Robo-flight

May 15, 2013

I’m somewhat mystified by this article in the New Scientist. A British Aerospace Jetstream aircraft flew from Lancashire to Inverness in Scotland controlled for part of its journey from the ground.

So what? None of the technology described is new, at least not in concept; and modern commercial airliners are flown by the autopilot most of the time anyway. If you are going to have a pilot, what is the advantage of having him on the ground instead of in the plane? In the case of military drones there is the obvious advantage of the pilot not being killed when the plane comes under enemy fire, and the drone can be designed to be smaller than would be required to carry a human pilot; but commercial airliners are altogether a different kettle of fish.
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Even Odds

January 30, 2013

The laws of probability, so true in general, so fallacious in particular.
–Edward Gibbon

A puzzle has recently been brought to my attention. It goes like this: “I have two children. One of them is a boy born on a Tuesday. What is the probability that I have two boys?” This puzzle was posed to an audience at the Gathering for Gardner meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, by Gary Foshee. He went on to say, “The first thing you think is ‘What has Tuesday got to do with it?’ Well, it has everything to do with it.”

I disagree. The day the boy was born is utterly irrelevant. Perhaps it would be best to look at the “accepted” solution from New Scientist before I tell you why it’s hogwash. Its main point is:

The main bone of contention was how to properly interpret the question. The way Foshee meant it is, of all the families with one boy and exactly one other child, what proportion of those families have two boys?
To answer the question you need to first look at all the equally likely combinations of two children it is possible to have: BG, GB, BB or GG. The question states that one child is a boy. So we can eliminate the GG, leaving us with just three options: BG, GB and BB. One out of these three scenarios is BB, so the probability of the two boys is 1/3.

Rodriguez Robbed

January 17, 2013

Crooked children, yellow chalk
writing on the concrete walk
Their King died
Drinking from a Judas cup
looking down but seeing up
Sweet red wine
‘Cos Papa don’t allow no new ideas here
And now you hear the music
but the words don’t sound too clear

–Sixto Rodríguez, Inner City Blues

I owned four vinyl copies of Cold Fact, Rodríguez’s first album, replacing each one as it became worn out from almost constant play. The CD version now has pride of place in my collection.

We watched the documentary about Rodríguez last night, Searching for Sugar Man. The film explored the possible reasons why Rodríguez was so popular in South Africa, but bombed in his own country—the U.S.A.—and almost everywhere else. In South Africa he was more popular than Elvis Presley (who he?) and the Doors, but in the U.S.A. no one had heard of him. Perhaps, as the film suggests, his subversive lyrics found resonance amongst a repressed population in a police state (this doesn’t explain why he was also successful in Australia); or perhaps his music just ‘went viral’ here—at first it was only available on bootleg casettes before being picked up and marketed by A&M records.

A point only tangentially covered in the film was the issue of royalties. Mr Rodríguez was not aware that his album had gone platinum in South Africa and Australia. He was working in Detroit as a casual labourer on construction sites when he was ‘discovered’ in 1997 by South African journalist Craig Bartholomew Strydom and fan Steven “Sugar” Segerman. It had been thought that he had committed suicide years before.

The question is: who trousered his money? Why did he not receive a penny of the royalties that were due to him? He has been described by film critic Roger Ebert as a “secular saint”, a man who doesn’t seem to care about money at all, but that does not absolve the record company executives who cynically robbed him. Even though he won’t initiate it himself, I hope some law enforcement agency takes the trouble to investigate this crime, and make an example of the perpetrators.

The priest is preaching from a shallow grave
He counts his money, then he paints you saved
Talking to the young folks
Young folks share the same jokes
But they meet in older places
Nor your recipes for my happiness
Smoke in bed
I never could digest
Those illusions you claim to have going

–Sixto Rodríguez, Rich Folks Hoax

Update: Record sales have taken off following the Oscar win. It seems Mr Rodriguez is going to pursue his royalties.

God Bother

December 12, 2012

Alber Saber is due to be sentenced today in Egypt for the crime of ‘insulting Islam.’ He is alleged to have administered the Egyptian Atheists page on Facebook. It will be interesting to see how it all turns out, but in the meantime there are some questions to be asked of a jurisdiction that makes thoughts the subject of criminal proceedings.

Mr Saber was brought up in a Christian household, but at some stage decided that he did not share the Christian beliefs of his parents, or indeed any belief in any supernatural gods. Mobs of believers descended on his home and demanded that he be arrested and punished for daring to say that he disbelieved in the things that they believed in, which is what happened. The obvious question this raises is why believers think that their gods are so fragile they need this kind of protection.
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Death Penalty

November 29, 2012

I first saw America as she should first be seen by a foreigner: from the deck of a ship approaching New York harbour. We had passed the Nantucket Lightship in the night watches, and now at dawn could see the island of Manhattan, dominated by the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. We picked up the harbour pilot and steamed slowly in up the East River, past Governors Island and nudged into our berth at Brooklyn Pier 6.

This was in the early 80’s, and New York was a grubby, rowdy, bustling, crowded place of which I, as a young African, stood in awe. When I wasn’t on cargo watches I would ride the subways and buses, taking in the sights; sometimes I would stop off at one of the ubiquitous Irish pubs for a beer, and would chat to the locals, who—for some reason or another—would always ask whether or not I had been in Florida.

I spent the next year or two on the East coast liner trade: New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newport News (beware of submarines), Charleston, Savannah, Miami, Mobile, New Orleans (occasionally Baton Rouge), Houston. During this time I conceived a real affection for the American people, who were invariably friendly and courteous; and apart from a curious ignorance of the events—or even the geography—of the rest of the world, they seemed sophisticated enough to value their freedoms and to take pride in the achievements of their nation. They are mostly liberal, and think quite deeply about morality and the constituent parts necessary to the maintenance of a just society. Which brings me to the point of this post.
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Patents

September 13, 2012

We’ve all experienced it. You’ve just caught the best wave of the day; the crowd on the beach are going “oohhh” and “aaahhh” as they admire your moves; even your dog is panting with pride at his master’s brilliance. Then, dammit, you find your cellphone battery has gone flat, just as you were ordering a pizza for delivery to the beach.

Well, this frustration has become a thing of the past, thanks to the creative genius of Mr Anthony William Jones of Garden Grove, CA. With his solar surfboard (United States Patent 8262425) you can just plug your phone into the convenient plug point provided on your surfboard. When the phone’s charged, you could use the plug for your hair dryer or portable TV.

Nobody actually needs a solar surfboard, of course, in fact I’m willing to bet that the people who want one are a vanishingly small minority. I don’t expect these things to be mass-produced and offered for sale in surf stores anywhere. So why patent it? Mr Jones is unlikely to make any money from licensing his patent. So what are patents for?

In theory they are supposed to encourage innovation by giving the patent-holder a monopoly over his invention for a certain amount of time. But, as Yogi Berra said, “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” Patents only make sense if (a) the effort involved in researching and developing the invention is expensive and time-consuming, and (b) the invention is easy and cheap for competitors to copy. This applies neither to electric surfboards nor to most of the other patents that are approved by patent offices around the world.

The number of patents granted is staggering. In the U.S. the patent office has approved over 8 million patents. Some of these are, in my opinion, ridiculous. A patent is supposed to be novel, useful and not obvious. But patents are granted for things that existed long before the patent was applied for (buttons on a computer’s GUI interface, for example); for things that are useless (like solar surfboards); and for things that are obvious (a carrying handle on a heavy object). Companies enter into patent wars, suing and counter-suing each other for astonishing sums of money—see the recent litigation between Apple and Samsung—which cannot be good either for the companies involved, nor for the consumers of their products. Patent ‘trolls’ buy up patent rights and use them to extort money from manufacturers who cannot afford the breathtaking costs involved in defending themselves against the trolls, which again has the effect of driving up costs for the consumer. The net effect of all this is that innovation is stifled rather than encouraged.

What can be done about this? My suggestion is that patents should only be granted in cases where the applicant could suffer substantial losses if his invention were copied by competitors, and that patent offices should be far more rigorous in establishing whether or not the proposed invention is indeed novel, useful and not obvious. Moreover, ideas should not be patentable. This would prevent patents being granted for computer software, for example. Software code is copyrighted, so the code itself can be protected, but what that code does is an idea, not a thing, so it would not be patentable.