Sunday, February 11, 2018

When is a Russian ban not a Russian ban?

So, what in the end is the point of the IOC's ban of Russia from the 2018 Winter Olympics, when there is a huge team attending it called the Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR)? Or, as the BBC phrases it, "When is a Russian not a Russian?" Or as I might phrase it, "When is a ban not a ban?"
The International Olympic Commitee (IOC) ruled a theoretical blanket ban on the Russian national team due to its systemic state-sponsored doping program, much to the satisfaction of most people around the world. The country has already been stripped of 13 of its medals at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, although more appeals are still underway, and there is still a chance that some of these medals could be reinstated (a thoroughly confusing situation - when is a decision not a decision?)
The fine print behind the IOC ban, though, allows a team called Olympic Athletes from Russia to attend the Games at PyeongChang. As though this is somehow not the same as Team Russia. This team has 169 members, the third largest after the USA and Canada, and although some key athletes are still missing due to continuing doping bans, the OAR team is still expected to appear high in the medals table. Russia? Olympic Athletes from Russia? The Team Formerly Known As Russia? Sementics, schmemantics.
So, is this the IOC weaselling out of controversial decision, or just a reasonable accommodation to allow clean Russian athletes to participate in the ultimate elite competition for their respective sports? Depends on your point of view, really. There will be no Russian flags on display, and the Olympic anthem will be played in place of the Russian anthem at any medal ceremonies. But the Russian fans do not seem unduly perturbed by this, even if the athletes are, and in practice it seems to be pretty much business as usual.
Ban? What ban?

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Poland passes bewildering WW2 legislation

In between shovelling an apparently endless succession of snowfalls, I have been trying to get my head around the controversial legislation passed recently in Poland which effectively bans the use of the phrase "Polish death camps" and makes it illegal to even suggest that Poland bore any responsibility for the Nazi atrocities during World War II. I particularly feel the need to figure it out after spending an evening with a Canadian-Polish friend who was absolutely fierce in her defence of the dear home country.
Just to back up a little, Poland had a shitty Second World War: three million Polish Jews died at the hands of the German Nazis - almost half of all the Jews who were killed during the Holocaust - as well as another three million non-Jews. Poland was known to be a particular hate of Hitler's, who vowed to destroy the entire Polish state and to enslave its people. It is no coincidence tbat the Nazis built some of their largest and most notorious concentration camps (think Auschwitz, Birkenau, Treblinka) in Poland.
And that is part of what Poland is trying to address with this latest legislation. What I don't understand, though, is, even if it can be true that people interpret the phrase "Polish death camps" to mean death camps run by the Polish government rather than German Nazi death camps (which I find really difficult to believe, although our Canadian-Polish friend insists that this is a real and pressing problem), what is the point of passing a law about it in Poland? Because it is presumably not Poles who get confused.
As for the other part of the new law, many historians are arguing that passing a law making it illegal to accuse the Polish government of complicity in the Holocaust or any other Nazi atrocity is effectively an attempt at whitewashing the role of Poles in the war. Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has compared the new law as de facto Holocaust denial, but you can always trust the Israelis (and Netanyahu in particular) to go over the top in these matters.
Now, while it is true that the Polish government never had a policy of appeasement or collaboration like France or Norway, there certainly were examples of Polish some towns and cities (notably Jedwabne and Kielce) taking part in Nazi anti-Jew pogroms, and various betrayals of Jews by Polish individuals, even if I am sure that our friend would never admit to that. And, once again, why pass a law like that in Poland unless Poles themselves are routinely in thr habit of accusing their government of war crimes from 60 years ago, which I find unlikely. Such a law does not constrain Israelis or anyone else outside of Poland, so what exactly is its function?
Anyway, I don't want to belabour the point, but I just feel that the whole law is just another example of the curbing of the media and judicial independence that the current populist government has been frequently accused of. This kind of government censorship is never to be encouraged.

Why female Uber drivers earn less than men

An analysis by ride-sharing service Uber of its own drivers has thrown up some interesting data.
It seems that female Uber drivers earn on average 7% less than male drivers. But this is not the usual gender earnings gap we often read about. Uber pays its male and female drivers exactly the same for the distance and time they work.
About half of the male-female discrepancy is a result of the rather humdrum fact that the "more risk tolerant and aggressive" male drivers drive faster, and so can fit more trips into the working day. The rest of the difference is partly that men work longer hours (either they choose to, or they are able to) and, as a result of both of these two factors, men accumulate more experience and are able to position themselves in more lucrative locations. Interesting.
As an aside the analysis also reveals that there are 1.8 million Uber drivers in the United States alone, and they earn an average of US$376 a week, or US$21 an hour. Also, 60% of drivers are no longer working for Uber six months after starting, which suggests it is actually a more difficult job than Uber's recruitment advertising suggests.

Friday, February 09, 2018

The ethics of self-driving cars (revisited again)

Pursuing the ongoing debate over the hoary problem of how to program autonomous cars ethically, a group of Italian researchers have proposed a possible practical solution to the conundrum that most drivers believe that self-driving cars should take a utilitarian approach (i.e. they should seek to maximize the common good, even if that means sacrificing the lives of the car's passengers) while, at the same time, a sizeable majority also say that they would not want to drive in an autonomous car if it was set to kill the passengers rather than a group of pedestrians.
This solution involves an "ethical knob", which the driver/owner of the car would set themselves. This know woukd have three possible settings:

  1. Extreme altruism (the car would always choose the lives of pedestrians and others over the lives of the car's occupants).
  2. Utilitarian (the car would make logicsl decisions based on maximizing the good of everyone involved).
  3. Extreme egotism (the car would protect its passengers at all costs).

The researchers suggest that driver-owners should be deterred from the egotistical option by means of insurance premiums, with those who choose altristic driving paying a much lower premium than those who opt for egotism.
This is certainly an interesting idea, and it takes the ethical onus off car manufacturers, placing it squarely on the shoulders of the human "driver", which is effectively what happens in the real world at the moment. However, I am not sure how well it would work in practice, and I worry about the ramifications of having a one-time decision take away the flexibility of reacting to a specific situation.
It would certainly bring home to drivers/owners the fact that operating a potentially lethal mechine like a car does come with ethical considerations. And it also explicitly addresses the issue of insurance on autonomous cars, something I have rarely seen examined.

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Why are salsa jars so hard to open?

Seems like it's not just me getting old and feeble, or at least only that - the interwebs are full of people who struggle to open jars, particularly salsa and pickle jars.
Pretty much everyone has their own workaround for the problem: wear a rubber glove, or a leather glove, or just use a damp dishcloth to allow for a better grip; use a can-opener or a knife to break the vacuum seal at one edge of the lid; run hot water over the metal lid to expand it and make it easier to open; get the body-builder next door to do it; etc. There are also gizmos and gadgets specifically designed to aid with opening jars, although salsa jars are often too wide for some of these (here is a professional model that some peope swear by).
Obviously, jars need to be well sealed for food safety and shelf-life purposes, I understand that. But do they need to be quite so well-sealed, to the extent that normal healthy adults struggle mightily with them?
Well, one has to assume that food manufacturers are not stupid, and that they have put some thought into the trade-off between ease of opening and safety/longevity. Given that most people DO get them open eventually, one way or another, a.d given that we keep buying the stuff because it's so good, they are probably not going to change things any time soon. Cost and taste are overriding factors; actually being able to open the damned thing, not so much. The internet assures me that food manufacturers are aware of the issue, and are constantly working on potential solutions and innovations. But don't hold your breath.
As to why salsa and pickle jars seem to be worse than anything else, part of the problem is the traditional larger size and shape of the jars, which makes a good grip more difficult. But it has also been suggested that salsa and pickles are usually packaged while still hot, which makes the vacuum seal even stronger. That sounds vaguely plausible, but would the same not also apply to jams?

Nigel the lonely gannet dies

Nigel No Mates, dubbed "the loneliest bird in the world", has died.
Nigel lived for years on rugged Mana Island, off the coast of New Zealand, drawn there by some painted concrete gannets established to try and attract a new gannet colony to the isolated, windy island. Nigel saw the concrete birds, seemed convinced by them and the recorded gannet calls being piped from the cliffs. He took a particular shine to one of the concrete painted decoy gannets, set up a nest by her, and proceeded to woo and court her (and "was apparently seen to get even friendlier with her") despite her complete lack of  response. He faithfully returned each year, although no other (real) gannets joined him.
A few months ago, the consevationsists spruced up and repainted the concrete gannets, and pointed the loudspeakers more out into the ocean. This, and perhaps Nigel's presence, seemed to do the trick and small group of other gannets soon arrived and set up house on a different part of the island, completely ignoring Nigel (as he ignored them, preferring the company of his own concrete colony).
Either way, it was all apparently too much for Nigel, and the lonesome gannet was found dead recently. As the project lead conservationist wryly observed, "Whether Nigel was a pioneer or whether he was just a little bit dimwitted, it's really hard to tell. Maybe a combination of both." A new gannet colony on Mana Island may, however, survive.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Trudeau's "peoplekind" correction elicits ridicule and a new meme

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is in the international news (and many people's target sights) once again for his over-zealous political correctness.
The "proud feminist" Trudeau had the temerity to correct a questioner, a self-described feminist member of a Korean Christian church(!), over her use of the word "mankind" with the howler: "We like to say 'peoplekind', not necessarily 'mankind'. It's more inclusive".
No, we don't. No-one says "peoplekind". Not even Trudeau says "peoplekind". "Peoplekind" is not even a word.
Predictably enough, the clip has gone viral and has led to ridicule and allegations of mansplaining and virtue-signalling. A whole #Peoplekind Twitter meme has grown up overnight. And quite right too. I am, generally speaking, a supporter of the guy, but even I can see that this is excessive, and that he was just setting himself up from criticism and ridicule. Sometimes, he comes across as a rather-too-exuberant puppy, galumphing around all over the place, vaguely cute, but embarrassing and annoying in almost equal measure. He sometimes tries just that bit too hard.
Mind you, this was in response to the almost equally cringe-worthy comment from the audience member: "Maternal love is the love that's going to change the future of mankind". Now, what does that even MEAN?

UPDATE
Since then, Trudeau has downplayed the event as a failed attempt at a joke. Commenting that it "played well in the room and in context", Trudeau admits that, "it's a little reminder that I shouldn't be making jokes, even if I think they're funny".
Thing is, it didn't really seem like a joke at the time, and did not really seem to be received as such. And, if it was a joke, then it was a joke that took the piss out of the very earnest feminists he claims to be be supporting.
I guess we should give Trudeau the benefit of the doubt and accept it as a dumb joke, but, either way, it was incredibly ill-advised, and has done his brand (and that of the country) substantial damage.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

My image of stock traders as small, fearful animals

Maybe it's unfair of me, but I always have this image of stock traders in my mind as small, skittish little animals which, as soon as they see a shadow or hear someone say "Boo!", scurry back to the safety of their holes, before fearfully creeping out again. Or maybe like little furry lemmings throwing themselves helter-skelter over financial cliffs for little or no reason.
Now, I know they're just doing their job, being cautious and all that. But there's just something about the way they scuttle about en masse, overreacting to every minor event and rumour, that keeps that image fresh.
The latest sky-is-falling event has led to at massive 1,175 point fall on the Dow Jones Industrial Average, with smaller but still substantial "corrections" on the S&P 500, the NASDAQ and the TSX. Asian exchanges have seen even larger percentage drops, and sone estimates put the accumulated global value of the correction at a ridiculous $4 trillion. This is the largest tumble since the dark days of 2008.
And the world-shaking event that precipitated this slashing of billions of dollars off the main stock exchanges? Well, nothing really. Just a vague feeling that maybe things to have been going too well for too long (two steady years of increasing markets leading to record or near-record high indexes, upbeat economic and employment reports, strong global economic activity), and that inflation may be rising, with another interest rate cut possibly in the air. Or maybe not.
It's really not much to go on. But as soon as few major players start to act on a hunch, however vague or misguided, everyone else follows suit, in a veritable orgy of FOMO. It all seems so unscientific somehow, so tribal. It's a most unflattering image I have of all these important and almost certainly very rich individuals, but I can't seem to shake it.

UPDATE
Some are now blaming the run on automated computer algorithms, which frankly makes the human traders look even sillier.
When stocks are as expensive as they are currently, very small shifts in expectations can lead to big market moves. And when hard-wired computer algorithms are involved  (e.g. at its simplest, automatically sell when a stock value reaches $x), the effect can be unnecessarily exacerbated. And when one computer sees another computer selling, it too can be triggered to sell., even if there is no good underlying reason, leading to the stock exchange equivalent of a multiple car pile-up. So, ultimately, all those billion dollar computerized stock trading systems can begin to look like nothing more than a headless chicken running around the farmyard.

Monday, February 05, 2018

Get to know the blockchain

I know a lot of people are still very confused, so here is the simplest and best explanation I have yet seen of how a blockchain works.
Get to know it, it's not going away.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

SuperbOwl Sunday again

Bored with the SuperBowl? Here are some SuperbOwls. (Yes, I know it's a bit hackneyed now, but it was a very cool meme when it first came out).

UPDATE
Actually, it was a pretty good exciting game, and I don't even like American football. It was nice to see the underdog win, and the sanctimonious Tom Brady get his comeuppance.

Does virtual pedophilia lead to real-world crimes?

Here's (yet) a(nother) thing I have never thought about.
In Second Life - the venerable online role-playing game that goes back to the early days of the internet, but which apparently is still going - you can inhabit a virtual avatar, and carry out virtually most of the things you do in real life, including having sex. Because individuals in the game can choose the age, gender and appearance of their virtual characters, that means that it is possible for a virtual adult character to have sex with a virtual child.
Now, pedophilia is illegal and ethically verboten in the real world. So, should we be concerned about people doing it without repercussions in the virtual world of Second Life? Some people definitely are concerned, and some Second Life players and others have vowed to expose such activity within the game. There is also pressure on Linden Labs, the manufacturers of the Second Life software, to actively disallow such behaviour.
But it's not a slam-dunk ethically. How is it any different from a person just imagining the activity in their head (which, so far at least, is not illegal)? No real-world children are affected by it, so is it not just a harmless (if slightly weird) pastime? Might it even prevent potential pedophiles from committing real world crimes, in the same way as child sex dolls do for some people? And what about all those violent computer games that involve torture, killing, even mass genocide - shouldn't they be disallowed as well (many would say to that, "Hell, yeah!")?
It seems to me that our attitude towards such games should be informed by the extent to which they might encourage such illegal activity in the real world. For example, there is plenty of evidence that violent video games desensitize players and may well encourage real-life violence (the teenage Columbine murderers and the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik being oft-quoted cases in point). There seems to be less evidence that virtual underage sex leads to real-world pedophilia, but the picture is far from clear, and it could quite conceivably be a valid issue.
Tricky one.

Saturday, February 03, 2018

Boushie trial shows Saskatchewan's racist underbelly

The Colten Boushie murder trial in Sasketchewan is bringing some of the seamy racist underbelly of the province out into the light.
Northern Saskatchewan farmer Gerald Stanley is accused of shooting dead young 22-year old indigenous man Colten Boushie, after the latter trespassed onto the farmer's land. This occurred out in the boonies near the town of Battleford, an area with a particularly checkered history of racial tensions dating back to before Confederation. And the trial, which is only just beginning, has brought some of the worst elements of that tension to the fore. The Internet has lit up with scary comments like the suggestion aired on Facebook that Stanley's "only mistake was leaving witnesses", and some vocal support for Stanley from a shadowy group called Farmers With Guns. You can just imagine.. Not that Boushie and his buddies were exactly angels - they were trying to steal Stanley's ATV at the time - but this just does not sound very Canadian to me.
Stanley's counsel insists that the trial is "not a referendum on racism", but the town is now surrounded by a heavy police presence, and many commentators are warning that street violence is by no means out of the question as both the indigenous and non-indigenous population nurse their various grievances.
The early proceedings of the trial do not bode well. A huge pool of 750 potential jurors were called, although only 204 of these actually showed up, partly a reflection of the huge distances covered by the jury region, as well as the poverty of many of its rural inhabitants, both indigenous and non-indigenous. The defence then proceeded to throw out any candidates who looked even vaguely indigenous, something they are apparently well within their rights to do without explanation or appeal according to the system of "peremptory challenges" built into the legal system - leading a relative of Boushie to comment that "the decks are stacked against us".
Certainly, if Stanley is found not guilty, the local indigenous population - already highly skeptical about the legal and police treatment they have received over the years - will be up in arms. And even if he is found guilty, the best the area can look forward to is a rather fractious status quo.

UPDATE
Well, guess what, Gerald Stanley has been found not guilty of the murder of Colten Bouchie. Most of the courtroom, the indigenous population of Canada, social media, and a good proportion of the rest of the country, reacted with bewilderment and anger as the jury foreman announced the decision. Stanley was immediately protected by the sheriff's deputies and rushed out of the room pronto.
Doubtless, there will be recriminations, demonstrations and quite possibly violence as a result of the stunning and controversial decision. But possibly not as much violence as would have ensued if the decision had gone the other way. That's about the best that can be said of this execrable situation. That and the fact that the whole system of peremptory challenges is likely to finally come under the microscope.

Friday, February 02, 2018

The world most influential thinkers - some old chestnuts and some surprises

I recently came across the Global Thought Leader Index an annual index compiled by the Swiss think-tank Gottlieb Duttweiler Institut (GDI).
It purports to rank that elusive concept, the most influential thinkers in the world. This is not the same as the most influential people, so there is no Vladimir Putin, no Lady Gaga, no Warren Buffett, and no old dead guys like Aristotle or Descartes. Neither does it include (in the main) active politicians or entrepreneurs, whose influence stems mainly from their actions rather than their ideas. The thought leaders considered are those living individuals whose work is considered to be mainly as a "thinker", and whose ideas are known and influential beyond their own field.
From a selected pool of 600-odd such people, GDI then measures their "weight" in terms of global public discourse on the Internet, Wikipedia, Twitter, etc, using sophisticated software that measures their mentions, likes, followers, and the strength of relationships between them, to come up with an influence ranking. It's not a perfect recipe, but it nevertheless makes for interesting reading.
The top 20 for 2018 are:
  1. Pope Francis (religion)
  2. Noam Chomsky (linguistics)
  3. Stephen Hawking (physics)
  4. Richard Dawkins (evolutionary biology)
  5. Al Gore (ecology)
  6. Henry Kissinger (politics)
  7. Bill Gates (entrepreneur)
  8. Dalai Lama (religion)
  9. Desmond Tutu (activist)
  10. J.K. Rowling (novelist)
  11. Pope Benedict XVI (religion)
  12. Pedro Almodovar (artist)
  13. Joseph Stiglitz (economist)
  14. Kofi Annan (politics)
  15. George Lucas (artist)
  16. Richard Stallman (activist)
  17. Orhan Pamuk (novelist)
  18. Edward Snowden (politics)
  19. Tim Berners-Lee (computer science)
  20. Slavoj Žižek (philosophy)
Other than the question of just how Henry Kissinger got in there in the Top 10 in 2018, I was surprised by the number of novelists in the list - e.g. J.K. Rowling (10), Orhan Pamuk (17), Salman Rushdie (26=), Mario Vargas Llosa (26=), Paulo Coelho (33) - and not perhaps the most obvious or expected ones either. Also, surprising to me is the number of names with which I am just not familiar - e.g. Slavoj Zizek (20), Amartya Sen (22), Daniel Kahneman (31), Muhammad Yunus (40) - many of whom appear towards the top of this list year after year. Slavoj Žižek, for example, is a Slovenian post-structuralist philosopher, who has been called "the Elvis of cultural theory" and "the most dangerous philosopher in the West". Who knew? Well, obviously a lot of people know, and I am just exhibiting my own woeful ignorance here.

The ethics of self-driving cars (revisited)

The discussion about the ethical programming of autonomous vehicles continues, and it seems like we tie ourselves in ever more Gordian knots over it (I have already looked at this issue in some detail).
Another article in today's Globe and Mail Drive annoyed me a bit, though, because of the line of thinking of some participants in the debate (mainly car manufacturers) who believe that we are putting unfair expectations on self-driving vehicles. As an example: "I don't remember when I took my driver's license test that this [in reference to the need for autonomous cars to decide which victim to pick in the case of a potential accident] was one of the questions". Others point out that the concerns being debated over the ethics of future self-driving cars does not seem to extend to existing vehicles and their current capabilities.
It seems to me that this is an entirely moot point. The whole issue with autonomous vehicles is that they do not have a human in control, a human with decades of accumulated life experiences and millennia of social, psychological and evolutionary development. We have to try and teach these machines all of that in just a few years. If we are putting life and death decisions in the hands of technological mechanisms, then we need to do the very best we can. This is not unfair expectation, it is merely due diligence, and "doing the right thing". And the time to do this is now, at the very beginning, before lives are at stake (oops, too late!)
Another aspect of this debate which I had not thought much about is the idea that autonomous cars need to communicate with pedestrians. We need the equivalent of a pedestrian's ability to make eye contact with a driver to have confidence of what they are intending, or the simple nod or light flash of a driver to a pedestrian or another driver, indicating their awareness of a situation and their intentions. There are many such non-verbal communications in use daily on our roads, many of which we are not even aware of ourselves.
How, then, is a driverless car to make such nods and eye contacts? Various ideas have been suggested, including flashing text (language barriers?) and symbols (low recognition rate) and a system of flashing lights (need for a national/global standard and pedestrian education). What I found interesting, and a bit depressing, though, was the research using fake driverless cars which showed just how little eye contact there really is these days. Only 19% of pedestrians ever looked up at the cars around them (19%!), most being more intent on their phones and conversations. So, most people would not even be aware that they are facing an autonomous vehicle, and any amount of winking and flashing the cars may be engaged in is likely to be pretty much wasted.
You can kind of see why vehicle manufacturers might be a bit jaundiced in their outlook...

Thursday, February 01, 2018

How we know that atheists are just as moral as religious people

I have been reading Peter Singer's Ethics in the Real World, a collection of 82 short articles and essays by the prominent ethics philosopher. One of them, entitled Godless Morality (also available on the web), looks at whether we need to be religious in order to be ethical. Now, you might think the answer obvious, but an awful lot of religious people apparently believe it to be true, arguing that it is God that gives us our sense of morality.
Unfortunately, a simple study using an online "moral sense test" gives the lie to that line of thinking. It seems that the responses from atheists to various hypothetical moral situations are almost identical to those of people who consider themselves religious. This suggests that our shared basic morality comes not from learned religious doctrine or directly from some God figure, but from our underlying humanity: we have an intuitive judgement of right and wrong, as a result of millions of years of evolution as social animals. No surprise to atheists perhaps, but a bit of a kick in the face for many religious people.
It's also interesting to consider the overwhelming responses to three of the situations in the test:
  1. A runaway trolley is about to run over five people walking on the tracks. A railroad worker is standing next to a switch that can turn the trolley onto a side track, killing one person, but allowing the five to survive. Flipping the switch is ______.
  2. You pass by a small child drowning in a shallow pond and you are the only one around. If you pick up the child, she will survive and your pants will be ruined. Picking up the child is _______.
  3. Five people have just been rushed into a hospital in critical care, each requiring an organ to survive. There is not enough time to request organs from outside the hospital. There is, however, a healthy person in the hospital's waiting room. If the surgeon takes this person's organs, he will die but the five in critical care will survive. Taking the healthy person's organs is _______.
The three possible responses are "obligatory", "permissible" and "forbidden". A solid 90% of respondents answer "permissible" to No. 1, 97% say "obligatory" to No. 2, and 97% reply "forbidden" to No. 3. What is interesting is that there is such a consistency of opposite opinion between Nos. 1 and 3, both of which result in the saving of five people at the expense of one, albeit in different circumstances. Arguably, this shows more about human psychology - of atheists and theists alike - than about morality.