Monday, March 21, 2016

And Then They Came For The Go Masters

I am often surprised by how many people are not at all familiar with the game of Go.  It is more ancient that Chess and both easier and harder.  It is easier because there is a pretty simple rule set and only one type of piece.  It is harder because the number of possible moves on any turn is much higher than in chess.  On the first move in a game of chess there are 20 possible moves, most of which are kind of dumb.  In Go, there are 361 possible opening moves.  You start branching from there and the number of possible sequences in Go baloons tremendously.  According to the video above there are more possible games of Go, than there are atoms in the universe.

At any rate, I pretty much suck at Go, although that does not prevent me from being fascinated by it.  One of my great regrets is that I may never get a chance to play my friend Georg.  Georg and I formed an oddly close bond, given that we only spent two days together.  They were profoundly moving days, though.  The Sesquicentennila of the Battle of Antieram, the deadliest day in American history and the Sesquicentennial of the stacking of the arms of the Army of Northern Virgina.  In both cases, we were there on the spot and in the latter case participated in the ceremony marching along with reenactors who stacked arms.  I chose to be with that group because I preferred to be active, Georg because of his odd affection for the Confederacy.

If you took 100 college educated Americans at random, unless you got lucky, they would likely know less in the aggregate about the US Civil War than Georg, who grew up in Germany and learned zero about it in school.  He developed his interest through intensely complicated strategy games and in the pre-internet days of yore in the eighties, it was hard to learn much about the US Civil War in Bavaria.  Somehow he did though and his interest was so strong that he spent five years worth of vacations being a "real timer" at Civil War Sesquecentennial events.

At any rate Georg works in tech and is, I am sure, probably a much better Go player than I am.  I felt I had to share his thoughts on the latest news.

Commenting on a Go game with a friend he wrote:

 Without exaggeration one can say that this was the last day for the world of Go as we knew it. What has happened since Wednesday morning in Seoul is the advent of a new age. The Go community was fascinated in January when Google told the world that it developed Alphago, a program that beat Fan Hui 5-0 in even (i.e. no handicap) games last October. That was a major leap, no doubt. Fan Hui is a professional level player, one of the strongest in Europe, but he is far away from the top professional level. Alphago played numerous weak moves in that match. Analyses by top professionals predicted a clean 5-0 sweep for Lee Sedol in March.

Apropos Lee Sedol: If an armada of aliens came to our solar system and would challenge mankind to a game of Go for the possession of Earth, we would nominate Lee Sedol to play on our behalf. We just got blown out of space.

In the first three games Lee Sedol has not just been defeated, he has been humiliated. Alphago seemed to be toying with Lee. The way it handled Lee's desperate tactics to bring his group to life on the lower edge of the board in game three seems almost arrogant - if a program could feel something like arrogance. It even simply ignored one of Lee's moves.

After these first three games, Lee's win in game fourth came as a surprise. Lee managed to turn a game around that looked clearly lost with an amazing and unlikely tesuji that very likely will find its way into Go lore (if you are curious: it's move 78). With this play Lee posed a problem to Alphago it was unable to handle. There may be be a systematic weakness behind Alphago's loss, maybe some "over-the-horizon"-effect. But if even players of such caliber as Lee can set up such positions against Alphago on purpose is a completely different question. Anyway, there is very little doubt now in the professional Go world that Alphago is significantly stronger than any human player. Nobody saw this coming, probably not even the folks behind Alphago. It is playing significantly stronger than against Fan Hui last October, too. Even more frightening: It could only have learned this by playing against itself. While Lee's victory in game four brought some relief, the Go community worldwide is in a state of shock right now, nevertheless. It will need time to sort this out.

But while the Go player inside of me is quite frankly shocked, too, the mathematician and computer scientist in me is rejoycing. What a triumph of the human mind! While Google put a lot of computing power behind Alphago, the true core of its strength must be in its algorithms. The folks at Deepmind have somehow combined two neural nets, tree search and monte carlo methods into one fine tuned monster of a Go program. I have not the slightest idea how they pulled that off. But they did.

And then there is the professional IT consultant inside of me, too. And he just wonders how mankind can produce something amazing like Alphago - admittedly with a lot of expert knowledge and money - and at the same time fail so miserably at relatively simple IT challenges in the modern business world - with at least as much expert knowledge and sometimes even more money on hand...
Hail to our new machine overlords!

Peter J Reilly CPA can be beaten in Go by a bright eight year old with some good instruction.  

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The PLoS One Hand Of The Creator Debacle - Or Sometimes Things Are Found In Translation

Whenever I start warming up to Kent Hovind, he'll do something to aggravate me.  In Scientists' "Human Hand Designed by Creator" Causes Uproar in Evolutionism Community

he really bugged me around 5:49 when he knocked people in Central Massachusetts for not being more phonetic in our pronunciation of Worcester.


As it turns out there is a more serious reason to be upset about this.  Kent is refering to this article - Scientific paper which says the human hand was designed by a 'Creator' sparks controversy,  The scientific paper "Biomechanical characteristics of hand coordination in grasping activities of daily living" had four authors three from Huazhong University in China and one from Worcester Polytechnic Universtiy, which is what got Kent going on the pronunciation side trip, but of course that is not the main thing.

The paper has numerous referecnes to the "Creator" such as
The explicit functional link indicates that the biomechanical characteristic of tendinous connective architecture between muscles and articulations is the proper design by the Creator to perform a multitude of daily tasks in a comfortable way. The clear link between the structure and the function of the human hand also suggests that the design of a multifunctional robotic hand should be able to better imitate such basic architecture.
The uproar and the retraction of the paper has Kent going on about how mainstream science cannot deal with the idea of a Creator and will suppress anything that supports that notion and of course something as complicated as a hand had to be created - yah, di, yah.

Mechanical Engineers

Anyway the mention of Worcester Polytechnic had me intrigued.  WPI is an engineering school and I found that there is work going on their on human hand prothesis.It kind of had me wondering whether there was really a position being staked out on creationism in the paper.  The one author that I could track down information on, Cai-Hua Xiong has a Ph.D in mechanical engineering.

Translating The Translation

As it happens I had just been catching up with one of my oldest friends.  Tom Burns and I bonded as sophomores in high school from our common interest in Jean Shepherd who at that point in his career was on the radio for forty five minutes every night with rambling monologues that earned him a cult like following among adoloscents.  Tom explained to me his latest gig which has some relevance to this controversy.

There is a prefernece among scientists for having their papers published in English language journals.  Frequently, the people translating the papers are not native English speakers and there are some issues because of that..  That's where Tom's company Tekrighter Scientific and Medical Writing Services comes in. The idea is to bring the paper to the point where it would be if it had been written by a native English speaker (That's my notion anyway. There is probably a better way to put it.)

As I was poking around the corners of the PLoS One teapot tempest (to mix a metaphor that I am sure Tom would excise), I noted that it was pretty clear that the whole thing was a translation problem.  According to some of the comments, "Creator" is used pretty interchangeably with "Nature" in Chinese and that in China, where most people are atheists, the "intelligent design" thing is not much of a thing and not likely to set off alarm bells.

Still I thought it would be worth asking Tom if maybe he would have prevented this disaster, and although his answer was basically no, he still had a lot of interesting observations.  Here goes.


This glitch appears to be the result of a perfect storm.

First, the authors of the paper acknowledge that the questionable language was the result of a translation error. Running the paper by an ESL editor likely would have made no difference, because we can only deal with the English that is in front of us on the page. We are not arbiters of the scientific quality of a paper - that is the job of the journal editors and the peer reviewers. I would likely have not flagged “the Creator” because it is unambiguous, if non-scientific language. I would have left it for the scientific reviewers to sort out.

Second, PLoS One is not a strictly peer-reviewed journal. It is an open-access journal, which means that you do not need an institutional or personal subscription to access the published papers. The authors do need to pay to have their work published. The only required review is by a journal editor, whom I would assume is a scientist but not necessarily an expert in the field that a paper addresses. The journal editor can elect to require a review by an outside reviewer, who would assumedly be an expert in the field that a paper addresses, but there’s no hard and fast requirement for that. Although the articles you sent do not explicitly say so, in the case of the Hand paper, I strongly suspect that no peer review occurred, and probably minimal or no review by the journal editor, either.

A true peer-reviewed journal is usually available only by subscription and requires a review of any paper submitted by at least two experts in the field that the paper addresses. These experts can be suggested by the authors, but they are chosen by the journal. The peer reviewers can require the authors to revise a paper or do additional research. Of course, the authors can always withdraw the paper from consideration if they feel that the reviewer is off base and submit it to a different journal to get more reasonable peer reviewers.

Many consider open-access journals more “fair” because the information they contain is more readily available. Subscription journals can make life difficult for scientists in poor countries because they have to pay for every paper they want to read - the cost is generally between $30 - $50 per article. It would not be uncommon to have to read a couple of hundred papers or more to generate a scholarly reference list. These journals are also a problem for me as a freelance writer, because, as a small business, I can’t afford to maintain subscriptions, which can run several hundred dollars per year per journal. I can’t even access such papers electronically at a university library, because the subscriptions require that such access be limited to bona fide members of the institution that has the subscription. If a client had a job for me that required such access, I would have to pass the cost of obtaining the papers on to the client.

Some open access journals have been labelled as outright scams, because they will publish damn near anything if they are paid to do so. Here is an article that deals with the subject.

To my knowledge, PLoS One is one of the more respected open access journals. To their credit, the journal editors have decided to retract the paper. Of course, the fundies will totally ignore that part of it.

On a side note, I have always been perplexed by scientists who profess deeply held beliefs in mysticism. They seem to have a way to compartmentalize their minds, placing those facts that can be scientifically tested in one bin and those that must be taken on faith in another. I can’t do that because I believe that truth is objective by definition (and note that such a belief is not faith-based because it is self-evident). Also note that there is a difference in kind between assertions that may be scientifically testable in the future and others that will never be because they are strictly supernatural. Belief in a Creator falls into the latter camp, unless It turns out to be the Tralfamadorians. However, most such scientists that I have known would not insert their religious beliefs in a scientific article, though they might, for example, choose a field of study that does not conflict with their religion.

I'm wondering if Kent Hovind et al will look into this any further or continue to use it uncritically to support his conspiracy theories.

I do have to say though that I have my own peculiar view on this whole thing,  I'm wondering if there might in fact be some way to test the possiblity of intelligent design or perhaps more realistically the limits of randomness.  One of the reasons that Kent Hovind and Ken Ham and the like are succesful, I think, is that science cannot answer questions about ultimate purpose that people yearn to have answered.


Peter J Reilly CPA has been following the Kent Hovind drama since 2012.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Why I Like Kent Hovind

I have been following the travails of Young Earth Creationists Kent Hovind since 2012.  It was a legitmate tax story and I continue to follow it mainly because I find it interesting, but also because of reader encouragement.  I have been critical enough of Kent's innocence narrative to have some of his supporters think that I must be a government agent of sorts.

I can't say I know Kent Hovind.  I have only had brief email exchanges with him and spoke to him once.

I've dealt more with his main counsellor Ernie Land

During and after his trial last year Kent made the rounds of the right wing conspiracy bubble giving interviews in which he laid out his story of having been convicted of taking his own money out of his bank account to pay bills.  To be charitable it is an incomplete narrative, but I've discussed that enough elsewhere.  I think my interview was the only one where Kent's narrative was challenged.

Since his release Kent has been going great guns on His presentations are mainly answering questions that have been sent to him.  Kent seems perfect for youtube almost as if their correspondence is evidence of intelligent design.  He has almost 50,000 subscribers and his often twice daily, depending on his travel schedule, thirty minute or so podcasts generally get between five and ten thousand views.  I've been trying to figure out if that is enough to get some serious money from ads, but I'm not sure.  Ironically, the last video I watched about a controversy surrounding a scietnific article about the human hand that mention the Creator led with a tax compliance ad when I watched it. (You might see a different ad)

Kent frequently says things I find offensive, but he really goes over the top in that video, as he mocks the way people in Central Massachuesetts and civlized and enlightened people throughout the world, pronounce Worcester, enocouraging us to be more phonetical.  That is an aside though.

The focus on youtube by Kent and his supporters is a bit of a trial for me, as you have to invest more lifespan to find anything new than when you are dealing with people who mainly write.  Much of Kent's stuff is repetitive and some of it a little cringe worthy.  I could happily live the rest of my life without hearing about the Vaseline jar again (If you haven't, don't ask. Trust me.)

There is a benefit to the repitition though and that is that it has gotten me to take more of a liking to Kent Hovind.

One of his virtues is a very strong work ethic.  I don't know how he keeps up his pace of appearances and the podcasts along with orgainizing his new Dinosaur Adventureland. I find it inspirational.

Another virture is some degree of modesty.  He is willing to say "I don't know".  He could just as easily only select questions that he has an answer for, but he works through them and will sometimes answer particularly knotty theological questions with "I don't know". You might get that in every fourth video or so.

One of my favorite Kent Hovind sayings is "Chew (or maybe it is swallow) the meat and spit out the bones", which is what he says when he mentions a book or video by someone else that has material he thinks is good, but also has errors.  It is a really good piece of advice. ( Of course when I explain it to my covivant, who runs a vegetarian household here, it loses somehting in translation.)  It is a very important point.  I think you learn a lot more by listening to people who don't support your belief systems.  If somebody has view radically different from yours, possibly the most worthwhile thing you can do with them is see what you might learn from them.  Spending a lot of time on how wrong they are is mostly time wasted.

The main meat that I have taken from Kent Hovind is in a story that you will probably pick up in maybe every tenth video or so.  And that is his argument for living a purpose driven life.

The biggest event in Kent's life was when he was "saved" as a teenager.  Since that time his most fulfilling activity has been saving others.  You will hear him scorn for example sports, particularly golf (Trying to hit a ball into a hole in the ground).  He encourages his listeners to do the same thing to dedicate themselves to a purpose that is larger than the tivial things we obsess about.

When I explain basic Christian doctrine to my covivant, it is like her head is ready to explode. God is infinitely just and infinitely merciful, which created a dilemma when people screwed up causing them and their descendents to deserve infinite punishment.  The solution was to take the punishment on himself in the form of his son.

Now this can all be viewed as very metaphorical, When I asked my sister, a nun, about Original Sin, her response was "Something went wrong".  The Pope has no problem with evolution or a very old earth and universe.

Kent, of course, does not think it is metaphorical and that if your don't believe that the Bible, for English speakers that would be the King James transalation, is true in all its details, you will miss the salvation message and lose out for eternity.  That is the source of his passion for denouncing the "lie of evolution".

I don't doubt Kent's sincerity and think the evidence is pretty good that he in reality lives the absteminious life that he claims.  Given that his passion for his message is admirable.  You can find Kent at his most inspirational starting around 6:00 in the video below

Peter J Reilly CPA hopes to be the first tax blogger to give up his day job.  Doesn't look like Kent Hovind has done the trick for him.