Truth, Belief, and Action

August 27, 2013

My daughter is doing a medical degree. At dinner the other day, I mentioned that a few years back everybody seemed to think that doctors would be replaced by expert systems. Did that happen? Oh no, she said, that’s never going to happen. Its the doctor’s job to decide. Hmm. I see a scientist’s job, much of the time, as a dogged persistence in avoiding deciding, as you hunt down the sometimes stubborn truth. You have to steer carefully between the Scylla of shallow herd fashion and the Charybdis of renegade self delusion, but the aim is constant – to discover what really is the case.

Of course we have statistical methods for dealing with uncertainty, whether it be missing information or true randomness. But even here, as scientists, we avoid jumping to a conclusion, as a fundamentally unsound thing to do. All I can do is tell you that on Hypothesis A, you would have been pretty unlikely to get that measurement. Doesn’t necessarily mean its wrong though… (Pour beer. Cue usual frequentist vs Bayesian argument. Fail to come to conclusion. Drink more beer.)

But for much of our worldly lives, its not about truth, and its not about decision – its about action. You can see this trio as a chain. You cannot take a sensible action unless you have made a wise decision. You cannot take a wise decision unless you know what is and what is not. Each step limits the landscape for the next, but does not fix the path. Well thats what Hume said, which is good enough for me, as he is an Edinburgh Local Hero. Got a statue on the High Street and everything.

We see this every day in public policy – should we punish Assad? Should we allow fracking? Anybody care to postulate the relevant probability distributions in the Syrian case? Thought not. What makes these debates so difficult is not just that we have to act before all the options or their consequences are clear; or that we have to decide whats going on before we know all the facts; its that different people are not even trying to achieve the same ends; and sometimes they don’t even realise this.

A curious and frustrating example is racial profiling. If your aim is to maximise the number of terrorists you stop, regardless of anything else, its hard to deny the statistical fact that if you randomly stop young asian looking men with beards you will do better than if you randomly stop middle aged white women. But if your aim is to minimise the number of terrorists you create over a period of years, you could be making a big mistake.

A few days back, I followed a Twitter link to this beautiful little video. A black American woman explains how she was asked out of the blue for two types of ID, and looked up in a bad-check book, at a supermarket checkout. Her white sister in-law, immediately in front of her, was not asked for ID. The  sister used her white privilege to step in and address the inequity, which is the political point of the story.

However what I found intriguing is that the woman telling this depressingly normal story is so clearly middle class, articulate, intelligent and trustworthy. It sounds like the checkout girl was not being mean, but dim. At the back of her head was not necessarily emotional dislike, but instinctive statistical reasoning – if I stop black people, I will find more bad checks. Well this is probably true, but its a bit like the old gag about the price of fish in Billingsgate market being correlated with the size of women’s feet in China. Most bad checks will be written by members of the impoverished underclass. Due to hundreds of years of social, economic, and political repression, black people in the USA make up a larger then average fraction of the underclass. But the woman in that video is patently not a member of the impoverished stressed out underclass. So what’s depressing is that this isn’t obvious to a supermarket checkout girl. Why can’t she read the signals?

So.. I guess education, in the largest sense, is the answer. Maybe we can’t avoid profiling. We just want better profiling. Academic readers can draw the analogy with citation statistics and divert the conversation as they wish.

Anyway. Got some grant applications to re-read.

Celebrity Leakthrough

August 14, 2013

My exchange with Dr E over intersecting with Amanda Palmer reminded me of a post from a few years back, where I described minor connections with celebrity – living across the road from Norman Wisdom’s Aunty, knowing someone who had his boots stolen by Donovan and so on. Sometimes I get the feeling of a ghostly parallel universe of celebrities, which occasionally leaks through into ours at weak points in the space-time continuum.

Sometimes there are astronomical versions, but it only really works with impressionable postgrads and postdocs. Later on you get jaded and you’ve met everybody anyway. As a spotty astro-yoof, after my first observing run at CTIO, I caught a tourist bus back down the mountain and found myself sitting next to a long haired hippy type who turned out to be Kip Thorne. He hadn’t been observing – theorist and all that – but was just being a tourist with his also-groovy wife, looking at the telescopes. I had been reading Misner Thorne and Wheeler and had assumed that whoever constructed that five inch thick masterpiece must be a god-like alien only temporarily passing through our galaxy. Finding the god on a bus was kinda weird. He probably said all sorts of deep things, but all I remember is that he complained that the CTIO compound had American airbread.  Never seen him again of course and he wouldn’t know me from Adam.

I am sure there is some kind of story about Dr E being ill on the back of a bus full of famous astronomers, but can’t quite reconstruct it.

So if anybody has spilled beer on Fred Hoyle, or has been to the same hairdresser as Martin Rees etc etc, do let us know.

The Information Arms Race

August 11, 2013

This GCHQ / NSA / Snowden thing is confusing. Part of me is shocked and horrified. Another part of me is jadedly unsurprised. (Is “jadedly” a word?) I think I already assumed that they know everything they want to know. As Scott McNealy maybe did or didn’t say “you have no privacy, get used to it”.

Today a tweet from @Orbitingfrog alerted me to more disturbing news ; encrypted email company Lavabit have shut themselves down in protest over a mysterious government investigation that they are even forbidden from talking about; and Silent Circle, founded by Phil Zimmerman – the inventor of Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) – have pre-emptively shut down  their secure email service and deleted content so that they cannot be subject to the same pressure. Some years back Zimmerman was under criminal investigation for offering the PGP code worldwide, which the US government claimed breached laws against the export of munitions. Zimmerman printed the code in a hardback book and exported that instead.

Although the strong-arm stuff is scary, it kinda makes sense. The Lavabit episode seems to confirm that even the NSA cannot crack RSA-grade encrypted material. Instead of quietly snooping and leaving the public docile, they have no choice but to be honest and say “We are the government and we are in charge. Give us that stuff or you are fucked.”

Its more or less inevitable that there is a three-way information arms race between individuals, corporations, and government. Information is power. It is natural for governments to always want more information, more complete information, and more reliable information. Commercial corporations have the same instinct. You don’t have to assume they are evil; just trying to know their market. Consumers get no choice in this. You try buying a train ticket online without “registering”.  Oft and betimes, the consumer/voter just relaxes. Its kinda useful when I go back to GoCompare and they already know everything about me. But on the other hand, we instinctively bristle. They have the all power and we don’t!! The Freedom of Information Act tried to restore the balance, but its feeble.

Before you feel too powerless however, just recall that everything changed in 1976.  This is when Diffie and Helman published the key-exchange method, followed the next year by Rivest, Shamir, and Adelman’s publication of the RSA algorithm implementing the idea. Arranged carefully enough, you can make any communication completely secure. Wouldn’t this make any government terrified? What do you do? Well, partly you sniff as much as you can on the assumption that most traffic is not encrypted, or that you can read the envelope metadata if you can’t read the letter, or that you can intercept at the relay points that the internet relies on. The counter-thrust for the latter is envelope-content splitting.

But at the end of the day, the government can’t win the technology battle; they have to resort to legal restraint. An unsuccessful attempt was the Clipper Chip initiative. The idea was to generously provide to the world obligatory encryption methods which the Government could always decode. They gave up. A successful example is the infamous 1998 Digital Millenium Copyright Act. Entertainment corporations knew they couldn’t develop perfect DRM mechanisms. So they convinced the US government to make it illegal to deploy or develop technologies intended to circumvent DRM mechanisms.

My guess is that we will soon hear of plans in both the UK and the USA to make non-Government use of the RSA algorithm a criminal offence, or more generally to make it an offence to send communications that cannot in principle be decoded by appropriate authorities.

Before you accuse me of being a paranoid old hippy, let me just say that I am not even sure where my sympathies lie. I have a bristly rebel side and a  pragmatic patrician side. Viewed from above, its a fascinating struggle.

Creepy Covers

August 4, 2013

Cover versions of songs are fascinating. Maybe we should do cover versions of scientific papers. Well … maybe I could name a few that look like this already, but that might be considered provocative.

So there  I was listening to  Amanda Palmer Performs The Popular Hits Of Radiohead On Her Magical Ukulele .  I know this sounds like a dumb jokey idea but actually the result is scarily beautiful. AFP is fucking brilliant. Up in my premier league of modern female divas with Judith Shimer, Holly Brewer, and Aoife O’Donovan. Her version of Creep is however rather more tongue in cheek than the other songs. Well, I thought, it is such a personal song about Thom Yorke’s angst, his peculiar brand of insecurity and arrogance, that, if you are not Thom Yorke, it must be hard to do anything other than make something  quirky out of it.

Seems the world disagrees with me. Over at YouTube I  found that Creep seems to be one of the most covered songs ever – there are just dozens and dozens of versions. I guess it touches a nerve. Almost everybody either has a core of insecurity, or wants to give the appearance of one. (Love me! I’m vulnerable!). But I found most of these versions unsettling. The performers were mostly beautiful people, or brashly confident performers – more like the object of Yorke’s song than its subject. Very few have any sense of angst, or irony, or anger with the world, or the cruelties of biology. Somehow they have just picked up that the song is emotional and about “love”. Did they actually listen to the words? I realise that I am getting a bit can-white-mens-sing-the-blues-ish, but it felt all wrong. Even more bizarrely, there are versions by safe-as-milk choirs. The ambiguity of genuine admiration and bitter sarcasm disappears completely.  Sigh.

I can’t possibly show you them all, but here are a few. Its a bit of a long haul, so feel free to try a few seconds of each. You’ll get the idea.

First, the original :

Here is Carrie Manalakos. A very good singer; but she is perfect. I cannot see her being awkward in front a boy. Sorry Carrie, but you are not a creep.

Here is the Pretenders version. Very emotional in some generic sense, but for goodness sake, Chrissie Hynde is a confident and powerful woman.

Here is a live Amanda Palmer version. Its turned into a different song, but at least she knows. Also, although Amanda now has legions of adoring fans, it easy to imagine her as a  teenager frightening away the handsome square-jawed football jocks. Fun and funny.

Next up, the Seattle Ladies Choir. Really. Mangles the tune as well as the meaning.

Here is Jim Carrey. Its pretty grim. Skip this one if you like.

Now the Macy Gray jazzy version. Nice song, nice performance until you remember what it is supposed to be.

Here is the only one that works for me. Homeless Daniel Mustard.

If you are still up for it, search out the Kermit version, and the Damien Rice version, which are good in their way. There are also endless bedroom singer versions, which are at least genuinely vulnerable.

Bottom line – although I love music, I think I realise more and more that for me rock music is a kind of theatre. If you just sing a song, you ain’t gettin it.