Archive for The Guardian

Art Ensemble of Chicago

Posted in Kids, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 21, 2019 by xi'an

psycho-history [Hari Seldon to the rescue!]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Statistics, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 13, 2019 by xi'an

A “long read” article in the Guardian a few weeks ago sounds like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation‘s core concept, namely psychohistory, turning into a real academic discipline! In the books of this fantastic series, the father of this new science of predictive mathematical (or statistical) sociology, Hari Seldon, makes predictions that extend so far in the future that, at every major crisis of Asimov’s galactic empire, he delivers a per-registered message that indicates how to cope with the crisis to save the empire. Or so it seems! (As a teenager, I enjoyed the Foundation books very much, reading the three first volumes several times, to the point I wonder now if they were influential to my choice of a statistics major…! Presumably not, but it makes a nice story!!! Actually, Paul Krugman blames Asimov for his choice of economics as being the closest to psychohistory.)

“I assumed that the time would come when there would be a science in which things could be predicted on a probabilistic or statistical basis (…) can’t help but think it would be good, except that in my stories, I always have opposing views. In other words, people argue all possible… all possible… ways of looking at psychohistory and deciding whether it is good or bad. So you can’t really tell. I happen to feel sort of on the optimistic side. I think if we can somehow get across some of the problems that face us now, humanity has a glorious future, and that if we could use the tenets of psychohistory to guide ourselves we might avoid a great many troubles. But on the other hand, it might create troubles. It’s impossible to tell in advance.” I. Asimov

The Guardian entry is about Peter Turchin, a biologist who had “by the late 1990s answered all the ecological questions that interested him” and then turned his attention to history, creating a new field called cliodynamics. Which bears eerie similarities with Seldon’s psychohistory! Using massive databases of historical events (what is a non-historical event, by the way?!) to predict the future. And relying on a premise of quasi-periodic cycles to fit such predictions with a whiff of Soviet-era theories… I did not read in depth the entire paper (it’s a “long read”, remember?!) and even less the background theory, but I did not spot there a massive support from a large academic community for Turchin’s approach (mentioned in the psychohistory entry in Wikipedia). And, while this is not a major argument from Feyerabend’s perspective (of fundamental scientific advances resulting from breaks from consensus), it seems hard to think of a predictive approach that is not negatively impacted by singularity events, from the emergence of The Mule in Foundation, to the new scale of challenges posed by the acceleration of the climate collapse or the societal globalisation cum communitarian fragmentation caused by social media. And as a last warning, a previous entry in the same column wanted to warn readers “how statistics lost their power and big data controlled by private companies is taking over”, hence going the opposite direction.

we have never been unable to develop a reliable predictive model

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 10, 2019 by xi'an

An alarming entry in The Guardian about the huge proportion of councils in the UK using machine-learning software to allocate benefits, detect child abuse or claim fraud. And relying blindly on the outcome of such software, despite their well-documented lack of reliability, uncertainty assessments, and warnings. Blindly in the sense that the impact of their (implemented) decision was not even reviewed, even though a portion of the councils does not consider renewing the contracts. With the appalling statement of the CEO of one software company reported in the title. Blaming further the lack of accessibility [for their company] of the data used by the councils for the impossibility [for the company] of providing risk factors and identifying bias, in an unbelievable newspeak inversion… As pointed out by David Spiegelhalter in the article, the openness should go the other way, namely that the algorithms behind the suggestions (read decisions) should be available to understand why these decisions were made. (A whole series of Guardian articles relate to this as well, under the heading “Automating poverty”.)

FALL [book review]

Posted in Books, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2019 by xi'an

The “last” book I took with me to Japan is Neal Stephenson’s FALL. With subtitle “Dodge in Hell”. It shares some characters with REAMDE but nothing prevents reading it independently as a single volume. Or not reading it at all! I am rather disappointed by the book and hence  sorry I had to carry it throughout Japan and back. And slightly X’ed at Nature writing such a positive review. And at The Guardian. (There is a theme there, as I took REAMDE for a trip to India with a similar feeling at the end. Maybe the sheer weight of the book is pulling my morale down…) The most important common feature to both books is the game industry, since the main (?) character is a game company manager, who is wealthy enough to ensure the rest of the story holds some financial likelihood. And whose training as a game designer impacts the construction of the afterlife that takes a good (or rather terrible) half of the heavy volume. The long minutes leading to his untimely death are also excruciatingly rendered (with none of the experimental nature of Leopold Bloom’s morning). With the side information that Dodge suffers from ocular migraine, a nuisance that visits me pretty regularly since my teenage years! The scientific aspects of the story are not particularly exciting either, since the core concept is that by registering the entire neuronal network of the brain of individuals after their death, a computer could revive them by simulating this network. With dead people keeping their personality if very little of their memories. And even more fanciful, interacting between them and producing a signal that can be understood by (living) humans. Despite having no sensory organs. The reconstruction of a world by the simulated NNs is unbearably slow and frankly uninteresting as it reproduces both living behaviours and borrows very heavily from the great myths, mostly Greek, with no discernible depth. The living side of the story is not much better, although with a little touch of the post-apocalyptic flavour I appreciated in Stephenson. But not enough to recover from the fall.

Among other things that set me off with the book, the complete lack of connection with the massive challenges currently facing humanity. Energy crisis? climate change? Nope. Keep taking an hydroplane to get from Seattle to islands on Puget Sound? Sure. Spending abyssal amounts of energy to animate this electronic Hades? By all means. More and more brittle democracies? Who cares, the Afterworld is a pantheon where gods clash and rule lower beings. Worse, the plot never reaches beyond America, from the heavily focused philosophical or religious background to the character life trajectories. Characters are surprisingly unidimensional, with no default until they become evil. Or die. Academics are not even unidimensional. For instance Sophie’s thesis defence is at best a chat in a café… And talks at a specialist workshop switch from impressive mathematical terms to a 3D representation of the activity of the simulated neuronal networks. Whille these few individuals keep impacting the whole World for their whole life. And beyond… By comparison, the Riverworld series of Phillip José Farmer (that I read forty years ago) is much more enjoyable as a tale of the Afterworld, even if one can object at “famous” people been central to the action. At least there are more of them and, judging from their (first) life, they may have interesting and innovative to say.

Hippocratic oath for maths?

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2019 by xi'an

On a free day in Nachi-Taksuura, I came across this call for a professional oath for mathematicians (and computer engineers and scientists in related fields). By UCL mathematician Hannah Fry. The theme is the same as with Weapons of math destruction, namely that algorithms have a potentially huge impact on everyone’s life and that those who design these algorithms should be accountable for it. And aware of the consequences when used by non-specialists. As illustrated by preventive justice software. And child abuse prediction software. Some form of ethics course should indeed appear in data science programs, for at least pointing out the limitations of automated decision making. However, I remain skeptical of the idea as (a) taking an oath does not mean an impossibility to breaking that oath, especially when one is blissfully unaware of breaking it (b) acting as ethically as possible should be part of everyone’s job, whether when designing deep learning algorithms or making soba noodles (c) the Hippocratic oath is mostly a moral statement that varies from place to place and from an epoch to the next (as, e.g., with respect to abortion which was prohibited in Hippocrates’ version) and does not prevent some doctors from engaging into unsavory activities. Or getting influenced by dug companies. And such an oath would not force companies to open-source their code, which in my opinion is a better way towards the assessment of such algorithms. The article does not mention either the Montréal Déclaration for a responsible AI, which goes further than a generic and most likely ineffective oath.

Gene Wolfe (1931-2019)

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , on May 19, 2019 by xi'an

Just found out that the writer Gene Wolfe, author of the unique New Sun series (and many other masterpieces) had passed away two weeks ago. (The Guardian has a detailed obituary covering his life and oeuvres. Where I learned that he developed the Pringle’s machine for Procter and Gamble, something he can be pardoned for his other achievements!) The style of the New Sun series is indeed unique, complex, carefully designed, crafted in a very refined and beautiful language (missing the translation of the more appropriate langue), and requires commitment from the reader as the story never completely unfolds and sets all details straight, with characters rarely if ever to be taken at face value, making me feel the urge to re-read the book once I was finishing its last page. Which I never did, actually, and should consider, indeed!

and it only gets worse…

Posted in Kids, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2019 by xi'an

. ” The Texas state legislature is debating a provision that wouldn’t just outlaw abortion, but legally qualify it as homicide(…) This, incidentally, is exactly what pro-choice advocates warned about when they said that a law passed in the George W Bush era, the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, as well as the related state laws, could eventually be used to criminalize abortion(…) All of these laws are in violation of Roe v Wade, but it seems one goal is to take advantage of an increasingly conservative US supreme court and see if Roe could be overturned, or at least rendered meaningless.” The Guardian,  11 April, 2019

““At a rally in Ohio last month, Mr. Trump suggested that wind power was too unreliable to be useful. “Let’s put up some windmills,” he said. “When the wind doesn’t blow, just turn off the television darling, please. There’s no wind. Please turn off the television quickly!” The New York Times, April 3, 2019

“The US is threatening to veto a United Nations resolution on combatting the use of rape as a weapon of war, the Guardian’s Julian Borger reports. The US is objecting to language that says survivors of sexual violence should have access to comprehensive health services, including sexual and reproductive health. It’s part of a hard line taken by the Trump administration in recent months, refusing to agree to any UN documents that refer to sexual or reproductive health, on grounds that such language implies support for abortions (…) In recent months, the Trump administration has taken a hard line, refusing to agree to any UN documents that refer to sexual or reproductive health, on grounds that such language implies support for abortions. It has also opposed the use of the word “gender”, seeking it as a cover for liberal promotion of transgender rights.” The Guardian, 22 April, 2019

“A U.S. threat to veto U.N. Security Council action on sexual violence in conflict was averted on Tuesday after a long-agreed phrase was removed because President Donald Trump’s administration sees it as code for abortion, diplomats said. The U.S. veto threat was the latest in a string of policy reversals that some U.N. diplomats say has been driven by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, a conservative Christian who staunchly opposes abortion rights. The language promoting sexual and reproductive health is long-agreed internationally, including in resolutions adopted by the Security Council in 2009 and 2013 and several resolutions adopted annually by the 193-member General Assembly.” The New York Time, April 24, 2019

“We believe in freedom and liberty and the right to keep and bear arms. We know that faith and family, not government and bureaucracy are the centre of American life… In America we don’t worship government; we worship God.” The Guardian, April 26, 2019