The Fish
for 7 April 1998. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 
 
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Those Darn Scientists

Claiming that the scientific
endeavour "has torn down each
edifice to build the next" is
untrue. (Newtonian principles
exist as a subset of
Einsteinian physics.
Relativity and quantum theory
were first unified by Dirac.
Maxwell's equations still
hold true even with a virtual
particle interpretation of
forces.) Only constructions
demonstrated to be false or,
better yet, highly improbable
are "torn down." A more
accurate statement is that
such "edifices" are
abandoned.

Your praise and condemnation
of technological achievements
such as vaccines and H-bombs
are value judgments that can
change according to
circumstance. Is a vaccine
ethically good when it causes
a lethal allergic reaction in
a child? Is the hydrogen bomb
morally bad when it can be
argued that its existence
among the superpowers was the
seed for the longest period
without war known by Europe?
The applications of science
can be used for any number of
ends - I would argue that has
little to do about whether or
not science or the universe
is subjective.

As for E. O. Wilson, if I
recall, Dawkins and Gould
both chide him for his belief
in progress as an ultimate
aim in biology. The same
complaint should be made for
physics. New paradigms arise
when current models are
inadequate. Admitted,
different interpretations
become vogue, but that
implies the field is ready
for a killer application, as
it were.

Simon Adkins

Yep. Good call - "abandoned"
is a better choice than "torn
down."

But I don't think I really
praise or condemn
"technological achievements
such as vaccines and
H-bombs." The applications of
science are useful and not
useful, positive and
negative, and all that, but
mostly I was just poking fun
at E. W.'s argument that
science could find the way to
the absolute, to some end
point at which everything is
understood and it all fits
together neatly. Judging by
the contents of my inbox -
and by the results of my
"what does Leslie think" test
(she's a biologist, and a
personal friend - an exciting
combination!) - not many
scientists buy his argument
either. But if I read your
message correctly, you don't
buy it either, and don't need
to hear it from me again....

Ambrose Beers

 
Fish With Letter Icon


I liked your piece on science,
but what really bothers me
are those on the "other side"
who would overthrow
scientific method and replace
it with completely relative
knowledge.

Science is often wrong, but it
has built-in methods to
correct itself. Scientists
are not usually ivory-tower,
dispassionate observers, but,
like most of us, human in
their concerns.

The really valuable part of
science is the scientific
method. This is the device
that has given us our
technology, both the good and
bad parts. Should this be
traded for so-called
"relative knowledge," where
any "truth" is equally valid?

Because the results are not
always perfect or consistent,
do we then decide to throw
out the method? Because
journalistic sources can be
wrong, do we just make up the
facts, or do we just try
harder?

Dale Craig

With regard to your question -
"Because the results are not
always perfect or consistent,
do we then decide to throw
out the method?" - a short,
simple answer:

Nope.

Because the results are not
always perfect or consistent,
we ... recognize that the
results are not always
perfect or consistent. It's
entirely possible to respect
science and enjoy the
technology (and the ideas)
that it produces without
going and treating it like
high, flawless religion. I'm
actually fairly certain that
most scientists fully
understand what science can
and can't be asked to do. So,
yes, you're right: Scientists
are like most of us, human
in their concerns.

And Ed Wilson is a dork.

Ambrose Beers

 
Fish With Letter Icon


I really liked your column
today.

I wonder if E. O. Wilson has
just been diagnosed with
terminal cancer and wants to
tidy things up before he
exits?

That essay might actually make
some sense if it were to be
presented as an example of
the damage caused by
chemotherapy - you may just
be on to something.

Ambrose Beers

 
Fish With Letter Icon


All right, I guess I can
overlook this column's lack
of a response to the Academy
Awards last night, but was
that an argument for god or
against science?

If it was an argument for god,
then you were wise to frame
it so obliquely, rarely if
ever actually mentioning god,
because whether or not
science has its shit
together, anyone with a hint
of a spark between their
neurons has figured out that
any traditional concept of
god, gods, or spirituality
makes about as much sense as
Robin Williams' acceptance
speech for Good Will
Hunting.

But the very fact that science
does change so rapidly, that
it tears down its own
edifices and then rebuilds
them based upon new theories
and information, in itself
indicates the ability of this
movement to adapt every facet
of itself as necessary. The
point of this is, there is no
way we now can suppose what
science will discover ten
years from now, or 100 or a
1,000. But no matter how much
time passes, the models of
god will stay exactly the
same, as is their way,
probably making
proportionately less sense
than they do now.

Certainly the current models
of the universe as proposed
by science leave much to be
desired; the best
descriptions of string theory
I have heard play out about
as intelligently as a David
Letterman gag: "Them's little
strings in there!" But it is
a ludicrous assumption that
the current morass of
non-agreement science is in
will continue indefinitely.
We are in a social and
technological adolescence,
with no way of predicting how
it all will turn out. But
when the answers do come, if
they do, they will come from
science.

Keep up the good work.

Warmest regards,

Patrick Burke, Los Angeles

Regarding the Academy Awards,
one thought comes to mind:
That Ashley Judd shore is
purty! Sorry I can't offer
anything more.

And the current morass of
non-agreement science is in
will not, of course, continue
indefinitely; it'll shift
from one thing to another.
Isn't the kind of cool thing
about science the fact of its
relentless questioning, the
there's-always-another-thing-
to-figure-out part?
Said morass of non-agreement
means that scientists are
skeptical, thoughtful people.
They can make some awfully
bad choices around the way
their work is applied, but -
E. O. Wilson aside,
apparently - they seem to
recognize this and don't
pretend to be on the glide
path to whole and perfect
knowledge.

Ambrose Beers

 
Fish With Letter Icon


	 




Upstart

Subject: Upstart: Suck surrenders

So now Suck advocates
surrender? Some "Unix
hackers" (among whom you
appear to number yourself) do
actually have active
intellectual lives completely
unrelated to tech. We happen
to be among the very few who
see Microsoft dominance as a
BAD THING, and it is not
simply a natural function of
technical pointyheadedness;
there are real and important
problems with handing over
the keys to your mind to any
information megapolis,
whether it be Disney or
Microsoft.

I never take the defaults. Not
on the nightly news or on the
Net. You, I suppose, will be
Going to Disneyland! Have
fun.

Robert Ingram

Sorry that you apparently
missed the point of the
entire piece. To make it a
bit more clearly: WE ARE THE
MINORITY. A small and
increasingly tiny one.

Have fun in Fantasyland,

WO'W

 
Fish With Letter Icon


Subject: MS versus the world

Wun,

While one could argue the
relative merits of Netscape
Communicator vs. MS IE until
one was blue in the face, one
would sooner or later realize
that one was arguing against
oneself, so I'll let the
"better product" comment
drop.

However, you seem to miss the
key of Microsoft success.
Microsoft does well because
we live in a country in which
someone can make hats that
say "I'd rather be pushing a
Ford than driving a Chevy,"
and then sell those hats.
This implies, of course, that
we are a people of fierce
brand loyalty, and we are
willingly blind to those who
directly sell us brand
loyalty rather than product.
Remember, the person making
the "Ford than Chevy" hats is
also making "Chevy than Ford"
hats.

Microsoft doesn't merely
dominate the software market,
it has convinced a
disturbingly large portion of
its market that either a)
there are no other choices,
b) the other choices are not
for serious users, c) only
freaks would want something
other than Microsoft, or d)
Microsoft products lead to
the greatest productivity. It
has appealed to the common
user's senses of dominance,
importance, compliance, and
pragmatics and thus won the
user.

Therefore, the inevitable
conclusion is not that users
will stay with Start because
of laziness or convenience.
While that may be as true as
it is with OS (why would
anyone ever consider
installing an OS when the
computer comes with one), the
Microsoft success story
revolves around the fact that
the user ignores his or her
ignorance and proudly
declares, "I'd rather be
crashing with Internet
Explorer than browsing with
Netscape."

Joshua Gross, who would rather
be praising Apple than
criticizing Microsoft

> While one could argue the
relative merits of Netscape
Communicator vs. MS IE
until one was blue in the
face, one would sooner or
later realize that one was
arguing against oneself, so
I'll let the "better product"
comment drop.

Fair enough. For the record
though, it was based on 1)
the preponderance of reviews
that have favored IE 4.0 over
Netscape's product; but more
meaningfully 2) personal
opinion based on a great deal
of direct experience, and 3)
the very clear arc that has
had Microsoft starting with a
laughable 1.0 contender in
August 1995, to an improved,
but still laughable 2.0 (up
against Netscape's precedent
shattering 2.0
implementation), to a very
close-call runner up with
3.0, to an arguably (I'll
admit, not inarguably)
superior 4.0.

Given this competitive
trajectory and
Microsoft's's many unfair
resource and distributive
advantages, I believe it is
reasonable to declare
Microsoft as the feature and
functionality winner - if not
today, then probably next
year; if not by then, without
question by 2003, unless a
big old honkin' white knight
with some serious kick-ass
magic and some Marianus-deep
pockets comes along to save
fair Netscape in the
meanwhile.

> ... The Microsoft success story
revolves around the fact
that the user ignores his
or her ignorance and proudly
declares, "I'd rather be
crashing with Internet
Explorer than browsing with
Netscape."

I've actually encountered
little to none of the blind
Microsoft loyalty that you
describe on the Internet
side. On the contrary, I know
many, many people whose
commitment to using Netscape
instead of IE borders on
ideological. I therefore
understand and respect your
point, but do differ with it.
Until about a year ago,
everyone that I knew who used
IE used it because it came
preloaded and wrenching it
out of their systems to
install Netscape was too
complex or time-consuming a
task.

Lately, people of course
still fall into this
category, but an increasing
number are defecting because
they believe IE is a superior
product. I know of no one who
believes Netscape is
superior, yet uses Microsoft
because of a perverse passion
for the company. Netscape
would face a difficult - and
unfair - uphill battle if
they only had to fight
complacency. With both
complacency and product
advantages working against
them, over time their
prospects are very, very dim.

WO'W

 
Fish With Letter Icon


Subject: Amen

Mr. O'Wunne -

I would consider myself a bit
of a newbie. I've been on the
Net for about 1.5 years but
know enough about computers
and the Internet to know what
I don't know. Microsoft, a
massive beast when I first
entered the computer age, has
seen its complete dominance
over the Web industry during
this time. I may just be one
of those 16 know-it-all
"rebel" dorks who pretends to
have a vendetta against
Microsoft and that damn
antichrist Willy, but I feel
pretty safe in the assumption
that at this rate I'm
planning at staring at the
evolution of the start button
until the day I pass away.

Now, for most people this
would be no problem, because
they won't know what they are
missing, and this is the
greatest sin of all.
Microsoft's best friend is
ignorance as you clearly
stated. By eliminating
competition, the company will
most likely slow down the
industry so it can keep up
with itself. As Microsoft
prepares to shut the door on
its competitors, we are
seeing the end of a wonderful
thing.

The way the Internet
and computers in general have
shaped our knowledge is
unbelievable. To make a buck,
that knowledge is needed and
must be controlled, but it is
a shame that the distribution
of knowledge could be
monopolized. In closing, it
is my belief that we need a
new giant in the computer
industry. I believe that the
key to becoming a
Microsoft-like giant is in
controlling the OS. I, for
one, dare one of those more
ambitious programmers out
there to step up to the plate
and take a swing! Who knows,
maybe you'll break a Window
or two!!!

Well, Since this is only the
55th such anger-driven
anti-Microsoft letter you've
gotten, I hope you enjoy.

Brendan Hayes

<<<<How's that for irony>>>> (Hypocrite)

Thanks for your missive. Your
points and sentiments are
very well taken. Looking from
the vantage of 1998, it's
hard to say whether another
giant will arise to challenge
Microsoft on its own turf, or
if (in many ways a more
desirable outcome) an array of
disruptive newcomers will
change the rules and break
the china in a way that will
unseat the ruler without
replacing it. There was hint
that the latter outcome might
transpire back in '95 and
'96, but then Microsoft
reinvented itself in an
Internet mode with blinding
speed to retain its crown.

The resounding lesson here
was that unlike other
companies that rose to
dominate their industries
(General Motors, Zenith, IBM,
Kodak, Xerox - the list is
endless), Microsoft does NOT
have itself, nor smugness,
laziness, or complacency as
its own worst enemies -
something that even those who
bear antipathy toward the
Redmond giant have to
respect, if only
grudgingly....

WO'W

 
Fish With Letter Icon

	

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