Sunday, October 27, 2013

Changing behavior

I just finished a book called The Science of Consequences, by Susan M. Schneider. A couple of items in the Glossary struck me as interesting (yes, I'm the sort of person who reads the glossary and endnotes!).
Negative: If a behavior declines because of a consequence, that consequence is a negative (a punisher, an aversive) and the relationship is punishment. (Note that the negative can be an outcome involving the removal of a positive....)
It's important to note that things that seem like negatives sometimes aren't; what matters is what actually happens, not the intention or the appearance.... "Negatives" that have no effect on a behavior are not truly negatives; indeed, if the behavior is strengthened, they are reinforcers. Again, it's what actually happens that matters. [p263]
Reinforcement: When a consequence sustains a behavior, the relationship is reinforcement....The consequence can be an outcome involving the presentation of a positive, or the removal of a negative, or both simultaneously. [p263]
These are good things to keep in mind as we interact with others in life, and in our projects. Things go well when there is a ratio of 5/1 positive/negative. Things go badly when that ratio is reversed; you see divorces, the end of friendships, and forks in projects.

I'm mostly publishing this to remind me to pass along compliments, and remember to thank people for the good work they do. Thanks should outnumber bug reports and other complaints FIVE to ONE!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Horse, The Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World

Just finished the most amazing book: The Horse, The Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World by David W. Anthony. It is a wonderful mix of historical linguistics and archaeology, packed with information from Russian research not seen in English before.

Tl;dr summary: Half the world speaks Indo-European languages, which spread from folk who domesticated the horse and used the wheel to carry their culture and language out from the Eurasian steppes. Among the cultural concepts discussed is how differing moral codes can hold neighboring cultures apart, creating long-lasting cultural borders.

I came to the book from The History of English podcast which I discussed earlier on this blog. This whole wonderful journey started with Eike Hein's frequent recommendation of The Decipherment of Linear B, which I also blogged about late last summer. One of the comments by Adrian Łubik on G+ led me to the history podcast, which led me to The Horse, The Wheel and Language. And the side voyage through an alternative old world with the Kushiel's Legacy books made this journey even more enjoyable and enlightening.

You would think that the beginnings of English, its forebear languages and the people who spoke them would be a dry, dusty topic, throwing no light on our culture, beyond our languages themselves. And oh, by our languages I mean most all of the languages spoken west of Russia and China, and north of Africa. This includes not only Greek and Latin and the rest of the Romance languages, but also the north Indian languages, all of the Norse and Germanic languages including English, and also all the Celtic tongues. Of course now this also includes most of North and South America as well.

How did a small group of prehistoric foragers spread their language over most of the world? To answer this question, the book uses not only the latest linguistic research, but also the archaeological evidence from all over Old Europe, the steppes covering the Ukraine and southern Russia, and many other Indo-European sites. Much of this research was unavailable to the West until recently.

One important discussion early on is explaining why this sort of analysis has not been done before. The sad truth is that with early linguistic and fragmentary archaeological evidence, some terrible theories of the "true homeland of the pure-blooded Aryans" were created and used to bloody effect. Race itself is only a social concept, not a biological reality. What Anthony examines is the evidence of the lives of these people, how they lived and died, what they ate, their social structures, migrations, and language.

Some of this evidence is tenuous, but the difference between groups becomes more clear and obvious at the borders between them. As we know, most borders are porous, and people move back and forth even in modern times, where we have states enforcing those borders. However, some cultural borders are long-lasting, even with no state involvement. A modern example Anthony uses is the English / Welsh, and the English / Scots. People might move back and forth between these regions of the UK, but the cultural difference and even language difference remains. Cultural borders are even stronger when there is also a geographic difference (ecotone) which differentiates how people make a living. The river valleys, steppe, and steppe-forest acted as borders separating people in the Eurasian steppe region for hundreds and in some cases, thousands of years.

Anthony says:
The North Pontic societies east of the Dniester frontier continued to live as they always had, by hunting, gathering wild plants, and fishing until about 5200 BCE. Domesticated cattle and hot wheatcakes might have seemed irresistibly attractive to the foragers who were in direct contact with the farmers who presented and legitimized them, but, away from that active frontier, North Pontic forager-fishers were in no rush to become animal tenders. Domesticated animals can only be raised by people who are committed morally and ethically to watching their families go hungry rather than letting them eat the breeding stock. Seed grain and breeding stock must be saved, not eaten, or there will be no crop and no calves the next year. Foragers generally value immediate sharing and generosity over miserly saving for the future, so the shift to keeping breeding stock was a moral as well as an economic one. It probably offended the old morals. It is not surprising it was resisted, or that when it did begin it was surrounded by new rituals and a new kind of leadership, or that the new leaders threw big feasts and shared food when the deferred investment paid off. These new rituals and leadership roles were the foundation of Indo-European religion and society. [p154-155]
Another contrast between the older societies and those of  the new farming and herding, was whom they worshipped. The goddesses of Old Europe were maiden/mother/crone figures, found in most rooms of each house, where people lived in villages. The steppe dwellers worshipped a sky god, and often a war god, and sacrifices were blood and meat. Images were not found; instead, piles of bones from the ritual feasts. So the gods that people worshipped typified the society: the partnership societies had goddesses and god who seemed friendly, helpful, and part of everyday life, while the herders and farmers worshipped distant, untrustworthy gods who had to be placated with blood sacrifices.

Anthony says,
Participation in long-distance trade, gift exchange, and a new set of cults requiring public sacrifices and feasting became the foundation for a new kind of social power. Stockbreeding is by nature a volatile economy. Herders who lose animals always borrow from those who still have them. The social obligations associated with these loans are institutionalized among the world's pastoralists as a basis for a fluid system of status distinctions. Those who loaned animals acquired power over those who borrowed them, and those who sponsored feasts obligated their guests. Early Proto-Indo-European included a vocabulary about verbal contracts bound by oaths ... used in later religious rituals to specify the obligations of the weak (humans) and the strong (gods).... As leaders acquired followers, political networks emerged around them--and this was the basis of tribes.
... The Pre-Proto-Indo-European language family probably expanded with the new economy during the Early Eneolithic in the western steppes. Its sister-to-sister linguistic links may well have facilitated the spread of stockbreeding and the beliefs that went with it. [p191]
When I read the paragraphs I quoted, I couldn't help but think about an article I had read earlier, about an interesting aspect of American politics today: Tea Party radicalism is misunderstood: Meet the “Newest Right.” In the article, the author, Michael Lind says,
... The dominant members of the Newest Right are white Southern local notables—the Big Mules, as the Southern populist Big Jim Folsom once described the lords of the local car dealership, country club and chamber of commerce.  These are not the super-rich of Silicon Valley or Wall Street (although they have Wall Street allies). The Koch dynasty rooted in Texas notwithstanding, those who make up the backbone of the Newest Right are more likely to be millionaires than billionaires, more likely to run low-wage construction or auto supply businesses than multinational corporations. They are second-tier people on a national level but first-tier people in their states and counties and cities.
These are the same people! The same leaders (patrons) who got big herds, and got clients by lending out stock, only now their stock is cars and trucks, construction jobs and such. To be clear, Anthony never draws such a link; this is entirely my own comparison.

When in Genesis 4:9 of the Christian Bible, God asks Cain, "Where is Abel your brother?" He said, "I do not know. Am I my brother's keeper?" It seems to me that Cain answers a question with a question in the same way that the leaders within this cultural system always have done. They do not feel a responsibility to the poor, the widow, the orphan. Their morality is based on saving for the future, and building a following, a clientele. The thing is, we live in a world where there is food enough for everyone. There is no need to starve the children! There is plenty of seed corn.

To tie up this long review, I'll close with a final quotation, from Anthony's summary chapter, Words and Deeds, page 459:
Innovation in transportation technology are among the most powerful causes of change in human social and political life. The introduction of the private automobile created suburbs, malls, and superhighways; transformed heavy industry; generated a vast market for oil; polluted the atmosphere; scattered families across the map; provided a rolling, heated space in which young people could escape and have sex; and fashioned a powerful new way to express personal status and identity. The beginning of horseback riding, the invention of the heavy wagon and cart, and the development of the spoke-wheeled chariot had cumulative effects that unfolded more slowly but eventually were equally profound. One of these effects was to transform Eurasia from a series of unconnected cultures into a single interacting system. How that happened is a principal focus of this book.
[p461]...The institutions that regulated peaceful exchange and cross-cultural relationships were just as important as the institution of the raid.
The reconstructed Proto-Indo-European vocabulary and comparative Indo-European mythology that two of those important integrative institutions were: the oath-bound relationship between patrons and clients, which regulated the reciprocal obligations between the strong and the weak, between gods and humans; and the guest-host relationship, which extended these and other protections to people outside the ordinary social circle.
Archaeology and Language
Indo-European languages replaced non-Indo-European languages in a multi-staged, uneven process that continues today, with the world-wide spread of English. No single factor explains every event in that complicated and drawn-out history--not race, demographics, population pressure, or imagined spiritual qualities. The three most important steps in the spread of Indo-European languages in the last two thousand years were the rise of the Latin-speaking Roman Empire (an event almost prevented by Hannibal); the expansion of Spanish, English, Russian and French colonial powers in Asia, America and Africa; and the recent triumph of the English-speaking Western capitalist trade system, in which American-business English has piggybacked onto British-colonial English. No historian would suggest that these events shared a single root cause. If we can draw any lessons about language expansion from them, it is perhaps only that an initial expansion can make later expansions easier (the lingua franca effect), and that languages generally follow military and economic power.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Let's get the Code-In Task Collection in Gear!

This blog post is stolen! Blatantly thieved from Lydia, who so sweetly wrote to a few lists earlier, saying:
Google Code-in is a great opportunity to attract new bright young minds to KDE. We've taken part in the contest 3 times already and I just filled out our application for the 4th one. (If you have no idea what I am talking about have a look at for more
Within the next 2 weeks we need to collect tasks for the 13 to 18 year olds to work on during Code-in. These tasks are the most important part of our application. Please help find exciting and useful tasks and submit them via this form:
You can see all tasks already submitted here: 

And for some inspiration here are the tasks we offered last year:
It would be amazing to see especially previous Code-in and GSoC students offer tasks here and mentor the next bunch :)  To see what kind of an impact this program can have check out

PS: I am about to head off to Brazil for the next 11 days. In case of questions I hope Teo, Myriam, Valorie and David will be able to help as well.

To this, I can only add: We're always available in #kde-soc on Freenode IRC, and on the Community list. Let's kickstart this list of tasks, and rev up this year in Code-In!

Oh, I hope Lydia doesn't sue me for stealing her intellectual property!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Celebrating Kubuntu 13.10 release

This was such a nice release. Working with the team as part of the Council has all been delightful, and working with the rest of the documentation team was great, as well. We were very ambitious, and didn't finish all of what we started, but we're very proud of the documentation we're publishing with this release. We plan to finish and polish for the LTS 14.04. I loved being able to test a bit this round, as well.

Besides documentation, Kubuntu has lots of improvements this outing, and we now have paid support available, along with a shirt shop! See for more information. I just ordered my polo shirt, and it took less than 5 minutes. Can't wait for mail from Finland!

I seed all the *buntu torrents each release. This time out, the is maxed out! I hope to begin seeding more torrents tomorrow, when the servers are a bit less busy.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


Chani recently blogged about How to Not be a Rockstar. It's excellent, give it a look. And her piece got me thinking about how we are always being tempted, by social pressure, by advertising, by the oppressive side of our culture, to worry about the surface of reality, instead of engaging with actual life.

Often, parents have taught us to be obedient and pleasant, rather than capable and independent. That's easy to understand; they get kudos for having obedient and pleasant children, and disapproval for raising kids who rock the boat, are messy, creative, loud or otherwise 'out of the norm.' Also, obedient and pleasant children are easier! So most of us have that early training to overcome. There is nothing wrong with being pleasant, but knowing how to do stuff, and not being afraid to do it, are what is needed to build a life.

In school, most of us have teachers who carry on with that program, and try to help us get good grades, and pass tests. How many of us are lucky enough to have teachers who challenge us to learn, who whet our curiosity, and then teach us how to find our own answers? Of course schools are established to enculturate children, and to pass along the basic canons of knowledge. Should the good school, the excellent teachers stop there, or use that as the foundation for life-long learning? I have nothing against good grades, and passing tests, but those are merely the appearance of learning. What good does it do to have good grades, if you haven't really mastered the material? If you've only been exposed to what's on the test; and don't know or don't take the time to learn more?

What is taught in home and school is only part of the problem facing children and teenagers. School social systems are often so toxic to kids that they learn to hide their true selves, rather than learning who they are, what they want, and what sort of people suit them as friends, lovers and collaborators. Aren't these the keys to a happy, successful life? Or do we really want to produce cogs which fit into society's machine, producing the same old stuff?

I think this weakness, this worship of the shallow in our culture is what has fueled the growth of both art and FOSS communities. We humans long to produce work that improves the world, and collaborate with people who share our values. In FOSS communities there are a multitude of ways to create cool stuff, whether we love coding or art, design or making great UI, writing or making websites. I think everyone who contributes is not only 'scratching their itch,' but also making the world a better place, and changing our culture for the better at the same time.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Kushiel's Legacy: books set in alt-medieval Europe

I've just finished a great series of books by Jacqueline Carey. Not only were the books well-written, but also sex-positive, and set in a fascinating period of history/alternate history. Fallen angel Blessed Elua is the founder of Terre d'Ange (resembles France), the "Land of the Angels" and with his companions, ancestor of the  D'Angeline people. The command he left was "love as thou wilt", and the novels are an examination of how love and sexual freedom could have changed the world.

There are three intertwined trilogies. The first, Phèdre Trilogy series follows the story of Phèdre nó Delaunay, the foremost courtesan of her day. Phèdre was a thrilling hero, as she and her bodyguard, companion and lover, and eventual consort, Joscelin Verreuil traveled far and wide. In the final novel of the trilogy, they find and save their eventual foster son, prince Imriel.

The Imriel Trilogy series (UK title: Treason's Heir trilogy) follows the story of Imriel de la Courcel nó Montreve. It was lovely to see Phèdre and Joscelin again, as minor characters, and to see Imriel overcome the horrors of his past and his treasonous ancestry.

The final books are set one hundred years later. Called the Moirin Trilogy, they follow the story of Moirin of the Maghuin Dhonn from Alba, who is half D'Angeline. These books take us to China, Mongolia, Russia (or perhaps the Ukraine), up into the Himilayas and down into India, and finally to the Aztec and Inca civilizations.

I really loved these books. They have enriched my thinking about religion, love, sex and human nature and the power of ideas playing out in history. The characters were wonderful to spend time with, and as usual I love seeing cultures in contrast.