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December 5th, 2014

I have been wondering about the possibility of using small rfid tags on fingernails to enable fingertip tracking by a computer or tablet so that free hand signals (and maybe even sign language) could be used for input.

This set of OneTab shared tabs, (also saved here in case doesn't keep it) is just some links I want to follow up on re small tags and how to address and locate them.

3quarksdaily: Who knows What

November 20th, 2014

3quarksdaily links today to a two year old article by Massimo Pigliucci objecting to a 1998 book by E.O.Wilson.

But anyone who could say "Epistemic reductionism is obviously false", at least on the basis of only the feeble grounds provided by Pigliucci, apparently doesn't understand what such reductionism should reasonably be expected to claim.

The simplest model that shows his error is perhaps the reduction of thermodynamics to statistical mechanics wherein our inability to keep track of all the 10^26 odd microvariables (representing positions and momenta of all the particles in a sample of material) is overcome by identifying suitable combinations of them as macrovariables (such as volume, temperature, pressure etc) with the rules or axioms of the macrotheory being "explained" as theorems of the microtheory. We don't yet have a satisfactory quantum theory of gravity but there is no known logical obstruction to finding one, and if we do then one of the constraints on it will be that its classical limit *does* provide a "quantum theory of planets".

UW Lies about Peer Review Study

November 17th, 2014

Note: This rant is more about the evils of headline writers and professional C&M types than about the substance of the proposed study (which I think is very interesting):

The University of Washington is rightly proud of the fact that UW statistician, philosopher win prize for detecting bias in peer review. Except that the headline is a lie! The award is for proposing a method for detecting a certain kind of bias if it exists. The researchers quite reasonably guess that it might, and they suggest that it may explain the fact (which really was observed in a different study) that blacks are underfunded compared to whites of the same “educational background, country of origin, training, previous research awards, publication record, and employer characteristics”. And the study they propose (and which will be funded by the award) may well detect it. But it has NOT been "detected" yet.

P.S. I actually came to this via a link in a comment on a blog post in a series by Susanna Siegel in which an earlier post had referred to a study by the psychologists Uhlmann and Cohen, where they were investigating the role of gender stereotypes in hiring decisions and in which a very similar kind of bias to that proposed by the UW team was observed in a mock hiring experiment.

November 15th, 2014

The answer provided by a professional philosopher (at to the question "If we have no free will, then is the entire legal system redundant since no one can be held accountable for anything since no one has control over their own actions?" would be shocking if my expectations were not already so low.

...more »

On Pride

November 8th, 2014

Ophelia Benson is often proudly childish in giving vent to her emotions, but rarely falls into the kind of childish pride with which Peter Boghossian asserts the "adult" nature of his comments.

I don't know if Tim Cook really meant to claim that he is proud of his sexual orientation per se rather than of his ability to thrive in a world where even to survive is often challenging for gays, but regardless of whether or not he meant his words to be taken literally, it is meanly small-minded to question that pride by way of a sarcastic "tweet" or "status" comment.

Personally, I walk in the Gay Pride Parade more to support the latter interpretation (so well expressed by Greta Christina and many others who responded to Boghossian's Facebook post), but even if Tim either misspoke or feels a pride that I could not share, I am sure he deserves a more respectful response than was shown by Boghossian.

I do think, though, there is a sense in which some expressions of "gay pride" may be unfortunate - either by being misleading as to the intent, or by actually claiming a sense of superiority that just perpetuates the power of prejudice by seeking to reverse it rather than to end it. And there may be a context in which such concerns can be usefully addressed. ...more »

Progress(?) in philosophy: the Gettier case

October 15th, 2014

I'm of two minds about this article by Massimo Pigliucci. While I continue to be dismissive of the claim that there is anything of substance in the Gettier examples I can agree that there may be progress in the game of clearly expressing why that is the case. But the role of philosophers in advancing that progress is often more obstructive than constructive.

My own initial response to the Gettier problems was basically what Pigliucci refers to as the false premise objection - namely that the claimed "justification" for the belief in the allegedly problematic cases may be make the belief "excusable" or "blameless" but is not justification in the intended (logical) sense because it is based on a false premise. And my respect for the discipline is not enhanced by the proposed example of "more sophisticated Gettier cases that do not seem to depend on false premises".

What Pigliucci proposes is as follows:

I am walking through Central Park and I see a dog in the distance. I instantly form the belief that there is a dog in the park. This belief is justified by direct observation. It is also true, because as it happens there really is a dog in the park. Problem is, it’s not the one I saw! The latter was, in fact, a robotic dog unleashed by members of the engineering team from Bronx High School. So my belief is justified (it was formed by normally reliable visual inspection), true (there is indeed a dog in the park), and arrived at without relying on any false premise [2].

But here the "justification" clearly involves the false premise that what looks like a dog is a dog. Without that premise, any claim of justification "by direct observation" is just clearly nonsense.

What is “Natural Variability”?

October 15th, 2014

Briggs is right to complain that "natural variability" is an ambiguous and easily abused term, but what I would be most inclined to use it for is different from either of the usages that he identifies.

He notes that some use "natural variability" of a phenomenon (such as some average of temperature measurements) to refer to the actual values taken by the data at different points in time, and others use it for the values that would be expected in the absence of some "unnatural" factor (such as CO2 emissions from human use of technology). But to me it seems much more natural to use it to refer to the unexplained deviations of the data from what would be predicted by a (partially) explanatory model.

I misunderstood Briggs' claim that theoretical and/or statistical modellers claim to "skillfully" predict the natural variability in his first sense as meaning that they claim to predict it completely or accurately, whereas he was referring to the technical definition used in meteorology where one prediction is said to be relatively skillful compared to another if its mean squared deviation from the observed data is less. But this depends both on the reference model used for comparison and on the interval over which the comparison is made. A model that is skillful over a long interval may well have substantial shorter intervals over which it is not skillful, and even though a prediction of an upward trend in global temperature may appear not to be skillful over the interval from 2008 to 2014, that made by Arrhenius in 1898 does seem to be so (and would be even more so if he had predicted a faster rate of increase by reducing his estimated doubling time for CO2 to account for the subsequent increase in both population and per capita energy use).

Misreading Statistics

October 11th, 2014

Briggs, points out a very important real issue here – though I wouldn’t call the confusion between group and individual differences a matter of “exaggeration” exactly.

No matter how carefully one tries to express a claim about population differences, the risk of feeding prejudice about individuals is always substantial – so much so that I think there may be many true statements that would be best left unsaid.

OneTab shared tabs for 2014-10-06

October 6th, 2014

OneTab shared tabs.

The Story of a Disaster

October 5th, 2014

On reading the comments on this old Tyee article I was struck by one particular exchange which follows a pattern that is sadly all too common.

When commenter Chris Abel made the claim that "NOBODY was harmed by radiations at Fukushima" the response by G West included a number of links which were presumably intended to convey the impression that in fact MANY were harmed "by radiation". But if one reads them it becomes clear that the claims of actual and prospective medical harms due to radiation, (while obviously non-zero if one includes delayed rather than just immediate effects), are really very modest (and essentially negligible in comparison to the number of deaths and injuries caused by the tsunami itself)

For example the first link is to a report from Physicians for Social Responsibility which, while striking me as somewhat alarmist, does stick reasonably close to actual facts and so does not make any claims as to the actual number of expected morbid or fatal outcomes.

The second link is to the World Health Organization which reports that:

The WHO report ‘Health Risk Assessment from the nuclear accident after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami based on preliminary dose estimation’ noted, however, that the estimated risk for specific cancers in certain subsets of the population in Fukushima Prefecture has increased and, as such, it calls for long term continued monitoring and health screening for those people.

Experts estimated risks in the general population in Fukushima Prefecture, the rest of Japan and the rest of the world, plus the power plant and emergency workers that may have been exposed during the emergency phase response.

“The primary concern identified in this report is related to specific cancer risks linked to particular locations and demographic factors,” says Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director for Public Health and Environment. “A breakdown of data, based on age, gender and proximity to the nuclear plant, does show a higher cancer risk for those located in the most contaminated parts. Outside these parts - even in locations inside Fukushima Prefecture - no observable increases in cancer incidence are expected.

In terms of specific cancers, for people in the most contaminated location, the estimated increased risks over what would normally be expected are:

all solid cancers - around 4% in females exposed as infants;
breast cancer - around 6% in females exposed as infants;
leukaemia - around 7% in males exposed as infants;
thyroid cancer - up to 70% in females exposed as infants (the normally expected risk of thyroid cancer in females over lifetime is 0.75% and the additional lifetime risk assessed for females exposed as infants in the most affected location is 0.50%).
For people in the second most contaminated location of Fukushima Prefecture, the estimated risks are approximately one-half of those in the location with the highest doses.

The report also references a section to the special case of the emergency workers inside the Fukushima NPP. Around two-thirds of emergency workers are estimated to have cancer risks in line with the general population, while one-third is estimated to have an increased risk.

The almost-200-page document further notes that the radiation doses from the damaged nuclear power plant are not expected to cause an increase in the incidence of miscarriages, stillbirths and other physical and mental conditions that can affect babies born after the accident.

For the benefit of any readers who can't read, the "up to 70%" increase (in usually non-fatal thyroid cancers) does NOT mean that 70% of those exposed (in the worst area) will get the cancer but that the number of cancers might increase by 70% of what it was previously - ie from about 1.5 in 200 to 2.5 in 200 - and the increases in other cancers are all by less than 10% of the background rate. So the actual number of expected extra cancers is indeed quite small.

But poor Mr Christian Abel apparently didn't bother to follow the links, and just like many other readers assumed the WHO supported G West in contradicting him - and so resorted to foolishly dismissing them without realizing that they essentially supported his assertion (even to the extent that they were criticized in another of G West's links)

G West's third link is to the Health Physics Society which in turn links to many useful sources - most of which are consistent with the assertion by Robert Gale in their panel discussion of the event that (with regard to probable increases in the lifetime cancer rate over Japan's pre-Fukushima rate which was about 50%) "You can see that these are incredibly small increases that would never be detectable, especially in light of a very steeply increasing
incidence in cancer deaths in Japan over the last 60 years."

Next is an article which asserts that:

In theory there is a possibility of cancer among people exposed in the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi NPP. Assuming the LNT model represents the reality of radiation-induced cancer at low doses, however, significant excess risk due to exposure is unlikely to be detected for the emergency workers and the public living around the site unless their doses have been seriously underestimated

and concludes that:

In the Fukushima accident, no acute radiation injuries have been observed even among people associated with the operation of the plant or responding to the accident in contrast to the Chernobyl accident where a number of people suffered acute radiation injuries. The anxiety among most of the civilian population is the future increase in the possibility of tumorigenesis.

West's fifth link is to the rebuttal of WHO that I mentioned above (about which he helpfully says "And I suppose you thing these guys are biased too?" as if to identify them as even more mainstream than the rest when in fact, whether right or wrong, they are by far the most extreme in their assessment of the likely harm.

Finally, the last link is to the Science Daily report of a Stanford University study which unfortunately does set up the straw man claim that "There are groups of people who have said there would be no effects", but the effects it does claim are really quite modest (even at the high end of a very wide range).

Radiation from Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster may eventually cause anywhere from 15 to 1,300 deaths and from 24 to 2,500 cases of cancer, mostly in Japan, Stanford researchers have calculated.
The numbers are in addition to the roughly 600 deaths caused by the evacuation of the area surrounding the nuclear plant directly after the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and meltdown.

So the expected number of cancer deaths is anywhere from many times less to maybe a couple of times more than the number of people killed by the decision to evacuate. (Not to mention the almost 20,000 immediate fatalities resulting from the tsunami itself and the totally ignored number of cancers etc that may result from other kinds of pollution caused by the destruction of various toxic chemical repositories!)

God, Darwin and the College Biology Class

September 30th, 2014

David Barash apparently thinks it appropriate to discuss religion in his Biology class.

But his understanding of both religion and biology are flawed (ie not in accord with my own). ...more »

Dawkins Needs Better Friends (not Defenders)

September 23rd, 2014

Adam Lee thinks that Dawkins Needs Better Defenders after having (again) posted a series of tweets that undermine his credibility as a serious thinker.

But so far as I can see, it's not better "defenders" that he needs, but better *friends* - ones with the sense to recognize, and the courage to say, when he has gone off the rails. Sadly he lacks the wit to recognize that Adam Lee and Ophelia Benson are probably the best and most useful friends he could have, and so, like an ageing rock star or corrupt monarch, he continues to rely on the usual crop of groupies and sycophants to support him down the path to perdition (and irrelevance).

On David Frum and the Non-Faked 'Fake' Photos

August 1st, 2014

James Fallows at The Atlantic congratulates his friend and colleague David Frum  for finally apologizing (a whole week later despite prompt and incontrovertible correction from several other reliable sources) to one of the four slandered photographers (and none of the traumatized victims). And Frum then has the gall to use his "apology" as an excuse for repeating the accusation against other unnamed parties, and to describe as "skepticism" his uncritical acceptance of a source who is self-identified as unreliable. (See also this from the Washington Post).

More on Learning Theories

July 31st, 2014

Tony Bates on Learning theories(via Stephen Downes)

Measurement in QM

July 27th, 2014

This set of OneTab shared tabs collects some recent blog activity on the measurement process in Quantum Mechanics. This reminds me of the fact that once as a graduate student (in the '70s), on hearing once too often that the measurement process was a mystery because unitary evolution cannot take a pure state into a mixed state, I thought I had something useful to say on the matter but was pointed to the discussion in von Neumann's book and later elaborations by Jauch and Hepp that seemed to deal with the issue on the same lines (namely by modelling the measured and measuring systems together as a tensor product of a pure state of the former and a mixed state of the latter which could evolve unitarily in such a way that the marginal state in the measured system does evolve from pure to mixed).

Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Sardonic comment: The measurement problem in QM

Spherical Harmonics: On quantum measurement (Part 2: Some history, and John von Neumann is confused)

Spherical Harmonics: On quantum measurement (Part 3: No cloning allowed)

The Many Worlds of Quantum Mechanics | Sean Carroll

Everett's Relative-State Formulation of Quantum Mechanics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Quantum Mechanics Smackdown | Sean Carroll

Why Probability in Quantum Mechanics is Given by the Wave Function Squared | Sean Carroll

On "Calling Out" the Insane Among Us

July 27th, 2014

GMO advocate Keith Kloor has recently been reporting (in his blog at about the activities of a particularly insane anti-GMO activist whom I will not stoop to identify or link to.  Such vitriol does need to be called out (at least if it appears to be gaining any public traction), but there is a danger of seeing (or being perceived as seeing) the extremist as representative of the position.  So I was pleased to see that Keith has added an explanatory postscript at the end of his latest post. But his conclusion to that postscript raises a further question - namely how much responsibility do GMO opponents (or even just labelling advocates) have for controlling the nutbars.

Actually, I think that it can be hard to decide how much an advocate for any view or religion should be held responsible for finding and correcting extremists who claim to share their view - perhaps it depends on whether one is claiming some kind of "leadership" in one's own advocacy. I am quick to condemn religious leaders (including "atheist" ones) who fail to control or at least to quickly identify and disavow vicious nonsense spouted by their followers, but I feel no real obligation on myself to address  and correct the anti-scientific nutbars when I make my own claims against those who would deny me the right to demand whatever information I want about the food I eat. (And my own confidence in the safety of GMOs is substantially reduced by the determination of their producers to deny me that information).

Winners Announced In The Rename “Global Warming” Contest! | William M. Briggs

July 26th, 2014

Apparently, as one of the winners in Matt Briggs'  Rename “Global Warming” Contest, I have the option of writing an essay on "What I learned from Global Warming". This is a bit of a challenge since it presumes the existence of something I have not yet experienced to any great degree. But to the extent that plausible evidence for Anthropogenic Global Warming has already appeared I would say that I have indeed learned something from it. So here goes:

What I Have Learned From Global Warming

The most important thing I have learned from Global Warming (so far) is that I have been right to give significant credence to predictions based on general scientific principles. More specifically, I have learned to take seriously the predictions of basic physics when made in the context of the simplest model that fits the known facts of the situation without introducing additional variables whose values and effects are less well understood. (But since I am not dead yet - and hope to continue learning until I am - I could find no way of addressing the topic without including that extra word in the title).

When the simplest scientific models predict something, it really should be considered as quite likely to happen - even if deniers and naysayers are able to point out various more complicated models in which the predicted effect may be reduced or counteracted by various other secondary effects. In the case of CO2 induced global warming, it was of course conceivable (before measurements proved otherwise) that the predicted absorption of outgoing radiation might be limited by saturation of CO2 energy levels (after all, if equipartition could not be at least temporarily defeated then lasers would be impossible); and if bicarbonate can buffer the addition of acids or bases to a solution then perhaps something could similarly damp the effects of atmospheric CO2; or maybe the global surface temperature is automatically stabilized by an increase in reflective cloud cover whenever the temperature goes up a bit, etc.etc.  All of these scenarios could of course have prevented global warming, but each is dependent on very special circumstances that we had no reason to expect were actually the case - and for each anti-warming scenario it was equally easy to come up with some hypothetical mechanism for amplifying rather than damping. So now that the trend is becoming clear, perhaps more and more people will see that banking on complicated second order effects as an excuse to postpone mitigating action against something predicted by a simple and clear first order argument was foolish. In this case it may quite possibly turn out to have been the most foolhardy and irresponsible and ultimately harmful act in the history of humanity.

Let's hope that others learn quickly enough so that as a species we can keep my extra word in the title at least until the phenomenon really is history, because if it becomes "What We Learned" within the century or more that it will take to reliably stabilize our effects on the climate then that will only be in our epitaph.

Update: This has now been posted on Briggs' site and the comments include both what may be a clearer presentation than my own of my main point by Rob Ryan, and an interesting (to me) exchange with Tom Scharf who, I think, misheard my claims as to the likely extent of the harmful effects but with whom I may really disagree about how important it is to try to prevent them them.

Plus ca change ... meme chose!

July 23rd, 2014

Recent events in Vancouver civic politics echo similar stories from four and thirty years ago!

Implications of the Free Will Debate?

July 23rd, 2014

At Templeton's BQO site, Alfred Mele asks What Are the Implications of the Free Will Debate for Individuals and Society? But before looking at the content, let me comment on that title.

Sometimes titles are imposed by editors, but the chance that that one was put forward (or at least approved) by the author certainly reduced my expectation of learning anything from the article - and that reduced expectation turns out to have been appropriate.

The debate, being an extended event or occurrence, may have consequences, but since it is not a proposition it can't have any implications, and confusion between these two concepts permeates the article - with significant impact on its conclusions. (Often such language is used without adverse consequence - a newspaper editorial on the "implications of a trade agreement" for example may legitimately use the word "implications" as a colloquial substitute for "expected consequences". But in the context of this particular philosophical discussion the distinction is crucial.)

It may well be that, as some researchers claim to show, a belief in "lack of free will" may be associated with (and so perhaps even in some cases be a cause of) behaviour and opinions deemed to display a lack of self control.  And, if true, the fact of the debate having those consequences might imply that there are reasons to avoid it and instead to just encourage people to believe in the existence of  "free will" regardless of whether or not it is actually true - and this might apply even if the propositions established in the debate actually imply that all commonly held definitions of the term "free will" are either incoherent or refer to something that does not exist.

The research on consequences of the debate so far is not conclusive so I won't address the question of whether or not it might be a good idea to promote the existence of "free will" even if it doesn't exist (which of course also raises other questions as to the morality of claiming to serve the common good of our peers by deliberately misinforming them). Rather, I will just deal with whether the author has proposed a meaningful definition for something that does not not exist.

And he has not.

(I will continue this post with more on that later)


Mathematics, Mathematicians and Desire

July 17th, 2014

On Monday I attended the Math Ed Ph.D. defense of my former colleague Veda Roodal Persad, but although I had had some earlier discussions with Veda I have to admit that I hadn't actually seen and read the full thesis, so any comment here is based solely on the oral presentation. The subject was Mathematics Education, and the topic was 'Mathematics, Mathematicians and Desire'.  Veda's background is in Statistics and her teaching approach to both statistics and mathematics was always pretty much straightforward, so I was a bit surprised to see her interest in approaching Math Ed from the perspective of a Lacanian psychoanalytic cultural criticism. This is something I know absolutely nothing about so my understanding of what is really intended by many of the words may be completely wrong. But on the face of it (with conventional understanding of the words), who can disagree that desire is the source of motivation without which we cannot expect people to put in the effort required for real progress?

Veda took particular  inspiration from Lacanian scholar Mark Bracher who said "Insofar as a cultural phenomenon succeeds in interpellating subjects - that is in summoning them to assume a certain subjective disposition - it does so by evoking some form of desire or by promising satisfaction of some desire" and who then categorized desire into four forms:

  • Passive Narcissistic Desire is desire to be the object of another's  love, attention, and emulation ("I want to be recognized by mathematics and its community as a mathematician")
  • Active Narcissistic is desire to emulate or become the other (I want to be a mathematician - ie to be like those who wear that label")
  • Active Anaclytic is desire to have possess or use the other as a source of jouissance or pleasure ("I want to possess mathematics as a source of enjoyment - eg pleasure in knowing things and exercising skills")
  • Passive Anaclytic desire is to be possessed in service of the jouissance of the other ("I want to be desired by mathematics as a means of adding to its glory")

The audience had little trouble understanding the first three and how they can  be encouraged and used to contribute to even a beginning student's engagement with mathematics, but the last one caused one of the examiners to ask "How can mathematics desire? That's like saying this coffee cup can desire something". Now the second sentence there is a bit odd since there had been no objection to the idea of mathematics-as-a-community seeing the subject as a worthy object of emulation as a "good mathematician", but the idea of a beginning student actually being "needed" as a source of satisfaction even by the mathematics community, let alone the abstract discipline, is perhaps rather more challenging. Perhaps one could see the community as needing the satisfaction of  having resolution for an outstanding problem, but it is hard to see that as motivating for beginners - even though it certainly worked for three and a half centuries on those at a level capable of understanding the issue of Fermat's Last Theorem. Nonetheless, Veda insisted, and I found myself agreeing, that this is a potential source of engagement even for beginners. In fact, even without the math-as-a-community interpretation, there is a real sense in which mathematics as a body of knowledge can "desire" satisfaction from anyone at any level. (I use scare quotes here because perhaps the attribution of emotion to a non-human entity is really only metaphorical, but more on that later).

Of course, regardless of whether mathematics is really capable of "desire" , the passive modes of desire represent feelings of the subject, so wishing to feel desired or needed by the object (either human or otherwise) is a possible emotional state for the subject even if the object is not actually capable of having any such feelings. So we can ask what are examples of feeling needed by mathematics and whether such feelings can be stimulated in an early learner. I think not only that they can, but also that they provide the most powerful (almost addictive) attraction for the learner to the subject. The situation for mathematics is similar to that for poetry or music where artists often describe a work as demanding to be written. Most mathematicians have similar experiences of an idea, pattern, or proof demanding understanding and I think that if we could tap more into the power of creating and drawing attention to that experience at an early age then we might get many more potential addicts hooked on mathematics.

P.S. Re the coffee cup: even without emotions doesn't the handle need to be held and the cup to be filled?  One can say that calling these "needs" is merely metaphorical, but at one level (perhaps legitimately called psychopathic) the attribution of emotions to other humans is also metaphorical since it is only those of the self that are known directly.