The Olympic Spectacle

English: The Olympic Flag flying in Victoria, ...

English: The Olympic Flag flying in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, outside the provincial legislature of British Columbia, in recognition of Vancouver’s hosting of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Olympics of course roll around every four years. I’m not particularly a sports fan, and in fact I don’t think that I’ve watched any of it this time, except for the excerpts on the evening news show. That doesn’t stop me feeling pleased whenever one of my countrymen wins a medal.

But much of the Olympics is not about the sport. Much of it is to do with how the host nation is coping with the huge sporting event, and this time the host nation, Brazil, has come under fire for a number of reasons. Obviously big spending on sport in a poor country is not a good look, and if things go wrong with the accommodation or the actual venues, then it looks even worse.

Unfortunately it’s the nature of the beast for things to go wrong. There is a high need for accommodation, for athletes and officials and this pretty much has to be flung up in a hurry given the short time frames. Hence athletes arrive to find unfinished quarters and other such issues.

The same is true of the venues. In a country like Brazil where there isn’t a lot of money to spare, things like water pollution are a fact of life, and a rushed clean up is not going to fix that. Even in this country harbours and marinas can sometimes be less that perfectly clean. Such is life, in spite of strenuous efforts to clean things up.

I believe it to be true that many of these sports venues may become white elephants after the games, especially those for the minor sports. It is unlikely that there will be the level of usage from local athletes after the Games that would permit them to be kept open. The accommodation areas may fare better in this respect as there is always a demand for accommodation. I believe that this is true for all past Olympic host nations, at least to some extent.

The Olympic Games do draw people to the host country, to spend money on tickets and accommodation, not to mention the myriad of trinkets and souvenirs that they will no doubt purchase. It’s questionable however whether or not the host country is going to profit in either the short term or the longer term from the Games. Of course they hope that people will enjoy themselves and maybe return to spend more money.

News crews having been going out in Rio and asking the locals their opinions on the Games, and naturally, they are not very positive about them. If you are living in sub-standard accommodation and you see millions being spent on short term accommodation for visitors who will only occupy them for a few weeks, you would likely not be positive either. The locals’ opinions on the news crews who ask silly questions is not, however, recorded.

Most nations have one or two representatives. When a really small nation gets a medal of any colour, the world’s press tend to descend on the winner and breathlessly ask the same old questions. “How does it feel to win a medal?” and “How will the folks back home be feeling right now?”. Of course the athletes are ecstatic and the folks back home will be proud too. Such cookie cutter question and answer session are so predictable that they become amusing.

Medal presentation at the 1936 Berlin Olympic ...

Medal presentation at the 1936 Berlin Olympic games, Sivano Abba-Italy (3rd place) Gotthard Handrick-Germany (1st place) Charles Leonard-USA (2nd place) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, that not a comment on the amazing achievements of the athletes from small nations who win medals, some of whom will have scrimped and saved to attend the games and may not have had the opportunity to be coached by the best coaches, but it’s a comment on the predictability of the media’s responses.

Nations always have high hopes for their athletes, and are unreasonably disappointed when they come up against the best in the world and don’t do too well. Of course the athletes from a small nation don’t have the resources and coaches that the larger nations do, and so when an athlete from a small nation claims a medal, it is a significant event, not that this diminishes in any way the achievements of the athletes from the larger nations.

There are many unique features of the Rio Olympic Games. One of them is the presence of athletes who are competing as refugees. They have (so far) obtained two medals, a gold and a bronze in shooting. These athletes (there are 10 of them) have undergone great hardships, often travelling long distances through multiple countries, and to nevertheless be able to take part in the Olympic Games and even win some medals shows a great deal of fortitude.

Another is the perceived risk from the Zika virus. It’s commendable that so many athletes have ignored the risk and come to Rio anyway. The only group that stayed away purportedly for this reason were some of the golfers. As the linked articles suggest there may have been other reasons for their absence.

Brazil is not known as a particularly safe country to be in, though it isn’t thought to be as dangerous as many countries can be. However, there does not seem to have been much in the way of trouble between the local population and the athletes, support staff and spectators who have come to Rio.

One notable exception was the case of four American competitors who were supposedly robbed at gunpoint while celebrating a medal win. As it turned out, what really happened was that the four were drunk and trashed a service station. The station’s security guard pulled a gun to prevent them driving off and made them pay US$50 to cover the damage that they had done.

Scandals are part of the Olympics, and the drugs scandal has been the worst so far. At one stage it looked as if the whole Russian team was going to be banned, as it was alleged that there was a government led doping programme in place.

While it was evident that some athletes do take performance enhancing drugs, the fact that in Russia this was actively encouraged by the state was a shock. In the end Russian athletes who could prove that they were clean were allowed to compete. While this is good for the athletes themselves, it was a let off for the Russian state doping scheme. This is not a good look for sport and unfair to other athletes.

 

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More on Quantum things

English: Schrödinger equation of quantum mecha...

English: Schrödinger equation of quantum mechanics (1927). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Schrodinger’s wave equation describes how the quantum state of a quantum system changes with time. Everett’s insight was that the observer of a quantum state was as much part of the system as the observed part of the system. Therefore they were “entangled” in the quantum sense and would be covered by a single quantum state equation.

If the observer and the observed are thus entangled, then so must be an observer who observes the quantum state of the observer and the observed. One can then extend this to the whole universe, which leads to the concept of a wave equation or function which describes the whole Universe.

English: Quantum mechanics travelling wavefunc...

English: Quantum mechanics travelling wavefunctions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That there is an equation for the universe is not really surprising and indeed, it is not surprising that it could be a quantum wave equation as the quantum world seems to form the basis of the physical, apparently classically described, world that we see.

I base this idea on the fact that everything that we sees appears to be describable in terms of a deterministic equation. It has been argued that such things as “psi phenomena“, but such claims are yet to be conclusively verified, with many putative examples having been discredited.

Some people argue for a soul or mind as an example of a non-physical entity, but any such concept leaves a lot of questions to be asked. A non-physical entity cannot, by definition almost, be measured in any way, and there is difficulty in showing how such a non-physical entity can interact with physical ones, and therefore be noticed or detected.

By definition almost, a physical entity, such a body, is only influenced by physical things. If this were not the case we would see physical entities not following the laws of physics. For example, if it is possible to move an object by mind power or telekinesis, one would see the object disobeying fundamental scientific laws, like Newton’s First Law of Motion.

English: Isaac Newton Dansk: Sir Isaac Newton ...

English: Isaac Newton Dansk: Sir Isaac Newton Français : Newton (1642-1727) Bahasa Indonesia: Issac Newton saat berusia 46 tahun pada lukisan karya Godfrey Kneller tahun 1689 Lietuvių: Seras Izaokas Niutonas 1689-aisiais Македонски: Сер Исак Њутн на возраст од 46 години (1689) Nederlands: Newton geboren 4 januari 1643 Türkçe: Sir Isaac Newton. (ö. 20 Mart 1727) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The mind is a curious example of a physical entity which is often thought of as being non-physical. After all, a mind does not have a physical location, apart from the skull of the person whose mind it is, and it can’t be weighed as such.

The mind however is a pattern, on the brain, made up of the state of trillions of neurones. It is made up of information, and is much like a computer program which is made up of the state of a few billion physical logic circuits in the guts of the computer.

Vista de la Motherboard

Vista de la Motherboard (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Open a computer and you won’t see “an image” anywhere. You will see patterns of bits of data in the memory, or on the hard disk, or maybe in transit, being sent to a computer screen. Similarly if you open someone’s skull you will not see an image there either. Just a bunch of neurones in particular states.

The one glaring exception to all the above, is, perhaps, consciousness. It’s hard to describe consciousness in terms of a pattern or patterns of the states of our neurones, but I believe that that is fundamentally what it is.

Schéma d'un neurone , commenté en francais

Schéma d’un neurone , commenté en francais (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some people argue that we are conscious beings, (true), and that we consciously make choices (false, in my opinion). When we look closely at any choice that we make, it appears to be that choice is in fact illusory, and that our actions are determined by prior factors.

People seem to realise this, although they don’t acknowledge it. When questioned, there is always some reason that they “choose” in a particular way. Perhaps they don’t have enough cash to choose the luxury option when out shopping, or their desire outweighs their financial state. When pushed people can always think of a reason.

English: A choice of which way to go The choic...

English: A choice of which way to go The choices are a path to Greengore or Intack or the Old Clitheroe Road (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To be sure, many “reasons” are actually post choice rationalisations, and choices may be based more on emotions than valid rational reasons, but whatever the emotions (such as the desire for an object), the emotions precede decision.

If, as sometimes happens, a person has to make a choice between two alternatives, that person can be almost paralysed with indecision. Even then, when a decision is finally made, it can be either a random choice, or maybe the person may say that they made a particular choice because they had decided a different way in another situation, or similar (e.g. they like the colour blue!).

English: Choose your leaders and place your trust

English: Choose your leaders and place your trust (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If there is no non-physical component to the Universe, as appears very likely, and psi phenomenon do not exist, then everything has a cause. I don’t mean this in the sense that event A causes event B which causes C, but more in the sense that the slope that a marble is on causes it to move in a particular direction.

Causality seems to be a continuum thing, rather than the discrete A causes B case. We can only get an approximation of the discrete case if we exclude all other options. There is a latin term for this : ceteris paribus – all other things being kept the same. “Ceteris paribus” would exclude the case where a wind blowing up or across the slope changes the path of the marble.

English: Picture of marbles from my collection

English: Picture of marbles from my collection (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For this reason I dislike the Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Physics, as it is usually stated. The usual metaphor is a splitting movie film, which results in two distinct tracks in the future. I feel that a better picture would be a marble on a slope with a saddle.

The marble may go left, or it may go right, or it may even follow the line of the saddle. We still require “ceteris paribus” to exclude crosswinds, but there is no split as such. In a quantum model, the marble goes both left and right (and traverses the peak of the saddle with vanishing probability).

Monkey saddle

Monkey saddle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The probability that it goes left or right is determined by the wave equation for the system, and has a real physical meaning, which it doesn’t (so far as my knowledge goes) in the splitting metaphor.

I don’t know how my speculations stack up against the realities of quantum mechanics, but I like my interpretation, purely on aesthetic grounds, even if it is far from the mark!

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Many worlds or only one?

English: Position and momentum of a particle p...

English: Position and momentum of a particle presented in the phase space. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Scientists often use the concept of a “phase space“, which is basically a representation of all the possible states that a system may be in. For the trajectory of a thrown stone for instance, the phase space would be a four-dimensional space, comprising the three dimensions of space, which define where the stone is, and one of time, which defines when the stone is in a particular position.

The trajectory of the stone is a line in this 4-d space, as the location and time information about the stone is known exactly. However, the stone is not a point and maybe be spinning at the same time that the whole object is flying through the air. This means that the trajectory would actually be a complex four-dimensional worm in phase space.

An animated GIF of a tesseract

An animated GIF of a tesseract (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What if we were to introduce a probability factor into the experiment? Maybe we would set up the projectile to be triggered by an atomic decay or something similar. We would get a different worm depending on how long the atom takes to decay.

Clearly, if we want to show the all of the possible versions of the worm, the worm now becomes a sort of 4 dimensional sheet. Well, more like a 4-d duvet really, as the stone is not a point object.

Bedding comforter or duvet. Français : Couette...

Bedding comforter or duvet. Français : Couette (literie). Deutsch: Daunendecke, umgangssprachlich Federbett. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Within the 4-d duvet, each worm represents a case where the atom has decayed, and each of these cases has a probability associated with it. The probability can be expressed as the probability that the atom has decayed by that time or not, and can run from one to zero.

Actually the probability starts from zero and approaches one but doesn’t quite reach it. In practise in a group of atoms some will decay quickly and others will take longer. If there are a finite number of them, then the chances of any one lasting a long, long time are quite small, and all of the atoms are likely to decay in a moderately short time, a few multiples of the half-life anyway. However there will be a finite but microscopic in the extreme possibility, that an atom will survive for as long as you may consider.

We can add another dimension to the phase space, one of probability. This gives us a five dimensional phase space, and the duvet becomes five dimensional. However, an atom decays at a certain time, and there is a single five dimensional worm in the phase space going forward. The space is no longer a phase space though, as a phase space, by definition, describes all possible states of the rock/launcher/atomic trigger, and doesn’t change.

According to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics the state of a quantum system is described by a set of probabilities. When a measurement of the system is made the state becomes certain, and it is said that the waveform described by the probability function has “collapsed”.

Copenhagen

Copenhagen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The famous thought experiment of Schrodinger’s Cat is a description of the difficulties of such a case. The cat is enclosed in a box equipped with a mechanism which will release a poison and kill the cat if triggered by the decay of an atom. At some time after the experiment starts the atom may or may not have decayed so the quantum states “decayed” and “not decayed” are superimposed, and therefore so are the states “dead” and “not dead” of the cat.

How do we know if the stone has been fired yet? Well, we go and look to see, and we either see the stone in its launcher or we don’t. Quantum physics says that the stone exists in a superposition of states – launcher and not launched. The question this raises is, if this is so, how does looking at the stone “collapse” the superposition when we look?

Three wavefunction solutions to the Time-Depen...

Three wavefunction solutions to the Time-Dependent Schrödinger equation for a harmonic oscillator. Left: The real part (blue) and imaginary part (red) of the wavefunction. Right: The probability of finding the particle at a certain position. The top two rows are the lowest two energy eigenstates, and the bottom is the superposition state \psi_N = (\psi_0+\psi_1)/\sqrt{2} , which is not an energy eigenstate. The right column illustrates why energy eigenstates are also called “stationary states”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That quantum superposition is real is indicated by any number of experiments, even though many physicists working in the field (including Schrodinger himself) have expressed discomfort at the idea.

In quantum physics the evolution of everything is defined by the Universal Wave Function. This can be used to predict the future of any quantum physical system (and all physical systems are fundamentally quantum physical systems). Unfortunately for easy understanding, interpretation leads to the superposition problem mentioned above.

Many people have tried to resolve this issue, and the best success has been achieved by the exponents of the Many Worlds Interpretation (MWI), as described by Everett and championed by Bryce DeWitt and David Deutsch. The view of the MWI exponents is that the Universal Wave Function is fundamental and expresses a true picture of all reality. All of it, that is. Not just a physical system and its observer.

Everett’s view, as described in his thesis, is that an observer, as well as the object that he is observing is a subsystem of the system described by the Universal Wave Function. The wave function of these two subsystems does not describe a single state for each of these subsystems, but the states of the two subsystems are superposed, or in Everett’s term, correlated.

en:Many-worlds interpretation

en:Many-worlds interpretation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When a particle is observed it may appear to be in state A 70% of the time (correlated with a state A for the observer). Similarly it may appear to be in state B 30% of the time (correlated with a state B for the observer). This led Everett to postulate a ‘split’ of the universe into a state A and a state B.  (The term ‘split’ appears to come from DeWitt’s interpretation of Everett’s work).

The probabilities don’t seem to have a function in this model, and this is odd. The probability that the cat is dead when you open the depends on how long you wait until you open the box. If you wait a long time the cat will more likely be dead than if you opened it earlier.

English: Diagram of Schrodinger's cat theory. ...

English: Diagram of Schrodinger’s cat theory. Roughly based on Image:Schroedingerscat3.jpg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This means that the world splits when the cat is put in the box, as from any moment it can be alive or dead, but you do not find out which branch you are in until you open the box sometime later.

I’m ambivalent about the MWI. On the one hand it is a good explanation of what happens when a measurement is made or the cat’s box is opened, and it does away with the need for a waveform collapse, which Everett argued against in his paper. However it is profligate in terms of world creation.

English: Schrödinger's Cat, many worlds interp...

English: Schrödinger’s Cat, many worlds interpretation, with universe branching (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another issue is that the split is decidedly binary. The cat is alive in this world and dead in that one. However most other physical processes are, at the macro level anyway, continuous. When a scientist takes a measurement he writes down, for example, 2.5, but this is only inaccurate value as it is impossible to measure something exactly and it may be wrong by up to 0.05 on either side of 2.5 (given the one decimal point value shown).

Consequently, I’d prefer an interpretation where there is no split, but instead a continuum of possibilities as part of a single world. Maybe the single path that we tread through life is an illusion and across the Universe, by virtue of the Universal Wave Function, we experience all possibilities, though to us it feels like we are only experiencing the one.

 

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What comes next?

Second round of the French presidential electi...

Second round of the French presidential election of 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Democracy is the system of government favour by most enlightened countries. It’s a simple system, where all citizens can partake in making decisions about the state’s affairs. It sounds fair, doesn’t it? However, many people can’t be bothered to actually take part – often fewer than half the eligible voters actually bother to vote.

This is good in one sense and bad in another. It’s good because it shows that the government is pretty much doing what the voters want, otherwise they would be up in arms, and it is bad because it devolves the running of the country to a few motivated individuals, who naturally favour their own views on what is good for the country.

Southern Sudanese wait in line to vote at poll...

Southern Sudanese wait in line to vote at polling center in Al Gezira state in northern Sudan on January 10, 2011. Mirella McCracken/USAID. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If we look at our fellow citizens, we see people like us. We see people with the same point of view as us. We see people with opposite points of view. We see a fair number of weirdos and nutters. We see people who are intelligent, we see people who can only be called dumb.

All these people have the same ability to decide who runs the country as we do. Democracy averages out the abilities and views of the voting population, and once again this is good and bad. It is good because everyone has an input in the running of the country and bad because any decision is dumbed down to the average voter who has average intelligence.

The Representative of Humanity, detail of a sc...

The Representative of Humanity, detail of a sculpture in wood by Rudolf Steiner and Edith Maryon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Democracy is nevertheless the best system that we have used so far, at least in the opinion of most of the voters in a democracy! Many other countries aspire to being democratic in the medium term.

Most countries don’t have direct democracy. The citizens can’t all go along to where the government plies its business and have a direct say in what happens. Most democracies are representative democracies, where the people in a geographic area select one of their number to go along and make the decisions on their behalf. Such selections happen on a regular basis, so that voters can review their selection for their representative and change it if necessary.

Pictured here is former Chinese Chairman Mao Z...

Pictured here is former Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong announcing the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1 1949. Italiano: Immagine di Mao Tse-tung che proclama la nascita della Repubblica Popolare Cinese l’1 ottobre 1949 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In recent years this country has moved further away from direct democracy and a new type of representative helps govern the country. This new type is selected not by the people themselves but by a political party. Voters have to vote for one party or another to affect the selection of these party representatives, and this removes from the voters the ability to directly select about half the representatives.

So, as we move further and further away from direct democracy, we have to decide if this is ultimately good or bad, and whether or not we need to replace democracy with some other system of governing our countries.

English: BANGKOK. President Putin at the final...

English: BANGKOK. President Putin at the final meeting of the heads of state and government of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation countries. Русский: БАНГКОК. На заключительном заседании глав государств и правительств стран – участниц организации Азиатско-Тихоокеанского экономического сотрудничества. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the past we have tried many other systems. We have tried feudalism, where one person governs a smallish area and has a great deal more rights than the peasants, but that was slowly overturned as power was drained from the rulers and, mostly, given to the peasants.

Feudalism can’t have been all bad, given the times, as it would have been a bad idea for the lord to severely mistreat his serfs, as the serfs did all the work of raising crops and cattle, and if the serfs weren’t able to work, the lord went hungry. The lord also provided protection to the serfs in his domain, should a neighbouring lord fancy what the serfs created.

The local bigwig may not have been a lord. Religion was strong in those times and the ruler may have been a priest or bishop. The biggest bigwig of all, would be the king (or sometimes the queen). The bigwigs were ranked and only the most powerful got to advise the king – the whole system was basically a pyramid.

Even when the feudal system died out, royalty and the system of titles and rights persisted. Some rights have persisted anachronistically to this day – for instance the right to graze pigs on acorns on common land may still exist, even though the right may not be exercised.

English: Rooting piglets alongside the B3078, ...

English: Rooting piglets alongside the B3078, New Forest These are just five of many piglets that have been occupying the verges of the B3078 as it passes through Brook Wood and up to Long Cross between Ravens Nest Inclosure and Salisbury Trench Inclosure. Pigs are ‘turned out’ onto the open Forest during the pannage season, in order to eat the acorns that would otherwise poison the ponies. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many countries do not have democracy, but they do have a ruler or ruling class. This ruler has almost as many rights as a king, but he or she only rules because he or she has the power base to allow him or her to do so. Usually but not always this requires at least the cooperation of the military, and the top dog may well be a member of the military.

All rulers stand the risk of being replaced. Some rulers may still officially rule, but with reduced powers and rights. Queen Elizabeth II is one such ruler, and she may be replaced with some other titular head of state at some stage, perhaps a President. Other rulers may be overturned by force, by revolution, and this is a frequent case where the ruler is heavy-handed and oppressive.

Elizabeth II wearing babushka-type headscarf a...

Elizabeth II wearing babushka-type headscarf at a meeting with Ronald Reagan, 1982. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whatever the political system, even in communist systems where all are supposedly equal, there is a “head of state”. Usually he/she is a powerful individual and the government he/she presides over may be democratic or not. The President of the USA is frequently called the most powerful man (or maybe, soon, woman) on Earth and the USA is nominally democratic.

Our democracies seem to be hierarchical, as do our non-democracies. While democracy seems to work, more or less, in many countries, other countries seem to get along with other systems. Some have heads of state who are called dictators as they rely on power to remain at the top.

Charlie Chaplin from the end of film The Great...

Charlie Chaplin from the end of film The Great Dictator (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes a powerful country will force democracy onto such countries, but it doesn’t always work properly. This rises the question as to whether or not democracy is the best system for such countries, and perhaps it isn’t.

Democracy is the best system that we have come up with so far, but all systems eventually change or mutate and are replaced with other systems. Maybe democracy will be looked on in the future as being a quaint system that was only a step or two better than feudalism.

English: Night of August 4th, abolition of feu...

English: Night of August 4th, abolition of feudality and fiscal privileges Français : Nuit du 4 août, abolition des privilèges (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Or maybe online systems will enhance democracy so that it becomes an accurate and agreeable way of running countries. I doubt it as most people will not partake in online democracies through lack of interest or motivation. A true democracy requires everyone to take part fully in governing a country.

English: Voters at the voting booths in 1945 C...

English: Voters at the voting booths in 1945 CREDIT: “Voters at the Voting Booths.” ca. 1945. NAACP Collection, The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship, Library of Congress. Americans Observed the First Uniform Election Day Source: LOC (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Democracy – maybe we should try it sometime

We in the rest of the world are watching the run up to the Presidential elections in the USA in November. It has now been decided who the two main contenders will be, Hilary Clinton for the Democrats and Donald Trump for the Republicans. In the USA, there are no significant other parties, so it is very highly likely that the next President of the United States will be one of these two people.

An extraordinary fact is that many US citizens dislike both candidates, with one Republican commentator saying that people might be choosing the lesser of the two evils. Trump is seen as brash and unversed in politics and Clinton is seen as being untrustworthy.

US President Bill Clinton (center with hand up...

US President Bill Clinton (center with hand up), first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to right of photo; their daughter Chelsea Clinton to left. On procession in public. The President, First Lady, and Chelsea on parade down Pennsylvannia Avenue on Inauguration day, January 20, 1997. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, how did the US voter get left with a choice between two unpopular candidates? The US has a candidate selection process which is complex and unwieldy. A special subset of voters vote on the candidates who present themselves, and the sequential nature of the selection process turns the selection into a horse race, with candidates vying to “collect” the delegates in each state and achieve a threshold which means that they cannot be beaten by other candidates.

Each state selects the candidates using a different method, and there are different numbers of “delegates” in different states. Of course a mining state may and often does prefer a different candidate to the candidate preferred by a farming state. Commentators try to out guess each other in predicting the results, state by state.

Map of number of electoral votes by state afte...

Map of number of electoral votes by state after redistricting from the 2000 census. Modified by User:Theshibboleth for the font to be consistent with electoral maps. Edited with Inkscape. Reuploaded by User:King of Hearts to correct spelling (vs. Image:Electorial map.svg). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The wonder of the system is that it often throws up a candidate who has a reasonable amount of public support, in spite of the complexity of the process. This time however, it appears that the selection process has thrown up two candidates who don’t appear to appeal to the electorate. The voters do indeed have to select “the lesser of the two evils”.

In most democracies around the world things tend to be simpler. A candidate puts him or herself up for election, and he or she gets voted for or not as people choose. Of course, a candidate who aligns with a party needs to get the party’s approval, and cannot stand under the party banner without it.

English: National Awami Party (Muzaffar) banne...

English: National Awami Party (Muzaffar) banner at opposition rally, Dhaka. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However the above describes the process for electing a local representative. A presidential election raises extra problems. For instance, in the US the president is always a member of a political party. In countries where the president is preferred to be independent and outside of party politics issues arise in his/her selection.

If the president is elected directly by the populace the potential candidates will need to campaign countrywide when seeking election, and this will be expensive. The candidate therefore has to be very rich, sponsored by some organisation or be aligned with a party. The last two options work against the requirement for the president to be independent, and the first option restricts the field to those who have a large amount of money, which may be unacceptable or not achievable in a poor country.

English: Seal of the Executive Office of the P...

English: Seal of the Executive Office of the President of the United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many countries, including India and the US have got around this by using an electoral college system, though few systems could be as convoluted as the US method of selecting a candidate to stand for election as president. Such a system uses the fact that the population has already elected individuals to government, and uses the already elected individuals to decide on the candidates for president or select the president directly.

While this means that the most powerful political parties select and maybe elect the president, the representatives are doing what they are elected for, which is to make decisions on behalf of their voters. The elected representatives often select someone who may not be the most preferred by the grass roots electorate, but generally the selected person is not too disliked.

English: Sheep pasture The sheep have eaten th...

English: Sheep pasture The sheep have eaten the grass down to the roots, and must appreciate the fodder put out for them in these wheeled feeders. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the case of the latest selection process for US president, the Democrats have selected Hilary Clinton as the most likely Democrat candidate to win, and while this is true, polls show that there is a lack of trust in her at the grass roots level. It is unlikely that this factor will weigh too heavily with the voter come the election, though.

The Republicans have selected Donald Trump, in spite of the belief early in the process that he stood no chance. The Republicans believe that he is the best choice of prevailing over Hilary Clinton, but many people dislike his brashness. On the other hand, many people like his approach to some of the issues that are hot topics in the US, such as immigration and the threat of terrorism. The real issue is whether or not his solutions to such topics are reasonable or will be effective.

While the people get to vote for the person that they want to be president, the process seems to me to not be overly democratic. The sheer number of people in the US and in most other countries means that direct election of a president is never going to be possible. There is always going to be a distance between the President and the populace and this dilutes democracy. As it is, voters can only vote for a few candidates in the election. They have little say in who gets selected to stand.

How much does this dilute democracy? Hmm, good question, Cliff! It depends. Given that “representative democracy” like in many country puts distance between the electorate and the elected, if people do not like the candidates very much, this could reduce voter turn out at the election as people decide not to vote for either of them. If, however, enough people on one side hate the opposition candidate strongly enough this may encourage them to turn out and vote. The president is likely to be elected by the vote of only a few of those allowed to vote.

Italiano: Diluizione-Concentrazione

Italiano: Diluizione-Concentrazione (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is likely that the apathy effect is going to override the hate effect, in my opinion, and voter numbers are likely to drop. If only a small number turn out to vote, then has either candidate got a real mandate? Not really, I suggest.

The US form of diluted democracy means that only a favoured few get to stand for president. Up until Obama, all previous presidents back to the early days have been rich white men. Standing in an election for president of the US costs billions of dollars and few people are able to afford the price.

English: Total public debt outstanding, United...

English: Total public debt outstanding, United States, 1993-2011 (billions U.S $) Français : Dette publique totale des États-Unis en milliards de dollars, prix courants, 1993-2011 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So we have a rich businessman vying to become the most powerful man in the world, and making ridiculous promises, like a wall between the US and Mexico, and the wife of a previous president vying to become the first female president. While Hilary Clinton is not enormously rich, she is much richer than most of us, and she and Bill Clinton have powerful friends.

US-Mexico border barrier near Monument Road, S...

US-Mexico border barrier near Monument Road, San Diego, California, USA, looking into Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico. Commonsing ok. knoodelhed 17:53, 4 September 2007 (UTC) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Updates to software

It’s obviously a good thing for bugs to be fixed. Software should function correctly and without exposing the user to security issues, and updates to fixes for this reason are essential.

Unfortunately this sometimes, one might say often, has a negative impact on the user. The user may know of the bug and have a workaround for it, and fixing the bug may cause the cause issues with the workaround.

Not to mention the fact that fixing one bug may result in the appearance of another or bring its existence to the notice of the user. No software can ever be considered to be completely bug free, in spite of the advanced tools which are available to test software.

When I was learning to program, back in the time of the dinosaurs, we were told to give our program and the specs to one of our fellow students to test. We called it “Idiot Testing”. The results were mind blowing. A tester would make assumptions, put in data that they consider valid, but which you, as the program writer had not considered, or maybe you considered it “obvious” that putting in certain types or values of data would not work.

Almost every time the tester would break the program somehow, which was the whole point, really. So we’d fix up our programs and give them up to be tested again. And the testers would break them again.

We were taught and quickly learned the advantage of sanitising the inputs to our programs. This meant we had to take the data as input by the tester and incorporate in our programs routines to try to ensure that the data didn’t break the program.

So we’d write our routines to validate the data, and we’d return an error message to the tester. We’d think that we were providing clear reasons in the messages to the tester, but the messages could still confuse the testers.

For example if the message said “The input must be between -1 and 1”, the tester might try putting in “A” or “1/4”. This usually happened when the purpose of the program was not clearly defined and described, not because of any denseness or sheer caprice on the part of the tester.

Then we’d update the programs again, taking into account what we had learned from the tester’s responses, and hopefully there would be more success with the updated program.

This seems to be more of an issue in mobile software, I believe, as many programs out there are written by a single person working alone, and I know that by the time I finish a program I’m heartily sick of it, and I write programs for myself as intended user. A person may upload a mobile app, with plenty of obvious bugs, and may never update it. It becomes abandonware, which may lead a general disillusion with mobile software as being buggy and never fixed.

When a developer does start to work on his program, and starts to fix the bugs, this takes time and effort. Meanwhile users may keep reporting issues with the published version. The developer has a dilemma. Does he/she drop his work on a particular bug to identify and fix the possible new bug? Or does he/she finish working on the current bug and eventually release a new version which would still contain the old bug?

Once the programmer starts on a new release, adding new features and improvements over the original version, bug notification and fixing acquires a new layer of complexity, one which a single developer may find impossible to handle, so he or she might abandon the software rather than take on the complexities of bug management.

Other times teams form or businesses take up the software, and bug management and fixing become formalised, but updates still need to be supplied to the users. From the user perspective, updates are more regular and fixes may be supplied in the updates if they are lucky.

Updates have had a bad reputation in the past. In the early days of computing operating systems (such as Windows) could become unbootable after an upgrade if the user was unlucky. This generally could be tracked down to issues in the driver software that controlled the various attached or builtin devices on the computer.

Things are now a lot better. Drivers are written to be more robust with respect to operating systems upgrades, and operating systems have become better at handling issues with hardware drivers. It is rare these days for an upgrade to render a system completely unbootable, though an upgrade can still cause issues occasionally.

Users have become used to preforming upgrades to systems and software, and in some cases they, by default, do not have a choice whether or not to upgrade. They do not, in most cases, know exactly what upgrades have gone on to their computers and do not known what fixes are included in these upgrades.

Software updates are often seen by users as a necessary evil. There are reasons for updates though as they may well close security loopholes in software, or they may enhance the functionality of software. Just don’t expect an early fix for that annoying bug though, as the developers will almost certainly have different priorities to you. If it isn’t in this update, maybe it wasn’t serious enough to make it. Hopefully it will be in the next update, which will be along soon!

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Software

ModernSoftwareDevelopment

Coding is a strange process. Sometimes you start with a blank space, fill it with symbols and numbers, and eventually a program appears at the end. Other times you take your or someone else’s work and modify it, changing it, correcting it, or extending it.

The medium that you do this in can be varied. It could be as simple as a command line, a special “Integrated Development Environment” or “IDE” or it could be a fancy drag and drop within a special graphical programming application such as “Scratch“. It could even be within another application such as a spreadsheet or database program. I’ve tried all of these.

 

BasictoPHP - Integrated Development Environment

The thing that is common to all these programming environments is that they run inside another program – the command line version (obviously enough) requires that the command line program, which receives the key presses necessary to build the new program and interprets them, must be running, and the command line program itself runs in another program.

Which itself runs in yet another program, and so on. So, is it programs all the way down? Well, no. One is tempted to say “of course not”, but it is not immediately apparent what happens “down there”.

Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle

What happens down there is that the software merges into the hardware. At the lowest software level the programs do things like read or write data values in specific bits of hardware, and move or copy data values from one place to another. One effect of a write, move or copy might be to cause the hardware to add two numbers together.

Also, the instruction may cause the hardware to select the next instruction to be executed depending on the data being executed. It may default to the next sequential instruction, or it may execute an instruction found elsewhere.

MCS650x Instruction Set

An instruction is just a number, an entity with a specific pattern within the computer. It has a location in the hardware, and is executed by being moved to another location in the hardware. The pattern is usually “binary code” or a string of ones and zeroes.

In the hardware component called a CPU, there are several locations which are used for specific purposes. Data may be found there or it may be copied there. At certain times the data will be executed or processed. Whatever the purpose of the data, it will travel as a train of zeroes and ones though the hardware, splitting, merging and being transformed by the hardware. It may also set signals and block or release other data in the CPU.

Acorn 2MHz6502CPUA

The designers of the CPU hardware have to design this “train system” so that the correct result is achieved when an instruction is processed. Their tools are simple logic circuits which do things like merge two incoming trains of zeroes or ones or split one train into two or maybe replace all the zeroes by ones and vice versa. I think that it is fairly accurate to say that the CPU designers write a program using physical switches and wires in the hardware itself.

So we have reached the bottom and it is not programs, but logic gates, and there are many layers of programming above that to enable us to write “Hello World” on our monitor devices. It’s an elegant if complex system.

Of course we can’t program in logic gates to achieve the “Hello World” objective. We have many layers of programs to help us. But how do the various layers of programs work?

Hello World App

The designers of the CPUs hardware program the device to perform certain actions when a special code is dropped into a special location. There are only 100 to 200 special codes that a CPU recognises and they are patterns of zeroes and ones as described above.

Obviously it would be tedious and error prone to actually code those special codes (and the associated data locations, known as addresses) directly into the computer, so small programs were written in the special codes to recognise mnemonics for the codes and these were then used to write more complex programs to automatically create the strings of codes and addresses necessary to create the lowest level code.

This process is known as boot-strapping, as ever more complex programs are built, culminating in what are known as high level languages, where little or no knowledge of the hardware is required. When a new type of machine comes along, using a different type of hardware, it is even possible to write the programs at a high level on different hardware so that the software can be “ported” to the new system.

Lighthouse at Port Adelaide

The highest level of programs are the ones that actually do the work. These programs may be something like a browser which fetches data and displays it for the user, but a browser is created by a programmer using another program called a compiler. A compiler’s function is to create other programs for the end user.

However to write or modify a compiler you need another program, or maybe a suite of programs. Code is usually written in a human readable form called “source code”. An editor program is needed to read, modify and write the source code. A compiler is needed to change the human readable code to machine executable code and a linker is usually required to add all the bits of code together and make it executable.

GCC-4.0.2-screenshot

All these programs have their own source code, their compiler and linkers, and it may seen as if we have an issue with all programs requiring their own source code and so on. It seems that we have an infinite regress again. But once we have an editor, a compiler and a linker we can compile any program we like, and we don’t need to know the details of the hardware.

And what is more those programs, editor, compiler and linker, can created using an existing compiler, editor and linker on another different machine and simply transferred to the new one. In some ways every compiler, editor and linker program can trace its ancestry back to a prototype written at the dawn of the computer age.

IMGP1181 Colossus

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