Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Modify Environment to Influence Behaviour

I have just heard about a PI (i.e. principal investigator) who was very accomplished because she was able to, I quote, squeeze money out of a stone.  At the same time,  she was such a terrible person that her group members were (literally) hiding under their desks when she was passing by.  Apparently, she had "conversations" with her scientists during which she was abusive and shouting at them.  As probably most heads of groups nowadays, she had to travel a lot and attend numerous meetings so she did not have time for thinking about details or doing the actual research and she often forgot what she had said to her co-workers a week before or confused what she said to whom and why.  This resulted in incidents during which she would accuse someone of not doing something she claimed to had asked them to do and when they replied that she had specifically told them not to do that thing she would shout at them that they were not special at all and 5000 others from among the worthless rabble were just dying for her to give them a chance to replace any of her researchers.  What happened to human dignity and every person being special and precious?  What happened to just simple common courtesy and respect?  Are good manners a thing of the past?  Do we really want academia to degenerate into this?

Apart from what we want academia to be or not to be, what we can observe here are clearly visible results of having a self-taught manager with no leadership skills charged with a task of leading a group of people and managing projects.  Even worse, we see an employee whose real purpose in her organisation is not what they are officially tasked to do (i.e. manage projects and people or do research) but to acquire funding.  In other words, we have a very specialised salesperson (or a group's frontman) with no knowledge, skills and/or time to be a manager put in a position where they were led to believe they are, in fact, a manager.  Combine it with that false 
sense of intellectual superiority so common in the academic world, spice it up with extremely high levels of competitiveness acquired during the academic rat race and you end up with an abusive tyrant, ineffective manager and frustrated scientist destroying her co-workers and wasting public money on producing mostly useless publications instead of effectively solving real problems the humanity is facing (when will we finally cure cancer? anyone?).  Academia has become such an inefficient system.  It has to be restructured and optimised so that we can finally use our full potential to save lives, prevent suffering and improve quality of life of everyone on the planet.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

On computer programming, atheism and human cognizance

What started as a light-hearted comment to one of my friend's Google+ posts about the structure of the snowflake ultimately got me thinking about epistemology and the self-imposed limits of human cognizance. In the comment I had jokingly stated that all snowflakes were probably just an artefact of an L-system (*) written by a bored programmer. Now, when one starts thinking about it, the following chain of thoughts immediately comes to mind: Creator / God, Reality / Universe, Evolution, Atheism, Richard Dawkins. All right, I admit that the last sentence was only half-serious but I am sure that now you will be able to understand why I came to the conclusion described below.

For someone like me, atheists like Richard Dawkins seem to be completely irrational when they try to use Evolution as “proof” that Life and Universe could not have been created. Till now I was assuming they had behaved that way just because, as any fundamentalists, THEY ARE irrational (and they are) but now I see that the reason for their madness is twofold. So what is the second reason? It is just that they are not computer programmers ;). For any programmer or mathematician (**) it is natural and obvious that one system can be just an artefact of another system – e.g. a snowflake or a snowflake-like structure (system 1) which may be perceived by us in 3D space and is a part of our material reality can be a product (or a by-product) of functioning of a completely different system 2 which may operate in a totally different space (if you are still not bored but at the same time a little “lost in space”, you may want to check some Wikipedia articles on mathematical concept of space and to fully appreciate the vastness and importance of this topic read about the algebraic space, function space, topological space and so on) and thus may be immaterial and impossible to directly visualise. And yet system 2 may produce something as tangible as snowflakes. One can also put it differently and more succinctly – one system may be just an emergent property of another (possibly hidden) system (again, if you feel a little lost, you may want to read a Wikipedia article on complex systems theory).

What I describe above is so obvious to us (i.e. mathematicians, programmers, system scientists etc.) that we do not usually think about it or even consider that others (and especially other scientists) could have such an impaired perception / poor understanding of reality – which explains why it took some effort for me to consider the possibility that an evolutionary biologist like Dawkins could lack that additional layer of perception which would perfectly explain his flawed reasoning that led him to conclusion that Evolution contradicts the idea of God. Well, it does not. Evolution and God are perfectly compatible. God may be viewed as a programmer who created the Universe/Multiverse, life and each of us by creating a system (or writing a programme/algorithm if you will) which makes our Reality and lets all the events unfold precisely as planned. The material part of this creation (i.e. what Science deals with and what materialists postulate is the only thing that exists) is a chaotic system (you may want to read about Chaos Theory as well - a very cool part of Mathematics) and this brings about another interesting topic – namely that of Free Will. Since chaotic systems are deterministic in nature there is no free will if you are part of such system unless you believe in the concept of soul which is not a part of the material world but is interfaced with it via your material body.

Ah, so many interesting topics and so little time.

To save you some googling:

* An L-system or Lindenmayer system is a parallel rewriting system, namely a variant of a formal grammar, most famously used to model the growth processes of plant development, but also able to model the morphology of a variety of organisms. An L-system consists of an alphabet of symbols that can be used to make strings, a collection of production rules which expand each symbol into some larger string of symbols, an initial "axiom" string from which to begin construction, and a mechanism for translating the generated strings into geometric structures. L-systems can also be used to generate self-similar fractals such as iterated function systems.

** If you do not understand why computer programmers and mathematicians were put in one bag I recommend reading “On the cruelty of really teaching computing science” by one of the titans of computer science famous prof. Edsger Dijkstra. Here are some interesting quotes:

“A further benefit is that it gives us a clear indication where to locate computing science on the world map of intellectual disciplines: in the direction of formal mathematics and applied logic, but ultimately far beyond where those are now, for computing science is interested in effective use of formal methods and on a much, much, larger scale than we have witnessed so far.”

“The programmer is in the unique position that his is the only discipline and profession in which such a gigantic ratio, which totally baffles our imagination, has to be bridged by a single technology. He has to be able to think in terms of conceptual hierarchies that are much deeper than a single mind ever needed to face before. Compared to that number of semantic levels, the average mathematical theory is almost flat. By evoking the need for deep conceptual hierarchies, the automatic computer confronts us with a radically new intellectual challenge that has no precedent in our history.”

Monday, 14 January 2013

The system that crucifies altruists and freedom fighters

A sufferring from depression Internet activist and freedom fighter Aaron Swartz was relentlessly persecuted by the US legal system (controlled by oligarchs and psychopatic corporations) and, if convicted, would face 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines.  The Intellectual Property hounds (I wrote a short article about the IP / DRM crowd here: How to achieve anything you want legally?) chased him to his death.
He was a perfect target to make an example of as he was a particularly vocal activist fighting for our freedoms and strongly opposing socially harmful actions of corporations and the infamous SOPA.

His crime?  He connected his laptop to the MIT network and started downloading academic papers published in JSTOR to share them with the world for free (a lot of people working in science will tell you that all papers should be freely accessible - anything else (while increasing profit of companies involved in their publication and dissemination) hampers the advance of science and thus will cost many lives of people who are currently waiting for new cures for their diseases).  Curiously enough JSTOR did not side with the prosecutors (who continued their persecution nevertheless) and gave the public open access to the papers the same week as Aaron's death.  Here is an excerpt from Wikipedia if you are interested in some more details:
On July 19, 2011, federal authorities charged Internet activist Aaron Swartz with several data theft-related crimes, including wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer, all in relation to bulk-downloading academic journal articles from JSTOR.[9][10] According to the indictment against him, Swartz surreptitiously attached a laptop to MIT's computer network, which allowed him to "rapidly download an extraordinary volume of articles from JSTOR".[11] Prosecutors in the case say Swartz acted with the intention of making the papers available on P2P file-sharing sites.[12]Notably, JSTOR did not side with the prosecutors in the case.[13] Swartz surrendered to authorities, pleaded not guilty to all counts and was released on $100,000 bail. Two days later, on July 21, Greg Maxwell published a torrent file of a 32-GB archive of 18,592 academic papers from JSTOR's Royal Society collection, via The Pirate Bay, in protest against Swartz' prosecution.[14][15] These articles were acquired independently of those downloaded by Swartz.
The case was still pending when Swartz committed suicide on January 11, 2013.[16]
From September 6, 2011, JSTOR has made some public domain content freely available to anyone.[17] JSTOR stated that they had been working on making it free for some time, and the Swartz controversy made them "press ahead" with the initiative.[18] JSTOR announced the same week as Swartz's death it would make "more than 4.5 million articles" available to the public for free.[19]
So why was a talented young altruist and activist - who co-authored the RSS specification when he was fourteen, created one of the widely used and known web frameworks web.py and shared it with the world for free by making it open source, spent a lot of effort and time (among the top 1500 Wikipedia contributors) democratizing access to human knowledge,  co-founded a progressive advocacy group Demand Progress and devoted large part of his life to make the world a better place for everyone and fight for everyone's freedom - why was such a rare and valuable member of our society branded a felon?  Why did Obama's administration refuse to stop that persecution? Why did Assistant U.S. Attorneys Stephen P. Heymann and Scott L. Garland pursued the criminal case against Swartz under U.S. attorney Carmen M. Ortiz spending a lot of taxpayers' money and resources and using a legal loophole which, according to the federal appeals court would put millions of unsuspecting individuals in jail for engaging in criminal conduct (more here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aaron_Swartz#JSTOR)?  Why was Aaron Swartz pushed to suicide by representatives of the very people he tried to help?  It is a rhetorical question.  Let me finish by just quoting Aaron's family and partner whose words perfectly describe the current system so terribly distorted by money and corporations:
"Aaron's death is not simply a personal tragedy, it is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach."
Aaron Swartz
Requiescat In Pace

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