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No More -isms

February 10, 2018 Leave a comment

I am often challenged about why I reject various beliefs, such as liberalism, theism, libertarianism, or feminism. My thoughts on this are, that if you identify with a particular doctrine with is described with a word ending in -ism then you are probably being needlessly dogmatic. But then I remembered that I often identify with two (and maybe more) of those myself: atheism and skepticism.

So why would I ridicule one person’s belief (like the belief in libertarianism or feminism) while I give myself a free pass to pursue beliefs of my own? Well, maybe I’m just a hypocrite – that’s certainly possible – but I would like to use a slightly more generous interpretation of the situation and say that my beliefs are more a lack of a commitment to a particular idea than a close allegiance to one.

So atheism isn’t really a dogma of any kind, in fact it’s the antithesis of that, because it specifically precludes acceptance of any dogmatic, religious belief. I do agree that skepticism is in a slightly more debatable category. It could be seen as a belief system in some ways – in fact one meaning of the word refers to a specific philosophical system. But that’s not the meaning I’m using here. In this context skepticism refers to the preference for treating new truth claims with a level of suspicion until good, objective evidence for them is demonstrated.

So I think I can defend my -isms fairly well, but what objection to I have to the others? Well, the main one is that they are just unnecessary. Not only do they provide no positive benefit, but undue adherence to them is potentially dangerous. People who take their beliefs too seriously might follow the belief’s dictates instead of looking at the facts of specific incidents in the real world.

For example, there might be a need to decide whether a new industry – let’s choose self-driving cars as an example – should be regulated to ensure safety standards. A libertarian (that is, someone who follows libertarianism) might be tempted to say that more regulation is always bad and that the market should decide.

But not only do we see numerous examples of market failures (in fact the phrase “market failure” has become a common one in these sorts of discussions) but it can be shown through pure logic that markets often don’t work.

That’s not to say that markets don’t work quite well in some situations, but they certainly cannot be relied on in every possible place they might be used. But a true follower of libertarianism will think they do work everywhere, or at least will think they work in a far wider range of situations than a careful examination of the facts would support.

So there’s really no need for libertarianism at all, because anyone looking at the facts and at the outcomes required in a particular situation could just use common sense, and logic, and examination of the consequences in the real world to see whether a market or a regulation is a better choice.

So let’s look at another -ism now, let’s really jump out of the frying pan and into the fire and look at feminism. Is feminism necessary? Well, as you could probably guess from the general tone of this post, I don’t think so.

I know many people claim feminism is just wanting equality for women, but of course that is often not true, just like libertarianism isn’t usually simply about the fair and appropriate use of markets. Feminism in many cases goes far beyond that and demands special privileges for women, equality where it already exists, and is generally biased towards a female-centric worldview.

I’m not saying that there have been no good outcomes from feminism, but I am saying that the usual realisation of it can easily produce many bad outcomes too. There are many situations where females are now enjoying benefits because the bias is now in the opposite direction to what many feminists imagine. For example girls seem to be getting more benefit from our education system, women enrol in universities at a greater rate than men, women live longer lives, and they get less punishment under the law, etc. Hell, maybe I should be a masculinist!

And the issues where feminism might be useful – such as equal pay, equal participation in society, etc – don’t require feminism, they just require fairness. And most people have an inherent sense of fairness. I want women to have equal rights, but I am certainly not a feminist!

I see the down-side of -isms all the time. I see people react to an event which is actually quite nuanced in simple-minded, thoughtless ways, simply because of a knee-jerk reaction they have caused by their favourite -ism.

Note that I have picked on that particular suffix because it is catchy, but other worldviews which end in a different suffix, like Christianity, should also be included in my argument for completeness.

I know they are not doing this deliberately – and that’s what makes the whole phenomenon even more scary and dangerous – but the sort of thought that is going on is like this: there’s an event I want to comment on; I am a (insert your favourite -ism here) so I should think this; I will write some tedious, biased crap on the appropriate discussion forum.

And when a more nuanced person, like myself (well OK, sometimes I take a hard line to make a particular point, but I do make an effort to see both sides of most stories) comes along and points out any deficiencies in these arguments there is rarely a reasoned rebuttal to those points, because the person makes that comment just because that’s the way things are always portrayed according to their -ism.

If I suggest we need a new regulation to decrease greenhouse gas emissions to reduce climate change the libertarians will usually disagree, saying government regulation never works and we need less government involvement, not more. But they could admit that the market is the cause of climate change, not the solution, while still maintaining that markets are a useful tool in society overall. But if you follow libertarianism you really cannot say that.

And if I dare to suggest that females are already doing well in our education system and they really don’t need any further assistance, then the feminists will attack me with allegations of sexism and mansplaining. If they just admitted that there are situations where women are given an unfair advantage as well as other situations where the opposite is true, then they would be easier to take more seriously. But if you follow feminism almost everything looks like an attack on women and sensible discussion is difficult.

So I say abandon your -isms. That doesn’t mean to switch to another, even worse, belief system which just doesn’t happen to end in -ism, of course. So those who libertarianism shouldn’t switch to anarchy, and if you currently follow feminism, please don’t become a feminazi!

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Evil Jesus

February 7, 2018 Leave a comment

I have heard many atheists arguments diminished by an admission that the teachings of Jesus are inherently good and that, even if he never existed in any form recognisable from the New Testament, at least the thoughts attributed to him are beyond reproach.

Well, here is my deeply meaningful, intellectual, theological response to this idea: bullshit!

Sure, there is stuff in the NT which can be seen as being really positive, but I think the overall tone and message is quite negative, although I fully agree that the tone can be interpreted in more than one way, and this can easily lead to totally contrary conclusions.

This is very much the problem with theology and some philosophy too. If we just look at the thoughts of an individual person, whether it be Jesus or Wittgenstein – especially when they are presented in metaphors and imprecise language – it is very easy to take whatever meaning you want from them.

But I also think there are parts of these people’s thoughts which cannot be honestly misconstrued, and I think in Jesus’ case this is both unmistakable and deeply flawed.

The fact that many modern Christians are quite moral people and exhibit quite decent behaviour overall is more to do with changing ethical standards, mostly separate from theology, than anything which is specifically part of a religion. They know what is right and look for a message in the NT supporting that view. When slavery was considered OK that idea was found to be supported by Jesus, but once social norms changed and slavery became unacceptable, a different message was found to support that.

My point is (and this is one I have made before) that religious texts are like Rorschach Inkblot Tests: the pattern is in the viewer’s mind, not on the object being viewed (whether it is an inkblot or the Bible).

But some inkblots, along with some texts, do have an obvious meaning which requires some effort to get past and be ignored, and the New Testament, contrary to common claims, can easily be seen as an exhortation towards hate rather than love.

So what are the negative messages portrayed by the character of Jesus in the NT? Well there are three I want to concentrate on here: the idea that people must accept Jesus as their saviour or face eternal torment in Hell, that this life is unimportant compared to what you will get in Heaven after death, and the eschatological message which warns of signs of end-times eventually resulting in the return of Jesus and eternal happiness for the select few.

I know some people will debate whether these messages are genuine, and others will say they are real but should be seen as positive rather than bad, while others will say something like “sure that is true, and they may seem bad, but those are God’s rules and we have to live by them”.

In this post I want to concentrate on why these things are bad, rather than try to justify them in the context of the Bible, so let’s just say these are either the only fair interpretation, or at least one very viable interpretation of the Bible, especially the NT.

In previous posts I have discussed why I think the Christian dogma of salvation through Jesus is evil. Basically my argument is that God gives us free will, yet punishes us when we use it. It’s sort of like walking up to a voting machine (where they have them, like the US) and pulling the lever for the “wrong” party resulting in a safe falling on your head and killing you.

And it’s like there’s a sign in the voting booth saying “you can vote for either party, but if you choose the wrong one you will die in a horrible accident”. Not only that, but both parties claim they are the one you should vote for to avoid the horrible punishment. And people who don’t vote are treated even worse than those who do!

And just as the final icing on the cake, we are supposed to praise and thank this god for the system he has created, because of the claim that he has offered an escape from an evil rule he created. Gee, thanks God, you’re so thoughtful, but why not just make it 100% clear which is really the right party, or give us real free will and forget about the punishment for using it!

The idea that this life is unimportant compared with what might come later is also very harmful. All the evidence indicates we only have one life, so any dogma discouraging people from not making the best use of it has got to be seen as really negative.

I suppose you could make a case to say that people are more likely to be accepting of their place in life, and experience a lot less stress as a result of believing in a better life after death. But this is also very harmful because it stops people from striving for something better. And the temptation for a political elite to use this superstition to keep the “lesser ranks” under control is a very insidious problem.

Finally there is the “end times” problem. If people think the world will soon end, and their current lives will be replaced with a far better one in heaven, then they are unlikely to get involved in any long term projects to make the world better. For example, why try to reduce climate change when the main effects won’t be obvious for 50 years and the Rapture will have already happened by then making the whole problem irrelevant? This is a genuine issue because there are politicians who have made this exact point.

But it gets far worse than that, because many people not only expect Armageddon at any time, but they would like to try to speed up the process. They have been waiting for the final battle between good and evil for 2000 years and they can’t wait much longer for that final destruction. Anyone with this belief isn’t going to hesitate to use the nuclear option, or to start wars in politically sensitive areas of the world.

It is clear that these criticisms don’t just apply to Christianity, of course, because it is obvious that Judaism and Islam (and probably other religions I know less about) are possibly even worse on some of these points.

But I have picked on Christianity for two reasons: first, it is often seen as the most forgiving and peaceful religion, where a case could easily be made for the opposite; and second, it is the most dominant religion in the world today, especially in the most dominant country. Whether Donald Trump really believes all the Christian BS he seems to espouse is highly doubtful, but the fact that he has to pretend to be a believer is telling in itself.

The Doomsday Clock is currently set closer to midnight than for any time since the Cold War. I’m not saying we can blame this completely on religion, and especially not on any particular religion, but those irrational and evil ideas can’t be helping. Thanks a lot, evil Jesus!

Utopia or a Dystopia?

February 5, 2018 Leave a comment

I have been interested in artificial intelligence for years, without being too deeply involved in it, and it seemed that until recently there was just one disappointment after another from this potentially revolutionary area of technology. But now it seems that almost every day there is some fascinating, exciting, and often worrying news about the latest developments in the area.

One recent item which might be more significant than it seems initially is the latest iteration of AlphaGo, Google’s Go playing AI. I wrote about AlphaGo in a post “Sadness and Beauty” from 2016-03-16 after it beat the world champion in the game Go which many people thought a computer could never master.

Now AlphaGo Zero has beaten AlphaGo by 100 games to zero. But the significant thing here is not about an incremental improvement, it is about a change in the way the “Zero” version works. The zero in the name stands for zero human input, because the system learned how to win at Go entirely by itself. The only original input was the rules of the game.

While learning winning strategies AlphaGo Zero “re-created” many of the classic moves humans had already discovered over the last few thousand years, but it went further than this and created new moves which had never been seen before. As I said in my previous post on this subject, the original AlphaGo was already probably better than any human, but the new version seems to be completely superior to even that.

And the truly scary thing is that AlphaGo Zero did all this in such a short period of time. I haven’t heard what the time period actually was, but judging by the dates of news releases, etc, it was probably just days or weeks. So in this time a single AI has learned far more about a game than millions of humans have in thousands of years. That’s scary.

Remember that AlphaGo Zero was created by programmers at Alphabet’s Google DeepMind in London. But in no way did the programmers write a Go playing program. They wrote a program that could learn how to play Go. You could say they had no more input into the program’s success than a parent does into the success of a child whom they abandon at birth. It is sort of like supplying the genetics but not the training.

You might wonder why Alphabet (Google’s parent company) has spent so much time and money creating a system which plays an obscure game. Well the point, of course, is to create techniques which can be used in more general and practical situations. There is some debate amongst experts at the moment about how easily these techniques could be used to create a general intelligence (one which can teach itself anything, instead of just a specific skill) but even if it only works for specific skills it is still very significant.

There are many other areas where specialised intelligence by AIs has exceeded humans. For example, at CERN (the European nuclear research organisation) they are using AI to detect particles, labs are developing AIs which are better than humans at finding the early signs of cancer, and AIs are now good at detecting bombs at airports.

So even if a human level general intelligence is still a significant time away, these specialised systems are very good already, even at this relatively early time in their development. It’s difficult to predict how quickly this technology might advance, because there is one development which would make a revolutionary rather than evolutionary change: that is an AI capable of designing AIs – you might call this a meta-AI.

If that happens then all bets are off.

Remember that an AI isn’t anything physical, because it is just a program. In every meaningful way creating an AI program is just like playing a game of Go. It is about making decisions and creating new “moves” in an abstract world. It’s true that the program requires computer hardware to run on, but once the hardware reaches a reasonable standard of power that is no more important than the Go board is to how games proceed. It limits what can be done in some ways, but the most interesting stuff is happening at a higher level.

If AlphaGo Zero can learn more in a week than every human who ever played Go could learn in thousands of years, then imagine how much progress a programming AI could make compared with every computer scientist and programmer who ever existed. There could be new systems which are orders of magnitude better developed in weeks. Then they could create the next generation which is also orders of magnitude better. The process would literally be out of control. It would be like artificial evolution running a trillion times faster than the natural version, because the generation time is so short and the “mutations” are planned rather than being random.

When I discussed the speed that AlphaGo Zero had shown when it created the new moves, I used the word “scary”, because it literally is. If that same ability existed for creating new AIs then we should be scared, because it will be almost impossible to control. And once super-human intelligence exists it will be very difficult to reverse. You might think something like, “just turn off the computer”, but how many backups of itself will exist by then? Simple computer viruses are really difficult to eliminate from a network, so imagine how much more difficult a super-intelligent “virus” would be to remove.

Where that leaves humans, I don’t know for sure. I have said in the previous post that humans will be redundant, but now I’m not totally sure that is true. Maybe there will be a niche for us, at least temporarily, or maybe humans and machines will merge in some way. Experts disagree on how much a threat AI really is. Some predict a “doomsday” where human existence is fundamentally threatened while others predict a bright future for us, free from the tedious tasks which machines can do better, and where we can pursue the activities we *want* to do rather than what we *have* to do.

Will it be a utopia or a dystopia? No one knows. All we know is that the world will never be the same again.

Fake News

January 30, 2018 Leave a comment

Everyone has some bias, and it’s unrealistic to expect anyone to be totally neutral and fair, especially on topics which are very divisive, like race-based politics, or the performance of Donald Trump. But we do expect some effort on the part of certain professions to show a fair degree of impartiality. They should make at least a token gesture towards giving both sides a fair hearing. And maybe at the top of this list of impartial professions should be journalism – at least that’s what you might have thought.

But apparently not. Fake news is everywhere, and even when the news isn’t fake, it is so close to being fake – through biased reporting, uneven treatment of different aspects of a story, and selectiveness regarding what is reported – that it is often more pernicious than an obviously fake story.

Here in New Zealand I have always trusted Radio New Zealand (now called RNZ, I think, to reflect their new multi-media approach) as my preferred source. It wasn’t that they were necessarily more accurate – although they often were – but more that their professionalism and commitment to unbiased reporting was better than most others.

Well not any more, because RNZ is so overwhelmed by political correctness and a populist, leftist agenda, that they can no longer be trusted to the same extent. I still use RNZ as my primary news source, but I no longer trust anything they say without checking it against other sources.

My favourite interviewer on RNZ was always Kim Hill. She had an intelligent, and in most cases a well researched, interview style, and generally tried to keep her innate biases under control. But apparently this is not a priority for her any more.

To show how totally biased she is (and the same applies to most staff at RNZ) I could compare two interviews she has done recently. The first was with Don Brash about his fairly reasonable (at least in most aspects, although he definitely got one or two points wrong) criticism of the way the Maori language is used by the media, especially RNZ. And the second was with Michael Wolff, the author of “Fire and Fury” the just released book exposing the alleged dysfunction of the Trump presidency.

From the very start of the interview with Brash it was obvious that Hill was not going to listen to his alternative opinions, and that she was going to be very aggressive towards him. She didn’t listen to his points, and seemed to be more interested in pursuing her own agenda with no regard to what he said.

Brash is a very calm person, but that often doesn’t work well against a more emotional attack. An acceptance that his opponent’s view has some merit is often seen as weakness, especially when the opponent refuses to make the same concessions.

And he occasionally tries to make points based on what could be most charitably described as poor research, but that doesn’t mean other parts of his argument are totally without merit. He deserved a far better hearing than what he got on RNZ.

All that is bad enough, and it might even be excusable if it was applied evenly. But apparently that fairness is not part of RNZ’s makeup. Because the interview with anti-Trump author, Michael Wolff, was the exact opposite.

Although it is well known that Wolff’s style is confrontational and occasionally not well supported by objective facts, Hill’s interview with him was totally devoid of any incredulity. She never questioned his extreme comments which didn’t seem to be supported by very much more than an opinion, and he never offered a single challenge to any of his conclusions.

For example, saying that a major public figure like Trump is stupid and/or has major psychological issues – which don’t need to be formally diagnosed – really requires some form of challenge. This suggestion is just as bad as anything Don Brash said, yet Hill just loved it. Not only did she not challenge these obviously questionable claims, but she seemed to offer tacit approval for them.

Note that I am not saying I agree with everything Don Brash said, or that I disagree with everything Michael Wolff said. What I am saying is that public radio should be a forum where fair discussion of ideas is possible, even when those ideas are controversial. In fact it should be that especially when the ideas are controversial.

I know people who are a bit more oriented to the right of politics than me who used to listen to RNZ. Back when they were more balanced RNZ could maintain an audience with various political views. But I think that is far less likely now. The people I mentioned above now listen to some inane talkback show which is full of biased and ignorant opinions. But how can I criticise that when our premium news service is really not a lot better?

So the thing that really worries me is that by being so one-sided and by failing to encourage robust debate on contentious issues, the more left-leaning media are just pushing away any audience which doesn’t agree with their politically correct agenda. I have been close to abandoning RNZ myself but I still find enough valuable material there that I can stick with it.

But for how much longer, I really don’t know.

Random Clicking

January 14, 2018 Leave a comment

Nowadays, most people need to access information through computers, especially through web sites. Many people find the process involved with this quite challenging, and this isn’t necessarily restricted to older people who aren’t “digital natives”, or to people with no interest in, or predisposition towards technology.

In fact, I have found that many young people find some web interfaces bizarre and unintuitive. For example, my daughter (in her early 20s) thinks Facebook is badly designed and often navigates using “random clicking”. And I am a computer programmer with decades of experience but even I find some programs and some web sites completely devoid of any logical design, and I sometimes revert to the good old “random clicking” too!

For example, I received an email notification from Inland Revenue last week and was asked to look at a document on their web site. It should have taken 30 seconds but it took closer to 30 minutes and I only found the document using RC (random clicking).

Before I go further, let me describe RC. You might be presented with a web site or program/app interface and you want to do something. There might be no obvious way to get to where you want to go, or you might take the obvious route only to find it doesn’t go where you expected. Or, of course, you might get random error message like “page not available” or “internal server error” or even the dreaded “this app has quit unexpectedly” or the blue screen of death or spinning activity wheel.

So to make progress it is necessary just to do some RC on different elements, even if they make no sense, until you find what you are looking for. Or in more extreme cases you might even need to “hack” the system by entering deliberately fake information, changing a URL, etc.

What’s going on here? Surely the people involved with creating major web sites and widely used apps know what they are doing, don’t they? After all, many of these are the creations of large corporations with virtually unlimited resources and budgets. Why are there so many problems?

Well, there are two explanations: first, that errors do happen occasionally, no matter how competent the organisation involved is, and because we use these major sites and apps so often we will tend to see the errors more often too; and second, large corporations create stuff through a highly bureaucratic and obscure process and consistency and attention to detail is difficult to attain under such a scheme.

When I encounter errors, especially on web sites, I like to keep a record of it by taking a screenshot. I keep this in a folder to make me feel better if I make an error on any of my own projects, because it reminds me that sites created by organisations with a hundred programmers and huge budgets often have more problems those created by a single programmer with no budget.

So here are some of the sites I currently have in my errors folder…

APN (couldn’t complete your request due to an unexpected error – they’re the worst type!)
Apple (oops! an error occurred – helpful)
Audible (we see you are going to x, would you rather go to x?)
Aurora (trying to get an aurora prediction, just got a “cannot connect to database”)
BankLink (page not found, oh well I didn’t really want to do my tax return anyway)
BBC (the world’s most trusted news source, but not the most trusted site)
CNet (one of the leading computer news sources, until it fails)
DCC (local body sites can be useful – when they work)
Facebook (a diabolical nightmare of bad design, slowness, and bugginess)
Herald (NZ’s major newspaper, but their site generates lots of errors)
InternetNZ (even Internet NZ has errors on their site)
IRD (Inland Revenue has a few good features, but their web site is terrible overall)
Medtech (yeah, good luck getting essential medical information from here)
Mercury (the messenger of the gods dropped his message)
Microsoft (I get errors here too many times to mention)
Fast Net (not so fast when it doesn’t work)
Origin (not sure what the origin of this error was)
Porsche (great cars, web site not so great)
State Insurance (state, the obvious choice for a buggy web site)
Ticketmaster (I don’t have permission for the section of the site needed to buy tickets)
TradeMe (NZ’s equivalent of eBay is poorly designed and quite buggy)
Vodafone (another ISP with web site errors)
WordPress (the world’s leading blogging platform, really?)
YesThereIsAGod (well if there is a god, he needs to hire better web designers)

Note that I also have a huge pile of errors generated by sites at my workplace. Also, I haven’t even bothered storing examples of bad design, or of problems with apps.

As I said, there are two types of errors, and those caused by temporary outages are annoying but not disastrous. The much bigger problem is the sites and apps which are just inherently bad. The two most prominent examples are Facebook and Microsoft Word. Yes, those are probably the most widely used web site and most widely used app in the world. If they are so bad why are they so popular?

Well, popularity can mean two things: first, something is very widely used, even if it is not necessarily very well appreciated; and second, something which is well-liked by users and is utilised because people like it. So you could say tax or work is popular because almost everyone participates in them, but that drinking alcohol, or smoking dope, or sex, or eating burgers is popular because everyone likes them!

Facebook and Word are popular but most people think they could be made so much better. Also many people realise there are far better alternatives but they just cannot be used because of reasons not associated with quality. For example, people use Facebook because everyone else does, and if you want to interact with other people you all need to use the same site. And Word is widely used because that is what many workplaces demand, and many people aren’t even aware there are alternatives.

The whole thing is a bit grim, isn’t it? But there is one small thing I would suggest which could make things better: if you are a developer with a product which has a bad interface, and you can’t be almost certain that you can improve it significantly, don’t bother trying. People can get used to badly designed software, but coping with changes to an equally bad but different interface in a new version is annoying.

The classic example is how Microsoft has changed the interface between Office 2011 and Office 2016 (these are the Mac versions, but the same issue exists on Windows). The older version has a terrible, primitive user interface but after many years people have learned to cope with it. The newer version has an equally bad interface (maybe worse) and users have to re-learn it for no benefit at all.

So, Microsoft, please just stop trying. You have a captive audience for your horrible software so just leave it there. Bring out a new version so you can steal more money from the suckers who use it, but don’t try to improve the user interface. Your users will thank you for it.

Introduction to the Elements

December 29, 2017 Leave a comment

The Greek philosophers were incredibly smart people, but they didn’t necessarily know much. By this I mean that they were thinking about the right things in very intelligent and perceptive ways, but some of the conclusions they reached weren’t necessarily true, simply because they didn’t have the best tools to investigate reality.

Today we know a lot more, and even the most basic school science course will impart far more real knowledge to the average school student than what even the greatest philosophers, like Aristotle, could have known.

I have often thought about what it would be like to talk to one of the ancient Greeks about what they thought about the universe and what we have found out since, including how we know what we know. Coincidentally, this might also serve as a good overview of our current knowledge to any interested non-experts today.

Of course, modern technology would be like total magic to any ancient civilisation. In fact, it would seem that way to a person from just 100 years ago. But in this post I want to get to more fundamental concepts than just technology, mostly the ancient and modern ideas about the elements, so let’s go…

The Greeks, as well as several other ancient cultures, had arrived at the concept of there being elements, which were fundamental substances which everything else was made from. The classic 4 elements were fire, air, water, and earth. In addition, a fifth element, aether, was added to account for the non-material and heavenly realm.

This sort of made sense because you might imagine that those components resulted when something changed form. So burning wood releases fire and air (smoke) and some earth (ash) which seemed to indicate that they were original parts of the wood. And sure, smoke isn’t really like air but maybe that’s because it was made mainly from air, with a little bit of earth in it too, or something similar.

So I would say to a philosopher visiting from over 2000 years ago that they were on the right track – especially the atomists – but things aren’t quite the way they thought.

Sure, there are elements, but none of the original 4 are elements by the modern definition. In fact, those elements aren’t even the same type of thing. Fire is a chemical reaction, air is a mixture of gases, water is a molecule, and earth is a mixture of fine solids. The ancient elements correspond more to modern states of matter, maybe matching quite well with plasma, gas, liquid and solid.

The modern concept of elements is a bit more complicated. There are 92 of them occurring naturally, and they are the basic components of all of the common materials we see, although not everything in the universe as a whole is made of elements. The elements can occur by themselves or, much more commonly, combine with other elements to make molecules.

The elements are all atoms, but despite the name, these are not the smallest indivisible particles, because atoms are in turn made from electrons, protons, and neutrons, and then the protons and neutrons are made of quarks. As far as we know, these cannot be divided any further. But to complicate matters a bit more there are many other indivisible particles. The most well known of these from every day life is the photon, which makes up light.

Different atoms all have the same structure: classically thought of as a nucleus containing a certain number of protons and neutrons surrounded by a cloud of electrons. There are the same number of protons (which have a positive charge) and electrons (which have a negative charge) in all neutral atoms. It is the number of protons which determines which atom (or element) is which. So one proton means hydrogen, 2 helium, etc, up to uranium with 92. That number is called the “atomic number”.

The number of neutrons (which have no charge) varies, and the same element can have different forms because they have a different number of neutrons. When this happens the different forms are called isotopes.

Protons and neutrons are big and heavy and electrons are light, so the mass of an atom is made up almost entirely of the protons and neutrons in the nucleus. The electrons are low mass and “orbit” the nucleus at a great distance compared with the size of the nucleus itself, so a hydrogen atom (for example, but this applies to all atoms and therefore everything made of atoms, which is basically everything) is 99.9999999999996% empty space!

When I say protons are big and heavy I mean this only relatively, because there are 50 million trillion atoms in a single grain of sand (which means a lot more protons because silicon and oxygen, the two main elements in sand, both have multiple protons per atom).

When atoms combine we describe it using chemistry. This involves the electrons near the edge of an atom (the electrons form distinct “shells” around the nucleus) combining with another atom’s outer electrons. How atoms react is determined by the number of electrons in the outer shell. Atoms “try” to fill this shell and when they do they are most stable. The easiest way to fill a shell is to borrow and share electrons with other atoms.

Atoms with one electron in the outer shell or with just one missing are very close to being stable and are very reactive (examples: sodium, potassium, fluorine, chlorine). Atoms with that shell full don’t react much at all (examples: helium, neon).

There are far more energetic reactions which atoms can also participate in, when the nucleus splits or combines instead of the electrons. We call these nuclear reactions and they are much harder to start or maintain but generate huge amounts of energy. There are to types: fusion where small atoms combine to make bigger ones, and fission where big atoms break apart. The Sun is powered by fusion, and current nuclear power plants by fission.

After the splitting or combining the resulting atom(s) has less mass/energy (they are the same thing, but that’s another story) than the original atom(s) and that extra energy is released according to a formula E=mc^2 discovered by Einstein. This means you can calculate how much energy (E) comes from a certain amount of mass (m) by multiplying by the speed of light squared (90 thousand trillion). This number is very high which means that a small amount of mass creates a huge amount of energy.

Most reactions involve a bit of initial energy to start it, then they will release energy as the reaction proceeds. That’s why lighting a match next to some fuel starts a reaction which makes a lot more energy.

So water is a molecule made from one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms. But gold is an element all by itself and doesn’t bond well with others. And when two elements bind and form a molecule they are totally different from a simple mixture of the two elements. Take some hydrogen and oxygen and mix them and you don’t get water. But light a match and you get a spectacular result, because the hydrogen burns in the oxygen forming water in the process. The energy content of water is lower than the two constituent gases which explains all that extra energy escaping as fire. But the fire wasn’t an elementary part of the original gases and neither was the water. You can see how the Greeks might have reached that conclusion though.

Basic classical physics and chemistry like this make a certain amount of intuitive sense, and the visting philosopher would probably understand how it works fairly quickly. But then I would need to reveal that it is all really just an approximation to what reality is really like.

There would be a couple of experiments I could mention which would be very puzzling and almost impossible to explain based on the classical models. One would be the Michelson–Morley experiment, and the other would be the infamous double-slit experiment. These lead to the inevitable conclusion that the universe is far stranger than we imagined, and new theories – in this case relativity and quantum theory – must be used.

Whether our philosopher friend could ever gain the maths skills necessary to fully understand these would be difficult to know. Consider that the Greeks didn’t really accept the idea of zero and you can see that they would have a long way to go before they could use algebra and calculus with any competence.

But maybe ideas like time and space being dynamic, gravity being a phenomenon caused by warped space-time, particles behaving like waves and waves behaving like particles depending on the experiment being performed on them, single particles being in multiple places at the same time, and particles becoming entangled, might be comprehensible without the math. After all, I have a basic understanding of all these things and I only use maths like algebra and calculus at a simple level.

It would be fun to list some of the great results of the last couple of hundred years of experimental science and ask for an explanation. For example, the observations made by Edwin Hubble showing the red-shifts of galaxies would be interesting to interpret. Knowing what galaxies actually are, what spectra represent, and how galactic distances can be estimated, would seem to lead to only one reasonable conclusion, but it would be interesting to see what an intelligent person with no pre-conceived ideas might think.

As I wrote this post I realised just how much background knowledge is necessary as a prerequisite to understanding our current knowledge of the universe. I think it would be cool to discuss it all with a Greek philosopher, like Aristotle, or my favourite Eratosthenes. And it would be nice to point out where they were almost right, like Eratosthenes’ remarkable attempt at calculating the size of the Earth, but it would also be interesting to see their reaction to where they got things badly wrong!

Is Apple Doomed?

December 20, 2017 5 comments

I’m a big Apple fanboy. As I sit here writing this blog post (flying at 10,000 meters on my way to Auckland, because I always write blog posts when I fly) I am actively using 4 Apple products: a MacBook Pro computer, an iPad Pro tablet, an iPhone 6S Plus smartphone, and an Apple Watch. At home I have many Apple computers, phones, and other devices. I also have one Windows PC but I very rarely use that.

So the general state of Apple’s “empire” is pretty important to me. Many of the skills I have (such as general trouble-shooting, web programming, scripting, configuration, and general software use) could be transferred to Windows, but I just don’t want to. I really like the elegance of Apple’s devices on the surface, combined with the power of Unix in the background.

But despite my enthusiasm for their products I have developed an increasing air of concern with Apple’s direction. There is the indistinct idea that they have stopped innovating to the extent they did in the past. Then there is the observation that the quality control of both hardware and software isn’t what it was. Then there is just a general perception that Apple are getting too greedy by selling products at too high a price and not offering adequate support for the users of their products.

These opinions are nothing new, but what is new is that people who both know a lot about the subject, and would normally be more positive about Apple, are starting to join in the criticism. Sometimes this is through a slight sense of general concern, and other times through quite strident direct criticism.

I would belong to the former class of critics. I think I have noticed an increase in the number of errors Apple is making, at the same time as I notice an apparent general decrease in the overall reliability of their products, and to make matters worse, these are accompanied by what seems to be higher prices.

You will notice I used a lot of qualifiers in the sentence above. I did this deliberately because I have no real data or objective statistics to demonstrate any of these trends. They might not be real because it is very easy to start seeing problems when you look for them, and negative events often “clump” into groups. Sometimes there might be a series of bad things which happen after a long period with no problems, but that doesn’t mean there is any general trend involved.

But now is the time for anecdotes! These don’t mean much, of course, but I want to list a few just to give an idea of where my concern is coming from.

Recently I set up two new Mac laptop computers in a department where there was a certain amount of pressure from management to switch to Microsoft Surface laptops. The Surface has a really poor reputation for reliability and is quite expensive, so it shouldn’t be difficult to demonstrate the superiority of Apple products in this area, right?

Well, no. Wrong, actually. At least in this case. Both laptops had to go for service twice within the first few weeks. I have worked with Apple hardware for decades and have never seen anything remotely as bad as this. And the fact that it was in a situation where Apple was under increased scrutiny didn’t help!

In addition, the laptops had inadequate storage, because even though these are marketed as “pro” devices the basic model still has only 128G of SSD storage. That wasn’t Apple’s fault, because the person doing the purchasing should have got it right, but it didn’t help!

Also recently Apple has suffered from some really embarrassing security flaws. One allowed root access to a Mac without a password, and the other allowed malicious control of automated home-control devices. There were also a few other lesser issues in the same time period. As far as I now none of these were exploited to any great extent, but it is still a bad look.

Another issue which seems to be becoming more prominent recently is their repair and replacement service. In general I have had fairly good service from Apple repair centers, but I have heard of several people who aren’t as happy.

When you buy a premium device at the premium price Apple demands I don’t think it is unreasonable to expect a little bit of extra help if things go wrong. So unless there is clear evidence of fraud, repairs and replacements should be done without the customer having to resort to threats and demands for the intervention of higher levels of staff.

And even if a device only has one year of official warranty (which seems ridiculous to begin with), Apple should offer a similar level of support for a reasonable period without the customer having to resort to quoting consumer law.

Even if Apple wasn’t interested in doing what was morally right they should be able to see that providing superior service for what they claim is a superior product at a superior price is just good business because it maintains a positive relationship with the customer.

My final complaint regards Apple’s design direction. This is critical because whatever else they stand for, surely good design is their primary advantage over the opposition. But some Apple software recently has been obscure at best and incomprehensibly bizarre at worst, and iTunes has become a “gold standard” for cluttered, confusing user interfaces.

When I started programming Macs in the 1980s there was a large section in the programming documentation about user interface design. The rules were really strict, but resulted in consistent and clear software which came from many different developers, including Apple. I don’t do that sort of programming any more but if a similar section exists in current programming manuals there is little sign that people – even Apple themselves – are taking much notice!

So is Apple doomed? Well probably not. They are (by some measures) the world’s biggest, richest, and most innovative company. They are vying with a few others to become the first trillion dollar company. And, in many ways they still define the standard against which all others are judged. For example, every new smart phone which appears on the market is framed by some people as an “iPhone killer”. They never are, but the fact that products aspire to be that, instead of a Samsung or Huawei killer says a lot about the iPhone.

But despite the fact that Apple isn’t likely to disappear in the immediate future, I still think they need to be more aware of their real and perceived weaknesses. If they aren’t there is likely to be an extended period of slow decline and reduced relevance. And a slow slide into mediocrity is, in many ways, worse than a sudden collapse.

So, Tim Cook, if you are reading this blog post (and why wouldn’t you), please take notice. Here’s just one suggestion: when your company releases a new laptop with connections that are unusable without dongles, throw a few in with the computer, and keep the price the same as the model it replaces, and please, try to make them reliable, and if they aren’t, make sure the service and replacement process is quick and easy.

It’s really not that hard to avoid doom.