Isaac Asimov – The Relativity of Wrong

The young specialist in English Lit, having quoted me, went on to lecture me severely on the fact that in every century people have thought they understood the universe at last, and in every century they were proved to be wrong. It follows that the one thing we can say about our modern “knowledge” is that it is wrong. The young man then quoted with approval what Socrates had said on learning that the Delphic oracle had proclaimed him the wisest man in Greece. “If I am the wisest man,” said Socrates, “it is because I alone know that I know nothing.” the implication was that I was very foolish because I was under the impression I knew a great deal.

My answer to him was, “John, when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”

The basic trouble, you see, is that people think that “right” and “wrong” are absolute; that everything that isn’t perfectly and completely right is totally and equally wrong.

However, I don’t think that’s so. It seems to me that right and wrong are fuzzy concepts, and I will devote this essay to an explanation of why I think so. ….

The entire essay by Isaac Asimov is really worth a read, as it provides a very nice look at what wrong means in science, which is often different than how it is used in common language.  It might be another case where part of the confusion between science speak and common language is the words don’t quite mean what we think they mean.

Maybe it’s citizen anchors, not citizen journalists

I found this really insightful.

We like to say new media is allowing us all to be journalists. But it’s
probably more accurate to say it lets us all be anchors. Sure, the
Internet also allows people with local knowledge or serious expertise
to speak directly and be picked up by a wider audience, but it doesn’t
fundamentally do a whole lot to increase the population of those people.

And I love his proof point of Palin as the main example

That makes Palin the perfect post-postmodern politician, in a way: A
totally self-contained text, a signifier with no referent. You don’t
really need to know anything to love her or to hate her, because she’s not about
anything except… Sarah Palin. Obligingly, she places no demands on
either her supporters or her detractors, because what they decide to
think of her is all they need to know to decide what to think of her.
At the center of her media narrative is… the media’s narrative about
her, bouncing down an infinite corridor of mirrors. If Jorge Luis
Borges had a talk show on a cable channel run by M.C. Escher, it would
look like CNN right now. Welcome aboard the Goodship Palin, now sailing
from the desert of the real.

What I’m listening to

After I got my HTC Hero and purchased DoggCatcher, I’ve now got this entirely seemless podcast experience as my phone grabs the newest stuff any time I’m on wireless.  It caused me to do some trimming and tuning on what is being pulled down as I work towards having approximately the same number of hours of podcasts a week as I’ve got car rides and yard work.  For those interested, here is what I’m listening to now.

  • Drunk and Retired.  I honestly can’t even remember how I originally found this podcast, it must have been through something ruby related at one point.  This is Michael Cote’s original podcast with Charles.  They talk about random tech topics, zombie topics, now some fatherhood topics, but it’s all around interesting, and lots of fun to listen to.  Charles has some really great insights on development, and I’ve loved listening to his various journeys through ruby, java, and javascript.  I enjoyed D&R enough that I went back to the beginning and listened to the entire backlog.  I even really enjoyed the 4 hour scotch tasting episode… and yes, your read that right.
  • IT Management Podcast.  Once Cote got hired by Redmonk, he started producing more podcasts covering a range of subjects Redmonk was doing analysis on.  I tried most of them, but IT Management Podcast is the only one that stuck.  John Willis has a real wealth of knowledge in the industry, and very recently got hired by Canonical on cloud strategy.  The podcast is honestly more cloud than “good old fashion IT management”, as the boys would say, but that suits me just fine.  If you are looking for a good source on what’s new in cloud computing, this is one of the best out there.
  • AstronomyCast.  Once I got my telescope this was suggested to me by a friend of mine.  AstronomyCast is incredible, just flat out incredible.  Each of the 162 30 minute episodes to date takes on a specific topic in Astronomy and gives it a really wonderful treatment.  The back and forth being Pamela and Frasier is really fun to listen to, and the do a great job of making the information very accessible.  Honestly, anyone above the age of 12 could probably get into this quite easily.  After listening to the entire AstronomyCast back catalog I feel like my knowledge of Astronomy is now at quite a reasonable level.  This podcast also has the added benefit of being very wife friendly.  It is one of the few science or technology podcasts that Susan is eager to listen to when we are doing a long drive in the car.
  • Slacker Astronomy.  Before I found AstronomyCast I found Slacker Astronomy.  The slackers publish far less often then AstronomyCast, and it is a more free form model.  To get into Slacker Astronomy you need to know a few more things about physics and astronomy out of the gate, as there is less explanation there.  I appreciate that though, and am always psyched when I find out there has been another slacker podcast posted.
  • 365 Days of Astronomy.  In case you didn’t realize, this is the International Year of Astronomy.  This podcast was an interesting experiment to get volunteers from all over the world to put together 10 minute podcasts and have a new one every day.  They aren’t all great, but there are a lot of great ones in there.  And the breadth of volunteers and subjects is quite nice.  Even if you aren’t into astronomy, check out this one epsiode on Roswell that really debunks a lot of the story and timelines associated with that myth.
  • Geologic Podcast.  The theme song in front of the 365 days of Astronomy was done by George Hrab, and eventually I decided to check out his podcast.  It’s not about geology.  George is a musician, a skeptic, and all around great story teller.  He also has a sense of production values for this podcast that rival some of the greatest radio being done today.  The Geologic podcast airs once a week, and the moment I get my new episode I jump from whatever I’m listening to and flip over to it.  The last time Nick and Heather were around I put in on in the car, and it happened to be the episode that starts with worst gig ever.  I’m not really sure how we managed to stay on the road as we were laughing so hard during that story.
  • Radio Lab.  Radio Lab is This American Life meets science reporting.  It tells some really compelling stories that all have some element of science in them along the way.  I’m also really happy that it gives Robert Krulwich an outlet again, as I’ve always really appreciated him as a popular story teller.  I find him far more compelling that Brian Green or Neil deGrasse Tyson as a popular voice for science.  I do realize that he doesn’t have the same credentials, but his ability to do outreach is far greater.  Radio Lab is a WNYC production that is done somewhere irregularly, but great none the less.
  • This American Life.  It is probably hands down the best radio being produced today.  A bad This American Life episode is still quite good.  A good one… will make you weep, laugh out loud, and totally rethink some opinion you’ve held, all in the same hour.  I’m really happy that the folks at This American Life let the podcast out there, because many other shows of that quality on NPR have not.
  • Planet Money.  Spawned out of the great This American Life reporting on the financial crisis last year, Planet Money was an attempt to bring a 3 times a week podcast out there that tried to explain economics for mere mortals.  Planet Money was strong out of the gate, but had some issues finding a voice after 4 months of the financial crisis.  Fortunately, they eventually did, and really broadened their approaches to exploring economics as applied to many fields.  The many episodes they’ve done over the last 4 months on the economics of health care in the US have been incredible, and really informative, and often surprising when you start to understand the complexities in the current health care system.  It also gives you a much more nuanced understanding to what a “free market” means, because every market is just actors inside of constraints.  Economics is really about understanding how those constraints (be they incentives, regulations, taboos) change how the actors interact.  The Pirates Have Timesheets episode gives you a really nice example of that.
  • Wait wait don’t tell me.  This is the NPR news quiz show.  It’s sort of daily show light and airs weekly.  I get it as a podcast mostly because 11am on Saturday is a dubious time for me to be near a radio.  If we’re working around the house, I typically listen to it live, if not, it’s podcasted for me to enjoy it later.
  • The Media Project.  While On the Media is probably the more popular national show on this subject, I really like the take our local public radio station does with this.  Sometimes I’ll catch the Sunday rebroadcast live, if not, it’s on the player and I listen to it that way.
  • This Week in Science.  This was a suggestion in DoggCatcher, and the first episode I listened to seemed quite good.  I think this one is sticking around.

Things I used to listen to but gave up on for one reason or another

  • LUG Radio.  This show was great, but it ended.  Damn you!
  • Linux Outlaws.  While it’s still probably the best Linux show out there, it’s far too dry for me.  I know a lot of folks that like this more than LUG Radio because it’s PG language instead of a hard R, but I don’t mind vulgarity at a certain level in my podcasts.
  • Security Now.  I really felt like the information density was too low in this.  While I do like Leo… the other guy got on my nerves from time to time.  I know lots of folks that like this podcast, I’m just not one of them.  Perhaps if you were more of a Microsoft user it would be more relevant.
  • Floss Weekly.  I was pretty frustrated by the treatment of Justin on the OpenSim episode.  I just don’t think it’s right to put someone into apology mode on an interview show about the platform their project is written in, especially a show that gives smalltalk a pass.
  • TWiT.  John Dvorak is always wrong.  I’m now convinced that is an axiom of the universe.
  • Google Developer Podcast.  This had similar issues to a lot of the Google developer bits on youtube.  Informative but bland and too much reading scripts.
  • The Gaurdian’s Tech Weekly Podcast.  This had exactly the opposite issue, it was too over produced.  You could hear them watching time codes the entire episodes.  One of the beauties of podcast medium is that if it’s 28 minutes or 34 minutes, it doesn’t matter.  You don’t need to rush something, or cut it off, to fit into a standard time block.  They seem to have missed this memo.
  • Some Ruby Podcast.  Honestly, I don’t even remember which one it was, but it had the same issue as Linux Outlaws.  High on dry facts, low on interesting stories or banter.  You really need to be a multi level black belt at podcasting before you are allowed near a sound effects board, and these guys broke that rule.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten some along the way, and I’m sure my listen list will be a bit different in a year, it always is.  I’ll actually be interested in revisiting this post in a year and see what’s changed.  Perhaps this might help you discover some new things to listen to.  If so, or if you have other suggestions for your favorite podcasts, or this inspires your own write up of what you are listening to, I’d love to get a comment from you.

P.S.  Hope all you Americans out there have a happy Turkey Day tomorrow.  Turkey and Cranberries are about the best things in the world as far as I’m concerned. 🙂

Updated (11/28/2009) to be more specific on my criticism of FLOSS weekly, as Randal correctly called me out for having just a vague slap down.

I have a theory… no you don’t, you have a guess

One of the reasons that many people have a misunderstanding of evidence in science has to do with the differences in terminology used by scientists and by the general public.  The biggest misunderstanding is around the word theory.

How many times have you, or someone you known, come upon a situation they didn’t fully understand and then propose an explanation.  They’ll typically start that statement with “I have a theory…”.  But they don’t have a theory, they have a guess.  Out of some random facts that happened to be around they guessed at an explanation.  It might be true, it might not, there might be a lot of missing facts they used in the process.  They may have cherry picked facts, either intentionally, or just because of some other built in bias.  It’s just a guess.

The truly diligent folks might come up with with a way to test their guess, that makes it a theory, right?  No, it doesn’t.  If they come up with a set of tests that would either prove or disprove their guess, that makes it a hypothesis.  This is where science begins, an explanation to a phenomenon that has a way to prove or disprove if it is true, and that could predict other behavior in the future.

If you have a hypothesis, and rigorously test it over and over again, creating multiple experiments with control groups, publish a number of scientific papers reviewed by your peers, get feedback from a great deal of other people proposing counter hypothesis, and yet it remains widely believed by experts in the field that your hypothesis best fits all the data at hand… then, and only then, you get to call it a theory.

My own thoughts Google Chrome OS

When google decided to create their own web browser a year ago, I was both sceptical and annoyed.  Did the world really need another web browser?  Couldn’t they just put that effort into Firefox?  What I hadn’t realized at the time was that Google was about to push the boundaries of what a web application is, and their is no way they could pull that off without some control of the browser.

Google has this really cool tech called GWT.  It basically lets you write a rich web application in Java and compile it into a AJAX application.  Javascript as machine code.  The cross browser stuff is in the compiler, so you don’t need to think about it when you write you application in Java.  If your whole business is writing really complex applications for the web, something like GWT is really a necessity.

If you want to see how far GWT can take you, check out Google Wave.  Real time key by key synchronization across the web to multiple users at once.  This isn’t the web we are used to, it’s something a bit different.  Once you start trying to use Wave for real, with a couple of people, you find out that your browser is totally overwhelmed by that much javascript.  Run it in Chrome, and life is a lot better.  Things load faster and are responsive in the way you expect a desktop application to be.  Seeing Google Wave in Chrome makes you start to realize the the idea of desktop on the web isn’t such a crazy idea.

The pundits have largely been missing the point.  While browser as operating system has been a concept since the late 90s (which was skillfully retarded by Microsoft by bundling a web browser that could never support that level of complexity), things are different now.  Over the last 5 years google has been slowly rolling out a set of applications, free to use, that already moved a lot of people fully to the web.  It’s hard to find someone without a gmail account at this point, and most of them are using it as their primary and only email.  Google docs is really nice, and I found that far more useful to collaborate on all my interactions with the outside world than the old “email a word doc” model. 

I get that a lot of people fear the cloud, and point to Microsoft’s fiasco with with Danger as a reason to distrust the cloud.  But Google isn’t Microsoft.  And more importantly, you know what happened before, people lost data.  Never in the history of computing up until the Danger computers crashed did people loose irreplaceable data on a computer.  Much like the fear of flying overwhelming people in a way that the much great risk of driving to the local store to get Milk doesn’t.  People with just the wrong amount of knowledge make very odd risk assessments.

The thing I’m most thrilled about is that Chrome OS is going to help us keep an open web, as least based on everything I’ve seen now.  It’s Linux, and the entire stack is going to be open.  That means it’s not going to support all the rich internet application alternatives being pushed by Microsoft and others.  Chrome OS is going to drive a lot more open standards on the web than any set of committee meetings ever would.  And that’s good for all us, regardless on whether or not we’re using Chrome OS to access the web.