Entries tagged with “Technology”.


What's Your Opinion?

You will recall that a couple of weeks back I had a personal letter from Melissa Rogers, CEO of Shoo!TAG, in which she took me to task for ‘defaming’ her product, and asking why I believed there was no scientific support for it. I clearly outlined my position to her in a manner that I thought didn’t leave much room for interpretation. After receiving her reply this morning, though, I get the distinct impression that she didn’t actually read my letter, so much as skim through it in the way that I assume she approaches scientific literature. This is the sum of what she wrote:

Although I respect the right to your opinion, we obviously do not agree.  My question is:  What would you do, if you discovered you were wrong?

Dear Ms Rogers,

The entire problem here is that we’re not talking about an issue of opinion. You have made claims that challenge fundamental precepts of science as we currently know it, and you have said quite plainly on your web site that your product uses these novel scientific discoveries to repel insects. By doing so you are not putting forward an opinion that I am merely countering with some contrasting opinion. What you are doing is quite deliberately declaring that you have scientific substantiation of the principles by which you say Shoo!TAG operates. Scientific evidence and opinion are two very different things. Indeed, the scientific process is specifically designed to weed out the influence of opinion.

I believe that you understand very clearly that you need more than just opinions to make Shoo!TAG sound credible to your customers. You want to make it appear that you have science behind your claims, because you know, as we all do, that science works. The trouble is that, although you know lots of scientific buzzwords like ‘quantum’ and ‘electromagnetism’ and ‘fractals’, you don’t really understand much about these things, nor indeed, about the scientific process itself.

On your website, you use every opportunity to attempt to give Shoo!TAG scientific validity, even if it means distorting the truth. You use lots of scientific sounding language, you have a ‘Technology’ page (formerly called ‘Science’) where you talk about your ‘lab’ and ‘experiments’. You have implied repeatedly that you have endorsements by legitimate scientific institutions (which is demonstrably not true), and you publish scientific-looking documents with lots of tables and statistics. Your patent application has pages of technical-sounding language which is plainly contrived to give the impression that there is something scientific going on (when really it makes very little sense to anyone who does understand science).

The primary difference between opinion and science is that an opinion is, by its nature, a subjective stance. Science tries very hard to iron out all subjectivity and make an assessment of facts that can be agreed upon by anyone who cares to observe that assessment.

Let me try to explain this difference with some simple analogies:

In the 18th century, a mathematician named Daniel Bernoulli outlined a principle that showed that in a fluid flowing over an object with differing surface areas, a pressure differential is created on one side. This quite simple observation went on to have profound effects for our modern lives, perhaps the most well-known being the invention of the airplane. The Bernoulli Principle is what keeps aircraft in the air. Now it doesn’t matter what your opinion of Bernoulli’s discovery is; it will work for everyone in exactly the same way. Even if you hold an opinion that Bernoulli ‘just made it all up’, it will still work anyway. Bernoulli’s Principle is a sound scientific idea to which millions of people entrust their lives every day. And it is independent of opinion or belief.

Now let’s consider some colours: twenty shades of some dark red colour, say. We can show those colours to a hundred people and probably get a hundred different opinions on which of those shades might be called ‘purple’ or ‘crimson’ or ‘red’. And we could show them to people in China and Spain and Canada and get more opinions still. But if it came down to whether you would stake your life on the opinion of Gladys Blackshaw of Manchester, England, of whether the card she had in her hand was red, crimson or purple, you simply wouldn’t do it. Why? Because opinion is highly subjective and we don’t trust it for important decisions.

This is why humans came up with the idea of science in the first place: it is the most reliable way we know of assessing the world. What this means is that your opinion or my opinion or anyone else’s opinion is entirely irrelevant when it comes to your claims for how Shoo!TAG is supposed to work, because the only correct way of establishing the validity of your claimed results is with science.

You ask me what I would do if I discovered I was wrong?1 Well, the only way that I’m going to ‘discover’ that I’m wrong is if you can demonstrate some good science behind your product. The onus is not on me to prove that I’m right – I’m not the one seeking to sell a product based on remarkable new scientific principles. It’s YOU who are obliged to show the world that you’re right – YOU are the one making money out of this scheme. You have a responsibility to back up your claims. As I have said repeatedly, you can easily bring real science to bear on Shoo!TAG, should you have the courage to do it. It’s not even particularly hard science, as these things go. If you genuinely believe in your product, I simply don’t understand why you wouldn’t seek this kind of widely accepted corroboration. The really impressive thing about proper science is that if you really can scientifically demonstrate the astonishing results you say you can get, I (and everyone else on the planet) will have no choice but to accept your evidence, because the science will bear you out.

It won’t come down to a matter of opinion.

Sincerely
Peter Miller

  1. Asking a question like this is a technique much beloved of those who are unable to argue with evidence on their side. By throwing an open-ended query back at the interrogator the argument is deflected away from the issue at hand, which, in this case, is: What kind kind of evidence can they provide that they are right? What I would do if I am wrong is hypothetical and irrelevant to the usefulness of the discussion unless they can demonstrate that they are actually right. They are making the unverified claims, not me. []

I hate computers. I hate them in the same way as I hate audio equipment. For me, gadgets have always been a means to an end. My idea of the perfect audio system is one with no wires, no speakers, no knobs and no disks. All that stuff is ugly and distracting. I would be happy if I could just go into my favourite room and hear the music without any need for the accompanying paraphernalia.

And my idea of a perfect computer is one with no hard drives, no interfaces, no file systems, no processors. I don’t really care that something has 3 terabytes of RAM or a 16GHz processor. And the big humming boxes that house such things are ugly, distracting and hot. My idea of a perfect computing environment is one with nothing more than a screen, a sketchpad, and a keyboard1 and where I can do stuff and get results without having to think about file management or disk fragmentation or syntax or communications protocols.

The last few days have seen a lot of discussion about the sad passing of Steve Jobs and the legacy he has left the world. There can be little doubt, even among the detractors, that his vision did change our modern lives in a most profound way. To deny it is to be trivially contrarian. For me, the greatest thing for which Steve2 is responsible is not the Mac, nor the iPod, the iPad or the iPhone,3 but the wondrous behind-the-scenes tech of the operating systems in all those gadgets.

Some of you are probably old enough to remember the kinds of computing devices that existed before the Apple Macintosh came along and changed the computing world forever. I had two of them: a Commodore 64 and an Atari ST. You communicated with the Commodore via BASIC4 and with the Atari via Atari DOS, neither of which were what you could remotely consider ‘intuitive’. Each of these devices required a significant amount of figurin’ if you wanted to get something useful done with them. There certainly wasn’t much need to own one unless you intended to do something that was, in those days, fairly obscure, like music sequencing or database building.

I believe that Steve Jobs greatest gift to us was to make the ‘computeriness’ of computers go away (well, at least to start making it go away – it’s still not as invisible yet as I would like personally). I think that Jobs understood in his bones that most people don’t have the remotest desire to want to tangle with computers. They just want to do stuff. They just want to have their whole music collection to choose from when they’re taking a walk. They just want a little game to play while they’re waiting for the train. They just want to snap pictures and send them to a friend – or make them into a photo album. They just want to be able to lie in bed and browse the web.

And, when they work, they just want to be able to write a letter, prepare a report, record a song, edit a movie or hold a video conference without having to understand what C+ or printer drivers or ROM or RAM or SCSI or serial ports are. Mr Jobs took us a long way along the path to never having to think about this kind of ephemera and to just getting on with doing the things we needed (and wanted) to do.

I admit, quite proudly, to being what is derogatorily known these days as an Apple fanboy. I bought my first Apple product, a Mac Plus, in 1988, and not long that after switched up to an SE. After the Atari it was like upgrading from a badly-tuned 2 cylinder motor scooter to a Rolls Royce. I was initially only interested in having a computer solely as a music tool, but with the Macintosh, suddenly I could do all this other stuff as well. It was truly an enlightening experience. The thing that captured my imagination most of all with those early Macs was that for my mind, at least, they just felt right. It was like there was someone sensible in the design process who was thinking more about me and how I might want to use the machine, than whether it had the latest chipset or the fastest clock speed. That someone was Steve Jobs. In short, I felt an immediate affinity with the Macintosh because it didn’t get in the way of what I wanted to do with it.

Advocates of PCs and the Microsoft Windows way of doing things (and to a lesser extent aficionados of worthy alternatives like Linux), can’t understand why we Apple disciples love our Apple environments so much. They look on the Apple culture as something like a fashion trend, believing us to have all been sucked in by the slick design and the tinker-toy simplicity of the computers themselves. They frequently proclaim that we have ‘drunk the Cool Aid’. What they fail to understand is that people like me simply don’t care that there are faster, cheaper, more efficient, cleverer ways to do computer things out there;5 to us, computers are necessary annoyances, and the simpler it is to get something done with them, and the less they force you to think ‘like a computer’, the better.6 This was the critical insight of Steve Jobs – an insight that went on to inform the Apple music players, the phones, the tablets and the online stores. We love Apple, and we loved Steve, because he made our lives richer by giving us the power of computers without needing to be part of the arcane secret societies that had previously been the sole interlocutors for the mysterious digital magicks. This, I believe, is what the PC (and IT) crowd hate most about Apple – that it has given the peasants the keys to the church.

One of the criticisms you hear most from Apple critics is that Jobs pushed ‘style-over-substance’. This is mostly a cry of ‘How come we can’t make OUR things so neat?’, because if you think about it, how can anyone celebrate a lack of style? The real implication of this complaint is, of course, that if there is style there must necessarily be little substance. Such a deprecation indicates the profound absence of acumen of the prosaic mind. As any thinking person should realise, style is not just an outer layer in which something is cloaked, but is an integral part of its very being. To quote Jean-Luc Godard:

To me style is just the outside of content, and content the inside of style, like the outside and the inside of the human body. Both go together, they can’t be separated.

The style with which Jobs imbued Apple products is not surface deep, but reaches down into the core of the Apple brand. It is his personal philosophy that we engage with every day when we use our iPods and iPhones, our iPads and iMacs. We believe that Steve understood exactly how to allow us to engage with the world in a way that felt stylish and empowering and fun and, well, yes, insanely great.

It is for this reason, I believe, that even though we didn’t know him personally, many of us long-time and dedicated Apple users feel very deeply that with his untimely death we’ve lost a dear friend. And we fear that the people who are now taking over the reins at Apple might not truly understand what Steve Jobs seemed to embody intuitively as a driving force. Certainly, there is currently no-one else in the tech world who does, even including the very closely philosophically aligned Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

Perhaps that’s the way it happens. I guess that’s for history to judge. For now, Steve Jobs has planted the seeds of great ideas. We can only hope that they continue to grow into beautiful trees without him to tend them.

Rest in peace Steve. I, for one, am richer for having had my life illuminated by the tools and creative philosophies which you brought us.

  1. I still like typing over writing, and for the short term at least I don’t see any alternative to a keyboard. When voice recognition becomes MUCH better, maybe it will be nice to speak things to your computer, but as long as we read, I think there will be writing of some kind. Perhaps that will change when direct neural interaction becomes possible… []
  2. It’s funny how I feel quite comfortable calling him Steve. In my circles it’s always been the way. I think he has been such a big influence in our daily lives that I feel, like a lot of people I guess, that I kinda knew him personally. []
  3. I’ve always detested that pretentious and irksome ‘i’ prefix… []
  4. The C64 had no operating system as such, hard as that is to comprehend these days. When you booted it, it was just a dumb blank brain until you loaded something into its RAM. []
  5. Consider these two options: 1. An ugly car that has a theoretical speed of 300 mph, has a super-efficient engine, an optimized drive-train and is technically superior to every other car on the road – as long as you fully understood the complicated procedure for driving it; 2. A nicely designed car that reliably gets you to the shops and back without any thought on your part about how that’s achieved. Some people will undoubtedly choose the first option. People whose main concern is just getting the shopping done will be the same people who buy a Mac. []
  6. In this respect, Apple’s ‘Think Different’ campaign is not so much about how people think about the world, but about how the world was thinking about computers. Apple was truly thinking different(ly). []


Image CSIRO

The Conversation is carrying an enormously insightful article by Dr Matthew Bailes, the Pro-Vice Chancellor of Research at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne.

Dr Bailes was one of the discoverers of the ‘diamond planet’ that you can’t fail to have heard about recently if you follow any kind of science news. It even made a sizeable appearance in the mainstream media all across the world.

…the diamond planet has been hugely successful in igniting public curiosity about the universe in which we live… Our host institutions were thrilled with the publicity and most of us enjoyed our 15 minutes of fame. The attention we received was 100% positive, but how different that could have been.

How so? Well, we could have been climate scientists.

As Dr Bailes goes on to point out, the scientific process involved in discovering a diamond planet is exactly the same scientific process involved in gathering data on climate change. And yet, the media and the general public is happy to accept the scientific community’s assessment of one and not the other.

I highly recommend you read this article and Tweet it, Like it and otherwise recommend it to your friends.

(Oh, and seriosuly, make sure you subscribe – for free – to The Conversation. Real news, real journalism, no agenda. As it should be.)

What Shoo!TAG‘s ‘science’ sounds like to anyone who knows real science:

___________________________________________________________________________

With thanks to Sir Joey for the lolz

___________________________________________________________________________

Researchers at the Cornell Creative Machine Lab came up with the brilliant idea of getting Cleverbot, their ‘intelligent’ chat program, to engage with its own doppelganger.

Clever Clogs: meet Clever Clogs.

Awesome.

Over the weekend, Violet Towne and I visited the Monash Gallery of Art to see an exhibition of photographs by Anton Bruehl. Bruehl was born in Australia, but made his career in New York where he became a favourite of the advertising world, creating photographs for Vanity Fair, Vogue and other high profile magazines. I always thought Bruehl was quite famous, but am dismayed to find that he doesn’t even rate a Wikipedia entry. You will almost certainly have seen his iconic photograph of Marlene Dietrich:

I really like Bruehl’s highly contrived and art-directed style and I think it has gone on to inform artists as diverse as David Lynch and Pierre et Gilles. The highlight of this exhibition for me, though, was some work Bruehl did for Vanity Fair, photographing the ‘Fashions of the Future’: clothing visions from designer Gilbert Rhodes. This is Rhodes’ speculation for the Man of the Future:

And here is that very man in the flesh, as realised by Rhodes and capture on film by Bruehl:

Is that awesome or what? The best thing here is, of course, that Rhodes got hardly any of it right. Well, I guess there is still a good part of the century to go, but you know what I’m saying… I suppose there are disposable socks (those ones they give you on planes) and the ‘antenna snatching radio out of the ether’ could charitably be interpreted to be the one in your iPhone, but the curly beard and the baggy onesie tucked into those disposable socks have yet to materialize. As for the utility belt, well, even Batman had trouble making that seem like a good idea.

I quite took to the Man of the Future’s jaunty disregard for anyone’s opinion of his haute couture, but I was rather more enamored of Rhodes’ vision for the Woman of the Future:

Alright! Now we’re talking!

I’m afraid, however, that I was so overcome by the prospect of what we bearded, antenna-sporting, disposable sock-wearing blokes have to look forward to in the next few years that my hand was shaking rather a lot when I tried to snap a shot of Rhodes’ and Bruehl’s vision of said woman.

It seems that, for a year or two at least, chaps, we’ll just have to live in anticipation.