Category Archives: General

It’s not all bad in Zuckerland…

I left Facebook a little over a year ago, and hadn’t really felt any desire to return even before the recent round of news stories.

This NYT piece by Kathleen O’Brien gives an interesting and more positive viewpoint, though. But where are the ‘lifeboats’?

Is it time to revisit some of those other social networks on which I’ve had accounts in the last few years that never quite made it? I wonder how many of them are still in business…

Seen it before?

Here’s a handy site: TinEye. It’s a reverse image search.

If you’ve got an image on your machine and don’t know where it came from, or you find it online and wonder where the original lives or who uploaded it first, this can help.

I learned about this from Terence Eden, who has a great example on his blog showing how it can be useful…

Personalised echo chambers

John’s column in the Observer this morning is a good one. Extract:

This doesn’t mean that YouTube’s owner (Google) is hell-bent on furthering extremism of all stripes. It isn’t. All it’s interested in is maximising advertising revenues. And underpinning the implicit logic of its recommender algorithms is evidence that people are drawn to content that is more extreme than what they started with – or perhaps to incendiary content in general.

So YouTube (like Facebook) is caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, it’s embarrassed by the way in which it is being exploited by unsavoury actors (and also possibly worried about the longer-term threat of regulation); on the other hand, its bottom line is improved by increasing “user engagement” – ie, keeping people glued to YouTube.

The great moral dilemma of the age

In the case of doubt over a particular item, is it a greater sin to recycle that which we ought not to recycle, or to leave unrecycled that which we ought to recycle?

The Reasonable Man

Until a few hours ago, I knew nothing about Jordan Peterson, but picking up on the attention he’s been getting, I watched his interview in Channel 4. It’s fabulous stuff.

Cathy Newman, the interviewer, is so desperate to be offended, to be the victim, that she keeps trying to put words into his mouth. It’s almost as if she’s trying to be a caricature of everything that’s bad about modern reporting, and modern political correctness, but she’s apparently serious.

And with astonishing patience, for half an hour, Peterson just keeps coming back, again and again, with facts, with logic, with reason, with intelligence, with sanity.

I once found myself at an event being followed around by a woman who adopted much the same approach, though she knew nothing about me and we had only just met. But she had clearly come with the intention of finding a man to be insulted by, and I was her victim for the day.

I wish I had handled the situation as expertly as Peterson does; in the end, I just had to leave the event early, because when people are so desperate to be offended, I sometimes get the overwhelming mischievous urge to give them what they want, even though I might misrepresent my opinions just for the fun of winding them up! I thought it better to depart before she reached that point.

The follow-up interview with Joe Rogan is worth watching, too.

I don’t know anything about him other than this, I’m not sure whether I’d agree with him on other things. I haven’t read his book.

But I certainly plan to do so now.

A suggestion for 2018

Here’s my thought for the year:

It’s much more important to read things with which you disagree than to read things with which you agree.

Merry XYZmas

If, like me, you have been pondering linear algebra on a Christmas afternoon (and, frankly, who hasn’t?), or if you know anybody who is learning it for the first time, then I highly recommend Grant Sanderson’s YouTube channel, 3Blue1Brown where he makes all kinds of mathematical ideas easier to understand through some clever visualisations.

In particular, his Essence of linear algebra course is a wonderful presentation of the basics. Do you have vague memories of matrix multiplication and of phrases like ‘determinant’ and ‘eigenvector’ but have no idea why you learned them or what they did? Then this is the resource for you. Not only is it good revision, but it explains them in a different way from the way you might have learned them originally, which can help you get a better understanding than you had before.

Oh, and if linear algebra isn’t your idea of a fun way to spend Christmas, don’t worry. There’s Essence of Calculus as well.

Head case

Prof. Guglielmo Tamburrini posed an interesting question in a talk this afternoon. Imagine a self-driving car faced with the option of having to hit one of two motorcyclists. One is wearing a helmet, and the other isn’t. Should it aim for the helmet-wearing guy, to reduce the risk of loss of life?

Philosophers must be having a field day with this stuff. They’re being invited to comment on the latest in sexy new technologies in a way that doesn’t happen very often. (Douglas Adams fans may remember Majikthise & Vroomfondel.) Much of the ethical discussion relating to autonomous vehicles, though, boils down to variations on the Trolley Problem, and the key thing about this — the thing that makes it an interesting ethical conundrum in the first place — is that there is no right answer. If deployment of the railways had required the Trolley Problem to be solved first, we would still be using horse-drawn carts.

The question is not, ‘What should a car do in this situation?’, but ‘How do we get to a point where society is comfortable that we’ve had enough discussion about this?’ Or, more precisely, ‘How do we get to a point where a large enough fraction of society is comfortable, that a party proposing to allow such vehicles on our roads would be elected to government?’

Many technologies, historically, have first been used, and then later have had restrictions placed upon them to reduce the risks which are discovered, with experience, to be the key ones: motorcyclists needing helmets, cars needing seat-belts, pilots needing licences, smokers needing to go outside.

What I presume will happen here is that societies who are less risk-averse will go ahead with greater degrees of autonomous driving, and the more conservative nations will watch with interest until they can amass enough vicarious experience to follow in their footsteps.

I imagine, however, that in 50 years’ time, we’ll still be debating the motorcycle question raised above. By then, though, it will be even more hypothetical, since we’ll have long-since banned motorcycles.

Pied Piper

Every time I read something by Nevil Shute, I realise that this is something I should do much, much more frequently. He is truly brilliant, yet I have, so far, read only a few of his books.

The latest one is Pied Piper, which I’ve just completed in the unabridged audiobook version read by the (also superb) David Rintoul. (I’ve enthused about audiobooks here before – if you haven’t tried them, they look, individually, rather expensive, but an Audible subscription makes them about the same price as a book.)

Anyway, Pied Piper comes highly recommended, in whichever form you consume it.

LovedFilm

We are amongst the many people mourning the impending departure of Lovefilm by Post – the DVD rental service which was absorbed by Amazon a few years ago, and which they recently announced would close at the end of October. A few years back, I looked at the list of our past rentals, and it was over 750 titles. They now truncate the history to the last 200, so I can’t see our current total, but I guess we must have watched in the region of 1000 movies. I’m not even going to calculate how many weeks of enjoyment that represents! We joined soon after the service started, which was also around the time we pretty much stopped watching live TV.

Lovefilm was clearly living on borrowed time: like Netflix’s original postal service in the US, on which it was modelled, we knew it would eventually succomb to the higher profit margins available from streaming. But Netflix and Amazon Prime – both of which we also use – don’t offer a fraction of the titles that we want to watch. If I look back at just a few of our recent rentals – not even particularly obscure foreign language ones, but things like Cadfael, or Humphrey Bogart’s Sahara – LoveFILM is, I think, the only way to get them without actually buying them.

Ian Dunt’s piece in the Guardian puts it nicely:

I’ve no interest in trawling through the movies on Netflix and Amazon Prime. It’s like the DVD bargain bin at a suburban petrol station. There are about five quality films on there, all of which you’ve seen, and then an endless black hole of celluloid mediocrity.

We also often enjoyed watching the directors’ commentaries and other extra features on the disks, which are seldom available from the online services.

So, strangely, this change will probably push us back towards the purchase and ownership of more physical media. Amazon may have realised this and decided it was to their advantage! But we’d better collect copies of our old favourites (and rip them) before DVDs, too, fall by the wayside.

It is interesting that, despite interesting offerings from people like Curzon, nobody has managed to offer a general streaming service that compares in the breadth and quality of the postal catalog. I’m guessing this is a legal and licensing problem, and that Lovefilm by Post was able to survive based on the tail-end of some historical agreements put in place for VHS rental shops.

But if anyone does work out a way, legal or technical, to offer a service catering to those interested in more than just the blockbusters, they will make a lot of money. From me, at least.

Preparing for the cybercrime of the future

My friend Frank helped organise what looked like a great event at the Computer Lab recently – called Cambridge2Cambridge, it’s a joint initiative between us and MIT, and they’ve done a splendid video about it.

More information here.

Making a splash

Lots of fun today at a family gathering at the Lea Valley White Water Centre. We were celebrating my parents’ wedding anniversary. They enjoyed watching us from the bank!

I’m on the port side – at the back in this one, where we’re paddling backwards to control our approach to the rapid:

And a bit further forward (and partially obscured) here. We did several runs down the Olympic course.

Great fun!

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser