Even experts are ignorant – UnHerd

There’s an interesting article on UnHerd today, about a book called The Hidden Half: How The World Conceals Its Secrets by Michael Blastland, which apparently examines how strange reality really is, and how little we sometimes know about it (or even how little know we know about what little we know).

Some highlights:

So what caused these differences if not genetics or environment? Answer: we don’t know. And most laypeople – myself included, before I’d read Blastland’s book – didn’t even know we didn’t know. You, like me, probably thought that the argument in science was between genes and environment; not between genes and environment and… this other thing. Yet this other thing – this hidden half, called “enigmatic variation” – doesn’t just apply to crayfish. As much as half of human variation can’t be accounted for, writes Blastland, by either genetic or environmental factors.

 

You all know by now, for instance, that economic forecasting isn’t hugely reliable; perhaps it seems obvious that that’s in the nature of the thing. Animal spirits, irrational exuberance and all that, right?

But economic reporting, it turns out, is just as dodgy. Not only do we not know what’s going to happen, we don’t know what did happen. ONS figures for the economy two or three years ago continue to be revised in light of what has followed – and are often subject to confidence margins that can make the difference between a boom and a recession (Blastland cites one where a fall in unemployment of 3,000 was sombrely reported with a confidence margin of +/-77,000 – i.e. the figure could be a rise of 74,000 rather than a fall of 3,000).

 

And then there’s the “replication crisis” in the social sciences, where results on which whole subsequent fields of research have been built turn out to be, literally, junk science. Again, as many as half of the accepted results in the whole of social science or medicine are feared to be unreliable or plain wrong. The experiments simply don’t replicate. Even medicines that we know work may only work for a tiny percentage of patients – and we can’t predict which ones and we don’t know why.

Read more at Even experts are ignorant – UnHerd

“Big Tech”, Privacy and the Brave Web Browser

The power and influence of certain technology companies is something that I – and I’m far from the only one, as seen in the various US Senate hearings – am increasingly concerned about, and I’m not just talking about Apple. Google, Facebook, Twitter, and others all raise monopolistic concerns, but are even more worrying because of their approaches to personal privacy (since you are their product, not their customer), and increasingly their willingness to throw their weight around and leverage your personal data to promote their own ideological and social views (many in areas that are already concerning), and even enforce them via censorship, boycotts and so forth. There’s often a whiff of hypocrisy about this: witness Paypal threatening to boycott North Carolina over transsexual issues, but being rather happy to do business in the Middle East, or big tech’s happiness to cooperate with authoritarian regimes like China in pursuit of their money. But their willingness to operate what increasingly seems like a privatised version of China’s “social credit” system in the West, combined with the mob-like tendencies of social media, is truly worrying: being “unpersoned” by the big tech companies can leave individuals without income and with limited capacity to rebut charges against them.

All of which means I’m quite interesting in looking towards alternatives to the big, and especially the most egregious, players in that market (particularly Google, who seem to be taking their former motto of “Don’t Be Evil” as some kind of challenge). Of course, any data you put online should be regarded as potentially compromised, but there are options that are either more secure or at less danger of being misused or subject to censorship. I shifted away from the Gmail/Google Drive ecosystem a while ago, in favour of Microsoft’s offerings in Office 365 and Onedrive of all things, on the basis that they at least seemed principally interested in my money, and not my soul (and who in the 1990s would think the day would come when they were considered the lesser of evils)! While stuff there can hardly be thought of as private, much of it is about stuff I plan to publish anyway, the principal concern being that it not fall victim to Google’s trials at locking out or deleting things based on their analysis of the contents of user documents. For a more private email service, there’s things like Protonmail people might like to try, which offers a basic free service and paid offerings for those who require greater storage, and which offers services like encrypted emails.

One area worth looking at for alternatives is the humble web browser, where people may wish to reconsider the amount of personal data they offer Google for free via Google Chrome. Again, I switched from that a while back, but felt unable to switch to Mozilla Firefox considering the Brendan Eich case, in which Brendan Eich, developer of Javascipt, was effectively pushed out his position as CEO of Mozilla after 9 days due to having made a financial contribution to Proposition 8 in support of traditional marriage a number of years earlier. Since they wouldn’t want me to be an employee they clearly didn’t want me as a customer, and in any case there’s something quite sinister about the attempts to crush people’s professional endeavours because of opinions held in other spheres: the unspoken implication of trying to deny employment to those you disagree with is that those you disagree with should be starved into submission.

For several years I’ve used Opera. That’s not free of privacy concerns, since it’s owned by a Chinese company, but since I don’t live in the People’s Republic I’m not sure having the Chinese in possession of my personal data is any more of a concern than Google having it. Opera did offer some nice features as well too, such as a built in ad blocker. Unfortunately their mobile offering didn’t seem to offer any way of changing the default search engine from Google.

However, one option I’ve looked into from time to time has been Brave, which has been developed by a company headed by the aforementioned Brendan Eich. This browser offers a range of privacy features, without sending as much data off as possible to either Beijing or California. When I first tried this several years ago, however, it didn’t quite seem ready for everyday use. I’m delighted to report, however, that after trying it the other day this seems to have changed immensely, so much so that I’ve switched to it on all my devices (including mobile). I’d honestly recommend trying it out: it appears to have a host of features it didn’t have when I last tried it (including an integrated Tor mode), and seems very stable and fast to boot. One can download it here.

Now if only I knew what to do about the Android/Apple dilemma…

​Obituary: HAL the laptop

This afternoon, at 17:13 BST, saw the long anticipated but much deferred final passing of HAL the laptop. HAL was a humble Lenovo R500, with at least several owners, and had had a much troubled existence. External cracks covered its case, while at one time it experienced severe RAM problems, leading me to witness more blue screens of death on this device than on all other post-XP devices I have experience of put together. This serious illness was only cured by deliberately mismatching RAM sticks, a most alternative therapy that should have left it more ill, but which somehow gave it a new lease of life. It was a open question several years ago as to whether it would survive to the end of my thesis. Somehow, however, it clung onto life. It somehow endured being lugged about everywhere, and bore the approximately million (literally – I worked it out about six months ago) key strokes that went into writing my thesis, which in the end was almost entirely written on this device.

Somehow it got to the end, although increasing signs of its dotage were seen, and its successor, Mini-HAL, waited in the wings for its eventual demise. Post-thesis retirement offered at least some relaxation of pressure on its keyboard, but in recent weeks it has progressively sickened. Random and instant power-offs, and bizarre happenings with its trackpoint and touchpad suggested the end was approaching, and finally a succession of rebooting on its own volition culminated in one final power off. Now the lights come on, but no one is home, not even any sign of the Bios on the screen. It had written its last document, and would see no more LAN parties.

Thus HAL had borne the burden of a troubled life, but in the end had gotten the job done. Its owner had been long reconciled to its passing, while Mini-HAL has been champing at the bit to see more use. Due to user paranoia and wise use of cloud technology, there has been no data loss.

Repost: Apple is Evil

I’ve lately become involved in the University of Exeter’s Cascade project, aimed at promoting ‘digital literacy’, and so have yet again become exposed to people’s enthusiasm for the wares of one late Steve Jobs. I must therefore pin my colours to the mast, and firmly outline my rejection of Apple and the evil therein.

Now there’s a lot of very practical reasons to reject Macs and other Apple products. One might be concerned at the way various Apple programs such as Quicktime try to install all the other Apple programs. One might hate the way OS X does everything behind your back. There’s the working conditions at Apple affiliates in China, where nets have been installed to stop the workers from committing suicide. One might also object to the way iTunes not only has an overly complex user agreement, but that part of it includes tracking your physical location.

Apple’s 1984 advert: an aspiration, not a warning

However, in this post I shall be setting aside these otherwise very important issues. No, today I shall outline the theological arguments against Apple, namely the fact that Apple is of the Devil:

1) Apple’s logo in itself contains a valuable clue as to the identity of its backer. Think about it: who would market computers under the logo of an Apple. With a bite taken out of it?

“… the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes”

2) A second fact to be considered lies in the Mac operating system, OS X. Regardless of which random big cat it is named after, OS X for certain components has drawn upon and incorporated significant portions of FreeBSD, the free UNIX operating system. And what was FreeBSD’s mascot, I hear you ask? A demon!

OS X: Ginger Tom – now available for only £29.99 and your very soul…

3) Our final piece of evidence lies in Macbooks themselves, and just a simple question that everyone needs to ask themselves. Let’s look at one:

Just ask yourself this question: Laptops with one mouse button… are those the creation of a loving God?

QED.