Sunday, December 24, 2006

Merry... uh...

There's one major problem with being an atheist: what the hellblazes do you wish people at all those wonderfully Christian festivals?

Let's get this clear: I respect people's religious rights to the hilt, and will happily beat round the head any idiot who thinks that Christmas is bad per se. However, the whole central concept of Christmas - a baby being born after artificial insemination by a deity and with angels and astronomically-implausible phenomena hanging overhead - is very much against my personal reality-based ideals. Quite frankly it's daft, and it's increasingly the case that self-oblivious daftness bugs the bejeezus heck out of me. Even before you throw in the commercialism, Christmas to me is the festival equivalent of the infamous three plaster ducks.

Of course I'm not the only person who feels like this. Many atheists are irritated by being forced into association with someone else's festival, so let's look at what they do.

Approach 1: Commercialism is the reason for the season

Proponent: Dawkins

The first approach amongst atheists is to unhesitatingly accept all the trappings of Christmas, but in addition to accept something that Christians have been complaining about for years: that Christmas seems to be getting less oriented around Christianity every year. The result is a sense of smug satisfaction without having to worry about whether it's acceptable to break out the Christmas Pudding.

On a side-note, I'd like to ask those complaining Christians: who do you think you're kidding? If you're going to "borrow" random holidays off of older religions, and at a time of year where your story couldn't possibly have happened to boot, you have very little grounds to grumble when said holidays are repurloined. Honestly, it's worse than Disney ripping off random fairytales and then whining about copyright not being strict enough.

Rant over, next approach.

Approach 2: Cthulhu is the reason for the season

Proponent: PZ Myers

The next methodology takes the above idea about Christmas not being Christian one step further, by picking a completely new name for an event that just happens to roughly coincide with the better-known festival. Examples are Cephalopodmas, wintereenmas, solstice, festivus, ramahanukwanzmas and probably dozens of others.

Many of these provide a wonderful biting commentary on various aspects of Christmas, not least its complete and unconscionable lack of squid, but to be quite frank they all sound quite, quite lame. Not to mention as fake as a tin shilling.

Approach 3: Axial Tilt is the reason for the season

Proponent: No-one I know, although there is a cool tshirt

This version challenges the underlying premise of the above two arguments: that we need to slap labels on any attempt to be merry and generous. This assertion is clearly silly, and yet so many people take it as a given (admittedly mostly at the instigation of that scourge of wallets, the greeting card industry). Why not just have fun?

Go visit your relatives not in celebration of one particular baby out of the billions who have been born in December, but because you love them and want them to be happy during this frankly rather gloomy time of year. Go sledding not from any sense of obligation, but because sliding down snow is great fun and probably won't be possible once global warming really kicks in. Buy people as many presents as your heart desires and your bank account can cover, but don't forget them the other 364.242375 days of the year. Stick up a Christmas tree not because you need to compete with the Joneses next door and their indoor redwood, but because it's hilarious to watch your cat trying to mug the fairy on top.

In short: treat December 25th not as some bizarrely different chunk of time, but as a linchpin in your plans to fill the entire year with as much happiness as possible. And as a chance to get completely plastered, of course.
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Saturday, December 16, 2006

Software that grows as it goes

In a previous post, I discussed the key principle of Free Software: that software should be freely modifiable and redistributable.

Now I'd like to discuss a completely unrelated concept called Open Source. Its key principle: that software should be freely modifiable and redistributable.

The Open Source movement is based on the observation that, in some contexts, an appropriately-structured but otherwise freewheeling community of developers can produce some damn good products. The key to this result is a sort of ratchet effect - if any individual can take effective ownership of the code then said code can only get better. Improvements will grabbed by everyone else; crappy code will be dropped and eventually disappear from the communal pool.

Of course, this is a major simplification of the process of software development, but it's close enough to reality that the Open Source community is doing very well for itself, thank you very much. The concept of "forking" - creating duplicates of the codebase, which can then be worked on separately - remains pretty much a nuclear option, and is rarely used. But the availability of this option enforces passable development standards, and where it has been used (for example in the case of the XFree86 window manager) the result has been massively increased levels of innovation and quality control.

In fact, this development model has been so successful that many large companies such as IBM are increasingly supporting Open Source communities by seeding them with paid developers. The companies get software that fits their needs more completely, plus a lot of goodwill; everyone else gets better software. And they only have to pay for the developers once, rather than having to continually spend fortunes on Microsoft software licenses. Everyone's happy, except for the closed-source companies.

Like any other model, Open Source has its strengths and weaknesses. The biggest problem is the chicken-and-egg issue of getting buy-in for any truly revolutionary ideas you may have - until those ideas have debuted, it's hard for potential contributors to realise how valuable they could be. Closed source, as far as I can tell, is a lot better at innovation for this reason.

However, the corresponding strength is very powerful. Open Source's advantage is that the development community scales proportional to the user community. The more users you get, the more contributors will emerge. As a result of this, already-solid products such as the Apache web server, the Firefox web browser and the Linux operating system can be honed to a level of quality that wouldn't be easily possible for a closed-source company. Open Source can be envisaged as a rising tide that eventually beats closed source but that leaves a big gap open for new ideas.

How does this differ from Free Software? Well, they both focus on Quality in software arising from availability of the source code, and are completely compatible in terms of artefacts, processes and philosophies, but beyond that the similarity ends. Free Software is fundamentally a matter of civil rights - FSers are the libertarians of the software world. Open Source, by contrast, is simply keen on this neat development model that has been stumbled upon. FSers see OSers as sellouts who miss the point; OSers see FSers as uncompromising zealots.

So which am I? Really I'm neither - I have yet to contribute anything to the FOSS (Free/Open Source Software) community except in the most tangential fashion. In another sense I'm both - I agree with both groups. However, if I had to pick one, I'd probably go for Free Software. It's my computer and it'll do what I tell it to and like it, dammit!
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The experiment continues

In a previous post, I discussed how applying a miniscule amount of thought to the problem of stalling the car served to provide me with a solution. I want to start using this approach a lot more. My new target: mornings.

I'm fundamentally bad at mornings. Generally my brain doesn't really wake up until at least a couple of hours in. That's why, for my new job, I've been getting up earlier than strictly necessary, with the aim of getting into work half an hour before it actually starts. That way I don't need to feel guilty if all I'm good for for said half hour is reading a book.

It also provides a useful buffer against oversleeping, and allows me to notice whether I'm starting to slip up before it becomes an issue. That warning light is currently flashing.

The desired timeline is: get up at 6:30, leave the house at 7:20, get into work at 8:00 for an official start of 8:30. Redundancy is built into this approach at two points: the long period before I have to leave the house, and the half hour that I'm early by. It's the former of these that's starting to be a problem. The short version is: I keep sleeping on until about 6:45. I don't like it.

This quarter of an hour represents an interesting issue of quality. Whilst it's actually fairly unnecessary as far as scheduling is concerned, it's vitally important to me as a representation of my commitment to professionalism at work. If I lose that momentum, I'll be headed straight down the extremely slippery slope to becoming a complete slob.

What's supposed to happen is that I get woken up by the alarm, turn it off, get out of bed and get in the shower. What's actually happening is that I get woken up, turn the alarm off, and fall asleep again. I usually wake up again in under 20 minutes - my subconscious apparently knows that that's the point at which I do actually need to get up. I have a very constraint-driven subconscious. I wish I could make it more goal-driven, but that's not a viable solution in the short term.

In the brainstorming process, I've come up with the following broad categories of idea:
1) Make myself less likely to sleep past the alarm
2) Make the alarm less easy to sleep past
3) Mitigate the effects of sleeping past the alarm

The concrete ideas on the table for idea 1 are:
a) Get more sleep (i.e. get to bed earlier)
b) Figure out ways to make my sleep more re-energising (e.g. exercise before bed, fine-tune the bedroom temperature, get a new mattress, etc)
c) Figure out ways to trick my body into thinking it's been re-energised (e.g. attempt to fine-tune my bedtime so that at 6:30 I'm in REM sleep)

For idea 2:
a) Make the alarm require a bit more thought and/or effort to turn off (e.g. put it on the other side of the room, find an alarm which is trickier to disable, etc)
b) Increase the alarm's impact (e.g. make it louder, make it more intrusive, wire electrodes to it and attach them to my body, etc)

For idea 3:
a) Set the alarm earlier
b) Set more than one alarm

Of these, 1a is already being played to the hilt (although I should definitely keep in mind the importance of early nights). 1c is probably intractable in the short term, although at some point I might want to review the relevant scientific literature. 2b is probably undesirable - loud alarms wake the family, annoying alarms leave me feeling disgruntled all morning, electrodes leave burn marks etc. 3a is rather incompatible with the goal of 1a. That leaves 1b, 2a, and 3b.

I therefore propose the following response:
- Try exercising before bed
- Actually bother to learn how to operate the thermostat
- Investigate the comparative softnesses of various matresses, and attempt to estimate how they would affect my sleep
- Relocate the existing alarm
- Investigate getting a more complicated alarm (possibly as a second alarm)

Hopefully this'll all have the desired effect.
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A life of Quality

I just found out today that a guy who studied maths with me at university died a couple of weeks ago. Technically I'm only a couple of days out of the loop - his body was only just found.

Despite being in the same year, at the same college and studying the same subject, I didn't know Daniel terribly well as a person. I generally hung out with a group of maths students who could legitimately be termed the slackers of the dept (to the extent that anyone at Cambridge can be considered a slacker); Daniel was substantially more driven about his studies. His hobbies were rowing and choir; mine were substantially more eclectic. He spent many an evening in the college bar; in some ways I never fully integrated into my college, and as a result I preferred town pubs.

So most of what I know about him was very shallow and scarce - barely more than what was covered in the obituary. I never knew he was interested in philosophy or computer science, two areas which I also find fascinating. If we'd chatted in more depth, would we have hit it off more? Did I miss an opportunity to make a friend? Heck, would he even have wanted to be my friend? My behaviour at university was often very immature, and my level of personal Quality is in many ways still shocking - am I someone that Daniel could have respected enough to form a bond with?

If not, I hope I can someday be such an individual. Daniel was a very conscientious person, with no fear of hard work and a great deal of raw talent. He was quiet but friendly, the proverbial Nice Guy, and tended to get along with other students of all stripes. In many ways, he was the man I'd like to become.

As an atheist, I have no great expectation of being able, in 50 years or so, to meet Daniel again on the Other Side and impress him with my growth as a person. I don't believe that he's up there now, singing in the heavenly choir or strumming a harp. What I do believe, though, is that he took the time he had and built an awesome life from it. I hope some day I can say the same.
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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Driving update

The experiment appears to have worked. By thinking through my driving style carefully, I seem to have managed to stop myself stalling repeatedly. Certainly it hasn't happened since I wrote my last post on the subject.

So just throwing a little brainpower into the mix can be unbelievably effective at improving the Quality of my passage through life. In some ways I find this rather disturbing - how many other frustrations are there that I could easily cure with just a little thought? How much of my life have I wasted on a stimulus/response approach to affairs? How far have I been off the path of true virtue?

Speaking of virtue, I've lately been reading an abridged edition of Gibbon's seminal "Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire". I can thoroughly recommend it - the guy manages to squeeze a truly impressive amount of passion into his words. It's basically an historically accurate polemic - and Gibbon's focus is on virtue and its loss. Very inspiring, especially when taken with a side-order of the film "Gladiator" :)
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Monday, December 04, 2006

False assumptions and girl-chasing

One of the interestingly constant things about males worldwide is that they tend to prefer women who are a couple of years younger than them. There are two explanations for this: the "why?" and the "why not?". I'll take the latter first.

When mankind's ancestors moved down from the trees and onto the plains, their social structure changed rather dramatically. Originally we probably lived in chimplike tribes, with complete promiscuity being the rule. Out on the plains, a monogamous arrangement proved more appropriate. If you want more detail, I recommend the book "Genome" by Matt Ridley.

One of the side-effects of this was that men developed a propensity to choose younger mates where possible, as this would increase the overall breeding lifespan of the relationship and hence the number of kids they could have. Obviously none of this was conscious - propensities for "marrying" older women were just selected against. That's our "why not?" answer.*

The "why?" answer is in many ways more interesting. In most men, as best I can tell, the propensity to chase women a few years younger than oneself manifests itself as a dominance issue of sorts. To my understanding, men have developed the tendency to believe that younger women will be willing to take a more submissive role in the relationship, thus providing their boyfriend/husband/whatever with a much-desired ego-stroking.

To be fair, this belief actually has a small dose of truth to it in our younger years, so it's not that surprising that men should take some time to shake the habit. But in general, although in some cases women will be flattered by the attention of an older male, a dominant girl will be dominant no matter what age her other half is. When men daydream about having some pretty young thing gaze adoringly up at them, they fool themselves. In reality, they're more likely to be set to work putting up shelves and mowing the lawn.**

One common adage in geek culture is: never attempt a technological solution to a social problem. Men appear to be making a similar sort of mistake - attempting to compensate for concerns about their social status by applying the fantastical magic bullet that is this hypothetical submissive younger woman.

In reality there is no magic bullet, and I suspect that part of growing up is realising that. The only solution for men is to meet the challenge head-on. Wish us luck.


* It's also related to one possible cause for human intelligence, but that's a different issue entirely.

** Yes, this is horribly stereotyped. I'm trying to write catchy prose here, not the frickin' manifesto of the Women's Freedom League.
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Sunday, December 03, 2006


I'm really starting to dislike driving. I've been learning with an instructor for about a year now (with a few long breaks), and it's all been generally OK up til recently.

What's changed is that I've been put on my parents' car insurance, so I can practice driving (with them supervising) at weekends and evenings. The problem is that the parental car behaves very differently from the instructor's car. The short version: it stalls a hell of a lot more easily.

Typically, it does this at roundabouts, and (in obedience to the inviolable dictates of Murphy's Law) when I have a long queue of assholes behind me beeping at me. Often, the pressure is just enough to make me respond instinctively, and I hammer the foot pedals in a fashion that, in my instructor's car, would cause major G-forces.

In my parent's car, it stalls me again.

By this point I'm somewhat freaked, but, being me, I still try to apply basic problem analysis - figuring out which thing I'm doing wrong. The problem is that, by this point, the number of things I'm doing wrong is so large that fault isolation is impossible. And typically the attempt to figure things out stalls me another four or five times.

Eventually I normally get it right (as much by fluke as anything), but by this point I'm mentally exhausted and sobbing with frustration. Remember how I said in the posts on geekhood that lack of control over my environment is a turn-off for me? Now compare that with lack of control over my own brain...

This situation is a fairly classic example of one of the most significant historical counterarguments to utilitarianism: what do you do when pleasure-seeking itself causes displeasure? Every step in my process for attempting to un-stall is at least vaguely sensible in the short term, but the overall effect is to really upset me.

The response to this counterargument is equally classic: if your pleasure-seeking is getting in the way of your pleasure, the fault is with the seeking not the goal. If you're tripping over your own feet, it's a sign that you're not thinking long-term enough.

I've come to the conclusion that I can best improve the Quality of my interaction with the other drivers by the paradoxical approach of not giving a damn about what they think. In future, I'll try not to get stressed out, not to let the honking horns and the worries about my own discourtesy push me over the edge into panic. Whilst in the long term I may be focused on making these people's lives easier, in the short term I'll be giving them a big metaphorical two fingers.

In "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance", Pirsig draws a line between romantic and classic quality - the Quality of form versus the Quality of function. In this case, I've become far too focused on the poor romantic quality of ignoring the other drivers, thus ignoring the strong classical quality of this attitude as a means to getting the hell away from the roundabout. In a way, this is the same mistake that quacks and cranks and other non-reality-based individuals make - they base their long-term assessments ("I'll take homeopathy as my cancer treatment") on immediate stimuli ("I really don't like chemotherapy"). The result inevitably has overall poor Quality.

For me, that stops now.
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