Author Archives: BVarey

6 Ways to Improve the Web

6 Ways to Improve the Web

The Web is such an important part of what so many of us do every day.

It helps us find answers to important questions, navigate to places near and far, meet new people, shop, get latest news, weather and stock prices, and discover which of the diminishing, vanishingly small number of of previously-untouched sub-groups Donald Trump has recently trashed.

Still, there is room for improvement. I propose the following 6 ways the Web could become better…

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Blueberries, the Base and the Outside View

Imagine you read a brief news report in a respected peer-review journal such as Nature. The report cites a conclusive study which states that by giving up eating blueberries, you can cut your risk of getting a certain type of normally fatal cancer by 90%. You like blueberries, and eat them fairly regularly.

Would you give up blueberries based on this?

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Killer Blueberries

There are two obvious answers, and, at the risk of just plain speculating, I would suggest each has its typical justification.

A lot of people are going to say “Yes, I’ll give them up: it is not a big sacrifice to make, and if it cuts down the risk of a cancer by 90%, that has got to be good news.”

The No group is going to contain at least some people who are fed up with being told what’s good for them by “the Food Police”, and say “To hell with it, life is too short, I like blueberries, and am going to carry on.” (We saw a lot of this pushback recently in the UK, when the World Health Organization re-classified processed meats as carcinogens, in the same category as smoking, alcohol and asbestos. Although bacon sales went down, there were some people who stubbornly announced they were going to have a damn good fry-up Sunday morning.)

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Superforecasting Will Become the Next Big Thing Unless It Doesn’t

Forecasts That Don’t Mean Much

Comedian George Carlin had a character called Al Sleet, otherwise known as the Hippie-Dippie Weatherman. Sleet’s speciality was vague or ambiguous weather forecasts, and his most famous was:

Tonight’s forecast: Dark. Continued mostly dark tonight, changing to widely scattered light towards morning.

Everyone can find this funny, but it takes a very special kind of intellect like Philip Tetlock to take it seriously. Why seriously? Because Tetlock has spent much of his career studying forecasting, why we get it wrong (as we often do), and whether we can get it right (which, with discipline, we sometimes can).

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A forecast

He has just come out with a new book, Superforecasting: The Art & Science of Prediction, which I am going to discuss in just a second.

But first, we have to talk about dart-throwing chimpanzees.

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An Edge Question: What’s Your Law?

On Falling Behind

When I returned to writing this blog after a bit of a hiatus, I made a faintly uttered promise to myself that I would try to write something once a week.

I am currently struggling heroically with an article on Philip Tetlock’s masterful book Superforecasting: The Art & Science of Prediction, but it will just not submit.

It’ll fall eventually, but in order to keep my promise for this week, I’ve had to resort to pinching material, very nearly wholesale, from the Edge.org site. You’ll understand in a second when I say a candidate for Varey’s Law could be…

“Intellectual theft can be a good thing.”

The Edge Question, 2004: What’s Your Law?

Every year, John Brockman of Edge.org poses a question to Edge contributors, and turns the responses into a book. In fact the group of Edge contributors contains some of the smartest people on the planet, mostly (but not exclusively) being made up of scientists from all fields.

In 2004, Brockman’s question was “What’s Your Law?”.

Here are some of the best responses…

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Like It So It Hurts

Liking is Meaningless

The problem with the Facebook “LIke” button (and equivalents) is that it is so easy to use, using it is virtually meaningless. Click, click, click. Like, Like, Like. Now that was painless….

And yet the Like button is supposed to mean something.

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Herman on the relation between liking and hurting.

Facebook says Liking something allows you to “give positive feedback and connect with things you care about”. The number of Likes a post receives helps to determine whether it goes into your news feed. But its absurd ease-of-use seriously dilutes any notion of whether you actually do care about the thing in question. You can click without looking, and you certainly can click without caring.

Without wishing to sound ungrateful, I know this for a fact, as I have French friends, people who don’t even read English, who have “Liked” some of my English blog posts. Of course it is well-intentioned, and a kind gesture. I shouldn’t complain. Merci, mes amis, mais….

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AlphaGo: Destined to Only “Just” Win?

Out on a Limb: 5 Close Games

A good friend recently pointed out that although the Go-playing artificial intelligence AlphaGo has now beaten world champion Lee Sedol at Go in both matches to date, the results have been very close. AlphaGo has only “just” won. As I write, it is Friday March the 11th, and results of the third match have yet to be announced.

Time to go out on a limb….

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Go

Although I think AlphaGo has a very good chance of winning all five matches (I’ll say why in a second), it wouldn’t surprise me to see all of the matches being close (with the provisio that Sedol doesn’t have a complete, utter and very human meltdown).

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Creating Is Not Understanding in AI

Creating and Understanding

The following line was found scrawled on Richard Feynman’s blackboard after he died:

“What I cannot create, I do not understand.”

It would be a fitting gravestone epitaph, coming from someone who was so fanatical about understanding things.

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Feynman’s blackboard at Caltech

Unfortunately, the corollary, “What I can create, I do understand” is not always true. We only need to turn to modern developments in Artificial Intelligence to find an important example of this. Continue reading

Run That By Me Again…

The word “run” is particularly rich in the number of different (not to mention subtle and colourful) meanings it conveys.

Let’s start with the simplest senses of verb and noun: if you are in a hurry, you run. And if you are fitness-inclined, you go for a run.

But these basic meanings soon give way to more sophisticated nuance.

A Word Cloud for the text of the post <i>Run That By Me Again</i>

A Word Cloud for the text of the post Run That By Me Again

You can run a business. You can run a series of tests — or perform a series of tests; run and perform are equivalent here. But curiously, although you can perform a play, you do not run a play.

You can run the numbers. Or be given the run of the place.

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Lawrence Krauss: Finding Beauty in the Darkness

Lawrence Krauss, one of our very best science writers, has penned a fine article describing the aesthetic significance of the recent LIGO discovery of gravity waves. It is a short article, full of wonder at the accomplishment and its implications. I urge you to go and read it. It is entitled Finding Beauty in the Darkness and appeared in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times on 14 February 2016.

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein

Such a near perfect piece needs no review from me, but I don’t mind stealing some of Krauss’ text. These brief passages fit the “wonders” side of the “wonders and deception” theme that is the backbone of this blog. So I just cannot resist.

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On the 300 Millisecond Issue II

I have written earlier about Sam Harris’ book Free Will, particularly a passage on page 8 where he cites the work of Benjamin Libet. To recap, in the 1970’s, Libet used EEG scans to show that activity in the brain’s motor cortex region can be detected approximately 300 milliseconds before a person is consciously aware of having taken a simple decision to move his or her finger or wrist.

This work has been used as an argument against the notion of free will, and Harris doesn’t hesitate to press it into service:

These findings are difficult to reconcile with the sense that we are the conscious authors of our actions. One fact now seems indisputable: Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next — a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please — your brain has already determined what you will do. You then become conscious of this “decision”, and believe you are in the process of making it. (Free Will, pg. 9)

It strikes me as curious that Harris should lean so heavily on an experiment that tests such a simple aspect of conscious human decision making. It is a big leap from trivial finger movements to more decisive or contemplative situations in life, where really significant issues of free will come into play.

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