Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The stupid: it burns!

This example lifted from many versions
that may be found all over the internet.
There seems to be a lot of it about.
It was at the dive club one evening when I was expounding on my theory that Diving (or, come to that, Motorcycling or Hang Gliding, or Bungee Jumping) Is Safe Because It’s Dangerous.

The argument, fundamentally, is that because there are clear and obvious hazards where underwater swimming is involved, the first of which is that you can’t breathe the stuff. Thus you only do it after undertaking training that includes dealing with equipment malfunctions and operator error. After being scared shitless in the classroom, the novice discovers that most dives are incident free and this scuba thing’s quite easy really isn’t it? Yes it is, right up to the moment when something goes wrong. I sketched up a rough graph of how I saw Risk versus Experience.

I was therefore astonished later to discover that a very similar theory had been expounded in 1999 by Davin Dunning and Justin Kruger of the Department of Psychology at Cornell University. They won an Ig Nobel Prize in 2000 for this work.

Quoting Errol Morris in the New York Times: “The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate.”

1. Incompetent people overestimate their own ability.
2. Incompetent people fail to recognise competence in others.
3. Incompetent people can’t see that they’re incompetent.
4. Minimal training doesn’t improve ability, but does improve ability to recognise the lack of it.
5. True experts underestimate their own ability.

In scuba diving, or indeed any other field where skills have to be learned, an individual with zero knowledge performs badly (A). A little knowledge is indeed a dangerous thing, as some training initially produces confidence well in excess of actual ability (B). Then comes the fall: some incident or scare that shatters the individual’s self-perception and self-confidence (C). I read an article that described the plunge as into the ‘Jon Snow trough.’(D) Only with further training and experience does true ability increase (E).

In another example, think on how cocky a young driver is after getting past the gosh-aren’t-hill-starts-difficult stage and getting his full licence. And then how this illusion of ability comes crashing down after the first time he has a near miss, he crashes, or he gets nicked. Perceived ability subsequently increases with experience, but typically never gets as high as true ability because the individual is now wise enough to understand that, however good he is, he isn’t the best there is.

At a professional level, I have developed an interest in highway pavement design and actually considered myself something of an expert until recently. Then, over a series of workshops with actual card-carrying pavement engineers, I realised quite how Jon Snow I was on the subject. I discussed this with a friend; the Gnomad who had introduced me to the concept of the Dunning-Kruger effect, and I argued that I had been exhibiting precisely those symptoms.

“Not at all,” he reassured me, “Because you recognise the greater ability in others.”

But of course, it can happen to everyone. My perception of my ability to play a musical instrument is up at (B) right up until I show up with real musicians, at which point I get the Jon Snow moment.

Although Messrs Dunning and Kruger got the name of the effect, it isn't a new phenomenon.

Confucius: "Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance."
Socrates: "I know that I know nothing."
Shakespeare: "The Foole doth thinke he is wiſe, but the wiſeman knowes himſelfe to be a Foole."
Stephen Hawking: "The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge."

Leaving the reader to think up numerous other examples of Dunning-Kruger in real life, I offer another one:  Those who think they can drive while using a mobile phone.

There remains an important difference between incompetent and just plain stupid. Incompetent means exactly that. Not competent, owing to lack of training and experience. This is rather different to the one that really irks me, which is those who ought to know better, yet continue to make the most ludicrous decisions because they think they know better than the experts whom they employ.

John Cleese expounded on the phenomenon here:

The skills you need to be good at something are precisely the same skills that enable you to see that you're not any good at it!

And this blog post is brought to you by an over-irked Goat, who’s been confronted almost continuously by the Dunning-Kruger effect for twenty years.


Thursday, January 01, 2015

Use it or lose it

“You have worked since September, so you’ve accrued nine days of annual leave to year end. Use it or lose it.”

I noted that Qatar National Day would produce a public holiday on Thursday 18th December, so exploited the long weekend to get myself a Christmas break. They’re calendar days, which is a bit of a swizz, and I work on Saturdays, but I would be able to get away until after Christmas. Not enough leave to extend the break to include the New Year, so apologies and thanks for the invitation, but I’m unable to attend the Bring-Your-Speciality-Dish party in Dubai on 31st December.

Beloved Wife and I decided to go to Spain. We’ve not been since 2011, and I’ve not been to Andalusia since 1987. Having arranged accommodation in both Granada and Madrid, I set off from Doha and arrived in Madrid, picking up the rental car from the airport. It was no small irritation to learn that I had to pay €150 deposit even though I’d already paid everything including insurance and CDW up front. “It hweel be refhunded, Señor Macho Cabrío, once you hrethurn the car undented ahnd with a full tahnk.”

I headed off to Keef and Noelle’s for, in no particular order of preference, bed and board, beer, and immense frustration with parking.

Madrid Municipalidad, in a fit of Mad, has installed paid parking all around the residential area. The machines take cash or credit cards, but don’t take paper money (and I had no change and the few corner shops were shut), and didn’t wish to talk to any of my several plastic cards. Having eventually dragged Keef from his flat with a pocketful of change, I got him to feed the meter for the maximum permitted two hours, and we went to the pub. Two hours later, none of the machines wanted my money. It would appear that the car had become Auta Non Grata. At this point I totally lost it. I was forced to drive around Madrid – after several beers; something I was loath to do – looking for somewhere to park the bloody car. Having given up and returned, the machines had apparently seen fit to allow me to park again, and I paid for a further two hours that took me to past 9pm when parking became free overnight. Pub. Chillax. Recover temper.

If they don’t want cars to hang about or return, why do they provide annual permits? You can park for a maximum of two hours, or up to one year. Nonsense.

The following day, Keef and I went into town and found an underground car park with minuscule spaces just big enough for my rented Citroën C1, aka Toyota Aygo, aka Peugeot 107. We did some shopping and sightseeing, I took photos, and then I dropped Keef at home while I retrieved Beloved Wife from the airport. She’d taken the same flight as I, but because the UAE didn’t have a holiday on Thursday she was 24 hours later.

A brief stop chez Keef later for tea, chat, and dropping off Christmas presents, and then Beloved Wife and I were off into Madrid’s Mad evening rush hour, heading generally south to Granada.

Clarissa had been briefed with 2010 mapping and the hotel’s location, I had checked out what the place looked like using Google Street View, and we rolled into the hotel’s free parking in time to wander into town in search of food.

TripAdvisor suggested that there might be vast queues at the entrance to La Alhambra (Spanish translation of Arabic, which ultimately comes back to English as “the the red [one]”) merely to buy tickets, followed by a further queue in order to gain admittance. So we bought our tickets in advance at the hotel. Admittance to the Nasrid Palaces is at a specific time stated on the ticket, but you can wander around the rest of the complex at your leisure. I took many, many pictures. There’s a small selection here, but more Alhambra pics in this Picasa album.

Snow in the Sierra Nevada.

Lion Courtyard.

Alhambra from Generalife.

Islamic influence all over.
As the running gag with this blog post is parking, I’ll mention that it cost about €10 to park the car for a six-hour visit, but the Pay-As-You-Leave machine was happy taking paper money and dispensing change. As the car parks were virtually empty and the queues weren’t too awful, I’m offering this piece of advice: Don’t Visit in August!

The following day we explored Granada’s old town. Beloved Wife wished to avail herself of an alleged “Christmas Market”. However, we’ve been to München and Nürnburg, so these had already set the bar extremely high, and the market stalls were underwhelming. We did pick up some food and sweeties, and settled down to Chocolate con Churros, something that was to become a pleasant, albeit colossally unhealthy, habit.

Extruding a churro.
Happy now?
Churros are similar to doughnuts, but extruded through a nozzle into a vat of hot lard and deep-fried, then served hot for dunking in drinking chocolate. What’s not to like? I’ll tell you: frauds who pull their rubbery churros from the freezer and microwave them. Fresh ones are much better.

We discovered the latter on a day-trip to Ronda, the traditional home of bullfighting and famous for its New Bridge (1751-1793) which, in turn, is infamous for having Nationalist sympathisers tipped over its parapet during the Spanish Civil War, or so said Ernest Hemingway.
New Bridge.

Precarious cantilevered viewpoint.

View from the bridge.
I decided not to mess about, and pointed the car at the first public car park I could find. As usual, expensive Pay-As-You-Leave and underground. But everything to see was within easy walking distance.

As I’ve not been to the Costa del Sol since 1987, I suggested the coast road back to Granada. We got stuck behind a tiny car whose driver wanted to do the entire 30km mountain road from Ronda to the coast at 10km/h slower than I wanted to drive. At the only overtake, she steadfastly sat in the overtaking lane. I’m going to invoke Hanlon’s Razor here and conclude, because her door mirrors were folded in, that she was simply oblivious to anything behind her. And I thought that was the First Rule of Italian Driving.

There’s a new motorway along the coast, largely behind the development and stuck to the foot of the mountains. As it was a peaje, I decided to take the old N340 to Fuengirola and Los Boliches before heading northwards back to Granada. The whole coast area appears to be colossally overdeveloped. I thought it was a bit full back in the 1980s, but I was wrong. Fuengirola, holiday destination of choice for many, was shut.

We tried to extend our hotel stay in Granada by one day, but as Christmas was coming the hotel would be shut. So Beloved Wife got on to and found a cheapish business hotel in Seville, a city where we’d both never been.
Seville is very congested in parts.
We arrived in good time to drive into the old town and get horribly lost in the medieval alleys. Once more I gave thanks for having the wisdom to pick a tiny car and not some Hummeresque battleship. Beloved Wife eventually found one of those underground car parks, and we walked to the Cathedral, checked out Christopher Columbus’ tomb therein, climbed the 34 ramps and 15 steps up the bell tower to enjoy the view, avoided a ride in a horse-drawn carriage, and grabbed something to eat and drink.
Cathedral exterior.
Cathedral minaret, er, bell tower.
Cathedral nave.

Christopher Columbus.
Another gargoyle.
It was nearly chucking-out time at Real Alcazar, the Royal Palace and Gardens, by the time we found it, so we decided to visit the following morning before heading back to Madrid. As we emerged from the subterranean parking, I got Clarissa to remember the location.
And then at the hotel I shut down and slept 14 hours straight.

Refuelling the following morning at a comprehensive continental breakfast buffet, I commented that one should “starve a fever and feed a cold.” I’d not knowingly been in the company of any snot monsters, but had managed to pick up rhinopharyngitis anyway.

Beloved Wife and I were glad not to have attempted Real Alcazar in 30 minutes. It took hours and hours, even though the hedge maze was barred and not available for use. We wandered around the gardens and enjoyed the various grottoes, walls, and gateways before disappearing inside to look at the tapestries, tiles, and courtyards. As at the Alhambra and the nearby Cathedral, there’s a lot of Islamic influence in the architecture and decoration. Indeed, the cathedral used to be a mosque, and its bell tower a minaret.
Formal courtyard garden.

Less formal orange and Swiss cheese plants.
Back on the subject of tiles, I took pictures of the tiles cladding the Pavilion of Carlos V (1360) in the gardens that depicted, among other things, a Goat, a weird two-legged Centaur archer, a Unicorn, and a Faun smoking a pipe, which Beloved Wife said reminded her of someone… All these tiles were reproduced in the gift shop, except one. Guess which one. I had to satisfy myself with a goat-tile fridge magnet.

Pavilion of Carlos V
These are not fridge magnets.
Not coming in Sevilla, Señor Macho Cabrío
Initial estimates of rolling into Madrid mid-afternoon were trashed. Clarissa decided that the best way would be to follow the Portuguese border up to Badajoz and then to turn right and head directly for Madrid. Do Not Pass Go. Do Not Collect €200. Even sipping fuel at 50mpg the rental C1 needed to be gassed up, I needed espresso, and both Beloved Wife and I needed to use Los Facilidad. It’s long way; Spain’s a big country. We passed numerous medieval castles. Perhaps a future visit might involve a castle tour.

There was, of course, nowhere to park in Madrid on Christmas Eve. Not even a stable. So, assisted by Noelle, I drove to the airport and dumped the car keys in the deserted car rental area. Hmmm, Marie Celeste Car Rental Central. Then back into town by Metro, and food and drink. Yay! Christmas!

Christmas itself was only excellent. It included the usual plethora of junk food, booze, and pressies. Then a nice walk in the sun. I should mention that the weather throughout had been sunny and only cold and frosty at night. Should’ve brought sandals. Keef cooked an amazing turkey dinner in a minuscule kitchen that must be bigger on the inside, which is a sneaky segue into noting that we watched the Doctor Who Christmas Special; the one in which the Aliens encountered on LV-426 meet Inception.

Keef doesn’t only do excellent turkey. He also makes pies that are on sale at selected pubs and bars in Madrid. And here is the gratuitous hyperlink to Keef’s stuff:-

We went touristing in Madrid on Boxing Day. As this isn’t a holiday in Spain, where the Big Event is on Twelfth Night, everything was open except the Irish bar where we were due to have lunch. So we went to the James Joyce instead. I did my usual thing and took photos, we failed to get in to see the Nativity display, and then we all headed back to the flat, for many people were coming over for mulled wine and Christmas carols.

The Goat's shoes disguise his hooves.
No comment!

Old and new.

Decoration dated 1919.

The main Post Office.
A further splendid evening later, and it was time to pack and go. Without a car this time, Muggins wheeled Beloved Wife’s overstuffed orange suitcase through the streets to the Metro. Thank you again and again to the genius who first though of sticking little wheels on to suitcases.

At the airport I checked with the car rental people, and was advised that €60 of my deposit had been withheld because I’d hnot hreturned the car hrental paperhwork. That’s right; I’d not handed it in to their non-existent staff on Christmas Eve, nor had I put it into the slot labelled “Car Keys Only.” My bad.

“You shhould have left hit in the cahr,” I was advised, in accordance with what is an obvious known fact and not written. Also not written was this punitive €60 fine. They said they’d refund it, they phoned to say that they had, but the money has yet to appear. It finally showed up after 42 days and my very public complaints on social media. I'm curious as to why the need to lie repeatedly to a customer that the payment had been made when, in fact , the problem was that Atesa had lost the paperwork.

Of course, this left me fuming. But I put a lid on it and smiled sweetly at the Qatar Airways ticketing counter. Sweetly enough, in fact, that I was able to get the last two seats in Business Class for frequent-flyer miles rather than cash, despite having received an email a few days before stating that my request had been refused. But I wasn’t going to tell them that at the ticket desk, was I?

For once, I ended a holiday on a high: Comfy travel, Business priority lane at immigration so no queue, and as I only had hand luggage I was in my bed less than an hour after landing. And up again five hours later for work. It’s only a four-day week, though. The memo came round confirming 1st January as a holiday.

Pity Beloved Wife. She had a further hour to wait for her flight to Dubai. This was apparently full of drunken Spanish yoofs flying over to see some foopball. And it took a further hour for her orange suitcase to appear on the carousel in Dubai.


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