There’s been a lot of death

We were narrowly missed by a great big meteor.
Didn’t really make front page news.
We’re too busy cooking crumpets, and wearing out shoes.

– ‘Meteor‘, Box Set, Tripod.

Sometimes it’s interesting to look through your partner’s book collection. Aside from the books that I have absolutely no interest in (I’m looking at you Chick Lit), there are quite a few that I mean to read one day. And that day came for a science book with an interesting title.

A Short History of Planet Earth

A potted history of major geological events in the history of the Earth.

Ian Plimer is the professor of mining geology at the University of Adelaide, so he knows his geology, and this book from 2001 promises to take the layman through a journey of the Earth’s geological history. The subject matter covered is very interesting, although it is a more difficult read than it might have been.

The book really opened my eyes to the fact that much of the planet’s life has been repeatedly wiped out over the years. Whether by giant meteors from space, collapsing volcanic mountains, breaches in ice dams, or a host of other causes, the continued existence of a species of Earth-based organism is precarious indeed. When we come across a species that’s a relic of a previous age, such as a stromatolite, it’s almost a miraculous thing.

However, accessing this interesting story is made difficult by a few features of the text. While pitched at a non-technical reader, Plimer can’t help using technical terms that he doesn’t define anywhere. Also, despite the book being arranged chronologically by chapter, there is a tendency to leap around between topics and timeframes within chapters or even on the same page. I found these diversions, while often interesting, interrupted the flow, and would’ve been better placed in their own side box, or even omitted. There was almost a sense that a less-than-thorough editing job had been done.

Towards the end of the book, Plimer begins to reveal his negative views towards human-induced climate change. These seemed a little out-of-place in a book of this nature, but the book does have other personal touches, such as his thoughts on ancient surfing breaks. Perhaps it adds a little colour at the expense of academic neutrality.

In all, I was pleased to have read it (and learned a new perspective on our planet’s evolution), but less pleased with the effort required to make it through to the end.

Rating by andrew: 2.5 stars

Increasing the competition reduces competition

I know the rule is: write what you know. So, I also know I’m going out on a limb here writing something about sport. Specifically, writing about AFL. But, this idea has got into my head, and I think writing it down is the only way to let it out.

Due to utter chance, the weekend newspaper fell open on an article about the AFL competition format, and after glancing at it, I found it to be really interesting. The gist of it was that the AFL has consciously shaped its teams to create a level playing field, through salary caps and priority draft picks for bottom teams, with the result that there is a good rotation of teams winning the grand final, and the sport has achieved enduring popularity. And it doesn’t hurt that they’ve been able to translate that popularity into a pretty decent TV rights deal.

However, it appears that while there is a good rotation of top teams, in recent years, those top teams are typically (and curiously) much better than the rest of the competition. According to the article, since 2000, Essendon, then the Lions, Port Adelaide, Geelong, St Kilda and now Collingwood have had long runs of wins, trouncing all the other teams for a reasonable period of time.

It strikes me that another way that the AFL has shaped their competition may be leading to this very outcome: growing the number of teams. Despite their efforts to limit and reset the strength of the teams each season, there is always going to be a distribution of ability across the set of teams. A spread of ability will exist, even if concentrated, so there can still be outliers. To put it another way, even if the standard distribution is smaller, the probability of a team falling outside a s.d. of the mean is still the same.

According to Wikipedia’s page on the AFL, back in 1982 there were just 12 teams, and this has increased little-by-little over the years to the current 17 teams, with 18 teams are proposed for next year. If we look at the probability of there being an outperformer in the mix (for discussion’s sake, let’s define that as a team with an ability two standard deviations above the mean), it increases from about 1-in-4 for a 12 team competition to about 1-in-3 for an 18 team competition.

# Teams Year P(one or more outperformers)
12 1982 0.241
14 1987 0.275
15 1991 0.292
16 1995 0.308
17 2011 0.324
18 2012 0.339

On one hand, the AFL’s actions are intended to make teams as similar in ability as possible to promote healthy competition. Ironically though, it seems their actions in increasing the size of the competition might be working against this to improve the chance than a season will have a dominant team.

Although from the AFL’s point of view, if the driver of their policies is not competition but popularity, then as long as the new teams are introduced in new areas, the loss of popularity from impacting competition is likely more than made up by the increase due to the additional of new supporters.

iPad 2: Cameras ain’t cameras

I’m an enthusiastic user of the iPad 2 that arrived two weeks ago. It was everything I could expect, except in one respect: the camera.

Actually, there are two cameras – the front-facing 480×640 (VGA) resolution camera and the rear 720×960 resolution camera. Given that the iPad 2 display has a resolution of 768×1024, neither camera is capable of filling the screen to its full potential. However, given I was most excited about the video calling potential of the iPad 2, it is the front-facing camera that concerns me the most.

Comparing that camera to a VGA  resolution web cam that I had around (the Logitech QuickCam for Notebooks that according to Wikipedia was first released in 2002), it is definitely of higher-quality. You would certainly hope so, given the decade for technology to improve in the interim. But, it is still only VGA Рjust 0.3 megapixels.

Image on the left taken by Logitech QuickCam for Notebooks, and image on the right taken by Apple iPad 2 front-facing camera

Although, when you then use the FaceTime application on the iPad, the quality takes a noticeable dive. Based on some info from a jailbroken iPhone mod, it seems FaceTime actually runs at 240×320 resolution (i.e. 0.08 megapixels).

Same picture as above, but through the FaceTime app on the iPad 2.

Since FaceTime for the Mac supports video calling up to 720p resolutions, it’s not a limitation of the protocol. But it’s apparently also the same resolution that Skype runs on the iPhone (and hence iPad), so trying a different app won’t change that.

The whole video calling experience does not show off the best of the iPad hardware, however the camera and the reduced resolution used in FaceTime is just good enough to achieve an acceptable result. Given that Apple normally aims to delight and amaze with their devices, this doesn’t meet my expectations.

While I can see how it could be better, FaceTime is still slick enough to have encouraged me to use it many times since we got the iPad 2 – it is a good video-calling device. That doesn’t stop me hoping that will be a future firmware upgrade that will at least restore some of the lost resolution.

Also, in the same way that the lack of a camera in the iPad 1 created a clear point of difference when the iPad 2 was released, the low-quality camera in the iPad 2 gives Apple the opportunity to fix this in their next iPad. (If they could find some way to include a directional speaker, that would be awesome too.)

Placing video calls on the iPad 2 has confirmed for me that it could be an incredible device for this use case, and I hope that Skype releases an iPad app to create a bit more competition here (and open up the range of people that I can call). We might get better video calling resolution, yet!