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Category Archives: Philosophy

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?

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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.

The New York Times has an interesting article about Hindu violence against Christians in India.   The story’s interesting for the fact that it seems as though most Westerner’s think that it’s only the big three monotheistic religions which suffer from violence.   However, it seems as if India is suffering from internal religious strife.

There are, apparently, reports of Hindu forcing their neighbors to convert to Hinduismor face the threat of exile or even death.   As usual, the persecuted are the minority of the country.   Christians make up about two percent of the majority Hindu population.   The violence is nominally caused by the death of a Hindu preacher who had preached against Christianity.   Authorities seem to believe that Maoist guerillas were responsible, but the Hindu(radicals according to Times) have, nevertheless, blamed the Christians.

The only question ought to be.   Is any of this really surprising?

Not really.

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.”

With the impending bailout of the financial sector, it’s hard not to consider the implication of the U.S’ current economic policy.   I want to mention, specifically, the policy of bailing out large, failing, businesses.   The phrase bandied about so often is that a business is simply “too big to fail”.   That can mean a lot of things, not all of them meaningful.   Following close on the heels of the events of September 11th, 2001, the major U.S. airlines found themselves in a dire financial situation.  In reponse, the government poneyed up fifteen billion dollars of tax payer money to prevent their collapse.   This wasn’t the first time the government has had to bail out a large industry in the U.S.

If you consider the government’s bailouts of other luminaries such as Lockheed Martin, Chrysler, and even the City of New York, a pattern starts to emerge.   One of corporate welfare paid by the tax payers to failing businesses   In each case, the business, or businesses, were failing and, in each case, the government deemed the companies to be too “big”, to be too important, to fail.   That is a problem, and all we need is to consider how a capitalist free market is supposed to work to understand why.

The fate of a business is closely tied to how it is run.   If I run my business into the ground through some combination of bad business practices and/or poor financial foresight, then I have only myself to blame.   Nor is it right to blame natural disasters, necessarily, for the failures of large businesses.  A small business might not be able to pull in enough capital to reopen.   But a large business which fails due to a natural disaster failed because they did not plan for the future properly.  Natural disasters, whether natural or man-made, are a regular occurance.   Even if you disagree with my contention, I would still argue that there are very few good reasons to help out a failing company–most of which are a combination of philosophical and pragmatic concerns.

A company fails due to poor business decisions.   This is not necessarily a good thing.  However to bail out the company would usually be a far worse action.   Each time you bail out a company, you set a precedence for doing so again.   The more businesses feel that they are immune from failure, the more willing they are to pursue reckless or near sighted strategies.   This collective unwillingness to allow certain businesses to fail must be partly blamed for our current situation.

Beyond such pragmatic concerns, there is something rather disconcerting about the idea that we should spend tax money to prop up failing businesses.   Business so often demand as little regulation as they can possibly get away with, and for good reason.   It is easier to succeed if you don’t have someone telling you what you can and can’t do.   Yet, few businesses would reject a bailout opportunity from that very same government.  It’s selfish.  But that’s not bad.  Acting in one’s self interest is that idea which most of our markets are built upon.   Instead, just as strong markets are built upon strong competition, innovation relies upon the free competition between companies.  What we get when large companies are backed up by federal dollars is the exact opposite of competition or innovation.   If an uncompetitive business can depend upon it being propped up, it has an unfair advantage over it’s competitors.   Yet not only are these payouts fundamentally unfair, they are also responsible for prolonging inefficient and uncompetitive businesses at the expense of their competition.

Thomas Friedman in an interview with Scientific American suggested that no free markets actually exist anymore, and I for one would tend to agree.  He stated the position as an argument for regulation.   I would, perhaps, use it in a slightly different manner.   Conservatives in the U.S. are fond of preaching the religion of free market economics.   The truth is however more complicated.   A truely free market is dangerous.  Few consumer safety and fraud protections are built in.   The Gilded Age of the United States provides a handy reference for such a market.   A completely controlled market isn’t the answer either, as the woes of the former Soviet Union, following the collapse of the berlin wall illustrated.   So what is left?   That answer is far from easy to give.   However, if we are to have a market that can be called anywhere near free, we must allow for business to succeed or fail based upon their actions.   If we are unwilling to stomach the rough seas of the free market, then we must not persist in continuing with these half measures and combine tougher regulation with these government bailouts.

Which brings me to the thought which prompted this whole thing.   Considering all of the corporations which were “too big” to fail, what businesses out there might also qualify for such dubious protections.  I came up one very good example.   Microsoft.   Microsoft is a corporate behemoth.   Their operating system encompasses over 90% of the PC market.   It is also a major player in smart phones.   Beyond that, they have their hands in sectors as diverse as video games, digital music players, and web advertising.   Not that Microsoft would seem to be anywhere near bankruptcy, but it is certainly interesting to consider the question: “What would we do if Microsoft was gone?”