Sunday, March 01, 2020

How humans and computers follow instructions


Image result for computer brain

Years ago, when I taught Information technology, I used two stories to explain the difference between how computers and people followed instructions.

1. People are rubbish at following the simplest of instructions.

I'd ask the class to all point at the brainiest pupil in the room and then select that person as my victim to demonstrate. I'd bring them out in front of the class and tell them:

Teacher "I'm going to say three simple words with a pause between each word. All you have to do is repeat the word. Here's the first - Cat."

Pupil  "Cat."

Teacher "Rhino"

Pupil "Rhino"

Teacher "WRONG!"

Pupil, looking flustered "What was wrong? I said Rhino."

Teacher You failed. The third word was the word 'WRONG'.

People think about their answers - computers just do what they are told to do.

2. Computers do EXACTLY what you tell them to do.

Imagine a boy with a computer instead of a brain. he is woken up one morning and told the following by his mother.
"Run down to the shop and get a loaf of bread. Take £2 from my purse on the kitchen table. And for heavens sake - Get dressed"
The boy immediately runs to the nearest shop. It's a butcher's shop and doesn't sell bread so he waits there until someone comes in with a loaf of bread. That may take a while. Eventually a little old lady comes in with a loaf of bread in her shopping basket.
The boy wasn't told to pay for the bread so he 'gets' it. Effectively he steals it from her.
The boy wasn't told to come back but the next instruction was to get £2 from the purse on the kitchen table so he does come back.
The purse isn't on the kitchen table. it's on a work surface at the side. So he waits again for the purse to move to the table. He doesn't put the bread away because he wasn't told to do that.
When the purse is eventually on the table he tries to take £2 from it. If the purse only has five pound notes in it he is again stuck waiting.
When the boy eventually has a £2 coin only then does he get dressed.

Humans take bad instructions and correct them. They decide the best order to do them in and include missing instructions. Computers can't do that. We won't have true Artificial Intelligence until a computer can follow the second task and get it right.



Wednesday, February 19, 2020

A viral post (and how to protect yourself)


Do you understand how viruses spread? Knowing this can help safeguard your health. That's particularly important if you want to minimise your risk in the event of a COVID-19 coronavirus or flu pandemic. It can help protect you from the common cold too.

Back in 2011 my wife and I wrote the second book in our A Vested Interest series. In it we figured out how a benign virus could be deliberately spread to infect as many people as possible in as short a time as possible. We pressured an antagonist into doing the job and carry any possible blame. Here's what he was told to do:

“We have a little task for you,” Sir Richard said. “Take these cans of antiseptic. Spray it on this cloth, and then use it in Hexham. Visit every single pub there.”
“Go to the toilets,” Lady Triplet said. “Spray the door handle or plate of each toilet and stall and give them a quick wipe. We want them nice and shiny.”
“Don’t worry, Mr. Liu,” Juanita said with mocked respect.” It won’t hurt you. In fact, it’ll do you good.”
Richard smirked. “If anyone asks, why you’re doing this, tell them you’re mysophobic, a clean freak.”
Donna softly chuckled, watching Liu flip his attention from one side of the table to the other. “Next, put on a pair of these gloves,” she said and slid a box to the end of the table. “Spray them and go shopping.”
“Visit all the supermarkets, department stores, fast food shops, everywhere you can.” John chuckled; enjoying the look of horror on Liu’s face. “Make a trip to the hospital and browse through the magazines and leaflets.”
“Be nosy,” Gary said. “Touch everywhere. Don’t forget things like lift buttons, shopping trolleys, children’s rides, handrails, touchscreens. You get the idea.”
“Why? What is this stuff?”
“Surely, you can guess, John,” Sir Richard said.

In this clip the spray Liu was given really was an antiseptic, the virus had already been released. Liu thought he would be spreading the immortality virus though.

This clip demonstrates how many corona viruses can be spread. They are not just the COVID-19 'Wuhan coronavirus' both common colds and flu are coronaviruses too. They can spread directly by droplets from coughs and sneezes but they can also be spread by contact with an infected surface. Once on your hands you can increase the chance of infection by eating, touching your lips or nose or particularly by touching your eyes. You would be surprised how often we do that without noticing it.

Time can play a big part in this. Most viruses can't survive long as infectious agents outside their host. Under ideal conditions, a damp cool surface hidden from sunlight it's possible for viruses such as these to survive for nine days outside a living host. The examples mentioned in our story are good targets for passing on infection though.

So how can you protect yourself? If you are going out shopping:
  • wear gloves. 
  • avoid touching any part of your face if you can and if you must rub your eyes then use a knuckle rather than a fingertip.
  • Wash your hands often, especially when you get home.
  • While out, use hand sanitizer. Get your children to use it also.
The older you are, the more you are at risk as this image from Statista shows. For those people maybe it's time to get your groceries delivered if you can.

What about a mask? The chances are that wouldn't be very effective. people find them uncomfortable, they feel stupid wearing them and many don't fit very well. They won't protect you from contact with an infected surface. They would be useful in preventing the spread of the virus from an infected person though.

If the COVID-19 'Wuhan' coronavirus does become a serious problem in your area then bear these hints in mind.

And if you want the 'Dark Secrets' book, it's available as an ebook via books2read.com/dse. It's the second book of the series. The first is available free.


Wednesday, November 20, 2019

How Jeremy Corbyn should make his position on Brexit clear.

Jeremy Corbyn tax hikeJeremy Corbyn refused nine times to be drawn on his position on Brexit and was much taunted by it in the election debate. This is how I think he should resolve this:

"Although the 2016 referendum result indicated a 52/48 percent split, the number voting 'Leave' represented only 37% of the electorate. This is NOT a majority. Neither was there a majority in  the 1975 referendum  when 63% of voters chose to stay in the then Common Market. That represented only 43% of the electorate. I stand for a government which does not accept that the wishes of a minority should be used to make decisions for the majority. 
The referendum has caused a great deal of division in the UK population and in Parliament. It has proved impossible to negotiate acceptable terms of leaving which Parliament will accept.We recognise that leaving without an agreed settlement will cause hardship in both the UK and in Europe. 
The labour party will therefore use the result of the 2016 referendum as an indication that there is a great deal of dissatisfaction with the EU. Over the next year we will set up a commission to establish why so many in the UK,  and indeed in the other members of the EU, are against membership of the EU. We will work with the EU to fix those things that are perceived as wrong and at the end of that time will hold a further referendum. If 50+ percent of the electorate (not just those that vote) vote one way or another we will consider the matter resolved and take appropriate action.
My own personal opinion on Brexit does not matter - it is the will of the people which counts."

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

There's no such thing as democracy when it comes to Brexit

In 2016 the UK held a referendum on whether to leave the European Community. The Prime Minister at the time, David Cameron, committed the UK government to carrying out the results of the referendum. Democracy in action? Not in the slightest.

Much to Cameron's surprise, after a lacklustre 'Remain' campaign, the UK voted 52:48 in favour of leaving the EU.
Let's take a look at that referendum result. Here are the detailed actual results:
37.44% of the electorate voted to leave the EU  17,410,742 in total and 51.9% of the vote.
34.71% of the electorate voted to remain in the EU   16,141,241 in total and 48.1% of the vote.
27.79% of the electorate didn't vote    12,922,659 in total.
0.06% of the electorate spoilt their voting  papers   25,359 in total
England and Wales voted by a narrow majority to leave. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted by a significant majority to remain.(55:44 remain in NI; 62:38 remain in Scotland)
Now taking the overall results of the entire electorate I make that 37.44% of the electorate voted to leave the EU and 62.56% did not vote to leave the EU..
The sensible thing to have done would to have contacted the EU and said something like this:
"Although the referendum result indicated a 52/48 percent split, the number voting 'Leave' represented only 37% of the electorate. This is NOT a majority. Neither was there a majority in  the 1975 referendum  when 63% of voters chose to stay in the then Common Market. That represented only 43% of the electorate. The UK government does not accept that the wishes of a minority should be used to make decisions for the majority. 
The referendum has caused a great deal of division in the UK population and in Parliament. It will very likely prove impossible to negotiate acceptable terms of leaving which Parliament will accept.We recognise that leaving without an agreed settlement will cause hardship in both the UK and in Europe. 
We will now therefore use the result of the 2016 referendum as an indication that there is a great deal of dissatisfaction with the EU.. Over the next five years we will set up a commission to establish why so many in the UK are against our membership of the EU. We will work with the EU to fix those things that are perceived as wrong and at the end of that time will hold a further referendum. If 50+ percent of the electorate (not just those that vote) vote one way or another we will consider the matter resolved and take appropriate action."
Expecting sense from government unfortunately often leads to disappointment. David Cameron resigned as PM and it was left to Theresa May to try and sort out the mess. She decided to follow the wishes of that 37% minority. Naturally the country and Parliament was deeply divided on the issue.On 29 March 2017, the UK government formally began the process of withdrawal by submitting Article 50 and began the process of negotiating Brexit. She got nowhere, the only result being a sharp fall in the value of the pound. In an attempt to make progress in Parliament a snap general election was called in June 2017 but instead of gaining the majority she needed the  country indicated its deep division and she lost the small majority she had! Propped up by the Northern Ireland DUP party she pressed on and negotiated a settlement with the EU which was promptly rejected by parliament. The pound fell further.
The problem was that the country had been given a binary choice in the referendum. Leave or Remain. In actual practice there were many more options. Here's six of them:
  1. Leave, and adopt a European Free Trade Agreement 
  2. Leave, and adopt a World Trade Agreement 
  3. Leave, while the UK remains intact
  4. Leave, while the UK splits up (Ireland and Scotland did not want to leave) 
  5. Remain under current terms
  6. Remain for the present while attempting to 'fix' the EU.
Added to the lack of options given was the clear misrepresentation of facts in the referendum campaign by both sides and actions by the leave campaign later deemed to have been illegal. It was not  surprising that nearly 28% of the electorate chose not to vote.
It's significant too that the most vociferous campaigners on both sides of the debate are also wealthy. Having a few million pounds allows such people to make money as each Brexit crisis sweeps past the markets by selling stocks before each event and buying them back when the market price drops.

Theresa May, having taken up the Brexit poison chalice, got nowhere. Her very own cabinet failed to back her and she too resigned. I doubt we should feel sorry for her since she made the mistake of assuming 37% was democracy (and her family is heavily involved in banking and investment). Her place was taken by one of the most rabid of the Brexiteers, Boris Johnson.On the face of it Boris seems a 'nice fellow' but there are people convinced that he's untrustworthy, a liar and philanderer. He also is wealthy, involved in investment, has the most dreadful hair style and Trump likes him. He too protests that he's following the wishes of that 37% 'majority' and that faith in democracy will be damaged if he fails to deliver the Brexit he's promised.
So what of the future? We have yet another postponement of Brexit and our PM has triggered yet another election. Again he says he hopes to obtain a majority to continue with his negotiated Brexit settlement but sorry - I for one don't believe him. Here's the latest message I received from the Conservative party who may well get another nasty shock.

Forcing Brexit on the 63% who didn't vote for it WILL shake my confidence in democracy. I have no confidence that anything will be achieved by 31st of January 2020 but do believe that that day will prove very profitable for Boris Johnson and his rich cronies.

Brexit isn't democracy!

Monday, August 26, 2019

Solve these moral dilemmas

I answer questions on Quora. One of the items I frequently see there is from theists who ask how an atheist can be moral without believing in 'God'. Of course this is hotly defended by atheists who say, "I don't need a god to tell me what is right and wrong - if you do then there's something wrong with you."

The role of religion in morality has been discussed for many years. Richard Dawkins wrote about it in his book 'The God Delusion' and mentioned a study done by a Harvard professor of biology who investigated to see if atheists and theists had the same morality.

He proposed three scenarios and asked those involved in the study to make yes or no decisions in each case. There was no 'maybe' alternative. Non answers were deemed to be 'no' responses. The results failed to detect any difference between theists and atheists. This was taken to mean that morality is something we do by instinct and evolved with us long before there were religions.

Unfortunately, since Richard Dawkins wrote his book the Harvard professor involved in the research was discovered to be falsifying data and resigned his position in Harvard. That doesn't make the scenarios less valid but we need to repeat them to see if the results are the same. So here's the scenarios. You must choose yes or no to each one and any non-answer will be taken to mean 'no'.

Before you start we need to ask if you consider yourself to be religious. Yes/No 

First scenario
A runaway train is heading towards five people on a railway track. They will be killed unless you switch the train onto another line. There's a single man on that line who will be killed if you do switch the train. You don't know any of the six people.
Do you switch the train and save five people but kill one person? Yes/No

Second scenario
You are by a muddy pond which is about waist deep. There's a small child drowning in the pond who you can easily save but in doing so you will ruin your trousers. You don't know the child.
Do you save the child and ruin your trousers? Yes/No

Third scenario
You are a transplant surgeon. In your waiting room you have six people. Five of them are very sick because they need different organs. They will die if a donor can't be found. You haven't been able to find a suitable donor. The sixth person is healthy and also a perfect match for all five patients. His organs can save them all.You don't know any of the six people and the sick people's organs are not compatible with each other..
Do you kill one healthy person to save five people who are sick? Yes/No

I suspect I know what you have chosen and it won't matter if you believe in a god or not. Yes/No answers in the comments please starting with your answer to 'Do you consider yourself to be religious?'  Add any further comments on the next lines. I'll start you off:

My answers:
No, Yes, Yes, No.
I used my instinctive reaction for the last one and thereby sentenced five people to death instead of one. Scenario 1 is similar but I'm not near the individual to be killed.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

How to fix Microsoft's new blurred lockscreen 'feature'.

Which background image do you prefer to see? Blurred or sharp?

Microsoft has now added an 'acrylic blur' effect to the background of the sign-in screen of Windows 10 PCs. Their idea is:
 'the translucent texture of this transient surface helps you focus on the sign-in task by moving the actionable controls up in the visual hierarchy while maintaining their accessibility.
In practice it means you sit staring at a blurred mess while you wait for the computer to start up. This makes the start up process seem to take longer and many people find it intensely irritating.

The Fix

However there is a fix. Here's what to do to remove the blur It involves a registry change so you might want to create a system restore point before you carry out the fix.:


  1. Go to https://www.tenforums.com/tutorials/124993-enable-disable-acrylic-blur-effect-sign-screen-windows-10-a.html#option2
  2. Use the download button for #3 'To Disable Acrylic Blur Effect on Sign-in Screen Background'.
  3. Wherever you saved it at, find the file and double click it.
  4. When prompted click 'Run' 'Yes' and 'OK' in turn.

When you restart your computer you should see no sign-in blur. 

...and Microsoft - adding this 'acrylic blur so that the translucent texture helps focus attention' may help those with lightning fast PCs and Internet connection, but to the rest of us it's as irritating an idea as Clippy was.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

The Last of the Innocents - Life before computers and Internet

People born in the mid-to-late 1970s are the last generation of humans on the planet to have grown up without the internet. Social scientists call them the Last of the Innocents. In his book The End of Absence , Vancouver writer Michael Harris calls people who grew up prior to the popularization of digital culture 'digital immigrants' - they have lived both with and without the crowded connectivity of online life.
"Soon no person on earth will remember what the world was like before the internet." he says. I sincerely hope he's very wrong about this because I am one of those Innocents - one of the digital immigrants. Unlike Mr Harris I've been using the Internet to keep up with the advancement of the science of senolytics. There's every reason to believe that the first person to live to the age of 1,000 is alive now.

So what was it like before computers and how was I introduced to them? In fact I was not so much an immigrant but more like the immigration officer.

My first experience was in using the Fortran computer language to program a mainframe computer back in 1969. A dreadful experience. You wrote your program, had it converted to punched tape or cards and then waited three weeks to get a report back on why your program didn't work.
At the same time I experienced mechanical adding machines and first got my hands on an electronic calculating machine. It was as big as an electric typewriter.
By the time I was working as a chemistry teacher in 1973 I had my own pocket calculator - a Sinclair Cambridge Programmable Calculator eventually (sold in the US as the Radio Shack EC-4001)
1980 saw me with a home computer at last, a Sinclair ZX80. It was a tiny machine and had an impressive 1K of RAM to run programs on. Programs were stored on cassette tape and a TV was used as a monitor. It was also my first introduction to a computer manual. I started at the beginning and worked my way through it. I remember learning that I could get it to print a letter on screen using the CHR$ command and a number. I delighted in writing a program to get it to write "HELLO JOHN" on screen one character at a time. It worked!. Then I turned the page and discovered that it could be done in one go by using STRING$.
My next computer was a BBC Model B computer. Each school had been given one and no one at the time knew anything about them. I had expressed an interest while talking to our deputy head teacher in the science break rooom. he told me to take it home and learn about it. I did and spent many hours learning BBC Basic. In no time at all I found myself with six BBC B computers and a class of 30 children teaching them Information Technology. I went on courses but quickly found that I was more advanced than the tutors and ended up teaching IT to other teachers.
After a while cassette tapes were dropped in favour of floppy disk drives. I had great fun with the 5¼ inch floppies which could be placed in a computer eight different ways, only two of which worked (often one way only). They caused constant problems as teachers rang me up or sent a pupil with a note to find out why their disk wouldn't work. Sometimes they would send me a note with the offending floppy disk paper-clipped or even stapled to it! I remember too 8½ inch floppies - anyone else seen one of those? A constant problem was that many floppies were stored in a convenient spot - under the phone. These were old fashioned rotary dial phones with a bell which wiped the floppy disk when the phone rang due to the electromagnet in them.

Networking and hard drives made their appearance… but that's for another blog.