Monday, September 1, 2014

Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

Interesting, engaging, and sometimes challenging. My only criticism of the book is that he dwells a bit on fads in academia which are fading, but since he's been extensively challenged by that crowd, I suppose it is forgivable.

I'll quote extensively from the last chapter, but first, Emily Dickinson (quoted in that final chapter):
The Brain--is wider than the Sky--
For--put them side to side--
The one the other will contain
With ease--and you--beside-- 
The Brain is deeper than the sea--
For--hold them--Blue to Blue--
The one the other will absorb--
As Sponges--Buckets--do-- 
The Brain is just the weight of God--
For--Heft them--Pound for Pound--
And they will differ--if they do--
As Syllable from Sound--
And the beginning of the final chapter:
The Blank Slate was an attractive vision. It promised to make racism, sexism, and class prejudice factually untenable. It appeared to be a bulwark against the kind of thinking that led to ethnic genocide. It aimed to prevent people from slipping into a premature fatalism about preventable social ills. It put the spotlight on the treatment of children, indigenous peoples, and the underclass. The Blank Slate thus became part of secular faith and appeared to constitute the common decency of our age.  
But the Blank Slate had, and has, a dark side. The vacuum that was posited in human nature was eagerly filled by totalitarian regimes, and it did nothing to prevent their genocides. It perverts education, child-rearing, and the arts into forms of social engineering. It torments mothers who work outside the home and parents whose children did not turn out as they would have liked. It threatens to outlaw biomedical research that could alleviate human suffering. Its corollary, the Noble Savage, invites contempt for the principles of democracy and of "a government of laws not of men." It blinds us to our cognitive and moral shortcomings. And in matters of policy it has elevated sappy dogmas above the search for workable solutions. 
The Blank Slate is not some ideal that we should all hope and pray is true. No, it is anti-life, anti-human theoretical abstraction that denies our common humanity, our inherent interests, and our individual preferences. Though it has pretensions of celebrating our potential, it does the opposite, because our potential comes from the combinatorial interplay of wonderfully complex faculties, not from the passive blankness of an empty tablet. 
Regardless of its good and bad effects, the Blank Slate is an empirical hypothesis about the functioning of the brain and must be evaluated in terms of whether or not it is true. The modern sciences of mind, brain, genes, and evolution are increasingly showing that it is not true. The result is a rearguard effort to salvage the Blank Slate by disfiguring science and intellectual life: denying the possibility of objectivity and truth, dumbing down issues into dichotomies, replacing facts and logic with intellectual posturing. 
The Blank Slate became so deeply entrenched in intellectual life that the prospect of doing without it can be deeply unsettling. ...Is science leading to a place where prejudice is right, where children may be neglected, where Machiavellianism is accepted, where inequality and violence are met with resignation, where people are treated like machines? 
Not at all! By unhandcuffing widely shared values from moribund factual dogmas, the rationale for these values can only become clearer. We understand *why* we condemn prejudice, cruelty to children, and violence against women, and can focus our efforts on how to implement the goals we value most. ... 
... Acknowledging human nature does not mean overturning our personal world views... It means only taking intellectual life out of its parallel universe and reuniting it with science and, when it is borne out by science, by common sense.
This book was published in 2002, and I think Pinker and his fellow scientists who investigate human nature are beginning to make headway. This book was a good reminder of some of the nonsense we are now sweeping into the dustbin of history, and new understanding of human nature now coming to light.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Counting the days until Akademy!

It seems so soon after returning home from Randa and Geneva, but already the day of departure to Vienna and then Brno looms. So excited! For starters, both Scarlett and I got funding from Ubuntu so the e.V. is spared the cost of our travel! I've often felt guilty about how much airfare from Seattle is, for previous meetings. We're having a Kubuntu gathering on Thursday the 11th of September. Ping us if you have an issue you want discussed or worked on.

Also, Scarlett and I will be traveling together, which will be fun. And we're meeting Stefan Derkits in Vienna, to see some of his favorite places. Oh, a whole day in Vienna seems like heaven. We have a hostel booked; I hope it's nice. Now I need to figure out the bus or train from Vienna <> Brno.



Then there is the e.V. annual meeting, which I enjoy since I was admitted to membership. It is great to hear the reports personally, and meet people I usually only hear from in email or IRC.

Finally, there is Akademy, which is always a blur of excitement, learning, socializing, and interacting with the amazing speakers. My favorite part is always hearing from the GSoC students about their projects, and their experience in the KDE community. After Akademy proper, there are days of BOFs, and our Kubuntu meeting. This part is often the most energizing, as each meeting is like a small-scale sprint.

Of course we do take some time to walk through the city, and eat out, and party a bit. Face-to-face meetings are the BEST! Sometimes we return home exhausted and jetlagged, but it is always worth it. KDE is a community, and our annual gathering is one important way for us to nurture that community. This energizes the entire next year of creating amazing software.

An extra-special part of Akademy this year is that we are planning to release our new KDE Frameworks 5 Cookbook at Akademy. Get some while they're hot!

Learning to git

A few years ago, I learned from Myriam's fine blog how to build Amarok from source, which is kept in git. It sounds mysterious, but once all the dependencies are installed, PATH is defined and the environment is properly set up, it is extremely easy to refresh the source (git pull) and rebuild. In fact, I usually use the up-arrow in the konsole, which finds the previous commands, so I rarely have to even type anything! Just hit return when the proper command is in place.

Now we're using git for the KDE Frameworks book, so I learned how to not only pull the new or changed source files, but also to commit my own few or edited files locally, then push those commits to git, so others can see and use them.

To be able to write to the repository, an SSH key must be uploaded, in this case done in the KDE Identity account. If the Identity account is not a developer account, that must first be granted.

Just as in building Amarok, first the folders need to be created, and the repository cloned. Once cloned, I can see either in konsole or Dolphin the various files. It's interesting to me to poke around in most of them, but the ones I work in are markdown files, which is a type of text file. I can open them in kate (or your editor of choice) either from Dolphin or directly from the cli (for instance kate ki18n/ki18n.in.md).

Once edited, save the file, then it's time to commit. If there are a number of files to work on, they can be all committed at once. git commit -a is the command you need. Once you hit return, you will be immediately put into nano, a minimal text editor. Up at the top, you will see it is waiting for your commit message, which is a short description of the file or the changes you have made. Most of my commits have said something like "Edited for spelling and grammar." Once your message is complete, hit Control X, and y and return to save your changes.

It's a good idea to do another git pull just to be sure no one else has pushed a conflicting file while the commit message was being crafted, then git push. At this point the passphrase for the ssh key is asked for; once that is typed and you hit return, you'll get something like the following:

Counting objects: 7, done.                                                                                                                                                                              
Delta compression using up to 8 threads.                                                                                                                                                                
Compressing objects: 100% (4/4), done.                                                                                                                                                                  
Writing objects: 100% (4/4), 462 bytes | 0 bytes/s, done.                                                                                                                                                
Total 4 (delta 2), reused 1 (delta 0)                                                                                                                                                                    
remote: This commit is available for viewing at:
remote: http://commits.kde.org/kf5book/90c863e4ee2f82e4d8945ca74ae144b70b9e9b7b
To git@git.kde.org:kf5book                                                                                                                                                                              
   1d078fe..90c863e  master -> master                                                                                                                                                                    
valorie@valorie-HP-Pavilion-dv7-Notebook-PC:~/kde/book/kf5book$

In this case, the new file is now part of the KDE Frameworks 5 book repository. Git is a really nifty way to keep files of any sort organized and backed up. I'm really happy that we decided to develop the book using this powerful tool.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Randa Meetings sprint: KDE Frameworks Cookbook progress

We groaned and suffered with the up-and-down network, and had to abandon our plan to write and edit the book on Booki at Flossmanuals. So we began to create text files on Kate or Kwrite, but how to share our work?

The best answer seemed to be a git repository, and our success began there. Once created, we consulted again and again with the Frameworks developers in the room across the hall, and brainstormed and wrote, and even created new tools (Mirko). Our repo is here: kde:scratch/garg/book. If you want to see the live code examples, you will need this tool: https://github.com/endocode/snippetextractor .

I'm so happy with what we have so far! The texts are just great, and the code examples will be updated as they are updated in their repositories. So if people planning a booth at a Qt Contributor Conference, for instance, wanted to print up some copies of the book, it will be completely up-to-date. Our goal is committing every part of the book so that it can be auto-fetched for reading as an epub, pdf, text file or printed as a book.

It is a tremendous help to be in the same place. Thank you KDE community for sending me here, all the way from Seattle. Thank you for bringing all the other developers here as well. We are eating well, meeting, coding, writing, walking, drinking coffee and even some Free Beer, and sometimes sleeping too. Mario brings around a huge box of chocolate every night. We're all going to arrive home somewhat tired from working so hard, and somewhat fat from eating so well!


Monday, August 4, 2014

Coming up: excitement and work

First, many of us will be taking off this week for Randa, Switzerland. Many sprints are taking place simultaneously, and the most important to me is that we're writing another book. Book sprints are fun, and lots of work! As well as the team in Randa, a few people will be helping us write and edit from afar, and I'll be posting a link soon so that you can help out as well.

Here is a recent article on Randa and what goes on here: https://dot.kde.org/2014/08/02/randa-meetings-interview-four-myriam-schweingruber. Most of the attendees are traveling on funds contributed by the community. Thanks so much! I hope our work will be worth your generosity.

Today, the Akademy session schedule was announced: https://dot.kde.org/2014/08/04/akademy-2014-program-schedule-fast-fun-inspiring. This will be my third Akademy, and they are always fascinating, friendly, educational, and just plain awesome! At this point, we're still open for more sponsorship of Akademy, and registration seems a bit slow. If you are interested, please register and make your way to Brno for Akademy. If you know a company who is not yet a sponsor and should be, please urge them to register as a sponsor now.

The talks will be great, as will the "hall track." Following the formal meeting, we have a few days of informal talks, mini-sprints, and workshops. This is when Kubuntu will be meeting, which is why Ubuntu sponsored me to attend! \o/ Thanks so much for that, generous Ubuntu users. To sum up, I'll quote Myriam from the above article:
While a lot of the work in Free Software is done over the internet, nothing replaces the real life meetings, as it provides an extra drive in terms of motivation. Modern software development is mostly agile, something even corporate software development is using more and more. Due to the global distribution of our contributors; Free Software development has always been agile to start with, even if we didn't put a label on it in the early days.
And in agile development; sprints are a very important element to push the project forward. While sprints can be done over the web, they are hindered by time-zones, external distractions, availability of contributors, etc. Having real life sprints, even if those are few, are more productive as all the hindrances of the web meetings are eliminated and the productivity is greatly enhanced. [emphasis added]

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Final 10 days of the Randa fundraiser - Please help!

Hi folks, we're heading to the deadline. Please help put us over the top!

If you've already given money, please help by spreading the word. Small contributions not only count up quickly, they demonstrate that the free community stands behind our work. Mario gives a nice wrap-up here: blogs.fsfe.org/mario/?p=234. Show us you care.

Personally, I'm scared and excited by the prospect of writing another book, again with people who over-the-top smart, creative and knowledgeable. I will personally appreciate widespread support of the work we'll be doing.

If you already know about the Randa Meetings, and what our confederated sprints can produce, just proceed directly to http://www.kde.org/fundraisers/randameetings2014/index.php and kick in some shekels!

And then please pass along the word.

Thanks!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Metalinks, an excellent fast way to download KDE files

My G+ repost of Harald's announcement of the Plasma Next ISOs got some complaints about slow downloads. When I checked the with KDE sysadmins, I got some great information.

First, torrents aren't available, since 1. that requires dedicated tracker software, which isn't needed since 2. KDE doesn't distribute many large files.

However, files available at http://files.kde.org/snapshots/ and http://download.kde.org have a Details tab, where metalinks and mirrors are listed. I knew nothing about metalinks, but we could all benefit from them when downloading large files.

PovAddict (Nicolas Alvarez) told me that he uses the commandline for them: `aria2c http://files.kde.org/snapshots/neon5-201406200837.iso.metalink` for instance. I had to install aria2c for this to work; and the file took less than 15 minutes to download.

I read man wget and it seems not to support metalinks; at least I didn't find a reference.

Bshah (Bushan Shah) tried with kget and says it works very well. He said, New Download > Paste metalink > it will ask which files to download.

He also found the nice Wikipedia page for me: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metalink

Thanks to bcooksley, PovAddict and bshaw for their help.

PS: Bcooksley adds, the .mirrorlist url is generally what we recommend for people to use anyway. So even if you don't point to the metalink, please use the .mirrorlist URL when posting a file hosted at download.kde.org or files.kde.org. If people forget to do that, click that Details link to get there for the hashes, lists of mirrors, and metalink files.