One small step for a robot, one giant leap for…

From Marc Andreessen’s blog: robot self-reassembly:


An atheist goes to church

One of my favourite bloggers, Greta Christina, attended a church service at which a friend of hers was being installed as a minister, and wrote up her reactions. She captures many of the feelings that I have had on similar occasions, although I don’t think I’ve ever experienced what she describes as “church envy”.

There were many wonderful things about the service, and it clearly offered something of value to the members of the church. There was joy, community, celebration of life, transcendence and ecstasy, wonderful music (really — the choir was something special), a shared sense of purpose and meaning, etc. etc. But all the things that I liked about the service, all the things I found meaningful and moving, were all things that I can and do get from other areas of my life. I can get them from dancing, from music, from good food, from good conversation, from reading, from writing, from nature, from art, from sex.
And the things I didn’t like… well, those were all the actual religious parts. And I don’t want them. I found them alien, and alienating. They didn’t make sense to me — not intellectually, not emotionally, not viscerally, not in any way. I found them baffling and mysterious, and not in an enticingly mysterious way. (Or, obviously, in a “beautiful holy mystery” way.) They weren’t unpleasant, exactly. They just completely failed to strike any chord in me whatsoever. If there’s an opposite to striking a chord, that’s what they did.

Greta Christina’s Blog: Going to Church

Film & TV

Derb on "Expelled" and the odious Ben Stein

And now here is Ben Stein, sneering and scoffing at Darwin, a man who spent decades observing and pondering the natural world — that world Stein glimpses through the window of his automobile now and then, when he’s not chattering into his cell phone. Stein claims to be doing it in the name of an alternative theory of the origin of species: Yet no such alternative theory has ever been presented, nor is one presented in the movie, nor even hinted at. […] When our greatest achievements are blamed for our greatest moral failures, that is a blood libel against Western civilization itself.

John Derbyshire on Expelled on National Review Online


Hay fever?!

According to the NW Asthma: News & Resources site, the current pollen count here in Seattle is really low (although it spiked up to “high” last Wednesday). Doesn’t matter. For the first time in years, I’ve got the classic symptoms of a rip-roaring hay fever. The 24 hour time release OTC Claritin tablets only seems to help for about 12 hours. However I’m hesitant to double up. the dose, because I find it difficult to sleep with that stuff in my system….  


WordPress 2.5 – one problem solved

This is a test post to check out the QuickPost WordPress Plugin which I’ve just installed.


Rules vs. Principles

There’s a fascinating piece in the latest New Yorker by James Surowiecki on the difference between rules-based and principle-based regulation:

It’s something like the difference between football and soccer. Football, like most American sports, is heavily rule-bound. There’s an elaborate rulebook that sharply limits what players can and can’t do (down to where they have to stand on the field), and its dictates are followed with great care. Soccer is a more principles-based game. There are fewer rules, and the referee is given far more authority than officials in most American sports to interpret them and to shape game play and outcomes. For instance, a soccer referee keeps the game time, and at game’s end has the discretion to add as many or as few minutes of extra time as he deems necessary. There’s also less obsession with precision—players making a free kick or throw-in don’t have to pinpoint exactly where it should be taken from. As long as it’s in the general vicinity of the right spot, it’s O.K.

The focus of Surowiecki’s piece is financial: he notes that

… a principles-based system has real virtues. It can make life easier for honest corporations, since they have to spend less time complying with overly complex rules, and also thwart dishonest ones, since regulators can spend more time looking at the substance, rather than the minutiae, of corporate bad behavior. It has been argued that Enron might have found it harder to get away with its shenanigans under a principles-based system, since many of the company’s gambits, while following U.S. accounting rules, nonetheless violated fundamentals of financial reporting.

But I really think this reflects a much deeper difference between the U.S. and (particularly) Europe. I see it in the legal systems, in politics, in education…
In any case, as Surowiecki notes, the bottom line is inescapable: good regulation requires good regulators. And that’s true worldwide – just as any Premier League fan about the state of refereeing!


Smoke ring over Seattle

As I was returning home this evening, I got off the bus and saw that everyone was gazing up into the sky. This is what they were looking at. (Click to see it in the Gallery.)
Smoke ring over Union Station, Seattle
I don’t know how it got there, nor exactly how big it was… it looks to be a couple of seven or eight hundred feet up. It dissipated over a period of about a minute from when I took this.
Odd, innit?
UPDATE: I guess it was due to fireworks. (But who lets off fireworks in daylight hours on a cloudy day?) Check the comments for a link to video evidence.


Blaming one's tools

My blogging rate has dropped way off in the last few weeks, and I was wondering why. First, I’ve been pretty busy: not just with work (about which I rarely blog – Amazon is very different from Sun in this respect), but also on family stuff that has taken me back to the East Coast a couple of times this year. Second, I don’t feel that I have much to contribute to the Three Big Topics of the hour: the US election, the war, and the recession. The election seems to be just bringing out the worst in people. (See the Robert Reich piece I cited recently.) The war is in a ghastly kind of “holding pattern”, with Bush’s puppet Petraeus spinning things out until the next President can actually make some decisions. And what can one say about the the economy, except that it took rather longer than I expected for Gordon Gekko‘s chickens to come home to roost. (Thomas Frank’s comment about “plutocracy” is also right on the, er, money.)
But the biggest reason my blogging has dropped off is this wretched WordPress upgrade. I’ve already blogged about the way it screwed up the post composition window, making it much more inefficient to actually prepare a piece. I’ve fixed a few of the issues – I now have my category list to the right of the editing pane – but it’s still pretty painful. More seriously, WP2.5 broke the “scriptlet”. In the past, I often began a blog piece by noticing something interesting on the web, highlighting the text of interest, and then clicking my “Blog It!” bookmark. This ran a bit of JavaScript which opened the composition page for my blog and dropped the title, URL, and selected text into the right places. This made the workflow from seeing something of interest to posting a comment on it very efficient. Various alternative scriptlets have been posted by WP users, but none works exactly the way I want. As a result, I’ve tended to tag pieces of interest in Google Reader, which makes them show up in the “Items From Other Blogs…” sidebar. However I doubt anyone reads that. Maybe I should start doing a “links of the day” piece.
And finally, WP2.5 broke the elegant mobile admin interface that I had been using from my iPhone. This makes it more or less impossible to blog on the move. I suppose I could try to roll back from WP2.5 to 2.4, but that feels like more work (and risk) than I have time for right now.
UPDATE: I’ve improved things a bit (quite a lot, actually) by installing the Fluency admin plugin by Dean Robinson. It fixes the awful menus, which gives us back some screen real estate to actually do some composition, but it can’t do much about the inefficient layout of the controls on the writing page. (And – sob! – it can’t give us back our drag and drop widgets.) But it’s a start.




Rejecting cynicism

I don’t get to vote in the forthcoming elections, but I can’t avoid the zeitgeist. And I agree strongly with Robert Reich, who just endorsed Barack Obama. My emphasis:

“I saw the ads” — the negative man-on-street commercials that the Clinton campaign put up in Pennsylvania in the wake of Obama’s bitter/cling comments a week ago — “and I was appalled, frankly. I thought it represented the nadir of mean-spirited, negative politics. And also of the politics of distraction, of gotcha politics. It’s the worst of all worlds. We have three terrible traditions that we’ve developed in American campaigns. One is outright meanness and negativity. The second is taking out of context something your opponent said, maybe inartfully, and blowing it up into something your opponent doesn’t possibly believe and doesn’t possibly represent. And third is a kind of tradition of distraction, of getting off the big subject with sideshows that have nothing to do with what matters. And these three aspects of the old politics I’ve seen growing in Hillary’s campaign. And I’ve come to the point, after seeing those ads, where I can’t in good conscience not say out loud what I believe about who should be president. Those ads are nothing but Republicanism. They’re lending legitimacy to a Republican message that’s wrong to begin with, and they harken back to the past 20 years of demagoguery on guns and religion. It’s old politics at its worst — and old Republican politics, not even old Democratic politics. It’s just so deeply cynical.”