Hidden gems

A genre of books I’ve always loved are the ones where there are a hidden version of the city, which is invisible for most people. Think books like Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere or Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series.

One of the reasons I probably like this genre so much, is that I have always loved to explore the more hidden parts of the city.

Case in point, I was walking around yesterday, and came across a passage that took me into a sort of court yard, where I found this magnificent thing. It is not the first time I have seen this (last time sans disco ball), but it was years ago, and I couldn’t remember where I had seen it?

Horse had

Danish slavery

A bunch of bloggers on FreethoughtBlogs have decided to write blogs somewhat related to slavery or social justice on Juneteenth. This is my entry.

Growing up in Denmark, slavery as a subject was never really addressed much, and if it was, it was treated as something that either happened a long time ago, or happened outside Denmark, or was spun in such a way to show how progressive Denmark was – e.g. Denmark was the first country in Europe to ban the slave trade (more on that later).

The truth is, of course, that Denmark has a long history of slavery. During the Viking age, slavery was widespread, and historical records show that Vikings did heavy slave trading at especially the markets at Hedeby and Bolghar, near the Volga River. While Christianity reduced slavery, the Code of Jutland, from 1241 still contained rules about slaves. In order to downplay the slavery part of the Viking ages, we were taught to call them ‘thralls’ rather than slaves, and made to believe that they were more like indentured labour, which they of course weren’t (this is similar to when Southern racists try to pretend that slaves that served in mansions were treated as “part of the family”).

After the Viking ages, there was a long time where Denmark had nothing directly to do with slavery. That is, until the 17th century, where Denmark became a (minor) colonial power.

This adventure started in November 19 1620, when Tranquebar (now Tharangambadi) became a Danish trading post and fort. After this, from 1659 forward, Denmark created several trading posts and forts in what was called the Gold Coast in Africa (now part of Ghana), and between 1672 and 1733 Denmark, took over, what was know as Danish West Indies, – Saint Thomas, St. John and Saint Croix.

Together these colonies formed the backbone of the Danish involvement in slavery.

Tranquebar was a modest trading post, which doesn’t seem to have been used during slave trade, but the forts on the Gold Coast, on the other hand, were major ports and trading posts for slaves, going to the West Indies. It is estimated that 100,000 slaves passed through these forts, and on to the Caribbean. Before anyone tries to downplay the Danish involvement in the actual slave transportation, it is estimated that 80,000 of those people were transported on Danish merchant ships.

When it became clear that England was heading towards a ban of slave trading (it came in 1807), Denmark decided to give the Danish plantation owners time to prepare, and in March 1792 it was decided to ban slave trading in Danish territories – but not until 1803, and in the mean time, the slavery trade was intensified in order to bring over enough slaves, in order to create a large enough population to keep up with the needs of the plantations. Also, worth noting, the slavery trade ban only banned selling new people into slavery, it didn’t ban plantation owners from selling their current slaves, and their descendants.

In 1847, the Danish king declared that people born after July 28, 1847, were free, while people born before that date, had to serve another 12 years as slaves, before being freed. This obviously wasn’t acceptable for the slaves, and they revolted. As a direct result of the revolts, acting governor general Peter von Scholten 3 July 1848, emancipating all slaves in the Danish West Indian Islands. Something which more or less ended slavery in the Danish territories, though any Danish slaves outside the islands, would still have to serve another 11 years before being free, according to the law.

Lazy linking

I have gotten my first jab of the Pfizer vaccine this morning, and while I don’t really feel any side effects, I am a bit exhausted, which might as well be due to a busy schedule than anything else. Anyway, I am working on some posts about Danish politics, but until I get around to finishing them, I thought I’d do a quick link round-up.

I case you are curious about the kind of work I do on a daily basis, you can get a glimpse into it, through an article I have written on being a Product Owner in a DevOps environment for Scrum Alliance.

I might have recommended this before, but I highly recommend the “Woking up” series of episodes of Elynah’s Polite Conversations podcast, where she discusses Sam Harris and why she left his fandom. The podcast can be found on all places where you can get podcasts. Otherwise, the first full episode can be found on Soundcloud here. Be aware that Elynah first releases a shorter preview episode. Currently there are six full episodes out.

A new fascinating, if somewhat frustrating podcast is The Turning: The Sisters Who Left, about women who joined the Missionaries of Charity under Mother Theresa, and since left the order. It is fascinating, as it shows how cult-like the order was. It is frustrating, because it still buys too much into the myths around Mother Theresa . Though there is an episode entirely dedicated to the criticism from Hitchens etc., it is clear that the former sisters are still somewhat reverent of Mother Theresa, and while they occasionally talk about the problems with the order (e.g. how proper medicine isn’t used), they don’t seem to blame her for it.

Thank you all

In my last post, I mentioned that FreethoughtBlogs was doing a Mothers’ Day fundraiser, to cover some of the debt left over from the legal costs of the Carrier lawsuit. I promised to match up to $1,000, and I am happy to say, that my limit was hit within hours. All together we raised $7,349.04, which is an amazing amount.

As an result we will be reducing the legal debt by quite a large chunk.

To thank you for the contributions, we’re doing a livesteam soon (technology allowing, obviously)

Mother’s Day fundraiser

As many of you might be aware, several blogs on FreethoughtBlogs are doing a Mother’s Day fundraiser to raise money to pay off the left-over debt from the Richard Carrier lawsuit.

I am unfortunately not really talented enough to help in many creative efforts, so I have thought of a different way of helping.

Instead of being creative, I have decided to step up and support financially, by matching any contributions that comes in during this month, up to $1,000. This means that any donation will count for twice as much (at least until we reach the $1,000 mark).

While My Guitar Gently Weeps

I think most of my readers will have seen the iconic performance by Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood, Dhani Harrison and Prince playing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the 2004 inclusion of George Harrison in the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame. This performance is of course mostly known for how Prince showed that he was a legend among legends.

I just found out that the original video has been re-edited and put up in a “director’s cut”

See it, and enjoy a master at the top of his game

Not everything advanced in Computer Science is AI

IEEE Spectrum has an article Stop Calling Everything AI, Machine-Learning Pioneer Says in which Michael I. Jordan addresses the overuse of artificial intelligence in Computer Science

Artificial-intelligence systems are nowhere near advanced enough to replace humans in many tasks involving reasoning, real-world knowledge, and social interaction. They are showing human-level competence in low-level pattern recognition skills, but at the cognitive level they are merely imitating human intelligence, not engaging deeply and creatively, says Michael I. Jordan, a leading researcher in AI and machine learning. Jordan is a professor in the department of electrical engineering and computer science, and the department of statistics, at the University of California, Berkeley.

He notes that the imitation of human thinking is not the sole goal of machine learning—the engineering field that underlies recent progress in AI—or even the best goal. Instead, machine learning can serve to augment human intelligence, via painstaking analysis of large data sets in much the way that a search engine augments human knowledge by organizing the Web. Machine learning also can provide new services to humans in domains such as health care, commerce, and transportation, by bringing together information found in multiple data sets, finding patterns, and proposing new courses of action.

I think this is a important point. Machine learning is an incredible powerful tool, but it is all too often bunched together with artificial intelligence, rather than considered a tool-set in itself, which is used creating artificial intelligence.

There are many uses of machine learning – I have seen it used for fraud detection, document analysis, and even as a tool for creating faster builds and deploys for developers. In the latter case, machine learning was used to figure out what tests needed to run dependent on a number of factors, including what code was edited, the track record of the developer, and the complexity of code. I have yet to come across artificial intelligence being used in a daily setting.

As Michael I. Jordan points out, there are serious considerations to keep in mind, when dealing with machine learning, without having to try to make it into something more grand

“While the science-fiction discussions about AI and super intelligence are fun, they are a distraction,” he says. “There’s not been enough focus on the real problem, which is building planetary-scale machine learning–based systems that actually work, deliver value to humans, and do not amplify inequities.”

The article links to an interesting article by Michael I. Jordan going more into the subject of artificial intelligence being a way off: Artificial Intelligence—The Revolution Hasn’t Happened Yet

This article also gets into the difference between machine learning and artificial intelligence

Most of what is labeled AI today, particularly in the public sphere, is actually machine learning (ML), a term in use for the past several decades. ML is an algorithmic field that blends ideas from statistics, computer science and many other disciplines (see below) to design algorithms that process data, make predictions, and help make decisions. In terms of impact on the real world, ML is the real thing, and not just recently. Indeed, that ML would grow into massive industrial relevance was already clear in the early 1990s, and by the turn of the century forward-looking companies such as Amazon were already using ML throughout their business, solving mission-critical, back-end problems in fraud detection and supply-chain prediction, and building innovative consumer-facing services such as recommendation systems. As datasets and computing resources grew rapidly over the ensuing two decades, it became clear that ML would soon power not only Amazon but essentially any company in which decisions could be tied to large-scale data. New business models would emerge. The phrase ‘data science’ emerged to refer to this phenomenon, reflecting both the need of ML algorithms experts to partner with database and distributed-systems experts to build scalable, robust ML systems, as well as reflecting the larger social and environmental scope of the resulting systems.This confluence of ideas and technology trends has been rebranded as ‘AI’ over the past few years. This rebranding deserves some scrutiny.

Historically, the phrase “artificial intelligence” was coined in the late 1950s to refer to the heady aspiration of realizing in software and hardware an entity possessing human-level intelligence. I will use the phrase “human-imitative AI” to refer to this aspiration, emphasizing the notion that the artificially-intelligent entity should seem to be one of us, if not physically then at least mentally (whatever that might mean). This was largely an academic enterprise. While related academic fields such as operations research, statistics, pattern recognition, information theory, and control theory already existed, and often took inspiration from human or animal behavior, these fields were arguably focused on low-level signals and decisions. The ability of, say, a squirrel to perceive the three-dimensional structure of the forest it lives in, and to leap among its branches, was inspirational to these fields. AI was meant to focus on something different: the high-level or cognitive capability of humans to reason and to think. Sixty years later, however, high-level reasoning and thought remain elusive. The developments now being called AI arose mostly in the engineering fields associated with low-level pattern recognition and movement control, as well as in the field of statistics, the discipline focused on finding patterns in data and on making well-founded predictions, tests of hypotheses, and decisions.

Lazy linking – the non-binary and trans edition

In several countries we are seeing a harsh pushback on the rights of trans- and non-binary people. This pushback has created a weird coalition between certain groups of feminists (often referred to a TERFs, which might not be entirely appropriate, as the might not be radical feminists) and right-winged groups and politicians. In the UK it seems like the TERFs are leading the battle, while in the US it is mostly the GOP.

As a counterweight to all the propaganda and lies from these groups, I want to link to some podcasts and articles which are supporting the rights of trans- and non-binary people.

First of, I want to link to The Owen Jones Podcast episode 58 in which he talks with Jim Sterling, who has come out recently as non-binary. Jim Stirling articulates well how the lack of visibility affected them growing up, and allowed Jim to become an adult who did not realize that there was a possibility beyond the binary view of gender. I found it moving to hear how becoming non-binary has made Jim enjoy living, which was a drastic difference from before, where life was just something Jim went through.

The Serious Inquiries Only podcast has made two episodes (episode one, episode two) debunking the vile and dangerous book of lies The End of Gender: Debunking the Myths about Sex and Identity in Our Society by Debra Soh. Dr. Lindsey Osterman read through the book, and spent the episodes explaining how Debra Soh not only misrepresents the science, but also the current state of treatment of transgender youth, and the stance of people supporting them.

An interesting July 2020 study, Defending the Sex/Gender Binary: The Role of Gender Identification and Need for Closure by Morgenroth et al, is well worth reading since it gives us a glimpse of understanding the pushback against a non-binary view of sexes.

In the Western world, gender/sex is traditionally viewed as binary, with people falling into one of two categories: male or female. This view of gender/sex has started to change, triggering some resistance. This research investigates psychological mechanisms underlying that resistance. Study 1 (N=489, UK) explored the role of individual gender identification in defence of, and attempts to reinforce, the gender/sex binary. Study 2 (N=415, Sweden) further considered the role of individual differences in need for closure. Both gender identification and need for closure were associated with binary views of gender/sex, prejudice against non-binary people, and opposition to the use of gender-neutral pronouns. Policies that aim to abolish gender/sex categories, but not to policies that advocate for a third gender/sex category, were seen as particularly unfair among people high in gender identification. These findings are an important step in understanding the psychology of resistance to change around binary systems of gender/sex.

If you know a genderfluid, transgender or non-binary youth, and want to support them, the Trevor Project provides A Guide to Being an Ally to Transgender and Nonbinary Youth

Book review: The Patient Assassin

On 13 March 1940, Udham Singh shot and killed Michael O’Dwyer, the former lieutenant governor of the Punjab in India. This was done in revenge of the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

Anita Anand’s The Patient Assassin, A True Tale of Massacre, Revenge and the Raj from 2019 tells the tale of what happened during the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre, and how it led to Udham Singh’s life mission of taking revenge on the men responsible for the massacre.

Anita Anand not only covers the massacre and the assassination, but also explains the environment that allowed the massacre to happen in the first place, gives us a glimpse into the thoughts and feelings of the men responsible, while walking the tightrope of not dismissing their monstrous actions, but at the same time allowing us to understand how they could have acted the way they did. The majority of the book, however, is dedicated to Udham Singh and his life, both before the massacre, and after the massacre, tracing his movement across the globe, until that fateful day in 1940. It also covers the trial after the assassination.

The book paints a nuanced and as detailed a picture of Udham Singh as is possible. Udham Singh was in many ways a deeply flawed man, who did a lot of harm to a lot of people on his way to his revenge. This is covered, as is his work towards an independent India, and even his interactions with local Indian populations in England and the US. It gives us a glimpse into the man, and not just the assassin that the English saw, nor just the martyr-hero, honored in his home country after his death, and especially after their independence.

I highly recommend this book, as an introduction to how the British Raj treated the Indians, and how the Indian independence movement became a geo-political tool for the different countries (including Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union) in their political maneuvering, as well as a historical account of both the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre and the life of Udham Singh. It also gives a glimpse into how Indians were treated in England and the US in the twenties and thirties.

I first became aware of the book through the HistoryExtra podcasts episode about the book.

 

 

Ancient DNA just became older

Most science news in recent days have been focused on the Perseverance Mars Rover and its landing on Mars. However, that is not the only major science news in recent days. We have also had the publication of the news about million years old mammoth DNA being sequenced.

The Guardian reports on this: Million-year-old mammoth genomes set record for ancient DNA

Teeth from mammoths buried in the Siberian permafrost for more than a million years have led to the world’s oldest known DNA being sequenced, according to a study that shines a genetic searchlight on the deep past.

Researchers said the three teeth specimens, one roughly 800,000 years old and two more than a million years old, provided important insights into the giant ice age mammals, including into the ancient heritage of, specifically, the woolly mammoth.

This is really exciting, and will help create a more accurate picture of the lineage of mammoths, as well as expand the possible range for future sequencing. As the Guardian states:

Dalén said new technologies could allow the sequencing of even older DNA from remains found in the permafrost, which dates back 2.6m years.

For a good look behind the science, Patrícia Pečnerová, the Postdoc involved in the research, has written a great write-up: Pushing the limits with million-year-old DNA

The write-up gives an interesting and humorous look behind the scenes, as the starting paragraph clearly shows:

I had low expectations when we went into the lab to extract DNA from samples that based on geological evidence were 600 thousand to 1.2 million years old. At that point of my PhD, I already knew better than to put faith in high-risk/high-gain projects. And attempting to extract DNA older than has ever been done before topped the list of some pretty funky projects that I have been involved in, like trying to retrieve DNA from rocks from the ocean floor. Such efforts rarely yield results and end up in the invisible section of the CV where dreams go to die. My supervisor, Love Dalén, calls it character building.

The article is unfortunately behind a paywall at Nature: Million-year-old DNA sheds light on the genomic history of mammoths

Further reading: Million-year-old DNA provides a glimpse of mammoth evolution (news write-up in Nature)