Archive for the “Hmmm” Category

I’m composing this while surrounded by Ethernet cables, sitting on the (raised) floor of the Layer 42 colo in Mountain View. This is the new home of the box (grommit) that hosts email, blogs, and various stuff for me, friends and family. Steve Lau and I (but mostly Steve) are working to sort out the kinks that are introduced by changing the IP addresses of the various zones running in this OpenSolaris server. As always, DNS propagation means that cause and effect are temporally vague, but eventual consistency is being achieved.

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I just finished reading the slim account of a debate between Dan Dennett and Alvin Plantinga, entitled “Science and Religion: Are They Compatible?”.

Dennett’s conclusion is straightforward:

Plantinga wanted to show… that science and religion are not just compatible: Science depends on theism to underwrite its epistemic self-confidence. […] [But] Our capacity to discover the facts, and to have good reasons for believing that we have done so, is explicable without appeal to inexplicable or irreducible genius, immaterial minds, or a divine helping hand. […] Let Plantinga, like Behe, try to show us the irreducible complexity in our minds that could not possibly have evolved (by genetic and cultural evolution). He will find, as Behe has, that his inability to imagine how this is possible is not the same as a proof that it is impossible. Richard Dawkins calls this the Argument from Personal Incredulity, and it is an obvious fallacy.

This fallacy — the Argument from Personal Incredulity – is one that has always fascinated me. Of course many (?most) people who say that they “can’t imagine how X could have happened” have probably never actually tried to imagine it: they have a prior commitment to a position that holds that it could not have done so, and that’s good enough for them. And in some cases they may lack the background to actually reason about the subject. But how about the others? What factors might underlie an honest, good-faith Argument from Personal Incredulity concerning the reality of evolution, from the origins of life to human consciousness?

It seems to me that there are a number of failures of imagination which, while individually innocuous, could have a cumulative effect. Let me list a few of them; I’m sure that you can think of others. Each of these items warrants a lengthy exposition, but for now let me simply summarize:

  • Lack of appreciation of very big (and very small) numbers. The enormous age of the planet (143 Petaseconds). The vast number of cells in an organism – or on the planet. The short time needed for a chemical reaction to play out, or for a mutated gene to thrive or be extinguished.
  • A tendency to think backwards, deterministically, all-or-nothing rather than forwards, incrementally, in parallel, with contingency. This builds on the large numbers involved: the entire planet (and indeed the universe) is full of experiments in selection, all proceeding in parallel, all interacting, and all subject to myriad contingencies.
  • Lack of appreciation of how much can be accomplished by so little. To understand the power of complex systems, start with simple ones. Look at the range of capabilities of single-celled organisms, or artificial life systems. Now apply scale and parallelism to these simple components.
  • Hubristic over-confidence in the capacity and ineffability of the human mind. Our brains are good at handling fragments of analysis, recognition, inference, and recollection; they’re also quite good at weaving together a story to fill in the gaps and fix up the mistakes. We “remember” things we haven’t seen, and “decide” to do things that have already started. (Philosophical arguments about mental capability – things like Searle’s “Chinese Room” and Jackson’s “Mary” – assume a total competence which is demonstrably at odds with the way the brain actually works.)

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Every so often, I come across a blog posting that makes my head spin from thinking of the implications. This evening was one of those occasions. I defy you to ignore this after reading the opening paragraph…

Last week I read about an Android licensing issue that I wasn’t previously aware of. It’s a pretty serious one, and it’s not that hard to understand. The short version is that

  • rampant non-compliance with the source code disclosure requirement of the GPLv2 (the license under which Linux is published) — especially but not only in connection with Honeycomb — has technically resulted in a loss of most vendors’ right to distribute Linux;
  • this loss of the distribution license is irremediable except through a new license from each and every contributor to the Linux kernel, without which Android can’t run; and
  • as a result, there are thousands of people out there who could legally shake down Android device makers, threatening to obtain Apple-style injunctions unless their demands for a new license grant are met.

This is from the FOSS Patents blog. It is not a joke, there is no hyperbole. Even though IANAL, the analysis seems to be persuasively grounded in GPLv2 language and case law.

This could get very interesting indeed….

UPDATE: There’s been widespread reactions to the FOSSpatents piece, most of it critical. The Register picked it up (well, they would, wouldn’t they?), linking it to efforts by Edward Naughton, and the commenters rubbished the analysis. Over at Twitter, Carlo Daffara, Dj Walker-Morgan, and my old buddy Simon Phipps all piled in.

One of the toughest things in reading the legal tea-leaves is that when cases like the various BusyBox suits are settled before they go to trial, it’s impossible to determine whether the settlement was due to the strength of the case or the balance of expenses. Those who have an axe to grind will always insist that the settlement smoke means that the licensing fire was real. Skepticism seems prudent. Nevertheless, the stakes are high, and I’m glad that we’re discussing the topic.

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In an uncharacteristic spasm of organization, I just piled up all of my t-shirts on the bed and sorted out the non-keepers. There were 33 of them. Quite a few passed the first test – “Do I like this shirt?” – but failed the second: “Am I really going to wear this in the future?”

I should probably go through the same exercise for the 411(!) iPhone/iPad apps on my computer. At the very least, I guess I should get rid of the iPhone versions of apps which I have in both formats (iPhone and iPad). But it’s hard for me to shake off the conviction that eventually I’m going to own an iPhone again. After the first few weeks of going Android, I feel that AT&T, Samsung and Google are going to have to work hard to keep me as a customer. (And maybe that’s the problem – all three of them have to get it right. Who is The Weakest Link?) Of course the current spate of lawsuits – Apple v. Samsung, Oracle v. Google, and LodSys v. everyone – may render the question moot. We’ll see. (I think that last sentence merits its own #FAIL tag.)

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I was looking over a business plan for a software startup, and I was struck (more accurately, startled) by the fact that it did not mention “open source” anywhere.

Once I’d got past my surprise, I realized that I couldn’t immediately tell which of two explanations was correct:

  1. No reference to open source because the project was not going to involve any open source activities.
  2. No reference to open source because, well, OF COURSE they were doing open source – how could anyone assume anything else?

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At the end of October, I blogged about the fact that a recent routine check-up had led to the discovery of several large (but symptom-free) kidney stones. I wrote then that I’d be discussing the next steps with my urologist. Time and a half later, the “next steps” have arrived: tomorrow morning at 7:30 I’ll be having EWSL to blast three stones in my right kidney (two 2.0cm, one 0.6cm) into fine gravel. And then for the next few days… well, I’m told that painkillers are a good idea. Painkillers, and lots to drink.

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A couple of weeks ago, I decided to take advantage of my new Yahoo! medical coverage and get a physical. Over the years I have to admit that I’ve not been very good about this; my last physical was in 2007 in Seattle. So I picked out a doctor (using one of the many online rating services!) and went in.

I expected my BP, cholesterol and weight to require attention, and they do. Nothing dramatic, just common-sense. But there was one other item on the lab results… and so last Thursday I had an abdominal CT scan. I was expecting to have to wait for a few days for the results, but this morning (9:29am on Sunday!) I got an email from my doctor, with the full test results and the news that I have a couple of large kidney stones. I haven’t experienced any discomfort so far (I gather that kidney stones can be excruciatingly painful), but at least we’ve caught it.

Email from my doctor on Sunday. Not bad, eh? I’ll talk to the urologist on November 9, and we’ll figure out what to do next. The standard approach seems to be EWSL, although my stones are at the upper end of the size for that procedure.

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Quote of the day, from an epidemiologist writing to Andrew Sullivan:

There is no such thing as “alternative medicine”, only “alternatives to medicine”. Once something has been proven efficacious, it simply becomes medicine.

To which Kate commented, “Unless the insurance company says so.” The bloody US system rears its head again.

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Because of some prior commitments, I found myself with two weeks between finishing at Huawei and starting at Yahoo. The first week was spent in Massachusetts, helping my daughter and grandchildren move in with Merry. When you combine two households, you find that you have two of most things (which means that you need to throw stuff away), and none of some critical things (because each assumed that the other would provide it). Both of the previous houses had some built-in shelving, and so one of the urgent needs was to install enough shelves to hold the stuff that wasn’t being thrown away. Etcetera.

We also got to spend time with family and friends in the Boston and Pittsfield areas, and after brutally hot weather last week we woke this morning to a classical first-signs-of-fall-in-New-England day. The air was cool, crisp, and fresh, and a couple of trees were exhibiting prematurely autumnal foliage.

And now, after driving the length of the Mass Pike and flying across country, we’re back in Palo Alto, ready for the second week of intermezzo. On Tuesday, we head to Napa…. It’s going to be the first time for both of us.

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One of my favourite writers is dying of cancer. Another, who has suffered horribly from his own cancer, writes about him. Extraordinarily insightful, deeply moving.

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