Famous Seamus and February 1st

Today is St Brigid’s Day, still celebrated in my native land. John Humphreys of Radio 4’s Today programme had a lovely interview with Seamus Heaney’s widow, Marie, and their daughter, Catherine.

Just before the end, Humphreys asks them to name their favourite poem from Heaney’s formidable oeuvre. Catherine chose ‘Postscript’, which also happens to be mine.

Paris in la Belle Époque

Extraordinary collection of high quality remastered prints from films made by the Lumière company in Belle Époque-era Paris, France from 1896-1900. Slowed down footage to a natural rate and added in sound for ambiance. Gives on an extraordinary feel life on the streets at the end of the nineteenth century.

The Feynman trap

Gary Smith, writing in Wired:

Nobel laureate Richard Feynman once asked his Caltech students to calculate the probability that, if he walked outside the classroom, the first car in the parking lot would have a specific license plate, say 6ZNA74. Assuming every number and letter are equally likely and determined independently, the students estimated the probability to be less than 1 in 17 million. When the students finished their calculations, Feynman revealed that the correct probability was 1: He had seen this license plate on his way into class. Something extremely unlikely is not unlikely at all if it has already happened.

The Feynman trap—ransacking data for patterns without any preconceived idea of what one is looking for—is the Achilles heel of studies based on data mining. Finding something unusual or surprising after it has already occurred is neither unusual nor surprising. Patterns are sure to be found, and are likely to be misleading, absurd, or worse.

Lots of other examples.

The moral? “Good research begins with a clear idea of what one is looking for and expects to find. Data mining just looks for patterns and inevitably finds some.”

Crow-sourced problem-solving

We all knew that crows are intelligent and resourceful creatures, but this new research with New Caledonian crows really takes the biscuit:

The new study, published today in Scientific Reports, shows that these birds can create long-reaching tools out of short combinable parts – an astonishing mental feat. Assemblage of different components into novel functional and manoeuvrable tools has, until now, only been observed in apes, and anthropologists regard early human compound tool manufacture as a significant step in brain evolution. Children take several years before creating novel tools, probably because it requires anticipating properties of as yet unseen objects. Such anticipation, or planning, is usually interpreted as involving creative mental modelling and executive functions.

The study demonstrates that this species of crow possesses highly flexible abilities that allow them to solve complex problems involving anticipation of the properties of objects they have never seen.

The link contains some amazing (but poorly-lit) videos.

The smartphone plateau

As the Economist notes “the recent slowing of smartphone sales is bad news for the industry, obviously. But for the rest of humanity it is a welcome sign that a transformative technology has become almost universal”.

Er, up to a point, Lord Copper.

Links for today

Four remarkable articles.

  • Ron Deibert: “Three Painful Truths About Social Media”, Journal of Democracy, Volume 30, Number 1, January 2019. link – lovely, synoptic summary of our current reality, by a scholar who seem more of the dark underbelly of our networked world than most of us.

  • Paul Nemitz, “Constitutional democracy and technology in the age of artificial intelligence”, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 15 October 2018, p376. link. Magnificent essay by the Principal Adviser to the European Commission on why judgements about ethical AI cannot be left to the tech companies.

  • David Silver et al, “A general reinforcement learning algorithm that masters chess, shogi, and Go through self-play”, Science, Vol. 362, Issue 6419, pp. 1140-1144, 07 Dec 2018 link. The full scientific report by DeepMind researchers on their ALphaZero machine, which taught itself to acquire superhuman capabilities in playing certain games.

  • Gary Kasparov, “Chess, a Drosophila of reasoning”, Science, Vol. 362, Issue 6419, pp. 1087, 07 Dec 2018. Lovely commentary by a former Grandmaster on AlphaZero’s accomplishments.

The feeding frenzy about the drop in Apple’s share price

I find the media obsession with Apple’s valuation really tiresome. That’s not just because I don’t own any shares but also because it suggests that mainstream journalists haven’t been paying attention. Way back in August, for example, Bloomberg’s Tim Culpin published a very perceptive piece under the headline “Dark Clouds Gather as Tech Stockpiles Hit Pre-Crisis Levels” which made it crystal clear that there was a slowdown coming.

But even if journalists don’t pay much attention to supply chains you’d have thought that common sense and everyday experience would have taught them that the iPhone picture was changing. I’ve lost count of the number of friends, colleagues and acquaintances who are happily still using their four- or five-year-old iPhones. The devices still work perfectly for their purposes. Sure, the camera isn’t as good as the one on the iPhone XS, but it’s still good enough for everyday use. My trusty old iPhone 6 is still more than adequate for my purposes. In fact, since the last couple of IOS updates and a replacement battery, it’s as good as it ever was. And one of the things that would stop me upgrading is that I find its fingerprint recognition much more convenient for secure online activities than the much-touted face recognition in the newer iPhones would be. I’ve been an early adopter and a gadget freak for as long as I can remember. So if I’m not upgrading, then must be lots more like me.

Could it be that most mainstream tech journalists always have the latest iPhones because their employers pay for them? And so they have fallen into the delusion of thinking that they’re normal consumers?