Thursday, January 24, 2008

Your Picture Frame is Infected

It was only a scant few years ago that the notion of a picture frame getting infected with a computer virus would have been met with a glassy stare...

Best Buy issues security warning on Insignia digital picture frames

Kickouts 0801240802

Kickouts, Reddit link within [...].

Rock Star Coders: Fame, Ego, Phenomenal Talent, Single-minded Passion, Brilliance to the Point of Self-Destruction, Absurd Employment Terms and Crazed Groupies [programming] (computerworld.com)

Mathematical Modeling of Snowflakes [science] (news.ucdavis.edu)

Isn’t it interesting that many of the newest languages and trends are "mathy"? [programming] (smoothspan.wordpress.com)

Reagan Changed Conservatism and the Nation--Like It or Not. Obama Poised to do the same for Liberalism? Like It or Not? [politics] (theaustralian.news.com.au)

The dark side of space disaster theories [science] (thespacereview.com)

Kickout a Reddit Rant

I periodically submit interesting links I find to Reddit, most often in the programming or science subreddits. These are usually quickly downvoted into oblivion :-) While some of the links are admittedly a little off what I take to be the mainstream of interest there, I think that horizons ought to be expanded and that some of these submissions help in that area. I understand that some of the downvoting occurs for tactical, albeit selfish, reasons on the "New" pages, but I really don't understand why subsequent downvotes occur on stories that are right smack dab in the middle of the subreddit's subject matter.

A link I submitted from The Planetary Society containing a science professional's first thoughts on the first pictures the MESSENGER probe sent back from Mercury is a good example. As of the time I'm writing this the submission had 26 points, from 43 upvotes and 17 downvotes. 17 downvotes?? In the science subreddit?? This is about Mercury, the first pictures of it taken in 30 years, including photos of areas of the planet that have never before been seen! Other than the initial "tactical" downvotes, how can anybody in the science subreddit rationalize downvoting this? If someone isn't interested in astronomy or planetary geology, that's fine, ignore the submission. I don't go around downvoting biology or psychology submissions just because I'm not interested in the subject matter, there are probably others that are interested in those fields, and science is a pretty broad subject area.

There's no point in ranting about this on reddit itself, which others have already done, and my rant would almost certainly get downvoted anyway :-)

So, since I do have a blog there are two things I can do:
  1. Rant it about here.
  2. Introduce "Kickouts", which are simply the links I submit to Reddit that will more often than not get downvoted away.
Kickouts will be links to various articles and posts that I found interesting enough to submit to Reddit, the purpose being to keep them visible here, regardless of their lifespan there.

The next post will contain the inaugural set. Enjoy!

Monday, January 21, 2008

Software Development in the Mines of Moria

The majority of the projects I've worked on during my nearly 25 year long career have a lot in common with the Mines of Moria. That is, they're vast edifices of architecture and detailed design; great effort, valor, and skill were expended to bring them into being; and much wealth was extracted during their lifetime of construction and operation.


Sometimes the projects are still active, with a small group of developers fixing bugs, improving performance, or adding new features. And sometimes they're pretty moribund, with me being the only active developer in the midst of a very large code base. I'm "cursed with competence" in this aspect, in that I've got a track record of being able to be dropped onto a project that needs something fixed or added, and learning enough of it quickly enough to make the needed changes or additions. (Now I've also handled some clean-sheet projects from the beginning, so that breadth of architectural and design experience has given me the experience I leverage when diving into another project's code base.)

The one characteristic all these "Moria" projects have in common is that at the time of their development, they were always developed using the 'hot technologies' of their day. And these go back awhile, so I dealt with a variety of technologies on these projects: Pascal, Ada, Windows NT, C++, Java, CORBA, UML 1.x, Coad/Yourdon, Rumbaugh's OMT, DEC Alphas, and others.

And while these were on the cutting edge back in their day, they're not now.

So it doesn't take a Gartner Group study to foresee that the projects being developed today with the latest and greatest technologies are also going to eventually turn into Moria projects, at least those that aren't discarded at some point. And be aware, something that's old, but still works and brings in revenue, is going to be kept around, no matter how crusty its implementation and how obsolete its technology.

This realization eventually leads one to becoming rather skeptical of whatever latest and greatest technology is being touted at any given time.You can understand why senior developers don't get excited over most new technologies, because time and time again whatever was hot and manages to achieve widespread success passes though the phases of becoming mainstream, then pervasive, then over-encumbered, disdained, and finally dismissed.

It's not necessarily a fear of change or the unknown, or a lessening ability to learn, that nudges software developers towards sticking with what they know as they get older, i.e. more experienced. Seeing one killer technology/language/methodology after another fall by the wayside of their career path, year after year, tends to encourage senior developers to stick with what they've seen to be proven approaches to successful software development.

It's certainly important to remain aware of the progress that is being made in the software development field, because genuine advancements in the practice do occur. In fact, those established, proven software technologies of the experienced developer were at one time themselves experimental, state of the art hot technologies.

Some developers do always want to be on the cutting edge of software technology, they find learning and experimenting and pushing the envelope interesting and challenging. And that's great, it's these developers that do the initial shakeout of the technologies, do the initial cut to identify the candidates for eventual mainstream use. Other developers like to wait for that shakeout to occur before buying in, they're the ones who are going to put in the big commitments to do the big projects, knowing full well that new programming languages, methodologies, and tools are going to eventually supersede what they've done and how they did it. Doing something big, and doing it well, is what they're looking to accomplish, and that requires relying on proven tools and techniques that can handle the load.

In time of course the big project is done, deployed, maintained, and sometimes gradually, sometimes precipitously, evolves into a Moria project. The budget is reduced, the releases become fewer and more infrequent, and the magnitude of new functionality in each new release declines. The project still has value to its users and customers, and so keeping some lights on in the Mines is justified. And for those of us who find "software spelunking" and "software archeology" interesting, and have the experience with these technologies that used to be famous, it's not a bad way to make a living.

An 'ice Day on Mount St. Helens

I always check the Mount St. Helens VolcanoCam at least once a day. I figure I'll catch an eruption sooner or later. In the meantime, one sometimes gets lucky and happens on a cool pic.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

"Honey, the project lead's been arrested..."

Software projects can get derailed for a variety of reasons, but the project lead's murder trial is one you don't run across too often.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Back to Some Plain Ol' Science Fiction...

I picked up Alistair Reynolds' Pushing Ice over the holidays and just started reading it the other night. And I mean just started reading it. Two chapters in it struck me that this is the first SF book I've cracked open in quite awhile.

The non-SF string started with Gene Wolfe's Latro In The Mist, which was sort of an historical SF book. I normally like Wolfe's stuff, but this one didn't really engage me. I think it had to do with the storytelling device, that of Latro authoring the tale and dealing with his injury-caused limited short-term memory, i.e. he can remember stuff that happened a long time ago, and only that which he experienced in the past few hours, so he constantly finds himself not quite knowing where he's at, or why he's in the situation that he's in. And unfortunately, sometimes neither did I.

I then read the entire Chronicles of Narnia for the first time. I'd read a comic book serialization in my Sunday school paper over the course of a year back when I was a child and of course saw The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe movie. I knew it was a work of children's literature, with deeper content that adult readers pick up on, but I didn't really grasp that it was children's literature, written in that particular style. Nothing wrong with that, and I did enjoy it, but that style doesn't really engage me too deeply. That said though, there were some scenes in the books that were extraordinarily well-written and engrossing, regardless of one's age. (Plus, I discovered that the phrase "sucks to be him" goes back to at least the early 50s in England :-)

Then over the holidays I also watched the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy.

And then finally wrapped it all up by reading the final Harry Potter book, Deathly Hollows, which was quite satisfying.

So after all that, I think I'm ready to get back to some spaceships, alien artifacts, and death by explosive decompression.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Intelligent Design Could Be as Robust as Darwinian Evolution - If the Evidence and Theory is There

In November 2007 PBS broadcast a Nova special called "Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial", which covered a 2006 lawsuit brought against the Dover, PA school board over their requiring a disclaimer be read in biology classes stating that "there is an alternative to Darwin's theory of evolution" and that an alternative biology textbook, Of Pandas and People, was available in the school library for those who wanted to explore an Intelligent Design based explanation of the origin and development of life. The school's science teachers objected to the school board's actions and filed a lawsuit on the grounds that Intelligent Design (ID) was not science, and that this was an unconstitutional intrusion of religion into the public schools.

I found this program very compelling, and couldn't help but notice that for the first time in my life I was actually finding biology interesting. The subject never did much for me in high school or the couple required courses I had to take in college, I've always been far more interested in software and "inanimate" science and technologies :-)

I'm not going to talk about the "religion in the classroom" angle, that's a whole 'nother contentious set of blog posts. Instead I'm going to look at the argument that was being made regarding the "scientific-ness" of ID and how that bears on what is taught in the classroom.

Now I try very hard to be meticulously fair and even-handed when I get into contentious matters like this. I rarely find an anti-evolution or anti-creationism site that can restrain themselves from making snarky comments, or much, much worse, about their opponents. Such childishness accomplishes nothing. I try to fairly present each side, in terms their proponents would find acceptable, and then look at the conflict between them. And therefore I'm also very sensitive to any kind of unwarranted disparagement, strawman, or ad hominen attacks and arguments being made by one, the other, or both.

In "Judgment Day" I was quite pleased to see that no significant instances of any such comments were broadcast. I don't know if any were made by those interviewed, but what got on the air appeared scrupulously objective, no doubt significantly aided by the producer's decision to rely heavily on the trial transcript and the judge's final decision for the show's content.

Now to the science. I'm going to try to summarize what I understood to be the "scientific-ness" approach of the plaintiffs (those who brought the suit).

Science, as it's generally understood by scientists rests on two foundations: facts, and theories.

"Facts" are the physical entities and behaviors of the components of the universe. Facts are the "what is" of the universe, the objective, physical reality. Facts can be discovered, measured, observed (sometimes requiring specific tools), and appear and act the same to any observer. Some facts are not physical entities, but are instead relationships, which can be captured as laws, e.g. F = ma and E = mc2.

"Theory" is an explanation of facts. An explanation of why things are the way they are, why the laws operate the way they operate. A theory is the underlying explanation for the reality and behavior that we observe. To be accepted as a scientific theory that theory must build off the facts, logically and rationally explain the interrelationships amongst them, and be able to make predictions about more facts and behaviors that ought to exist, but have not yet been discovered. By its very definition a theory cannot contradict facts--it may not have an explanation for all the relevant facts, but ideally further refinement of the theory--the explanation--will incorporate those facts as more is learned. (The meaning of "theory" in the collequial phrase "It's just a theory" has little in common with its industrial-strength meaning in the sciences.)

In science classes such as physics and chemistry no one questions that the only facts and theories that are taught are those that are built on this rock-solid foundation of scientific facts and theories.

Biology is no less such a science and therefore only equally solidly supported facts and theories should be taught within its classes. And this is where the conflict between evolution and Intelligent Design arises.

First off, most everyone agrees on the raw facts of biology: Life exists, fossils exist, DNA exists, living beings pass on traits to their offspring, genetic combinations and mutations occur during the inheritance process. There are structural similiarities, both gross and fine, amongst different families and species of plants and animals, there are similarities in the composition of genes amongst different plant and animal species.

Chimpanzees and orangutans show a lot of physical and genetic similarities.




























Oaks and okapis not so much. (Yet they're both made up of cells, employ the same "life processes", and the form and growth of both is controlled by DNA.)



















It's when it comes to explaining these biological facts--how they originated, why they are the way they are--that evolution and ID provide significantly different explanations.

Darwinian Evolution is a detailed theory based on "natural selection". In a nutshell it is summarized as "the accumulation of changes through succeeding generations of organisms that results in the emergence of new species".

The Intelligent Design theory "holds that certain features of the universe and living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, and are not the result of an undirected, chance-based process such as Darwinian evolution".

The core of the scientific aspect of the Dover lawsuit was examining how well the theory of evolution explains the presence and behavior of the biological facts, versus ID's explanations of those same facts.

What the scientific testimony at the trial revealed was that the theory of evolution provides a rigorous, accurate, and testable explanation of biological facts, meeting the same standard as those theories that are taught in physics and chemistry classes. In short, that "life on Earth today acts exactly as if evolution were true".

The ID arguments, as presented in the trial, could not supply the same rigorous explanations of observed biological processes. This is not an assertion that Intelligent Design is wrong, but simply that its tenets could not meet the high standards of evidence and explanation that are met by evolution (as well as the "hard" sciences).

The Intelligent Design proponents conceded as much, stating in an amicus curiae brief filed with the court that "the current formulation of intelligent design theory," "...is still in its youth.... For that very reason it is premature to conclude that one side has triumphed and the other has lost." "[This] brief makes no scientific argument at all, and gives no indication of where the court might look to find a scientific argument."

Similarly, that there are "holes" and "gaps" in evolutionary theory gives no reasonable cause for asserting that such deficiencies undermine the theory, in fact, pursuing the closing of such openings in a scientific endeavour often drives the very advance of scientific progress. That there are aspects of biology that evolution doesn't yet explain in no way constitutes proof for an alternate explanation of biological origins, such a claim is an example of a false dichotomy, identified as such by Judge Jones in his decision.

Those wanting to present Intelligent Design within a science-based biology class admitted, as noted above, that the theory did not meet accepted scientific standards, and that therefore "the ground rules of science must be changed". Altered to include "supernatural causation of the natural world", which forced Intelligent Design expert Michael Behe to concede that "his broadened definition of science, which encompasses ID, would also embrace astrology". (All quotes in this paragraph from the judge's decision, emphasis added.)

Judge John E. Jones, III (recommended for the bench by former PA senator Rick Santorum (R) and appointed by President Bush) decided on the evidence and merits of the case that on the "question of whether ID is science, [...] it is not". And that due to its religious couplings, it was unconstitutional to teach ID in a science class in the public school.

Nova's presentation of this case covered both the scientific and religious aspects of the lawsuit, and did an excellent job filling out the scientific context for the arguments that were made at trial. (It also handled the religious/community aspects well, but like I said, I'm not going to get into that here.) The explanations, illustrations, examples, and arguments regarding the science of evolution and ID's claims to science were quite clear and easy to follow. Not least because the judge himself needed a full understanding of the biological underpinnings of the science aspect of the case: "We'll take a lunch break now. I might be inclined to say class dismissed for the morning."

The bottom line regarding scientific evidence for evolution by natural selection and the lack of same for Intelligent Design is simply that ID does not yet stand up to the rigor of the accepted scientific method. This does not mean that ID is false, simply that it is not scientific, it is "not science", as Judge Jones ruled. The methods that have been used by science over several centuries now have unequivocally led to the multitude of successful advances of human knowledge and technology that we have today. Advocating a liberalizing of these methods, of "changing the ground rules" of science merely to justify putting ID on the same apparent footing as evolution is hardly a way to advance our technology and understanding of the universe.

There is nothing inherently preventing ID proponents from developing ID theory to the same robust level of Darwinian evolutionary theory if the evidence and theory is there. But simply finding fault with an overwhelmingly well supported and explanatory theory is not going to do it. In fact, finding legitimate deficiencies will likely aid the development of evolutionary theory as such "holes" help focus efforts on understanding those deficiencies by finding more evidence and improving the theory to address them.

-------------------------------

I would strongly encourage people to read Judge Jones' decision (pdf) in this case. I read every line of it, all 139 pages. And actually, since it's double-spaced and employs a rather large font, it really doesn't take that long to read. I read the whole thing in one 45-minute sitting. Once you get past the legal boiler-plate in the beginning the decision is very readable, summarizing all aspects of the case and spelling out the judge's criteria and rationale for coming to the conclusion that he did.

And like I said at the beginning, this is the first time I actually found biology interesting, and who would have thought that would have been a result of a court case?

Happy New Year! Let's Start the Year Out Right: 5 dangerous things you should let your kids do

My neighbor let his grandson start driving a full-size ATV around his property when the kid was 6 years old -- he's now 10 or 11. See, he survived just fine.

I see what I think is way too much of a drive to "safety-proof" everything that has anything to do with children. How is a person going to learn to get along with pointy, burning, sharp, scraping, freezing, out-of-control, slippery, dark-at-night, world if they don't learn how to deal with it while they're growing up? Lawsuits?

Gever Tulley: 5 dangerous things you should let your kids do