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What Is Natural

The reverend William Paley developed the principle of natural theology.  In his central story, he wrote about finding a pocket watch on the ground as he crossed a heath.  Just by examining the intricate construction of the watch, he was able to determine that it was not a natural object, that it must have had a designer.  He noted that parts of living creatures, like a bird’s wing or a grasshopper’s leg, were perfectly designed for what they do.  They must have also had a designer.  There was no known natural process that could create such perfection of design.  The designer must be a supernatural entity.  His principle led to the modern idea of intelligent design.

Charles Darwin identified that natural process, one that was the mechanism of evolution.  It required two agencies, natural selection and deep time.  The accumulation of minute changes over millions of generations could produce this perfection of design.  I know that it seems impossible.  I know that it defies common sense.  Still, it’s certain to be correct.  This process has been proven many times to be the primary mechanism of evolution.  Charles Darwin, by the way, did not discover evolution.  It was already known.  His grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, knew about it, for example.  What Charles Darwin acutually discovered was the mechanism of evolution.

Perfection of design is not as good as some people thought.  Seeing it demands a certain amount of selectivity.  Certainly, a bird’s wing or a grasshopper’s leg are almost perfect.  Certainly, they are awesome and wonderful things.  Certainly there’s much to admire in the human body too.  If you look carefully, though, you will notice some imperfections, some legacies of our evolutionary ancestors.  The design of our spinal column, for example, has features that favoured walking on four legs rather than two.

Perfection of design is an illusion, albeit a very good one.  Evolution is the only natural process that can create such an illusion.  This principle has been reiterated by Steven Jay Gould in his book Dinosaur in a Haystack.

Darwin identified natural selection as one of the agents of evolution.  This was a good choice of words, reminding us easily of artificial selection.  We already understand how this is used in selective breeding, a technique that’s been used for centuries by plant breeders and animal breeders.  We already know how minute changes in each generation can result in plants or animals that are quite different from the original stock.

The other agent Darwin identified was deep time.  This is more difficult for us to understand since the times required are outside of our experience.  Our human lifetime is only about a hundred years.  All of human history is only about ten thousand years.  Six hundred millions years, the length of time that multi-cellular life has existed on earth, seems impossible to us.  To appreciate such things, we have to think in terms of geological times.  Fortunately, these have been well established through an enormous amount of scientific research.

When natural selection and deep time are combined, perfection of design is entirely possible, by the completely natural process of evolution.  There’s no longer any need to invoke a supernatural agent as the cause.  Nature was the designer.


A New Honda

About twelve days ago, I got a new car.  It was a 2015 Accord coupe.  I traded in my 2010 Accord.  A great deal had changed in five years.  The new car came with a thick manual, with a second smaller manual for the electronics.  I didn’t read every page of them, but I did read parts of them whenever I was not sure about how something worked.  I know that most people don’t bother reading manuals, but I always do.

I didn’t really need a new car.  My old one was working nicely.  I did like the new styling and new electronics, though.  I also liked the new colour choices, even though they were only black, white, and red.  I wanted a red one.  My dealer doesn’t order cars in that colour, only black, white, and silver.  In fact, there were none of them in the city.  The nearest one was in a different province, but that was what I wanted.  It was my red convertable, even though it wasn’t a convertable.

Many features of the new car were the same as my old one.  The pedals and the shift lever felt natural to me.  So did the light stalk on the left and the windshield stalk on the right.  The audio volume control and the cruse control on the steering wheel were the same too.  So were the window controls and the sunroof controls.  I was able to drive the car with very little to re-learn.  I got the same engine, too.  Honda has an excellent four-cylinder engine, probably the best in the industry.  It’s powerful and economical at the same time.  What more could you want.

Some features were completely different.  To unlock the car, with the key fob in my pocket, I only had to grasp the door handle.  To start the engine, I only had to step on the brake pedal, and press the big red button on the dash.  My new car had a backup camera and a power seat.  It had two display screens.  The lower one was touch-sensitive.  I only had to press the screen to change radio stations.  The CD player only held a single CD, unlike the one in my old car that was a changer.  However, my new one would play audio files from any USB device.  That’s a good trade-off.  My new one also had a continuously-variable automatic transmission.  It seemed to work just as well as before.

I liked the way that many features of the new car seemed familiar to me.  I liked the keyless entry almost immediately.  I learned to use it quickly, although I sometimes forget to leave my keys in my pocket.  I also liked the engine start button.  Still, I have to think about it for a fraction of a second before I press it.  I’m sure that will soon become an automatic action.  I’m also sure that, as I begin to use more features of the new car, I’ll grow to like them too.

I’ve been disappointed by the backup camera.  It does show me an image of what’s behind the car.  I suppose it would warn me that a child on a tricycle was behind my car.  Ordinarily though, the most prominant thing in the image are shadows on the pavement.  I don’t notice those at all when I look in the side mirrors or rear-view mirror.  Mostly, it’s confusing.  I can’t back up along my driveway by following the image from the backup camera.  It does have three different views, including one from the top.  Maybe I just need more practice with the camera.

All in all, I’m quite happy with the new car.  It’s certainly easy to drive.  It also has great looks, but I suppose that will change as the car gets older.


Front and Back

What do Uber, Airbnb, and the Amazon sellers have in common?  It’s called the sharing economy.  Maybe it’s even something new.  All of the front-end services are provided by a large company. Many individuals provide the back-end services.

The front-end services are things that an individual can’t do by themselves.  There’s a web site and an application for mobile devices that connects to this web site.  The web site supplies payment processing, often with a shopping cart.  The company provides their reputation as a good place to find all of these services.  They also notify the individual when back-end services are required.

Depending on type of product or service, the individual may be responsible for rides, accomodation, or inventory and shipping.  Still, the individual is not an employee of the company.  They do have a relationship, of course, but it’s more like they are a client of the company.  They contract with the company for the front-end services that they can provide.  They need these services to operate their end of the business.  In fact, they are more like a small business that needs services from a large business.  Since one of these services is payment processing, they do get paid by the company.  Because there are so many of them, they also compete with other back-end suppliers.

Back-end suppliers are a new business model.  The large company makes it easy for them to start up.  It’s something they could do part time, at least at first.  They are a business, though.  They will be treated as a business for taxation purposes.  For some, it will become a full time business.  For some, it will become their only source of income.  What can they do if this income is inadequate?  It’s a small business after all, perhaps one with no employees except for the owner.  The’re not in a position to make demands of the large company.  Somebody else will always be happy to accept what the company provides.  I can’t see much happiness here.’


False Witness

Recent scientific studies have shown that memory is completely different from the way it seems.  Memories are malleable;  they can be implanted or modified.  I already wrote a blog about this aspect of memory.  One of the consequences is that eyewitness testimony can be unreliable, even though courts prefer eyewitness testimony to circumstantial evidence.

One experiment showed  how easy it was to get people to confess to crimes that they had not committed.  All it took was prolonged interrogation with repeated accusations.  Pretty soon most of the subjects were providing new details of these crimes.  In another experiment, under aggressive questioning, subjects began to accuse other people of committing a purported crime.  It was the threat of punishment that drove them to provide the false testimony.

Here’s a practical example of how witnesses in a murder case were manipulated into providing false testimony in court.  The police had very little evidence in this case, other than the stories told by witnesses.  It does seem as if they had identified a suspect early in the investigation but these witnesses exonerated him.  They used prolonged and intensive interrogation until two of them changed their stories.  Then they charged their suspect with the crime.  He was convicted and sent to prison.

This case does not prove that police interrogation was at fault, but it does raise a whole series of questions.  Did these witnesses initially lie to protect their friend?  Did they change their stories as a way to stop the interrogation?  Did their memories of the events of the murder actually change during interrogation?  Did they believe they were telling the truth when they gave that false testimony in court?

Who can the law trust now?  Who can juries believe?  What has to change in our legal system?  I have no doubt that the legal system can accomodate recent findings on the unreliability of eyewitness testimony.


Dinner After Eight

I was on my tour of the Yukon.  It was early July, a time of 24-hour daylight above the Arctic Circle.  We were staying at a hotel in Inuvik.  The weather forecast posted at the front desk of the hotel said “cloudy today and sunny all night”.  In the morning, we were waiting for the fog to clear at Tuktoyaktuk so we could fly there.  Our guide kept us posted on flight conditions.  We had time for lunch in Inuvik.  After lunch, we headed for the airport and boarded our Twin Beech for the short flight to Tuktoyaktuk.  They call it Tuk there.  We had a tour of the townsite in a 12-passenger van.  The first thing our driver told us, when we were parked right across from the RCMP office, was that nobody wears seat belts in Tuk.  We believed him.  After a very interesting tour of the townsite, including a view of the Arctic Ocean with the pack ice just offshore, we all lined up at the Northern Store to use the staff washroom.

Our return trip to Inuvik was by boat through the islands and channels of the Mackenzie Delta.  It was a long trip, about five hours.  Our driver pointed out the ice-scoured sides of the islands.  I asked him how long ago it was that the ice went out.  About three weeks, he said.  There was a lot to see in the delta, but we were all tired and hungry when we finally climbed out of the boat back at Inuvik.  It was about 8 pm.  We hadn’t had anything to eat since lunch.  The sun was still high in the sky, but it was getting late.

When we finally arrived back at our hotel, our guide told us that the restaurant was closed, but we could still order food in the bar.  We all agreed to meet there after a quick trip to our rooms.  At the bar, however, we found out that we couldn’t order food there because the restaurant was closed.  Didn’t they know that it was still bright daylight outside?  Our guide then told us that we could bring in pizza to the bar.  He’d done that before.  The waitress agreed that we could do that.  Our guide went out to pick up our pizza order.

We each ordered a beer.  Yukon Gold is a popular brand.  Soon we were eating pizza with our beer.  Our waitress told us we all had to leave the bar by 10:30.  A few minutes later, the manager came over and told us the same thing.  Clearly it was a serious matter.  Their liquor licence was at risk if we stayed later.  We assured her that we would be gone by then.  What a rush!  I had to gobble my pizza.  Some people didn’t finish their beer.  Still, we left just before the deadline.  It was a long day, but a memorable one.


Password Security

Many people use easily-guessable passwords like `123456′ or `qwerty’.  Hackers can compute millions of password hashes per second.  Your passwords are in great danger.  That’s the alarming information that we hear every day.  How much of it is really true?

Experts tell us to use long complex passwords.  They advise us to memorize them and not write them down.  They tell us to change all of our passwords frequently.  Don’t they realize that what they are telling us is impossible to do?

The reality is somewhat different.  To understand it, you first need to know how passwords are used for authentication.  They are never used directly.  Instead, a hash is computed from the password that you have offered.  This hash is simply a long string of bytes calculated by a known procedure.  In the case of authenticating (proving your identity) to a web site, a copy of this hash is stored on the web site, along with hashes from everybody else who uses the site.  In the case of logging in to your computer, tablet, or mobile phone, a copy of this hash is stored on the device.  Next, the hash from the password you offered is compared to the hash that was previously stored.  If they are equal, you are granted the access you requested.

Indeed, an attacker can generate millions of hashes per second from a list of trial passwords.  These hashes are useless unless they match the one stored at the site or on your device.  They need to be verified somehow.  The only practical way to verify them is to compare the two hashes.  To do this, the attacker needs access to the hashes on the web site or on your own device.  Breaking in to the web site or your device is the only way to get them.  Most web sites are well protected against break-ins.  Your device should be protected too.  Without these hashes, the attacker cannot use the hashes they have generated, even if they have guessed your password.

The latest thing in authentication is biometrics.  All you need is a scan of your fingerprint or the iris of your eye.  These are guaranteed to be unique to you.  You don’t have to type anything.  You don’t even have to remember anything.  It’s much more convenient.  Why isn’t it used everywhere?

For one thing, it still involves a hash, this time taken from the unchangeable elements of your fingerprint or iris scan.  The hash will be sent to the web site, to be compared to the one already stored there.  Don’t expect an exact match, though.  Your scan changes a bit each time.  The hash changes a bit too.  The web site can only determine a probability that it’s you at the other end.

This authentication method can still be compromised.  You leave fingerprints everywhere.  Your fingers or your eye are photographed frequently.  That’s all an attacker needs to pretent to be you.  What do you do if your scan is compromised?  How do you change your biometric password?  I suppose you could switch to another finger.  You have ten of them.  Eyes are more of a problem because you only have two.  I wouldn’t jump to biometrics just yet.

Your passwords are not really in danger, as long as you follow some simple advice.  The first thing is to protect your local computer, tablet, or mobile phone from intrusion.  If your security fails there, all is lost: everything you do on that device will be visible to the intruder.  Protecting your local device is essential.  As well, make sure that any passwords you use locally, such as your password for logging in to the device, are stored locally.  Don’t store passwords on the cloud, even though it may be convenient.

You should be using high quality passwords for every site, including your local device.  These also should be different for each site.  That way, if one site is compromised, the people who did it won’t have access to all your other sites.  You won’t be able to remember all of these passwords.  Write them down someplace that’s secure, or keep them in a password manager.  I know that it’s possible to use a web browser to save all of your passwords, but I recommend using a real password manager instead.  You’ll still need to remember the one password for the password manager, but it’s only one.  Even if that password is long and complex, you’ll remember it because you use it so often.  I speak from experience.


Food Preferences

Two articles on the web recently came together to raise some questions.  One mentioned that apricots were domesticated thousands of years ago in China.  How are foods domesticated?  The other was a report on a scientific study.  It indicated that certain food additives were bad for our health.  Why are these things in our food anyway?

With a little thought, you will realize that almost everything we eat comes from domesticated fruit, vegetables, or animals.  A few come from wild sources, of course, but not many.  The fish we eat are mostly wild, but this is changing as wild stocks are depleted and fish farming grows.

If you look at a seed catalogue, you will quickly discover that there are many varieties of each plant.  All of those varieties have been developed by selective breeding.  They have been selected to be superior in the marketplace or appealing to the gardener.  Fruit varieties are generally selected for sweetness.  Varieties of domestic animals were also developed by selective breeding.

My brother gave me a package of dried apricots as a Christmas gift.  According to the nutrition label, they are about 60% sugar.  No wonder they taste so good.  Those much maligned chocolate covered cerial bars are only about 35% sugar.  Dried apricots, or any dried fruit for that matter, is not the healthy snack you thought it was.

Of course, the food companies know exactly what we prefer.  They use panels of ordinary people to rate foods according to sweetness, texture, flavour, and mouth feel.  They produce foods to meet our preferences exactly.  We get what we like.

In the grocery store, fruit and vegetables have to be perfect or we leave them on the shelf.  We won’t buy misshapen vegetables or spotted fruit.  We also won’t buy things like fruit drinks that have separated in the bottle, even if the label tells us to shake well.  We are very particular in what we will accept.

That article on food additives used ice cream as an example.  Why are emulsifiers even necessary in ice cream?  Apparently they are.  In addition to preventing separation in liquids like fruit drinks and salad dressings, they improve the texture of many foods.  That ice cream may appear more creamy because of emulsifiers.  They can also substitute for higher cost ingredients while retaining the appeal of the food.  It may seem like homemade ice cream, but cost a lot less.

Some people say that all processed food is full of chemicals.  Names that you can’t pronounce are usually called chemicals in this context.  I suppose that they mean manufactured unnatural ingredients with scientific names.  They presumably equate unnatural with unhealthy.  This attitude can’t be correct; most food additives are beneficial and harmless, regardless of their names.  Some, of course, might be harmful, but this can only be established by scientific study.  The food producers are counteracting this fear of chemicals by finding natural-appearing names for them, and by switching to natural-source additives.  They are doing this, not because these additives are harmful, but in an effort to make the food more appealing to customers.

We all expect food to be attractive, healthy, and low in cost.  Much of this drive for quality is a result of competition between food companies.  We like food to be just like homemade, but quicker and cheaper.  Certainly companies want their products to be as healthy as possible, and want to let you know this is so.  All of their ingredients have been approved by government agencies.  Approved additives should not be harmful, but some may turn out to be harmful in ways that nobody suspected.

Generally, we get high quality food and low prices, as a result of competition between food companies.  However, our food choices can be manipulated by advertizing or swayed by fashion or fad.  In general, though, we want what the companies believe we want.  We value sweetness.  We want quality, as it appears to us.  The companies are correct, at least for the majority.  Other people may want something completely different.  I’m sure they will have a harder time finding what they want.



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