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a crack in the ice

Jan. 29th, 2008

10:23 pm - Today I have learned . . .

... there are no good PHP frameworks, lo, though there are many. I believe there is actually a law against substantially documenting one. And yet, I need one. Oh great gods of Olympos, deliver us!

Also, I thought this was nice:

Jan. 22nd, 2008

07:28 pm - Work-a-hol-a-rama

Predictably enough I begin my new job as a total workaholic. Here it is, 7:30 PM, and I am installing Oracle Client on my workstation. Which reminds me of a funny story.

Earlier in the day I pointed another database management application at our database (at least, at what I thought was our database), and asked it to 'Reverse Engineer' the schema into an E/R diagram. You know, so that I could begin to grasp how things were laid out.

The number of tables that spilled out onto the screen was horrifying. I have a very large screen, and there were scrolling pages upon scrolling pages of tables all crunched together with hundreds of thousands of lines going all over the place. I spent an hour trying to pick out clusters; it was roughly like trying to re-reel a pound of fishing line you dragged up in a clot from the bottom of a lake.

I gave serious consideration to looking for a job again. There was no way I could comprehend such a schema. Clearly my co-workers, who have been here for a few years already, were *madmen*, who only seemed like reasonable people *on the surface*.

Turns out, I had pointed the application at the whole Oracle database -- not our own, us-defined database. So, I was looking at our tables PLUS all the tables that are built into Oracle. Ha, ha! My bad.

I investigated the Medical Center's food options today. There is a kind of food court where you can get your Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut. (There is a McDonalds right across the courtyard from my building.) All great food, consistent with the mission of a Medical Center. But there is also this wonderful cafeteria, where I can get, well, just lots of kinds of great food. Grill food, Asian food, salads and soups, sushi, actual real live fruits and vegetables... and, as Dale Cooper would add, at a reasonable price!

There is also this mysterious valet service, where adept Vanderbilt henchmen will take your clothes to be dry-cleaned, or take your car to have its oil changed, or whatever. I'll let you know the surcharge as soon as I find out. At Christmas time, you supposedly just drop off your presents, and they will wrap them for you. Crap, I might actually start buying presents, just to try this out! And I gather that there are places all over town where I can get discounts by flashing my VUNet ID.

"It feels a little like being in the Mafia," one of my co-workers admitted, and I have to agree. So far, there have been no real unpleasant surprises here -- when there are, you'll be the first to know.

Jan. 11th, 2008

08:44 am - Nashville!

City of Music! Home of the Grand Ol' Opry, the Parthenon, and the Pancake Pantry!

It is to this place that Fortune has taken me; moved in over the last week. Into a tiny little apartment on Music Row, half a mile from Vanderbilt Medical Center. I rid myself of about half my possessions before the move, but even so, squeezing everything into six hundred square feet was quite an undertaking.

Now I get to live -- for the most part -- an urban, walking life. In general, Nashville is a drivers' town, like most American cities. But I'm in a little pocket in the old downtown, which has coffee shops, restaurants, bars, a little independent movie theater, a great used book store, and various other shops and services. There is a good Harris Teeter within what will doubtless seem a long walk, with groceries in a backpack, but which isn't really all that far. I'll be walking to work, too: a hair over a mile, round trip.

Wouldn't you know, I got a head cold upon arrival. It is one of those pinball viruses: one day it's in your nose, then your throat, then your chest, then your nose, then your throat again...
For a couple of days it threatened to smite me with laryngitis, but my voice started returning yesterday. None of this is that big of a deal; my energy level has been at about 90% normal throughout. But brother, when you are moving you can really miss that 10 percent.

In this new chapter of life, I may post a bit more. Here's to resolutions, and a Happy New Year!



Jan. 27th, 2007

09:20 pm - Who would do something like that?

Now this is disturbing.

Nov. 3rd, 2006

05:30 pm - Poor woman...

Apparently a US soldier who had been compelled, but subsequently refused, to take part in interrogations in Iraq, committed suicide in protest:


That is a side of the interrogation issue there hasn't been a lot of talk about. Setting aside what we may be doing to innocent people, and setting aside what we have done to the national reputation: what are we doing to all the servicepeople who are more or less forced to more or less torture people?

Oct. 20th, 2006

02:17 pm - "Ship it!" as Chthonic Form

Plato had something. At least in some sense, there are eternal and intangible forms that underly the universe we perceive. A few of these we can articulate quite clearly in mathematics, while more we can apprehend by intuition. It is too bad that Idealism has spawned so much flim-flam, so much, er,"hocus pocus". Because there is a lot of stuff in the world that cannot but put you in mind of that thing you hopefully had to read in high school, about the cave with the fires in the back.

Take Parasitism for example. Roughly: parasitism seems to emerge spontaneously in any evolutionary system whose members compete for resources. Parasitism has arisen independently many times in the evolution of Earth's biosphere. It has arisen in human markets and political systems. It has arisen in computing systems and information networks. You and I and the whole world could come and go, and this recurring principle of Parasitism will still be unchanged. Parasitism is like a pure ray of applied math from the mind of the Demiurge, a blind Deist archangel automatically evoked anywhere the right words are spoken.

Perhaps a more rational and modern (yawn) way is to think of Parasitism as merely an extended adjective or metaphor. But not only is there a passing resemblance of Parasitism-in-people and Parasitism-in-computers, there are deep commonalities that you can count on, that you can work with. For example, where parasitism occurs in an evolutionary system it seeks a level just barely insufficient to provoke some kind of anti-parasite adaptation or behavior in the host. It just sorta falls out of the timeless logic of the related concepts. It is a chthonic version of "don't bite the hand that feeds you".

You could probably model parasitism in the abstract with mathematics, probably with game theory and come up with something that fits not only already-observed instances of parasitism but that you can use to predict facts about new instances for which you have only partial information. For all I know, it's been done (if so, please point me to it)

One of my hobbies is to keep an eye out for these sorts of archetypal ideas: the ones you don't find in literature or in dreams, but through microscopes, telescopes, petri dishes and archaeological digs. (No, there is no money in it, unless you come to asinine conclusions which you sell in paperback.) I decided to call them 'Cthonic ideas', until I come up with something better. I want a word distinct from 'archetype', which I think is useful to designate hardwired psychological Ideas, a somewhat different thing.

I intuited (for me anyway) a new Chthonic Idea today, or at least, this is the first time I thought about it in this exact context. I am talking about The Rush Job: in which Something is assembled suboptimally because it is made for a competition in real time. By the way, it has been suggested that this principle is the reason we have evolved to age and die -- that is, in a way that falls apart and eventually self-destructs. From the genes' point of view, why spend a lot of time repairing a body if you can just make it good enough to create a few new ones?

As far as I know, it is still believed that all animals age, at least perceptibly: so it appears another evolutionary choice is possible. Certainly it would be possible to make us so that we are much longer lived. This is possible, but or so it seems so far for most creatures, not viable in the competitive sense. The influence of Saturn may be too strong, or something, I don't know.

Anyway, the Rush Job *clearly* shows up in human activities, in markets, and (oh boy) in software. Calling it the Rush Job, of course, reflects my impulses as a programmer who wants to be cautious. But as all such programmers are reminded innumerable times, you can 'polish the apple forever'. Anything that is a product of Design (evolutionary or no) could stand improvement; improvement always takes time; and time is a master factor in virtually any competition.

Speaking of which, my own rush job du jour is calling . . .

Jun. 13th, 2006

12:45 pm - Damn Skippy, Dr. Hawking

Al Gore is getting a lot of attention for his movie, "An Inconvenient Truth", which probably (I haven't seen it) will happen to mention that the Earth may be in some kind of environmental danger.

Humanity's overall predicament is far worse than anything Gore has imagined, of course. Global Warming is only one of a number of extinction threats, and as such it is not the most likely to actually lead to extinction.

It does now seem likely to most of the relevant experts, as far as I can tell, that human activities have probably contributed to global warming, and that the effects on the biosphere could be quite serious, and possibly grave. However, few are predicting Global Warming will cause the rapid extermination of the human race. Sure: massive crop failures; mass migrations by large chunks of the world population; deaths in the millions... but these are all things the very determined and hairless apes have bounced back from before. The climate change we are seeing is rapid -- but not 'The Day After Tomorrow' rapid, not even nuclear winter rapid. Chances are extremely good that plenty o' humans will survive the disaster Gore says we have but ten years to avert.

Not to rain on his parade, then, but I must point out that a number of countries still have plenty of atomic weapons sleeping in their silos, and any war where a bunch of those get chucked around is likely to create climate change on a different order altogether. If you take the historical record as a good indicator of the general frequency of major wars, well, things don't look so good.

It's possible that humanity would survive even a serious nuclear winter. Aside from the microscopic stuff and the cockroaches and so on, I personally vote this species of ours as Most Likely To Survive (Even If Survival Sucks). But could we survive a supervolcano? A comet impact? Given a long enough time frame, these events are as sure as the rising of the sun is apparent.

And so I have long believed in the overwhelming importance of creating stable and self-sufficient colonies in space. Indeed, one broad misgiving I continue to harbor about environmentalism in public policy is that badly-thought-out government environmental policies could compromise the development of the kind of scientific, industrial and economic power we will need to build giant ships capable of towing populations of people between stars. (And not JUST to build ships. That's just the first item on a long list of prerequisites for successful permanent space colonization...)

Anyway, I suspect most people think I am crazy when I rant about how humanity must escape the Earth. But today Stephen Hawking said the same thing, with a lot more reporters listening: http://apnews.myway.com/article/20060613/D8I7ADB81.html

I would like to thank him, on behalf of my great-great-great-grandchildren, the bioengineered-yeast-sucking dome-dwellers of Alpha Centauri B's second planet, 'Gurdjieff's Gulch'.

Jun. 1st, 2006

09:23 am - Watershed

Everyone knows that in the Foundation novels by Isaac Asimov, there is this character named Hari Seldon, who in the far future develops a science called 'psychohistory' that, in a very sort-of zoomed-out, big-picture way, predicts the political future. Not everyone knows that Hari Seldon is actually a real person; he also owns a time machine, and had lunch with Peggy Noonan yesterday.
(All this can be deduced from her article: http://www.opinionjournal.com/columnists/pnoonan/ )

All right, so you don't have to be Hari Seldon, or even Peggy Noonan, to sense that America approaches some kind of crossroads. I am not impressed by this Unity '08 entity. Their bid to slurp out the sweet vanilla filling of the American middle is nowhere, man, nowhere. But they have a Frogger knockoff, in which you navigate a suitably bland Everyman voter across four lanes of cars driven by bobble-head Republicans and Democrats, to a utopian "Democracyland". I hear that if you make your little video-game dude jump on Hillary Clinton's head just the right way, it triggers an embedded pornographic sequence!

Ah, if only Unity '08 had that much going for it.

What do you think? Will American disaffection provoke a positive change, from without or from within the present parties? Will it provoke a change to something even worse? Or will the Babel of special interests succeed in diverting general disgruntlement in the inane manner to which we have become accustomed (http://www.helpinganimals.com/animalsHome_hurricaneseason.asp)?

Mar. 28th, 2006

11:16 am - First simulation of a life form.

In the journal Structure (doi:10.1016/j.str.2005.11.014) five researchers from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaigne report "the first all atom simulation of an entire life form, satellite tobacco mosaic virus, albeit an extremely primitive one with an artificial nucleotide sequence." This is an exciting announcement; my own simulations, however, predict this story will undergo rapid inflation when exposed to journalism.

Tobacco mosaic virus is the reason many gardeners who smoke do not smoke in their garden. Humans, even smokers, cannot 'get' tobacco mosaic virus, but in smoking and handling tobacco products, they can 'give' tobacco mosaic virus to their plants -- particularly to tomato plants (tobacco and tomato are both in the Solanaceae or nightshade family.) One reason many researchers study the virus is the big plus that the virus poses no threat to researchers (tomato gardens aside). Another is that it is really easy for researchers to make more of it, whenever they want, from some infected plants. It is an extremely simple 'life form', apparently made up of 61 proteins and a pamphlet-sized string of RNA.

It appears that what they simulated was the structural properties of the viral body in water under different temperature conditions. You can think of it as being akin to a computational reconstruction of the collapse of the World Trade Center, that takes no account of the interactions of the people or stuff inside. Of course, this *is* a virus. Presumably there isn't a bunch of stuff inside, the virus's protein coat and RNA payload are pretty much all it has got. (There are illusions in the article to a single 'mystery protein', though; hopefully some reader expert in virology can tell us more about that.) And anything that helps us learn more about viruses is a good deal, because it certainly seems that most viruses are not on our side.

Still it should be recognized that the simulation of the internal workings of any whole organism -- all the activities and interactions of proteins and metabolites; all the internal work and signalling -- is still quite far off. According to one of the team members, Klaus Schulten, "it could still be a long time before scientists can simulate a digital dog wagging its tail." (quote from LiveScience.com) Understated humor. It will still be a long time before scientists can deeply simulate a protozoon wagging its flagellum...

Sep. 21st, 2005

02:45 am - Hurricanes and Right Reasons

A couple of weeks ago, the city of New Orleans was effectively destroyed by an reasonably powerful hurricane which retires the name Katrina. Another one, named Rita, is roaring into the Gulf of Mexico. There have been a lot of strong hurricanes lately. They have much to teach us.

First lesson: we should not be quick to chalk all this up to Global Warming. I do not say this because I disbelieve that Global Warming is happening, or that it is due to human activity. I think it is reasonable to conclude, from the weight of evidence and expert opinion, that the world is getting warmer, and that our activities have something to do with it. That is precisely *why* we should be cautious in ascribing every possible misfortune, or even patterns of misfortunes, to Global Warming. Say we persuade ourselves, and everyone else, that hurricanes are symptomatic of a Warming, yet we are wrong? One possible consequence, if hurricane season eases up for a number of years, is that we mistake the calm for evidence that Warming is not happening after all. If it is important to persuade people that Global Warming is happening, it is equally important that they be persuaded for the right reasons.

Second lesson: we should not be too quick to make political hay out of the hurricanes' fallout. I do not say this because I disbelieve that there has been a massive failure on the part of American government to respond appropriately, or that people should demand change. It is clear that there were completely unacceptable failures by the local, state, and federal authorities. I believe that the failures of the Bush Administration in this regard should put the entire 'neoconservative' wing of the Republican party into the historical dustbin (where, I admit, I have long thought it belonged.) But we must also remember a reason most Democrats are for gun control: this is because most Democrats, when handed a loaded gun, skillfully and automatically proceed to blow their own brains out. Having as they do no brains, they will completely fail to see that this is a metaphor explaining how they lost control of the Empire, and why they may never regain it.

There were three related but separable failures of the Administration, and it is no use whatsoever to talk about any others. The three failures were:

1) The failure to execute a truly rapid urban evacuation of the City of New Orleans. I don't mean to ignore other affected areas (rural and small-town); but the failure to evacuate one major city indicates that the Administration has failed BY THEIR OWN STANDARDS. They sold us on the idea that they were uniquely qualified to respond to great urban disasters -- this after all is the nightmare scenario underlying the so-called War on Terrorism -- and despite massive reorganization of government and astronomical spending, COMPLETELY failed to respond adequately to an urban disaster for which we had plenty of warning. If a Dirty Bomb goes off in a major American city, or if someone manages to release a virulent bioweapon in one, we need stronger (and smarter) action than we saw in New Orleans.

2) The allocation of many National Guardsmen (and transport equipment) to Iraq. To say the least this is an inconvenient place to locate our last line of defense of civil order. There are three other armed services to take romping around the world, if you feel you have to do that kind of thing. The National Guard is, or ought to be, reserved for action here.

3) The appointment of a supreme idiot to head FEMA. I don't really need to talk more about this one, do I? Almost everyone I know is more qualified to head FEMA than this Michael Brown. Every administration produces a certain amount of bogus appointments for flunky friends of the dealmakers. After 9/11, you wouldn't think the head of FEMA would be one of them.

The Democrats, of course, cannot stick to the three issues that would suffice to turn the political tide. They must beat anything that even looks like a drum: the Global Warming drum, the Wetlands Protection Drum, the Neglected Infrastructure Drum, the Class Conflict Drum, and the Race Drum. Even if a drum is obviously rigged to explode when beaten, a Democrat will beat it: that after all is how CBS was tricked into throwing the last election.

Really, guys, if you stick to persuading people for the Right Reasons, you'll be a lot better off.

And truth be told, the Democrats deserve their share of the blame for Katrina. They held sway in Congress for almost sixty years: three times over long enough to have committed money to shoring up New Orleans' levies. They held sway too in New Orleans, and failed to do their part to implement the City Evacuation plan. I doubt they would have responded much better to the disaster (although admittedly it is hard to imagine anyone finding a bigger idiot than Michael Brown). It is probably lucky for them that they blew the last Presidential election: in its weakened state, I doubt their Party ever would have recovered from the political fallout of Katrina.

Poor Libertarians should just keep their heads down: there is little political capital they can hope to gain here. Big disasters like the one brought one by Katrina make people cry out for Big Government. This is unfortunate, as it is clear to me that centralization of disaster response is what made the disaster OF a response possible. How many aid resources were refused, turned away, delayed, or harried by a FEMA bent on protecting its turf? How many lives might have been saved if chaos -- including countless chaotic but capable efforts to help -- had been allowed to prevail? We may never know. But unfortunately, no matter how often centralized government abjectly fails, people ascribe the failures to the specific yahoos who are running the show that day. If their man was only in charge, they believe, everything would be different.

And this is why things in America are always the same.

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