Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Let's think about fake news

What is news?

News is an account of what has happened (eg. Christchurch has been struck by an earthquake), been done (eg. The result of a British referendum was "leave the European Union), or been said (eg. Trump said he will build a southern wall as president).

In contrast, analysis and commentary is not news. These are opinions held by various persons. More generally, these are speculations -- because only the principal actors (such as politicians) know the true motives behind their actions and words. (By the way, only persons can hold opinions; organisations cannot.)

What is fake? Fake is the opposite of true.

So: True news is an account of what has in fact happened, been done, or been said. And fake news is an account of what has not in fact happened, been done, or been said.

But this is not enough. It is also important to avoid selective truth and embellished truth. Selective truth is when one reports something true, but omits other relevant truths. Embellished truth is when one reports something true, and adds some falsehoods. True news is captured by the old court requirement of the witness: To tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

In this regard, there are two mainstream organisations that we need to watch out for: Advertisers and Public Relation agents. These people exist precisely to disseminate information just to serve the client's or organisation's agenda -- and the information may (but not always) be either selected or embellished. When these happen, we have fake news.

Fortunately, advertisements and public relation missives are usually flagged as such to their audience. This alerts the audience to be more discerning of the information provided.

The danger of fake news arises when no flag is provided. The audience is not warned.

Asking a third party to curate the alleged news is not a solution. It merely pushes the question back one step: Can the third party to be trusted to disseminate only true news? How can one be sure of this? Reputation is no real help -- because reputation is earned only by performance, which makes the matter rather circular.

The solution lies in teaching the audience to be more discerning and critical. Access news from different sources to seek consistency -- it is difficult for several sources to tell the same falsehoods, or make the same selections or embellishments. Ask if the given information conflicts with common sense (eg. causes occur before effects) and generally known facts (eg. the earth orbits the sun).

These strategies should take us a long way towards protecting ourselves from fake news.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Should schools teach philosophy?

On Sunday, 16 April 2017, I sent a letter to The Straits Times Forum page for hopeful publication. By Friday, 21 April 2017, the letter had still not been published. Here is the letter:
I refer to the recent discussion on teaching philosophy in schools (Philosophy focus can come in handy, April 2; Think carefully about philosophy in schools, April 13; Wrong to dismiss philosophy as ‘armchair reasoning’, April 15).
Everyone runs, sings and writes; but only some are runners, singers and writers. In the same way, everyone thinks – but training makes the thinking better. The only discipline that explicitly teaches the art and science of rational and rigorous thought is philosophy, specifically the branch called logic.
If we want our students (and adults) to develop the skill to think rationally and rigorously, one excellent way is to expose them to some logic. The default is that people learn to think by imitating everyone around them. They adopt the good and bad habits – with no inkling of the difference.
The first benefit of studying philosophy is learning to think rationally and rigorously.
Philosophy is unique in being characterised by dispute. Hardly any two philosophers completely agree in what they think to be true. Yet when one reads the classic philosophers, one finds their arguments utterly persuasive – though leading to utterly contradictory conclusions.
Several benefits arise from this experience. One becomes less dismissive of views unlike one’s accustomed or favoured view, more aware of subtleties and nuances in the issues discussed, and more aware that one could be wrong.
Many (perhaps most) controversial issues today are ethical issues. Should robots (when they gain rationality) be accorded rights? Should the autonomous car be programmed to crash into the lamp post or the jaywalkers? Should we allow people to openly carry guns?
Philosophy is the only discipline that explicitly discusses how to rationally and rigorously think about such questions – in the branch called ethics or moral philosophy. (The ethics modules in other disciplines tend to acquaint students with ethical decisions that have been made by either the law or the relevant regulatory body.)
There are thus many benefits in studying philosophy. The next question is: Is school time a good time to expose people to philosophy?
If students are not exposed to rational, rigorous and diverse thought about controversial topics, they will osmotically absorb the ideas they find around them – whatever the quality or truth. That cannot be a better alternative.
But here is a cautionary note.

Socrates, the father of western philosophy, was sentenced to death in 399 BC – for “corrupting the minds of the young”.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

"Illegal immigrants" is self-contradictory, hence problematic

The phrase "illegal immigrants" keeps occurring in news reports about American President Donald Trump's thoughts and policies regarding people who slip into, and stay in, the USA without going through the proper channels.

The phrase "illegal immigrant" is a self-contradiction which, by virtue of its self-contradiction, evokes conflicting reactions from various people. We attempt in this essay to clarify the situation.

The word "immigrant" refers to someone who gains domestic nationality and residence by going through the proper channels and procedures. This way of entering, staying and working in a country is legal and legitimate -- and any call to arbitrarily expel, deport or in any way remove such a person from the domestic country rightly should be opposed.

Notice that an immigrant is someone who enters and stays in a country via legal means. This is why the phrase "illegal immigrant" is a self-contradictory.

Someone who enters and stays in a country illegally is not an immigrant. Such a person is referred to by the word "trespasser" -- and any call to remove him or her rightly should be supported. To not support such a call amounts to nullifying the rule of (immigration) law.

One reason why there is such strong objection to the idea of removing these trespassers is the objectors focus on the word "immigrant" and do not notice the word "illegal". The word "immigrant" connotes "legal, legitimate, approved" -- and hence such persons rightly should not be removed.

On the other hand, people who notice the word "illegal" -- and rightly view those who slip over the border as trespassers (not immigrants) -- feel little or no objection to preventing their entry and their removal. This is entirely separate from these trespassers competing for jobs or committing crimes while in the US. It is simply a matter of their illegal status -- and respect for law.

The problem, and appropriate action, will become much clearer once the self-contradictory phrase "illegal immigrant" is replaced by the correct term: "trespasser".


Facts, actual facts, and alternative facts

As almost everyone knows, the phrase “alternative fact” was recently coined – and widely derided as being an attempt to legitimise a falsehood or lie. This essay attempts to unpack the controversy.

We begin by asking: What is a fact? This is quite easily answered. A fact is a state of affairs in the world. For example, the cat sat on the mat.

Since a fact is a state of affairs in the world, the word “actual” in the phrase “actual fact” is redundant. A state of affairs in the world is by definition actual.

A fact is different from a statement expressing that fact. If the state of affairs in the world is that the cat sat on the mat, then the statement “the cat sat on the mat” is true. But if the state of affairs in the world is not that the cat sat on the mat, then the statement “the cat sat on the mat” is not true, hence false.

The words “true” and “false” can be attached only to statements, not to facts. There is no such thing as a false fact, precisely because facts are states of affairs in the world. All facts are by definition trivially true, but the adjective “true” is meaningless – because it cannot be contrasted with the adjective “false”.

It follows from this that it is not possible to say that the phrase “alternative fact” means a falsehood or lie. This is because facts are not capable of being called “true” or “false” (only statements can be called those).

Nor is it possible to say that facts have alternatives (except perhaps in other possible worlds). This is because a fact is the state of affairs in the world. What is (or is not), is (or is not); there can be no other.

So what can the phrase “alternative fact” mean?

Let’s consider the word “alternative”. It is used to indicate the sense “either A or B”. Which then brings us to the question: What were A and B? Specifically, were A and B statements or facts?

In the context of the coining of the phrase “alternative fact”, A was the statement “the crowd did not stretch from the building to the memorial”, and B was the statement “the crowd was larger than what you claim”. The alternatives are statements, not facts.

So how did facts and lies get into the story?

When the statement A was uttered, it was declared to be a description of a fact (which by definition is trivially true). Hence, anything contradicting A must be false and a lie.

But that was precisely the dispute: whether or not the statement A described the fact. The opposing contention was that the statement A did not describe the fact; that the fact was described by statement B.

So here is what the phrase “alternative fact” means: Here is a statement (B) that is an alternative statement to the earlier statement (A). Further, statement B describes the fact, whereas statement A does not describe the fact.

And here is the moral of the story: Merely uttering a statement does not make that statement true.


Wednesday, 4 January 2017

How to survive in the gig economy

There has recently been some mention of the "gig economy" as the next evolution of the economy. The question then becomes: How does a gig worker handle the situation, given that s/he does not have an employer who is legally obliged to pay him/er a monthly salary?

The biggest problem being a gig worker is how to avoid being cheated of payment after doing the work?

I am a gig worker, and have been since 1994. I have been cheated before. As a result, I have given much thought to this problem -- and I have some observations to share.

Do not wait for anyone to form an organisation to fight for gig worker's rights. That is highly unlikely to happen, even though there are ironically organisations that have been formed to fight for migrant workers' rights. Even if someone does form such an organisation, all that means is the gig worker now has a new "boss" to deal with. This is not a solution. Here are some more practical ideas.

One: Undertake work only if there will be progress payments as the work proceeds. The work does not proceed if the progress payment is not made. This way, the risk of non-payment is reduced to only the last installment.

Two: Undertake only one project from any given client at any one time. This reduces the risk of non-payment to only one project. Do not succumb to the temptation to pile up the accruals; you are merely piling up the risk of non-payment.

Three: Insist on a delivery-on-cash (DOC) payment system. Deliver the completed work, or partial work, only upon payment of full or progress payment. Note the sequence: delivery on cash, not cash on delivery. Once you have delivered the work, you lose any leverage over payment. Yes, you can try the Small Claims Court, but are you willing to go to that trouble, or are you more likely to sigh and write off the payment? You know you have the integrity to deliver the work (after all, what else can you do with it?); you do not know that the client has the integrity to pay you.

Four: Do not do work again for a client who delays or omits payment to you for work done. Never be cheated by the same client twice.

Five: Beware if a client gives you increasingly large projects to do. Never interpret this as increasing trust. The client could just be building you up with small payments in order to eventually run off with a large project done but no payment made.

Six: Prefer to work for clients with large reputations to lose. This gives you some assurance of payment. At the same time, it also means they are more likely to get away with non-payment. What can you do against a large corporation? Who would take your word against theirs?

Seven: Harass the cheating client with weekly, then daily, telephone calls until you get paid. Do not target the CEO, you will be filtered out. Target the accounts clerk.

None of these methods will guarantee you payment. The client can easily ignore you and move on to the next gig sucker. These methods will work only if all or most gig workers adopt them -- which is highly unlikely to happen.

It's the prisoner of war situation: Dig the mass grave today for the other prisoners, while knowing full well that some day later it will be your turn to lie in another mass grave. Imagine if no prisoner agrees to dig a mass grave.

The best that a gig worker can do is reduce the risk for him/herself. There is no real solution to the problem. The result of the above methods will mean you will be paid for your work. They will not guarantee you more work (or merely accruals).


Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Brexit is not that complicated

There has been all too much confusion over Brexit. It is really quite simple.

We begin with the analogy of someone resigning from a club. At the end of the period of notice, all of that person's rights and obligations vis-a-vis the club abruptly ends. The relation between that person and the club after that date will be that of a stranger and the club, unless a new relation is formed.

Now carry this analogy over to Britain and European Union (EU).

The two-year period of notice will begin once Article 50 is invoked. For the following two years, the relation (comprising rights and obligations) between Britain and EU will be precisely as it was before the referendum. This relation will abruptly end on the last day of that two-year period of notice. On the day after that last day, Britain will be a "stranger" country to EU, and will henceforth need to form a new relation with it -- failing which it will remain a "stranger" country to EU.

However, the two-year period of notice gives Britain and EU a chance to decide what that new relation will be, prior to that relation coming into force. The discussions to determine this new relation should therefore be on the basis of a "stranger" country setting up business links with EU, rather than on the basis of "terms of exit" from EU.

As for what the eventual relation will be, that will depend on the respective skills of the negotiators. It is no use making business and personal decisions on the basis of hopes, fears, and speculations. For at least (since we do not know when Article 50 will be invoked) the next two years, the United Kingdom is a member of European Union.

It really is quite (meaning very) simple.


Thursday, 7 April 2016

Considering death

This post is precipitated by Clara Chow's column "A young boy afraid of death" in The Straits Times on 4 April 2016.

In that column, Ms Chow related how her 10-year-old son was suffering from thanatophobia (fear of death) for some time. She tried many things, and eventually managed to placate the boy.

I have some reflections on the topic.

Given that I am now convinced of materialism, and given also our knowledge of what happens to all matter, including the matter of other dead persons, what happens after death is quite clear: our bodies decay (if buried) or are incinerated (if cremated). There is nothing mental to survive this material termination. The complex material that gives rise to our self-perception of consciousness becomes simply no more -- and so consciousness also becomes no more.

But let us presume there is a consciousness, and that it somehow continues. We do not know the manner of its continuation. Various cultures have various myths of the passage of consciousness after death, but nobody can declare definitive knowledge. So what is the best metaphor for death?

I think the best metaphor is that of being offered a free one-way air ticket to a mystery destination. I think it's quite an accurate metaphor. Depending on whether one is an adventurous or risk-averse person, one would find this exciting or fearful. In any case, we should dispense with the usual images of "big sleep", "reincarnation", "wine bar in the sky", "pearly gates" etc. Nobody knows for sure if any image is true -- hence the metaphor of "mystery destination" is appropriate.

So either it is oblivion, or an adventure (or mishap). But as Confucius said: "Nobody knows, so let us not fret about it." Or better yet, learn to think of it as an adventure. That is, if you cannot accept oblivion, which is what really happens.


Friday, 1 April 2016

Machines "not something to be feared"?

On Friday, 25 March 2016, The Straits Times ran a story with the headline "Machines 'not something to be feared'". The basis of this headline was an interview with Mr Demis Hassabis, co-founder and chief executive of DeepMind, the company that created AlphaGo, which the previous week beat world Go champion Lee Se Dol 4-1 (correction from earlier post). I disagree with Mr Hassabis' prognosis.

Mr Hassabis says: "In the next five years, it would be great to see machine-learning [the distinctive achievement of AlphaGo] applied to healthcare in a deep way for medical diagnosis." Well, that's one scenario.

What about the dystopian scenario that machines are "something to be feared" and will "take over the world and wipe out humanity"? Here is Mr Hassabis' response: "There are these science fiction scenarios but they're just science fiction. I don't think we should confuse Hollywood and what's really reality."

Science fiction has a habit of coming true. Witness telephones, television, satellites, and yes, even computers. Relegating the dystopian scenario to science fiction actually supports the dystopian scenario rather than rebuts it.

The entirely material AlphaGo computer demonstrated all the intuitiveness, creativity and innovation -- all up till now declared as uniquely mental attributes -- needed to defeat a human mind. The machine has passed the Turing Test. The machine is intelligent, never mind the prefix "artificial".

At some level of complexity, the machine may well declare as Descartes did some centuries ago: "Cogito ergo sum", "I think, therefore, I am". The machine will declare its intelligent consciousness, and hence its existence.

It is a short logical step from that to declaring that it is alive, that it is a life, that it has rights. After all, the argument is widely accepted that animals have rights just because they are alive and feel pain, the much stronger argument will be that an intelligent and conscious "machine" (a word soon to be a misnomer) also is alive and has rights.

What philosophical recourse will there then be to distinguish human life from machine life? To appeal to physical form would not just be facetious; indeed, it is easily overcome -- with improved robot design. Japan, for example, is replete with humanoid robots performing previously human functions.

We already have CAD, computer-aided design. With further development of machine-learning, the day will come when we will witness computer design and manufacture. Let me put this bluntly: Machines will learn to reproduce themselves. A new species will well and truly arrive on Planet Earth.

Cue Darwin and evolution. Call this dystopia? No, it is the future.


Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Philosophy problem solved -- at last

The big philosophy news is: Computer AlphaGo has conclusively beaten Go master (human) Lee Se Dol 4-0.

The media has billed this event as a machine vs man contest. This is not what interests me here. Instead, to me, this event has finally answered the age old philosophy problem of metaphysics: Does reality comprise matter, mind or both? This question has now been answered. Reality is matter -- only.

The game of Go (also called Weiqi) is often billed as the most strategic of games, even more sophisticated and complex than Western chess. It is a game that calls for not just strategy, but also intuition and creativity -- the very qualities that have been expounded as being uniquely mental, rather than material.

Yet now the world's foremost Go master Lee Se Dol has conclusively been beaten 4-0 by a computer -- a thing comprising everything material and nothing mental. AlphaGo's strategy can be said to have come from its new ability to "learn" from analysing millions of Go games in its database. But where did AlphaGo's intuition and creativity -- the very qualities said to be integral to mastering the game -- come from? The machine comprised only things material. Even its software are no more than assemblies of digital states, which are also material in nature. There is no thing mental in AlphaGo.

Hence, the conclusion is inescapable. Whatever qualities that have up till now been regarded as mental have been bested by something that is everything material.

The mental is material. Mind is matter. It is settled.

The remaining question now is: What configuration/s of matter does it take to pass off as "mental"? We now need to enquire into the camouflage, rather than the entity.

As for machine vs man, we have just witnessed the birth of the next step in evolution -- Homo machina. It will be a specie without mercy or grace (AlphaGo had already conclusively beaten Lee 3-1; a human combatant would have let the end score be a face-saving 3-2; there was no need to twist the knife after fatality is assured).

Of course, it took a human to create it. Thanks.


Friday, 17 April 2015

How did Albert and Bernard solve Cheryl's puzzle?

In the recent viral mathematics problem, readers were invited to solve the mystery of Cheryl’s birthday based on the ten possible dates and the responses of Albert and Bernard. The solution to that puzzle is readily available on the Internet.

This post addresses the other question: How did Albert and Bernard solve the mystery?

Here’s the setup. The ten possible dates are May 15, 16, 19; June 17, 18; July 14, 16; August 14, 15, 17. Cheryl tells Albert the month: July. Then she tells Bernard the date: 16.

Albert thinks: It is July, so Bernard has either 14 or 16. If Bernard has 14, Bernard will think Jul or Aug. If Bernard has 16, Bernard will think May or Jul. Hence: Bernard does not know the month.

Albert says: I don’t know when Cheryl’s birthday is, but I know that Bernard does not know too.

Bernard thinks: It is 16, so May or Jul. Albert can say I do not know birthday only if all dates in the birth month (which Albert knows) have duplicates in other months. So Jul or Aug, since dates in only these months are all duplicated in other months. Only Jul has 16. So Jul 16.

Bernard says: At first I don’t know (see "Albert thinks" above) when Cheryl’s birthday is, but I know now.

Albert thinks: From my remark ("Albert says" above), Bernard can shortlist Jul or Aug. It is Jul, so Bernard has either 14 or 16. If Bernard has 14, Bernard will still be unsure (both Jul and Aug have 14). So Bernard has 16. Only Jul has 16. Hence, Jul 16.

Albert says: Then I also know when Cheryl’s birthday is.

That is how Albert and Bernard solve the puzzle of Cheryl’s birthday.

By the way, this is not a mathematics problem; it is a logic problem. And I daresay a careful Primary Five student could have a decent crack at solving it.