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.