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Monday, February 25, 2013

The Cathedral and the Bazaar - Book Review

A short book, more like an essay, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, by Eric S. Raymond, reads more like a booklet of philosophy than the open source computing treatise it purports to be.  It was a pleasure to read.

Raymond was in on the ground floor during the computer / internet explosion.  He uses his experience building his software project 'Fetchmail', as the premise for the book.  Raymond decided to follow the hugely successful open source model used by Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, to complete his project.  Torvald's premise was to release software code into the open market, what Raymond calls the 'bazaar', and let thousands of pairs of eyes and brains analyze it and fix it.  The idea is similar to what might be called 'crowd-sourcing' today, but this was being done 20 years ago in the Open Source computing world.  Juxtaposed to the bazaar, is the cathedral - the commercial, large corporation that uses managers to control the output of programmers, and is much more static and dogmatic.  Raymond shows that the bazaar model, while not perfect, is superior to the cathedral, and is the best way forward.  I think he is right.  I had heard John Taylor Gatto mention this book in the monumental series "The Ultimate History Lesson", and now I know why it was on his reading list.

Raymond before: "I believed that the most important software needed to be built like cathedrals, carefully crafted by individual wizards or small bands of mages working in splendid isolation, with no beta to be released before its time."

Raymond after: "Linus Torvalds style of development - release early and often, delegate everything you can, be open to the point of promiscuity, came as a surprise.  No quiet, reverent cathedral - building here - rather, the Linux community seemed to resemble a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches..." (p.9)

Running Counter to Established Opinion

"An important trait of the great ones is constructive laziness.  They know that you get an A not for effort but results, and that it's almost always easier to start from a good partial solution than from nothing at all." (p. 13)  Much of what we learn today from branches of media and schools is that effort is a major quality, if not the only quality that is required.  Effort is valuable, sticking to ones knitting is required, but eventually results do matter.  The results part of the equation seems to be getting lost in the ether of today's American society, and it would probably take years to pin it down, but it was refreshing to read Raymonds succinct explanation of what makes a great programmer.  Much of what he writes can be projected upon other aspects of life.  I thought of Newton's quote about his "standing on the shoulders of giants" - that good ideas, partial or otherwise, from the past are required to further progress and production.

"The next best thing to having good ideas is recognizing good ideas from your users.  Sometimes the latter is better." (p. 38)  The ability to recognize good material, as well as ignoring the fallacy of ad vericundiam (the fallacy of authority), and going the other way - downwards in the 'hierarchy' - is a valuable tool.  We are taught that the person at the top, in a suit, or a lab coat, or some position of authority is the one to listen to.  This runs counter to Raymond's hypothesis.  He speaks of users as repositories of good ideas, and they should be considered as such.  It is the large numbers of regular folk who will come up with great material, not the ladder climbers who get to the top.  Not only that, but "Interestingly enough, you will quickly find the if you are  completely and self - deprecatingly truthful about how much you owe other people, the world at large will treat you as though you did every bit of the invention yourself and are just being becomingly modest about your innate genius." (p. 38)

Here's the kicker:  "Often, the most striking and innovative solutions come from realizing that your concept of the problem was wrong."  There is nothing that our Mainstream Molders of Opinion say we should change with this methodology.  School, government, mainstream media - these are failing, bloated institutions.  We never hear from the Powers That Be that the concept is wrong.  They are all supposed to be changed from within.  If we only could elect good people, if we could only change the schools, if the media were just held to a standard...  all are useless concepts.  They need to be rethought conceptually.  Politically, Thomas Sowell speaks well on this when he writes about politicians and how they feel that a small group of entrenched individuals can be experts on all things, and decide the course for millions of people.  With regard to education, the best example is homeschooling - long vilified by the Mainstream - as it promotes intellectual freedom and individuality.  Talk to someone about closing down the school system, and you'll get baffled looks and comments, even though the concept of school is quite new, historically, and is easily described as a cratering failure.  Our concept of the problem has been wrong for quite a while, I'm afraid.

Conclusion

I have to warn you - unsanctioned thoughts are coming up.  "But there is a more fundamental error in the implicit assumption that the cathedral model (or any other kind of model) can somehow make innovation happen reliably.  This is nonsense.  Gangs don't have breakthrough insights - even volunteer groups of bazaar anarchist are usually incapable of genuine originality, let alone corporate committees of people with a survival stake in some status quo ante.  Insight comes from individuals." (p. 52)  This is an idea that was originally part of the United States.  Free individuals, and a term that is derided today, if not forgotten, "rugged individualism" were seen as the ideal.  It was the person who was paramount in society - not the group or the collective.  Foolish utopian ideas like Socialism and its varying forms of collectivism have ruled the last 100 years.  The folly of this groupthink is apparent today, and the bill is coming due.  Mr. Raymond's short book can pay the bill, and then some.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Today's Left

I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  It was, and is, a "liberal" neighborhood.  I was raised in a household and was instructed by my mother, her friends and my neighbors on good, left leaning behaviors.

Some of the stock, immutable concepts:

  1. All people are created equal.
  2. The Gov't should be used as a way to help the less fortunate.
  3. Civil Rights are not to be toyed with and are sacrosanct, particularly free speech.
  4. Smaller is better.
  5. Always be anti-war.
  6. Treat people equally.
  7. Unions are generally good.
  8. Think for yourself.
While not a comprehensive list, these are the things that I was taught were the main planks of the Democratic Party, and I followed the script faithfully until my early '30's.  I soon began to see, and now view as totally obvious, that the Democratic Party rhetoric is fraudulent to the core.  The "D" party has become a centralized power venerating, warmongering joke as could possibly be imagined.  As my income rose and my tax bills rose, I saw my worldview change.  One of the causes was that as a public school teacher, I witnessed daily failures of epic proportions of the shibboleths surrounding public 'education' and teacher's unions.  The specter of Political Correctness disallowing Free Speech in a manner that would make Orwell proud became too obvious to ignore.  The rigid economics of a teacher salary scale, and the union keeping out qualified people was opposite of the freedom I kept reading about in the books.  In short, I looked at the other, Conservative side of things and became an Establishment Conservative for about two years.  I found that the 'right' wing of the Same Bird of Prey equally fraudulent, and I've been a libertarian for easily five years now.  I wish I'd gotten here sooner.

Where I was Most Wrong

I had never had too much interest in economics.  I was directed to Chris Martenson's site, and in one of the comment forums someone had posted a Peter Schiff video.  I had never heard of such commonsense ideas put forth in such a manner.  When it comes to rapid fire delivery, sound economics, fearless attitude, and a gift for sticking it to the Establishment, few can match Mr. Schiff.  Suddenly a whole school of economics was open to me and my economic worldview was altered forever.  Once you begin to see that much of what you've been taught is nonsense, pushed by people who are ignorant or with an agenda, the flow of knowledge increases exponentially.

The economics of the Left, mainly the positive power of unions, is going to fall.  Unions keep out untold numbers of qualified workers who might be better at the craft.  A retired physicist, eager to spend a few years teaching, who has decades of lab and practical experience, cannot teach in a public school.  He has to take 18 "education credits" and run through a battery of State mandated exams that have no inherent worth at all before he can be considered.  This blocks general freedom.  This hurts childrens' educations.  I don't think this system can last for this reason or for economic reason.  This situation in France is one of the first dominoes to fall.  I think there will be many others.  This is the first time I have seen a CEO of a major company to say it like it is when it comes to unions.  I wonder if this is the beginning of the end for the Economics of the Left, which we are taught are the 'good' economics throughout our 15,000 hours of school, even though they make no economic or moral sense.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Under the Banner of Heaven - Book Review

Jon Krakauer's book, Under the Banner of Heaven, a Story of Violent Faith, did what all good books do, it lengthened my already long reading list because it piqued my interest in the topic.

Overview
The book uses a useful and easy to follow pattern.  Krakauer juxtaposes the horrific 1984 double murder of Brenda Lafferty and her infant daughter Erica, and the history of the Mormon Church.  The two murderers, Dan and Ron Lafferty (who are still in prison - one on death row and the other in for a life sentence) believe they were ordered to kill by God.  They have never shown any remorse.  Krakauer takes this unseemly and wicked event and uses it to analyze the dark underbelly of the killers' past and the history of the LDS (Mormon Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) church itself.  Krakauer connects the violent and rigid authoritarianism of the LDS church to the belief system of the Lafferty's, using the early days of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, the Mormon migration led by Brigham Young, and the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

The book goes into great detail with the story of the early days of the Mormon Church.  The ability of Joseph Smith to propagate his unlikely story of the angel Moroni coming down to visit him in order to direct him to the golden plates that were eventually translated into the Book of Mormon is truly fascinating.  The movement of the Mormons from upstate New York to the Midwest, primarily Illinois and Missouri, shows how the Mormons were persecuted and hated.  Joseph Smith was eventually killed in 1844 during his ill fated presidential run, and the LDS church was taken over by a powerful visionary and ruthlessly efficient leader, Brigham Young.  Because of the persecution, pressure from the Federal Government and general ill will, Brigham Young moved the whole operation to the Utah Territory.  Polygamy, war with the Federal Government, visions from God, disavowal of the September 11th, 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre all create a fascinating portrait of a unique faith that goes a long way in explaining how the heinous Lafferty murders could come about.

The Prophet
I learned much during my reading of Under the Banner of Heaven.  The Mormon Church has always been a mystery to me.  I never understood how a church that openly uses Jesus' name could be seen as so different.  Wouldn't it simply be another branch of Christianity?  I knew that Utah was the central location of the LDS church, they had at one time practiced polygamy, they had a small army of young people who went all over the world on 2 year long missions, and that they had worked for decades to be accepted into the mainstream.  What I had never found out was why there was so much hatred and vitriol directed toward the Mormons for so long.

Now things are much more clear.  One of the issues regarding the LDS church is its newness.  Joseph Smith had multiple revelations, was spoken to by an angel and God, and his writings and commands became the rules by which Mormons live.  He created a faith, one that eschewed the faiths of the day, and thousands of people followed this man and his commands.   People were told that it was the 'one true faith', and that it would be the faith of those saved when God returned to complete the creation of the Kingdom of God on Earth.  Smith had a revelation that told him that polygamy was acceptable, and should be practiced by all Latter Day Saints.  The very nature of the church, and the creation of 'Saints' is noteworthy as these people are like Gods themselves and will not be destroyed during the End of Days.  That a book, written by a person in the comparatively recent past, in quasi biblical prose could galvanize a religious movement and fervor now practiced my millions today speaks volumes about human nature.

Do Not Question Authority
Krakauer's book, and much of the source material, has been attacked by the LDS church.  The definitive biography of Smith, No Man Knows My History, by Fawn Brodie is seen by the Mormon Hierarchy as a sacrilegious text.  Brodie, related to a high ranking Mormon, was eventually excommunicated by the Church.  Juanita Brooks and D. Michael Quinn were pilloried by the Mormon Church for their unflattering portrayals of the violent and bloody Mountain Meadows Massacre, an event that the LDS church has been trying to disavow for over 150 years.  Quinn was eventually excommunicated from the church as well. Will Bagley's follow up to Brooks' book was heavily criticized by professors at Brigham Young University.

There is a curious statement in the PBS Frontline documentary about this fanatical obsession with censoring criticism of the Church.  One of the Elders of the church (they have a Quorum of 12 Apostles at the very top) states unequivocally that "criticism of the church is not allowed, even if it is right."  This rigid acceptance of authority, a dangerous policy, seems necessary when you look back at the history of the church, its unorthodox beliefs and the things needed to make people commit murder in its name.  Perhaps the vast majority of humanity craves a 'leader', and even if that leader is illogical and demands unquestioning fealty, the flock will obey.

More Questions and Connections
"One of the events that led to Dr. Quinn's excommunication was the publication, in 1987, of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, a fascinating, exhaustively researched examination of Joseph Smith's involvement in mysticism and the occult." (Krakauer p. 340)  Smith's new religion was created in an area of upstate NY where the Masons were especially active.  The proximity of Smith to the William Morgan murder and its Anti Masonic backlash does not seem to be a coincidence.  I have always wondered about the nearness of the two, but until Krakauer's comment about Dr. Quinn's book (one that I now want to read), I had never seen the parallels between the Humanists (Masonic beliefs) and the Mormons.  Here are some parallels that are too close to be simply coincidental:  Joseph Smith was a Mason.  The Mormons believed in blood atonement.  The Quorum of 12 Apostles fits the Mystery Schools' obsession with the number 12.  Mormons too seek to 'become God', a humanist belief to the core and antithetical to mainstream Christianity.  The most interesting 'coincidence' is that William Morgan's wife later became one of Joseph Smith's plural wives.   Is it possible that the Masons went underground after the Morgan affair and were reincarnated as the Mormons?   The connection of Morgan's widow to Smith is too obvious to ignore.

Conclusion
As you can see, Under the Banner of Heaven is a thought provoking work.  Krakauer's work acts as a catalyst for further study.  The author's ability to dig into the history of one of the more strange and fascinating chapters in American History and use it to try to explain a murder that defies description is a stroke of genius.  The blurbs in the back of the paperback edition use words like "audacious", "provocative", "thrilling", "creepy" and "illuminating".  I agree with all of them, especially the last one.

 Here is the worthwhile PBS Frontline Documentary:
Watch The Mormons Part One on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Fields of Ignorance

I have stolen the title from the best chapter from Michael Lewis' book Moneyball.  In this chapter, Bill James, the baseball statistician / historian is brought up.  James was a pioneer in the business of baseball, albeit unwittingly.  James' unique and unorthodox ways of measuring the value of players rubbed the establishment the wrong way, simply because it was never done that way and James was the consummate outsider.  He was seen as a nobody who didn't know his place and was therefore worthy of ridicule.  The problem was that James was tenacious, thorough and correct in his findings.  What he exposed was that the cloddish and lumbering Major League Baseball establishment was ignorant in its measuring of players skills.  Bill James showed that the Emperor had no clothes.  James had the last laugh as well, today he is a God among baseball statisticians, and is currently employed by the Boston Red Sox as a premier consultant.

It is high time that people realize that the educational 'establishment' has no clothes.  As I am in the educational establishment daily, I'm here to tell you that the institution you are entrusting the education of your children is rife with political correctness, narrow mindedness and millimeter deep levels of reasoning.  A recent meeting stands out as a microcosm of what I see daily.

Two of our reading teachers shepherded a special education student through an interpretive project dealing with the Walter Dean Myers book Monster.  The student made a youtube video of what would work for a thematic movie preview for a potential movie for the book itself.  The video was exceedingly well done - the imagery, neatly spliced video clips and the embedded wording neatly summarized the issues of injustice inherent in the text.  The main character, a young black male, is seen as and called a 'monster' at his trial.  Steven Harmon (the protagonist) is 'seen' in this video as guilty until proven innocent - handcuffed, stuffed into a police vehicle, ready to be crushed by the prison industrial complex.  The fear within the young man is captured, as is the injustice of the prejudgement and feelings of helplessness that go along with the criminal justice system.

The reaction to this student made video was incredible in its lack of tact and thought.  One person saw the video as confusing and she 'wasn't sure what she was looking at'.  Upon having the video explained, she was 'uncomfortable with some of the images' in the video.  Another colleague went on a repetitive tirade about the use of 'that word'.  I am not sure if the word was 'monster' or 'thug' that offended her, but she was sure that it was a horrible thing to have said such a word and there was to be no debate allowed.  It was presented as fait accompli.  Remember, this was student driven work, intended to be shared as an example of how some of our difficult to reach students can use technology to communicate in a literate and effective manner.  Not only that, but the theme of the book is precisely what my rabidly politically correct colleagues advocate - that the plight of the young black male can cause untold harm.  These issues were not to be discussed.  The absurdly PC reaction to the images, without any questions, without any forethought or discussion was breathtaking.  Simple images, on a student project, from a book by a black man, caused an electric current of indignation and created waves of supposed shock, as if there were racism involved.

Perhaps I have naive ideas about free speech and freedom of expression.  Shouting down colleagues, in a laughably ironic display of political correctness was disappointing to the core.  Dr. Benjamin Carson devoted the first part of this speech to the evils of political correctness.  Perhaps we should listen.  The fact that in a school, with educators at both the helm and manning the positions of the rank and file could produce such a wretchedly small minded and emotionally driven nonsensical argument is astounding.  Images of a black teenager, relevant to the story that cause tripwire sensitive feelings of 'injustice', however factually misguided and thematically inappropriate, are to be used to end discussions, emotionally hurt others and bully staff members.

The emperor has no clothes.  The school system had become a haven for limited thought and even more limited speech.  This is just one example.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Disappearing of the Aral Sea

The Aral Sea, formerly the world's 4th largest lake, is nearly gone.  The two main rivers that supplied the sea with water have been diverted for agricultural purposes - mostly for irrigation.  In 1961, the Aral Sea began shrinking, and now most of it is gone.  The once fresh water lake, a boon for local fisherman, is now saline, decimating an industry that employed 60,000 people.   The lake bed is now an ecological disaster.  The chemicals from industry and agriculture now form huge dust storms and spread around the local areas via dust storms, sometimes visible from satellite photos.  To put this in perspective, it would be similar if Lake Erie and Lake Ontario were drained entirely of water.  Everything about the treatment of the Aral Sea is disastrous from an economic and environmental standpoint.
Here's the Aral Sea in 1985, after 25 years of slow draining:


Here is the Aral Sea in 2011, after draining increased during the early 1980's:



Two of the more wretched aspects of this environmental disaster: 1) The Soviet authorities viewed the Aral Sea as "nature's error" and saw its demise as inevitable.  "Some Soviet experts apparently considered the Aral to be "nature's error", and a Soviet engineer said in 1968, "it is obvious to everyone that the evaporation of the Aral Sea is inevitable."  and 2) the former seabed is rife with dangerous chemicals that are still unknown in quantity, type and purpose.  "In 1948, a top-secret Soviet bioweapons laboratory was established on the island in the center of the Aral Sea which is nowdisputed territory between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The exact history, functions and current status of this facility are still unclear, but bio-agents tested there included Bacillus anthracis, Coxiella burnetii, Francisella tularensis, Brucella suis, Rickettsia prowazekii, Variola major (smallpox), Yersinia pestis, botulinum toxin, and Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus." (Both quotes from Wikipedia)

Why is there no reaction to this?  Where is the hue and cry over man destroying his environment?  One would expect the shrill howling that comes from the tripwire sensitive environmentalists.  Here you have man made decisions that benefit the Organized Wealthy - large agricultural interests that have sacrificed a huge ecosystem and the jobs of regular people for minority interests.  I think it is the same reason that one never hears about coal plants with enough girth to power San Diego going online in China every 12 days.  These environmental shenanigans are going on in countries of the far Left.  The Communists in the old Soviet Union were shielded by academia and the mainstream press in all ways for decades.  Collectivism is taught here in the United States as a good thing.  Students are indoctrinated in school to speak seriously about things like the "equal distribution of wealth" and "global warming".  The horrors of the (sort of) free market West are trumped up and vilified to the hilt.  Here you have the disappearance of 26,300 square miles of fresh water, and nothing from the usual outlets.  Apparently the malfeasance of collectivists thousands of miles away are to be ignored, if not forgotten.  This is a sorry state of affairs, and makes the once proud environmental movement look ridiculous.

The Aral Sea in the good old days of 1853:

Here is one of the effects of the Sea's disappearance - this used to be a harbor: