Sunday, May 31, 2009

Stanford students 'better than other people'?

A telling quote from a Stanford student in today's San Jose Mercury News front-page story:

"When they welcome you to freshman orientation," Robbins says, "part of what they tell you is that you're better than other people."

Not smarter, not better at standardized test scores or kissing ass to get ahead, but unequivocally superior human beings than all those proles that attend state schools. I have to say, this quote typifies the holier-than-thou, aristocratic, snub-nosed attitude that runs through a lot of the student body (and faculty).

Saturday, May 30, 2009



import sys
import os
import atexit

# color prompt
sys.ps1 = '\001\033[1;36m\002>>> \001\033[0m\002'

# tab completion
# from
import readline
except ImportError:
# Silently ignore missing readline module
import rlcompleter
readline.parse_and_bind("tab: complete")

# history
# from
histfile = os.path.join(os.environ["HOME"], ".python_history")
except IOError:

atexit.register(readline.write_history_file, histfile)
del os, histfile

If running 'python' on the command line does not run the file, you can always alias python to 'python -i ~/'

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Critique of Laughlin's "The Crime of Reason"

When I saw Robert Laughlin speak at Stanford, I was terribly disturbed by some of his ideas and intrigued by others. As someone who drinks the free software/culture kool-aid, I was always of the opinion that the free flow of information helped humanity, not hurt it. As a follow up on his talk, I decided to pick up a copy of Laughlin's book, The Crime of Reason, to investigate his ideas further. The book, like is talk, contains some very interesting and important ideas but is poorly put together and rather meandering. Writing style aside, the book discusses the following topics, which I will comment on in turn:

The Intellectual Property system is necessary for economic progress

Laughlin states that "Universal access to knowledge is fundamentally incompatible with market economics." (p.45) By this he mostly means that the patent system in the United States is necessary for economic development. He doesn't provide any convincing evidence to back this up, but merely provides a false analogy equating the economy with a game of poker in which everyone has incentives to hide and steal from each other. Perhaps these dynamics apply in certain sectors of the economy (particularly looking through the lens of a physicist who has spent his entire life inside the bowels of the military-industrial complex), but in other cases they do not. The open-source software industry immediately springs to mind as an example in which companies have an interest in freely sharing knowledge with each other.

In any event, the idea of the necessity of a patent system has been completely eviscerated by Boldrin and Levine in their book Against Intellectual Monopoly. Looking at history, the acquisition of a patent in a particular field coincided with a stall of progress in an industry until the patent expired and, not coincidentally, substantially increased patent lawsuits within that industry as the patent holder sought to restrict anyone else from innovating. Patents are a type of monopoly and, as any econ 101 student will tell you, monopolies are a Bad Thing because they deprive both consumers of a low cost for products and also prevent other potential producers from making money by entering the market. Awarding patents is hardly "necessary for living" (p.49) as Laughlin claims.

How and why technical knowledge becomes illegal

The main thrust of the book has to do with the troubling tendency of modern societies to effectively outlaw knowledge. Laughlin compiles a list of fields today whose study has been criminalized in some form or another:

- cryptography
- circumvention (DMCA)
- physics (nukes)
- genetics
- bioengineering (engineered diseases)
- biology (cloning, chimeras)
- national security related processes
- chemistry
- etc.

He asserts that learning about these fields has been criminalized either in the law itself (which is rarely challenged in open court because of the potential government 'secrets' a trial could leak) or by de facto means such as withdrawal of research funds or public ostracism. This development, of course, is quite at odds with the way that learning is supposed to work in our society, as Laughlin recognizes: "Modern civilization rests on two mutually exclusive kinds of thinking -- one embodied in the free speech guarantees in the First Amendment of the U.S. constitution, the other in the Atomic Energy Act." (p.82) His most effective case in point is that of nuclear physics, in which the U.S. government has led a campaign of a quasi-legal nature to suppress the spreading of knowledge on the subject. He reasons that this censorship "set a precedent that has now led, by small steps, to a significant and growing threat to our freedom to reason and learn." (p.84) This is the most convincing, and consequential, argument of the book, and deserves serious thought by all members of our government and society. Are we really willing to sacrifice our freedoms to pursue intellectually interesting scientific facts for the sake of purported security, morality and order?

The consequences for a society which deems scientific knowledge illegal

In the final chapter, Laughlin conducts a thought experiment: what will smart people do if and when we achieve this nightmare society in which the pursuit of any and all interesting technical knowledge is illegal? Laughlin's suggestion that "The sensible course of action would probably be to give up" (p.144) is deeply unsatisfying. He then postulates that the talented technical folk (that is, everyone that didn't become a doctor or a lawyer or a businessman) will either seek employment in the service of rogue dictatorships that allow science, become 'guerrilla warriors' of a sort within their own country or go somewhere else (in the interplanetary sense) to establish a new society where there is no crime of reason. It's very romantic to think of the creation of a new order by a disgruntled segment of society (a la the emigration of persecuted religious groups to America). If it is necessary, however, is another matter entirely. It's certainly way too early, in my opinion, to 'give up' on our present society. A more enlightened public debate on this topic, if not reform, is not out of reach.

You can read other peoples' opinions on the book on Amazon

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Twitter: Good or Evil (or Irrelevant or Same ol')?

Everyone seems to be talking about and using Twitter these days (I'm not on it and have no plans to join in the immediate future). It seems as though Twitter is the newest wave of social media hype, for better or for worse. If you cut through the frenzied enthusiasm about Twitter, however, you get a picture of a service that is just another method of communication, with all the positives and negatives that that provides (albeit with a unique short-message twist).

Twitter has proven itself as one of a number of social media platforms that can be used to report breaking news events faster than traditional news reporters can arrive on the scene. The most important and striking example of this was the coverage of the Mumbai Terror Attacks. Other sites, notably Wikipedia and Flickr, also contained up-to-the-minute details of the attack that mainstream media sites such as CNN cribbed for their stories on the incident. Twitter has also been used by activists to organize and rapidly disseminate information. Consider reporters in Egypt that were able to alert colleagues to their arrest via Twitter. Others recently mounted a campaign to expose's system that placed gay and lesbian-related items lower in the site rankings.

But Twitter not only has the power to educate and organize, it also has the power to misinform. Consider the recent swine flu panic: Twitter users reacted to the global scare by essentially amplifying the pig paranoia rather than providing any useful information about the disease. The 'social' factor of Twitter exacerbates this phenomena: often users post not to communicate substance, but to fit in. The result is a hysterical echo chamber of misinformation. (In fact, the author of the linked Foreign Policy article speculates that Twitter would be a very good medium for someone who wanted to intentionally incite fear in the populace.) Valleywag nicely summarizes this point: "What Twitter actually does is inflate problems out of all proportion, as Twitterers noisily tweet about how with it, on it, and over it they all are, repeating each other's messages without adding anything of value. Any [person looking to inform themselves] would go mad long before he extracted useful information." The desire of many Twitter users to be on the cutting edge of news also enhances their gullibility, and the lack of context inherent in 140 character posts makes it much easier to pull the wool over a reader's eyes. Twitter users fell for the faux news items of Patrick Swaze's death and nefarious items snuck into Obama's stimulus package, to cite only two examples.

The fact that entries on Twitter are limited to 140 characters apiece makes it difficult to convey much useful insight in one post. Many use Twitter for precisely that reason -- they have little or nothing to say. Glenn Greenwald nails it: "About Twitter messages, John says 'they all read like cell phone text messages between 12 year olds,' and indeed, the only purpose I can discern is that it provides a format for expressing thoughts that are too inconsequential to merit a stand-alone article or post. For precisely that reason, it is unsurprising that Twitter has become a huge hit among our media stars, for whom triviality is a guiding principle." Appropriately, a vast cult of celebrity Twitter worship has emerged, with eager fans eating up every last tasteless morsel that is tossed to them by their gods. The fact that Twitter is often an outlet for the mundane is hammered home by spoof sites such as MyLifeIsAverage.

Quite possibly the most devastating critique of Twitter is not that it incites fear or inhabited by vapid users, but that there is simply nothing special about it -- that it is more of the same. Seth Finkelstein maintains that Twitter is just another sucker's game that only serves the needs of a tiny elite: 'After I saw Twitter in use, I realised the difference was that, while IRC had all participants equal, Twitter implements a distilled version of many problematic aspects of blogging. Namely, a one-to-many broadcasting system that serves the needs of high-attention individuals, combined with an appeal to low-attention individuals that the details of one's life matter to an audience... Twitter is low-level celebrity for the chattering class. And the pathologies of celebrity are all on display, including the exploitative industries that prey on the human desire to be heard and noticed. My answer to Twitter's slogan of "What are you doing?" is: 'Not playing a sucker's game.'" Twitter, in other words, is just another way for the powerful to broadcast their message and for advertisers to blast users with pitches for their newest products and peer into consumers' minds, all the while deluding the average user that it's an empowering service.

Clearly, Twitter is many things to many people. Perhaps that's the only conclusion that one can draw from such a myriad of uses. Twitter is a communication medium and, like any other one, can be used and abused for just about any purpose. Although Twitter encourages its own unique kind of communication from being a 140-character accepting social media service, many of these sites' quirks are simply a reflection of their users, and it's wrong to blame the tool for having too much influence in shaping what people do with it. As one responder to Greenwald put it, "Criticizing the form [of Twitter] is like criticizing haiku as a form."

  • TechCrunch takes a pessimistic viewpoint, in the context of the Fort Hood Massacre.
  • Valleywag lays down the rules for the manipulate-the-gullible-public-into-believing-someone-is-dead-when-they're-not game
  • Joel Spolsky also has some unkind words for Twitter
  • Study: Men follow Men and Nobody Tweets
I finally caved. danny_colligan is my twitter handle.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

.gdbinit file

Personal settings for gdb -- nothing too elaborate

# color prompt
set prompt \001\033[1;36m\002(gdb) \001\033[0m\002

# history across invocations
set history save on
set history filename ~/.gdb_history