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Pokemon No!

July 30, 2016 Leave a comment

I am a proud computer (and general technology) geek and I see all things geeky as being a big part of my culture. So I don’t really identify much with my nationality of New Zealander, or of traditional Pacific or Maori values (I’m not Maori anyway but many people still think that should be part of my culture), or of the standard interests of my compatriots like rugby, outdoor activities, or beer – well OK, maybe I do identify with the beer!

Being a geek transcends national boundaries and traditional values. I go almost everywhere with my 4 main Apple products: a MacBook Pro laptop, an iPad Pro, an iPhone 6S, and an Apple Watch. They are all brilliant products and I do use them all every day.

For me, the main aspects of being a geek involve “living on the internet” and sourcing most of my information from technology sources, and participating in geek events and activities.

By “living on the internet” I mean that I can’t (or maybe just don’t) go for any period of time (I mean a few hours) without participating in social media, checking internet information sources (general news, new products, etc), or seeking out random material on new subjects from sites such as Quora.

I mainly stay informed not by watching TV (although I still do watch TV news once per day) or listening to radio news (again, I do spend a small amount of time on that too) but by listening to streaming material and podcasts. In fact, podcasts are my main source of information because I can listen to them at any time, avoid most advertising, and listen again to anything which was particularly interesting.

And finally there are the events and activities. Yeah, I mainly mean games. I freely admit that I spend some time every day playing computer games. Sometimes it is only 5 minutes but it is usually more, and sometimes a lot more. Some people think a mature (OK, maybe getting on towards “old”) person like me shouldn’t be doing that and that I should “grow up”. Needless to say I think these people are talking crap.

And so we come to the main subject of this post, the latest computer (or more accurately phone and tablet) game phenomenon: Pokemon GO. The game was released first in the US, Australia, and New Zealand and instantly became a huge hit. Of course, since it was a major new component of geek culture, I felt I should be playing it, but I didn’t want it to become a big obsession.

And I think I did well avoiding it for almost 3 days, but yes, I’m playing it now, with moderate intensity (level 17 after a couple of weeks). Today I explained the gameplay to an older person who never plays games and he asked: but what is the point? Well, there is no real, practical point of course, but I could ask that about a lot of things.

For example, if an alien landed and I took him to a rugby game he might ask what’s the point of those guys running around throwing a ball to each other. Obviously, there’s no point. And what’s the point of sitting in front of a TV and watching some tripe like “The Block” or some crappy sopa opera? Again, there’s no point. In reality, what’s the point of living? Well, let’s not go there until I do another post about philosophy.

So anyone who criticises playing computer games because they have no practical point should think a little bit more about what they are really saying and why.

And there’s another factor in all of this that bugs me too. It’s the fact that almost universally the people who criticise games like Pokemon GO not only have never played them but know almost nothing about them either. They are just letting their petty biases and ignorance inform their opinions. It’s quite pathetic, really.

So to all those people who criticise me for playing Pokemon GO, Real Racing 3 (level 162 after many years play, and yes, it is the greatest game of all time), Clash of Clans (level 110 after 4 years play), and a few others, I say get the hell over it. And if you do want to criticise me just get a bit better informed first. And maybe you should stop all those pointless habits you have (and that I don’t criticise you for) like watching junk programs on TV.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go find some more Pokemon. Gotta catch ’em all!

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Why We Have Bad Software

July 25, 2016 Leave a comment

Many people get extremely frustrated with their interactions with technology, especially computers. I notice this a lot because I work with IT where I am a Mac generalist: I do general support, programming, a bit of server management, and a bunch of other stuff as well.

And when I say “many people” get frustrated I should add myself to that list as well because, either directly or indirectly (by trying to help frustrated users) I am also exposed to this phenomenon.

The strange thing is that generally the problems don’t happen because people are trying to do something unusual, or using some virtually unknown piece of software, or trying to do things in an overly complex way. Most of the frustration happens just trying to get the basics working. By that I mean things like simple word processing in Microsoft Word, simple file access on servers, and simple synchronisation of calendars.

None of these things should be hard, but they often are. In comparison doing complex stuff like creating web apps, or doing complicated graphics manipulations, or completing advanced maths or stats processing often works without a single problem.

Why is this? Well I guess I need to concede (before I offer my own theory) that one reason is that there are far more people doing the simple things and they’re doing them far more often, so if there was a certain failure rate with any process it would show up more for the stuff that is done a lot.

But those simple tasks, like word processing, have been with us on computers for several decades now so it might be reasonable to ask why haven’t they been refined to a greater degree than they have. Is it really so hard to create a word processor which works in a more intuitive, reliable, and responsive way than what he have now? (yes, I’m talking to you, Microsoft)

Well there is. But it involves doing something a lot of people don’t want to do. It involves staying away from the big, dominant companies in IT, especially Microsoft. Well not entirely, because realistically you need to run either Windows or macOS (Linux just doesn’t really work on the desktop) and you need to buy some hardware from Dell, Apple, etc. But what about after that?

Recently I have tried to keep away from the dominant companies in software. For example, I operate a zero-Microsoft policy and am progressing well on my zero-Adobe policy as well. In addition I avoid all the big corporates’ products (Oracle, Cisco, etc) wherever possible.

I don’t think it’s healthy to take this to extremes or to where it becomes more a political thing than a practical one, because then I might end up like the open source fanatics whose decisions are based more on ideology than pragmatism. But it is still a useful guideline.

And I am pragmatic because I do have Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Suite (all fully licensed) on my machine, I just almost never use them. And, of course, I do use a Mac and therefore use the hardware and operating system made by Apple, the biggest computer corporation in the world.

Although I readily admit to being an Apple “fanboy” I do have to say that, considering the huge resources they have available, they do often fail to perform as well as they should. For example, software is often released with fairly obvious bugs. How much does it cost to hire a few really good bug checkers?

And sometimes Apple products take too long to properly implement some features. With all the programmers they could hire why is this?

I don’t want to pick on Apple and I really have to ask the following question: Microsoft, why is Office 2016 for Mac such a pile of junk? Why is it so slow? Why is it so ugly? Why is it so lacking in functionality (that is one area where Microsoft usually does well: their software is crap in almost every way except it has an impressive feature set).

And just to complete bashing the big three, what’s happening at Adobe? Why does In Design take a week to launch on anything except the latest hardware? Why are there so many poor user interface design choices in Adobe software? And why is the licensing so annoying?

I think the failure of the big companies to create products as good as they should be able to comes back to several factors…

First, large teams of programmers (and probably teams of anything else too) will always be less efficient than smaller teams simply because more time will have to spend trying to coordinate the team rather than actually doing the core work.

Second, in large teams there will be inevitable “disconnections” between the components of a major project that different individuals make. This might result in an inconsistent user experience or maybe even bugs when the components don’t work together properly.

Third, it is likely that many decisions in a large team will be made by managers and that is almost always a bad thing, because managers are generally technically ignorant and have different priorities such as meeting time constraints, fitting in with non-technical corporate aims, or cutting corners in various ways, rather than producing the best technical result.

Fourth, large companies often have too many rules and policies which are presumably formulated to solve a particular problem but more often can be applied without any real thought for any specific situation.

Many software projects are too large for a single programmer or a small team so some of the issues I have listed cannot be fully avoided. But at least if computer users all understand that big companies usually don’t produce the best products they won’t be surprised the next time they have a horrible experience using Microsoft Word.

And maybe they might just look at alternatives.

Post-Truth Politics

July 16, 2016 Leave a comment

The latest buzz-phrase relating to international politics seems to be “post-truth”. What is meant by the statement that we now have “post-truth politics” is that political statements are now unrelated to facts and voters don’t seem to expect them to be. There is also the implication that in the past politics was based on truth (or the current regime couldn’t be post-truth).

So how true is this claim? Well I try hard to not make this blog post-truth although I do recognise that I do have a bias in that I am anti-establishment and untrusting of authority. But at least I don’t deliberately present information which I know isn’t true or is based on unreliable evidence like almost every politician seems to do.

So I think my opinion here is that (with due consideration to my anti-establishment bias) politicians haven’t been totally truthful in the past but have escalated the art to a much higher level now. In other words the phrase “post-truth politics” is justified.

This explains several phenomena I have been puzzled about…

First, why are political regimes which work against the majority so popular around the world? Examples include a Tory government in the UK, a conservative government (ironically lead by the “Liberal” Party) in Australia, until recently a conservative government in Canada, a moderately conservative government here in New Zealand, and in the US a largely conservative Senate and House of Representatives even though the president is theoretically a liberal.

Of course the answer is people don’t vote for the party which is best for them, they vote for the party which tells the best lies. And conservative parties have always been brilliant at this, although I would readily concede that all political parties do it.

The second phenomenon is why many people (even me at one point) find some politicians quite attractive (in the sense that they would vote for them) or at least acceptable when an objective analysis might find the politician isn’t really working for the person’s best interest at all.

In my case I was moderately positive about John Key (New Zealand’s prime minister) and his National Party. It is only more recently that I realised that he was simply incredibly skilled at presenting his version of events, and that his party’s propaganda and spin machine was exceptional. To be fair, I do have to say that National has toned down its ideology considerably and is far more moderate and centrist now than in many times in the past, so that does make them more acceptable as well.

Notice that I didn’t simply call JK a liar above. Actually, originally I did but I went back and edited it because that would be a bit unfair. Part of the skill of the modern politician is telling the voter things which aren’t true without actually lying. It really is a remarkable ability!

Now I should list a few examples in recent weeks where the New Zealand government has clearly mislead the public. Note that I could have chosen easier targets in the UK or USA instead, but by showing that even a fairly reasonable, moderate government like ours is routinely involved with post-truth politics makes it even more concerning.

1. No one seems to want to do much to solve the housing crisis in New Zealand. Note that John Key denies there even is a crisis, but he’s clearly out of touch on that (long with everything else). The government quoted a figure for the number of new houses being built which was shown to be wrong, yet they continue to use it. And just to make things worse, the media are also now using that number even though it was them who showed it was wrong. It’s as if no one cares what’s true, they just agree on an arbitrary number and stick with that.

2. Research has showed that the government’s 90 day employment trial policy hasn’t lead to new jobs like they said it would. But the PM responded by saying something like: “you can have a piece of academic research but it’s quite different from the small cafe owner whose money is on the line, who’s taking the risk.” So a cafe owner’s opinion is more trustworthy than properly carried out research? This is pretty disappointing for a government who previously said they wanted fact based policies

3. Statistics New Zealand stats show an increasing gap between rich and poor. Senior minister Stephen Joyce dismissed this by invoking some details of the survey which were largely irrelevant. To be fair in this case there was some real methodological complexity, but it was clearly just a case of him looking for anything he could use to dismiss and inconvenient fact.

4. Finance minister Bill English used some incorrect figures to justify vetoing the parental leave legislation introduced by an opposition politician. Clearly they weren’t going to allow that legislation to proceed whatever the numbers were, so simply quoted something which fitted their agenda.

5. The Ombudsman found flaws in a government enquiry into information leaks from MFAT. Minister Paula Bennett claimed it was just a procedural issue which journalists had misinterpreted. This was clearly not true. Also, the government will not withdraw the report even though it destroyed the career of a senior diplomat. I guess he was just another victim of the lies and incompetence of the ruling class.

6. The recent Shewin report into foreign trusts has shown significant problems with our tax laws even though the prime minister had been defending them up until then. Clearly his initial assurances that everything was OK (standard practice for this government) were based on assumptions with no background in fact.

I could list pages of this sort of thing, but the general trend must be obvious by now. Politicians are in denial about the major problems we face. They either aren’t even aware of what affects normal people, or they know but don’t care. Because they have a particular narrative they must follow (members of successful political parties must follow strict rules) there is no easy way that problems can be identified and fixed.

But now I’m not totally sure that we really live in a post-truth world. I’m thinking that maybe modern communications and information retrieval systems (most notably the internet) have made fact checking easier. Maybe politicians always lied to about the same extent but it’s just more obvious now. Sounds like an interesting project for a political scientist to investigate.

I Demand My Moon Base!

July 13, 2016 Leave a comment

Our species has a lot to be proud of, right? Well yes, in a way that is true, but there are many places where we could do so much better too. For me, one of the more depressing areas is the failure to push the boundaries of exploration, to get out there, to take risks, to move forward.

This has happened in many places but I guess the most obvious example is in the space program. The last Apollo mission was Apollo 17 which landed in 1972. Since then no human has travelled beyond low Earth orbit. And since the demise of the Shuttle the leading space exploration nation hasn’t had the capability to do that even if it wanted to.

So what’s stopping progress in this, and many other areas? The most obvious answer is that the money isn’t there, but as is always the case this simply isn’t true. There’s piles of money around and the capability to resume a serious space program could easily be achieved. We could easily have had a Moon colony by now, for example.

In fact I recently read an article in “Futurism” magazine on this exact subject. Futurism is a magazine whose mission is “…to empower our readers and drive the development of transformative technologies towards maximizing human potential”. Sounds like a great aim and I found most of the material there quite interesting, although a little bit optimistic regarding technology.

Of course, I also believe technology (and not politics, religion, or business) is the answer to most of our problems and the underlying source of most of the positive benefits of modern society, so they are preaching to the converted there!

But to get back to the practicality and costs of building a Moon base. Futurism estimates the cost at $10 billion and that it could be done by 2022. Is that a lot of money? Well it’s less than the cost of just one new aircraft carrier.

I wonder what proportion of the US population would be prepared to sacrifice just one carrier to get a Moon base. I really hope it would be most of them, or I would have to conclude that the country really has gone further down the path to self-destruction than I thought.

Let’s look at the total US budget for 2015. The country spent $637 billion on defence out of a total spend of $3.97 trillion. This equates to 16% of the total – the only two higher categories were healthcare at 25% and social security at 24%. NASA’s budget was $18 billion (just 2% of the military’s or 0.5% of the total – the lowest it has been since NASA was created).

How much does that equate to as part of the total? Well, if you had a salary of $50,000 then 0.5% is 250 dollars – about what someone might spend on a moderately expensive family dinner at a restaurant. It doesn’t really seem like a lot, does it?

But what about the argument over what the space program contributes to society? Well, there are three ways it contributes: direct beenfits like communications satellites; indirect but objective benefits like new technologies created while the program was being developed; and more subjective benefits which exist just because exploration and pushing the boundaries is inherently a good thing.

But that aside, we could make the same argument about the military, or social security, or health not contributing in an obvious way. From a conventional accounting perspective it’s probably hard to justify those as well.

Perhaps the strangest thing is that it is often the more conservative members of society who want to “make America great again” who question the value of scientific programs but who fail to realise that it is exactly those programs which did make America great.

Another factor which might be holding up progress on space exploration is risk aversion. NASA has become extremely careful about balancing risk against moving forward. The Shuttle accidents didn’t help of course, but space exploration is just hard and there will always be accidents. Some degree of caution is necessary but it shouldn’t lead to a virtual paralysis.

Then there is the idea from some groups in society that science cannot be trusted, that it is out of favour in some way, and that it has an agenda contrary to it’s stated one of establishing the truth about the natural world.

Some people reject evolution, some think climate change is a conspiracy, some think vaccinations cause autism, and others believe the Moon landings were a hoax. These are all totally irrational ideas but they all contribute to an acceptance of lower investment in science.

Finally there is the neoliberal dogma that free markets and profit-driven activities are always best. These people think that business generates all the benefits in society and that science is just a parasite on that.

But I would say that the opposite is true: business is a parasite on science and technology. For example, many companies (Google, Facebook, etc) make a lot of money from using the internet but the internet only exists because of military and scientific research organisations. The internet originated at DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, run by the US military) and the web began at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research). So who is really exploiting the hard work and original ideas of others?

I’m not saying the military shouldn’t be funded at all, although I hope there will be a time in the (perhaps distant) future when militaries are no longer necessary. What I am saying is that it wouldn’t really hurt to spend a bit less on aircraft carriers and failed jet fighter projects and a little bit more on space exploration.

And yes, I demand my Moon base!

Life’s Just a Game

July 5, 2016 Leave a comment

Is life a game? Is the whole universe just one big game or simulation? It’s an interesting question and one which might not be quite as frivolous as many people think. Before I explain why, I should revise a few of the common musings on the subject often found on the internet.

First there’s this one: Yes, life is a game. And according to the laws of thermodynamics, there are four inviolable rules: Zeroth: You must play the game. First: You can’t win. Second: You can’t break even. Third: You can’t quit the game.

The first and second in particular do reflect the real rules of thermodynamics quite well. Very crudely put, the first says that energy cannot be created nor destroyed, it can only change forms, and the second law says the entropy (simply put, the amount of disorder) in a system will increase.

Then there’s this idea from the arts: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.” – William Shakespeare

But what about more serious, scientific and philosophical thoughts on the subject?

Recently, I read that Elon Musk thinks that we are probably characters in some advanced civilisation’s video game. In other words, he thinks life is a game. This isn’t a new idea, despite some of the news outlets making it seem like Musk is onto some new, brilliant form of ontological understanding of our most basic existence. In fact, the idea goes back at least 60 years in fiction and was discussed in a serious way by philosopher Nick Bostrom in a 2003 paper called “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?”

Yes, I realise that a simulation is not necessarily a game and vice versa, but many games do involve simulating of the real world (combat simulators, flight simulators, etc) and the distinction isn’t important to the main point here. Maybe Musk thought that saying we are part of a computer game just sounded a bit cooler!

So what is the simulation hypothesis all about? Well, first I will present it in my own way which seems to lead to the conclusion that the simulation exists…

The universe is a big place, perhaps the biggest (according to author, Kurt Vonnegut) so we would expect that there must be many more places in the universe, apart from the Earth, where life, and intelligent life, has arisen.

We might also expect that in many places that intelligent life has advanced to a point far beyond where we are now. After all, the universe is 13.8 billion years old and humans (in the current form) have only been around 0.001% of that time. Surely other species on other planets became intelligent and capable of advanced technology far before we did.

We would also expect that computer technology would be an important part of any technological culture’s abilities. Since computers have only been around for 70 years and have already advanced to a remarkable level, we would expect that more advanced civilisations would have computer technology billions of times more capable than ours.

We have already reached the point where some simulations are almost indistinguishable from reality so those far more advanced systems might actually be literally indistinguishable from, or at least so close to reality that it would be almost impossible to tell the difference.

These advanced races with computer systems capable of creating artificial realities would probably want to model universes which would be virtually indistinguishable from real universes.

There might be many of these artificial realities and perhaps only one real reality.

So why should we think that our reality is the real one when it is far more likely to be one of the artificial ones?

In other words, it is just common logic to accept that we really do live inside a simulation, or, to put it another way, life is just a game!

Bostrom presented the idea in a different way which lead to three possible conclusions, one of which (and the one which some people think is the most likely) was the same as mine, above…

Given all the points I have already made, he thought that one of these three conclusions must be true…

1. Either “the fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a posthuman stage (that is, one capable of running high-fidelity ancestor simulations) is very close to zero”. In other words, there are almost no advanced civilisations capable of running these simulations.

2. Or, “the fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running ancestor-simulations is very close to zero”. In other words, the advanced civilisations exist, but they don’t want to run the simulations for some reason.

3. Or, “the fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one”. In other words, we live in a simulation.

Here are a few interesting points Bostrom makes about his idea…

1. He isn’t claiming we live in a simulation. He just presents that as one possibility. He has said he thinks the likelihood is about 20% (but then adds “perhaps” and maybe”). He also notes that people who hear the argument usually think that one of the three conclusions is obviously true, but that there is no consensus on which one!

2. He also notes that people who claim to have experienced odd (supernatural, for example) phenomena should not claim these as evidence of glitches or bugs in the simulation. We would expect this sort of thing occasionally, even if our universe is real, simply because of mis-reporting and misunderstandings.

3. Maybe the most important point Bostrom makes is regarding whether the idea can be tested or not. One way would be if the aliens running the simulation wanted to show us that it existed. A phenomenon impossible in the natural world might occur (but see 2 above) making it clear our universe isn’t natural. Or we could reach a stage of technology where we ourselves could create a simulation of this sort. There’s no reason why one simulation couldn’t run a second one.

And if we reached an insurmountable problem which prevented us reaching a more advanced state (total destruction in a nuclear war for example) or we realised that there are fundamental limits on simulations which can never be overcome, then this would be evidence against the simulation option being true.

4. Bostrom doesn’t see any direct connection between the hypothesis and religion but there is an undeniable indirect connection, especially in relation to intelligent design. He quotes one atheist as saying this is the best evidence for God yet!

And finally, these are my additional thoughts on the subject…

1. I put this in a similar category to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (although its scope is even greater, of course). But like SETI we are working with very little initial data. Of course, Bostrom is a philosopher, not a scientist, so we shouldn’t necessarily expect the same level of rigour as we would from science.

2. There are several major (and a few minor) assumptions we must make in order for the idea to even pass the first stage of appraisal. First, there must be life elsewhere in the universe; second, life must reach a level of intelligence where advanced technology is possible; third, computer technology must be capable of creating a simulation of sufficient accuracy that it is virtually identical to reality (whatever that is); and finally the “sims” must gain consciousness (whatever that is).

3. Most simulations have a degree of “granularity” where, if you look with sufficient precision, you will see a limit to their accuracy. You will reach a “pixel” size which cannot be divided any further. Well, I must mention the Planck length and Planck time here. These can be interpreted as the basic units of space and time in our universe, just like we would expect in a simulation!

The Planck length is 1.61 x 10^-35 meters, which means the resolution of our universe is about 4 billion trillion trillion dots per inch. Sure sounds like a simulation – and a very good one – to me.

So yes, it looks like life really is just a big computer game. Can we have a reboot?