Saturday, February 22, 2014

Why there's been no recent post




Writing and researching takes a lot of time.

Of course every blogger is different. Some of them use their blog like a long version of twitter where they'll tell every detail of their life. Others use their blog like a version of delicious to keep a list of bookmarks. Some simply use it as a gallery of photos. My personal use of my blog is to write meaningful articles. And if I don't succeed in this, at least that's what I'm trying to achieve. And with this purpose in mind, it takes me longer to produce articles than it would to just tell about my last sandwich.

When writing about a topic, you want to research it. In my case, it takes me to 3 main destinations:

  • Wikipedia, which I've already praised in a poorly written article
  • Google, which takes me to a variety of blogs and web sites
  • YouTube, which provides plenty of videos on almost any subject

But what you don't see, if you don't have a blog of your own, is that research takes a hell of a lot of time. Typically, I think a 2-pages-long article takes 6 hours to put out. Maybe it's because I'm slow. Or maybe it's because I'm thorough.

The article I'm currently writing about is on the topic of sex, gender, sexual orientation and genetics. It could be broken into several articles, but I think it makes sense to keep things in a coherent global article. Certainly, there will be room to expand on the subject of transgenderism, but for now I'm busy researching a variety of sub-topics and that's why I haven't published anything new in a few days.

So I'm still blogging. I'm just held back by a big pile of documents to process.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Inattentional blindness





Did you ever look for an item that was right under your nose? Did you ever fail to notice something that was obvious and happening right in front of your eyes? This is a phenomenon called inattentional blindness.

The following demonstration requires that you don't read the rest of this article before playing the following video and taking the test.

Note: play the video in full screen for better effect!



The author of this test explains that it works for about 50% of the people. And people for whom it didn't work have a hard time imagining how other people may not have seen the gorilla. But we're all susceptible to this inattentional blindness. If you didn't get fooled by this test, you would be, by another test.

In order to push further this notion, psychologists have decided to test expert observers to see whether they're also susceptible to inattentional blindness. So they tested radiologists whom they tasked with finding pathologies in CT scans of lungs. 83% of them have been blind to the extra little thing:



Conclusion

When we haven't noticed something, we should not conclude that it wasn't there. And this sort of reasoning is important in courts. There are other famous(-ish) examples where we didn't see something very visible like the Pandoravirus which was so big that researchers never even thought about looking for a virus of that size.

There might be a cow in your living room right now, without you noticing! ;-)

Food for thought.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Logic



This article is part of a series of articles on skepticism, science, and topics like paranormal/supernatural/religions which would greatly benefit (aka. disappear) from skeptical and scientific inquiry.

This is possibly the most important, most fundamental subject that I will ever write on. And that's exactly why I will fail. A quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery says that perfection is achieved not when there's nothing more to add, but rather when there's nothing more to remove. But the problem is that perfection and popularizing are different. So, I'll add explanations and illustrations and make it less perfect. But by doing so, I'll try and make it understandable. And I'll probably come back to this article 100 times and edit it 100 times to tweak, rephrase, prune, add, patch and fix. In other words... bear with me and if something seems amiss, let me know!


Making sense of the world

There are various ways to make sense of the world we live in, and build knowledge. The most basic way is the one we have developed through natural selection and which other animals also possess: we observe what happens around us and we draw conclusions or we instinctively respond to what happens in our environment. It works to a certain extent but it has limits. Here's an example: you walk in a street of London and you hear the sound of hooves behind you ; you don't expect a zebra! You expect a horse. But sometimes it will be a zebra, and you've been fooled by your intuition.

I mentioned something similar in the article about pareidolia: for survival reasons, we evolved an intuition that makes us prone to overestimating danger and to react quickly to imminent danger. The result of that: our intuition is often mistaken and it is especially bad at estimating long term consequences.

Our brain has also evolved in an environment where we have to deal with finite quantities. As long as we manipulate quantities around 6, 7 or 8 our mental abilities can cope. A famous example of this is when you give people a list of words to memorize in a limited time and 7 is the average number of words that people successfully recall. That is to say our intuition and our mind are flawed tools. They're efficient in a number of specific situations but they're not reliable.



Another tool available to us to make sense of the world is logic. Logic is an intellectual construct which is incredibly powerful. Since it is an intellectual construct, it is not intuitive ; not in its details at least. Therefore it takes time to master.

Logic is the connection of premises in order to obtain conclusions. The age-old example is:
Premise 1: All men are mortal
Premise 2: Socrates is a man
Conclusion: Socrates is mortal

This is a very simple, very limited example but logic is what binds the conclusion to the premises. And most important of all: if we hold the premises as true, then logic binds us to admit the conclusion as being true too.

Ultimately, logic is the most fundamental tool to understand reality and empower us to build even more understanding and granting us the power to act.

Logic allows us to understand that identical causes will bring about identical consequences. This gives us the capacity to predict outcomes just by looking at the initial conditions. And that is the root of philosophy, knowledge, mathematics, science, set theory, electronics, etc.


The limits of logic

Sometimes we think we are using logic but we are only using what people call "common sense", which is a misleading term more akin to "opinion" than it is to "logic", because it is only based on cultural cues.

Logical fallacies, or errors to apply logic, are also a common pitfall. Logical fallacies are so numerous and lead to such horrors of thought and behavior that they'll deserve several articles and will need to be mentioned in topics related to religion, conspiracy theories, pseudosciences, science and skepticism.

Erroneous premises: sometimes we use valid logic but our premises were just wrong. Here's an example:

  • premise 1: men are immortal
  • premise 2: Socrates is a man
  • conclusion: Socrates is immortal
  • The logic is absolutely valid but the conclusion is wrong (since Socrates died) because the 1st premise is wrong.


The limits of our understanding and knowledge: there are specific fields of science where the laws of nature reach extreme cases where our knowledge breaks down. Such is the case for example of our understanding of the earliest moments after the Big Bang.


Conclusion

Logic is the fundamental building block of human knowledge and understanding. How well or poorly it is employed is a different subject altogether but logic itself is necessary to extract meaning from chaos. Logic is not the conclusion but the mechanism by which we draw conclusions from initial statements.

Anything that has no logic is chaotic. Therefore anything that has no logic is unpredictable or unreliable. That's why logic is the end-all be-all of human knowledge and rationality. That's also why there is a rational basis for rejecting the illogical claims of religions, pseudosciences, and other forms of quackery, but these will be treated in separate articles.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Excel Games and inspiration


Being a fan of Microsoft Excel and video games, I was in disbelief when I once saw an article linking to a YouTube video about a Super Mario clone being created in Excel. And yet it is real as you can see on the following video:


When you're not a Excel programmer, you'll probably just think: "This is cool." or "Yay! More ways to procrastinate at work!".

But as a developer, I find it absolutely awesome. Here's a technical analysis of the great things I see in there:

1) Mario is animated. His feet and arms move relative to his body as he walks. When he grabs a mushroom, his body does not instantaneously become big, but it progressively extends. Enemies are also animated, as are mushrooms, flowers, coins, etc.

2) Mario is subject to gravity and stands on platforms. Moving a character horizontally is easy. But for the character to be able to move around, be blocked when walking into a wall, or standing on platforms, it takes some coding. Try and figure out how YOU would code this!

3) There is music. And not just that! The music changes with the context. When Mario grabs a star and becomes invincible, the music is instantaneously changed to the invincibility music. Handling music is not that easy in Excel, or maybe I just haven't spent enough time programming with music. Great stuff!

4) There are other sounds. As if managing music was not enough, some game sounds (like jumping on an enemy) will also be played on top of the music. I have to wrap my head around this and figure out how he did it!

5) It manages keyboard input. OK, this is probably not that hard to do, but it requires attention to detail.

6) There are blocks of many natures. Jump under a mushroom block and it will give the effect of producing a mushroom. Press "down" when standing on a pipe and you access another level. Jump on the flag and you end the level. Jump under a breakable block and it disappears.

7) It has the levels stored somewhere and it loads them in the main window.

All in all, it may not be that big of a project, though I am clueless about the sound aspect of things... but it is a nice accomplishment that requires good skill.


From the author's page, I followed this link to the download page, which contains other remakes of retro games like Bomberman or Qix, and I find it really inspiring. In the next few days, I'll certainly create a few copies of simple games and use them as examples of VBA programming.


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