations of methane at ground level around CSG fields – and the submission included sufficient information that anyone else with appropriate equipment and expertise could try to replicate it. Ferguson, an apologist for industry, was angry.

From the story: “Mr Ferguson said he believed the study … abandoned usual scientific practice”.


He criticised the study's public release, before it had been peer-reviewed, saying that in "the scientific community that is not regarded favourably".


“Conduct yourself in a professional way and focus on the outcome, not short-lived media opportunities”, he is quoted as saying.


1. Did publication “abandon usual scientific practice”?

No. Scientists are free to do what they will with their data. Peer-review and publication aren't “science” per se. Peer review exists to provide a quality control mechanism before dissemination. The usual scientific practice – the boring stuff of making observations, conducting experiments, constructing hypotheses, and providing enough information about the work to permit replication – remains intact.

2. Releasing results is “not regarded favourably”?

That's a political response, not a scientific one. There even exists an entire scientific archive – – that allows scientists to publish “pre-press” versions of their papers. Anyone can download those papers. A great many scientific releases I receive, including from the Australian Science Media Centre, which joined in criticizing the scientists, end with "this research has been submitted to journal X".

When the Higgs-Boson results started to emerge last year, Arxiv (among other places) received all the pre-press stuff. Did the Large Hadron Collider researchers do something “not regarded favourably”? What utter nonsense.

3. Short-lived media outcomes

The data was given to the government inquiry, not to the press. There never was any reason to accuse the scientists of being media whores.

Publication is publication, science is science

Somehow, in the public's mind, a piece of science that isn't science has been incorporated into “scientific method”. It's not part of “the method” - it's a publication process. The scientific method – observation, hypothesis, prediction, experiment – works even if you don't publish.

Publication permits replication; and peer review is simply an evolution of the editorial process, because no one person has enough knowledge to distinguish between good science and bad.

A decision to publish information ahead of peer-review is neither uncommon nor beyond the pale. It's just that in this case, it was something the minister – a tireless advocate for rich industries that are big enough and ugly enough to take care of themselves – didn't want to hear.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Escape from ICU

If you haven't ever been in hospital for a long time, there are things might seem hard to understand, like why Ms T once staged an escape from ICU.

By now, she's a little bit of an ICU veteran, with three visits. But I'm talking about life when she wasn't accustomed to that world.

She had already spent nearly three months in Royal Prince Alfred – on level 9, the gastro ward, because that's where she first landed with a hard-to-diagnose illness that disabled her liver and gave her a stomach of ulcers (it turned out to be that her immune system had shut down important blood vessels).

Our home in Lilyfield is almost visible from RPA, if you have the right view. You can't see the house, but if you have enough time, and the right angle, you can see the trees and work out where the house is. As soon as Ms T was mobile, with “Skinny Marie”, her name for the IV-stand-on-wheels, she would spend time in the sun-lounge on Level 9, trying to work out where “home” lay.

Her chief landmark in those days was the Anzac Bridge: large, unmistakable, and a pointer to the cluster of trees, with a few insane palm trees poking through, that told her where we were.

We were lucky, in those days. With my mother alive and living with us, I could spend a lot of time at the hospital, by her side, letting grandma watch over our teen sons, working with mobile broadband. But I always had to go home in the end.

As she reiterated to me tonight: “I always took 'skinny Marie' to the sun-lounge before I went to sleep, to look at you and say goodnight.”

Then there was one of the ICU visits. 

We were away in the Blue Mountains when she fell ill, with sudden and terrible pain. Katoomba Hospital was mystified by her blood tests; I told them to call RPA's Gastro-Enterology unit, and RPA demanded that she be dispatched by ambulance – ignoring a couple of other teaching hospitals on the way. (Things to love about Australia's health system.)

Ms T had a liver infection; her condition was assessed as critical; she was put in ICU immediately.

The next night, hallucinating on painkillers, she managed to escape ICU.

Knowing what ICU is like – and how many machines connected her – I have no idea how she managed it. Because she was spaced and pie-eyed she's never been able to explain it properly, and ICU was apologetic but completely without an explanation. No matter; it ended well.

Because she phoned me, from Missenden Road. The conversation wasn't one that I care to relate, but I talked her back down to ICU reception, at which point I heard another voice on her phone utter a swear word and call for help.

And after many conversations about the incident, we realised what drove her so much that she could take herself out of the secure part of the hospital and find herself on a road, in a hospital gown, trying to hail a taxi.

She couldn't see home. ICU wasn't like “Level 9”. There was no “goodnight my love” that she could utter while looking towards our home: only the lights, curtains and machines. So she sought some place to tell us she loved us all, and wanted to be home. Just as she'd done every other night she was in hospital.

I talked to her on the phone, somehow sorted the things she could see from the hallucinations, and guided her back to ICU reception, when someone swore, took over the phone and told me to visit in the morning, and apologised. And all was well.

It's hard to explain how it feels, to be loved like that. I can only hope I can deserve it.