Thursday, November 20, 2008

Ubuntu 8.10: The Verdict

I've been using the latest version of Ubuntu, codename Intrepid Ibex, for a couple of weeks now. Given this, I think I can give a fair verdict on it.

The verdict is: meh.

There's not really much that's actively wrong with Intrepid. I've noticed a general decrease in system responsiveness and reliability compared to Hardy Heron (the last release), but frankly that's like saying Kilimanjaro is unacceptably small compared to Everest. It's still damn good by comparison with e.g. every instance of Windows I've used in the last few months. I have high hopes of penguinising my dad in the near future, as his loathing for his company Vista laptop increases.

The only other issue was the grace notes (quite ironic). Intrepid has a bunch of cute little features (see below) which, unfortunately, weren't actually installed when I upgraded my system. I've since hunted them down and installed them, but this definitely abbreviated the honeymoon period.

The big disappointment for me is probably OpenOffice 3.0. As far as I can tell, there is no way in which it is substantially cooler than 2.0, and the list of "great new features" is going to make any MS Office user roll their eyes and yawn theatrically. Considering what projects like Firefox and KDE have achieved in the same time, this is starting to get a bit silly. The longer this goes on, the more chance that Novell will be successful in forking the codebase and filling it full of Microsoft encrustations*.

So what do we get out of this release? Well, whilst there's nothing here to really make you go "wow", there are a number of little exploratory tweaks that could easily snowball into major developments. For example, each user now has an encrypted section in their home folder. Throw in the GnuPG plugin for Thunderbird and it looks like Ubuntu is rapidly becoming the first OS to have user-friendly crypto built in.

Another window on the future is Ubuntu's collaboration with the BBC to provide well-integrated access to media. Basically a huge chunk of content has just become available as a glorified playlist, via the Totem player. No need to piddle around on websites, just click through the list. I'm currently listening to the Digital Planet podcast.

Finally, a fair bit of love has been bestowed on Nautilus, the file browser. It has Firefox-like tabbed file browsing and a rather impressively effective previewing system. Very cute.

In general, this version took two steps forward and one step back. If you're on Hardy, I wouldn't particularly recommend you upgrade. That said, I'm glad it's out. Its showcase of features has enough neat ideas to keep the community busy for a long time.

* This may be an unfair accusation against Novell. However, their deals with Microsoft have scared the crap out of most penguinistas - we're worried they'll go kamikaze on us like SCO did a few years back. They would get caned if they tried, but Linux needs that sort of problem like it needs a hole in the head. Given this, everything that Novell touch (especially stuff like Mono and Moonlight that they touch with Microsoft's help**) tends to be interpreted as an early chess move in the game leading up to lawsuit. This may or may not be paranoia.

** It's definitely not paranoid to be worried about Microsoft. It used to be that they'd just try to squish open source. These days they seem to have graduated to trying to corrupt it - embrace, extend and extinguish. Microsoft is the living expression of why the open source movement needs the free software movement - open source's pragmatism doesn't handle attacks of this kind very well.
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Monday, November 17, 2008

Cuts like a knife

Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem.
- William of Ockham

The scientific method is probably the most important investigative tool we as a species have ever produced. As generally understood*, it is a means of comparing and contrasting hypotheses. It uses three conditions: accuracy, predictivity and parsimony.

Accuracy is easy to understand: a new model of the universe must be consistent with existing data. So general relativity looks like Newtonian dynamics at low energies, quantum atoms behave like point particles on human scales, and so on. A theory of gravity that did not produce an inverse square law would be no damn good.

Predictivity is similarly straightforward: a model can't just describe what has happened so far, it must also give us some clue what's coming up. This is for two reasons. Firstly, it limits people's ability to equivocate, which stops science descending into an angels-on-pinheads talking shop. Secondly, it means that the entire business occasionally generates useful real-world results.

Parsimony, also known as Ockham's Razor, is not so clear. In short, it states that you shouldn't include more "stuff" in your model than necessary. So never assume a conspiracy where stupidity is an adequate explanation; never infer psychic powers where outright fraud is a possibility; never choose epicycles over ellipses.

But what do we mean by "simple", and how do we justify this principle? The two questions are interlinked: a thorough justification of the Razor will of necessity give us a working definition of simplicity. Let's take a quick tour through some historical arguments put forward for this enigmatic principle. We should accept the simplest explanation because...

1) ...Simplicity is so damn cool.

This is probably the original view of Ockham's Razor. As far as Classical civilisation was concerned, simplicity was a desirable goal in itself, without needing any further justification.

This presupposes some kind of human aesthetic sense which would allow us to distinguish the simple from the complex. It's very "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance".

I remain unconvinced by this for two main reasons. Firstly, I don't think it really answers the question; it just wraps it in even fuzzier clothing. Secondly, even after several thousand years there is no consensus about whether God is defined as simple or complex. If our aesthetic sense can display inconsistency in a case as grandiose as this, what hope does it have in other, subtler, contexts?

2) ...Simplicity is more likely to be true.

This is an intriguing notion. Could it be the case that the universe is in some way geared towards elegant explanations? It's actually quite a common belief, not just amongst the religious, but also among scientists who see elegance amidst the chaos.

However, I'm not aware of any good explanation of why this should be the case. In the absence of that, it's impossible to say that this rule holds generally. And I'm fairly sure there's a certain amount of confirmation bias here.

There are some broad philosophies that would make this explanation more plausible. In general, though, I fall on the side of Sir Arthur Eddington: the mathematics is not there until we put it there.

3) ...Simplicity makes better targets for science.

This was Popper's take on parsimony. He believed that simple hypotheses were, if false, far easier to squash than complex ones.

This view has a certain amount of empirical support. Consider for example the epicycle "hypothesis". Turns out that, by sticking enough extra epicycles onto a planet's orbit, you can match almost any data set. So the hypothesis was rendered so fuzzy as to be undisprovable. Undisprovable hypotheses are the plaque in science's arteries: they seriously impede progress and they're almost impossible to get rid of.

In this sense, simplicity relates to the number of "magic variables" that an hypothesis contains. Epicycle theory had an arbitrary number of magic variables that could be set by scientists: the radii and rotation speed of the epicycles. Galileo's elliptic orbits, by contrast, were specified entirely by a single gravitational constant plus the masses and present velocities of the various heavenly bodies. It took several centuries to disprove epicycles. By contrast, if Galileo had been wrong, it could have been demonstrated in a matter of months.

4) ...Simplicity is functional

Let's say you have a tiger charging towards you. You have two explanations of its progress: one in terms of mass, momentum, chemical interactions and the behaviour of various neurons, and one in terms of it being a bloody great big cat that wants to eat you. Which model do you think would do most for your survival chances?

Humans only have a limited amount of computational resource at hand, so it makes sense to shepherd it as much as possible. Why waste valuable neurons believing in yetis, ghosts, gods? It doesn't make it any easier to dodge the tiger, and it reduces the space available for beliefs that could.

From this point of view, simplicity means computational simplicity: the model that generates the most accurate results in the shortest time. One interesting feature of this is that simplicity may actually vary from organism to organism: a cyborg with a silicon brain might have far different preferences from a mammal with a bunch of neurons. Heck, even different processors could lead to different views of the world.

This is probably the most popular explanation for Ockham's Razor as far as the philosophers are concerned. Game over? Probably... but this explanation also causes great fuss. Philosophers do not generally like pragmatism - it can change so easily from situation to situation, making a mess of all our overarching frameworks.

If Ockham's Razor is pragmatic, then a sufficiently strong pragmatic incentive could lead us to discard it. Furthering our position within the tribe, motivating ourselves, avoiding depression - all these become valid reasons for unparsimonious belief**.

We skeptics can find only a Pyrrhic victory in justifying the Razor by reference to pragmatism. In slicing away the gods, we slit our own philosophical wrists.

* According to Karl Popper, anyway. Kuhn would disagree. I tend to equivocate on this: I think that, while Kuhn probably describes the practice of science better, Popper provides a necessary level of justification. In football terms, Kuhn is the coach who talks about positions and tactics; Popper is the coach who talks about human biology.

** Or at least for giving the impression of belief. But for someone who isn't a good liar, it might be necessary to persuade themselves.
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Monday, November 10, 2008


So in the run-up to halloween I did a lot of thinking about my costume. I was going to a party where I knew people were going to make an effort, and I ended up spending many hours on a rather nifty scarecrow outfit.

It helps that I'm ridiculously lanky, but height maketh not the scarecrow. I ended up hollowing out a pumpkin pinata* to make a mask. I worked through several pages of half-remembered electronics-related maths to give the mask glowing red eyes** that wouldn't explode at any inopportune moment (say, when my real eyes were 3cm away cos I was wearing the bloody thing). I even spent a couple of spare train journeys really puzzling the other passengers by meticulously attaching strands of raffia to rings of elastic, to create that "straw falling out the sleeves" effect.

It went really well, and I got second prize. I was only pipped to the post by a guy who came in the best Marlon Brando getup I have ever seen.

And now a friend of mine is having a birthday, and throwing... a fancy dress party. Based on the theme 1985. I wasn't even toddling in 1985. I do not have much awareness of fashions at the time. And the party is on Friday, so I'm panicking.

The pertinent questions, therefore, are as follows:

1) How much Adam Ant garb can I acquire at short notice from the local fancy dress store?

2) How much Adam Ant garb can I get away with wearing on public transport without being given a lovely new fancy dress outfit, this one with the sleeves tied together?

Answers on a postcard.

* I'm aware this should have a squiggle above the "n", but I'm lazy, so there.

** Incidentally, it is perfectly possible to carry a large round object stuffed full of wiring and batteries on the London Tube without anyone so much as batting an eyelid. So remind me: what's the point of all these CCTV cameras again?
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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

A => B


And, for me, new version of Ubuntu => time to change desktop background. I don't know why I've got into the habit of doing this, but it keeps life interesting. Last time I nicked a picture of Mars off the NASA website, but this time I want something a bit more fun.

I just so happen to notice that the new version of Ubuntu has a new built-in theme: Dark. Cue a frantic search for Lovecraftesque backgrounds. Something black and murky, with slimy tentacles just visible at the edges of the light.

And I can't find a damn thing.

There are lots of pictures that use Lovecraftian monsters - shuggoths, Cthulhu of course, even a rather good one of the colour out of space. But these are all Lovecraft backgrounds, not Lovecraftesque backgrounds.

The difference is subtle, but real. Lovecraft backgrounds include his characters. Lovecraftesque backgrounds convey his flavour of cold-sweat, hair-raising uncertainty about one's place in the world*. It's the "Signs" principle: that film was a lot scarier when you couldn't actually see the damn aliens.

On the bright side, I did find a rather nice collection of steampunkania. But I want tentacles, dammit. I don't suppose anyone has any suggestions?

* Of course, in Lovecraft's stories, our place in the world is actually very clearly-defined: Cthulhu's small intestine.
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Monday, November 03, 2008

I Am Not Alone

It's intensely reassuring every time I discover that someone else has the same views as I do. Especially when it's obvious that they're far smarter and more articulate than me.
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