What we believe but cannot prove

I recently read a book that is a collection of answers to the Edge question of 2005:

What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?

I find the question interesting because it excites conflicting messages. On one hand, I don’t think it makes sense to believe things that can’t be demonstrated. And yet, I experience a life of ambiguity. I find the unknowns most fascinating and I’m not likely to get answers to some of my deepest questions.

The book provides a window into how some people deal with things they don’t know. A number of scientists and other thinkers have tossed their opinions into the pot. Their answers range widely, from the trivial to the fantastic.

One answer that I found particularly interesting was from Susan Blackmore. She responded that “It is possible to live happily and morally without believing in free will”. According to her understanding, she has no reason to believe in free will. So, she has systematically changed the way that she thinks and she now has no personal experience of free will. It’s a fascinating thought experiment and her conclusions are interesting.

What do I believe but cannot prove? I believe that life is meaningful and that our actions survive beyond our lives. This isn’t a sure thing. I feel fortunate to have lived the life that I’ve lived and I feel excited (and a little overwhelmed) about the possibilities. I have family and friends that love me and I have opportunities for interesting work. I don’t think that life guarantees us a meaningful life, but I am hopeful.

If you’re a curious person that likes tossing around ideas, it’s well worth reading the book. You can read it online or buy it. I’ve seen it at most large book stores.

What do you believe but cannot prove?

Lucy Nordstrom 1921–2009

Grandma Lucy and me
Grandma Lucy was one of the kindest, most loving people I have ever known. Everything that she did was with thoughtfulness and considerateness, always putting others ahead of herself.  She showed everyone kindness. Even the teller at the post office was moved at hearing of her passing.

I remember as a kid staying over at her place. There was always so much to do. Before boredom even hinted, Grandma would bring out something new and fun. I remember building cars out of cake boxes. I remember her mounting our drawings into a giant scrapbook. I remember getting to watch Loony Tunes and playing games in the yard. I remember her cutting slices of ice cream.  I remember walking with her down to Woodwards for shopping and going down to the park to play.

Grandma and I shared a sly sense of humour and I felt that connection from a young age.  She was always ready for a joke.  One day, I went to Grandpa and asked him something.  “You’ll have to ask the boss,” he said.  So, I went to Grandma and she said, “well, you’ll have to go ask the boss.”  They were tricksters together and I liked their games.

Grandma stands as a beacon of how gentle and noble a life can be.  This is a light I will not forget. Grandma enriched my life and the best honour I can give is to remember that kindness and to pass it on.

Thank you Grandma Lucy.  We love you and we celebrate your life.

Grandma Lucy and Sister Gabriela

Absurdist character development in Atlas Shrugged

I recently churned through the novel Atlas Shrugged.  In this novel, Ayn Rand presents her philosophy of Objectivism.  I like philosophy.  I like novels.  I even like philosophical novels, so I thought that Atlas Shrugged might be the perfect book for me.  After reading the novel, I planned to write about Objectivism. The thing is, I found the characters and events in the novel so absurd that I find it hard to evaluate the philosophy.

A vast majority of the characters in the novel fall into one of three types:

  • extremely competent people, violently opposed to emotive thinking,
  • sentimental people impervious to reason (these people are invariably portrayed has having evil ulterior motives), or
  • incompetent useless people.

Rand describes a world where a handful of competent people are running productive industries. Evil, sentimental people get control of government and make life difficult for the competent industrialists. In retaliation, the competent industrialists leave society.  Society can no longer sustain itself without these competent people. Everything falls apart and turns to chaos.

I found it difficult to accept this novel as portraying something possible.  The world isn’t made up of 1% rational competent people, 4% sentimental evil people, an 95% incompetent people.  Removing the top 1% of the population would be disruptive.  However, I find it impossible to believe that society would be destroyed. There are more than enough people smart enough to keep things going, even if at a slower rate of progress. In addition, I find it hard to believe that the sentimental, evil people controlling the government would be stupid enough to make business impossible for all industrialists.

Rand works out a rationale for why emotion apart from rationality leads to mayhem–and I can appreciate that–but she presents her case in absolute terms that allow no room for rational imperfection. She seems incapable of understanding that most people contain a mix of emotions and rationality. For example, the novel contains a 55 page speech that lays out the nature of Objectivism. Early on, the speech states:

Man has been called a rational being, but rationality is a matter of choice–and the alternative his nature offers him is: rational being or suicidal animal.

and later,

Since life requires a specific course of action, any other course will destroy it.  A being who does not hold his own life as the motive and goal of his actions, is acting on the motive and standard of death.

I find it difficult to believe that the least deviation from rationality and self-interest results in death.

In my opinion, a robust philosophy (or way of life) has to take into account human nature as it exists rather than reject everyone falling short of a narrow ideal. Most people contain a mix of emotions and rationality.  The philosophical system should not fail at the slightest expression of emotion.

It’s hard to tell whether Rand is portraying a hypothetical world or whether she sees the real world this way. The characters might fit in an alternate universe but the story is set on earth with characters intended to represent normal human psychology. In addition, the philosophy was stated in such absolute terms that it became absurd. If Objectivism requires an acceptance of this polarized thinking, I can’t buy it.

Playing with Linux

In the last few months, I’ve been playing with Linux.  It’s fun to see a different way of doing an operating system.  It’s surprising to see what can be accomplished through an open source project.

Linux is slicker than I expected.  I thought it would be difficult to use.  Instead, Linux feels like it is well on its way to becoming an operating system that ordinary people can use without having to worry about technical issues.

What are some easy ways to install Linux?

Use Wubi to install Linux

Wubi is an Linux installer that you can run from Windows.  It takes a while to run because it has to download the Ubuntu Linux operating system.  This is equivalent to downloading a CD.  The installation does not wreck your Windows system.  When you boot up, you can choose to run either Windows or Linux.  If you choose Windows, you can keep working as you always have in Windows.  If you choose Linux, you can start working in your shiny new Linux operating system.  I had to futz around with a few settings to make everything work smoothly but it wasn’t too hard.

The cool thing about this method of installing Linux is that there is little risk.  You can always get rid of your Linux installation by unistalling Wubi from Windows.

Use a virtual machine to run Linux from inside Windows

A virtual machine is a program that pretends to be a computer.  I installed VirtualBox in Windows and then installed various Linux operating systems into VirtualBox.  The virtual machine (in this case, VirtualBox) enables me to use Linux and Windows at the same time.

If you want Linux to have full access to the power of your computer, then I recommend the Wubi dual-boot method.  If you want to simultaneously use Windows, then I recommend using a virtual machine.

Which flavour of Linux?

There are many flavours of Linux out there.

Probably the easiest and one of the best supported versions is Ubuntu Linux and that’s what I would recommend for ease of use.  With Ubuntu, you can use the Wubi installer and it seemed to work well with very little fiddling.

Another popular version is openSUSE, which seems to have a more comprehensive package of software. Nevertheless, I had to mess with it to get the sound working properly.

Linux will continue to evolve over time and who knows which version will win in the long run?  My philosophy is to use a version that is popular.  The popularity of the version is an indirect indication of how well that version is supported and how stable it might be.  In addition, the popularity means that it is easier to get help on the internet when required.  For the last year or so, Ubuntu has been winning.

If you’ve been curious about Linux, then I recommend that you give it a try.

Passage, a primitive game about companionship

Passage is a primitive little game that investigates ideas about companionship.  Despite the simplicity of the game, I was surprised how much it got me thinking.  Here is the story of my journey through the game.

If you want to learn about the game on your own, stop reading now.  You can get it for free at http://hcsoftware.sourceforge.net/jason-rohrer/

Here is the character at the beginning of the game.  See the blonde guy on the left.  Yes, I know, the game is really pixelated.  :p

You can also see a jumble of stuff at the left.  This is because the view is warped. Objects close to the character are clear. Things further away are distorted and compressed. Think of it like looking through the side of a round glass of water.  You can look through the side of a glass of water to see something on the other side.  However, this only works when you look in the middle of the side of the glass.  The closer you look to the edge of the glass, the more the image is distorted.  There is a similar effect in the game.  Things far from the character appear highly compressed.

You can also see a brown thing closer to the middle.  As we get closer, this brown thing gets less compressed and we see it more clearly.

The brown thing is really a girl.

The character falls in love with the girl.  From this point on, they walk together.

They journey on through the world.

…and on.

…and on.  You can see that the main character is aging.  He is going bald.

Eventually, they are both old.

The woman dies.  The character, now an old man, feels sad.  He now walks at half speed.

As he moves on, the character looks back in memory of his companion.

As he moves further on, the tombstone becomes distorted.  If the character continues to move on, the gravestone will become further distorted and shrink out of view.

As I was playing, it felt as though the memory of his companion was becoming weaker as the tombstone shrunk from view.  I did not want the character to lose the memory of his wife.  Instead, I ended up making him hover near the grave.  I was thinking, “the game is almost over.  I might as well hang around here.”

The old man dies beside his companion.

This hovering at the graveside surprised me.  When I’m playing a game, I like to progress.  I don’t hang around inanimate objects.  Still, it felt more meaningful for the old man to stay close to the memory of his companion than to move on.

I was curious about how it would feel to play through differently.


This is the moment that the companion dies.

Saying good bye.

Starting to move on and looking back.

The tombstone is only a smudge now.

It feels lonely to go on alone.

Dying alone.

Playing through a second time, I was surprised at how different it felt to move on without the companion. The old man shuffled on slowly with his head hanging low.  He felt lonely without the presence of his companion, even when the presence was only tombstone.

Passage is a primitive little game that carries a big impact for its size. The game was created by Jason Rohrer. You can find Rohrer’s games at his website or learn more about him from a Salon article.

Endless forms most beautiful

I recently completed Origin of Species by Charles Darwin.  I expected the book to be theoretical, but Darwin packed the book full with careful observations about the physical world.  I found Darwin’s arguments striking because he is cautious in his claims.  Where others would rush ahead shouting, “see, I told you so,” Darwin amasses excessive data supporting his claims.

Origin of Species

The book starts by describing the knowledge of the day about breeding.  Darwin describes how domestic animals vary and how people select particular characteristics.  Over many generations, this selection results in distinct characteristics that are associated with particular breeds.  The second chapter expands upon this topic by describing variation and selection in the natural world.  Given knowledge about breeding domestic animals, it is a small leap to realize that variation and natural selection can, over long periods of time, bring about great changes.

For me, the most striking evidence of evolution is that there are so many closely related animals.  Evolution predicts that the most successful kinds of animals will have a large number of closely related cousins because genetic variation causes them to slowly diverge from one another.  This is exactly what we see.  For example, there are many different types of cats and it it is possible to breed between them to create mixtures like tigons and ligers*.  This is in sharp contrast to the concept of special creation, where animals are thought of distinct kinds that cannot be mixed.  

I found it interesting that Darwin goes out of his way to allay the worries of people wanting to retain a belief in a creator.  Darwin suggests that God could have created the first ancestor(s) that eventually resulted in all living things.  In the closing of the book, Darwin writes:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.

Darwin’s work holds up well after 150 years.  You may find the old prose difficult but, in my opinion, the slog is well worth it.

* Origin of Species does not mention tigons and ligers.  It’s just a convenient example.

Computer intelligence surpassing humans in 30 years?

The IEEE Spectrum magazine has an entire issue devoted to evaluating the likelihood of a technological singularity within the next 30 years.

First, what is the technological singularity? Some people, such as Ray Kurzweil and Verner Vinge project that technology will advance to a point where computers will surpass human intelligence. This will create an acceleration of technology because computers will redesign better and better versions of themselves. Not long after this, technological intelligence will far surpass human intelligence. This is called a singularity because it becomes impossible for our human intelligence to see the outcome of such a technology.

The IEEE Spectrum is an interesting place to read about the singularity because the IEEE is run by engineers, the people closest to the technology that could make the singularity happen.

The articles in the Spectrum range from skepticism to expectation of the singularity. The magazine polls a number of technological thinkers that have a broad range of opinion. Most think that Moore’s law (the doubling of computer power every two years) will stop in the next 10 to 30 years. Most think that the technological singularity will or could possibly occur, but most think that it won’t happen within the next 30 years. Opinions range from 30 years to 70 years to distant future to never. Ironically, Gordon Moore, the author of Moore’s law believes that the singularity will never happen.

Personally, I found Rodney Brooks‘ article the most interesting. One of his observations is that computer intelligence probably won’t surpass human intelligence because we will be upgrading our own intelligence at the same time. For example, I want a brain implant that includes a face and name database of every person I’ve met.

Elegant design from the evil empire

Microsoft Reader

I’ve been interested in ebooks for a while and am convinced that eventually they will become common. People will get used to reading books on portable devices with screens that look better and cost less than the screens we have today. I don’t think that paper books will go away but ebooks will become more common. I like the idea of being able to read free books on a device and being able to carry hundreds of books at a time.

Lately, I tried out a number ebook readers for the PC including:

Surprisingly, I found that Microsoft Reader provided the best reading experience (see the scaled-down screenshot above). It feels natural to read this way. For an easily distracted person, like myself, the strength of Microsoft Reader is that there are so few options and that these options are not visible during the reading experience. For example, there are about five choices for font size so I don’t find myself toggling between incremental sizes. I can’t even choose the typeface. This may seem like a fault but it works for me. I didn’t find myself looking for additional features and that’s what I want when I’m reading. If anything, this feels like Apple design. Instead of giving the user control over every knob, aesthetics take precedence.

I found that eReader provided the second best reading experience. The main problem with eReader is that it is centers around the Palm operating system and is unlikely to win the ebook format war.

Mobipocket provided rich control over the reading experience. Some of the user interface is more awkward than necessary; it isn’t possible to hide the menus while reading; and, the most important options (such as font size) aren’t available on those menus. That said, Mobipocket provides a reasonable reading experience. I like this format because it isn’t locked into a particular operating system and it has a good shot in the near term at becoming the dominant format for ebooks.

I like the idealism of open-source software but FBReader is clunky and doesn’t work with many of the most common portable devices.

Adobe Digital Editions is just bad. It runs awkwardly slow and it focuses on the PDF file format. I like PDF for capturing material originally on paper (I have many hundreds of technical papers in PDF). That said, PDF is typically not formated in a way that is easy to read on a computer screen. As strong as the PDF format is in the world today, I can’t see the current form of PDF becoming the dominant way to read ebooks. If you are going to read a PDF, stick with Adobe Reader. It’s probably on your computer already.

The most annoying thing about ebooks today is the barrage of options that include varyingly evil forms of digital rights management (DRM). I wouldn’t recommend that you buy any form of ebook with DRM unless you also accept that you may lose access to the book in the future. For example, many DRMed ebooks will only work on one kind of device. Some DRMed ebooks will only allow you read on the particular device that you used for the original download. This problem with DRM is as big as the problem of reading on screens that look worse than paper.

Ebooks have a long way to go before they achieve large scale acceptance. In the meantime, I’m going to play around with reading a few ebooks on my laptop. Right now, I’m reading Accelerando by Charlie Stross (and have been for the last year or so). The convenient thing about reading this book in ebook form is that I can quickly search for the names I’ve forgotten since the last time I put the book down. If you are interested in reading a mind bending book about our possible future, then I highly recommend Accelerando.

Nuns are good for the environment

Nuns don’t consume many resources. They vow poverty and don’t buy needless things. They’re mostly vegetarian. That’s a lot easier on the environment than the resources required to produce livestock. They vow chastity, which helps keep the population explosion under control. They don’t travel much. They have a small ecological footprint.

Except for candles. They like candles. I wonder how efficiently candles burn? I’m sure that candles contribute to greenhouse gases because nearly everything does, even flatulence. Perhaps they could switch to solar-powered LED candles. That would be cool.

Nuns don’t contribute much to the GDP

Nuns don’t make lots of things to sell and they don’t buy needless things. They grow their own food and eat it. They buy only what is necessary, priding themselves in their frugality. And, they operate as a non-profit organization so the government doesn’t get much, if any, taxes from them.

Except for candles. I think nuns buy lots of candles.

PS: My sister is a nun.