Monday, January 26, 2009

A proposal to make the JJJ hottest 100 more inclusive

The rules used for calculating the triple J hottest 100 directly lead to results which are not as inclusive as they could be and don't actually reflect what people are doing when they vote for best song. In particular, I would contend that voters in the JJJ hottest 100 vote for artists, rather than particular songs.

This is why the 2009 hottest 100 had a top 10 song list which only included 7 artists. That was a good result for big fans of MGMT, The PreSets and The Kings Of Leon but was very anti-climatic for the rest of the population - especially for those fans of the 3 bands that just missed the top 10 (Ladyhawke, PNAU and The Herd).

Given that people actually do seem to block vote for their favourite artist, rather than favourite songs, I think a much better system would be one that did the following:

  • allowed people to register votes for their top 10 artists
  • for each artist, allow a small number of songs to be voted for.

To produce a ranking, the top 100+N songs would used to select the top 100 artists, but each artist would appear at most once in the list in the order of their most popular song.

This will improve the diversity of the list and make the top-10 countdown genuinely entertaining, rather than the anti-climax it is now.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

On The Definition of Atheism

A couple of Cameron Reilly's recent blog posts have argued that critics of atheists have it all wrong when they claim that atheism implies a belief in the non-existence of gods. He makes the distinction between the position of being against the belief in the existence of gods and the position of believing that gods do not exist.

As a self-described atheist myself, I don't really see the point in making this distinction. The main reason is that I don't believe that any useful argument that an atheist can advance in support of a philosophical or political position depends on the distinction being valid. Furthermore, if there was such an argument, then it is vulnerable to any demonstration that there really isn't any practical distinction between the two positions.

Reilly argues that a-theism means either not or against theism but excludes the other common interpretation of the prefix, that is to mean "without". The a- in a-sexual or a-political is certainly used in this way. The position described as against theism would more correctly be described as anti-theism, rather than a-theism.

If we do assume that a-theism means without theism then, in a strict technical sense, Reilly is correct to note that "without a belief in the existence of gods" is not technically the same as "with a belief in the non-existence of gods".

Reilly argues that this distinction is crucial. I claim that it is irrelevant or, more precisely, that the definition he would have us use for atheist doesn't allow us to clearly distinguish the atheist from the agnostic.

First, let's dispose of the trivial case: a person who has no concept of gods. This person is trivially an atheist in Reilly's sense because if one can't even conceive of the concept of gods, one can hardly hold a belief in their existence.

Let's now consider the more interesting case of two people, Peter and Paul for whom the following statements are true.

  • Peter does not believe in the existence of gods
  • Peter does believe in the non-existence of gods
  • Paul does not believe in the existence of gods
  • Paul does not believe in the non-existence of gods

Peter and Paul are clearly different: Peter believes something that Paul does not. Furthermore, I think most people would agree that Peter is an atheist, whereas Paul is an agnostic, at least according to what I take to be the common uses of the terms.

In other words, I believe that being an atheist does actually entail a belief in the non-existence of gods and this is what distinguishes an atheist from an agnostic.

However, I don't share Reilly's fear that this is something to be concerned about. It really doesn't matter that atheists hold negative beliefs. This doesn't legitimise belief in gods anymore than believing in the non-existence of teapots on Mars legitimises a belief in the existence of teapots on Mars (to use Dawkin's example).

To be worried about that, confuses believing with knowing, a point that Stephen Pinker made in a different context in his book: "The Stuff Of Thought". To state that someone believes something doesn't make a statement about the world outside - it is simply a statement about the believer. The state of the world outside is unaffected by how many people hold deluded beliefs about the nature of reality. So, it really doesn't matter that an atheist's convictions are just beliefs - nothing significant can be derived from that admission.

Assertions of knowing something are quite different. Such statements are claims, not only about the knower's beliefs about the world outside, but also that the world outside conforms to those beliefs.

And this is why it is crucial to put believing in its place and distinguish it from knowing. Many theistic believers claim to know things because they have faith in the truth of their beliefs. Atheists claim to know things because they have the scientific method and reason. And this is precisely why atheism is superior to theism in its various forms - it provides objective methods for deciding the truth of claims of knowledge which are independent of the beliefs themselves, whereas theism is trapped inside circular definitions of belief and faith that never usefully connect with the real world.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

The dangers of GPS-enabled social networking apps

I recently purchased an iPhone 3G and have been enjoying using it immensely - it is definitely my kind of device. I love the e-mail and twitter integration, the zoom-able web browsing and the ability to read PDFs on a small form factor device. The playback video quality is excellent and the speaker means I don't have to risk strangulation with the earphone cord if I go to sleep with them in my ears. The integrated GPS and Google maps with street view is fantastic.

The GPS-aware dating apps sounded like a fun idea, so I downloaded "Who's Here". It seems like quite a fun, if slightly dangerous, way to meet strangers who might be nearby and interested in meeting up. "Who's Here" only gives an approximate distance to people in the neighbourhood, rather than an absolute position and so one might think that one is relatively unlocatable and hence safe. However, this assumes too much as will be explained later.

However, today, I came across BrightKite. BrightKite is an application that allows one to post one's current location to Twitter as well as to BrightKite's own tracking database. I signed up and installed the app to see what it was about and was astonished at how much information it keeps. Not only does it display your current absolute location (if you volunteer it via a check-in process), it records a history of all previous check-ins.

Using this information, I was able to discover who else had been near to my location in the previous few months. One of these people was a woman and by displaying her profile I could see where she had been over the previous few months.

The mind boggles at the safety risk this presents. A determined rapist would no doubt find such information very useful for finding vulnerable targets to attack, yielding as it does a detailed sketch of people's patterns of movement over an extended period of time.

Perhaps BrightKite can safely be used by travelers who never retrace their own steps, but it seems like anyone else is unnecessarily exposing themselves to stalking risk, particularly if they are in someway attractive to would be stalkers.

A note about the "safety" of "Who's Here".

On first glance, "Who's Here" appears to be safer than BrightKite because it only reveals a fuzzy distance between the current location of the observer and the observed. However, this isn't really fantastic protection because using triangulation techniques and observations taken from 3 different locations, an observer can pretty quickly locate with great accuracy a stationary observed person. The observed distances are themselves meant to be fuzzified to prevent triangulation working, however, it would be extremely surprising if the law of averages didn't ultimately work in the observer's favour.

The best way to eliminate the stalking risk such apps present would be to avoid using apps that reveal location data to unauthorised users. If you choose to use such apps, it would be best to minimize the time windows in which you make that information available to strangers (that is: make use of Who's Here's "sign-off" function) and avoid using it in places where you are commonly found.

Anyone who has questions about the issues documented here may direct them to me via e-mail to jon.seymour at