Archive for November, 2015

That’s Offensive!

November 30, 2015 Leave a comment

A lot of people seem to be really easily offended. And almost every day I hear of someone who has to apologise for making an offensive comment. So there does seem to be a lot of offending and taking offence happening. What’s going on here? Are there a lot more aggressive, unpleasant people out there today? Does the internet make it easier to make offensive comments? Or are people just too sensitive and too easily offended?

I guess it’s a bit of all the above, but I tend to think (without any real empirical evidence) that some groups are just too easily offended. They might be too politically correct, or have no sense of humour, or just be too tied up with an ideology which looks for offence even when none was really meant.

Let me give a couple of examples…

My home city of Dunedin, New Zealand is going to accept some Syrian refugees soon. This might be a good thing as long as we get the good type of refugees instead of the type who want to blow things up, but surprisingly this is blog post not really about cultural stereotypes associated with Syrians!

At the welcoming ceremony it is intended to have some local culture, including some waiata (traditional Maori songs) and bagpipe music (Dunedin has significant Scottish heritage). After an item on this subject was broadcast on national radio a comment was sent to the station noting that making the refugees listen to bagpipes might contravene international laws against torture!

It was a joke, of course, and most people would just laugh about it. And as far as I know no one made any official (or unofficial) complaints because they thought it was disrespectful to Scottish culture. But what would have happened if someone had made a similar comment about the traditional Maori songs instead? In my opinion they are often dreary, tuneless and tedious. But if I had made a joke based on that observation there would almost certainly be complaints!

So, if I am right about that, offensive jokes involving a particular culture’s music aren’t really based on any inherent injustice or offensiveness of the comment because it depends on who the comment is aimed at. If the target determines what is offensive and what isn’t then it’s the person or group who are offended who determine the offensiveness of a comment, not the person making it.

My second example involves comedian, Jimmy Carr. Some of his material is really extreme and is probably designed specifically to be offensive, but only to get a laugh (at least according to him).

We wanted to create the shortest joke ever and came up with “dwarf shortage”. Obviously he thought that might cause offense so he had a follow-up line: “if you’re a dwarf and find that offensive, just grow up”. Of course that just caused more offence so he had a further one-liner: “I’m allowed to say that because they look up to me”. Pretty clever stuff, I thought.

But not according to the two people who made official complaints. As far as I know neither of them were actually dwarfs (or “little people” which I believe is the PC term nowadays).

Naturally this has done Carr’s reputation a lot of good, as he perhaps intended, which is particularly good for him since he is currently touring New Zealand. No doubt he will continue to push at the edges of good taste (let’s be honest: he goes away past the edges) and will no doubt offend a lot of people while he’s here. I’ve got a good tip for him: make a joke about a Maori dwarf. No matter what he says that will definitely cause offence!

Cultural Ownership

November 28, 2015 Leave a comment

I guess I should feel a little bit sorry for New Zealand’s Human Rights Commissioner, Susan Devoy (actually, she is our Race Relations Commissioner which automatically makes her one of our committee of human rights commissioners too – at least that’s the way I interpret the structure of that particular bureaucracy). Why? Because the main function of that role seems to be to bumble from one absurd utterance of total banality to another. At least that’s the approach Devoy seems to be taking.

As I have said in the past, she was undoubtedly a great squash player but I can’t see that she excels at much else. Of course, her appointment was unquestionably political and had nothing to do with her ability to do the job. And that’s not surprising either because she was appointed by Judith Collins, one of the most cynical, devious, and just plain unpleasant politicians we have the misfortune to have here in New Zealand.

Anyway enough with the personal attacks. What is my issue this time? Well, it’s coming up to the “silly season” again so what should we all expect? Of course, an utterly worthless discussion on what words should be used to describe what used to be known as “Christmas”.

I do have to say that the particular issue Devoy tackled was blown a bit out of proportion because, as far as I can tell, it was initially only intended to apply to support the Auckland Regional Migrants Services policy of avoiding using the word Christmas. Still, we know that the issue is bigger than that so I think it’s fair to extend it to all of society.

As regular readers will know, I am an atheist and don’t generally feel the need to support events and customs based on religious myths. On the other hand, I do realise that history, mythology, and religious culture are important parts of our society and I have no problem with recognising that.

Christmas is the most important celebration of the year and the fact that few people spend much time considering its “original” meaning is basically irrelevant. Whether people call it Christmas, summer solstice (in the southern hemisphere), or just something generic like “holidays” doesn’t really matter. I think people should make that choice on their own though, and policies with the intention of “avoiding offence” by trying to hide perfectly valid parts of our society here are totally misplaced.

I am in the unfortunate (according to some interpretations) position of being a member of all the “dominant” cultural groups. I am white, a male, an adult, and a citizen of a stable western democracy, so my culture is automatically given no special status and must always be repressed in relation to others.

At least in the past the fact that I was an atheist meant I was in a minority group regarding religion but now that the “no religion” group in this country is bigger than the Christian group means I’m in the majority on that as well! But for many years now Christmas has been more a western cultural celebration than a religious one so I do feel a certain amount of ownership towards it.

So instead of making life more boring by trying to dilute all of our interesting cultural events I think we should do the opposite: have more of them. And as the country becomes more culturally diverse let’s assimilate more events (which we are already doing) from different countries, religions, and cultures: Asian, Hindu, LGBT, etc.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t keep all the traditional stuff as well. And while we are on the subject of ownership of cultural events: can a white, middle-aged, male, western, atheist own one too?

It’s All About Balance

November 22, 2015 Leave a comment

Most people can understand the concept of opposing ideas: of positives and negatives, of good and bad, of inputs and outputs. For example, they wouldn’t consider the idea of me giving them $100 good if they knew I was also going to take away $110.

But almost everybody fails to take this idea to its natural end point, because they don’t look at both sides when they are considering a political, social, or philosophical point. They tend to only look at the side of the issue which suits some pre-conceived, intuitive idea of what the answer should be. And this applies to the political left and right, to old and young, even to intelligent and ignorant.

Let me give you an example. I met a reasonably intelligent person at the pub last night who turned out to be a young-Earth creationist. Yes, I have managed to avoid debates with creationists for a significant time, in fact it has been 16 months (a blog post titled “Not Even Wrong” from 2014-07-19) since I mentioned it as a major theme in this blog!

But all good things must come to an end. Actually, to be honest, I love debating creationists. It’s just so entertaining to watch their convoluted maneuvers trying to defend something which is essentially indefensible!

But back to the main theme here: balance. Here’s the sort of thing I hear from the more sophisticated defenders of unreality: they point out minor problems with opposing theories (for creationists this is just about everything: big bang, evolution, etc) without looking at the vast bulk of evidence which disagrees with their perspective.

So they will quote (often out of context or incompletely) a well known scientist and claim that indicates doubt about evolution, but they will ignore the hundreds of quotes supporting evolution. If quoting someone is sufficient to support your side (a doubtful proposition anyway) then surely quotes from a hundred people against your views should also be considered. But they’re not.

Or they might find some small areas of doubt in a theory, or some aspect of a theory which was shown to be genuinely incorrect or inaccurate but later corrected, but they will ignore hundreds of times where the theory was shown to be accurate and where it predicted the real world precisely. Again, if a weakness in a theory can be assimilated into a person’s opinion on science then it’s only fair (and logical) to look at the strengths as well.

People who have irrational worldviews also seem to have a lot of problems (perhaps deliberately) with assessing probability. Here’s an example: if we find that light has been travelling from distant galaxies for billions of years which is more likely: that the galaxy has been there for billions of years producing light or that it was created in some unspecified way with the light already travelling through space?

The “travelling light” theory is possible but surely it is extremely unlikely since we have zero evidence of it ever happening. But that’s the sort of incredibly unlikely thought creationists will cling to while totally ignoring the far more likely possibility that the universe is simply billions of years old.

Finally, creationists often seem to have trouble appreciating the strength of multiple independent sources of evidence. There is overwhelming evidence from completely independent areas of knowledge: astronomy, physics, biology, geology, history, archaeology, and many others showing the universe is old. But they prefer to believe a single source of extremely doubtful accuracy instead. Where’s the balance in that?

I know that by picking on (young Earth) creationists I have attacked the easiest target because their beliefs are simply absurd and many other groups have far more sophisticated, and difficult to refute, beliefs. But the process is the same, even if slightly less obvious: it’s all about balance.

The Morality of Machines

November 19, 2015 1 comment

I have noticed several times in the last few weeks that the subject of how “intelligent” machines will affect society has become more prevalent. This has been particularly obvious in the context of self-driving cars, like the ones which Google seem to have brought to a fairly advanced level of functionality.

Yes, Google have had self-driving cars on real roads, doing cross-country (I mean across the US, not off-road) trips, and having an accident rate far below that of cars driven by humans (in fact, the only accident reported so far was caused by a human driver in another vehicle). And other companies are getting into this area too. Some, like Tesla, are just offering automated aids to human drivers; and others, like Apple, are working on car projects but we don’t really know exactly what they are!

Now an interesting discussion is starting regarding the details of the behaviour of the AI (artificial intelligence) these cars use. First, there is the tedious legal detail of liability in the event of accidents; and second, there is the more interesting moral problem of how an AI should handle situations where decisions involving the “least bad” response should be made.

For example, if a self-driving car has a passenger (as they normally would) who is likely to be killed when the car swerves to avoid a group of pedestrians is that OK? If 2 pedestrians would die if the car continued on its current course is it OK to kill one occupant by swerving and hitting a wall? In that situation I am imagining the outcome is certain and I am swapping 2 lives for one. Many people would say that is OK.

But what about this: in the scenario above, if there was a 50% chance of the one passenger dying and a 30% chance of the pedestrians dying what do you do then? Is a higher chance of one person dying better than a somewhat lower chance of two? That is a harder decision to make but many people would still go with saving the two and sacrificing the one.

Let’s change that slightly: if there was a 90% chance for the demise of the passenger but just 10% for the pedestrians what about that? In that case most people would say the low risk of killing the pedestrians is worth it compared with the almost certain death of the passenger. But this seems to be a quantitative thing because there will be a point where the preferred action swaps. Where is that point and how can we justify it?

Here’s another thing to think about. If one manufacturer guarantees their car will always maximise the chance of survival of the passenger but another gives equal weight to survival of other road users which car should I buy? Many people will think primarily of themselves meaning most manufacturers will bias the response of the car towards saving the occupants.

And if that is the case who is to blame if some pedestrians are killed? Is it the owner who deliberately bought a car willing to sacrifice other people? Or the car company for creating a machine with that tendency? Or does the machine itself take some blame?

It has been shown quite clearly that people do not make logical decisions in these situations (see my blog entry “Would You Press the Button?” from 2013-07-16 where I discuss the famous trolley problem) so whatever a machine does it could potentially be a lot better than a human. But making a logical decision is often not seen as the best response. Will that human bias work against an intelligent machine?

I should say that using most current technology the machine isn’t really making a free decision because the outcome is entirely deterministic. On the other hand, many people (including me) would say that human thought is also deterministic – just at a much greater level of complexity. But it’s usually quite easy to follow the logic of a computer program and see what decision it will make in any situation.

Because of this it’s really the programmer who is making the decision, not the machine, which is just carrying out the program it has been given. But again, the same can be said of humans. The brain has been “programmed” by evolution and personal experience. Does the individual consciousness (whatever that is) really have free will? And so I get back to the old free will question again… but did I really have any choice?

Paris Attacks

November 16, 2015 2 comments

My regular readers will be very aware that I like to discuss politics and religion in this blog. After the terrorist attacks in Paris, and events following those, it is to be expected that I would comment on them, right? Well, actually, I don’t want to do that right now because I am somewhat conflicted.

Obviously I totally abhor the mindless violence perpetrated by ISIS in Paris – no sane person would support anything so totally profoundly immoral. But the real question is what to do about it. I have seen opinions ranging from “kill all Muslims” to “let’s talk about it and see what they want”. I personally think both of these extremes are utterly idiotic but what is the correct response?

Is it to send in the military, as France has done, to bomb ISIS targets and inevitably also kill innocent civilians and thereby most likely create even more resentment against the West? Is it to do nothing, as some have suggested? Is it to start a land war in the Middle East? Is it to block all Muslim immigrants and asylum seekers from entering Western countries?

Well maybe some of these ideas have merit but I’m just not sure yet. I think I will give it a few more days and catch up on more news and commentary on this subject before commenting. And that is probably what everyone should have done instead of coming out with some of the comments I have seen.

There is also the big debate over how much blame Islam in general should take for its radical extremist elements. There is no doubt that religious belief is a significant factor in the motivation for these attacks, but is it the main factor? Does that mean the Islam itself is the enemy? And can we ever trust Muslims as a result?

Finally, if we are so outraged by this violence how should we treat the military violence of the Western powers? There is no doubt that the US and its allies have killed many times more innocent people than Islamic extremists have, but those deaths have been primarily collateral damage rather than deliberate murder. But does that make it OK?

So the situation is both simple and complex. It’s simple that anyone willing to perform such atrocities deserves little sympathy and if they encounter a violent death themselves I don’t think many people would be too concerned. But what is the answer to the bigger problem? Military raids might be the answer but they might also be the source of the problem in the first place.

So surprisingly, I don’t have a quick answer to the biggest problem facing the world today. But give me a few days and wait for a new post where, no doubt, my opinion will be a lot clearer!

Ripples in Space-Time

November 9, 2015 Leave a comment

Different people have different opinions on what are the most extreme and audacious activities our civilisation is involved in. Some think it is courageous and risky ventures in the business world, some think it is the production of great art, and some think it is impressive engineering projects.

I tend to admire our efforts at great scientific achievements most. In the past I have blogged about the Large Hadron Collider which I think is arguably our greatest scientific project ever (note that the engineering world shares substantially in this achievement) and this time I want to talk about another large scale project which also makes measurements with (literally) unbelievably exquisite precision.

The project is called LIGO, which stands for “Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory”. As the name suggests, this is an instrument (in fact 2, situated in Louisiana and Washington, USA) designed to measure gravity waves, and there are several other similar installations trying to do the same thing in other locations around the world.

The LIGO observatory consists of two tunnels in high vacuum, each 4 kilometers long and at right angles to each other. A laser is split and directed down the two arms and then reflected back with mirrors. As the two beams arrive back they interfere with each other and this can be used to measure the lengths of the two arms very precisely.

Why would they want to do this? Well, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity predicts the existence of gravity waves which are “ripples” in space-time which travel out (at the speed of light) from events where mass changes configuration. The problem is that these waves are weak. Very weak. Even a massive catastrophic event like a star collapse only generates very small waves.

To detect these waves as they reach Earth it is necessary to measure how time and space is warped. Depending on the location of the source one arm of the tunnel at LIGO would be warped one way (it might get longer) and the other would be warped the opposite way (it would get shorter).

So that seems simple enough but the problem is how much the length changes. The effect which is trying to be measured is just one thousand trillionth of a meter over the 8000 meter journey of the laser. That’s like measuring the distance around the Earth accurate to about one 10 billionth the width of a single hair.

Here are two other ways to visualise the tiny size of the distortion: a 1 km ring would deform no more than a one thousandth the size of an atomic nucleus; and it’s like measuring the distance from the Earth to the Sun to the accuracy of the size of a hydrogen atom.

When I first read these numbers I thought I had misinterpreted them because it’s almost impossible to believe that anything can be capable of such an astonishing feat of precision. But it’s true according to several different sources.

Apart from simply how small the measurement is here are many factors which have to be considered. Even the tiny vibrations caused by traffic on distant roads is much greater than the distortion caused by gravity waves, for example. But this problem can be overcome. First, the two tunnels at right angles would warp in a particular way specific to the effects of gravity waves. Also, the two installations thousands of kilometers apart would both detect the gravity waves but would be affected differently by local noise.

So if one LIGO detected an event but the other didn’t it would be assumed that it was due to local noise. But if both detected compatible events then a gravity wave is the best candidate for the cause. In addition, by timing when the event reached each observatory the direction the wave came from can be investigated.

For example, if the wave hit the Louisiana observatory before Washington then the event would have come from that direction. Of course, moving at the speed of light, the difference in time is small (a maximum of 10 milliseconds), but that’s easy to measure compared with the other stuff being done there.

Finally I have to answer the obvious question: so what, who cares about gravity waves, and what practical purpose do they have? This is the question scientists hate, for two reasons: first, the pursuit of knowledge in itself is sufficient justification for this work; and second, discoveries which seem purely theoretical almost always have practical benefits later.

So the billions being spent on this should not be thought of as a waste of time and money, or as just a pet project for boffins, or as an expensive exercise in gaining theoretical and useless esoteric data. It should be seen as a way to learn more about the most basic attributes of the universe; of potentially gathering knowledge which can be used in future technology; and most importantly of all, as a way to do something which is just really cool!

The Enigma

November 4, 2015 Leave a comment

I seem to have had a theme of blogging about people recently. First it was Grace Hopper, then Richard Feynman, and today I’m discussing Alan Turing, the famous computer pioneer, mathematician, and World War II code breaker.

I am currently listening to an audio book biography of his life called “Alan Turing: the Enigma” (a reference to his enigmatic personality and the German code he broke: Enigma) and the thing which I have found most interesting is the way he advocated for, and in some cases invented, many of the ideas and technologies we have today. He did this work after the code breaking he is probably most well known for.

So I’ll list a few of his innovations here. I should say that he can’t claim sole credit for some of these because he often worked by himself and “reinvented” ideas (often in a better form) which other early theoreticians and inventors had already found. For example, some ideas go back to Charles Babbage who didn’t have the theory or the technology to exploit them at the time.

Anyway, here’s the list…

Instructions and data should both be stored in main memory.

Many people see these two as being quite separate and on many machines the instructions would be read linearly from paper tape or cards and data would be stored in fast, random access memory. By putting the code in memory too it could be accessed much more quickly, plus there were two other benefits: any instruction could be accessed at any time so conditional jumps and loops could be done, and instructions could be modified by other instructions (see below for details).

It’s just taken for granted today that code is loaded into working memory (RAM). That’s (mainly) what’s happening when you launch a program (the program’s instructions are being copied from the disk to main memory) or boot your system (the operating system is being loaded into memory) but in the early days (the 1940s and 1950s) this wasn’t obvious.

Programs stored in main memory allow conditional jumps and loops.

Conditional statements and loops allow a lot of efficiency and flexibility. A conditional statement allows the computer to run a set of instructions if a certain condition occurs. For example it could test if a bank balance is less than zero and show a warning if it is. Loops allow a chunk of code to be executed multiple times. For example, survey results for 100 participants could be analysed one at a time by skipping back to the start of the analysis code 100 times.

Any modern programmer would find it bizarre not to have access to conditional statements and loops, but some early machines didn’t have these abilities.

Code in memory allows self modifying code.

If the programming code is in main memory it can be read and written freely, just like any other data. This allows instructions to be modified by other instructions. Turing used this for incrementing memory locations and other simple stuff but potentially it can be used for far more complex tasks.

I can remember when I did computer science being told that self modifying code was a bad thing because it made code hard to understand and debugging difficult, but it has its place and I use it a lot in modern interpreted languages.

Simple, fast processing units and more memory is the best strategy.

Some early American computer designs tried to provide a lot of complex operations built into the main processing unit. This made them more complicated and required more valves (this was before transistors or integrated circuits, of course) for the main processor and less for memory. Turing advocated simpler instruction sets which would allow for more memory and more efficient execution, and the programmer could write the complex code using simpler instructions.

This sounds very much like the modern concept of RISC (reduced instruction set computing) processors which provide a limited range of very fast, efficient instructions and use the extra space on the CPU for cache memory. The more complex instructions are generated by combining simpler ones by the compiler.

Microcode and pipelines.

Turing’s computer, the ACE, ran at 1 MHz (one million cycles per second) which was the fastest of any machine at the time. But interpreting each instruction (figuring out what it meant, like where the data should come from) took several cycles and actually carrying out the function took several more. To make things go faster he interpreted the next instruction while the current one was being executed.

Modern processors have a “pipeline” where several stages of processing can be performed simultaneously. Today we also have deep, multiple pipelines (multiple steps of several streams of code being processed at once) and code prediction (figuring out what the next instruction will be) but the basic idea is the same.

Subroutines and libraries.

Most CPUs could only do very basic things. For example they could add whole numbers (like 42) but not multiply at all or work with real numbers (those with decimals, like 3.33). But many programs needed these operations, so instead of reinventing them over and over for each new program Turing created libraries of subroutines.

A library is a collection of useful chunks of code to do particular things, like work with real numbers. Modern processors have this function built in but more complex tasks, like reading a packet of data from the internet, still require long sequences of code.

Today computers typically have hundreds of libraries of thousands of subroutines (a rather old term for a chunk of code which can perform a task then return to what the computer was doing before it was run) and in many ways that is mostly what a modern operating system is: a collection of useful libraries.

Computers could be accessed remotely.

Turing thought that since there were so few computers around it made sense to allow people to access a computer they needed by remote control. He thought this could be done with special devices attached to the phone system.

Simple modems and other serial interfaces allowed this, and now we have the internet. Even though computers are no longer rare (I have 14 conventional computers at home plus many other devices, like iPads and iPhones, which are effectively computers) it is still useful to be able to access other computers easily.

Computers for entertainment.

Turing thought that “ladies would take their computers to the park and say ‘my little computer said something so funny this morning'” (or something similar to this).

I couldn’t help but think of this when my daughter showed me an amusing cat video on her iPhone today. Yes, ladies carry their computers everywhere and are constantly entertained by the funny little things they say.

No one’s perfect.

So what did he get wrong? Well a few things, actually. For example, he wasn’t a great enthusiast for making the computer easy to use. It was necessary to enter input and read output in base 32 expressed using a series of obscure symbols, plus he used binary but with the least significant bit first.

Perhaps the most important change in the last thirty years has been making computers easier to use. Turing can’t claim much credit in this trend. Still, I see where he was coming from: if it’s hard to build a computer and hard to write code, it should be hard to use them too!