A Mind for Madness

Musings on art, philosophy, mathematics, and physics

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Thoughts on In the Beginning was the Command Line

I’ve been meaning to read Neal Stepheneson’s In the Beginning was the Command Line for quite some time. It pops up here and there, and I’ve never been able to tell what was in it from these brief encounters. Somehow (OK, I was searching for NetHack stuff) I ran into Garote’s page (Garrett Birkel). He is a programmer and in 2004 wrote some comments in with the full original 1999 essay here. This gave a nice 5 year update to Stephenson’s original. It has been 10 years since that update. I don’t plan on doing much commentary, but I did want to record thoughts I had as they came up.

In the first half of the essay there is a long diatribe on American culture. My first large scale thought is that this should be removed. There are some really nice clarifying analogies throughout the essay, but this is not one. It adds probably 1000 words and layers of unnecessary confusion. A good analogy is the Morlock and Eloi from The Time Machine as the types of people using computers. It doesn’t take long to describe and illustrates the point. Having a huge political discussion about TV ruining people’s brains and being easily distracted by shiny objects is an essay in and of itself and not a useful discussion for the main points.

Speaking of main points, I should probably try to distill them. One is that graphical user interfaces (GUIs) as opposed to the original command line prompt were created for the wrong reason. This led to a lot of bad. It is unclear to me from the essay whether or not this is supposedly inherent in the GUI concept or just because of the original circumstances under which they were made. Another main idea is the history of Linux. It is well-done, but you can find this type of thing in a lot of places. The more interesting historical description was of BeOS, because this is far less known. The last main argument is about the monopoly that proprietary OSes have in the market. We’ll get to that later.

Notes (I don’t distinguish whether the quotes are of Garote or Stephenson, sorry):

“All this hoopla over GUI elements has led some people to predict the death of the keyboard. Then came the Tablet PC from Microsoft — and people have been complaining ever since, because most things that you would use a computer for, still involve letters and numbers.”

This was without question the right thing to say in 2004. Ten years later our move to tablets and phones as our primary computers is so close to being a majority that Microsoft revamped Windows as if no one uses a laptop or desktop anymore. It was widely criticized as a mistake, but I think it says a lot about how far we’ve come since 2004. It may not have been a mistake if they waited 2 more years.

“Even before my Powerbook crashed and obliterated my big file in July 1995, there had been danger signs.”

It is interesting to me to see how much emphasis is put on “losing files” throughout this essay. It seems a point that the 2004 comments still agrees with. I certainly remember those days as well. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen now, but “cloud computing” (which I now just call “using a computer”) is so pervasive that no one should lose work anymore. I could format my hard drive and not lose anything important because my work is stored all over the world on various servers. It would take a major, organized terrorist-level catastrophe to lose work if you take reasonable precautions. I have a 2 TB external storage device to do regular back-ups on, but it just feels a waste now.

“Likewise, commercial OS companies like Apple and Microsoft can’t go around admitting that their software has bugs and that it crashes all the time, any more than Disney can issue press releases stating that Mickey Mouse is an actor in a suit.”

It is interesting that even back in 1999 this was clear. The proprietary OSes had to keep up appearances that they were better than the free alternatives. Despite the marketing that you were actually buying quality, the OSes you paid for were bigger, slower, had fragmentation issues, were more likely to crash, and got viruses. The Windows bloat is so big now (over 20 GB!) that older laptops will waste half their space just for the OS. In effect, the OS you paid for was worse than Linux in every way except for the intuitive GUI and a few select professional-grade programs.

In 2014, the GUI issue is fixed. The switch from Windows 7 to Ubuntu is less jarring and more intuitive than the switch from Windows 7 to Windows 8. I claim even the most computer illiterate could handle some of the modern Linux distributions. Now you basically pay for the ability to pay for a few high quality programs. There are certain professions where this is worth it (mostly in the arts, but certainly use Linux for work in STEM areas), but for the average person it is not. Now that WINE is better, you can even run those specialized Windows programs easily in Linux.

The next section is an anecdote about how difficult it was to fix a bug in the Windows NT install on one of Neal Stephenson’s computers versus the simplicity of getting help with Debian. This whole section is basically making the argument that a for-profit software or OS must maintain the illusion of superiority to get people to buy it. This means they hide their bugs which in turn makes it hard to fix. Open source encourages bugs to get posted all over the internet. Thousands of people see the bug and have an opportunity to try to fix it (as opposed to the one, possibly incompetent customer service rep you tell). The solution, when found, usually very quickly, will be posted for all to see and will be incorporated into the next release.

I’m not sure if the cause/effect that is proposed is really the reason for this (he admits later that there are now bug reports for Microsoft and Apple, but they are very difficult to find/use), but it matches my own experiences as well. I only note this here, because I often hear that you are “paying for customer service” or “support” when you choose Windows over Linux. For the above reasons I just don’t believe it. If the Linux community somehow stopped being so darn helpful so quickly, then maybe this would be a point in favor of proprietary software. I don’t see that happening any time soon.

The last part of the essay on the monopoly might be a little outdated. When I buy a computer and Windows comes as part of the package, I feel a little cheated because the first thing I do is delete it. Why did I just pay for something that I was going to immediately delete? The reason this is outdated is because in 2014 you can find “Linux boxes” that come with Linux installed in place of Windows. They are harder to find, so you don’t have as many choices, but this is a big improvement from 2004 where 100% of Dell (or whatever) computers came with Windows.


Blogging Birthday

This is just a quick post to celebrate my blog’s fifth birthday (aka blogiversary).

I thought this image was appropriate (to avoid getting sued, if you like it or are in the market for other birthday cards I found it under the greeting cards section at Cafepress). Let this be a warning to any potential new bloggers out there. If you stick it out for five years, then you’ll be embarrassed by your earlier posts. I’m sure in five more years I’ll be embarrassed by my current posts. This is good. If you go five years and aren’t embarrassed, then what have you been doing for those five years? It’s OK, but be warned.

Quick statistics: I’ve had 137,185 views and 561 comments. Far and away my most common post is still the one on analyzing Lost in the Funhouse by Barth. I feel bad for literature professors across the country that have to keep reading rehashes of my post on this every time they assign the book or story (some of these students even comment that this is what they are doing).

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One small part of my research process

I don’t usually do this, but I’ll piggy back off a question from another blog since it is kind of fun and definitely useful to see how other people approach things. The question came from the AMS Grad Student Blog. Here’s a glimpse into my research process:

This was also an experiment to see if I could publish directly from a document created in Google Drive (which you can!). What’s your research process like?


The Myth of a Close Election

Before presenting the argument for why the current US presidential race is not as close as it seems, let’s first get out of the way some of the major reasons why it seems close. First, there is the bias of the media. What is more exciting: watching a photo finish win of .01 seconds or watching someone take the lead early and never give up ground?

All of our news sources have a vested financial interest in portraying the presidential race as close. It keeps people coming to their webpages or turning on the news to see how things have changed. The myth was created because it sells. But this is far, far from the only reason someone would want to keep this myth alive.

If your candidate is the one that has the bad odds, then you will want to portray the race as close to keep up hope. No one wants to admit (or even believe) that they are going to lose. This is about as old and established a cognitive bias as you can find. What about if your candidate is the one that is ahead? Well, there is very good reason to portray the race as close in this case as well. If all the people that are going to vote think it is an easy win, the turnout may go down causing a sudden upset that shouldn’t have happened.

This gives good reason for even non-news sources to keep up the impression that it is a close race. In fact, I can’t think of any reason someone would not have some interest in skewing the numbers to make the race seem closer than it is. In our weird system of the electoral college, it is actually quite easy to keep this myth up. You just give standard national polling data. All of a sudden it looks like a dead even match. One day one candidate is up, the next day the other. Back and forth it goes. How exciting!

It turns out that the most careful analysis out there, Nate Silver at Fivethirtyeight, has as of yesterday a 79% chance of Obama winning and a 21% chance of Romney winning. Before discussing what this means, I’ll first point out that this is a true professional statistical analysis. He uses tons of polls in all of the states (sometimes 10 for a single state!) and not just one that suits his purpose. He takes into account noise and how historically accurate the polls have been at different times leading up to the election. It is a fully developed statistically model (as opposed to places like Real Clear Politics which takes straight from polls without filtering through a model).

He has used his methods in predicting sports and elections in the past and has an impeccable track record for accuracy. Now that that is out of the way, what do the numbers mean? Well, they mean what they say. A better tactic is to point out what they don’t mean. A 79% chance of a win is not a sure thing. In fact, people go to Vegas and play odds much, much (much, much) worse than 21% and win! Does this mean they had better odds than predicted? No. It means sometimes you win when you have .0001% chance at winning.

This is statistics we’re talking about, so there is never any sort of guarantee. If Romney wins, will Nate Silver be wrong? No! And that is the crucial point. If every time Silver gave 79/21 odds, the person with the 79% chance of winning won, then that would definitively prove Nate’s model incorrect. In order for the model to make accurate predictions it turns out that 21% of the time that he makes this 79/21 prediction, the person with the 21% chance of winning has to win.

You can go to his blog and check out his methods for yourself, but his track record should give us a bit of confidence that he knows what he’s doing. Now back to the original question: Is the US presidential race close? Armed with these stats, the answer is subjective and you can decide for yourself. To me it would be a lie to say that it is some sort of blowout, but under no stretch of the imagination is 4-1 odds close. I’m not a betting man, but I’d easily take the occasional 4-1 odds, and that says to me that it isn’t a very close race.

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Mirror Symmetry

Well, I keep putting off writing a new post because I’m not sure what I’m going to do it on. I had an idea. I work with Calabi-Yau varieties a lot, and so inevitably the term “mirror symmetry” appears all over the place. I’m mostly interested in arithmetic properties of Calabi-Yau’s where mirror symmetry doesn’t apply, so I know absolutely nothing about it. Since I’m curious what is meant when people use this term I thought I’d do a series of posts trying to explain the main idea of mirror symmetry.

In fact, a week or so ago Matt Ballard (who graduated the year I started grad school at the same school) put up on the archive a really nice introduction to the subject. This means I even have a nice reference to work with now. Here’s the problem. To type up something fairly reasonable on the subject is going to be a major undertaking. I have very little old blog material that is relevant, so I’ll basically be starting from scratch. It is also going to be quite time consuming since I know nothing about it.

This is my dilemma. I’d love to learn about it and blog about it, but I’m not sure it is worth the time and effort it will take. I’m at that point of grad school where I probably shouldn’t go off on a wild tangent for a long time just because I want to know what this term means when it has basically nothing to do with my research. On the other hand, one of the purposes of this blog is to keep me doing things that aren’t directly related to my research so that I maintain some sort of breadth.

I’m just throwing the idea out there for you all. What do you think? Do you have an interest in hearing about (homological) mirror symmetry, because if there seems to be interest, then it is probably worth doing.


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