Back to New England for Thanksgiving

I just arrived back in Brookline for a quick visit over Thanksgiving. I’ll be returning to Seattle on Sunday.
U.S. newspapers and TV always make a great fuss about the fact that the day before Thanksgiving is the busiest travel day of the year. These reports are inevitably accompanied by film of long lines at airport security, and interviews with frustrated people who’ve been stranded somewhere.
My experience today was… different. I caught a bus from Seattle to the airport, which arrived on time. I’d checked in online, and I only had a carry-on bag, so I walked up to one of the security checkpoints. There was nobody there, except for some bored TSA staff. Several of them competed for the chance to inspect my photo ID, and then advised me to go to a particular X-ray/metal detector because “they haven’t had any customers.” As I approached, three TSA staff sprang to attention, offered me plastic trays for my lap-top and my shoes, and waved me through the metal detector with a smile.
It all felt very strange… and rather spooky.
After that, everything went beautifully. I had time to hang out at the Red Carpet Clubs in Seattle and Chicago. My flight to Chicago was full, but conditions were smooth and it arrived 30 minutes early. My connection to Boston was 60% full, and arrived on time. Everything was completely uneventful (the highest accolade).
I’m still trying to work it out. Maybe it’s just me.

Music and reading made it all even more pleasant. At Seattle I found the new Jack McDevitt novel, Seeker, which came out in paperback a couple of weeks ago. I’ve already reached page 176. And for the first part of the SEA-ORD flight I got out my iPod and listened to Concrete: In Concert at the Mermaid Theatre by the Pet Shop Boys, which arrived from last week. Most of it is excellent: the only problems are a couple of the “special guests” who aren’t all that special. But the rest is outstanding; Neil is in great form, and the sound (with a live orchestra) is wonderful. Highly recommended.

WiFi oddities

I’ve been experiencing some odd WiFi behaviour over the last week or so. The main symptom is that at random intervals my signal strength will fade away to almost nothing; in addition I’ve experienced spells when my signal looks OK but bandwidth to the Internet is lousy. At times things are so bad that I can’t even stream audio from my PowerBook to the Airport Express (which is connected to my home theatre). The distance shouldn’t be an issue: 12 feet through a thin wall. (And it’s not the Mac: I see the same problems from my Amazon-supplied Compaq nc6000 when I use it at home.)
I downloaded a WiFi monitoring tool called iStumbler to see what was going on. Here’s part of the screen:
iStumbler screen
My network is chaucer (hat tip to Kate), and the base station is easily the nearest. But there are a lot of networks, as you can see (12 right now, at 1 A.M. – at 9 P.M. there are 15-20 active). Most access points try to use channels 1, 6 and 11 to minimize overlap; I’m guessing that my occasional signal loss occurs when my Airport Express decides that the channel it’s using is too crowded, and switches to another one.
The other odd thing is the presence of two networks crackhouse and ACTIONTEC. I think they’re relatively new. What’s distinctive about them is that they are always the strongest signals, and they run almost flat out all the time. I don’t know what the units are on the “signal” and “noise” columns, but chaucer‘s signal is typically in the range 35-45, crackhouse and ACTIONTEC are 55-65, and everybody else is under 35 (most under 30).
From the constant 24/7 load, I imagine that both those networks are being used for P2P file sharing or media download. If they’re connected to the Internet using the building’s cable service, this might explain the bandwidth issues too. But are the high signal levels significant? Should I try to find out who owns them and ask them to reconfigure? Hard to tell.
In any case, things seem to be working well right now…..

Be careful what you wish for….

From polling Report

Theos, a new Christian think tank, heralded their launch by commissioning a poll from Communicate Research. They started by taking one of Richard Dawkins’ more confrontational statements and asking if people agreed with it: “Faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate”…. Obviously people were going to think that “faith” was nicer than “smallpox”.
Rather surprisingly though, 42% of people said they agreed with Dawkins with only 44% disagreeing….

[Hat tip to Alec.]

Atheists: The New Gays

From Scott Adam’s The Dilbert Blog:

Prior to 9/11, it would have been career suicide for a public figure to come right out and say God is a fairy tale. Now it’s a feature of popular culture…. I think the hidden benefit of Islamic extremism is that it freed the atheists from their closets. The old mindset in the United States was that almost any religion was good, and atheism was bad. But since 9/11… [ask] a deeply religious Christian if he’d rather live next to a bearded Muslim that may or may not be plotting a terror attack, or an atheist that may or may not show him how to set up a wireless network in his house. On the scale of prejudice, atheists don’t seem so bad lately.

And then he goes and spoils it all by supporting Bill Gates for POTUS….

Two terribly English films

Two weekends, two films.
Last Saturday I went to see “The Queen” up on Capitol Hill. When I told my mother about it the next day, she was incredulous: how could Helen Mirren play Liz? She looks nothing like her! Well, all I can say is that it worked. Helen Mirren was wonderful, and after a few minutes I was quite happy to accept that she was the character she was playing. The key was that she absolutely nailed the voice and a few obvious physical mannerisms; the rest just followed. (I imagine experimental psychologists could explain this in terms of the various and complex ways in which hominids actually recognize one another.) Even the guy playing Tony Blair was convincing, and once again it was mostly based on the voice.
Overall it was a very enjoyable and satisfying movie. I’m not sure why some American critics are gushing over it: it was good, but not great, and I can’t see it garnering any Oscars. (“The History Boys” looks much more like Oscar material; after seeing the trailer, I’m really looking forward to the film.)
Then today I read the review of the new “Casino Royale” in the New Yorker magazine, and decided that I wanted to see it. I think it was because the reviewer emphasized that this Bond was relatively true to the book, in both plot and characterization. I first read Ian Fleming around 1963-1965, when I was in my early teens. He was one of a number of authors, most notably Len Deighton and John LeCarre, who introduced me to the genre of spy fiction with a deeply flawed protagonist. (It’s become a cliche, but back then it was a gritty revelation.) The sex was a factor, of course: this was only a few years after the “Lady Chatterley” court case. And then there was the card-playing: Bond played cards, including bridge, and I was an avid bridge player.
I enjoyed the first couple of Bond movies with Sean Connery, but the later films (and, indeed, the later books) were just silly, and I didn’t bother with them. As several writers have pointed out, when directors like Tarantino upped the ante in violence, the Bond franchise simply turned into a campy parody of itself.
So this afternoon I saw the movie at the AMC downtown. And I have to report that the new Bond works for me. Yes, it’s too long: a couple of the chases should have been trimmed, and the poker game meanders a bit. But it feels like the Bond I remember from the second-hand paperbacks with the lurid covers. Daniel Craig is an excellent 007: much more convincing than Moore or Brosnan. Vesper is played by the erotically enigmatic Eva Green; if you saw her in Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers”, you’ll know what I mean. And she’s definitely not a classic Bond girl.
Both films: highly recommended.


secularsouth expresses rather nicely one of the things that amazes me about anti-evolutionist Christians:

[Even though] many christians support dna evidence to prove identity in trials or to indicate kinship such as paternity, they reject the same techniques, the same types of genetic markers, the same evidence when it proves in the same way that we share a common ancestor with chimpanzees.

(Yes, Chris, I know there are some Christians who “get” science, but you seem to be in a minority in the US.)

"I came here for an argument." "No you didn't!!"

I was pulling together material for a presentation I’m giving today, and found myself reviewing the WS-* loyal opposition debate. You may remember Tim’s rant:

No matter how hard I try, I still think the WS-* stack is bloated, opaque, and insanely complex. I think it’s going to be hard to understand, hard to implement, hard to interoperate, and hard to secure. ¶

I look at Google and Amazon and EBay and Salesforce and see them doing tens of millions of transactions a day involving pumping XML back and forth over HTTP, and I can’t help noticing that they don’t seem to need much WS-apparatus.

And then I stumbled upon “S stands for simple”, a delightful (and newly posted) piece in dialogue form by Peter Lacey. A short extract won’t do it justice: you must read the whole thing.

A couple of years ago, Guillaume Lebleu made a great point in a comment to a piece by Simon St. Laurent:

Standards are great, but most of the time, they get crazy by trying to put everybody’s need into one document, bringing extremly complex abstractions along the way, or tons of optional fields to avoid semantic collision, that 99% of people don’t need. This is true for tech and industry standards. In a way 90% of us need ultra-simple standards, and 10% have very complex needs that are too expensive to standardize.

Amen, brother.

50 years ago today: High Court Rules Bus Segregation Unconstitutional

Some things are worth remembering, and celebrating. This is one of them. And, pace Andrew, this was not the product of any kind of conservatism. It was the product of liberal consciousness: the kind of “liberal” whose opposite is “illiberal”.

High Court Rules Bus Segregation Unconstitutional
Alabama and Montgomery Laws Held in Violation of the 14th Amendment
Case Involves Bus Company Boycotted by Negroes- Some Whites Bitter
Washington, Nov. 13: An Alabama law and a city ordinance requiring segregation of races on intrastate buses were declared invalid by the Supreme Court today.

Dawkins and the delusions of theists

I was reading the latest RSS feeds from and came across an entry by my friend Chris Gerhard that began, “I’ve been waiting for Geoff’s review of The God Delusion.
Oops. Mea culpa. Let me fix this right now….

I did mention Dawkins’ book in passing, and said that I basically agreed with it. The fact that it’s #2 on the Amazon best-seller list is a good thing; it’s going to get a lot of people talking – and hopefully thinking – about atheism as a practical alternative. Structurally, it’s a “horizontal” book, a series of essays on various topics related to theistic belief. There’s something for everyone, as it were. This means, however, that it lacks the structural coherence of, say, Dan Dennett’s Breaking The Spell – or of most of Dawkins’ earlier work. It’s closer to Sam Harris, an author who alternately delights and infuriates me.

Those few of us that have read widely on the topic of atheism (from authors such as Russell, Flew, Michael Martin, Wells, and Dennett), will find nothing new in Dawkins’ book. But we’re in a distinct minority, of course: most people have not encountered these ideas, and for them the book is to be highly recommended. I applaud Dawkins for using his well-earned reputation in evolutionary biology to advance this controversial message, and for exposing himself to clueless reviewers such as Marilynn Robinson in the latest Atlantic Harper’s.

However if I were allowed to take only one work of Dawkins to the fabled “desert island” along with my discs, it would not be this one. I’d be agonizing over the choice between the magnificent Extended Phenotype and the inspirational Ancestors’ Tale. If I’m lucky, perhaps I’ll be allowed to take both.

Good Math, Bad Math,… Theosophical Math!

Check out this wonderfully wacky piece at Good Math, Bad Math on Rudolph Steiner and Theosophical Math. For example:

In normal projective geometry, there’s an interesting kind of duality, where you can take theorems involving lines and points and switch the lines and the points in the theorem, and the result is also a theorem. So, for example: given two distinct points, there is exactly one line that crosses through both of them. The dual statement of that is: given two distinct lines, there is exactly one distinct point that they both cross through.
Steiner insists on carrying duality to silliness, and that’s where the really crazy math comes in. Since there’s normal space where parallel lines converge and intersect at infinity, there must be a dual space where everything is at infinity, and things converge towards the finite.

Wow. Where can I get some of that stuff…?