Friday, 9 August 2013

The Russell's Principles of Critical Thinking

Time and again my friends inquire me about how to think critically. How can we do that? Is it complicated? What's the secret? 

My attempts to a long answer usually result in my friends totally losing interest in the subject. Sometimes, they even try to get me in some contradiction.

To answer this question in a simple way, I decided to summarise the requirements in two simple principles, which I name in honor of Bertrand Russel for obvious reasons. Also, for reasons which are obvious for those who watched Karate Kid II, I had to resist the urge to call them the Russel-Miyagi Principles.

Well, here they are:


Do this and you are a critical thinker.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

DuckDuckGo: The Anti-Spying Search Engine


If you've got pissed by the fact that both the US and the UK government not only have been collecting your data on the internet and on your mobile phone, but also are trying to convince everybody that it's okay and it's for our own good, this search engine is for you! According to this article from The Guardian, DuckDuckGo cannot be traced by NSA and GCHQ simply because it doesn't collect any information. If the information is not there, there's nothing to handle.

The search engine is still very basic, but at least is (for now) a tentative. Let's see if it continues like that as the creator, Gabriel Weinberg, starts to get richer...

Any views from anyone about it?

Sunday, 16 June 2013

There's no such a thing as harmless data

After the leak of spying project Prism, one of the many lame excuses given to justify such an immoral thing is that the data which is being collected is not the content of messages, just the sources, destinations and times.

As I have been working with machine learning for quite some time, I feel compelled to explain that even with this apparently harmless amount of data we can discover a lot about someone.

It is common place that everywhere you buy things on the internet gives you suggestions based on previous items you have bought. The more you buy, the most accurately the suggestions seem to agree with your taste. In this case, however, you think this is reasonable given that you are actually giving them what seems to be the appropriate information to infer just that.

What you don't really know, and usually probably don't really care, is how this is done. There are many ways, in fact, but let me explain one of them. The one that will make you understand how powerful these methods can be.

In fact, I will explain the one I have worked on two years ago in collaboration with Joerg Reichardt, a colleague from Germany who is a specialist in complex networks. Networks are simply formed by objects that are connected by something. Graphically, the objects are represented by dots and, when they have a connection, we draw a line between them. The graph below is an example taken from Wikipedia:


For instance, the dots, or in the above case the circles, can be computers and the lines a physical connection between them. The interesting thing is that the concept of connection can be generalised to any kind of relationship between the objects. One example could be a graph where the dots, also called vertices or nodes, can be any kind of real objects and the lines, technically called edges, could connect any two objects that share some colour in common. 

A very interesting kind of network, from the commercial point of view, is the one relating consumers to films in sites like Lovefilm or Netflix. This is a special case of a network which is represented by a bipartite graph. By that, we mean a graph with two different kinds of nodes. In this case, we will have nodes which are films and nodes which are consumers. But to be considered bipartite, a graph like that must obey one more condition, that nodes never connect to other nodes of the same kind. For our example, that means that we always connect consumers to films, but never consumers to consumers of films to films. 

The ways connections are put are now very clear. If a consumer watches a film, a connection is established. In the end, we have a network like this:


A bit of advertisement here. This was taken from our work, The Interplay between Microscopic and Mesoscopic Structures in Complex Networks, which can also be found in my website. I will explain the work in a bit, but let me now continue with the graph above. You can clearly see now that the name "bipartite" is really appropriate. Consider that the green lozenges are consumers and the blue circles are films. The red line means that, at least once, consumer number 4 watched film g.

This is a very compact way of visualising this kind of who watched what information. Of course the website can do even better and collect other data like the rating each consumer gives to each film, but we can already do a lot without it.

The next step is now to use it to give recommendations. The cool way in which you can do that is the following. You might think that if someone watch a horror film, then we can recommend another horror film to that person, but that is too simplistic. What if the person watched 10 romantic films and only one horror film? We'd do better by suggesting another romantic film, right? Things would be so easy if people were easy to read like that...

What usually happens is that people watch dozens, sometimes hundreds, of films and most of them can watch a huge number of different categories of films. Consider that this happens to thousands or millions of consumers and you can understand why we call it a complex network.

But think about the kinds of person you know. Geeks usually watch a lot of science fiction, adventure and even horror, but much less romantic films. Non-geeks usually watch some science fiction, but would watch much more adventure films, for instance. The trick we want to perform is that of, by looking at our bipartite graph, being able to identify something like that, communities of people with similar interests. If we succeed, our recommendations will surely be more appropriate. This is called community detection or clustering in graphs. It's not very easy to see in bipartite graphs, but it's very clear when you look at graphs like the one below:


This graph was taken from the paper Mixture models and exploratory analysis in networks by Newman and Leicht and represents a network of friendships of members of a karate club which split in two because of internal disputes. You can see that the members are separated in two clusters of nodes. Connections between members are much more frequent inside the clusters than outside. Finding these clusters might be easy for relatively small networks, but is tricky for large ones. The interesting thing is that the authors of the above paper found an algorithm that, given the nodes and edges only, could find the split almost perfectly.

Now you should start to be scared. Imagine that someone constructs this kind of network by connecting two persons if they speak through their mobile phones for, let's say, more than ten minutes. Using the above algorithm, this person can classify people in groups. If this person has some information about the interests inside each group, then a better classification can be achieved. Imagine now that this classification can be geeks, businessmen, religious people or... terrorists. 

Let's come back to our films, because now you can understand how that information can allow for a finer classification than the karate club one above. By using the algorithm that I and my friends developed, for instance, you can cluster people in groups relative to their interests in films, books, products and so on. You don't need access to the text of their messages, nor their ratings and even less their reviews. The simple connection information becomes enough.

The amazing thing about the bipartite example is that people never connect directly with one another, only indirectly by the products. And the algorithm doesn't need to have any prior information about what profile of people buy which product, it can cluster both the persons and the products in groups at the same time!

If you're a professional in the area and look the papers above, and also others in the field, you will see that the results are very good. The amount of information extracted can be impressive. And that was obtained simply by the information contained in the connections of the graph! Of course the algorithms are not perfect, which is a terrible thing actually, because bureaucrats won't care

The bottom line is that every private piece of information about you that leaks from websites or mobiles can reveal much more about you than you can imagine. The paper I published appeared on 2011. These things evolve very fast and, if you have enough computer power, you can do amazing things.

So, don't believe when the agencies say that the data they are collecting is not very informative. First, it is, second, if it wasn't, either they would not be collecting it, or they would be idiots wasting a lot of money and time. And, believe me, they are not.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Western Democracies through a PRISM


The document published by The Guardian, leaked by ex-NSA employee Edward Snowden, is only shocking for those who had been brainwashed enough to think that governments, specially the western democracies modeled after the USA, are moral entities that protect the rights of their citizens above everything. I'm not saying that they're not law-abiding entities, even because they have enough expertise to circumvent any imaginable law, I'm saying that they should not be blindly trusted about anything. And for those who think I'm saying something new, this is a quote by Thomas Jefferson
"Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."
The above quote, ironically by the 3rd president of the USA, appeared around 1810 for the first time. Since then, it seems, a lot of things have changed.

The PRISM project, which aims to spy on any citizen through mobile phones and internet without any a priori reason to suspect, is just another piece of evidence that shows that the objective of any government in the world is to retain power. Controlling what people think, or in this case what they are interested in or talking about, is just one way of guaranteeing that everybody is having the correct "mindset" for this to happen.

In the same way that happened with Julian Assange, and in a different context with Aaron Swartz, the USA government will do everything it can to get its hands on and try to make an example of Snowden. Surveillance on digital communications is a way to make sure that the example will stick.

Fortunately, we still have newspapers like The Guardian. Not that I trust them blindly either, but they have enough power not to be censored, and that's something. So much that neither the USA nor the UK, which is also involved, could deny the accusations, entering in the "defense mode". As they cannot deny their deeds, they try to justify on the basis that they are fighting terrorism, with the word "terrorism" meaning whatever they need it to mean to justify their acts. Are you skeptical? So read this piece of dialogue which was also published in The Guardian. Pay attention to the answer William Hague, the British foreign secretary, gave to the question of an MP:
Angus MacNeil, the SNP MP, asks if "within the law" always means the same as moral. 
Hague says "within the law" means for the purposes set out, such as preventing terrorism.
I'm not impressed that Hague said that, but I would be very impressed if people fail to read all the implications of this answer. First of all, it implies the old the ends justify the means, because Hague is saying that they are allowed to do whatever they want to fulfill an objective and moral plays no role in that. Another thing which is clear is that Hague is saying that the law is whatever they want to do. I'm pretty sure last time I studied democracy, the word "accountability" was part of it.

It's laughable that these same democracies constantly criticize authoritarian regimes, China mainly, for trying to do exactly the same thing. It's also interesting that Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Prize of Peace some years ago. 

There is no new lesson here. It's the same old lesson that we all have the duty to pass to the next generations.  The lesson of eternal vigilance. The lesson that governments, rulers, are interested in power and power relies on control. Control relies on limiting freedom, spreading fear and censoring. Once this sets in, the governments can take whatever decision they want. And if you really believe that governments will only do what is good for you, seriously, you must be really stupid. Sorry, but I can't find a better word.






Friday, 7 June 2013

Digital Universe

This is a project by the American Museum of Natural History. According to their own words: 
"The Digital Universe, developed by the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium, incorporates data from dozens of organizations worldwide to create the most complete and accurate 3-D atlas of the Universe from the local solar neighborhood out to the edge of the observable Universe."

Thursday, 6 June 2013

The Universe is fine, thanks.



I am considered neither a high-profile theoretical physicist nor a leading figure in my area, but I do consider myself a theoretical physicist with enough knowledge to weight in some rational thoughts even against the strongest authority arguments.

You have no idea of why I am moaning like that, so let me explain the reason of my indignation. I have just read the following article from Scientific American, which I consider to be a rather good popular science magazine:


It's true that the article is originally from the Simmons Foundation, but SA published it anyway.

Well, now I am going to say what pisses me off in this article. A fair summary would be that it is nothing more than a desperate and kind of arrogant attempt to justify something that should not be a worry at all in science: our own ignorance.

The article starts with a quote from Nima Arkani-Hamed, a high-profile theoretical physicist (have I said already that I hate authority arguments?). At a conference he said that the "universe is impossible". In support, some other high-profile physicists (!) give their statements as well.

Their arguments go like that. All accessible experiments up to date confirm the Standard Model in its pre-string/supersymmetry form with reasonable accuracy. There is, however, a lot of unexplained things. Because the only explanations we could think about do not work, we must assume that the only solution is the multiverse hypothesis, where every kind of universe exists and we happen to be in one of them.

I'm being unfair, of course. The arguments are more complicated than that, but the essence is the same.

For instance, they all make a big deal about what we usually call "naturalness". Naturalness is not a rigid principle of nature, it's more like a hope. A hope that quantities appearing in Nature are not too strange for OUR taste. I guess you are all smart enough to recognise that the catch here is the fact that we are judging how Nature should behave by our standards of symmetry, which in the end is to what it boils down.

Then it comes a series of things that still are unanswered. For some reason, the argument again is that if we could not find a better solution, than the solution is a multiverse. That sounds like desperation to me. Can't we accept that maybe we still don't have enough data to understand the problems? Can't it be that we are missing something? That some of our ideas have problems and must be substituted to work? Of course it can.

There is something even crazier happening. Many versions of the multiverse idea are unfalsifiable. I said this many times and I will repeat it again. One unfalsifiable answer is as good as any other unfalsifiable answer. Be it the multiverse, god or the Matrix. 

Even those versions which are marginally falsifiable, if there is such a thing, are simply jokers. Once you postulate that there are any kind of universe, all problems of why the universe is like it is are solved. Here enters the probable human explanation for why this idea might be becoming so attractive to those who spent so much time trying to find a solution but didn't. If everything goes, it's not their fault that they haven't found one.

Like naturalness, the claims rely in even more concepts which are at best disputable. Take the idea that we live in an extremely unlikely universe as very few variations would support life. That is not true. If I put aside the fact that we have no real agreement about what we want to call "life", it would be fair enough to say that a universe in which anything that would look like a computer program could run would be able to support life. I can imagine an infinitude of variations of physics that keep the mathematics necessary for this to happen intact.

Of course the hypothesis can be true. Solipsism can be true as well. I can be the only thing that exists in the universe. Or maybe you. Shall I say that the current problems of physics support the solipsism idea? It surely can explain physics and a lot more...

Honestly, I didn't like the article at all. A similar thing happened about 110 years ago, although it was in the other side of the spectrum. Around 1900, Lord Kelvin, a high-profile physicist that we all know, said that we had the explanation for everything and that all that remained was some more precise measurements. There were only two insignificant problems to solve. As you know, their solution only reinstated the fact that Nature abhors authority arguments.

More than one century later, we know science and philosophy enough not to fall in the same kind of trap again. Still, humans have a hard time to admit failure even when it's definitely not their fault.

Meanwhile, the "impossible" universe goes on. Apparently, unworried about all the inconsistencies in all our descriptions of it. Thank you.

Friday, 31 May 2013

What is a University?

I'm not going to discuss the even deeper issue of what is education in this post, although I plan to do it in the future. I just want to talk about what a University should be and what it is becoming.

In principle, the amount of knowledge which is the minimum for a well-educated and conscious citizen finishes when the person is about 18, with some variations among countries. I'm not gonna argue right now why it should be increased to around 21, I am going to concentrate in another aspect: the meaning of being educated beyond that.

Once this basic education period ended, it is up to the person if he or she wants or not to study more. There comes the University. It's a choice. And we must have very clear in our minds that it MUST continue as a choice. If there's any aspect of education that should not be a choice, it should be included in the basic period, which, if it is too short, should be increased.

Now, everyone should have the RIGHT to go to the University. But there's a crucial point here. The right to GO to the University is very different of a right to GET A DIPLOMA, no matter what happens. I explain.

An honest University should explain exactly what kind of title it is going to give to the student. What is the student supposed to learn. That should be VERY clear from the beginning. Second, the student should NOT get a diploma without learning what was agreed. For post-modernist pedago-psychologists that might sound crazy, but if that is not the case, you are actually doing a HARM to the student. A University that allows students to graduate with either a diploma that does not reflect their skills or without really proving that they learned those skills is LYING not only to the student but also to the society.

Universities are place to create and disseminate knowledge, which is way above short-term economical bullshit. Even in a non-scientific course, let's say, a technical one, learning the correct skills should be above getting the diploma-receipt. When unprepared people leave the University with a diploma saying they are prepared, the harm they can do to society is huge.

What many pseudo-psychologists must argue is that students should nor be stressed too much. Well, I can guarantee that is overwhelming evidence from many different areas of science, including computer science, that if one doesn't make some effort in learning something, you will not learn it. More than that, we all know that if you don't ask in an exam some subject, the amount of study of the majority of students on that subject will approach zero. Talk to teachers, not to psychologists in this case.

Other people will say that the students are still children and must be treated like that. If that's true, the University has become simply a hypocritical way of extending the basic education. Politicians love this kind of thing. The only problem is that this is destroying the creation and dissemination of knowledge idea and the ability of people to think critically. Politicians love this as well, believe me.

In summary, if you go to the University, you've earned the right to TRY to get your diploma, not the right to get it. Good and honest Universities should enforce this, for the good of everyone.


Saturday, 13 April 2013

Quicksort Routine


I have learned about Quicksort, an algorithm to order numbers (or with a little bit of adjustment anything else) when I was in my first year of physics... but not this way...

Monday, 1 April 2013

Deepest Mandelbrot Set Zoom


Zooming in by an order of 10^275. Remember that the Mandelbrot Set is a fractal, an object defined by an equation as if space were continuous, so it can be infinitely zoomed in (you can find the equation here if you are interested). As far as we know, space cannot be zoomed in below the Planck Length, but that's another story...

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Complexity Misconceptions

I have just watched this TED talk:


It's about a work by the speaker, James Glattfelder, and collaborators which was published in PLOS ONE. I have not read the work, but it seems a fair study of economic networks with interesting conclusions. That's not exactly what I want to criticise. I would like to make some observations about the talk itself.

Glattfelder starts the talk by criticising the fact that millions of dollars are invested to understand the fundamental workings of the universe and still we know very little about human interactions, specially, of course, economic networks.

I've heard that criticism many times before and from many friends. It comes more out of some resentment than from a more objective point of view. The resentment is understandable as many physicists would argue that the study of complex networks is not really physics. In my opinion, that is just a word game that divides everyone and where everyone loses.

About the fact that we understand the "fabric of reality" better than human relations, as the speaker says, is actually not that surprising. It's naturally easier to isolate systems at the fundamental level and make experiments with them than doing the same with biological or social entities. They are way more complex and, therefore, way more difficult to understand. I don't see any reason to be surprised by that.

The second thing I would like to point out is the fact that he says that the "usual" physics approach fails for complex systems. That in physics we use equations, but in complex systems we need to use networks. To be very honest, I really cannot understand what he is talking about. I worked with networks also and equations are used as much there as in any other area of physics. By the way, you can see a picture full of equations in his talk. You cannot even say that physics doesn't use networks, or started to use them only recently, because the prototypical problems in statistical physics and condensed matter are all studied in networks.

I think there is a huge misconception with respect to complexity science that the speaker is spreading here. He's selling complexity science as something completely different from what has been done in science since ever, which is not true. Complexity science is more like a culmination of bringing together related techniques from many different areas in an encompassing framework, a highly interdisciplinary one, but it is still the same kind of scientific idea. Complexity science is still based on extracting equations from data. Of course it involves algorithms due to their complexity, but algorithms are composed by equations. 

The last thing he says as if this was a very recent discovery is that complexity can emerge from simple rules. I must, once again, remind everyone that this is known since the 19th century, although these were not the exact terms used at that time. In fact, Boltzmann was the one who first tried to do something like that. He knew that collective phenomena like phase transitions (change of states in matter, like melting or evaporation) should necessarily be the result of atoms and molecules interacting by the very simple rules of Newtonian Mechanics (that was before Quantum Mechanics, of course, but the idea remains basically the same). In fact, you can browse a more than one hundred years literature in Statistical Mechanics and find out many of the ideas that are attributed to modern complexity science.

In summary, I think that it is an interesting work, but that the beginning of the talk is a bit misleading. I do not blame a researcher by being excited about his field, but people tend to exaggerate many times. It's good to be always a bit skeptical.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Terry Deary: Libraries are no longer relevant

(Science Legacy cross-post)

Terry Deary is the writer of the Horrible Histories series of books. You might think that, as a writer, he would be as outraged as anyone by the scrapping of public libraries all around the world, but that's not the case! In this article from The Guardian


Mr Deary attacks the "concept" of libraries as flawed and "no longer relevant" today.  I haven't found yet a good answer in the internet from another writer, which I think would be the most appropriate. There is a quite sentimental answer in the article by Alan Gibbons, which is a noble one, but based on an ad populum argument, never a strong one.

So, I decided to address some of his criticisms here.

What is below is a collation of all Terry Deary's quotes in the article
I'm not attacking libraries, I'm attacking the concept behind libraries, which is no longer relevant. 
Because it's been 150 years, we've got this idea that we've got an entitlement to read books for free, at the expense of authors, publishers and council tax payers. This is not the Victorian age, when we wanted to allow the impoverished access to literature. We pay for compulsory schooling to do that. 
People have to make the choice to buy books. People will happily buy a cinema ticket to see Roald Dahl's Matilda, and expect to get the book for free. It doesn't make sense. 
Books aren't public property, and writers aren't Enid Blyton, middle-class women indulging in a pleasant little hobby. They've got to make a living. Authors, booksellers and publishers need to eat. We don't expect to go to a food library to be fed. 
If I sold the book I'd get 30p per book. I get six grand, and I should be getting £180,000. But never mind my selfish author perception – what about the bookshops? The libraries are doing nothing for the book industry. They give nothing back, whereas bookshops are selling the book, and the author and the publisher get paid, which is as it should be. What other entertainment do we expect to get for free? 
Bookshops are closing down because someone is giving away the product they are trying to sell. What other industry creates a product and allows someone else to give it away, endlessly? The car industry would collapse if we went to car libraries for free use of Porsches … Librarians are lovely people and libraries are lovely places, but they are damaging the book industry. They are putting bookshops out of business, and I'm afraid we have to look at what place they have in the 21st century. 
Why are all the authors coming out in support of libraries when libraries are cutting their throats and slashing their purses? 
We can't give everything away under the public purse. Books are part of the entertainment industry. Literature has been something elite, but it is not any more. This is not the Roman empire, where we give away free bread and circuses to the masses. People expect to pay for entertainment. They might object to TV licences, but they understand they have to do it. But because libraries have been around for so long, people have this idea that books should be freely available to all. I'm afraid those days are past. Libraries cost a vast amount … and the council tax payers are paying a lot of money to subsidise them, when they are used by an ever-diminishing amount of people.
It is important to analyse the arguments as a whole before we go to step by step criticism because it reveals a lot about its true meaning. The chain of argument is highly contradictory, what is the sign that arguments are being picked to justify an underlying reason which is not clearly stated.

For instance, note the contradiction between the argument that libraries are damaging the book industry and that an ever-diminishing amount of people are using them. If people are not using libraries, how possibly could them be damaging sales? And why are libraries damaging sales now, not before? Of course, everything comes from the greedy perspective of the author that he would be earning much more if libraries did not exist, a point that he makes clear during all the text.

Let us then proceed to the analysis.
I'm not attacking libraries, I'm attacking the concept behind libraries, which is no longer relevant.
A clear word game to seem politically correct. How can you attack the concept of one thing without attacking that very thing? Of course what he is trying to do is to not offend people who work in libraries, but when he says that libraries are no longer relevant, he is clearly attacking each and every one library. There is simply no other way.
Because it's been 150 years, we've got this idea that we've got an entitlement to read books for free, at the expense of authors, publishers and council tax payers.
A simplistic view that has as an objective to mislead. The author is trying to make us believe that we are sponsoring a bunch of bloody free-readers! Honestly, do you really think that someone who goes to the library to get a book is trying to take advantage of you? Of anyone? I really wished that 100% of people would like to take advantage of my money by spending their free time reading books in the library.

Can you see that the author is trying to take attention from the benefits to the society? When taxpayers fund libraries, their are investing in something. Investing in creating people with more culture! It's not a waste of money, at least not for the taxpayer.
This is not the Victorian age, when we wanted to allow the impoverished access to literature.
Here he "summarises" the main objective of the library as providing poor people to access to literature, something that he disagrees vehemently. As I wrote before, this is not the only objective of libraries. Beyond the investment I described above, there are many, many, many other benefits in libraries.

Libraries are repositories of culture. Books in there are preserved for future generations. They are places where people gather to talk and debate while they read. They encourage thinking, and I'm more than happy to pay for that. It also is a place where people develop the habit and the taste for reading. The view that it is only a kind of charity that gives books to the poor using our money is utterly ridiculous.
We pay for compulsory schooling to do that.
Since when schools are paid to give access to literature to poor people? Apart from the fact that there is much more in a school than that, it makes much more sense to have public libraries than one library for each school. The money to buy books for each school would come from the same place as that for keeping libraries and, to have the same efficiency, each school would have to have the same amount of books that would be in the library, but with less people using them.

Of course, in that case, the publishers and authors would sell more and more money from taxpayers would be required for the same effect. You see here that the "greedy" factor is in action.
People have to make the choice to buy books. People will happily buy a cinema ticket to see Roald Dahl's Matilda, and expect to get the book for free. It doesn't make sense.
Here comes the ability of the author to use fallacious arguments and make them sound true. The analogy is completely flawed from the beginning. The sentence "It doesn't make sense" is vacuous, trying to induce the reader to believe that the analogy is sound. It's not.

When people go to the cinema, they sit in silence for two hours looking at changing frames. You might sleep in there if you want. You are hardly improving any skill in there. That's hardly something worth supporting with tax money. On the other hand, when people read it develops in them many other skills. You need to improve your capacity of interpreting texts, you need to improve your reading, you are forced to think. Do you really believe that sitting for hours watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy is the same thing as reading the whole story? I tell you it's not, because I did both.

Think about your children if you're a parent. Wouldn't you happily pay for the book instead of a cinema ticket for your children? That's because you know that there is a value in reading which is much higher than watching the movie. There is no question that reading requires more than watching and teaches you more. Develops you more.

Besides, people don't "expect to get the book for free" because they're smart asses! In fact, what we are doing is "luring" people who would not go to a library using those books. Can you see how the author completely subvert things?
Books aren't public property, and writers aren't Enid Blyton, middle-class women indulging in a pleasant little hobby. They've got to make a living. Authors, booksellers and publishers need to eat. We don't expect to go to a food library to be fed.
It's amazing how often Mr Deary uses fallacies to try to trick the reader. The one above should be very evident. He's trying to make an analogy that is offensive to get the support of the writers! And, again, the analogy between books and food is completely absurd. How many times will I have to say that reading create skills and habits in people that benefit the whole society!

But now, here, appears again the true greedy intent of the author. "They've got to make a living" he says. Point out that he makes more than a living with his books would be a fallacy, so I will not use it as an argument. But, honestly, could you cite one single example of an author that became poor because people only use his books in the library instead of buying them? I bet there is none. If there is, I bet that must be one in one thousand or something like that.
If I sold the book I'd get 30p per book. I get six grand, and I should be getting £180,000. But never mind my selfish author perception – what about the bookshops?
Misdirection. The author here reveals what is he really worried about, but then tries to minimise the bad-impression of the argument with the "never mind my selfish author perception", trying to induce the reader to think that that is not important. In fact, that the most important sentence of all his argument. Probably the whole reason why he is against libraries. he wants more money and he doesn't really care about the benefits libraries bring to the society.
The libraries are doing nothing for the book industry. They give nothing back, whereas bookshops are selling the book, and the author and the publisher get paid, which is as it should be.
Who said that libraries should do something for the book industry? Industries are worried about their profits, why on Earth should public funded libraries give a damn to help the book industry? They are big enough to take care of their own. The point here is that they are uncorrelated issues that the author is trying to tie together to confound the reader.

The role of libraries is not to support any industries or serve as bookshops or generate income for authors. They have a completely different role which is not related to that. You should not ask what libraries give back to the industry. It's not the industry who is funding libraries. You should ask what libraries give back to the society!
What other entertainment do we expect to get for free?
Again, the author is trying to convince the reader that there is no other benefit or reading except entertainment. That's untrue and misleading.
Bookshops are closing down because someone is giving away the product they are trying to sell.
The film and music industries blame the internet. Besides, it's highly misleading to think that you would buy every single book you read in the library. That's not true. And to be honest, I would like to see some numbers supporting this statement. Are there any? Or is it just the author's opinion?
What other industry creates a product and allows someone else to give it away, endlessly? The car industry would collapse if we went to car libraries for free use of Porsches …
Once again, the author tries to mislead the audience with absurd analogies. He tries to compare all kinds of products with books. Products are different! Their uses and their benefits to society are completely unrelated! The word "collapse" here hides the real meaning which is "have a smaller margin of profit".

The author here is creating the idea of "car libraries", which are indeed ridiculous, but then he tries to argue that "car libraries" and "book libraries" are the same and, ergo, the latter is also ridiculous. Another fallacy. The author is really skilled in using them.
Librarians are lovely people and libraries are lovely places, but they are damaging the book industry.
They are damaging the book industry by helping society. I would rather support the latter.
They are putting bookshops out of business, and I'm afraid we have to look at what place they have in the 21st century.
Let's see the argument. Libraries are closing bookshops. That argument should be accompanied by statistics, and it's not. I believe it's simply false. The place of libraries in the 21st century is the same as always. I already wrote what it is above and I will stop repeating myself.
Why are all the authors coming out in support of libraries when libraries are cutting their throats and slashing their purses?
Could the author be more dishonest? He's trying to create an emotional response in the other authors by using the same trick he used to make his books popular. He's appealing to "horrible stories". To fear. To hate. Again, without supporting statistics.
We can't give everything away under the public purse.
Another fallacy. He's generalising in the wrong way. In no way libraries imply that we are giving everything away.
Books are part of the entertainment industry.
Once again, he's trying to convince that there's nothing else to reading than entertainment. That's very odd, because he's biting his own tale. Is he admitting that the history content of his books is irrelevant? Or is he saying that history itself is just entertainment? False, false, false.
Literature has been something elite, but it is not any more.
Notice how he is not consistent in the arguments? He argues in one point that libraries are bad because they break the book industry, but now it was okay in the past when few people would read. That means that it was okay when libraries helped to create a market for books, but now that the market is there, the hell with libraries.

In this view, the only usefulness of libraries is to boost the sales of the industry, which again is a view that I cannot agree with. Do you?
This is not the Roman empire, where we give away free bread and circuses to the masses. People expect to pay for entertainment.
This is the worst, most ridiculous of all the fallacious analogies he's created. Bread and circuses is a way to alienate people by giving to them things that fulfil basic instinctive needs such that they do not need to think. Libraries are completely, totally, diametrically the opposite! They are giving to people something that will make them more educated, with more culture and more critical! What the hell is he talking about?

The author is a historian and as such I cannot believe he don't see the difference. The only explanation is that he sees it, but is inducing people to think they are the same.
They might object to TV licences, but they understand they have to do it.
What? If you object to something you cannot understand why you have to do it, otherwise why would you object? Well, I know I have to do it because otherwise I will be prosecuted, but that's not what this sentence is supposed to mean, I guess...
But because libraries have been around for so long, people have this idea that books should be freely available to all. I'm afraid those days are past.
It's not a question of habit. I gave dozens of reasons why libraries are good and none of them is because I'm used to the idea. The days are past? They are not. He want them to be.
Libraries cost a vast amount … and the council tax payers are paying a lot of money to subsidise them, when they are used by an ever-diminishing amount of people.
Libraries cost money, but cost much less than the amount which is lent to banks to cover for their own mistakes, made out of sheer selfish greed. Much less than we pay for unnecessary wars and weapons and for many other things. The money spent to support a library is, I repeat, an investment for the society. And if less and less people are using them, then this is the problem that must be solved. The solution is to encourage people to go more to the libraries, not close them! Of course, more popular libraries are not in the agenda of Mr Deary.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Science Legacy

I am starting a new project called Science Legacy ( http://sciencelegacy.org ) and I would like to invite everyone to participate by giving suggestions and ideas.

The website's aim is to raise awareness about the dangers science continuously faces, the challenges and injustices to academics and scientists and to promote free knowledge, reason and critical thinking.

Pay a visit to Science Legacy, browse around and let me know what you think.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Why Journal Ranking is Bad

The following article has been published on arXiv:


At the end of the analysis, the authors state that:
"It is conceivable that, for the last few decades, research institutions world-wide may have been hiring and promoting scientists who excel at marketing their work to top journals, but who are not necessarily equally good at conducting their research. Conversely, these institutions may have purged excellent scientists from their ranks, whose marketing skills did not meet institutional requirements. If this interpretation of the data is correct, we now have a generation of excellent marketers (possibly, but not necessarily also excellent scientists) as the leading figures of the scientific enterprise, constituting another potentially major contributing factor to the rise in retractions. This generation is now in charge of training the next generation of scientists, with all the foreseeable consequences for the reliability of scientific publications in the future."
This is as clear as water for any serious person in academia, but is also convenient for many people. As the authors wrote, each new generation of scientist is being raised under the tenet that being a marketeer is as important as, or even more, than being a good scientist. The worst thing is that they indeed start to believe in that!

This correlates strongly with all that has been said about academic publishers. If you read the article, you will notice very fast that Thomas Reuters, the company which "calculates" the index that ranks the journals, must be earning a lot of money with that. At some point of the last century, companies noticed that the academics were an easy prey. We seemed to accept that in silence and, instead of generating money for ourselves and our research, we are very happy in working for free to generate money for the industry...

I suggest a thorough reading of this paper... and that, if you are a supervisor, think about teaching not only the right thing to your student, but also show him very clearly what is wrong.


Monday, 4 February 2013

Mini-Review: Shadows of the Mind


I have just finished reading Shadows of the Mind, by Roger Penrose. It's something I wanted to do a long time ago, specially after reading many other books about mind and artificial intelligence. As one of the best parts of reading is to comment, I will write about my impressions of the book here.

On the bright side, you always learn something interesting when reading Penrose's books. As all the others, this book is sprinkled with interesting bits of mathematics and physics. The objective of Penrose is to argue in favour of an idea that he has been pursuing for a long, long time - the idea that computers cannot (and will not), even in principle, think.

The chain of arguments goes like this. He argues that Goedel's Theorem implies that there are mathematical truths that cannot be accessed in any computable way, which means that no algorithm that can actually be written in a computer can prove their truth. Then, he says that mathematicians can actually identify any mathematical truth. This, according to him, is because mathematicians can understand mathematics, what computers cannot do. This "understanding" must then be some uncomputable process. Therefore, computers cannot and will never be able to really think or understand.

This makes the first part an interesting journey through the realm of computer science, computability and logic. It's the mathematics part of the book. He even writes about polyminoes. I really like it, except for the extremely biased dialogue between a robot and its creator. 

Because of the argument that anything that relies on computable functions, like usual computer algorithms, cannot think, he must find a way for uncomputability to enter into the human brain. As physics up to now is computable, he then argues that computability must be hidden in what has not been understood yet. The most straightforward non understood fundamental problem in physics - and incidentally the one he worked so much with - is quantum gravity. Therefore, there should lie uncomputability. He doesn't really know where in quantum gravity it is, even because we don't still know quantum gravity (despite string theorists claims). Still, he makes some interesting suggestions and relate them to some biology.

Biology, of course, needs to kick in because the brain is... well... biological. So, he proposes that there can be a kind of collective physical phenomenon, much like superconductivity or superfluidity, happening in the brain. At this point, he seems not only worried about uncomputability, but also in explaining conscience. He argues that the quantum gravity proposal is compatible with the microtubules, structures that play an important role in cell structure, being the key organelles where uncomputability and collective phenomena should happen. This implies that conscience might even be present, in some level, in a unicellular organism. But not in a machine!

As I said, it's worthwhile to read the book even if only for the interesting things you learn with it. Penrose also has the nice habit of including references to articles and books everywhere, so we can go after them and learn the details if we want to. Now, the not-so-nice comments.

The problem with the book is the premises. It seems that Penrose has a religious belief that man-made machines will never be really sentient and he then searches desperately for a way to justify this belief. He is very competent, knows a lot of physics and mathematics and argues very well. Still, the problem is in the hypothesis. Right at the beginning, Penrose assumes at least three things which are not true:

1. Mathematicians know mathematical truths.
Although this might be true, it's highly improbable given the amount of disagreement on fundamental issues. Even if there was no disagreement, that is something for which there is no proof at all. Remember that agreement doesn't imply truth (yes, consensus is not enough...)

2. The human mind is consistent.
Do you really want me to start giving examples? Scientists that are religious fanatics. People who give advice and do the opposite. If there is one place where inconsistencies can coexist without problems is inside our brains.

3. We understand things and, by the way, we don't need to define exactly what is "understanding" in this discussion.
It is absolutely beyond my comprehension how a mathematician like Penrose can argue that we can assume that something so fundamental for the whole discussion doesn't need to be defined precisely. Every scientist knows that, when we don't define things precisely, everything goes. Think about all those people talking about positive and negative energy.

But these three hypothesis are central to his whole thesis. The second one, for instance, completely breaks his line of arguments. Once that humans can be inconsistent, this immediately violates the conditions for Goedel's Theorem to be applicable.

In summary, I would still read the book. There's a lot of things to learn in there. And even if his whole argumentation is flawed from the beginning, someone needs to explore those possibilities. It doesn't matter if it's for the wrong reasons. Although the conclusion is wanting, many things can be salvaged during the journey. Yes. I'm still a Penrose's fan. Even disagreeing with him.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Fixing Scientific Publishing

I have already written in the last post how scientific publishing works. A lot of people has been arguing for open access journals, and there is some good in that. Of course, open access has its own problems, like the fact that you have to pay huge fees and still doesn't have freedom to choose your own copyright rules. 

My favourite site is, of course, arxiv.org. However, in order to make sites like it really work there is a circle that must be broken. It's the funding one. Call it the Funding Feedback Loop if you like. I will use the initials FFL just for convenience here. This is one of the worst things that exist in science today and one of the responsible (if not THE responsible) for the tyranny of the scientific publishers. It works like this.

Science needs money to keep running (as everything else) and, as is common in life, those who really have money to invest in science are not scientists in general. Therefore, they need to decide how to invest their money and where. For simplicity and laziness reasons, the people they hired to make this decision came up with "objective" criteria, which means finding some numbers which are easy to get to create a ranking system. Those people are not really interesting in evaluating the research itself, because this is a complex task which involves thinking and decision taking, and they are not really interested in that. Instead, they do a quick search and find a bunch of indices which seems reasonable.

For some reasons, good ones in the past, some scientific publications became highly prestigious, like Nature and Science. There are others, of course, but they can be ranked by something which is called "impact index", something objective and calculable. No need to think. This, associated with number of citations and things like that, are the dream of the decision taking groups. They just need to gather those numbers and their job is done.

Of course, classifying science according to those numbers is like classifying countries according to GDP. There is a correlation, but ask the poor people of Brazil if the fact that its GDP is high does really matter to them. The problem is that, after people start to rely on the numbers to take the decision, they forget that those numbers are biased, incomplete, full of noise and, in many cases, prone to a lot of corruption and manipulation.

In science, what happened is that people stopped concentrating on scientific knowledge and started to aim in what journal they wanted their paper to be published. The funding agencies only give money to those who publish in Nature, so people struggle to publish in Nature and Nature gets more and more power. The same for other prestigious publisher.

Unless funding agencies stop requiring scientists to publish in certain journals to get funding, there is no way to liberate scientific knowledge simply because scientists need money to survive! Are you going to pay the scientists if the funding agencies don't? Don't try to fool me, I'm pretty sure you won't. But then, how can we break the FFL?

Part of the solution is for funding agencies to stop being lazy and doing a serious job on decision making! But that's complicate! Yes! It is! But if you do easy things the result is invariably rubbish! Everyone knows that, or SHOULD know that! Stop relying on easy reading ranks and do a serious analysis of what is really important in scientific research. That would increase the costs? Yes, it would. There's no free lunch. If you want to do something with quality, you need to invest time and money.

Therefore, to break the monopoly of the powerful publishers, the FFL needs to be broken. In order to do that, the decision taking about funding needs to rely on a more detailed analysis of what to fund. One that relies on the quality of the research independently on where it is published. Invest on that and you start to take power from the publishers. Of course they will react to that, and they will react aggressively! That's because there is a lot of money involved and nobody wants to let it go! They obviously have powerful lobbies. There's obvious a lot of corruption in the system, the kind of legal corruption of course. But the only way to minimise it is to doing the right thing.

So, if you are a serious funding agency, one which is not chained by lobbies or agreements and really wants to invest your money in serious science. If you are a rich person that loves science and want your money invested in a way that really creates free knowledge for future generations, here is my advice:

Take part of the money available for the funding and invest in a serious group of people to analyse the scientific value of the proposals instead of their "objective" measures. Pay them to do a damn good job! Hire scientists who like science to do that analysis job, not administrators. Spending part of the money on that might guarantee a better use of it.

There is only one thing: be careful with corruption on that process! As I said before, there is not free lunch. If you want things to be of quality, you need to be always alert! It's like democracy. If you stop paying attention to it, it gets corrupt.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

How Scientific Publishing Works

I have written small posts about this for some time now but the sad loss of Aaron Swartz seemed to help bringing the issue to the headlines. I think it's time to clarify better how scientific publishing worked in the past, how it works now and how it should work. 

However, before starting, I cannot resist but criticise the horrible article from John Gapper entitled Aaron Swartz's illusion over research. Far from me to believe that everything someone says is true, and that includes Aaron. I disagree, although only partially, with many of his views and I might talk about that in other posts. But Gapper writes about scientific publishing in a way that seems that he never actually had to publish. I don't really know if that's true, but it surely looks like.

If you check most blogs from academics, you will see the true side of the story. You should also take as a piece of evidence that a lot (A LOT!) of academics at least try to leave their papers in their websites for free access. Gapper claims that scientific publishers increase the efficiency of the system and that, without them, things would be worse. That might have been true in the past, but only because they added the value of distributing the papers in large scale, something that today can be done by the internet.

He also claims that the quality of free journals with open access would be much lower because the usual journals keep standards. It's not difficult, however, to keep certain standards and the price we pay for those standards is much higher than we should. Of course you have to pay an editor, but remember that journals DON'T PAY ANYTHING TO REVIEWERS, and although editors do an important job, it's the reviewers who go through the papers in details and are responsible for a higher quality standard. 

Okay, I already wrote too much about that article. Let's see how things really are. 

The Basic Idea

In the ideal world, we scientists write papers because we discovered interesting things and we want to:

1. Make our discoveries widespread known
2. Allow other scientists, or anyone who feels capable of, to check our results (hopefully confirming we were right ;) )

In the very past, this was difficult. Even if you don't consider the work in copying your documents over an over again if you don't even have a photocopy machine, disseminating them is a huge obstacle. Before emails, things had to be sent by letter. Printed. That's not efficient at all.

Evolution

The solution, of course, is to publish things in journals, which are then distributed to a certain audience. But think of a newspaper. It reaches more people because people knows where to buy it, are interested in it and effectively go there. Scientific journals were then printed in the universities. However, as you may think, it was still difficult to transmit things far away in space. So, at some point, larger companies took over and were able to guarantee an even larger distribution. They also contributed to a nice formatting of the papers as well, I must say.

That sounds nice, but there are some catches. First of all, these ARE NOT non-profit companies. On the contrary. And as any normal company, they are interested in minimize costs and maximize gains. And they did a pretty good job exploiting the willingness of scientists to be known and their moral convictions. How?

1. Willingness to be known: whatever the reason, scientists like to be recognised. In order for this to happen, you have to make your work known. If people are only reading papers in a journal, well, you might choose not to, but no one will read you. So, because scientists NEED to publish in journals, they started to accept any kind of agreement with them. This culminated in the absurd copyright agreements that still exist today. In other words, these agreements allow the publisher to sell the scientist's paper and forbid the scientist of doing the same. :) And there's more, the journal doesn't pay anything for this copyright. Actually, most scientists are even happy that they don't have to pay for the publication!

2. Moral Convictions: but to keep some standards of quality, you cannot publish anything. You can hire editors, but editors are not specialists in everything. The journals needed specialists to evaluate and correct the papers, but they didn't want to pay much. Actually, they discovered a way of not paying anything at all! They send papers to the specialists and ask them to evaluate the papers. There are, of course, scientists that review paper for evil reasons, like stealing ideas, but they are minority. Usually, we feel compelled to review papers to help colleagues to publish. And also to guarantee that science is being done properly. So, we do that because we are moral. For free.

Then, things ended up this way. We, scientists, give our papers and rights to the publisher. We work for them reviewing for free. They sell everything.

But, unfortunately for those who found an exploitable niche, the world changes all the time. Computers and the internet practically nullified the advantages of publishing in scientific journals. How?

1. Formatting: today, most scientists use LATEX to write papers. You must know that all formatting work done by the publishers today can be summarized in producing a LATEX template and a guide for the authors to do the formatting by themselves! (I have to admit, those guys are damn smart!) LATEX is freely available on the web. If you think LATEX is too complicated, you can always use Word, which unfortunately is paid, or the freely available Open Office. So, formatting today is so easy that this advantage doesn't exist.

2. Distribution: another one that bit the dust. The fact that putting in the webpage and sending by email completely compensated all advantages in distribution publishers can offer is so obvious that here lies the thing against they fight most. Anyone, in virtually any country in the world, can INSTANTLY have access to a paper we upload to our page or to a repository like the free arXiv.

What about quality? Well, maybe this should be the area of focusing of these guys, but they just want a free ride. They should pay reviewers and, if they think they would not get enough profit if they do, than too bad for them. If I want someone to work for me I have to pay, unless I want a slave, be it a willing one or not.

They store the papers and they need to pay for the server and maintenance. They do. True. But think about it. They are just storing the work of others, selling access to it and charging for that. Are you allowed to do that with, let's say, artwork you find in the internet? Of course not, because of the copyright. That's why they need the authors to give it to them. But that's a very easy job and everyone who stores things in mass on the internet has to pay something. Too bad for them again. 

But if they do not offer any advantage today, why do they still exist? Ah... let's see.

Money

Everyone needs to survive. Everyone needs money. Scientists are no different. We really work very hard. As hard as any other hard-worker. But we usually earn less in average. Yes, that's the truth. If you compare our work with physicians or lawyers with the same level of intellectual training... well, it's enough to say that they laugh on us.

But we are proud and we do it for love. But we need jobs. However, contrary to arts or sports, nobody is willing to sponsor us. If we go to the streets and try to sell our papers as artists do with their works, we will starve to death. Some of us can find places in the industry, but most scientists cannot. Those depend on universities.

Universities live on students and funding from agencies. Students are not related to research, they are related to teaching and we can talk about that another time. Agencies, governmental or not, are the ones who allow research to be made. But to get grants, the agencies today use "objective" criteria to select who is gonna get them. One of these is number of publications in peer reviewed journals and in which journal they are published. There you go!

That means that in order to get money for leaving, we scientists NEED to publish in those journals. So, we have to accept their terms, otherwise we don't publish and we don't get jobs. I've seen people saying that you can negotiate the copyright agreements, for instance, like in this article. But the truth is that, if you're not known, is in the beginning of your career or is not in Oxbridge, chances are that you're doomed. In those cases, you do need to publish or your career simply ends. THAT is the main, and maybe only, reason why it's difficult to get rid of the middle man (publishers) today. We gave them a lot of power, it's not easy to take it back...

The Moral, The Ideal, The Right

Is it moral to do what the publishers do? Well, it's business, but you can keep at leas some moral... I think it would be okay for them to store, publish and even charge for scientific papers IN THEIR WEBSITE as long as:

1. Scientists keep TOTAL rights over their papers. The right to disseminate them FREELY if they want to do so. They right even to SELL it if they want to, although nobody will buy it...
2. They PAY reviewers.
3. They accept that, it's business, so if the model is not profitable enough for them, get over it and open another company.

I said IT WOULD, if scientists were not forced to do that, which you've seen is another story.

What about freedom of knowledge? Should scientists be forced to release their papers to public domain? First of all, remember that public domain means that anyone can sell derived work based on that. I'm not sure it's fair. On the other hand, creative commons seems good enough for most purposes. In both cases, I do think that people should be able to read and download for free any government-funded research, but the scientists should be allowed to earn money from that work if he wants to. We need to eat, people.

In all cases, even when the paper has been privately funded, the full copyright has to remain with the scientist. As it has been said many times, no scientist has ever became rich by selling papers, so none of us will charge for people to read ours. It simply doesn't happen!

This means that we couldn't care less if Aaron Swartz was going to spread our papers for free in the internet. I certainly don't about mine! First of all, we never earn anything with those papers and he was not hurting us economically. Only the publishers that forced us to give up the rights. I'm really don't empathize with their melodramatic stories about storing and distributing for the sake of spreading knowledge. They earn much more than me. Secondly, he was doing us the job that should be done by the publisher: dissemination.

Can we eliminate the need for publishers? Can we break the vicious circle that we ourselves created when we had no choice, or when that was a better choice? I think we can. I have some ideas, but I need to work better on them and I will write about it later. What would be yours?

Monday, 14 January 2013

Aaron Swartz (1986-2013)

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PDF Tribute: My papers are here.
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Aaron Swartz committed suicide. He is one of those persons who falls in the same category of people like Julian Assange, people who are most hated by companies and governments in general, because they expose their actual behavior and fight against laws that are nonsensical and stupid. Unfortunately, the time when people like them will be more valued by society than Mark Zuckenberg, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates is far, far away. I wonder if most people can even see what's the difference between them. Today, I will not give any clue. Instead, I will write about the desperate times we are living in.

We do live in desperate times. Well, WE are always living desperate times. But from time to time, desperation hits those who look at us as their assets. Aaron Swartz was being  judged by hacking the site of JSTOR, a scientific publisher like Elsevier (do you remember this one? That from the boycott...), and distributing the content (scientific articles) for free. Although MIT, which administrates JSTOR, decided to drop the charges, the government of the USA decided that they should continue with them, which meant that Aaron was facing the possibility of being forced to spend 35 years (3 5 Y E AR S ! ! !) in jail for the horrible, despicable, inhumane crime of spreading knowledge for free. A crime that no government in the world can leave unpunished.

Let us put things in context a bit. Aaron would spend 35 years together with murderers, rapists and whoever else committed that kind of crime for committing the, once gain, horrible, despicable, inhumane, grotesque, crime of spreading scientific papers in the internet for free. How many years do you get for murder? And for rape? Because, of course, they are basically the same kind of crime as distributing knowledge for free. As Carmen Ortiz, the Attorney for Massachusetts, said “Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars.” Is there anyone in the 21st century that really believes that every theft, from everyone, in every circumstance is the same? I surely don't.

Yes, it's true that if you do something against the law you should be punished. But remember that taking this literally would mean that it was okay to mistreat black people in South Africa under the Apartheid law. Some laws need to be changed. And some punishments need to be put into context! Come on, we are not naive. We know that many laws are concerned with protecting the interests of those who detain some power, simply because governments rely on them (or are them many times) to remain ruling. All laws, I repeat, ALL LAWS should be continuously discussed and, eventually, changed. Ask all minorities.

Aaron's death brings back many other issues. For instance, the role of scientific publishers today. I wrote many times in this blog explaining that they not only used to force the author to pass to them the copyright of the paper, but also pay nothing for peer reviewing. Today, some "nice" journals just forces you to release the copyright under a creative commons attribution. If they cannot have it, you can't too. :)

The point is that, in the past, these publishers could force those things because the scientists had no other way of mass dissemination of papers. We were forced to accept their terms if we wanted our work to be seen by a larger community. Other ways of dissemination were too limited. But today, we have the internet. We have email. They really don't add any value to our papers that we cannot do ourselves, to be very honest and direct. Because we noticed that, they have to fight to keep their niche in the market. So they use the law, which likes to protect their likes, and lobbies. Yes, lobbies. Everyone in the scientific community knows that to be awarded a grant, whoever is giving you the money will look in what scientific journals you published your papers. And they know that, today, that is the only reason why we still publish on them. It's not because they add anything in terms of science and knowledge, it's because we are chained to this money-feedback-loop.

This, to a lesser extent, also happens in cinema and music. Of course, you must take into consideration the differences in the areas. Still, whenever I rent a DVD I am forced to watch an advertisement saying that if I copy a DVD I'm not better than a thief. I'm not sure what is the penalty for that, but I wouldn't be surprised if that is also harsher than for murder and rape. Now, if you consider that Hollywood movies have profits (PROFITS!) of the order of MILLIONS OF DOLLARS, and in some cases of the order of HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS, how do they really want to convince people that if you copy a DVD you're damaging their industry. Of course, you shouldn't do it because it's against the law, but we are looking here at some disproportionate claim. One thing is to say "Don't do it, it's against the law.". I can accept that, because it's the truth, but saying to you that "Don't do it, because you would be an evil people that is destroying the cinema industry" while some movies have a profit of $100 000 000 dollars is outrageous! Again, they misuse the motto stealing is stealing.

I really hope that people don't forget Aaron Swartz or the still-alive-but-we-don't-know-for-how-long-yet Julian Assange. In fact, it's important not to forget the reason why they are persecuted rather than simply their faces or names. As humans, they probably have many flaws which we don't even know (I wouldn't threaten my reputation by any of them, by the way), but the deeds by which their are (or were) being hunted were noble (yes, tacky, but true!). It's also important to know that they are not the only ones that suffered or are suffering for fighting for free knowledge and truth. There are others and, trust me, you will see many more stories in the coming years. I assure you.

By the way, before I finish, I've been reading in many places that everyone is blaming the prosecutor for Aaron's death and calling that person a bully. While that may be true, something I'm not gonna discuss, a deeper truth is that this person is just being a scapegoat for the position and behavior of the government and the lobbies that pressed for it. Don't let them distract you. Please.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Democracy and Frustration

No, this is not a post on statistical physics of disordered systems. It's a plain and simple article about how people get frustrated because the idea they have about democracy does not agree with reality.

What is the idea most people associate with democracy? The school sentence that says that "democracy is the government of the people, by the people and for the people" of course is just marketing. The term "democracy" has origins in Greece (around the 5th century) and is basically the idea that, instead of having just one person deciding things, we can put them to vote. Although as time passes we would like this voting to extend to everyone, that was not the original idea. The vote would be extended to some classes of people.

Is democracy the best system of government possible? No. Definitely no. It's the best we could find, but the system where the majority decides what the minority also has to do can be very unfair, although the tyranny becomes spread to a large portion of the population instead of being from only one individual. It's a logical fallacy, and there are plenty of experimental evidence, that the majority is always right. Even that the majority should have the right to decide about what is best for the community. That's why democracy HAS to be regulated somehow. The ideal way would be a rational one, but people are hardly rational.

But that's not exactly the issue I want to write about, even because that is something that is reasonably well-known. The false expectation I'm talking about is another one, the idea that, in a democracy, the government will try to help the people. Don't get me wrong. That is truly what they should do. Actually, the rulers should be employees like any other. The truth, however, is that they are not.

Let's be honest. Whoever gets power wants to keep it, and that is independent of the government style. That happens as much in South America as in Europe (I know, I lived in both). But it's not enough to stay there, you also want to keep the privileges which make being there worthwhile, which we know are many. One of them is the privilege to take decisions that will benefit yourself.

The fact is that, for those who rule, the rest of the people are seen as an asset. An asset to generate resources and an asset to be used in case of war. This asset has to be managed to fit their objectives, which in general are not the same as the rest of the people simply because the ruler's position of power makes his/her objectives automatically different. A ruler doesn't need to worry about being mugged, or about not having money to eat, or many other things that the citizens in general do.

Now, how do you manage to make people do what you want? The modern way can be summarised by the word "marketing". Marketing is heavily based on playing with people's psychology. And it's rather effective too. The only problem is that, if people start to think too much, they might as well understand what is happening and refuse to follow "the plan". For instance, why would you invade a country that is not invading yours if you're happy at peace in your home? How could people be convinced that decreasing their pensions while not touching the salary of the politicians is the best option when the budget needs a cut?

The answer, of course, is by making people not think. That's what governments do all the time. It's a give and take game, of course. They cannot be too greedy, because today there is a whole moral code among democratic nations. There is the press. It's part of the marketing. However, things like cutting funding for "not practical" research can be done, even with the support of the majority, which never notices that they are being robbed from the right to learn how to think.

So, don't be ever fooled. Even in the most democratic government, the objective of the rulers is to stay there and gather more and more power. They do that bit by bit. It's their nature. The role of the citizen is NOT to trust that the government will do thing right. The role of the citizen is to keep an eye, to complain, to expose whatever is unreasonable and to fight for their rights. If you expect the government to be nice to you, you're just being the kind of naive person they like most and, invariably, will be disappointed.