I almost feel sorry for Mark Zuckerberg. That’s a phrase I never thought I’d write, although I did carefully qualify it with an almost.
Zuckerberg had the look of a startled gazelle amongst a pack of hyenas as the House Financial Services Committee tore into him. Officially the hearing was titled "An Examination of Facebook and its Impact on the Financial Services and Housing Sectors" and his plan for a worldwide cryptocurrency, Libra, was ostensibly the subject of debate, but Congress used the opportunity to hold him to account for his many other sins too.
Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters pulled no punches:
You have opened up a serious discussion about whether Facebook should be broken up.
Each month, 2.7 billion people use your products. That's over a third of the world's population. That's huge.
That's so big that it's clear to me, and to anyone who hears this list, that perhaps you believe you're above the law.
Zuckerberg seemed ill-prepared for the hearing, having not read a lot of the documentation sent to him in advance.
Committee member Joyce Beatty asked him:
Did you review the packet that was sent to you by this committee?
And when he refused to answer, she added:
Obviously, that's a no.
Zuckerberg was accused of having no genuine interest in civil rights, only addressing the subject as a result of the lawsuits he’s received. He didn’t even know which company Facebook employs to take care of its civil rights strategies even though it’s one of the largest civil rights firms in existence.
It was brutal and I did have a certain sympathy for Zuck. What I see when I look at him is a techie, an ideas man who’s interested in the technical evolution of those ideas but not really interested in — or capable of — the troublesome business of running a massive company. He’d probably be better off dropping into a CTO role and then employing someone who can handle things like Congress committees as a CEO. A wise visionary knows what their weaknesses are.
I don’t think he’s the devil but he has made some almighty mistakes, not least the way he has ridden roughshod over people’s privacy. But I think that’s simply because such concerns just don’t create a big enough blip on his radar. It’s careless rather than evil.
Thursday 24th October 2019 Briefly ...
I am massively fed up with having to confirm I'll accept cookies all the time. I visit a lot of tech sites and they seem to want confirmation at least weekly. I know by clicking the default Yes, Agree or Confirm I'm giving them permission to invade my privacy at will. For all I know they can now legally come to my house and stick their finger up my bottom. They're doing it wrong of course — the cookie stuff, not the finger-up-bottom stuff — they should implement the most restrictive data-sharing settings by default, but that's another matter. I've already given them access to my colorectal system so why do they need to ask again and again and again? And again.
Apple's Reminders app is much improved under macOS Catalina, iPadOS 13 and iOS 13. It’s now a ‘proper’ GTD app with much added functionality as compared to previous versions. It’s still not perfect, though.
I watched In The Tall Grass on the weekend and this is my review of that film. I thought I’d better write one quickly because it’s the sort of movie I could easily forget, and therein lies a big clue about what I thought of the film.
Monday 7th October 2019 Briefly ...
My laundry hardware is conspiring against me. A couple of weeks ago I moaned about my washing machine’s inability to count and today my condensing drier ate one of my fleeces. It chewed up the main zip and one of the pocket zips, thus ruining it. It simply detached these zips and spat them out. This is despite already having received a verbal warning for turning every last one of my t-shirts inside out every time I use it. There will be repercussions. I will at the very least throw my toys out of the pram.
Lock all your doors. If a Skynet T-800 turns up and says “Come with me if you want a sieve”, don’t believe him, he has no genuine interest in cooking utensils and is simply using that to lure you 1000 years into the future where, I believe, the Brexit debate is still ongoing.
Quantum supremacy sounds very grand and Terminatoresque but it just means a quantum computer has done something a non-quantum computer couldn’t do in any reasonable time.
In Google’s case, they ran a bunch of computer instructions on a quantum computer and then analysed the result. Then they tried to do the same thing on a (non-quantum) supercomputer. It took the quantum computer 3 minutes and 20 seconds to carry out its task and, if they lived long enough to wait for the result, it would have taken the supercomputer 10,000 years.
The news leaked out via a paper published on NASA’s website but Google hasn’t announced anything itself yet. Google has a policy of not commenting on things that take 3 minutes and 20 seconds.
Quantum supremacy is merely a milestone and a proof of concept rather than some sort of grandiose ‘supremacy’, but it’s nevertheless an important achievement for computer scientists.
With all this progress in the field of computing, how is it my robot vacuum cleaner spends most of its time stuck in a corner, repeatedly bashing against a wall?
If there is other intelligent life, why hasn't it visited us? This is a question scientists sometimes ask. The thing is, I think we make far too many assumptions when trying to answer it.
Sunday 22nd September 2019 Briefly ...
Why does my washing machine insist on winding me up? It says there’s 3 minutes left so I think I may as well potter about the kitchen and wait. I watch it go 3, 2 and 1 and then it goes back up to 4. Yes, 4.
Does it exist in some bizarre space-time continuum? Is my washing machine simply too stupid to count? Or is it just (as I suspect) taking the pee?
I have an old iPhone 6 that is 3.75 years old and, whilst I'm certainly not a phone person, I think it's time to upgrade (for reasons I talk about in the article) and therefore an iPhone 11 is on the cards.
Most people are at least vaguely aware that quantum mechanics has elements of probability associated with it. The implication is that the classical, pre-quantum, deterministic universe we once knew is dead in the water.
But there are a number of ways you could look at quantum probability:
The universe is genuinely probabilistic, by which I mean it’s the very nature of the universe at root.
Quantum mechanics isn’t the final say on things. It’s phenomenally accurate over its domain of applicability, but it’s actually just an approximate theory of some underlying, possibly deterministic theory that’s yet to be discovered.
The universe may or may not be deterministic but, either way, we can only ever know things about it as probabilities. The lack of determinism — if it is in fact deterministic — we see is actually a measurement problem or, perhaps, a limit quantum mechanics leaves us with.
Whichever one of those (or combination thereof, or whatever else) is true, what we have for now is a probabilistic theory.
One of the strange things about quantum mechanics is that the act of measurement is intricately woven in to things. ‘Measurement’ may or may not mean a human performing some experiment, depending on what philosophy you subscribe to. A small, self-contained system may in a sense be ‘measured’ when it comes into contact with the rest of the universe.
Either way, the very act of measurement changes the underlying system we’re measuring. In some quantum philosophies the underlying system is simply undefined until it’s measured, maybe existing in all possible configurations at once, and then the act of measurement forces it to do something definitive.
It’s hard to explain but consider this analogy. If you shuffle a pack of cards thoroughly, you have no idea what the top card will be. You know some probabilities: there’s a 1 in 4 chance it’s a heart, there’s a 1 in 13 chance it’s a jack and there’s a 1 in 52 chance it’s the jack of hearts. But it’s only when you turn over the top card — make a measurement, in a sense — that you find out what it actually is. The probabilities you initially had become realities after measurement.
As with most things quantum, analogies leave a lot to be desired. With my analogy we’d be inclined to think the top card actually has a real value before we measure it and that measuring it doesn’t change anything but simply reveals it.
The distinction is that in quantum mechanics that may or may not be true depending on what interpretation you subscribe to. It may be that it doesn’t genuinely have a value (or perhaps has all possible values) before it’s measured.
But perhaps you get the idea.
Anyway, we’re stuck with probabilities and the thing is there are different sorts of probabilities and different ways to interpret them. Scientists are keen to find out which interpretations are best and the article I link to expands on that subject.
Who would have thought somebody would go to court over Donkey Kong?
It is however true. A video gamer called Billy Mitchell is taking Guinness World Records and something called the Twin Galaxies Scoreboard to court on the basis of defamation after they removed his top score from the records.
The dispute is about whether he used an “unmodified original DK arcade PCB as per the competitive rules”. Guinness and Twin Galaxies appear to have some doubts.
To achieve the game's maximum score of 3,333,360 points, Mitchell navigated 256 boards (or screens), eating every single dot, blinking energizer blob, flashing blue ghost, and point-loaded fruit, without losing a single life.
I remember Pac-Man well. One of the first pubs I visited at the tender age of 16 18 had a Pac-Man machine, back in the days when you’d get a pint, a chip butty and a number of goes on the Pac-Man for a couple of quid. I played the game regularly and, whilst I can’t remember what the scores were, I can’t recall ever going beyond 20 screens or so, if that. The 256 Mitchell negotiated is quite remarkable.
I played Donkey Kong too, although I have fewer memories about that.
In atoms, electrons normally orbit the nucleus of an atom. The nucleus can contain a mixture of protons and neutrons in most atoms although hydrogen just has a single proton, which makes it the simplest atom to study: there’s just one electron orbiting one proton.
One day a bunch of scientists wondered what would happen if they evicted the electron from a hydrogen atom and instead replaced it with a muon. A muon is part of the same family of particles as the electron — a family collectively called leptons — and it has the same charge and spin, but it’s 207 times heavier and doesn't exist for very long.
What they noticed was that, against all known physics, the proton seemed to shrink by 4% in the presence of the muon. This elicited much scratching of heads and considerable stroking of beards. In fact, hundreds of papers were written about it suggesting the new laws of physics that might have been discovered.
Alas, it all came down to a faulty ruler.
They thought the standard proton (with an electron orbiting it) was 0.876 femtometers and measured the muonic proton to be 0.84 femtometers.
But some clever-dick has come along and measured the standard proton with a better ruler and pegs it at 0.833 femtometers +/- 0.01, which removes the discrepancy found with the muonic proton.
I feel sorry for all those scientists who expended much brain-power coming up with new theories, although I did giggle a bit.
Further to my previous article on the subject, I present the sort of rules I'd like to see governing online advertising and privacy. I was originally motivated to post about this by Google's article about the subject, but they don't go anywhere near far enough in my opinion.
The titular statement is hardly groundbreaking. If that’s all there was to it, I’d have discovered it myself and I’d have a Nobel Prize on the mantlepiece (rhetorically, that is, because I don’t actually have a mantlepiece).
Two years ago, scientists in Japan reported the discovery of a mouse that just could not stay awake. This creature, which had a mutation in a gene called Sik3, slept upwards of 30 percent more than usual: Although it awoke apparently refreshed, it would need to snooze again long before its normal lab mates’ bedtime. It was as if the mouse had a greater need for sleep.
I know how the mouse feels.
Scientists are doing more than stating the obvious of course: they’re looking at why we need sleep at all.
One theory is that while we’re awake we form strong synaptic connections in the brain, which make memories, and during sleep we ‘file’ these memories. We weaken the synaptic connections related to unimportant memories and strengthen those related to important memories.
But what’s going on at the cellular level?
It’s all to do with proteins and a process called phosphorylation, which is the binding of phosphor and oxygen to organic molecules.
I think my own brain is faulty in this respect, or at least it can’t distinguish important memories from unimportant ones. I'm likely to forget something important, like maybe a hospital appointment, yet remember useless details about an obscure, late 70s punk band.
I have to use an extensive system of electronic reminders to remember anything these days. I find placing a single reminder is insufficient and I have to add an additional reminder reminding me I’ve got a reminder to attend to.
The economics of the internet depends heavily on advertising but publishers, advertisers and advertising networks are going to shoot themselves in the foot if they don't address the problem of advert overload.