philosophy

Reading the impenetrable too fast

From Lee Siegel, quoted in Juliet Lapidos’s “Overrated: Authors, critics, and editors on ‘great books’ that aren’t all that great” (Slate: 11 August 2011):

It was like Herbert Marcuse’s advice to a despairing graduate student who said he had spent days on a sentence in Hegel and still couldn’t understand it: “You’re reading too fast,” Marcuse told him.

Unix: An Oral History

From ‘s “Unix: An Oral History” (: ):

Multics

Gordon M. Brown

[Multics] was designed to include fault-free continuous operation capabilities, convenient remote terminal access and selective information sharing. One of the most important features of Multics was to follow the trend towards integrated multi-tasking and permit multiple programming environments and different human interfaces under one operating system.

Moreover, two key concepts had been picked up on in the development of Multics that would later serve to define Unix. These were that the less important features of the system introduced more complexity and, conversely, that the most important property of algorithms was simplicity. Ritchie explained this to Mahoney, articulating that:

The relationship of Multics to [the development of Unix] is actually interesting and fairly complicated. There were a lot of cultural things that were sort of taken over wholesale. And these include important things, [such as] the hierarchical file system and tree-structure file system – which incidentally did not get into the first version of Unix on the PDP-7. This is an example of why the whole thing is complicated. But any rate, things like the hierarchical file system, choices of simple things like the characters you use to edit lines as you’re typing, erasing characters were the same as those we had. I guess the most important fundamental thing is just the notion that the basic style of interaction with the machine, the fact that there was the notion of a command line, the notion was an explicit shell program. In fact the name shell came from Multics. A lot of extremely important things were completely internalized, and of course this is the way it is. A lot of that came through from Multics.

The Beginning

Michael Errecart and Cameron Jones

Files to Share

The Unix file system was based almost entirely on the file system for the failed Multics project. The idea was for file sharing to take place with explicitly separated file systems for each user, so that there would be no locking of file tables.

A major part of the answer to this question is that the file system had to be open. The needs of the group dictated that every user had access to every other user’s files, so the Unix system had to be extremely open. This openness is even seen in the password storage, which is not hidden at all but is encrypted. Any user can see all the encrypted passwords, but can only test one solution per second, which makes it extremely time consuming to try to break into the system.

The idea of standard input and output for devices eventually found its way into Unix as pipes. Pipes enabled users and programmers to send one function’s output into another function by simply placing a vertical line, a ‘|’ between the two functions. Piping is one of the most distinct features of Unix …

Language from B to C

… Thompson was intent on having Unix be portable, and the creation of a portable language was intrinsic to this. …

Finding a Machine

Darice Wong & Jake Knerr

… Thompson devoted a month apiece to the shell, editor, assembler, and other software tools. …

Use of Unix started in the patent office of Bell Labs, but by 1972 there were a number of non-research organizations at Bell Labs that were beginning to use Unix for software development. Morgan recalls the importance of text processing in the establishment of Unix. …

Building Unix

Jason Aughenbaugh, Jonathan Jessup, & Nicholas Spicher

The Origin of Pipes

The first edition of Thompson and Ritchie’s The Unix Programmer’s Manual was dated November 3, 1971; however, the idea of pipes is not mentioned until the Version 3 Unix manual, published in February 1973. …

Software Tools

grep was, in fact, one of the first programs that could be classified as a software tool. Thompson designed it at the request of McIlroy, as McIlroy explains:

One afternoon I asked Ken Thompson if he could lift the regular expression recognizer out of the editor and make a one-pass program to do it. He said yes. The next morning I found a note in my mail announcing a program named grep. It worked like a charm. When asked what that funny name meant, Ken said it was obvious. It stood for the editor command that it simulated, g/re/p (global regular expression print)….From that special-purpose beginning, grep soon became a household word. (Something I had to stop myself from writing in the first paragraph above shows how firmly naturalized the idea now is: ‘I used ed to grep out words from the dictionary.’) More than any other single program, grep focused the viewpoint that Kernighan and Plauger christened and formalized in Software Tools: make programs that do one thing and do it well, with as few preconceptions about input syntax as possible.

eqn and grep are illustrative of the Unix toolbox philosophy that McIlroy phrases as, “Write programs that do one thing and do it well. Write programs to work together. Write programs that handle text streams, because that is a universal interface.” This philosophy was enshrined in Kernighan and Plauger’s 1976 book, Software Tools, and reiterated in the “Foreword” to the issue of The Bell Systems Technical Journal that also introduced pipes.

Ethos

Robert Murray-Rust & Malika Seth

McIlroy says,

This is the Unix philosophy. Write programs that do one thing and do it well. Write programs to work together. Write programs that handle text streams because, that is a universal interface.

The dissemination of Unix, with a focus on what went on within Bell Labs

Steve Chen

In 1973, the first Unix applications were installed on a system involved in updating directory information and intercepting calls to numbers that had been changed. This was the first time Unix had been used in supporting an actual, ongoing operating business. Soon, Unix was being used to automate the operations systems at Bell Laboratories. It was automating the monitoring, involved in measurement, and helping to rout calls and ensure the quality of the calls.

There were numerous reasons for the friendliness the academic society, especially the academic Computer Science community, showed towards Unix. John Stoneback relates a few of these:

Unix came into many CS departments largely because it was the only powerful interactive system that could run on the sort of hardware (PDP-11s) that universities could afford in the mid ’70s. In addition, Unix itself was also very inexpensive. Since source code was provided, it was a system that could be shaped to the requirements of a particular installation. It was written in a language considerably more attractive than assembly, and it was small enough to be studied and understood by individuals. (John Stoneback, “The Collegiate Community,” Unix Review, October 1985, p. 27.)

The key features and characteristics of Unix that held it above other operating systems at the time were its software tools, its portability, its flexibility, and the fact that it was simple, compact, and efficient. The development of Unix in Bell Labs was carried on under a set of principles that the researchers had developed to guide their work. These principles included:

(i) Make each program do one thing well. To do a new job, build afresh rather than complicate old programs by adding new features.

(ii) Expect the output of every program to become the input to another, as yet unknown, program. Don’t clutter output with extraneous information. Avoid stringently columnar or binary input formats. Don’t insist on interactive input.

(iii) Design and build software, even operating systems, to be tried early, ideally within weeks. Don’t hesitate to throw away the clumsy parts and rebuild them.

(iv) Use tools in preference to unskilled help to lighten a programming task, even if you have to detour to build the tools and expect to throw some of them out after you’ve finished using them.”

(M.D. McIlroy, E.N. Pinson, and B.A. Tague “Unix Time-Sharing System Forward,” The Bell System Technical Journal, July-Aug 1088 vol 57, number 6 part 2. P. 1902)

Woody Allen’s atheism

From Robert E. Lauder’s interview with Woody Allen, “Whatever Works” (Commonweal: 15 April 2010):

Well, you know, you want some kind of relief from the agony and terror of human existence. Human existence is a brutal experience to me…it’s a brutal, meaningless experience—an agonizing, meaningless experience with some oases, delight, some charm and peace, but these are just small oases. Overall, it is a brutal, brutal, terrible experience, and so it’s what can you do to alleviate the agony of the human condition, the human predicament?

I’m really impotent against the overwhelming bleakness of the universe and that the only thing I can do is my little gift and do it the best I can, and that is about the best I can do, which is cold comfort.

I also feel that humor, just like Fred Astaire dance numbers or these lightweight musicals, gives you a little oasis. You are in this horrible world and for an hour and a half you duck into a dark room and it’s air-conditioned and the sun is not blinding you and you leave the terror of the universe behind and you are completely transported into an escapist situation. The women are beautiful, the men are witty and heroic, nobody has terrible problems and this is a delightful escapist thing, and you leave the theatre refreshed. It’s like drinking a cool lemonade and then after a while you get worn down again and you need it again.

there are these oases, and life is horrible, but it is not relentlessly black from wire to wire. You can sit down and hear a Mozart symphony, or you can watch the Marx Brothers, and this will give you a pleasant escape for a while. And that is about the best that you can do… I feel that one can come up with all these rationalizations and seemingly astute observations, but I think I said it well at the end of Deconstructing Harry: we all know the same truth; our lives consist of how we choose to distort it, and that’s it. Everybody knows how awful the world is and what a terrible situation it is and each person distorts it in a certain way that enables him to get through. Some people distort it with religious things. Some people distort it with sports, with money, with love, with art, and they all have their own nonsense about what makes it meaningful, and all but nothing makes it meaningful. These things definitely serve a certain function, but in the end they all fail to give life meaning and everyone goes to his grave in a meaningless way.

I feel that is true—that one can commit a crime, do unspeakable things, and get away with it. There are people who commit all sorts of crimes and get away with it, and some of them are plagued with all sorts of guilt for the rest of their lives and others aren’t. They commit terrible crimes and they have wonderful lives, wonderful, happy lives, with families and children, and they have done unspeakably terrible things. There is no justice, there is no rational structure to it. That is just the way it is, and each person figures out some way to cope…. Some people cope better than others. I was with Billy Graham once, and he said that even if it turned out in the end that there is no God and the universe is empty, he would still have had a better life than me. I understand that. If you can delude yourself by believing that there is some kind of Santa Claus out there who is going to bail you out in the end, then it will help you get through. Even if you are proven wrong in the end, you would have had a better life.

I didn’t see [Shane, from the movie Shane] as a martyred figure, a persecuted figure. I saw him as quite a heroic figure who does a job that needs to be done, a practical matter. I saw him as a practical secular character. In this world there are just some people who need killing and that is just the way it is. It sounds terrible, but there is no other way to get around that, and most of us are not up to doing it, incapable for moral reasons or physically not up to it. And Shane is a person who saw what had to be done and went out and did it. He had the skill to do it, and that’s the way I feel about the world: there are certain problems that can only be dealt with that way. As ugly a truth as that is, I do think it’s the truth about the world.

Catastrophic atheism

From Damon Linker’s “Another Kind of Atheism” (The New Republic: 11 May 2010):

But a different kind of atheism is possible, legitimate, and (in Hart’s view) more admirable. Let’s call it catastrophic atheism, in tribute to its first and greatest champion, Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote in a head-spinning passage of the Genealogy of Morals that “unconditional, honest atheism is … the awe-inspiring catastrophe of two-thousand years of training in truthfulness that finally forbids itself the lie involved in belief in God.” For the catastrophic atheist, godlessness is both true and terrible.

Atheism is not fundamentalism

From PZ Myers’s “High Priest Epstein in Newsweek” (Pharyngula: 14 June 2007):

The “new atheism” (I don’t like that phrase, either) is about taking a core set of principles that have proven themselves powerful and useful in the scientific world — you’ve probably noticed that many of these uppity atheists are coming out of a scientific background — and insisting that they also apply to everything else people do. These principles are a reliance on natural causes and demanding explanations in terms of the real world, with a documentary chain of evidence, that anyone can examine. The virtues are critical thinking, flexibility, openness, verification, and evidence. The sins are dogma, faith, tradition, revelation, superstition, and the supernatural. There is no holy writ, and a central idea is that everything must be open to rational, evidence-based criticism — it’s the opposite of fundamentalism.

Religion, God, history, morality

From Steve Paulson’s interview with Robert Wright, “God, He’s moody” (Salon: 24 June 2009):

Do you think religions share certain core principles?

Not many. People in the modern world, certainly in America, think of religion as being largely about prescribing moral behavior. But religion wasn’t originally about that at all. To judge by hunter-gatherer religions, religion was not fundamentally about morality before the invention of agriculture. It was trying to figure out why bad things happen and increasing the frequency with which good things happen. Why do you sometimes get earthquakes, storms, disease and get slaughtered? But then sometimes you get nice weather, abundant game and you get to do the slaughtering. Those were the religious questions in the beginning.

And bad things happened because the gods were against you or certain spirits had it out for you?

Yes, you had done something to offend a god or spirit. However, it was not originally a moral lapse. That’s an idea you see as societies get more complex. When you have a small group of hunter-gatherers, a robust moral system is not a big challenge. Everyone knows everybody, so it’s hard to conceal anything you steal. If you mess with somebody too much, there will be payback. Moral regulation is not a big problem in a simple society. But as society got more complex with the invention of agriculture and writing, morality did become a challenge. Religion filled that gap.

For people who claim that Israel was monotheistic from the get-go and its flirtations with polytheism were rare aberrations, it’s interesting that the Jerusalem temple, according to the Bible’s account, had all these other gods being worshiped in it. Asherah was in the temple. She seemed to be a consort or wife of Yahweh. And there were vessels devoted to Baal, the reviled Canaanite god. So Israel was fundamentally polytheistic at this point. Then King Josiah goes on a rampage as he tries to consolidate his own power by wiping out the other gods.

You make the point that the Quran is a different kind of sacred text than the Bible. It was probably written over the course of two decades, while the stories collected in the Bible were written over centuries. That’s why the Bible is such a diverse document.

We think of the Bible as a book, but in ancient times it would have been thought of as a library. There were books written by lots of different people, including a lot of cosmopolitan elites. You also see elements of Greek philosophy. The Quran is just one guy talking. In the Muslim view, he’s mediating the word of God. He’s not especially cosmopolitan. He is, according to Islamic tradition, illiterate. So it’s not surprising that the Quran didn’t have the intellectual diversity and, in some cases, the philosophical depth that you find in the Bible. I do think he was actually a very modern thinker. Muhammad’s argument for why you should be devoted exclusively to this one God is very modern.

Are you also saying we can be religious without believing in God?

By some definitions, yes. It’s hard to find a definition of religion that encompasses everything we call religion. The definition I like comes from William James. He said, “Religious belief consists of the belief that there is an unseen order and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting to that order.” In that sense, you can be religious without believing in God. In that sense, I’m religious. On the God question, I’m not sure.

4 sources of tension between science and religion

From Steven Weinberg’s “Without God” (The New York Review of Books: 25 September 2008):

But if the direct conflict between scientific knowledge and specific religious beliefs has not been so important in itself, there are at least four sources of tension between science and religion that have been important.

The first source of tension arises from the fact that religion originally gained much of its strength from the observation of mysterious phenomena – thunder, earthquakes, disease – that seemed to require the intervention of some divine being. There was a nymph in every brook, and a dryad in every tree. But as time passed more and more of these mysteries have been explained in purely natural ways. Explaining this or that about the natural world does not of course rule out religious belief. But if people believe in God because no other explanation seems possible for a whole host of mysteries, and then over the years these mysteries were one by one resolved naturalistically, then a certain weakening of belief can be expected.

Of course, not everything has been explained, nor will it ever be. The important thing is that we have not observed anything that seems to require supernatural intervention for its explanation. There are some today who cling to the remaining gaps in our understanding (such as our ignorance about the origin of life) as evidence for God. But as time passes and more and more of these gaps are filled in, their position gives an impression of people desperately holding on to outmoded opinions.

The problem for religious belief is not just that science has explained a lot of odds and ends about the world. There is a second source of tension: that these explanations have cast increasing doubt on the special role of man, as an actor created by God to play a starring part in a great cosmic drama of sin and salvation. We have had to accept that our home, the earth, is just another planet circling the sun; our sun is just one of a hundred billion stars in a galaxy that is just one of billions of visible galaxies; and it may be that the whole expanding cloud of galaxies is just a small part of a much larger multiverse, most of whose parts are utterly inhospitable to life. As Richard Feynman has said, “The theory that it’s all arranged as a stage for God to watch man’s struggle for good and evil seems inadequate.”

A third source of tension between science and religious belief has been more important in Islam than in Christianity. Around 1100, the Sufi philosopher Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali argued against the very idea of laws of nature, on the grounds that any such law would put God’s hands in chains. According to al-Ghazzali, a piece of cotton placed in a flame does not darken and smolder because of the heat of the flame, but because God wants it to darken and smolder. Laws of nature could have been reconciled with Islam, as a summary of what God usually wants to happen, but al-Ghazzali did not take that path.

Al-Ghazzali is often described as the most influential Islamic philosopher. I wish I knew enough to judge how great was the impact on Islam of his rejection of science. At any rate, science in Muslim countries, which had led the world in the ninth and tenth centuries, went into a decline in the century or two after al-Ghazzali. As a portent of this decline, in 1194 the Ulama of Córdoba burned all scientific and medical texts.

Nor has science revived in the Islamic world. … in 2002 the periodical Nature carried out a survey of science in Islamic countries, and found just three areas in which the Islamic world produced excellent science, all three directed toward applications rather than basic science. They were desalination, falconry, and camel breeding.

Something like al-Ghazzali’s concern for God’s freedom surfaced for a while in Christian Europe, but with very different results. In Paris and Canterbury in the thirteenth century there was a wave of condemnations of those teachings of Aristotle that seemed to limit the freedom of God to do things like create a vacuum or make several worlds or move the heavens in straight lines. The influence of Thomas Aquinas and Albertus Magnus saved the philosophy of Aristotle for Europe, and with it the idea of laws of nature. But although Aristotle was no longer condemned, his authority had been questioned – which was fortunate, since nothing could be built on his physics. Perhaps it was the weakening of Aristotle’s authority by reactionary churchmen that opened the door to the first small steps toward finding the true laws of nature at Paris and Lisieux and Oxford in the fourteenth century.

There is a fourth source of tension between science and religion that may be the most important of all. Traditional religions generally rely on authority, whether the authority is an infallible leader, such as a prophet or a pope or an imam, or a body of sacred writings, a Bible or a Koran. …

Of course, scientists rely on authorities, but of a very different sort. If I want to understand some fine point about the general theory of relativity, I might look up a recent paper by an expert in the field. But I would know that the expert might be wrong. One thing I probably would not do is to look up the original papers of Einstein, because today any good graduate student understands general relativity better than Einstein did. We progress. Indeed, in the form in which Einstein described his theory it is today generally regarded as only what is known in the trade as an effective field theory; that is, it is an approximation, valid for the large scales of distance for which it has been tested, but not under very cramped conditions, as in the early big bang.

We have our heroes in science, like Einstein, who was certainly the greatest physicist of the past century, but for us they are not infallible prophets.

David Foster Wallace on Kafka

From David Foster Wallace’s “Laughing With Kafka” (Harper’s Magazine: July 1998, pg. 26):

… the really central Kafka joke – that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home.