The VW trick is at least 30 years old

I used to work for a company that designed and made graphics cards. In those days, the 1980s, there was a lot of competition. When you bought a PC you would, if you wanted to use play the latest games or use "high end" CAD, choose a better than standard graphics card. There were maybe 30 makers of graphics cards all competing on speed and price. And magazines, like PC World and Your PC, and so on would run benchmark tests on graphics cards to see which were the fastest, which had the most colors, which cost the least and so on. But above all, which graphics cards were the fastest. The results would be published in explicit tables of glory and shame.

In these days of high frame rate 3d animation it seems ridiculous. But in those days the speed of a graphics card it was important. It was what made your screen zip along and allowed you to work faster.

We could not understand how a competitor could always be rated fastest in one of the magazine's tests. We knew technically exactly what was needed to have a fast graphics card. We knew what we had to do to make our cards faster. We knew that some things cost more and would increase the speed, but at a price too high for the end user.

So we were amazed at the speed (and reasonable price) of the card. We bought the competitor's card and had a look at the signals as it ran the tests. We used logic analysers and oscilloscopes. And the board peformed the tests at the fantastic speed shown in the magazine. While our board trudged along at a third of the speed.

Then one bloke said: "There's a trick. They know about the test, they know what is supposed to be drawn on the screen, they recognise the test and drag the image from local memory before the test command has even finished!"

And indeed it was like that. The test which was performed was well documented so that all graphics boards would have the exact same test conditions. So the "winner" processor could recognise the sequence of commands coming along and without waiting for anything else, complete the test screen in lightening speed.

Simplifying a bit... One of the tests was to write "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" 100 times. Another one was to draw 200 red circles all over the screen. Once the processor saw these commands it knew the test was happening.

In fact with any similar test, but maybe the text changed to "The quick brown dog jumps over the lazy fox" and the speed of the graphics card fell enormously.

So, computers know to behave better when watched. Or rather, the programmers do.


The strangeness of Sam Harris's support of Tim Ferriss ("The Four Hour Work Week").

I like Sam Harris's books. He's an aethistic neuroscientist/philospher who writes plainly and clearly. I was curious about Tim Ferriss's podcasts. I did not know that the two were slightly connected. In one of the Ferris podcasts Sam Harris mentions that he wishes he could do all or some of the stuff recommended in "The Four Hour Work Week". This connection seems strange to me...

One of Tim Ferris's ways of working less (according to Ferriss himself) was to set up a brain supplement selling site. The supplement is called BrainQuicken. Hmm. There have been no tests which proved it work. Ferriss claims to have made $40,000 a month from it. Those claims have been disputed.

So, Sam Harris support of Ferriss is a sort of testimonial. A testimonial of a person who claims to make money selling worthless pills. Is it worse or better that he makes $40,000 a month? Because if it is true then he is taking $480,000 a year from the gullible, some of whom probably can ill afford the price of the useless pills. If it is not true then he is lying (duh!).

Hence my puzzlement of the Harris-Ferriss connection.

Search in google for

sam harris tim ferriss podcast

to find the podcast.

Disclaimer (we all have to disclaim these days): I'm not suggesting that Ferris paid Harris anything. And if anybody can point me to an independent double blind study which shows that BrainQuicken works I'll change my assumption that it doesn't.

Self induced health-scare over...

...I stopped planning my own funeral.

(And listened, with a smile on my face, to Andy Narell's "Tatoom".)


Anyway I take comfort from my "moments"...

I went for a walk the other morning, quite early, and had another of those "moments". The straight town road was in front of me, and at the end of it a cloudy horizon. Above me the sky was clear, slowly brightening. And behind me at about 40° elevation, a nearly full moon. The road ran East-West. There was a scattering of small long clouds just above the denser ones on the horizon. And there was Venus, above and to the right of where I imagined the sun would rise shortly. The light from the hidden (to me) sun hitting the moon's surface.

The moment that I had was that if we were not used to such sights (if we would not take them for granted), it would feel as if we were living on "another planet", or in a science fiction film maybe.

And inside that moment was another feeling of what I was really looking at. From space, and not to scale, it was this:

From space, and more to scale, this:

(I don't know what device you're reading this on but in the above image, (to scale), the Earth and Moon are two tiny dots  on the left of the image, over to the extreme right is the Sun, and Venus, another tiny dot is 3/4 across the image, closer to the sun. I've found that in an image of 600 pixels it is almost impossible show the inner Solar System to scale.)

And in this science fiction film, who were the baddies? Hmm. Too simple for a film, let's turn it into a novel. In this novel the baddies are (in rough recent historial order), the Nazi Party, the Soviet Communist Party, Chairman Mao and his lot, White Fundamentalists, Pol Pot and his lot, the Religious Right, the North Korean government, and finally (last but not least) ISIS.

All of them ignoring human pain and scientific reality. In favour of … having faith. Faith in things written by humans. Faith in ideas from really quite primitive humans at that. So how would they be treated in a science fiction novel? As the baddies. And enlightened humanists would come out on top. I hope the novel comes true, and that it comes true sooner rather than later.

Anyway I take comfort from my moments and in the amazingness and hugeness of the universe. And the mystery of it. So remember to look at things freshly every time. Who are you giving advice to Owen? Hmmm, looking at the stats for this blog, myself mostly.