Tuesday, July 01, 2014

July 1, 1858: Co-discovery of Evolution by Natural Selection

On this day in 1858, members of the Linnaean Society of London listened to the reading of a composite paper, with two authors, announcing the discovery of evolution by natural selection.

One author you've probably heard of: Charles Darwin

The other? Famous in his time, but in the 20th and 21st centuries largely forgotten: Alfred Russel Wallace.

Darwin was a Big Data scientist, spending 20 years after his trip to the Galapagos gathering data from his own experiments and from botanists around the world, to make his theory unassailable. Wallace was a field naturalist, studying species and variation, up close and very personal.

Both ended up in the same place at roughly the same time, driven by the inescapable conclusion from these three facts:

1. More organisms are born than can survive (for their full "normal" lifespan). 
2. Like father like son: we inherit characteristics from our parents
3. NOT like father like son: each offspring varies in some way from its parents.

So who/what survives to reproduce and pass on its genes? Or rather, who dies and why? You can die purely by accident. You are the biggest, strongest lion. Nothing can beat you. But a tree falls on you. Dead and gone.

Or you can survive because you have an advantage, however slight, that another in your species lacks. Your beak is slightly more narrow and lets you get at all the nuts on the tree. Your legs are slightly longer so you can avoid the tiger. And so on, everything sorting out how to eat, how to survive long enough to reproduce, from bacteria to coral to fish to mammals.

And with each passing generation, the mutations that help you survive get passed along, and so we (humans and everyone, everything) change - sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly. But change we do. 

With this announcement on July 1, 1858, humans now had a way of understanding how the world works without having to fall back on some unknowable god or gods. And we have also been able to build on Wallace's and Darwin's insight to now understand, perhaps too well, how life works on our planet, and how similar we are to so many other species.

Which means - to my way of thinking - that we no longer have any excuses, we humans, for our ongoing devastation and depletion of our world and our co-inhabitants.

In a more rational world, in which humans shared their planet with everything around them, instead of consuming everything in sight, July 1 would be an international day of celebration.

Well, at least I posted a note on my blog! Plus I will go outside later and cut back invasives, to help native trees grow.

How will you celebrate International Evolution Day?

Here are some links to information about evolution, about the way these two men got to the point of announcing their discoveries, and more.

You will read in some of these articles about Wallace being "robbed" of his just fame and recognition; I must tell you that Wallace, in his own words and the way he lived his life, was gracious and generous in spirit. He always saw Darwin as the one who fully elaborated the theory, making its acceptance so instantly widespread across Europe. He did not seem the least bit jealous.

And Wallace was, in many ways, a far more interesting human being than Darwin. I encourage to check out his autobiography, My Life, as a way of being introduced to one of my heroes.

http://www.wired.com/2011/07/0701darwin-wallace-linnaean-society-london/

Monday, June 16, 2014

A terribly oblivious ultra-rich man

Steve Ballmer is a terribly oblivious ultra-rich man.

His offer of $2B for the Los Angeles Clippers is so ridiculously outsized and unjustified, plus it so richly rewards Sterling for, um, for saying something in private.

[Interesting to consider how in the US, land of free speech, this nasty brutish fellow is being punished -well he was being punished before Ballmer rewarded him - for his private thoughts. That's pretty awful when you think about it.]

Anyway back to Ballmer. His offer is so absurd that it becomes patently obvious to everyone that he has so much money it's simply no big deal for him to throw $2B on the table to unambiguously cinch the deal. 

The aristocracy in France did quite well, too, until they forgot that they were supposed to pretend at lesat a little bit that everyone else weren't virtually slaves for them. But when they got too flagrant, they paid, oh how they paid.

And here in the 21st century, in what is supposedly and still formally a democracy, with citizens supposedly being equal under the law, you really don't want to draw attention to your beyond obscene wealth.

Bad move, Ballmer. If I were a fellow billionaire, I'd get in touch and tell him to tone it down. 

The closer you look....

In the last couple of years, I have shifted my attention away from the human condition (wars here and there, cool new gadgets, etc.) to the non-human condition: the natural world of trees, water, creatures large and small, the process of evolution.

Along the way, I have been reminded that what you pay the most attention to is what your brain spends the most time thinking about (at least the parts of my brain that "I" am "conscious" of). So I need to be careful about what I pay attention to (one reason that I have stopped watching television almost completely). 

And spending ten plus hours a week outdoors, in the woods, cutting back invasives and rescuing trees, has reinforced this to me:

With living things, the more I watch and more closely I watch (and smell and taste), the more amazed I am by the wonders of life. And the more alive I feel,

With manufactured things, it is just the opposite.

The more closely I look at something made by humans, the more sterile, dead and energy-sucking it appears. And the more I watch (or smell or taste), the more deadened I feel.

Perhaps this is not such a big surprise, since everything that humans make is dead, and built upon the deaths of many creatures. Sorry if that sounds like such a downer, but I believe it is simply a statement of fact.

Anyway, no need to feel down. Just go outside, into the trees, into a field, away from things we make, take a deep breath, feel the sun on your face....and you will feel much better.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Do animals have souls?

OK, first of all, don't tell me your answer to this question. That would make the rest of this post seem a bit rude.

Here is one of the dumbest questions I can ever imagine a person asking, much less answering:

Do animals have souls?

How utterly ridiculous.

No one knows what a soul is. No one knows what it looks like, what it means, whether or not it really exists.

Furthermore, we certainly have no idea - please allow me to repeat that because I think it is so fundamental to accept this as fact: we have no idea at all - of what is going on inside an animal’s head. Clearly, a whole lot is going on, if you take the time to pay attention to animals and think about what it takes to do what they do. But many of the things humans blithely state as fact regarding animals, such as “They don’t know the difference between right and wrong.” is fundamentally meaningless because we simply cannot know what is going on inside another creature’s mind. We just make the assumption that they are really super different from us in all the ways that matter - to us.

We are intelligent, moral, sentient. We are smart and they are dumb, brute animals. We are conscious, we have history, philosophy, nuclear power. What do animals have? Nothing!

Oh really? How do we know what animals have? Or even what “have” means to a butterfly or a snake or a black bear? Again, we really have no idea whatsoever what animals have, what they want, or how they would feel about killing others just to make themselves comfortable (something that we humans do every second of every day).

So we make the most self-serving assumption imaginable. We simply outright declare that other creatures have no souls, are not sentient. They are food or threat or benign, but they are not like us.

We will continue to reject the evidence of our senses, the clear demonstrations of sentience, of complex social structures, in other animals. That way we don’t have to feel bad about enslaving them and killing them. Think for just a moment about how smart pigs are, and then think about pig farms in which tens of thousands of these poor creatures live short miserable lives - brought into this world for the very purpose of slaughtering them for bacon. And then later a dam bursts and an entire town is swamped with pig feces from the refuse lake at the farm. Go, humans, go!

I sure am glad there wasn’t and isn’t a species of creature on this planet that's three times our size, extremely powerful and licking its lips at the prospect of a nicely smoked human torso. 

We do not know what goes on inside a pig’s head, but it sure seems like they can feel and express terror. 

So, yes, humans will keep on keeping on, keep on consuming, reproducing, and assuming. But that doesn't mean we can’t try to recover a shred, a mere shred, of our individual dignity by at least acknowledging what we are doing, and taking at least one step, no matter how small to help heal our planet and our co-inhabitants.

We can start by acknowledging, accepting, that the thing that we believe makes us unique and special among all living things is simply an unknowable assumption we make. It is an arbitrary, self-serving action - and brings into question the very idea that humans can be considered moral creatures. 

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Bill Cosby the Mathematician

Leafing my way through the Chicago Reader, I came across this ad:


It took me a moment to sort it out. Can you?

And I don't even know what it is an ad for. Maybe he is coming to Chicago soon for a show? Maybe his greatgrandchild said "Hey, Great Grandpa, look what I learned in school today!" and BC was just so taken with the idea - and the fact that his own clever descendent came up with it, that he decided to run it as an ad.

In any case, generally I hate ads, but I sure like this one.

Ha! Or maybe it is old as can be (as in dating to at least 2011) and I am just catching up:

http://weknowmemes.com/2011/11/sin-b-tan-b-equals-cosby/ 

Well I've never pretended to keep up.


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

I (re) Join Oracle Corporation!

On March 17, 2014, I became an employee of Oracle Corporation for the second time. My first round with Oracle started in August 1987. My second son, Eli, was less than a year old. I'd been incredibly bored with my consulting gig, which consisted of babysitting a reporting system on a DEC10 "mainframe", based on a flat-file database – but a database.

So I checked the Help Wanted pages (no Internet, no smartphones, no LinkedIn) and came across an ad from Oracle Corporation. It contained the word "database", so I figured: "Why ?"

I was hired, even though I was completely ignorant of relational databases. Ok, not completely. I'd read an article by Codd and memorized "Twelve Rules of Relational Databases." But no one ever asked me about relational theory. Instead the key  question seemed to be: "Are you comfortable talking in front of groups, large and small?" I was, after all, interviewing for a "pre-sales" (sales consultant) position.

Fortunately (?), I'd been very active for the past several years organizing Americans to protest facets of our government's policies in Central America, and yes I'd spoken often to groups large and small. My manager-to-be at Oracle seemed pleased enough with this, and I got the job. I never thought my political activity would help me land a software job, but that's exactly what happened.

Looking back on that moment, I see now that it foreshadowed a significant, but not widely recognized characteristic of my career: The popularity of my books and trainings stem as much from my communication skills (the delivery) as from what I am communicating (the content).

I'll get back to that in a moment. Well, joining Oracle changed my life. For one thing, I had to go out and not only buy some suits, but wear them every day. And then after five years with the company, I left to do some consulting, and a few years later ended up publishing Oracle PL/SQL Programming (O'Reilly Media) in 1995. Now that really changed my life!

For the next almost-19 years, I have focused almost exclusively on the Oracle PL/SQL language. I wrote nine more books on the language (probably about 4 too many, actually), of which over 400,000 copies have been sold. I traveled to dozens of countries to share my obsession (expertise) with PL/SQL in trainings and presentations. I built and designed PL/SQL testing tools, code generators, code libraries, and more. I wrote lots of articles for Oracle Magazine and other publications. I attended many, many Kaleidoscopes and Collaborates and International Oracle User Weeks and Oracle Open Worlds and....my wife got really tired of my traveling. Sigh....and that is why I have pledged that in Round 2 with Oracle, I would not start living on airplanes again.

For much of those 19 years, I worked for Quest Software and then Dell as a PL/SQL Evangelist. Quest and Dell helped sstrengthen the PL/SQL community not only by offering such amazing tools as Toad for Oracle, but also by funding my position and giving me a tremendous amount of freedom to continue learning about, writing and writing about PL/SQL.

But I decided last year that I wanted to close out my career as a software professional (I will, after all, be 56 in September 2014) with the company that created the programming language that transformed my life: Oracle Corporation.

Wasn't I lucky that the head of all product development at Oracle, Thomas Kurian, was also a former PL/SQL product manager! Otherwise, Oracle might not have been interested in having me back. ☺

So what will I be doing at Oracle Corporation?

My title continues to be PL/SQL Evangelist, and PL/SQL will continue to be my main focus, of course. I will help promote the language, add to the collateral available for PL/SQL, write articles for Oracle Magazine and post content on Oracle Technology Network, present at the key Oracle developer-related conferences. In other words, all the usual stuff.

But I see my evangelism as a two way street: I want to make sure that developers around the world take the fullest possible advantage of PL/SQL, yet I also want to make sure that Oracle generally and the PL/SQL development team in particular recognize the importance of the PL/SQL community, and leverage it fully.

Ever since 2010 I have been writing daily quizzes (and more) on the PL/SQL Challenge. I have been amazed at the enthusiasm of hundreds of developers to test their knowledge on this site. And it has been fantastic to see many PL/SQL experts who might otherwise never be known or recognized by their peers step forward to share their expertise. This was one of my "hidden" goals of the PL/SQL Challenge.

You see, I have never been entirely comfortable with being (one of) the "go to guys" on PL/SQL. I know very well that for all of my depth and focus on PL/SQL, I am really not very strong technically. I am no Tom Kyte, no Bryn Llewellyn. I only took three computer programming courses in college, all 101 level. I mostly got lucky - and fell into programming at a time when a degree in computer science simply wasn't a requirement (1979!).

It turns out that my main strength, the main reason (I believe) that my books and presentations became so popular, is that I am a good at communicating ideas, techniques, etc. in a way that people find accessible. I never learned how to write and think like a computer scientist, so people can actually understand - and enjoy - what I write. Because of the limitations of my formal training, I often have to think my way step by step to an understanding of how things work (I can't just know things from my university days). I then share that step-by-step process with my readers, which helps them understand. Finally, I seem to find it impossible to keep my sense of humor out of what I say and write - and boy did my readers appreciate that! :-)

Bottom line: it makes me a little nervous when so many people look to me for "all the answers" to their PL/SQL-related problems. I don't have all the answers. But I am pretty sure that if I do not, there is someone out there, some Oracle technologist who has worked with PL/SQL for years, who has a computer science degree, who has faced different challenges than me, who might just have the answer you need, a code sample to save you hours of work, a piece of advice that can save several bangs of the head against the wall.

But how to get the question to the person who can answer it? Of course the OTN discussion forums and places like Stackoverflow provide a way to expose this expertise and make it available to many. I hope to complement those kinds of efforts with new initiatives at Oracle.  You will see announcements over the next year regarding this community building effort. But in the meantime if you have any ideas for me on this topic, please do not hesitate to send me an email.

The Two Me's Online

I have, for years, offered my thoughts (some might say "rants") on my Feuerthoughts blog and @stevefeuerstein twitter account. Going forward, I will cleanly separate my Oracle-related posts from my personal content. So here's a quick guide to the sites and accounts I will be using.

Oracle
Blog - stevenfeuersteinonplsql.blogspot.com
Twitter - @SFonPLSQL
LinkedIn - www.linkedin.com/pub/steven-feuerstein/0/61/51b/

Personal
Home - www.stevenfeuerstein.com
Blog - feuerthoughts.blogspot.com
Twitter - @stevefeuerstein
Facebook - Steven Feuerstein

If you follow my @stevefeuerstein twitter account, I urge you (if an Oracle technologist and not my mom) to also follow me on @sfonplsql. I will soon ramp up with daily PL/SQL tips and more.

Time to Get to Work!

Lots to do, lots to do. Including coming up to speed on a Macbook. I am making the switch after 30 years with DOS and Windows. Fun, scary, frustrating, liberating. More on that, too, to follow

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

How Humans Lost Their Hands (and saved the world)

My first creation (and destruction) mythstory....

How Humans Lost Their Hands (and saved the world)
Copyright 2014 Steven Feuerstein

A very long time ago, our home, the Earth, was very beautiful and full of life on the inside, but on its surface it was empty.

So the Great God Bacta shook the planet and brought forth multi-cellular life in all its ever-lasting glory and ever-changing beauty.

And among the multitude of multitude of creatures, one little piece of Earth's life was Sura, and she was the First Woman, mother of all the humans.

She was, however, sad, because she was all alone, and lonely.

Bacta felt sorry for Sura and in a moment of love for this new surface life, bestowed upon Sura four gifts:

1. A fat fish made of silver, with jewels for eyes.

Bacta declared: as long as Sura possessed the fish, humans would never lack for food. Bacta would make sure the harvests are plentiful and the hunting good.

2. A golden coconut, always full of cool, fresh coconut water.

Bacta declared: as long as Sura possessed the coconut, humans would never lack for water. Bacta would make sure that the rivers flowed and the water creatures cleaned the water, and that humans would always have enough to drink.

3. A glowing jade stone in the shape of a pulsing heart.

Bacta declared: as long as Sura possessed the jade heart, Bacta would make sure that humans would love each other and protect each other from harm.

4. A fossilized shark fin, dark and sleek.

Bacta declared: as long as Sura possessed the fin, humans would be born with their amazing hands, with which humans can make all sorts of things.

Sura thanked Bacta for the wonderful gifts, but still looked sad. Then Bacta remembered, and it created Beto, the First Man.

Beto, the First Man, was also the happiest man, because his job was to make little baby humans with Sura.

Beto was good at his job, and so was Sura, and soon humans - and the things they made with their amazing hands- covered the Earth. After all, Sura still possessed the fish and coconut and jade and fin, so humans ate and drank and loved and built all they wanted.

And they were so busy eating and drinking and loving and building, that they didn't notice all the other creatures who had stopped eating, no longer drank, felt neither love nor hate….because they were simply no more.

Bacta discovered what was happening and appeared before the multitude of humans, to declare:

"You are eating so much food
and drinking so much water
and loving so few and so little
and building so many roads
that the last butterfly has died."

A great murmur went up amongst the humans: "Butterflies dead? So what?"

Bacta was not done. "I have never before had to take back a gift, but I hereby take back the fish. I will no longer make ensure that you have food to eat. Perhaps this will teach you to live in the world, instead of eating it."

And so it came to be.

A swarm of locusts ate the crops that humans planted. Worms ate the fruit in the trees. The rains stopped and everything went bone dry.

Many humans died.

But after a while, the humans who survived figured out how to stop the pests and after a while rain returned. With GMOs, and Roundup, and DDT, humans could get back to eating and drinking and loving to their heart's content. And they did.

Then Bacta appeared for a second time before the humans, very angry, and said:

"You are still eating too much food
and still drinking too much water
and still loving too few and too little
and still building too many roads.
Now, the last elephant has just died."

A great murmur went up amongst the humans: "Elephant? What is an elephant? Dead? So what?"

Bacta was not done. "Only once before have I had to take back a gift, but now I take back the coconut. I will no longer make sure that you will have water to drink. Perhaps that will teach you to live in the world around you, instead of drinking it dry."

And so it came to be. The water in the rivers turned blood red and the water in the seas caught fire.

Many humans died.

But after a while, humans learned how to clean the water so they could drink it, and live. They had to keep this good water apart from the bad water and so from that time on, everyone drank water from plastic bottles.

Bacta was outraged. Water was the source of life, the home for all bacteria. Humans were even ruining that?  Bacta appeared before humans in a fury, and said:

"You are still eating too much food
and still drinking too much water
and still loving too few and too little
and still building too many roads.
Now the last frog has just died."

A great murmur went up amongst the humans: "Frogs are slimy. Frogs are gross. Good riddance, frogs."

Bacta was not done. "Only two times before have I had to take back a gift, but I now take back the jade heart. I will no longer make sure that humans love and take care of each other. Perhaps that will teach you to live in the world around you, instead of covering it with humans."

And so it came to be. Families stuck together, even tighter than before, but friends were no longer trusted, and everyone else was a danger, and not to be trusted.

Yet if you are not trusted, then after a while you act untrustworthily. Without trust and love, between the many groups of humans around the world, violence broke out and wars swept the continents.

Many humans died.

But after a while, those who stayed inside or had the biggest guns, wrote contracts agreeing to help one another. And then the lawyers ruled the land, along with the police.

Which meant that humans could get back to eating and drinking and not loving the world, which they did, with a vengeance.

Forests disappeared. Coral died and turned into rock. Without trees, rivers dried up. Without coral, the fish and then whales had no food, and they died, too.

Many humans died, but many more kept on eating and killing.

When Bacta appeared for the fourth time, humans trembled before the roaring voice of a billion billion bacteria:

"STILL  you eat too much and
STILL you drink too much and
STILL you love too little and
STILL you build, build, build."

The humans were confused. What else were they supposed to do, with their amazing hands and their amazing minds?

Bacta was not done. "You build so much that there's no room for anything but humans. And then you have more humans.

"Only three times before have I had to take back a gift, but now I have come to take back the fin. I will no longer make sure that humans are born with hands that allow them to build, and in building, destroy. Perhaps that will teach you to fit into the world, instead of fitting the world to your desires."

And so it came to be. From that time forward , human babies were born without hands. In their place were just two stubby fingers, and no wrist.

The humans with ten fingers called these tragic babies Four Fingers.

Ten Fingers helped the Four Fingers. They built special gloves for the two, lonely fingers on each hand, and built special machines to do things for Four Fingers they could not do for themselves.

And then Ten Fingers and Four Fingers got back to eating and drinking up the world.

Aren't humans amazing?

But after a while, all the Ten Fingers died, and then a little while after that, the machines stopped working and the gloves wore out.

Many four-fingered humans died.

The ones that survived worked hard for their food with their four fingers, but didn't eat too much.

They got thirsty from their work, but didn't drink too much.

And the only way they could survive was to work together, so they came to love each other dearly.

But they didn't have hands, and never would, so they didn't build any machines.

Which means they didn't spoil the water.

And they didn't cut down all the trees.

Happily, soon (after just 100 generations of Four Fingers) the water was pure again, and the forests were full of trees again, and new creatures evolved to take the place of all the creatures humans had killed.

And Bacta looked up at its creation, and was, for the first time in a long time, pleased.








Saturday, February 22, 2014

Is Evolution Irrefutable and Compelling?

On my PL/SQL Challenge website, we have a feature called Roundtable, which offers an opportunity to discuss "big picture" questions relevant to Oracle programmers.

The current discussion (well, sharing, really) asks players to share the programming languages with which they work.

In part of my answer, I wrote:

I should learn new stuff...but, heck, I am 55. I have spent a very large percentage of the last 35 years in front of a computer or talking to other people about how to work best in front of a computer.

I'd rather learn other new stuff, so for the past year I have been intensively studying evolution. How truly incredible and amazing! Now there's a "language" that blows my mind: The coding in DNA is mind-boggling. The irrefutable and compelling logic of evolution is astonishing.

If you have not read about evolution lately (and certainly almost anything you learned in school was both superficial and is now out of date), I strongly encourage you to check out:

Your Inner Fish, Neil Shubin
The Beak of the Finch, Jonathan Weiner
The Darwinian Tourist, Christopher Wills
Why Evolution is True, Jerry Coyne


To which one player responded:


 ==> [The irrefutable and compelling logic of evolution is astonishing.] <==
Is religious zeal allowed on this site? If it is, I am very happy to hear. I have tons of it. Irrefutable huh? Huh. Sounds like religious zeal to me. Please let me know!

I responded in part as follows:

The irrefutable and compelling logic of evolution is astonishing to those of us who use and celebrate science to understand the world and live within that world. Evolution is accepted as fact within the scientific community (which is not to say there aren't a few scientists here and there who reject it, I suppose) and is demonstrated in virtually every branch of science active today.

and offered to start a discussion on my personal blog, where it would be more appropriate to delve into our different opinions about evolution.

So here it is!  I look forward to at least a response from Mike to get this going, and I would ask those who submit a post to tell me what books or articles by scientists that document the evolutionary process have you read. I am not asking if you believed any of it, but simply whether (and which) you have exposed yourself to this information.