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Bridging the gap2013-04-07 10:53:07

A lot of people believe in some science. Some people believe in a lot of science. And a few people believe exclusively in science. Some common non-scientific beliefs include things like paranormal activity, an afterlife, intelligent design - things that are generally mutually exclusive with science as we know it today.

People who believe strongly in science sometimes have a hard time understanding how other people can not believe in science. The gap between people who believe in evolution and those who believe in intelligent design, for example, is huge, with many uncompromising extremists on either side. I have a theory for how this comes to be, or at least a theory that helps me make sense of the situation.

Take the Monty Hall problem. In this problem, there is a prize hidden behind one of three doors, and you have to guess which one. After you pick a door, one of the other doors is shown to be a losing door. You then have the option of switching doors to the other unopened door or sticking with your original pick. For the vast majority of people, intuition suggests that the probability remains unchanged, and there is no advantage to switching. However, statistics says otherwise: the probability of winning is higher if you switch.

This is one of the simplest examples I can think of where human intuition is demonstrably wrong. If people are accepting of statistics, then upon being shown the logic behind this, they will realize that their intuition is wrong, and choose to discard it. However, I expect that some people place so much value in their own intuition that they refuse to believe the statistics and continue to believe their intuition. There is no real practical fallout from this - most people never run into this problem in their daily lives, and even if they did, they'd end up choosing the right door slightly less frequently. Big deal. Choosing to believe your intuition here is something that is easily done, because it doesn't noticeably impact your life for the worse, and is not fundamentally incompatible with other beliefs that you might hold.

Of course, the Monty Hall problem is just one small example. There are many examples that can be pulled from many scientific fields where common human intuition is just plain wrong. And human intuition varies from person to person, too. For some people, intuition strongly suggests creatures as complex as humans must have been designed and created by some other entity. Science says otherwise. As with the Monty Hall problem, some people, upon being shown the scientific evidence, will choose to discard their intuition and believe in evolution instead of intelligent design. But other people will not. And critically, choosing to believe intelligent design doesn't noticeably impact your life for the worse (except for having to constantly engage in debate with scientists, which is more of a meta-problem), and is not fundamentally incompatible with other beliefs that you might hold.

Some of you may disagree with that last bit - to science-believers, intelligent design is fundamentally incompatible with other beliefs. But of course, this all depends on what you believe. You don't need to believe in a all-powerful god to believe in intelligent design; it could just as easily have been an alien race that did the designing. You don't have to reject fossils; the alien race might have planted those on purpose to disguise the truth. And so on - there are many ways to make a particular belief compatible with other things that you believe. To a scientist, such beliefs violate Occam's razor (and generally sound increasingly outrageous) but to somebody who doesn't believe in Occam's razor or in making hypotheses falsifiable it's not a problem in the least. It's pretty easy to come up with a set of internally-consistent beliefs that includes intelligent design, and many people have done exactly that.

The thing that's important to me is whether or not people are forced into such belief sets, or whether they choose them. It's one thing to consciously choose to reject evolution and choose intelligent design - there are valid reasons for doing so, and I have no problem with that. Even implicitly rejecting evolution because it sounds too hare-brained and unconsciously choosing intelligent design is fine by me - it's still a choice on the part of the individual. However, I dislike it when people are forced into a choice because of their ancestors or society. Legislation that bans evolution from schools is one way this choice is forced upon people, and that seems wrong to me. On the other hand, discriminating against people who believe in religion or intelligent design is another way that this choice is forced upon people, and that too, seems wrong to me.

Let people believe what they want. If you believe in evolution, then you should realize that there are selection pressures already at work that will, in the long run, weed out the incorrect beliefs. If the world were filled with Monty Hall problems, people who trusted statistics over their intuition would thrive - that's just survival of the fittest. Who knows - over time, human intuition might even evolve to match the science!


iTunes2012-12-25 15:12:46

I have a hard time putting into words just how much I hate iTunes. With undecipherable icons, inexplicably disabled menu item actions, and constantly crashing, it's nearly impossible to actually watch the content you pay for. It's a shining example of how not to design software. With alternatives like that it's no surprise that so many people download their content illegally instead.


A twist in the tale2012-12-06 00:22:25

Hah, I should have seen this coming: Providers of Free MOOCs Now Charge Employers For Access To Student Data. Remember, if you're not paying for it, you are the product.


Final warning: going away2012-10-12 16:46:00

According to my server logs, there are still 13 people subscribed to this blog via Google Reader that are using a URL to get the RSS feed. Please update the URL in Google Reader to point to instead of You must do this manually since Google Reader doesn't respect the 301 Permanent Redirect http response I've been sending it for over a year now.

I plan to let the domain registration lapse, so if you don't update you will be deprived of all of the wonderfully brain-rotting posts I've been sending your way.


Kickstarting content creation2012-07-31 19:41:51

There was a buzz recently about Madfinger Games, who made their game free due to rampant piracy. This is something that keeps coming up - preventing something digital from being copied is pretty much impossible now. With 3D printing and catalogs of 3D designs, this "problem" is going to start applying to previously uncopyable physical objects too.

Since it's impossible to prevent digital copying, it becomes very hard to sell digital items without losing at least some sales to piracy. There are examples like Louis CK who have succeeded, but I think that in the long term, even their strategies (which mostly rely on the honour system) are bound to fail. Interactive items, like games with in-app purchases, will still be able to make money, but that's a tiny fraction of the market for digital content.

However, there is one strategy that works in this kind of environment - the kickstarter model. This is where creators get paid before they create the item, rather than after. With kickstarter, people who are interested in the item getting created donate some amount of money, and get something (which may or may not be a copy of the item) in return. The creators are then able to fund the creation of the item and sell it for additional profit.

I think this model will evolve slightly - basically the people who want the content being created will fund it, it will be created, and then it will be freely available to everybody. It doesn't matter if people make copies of it after it is created because the creator has already been fully compensated.

This model might make it hard to gain funding for novel/innovative ideas where it is not obvious that the item will be useful, because there might not be enough people willing to fund it. There are two solutions to this - one is for creators to simply start small and build up a reputation of building good/useful things. The other is to get an established well-known creator to "vouch" for them. (This is equivalent to you buying a book from a new author because your favourite author praised it.)

Are there any websites out there that do this now?


Udacity2012-07-07 12:40:36

There's been a lot of press lately about Udacity lately, and how it provides a Stanford-quality education to everybody for free. It doesn't. I think it's great that the course material and lectures are available for free online to anybody who wants it, but I also think most of what you learn in university is learned outside of classrooms.

People who replace a conventional university education with an online education thing like Udacity may well learn all the course material (and maybe even do better on standardized testing of that material) but I have no doubt that they will end up losing something in the bargain. Good universities provide opportunities for cross-pollination of ideas and people in a way that's much harder to replicate online, and in my opinion losing that is like throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It's not an easy thing to measure though, so it won't even be obvious that it's gone until many years from now :(

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Firefox for Mobile released!2012-06-26 09:35:58

So the new-and-improved Firefox for Mobile, that thing I've been working on for the last ~8 months, is finally out. If you have an Android smartphone (ARMv7 processor, Android 2.2+) you should try it out! You can get it from Google Play.

The current release doesn't support tablets, unfortunately, but if you have a tablet and want to try out the new awesomeness, you can grab the latest Aurora build or if you're feeling adventurous, the latest nightly build. Those builds also have many more improvements that didn't make the release cut, so if there's something you find lacking in the release version feel free to give those a spin or let me know and I can file a bug.


Principles2012-03-27 22:04:59

Since you're reading this blog, I assume you have nothing better to do. So, you should watch this video: Inventing on Principle. It's an hour long but would be worth the time investment even if it took up a whole day. (If you're not a software developer you should watch it anyway, the guts of the talk is not software-specific.)


Meta-nationals, revisited2012-03-12 23:25:53

One of my first posts on this blog was about the idea of a meta-national, or a company that encompasses a country. I specifically cited IBM as an example of a company getting so large it might become one. Interestingly, IBM now has a high school in New York, so it hasn't let me down on that front.

But more interesting is what NASA says. I hadn't really thought about the implications of this before, but it hit me that if space exploration and colonization is going to be done by companies rather than governments, they're likely to want to establish their own laws rather than abide by existing governmental legal structures. In fact, I could see companies becoming the new "countries" as we expand out from Earth, and meta-national companies expanding to meta-planetary companies.

Thoughts on what the next millenium holds with respect to clustering of people? Will we still have countries, or companies, or anything else?


Subjectivity2012-02-21 19:52:51

As an undergraduate, it's easy to believe that your assignments and exams are marked based on some objective criteria and your mark in a course is strictly based on your knowledge of the material. As a teaching assistant, you come to realize the truth, which is that it's nearly impossible to come up with a set of objective criteria to mark free-form (i.e. essay-type) responses from students. Back when I was a TA, the marking schemes we got for evaluating assignments and exams were never good enough. There were always students who would put down something that was unspecified or ambiguous in the marking scheme, and we would have to use our best judgement when marking those. This was particularly true on exams.

In fact, when marking some of the larger problems on exams, one of the approaches many TA's (myself included) adopted is to first decide whether or not the student actually knows the answer. If yes, then we assume the student starts with full marks, and we deduct marks for each significant error. If the student doesn't know the answer though, we do the opposite: assume the students starts at zero, and add part marks for things they got right. This approach works pretty well in achieving the ultimate goal of the whole process, which is to separate the students who know the material from those who don't.

The part of the process I want to focus on is the first part: where the TA uses his or her best judgement to decide if the student knows the answer to the question or not. This is probably the single most important factor in the student's mark, and it is essentially a subjective decision. Having a more objective marking scheme, which covered every possible student response unambiguously, would eliminate this subjectiveness. However, it would also be impractical as it would take too much time for the instructor to create such a marking scheme, and there is no guarantee that it would actually produce better results.

I'm pretty sure that this subjectiv-ization of what are supposedly objective processes happens in a lot of places. For instance, consider driving exams. Sure, the examiner has a checklist of items and takes away points for things like not checking your blind spot, but I'd bet that the driving exam (at least ones in Ontario) are a fundamentally subjective test. If the examiner feels that you are confident, safe, and in control while behind the wheel, you pass.

A key point here is that somebody who passes the subjective test might very well fail a strictly objective test, and vice-versa. You could test a driver using video equipment to ensure they check the rearview mirror every n seconds, or turn their head x degrees when checking their blind spot. But somebody who does all that may still be unsafe on the road. The subjective test allows the examiner to ensure that the driver is following the "spirit of the law" rather than the "letter of the law" when it comes to safe driving.

I further hypothesize that this disparity in the results of subjective and objective tests applies to other domains as well. One that comes to mind is smartphone purchasing. Users buy smartphones based on subjective decisions (whichever happens to appeal to them more). If asked "why?", they will then justify their subjective decision with faked objective criteria like "this phone has feature X" or "this phone is faster". Although those statements may be true, they are like scores on a driving test: made up on the spot to justify the subjective decision.

Based on my experience, many people involved in the production of said smartphones (in engineering disciplines at least) focus on the objective metrics. They think that if they implement "feature X" or make their response time faster, they will win over those users. I don't think it works that way, though. Implementing "feature X" will just make users complain about missing "feature Y" instead, because implementing "feature X" doesn't change the outcome of their subjective decision. To do that you have to resort to psychology or other such disciplines.


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