Thursday, August 25, 2005

Bugger Off, I'm Busy

According to Nicholas Gruen at Troppo this is not an easy read for philosophical amateurs, but it's a good one. A pox on him; the last thing I want right now is to find interesting on-line articles that give me new ideas to write about. Not that I consider Gödel's incompleteness theorems new, exactly; they have been around for quite a while and I'll have you know that I'm not entirely unacquainted with them. But I've never done a blog post on them.

But right now, I've got other things to do for a while. Perhaps not better things, or more important things or even necessary things but things nonetheless. So I'm just going to slap up this edited extract from Chapter 5 of Physics and Philosophy by Werner Heisenberg (London, 1958) and leave it at that:

... in the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory we can indeed proceed without mentioning ourselves as individuals, but we cannot disregard the fact that natural science is formed by men. Natural science does not simply describe and explain nature; it describes nature as exposed t o our method of questioning ...

If one follows the great difficulty which even eminent scientists like Einstein had in understanding and accepting the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory, one can trace the roots of this difficulty to the Cartesian partition
[of reality into three parts - God, World, I]. this partition has penetrated deeply into the human mind during the three centuries following Descartes and it will take along time for it to be replaced by a really different attitude toward the problem of reality.

... We "objectivate" a statement if we claim that its content does not depend on the conditions under which it can be verified. Practical Realism assumes that there are statements that can be objectivated and that in fact the largest part of our experience in daily life consists of such statements. Dogmatic realism claims that there are no statements concerning the material world that cannot be objectivated. Practical realism has always been and will always be an essential part of natural science. Dogmatic realism, however, is, as we see it now, not a necessary condition for natural science ... When Einstein has criticized quantum theory he has done so from the basis of dogmatic realism. This is a very natural attitude. Every scientist who does research work feels that he is looking for something that is objectively true. His statements are not meant to depend upon the conditions under which they can be verified. Especially in physics the fact that we can explain nature by simple mathematical laws tells us that here we have met some genuine feature of reality, not something that we have - in any meaning of the word - invented ourselves. This is the situation Einstein had in mind when he took dogmatic realism as the basis for natural science. But quantum theory is in itself an example for the possibility of explaining nature by means of simple mathematical laws without this basis ...

And that's it from me for the rest of this week, all of the next and possibly most of the week after. Go and find somewhere else to amuse yourselves. I was going to suggest that you might lay off the interesting links until I get back but there's Buckley's chance of that happening. Oh, and spare me the smart-arsed comments about how the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum theory opens the possibility of an alternative universe where nothing interesting will actually get written, anywhere, over the next two weeks. Call me dated, but round here the Copenhagen interpretation rules, OK?

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

BS-95 Hunt

... When one person speaks and is encouraged to develop his or her ideas, then it is we, the audience, who provide the challenge. We provide the democracy. In each of our hearts and minds, we absorb, judge and come to our own conclusions. The dialectic is, thankfully, not between a group of equally ignorant people thrashing out a series of arbitrary subjects about which they know little and care less. It is between an informed individual who, we hope, has thought long and hard about their own area of specialisation, and an audience which is ready honestly to assess what the speaker has to say. Democracy, like everything else, thrives on preparation. (David Hare, in a Saturday Age syndication of an article originally published in The Grauniad (link via Nicholas Gruen at Troppo Armadillo).

I didn't sleep Sunday night. As a result, I took an inordinate amount of interest in this article in Monday's Age. It's an extract from Peter Costello's speech to the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue Forum (whatever that is) on Saturday. Looking it over, I thought it might be worth running a more or less complete BS-95 check over it, to see how the Treasurer rates as a bullshit artist.

This is what happens if you're the sort of person who wanders the streets picking out house numbers at random and then testing whether they're prime numbers. That's a lot easier than it sounds, incidentally - all you do is take an approximate square root and then look for a prime factor below that. As an example, my street number has no prime factors below 17 so it passes the test. If you're looking to narrow it down a little more, you might get a result with the help of this additional bit of information: if you knock off 100 the result isn't prime, having two factors below 10. Actually, that might just nail it. There's one extra hint I could give you, but that would hand you the result on a plate.

So I spent all of Monday in a crazy, insomniac headspace where it was absolutely the most important thing ever to check Costello's speech in detail and see how it rated on my home-grown bullshit quantifier. When I got down to it, the start wasn't all that promising:

Last Monday was the 60th anniversary of the victory in the Pacific. Australia and the United States went into World War II separately but came out of it together: as allies, as friends.

By February 1942 the continental mainland of Australia was under direct air attack. Australia faced its gravest security threat. But beginning with the naval battles in the Coral Sea, with the Australian land defence of Port Moresby and the island campaign under Douglas MacArthur, the war began to turn. It ended in circumstances that are well known. [my emphasis]

All up, there are seven assertions in those two paragraphs: dedicated nitpicking only produced one bullshit point. That was for the sentence in bold. According to this source, which I'm inclined to consider reliable, February 1942 is when Japanese air attacks on the Australian mainland actually started (with the bombing of Darwin on the 19th). In the light of Costello's later remarks on the subject of historical education, I considered it fair that the Treasurer should score a bullshit point for this pointless bit of lily-gilding. That little gloss over the exact circumstances which ended the campaign in the Pacific almost scored a bullshit point too, but on balance, I decided against it. It's a notable omission, but that's all.

The score really started to climb in this section of the speech:

It is common in this country, like so many others, to come across anti-American sentiment.

It is always there, but it rises at times of Australia's military engagement in coalition with the US. Most recently Australia's engagement in Iraq has raised these sentiments.

Critics commonly allege that Australia is only engaged in these theatres at the urging of, or in some supine gesture towards, the US. "After all," one senior school student aggressively asked me at a local school, "what have the Americans ever done for us?"

... I began my answer with the events of 1941. There was no flicker of recognition. It was clear to me that whatever the educational achievements of this school, the teaching of history was not among them. [emphasis added, one rhetorical question deleted]

By the end of this passage, the figures were up to 17 assertions with 9 of them bullshit of one kind or another. The anecdote about the senior school student at the local school scored as follows: accepting that the event described occurred, we have two facts, stated in the first two sentences. Next we have an opinion, passed off as fact and, finally, a daring leap to a conclusion about the school's educational performance - four assertions, two of them bullshit.

When I reached the end of the article I had the following figures. The Treasurer had made a total of 51 assertions of one kind or another and I was satisfied that 31 of those were bullshit. I'd also reached an assessment of the speech that's completely at odds with Tony Parkinson's in today's Age, but at the moment I'm nowhere near tempted to run a BS-95 check on Parkinson. With him, I prefer to use the less rigorous approach of reading the last paragraph first; if the conclusion strikes me as egregious, I immediately lose interest in how Parkinson got there.

Given the figures, how does the Treasurer stack up as a bullshit artist? On checking my revised BS-95 scoring table, I found that in an article with 50 substantive assertions, 32 of them had to be shown to be bullshit before the article could be written off (with 95% confidence) as total bullshit. The Treasurer's speech doesn't meet this criterion so in this case we'll have to retain the null hypothesis, a the statisticians say, and conclude that there's no more bullshit in the speech than you'd find if it were put together completely at random.

Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Comrade Zeppo Bakunin for his very precise formulation of the null hyothesis.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Not Quite Supported

I finally got the new PC upgrunted and working on Friday the 12th; I suppose that ought to make it Trotsky 1, St Anselm and the Single Mothers 0. But here I am, a little over a week later and it's still not good enough. Sure the machine has more RAM then I've ever seen crammed onto the same motherboard (a mere 256 MB), a bootable reserve hard-drive and a much faster internet connection. So, it's finally hooked up to a working printer and I can print my attempts at literature in the double spaced format beloved of publishers and editors. And yeah, that little bit of code I added to the system halt script, to copy changed files in my home directory to the reserve hard drive whenever I shut down the PC, is working a treat. But the thing still doesn't have a working sound card. How utterly bloody useless.

Come to think of it, the video card - a Riva TNT - isn't working up to capacity either. It's fine for stuff like word-processing and web-browsing but it craps out a soon as you try to run Tux Racer. I've got an old PCI video card (FCC ID LUT-DSP3332P) over in the drawer with all the other old cards - two dud ISA internal modems, one working PCI modem, two serial port cards, and a SoundBlaster (Model CT4170, © Creative Technology Ltd 1997). It has occurred to me that if I shift the stacks of books off the coffee table next to the desk and move the printer (Hewlett Packard OfficeJet LX) onto the coffee table, that would make room for the spare monitor (Viewsonic E653). Then I could slot the older video card into the PC and see if it runs Tux Racer any better. I might even be able, eventually, to split my KDE desktop over two monitors. This wouldn't get the sound card working but I'd be impressed enough with myself enough to believe that I can still do technical stuff, at a pinch.

Except when it comes to sound cards based on the ESS Technology ES1868F AudioDrive chip, FCC ID KWX-SND21-W, manufactured by Formosa Industrial Computing Inc. When it comes to getting this little bugger to work with the Fedora Core 2 distribution of Linux, I'm stuffed, no matter how vigorously I wave around my Phillips head screwdriver (Stanley Australia, Model No 65-522). Slightly more intelligent approaches, involving reading the documentation, using the system tools and a lot of Googling, haven't worked either.

Once or twice a day, I hit the Soundcard Detection option on the "System Settings" menu, type in the root password in the dialog box and wait. What happens? Nothing - unless you count the disappearance of the password dialogue box, followed by a little chuntering from the hard drive. There's a fine little program (system-config-sound card) at work there somewhere; the programmer obviously put a lot of thought into the question of how best to make simple things difficult and difficult things impossible.

Frustrated by the way the sound card detector would simply slink away in disgrace each time it failed, I tried hacking modules.conf. No luck there either - probably because I was working from some seriously out of date documentation, the example given was for a SoundBlaster card and most of the hacking was on the basis of inspired guesswork.

Next, via some frantic Googling, I located a downloadable copy of sndconfig, the command line tool for setting up recalcitrant soundcards. It worked a little better than system-config-sound card had. sndconfig at least had the gumption to tell me that it couldn't detect a sound card. Then, as I more or less expected from what I had read about the program, it came up with a screen which asked me to select a driver from a list of possible alternatives. The only problem now was that there didn't seem to be a suitable driver for the ES1868F AudioDrive in the list. Nor was there a driver for the SoundBlaster, should I choose to slip that into the PC case. So it wasn't a particularly helpful list. Well, there wasn't really a list at all, just a blank blue rectangle where the list should have been.

No matter what I do, Linux just refuses to recognise the KWX-SND-21, or whatever it calls itself, as a sound card. This might have something to do with the fact that ESS don't actually list an "ES1868F AudioDrive" in their product range - they have an ES1868. This might point to the root of the problem; maybe expecting the card to work is like expecting a Bolex watch to give the correct time more than twice a day or Charnel No. 5 to smell better that a blend of patchouli and cat's piss.