Feb 13

Generative science

I’m thinking about writing another book. I won’t disclose the title or topic yet, but there’s a bit of research for it I think can be usefully crowdsourced, and may also give a clue about the book for those of you interested.

I’ve written before about the difference between descriptive and generative theories. To recap and simplify, a descriptive theory accounts for what is; a generative theory finds causal regularities beneath a descriptive account and predicts consequences not yet observed.

Now I want to zero in on a parallel difference among entire sciences. Some scientific fields – like, say, evolutionary biology – are tremendously productive of models and insights that can be applied elsewhere. On the other hand, some other sciences – like, say, astronomy – seldom export ideas or models.

Note that while it is appropriate to think of sciences that export lots of ideas as ‘generative’, the class of sciences that don’t are not merely descriptive. Astronomy, for example, has lots of generative theory inside it; astrophysics, for example makes predictions about stellar spectra and elemental abundances. But astronomy as a whole is not generative because none of its theory really informs anything outside astronomy.

So I’m going to start with a (non-exhaustive) list of scientific fields, indicating roughly how generative I think they are and what if anything they export. I invite additions and corrections from my readers.

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Dec 03

Bad at languages?

I had a very international childhood – lived in Venezuela and Rome and London, and visited lots of other places in Europe (Paris, Athens, Venice, Barcelona). The cause was my dad working for a multinational; the result was that I learned and forgot three languages before I was thirteen.

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Nov 24

A relative achievement

Spencer Lehman. At age 75, a U.S. national champion pole-vaulter. My favorite uncle.

Mother’s brother, for you Norwegian-speakers (update: I misremembered, it turns out to be Swedish that distinguishes ‘morbror’ from ‘farbror’). And you know that archetype of the Malibu-dwelling hippie stockbroker that shows up in comic novels about California? That would be him.

Oct 19

Return of the reposturgeon!

reposurgeon 1.2 is shipped.

This is the repository editor I wrote about back in 2010; description here, architectural lessons here.

I did a conversion of the repo for the Roundup issue tracker, which had a messy history. It started out as CVS, got up-converted to Subversion, and I grabbed it with git-svn. Cleaning up the geological strata of conversion artifacts taught me some useful things.

Accordingly, a main feature in this release is a command that finds and removes zero-content commits created by cvs2svn->git-svn conversions. Also, the repository merge operation is no longer confused by out-of-order commits.

Sep 09

For those who have met Sugar

I don’t often blog about strictly personal things here. Even when it may seem that I’m blogging about myself, my goal is normally to use my life as a lens to examine issues larger than any of my merely personal concerns. But occasionally, this has led me to blog about my cat Sugar, as when I wrote about the ethology of the purr, the Nose of Peace, the mirror test and coping with anticipated grief.

But this blog has developed a community of regulars, too, some of whom have met and been charmed by Sugar while being houseguests at my place. It is therefore my sad duty to report that she has entered the rapid end-stage of senescent decline often seen in cats. After days of not eating and signs of chronic pain, she has been diagnosed with hepatic cysts, acute nephritis and renal failure. She’s now on a catheter at the vet’s; they’re hoping to restart her kidneys and treat the nephritis with antibiotics. But in the best case, our vet doesn’t think she has more than six months left, and that much may require heroic measures including daily subcutaneous fluid injections. He has not recommended euthanasia, but if her kidneys don’t reboot within a day or three that will be coming. He hasn’t said, but I don’t think he likes her odds of surviving this crisis.

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Aug 27

Night sounds, trains and timepieces

My house is located less than a hundred feet from the Main Line, the principal passenger-rail artery out of Philadelphia to the west – Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and ultimately Chicago and points west. Two dozen times a day passenger trains come bucketing by, but they’re barely a murmur through the dense secondary-growth woods between my back fence and the railroad right-of-way.

The loud ones are the night trains, the big heavy freights they route through when all the passenger cars are put to bed. They come through here rumbling like muted thunder in the still dark, long blasts of airhorns falling away like the mournful cries of vast creatures in a rusty ocean. Some people would find the noise intrusive, but I don’t; it comforts me.

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Aug 22

Vanished Planet, Innovation, and the luck-swamping problem

From the gaming front, I report one nice surprise and a couple of disappointments.

My interest in that old standby Puerto Rico was rekindled by the World Boardgaming Championships tournament a few weeks ago, in which I made quarter-finals only to wash out in a game with a mere 4-point spread. Friday night at our gaming group I scored 56 points with a factory/fast-build strategy finishing with Residence and Guildhall, 6 points ahead of a tie for second. Nothing remarkable about the play, but I’m becoming convinced that if you’re running that strategy it’s vital to never skip a build opportunity even if it means you have to settle for a smaller edifice than you really want – otherwise you lose control of the game tempo and shippers get time to blow past you.

I won the Power Grid game after that, too, starting with Wien on the Central Europe board and successfully scoring the 30 fairly early (3 Garbage -> 6 cities). The Wien discount was very helpful after that. I believe that low-balling to buy the 3 in the initial auction in order to place first and grab Wien + Bratislava is the strongest opening on that board – besides locking in the garbage discount and enabling you to build nukes, it’s also a central placement that makes it difficult for other players to box you in.

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Aug 21

How Google+ just changed my life

It is with some bemusement that I report that Google+ – not yet out of beta – has already changed my life. Bear with me because I’m going to talk about diet for a bit, but where I’m actually going is to a discussion of how our means of acquiring information is changing.

So, I saw Sugar: The Bitter Truth scroll up on G+, watched it, and…ay yi yi. Fructose, a hepatotoxic poison?

OK, I did some followup research, I’m aware that there’s a countercase and that Dr. Lustig can be accused of oversimplifying some things and there’s dispute about others. But I know a fair bit about biochemistry, physiology, and related fields, enough to make his indictment of fructose as a chronic hepatotoxin far more convincing and frightening than if I were ignorant and all those enzyme-pathway charts meant nothing to me.

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Aug 19

GPSD 3.0 finally ships. It’s been a long epic.

Protocol transitions are hard.

Yeah, I know the experienced software developers reading that are thinking “Well, duh!“. Shut up already, I’m venting here. I’ve just spent the better part of two years – actually, if you include design time and false starts it could be closer to five years – designing a new application protocol for my gpsd service daemon, implementing it, getting it deployed, dealing with problems and course-correcting.

For those of you in the cheap seats, an “application protocol” is a kind of language that a program uses to communicate with other programs. Normally humans never see these, but there’s one big example that non-geeks have often seen bits of. HTML, the Web’s markup language, is an application protocol. Designing these is not easy. There are difficult issues and tradeoffs around flexibility, economy, expressiveness, and extensibility for uses we haven’t imagined yet.

When you have a whole bunch of programs written by different people communicating with a particular application protocol, changing that entire ecology to use a different one is not easy. A good analogy in the physical world is the difficulty of changing an entire country’s railroad gauge. The long-term benefits may be huge, but the short-term cost in capital and service disruption is daunting.

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Jul 10

I’ve joined Google+

Google+ is interesting. I was persuaded to try it by three things: (1) Circles, so I can structure my contacts rather than having an undifferentiated blob of “friends”, (2) I’m fairly confident that Google’s Data Liberation Front won’t let it turn into a jail, and (3) my best geeky friends seem to be joining en masse.

I begin to think Facebook might actually have a fight on its hands. I’m getting the feel of tremendous demand for something that’s full-boat social networking but not Facebook finding an outlet, because it’s not just my geeky friends that are signing up.

This will bear watching.

Jul 07

Recreating the Nutty Buddy

This is a happy story about how, sometimes, you can go home again.

When I was a small child (this would have been a good 45 years or so in the mid-1960s), there was a style of ice cream cone with a sort of top cap of solidified chocolate and chopped peanuts on it. They were sold under the brand name Nutty Buddy, but I think it had imitators as well. I didn’t care; I was barely aware of the brand and I liked them all. Ice cream trucks were more common then than they are now, and when I heard the bell on one of them ringing I knew what I wanted. A Nutty Buddy if I could get one, or an ice-cream sandwich if I couldn’t.

About a year ago my wife and I were out in Michigan for sword training, and one fine day we and Heather the swordmistress rustled up some cold sandwiches and drinks and went for a picnic lunch in a local park. It was a lovely sunny afternoon, and the food was good, and the company was good and – what was that? I heard what could only be the bell of an ice-cream truck! I think it had been literally decades since my last one; I instantly gave chase.

Now, Eric in hot pursuit of an ice cream truck is doubtless a rather comical sight. I have cerebral palsy and don’t run well, tending to galumph across the landscape in what I’m sure looks like a ludicrously slow and inefficient manner. Fortunately, I am fast enough to catch up with an ice-cream truck that doesn’t actually want to outrun its potential clientele. I caught it about a block away.

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Apr 04

Stolen jewels

Our cat, Sugar, is getting old. The final, swift decline one tends to see in aging cats is not yet upon her; she’s still the lovely creature we’ve known for nearly two decades – eyes bright, coat soft and glossy, purr ready and resonant. Our friends marvel at her apparent health at over 18 years…but we know her kidney function is slowly degrading, on bad days days the arthritis makes her walk stiffly and slowly, and some of the wartlike growths beneath that plush fur are becoming disturbingly large.

My wife Cathy and I have been bracing ourselves. We know Sugar can’t have much time left. She’s already beaten the 15-year average for well-cared-for indoor cats by more than three years; if she makes it to 20, that would be statistically quite exceptional. But she could slide into final senescence tomorrow and be dead within a month; on the odds, actually, that should have happened already.

Neither my wife nor I can avert our eyes from these facts. We don’t talk about them much, though. We don’t have to. When Sugar is interacting with both of us, we can see the shadow of anticipated sorrow on each other all too clearly.

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