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But Is It True?

October 27, 2015 Leave a comment

Today I attended a short customer services course. It was kind of fun in some ways and there were some interesting points made, but to a large extent it was just a generic rehashing of the stuff that we all know anyway without any reference to the particular issues faced by the organisation I work for.

I realised that the trainer had a particular way of looking at the world, which included using various “psychometric models” which I usually think of as being more pop psychology than real science, and I realised that everyone has their equivalent to these models which they use to try to understand the complexity of the world. They have models based on personal experience, on common sense, and on the shared wisdom of their particular community.

The problem is that these sources of knowledge are often wrong. Here are some examples…

Many people find it hard to believe that human activity can have a noticeable effect on the planet as a whole. They can’t believe that by taking as many fish as we want from the ocean that a species can be virtually eliminated. They can’t believe that by burning fossil fuels the climate can be changed. They can’t believe that pollution from farming can degrade the environment significantly.

Others find it hard to accept the findings of science. They don’t think the quantum nature of the world is real even though anyone can do an experiment to show that it is. They can’t accept that evolution is the only sensible explanation for the diversity of life on Earth. They think a simple religious interpretation of the universe makes more sense than the reality revealed by science.

And others have social and political ideologies which they cling to despite evidence. They might believe that countries which follow a more socialist political path aren’t good places to live. They might think that more guns is the best answer to increased numbers of mass shootings. They might think that free markets always give the best outcome for the majority.

Then there’s those who think organic food is always superior. Or that vaccinations are a bad thing and might lead to autism. Or that homeopathy, reflexology, exorcism, faith healing, reiki, etc are effective and a good alternative to science-based medicine.

There are hundreds more beliefs I could add to the list above but I think that is a good, representative sample and a substantial proportion of the population would accept at least one of them. And who knows, maybe they are right because it’s impossible to completely dismiss anything as completely untrue. There is always room for doubt. But a good interim conclusion would be that all of the above are doubtful at best, and completely false at worst.

If you look at a subject, like evolution, without any knowledge of the real discoveries of science, it is almost impossible to accept it. How could the incredibly complex organisms (including ourselves) on the planet today have arisen through “random trial and error” from simple chemicals in the distant past? It just doesn’t make sense.

But many things which all evidence indicates are true don’t make sense until you look at that evidence. How could anyone possible believe the completely counter-intuitive findings of relativity or quantum theory unless they were aware of the experiments and observations which show that the world at the sub-atomic level and at the greatest scales actually doesn’t work how we would intuitive expect it to?

If you consider what intuition really is – a set of heuristic rules we use to understand common experiences – it isn’t surprising that it doesn’t work in many extraordinary situations, especially those involving the most basic levels of the physical world, the most complex situations involving the behaviour of large groups of people, processes occurring over vast time periods, or phenomena outside the usual range of experiences of a person or his immediate group.

I’m not saying that everyone should re-examine all of their most cherished beliefs. I’m just saying that unless they do they really shouldn’t enter into debates with people who have actually made an effort to look at the facts.

And finally, do I suffer from the same problem? Well I guess I probably do because one of the basic attributes of people who prefer personal opinion to facts is that they don’t realise they are doing it. I do have to say though, that I make a real effort to look at alternatives to what I initially think is true and I do hold several ideas in a state where I accept they are doubtful. I think that if everyone made that sort of effort we would all be much better off.

Look at it this way: I might like an idea and it might seem to make sense, but is it true?

Fantastic Feynman

October 21, 2015 Leave a comment

In a previous post (titled “Amazing Grace”, from 2015-10-06) I discussed how I thought early computer pioneer, Grace Hopper, was a pretty cool character and how I admired both her contribution to computing and her attitude. Well Hopper might have been pretty cool but no one (well, maybe Einstein and a small number of others) could be in the same league as another hero of mine, Richard Feynman.

I do have to say that I usually avoid hero worship because any contribution a single person makes is always based on the combined work on those who came before, plus it seems that society often reaches a stage where a particular scientific, technological, or social advance seems almost inevitable and it is just a matter of time before someone makes it (possibly more about this in a later blog post).

But on the other hand there are people who at least speed up this inevitable progress and steer things in the right direction. Also these people often have interesting and quirky personalities which for me makes them far more worthy of my admiration.

So firstly, who was Richard Feynman and what did he do? Well, he was an American theoretical physicists, 1918 to 1988, who made many significant contributions to quantum physics. Maybe his biggest contribution was the subject he won the Nobel Prize for: major improvements in the theory of quantum electrodynamics.

I have a rough idea what the theory is about but it might be best if I quote Wikipedia: “In essence, it describes how light and matter interact and is the first theory where full agreement between quantum mechanics and special relativity is achieved. QED mathematically describes all phenomena involving electrically charged particles interacting by means of exchange of photons and represents the quantum counterpart of classical electromagnetism giving a complete account of matter and light interaction.”

OK, at this point I delayed the writing of this post because I realised I didn’t understand QED very well at all. I went back to revise what I knew (not a lot) and even watched a lecture by Feynman done in New Zealand when he was visiting here back in 1979. Part 1 (there are 4 parts) of that lecture series runs for 1 hour and 17 minutes and is fairly straightforward. Feynman is a good lecturer too and so far things are fairly easy to follow. So I think I’m starting to get a better idea what QED is really about.

Part 2 is 1 hour and 37 minutes, so that will be next. But I am also re-reading a book (in fact listening to an audio book) about Feynman called “Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman” which is a series of short stories about various incidents in his life. Many of these anecdotes have nothing to do with physics but still illustrate his attitude to life. For example, the incident the title of the book refers to the response of a particularly pompous person at a Princeton afternoon tea when he was asked whether he preferred lemon or milk with this tea and, due to his ignorance of social protocols, replied “both”.

When I figure out in a bit more detail what QED is about I might write a post about it but until then I might just list a few Feynman quotes and incidents and comment on them.

Perhaps his most famous quote, and one which few people would disagree with: “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”

Yes, I’m afraid that what happens at the quantum level is so different from what happens at the level of our usual experiences that there is no way that we can really make sense of it. That doesn’t mean that quantum theory isn’t useful because it is very useful, and very accurate. But is it true? Who knows. In fact, who knows what that even means.

Now some quotes about science in general: “Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers of the preceding generation.” and “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”

We should all accept that occasionally scientists do fool themselves and do reach a point where they have too much attachment to a particular theory. But as evidence accumulates things do change. For example, basically no scientist thinks the Earth is the center of the Universe or that the Big Bang didn’t happen any more. Compare that with a group like religious fundamentalists where large numbers still believe far more absurd ideas. Why? Because science is set to make it difficult for scientists to fool themselves but religion requires it.

And while we are on the subject of religion, he said: “God was always invented to explain mystery. God is always invented to explain those things that you do not understand. Now, when you finally discover how something works, you get some laws which you’re taking away from God; you don’t need him anymore.” and “I call myself an atheist. Agnostic for me would be trying to weasel out and sound a little nicer than I am about this.”

God is a human invention, there is no reasonable doubt about that, but saying that the reason for that invention is to explain mystery is only part of the story. As real explanations for various phenomena are found a god become less necessary – this is the classic “god of the gaps” phenomenon – but gods also serve other purposes, such as giving authority to moral and social rules, acting as a symbol bonding a group, and others. So Feynman is oversimplifying the phenomenon a bit here.

As far as the distinction between agnostic and atheist is concerned, I think it is often pointless and confusing. Most agnostics seem to be atheists but just want to appear a little bit less confrontational about it. But if you define atheism as having an absolute belief in the non-existence of god then most non-believers (like myself) wouldn’t be atheists because we just think there is no good evidence for a god existing rather than being totally confident of his non-existence.

Feynman was on a panel investigating the Challenger shuttle disaster. Here’s part of his findings on the subject: “If we are to replace standard numerical probability usage with engineering judgment, why do we find such an enormous disparity between the management estimate and the judgment of the engineers? It would appear that, for whatever purpose, be it for internal or external consumption, the management of NASA exaggerates the reliability of its product, to the point of fantasy.”

Yes, he’s identified the biggest problem with the modern Western world: management. Their insistence on ignoring facts and perpetuating whatever lies more senior managers and politicians want to hear instead of being honest is a constant problem.

And they don’t like it when their incompetence and corruption is pointed out. For example, according to a senior bureaucrat in the Challenger investigation panel: “Feynman is becoming a real pain in the ass.”

Well yeah, sure. Any person worthy of being called honest, creative, and brilliant is likely to be like that. If you’re not a pain in the ass to those in power then you’re doing something wrong!

New World Order

October 12, 2015 10 comments

Recently I was sent an email which included a “Facebook post, written by a gentleman named Marty Skinner”. Additionally it was claimed to be “an excellent FB post that ALL people should read. This fellow is an Historian who offers an accurate assessment of the root of the problem the world faces today and likely well into the future.”

What followed was a fairly standard anti-Islam rant which made some valid points put also lurched into conspiracy and other extreme opinions which had little basis in fact. Also, Marty Skinner is not a historian (with or without an upper case H). He does have an honours degree in history and is a “lifelong student of the subject” but that doesn’t make him a historian. He also seems to have some fairly extreme Christian views (assuming I have tracked down the correct person).

So instead of just joining the anti-Islam crowd (a very easy thing to do considering they do very little to inspire friendship and I dislike religion in general) I thought I would do some research and see just how dangerous Islam is to the countries currently accepting Muslim refugees and migrants (including New Zealand).

So here is my analysis of Marty’s points, including which of them make sense and which don’t…

First, he says: “Odd that he [sic] 5 wealthiest Arab States including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait are taking ‘no refugees’ thanks”. This is true although other Islamic states are taking significant numbers of refugees so it isn’t quite as simple as it appears. Also, many of the refugees actually want to go to Europe, instead of another Muslim country (who wouldn’t?)

Next he says “the reality is that Muslims are just not like any other immigrants. They don’t want to assimilate”. Well some do and some don’t. Muslims are like many other people and they don’t all have exactly the same ideas and attitudes. Some surveys in America show reasonable adaptation to American life although there are areas in Britain where Muslims cluster. But a university study showed a similar rate of integration there to other groups such as Sikhs and Hindus.

Then “while the civilized West rightly abhors violence, conversely Muslims daily display their love of violence. They live it and embrace it. In many Muslim countries public be-headings and stoning to death for adultery for example”. Stoning is a legal form of punishment in 6 countries but three of those have never used it. So it isn’t a widespread practice. Also, to say that the west abhors violence is absurd. There are constant mass shootings in the US for example and that country has been responsible for many civilian deaths in illegal wars they have been involved with.

Then “The Quran MANDATES death for blasphemy, for adultery, for apostasy, for family honor, for being gay”. This is somewhat unclear but a good case could be made for it being true. Of course, you could also make a similar case for the punishments listed in the Bible. The critical thing is that when religion is given too much power bad things happen. This has been the case in the past with Christianity and is certainly the case now with Islam.

Up until now the comments have been somewhat extreme and taken the most negative possible interpretation of the facts but have been roughly based on reality. But next comes the crazy stuff. He asks: “Is this invasion part of the New World Order’s plan to depopulate the planet?” Of course, now it all makes sense!

Or maybe not, because he backs away from that particular conspiracy a bit by saying: “Maybe there’s not even any such an organization but it’s all over U-tube [sic] and other social media.” Well if it’s all over social media then I’m convinced! And it’s good to know that as a historian he is using such credible sources!

I don’t think there’s much need to go any further here. I’ve made it very clear that I dislike Islam as a religion and political system although, as a rule I don’t dislike individual Muslims (at least the ones I have met who admittedly are moderates). But crazy rants like this don’t really add anything useful to the discussion. There are plenty of reasons to be worried about the phenomenon while still sticking to the facts.

Here’s a fact which worries me, for example. Not all Muslims are extremists, we know that (despite the stereotypes perpetrated by articles like the one I have been discussing). But what percentage of them actually support views which any reasonable person would see as extreme?

A Pew research global attitudes survey from 2007 found only about half (on average because it varied between countries) of Muslims in Islamic countries thought suicide bombings were never justified. A similar survey found about two thirds of Muslims in European countries agreed it was never justified, leaving a significant fraction thinking it was.

The wording of the question started “Some people think that suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilian targets are justified in order to defend Islam from its enemies.” If that many people really think that something as abhorrent as using suicide bombing to defend their religion against some real or imagined threat is OK then we really do have a problem.

So yes, Islamic refugees are a problem, and extreme ideas (even those held by people who aren’t genuine extremists) are a problem too. But if we are going to discuss this we should stick to the facts and keep away from theories based on the alleged activities of the New World Order, especially those where YouTube and social media are a major source!

Amazing Grace

October 6, 2015 Leave a comment

There is no doubt that in the past (and to a lesser extent in the present) women have been treated unfairly in many situations, such as when they want to become scientists. There are some obvious cases where a Nobel Prize should have been awarded to a woman but that didn’t happen or it was awarded to a man who made a lesser contribution. At one time it was virtually impossible for a woman to get an advanced education. And there are cases where they couldn’t contribute to science or were only allowed to with disadvantageous conditions, such as no pay!

On the other hand I am a bit offended by some of the attempts at redressing this imbalance. Many people produce lists of female scientists who were ignored or who have been forgotten but fail to acknowledge that a similar number of men who made a similar level of contribution have also been forgotten. Unfortunately, except in areas where the person worked, it is all too common to forget about pioneering scientists of either gender.

So there is a bit of political correctness involved in this phenomenon and I don’t like political correctness. However, I’ll put that aside and discuss one of my favourite women scientists, from my area of work (computing), Grace Hopper.

Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper (how cool is that) lived from 9 December 1906 to 1 January 1992 and not only made some important contributions to the early development of computer software but also sounded like she was a really interesting character.

She was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer, and she developed the first compiler for a computer programming language. Compilers are fiendishly complex programs which convert a program written in a “high level” language to the code a computer can execute.

The instructions computers execute are very simple and do very specific things, such as adding two numbers together. But to add two numbers the computer first has to retrieve them from memory, add them, check for overflow and other conditions, then put the result back into another part of memory. So a simple operation might involve a sequence of obscure instructions such as “MOV AL, NUM1” and “ADD AL, BL”. Remember that these are human readable words for individual machine code instructions.

Humans tend to like to use more sensible instructions like “total = price + tax” which might translate to 10 or 20 machine code instructions like those above.

So a compiler is simply a program which takes the human readable code (which itself can be obscure to non-programmers) and turns it into (even more obscure) instructions which the computer can execute. It sounds simple but it’s not. The compiler has to take potentially complex strings of instructions, check that they make sense, and turn them into machine instructions (possibly hundreds just for one line of high level code) and do it perfectly. Every time.

The high level language COBOL (COmmon Business Oriented Language) was developed from an earlier language called FLOW-MATIC created by Hopper. Back in the day I programmed in COBOL – amongst a lot of other languages – and I hated it because it was too inflexible and awkward. But at least it was a lot easier than programming in assembly language (a slightly simplified version of machine code) which I also did in the past.

So in my opinion that was Hopper’s greatest contribution but there are other details and anecdotes about her I would like to share here.

In 1969 she won the first “man of the year” award from the Data Processing Management Association. Yes, I believe it was called “man” of the year. Sort of ironic, I think.

Attribution of the famous quotation “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission” is often given to her. This is one of my favourite quotes and a principle I often live by too! Like many quotes it’s not certain if she really used it first but it did reveal a certain rebellious part of her personality.

She also allegedly said she would com back to haunt anyone who said “we have always done in that way” in reference to why something was done a certain way. Sure, sometimes there’s a good reason why something has been done a particular way in the past but I think there’s also room to ask why and explore alternatives. That’s how she achieved what she did.

Finally there is the “bug” anecdote. Even non-specialists know that a problem with a computer, especially in software, is often known as a bug, but why? In 1947, while working on the Mark II computer at Harvard University, an associate discovered a moth stuck in a relay which stopped the computer running (yes, mechanical relays were used back then). Hopper remarked that they were “debugging” the system.

Yes, moths aren’t bugs in the technical sense, although they are insects which some people refer to as bugs. Also the term cannot be definitively attributed to Hopper, but she did at least make it popular. We don’t need to worry about that kind of bug (an insect) much any more but we sure still have plenty of the computer type!

So yes, I think “Amazing” Grace Hopper (as she became known) was pretty cool, and I hesitate to say this, but the fact that she was a woman made her even cooler!