Archive for January, 2012
Why did the genie in the story of Aladdin come out after rubbing a lamp, or, in the more original version of the tale, a ring? Wouldn’t a button or a lever be more appropriated? When I originally asked that question in an essay some years ago, the answer I expected was different from the ones we will get now.
Thanks to touch screen smartphones, millions of people slide, and effectively rub their fingers to unlock their devices. Aladdin’s tale has come to a technological reality. And if you think about it, rubbing a lamp was an interface that actually made some sense. Any mechanical system would be more prone to failure, so having a way for the user to interact with the lamp without any mechanical parts such as a button or lever would be a good design, something the people of The Long Now Foundation have to ponder.
But few people would make the association. And even the ones that do would seldom infer that this would be evidence the origins of Arabian Nights had something to do with ancient Steve Jobses of advanced technological civilizations – be they Atlantis or from beyond Zeta Reticulli.
Yet, Aladdin is not alone. Snow White also portrays a smart magic mirror, something still not quite ubiquitous, but that will probably soon be seen everywhere, as computers get cheaper and cheaper – you can see above a proof of concept, the only thing stopping me from buying one is the price. The list could go on, Sleeping Beauty was not sleeping, as she did not age, she was on suspended animation or stasis.
To us, these fairy tales have been presented as the fantasy they are. The same is not true for some religious texts, such as the popular – among Ancient Astronauts enthusiasts – story of Ezekiel. One engineer even tried to reconstruct the spaceship he proposes Ezekiel saw.
But that is not much different from thinking Aladdin had an actual iPhone. Ezekiel’s vision is in fact deeply rooted in the context of the age, and every detail of the “spaceship” can be traced to contemporary symbols, as Mike Heiser shows.
Living in a technological world, we tend to interpret everything in technological terms. And it’s amazing that our technology allow us to create so many things that some centuries ago could only be seen as magic, or some millennia ago were evidence of the power of the one true God.
Arthur C. Clarke formulated that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, but from that we must realize the opposite is also true, magic can be indistinguishable from sufficiently advanced technology, even if the magic is pure fantasy.
Sometimes, magic is just magic.
[I originally wrote a piece on Aladdin’s lamp in Portuguese before the introduction of the iPhone. In the end of the essay I suggested that if someone knew how to create a technological flying carpet they could become billionaires. Little did I know that the interface for the lamp I had just elaborated on was actually closer to a real money-making application. Should have tried to patent it;]
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Since August 2007, eleven detached feet have been found in the borderland of British Columbia, Canada, and Washington, United States. They had been disarticulated and no bodies have been found, despite the even more bizarre fact that all of them were wearing sneakers. Some of them even sported socks.
Asked by the press, experts called the series of discoveries “astounding” and “almost beyond explanation”. Unusual theories were brought to surface, ranging from a shipwreck or an airplane crash, from which the corpses have never been recovered, to the one claiming that the feet could have come from the 2004 Tsunami in the distant island of Indonesia. In fact, one of the feet was wearing a sneaker sold mainly in India, and almost all of the sneakers had been manufactured before 2004.
There was also the Hollywood inspired fear of a psychopath in action, one obsessed with cutting off feet in sneakers. The explanation, however, lies somewhere in the story of the crazy Statistician.
Abraham Wald was a peculiar Jewish mathematician born in Europe who migrated to the USA to escape from the Nazis. Wald applied his brains to a seemingly simple task: evaluating airplanes’ vulnerability. To do so, he observed the aircrafts full of holes that came back from the front. Quite simple, right? One should reinforce the more damaged patches to give them better chances of a successful return.
However, after elaborating sophisticated analysis techniques, his unique recommendation may sound insane. Wald suggested that the patches that had not been damaged were actually the most vulnerable, and they were the ones where armour should be added first. Something like wearing a band-aid where there is no wound. What for?
The answer is in the aircraft he analysed – they were the ones that had actually returned from the front. Wald’s insight was taking took into consideration that the airplanes that had returned were the ones that had made it through all the misadventures. The holes were a tell-tale sign of the strongest spots, the ones which could resist the mishaps, not the weakest areas. It was the other way round: the pristine spots pinpointed the places that could not be hit, otherwise the planes would have been lost in combat and would never be analysed by him back at home. The ones that did return with intact weakest areas had been lucky.
Wald’s analysis considered what is called selection bias: the data set has already been selected somehow, and a proper analysis must consider that. Here is another example: have you ever wondered why the line is never busy when when you call a wrong number?
Actually, we only realize we dialled the wrong number when someone on the other end answers the phone. We keep on our minds a very peculiar data selection. If the call is left unanswered, we hear the busy line tone without ever realizing we dialled the wrong number. An appalling mystery arises if we do not take into account that the data we are considering has been selected already by some process.
Which brings us back to the severed feet mystery. The solution to this conundrum does not involve any huge accident, nor any Tsunami dragging feet along for millions of miles away, and thankfully it doesn’t involve an electric saw psychopath either.
The simple answer is that the feet belong to people that committed suicide jumping into the waters nearby the area. Those that could be identified were linked to depressed individuals who had been reported as missing. There was no sign whatsoever that the limbs had been separated with the use of any tool. On the contrary, those extremities detaches as part of the natural body decay process and the most recent foot found was still connected to the leg bones.
But why were all of them wearing sneakers? It cannot be just by accident, and indeed it wasn’t. The truth is, sneakers are designed to be light, and so they usually float in water. The suicide victims who wear heavier shoes end up having their feet sunk to the bottom of the waters, despite being separated from the rest of the body. On the other hand, the ones who were wearing sneakers had their feet floating for a while until some of them reached the coast. The one to blame for picking the feet in sneakers is not a psychopath; it is the natural water buoyancy.
Exactly like the hit airplanes, exactly like the busy line, the cut off feet mystery is the result of a peculiar and a rather morbid selection bias. It could sound quite depressing, because it means there are many more feet out there to be found that belonged to suicidal people. Those who wear shoes will hardly ever be found.
In order not to end it on such a dark remark, it is worth pinpointing that even this article displays a biased selection. Only a story with a title that draws attention end up getting a post that you, dear curious reader, have followed so far. It worked, didn’t it? Since you are reading this far, since you have been selected, I can assure you I know it did. Like all the other news, it is easier to sell tragic stories, but that does not mean that the world is a more and more terrifying place.
There is a whole lot of good news, of small gestures of kindness that will never show up on the breaking news. Any analysis, even if not quite rigorously statistical, must take those into account, and I hope that getting to know what selection bias is and its importance helps you face things in a different way. [via Marginal Revolution, BoingBoing]
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