WordPress WTF?!

Recently, wordpress has been so badly behaved as to boggle my mind. If I’m lucky, I only get something like this in the console when create a new post…

Embarrassing shit in the console when I load wordpress…

If I’m unlucky, I get a screenful of errors and nothing appears. It was so bad a couple of minor versions ago, I started trying to figure out how to rebuild my site without wordpress (getting the post text is easy enough, but wordpress uses an uploads directory which makes things non-trivial).

Anyway, I’m going to whine about this to my three readers in the hope that maybe something gets done about this shit. (It’s things like this that give jQuery a bad name, and I strongly doubt it’s jQuery’s fault.)

Meta Photo Blog Review

In the spirit of the immortal Shiny vs. Useful graph (the quintessential 90’s business graphic) here’s my shiny vs. useful photography blog slash review site meta review in one simply chart. Stuff towards the top is reliable and insightful. Stuff at the right features great photography.

dxomark is right in the middle for photo quality, because it doesn’t feature photographs. That said, it should lose marks for having such a damn ugly flash-dependent website. Kenrockwell loses points on photo quality because, frankly, I don’t like the photos of his kids. (Sorry.) His other photography can be very good, although it’s usually just ho-hum with the saturation blown out. Mansurovs (now photography life) has slipped down the reliability chart since it stopped being a blog and started being more of a business. Indeed, deciding to remove the bookmark to Mansurovs from my browser is what prompted me to create this chart.

I only added Ming Thien’s blog to my regular bookmarks in the last couple of days and his next two blog posts were: 1) a garage sale of his old gear, and 2) a horrible article on color theory that starts out bad (with a badly designed diagram), and manages to be both impenetrably dense and wrong. Just more evidence that color theory is hard, I guess. No question Ming Thien is a great photographer — which I guess is just more evidence that you don’t need to really understand color theory. Oh well, I’ll persist with his site a bit longer.

Cameralabs would be higher up the chart if it didn’t insist on giving cameras a score based in significant part on MSRP. Both dpreview and cameralabs suffer from this (and from grading on an intangible curve — “relative to similar cameras at the time of the review”). I actually preferred it when dpreview simply said “highly recommended” or whatever.

Next up, I think I’ll review iDraw (which I used to create the graphic) and compare it to Artboard (which I am giving up on until it gets a major update).

Why People Click

My wife has her own blog on the Psychology Today website. (I think it took her about a day to overtake the traffic for all my websites put together — sigh.) The one thing I can claim credit for is the title (although I suggested it for something else — um, TBA).

Oh yeah, I also published a book about five weeks ago, it’s called Learn 3D with Cheetah 3D 6. It’s essentially “Cheetah 3D 6 The Missing Manual” except that I’m not famous enough to be commissioned to write a “Missing Manual”. I wrote Learn 3D in about six weeks of my spare time (mostly late at night) and it has outsold anything I’ve ever put on the market (which is amazing given Cheetah 3D 6 is an indie niche product, or depressing given the effort I’ve put into other things I’ve tried to sell).

Effectively the Same Nonsense

There is no god and that’s the simple truth. If every trace of any single religion died out and nothing were passed on, it would never be created exactly that way again. There might be some other nonsense in its place, but not that exact nonsense. If all of science were wiped out, it would still be true and someone would find a way to figure it all out again.

Penn Gillette in God No! Signs You May Already Be An Atheist via Daringfireball

Far be it from me to dismiss a pithy argument against all religions, but this is actually a very bad argument. So, since Christmas is approaching, here’s an argument showing that Religion actually represents an underlying truth just as Science does. What that truth actually is remains open to debate, of course.

Math: What Exactly Do We Mean By “Exactly The Same”?

Please note: I was a lousy student, and all of this was a long time ago, so beware!

One of the more mind-blowing Math courses I did back in college was on Universal Algebra which turns out to be, in essence, a reformulation of Category Theory, itself kind of pretty much the same thing as Topos Theory. Are you getting my drift?

Universal Algebra is mathematics applied to mathematics, all done with diagrams. (Proofs in Universal Algebra tend to consist of turning one diagram into another diagram by erasing or adding an element at a time using set rules.) But the underlying principle is that there are equivalences between mathematical concepts that are exact. For example, you can demonstrate equivalences (isomorphisms) between objects in different theoretical frameworks (e.g. a fundamental shape in Topology turns out to be equivalent to a certain kind of group in Group Theory), and once you demonstrate these kind of equivalences, other equivalences fall out. E.g. the fundamental theorem of groups (which defines every possible type of group) impacts Topology (what possible shapes might there be?).

Demonstrating these equivalences is actually not as horribly complicated as you might think; it’s a bit like Object Oriented Programming, where the complexity lives below the level of abstraction you deal with — that’s the whole point of it. It’s something that makes perfect sense to advanced undergraduate students of Math. And it is this “metamathematics” that allowed, for example, Fermat’s Last Theorem to finally be proven. You have an intractable problem, but you realize it’s similar to another more tractable problem in another field, so instead of solving the first problem, you carefully determine if the problem you think you can solve is in fact, fundamentally, the same problem. And then you solve that problem.

Now, Mathematical Principles are pretty damn immutable. In support of Penn’s statement, we have some pretty compelling real world examples of multiple researchers solving a problem independently and reaching effectively the same solution (modulo the kinds of mathematical equivalences discussed above). Newton and Leibnitz, for example, both invented (discovered?) Calculus independently using different approaches. But to accept that two theories are “exactly the same” you need to understand and accept the fairly abstruse arguments that are used to demonstrate these equivalences.

To put this a completely different way, we could rebuild math from scratch and come out with something that looks very different from what we’ve got, but which is exactly the same using these arguments. For a simple, concrete example – most of the math you know is probably built on top of counting, i.e. measuring quantity. But you can replace the axioms that give us counting numbers with different (looking) axioms that are about order or containment and end up with a functionally identical but very different looking bunch of “knowledge”. In fact the ancient Greeks built their math on top of geometry (length and area) and proved things entirely using geometry rather than algebra. We can prove their results are equivalent to results in algebra, but it’s kind of complicated. And we can prove there is some degree of infinity number of different ways we could represent the same theory, so the chances that two independent formulations of math would end up looking “exactly” the same in the naive sense is zero.

Summary: we can demonstrate, via many “natural experiments”, that science will come out “exactly” the same way, for a complicated mathematical definition of “exactly” that will make most people’s eyes glaze over. But, in common sense terms, no two scientific descriptions of the same underlying truth arrived at independently will be “exactly” the same for definitions of “exactly” that “average” people understand. (Actually, the best definition would probably be “makes exactly the same predictions”, but that’s pretty complex just on its own.)

Anthropology: The Punchline

The “founding fathers of modern Anthropology” (Claude Levi-Strauss and James George Frazer) both made their reputations in large part by finding equivalences between religions. You know, like the “guy who died and came back to life” myth. Or the “guy born of a virgin mother” myth. Or the “great flood that killed everyone except that guy” myth. Or how about the “bearded guy in the sky who throws lightning bolts” myth? Or the “dead people live forever in the sky” myth. Or the “dead people live in the underworld” myth. And the “there are spirits in the woods” myth. And on and on. In fact, there’s almost no human religious belief which, upon analysis, doesn’t turn out to be equivalent to a whole lot of other independently derived human religious beliefs. This includes the religious beliefs of previously uncontacted tribes with no written records living in the Papua New Guinea highlands — clearly a better “natural experiment” of Penn’s thesis than, say, Newton and Leibnitz.

Summary: we can demonstrate, via many — even better — “natural experiments”, that religions will come out “exactly” the same way, for a not very complicated definition of “exactly” that most people would understand. (It’s probably worth noting that many religious people are deluded into thinking their religion is unique and original, and are hostile to this line of argument. E.g. Many Christians definitely do not like to be told that the “born of a virgin” myth was all the rage in religions predating Christ’s purported birth.)

Conclusion: You Can’t Prove a Negative and Trying To is Perilous

It should not be a surprise to discover that different religious beliefs have the same kinds of equivalences as scientific theories or bodies of math. All are human behaviors, after all. It’s the underlying reasons that are in question. Are religions, like science, an approximate representation of an underlying truth, or are they, as atheists might argue, simply a reflection of human beings coming to terms with pretty much universal experiences of being human (birth, death, love, loss, hunger, uncertainty, and so on)?

But, in the end, the argument that Penn is making is actually an argument that religion points to an underlying truth. Oops.

  • We [tacitly] assume that if, starting from nothing, if a body of “knowledge” derived from world comes out “exactly” the same, it’s based on “truth”. If not, not.
  • Starting from nothing, science will come out “exactly” the same — therefore it’s true.
  • Starting from nothing, religion will come out “different” — therefore it’s not true.
  • But, arguing from natural experiment, I demonstrate that, starting from nothing, religion actually comes out “exactly” the same.
  • Ergo: religion is true.
  • And we can go further and argue that the mathematical definition of “exactly” is really weird and no-one, least of all religious people, will accept it.
  • Ergo: science is false.

Because Penn’s argument relies on the initial, unspoken, assumption, it’s a very bad argument because it actually enables the opposing argument. Luckily, I don’t accept his premise. And with that, I’ll go back to being my kind of atheist — someone who thinks of Religion and, say, Astrology, in much the same light.


The Sky Is Falling!

steve martin venereal disease
Steve Martin's "venereal disease" balloon animal

Yesterday, Gruber posted an article on daringfireball entitled “Wolf!”. (Oddly, I cannot find the link on the main page now.) He quoted a number of tech bloggers and the like who, over the years, have claimed that Mac OS X’s rising prominence is going to lead to a flood of malware for which stupid Mac users are hopelessly ill-prepared.

The title seemed clever but as another blogger (Guy English) points out, the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf is not just an object lesson for the blogger boy (who was eaten by the wolf after too many false alarms) but the Mac OS X user villagers (who stopped paying attention to warnings because of too many false positives). English is not claiming that the bloggers are right, but simply that it’s stupid to be complacent.

Gruber should probably have titled his post “The Sky Is Falling” since Henny Penny’s warnings turned out to be Just Plain Wrong.

I’ve gone over the “Apple is complacent about malware” crap before (note the emphasis on security in Lion), but let’s reiterate:

  1. Mac OS had plenty of malware in the late 80s and early 90s.
  2. Apple responded by building malware detection into the OS and Claris apps, and subsidizing John Norstad’s excellent Disinfectant anti-virus software which was distributed for free and constantly updated to handle any new malware as it appeared.
  3. For years, Apple gave away antivirus software to Mac.com account holders, so they could find out about all the Windows malware they were receiving as email attachments.
  4. Apple has signaled its intentions w.r.t. Mac OS X malware by building detection of all known in-the-wild malware into Mac OS X 10.6. The fact that this comprises a total of two viruses doesn’t mean that if it suddenly became 10 or 100 or 1000 Apple would give up.
  5. Apple has been, continues to be, and will remain better at pushing out software updates and patches to its user base than competitors.

Social Engineering

Most of the malware around these days is in the form of Trojans. Trojans are basically a social engineering exercise that involves:

  1. Convincing someone to come to your site and download something (or grab an email attachment and download that)
  2. Install or unzip the file and run it. (Ignoring warnings from your OS in some cases.)

Every OS is vulnerable to this kind of attack unless you tie down user accounts to the point where they can’t download and run anything. (And even XP lets you tie down accounts like this if you know how.)

Arguments about user accounts and so forth are moot. If a program can stomp around in user space then 99% of us are screwed. Knowing that your computer will still be able to boot afterwards is of no value whatsoever. (In fact, it may be of negative value since you will be less likely to realize what happened.)

So, the real question is: what makes a user more likely to download and run a Trojan?

My suggestions:

  1. Being terrified of malware and yet too cheap to buy antivirus software and too stupid to Google for good free software. A major source of trojans is sites advertising free malware protection.
  2. Wanting to get free warez.
  3. Being a moron who downloads and installs random shit.
  4. Running an OS that bogs you down in stupid warnings all the time (i.e. early versions of Vista).

Note that being an overconfident Mac Fanboy makes you immune to the first item in two different ways, and makes you less vulnerable to the second in one way. Clearly, there are morons using every platform, but given that overconfident Mac Fanboys tend to be wealthier, better educated, and have a demonstrated tendency to spend more for quality stuff, I suggest that they’re less vulnerable to item 3.