Monday, September 04, 2006

Elephant's Dream

Elephant's Dream is the perfect new flagship for Free and Open Source Software. The new poster child; the new symbol of everything Open Source stands for.

There are five different options for downloading it in seven different formats. The version that says ".avi" doesn't actually play in Windows, though. After you have installed some obscure codec from somewhere on the net, it still won't play in Windows Media Player. But if you go and install this other obscure media player in addition to that obscure codec, then you can actually watch it in Windows. Open Source at it's finest.

Oh, sorry -- did I say "open source"? Turns out the audio track was actually recorded and mixed using proprietary (closed-source) tools. Ooops. Typical of FOSS.

How glad I am to be liberated from the confines of media that just plays when I click a link.

Which get's us to the movie itself. Well, while everybody keeps calling it a movie and the size is about a CD's worth of video which somehow manages to be sufficient for most feature-length films, it's only a "short film" of less than 11 minutes. There's some magical accounting that purports to 10:32 min, but that appears to include the trailer.

So what is the movie about? Hard to say.

When I go to watch an action movie with Sylvester Stallone, then I know not to expect any kind of particularly interesting plot or character development or any kind of deep message or any such nicety. It's an action movie.

When someone hands me a "short film", however, that is supposed to be the new face plate on the FOSS gadget, then I do expect some kind of production value on the level of, say, editing or scriptwriting. If people are going to slave for an average of a month per minute of film, the upfront investment of a couple days into a storyboard would appear trivial -- but apparently that's asking for too much.

Elephant's Dream is the prototypical Open Source project, with a bunch of coders jumping right into the code -- without any kind of overarching planning, no architecture, no target group in mind but themselves, no notion of what is to me accomplished or communicated here.

So in typical FOSS manner, the technical execution is shaky but way beyond anything anybody would have imagined possible "for free" -- and it accomplishes absolutely nothing. There is no plot, there is no message, there is nothing to think about or talk about: it is one big CGI effects extravaganza.

They could have shown 10 minutes of explosions to the same effect.

The eye-candy is great, to be sure. But it is eye-candy for its own sake. Not in the employ of any kind of plot line the user is supposed to follow. The movie could be cut into ten segments and the segments could be displayed in random order and it wouldn't take away a thing from the movie.

Re-reading all this before I hit 'submit', I realize where I've seen all this before: Porn. Self-indulgent show of random pretty things with no pretense of any kind of story line, exhausting its capacity to excite within ten minutes flat. Except that porn tends to work in WMP and doesn't require installation new software to watch...

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Symbols

Processing symbols is trivial. Every simple computer does it. All the time.

Processing meaning is difficult, though. Only humans seem to be able to do that.

Humans. Not people. For not all people are human. The distinction between people and humans can be drawn exactly along the lines spelled out above: many people merely process symbols. They are sub-human -- they are no more human than a dog or a bug is human.

From the outside, it can sometime appear as if a symbol-maipulation mechanism was actually processing meaning. Or vice versa. Drawing the distinction can at times be difficult, in particular when the object of investigation declines to cooperate.

A test has been devised to distinguish the two: the Turing test. There's many forms of the Turing test and no one single question or answer can decide it by itself. But there are obvious thrusts that a Turing test can take.

For instance, the questioner can probe in the direction of absolute certainty; knowing that denial of such constitutes a failure of a turing test.

Or, pursuant to the above, one merely need establish the value placed on symbols by the object in question: anybody who would pray to symbols or imbue symbols with any kind of import has already failed the Turing test right there. Anybody who gives a rats ass about a cross, a flag, a yin-yang or any such trinket is obviously processing symbols instead of meaning.

I'm mentioning all these obvious bits right now since of course anybody who cares one iota one way or the other about flag burning is certainly a mechanism. An automaton. A brainless, mindless symbol-manipulation machine.

A thing, not a human. A thing which is incapable of grasping meaning and thus instead clings to worthless symbols. Proclaims sybols valuable and worthy of protection.

And the more they insist that any one sybol is of any kind of value, the more vigorously they are railing against "desecration" of that symbol, the more emotional they get over the symbol, the farther away they are from self-awareness. From meaning. From the ability to see the distinction between a symbol and what it stands for. And, ultimately from the realization taht all symbols are completely meaningless - for that is, of course, what makes them symbols.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Honesty

(another oldie, placed here for future reference)

In some other post I ask "what's wrong with honesty?" Let me expand on this a little. As usual, input is welcome.

Just for the duration of this sentence, let me commit the sin of oversimplification by separating communicative environments into competitive and collaborative ones. It is understood that very few (if any) real situations will fall squarely into either of these categories, but that we have to understand real, human, interaction as a composite of both; sometimes a little more to the one side, sometimes a little more to the other. Sometimes quite clearly on either side. Sometimes pretty much in the middle.

I am separating the two, since they present different communication-paradigms and since therefore they will result in different optimum strategies.

In a collaborative environment, things are simple: You are as honest as you can. If you benefit from my being well-informed, then it is in your own best interest to keep me well-informed. Even to the point where you might want to review what information I have available to me and correcting it if you see problems with it. At all times, it would hurt you if you withheld information from me or if you presented me intentionally with false information.

In a competitive environment, things get trickier: if you can benefit from my misinformation, then there's an incentive to lie. At least occasionally. The optimum strategy goes something like this:

A) Be honest as often as necessary to maintain credibility. If you lie too often, people will simply not believe you and language as a tool becomes useless.

B) Lie as often as necessary to obtain the maximum possible gain from lying that is possible without getting in conflict with (A) above.

Understanding these situations, there's certain obvious strategies in dealing with them. Obviously, your strategy is going to depend on your perception of the situation: it doesn't really matter whether any situation is "really" competitive or if competitiveness can be measured or any such thing: you are going to adopt a competitive strategy if you think that you're in a competitive situation.

If you adopt a competitive strategy, then my response to it is simple: I will be as skeptical of your words as I can. The more skeptical scrutiny I can muster, the more I can effectively force you to be honest, since you'd get away with less lies as per the above. A competitive response to a competitive strategy.

The other alternative is to establish cooperative environments. If I can convince you that it is in your own interest if I am as well-informed as possible, I can expend less resources on critical
examination of your statements and more on producing content. Essentially, I have to convince you to examine your own thoughts with the same critical scrutiny that I would have to expend
otherwise.

As usual when communicating about communication, all these have obvious abuse-potential built into them, once you understand them and if your intentions are other than well-meaning.

I am bringing this up here mostly to give a bit of a background to my own communications: First off, I tend to try to be as honest as I can. And as honest as is appropriate: if I tell you a yarn that is clearly marked as a yarn and serves the purpose of entertainment rather than information-transmission, then that's a different item, obviously.

Second, you will find me fiercely skeptical of people's claims, simply because that will force them into honesty (or into hiding, if they think that they must be competitive and that I am undermining their ability to do so). On the other side I am really trying to encourage discussion and interaction: I am not skeptical because I dislike people or any such thing - I am skeptical because I see this as the only tool at my disposal to compel other people to be honest.

This means that my communication-strategy has the same two-way structure as the above:

A) Be as skeptical as possible.

B) Establish as much of a cooperative (rather than competitive) feeling to the communicative environment as is possible without violating (A) above.

This is how I try to establish honesty. I'd be curious to hear alternative strategies or alternative methods of arriving at them.

Monday, July 03, 2006

The myth of addiction

(Another oldie, placed here for future reference.)

"Addiction" is as much a mythical concept as "God" or "State" -- inventions created by humans. Fiction. Something people made up. And because the fantasy is so damn pleasant, they all agree on it. But agreeing on it doesn't make it real.

Wether you kill "for the Fuhrer" or "for the glory of God" or "because the Party said so" or "to feed your Addiction": all you're doing is appealing to some fictional entity outside yourself as a motivator or generator for your actions. An attempt to deny the responsibility for your own doings and undoings. You desperately try to deny the personal responsibility for the morality of every single thing you say and do, for every thing that goes into and comes out of you.

Nobody has ever "been addicted" against their will. Every human being always has the choice to do XYZ or to not do XYZ. And then they have the choice to do or not do it a second time. And a third time. The consequences are either known to you or otherwise you're knowingly doing an experiment and will learn of the consequences. And at all times it is entirely up to yourself; the decision is yours at all times.

YOU are in the driver's seat and nobody else. In particular not mythical entities that people have invented outside themselves for the express purpose of absolving themselves of the responsibility of their actions.

"I couldn't help it, I was addicted". "I was only following orders". "It was the will of god". "I thought it was horrible, personally, but it was for the best of the Party." All these are the same statement. They are the perennial statement of the Nazi black-boot, the communist thug, the mafia killer, the christian murderer. The sub-human pigs who are so desperate to deny the personal responsibility for their actions that they invent entities outside themselves to take the blame.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Unintelligent Design

Enough has been written about the current attempt to resurrect the argument from design by prefixing it with the term "intelligent" that there doesn't seem to be the need for me to add to the body of writing. However there is an aspect to this that seems to have escaped many people so I figured I'd eludicate it here for future reference.

The vast majority of people are not self-aware. Amongst other things, this means that they have no idea what words actually mean -- they merely string words together by certain syntactic rules without any kind of awareness or appreciation for the fact that words are utterly meaningless symbols and that all perceived meaning happens inside the head of a self-aware being, not in a jumble of letters. That's why they think one can define things into or out of existence - but that is a ramble for another time.

One word that the majority of people cannot adequately define is "intelligence". People use the word as if it meant something to them, but ask them what exactly the meaning of that word might be and you're going to get a shrug.

What does "intelligent" design really mean and how would it be different from unintelligent design? The standard cop-out is that "intelligent" is something along the lines of "kinda like me/us" maybe with the added afterthought of "but not like that rock over there".

The problem with the definition of "kinda like me" is that this immediately leads unintelligent people to imagine that intelligent people are as unintelligent as they are. Pretty much by definition.

Once you let that sink in, there's suddenly a whole new dimension to the whole "intelligent design" notion: since christians are merely brainless, mindless automata, without any kind of self-awareness or self-governance and since they consider "intelligence" as something "kinda like them" their phrase "intelligent design" really means "design by a bunch of brainless, mindless mechanisms that react on pure stimulus/response basis without any intervening thought or self-direction" which is actually a perfectly accurate description of ... evolution.

Once you understand this, many of the absurd notions of christians suddenly make sense: why do they think that a mindless clump of cells should have "rights"? Because they are mindless clumps of cells themselves and they imagine that everybody else is a mindless clump of cells like they are and thus an embryo should have "rights". It never occurs to them how utterly dehumanizing this stance is to any being that is more than just a clump of cells; how absurd it seems to someone who is self-governed to be told that some undifferentiated bit of tissue's rights trump hers.

Why were the Xtians up in arms about the lifeless, brainless, mindless corpse of Terry Shiavo? Because they're brainless mindless lifeless corpses, that's why.

Since Xtians have no self-governance, they're entirely governed by external forces. And since they proclaim that everybody is like them, they want to impose external forces on everybody. And they hate and despise people who function well without any externally imposed rules. Or who even go so far as to point out the utter idiocy of the silly rules that some primitive shamans made up thousands of years ago to calm the primitives when there was lightning in the night.

Let it sink in, and all the Xtian idiocies, all their lies, all their unending streams of vile insults can all be neatly summed up in these two concepts: they are mindles automata and they think everybody is like them.

If anybody can name one of the utterly absurd insulting follies of christianity (and possibly other religions) that does not neatly condense into this idea, I'd be curious to hear of it. There's already another blog entry forming in my head as I type this that will examine a number of christian crazinesses in this light. Stay tuned...

Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Cargo Cult of Religious Argument

The white man goes into the jungle to research the things that are there - the plants, the animals, the rocks, the people. He clears a little patch of woods for a small makeshift-runway so that planes can land there, even though most of the time the planes will only drop off supplies and turn back to home base. He builds a little radio-tower and a few barracks, and every two weeks he sits down at the radio, eager to hear the voices of his friends and colleagues as they fly by to supply him with another packet of foods and medication and books and so forth.

The aboriginal has watched the little process and at some point he thinks he has it all figured out: he goes and clears a little spot in the jungle, he builds a tower and a "radio" (out of bamboo - that's all he has for building material) and religiously every couple days he sits down speaking frantically into the "microphone" seriously expecting planes to show up and drop things on him.

We call this phenomenon a "cargo cult".

It comes about through a complete disregard of the savage for the immense processes behind those supply-planes, the effort that has to be expended to build them, to staff them, to supply them, to fly them.

Not to mention the whole motivation behind this endeavor - the fact that all the visible infrastructure is not there to coax planes into dropping goodies onto you, but that this is a setup to gain knowledge, and that the dropping of food is just a small part in the whole big enterprise.

Religious people that we can find all over the internet are firm adherents of the cargo-cult of argumentation. They think that if they only string words together that sound like the words that are used by me and other thinking beings, this will somehow magically turn their brainless dogma into an "argument".

This fallacy comes about from a complete disregard of these people of the work, effort, energy behind any actual argument: the careful examination of premises, the painstaking test of conclusions against observable phenomena, the years of studying the subject at hand into great detail.

Not to mention the whole motivation behind this endeavor - the fact that all the visible infrastructure of argumentation is not there to "win fights" or to "propagate my dogma" but is a setup to gain knowledge, and that the "arguing" and "convincing others" is just a small part in the whole big enterprise.

All this could be amusing: to watch these little clueless beings that would never drop their beliefs even in the face of overwhelming evidence play with something they made to look like the tools that those who are in pursuit of the actual Truth of matters have created to further exactly that goal.

The problem arises when the white man - in pity for these misguided creatures - talks to them in an attempt to show them that there's reasons behind all these things, that this is only a very small part of a big picture and that the whole big picture is the result of a lot of hard work on the parts of a lot of people -- and the savages walk up to the white man and claim steadfastly that what they're doing is just as good as what he's doing - after all they mimicked his actions very, very carefully.

Talk about insult.

By implying that the little facades that they slapped together in a couple days are just as good as the universe of energy, ingenuity, thought, resources and just plain hard work that the white men invested to make their operation work is an insult not just to the white man in the jungle, but to the thousands and thousands who invested their time and effort to conceive, invent, design, improve, discard, re-invent, maintain, repair and supply all the parts of the operation.

This is why religion is an insult to all thinking beings.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Errors in publication...

There's an interesting selection-effect in scientific publishing, in that it is much more likely that positive results are being published than negative ones. This seems to be enforced both from the research-end (are you going to put a lot of effort into publishing that you were looking for something and found nothing?) and the publishing side (peer-review is taken in certain disciplines to the point where there's a requirement for something to be there to be published for your paper to be accepted), and the fact that "nothing's there" is a valuable result is often overlooked.

You set out to study a certain effect. You spend some time and effort, but you simply don't see anything. What do you do? You can't necessarily rule out that there's something there, but your research certainly isn't sensitive to it.

This gets even more problematic, when the research in question isn't particularly high-profile, or maybe even questionable. "Should we really study how exactly drug-users kill themselves?" - Now if you had some breakthrough result, you could probably publish even if its on a somewhat unfashionable topic, but if your result is of the usual Hum-Hah quality (as is most cutting-edge research -- that's what makes it cutting-edge) then there's not much of a chance of publication.

There's a wealth of studies on these magnetic water-treatment thingies, for example, that you can buy and plug onto your water-pipe and they're supposed to keep your heater crud-free. Every other engineer that is worth his money has been intrigued by the glaringly obvious (and simple) experiment of putting one on their water-pipe but not the neighbor's (or something similarly straightforward). The circumstances are generally not particularly well-controlled (the neighbor has a slightly different model water-heater for example), since there's no research-money in it and so you do this kind of thing on the side. Then, after a couple years, you look into the heaters and usually there's some difference. Not less crud, but the crud is in a different place or has slightly different color. -probably- a result of the fact that you have copper-pipes and your neighbor has plastic. Then again: who knows. There's essentially a null-result, with the possibility of -maybe- something being there (then again, maybe not) and wwhatever result may be there is certainly deep in the noise.

And hence there's nothing published. End of story.

Even worse for obvious but unfruitful approaches. Lets say you want to study something and there's a way of looking at it that nobody seems to have done before and you set out to do it and you mess around for some weeks, moths, maybe even years and - you discover that there's a deep, subtle thinking error here, that prevents you from examining the thing in question in this particular way.

And you wonder: how many people have gone this wrong way to the dead end? In general, mistakes aren't being published - in general, someone will not write a paper detailing how they spent lots of time (and possibly money) going some route rust to discover that its an invalid approach.

And hence a year later, somewhere on the world, someone will make the same mistake again. People go into the dead end, but it is not considered worthwhile to put up a sign that says "dead end" to keep others from following you. "Dead end" is not publishable.

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