Mining the deep seams of offence

Being offended is the new sport for all to play so our outrage du jour involves a group of rugby players at university throwing a themed party.

What was the theme of said party?

The Holocaust, with attendees dressing up as camp guards and victims?

Nope.

A slavery party, with some plantation owners and the rest dressed as chained slaves?

Nada.

Perhaps the theme was Hollywood sex scandals with the fat front row forwards dressing up as Harvey Weinstein and the thin backs as nubile actresses about to be violated for the sake of their career?

Try again.

The theme of the massively offensive party was going to be (it was cancelled, obviously) the Miners’ Strike of 1984.

Outrageous, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

Bill’s Opinion

Offence is something we choose to take. Similarly, if the theme of a party you aren’t even invited to upsets you, why not simply ignore it and certainly don’t bother gatecrashing it.

Of course, if you really must find offence in things that are none of your business, perhaps a party to celebrate the death of Lady Thatcher thrown by a mining community might be of interest to you.

Is there a flaw in our hopes for Artificial Intelligence?

We’re only scratching the surface of discovering what the art of the possible is with automation and robotics but the hype bandwagon is already far ahead of us and is making huge promises about the capability of “machine learning” and artificial intelligence.

As exciting as this might be, I wonder if we’re missing an important flaw in our thinking?

To explain why artificial intelligence might not be quite the panacea that technology commentators would have us believe, perhaps it’s useful to look at the development of human intelligence?

Humans demonstrate behaviour which suggests that we have the largest quotient of intelligence of any other species. Pinning down exactly what constitutes “intelligence” is not easy but, for the sake of this argument, let’s use the IQ tests which have been in the public domain for about a century, based on pattern recognition and prediction.

The average scores for IQ have been steadily increasing across most populations with few exceptions (hello North Korea!) for years. How much more intelligent is the 2017 AD model human compared with the 2017 BCE version and how much of the difference can be explained by nutrition and environment? Impossible to say but, based on our modern measurements of IQ, there would be difference.

Why did humans develop and are continuing to increase intelligence, what’s the evolutionary advantage? Put simply, the ability to observe and problem solve quite often trumps brute strength, speed, agility or other physical attributes. The knowledge of how to craft and throw a spear beats the deer’s ability to run faster than the spear-chucker.

Intelligence has increased in increments under the critical eye of evolution. Where an improvement in cognitive ability has resulted in an advantage to the genes of the owner, the improvement has been passed on to the next generation.

What does the development of human intelligence tell us about the prospects for artificial intelligence?

Intelligence has increased as a result of rewarding success and punishing failure across billions of individuals and millions of generations. How is that model recreated and fast-tracked for computer-based intelligence?

Sure, we can code certain obvious “guide rails” within which the programme can operate and learn, but how and where to define those parameters is still a human decision. There will be limits to how the artificial intelligence can develop and grow.

Natural intelligence, on the other hand, has developed within a massive laboratory over millions of generations. Unless we can set off similar numbers of individual software programmes over an equivalent number of procreating generations, the outcome will be severely limited by human imagination.

It is plausible that we might initiate a vast number of self-learning programmes in a vast array of computers but the guiding principles will still be set, and therefore limited, by humans. Meanwhile, human intelligence had only one guiding principle; to give the host organism enough of an advantage to reproduce.

Bill’s Opinion

Artificial intelligence is, by design, is never going to be equivalent to human intelligence unless it is given the same goal and operating parameters and there seems to be no real point to doing that other than intellectual curiosity.

The pleasure, the privilege is mine

A video appeared on my Creepbook for Business feed today.

The first few seconds should be a good predictor of what’s to come, if your time is precious and you don’t want to completely ruin your blood pressure;

Put simply, if you had a sub-optimal start in life, you’re going to find yourself further away from the finish line and the lesson we should take from this is that this situation is unfair. The inference being that those of us who didn’t have such a sub-optimal start to life should accept that we have “privilege” and, presumably, hamstring ourselves to give others a fairer chance at the race of life.

Yes folks, this is what the CEO of BNP Paribas Sercurity Services India truly thinks. Now might be a good moment to check your pension funds to ensure no exposure to BNP’s stock.

As a very simple analogy, this video seems to illustrate a point we can all resonate with, as long as we don’t think too deeply about the subject. A little further contemplation brings up some uncomfortable questions though, such as;

  • Given we all have a different stating point, what would be the fairest mechanism to compensate for the differences and using what scientific or mathematical method?
  • Does this method factor in local differences? For example, the child of a displaced white farmer in Zimbabwe will presumably have to have some compensating actions to equalise their outcomes in relation to a relative of Robert Mugabe.
  • What’s the hierarchy of privilege, which restrictive component of our past and present trumps all others? Is one ethnicity more restrictive than another, if someone had diabetes plus an under-privileged ethnic background are they more or less privileged than a transgender person? Is there a handy matrix of relative victimhood we can refer to?
  • What role do genes play in the statistical probability of our relative success in life and, as a consequence, how do our informed choices affect us when we know the importance of certain genes? For example, if I know I have a family history of diabetes, how much can I mitigate the potential impact of the disease by making sensible dietary choices?

Bill’s Opinion

If there isn’t an objective mechanism for calculating the relevant impact of victimhood, we’ve just replaced one set of bias with another.

Depending on which twins study you reference, genetic differences can account for at least 50% of the differences in success across individuals.

Even if we could calculate the relative impacts of nurture, ethnicity, genes or a thousand other factors involved in our lives, it is surely counter-productive to society and humankind as a whole to use this knowledge to hamstring those not similarly impacted.

The modern game of trying to compete for “biggest victim” status (sometimes referred to as “intersectionality”) is massively-damaging to those in its targets.

Rather than encouraging a sense of victimhood, we should be showing examples of how people overcame disadvantage to thrive. It is highly unlikely that any of those examples will involve constant resentment of those better off.

It’s the illogical conclusion

No, it’s not the first day of April; a white person claims to be “transracial.

Not content with being transgender, Adam Wheeler explains that, despite being born into a body that wouldn’t look out of place on a rugby pitch, he believes that he’s actually a Filipino woman.

Here’s Adam;

And here’s a Filipino woman;

The resemblance is uncanny, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

In Adam’s own words;

“I think things that made no sense to most people make sense to us on an individual level in almost every person, like a swelling feeling you feel when you listen to dramatic music.” 

Bill’s Opinion

It’s worth considering that everybody’s world view is incorrect, none of us have a clear epistemological understanding of how the universe works. For most of the time, this doesn’t matter, we seem to bumble along quite well with the strange worlds inside our heads coming into conflict with each other surprisingly rarely.

It’s probably also true that most people are irrational and use retrospective reasoning to make sense of their decisions and views.

In a world where there is a growing consensus among some of those irrational world views that gender is fluid and humans are not actually dimorphic, it was perhaps only inevitable that someone would eventually consider themselves of a different ethnicity. Presumably, different species and inanimate objects will be next on the shopping list.

Back on Planet Reality, it’s obvious to most humans that Adam has either an irrational craving for attention regardless of the negative consequences or he’s nuttier than squirrel shit.

Who regulates the regulator?

More calls for the State to protect us from the consequences of our choices courtesy of the Legacy Media ™ Guardian;

Facebook and Google give us services and experiences we like, therefore the Government should intervene.

The main thrust of the argument is that, because the interface is addictive, it’s bad for us. A conclusion is then leapt to that the only way to moderate any negative impacts is State intervention.

Let’s go back a few steps before we decide to open the Ministry of Responsible Social Media.

What harm is being incurred and by whom?

Addictive screen layouts and content?

Would we prefer the screen design to be clunky and unusable?

Would we prefer content to be curated for us by a government regulator? Good grief, no!

But the author doesn’t take long to get to the real point of the article;

Ah, the worn out “Russians hacked the election” line. It’s not the addictive nature of the free services these companies provide, it’s the inability of people like us to curate the content.

Scratch the surface of most Guardian readers and every Guardian contributor and an authoritarian will soon be revealed.

Bill’s Opinion

Freedom of speech is the foundational right upon which all others stand or fall.

With the freedom of speech comes the freedom to be wrong and the freedom to follow false information. If you doubt that statement, ask a Guardian reader whether they think a Ministry of Truth to moderate fake news would be a good idea. I bet, with a little encouragement, they will agree.

Over at Tim Newman’s place, there’s a conversation ongoing about anti-Semites. Anti-Semites are offering an idea to the market place of ideas. The best way to deal with them is to give them the publicity they crave and let the paucity of their arguments be exposed for what they are. Shutting them down as “fake news” simply breeds conspiracy theories.

The bet that dare not speak its name

We would have used the Voltaire quote, “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticise” as today’s title, except a cursory search suggests he never said it.

Nonetheless, this is quite an interesting discovery;

Apparently, Sportsbet and Crownbet have previously accepted bets on the result of the same sex marriage plebiscite but have bowed to pressure and removed their offerings.

In fact, we have been able to find only one Australian (well, British but their Australian subsidiary) betting agency willing to take bets on the Same Sex Marriage plebiscite.

For those not aware of the Australian betting formats, they use the decimal method. Under this method and using the odds expressed by William Hill, a $10 bet would pay a $60 return if it wins.

Bill’s Opinion

Brexit and Trump surprised the pundits possibly due to voters understanding and being embarrassed by the stigma of having to admit to the people undertaking the surveys and exits polls that they were a xenophobic, sexist homophobe.

William Hill’s offer seems fair value, therefore, if you feel that the result will be close*.

But more importantly, when did every other bookmaker grow scruples and a social conscience?

Ah, when Twitter outrage mobs get to decide what is offensive or not. This is not necessarily a good development.

 

*this does not constitute financial advice, in fact, if you were to take any kind of financial advice from this website you are tacitly admitting that you are financially illiterate and should immediately provide your email address in the comments so that we may send you fantastic investment opportunities in new and wonderful crypto-currencies.

It’s a Kon job

Australia has been housing people seeking refugee status on the PNG island of Manus for several years. The people arrived by boat at or near Christmas Island, an Australian territory 3,400km from the mainland and, to remove the incentive for future boat arrivals by bringing them to the mainland, Australia made a deal with PNG to house them on Manus.

PNG has since reneged on the deal and the detention centre has been forced to close. Alternate accomodation is on offer, either on the island of Nauru, where Australia has a 2nd detention centre, or within the township on Manus.

If they choose to relocate to Nauru, their asylum application to Australia can continue.

However;

That headline is two weeks old now and the centre is being dismantled. Running water and electricity have therefore been disconnected.

Understandably, those whose have chosen to remain in situ are starting to run out of the basics.

A refugee advocate, Kon Karapanagiotidis, is highlighting their privations and seeking donations and assistance from the public.

He is also very critical of the Australian government’s actions and inactions.

His Twitter account is busy with similar messages, which you can read for yourself.

Kon has a suggested solution for these problems, which he hashtags regularly – #bringthemhere. This campaign has consistently failed to make any ground with Australian governments of both political flavours. Perhaps it might help to examine why?

There’s a useful timeline here. As you’d expect from the BBC, what’s left unsaid is most important. The reason Manus was opened and then re-opened was in response to a large volume of arrivals, resulting in an unknown number, possibly in the thousands, drowning en route.

Put simply, rewarding a dangerous ocean crossing with permanent residence in Australia acts as a “pull” factor which people were prepared to put their lives at extreme risk to achieve. Politicians twice acted to remove this “pull”.

Those people who subsequently crossed multiple international borders and then boarded unsafe boats from Indonesia bound for Australia were relocated to Manus.

The #bringthemhere option has been tried twice and was deemed unpalatable from a human safety point of view.

So what options does Australia have left open?

Bill’s Opinion

Even the most desperate can make choices.

The people currently on Manus Island have made a series of choices;

  1. They chose not to claim asylum in the first country they arrived in after leaving their country of origin.
  2. They chose not to claim asylum in the subsequent countries they arrived in after leaving their country of origin.
  3. They chose to pay people traffickers for a place on a dangerous ocean crossing to Christmas Island.
  4. They chose to decline the option to be resettled in PNG.
  5. They chose not to move to the Nauru centre once Manus was closed.
  6. They chose not to move to the alternate accomodation on Manus.
  7. They chose to remain in situ at the closed centre on Manus.

In the absence of agreeing to #bringthemhere, with its twice-proven consequences, one struggles to understand what other solutions the people of Australia could offer.

Rather than hectoring and making accusations of racism, perhaps Kon could concentrate on seeking compromise solutions. If not, then one can only conclude that the welfare of the refugees is secondary to his desire to see an open borders policy despite a consistent rejection of this by the Australian electorate.

 

EDIT: Corrected Manus is part of PNG, not Indonesia.

Prince William takes on the Malthusian baton for another generation

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree; Prince William Is Worried There Are Just Too Many People in the World

This has been the Prince’s father’s schtick for years so we shouldn’t be surprised that the same views are held by Windsor Jr.

The headline speaks to a common underlying view held by many people living in rich western countries, that there are limiting factors to the size of the human population and catastrophe awaits us when we trend closer to that finite number.

The development of this idea can be traced back to Reverend Malthus’ 1798 work, An Essay on the Principle of Population. In it, he offers the hypothesis that populations grow into the space they inhabit until they reach a natural limit based on the resources they consume.

It’s an intellectually-attractive theory and one supported by countless observable flora and fauna examples. With regards to human populations, however, the theory doesn’t seem to be correct, or it hasn’t been for over 200 years.

Perhaps Malthus is correct but we just need to wait a little longer?

Well, perhaps but how can we explain the glorious and happy fact that the numbers of people in absolute poverty has fallen consistently over the period since his publication? Better still, that number fell off a cliff from the 1970s and continues to fall.

This makes Mathusian predictions seem somewhat unrealistically pessimistic. We are feeding and keeping people alive longer and in far greater numbers than ever before with no obvious reason to assume that this trend will end soon.

Why then, does Malthus’theory stand true for animals but not the shaved ape we call homo sapiens? Human ingenuity, would be my guess; we’re the only species producing efficient farming techniques, improving crop yields and robustness, creating effective pharmaceutical products, building dwellings in locations where extremes of temperatures would usually kill us, etc.

That’s not to say Malthus will be wrong forever about human populations but, if we were to place a bet, the clever money would be on us innovating our way out of trouble long before the catastrophe occurred. If the catastrophe occurs 200 years hence, we’re likely to be capable of colonising other planets, for example. Who knows? Certainly not Malthus, he’s a long time dead, and it’s highly unlikely that a couple of members of the Sax-Coburg-Gotha British Royal Family  have any real insights to offer either.

Of course, if one truly believes that there are too many people in the world, it seems reasonable to ask what might be the possible solutions?

Well, there’s really only two levers we can pull here; lower the birth rate and/or kill a bunch of people.

Examining the delta between people’s expressed and revealed preferences is always a useful test; Prince William and his wife are currently expecting their third child.

So, let us be charitable and assume the Prince doesn’t secretly harbour desires for genocide, we can only conclude that he wants other people to have fewer babies to make more room for his. Which people? Poor people, presumably, people not of his group.

I’m not an evolutionary biologist but I’d suggest that there’s a deep evolutionary instinct at play there.

Bill’s Opinion

Malthus is wrong with regards to humans and has been since 1798. He might be correct one day but the data trends suggests otherwise.

When someone expresses a Malthusian sentiment, it is a great indicator that you are speaking with someone with subconscious authoritarian tendencies.

In his speech, the Prince goes on to bemoan the extinction of species due to human activity. It’s a shame this point was rather lost in the Malthusian guff as we probably all can agree completely that this is a bad thing. Killing millions or asking poor people to do what you aren’t prepared to do yourself isn’t the solution though.

Tickets please

From this morning’s Creepbook for Business feed (the author’s name removed to save their blushes);

Well, yes but….

Using the same logic, a bus driver should receive about a quarter of the salary of the pilot of a 777 passenger aircraft.

The ground crew responsible for connecting the air bridge to the aircraft should probably get a “not killing people” bonus for every successfully alighted passenger too.

Also, every car driver giving a lift to 2 passengers should receive a payment of around a 15th of the bus driver pro-rata to take in to account that it’s not a full time job.

In addition, we might make an argument that there should be a “not killing people with a vehicle” bonus offered to all potential jihadists whenever they get behind the wheel.

Ok, those were facetious examples but they illustrate the point. We don’t pay people commensurate with the risk that they might kill others; it is surely a consideration but there are multiple other contributing factors which determine the value we place on a profession.

Some other elements which we use to determine the VALUE (to use the original author’s stylistics) of a profession;

  1. Rarity of the skills required
  2. Danger of activity being undertaken
  3. Entry costs of joining the profession
  4. Availability of similar or adjacent services or products

 

(1) and (4) are closely-related; if I need to fly between New York and Washington, I could purchase the services of an airline pilot, a train driver, a bus driver or rent a car and drive myself.

The airline pilot has the most complex training, entry costs to the profession and highest level of regulation to comply with but this doesn’t result in their salary being the highest in the country.

Why?

Because we have alternatives to their service which match our appetite for risk, cost, comfort and speed. If, to pay the pilot’s salary, the airline needs to charge $10,000 a ticket for a short round trip between two cities, most people would choose to take the train, bus or drive themselves. Heck, for ten grand, you could buy a secondhand car specifically for the journey.

The author of the comments on the news article above is not asking the right question. The interesting question is not, “shouldn’t we pay bus drivers more money because they could kill 30 people in one crash?” but, “given that bus drivers can kill 30 people in one crash, why are the salaries of bus drivers the world over consistently lower than other professions?“.

Bill’s Opinion

Bus drivers get paid at the rate they do because;

  • It’s a commodity skill that literally every sane and able-bodied adult can master by attending a short training course, exam and subsequent re-testing.
  • Not killing people by negligence or malice is a fundamental axiom by which we expect everyone in society to comply. You don’t get a prize because you didn’t kill anyone at work today.
  • By choosing to drive a bus for a career, you have consciously concluded that  neurosurgeon, barrister, airline pilot, internet entrepreneur, engineer, professional soccer player, international assassin, etc. are all out of reach of your capabilities at this time, all of which pay better than bus driver.

 

What we are prepared to pay for individual professions is determined by the VALUE (sic) we judge the profession to provide, a judgement made against multiple factors not just the fact that they could have killed us but but managed not to today.

I, racist robot

Machine learning is the new fidget spinner in IT circles, it would seem. The only problem is, those darn machines are sexist, racist bigots, just like the rest of us.

The article above explains how systems such as Google’s Sentiment Analyzer are producing results that infer a negative bias against certain groups based on ethnic, sexual or gender identifying nouns.

Everyone seems quite surprised and somewhat disappointed by this discovery.

Perhaps what should strike us as most strange about this is that anyone would predict that these systems would be unbiased.

Thinking about the root source of the learning material of the algorithms; all they have to start with is human speech and the written word. The programmers have let the software loose on the collected wisdom of mankind and asked it to draw its own conclusions.

Unsurprisingly, the software has discovered that we all use bias and we all use it all the time.

Perhaps the next conclusion the algorithms might offer is that bias is an entirely natural, logical and, indeed the only known way for humans to successful navigate the world.

“Bias” is a synonym for “in-group preference“, that is, the system every single one of our ancestors employed to stay alive.

Fear or careful suspicion of animals and plants of unknown species would have kept your and my ancestors alive on the plains of Africa long enough to mate and have offspring. That same fear and suspicion of other humans outside of their immediate group also protected our ancestors from being “victim zero” in the next inter-tribal raid.

Later in our evolutionary history, communicating at a distance with those outside of their immediate group will have saved countless of our ancestors from deadly diseases against which their genes hadn’t yet developed an immunity, again, allowing them to mate and have offspring.

How do we know this was a highly-successful strategy that beat all other competing strategies attempted by their peers?

Because I’m here and able to write this blog post and you are able to read it.

Bill’s Opinion

There is nothing shameful about bias, per se. It has served us well throughout every previous generation. Irrational bias is, by its nature, illogical, but before we write off every momentary expression of in-group preference as racist/sexist/whatever the current “-ist” du jour is, we might consider whether it is actually irrational or whether there is any utility to be had by employing it.

In the words of G. K. Chesterton,

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.