Thursday, September 25, 2008

To Thomas Paine - The Age of Evolving

Is God to be feared and obeyed or a wondrous mystery to be searched for?

This book, The Age of Reason, is well worth reading, at least due to its comical nature! ^_^ It's amazing how someone can be so bold by just saying things that are so plain to see, his analyzes of the Bible are clear cut and amusing because they throw away all the non-sense that has been fed to us for thousands of years. It's like going to church and start laughing at the strange clothes and hats that the men in the front are wearing, or tasting a bit of a consecrated host and leaving the rest saying: «I prefer cookies!». It's so plain everyone can see, it is just a piece of bread, but our fears transform the whole thing, it makes it something supernatural, which means: something that should be feared and obeyed and not in the least understood, even less criticized and not at all doubted. Or something baaaaad will happen!! ^_^

Thomas starts by looking at religious rituals and dogmas without the fear usually associated with them, obviously you get a somewhat comical image. It might certainly be offensive to people who identify with these dogmas and rituals, since they are thread to pieces, nothing survives except the utter ridicule of the whole thing. So, it is rather tragical for people who think they are Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, etc.

When you take all this trash from view you start seeing the real god. Now Thomas' main idea can appear: you can see God's existence and an infinitesimal part of his characteristics just by looking at the world, at creation, and trying to understand it. Nature is God's message, science is the true theology while the Bible and other "sacred" texts are just a reflection of man's fears and their consequent superstitions and fantasies. So true theology is indeed the fearless search for truth, every branch of science, for instance astronomy (today we'd say astrophysics) gives us a glimpse or an insight into the true nature of God, while the study of the Bible can only give us knowledge of man's vision of God, of the idea that man in some stage of his development made of God. From superstitions we can only learn either to be fearful or the nature of the people who have created them. By studying nature directly we can see much more directly the divine nature of everything. It is as if Thomas was saying: we live inside a giant Bible, the word of God is in every thing everywhere, we can study it by studying the world!

THE WORD OF GOD IS THE CREATION WE BEHOLD and it is in this word, which no human invention can counterfeit or alter, that God speaketh universally to man.

It is only in the CREATION that all our ideas and conceptions of a word of God can unite. The Creation speaketh an universal language, independently of human speech or human language, multiplied and various as they may be. It is an ever–existing original, which every man can read. It cannot be forged; it cannot be counterfeited; it cannot be lost; it cannot be altered; it cannot be suppressed. It does not depend upon the will of man whether it shall be published or not; it publishes itself from one end of the earth to the other. It preaches to all nations and to all worlds; and this word of God reveals to man all that is necessary for man to know of God.

Do we want to contemplate his power? We see it in the immensity of the Creation. Do we want to contemplate his wisdom? We see it in the unchangeable order by which the incomprehensible whole is governed! Do we want to contemplate his munificence? We see it in the abundance with which he fills the earth. Do we want to contemplate his mercy? We see it in his not withholding that abundance even from the unthankful. In fine, do we want to know what God is? Search not the book called the Scripture, which any human hand might make, but the Scripture called the Creation.

The only idea man can affix to the name of God is that of a first cause, the cause of all things. And incomprehensible and difficult as it is for a man to conceive what a first cause is, he arrives at the belief of it from the tenfold greater difficulty of disbelieving it. It is difficult beyond description to conceive that space can have no end; but it is more difficult to conceive an end. It is difficult beyond the power of man to conceive an eternal duration of what we call time; but it is more impossible to conceive a time when there shall be no time.

In like manner of reasoning, everything we behold carries in itself the internal evidence that it did not make itself.

I find this idea very appealing, it reminds me of Carl Sagan's wonder while contemplating the mystery of the Cosmos that surrounds us. Indeed... it is when we are before the mystery that true confidence is tested, do we feel fear and try to hide from what we do not know (and hence religion is born) or do we feel wonderment and try to explore it (and hence philosophy and/or science are born). In other words, we will either conceive God as a mystery which must be feared and obeyed, or we will conceive a God who is a mystery to be searched for in love and wonderment...

To me there is only one thing in which this book fails, and it fails tremendously, it fails to see that man, along with everything else, is part of creation, and therefore a part as beautiful and perfect as everything else. Religion, fear and superstitions, lies, the will to have power over others, all these things, are also part of creation, and they have their role too. So, every religion plays a role in the development of men. It cannot be vilified without vilifying part of nature. Religion serves many purposes, among which is the purpose of elevating man's eyes from man to the divine, this explains why the following sentence is so incomplete (my italics)
As to the Christian system of faith, it appears to me as a species of Atheism– a sort of religious denial of God. It professes to believe in a man rather than in God. ... It introduces between man and his Maker an opaque body, which it calls a Redeemer, ... . It has put the whole orbit of reason into shade.
Yes, to him and many others it does appear that way, but not to Saint Francis and millions of other people! I mean people are different and they relate to ideas around them in very different ways. When Thomas says, right in the beginning of his book that
I have always strenuously supported the Right of every Man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine.
Well if we want to communicate, tolerance if far from enough, we need to understand each other. And understand the Christian or Jew or the Buddhist is not to see him only as a blind, terrified creature, turned away from the splendor of Creation by feelings of guilt and shame and unworthiness and blinded by fantasies... it is also to tell the story of the aspiration, the evolution of that person from becoming less attached to money and all sorts of material possessions, of having more regards towards others, etc. If people were already capable of contemplating the Universe and feel marveled at the existence of a single drop of water, well then there would be no need for organized religions and all those fantasies, but the fact is, we are not ready, we need these steps, we need religions and Santa Claus, and Christ, and Buddha, and Brahman, and all sorts of beliefs just to go on a little more, just to step up the ladder a little bit.

You were being a little crazy there my friend, it is like running towards a football field in the middle of a championship and shouting to everyone: «this game is absolutely futile, who cares which team might won if we're not even playing in the field?» Eh eh!! ^_^ It just doesn't make any sense. If we are engaged in a thing, be it a game, a political party, a religion, let us be, let us grow, let us grow out of it when we're ripe for something else. We will know, we know when we get tired... judging people like this is, from a Cosmical point a view, like criticizing willow trees for being so sad and praising pine trees for being so majestic. It doesn't make sense. There are both immensely and incomparably beautiful! Each has its own beauty. The beauty of the confession, of self-mutilation, of praying for salvation, etc... all these things are beautiful, if you were in another planet, observing this planet and all our customs, you would see this Beauty my friend. But you are too attached to see it: like St. Paul you'd like for everyone to be like you, in this case, not chaste, but clear in the mind. Well, lions are beautiful, religious people are beautiful and we must understand their beauty.

The only thing that is really wrong is when people interfere with our way. We must maintain the "right distance". If someone tried to convince me to be in some way or another, well, that would be like entertaining a war... but in religious communities you just have to maintain an outward appearance, what you really think or desire is irrelevant to others as long as it doesn't interfere with their goals!

Another think that amazed me was your belief in one God! Now that is to me truly amazing! Knowing there is an infinitely complex Cosmos we are inspired to think that there must be something more than pure chance that brought it into being, but what gives us the authority, the basis for saying exactly what this "first (set of) cause(s)" looks like? How do we know that this something resembles a God and that it is only One? Well that beats me, I don't profess to know any such things. In the rest, I think I agree with you and I hope you don't mind (being dead and all won't make much of a difference) if I call you my friend!

In any case I 'd like to develop an idea that I like a lot, in the above quote you said that we only need to look at nature to see God's traditional attributes, allow me to repeat once again what uou said my friend:
Do we want to contemplate his power? We see it in the immensity of the Creation. Do we want to contemplate his wisdom? We see it in the unchangeable order by which the incomprehensible whole is governed! Do we want to contemplate his munificence? We see it in the abundance with which he fills the earth. Do we want to contemplate his mercy? We see it in his not withholding that abundance even from the unthankful.
This is all very beautiful but we must not forget that after you came Darwin and that changed our perception of the world a little bit. It doesn't affect much this passage, but when we look at another one we see that something must be revised, at least in the wording:

The Almighty Lecturer, by displaying the principles of science in the structure of the universe, has invited man to study and to imitation. It is as if He had said to the inhabitants of this globe, that we call ours, “I have made an earth for man to dwell upon, and I have rendered the starry heavens visible, to teach him science and the arts. He can now provide for his own comfort, AND LEARN FROM MY MUNIFICENCE TO ALL, TO BE KIND TO EACH OTHER.”

Of what use is it, unless it be to teach man something, that his eye is endowed with the power of beholding to an incomprehensible distance, an immensity of worlds revolving in the ocean of space? Or of what use is it that this immensity of worlds is visible to man? What has man to do with the Pleiades, with Orion, with Sirius, with the star he calls the North Star, with the moving orbs he has named Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and Mercury, if no uses are to follow from their being visible?
Now, my friend, it seems that you were not able to completely dispel the comical but tragical vision that the universe and what happens in it somehow revolve around men and its wishes. I find this idea as ridicule as the hats priests use in church or in the belief that Christ died for our sins (therefore denying free will, the people who fought for him, the people that condemn him, all had to do what they did!). When we look around and see the profusion of things that exist we easily understand that the pencil has its own story, that the cupboard has its own story, like me, like a star, like a planet. The Cosmos is also the encounter of these stories, each point of space time is an occasion for such a conversation. Nobody has to win, preferably we would all be transformed and enriched by one another. I can use my cupboard to create a certain aesthetic harmony in my house for instance. The different pieces of the cupboard were influenced by my history as I was by them.

Darwin has discovered this: that the world is huge, much, much bigger than it was ever imagined (except by the Hindus, as Carl Sagan as said: "The Hindu religion is the only one of the world's great faiths dedicated to the idea that the Cosmos itself undergoes an immense, indeed an infinite, number of deaths and rebirths. It is the only religion in which the time scales correspond, to those of modern scientific cosmology. Its cycles run from our ordinary day and night to a day and night of Brahma, 8.64 billion years long. Longer than the age of the Earth or the Sun and about half the time since the Big Bang. And there are much longer time scales still." Cosmos, chp.10). Moreover not only was the universe huge in time and space, human beings had almost never existed in it. In the long period of time in which our planet provided the stage for countless adventures and exciting events, man was not here, not even close. Lots of things were being determined, wars, births and deaths, fights, and all this was happening without man! More than that, our own appearance at the scene was not determined by no one of our species, and most likely not by any intelligent creature at all. We, human beings, are just a continuation of other species, we were born from human vaginas, but our ancestors were not. Some had primates as mothers and fathers and sons and daughters, and they were our ancestors. Some had even smaller mammals, and, in the end, we all come from the same primordial cosmic soup, we are all star dust". Well, this Darwin did not know, but he realized that we are not the product of some intelligent design, we were not designed at all, we are just the product of random change and the survival of the fittest. (A statistical principle valid over very long periods of time - over short periods it's mostly chance, for instance, the turtles that are eaten after leaving their eggs are probably not the less fit nor the surviving ones the more fit. Probably it has more to do with luck, but over the eons the more adapted have a statistical advantage. Every action has consequences.)

So, the fact that our eyes can see the stars have nothing to do with our having been "designed" to look at the stars and be so inspired by them. Probably most of the animals with eyes can see the stars and owls and most birds should see them much better than we can. The fact is, if having a good eyesight gives you a better chance of reproducing, then over millions of years, your species will have more numbers of elements with good sight. It is simple. So, where does this God, this designer ends up after Darwin?

Well, I must say I have no proof that God exists, nor do I have a concept of what that word means. Thomas gets the old argument of God as the first cause. Obviously we must ask: then what caused God? And if nothing did, then why not "save a step" (as Sagan said) and suppose that Existence simply existed since always. Nevertheless, the fact remains: the world around us, the Cosmos, has surprised us with its grandeur and complexity. It was certainly not made for man, but it was made for us, parts of Existence. Each of us, each part, can be grateful for Being. So we must reformulate the above sentence that Thomas puts in the mouth of God:

“I have made an earth for man to dwell upon, and I have rendered the starry heavens visible, to teach him science and the arts. He can now provide for his own comfort, AND LEARN FROM MY MUNIFICENCE TO ALL, TO BE KIND TO EACH OTHER.”

It should state: "You have a time and space to be creative, and I have rendered diversity, so that you might evolve through it. Each thing has eternity at its door, is surrounded by eternity, and to reach another part of it, all it needs is to try. Each thing can learn from my creation what beauty and ecstasy and infinite bliss is."

Obviously, this applies to photons and electrons and atoms, and dogs and cats, even stray ones, and elephants and swordfish. We are surrounded by a beautiful world, a gorgeous world, to reduce it to an instrument for men to use or administer or step on, is like reducing a beautiful princess to a whore. It might be interesting, but only for a while...

Hey friend, I hope you're in Heaven! (I am!) ;)

Wikileaks - Bin Laden and a Texas court

Wikileaks is indeed great: checked out two stories, one about a corrupt court in Texas, another containing a selection of interviews and declarations from Osama Bin Laden from 1994 to 2004. Very interesting.

The first is a clear-cut case of good versus bad: innocent people are convicted by criminals who occupy chief positions in the court and the police . Example: a person convicted of drug traffic has in fact never trafficked drugs while the policemen that indicted her on false evidence are in fact drug dealers. Well this is what is described in this apparently accurate book! Is it true? I'm not entirely sure, but, if it is, it is a clear case of good guys vs bad guys.

Now, what makes this so clear to us is a set of shared beliefs about what constitutes good and evil. Inflicting a punishment on someone for an action that he or her did not commit is, we all believe, something evil. And when someone gets away with something (such a dealing drugs) that is correctly prohibited, we also generally believe this to be wrong.

Now in the case of the jihad that Bin Laden and others proposed in 1996, we are looking at very different sets of assumptions which are not shared by the different cultures that have to share this region (Muslims, Jews, Christians, Scientists / Atheists). Not only about what to dress, but how to behave, values, who to obey, what to obey, and why to obey. When I read Bin Laden's words I can't stop feeling a great compassion towards him, I do understand his pain and the ways he has available to deal with it. Basically he is saying that the bads that have occurred to Muslims all over the world are due to the fact that they had been to permissive regarding their involvement with the sinfulness of rest of the world. "Infidels" should not have influence in "holy" lands. Well... you can't really reason with someone like that.

When I knew that Bin Laden's texts were on the net I thought, great, now I will see the other side, but seeing it made it very clear that there is really no way of communicating (communion) with someone like that. If I am an infidel and he is a saint, well, what can an infidel say to a saint? What can he possibly bring except disgrace, sin, shame, etc. Bin Laden's position is like an Iron Wall made of feelings of what is proper and useful and what should be neglected and dispised. All that are on the outside of the Muslim faith must be despised, all that are inside must try to remain pure.

Only in this context of "remaining pure" does it make sense to talk about the military, economic and political issues also at stake. Ironically, the recent military interventions by the US on the Middle East will indeed provide an excellent background where the ideas of these crazy radicals can flourish. I am not saying that the military, political and economical issues are not real. Governments in the Middle East are indeed corrupt, and there are many issues between the arabs and israelis, including the lands taken in the aftermath of the 1948 war. But this kind of problems also exists in Europe and many other parts of the world. What makes the situation almost impossible to solve here is the disregard for the other side. The hard line of both Jew and Muslim orthodoxy (along with most Western religions) consider themselves superior and, the Jews at least, entitled to reign over the other tribes of Israel. As long as this craziness from religious fanatics continue there will be no other choice but to let them all kill one another until only reasonable people are left. These, I think are the people that don't alienate themselves with images or notions of God that they themselves have created as a group. The God that we were able to create is, by far, very different from the God who would be able to create us.

Let me just reinforce the idea: I've read Chomsky and I understand that colonialism just changes it's appearance. But the question here is how we deal with the influences of other countries and cultures. If there is no communication, and instead just despise and disgust and the attempt to "remain pure"... well, what can you expect?

There are here two different problems, the first is that this region has resources that have high economical value to western societies. This leads to heavy interference in the region based not on a human interest (in the art or human qualities of a people for instance), but on exploitation of resources, which leaves indigenous people rightly mad. The second problem is that some of these Muslim guys do not want contact with the outside world. Even if there was no exploitation, it wouldn't matter. It's our own way of life, we are disbelievers and non-obedient. We praise difference, diversity, authenticity. We are certainly infidels.

Conversely guys like Bin Laden are quite happy in their frame of mind of "obedience to God and the scriptures". They are happy if they can spend most of their day praying to God and trying to clean themselves. They don't care about pornography, expensive clothes and lipstick; they don't want to know about science and galaxies and dinosaurs, they just want to live by the words of the prophet. We should just let them be... just let them be... Let them stay with their lives, they wont search for weapons of mass destruction, they'll just... well, persecute the infidels among them and the infidel inside them... they'll be quite happy that way.

But of course... we can't, because of oil... We are joining a 21st century society, which fuels its high technology with something that can be found in a civilization similar to ours more than four centuries ago. It just wont work... There are just two options, either an increase in military operations until one of the sides decisively wins, or some other form of energy is found that completely replaces oil turning it into something with no value at all.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


This is simply an amazing page and everyone should know about it:

(based in Sweden and has nothing to do with wikipedia, which, by the way, is becoming more and more controlled - just watch out the "overpopulation" article!!)

18 years working with computers

I've been working with PC's since 1990, around this time of the year. At the same time I also was introduced to the the Mac, at work I would play on them both: although MS-DOS was a nightmare difficult to get out of and the Mac did bring lots of playful features. The difference was the PC allowed you to see its interstices, the Mac seemed more like a sophisticated video player, you could use it but you could not understand it. Finally I had my own first PC in the Christmas of 1991, a gift from my parents, a shining 386SX AMD processor running at 25 MHz with a co-processor by Cyrix. It ran fine although the Cyrix co-processor was underused, only when a magazine called PC Format brought, in a shining diskette, the software "Persistence of Vision" (POV-raytracer), did the math co-processor shine in its performance, easily outrunning my girlfriend's 386 DX at 40 MHz. It would only take a day or so to render some transparent spheres! Although I created some experimental pov-ray files in which a single image took several weeks to render.

The decision to buy an AMD cpu had to do with price but it rapidly become a matter of principle. For years I would accompany the highs and lows of Cyrix and AMD always hoping that their technological prowess (especially by Cyrix) would finally translate into a significant market share; I was incredible disappointed when Cyrix was bought over and literally destroyed. For me Intel represented the "bad guys", the monopoly, the high price and low productivity, the closed market, sacrificing global evolution to get selfish profits, etc.

From 1997 onwards things have slowly changed and, today, I don't think there is much of a difference between most brands in the way they deal with costumers. The first impact on my understanding of AMD was when they blocked the clock of CPU's that were being artificially underclocked, that is, a good product was being changed into a lesser product just to create different categories and higher prices for "luxury" products. More recently I made the mistake of buying a laptop with an Intel Celeron cpu, to realize only later that this kind cpu has its energy saving parts burned of at the factory so other cpus can be sold more expensively. Intel, of course, as not only created chagrin for the customer but also another cross for the environment. But the style was the same for both companies. ATI also had been making a gigantic effort to make lesser products investing large sums of money to make sure no one could transform their artificial downgraded products into their full version originals (remember the radeon 9500 and its bios' hacks). This for me was a clear sign that AMD, Intel, ATI and many other companies had made profit their highest goal, rather than helping technological evolution, building a better world or simply respecting the people that buy their products. It was therefore without surprise that I've learned that several motherboard makers had use faulty capacitors to provide for planned obsolescence of their products, a practice that continues today. The perfect plan would be for a product to fail right after the guarantee expires. Perhaps we'll get there!

AMD and Intel are like Yahoo and MS Search engines. Their main concern is with profit. Yahoo did not want Google's engine when it was offered to them because their main interest is to get us to see their links, their paid links! Why would they make links accessible if they do not pay anything to them? It may seem absurd, to provide good information for free disregarding the ones who actually pay us, but that absurdity is what Google did! It put consumers first, and look how that craziness got them!

But, obviously there is no Google-like company on the CPU front. Another example is this: I have a relatively outdated desktop PC, which runs pretty well in my daily needs. It has 2 gb of ram, a +3000 cpu, a 2400 pro radeon graphics card and the motherboard can be highly overclocked. All well and dandy. But sometimes I would really like to have more cpu power, so, well I thought about upgrading the cpu. Well, surprise, surprise, since my current motherboard uses an old 939 socket, AMD is selling outdated cpus for more than 150 euros, something that would cost only about 60 euros for the most recent AM2 socket.

So I am given the following choice, either pay a huge amount for an outdated CPU or buy a whole new system (ram memory and motherboard are not compatible). Economically the rational choice would be to buy a new system and put everything in the trash bin, but that has a huge environmental cost. So I decided to just stay with the current system. I know people who are happy with their ten year old PC's running windows xp on a 198MB ram machine, reading and writing and surfing the web. If it works great why change it? If you just write and browse and listen to music and see movies, etc, then nothing else is needed. Perhaps you'd just like to get Vista? Wow, well we are actually thinking about getting rid of vista in the new laptop we bought, so that can't be it. XP is by far a better OS, as are many Linux distros. Vista is a huge drawback! So, although as a teenager I've wasted almost all of the money I gained working in the summer vacations by buying new motherboards, cpus, CD-ROMs, and ram memory, now, it seems to me that to be computer-wise is simply to maintain the current hardware (until the capacitors fail !!) and look for better software, which means, software that makes a better use of current resources. This means most of the time going for free software like, irfanview, etc.

For more processor demanding tasks, we'll just have to wait for software that uses the new GPGPUs out there (my lowly 2400 pro included). They are the new technological equivalent to the Cyrix mathematical co-processor I had 17 years ago. I've only used it in a short attempt to keep up with folding@home deadlines, but it was fun to see this 30 euro graphics card performing better that any top of the line cpu. That is certainly the future as most intensive applications can use mass parallel processing, from artificial intelligence to converting audio and video.

It's time to slow down on the hardware and investigate the software more and more... GPL here we come!

PS - have been thinking that the main reason for "the hardware is dead, long live the software" is probably due to the stagnation in software development. In the last five years mainstream software, with the exception of games, has known no real advances. Microsoft Office and Windows OS have reached their peak in 2003, all there has been since are small cosmetic differences, sometimes arguably for the worse. On the side of free software, by the contrary, there has been a steady evolution. But the new hardware (mainly GPGPUs) could have been used by Artificial Intelligence software. Somehow the investment did not went into this sphere, perhaps through games AI will grow. More and more we live to be entertained which might actually be a good sign, provided it's not alienating.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Evan Almighty - from slave of images to slave of... well, concepts...

I had put this film on the "non-interesting" category, but today I wanted something light and futile so I went ahead and saw the frightful thing. I had love Bruce Almighty and I was sorry to see something so shallow in its stead. But, well, after all it showed to be a very interesting movie and it made me think a lot.

The movie starts by depicting a way of life in which one is a slave to pleasing others, image is all that matters. The "metroman" the congressman, the vip. To have success you must seem successful, and powerful, handsome and happy. The perfect life that leads you to... being a slave.

It then goes on to another side of life in which you try to do things not because you are a slave to what you think others might think of you, but because...

Well, here is where the confusion starts, whereas in the "Bruce Almighty" everything followed plausibly once you accepted you had absolute power, here we are at a loss. First of all the premise is quite obscure. An all powerful, omniscient and loving God asks for someone to do an ark without giving any explanation. Why does God do that? Is psychology remains a mystery. In the film it is said by God himself that the story of the ark is a love story, of believing, of trust. Well, ok, so instead of being a slave to the image that other's might have of me, I'm slave to God.

What's the difference, well, in the movie, the difference is that you gain others' amazement at your abilities. You ty to do something that is almost impossible, completely illogical, and you achieve it! Animals obey to you, you predict the weather with incredible precision and so forth. You became a star all over the nation.

This shows the shallowness of the message, people are not released of their desire to be accepted by others. In fact it is the same desire for fame, only the strategy to get it changes.

Of course, there are differences, the dramatic change in outllok is accompanied by a change in eye gaze, posture, way of speaking and interacting. What changed was the master, because he is no longer a slave to physical persons but to an abstract entity, he can now be more detached. When his family finally reapers to be "side by side" he looks a sea of tranquility in which a few drops have touched. Why? Because his stewardship remains elsewhere. He seems free but he did not become free. He traded one slavery for another, just to get more profits.

This is our hero, completely at loss, but God seems equally at loss here. What exactly is he trying to do? Well, supposedly He is giving an opportunity, for us to achieve whatever we want to achieve. If we want to be courageous God give us a chance to show our courage, if we want to change the world God gives us a chance to change the world. Well what if I want to play baseball on the moon? I mean, is this the way we imagine the world to be like? I always thought things were much more complex, an interrelation of stories into which we are mysteriously attracted.

The sequence of events is of course completely implausible, unless you think the Bible is a plausible book! And even if we take them as metaphors for something much more subtle it is difficult to imagine something different from a paranoid life in which everything seems to revolve around us!

The word "ark", in the end of the film is associated with "act of random kindness", which is in fact something quite beautiful. But seeing signs of things that must be done, the difficulty in recognizing, in front of everyone that "I" speak with God and he replies etc, all these things seem to inhabit the life of some obsession.

For instance, when we say that we are inspired by beauty, by ideals of freedom, by music, by nature, etc, this inspiration is not something that puts us into chains. It is something that release us. Inspiration is not a prison, a collar, a chain, it is a trampoline, and when you take it, there is a large part of you that has to decide where to take that energy, what to make of the jump, where to land, etc. Things are given to us and obviously we should appreciate them well, but the idea that we have a mission is the root of identity and identification, of all suffering, of having a way and a cross and something to bear. All suffering springs from that desire to be special, different, unique, worthy... But when we look at the stars, at flowers and rivers, we see something quite different. The beauty of Beethoven's music has no bonds, it is limited in the sense that it expresses only a small part of reality, but the beauty of it cannot be tamed, cannot be understood, specified, limited in an explanation, a place, a time. If we were able to see that we are not special in any way, that we are like the Beauty of Beethoven's music, a prairie, a river, etc., we would see at the same time that we have a beauty far beyond what we usually imagine or even that which we attribute to God.

In the movie dogs and elephants were just animals. They were not among the "children of God". In fact got only had the billions of men and women on this planet. All other extraplanetary civilizations simply have no place in God's lap. Animals obey God, people are free. This divide in which man is supperior and has to take care of animals, has to be kind, is somewhat beautiful but it is a pale beauty when our eyes are unclouded and we see that there is no need to "change the world", the world is well beyond whatever we could imagine in our wildest dreams.

However one can easily see where the magic of this movie is: when we follow what we feel is important, what is "commanded from God", what comes from above, even if we can't quite explain why it is important to ourselves. In that "obedience" or listening, there comes a pleasure, a quite different kind of "success", not external but internal. You might loose your job, reputation, even your family, but you will gain the most important thing, you did what was right, you were successful in the only way that is truly meaning and satisfying.

In showing this "happiness" the movie works quite well, it seems to me very appropriated that the movie's end credits are accompanied with "dancing", the expression of this well being that results from a person doing what he /she as to do.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Bruce Schneier - interesting site and interview

Here is a guy who is generally clear! Bruce Schneier the designer of Blowfish and Twofish, gives here an interesting interview. A related essay on the psychology of security can be found on his home page here.

Here is a copy of the interview (these things have a tendency to get lost)
Bruce Schneier will reconceptualise security at

«Dahna McConnachie speaks with Schneier about his talk, "Reconceptualising Security" and how technologists need to remember the importance of the human element. He also discusses cyber-war, what Linux has done for security, and the likelihood of another edition of Applied Cryptography.

What do you spend most of your spare time working on these days?

Much of my work these days involves the human motivations around security: the economics of security, the psychology of security, and so on. Again and again I see good technology failing because these aspects of the security system haven't been well thought out, and these social science communities have a lot to teach us in computer security.

(Read some of Bruce's recent thoughts on the psychology of security here)

What will your keynote talk "Reconceptualising Security" be about?

Security is both a feeling and a reality, and they're different. You can feel secure, even if you're not. And you can be secure, even if you don't feel it. Really, there are two different concepts sharing the same word. My talk is about the feeling and reality of security: when they are different, why they diverge, and how they can be made to converge. As technologists we tend to focus on the reality of security and ignore the feeling. I will argue that both are important.

Do you think that technologists sometimes forget about the human element generally when designing, developing, testing, implementing and/or maintaining systems?

Sometimes? I think they forget almost all the time.

One of the messages you preach is that organisations need more than secure algorithms to be secure. Can you synthesise this argument, in terms of what it means, particularly in today's Web 2.0 environment?

Security is fundamentally a people problem. It doesn't matter how many bits your encryption algorithm has if your employees go home and blog about your company's secrets.

Analysing the security stories that make the news is one of your pastimes. Is there a disparity between what gets covered and what matters the most?

I think the media covers security stories more or less at random: they cover stories that aren't important, and they miss ones that are important. Largely, this is because the stories can be complicated and technical, and reporters don't have the expertise to separate what's important from what isn't.

You have said that we have not yet seen true cyber war, but that it is not a myth. Does this mean that real cyber war is inevitable?

War is inevitable; we as a species don't know how to resolve large nation-state conflict without it. And any war encompasses all theatres: land, sea, air, and now cyberspace. Any future war will include a cyber component, so by that reasoning cyber war is inevitable. But don't think of it as a separate thing. Cyber war is part of war, and not a substitute for or a precursor to war.

Have most countries developed cyber-war tactics?

Of course not. There are 245 countries on the planet, and most of them aren't doing anything with respect to cyber-war. The large countries with large military budgets are. All of them. They'd be foolish not to.

Where do you think the tension between government's increased desire for information (in the form of data mining and surveillance for example) and public freedom and privacy will lead?

Martin Luther King Jr once said that the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice. There will always be a tension between a government's desire to control its population and the peoples' desire for liberty. And while governments are winning today, mostly because of the scary bugaboo of terrorism, there's no reason to believe that this will continue. It may take a generation, but the balance will shift and liberty will again be important.

What are some examples of where too much trust has been placed in security products?

We trusted airport security before 9/11, with disastrous results. We trust firewalls, IDSs, encryption, and almost every computer security product, and are continually surprised when they're broken. No security system is perfect; defense in depth is the only reasonable strategy.

What are some of the most significant ways that Linux, open source software, and the free and open software philosophy have contributed to the security landscape?

The most important thing Linux has done to improve security is to be competition for Windows. Monopolies are complacent, and by being an alternative, Linux forces Microsoft to improve its own operating system.

What will be the biggest security issues in the future?

Crime. Crime, crime, crime. Everything else pales in comparison.

What will be the largest cyber-threats to freedom and privacy in the future?

Government. And criminals. Both are large threats, in different ways. The latter is more tactical; the former is more serious and more long term.

At the time that you released Blowfish, most other designs were proprietary, patented and/or kept confidentially by governments. Why did you decide to release Blowfish into the public domain?

If I kept blowfish proprietary, or patented it, it would have died a quiet and lonely death. With few exceptions, proprietary and patented algorithms don't get used by anybody.

A rough count from the list on your Web site indicates that there are well over 150 software products (including the mainline Linux kernel, from v2.5.47) that use Blowfish. Has it exceeded or met your expectations?

I don't know if I had any expectations. There weren't enough alternatives to DES out there. I wrote Blowfish as such an alternative, but I didn't even know if it would survive a year of cryptanalysis. Writing encryption algorithms is hard, and it's always amazing if one you write actually turns out to be secure. At this point, though, I'm amazed it's still being used. If people ask, I recommend Twofish instead.

You recently launched a stinging attack on the elliptic curve-based Dual_EC_DRBG, one of four techniques RNG designs approved by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in March of this year. The controversy surrounds numbers used to define the algorithm's elliptic curve from which RNGs are created, which appear to be derived from a second set of hidden numbers - the so called 'backdoor'. What significance does this have on the outside world?

Minimal. I don't think anyone would use the algorithm anyway, since it's about 1000 times slower than the alternatives for absolutely no relative benefit. But it is in the standard, so felt I needed to warn people against using it.

How widely do you think the design is used?

I have no idea. My guess is that someone, somewhere, is already using it and NIST didn't want to piss them off -- that's why the algorithm is in the standard.

Do random number generators have much security value?

Yes. They're vitally important to most security protocols. If they're broken, the whole thing is broken.

Many people have asked for a third edition of Applied Cryptography. Is this likely to happen, and if so, any time soon?

At this point I have no plans to write a third edition of Applied Cryptography. There are several reasons. The field of cryptography has exploded since I wrote the second edition. There are dozens of new algorithms, protocols, and systems. I would have to cover all of the Internet protocols, all of the new MACs and signature schemes, all of the new analysis techniques. Because Applied Cryptography is designed to be comprehensive, there would be no way for me to edit things down...only include the three most important algorithms, for example. So, I would have no choice but to include everything. This would make the book too large for one binding. And publishers hate multiple volumes. And in any case, I just don't have the time to do all the necessary work.

However, in a way there is now a sequel. Practical Cryptography, by Neils Ferguson and myself, was published this year. It's about cryptography as it is used in real-world systems, about cryptography as an engineering discipline rather than cryptography as a mathematical science.

This is the book we wish we'd had more than a decade ago when we started our cryptographic careers. It collects our combined experiences on how to design cryptographic systems the right way. In some ways, this book is a sequel to Applied Cryptography, but it focuses on very practical problems and on how to build a secure system rather than just design a cryptographic protocol.»

Schneier's site has many interesting articles, one of them talks (badly) about Windows Vista. I agree with Schneier, in fact I was one of the many who downgraded from Vista to XP.

An even more interesting article can be found here, about the US presidential elections of 2006 and it's the almost certain fraudes that were commited in counting the votes cast on electronic voting machines.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Getting cleared up in the mind

Wow! Such confusion, ideas, beliefs, there's at least a two millennia worth collection of ideas around here in my head. From Plato and Aristotle to Kant, Descartes, Bob Dylan, Regina Spektor, Einstein, Bohr, Schlick and Wittgenstein, Osho, Huxley, judaism, buddhism, and many other stuff is hanging around in my head. Not only specific ideas but also states of mind, attitudes, like what one gets when one hears Chopin or Mozart, or Bach or Beethoven, or one sees a film by Kubrick, or The Perfume (either in book or film form), or The Fountain, etc. It's really difficult to make sense of so many ideas. So, let's try to get things at least a bit clearer then they are now.

First of all there is the mystery. We, as human animals, have been able to gather a gigantic amount of information over the millennia (at least compared with the technology of other animals, we have given a gigantic step in just a few thousands years, just like plants colonized the planet in a couple of hundred thousand years so "intelligent" species will probably do the same). But all this "knowledge" (more like patches of hypothesis meticulously seamed over and over again by countless generations) has merely emphasized how clueless we are regarding the nature and details of what surrounds us. Fundamental theories of matter, time and space, the more they are developed, the more they seem eloigned from the traditional concepts that still guide us in our daily tasks and for which there seems to be no clear intuitive replacement (multi dimensional space for instance is only graspable as an abstract entity, mathematically treatable but an incognitus from the point of view of the imagination - we cannot imagine anything with more than three spatial dimensions, hypercubes or tesseracts are only understandable through mathematical analysis). On the other hand the best pictures we have managed to draw over generations, have showed us why we don't understand the Cosmos around us: we are the first intelligent species on our planet! And we are just in the beginning. For thousands of millions of years life has been evolving on our planet (and uncountable others although we are still missing an empirical evidence of that), we are just the first sprout that was able to use technology and a complex symbolic language. It is very easy to imagine how different things will look like in a million years or so of intelligent life. Today, we have no idea for the amount of time in which mankind will carry the torch of "the most intelligent species on the planet". We cannot even be sure that we will be the species that will give rise to a proliferation of other species. We are like one of the first plants to have photosynthesis. Yes, it is a great thing, a great invention, that allows us to colonize the entire planet, but how far will we get? How many millions of years will it take until other species take the lead, or will we kill ourselves in just a few decades, opening the space for a new kind of life up ahead?

All these questions have far from clear answers. Mankind has grappled with its own fears and related dogmas and superstitions. We usually say that man is its worst enemy. and in a certain way it is true. We have the monopoly of many regions of earth, we dominate in large cities, over large areas where animals, either big or invisible, cannot attack us (specially in the north hemisphere) and yet we live with our houses closed, sometimes behind iron (reinforced steel) doors, with highly complex keys, and we are frightened (with good reason) of many of our fellow mates. In almost all regions of the world wealth is not fairly shared, and it is not hard to find, some meters apart, people that live with every luxury and people who have little to eat. The same happens with knowledge, most of humanity is incredible stupid, does not care for the incredible science, technology and philosophy that provides the pleasant life we have. Even politics are selected not according to their wisdom or technical knowledge but by their appearance. It's not difficult to understand, given this state of affairs, that the most intelligent men on the planet are put hidden away in Universities and research institutes, away from positions of power, and the leaders are those that give the masses what they want to hear, even if it is the most ludicrous lies. Therefore we are given religion, consumerism, obedience to roles and tradition, premiums for not asking, not questioning, etc. In sum, we are rewarded by our society to simply be stupid, have stupid lifes by being fun and beautiful without really trying to understand what this is all about.

Most modern wars can be traced back to this cultivation of stupidity. For instance, the first world war could only happened due to the delusional quests for power by the German-Austrian nobility, all enriched by their suits and fancy way of talking and looking at others, believing and living in the make belief world of superiority given by birth, social position, whatever. These naked monkeys in fancy clothes were all over Europe, deciding the fate of nations, also in england and France, and, 20 years later, Churchill and Hitler, once again repeated the fancy play of naked monkeys playing to "I want to be like God - all admired, fancy dressed, fancy speaking, I want to be this illusion, that I am different from you, that I am somehow better than these organs full of blood, bile, sperm and urine, I have surpassed my human condition, I am immortal, larger than life". These Churchils and Hitlers and Stalins, and Mussolinis were backed up by millions who were also trying to believe in the truth of these ridiculous roles. We are all naked monkey playing the game of "culture". But our culture is severely limited, it does not encompass what we've gathered from the world, what we have painstakingly learned over countless generations, it does not address the fact that we are just a minuscle part of a fantastic, gigantic, nature, with myriads of variations, almost infinite diversity, and we are just a spot, we should be lookiing at the world, we should be grateful and joyous to be able to learn from it, to observe its amazing and indescribable beauty that encompasses every artist, scientist, animal, rock, lack, geometrical form, mathematical relation, etc, that there is.

The fact that, instead of this thirst for knowledge and discussion and contemplation of the beautiful cosmos that surround us, we are just cultivating the stupidity of following the norm and trying to fit in in this mediocrity, seems to be a signal of nature that there is much more than man to the world of intelligence. Some men, some members of our species, have observed the stars and the atoms and beyond. they have tried to pear in the hidden folds of the human mind, they have tried to unravel beauty, to understand the need of a "God", they have thought about ethics, metaphysics, art and the creative impulse and where it comes from. But these are not typical men. Most men just want to look at smaller pictures. Not the great picture of a mysterious, seemingly infinite Cosmos, but the small pictures of getting a promotion, getting laid, having a wife, having kids... all these great things, but, wouldn't they be much more beautiful if they were integrated in what we can see of the immense Cosmic tapestry?

For me this as an undeniable and unmistakable YES for an answer. But for most people the infinite tapestry of the World, the big world, including stars and galaxies and joyful dolphins and courageous wolfs, and curious elephants, and molecules, and mountains, and ... all this, unmistakable important, as important as us, important even before we were born, continuing to be important and full of meaning even long after we have died and all the memory of our existence, and of our friends, has been lost for ever, this Universe, this magnificent Cosmos (to which Carl Sagan (with the help of science and Vangelis among others) has masterfully given a human voice), may seem like a sad thing. It takes out our importance, our special character. If everything is soooo beautiful, than what am I doing here, what may I contribute to the world.

The answer is amazingly simple: you are part of this amazing beautifulness, you are part of this infinite world, you are part of this mystery that no human mind seems to have been able to understand. You have the infinite in you in every one of your cells, just like everything else. This would be releasing, but the scorn of what we do not see as beauty preclude us from having this kind of response. We look at a worm, a spore, we don't see it's intricate beauty, it's myriads of complex cells and molecules. We just see something distasteful, and we might even ask, why were these beings created, if they're so ugly and purposeless, at least compared to us. Many of us look at nature as bellow man. This incredible idea (it's like a son looking at its parents and scorn them as if they were of lower kind then he, their creation!!) is so spread out that we use every field and ocean and "animal" (we even exclude ourselves from this epithet - yes! we are not animals, imagine, we must be minerals or vegetables, phew!) as if it were a property, ready to be consumed in the manner most pleasing to us.

All this blindness reminds me of the Churchills and Hitlers of other times who only have eyes and ears for their own selves and their delusional world, and their fabricated illusions of power, importance, fame, right and good, and bad and scornfully, etc. We have eloigned ourselves so much from reality, from nature, from the world that surrounds. Sometimes it is a marvel how we were able to came this far, to create this technological advanced society. We are able to go to the moon, we have blissful artistic creations, we are capable of visions of immense beauty... But, there it is really not difficult to understand: our strenghth is in the numbers and in the particular history of the Western Civilization that rightly concluded that: to have power, one must have knowledge, science, technology - the ability to manipulate. Our urge, I mean from a political and social point of view, is not so much directed at the understanding of a magical and mysterious world, it is directed at overpowering it, and everyone else on it which does not play along in our particular political game. The second World War has given politicians around the world the graphic depiction that technology makes might. Atomic weapons, jet warplanes, atomic submarines and air carriers, computers to decrypt the enemy's information, radars, etc. Politicians and military experts brilliantly realized that whoever has the most efficient economy, the most productive factories, whoever invest more and most proficiently in R&D will be the winning power. If one invest long and hard enough, one may achieve the absolute dominance (as the US almost had, or appeared to have, in the beginning of this millennium). So, all this talk about consumerism is in fact well justified by a more primordial instinct: the instinct to fight and to prevail and to dominate. An instinct which probably is not very important in many human beings, but, unfortunately for our expectations of a center role in the planetary history, guides most of our politicians. We do clearly need much better education, much more attention to the educational role on tv, much more emphasis on values other than "having", we would need a lot of things. But this is the humanity that has passed on. A fighting, cohesive society, bloody and greedy, able to reproduce in large numbers and to kill all opposition. These were our fathers, our ancestors, the ones that had most wifes and more kids, kids that passed on these genes. This is what we have. To have a better hope of playing a more significant role in our planet's history we would have to apply our understanding to genetics too. Robert Kark Graham filled a void in our present voluntary and ostentatious disregard for any kind of eugenic consideration (following the atrocities of Nazis and others).

In any case, why play a larger role in our planet's history? Did individual Smilodons live less full or happier or meaningful lifes just because in the distant future, long after they were dead, no descendants of their species could be found? It would be like telling someone that his/her life could not be full because they had no sons or daughters! What the heck! That's ridiculous, many people know that it is how you live the moment that makes it fully full and meaningfully and rewarding and fulfilling and so on... What happens afterwards, well, it is a all different thing. For a particular Smilodon, what matter is what he was doing with his life at that moment. That was important to him, the way he dealt with hiding and hunting and with the suffering he imposed on his prey (did he noticed it?), the way he dealt with hardships, with pain and sickness and hunger and disease and peril and death! All these things were very important to the quality of life of each particular Smilodon. But the fact that their children would survive was something that weighted on their children's back. It did not affect them at all in their self-fulfillment. It had nothing to do with their happiness. Besides, history was not written yet, it was not yet made, who knows if things could have been different?

So, perhaps it's not so important if one is bright or dumb, or if mankind will self-destruct in the next centuries. Perhaps it will, perhaps it won't, we don't know, we can imagine it, we can draw some probabilities in our mind, but the fact is: it's all way above our heads, our abilities. We simply do not know.

So this is the first fact: the mystery. The mystery of where we came from (what was there before the Big Bang, what created it? if it was not created and existed from the beginning of time, why does it exist? Why is there something instead of nothing? Wouldn't nothing be easier to explain? or, as Einstein as said: "The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible."). The mystery of what we are (what is my consciousness, is it a by product of the body - perhaps the brain? Or is the body just a vehicle for the expression of an independent soul which, through consciousness, inspiration, free will, artistic design, wisdom, manifests itself, sometimes in better ways than others, in this world?). The mystery of the world (what is the density of intelligent life throughout the Universe, is it common on our galaxy? How come we don't see big artificial structures build by more advanced civilizations? Can we achieve physical immortality, through genetic mutations or perhaps cybernetic organisms? What will mankind create, will we have descendants in 2 million years from now, and how different will they be from us? When will we be able to talk to an extra-planetary civilization, how will that affect us? Was there ever a religion made by man who actually (perhaps by chance) was true?). What is the nature of the world? (is there really a good and bad, valid to everyone, or is it just a creation of each individual's mind? Is there a goal we should be achieving? Is there life after death? Is there something I should be doing to assure it?).

The size of the Mystery is simply awesome and the more we understand who we are and where we came from (as a species and as society) the more we understand the very small size of what we know, how immersed we are in ignorance, how incredible long seems the way to even a very partial understanding of the basic aspects of this World. To me, this mystery is part of the beautifulness of the Cosmos, it means that it is not small as our minds and petty concepts and mythic cosmologies and petty gods would make it appear. It's much larger than the life of man. Contemplating the Ocean of wonderment, of mystery, of beyond, is the most beautiful and magical experience I had ever had and it encompasses reading, seeing films, listening to music, witting, making love, etc. I give high value to the mystery, it's a fact that we do not understand the vast majority of things that surrounds us (even our own body with its trillions of cells, we cannot even simulate the folding of a single protein!!). But it is also a beautiful and, to me, very meaningful fact. Gorgias is quoted as having said: "nothing exists, if something existed it could not be known, if it could be known it could not be communicated." Gorgias' sentence seems incomprehensible if we look at objects, at parts of the universe. But if we tried to grasp the all universe we would certainly feel that it cannot be known, and if it can be, it is only though this music of mystery that surrounds it when seen from the eyes of a deep lover. He cannot communicate that wisdom, that vision of the whole. And, in a sense that cannot be communicated, the lover understands that, in some mysterious way, the universe does not exist, it is just a cover, a "matrix", a facade, an aspect, a visible face of something that cannot be fully showed through a face. I know I cannot even begin to explain these things, it would be more difficult than to explain the beauty of Beethoven's music, how it can change you, what you can learn from it! It would be like explaining what yellow is like. You just know, you don't need to prove that yellow is like this or that. The same with the beauty of the Universe, you listen to it, just like you listen to a music, you understand it, just like you understand Beethoven's ninth, you learn from it, you absorb it, you bring it into your life, you mixed it with everything around you, you don't explain it, you can't, even to yourself, at least in our state of evolution, but you really grow from it.

The importance I give to the mystery finds resonance in some Einstein quotes I discovered in Wikiquote, here:
"Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible concatenations, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in point of fact, religious."

"It is enough for me to contemplate the mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself through all eternity, to reflect upon the marvelous structure of the universe which we dimly perceive, and to try humbly to comprehend an infinitesimal part of the intelligence manifested in nature."

"The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed."
The fact that there are few who share this mysterian view is explained by the history of our societies and the current make up of man. There is no mystery about that, and it is important to be clear on what one can be clear about. Mystery is not confusion, even less the abdication of reason or the mind. By the contrary, only by pursuing knowledge in every area we are capable of, will we be able to distinguish, among all these clear-cut concepts, facts and relations, the mystery that lies beyond them. Just like in music, we must be able to know well both the instrument and the medium, only then will we be able to see the magic. Confusion, obscurantism, superstition are precisely the opposite of the vision I am pursuing.

Ok! This is a good first part, let's see when we will build the second...

Monday, September 1, 2008

in my inner depths: God and Lucifer

I feel so full of things I cannot integrate...

When I try to take every superfluous thing away, when I look for a core of certainty, a kind of Cartesian first certainty, all I found is, not so much the "I think therefore I am", which is a very complicated sentence involving difficult to understand concepts such as "existence" or "therefore" or even "think / want (the cogito)". I find something entirely different: that I was loved by my creator, that my life has a meaning, that I have a mission.

But, as soon as this certainty emerges, telling me who I am, another will, to break free, to ignore it, to destroy it, comes over me, and I am clashed by different wills of abiding and refusing. In me I can find the roots of good and evil, of God and Lucifer. 

What was first saw as an act of Love, of protection, becomes a prison, for which an incredible desire of escape emerges, and this desire is seen as sin.

The two wills clash, one aims for Encounter, Togetherness, the other for Freedom, Authenticity. The main theme of Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, (no free will without evil) I assume.

Only laughter reconciles them, only the immediate spirit and inspiration, unmeddled my the mind or emotions, without guilt orany conception of shame, only the most pure creative spirit, the most naked will, will be able to conciliate both, to find paradise.