Thursday, September 29, 2011

Science vs dogma

Two hypotheticals:

1. You (common, everyday man) observe something occurring in nature. Every time it happens, you figure out that a specific something causes it. You emit the hypothesis that "A causes B" and devise a number of experiments to disprove it. You fail, and as far as you know everyone else also fails to disprove your theory. You tentatively accept the theory.

2. You observe something occurring in nature. It violates accepted dogma. You note that there is no known case where the alleged cause is known to actually produce the observed effect and, in fact, there is no actual proof that the cause even exists. You are told that you lack the inner grace that allows the high priests to verify that the cause does indeed exist; that there are secret rituals you're not privy to that they have used to confirm the truth of the dogma, and you're better off just accepting it as fact.

The first paragraph describes, for example, the idea that complex information is overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, generated by intelligent causes. A lot of people consider it to be a religious belief.

The second paragraph describes stuff like dark matter, string theory, quantum physics, black holes and pretty much everything physicists declare to be scientific truth. (I love that phrase... "scientific truth". It has a gnostic ring to it.)

Edit: To clarify, by "quantum physics" above I meant the more esoteric interpretations, like the multi-verse theory; stuff that is not even verifiable, let alone verified.

Edit 2: This is a great example of a scientist understanding the science / dogma problem : The Van Allen Belts and Travel to the Moon.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Thou shalt not steal

Jimmy was quite good at his craft, and that made him proud. His Pa, though – his Pa could never find out; he was a big stickler for that “honest work” bull, his Pa was. Jimmy was big for his fourteen years, so his Pa had started to bug him more often lately – “it’s time to start earning your keep, Jimmy”, “come work with me at the farm, Jimmy, we could use someone like you”. It was very annoying, even more so because Jimmy did want his Pa to be proud of him, but he wanted to get there his own way.

No, his choice of craft was not that of a farmer, or a carpenter, or anything like that. Jimmy was a pickpocket – a good one, if he said so himself. Minor stuff for now, but he had never been caught – the very thought of what his Pa would do to him if he found out about it gave him shivers – and he was hoping for a big score. Jimmy was sure that his big score was close – didn’t his Ma tell him that “good things come to those who wait”? So Jimmy waited, and practiced.

His Pa was also annoying Jimmy about his friends. He didn’t like them – he said they were a bad influence on him. That was not right – he had learnt his craft from them, and because of that extra money he could afford a few more trinkets. He was even less of a burden in the house expenses, so that had to be a good thing, no?

Still, that big score was the only thing that would solve their problems. His Pa worked at least ten hard hours a day, and barely got enough money to feed them all – Jimmy had a little sister that he loved, and he would bring her little gifts bought with his “earnings”. Sometimes even sweets, though that was really rare. If Jimmy could manage to score big, his Pa could work a bit less, his Ma could have enough money to buy something for herself, and his sister would have everything she wanted. They would all be so proud of him, and his Pa would have to admit he was wrong about Jimmy.

There was one problem that made that big hit unlikely, though, and Jimmy was aware of it: the economy was really bad. People were getting laid off left and right, some of them were even killing themselves when the banks got their homes. It looked like nobody had any money, so where could Jimmy find a sucker with lots of money? He thought about robbing a bank, but he didn’t know how to use a gun, and he wasn’t a bank robber anyway – he was a pickpocket, and he wanted to stick to what he knew.

Until one day… one of his friends found out that someone was going to carry a lot of cash on himself. Jimmy didn’t know how he knew that, and he didn’t care much. Since Jimmy was the best, he was recruited for the job. The sucker was old and careless – Jimmy could spot the big bundle under his jacket from a mile away. The guy was practically begging to be robbed, so what could Jimmy do but be a good fellow and help him out? It’s not like he was harming anyone – the guy surely had plenty more money where that came from, and anyone carrying a large bag of cash should hire some security to help, no? The guy must be a cheapskate on top of everything else.

The job was so easy a kid could have done it. Someone with even less experience than himself, Jimmy thought. The old guy was really bad at taking care of his stuff – Jimmy was definitely going to be a better master for the money than him. All it had taken was a few moments of carelessness, a well-timed distraction provided by one of Jimmy’s friends, and his dream was accomplished – the big hit, finally. Sure, the old guy was a little roughed up, but it wasn’t anything permanent – he was going to be fine. A rich guy like him was sure to have expensive doctors anyway.

Jimmy was ecstatic. Here was his chance to prove his parents wrong – especially his Pa. He was a man now, who would help his family. Of course, he had to take some time to celebrate the hit, and he had to split the loot with the rest of the gang. Jimmy kinda lost track of the celebration – he never had drunk so much ale before in his life, and that was a problem. Still, after the party ended, he still had enough to help his family for a good while, and Jimmy was nothing if not optimistic – more jobs like this would surely come.

So, two mornings after his hit, after trying to put back some order in his looks – it wouldn’t do to have his father start berating him as soon as he entered the house – Jimmy went back home with a smile on his face. His pockets were full of sweets for his sister Lexie, and he even had one good cigar for his Pa. He was going to give it to him and watch him smoke, and hear him tell that he was proud of Jimmy, and that he was indeed becoming a man.

As soon as he entered the house, Jimmy knew something was wrong. Both his Ma and Lexie were crying, and there were a few other people in the house. Some of the neighbors were there, and even Aunt Janet from Boston, who almost never came to visit.

“Ma?” asked Jimmy, “what happened? Sis?”

His Ma lifted her eyes and looked at him. “Oh, Jimmy,” she cried, “thank God you’re ok! I thought I had lost you too!”

“Ma? What do you mean? I’m ok, what happened? Where’s Pa? Lexie, don’t cry,” he continued, “here, I have some sweets for you, I know you like sweets.” He tried to give Lexie a handful of sweets, but she kept crying and didn’t even look at him.

“Oh, Jimmy, my poor boy. I... I…” his mother started crying again.

“Sit down, Jimmy,” said Aunt Janet. “Here, take a seat. Have some water to drink.” She pushed a glass of water to him.

“Auntie? What happened? Where’s Pa? Why is everyone crying?” Jimmy asked, really scared by now.

“Boy, I don’t know how to tell you this, so I’m just gonna say it,” said Aunt Janet. “Your father is dead. It seems that someone beat the farm administrator and stole the money he was taking to the bank to pay the mortgage, so the owner had to close the farm and sell everything. Your Pa couldn’t take the shame of having lost his job, so he hanged himself.”

“What?” Jimmy was sure this was a joke, a bad one. His vision was starting to darken, and he was making an effort to hear Aunt Janet, who kept talking.

“He left you a note,” Janet said. “He wanted you to know that he was always proud of you, and he knew you were going to become a great man. He said he was sorry for failing as a father, and he couldn’t bear to see the disappointment in your eyes. He said he was hoping you will do better than he did, and he asks that you forgive him, and that you take care of your mother and sister.”

Thursday, September 22, 2011

TDD by example

I intend to start a series of short "booklets", for lack of a better term, on the same idea of Growing Object-Oriented Software, Guided by Tests - show how a test-driven design process works for writing an application, from beginning to end. I realize I have hardly any readers, but is anybody interested in something like that? The articles will be free on my blog, of course, but I intend to also make them available for sale on Amazon.

I thought of stuff like writing an expression evaluator - 2 + 3 * 5 / (1 - 7) - and a postfix expression evaluator - 7 2 3 + * - but I tend to jump to math problems. On one hand, I need relatively simple problems, as I want to emphasize the TDD part; on the other hand, I don't want to write the next Stack implementation. Can anybody suggest topics?

Edited: follow-up at

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Flash fiction

My house stands at the edge of the Earth.

It didn’t use to. Earth was a normal planet, a planet-sized planet as it were. Round. Not as big as Jupiter, of course, but not so small as to see its edges. I’ve been to cities that were bigger than what Earth looks like now.

There are only a few thousands of us left. We can’t say we’re alive, really – we’re almost zombies. Everybody that’s still here lost family and friends. We’re in the acceptance stage now… there was fighting, and incredulity, and mass suicides, but everybody seems to be resigned to whatever fate we have. Nobody has a clue what happened. It doesn’t even make any sense – no celestial body this small should have an atmosphere, and yet the air is perfectly breathable. A lot more breathable than it used to be, in fact – there’s no industry left on Earth, nothing to pollute. I think all the animals are gone too, except for a few pets. Oh, and lots of insects. The scientists were right; the cockroaches will inherit the Earth. Whatever will remain of it, if anything.

I don’t know what happened. Nobody does for sure. Maybe God was fed up with the humans again, and thought floods were passé? Maybe some evil wizard played with something that escaped his control? Whatever it was, it destroyed us all. The speed of the shrinkage has slowed down, but even if it were to stop completely there are too few people left now and too little space to live in. Some people have called this the Earth Spaceship; it finally became true.

Why am I even writing this? I have no idea. Maybe I’m an incorrigible optimist, even in the face of certain disaster. Maybe all the pessimists died out and I feel responsible for humanity. Maybe this is all a nightmare. Oh God, how I hope this is a nightmare! Somehow, though, I can’t seem to wake up from it.

At least we avoided global warming.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

“The fact is that the average man’s love of liberty is nine-tenths imaginary, exactly like his love of sense, justice and truth. He is not actually happy when free; he is uncomfortable, a bit alarmed, and intolerably lonely. Liberty is not a thing for the great masses of men. It is the exclusive possession of a small and disreputable minority, like knowledge, courage and honor. It takes a special sort of man to understand and enjoy liberty–and he is usually an outlaw in democratic societies.”
— H.L. Mencken, Baltimore Evening Sun, Feb. 12, 1923

Johnny Got His Gun

I don't believe in Hell. Several years ago I decided to fully accept the preterist theory (short version: everything in the Bible has already happened); this has led me to universalism - everyone goes to heaven. I've held this belief for quite a while now.

I just changed it - somewhat. I suddenly believe in Hell, a place of such misery and torture that people can't really imagine it. A horrifying place. I also believe I'm in it right now, I just found a tiny bit which is somewhat less horrible. (I try not to make too many waves so I don't get moved to a more horrible part.)

This movie is why I think so - Johnny Got His Gun. It made me realize that politicians and soldiers are, if not the Devil, then something very close to it. They do their best to make other people's lives and homes a Hell. Hiroshima and Nagasaki might have been the clearest example, but read this description of the carpet bombing of Tokyo from Wikipedia:

On March 9 and 10 1945, B-29 Superfortresses were directed to bomb the most heavily populated civilian sectors of Tokyo. In just 2 days of bombing, over 100,000 of the population had burned to death from a heavy bombardment of incendiary bombs. Another 100,000 were left homeless.

We're in Hell. I now understand why some people commit suicide - they just discovered this, and can't handle it.

As for the rest of us - it's our job to make it better... though it's hard to be optimistic when I see how many people around me still worship the Devil.

Edit: For another horrible example, North Korea's death camps.