Friday, 18 April 2014

Faith in large primes


I saw Adam Spencer give basically this same talk at Tech Ed 2011 in Queensland. He talks about prime numbers, the ongoing search for larger primes, the discovery of Mersenne primes and one particular number, known as M48, that is simply too large to show on a slide, let alone to comprehend its massiveness.
Because it has been proven prime, and it being the largest known prime so far discovered, Adam says that he knows, with the same deep-down certainty as he knows anything else, that this number is prime - it has no factors but 1 and itself.

The thing is, what he's talking about isn't knowledge as such. Rather, he has faith that this number is prime. He has faith in the computers and software that performed the proof. He has faith in the people who created that hardware and that software - that they did not make mistakes in creating them, nor in running them. That no unforseen errors occurred and were accidentally buried. That no deliberate fraud was committed in order to claim the title of the discoverer of M48 (though I'm also pretty sure that's not the case). Because unless he performed these calculations himself, Adam cannot really know that M48 is prime. He is trusting that judgment to others. Trust and faith in maths too big to do for himself. That's what Adam has. It might not seem like a significant distinction, but it makes a significant difference when discussing science.

I don't, personally, know any forensic science, archaeology, anthropology or molecular biology. I trust my understanding of those topics to trained people or, more accurately, to popular journalism of those topics, filtered through all the news channels and brains that stand between me and the scientists doing that work. There are a lot of layers to trust there - a lot of translation and assumptions of honesty or even just accuracy. The point is, a lot of what you "know" about science is based on faith in a lot of people doing their jobs honestly and accurately. That is trust or faith, but it is not knowledge.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Faith that computer hardware works as designed is pretty well-founded these days.
PPS - There are plenty of places where the story could go wrong, though.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Browser security

When websites are more like apps, we need to be able to grant or deny permissions to them like we do any other software. A firewall or whitelist that allows or denies code full permissions based on its origin is too coarse, and most people aren't even doing that much with their desktops, let alone their browsers. Browser security is probably the next big battleground.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - Actually, it's probably the big current battleground.
PPS - It is, after all, the biggest sector of computer use right now.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Clock vs timepiece

I learned something recently. In a couple of TV shows I've watched - specifically Heroes and Grimm - there is a character who works with clocks, though they are careful to use the term "timepiece". I thought this was just weird professional terminology pedantry, but then I read the Wikipedia article on clocks. It turns out that the word "clock" is derived from a word that means "bell", so a device that tells time but has no bells has a different name, "timepiece". So that's why your wristwatch or cheap wall clock is technically a timepiece. It also means that the name "Big Ben" for the Clock Tower in London is slightly more accurate than you might think after hearing that bit of trivia that Big Ben is actually the bell, not the tower.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - This also might make sense of the word "glockenspiel".
PPS - Though maybe not.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Criticising art

The only valid way to criticise someone's art is to make better art. You're not allowed to just say "that sucks", and you're definitely not allowed to say "that sucks and you should stop making art forever". If you want to say some artwork is bad, whether painting, drawing, writing, acting, film-making, music, whatever, then your only recourse is to make something better.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - If your retort is "but I can't", then you're making my point.
PPS - The world has enough critics and not enough artists.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Rating quality by true or false questions

Games, movies and books tend to be rated on a 1-10 scale, 7 being the lowest and 9 being the highest, as they say. Or 1-5 stars, which is pretty much the same. As a game reviewer, I've heard, you can expect a hard fight to get anything outside that 7-9 range published as your official score, if you work for a major outlet. If you don't work for a big publisher, then obviously you do what you like, so this post doesn't apply to you.

This 1-10 or star-rating scale is heavily skewed to the top end, is what I'm saying, and it's hard to decide what it means. Is an "8" game always better than a "7"? Probably not, if they're in different genres and you prefer one genre over another. It all depends on the reviewer's taste, their mood on the day, the rest of the audience (for movies or live shows) and so on. Some publications try to get around this "all in one" score by rating individual aspects for their reviews. For games, it might be "music", "sound", "graphics", "gameplay" and whatever else. For movies it would include "plot", "script", "performances" ... you get the idea. It's slightly more helpful, but still not objective.

I think it would be instructive to try a binary categorised rating system. For a set of aspects of the work, the reviewer answers "yes" or "no" and that's it. "Was the music enjoyable?", "Was the plot free of gaping holes?", "Did the movie/book/game feel too long?" Things like that. Now we have a way to break down enjoyment of a work and give it an honest score percentage (depending on how many "good" boxes it ticked). No mucking about saying "Well, I thought the music might have been a 3, maybe 3.5 stars, but I said that about that other movie last week, and this was better than that. Better make it 4". Just "Yes, music was good". It's still subjective, but it's harder to lie to yourself and worm around your answers if they're "yes/no" questions. Hopefully, if you ask the right questions, preferably across a broad sample of people, you'll get a representative rating, plus a solid data set to back it up.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - If you ask the right questions, this could work for a lot of situations.
PPS - And if you match answers with a user profile, the ratings can reflect the taste of individual readers.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Pegging the creepiness meter

I read recently about a way to sort-of-quantify creepiness. I thought I'd plug in my own self-assessment to the formula and see where I come out. The entire argument is kind of moot anyway, because I'm going on 7 years married now, but it's fun to see. I'm going to go with a star rating, 1-5, on the formula components to come out with a number at the end that's very difficult to interpret and almost totally context-free. Well, the four factors I need to assess for myself to use the formula are:

Awkwardness: High. I'm so awkward I'd rather lose contact than risk saying something stupid. 5.
Forwardness: I am not forward until I know you, and even then it's maybe once per year. Still, I'm not a total shut-in. Rating 2.
Attractiveness: Grading from "lice-bearded hobo" at 1 and "airbrushed supermodel" at 5, I'd rate myself a middling 3.
Persistence: Hmm. I am actually difficult to discourage, I suppose. I'd like to think I am going to back off if you are taken, but in all honesty, I'm likely to carry a torch for a while after that. 4? Go with 4.

The creepiness formula is:
Creepiness = ( (Awkwardness x Forwardness) / (Attractiveness) )^Persistence

In my case, then, that's: (( 5 x 2 ) / 3 ) ^ 4 = 123.45

Wow. That seems really high. How about we compare my score to a confident, go-get-'em jock who, nevertheless, takes "no" for an answer:
(( 1 x 5 ) / 4 ) ^ 1 = 1.25

So, compared to the "ideal" I've just invented, I'm creepier by about a factor of 100. Yikes. Well, that makes sense of my entire (lack of) high-school dating history.

So what adjustments can I make to lower my score? Step 1 should probably be to dial down the persistence. Don't be immediately discouraged, but take a hint (also, learn to read hints). Forwardness needs to go down, too. I can't affect my attractiveness enough to significantly swing the number up, and I can probably only affect my awkwardness for the better with a long process of confrontation therapy. Looking at the formula, it's probably worth it. New predicted result:
(( 3 x 1 ) / 3 ) ^ 2 = 1. Better than the jock. That's because, with these new scores, my awkwardness x forwardness score is the same as my attractiveness, which actually means persistence has no effect. I guess that's good.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - The worst-case value for this formula used this way is about 9.7 million.
PPS - I guess, by that standard, I'm doing pretty well.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Automated interpersonal package delivery

What I would very much like to set up is a private package delivery network between my family and friends. If I want to borrow a physical book from a friend, I would just text them the request and send a quadcopter drone to them. They put the book in a box and send it back. I wouldn't need to wait until I see them next or arrange a meeting to exchange physical goods. Just send the drone.

I think this would also be a very neat way to use self-storage. If you have some automation inside a storage locker, then you can access it from anywhere with drones. To put something away in storage, tell the drone what it's picking up (so you can retrieve it later), then just put it in the drone when it arrives. To get it back, look it up in your index (presumably on a mobile app that lets the drone find you) and tap "deliver". You could even throw things out from storage or have them all moved to another facility or a bigger locker without ever going there.

You know what drone delivery reminds me of most? The little parachute "gifts" from sponsors in The Hunger Games. They float down from some unspecified location in the sky right to where you are. Swap the parachute for four little helicopter rotors and that's exactly what I'm talking about.

Basically, drone delivery lets you be as disorganised with your physical stuff as you currently are with your real-life plans since mobile phones came along.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - This does ignore security.
PPS - Now your possessions can be "Only a Drone-Call Away(TM)".