The Consciousness of John Derbyshire

When I first read about this year’s Towards A Science Of Consciousness conference, I really wanted to attend it. Good intentions were overtaken by other plans, and I wasn’t able to fit it into my schedule. Fortunately, NRO’s John Derbyshire was more pesistent, and his excellent account of the conference was almost as good as being there. At least I didn’t have to sit through all that nonsense about quantum consciousness. Derb captured the contradictions of this pseudo-argument. First:

It’s possible to explain [presentiment] via known quantum effects. You just have to drop some common-sense assumptions about time and causation! Sheehan argued that the explanatory power you get by bringing quantum weirdness into biology makes it worthwhile.

Well, yes. Bringing in poltergeists would explain a lot of things as well, wouldn’t it? But at what a cost…? And then:

Stuart [Hameroff] worked up a plausible model of the brain as a quantum computer, with the tubulin protein molecules of those neuron microtubules as the qubits — “Schrödinger’s protein”. There’s a slight drawback here: Far as we know, quantum computing can only work at temperatures near absolute zero, i.e. 590 degrees Fahrenheit colder than a working brain. Stuart phrased this objection as: “The brain is too warm and wet for delicate quantum-mechanical effects.”

Indeed. Not to mention the problem of scale: quantum effects get averaged out into the non-quantum models of classical physics at the submolecular level; where’s the causal mechanism?
Anyway, thanks to Derb for the blow-by-blow. Maybe next time.

Heading home

I’m packed and ready to fly back home to Seattle. It’s been a busy few days here in the Boston area. I spent a lot of time with Thomas and Victoria (Tommy and Torri, to me), both of whom were in fine form.

Free the children

Schneier on Security has a great piece about the New York woman who allowed her 9-year old son to ride the subway alone. He concludes:

I am reminded of this great graphic depicting childhood independence diminishing over four generations.

Indeed. It prompted me to fire up Google Earth to measure how independent I was at that age. I can’t remember age 9 exactly, but I can bracket it:
By age 8, I would routinely:

  • Walk or take the bus to school (1 mile)
  • Walk to the library (1.1 miles)
  • Walk or cycle to Gladstone park (1.4 miles)
  • Walk or cycle to Cricklewood Broadway to go shopping (1.1 miles)

Around the same age, I rode my bike with a friend to Marble Arch (4.8 miles), but I think I got into some trouble for that. By age 10, I would routinely take the bus and/or tube to:

  • Paddington Station (4.8 miles)
  • Waterloo Station (7.8 miles)
  • Kew Gardens (8.6 miles)

I remember being jealous of my cousin, Clive, because he lived at the top of a hill just outside Huddersfield, and (so I imagined) he was free to range over the Yorkshire Moors.
My theory is that just as humans have ancient, deep-seated intuitions about physics, causality, psychology, and time, so we have an inbuilt sense of probability: of assessing risk and chance. All of these things were “baked in” by evolution when we were living in small, nomadic groups; we can see some hints of them in the behaviours of the other primates. And just as our “folk psychology” and “folk physics” break down dramatically when confronted with the scale of the modern world, so our “folk probability” is quite hopeless at assessing true risk in a world of global communications. Couple this to the fundamental shift in the Western attitude towards death that took place during the first half of the 20th century – from inevitability to avoidability – and parental paranoia is understandable. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek to overcome it. After all, “folk psychology” attributed most mental disorders to demonic possession, and we’re only now shaking that superstition off.

AWS and Ruby

The book of the moment is James Murty’s “Programming Amazon Web Services: S3, EC2, SQS, FPS, and SimpleDB”. It’s a really nicely-written introduction and tutorial for our utility computing services, with plenty of sample code that just works. Highly recommended.
Murty chose to write his examples in Ruby, which pushed one of my buttons. I have a love-hate relationship with Ruby, and it’s getting to the point where I’d love to find an alternative ((And that doesn’t include PHP or Python, or even Groovy.)). On the one hand, Ruby offers Smalltalk with instant gratification. On the other, we have a syntax replete with ad hoc short-cuts, looping constructs with inconsistent scope rules, and ASCII rather than UTF-8.
My friend Jon Irving agreed:

Hahah, yes – I love it, although the things which I love are the
things that make it horrific for any large app. Re-opening class defs,
awesome, except when you’re trying to find where a method is defined.
Monkey-patching, awesome, except when you suddenly find that for *no
perceptible reason* a core API has been changed by some library you’re
And rails, oh rails. What is this “thread safety” of which you speak?
Srsly, it’s like it’s 1995 all over again. But much prettier, and this
time smalltalk won!

Writing Ruby is great fun; reading someone else’s Ruby application (particularly anything substantial) is deeply frustrating. In other words, Ruby is a candidate write-only language. And that’s a shame.

File under "Spin cycle"

From Juan Cole, we get various perspectives on the recent upsurge in violence in Iraq. First, John McCain:

Republican presidential hopeful John McCain said Sunday that Iraq’s military performed “pretty well” in its recent Basra assault despite the “mixed” results of the battle… “Overall, the Iraqi military performed pretty well… eight or nine months ago, it would have been unthinkable.”

But from those on the spot….

Stephen Farrell and James Glanz of the New York Times estimate that at least 1,000 Iraqi soldiers and policemen, or more than 4% of the force sent into Basra, “abandoned their posts” during the fighting, including “dozens of officers” and “at least two senior field commanders.”
Other pieces offer even more devastating numbers. For instance, Sudarsan Raghavan and Ernesto Londoño of the Washington Post suggest that perhaps 30% of government troops had “abandoned the fight before a cease-fire was reached.” Tina Susman of the Los Angeles Times offers 50% as an estimate for police desertions in the midst of battle in Baghdad’s vast Sadr City slum, a stronghold of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia.
In other words, after years of intensive training by American advisors and an investment of $22 billion dollars, U.S. military spokesmen are once again left trying to put the best face on a strategic disaster

40 years ago today: RIP Jim Clark

Jim Clark was the perfect driver. Double F1 world champion. First Brit to win the Indy 500. There were fewer Grands Prix per year back in the 1960s, but he always had to be racing – if not in Formula 1, then Formula 2, or thrashing a Lotus Cortina around in the British Touring Car series. I was 13 when Jim Clark won his first World Championship, and 17 when he died. Motor racing was a really dangerous game: every year we lost one or two drivers. But not Jim Clark: heros are meant to be immortal….

Seattle Sculpture Park

I spend this afternoon exploring Seattle’s Sculpture Park. Sculptures in the Park.It was cool and cloudy, but the rain held off; however we could see that it was raining over in West Seattle.
The range of scales, textures, colours, and styles was impressive. I’ve uploaded some pictures to the gallery.
I may go back in the summer, to see if how the pieces look different in the sun.

Upgraded to WordPress 2.5, and a rant

I just upgraded to use WordPress 2.5. The process went pretty smoothly; the only glitch was that the mobileadmin plugin that I was using isn’t 2.5-compatible. I shall have to see if there’s a new version available… hmmm, it looks as if the answer is no.
The most noticeable change with 2.5 is that the administrative UI has been entirely revamped. OK, I agree that it looks more stylish, but I’m pretty disappointed. In particular, the Write Post page (which I’m using to compose this piece) is poorly laid out. Ideally I want the basic elements to be easy to use: the text editor, the Categories panel, and the Save, Preview, and Publish buttons. These are the features that I use every time; other stuff, like the status, tags, posting time, and so forth should go below the fold, out of the way. If there’s space available, give me a bigger edit box, not swatches of colour to tastefully highlight controls that I rarely use.
This seems to be turning into a rant. So be it. Take a look at this gratuitous waste of screen real-estate:
Menu structure of new WordPress composition page
This is the upper left quadrant of the screen in which I’m composing this post. It starts with a grey stripe which only serves to provide a link back to the first admin page, the Dashboard. No, wait, it also lets me log out, visit the WordPress site, or visit my own sub-page in the Users area.
Secondly we have the blog name, and a Visit Site button. People managing multiple blogs might need this; I’d rather banish the Visit Blog link to the grey stripe and lose the big title, with the wasted space next to it.
Then we have the menu/submenu structure. This is fine, except that I don’t see why some menu items are banished to the right side of the screen in small font. It’s a single menu; keep it together.
Next we have Write Post in a big font. I know I’m writing a post: the words Write and Post are helpfully shown in orange just above. Again, a waste of space.
Then we have a header for the Title box, and finally we actually have some content, about a third of the way down the window. For some reason, the title text is about twice as large as the body text. It doesn’t need to be.
Let me show you the full window that I’m working with:
Full blog entry composition window
(Click the thumbnail to see the full-size image.) As you can see, the text box in which I compose and edit the actual blog entry is about 30% of the height and 60% of the width of the screen. ((These are the dimensions on my PowerBook, with a 1280×854 screen)) And this is all wrong!! The point of a Write Post screen is to write. As much real-estate as possible should be given over to this function; the few essential controls should be kept small (but clear); everything else should be swept out of the way.
Fortunately, WordPress is open source, so I’m going to be able to redesign this page the way I think it ought to look.
UPDATE: I guess I’m not the only person who dislikes the new admin UI. My rant is pretty mild compared with some of the comments here in the WP forums.