Crisis Girl

Posted July 10th, 2007 by Talin

This is a piece of artwork I did for Kate Bridges and her friend as a joke…taking the phrase “drama queen” to a new level…

Crisis Girl

Postscript: One friend mentioned that they didn’t get the joke. I’m hesitant to explain things since jokes are normally ruined by explanation. However, in this case the humor may be too much of an in-joke for general consumption, so I’ll give a little bit of explanation.

The name “crisis girl” was a nickname we gave to someone we knew who was kind of a drama addict – it seemed that their life was a continuing series of leaps from one crisis to another. I think we’ve all known someone at one time or another who couldn’t seem to get their life together. At first we feel sympathy and try to help, but after the Nth repetition we just get tired of it.

But “Crisis Girl” also sounds like the name of a comic superheroine.

So we envisioned a comic heroine who didn’t have any super powers – what was “special” about her was that lots of bad stuff happens to her all the time and she emotes about it a lot. (Sort of like “Mr. Furious” from Mystery Men.) So Crisis Girl has to handle a whole stack of increasingly trivial disasters, except that she’s too distracted to handle any of them because her dog has run away and she has to chase after it.

The reason I drew this is because the person we were making fun of heard about our little nickname, and said that we had to draw up a actual comic for it. So I did.


Posted June 30th, 2007 by Talin

One of the guiding principles of my political philosophy is a concept which I will call metapluralism, meaning “beyond pluralism”.

Pluralism is the political or philisopical stance that there is no “one true way”, and that the best outcome can only be gained through the interaction of competing ideas or organizations, depending on whether you are speaking of political pluralism (competition between interest groups) or philisophical pluralism (competition between theories.) James Madison was one of the earliest proponents of a pluralistic society. He felt that having many different factions rather than just a few would prevent destructive infighting.

True pluralism requires that these competing entities are able to coexist without attempting to destroy or harm one another – it requires a tolerance for other ideas and ways, and an intolerance for intolerance.

My own view is that it is necessary to take the idea of pluralism one step farther, and have competition between different pluralistic systems which all coexist in the same space – moreover, it may be that some of these “systems” are more pluralistic than others.

As an example, the free market is a pluralistic economy, in which there is no clear “winner” possessing an absolute formula for success. Some would say, then, that even though within the market there is no “one true way”, the idea of the market as a whole is the “true way” that we should follow.

I feel instead that the “system” of the market should compete with other, non-market systems, and there should be a great many such systems which all coexist are are accessible to everyone. So we have a free-market system, a regulatory system maintained by government, a system of non-profit and non-governmental organizations, a judicial system, an academic system, a system of competing religions and other worldviews, and so on.

Thus, in a capitalistic free-market system, even though the participants of the market may be diverse and distinct entities with their own unique characteristics, the logic of the market often constrains them to be have in a similar way. Once they step outside the pressures of the market, however, those contraints are lifted, and others put in their place, which means that the characteristic behavior will be very different. A typical businessman will be like other businessmen in that he is concerned about cash flow and profits, whereas a typical scientist will be concerned about citations and journals.

So in short, there is no one true system, let alone one true entity within any system.

I’m excited about OpenID

Posted June 25th, 2007 by Talin

I recently learned about OpenID, a new distributed single-sign-on technology, and I am very excited about it.

What problems does OpenID solve? At the moment I have accounts on several different web sites – my bank, my stock broker, online merchants, blogs, forums and many others. Each one has a username and password that I have to keep track of. Of course, like most people, I don’t have a different password for every site, instead I have a small number of passwords that I use at many different sites.

Single-sign-on gives you a way to combine these different accounts so that you can sign on to many different web sites with a single username and password. Once you log in to one of them, you are effectively logged in to all.

Up to this point, the only single-sign-on system that has widespread adoption is Microsoft’s Passport system. However, Passport is a centralized authentication system, which means that one single entity (Microsoft) now has the keys to everyone’s private information.

OpenID is a distributed authentication system, which means that there are many small providers – you can choose which company you want to be your OpenID provider. If you are an AOL or LiveJournal user, you already have an OpenID identity.

Here’s how it works: Suppose you want to create an account at some site – let’s say ma.gnolia, a popular social bookmarking site (much like del.icio.us). Normally you’d be asked to enter a username and password. But ma.gnolia also allows you to enter an OpenID identity instead. An OpenID identity is just a URL. Mine is http://talin.myopenid.com.

Now, when you sign on to ma.gnolia, instead of asking you for your username and password, it redirects you to your OpenID provider (which might be LiveJournal or AOL or in my case myOpenID.) You log in to that site just as you normally would. It then redirects you back to ma.gnolia, with a special bit of data that says “yes, this user is who he/she claims to be”. The ma.gnolia site never sees your user name or password, all they see is that the proof that you are who you say you are. You can even set it up so that you only have to log on once – the next time you come to ma.gnolia, you’ll just automatically log in, as long as you are already logged in to your provider.

So it’s pretty simple. You can have more than one OpenID if you need to have multiple identities. If you decide you don’t like your OpenID provider, there’s a way to forward OpenID requests to a new provider that you like better.

What’s exciting about this, however, it that is makes lots of stuff possible that wasn’t before. A quote that I heard recently and which very much sums up my feelings: “People keep asking me to join the LinkedIn network, but I’m already part of a social network – it’s called the Internet.”

Once we have a secure way to identify people online, and to maintain a persistent identity that travels with us, we can do all kinds of interesting friendster-like things on the web instead of having to be locked in to a single service like myspace or tribes or whatever. I’m also interested in distributed reputation systems – so I can list all of the people I trust, and anyone who trusts me can trust them in turn.

Python Programming Blog

Posted June 23rd, 2007 by Talin

I’ve decided to start a new topic on the Viridia blog which relates to my Python programming activities. This topic won’t appear on the front page of Viridia, but will be accessible via a separate URL.

Code Monkey

Posted June 2nd, 2007 by Talin

A song about a software developer and his secret yearnings.

Kudos to Mark Iennaco for sending me this link. I love it!

The Bible and Logic

Posted May 26th, 2007 by Talin

As a child I attended Catholic elementary school of a particularly traditional sort: I (along with my brother and three sisters) attended San Juan Capistrano Mission elementary school. This included going to mass in an adobe church every day, being taught by nuns (who I like to refer to as “frustrated women in the costume of a barbarian age”), and generally being inculcated with a sectarian world view. It seems like they did a rather poor job of it, at least in my case, since neither me nor any of my siblings have ever manifested even the slightest tendancy towards theistic belief once they reached adulthood, so fas as I can tell.

I was a very shy and isolated boy, and I didn’t have many friends. To amuse myself during breaks, I would often pretend that I was having a conversation with someone who knew absolutely nothing about humanity, such as an alien or a time traveller. I would imagine that this hypothetical conversant would ask me questions about the world, such as “why do you humans have war?”, and then I would go into a long discussion about the causes of violence and political tensions and so on. Of course, my knowledge of such things was rudimentary and naive, but in many cases I was able to give a reasonably logical answer to the question.

This mental excersize served a useful purpose, in that it helped me sort out my own knowledge, untangling all the kinks and reconciling inconsistencies in what I had been taught. It also served as practice for another sort of mental discipline, which is the knack of being able to step outside my own situation and try to look at things from the point of view of an outside observer – a really, far, far outside observer, one that is not even human. (Of couse, since I still possess human biology and instinct, I can never be 100% successful at this, but its still entertaining to try.)

In other contexts this is known as “jumping out of the system”. An example is playing chess: When you are playing chess your mind is caught up in a “chess system”, where your thoughts are concerned with the positions of the pieces, the opponent’s strategy, and so on, with little concern for things like world events or even the state of your immediate environment. However, when you jump out of the system, you are suddenly able to realize that you are in fact sitting in front of a chess board, playing chess with another person – and that you may choose at any moment to continue playing or not.

As a result of all this, I tended to view the things that I was taught in school from a slightly different perspective. For things like science and math, little internal examination was needed, since those things were clearly self-consistent and didn’t require much combing out of the kinks (and they even had live demonstrations – lab experiments – of the truth of what was being taught!) But other classes – history, geography, politics, and especially religion – required constant internal maintenance in order to keep my mind in a mostly harmonious state where everything made some kind of sense.

Now, all successful religions have methods for immunizing you against the fundamental logical inconsistencies of their sacred texts. One thing that I was taught – and I still believe this is true – is that you can’t make someone a believer (or an unbeliever) through logical argument. There is always a way to rationalize away the logical problems if you really want to – the key is making someone really want to. What I was taught was that the way to “convert” people is to be the kind of person that other people want to be – in other words, to behave so as to set a good example that other people will want to follow. Conversely, people who try to “convince” you that a particular worldview is true generally only succeed in coming off as obnoxious to the listener.

So I was never all that troubled by the logical inconsistencies in the Bible. What was far more troubling to me were the moral inconsistencies. It was clear to me, even at that age, that there were some things that I was being taught that were just plain morally wrong — wrong in the sense that they were in direct contradiction to the principles of “right and wrong” that were taught to me by the very same people.

For example, I was taught that it is morally wrong to unjustly cause suffering to other people and other creatures. At the same time, however, I was also taught that after death, some people will undergo an eternity of suffering in hell. I’m not talking about the watered-down hell that most preachers speak of today, which is merely “the absence of God”. I’m talking about real hellfire, lakes of fire, sadistic demons whose only purpose is to make you suffer forever, that sort of thing.

To this day I find this concept horrifying. What’s worse, is that my fertile imagination could conjure up far more horrifying torments than anything my teachers (or H. R. Giger, or H. P. Lovecraft) could describe. And of course, my perverse brain, like a rabbit caught in the headlights, could often find nothing better to do than to contemplate such horrors and invent new ones. Add to the list of human cruelties – teaching the concept of hell to an imaginative, creative child.

Now, suppose we even accept the idea that there is some sort of cosmic need for punishment (which I don’t neccessarily accept, but let’s take it as a given.) It would be “just” if the degree of punishment was in proportion to the degree of sin.

But human lives are finite, and the amount of sin we are capable of is also finite. Even if Hitler and Stalin, the greatest mass murderers in history, were to be held accountable for each death for which they were responsible, eventually that list must come to an end; Eventually one must cry “enough”. But hell is, or so I was taught, infinite. An infinity of suffering. There is no escape from Dante’s inferno. How is that justice?

Which leads to another problem, which is how are the people in Heaven supposed to be happy and joyful if there are these people down below being tortured? Don’t they have any compassion? Or are they so mean-spirited that they rejoice in the suffering of others? That doesn’t sound like any Heaven that I want to go to.

And then there’s this whole business of Christ dying for your sins. It doesn’t seem like much of a sacrifice when he gets rezzed three days later. Oh, sure you’ll go to jail for me, but you’ve already got a “get out of jail free” card? Oh, it’s a few hours of pain on the cross? I’ll admit that the Romans were pretty good at the torture biz, but women all over the world experience long hours of intense suffering during the process of childbirth every day.

And what does the suffering on the cross have to do with my sins anyway? Is this like one of those fictional hostage situations where the hero says “let them go, and take me instead”? In that case, who is the hostage taker? Why are they taking hostages in the first place, and if so, why would they allow an arbitrary substitution of victims? “I don’t care who gets punished, someone is going to suffer for this!”

And don’t get me started on the notion of original sin. How can a sin be “inherited”? That hardly seems like justice.

During my teenage years, all of these internal dilemmas caused me much misery. I knew for sure that I was destined for eternal suffering because I couldn’t force myself to accept the moral contradictions of the religion I had been taught. I worried myself sick over the fact that I wasn’t a “good person” – despite the fact that in every other aspect of my life I was good to a fault. (Well, perhaps not so much “good” as merely meek, unaggressive and generally cowed by a society of peers that didn’t seem to understand me very well.)

The only solution, for me, was to “jump out of the system” – to try and step outside the whole mental construction of religion and consider that maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t true. It took a long, long time for me to be comfortable with the idea that the whole thing might just be a story, and I cannot tell you how much of a relief it was to me once I accepted it.

A small digression: One of the things that helped me view religion as a social construction was reading fiction novels such as Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. The irony here is that I was first introduced to the book by a devout, evangelical christian – a self-proclaimed “jesus freak” who I knew briefly in high school, and who saw the book as supportive to her faith.

The views that I hold today are a reflection and an outgrowth of these experiences. As a result of my upbringing, I know far more about the Bible than most people realize. And – because of my tendancy to try and look at things from a non-human perspective – I can see that the Bible is a very human kind of book. And not just any human – it’s a book written by, and for, classical and medieval humans.

The Bible “feels” to me very much like the kind of story that humans in primitive societies would make up. For example, the notion that there is some kind of Cosmic Alpha Male, a “Lord” (meaning “Landowner”) seems to me the kind of thing that a person living in an authoritarian society might project onto the nature of the universe. The idea of a Kingdom of Heaven might make sense for a person who is used to living in kingdoms, but it doesn’t resonate with any of my experience.

If you subtract away the human perspective, there is nothing in nature that conforms to the “celestial kingdom” model of organization. Rather, the rule in nature is not one of top-down, authoritarian control, but rather bottom-up, emergent flows of competition and cooperation. Although some animals instinctively form themselves into authoritarian hierarchies, even these are dynamic systems, in which the alpha wolf can be challenged and replaced by a newer, younger model.

The stories in the Bible are stories about human nature – about love, and revenge, and politics. Some of the stories – such as the book of Job – are quite subtle, reflecting a fairly sophisticated calculus of right and wrong that is far more complex than the simple elementary-school morality I was taught. But even these books are based on a set of underlying premises that are at heart primitive and tribal.

To many of us, the idea of God seems reasonable and natural because we are surrounded with it from childhood, and because we are taught the idea from people who we love and respect. But only a human could dream up such a fantastic notion.

And only a human could believe it.

Virtual Theology

Posted May 20th, 2007 by Talin

As a science fiction fan, I’m less interested in the question “Does God Exist?”, than in the more speculative question “If God existed, what would he/she be like?”

The best attempt that anyone has ever done at answering this question was in Olaf Stapleton’s Star Maker (1937), which tells the story of a galactic civilization and its search to achieve contact with the creator. It describes a being whose primary characteristic is creativity, a being that has undergone an artistic evolution through the creation of many universes, of which ours is neither the first or the last.

However, I was thinking along somewhat different lines. The idea that we’re actually inside a computer simulation is a pretty old one. There’s an anthropic argument that says if simulating a universe is possible, then chances are we are in a simulation, since the simulation would likely be run many times.

Its also interesting to think that the person running the simulation might not be omniescent or infinitely smart – in fact, they might not even be as smart as we are. At least, one could make the argument that the whole reason for them running the simulation is to find the answer to some problem that they themselves aren’t capable of figuring out by themselves.

If scientists were to uncover evidence that this universe is inside a virtual machine, what consequences would that have? Would we owe any duty to the people responsible for creating the simulation? Would they owe any duty to us? How could we convince them to continue to spend resources running it?

One bit of evidence that points against the idea that we’re in a simulation is the fact that the universe is far larger than it needs to be to host a civilization such as ours. The only possible counter-arguments that I can think of are (a) the rest of the universe is being simulated at a lower resolution, (b) we will eventually use that extra space for something, or (c) that there are other civilizations out there that are already using it.

Python Development

Posted May 4th, 2007 by Talin

Lately I’ve been quite involved with the Python language, in particular discussions of the future evolution of the language on the various Python.org mailing lists. In fact, I’m currently the author (or in some cases co-author) of 4 Python Enhancement Proposals (PEPS):

Several of these have been officially accepted, others are still under consideration. Only the last one, 3119, has any significant unresolved issues.

In addition, it appears that I am going to be part of an informal discussion group at Google consisting of a number of Python developers – including Guido van Rossum, the creator of the language – who will be meeting regularly to discuss the ongoing development of the language.

I’m very excited about all of this, in partular I’ve been feeling for a long time a need to be “part of something” that I think is important, and more specifically part of a community.

First day at my new job!

Posted April 24th, 2007 by Talin

Today was my first day of work at Google. Most of the day was spent in orientation, however there are two interesting things to report: 1) The monitor on my desk is 30 inches. 2) My co-worker, sitting less than 10 feet away is the legendary Andy Hertzfeld.

New Music!

Posted April 19th, 2007 by Talin

I’ve just uploaded my latest composition, Anousheh’s Journey. Enjoy!