Archived News for November 2007

More Things Found! - Freeman Dyson on Boer, Vietnam Wars, Human Destiny

I've finally found that essay I used to harp on about. Yes, it was a usenet posting, in the alt.books.cs-lewis group, of all places. You can read the full essay there.

Freeman Dyson is still alive, so the essay is still in copyright. But much of the essay is made up of two sources, from H. G. Wells and Robinson Jeffers, so I'll quote them (more fully than I did before) here - Wells is in the public domain, Jeffers will be in five years (but, fair use).

Do not misunderstand me when I speak of the greatness of human destiny. If I may speak quite openly to you, I will confess that, considered as a final product, I do not think very much of myself or (saving your presence) my fellow creatures. I do not think I could possibly join in the worship of humanity with any gravity or sincerity.

Think of it. Think of the positive facts. There are surely moods for all of us when one can feel Swift's amazement that such a being should deal in pride. There are moods when one can join in the laughter of Democritus; and they would come oftener were not the spectacle of human littleness so abundantly shot with pain.

But it is not only with pain that the world is shot — it is shot with promise. Small as our vanity and carnality makes us, there has been a day of still smaller things. It is the long ascent of the past that gives the lie to our despair. We know now that all the blood and passion of our life was represented in the Carboniferous time by something — something, perhaps, cold-blooded and with a clammy skin, that lurked between air and water, and fled before the giant amphibia of those days. For all the folly, blindness and pain of our lives, we have come some way from that. And the distance we have traveled gives us some earnest of the way we have yet to go.

It is possible to believe that all the past is but the beginning of a beginning, and that all that is and has been is but the twilight of the dawn. It is possible to believe that all the human mind has ever accomplished is but the dream before the awakening. We cannot see, there is no need for us to see, what this world will be like when the day has fully come. We are creatures of the twilight. But it is out of our race and lineage that minds will spring, that will reach back to us in our littleness to know us better than we know ourselves, and that will reach forward fearlessly to comprehend this future that defeats our eyes.

All this world is heavy with the promise of greater things, and a day will come, one day in the unending succession of days, when beings, beings who are now latent in our thoughts and hidden in our loins, shall stand upon this earth as one stands upon a footstool, and shall laugh and reach out their hands amidst the stars.
  names foul in the mouthing.
The human race is bound to defile, I've often noticed it,
Whatever they can reach or name. They'd shit on the morning star
  if they could reach...

The awful power that feeds the life of the stars has been tricked down
  into the common stews and shambles...

A day will come when the earth will scratch herself and smile
  and rub off humanity.

Benchmarking With httperf

David at Rimuhosting, where I work, has put together a nice script that automates benchmarking with httperf. I couldn't resist testing it out on Something Emporium. Here's the pretty graph:

Benchmark for Something Emporium

The y axis measures average response rate, in responses per second. The x axis is the request rate, from 2 to 40 requests per second. Perfect performance is the line y = x, because (unless you're psychic) you can only respond to requests you receive. So, I'm quite pleased with these results.

Can you spot the outlier in the above graph?


Google SketchUp is pretty amazing. A few two minute videos, and you've pretty much learnt how to use every tool in the program - enough to create some pretty impressive models.

And everything is very intuitive. For example, there's the system of 'inferences', which is basically a snap-to tool that shows you how the current point is constructed (like how you'd construct a point in 3rd form Graphics). So, hovering over the midpoint of a line, then moving the cursor in any axis direction lets you place a line along the axis, perpendicular to the midpoint of the first line. It makes more sense when you do it.

The first video tutorial I saw, and a good introduction to what SketchUp does, is here - it's a simple dog house.

My house

The Terrorism Suppression Act, Purpose, with reference to Plato's Theory of Forms; Episode 1, Part 1, a, ii)

I strongly recommend Graeme Edgeler's run down of the purpose and contents of the Terrorism Suppression Act, available for your reading pleasure at Public Address (for the purposes of this analysis, I'll go with Edgeler's "Te Qaeda" to refer to the group at the center of the 2007 "anti-terror raids" in Ruatoki and around the country). Here's a quick summary:

Mostly, it's about terrorist financing: creating consequences for people who fund terrorism, and allowing the freezing and seizing of terrorists' assets. For this purpose, it sets up a regime to designate groups and people as terrorists – so that we know whom we can't finance.

It also incorporates other obligations we have under various international conventions[, ...]creates offences relating to terrorist bombing[, ...]sees the creation of offences relating to the handling of unmarked plastic explosives, and the misuse or nuclear material[, ...]creates offences around recruiting and participating in terrorist entities (those designated as such, or which designate themselves as such by carrying out terrorist acts).

So, tonight's TV coverage. TV3 said, quite rightly, that the Terrorism Suppression Act wasn't intended for prosecution of domestic terrorism, but rather to stop funding and support of international terrorist groups.

But, then they go on to say the act has 'failed miserably', with regard to Te Qaeda, and that's why it should be rewritten.

As you can see from Edgeler's second post, it's not completely straightforward that the act doesn't apply in this (domestic) case. There is a argument for the prosecution, and for the defense; that's fairly obvious, given that the raids were given some go ahead by prosecutors before they occured. Whether the act applies involves all sorts of things, like the definition of a terrorist act, the definition of a terrorist entity, etc.

But, really, all of that is completely irrelevant for talking about the success of the act. Why? Well, first, lets assume there's some 'correct' objective standard of what terrorism is. Lets call that standard Terrorism-capital-T. This standard is, obviously, independent of the law.

Now, one of two alternatives is true: the actions of Te Qaeda constitute Terrorism, or they don't. But, regardless of whether Terrorism has occured, and regardless of whether the law will succeed in punishing said hypothetical Terrorism, the act has still met its purpose: to prevent the funding and support of international terrorist groups. That is, if the purpose of an act is to help fight international Terrorism, it doesn't matter if domestic Terrorism has occured or not; the act still meets its purpose successfully.

So, why talk about the act being a miserable failure? Well, I think there's a very good reason you might want to: lazyness. If you say the act has failed to prevent Terrorism at large, something it wasn't designed to do, then you can neatly ignore a whole bunch of other questions:

  • Is there such an objective standard Terrorism-capital-T? Of course, lack of a definition doesn't mean one doesn't exist - just ask someone to define 'blue' - but it's still a valid question, and a curly one that.
  • In other words, can we capture Terrorism in some concept of terrorism?
  • Should we be punishing terrorism seperately/in addition to our existing laws, that already make terrorist acts illegal?
  • Is planning a terrorist act a terrorist act? If so, what sort of planning? Where does idle chat become conspiracy?
  • &c., &c.

And the great thing about those questions is that I have no easy answers for any of them. I just wish reporters would find the time in their two minute spot to admit they don't either.

A Lack of Invention, or of Imagination?

The Chop-Fork

A commonly used argument for the patent system is that without it certain inventions wouldn't exist. Without the financial incentive patents provide, the argument goes, X wouldn't have been developed, where X is anything from Paracetemol to the chopfork. So, we should keep the patent system we have.

I think this argument is faulty. Here's an argument I see as a parallel:

Without the patent system, Einstein would have had no way to eat - he was a Patent clerk after all. So, the special theory of relativity wouldn't have been developed.

There's a couple of reasons this argument (and the one used by patent advocates) doesn't work. The first is that it implies that, if Einstein didn't come up with special relativity, nobody would have. Perhaps the more obvious problem, though, is the premise that if the patent system didn't exist, Einstein would have no way to eat - surely there'd be plenty of companies willing to employ him.

The analogues of these faults in the actual argument go something like:

  • If someone isn't motivated by the patent system to invent something, it doesn't mean that thing won't be invented (at some point, by someone)
  • Even if we didn't have the patent system, that doesn't imply inventors wouldn't be motivated to invent.

Perhaps I'm making the argument into a bit of a strawman. Perhaps the advocate can still claim:

Without the patent system, inventors wouldn't be motivated to invent as quickly/efficiently as they are with patents.

That might be true, but it would require that whatever alternative system of motivating innovation (perhaps the null-system; no incentives) we implement, it couldn't be as good as the current one. That's quite a steep claim to make – I think it's almost certainly false – and it's not easily testable. And notice that this argument contains none of what makes the first one convincing (which is the concrete claims about existing inventions).


Weird name, but I am so definitely tempted. Does anyone have a external USB 56k modem I can buy? That would make it a sure thing.

Eee PC

Dick Smith has them in white (I'd prefer black, but meh), for $599. Would be perfect for stripping down to a console and taking everywhere.

Eee interface

The default interface (although the menu is disabled by default):

Easy interface

My (much nicer) desktop:

Xfce4 desktop

And with a few programs running:

Firefox, Terminal, Pidgin, VLC

Coolness: streaming music and movies from my desktop to the eee using wireless. Then watching them in any part of the house. Thanks VLC!


If you thought "What the Bleep Do We Know?" was bad, I'd recommend the comments to this clip from Waking Life.

The view of physics presented in first part of the vid have long passed. The more modern view now, can be summed up in the phrase, 'Consciousness is the only true reality.' Einstein said it in a different way, "Matter is the optical illusion of consciousness." The power of your awareness, consciousness, determines your reality and defines 'who you really are.' The phrase 'free will' is misleading because it implies that you are only human but we are more, we are 'human beings.' The word being implies consciousness - the true reality. The phrase I Am sums up 'being' well. Eckhart Tolle talks about the ego (the false self). I suggest you read his books or listen to the audiobook verions. The ego has no free will. You do, however. You are much more than your mind. Your mind is a tool, only one of the many tools you have. Your reality is not predetermined exactly. If you bring awareness, consciousness, into what you are doing now, your consciousness changes reality outside of free will.

Yay! There's also the usual factoids and argument about quantum indeterminacy - nobody seems to catch on that how it might work (percolates up, consciousness causes collapse, blah blah blah, wank wank wank) is quite irrelevant to the argument in the clip.


A recent exchange on the NZ2.0 mailing list involved a good few formal arguments, put forward by Mark Rickerby and Richard Clark.

Here's Mark, summarizing arguments Richard allegedly made earlier in the thread:

[Argument 1]
  1. All complacent developers are using PHP
  2. I am using PHP
  3. Therefore, I am complacent
[Argument 2]
  1. Apps built in Rails, Django, or Seaside are innovative
  2. Your app doesn't use Rails, Django, or Seaside
  3. Therefore, your app is not innovative

I believe the term for these is non sequitur...

The first is affirming the consequent, and the second is denying the antecedent. Both are fallacies, which makes them non sequitur simply from the fact that they're invalid (all logical fallacies are non sequitur if you take that meaning of the term). I learnt a different meaning for the term. Here's an example of a non sequitur as I learnt it:

  1. If Socrates is a man, then Socrates is mortal.
  2. The sun sets every day.
  3. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

That is, I learnt that for an argument to be a non sequitur, one of the premises would be a non sequitur (in the ordinary sense of the word) - not following the line of deduction. Apparently that's a non-standard definition. I like it. Why not just call invalid arguments "invalid"?

In any case, Richard didn't like Mark's characterisation of his arguments. I think, reading back, Mark's critique was justified; Richard hadn't particularly given any reason to believe the converse (q -> p) or inverse (~p -> ~q) of the implications in question (PHP -> complacency, not-rails -> not-innovation). Here's his response:

The term for that is strawman. The correct set would be:

[Argument 3]
  1. Rails, Django and Turbogears are innovative
  2. You have not tried Rails, Django or Turbogears
  3. Therefore you are complacent
[Argument 4]
  1. Rails, Django and Turbogears offer powerful features that let you innovate faster and better
  2. You haven't used Rails, Django and Turbogears
  3. Therefore you have fewer, less innovative features for the same amount of development time

First, I think it's great that Richard responded with formal arguments - with a concise statement of his position - rather than trying to bluster his way through Mark's critique. However, these later two arguments aren't very good at all.

In its current form, argument 3 doesn't work at all, because the conclusion doesn't follow from premises. It's non-deductive. So, we try to add a premise to make it deductive. The first premise talks about innovation, and the conclusion about complacency, so we have to somehow link the two. We could try adding something like:

If you're not using an innovative framework, you're complacent

But this isn't enough. The argument doesn't claim that Rails, Django and Turbogears are the only innovative frameworks - that'd be a materially false claim anyway. So, that means that the second premise (that you're not using one of those three frameworks), together with our new premise, still wouldn't imply that you're complacent: for, you might be using TurboDjarails, an extremely innovative framework. So, what we actually need is this premise:

If you're not using Rails, Django or Turbogears, then you're complacent

But, that sounds awfully like what the argument is trying to establish. It's technically modus ponens from that premise, with premise 2, to establish the conclusion. But it's become a pretty facile argument to make, because you have to get someone to accept this premise, without any reason for doing so.

Argument 4 is more straightforward. It's certainly valid. But too much so; I think it begs the question. For, I can think of no way in which you'd believe in the first premise without already being convinced of the truth of the conclusion. In fact, the first premise (especially if we elide 'innovate' to 'develop innovative features') is just the conclusion couched in different terms. So, the argument doesn't do any work.

And that's without considering the material truth of the first premise. Assuming "faster and better" is suffixed by "than PHP", the premise is still certainly false in some cases, probably false in many cases, and perhaps false in the majority of cases.

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