Archive for August, 2010

Wikileaks: Good or Bad?

August 24, 2010 Leave a comment

Julian Assange and the Wikileaks web site have got a lot of publicity recently. Many people admire the idea behind Wikileaks because it provides openness and access to information which everyone should have, but others think Wikileaks is a dangerous, anarchist organisation capable of causing harm to innocent people and to the so-called forces of good and freedom.

So which is right? Of course both are right because, if you follow my previous thoughts on similar subjects, you will know I rarely see things as black and white and believe there is both good and bad in every person, organisation, and situation.

I know it’s harder than just branding something good or bad but anyone who really wants to arrive at a reasonably accurate conclusion on these sorts of topics needs to look at the good and bad in balance. If the good outweighs the bad then it’s reasonable to support the idea under consideration.

I so often see people not using this approach. They look at something, see a single good or bad thing about it, and conclude that the thing is good or bad overall based on that one factor. And worse than that, the single factor they choose to form their conclusion is often selected based on an existing political, religious, or social prejudice.

Most conservatives will reject Wikileaks because they only see the bad aspects. That is an invalid approach because nothing can be seriously considered unless the big picture is seen. In the past I have just automatically rejected the Catholic Church for example, because to me it was an obviously corrupt institution, only interested in it’s own survival and power and responsible for many atrocities from single cases of child abuse to mass genocide.

I still reject Catholicism but I now admit it has several positive points as well: a social structure for it’s members, some charity work, and a rich cultural history, for example. But I don’t think these come close to balancing out the bad (those atrocities I have mentioned before and are well documented in many places).

But it’s hard to make someone see that they need to use balance in their opinion forming process. I know people who find one small item which seems to be contrary to global warming but completely ignore 100 pieces of information which support it. How can that person possible think they have reached a reasonable conclusion?

The same applies to religion. Sure there are passages in the Bible which seem to genuinely point to Jesus existing but there are many reasons to not think he existed as well. The correct conclusion here is a lot less obvious. I’m still stuck between thinking Jesus never existed at all and thinking that he did exist but only in a very different form to that described in the Bible. I admit I don’t know and that is the correct thing to do. Pretending Jesus must have existed because he’s described by people who seemed genuine while ignoring all the obvious flaws in the Bible accounts is just dishonest.

I didn’t really want this to turn into yet another rant against religions so I should get back to Wikileaks. I agree that leaked information could potentially lead to danger for both the military and civilians involved and that needs to be considered, but the bigger picture also needs to be considered: having real information leaked from war zones and other areas where secrecy might normally rule provides many benefits and these easily outweigh the negatives in my opinion.

Unfortunately the process of weighing risks versus benefits does require quantification and that can be difficult in many cases where history (like the Jesus case) or politics (like the case in Afghanistan) is involved and that’s where my system sort of falls down a bit. But at least if people are prepared to look at both sides they can be challenged to say why they favor one over the other. If they ignore the balance of factors then that discussion can’t even start.


Moving On

August 22, 2010 4 comments

Is there anything new to say about atheism? The sorts of things that Hitchens, Dawkins, and the other prominent atheist commentators are saying now are the same as what Bertrand Russell was saying 50 years ago and what Huxley said 100 years before that. So does that mean that atheism has got nothing new to say? Does that mean that it is becoming irrelevant? Not really.

The reason atheist arguments might be perceived as being repetitive and unoriginal is because the religious arguments they are countering are so unoriginal. In fact religious arguments are stale because religion has nothing new to offer. All of the evidence for religion has already been dismissed as irrelevant but, unlike most other areas of knowledge, religion refuses to admit this. It’s like if quantum physicists were still pointing out to conventional physicists where the classic physics model failed but the supporters of that model refused to accept it.

So it’s not the atheists’ fault that the arguments have all been heard before, it’s the believers’ fault for refusing to accept the facts and forcing their opponents to be repetitive. It would be so much more productive if they would accept the inevitable because then we could all move on to more interesting topics.

In reality the discussion about the existence of god is over because there’s just no reason to really think that he does exist. Unless something new comes along we should just accept that and look for something else to debate. If believers really think they have something new then let’s hear it but just repeating the same old junk isn’t helping anyone and that’s what forces the atheists to use the same old counter-arguments.

So let’s move on from that point and see what else could be discussed. What actually is there that could be more important than the existence of a god? How about a genuine basis for a universal morality? It’s all very convenient to hypothesise the existence of a god to explain universal morality but if the god doesn’t actually exist then the morality suddenly becomes invalid. Instead of just pretending a god exists which makes any derived morality useless (in fact dangerous) why not look for a factual basis instead?

Religion derived morality suffers from many problems. First, if god doesn’t exist then the morality attributed to that god becomes very dangerous because it means there is a moral code which is attributed to god (and therefore presumably must be obeyed without question) which really has it’s origins in the (very subjective and error prone) thoughts of a group of people.

That’s why so much of the morality in the Bible is contradictory, irrelevant, and totally out of date. That’s why so many religious laws are misogynistic, racist, and just against what most people would consider the ideals of natural justice.

But many people are scared that without a deity there can be no absolute objective morality. I would counter that by saying that it’s better to admit that there can be no true objective laws than to invent a deity to give undeserved veracity to an arbitrary set of rules supported more through habit than anything else.

The question then becomes what should this new morality be based on. That’s a topic which has been debated by many philosophers and I don’t think there has ever been a definitive answer. But that’s not the point. Until we can dispose of the fake idea that morality is imposed through a non-existent god we can’t move on to even seriously considering the subject.

If we can do this and build a new morality it could provide many benefits. First, we might get truly universal laws which every culture can agree to. Second, we can get some rules which are relevant to the modern world and include references to subjects such as environmentalism which the Bible is conspicuously silent on. Third, we could remove the problem of cynical interpretation of old laws being used to justify actions which might be contrary to the original intent. And finally, we can remove silly rules which are entirely designed to maintain the power of the religion (about half of the Bible’s Ten Commandments fit this description).

Progress in science has been rapid because scientists are prepared to throw out old ideas and move forward. Sure, there are examples of some who have refused to accept the inevitable but they are the minority and change shouldn’t be too easy anyway. But I can’t remember any scientist using an argument which was discredited thousands of years ago like religious people do. That’s why religion never really progresses much.

Maybe it’s time for us to invent a “religion” which don’t include a supernatural god. I suggest substituting metaphorical concepts of divinity like Einstein and others famously did. It is possible to have the best of both worlds and it is possible to move on.

The War Rages On

August 19, 2010 Leave a comment

The great global climate change war rages on. It doesn’t seem to matter to the opponents of the idea of climate change that the science gets more certain every year. It doesn’t seem to matter to them that the scientific consensus gets stronger every year. And it doesn’t seem to matter that the physical evidence: extreme weather, sea temperature increases, ice mass reduction, becomes clearer all the time. They are still determined to deny what seems obvious to most of us.

The latest battle in this war here in New Zealand involves a group who claim to be climate change “skeptics” called the Climate Science Coalition. There are a couple of problems with the preceding claim: first, these people aren’t skeptics, they are deniers; and second, their group should not have “science” in it’s name because very little of what they do has anything to do with science.

The CSC wants the courts to rule that the climate data produced by NIWA (New Zealand’s National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research) is invalid and that they should be forced into revealing exactly how their figures showing significant warming are calculated.

The data has been collected since 1853 and has had adjustments applied to correct for instrument changes, new locations, and other factors. Obviously the CSC – which is funded by private donations and has an association with New Zealand’s main libertarian party, Act, and some business groups – must deny the validity of this data because it contradicts their ideologically held beliefs.

The CSC now admits the adjustments are necessary but they claim that the urban heat island effect has not been compensated for. They also demand that the adjustments should be properly documented and made available to everyone. Those aren’t unreasonable requirements actually. I also think that all effects should be adjusted for and I think that the data should be easily available.

The problem for the CSC is that it already is. All the raw data is already available: it can be downloaded from NIWA’s web site. And all the adjustments and methodology are documented in the scientific literature. If the CSC is genuinely a scientific organization (as their name implies) then why don’t they know this?

I know exactly why: because they are a political organisation, not a scientific one, and they desperately want their point of view to prevail whether it’s supported by the facts or not. Why would anyone want to deliberately lead the world to potential disaster? Because libertarians and right wingers are so tied up with their dogma that they have unreasonable faith in it despite evidence to the contrary.

Libertarians in particular are very dangerous because their ideology appeals to so many people when considered superficially and this disguises the fact that underneath many of them are deluded nutters. The nuttiness of the far right is obvious to anyone but the libertarians are far more clever at disguising it!

The CSC have shown a classic denialist agenda. Originally they said adjustments weren’t necessary and dismissed the data because of that, then when they were shown adjustments were necessary they wanted the list of how they were done, then when they were given that list they looked for other problems. It’s obvious they just want to cherry pick the evidence looking for anomalies and throw enough mud until some sticks. It’s really a deeply dishonest and cynical strategy.

So the court case is clearly a politically inspired ploy. The court will probably decide in favor of NIWA but there is no guarantee of that because the law is not the best way to decide the merit of scientific issues. That’s what the scientific journals, peer review, and debate amongst experts are for. But that doesn’t return the right result for the denialists so they seem to have to resort to whatever tactics they think will get the result they want.

Have you ever heard the denialists’ motto? It’s this: “the truth, while interesting, is irrelevant to the topic under discussion.”

One Day with the iPhone 4

August 18, 2010 Leave a comment

It was almost exactly one month ago that I wrote the blog entry titled “one day with the iPad”. Now it’s time to do the same for the iPhone, so I present “one day with the iPhone 4”. Yes, yesterday I finally succumbed to the temptation and upgraded my ageing iPhone 3G to a new iPhone 4.

I bought the 32G model with the $40 per month plan which meant the phone cost me NZ$799. I have been on the $80 per month plan for the last 2 years so I hope the reduced data won’t cause too many problems. I do operate my iDevices in wifi areas most of the time and I make very few phone calls (although I receive a lot) so I hope the new plan will be enough.

But what about the phone itself? Is it a worthwhile upgrade? For me it is because the 3G just couldn’t do what I wanted any more. The main reason for this was that I had upgraded it to iOS 4 and that made it run quite slowly. Most iOS 4 features aren’t available on the 3G anyway so I don’t recommend that update.

The iPhone 4 does several things better than the 3G. First, as I have already suggested, it is much faster. It runs noticeably faster than the 3G although the improvement from the 3GS isn’t as obvious. So iOS 4 (which is required for this model anyway) runs just fine: almost everything happens instantly and the pauses I got from the older phone are gone.

Next, the screen is magnificent. I mean it really does look fantastic. Even really small text is easy to read and photos look great. Apple claim the resolution of the screen matches the maximum detail most people can perceive so in some ways you could say the display is perfect.

The cameras are also greatly improved. As well as a second, forward facing camera, the new phone has a much higher quality 5 megapixel main, rear camera. It outperforms every other phone (even 8 megapixel phones) and some dedicated compact cameras (according to a double blinded test), plus it does high definition video. I usually don’t have my digital SLR with me so having a good camera in my phone will be a big advantage.

The camera, compass, GPS, and gyroscope combination makes augmented reality programs very responsive. Those are the programs which display what you are pointing the camera at on the screen with an overlay giving extra information about them. They are a cool way to demonstrate the technology!

So those are my thoughts after one day. I still find the iPad useful for most tasks but now, if I don’t have that with me (it’s too big to fit in a pocket) I will have the phone and it is quite useful for email and web browsing (but not too much typing) as well as many other functions and many games.

I am a bit concerned about one aspect of the iPhone: maybe it’s just too beautiful. Maybe Apple have let design triumph a little bit over functionality. There is the antenna issue a few people have reported and the glass back looks like it could be a bit fragile. I suppose I will know in a month after counting the scratches.

Categories: computers Tags: , , ,

What Kind of Answer?

August 12, 2010 Leave a comment

There’s an old joke which I find amusing. I can’t remember it exactly but the punch line involves an accountant asking “what kind of answer did you have in mind” when he is being asked to produce an answer for an accounting issue he is being paid to work on. I think the same could apply to economists. After all, aren’t economists just accountants for the “big picture” and aren’t accountants just people who add up columns of numbers in essentially arbitrary ways?

Yes, I know, I’m being a bit unkind here because both accounting and economics are genuine intellectual pursuits (laugh, snigger – oh no, there I go again) but seriously folks I do hold business professionals in high esteem… oh forget it – who am I fooling here? The whole world of commerce is a joke and economists are the biggest clowns, aren’t they?

OK, sorry about that. Maybe I am being a bit unfair there, but let’s look at practical results. Of all the areas of human knowledge has economics not been the least successful in it’s real outcomes? Look at medicine: we have many amazing surgical procedures and very effective drugs. Electronics has given us machines which would be a distant dream 20 years ago. Chemistry, biology, geology, every branch of real science has produced amazing results. Progress seems to happen everywhere… except in economics.

Some people call economics a science but I doubt that. Actually, to be perfectly honest, I know very little about it but that hasn’t stopped me from commenting in the past and it won’t stop me now either! But let’s look at real science: it creates hypotheses with carefully stated consequences, those are tested, re-tested, and a consensus usually arises. Sure, that can be overtaken by better theories when more data becomes available but it’s very rare for a significant theory to be simply wrong: generally they are just inaccurate (Newtonian gravitation versus Relativity is the classic example).

Does this happen in economics? It doesn’t seem to. I often hear economists discussing issues and debating the effectiveness of different policies. They almost always disagree, which is bad enough, but it is far worse than that: the reason they reach different conclusions is almost always based on theoretical considerations, which themselves often arise from a political or philosophical bias (an unfounded belief in the effectiveness of laissez-faire economic policy for example).

Most scientific conclusions in other areas are based on empirical evidence or at least theory which is backed up with real data. Sure, sometimes economics uses survey results and real data from specific instances, but this too often seems anecdotal, so I’m generally less than convinced that these are credible.

Also economists are often labelled with political stances like “left” and “right”. The truth has nothing to do with politics and I have never heard these labels used to describe real scientists. So this is another reason I am deeply distrustful of economics.

Of course business and economics are important to our society but I think we succeed despite them because the underlying driver of modern society isn’t really economics, it’s science and technology. Technology has a way of improving most people’s lives despite the factors ranged against it. But imagine how much better things would be if our society was based on fact driven economic and political principles instead of what we have now.

I can’t help but think that I have been unkind to economics because of my essential ignorance of it, so if anyone wants to point out where I am wrong here I will happily read any comments and make corrections. I was going to talk to some contacts in the economics department of the university I work at but I was too worried they would just ask: “what kind of answer did you have in mind”!

Trust the Experts?

August 6, 2010 Leave a comment

Should we trust experts? In our complex, modern world the average person can’t be expected to understand the complexities of life enough to make decisions on subjects they are not experts about. Yet they still have to make those decisions. Here’s some examples: should they have their kids immunised, should they support a political party which takes global warming seriously, should they use a school which teaches creationism instead of evolution?

I’ve obviously chosen some very contentious issues above and, of course, there are a lot of far less controversial decisions as well, but the ones I’ve chosen are the fun ones! So is it OK to trust experts, and if it is how do you know who the experts are and what they are saying, and under what circumstances should you get a second opinion or distrust the experts completely?

Good question!

There are no simple answers to these questions and we have to resort to a sort of heuristic approach. My suggestion is to trust the experts unless there is a really good reason not to, to identify experts through their qualifications in the exact area involved and their acceptance by their colleagues, to know what the experts are saying by trusting a range of sources, and to look for second opinions but only amongst other experts.

Opponents of this approach will point out that some times the experts are wrong. There are many occasions where the accepted scientific opinion has turned out to be wrong so why trust experts at all? I agree, there have been cases where this has happened but it is rare compared with the number of times when they have got things right. Plus the opinion of experts has changed as new evidence against conventional wisdom has arisen.

So if you trusted expert opinion and got bad advice you would have to be very unlucky to first be involved with a situation where the consensus is wrong; and second, to get that advice during a period before the error was discovered. It’s a bit like gambling on the odds of getting the best outcome: you aren’t guaranteed to get 100% good advice, but it’s certainly the best way to maximise your chances.

There is another issue which opponents of the scientific consensus cite. That is that experts are biased, or might even be involved in a conspiracy. There is a small element of truth in this. Studies have shown that medical research funded by drug companies is more positive towards that company’s products than independent research. And scientists do have a bias towards using certain techniques to establish the truth.

The bias in favor of funding sources is hard to guard against except to ensure that there are plenty of university and other non-commercial sources of research. The fact that independent research does exist means these biases will eventually be discovered so I don’t think this issue is as significant as some people think.

The conspiracy theories are often a warning of a denialist mindset. The problem with conspiracies is that they are almost impossible to disprove because any evidence showing no conspiracy is immediately seen as part of the conspiracy itself! Any belief system which reinforces itself as evidence is shown against it should be immediately suspected of being false.

In some ways science can be seen as having a bias: if the requirement of establishing facts through repeatable, empirical, objective evidence can be seen as a bias. That doesn’t seem to be a bias to me though, it’s more a limitation or a requirement and one which can be easily justified through logic. Compare this with other systems of “knowledge” based on faith or received wisdom and it becomes clear what a bias really is.

So let’s apply my heuristic rules to the three questions I listed above and see what result we get…

Should people have their kids immunised? Of course they should, because the vast majority of medical experts say they should and the people who oppose vaccination are generally ignorant celebrities. The hazards associated with vaccination (they do exist) are minor compared with those of not being treated.

Should people support a political party which takes global warming seriously? Every serious source I have consulted on this subject shows a strong consensus amongst experts. Conspiracy theories against advocates of global warming just make no sense. The evidence is getting stronger and it’s unlikely that it will be overturned in the future. So yes, people should trust experts and vote for politicians who take GW seriously.

Should they use a school which teaches creationism instead of evolution? This has got to be one of the clearest and most undeniable facts in science. Evolution is a fact by any reasonable definition of the word and religious creation myths, while they are often interesting stories, have little to do with the real world. So anyone who uses a creationist school is just encouraging ignorance.

So it’s not that hard really. In most cases there is no real question about what the best decision is, it’s just totally clear. It’s unfortunate that significant numbers of people would reach the opposite compulsions to what I would on these questions. Maybe they should be using taking my advice instead of using whatever bizarre decision making process they have now!

More iPad Comments

August 5, 2010 Leave a comment

About 3 weeks ago I blogged about my first day as an iPad user. Now I have used one for a lot longer and two things have happened: first, the initial novelty value has worn off; and second, I have found areas where it is more useful than I originally thought that it would be.

So what novelty has gone? Well I don’t get as many people approaching me and wanting to talk about it. Maybe that’s because the iPad has been an unprecedented success. The local store I talked to the other day said they had sold about 70 of them (mostly the 3G model) in the last week. So there are more around now and the early adopters, like myself, are no longer anything too unusual.

I’m probably not spending much less time using the iPad now than I did when I first got it. In that time I have written 6 blog entries (including this one and my longest blog entry ever titled “is atheism rational”) on the pad and only one one my laptop. I also do a lot of email and some web browsing on the pad, but my laptop is still my work machine: you just can’t do serious web programming without a real laptop.

I spend more time playing games on the pad than on any other platform. The games aren’t necessarily better because, although the iPad does have a good processor and a good graphics chip, it still can’t compete with the extra power available on game consoles and real computers. But the games are very good and the convenience makes up for the lack of pure power.

In my original post I suggested about $100 as an adequate amount to buy apps but I have now gone significantly over $200 and I could have easily spent a lot more. iPad apps are more expensive than their iPhone counterparts even though they are essentially the same. Sure the most expensive one so far was only $14 but after buying a few useful apps at that price, a few games at $6, magazines at about $4 and cheaper programs and smaller games at just over $1 the total does start adding up.

But spending over NZ$1200 on an iPad and then not making real use of it by using good apps seems to be false economy. I’m just saying that if you get an iPad set aside some cash to get some good apps so that you are really making the best use of it.

So moving on, what are the good and the bad capabilities of the device? Well first, it’s surprisingly good to type on. The keyboard in landscape mode is the same size as a real keyboard and, although the lack of movement in the keys feels a bit weird, I can really type quite quickly and accurately on it (and I readily admit I’m usually a terrible typist).

It’s also very usable as a book reader. I have spent fairly long periods of time reading and have found it no harder than reading a real book. The only issue is reflections from the glossy screen. I realize that a glossy screen is almost essential for a touch device because it would be too hard to keep clean otherwise. I specifically got an anti-glare screen on my laptop and think it was well worth the extra cost, but I just have to watch the positioning to make the iPad easier to read. Its maybe a little bit heavier than it should be too, but that hasn’t been too much of a problem.

As a basic internet device it’s brilliant. I actually prefer to check and read my email and compose short email messages on it and it does web browsing really well because the screen is big enough to display the page just as well as many conventional computers do. The lack of Flash has been a problem only very rarely and I really think Apple has effectively killed Flash as a technology.

As a media device it’s also very good. I still use my iPhone to listen to podcasts, simply because it’s more portable, but I watch movies on the pad and it does that really well (except for the glare issue again).

I have some special purpose programs which I find very useful. Astronomy programs work really well. One of them allows me to hold the pad up to the sky in the direction of objects I want to identify and a map appears showing that part of the sky.

So that’s enough good news, what doesn’t work so well? I just realized yesterday that I can’t print. That’s not really an issue for me because I never print anything even form my real computers but some people might find it annoying. Of course you can email documents to your computer for printing but that’s not very elegant.

As I have said in a couple of places above, the glare from the screen can be annoying. That can be minimised by positioning and turning up the brightness (which does go quite high) but it can be a nuisance.

Document sharing between the pad and the computer can be a bit clunky. I usually do this through iTunes and a USB connection but it would be nicer to have a more transparent system. Of course, it is possible to move documents through email too, but that’s not ideal either.

Because the iPad currently only runs iOS 3 there is no multitasking for most programs and the mail program doesn’t have an integrated inbox. These problems will be solved when the pad gets iOS 4 but they can be annoying at the moment. The super-fast launch times for apps makes the lack of multitasking a bit more bearable.

So overall I love my iPad. There are areas where Apple can make it better, of course, but for a new device it’s very smooth, very reliable (it never crashes although some apps have crashed on rare occasions), and really fun to use!

Categories: computers Tags: , , , ,