United Airlines Family Day at SFO

What’s the best way of celebrating one’s 60th birthday? Especially if it’s on an auspicious date like 10/10/10. (Binary 42, cue HHGTTG.) OK, let me amend the question: what’s the weirdest way of celebrating? How about participating in an Airliner Pull?
I just got home from a very happy day at SFO. The occasion was the 5th Family Day at the United Airlines Maintenance Center. Subscribers to the FlyerTalk were invited to come along as Guests, and I signed up immediately. (I had actually signed up for last year’s event, but I was travelling. China probably. There was a lot of that last year.)

UA Family Day is more than just a corporate event. We’re in the middle of Fleet Week in San Francisco, and one of the highlights is the series of air shows by the Blue Angels. During this week, the Blue Angels are based at one side of the United Maintenance Facility. This meant that one of the high points of today was watching the beautifully choreographed preparation and departure of the Blue Angels, viewed from less than 100 yards away.

For employees and customers of United Airlines, pretty much everything is overshadowed the recently-consummated merger with Continental Airlines. The centerpiece of the static display was a Continental 737-900ER painted in the new livery of the combined airline. It’s very simple: they’re combined the name – “United”, in the same typeface used in the latest United livery – with the Continental colors, including the tail design. Many United employees were lining up to walk through the plane, and there was a ton of promotional material – from playing cards to backpacks, from t-shirts to luggage tags – emphasizing the “One Airline” theme.

The other highlight for me was the Airliner Pull. The organizers had parked an A320 in the middle of the ramp, and were giving various teams the challenge of pulling it over a measured distance as quickly as possible. I had signed up for the FlyerTalk team, and we got our chance at 1:45. I was actually surprised how easily the 87,000 pound (43.5 ton) airliner rolled when we all laid into the rope! I got a commemorative pin, which I added to my (paid and free) swag from the day.

After the Airliner Pull, and the departure of the Blue Angels, I went for the tour of the Engine Maintenance facility. But it was a very hot day, and I was starting to feel a bit like the little fellow in the next photo, and so I decided to skip the FlyerTalk dinner this evening and head home. Which I did.

You can find all of the photos from the day here in my MobileMe gallery. At some point I should switch over to Flickr, but not until I’ve found an efficient way to copy things.

The week's twitterings – 2010-10-10

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"…you haven't been paying attention…"

The media (blogosphere and MSM) has been discussing the latest Pew findings that atheists and agnostics know more about religion than most believers. Dan Dennett offered his explanation in the NY Daily News yesterday, and at the end he mentioned a phenomenon he’s been studying recently:

My colleague Linda LaScola and I are currently studying [pastors who no longer hold the beliefs they are professionally obliged to preach, but go on executing their duties], and when discussing our first pilot study of closeted non-believing (or other-believing) clergy, we often heard two jokes about the seminary experience that was part of the training of most clergy: “If you emerge from seminary still believing in God, you haven’t been paying attention,” and “Seminary is where God goes to die.”

The Character of Consciousness is (finally) here

David Chalmers just blogged that his collection of papers, The Character of Consciousness, has finally been published. It first showed up on Amazon back in 2007, and my email inbox includes a slightly testy exchange with David about the ever-changing publication date. Never mind. My copy should be here on Wednesday, and I’m looking forward to reading and reviewing it. I don’t agree with his somewhat “mysterian” views, but I’ve always felt that the best way to understand one’s own position is to read the best of the opposition, and David certainly represents this.
While I was ordering this book, I checked to see if Chalmers showed up anywhere else. He did: as an author of Mind and Consciousness: 5 Questions. This is a collection of essays by many leading lights in the philosophy of mind, edited by Patrick Grim. I hadn’t heard of it before, but ordered it immediately. Even if one has read some of the pieces before, a well-edited anthology can be an invaluable way of capturing the state of an academic debate.

Comfort food, synthesized

My ideal comfort food involves roast lamb and rosemary. Kate’s is probably pasta-based. Here’s my synthesis:

  1. Soften half an onion and two cloves of garlic (minced) in a little olive oil. Add a teaspoon of Italian seasoning half way through..
  2. Add a pound of minced lamb, 85/15, grass-raised. Chop with a spatula over a fairly high heat until it’s granular and cooked through.
  3. Add one can of roasted diced tomatoes, one small can of tomato paste, half a cup of chopped mushrooms, and half a cup of plain tomato sauce.
  4. Simmer for 15 minutes, stirring regularly.
  5. Serve over fresh fettuccine, garnished with finely grated parmesan cheese. Pairs well with a South African Cabernet-Pinotage.

It's not a question of how vs. why; it's about what.

Andrew Sullivan links to a soothing piece of accommodationism by Francis Collins at BigThink, and announces that it makes complete sense to him. I guess he’s taking things easy on the weekend, because Collins is as illogical as ever. Dissecting the bit that Andrew cited:

Why is it that, for instance, that the constance <sic> that determines the behavior of matter and energy, like the gravitational constant, for instance, have precisely the value that they have to in order for there to be any complexity at all in the Universe. That is fairly breathtaking in its lack of probability of ever having happened.

With all due respect, this is an appallingly naive use of the word “probability”. We have partial (and probably inaccurate) information about some properties of the region of space-time that is accessible to us. We construct models based on this information, from which we hypothesize further properties of the universe. Some of these are potentially testable, as we gain access to new data; others concern things that are intrinsically unknowable: beyond our epistemic horizon.
But probability doesn’t enter into it. If by “probability” Collins means likelihood, is he assuming random distributions of various constants? Since we don’t understand the causal relationships between the various properties involved, we have no way of knowing what kind of variability is possible. And of course there’s the fact that any universe containing sentient observers like us must be complex (otherwise we wouldn’t be here), and so our observations are necessarily constrained. Whether he takes a frequentist or Bayesian view, Collins has no rational basis for assuming a “lack of probability”.

And it does make you think that a mind might have been involved in setting the stage.

Why? We have direct experience of a relatively small number of minds. So far, all are products of neurological activity in animal brains. Depending on how one extends the definition, it’s possible that a mind might have some other kind of substrate, such as a computational system. What is quite clear is that we have no evidence of anything resembling a mind at any larger scale, or using any non-physical implementation. Is Collins claiming to know what it would mean for a mind to change physical laws or constants? I’m not holding my breath….
The most plausible explanation for Collins’ impulse to attribute things to “a mind” is a reversion to animism, to attributing agency to natural forces that we don’t understand. We gave up on the idea that Thor or Vulcan was responsible for catastrophic storms and earthquakes, and most of us no longer think that schizophrenia is due to demonic possession. And yet Collins reverts to the habits of a pre-scientific time by personifying the workings of the cosmos.

At the same time that does not imply necessarily that that mind is controlling the specific manipulations of things that are going on in the natural world. In fact, I would very much resist that idea.

Well at least that’s something. Most religious believers seem quite happy to make the leap from Prime Mover to Jehovah, with no evidence whatsoever. And yet…

I think the laws of nature potentially could be the product of a mind. I think that’s a defensible perspective.

I guess that the question for Collins is exactly what he means by “mind”. What is the relationship between a “mind” as he uses it here and the (evolved) patterns of behavior that we observe in brain-shaped collections of neurons?

The week's twitterings – 2010-10-03

  • After grommit's PS failure, @stevel and I agreed it's time to replace it. So I just ordered a new 1U (3TB) server from Silicon Mechanics. #
  • I know: I'm a #cloud guy, so why should we run our own hardware? Why not host in the cloud? Because it's fun…. (Plus OpenSolaris+ZFS.) #
  • Q for philosophers of religion: what is the relationship between what you do and religion "on the streets" – in Afghanistan, Rome or Miami? #
  • Do you believe your subtle philosophical arguments are relevant in dealing with religious bigotry or violence? #
  • Oh goody! Fire alarm drill. Everybody out…. #
  • Going onto my reading list: Hacking Work, a new book by Bill Jensen and Josh Klein. Boing Boing review at http://bit.ly/9n21gl #
  • Just blogged (but missed by the WP-Twitter automation):: Repairing the blog, and recommitting http://geoffarnold.com/?p=3913 #
  • Another day, another Yahoo! building, another evacuation drill. Pretty soon I'll know all of the assembly points for the whole campus… #
  • All William Gibson, all the time – http://developer.yahoo.com/blogs/ydn/posts/2010/09/william_gibson_weekend/ #
  • No silver bullet: Canonical's COO Asay on monetizing APIs: Half-a-billion users don't mean API payola http://reg.cx/1KXP #
  • Mmm… "Counterintuitive": one of my favourite words. See http://t.co/QA4KIaO via @motherjones #
  • Why Johnny Can't Program – http://bit.ly/9FnxCq Of course, "Why Jane doesn't want to program" is also part of the problem… #
  • Up at Roaring Camp railroad behind Santa Cruz. Train is full of guide dogs in training. #
  • Just back from riding the steam train at Roaring Camp. Pics here: http://bit.ly/92Dfhu Then wine tasting at Hallcrest Vineyards. (Mmm!) #

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Remembering all of the words. Every one.

I’m an old Deadhead. Not an obsessive, completist, following-the-band kind of Deadhead, but one who was spellbound by their second album, “Anthem of the Sun”, back in 1968, bought most of the studio albums from then until Jerry’s death in 1995, and who saw the band live half a dozen times between 1972 and 1990. Just an average kind of Deadhead. Someone who can play “Dark Star” from start to finish in his head. And someone who thinks that the most important member of the band was Robert Hunter.
Back in the 80s I bought cassette tape copies of several of Hunter’s solo albums, and played them over and over again. Hunter’s voice is pretty uneven, and the arrangements range from magic to banal. But the words are pure gold. Poetry. Not metaphorically, but literally. One of the more obscure albums was “The Flight of the Maria Helena”, a 37 minute poem recounting a phantasmagorical seven day journey aboard a vast raft, recited to a plangent musical accompaniment. At some point in the 1990s Hunter published a book containing most of his poems and song lyrics, called “A Box of Rain”.
After Jerry Garcia’s death led to the end of the (real) Grateful Dead, I drifted away from their music, and that of Robert Hunter. I don’t know what happened to my old cassette tapes, but as I started to replace tapes with CDs I didn’t include any of the Robert Hunter releases. I kept the book, though, and a few years ago I re-read it. The poems and the songs flooded back, and I resolved to find copies.
It was hard. Hunter’s CDs had all been discontinued, and they weren’t available from any of the download sources. The few unsold copies were commanding fairly high prices, and they still are, although they’ve come down a bit. ($25-70 is typical, but a new Box of Rain will set you back $146.) Eventually I came across an MP3 of “Flight of the Maria Helena”, as I blogged here. But that was it.
And then a few days ago I noticed that a few CDs of “Rock Columbia” were available for as little as $6.98. I immediately ordered one, and it arrived yesterday. This morning I slipped it into the CD changer in my car, and as I drove off to work I hit PLAY.
I sang along with every song, word perfect, from my apartment in Palo Alto to the Yahoo! offices in Sunnyvale. That took half of the disc (“side one” of the old cassette!). This evening, I sang along with the second half of the album. The rollicking “End of the Road”, the challenging “Aim at the Heart”, the haunting “Who Baby Who”, and the expansive title track. Yes, Hunter’s voice was as weak as I remembered it, but that was supremely unimportant. The songs were wonderful, the poetry extraordinary.
This evening I sat down to write this blog piece, but after a couple of paragraphs I broke off and spent a couple of minutes searching the web to see if I could repeat my good fortune. I visited the various Hunter-related web sites, many of which are stale and broken. I looked at the online catalogs for the companies that once produced his CDs – Rykodisc, Relix, and others – but they had forgotten him. I started writing again, went to check something on Robert Hunter’s Wikipedia page, and I saw a line that I hadn’t noticed before:

In 2010 Robert co-wrote Patchwork River with Jim Lauderdale. The Album was released on the Thirty Tigers Label.

I checked the Thirty Tigers website. No mention of Jim Lauderdale or the album. Surely some mistake. But before I returned to my blog, I decided to check Amazon.com for Patchwork River. Bingo! I listened to a couple of samples. The sound was a little more country than is usually my taste, and the voice will take a bit of getting used to – but the words, all the words, are pure Robert Hunter. And so I downloaded the album, put the headphones back on, fired up iTunes, and finished this blog piece. Which I have now done.