Shutting Down the Debate

Why is there such a rush to shut down conversations and individuals? Let us take the concept of shutting things down because they are not true. Good way of thinking, right? But it has always amazed me the bias that is involved. For example, if people lie in a “positive” way no one pulls out this rule and think this person needs to be silenced. Positive could mean saying nice things based on lies or it can even mean saying negative things about people who disagree with you. Someone fighting your fight is on the side of the angels and must be “truthful”.

Examples
“You have been suspended for repeatedly giving credit to the wrong person. If this happens again your suspension will be longer and lead to banning.”

“Telling people ‘Staff was right when they were wrong.’ is clearly a falsehood and you will be suspended till you get the information correct. Please move on from the falsehoods and correct the history. Write a post to apologize to everyone.”

The problem with any standard is keeping it yourself and not using it to punish people who disagree with you. We ALL do this to some extent. The temptation is to let your friends slide and to even the score with those who you don’t like. To stop this from happening, the First Amendment was made. The freedom of expression is that valuable it needed an amendment to the Constitution. This means a lot of things that are not the most productive are allowed. The court of public opinion needs both sides to show up.

There is another temptation in thinking one’s way of thinking is the best. “We all know the earth is flat.” “We know the universe rotates around the earth.” “We know something happened this way because the newspaper, book, news, etc says so.” Unfortunately or maybe fortunately we are wrong at times and by listening and engaging we can correct our thinking.


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Monday Meals: 2018-08-13

Chinese Roast Pork

Chinese roast pork: ingredients

This easy to make, can’t fail meal combines a variety of Chinese seasonings with tender, delicious pork, and will provide you with several meals including an entirely different recipe for the leftovers which I’ll present eventually in a sequel to this post.

Continue reading “Monday Meals: 2018-08-13”


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On calling balls and strikes

No, this is not about baseball. It’s about the notion that former or current NeverTrumpers are simply making a dispassionate evaluation of Mr Trump and his presidency. Or to quote precisely,

…to praise Trump when does good things and criticize Trump when he does bad or stupid things.

This certainly sounds fair and hard to dispute in the abstract. Let’s see how it plays out in reality.

The context is an opposition media (WaPo, CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, NYT) that does nothing but find fault, even over trivialities. If the rule were a detached, objective reporting of facts with a minimum of opinion injected, then I could agree with the prescription. That is not the world we inhabit. Instead, we find NeverTrumpers complaining about the president’s dietary preferences, extrapolating them to character flaws. For example, we have the spectacle of David Frum and Jennifer Rubin psychoanalyzing the president over ice cream scoops.

I suppose you could say the original reporting by Time of the president’s unequal allocation of ice cream (scoop-gate) is merely “calling balls and strikes” since he did indeed consume two scoops of ice cream. But isn’t it a bit selective? It could have been reported neutrally: the president enjoys two scoops of ice cream with his pie. Not that it merits reporting at all.

I question the sincerity of NeverTrump pundits such as George Will who advocate supporting the opposition party in November. Arguably, these individuals are the ones abandoning conservative principles, at least inasmuch as politics is practical and losing elections is no way to advance one’s principles.

This is at the crux of the matter: the punditry on the Right have been content to proclaim Their Principles with little interest in taking up the practical means of transforming their ideas into reality. This is hardly an original thought but it’s worth repeating since many have still not caught on. The Left has shown little hesitation in using flawed vessels to advance their agenda. The result? A steady, almost irreversible, advance toward socialism and the increasing limitation of individual liberty.

The Left has no interest in following the rules of civil political discourse. Do the George Wills of the world expect to teach them by example? If so, it hasn’t been working out. Soon enough, the deplatforming of dissident voices will silence all but the most bland opposition. It isn’t necessary to ban more moderate voices than the likes of Alex Jones. It’s enough to show what can happen if you step out of line, especially if the criteria are vague and open-ended. In the Soviet Union, the NKVD and KGB didn’t have to arrest all dissidents nor did they have to spell out exactly what was forbidden. All they had to do was instill in everyone the fear of a nocturnal knock on the door. That’s why Galileo only had to be shown the instruments of torture. The human imagination does the rest.

This is not an argument for stooping to the level of the Left. Instead, it is a call to arms. Passively sitting on the sidelines, playing umpire and quoting Hayek and Toqueville, is a loser strategy. Politics has always been a blood sport.* The Nevers are the last ones who haven’t caught on.


*Attributed to Labour politician Aneurin Bevan, who also said upon adoption of the NHS,

…no amount of cajolery, and no attempts at ethical or social seduction, can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party that inflicted those bitter experiences on me. So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin.

This is what they think of you. Don’t complain you weren’t warned.

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1984? Money? Rabbit Holes? It’s complicated.

I am not an Alex Jones fan, so at first I had no interest or concern about anything involving him.  But then, the sheer number of headlines and articles about Him finally drew my attention.   I became curious to find out what really was happening (I believe about zero of what is promoted by the MSM).

The first online websites I went to, looking for more information/insight was actually talking loudly about censoring/faux news the prior day.  This is because they had themselves become targets that day.  More specifically there had been in excess of 4 pages of anti-conservativeMSM articles (all saying essentially the same things) attacking their website.  The articles were all disseminated via broadcast, print, and social media during the same timeframe, on the same day!  The obvious concerted ‘attack’ really had the website users excited.

The chatter on this website was focused primarily on the money/government angle and, since many think Jones is a ‘black hat’, they argued whether it was legit news/actual banishment,  or if Jones himself was involved and it was some sort of tactic to gain more direct subscribers to his website.  I have read the number of subscribers to Alex Jones’ website has soared.

Regarding the government/money, the focus was on H.R. 5181 which was passed by the house and which in the Senate became the Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act.  This Act was signed by President Obama in December 2016 and quietly snuck into NDAA 2017 by the Senate.  Some speculated Obama and friends took this action to provide legal authority for strangling free speech.  Also, the ‘bad guys’ wanted to ensure the Left/Globalist/MSM would be able to legally retain control over information disclosure by blocking any information that independent websites attempted to be share.

There was also some noise being made about exactly how much of the people’s money was taken to fund implementation of the Act, which includes establishment of a Center for Information Analysis and Response,  (aka the Ministry of Truth).   Some on the website stated the amount is $160 million, some say it was only $20 million.   I could only find official confirmation of the $20 million figure for period 2017 to 2018.

Some speculated the current censoring activities are occurring now due to upcoming elections, some say it’s just the MSM extending the use of the “Russian Bots” narrative: in essence the theory is, if you support President Trump or conservative ideas then you must be a Russian Bot, so therefore you can be legally censored/countered as ‘permitted by H.R. 5181.  ???  But wait, it gets better, the MSM/Silicon Valley ‘Censors’ can also collect money from Uncle Sam for censoring you, or me … or even Alex Jones.

On still other websites folks were thinking about other aspects.  One website seemed to want to focus on the 1st Amendment vs. Private property.

On Ratburger, I found interesting thoughts about the potential legal and liability aspects of the situation, as follows:

Excerpt from post I Thought Libertarians were for Freedom of Speech by Mate De 08.08.2018

John Walker:
Platforms like Twitter and Facebook have taken the position, successfully so far, that they are common carriers like the telephone network, as opposed to publishers, and are therefore content-neutral.  In return, the federal government has granted broad exemptions from liability for content published on their platforms.  See Phil Turmel’s comment on the Alex Jones post and subsequent discussion for details.  By choosing to explicitly restrict access to their platforms based upon content, they are putting themselves into the position of a publisher, not a common carrier, and in so doing expose themselves to forms of liability from which they’ve been shielded so far.  It may be that whatever you think of the political consequences of explicit and acknowledged filtering, it may be a very bad business decision for these companies.  Imagine lawsuits from victims or their families of an attack by a jihadi recruited by a Facebook page.

Excerpts from post Alex Jones, unperson by Cyrano 08.07.2018

The Sinistral Bassist:
Doesn’t this open up those platforms to lawsuits over the content they choose not to ban? When they only banned people from doing illegal things, they could claim they were not content-providers and merely a platform for others to publish on. Once they start selectively choosing who to ban, they now become curators and publishers. They should be sued for every troll posting that is rumor or libel now because they didn’t ban it.

Phil Turmel:
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act includes a “Safe Harbor” provision for any site allowing users among the general public to post content, such that postings that infringe copyrights of others may be taken down with a simple process, and if followed with certain time limits, disallows lawsuits against the website operators.  One of the criteria to qualify for this clause is that the site must be content-neutral. Bingo.  Discriminating on political viewpoint (probably on much else, too) seems to open these social media operators to enormous potential liability for misconduct among their users.  We’ll see.

After reading the above, I stopped briefly to wonder if H.R. 5181 would will effectively act to eliminate the potential liability issues.   Not an attorney, so I don’t know.  But in a school debate, I think there is enough information conflict to argue either side of the debate successfully.

And, then I continued my searching.

More digging provided additional information from other websites, and articles on H.R. 5181 bill and its support for censoring of information:

Press Releases (from Senator Portman’s website)

Home / Newsroom / Press Releases

December 08, 2016

Senate Passes Major Portman-Murphy Counter-Propaganda Bill as Part of NDAA

Portman/Murphy Bill Promotes Coordinated Strategy to Defend America, Allies Against Propaganda and Disinformation from Russia, China & Others 

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) today announced that their Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act – legislation designed to help American allies counter foreign government propaganda from Russia, China, and other nations – has passed the Senate as part of the FY 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) Conference Report. The bipartisan bill, which was introduced by Senators Portman and Murphy in March, will improve the ability of the United States to counter foreign propaganda and disinformation by establishing an interagency center housed at the State Department to coordinate and synchronize counter-propaganda efforts throughout the U.S. government. To support these efforts, the bill also creates a grant program for NGOs, think tanks, civil society and other experts outside government who are engaged in counter-propaganda related work. This will better leverage existing expertise and empower local communities to defend themselves from foreign manipulation.

“The passage of this bill in the Senate today takes us one critical step closer to effectively confronting the extensive, and destabilizing, foreign propaganda and disinformation operations being waged against us. While the propaganda and disinformation threat has grown, the U.S. government has been asleep at the wheel. Today we are finally signaling that enough is enough; the United States will no longer sit on the sidelines. We are going to confront this threat head-on,” said Senator Portman. “With the help of this bipartisan bill, the disinformation and propaganda used against our allies and our interests will fail.”

“Congress has taken a big step in fighting back against fake news and propaganda from countries like Russia. When the president signs this bill into law, the United States will finally have a dedicated set of tools and resources to confront our adversaries’ widespread efforts to spread false narratives that undermine democratic institutions and compromise America’s foreign policy goals,” said Murphy. “I’m proud of what Senator Portman and I accomplished here because it’s long past time for the U.S. to get off the sidelines and confront these growing threats.”

NOTE: The bipartisan Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act is organized around two main priorities to help achieve the goal of combatting the constantly evolving threat of foreign disinformation. They are as follows:

  • The first priority is developing a whole-of-government strategy for countering foreign propaganda and disinformation. The bill would increase the authority, resources, and mandate of the Global Engagement Center to include state actors like Russia and China in addition to violent extremists. The Center will be led by the State Department, but with the active senior level participation of the Department of Defense, USAID, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the Intelligence Community, and other relevant agencies. The Center will develop, integrate, and synchronize whole-of-government initiatives to expose and counter foreign disinformation operations and proactively advance fact-based narratives that support U.S. allies and interests.
  • Second, the legislation seeks to leverage expertise from outside government to create more adaptive and responsive U.S. strategy options. The legislation establishes a fund to help train local journalists and provide grants and contracts to NGOs, civil society organizations, think tanks, private sector companies, media organizations, and other experts outside the U.S. government with experience in identifying and analyzing the latest trends in foreign government disinformation techniques. This fund will complement and support the Center’s role by integrating capabilities and expertise available outside the U.S. government into the strategy-making process. It will also empower a decentralized network of private sector experts and integrate their expertise into the strategy-making process.

https://www.portman.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/press-releases?ID=3765A225-B773-4F57-B21A-A265F4B5692C

And, I found a couple of articles from ZeroHedge:

https://www.zerohedge.com/news/2016-12-10/senate-quietly-passes-countering-disinformation-and-propaganda-act

https://www.zerohedge.com/news/2016-06-07/propaganda-bill-congress-could-give-america-its-very-own-ministry-truth

And a comment from a Dr. Mike Spaulding (I am including his comment for the links provided in his comment:

Much has been made over the past week or so following the signing of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017 by Obama of the insertion into it of HR 5181, the Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act, and what it means for the independent media. I definitely urge everyone that reads this article to read those two pieces of legislation and come to their own conclusions on what this law means for free and independent media, and how it will affect the covering of world, national, and local level events.”

I found all of the above very helpful in clarifying my own thoughts about the issues surrounding the Alex Jones ban, and I hope the collected information contain herein proves to be of value to others as well.  That said, what really made me sit-up and pay attention is the following video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UBo9uRuTVYk

I found it quite worrisome (if what MSM reports is real).  The video also proved to me that I am not as well informed as I thought I was.  I simply had not been paying enough attention in December 2016 and had not noticed that Obama, with the help of both Democrats and Republicans, the House and the Senate – effectively created The Ministry of Truth before he left office.

It will be interesting so see how tactics of the Ministry of Truth play out in our country’s future.

Then again, being an optimist, my mind smiles as it wonders how far this hand will be allowed to continue before the President shuts it down by playing his trump-suit ace, squashing the MSM/Globalists/Leftists dreams that they are actually going to be able to control dissemination of information in the digital age.

In closing, I thought the whole Alex Jones ‘thing’ was nothing of interest to me.  Now, I realize it could be very serious, or then again, maybe it is not.  Maybe I could go back to sleep pretending this is all a nothing-burger or perhaps just another false flag.

It’s complicated.   The truth is out there but I can’t figure out which money trail to follow to find it.  Alex Jones himself and all his new ‘business’, or the MSM and Ministry of Truth?  I guess time will tell.


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Game Review: Bioshock Infinite

Bioshock Infinite (game)

I’ve been writing about virtual reality, simulated worlds, and the new forms of entertainment and education they will engender for thirty years.  Other than Kerbal Space Program, which is more of a simulated world sandbox than a game (there is no specific goal and no conflict other than with the laws of nature), I have not played video games since the age of Pac-Man.  As we approach the threshold of the Roaring Twenties, I thought it would be a good idea to check in and see the current state of the art and whether it justified the things people were saying about contemporary games being a new art form and interactive medium of fiction.

The game I chose to play was Bioshock Infinite, the latest in the Bioshock series (but an entirely different story line from the previous games).  This game, originally released for consoles in 2013 and ported to Linux in 2015, was rated very high by reviewers, with most rankings 9/10 or 10/10.  The budget for the game was not disclosed by its privately-held developers, but was said to be around US$ 100 million for development and a comparable sum for promotion, larger than many major motion pictures.  It has sold more than 11 million copies since its release.  I learned of the game from a detailed description by James Lileks on his blog.

This review will be presented in a very eccentric manner.  I will not describe the plot from an omniscient standpoint (for that, see the links above), but rather things as I encounter them.  These are my notes, written in the style of a software development log or system narrative.  I will post items in comments, one or more per day, time permitting, running behind my play-through of the game (providing a buffer for days I have too many other things to do).  In each entry, I will provide links to an on-line play-through which will give you more details and screen grabs.  There’s no point in making my own, since the job has already been done superbly.  There will, of course, as in any play-through, be major spoilers in the comments.  I will make no effort to avoid or mark them.  If you want to experience the game without any foreknowledge, don’t read the comments that follow.

I am playing the game on an Xubuntu Linux system under the Steam gaming environment.  I am using 1920×1080 screen resolution in “High” resolution rendering mode with “Normal” difficulty.  As I am interested more in exploring this virtual world, how it is rendered, and how a visitor interacts with it than testing my prowess against the game engine, I am exploring it with the aid of play-throughs prepared by people who have made it all the way to the finish.  These are guides, however, not cheats—there is substantial randomness in the game and you’re on your own when the shooting starts—it’s generally up to you to figure out how to defeat the assaults you’ll face as you progress through the game.

This is a “first-person shooter” game: you are the protagonist and have to reach your objectives by defeating foes—human, mechanical, and supernatural—with weapons, wits, and capabilities you acquire as you pursue your quest.  If you find this repellent, so be it—that’s the model for many games, and it’s the one adopted here.  Personally, I find most of the combat episodes tedious, although it’s fun learning tricks to defeat adversaries and deploying newly-acquired weapons and “vigors” (supernatural powers) against them.  What is the most fun is exploring the huge, magnificently-rendered world here.  The production values are equal to contemporary CGI movies, but you’re not stuck in your seat munching popcorn but able to explore it at will, looking at things from various perspectives and interacting with this world you’re discovering.  The game is, as far as I’ve played it when I’m writing this, beautiful, with superbly-rendered three-dimensional models; an airy, misty ambience; and a musical track, both vintage and original, which complements the story line.  There is explicit violence (although nothing which would go beyond a “PG” rating in the movies), but no obscenity or nudity (at least as far as I’ve played).

I should note that the credits screen includes the following acknowledgements:

This software product includes Autodesk® Beast™ software,© 2013 Autodesk, Inc.,  Autodesk® HumaniK® software,© 2013 Autodesk, Inc., Autodesk® Kynapse® software,© 2013 Autodesk, Inc., and Autodesk® Scaleform® software,© 2013 Autodesk, Inc.

I had no idea Autodesk was such a player in the game space, as well as CGI movies.  You never know what the kids will do after they grow up and move out….  (Guys, you only need to use the “registered” or other marks on the first reference to the word.)

Remember that you can follow this post, receiving notifications for new comments without having your comment appear by posting  a comment consisting of just the word “follow”.

And here we go….


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Book Review “The Autodesk File”

A comment John made (#18) on a recent post by 10 cents (“Programming Question”), reminded me I had reviewed one of John’s books. The review was posted a while back on the legacy site. As this is one of the most worthwhile books I have ever read, I thought it should be posted it here.

A work of non-fiction is understood in a context. A great work actually articulates the context before anybody else gets it. A review of such a book may go seemingly far afield, if the book’s power can be construed to provoke and, indeed, license the inspired musings of its readers. Such is the case here, as “The Autodesk File”’s roots are deep in the intellectual, technological, economic, financial, and even spiritual soil of this, the spring garden of the information age.

When was the last time you couldn’t put down a book which had not a single murder, courtship, love or sex scene? OK, I’m not counting some ancillary trysts consisting of mergers and takeovers, which some might construe as sexy, or at least allude to being on the receiving end of a certain Anglo-Saxon gerund. This book contains no obscenities, save a rare mention of taurine spoor. That serves as a welcome reminder: important ideas and even emotions are amenable to description sans vulgarity.

Lest one think this a narrow commercial exposition, “The Autodesk File” is in the public domain in multiple formats. Neither is it a mere exposition of commerce. About half way through, amidst essays explaining the nature of businesses dealing in intellectual property (rather than capital-intensive equipment), the reader is treated to a short science fiction story whose theme is no less than a plausible tale of the origin of human life. Our bodily construction is, after all, prescribed in lines of code, albeit compressed into helixes wound around themselves then wrapped around histones. Like some of their software counterparts, they, too, must be unzipped before use.

Also punctuating this eclectic opus are quotes from Aristophanes. It is a tour de force, a truly awe-inspiring account of much more than the building and workings of one trailblazing company. It encapsulates the noblest of human aspirations, idealizations, creativity, ingenuity and critical self-examination; inescapable is the conclusion that voluntary cooperation and exchange of ideas, knowledge and capital is a great boon to the world at large. If a business is built to serve the needs of customers by creating products of the highest possible quality, greed is not a good; it is irrelevant. Also inescapable is the perhaps ironic conclusion that ongoing success requires continual vigilance, lest arrogance take hold. The fruition of critical self-examination can be seen in renewal of that same humility which was so essential in powering that first whiff of success.

Nonetheless, apart from arcane sections dealing with technical matters of computer hardware and programming (these, too, may be great for the cognoscenti; this writer simply knows too little), this book is a spellbinder. Readers may be surprised to be persuasively regaled with the fundamentals of various disciplines, including economics, finance, taxation, corporate law, engineering, computer science, thermodynamics, rocket science, quantum mechanics, cosmology and the nature of reality. That is, readers who don’t know John Walker. For those who do, none of this is surprising.

Have you ever had a million dollar idea? I have – lots of ‘em. Have I turned even one of those ideas into a product? Nope. Why not? Because I lacked the understanding, the talent, and the single-minded discipline to even get one idea off the ground. This book, edited by Ratburger’s own John Walker (himself author of most of the collected writings), is a chronicle of birth, growth, crises and maturation of Autodesk Inc., whose products helped unleash the creativity and productivity of millions of people. It did so beginning with a key insight: that the infant personal computer was a general tool and not a specific workstation. As a general tool, through the intelligent design of software, it would rapidly evolve in utility in virtually every field of endeavor, beginning with design. Design, in this line of thinking, is a logical first step down the path which aims, eventually, to capture all of reality in the box we call a computer. This stunning insight occurred while all the rest of us still went through our days typing on an IBM Selectric, without once even using the word “computer.” Way back then in 1980, virtually none of us thought about computers or any of the other words and things without which our lives today would be unimaginable. Historically speaking,1980 happened yesterday.

An additional insight guided Autodesk’s ethos: that personal computers would grow exponentially in processing power and become useful by ordinary people (with no computer or programming skills) to undertake virtually any task. Autodesk’s first product,  AutoCAD, moved design from a small number of dedicated, expensive CAD workstations operated by highly-trained people, to desks virtually everywhere where drawing might be needed. In the process of “squeezing too much code into too small a box,” Autodesk did not compete with previous generations of single-purpose CAD workstations which cost 10 – 50X as much. Instead, it created and increased a market for CAD by the same orders of magnitude, by bringing this tool to the 98% of designers and draftsmen who could not afford dedicated CAD workstations.

In less than one year, this new company had a hit product. Time to rest on one’s laurels? How about after the IPO? Time to coast? Not quite. Going into the CAD business – and that is the business, as opposed to the software business (read the book to learn why), is something like launching a rocket from Earth and hoping to land on a comet and send back data – all except that the precise trajectory of the comet cannot be known, and its surface material and contours are completely unknown. The difficulties were perhaps not unlike those encountered by the ESA’s $1.8 billion Rosetta/Philae spacecraft which did rendezvous and land on comet 67P. Philae’s tether harpoons failed to fire, so the probe bounced and wound up in a permanently-shaded spot (due to an unanticipated hard surface, they likely would not have worked anyway), preventing use of solar power. Batteries enabled an estimated 80% overall mission success. AutoCAD’s launch – with $59,000 in capital, mid-course hardware and software corrections and “landing” on users, by contrast, remains successful to this day.

“The Autodesk File” attributes success to the company’s understanding that it represented what it coined “The New Technological Corporation.” This is an an enterprise which does not conform to traditional capital-intensive business, as it can deploy intellectual, debt-free leverage. Such businesses embrace an unpredictable but essential element: “wild talent.” This talent is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success when it comes to creating software, which is unlike most all prior businesses. Rather than capital, such entities require a peculiar kind of talent – one which grasps the present desires of a market, knows what is possible with present hardware and the correctly plots the trajectories of both the market and evolving hardware. I believe it to be objectively true that the editor is faithfully and humbly describing the truly awe-inspiring talent he, himself, brought to Autodesk. Other such individuals, like Jobs or Gates, are known in the early computer and software businesses. Few, however, have operated as willing members of an extended team with humility, dedication to excellence and human decency. If nothing else, “The Autodesk File” shows how this can be accomplished. 

Attempts to find individuals with “wild talent” are most difficult, maybe impossible. “Wild talent” illustrates the essential difference between aggregate information, traditionally used by analysts to “value” companies which trade on public exchanges, and actual events which take place within any company. For instance, money spent on R&D is aggregate data which subsumes the activities of many employees of a given company. Whether it means the company will grow really depends on what individual employees accomplish. When it come to software, the outcome will be notably different for R&D teams which play it safe versus ones which continually push the envelope of what may be remotely possible. Intellectual leverage is such that the cost of failure of 8 out of 10 ideas is far outweighed by success in only 1 or 2 of them. The presence of such loyal individuals is also a bulwark against hostile takeovers. You can lead a programmer to the R&D department, but you can’t make him plink – at least not in the way which is essential to success.

Perhaps most revealing about this unusual book is the ongoing critical self-examination engaged in by the primary author. These analyses were distilled into the form of internal company communications as essays and information letters.  At many points in the journey, the author is able to adumbrate the – sometimes previously un-articulable – principles which guided his often momentous insights. These usually arose in chaotic circumstances with incomplete information. The essential humility of this approach is demonstrated at various points in the book. Repeatedly, the author makes clear the importance of open communication and understanding of the roles of all the other parts of the company. A programmer, for example, must understand management’s plan, what customers want, how a product will be marketed and shipped, what competitors are doing, etc. Only then can a “wild talent” be effective.

 “The Autodesk File” is a much-needed reminder that human beings are still capable of doing awe-inspiring, creative and even noble things; that they can voluntarily collaborate and, working in their own self-interest, set off endless waves of non-zero sum games in their wakes. This is also a success story, then, a chain of decisions, clearly rooted in the philosophy of Classical Liberalism – in some of its untidy and altogether messy human details. Without aiming to, this story affirms the primacy and value of the individual, both as producer and consumer; it convincingly shows that communication – positive and negative feedback – between individual, voluntary buyers and sellers – is the essence of what a market is. This is in contrast to statist dirigisme, where aggregate data and arrogance rule, in derogation of the value of the individual. 

Diametrically opposed to today’s received collectivist wisdom, “The Autodesk File” shows how individuals create markets where none previously existed, to the betterment of all. From those roots emerge timeless operating principles: 1. build the best products, period – with open architecture so as to invite developers to customize and find as yet undreamed uses (an essential form of feedback for software companies), thereby further expanding markets; 2. invite, quickly assess and respond to this feedback from customers in the form of improved new releases; 3. employ owners, not merely ‘investors’ – pay well for results – with ownership whenever possible. This is a story which demonstrates the huge difference between owners, whose time preference is long and investors focused only on the forecast for the next fiscal quarter. The tyranny of industry analysts, a form of economic lunacy where short time preference is brutally and pervasively enforced on behalf of “investors,” operates so as to threaten the short-term existence of sound public companies which actually attempt to pursue the best long-term business practices.

In a somewhat philosophic interview around the tenth anniversary of Autodesk, the author/editor describes the operation of a new “design cult” of engineering as a “form of creationism, which thinks its members are so omniscient that they have no need for market-driven evolution to perfect their efforts.” This view, coupled with the information letters, again displays an essential humility in the ethos of Autodesk. Management must lead toward explicit goals. Every part of the organization must understand and communicate with all others, particularly as it affects product development. This is not the typical hierarchical corporate ethos. Neither is it anarchy. Management must lead, but not without listening, understanding and explaining. 

It is difficult for this writer to refrain from drawing parallels to the author’s description of this “design cult” of engineering. Such an attitude is not surprising, given that we live in a society which increasingly and officially denies the existence of a supreme being, while at the same time acting – through a “cult” of increasingly centralized authoritarian government – as though it were omniscient and omnipotent; as though its policies have no unintended consequences; as though no cost is too high to accomplish its goals, whose only feedback is its own reverberating positive-feedback echo chamber. It is hard to know which cult is imitating which. In either case, the state-erected obstacles to starting and running a business, while not emphasized, are on display in this epic. This common ethos of the state and large corporations has inevitably given us today’s pernicious corporatism.

It may be that the most significant intellectual error of our time is the belief that society can be modeled and manipulated as well as physical reality now can be, thanks in large part to private companies like Autodesk. Unlike government, though, companies are forced to relearn their limits – i.e., lessons in humility are given, at least annually, and enforced as necessary by balance sheets and owners. The fear of going out of business would be a highly salutary fear for modern government to experience. Instead of a healthy humility, however, the state often displays antipathy toward private enterprise – ironically, the very source of its own financial power. The public relations nature of this attitude  likely represents either envy of private successes and/or virtue signaling in an effort to garner votes in the incessant lust for yet more power.

God is traditionally described as a jealous God. Do you suppose that our deity/government has its own version of the Ten Commandments, the first of which explains its animus toward private enterprise? “Thou shalt have no other Gods before Me…” …otherwise put, “Trust me. I’m from the government.” “I’m here to protect you from those big, bad, corporations.”

Thus, as you may see for this reader, the story of Autodesk led to much contemplation of human nature and the whole spectrum our interactions – both voluntary and coercive. It is an inspiring and epic tale of the utility and nobility of voluntary cooperation.

“The Autodesk File” is in the public domain. It is available in several downloadable versions. All formats are accessible here: http://www.fourmilab.ch/autofile/


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Weekly Posts Sign-up August 2018

A new web site needs a lot of varied content. There are three weekly posts to get people talking about food, sports, and photos. The post can be as long or as short as you want.

Have fun and create!

Monday Meals
8-6 10 Cents
8-13 John Walker
8-20 Phil
8-27

Wednesday Sports

8-1 10 Cents
8-8 jzdro
8-15 9th
8-22
8-29

Photo Friday

8-3 10 Cents
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8-31

Saturday Night Science: Losing the Nobel Prize

“Losing the Nobel Prize” by Brian KeatingEver since the time of Galileo, the history of astronomy has been punctuated by a series of “great debates”—disputes between competing theories of the organisation of the universe which observation and experiment using available technology are not yet able to resolve one way or another. In Galileo’s time, the great debate was between the Ptolemaic model, which placed the Earth at the centre of the solar system (and universe) and the competing Copernican model which had the planets all revolving around the Sun. Both models worked about as well in predicting astronomical phenomena such as eclipses and the motion of planets, and no observation made so far had been able to distinguish them.

Then, in 1610, Galileo turned his primitive telescope to the sky and observed the bright planets Venus and Jupiter. He found Venus to exhibit phases, just like the Moon, which changed over time. This would not happen in the Ptolemaic system, but is precisely what would be expected in the Copernican model—where Venus circled the Sun in an orbit inside that of Earth. Turning to Jupiter, he found it to be surrounded by four bright satellites (now called the Galilean moons) which orbited the giant planet. This further falsified Ptolemy’s model, in which the Earth was the sole source of attraction around which all celestial bodies revolved. Since anybody could build their own telescope and confirm these observations, this effectively resolved the first great debate in favour of the Copernican heliocentric model, although some hold-outs in positions of authority resisted its dethroning of the Earth as the centre of the universe.

This dethroning came to be called the “Copernican principle”, that Earth occupies no special place in the universe: it is one of a number of planets orbiting an ordinary star in a universe filled with a multitude of other stars. Indeed, when Galileo observed the star cluster we call the Pleiades, he saw myriad stars too dim to be visible to the unaided eye. Further, the bright stars were surrounded by a diffuse bluish glow. Applying the Copernican principle again, he argued that the glow was due to innumerably more stars too remote and dim for his telescope to resolve, and then generalised that the glow of the Milky Way was also composed of uncountably many stars. Not only had the Earth been demoted from the centre of the solar system, so had the Sun been dethroned to being just one of a host of stars possibly stretching to infinity.

But Galileo’s inference from observing the Pleiades was wrong. The glow that surrounds the bright stars is due to interstellar dust and gas which reflect light from the stars toward Earth. No matter how large or powerful the telescope you point toward such a reflection nebula, all you’ll ever see is a smooth glow. Driven by the desire to confirm his Copernican convictions, Galileo had been fooled by dust. He would not be the last.

William Herschel was an eminent musician and composer, but his passion was astronomy. He pioneered the large reflecting telescope, building more than sixty telescopes. In 1789, funded by a grant from King George III, Herschel completed a reflector with a mirror 1.26 metres in diameter, which remained the largest aperture telescope in existence for the next fifty years. In Herschel’s day, the great debate was about the Sun’s position among the surrounding stars. At the time, there was no way to determine the distance or absolute brightness of stars, but Herschel decided that he could compile a map of the galaxy (then considered to be the entire universe) by surveying the number of stars in different directions. Only if the Sun was at the centre of the galaxy would the counts be equal in all directions.

Aided by his sister Caroline, a talented astronomer herself, he eventually compiled a map which indicated the galaxy was in the shape of a disc, with the Sun at the centre. This seemed to refute the Copernican view that there was nothing special about the Sun’s position. Such was Herschel’s reputation that this finding, however puzzling, remained unchallenged until 1847 when Wilhelm Struve discovered that Herschel’s results had been rendered invalid by his failing to take into account the absorption and scattering of starlight by interstellar dust. Just as you can only see the same distance in all directions while within a patch of fog, regardless of the shape of the patch, Herschel’s survey could only see so far before extinction of light by dust cut off his view of stars. Later it was discovered that the Sun is far from the centre of the galaxy. Herschel had been fooled by dust.

In the 1920s, another great debate consumed astronomy. Was the Milky Way the entire universe, or were the “spiral nebulæ” other “island universes”, galaxies in their own right, peers of the Milky Way? With no way to measure distance or telescopes able to resolve them into stars, many astronomers believed spiral neublæ were nearby objects, perhaps other solar systems in the process of formation. The discovery of a Cepheid variable star in the nearby Andromeda “nebula” by Edwin Hubble in 1923 allowed settling this debate. Andromeda was much farther away than the most distant stars found in the Milky Way. It must, then be a separate galaxy. Once again, demotion: the Milky Way was not the entire universe, but just one galaxy among a multitude.

But how far away were the galaxies? Hubble continued his search and measurements and found that the more distant the galaxy, the more rapidly it was receding from us. This meant the universe was expanding. Hubble was then able to calculate the age of the universe—the time when all of the galaxies must have been squeezed together into a single point. From his observations, he computed this age at two billion years. This was a major embarrassment: astrophysicists and geologists were confident in dating the Sun and Earth at around five billion years. It didn’t make any sense for them to be more than twice as old as the universe of which they were a part. Some years later, it was discovered that Hubble’s distance estimates were far understated because he failed to account for extinction of light from the stars he measured due to dust. The universe is now known to be seven times the age Hubble estimated. Hubble had been fooled by dust.

By the 1950s, the expanding universe was generally accepted and the great debate was whether it had come into being in some cataclysmic event in the past (the “Big Bang”) or was eternal, with new matter spontaneously appearing to form new galaxies and stars as the existing ones receded from one another (the “Steady State” theory). Once again, there were no observational data to falsify either theory. The Steady State theory was attractive to many astronomers because it was the more “Copernican”—the universe would appear overall the same at any time in an infinite past and future, so our position in time is not privileged in any way, while in the Big Bang the distant past and future are very different than the conditions we observe today. (The rate of matter creation required by the Steady State theory was so low that no plausible laboratory experiment could detect it.)

The discovery of the cosmic background radiation in 1965 definitively settled the debate in favour of the Big Bang. It was precisely what was expected if the early universe were much denser and hotter than conditions today, as predicted by the Big Bang. The Steady State theory made no such prediction and was, despite rear-guard actions by some of its defenders (invoking dust to explain the detected radiation!), was considered falsified by most researchers.

But the Big Bang was not without its own problems. In particular, in order to end up with anything like the universe we observe today, the initial conditions at the time of the Big Bang seemed to have been fantastically fine-tuned (for example, an infinitesimal change in the balance between the density and rate of expansion in the early universe would have caused the universe to quickly collapse into a black hole or disperse into the void without forming stars and galaxies). There was no physical reason to explain these fine-tuned values; you had to assume that’s just the way things happened to be, or that a Creator had set the dial with a precision of dozens of decimal places.

In 1979, the theory of inflation was proposed. Inflation held that in an instant after the Big Bang the size of the universe blew up exponentially so that all the observable universe today was, before inflation, the size of an elementary particle today. Thus, it’s no surprise that the universe we now observe appears so uniform. Inflation so neatly resolved the tensions between the Big Bang theory and observation that it (and refinements over the years) became widely accepted. But could inflation be observed? That is the ultimate test of a scientific theory.

There have been numerous cases in science where many years elapsed between a theory being proposed and definitive experimental evidence for it being found. After Galileo’s observations, the Copernican theory that the Earth orbits the Sun became widely accepted, but there was no direct evidence for the Earth’s motion with respect to the distant stars until the discovery of the aberration of light in 1727. Einstein’s theory of general relativity predicted gravitational radiation in 1915, but the phenomenon was not directly detected by experiment until a century later. Would inflation have to wait as long or longer?

Things didn’t look promising. Almost everything we know about the universe comes from observations of electromagnetic radiation: light, radio waves, X-rays, etc., with a little bit more from particles (cosmic rays and neutrinos). But the cosmic background radiation forms an impenetrable curtain behind which we cannot observe anything via the electromagnetic spectrum, and it dates from around 380,000 years after the Big Bang. The era of inflation was believed to have ended 10−32 seconds after the Bang; considerably earlier. The only “messenger” which could possibly have reached us from that era is gravitational radiation. We’ve just recently become able to detect gravitational radiation from the most violent events in the universe, but no conceivable experiment would be able to detect this signal from the baby universe.

So is it hopeless? Well, not necessarily…. The cosmic background radiation is a snapshot of the universe as it existed 380,000 years after the Big Bang, and only a few years after it was first detected, it was realised that gravitational waves from the very early universe might have left subtle imprints upon the radiation we observe today. In particular, gravitational radiation creates a form of polarisation called B-modes which most other sources cannot create.

If it were possible to detect B-mode polarisation in the cosmic background radiation, it would be a direct detection of inflation. While the experiment would be demanding and eventually result in literally going to the end of the Earth, it would be strong evidence for the process which shaped the universe we inhabit and, in all likelihood, a ticket to Stockholm for those who made the discovery.

This was the quest on which the author embarked in the year 2000, resulting in the deployment of an instrument called BICEP1 (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization) in the Dark Sector Laboratory at the South Pole. Here is my picture of that laboratory in January 2013. The BICEP telescope is located in the foreground inside a conical shield which protects it against thermal radiation from the surrounding ice. In the background is the South Pole Telescope, a millimetre wave antenna which was not involved in this research.

BICEP2 and South Pole Telescope, 2013-01-09

BICEP1 was a prototype, intended to test the technologies to be used in the experiment. These included cooling the entire telescope (which was a modest aperture [26 cm] refractor, not unlike Galileo’s, but operating at millimetre wavelengths instead of visible light) to the temperature of interstellar space, with its detector cooled to just ¼ degree above absolute zero. In 2010 its successor, BICEP2, began observation at the South Pole, and continued its run into 2012. When I took the photo above, BICEP2 had recently concluded its observations.

On March 17th, 2014, the BICEP2 collaboration announced, at a press conference, the detection of B-mode polarisation in the region of the southern sky they had monitored. Note the swirling pattern of polarisation which is the signature of B-modes, as opposed to the starburst pattern of other kinds of polarisation.

Cosmic background radiation B-modes from BICEP2

But, not so fast, other researchers cautioned. The risk in doing “science by press release” is that the research is not subjected to peer review—criticism by other researchers in the field—before publication and further criticism in subsequent publications. The BICEP2 results went immediately to the front pages of major newspapers. Here was direct evidence of the birth cry of the universe and confirmation of a theory which some argued implied the existence of a multiverse—the latest Copernican demotion—the idea that our universe was just one of an ensemble, possibly infinite, of parallel universes in which every possibility was instantiated somewhere. Amid the frenzy, a few specialists in the field, including researchers on competing projects, raised the question, “What about the dust?” Dust again! As it happens, while gravitational radiation can induce B-mode polarisation, it isn’t the only thing which can do so. Our galaxy is filled with dust and magnetic fields which can cause those dust particles to align with them. Aligned dust particles cause polarised reflections which can mimic the B-mode signature of the gravitational radiation sought by BICEP2.

The BICEP2 team was well aware of this potential contamination problem. Unfortunately, their telescope was sensitive only to one wavelength, chosen to be the most sensitive to B-modes due to primordial gravitational radiation. It could not, however, distinguish a signal from that cause from one due to foreground dust. At the same time, however, the European Space Agency Planck spacecraft was collecting precision data on the cosmic background radiation in a variety of wavelengths, including one sensitive primarily to dust. Those data would have allowed the BICEP2 investigators to quantify the degree their signal was due to dust. But there was a problem: BICEP2 and Planck were direct competitors.

Planck had the data, but had not released them to other researchers. However, the BICEP2 team discovered that a member of the Planck collaboration had shown a slide at a conference of unpublished Planck observations of dust. A member of the BICEP2 team digitised an image of the slide, created a model from it, and concluded that dust contamination of the BICEP2 data would not be significant. This was a highly dubious, if not explicitly unethical move. It confirmed measurements from earlier experiments and provided confidence in the results.

In September 2014, a preprint from the Planck collaboration (eventually published in 2016) showed that B-modes from foreground dust could account for all of the signal detected by BICEP2. In January 2015, the European Space Agency published an analysis of the Planck and BICEP2 observations which showed the entire BICEP2 detection was consistent with dust in the Milky Way. The epochal detection of inflation had been deflated. The BICEP2 researchers had been deceived by dust.

The author, a founder of the original BICEP project, was so close to a Nobel prize he was already trying to read the minds of the Nobel committee to divine who among the many members of the collaboration they would reward with the gold medal. Then it all went away, seemingly overnight, turned to dust. Some said that the entire episode had injured the public’s perception of science, but to me it seems an excellent example of science working precisely as intended. A result is placed before the public; others, with access to the same raw data are given an opportunity to critique them, setting forth their own raw data; and eventually researchers in the field decide whether the original results are correct. Yes, it would probably be better if all of this happened in musty library stacks of journals almost nobody reads before bursting out of the chest of mass media, but in an age where scientific research is funded by agencies spending money taken from hairdressers and cab drivers by coercive governments under implicit threat of violence, it is inevitable they will force researchers into the public arena to trumpet their “achievements”.

In parallel with the saga of BICEP2, the author discusses the Nobel Prizes and what he considers to be their dysfunction in today’s scientific research environment. I was surprised to learn that many of the curious restrictions on awards of the Nobel Prize were not, as I had heard and many believe, conditions of Alfred Nobel’s will. In fact, the conditions that the prize be shared no more than three ways, not be awarded posthumously, and not awarded to a group (with the exception of the Peace prize) appear nowhere in Nobel’s will, but were imposed later by the Nobel Foundation. Further, Nobel’s will explicitly states that the prizes shall be awarded to “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind”. This constraint (emphasis mine) has been ignored since the inception of the prizes.

He decries the lack of “diversity” in Nobel laureates (by which he means, almost entirely, how few women have won prizes). While there have certainly been women who deserved prizes and didn’t win (Lise Meitner, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, and Vera Rubin are prime examples), there are many more men who didn’t make the three laureates cut-off (Freeman Dyson an obvious example for the 1965 Physics Nobel for quantum electrodynamics). The whole Nobel prize concept is capricious, and rewards only those who happen to be in the right place at the right time in the right field that the committee has decided deserves an award this year and are lucky enough not to die before the prize is awarded. To imagine it to be “fair” or representative of scientific merit is, in the estimation of this scribbler, in flying unicorn territory.

In all, this is a candid view of how science is done at the top of the field today, with all of the budget squabbles, maneuvering for recognition, rivalry among competing groups of researchers, balancing the desire to get things right with the compulsion to get there first, and the eye on that prize, given only to a few in a generation, which can change one’s life forever.

Personally, I can’t imagine being so fixated on winning a prize one has so little chance of gaining. It’s like being obsessed with winning the lottery—and about as likely.

In parallel with all of this is an autobiographical account of the career of a scientist with its ups and downs, which is both a cautionary tale and an inspiration to those who choose to pursue that difficult and intensely meritocratic career path.

I recommend this book on all three tracks: a story of scientific discovery, mis-interpretation, and self-correction, the dysfunction of the Nobel Prizes and how they might be remedied, and the candid story of a working scientist in today’s deeply corrupt coercively-funded research environment.

Keating, Brian. Losing the Nobel Prize. New York: W. W. Norton, 2018. ISBN 978-1-324-00091-4.

Here is a one hour talk by the author about the BICEP2 experience and the Nobel Prize.

This is the BICEP2 press conference on March 17, 2014, announcing the discovery of B-mode polarisation in the cosmic microwave background radiation.

What do you do after losing the Nobel prize?  In this April, 2016 (much) more technical talk at the SETI Institute, Brian Keating describes post-BICEP2 research aimed at using the cosmic background radiation to explore other aspects of the early universe including whether the universe has an inherent chirality (left- or right-handedness).  (The preview image for this video looks like it’s broken, but if you click the play button it plays correctly, at least for me.)

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What is Ratburger?

“What is Ratburger?” is a good question but it was not high on the priority list when we started. The big thing was just to see if something would work. John got the site up on his test domain. And it just so happened his test domain name was Ratburger.org. My first thought was “RATBURGER.ORG?!!!!” (I often think in capital letters with four exclamation points.) Then I realized the name was in line or is it online with my thinking. I wanted something memorable and down to earth. Something with a smirk and fun in it. Well, it does that, doesn’t it?

I have talked to John on a conference call weekly for a few years. (It is rumored he used to have a full head of hair before he started talking to me.) I got to know him so I knew a site done with him would be technically good and be interesting. He has always been open to the ideas of others and even has some ideas of his own.

I think of John like this.

The old joke:

Boss: Jump!

Employee: How high?

The John Variant:

Me suggesting: We need to go higher.

John: I have built an elevator. What floor? BTW, I think making an express elevator is not needed at this time but if we do need one the perpetual motion model is economical.

What is Ratburger.org? It is just a site trying to get off the ground. It is a site that doesn’t want to take itself too seriously but does want to allow serious discussions without all the crap. Hopefully, it is a site you will want to come to not to get angry but to smile.

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