Antisocial punishment

A recent article in Science documents what the authors call “antisocial punishment“. Specifically, they demonstrated that society punishes those who contribute the least or try to abuse the system, but also that there is a tendency to punish those who contribute the most.

This will not come as a surprise to anybody who remembers Honore de Balzac stating that Behind every great fortune, there is a crime. For the curious, the actual quotation in French is from Le Père Goriot:

Le secret des grandes fortunes sans cause apparente est un crime oublié, parce qu’ il a été proprement fait.

which I could translate approximately into:

The secret of great fortunes without apparent cause is a forgotten crime, because it was nicely done

This reminds me of the debate about whether Poincaré or Einstein invented relativity. According to Jules Leveugle, this was nothing less than a “german conspiracy” to promote “german science” at the expense of Poincaré. I don’t have enough data at that point. But even if Leveugle seems to have some information to back his claims, he asserts a number of things about the motivations of people a century ago that are quite hard to prove one way or another. Anyway, if the conspiracy theorists are right on this one, Poincaré would have been a victim of exactly the kind of antisocial punishment the Science article demonstrates…

As an aside, while everybody nowadays agrees that Poincaré published the core of special relativity and even invented the term “relativity” shortly before Einstein, Leveugle’s assertions that Poincaré also invented general relativity before Einstein is much less widely believed. He mentions some document having been more or less willfully damaged by later scientists, this becomes a little bit harder to prove. In any case, I could not find references on the web.

André Vignon, beloved grandfather, passed away

My grandfather, André Vignon, passed away today, at the age of 96. This remarkable man had 13 children, more than 50 grandchildren, and currently just shy of 80 grand-grandchildren. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre 39-45, but he was so modest that almost nobody in the family can tell you why. For years, he was the CEO of Favrichon, a company specialized in healthy foods, particularly cereals. We grew up testing the prototypes of various cereal products, and I suppose that our enthusiasm for this or that new flavor decided its fate.

It’s very hard to describe what a loss this is to the whole family. We all grew up among dozens of cousins. It always felt perfectly normal to me to go on vacation during summer time with half a dozen cousins my age to play with, until I realized much later in life just how exceptional this experience was. Love was completely central to this family, and years later, we still see each others regularly and with great pleasure.

Big families: recommended…

Pictures for the family

MacOSX Leopard: disappointed…

I finally purchased MacOSX Leopard. For a long time, I had purchased every single update of MacOSX as soon as I could, because they were generally worth it. This was the first time I had some second thoughts. There were a number of mixed reviews over the net, like the excellent Ars Technica review.

The main problems that these reviews were reporting were drops in looks and usability. Looks: folder icons that look bad, inconsistent shadows, translucent menu bar, overly bright window widgets, and so on. Usability: initially, folders placed in the dock would show as “stacks”, in other words a big pile of stuff, and fan out in a way that made it quite hard to pick up anything in the folder. Overall, the new OS was also reported to be much more resource hungry than the older ones, not a big surprise here…

To me, it was annoying to have a trade-off between features I’d get, like Time Machine or Parental Controls, and features I’d lose (something Apple does not advertise much), like Classic (the environment to run MacOS9 applications). In previous releases, there was a net gain in functionality, but the loss of Classic was a pretty big deal to me. In particular, I wanted to have Parental Controls on the kids Mac, an old Dual G4 which contains tons of MacOS9 games.

But a few weeks ago, having learned that 10.5.2 was finally giving users options about the dock icons and menu bar, I thought that it was safe to jump, at least for my Intel-based Powerbook, which can’t run Classic anyways, and which was acting weird lately. In particular, it jut can’t run straight any time I have run any virtual machine with Parallels Desktop. That was most likely a problem with Parallels, not with Apple, but I thought that the latest Apple OS might help. Another problem I kept hitting was that the machine would lock-up when I tried to unlock the screen saver. Hoping to get rid of these annoyances, I went ahead, purchased it and installed it.

The first thing I noticed is that my machine had become quite slower than before. Starting applications, in particular, seems to take quite a bit longer. This is particularly noticeable at login time. I now need something like one minute to log-in, which is too long for my taste. Unfortunately, the problems I had before were both still there: crashes or hangs after running Parallels, and even without running it, I still have the “black screen of death” way too often when I try to get out of the screen saver.

So I decided to try it on another machine, see if the experience would be any better: on the kids computer. Here, the experience is nothing but miserable. First, the installer forced my screen resolution to 640×480 on a flat-panel LCD that normally runs at 1280×1024. No big deal, it’s just the installer, right? Wrong! The screens do not fit at that resolution, so to get anything you have to hit “tab” at random and hope to hit the “Continue” button with the space bar (you can’t reach it with the mouse, since it’s out of the screen…)

Once you went through the whole installation routine, you are greeted with a screen that looks like this:

That’s right: the menu bar is a bright pink, and the background image is pink colored more or less at random. Performance is abysmal, my kids had to downgrade the various tunable parameters of World of Warcraft by a couple of notches. And I got at least one lock-up.

The upgrade process is not smooth either. To install 6 updates on the G4 took me 3 or 4 attempts. It seems to install, but after the install-and-reboot, it still wants to install the same thing. On the Intel PowerBook, I have been unable to update so far, it tells me that it “cannot write to /”. Repairing disk permissions failed. One of my disks, that reads fine with 10.4, appears as “unrepairable” with 10.5. Granted, it was probably damaged in some way, but I’d like to avoid losing 350GB of data, please?

So, overall, MacOSX 10.5 is a disappointment. Apple is probably focusing a lot of energy on the iPhone right now… Or something else happened. Regardless, the quality of that product is not what I am ready to pay for.

Update: I had the same kind of color problem on my MacBook with an external HP monitor. The colors just looked way off, and trying to adjust the ColorSync profile only made things worse. This monitor used to work really well with this machine. What’s going on here?

Oh, the joy of not being remote…

Following my CGO talk, I went to visit my colleagues in Nashua, New-Hampshire.

Nashua ZKO site shutting down

The so-called ZKO building is a historical landmark in the history of DEC. For the old-timers in computer science, was a pretty healthy thing to have in your e-mail address… Its walls are layered with pictures of early VMS luminaries. The Integrity VM project was fortunate to inherit some of this historical expertise that DEC (don’t say “Compaq” to these folks…) had built in operating systems. We have in the team people who not only know what TOPS-10 and TOPS-20 were, but actually wrote or maintained parts of it.

But after so many years, Hewlett-Packard will be closing ZKO soon, and transferring people to another HP building in Marlborough. As a result, many of my colleagues will have to move to new offices, and others decided to work from home. So I thought this was a good time to visit and meet the team in one place, while this was still possible.

Working remotely is hard

I have strong reservations about working from home or remotely, however. This is much harder than corporations seem to think. I’ve been doing it occasionally for almost 5 years now. Of course, part of the problem is that the HP VPN is sized for people doing PowerPoint and Outlook e-mail. It’s easily overloaded when too many people at once try to do something interactive, like a Remote Desktop or VNC session. So whenever I try to work from home, two days out of three, I end up returning to the office to be able to work in decent conditions. I hope that our team will not be impacted the same way.

There is also a whole dimension of face-to-face interaction that no amount of phone conversation or chat or e-mail can compensate for. Face to face, you become friends. Over e-mail, you are at best acquaintances. This is something that the proponents of teleworking fail to realize: just how many friends did you make over e-mail? how many over a beer, or a coffee, or just chatting face to face?

Another factor in my case is time zone differences. When the Nashua team starts working, it’s 3PM in France. When the Cupertino team starts working, it’s 6PM. I have regular meetings after 6PM two or three days a week, and a weekly meeting on Thursdays that finishes at 9PM and is killing me. No amount of technology really helps with that.

In any case, I was so happy to spend some quality time with the team. I met for the first time several people I had been working with for years! This was a treat.

Book review: The trouble with physics

Until now, I had not read Lee Smolin’s famous The Trouble with Physics. Having recently written a rather negative review about a book written by someone who can’t stand Smolin, I thought that I should read both sides.

A pleasure to read

Lee Smolin writes very well, and it is clear why his book had a lot of success. He presents a simple thesis, and backs it with a well-constructed reasoning illustrated with dozens of examples. Like any good book, there are dozens of sub-plots, twists and turns, recurring themes and characters, but more importantly, what makes this book interesting is, very simply, that it has a point. Lee Smolin seems to have a single and clear objective with this book, which is to explain why physics research is no longer working as well as it should. And to be honest, I find the point pretty convincing myself. It’s hard to not have a deep sense of sadness when a researcher like Smolin begins a book with “we have failed“, but to reuse one of his expressions, this has the ring of truth…

One interesting twist and recurring theme is Smolin’s own role in this grand saga, how he views himself in the small community of hard core physicists. Clearly, Smolin is an insider, but a relatively atypical one. I would say that the reason is because he recognizes failure early, and is ready to switch horses and try something else when failure happens. Smolin also makes an interesting distinction between seers, who invent new techniques, and physicists who are more adept at applying existing techniques. It is clear that he sees himself more as a seer, and that he believes that we are at a turn where seers are what physics science needs the most. One of the key subplots is how today’s academia favors technicians much more than seers. Smolin advocates for academia to be more open to ideas that seem strange to the mainstream.

Limits of the book

However, this is also the limit of the book in my view. Reading it, one cannot escape a feeling that Smolin essentially argues in favor of himself and his own research. I do not believe that he’s being dishonest at all, but rather that it somewhat distorts his judgement and weakens his argument. For example, he argues that scientists should have an open mind and be ready to find ideas where they don’t expect it. But he immediately slashed that openness with a note at the end of the book that, naturally, you have to be serious and that you can’t extend the privilege to people without a PhD in physics and other crackpots. In that case, how is that different qualitatively from Lubos Motl’s argument that physics should be closed to anybody not doing string theory? The only difference in “open mindedness” seems to be a quantitative one, where the bar is set.

History records a number of people who contributed science simply because they loved it or had a talent for it. Education often came after their major insight. We all know that Einstein did not have an academic career when he first published his special relativity papers, but he’s hardly the exception among those that Smolin calls seers. Ramanujan, for example, did not have any high-level formal education. This is a bit of an extreme case, naturally, and I would not go as far as saying that you should avoid high-level education. But what this proves (one example being enough for this proof) is that there are people without a PhD who made major contributions, and consequently, that Smolin’s proposal to put the limit there is inconsistent with the rest of his argument about welcoming ideas in physics.

Information overload: the big missing topic

Furthermore, I believe that he fails to say anything about another major issue physicists face, the “information glut”, and which most physicists would recognize in the Sokal affair or the Bogdanov affair. The problem is that there is simply too much to read, including e-mails, books, blogs, articles, and no human being can be on top of everything nowadays. In an ideal world, Smolin would have time to make an informed opinion about everything there is out there, including ideas from people who don’t have a PhD. In an ideal world, Smolin would be able to teach those people who got it wrong why they got it wrong, and maybe to pick up the occasional gem. But this is not an ideal world. Setting the bar at the PhD level is the simplest kind of filter you can put in place to reduce the information flow to manageable levels.

Specialization, this trend in academia that Smolin dislikes because it doesn’t favor seers like him, is just another simple-minded attempt to reduce the amount of data. When Lubos Motl calls “crackpot” anybody who isn’t interested in string theory, he has, in a sense, the same objective as Smolin, which is to reduce his world view to manageable amounts of data.

What I would try if I had time…

This is the reason I think that it’s now time to put some technology in the mix. It’s time to move beyond arXiv and e-mail and newsgroups. It’s time to create some tool to help scientists find the data they need. For this to work, it has to be based on social networks (where others with similar tastes help you filter things). I’ve a pretty good idea of what it would look like, but so little time… And we are back to square one: time, bandwidth, information overload, these are the problems. PhDs aren’t.


Today, I gave a talk about Integrity Virtual Machines at the EPIC-7 workshop of the CGO-2008 conference. The audience was smaller than I hoped, but quite interesting. This was a good occasion to make new contacts, and to renew contacts with old friends. After 7 years working on Integrity VM, this was actually the first time I talked publicly about it outside of HP (although Todd Kjos gave a talk at Gelato in April 2007).

There were a number of other interesting talks. Rohit Bhatia presented Tukwila, the next generation Itanium. I did not learn much during this talk, but it was interesting to see the Intel take on this processor (I usually only hear the HP side of the story). This somewhat renewed my confidence about this platform. It’s a very interesting processor for a programmer, but that alone has never been a guarantee of success. Clearly, the initial expectations for Itanium were set a little bit too high, but it’s interesting to see that Intel doesn’t give up. And hearing them boast about Tukwila as “the fastest processor in the industry” opens some perspectives.

One thing that I’m still wondering about is how we can explain customers why Itanium will stick at relatively modest number of cores (e.g. four), whereas Larrabee will feature a much larger number (16 or 24 according to Wikipedia). Hmmm…