Archive for January, 2009

Geeky Fun

January 29, 2009 Leave a comment

I didn’t write a blog entry yesterday, and today’s entry is quite brief, because of two things. First, I am working on a programming project and its coming along really well (I’ve got some very nice, efficient AJAX code working) and I am spending more of my spare time on that instead of writing blog entries! The second is that I visited the local astronomical observatory last night to look at their new telescope and didn’t get back until quite late, so that used up time I might have used to blog as well. I hope to write a full entry on these two matters in future but will just comment on them briefly here first.

So the programming thing first. Well this might sound terribly geeky (for which I offer no apology) but I actually really like programming. Its a creative and technical process which also results in something useful that people can use. It also gives you a sense of control because, if you follow the rules the computer will do exactly what you want. I love that! Of course, when you don’t quite follow the rules or some of the other parts of the process you need to interact with don’t follow the rules (Internet Explorer for example) it can get a bit frustrating but overcoming those issues is just part of the fun.

On to astronomy. When I was a student, and for a while after that, I was a very active serious amateur astronomer. I was the official education officer for the local society and I showed many groups through the observatory over the years. I also participated in some research projects (astronomy is one of the few sciences where amateurs still make valuable contributions).

I have spent a lot less time on astronomy recently – even though I have a nice telescope I don’t use it as often as I should. Its been many years since I had anything to do with the local astronomical society so it was really nostalgic to visit last night. Sure the new computer controlled Celestron 14 is a much nicer ‘scope than the old manually pointed 12 inch reflector we had, but a lot of the old place is the same, including the 14 inch Dobsonian I used for many observing sessions, which is still there.

The weather wasn’t so great last night so I didn’t get much of a chance to use the new ‘scope but I must go back soon and have a better look. While I’m there I should seek out the old log book and look at the many entries in there made by me during my observing, education, and research sessions over the years! That will be real nostalgia!


Stirring Up Trouble

January 27, 2009 Leave a comment

The Internet is a great system for distributing information and there is no doubt about that. The problem is that information can cover a wide gamut, from pure facts to total lies. Neither of these extremes is usually a problem, its the information which is almost true or a little bit false which causes more trouble.

One of the best things about the Internet is that it makes it really easy to check the accuracy of information. Its rare for a subject to be discussed in just one place or for a fact to be presented on just one site. Usually there are many different perspectives on any subject and its just a matter of the person who genuinely wants to know the truth weighing up all sides involved.

The problem is that few people really want to know the truth. Most people will absorb and forward information which suits their political, religious, or personal beliefs and ignore anything which doesn’t fit. Also, many people don’t have great skills at investigating the accuracy of a claim so they can’t make a reasonable judgement even if they wanted to.

So where is all this leading? Well, as you might have guessed, it relates to a specific incident I was involved with this morning. A friend (I think he still is!) sent out some photos and a description which purportedly showed a boy’s arm being run over by a truck as a punishment for theft. The incident allegedly happened in an Islamic country and the commentary goes on to criticise Islam as a vicious and unforgiving religion.

The only problem is the picture doesn’t show that at all. It shows a “street performance” where a boy’s arm appears to be run over but he actually suffers no harm. There are several clues in the photo that this is the case and it took me literally 30 seconds to check the accuracy of the photo and find it lacking.

Yet this photo has been distributed around the world for 5 years now. It includes the following text: “This is very very disturbing whatever your religious beliefs. No religion can ever justify such hideous crimes Pass it on… let the world know what’s happening in the name of religion… Pass this to all, for public awareness. It must be sent WORLD WIDE! Even if this message is sent to you more than once, just keep on passing it on!” A variation of the text is “An 8 year old child caught stealing bread in a market of Iran is punished in a public place, in the name of Islam! His arm will be crushed and will lose its use permanently. A religion of peace and love, they say? How can anyone believe them when they commit such inhuman acts?”

The first version doesn’t specifically state the people in the photo are Muslims but its clear from their clothing and environment that they are. So this is an attack on Muslims with the specific encouragement to distribute it widely even though its a total lie! Do we not have enough problems with religious intolerance already without making things worse like this?

But its even worse than that. The incredible hypocrisy of the people distributing this stuff almost defies belief. For a start, many of them are either Christians or strongly supportive of Christianity. I thought one of the more positive aspects of that religion is tolerance and forgiveness. I don’t see many signs of that here. Deliberately stirring up hatred against another group is hardly an activity Jesus would approve of, I would have thought!

And the other incredible act of hypocrisy is that these same people strongly support severe punishment against people who break the law, including the death penalty in many cases. So if they think strong punishment is good should they not admire a culture which carries out these punishments? (remember that the story is untrue so I’m speaking from a theoretical perspective only).

Even if the punishment shown was true I don’t know if distributing the photos was justified. Actually, I have changed my mind about that. I think if they were true it would be justifiable to distribute them because the facts are always important. But before distributing such inflammatory material anyone should make absolutely sure its true. Sending out that sort of stuff without checking makes the distributor part of the cause of the intolerance we have in the world today. They’re just stirring up trouble.

Those Greeks!

January 26, 2009 Leave a comment

Those ancient Greeks weren’t stupid, were they? I often listen to philosophy and history podcasts, especially the excellent BBC Radio 4 series, “In Our Time”, and I constantly hear about the amazing discoveries and achievements of the Greeks.

Sure they made mistakes, for example they did put too much emphasis on interpreting the Universe the way they thought it should be rather than the way it really looked: Aristotle thought the Sun and Moon were perfect, featureless spheres even though people had seen markings on both of these bodies for many years. But considering the tools they had available they really made remarkable progress.

After the end of the dominance of Greek civilisation intellectual progress didn’t really go quite as well under the Romans and as Christianity took over it sunk to new lows, of course.

Why was Christianity so anti-intellectual? Because it was (and still is to some extent) the most corrupt and self-serving belief and political system the world has ever seen. It was only with the gradual breaking of the power of the church with the Renaissance and the Enlightenment that western civilisation returned to a true path of truth and enlightenment.

I used those words “true path”, “truth” and “enlightenment” deliberately because they are often used by religion, supernatural belief systems, and other forms of superstition. Everyone thinks that is what they are delivering (or do they?) but very few ever really deliver on the promise.

To arrive at the truth the most important concept to accept is protection against self-delusion. Self delusion happens to everyone but there are ways to guard against it. Christianity, and other religions, are based on self delusion because their adherents have to accept a dogma (Christ existed and was the son of God, God exists and is good, the Bible is the true word of God, etc) which would be highly suspicious to anyone who is guarding themselves against being lead astray into false belief.

Clearly the Greeks suffered from this a bit as well because they had convinced themselves that the surface of the Moon was perfect they had to create an explanation for the markings seen there. They thought the markings were caused by atmospheric phenomena. Well that’s not totally impossible, but it surely isn’t the simplest explanation. The best explanation is that the markings on the Moon are real features, but believing that would require abandoning the dogma of the perfection of heavenly bodies – so they resorted to self delusion instead.

The self-delusion of the Greeks was trivial compared with that of the Christians and that explains why the Greeks made so much more progress in understanding the world. But if everyone has this to some extent how do we know that current scientific theories aren’t the result of a similar phenomenon?

Well we can’t know for sure but modern science does have many mechanisms built-in to minimise the effect of self-delusion. There have been experiments which have produced remarkable results (on homeopathy for example) which have later been shown to be faulty, either because of deliberate or accidental distortion of the data. There have been hoaxes which have gathered a certain amount of scientific support (Piltdown Man for example, although that was viewed with great suspicion from the beginning). There have even been widely accepted theories which have been shown later to be inaccurate (Newton’s gravitation, for example).

But the important thing is that, as further evidence is gathered and methodology is challenged, these findings have been abandoned. Compare this with a faith based system where the original belief must be supported so that more and more arbitrary and apparently false assumptions and ideas must be added to support the original belief.

Perhaps inevitably this has turned into a bit of a rant against Christianity but the reason I started this blog entry was to talk about Greek achievements, specifically the Antikythera Mechanism. This is a remarkable machine, discovered in 1901, which has been dated to 150-100 BCE. It is now accepted that its a mechanical astronomical calculator, which uses a complex series of cogs and wheels to predict the location of the planets, Moon, and Sun, and to predict eclipses and other phenomena.

Its remarkably accurate and an incredible achievement which wasn’t matched for another 1500 years. The researcher who led the study of the mechanism said: “This device is just extraordinary, the only thing of its kind. The design is beautiful, the astronomy is exactly right. The way the mechanics are designed just makes your jaw drop. Whoever has done this has done it extremely carefully. …in terms of historic and scarcity value, I have to regard this mechanism as being more valuable than the Mona Lisa.”

Many of the parts of the mechanism have been lost but it might have had up to 72 gears, all precise and miniaturised to an extent not achieved again until the 18th century, and indicators on the front and back. The system had corrections for orbital anomalies and could correct for leap years (which weren’t incorporated into the calendar until later). Another possibility is that the mechanism used differential gears, which enabled it to add or subtract angular velocities (although this is now in doubt). Sounds a bit like a precursor to Charles Babbage’s work!

The dating is too recent to identify it as being made by Archimedes but it could easily have been based on designs of simpler machines he created. Archimedes was one of the great Greek thinkers I admire most, along with Democritus, Epicurus, Euclid, and Aristotle (even though his teachings were later mis-used by the church).

I often think about what the world would have been like if the progress of ancient civilisations hadn’t been interrupted by events like the Christians ordering the destruction the great library at Alexandria (one of several possible theories of its destruction, I admit). We would be 1000 years ahead in scientific progress. I think by now we would have interstellar travel, immortality, virtually limitless power, thinking machines, and just about everything else that is currently just a dream. Ah yes, those Greeks sure were smart!

The Mac is 25

January 25, 2009 Leave a comment

This year marks the Mac’s 25th birthday. That’s important because the Mac introduced many of the technologies we take for granted today: the graphical user interface, the mouse, easy copy and paste between applications, icons, pull-down menus, etc. Sure, Apple didn’t invent all of these technologies but it was the first to make them practical and use them in a real product.

When the Mac was introduced I was working for an Apple dealer here in New Zealand. At the time I was programming the Apple II and Apple III. We had a Lisa as well but I don’t remember us ever selling one so I didn’t program for that. The Apple II usually booted from a floppy disk with the simple operating system, application, and data all in one place, although it was common to have a second disk for data storage.

The Apple II’s disk capacity was a massive 143K and it had 48K of memory, a 1MHz 8 bit processor and a 280 x 192 graphics screen. Despite these deficiencies it was possible to do serious work on these machines. We had several small to medium sized companies using them to run their business systems and many people used them for word processing and spreadsheets – the original spreadheet, Visicalc, was written for the Apple II and it was surely one of the most important programs ever created!

There was also an extensive library of games despite the slow processor and total lack of hardware graphics acceleration. Of course, all serious programs at the time were written in assembly language. I wrote some programs that way too and it was amazing how much performance could be extracted from the machine by using optimising techniques. Real programmers back then would customise programs one machine code instruction at a time to get the best speed!

The Mac was a considerably more powerful machine than the Apple II, with a 32 bit 8MHz processor, a 400K floppy drive, 128K of RAM and a 512 x 342 black and white screen. The Mac did lack the color of the Apple II but surpassed it in every other way.

Unfortunately, as is so often the case with computers, the extra power was used up by the new operating system and graphical interface, so boot times, scrolling speed, and many other functions were slower on the Mac than on the Apple II. But having WYSIWYG word processing, the ability to paste pictures into documents, and an easy to use interface made it all worthwhile.

Of course the Mac rapidly progressed to the Mac Plus (released 1986) which had more memory (a whole 1MB) and larger floppy drives (800K) plus the option of a hard disk (20M or sometimes even 40M in capacity) but the CPU and graphics stayed the same until the Mac II.

The Mac II was a modular machine with expansion slots which was a departure from the original Mac philosophy of a closed box. It also had a high quality color screen with 640 x 480 8 bit graphics and a 16 MHz 68020 processor. Very impressive! Of course, there was still no hardware graphics acceleration so the color slowed the machine down which partly negated the advantage of the faster processor.

Apple went on to use up to 40 MHz 68040 processors before moving to the PowerPC platform in 1994, 10 years after the original Mac was introduced. Those machines started at 60 MHz and were moderately successful, but it was the third generation PowerPC G3 based iMac, introduced in 1998, which really turned things around after Steve Jobs returned to the company. That processor started at 233 MHz. The ultimate PowerPC Mac was the mighty 2.5 GHz dual core, dual G5 processor Power Mac G5 which was introduced in 2005.

The PowerPC was an excellent processor but IBM just didn’t put the resources in to keeping it up to date so Apple switched to the Intel processor in 2006. Initially the single core Core processor and dual core Core Duo 32 bit processors were used but now Apple only use Core 2 Duo 64 bit processors. The fastest Apple Intel Mac Pro now has dual 4 core 3.2 GHz 64 bit processors, up to 32 GB of RAM, and a 1 TB hard drive.

If I compare the capabilities of the Apple II, which I first programmed on, and the latest Mac Pro (which is well overdue for replacement, by the way) I get the following level of improvement.

If I factor in the speed of the processor, the number of cores, and the width of the system bus the latest machine is 100,000 times faster than the Apple II. Depending on exactly what you are measuring this might be seen as an over- or under-estimate of the true performance difference. And the graphics processors included in current Macs are truly awesome making the performance difference even greater.

Looking at the disk capacity the difference between a 143K floppy disk and a 1 TB hard disk is no less than 7 million times! Yes, it would take 7 million Apple II floppy disks to equal a single 1TB hard disk. RAM capacity has improved a lot as well. The increase from 48K to 32 G is a factor of 660,000.

So things have come a long way in the 25 years since 1984. Not only is there a huge improvement in the performance of the various components, but we now have laptops, high quality LCD screens, high quality audio, easy to connect and configure peripherals, and awesome media capabilities.

I can store thousands of MP3 files on my iPhone and a hundred thousand on my laptop. It would take 13 Mac 400K floppy disks (or 35 Apple II floppies) just to store one! That’s an interesting real consequence of the improvement over those 25 years.

Mumbo Jumbo

January 24, 2009 Leave a comment

Recently my wife decided to visit a pharmacy to ask their advice on a minor medical matter. I have heard some fairly scathing criticisms of pharmacists recently so I am currently in the situation where I’m not sure how seriously to take them as alleged medical professionals, but after this experience I don’t think I’ll be rating them too highly in future!

To cut to the chase: they ended up selling us some sort of pseudoscientific, natural remedy of highly doubtful efficacy. My wife dealt with one of the staff at the pharmacy (not a real pharmacists I must emphasise) and I left her to it, but after she had disappeared for this “consultation” for a while I checked up on what was going on and had a look at the recommended product.

In these situations its difficult to know what to do. I was highly suspicious of some of the claims on the bottle because they seemed to make no sense from my (admittedly limited, first year university) knowledge of chemistry. But should I interfere with a decision my wife was making and should I point out to the sales person that I thought she was talking nonsense?

Well surprisingly enough I managed to control my impulse to rant and rave about pseudoscientific rip-offs and cons and just quietly commented that I was a bit skeptical. I could have checked up on the product on the Internet at the time using my iPhone but I thought that was a bit too geeky so I left it until later.

It turns out that this product is highly likely to be a rip-off, according to evidence I found on the Internet. My wife asked me why I didn’t stop her from buying it but if I had done that she would be accusing me of stopping her from buying something that could have been efficacious. I guess this is just another situation where the skeptic can’t win! I must add here that this product wasn’t cheap: one small bottle was $NZ60, so it wasn’t just something you would want to throw away and forget about.

When the woman we were dealing with kept to the basics she didn’t sound too bad. After all, there are some natural remedies which have limited effectiveness. But after a while she seemed to get a little bit over-enthusiastic and started talking about splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen, static electricity in water and magnetic fields.

Now that I write this I really can’t believe that I didn’t (verbally) abuse her there on the spot. I mean it was obvious nonsense now that I examine it in hindsight. I guess it was just one of those rare occasions where I was too respectful. That doesn’t happen very often!

I started off this entry by criticising pharmacists but said the person we dealt with wasn’t a pharmacist herself (I don’t know how I would describe her job exactly) so does that really seem fair? Most pharmacies are run by pharmacists and they make the decisions about which products to stock and what sort of staff to hire, so I do put the ultimate blame on the person who should be more professional and have enough knowledge to know that this sort of product doesn’t really belong in a shop which is supposed to deal primarily with serious medicines.

But I did use one key word in the paragraph above: “shop”. In the end pharmacies are there to sell stuff and make money. I’ve heard that as a justification for all sorts of unethical and ineffective behaviour in the past: “its just a business decision”. It seems to me that business decisions can be used to justify actions which would never be tolerated in other areas of society. Maybe that just confirms my suspicions that many business people don’t actually have particularly high moral standards and are prepared to do just about anything to make a bit more profit!

There was one positive outcome from this experience: I gained the moral high ground to a certain extent. The next time my wife criticises me for buying a program or game on the iTunes App Store for example I can point out that it would take many games to make up the amount she spent on a useless remedy.

Actually, I should correct myself there. There is a small chance that this potion might work. Many of the claims regarding it activity are bogus for sure, but that doesn’t mean it might not work. Its got so many herbs and other ingredients in it that there is a small chance one might help. But I doubt it. There I go again: the grumpy old skeptic dismissing alternative medicine as mumbo jumbo!

Dogmatism vs Relativism

January 23, 2009 Leave a comment

Today I listened to some “Philosophers’ Zone” podcasts and they made some interesting points – but what what good philosophy podcast doesn’t? The subject was teaching philosophy at schools (in Australia in this case) and the teacher being interviewed made the point that it was important not to stray too far into relativism just because traditional teaching was based on the opposite philosophy of dogmatism.

So what I am saying here is that in traditional teaching the students are told what they have to know. It doesn’t necessarily go as far as telling them how to think but it gets close to that in many cases. It is too easy in philosophy to move to the opposite extreme and say that all ideas and opinions are equally valid.

I listened to some discussions going on in these classes and it was great to hear some of the principles I think are important being used by the students. For example, the first step in many discussions is to define the terms. In my experience many people never get past this first step, but if they fail to do that properly the discussion is often a waste of time.

For example, in my discussions with religious people we often argue around a point and find that we actually agree even though it looks superficially like we have opposite views. I might say there is no evidence for a god and the other person might disagree, but after another hour or two of backwards and forwards debate it turns out that the other person has a concept of god which encompasses natural laws. He might think that the most basic laws of the Universe are a type of god. I personally think that’s a ridiculous way to define god but many people seem to hold a belief of that sort. The point is that if we had defined what we mean by god to start with then the debate would have been completely different.

Another positive outcome of the philosophy classes seemed to be skepticism. I don’t mean skepticism in the usual sense implied by the dictionary definition of skeptic: “a person inclined to question or doubt all accepted opinion” or the philosophical sense like “an ancient or modern philosopher who denies the possibility of knowledge, or even rational belief, in some sphere”. I mean the more positive sense like: doubting and questioning any assertion unless it is supported by well researched facts.

Dogmatism isn’t necessarily always bad. Some times its quickest and easiest to impart the ideas of a subject by just stating them and not allowing any debate. For example, various properties of elements in chemistry might be best presented this way. In other areas it might be useful to present the facts along with a discussion of why those facts are well accepted, for example in cosmology. Finally there might be areas of knowledge where some debate might be useful. I hesitate to give this as an example, but the theory of evolution might be one of these. It might be useful to show why alternative views aren’t widely accepted and if this was done properly it might lead to greater acceptance and understanding of the theory.

Relativists will say that the well researched facts I mentioned above could come from many areas of “knowledge”, such as empirical, emotional or spiritual knowledge. I would say, yes that is partly true (depending on how you want to define the word knowledge), but there is good reason to believe that some forms are just better than others. Using empiricism we can demonstrate a finding to another person if they follow the same steps as we did. Other forms tend to be more subjective and depend on the individual’s pre-existing ideas and beliefs.

For example, I could theorise that stars are large balls of glowing gas at a great distance from us. A spiritual person could say they are spirits which influence our lives. I could describe how to view a star’s spectrum and compare it to a spectrum of an object on Earth and I could describe how to do a parallax measurement to establish the distance to the star. Anyone could do these tests and show what I said is true. But what tests could I describe to show that the star was a spirit? None. That’s why empiricism is a better way of understanding the world than spiritualism. Relativism is partly true: there are many ways to understand the world, but its definitely wrong to say they are all equally good!

Pretty Words

January 22, 2009 Leave a comment

The greatest excitement in the news today seems to be the inauguration of Barack Obama. I guess that’s not surprising because the most powerful position in the world has changed hands and many people have been waiting for the day that George Bush is finally gone from a position he should never have had in the first place!

A political commentator has described Obama’s speech as one of the greatest ever which will go down in history. Well maybe and maybe not. He certainly has a lot more charisma than most other leaders, but I thought I would have a look at some of the key parts of the speech and see if they were really that great.

He starts off with “I stand here today humbled by the task before us”. Its traditional for leaders to express humility and it has become a bit of a cliche so its hard to take that too seriously. Before I go on I think I should say that I am broadly an Obama supporter and I have high hopes for him so don’t take any negatively you may detect here too seriously!

Then there is “That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood”. Well yes, he has certainly been thrown in at the deep end, mainly due to the ineptitude of previous administrations, and that’s not just George Bush either. He said “Our economy is badly
weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility…” So it seems to me that he accepts that strong action needs to be taken against the powerful forces who caused this mess. I wonder if that will happen or whether political reality will take over and divert the required action down other paths.

And about the markets “Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control”. Exactly what I have been saying for years (except for the part about expanding freedom – I’m not so sure about that). The market is not the answer to everything. It is a system which can achieve a lot of good but it also needs tight controls, despite the contrary views of the free market ideologues and libertarians.

Inclusivity is good: “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers.” Well, non believers were sort of mentioned as an afterthought there, or were they singled out because they are really the most important group? Anyway, its good to see Muslims being mentioned in a positive context for a change. It is too easy to see them as the enemy in a good versus bad scenario. Islam isn’t a problem itself, but extreme fundamentalist Islam is, just like extreme fundamentalist Christians and Jews are also a problem.

In the final section there’s an awful lot of references to God, which I don’t like much. I know that those old traditional phrases like “God calls on us” and “God’s grace upon us” and “God bless America” are part of the rhetoric in every political speech in America, but just think of how great it would have been if this one didn’t have them! On the other hand, the speech did seem to have a lot more pragmatism than ideology, so it definitely scores from that perspective.

I think that if I had listened to the speech instead of reading it (no doubt it was designed to inspire an audience listening to it and that analysing the text doesn’t exactly show it at its best) I might have been a lot more inspired. But when I hear a great speech I just think “well, that was a great speech” I never extend that to thinking something like “that’s a great plan, I’m glad something good is going to happen”.

I hope Obama’s ideas do result in actions and I think a lot of them will, but we have no right (based on past experience) to expect that will happen, because talk is talk – even when it involves such pretty words – but action is another thing completely!

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