The road less travelled: Navigating without algorithms

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +2 (from 2 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 10.0/10 (3 votes cast)

By Christian Nielsen

As I embark on my summer travels, I have resolved to ignore the recommended routes on my satnav and to get off the beaten track. Join me.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Tuesday 10 July 2018

Literature and popular culture are littered with mentions of the ‘road less travelled’. It is ensconced in our lexicon like a tick between the toes, so much so that its meaning becomes more baffling for every new song or misquote.

M Scott Peck’s eponymous book, which came out in 1978, probably started the confusion with its focus on what it takes to be a fulfilled human being, venturing into forests of soul-searching stuff like love, discipline, ethics, religion, spiritual growth, serendipity, grace, lying, suffering … and evil. With the knack of an acupuncturist’s needle, Scott’s book had anticipated the ailments of an emerging ‘self-help’ generation.

To Scott, a psychiatrist by trade, the potted road of spiritual development could be travelled in four stages, from chaos to blind faith to scientific scepticism and finally reaching the end destination where you can enjoy the mystery and beauty of nature and existence.

Evil, he suggests, is understood as much by what we do as what we don’t do: evil fuelled by self-deception as people try to maintain perfect self-images, to which they must deceive others, the scapegoats of their lives…

Confusing? Well, I think so. Why can’t the road less travelled be simpler or perhaps more literal, something like not being afraid to get off the beaten track or swerving away from the high road, for the sake of keeping the metaphor going.

This occurs to me as I plan my road trip to our cottage south of Stockholm, an annual summer pilgrimage, that the life of order, routine, comfort (for many) is rooted in arterial thinking. The idea being to channel as much stuff through the major arteries, or motorways of life, to be sure we get from A to B with the least disruption or disharmony. There are only so many hours in a day, only so many foreseen or unforeseen alternate passages for this ‘lifeblood’ before we revert to form, take the easy way out, the fastest route.

That’s fine, most of the time, because even the most free-spirited souls still need some regularity. They have to eat to live, sleep to dream, imbibe to create … But for the vast majority of people it means narrowly interpreting what an alternate route would look like, the points of interest along the way and what may or may not constitute something ‘scenic’.

The long way round may once have been wise to avoid highwaymen, but today it strikes most ‘busy’ people and casual observers as wasteful, unnecessary, and costly (in time, money and perhaps spiritual ‘energy’). And besides, plying the byways of life has become so damned hard when easy options abound.

More and more of us delegate life-planning to artificial intelligence, the neat algorithms like Google Drive that navigate our journeys for us – complete with eerily accurate deviation ‘costs’ in terms of the time it takes out of our lives. We are left wondering whether we are really in charge. It seems almost impolite to ignore the recommended readings by Amazon’s helpful AI assistant and the suggested viewing by Netflix’s digital curator, or ‘Lord Netflix’ to the truly flix-addicted whose numbers are growing by the minute.

So, the ‘road less travelled’ today could simply be ignoring the recommended route to Stockholm, avoiding the trending films or suggestions, reading books picked up at flea markets … It could mean choosing slower means of transport and, by default, taking longer to get from A to B.

But that sounds okay to me when the main arteries get clogged up with everyone else making a beeline to Peck’s stage four of spiritual development, sustained just barely by a gut-full of gas-station grease and coffee. Join me as I find out what is in store as I venture off the algorithms.

_____

Read part II: Overwhelmed at Overloon

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 10.0/10 (3 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +2 (from 2 votes)

Related posts

The truth about Islamic reformations

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +1 (from 1 vote)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 9.5/10 (2 votes cast)

By Khaled Diab

Islam needs a reformation for Muslim societies to develop and prosper, is one of those rare convictions shared by both Islamophiles and Islamophobes. Tunisia has done just that: radically reformed its brand of Islam and established a vibrant democracy to boot, yet prosperity eludes it. Why?

This protester spray paints the question: “What are you waiting for?”
Photo: ©Khaled Diab

 Thursday 18 January 2018

Seven years after the downfall of Tunisia’s long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisians have been out on the streets once again, in one of the most sustained waves of protest since the 2010/11 revolution.

Paraphrasing the calls demanding the removal of the president in January 2011, the demonstrators of January 2018 have been chanting: “The people want to topple the budget.”

The 2018 budget fuelling public anger led to spikes in value-added tax and social security contributions and a planned slashing of the budget deficit demanded by the IMF, which will cause Tunisia’s poor continued pain. In a bid to counter public anger, the government of President Beji Caid Essebsi unveiled plans to reform medical care, housing and increase aid to the poor.

But the upheavals in Tunisia should, by right, not be happening, according to the received wisdom. Public intellectuals and media celebrities in the West, as well as many Muslim reformers, have been informing us for many years that Islam desperately needs a reformation. This would enable Muslims to shake off benighted Islamic dogma and embrace democracy, heralding an era of freedom and prosperity.

For example, more than a dozen years ago, Thomas Friedman, the guru of hollow, superficial punditry, urged Muslims to embark on a Lutheranesque Reformation to create “an Islam different from the lifeless, anti-modern, anti-Western fundamentalism being imposed in Iran and propagated by the Saudi Wahhabi clerics” – never mind that Martin Luther was a fundamentalist zealot and his reformation plunged Europe into generations of war and conflict.

Friedman also believed that America could expedite this reform process towards an Islamic enlightenment by bombing Iraq and resurrecting it as a beacon of freedom, free markets and democracy –  and we all saw how well that worked out.

Although American ordnance and weapons, unsurprisingly, set Iraq back generations, some countries have found their own way towards democracy and a reformed Islam without the need for trillion-dollar American wars.

Tunisia has, over the past seven years, built up a vibrant and functioning democracy, which has not only avoided the nightmare counter-revolutions and wars which have consumed other countries in the region whose people dared to dream of a better tomorrow, but it also guarantees an impressive range of fundamental freedoms for Tunisian citizens.

Moreover, Tunisia boasts more female representatives than the United States: almost a third of seats in Tunisia’s parliament is held by women, compared with under a fifth in the American Congress. In addition, Tunisia possesses an essential plank of social democracy which has been almost completely dismantled in America: a vibrant trade unions movement.

As for reinventing Islam, Tunisia has been doing that for the past century and a half, which has led to a distinctly Tunisian brand of the religion. In the 19th century, numerous Tunisian intellectuals and activists sought ways to reconcile their faith with modernity and science. In the 1950s, the government led by liberation leader Habib Bourguiba secularised the country and introduced a radical reformist personal status law which equalised the relationship between men and women and banned polygamy.

Fears that reforms would be slowed or reversed by the revolution have proved unfounded. Rather than Islamise society, Tunisian society has secularised the country’s main Islamic party Ennahdha, which has gone from an overtly Islamist platform to reinvent itself as a party of ‘Muslim democrats’.

In recent months, Tunisia has rolled out an impressive package of reforms which will have profound implications on the local brand of Islam, and perhaps Islam in other parts of the Muslim world.

Tunisia’s parliament pushed through landmark legislation to outlaw all forms of violence against women, from street harassment to domestic violence, as well as the scrapping of the controversial practice of allowing a rapist to escape punishment by marrying his victim.

In addition, the government has removed the bureaucratic hurdle that prevented Muslim women from marrying outside their religion. Most ambitiously of all, Tunisia is pursuing legislation that will grant women equal inheritance rights to men, which has provoked the ire of the conservative Muslim establishment elsewhere, including Sunni Islam’s leading institution, Al Azhar.

Despite this impressive political, social, cultural and religious progress, Tunisia’s economic fortunes have not kept pace, the treasure at the end of Friedman’s freedom rainbow has failed to materialise. The economy still grows, but more sluggishly than before, while inflation and unemployment remain high.

So how come Tunisia has not been able to cash in on its reforms?

In my new book, Islam for the Politically Incorrect, I offer an explanation for this apparent paradox. At one level, this is because reformations do not lead to socio-economic development but are, instead, the product of it.

In addition, religious, social and political reforms are what you might call the software of development, and Tunisia has given itself a major upgrade in these areas. However, the software is useless without the appropriate hardware. What use is having the operating system for a supercomputer when you only possess a punch-card mainframe to run it on?

And the economic hardware requirements today are exponentially higher than they were when Europe had its Reformation, Counter-Reformation and Enlightenment. Whereas back then, when Christendom was pirating the latest software from Islamic culture and competing to smash Islam’s monopoly on global trade, the hardware requirements, in terms of resources and infrastructure, were relatively modest, today that is no longer the case.

As a small illustration, the OECD group of industrialised states spent, in 2009, $874 billion on research and development. To put that in context, the gross domestic product of Egypt, the most populous Arab country, was $336 billion in 2016, while Tunisia’s is a mere $42 billion, less than half Google’s annual revenue.

And that is just annual spending on R&D. That does not include the huge amounts the West and other advanced economies invest in education, not to mention the generations-long construction of legacy intellectual and technological capital.

Gaining Tunisia and the wider region, not to mention other poorer countries, access to the phenomenal levels of necessary resources will require both a pooling of regional wealth as well as radical policies to address global interstate inequalities. In the absence of enlightened mechanisms for wealth and knowledge sharing and redistribution, we are likely to see the burgeoning of regional and global conflicts that may make the current upheavals seem minor in comparison.

Of course, whether or not democratisation and enlightenment lead to prosperity, they are noble goals to pursue in their own right for the sake of freedom, fairness, justice, knowledge and human dignity. However, if they do not deliver on the economic bottomline, these advances are fragile and can quickly be shattered by popular discontent and populist authoritarian forces. If human enlightenment is to survive, let alone thrive, we need global solutions, not local illusions.

 

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 9.5/10 (2 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +1 (from 1 vote)

Related posts

What happens when science fiction crosses into science fact?

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +1 (from 1 vote)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 9.7/10 (3 votes cast)

By Christian Nielsen

Cloaking devices are the stuff of magic realms and deep-space exploration, not real life. Think again! Making photonic chips invisible to one another could pave the way to computing at the speed of light.

A beamsplitter for silicon photonics chips that is ne-fiftieth the width of a human hair. Image: Dan Hixson/University of Utah College of Engineering

A beamsplitter for silicon photonics chips that is ne-fiftieth the width of a human hair. Image: Dan Hixson/University of Utah College of Engineering

Thursday 24 November 2016

Researchers at the University of Utah have developed a cloaking device for truly tiny photonic integrated devices — the building blocks of photonic computer chips that run on light instead of electrical current. While that still sounds fairly fantastical and fanciful, it’s a huge breakthrough for the computer industry, data centres and mobile device-makers, not to mention the environment.

It paves the way for efficient photonic chips which shuttle data around as light photons instead of electrons. This breakthrough in nanophotonic cloaking, making neighbouring devices invisible to one another, was published in the latest edition of the science journal, Nature Communications.

Photonic chips will wind up being much faster, consume less power and give off less heat than today’s silicon-based chips. Think of the possibilities for foresighted entrepreneurs.

Potentially billions of photonic devices could be stuffed inside a chip, each with a specific function in much the same way as transistors work in today’s microchips. One set of devices could perform powerful calculations or programmed simulations while another group processes requests and others maintain everyday functions and updates.

Back-chatting chips

But light is no-one’s slave and cramming so many of these microscopic photonic devices too close together causes leakage. When light leaks the resulting back-chat or cross-talk acts like radio interference. Not good.

Spacing them further apart solves the problem, but this makes the chips too large, especially for mobile devices. The lab guys worked out that using a special nanopatterned, silicon-based coating between photonic devices acts like a “cloak”.

The principle is similar to the Harry Potter invisibility cloak, says Utah’s Rajesh Menon who led the research. It’s like a barrier it pushes the light back into the original device. It is being fooled into thinking there is nothing on the other side.”

10 to 100 times less power

One of the obvious benefits of chips using light photons instead of electrons to transfer data is the energy savings, anywhere from 10 to 100 times less power consumed, according to the Utah team.

Data centres like Google and Facebook will no doubt like the sound of this, but the afterglow of nano-sized photonic devices could light up a range of sectors, from app-makers to serious games to green tech.

In the United States alone, data centres consume around 70 billion kilowatt hours (2014 figures), which is some 1.8% of total electricity consumption, according to research by the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. With the growth in cloud computing and other rapid IT developments, that power usage is expected to rise another 4% by 2020.

By going from electronics to photonics we can make computers much more efficient and ultimately make a big impact on carbon emissions and energy usage for all kinds of things,” concludes Menon.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 9.7/10 (3 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +1 (from 1 vote)

Related posts

An ode to Google doodles

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +1 (from 1 vote)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 10.0/10 (1 vote cast)

By Christian Nielsen

Google doodles must be the most fleeting yet highly visited exhibition on the planet honouring both the famous and the quirky.

British-Museum-Google-Doodle

Tuesday 24 June 2014

This year is the 255th anniversary of the British Museum. It’s not exactly a milestone year in the grand scheme of things, but clearly grand enough to be honoured with a Google doodle in January.

Any excuse for a great doodle is a good one in my book. And if I hadn’t tried the ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’ search option on Google I would never have learned about it.

Ever since Google first entered our computer screens – quickly followed by our lexicon and now our consciousness – I’ve been tempted but never acted out on the urge to press the ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’ button.

Until today, I’d never given this reticence much thought. But as I warm up to a day of work and I open my explorer with the default Google screen whirring to life, only to see yet another fascinating interpretation of the World Cup 2014, I begin to wonder what creative machinery must be behind this constant output by the search giant.

Do they sit down once a year or once a month and map out a calendar of milestones and lesser, sometimes quirky, events to honour with possibly the most fleeting but highly visited exhibition on the planet? I’d like to think, yes. One day and XX millions of online denizens are treated to a lesson in history or culture or the banal. And it’s all fine by me. The more obscure the better.

I’ve also never really explored why I haven’t tried my luck on this odd little feature, which I dare say is a legacy of the first designs of Google, where the developers were not sure if people would know what they were looking for on this big bad web, let alone how to enter the search words in the simple little field they provided. So a bright spark says, “Let’s give them a sample or a demo but we can make it like a roll of the dice … to get them hooked on our tool!”

Well, if that were true, they needn’t have worried. We’re hooked. Not by the idea of ‘feeling lucky’ but by the sheer unchanging simplicity and, indeed, beauty and form of this tool. Sure, Google is much more than a simple search screen now. We’re waiting for driverless Google taxis and enjoy a whole host of other ‘Drive’ related tools through the cloud.

But it is the search – the deep calling for knowledge now literally at our fingertips – that keeps us coming back. And in that there is a degree of excitement still. It’s not so much down to luck any more as we’ve learned how to trick the big machine into delivering pretty much what we want in the first few listed results. We do all sorts of Boolean mind tricks (I looked that up on Google!) on it and it probably reluctantly coughs up what we’re looking for with a couple of paid-for gems on top.

And yet that little ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’ button stays in-situ as some kind of ode – to what I’m not really certain. Maybe it’s an ode to simpler times, or an ode to the randomness of life, or to the copywriter who first thought of this funny little phrase. Maybe it’s an ode to philosophy or to modern mantras that challenge our grasp of reality. Maybe it’s a tacit ode to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Fooled by Randomness: The hidden role of chance in life and in the markets. Or maybe it’s just a case of dumb luck, a whim that stuck.

Just doodling

I don’t know – I’m not on Google’s board or anyone else’s – but I do know that today I decided to try my hand. Maybe I was bored, maybe I was overcome with wonder at the fresh doodle every day for the World Cup, or maybe because it’s a Tuesday and that’s a lucky day, if there ever was one. So, I hovered for a second and then pressed I’m Feeling Lucky. It felt good.

And you know what I got? The back-catalogue of doodles in one beautiful long list with the dates and event being immortalised by this Google feature.

I’m not sure what role luck played in this result, but I’m pretty happy with it. I scrolled down a few screens, learned about Mary Anning, a struggling English palaeontologist. I discovered the Columbian painter/sculptor Alejandro Obregón and the obscure Japanese ‘Go’ (a board game I think) champion Honinbo Shusaku. I caught up on recent national days and the European elections. And I realised my family missed Father’s Day!

But the doodle that took my eye, if not my fancy, was the anniversary of the British Museum. Every time I visit the great city of London, I try to take an hour or so to stroll through a couple of the rooms in this national treasure trove. I love that it’s still free, when very little else is these days. It reminds me of my back-packing days where anything free that involved warmth and comfort was worth seeking out.

Two decades ago I wrote a cheesy little story (I was young) in a scrappy notebook while propped in front of a figurine of Anubis in the Egyptian chamber. I’ll share it with if you ask nicely. I know the museum has some detractors and some explaining to do about how it obtained – and, well, chooses to keep – some of the treasures, but as a casual seeker of knowledge, a visitor who likes to try his luck every now and then, the British Museum is truly a worthy find. Thanks Google. You’ve made my day.

 

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 10.0/10 (1 vote cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +1 (from 1 vote)

Related posts