France opens UFO files

The French agency for UFOs just opened their database. Unfortunately, the CNES/GEIPAN web site has generally been down since then, presumably due to the heavy traffic. In these conditions, I’m not sure that the add prominently featured at the bottom is really helpful:

This site was built using the CNES-SiTools Framework. SiTools is Copyright © 2004-2005 by CNESSiTools

Why should we show any interest in UFOs?

I don’t think opening up this archive will change anybody’s mind on the topic. For those who believe, there are already a large number of sites with tons of “evidence”. For those who don’t, there are similarly convincing arguments against. So this is one case where the human brain has trouble sorting things out, simply because the available evidence is not strong enough one way or another.

Is there any point talking about this, if we can’t prove anything? I believe there is. In many fields of science, evidence is statistical. It’s the accumulation of facts that, individually, mean very little, which together form evidence. Over time, we learned how to locate small solid bodies outside of the Earth’s atmosphere with sufficient precision that some predictions and useful observations can be made about meteors. For a very long time, this was not the case. Similarly, if one person sees little men in a flying saucer, it does not mean much, but if dozens of people report similar incidents over the span of a few decades, then there may be some truth to the observations.

Not scientific, but not necessarily “false” either

It remains very frustrating for scientists, of course, because they can’t reproduce the phenomemon at will. So there is a strong temptation to classify this as “non science”. And, in the present state of knowledge, that’s really what it is. It is not a science not necessarily because it is not true, but because we do not know what to make of the little evidence we have. There is no theory which would allow us to predict when and where UFOs will land, for example.

But from “not science”, another step is often taken, which is: “it’s false”, or “it’s bogus”, or “there can be no extraterrestrial because Albert Einstein said that we can’t travel faster than light”. That step is irrational. We cannot deny evidence on the basis that we don’t know what to do with it. It would be like saying “Dear Mr. Sherlock Holmes, this person cannot be dead, because I am unable to explain how the murderer proceeded”. That would have made for much less interesting books, don’t you think?

Personal UFO experience

But in this “polluted” atmosphere surrounding UFOs, making a personal opinion on the topic in today’s context is difficult, in particular when you have not seen a UFO yourself. Even when you have seen one, you still won’t know what to believe. There is a big gap between “unidentified” and “extraterrestrial”. I saw a “UFO” once, but “U” here only means I could not identify it personally, and found it “misbehaved”. “Misbehaved flying object”, that might be a better acronym… What I know, however, is that I saw something I could not explain, and denying it would simply be lying to myself. Again, not a very logical attitude…

So, what did I see? Well, it was not that impressive: walking in the countryside one evening, I saw a light shoot rapidly skywards. It could have been an amateur rocket, though in my recollection, it was a bit fast for that, and I don’t remember hearing a noise nor seeing any smoke. To this day, I still have no idea what it was, and I will probably die ignoring whether it was a weather balloon (unlikely), martians (unlikely as well), some optical effect (why not), or a probe from a remote region of the galaxy (now, that is quite likely…).

Whether the archives of the GEIPAN will help solving that mystery, only time will tell.

Thought recognition: what user interface?

Thought recognition is coming. New articles on this topic pop up regularly. But what would a thought-driven user interface look like?

The inception of the XL programming language began with questions like this. I was thinking more of speech recognition at the time. I was trying to figure out how it would be possible to use object-oriented programming (which I had just discovered back then) to program a speech-centric user interface. It turns out that it’s probably quite difficult.

The reason is relatively easy to explain. In a graphical user interface (GUI), you have a finite (and relatively small) number of objects on screen. You pick up one object, for example a menu, and then another, and so on. One of the key design features of the GUI is that it should be non-modal, i.e. at any given point in time, you should be able to pick this or that menu freely. This is very different from old text-based programs, where you would typically switch, for instance, between text editing mode, text formatting mode, page layout mode, printer selection mode, and so on. This basic tenet was a mindset revolution for programmers at the beginnings of GUIs. The original Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines insists on that point as early as page 12. Today, it’s much harder to find web pages explaining that fundamental aspect, because programmers only know about modeless programming.

But a speech-based user interface, on the contrary, is extremely modal. Everything depends on what was said before. For example, the word it in Find the Smith file and print it. I will often use the more general term vocabulary-based user interface (VUI), which covers all kinds of user interface where you “talk” to a machine. For example, with a voice mail system, the vocabulary can be digits you type on a keypad, like 1221 to get voice mail. The problem is that the vocabulary for speech can be thousands of words. So at any given point in time, you have thousands of possible modes.

Languages: The many meanings of amateur

In a few previous posts, I used the word amateur. I used this word on purpose, because it has two meanings in English:

  • a person who engages in a pursuit, esp. a sport, on an unpaid basis.
  • a person considered contemptibly inept at a particular activity.

I find this very interesting, because the second meaning probably colors the way the work of an amateur (in the first sense) is seen by English natives: they probably can’t completely remain free from the second interpretation. This is probably true despite the fact that, as Wikipedia notes, non-professional such as Linus Torvalds have often made unquestionably significant contributions.

But it is also interesting to observe how your background and your origin colors your perception. For me, the word, even in English, has a whiff of a different interpretation, because in French, the first meaning of amateur is “someone who has a taste for something”. For instance, that would be the meaning in un amateur de peinture. In French, amateur has a generally positive tone to it. “Un amateur de bon vin et de jolies femmes” is someone who knows how to live the good life. The English meaning of “inept” is barely perceptible in the French word.

Behind these different interpretations of amateur, there is an interesting question. What increases the chances of getting the best quality: passion or money? Do you get the highest quality from someone who loves his job, or from someone who is well paid to do it?

Having lived abroad gives you a stronger feeling for this kind of cultural subtleties. That’s part of this grenouille bouillie stuff. Anyway, just to make things clear, when I describe myself as an amateur in physics, I really mean it as a non professional who has a taste for physics and is most likely often quite inept at it…

Do we even think logically?

Another of my pet theories. I once read that the brain makes up its mind first, and then spends a lot of time analyzing logically to justify this preconception. Only when the evidence is so damn strong that the preconceived notion cannot possibly hold up will the brain, very reluctantly, accept to backtrack. I personally like this idea, it seems so true to me (see, that’s exactly what I was talking about).

For example, this explains why it is so difficult to have rational discussions about religion or political preferences: in these cases, proof is difficult enough that the brain won’t ever backtrack.

But, trying to remain aware that I am not myself thinking logically, I try to keep looking for data in favor and against that theory. One I particularly recommend is the following video of a debate between creationists and evolutionists. I won’t take side in the debate (well, to be really honest, I illogically favor evolution, just because this is currently more trendy…). No, what I really find interesting in this debate is the debate itself.

In this video, you have two people who are apparently intelligent, educated, and just can’t even listen to one another’s argument. Go ahead, make a list of each of the arguments presented by the “skeptic” and the list of arguments made by the “creationist”. Now, watch the video again, and put a little marker in front of each question raised by one that is actually addressed by the other. You will be surprised…

Application to physics: am I simply running into a similar problem when trying to discuss my ideas about physics? Is it just that physicists will simply not listen because for them, a priori, no valid answer can ever come from an amateur? Frankly, there is another possibility. Maybe they did read my paper, and they are still laughing…

Physics: will anybody read the work of an amateur?

Another reason for being late with XL is that I recently spent a lot of free time trying to evangelize my ideas about incomplete measurements in physics. The main idea is not too complicated, I’m just asking if there is any good reason why two physically distinct measurements of, let’s say, a coordinate we call x, should behave identically at all scales. I have good arguments justifying that the answer is no. But then, what does it mean exactly when we use x in an equation? [If you have any interest, there is an article (PDF) developing these ideas.]

Advocating a serious change like this is pretty tough. Professional physicists tend to look down on the work of an amateur, and probably with good reasons. After all, there is a lot of crackpot physics out there. But still, I wish that after 6 months, I could have gotten a single serious physicist to actually read the damn article! I mean, in my own domain of expertise, I do not routinely leave e-mails unanswered, or ignore a request just because someone did not publish 25 papers…

This came as a surprise to me. I think that there is now so much incentive to write article that practically nobody bothers reading anymore, everybody just writes, writes, writes, hoping to be the next Einstein. The peer review system introduces further undesirable side effects, because it tends to favor articles that “fit in the mold”. I recently came across an article suggesting that Einstein was taken aback by the idea of anonymous peer review.

At first, I thought that the newly created sci.physics.foundations newsgroup would be an interesting outlet for such ideas. After all, it had been created just for that purpose. But over time, I got disappointed by the slowly decaying quality of the discussion.