Thursday, 18 September 2014

On-line threats and harassment are terrible, but are they representative?

On-line bullying and harassment are are serious problem.  It can make being on-line a difficult experience for some people, and this has been the case recently for women involved in gaming.  The same goes for threats via e-mail:  shocking and totally unacceptable.

I'm not questioning at all how awful these attacks are, but what I am questioning is what these attacks mean.

Let's consider someone who has made what turns out to be a controversial statement, a statement which, in a better world, would not be controversial.  They then get some frightening threats by e-mail.  Do these threats mean that this person is being attacked by some community?  That depends.  It depends if these threats are a significant proportion of that community.

Let's say there are ten threats.  They are terrible threats, perhaps even threats that require that the police get involved.  If those ten threats come from members of a group of a few hundred members, then it's safe to say that those threats are a significant part of that group, and it's certainly something that group needs to deal with.

But what if the group consists of a thousand members?  Ten thousand?  A hundred thousand?

There has to be a number at which the responsibility of the whole group for the actions of ten of its members is insignificant.  At that number it makes no sense to describe the actions of those ten as being truly representative of that group.

Let's give a name to the group - how about 'flamers?'

Someone makes a statement, and gets disgusting and frightening attacks from 10 flamers.  Surveys shown that there are 200,000 flamers.  

How should we respond to that someone saying "I am being attacked by the flamer community?", or "the flamer community needs to deal with their hateful members?", "there is a serious problem with on-line flamers?"

Let me be clear.  I am certainly not saying we should in any way dismiss the frightening experience of being attacked on-line, and I am not in any way excusing the attackers. What I am saying is that it's simply a mistake to use the existence of those attackers to come to conclusions about a whole community.  It's factually incorrect.

Just because someone has been the victim of harassment, we should not accept incorrect conclusions from them about tens or hundreds of thousands of people.  For one thing, we could end up dealing with problems that don't really exist as against dealing with real and serious problems of abuse and bullying.

The Internet is a Superconductor of Stupidity.  The mad and the bad get instant and easy access to those they want to attack on-line.  That access can make their voices seem loud, but we should also listen to the peaceful silence of the majority, and that means we need to realise how big that silence is, how many are peaceful.


Tuesday, 16 September 2014

There's nothing wrong with being gay (a gentle disagreement with Stephen Fry)

Stephen Fry is a good fellow.  He has done wonders for the acceptance of homosexuality and his brave openness about his depressive illness is also admirable.

But, being the gadfly that I am, I find myself somewhat disagreeing with Fry regarding some of his past statements about homosexuality.  I hope it that explaining these disagreements will prove informative.

A few years ago Stephen Fry suggested that religious people should not worry about being forced to hold religious ceremonies for same-sex couples.  Fry said that, after all, religious institutions aren't forced to marry people who were previously divorced.  "That's a very good analogy" said Fry.

No, I really don't think it is a very good analogy.  Putting aside the question of compulsion on the matter of religious weddings, it's really not on to compare any marriages between couples of the same sex with marriages involving divorcees.  Now, I know what Fry is trying to say, but this example does allow for the labelling of same-sex marriages as somehow morally or socially inferior.  It shouldn't, because there is no need to consider marriages involving divorcees as inferior, but it's not helpful to mention all same-sex marriages in that context.  The appropriate comparison is, of course, with same-sex marriages involving divorcees!

I just can't go along with any concession, even for the sake of argument or analogy, on the matter of the moral and social status of the marriages of same-sex couples.  No ground should be given!  We should, in my view, politely but firmly insist on full equality, and the sooner that religious people have full marriage equality the better, and that means religious weddings.

Now I shall wander onto matters of some delicacy.  Some may wish to stop reading at this point, especially, as they say, if you are "at work".  It's about sex.

In a documentary ("Out there") on the status of homosexuality and the lives of gay people around the world Fry encountered a pretty frightening Ugandan preacher who was furiously against homosexuality.  This preacher at one point was ranting on about the awfulness of anal sex.  Fry responded by saying that he (Fry) had never performed that sexual act.  This rather startled the preacher.  It also rather startled me.

What Fry does in bed (or anywhere else) is, of course, none of my business, and Fry is perfectly correct to describe the variety of homosexual experience.  But I could not help thinking that Fry's position [sic] seemed as if he was saying that he didn't do that dirty thing, that, in a way, Fry was one of the "clean" gays who didn't mess about with bottoms.

I am absolutely not saying that was Fry's intention.  But I was left uncomfortable with Fry's statement being open to that interpretation.

I am gay.  I am actively gay.  I have sex.  I have anal sex.  I think it's rather good, actually.  I don't think we should ever be even the slightest bit defensive about our blissful buggery.  There should be no shame, just the etiquette as any conversation about sex.  In fact, let's be more open about it.  If a straight couple mention a session of bouncy fun, let's mention that gay couples can bounce as well as anyone.

So, my disagreement with Stephen Fry is really not that strong; it's only a matter of emphasis.  However, my position on same-sex marriage and same-sex sex is extremely simple: We are, in every way, as Good As You.

An apology to Richard and Sam

On twitter, I said I completely agreed with an article written by Dan Arel on New Atheism.

That was a mistake.  As so often I had read the article too quickly and had not taken in the full impact of what Dan had said in several places.

I don't agree with the attacks on Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris in that article.  What I do agree with is the theme of the possible redundancy of the term "new atheist", along with the fair point that many of those who are "new atheists" at least sometimes speak for themselves, and not as part of any coherent group.  (This is a good thing because we certainly don't need "new atheist doctrines").

So, I apologise to Richard and Sam for my lack of care, and for giving the impression that I agree with the criticisms.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Why David Tennant was the worst Doctor this century

Don't get me wrong - David Tennant gave a great performance.  He was funny, energetic, emotional, and very attractive.  He had great companions, perhaps the best being Donna; a surprisingly good performance by the comedian Catherine Tate.  He had superb villains to deal with, including the introduction of the Weeping Angels, and an utterly mad Master.

But for me the question is who was the character that Tennant was playing, and I just can't see it as being the Doctor.

The Doctor is an ancient alien from a race nearly as old as time.  His race doesn't share human concerns, and live complex lives, regenerating into new bodies with new personalities.  His mind isn't anything like a human mind - his brain is much more powerful and he has telepathic abilities.  His mind also is connected to time and space in a way utterly different from that of a human (as described in "The Parting of the Ways").

The Doctor is basically good - he rebelled against the Time Lords because he would not stand back and watch the suffering of other species.  He decided to intervene, to help others.  But his ways aren't always clear to humans.  The Doctor is the friend who we need but we never really understand.

David Tennant played the part of a human called "Doctor".  There was little of the alien about him.  He loved, he laughed, he suffered and he triumphed as a human would. Worst of all, he seemed to forget that he was a Time Lord when his body finally met it end, with a childish "I don't want to go!".  (Compare that to the wonderfully dignified endings of Tom Baker's Doctor or Matt Smith's).

Christopher Eccleston's Doctor was strange enough - an excess of vivaciousness hiding the deep scars of the Time War.  Matt Smith's Doctor was manic, very much like the wonderful Patrick Troughton's interpretation of the character.  Peter Capaldi's Doctor is the most alien of any; mercurial, eccentric, and having difficulty understanding humans at all, but the core of the Doctor is still there, as it should be.

So, this is my position:  David Tennant's Doctor was a great character, but it wasn't the Doctor.

If you are accused...

If you are accused angrily of sexism and misogyny, and you think the accusation is unreasonable, this is what I suggest you avoid at all costs:  replying to your accusers.

The reason is that it can be the case that your accusers are skilled with use of language and spin, and any attempt you make to rebut them will be misquoted and distorted, providing them with even more ammunition.

How do I know this?  Because I have been there - not because of accusations against me, but against friends.  My attempt to defend these friends were futile, and possibly even made things worse.

The response I would suggest is to review what you have said based on the opinions of friends you respect.  If you find merit to the criticisms, then admit you were wrong and make corrections, but those corrections should meet the approval of yourself and those whose opinion you trust, not your accusers.

Nothing you do will satisfy some of those who rail against you.  So don't try.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

While waiting for Sam Harris' book - how I meditate (by an utter beginner)

I'm waiting for Sam Harris' latest book: "Waking Up", on non-religious spirituality, but I have been a convert to the idea of meditation for years, since some therapy in 2010, even though I definitely don't practice it often enough.  Buying Sam's book is a way of encouraging myself.

When I do meditate, it can be only for a few minutes at a time, and yet it is extremely calming and very pleasant.  I thought I would explain what I do, as it's simple (at least to describe).

First I find a situation where I can remain still.  It doesn't have to be quiet, just so that no-one will interrupt me.  Then, I find something visual to focus on.  Often I will look out of a window at some tree blowing in the wind, but anything will do that isn't likely to disappear from view.

Then, I keep my visual attention on that object while gently working to quieten my thoughts.  I will find my mind wandering, and when I do, I bring it back to what I am seeing, and put aside what I was thinking about.  This has to be done calmly - there should be no anger or frustration at finding thoughts arising and attention wandering - just keep putting aside thoughts and bringing the attention back to what you are seeing.  You should not try and think about what you are seeing, just keep working to keep your mind as empty as possible.

It make take several minutes for your mind to quieten, or it may not happen.  It doesn't matter if it doesn't happen - the point of this is to train your brain to be able to find calmness.  It's the process of putting aside thoughts that is (I believe) therapeutic.

When you mind truly does quieten you may experience what I do - a feeling of utter peace and a loss of the track of time.  There is no feeling of urgency to do anything, only calmness, free of any emotion.

There is no mysticism involved, not even a mention of the word 'spirituality'.  It's all about learning how to turn off distracting, compulsive and urgent thoughts.  I believe this is helpful for sufferers of OCD and obsessive thinkers, like me.

Anyway, good luck!  I'm pretty much a beginner.  I'll report back what I find useful in Sam's book.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

The morality of simulated minds

A re-post from a few years ago, on the subject of the morality of simulated minds.
"The Blue Brain Blues"
A materialist does not believe in magic. A materialist does not believe that anything more than the interactions of forces and particles in the physical world is needed to explain that world and everything in it. Not many people are materialists; the majority of those alive, and who have lived, believe that there are extra aspects to the world, usually termed “spiritual” or “supernatural”. But we who don't subscribe to the idea of those extras are increasing in number.
However, I am not going to argue here the truth or otherwise of the materialist view. What I want to show is that it has consequences. Serious moral consequences, and in an area of research and technology that will be of increasing importance to humanity. The moral consequences may be surprising, and yet I will suggest that they follow inevitably from the materialist position. And, for reasons I will explain later, they may - and I feel should – change the way that certain scientists and technologists approach their work.
I'm going to start by asking one of the most difficult scientific questions: what does the brain do? We can come up with all kinds of everyday answers: it produces consciousness, it results in the mind, it allows us to have experiences, it retains memories, it gives us the ability to imagine, to dream. Those are all true, but I want to consider things at a more fundamental level. One way of looking at this question is to say that the brain is a way of helping our genes to survive. But that view does not focus on the specific nature of the brain. We can start to get an idea by looking at what it is made of. It is made of neurons and supporting tissue. Neurons are cells that respond to and process electrochemical signals. They can change their internal state and how they link to other cells in response to signals. We are able to replicate some of their behaviour in simulations called “neural networks”, which seem to be able to process signals and change state in ways similar to their biological equivalent. But how similar? And how similar does the behaviour of the artificial system need to be in order for us to consider what it does as equivalent to the biological system, and not just a coarse model?
But back to neurons. What they seem to be doing is processing and storing information. We analyse the world, and we can recall aspects of it. Our brains are far from perfect, but then evolution rarely requires or produces perfection. Even so, our brains are capable of amazing feats of computation and memory, as often highlighted in the capabilities of certain gifted people. What is crucial for my argument here is that the materialist viewpoint is that there is nothing extra to what the brain is doing other than this processing of information. As the brain obeys the laws of physics, there is no extra physical aspect to what is going on. Consciousness is not some sort of add-on to what is happening in the brain. It is not some sort of “energy” given off by neurons. It does not involve some magic from another realm. The brain consists of molecules and electrochemical interactions behaving in a way that can process and store information. And that is it. So, a materialist will have to come to the conclusion that conscious awareness, our subjective experience of the world, is what you get when certain types of information processing and storage happens. (Subjective experience may not “feel” like just information processing, but then what should it feel like? But that isn't the point anyway – I'm talking about the consequences of the materialist view of the world, not what it feels like to be an aware being in the world.) So, let's get back to neural networks. Specifically, artificial neural networks. Let's assume we get to a situation where we can produce small artificial neural networks that seem to process and store information in the same way as their biological equivalents. That would be scientifically exciting, as it would suggest that we understand all of the important functional aspects of the biological system. That's one of the main aims of simulation research in all areas of science – to see what aspects of the simulated system are necessary to reproduce in order to get realistic behaviour in the simulation. Sometimes this can be very successful, as in molecular modelling, and sometimes it can be less successful, showing that the physical system is hard or impossible to reduce to a simplified model (as in weather prediction). But let's assume success with the neural networks. Let's assume we do get close-to-identical behaviour to that of the small biological system. What to do next?
Well, at least one research group has a big idea. To build models based on the reverse-engineering of entire mammalian brains. It's called the Blue Brain Project:
And here the ethical alarms should start to ring loudly for the materialist. Let's summarise where we are in this argument, and in the hypothetical situation, so we can see why:
  1. A materialist believes that our minds, including our awareness and sensations, are what happens when certain types of information processing occurs.
  2. (Hypothetically) we have artificial systems that we believe process information in a way that is pretty much identical to their biological equivalents.
  3. A research group (that assumes that they can achieve, or have achieved, stage 2) wants to construct an artificial system that processes information just like a biological mammalian brain.
In the past we have not treated animals well in science. But there are now protocols, at least in Western countries, that severely restrict what can be done in the name of research, with the intention of removing or minimising suffering. Mammals in particular are believed to be able to experience pain and suffering. Even a small animal is expected to be treated with care, and experimentation is regulated.
But what of their silicon equivalents? What happens when an information processing system that is functionally equivalent to the mammalian brain can be started up in a few milliseconds, and any desired neural input generated? Given the exponential rise in computing power, and if we assume the hypothetical success of neural network systems, that is a feasible situation with decades. Even if the Blue Brain project runs out of steam, other groups are likely to have a go at this.
Surely, to a materialist, this is not a morally acceptable situation to be left unregulated. Because the materialist would come to the conclusion that the artificial silicon and software systems have an equal ability to experience pain and suffering.
I'd like to clear a few things up at this point. The argument is not about artificial intelligence designed from the bottom-up with an understanding of the parts involved. The argument does not require that we have an explanation of how the brain produces experiences, or what particular pathways are involved. All it requires is the combination of a materialist view of the world with the ability (and intention) of some to accurately reproduce the information processing of neural systems by reverse-engineering (which is the aim of the Blue Brain project).
This might sound esoteric; a purely hypothetical argument of little practical interest. But it is far from that. The reason is that science and reason have to work based on what evidence we have, and to an extent morality should be based on the precautionary principle. We have no evidence for a non-materialistic view of what the brain does. It may not feel like we are “nothing but” the processing of information by certain types of cell, but we have no evidence that this is not the case, no matter how strongly we may believe it as individuals. Therefore, until research shows otherwise, we have to assume that a successful Blue Brain-type simulation of a mammalian brain would have subjective experiences, and could suffer. We have to start to consider if it is ethical to simulate mammalian brains before we have a good understanding of what neural activity results in sensations. Indeed, as governments are currently attempting to cut back on the number of animals used in research (a policy that is likely to continue), we have to consider whether it is morally acceptable to simulate mammalian brains at all. It's not surprising that there have been many significant philosophical and scientific discussions about the nature of consciousness, and whether or not the machine equivalents of biological systems would have subjective experiences. It is a matter of great debate. But the consequences of opposing views aren't equal. If “machine brains” have minds, then the amount of potential suffering that could be caused is almost limitless.
I have barely started to cover this vast subject. But, I think a debate on the moral implications of neural simulations has to start, and considering the exponentially increasing power of systems on which simulations can be run, this debate has to start soon.