Archive for the ‘Philospohy’ Category

Cheating On Online Surveys

Thursday, November 27th, 2008

OK this really bothers me. Students at a number of top tech colleges worked very effectively at  ballot stuffing for a Victoria’s Secret contest. Oh I am sure that to most people it looks like a lot of harmless fun. To others it screams out that is was all Victoria’s Secret’s fault because they didn’t properly secure the site/process. I think that is called blaming the victim.

But to me it screams that we have too much acceptance of dishonestly. They shouldn’t have to lock down the site because people should not be trying to game the system in this fashion.

Time and again while I was teaching I heard from students that if I didn’t want people to vandalize the school computers that it was my job to make it harder for them to do so. Leaving any opening, no matter how small, was taken as permission by these individuals. “Does that extend to houses?” I once asked. “Yes” was the reply. Oh but not their house. If someone broke into their house there would  be serious consequences. But if they were found in someone else’s house there should not be a penalty because, after all, there wasn’t enough of a barrier  to keep them out so it would the home owner’s fault.

But coming back to the computer side of things. In the very early days of computers we didn’t have much in the way of security beyond physical security. If you were allowed in the room you could do what you wanted. But people could usually be trusted. We were all in it to help each other, to cooperate, and to stay out of other people’s business. That didn’t last long though.

So now we have online polls for all sorts of things and people are taking advantage of less than ideal security to cheat. Are laws broken/ Often, probably not. To many people if it isn’t illegal it is permissible and ethical. I would say that is not the case and gaming these systems is unethical.

“But no one is hurt.” Not true. People who honestly and ethically work hard within the spirit of the competition wind up having no chance. Their hard work goes in vain – often without them knowing they are doomed to be frustrated. The people who run the competition are hurt. In this case the servers actually crashed under the load. That cost time and money to correct. Plus the benefits the company hoped to get from the event are diminished. Even the publicity they are getting is not what they want.

I would argue that the perpetrators are ultimately hurt as well. They wind up being hailed as heroes and stars and “great hackers” while doing something of dubious ethics. Being rewarded for unethical behavior is not good for ones long term prospects of growing more ethical.

We really need ethical people in the software industry. Really. So when things like this happens I find it very depressing.


Thursday, November 13th, 2008

I self-identify as an engineer. That may not be how I earn my living but it is how I describe myself. What does that mean? I found this definition in Wikipedia.

An engineer is a person professionally engaged in a field of engineering. Engineers are concerned with developing economical and safe solutions to practical problems, by applying mathematics and scientific knowledge while considering technical constraints.[1][2] As such, the work of engineers is the link between perceived needs of society and commercial applications. Some consider this profession to be the link between art and science.

That sort of works but in some ways is too narrow. I do like the “link between art and science” though. But to me engineering means more. It means that  I like understanding how things work; how they are put together; and how people use them. I means I need to draw pictures to explain things. It means that I like to solve puzzles and make things work better. It means that I find wonder and a feeling of commonality in a diverse set of things – materials, architecture. cities, roads and the things that travel on them and machinery of all shapes and sizes.

One last thing, to me engineers are people who change the world – usually for the better. It’s the politicians and some in business who mess up what the engineers (and scientists) do. In my world view engineers are the good guys. 🙂

Word Musings

Saturday, October 25th, 2008

Do the words liberal and conservative really mean anything in politics these days? Or like words to the Mad Hatter do they mean what ever the speaker wants them to mean in a particular context? I really think so.

It used to me that a liberal wanted to change things while a conservative wanted to maintain the status quo. Or in some cases a conservative was someone who wanted to move things back to the way they were after they had been changed. In other words liberals had their eyes on the future and conservatives in the past. Over time in politics a liberal was someone who wanted to spend more money on social services and a conservative was someone who wanted to avoid that. Conservative in the vernacular thought social services were best left up to charity and religion. Note that all major religions have this notion of charity and taking care of the poor and unfortunate. So in a sense liberal meant changing how we take care of people while conservative meant keeping it the same.

Some of that is still true today but increasingly liberal seems to mean in favor of more government and conservative means less government. But by my reasoning that means that both major parties at liberal. Both want more control by government – they disagree on what things to control though. Both want to spend my money on their pet projects. Both want to stick the government’s nose into things it may not belong in. Can you say "Iraq?"

The old joke is that the Republicans want to steal from the middle class and give to the rich and the Democrats want to steal from the middle class (and occasionally the rich) and give to the poor. So who you vote for depends on if you aspire to be rich or poor. Feels true a lot of the time but neither play directly on how I view the words liberal and conservative. They have no meaning in that joke.

For what it is worth I have concluded that the two parties are the party in power and the party out of power. Both the Democrats and Republicans seem to do largely the same things – disagree with a policy of the party in power and then try to implement that same policy if they make it into power themselves. Democrats started us in Viet Nam in a big way and Republicans started us in a big way in Iraq. Perhaps a Democrat will get us out of Iraq as a Republican got us out of Viet Nam? Over simplified? Perhaps but then most political discussion these days is so I’m in good company. (Or bad )

I can’t deal with either conservative or liberal as labels for myself. I am anti-abortion and pro-gun which causes some to label me conservative. I am very unhappy with the notion of homosexual sex but want to see people in happy loving relationships have the same rights as heterosexual couples regardless of gender. Perhaps that makes me a liberal. But I have a notion of marriage and relationships that delegates sex to a very small role. (Please no jokes about that being because I have been married for over 31 years. Rather I think that placing sex in proper context is what makes a marriage or other relationship last.)

I believe in charity and taking care of people. I would prefer a faith-based way to do that because I think it involves more emotional support and less overhead. But at the same time I realize that that is no longer practical in our secular society. So I want to see government taking more of a role in health care and unemployment and some similar issues. I’m pro-choice on education. That’s a very conservative notion these days involving things like vouchers, charter schools and other ways of providing government funds but less government control. But at the same time I support public education not only through taxes but though donations to public schools and making sure my son can continue to live a good life and afford to teach in public schools on a teacher’s pay.  Liberal or conservative? Does it matter? Is the label helpful or distracting from the issue? I vote for distracting.

I want all men to be treated equally. I see that as a religious idea. Visit a Catholic church in an ethnically diverse area and the mix of people will amaze you. They do it better than most Protestant churches much to my sadness. Like wise the Moslem community seems to be able to ignore racial and ethnic divides at least among Moslems of the same sub faith. We need more of that between faiths of course. I see that as a conservative notion because it harkens back the the early church while some see that as a liberal notion because it is a change from the church of the last few hundreds of years. Does it matter which label one applies? Is it even healthy to the goal to apply a label? I think not.

Conservative/liberal & Republican/Democrat are tribal labels. We join (or are born into) a tribe and that is our name. The other tribe is wrong so using the other label on people in an attack. The worst of this is that it removes granularity. It blocks the possibility of ad hock groupings of people united for something that benefits everyone. If the tribe leadership decides something is good or bad the members have to put aside their own beliefs and go along with the leadership. That may have been appropriate at one time but clearly is not today. And yet it is the reality. 

But in a discussion those labels serve as a block to clarity and adds an ambiguity that is unhelpful. Ideas should not be seen as liberal or conservative (nor should people) but as what they are. Sure there is a context in society and I am not saying that ideas live in isolation. What I am saying is that those labels only detract from understanding and, dare I use the word, truth. I would prefer to avoid them when possible.


Sunday, October 12th, 2008

I love to read books. Always have. Fiction, non-fiction, history, thrillers, mysteries and most especially science fiction. But there are problems. Once I start reading a good book I don’t want to stop. I don’t want to work, to eat to sleep, or do anything else. I just want to read. At times my body rebels and I do eat or sleep because I have to. And sometimes self-discipline kicks in and I work or do other responsible things. But a good book, far more than a good movie or TV show, consumes my attention. And I love it.

Eventually the book is over and a feeling of let down ensues. The only answer is distraction or finding another book. Often when I finish it is night time and I am overdue for sleep. That is pretty much the ideal situation. I get to shut down and overnight my subconscious brain processes. It’s a good thing.

On the other hand sometimes I finish a book and there is more time in the day. If I have finished a book in a series and have the next book handy I can start reading right away. It’s harder though if the next available book in not in the same series or worse if it is a different genre. Somehow the context switch is, or at least can be, very difficult.

If I read a book that is the beginning of an existing series and I like it I try to buy the rest of the series right away. That works well. On the other hand today I read a book that is the first of a promised series but the next book is not out yet. I will probably have to wait a year for it.

I have two more books on my reading table and they are from series that I really enjoy. But both are very different in character, in venue, in time, and so switching is proving complex. The book I just finished "Dragons Wild" by Robert Asprin“ is more of less a fantasy. It is about dragons in human form. I have another dragon related book but those dragons are very much in dragon form. While one book takes place in modern times on earth the other one takes place in the distant future on a world very much unlike earth today.

So I picked the other book on my list which while it is in the future and on other worlds doesn’t really have a dragon in it. Well a flying lizard that spits acid but its not really a dragon. I’m still having trouble getting into it but I think I will be able to do so. And then I’ll have trouble putting it down when I should be sleeping tonight. sigh

When I am not reading a book, as for example when I went out with friends last night or shopping earlier today, my mind wants to process a good story. This is especially true with SF or fantasy where a different, imaginary culture or situation has been created for the story. I think about would the consequences of things would be in that culture. This ties in very well with my interest in sociology and anthropology so I have some training to fall back on. But still a good book, a well-written story is a mental workout. And that is probably why I like them so much.

More People or Fewer People

Thursday, September 11th, 2008

I’m not sure I have ever been less happy about the political choices for President than this year. And the campaigns are not helping. Both sides are just downright mean and honesty is paid more lip service than actual practice. There are days when I think I just want to get away from it all. And indeed from people in general.

I once had a poster in my room. It was Lucy from Peanuts saying “I love mankind – it’s people I can’t stand.” The older I get the more that makes sense to me. So there are days when I think being a hermit somewhere out west might just be a good life. And then I realize that I’d miss my wife and son and several other people. In fact it makes me think about my current work life – working at home alone most days.

By the time the weekend comes I really feel the need to be around people. You know you’ve been working alone a long time when you start to look forward to in person meetings even though them mean long painful drives (like into Boston) or airplane trips half way across (or all the way across) the country because there will be actual people there. You’ll be able to se faces, watch body language and in general be actual and not virtual for a while.

Phone meetings are ok as far as they go. Instant messaging can actually be really good. Twitter can become downright addictive – it makes me feel like I am in a virtual room with people. It’s actually more like being there than phone meetings in some ways. I’m less shy in virtual rooms than in physical rooms. That makes virtual rooms easier but at the same time they are still less satisfying. I really don’t expect virtual meetings to completely replace in person meetings. People who think that is possible probably don’t work remotely.

I think I need to find the right balance. There are times when it is good to be away from people. I can really enjoy being all alone, thinking, praying, relaxing, clearing my mind, rebuilding a need for people. And other times I really just need to be with people. Talking, listening, experiencing. Right now my days are sort of in between. Some people interaction with my wife and some virtual interaction with people online. I’m not really alone and I’m not really with people. I probably need to get out more. 🙂

St Hans Night

Saturday, June 21st, 2008

Monday is St Hans Night in Norway. It celebrates the longest night of the year. That’s not the longest night of the year anymore but that is because of calendar drift. Long story – go to Wikepedia if you want it. In Norway there will be bonfires on the hills and beaches and there will be late night parties. I was there, in Oslo actually, for that night in 2000. There was quite a public party down near the harbor that night. It never really got dark either.

In the US we pretty much ignore the day. Oh we talk about the first day of summer (today was the first full day) and they may even say that it is the longest day of the year. But really for the most part it passes without notice. I tend to notice though. I like sun light and as the days get longer from the winter solstice I notice. And I notice as they get shorter. Sometimes I think I want to move south where the variences is less. But I do like the long summer days so maybe I want to be south for the winter – more for the sun than the warm really.

Any way, I think we ignore the long and the short days for the most part because we have more artifical light. Who cares how bright or dark it is outside when when have light when ever we want indoors? But I think we miss something when we miss the natural light and dark. Regardless I think I will try to pay special attention to the sunset on Monday. Longest day of the year or not.

I Think Therefore …

Thursday, March 27th, 2008

Twice today, while driving through Exeter, I saw a bumper sticker that said "I think therefore I am dangerous." I think I want one. I have long believed that people and the way their minds work are what make objects dangerous rather than objects making people dangerous.

Truly though it is ideas coming from people who can and do think that are the most dangerous "things" in the world. At the same time they are the way we move forward as a society. Like some many things thinking (and the ideas thinking generates) are a double edged weapon.

So go out there and think! Be dangerous.

Wisdom of Graffiti

Thursday, January 24th, 2008

Many years ago when I was in high school is was in a classroom for the first time. I don’t remember if I was every in this room again and I clearly did not sit at the same desk again. I don’t even remember why I was there. What I have never forgotten (and it is over 35 years later) is the graffiti written on the top of the desk.

I wish I was what I was when I wanted to be what I am now.

Confusing at first but profound as one thinks about it. Or so I think anyway. I have no idea what prompted a high school student to write it. How many things can one wish for and reach at that young an age and regret already. But none the less it is a sentiment I have pondered over the years.

When I look at possible changes in who I am or at least what I do for a career or for other life changes I think long and hard about what it means to change. Will I later regret making a move? That is a question that has the potential to create paralyzing uncertainty and a certain stagnation if taken to extreme of course. One does have to take risks at times and often those risks are based on less than complete information.

So far I have never had to express the wish to be what I once was. I have moved forward to better things and a happier life. Even these days when I think about becoming a teacher again (what I was when I wanted to be what I am now) it is not because I don’t want to be what I am now. Rather it is because I see different roles for different parts of my life. I want to be what I am now more than I want to be what I was then. At least for right now. Are there other things I might like to be? Yes I think so but they are new things, things I need to work towards, and not a retreat to something I once was.

I think a little "want" to drive one forward is a good thing. I think it is also ok to want to move back to something, or to be someone, one was before. Not everything works out the way we expect or the way we hope. Second chances are good things and not to be feared.