Skip navigation

Category Archives: Personal

One of the nice things about the open source operating system, GNU/Linux, is the breadth of choice available to users, most at  absolutely no cost.   This allows a user to choose the distribution which matches his tastes best.   But, there is one flaw in this gluttony of chocie.   How’s a beginner to choose a distro?   Okay, let’s say you limit the choices to all of the “major” distros, like Fedora, OpenSUSE, Ubuntu, et cetera.   Even then, there’s no easy way for a newbie to pick.   I feel that if we can change this situation, we would be enabling new users to more easily adopt linux as an operating system, as a result spreading free and open source software.

The question then arises, “Which distribution should be the ‘go-to’ distribution for new linux users?”   Well if you read the title for this, you’ll have guessed already…the distribution should be Ubuntu.   Now in all fairness I do use and like Ubuntu, but it isn’t the distro I use most often.   OpenSUSE and Fedora are battling for that prize.   Rather, Ubuntu was the first linux distro that I used.

With that in mind, here are three good reasons why all linux users should support Ubuntu as the linux distro for new linux users.

1:   Ubuntu’s stated goal has always been to make a linux for ordinary people, and it has usually succeeded in making their distro easy for novices to pick up.    For that reason, Ubuntu is already a good distro for new users.

2:   While a generic Wubi is being created to work with any linux distribution, Ubuntu is, now, still the only distro which features the ability to install itself easily onto a windows system and, just as easily, remove itself.   This reduces the upfront cost of time and knowledge necessary to install linux on your computer, so new users will be more likely to try using linux and will encounter fewer road blocks to that goal.

3:   While choice is wonderful, having one distro which every linux user can point to as the distro for people new to linux makes it easier for advocates.   An advocate won’t have to bring up different distros, or explain any complex ideas.  They can simply give them a cd, tell them to choose “install in windows”, and the rest will be self-explanatory.  Hiding the details from new, usually non-technical, users makes the whole experience better for the user, front-to-back, and makes it more likely that they will stick will linux.

That being said, let me know what you think.   Have I gone crazy, or does this seem to be a net benefit for FOSS?

Advertisements

I’m a programmer, though I’m really only an amateur right now.   I’ve written programs in C++, C, and Pascal.   My first language was Pascal, Turbo Pascal specifically.    I love the act of programming, but when I attempt to explain what programming is like, I often find myself at a loss for words.   What does a person do when they code?   My best metaphor has always been that coding is like writing or creating music.   It’s an act of creation…an art.

What does that mean?   Art is often thought of as creation ex nihlo–creating out of whole cloth.   But that’s not true.   A writer uses a known language, with a known grammar.   When she writes, she writes with an eye towards her genre.   She might borrow from the generic conventions or go against them.   But few good writers ignore them.   A musician will tend to pick a certain key and a certain scale.   He doesn’t have to, but the alternative, composing in the chromatic scale (using all possible notes), is often less pleasing and more difficult to compose in.  He will also compose with the conventions of his genre in mind.  He could use, ignore, or even self-consciously twist the conventions in an attempt to make the statement he wants to with his music.   In each case the artist is remixing, for a lack of a better word, the conventions and limitations to express his or her own statement.   They are using a library of pre-built words, expressions, biases and beliefs to achieve their goal.   My question is, understanding all of that, how could you view coding as anything else but art?

When you code, you choose your limitations.  Your language decides what you are capable of expressing.   Coding in C++ is always different, and always causes a different result, from coding in Lisp, or even Assembly.    The language, like a scale, limits your options and, by doing so, enables the coder to accomplish certain things more easily.   It is interesting to consider that when you finally start to program, you will usually be programming for an application which has been implemented before.   Yet, your code, and your final product, will inevitably be different from them.   Or, to put it another way, it isn’t just a coincidence that programmers will write the same program or even the same functions in different ways, even if they use the same language.   When I code a program, I’m expressing my own personal beliefs and biases about how that program should work.  It might be better or worse than someone else’s implementation.   That doesn’t matter because unless I am attempting to mimic someone else’s coding style, I will always code how I believe a thing should be coded.   A more “zen like” way to think of the problem is this.  I can only code as I would code, or code as I think others would code.    I can never code as a different person codes because doing so would require me to be that person.

Thus coding is not only a form of art, but a form of personal expression.

I know that seems funny.  But even in the most staid task, the coder cannot escape the fact that HE is always coding and that the code will either reflect his beliefs or what he believes his boss’ beliefs are about the best way to implement the program.   In each case, (excluding the case where the programmer is essentially copying someone else’s code) the programmer is the filter through which the code is passed and the programmer is the “designer” or “creator” of the code.

A fine young atheist.   I have to join P.Z. Meyers in giving gogreen18 a godless clenched fist salute for this lucid, passionate explanation of the reasons why atheists need to speak out.

Thanks to P.Z. and Pharyngula.

Science Is…

Science is…

Science is hard.

Science is a profession.

Science is a way to understand the world.

Science is being wrong, and still succeeding.

Science isn’t a religion.

Science is the feeling you got seeing “The Pillars of Creation”.

Science isn’t a panacea.

Science is a means, not an end.

Science is the love of wisdom.

Science is a candle in the dark(Thanks Sagan).

Science is a hope for the future.

Science isn’t arrogrant.

Science is wonder.

Science.

Science is…

Philosophy has a long history of paradoxes, going back to the beginnings of philosophy in ancient Greece. Paradoxes are often concerned with a certain theory or system: Time travel paradoxes and physics would be a well known example. I like paradoxes. They push you to consider a problem from multiple directions. But what I like the most about them is how they require the listener to understand, and take apart, the language of the problem.

A rather popular paradox, sometimes described as a problem of free will and determinism, is known as Newcomb’s Paradox. I first encountered this paradox in Martin Gardner’s book of math puzzles, “The Collossal Book of Mathematics”. Newcomb’s paradox, named after it’s creator physicist William A. Newcomb, consists of a game between two agents. It is concerned with a branch of mathematics/philosophy known as decision theory. The two actors are the “Predictor” and the “Gambler”(My terminology). The situation is set up as such. There are two boxes, box B1 and box B2. Box B1 always contains $1,000, but B2 can contain either nothing or $1,000,000.

The Gambler, you in this situation, can either

1: Take what is in both boxes.

2: Take only what in in B2.

A certain amount of time beforehand, the Predictor guesses whether the Gambler will choose option 1 or option 2. If he guesses that the Gambler will choose option 1, he will leave B2 empty. On the other hand, if he guesses that the Gambler will choose option 2, he will put $1,000,000 in B2. The Predictor is so good at guessing that he is almost certain to be correct. In some cases the Predictor is described as being almost godlike in his accuracy. It isn’t necessary to assume any sort of determinism by the Predictor.

The paradox comes about by the fact that two, mutually exclusive, strategies appear to be correct. Assuming that the Predictor will almost certainly be accurate in his predictions, it would pay to always choose option 2. If you choose option 2, you will almost always earn one million dollars. A sure bet, if you will. In contrast, if you choose option 1, you will almost always earn only one thousand dollars and, only very very rarely, earn 1.1 million dollars. But consider, for a moment, that the Predictor made it’s guess a while ago. The cash is already in the boxes. So wouldn’t it actually be more logical to select option 1? If you assume that there is no “backwards causality”, that what you do doesn’t change, after the fact, the contents of the boxes then either the boxes contain the money or it doesn’t. So no matter what you actually choose, you can’t affect the odds. As such, it is better to select option 1, understanding that you are maximizing the cash you will earn by taking both boxes. This is because whatever IS already within the boxes will be there no matter what you choose.

Hopefully I’ve done a good job making both of the strategies sound compelling. Now when I first read the paradox, I started by trying to understand the key figure in this paradox, the Predictor. The paradox revolves around, in my mind, how the Predictor makes his predictions. The truth is that we aren’t told how he determines his choice. Thus we, the Gambler, are unable to get an idea of what his choice might be. If we assume no knowledge, we can only base our choices upon what we decide to do. Whatever we choose will most likely be what the Predictor will have chosen. This sounds weird but since the Predictor is good at guessing what we will do, we must assume that he will guess whatever we actually do because there doesn’t appear to be any better strategy. In this case the best strategy is to choose option 2. If, however, we understand him to be basing his choice, say, upon our psychological preference for one option or the other, we can see another potential strategy. Assuming the above information by the Predictor, we could attempt a strategy where we choose the opposite of our instincts. Either way, we can now see the paradox would seem to be the result of the definition of the Predictor.

There is obviously more to discuss about this paradox. What strikes me most strongly about this puzzle is that it seems to be a interesting point about determinism. If we assume that the Predictor does know everything you do in advance then he is essentially affecting the future by playing the game. We have defined the Predictor as making whatever choice you choose before you choose it. Yet, the earlier point that we cannot make money appear or disappear by our actions remains. To quote Martin Gardner’s excellent response on this topic.

“It is not logically inconsistent to suppose that the future is totally determined…but as soon as we permit a superbeing to make predictions that interact with the event being predicted, we encounter contradictions that render the existence of such a superpredictor impossible.”

<!– @page { size: 8.5in 11in; margin: 0.79in } P { margin-bottom: 0.08in } –>

I had the distinct pleasure of watching M. Night Shyamalan’s newest picture, the enigmatically titled “The Happening”, last evening. Flashes of 50’s party scenes and leather jacketed greasers aside, the new flick’s plot centers around high school science teacher Elliot, played by Mark Wahlberg, and his wife Alma, played by Zooey Deschanel. One by one, cities and towns are being attacked by an unknown chemical which cause the person to stop whatever they’re doing, and then promptly kill themselves. The Happening begins with alternating scenes of death and panic. We initially begin with the first “attack” which takes place in New York’s Central Park. Construction workers jump off of buildings, a girl impales her neck with a chop stick. It’s compelling stuff, if you like that kind of thing. I happen to enjoy gore, individual mileage may vary. We are then transported into a high school science class being taught by Elliot. He brings up the mysterious disappearance of bees, prompting his class for possible answers. The students suggest several different causes including a virus and global warming. I personally found that the best answer was the last answer. A kid, after being egged on by the teacher, suggests that the disappearance was a force of nature which we would never be able to understand. Elliot responds to that drivel, not by pointing out the intellectual laziness of it, but rather by applauding him. He goes on to say that defining certain phenomena as unknowable as a good scientific belief. He apparently defines science as giving up when it’s difficult to explain things. From that point onward the movie descended into depths of weirdness unheard of. Plants attack people, lots of people act like their drugged up, some guy claims to be able to calculate a time table for an event which he doesn’t know anything about, and Mark Wahlberg talks to a plastic tree. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The movie eventually decides on a cause as well as a potential meaning for the strange events. About halfway through the movie, we are told, through Elliot, that the strange events must be caused by plants. He justifies it with a couple points. Plants are able to release toxins when “threatened” or attacked. The “neurotoxin” responsible for the symptoms is described as a natural, airborne compound. (Though there is a perfunctory “government did it” theory) The coup de grace, though, is that the attacks first took place in…of all places…a park! Astounding. Luckily this is where the comedy part of the movie picks up, since a man can only live on so much gore before he yearns for something new.

The plants deliver their neurotoxin through the air. Which plants are responsible is never specifically stated. An astute reader would have figured a problem with this. How do they attack with the neurotoxin when they are dependent upon the movement of the wind? It wouldn’t be a very scary movie if all you had to do was stay upwind. Well here’s the rub. While this is never explained, it appears that the plants are capable of invoking wind at will. I know. This is a strange theory, but it is the only one which matches the evidence. In each case, the wind appears, seemingly at the beck and call of the plants, right at the moment when the plants are attacking! Scary stuff. Luckily when confronted with such a heinous threat, one can always run away. Yes. That’s right. They run away from the wind. There is a scene where Elliot and his group are running towards the camera while the wind “chases” them through a field of grass. It was at this point that I had to restrain myself from laughing out loud. It was also at that point which I realized that “The Happening” was a comedy. I beliefe Mr. Shyamalan has been stealing, err, studying from South Park, as their global warming episode featured a crowd running from “global warming”. Beyond running from wind, one can, according to this movie, simply close doors and windows in order to prevent an airborne neurotoxin from entering the house. Indeed, it is little known fact that houses, no matter how old or well maintained, are absolutely air tight as long as their doors and windows are closed. It was this little known fact allowed both Elliot, Alma, and Elliot’s friend’s daughter to survive the attack.

In the end, the movie explains the whole…well…happening as a “warning” to humans to stop messing up the environment. Leaving aside the fact that the movie attributes both supernatural abilities and a consciousness to plants, it seems ironic to me that the final plot point simply parrots the moral endings of the alien movies of the 60’s. Luckily though we have a token skeptic to bring us home. He doubts the nice “scientist”(an old guy who is really tightly wound is a scientist?) and his explanation. What happens? He’s shown to be the dirty skeptic which he is. The final scene brings the whole movie back round as a new attack takes place in France. See!!! You dirty skeptics!!!! WE TRIED TO TELL YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! oh. Sorry.

I must be honest that while I try to use critical thinking and skepticism I am always willing to temporarily accept wacky things during movies. The point of movies is ostensibly to entertain. If critical thinking must be left at the door when watching, well that’s the price of telling an interesting story. So, I have nothing against “The Happening” being totally unrealistic. I have a problem with the movie being completely ridiculous. The problem was that the plot and the basic ideas underlying the movie were ridiculous. “The Happening” is a decent movie but it suffers from the same flaw that all of M. Night Shayamalan’s films have suffered. Whether the movie’s about ghosts, or aliens, or a haunted village, or evil trees, they begin with an interesting, promising premise and end with a flawed execution. If you don’t mind goofy premises, the movie is watchable. Otherwise the movie is rather forgettable.

For the past month I’ve been working part time to secure my family’s home network.   We have several computers, most of which are on a wireless network.  All of the computers are behind a router.   I had discovered several security issues, including the encryption used on the wireless signal.   During the month which I spent working on this subject, I found myself constantly fighting with the other members of the household over these security measures.   I happen to be the “tech support” for my house, so I wasn’t surprised that there might be questions about the subject, or “push back” over certain measures.  I was unpleasantly surprised, however, by the difficulty I ended up facing.

In the end, I was unable to convince them to change.  This led me to “go around them” and install a router beneath the “gateway” router along with the stronger, AES based WPA2 encryption and a super strong password.  But this whole issue led me to think about a separate topic.  How do we, as people experienced with technology, communicate important issues in technology to people who aren’t technologically savy?   It’s a difficult issue and I’m not sure that I have a good answer to it.   I’ve always found that one of two problems often crop up in these situations.

Often the issue being dealt with is complex enough that it requires an explanation.   The issue then becomes how much should I explain to the person?  It’s very easy to simplify the issue to the point that any contradictions which crop up later will always confuse them.  If you simplify computer security down to a truism, there will always be a contradiction which will result in your status as an expert being reduced and the person who you are helping will be even more confused.   However, simply explaining a topic fully will usually just confuse the person, obscuring the true issue at hand.

The other issue is that explaining an issue to someone doen’t necessarily result in the person truely understanding it.   Perhaps the best example of this occurred in my own experiences.   When attempting to explain the dangers of using WEP encryption for a home network, I began by explaining the problem in lay terms before providing textual resources backing up my claims.   What I found was that no matter what way I described the problem, I was met with the same question.   Well the person would have to sit outside our house, right?  They didn’t understand the danger, despite being well informed about the problem.   They, literally, couldn’t imagine one of our neighbors wanting to “read” our traffic.

In each of these cases, the problem seems to be one of communication.  Their solution is not as obvious.   The first problem is more of an issue dependent upon how intelligent the person is, and how much the person wants to know.  The second problem is more difficult.   We cannot make a person do something which they don’t want to do, nor should we.  In this case we can only fall back to the first solution, and not much else beyond that.   In the end it seems that it will always be difficult to make important technology decisions when the person “in charge” doesn’t grasp the issues at hand.   But I guess when push comes to shove, there’s always a way around the issue, even if it requires adding a second router.