Archives for category: interests

Over the past few years, I have developed a habit of skepticism, which perhaps could be described as the careful use of critical thinking in the face of extraordinary, supernatural or highly unusual claims. So, if I hear someone talking about healing crystals or angels or UFO’s or homeopathic cures or divine miracles, my immediate reaction nowadays is disbelief.

Skepticism is not something that comes naturally to me. I have a relatively trusting nature, so for me, skepticism is hard work. I’d love to believe – I really would – it’s just that alarm bells go off in my head which can sometimes make for awkward situations in otherwise polite company. 

So, when I hear about people using the phrase “at first I was skeptical, but..” in the context of “witnessing” something such as a UFO or a miracle cure or some other such nonsense, it’s become clear to me that these people doesn’t know the first thing about proper skepticism. Most people simply don’t realise the extent to which they can be manipulated or deceived by false arguments, hidden prejudices, partial evidence and statistical anomalies.

My journey into skepticism has been a long, but highly rewarding journey. In my teens, I read Martin Gardner’s “Fads and Fallacies“, which presented the other side of Homeopathy, Biorythms, UFO claims and Scientology. Much later on, I read Carl Sagan’s “Demon Haunted World” and his “baloney detector kit”. Around the same time, I came across James Randi’s website with his million dollar challenge. I developed a keen interest in identifying logical fallacies and exposing urban legends using Snopes.com. More recently, I have become a keen subscriber to Brian Dunning’s Skeptoid and the superb “Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe” podcasts.

In the light of a media culture that seems to thrive on feeding mistaken notions rather than challenging them; in the light of a world where sophisticated marketing techniques are employed by all manner of cults and fringe groups; and in the light of multi-million industries peddling all manner of snake-oil cures, maybe it’s not too late to bolster our skeptical abilities. 

I would recommend the above books, websites and podcasts if you are interested in learning more.

My first presentation at an academic conference is over. I think I did a good job of it. The audience were clearly engaged throughout my presentation and I got a lot of relevant questions at the end.

I tried my best to do as good a job of it as I could. I avoided bullet points as much as possible. I added many relevant photos throughout the presentation. I started my commentary with a strong “wake up” statement which was well memorised in advance. I positioned myself outside the lectern and into the audience, using eye-contact to connect with them. I used a narrative style to tell a story. I relied heavily on my passion and interest in the subject to bring it alive, and I brought the story to a close by relating it in some way to how I started my presentation. It helped that my subject rocked!

If there were any areas to work on, I would love to interject a little bit more humour into my presentation style. It’s a fantastic tool that really helps to build up a rapport with your audience. Those to whom it comes naturally have a precious gift that shouldn’t be belittled. I also had some technology issues (porting my presentation from a Mac to a PC was much trickier than expected. However it was all resolved before the presentation. 

My Toastmasters training and my keen interest in blogs such as Presentation Zen really came to the fore today.

Liverpool Waterfront by petecarr

Taken by Pete Carr

I’m flying out to Liverpool tonight, attending (and presenting at) the Logistics Research Network (LRN) conference. Should be fun. I’ve never been to a conference like this before and I have little idea about what to expect. 

 

 

Digital products

 

This weekend I will be taking a trip up to Dublin to accept an award for my master’s thesis. I’m looking forward to it, but it strikes me that I have never mentioned much about it in this blog. So here’s the basic idea. 

We live in a world of physical supply chains. If you want a product, a whole load of people are involved in making sure that it is available when you come in to a shop to get it. Some months or even years ago, people had to mine or harvest all the components or ingredients. Other people worked in factories to refine it, mill it or make it. Yet more people drove the stuff around to different locations. Presumably there was a place where final assembly was required. Then the products were stored in warehouses and finally distributors and retailers got involved to that it could be bought by you.  Lots of people. Lots of complexity. Lots of cost. Lots of things that could possibly go wrong. 

But some products – digital products – don’t seem to require this complexity. They have these unique, almost magical qualities that physical products don’t have. They can replicate themselves perfectly and with ease (i.e. copy / paste). The production of an additional copies does not require any new materials – there’s no resource drag. Digital products move around the internet for free and at high speed. This means that in the world of digital products there is no need for purchasing, manufacturing, transportation, assembly or any of the other related functions needed to support physical products. 

There are a number of different approaches to manage digital supply chains. First of all, there is the “pseudo physical” approach where people treat digital products as if they were physical. They limit distribution through DRM or copy-protection. They apply restrictive licensing. They threaten dire consequences against incorrect usage. They run complex processes to distribute keys to authorised individuals. It’s complex and messy. Customers get frustrated by them. Lawyers love them and given the recent history of the music business, this strategy is being forced into a long, painful retreat as file-sharing and peer-to-peer networking becomes more commonplace. 

The opposite side of the argument is super-abundance: a digital product, by its nature, cannot be controlled. Once it’s out there, it’s wild – downloadable by anyone. What I discovered was that companies are adapting to this. They still make money by wrapping their digital products into physical supply chains; by customising them so that they can’t easily be used by other people even if they were free to download; by using them to complement other (paid) services; and by using advertising based models. 

Digital products represent a big opportunity for companies, because all the infrastructure necessary to duplicate and distribute them is increasingly tending towards zero. The downside is that the price of digital products is also being forced towards zero, so sellers of digital products need to radically rethink how they organise their supply chains if they want to make money for themselves. 

And that, in a nutshell, is my thesis. Clear as mud?

The Phoenix lander alighting on the surface of Mars

Later today (or early tomorrow morning depending on your current time zone), the Phoenix probe lands on Mars to investigate if life, or traces of ancient life, exists in Mars’ polar wastes. There is a fascinating video on APOD today showing the probe entering Mars’ atmosphere and unfurling its instruments.

It is possible that today may mark one of the greatest discoveries in human history – finding life on another planet. But what are the repercussions, really?

From a religious perspective, there appears to be two possibilities: many of the moderate religions would be relatively open to the idea that the universe is teeming with life, a view bolstered by the Vatican astronomer recently. The fundamentalist religions would appear to have a problem, having accepted that the Earth is the ultimate focus of God’s work. It’s unlikely though that any of them will collapse, inoculated as they are against logic and evidence-based thinking. A bit of word-smithing will usually suffice for most of their congregations and to hell with those throwing stones from the outside. In other words: business as usual.

From a scientific perspective, the discovery on life should not come as a surprise. Over the last 400 years, a stong body of evidence has been built up that we are not so important, or unique, in the greater scheme of things. Given the vastness of the universe, and the ability of life forms to survive even in the most inhospitable of conditions on Earth, the discovery of extraterrestrial life would only bolster this viewpoint. Philosophically, the existence of life would be uncontroversial enough. What’s far more interesting would be the questions that this discovery would pose. What is the composition of the DNA? Would the chemical composition be different? What are the origins of life on Mars? Where else might we look for life? What would the implications be were we to bring samples back to earth? What would this tell us about the creation of artificial life in the lab? To put it mildly, the discovery would have the effect of reshaping and redirecting the research agenda in the 21st Century.

From a man-in-the-street perspective, it would be enlightening, a topic of conversation. I’m not sure if it would change anyone’s life irreperably, as we have now become so used to the announcement of impressive scientific discoveries in our lives. It would be a flitting moment of celebrity, until the media find something else to absorb their attention.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this is moot and the more probable event of life not being found will be the result. In any case I’d welcome any views you might have.

I’ve been reading Dan Dennett’s book “Breaking the Spell” on and off this last month. It’s given me a new perspective on religion and the religious experience that I had not sufficiently appreciated before. (Dennett’s style is different to Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris in that he tries less to expose the logical inconsistencies of religion and more to understand why people would carry out such devotion to a deity or deities. It’s a challenging book for religous people, but not necessarily an offensive one).

So here’s my take. Religion thrives because it fits many of our basic human desires like a custom-made glove. Our desire for understanding the world around us. Our desire for protection in an uncertain world.  Our desire for hope, despite all that might happen to us. Our desire to be thought of as special. Our desire to make an impact in someone else’s life. Religion has co-evolved with us, becoming more sophisticated as our culture has developed. It provides the feedback mechanisms many of us so desperately crave for. It has a flexibility inherent in it, so that different people will find answers that suit their specific preferences, cultures and ages.

In the end, maybe it’s all about love. People are inspired to do great things because of love. Love is all about abandoning one’s critical faculties, about commitment to someone or something, about sacrifice in the face of something bigger than oneself. Viewed from the outside it makes little sense, but for the person affected it’s a wonderful, uplifting, comforting experience. Love is vulnerable to manipulation, and in the extreme, people can be motivated to carry out the most appalling acts because of love. Love is blind, as they say.

Many commentators focus on the fear factor: the “believe this or else” sentiment. The “do that and you’ll go to Hell” sentiment. They assume that this is core to the religious experience. I’m not so sure. I think it might be more peripheral. I would even go to the extent that if people believe in a god purely because they are afraid of the consequences of not believing, then they haven’t quite grasped the religious experience. They may not even be religious at all. Telling someone that there are grave consequences to a simple transgression is far too ephemeral a reason on which to base a complete belief system. Our large prison population, for example, tells us that fear of getting sent down is a poor motive in preventing crime. So why should it be more successful in the case of belief? Fear, within the religious context, seems to be something that has more to do with organisational control than with religious belief. Religion plus fear is a powerful (and potentially destructive) force, but religion itself is not about fear.

These are my thoughts on the subject for what they are worth. I’d love to hear from you on this.

Losses of the French Army during the 1812-1813 Russian Campaign

I’ve always been a sucker for maps, so it’s no surprise that a diagram in a recent issue of the Economist got my mind-juices flowing. It shows in graphic detail Napoleon’s disastrous campaign into Russia: how an initial army of over 400,000 men got whittled down to a mere 10,000 desperate men over the course of the savage winter of 1812. This map is regarded by Edward Tufte as “the best statistical graphic ever drawn”.

In looking for more details about this graphic I came across an article about it on the Strange Maps blog, and I was hooked immediately. Recent entries contain gems such as Papua New Guinea as linguistic superpower, a caricature of Europe in 1870, and a Blonde map of Europe.

Also, as an aside, Truce mentioned an Edward Tufte book “Envisioning Information” to me some while back, that she recommended I read. What with this map and the Hans Rosling presentation capturing my imagination so recently, I’ve decided to buy the book on Amazon today.

That’s how I feel after I have had a long walk in the mountains! I managed to get in a 10 km walk in the Knockmealdowns in Co. Waterford today in the pouring, freezing rain, and I feel simply terrific after it all. So what if I couldn’t see anything with the fog and the rain? So what if I return to work tomorrow? So what if it is still the middle of winter with lots of bad weather ahead of us in the next few days? After days like this I can take on anything.

(Unfortunately no nice photos to show – my camera finally gave up the ghost a few weeks ago after far too many knocks on hard surfaces. I’m getting a new one next week though, so stay tuned).

Mind42

I’m a big fan of mind mapping apps: probably because I have a mind that often needs quite a bit of organising. While I was working on my thesis, I always had a copy of Mind Manager close at hand. It was invaluable as it allowed me to make sense of large amounts of research, organising it into useful categories quickly and efficiently. Now that I have since moved on into a new job, I don’t have it any more and I have felt slightly bereft, having to make do for the time being with Microsoft’s One Note.

Mind Manager is an excellent application, particularly if you have presentations or project plans to write on the fly. However, it’s a bit pricey, so the alternative is a free application on the web.

Mind42 allows you to write, save and publish your maps on the web. You can also collaborate with other users, co-writing or reviewing a map as part of a virtual brainstorming session. The mapping tools are rudimentary but nevertheless easy to use and more than adequate for the majority of mapping tasks.

I tried to publish the above mind-map to my blog using the publishing tools, but unfortunately the code provided does not work on WordPress.

 

Comet 17P/Holmes

A new “star” has appeared in the night sky. Well, sort of. A few days ago, a relatively insignificant comet called Comet 17P/ Holmes suddenly erupted, creating the above eerie looking object in the sky, just beside the northern constellation of Perseus.

I saw the object through my small telescope a few nights ago, and it was truly unmissable. This comet “haz flavur” as they say ’round here.

To find it, try to locate the big irregular “W” in the northern sky (the constellation Cassiopeia). Then, try to find a very bright star relatively close-by (Capella). The object is about half-way between these two positions. You should be able to pick it up easily with a pair of binoculars, although, according to NASA, no equipment at all is needed: it’s clearly visible with the naked eye.

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