The week's twitterings – 2010-11-28

  • Call the TSA's Office of Strategic Comms when you're threatened with arrest for airport photography – Boing Boing #
  • Drool (from iPhone CraigsProFree) #
  • “@vambenepe: Joke #74 ?? Again?! Aargh! It wasn't funny the first six times I heard it. #
  • Just watched Ridley Scott "Robin Hood". Ugh! Wins prize for turning a simple legend into political drama, but trashing the history anyway #
  • Movies today: Harry Potter: mixed, mediocre, too long; Robin Hood: awful – an insult to a legend; Clara Bow as The IT Girl: wonderful!!! #
  • Oh crap! Starbucks playing syrupy Xmas music. Guess I'll get my coffee elsewhere for the next month. (And Xians complain about persecution!) #
  • Off to the theater in San Jose to see "Backwards in High Heels". More anon. #

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File under "How could I have missed this?" – Stephen Duffy & Lilac Time

In terms of my musical taste, I’m definitely a Brit. I blogged about how this shows up in my music library, and when I checked my car CD changer last week all 6 slots were filled with British artists. But having been out of the country for so long I’ve definitely missed some important artists. And one of these is Stephen Duffy. The story of how that changed is a nice little example of how the Internet has changed how we I approach music.
I’m a big fan of Robbie Williams music, and my favorite album is Rudebox. It’s an eclectic mix of songs, and Robbie worked with a number of different artists and arrangers to put it together. There’s a video on “The Making of Rudebox” (which seems to have disappeared from iTMS in the last few days), and in it there is mention of the fact that one song – “Kiss Me” – is a cover of a Stephen Duffy song, and that Robin and Stephen have worked together.
I vaguely remembered the song – a classic Europop number from the early 1980s – but I’d never heard of Stephen Duffy. Wikipedia came to the rescue, and I saw that he’d worked with Duran Duran, Tin Tin (which was where “Kiss Me” had come from), done some solo work, and also been involved in two other groups: the Lilac Time, and the Devils. Duran Duran I knew (obviously), but everything else was new to me. So I explored the Amazon MP3 store (which I find to be cheaper than Apple, as a rule), and listened to samples from an early “best of” the Lilac Time: “Compendium – The Fontana Trinity“. And I was hooked.
I bought “Compendium” and played it several times over the next few days. It was good, and I wanted more. Reading around, I found that most fans seemed to think that “Astronauts” was the best Lilac Time album. But there was a problem: it was unavailable on CD anywhere, and the only MP3 download version was in the UK iTunes store. No problem: I asked a good friend of mine over in England to buy me a copy and upload the MP3s. (I’ll see him when I visit England next week, and I’ll pay him then. No illegal file-sharing here!) And the fans were right: “Astronauts” is brilliant.
What about The Devils? This turned out to a a real oddity. In 1999, Stephen Duffy unearthed a collection of old Duran Duran tracks, laid down in 1978-79 before the band hit the big time. He and Nick Rhodes (also ex- [CORRECTION] co-founder and current member of Duran Duran) re-recorded the songs as close to the original sound as possible, and released the result as “Dark Circles” by The Devils. New CDs are hard to come by, but I found a good second-hand copy through Amazon.
Most recently I bought the MP3 version of a collection of Duffy’s solo work, “The Ups and Downs: A Very Beautiful Collection“.
A month ago I’d never heard of Stephen Duffy or Lilac Time. Today I’ve got a CD-changer full of their music (and obviously its on my iPhone and iPad). Nice.

QM and the limits of intuition and "common-sense"

I have a confession to make. I don’t understand Quantum Mechanics.
Now there’s no shame in that; Richard Feynman famously said “I think it is safe to say that no one understands Quantum Mechanics.” But the reason I mention this is that I’m pretty sure that I don’t understand it less than I used to. This is progress.
I’ve always known that I didn’t understand QM, because my common-sense interpretation of the words that physicists used to describe QM violated … well, common-sense. So I thought to myself, “Which is more likely? (a) My understanding is correct, and it’s OK that it seems absurd, because it’s supposed to seem absurd. Or (b) my understanding is wrong, and the real explanation is quite different. (And still possibly absurd from a common-sense point of view.)” Obviously(?!) (b) seems much more likely, so I put QM aside and tried to make sense of scientific discourse without looking too closely at it.
People are quite good at faking stuff like that – almost as good as they are at holding mutually contradictory beliefs without their heads exploding.
Recently I read The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow. In general, I quite liked it, although I thought it a bit repetitious, and less well organized than it could have been. However in one chapter the authors take a crack at explaining the basics of QM, and it was a revelation to me. Specifically, I realized how my common-sense interpretation of the language of QM had led me to the particularly absurd conclusion which I’d correctly rejected. And I understood how the authors’ explanations of the ideas of QM made sense – though not common-sense.
I’m not going to try to reproduce my understanding here – at least, not yet. I’ve taken QM off the shelf, so to speak, and I’m looking forward to reading (and hopefully understanding) more, without those earlier misunderstandings getting in the way. I know that to really make progress I’m going to have to understand at least some of the mathematics, which will be a challenge. I think it will be a worthwhile one.
However the most important thing about this episode for me was that it reinforced something I believe very strongly, and wish that others did too. It’s simply this: common-sense, intuition, instinct, call it what you will, is a function of our evolved human brains. It was selected for, along with other skills that were adaptive for our survival. It applies to the world we experience, and interact with, at our scale: medium size objects, medium sized environment, medium periods of time. It works pretty well for rocks, and foodstuffs, and small groups of people and other animals, and actions like running, catching and throwing. But outside that range, there’s no reason to expect it to be reliable – and it isn’t.
From 1mm to 1km, 1 second to 60 years, 1 gram to 1 tonne, 1 kph to 100 kph, and -20C to 100C, we’re pretty good. But the subatomic world doesn’t behave the same as the rocks or the trees, any more than the larger universe does. The regularity, and even causality, that we build our common-sense view of the world on simply don’t work at radically different sizes or times. And this isn’t simply a matter of faith: we can measure it, and we’ve learned to rely upon what we measure. Every time you use your computer, or consult a sat-nav, or take a modern drug, you are relying on the fact that a bunch of scientists and engineers looked at the data, did the math, created explanatory models, tested them, and relied upon the evidence rather than “common-sense”.
I could add a couple of paragraphs about the relationship between this big idea and religion, particularly the arguments that are offered for the existence of god, but if you’re smart you’ll already understand them, and if not you’ve probably given up by now.

The week's twitterings – 2010-11-21

  • My plan for the deficit via @nytgraphics #
  • iTunes Sidebar keeps recommending albums that aren't available in the US iTunes Store. #FAIL #
  • Tonight there's a Meetup of the Silicon Valley Cloud Group on EC2 security. 200 RSVPs so far; parking will be hell! #
  • Used my iPad+VGAout to present my slides today, rather than my Mac. Nice not to have Entourage and Y! Messenger popping up over my material. #
  • Just installed the "My TSA" iPhone app!!! #ironymeterpegged See also the EFF primer on standing up to the TSA: #
  • “@ComputingClouds: What Is the Cloud?” < Haven't we done this a gazillion times before? #myloopdetectorgoesoff #
  • Two weeks 'til I get to England. Three until I get home again. Four until my (?first) SWL treatment for these kidney stones. #fingerscrossed #

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The week's twitterings – 2010-11-07

  • Must-read: "Bad Science" by Ben Goldacre – NYT Review: #
  • The USA holds a show trial, complete with torture & forced confession. RT @nationalpost: Stalin would have been proud #
  • Better late than never: nice puff piece from Cisco on Cloud Computing and the Big Pipes myth #
  • A plausible thesis: Sarah Palin's interventions and endorsements actually cost the GOP the chance to win the Senate. #
  • Changed plans: I'm spending the next day and a half at #cloudexpo First stop: the OpenStack session. #
  • Every cloud stack vendor talks about compute & storage. Nobody talks about managing the virtualized network fabric. No good solutions yet? #
  • RT @jtcarolan: the cloud is about simplicity via abstraction. < As always, the challenge is to distinguish between "simple" and "simplistic" #
  • RT @atheistproud: But Flew was senile by then and his book was ghosted by a fundy. (Even so he was barely a deist, and denied an Xian god) #
  • I'm at San Jose Rep for an excellent (and exhausting) performance of "Secret Order". Possible cure for cancer? No pressure! #

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The importance of having a regular physical

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to take advantage of my new Yahoo! medical coverage and get a physical. Over the years I have to admit that I’ve not been very good about this; my last physical was in 2007 in Seattle. So I picked out a doctor (using one of the many online rating services!) and went in.
I expected my BP, cholesterol and weight to require attention, and they do. Nothing dramatic, just common-sense. But there was one other item on the lab results… and so last Thursday I had an abdominal CT scan. I was expecting to have to wait for a few days for the results, but this morning (9:29am on Sunday!) I got an email from my doctor, with the full test results and the news that I have a couple of large kidney stones. I haven’t experienced any discomfort so far (I gather that kidney stones can be excruciatingly painful), but at least we’ve caught it.
Email from my doctor on Sunday. Not bad, eh? I’ll talk to the urologist on November 9, and we’ll figure out what to do next. The standard approach seems to be EWSL, although my stones are at the upper end of the size for that procedure.