« October 2005 | Main | December 2005 »

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Reading List: The Book Nobody Read

Gingerich, Owen. The Book Nobody Read. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. ISBN 0-14-303476-6.
There is something about astronomy which seems to invite obsession. Otherwise, why would intelligent and seemingly rational people expend vast amounts of time and effort to compile catalogues of hundreds of thousands of stars, precisely measure the positions of planets over periods of decades, travel to the ends of the Earth to observe solar eclipses, get up before the crack of noon to see a rare transit of Mercury or Venus, or burn up months of computer time finding every planetary transit in a quarter million year interval around the present? Obsession it may be, but it's also fascinating and fun, and astronomy has profited enormously from the labours of those so obsessed, whether on a mountain top in the dead of winter, or carrying out lengthy calculations when tables of logarithms were the the only computational tool available.

This book chronicles one man's magnificent thirty-year obsession. Spurred by Arthur Koestler's The Sleepwalkers, which portrayed Copernicus as a villain and his magnum opus De revolutionibus "the book that nobody read"--"an all time worst seller", followed by the discovery of an obviously carefully read and heavily annotated first edition in the library of the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, Scotland, the author, an astrophysicist and Harvard professor of the history of science, found himself inexorably drawn into a quest to track down and examine every extant copy of the first (Nuremberg, 1543) and second (Basel, 1566) editions of De revolutionibus to see whether and where readers had annotated them and so determine how widely the book, of which about a thousand copies were printed in these editions--typical for scientific works at the time--was read. Unlike today, when we've been educated that writing in a book is desecration, readers in the 16th and 17th centuries often made extensive annotations to their books, even assigning students and apprentices the task of copying annotations by other learned readers into their copies.

Along the way Gingerich found himself driving down an abandoned autobahn in the no man's land between East and West Germany, testifying in the criminal trial of a book rustler, discovering the theft of copies which librarians were unaware were missing, tracking down the provenance of pages in "sophisticated" (in the original sense of the word) copies assembled from two or more incomplete originals, attending the auction at Sotheby's of a first edition with a dubious last leaf which sold for US$750,000 (the author, no impecunious naïf in the rare book game, owns two copies of the second edition himself), and discovering the fate of many less celebrated books from that era (toilet paper). De revolutionibus has survived the vicissitudes of the centuries quite well--out of about 1000 original copies of the first and second editions, approximately six hundred exemplars remain.

Aside from the adventures of the Great Copernicus Chase, there is a great deal of information about Copernicus and the revolution he discovered and sparked which dispels many widely-believed bogus notions such as:

  • Copernicus was a hero of secular science against religious fundamentalism. Wrong!   Copernicus was a deeply religious doctor of church law, canon of the Roman Catholic Varmian Cathedral in Poland. He dedicated the book to Pope Paul III.
  • Prior to Copernicus, astronomers relying on Ptolemy's geocentric system kept adding epicycles on epicycles to try to approximate the orbits of the planets. Wrong!   This makes for a great story, but there is no evidence whatsoever for "epicycles on epicycles". The authoritative planetary ephemerides in use in the age of Copernicus were calculated using the original Ptolemaic system without additional refinements, and there are no known examples of systems with additional epicycles.
  • Copernicus banished epicycles from astronomy. Wrong!   The Copernican system, in fact, included thirty-four epicycles! Because Copernicus believed that all planetary motion was based on circles, just like Ptolemy he required epicycles to approximate motion which wasn't known to be actually elliptical prior to Kepler. In fact, the Copernican system was no more accurate in predicting planetary positions than that of Ptolemy, and ephemerides computed from it were no better.
  • The Roman Catholic Church was appalled by Copernicus's suggestion that the Earth was not the centre of the cosmos and immediately banned his book. Wrong!   The first edition of De revolutionibus was published in 1543. It wasn't until 1616, more than seventy years later, that the book was placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, and in 1620 it was permitted as long as ten specific modifications were made. Outside Italy, few copies even in Catholic countries were censored according to these instructions. In Spain, usually thought of as a hotbed of the Inquisition, the book was never placed on the Index at all. Galileo's personal copy has the forbidden passages marked in boxes and lined through, permitting the original text to be read. There is no evidence of any copy having been destroyed on the orders of the Church, and the Vatican library has three copies of both the first and second editions.

Obviously, if you're as interested as I in eccentric topics like positional astronomy, rare books, the evolution of modern science, and the surprisingly rapid and efficient diffusion of knowledge more than five centuries before the Internet, this is a book you're probably going to read if you haven't already. The only flaw is that the colour plates (at least in the UK paperback edition I read) are terribly reproduced--they all look like nobody bothered to focus the copy camera when the separations were made; plates 4b, 6, and 7a through 7f, which show annotations in various copies, are completely useless because they're so fuzzy the annotations can barely be read, if at all.

Posted at 01:10 Permalink

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Internet Slum: Bizarre Denial of Service Attack--or Something

When testing the new firewall last night, I noticed an average of more than one packet per second dropped by the firewall due to bad TCP connection state--for example receiving an ACK before a SYN (for as we know, all live TCP connections are born in original SYN). These were coming from a limited number of IP addresses, over and over in bursts. Today I ran those IP addresses against the HTTP server log and discovered that they were all requesting a small number of monthly status files within the Webalizer output document tree. Each IP address requested the same file over and over, but the precise file requested within the directory differed among the IP addresses. The referrers specified in the HTTP requests were all spam or pornographic sites, but if you look at those pages (yuck!), they contain no link to the page which is being requested, nor any JavaScript which looks to me like it could be responsible for the requests. I scanned the HTTP log for yesterday and found more than 21000 requests for these files, and that was a light day because the log from the hour spent running on the new firewall had not been merged into the log I examined. As the files being requested are all in excess of 100K, this is a substantial amount of wasted bandwidth. As with the previous denial of service attack, none of the IP addresses which requested these pages ever requested anything else. I suspect that the reason for the malformed TCP sessions reported by the firewall is that they're blasting in requests so fast (I've seen up to 23 in a five second period), that they're violating the TCP connection set-up/tear-down protocol--in any case, the IP addresses responsible for the firewall warnings were precisely those which accounted for the largest number of requests in the log.

I set up a lightweight version of the Gardol program I wrote back in the big attack in 2004 (yes, the documentation isn't finished; the nature of these attacks is such that you don't have a lot of time to abstergify and document code when you're going flat-out trying to figure out what's going on and devise a way to respond to it) and found that when you drop packets from these guys they still keep on trying. One site, located in the Ukraine based on the IP address, tried almost 60,000 times in the first two hours after Gardol started dropping its packets with iptables.

It is atypical that the heavy hitter sites appear to be Unix boxes--most are running SSHD and FTPD. Others, however, are not. Of course it's possible the Unix boxes are firewalls with Windows machines hiding behind their IP address. Of the IP addresses which have made more than 25 consecutive identical requests for the same Webalizer status file (which I'm using as the signature for the attack), four are located in Korea, and one each in the U.S., Ukraine, and Russia. As these are all prime havens for spammers, that reinforces the evidence from the referrer URLs that this has something to do with spam, although I cannot imagine what.

Whatever, it isn't just me they're hitting. I searched Google for these IP addresses and file names, and found Webalizer pages showing tens of thousands of hits from them on sites in Japan, Spain, The Netherlands, and Russia among others. As usual, I have no clue what is going on, but at least I'm now confident it isn't a problem with the new firewall. The Internet may be a slum, but as Loudon Wainwright III sang of New York City in Talking Big Apple '75, "it ain't boring".

Posted at 20:41 Permalink

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Reading List: The Abolition of Britain

Hitchens, Peter. The Abolition of Britain. 2nd. ed. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002. ISBN 1-893554-39-2.
History records many examples of the collapse of once great and long-established cultures. Usually, such events are the consequence of military defeat, occupation or colonisation by a foreign power, violent revolution and its totalitarian aftermath, natural disasters, or other dramatic and destructive events. In this book, Peter Hitchens chronicles the collapse, within the span of a single human lifetime (bracketed by the funerals of Winston Churchill in 1965 and Princess Diana in 1997), of the culture which made Britain British, and maintained domestic peace in England and Wales since 1685 (and Scotland since Culloden in 1746) while the Continent was repeatedly convulsed by war and revolution. The collapse in Britain, however, occurred following victory in a global conflict in which, at the start, Britain stood alone against tyranny and barbarism, and although rooted in a time of postwar privation, demotion from great power status, and loss of empire, ran its course as the nation experienced unprecedented and broadly-based prosperity.

Hitchens argues that the British cultural collapse was almost entirely the result of well-intentioned "reform" and "modernisation" knocking out the highly evolved and subtly interconnected pillars which supported the culture, set in motion, perhaps, by immersion in American culture during World War II (see chapter 16--this argument seems rather dubious to me, since many of the postwar changes in Britain also occurred in the U.S., but afterward), and reinforced and accelerated by television broadcasting, the perils of which were prophetically sketched by T.S. Eliot in 1950 (p. 128). When the pillars of a culture: historical memory, national identity and pride, religion and morality, family, language, community, landscape and architecture, decency, and education are dislodged, even slightly, what ensues is much like the "controlled implosion" demolition of a building, with the Hobbesian forces of "every man for himself" taking the place of gravity in pulling down the structure and creating the essential preconditions for the replacement of bottom-up self-government by self-reliant citizens with authoritarian rule by élite such as Tony Blair's ambition of U.S.-style presidential power and, the leviathan where the road to serfdom leads, the emerging anti-democratic Continental super-state.

This U.S second edition includes notes which explain British terms and personalities unlikely to be familiar to readers abroad, a preface addressed to American readers, and an afterword discussing the 2001 general election and subsequent events.

Posted at 15:14 Permalink

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Donald Knuth visits Fourmilab

Donald E. Knuth, author of The Art of Computer Programming, dk_visit_2005-11-20.jpg creator of TeX, inventor of literate programming, and discoverer of surreal numbers, visited Fourmilab today, accompanied by a group of professors from the computer science department at the ETH Zürich, where he is visiting. After the tour (the photo is taken in front of the Fourmilab "welcome mat"--the «danger de mort» sign on the door of the electrical substation), we had lunch in Neuchâtel and then enjoyed a demonstration at the Musée d'art et d'histoire of the 18th century Jaquet-Droz androids. (Sorry, this is an irritating site with pop-ups and navigation forced through an entry page; when that page comes up, click on the link for "Pierre and Louis Jaquet-Droz" in "The XVIIIth century" section to get to the actual content. If you play the videos from this site, note that the mechanical noise of the actual androids in operation is nowhere near as loud as it appears in them.)

dk_ecrivain_2005-11-20.jpg Here, the pioneer of high-quality computer typesetting and font design meets a programmable writing robot dating from the 1770s. The amazing thing about the writer automaton is that, like TeX and Metafont, it fully separates the font definition (in mechanical cam "microcode") from the text to be written, which is set by installing height-coded teeth on a wheel which defines the message of up to 40 characters. Thus, the writer is able to write any message, constrained only by its forty character cursive font and the capacity of the message wheel. As in modern coded character sets, end of line is indicated by a control character; unlike contemporary printers, however, before commencing a line the scribe dips his goose quill pen in the inkwell, then shakes off the excess ink. Remarkably, the writer was the first of the automata to be built; the less complicated draftsman and musician were built later, although all were unveiled at the same time in 1774.

Clicking on the images will display enlargements of them.

Posted at 18:38 Permalink

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Hacker's Diet: Fourth Edition Published

The Fourth Edition of The Hacker's Diet has now been posted. This is the first major update since the original Web edition was published in 1994. The content is unchanged; other than rewording some sentences so awkward print-style cross-references could be supplanted by more mellifluous hyperlinks, the text is identical. The appearance and structure of the document is much different. The small snippets of text which were considered "screen-sized" in the age of dial-up modems have been replaced by one HTML document per chapter, more consistent with the contemporary community standards of today's broadband fat city. This edition is 100% compliant with the XHTML 1.0 (Transitional and Frameset) and CSS 2.1 standards and requires a browser which fully supports them, including the ability to display Unicode text entities such as proper “double quotes”—and em-dashes. JavaScript and DOM/DHTML are used to a minor extent for navigation, but everything will work fine if they are disabled or not functional.

Current browsers are remarkably compliant with these standards, at least if you don't push them any harder than I did in this document, which I considered skating very close to the dark open water in the middle of the pond. I've tested this document with Mozilla Firefox 1.0.6, Opera 8.5, and Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.0, and other than requiring the Exploder width kludge in one chapter, everything worked fine. If you spot something funny, whack me upside the head with the feedback button and I'll dig into it. In case this document can't be digested by a user's browser, all the earlier editions remain available.

Posted at 00:27 Permalink

Monday, November 14, 2005

Reading List: Why Literature Is Bad for You

Thorpe, Peter. Why Literature Is Bad for You. Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers, 1980. ISBN 0-88229-745-7.
Techies like myself often have little patience with students of the humanities, particularly those argumentative types ill-informed in anything outside their speciality often found around university campuses. After escaping from an encounter with one of these creatures, a common reaction is to shrug one's shoulders and mutter "English majors. . .". I'd always assumed it was a selection effect: a career which involves reading made-up stories and then arguing vociferously about small details in them just naturally appeals to dopey people who those more engaged in the real world inevitably find tedious and irritating. But here's a book written by a professor of English Literature who argues that immersion in the humanities manufactures such people, wrecking the minds and often the lives of those who would have otherwise made well-balanced and successful accountants, scientists, physicians, engineers, or members of other productive professions.

This is either one of the most astonishing exemplars of academic apostasy ever written, or such a dry satire (which, it should be noted, is one of the author's fields of professional interest) that it slips beneath the radar of almost everybody who reads it. Peter Thorpe was a tenured (to be sure, otherwise this book would have been career suicide) associate professor of English at the University of Colorado when, around 1980, he went through what must have been a king-Hell existential mid-life crisis and penned this book which, for all its heresies, didn't wreck his career: here's a recent biography.

In any case, the message is incendiary. A professor of English Literature steps up to the podium to argue that intensive exposure to the Great Books which undergraduate and graduate students in English and their professors consider their "day job" is highly destructive to their psyches, as can be observed by the dysfunctional behaviour manifest in the denizens of a university department of humanities. So dubious is Thorpe that such departments have anything to do with human values, that he consistently encloses "humanities" in scare quotes.

Rather than attempting to recapitulate the arguments of this short and immensely entertaining polemic, I will simply cite the titles of the five parts and list the ways in which Thorpe deems the study of literature pernicious in each.

  1. Seven Types of Immaturity
    "Outgrowing" loved ones; addiction to and fomenting crises; refusal to co-operate deemed a virtue; fatalism as an excuse; self-centredness instead of self-knowledge; lust for revenge; hatred and disrespect for elders and authority.
  2. Seven Avenues to Unawareness
    Imputing "motivation" where it doesn't exist; pigeonholing people into categories; projecting one's own feelings onto others; replacement of one's own feelings with those of others; encouragement of laziness--it's easier to read than to do; excessive tolerance for incompetence; encouraging hostility and aggression.
  3. Five Avenues to Unhappiness
    Clinically or borderline paranoia, obsession with the past, materialism or irrational anti-materialism, expectation of gratitude when none is due, and being so worry-prone as to risk stomach ulcers (lighten up--this book was published two years before the discovery of H. pylori).
  4. Four Ways to Decrease Our Mental Powers
    Misuse of opinion, faulty and false memories, dishonest use of evidence, and belief that ideas do not have consequences.
  5. Four Ways to Failing to Communicate
    Distorting the language, writing poorly, gossipping and invading the privacy of others, and advocating or tolerating censorship.

That's a pretty damning bill of particulars, isn't it? Most of these indictments of the rôle of literature in inducing these dysfunctions are illustrated by fictionalised anecdotes based on individuals the author has encountered in English departments during his career. Some of the stories and arguments for how devotion to literature is the root cause of the pathology of the people who study it seem a tad over the top to this engineer, but then I haven't spent my whole adult life in an English Lit. department! The writing is entertaining and the author remains true to his profession in invoking a multitude of literary allusions to bolster his points. Whatever, it's comforting to believe that when you took advantage of Cliff's Notes to survive those soporific equation-free requirements for graduation you weren't (entirely) being lazy but also protecting your sanity and moral compass!

The book is out of print, but used copies are readily available and inexpensive. Special thanks to the visitor who recommended this book.

Posted at 21:48 Permalink

Thursday, November 10, 2005

U.S. Patent Granted for Anti-Gravity Propulsion

U.S. Patent 6,960,975, issued on November 1st, 2005, is for a "Space vehicle propelled by the pressure of inflationary vacuum state".

A space vehicle propelled by the pressure of inflationary vacuum state is provided comprising a hollow superconductive shield, an inner shield, a power source, a support structure, upper and lower means for generating an electromagnetic field, and a flux modulation controller. A cooled hollow superconductive shield is energized by an electromagnetic field resulting in the quantized vortices of lattice ions projecting a gravitomagnetic field that forms a spacetime curvature anomaly outside the space vehicle. The spacetime curvature imbalance, the spacetime curvature being the same as gravity, provides for the space vehicle's propulsion. The space vehicle, surrounded by the spacetime anomaly, may move at a speed approaching the light-speed characteristic for the modified locale.

And you thought some of the software patents were absurd!

Posted at 20:31 Permalink

Wednesday, November 9, 2005

Reading List: The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades)

Spencer, Robert. The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades). Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2005. ISBN 0-89526-013-1.
This book has the worthy goal of providing a brief, accessible antidote to the airbrushed version of Islam dispensed by its apologists and echoed by the mass media, and the relentlessly anti-Western account of the Crusades indoctrinated in the history curricula of government schools. Regrettably, the attempt falls short of the mark. The tone throughout is polemical--you don't feel like you're reading about history, religion, and culture so much as that the author is trying to persuade you to adopt his negative view of Islam, with historical facts and citations from original sources trotted out as debating points. This runs the risk of the reader suspecting the author of having cherry-picked source material, omitting that which argues the other way. I didn't find the author guilty of this, but the result is that this book is only likely to persuade those who already agree with its thesis before picking it up, which makes one wonder what's the point.

Spencer writes from an overtly Christian perspective, with parallel "Muhammad vs. Jesus" quotes in each chapter, and statements like, "If Godfrey of Bouillon, Richard the Lionhearted, and countless others hadn't risked their lives to uphold the honor of Christ and His Church thousands of miles from home, the jihadists would almost certainly have swept across Europe much sooner" (p. 160). Now, there's nothing wrong with comparing aspects of Islam to other religions to counter "moral equivalence" arguments which claim that every religion is equally guilty of intolerance, oppression, and incitement to violence, but the near-exclusive focus on Christianity is likely to be off-putting to secular readers and adherents of other religions who are just as threatened by militant, expansionist Islamic fundamentalism as Christians.

The text is poorly proofread; in several block quotations, words are run together without spaces, three times in as many lines on page 110. In the quote from John Wesley on p. 188, the whole meaning is lost when the phrase "cities razed from the foundation" is written with "raised" instead of "razed".

The author's earlier Islam Unveiled is similarly flawed in tone and perspective. Had I noticed that this book was by the same author, I wouldn't have read it. It's more to read, but the combination of Ibn Warraq's Why I Am Not a Muslim and Paul Fregosi's Jihad in the West will leave you with a much better understanding of the issues than this disappointing effort.

Posted at 16:37 Permalink

Hello, Dali II: UPS Meltdown Caught in the Act

Long-term readers of this chronicle will recall the posting in December 2004 about a set of APC UPS batteries which seemingly melted in a way reminiscent of Salvador Dali's painting The Persistence of Memory. This event has remained a mystery in the succeeding months, just one of those things I file away under those events which clutter my life which, when I describe them to others, elicits the comment, "I've never heard of anything like that before" (which, if I had a centime every time I'd heard it, I'd have never had to start a software company!).

As described in the original posting, I replaced the batteries in the UPS, gingerly recycled the partially melted ones, and ever since then that UPS has behaved OK. Then, last week, it happened again, to a different UPS, and this time I caught it in the act! All of the UPS units at Fourmilab are configured to perform a weekly self-test on Monday morning. When I happened to walk by the room in which this UPS was located, I immediately noted an acrid smell (I learned engineering back when the "educated nose" was an important asset for an electrical engineer) and, opening the door and walking in, a powerful stench, the sound of a fan blasting away, and abundant "excess heat". It was obvious the UPS was the source (if only because nothing else in that room had a fan of that size), and, holding my hand near the side of the cabinet, it was clear I'd be wiser not to touch it. I bypassed the UPS, shut it down to let it cool, and unplugged it from the mains.

After things had cooled down and the stench had been dissipated by airing out the room to the great outdoors, I opened up the the UPS and discovered that, as before, the battery was jammed in the battery compartment. I proceeded to dismantle the UPS so as to extricate the battery and found that what jammed it was that it had begun to swell, both along the cells and in the front and back. The swelling was not as extreme as in the first incident (in particular, the top of the battery had not begun to bulge), but it was unambiguous, and almost certainly would have proceeded to a more extreme condition had I not pulled the plug when I did. The swelling along the side of the battery is scarier than it appears in this photo; the dark grey colour of the battery makes it difficult to show the deformation of the case, which clearly follows the cells and plates within them. The battery which manifested these symptoms had been installed on 2003-08-05, and thus was not at all long in the tooth by UPS battery standards.

Absent evidence, I shall speculate. What I think is happening is that there's some kind of failure mode which causes the battery to short during a recharge cycle in a way which causes the UPS to enter a continuous high-current recharge mode. This, applied to a fully charged battery, generates heat which causes the case to melt and bulge and provokes the evolution of acidic vapours through escape vents. This process is limited only by some failure within the battery or charging circuit which causes it to be shut down.

As with the first UPS on which this happened, I have replaced the battery, let the new battery fully charge, and performed a series of self-tests which completed absolutely normally. This is consistent with my suspicion that the problem is fundamentally due to a failure in the battery, but I may be wrong. In any case, whatever the failure mode, it would seem an excellent idea to include a thermal cut-out on battery temperature, or perhaps a computed integrated charging current measure which would shut down charging of the battery before enough energy had been delivered to it which could provoke physical failure (release of acid, hydrogen emission, or deformation of the case which precluded replacement of the battery without dismantling the UPS). This UPS, like the rack-mount unit in which the first meltdown occurred, was one of the first installed at Fourmilab, dating from 1996. I know not whether there is some kind of back-end of the bathtub curve which is provoking these failures in older UPS units, and/or whether newer units may have the kinds of protection against these kinds of distasteful and potentially dangerous failures mentioned above.

Posted at 00:23 Permalink

Tuesday, November 8, 2005

Movable Type 3.2: NetPBM Thumbnail Generation

When upgrading to Movable Type 3.2, note that the extlib/IPC library is not included in the 3.2 distribution, and that this library is required if you're using NetPBM to generate image thumbnails. You should either transfer this library from your earlier installation of Movable Type or download the current version from the Movable Type Knowledge Base and install the IPC subdirectory from it into your mt/extlib directory. Until you do this, uploads of image files will not offer you the option of creating a thumbnail.

Posted at 00:08 Permalink

Monday, November 7, 2005

Reading List: The Open Society and Its Enemies. Vol. 2

Popper, Karl R. The Open Society and Its Enemies. Vol. 2: Hegel and Marx. London: Routledge, [1945, 1962, 1966, 1995] 2003. ISBN 0-415-27842-2.
After tracing the Platonic origins of utopian schemes of top-down social engineering in Volume 1, Popper now turns to the best-known modern exemplars of the genre, Hegel and Marx, starting out by showing Aristotle's contribution to Hegel's philosophy. Popper considers Hegel a complete charlatan and his work a blizzard of obfuscation intended to dull the mind to such an extent that it can believe that the Prussian monarchy (which paid the salaries of Hegel and his acolytes) was the epitome of human freedom. For a work of serious philosophical criticism (there are more than a hundred pages of end notes in small type), Popper is forthrightly acerbic and often quite funny in his treatment of Hegel, who he disposes of in only 55 pages of this book of 470. (Popper's contemporary, Wittgenstein, gets much the same treatment. See note 51 to chapter 11, for example, in which he calls the Tractatus "reinforced dogmatism that opens wide the door to the enemy, deeply significant metaphysical nonsense. . .". One begins to comprehend what possessed Wittgenstein, a year after the publication of this book, to brandish a fireplace poker at Popper.)

Readers who think of Popper as an icon of libertarianism may be surprised at his remarkably positive treatment of Marx, of whom he writes (chapter 13), "Science progresses through trial and error. Marx tried, and although he erred in his main doctrines, he did not try in vain. He opened and sharpened our eyes in many ways. A return to pre-Marxian social science is inconceivable. All modern writers are indebted to Marx, even if they do not know it. . . . One cannot do justice to Marx without recognizing his sincerity. His open-mindedness, his sense of facts, his distrust of verbiage, and especially of moralizing verbiage, made him one of the world's most influential fighters against hypocisy and pharisaism. He had a burning desire to help the oppressed, and was fully conscious of the need for proving himself in deeds, and not only in words."

To be sure, this encomium is the prelude to a detailed critique of Marx's deterministic theory of history and dubious economic notions, but unlike Hegel, Marx is given credit for trying to make sense of phenomena which few others even attempted to study scientifically. Many of the flaws in Marx's work, Popper argues, may be attributed to Marx having imbibed too deeply and uncritically the work of Hegel, and the crimes committed in the name of Marxism the result of those treating his work as received dogma, as opposed to a theory subject to refutation, as Marx himself would have viewed it.

Also surprising is his condemnation, with almost Marxist vehemence, of nineteenth century "unrestrained capitalism", and enthusiasm for government intervention in the economy and the emergence of the modern welfare state (chapter 20 in particular). One must observe, with the advantage of sixty years hindsight, that F.A. Hayek's less sanguine contemporary perspective in The Road to Serfdom has proved more prophetic. Of particular interest is Popper's advocacy of "piecemeal social engineering", as opposed to grand top-down systems such as "scientific socialism", as the genuinely scientific method of improving society, permitting incremental progress by experiments on the margin which are subject to falsification by their results, in the same manner Popper argues the physical sciences function in The Logic of Scientific Discovery.

Permit me to make a few remarks about the physical properties of this book. The paperback seems to have a spine made of triple-reinforced neutronium, and cannot be induced to lie flat by any of the usual stratagems. In fact, when reading the book, one must either use two hands to hold it open or else wedge it open with three fingers against the spine in order to read complete lines of text. This is tiring, particularly since the book is also quite heavy. If you happen to doze off whilst reading (which I'll confess happened a few times during some of the more intricate philosophical arguments), the thing will pop out of your hand, snap shut like a bear trap, and fly off in some random direction--Zzzzzz . . . CLACK . . . thud! I don't know what the problem is with the binding--I have any number of O'Reilly paperbacks about the same size and shape which lie flat without the need for any extreme measures. The text is set in a type font in which the distinction between roman and italic type is very subtle--sometimes I had to take off my glasses (I am nearsighted) and eyeball the text close-up to see if a word was actually emphasised, and that runs the risk of a bloody nose if your thumb should slip and the thing snap shut.

A U.S. edition of this volume is now back in print; for a while only Volume 1 was available from Princeton University Press. The U.K. edition of Volume 1 from Routledge remains available.

Posted at 21:39 Permalink

Thursday, November 3, 2005

What's the Matter with Kids Today?

Play sound This audio clip is from episode 605 of South Park, of which season six is now available on DVD.

Posted at 23:24 Permalink

Wednesday, November 2, 2005

Reading List: Pornified

Paul, Pamela. Pornified. New York: Times Books, 2005. ISBN 0-8050-7745-6.
If you've been on the receiving end of Internet junk mail as I've been until I discovered a few technical tricks (here and here) which, along with Annoyance Filter, have essentially eliminated spam from my mailbox, you're probably aware that the popular culture of the Internet is, to a substantial extent, about pornography and that this marvelous global packet switching medium is largely a means for delivering pornography both to those who seek it and those who find it, unsolicited, in their electronic mailboxes or popping up on their screens.

This is an integral part of the explosive growth of pornography along with the emergence of new media. In 1973, there were fewer than a thousand pornographic movie theatres in the U.S. (p 54). Building on the first exponential growth curve driven by home video, the Internet is bringing pornography to everybody connected and reducing the cost asymptotically to zero. On "peer to peer" networks such as Kazaa, 73% of all movie searches are for pornography and 24% of image searches are for child pornography (p. 60).

It's one thing to talk about free speech, but another to ask what the consequences might be of this explosion of consumption of material which is largely directed at men, and which not only objectifies but increasingly, as the standard of "edginess" ratchets upward, degrades women and supplants the complexity of adult human relationships with the fantasy instant gratification of "adult entertainment".

Mark Schwartz, clinical director of the Masters and Johnson Clinic in St. Louis, hardly a puritanical institution, says (p. 142) "Pornography is having a dramatic effect on relationships at many different levels and in many different ways--and nobody outside the sexual behavior field and the psychiatric community is talking about it." This book, by Time magazine contributor Pamela Paul, talks about it, interviewing both professionals surveying the landscape and individuals affected in various ways by the wave of pornography sweeping over developed countries connected to the Internet. Paul quotes Judith Coché, a clinical psychologist who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and has 25 years experience in therapy practice as saying (p. 180), "We have an epidemic on our hands. The growth of pornography and its impact on young people is really, really dangerous. And the most dangerous part is that we don't even realize what's happening."

Ironically, part of this is due to the overwhelming evidence of the pernicious consequences of excessive consumption of pornography and its tendency to progress into addictive behaviour from the Zillman and Bryant studies and others, which have made academic ethics committees reluctant to approve follow-up studies involving human subjects (p. 90). Would you vote, based on the evidence in hand, for a double blind study of the effects of tobacco or heroin on previously unexposed subjects?

In effect, with the technologically-mediated collapse of the social strictures against pornography, we've embarked upon a huge, entirely unplanned, social and cultural experiment unprecedented in human history. This book will make people on both sides of the debate question their assumptions; the author, while clearly appalled by the effects of pornography on many of the people she interviews, is forthright in her opposition to censorship. Even if you have no interest in pornography nor strong opinions for or against it, there's little doubt that the ever-growing intrusiveness and deviance of pornography on the Internet will be a "wedge issue" in the coming battle over the secure Internet, so the message of this book, unwelcome as it may be, should be something which everybody interested in preserving both our open society and the fragile culture which sustains it ponders at some length.

Posted at 01:30 Permalink