Saturday, March 25, 2006

Re-Reading Cryptonomicon

I just finished re-reading Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon. This is my favorite of Stephenson's novels (for the record, the surprisingly durable The Big U comes in second).

There are several things that come to mind upon my completion of this endeavor:

  • The ending is less abrupt than I thought. I just wasn't paying attention the first time or two.
  • Stephenson is terrifically funny. The whole "beards as totems of the white male patriarchal privilege" episode still makes me fall off my chair, and Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse is in general a cause of hysterical laughter.
  • Stephenson could easily be a "literary" writer if he wanted to -- the several page story about Randy's impacted wisdom teeth would not look out of place in the New Yorker. Except that it's hilarious. Hilarity does not often ensue (in text anyway) in the pages of the New Yorker. Of course, if he were a "literary" writer he'd make almost no money. (See question #2 in this Slashdot interview.)

But the biggest thing that comes to mind after re-reading Cryptonomicon is this: ye gods, we geeks were naive in the 1990s.

One strand of this naivete of this parallels the evolution of Bruce Schneier's thoughts on security. He started out (in Applied Cryptography) claiming that cryptography was going to save us, but came around to the idea that cryptography is necessary, but hardly enough. In Beyond Fear, he uses the metaphor of a mile-high fence post when the rest of the fence is two feet high, or nonexistent. Human and physical factors are extremely important too. Good crypto does you no good if the Feds (or the Mob, or your company) put a keystroke monitor on your computer.

An overtly political strand of geeky naivete is that back in the Clinton 1990s, we thought that the biggest threat to freedom was going to be people trying to pass laws against cryptography. We had no idea that we'd be faced, within a few years, with a President and Administration that claims it's above the law (and therefore can spy on people at will, violate the Geneva Conventions, and so on), a Congress that would bend over for it or actively abet it, and a corporate news media that would report government press releases as if they were actual news stories.

I miss the 1990s. I already look back on the Clinton Presidency as a lost Golden Age. Okay -- a Silver Age. I wonder how long before we all look back on those eight years of peace and prosperity with nostalgia and sadness?

Friday, March 24, 2006

Choice, As Long as Grass is Green and Water Runs

Cecilia Fire Thunder, the president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe on the Pine Ridge Reservation in misogynist South Dakota, is going to open a Planned Parenthood Clinic on tribal (sovereign) land.

Read here for more details on how you can contribute.

I'm trying to come up with something sufficiently caustic to say about South Dakota's governor, but nothing seems to match the magnitude of this guy's sheer shitheadedness.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Missing Isaac Asimov

It's been a while since I thought of Isaac Asimov, and one of my favorite quotes from his work came to mind, quite forcefully, this evening:
Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.
It's amazing how true that is, and getting truer every day.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Strict Constructionism, My Ass

Why is it so hard for Right Whingers to actually understand their own Constitution?

This case, wherein a law banning the sale of sex toys was upheld, includes this choice quote:

A Hinds County judge ruled in 2003 that state law does not extend the right to privacy to the commercial sale of sexual devices.

The Mississippi high court said there is no fundamental right of access to buy sexual devices.

Who the hell says there has to be a fundamental right to something before people get to do it? Where the hell are the libertarian Republicans (all two of them left uncastrated)?

Haven't these people read the Ninth and Tenth amendments?

  • Ninth Amendment:
    The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
  • Tenth Amendment:
    The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

How much clearer can you get? There are rights that aren't listed in the Constitution, which people nevertheless retain.

Strict constructionism is bullshit.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Science: Unexpectedness

Here are a couple of articles that illustrate why science, as a way of understanding the world, is so interesting, and so useful. It actually discovers things that we (culture-bound creatures that we are) would never think of. Both are from the NY Times (registration required; use BugMeNot if you don't have a login):

Insert obligatory slam on "Intelligent [sic] Design" here....

Monday, March 13, 2006

Amen, Sister

Molly Ivins tells us why we shouldn't back any D.C. Democrats. I say we run her for office.

Amen, Brother

Digby calls bullshit on whiny "liberal" Christians who claim "secular leftists" reject religious candidates.
Every secular "knee jerk liberal" has voted for religious candidates their whole lives. Indeed, it is impossible not to. You cannot get elected in this country if you do not profess religious belief. We have enthusiastically backed candidates who are from every religious tradition and from every region. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were both born again, southern evangelicals. We do not scorn religious candidates, period.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Why you should read Michael Bérubé

He wrote this, so I don't have to.

I was going to rant about Ralph Nader today, too. I'm glad that I don't have to spend any more time thinking about him that I already have, since that would make me nauseous.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

"Nature vs. Nurture", Descartes' Error, and Computers

It's odd. Even though most people don't understand computers (how many people don't get the difference between RAM and disk space?), they seem to have absorbed the hardware vs. software distinction, and they apply it to "nature vs. nurture" all the time. Perhaps, though, that's because it mirrors (a) religious descriptions of the world and (b) Descartes' Error -- which mirrors (a) anyway.

Descartes' Error is the term used by materialist (or monist) philosophers to describe Cartesian Dualism -- the idea that Mind and Body are separate things, made of separate substances. More on this in a bit.

Animals (and it's amazing how many people don't understand or believe that we're animals) don't have hardware and software (or Body and Soul, as most European religious traditions -- and Descartes -- would have it). Instead, we have what the cyberpunks of the early 1980s called "wetware". I'd rather call it "meatware" -- that has the added benefit of pissing off PETA.

Meatware is not like hardware and software: when you unplug a computer, hardware stays the same (except for transient voltages), and software just fades away (going back to being unactualized ones and zeroes on the disk, or disappearing entirely if there's no copy on disk). In contrast, if you "unplug" meatware, it just rots.

Meatware is hardware that changes, embodying the software in its very being. Ironically, this is a lot like some of the original computers, which were hand-wired to program them; the programs were not separate from hardware at that point. It was a conceptual great leap forward to separate hardware from software (see punch cards, Jacquard looms, etc.), but it definitely also meant that Descartes was right -- but about computers, if not human brains.

Discursive aside: I am a materialist. Not in the sense of liking to acquire worldly goods (though I'm pretty happy to do that too), but in the sense that I believe there is one kind of Stuff in the Universe: Stuff. Matter and energy (which are both Stuff). There may also be Dark Matter (which might be anything from supersymmetric partner particles to other exotic stuff we haven't figured out yet) and possibly Dark Energy (which could also be a supersymmetric partner particle, or might just be the Cosmological Constant), but it's all Stuff. It's not Souls. There is no Soul-stuff, separate from Matter-stuff. That's the point of philosophical materialism.

Descartes' Error is believing that there is Soul-stuff separate from Matter-stuff. It can be easily demonstrated to be an error, like this: Soul stuff either affects Matter, or it doesn't. If it does not affect matter, it has to be entirely separate, and then Soul just becomes some metaphysical attribute that cannot be talked about in any empirical way, because it cannot affect or interact with Matter. If Soul does interact with Matter, it's just another kind of Matter, and is in the realm of empirical science.

Discursive aside to the discursive aside: this does not mean that I believe that morality (or ethics, or whatever) comes down to physics. I simply don't, and anyone who makes the claim that philosophical materialists are undermining morality because we deny the "Stuff-ness" of Soul or Spirit is simply talking trash. Just as Chemistry deals with a regime of behavior of Matter that fundamental Physics doesn't, and Biology another regime of Matter Behavior, I believe that philosophy, law, politics, morals, ethics, and other ways of describing the world that deal with Human Behavior in Relation to Other Humans are disciplines that deal with Matter Behaving in yet another regime.

So: "nature vs. nurture": it's not just brains. It's the entire life of each organism, from DNA up to the organism level, including all its interactions with the physical world, including other organisms.

What any organism is now, at this instant, is a deeply historical integration of many many things: its genes have been interacting with its environment for its entire life. Its environment may have included being incubated in its mother's body (if it's a mammal, for instance) and being washed in hormones from itself and its mother (and potentially from siblings from the same litter) for the period of its gestation. There is diet (or soil fertility and rain for plants). There is exercise (for animals). There's stress level. There are accidental things: cosmic rays, viral damage, physical damage. And so on.

ALL of these contribute. All of these affect the others. Genes are turned on or off: genes activate and deactivate depending on environment, and the rates at which they are activated and deactivated change depending on environment. Animals have equisitely complex systems for adapting to their environment. Everything interacts.

Are the Pima Indians who live in Texas and eat American fast food, and many of whom are hugely obese, "naturally" fat? Their cousins in Mexico, who eat a basically Aztec diet, are skinny. Are they "naturally" skinny? Or is it all "nurture", and diet? Well, some people eat lots of fast food and don't gain weight.

Is Yao Ming "naturally" 7'5" tall? Might he have been taller with a different diet? He certainly could have been shorter with less protein at the right times in his life.

Lots of people (including me before I started to learn about it) think that genes are like a computer program -- a batch computer program, that runs once, straight through to completion, and then is done, like following a blueprint and then your building is built. It turns out genes are a lot more like computer programs than we guessed -- like modern computer programs that interact with the world: operating systems, or phone switches, or complicated databases. The code is constantly running, but different parts are active at different times. Genes are turned on and off, or have their activity modulated, based on what's going on in the cell. Hormones influence gene activity. Levels of proteins influence gene activity. Other genes' activity influences gene activity. It's bloody complex, and it's going on all the time. There's no "completion" of the genetic program. There's no done.

Like many other things in the world, the false dichotomy of "nature" vs. "nurture" is bogus, because the world is a system -- a complex, interlocking, feeding-back system that doesn't have neat boundaries. Deal with it.

Anyone who says "nature vs. nurture", and believes it, is sadly deluded.

Here endeth the rant.

Edited to add: go read Pharyngula today for a neat take on genes and development.

Democrats are Today's Conservatives

"Democrats don't have any new ideas" -- so goes the slam from the Right Whingers. Wait -- I thought conservatives didn't like new ideas.

Oh, right. The Republicans aren't conservative -- they're reactionary. They want to push back the long (and slow and occasionally faltering) march of progress in our society. Conservatism, in its best sense, is about preserving what's good about what we've got.

So the Democrats, who really don't have a lot of new ideas, have a lot of really great old ideas. They should grab the "conservative" label and run with it. The Democrats are the party of balanced budgets, running a smart defense of our country, the party of small government when it comes to Big Brother -- and the party of equal rights for all citizens, Social Security, unemployment insurance, the 40-hour work week, and (if they have any cojones at all) national health care as an issue of economic competitiveness.

The Republicans are the party of corruption, incompetence, borrow-and-spend fiscal irresponsibility, and the party of the President as King. They're Tories.