270. King Kong and Big Data

BigDataBig data is an enabling tech­nol­ogy. That is, it enables both risks and rewards, accord­ing the skills and judge­ments of those who engage it (http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/it-pro/business-it/how-big-data-can-result-in-bad-data-20130720-hv11k.html?rand=8744926). Human beings have never been known to turn down an enabling tech­nol­ogy, regard­less of the con­se­quence that it will enable cat­a­stro­phes as well as rewards.

Take the motor vehi­cle: “There have been more traf­fic related fatal­i­ties around the world, since the first auto­mo­bile was made, than all the deaths from all global con­flicts over the past 3000 years com­bined” (http://www.shaundejager.com/psychology-of-our-driving-culture-affects-our-safety/). With cars the car­nage has been suf­fi­cient for us to impose some bur­den of legal care on dri­vers (with­out stel­lar suc­cess). No such sanc­tion, or even sys­tem­atic care, is ever likely to be the case with the poten­tially cat­a­strophic mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion of big data by ham­burger dri­ven office work­ers.

Edward Snow­den is right: by col­lect­ing lim­it­less data on all of us, the Amer­i­can “secu­rity” jug­ger­naut, Prism, and its indus­try ana­logues, have lim­it­less poten­tial to gen­er­ate expen­sive errors or even tragedy through the poor judge­ments of mis­guided human con­trollers. At a national level, Aus­tralia is deeply enmeshed in the activ­i­ties of the United States Defense establishment’s big data plays, both because of the whole­sale plun­der­ing of our pri­vate and busi­ness com­mu­ni­ca­tions, but for­mally through intel­li­gence estab­lish­ments such as those at Pine Gap (http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/it-pro/security-it/australian-outback-station-at-forefront-of-us-spying-arsenal-20130720-hv10h.html). That is, what­ever brings those bun­nies to grief in the name of secu­rity will also bring us to grief. Not if, but when.

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269. Almost the same, almost forever (but not quite)

strange-attractor2Noth­ing in nature ever repeats itself. Not quite. No two heart­beats are ever the same. No two orbits of the earth around the sun are ever the same. No two human faces are ever the same, no two trees, or rocks or even motor cars. Often the dif­fer­ences are tiny, infin­i­tes­i­mal. We live com­fort­ably expect­ing the sun to rise tomor­row. Yet no math­e­mat­i­cal equa­tion can pre­dict when the orbit of one planet will be just dif­fer­ent enough, will cross a chaotic thresh­old and spin off into space alone, and throw us into the eye of the sun. No doc­tor can pre­dict when the never-quite-the-same oscil­la­tions of your heart mus­cle will become chaotic and kill you. And no for­tune-teller, priest, politi­cian or sci­en­tist can nav­i­gate you to a heaven in this life or any life gov­erned by the whim­si­cal paths of strange-attrac­tors.

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268. Trouble with the Sock God

SockGodHave you noticed? It’s the small gods who always make trou­ble. Take the Sock God. With­out fail, each time I wash clothes, the Sock God sneaks in and steals a sock. Once I tried to beat the bug­ger by buy­ing all black socks, so I could match the orphans. Nope. You wouldn’t believe how many shades of black there are. Then there is the Street God. A street can be com­pletely empty. Then as soon as I want to cross it on foot, three cars, a motor­cy­cle and an ambu­lance will appear from all direc­tions. Now you know very well that if you decide to pay for some­thing with all the metal col­lect­ing in your pocket, the Lit­tle Money God will howl with laugh­ter and make sure you are 5 cents short. Then, reluc­tantly using a $5 note, the shop girl will find that she has to give you $3 of change in 10 cent coins. Oh, and never, ever hint to your­self that some­thing is impor­tant or urgent to do. A merry team of Trip Up Gods will make sure that for­get to bring your wal­let, twist your ankle in a rush, and find that the sub­way line is closed for main­te­nance. What kind of mis­chief will they have for us when we finally get to heaven?

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267. All hidden truth to bring to light

ordinary-bumpArt is not a part of things until we make it a part. An artist is some­one with the skill of help­ing oth­ers to see the extra­or­di­nary in the ordi­nary. She finds a sym­phony in nature where oth­ers have heard only noise. The beauty of sci­ence, or math­e­mat­ics is not in mak­ing new truths. They were there wait­ing to be found, and an extra­or­di­nary per­son has shown us where to look. The gift of teach­ing is not in repeat­ing words from books, but in sur­pris­ing stu­dents with the sud­den knowl­edge of their own power to under­stand. Then words half formed, obscurely mut­tered, became per­fect and were clearly uttered. [Odin’s song, the Ice­landic Edda]

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266. Pity your neighbour’s cat

The most cer­tain qual­ity of power is that those who seek it will mis­use it. A sec­ond cer­tainty is that an army of zom­bies will eagerly imi­tate their lead­ers. And so it is with “cyber war­fare”. Gov­ern­ment lead­ers rou­tinely spy on you? No prob­lem. (http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/it-pro/security-it/alarm-bells-ring-as-power-of-data-miners-starts-to-compute-20130609-2nxvj.html ). Any­one from the jan­i­tor in your local pri­mary school, to the super­mar­ket check­out girl, to every fool called “man­ager” will now feel free to watch you through a crack in the door. They will has­ten to be fash­ion­able spies, and at the first chance snitch on you or your neighbour’s cat.

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265. The Limits of Education

Edu­ca­tion does not make us edu­ca­ble. It is our aware­ness of being unfin­ished that makes us edu­ca­ble.” ~ Paulo Freire, Ped­a­gogy of Free­dom. How much time have you invested in edu­ca­tion? How much value has your edu­ca­tion given you? How would you mea­sure the value? I hung around uni­ver­si­ties and schools in the hope of grow­ing my ideas. It took me way too long to real­ize that schools and uni­ver­si­ties were not there for that. In fact, most of the peo­ple who went to these places, and most of the peo­ple who taught in them, were not inter­ested in grow­ing ideas. They wanted dol­lars and respectabil­ity. Their aim was to become “fin­ished”, and sure enough a diploma nearly always fin­ished them. Their curios­ity died. As fin­ished peo­ple they could get jobs, have babies and grow fat. Some of them (like doc­tors) took a long time to get their diplo­mas, but some­how this didn’t make any dif­fer­ence. In the end, maybe 80% of them scraped by rather badly in their jobs from day to day, maybe 10% were so hope­less that they were a men­ace to every­one in the neigh­bour­hood, and maybe the top 10% were ace mechan­ics, lawyers, sales­men, or what­ever. Me, I’ve suc­cess­fully remained unfin­ished, unem­ploy­able, curi­ous, poor, and bor­ing to all of the fin­ished peo­ple around me.

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264. Evidence – The Alchemy of the Ages

What do politi­cians, vot­ers, the cap­tains of indus­try, drug com­pa­nies, priests and door-to-door sales­men all have in com­mon? Not much. How­ever, every one of them has an addic­tion to evi­dence. Not any evi­dence. The evi­dence they crave (and will pay a king’s ran­som for) is evi­dence to sup­port their cause. So what is this mys­te­ri­ous thing called evi­dence? Evi­dence is the magic emerg­ing when A together with B seems to result in C. A and B are then called “premises” to the log­i­cal (?) out­come, C. That is, A and B are evi­dence which “prove” C. In real life, C is what the politi­cian, the voter, the priest, or who­ever … wants to hear. The gen­eral idea is that when you have a proof, C, then other peo­ple will believe you. There­fore, if you are smart you will care­fully choose A and B (not K, M or Z) to prove your point. If you are cheeky, you might even call the evi­dence “sci­en­tific”. That is because the adjec­tive “sci­en­tific” has spe­cial reli­gious power in this age. Actu­ally, sci­en­tific method (which is under­stood by about 2% of any pop­u­la­tion) starts with the strange idea that the truth of C is unknown before A and B are put together as an exper­i­ment. Even more strangely, sci­en­tific method requires that the A and B premises (or “vari­ables” as they are called in an exper­i­ment) are not cho­sen to “prove” C. Rather, any out­come C is only as good as the orig­i­nal wis­dom of choos­ing the vari­ables, A and B, instead of K, M or Z. At any later time, K, M or Z might be shown to be bet­ter choices, and the orig­i­nal out­come, C, might be trashed. Well, that kind of sci­ence is for geeks. There is no dan­ger, ever, that politi­cians, vot­ers, the cap­tains of indus­try, drug com­pa­nies, priests and door-to-door sales­men will have their more con­ve­nient idea of “evi­dence” share a book­shelf with fairies, Santa Clause and UFOs.


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