The joy of minerals

This morning I took the T to Harvard Square¹ to meet Kate and Tom for lunch, after which we headed over to the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Our immediate objective was the exhibit “Origins: Life’s First 3 Billion Years”, which is closing soon. (Good exhibit, a bit smaller than I expected, but worthwhile.) However it was my first visit to the museum, so we explored. The famous glass flowers were breath-taking; it was interesting that I found the extraordinary accuracy of tangled roots, stalks and leaves more impressive than petals and stamens. The dinosaur fossils were fun, as always, and the ornithological section was remarkably comprehensive.

But the exhibition that stole my heart was in the Mineralogical and Geological collection. I took quite a few pictures: here are some thumbnails:


¹ A very dangerous place: I discovered the philosophy books section of the Harvard Coop, which cost me over a hundred dollars. More on that anon.

A quiet day

Still on vacation. This morning I closed the deal on the new car: I decided to go with the Subaru Legacy GT after all. Reasons? I spent a few days observing my driving style (with as little observer-induced change as possible), read the latest Wired magazine (all about hybrids), chatted to a few Prius owners, and decided that I really didn’t have the right driving style/temperament for the Prius. Plus I remembered the advantages of AWD on our icy driveway in the winter. And finally our local Subaru dealer cut me a really nice sub-invoice deal. So I’m picking up the car first thing on Friday. (Not tomorrow, because I’ll be in Cambridge all day.)

I spent this (unseasonably warm) afternoon at Tufts, working in the library and then going to class. The end of the semester looms, along with the due date for the term paper and the final examination. Lots to think about. Later. For now, I’m relaxing at the end of the day, watching Newcastle vs. Manchester United, sipping a finger of single malt, and ripping the Claude Challe Nirvana Lounge 03 double CD into iTunes.

Posted in 1K

That loon

Here’s that picture I took at Harwichport Harbor yesterday of what looks like a Common Loon (Gavia immer).loon-detail.jpg¹ From the size of the bulge above the bill, it’s probably a juvenile, less than a year old. This is actually cut out of a much larger image, which you can find here; even that copy is flattened a bit to get it under the 1MB limit I’ve set for uploads.

¹Back in England Loons are called “Divers”; the Common Loon is known as the Great Northern Diver. This reminds me of a wonderful series of books from my childhood, Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons; the final volume was Great Northern?

Down on the Cape

No blog entries recently, because we’ve been down on Cape Cod for a few days R&R. I had planned to blog using my Treo, but every time I went online I found myself overwhelmed by trackback blogspam that needed cleaning up. (I’m writing this from the PC in the clubhouse of the time-share.)
Just got back from dinner in Harwichport; a fish restaurant overlooking the harbour. After eating, we went for a walk around the dock, and I saw my first-ever loon. (At least the first close enough to photograph.) I’ll post pics when I get home tomorrow.

Ignoring science at our peril

Many of Thomas Friedman’s recent op-ed pieces for the NYT have been silly or superficial, but today he hit a home run with Bush Disarms, Unilaterally: “At a time when the global economic playing field is being flattened – enabling young Indians and Chinese to collaborate and compete with Americans more than ever before… what we really need most today is a New New Deal to make more Americans employable in 21st-century jobs. We have a Treasury secretary from the railroad industry…. we have movie theaters in certain U.S. towns afraid to show science films because they are based on evolution and not creationism… Bush and the Republican Congress already slashed the 2005 budget of the National Science Foundation by $100 million… the National Innovation Initiative was virtually ignored by the White House.”

And the punch line:
“It’s as if we have an industrial-age presidency, catering to a pre-industrial ideological base, in a post-industrial era.”

Exactly. But what do you expect if you elect a know-nothing, born-again, failed oilman? And by the way: this blog piece was brought to you by way of the Internet, created with DARPA tax dollars. And don’t you forget it.

Open source, closed repositories, and snake oil

Over in the Register, Andrew Orlowski has a fascinating article entitled Torvalds knifes Tridgell about another bizarre outburst by Linus Torvalds. This time it’s all about BitKeeper, the source code repository system. “Torvalds uses the pay-for proprietary software to manage the Linux source code (obliging other kernel developers to follow suit), but last week its owner, Bitkeeper CEO Larry McVoy, yanked the license, pushing Torvalds to look for an alternative. He’s now going to write his own. For this inconvenience, he blames [Andrew] Tridgell”, the genius behind SAMBA (the technology which finally killed my old PC-NFS product).

And what was Tridgell’s crime? He wanted to reverse-engineer the BitKeeper protocols so that Linux developers could browse the repository metadata. This sounds innocuous enough – after all, BitKeeper’s own website says that “Read-only users (people browsing the source, tracking progress, doing builds, etc.) still need a license but there is no charge for that license.”, so it’s not a question of money. Clearly there is something big at stake – something so important that McVoy is prepared to forego the prestige of hosting the Linux kernel repositories. According to Andrew Orlowski, “McVoy was adamant: ‘sorry, we’re not in the business of helping you develop a competing product.'” So that’s it? The key intellectual property is in the protocols? That seems odd.

I had two reactions to this piece. First, why on earth is the acknowledged flagship product of the FOSS world relying on a proprietary, closed source repository – particularly one run by a guy who clearly has no sympathy with FOSS, nor any understanding of the related business models? I would (naïvely) have thought that BitKeeper would want to hang on to the data and proliferate clients like crazy. (A famous LBJ quotation comes to mind.) And second, what is it that makes BitKeeper so wonderful? Let’s check out their web site. Truth in advertising? You be the judge:

Hardware costs: BitKeeper does not have this problem [of scale] because of its distributed model…. This model means that the hardware costs can be spread over a set of inexpensive PCs rather than a $300,000 SMP machine. BitMover hosts the Linux kernel repositories for thousands of users on a single inexpensive PC.

Human costs: An administrator is the person who makes sure that the hardware and the software is working, the repositories are backed up, etc. The distributed nature of BitKeeper removes the need for such a person.

Wow. Thousands of users on a single PC. No administrators. How cool. No wonder Linus was impressed. [That’s sarcasm, in case you didn’t notice.] I think that in the long term we’ll see that Andrew Tridgell has done the FOSS community a service, by provoking Linus and Larry into falling out. Hopefully the community can create a better – and truly open source – repository. However I wouldn’t rely on Linus to create it – he doesn’t seem to believe in open source any more….

HHGTTG – I have a bad feeling

Among the Things that aren’t in the film:

I shall go and see the film, of course. But I’m prepared for the possibility that I won’t enjoy it.

(Via Chris, who sounds almost as depressed as Marvin.)

UPDATE: Reading all of those HHGTTG quotations got me all fired up, so when I came home this evening I hunted around in the basement, found the old (1992) VHS tape of the television version of HHGTTG, and watched it straight through – all 192 minutes. I sipped a gin and tonic while I watched it, but decided to skip the rubber ducky. I feel much better now. 🙂

More Hofstadter

One thing that Doug Hofstadter mentioned in his lecture yesterday was that many conventional ideas about physicalism – strict supervenience, law-like causality between the “levels” – are likely to be plain wrong: it seems likely that higher-level systems can be remarkably insensitive to changes in their physical underpinnings. So even though it is true that minds are implemented in brains, and brains are biological structures composed of cells and molecules and atoms which obey the laws of physics, that doesn’t mean that one can (or should) look for law-like relations between mental properties and microphysical properties.¹ Of course functionalists don’t have any problem with this. The objections seem to come, on the one hand, from philosophers like David Chalmers who see this gap as a reason to toss physicalism overboard, and on the other hand from neuroscientists like Christof Koch who expect to be able to build their house of neurobiological cards all the way up to the top.

While on this subject, Hofstadter recommended a new book by the Nobel physicist Robert Laughlin, A Different Universe – reinventing physics from the bottom down. I picked up a copy this lunchtime. From the fly-leaf:

The edges of science, we’re told, lie in the first nanofraction of a second of the Universe’s existence, or else in realms so small that they can’t be glimpsed even by the most sophisticated experimental techniques. But we haven’t reached the end of science, Laughlin argues-only the end of reductionist thinking. If we consider the world of emergent properties instead, suddenly the deepest mysteries are as close as the nearest ice cube or grain of salt. And he goes farther: the most fundamental laws of physics – such as Newton’s laws of motion and quantum mechanics – are in fact emergent. They are properties of large assemblages of matter, and when their exactness is examined too closely, it vanishes into nothing.

I suspect that this book may turn out to be more provocative than rigorous, but that’s OK.

[UPDATE: I’ve now read the first 6 chapters of the book. It’s WONDERFUL!!! Thought-provoking, mind-bending, funny, profound…. I’ll post a full review in a few days.]

¹ If this sounds poorly worded, blame me – this is my interpretation, not Douglas’s exact words.