Jul 15, 2014

Crabby cabbies and fish

Cabdrivers internationally are artists, musicians, dancers, writers - anything but cabdrivers. That was different in pre-oh-so-hip, pre-wall-came-down Berlin, where cabdrivers (east and west) used to be just angry, crabby old cabbies, and proud of it. They were eloquent only when it came to convincing every happy visitor why it is no good idea to be a happy visitor, ultimately proving their point by ridiculously overcharging for an annoying ride. General misanthropy wasn't fashionable only in a tiny yellow car - it was a hallmark of Berlin. Yep, east and west. A colleague of mine, coming from the Netherlands, got a convincing performance at the fish-counter of a local supermarket. When he tried to strike a jolly conversation by asking:"what goodies have we got today?!" he was served the perfectly berlinesque response: "fish.". (period.).
With the wild and art-packed Berlin going down the drain so disappears this element of style and so mutate the cabdrivers.
Recently I took one hasty ride from Berlin/Mitte to Berlin/Mitte and was confronted with one of the new Berliners behind the wheel - easily recognizable by the fact that they ask you for directions (trying to figure out if you have a clue where you are - if not, well, it will be a long and expensive trip).
Like so many of his colleagues, he was an 'artist', who ventured into Astrology, tought Reiki and won his driver's license in the lottery. He was the emblem of what is going wrong with Berlin-turning-normal: installing air commas around 'artists', taking the stars to the street, treating social pain inadequately and living off pretense.
¡No pasarĂ¡n!'

May 15, 2014

Blood!

Someone said every good blogpost starts with blood. And that guy's blog is insanely popular for good reasons.
In contrast, Richard Dawkin's blog is popular for god reasons (yeah, that was cheap).
While scrolling through my twitter timeline I am getting a bit tired of the religiously fervent atheism of @RichardDawkins whom I admittedly pity as he just completed his transformation from an interesting thinker to a t-shirt salesman. Glittery, silver double helix neclaces, bold atheist-'A' bumper stickers. Boring stuff. He must have fired his best ghostwriters after the n-th remake of his smart bestsellers (you do remember them, don't you?).
Fortunately, before wasting too much thought on why elderly men tend to get so narrow-minded, self-pitying, and self-centered (and while laboriously calculating my own age) I was getting aware of a conversation at a nearby table in the run-down coffee shop that serves the most intense espresso in town - 'so strong, they barely add water'.
I heard the one guy had just met a woman whose daughter had passed away unexpectedly, age 16 - beautiful (as he emphasized), smart, kind and the light to everybody she met. 'How,' he asked, 'how can people be religious and believe in a loving god while at the same time we see dictators celebrate their 80th birthday and 64th year in power - with a track-record in cruelty that would make Hieronymus Bosch sob?'. The lamenting went on and on, touching about every stereotype you could expect; the heartless god, the god-less world, the world-less stochastics of being human. All seemed to defy any purpose, a blip in the time-line, completely unimportant in the face of the infinite universe - it sounded so grown-up, so wonderfully materialistic, so enlightened, so Darwinian and even Dawkins-esque.
But, thinking about it, it was heartwarmingly romantic. His proof was that if all this suffering, love, heartwrenching tragedy was ignored by god then he must be absent. But being a hardened materialist, shouldn't he denounce that soft and bubbly heart-stuff altogether in the first place? Looks like the god he wished to argue away is way more materialistic than he - casting dice to determine the fate of the universe instead of accurate bookkeeeping, calculating, weighing, rewarding. And why not? Isn't the statistics of fate more fair and just than an accumulation of brownie-points of  'goodness' to trade in for a long and healthy life? Wouldn't it be entirely unfair to have a homeless alcoholic compete with a millionaire's daughter for being a better person? So, the beautiful and kind 16 year old would go on to live a long and healthy life while the misled thug gets run over by a freight-train? Come on.
But more annoying than the logical flaw in that chatter was the evangelistic tone of the anti-evangelist. One problem with atheist zealots - as with any - lies in the extremist position combined with the infinite urge to be right. It is this self-righteous indignation that seems to allow anybody to vent her anger, to rage on and ultimately kill. No matter what -ism is pulled up for justification.
And as Dawkins and friends so breathlessly argue the case for science and knowing - against believing - they seem to forget that doubt is at the core of good science. If you want to be right, no matter what, if you need it - keep out of science. If you need the 'I told you!'-effect, leave science, close the door from the outside, lock it, nail it shut and throw the key away. Because it is this desire to have an infallible guide through our wonderfully complex and at times messy world that is at the core of the extremism of any relgion.
The lack of missionary zeal, the relaxed tolerance, and sheer infinite curiosity are among the many incredible strengths of science.
Sometimes you can simply shut up and enjoy.

May 14, 2014

Self-replicating code-creatures abound!

The amount of data being created every second is breathtaking (five trillion bits per second, as George Dyson tells us at ege.org).
Some take this as proof for a tremendous increase in knowledge, others spot only chatter and pocket litter - (and yes, there are estimates that half of the storage capacity - and hence half of the power consumed for 'the internet' - is used for porn).
Some see much more. Already in 1955, when the Norwegian-Italian mathematical biologist Nils Aaall Barricelli had heard about the machines operating on digital code in Princeton and finally managed to go there, he experimented with self-replication and cross-breeding of random strings on that machine. Being an experimentalist he observed carefully and studied patterns that reminded him of biological systems. Couldn't computer-code be treated similarly? Shouldn't there be the possibility of evolution in code?
Roger Dyson highlights the fact of universal operating systems across multiple hardware-platforms facilitating the occurence of multi-cellular operating systems that would be able to cross-breed, mutate, develop ... in the background.
While there is only speculation about the possibility that this could, might or would occur in an uncontrolled way there definitely is the option if not the clear reality of human-initiated 'meta-zoan' activity on the net. Probably most visible in the stealth-features of self-adapting malware.
But couldn't there be some damp, sparsely lit corners of the web where hitherto unidentified code-creatures linger and replicate - just like the amazing worms that curl up under those socks that you lost behind the washing-machine - years ago?

May 13, 2014

Don't call Big Data a Revolution

Everybody in science seems to love Big Data. Put "Big Data" in your grant proposal and your file gets on top of the pile. Sure, some had the suspicion that funding for operating with big data went up because those nerds in the basement of NSA need some help sifting through cassettes of indiscriminate tapping into every utterance of every two-legged creature on earth. Those losers obviously lack the brains to ask the right questions and to target a reasonable subset of mankind - so they just grab everything they get. And stay as blind as they were before. Of course it is difficult to find a needle in a haystack - but why dump all that hay on the needle in the first place?
This aside, there are believers like Kenneth Cukier and Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger, authors of "Big Data: A Revolution that will transform how we live, work and think" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), who marvel at the transition from trying to approach a mechanism in nature with smart experiments to prediciting the future behaviour of the system by merely observing and describing patterns. They call the interest in correlation (and not causation) a paradigm-shift, a revolution and nothing less than the future of science at large.
yes.
They are probably right.
And this is scary.
If you just want to get an idea of potential traffic jams depending on location and time of day, big data might help. If you need to know if your medication cures or kills, excellent statistics will do. Big data ultimately brings you from statistics of small numbers to 'N=ALL'. 
The main drive of science always was - and always will be - curiosity for the mechanism, the 'why?'.
Recording huge amounts of data - all data available - does not solve any problems. In the worst case it substitutes understanding with describing.
But in the best case, the mapping of a system on as many related data as possible can be seen as lifting it from nature to the lab. The really Big Data that contain *all* correlations would be a transposition of the real thing that then can be experimented on. See Big Data as the score-sheet to a symphony, plus information on the instruments, plus the acoustics, plus the musicians, plus the atmosphere, plus...
(I am off to the lab)