Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A conversation with God

I have long advocated the creation of an atheistic theology. Yes, I know it sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it's not. It is simply an expression of rational scientific thought using the language of myth. The reason for doing it is that, like it or not, myths are a very effective marketing tool, and it's high time that we rationalists availed ourselves of it. Our failure to create effective myths amounts to unilateral disarmament in the war of ideas.

There have been a few half-hearted efforts in this direction, including the Flying Spaghetti Monster and Raymond Smullyan's famous essay Is God a Taoist?. But these are self-identified as fiction and parody, and are therefore self-undermining. Even my own suggestion of adopting Loki as the foundation of an atheistic myth suffers somewhat from this problem.

Today I learned to my great delight that a fellow named Harry Stottle is in fact an atheist who has actually talked to God and written an account of his experience. Highly recommended reading. It is a rare privilege to have (from a cosmological perspective) a front-row seat to divine revelation.

Monday, October 24, 2011

RIP John McCarthy

John McCarthy, one of the most influential pioneers of computer science, has died. His main claim to fame was the invention (some would say discovery) of the Lisp programming language. It is hard to overstate the impact that Lisp has had on the programming world and on me personally. I discovered Lisp while I was still in high school (via P-Lisp running on an Apple ][ ) and it is one of the things that made me decide to pursue a career in artificial intelligence (a term that McCarthy coined). Even today it is with no small amount of regret that I note the ironic juxtaposition of two facts: 1) Lisp is one of the most influential inventions/discoveries in the history of mankind's intellectual progress, and 2) it is hardly ever used by anyone any more. Lisp is the Latin of computer science. Parts of its essence lives on in Python and Ruby and Javascript and Haskell and pretty much every other programming language in widespread use today (except C and C++). But Lisp itself is a mostly dead language [See update below]. I wish it were otherwise. The world would be a better place.

But McCarthy's legacy also has a little-noted dark side which also influenced my career, but in a much less positive way. McCarthy was not only one of the pioneers of the study of AI, but also an avid proponent of a particular school of thought about how human intelligence works. McCarthy believed that human intelligence could be modeled as a formal logic. That hypothesis turns out to be (almost certainly) wrong, and the evidence that it is wrong was overwhelming even in McCarthy's heyday. And yet McCarthy steadfastly refused to abandon this hypothesis. Well into his nominal retirement, and quite possibly to his dying day, he was still working on trying to formulate formal logics to model human thought processes.

The way human mental processes actually work, it turns out, is (again, almost certainly) according to statistical processes, not formal logics. The reason I keep hedging with "almost certainly" is that the jury is still out. We have not yet cracked the AI puzzle, but vastly more progress has been made in recent years using statistical approaches that has ever been made using logic. Very few (if indeed any) logic-based systems have ever been successfully deployed on non-toy problems. Statistics-based applications are being deployed on a regular basis nowadays, with Siri being the most recent example.

It took decades to make this switch, arguably due in no small measure to McCarthy's influence. One of the many consequences of this delay was the infamous AI-winter, which lead more or less directly to the commercial demise of Lisp. That the same person was responsible both for the invention of such a powerful idea and for its demise has to be one of the greatest ironies in human intellectual history.

It is important to remember that even great men can be wrong at times, sometimes spectacularly so. There is no shame in this. The human has yet to be born whose rightful epitaph is "He was right about everything." But John McCarthy's legacy in particular calls all of us mere mortals to a greater degree of humility. The world would be a better place if more people could acknowledge the possibility that even their most cherished beliefs might be wrong.

[UPDATE:] After posting this I felt the need to hedge my assessment of Lisp as "mostly dead." Lisp is not dead. In fact, it is probably more vibrant now than at any time in the last 20 years. But by comparison to other languages Lisp has a vanishingly small mindshare. To cite but one concrete example, of 300 or so Y Combinator companies there is (AFAIK) only one whose code is written in Lisp.

Notwithstanding all that, if you're interested in programming I really encourage you to learn Lisp. It is still the best programming language out there.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Travelogue: What's up with the splatty toys?

We've been seeing street vendors selling these things everywhere:

It's a toy that consists of a sphere of jello-like material. You throw it against a flat surface where it lands with a splat! and spreads out into a thin film. Then over the course of the next 10-20 seconds it slowly creeps back to its original spheroid shape. Some of them have little appendages like eyes and a nose so that they look kinda sorta like a face.

That's it. That's all these things do. Splat! Creeeeeeeeeee....eeep. There's not a single place we've been to that hasn't had at least one guy -- more often several -- standing there throwing these things at a board laying on the ground over and over and over again. I can't imagine what the appeal is. I have never seen anyone actually buy one. And yet we've seen dozens of people apparently trying to make a living by selling them, so the actual number of splatty-toy resellers is certainly much higher -- probably hundreds, perhaps thousands. How big could the market for these things possibly be?

It's baffling.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Woman arrested for reading the Constitution in an airport

Daily Kos has the first-person account in gory detail. The part that struck me most is near the end:

[My husband] has for years tried to cure me of my delusion that there is some democracy left in the United States.

I am beginning to be cured of that delusion myself. :-(

KC Fed President: Big banks are a threat to capitalism

Thomas Hoenig, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, says that big banks are a threat to capitalism.

The U.S. economy is the most successful in the history of the world. It achieved this success because it is based on the rules of capitalism, in which private ownership dominates markets and individuals reap the rewards of their success. However, for capitalism to work, businesses, including financial firms, must be allowed, or compelled, to compete freely and openly and must be held accountable for their failures. Only under these conditions do markets objectively allocate credit to those businesses that provide the highest value. For most of our history, the United States held fast to these rules of capitalism. It maintained a relatively open banking and financial system with thousands of banks from small community banks to large global players that allocated credit under this system. As late as 1980, the U.S. banking industry was relatively unconcentrated, with 14,000 commercial banks and the assets of the five largest amounting to 29 percent of total banking organization assets and 14 percent of GDP.

Today, we have a far more concentrated and less competitive banking system. There are fewer banks operating across the country, and the five largest institutions control more than half of the industry’s assets, which is equal to almost 60 percent of GDP. The largest 20 institutions control 80 percent of the industry’s assets, which amounts to about 86 percent of GDP.

...the problem with [Systemically Important Financial Institutions (SIFIs)] is they are fundamentally inconsistent with capitalism. They are inherently destabilizing to global markets and detrimental to world growth. So long as the concept of a SIFI exists, and there are institutions so powerful and considered so important that they require special support and different rules, the future of capitalism is at risk and our market economy is in peril.

Amen, brother Hoenig.

Politics: catching up on Glenn Greenwald

I'm using a rare bit of down-time to catch up on the news. I cannot recommend Glenn Greenwald highly enough. It sometimes seems that he is the only voice of sanity left in the whole of the news media. Time is tight, and internet connectivity is flaky, so I can't write much well-considered commentary. Instead, I'll just point to two particularly noteworthy recent items and encourage you to read them in their entirety:

A remaining realm of American excellence

When President Obama announced the killing of Osama bin Laden on the evening of May 1, he said something which I found so striking at the time and still do: “tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history.” That sentiment of national pride had in the past been triggered by putting a man on the moon, or discovering cures for diseases, or creating technology that improved the lives of millions, or transforming the Great Depression into a thriving middle class, or correcting America’s own entrenched injustices. Yet here was President Obama proclaiming that what should now cause us to be “reminded” of our national greatness was our ability to hunt someone down, pump bullets into his skull, and then dump his corpse into the ocean.

What are those OWS people so angry about?

... growing wealth and income inequality, by itself, would not spark massive protests if there were a perception that the top 1% (more accurately thought of as the top .1%) had acquired their gains honestly and legitimately. Americans in particular have been inculcated for decades with the belief that even substantial outcome inequality is acceptable (even desirable) provided that it is the by-product of fairly applied rules. What makes this inequality so infuriating (aside from the human suffering it is generating) is precisely that it is illegitimate: it is caused and bolstered by decisively unfair application of laws and rules, by undemocratic control of the political process by the nation’s oligarchs, and by a full-scale shield of immunity that allows them — and only them — to engage in the most egregious corruption and even criminality without any consequence (other than a further entrenching of their prerogatives and ill-gotten gains).

Travelogue: I'm surrounded by Cretans!

Not to be confused with cretins :-) Yes, we're in Crete. Heraklion to be precise. Not much to say about this place. It's perfectly pleasant, but unremarkable compared to other places we've been. Its main claim to fame is the proximity of the ruins of a 3500 year old palace, which is, I must confess, amazingly old, but we're starting to get a little burned out on archaeology. Europe is lousy with antiquities. Really, the only reason I'm writing about Heraklion at all is that I couldn't resist the opportunity to write the headline :-)

Friday, October 21, 2011

Travelogue: More from the hidden-gems department

Today's hidden gem is Monemvasia, Greece, a tiny Byzantine fortress on the Mediterranean that is being lovingly restored to maintain its original look-and-feel. It's like stepping into a time machine. Motorized vehicles are not allowed. In fact, they are not physically possible. All the building materials (except the local stone) are carried in on horseback or by hand, as are all other supplies.

Monemvasia is situated on a giant rock that is connected to the mainland by a causeway. At the top are the ruins of another town that once housed 20,000 people. The view is nothing short of breathtaking.

I don't normally do commercial plugs here, but I'm going to make an exception for the Likinia hotel, a hidden gem within a hidden gem. The exterior looks like a medieval stone building (and it is) but the interior has been recently remodeled and looks like a top-flight modern boutique hotel. The proprietor is a very friendly old Greek woman who I have no doubt takes very good care of her guests. Her English was not the best, but it was a damn sight better than my Greek.

If you do decide to stay here, pack light. You'll have to carry all your luggage several hundred yards over uneven cobblestone alleys and staircases to get here. But I promise you it will be worth it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Travelogue: All quiet on the eastern front

The country of Greece has been more or less shut down by a general strike as the country's economy teeters on a precipice that could plunge the Eurozone, and potentially the whole world, into a major economic depression. But you'd never know if from reading American news sources. The NYT front page, which includes a story about how Mitt Romney cared for his lawn (and no, I'm not kidding), makes no mention of it. I can find no mention of it on any other American news outlet. (CNN doesn't even mention it under World News!) The only coverage I can find at all is on Reuters and Al Jazeera. Reuters reports that there are 400 dock workers demonstrating outside the port, but I can neither see nor hear any sign of them. In fact, here in Piraeus everything is remarkably quiet. No ships are coming or going. (We had to leave our previous port two hours early so that we would make it in at 3AM before the strike began. It's unclear if we're going to be able to get out again.) There are no airplanes in the sky. There are a few cars on the road, but traffic is light. It is eerily reminiscent of the days following 9/11.

[UPDATE:] The story finally made the front page of the NYT.

In case you're wondering, we saw no hint of any violence. We did go into Athens on one of the hop-on-hop-off tour busses (which are apparently staffed by non-union workers). There we were able to visit a refreshingly crowd-free Acropolis, though we had to admire it from a distance because the site itself was closed. But the Acropolis is surrounded by a lovely park, which we had pretty much to ourselves.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Travelogue: the fine line between irony and serendipity

We had been having a stupendous run of luck with the weather. For two weeks we had nothing but clear blue skies. In fact, one day I got a sunburn. In Europe. In October.

Then two days ago our luck ran out. We arrived in Amalfi to some ominous looking clouds and a pretty good-sized swell. Some time later the captain announced that it was too rough to be able to operate the tenders to shore, that he was canceling the stop, and we would have a day at sea en route to our next destination, Taormina.

To describe my reaction to this news I have to rewind just a bit: we had actually been to Amalfi earlier on this same trip. We're on multiple legs of a cruise whose itinerary was really designed to be done one leg at a time, so we have a number of repeat destinations. The idea was to use our first stop to get an overview of the place, and then the second to do a deep-dive into whatever we had found most interesting the first time around.

On our first stop in Amalfi I found a secret route out of town. Yes, I know how weird that must sound, but only if you've never been to Amalfi. The town, you see, is quite literally built on a cliff. Actually, it's built into a little canyon carved into a cliff, but let's not quibble too much over semantics. The point is, there is absolutely no level ground around Amalfi. Nada. Zilch. Zip.

So at first glance it appears that there is exactly one way in and out of town. It's a road that was laboriously carved into the limestone in the 1800's, and is today occupied by vehicles that the road's designers could not possibly have imagined in their wildest dreams, everything from scooters to tour busses. Lots and lots of tour busses. So many, in fact, that they are constrained by law to only go one direction. There are many, many places along the Amalfi road where it would be physically impossible for two busses to pass one another.

All that diesel exhaust makes the Amalfi road a not-very-pleasant route to walk. But it has some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, and I really wanted to get some pictures without having to shoot through the window of a bus. So I decided to take my life in my hands and walk out of town.

A quarter mile or so out I noticed a footpath that crossed the road and decided on a whim to find out where it went. To make a long story short, it turned out to go back into town, and connect with a whole network of footpaths that criss-cross the slopes all along the Amalfi coast. The access to this path from the center of Amalfi is so well hidden that while I'm pretty sure I could find it again, I could not describe how to get there to anyone else.

So on the one hand, I was really looking forward to showing my discovery to Nancy and some other friends we have made on the boat. On the other hand, we had been touring non-stop for two weeks, and the pace was starting to get a little grueling. So part of me was disappointed, and part of me was relieved that we would get a much-needed vacation from our vacation.

So we headed South.

Those of you of a certain age will remember the theme song of a television series called "Gilligan's Island" with the line, "The weather started getting rough, the tiny ship was tossed." Except for the ship not being so tiny, that's pretty much what happened. The weather deteriorated rapidly, and long before we got to Taormina it was announced that that stop was being cancelled as well, and we would be heading instead for the safety of the deepwater port at Messina, where we finally arrived around 8PM after passing through one of the most spectacular lightning storms I have ever seen in my life.

Now, there is a reason that Messina was not on the original itinerary. It was once a charming Sicilian town, but then it was destroyed in an earthquake and rebuilt as a depressing modern monstrosity. There is graffiti everywhere. A few pre-earthquake buildings stand forlornly amidst a sea of utterly bland cinder-block apartments. It is hard to say which did more damage: the earthquake, or the urban planners who oversaw the reconstruction.

Oh well, at least it's not raining, I thought to myself as I stepped out onto the balcony to assess the weather. And then I heard a sort of "chuff" sound from down below. I looked over the railing, and there were two pilot whales right below me, almost close enough to touch.

Yeah, I know, the photo doesn't look like much. But you have to remember that this photo was taken well after their initial appearance, after I'd had a chance to get over the shock of seeing whales in an industrial harbor at all, let alone practically under my feet, and run inside and grab my camera.

It was by far the best look I've ever had at a whale. And but for some bad weather, I never would have seen them.

Postscript: we left Messina and promptly sailed into the gnarliest storm I have ever experienced. Chaise lounges were flying across the pool deck. We found out later that the wind had been a sustained 70 knots true. That put the storm solidly in the range of a category 1 hurricane. Not an experience I ever care to repeat.

Today the wind is down to a mere 40-50 knots, but the weather at our next port (Santorini) is looking dicey as well. And to top it all off, this leg ends in Athens, where a general strike is scheduled to begin the day we arrive.

I overheard a truly heartbreaking lament from one passenger who, along with his family, is only on board for this one leg. This was supposed to have been their trip of a lifetime. They scrimped and saved for years to be able to afford it. And now they will likely be spending more than half of their time stuck aboard the ship in the rain.

Sometimes Loki has a truly perverse sense of irony.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Travelogue: A 500 year old practical joke?

We did the whirlwind tour of Rome today, which included a tour of the Vatican museum and the famous Sistine Chapel. As I was looking at the famous Michelangelo frescos on the ceiling it suddenly occurred to me: that dude is mooning God!

I did a little research afterwards and it turns out that's not quite right. That dude is God, and He's mooning us. (You can tell because he's wearing (or not) the same pink robes and has the same grey hair that He has in all the other panels.) The best part: the title of the panel is -- and I am not making this up -- The Creation of the Sun and the Moon.

Michelangelo must have had a sense of humor.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

What would you have done instead?

Christopher Hitchens, who is normally a rational and reasoned man, somehow manages to consistently lose his rudder when it comes to the war on terror. Not exactly his words, but the headline of his most recent piece in Slate is: Those who protest the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki have to say what they would have done instead.

Very well, I will tell you Mr. Hitchens.

I would have filed formal charges against Mr. al-Awlaki. I would have sought an indictment from a grand jury. I wold have given Mr. al-Alawki the opportunity to return home to answer the charges against him. If he failed to take advantage of the opportunity to defend himself (which he almost certainly would have) I would have tried him in absentia. I would have waited until a jury returned a guilty verdict. Then -- and only then -- I would have ordered him blown to kingdom come.

I would have done these things to show to the world that we are a nation of laws, not of the whims of men. I would have done these things to plant our flag firmly on the moral high ground. I would have done these things because they are the right thing to do.

Glen Greenwald said it best as he usually does:

[A]s the Bush years proved, the American population is well-trained to screech Kill Him!! the minute the Government points to someone and utters the word “Terrorist“ (especially when that someone is brown with a Muslim-ish name, Muslim-ish clothes, and located in one of those Bad Muslim countries). If Our Government Leaders say that someone named “Anwar al-Awlaki” — who looks like this, went to a Bad Muslim-ish place like Yemen, and speaks ill of America — is a Bad Terrorist, then that settles that. It’s time to kill him. Given those “facts,” only a “civil libertarian absolutist” would think that things like “evidence” and “trials” are needed before accepting his guilt and justifying his state-sanctioned murder.


The most ignorant claim justifying the Awlaki killing is that he committed “treason” and thus gave up citizenship; there’s this document called the “Constitution” that lays out the steps the Government is required to take before punishing a citizen for “treason” (“No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court“); suffice to say, it’s not met by the President secretly declaring someone guilty backed up by leaked, anonymous accusations to the press.

Worth reading the whole thing.

A final -- and telling -- quote from Hitchens:

Is a synagogue in town the next development you truly welcome in the spirit of “inclusiveness” and “diversity”?

Except he didn't use the word "synagogue" of course, he used the word "mosque." I suppose Mr. Hitchens thinks it's OK to make this invidious query about a mosque because terrorists are muslims or some such thing. Hitchens of all people should recognize this logical fallacy. Even if all terrorists are muslims (which they aren't but let's suspend disbelief for the sake of argument), it does not follow that all, or even most, muslims are terrorists, despite the fact that vast numbers of Americans are more than willing to draw that inference. Most of Hitchens's writings are dedicated to debunking such logical errors, which makes it all the more tragic that he of all people is promulgating it in this case.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Travelogue: more from the hidden gems department

Today's well kept Adriatic secret is the Croatian island of Korčula (pronounced KOR-chew-la).

If you want to get away from the touristic hordes, this is a good place to do it.