Real or virtual caving? What’s the difference?

Grjótagjá caves near Mývatn lake, Iceland. Fra...
Grjótagjá caves near Mývatn lake, Iceland. Français : Grotte et source de Grjótagjá près du lac Mývatn, en Islande. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A bit less than a year ago I posted about caves virtual and real. I’m going to expand a bit on this today.

I worked for many years as a Linux Systems Administrator, a job which I loved and to a large extent brought home with me. I run a number of Linux systems at home, including the computer that I am writing this on. I have a system that I refer to as my “server” which I use for backups and for things that might get in the way on my desk computer.

Tux, the Linux penguin
Tux, the Linux penguin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Minecraft was a craze some time ago I didn’t get involved at first but when my grandkids got into it I became interested. In Minecraft you can build elaborate structures, but to do so you need to find and extract the necessary materials, and, depending on the server that you are using, fight off automatic monsters (“mobs”) and other players.

I installed the Minecraft client, tried it out and liked what I saw. However, playing on other peoples’ servers soon became less than satisfactory. I didn’t like the unrealistic ability to “fly” (not fall down when unsupported by things) and the combative aspects of the game were found on many servers.

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So, I investigated and tried running my own Minecraft server. This is possible, and not particularly tricky, you still have to pay for the client. There’s nothing wrong with paying for things, of course, and I did pay for it, but being a Linux user I’m always interested in seeing if there is a free version out there. Not of the actual Minecraft naturally, but of a similar program.

Minetest is a very similar program to Minecraft, works in much the same way, but is free, and there were Linux packages available, meaning that the install was simple. So I installed the packages and started playing. (I later downloaded the source code and compiled it, but that is another story. The packages worked fine).

Install debian
Install debian (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pretty much everything that you can do in Minecraft you can also do in Minetest. The differences are minor. So everything I say from here on will probably apply to either program.

The game is all about assembling resources to build things, and you assemble resources mainly by mining. You whack a block (say stone) with a tool (say a steel pickaxe) and it disappears and appears in your inventory. When you have enough blocks you can build a wall of them by taking them from your inventory and placing them appropriately. That is the start of your fortress or palace.

English: Old house with flint front wall, John...
English: Old house with flint front wall, Johnson Street, Ludham This house on the A1062 has a beautiful front wall made of squared-off blocks of flint. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A plain stone building is boring, so you will want to acquire some fancy blocks to smarten it up and that is where the game shines. You can make fancy blocks to place on your building, but to do that you need to acquire resources and fabricate or “craft” them. The resources are found under the ground, which requires you to dig down to get them, which is of course where the “Mine” part of the name comes from.

If you dig downwards (on a slope, so that you can return to the surface eventually) you will sooner or later encounter a void or space where there are no blocks. Hopefully you will avoid falling to the bottom and dying. If you carefully climb down to the bottom of the void you are are the bottom of a virtual cave.

The Cave Automatic Virtual Environment at EVL,...
The Cave Automatic Virtual Environment at EVL, University of Illinois at Chicago. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The cave may have blocks which look slightly different to the normal blocks. These blocks contain resources, usually ores, that can be collected and used to make other special blocks. For instance a block with iron ores in it can be used to make steel ingots, which can then be used to make steel pickaxes and other useful tools.

The game’s caves are similar in many ways to real caves. The topography of the caves is varied, with narrow passageways in some places, deep clefts in others, potholes, and sometimes openings to the surface.

English: Middle Washfold There are several cav...
English: Middle Washfold There are several caves and pothole entrances near here. The top layer of limestone pavement seems separate from the rock beneath which has eroded in a different way. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course it is dark underground. That means that you need to manufacture torches and carry them in your inventory if venturing underground. A torch placed on the wall will illuminate a small area of the cavern leaving dark voids beyond the torchlight which might be interesting to explore!

The game’s caves often have, just like real caves, uneven floors and there will be much jumping over obstacles, and climbing up and down. Some caves do have flatter floors, as do many real caves.

English: Subglacial pothole on Pothole Dome.
English: Subglacial pothole on Pothole Dome. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some game caves have sloping floor, much like a staircase, and the roof also may slope down, giving the impression of a sloping slit, as is often found in real caves. It is not advisable to skip down the slope into the darkness, of course, as the slope may end in a drop, as may also be found in a real cave.

Game caves are often elongated, just like real caves, and may form large interlinked caverns. Cross passages may start way up on the walls of the caverns, just as happens in real caves. It’s often possible to travel some distance more or less horizontally before one has to climb up or down to continue.

Game caves do not often contain water, which is unlike most real caves, and when they do the water is either in the form of a waterfall or a lake. Long flowing river of water are not common in game caves. Sometimes a cave will contain a lake of lava, or a lava fall which often looks spectacular. Both lava and water may form short flows but will quickly “seep” into the rocks.

Some of the potholes are spectacular. As they are underground and dark, one cannot see the bottom. Often they can edged or mined around and descended that way. Looking back up one can see the torches that one placed on the way down as tiny lights, often to spectacular effect.

An abandoned mine near Yerington, Nevada, Unit...
An abandoned mine near Yerington, Nevada, United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve explored both real caves and game caves, there is a great deal of similarity in the experience. In both cases, one has only limited visibility around one, one has a sense of void, and a sense that one may fall. There’s the thrill of discovery as one explores, and a sense of achievement. Unfortunately in the game caves, there are no stalactites and stalagmites to decorate the cave, but perhaps someone will write some in some time.

Entrance to the REACTOR, at the , a cultural /...
Entrance to the REACTOR, at the , a cultural / history museum in Athens. The REACTOR is a CAVE virtual reality system sold by Trimension. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)




Crime and Punishment

English: Donald Trump at a press conference an...
English: Donald Trump at a press conference announcing David Blaine’s latest feat in New York City at the Trump Tower. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Donald Trump got into trouble the other for, if you read the media, suggesting that women who seek abortions should be punished if abortion was made illegal in the US. Much as I dislike the Trump and fear for the US and possibly the world if he should become president, he is right.

It’s the conditional that makes the difference. If abortion was to be made illegal, it would make it a crime, and all crimes have an associated punishment. I think that Trump made a political misstep, and that he should have stood firm on the matter, explaining the logic of his statement.

A bar chart depicting selected data from the 1...
A bar chart depicting selected data from the 1998 AGI meta-study on the reasons women stated for having an abortion. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He doesn’t even have to support the outlawing of abortion. He just has to explain the logic. Of course, if abortion were illegal, then the doctors and nurses who perform the operation would also be help responsible and punished. But if abortion were ruled illegal then the woman seeking the abortion would be breaking the law, and that implies punishment.

I personally believe that abortion, per se, should never be made illegal, although it should not be treated as just another birth control method, and should not be undertaken casually by the woman, or casually by the doctors and nurses. Clearly something living dies in the process.

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The Trump got caught out by knee-jerk and politically based reactions all round. Logically, the stand makes sense – if a crime is committed, then the perpetrators should be punished. Trump wisely backed down on this position in the case of a hypothetical law, and may have missed his chance at the presidency because of this political gaffe on a hypothetical situation!

Crime and punishment go together like Adam and Eve, like right and left, like good and evil, like a fine rump steak and a good Cab Sav. Ahem. As a determinist, I feel that choice is illusory and that the apparent choices that we make in fact depend totally on past events that narrow down our options to just one.

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Let’s take the case of a woman who “chooses” to have an abortion. She may have been informed that this is the safest option by medical specialists, she may be carrying a child who will not be viable when delivered because of genetic and other defect, or she may unable to care for a child for whatever reason. There is always a reason.

The woman balances all the information that comes to her and uses that information to “choose” to have an abortion. What really happens is that all the factors added together result in her trying to get an abortion.

English: Female demonstrator wearing a hat in ...
English: Female demonstrator wearing a hat in Madrid. It says “Abortion is my freedom, my choice.” She protested against Pope visit to Spain. Español: Chica manifestante con un sombrero en Madrid. Protesta contra la visita del papa a España. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You could of course argue that she could/should have decided to have the baby and adopt it out (assuming that the child is viable outside the womb, but that option is often not viable.

In general, punishment of a criminal is used to deter other criminals (and the criminal his/her self) from committing a similar crime in the future. Punishment should always give the criminal and similar people like him/her pause for thought. It is a factor that determines whether or not someone commits the crime in the future.

Crime and Punishment
Crime and Punishment (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When a criminal is thinking about committing a crime he/she will (consciously or unconsciously) consider the implications. If he/she chances it anyway, that will be because the pros outweigh the cons from their point of view at the time, not as a result of any free choice.

If someone is starving they may well steal a loaf of bread as one of the pros in the case may be continuing to live. This trumps any cons there may be if the person is desperate enough. Of course the person may be caught and fined or imprisoned or even transported to Australia, but at least he/she will be alive!

Tolpuddle Martyrs' Memorial Shelter, Tolpuddle...
Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Memorial Shelter, Tolpuddle Tolpuddle, Dorset, UK. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The justice system still works even if the concept of choice is removed. The person who commits a crime does so because they cannot do otherwise, and any punishment is merely the result of the actions that the person is destined to take. Such punishment is seen by others and becomes a factor that is considered when another person is contemplating a similar crime.

All the factors that go into the mental consideration of committing a crime result in either the crime being committed or not. They don’t result in a choice being made as the factors involved result in the person committing the crime or alternatively the factors may add up to the person not committing the crime.

English: 'Campus Watch' sign, Belfast One of d...
English: ‘Campus Watch’ sign, Belfast One of dozens erected around the university area of Belfast, this sign promotes the ‘Campus Watch’ scheme for students. Developed by the police in Belfast in partnership with the Northern Ireland Office, University of Ulster & Queen’s Students’ Union, it is similar to a neighbourhood watch scheme and promotes practical crime prevention for students. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you get people to “make a choice” where they have no sufficiently compelling reason to “choose” one way or another, they find it very difficult to do so. For example if you put a person in a room with two unmarked buttons and told them to push a button when a buzzer went, I’d say that they would initially have great difficulty, but once they had pushed a button once, it would become easier, I suspect.

If asked why they pushed one button on the third trial, they might reply that they had pressed the other button twice so it was the button’s turn to be pressed. Consciously or unconsciously I’d suggest that they would be led to make the choices random.

English: 'Arcade Button' photo by Daniel, free...
English: ‘Arcade Button’ photo by Daniel, free to use (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If the experimenter then pauses the test and mentions that the subject had favoured one button over the other and then continued, I’d guess that this would cause the subject to favour the unfavoured button more. I have no idea if such experiments have been done.

We are machines of meat, and machines don’t have any choice – they behave in a way that is built in, or lately, programmed in. Would you punish a machine that gives an answer that doesn’t satisfy you? You’d maybe add a new input into the machine to achieve a desired result.

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In humans punishment is a new input. It could affect the result of the calculation that the brain makes and hence the human would come up with a result different to the result that would be observed without the punishment. Perhaps if or when machines become intelligent, it may be that we will need to introduce the concept of punishment to make them do what is required. Let’s hope not.

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English: Cumulus cloud above Lechtaler Alps, A...
English: Cumulus cloud above Lechtaler Alps, Austria. Español: Nube cumulus sobre los Alpes austriacos. Deutsch: Cumuluswolke über Lechtaler Alpen, Österreich. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Clouds are collections of water droplets suspended in the air. A cloud is formed as the water vapour in the air condenses onto particles of dust or other water droplets. The water in a cloud weighs tonnes! It’s a good job that the droplets don’t have time to coalesce into great balls of water before they reach the ground, but I suppose that to insects a droplet is a huge ball of water, and able to cause havoc.

As anyone who has flown in an aircraft is likely to know, clouds are not well defined, and in fact they could be described as nebulous or hazy. From a mathematical point of view they are fractal and the fractal dimension (a measure of their fuzziness) varies depending on the cloud.

Fractal plant curve, made using an L-system
Fractal plant curve, made using an L-system (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A common pastime on a summer’s day is to imagine shapes in the clouds. That one may look vaguely like a car, that one like a dog, and so on. But really, the only shape that clouds have is “cloud-like“.

There are many types of cloud shape, depending on the conditions and the altitude where the cloud is forming, but the usual depiction of a cloud generally looks like a cumulus type. This type forms the usual shape like piles of cotton wool in the sky, with mountain, canyons, and even castles.

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There is always water vapour in the air, even if it doesn’t form clouds, although we cannot see it. As I said above, clouds are formed when this water vapour condenses on small particles in the air (and other conditions are right). Sometimes there are attempts to make rain by “seeding” a cloud with small particles to increase the rate of condensation and thus increasing the size of the water droplets.

At a certain  size the droplets become to big to be buoyed up by the air and start to fall, picking up more moisture as they do. As I understand it, this cloud seeding process is limited in its success, but I may be wrong.

Cessna 210 (OE DSD), rebuilt for cloud seeding...
Cessna 210 (OE DSD), rebuilt for cloud seeding, with 2 silver iodide generators (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Clouds sometimes form at ground level, if the conditions are right, and then we call them fogs or mists. This often happens when light rain is falling and there is a lot of moisture in the air, but it can happen simply because the conditions are right.

Living where I do, I occasionally have reason to visit the local airport in Wellington. The airport is situation on a section of land that was brought up by a an earthquake, so that it is on a narrow stretch of land between two sets of hills. Over the hills to the East of the airport is the entrance to the Wellington Harbour.

English: Aerial view of the Miramar Peninsula,...
English: Aerial view of the Miramar Peninsula, Wellington, New Zealand. Wellington International Airport is visible and the beach just above the left-hand end of the runway is Lyall Bay. Downtown Wellington city, the harbour and port can be seen in the distance. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On several occasions I have seen sea mist roll in from Cooks Strait to the South and extends tongues of thick mist over the airport and the Harbour entrance. This causes the airport to shut down until the conditions have cleared, spoiling the travel plans of hundreds of people.

Other clouds which are familiar to many are the stratus clouds. These clouds are layers which cover all or most of the sky under some conditions. They often presage rain or other forms of precipitation. Stratus clouds range from light to dark and in many cases might cause a drop in one’s spirits.

English: Stratus undulatus clouds. I took this...
English: Stratus undulatus clouds. I took this picture out the car window on the way to Vancouver. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Certainly the dark stratus has that effect on me, and there is little that is more spectacular than breaking through a layer of cloud in a plane. The tops of the clouds will be brightly lit by the sun, and sometimes whorls or rivers of cloud can be seen from above.

The tops of the clouds can be quite lumpy and cumulus-like, and descending into the clouds is like descending into mountains and canyons and the lumps and bumps of the cloud can whizz past like scenery on a train, until the plane finally breaks through the greyer, darker ceiling of the cloud layer.

English: "The two main cloud types are St...
English: “The two main cloud types are Stratocumulus mixing with Cumulus in the foreground with Cumulus beyond” ~ Identified by (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, broken stratus clouds are the clouds which produce amazing sunsets as the sun drops through the layers and gaps in the clouds. Very often a beam of sun breaks through a stratus layer and lights up the water droplets or dust producing what looks like a column of light. These rays are known as crepuscular rays.

Add to that the amazing colours that result from the breakthrough sun beams and the dust and water droplets and sunsets can be very beautiful, even if the sun light is in fact refracting or reflecting from pollution in the air.

Crepuscular Rays and over
Crepuscular Rays and over (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When the sun has gone below the horizon, it can still illuminate clouds above the horizon causing them to glow with an orange light, as the blue light is absorbed by the thick layer of atmosphere these rays which are almost tangential to the earth’s surface have to pass through.

Cumulus clouds are often sought out by glider pilots, since they are often formed by an up welling of air over a particularly warm piece of land. The up welling of air provides the glider pilot with extra lift, which allows them to travel vast distances, but a downside is that some clouds can be chaotic and turbulent. Birds will often guide a pilot to the up draughts there is no cloud.

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Another totally different sort of cloud has appeared over recent years, and that is the Internet cloud. The Internet cloud is also somewhat nebulous, and allows us to take a photograph on one device (computer phone or tablet) and view it almost immediately on another device.

The cloud (often the Cloud) also allows for automatic backups for devices – if your device implodes or is lost or stolen, your data is safe. Mostly. For if you sync (synchronise) your device with the Cloud, and then delete a photograph, it will shortly be removed from the Cloud and lost.

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To prevent data loss, you can backup to somewhere else on the cloud, so there are two (or more) cloud copies, or you can backup to a local computer or local storage, so that if you delete something by mistake you can always get it back. As anyone in the computer business will tell you, one backup is never enough!

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It’s History

The Sunken Road at Waterloo, painting by Stanl...
The Sunken Road at Waterloo, painting by Stanley Berkley, from A History of the Nineteenth Century, Year by Year, Edwin Emerson, Jr., 1902. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was never any good at history. That’s probably because I couldn’t get straight in my mind who was battling who and for what reason and for how long and so on. Later I came across the concept that history is written by the victors. This makes sense to me in some ways but the losers will still have their point of view and will likely instruct their children according to that point of view.

So while one side may say that a battle was a heroic victory over huge odds, the other party may describe the heroic resistance against huge odds. One side might add that an ally came to the rescue at the last minute while the other side might mention a traitorous change of allegiance of a former ally.

English: US and Iraqi Army Soldiers guard bord...
English: US and Iraqi Army Soldiers guard borders in Iraq (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In wars before the twentieth century it might be that the average person would be unlikely to see any military action or even be directly affected by a war or battle. Of course, the authorities might increase taxes and conscript young men, but most people would not have seen any fighting.

Communication about the battles and the progress of the war would have been hit and miss. An injured person on their way home after fighting would no doubt have little idea of what was actually happening either on the small scale of the actual battle or on the wider canvas of the whole campaign.

English: trench listening to a handmade crysta...
English: trench listening to a handmade crystal radio during the First World War 1914-1918 . Français : poste à crystal utilisé durant la première guerre mondiale 1914-1918 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anyone who has taken part in any sort of war games, such as paint-ball or capture the flags type games, will know that an awful lot of running through undergrowth and an awful lot of lying in wait is involved, and an awful lot of not knowing what is happening. In older times, it could be that what is going on 100 metres away would not be known.

A lot of ancient warfare was waged based on intelligence brought in by scouts and observers. That’s why armies always try to take higher ground, as it gives you a better view of the field of battle and it also can be defended by fewer people. The disadvantage of course is that a patch of higher ground can be surrounded and isolated.

English: View across Gordano Valley View acros...
English: View across Gordano Valley View across Gordano Valley from Tickenham near Cadbury Camp. The south Wales coast can be seen on the horizon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Scouts and observers can of course be mistaken. That “100 or so” men that were spotted may actually be many more, or it may even be a contingent of one’s own troops or allies which are out of position. A scout also risks his life by approaching as close to the enemy as he can.

Such intelligence as filters back to the commanders is obviously flawed and incomplete. They probably don’t know too much about the country that they are invading, whereas the locals may possibly have a better idea of the lay of the land. Maps may be incomplete or inaccurate, and may even have been built up directly from the intelligence.

The Map Room in the Churchill Museum and Cabin...
The Map Room in the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The commanders then need to deploy their troops according to their best knowledge and the intelligence. As a result they may send off troops to places where they may be easily overwhelmed or may be ineffective.

The commanders will instruct their platoon commanders on the objectives for their troops but once the platoon commanders reach their positions they are pretty much on their own. Chaos inevitably ensues, in spite of any attempts to keep order.

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Signals are used for communication, bugle calls, semaphores, runners and other methods are used to try to give the overall commanders an idea of what is happening at the front lines. Inevitably messages will go astray and orders will be misunderstood and this may well turn the tide of battle.

Perhaps this is why I was no good at history. When one is taught about the battle of Waterloo for example, one learns that Wellington deployed his troops here and here and that Napoleon attacked here and here and the Prussian army attacked here and here. While these statements may cover the actual flow of the battle, much of this will have been rationalised after the event.

Am Morgen nach der Schlacht von Waterloo Detai...
Am Morgen nach der Schlacht von Waterloo Detail John Heaviside Clarke (1771 – 1863) England, um 1816 Öl auf Leinwand aus der ständigen Sammlung des Deutschen Historischen Museum, Berlin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On a wider scale, take Napoleon for example. He is described in Wikipedia as “one of the most celebrated and controversial political figures in Western history”. From the English point of view he is the villain of the piece but I suspect that to many on his side he was a hero. There is no doubt that he was respected even by his enemies as a brilliant politician and military leader.

On the principal of “history is written by the victors” mentioned above, if Napoleon had won, and should France have held sway over England, then no doubt he would have been painted either as a benevolent leader or as a heavy-handed dictator, depending on his acceptance or rejection by England. By “England” I mean the politicians and powerful in the country. The “man in the field” probably wouldn’t care too much, unless it affected him in some way.

English: One of the signatures of Napoleon Bon...
English: One of the signatures of Napoleon Bonaparte (1804), made with Inkscape by David Torres Costales (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

History, to my mind, attributes intent much more than is justified, which renders it debatable at the least. We read that Country A pushed into a region in order to cut off Country B from some resource or other. More likely Country A had the opportunity and the resources to be able to expand into the region while Country B failed to do so because of lack of foresight, opportunity or resources.

So the expansion of Country A would have more to do with young men seeing the opportunities and travelling to the colonies to make their fortunes than any real plans by the government of Country A.

Canadian CF-18 Hornets participated in combat ...
Canadian CF-18 Hornets participated in combat during the Gulf War. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Baudrillard published some articles on the Gulf War, the last of which is entitled “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place“. He disputed the history of the events in the Gulf as presented.

Firstly he argued that, because of the superior air power of the Americans, they did not actually come into actually engage in conflict with the Iraqi army, and therefore the events could not be really considered to be a war.

Ex-Iraqi BMP-1 IFV captured by the US forces i...
Ex-Iraqi BMP-1 IFV captured by the US forces in Iraq during the First Persian Gulf War. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Secondly he argued that the view of the war as presented by the media which was fed, not from actual events but mainly from the propaganda machine of the American military and as such it presented only one point of view, that of the Americans.

History will present the Gulf War and the American handling of it in overwhelmingly positive light. History has been written by the Americans for better or worse, as the victors in this event. I’m not arguing that history is wrong. Just that it presents a picture and that picture may ignore many important aspects of an event and we should be wary of official histories.

Braine-l'Alleud Belgium, Lions' Hillock. - Com...
Braine-l’Alleud Belgium, Lions’ Hillock. – Commemorative monument of the Battle of Waterloo standing on the spot where the Prince of Orange was wounded during the fight. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



Philosophy and Science

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Philosophy can be described, not altogether accurately, as the things that science can’t address. With the modern urge to compartmentalise things, we designate some problems as philosophy and science, and conveniently ignore the fuzzy boundary between the two disciplines.

The ancient Greek philosophers didn’t appear to distinguish much between philosophy and science as such, and the term “Natural Philosophy” described the whole field before the advent of science. The Scientific Revolution of Newton, Leibniz and the rest had the effect of splitting natural philosophy into science and philosophy.

Statue of Isaac Newton at the Oxford Universit...
Statue of Isaac Newton at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Note apple. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Science is (theoretically at least) build on observations. You can’t seriously believe a theory that contradicts the facts, although there is a get-out clause. You can believe such a theory if you have an explanation as to why it doesn’t fit the facts, which amounts to having an extended theory that includes a bit that contains the explanation for the discrepancy.

Philosophy however, is intended to go beyond the facts. Way beyond the facts. Philosophy asks question for example about the scientific method and why it works, and why it works so well. It asks why things are the way they are and other so called “deep” questions.

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One of the questions that Greek philosopher/scientists considered was what everything is made of. Some of them thought that it was made up four elements and some people still do. Democritus had a theory that everything was made up of small indivisible particles, and this atomic theory is a very good explanation of the way things work at a chemical level.

Democritus and his fellow philosopher/scientists had, it is true, some evidence to go and to be fair so did those who preferred the four elements theory, but the idea was more philosophical in nature rather than scientific, I feel. While it was evident that while many substances could be broken down into their components by chemical method, some could not.

Antoine Lavoisier developed the theory of comb...
Antoine Lavoisier developed the theory of combustion as a chemical reaction with oxygen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So Democritus would have looked at a lump of sulphur, for example, and considered it to be made up of many atoms of sulphur. The competing theory of the four elements however can’t easily explain the irreducible nature of sulphur.

My point here is that while these theories explained some of the properties of matter, the early philosopher/scientists were not too interested in experimentation, so these theories remained philosophical theories. It was not until the Scientific Revolution arrived that these theories were actually tested, albeit indirectly and the science of chemistry took off.

Model for the Three Superior Planets and Venus...
Model for the Three Superior Planets and Venus from Georg von Peuerbach, Theoricae novae planetarum. Image enhanced for legibility. The abbreviations in the center of the diagram read: C[entrum] æquantis (Center of the equant) C[entrum] deferentis (Center of the deferent) C[entrum] mundi (Center of the world) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Before that, chemical knowledge was very run by recipes and instructions. Once scientists realised the implications of atomic theory, they could predict chemical reactions and even weigh atoms, or at least assign masses to atoms, and atomic theory moved from philosophy to science.

That’s not such a big change as you might think. Philosophy says “I’ve got some vague ideas about atoms”. Science says “Based on observations, your theory seems good and I can express your vague ideas more concretely in these equations. Things behave as if real atoms exist and that they behave that way”. Science cannot say that things really are that way, or that atoms really exist as such.

English: Adenine_chemical_structure + atoms nu...
English: Adenine_chemical_structure + atoms numbers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Indeed, when scientists took a closer look at these atom things they found some issues. For instance the (relative) masses of the atoms are mostly pretty close to integers. Hydrogen’s mass is about 1, Helium’s is about 4, and Lithium’s is about 7. So far so tidy. But Chlorine’s mass is measured as not being far from 35.5.

This can be resolved if atoms contain constituent particles which cannot be added or removed by chemical reactions. A Chlorine atom behaves as if it were made up of 17 positive particles and 18 or 19 uncharged particles of more or less the same mass. If you measure the average mass of a bunch of Chlorine atoms, it will come out at 35.5 (ish). Problem solved.

English: Chlorine gas
English: Chlorine gas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Except that it has not been solved. Democritus’s atoms (it means “indivisibles”) are made up of something else. The philosophical problem is still there. If atoms are not indivisible, what are their component particles made of? The current answer seems to be that they are made of little twists of energy and probability. I wouldn’t put money on that being the absolute last word on it though. Some people think that they are made up of vibrating strings.

All through history philosophy has been raising issues without any regard for whether or not the issues can be solved, or even put to the test. Science has been taking issues at the edges of philosophy and bringing some light to them. Philosophy has been taking issues at the edge of science and conjecturing on them. Often such conjectures are taken back by science and moulded into theory again. Very often the philosophers who conjecture are the scientists who theorise, as in famous scientists like Einstein, Schroedinger and Hawking.

:The Black Hole, Los Alamos
:The Black Hole, Los Alamos (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The end result is that the realm of philosophy is reduced somewhat in some places and the realm of science is expanded to cover those areas. But the expansion of science suggests new areas for philosophy. To explain some of the features of quantum mechanics some people suggest that there are many “worlds” or universes rather than just the one familiar to us.

This is really in the realm of philosophy as it is, as yet, unsupported by any evidence (that I know of, anyway). There are philosophers/scientists on both sides of the argument so the issue is nowhere near settled and the “many worlds interpretation” of quantum mechanics is only one of many interpretations. The problem is that quantum mechanics is not intuitively understandable.

Diagram of one interpretation of the Nine Worl...
Diagram of one interpretation of the Nine Worlds of Norse Mythology. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The “many worlds interpretation” at least so far the Wikipedia article goes, views reality as a many branched tree. This seems unlikely as probabilities are rarely as binary as a branched tree. Probability is a continuum, like space or time, and it is likely that any event is represented on a dimension of space, time, and probability.

I don’t know if such a possibility makes sense in terms of the equations, so that means that I am practising philosophy and not science! Nevertheless, I like the idea.

Displacement of a continuum body, from a refer...
Displacement of a continuum body, from a reference configuration to the current configuration. Continuum mechanics. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Updates and Upgrades

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I have currently got computer issues so this week’s posting has not been written.😱 I’m writing this as a placeholder until I can catch up. The subject will be, as above, “upgrades”.

One of the joys of using a computer is applying the updates that come out for the operating system and applications. With a multitude of computing devices that a person has these days, this can be time consuming.

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On desktop computers running the Windows operating system, this can be made pretty much invisible, but on phones and tablets, and on other operating systems this can be a chore.

Most updates are for applications and not for the operating system itself, but often a user may have no idea of the difference. A tech-savvy person asks what operating system a user is using, expecting to hear “8.1” or “7” or even “Vista” or “XP” he/she is surprised to be told “Internet Explorer” or even “GMail”.

Screenshot of Android 4 on Galaxy Nexus
Screenshot of Android 4 on Galaxy Nexus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An application upgrade is usually benign and the user will not notice any difference as the changes will be behind the scenes, but now and then a user visible change is made and the user often thinks that his machine is broken.

Geeks often have a quiet snigger at this but it is a bit unfair. The user is using the computer as a tool, and tools as a rule do not change. A spanner doesn’t suddenly overnight change from Imperial sizes to Metric sizes and the computer user is not unreasonable in expecting his/her computer to not suddenly change.

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Some updates however are far from benign, causing data loss or serious computer issues. Those not of the “Windows World” frequently blame Microsoft for such issues, but when there are billions of users out there, using different hardware configurations, it is not surprising that things occasionally break. Nastily!

When I talk about the “Windows World”, I am talking about the users of the Microsoft Windows operating system, by far the largest group of computer users. Until recently the other major groups of users were the “Mac World” and the “Linux World”, but more recently these have been joined by the “Apple World” and the “Android World”.

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Since Macs are made by Apple, arguable the “Mac World” and the “Apple World” are the same, but by the “Apple World” I mean those users of iPads, iPhones and even the iPod. The “Mac World” refers to users of desktop and laptop Macintosh computers.

The application updates are arguably more visible on handheld devices and owners of such devices may be notified two or more times a week that such and such an app needs updating or has been automatically updated. It’s not too much of an issue, but naive users may not be performing the necessary couple of clicks to update the apps.

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Of course, by taking this course they may be missing out on security and stability fixes or fixes for serious bugs, to them the risk of fiddling with their devices may seem higher, and I can understand that.

Computer users, especially naive users, develop a pattern of working, a “workflow” if you like that suits them and works around any bugs or issues in their apps. No wonder they get furious when their workflow is disrupted! In one case, (reputedly) a computer user who had her machine updated was outraged that her icon had “gone”, when in fact it had moved to a different line.

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It’s easy to laugh at such happenings, but really, one should try to see here point of view. The icon did something when she clicked. It had moved and even if it looked the same in its new position, she could not be sure that it would do the same thing.

If a more sophisticated user were to notice that an icon had moved, they would probably assume that it would work the same, and in 99.99…. per cent of the time they would be correct. But the naive user did not know the odds and of course, she was correct in that there was a non-zero possibility that the icon would behave differently.

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There is a subtle difference between an update and an upgrade, I believe. I don’t know if it is an official definition, but when updates are mentioned I feel that such changes should be minor and with little visible impact. Updates may be changes made to applications and to the operating system itself, but the key feature is that they do change functionality or user workflow fundamentally, and would predominately be bug fixes or small enhancements.

Upgrades on the other hand, would be more fundamental changes and may result in majorly changed functionality and workflows, like the changes between Windows 7 and Windows 8. The change between Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 would probably be an update rather than an upgrade, but this one is marginal.

Tux, the Linux penguin
Tux, the Linux penguin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m in the “Linux World” and my desktop runs Ubuntu. I’ve recently upgraded to version 14.10 (also known as Utopic Unicorn) and I had a number of issues, none of which was a show stopper, but some of which were annoying. I’ve previously upgraded successfully with few issues, but maybe I accumulated too much junk.

I definitely don’t think that the issue is with Utopic Unicorn as the forums don’t have posts which relate to my issues, which they would if it were a general issue, so it is something related to my own setup, most likely.

Official Ubuntu circle with wordmark. Replace ...
Official Ubuntu circle with wordmark. Replace File:Former Ubuntu logo.svg. Español: logo de Ubuntu + marca denominativa Français : Logo officiel d’Ubuntu. Remplace File:Former Ubuntu logo.svg. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So I’ve reinstalled, which has taken some time. There is one niggly issue that should be fixed shortly, but I was without access to some essentials, like Facebook and GMail on my desktop machine, for a day or two. Fortunately I was able to access these absolute essentials on my tablet (Android) and phone (also Android).

During this time I had to fix my daughter in law’s Windows laptop and upgrade the iPad to the newest version of IOS. Now my Android phone wants to upgrade to Android version 5.0 (also known as “Lollipop”). I think that I will wait for version 5.0.1 or 5.1!

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Grandad’s a Geek!!


The original geeks were sideshow performers who did disgusting things like disembowelling a chicken and eating it raw. They often had mental issues and lived in squalid conditions, maybe even cages. They might be billed as “a savage from the depths of darkest Africa” or some such nonsense but more likely they were just people who had sunk to the bottom of society and had fallen in with the carnival. Alcoholics who would work for a bottle of moonshine would reputedly sometimes  act the wild man for the carnival.

The film “Nightmare Alley” tells the story of one such geek, from his start as a sane and relatively normal person, who joins a carnival and works his way up to fame and fortune, only for his world to collapse around him, to his final fate as the alcoholic carnival geek.

Nightmare Alley

The word “geek” (together with the similar word “gook”) has been used as a derogatory term for Asian people by Americans and others during war time. Troops were supposedly encouraged to use such terms in order to “dehumanize” the people of the countries which were being fought in or over. Hence the connotations of dislike that comes with the word.

The word “geek” meaning a clever person may possibly have its origins in the United Kingdom. It’s possible that its use in this sense may have arisen when the word which had been used to target overseas people was instead used to target unlikeable  people much closer to home! The person who top scored in all tests and had no social graces became known as a “geek”. Of course, in some cases the so-called “geek” eventually by virtue of his smartness became the employer of those who belittled him at school.


In the highly technical world that we live in, the “geek” naturally became a wanted person and while the term is still often used in the derogatory sense, it can be a term of back-handed admiration, and the term is often proudly asserted by the geeks themselves. Indeed, having worked in Computers and Information Technology for all of my working life, I somewhat proudly consider myself to be a “geek”.

79-365 I am a computer geek!

The techno-heroes of the current day are the likes of Bill Gates of Microsoft, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and Ronald Wayne of Apple, and Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard of Hewlett Packard. There  is a sort of sense of awe that these geeks have achieved so much.

Latter day geeks have had films made about them. The founder of Facebook, Mark Zucherberg has been portrayed in a film, in a not so flattering light, I understand, not having seen the film. The school geek appears late on in the film “Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion” to whisk the eponymous heroines off in his helicopter.

Cover of "Romy and Michele's High School ...

“Geeks”, “boffins”, “back room boys” have existed in every era of history, no doubt. They are relied upon to produce the technical goods while being regarded both as humorous and not quite normal. However their status has risen of late, driven by the vast technological boom that pretty much started during the Second World War. The Dambusters, the Enigma machine and the atomic bomb all came from that era and after the war the boom exploded.

ENIGMA cipher machine collection
ENIGMA cipher machine collection (Photo credit: brewbooks)

Geeks and computers go together. In the beginning, in the late 1940s, large machines started to appear in back rooms, tended by men and some women in white coats. These mysterious machines performed strange calculations and the geeks in control were treated like high priests of some mystery cult.

At this time a relatively new company called IBM rose to prominence and dominated the new field of computing. Mainframe computers as they were called swiftly spread to many companies, and special rooms were built to house the multitude of beige cabinets that formed a mainframe computer system. By the 1980s there were many computers performing many different tasks and companies began to depend on them.

English: IBM Personal Computer model 5150 with...
English: IBM Personal Computer model 5150 with monochrome phosphor monitor (model number 5151) and IBM PC keyboard. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However there were smaller, simpler computers starting to appear. Many households of that era would have had a Sinclair or Commodore or Atari computer on which to play games. IBM introduced a computer of this size, the IBM Personal Computer, but then they dropped the ball. While IBM is still one of the biggest companies in the world, they did not really embrace this technology, allowing the rise of the PC.

IBM System/360 at the Computer History Museum.
IBM System/360 at the Computer History Museum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One company did embrace the technology and realised that the way to make the big money was not to provide the hardware, but to provide the software that ran on it and Microsoft became its rise to prominence, like IBM before it, and the Microsoft Operating System became dominant, and is still dominant today.

1993 - Grandad's old computer setup, Irith -
1993 – Grandad’s old computer setup, Irith – (Photo credit: Rev. Xanatos Satanicos Bombasticos (ClintJCL))

So what has this got to do with Grandad? Well, the current generation wonders whether the older generations will “get” the new technology. Consider though. Grandad will be 60-ish, right? That will mean that he would have been born in the early 1950s or late 1960s. In the 1980s he will have been around 20 and just the right age to take part in the spread of computing around the globe. He may have had a Commodore or an Atari at home.

Commodore 64
Commodore 64 (Photo credit: unloveablesteve)

In his thirties he will have seen the rise of DOS and Windows and he may even have had a 386 machine at home. Possibly he became proficient in DOS and the early Windows being what it was he probably was proficient obtaining and loading “drivers” for his machine.

It is likely that he has experienced the joys of persuading a  modem to connect to a bulletin board, or through a fledgling ISP to this new thing, the Internet. He may have spent hours downloading a blocky, slow game to display on his CGA-capable monitor, transferring it down the telephone lines at the rate of a few bytes a second. A megabyte download might have taken half an hour or more.

古董 (Photo credit: alanine)

As the Internet grew he would have switched to the Netscape browser and accessed the Internet at 2400bps, then 4800bps, then a massive 9600bps and on to an astronomical 56kbps! Doubtless these days he uses some form of broadband or cable connection.

Today’s geeks believe that because they have grown up with the technology that Grandad (even Dad) will not be able to cope with it. They conveniently forget that while they may have grown up with the Internet and the technology, the Internet and technology have grown up with Grandad!

Blowing out Grandad's birthday candles
Blowing out Grandad’s birthday candles (Photo credit: djdpascoe)