Jan 02, 2004

I'm torn between Fisking this essay on how privacy protections are hampering intelligence and programming with the rest of tonight. I can't quite put this essay down but we'll see how little I manage to say about it.

Big Number Fallacy
Dec 29, 2003

I couldn't find this on the Internet, so I present to you the "Big Number Fallacy":

Big Number Fallacy: All big numbers are infinite. In particular, they are all larger then each other, smaller then each other, and the same as each other, randomly.

In mathematics, depending on your choice of axioms, infinity is a "number" that can be greater then itself, less then itself, and equal to itself at the same time. Its ability to perform this feat is fundamentally why it's not a number (hence the scarequotes); it does not act like a number, therefore it isn't one.

When thinking about large numbers, people often internally promote them to these infinities, and then reason with them poorly. For instance, consider the following:

There's a chance that the Earth could be hit with a meteor the size of the mountain. Wow, that's big! That could knock the Earth farther away from the sun and we'd all freeze to death, even if we survived the impact!

The Earth is "really big", the asteroid is "really big", therefore, they are roughly equal in mass.

In reality, the number obtained by dividing the mass of the Earth by the mass of such an asteroid itself qualifies for "really big" status. Such an impact would be disasterous to us surface dwellers, but it's not even close to large enough to cause what we'd consider a change to Earth's orbit.

Of course it will have an impact, but for the climate to change we'd certainly need many thousands of miles of change, and to "freeze to death" would need many millions of miles of change. Any single impact large enough to do this would splatter the Earth. (If you want to change the orbit of a planet without killing everyone on it, you need to use gravity from other planet-sized objects, which of course is itself a problem... if you can move those planets that way why not use that technique to move Earth directly? There are some answers to that question (see "A World out of Time" by Niven), but I'm far enough off track.)

A quintillion is a million times larger then a trillion, and usually, factors of a million matter. Those are all Big Numbers, but don't fall prey to the Big Number fallacy; either do the math, or resist trying to guess how the Big Numbers will interact.

(Incidentally, pet peeve: Sci-fi movies showing the Earth blowing up. At planetary scales, everything is a liquid. "Blowing up the Earth" is more like blowing up a raindrop with a tiny explosive, not blowing up a rock with a tiny explosive. Someday, I hope to see a movie where they blow up a planet correctly. Be a great supercomputer simulation, the kind you run to get you on the news when you build The World's Greatest Super Computer. Of course, the amount of energy needed to blow up the Earth is itself a bona fide Big Number. (Give the linked site a chance; it has an unusual premise but it's high quality work.))

Dec 28, 2003
In light of the won't do and can't do, Microsoft sits there, and watches its market share begin to erode. That's happening slowly at first, but the snowball is rolling. A few people are starting to look up the hill and notice this big thing barreling down at them, and some are bright enough to step out of the way.

I believe this is going to happen. The most convincing arguments are the "arguments from culture":

The culture at Microsoft , however, prevents change. I was talking to a high level person in charge of security at the Intel Developer Forum last fall, and we chatted about what Microsoft could do to fix things. He asked the right questions, and I told him the right answers, trust. Plus, throw everything you have out and start again. He didn't get it. No, more than that, he was impervious to the things I was saying to him, the culture is so ingrained that the truth can't penetrate it. Microsoft cannot fix the 'bugs' that lead to security problems because they are not bugs, they are design choices. When faced with Java, Microsoft reacted with ActiveX. That, it claimed, could do everything that Java could not, because Java was in a 'sandbox', and programs could not get out.

As a software writer, I don't necessarily agree that "throw it all out" is a viable solution, either from a business point of view or a software engineering point of view. Nevertheless, the inability of the Microsoft culture to adapt to or even understand what is happening is going to inevitably doom them, and it's probably too big for anybody to change now.

I've been concerned about my career choices to this point; I started on Microsoft technologies but for the last few years I've been in the Linux world. I'm really not that concerned anymore, and now I'm glad I missed that mess.

Dec 28, 2003
And now we have reached the point where the science/engineering feedback loop has given engineers the tools and technologies to create the internet, the most recent of my four most important inventions in human history. And just as with the other three (spoken language, writing, movable type printing) it will cause a "knee" in human capabilities and behavior. And because of that, a true superhuman "intelligence" may appear during our lifetime.

Dec 18, 2003

Disclaimer: I'm not really a fan of Crichton. He was a tolerably good science fiction writer, though not in danger of being called a "Grand Master", which may be why he mostly got out of it. His latest efforts aren't really science fiction so much as Hollywood "sci-fi", where you read a couple of newspaper reports on a new technology, read a couple of summarizations from wild-eyed advocates and equally wild-eyed naysayers, and start writing without particularly caring if you even stay true to those sources. No need for real science. (Contrast this to the Jurassic Park book, which had a reasonably coherent use of chaos theory, for instance.) I went into this speech expecting to dislike it.

Instead, his speech matches almost exactly how I feel about environmentalism, except it's written by a good professional writer so it's better then anything I could have hoped to write. I would say the most important point of the speech was:

...the unhappy truth of the environment is that we are dealing with incredibly complex, evolving systems, and we usually are not certain how best to proceed. Those who are certain are demonstrating their personality type, or their belief system, not the state of their knowledge.... We need to be humble, deeply humble, in the face of what we are trying to accomplish. We need to be trying various methods of accomplishing things. We need to be open-minded about assessing results of our efforts, and we need to be flexible about balancing needs.... we must institute far more stringent requirements for what constitutes knowledge in the environmental realm. I am thoroughly sick of politicized so-called facts that simply aren't true. It isn't that these "facts" are exaggerations of an underlying truth. Nor is it that certain organizations are spinning their case to present it in the strongest way. Not at all---what more and more groups are doing is putting out is lies, pure and simple. Falsehoods that they know to be false.

When the environmental movement finally embraces this, then I can safely call myself an "environmentalist" without feeling dirty. In the meantime, I will continue to be frustrated that the loudest "enviromentalist" voices are doing more harm then those they oppose.

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