Tuesday, December 26, 2006


The web is full of wacky sites, but most (unlike this one) are not associated with books put out by the MIT Press.

I found this by making use of my LinkBack hack, while looking for information relating to this much more austere and respectable MIT Press book, which I'm in the process of reading. Actually that one is pretty trippy too, but it does it through relentless logic rather than saturated colors.

Monday, December 25, 2006

LinkBack hack for Newtonmass

I messed around with Greasemonkey over the holiday weekend and came up with a way to add backlinks to web pages -- something people have been wanting since before there was a web! Details here.

The Anthropic Cosmological Principle meets Computational Complexity; Hilarity Ensues

Scott Aaronson, the second-most amusing person in string theory, demonstrates how to solve NP-complete problems, about halfway through a talk:

But what could NP-hardness possibly have to do with the Anthropic Principle? Well, when I talked before about computational complexity, I forgot to tell you that there's at least one foolproof way to solve NP-complete problems in polynomial time. The method is this: first guess a solution at random, say by measuring electron spins. Then, if the solution is wrong, kill yourself! If you accept the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, then there's certainly some branch of the wavefunction where you guessed right, and that's the only branch where you're around to ask whether you guessed right! It's a wonder more people don't try this.

This is a pretty obvious idea once you hear it (those are always the best ones. As Huxley was suppoed to have said upon reading The Origin of Species, "How extremely stupid not to have thought of that").

Aaronson takes this as evidence that anthropic arguments are invalid, since he's fairly attached to the idea that NP-hard problems are hard. I tend to agree, there has always been something Panglossian about anthropic cosmology. In fact...you could implement Dr. Pangloss using Aaronson's procedure. If you are convinced that the world is not as good as it could be, you kill yourself. Then the versions of you left alive are perforce inhabiting the best of all possible worlds.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Hacking in progress

Not that you care, but: I'm using this blog to test some automatic tagging software I'm messing with, so be prepared to see various sorts of labels come and go as it gets refined. For instance, it unsurprisingly picks up doom as a category, but misses this post which has doom three times (but in the title, not the body).

This is all by way of playing with the Blogger Beta (which supports tagging), the GData APIs, the Yahoo term extraction service, and other fun stuff.

But doing this very dumb preliminary term extraction and indexing renews my dream of having a system that will actually help me organize and structure the cluttered contents of my mind. This is something that I've wanted for at least 20 years (more like 30 actually, that's when I first encountered Ted Nelson's Computer Lib/Dream Machines). I've made some stabs at building stuff like this over the years. Blogs and wikis are stabs in related directions but still aren't quite it. Still, the dream is alive.

And I see I've dreamed out loud in this forum a year or so ago, without doing much since then.

Friday, December 15, 2006

God is not mocked

The forces of atheism are coming up with some new in-your-face tactics. One guy has issued a $50000 challenge:
This is an open challenge to any American citizen who passes a lie detector test that I will specify in a moment.

We will both take the math SAT or GRE (aptidude test). Your choice. We will both have only half the normally allotted time to lessen the chances of a perfect score. Lower score pays higher score $50,000.

To qualify you must take a reputable polygraph that proclaims you are truthful when you state that:

1. You are at least 95% sure that Jesus Christ came back from the dead.


2. You are at least 95% sure that adults who die with the specific belief that Jesus probably wasn't resurrected will not go to heaven.
But I'm betting fifty grand they are not. Their beliefs make them relatively stupid (or uninterested in learning). Or only relatively stupid people can come to such beliefs. One or the other. That is my contention. And this challenge might help demonstrate that.

This is a nice idea but it might backfire. I'm sure the mean believer is pretty dumb, but I would not be surprised if there are some believers who are mathematically adept. William Dembski of the Discovery Institute is a jerk but he does have a PhD in Mathematics, for instance. And what about all those brilliant Jesuits? Do they still have them? I'd like to think that there is a class of brilliant and perverse people who are believers simply because it is intellectually challenging. Anyone can believe the possible, but believing in the impossible requires either stupidity or genius.

On a related note, The Blasphemy Challenge will offer you a free DVD of The God Who Wasn't There, and all you have to do is risk your immortal soul by posting a video clip where you deny the Holy Spirit.

I was going to do take the challenge, but then I realized that I didn't really want to deny the Holy Spirit. I'm not afraid of a little blasphemy, but I'm not sure exactly what the Holy Spirit is, so don't feel very secure in denying its existence.

Actually, I'm fairly sure that whatever the referent of "The Holy Spirit" may be (and it may be nothing more or less than an idea) I'm pretty sure it is not a thing, like a teapot orbiting Saturn. If it's anything then it is beyond existence or non-existence. Neti neti.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

High-energy metaphysics

There used to be a door at MIT labeled Department of Alchemy. Maybe it's still there. It was (I think) a joke, but Stanford has an apparently real Metaphysics Research Lab. It appears to have something to do with automated theorem proving and the existence of abstract objects, something I've speculated about in the past in the context of religion. I seriously doubt whether formal logic techniques can have anything interesting to say about metaphysics, but I also have to acknowledge that I may just be too ignorant to appreciate the depth of ideas here.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

A map of mathematics

This paper Is “the theory of everything” merely the ultimate ensemble theory? by Max Tegmark is extremely interesting in many respects, but aside from its way-out metaphysics, I really appreciated this diagram showing common mathematical structures and their relationships. When I actually was trying to do math years ago, this is something I wished for and occasionally tried to construct myself.

Alas, I've mostly forgotten most of my math (and I've never really been able to grasp modern physics) but this table lets me fantasize about picking it up again -- at least I would be able to figure out where to start, what bit depends on which other bit, and where it all ultimately leads. Although apparently category theory is really where it's at in physics (or was 10 years ago) and that doesn't even appear in the diagram.

The only postulate in this theory is that all structures that exist mathematically exist also physically, by which we mean that in those complex enough to contain self-aware substructures (SASs), these SASs will subjectively perceive themselves as existing in a physically “real” world.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

IBM 1401, A User's Manual

There's been lots of music composed with computers but not so much about computers. Now an Icelandic composer has made an album of music commemorating the life and death of the IBM 1401 computer system. This computer was born about the same time I was and was one of the first computers I ever used (my high school district had one and they let the geeky kids play with it when it wasn't printing out paychecks and attendence reports).

Via dataisnature.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Taking Deepak Chopra Seriously (no, seriously!)

Deepak Chopra has been making an ass of himself attacking Richard Dawkins in a lengthy series of blog posts. He's been roundly mocked by various sciencebloggers, many of whom have given up in disgust.

For some contrarian reason I feel like coming to the guy's defense. Why on earth? Despite the fact that he probably pulls down $5M a year and has a staff managing his blog for him, I feel sorry for him. He's clearly the underdog in a battle of wits, being beaten up by the bullies of science.

I wish I remembered where I heard of this trick: there is an intellectual practice which is the opposite of argument -- it involves listening to someone who seems to have a profoundly diverging viewpoint, and instead of arguing against them, tentatively assume that what they are saying is "true" and try to figure out what it could be true of. Can we apply this technique to Chopra. Instead of flaming him -- is there any way to make any sense of what he's saying?

Where he violates NOMA by attacking science he is generally foolish. So toss out all the nonsense about evolution being a random process, and DNA decaying by entropy, or anything else that actually impinges on material reality.

What's left? There are some stale philosophical points, expressed poorly. His shtick on yellow flowers is just the problem of qualia. But it does point to a real problem in naturalistic metaphysics -- it's based on objectivity, the world as seen from the outside, and does not treat subjective experience very well. Despite efforts of cognitive science and philosophers to ground consciousness in the material functioning of the brain, something seems to get left out.

That something can be glossed over as epiphenomenal, or (if you are someone like Chopra) used as a lever to try and overthrow materialism entirely and postulate a metaphysics where consciousness is somehow prior to the material world. In other words, it's philosophical idealism.

Elsewhere he writes:
Science knows about objective reality, the mask of matter that our five senses detects.

intelligence is innate in nature. It gives rise to consciousness in myriad forms. The brain--and DNA--are agents of this underlying intelligence. They embody it, give it flesh and physical experience, carry out its activity mechanically, and so forth. The materialistic worldview rejects such assumptions categorically, but in doing so, it turns life into a random chemical reaction, which will never suffice.
So he is an idealist who believes that consciousness is foundationally prior to matter, and permeates space somehow. OK. That at least is a coherent philosophical position, with a long lineage. It's seems wrong to me, and vacuous, but it at least makes a certain kind of sense.

The universe is a complex machine whose workings are steadily being demystified by science. Any other way of viewing the world is superstitious and reactionary....What is so strange about this argument is that Dawkins himself is totally reactionary. His defense of a material universe revealing its secrets ignores the total overthrow of materialism in modern physics. There is no world of solid objects; space-time itself depends upon shaping forces beyond both space and time.
He actually has a point here. Don't take "shaping forces" too literally -- it is the case that modern physics has a worldview that views the universe as something close to pure mathematics, with the solid material world as somehow emergent from the mathematical structure. Of course, this does nothing to the truth claims of sciences that work with the more mundane plumbing-level world (like biology). But it does mean we should take common-sensical materialism with at least a grain of salt.

The problem is that none of the weirdness of modern physics can be used to prove anything about God, as most physicists will tell you.

More Chopra:
God, on the other hand, is merely inferred. He's an invisible supposition, and who needs one when we have fossils? The flaw here is subtle, for Dawkins is imagining God in advance and then claiming that what he imagines has little chance of existing. That's perfectly true, but why should God be what Dawkins imagines--a superhuman Creator making life the way a watchmaker makes a watch? Let's say God is closer to being a field of consciousness that pervades the universe.
OK, so God isn't an anthropomorphic person, but some impersonal "field". That's a little bit interesting, but of course Dawkins in his book says he has no problem with an impersonal God that is identical with the laws of nature (the God of Einstein and Spinoza). This isn't quite what Chopra is putting forward -- there's that word "consciousness" confusing things -- but it's close.
Let's say that this field keeps creating new forms within itself. These forms swirl and mix with each other, finding more combinations and complexities as time unfolds. Such a God couldn't be imagined because a field is infinite, and there's nowhere it isn't. Thus trying to talk about God is like a fish trying to talk about wetness. A fish is immersed in wetness; it has nothing to compare water to, and the same is true of consciousness. We are conscious and intelligent, and it does no good to talk about the probability of not being conscious and intelligent.
Woo. Let's say this. OK, the universe certainly is full of mixing and swirling forms. Fair enough. Call the totality of these forms "God". OK, why not? And such a God couldn't be imagined. Fine, I'm still with him here, barely. But then why has Chopra just made six long blog posts that purport to imagine the unimaginable? Does he have superfish powers that let him see the water?

I must say though, this is the point where Chopra's thinking starts to appeal to my own kind of woo. There is something about the universe that makes it structured, orderly, comprehensible and livable, and this "something" seems to elude ordinary science. Thinkers much deeper than Chopra have suggested that space itself is "alive" in some way -- I'm thinking of architect Christopher Alexander, who has published a maddening and fascinating 4-volume treatment of this idea, The Nature of Order. I should be reviewing that, that is the kind of woo that actually might be worth something.

Oh well, onwards with the current project. Here's a cheap rhetorical trick Chopra uses:
For thousands of years human beings have been obsessed by beauty, truth, love, honor, altruism, courage, social relationships, art, and God. They all go together as subjective experiences, and it's a straw man to set God up as the delusion. If he is, then so is truth itself or beauty itself. God stands for the perfection of both, and even if you think truth and beauty (along with love, justice, forgiveness, compassion, and other divine qualities) can never be perfect, to say that they are fantasies makes no sense.
Chopra lumps together a bunch of stuff that seem to him to be somehow above or beyond the material world. He says it's a "straw man to set God up as the delusion" -- not sure what that means, I suspect he is misusing the term "straw man". In fact, it's his concept of materialism that is the straw man -- his materialism is inherently blind, cold, random, and meaningless, so all his good stuff has to come from somewhere else.

Let's look at that list: beauty, truth, love, honor, altruism, courage, social relationships, art, and God. What a mixed bag! They all involve subjective experience, but what doesn't? Denying the existence of God does not imply the existence of art. Biology has quite a bit to say about altruism and social relationships as objective facts. Argh.

You know, I give up. There may be nuggets of truth in all this, but I feel like a street sparrow trying to peck seeds from a steaming pile of horse manure.

This was a failed experiment. Damn. Sorry I wasted my time (and yours).

Friday, December 01, 2006

Failed states

This past week there was a ridiculous debate about whether Iraq was in a state of civil war or some lesser state of violence ("a territorial arglebargle of regional qualms" in the words of John Oliver on The Daily Show). This is all masking the fact that it is actually worse than a civil war. A civil war has clearly identified sides and some sort of termination condition (one side winning). What we've got here is a chaos of competing armed factions, with no clear picture of who is in charge, what they want, or how to manage them. John Robb fills in some of the details. It's easier to break a state than make one, and the most of the factions in Iraq have no interest in having the state succeed. Certainly none is strong enough to impose a victory.

But his following post is even more disturbing, revealing that we may end up with another failed state much closer to home: Mexico, where the failure of the ostensibly losing side to concede a close election is threatening the institutions of the stat. Like Iraq, Mexico has gone from stable, corrupt autocracy to a state of uncertainty. The monopoly on violence has been broken up and its time the entrepenurs to take over. As a former anarchist, I must say, strong stable government has never looked so good. I guess this is a shadow of the ridiculous "bring back Saddam" meme that was also floated last week.

Robb has an obsession with infrastructure attacks, and he claims Mexico's oil and energy infrastructure is unusually vulnerable. Mexico is our third-biggest supplier of foreign oil, supplying about 14% of the total. A flailing Mexico could disrupt this and make our current immigration problems look trivial


At last, Islamic terrorism has its own equivalent of Dr. Dobbs Journal:

The first issue of what is indicated to be a periodic magazine, “Technical Mujahid” [Al-Mujahid al-Teqany], published by al-Fajr Information Center, was electronically distributed to password-protected jihadist forums today...Material such as this, regarding anonymity on the Internet, concealing of personal files locally on a computer, and utilizing all schemes of encryption, is to serve as electronic jihad, and a virtual means of supporting the Mujahideen.
Links to download referenced software, such as the VMware virtual machine, and key generators to unlock features are also given by the editors. Another writer discusses PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) software and determines that its encryption is not adequate for the needs of the Mujahideen.

For future issues, the editors urge members of the jihadist Internet community to submit articles in the field of technology for publishing. They write: “My kind, technical Mujahid brother, the magnitude of responsibility which is placed upon you is equal to what you know in the regard of information. Do not underestimate anything that you know; perhaps a small article that you write and publish can benefit one Mujahid in the Cause of Allah or can protect a brother of yours in Allah. This way you will gain the great reward with the permission of Allah”.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Scientism, Naturalism, and Ismism.

So the proprietor of Secondhand Smoke has discovered the Center for Inquiry and accused it of the sin of scientism. This refers to the practice of science exceeding its proper bounds of rational empirical inquiry and straying into the areas of metaphysics and ethics.

My reaction to this was, why not embrace the term? There needs to be some name for all this activity that is not itself science but is based on science -- the active promotion of reason, secularism, crusading against nonsense, trying to figure out how science changes ethics and morality, scientists writing popular books on the meaning of it all, bioethics questions like what constitutes a person...scientism didn't sound too bad as a term. The Center for Inquiry was new to me but it seems linked to (and similar in style to) the output of other earnestly secular groups. Which is to say, they are keeping a flame of reason burning but organized religion doesn't really have too much to worry about in terms of charismatic competition.

The next day I discovered a bracing new term -- naturalism. This movement, which is based in Boston, seems to be an attempt to construct a materialist philosophy with a postive slant (as opposed to atheism, which is defined by what it is against). They have some very interesting positions on what a strongly materialist view implies. For instance, compassion -- if every human behavior has material causes then you can't judge anybody very harshly:
The causal view: From a naturalistic perspective, there are no causally privileged agents, nothing that causes without being caused in turn. Human beings act the way they do because of the various influences that shape them, whether these be biological or social, genetic or environmental....

Responsibility and morality: From a naturalistic perspective, behavior arises out of the interaction between individuals and their environment, not from a freely willing self that produces behavior independently of causal connections (see above). Therefore individuals don’t bear ultimate originative responsibility for their actions, in the sense of being their first cause....

The source of value: Because naturalism doubts the existence of ultimate purposes either inherent in nature or imposed by a creator, values derive from human desires and preferences, not supernatural absolutes. To the extent that there is a shared human nature, values are common across cultures and thus objective, but to the extent cultures differ, so might values. Although values do not have a supernatural foundation, we cannot escape having them, since they constitute us as motivated creatures.
And this page on death looks pretty interesting as well.

All well and good. I was particularly excited to learn from a review on their site that Gary Drescher, a very smart guy who I know from back in the day at MIT, has published a new book, Good and Real: Demystifying Paradoxes from Physics to Ethics, which looks like a thorough investigation of metaphysical naturalism from a physicalist and computationalist perspective. I'll have to read this, BUT -- my intuition is that none of these secular belief systems are going to do much to displace religion.

Why? Religion and naturalism are competing for roughly the same ecological niche in the human meme system -- that is, a foundational explanation for existence. But they emphasize very different areas. Religion provides answers in areas (morality, the soul, the afterlife, ultimate purpose) that are evolved to match the needs of the human psyche. Naturalism tries to address these but requires a good deal of intellectual effort and as such is only going to appeal to a small minority of people. Religion is natural, science is not.

My own tactic may be labelled anti-ismism: give up on the quest/desire for a single foundation system of understanding. Accept religion as an alternative way of knowing and find ways to interpret it that don't conflict with science. Seems right to me, but then I miss out on all the bitter fights between theists and atheists, and now even more bitter ones between hardcore and softcore atheists. Isn't anyone going to stand up for fanatical anti-fanaticism?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Let's hope the space chickens aren't watching

In the SF-of-my-youth-is-coming-to-pass category, this seems straight out of Heinlein or Frederick Pohl:
From space, extraterrestrials and astronauts can look back to earth and see The Great Wall of China -- and KFC's Colonel Sanders.

The KFC Corp. on Tuesday launched a rebranding campaign with an 87,500 square-foot image of Colonel Sanders in the Nevada desert which the company says makes Kentucky Fried Chicken the world's first brand visible from space.

"If there are extraterrestrials in outer space, KFC wants to become their restaurant of choice," KFC President Gregg Dedrick said in a statement.
Or maybe it's out of Douglas Adams.

Personhood theory

I inserted myself in the middle of another fruitless debate, arguing against both sides. This one was primarily between Wesley J. Smith, a conservative bioethicist at the Discovery Institute (!), John Derbyshire, and Josh Rosenau over "human exceptionalism". My comments are here and here. A lot of hear and not much light, as usual. But it introduced to me a useful term, personhood theory. This is used by some bioethicists to describe the process of deciding who is or isn't a "person" under law and ethics. It makes sense to me that there should be such theories, although they may vary widely. For instance, I (and most sensible people) don't consider a 16-cell blastocyte to be a person, but many of the religious do.

But to Wesley Smith the very idea of "personhood theory" is anathema. He doesn't merely offer a competing definition of person, he regards the entire topic as an occasion for bluster and obfuscation. I can't quite understand why generally anti-science conservatives are wedded to the idea that it's 46 chromosomes that define a person.

The two main theories in play seem to be either genetic (the right-to-life conservative view) or based on some kind of cognitive quality such as self-awareness or language use). Smith's entire output seems devoted to warning that the latter criterion is perilous, leading us down a variety of slippery slopes to euthanasia, infanticide, and all manner of horrors. He's got a point, this stuff is very problematic. But throwing up hands and refusing to think about it does not strike me as a useful or interesting approach.

Marvin Minsky once proposed (jokingly, I think) that you aren't fully human until you can speak in sentences with subordinate clauses, which would allow infanticide up to age 3 or so.

It is obvious (to me at least) that "person" is a social construct. Some societies permit infanticide, others don't. The default for tribal societies seems to be to consider everyone outside of the tribe as somewhat less of a person than those within. The desire of conservatives for some kind of moral absolutism based on biology is doomed to failure, as is obvious from the glaring inconsistencies in their position. Given that, personhood theory should be a subject of intense interest.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Voices from the whirlwind

This is a neat hack, in an artsy sort of way:

CYCLONE.SOC brings together two contemporary phenomena:

  • severe weather, the project uses weather data that charts the emergence and progress of hurricanes.
  • the polarized nature of debate that occurs in certain online newsgroup forums.

The project maps textual conversation taken from the political and religious newsgroups to the isobars of a dynamic, interactive weather visualization of hurricanes - whose complex structures are used to visualize the conversational churn and eddies of the newsgroup conversations.

Thursday, November 09, 2006


Wow. Distributed self-correcting systems can work. Too bad the feedback cycle takes so long though. Glenn Greenwald:

The basic mechanics of American democracy, imperfect and defective though they may be, still function. Chronic defeatists and conspiracy theorists — well-intentioned though they may be — need to re-evaluate their defeatism and conspiracy theories in light of this rather compelling evidence which undermines them (a refusal to re-evaluate one's beliefs in light of conflicting evidence is a defining attribute of the Bush movement that shouldn't be replicated).

Karl Rove isn't all-powerful; he is a rejected loser. Republicans don't possess the power to dictate the outcome of elections with secret Diebold software. They can't magically produce Osama bin Laden the day before the election. They don't have the power to snap their fingers and hypnotize zombified Americans by exploiting a New Jersey court ruling on civil unions, or a John Kerry comment, or moronic buzzphrases and slogans designed to hide the truth (Americans heard all about how Democrats would bring their "San Francisco values" and their love of The Terrorists to Washington, and that moved nobody). It simply isn't the case that we are doomed and destined to lose at the hands of all-powerful, evil forces.

On the other hand, Pelosi is wimping out from the get-go by declaring impeachment to be "off the table". That is another element of the constitutional feedback system, and an important one. Politically, even the conservatives are ready to turn on Bush, so putting his feet to the fire is the right thing to do.

Monday, November 06, 2006

First in the hearts of his countrymen

Clever researchers reveal that the ordering of names on a ballot gives the first candidate a significant advantage of between 2 and 9%, nicely quantizing the degree to which the democratic process is influenced by complete cretins. I don't quite understand how (or why) these people manage to figure out where the voting booth is.

(via Billmon)

Friday, November 03, 2006

More pussyfooting

I don't know why I am so obsessed with trying to stake out a militantly moderate position in the atheism wars. It seems both easier and more fun to just skewer the godly (shooting Jesus fish in a barrel). I guess I like a challenge.
Here's a excellent comment by john c. halasz in yet another huge Dawkins thread. The first part just makes the fairly commonplace points:

1) Dawkins' tendentious style mirrors in some ways the chauvinism and narrow-mindedness of his opponents. Militant atheism has some of the same flaws as militant religion.

2) Science, which is about the natural world, should leave itself out of metaphysics.

But this is worth quoting (emphasis added):

Contemporary right-wing Christian fundamentalism is not just some sudden and inexplicable outburst of irrationality and ignorance, whatever its historical antecedents, but rather a deliberately crafted and manipulated phalangist movement. Attacking religious belief per se, rather than the distortions and instrumentalizations of its normative contents, which are less about the cognitive understanding of the natural world than the social ordering of ethical relations with respect to collective fate, not only badly misses the point interpretively, but serves to re-enforce what it ostensibly opposes, precisely by blocking off any communicative understanding and deliberation, any search for, broadly speaking, rational common ground.

Yeah. It's not that Dawkins is wrong but that he's fighting the wrong war. Reducing all religion to fundamentalism and attacking its belief system misidentifies the enemy. The enemy should not be religious beliefs, which are too deep rooted to eliminate and not really addressable by rational argument anyway. The enemy is the (mis)use of religion in service of a right-wing political agenda.

Even religious conservatives (see David Kuo's recent book) are starting to feel uncomfortable with their alliance with the Bushite authoritarians. So why not try to persuade then and others in the muddled middle to support the hallowed wall of separation?

We militant moderates need a name. hopefully better than "brights". I propose "NOMAds" after Stephen Jay Gould's acronym for Non-overlapping Magisteria. OK, that won't win any marketing awards either.

Thoughts from Kansas makes similar points, here and here.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Asymptotically approaching religion

Good stuff in the atheism discussion.

John Wilkins points out that religion is a human institution, and like all such is responsible for a lot of good, evil, and none of the above. Ascription is difficult to impossible, and because religion is an inextricable part of human culture and psychology, it won't go away just because some scientists don't like it.

Sean Carroll has a very interesting post where he (starting from Terry Eagleton's negative review of The God Delusion) dissects the standard Western idea of God into its component parts: the abstract, impersonal, and universal god of the Greek philosophers, and the personal tribal deity of the Hebrews. This post, more than any other, is resonating with my own semi-articulated thinking, so I'll jump off with it.

The one idea in my head that won't go away is this: God is not an existing object, like a chair or a person or a teapot orbiting Jupiter. Whatever the word "God" means, it's not that, not this. Whether you are an atheist or theist, it seems clear that whatever kind of existence you believe in, it's not the kind of existence engaged in my ordinary objects, but something else, something that ordinary language fails at capturing.

There are other things we think about that have an existence of a kind other than chairs and teapots; things which are real (in some sense) but not material. These would include concepts (like the number 2) and fictional characters (Harry Potter), as well as religious concepts like gods, spirits, and souls. It is at best misleading to say that these either exist or don't exist. My strong intuition is that both theism and atheism, at least in their naive forms, are philosophical mistakes.

Of course such intellectual games satisfy nobody. The faithful don't believe in abstractions, and the skeptical don't want to be bothered with sophistry.

Carroll points out out a deep flaw in Eagleton's argument. Eagleton chides Dawkins for having a naive concept of God, as opposed to the more abstract kind preferred by sophisticated theologians. Fine, But then Eagleton goes on to attribute anthropomorphc properites like love and creativity to what was until now a vague abstraction like "the ground of being". I may as well quote Carroll at length:

The previous excerpt, which defined God as “the condition of possibility,” seemed to be warning against the dangers of anthropomorphizing the deity, ascribing to it features that we would normally associate with conscious individual beings such as ourselves. A question like “Does `the condition of possibility’ exist?” would never set off innumerable overheated arguments, even in a notoriously contentious blogosphere. If that were really what people meant by “God,” nobody would much care. It doesn’t really mean anything — like Spinoza’s pantheism, identifying God with the natural world, it’s just a set of words designed to give people a warm and fuzzy feeling. As a pragmatist, I might quibble that such a formulation has no operational consequences, as it doesn’t affect anything relevant about how we think about the world or act within it; but if you would like to posit the existence of a category called “the condition of possibility,” knock yourself out.

But — inevitably — Eagleton does go ahead and burden this innocent-seeming concept with all sorts of anthropomorphic baggage. God created the universe “out of love,” is capable of “regret,” and “is an artist.” That’s crazy talk. What could it possibly mean to say that “The condition of possibility is an artist, capable of regret”? Nothing at all. Certainly not anything better-defined than “My envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.” And once you start attributing to God the possibility of being interested in some way about the world and the people in it, you open the door to all of the nonsensical rules and regulations governing real human behavior that tend to accompany any particular manifestation of religious belief, from criminalizing abortion to hiding women’s faces to closing down the liquor stores on Sunday.

The problematic nature of this transition — from God as ineffable, essentially static and completely harmless abstract concept, to God as a kind of being that, in some sense that is perpetually up for grabs, cares about us down here on Earth — is not just a minor bump in the otherwise smooth road to a fully plausible conception of the divine. It is the profound unsolvable dilemma of “sophisticated theology.” It’s a millenia-old problem, inherited from the very earliest attempts to reconcile two fundamentally distinct notions of monotheism: the Unmoved Mover of ancient Greek philosophy, and the personal/tribal God of Biblical Judaism.

Carroll goes on with an excellent analysis of the incompatiblity of these two concepts of God, which is entirely worth reading, but I disagree with his conclusion that the incompatibility and incoherence of these ideas means that God doesn't exist. As I said, both existence and non-existence seem inapplicable predicates.

I believe that "God" is a coherent idea (or meme if you will), as it seems to be, since both theists and atheists seem to have a rough agreement about what they are talking about, and just disagree on its ontological status. It's not coherent in the philosophical sense (as Carroll shows), but coherent in the sense that its a stable idea, a mind-virus that thrives in the environment of human culture. Is it an idea like "Harry Potter", that is, purely fictional and arbitrary? Or is it more like a mathematical idea, like pi or the Pythagorean theorem, immaterial objects that seem to have a real existence outside of human culture and invention? Harry Potter is likely to be forgotten in a thousand years (well, maybe not...) but God is likely to stay, despite the best efforts of people like Dawkins.

My intuition, which I can't yet articulate, is that there is something about the concept of God that can almost be captured in a formal mathematical way, something that makes it a necessary concept of minds that are conscious and have agency. God's ontological status is somewhere between Harry Potter (wholly fictional and arbitrary) and pi (an apparently inevitable aspect of some deep structure of reality). Or so my flailing intuition tells me.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Against easy atheism

Atheism is much in the air these days, with new books by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, and a secondary wave of reviews and criticism, including Thomas Nagel in TNR, Marilyne Robinson in Harpers, Terry Eagleton in the LRB, and Jim Holt in the NYT, and Gary Wolf in Wired. These responses are mostly not from a standpoint of religious faith, rather, insofar as they are critical it's because of Dawkins' deliberately crude argumentation tactics. I find myself fence-straddling in this conversation -- on the one hand, I'm a sciencey guy and am alarmed at the rising political power of religious nfundamentalists. On the other hand, I don't think dismissing a large chunk of human culture and experience as simply a "delusion" is wise, from both the abstract philosophical standpoint and as a political tactic. So I find myself in sympathy with Dawkin's critics.

Dawkins engages in inverse cherry-picking (there should be a word for that) when it comes to religion, cataloging its many sins and failures but mostly ignoring whatever positive contributions it makes to human life. Robinson points out that science is not without sin itself and that if you are going to compare the two it must be done fairly:

The nineteenth-century abolitionist, feminist, essayist, and ordained minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson made the always timely point that, in comparing religions, great care must be taken to consider the best elements of one with the best of the other, and the worst with the worst, to avoid the usual practice of comparing, let us say, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie with the Golden Rule. The same principle might be applied in the comparison of religion and science. To set the declared hopes of one against the real-world record of the other is clearly not useful, no matter which of them is flattered by the comparison. What is religion? It is described by Dawkins as a virtually universal feature of human culture. But there is, commingled with it, indisputably and perhaps universally, doubt, hypocrisy, and charlatanism. Dawkins, for his part, considers religion wholly delusional, and he condemns the best of it for enabling all the worst of it. Yet if religion is to be blamed for the fraud done in its name, then what of science? Is it to be blamed for the Piltdown hoax, for the long-credited deceptions having to do with cloning in South Korea? If by “science” is meant authentic science, then “religion” must mean authentic religion, granting the difficulties in arriving at these definitions.

Dawkins fails to recognize that religion is not primarily about belief. Religion is about community, ritual, and emotional comfort, which is why people are so attached to it. The facticity of religious belief system is a secondary matter, and that's why attacks like Dawkins just seem misplaced. Dawkins takes religion as merely a bad form of science, a theory of nature which happens to be untrue. This misses the point completely, and it misses the point in the same way that religious fundamentalists seem to miss the point of their own faiths. Dumb religion breeds dumb criticism of religion. He's picking on the weakest form of religion, practiced by the weak-minded. It's not very interesting.

It's also ineffectual. The spiritual side of human nature isn't going to respond well to reason and argument. By deliberately promoting war between fundamentalist religion and fundamentalist atheism, and lumping in religious moderates with the former, Dawkins may stir controversy but is unlikely to change any minds. Religion won't go away. Atheists don't have the numbers to win a straight-out political war, so it just seems like better tactics to promote weak forms of religion that do not conflict with science, rather than lump moderates with fundamentalists.

So, while no religious believer, I'm not a fan of the sort of fundamentalist atheism espoused by Dawkins, Harris, and PZ Myers. I'm find it much more interesting to search for some way to reconcile spiritual concepts with with science. It's more challenging and risks being ridiculous, but something compels me to think about this nonsense (see here and here for previous attempts).

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Who's writing this?

It's a pleasure to see the Republicans in such disarray. After years of misrule by these clowns, years where it seemed their chokehold on power seemed impregnable, this sort of downfall provides a very satisfying dramatic arc.

It seems very likely that some kind of military action in Iran was being planned, and it also seems likely that the combination of Predatorgate and the new Woodward book has made that impossible now. It would be too obviously an attempt to change the subject and influence the election.

The world can hardly afford another horrendous mess in the middle east. If we are spared, we might have Mark Foley's creepiness to thank for it.

Having a war stopped by intenet sex chat also has a certain literary feel to it.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

A refreshing clarity

Last week was certainly an ignominious one for the United States's offical image of itself. The decision to grant the excutive basically unlimited rights to hold prisoners without due process or habeus corpus and subject them to "aggressive interrogation" has to be entered on the list of equally shameful offical acts such as the Dred Scot decision, the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Fugitive Slave Acts, and the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. Some say it's the end of the American experiment; certainly it represents a new low in official government policy in the modern era.

But let's not confuse the official statements of government with what it actually does. It's not like human rights abuses up to and including torture are something that was cooked up last week, or even in the last six years. The US intelligence apparatus has been investigating, promoting, and utilizing torture around the world since the end of World War II, usually with disastrous results. We used torture ourselves in Vietnam, and trained torturers who worked in Iran under the Shah, in the Phillipines under Marcos, in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. The abuses of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo did not emerge from nowhere; they are directly traceable to a half-century of institutional practices that have usually stayed beneath the surface.

In our urge to excoriate the Republicans who are responsible for the most recent set of travesties, let's stop and give thanks to them for stripping away the rhetoric of human rights talk and exposing our actual practices. What has gone on in the shadows now goes on under color of law and with the blessings of the people's representatives. We are now officially a torture state.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Your tax dollars at work

Today is the anniversary of the Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

And it's the day when the US Congress has decided to pass laws permitting torture of prisoners, in violation of the Geneva Conventions and common decency.

What a travesty.

This country has done many shameful things in its history, but in modern times it usually at least bothers to hide them. I can't recall an occasion in my lifetime where the government has so openly declared itself to be on the side of something so unequivocally wrong. Torture is not new, but doing it under the color of law in a democracy is.

What the hell is happening to this country?

According to Molly Ivins, "the Rev. Louis Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition is so in favor of torture he told McCain that the senator either supports the torture bill or he can forget about the evangelical Christian vote." I suppose that torture is a traditional Christian value, they worship an incredibly brutal execution device after all, but I thought their sympathy was supposed to be with the victim, not the torturers.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Duck and cover

The nukes aren't flying yet, but words about them sure are. The venerable Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (clock currently at seven minutes to midnight) discusses the risks of a nuclear strike by terrorists.

In sum, my best judgment is that based on current trends, a nuclear terrorist attack on the United States is more likely than not in the decade ahead. Developments in Iraq, Iran, and North Korea leave Americans more vulnerable to a nuclear 9/11 today than we were five years ago. Former Defense Secretary William Perry has said that he thinks that I underestimate the risk. In the judgment of most people in the national security community.. the risk of a terrorist detonating a nuclear bomb on U.S. soil is higher today than was the risk of nuclear war at the most dangerous moments in the Cold War. Reviewing the evidence, Warren Buffett, the world's most successful investor and a legendary oddsmaker in pricing insurance policies for unlikely but catastrophic events like earthquakes, has concluded: "It's inevitable. I don't see any way that it won't happen."

Meanwhile, there are signs that our increasingly unhinged government is itching to use its own nukes on the recalcitrant Middle East, since they are running out of options for conventional warefare, and there are so many countries there that need to be converted from Good to Evil by the application of force.

Who is more likely to unleash the nuclear option for the first time since WW II? The terrorists holed up in Northern Pakistan, or the terrorists occupying the West Wing? Keep in mind that the Bush administration has a record of always being worse than you expected, whatever you might have expected. The current efforts to get legal cover for torture may be a nadir, but there's no reason they can't sink lower still.

We really, really, really need to elect a Democratic congress. An opposition party may not be able to stop this administration, but at least it can make it clear to the world that we aren't all crazy. That may be the best we can hope for.

As for the threat of terrorist nukes, we could also hope to get an administration that actually takes homeland security seriously, for instance by inspecting cargo containers even if it inconveniences the shipping industry.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

God hates you

Pastor Fred Phelps, the odious twerp who likes to picket at funerals of soldiers and gays, has upgraded his media repertoire from crude flyers to a whole series of suprisngly high-production videos out, including God Hates You. No convoluted theodicy here, bad things happen because everyone deserves it!.

Phelps has just put out a clip attacking Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert as "godless sodomites" and "fag-enabling fools". Next Monday's Daily Show should be a hoot.

Prolixity of RDF vs Lisp

I'm messing with OWL/RDF and other semantic web goodness. Here is how you define an enumerated lists of strings (that can be the value of some property:

<owl:oneof parsetype="Resource">
<rdf:rest parsetype="Resource">
<rdf:first datatype="http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema#string">ACTIVATION</rdf:first>
<rdf:rest parsetype="Resource">
<rdf:first datatype="http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema#string">INHIBITION-ALLOSTERIC</rdf:first>
<rdf:rest parsetype="Resource">
<rdf:first datatype="http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema#string">INHIBITION-COMPETITIVE</rdf:first>
<rdf:rest parsetype="Resource">
<rdf:rest parsetype="Resource">
<rdf:first datatype="http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema#string">INHIBITION-NONCOMPETITIVE</rdf:first>
<rdf:rest parsetype="Resource">
<rdf:rest parsetype="Resource">
<rdf:rest parsetype="Resource">
<rdf:rest parsetype="Resource">
<rdf:rest resource="http://www.w3.org/1999/02/22-rdf-syntax-ns#nil">
<rdf:first datatype="http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema#string">ACTIVATION-ALLOSTERIC</rdf:first>
<rdf:first datatype="http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema#string">ACTIVATION-NONALLOSTERIC</rdf:first>
<rdf:first datatype="http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema#string">INHIBITION-UNCOMPETITIVE</rdf:first>
<rdf:first datatype="http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema#string">INHIBITION-OTHER</rdf:first>
<rdf:first datatype="http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema#string">INHIBITION-IRREVERSIBLE</rdf:first>
<rdf:first datatype="http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema#string">INHIBITION</rdf:first>

That's 1853 characters, to do something that is obviously derived from Lisp and which in Lispy syntax can be done like this:


Or 244 characters. The OWL format is 7.6 times the size, and this is a relatively simple example.

Of course the RDF format is grossly inefficient in terms of space and bandwidth, but my real problem with it is that it is also vastly inferior in terms of human comprehensibility.

One of Lisp's real strength is in human interface -- its external representations are simple and direct representations of its internal structures. This is what makes hacking Lisp fun, and powerful. As some Lisp guru once said, "you can feel the bits between your toes", but it's not the bits, its the actual conceptual data structures that have an almost tangible existence in a Lispy environment.

Pretty much nothing since Lisp has retained this quality. Modern IDEs do a lot to make code more tangible, but are pretty primitive when it comes to data. And XML/RDF is only barely human-readable, and not at all human-typable at any scale.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Cool toys

Octatron sells foldable, backpackable unmanned reconaissance aircraft, throwable cameras, and quick set-up mesh nets.

The drone is 20-30K, lot's cheaper than a helicopter. I predict consumer-range prices (say a tenth of that) in a few years.

I see the LAPD is already using the drones. Fortunately people in LA are used to constant helicopter flyovers so I guess this won't be that big a change.

Yes I feel like I'm living in a Bruce Sterling story.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Wading into the Middle East

Normally I avoid online discussions of issues relating to the Arab-Israeli conflict, since there's very little hope of productive discussion. But when I saw someone whose intelligence I respect utter complete nonsense, I had to reply in the comments.
I’m pretty sure that it is the first time in more than 1000 years that a non-governmental group of non-Jews has attacked a group of Jews and suffered in any way.
No matter what side you favor in this struggle (pro-Israel, pro-Arab, or pro-peace) this is just silly. Israel has been retaliating against Palestinian Arab groups since before it even existed. Remember last year's film Munich? Remember the last invasion of Lebanon? Remember Gaza, just a month ago?
In Israel's first military operation in Gaza since disengagement, being called Operation Summer Rain, thousands of troops, backed by warplanes and tanks, moved into the coastal strip overnight Tuesday. The army knocked out nearly 75 percent of Gaza's electricity supply, destroyed major highways and water supplies, and struck fields in northern and southern Gaza in a show of force meant to intimidate Palestinian militants. Artillery units also opened fire near Gaza City....

Israel's goal in Gaza is to make Palestinians uncomfortable enough to think twice about committing more kidnappings, or in the language floating around the camp here, to teach them a lesson.

How well did that work? So well that Hizbullah kidnapped more soldiers immediately afterwards.

The point is, retaliatory violence by Jews is hardly a fresh concept and it's ridiculous to base an analysis of the Lebanon situation around pretending it is. The larger point is that this particular act of retaliation, justified or not, has been a complete disaster for Israel -- they have failed to root out Hizbullah, whose stature has been raised immeasurably. The war destroyed any hope of a more liberal peaceful regime emerging in Lebanon. Israel's basically been fought to a standoff by a non-state actor -- that's a defeat in any reasonable definition of the term. I don't pretend to know what Israel should have done about the presence of Hizbullah on its Northern border -- but I'm pretty sure that what they did do has been a disaster. Americans relishing some fantasy image of the region based on completely false assumptions will not help matters.

My comment (which was not particularly rude, I thought) seems to have been rejected by the moderator, which is the only reason I'm bothering to post here. Interpreting censorship as damage and routing around it, etc. Maybe it will show up in a trackback.

Thursday, August 10, 2006


Sun has just now decided that adding support for dynamic language to the JVM might be useful. It's only been about nine years since I and many others have been making awkward implementations of Lisp and other dynamic languages on the JVM. I did my work in this area when I was at IBM research working on Java tools, and I was working with a project that was working on a JVM implementation, and I tried to get them interested in adding some extensions like this. No go back then, but better late than never.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Explaining Coulter

So the library finally got me a copy of Ann Coulter's latest excretion, "Godless: The Church of Liberalism" (I refuse to buy it). Like all her books, it's a collection of semi-focused potshots at an imagined class of "liberal". These fabulous "liberals" hate science as much as they hate Christianity; they are equally responsible for "ugly feminists" as for "Hollywood ideals of beauty"; they are familars of both Hitler and Stalin. It's not worthwhile to attempt to engage the Coulter's extraordinarily consistent levels of distortion and misrepresentation-- others with more patience than I have already done so. Nor is it really worthwhile listing her cute little outrages -- the insults to 9/11 widows have been well publicized, but there's also a whole chapter attacking public school teachers ("taxpayer-supported parasites...inculcating students in the precepts of the Socialist Party of America"). Pages and pages of this stuff.

Coulter's prose bears an uncanny resemblence to that of another master propagandist, Adolf Hitler. Coulter of course hasn't committed any genocides, but neither had Hitler when he wrote Mein Kampf. Coulter has called for the bombing of the New York Times, the murder of Michael Moore, John Murtha, and Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, and threatened liberals in general with violent death. All in fun of course. Both propagandists work to create a demonic Other, a class that is wholly evil and pollutes the healthy body of society in general. The formal resemblences are remarkable.

The question often arises as to whether Coulter sincerely means the crap that comes out of her mouth. Is she just working a shtick as an entertainer, or does she really believe that everyone in the Democratic party is a traitor, that liberals favor murder and bestiality, etc? Of course I have no way of ascertaining her internal mental state (nor would I care to) but she's an apparently educated and intelligent woman, which suggests that it's all a big act. What's worse -- to be an actively conscious liar, or to be deranged?

Thinking about this made me recall Ron Rosenbaum's excellent book Explaining Hitler, which is something of a meta-study of the various historical studies of Hitler, and the vast varieties of conflicting frameworks that have been erected to try to come to terms with the embodiment of evil in our time. One of the main dividing lines among historians is whether Hitler was, in his own mind, doing good or evil. Was he "convinced of his own rectitude" (in the words of Hugh Trevor-Roper) or was he knowingly evil, an actor feigning anti-semitic passion in order to further his own power? Obviously this is impossible to answer, but the search for clues is fascinating. The actor theory, promoted by Alan Bullock, appeals to me more somehow, it seems more true to the facts than the alternative view, that Hitler's acts were insane efforts to do good. Hitler as a faker, a charlatan, a small-time grifter who made it big. A mountebank -- there's a word you don't see everyday, but it seems to fit.

It fits Coulter as well. She's got a grift and she's milking it for all it's worth. She seems willing to take it over the top, and her consistent rise to the top of the bestseller list is alarming in that it indicates a certain desire in the populace to go along with her. Fortunately I think the US does not have the ignition potential of Nazi Germany, and Coulter for all her success is a genuine small-timer, a minor-league political insult comic, without the mesmeric powers of a Hitler. If Hitler was a fraud, he was so good at it that he fooled a country and continues to baffle scholars, but Coulter is not at that level, her constant sniggering gives her away -- it's pretty obvious her main goal is to attract attention and live off the celebrity. Which makes her evil rather than deranged.

And there's the fact that her book was released on 6/6/6.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Nasal Immortality

It's Lesser Known Museum Week over at the Athanasius Kircher Society:

Housed in the Museum of Student Life at Lund University in Sweden, the Nose Academy is a collection of more than 100 plaster casts of noses belonging to distinguished Scandanavians. Included in the collection is a cast of Tyco Brahe’s legendary silver nose as well as an “Unknown Nose,” which according to one guidebook, “serves as a memorial to all those who didn’t qualify for nasal immortality.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Office uprising

Insurrection instructions, in helpful graphic form. Originally from a project to liberate/torment the poor drones who open business reply mail.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Wingnut in the family

I have a terrible family secret -- one of my close relatives is a ridiculously extreme right-winger. He used to call me to argue against evolution and for the theory that Bill Clinton is a serial murderer. He's good friends with Ann Coulter and some other famous-name righties. We aren't close. Despite of (or maybe because of) his manifestly nutty beliefs, he's doing very well on Wall Street.

At a recent family gathering I learned that he was involved in Coulter's latest plagarized expectoration, Godless. Apparently he's the one who started her off on the anti-evolution track that makes up a good third of the book. According to him, Coulter is "smart" and "insightful", while Richard Dawkins (who I pointed him at the last time we went over this ground, maybe five years ago) is "an idiot". To each their own, I guess.

He's got the argumentation style of Bill O'Reilly -- a sort of bullying, finger-in-the-chest style that has absolutely no interest in truth or discourse or discovery. I always feel kind of icky after these encounters, mostly because I'm anything but a docrtrinaire atheist, but his stance polarizes the conversation, not leaving a lot of room for exploring the interesting middle ground.

This guy is not super-religious or anything. As far as I can tell, his positions arise out of a kind of conservative contrarianism -- a desire to rebel against a perceived liberal establishment. If that means rebelling against science and common sense, well, that just makes their position that much braver. I think this sort of conservative-as-rebel stance is quite common and goes a long way in explaining the popularity of right-wing blowhards. Bush himself is mystifyingly packaged up as some sort of rebel, which makes no sense at all but fits into this general framing strategy.

The thing is, most intelligent people assume that the ones who propel Coulter to the top of the bestseller list are mouthbreathing morons, and that Coulter herself is an entertainer who doesn't actually believe what she says. My relative is not a moron, he's just in the grip of some form of nuttiness. I can't speak to Coulter's sincerity, but he seems to take her seriously. I wouldn't pay her any mind whatsoever if not for this family connection and the fact that her books routinely top the bestseller lists. It doesn't seem wise to ignore a phenomenon like that.

Here's a remarkably patient investigation into the sources of Coulter's misrepresentations on evolution, worth reading for some pointers into actual scientific literature. There's an interesting theory about the persistence of the appendix, for instance, and some recent studies that directly attack the "irreducible complexity" arguments by cleverly how a complex biochemical mechanism could have evolved by small steps from earlier, simpler components.

Geoff Nunberg analyzes Coulter's rhetoric of "flamboyantly gratuitous tastelessness". Her trick is saying nasty things in a semi-joking way, so anybody who complains can be accused of humorlessness. This fits into the conservative-as-rebel strategy -- her flouting of basic decency and common sense is made to look daring, while her opponents become sanctimonious apologists for the establishment.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Dangers of blogging

So in a blog post from last October which was mostly devoted to mocking Stephen Wolfram, I casually insulted HistCite, a citation network navigation program developed by Eugene Garfield, who basically invented the very idea of citation networks. So half a year goes by and then I get mail from Dr. Garfield complaining about this slander. I was rather taken aback that someone of his prestige would take the trouble to respond to an offhand remark by a mostly-anonymous blogger, but I backpedalled fast and responded apologetically:
Please forgive my offhanded nasty remarks; I have the greatest respect for your work, and I'm honored that you'd take the time to respond.

Google and similar web services have spoiled us (or spoiled me at least) -- we expect everything to be free and instantaneous and very easy to use. I was just wishing out loud for something that would let me see citation networks without fuss, bother, or cost. I apologize for calling HistCite "ugly", what it really is (in my opinion) is a complex tool for a professional information analyst, rather than a simple tool for casual browsers, which is what I was idly wishing for. So much academic work is now available casually to non-specialists now (through Google and elsewhere); it would be nice if the citation relationships were equally available.

Since professionally I work in IT for life science and other areas where information and software costs money, I don't really believe everything can come for free.

Well, that's why I blog with a pseduonym, so I don't have to worry too much about saying nasty things and having it come back and bite me. What else is this for? Still waiting to hear from Stephen Wolfram.

The lesson that things on the internet stay around forever and can come back and bite you is of course not new. When Google Groups made usenet postings from the early 90s part of the permanent public record, it caused me some personal embarassment that persists today. For some reason my dumbest posts still seem to come out on top, I suppose because they produced the largest number of dumb responses.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Microsoft ignores semantic web?

The Semantic Web has been the fad of the moment for some years now, and if I was a major platform vendor I would at least make sure I had my toes in the water to support development of applications that wanted to interoperate with it. However, Microsoft seems to be mostly ignoring it, in terms of providing tools and libraries.

If you want to use the latest and greatest semantic web standards for representing ontologies (OWL and relatives), you need a package that can deal with the file formats and more importantly implement the reasoning and inference capabilities implied by this kind of representation. There are a few serious open-source packages that can do this, but they are all in Java or some other non-.NET language. If you want to work on Microsoft's platform, there is a nice package called SemWeb, but it operates only at the RDF-triple level, and is pretty much a one-man hack rather than a major research effort.

When I queried Microsoft about this, they basically said they don't care and I should try to use IKVM to run the Java packages on .NET. IKVM is a very cool hack but that doesn't sound very realistic given the bleeding-edginess of this technology and the need to debug across the API boundaries.

C'mon guys, aren't you about embrace-and-extend? Maybe the problem is they have their own splufty new language-integrated-data-access thingy (LINQ) and see the semantic web as something of a competitor/distraction. Maybe the whole flavor of Semantic Web is too cross-platform for Microsoft (but they took up the non-semantic Web, and XML, this is just the next phase).

So this entry isn't all kvetch, here's a useful compilation of semantic web toolkits for a variety of languages/platforms.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Doom, something we can all agree on

We expect this sort of thing from environmentalists and leftists, so we don't really take it all that seriously. But when prominent Republicans write doom-slinging books about immanent theocracy and economic collapse, I'd say it's time to kick up worry level a tad.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Math is hard!

I was complaining before about semantic web stuff being heavyweight? Here's a section from the SPARQL (RDF query language) specification:

2.5 Basic Graph Patterns

A basic graph patterns is a set of triple patterns and forms the basis of SPARQL query matching. Matching a basic graph pattern is defined in terms of generic entailment to allow for future extension of the language.

Definition: Basic Graph Pattern

A Basic Graph Pattern is a set of Triple Patterns.

Definition: E-entailment Regime

An E-entailment regime is a binary relation between subsets of RDF graphs.

A graph in the range of an E-entailment is called well-formed for the E-entailment.

This specification covers only simple entailment [RDF-MT] as E-entailment. Examples of other E-entailment regimes are RDF entailment [RDF-MT], RDFS entailment [RDF-MT], OWL entailment [OWL-Semantics].

Definition: Basic Graph Pattern equivalence

Two basic graph patterns are equivalent if there is a bijection M between the terms of the triple patterns that maps blank nodes to blank nodes and maps variables, literals and IRIs to themselves, such that a triple ( s, p, o ) is in the first pattern if and only if the triple ( M(s), M(p) M(o) ) is in the second.

This definition extends that for RDF graph-equivalence to basic graph patterns by preserving variables names across equivalent graphs

Now, this is not all that abstruse, but then I have a math degree and am used to it. Way back then I studied mathematical logic, thought it was fun but a lousy way to describe the world and a lousy model for computation. It seems to have triumphed, however, and now people are expected to speak that language (the RDF semantics spec is even worse). I have a hard time believing that working programmers (a set of which I myself am a member of, nowadays) are going to be gleefully soaking up all the model-theoretic semantic theory behind the semantic web.

Maybe I'm wrong, there are people willing to boil things down into understandability. This well-written article doesn't cover any sort of non-trivial queries however.

There seems to be a big gap between RDF-as-first-order-predicate-logic-with-model-theoretic-semantics and RDF-as-useful-flexible-emerging-data-standard. Looked at positively, it's a two-pronged thrust, from academia and hackerdom acting together.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Boring is worse than wrong

The real reason I find myself vaguely defending some religious ideas against village-atheism is the same reason I used to go around getting into arguments with libertarians. It's that overly simple belief systems really annoy me, even if (especially if) I mostly agree with them. Libertarians used to make me crazy, because I always knew exactly what they would say in any situation (the spur for this post is this column (TNR subscribtion required) which makes the same observation about the New York Times op-ed libertarian, John Tierney). Same for the atheists, like PZ Myers. I can pretty much predict his reaction to any piece of news involving religion, which makes his posts on those subjects information-free (they can be entertainingly nasty though).

I guess I don't like fundamentalisms of any sort. Libertarianism and atheism both tend to be all-explanatory and ignorant of nuance. Libertarianism in its fascination with the distributed market model ignores anything which doesn't fit its framework, such as public goods, distortion of the market by the overly powerful (who can manipulate it unfairly) and the poor (who may have no motivation to respect property rights). Atheism tends to ignore the nature of religious belief, treating as something like bad science, rather than trying to understand what it might really be about. Let's just say God is the referent of the word "God", and while it may not exist the way a chair exists, it has a real conceptual role in thought which it might be useful to understand.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Semantic Con

I don't really mean the pun in the title; the Semantic Technologies conference was actually pretty interesting, in a hypeish sort of way. It represnts the attempt to diffuse a set of academic technologies and standards into industry. Note that while the standards (RDF, OWL, etc) are promoted and developed under the rubric "Semantic Web", the web is notably absent from the conference title. That's because these technologies are not being taken up so much in by the web proper, but are being sold to huge organizations with massive and complex data integration needs. These include defense (aero), intelligence, finance, and biotech. At the grassroots, it is being pushed by working life scientists trying to solve the same sorts of problems. Here's a presentation by Carole Goble that summarizes the hype pretty nicely, and without much technical detail.

The Semantic Web standards are complex, verbose, and hard to understand. They are backed by Web programmers prefer simpler standards: REST over SOAP, folksonomies over ontologies. Web guys do mashups and go to ETech; semantic technologists propose complex architectures and require large funders to get them realized.

It surprises me but it looks like the pressure of hard problems with good funding will overcome the complexity barrier of the Semantic Web. It surprises me not even so much because the syntaxes are complex and verbose, but the results are fairly inexpressive and inflexible in certain ways (for instance, OWL, the ontology standard, is based on description logic which makes it hard to do something as simple as default reasoning, something any simple old-fashioned frame system could do). Having been out of industrial grade AI for awhile, I will reserve judgement.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Semantics in a San Jose Hotel

I'm not much of a conference-goer, but this week I'll be at Semantic Technologies. This amusing site of recommended meetings lists it as a "Chess Club Conference", ie, geeky, which is only partly right -- it's actually part geeky and part marketing, where architecture astronautics meets the hype machine. I should get my cyncial slogan printed up as a t-shirt.

There is actually some pretty interesting stuff going in this space, especially in life science, and an awful lot of coporate hype. I will be attempting to separate out the two.

Monday, February 27, 2006

More godstuff

Stupid blogger won't let me edit this post, so adding some updates here. Really, it's time to upgrade to a better publishing system. And to move onto a more sensible topic.

: I see I've addressed the topic before, although I'd forgotten about it. I really have to get a blog with tags or categories or something, which would help impose some order on the randomness. Update 1a: here too I'm explicitly defending religious modes of thought and invoking Pascal Boyer and Dan Dennett, before his current book.

Update 2: Sifu Tweety at The Poor Man was animated by the same spirits I was:
For the past few weeks I’ve been composing in my head an e-mail to PZ Myers on the subject of religion.
Yes, all us moderates are witnessing to the villiage atheists and trying to get them to mellow out a little bit. It probably just annoys them.


Warning: long post about religion.

I've had a long-standing interest in the wars between science and religion. I'm not sure why, it's doesn't really seem like a very fruitful debate, producing more heat than light. Nonetheless it pulls me in; I keep trying to rearrange my own thoughts about it in the hopes that a brilliant essay will emerge, but they remain confused. This being a blog I feel free to burble on about it anyway.

I'm on the side of science of course, if one must pick sides, but unlike some of the more rabidly atheistic people involved in this debate I am more interested in finding someway to reconcile the spiritual with scientific reality, rather than bash it over its immaterial head. I'm for reconciliation, peacemaking, and trying to find a stance that is fully consistent with science, yet gives some authentic space for people's relgious and spiritual experience. The hardcore anti-religious, village atheist sort of stance just doesn't appeal to me any more. I've started sniping in the comments over at Pharyngula in the hope of getting in some good fights.

Here's another entry point: Leon Wieseltier trashes Daniel Dennett's new book, Breaking the Spell in the NYT BR. The blogosphere has joined battle as well with most of my favorite scientific and political blogs lining up to take bashes at Wieseltier for bad arguments (poor understanding of Hume, misreading Dennett, using personal attacks, and just being a jerk -- "a digraceful and disrespectful hack job"). I mostly agree, but I have got some mysterious desire to find some value in LW's words, so I thought I'd try to tease out why.

Intellectual conflict is still conflict, and as such seems even more grounded in evolution than religion. So from a lofty perspective I see the whole thing as a war between science-apes and religion-apes, with constant border skirmishes. Science has reason on its side, but even this heavy weaponry doesn't seem to produce a victory over the other side. Steven Jay Gould proposed a sort of peace treaty, his idea of NOMA (Non-overlapping Magisteria), which would separate the two sides with a sort of intellectual border fence, but that proposal hasn't get very far. Neither side is willing to yield ownership of the foundations of truth.

I'm a science-ape by nature and training, but I can no longer join enthusiastically with the hardcore warriors for the science side like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers. They tend to portray the other side as merely stupid and deluded. There's no shortage of stupidity for them to attack, but religion seems to be more than that, and needs to be understood more sympathetically. Dennett seems to at least be somewhat sympathetic to the thought processes of the other side, at least willing to explore them. He's holding out the olive branch of understanding, and acknowledging that religion might (indeed, given his evolutionary stance, must) have beneficial effects, even if its beliefs are not true. On the other hand, he wants to "break the spell", so he's clearly not a neutral observer. From what I gather (I haven't read the book yet, just excerpts), his book is sort of a handshake with a joy buzzer in it. I have read the book that a lot of his ideas seem to come from, Religion Explained, by Pascal Boyer, which I thought was brilliant. I have no quarrel with the general attempt to find biological or other roots of religious thought, but I'm not sure if that really undermines it.

Wieseltier, on the other hand, is mostly just sniping. His intellectual schtick seems to taking up the mantle of the prophets, and making grand moral pronouncements rather than reasoned arguments. That sounds more negative than I meant -- I'm in favor of grand moral pronouncements! Where would our discourse be without them? Look at Martin Luther King, for an example of the best of this genre in the modern era. Still, LW's supercilious tone has pissed off many readers -- he may not really be up to bearing the mantle.

So to be contrarian, despite my and the blogosphere's generally negative view of Wieseltier, I'm going to try to extract the stuff from his review that I find worthwhile:
It will be plain that Dennett's approach to religion is contrived to evade religion's substance.
I like that, it's direct -- religion has a substance, and it's not to be explained away by functionalist explations. Whether it's fair to Dennett I don't know.
Dennett's natural history does not deny reason, it animalizes reason. It portrays reason in service to natural selection, and as a product of natural selection. But if reason is a product of natural selection, then how much confidence can we have in a rational argument for natural selection? The power of reason is owed to the independence of reason, and to nothing else. (In this respect, rationalism is closer to mysticism than it is to materialism.) Evolutionary biology cannot invoke the power of reason even as it destroys it.
This is a mostly-bogus argument (and an old one), but there's a kernel there that I like. The human ability to reason has certainly evolved, but reason itself lies, in some sense, beyond material evolution. For much the same reasons that we hope if we meet an alien intelligence, we can communicate with them, sharing (the in classic SF motif) the Pythagorean theorem, and other modes of reasoning. Reason, we hope, is universal even if the hardware it runs on is biological.

So LW is wrong to think that evolution "destroys" the power of reason, but right to invoke reason's independence.

(I'm not sure Dennett would disagree with my restatement of LW's argument, so perhaps this is another misplaced attack).

To connect the dots here, God may best be understood as something like the Pythagorean theorem -- not a material thing, but an inescapable conclusion of certain mental processes. And if it's inescapable, then we shouldn't be trying to escape it (as the materialist fundamentalist athiest does) but rather figuring out how to reconcile it with the rest of our mental state, including the advancing knowledge of science.
Like many biological reductionists, Dennett is sure that he is not a biological reductionist. But the charge is proved as early as the fourth page of his book. Watch closely. "Like other animals," the confused passage begins, "we have built-in desires to reproduce and to do pretty much whatever it takes to achieve this goal." No confusion there, and no offense. It is incontrovertible that we are animals. The sentence continues: "But we also have creeds, and the ability to transcend our genetic imperatives." A sterling observation, and the beginning of humanism. And then more, in the same fine antideterministic vein: "This fact does make us different."

Then suddenly there is this: "But it is itself a biological fact, visible to natural science, and something that requires an explanation from natural science." As the ancient rabbis used to say, have your ears heard what your mouth has spoken? Dennett does not see that he has taken his humanism back. Why is our independence from biology a fact of biology? And if it is a fact of biology, then we are not independent of biology. If our creeds are an expression of our animality, if they require an explanation from natural science, then we have not transcended our genetic imperatives. The human difference, in Dennett's telling, is a difference in degree, not a difference in kind — a doctrine that may quite plausibly be called biological reductionism.
Here may lie the crux of the biscuit. Dennet, LW, and I all agree for the first paragraph. Then LW diverges. I'm with Dennett (again!), at least 95%. Creeds are a natural fact (biological or otherwise) and thus capable of being studied and hopefully explained by science. The nature of the link between levels (biological to cognitive) is the proper subject of science and of Dennett's brand of philosophy, whether you label it "reductionism" or not. Finding such links oughtn't diminish the value of higher levels, spirituality included.

Still, the idea that there is something in creeds, or in reason, that "transcends" biology is interesting. There's no doubt in my mind that our thinking starts in biology, but it may finish somewhere else.
the excesses of naturalism cannot live without the excesses of supernaturalism. Dennett actually prefers folk religion to intellectual religion, because it is nearer to the instinctual mire that enchants him. The move "away from concrete anthropomorphism to ever more abstract and depersonalized concepts," or the increasing philosophical sophistication of religion over the centuries, he views only as "strategic belief-maintenance." He cannot conceive of a thoughtful believer...Like many of the fundamentalists whom he despises, he is a literalist in matters of religion.
LW's point here is one I like, a bit. The materialists who battle religion tend to battle with the crudest forms of fundamentalism (ie, young-earth creationism). But there are more thoughtful forms of religious belief, or so I'm told. I'd like to see science engage with those. Of course, LW is positioned as a leading religious intellectual, and if this review is an example of his thought then maybe there isn't that much to engage with. Still, I somehow have this hope that there are intelligent spirtitually-oriented intellectuals out there who can engage fruitfully with science. Anyone there?
But why must we read literally in the realm of religion, when in so many other realms of human expression we read metaphorically, allegorically, symbolically, figuratively, analogically?
This is LW's closing sally at Dennett, but I doubt Dennet would disagree with the sentiment. No scientist, not the most hardcore materiealist, would object to religion as a metaphor or allegory. The problem is that both the religionists and scientists insist on hewing to fundamentalist literal interpretation of what religion means, creating a battle over a narrowly conceived factual reality. But if both sides back down from their respective crude fundamentalisms, maybe there will be room in the human memepool for both systems of thought to coexist.

Well, as an exercise this didn't really find that much of value in LW's review, but it did give me a chance to get some semi-cracked ideas out of my brain, and into yours.

Update: I see I've addressed this topic before, although I'd forgotten about it. I really have to get a blog with tags or categories or something, which would help impose some order on the randomness.

Update 2: Sifu Tweety at The Poor Man was animated by the same spirits I was:
For the past few weeks I’ve been composing in my head an e-mail to PZ Myers on the subject of religion.
Yes, all us moderates would like to witness to the villiage atheists and get them to mellow out a little bit. It probably just annoys them.