Sunday, 12 March 2017

Berners-Lee , Fake News on the World Wide Web, and transparent communications

In 1989 Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web - which has expanded in ways which I am sure no-one would have predicted and which, via social networks, is very much affecting how people in the more advanced cultures now live their lives.

Tim has now spoken out about the abuse of personal data and "Fake News" and the problems these can cause, He is proposing a 5 year strategy to try and tackle the problems cause by his invention, See BBC Report.

Part of the problem is a result of the lack of transparency in how the World Wide Web works. This related straight back to the lack of transparency of the stored program computers on which it runs. What we have now is a massive black box system which contains a vast number of very attractive digital goodies, but there is no easy way of understanding the underlying mechanisms as to how the information got there or how reliable it is. Problems range from the misuse of personal data through to fake news and political manipulation - with the Sunday Times today reporting that GCHQ is concerned about Russian use of the network to try and influence the political system in the UK, and almost certainly in Europe, as they may have already done in the USA.

Could we have had a more transparent system which made it easier for people to understand the sources of the information, and the way it is being (mis)used? Perhaps?

In 1980 (9 years before the World Wide Web came into existence) I was involved in a British Library project called BLEND which was about the online publishing of scientific papers. This was based on very conventional stored program computer technology and I decided to see how my research system, CODIL, which was a transparent system for human-computer interaction, could tackle the same problem. I set up a number of different papers using CODIL and linked them together to show that they could not only exchange text, but also working programs (written in CODIL) and supporting data files. All this information would be written in the transparent CODIL Language, so it would be hard to hide underhand information processing -  which is the weakness of the world wide web., The work was written up for a conference in 1983, and included in a publication of BLEND papers, but the idea was not followed further due to lack of funds.

Could CODIL have been the answer? We'll never know. The big difference between CODIL and HTML (the language of the Web) is that CODIL concentrated on the meaning of the information being transferred while HTML is concerned with the formatting of data for transfer and display and is unconcerned with the information content. As such they are not equivalent approaches. However comparing the two approaches highlights the fact that as long as the World Wide Web depends on a black box approach it will be impossible to stop the less desirable activities being hidden by the unscrupulous.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Inside the "Infinity Box"

 Yayoi Kusuma has a exhibition in the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C, which includes a room of accurately placed mirrors which clains that it gives the nearest impression of infinity one is likely to experience.  Unfortunately I have no plans to go to Washington to see it - perhapos it will come to London!

Monday, 27 February 2017

A Cat trapped in a box

I was most amused by the following story in this week's New Scientist:

An Indian science textbook has been recalled after complaints that it gives details of how to kill kittens. The offending passage read: "Put a small kitten in each box. Close the boxes. After some time open the boxes. What do you see? The kitten inside the box without holes has died."
An important lesson on the proper storage of air-breathing mammals - but how very Newtonian! As any quantum physicist will tell you: the kitten can survive indefinitely as long as you don't open the box.

Takes me back to my time as a student having to learn about quantum mechanics - and was interested enough to do a Ph.D. in Theoretical Organic Chemistry.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Is this what "America First" really means ...

From Muslims against Isis

This political cartoon from 1941 sums up my feelings about Donald Trump's attitude to refugees and the rest of the world. I had not realized that the slogan "America First" comes from a 1930's U S movement that supported Adolf Hitler or that before Pearl Harbour the US was reluctant to take refugees from Nazi Germany.

One of the reasons this blog has been quiet recently is that a combination of things - including health issues - have left me rather depressed - and work on a paper on the "Evolution of Human Intelligence" has been delayed - perhaps because one of the conclusions is that humans aren't really that intelligent and that the inherent weaknesses of our brains predict serious failures in societies which fail to fairly share resources between their members.

This cartoon makes me realize that I will get nowhere if I try and hide from the political reality of the world around me. I have therefore decided that while I must get back to my research I need to let off steam about the way we are all trapped by political boxes which are beyond our control.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Academic Snakes

I was most interested to see the article "The Snake Fight Portion of your thesis defence" by Luke Burns - mentioned in a post on the Pharyngula blog.

On a number of occasions I have acted as the "snake" - i.e. and external examiner - and it can be difficult when the problem is, in part, due to poor supervision. I remember being asked, many years ago, to look at a Ph.D, thesis which consisted of little more that a computer program to index books and papers and which would have only got a middling grade as an undergraduate project in the University where I worked. Not only was there very little supporting library work but the student had not even looked at the operational system in the department's own library. In discussions it was clear that the supervisor (who was not a computer expert) was not aware of how trivial the program was compared with real working systems ...

However "snakes" can occur in other areas of academic life and I added the following comment to the Pharyngula post relating to my own experience as a victim:
Snakes can turn up anywhere – and perhaps some of the nastiest are the nameless snakes that block you publications and grant applications. In the 1970s I was working on a human-computer interaction model based on observations of how sales staff viewed the problems of complex sales contracts in one of the most advanced computerised system of its time. A colleague suggested that perhaps what it was doing had a link with Artificial Intelligence – and gave me a recent Ph.D. thesis to read. I quickly realised that much AI problem solving applications involved tiny closed systems with single solutions – while my work was aimed at complex open-ended tasks where the goal was not known in advance. But, I thought, simple closed tasks are a simple subset of complex open-ended tasks and I quickly showed that my “commercially inspired” approach could match (or even out-perform) most of the published AI problem solvers in the recent literature. But as soon as I tried to publish I was repeatedly blocked by anonymous snakes. Typically a paper describing my problem solver and giving details of how it solved a range of recognised AI problems would came back as “too theoretical ever to work.” By the time it was realised that the 1970s research on chess playing and simple logical puzzles had taught I had given up the research in disgust. Some 40 years later retirement allow me to do genuine “blue sky research” and it turns out that what I had in the 1970s was an crude neural net model which concentrated on the transfer of information between neural nets (the brain of the human and a computer) – bypassing much of the need for trial and error learning which dominates most current “Big Data” neural net research. Perhaps my research could still be of interest – but at nearly 80 years old, with an 1970s albatross of rejection round my neck, the modern snakes will automatically dismiss the ideas as I don't have a prestigious institution behind me so I must be wrong.
I have, of course, also had to deal with a "snake" when I had my on Ph.D. viva in 1963. In fact it was not too bad - but one of the big problems I had was due to supervision problems. The Ph.D. thesis was in the field of Theoretical Organic Chemistry and my supervisor was interested in the theory and really only wanted Ph.D. students to act as laboratory technicians - making chemical compounds that interested him, and measuring their properties to fit onto his graphs. However I was really interested in the underlying theoretical models and went off in my own direction - without his guidance - coming up with far better theory/observational matches than he had been getting ...

Friday, 9 December 2016

Captured by the Camera: Trapped in a trolly

Trapped in a trolly
The Tring Camera Club has just had a "Still Life" competition and I decided to have a go.  No w still life photography is not a personal interest but I decided on the above - as being something different - by getting away from the normal tabletop scenario.  The original idea (for an earlier competition entitled "lines and light") had led me to think about  different (and less obvious) locations where one might find lines - and then how to make use the lines to make a picture. One needed colour and interest and (because it was taken in March the fun thing to find in a shopping trolly were some chocolate Easter bunnies - which came in three different sizes.

Needless to say most of the other entries were artfully (and not so artfully) arranged table tops - often involving clever ideas and skillful lighting.  I am not sure where mine will be in the final ranking - but it created some interest and had a "fun" interest that I fell most of the others lacked.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Death in a box of cigarettes and the cost of my schooling

Woodbine Packet circa 1947
While I have never smoked, 70 years ago I would have been very familiar with packets of Woodbines - although I can't remember how much they cost. I was old enough to help my father in his tobacconist's shop and they were one of the most popular sales to our customers, many of who worked in a nearby railway engineering workshop. Sometime around this date I must have been diagnosed with "childhood bronchitis" - which I never grew out of  and which may have been due to secondary smoking, although I am now told it is asthma.

As a child a cough was nothing unusual - my grandfather coughed until he had a fall, and died of a chest infection in the days before antibiotics became widely available. My father had chest problems and smoking undoubtedly shortened his life. Many friends and relatives over the years have died prematurely as a result of smoking. Many tried, and failed, to give up their addiction to nicotine.

I never started. When we actually lived at the shop one to the taboos was taking the stock. Tobacco,and the sweets he also sold, were there to sell and not for our personal use. Later we moved away from the shop and I went to an unconventional school called Dartington Hall where the pupils made their own rules - except one of the rules is that we all had the same amount of pocket money which parents were not meant to top up.  There was no rule against smoking - so why the hell do it! In other schools you had to sneak behind the bicycle shed and have a quick "secret" drag and this made you feel you were doing something "grown up." But at Dartington there was no kudos from smoking. In four years I can only remember one occasion when anyone smoked in the common room - two girls came in smoking - and everyone laughed and grumbled about the smell. One teacher smoked Galois (a very strong French cigarette) in class - and when we complained he said we could smoke too. So the next lesson we all got something smelly to "smoke" - some had genuine cigarettes but I had some brown parcel string wrapped in paper. The air was thick when he entered the classroom and he never smoked in class again.

Postcard on ebay from circa 1910
By the time I reached university the campaign linking smoking with lung cancer was getting underway although the evidence was widely disputed by the Tobacco manufacturers, worried about their profits.  I recently came across this postcard from about 1910 and wondered how many people had realized the danger then. While surfing the web to try and get an answer I came across a recent figure that suggests that the current approximate cost-equivalent of a life in term's of the cigarette manufacturers is about $10,000. This provided me with a an opportunity to very roughly calculate how much my stay at Dartington cost in terms of whole-life equivalents.

Currently the top UK boarding schools charge about £30,000 per year and if I assume my father made a third of his income from tobacco (it could well have been higher) one is talking about at least one equivalent customer a year dying to fund my education.

So was my educationat Dartington worth it?  While I find the idea frightening I reassure myself that my father's customers (and my father, grandfather and many others) were addicted to nicotine and if my father had not sold tobacco someone else would have sold it. Whether I had gone to Dartington or not they would have died prematurely (often after years of discomfort) anyway.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

My "Evolution of Human Intelligence" model predicts the risk of considerable political instability

Over the last couple of months I have been working on a comprehensive document on my model of the evolution of intelligence, which has been delayed by domestic, health and other events but should be ready by the New Year. Trump's victory comes at the time I was drafting the section on what happened to make us "so much more intelligent" than animals and also explains some of the dangers of developing a "speed learning" brain on an animal brain foundation.

So how does my model explain the rise of Donald Trump. ...