The week's twitterings – 2010-08-29

  • Final prep for trip east. Limo coming at 3:35AM to get us to our 6AM SFO-BOS flight. (Verifying UA Visa+auto ins. will cover rental CDW.) #
  • Old style trip prep: copying MP3 playlists from iTunes to my iPhone.
    New style trip prep: ripping DVDs to my iPad with HandBrake. #
  • RT @sarahholtf1: What's that the sound of steady rain falling through the trees and trickling into the gutters? Good morning from Spa<Uh-oh! #
  • Lack of imagination: "Another… said: 'I can't think of anything worse than being told your plane's about to crash." #
  • Common problem: @vambenepe: OK, so I looked at my blog logs tonight and apparently the way to generate traffic is to write new posts. Darn. #
  • Waiting for a take-out order of sushi at Misono in Chestnut Hill. Feels just like 1998-2005 (before I moved to Seattle). #
  • “@rww: Eucalyptus and Amazon – A Twist Forms in the Open Cloud” < Where's the twist? (Unless you live under a rock…) #
  • Prediction: As soon as the @OpenStack baseline release is done, there will be new subprojects for EC2/EBS and S3 API compatibility. #
  • Hotel Indigo in Newton MA has SpeedTV, so I'm watching the Belgian GP. Rain clouds on one side of the track, sunshine on the other. Typical. #
  • Still hoping for a Hamilton lead-from-lights-to-flag win. All his pursuers have stopped for tyres… #
  • “@ConnectionMaven: @geoffarnold We are watching somewhat delayed…so no spoilers.” <OK. Of course "rain at Spa" isn't a spoiler 😉 #
  • So it comes down to tyres – intermediates vs. full wets – and visibility through spray. Classic! #
  • “@GrandPrixDiary: For Gods sake Kubica – put your knees together….”< After 40 laps in that little tube of a cockpit, you'd want to stretch #
  • “@jxstanford: Pop quiz: Why shouldn't a RESTful service have a login / logout?” < Idempotency, server state. Too easy. #

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From Huawei to Yahoo!

Today’s my last day at Huawei. I’m going to take a couple of weeks off (first in Massachusetts, visiting family and friends, and then in Napa Valley, unwinding), and then on September 13 I’ll be starting at Yahoo! I’ll be working in Shelton Shugar’s Cloud Computing group.
I’m leaving one amazing company to join another. I’ll be traveling a lot less, and I’ll be dealing with a different set of customers, but in each case the vision is the same. It’s about computing as a service, and the operational and business possibilities this this opens up. It’s not defined by technology (despite what you might think if you dropped in on the various online discussion groups about cloud computing). It’s enabled by key technologies (virtualization, data center networking), and it establishes an “innovation vector” for new technologies to enhance and exploit it. I’m not too concerned about whether we label it as IaaS, PaaS, SaaS, or some other “XaaS“: what’s important is the “aaS“, not the “X“.
Over the last 14 months I’ve enjoyed working with the team at Huawei, in Santa Clara, Shenzhen, and Xi’an. I’m sorry that I’m leaving you all before the first release of the system, but I’m confident that the strategy is solid. It’s gratifying to see how recent events have validated the decisions we made a year ago. And I’m really excited to be joining Yahoo! and working with a company that has such a presence in the industry, and really understands operations at massive scale.


Another easy demolition: "homicide bombers"

I forgot to mention that yesterday’s piece on truth came about because one of the temporary bloggers at Andrew Sullivan’s Dish, Zoe Pollock, saw fit to link to the original piece by Bill Vallicella. Apparently I wasn’t the only person who took exception to Vallicella’s nonsense: in today’s Dish, Pollock quotes from three critics of the piece. This was particularly evocative:

Mr. Vallicella, in the greatest traditions of Monotheist sophistry, asks, “What does Hitch lose by believing?” and he answers, showing his own nihilistic disdain for truth and faith, “Nothing.” Such is how he sees it. To an existentialist, however, you are your morality and your philosophy; what you think and do IS who you are; in other words, the truth of your existence is everything. To believe now, to run fearfully to a god he has never considered feasible out of some coward’s hope that a last minute plea would postpone oblivion, to lie to himself so grandly, would be for Mr. Hitchens to lose everything.

I wanted to see what Dr. Vallicella himself might have to say about all this, so I visited his blog again. Unfortunately, he doesn’t allow comments (and his trackbacks don’t work), so I have no idea if he realized how thoroughly he’s been fisked. Never mind. I browsed some more of his contributions, and came across another piece of pure nonsense which was crying out for demolition.
In “‘Suicide Bomber’ or ‘Homicide Bomber’?”, Vallicella castigates Bill Keller, the Executive Editor of the New York Times, for using the term “suicide bomber”. This, to Vallicella, is simply wrong:

Keller took exception to the practice of some conservatives who label what are more commonly known as suicide bombers as ‘homicide bombers,’ claiming that ‘suicide bombers’ is the correct term. Keller claimed in effect that a person who blows himself up is a suicide bomber, not a homicide bomber.
This is a clear example of muddled thinking. Note first that anyone who commits suicide ipso facto commits homicide.* If memory serves, St. Augustine somewhere argues against suicide using this very point. The argument goes something like this: (1) Homicide is wrong; (2) Suicide is a case of homicide; ergo, (3) Suicide is wrong. One can easily see from this that every suicide bomber is a homicide bomber. Indeed, this is an analytic proposition, and so necessarily true.
More importantly, the suicide bombers with whom we are primarily concerned murder not only themselves but other people as well. As a matter of fact, almost every suicide bomber is a homicide bomber not just in the sense that he kills himself, but also in the sense that he kills others. There are two points here. As a matter of conceptual necessity, every suicide bomber is a homicide bomber. And as a matter of contingent fact, every suicide bomber, with the exception of a few solitary individuals, is a homicide bomber.

If anyone is guilty of muddled thinking, it;’s Vallicella. Let’s approach this systematically.

What the bomber destroys:
Does the bomber survive?Yes??

There are four possible types of (successful) bombers, as shown in this table. The question is, what labels are useful for the various types? We could distinguish between those who (?merely) destroy property (the first column) and those who kill people (the second). We could call the second column “homicide bombers”, to distinguish them from those who seek to destroy property. Or we could focus on the distinction between those who survive their attack (row one), and those who die (row two). It makes sense to call the second row “suicide bombers”; this adjectival use of “suicide” goes back many years.
It’s important to note that there are examples of bombers in all four quadrants. During the protracted campaign by the Provisional IRA and its splinter groups in Northern Ireland and England, there were many attacks against property (with warnings to try to avoid loss of life) and against people (with no such warning), and in almost all of them the bombers survived. Attacks against property in which the perpetrator dies are less common, but not unknown. And in recent years we’ve seen many examples of attacks that were intended to kill others and in which the bomber intended (or at least expected) to die.
But Vallicella isn’t really interested in this degree of subtlety. He’s “primarily concerned” with bombers who kill other people: those falling into the second column. That’s fine: Western society places a high value on life (well, some life). So all of the bombers that Vallicella cares about are “homicide bombers”. We could drop the word “homicide”, and we still know what we mean. But there is a difference between the Real IRA bomber in Omagh and the bomber from Al-Qaeda in Basra. One walks away unscathed, the other dies. Most people feel that this is a distinction worth observing in our use of language, and which is captured by the term “suicide bomber”.
Of course Vallicella’s parenthetical observation about “suicide being a form of homicide” is irrelevant. Everyday language adapts to meet the needs of real people (and advertisers, and politicians), and is not dependent on theological taxonomies.
Vallicella claims that his arguments are “simple and luminous”. Simple they certainly are – though perhaps “simplistic” would be closer to the mark. Never mind; I’ve seen enough of this “Maverick”.


The value of truth

Bill Vallicella describes himself as a “Maverick Philosopher” and a “recovering academician”. Perhaps if he sought to recover the rigor and discipline of academic philosophy we would be spared nonsense like his latest piece on Christopher Hitchens and death. Here’s his conclusion:

What would Hitch lose by believing? Of course, he can’t bring himself to believe, it is not a Jamesian live option, but suppose he could. Would he lose ‘the truth’? But nobody knows what the truth is about death and the hereafter. People only think they do. Well, suppose ‘the truth’ is that we are nothing but complex physical systems slated for annihilation. Why would knowing this ‘truth’ be a value? Even if one is facing reality by believing that death is the utter end of the self, what is the good of facing reality in a situation in which one is but a material system?
If materialism is true, then I think Nietzsche is right: truth is not a value; life-enhancing illusions are to be preferred. If truth is out of all relation to human flourishing, why should we value it?

The argument here seems to be, in matters that lie beyond our epistemic horizon, why should we not prefer “life-enhancing illusions” to “truth”? As a general rule, when a writer ends a piece with a question, and offers no answer to the question, you should be suspicious. In most cases, there are perfectly obvious answers to the question, but to actually trot them out would undermine the rhetorical flourish that the author is seeking. Or it’s a way of disguising an Argument From Personal Incredulity. Either way, it’s a cheap trick.
It is clear that we do – and should – value truth in matters of fact and evidence. (If Dr. Vallicella disagrees, I would like to see how he deals with everyday life.) We don’t need to invoke any heavy-duty metaphysical notion of Truth; ordinary, everyday, consensus-based, empirical testable varieties of truth are good enough. Evolution has endowed many lifeforms, including humans, with a variety of powerful tools for detecting truth and falsehood and for storing the outputs of these tools. At the same time, evolution has exploited these capabilities by enabling other lifeforms to trick and defeat these tools. We have plenty of examples, from flowers that mimic insects to pool sharks in Atlantic City.
Truth-detection, truth-deception: it’s an evolutionary arms race. And in humans this competition has spread from the purely biological to the cultural. We can see this in the value placed on skepticism about poorly-supported truth claims, and the adoption of various mechanisms – jury trials, double-blind tests, peer-reviewed papers – to try to minimize the likelihood of subjective bias and self-delusion. And societies that emphasize these values – in law, medicine, science, technology, commerce, and so forth – tend to flourish.
So the proposition that “truth is out of all relation to human flourishing” seems groundless. And when Dr. Vallicella asks, “what is the good of facing reality?”, the answer is pretty clear: because that’s what humans do. It’s not a question of “what good is it” – you might as well ask “what is the good of living?” It’s a brute fact. We face reality, and try to establish truths about it. Our ability to do so affects our success in surviving and passing on our genes (and culture) to the next generation. We each encounter different elements and aspects of reality, but we have no choice about facing the reality which we encounter.
Presumably the self-styled “maverick” (a word that has forever been tainted by McCain and Palin) is referring to hypotheses which lie beyond the epistemic horizon: matters about which, as he says, “nobody knows what the truth is”. If we don’t know what the truth is, what is the harm of adopting “life-enhancing illusions”? There are three obvious retorts.
The first is that, empirically, our truth-judgement capabilities aren’t wired to detect which questions fall into which category. We don’t simply turn those brain centers off when a transcendental topic pops up. This means that we cannot avoid bringing our usual arsenal of critical tools to these subjects. And, historically, we have done so, and it has kept armies of theologians and apologists in business.
Secondly, suspending notions of truth in these areas doesn’t really help, because there seems to be a vast range of alternative “life-enhancing illusions” on offer. Which should we choose? Perhaps Dr. Vallicella feels that it doesn’t matter: any comforting story is better than the stark reality of an indifferent universe. But these are not unencumbered choices: each is embedded in a rich network of cultural, social, and dogmatic propositions and norms, many of which definitely DON’T fall into the “nobody knows what the truth is” category. How does one choose? Are truth and reason irrelevant? Such considerations make a nonsense of the purported dichotomy of “life-enhancing illusions” vs. “truth”.
And finally, there is the inconvenient truth that the epistemic horizon keeps on moving. Five hundred years ago, witchcraft, fairies, ghosts and demonic possession were things that “everybody” knew to be true. Perhaps a Victorian ancestor of Dr. Vallicella would have described seances and spirit communications as “life-enhancing illusions”. Today, I assume that if Dr. Vallicella developed symptoms of “possession”, he would expect to be treated medically for schizophrenia.
We have always warped our everyday notions of truth and evidence to accommodate irrational “life-enhancing illusions”. As the epistemic horizon expands, it takes time and effort to roll back these distortions. Today we treat parents who rely on prayer to heal their sick children as criminals, rather than respecting their antiquated “life-enhancing illusions”. Yet many religious believers (Roman Catholics and Moslems) still hold that they should not be accountable to civil courts, and the evidentiary rules that have been adopted to make the search for truth more reliable. Such ideas are intrinsically divisive, and have no place in a heterogeneous society.
Dr. Vallicella’s “life-enhancing illusions” are not free. They have baggage. And they are incompatible with a commitment to reason. They do not “enhance” my life, nor that of countless others.


The week's twitterings – 2010-08-22

  • Re the Blago case: why does US still require unanimous juries? 10-2 majority is a sensible way of dealing with idiots and tampering… #
  • RT @russnelson: There is no such thing as a free market. < Major deja vu moment. Haven&#39;t we been over this N times already? #
  • Just played &quot;Go do&quot; (free Starbucks/iTunes track) by Jonsi (from Sigur Ros). Bought the album immediately. Exquisite! #
  • First visit to Golden Gate Park: we&#39;re grabbing an early picnic lunch before we go to the De Young Museum for the Impressionists exhibition #
  • RT @ConnectedPlanet Telcos and cloud computing: Where are we today? #
  • RT @russnelson: @geoffarnold but you [say] that there is no customer regulation either! < Nonsense. Customers delegate regulation to govts. #
  • Thinking of going to Napa Valley around Sep 7-11. Prefer somewhere in a town, so we can walk to dinner, wine tastings, etc. Any suggestions? #

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A coda to yesterday's piece on "50+" artists

I rushed out last night’s posting about the “50+” artists in my iTunes library without mentioning a few points that I’d noticed.
First – and rather obviously – the artists with the largest numbers have been very prolific, which takes time: I’ve been listening to most of them for many years. I was surprised to find that there’s only one whom I started to follow since the turn of the century: Robbie Williams.
The second thing that struck me about the list was how English (or, more accurately, British) it is. Of the 40 that qualified, 24 are originally from the UK, 12 from the USA, 3 from Canada, and 1 from Ireland. In fact 12 of the first 13 artists hail from the UK, although the Legendary Pink Dots have lived in Holland for many years, and Al Stewart is comfortably ensconced in Southern California with his wine cellar. Clearly I’m still very much a Brit, even though the “expat” phase will soon exceed the original.
Finally, this collection of “50+” artists accounts for just about 31% of my total library – 4,657 tracks out of 15,031.


Who's in your music library?

The other day, somebody asked me what kind of music I liked. At first, I thought that this was a silly question, but then I realized that I had some relevant data: the most frequently occurring artists in my iTunes library. And so I decided to generate a list of every artist for whom I had (arbitrarily) 50 tracks or more in my library. There were 40 of them, listed below. I collapsed a few side-projects into the main artist heading: for example, the total for the Legendary Pink Dots includes Edward Ka-Spel’s solo work.
A few things stand out. First, there are two big categories in my library – “Trance/Electronica” and “New Age” – which are under-represented here, because they are dominated by anthologies, compilations, and DJ mixes. Second, I am (obviously) something of a “completist” for certain artists, such as Al Stewart and the Dots. And third, these numbers don’t really represent my day-to-day listening preferences: right now I’m mostly listening to (checks iPhone playlists) Robbie Williams, Pet Shop Boys, Faithless, and Mark Knopfler. On second thoughts, maybe they do after all…..

Legendary Pink Dots452
Al Stewart305
Pet Shop Boys270
Porcupine Tree254
Grateful Dead223
Saint Etienne165
Mark Knopfler134
Divine Comedy128
Bob Dylan100
Steve Miller Band93
Dire Straits87
Men Without Hats84
Robbie Williams83
The Who79
Frank Zappa69
Jane Siberry 66 88
Rolling Stones64
Scritti Politti64
Captain Beefheart62
Simon & Garfunkel59
Country Joe & Fish57
Mamas & Papas55
Procul Harum55
Led Zeppelin54
October Project53
Leonard Cohen51
David Van Tieghem50

P.S. I forgot to include the ISSA tracks in Jane Siberry’s total. It’s so complicated when artists keep changing their names….


The week's twitterings – 2010-08-15

  • Just bought my first new Mac in a couple of years: iMac (21.5" w/i3) from the Apple Store. Unfortunately it was DOA. Yeah, it happens but… #
  • RT @russnelson: I just ordered, a documentary about adventures in text<That looks awesome: I just ordered a copy too. #
  • First tweet from my new iMac. 😉 #
  • RT @ebertchicago: "America's leading True Christianâ„¢ Pastor" puts $1 million bounty on soul of Christopher Hitchens. < Like "Ghostbusters"? #
  • RT @lewmoorman: opposing the mosque is very different than saying the first amendment does not protect it < but equally dumb #
  • RT @lindseyfowler: Hate LA. I remember why I love Seattle every time I come here <Right. There's no "there" there (Until Santa Monica) #
  • RT @disappearinjon: buying cargo liners and rubber floor mats for the new vehicle <New vehicle? #
  • RT @disappearinjon: @fatals: Plus I had a sysadmin guild meeting tonight < There's a GUILD for BOFHs? #
  • Figuring out where to store the iMac box… For what other kinds of consumer goods do we hang on to the packaging "just in case"…? #
  • RT @ebertchicago: There's a good chance that that we'll never learn how the universe began <Learning to live with one's epistemic horizons #
  • RT @samj: @swardley: sun don't really get enough credit for failing where amazon subsequently succeeded < C'mon, they failed 3 times! L33T!! #
  • James Gosling on Sun, IBM, Microsoft, Google, Apple, Oracle and patents…. "Quite the firestorm". #
  • RT @webmink: Nice free Weepies track on Amazon US has that tingle-inducing close harmony they do so well: < +1 to that #
  • RT @cutshot: RT @bbalfour: Can't wait until football begins < It's already begun! Chelsea was awesome!! (Oh, you mean AMERICAN football 🙁 #

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Cloud computing

Quote of the day

I believe the true future of cloud computing for developers is to not think about servers at all. It is now time to focus on the Application and new levels of abstraction that allow folks to use the computing resources in easier and easier ways.

Ezra Zygmuntowicz, as part of his blog post on leaving Engine Yard, the Ruby-on-Rails PaaS company he founded.


Roger Ebert on Christopher Hitchens

One of my favourite writers is dying of cancer. Another, who has suffered horribly from his own cancer, writes about him. Extraordinarily insightful, deeply moving.