What I Don’t Know

A Wiki is sometimes described by the ‘backronym’ “What I Know Is”.

Recently I’ve been using Quora. You can ask a question or, if you see someone else’s question and think you know the answer, you can reply. Over time, you become associated with areas of knowledge that interest you. The obvious equivalent to the Wiki translation would be “What I want to know is” but you always have to use social systems to understand their dynamics. I didn’t ‘get’ Twitter until I’d used it for some time because at first, nothing happens.

I discovered Quora is really about “What I Don’t Know Is”. It’s obvious that by asking a question, you declare a ‘known unknown’  but human ignorance goes deeper than that. As someone who tries to answer questions, you learn about the gaps in your own knowledge, that you are unable to explain a concept you thought you understood and that there are things many people don’t know or understand that you had assumed were obvious to everyone. We all struggle to provide good, clear, concise, unambiguous questions and answers, because we don’t know everything.

I discovered that other people’s thinking and motivations are often very different from mine. I wasn’t aware of how much more of a rush many young people are in to ‘be a star’ at something, often without much understanding of what that something is. I never hurried or set targets, so I wasn’t aware of how much I’d learned about life, until I read some of their questions.

A journey of a thousand thoughts can begin with a single question. The view from the far end of that trail may be different. We need to be curious about everything around us rather than too ambitious to arrive at a fixed destination by the fastest or shortest route. You can dream about the future but it may not arrive packaged as you expect it and pieces may be missing. Plan your early moves, travel at a sustainable rate and stay aware. I’m worried that many of the young hopefuls on Quora will burn-out before they get close to their targets and become disillusioned.

I’m still hungry to learn. There is so much I don’t know and it’s growing all the time.


The importance of a letter, to the BBC

I have entered politics. I asked for this tweet to be corrected and the BBC did.
It originally said “your”. I think that 1-letter difference is quite important.

Iceland’s foreign minister says countries want free trade deals with the UK #r4today

It could have been a simple typo. It could have been an optimist, wanting to believe some good news about Brexit or it could have been government propaganda. I wish I could be sure that it wasn’t the latter.

1 letter to change a flood of international imports into hope of exports and fixing the UK’s balance of trade deficit. Politics is the art of getting people to agree with you, whether you are right or wrong. Sadly, the reality of Brexit will still be true, whatever it is, and believing it will work doesn’t actually help much.

How Low, Linux Hardware Punks?

I volunteered a couple of times to help at kids’ coding events. One of the first things I noticed was that they had better kit than me. I like keeping old computer hardware going as long as is humanly possible. I’m not retro, I’m ‘careful’; with the Earth’s resources rather than with money. I was giving my time freely in the hope of giving young people a better start in life. I realised I was giving it, almost exclusively to the children of Middle Class professionals. They were great young people, they’d had their parents support.

What the ‘other’ kids need, is a punk movement. They need the junk-shop chic of battered second-had guitars and home re-styled charity shop clothing. They have Raspberry Pi’s at school so they’ve seen Linux but they need their schools to give them access to downloads. More than 15% of UK homes don’t have Internet. THIS 15%. Meanwhile, companies throw away perfectly good kit because it’s cheaper than upgrading. There’s now a Raspian Linux for PCs so I’m not the only person aware of this untapped resource for education.

I wrote a couple of tweets this morning:

“What low spec hardware running Linux are people doing things with? Is already a Thing? (please RT: for reach)”

and https://twitter.com/WooTube/status/900646598019080194
“I want to make disposable kit cool for kids without access to disposable income (from my Eee PC 1000 netbook )”

I don’t see this working as a charity. No-one wants to be a charity case.
It might work as a youth movement. I’m both too old and too comfortable to lead a ‘working’ class rebellion. Do any of you young’uns fancy a go?

“A storm is coming and it’s name is Linux” as we used to say in the olden days.
(CopyLeft Martin Houston. He’s the guy who corrupted me at a DECUS meeting
Linux-FT was my first distro because of him.)

Truth is beauty; but is that all?

I was reading about Clojure’s views on truth and falsehood this morning. Some of them are interesting:
(true? true) ; -> true
(false? false) ; -> true – a classic double negative

Clojure also has the value ‘nil’.
(true? nil) ; -> false
(false? nil) ; -> false

Then I went on LinkedIn and someone asked if there is ever an absolute truth. It’s a question I’ve been thinking about, so I wrote this:

I think that “at non-quantum scales”, it seems likely there can be only one set of events which actually happened but every human is wandering around in their own model of reality, based on their perception of incomplete data. Sometimes, a slow-motion replay helps fill in some of the gaps but it will be the same every time we look and it may not reveal ‘the whole truth’ we seek. We all have a simplified view of what reality is, based on our personal knowledge and beliefs and we can’t go back in time for more data, so our view of truth is an approximation. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle says that it can only ever be an approximation.

In summary: I believe there is one truth but that doesn’t mean we will ever know what it is. Alternative perceptions may be just as valid as our own; possibly more so.

[ The original version of this post said nil meant “I don’t know.” I immediately discovered that was wrong. In Clojure, only ‘false’ returns ‘true’ to ‘false?’ but nil is ‘falsey’, so each of the following forms returns “F”:
(if false “T” “F”)
(if nil “T” “F”)
You can see how that could confuse a stupid person ]

Process + Data + Structure = Engineered Software

I tried to address a question about data structure on Quora. This post is a stand-alone version of the answer I gave.

‘In the beginning’ there was ‘Data Processing’. That is: ‘data’ and ‘process’, expressed in the form of a program. Programs implement algorithms.

In 1976, the practice of ‘Structured Programming’ was trending and a book was written: Algorithms + Data Structures = Programs ( Wikipedia entry)

Processes and their structure + Data and it’s structure = Programs.

If you ignore interactions with the real world, that’s all there is. If you take any working program and ignore the processes and their structure and the raw data, then whatever is left is data structure.

We structure data because the alternative is data sauce, traditionally only ever served with spaghetti code.

Reality has Levels

It’s been a while since I blogged. I’ve been busy.

A major theme emerging from ‘writing my book’ is that we humans are very bad at confusing our models of reality with the reality we are modelling.

I started planning with the ‘Freemind mind-mapping tool for hierarchical brains’ before finding my own creative process had a network architecture and discovering ‘concept mapping’ which uses graphs to represent concepts and propositions. I saw that graphs were what I needed and decided to experiment with building my own software tools from bits I had lying around.

I didn’t have a current programming language, so I set out to learn Clojure. Being a Lisp, Clojure uses tree-structures internally to represent lists and extends the idea to abstractions such as collections but the only native data structures available to me appeared to be 1-dimensional.  I confidently expected to be able to find ways to extend this to 3 or more dimensional graphs but despite much reading and learning lots of other things, I’d failed to find what I was looking for. I had in mind the kind of structures you can build with pointers, in languages like ‘C’. There are graph libraries but I was too new to Clojure to believe my first serious program needed to be dependent on language extensions, when I haven’t securely grasped the basics.

This morning, I think I ‘got it’. I am trying to build a computational model of my graphical view of a mathematical idea which models a cognitive model of reality. There was always scope for confusion. Graphs aren’t really a picture, they are a set of 1-dimensional connections and potentially another set of potential views of those connections, constructed for a particular purpose. I was trying to build a data structure of a view of a graph, not the graph itself and that was a really bad idea. At least I didn’t get software confused with ‘actual’ reality, so there’s still hope for me.

Yesterday, I used Clojure/Leiningen’s in-built Test-Driven Development tool for the first time. It looks great. The functional model makes TDD simple.

When your Netbook falls off its Sky-hook

I have an Eee PC 1000 ‘netbook’ that has been with me for a while. It’s not very fast but then I type quite slowly. It’s become a personal challenge to see how long I can keep using it. It’s always run Linux but the latest version of Ubuntu won’t fit into its (ample, in my opinion) 1GB of memory. I can’t upgrade it in place either because it has 2 SSDs, currently configured as / on the 8GB and /user on the 32GB. A couple of days ago my desktop environment went AWOL.

Trying to deal with the space imitations, I’d tried booting it from a Lubuntu Live memory stick. It seemed quicker with LXDE but Lubuntu also has leaner apps than the ones I’m used to, so I decided not to install it permanently. I may find another way to keep my current apps but replace Unity by LXDE. Afterwards, I think I rebooted it to check it was OK but I may have shut down from the login screen. The following morning I logged in and got an empty, frozen desktop display. I couldn’t even open a terminal window but I found I could log in to the Guest account. Odd. I opened a console window from my normal account and rolled up my sleeves. I had a /user (a different one, I later discovered.)

To cut a long story short, the answer was:

$ sudo mount -a /dev/sdb1 /home

My home directory wasn’t there but because it wasn’t it had fallen back to the original /user folder on the system disk. The Guest account logs in on /tmp on the system disk, so didn’t have a problem. Now, I just need to work out why whatever was auto-magically mounting it for me and why it decided to stop.

[ Update: The permanent fix was to find out the ID of my device with
$ sudo blkid

then add the following line to /etc/fstab

UUID=4b18fe5c-2d2a-4d12-938b-a38046a3cf84 /home ext4  errors=remount-ro 0  0

I still haven’t found the hole in the sky where the hook came detached. ]