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Archive for November, 2008

As a follow up to my other Blackberry Storm Bluetooth DUN post, here’s the more involved process for getting the storm tethered to Ubuntu.  I’m using Ubuntu Intrepid / 8.10.

The main Bluetooth Dial Up instructions

The more specific Verizon specific details

Not for newbies, in my opinion.

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Malcom Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers, is an unintentional layman’s version of the main points of behaviorism.  The book’s thesis states that successful people are “grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky–but all critical to making them who they are.”  Basically, we can’t take credit for our success nor can we blame those that aren’t successful.  Our success is controlled and shaped by environment and that environment is the result of present day conditions mixed with cultural legacy.

The secondary thesis suggests we can improve the chance of success for anybody – success is not a genetic, racial or even culturally specific thing. For example, he writes about how Korean Air and KIPP schools turn things around by changing the environment (language, physical workplace, timing) for people traditionally considered inherently flawed.

“Outliers” is a relatively tame title, probably an attempt to make a catchy title.  The idea behind the title is that we typically consider successful people (like Bill Gates) as outliers from the average person – a person with extraordinary intelligence or ability.  Gladwell makes the case that the main extraordinary aspect of these outliers lives are their circumstances and opportunities.  In fact, it isn’t the highest IQ or the greatest physical skill providing the key advantage even in great circumstances.  Being born at the right time or growing up with the “right” cultural disadvantages (legacy of rice paddy labor, Jewish immigration in early 1900s) that produce a certain work ethic or worldview jumpstart the path to success.  Combine the right circumstances (often highly improbable and not obviously advantageous) with hard work and you get an “outlier.”  Really though, a more accurate, but less marketable title might be “Can’t Take Credit”, “It’s not the person.”

This book is a bestseller already.  I wonder how deeply the folks reading it will take it to heart.  Its thesis destroys a huge part of our American mythology of self-made success.  I can imagine the business guru wannabes who adore Gladwell’s “Blink” and “The Tipping Point” might have a hard time swallowing the idea that they don’t control their own success and they don’t have some a priori advantage.  Worse still for those looking for shortcuts in life is the idea that we can’t really predict when some currently disadvantageous situation is actually going to result in the key circumstance in the future.

I enjoyed the book.  However, it is not a revelation to me nor will it be to anyone who already integrated the idea that we are products of our environment with some slight variation based on genetics.  I wish their was more analytic data behind the anecdotes, even the footnotes are light on experimental and emprical data.

That said this is a MUCH NEEDED popular account of how behavior actually works.  I suspect that Gladwell’s popularity will bring these concepts to a wider audience and start breaking down the false beliefs that some of us are just better than others.

[Note: Other books along these same lines are cropping up, such as Talent is Overrated.  I’ll keep track to see if this thread continues to gain mainstream momentum.]

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I’ve gathered a few accounts of behavior at the “first” Thanksgiving.  I can imagine most of this social behavior wasn’t particular to just the Thanksgiving celebration – it’s probably general 17th century eating and social customs.

Approach to serving the feast (from History.com):

Seventeenth Century Table Manners:

The pilgrims didn’t use forks; they ate with spoons, knives, and their fingers. They wiped their hands on large cloth napkins which they also used to pick up hot morsels of food. Salt would have been on the table at the harvest feast, and people would have sprinkled it on their food. Pepper, however, was something that they used for cooking but wasn’t available on the table.

In the seventeenth century, a person’s social standing determined what he or she ate. The best food was placed next to the most important people. People didn’t tend to sample everything that was on the table (as we do today), they just ate what was closest to them.

Serving in the seventeenth century was very different from serving today. People weren’t served their meals individually. Foods were served onto the table and then people took the food from the table and ate it. All the servers had to do was move the food from the place where it was cooked onto the table.

Pilgrims didn’t eat in courses as we do today. All of the different types of foods were placed on the table at the same time and people ate in any order they chose. Sometimes there were two courses, but each of them would contain both meat dishes, puddings, and sweets.

Fasting not feasting (from Wikipedia):

The Pilgrims did not hold a true Thanksgiving until 1623, when it followed a drought, prayers for rain, and a subsequent rain shower. Irregular Thanksgivings continued after favorable events and days of fasting after unfavorable ones. In the Plymouth tradition, a thanksgiving day was a church observance, rather than a feast day.

Gradually, an annual Thanksgiving after the harvest developed in the mid-17th century. This did not occur on any set day or necessarily on the same day in different colonies in America.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony (consisting mainly of Puritan Christians) celebrated Thanksgiving for the first time in 1630, and frequently thereafter until about 1680, when it became an annual festival in that colony; and Connecticut as early as 1639 and annually after 1647, except in 1675. The Dutch in New Netherland appointed a day for giving thanks in 1644 and occasionally thereafter.

Charlestown, Massachusetts held the first recorded Thanksgiving observance June 29, 1671 by proclamation of the town’s governing council.

During the 18th century individual colonies commonly observed days of thanksgiving throughout each year. We might not recognize a traditional Thanksgiving Day from that period, as it was not a day marked by plentiful food and drink as is today’s custom, but rather a day set aside for prayer and fasting.

Later in the 1700s individual colonies would periodically designate a day of thanksgiving in honor of a military victory, an adoption of a state constitution or an exceptionally bountiful crop. Such a Thanksgiving Day celebration was held in December 1777 by the colonies nationwide, commemorating the surrender of British General Burgoyne at Saratoga.

Thanksgiving wasn’t always about giving thanks, often it was a celebration of military victory (from Oyate.org):

Myth #10: The Pilgrims and Indians became great friends.

Fact: A mere generation later, the balance of power had shifted so enormously and the theft of land by the European settlers had become so egregious that the Wampanoag were forced into battle. In 1637, English soldiers massacred some 700 Pequot men, women and children at Mystic Fort, burning many of them alive in their homes and shooting those who fled. The colony of Connecticut and Massachusetts Bay Colony observed a day of thanksgiving commemorating the massacre. By 1675, there were some 50,000 colonists in the place they had named “New England.” That year, Metacom, a son of Massasoit, one of the first whose generosity had saved the lives of the starving settlers, led a rebellion against them. By the end of the conflict known as “King Philip’s War,” most of the Indian peoples of the Northeast region had been either completely wiped out, sold into slavery, or had fled for safety into Canada. Shortly after Metacom’s death, Plimoth Colony declared a day of thanksgiving for the English victory over the Indians. (13)

They probably didn’t have the vegetarian and vegan problems with have today (from Newsweek):

The problem isn’t necessarily a lack of food. Between the mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, candied yams and bounty of desserts, you can usually find a way to stuff yourself silly. Instead, the vegetarian frustration is with the flurry of questions that follow saying “no thank you” to the turkey. “There was definitely some heckling,” says Carly McLean, 24, of her first vegetarian Thanksgiving at her parents’ house in central Illinois. She remembers her family looking at her as if she had grown a horn or a third eye during that meal. “There was a lot of, ‘you’re still in college, you’re going through a phase, you’re just rebellious.’ My aunt asked, ‘how can you be a vegetarian from the Midwest, isn’t that an oxymoron?'” The assumption clearly was, this is Thanksgiving, therefore you eat turkey. “I think we might have spent less time talking about what we were thankful for, than ‘What is Lorraine going to eat?'” says 25-year-old Lorraine Woodcheke from San Francisco. She’s skipping out on Thanksgiving altogether this year, leaving this weekend for Australia. On Thanksgiving Day, she’ll be climbing the Sydney Harbor Bridge. “I never considered skipping any holiday with my family before,” she says. “In a way, I’m sad to miss it, but at the same time, its just nice that I’m going to do my own thing and nobody has to change what they’re doing.”

However, the early Thanksgivings probably still had epic family fights (info from National Humanities Center):

Although subordinate to their husbands in the religious life of both home and church, Puritan “goodwives” played an important role in the economies of their households, and husbands entrusted them with a wide range of practical responsibilities. Such are the conclusions of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in Goodwives (1980), a study of women in early New England which, among other matters, documents the common role of that region’s matrons as “deputy husbands” who were empowered to act for their spouses on a variety of financial and legal matters. Even so, a deep mistrust of women permeated the culture of Puritan New England. Even though husbands regarded their wives as “potentially dependable helpmeets,” as Carol Karlsen argues in The Devil in the Shape of a Woman (1987), most Puritan men still harbored dark suspicions of all women as daughters of Eve, greedy for both power and sexual gratification. This pervasive misogyny, according to Karlsen, made women susceptible to charges of witchcraft, particularly those who stood to inherit large estates that would have endowed them with uncommon economic influence.

If you are reading this blog today, Thanks! and now get back to chillin.

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By engaging in bailout after bailout, government bureaucrats in both parties perpetuate the system that is not working: special interest groups getting special treatment.

Follow the consequences! By subsidizing failed but well-connected losers with a bailout we collectively are confiscating the necessary resources from productive and successful companies and tax paying members of the economy. Effectively, that means the successful work for the unsuccessful.  We are considering giving billions to those executives that brought their companies to the brink of irrelevancy.

Such bailouts are a bad idea because the failed company management doesn’t feel the pain as they feel the bonuses when they do what they are supposed to do. The selection by consequences that operate everywhere in life are again short-circuited for these companies and the communities that feed off their inefficiencies. The consequences for bad behavior never come to rest on those that were instrumental in the problem so they don’t learn. Why should we allow the natural consequences of bad behavior in a free market to be aborted in favor of special favors resulting in our representatives selecting who will owe them favors? We shouldn’t !

Do something about it or shut up!

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This is just about the best dialogue I’ve read on consciousness. Alva Noë’s model is plausible and falsifiable.  And it correctly rejects the notion of internal motive events and the good ol’ mind/body duality.

In many ways, the new thinking about consciousness and the brain is really just the old-fashioned style of traditional philosophical thinking about these questions but presented in a new, neuroscience package. People interested in consciousness have tended to make certain assumptions, take certain things for granted. They take for granted that thinking, feeling, wanting, consciousness in general, is something that happens inside of us. They take for granted that the world, and the rest of our body, matters for consciousness only as a source of causal impingement on what is happening inside of us. Action has no more intimate connection to thought, feeling, consciousness, and experience. They tend to assume that we are fundamentally intellectual—that the thing inside of us which thinks and feels and decides is, in its basic nature, a problem solver, a calculator, a something whose nature is to figure out what there is and what we ought to do in light of what is coming in.

We should reject the idea that the mind is something inside of us that is basically matter of just a calculating machine. There are different reasons to reject this. But one is, simply put: there is nothing inside us that thinks and feels and is conscious. Consciousness is not something that happens in us. It is something we do.

Read the entire piece or watch the video.

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This is somewhat of a follow up to my playful post on Absolute Truth. (read the comment there too for a nice follow up).  Here I explore the validity of “laws of nature” as a concept.  It appears more and more (at least to me) that our stated laws of nature are as Betrand Russell says, “They are statistical averages such as would emerge from the laws of chance.”

Betrand Russell provides a nice set of statements of the dubiousness of “natural laws”:

We now find that a great many things we thought were natural laws are really human conventions. You know that even in the remotest depths of stellar space there are still three feet to a yard. That is, no doubt, a very remarkable fact, but you would hardly call it a law of nature. And a great many things that have been regarded as laws of nature are of that kind. On the other hand, where you can get down to any knowledge of what atoms actually do, you will find they are much less subject to law than people thought, and that the laws at which you arrive are statistical averages of just the sort that would emerge from chance. There is, as we all know, a law that if you throw dice you will get double sixes only about once in thirty-six times, and we do not regard that as evidence that the fall of the dice is regulated by design; on the contrary, if the double sixes came every time we should think that there was design. The laws of nature are of that sort as regards a great many of them. They are statistical averages such as would emerge from the laws of chance; and that makes this whole business of natural law much less impressive than it formerly was.

Why I am Not A Christian

Here’s a decent philosophical backgrounder on laws of nature.  A passage that resonates with the economic mess we’re in now and the growing body of “exceptions to the rule” explantions spilling forth from economists.

it is striking how little attention is given to the possible effects of context. Mightn’t it be that, when the economist utters a certain strict generalization sentence in an “economic setting” (say, in an economics textbook or at an economics conference), context-sensitive considerations affecting its truth conditions will have it turn out that the utterance is true? This might be the case despite the fact that the same sentence uttered in a different context (say, in a discussion among fundamental physicists or better yet in a philosophical discussion of laws) would result in a clearly false utterance. These changing truth conditions might be the result of something as plain as a contextual shift in the domain of quantification or perhaps something less obvious.

Consider these stated “economic laws”.  how many exceptions to these laws do we find in todays world?

Some of this discussion of “laws” gets into the Fine-Tuned Universe discussion.  This is the idea that our universe is “finely tuned” for nature as we see it and any variation in physical constants would change the laws of physics to make the universe unfit for nature.  This is a counter-factual discussion for now as we have no way of tuning the universe differently to see what would develop and we don’t have sufficiently powerful technology to simulate or create our own universes.

NIST provides a killer resource for all these constants.  Also worth reading are the guidelines on understanding and reporting on uncertainty.

Conclusion:

I’ll borrow from the comments on the post on Absolute Truth mentioned at the beginning of this post.

The issue of validating or discovering new laws comes down to asking the question:

“Have any absolute truths been demonstrated and validated?” The answer to that question is also “no.” Two important things are different about asking the latter question. 1) it avoids a conundrum of syntactical verbiage allowing for an answer that can be understood without pleading to a meta language that is itself a problem. 2) it keeps open the idea that if an absolute truth were to be demonstrated and validated it would be interesting and a significant exception to what has been found to that date.

Personally, I’m highly skeptical of all generalizations and require a huge amount of evidence, both logical and empirical to accept abstractions from context.

Some who know me will claim I turn to math and logic a lot and it’s somewhat funky for me to decry generalization.  Yes, I have some training in and bias towards mathematical explanation, but I recognize math as useful modeling and analytic tool that helps us thinking through complicated situations.  When we’re really fortunate the math cuts through the noise and exposes relationships in a simple and understandable way.  Even when that happens, it still doesn’t provide us universal/absolute laws.

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I do wonder why the speed of light is 299 792 458 m/s instead of 400 000 000 m/s or 50 billion m/s.  I know it’s constant and like other constants the universe just sort of has them and299 792 458 m / s whether they are this value or that value, the point is, they have a constant value.299 792 458 m / s.

It’s still fun to think about.

Here are two decent resources explaining the situation with the finiteness and constance of the speed of light.

Why is the speed of light constant

Many novel ideas are found on the Internet. One not so novel notion is that Einstein was wrong and that the “lightspeed limit” is really just some international conspiracy of conservative “establishment” scientists. Those who make this point neglect the fact, however, that the deduction about the speed of light is not a result of some exotic assumptions or blind speculation, but a fairly simple consequence of some fundamental assumptions about nature: in other words, if you wish to prove that Einstein was wrong, you have to show that either elementary logic is incorrect, or that some of our basic assumptions about nature are outright false.

Here is why.

Why isn’t the speed of light infinite

The fact that space and time must get mixed up to keep the speed of light constant implies that, in some sense, space and time must be the same, despite our habit of measuring space in meters and time in seconds. But if time and space are similar to the extent that they can be converted one into the other, then one needs some quantity to convert the units–namely, something measured in meters per second that can be used to multiply seconds of time to get meters of space. That something, the universal conversion factor, is the speed of light. The reason that it is limited is simply the fact that a finite amount of space is equivalent to a finite amount of time.

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