Thursday, April 30, 2009

Dickey / Welch: In the White Mountains of New Hampshire

night from Mt. Welch in the White Mountains of New Hampshire
From Nature

The trail up Mt. Welch
From Nature

daytime view of the Waterville Valley from Mt. Welch
From Nature

A large amanita mushroom
From mushrooms

One of my favorite places to go hiking is the Welch/Dickey loop in the southern edge of the White Mountains in New Hampshire. Many of my best mushroom photographs in my mushroom gallery are from this trail. In the late summer and fall, this trail just fills up with fungus of every kind. But, the best pictures of this particular trail are all of the mountain itself. From near the top of Welch, there's a wonderful view of the Mad River Valley. It's a smooth, easy hike up, easily accessible to even the most casual folks. In fact, I was first directed here by the front desk at an inn when I asked about easy hikes for beginners. While it's a great view during the day, it's even better at dusk and dawn when the sun either sets behind the cliff wall behind you or rises over the mountains in front of you.

I've been going back to this trail for about 16 years now (I know because it was one of the first dates of my current relationship... I'd be in trouble if I forgot) and it's that time again. Soon I'll have a new batch of pictures and hopefully a new batch of friends that I've take up there. Perhaps I'll even get the chance to do some night photos of the stars this year.

One of the rarest sights I've seen on this mountain is a luminescent fungus growing on a tree. It was a pale bluish color and no larger than a rasin. It was probably all over the place that year, but I only saw it on the lower sections of the trail as I walked back down in the dark on one late excursion. Since then, I've always tried to head back a little after dark so I could see it again, but I never did.

The roughest excursion up this particular trail was when a friend of mine and I foolishly decided to do it early in the winter. I think it was probably just after a late November or early December snowstorm, and we trudged up through 1-2 feet of snow, tearing off layers of clothing as we went, due to the heat we were generating from the effort. When we got to the top, and cleared the trees the very slight wind was enough to force us to immediately bundle back up. My friend who had been keeping a water-skin slung under his arm, pulled it out, took a drink and handed it to me. In that time (no more than 20 seconds) it had already turned to slush. We hurridly made some tea on a burner that I'd brought (note to those who might try this: making tea with mittens on is really quite hard), drank it with the leaves in and almost immediately headed back down for fear of cold-related injuries that would strand us. It was a wild night, but it didn't sink in just how dangerous it was until the next day when I saw a news report that someone had died on Mt. Washington that very night.

The Matrix: The Citizen Kane of Science Fiction?

I was browsing IMDB's Top 250 list today, and noticed that The Matrix is hovering at #28, directly above North By Northwest, It's a Wonderful Life and Citizen Kane, all three of which have been praised over and over again as some of the finest films of all time. This struck me as odd, but in thinking about it, I had to conclude that they were right.

At the time, it was easy to focus on The Matrix's Bullet Time and other special effects innovations. But, it was ultimately an incredibly well-made film on nearly every level, and not a collection of a few nice gimmicks. I remember coming out of the theater and being struck by the lighting, not something I notice in most films. In the best films, lighting is part of the story, and indeed this is the case with The Matrix. In every scene inside the matrix, the fill light (the lights that are used to reduce shadows in the foreground) is green. This casts a slight shroud of unreality on everything we see without actually having to tell us anything. Then, when we get to the real world, that same light is blue, giving everything a harsh and unadorned quality that highlights the nature of human existence in this post-apocalyptic world more effectively than all the Mad Max shoulderpads in the world.

The script takes on some unusual conventions as well. There are the Alice In Wonderland parallels, highlighted by a literal trip through the looking glass and Morpheus's speech which alludes to "the rabbit hole." This isn't the first movie to use an Alice In Wonderland reference, but it is, as far as I know, the first to use the metaphor of Alice's fantasy world for the real world into which a character emerges from their fantasy. The plot is full of these kinds of turnabouts on classic ideas. The savior anti-hero and the martial arts training montage where the classic "let it go" lesson is turned starkly literal are just two more examples among many. If comedy is the hardest thing to get right in a screenplay, then The Matrix shines again, here. Lines such as "I know Kung Fu," and "Guns, I need lots of guns," are just funny enough and just catchy enough that they have out-lasted the film's plot in terms of their impact on modern cultural jargon, but of course, the film's most memorable bit of humor is just a single word, "Whoa!" That one word has been so empowered by The Matrix that it has been used in everything from late night comedy to political satire and is often the one-word nod to the film in print and on the Web.

Then there's the acting. I have to say that there's little you can do with Reeves that would be more suited to his talents than The Matrix. He can carry off the role of confused and disbelieving hero better than anyone else. But when your main character is supposed to be a blank slate, the rest of the cast has to lead from behind, and that's no small task. While Fishburne does an incredible job as Morpheus, I was actually more struck by Joe Pantoliano as Cypher. He played the character so unlike anything in science fiction since Bill Paxton's Private Hudson that I couldn't help but be impressed. If anything, he played the role too well, calling attention to his character where he should have been allowed to fade into the background. Of course, Carrie-Anne Moss and Hugo Weaving are perfect for their roles (though seeing this just after Priscilla was, perhaps, not wise...) and the rest of the cast does as well as they can given their brief bursts of script.

There's one character in the film however, that has no actor and no lines. It's the matrix itself. If I had told you in 1998 that a blockbuster film would explain the concept of virtual reality and then explore its ramifications, I think I would have been laughed at. It would have been hard to imagine that a film would capture this difficult concept and present it in such a way that the general public could not only understand, but enjoy so completely. "Do you think that's air you're breathing," and "All I see now is blonde, brunette, redhead," are lines that instantly explain to the audience what science fiction books have often spent chapters on. It's difficult to over-state the achievement that this represents in terms of science fiction storytelling.

Is it the Citizen Kane of science fiction? Perhaps. Then again, The Dark Knight is at #6, which while I agree that it's a good film, was too poorly paced to deserve such accolades, in my opinion.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Free and Open Source Software: Why It Works

In a recent exchange on Slashdot I made the assertion that free software was possible because of the lack of manufacturing costs. I'd like to elaborate on this because it's critical to non-technical people understanding why free and open source software (FOSS) exist and why it's possible to do things in the software world that have comparisons only in the print publication world, and even then have economies of scale that cannot be compared.

In the 1970s, a man by the name of Richard Stallman decided that he had had enough of software that he couldn't modify. He was a brilliant "hacker" in the old MIT sense. He loved to tinker with software and hardware and make it do exactly what he needed, not what a manufacturer told him it should do. This kind of inventive tinkering was the heart of the electronics revolution of the two generations that preceded Mr. Stallman. It was nothing new, but something had changed. In the age of radio or aerospace, engineers could tinker on their own to a certain extent. Math has always been free and parts for many enthusiast projects related to electronics were within reach of the average person. Now, however, Richart Stallman and others of his peers were discovering that they could distribute the products that they developed to a world of collaborators and users without either having to manufacture anything or rely on the expertise of the recipient to reproduce results (e.g. to build their own electronics). Software could be moved electronically over networks that were comparatively cheap in relation to any other product and still retain its full utility without re-assembly.

At first, this process was still only applicable to savvy computer professionals. Software was often shipped in source code form to save space and improve portability, but as networks became faster and platforms more universal, these concerns dropped away. By the 1990s, free software was in use by many who had no technical understanding. The advent of the World Wide Web put these products in the hands of millions and allowed them to find them easily without retail distribution. Anyone using the Firefox browser is a testament to this.

There is another dimension as well. Companies began contributing to FOSS. Why? They all had their own reasons. Red Hat was founded on the distribution and support of FOSS as a business model, and what they found was that there was a large and lucrative market in giving software away for free and absorbing minimal manufacturing and distribution costs while providing optional support services. Even the costs involved in contributing to hundreds of these projects directly (and founding many) was not a barrier to their financial success because of the economies of scale.

Google, on the other hand, used FOSS for their infrastructure and found that contributing to these projects allowed them to develop software for their proprietary use more rapidly than their competition while creating large amounts of good well. Google Code is a tool used by Google and hundreds of developers to coordinate their efforts of FOSS. Similarly, IBM has used FOSS to leverage their vast stables of programmers and develop products as well as provide professional support services.

All of these companies contribute to FOSS because the costs that they save themselves and their competition do not dramatically impact anyone's bottom-line, and free them to consider their core competencies. It is because of the order of magnitude lower manufacturing and distribution costs of software, enabled by the Internet and earlier communications media, that have transformed this industry and continue to do so. Now that bandwidth costs have come down, even larger media are beginning to be impacted. Music and video sharing are a growing sign that the free software model may be ripe for those industries as well, which have only recently begun to seriously interact with electronic distribution.

Git, BitKeeper and the Power of Open Source

Update April 2012: The comparison page that I reference now just mentions "other SCM", but a side-bar continues to compare their product only to non-distributed, circa 1980s and 1990s offerings.

Back in the mists of 2002, debate ran hot in the Linux development community. The debate was over a proprietary source code management (SCM) tool called BitKeeper that was used as the primary SCM for the Linux Kernel. When a dispute with the vendor resulted in a schism between the Linux developer community and BitKeeper in 2005, the tool was dropped in favor of a replacement written by Linus Torvalds over a one-month period. To understand the importance of this achievement, understand that BitKeeper was written by eight developers over the course of three years and McVoy, its primary architect and original developer estimated that it would cost $12 million to do it again in an ordinary, non-startup company.

Instead, Torvalds sat down behind his keyboard and set out to replace it. How successful was he? If you look at BitKeeper's comparison page with other SCM tools today, you'll notice that it compares itself to many other tools (and makes quite a few rather large errors along the way), but none of them is git. In fact, none of the list are any of the next-generation tools that have followed in git's wake such as Bazzar or Mercurial. Why? Well, git is simpler, easier and better. It also happens to be radically faster. There's no point in comparing yourself with such a tool in public, since it's only going to make you look bad to say that the free tool is radically better.

McVoy also made the claim that a replacement for BitKeeper wouldn't be possible because it was too hard and programmers capable of doing the work wouldn't do it for free. Why is this? Well, it comes down to graph theory and its application to text revisions. Recognizing text differences is hard enough, but to extend that to maintaining a directed acyclic graph of revision histories and branches in a distributed way... well that's downright hard. Sure, it's hard, but then so is writing a POSIX-compatible kernel. The fact that there are now three excellent options out there for distributed source code management that excel at doing just what McVoy said would be impossible to reproduce should go a long way to demonstrating that free and open source software development is one of the most powerful new paradigms of engineering to come along since the invention of the functional specification.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Pictures of Flowers On the Way In To Work

Muscari latifolium or related species of blue flower
I've been wandering around taking some macro (that is: extreme closeup in photographerese) shots of flowers and other signs of spring on my way into work. This lovely blue flower for example is in a windowbox outside of a local pub in Cambridge. I think that these are from the Muscari genus, possibly Muscari latifolium. I really love its intense color and clustering, especially with the yellow out-of-focus flowers behind it for color contrast.

pink flowers on a tree by the side of the road in spring
From Nature
This one, on the other hand is just down the street from my house. The goal, here, was to try to capture a car driving by in the background with the flowers on this tree in the foreground. I think it worked out pretty well given the difficulty of timing it just right. This particular street, Prospect St in Somerville is just loaded with gorgeous flowering trees in the spring. It's really worth walking through the neighborhood if you love near Inman or Union Squares.

a yellow flower grows through a fence
From Nature
And then there's this gem. I spotted this poor, lonely flower growing behind a fence and it made me feel kind of sad for it. It looks like it's in jail. Anyway, I'll have to re-shoot this one if I get the chance, since it's the fence that I ended up focusing on, and really, I wanted the central part of the flower with the stamens to be in focus.

Swine Flu: Why Pork Isn't Your Problem

Because it can't be said enough, let me quote the WHO:

There is also no risk of infection from this virus from consumption of well-cooked pork and pork products. Individuals are advised to wash hands thoroughly with soap and water on a regular basis and should seek medical attention if they develop any symptoms of influenza-like illness.

That is, you do not need to be concerned about pork products. You need to be concerned about either a) pig farming in Mexico or b) interacting with humans. The latter is probably your larger concern, and rather unavoidable.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Quick thoughts on MSFT vs. APPL

I won't be the first person to point out that Apple has announced their best March quarter ever while Microsoft nearly simultaneously announced their first drop in profits for 23 years. It's the "I'm a PC," moment that Microsoft PR is going to be hard-pressed to spin positively. I blame Microsoft's end-user products which have been kicked in the teeth. Does anyone have a Zune? Yeah, XBox is growing, but Wii and PS3 still own the market in the U.S. and overseas, XBox is barely a competitor.

Update: A friend pointed out in the comments that I'm all wrong about the PS3! I mis-read my source info. In fact the XBox outsells the PS3 in the U.S. (the opposite being true in Japan, and I don't have numbers for other countries).

Interesting times...

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Caprica or How To Apologize To Your Fan Base

I just watched the DVD released pilot for Battlestar Galactica's prequel series, Caprica. Now, I have to get out of the way fairly quickly that I was disappointed with BSG's finale. It was a good conclusion to some of the story, but it left us wondering about some very serious details, and that felt kind of like a cop-out.

Caprica, however, is very nearly the opposite. It doesn't have a story yet, other than some history we've been told in BSG. It happens 58 years before the cylon attack on the colonies ("The Fall" as it's refered to in the opening of the pilot) and focuses pretty strongly on the creation of the "toaster" style cylons (the ones that look like they're from the original series). Where BSG's finale felt like a grudging conclusion with so much left unanswered, I think Caprica manages to answer more questions in its two hours than it asks (unusual for a pilot). By the end you will know something more about cylons, Capricans, Taurons, the Adamas (I'd consider using that name a spoiler if it weren't all over the previews SciFi has been showing), God, gods, and a great deal about the state of technology in the pre-Fall colonies.

Some things that struck me about the pilot include the increased discussion of both the monotheistic cylon religion and the polytheistic human religion. One character even attends a religious prep school based on Athena. There's some stark cultural lines too. Taurons, it turns out, are even more severly discriminated against than BSG hinted. They're called dirt eaters rather openly, and are widely assumed to be part of organized crime. The Taurons we see appear to have a combination of Eastern European Jewish and mid-20th century Italian culture with just a dash of what feels to me like late-20th century Irish. The Capricans, on the other hand are a very Western European, late 20th century urban culture. This makes for some excellent visual and cultural contrast that I'm sure will play out further in the series. Caprica itself appears to be at the cusp of decadence with the new generation of teens leading the way. This, in turn, gives the writers the opportunity to use the adults as a proxy for the viewer in being introduced to these new forms of decadence that are currently only underground.

Before I get into spoilers, let me sum up by saying that this is the DVD to buy. There are many scenes that simply can't be shown on TV, and will obviously have to be re-shot (probably were on day one) for television, so do see this version if you get the chance.

OK, now let's talk SPOILERS...

The central plot revolves around Zoe's creation of a lifelike avatar that's based on public and private records of her life, ranging from medical tests to news articles. This artificial intelligence appears to be unique, and while it's not said explicitly in the show, I think the suggestion here is akin to the mid-90s concept that AI isn't about programming, but a deeper emergent phenomenon that might require more physics than we currently have worked out to understand. That is, humans in Caprica haven't been able to create an AI, even given their very advanced computer tech. Zoe doesn't really create one either, we're told. She's just made a search engine that does a really great job of faking it. How true that is remains to be seen. Certainly the avatar Zoe seems to think she's quite real.

It's so good, in fact that it and a new fancy processor are the last steps required to create the first cylon. Just one problem: this cylon'd personality is a member of an obscure, fanatical religious sect that believes in one true god... oh and it's a teenage girl. In fact, there's a fascinating parallel to be made between Zoe-as-cylon and Cameron from Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Where that machine is a cold and calculating device that emulates a teenage girl on the outside, this cylon is a cold, hard metal Frankenstein's monster on the outside with the soul of a teenage girl. An interesting reversal that makes me wonder how conscious it was.

There are four organizations involved so far. We have the military-industrial complex represented by Graystone; law enforcement represented by Jordan Duram who is looking into the attack that killed Zoe; the religious fanatics are headed up by Zoe's former teacher; and finally, we have organized crime represented by the Adamas and their contacts with the Tauron Halafa. This web of power is likely to become the fulcrum on which the plot of the series pivots. I don't get the sense that the Soldiers of the One (the monotheist extremists) will be around all that long. Certainly, they're no longer an issue in BSG, and while it is now clear that they are where the cylons got monotheism from (remember BSG established that it was the centurions who brought monotheism to the them, but we never knew where the centurions got it), that loop has already been closed by Zoe. We'll see, but I'd like to think the plot will develop beyond BSG's monotheism-driven faction vs. polytheism-driven faction. Ideally I'd like to see a more nuanced story than that, and I think Moore's desire to make Caprica its own show will drive it in that direction.

So that's Caprica. Sadly we now have to wait an indefinitely long time for the actual series, but on the bright side, the pilot was actually good enough to make me anticipate that with some eagerness.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

How It Feels To See Your Art

The Las Vegas Strip in a stunning orange and red sunset
The Las Vegas Strip as seen from my hotel room at sunset
From Misc Photos

There are times that my life seems a tad surreal. Yesterday, I walked into a co-worker's office and was talking to him, not really thinking about what I was looking at. The large print he had leaning against his window was a stunning view of a Las Vegas sunset. I knew it well of course.

Wait... why did I know it well? Where had I seen it? As the picture clawed its way from the periphery of my attention into the light of conscious thought the answer became obvious: I had taken the picture myself. It was from a 2003 trip to Las Vegas that I took with my family. My partner and I had just fallen into our hotel room and I pulled back the curtain to catch the most fabulous sunset I'd ever seen. I rushed to get out my camera and took two photos in rapid succession. Thankfully the first of the two came out well, even though I'd used auto white-balancing. The second had a blue-cast and made the scene look flat and dull. Anyway, back to the office...

I was stunned. I asked how he'd gotten the image, and he told me that another of our co-workers had sent it to him. It was a feeling I never thought that I'd have. This was a confirmation of my work as an amateur photographer that couldn't be denied: at least one person in the world thought that it was not only worth paying money to have one of my photos printed, but he intended to hang it at home.

Of course, I can't really claim credit. The hotel put me in that room and I certainly didn't put the sunset there. As photos go it's decent, but today I know much more about how to use my camera, and the second shot clearly demonstrated that the results I got only happened to be so stunning. Still, I felt a sense of pride and accomplishment that I've only ever felt with respect to my software development in the past. It was a great feeling, and perhaps one I'll have to work at finding again.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Star Trek Midnight Showing

My review of Star Trek appeared later on this site.

Star Trek (official site) is coming out on May 7, 2009 which is a Thursday. I assume that this means that local theater chains will have showings at midnight on Wednesday night, so I'll probably go to those to (a) be with the geek crowd and (b) avoid the extra-young kiddies.
From what I've heard, this is sort of a reboot of the Trek franchise that respects the existing continuity when it starts, though it may not continue to do so by the time it's over. More than that I can't say, but if you're a long-time Trek fan, that's probably enough to see where they're likely to go with it. Every single review that I've seen so far has been glowingly positive, but it's entirely possible that this is from reviewers who have signed agreements to only present positive reviews prior to release. The real acid test will be the reviews that come out after I'll be seeing it, anyway.
So far, though, I trust Abrams on this. He's delivered one thing throughout his career: truly outstanding openings to new material. The first few episodes of LOST and Alias where brilliant, and while I think both shows fell down on the execution long-term, a movie doesn't have to execute long-term, it just needs to open, introduce, deliver and end. This is really his medium, far more so than TV, IMHO.
One thing that has worried me, though, is the trailers. Every trailer I've seen appears to be an attempt to alienate the existing fan-base ("Not... Your... Father's... Star Trek" flashes over the most recent TV spots). Now, I understand that the whole point, here, is to de-niche Star Trek and make it a box-office powerhouse with the 18-35 crowd again. That's a fine thing to do, but the ads didn't have to push quite so hard on the "young and angry" buttons, nor call out existing Trek as something to avoid (especially given that the most recent example, the final season of Enterprise was some of the finest Trek to date, though a sad way to end a short-lived series that had otherwise failed to deliver).
Anyway, I'll be there, ticket in hand. I'll follow through one more time, but Paramount: this is the one. You need to deliver. If this isn't the best Trek since at least Star Trek IV, an awful lot of us aren't coming back for the next one.

(note: image made available by Paramount and not distributed under this site's licensing. Used for illustrative purposes only).

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Pruning the Grapes

a backlit closeup of a grape from the vine in my driveway
Backlit closeup of a grape
From Nature

So it's that time of year, again. Time to prune the grape vine and make ready for another year of delicious green concord grapes which magically ripen on September first exactly. This year, perhaps I'll even manage to do something more than just bring them into the office. Wine is still a bit out of my league, but I suppose I could make jam or jelly.

My neighbor is a wonderful Portuguese auto mechanic who offers, every year, to trim the vines for me. I'm not sure if he does so because he just enjoys it, or if he just can't bare to see the vines left un-pruned.

Anyway, I have to go. Just wanted to share my thoughts on this beautiful spring day. The photo is from last year, taken with my point-and-shoot SD1000 in digital macro mode.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Joss Whedon accepts Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard Award

Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Dr. Horrible and Dollhouse, tonight, accepted The Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University's "Cultural Humanism Award," otherwise known as the Rushdie Award in honor of its first recipient, Sir Salman Rushdie. The event was a mix of rather awkwardly inappropriate fan-gushing and serious Humanist introspection on the nature of morality in a post-religious world. Statistics were touted (1 Billion non-religious people in the world, increasing percentages of non-religious people in every U.S. state over the last 10 years, etc.); clips were shown from Whedon's work; and a rather lovely award satue was given.
Most interestingly, however, was Whedon's acceptance speech. In it, he called for an acceptance of religion by the non-religious. He observed that religious faith required believing in something which cannot be proven to exist. Humanism, on the other hand, relies on an optimism about human nature for which a great deal of evidence to the contrary exists.
Whedon believes that religion is not, in fact, the origin of morality, but rather morality is the origin of religion. Mysticism was a way to explain and enshrine a moral code which is fundamental to humanity, and thus cannot be abandoned simply by stepping outside of the context of organized religion.
Humor abounded as well. "Who Wants To Be Pope," Whedon joked, should be a new reality show on Fox, creating a franchise of Popedom rather than a pseudo-monarchy.
When questions began, the first four were from Harvard students who had been pre-selected, each rolling a clip from Whedon's work to introduce their question. Angel discussing his reasons for continuing to be a champion, regardless of a lack of "higher power" guiding his hand; Wash and Mal discussing faith in human nature from Firefly; and finally a compilation on River Tam and Buffy Summers fight scenes to introduce the evenings first off-context question: "who wins, Buffy or River?" The audience voted for River.
The evening was fascinating, but I wish the fan-boy crowd hadn't dove forward to ask random questions about his shows. I would have enjoyed getting up to ask one of my own: "what is the role of humor in Humanism." I think the answer would have involved more discussion of Buddhism, but I'd have enjoyed hearing a master of comedic writing discuss the topic.
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Monday, April 6, 2009

Legends of Zork: Kingdom of Loathing with better art?

I've been playing Legends of Zork this weekend (Deepone is my level 3 character) and it feels an awful lot like Kingdom of Loathing without as many puns or beer jokes. Still, it has fun art, a really interesting skill mechanic and plenty of time sinks. Good gaming all around.

If you're interested in trying it, I'd suggest that you pay close attention to the following details:

  • Your "Attitude Stance" is tied to your skills, and you only get one talent point per level, so select skills that match the stance you use (you select this when you start and can change it at the character screen by clicking on your character's name).
  • Skill points can be spent at a base by clicking on "Skill Training." Notice that some advanced skills have perquisites from other areas of the skill tree. This means you need to plan out your skill buys early.
  • Focus on magic or physical combat at first. Don't try to be good at both (buy spells or weapons/armor, not both). I tried the other way around and learned not to.
  • If you find you're taking 3+ hit points of damage in a single fight around levels 1-10, you need to get more defense.
  • Any time you get a card, make sure you equip it the next time you're in town by clicking the "Cards" link.
Have fun, and I'll see you in the game.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Evolution: Theories and Fact

This article originally appeared on the AJS.COM Wiki, and then was moved to the old essays blog, but this issue continues to come up over and over, so it seems this is still relevant, sadly.

Theories and facts are often misunderstood and the terms misused in the debate over the validity of scientific knowledge in our society. Probably the best known example of this was in the debate over Intelligent Design that spilled over into the Federal Court System in the United States in the form of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, a case that pitted eleven parents of Dover, Pennsylvania students against the Dover Area School District and many organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union. In this case, the parents wanted the school board to require this phrase to be read aloud in biology classes:
Because Darwin's Theory is a theory, it is still being tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact.
Now, at first glance, this repetition seems to make sense. A "theory is a theory"... certainly that seems reasonable. Then we say that it's "still being tested as new evidence is discovered," and certainly we can turn on the Discovery Channel to observe the truth of this. "The Theory is not a fact," is where the train comes off the tracks, as it were. It sounds reasonable at first glance, but it's not. It's a subtly incorrect usage of the word "fact" that leads the incautious reader to a false conclusion.

What's a fact?
At the core of the confusion is the word "fact." A fact is an observable piece of information which is not readily contradicted. As an example, I'd like to choose a particularly interesting fact: the sky is blue.
Look out your window on a clear day, and you can easily confirm this fact. The sky is actually a lovely shade of "sky blue" that has been praised in painting and poetry alike for thousands of years. It's also misleading and arguably wrong, but that doesn't mean that it's not a fact.
Wait... the sky isn't blue? Well, no. The sky is made up of essentially colorless gases which only look blue because of the way light refracts through it and reflects off of sub-micron particles suspended in it. This can be explained by the electromagnetic wave theory's model of the propagation of light, and the special cases of that theory that comprise what we call "optics". This tells us how light that is comprised of the full spectrum (such as sunlight) can appear to come from all directions and have a blue color when passing through an atmosphere such as ours which is composed of certain types of gasses with certain particles suspended in it.
So the fact that the sky is blue is actually less useful to us than the theory of optics which builds on and explains many facts.

What's a Theory?
When I say, "I've got a theory," in casual conversation, what I mean is that I have guessed at something.
In science, the word theory means something very different. In order to understand that, we have to explore the scientific method:
  • Observe a phenomenon
  • Produce a hypothesis that both explains the phenomenon and makes testable predictions
  • Test the predictions of the hypothesis
  • If the test failed to match the predictions, revise the hypothesis and continue
This is a fairly basic summary of the scientific method, and you can see that we call our initial guess a "hypothesis." That is because our explanation does not become a theory in science until it has passed through this process many times and has been confirmed each time. Any failure to confirm a theory is a drastic blow against that theory's credibility, and typically results in the revision or discarding of the theory. For larger, more encompassing theories, you might test each prediction seperately, and what confirmation or failure means for each, individual test is hard to generalize about.
For example, relativity is Albert Einstein's theory that suggests that we can understand the nature of the universe more accurately than physics was able to previous to 1905 by assuming that a great many (perhaps all) interactions in the universe are bounded by their relative frames of reference, rather than by some absolute frame of reference. What most lay people today do not understand about relativity is just how shocking and controversial it was at the time. It explained a great deal of the confusing observations that had been made, but most scientists didn't accept relativity until literally dozens of experiments had been conducted that confirmed many of its predictions about the way the universe behaves. Even today, people devise new experiments to test the limits of its predictions, and it's known to be wrong under certain special cases where quantum mechanics takes over (specifically, when you're dealing with the very, very small).
However, when we say "relativity is a theory" and that it's "still being tested," that couldn't mean anything further from the idea that it's not a very, very well established element of our body of scientific knowledge. At the very least, we know that it accurately describes elements of how everything of the universe that we can see and interact with behaves. That's no small accomplishment.

So now, we come to evolution. Is it "just a theory"? Is it a fact? That's a bit hard to answer only because evolution is such a broad category. It's a bit like saying "particle physics is a theory." In reality, evolution is the culmination of many theories and areas of discipline. Let's break it down from the parts that are very well established to those that are broader speculations about the history of species:

Natural Selection
This is the idea that when a species is poorly adapted to its environment, it dies off while more adapted species live and continue to reproduce. This process produces, for example, antibiotic-resistant strains of bacterial disease, as can be observed in modern news. There's no real doubt that natural selection happens, as it's been observed in the fossil record and in the modern world. It's really more of a mechanism than a theory, but it's a good point to start.

Common Descent
Here is where we come into direct conflict with the doctrines of many religions, but interestingly, this is also one of the least controversial ideas. Essentially common descent is a theory of the origin of all of the species in our world and suggests that they all have a common ancestor. This seems counter-intuitive at first because the idea that a duck and a human have a common ancestor has no basis in our experience. My father and his father and his father's father were all humans. To imagine that there's a point in that chain where one of those anscestors is something other than human is quite hard to picture. After all, how could a duck give birth to a human?
In fact, when seen over the long-term the idea that the huge variety of species on our world would have common ancestors is not terribly hard to believe, just because there's so much time involved. There's also tremendous evidence for this that Darwin couldn't forsee, but which his theories predicted. For example, he didn't even know what the mechanism of the passing on of traits was, but when genetic material was discovered, it immediately confirmed everything that Darwin had predicted! All species, no matter how different looking, had similar genetic structure and their genetics clearly implied a process of descent from one species to the next. In fact, now we can measure the distance in time between two modern species and their nearest ancestor fairly accurately, and when we do we find that the fossil record agrees with such measures.

Speciation is the process by which new species appear and is the underpinning of common descent. It can happen in a number of ways. What's interesting here, is that there's still significant debate over how speciation occurs in nature. Does it happen slowly and incrementally, or is it mostly a static process with sudden change happening over a small number of thousand or even hundred years? We don't know for sure, since all we have at our disposal are fossils, and those only tell us what was around at a fixed point in time, not how that species changed over the course of a few hundred thousand years.
So speciation as a process is well documented, but the mechanics are still being worked out in detail.

So, just from these few examples of the elements of modern evolutionary science, you can see that there's no easy way to describe the field in a short "true or false," "theory or fact" way. Instead, we must look at each part and determine how the weight of over a century of evidence has refined our concepts of evolution and what that means about the stability of our scientific understanding.

In conclusion: Evolution is not a fact
So the statement was, "the theory is not a fact." I think that now the astute reader will have grasped why this is both true and fundamentally misleading. No scientific theory is a fact. They are scientific theories and that implies that they are both not obviously true like a fact and also very rigorously tested and refined from their starting points as simple speculations that predict testable results to established parts of our scientific body of knowledge.
Many people become frustrated when they try to propose an alternative to a scientific theory and no one wants to listen or take them seriously. Though there is certainly elitism in the scientific community, as with any community, it's important to realize that this isn't what's going on here. What's really happening is that the new idea is bouncing up against the weight of dozens and often hundreds of the smartest skeptics on the planet who tried and failed to tear down this theory before it became well established. There's going to be some resistance to new attempts to do the same on a large scale. Sometimes it happens. Sometimes you'll see an Einstein turn a field on its ear, but it's very rare and always meets with rigorous debate and experimentation before it's accepted.
Now, I'm not going to go into the politics. I don't really think that either the religious zealots or the anti-religious zealots are right, here. I think that there's value in having the discussion, and that's what's important, so the politics be damned; I just hope that there's a kid in high school who's being made curious by the debate and decides to look into the details on his or her own. To them I say: congratulations, you've learned what education is really all about.
Links to look into:

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Perl 6: Why So Long?

Over the years, many people have asked me when Perl 6 is going to happen. Now, I've only been peripherally involved, and I don't think I can speak for any of the current developers, but here's my take. First off, comparing development times of Perl 6 to, say, Python 3 (ne Python 3000) is entirely spurious. Python and Perl 5 relate to Perl 6 in roughly the way that classic Lisp 1.5 relates to Common Lisp. That is to say, Python and Python 3 are essentially the same language and exist at essentially the same order of complexity. In fact, they exist at about the same order of complexity as Perl 5, Ruby, PHP and many other high level languages.

Perl 6, meanwhile, is a massively ambitious effort that aims to meld the best features of nearly every style of language design into a single language. This means that the language must be able to represent programs as data (in order to implement true macros); it must provide a meta-object protocol (in order to support Ruby-style mixins and Smalltalk-style traits); it must implement function overloading (C++-style calling) and multi-method dispatch (CLOS-style methods) while also providing interface contracts (like Java) and generics (C++ at the low-level, Haskell at the high level); and it should provide native threading and parallel execution (ala Fortress). Now, take a language that has all of these features, and yet still manages to be familiar to a C-derived language programmer and also allow programs full access to the definition of the language at run-time in order to support multiple Common Lisp style domain-specific languages within a single program. To my knowledge no other language has ever taken on all of these goals and managed to get very far.

OK, so that's the excuse. What's the reality? Hmm... I'd say that Perl 6 is probably closing in on its .0 release within the next 2-3 years. Realistically, it probably would have taken a team of dedicated programmers who knew the finer points of self-hosted language design a couple of years to accomplish the Perl 6 design and implementation, given a clear idea of what they wanted from the onset. Perhaps a bit longer, but not much. As it was, many of the Perl developers have other things to do and Larry had some time that he wasn't able to do much for personal reasons in the middle of the whole thing. All of that combined with the fact that the Perl community was never entirely sure what the end-goal would be, and much of the design process has been a journey of discovery and... well, 10-12 years isn't a surprising number.

These days, there's an STD that describes the grammar and a fairly solid set of specs. That's a big improvement. There's also a virtual machine for running the language that's reached 1.0 status and deployed what can arguably be called the most advanced compiler-writing toolkit ever written. Again, a huge leg up.

That in turn has enabled the creation of a new prototype of the language that uses said virtual machine, taking a large portion of the burden of implementation off of the Perl 6 team, and the result has been a flood of development on the prototype, which has overtaken that of previous efforts in only a little over a year.

In the end, if you thought that Perl 6 was going to be Perl 5 with a few changes, you're in for a shock. If you thought that Perl 6 was basically a dead project because it has taken almost 10 years so far, then you're not aware of the history of such language design (the Common Lisp design and implementation process took nearly as long with DARPA and many commercial Lisp organizations backing it).

As we enter the final stretch and Perl 6 begins to become a platform upon which real work can be done, I just wanted to remind everyone that, while simpler languages (and I mean that in a non-pejorative way) rise and fall, there are some things that are worth waiting for.

Repost: World of Warcraft: Guide to Leveling Skinning to 350 for Wrath

This article originally appeared on the old essays site, but has been re-posted here, as I think it's still relevant and useful.

Last night, my hunter dropped enchanting and switched to skinning in order to help level his leatherworking through Wrath of the Lich King. I figured I'd just do some of the skinning required and then get back to it later in the week, but it was so fast that I finished it all in two hours. Here's how I did it. (note: I'm Horde, but at the end I give some notes for Alliance players to use this guide also)

Before you start

First of all, this is a guide for a level 70+. While you could start this at nearly any level, some of it really does require that you be at least 65, and better to be 70 since there are level 60 dungeons involved that you'll need to solo.

Also, I'm horde, so your mileage may vary if you're alliance, though you could go to all of these areas (it's just less convenient). To prepare, you really do want to be bount in Shattrath or Dalaran (unless you're a mage and can easily flit around from city to city).

Near Undercity and SFK

OK, so to start, get the training for apprentice skinning and get yourself to Brill, outside of Undercity. Kill the dogs and bats around that area until you get to 50. The trainer is between Brill and Undercity, on the road that leads to the Bulwark. Go train at 50 and go back to the dogs until you start skipping skillups (this is the pattern throughout: you go to an area until you need to train or you start getting less frequent skillups). At around 90-100 skill, you'll want to move on to Silverpine Forest to the southwest. Go all the way past the Sepulcher to the werewolves and wolves between the Greymane Wall and Pyrewood Village. These can all be skinned, and if it's night Pyrewood village is full of mobs that can be skinned (during the day, they're human). Once you get to 105, dash up to Shadowfang Keep and slaughter everything until you get to 150.

RFK and Feralas

Welcome to your next training level. Go train in Orgrimmar and then fly to Camp Taurajo and run south to the entrace of Razorfen Kraul. Enter the dungeon and take your first right and then a left off the ledge. You should be able to pass most or all of the Quillboar, but kill them if you have to, then get down into the area with the boars. Kill all of the boars and skin them. it's a long path that turns left at the end. Once you've wiped them out, leave the instance and reset it (right click on your unit frame and select "Reset all instances") and then do it one more time. You should be at or near 225 by now, so leave the instance and head to Feralas on foot (through Thousand Needles). Don't bother flying.

Go to Camp Mojache if you need to sell/mail items off. If you have not yet hit 225 skinning, then you can kill a few wolves and bears near the Thousand Needles border. These should be at the limit of your skinning ability. Once you hit 224, train in Mojache and continue to skin the bears and wolves near the camp until you start to green out. At that point, go sell to free up inventory and then on to the Dire Maul area to the west and then travel south to find the Hippogryphs. Skin these until you start to green out and then head into Dire Maul to the north.

Outside of Dire Maul, kill and skin the patrols of dogs until you hit 290 (you should already be quite close to this) and then go into the northern most entrance from the large courtyard. This takes you directly into Dire Maul North. If you take the western of the two doors along the north wall you will come in directly above a pit area with a boss and several packs of non-elite dogs. You will have to kill the packs of dogs in groups since they all come when one is pulled. If you're not an AoE class, this might take some time, but you'll get through it. Kill them and skin them until you hit 300.

Outland: All Hellfire, All the Time

Now that you've hit 300, go to Outland and train in Thrallmar, sell whatever you need to and leave Thrallmar and go east to the hellboars outside. The red-skinned hellboars are skinnable at your level. Skin them until you start to green out (which happens quite fast) and then go to Razorthorn Trail which is at the very southern edge of the rampart wall that divides the zone down the middle. There are ravagers in this area which you can kill and skin until you hit 350. You just want to march up and down the path. I ended up killing ravagers on one side going up and on the other side going back down, which worked out well, since anyone who was leveling in the area could keep to the other side and not be bothered by me.

Grand Master training

Now you're able to train Grand Master Skinning in Dalaran or Vengence Landing to begin in Northrend. Welcome to the two-hour 350 mark! From here, if you're level 70 you can just skin as you level. If you're 80 already, then you'll have to wait for my Wrath skinning guide...

For the Alliance

Alliance characters can probably substitute Loch Modan for Silverpine Forest and then go to SFK after. Everything else pretty much maps to the Alliance except for where they train in Feralas.