Archive for the ‘technical issues’ Category

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.

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…)

More MOOCs

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

Massively Open On-Line Courses allow large numbers of people to participate at varying levels of commitment in a process of shared learning. Part of the openness aspect is that there are many avenues of participation and rather than relying on a centralized Course Management System people are encouraged to control their own involvement by contributing comments etc through their own social media and blogs. But rather than let contributions to these courses dominate the flow of my personal thoughts here, I will set up separate blogs for each such course that I join.
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Stop The Meter?

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

I’d like to hear more of what someone like Stephen Downes or Michael Geist thinks about this. (Both have reported the campaign but not really made a clear statement of their own reasons for doing so favourably.)

To me, the logic of true usage-based billing seems very reasonable, and it’s only the implementation that is problematic. (more…)

Sunrise and Sunset at Solstices

Monday, January 3rd, 2011

It is curious that the days of shortest and longest periods of sunlight (which just about everyone knows are due to the tilt of the earth’s spin axis relative to the plane of its orbit)  are not everywhere the same as those of latest and earliest sunrise. This is because the length of the full solar day is not actually constant and so the time of solar noon oscillates around the time that would correspond to noon on a steadily progressing clock.

This is often attributed to the eccentricity of the earth’s orbit, and that does play a minor role. But actually, the effect is mainly due to another effect of the earth’s tilt – a secondary effect on the difference between the length of a full solar day (taken by an apparent revolution of the sun from noon to noon) and a constant sidereal day (taken for a full revolution relative to the distant stars).

Denis Dutton

Saturday, January 1st, 2011

For several years now, Arts&Letters Daily has been my favourite source of on-line stimulation. Sadly, its founding editor, Denis Dutton, died on December 28.

What is Wrong with Web-based Networking

Friday, December 24th, 2010

Yahoo Shutting Down Del.icio.us, Ning’s recent abandonment of its free service, and the end of Bloglines are just the most recent examples of why it seems dangerous to rely on proprietary solutions to the problem of data storage for web-based networking – and of the shared bookmarking aspect in particular.

And even without the question of stability, there is the ongoing problem of duplication and overlap – whether it’s Del.icio.us vs Diigo vs PearlTrees for sharing links, or Facebook vs LinkedIn vs whatever for personal newtorking. For me it seems that the time wasted in trying to decide how to use these things is worth more than all of the benefits they provide.

What I would feel much more comfortable with are open source redundantly distributed solutions which share information in a common format (similar to the design of the web itself) – and which somehow seamlessly blend and extend the contents of the various proprietary systems now in place.

Pipedream?

The Chinese Room

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

Stephen Downes links to this notice about three free Philosophy courses from John Searle who is famous for his Chinese Room thought experiment.  Now Searle may be a great teacher, and the ‘Chinese Room’ may be a useful paedagogical device, but I’m afraid I have difficulty respecting any dsicipline which ever in modern times treated it as anything more than that.
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PLENK2010

Monday, December 6th, 2010

Over the last three months I spent a considerable amount of time following the #PLENK2010 Massive Open OnLine Course organized by Dave Cormier, Stephen Downes, Rita Kop, and George Siemens.
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Miraculous Magnetic Clowns

Monday, November 29th, 2010

James McGirk, writing in 3quarksdaily, repeats the widely stated claim that the Insane Clown Posse display inexcusable ignorance when they claim, in their song ‘Miracles’, to be mystified by magnets.

One line in particular snagged the world’s attention: “Water, fire, air and dirt, Fucking magnets, how do they work?” Magnetism being a staple of primary school science education, the line struck many casual listeners as spectacularly ignorant.

The explanation of magnetism is definitely NOT a “staple of primary school science education” and the widespread disdain for that line in the song shows greater ignorance than the line itself.

In fact, when one commenter on the youTube site asserts that  “33,316 people know how magnets work scientifically” (which would be about five people in a million worldwide), that actually sounds about right.

I would venture to suggest also that, of those of us that do understand how magnets work, most consider it a miracle only slightly less astounding than the fact that we can actually understand it.

One Bandwidth Rate for ALL Content

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

The concern expressed here, and here and here, is much more valid than that about usage-based billing. It is not the possibility of having to pay for bandwidth that is problematic, but that of being charged differential rates depending on who owns the content.

For each level of connection service quality (ie combination of speed, latency, reliability etc) there should be one bandwidth rate that applies equally to regular TV and internet. But I suspect that allowing infrastructure owners to also own or control content will always give rise to an irresistable temptation to favour their own material and to give inaccurate or misleading reports about relative costs so it may be necessary to force an arms-length separation of functions in order for the goal to be achievable.

The Inheritors of What?

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

A new book by Eric Kaufmann entitled Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?: Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century is Posted in biology, religion, sustainability | No Comments »

Letter to Tony Clement

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

Here’s what I wrote re Net Neutrality and Usage-Based Billing:

The public internet has provided a wonderful stimulus to the economic and cultural life of our country and the entire world. But that stimulus depends on its equal accessibility to all users including small innovators as well as large existing corporations. Net “throttling” and other practices of the infrastructure owners threaten that equality of access and provide them with unfair economic advantage.

The introduction of Usage-Based Billing eliminates the argument about a few heavy users overloading the system at the expense of others, and so also eliminates the case for “throttling” of certain traffic types as well. So I urge you to continue on the path of eliminating that practice entirely.

But in addition to throttling certain parts of the internet relative to others, there is also a risk that utility companies will throttle the public internet as a whole in favour of their own privtely controlled content.

So protection of the internet requires also that the bandwidth cost rate that is applied to public internet traffic does not exceed that aplied to CableTV and other private traffic controlled by the owners of the infrastructrure (who are licensed to use public space and radio bandwidth for its implementation).

People must be able to buy video (and other content) from independent producers for the same delivery cost as they get it from the TV networks.

Please make sure to address this aspect in your supervision of the industry and the CRTC.

Thank you,
sincerely
Alan Cooper

What’s Wrong With Usage-Based Billing?

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

OpenMedia.ca wants to Stop The Meter On Your Internet Use. But if all kinds of bandwidth were charged at the same rate (so that the carriers couldn’t favour one type of content, such as cable tv over another, such as internet) then usage based billing would be perfectly fair and would undermine the arguments usually given for “throttling”. So why is this considered a problem (except for heavy users who want me to subsidize their bandwidth)?

The Myth of Separate Magisteria | Big Questions Online

Monday, November 15th, 2010

The Myth of Separate Magisteria | Big Questions Online.

The main problem (aside from its pretentious name) with Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of “Non-overlapping Magisteria” as a resolution of the “conflict” between science and religion is the fact that many religions fail to respect the purported boundary. Sam Harris (and followers like Susan Jacoby) would like to make a counter invasion, but they are wrong. (more…)

Personal Knowledge Management

Friday, November 5th, 2010

The #PLENK2010 topic for  discussion in Week 8 is PKM. (more…)

Worthy of Support?

Thursday, November 4th, 2010

Telus CEO touts ‘Switzerland’ approach to content.

What’s Wrong With Usage-Based Billing?

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

The folks at OpenMedia.ca are concerned about the recent CRTC ruling to allw Bell to apply usage-based-billing to independent ISPs. But I don’t se the problem. So long as everyone gets the same speed of sevice regardless of data type it does not seem unreasonable to charge people in proportion to how much bandwidth they actually consume. What am I missing?

TV vs Internet

Saturday, October 9th, 2010

This article at the Tyee addresses the broader issue of whether ‘Net Neutrality’ is enough if the physical network used by the internet is being shared with competing services owned by the owners of the infrastructure.

Artificial Leaves from North Carolina

Sunday, October 3rd, 2010

Thanks to reader Colleen McGuire for pointing out  this interesting development. It does look promising if it can be developed further, although as one of the researchers said, “We do not want to overpromise at this stage, as the devices are still of relatively low efficiency and there is a long way to go before this can become a practical technology.” (more…)