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Google…

January 13th, 2010 No comments

There has been some concern raised about the comment Eric Schmidt made on a CNBC interview recently. However, like most things the press and the general public get their hands on, it has been grossly misinterpreted. Here is the quote everyone is going on about:

If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.

However if you look at the original transcript/video of the interview it makes a little more sense and isn’t as outrageous as previously thought. Here is his full answer:

Q: People are treating Google like their most trusted friend. Should they be?

A: I think judgement matters… If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. But if you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines including Google do retain this information for some time, and it’s important, for example that we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act. It is possible that that information could be made available to the authorities.

Here is a clip from the interview:

Granted he did make a mistake, the “you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place” bit is misleading. However he was answering a very specific question, whether or not you should treat Google like a friend. I believe that anyone with half a brain can understand what he was trying to say. What he should have said is something along the lines of:

If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be discussing it on-line in the first place.

What I find most difficult to understand is the innocence and naivety of the on-line community. Google (and their like) are service providers, they deal with data, they search through it and index it. At a very basic level, they bring order to chaos…

Imagine (just for a moment) that the internet didn’t exist, and instead, we had massive notice boards on every street corner, where anyone could leave a message, ask a question or stick a picture. Google would be the company that goes around collecting and collating the contents on each and every one of these boards. It would then publish a directory listing the contents. Now, if you didn’t want anyone to know about something specific would you put it on these boards? I think the answer would be a universal “No!”… And you’re back in the real world!

I think the problem we have is with the anonymity that the internet appears to give us. We have access to the internet in the relative privacy of our homes and we project that feeling of security onto the internet. When we’re browsing onto the Financial Times, Fred’s Blog or any of the billions of pages available, we are doing it in the privacy of our home. There isn’t anyone looking over our shoulder watching our every move! You would see them, right?

Wrong… Every request that your computer makes over the internet has the potential of being recorded and logged. The internet is a tool, nothing more. It links and exchanges data between two or more computers. It is this that the innocents must be made aware of. The internet isn’t your friend, there is no such thing as privacy on the internet (unless you really know what you’re doing*).

There is one area where I do have some sympathy for the naive users and that is the intrusion and interception of email by Google and their like. It would be the same as postal workers opening your mail, reading the contents and pushing mailshots through your door based on what they had just seen. Here in the UK we have very strict laws related to mail interception, with lengthy imprisonments, the postal workers even have to sign the official secrets act.

When you sign up for an email service on-line you waive your rights to privacy and to me that is unfair. On top of that you are also forced to adhere to whatever laws are in place in the country where the company is run, independent of where you are located. For example, if you had a Google email account and lived in the UK, your messages could come under the US Patriot Act, giving the US government unrestricted access to your data.

This is a very complex area, with solid arguments both for and against and it needs discussing. International laws need to be agreed upon regarding personal on-line privacy. As we shift more and more of our personal and working lives on-line the safety barriers need to be in place, the primary goal should be the education of on-line users in security and privacy matters. Ignorance is most definitely not bliss!!

* Securing your personal data is a relatively simple process. There are applications freely available that enable the encryption of data and emails such as PGP and TrueCrypt. For more information see my section of personal privacy.

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Categories: Culture, Musings, Politics, Rants & Raves, YouTube Tags:

George’s Global View…

December 7th, 2009 No comments

I have just found this clip on YouTube by George Carlin about his view on climate change and the human condition… Be warned it does contain some strong language!

While comic in nature, I do believe it sums up the message I was trying to get across in my last post: The Anthropogenic Problem

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The anthropogenic problem…

December 4th, 2009 1 comment
Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil...

Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil...

I am very worried! Everyday I am bombarded by Climate Change arguments, both for and against. Experts from every part of the scientific community are producing data sets, charts, graphs and illustrations. One ‘fact’ is rebutted by another ‘fact’ and then another, and another, ad infinitum. What should be a scientific problem has leaked into the public domain. A domain where logic and reason have no place. The Climate Change debate has become a battle ground, a survival of the fittest, where the groups that shout loudest win…

Whether we are partially or completely responsible for the recent rise in global temperature is not the issue. The real issue is our humanocentric bias, our opinions and our beliefs. It is human nature to think we are somehow central and important to our world and its events… Is it not ‘our’ world after all? Are we not the dominant species? Are we not its master?

The biggest problem we have is our inability to agree on even the simplest of things. We have study and research groups all around the world, producing raw sets of data. The problem doesn’t lie with the collection, but the analysis and presentation. When we analyse this data we apply rules and methods that are by default biased. This is where the beauty of peer-review comes in, where any erroneous methods are spotted and highlighted. The problem we have with the Climate Change debate, is our inability to agree on what is erroneous.

Another major problem is ego. People are putting their ego’s ahead of the scientific method. As a result, the debate is quickly becoming a slanging match. This is not the scientific way! If you are unable (or unwilling) to reason and debate without your ego being bruised or getting in the way then please excuse yourself. Science has no place for your personal feelings. You may not like it, but you can not argue with its logic and reasoning.

As mentioned earlier, the scientific debate has spilled over into the public arena. This is a very bad thing! The people rule by mob mentality, reason and debate are utterly useless. As a result, one of the first fatalities is the ability to distinguish between correlation and causality. If we were to look at a graph showing temperature and co2 levels over time, the correlation is unmistakable. However, just because there is a correlation doesn’t mean there is causality. To understand the causality, you have to understand the processes driving the temperature and co2 levels. Plotting data on a graph does not prove it. This is where both groups (the ‘warmists’ and the ‘denialists’ *) are failing. They produce nice looking graphs showing how {x} is directly effecting {y}. The public sees this graph and BANG, its proof of causality!

The next problem is the politicization of science, the manipulation of data and results for a political cause and end. A perfect example of this is the dismissal of a scientific advisor by the British government after he said that drug {a} was less dangerous than drug {b}, something which went against the party line (see link). A recent climate change revelation was the hacked email archive from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit (see link). I am not going to comment on the contents of the emails, as I do not know the original context in which they were written, and I would just be falling foul of the very problem I’m trying to highlight. Whichever way you wish to interpret the meaning or reasoning behind the posts, it is not difficult to see the humanocentric and ego related problems at work yet again.

One complaint put forward by the sceptic groups, is the closed nature of the data sets and analysis processes. I can see their point – “The results of a climate model study have been published, proving that we are directly responsible for climate change. However the raw data has not been made public, neither has the source code for the climate model used to test the data”.

If this were true then it would be the equivalent of an eminent organisation proving the existence of God, refusing to provide the data or method that proves it, and simply saying ‘trust us’ were the experts. By restricting access to the raw data, you add fuel to the sceptics fire. What could you be hiding from them? Again, not very scientific! If your theory is correct, and the results match your prediction, and it passes peer-review, then what have you got to hide? If on the other hand, your results do not match the data, do not fudge or hide this fact from us, instead publish it. You can advance science by proving you were wrong. Do not let your ego get in the way of scientific progress.

If this is to be a public-political-scientific debate we must all share the same data, be allowed to run whatever tests we see fit, and we must all publish our findings (right or wrong). Only then, when all the data is on the table for everyone to see, can we truly begin to understand the implications.

* I personally detest the use of ‘warmist’ and ‘denialist’, I feel it detracts from the whole debate and lowers the tone. Can you not hold a differing opinion without being labelled as some kind of heretic?

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The Freedom of Belief

September 24th, 2009 No comments

An interesting story appeared on the Guardian website recently [link] which raised a number of interesting questions for me.

First a little background. The article in question was about a man named Daniel Jones who founded the International Church of Jediism, a religion inspired by the Star Wars films which has 500,000 followers worldwide. While shopping at a local branch of Tesco he was asked to remove the hood he was wearing by security. Daniel refused, claiming that his religion dictated that he should wear the hood in public places.

Now, here is the interesting thing. Although I have no religious beliefs personally, I appreciate that many billions of others do and I respect their opinion whatever if it (so long as they do not try and force it upon me!). I would even defend their freedom of belief if I felt it was justified. And this is the point. Tesco appear to be judging which ‘religion’ is valid and which is not. Granted the source of the Jedi religion is of unconventional origin (the typewriter of George Lucas), but as far as I am concerned it holds just as much weight as any of the other older religions. So, who decides the validity of a particular religion?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines religion as:

religion – noun

1 the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.

2 a particular system of faith and worship.

3 a pursuit or interest followed with devotion.

If we apply logic and reason to the task of validating a religion then there won’t be many that survive. It can’t be down to its age, some ‘accepted’ religions are quite young relatively speaking (Christianity was young once). Neither can it be the number of followers, granted the big three have huge followings, but the smaller factions are still valid are they not, besides it only requires one believer to make it a religion.

It is a belief, that’s the point, it requires no proof, no evidence, just an unquestioning obedience. As far as I am concerned Jediism is as valid a religion as any other. I can hear the screaming battle cry now, “but Jediism isn’t a real religion!”. My only response would be “prove it”.

If we are to go down the path of grading the various forms of religion then I can honestly say hand on heart “good luck”. All religious faiths require an element of mysticism and require the believers to take many things on face value. The moment you start to question the doctrine too hard you will find holes. This is the problem, it is also where the hard line atheists (of which I am not) are failing, all a religion requires is that you believe in it. Bertrand Russell used as an example a teapot floating in space, you can’t see it, the chances of ever finding it are impossible to calculate, but it is also impossible to disprove, it only requires faith that it is up there.

Back to my original point. I honestly believe that Tesco have discriminated him based on his religious beliefs. By forcing him to remove his hood they are making a judgement on which religious attire is allowed and which is not. Can you imagine the outcry (and bad press) if they had asked a Muslim lady to remove her Hijab or Burka, or a Christian nun was asked to remove her Wimple, or a Sikh his turban, we could go on…

Don’t get me wrong, I can see Tesco’s point of view. They asked the fan of a classic sci-fi film to remove his costume. Where’s the problem in that I hear you ask? What if they had asked the fan of a classic work of fiction to remove his costume? “I’m sorry your eminence, but you can’t wear that Mitre in the store!”. If you except one religion and the fashion associated with it, then you must except them all, no exceptions…

Here endeth the lesson for today…

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Categories: Musings, Philosophy, Rants & Raves, Theology Tags:

Derren Brown lottery result explained…

September 14th, 2009 No comments

As you may (or may not) have seen, Derren Brown broadcast a live show last week in which he (correctly) predicted the results of the National Lottery. Very impressive! But not in the way he would like us to think.

On the follow-up show he tried to explain how this was done. This was for want of a better word ‘Guff and mumbo-jumbo’. His explanation was that he used 24 people to predict the results, using the ‘wisdom of crowds’ method,  See [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wisdom_of_crowds]. While this system works for predicting the weight of an Ox (where there is an actual ‘guessable’ weight) it doesn’t work for completely random numbers. See [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/8252235.stm]…

There have been hundreds of ideas circulating the net since his show, trying to explain how he did the ‘trick’, as he obviously didn’t do it for real! Most use the semi-plausible use of split screens and hidden helpers replacing the balls. These explanations are (in youth speak) ‘so yesterday’. Things have moved on, technology has advanced…

I have no insider information on how it was done. Only an explanation of how I would have done it. So here goes…

Here are the two magic words “augmented reality“. This is a process where a computer generated image is superimposed over live video footage. The live footage has a number of ‘markers’ that the software tracks and a computer generated image is rendered matching the camera position and angle. It is a very complex process and I don’t have the time to explain it fully here, See [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augmented_reality].

I would have used the balls themselves as the markers and tracking points. You wouldn’t even need to render the balls, just the numbers to be superimposed. So, as the live results are drawn, someone simply enters the numbers onto the computer and magic!… I nice use of technology to perform a very simple trick.

More to follow in my “Derren Brown, where are you going with this” post…

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Battle of the sexes…

August 6th, 2009 3 comments
Is it this simple..?

Is it this simple..?

The other morning (while on holiday in Ireland), I was listening to the Grery Ryan show on RTE 2fm. One of the phone-in discussions was about the equalities (or lack of) between men and women in the work place.

Now, this is a very controversial issue and I will be handling it with extra-special care. However, in this post I am going to raise and comment on a number of (how should I put it?) ‘possibly sexist sounding ideas’. I make no apology for any of them, after all they are only ideas and we are all entitled to them (right or wrong). I may also not personally agree with these ideas, however I do feel that a balanced debate is required. If you have any comments (or feel the urge to punch me!) please read this post to the end, wait ten minutes then add a comment.


Let me start by saying that there are no absolutes with this topic, only generalities and individual perceptions, we as individuals are… individual.

So, here is probably the most generalising statement there is: “Women are better at multitasking than men!”… Let us dissect this statement and see what is actually being suggested.

First we have to define what “multitasking” means. Multitasking derives from the computer sciences, it is the ability to perform more than one job or task at the same time. From a biological viewpoint, we (men and women) are performing countless tasks at the same time, breathing, balancing, listening, seeing, thinking. You get the idea. So at a basic level we are very much alike.

However I believe that what is actually being suggested here is multitasking at a conscious decision based level. The ability, for example, of listening and taking part in a conversation while at the same time performing some other task(s), such as driving or cooking. It is a commonly held belief that women are better at this than men. However studies in this field (of which there are staggeringly few) suggest men and women are equally capable, see [Gender Differences in Multi-tasking Abilities]. It is the belief bit I am most interested in, and it is an issue I will return to later.

If you analyse the statistics contained in these studies, you will see a small percentage variance, far too minuscule for any noticeable difference.

There are however very obvious differences in our physical make-up, and I don’t think for one minute that any (sensible) person would suggest there wasn’t. Men and women have evolved to perform (at a very basic level) two distinct but mutually inclusive tasks. I’m sure if you conducted a snap poll, there would be a generally held belief supporting the idea that men were physically stronger than women. If you watch the Olympics you can see the difference, men can run faster, jump higher and throw things further. However, these athletes are at the absolute peak of fitness. There are over six billion people alive today, and only a very few fit into this super-human category, the rest of us are all spread out (some more than others) along the fitness scale. It would be impossible to measure, but I am willing to bet that if you could measure the total strength of all men compared to women we would balance out evenly.

What I am trying to suggest is that men and women are more alike than we believe. There’s that word again, belief. Perhaps our differences are not biological or physical at all, perhaps this discrepancy is in differences we believe men and women to have and not the actual differences. Take a moment to read that sentence again (I know I had to!). The only thing different between men and women are the differences we believe there are.

Apart from the very young, seriously disabled and infirm there isn’t a single person who could not change a car tyre. It isn’t a particularly difficult task, it requires common sense, basic motor control and a little strength. So why are many people apparently unable to do it? And (this is a perfect example of what I’m trying to explain) why do I believe that it is women who are less likely to be able to do it and ask for help? Perhaps the reason women request help changing car tyres is because that’s what we believe women do?

Question, why are women better at multitasking? Answer, because we all believe it to be so, and who are we to question this commonly held belief. It is as if everyone is blindly following a gender stereotype, and to go against these stereotypes means you are some kind of oddity or freak.

Onto the original proposition, the differences in the workplace. I work in the software development industry, and there is a massive imbalance between male and female developer numbers. I can’t think of any real reason why women couldn’t do this job, not one. In fact the only reason that does spring to mind is, ‘because it is a commonly held belief that not many women do work in that particular industry’. It is a sort of catch 22 situation, not many women do job ‘x’, therefore we believe (women included) that women are unsuitable, unable (etc.) to do ‘x’, thus women don’t do ‘x’. We hold onto these gender roles like children to safety blankets, and only occasionally do a few true individuals try to break them.

It is my personal belief that men, are, on the whole more creative than women. I am not saying that women are not creative, just that men are more so. I would describe someone as being ‘creative’ when they have, thought of an original idea, drawn, painted or sculpted a work of art, written a literary work, composed a piece of music (etc.). If you go into the British library I believe you will find more books written by men than women, in any art gallery you will see more works of art by men than women, you could do the same for all the arts and sciences.

The truth, is that it is probably quite equally balanced. So why do I hold that particular belief? I’m sure I am not alone, and perhaps that is the problem. It is a self fulfilling prophecy. We have, at a societal level, deeply held beliefs about gender roles and responsibilities, added to that a common human need to ‘fit in’ and ‘not be different’, it is quite understandable why these flaws are allowed to perpetuate, who would volunteer to be the first to be different, who would want to be ostracised. Women are being bombarded daily by millions of magazines, adverts, photographs, hairstyles, what to wear, what not to wear, eat this, don’t eat that! Society is trying to mould women into an idealised perfect version of itself. A friend of mine once told me a joke; “Why do women wear make-up and perfume? – Because they’re ugly and they smell!”. We know this not to be true, but that doesn’t stop society from trying to make us believe it.

We have reached an historical socio-political epoch, where reality is stood toe to toe with our beliefs, only one can win. The difference between men and women, is the belief that there is a difference in the first place.

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The national DNA database…

May 14th, 2009 3 comments

01-coll-dna-knoll-lThe British government has indicated a change in its decision to permanently keep the DNA records of innocent individuals on its database. This move comes after the European court ruled it was illegal. The DNA data of innocent people will still be retained for six years and in cases of violent or sexual assault twelve years.

The justification for keeping DNA data for these periods came from the Home Office minister Vernon Coaker. He told the BBC Radio 4′s Today programme that research showed half of those who re-offend after arrest do so within six years, and two-thirds within twelve.

An obvious question instantly springs to mind: “How can someone who is ‘innocent’ re-offend, since they have never offended in the first place?”

It is sloppy reasoning like this which confuses and complicates the whole debate. If someone is convicted of a crime that warrants the collection and retention of DNA materials useful for identification in possible future crimes then I am sure the general consensus will be in agreement. There is, granted, a statistical and predictable trend for re-offending.

Perhaps I am being too liberal in my reasoning, perhaps I haven’t been the victim of a crime which (if we had had a large scale DNA database) could have been solved quickly and simply. It is an area with strong arguments on both sides, and I can see the usefulness of such a database. However (and I think this is where I have my doubts) we are volunteering our personal information, quite literally a bit of ourselves over to a collection of organisations who have demonstrated on several occasions that they are unable to securely handle public data.

We can also see a very slow and gradual erosion of personal liberties and freedoms. Every time a new law is passed, or a new bit of legislation is enacted, which we are assured is for our personal safety and well-being we lose the ability to stop it or refuse cooperation.

Lets take a pause for thought…

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MPs' expenses…

May 14th, 2009 1 comment
English money

Money...?

Can everyone please calm down about the whole MP expense claim issue. I mean honestly, what did you expect, they are only human after all. And if there is one thing I have learned in my 30+ years it is that people will always try to bend the rules and gain the upper hand. We are greedy and selfish… Oh, sorry I didn’t mean you (heaven forfend), you are not selfish or greedy at all, its just everyone else who is.

Perhaps I should be angry and annoyed… But (and this is the big but) were we not the people who elected them in the first place? What did we expect? We all know what MPs’ are like, we have read and heard enough history to figure it out by now…

There is the issue of fairness… And of course we should demand the money back for excessive claims, after all, that money should be being spent on the ID Card scheme or the Email Database… How else are we to sleep peacefuly otherwise?

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