Philosophical zombies

Zombie posterThis page on David Chalmers’ web site is way too much fun. Not content with giving us a taxonomy of zombies (including Hollywood zombies and Unix processes), he delves into cocktails, cartoons, and 1960s pop music. Of course the core of the page is the collection of links to papers on philosophical zombies: devices which seem to have become part of the standard toolkit of certain philosophers of mind. Nigel Thomas’s elegant Zombie Killer ought to have sent them all packing, but unfortunately these impossible (but arguably conceivable) undead critters just won’t stay down….

The Urban Archipelago

Here‘s a powerful thesis about red America and blue America. It isn’t about the north vs. the south. It isn’t about slave states vs. free states. It isn’t (primarily) about religion, or guns, or gay marriage. It’s about cities: an archipelago of blue cities in a sea of red suburbs and rural areas. It’s about the Urban Archipelago. Worth reading.
(Via Sully, who also has a link to this really cool graphic.)

It's too early in the season for this kind of thing


We’re not yet half way through November, but winter can’t wait. The picture is from a traffic webcam about a mile from where I live in Brookline, MA. According to the NWS, Boston got 4 inches and Milton got 6.8 inches; we’re half-way between those points, so figure about 5+ inches. That’s what it felt like as I lugged the trash to the curbside.

Good grief

File under “nobody would believe you if you made it up”: Oslo Girl: “I saw on TV2 news last night that there was a march in the center of Oslo yesterday to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Jews, apparently, were forbidden to participate. Technically, they could join the demonstration as long as they refrained from showing any Jewish symbols, like the Star of David. The rule was enforced in order to “avoid any conflicts.””

(Via Heretic’s Almanac. And Sully has also got it now.)

UPDATE/CORRECTION (from Sully’s Letters page): “There were Jews present in the demonstration. The arrangers, SOS Rasisme, makes it very clear that not only will they never exclude Jews from their activities, but they have always invited Jewish organisations to participate.
SOS Rasisme had specifically asked participants to refrain from displays of partisanship for either side in the Middle East conflict and unite behind the common message of the demonstration. This was their decision, not one of the authorities.
The “Jews and their friends” who tried to hijack the demonstration were in large part right-wing extremists, among them members of Forum Mot Islamisering (Forum Against Islamisation, FOMI), an organisation with neo-nazi roots. Along with them were at least one Jew, Erez Uriely, from a pro-Israel organisation called Norsk Israelsenter (Norwegian Israel Center, NIS). His choice of racist and right-wing extremist companions enraged Oslo’s Jewish community and Uriely and his wife were subsequently excluded from Det Mosaiske Trossamfund (The Mosaic Religious Body, DMT) of Oslo.
A statement from Norsk Forening Mot Antisemitism (Norwegian Society Against Anti-Semitism, NFMA) also condemned the action as historyless and unworthy.”

Book game, again

Terry announced: “Book game (cause it isn’t really a meme): Nearest Book, Page 23, Fifth sentence, Posted, with explanation.” OK, here goes:

When we talk of a green sensation, this talk is not equivalent simply to talk of “a state that is caused by grass, trees, and so on”.

This is from the Chalmer’s Conscious Mind book that I’ve talked about before; he’s recapitulating the standard philosophical idea of the phenomenal (“Known or derived through the senses rather than through the mind”). The paragraph continues:

We are talking about the phenomenal quality that generally occurs when a state is caused by grass and trees. If there is a causal analysis in the vicinity, it is something like “the kind of phenomenal state that is caused by grass, trees, and so on”. The phenomenal element in the concept prevents an analysis in purely functional terms.

By the way, it looks as if the entire text of the book is online, although the diagrams are missing and (inevitably) the pagination doesn’t match the printed version.

(We played this game before – a few months back, IIRC – but unlike some of these blog games it’s pretty much guaranteed to be different each time around.)

'Bye Rob – and thanks


After over 19 years working at Sun, you might think that I’ve seen it all. But last week I experienced a personal “first”: my boss, Rob Gingell, left the company. I was so gobsmacked that I checked back to make sure that this was indeed the first time that this had happened. Of course many of my former bosses have left the company (or, in the case of Phil, been tragically snatched away from us on 9/11), but in every case they’d had the decency to wait until I was no longer working for them.

I’ve never really understood why we’re always so secretive about people leaving companies. (I actually held off writing this piece until Rob had assured me that his mug-shot was on file at his new company.) After all, people come and go for all sorts of reasons, and it shouldn’t be a big deal. Rob, like me, had been at Sun since 1985, and after 19 years it’s hardly surprising that he was interested in doing something new. But we never announce these things, even internally (unless the person is retiring), and I think this has two unfortunate consequences. First, people tend to interpret secrecy as meaning that you’re trying to hide something. (“Oo-er! Rob just quit! I wonder why?! What did he know that I don’t know? Should I be worried?!”) 99% of the time, the answer is, quite simply, no. (And the other 1% there isn’t anything you can do anyway.) Second, by keeping things under wraps we lose the opportunity to celebrate the person’s accomplishments and thank them for their contributions to the company. Sure, a few of us may take them out for a drink, but that’s inadequate recognition for someone who’s touched as many lives as Rob did.

Having violated the taboo, let me say a few words about Rob. I think I first ran into him in 1986 when he was giving a talk on the recent rewrite of the virtual memory system for SunOS (the BSD-based precursor to Solaris). I remember two things from that: his distinctive speaking voice (with the pitch rising steadily through each sentence), and the elegance of the design he was presenting. Over the years we met frequently, particularly after I became a DE in 1991. He was instrumental in the mammoth Sun-AT&T Unix unification effort that became SVR4 and then Solaris; he was a passionate advocate for Java and the community process that underpinned its development; he became the CTO of the software organization; and then in 2002 he was appointed to a newly-created position: Chief Engineer, reporting to the CTO, Greg Papadopoulos.

Rob talked about his new job in an interesting interview with David Berlind of ZDNet, in which he identified his charter as conceptual integrity: “My goal in life is to make sure that all the brains [at the various Sun campuses] are effectively employed and create as much as they can. If only one person creates the ideas, you only get one person’s worth of ideas. I’d much rather have 30,000 people’s worth of ideas. […] I actually hope that it’s never true that the herding cats phenomenon vanishes from Sun. Some of the chaos you’re referring to is what makes us interesting and vital, and keeps us from getting locked into a “we’re doing this because we did it last week” mentality. That level of chaos, while it’s annoying at times, is also fairly powerful because it’s the product of having all those brains usefully applied. Where it’s a negative is when you have no way of arbitrating the chaos […] which I did locally in the software group for many years. It’s a new scope expansion to consider doing it for everything all at once.”

In the same interview, Rob spoke about his vision of how Sun was evolving. “When I say we’re working on our second-generation systems, our first generation was about practicing this [developer feedback] loop with Unix. […] The Solaris applications catalog is essentially 100 percent of any Unix applications that exist. […] When we talk about the next generation, we’re just talking about another instance of this circle that’s based on Java, where the developer number is already at three million. The apps space is only beginning to appear in some areas like your Java phone. […] All of our initiatives around things labeled SunOne are really about translating that into market share for us so that we can start to see this develop into a self-sustaining ecosystem.” It was this vision of Sun’s “second-generation” of Java-centric network computing that led me to come to work for Rob a year ago.

I know I speak for many at Sun when I say, “Thanks, Rob, for your engineering leadership, your inspiration, and your friendship. Clear skies and smooth rides…”

Posted in Sun

Poems: Mary Oliver

Through reading Roger Housden’s extraordinary “Ten Poems…” anthologies (starting with Ten Poems to Change Your Life) I have become aware of the poems of Mary Oliver. (OK, I’m slow… Google shows over 52,000 hits for her name. At least I got there eventually.) My first impression was of an impatient Walt Whitman: a combination of transcendent vision with a fierce and uncompromising urgency. These are Emergency Broadcast System messages to one’s inner heart: save the only life you can: your own. Consider the opening of The Journey:
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.

But the message is not always a call to action: here are the opening lines of her Mockingbirds:
This morning
two mockingbirds
in the green field
were spinning and tossing
the white ribbons
of their songs
into the air.
I had nothing
better to do
than listen.
I mean this

As I read more of Mary Oliver, I have come to reallize that those first few poems that I encountered in no way define or constrain her. There are many sides to Oliver’s work: romantic, visionary, organic, mimetic, mythic; above all grounded in nature. And yet I find myself particularly drawn to these direct, imperative pieces: Journey, the shocking West Wind 2, the absolution of Wild Geese, or the exhortation of Have You Ever Tried To Enter The Long Black Branches?, with its blunt question:
Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?
Well? Are you?