Archive for February, 2011

Flex in a Week video training | Adobe Developer Connection

Monday, February 28th, 2011

I was using Flash back at the end of the second millennium when it was still called ‘FutureSplash’ (and was identified by the visionaries at CodeMonkey as a “Plugin that Sucks”). Now it is often buggy and crash-prone and Apple is trying to kill it, but I wouldn’t count it out by any means yet. So although I haven’t used it in a long time I may check out this Flex in a Week video training from Adobe Developer Connection.

Sam Harris Responds

Monday, February 28th, 2011

In his latest Response to Critics , Sam Harris spends some (too much) time on the nutbars before getting to the serious cases like Russell Blackford.

And before starting with his main response he provides this convenient summary:

For those unfamiliar with my book, here is my argument in brief: Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, of course, fully constrained by the laws of Nature (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, there must be right and wrong answers to questions of morality and values that potentially fall within the purview of science. On this view, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.

If this is accurate then I expect the answer to my earlier question is “no”, because there are no “right and wrong answers” to the question of how to relatively weigh the “various forms of well-being and suffering”.

But I’ll read the response further just in case. (more…)

Kenny Felder

Monday, February 28th, 2011

Kenny Felder who I “met” as an appreciative user of my GraphExplorer applet has written a number of Essays and Commentaries that I find quite interesting.

Origin of Religion

Monday, February 28th, 2011

How Did God Get Started? by Colin Wells in  Boston University’s  ‘Arion’ magazine gives a part of the story but fails to address some key questions.

Value of Religion

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

The great debate between Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens was a bit of a bust – with Blair citing the roles of moderate religious leaders in “bringing together” Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland (without any acknowledgement of the fact that religion itself was the defining characteristic of the warring classes).
Other discussions such as this one may have a bit more depth, but the real question is not what value religion may or may not have had in the past but whether it has any positive net utility going forward – and either way on that, whether there is anything useful to say or do about it.

Was Montaigne the First Blogger?

Saturday, February 26th, 2011

Ian Brunskill’s review of Sarah Bakewell’s recent book about Montaigne ends with “Montaigne was happy in a way that no blogger ever could be. There is, in the end, something to be said for the little room behind the shop.” This seems to me exactly wrong (not to mention being insufferably presumptious about the feelings of others). In fact thousands of bloggers like me are quite happy in our own little rooms with neither expectation nor fear of being heard by others. (more…)

Algorithmic Babies and the Chinese Room

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

I commented at Stephen Downes’ website on Patricia Kuhl’s TED talk about “The Linguistic Genius of Babies”. My quibble was less with the content than with the sentimentalized headline, because, although the babies’ brains do appear to implement a sophisticated statistical algorithm (to identify the phonemes of relevance to the language of their community), there is of course no serious suggestion that they actually understand the process any more than our immune system understands the “algorithms” by which it operates or  snowflakes and other crystals understands the symmetry groups which govern the way they construct themselves. (more…)

Nicholas Christakis: A tale of two videos

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

Nicholas Christakis  has a couple of TED videos. This one (on how social networks predict epidemics) struck me as saying something truly interesting. The fact that we can gain predictive value by just asking random people to nominate friends  as subjects rather than picking the subjects at random themselves is the kind of beautiful idea that is so easy to understand after you have seen it that you hit yourself on the head and say “why didn’t I think of that?” – but you didn’t.

whereas this other one (which is actually the one I was directed to) points to nothing that doesn’t seem to me to be trivial and essentially common knowledge. (So much so that I almost decided not to bother clicking on the good one!)

Defining Evolution

Monday, February 21st, 2011

When I read the title of this piece (Theologians Lobby Successfully to Change Definition of Evolution | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine)I was prepared to get angry. But instead I am embarrassed on behalf of those who are complaining about the change (which happened more than ten years ago).

Apparently the US National Association of Biology Teachers was persuaded to delete the word “unsupervised” from the following statement:

The diversity of life on earth is the result of evolution: an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.

Now apart from its awfulness as a bit of language this is indeed wrong on several counts.

Perhaps most importantly, it appears to deny the predictive capacity that is essential for a “scientific” theory. In fact, the theory of evolution does have some predictive capability (though albeit of a stochastic nature). So the unqualified use of  “unpredictable” must be inappropriate.

Also, although it does not require supervision or purpose, the theory of evolution makes no statement regarding their absence. So to include the word “unsupervised” was indeed just plain wrong. (more…)

The Case for Play

Monday, February 21st, 2011

The Case for Play – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“OK kids, you can stop your creative paper folding exercise now and the monitor will collect your products for evaluation. And now, let’s take a break from all that with a quick game of Drill’nKill!”

Many traditional children’s games have a high level of rote learning and/or rule-based behaviour.

Most scientists consider their nominal work to be a form of play.

It’s all in the attitude (which is hard to define and quantify), and I suspect that a lot of educational “research” is confounded by subtle infections of attitude which dominate whatever effect is purportedly being observed.

“The Belief Instinct”

Monday, February 21st, 2011

Jesse Bering’s “The Belief Instinct” is described as an exploration of possible sources of religion in cognitive tendencies towards a sense of being observed even when we have no evidence for it. To support this idea he reportedly both cites experimental evidence and postulates evolutionary explanations – which lead him to identify “adaptive illusion” as being behind the development of religion in our species (but I suspect what he means is  that it is just a susceptibility to  illusions of being monitored rather than any specific illusion itself that may be innate).

Apostate Theocon Damon Linker, writing in The New Republic, finds all this “marvelously informative and endlessly infuriating“. He says he does not like the mix of  “experimental data about modern civilized human beings and groundless speculation about our evolutionary ancestors“, but what he is most upset about is his belief that if we accept Bering’s thesis then a “possible consequence is that we will take his arguments to heart and seek to live truthfully, without illusions—which in this case is to say, without shame.” And by the end of the review has worked himself up into quite a state of angry confusion and despair. But I think he misunderstands the implications. Giving up and/or resisting the illusion of oversight by an external god-like being does not mean giving up the moral values that entity is presumed to enforce (or the fear of incurring our own self-disapproval and/or of having bad behaviour noted and reported to our peers). So there is no reason to believe that we must either “begin shamelessly shitting on ourselves in public” or be subject to “sustained, ongoing, irredeemable self-deception“. There really is an honourable and moral alternative.

Christopher Norris Defends Philosophy

Sunday, February 20th, 2011

Christopher Norris has written an article in Philosophy Now defending the Philosophy of Science from allegations of its irrelevance by scientists (most recently Stephen Hawking for example).  Norris alleges the existence of “scientists’ need to philosophize and their proneness to philosophize badly or commit certain avoidable errors if they don’t take at least some passing interest in what philosophers have to say“, and he asserts that modern theorists  “appear unworried – blithely unfazed, one is tempted to say – by the fact that their theories are incapable of proof or confirmation, or indeed of falsification…”  and further that “scientific theories – especially theories of the ultra-speculative kind that preoccupy theoretical physicists like Hawking – involve a great deal of covert philosophising which may or may not turn out to promote the interests of knowledge and truth“. All of these claims might be considered plausible on the basis of attempts to “explain” quantum physics (and beyond) in popular literature, where analogies (which often really are used by physicists, but just to help guide their intuition) are often all that is provided.   It is true that some of these accounts can be faulted for not admitting that that is what they are doing, and perhaps that needs pointing out. But Norris seems to be doing the opposite by confusing the intuition-guiding analogies with the theories themselves.

Learning Theories

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

In all of my efforts to participate in Connectivist MOOCS (#CritLit2010, #PLENK2010, #CCK11) I have run into a roadblock when discussion turned to “Learning Theories” and I have found myself unable to express (or perhaps even determine) what I want to say on this topic. My instinct is just to shout that the emperor has no clothes because none of the proposed “theories” make well-defined testable predictions, but I realize that this would be unduly dismissive of something that a lot of serious people take seriously.

Notwithstanding several helpful posts outlining the basic principles of the various “theories”, I can’t let go of those scare quotes because they don’t seem like true theories to me.

Apostolos Koutropoulos’ post on learning theories links to a video by Ian Robertson whose quick summary descriptions of various learning theories somehow caused the penny to finally drop in my mind. (more…)

This Must be Said

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

In the light of the apparent opinion of Conservative MP Ed Fast that the mere presence of a digital lock trumps virtually all other copyright rights it must be said that the only appropriate response to passage of Bill C-32 without a Fair Dealing Circumvention Exception is to advocate and support widespread defiance of the law. It needs to be made clear that if the public is expected to support the law and facilitate or at least not obstruct its enforcement then that law needs to be fair and to be seen to be fair. In its presently proposed form it meets neither of those conditions.

Mythical Myths #3 – The Concept of Race

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

Oh damn! I had no particular wish to address this until browsing led me by chance to RACE – The Power of an Illusion at PBS where a bunch of well intentioned people are discrediting anti-racism by associating it with a poorly argued denial that a meaningful concept of race even exists.

It is indeed popular these days among those who don’t like the way that it has been used to assert that the concept of race does not correspond to anything scientifically definable and so is a “myth”, but this is really just wishful thinking and the idea that race is a myth is itself a myth, which makes race another example of what I identify as “Mythical Myths” (ie attempts to identify as myths things which really are real).

It is true that the concept of race may have little utility in human affairs, and whatever utility it does have may be more negative than positive, but it is silly to deny that it has any meaning at all. Whether desirable or not, it is a fact that most people can quickly and correctly identify the ancestral continent (and maybe even a much more specific territory) of a significant fraction of those they meet. This is because isolated populations over many generations do develop observable differences in appearance (and perhaps other factors as well). The fact that the classification of people into races is not complete or 100% reliable does not make it meaningless or undefinable. For example (just to make the point and without expectation that it will be useful for any other purpose) the following might be a reasonable “scientific” definition:

A race of strength s is a human population which has been sufficiently isolated for sufficiently long that (through either just random genetic drift or perhaps sexual selection or evolution in response to local environment) its members differ in their mean value of some computable combination of measurable characteristics from the global mean of non-members by more than 2s standard deviations.

(So if we use the criterion of guessing that a person is of a particular race of strength s if that person’s measurement of the relevant parameter is within s standard deviations of the racial mean, then for a race of strength 2, assuming normal distribution of the parameter, a randomly chosen non-member has only a 2.5% chance of being misidentified as a member of the race, and similarly for strength 1 the chance of misidentification of a non-member is about 16%).

Of course not everyone will have an identifiable race, and with reduced isolation it can be expected that the “strengths” of all races will decline over time, but I am sure that it will take at least several more generations before it is impossible to say with confidence of at least half of the people we meet that they have at least one ancestor within the past twenty generations who lived in Africa, Asia, or Europe. And it will be a very long time before we cannot identify for at least some individuals much more specific ancestral histories just on the basis of a quick visual inspection. In the meantime it may be socially harmful to pay much attention to these possibilities but it is foolish to deny that something is possible just because we don’t want people to do it.

[1] The above-linked PBS site attempts to justify the claim that “Race has no genetic basis” with the explanation “Not one characteristic, trait, or gene distinguishes all members of one so-called race from all members of another so-called race.” That this second statement is probably true does imply that no race is defined by the presence or absence of a single gene, but that is not the only possible genetic basis for a classification scheme. It may well be that our identification of a person’s race (when possible) is by reference to a combination of several characteristics – each of which may result from the activation of a multitude of genes and indeed the suggestion that a characteristic not linked definitively to a specific gene “has no genetic basis” is so simplistically wrong as to completely discredit its proponent.

[2] A “quiz” associated with the site includes the question “Which of the following is likely to be your ancestor?: (A)Nefertiti, (B)Julius Caesar, (C)Qin Shi Huang – first emperor of China, (D)All of the above, (E)None of the above.” with the answer given as (D) on the basis of a silly argument about numbers of ancestors which neglects the effect of isolation of populations.

Obama Leadership “Tested” by Egypt

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

A good part of my recent visit to Toronto was spent glued to the news coming out of Egypt. Then on Thursday, Mubarak finally addressed the  nation –  and failed completely  to satisfy the demonstrators. But by the time I read the headline in the Globe and Mail on Friday announcing that he would stay, the announcement that he would actually quit had already been made (sometime while I was in the air the previous evening and apparently too late to make the morning paper). Subsequent news stories were all about the celebrations and implications of the “new regime” with surprisingly little about the timing and process of the change of heart – though I eventually did find a blow by blow account on the BBC website.

Of course, any enthusiasm for the result must still be tempered by uncertainty about what will really happen and whether or not the democratic spirit will survive the stresses of inevitable failure to fully meet the expectations of all and to actually solve the structural economic problems (many of which are due to external causes beyond any national control).

But what does not need to be tempered is our admiration for the way the people of Egypt have handled themselves so far. The thuggery that  has occurred has been little beyond what one would expect of disappointed British soccer louts or Canadian hockey fans, and the restraint of the military (both soldiers and leaders) has provided a model that could improve the behaviour of our own guardians of “order” at events like the G20 last year.

A couple of factors worth noting by way of partial explanation (but without significantly detracting from the huge amount of credit due to both protesters and militars in Egypt) is the almost complete absence of serious weaponry outside the control of the military and the dependence of that military on American approval for funding. Despite appearances (and his last ditch attempt at defiance), Mubarak’s power has always been subject to military approval and the military has always been highly dependent for both resources and training on its American counterpart. And so Obama’s pleas for restraint on all sides may well have helped ensure the victory of progressive elements in any debates that occurred within the regime side of things. An anti-colonial cynic might say that Obama was “running” the military and Google was “running” the protesters, but I prefer to believe that they were all just significantly more humane and enlightened than some of their contemporaries in other places.

Remarkably some idiots in the US media are now second-guessing the public pronouncements of the Obama administration (notwithstanding their complete ignorance of whatever was being said in private) – even to the extent of believing in some cases that he had “told”  the Egyptian administration to have Mubarak to resign (or for those who did not hear him that way wishing that he had been firmer about it). Of course any such “telling” would have been totally inappropriate and an almost inevitable cause of future resentment, so anyone who thinks he did so would actually be best advised to say as little as possible about it.

Dumb Slogans

Monday, February 14th, 2011

I am sick and tired of watching the “left” shoot itself in the foot by trying to popularize its position with dumb and reactionary slogans which actually work against (what should be) their core principles.

A recent case in point is the campaign against “Usage Based Billing” for internet access.

Previously we have the BCNDP’s foolish “Axe the Tax” campaign to oppose the idea of a Carbon Tax rather than dealing with the nitty gritty of what was wrong with the Campbell government’s specific implementation of it (a position on which they reversed themselves as soon as it had achieved its apparent purpose of loosing them the election!)

And prior to that was a campaign against the idea of “Contingent Repayment” for student loans just because the plan proposed by the government (for those whose education turned out not to be as remunerative as promised) was just deferral rather than true forgiveness (which is what contingent repayment should have been forced to mean).

It seems all the right has to do to kill a good idea is implement it sub-optimally and then the idiots on the left will decide they never liked it and it will be done for.

Many Views on UBB

Monday, February 7th, 2011

Michael Geist provides some useful links to opinions about the “Usage-Based Billing” issue, and has just expanded on his own view, as has also Teksavvy’s Rocky Gaudrault.(More here, here, and here.)

My take on all this is that it is not the principle of UBB but rather the specific implementation and lack of transparency that are the problem – and that the objections to UBB per se are misguided and actually harmful because they identify legitimate objections to current billing practices with the ill-founded and selfish demands of a greedy minority. (more…)

Collapse of Trade as a Phase Transition

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

Prompted by our visiting friend Geoff (the ‘lucky Geologist’ and author of ‘Green Figs’ and other essays), I have recently finished reading ‘The Fall of Rome – and the End of Civilization’ by Bryan Ward-Perkins (OUP2005), wherein the author responds to a recent trend amongst historians to view the fall of Rome as a largely peaceful transition to Germanic rule within a period of positive cultural evolution. (more…)