Monday, 12 October 2015

Siri arrgh

Apple's digital assistance - Siri - is a feature that almost works really well, but because of its anthropocentric qualities that 'almost' is enough to drive me crazy. That, and its almost-great voice recognition means that Siri is possibly the first bit of technology that I've ever had that I shout or swear at.

Siri's latest shenanigans/quirk/bug is when activated while a podcast is playing it detects the last word or two that was said on the podcast and try to respond to it. This is infuriating, especially as there doesn't seem to be any easy to use mechanism to carry on with an interaction once you've said no to something. So I get this a lot:

  1. Activate Siri while podcast is playing
  2. Siri does something (or fails to do something) in response to the last word or two spoken on the podcast
  3. I tell Siri that no, I don't want whatever it is trying to offer me
  4. Siri becomes unresponsive to voice commands
  5. Me: "Hey Siri.... Hey Siri...... HEY SIRI.... SIRI... SIRI... HEY SIRI..... AAARGH YOU &*()*$"(*"$%%%"
There's probably something to say here about the intentional stance, about how trying to build human-like interfaces builds expectations of human-like interaction, and so on... but its late and Siri has made me cranky.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Partisanship and Identity Politics

I've been reading some interesting articles and 'Twitter storms' recently that generally assert that majority and privileged groups (usually white males) should not give an opinion on matters that relate to those not in the majority or privileged group. These assertions can range from politely pointing out that the speaker may not know what they're talking about, to anger that they're even expressing an opinion. To avoid any current controversies* the example I'll link to is of a debate that was scheduled to be held at an Oxford University college on abortion, that at least in part caused outrage because the speakers were all male. I bumped into a good response from Steve Bruce (2000) to these partisan assertions that the views of out-groups should not be seriously considered :
"One good reason to be suspicious of this argument is that it is not offered even-handedly, We do not find sociologists arguing that only aristocrats an usefully study aristocracy or that only fascists can study fascism. Such special pleading is offered only by people on their own behalf. Often it has the appearance of being a lazy way of asserting (rather than demonstrating) the superiority of their claims. Clearly, possessing some trait may be useful in understanding others with the same characteristic."
I think Bruce is right, though I would weaken his position that special pleading is only offered on people's own behalf to it being often offered on their own behalf.

We would not try to claim that the views of doctors about cancer patients should be discounted if those doctors have never had cancer, or that only astronauts have anything useful to say about astronauts. A plutocrat might have a very distorted and false view about the life of poor people, and is likely to not have recent experience of being poor, but she might be fully capable of understanding and sympathising with the life of the poor. It is entirely possible that a plutocrat can be right, and the poor person wrong, about something to do with the life and situation of the poor person.

Bruce goes on to say:
"In drawing a line between insiders and outsiders, we have to impute to the group a patently exaggerated (if not downright false) set of common experiences and interests. Obviously not all women or members of ethnic groups share the same experiences or hold the same values. Margaret Thatcher may have been Britain's first woman Prime Minister, but she was remarkably unsympathetic to what feminists defined as women's interests."
We should avoid the temptation to exclude people or groups from public debates because they don't belong to a particular club. If we are tempted to say that Group X cannot understand the situation of Group Y, or that they should not be allowed to express a view, we should turn the relationship around and ask if the reverse is true. If we find ourselves tempted to allow Group Y to comment on Group X but not the other way around, we should pause and examine our reasons to see if they are of equal worth.

ReferenceBruce, S. (2000) Sociology, a very short introduction. Oxford University Press.

As an aside, I've found Oxford University Press' "A Very Short Introduction" series to be excellent.

* You can interpret this as laziness if you'd like. You won't be hugely wrong.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Platonic Babies

A story idea

Babies are born knowing. Their minds are fully functioning, and they understand the secrets of the universe. Unfortunately, they are unable to have any direct control over their bodies, and are unable to interact with the outside world. There comes a point for every baby where they make the choice to initiate changes in the brain that will allow them to come to control their bodies and interact with the outside world. The price is high however, and they have to sacrifice all but a small kernel of themselves in order to bring about the change. Their self dies, all their knowledge is lost, but they leave behind a small seed to grow into a new person. The rest of their life is spent struggling to slowly relearn a fraction of what they once knew but sacrificed in order to live in the world.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Tolerating Intolerance?

Are liberals required to tolerate intolerance? Is it paradoxical or hypocritical if they do not?

Tolerance is a strategy to maximise liberty, it is not an end in itself. Liberals should encourage toleration to bring about more liberty, but should be against tolerance when it reduces liberty.

Tolerating the individual lifestyle choices of others, even when you strongly disapprove of those choices, increases liberty. If people wish to wear hats, then a liberal should at a minimum avoid discouraging people from wearing hats. The result of this toleration is that people wear or do not wear hats as they wish; more liberty! A liberal should be against (i.e. intolerant of) someone trying to force others to wear hats, because their actions reduces the liberty of others.

Tolerance of intolerant views is justifiable when those views are not overly reducing the liberty of others. Liberals should be intolerant of intolerance that reduces the liberty of others. Thus, if people make bigoted statements in public about hat wearers, then those statements should be tolerated if they do not adversely impact the liberty of people who wear hats. Toleration does not preclude disagreement or debate, so the liberal can still be free to criticise hatist views. If the bigoted statements about hat wearers has the impact of restricting their liberty (e.g. it makes it more difficult for them to be in public, or to get a job) then those statements and views should not be tolerated.

Liberals are required to tolerate intolerance when that intolerance is not adversely impacting the liberty of others. It is not hypocritical to be intolerant of intolerance when the targeted intolerance is reducing liberty.

Quotes: The Thousandfold Thought

Some quotes:

“You understood that when men stop bowing, the emperor ceases to rule, that when the whips are thrown into the river, the slave ceases to serve. For an infant to be an emperor or a slave or a merchant or a whore or a general or whatever, those about him must act accordingly. And Men act as they believe. “You saw them, in their thousands, spread across the world in great hierarchies, the actions of each exquisitely attuned to the expectations of others. The identity of Men, you discovered, was determined by the beliefs, the assumptions, of others. This is what makes them emperors or slaves … Not their gods. Not their blood".

Doubt begets understanding, and understanding begets compassion. Verily, it is conviction that kills. 

From Bakker's The Thousandfold Thought, Book 3 of the Prince of Nothing

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Intentional Systems Theory and HCI

Intentional Systems Theory

Intentional Systems Theory is a theory about how we understand and predict the behaviour of different sorts of systems. It suggests three different approaches, or 'stances', to predict the behaviour of systems. Having a rough understanding of these stances is a useful aid in understanding how people understand different systems.

The Physical Stance - the physical stance is based on physical laws. For example, we predict what will happen when something is dropped based on our understanding of gravity. We predict where water will go, and how balls on a snooker table will move using the physical stance.The physical stance is in a sense the 'truest' stance, and in principle the behaviour of any system should be describable using it, but for many systems it is not a practical approach.

The Design Stance - the design stance is based on assuming design in a system or artefact. For example, when figuring out a novel artefact believed to be an alarm clock, we don't try to understand it in terms of physical laws or even circuit diagrams. We make design assumptions; such as an alarm clock will have some way of setting a time for the alarm, and at that time it will do something (such as making a noise) that has a reasonable chance of waking us up, and so on. With the design stance we assume an artefact has a purpose, and we figure out how it should be used to fulfil that purpose.

The Intentional Stance - with the intentional stance we assume that something can be usefully predicted as though it had a mind complete with things like beliefs and intentions, and that it will act rationally based on what is in its mind. This is how we interact with other humans, and how we understand the behaviour of animals. We don't know that Fido and Rover (who are dogs) have a mental life anything like ours, but by assuming they have things like beliefs and intentions and that they will act rationally on them, we are able to predict their behaviour.

Using the Stances to Understand Systems

The intentional stance can be usefully applied to things like computers and robots, and frequently are. Trying to predict the behaviour of a rock by thinking about what beliefs it has will get you nowhere. Assuming the moon is designed and has some purpose doesn't yield any insight into its future orbits. Similarly, people don't feel betrayed by rocks, or that the moon doesn't like them.

In contrast thinking of a computer opponent in a game as being an intentional system is useful: your opponent has an intention to kill your game character; you can assume it has beliefs such as your current location; it may even be trying to guess where you will go next; and, it will act rationally within its means to meet its goal of hunting down and killing your character.

The different stances provide insight into how people react emotionally to different systems and artefacts. One cannot really be angry with an artefact considered with the physical stance. In the case of the design stance, you can be angry at the designer of an alarm clock, annoyed at yourself for not using it properly, and frustrated when it doesn't work properly, but you can't be angry at the clock, or feel betrayed by the clock. People can (and do) feel betrayed or let down by computer game characters, and even devices like smartphones. (This may get worse as they take on human-like characteristics with their embedded personal assistants).

The three stances are useful ways of thinking about different systems, and in understanding how other people think about things in the world.

The Stances and HCI

When designing a user interface the goal is to provide the user with something that allows them to usefully understand and successfully interact with the system. The user interface does not need to be like the system it is for, it can be a fiction (or 'user illusion') that provides a simple or intuitive model of the system to make it easier to use. The three stances provide a designer with three distinct approaches to designing a user interface. The designer should select the most appropriate stance for each element, or for the overall interface, depending on how the product should be used.

A user interface using the physical stance will include features that encourage the user to think in terms of physical systems. Physical controls like joysticks and mice that create a corresponding movement in the system when the user moves their hand are an example of physical stance interface elements. Another example would be a touch-device that supports 'swiping' between different views in a way that corresponds to moving and manipulating physical artefacts. Users explore physical stance systems and discover ways of using them.

User interface elements that use the design stance will have features that are 'like' other design stance artefacts, they will suggest purpose to the user, and intended use. The user will identify features of the user interface (buttons, controls, etc) that look like they are supposed to be used in a certain way, toward a certain goal. Logical and sequential grouping of controls will help to emphasise the intended use. Users learn how to use design stance systems.

Systems that use the intentional stance promote discourse, affect, and human-like (or perhaps animal-like) interactions. These systems exploit a pre-existing system model that users have (i.e. of a mind, or mind-like thing). Such systems can focus on the pre-existing model of interaction, and build upon it. However, while a model of a design stance system can be made explicit and specific to the designer's needs, to an extent the gross model properties of an intentional system may be fixed. Users engage with and enter a discourse with intentional systems.


This article undoubtedly draws on: Dennett, D. (2011) Intentional Systems Theory, in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Mind, (eds. McLaughlin, Beckermann, and Walter). Oxford University Press.

The Darkness That Comes Before

Some quotes:

"...though he consorts with man, woman, and child, though he lays with beasts and makes a mockery of his seed, never shall he be as licentious as the philosopher, who lays with all things imaginable"
"Children questioned as much to be rebuffed as to be answered, as they must in order to learn which questions were permissible and which were not."
"We seek absolute awareness, the self-moving thought. The thoughts of all men arise from the darkness. If you are the movement of your soul, and the cause of that movement precedes you, then how could you ever call your thoughts your own? How could you be anything other than a slave to the darkness that comes before?"

From Scott Bakker's The Darkness That Comes Before: Book 1 of the Prince of Nothing. 

Materialism (Equivocations Episode #1)

The word materialism has multiple meanings that can become confused (sometimes deliberately). Materialism can mean (roughly): the philosophical view that all that there is, is made up of energy and matter, and by understanding the laws of how these things interact we can (in principle) gain an understanding of how the universe works. I'll call people who hold this view materialists. Materialism can also mean (roughly): an excessive focus or valuing of material goods, i.e. jewellery, cars, fashion items, etc. I'll call people who this term applies to materialistic.

By giving these views separate labels it is clearer to see that they are distinct views. A materialist might prefer to leave an austere life, forsaking material wealth, and focusing on matters of spirituality and love. There is no reason to suppose that a materialist is materialistic. Similarly, someone who is not a materialist, say a Christian who believes in souls and a heavenly realm, would not be a materialist as they believe in more than a material universe. They could however be rather materialistic. While not all Christians are materialistic, it is quite clear that many can be and are.