Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Why is open source so fast?

From ZDNet.com
Premkumar Devanbu … of UC Davis has gotten a $750,000 grant to tackle one of computing's great mysteries — why does open source development go so fast? He … told reporters that while most projects move at the pace of the slowest team member, open source projects proceed at the pace of the fastest one and that, when more people are added, things move even faster.

Monday, September 25, 2006

What we care about

My friend Bob Weber points out that Newsweek's world-regional covers illustrate what we care about.

Subtle restraint of trade

Jakob Nielsen made this comment in the email message accompanying his Alertbox for September 25.
One of the main reasons Baidu is winning search share in China over Google, Yahoo, and MSN is that users complain that the foreign search engines are too slow. Of course, it's well-known that download times is a key factor in usability and that users prefer fast sites. What's less well-known is that the reason for the slow performance of the GYM sites is that the Chinese government has artificially reduced the speed of accessing sites outside China.

China should be reported to the WTO for restraint of trade for delaying foreign websites' download times.

I strongly doubt that the State Department has anybody at the policy level who understands usability, so most likely nothing will happen.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

An end-run around the electoral college

The New York Times reports that
a bill approved by the California legislature that would allocate the state’s 55 electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote sits on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk.
I had heard of this before, but I didn't know that it was John Koza, inventor of genetic programming, who came up with the idea. The plan is that if states with enough votes to form a majority in the electoral college agree, they would all cast their votes for the popular winner — independent of how that candidate did in the individual states. I think it's a great idea.

Perhaps even more forceful would be for coalition of states with a majority of electors to agree to cast their votes for candidates who won the overall popular vote in just those states. That would encourage the other states to join the coalition.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Dualism defended

The New York Times reports:
They meet every year, the eminent German professor and his old doctoral students, for a weekend of high-minded talk on a chosen topic. For years it was nothing more than that.

But now the professor, once called Joseph Ratzinger, has become Pope Benedict XVI. And this year, for three days beginning Friday, the topic on the table is evolution, an issue perched on the ever more contentious front between science and belief.
This apparently is a serious discussion of evolution — and Ratzinger is a sophisticated thinker. His problem, as expressed by Rev. Joseph Fessio, an American priest and former student of the pope’s is the following.
[T]he pope, based on his statements and writings, remains deeply concerned specifically about the contention among some supporters of modern evolution that the theory refutes any role of God in creation.

“Given this ideology, the temptation or danger is real to say that you don’t have any need of God [emphasis added], that the spirit doesn’t exist,” said Msgr. Fiorenzo Facchini, an Italian priest and paleoanthropologist. “And the church should keep guard against this and denounce it.”
It's fine with me for Pope Benedict to be concerned about and want to defend the need for God. Need is a subjective experience. He may very well need the idea of God, no matter what evolution says — and he may think everyone else needs God also.

The problem arises when the church fails to distinguish between statements about the physical world and statements about subjective experience. The church gets into trouble whenever it espouses a view about the material world as a consequence of religious doctrine. That is simply not supportable. Science is the road to knowledge about the material world. What we still don't understand, though, is subjective experience and the meanings and values we associate with it. That's where the church can play a useful role. Ratzinger seems to know that.
In his book “Truth and Tolerance” (Ignatius Press, 2004), written when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, he wrote of what he called an effort to turn evolution into a “universal philosophy” that explained all of life.

“This evolutionary ethic that inevitably takes as its key concept the model of selectivity, that is, the struggle for survival, the victory of the fittest, successful adaptation, has little comfort to offer,” he wrote. “Even when people try to make it more attractive in various ways, it ultimately remains a bloodthirsty ethic.”
This concern has nothing to do with the theory or mechanics of evolution. It is about the meaning of evolution. The theory of evolution doesn't discuss meaning. If some people see it as bloodthirsty, that's up to them. If others see it as the working out of God's plan, that too is up to them. Those sorts of issues are outside the realm of science. Ratzinger would do all of us a great service if he made clear that the bounds of the church stop at the end of subjective experience and do not include theories of the material world.

What has a soul?

You have probably heard of a Study [that] Reports [a] Method Of Creating Stem Cells Without Destroying Embryos. You may not have heard that Brian Hart, a spokesperson for Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), said that the new technique amounts to "creating a twin and then killing that twin."

It's silly to get involved in debating these people — but it's hard to resist. I wonder if they have a constructive definition — i.e., a test that can be carried out in a formal, objective manner — for determining when a soul exists. That is, if the objection is to killing something with a soul, how do we know when a bit of matter has a soul? What are the criteria for dividing the material universe into the ensouled part and the non-ensouled part?

Presumably, such test could also serve as a definitive test for death. If it can detect a soul, it can determine when a previously ensouled body no longer has its soul and should therefore be declared officially dead. That would make it much easier on the medical profession, which has struggled with this problem for years.

If I recall correctly, people who take this position, don't believe that animals (other than humans) have souls. So the test will have to be able to distinguish a fertilized human egg cell (just egg and sperm at a moment past the moment of conception) from that of any other animal. I doubt that this is easy to do using current techniques without an exhaustive DNA analysis. I wonder how they would go about it.