Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

June 28, 2007

A Matter Of Coincidence?

Filed under: environment, politics — codesmithy @ 9:56 am

In a Washington Post blog in an entry called Leaving No Tracks, it describes some of the friction that existed between former EPA head Christine Todd Whitman and Vice-President of the United States Dick Cheney.

In one episode,  it describes farmers in Klamath basin Oregon who relied on a government-operated complex of dams and canals.  There was a drought in 2001, and the government cut off the water.

The the reason give was that government scientists concluded that diverting the water would harm two federally protected species of fish.  The Vice-President wanted to come to the aid of the farmers.  So, he commissioned a study by the National Academy of Sciences that concluded in a preliminary report that “no substantial scientific foundation” that justified withholding the water from the farmers.  On this advice, the government gave the farmers the water they wanted.

What ended up happening?  Months later, 77,000 dead salmon began washing up on shore.  Not only one of the endangered species but also the chinook salmon, a staple of commercial fishing in Oregon and Northern California.  State and federal biologists concluded that the diversion of water was at least partially responsible for the deaths of the fish.

I personally can’t think about this without getting getting infuriated.  I understand some of the motivations for the farmers in the Klamath basin, but a drought affects every living thing in the ecosystem.  Stealing the water to protect their crops meant certain death for the fish.  A mass death of fish causes further disruptions in the ecosystem that in turn have other ramifications, who knows if the damage can ever be undone.  This isn’t about keeping some natural museum in the wild.  This is about preserving existing ecosystems so that they are sustainable, in turn making sure humans remain a sustainable species on this planet.

The fact that battles like this are lost now, when effects from climate change are relatively mild (regardless of whether you happen to think that climate change is anthropomorphic in nature).  I can’t imagine the chaos that will take place when the climate makes more significant shifts.

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June 27, 2007

The Broken Window Fallacy as Employed by NBC-Universal

Filed under: capitalism, politics — codesmithy @ 7:31 am

NBC Universal used a variant of the broken window fallacy in congressional testimony about the economic impacts of P2P movie sharing. People are playing up the fact that they mentioned corn farmers, which is a bit absurd and demonstrates extraordinary naivety on the issues of industrial corn production in the United States. What they were trying to argue is that movie-going supports many other industries. However, if they really want to make that case, they can’t just look at how money was spent in one particular case, and totally dismiss the fact that the money would have been put to other uses in alternative scenarios. This would have to be based on genuine progress indicators to the society as a whole.

It is possible that P2P is a boon to genuine progress indicators since more people have access to the movies at a lower price. Millions of people receive a benefit versus the content provider which takes a loss. But the net benefit to society, as a whole, is greater. Now, obviously, this is not an ideal situation because content providers would quickly go out of business, the very reasons copyright laws are a good idea in the first place. However, that is a trade-off, the benefit to society on one hand versus incentives to create on the other.

It is obvious that the legislative system has swung too far in favor of the copyright holders. The most blatant recent example is the Copyright Term Extension Act which retroactively extended copyright for works already published. If copyright is justified in terms of an incentive, retroactively applying is absurd by the laws of causality. Extending the term definitely sweetens the deal for people planning on writing works in the future, but it has no bearing on what was done in the past, since no incentive of further copyright were required in order for the work to be created, ipso facto. The Supreme Court upheld this corruption saying that it was Congress’ right to set whatever terms it wished with copyright terms and limits.

This is one of many examples of businesses, this time in the entertainment industry, using our government to guarantee their continued profits at the net detriment of the general welfare of all the citizens. That said, I don’t necessarily endorse the use of P2P technology to share current movie releases, since under reasonable copyright protections movies such as “Pirates of the Caribbean” would be protected. However, movies such as “Dr. Strangelove” or “Casablanca” would be in doubt. I could see civil disobedience for old movies, but not current ones. Claims of righteousness by P2P movie down-loaders to stick it corrupt copyright laws strike me just as disingenuous and self-serving as entertainment industry’s arguments to extend copyright retroactively.

However, the arguments about copyright don’t have the same emotive quality. In fact, a careful examination of the pros and cons of current copyright law is the last thing the entertainment industry wants. Instead, they stick with straw-men, ignorance, or just plain lies. I am just struck in awe that they use such blatantly transparent arguments. What did we do to make them hold our collective intelligence in such contempt? By wanting to see their creations in the first place?

June 26, 2007

Herb Sutter: The Free Lunch is Over (Parallelism)

Filed under: programming — codesmithy @ 7:12 am

Herb Sutter has written some articles about the coming era of parallelism. Here are some slides from his OGDC talk. Here is his paper from the Dr. Dobbs journal about the free lunch being over. He is fundamentally right about, if applications are going to go faster, they have to be annotated to take advantage of parallelism available via the parallel processors. Applications are not going to get faster, in and of themselves when the next processor comes out unless the applications themselves have some degree of explicit parallelism.

Right now, we exist in sort of the chicken and egg era. While parallelism is well understood in the database domain, trying to add parallelism to existing applications is now frightfully difficult and error prone. There is going to be a gradual move from unstructured data, to structured data in order for libraries that own the data to take care of much of the concurrency for the programmer. I think taking the transactional programming model is going to be the only one that make sense and will be robust. However, it will not be the most efficient, and there will be a tremendous cost transitioning. We see some of this cost come to bear in the Next-Generation Game Consoles where both XBox360 and PS3 have some form of concurrency at their heart. The XBox360 has Symmetric Multi-Processing, that is 6 cores that are virtually identical, and the PS3 has 2 cores that are nearly the same as the equivalent number of cores on the XBox360. The PS3 also has the array of Cell processors, which are streaming processors with a small local memory, but they are able to DMA the data they need back and forth. While the PS3 has more theoretical power, it is harder to take advantage of, therefore, for the first 4 or 5 years of the console lifetime, it will have practically less. Exclusive titles will be the ones that that really make the Cell and the PS3 sing, unless a developer has some great love for the PS3 and wants to make that version of a multi-platform better. However, given the familiarity with the programming model for SMP vs asymmetric multiprocessing, and a generally better tool chain as provided by Microsoft leveraging their Windows Technology, as opposed to Sony who basically has to start from scratch. The default is going to be better use of the underlying platform for the XBox360 in Multi-Platform titles and early XBox360 exclusives.

Although, both consoles really out-pace the programmer experience, and represent something genuinely new in the programming era. It is unlikely that even if the parallel tools were available, programs on the Next-Gen consoles would be able to use them in their purest form, although some of the basic ideas and principles could be followed.

For a closing thought, it is interesting to note that Wii is selling better than the PS3 and XBox360. So, the other possibility is the frantic pace of development just comes to an end.

June 24, 2007

Sublime (Raw Feed): Tangental Review

Filed under: film, music, random — codesmithy @ 11:25 pm

I watched Sublime. The film was OK in and of itself. I wanted to like it more than I did, but the script had all the subtly of a sledgehammer. Some subtly and tact is required to be a thinking-man’s horror movie which it had a pretense of being (see “The Filmmakers’ POV” by Erik Jendersen, who was the writer for the film). It literally had just enough political edge to it to piss everyone off. The liberals for the babble of how they are really afraid of the world. Conservatives for suggesting that a persistent-vegetative state might be a living mental hell. George Grieves fears are so cookie-cutter in some ways, the character ends up feeling wooden (how is that for mixing metaphors?). Although, it could merely be that the fears themselves were not properly developed, which is the typical problem with B budget movies: great ideas ruined by awful execution, often caused by taking too much for granted.

Here is the trailer for the film.

Now, I happened to like the music in the trailer quite a bit. Unfortunately, I had a hard-time tracking it down. When I actually rented the film it was relatively easy since all I had to do was watch the credits. Although, before I rented it, I tried my usual scheme for tracking down songs that I only know a piece of. It failed miserably in this particular case. One, it is hard to make out the actual lyrics with the dialog going. As it turned out, I couldn’t discern the right lyrics, although even if I had, it wouldn’t have helped me, since they don’t seem to be posted online (at least, to a place where google will find them). Sublime, is unfortunately, also the name of a popular band which polluted the results using the actual name of the film. The CD that the songs are actually on isn’t called the “sublime soundtrack.” So after hours of searching online, I had little help. After I watched the film, it gave me the essential information: “Bird York.” The music in the trailer actually turns out to be two songs, but the majority of it is “Go With It” by Bird York on the album “Go With It – songs from Sublime.” As for an additional bit of trivia, Bird York is also known as Kathleen York, who plays Jennifer Grieves in the film (George Grieves’ Wife).

I guess I need to add “songs from X” or “music from X” when searching.

80’s vs. 90’s in Music Videos

Filed under: culture, music, random — codesmithy @ 8:11 am

Fark ran a thread in which people argued over which decade had the better music videos.

Posts were made to links on YouTube, although I find the legality of some of the videos uploaded dubious. A couple kept on coming up as definitive of the era, which makes the point about collective intelligence. The thread on Fark seems to know much more about music videos and where to find them on YouTube than any individual would have been capable of.

I find the actual debate sort of pointless, because it comes down to taste. It is equivalent to arguing over which color is better (red or green) or which fictional characters would win in a fight.

Regardless, I tried to trim down some of the entries to give a list that I found interesting and represented the spirit of the thread. The best criteria I could come up with is that the video had to have been agreed to by two separate people. Artists tend to have similar videos, so one representative was chosen and others were discarded. My preferences crept in no doubt, so feel free to skim the thread yourself.

80’s

90’s

And although 00’s video’s should have been off-limits, a few were brought in

00’s

A few didn’t make the cut for one reason or another, but they fit my tastes:

June 23, 2007

Failed States: A Retrospective

Filed under: books, politics — codesmithy @ 8:28 am

I finished up “Failed States” by Noam Chomsky have moved onto “The Time Traveler’s Wife” by Audrey Niffenegger.  The impression that Chomsky left on me is similar to Chalmers Johnson (which maybe shouldn’t come as a surprise).  The United States, in order to achieve true peace, must work diplomatically instead of militarily, utilize the U.N. and set the standard of adhering to International Law, and live up to terms in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

Surprisingly, Chomsky argues that this is a similar view held by the majority of Americans.  I’m a tad bit more cynical, in that I don’t think people necessarily communicate coherent public policy in a poll, and if care isn’t taken, responses can be biased by phrasing of the question and the what the person who is taking the poll thinks is the “correct” answer to the question is.   I remember a politician remarking that he never trusted a poll he didn’t pay for.

So, I don’t think that the public is as cheery to accept socialized health care as one might assume based on the polls.  Even if people agree in principle that health care should be socialized, I don’t know if the practical questions of how much the taxes would be raised, and some of the perceived drawbacks would affect the public support negatively.  But any move to socialized health care would have to overcome powerful lobbying by entrenched interests, and a remarkable propaganda campaign against it.  Not an enviable aspect of American democracy, but a realistic one, parallel to belling the cat.

The adoption of neo-liberal economic policies abroad, along with intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign countries has without a doubt, jeopardized American security in the name of business profits, along with the worsening of the general socio-economic conditions of the populations subjected to IMF and World Bank policies.  Chomsky’s notion that observed properties of American democracy promotion abroad can now be seen domestically provides a believable account of where the USA is heading socially and economically.  The fact that the media utterly fails the American public about whether or not Bloomberg, Gore and the like, might or might not run for President, instead of focusing on the of the policies of numerous candidates who have announced (even possibly 3rd party nominees)  gives credence to his argument that electing Presidents is more of marketing than of substance.

The ultimate frustration coming away from the book is that such a radical social revolution needs to take place to replace those currently in power, that I have a hard time imagining it happening unless there is a catalyst (such as the Great Depression was for the New Deal).  The obvious fear is that new catalysts might be too strong causing a collapse.  An evolution is preferable, but we seem to be headed in the opposite direction from the needed course.  Is there a spark that will turn things around for the better, and what is it?

June 22, 2007

Amazing Stories of Software Compatibility

Filed under: programming — codesmithy @ 5:48 am

Raymond Chen wrote a book called “The Old New Thing,” which complements his blog with the same title. There is a bonus chapter available online which I found to be fairly amazing. The two things that I am struck by, is how seriously Microsoft takes compatibility and how many resources they dedicate to actually maintaining it. As the technology progresses, more sophisticated and general techniques become available, such as giving problematic programs their own sandbox so previous correctness can be maintained while properly behaving programs can move forward (Windows 2000 shims being one such example).

However, people find incredible ways to depend on specific behavior of the existing code. Such as “If it has eight bytes, it must be a dialog box.” An additional problem is that Microsoft, more so in the past, thought that programmers could be trusted to do the “right” thing; that trust turned out to be somewhat misplaced. The organizations that create programs are agents that want to accomplish their own self-interested goals. Which is why the Raymond Chen’s hypothetical conversation with a vendor is the typical response. You don’t gain the organization’s attention until you mention a threat to one of its goals, and frequently you have to make that connection for them. “Oh, our next release of XYZ will not work on Windows ’95, but we want to ship XYZ on ’95.” But, you should also expect the response to: “Your program does work on Windows NT,” to be the perfectly rational “We don’t support Windows NT.” Which is to say, this problem you speak of, you see, it doesn’t affect any of my goals. The expectation for support is also slightly unfair, although it tends to be pervasive. The fact that code does subtly (or other times not so subtly) break across different platforms means additional testing. Corporations are driven by rational self-interested behavior. How much will cost to get a administered Windows NT box? How much testing will have to be done? How many sales will we have on that particular platform? The rational response might be, we don’t support that platform the costs out-weight the benefits. They might be all for Windows NT support in principle, but they also need to look at their bottom line. The fact that Microsoft comes along later and says, hey you broke your program on NT or worse yet Windows 2000 (something literally impossible to test for since it didn’t exist during development) doesn’t change the fact that the companies goal is to maximize profit, which ensuring compatibility with future OS revisions may not be justified.

Therefore, it is more insightful abstract the people and instead view the corporations involved as two self-interested agents. Microsoft interested in externalizing the costs of compatibility, which they use to sell their new operating system, and the vendor who wants to sell a quantity of software that depends on the previous operating system, and isn’t necessarily concerned with compatibility with future versions (based on expected software lifetime and expected install base and sales figures versus costs of development and testing). Therefore, future compatibility is a cost that software vendors would also like to externalize. The fact that Microsoft invests so heavily in compatibility is because they consider it so vital to the sales of their new operating system. The minutiae of what actually breaks and why is intellectually interesting from my point of view as a programmer but as a business operative is fairly meaningless, since it literally comes down to profit. Better technologies for compatibility are just ways of reducing costs. Complaints that programmer X is so stupid, and did this all wrong is a failure to see the forest from the trees. Rational self-interest of the capitalistic entities involved are causing the friction, and as a member of an institution in that corporation, an employee takes on the properties of that entity in collectively solving the threat to its profits.

Given this view, the misplaced hatred for sloppy programmer X who produced the code is properly placed on the system causing the friction. Rational self-interested parties that don’t necessarily share mutual goals, and therefore compete. It is another symptom of a capitalist system that fairness has nothing to do with who bears the cost. Complaining about compatibility from different vendors is like barking at the moon, might as well just sit down an fix the problems at hand rather than ponder how in the world the code ever got written in the first place. For one, it did get written. Also, there is a lot of it, as Chen’s chapter demonstrates. Therefore, it better to take the approach that the problem at had is more of a puzzle rather than a product of some malicious, evil entity. As most any programmer can embarrassingly attest to, that malicious entity sometimes turns out to be yourself.

June 21, 2007

Finding Truth

Filed under: history, random — codesmithy @ 5:18 am

Part of yesterdays post was about finding truth amongst a plethora of information. Historians are faced with similar problems. According to James W. Loewen in “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” there are five questions you should keep in mind.

  1. Why was the article written?
  2. Whose viewpoint was presented?
  3. Is the account believable?
  4. Is the account backed up by other sources?
  5. How are you supposed to feel after reading or examining the piece?

If you have good answers to these questions, then you have a good sense of what types of biases can creep into the piece, and cloud the path to the facts and ultimately the truth.   Application of these questions is left as an exercise for the reader.

June 20, 2007

User-Generated Content Considered Harmful?

Filed under: books, culture, politics — codesmithy @ 7:17 am

MSNBC ran a story about a new book by Andrew Keen “The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture.” Michael Rogers thinks that an admittedly extreme and biased book is worthy of contemplation solely due to the fact that Keen doesn’t come off completely clueless to the technology, he holds an unpopular viewpoint and it reflects “real public concerns.”

The fact that Michael Rogers himself is firmly entrenched in existing media companies which Keen highlights as threatened by user created content gives him the ability to declare what “real public concerns” are, opposed to “manufactured public concerns” or “real private concerns (because I work at a media company that is affected by this change in culture, so I could lose my job).”

There is a segment in a Google tech talk that specifically deals with some of the issues at play, (about 42:55 in) centering around authority. The tech talk is given by David Weinberger going over ideas in his new book “Everything is Miscellaneous.” As Weinberger points out, traditional media has a vested interest in appearing authoritative. As opposed to user-generated content which is admittedly fallible and frequently advertises that fact, which is predictably the vector of attack.

How much authority traditional media actually warrants is a matter of debate, but I do agree with Keen that much of the investigative fact-finding is done by traditional media, and it would be a travesty if it were lost. However, I think that fear it utterly unfounded, since the majority of blogs, which he claims are substitutes for this fact-finding, actually just link to interesting bits they find in traditional media. What blogs manage to do is add an extra layer of complexity by connecting ideas from one article to another and comparing and contrasting those ideas. It is not necessary to be an expert to point out that two sources disagree or agree on a particular topic.

In response to Michael Rogers query: Is the Internet dumbing us down? The overwhelming answer is no. Mass media dumbs things down, taking speeches and summarizing them down to sound-bites and giving shortened reactions from essentially random people. User-generated content adds back a lot of complexity that is lost in the traditional news media. First, user-generated content can link to direct sources for much of the information, literally allowing the user to dig as deep as they want to. Secondly, authoritative sources can emerge based reputation (which is the same way news agencies dictate their own authority). Third, in many cases the people commenting are more expert in the field than the reporters trying to explain it. Fourth, the wider the group, the more it knows. I don’t how I would have every read about Collyer brothers if it hadn’t been for a post on fark in a thread about compulsive hoarding. The point being that groups can be far more intelligent than the individuals if there is the ability to filter out the noise, which much of Web 2.0 is about.

In “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell, he talks about mavens. People who are experts in a particular topic. The people who actually call the number on the back of Lever 2000 or Dial soap with a question or a comment. The idea is alluded to in Weinberger talk about tagging. It only takes a few people to properly tag articles for everyone to benefit. These people can be mavens, although it may not be their day-job, which in Keen’s book makes them an amateur.

Web 2.0 hurts the media as a power center which was probably Keen’s chief complaint when examining his first subtitle: “how the democratization of the digital world is assaulting our economy, our culture and our values.” I won’t disagree, Web 2.0 is assaulting traditional media, but I won’t say that it is a bad thing either. The printing press assaulted the town crier. The television assaulted the newspaper. Now it is the web, and while I freely admit there have been drawbacks and problems to each evolution; the net gain far outweighs the cost.

Web 2.0 moves the discussion of news of the day from the editorial page to a wider audience where more people can discuss, and bring a wider array of information into the discussion. It moves editorials from appointment to meritocracy (Andy Rooney, for example, is not the only cranky old man in the world, nor the most insightful). Nor is it required that everyone be an expert since people are capable of understanding and recognizing people who are and cite them as the basis of opinion. There have always been cranks, and peddlers of cranks that attempt to poison the discussion with disinformation and fear to further their agenda. Whether that is the case in this instance is a matter of opinion, but to simply act as if such bias or fallibility simply doesn’t exist in traditional media is to be either completely disingenuous or extraordinarily naive. Web 2.0 suffers from the same problems, it is less controlled, but ultimately it is a more honest representation of what we know, because occasionally people with unpopular opinions are right.

June 19, 2007

Inalienable Rights: at Home and Abroad

Filed under: culture, politics — codesmithy @ 6:21 am

Seymour Hersh revealed shocking new details of Abu Ghraib. Abu Ghraib was more than just a few people getting carried away. It was a failure of the system, and gives an indication of the types of abuses that could be taking place at other like facilities such as Guantanamo Bay.

Abu Ghraib was an affront to many of the ideas on which this country was founded.  Quoting from our declaration of independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Notice how no mention is made country of origin or citizenship. When we arrest a person suspected of a crime, we are forcefully imposing our governing of that person. Therefore, it is our duty to guarantee some basic human rights. The fact that our enemies may not is the buttress to our belief that we are right, more enlightened, and better than them.

The first thing to understand about torture as governance is that it is a self-perpetuating bureaucracy.  When torture is applied, everyone eventually talks.  They will accuse anyone they know of a crime, and the bureaucracy is sustained because now it brings in new people to torture, which further implicates more people, sustaining it.  Torture at its base is very dehumanizing bringing out the worse in racism, cruelty, and indifference in the torturers and breeds seething hatred in the torturees.  The other concerning thing how many people with go along with it if there is sanction from an authority to take responsibility as demonstrated by the Milgram experiments.  The fault lies firmly on the leaders for perpetuation and at best, it is a dereliction of duty, at worst it is an intentional policy.  Either way, it can not be labeled a mistake that can be forgiven.  The fact that the Bush administration intentionally uses a loop-hole to prevent a balance check from the judiciary branch at Guantanamo lends more support that the later is actually the case.

This is nothing less than attack, more effective and dangerous than any terrorist concoction  to effectively destroy a liberal democracy based on a balance of power.  Destruction of rights abroad will lead to their destruction at home, because the government will see less of a threat abroad than it sees to its power at home, leading to the use of tactics used in foreign lands implemented domestically.  The first natural step would be to build facilities.

Human rights and international law should be the basis of U.S. foreign policy.  The fact that many intellectual elites act like the notion is absurd is an example of how far opinions need to change before true peace and security can be reached.

Note: I do not trust everything that Seymour Hersh or WorldNetDaily say.  But, I do trust that they get some of the facts right, but not necessarily the conclusions they draw.

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