Things in the world that need fixing

I have decided to write a non-exhaustive list of things I think is wrong with the world. Hopefully the things I consider here aren’t too politically incorrect to tackle, and won’t get me into trouble. This post is based on generally informed opinion: I intentionally won’t attempt to provide much evidence on here – this is meant to be a list of things I believe in, and I will try to back up these points with some evidence and suggestions for improvement in separate articles – with the understanding that I am prepared to be wrong on these points, if the evidence happens to lead me elsewhere.

Science journals and peer review
Science itself is the best tool we have for interrogating Nature, and uncovering her secrets. The peer-review process through scientific journals is believed by most to represent the best process for doing science. Unfortunately, there are a number of problens with the current system. For example, negative results are not usually published. This can mean that millions of pounds of research money, and years of work can be wasted trying to replicate what others have already failed to replicate.

Another problem is the monetary exchange for access to scientific papers. These papers are written by authors who are usually paid by grants from funding bodies on behalf of the taxpayer. What the journals give to the community is some administrative work, where an editor selects reviewers based on their past work in a similar line of work. The reviewers themselves are funded by the tax payer for research, and are are not compensated for the peer-reviewing of papers. Back in the days, the journals were needed to take care of typesetting, printing and distributing volumes of papers. There have been experiments into “open access”, and the online archive arXiv serves as a pre-print repository for unpublished papers.

Access to food/education/healthcare
It is my understanding that we have enough resources to ensure every single human being on this planet gets access to food in adequate quantity and quality, to healthcare and to an education that allows them to reach their potential. Unfortunately, billions live in abject poverty, and millions die of malnutrition regularly.

Sustainability
With intensive monoculture agriculture, we are damaging the soil from which our food comes. Large scale use of fossil fuels is causing rapid global warming, and acidification of the oceans – the entire ecosystem on this planet is in danger. We live in a society built on the assumption of indefinite growth. This is not possible on a planet with limited resources, unless we consider expansion to space. Even then, I suspect a more likely scenario is that of the movie Elysium, without the bit where the poor people get the advanced healthcare.

Automation
I see automation of most jobs as inevitable. Once upon a time, Luddites predicted that civilisation would collapse because machines were taking over the jobs of most field labourers. They were wrong, because the agricultural mechanisation was followed by industrialisation which led to new jobs being created elsewhere. On the other hand, the wave of automation that we are seeing today is based on replacing the human intellect – menial, repetitive jobs that don’t require much creativity can be automated, and the areas of the job market where the human intellect is essential are shrinking. I believe this will lead to social unrest if universal basic income does not become established.

Education
In Mauritius, and apparently in the UK, the pressure on students from primary, secondary and tertiary level is on passing exams and getting good grades. This often means “doing well enough” in one subject to concentrate on another where the student is weaker. Unfortunately, this also stops the student from pushing as hard as possible in the one they are good at. In teaching science, I fear a lot of emphasis is put on telling rather than showing. For example, it would be more instructive, and useful for students to perform experiments and re-discover the laws of nature for themselves rather than being told the answer beforehand. This would encourage the sort of curiosity and creativity we need the solvers of tomorrow’s problems to have.

In other cases, dogmatic faith in arbitrary beliefs are given more weight than actual science (a.k.a. reality). For example, there are schools in the UK where a child can ask “If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys”, without the teacher being able to answer that question with the known scientific explanation. Instead, the child is then led to believe the “alternative” magical creation. This has consequences – the development of vaccines depends on the understanding that we have in the form of the theory of evolution by natural selection.

LGBT rights
I have addressed the topic of LGBT rights elsewhere before: http://gayagendabook.com/. Suffice it to say, the only reason LGBT people face so much hardship around the world today is because of bigotry. I believe each person should be able to live their life as they wish as long as they are not hurting anyone else. In particular, gay children should not be condemned nor bullied.

Genital mutilation of children
Across the world, genital mutilation of children of both genders is rife. In the western world, female genital mutilation is generally banned, but male genital mutilation, while viewed as unnecessary in many western countries, is still viewed as harmless. In practise, in addition to removing a large amount of sensitive tissue, male genital mutilation also destroys the mechanics of male sexuality, drastically reducing the range of sexual experience available to the male.
Access to superstition-free relationship/sex education
There is a need for relationship and sex education in schools that is not crippled by historical superstitions.

Racism/xenophobia/homophobia
I have addressed homophobia above and before – racism and xenophobia tend to stem from the same problem – some people grow up being brainwashed into believing their own particular tribe is somehow superior to others, based purely on lineage/cultural background.

References
These are only a few of the books/articles that have made me think on the issues above. Many others have been left out because I can’t currently remember their titles.
1) http://www.amazon.co.uk/Debt-First-5-000-Years/dp/1612191290/
2) http://www.amazon.com/The-Singularity-Is-Near-Transcend/dp/0143037889
3) http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2014/02/female-genital-mutilation-and-male-circumcision-time-to-confront-the-double-standard/
4) http://www.amazon.com/The-Best-That-Money-Cant/dp/0964880679
5) http://eoslife.eu/articles
6) http://www.eoslife.eu/files/Design.pdf

(Another) Open Letter to the Prime Minister of Mauritius

I have sent this letter to londonmhc@btinternet.com today, 14th December 2014, and I will update this post when/if I hear back.

================================================================================

Dear Mr. Ambassador,

I wrote an open letter to the previous Mauritian Prime Minister in January 2014, but I did not hear back from him. I phoned the Mauritian Embassy in London to ask about that, but I was informed that I need to send the letter through the Embassy if I want a follow up. I am therefore sending you the letter below, and I would be grateful if you could forward it to the new Prime Minister, Sir Anerood Jugnauth, please.

Thank you,

Nawal.

================================================================================
Open letter to the new Prime Minister

Dear Sir Anerood Jugnauth,

As a Mauritian expatriate in the UK, I would like to congratulate you on your recent election to the post of Prime Minister in Mauritius. In January 2014, I wrote an open letter to the National Assembly, to your predecessor Dr. Navin Ramgoolam, and to the leader of the opposition, with regards to the rights of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender population in Mauritius. In particular, section 250 treats gay love as a criminal offence. I include a link here:

http://www.lexpress.mu/idee/open-letter-members-national-assembly-gay-and-criminal-eyes-mauritian-law

Unfortunately, I have not heard back from anyone in regards to my letter. I hope that, as the new Prime Minister, you will be interested in leading some change in the law so that the LGBT citizens of Mauritius may be treated with respect and dignity in the law and in society.

In particular, I would like to know when you plan to start the motions to repeal Section 250 of the criminal code, which is an aberration and an attack on human rights, that we inherited from our colonial masters.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Nawal Husnoo

(State of Mauritius Scholarship 2004, MPhys. Manchester 2009, PhD. Exeter 2013)
================================================================================

The best way to predict the future is to invent it. – Alan Kay
http://www.husnoo.com/

Productivity tools

I recently set out to refresh my systems and update any software that I use to later/more interesting versions. I have been using PmWiki for a long time for my notes, but I always wanted a To-Do list program. I now use mytinytodo, which has a simple interface and is backed by SQLITE on a PHP server. Similarly, my calendar is synced through Baïkal calendar.

The server stack is Debian Linux/Apache/PHP and SQLITE. The whole thing runs on the SheevaPlug. I synchronise it with my laptop using Unison-gtk.

Reusable glass bottles

I recently came across this website http://www.phonebloks.com/, which reminded me of an idea I had a while ago. I personally think the phonebloks idea is not technically feasible at the moment, but I wanted to share my own idea about glass bottles. This post should be regarded as a living draft, and I will improve it if I receive advice/opinions.

My idea would help to reduce the use of plastic in making bottles, and to enable reusable glass bottles to become the norm.

There should be a standard, agreed by several companies that supply the consumer market, that defines 3 (or 5? or more?) sizes of bottles, that cover for example small (100mL), medium (500mL), large (2L), where these are used for everything. Instead of everyone designing their own bottles to stand out, everyone uses the same bottles that are interchangeable.

Of course we could have some special features to identify edible from inedible bottles very clearly (which immediately doubles the number of possible sizes), for example by having a different cap size, etc.

The companies will  complain that they want their own products to stand out – let them do what they want, but *we the people* can also vote with our feet and our wallets.

At a sweep, glass bottles will be reusable across the consumer market with simple washing/boiling, rather than having to be melted and re-cast.

In fact, the long lasting plan means they can invest money in making the bottles unbreakable, or shatter into small pieces.

Opinions?

The Gay Holocaust brewing in Russia

While I am very upset with what is happening to the LGBT people of Russia, I won’t try to summarise the story myself. I’ll simply quote a more eloquent man, Stephen Fry. Source: pinknews.

Dear Prime Minister, M Rogge, Lord Coe and Members of the International Olympic Committee,

I write in the earnest hope that all those with a love of sport and the Olympic spirit will consider the stain on the Five Rings that occurred when the 1936 Berlin Olympics proceeded under the exultant aegis of a tyrant who had passed into law, three years earlier, an act which singled out for special persecution a minority whose only crime was the accident of their birth. In his case he banned Jews from academic tenure or public office, he made sure that the police turned a blind eye to any beatings, thefts or humiliations afflicted on them, he burned and banned books written by them. He claimed they “polluted” the purity and tradition of what it was to be German, that they were a threat to the state, to the children and the future of the Reich. He blamed them simultaneously for the mutually exclusive crimes of Communism and for the controlling of international capital and banks. He blamed them for ruining the culture with their liberalism and difference. The Olympic movement at that time paid precisely no attention to this evil and proceeded with the notorious Berlin Olympiad, which provided a stage for a gleeful Führer and only increased his status at home and abroad. It gave him confidence. All historians are agreed on that. What he did with that confidence we all know.

Putin is eerily repeating this insane crime, only this time against LGBT Russians. Beatings, murders and humiliations are ignored by the police. Any defence or sane discussion of homosexuality is against the law. Any statement, for example, that Tchaikovsky was gay and that his art and life reflects this sexuality and are an inspiration to other gay artists would be punishable by imprisonment. It is simply not enough to say that gay Olympians may or may not be safe in their village. The IOC absolutely must take a firm stance on behalf of the shared humanity it is supposed to represent against the barbaric, fascist law that Putin has pushed through the Duma. Let us not forget that Olympic events used not only to be athletic, they used to include cultural competitions. Let us realise that in fact, sport is cultural. It does not exist in a bubble outside society or politics. The idea that sport and politics don’t connect is worse than disingenuous, worse than stupid. It is wickedly, wilfully wrong. Everyone knows politics interconnects with everything for “politics” is simply the Greek for “to do with the people”.

An absolute ban on the Russian Winter Olympics of 2014 on Sochi is simply essential. Stage them elsewhere in Utah, Lillyhammer, anywhere you like. At all costs Putin cannot be seen to have the approval of the civilised world.

He is making scapegoats of gay people, just as Hitler did Jews. He cannot be allowed to get away with it. I know whereof I speak. I have visited Russia, stood up to the political deputy who introduced the first of these laws, in his city of St Petersburg. I looked into the face of the man and, on camera, tried to reason with him, counter him, make him understand what he was doing. All I saw reflected back at me was what Hannah Arendt called, so memorably, “the banality of evil.” A stupid man, but like so many tyrants, one with an instinct of how to exploit a disaffected people by finding scapegoats. Putin may not be quite as oafish and stupid as Deputy Milanov but his instincts are the same. He may claim that the “values” of Russia are not the “values” of the West, but this is absolutely in opposition to Peter the Great’s philosophy, and against the hopes of millions of Russians, those not in the grip of that toxic mix of shaven headed thuggery and bigoted religion, those who are agonised by the rolling back of democracy and the formation of a new autocracy in the motherland that has suffered so much (and whose music, literature and drama, incidentally I love so passionately).

I am gay. I am a Jew. My mother lost over a dozen of her family to Hitler’s anti-Semitism. Every time in Russia (and it is constantly) a gay teenager is forced into suicide, a lesbian “correctively” raped, gay men and women beaten to death by neo-Nazi thugs while the Russian police stand idly by, the world is diminished and I for one, weep anew at seeing history repeat itself.

“All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing,” so wrote Edmund Burke. Are you, the men and women of the IOC going to be those “good” who allow evil to triumph?

The Summer Olympics of 2012 were one of the most glorious moments of my life and the life of my country. For there to be a Russian Winter Olympics would stain the movement forever and wipe away any of that glory. The Five Rings would finally be forever smeared, besmirched and ruined in the eyes of the civilised world.

I am begging you to resist the pressures of pragmatism, of money, of the oily cowardice of diplomats and to stand up resolutely and proudly for humanity the world over, as your movement is pledged to do. Wave your Olympic flag with pride as we gay men and women wave our Rainbow flag with pride. Be brave enough to live up to the oaths and protocols of your movement, which I remind you of verbatim below.

Rule 4 Cooperate with the competent public or private organisations and authorities in the endeavour to place sport at the service of humanity and thereby to promote peace

Rule 6: Act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement

Rule 15 Encourage and support initiatives blending sport with culture and education

I especially appeal to you, Prime Minister, a man for whom I have the utmost respect. As the leader of a party I have for almost all of my life opposed and instinctively disliked, you showed a determined, passionate and clearly honest commitment to LGBT rights and helped pushed gay marriage through both houses of our parliament in the teeth of vehement opposition from so many of your own side. For that I will always admire you, whatever other differences may lie between us. In the end I believe you know when a thing is wrong or right. Please act on that instinct now.

Yours in desperate hope for humanity
Stephen Fry

Graduation

Yesterday, my boyfriend Dan and I graduated from the University of Exeter. Dan obtained his MMaths (First Class) in Mathematics, and I got my Doctor of Philosophy degree in Physics. Dan’s parents took us out to dinner the night before, and then we all had fun on the day itself.

Dan looking like a scholar.

Dan looking like a scholar.

Dan and I got some couple pictures for our mantelpiece, for the day when we can afford one.

Dan and I.

Dan and I.

Dan and I.

Dan and I.

Despite his general forgetfulness, my PhD professor, Frédéric Pont remembered to attend the ceremony (he came all the way from the mountains of Switzerland!), and had to wear an even more ridiculous costume than I did. I don’t think I would have put up with the two hours of pomp myself, just to see my student graduate!

My professor Frédéric Pont and I.

My professor Frédéric Pont and I.

Dan’s parents didn’t like the heat very much. Nobody else did either.

Dan and his parents.

Dan and his parents.

The Chancellor of the University of Exeter, Floella Benjamin, told Dan to go be a superhero and change the world. As a first step, Dan had to practise his flying skills.

Dan as a superhero.

Dan as a superhero.

No faith in science

Scientists

Scientists question everything. (source)

During past discussions with scientific creationists, religious supremacists and other cranks in general, I have been accused of having faith (in the religious sense) in science. I would like to clear up this misunderstanding now.

I do not have faith in science. I prefer to describe my world view as engaging with reality. For the purpose of any communications I engage in, I define reality as that which is described by multiple independently reproducible and consistent pieces of evidence.

Faith, as it is generally understood in the religious sense, requires the adherence to a belief without, or in spite of the available evidence.

As Bertrand Russell explained many decades ago, the purpose of science is not to construct new dogmas that will be held beyond criticism forever, but to build models of Nature that are consistent with the observations that are available at the time, with the explicit understanding that these models will be modified by successively better approximations as new observations are made.

Scientists do not believe in the theory of evolution by natural selection because of their faith in science. They believe in the said theory because of the overwhelming evidence available to support it.

The only premise of science is that we have to look at the observations. If repeated observations lead us to discover rules that link certain observations consistently, then this is something useful. We usually call it a law of physics, a scientific theory, etc. That is how science really works.

Recommended reading:

This blog post by Phil Plait on Discover Magazine covers the same topic.

gpuocelot

I have played with GPU computation using CUDA on my desktop computer, where I have an old 16-core NVS290 graphics card. Recently, I wanted to play with CUDA on my Mac Book Air, which unfortunately does not have an Nvidia graphics card. I turned to the emulator gpuocelot, but I did not manage to install it on OS X Mountain Lion. Eventually, I managed to get it to work in a Linux installation (Debian 7, Wheezy) inside Virtual Box.

Installation

(TBD) These versions worked for me. I had trouble using Cuda 5.0 and the latest gpuocelot (and the 2011 release version for that matter).

  • Debian 7.0 Wheezy
  • cudatoolkit_4.1.28_linux_64_ubuntu11.04.run
  • gpucelot-2195.tar.zip
svn checkout http://gpuocelot.googlecode.com/svn/trunk/@2195 gpuocelot-read-only

Shrinking the virtual hard disk (vdi file)

I used a dynamically expanding virtual disk in Virtual Box. Unfortunately, after a few hours of installation and attempts to compile different versions of gpuocelot, I ended up with a large vdi file, which does not shrink automatically when the unwanted files are deleted. So I had to perform the following steps to reduce the filesize back to the real amount of space used.

I booted the virtual Linux installation in the normal way, and installed zerofree, which fills in the unused portions where the ghosts of deleted files remain, with zeros. Installing zerofree on Debian:

$ sudo apt-get install zerofree

You cannot run zerofree on a running system with the hard disk mounted as read-write. You need to reboot into single user mode, and change the boot parameters to the kernel. I rebooted the virtual machine, and selected the e key before the GRUB boot menu timed out. This allowed me to edit the boot commands. I selected the kernel line, and added

init=/bin/bash

to that line. Then I followed the on-screen command for booting. This dropped me into a single-user command line, with the hard disk mounted as read-only. I ran zerofree on the hard disk

# zerofree /dev/sda1

and then turned off the virtual machine when it was done. Now the virtual hard disk was properly prepared for the compacting part of the process. I opened up a terminal on OS X, and navigated to the vdi file. I ran the following command:

$ VBoxManage modifyhd e3516052-6028-4b29-be25-88975adb3676 --compact

to do the job. The hexadecimal name is the UUID of the hard disk, as reported by

$ VBoxManage showhdinfo Debian.vdi

where Debian.vdi is my virtual hard drive. This allowed the hard disk image file to shrink from 11 GB back to the 3 GB that was actually used.

Yet another blog system

I have now finished my PhD at the University of Exeter, and will be moving on to something even more interesting soon! This blog will chronicle my hobbies/thoughts over the next few years.

This time, I am using WordPress, instead of hand-coding, wiki, or Habari blog. The main reason is that for a long time, my blog was hosted by a friend, and I did not have access to the MySQL database, so I couldn’t use WordPress. When I moved to my own hosting account, I couldn’t be bothered to change from Habari to WordPress, so I left it as it was. Now that I have some time on my hands, I’ll set this up to use WordPress.

You can still access the old pages at this link: Ancient versions.