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Epistemological Modesty… What?

I was listening to an interview with David Brooks the other day. The interview was conducted by, of all people, Alec Baldwin on "Here's the Thing", a show I discovered on public radio.

Alec Baldwin is a good actor for a certain kind of role, and can be quite funny, but we have learned things about him which are not very likable at all, right? But who knew that he was very intelligent and quite a good interviewer?

The David Brooks interview is very interesting and enlightening and I recommend it. But this post is mostly to point you to a highfalutin term for something that makes a lot of sense to me:

"The correct position is the one held by self-loathing intellectuals, like Isaiah Berlin, Edmund Burke, James Madison, Michael Oakeshott and others. These were pointy heads who understood the limits of what pointy heads can know. The phrase for this outlook is epistemological modesty, which would make a fine vanity license plate.

The idea is that the world is too complex for us to know, and therefore policies should be designed that take account of our ignorance." (from "The American Scene", a blog I stumbled across when googling the phrase "Epistemological Modesty")

Here is the David Brooks quote where I first encountered the phrase:

"David Brooks: Yeah, so I was a lefty and I was assigned a book called "The Reflections of the Revolution in France" by Edmund Burke. And here is a guy saying you really shouldn't think for yourself. The power of reason is weak. What you should do is rely on the just prejudices that have survived the test of time. And I just loathed that book, that idea -- because I thought 'I want to think for myself. I want to come up with my own ideas.'

But as I got older, and especially I became a police reporter covering crime, murders and rapes in the south side of Chicago, I began to see that he's right. Our power of reason is weak. And part of the core of my conservatism is the phrase 'epistemological modesty;' the world is incredibly complicated; we can’t know much about it. We should be very suspicious that we can plan." (from Here's the Thing: David Brooks Transcript)

Anyway, it's kind of dangerous to be linking to blogs I never heard of or references to books that I might loathe, references to intellectuals like Isaiah Berlin, and so on: but who has the time to check all this stuff? I think the underlying concept of Epistemological Modesty is right on. (Now I got to go to look of the definition of epistemological. See u!)

History is made

The first personal computer actually made by Microsoft! That's history. They've made mice, and X-boxes, but never desktops, laptops, or tablets.

What impressive me about this computer is that it's not a me-too. Unlike Android , you can't pigeonhole it as just another iPhone knock off. It's fundamentally different user interface is stunning and unique.

Here's the venerable (yeah) Walt Mossberg's review:

"But the tablet I'm using is very different—historic, actually. It's the first personal computer made by Microsoft, a company determined for decades to make only the software driving others' computers." (from Wall Street Journal)

In addition to the computer and the new version of Windows, these computers have a unique keyboard built into soft screen protector. Very cool! Secondly, the tablets have a built in 'kick-stand' for standing it upright. Cool again! Well done Microsoft!

Does Mitt Romney control it all?

Another conspiracy story claiming that Romney through several levels of company, controls a company that makes a type of voting machine that is used in many parts of the country:

"Through a closely held equity fund called Solamere, Mitt Romney and his wife, son and brother are major investors in an investment firm called H.I.G. Capital. H.I.G. in turn holds a majority share and three out of five board members in Hart Intercivic, a company that owns the notoriously faulty electronic voting machines that will count the ballots in swing state Ohio November 7. Hart machines will also be used elsewhere in the United States. (from "Does the Romney Family Own Your e-Vote?"

I haven 't checked into this to determine if it's true.

And even if it is, it's a bit of a stretch to believe that this indirect corporate 'control' leads to high odds that the vote would be manipulated.

Ivory Tower or Trade school?

One of the tensions that I have seen in teaching software engineering is whether something should be viewed as legitimate research or part of the craft of computer engineering.

It's a slippery slope that I myself didn't have a good articulation for.

I came across this in a newsgroup which I think is a pretty good description. The writer is referring to Researching Information Systems and Computing:

"According to the author, the major differences are that in the typical software industry is that the less that is learnt or the less that needs to be discovered the more successful the project is deemed to be. If all is going according to plan then using existing knowledge, avoiding backtracking and changing of design or avoiding having to redo analysis would be seen as a part success. Having to change your design, backtracking and redoing analysis are perceived as a negative risk which needs to be mitigated. These risks could overrun the project constraints such as time, budget etc. Therefore industrial practitioners often leave out risky or uncertain parts of a project.

A researcher on the other hand focuses on these risky and uncertain items because tackling these risks and uncertainties successfully would lead to new knowledge being created. Hence you can claim to be doing research rather than 'normal' design and creation through the risk taking of your software product or process. You can further claim justification for your design by using theoretical underpinnings such as mathematical formulas and or formal methods from the field. You should also be able to say how the knowledge aquired from your design can be applied generally to other situations.

Beautiful Outlook

I don't know why this has not gotten more press. You should take a look at Microsoft's new Gmail killer, It's a totally web based email client, like Gmail, but the user experience is miles and miles better than Gmail.

Screen Shot 2012 10 16 at 10 31 48 PM

Now I am a huge Gmail user, and generally I get along really well with it. It has years of my emails and I have fully mastered its tricks and hacks. It works , it's reliable and it's free.

But boy, as a user interface, isn't Gmail UGLY?

And now look at Microsoft's I didn't even realize that such great, responsive UI could be built in html. It might still be missing some features, and maybe MSFT will clutter it up when they add them, but for now, it is impressive.

By the way, the world of is new enough that the good email addresses might still be available, so get your while you still can!

Securing or attacking Industrial Control Systems

It turns out that Kaspersky Labs is developing a brand new operating system specifically designed to be used in embedded industrial systems and industrial control systems.

In this article, Eugene Kaspersky explains why his company decided to embark on the creation of an operating system designed specifically and only for embedded industrial control systems.

The obvious question:

"First I’ll answer the most obvious question: how will it be possible for KL to create a secure OS if no one at Microsoft, Apple, or the open source community has been able to fully secure their respective operating systems? It’s all quite simple really.

"First: our system is highly tailored, developed for solving a specific narrow task, and not intended for playing Half-Life on, editing your vacation videos, or blathering on social media. Second: we’re working on methods of writing software which by design won’t be able to carry out any behind-the-scenes, undeclared activity. This is the important bit: the impossibility of executing third-party code, or of breaking into the system or running unauthorized applications on our OS; and this is both provable and testable." (from Kaspersky Lab Developing Its Own Operating System? We Confirm the Rumors, and End the Speculation!)

How are the presidential debates like a Nascar race?

I am looking forward to watching the Presidential debates tonight. But for all the wrong reasons.

I believe I know pretty clearly what each side's positions are and what they points will be. So, like when I watch a car race (which is rarely) secretly I have to admit that I will enjoy the suspense of seeing the big crash : the screwup, mistake or unscripted moment.

Here's an article that pulls out a bunch of revealing details of the arrangement between the two sides and the moderator about what can and cannot be done during the debates. It's pretty revealing and interesting, for example:

  • "The candidates may not ask each other direct questions during any of the four debates."
  • "The candidates shall not address each other with proposed pledges."
  • "At no time during the October 3 First Presidential debate shall either candidate move from his designated area behing the respective podium."
  • For the October 16 town-hall-style debate, "the moderator will not ask follow-up questions or comment on either the questions asked by the audience or the answers of the candidates during the debate…."

Read the whole article which also includes a link to the pdf of the 'contract' that both sides signed. Again, pretty revealing.

By the way, do we blame the media for promoting the "cage fight" view of the debates? No, we should blame ourselves. They are just showing us what they know we will tune in for.

(Also, this just in, commentary in Esquire "The Last Stand for Humanity for an Election in Which Bullshit Is Now the Status Quo: Your Debate Preview")

A travesty in a wealthy country

From the New York Times, an article by Nick Kristof, describing a real-life story of a friend of his and health care.

Whenever I hear, "We have the best health care in the world", I think of stories like this. It is a travesty that in a wealthy country like the USA, there are 48 million Americans uninsured. Some 27,000 Americans between the ages of 25 and 65 die prematurely every year because they don't have health insurance. From the article:

"Let’s just stipulate up front that Scott blew it. Other people are sometimes too poor to buy health insurance or unschooled about the risks. Scott had no excuse. He could have afforded insurance, and while working in the pension industry he became expert on actuarial statistics; he knew precisely what risks he was taking. He’s the first to admit that he screwed up catastrophically and may die as a result.

Yet remember also that while Scott was foolish, mostly he was unlucky. He is a bachelor, so he didn’t have a spouse whose insurance he could fall back on in his midlife crisis. In any case, we all take risks, and usually we get away with them. Scott is a usually prudent guy who took a chance, and then everything went wrong." (from The New York Times)

Read the whole article. The same could happen to someone you know.