Elias presents ... a worm!    Thoughts on family, philosophy,
and technology


Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Baby athletics

Eli turned 6 weeks this Sunday. The day before, he actually flipped himself over, to our amazement. It was sort of accidental, but still impressive. He has long been able to lie on his belly and then hold his head partway up, sometimes using his hands to push up a little more. Lately he has been really pumping his legs in this position, so that if only he could hold himself up on his arms, he would crawl like a maniac. I think when he flipped there was a random alignment of some of these capacities: he raised up his head and shoulders, mostly with his left arm, then he kicked his left leg and his right arm somehow slipped underneath his body (that's really the key) and he kind of rolled onto his side. That was the first stage. I called to Amy "he's rolling! he's rolling!" and she came running in. Then as we watched it only took a few more seconds of squirming and kicking to complete the roll onto his back. Wow!

The Baby Book says babies generally can start flipping from belly to back at 3 months. So, just as I always knew, Eli's a genius.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Frustrated with Microsoft

I've been thinking too much about politics lately, probably due to the upcoming election and the anniversary of 9/11. Enough about terrorism and Iraq. I want to vent about Microsoft.

Context here is everything. I've been professionally developing software for Microsoft Windows since 1993, and this will likely continue for the rest of my programming career. So I owe my career to Microsoft, in a sense. Also, I am a staunch, staunch supporter of pure capitalism, of everyone's right to sell anything with the terms of their choosing. So long as others can say "no"and walk away (i.e., there's no baseball bats involved), there's no violation of individual rights. So I'm not your typical Microsoft-basher. I won't even hesitate to say that Microsoft has created more wealth (and therefore enabled more human happiness) than most companies can fantasize about, and I have a great deal of respect for this.

My complaints are purely complaints qua consumer. Here's what I've seen in the past few months:

(1) Hotmail. We sent out an email from Amy's Hotmail account to dozens of people with a link to pics of a newborn Elias. The entire content of the email was a link to a web page. Simple enough, right?

To my amazement, we began getting feedback that the link didn't work. Was the web site down? I checked the server, it was fine. But when I tried to click on the link we had sent, sure enough it didn't work. And the what-the-hell moment was when I saw that Hotmail had turned the link to my web page into a redirect on a Hotmail page. Which wasn't working. So that our family and friends who were trying to see pics of our newborn son were instead seeing an error page on

Is it too much to expect from an email service that I can send a link in an email and it will work?

(2) MSN. It is (a) expensive; (b) hard to figure out how to cancel the service (turns out you have to call them); and (c) confusing: I keep getting comments from family and friends that they can't find such-and-such a site -- because they have typed the address into the worthless Search box. ISP service can be so simple, why should people pay extra money for an extra confusing and cantankerous service?

(3) IE. I've noticed a growing trend of family-member systems getting infected with all sorts of spyware and other junk. Is it really that hard to make the browser not download software onto my machine unless I explicitly ask it to? IE also hasn't significantly changed in years, so that now there's an equivalent, if not better, open-source alternative that a famous Microsoft evangelist uses 40% of the time. Ironically, Microsoft has been excercising their right to not innovate.

(4) .NET 1.0, 1.1, 2.0, Avalon, Longhorn, XAML, ad infinitum. This complaint is made qua consumer of Microsoft's programming technologies. Don't get me wrong, I love working with .NET (Win32 was like a '72 El Camino -- powerful and dependable, but not that comfy to be in or to look at in 2004), but do I really need to learn a new API every 2 years? Because that's what my future looks like. And the point of this treadmill is not primarily to make better software systems (after all, all that consumers want is Office to be fast and to never crash), but to lock-out and out-step the competition.

(5) Office. Bugs and bloat. I'll never forget the time I spent two hours trying to figure out why my writer friend couldn't open Word anymore (eventually tech support told me to delete or something like that). Outlook locks up on me almost daily. Word is slow to load (contrast to the free AbiWord) and hard to use: I get a sinking feeling everytime I need to create or edit a table within a document.

These are the main reasons I now use the Firefox browser (no more IE) and gmail (no more Outlook, nor Windows 2003 mail server which has given me fits), and I'm starting to use Linux and AbiWord at home more and more. I've also got one set of grandparents viewing Eli's pics over ISP.Com's service; now I just need to switch the other grandparent off of MSN to save $12 a month.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Three Iraqi brothers in Baghdad

Three Muslim Iraqi brothers in Baghdad have a blog. No, they don't hate us for invading. Surprise.

Choice quote about that scene in Fahrenheit 9/11 showing what life was like in Saddam's Iraq before the U.S. invaded:
And I really was shocked when he pictured Iraq like peaceful country where children play and people laugh happily, guess what Mr. Moore you are wrong coz I live in Iraq and children weren't playing they were working to live and people weren’t smiling they were either afraid of getting killed or arrested for no reason or just because they don’t like Saddam and they dared to say so.

Political commentary in the age of unreason

The Intellectual Activist has a brilliant article this month (unfortunately not on their web site quite yet, though here's a precursor) of how the choir of the left has withdrawn from any ambition to high intellectual standards, to the barbarism of openly irrational and emotionalistic appeals as exemplified by the "intellectually unkempt" Michael Moore. (My own observations confirm this: I've recently discovered that I can listen to Air America during my commute, and I've been shocked at how consistently petty and anti-intellectual the "commentary" is there, certainly not a whit better than the conservative radio programs it mocks.) This has been so clarifying for me as I listen to liberals making their anti-Bush and anti-war arguments, because up until a few days ago I had been assuming that the left is still, somehow, more intellectually responsible than the Bible-thumping right. Robert Tracinski has cured me of that illusion.

None of this is good news for the right, of course, because the conservatives have never been consistent fans of reason: their Original Sin, if you will, is choosing faith over reason, Aquinas notwithstanding.

So the thing that impresses me about this post is not so much the content, but the dedication to making a rational argument. There's no ad hominem to be found, and just that makes such political commentary unusual these days.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

More on the meaning of 9/11

Part of an argument against pacifism I've made on a web board today:

The entire cesspool of medieval mysticism and modern dictatorship brewing in the Middle East is a threat to us. That's the lesson of 9/11. If some bacteria are willing to fly planes into skyscrapers, and others are willing to organize such an attack, and others are glad to pay for it, then the only possible conclusion is that there are other creatures out there figuring out how to get a trunk full of plutonium onto Manhattan Island (or some equivalent) -- whether it be tomorrow or 30 years from now. And since their primary motivations are to make room for theocracies and tyrannies, and the existing theocracies and tyrannies are providing them time and space and who knows what other support, pacifism in the West has zero chance of appeasing or derailing them.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

9/11 meaninglessness

I was thoroughly discouraged by 9/11 this year, because it's actual meaning is not just ignored, but is virtually unknown. Sure there were newspaper articles, etc., about how horrible the loss was. But I'm convinced that what most people perceived that morning, to their own amazement, was that civilization is not guaranteed, it can be destroyed, quickly and simply.

No one besides the political fringe believes this anymore. In fact, you can't say many believed it then, because few people conceptually identified the meaning of 9/11. It was a bundle of perceptions -- and perceptions fade. This explains why the polls about whether such-and-such a post-9/11 invasion was a good idea keep getting lower: whereas reasons wouldn't age, memories do.

The meaning was captured in a TV interview with a random New Yorker on the afternoon of 9/11, who said very simply (I remember it well): obviously New York will be blown up by an atomic bomb some day. People were so honest that day! And he was right -- and my point is that he is still right, we are no safer today.

The motivation (religious and political), the money, the mass lunacy exists in the world, so that achieving the flattening of Manhattan Island is a mere technological problem for civilization's enemies now. And it would only take one event like that, and I don't think we can fathom the tail-spin the world would go into. (Or maybe we can: the Athenians thought they were untouchable -- but one day during the Peloponnesian War they lost 20,000 men. I wonder how hard it was after that for an Athenian to deny that civilization isn't guaranteed.)

I say that this lesson is obvious, just as it was to that New Yorker three years ago, but I think most people now think it can't happen. Sure it's mathematically possible, they might say, but it just won't happen. Because if it could happen, that would mean we would have to do a very unpleasant thing to stay alive -- act ruthlessly selfish. Even kill a lot of people.

I believe this is the main reason that even the man who is seen as a war-monger by most of the world, President Bush, is actually taking virtually no action which could actually fix the problem (militant Islamicism): because the necessary self-assertion would be the exact opposite of the sacrificial, self-hating altruism that is heralded as the ethical standard by the religious right, the nihilistic left, and the "common sense" political center.

Early memories

Eli is over four weeks old now -- and one calendar month tomorrow.

I took my first bath with him last night, and we got it on film. I really wonder how different it will be for him to have all of this media showing bits and pieces of his infancy (even his birth!). There are a few Polaroids of when I was a baby, but it would be interesting to see how I acted back then, and to hear what my voice was like.

What would be even better would be to remember things from very early on. I have a hypothesis that goes something like this: the less we remember something, the more we forget it. Meaning that the more we think about some memory, the less likely it is to become irretrievable later. So my plan is to go over Eli's earliest memories with him occasionally when he gets to some suitable age (4?). That way, those neural connections will become strong and enduring.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

The other George W.

I will vote for George W.

No, not Mr. Bush ... I'm going to write-in George Washington, just as I did in the last election.

The problem with both candidates is not just that they are bad, but that they are both thoroughly, consistently bad. On every single issue, each man is fundamentally wrong in theory and will be destructive in practice.

Now there are differences between the two (although they are vastly overstated by almost everyone). But given what I just said, I don't think a rational voter can compute which man will invite catastrophe to a lesser extent. On certain issues one may be able to argue that either candidate is slightly less horrible than the other. But I'm skeptical of these arguments, and even if they are true, so what? I do not think "slightly less horrible" can be an epistemological standard for choosing success with any kind of probability.

For example, many (conservatives) say Bush is better on the economy, because he's supposedly for less government and smaller taxes. But Bush has promised to increase spending on a wide variety of social welfare programs, especially Medicare and government education. If his tax rates will be lower than Kerry's, this only means he will "pay" for them with deficit spending. So the net effect is the same under both candidates: a significant increase in welfare state spending.

Kerry would defend abortion rights, whereas Bush's stance on such personal liberty issues is nothing short of ghastly. But notice that Kerry is wearing his religion on his sleeve, for example, during his nomination acceptance speech. So I have to ask: How is Kerry the Catholic supposed to put up a meaningful argument against the anti-abortionists that he attends Mass with?

Many people say this election is only about war and national security. I'm not clear on this, because you can never say that "civil liberties" are a non-issue, even temporarily. If we hire a man to be president who will defend the nation appropriately (which Bush will not do, by the way), but he simultaneously slashes into "civil liberties," is that better or worse in the long run? Put it this way: Is it better to defend against theocratic foreign enemies, or against the rise of a theocracy in our own government? I don't want to make the choice.

So George Washington is my man. Which is another way of saying: there is no worthy candidate today -- but there was in the past, and so there can be in the future.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

The bigness of life

Eli is 23 days old today, and my mother died exactly three years ago today.

When she died I learned how overwheming death is. Something that hadn't occurred to me before, jumped out: death is incomprehensible. Or: death is metaphysical. You can't understand it, you can only accept it.

There is no frame of reference for death. It's not just "different" from life, it's the absense of a part of reality, it's an unimaginable nothingness. Sartre said it is a wall we cannot see past. That Garfunkel song Bright Eyes for the movie "Watership Down" more artfully pondered if it is a kind of shadow or dream. I think the common theme here is that our daily way of understanding things is incapable of conceiving someone's death.

Let's say Joe is happy. Okay, I get that. Now Joe is asleep? Well, I know what that means too. But what about this: Joe is dead. That statement appears to be about Joe -- but the problem is that there is no "Joe" anymore. So what does it mean? What is the statement even about?

I do think we can grasp this fact, this new arrangement of reality when someone is gone, but it's such a BIG change in the world -- to really grasp it you have to change a lot yourself. It can take days to start seeming real at all, and years to really sink in.

Birth is metaphysical in this sense also. Several times immediately before Eli's birth, and for a few days after, I grappled with the oddity that a person can just appear. How can I make a person?! I know hardly anything about anatomy ... but, surprise, I've gone and made an entire human being. Eli didn't exist, but now he does.

In our myths, this life-creation power is reserved for gods. Ironically, in reality it is one of the simplest things: a pair of unemployed teenagers can make a baby. One of the most amazing things is how hard Amy and I had to work to create our careers, to buy and fix up our house, etc. -- these things took many years and tens of thousands of dollars. Whereas creating Eli took a few months, and it didn't cost any money.

Yet he is immediately more precious to us than anything else in the world (besides eachother).

UPDATE: Speaking of death, I just learned that 1000 U.S. soldiers have now died in the Iraq war. Don't let the number fool you into thinking it is merely a statistic. This is a metaphysically personal fact, it's a loss of life. To understand it is to hurt.

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Thursday, September 02, 2004


Eli is 18 days today, and he smiled 3 times, his mother tells me.

Why do babies smile? They seem to smile randomly at first -- when sleeping, or when they feel an interesting belly rumble. Are they able to smile only because they've seen some faces smile, and that has triggered this reflex, or would a baby spontanously smile without being shown how?

I guess in either case the whole complex activity of smiling is a "subroutine" that is built into us. One way or another it gets activated (and probably develops more), but it is there already, pre-wired, at least in a primordial form.

The interesting thing to me is that we smile pre-conceptually. Later in life we smile when we think about something we like. But a newborn is cognitively equivalent to a cat or dog, grasping perceptually and acting impulsively, without any thoughts for past or future ... and yet he smiles.

What really is the difference between the mind of a newborn and the mind of an animal? Babies have much more potential, of course, but do they have any more cognitive power actually? Does the human baby have a different type of cognition than that of an animal? Perhaps if babies didn't cognize differently from animals, they would never get beyond the purely perceptual-impulsive mode of animals.

The transition from pre-conceptual infant to conceptual child must be smooth and organic. Perception and impulsiveness must slowly gain traction for the conceptual-volitional mode of cognition.

Maybe it is better to say that perception and impulsiveness slowly form into a rational mind. Because the lower modes of cognition are in some sense the ingredients or basis of the higher modes. We conceive of and for perceptual reality (I think that that green thing is an 'apple', and then I know that that green thing is edible). And choice is the usage and regulation of the impulses by which we act (it is by choice that I enable the arm movement by which I take the apple to eat it).