Archive for February 2007

The Universe Is So Big, It Must Be Filled With Intelligent Life, Right?

February 19, 2007

Well, if this Slashdot discussion is any indication, the answer is still “probably not”. Really. I don’t think that the best way to convince someone of your argument is to dismiss theirs out of hand. Bad strategy.

The links are interesting, though. The Fermi Paradox is the oft-quoted question (by the late Enrico Fermi, of course), posed in 1950 that asks If extraterrestrials are so common, then where are they? It’s not so simple to come up with a good answer as it seems (and to think that it is simple to do that is the debate equivalent of underestimating your enemy in battle. It’s something you really don’t want to do). Here’s a flavor from the linked Space Review Article:

Webb’s 50th solution is the one that he believes is the most likely. Unfortunately for extraterrestrial enthusiasts, the solution is depressingly pessimistic: “…the only resolution of the Fermi paradox that makes sense to me—is that we are alone.” Webb’s preferred solution is highly controversial, but it satisfies Ockham’s razor; out of all the Fermi paradox explanations, it is the simplest one.

This is a long, but detailed explanation of some of the difficulties presented by the Fermi Paradox. Well worth the read! Enjoy.

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The Glass Half Full

February 18, 2007

Many years ago I was fortunate enough to vacation for a week in Nassau, the Bahamas. One thing jumped right out at me; it was very, very easy to get a ‘cab’ ride to anywhere. It seemed like every other car was ‘hacking’.

I came to the conclusion that every other car was hacking. In general, people who owned cars there had to in order to be able to pay for the luxury of owning one. Those who didn’t took one of the many buses in the city. The ready availability of public transportation was, for them, a symptom of poverty (perhaps, not dire poverty, but poverty none-the-less).

And isn’t that odd? Wasn’t public transportation a sign of prosperity? Well, um… no.

And it’s starting to become obvious that public education is the same phenomenological type. If, as I believe, the very best education is one-on-one, done in a loving environment by people who truly care, then the very best education is home-schooling. That is, if we can afford it as a society, and if the teaching-parents are educated themselves, then it is. Public schooling, then, is also a symptom of impoverishment, and not the institutional product of abundance (even if it once was).

And care for the elderly? We all imagine that we would prefer to spend our dotage, not in a subsidized elderly care facility surrounded by strangers, but home with loved one. But can we afford it? Many are struggling to do just that, and more are willing to try every day. That we can contemplate wave after wave of individuals and families doing (and doing well) the functions formally performed by government institutions is an indication of a wealthy, intelligent and motivated population, not an impoverished, overworked people.

Linux after Vista

February 7, 2007

There is a surprising amount of unrest and unease in the Linux world these days, and I don’t think it has much to do with the release of Microsoft Vista this week.

I got caught up it it myself when I did some major surgery on my machine. The old PIII is gone, replaced with an Athlon-64. New memory, too. I did keep the old hard drive though, with Mandriva 2007 (released October 2006) and I was happy to see it boot right up with only a minor glitch; I had to manually reinstall the driver for the wireless network. Took two minutes and I was up and running and happy.

For about a day. Then I noticed that about half the time the new, powerful 2.4 gigahertz machine seemed to be slower than the old 600 mHz PIII.

It got stranger the more I looked. No process could be identified as taking up more than a bit of the resources (generally single-digit percents of the CPU). Hackers? The firewall seemed to be working – no indication in the logs of anything, even pings, from an odd IP. Anything I touched that used more than a smidgen of my graphics, like a video, seemed to take 100% of the CPU, and then hang on to it for several seconds or even minutes. But even when the machine was idle something was sucking resources, and then go away. It would be good for five or ten minutes.

Needless to say, after a week or two of that, I got pretty frustrated, enough so that I even downloaded a copy of the Ubuntu install.

And that’s a tale. I wouldn’t be the first to jump the Mandriva ship this year for Ubuntu. Seems like many have. Madriva has annoyed its users with a couple of minor mistakes (Kat, an ugly, star-eyed penguin) and by not changing. Not changing? Yes, I think long time KDE and Mandrake/Mandriva users are bored with blue.

Worse, their business (and it is a business, even if the distribution is free) is ailing, maybe failing.

Is there an alternative? SuSE is currently suspect because “Novell angered members of the open-source community that develops Linux and other free software programs in November when it entered a wide-ranging business deal with Microsoft.” Some purists think Novell has entered into a pact with the devil (aka, Microsoft) and may not be allowed to distribute SuSE under the GPL. Some users complain that some installers in some distros are out of date, others that other distros are too bloated.
Then there are the endemic problems. No distribution is doing great at hardware detection at the moment, both KDE and Gnome are stalled in their development (I’ll come back with a reference later), driver support still seems dismal at times and Linux in general seems no closer to general acceptance.

It’s a bit ugly.

But then, a poster in a Linux forum seemed to have exactly my problem. Then, later the same day, he suggests the answer, seemingly without realizing it (“Switch the daughter cards around, guy. It’s a good old-fashioned IRQ conflict, you dolt!” I tell myself). Seconds after doing that, I’m running on a real 64 bit machine with horsepower and speed to burn. It’s like being able to breathe again after a bad head cold.

Maybe it’s not so bad after all.

Can A Scientist Be Bribed?

February 7, 2007

Well, I’m sure it’s happened, somewhere.

Ian Sample of The Guardian published an article that claimed scientists were being offered bribes by Exxon Mobile to undermine last week’s UN report on ‘climate change’.

Sean Carroll at Cosmic Variance thinks that it hardly seems necessary to bribe them when they seem willing to undermine the report for free!

Ok – ok!  I’m being flip.  In his own words:

The argument of those on the We Call It Life side of the climate-change fence is that the AEI isn’t offering a bribe to scientists to distort their positions — they’re just collecting a bunch of articles from voices that might be skeptical anyway.

Read the whole thing!

Full disclosure; Sean and I were undergrads in the same department, though not at the same time.  We have never met, but it seems we have several mutual friends and acquaintances.

Oddest Story Since O.J.’s Bronco Car Chase

February 7, 2007

I haven’t wanted to write much about this remarkable and bizarre episode coming from Florida involving three NASA astronauts and one love triangle.  But there is an undercurrent in the reporting of this story that bothers me.  The MSM is just dying, it seems, to come out and shout “HEY! This is a story of a remarkable woman driven to madness by jealousy!!!” in 36 point font headlines.  It is not.

So what is the story?

There is a common perception that NASA carefully screens, tests and selects the best, most disciplined people from the ranks of the military and civilian specialists for dangerous, high profile missions where the lives of several (and the livelihoods of hundreds and thousands) are dependent upon their stability and dependability.  Lisa Marie Nowak has been one of those – the best of the best. There has been a perception that NASA would not let anyone capable of stalking or mayhem or, heaven forbid, murder be up there in space.  That perception is shattered.  That should be the story, but it isn’t (our naivety rarely is).

In some sense, it was inevitable that sooner or later some person who did not have “The Right Stuff” would get past NASA’s screening and tests.  I don’t know that Lisa Marie Nowak is that person, but sooner or later, as more and more of the general population gets access to outer space, it’s inevitable.  Are we surprised at the idea of romantic entanglements in the astronaut corp?  That was inevitable too (and sooner, rather than later).  That seems like the story, but isn’t.

But whose fault will that be?  This weird episode is by no means an indication that there exists a class of people, women in this case, who should not be astronauts, and no one wants that to be the story.  It does, however, make me question NASAs idea of psychological testing and the cannons of psychology to begin with.

If there is a problem here to be dealt with, then the problem is that character exhibited by human beings will continue to defy explanation.  The very definitions of mental health and mental illness have been so abused by the academic community that those trained in academia cannot seem to recognize them.  Not only has NASA failed, it seems, to identify someone who seems to be dangerous in certain circumstances, it has demonstrated the utter failure of a whole academic discipline to understand a major facet of a human being.

We’ve long known that when we try to treat the worst of our populations, the rapists and child molesters and those considered monsters, the recidivism rate is depressingly high.  Now it seems that psychology and testing does no better with the best.