Sunday, 9 May 2010

Why you should listen to me

Isn't it great when a study confirms what you already suspected? There's a significant correlation between robust daydreaming and superior intelligence.1

So, am I really saying that because I am, and have always been since childhood, a thinker and a dreamer, I have 'superior intelligence', for which my musings should be respected?

Well... yes. I ought perhaps to say, I'm blushing furiously as I type. I'm sure some of the students around me in the lirbary have noticed.

What I'm really searching for is a way to give credence to my meditations.2 To convince myself, and maybe others, that I'm not just another guy with his own crazy opinions, but that I'm one of those [rare] types that really can think clearly and brightly about all aspects of the world and its big questions.

Maybe I'm worth noticing. Maybe I could be the next Descartes or Hume.

There I go, daydreaming again...

2: ... and subtly working in the blog title...

Friday, 7 May 2010

A moral question

Why don't you rob a bank? The benefit of doing so would be, it's unnecessary to say, enormous. But very few people do it. Why not? Is it because it's so much hard work to do so, what with all the logicstics and technology and months of preparation involved? Is it because if you are caught, the costs are so high that they put the enormous benefit in to stark perspective? Is it because it's completely immoral?

I suspect that it's the last answer that most people would give, without so much as blinking. But what does that really mean? Does everyone share an inate sense of morallistic duty that makes them not want to rob the bank? Obviously not, since there are some people in the world who do go ahead and try. Maybe immoral in this context, for some people at least, is some kind of shorthand for the costs/risks are too high to justify the act.

So how do we go about finding out whether someone is unmotivated to steal for reasons of undiluted moral duty, or merely because they consider the costs to be higher than the benefits? With science of course! We will do a thought experiment, and to recreate experimental conditions, we will isolate the variable we want to test, in this case the morality. Therefore we will mitigate the cost/benefit analysis. If we make the result of a cost/benefit analysis unequivocably positive, then it's obvious that any person that still resists robbing a bank is resisting for moral reasons.

So let us enter the theoretical realm of the thought experiment. I shall ask you, as the experimenter, to imagine that in this realm, robbing a bank is incredibly easy, and you have a 100% guarantee that noone will ever find out. Imagine perhaps that you're sat in front of a computer and that all you have to do is to simply press enter, and any amount of money you desire will be strategically siponed into various accounts prepared for you in advance. It's set up in complete anonymity. You will leave and noone would know that it was you. You know you wouldn't even be brought in to be questioned since there would be no traces leading back to you. Not even God would know it was you1. Now here comes the question; would you press enter?

There is a problem with the experiment, however, and that is that it's impossible for the experimenter to get any meaningful data. Let's break this down. The experimentee has 2 things going on: the answer he gives to the experimenter, and the answer he actually believes. As I will explain, there is motive for lying here. So since there are two factors, each with two possible answers, there are four possible outcomes to consider:

1) The experimentee would, and tells this to the experimenter.

2) The experimentee would, but tells the experimenter he wouldn't.

3) The experimentee wouldn't and tells this to the experimenter.

4) The experimentee wouldn't, but tells the experimenter he would.

Now, some of these are more likely to occur than others. I suspect that if we can assume that the experimentee holds a basic level of sincerity and respect for the experiment, that it's unlikely that we'll get (4).

(1) is the scenario from which we learn the most, except that we only learn that the experimentee is either not very intelligent, or has not really thought it through very well. If he had thought about it, he would realise that telling the experimenter marks him out as 'immoral', held back only by the policing ability of society's law enforcement. Therefore, scenario (2) is far more likely from the person who would. However, at this point, how do we differentiate the person in scenario (2) from the person in scenario (3)? Any person telling the experimenter tha he wouldn't isn't giving the experimenter any useful information, since it is still anyone's guess what the actual tendancies of the experimentee are.

So this is an interesting thought experiment, but unfortunately the only person you can experiment with reliably is yourself!

1:We must assume for the purposes of the thought experiment that if you believe in an omniscient God, that you must discout his omniscience in this case. If you do not, then the experiment can't advance since you are still exposed to policing. The experiment tries to isolate the morality of the individual from any kinds of external morality, whether they be imposed by society, law or God.

Sunday, 25 April 2010


Humans are notoriously bad at judging risks. I’m talking about the decision making process behind actions. We all make hundreds of decisions every day. When do we decide to cross the road? What do we decide to put in our sandwich for lunch? What religion do we choose to follow? Not all these sound like risks, but all decisions to take risks are nonetheless decisions and follow the same decision making process as any other decision. We don’t consider a decision to be a risk when the cost of making the wrong decision isn’t very great. That’s the only distinction between a conventional decision and a risk.

The decision making process is actually pretty straightforward, as I shall demonstrate with my Risk MatrixTM later. However, there is a substantial amount of judgment to be done, and this is where our human nature allows us to screw up and make the wrong decisions and put ourselves at risk.

Every decision starts with a question: Should I do action X?

Action X might be to cross the road, for instance. Then there are two factors to consider: probability and cost/benefit, both of which can be either positive or negative. These are shown in the Risk MatrixTM below.

In our road crossing example, there might be few cars on the road so the probability of successfully crossing the road (good outcome; P) will be rather high compared to the probability of being involved in an accident (bad outcome; p). Let’s say you decide that you have a 99% chance of successfully crossing the road. So P = 0.99 and p = 0.01.

Next we need to do some cost-be

nefit analysis. We can assume that there are more benefits of reaching the other pavement than

there are costs. It could be that the supermarket is on the

other side of the street. The benefit is that we can get some bread and milk before going home. The cost is that it’ll take us longer to get home since we’ll have to do the shopping and cross back over the road. But we decide that overall the benefits are greater than the costs, so we assign a net benefit of +1.

On the other hand, there are considerable costs associated with unsuccessfully crossing the road and ending up in an accident. These include injury resulting in time spent at the hospital, preventing you from doing things you would need or want to do. There could be some benefits, such as not having to go to school and hand in your unfinished homework, but overall the costs will outweigh the benefits. Since there is some uncertainty in exactly how bad the accident could be, we’ll assign it an average cost of -100 (it would be worth about 100 shopping trips).

Now in order to determine whether to perform the action of crossing the road, we multiply the cost/benefit by the probability:

(P x b) + (p x c)

If the result is a positive number, then the action is worth making. If the result is negative, then the action should not be taken; it is too risky!

In our example,

(P x b) + (p x c)

= (0.99 x 1) + (0.01 x -100)

= 0.99 - 1

= -0.01

The result is negative and we conclude that in these conditions crossing the road would not be a smart move. Perhaps wait until some cars have gone past and re-evaluate.

However, remember at the start I said that humans are notoriously bad at judging risks? Well this hasn’t changed; the issue is in the values we assign to each part of the equation. If we were drunk we might misjudge the likelihood of succeeding; the road might be busy and we ignore a high probability of collision. Maybe we’re young and innocent and don’t realise the implications of being involved in an accident and misjudge the net cost of a bad outcome.

Sometimes we’re blinded by one impressive value in the Risk MatrixTM and do not notice the importance of the other values. Here are two examples.

The first is that of the gambler. The question is should he put all his money on red? The benefit of winning is obviously massive. He could walk away with thousands of pounds. So excited is he by this prospect that he ignores the underwhelming probability of him actually succeeding. Coupled with a high cost to failure, he shouldn’t make the gamble, but it can be easy to be blinded by the spectacular benefit of success.

The other example is that of the agnostic. He comes across a religious group that tells him that their god punishes non-belief by eternal suffering in the afterlife. The agnostic may at first question the existence of this god, but the religious group tells him that even if he’s not sure whether or not that their god exists, at least he can avoid eternal suffering by becoming a follower. The question is should I ignore this god? The cost of a bad outcome (that after all this god does exist) is so great that he might ignore to consider the probability of the god existing, which could turn out to be so slight as to mitigate the impressive costs.

If there were to be a moral to this story, it would be to consider all corners of the Risk MatrixTM when making an important life-changing decision. Always make sure you have a good understanding of both the probabilities and costs/benefits involved.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Science is just a religion

It seems to be a theistic claim common to the intertubes1 that science is a religion, or atheism takes just as much faith as religion. These are clearly erroneous claims, for a series of reasons that I won’t go into detail on. However, I’m not sure what the point of this argument is in the first place.

Does reducing science or atheism to the status of religion make it less respectable? Does it make them more easily dismissible as opinion? Yes, very likely, and that’s probably why a great number of rational thinkers are offended by statements like these. In fact, this might even be the reason. Theists observe that these claims rile their ‘opponents’ and thus keep using them.

However, the reality is quite alarming. If making science a religion makes it less respectable and making atheism a faith makes it more dismissible, then does that not mean that the theists are calling their beliefs and religions disrespectable and dismissible as ‘just an opinion’? Surely that’s counter to all that they’re trying to achieve?

1:, though special admittance to YouTube must also be made here.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Shades of grey

Many people believe in absolute truths. Killing is wrong, God exists, Picasso is beautiful, Frenchmen are more romantic, what goes up must come down. I think that people are learning to believe these through inductive learning. All around them are either examples of these with no exceptions or people telling them these, again with no exception or contradiction.

Later in life, these people may come into contact with realities that contradict their conceived laws of nature; war, atheists, art critics, Italians (only kidding), NASA. If they have lived too long in their bubble, they will twist and contort what they are witnessing to fit their beliefs. Other people are wrong. Argument and hostility may break out. Others less deep will modify their rules, ever adding exceptions. Killing is wrong. Unless God orders it. Whatever goes up must come down. Unless it's a rocket.

Spend too long without these ‘laws’ challenged, it becomes easy to fall into a trap. Subscription to increased doses of absolute truth. Smaller and smaller trends are deemed truths, with heavier and heavier bias. Scrutiny is met with hostility. Life becomes a set of rules too easily created with too many appendices.

An open mind (minds seem to be better opened earlier than later) realises that in an inductive system, an exception breaks the rule, rather than being added to the rule. When confronted with an exception, the open mind attempts to understand what is really going on and rewrites the rules in their entirety in order to maintain stronger congruence.

Under closer scrutiny, the world is much greyer than we assume. It’s all too easy to label things black and white without thinking about it too much. Sometimes it takes one person to come along and shake the box a bit.

Think of sexuality. First there was just heterosexuality. Then homosexuality came out of the closet and we were forced to change the rules. Now a person can be gay or straight. Then bisexuality came along. There is still misunderstanding and hostility towards this even now (remember second and third paragraphs). Some people more open minded have changed the rules to gay, straight or bi. Then more contradictions came along in the form of asexuality and trans-sexuality. Alfred Kinsey came along and shook the box. He told us to stop thinking in terms of absolutes. Don’t categorise when no categories exist.

The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats. It is a fundamental of taxonomy that nature rarely deals with discrete categories... The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects.
- Alfred Kinsey 1948

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

More Talent

Maybe you remember, I wrote about talent and how it's a modular thing. My belief was that if you don't have a talent for something, it is possible to learn how.

It was later that I formed a view that reflected a similar way of thinking in both myself and my father. We both aspire do perfection in the things we care about. And when I say perfection, here is what I meant. We create in your minds a picture, a vision, to which we aspire. If I'm cooking, there might be a certain taste that I'm after, or maybe just a certain qality of taste. If the sauce isn't there yet, I'll refer to my little vision of perfection and decide that the sauce will be closer to that vision if I add more thyme. Then I taste again, and decide I need to add some cream. I keep going like this until I reach the envisioned standard. Both myself and my father are irked if something prevents us from ataining that percieved perfection.

I play a competitive card game, Magic: the Gathering. In it, there are many decisions to be made, so many chances to make mistakes. When I watch the the pros play, I create a mental standard for play based on the decisions they make. Then when I play myself, I try to make decisions based on this mental standard. If I make a play and realise that it doesn't reach the standard, I will note it down as a mistake, even if it is nonetheless a 'good' move or if I later win the game or the match. If even one of my actions in a give situation does not meet the mental standard, I will remember it and correct myself the next time a similar situation arises. Such is the way that I improve my play.

I play a bit of guitar, and I follow the same pattern. The track I'm trying to learn is playing in my mind and that's my guiding force. The tablature tells me the notes to play, but it's the recording in my head that really guides me. I follow it for timing and sound type and quality. I've often had arguments with my brother about the timing of a particular riff or whatever and I'm often right because I'm following my internal recording. If I'm wrong, I'll know and I'll keep trying differently until the sound from my guitar matches the sound in my mind. However, I didn't really realise I was doing this. Or maybe I quietly assumed that it was the same for everyone. For christmas, my brother got me a book on talent (which I confess I have not yet read past the first chapter). However, the first chapter tells the anecdote of a psychologist watching a video of Clarissa, a 6 year old girl playing the recorder. She's not very good (well she's very young and still beginning). However, she moves on to her favourite piece (I forget the name) and suddenly, it sounds like she's been playing it for years. The psychologist says this is what we call a child prodigy. A child before the age of 10, performing with the ability of an accomplished adult. The psychologist says that it seems like she has a mental recording of this tune, and plays to match that recording. If she's the slightest bit off, she'll know immediately and correct herself to match her little vision of perfection. He says that's a key to defining talent.

Well. That sounds exactly like what I've been trying to define. Does that make me a talented cook, Magic player or guitarist? Well I wouldn't go that far exactly, but I can say that however good I have become at whatever I do, it is in part due to this method. I also assert that this may be the reason that I've been in general a quick learner and never truly awful at something that doesn't disinterest me. I also clearly took this kind of learning for granted as for years I didn't question methods of learning, though it did baffle me how some people could be so accepting of mediocrity or be so bad at things that I found easy. I would like to know, for anyone that may read this, am I taking this for granted? Do you learn in a different way to me? Are you aware that there could be different ways for different people to learn?

Today I am researching for my history and philosophy of science exam. I'm focusing on the area of positive feedback loops in biological and psychological context (as a pretext to sexual selection being described as a positive feedback loop by Fisher in 1930) and I come across texts by two individuals, Winner (1996) and Vaudevert (2009). It is now that everything falls together.

Winner describes gifted children as driven by positive feedback loops involving setting their own learing course, this feeding back to self satisfaction, thus further setting their learning goals to higher levels and so on. She calls this the rage to master. Vandevert discusses this in deeper detail, proposing that a positive feedback loop occurs between the output of thinking/performing in working memory, which is then fed back to the cerebellum where it is stramlined, then fed back to working memory, thus steadily increasing the quantitative and qualitative output of working memory.

This is essentially what I have been grasping at. Talented individuals are simply employing a positive feedback loop in their learning. However, I suggest that some people are naturally predisposed to use this positive feedback loop to aid their learning. That does't mean that other's can't use it. Some people have diverse interests and spread their efforts across all their interests. Some people have fewer interests and focus on a small number of them throughout their lives.

A person who naturally learns with positive feedback loops, coupled with one central interest or hobby will excel in that interest or hobby. It is from these people that we get child prodigies and people enormously taleted in their field.

A person with one central interest who doesn't naurally learn in this way takes presumably more effort to learn than the previous 'talented'individual. This is the 'skilled' individual.

A person who naturally learns with positive feedback loops, coupled with a much more dispersed range of interests, tends to go under the radar as being 'talented', though this kind of peron is a fast learner and quickly achieve basic proficiency in his interests. I think this profile describes me the best, and it is true that in the varied things I've tried with an avid interest under tuelage (SCUBA diving, piloting a Grob 115E aircraft, chess, fencing, archery, army fieldcraft, marksmanship and weapon handling basics to name a few) I've been repeatedly told how remarkably fast I learn or how good I become in such little time. Though I never become good enough as a true master as never devote enough time to one thing.

I conclude with this. Talent is achieved by accelerated learning via use of positive feedback loops. Anyone can in theory apply this and become talented in anything they have a passion for. So go out there and excel!

Please remember to answer the bolded questions! I'm extremely interested to find out peoples' own experiences on the subject!

Tuesday, 12 January 2010


Well, actually, it's aitch. But why? Here's how I work it out.

I use a method I developed for myself around year 8 or so when I was trying to figure out the H problem (you can't apply the null hypothesis here unfortunately).

I asked myself which would be the most obvious one. Imagine you're a kid again and just learning the alphabet. Your teacher shows you the letter


and says "Pop quiz! You have two options. One is the correct answer and one is false and made up by me: Aitch or Haitch?"

You'd pick haitch, right? It seems to be the obvious choice because it has the letter h in it. Why would you call it something that doesn't sound like the letter?

But in real life, you realise that people all around you use aitch almost as regularly as haitch, and that's not an accident. The two words are similar enough that one is derived from the other. One must be the original word, and one must be the later derivation. The original word may even come from an ancient time when H was pronounced differently or is a corruption of the word taken from another language. These could explain how H could have a name that doesn't sound like its modern pronunciation.

If the original word were haitch, and someone started saying aitch, why would that catch on? It's silly to omit the one letter that makes it make sense in modern pronunciations of the letter and word. However, if the original word is aitch, the pop quiz example shows how alluring it is for us to want to add the h to the beginning in order to make the word more representative of the letter in modern pronunciation.

So I'd conclude that the more likely scenario is that aitch is the original and correct word and that haitch is simply a modern corruption.

And thus incorrect.

Friday, 8 January 2010

The Null Hypothesis

The null hypothesis is an incredibly potent tool for truth-seeking. It is the tool by which science functions. It really is an incredibly simple concept to understand and is so important a tool in helping us to make good objective decisions that it amazes me that I have to explain what it is to so many people that I meet, including scientists. I believe that everyone ought to know what it is and it should probably be taught in schools at an early age.

So what is it?

If you want to know whether something exists/works or not, you invoke the null hypothesis.

The hypothesis is that said thing does exist/work.

The null hypothesis is that said thing does not exist/work.

If you can’t provide significant evidence to support the hypothesis, then you reject it and accept the null hypothesis. This is always the default position. Innocent until proven guilty. You always assume that said thing doesn’t exist/work unless shown otherwise.

Why do you always accept the null hypothesis as the default position, and not the other way round? If the system were the other way round, you would have to believe in everything until shown otherwise, which is clearly a mad, mad concept. In fact an impossible concept, since in accepting every possible thing that could exist you invoke paradoxes faster than you can say "omnipotence."

What if a situation arises where you can't decide which isthe null hypothesis? Which possibility do assume is true before testing the other? Well there's an easy way to determine which one is the null hypothesis. It is the simplest, least complex option. Usually this is easy to spot.

Let's look at a story for an example. A car repairman is out on call in the middle of nowhere. He's finished his work and walking back to his truck. On the way he passes a phone booth. As he walks past, the phone rings. The man stops, puzzled. Who could be calling this booth in the middle of nowhere? Curious, he answers the phone to find that the caller knows his name and began talking to him about a business appointment he had the next day. He realised that he recognised the caller's voice as his secretary. He asked her how she had found the number to the booth but she implored that she had dialled his new mobile number. She checked her papers and realised that really she had accidentally dialled the number written just below: his paycheck number. It just so happened that his paycheck number matched the number of the phonebooth he walked past and she just so happened to call him just as he was walking past. Coincidence? Some people say that it's easier to invoke some sort of supernatural power than attribute it to coincidence, so supernatural powers should be the default belief, until proved otherwise.

But imagine two parallel worlds; one in which supernatural powers are the cause and one in which coincidence is the cause. Now reduce both worlds as far as possible. In other words, identify and consolidate everything about those worlds that is exactly the same. You end up with one model of the world, and a second model of the same world, plus supernatural powers. So it's actually the supernatural powers that are the hypothesis since they represent the highest complexity. And the null hypothesis is that supernatural powers do not exist and that coincidence is the only remaining explanation.

Or as Carl Sagan elegantly put, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Don't Blink

Stop. I am Bernard, and my time is infinite.

I can think a million thoughts in the time it takes the penny you dropped to plink against the floor. I can write my thesis in the time it takes for the plink to reach your ear.

Everything is possible. I can conquer every situation. With time, I am never unprepared. I can learn, train, think my way through anything. Ever had one of those moments in your life where you have to make a choice and it’s like there are two paths before you and everything’s moving so fast and you can’t think, your mind’s just filled with the ticking of your watch and you wish it would all just stop. Pause to breathe. To clear your mind. To make the right decision at the time it matters the most. I can do that.

And since I have time in which to think, I took the time to wonder how it is that this whole thing works. It appears that, apart from me, the rest of the world freezes like a moment captured on the film of a Polaroid. If that be the case, then I make two conclusions.

The first, that my time is in fact not infinite. I simply become unstuck from the rest of time, but time still courses through my body. My own timeline is unaffected and I will still grow then age like the rest of us, and when I rejoin the flow of time that the rest of the world follows, I will be robbed of a few moments of my life.

But the first depends on the second not being true. In fact my whole existence depends on this not being true. Take a look at that Polaroid again. See that coin frozen in mid-air? If everything is totally still, then it must be so right down to every atom in every molecule in everything around me. No matter is moving. So what? Well temperature is a measure of the speed of vibration of molecules in space, right? The faster they move, the hotter the entity they belong to feels. The slower, the colder. And what if they’re not moving at all? That’s what they call Absolute Zero. We’re not even equipped to deal with -40oC, let alone -240oC. I shouldn’t last two minutes at this temperature.

But it's ok; I am made immortal by the power of CITV.