Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Afraid of the Dark?

There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened. ~ Douglas Adams

The honey bees are going missing, the Antarctic is melting so fast that chunks the size of California are disappearing, quantum computers are around the corner, but what is everyone writing about? In a hundred billion years, astronomers and cosmologists are going to need to find new jobs. I can't recall the last bit of theorizing that received so much play in the scientific press and even the mainstream press.

Heck, I even blogged about it.

Of course, if you read my entry, you'll note that I point out some potential difficulties with the eternal darkness theory, not the least of which involves the possibility that scientists have completely misread the repulsive force of dark energy. If that is the case, then astronomers and cosmologists will have continued employment for a lot longer than 100 billion years.

I'm not sure I understand why this one theory has been mentioned in so many places. If anything, it's more depressing than the standard model of so many years, that being that, thanks to entropy, the universe will end up as a thin, cold haze of elementary particles in a gazillion years from now. So, why is the idea that we might as well be at that point much earlier getting such legs?

(A small digression: Neil Degrasse Tyson was once describing that "cold haze" end of the universe on some program or another. After doing so, he paused, smiled, and said, "I think about that a lot." Maybe it was the smile, but it just struck me as funny somehow.)

Now there's certainly nothing wrong with reporting this particular theory; it's an intriguing extrapolation on the impact of dark energy, if it does, in fact, exist and behave the way we think it does. Of course, it may not exist or, if it does, it may be that we have totally misunderstood the way it works. That's why scientists do research and create models. Reporting these theories gets more people thinking about them, which leads to more theorizing and modeling.

But the people who do the serious work are going to read about such ideas in professional journals where they can peruse the original papers. Science publications (from trees and on the web) aimed at the lay person is probably not where the professionals are getting the bulk of their information. Normally, when something of this nature comes out, a couple of articles will be written, and the moving hands, having writ, movie on.

Yet this story is turning up all over the place.

Perhaps it fits with the current doom-and-destruction outlook that the scientific media seems to love these days. Or it might have to do with the connection with the exotic dark-energy-antigravity thing. It's difficult to say, but it's certainly a popular subject.

Sir Arthur Eddington once famously said, "Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine." In some ways, that is most certainly true. The idea of pulsars, black holes, and the quantum universe were unimaginable 150 years ago. But, the quantum world aside, once we find these strange things, we tend to find that their behavior follows the physical laws we've discovered over the centuries. Even quantum mechanics has some well-defined rules, but the rules are still changing, which means we still haven't pinned them all down yet.

What I'm driving at is that when we invoke forces or forms of matter we can't describe and don't understand, any models we create with those things are highly subjective and speculative. The act of developing those models and theories helps push our level of understanding upward, but it's important that we recognize the difference between what we know and what we're guessing.

I think that's what is bothering me about all this fuss about the coming darkness. It's very speculative, yet the stories, as is so often the case, don't emphasize that. The more stories that come out hyping the theory, the more likely that the lay public is going to make a judgment that they are reading fact, not theory.

So, those of you in the science media, how about we move on to something else? Otherwise, the Science Channel is going to be tossing out one of their specials on how the "great darkness" is coming.

Of course, if that causes them to stop airing that silly show about string theory over and over, that might not be such a bad thing.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Certifiable

A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way. ~Mark Twain

According to this article from Computerworld, there are people cheating on technology certification exams. Next they will bring us the bulletin that rain is wet. Exam cheats may be more organized now; it may even be more widespread (although that would be hard to imagine); but it is nothing new.

For the uninitiated, companies like Microsoft, Novell, and Cisco, and third party organizations, have been offering certification exams for almost as long as computing has been around. The idea was really three-fold, I think. First, it gave someone a roadmap on learning the ins and outs of the company's products. Second, it gave those companies an advantage in that practitioners who had taken the effort to get certified would be inclined to want to use those products. Finally, employers looking for technology-savvy people would specify certifications that would fit their environment.

Nice plan, but execution has been somewhat lacking.

First of all, many people seeking certifications didn't care for the most part whether they knew anything or not. They weren't looking to gain expertise; they wanted a certification to put on their resume. The companies, more interested in pushing product than creating knowledgeable professionals, partnered up with publishers and training companies to provide example exams, making it easier to get certified without actually learning anything.

To add to the problem, people who took the tests gleefully posted the questions online for free. The certifying companies cracked down on web sites that allowed this, and it seemed to have some effect. Now it seems that the Asian market has figured out how to make a buck swiping exams and selling the answers to anyone with the money to buy them.

I have some experience in the matter of certifications. I have Novell and Microsoft certifications, which I obtained after working in the field for several years. The only reason I bothered to get them was because employers seemed to be impressed by them. I wasn't, but I preferred to be employed.

The problem is that courses are geared not toward learning the subtleties of, say, operating systems. They are purely geared toward passing certification exams. As I said, training companies, with the blessing of the certifying companies, provide sample exams, some of which are remarkably close to the real thing. There are also publishers who specialize in books related to certification exams, which also contain practice tests. Some of these are frighteningly similar to the actual test.

Some years ago, I was taking the exam for Microsoft Exchange, which was the last one I needed to be my Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MSCE) certification. I used a book by a company I will not name (to protect the guilty). Exchange is a massive and complex mail system. A test about it could go in so many directions, and the study book was so massive I was concerned that I wouldn't pick up on the most important items.

The book did, however, come with a "practice exam", which I must have taken twenty times. Which turned out to be a very smart thing to do. When I took the Microsoft exam, I was surprised when the first question turned out to be word-for-word what one of the practice exam questions had been. So was the second. So was the third. Even the multiple choice answers (right and wrong) were the same. The only difference was the order in which they were given.

It took me ten minutes to complete the exam and get my certification.

Now, I find it hard to believe that Microsoft was unaware of this, since this publisher put out a lot of Microsoft course books. Apparently it was more important to Microsoft to get people certified in their products than it was to have people who were knowledgeable about their products.

I'm not just picking on Microsoft here; Novell practice exams provided by a certain training company were also frighteningly accurate.

There is a definite problem in the technology profession where this whole certification process is involved. If employers are really relying on applicants' certification status as a screening tool, they aren't necessarily getting the most qualified people.

As long as training courses are geared toward passing exams, they don't really provide information about the things that go wrong and how to fix them. Troubleshooting is seldom a factor in any certification curriculum (the Cisco CCIE is an exception to this, being one of the toughest certifications to obtain). Worse, technology is making it easier to prepare for a test without learning anything.

The irony, of course, is that the foundation for the technology that allows this to happen was developed by geeks who knew technology inside and out, most of whom did so before certifications were ever available. It is creating a population of technology "professionals" who are ill-equipped to handle the complexity of networking and security in the 21st century.

The results of this are being seen daily in reports of hacked customer databases. Network security is being set up using default modes; software is designed using developer interfaces that hide the complexities of code from the software writers.

There are still IT pros out there, in networking and software development, who know what's going on and how to deal with it, but they are fighting a losing battle against the crackers who are able to create massive botnets thanks to exposed systems created by all those certified "professionals". Not all crackers are computer geniuses, but there are enough of them to have provided tools for the less competent crooks to ply their trade.

The irony is that, for the most part, those accomplished crackers never wasted time getting certifications.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Dark in the Lightness

The universe seems neither benign nor hostile, merely indifferent. ~Carl Sagan

Another day, another theory of how the universe will end.

As you no doubt know, the ultimate fate of the universe, somewhere out a google years from now, depends on the amount of mass it has. According to the prevailing theory, if it has enough, it will expand up to a point and then contract, ultimately crushing down to a primordial particle (or black hole) in a "big crunch." Alternatively, if there isn't enough mass, the universe will expand forever, become more diffuse and disorganized, due to entropy, ending as a sort of fuzzy haze of elementary particles.

The latter outcome has never been very popular, probably because it seems so dismal. The idea of a sort of cyclical "bang-crunch-bang" universe appears to be more comforting to people, probably because there is a guaranteed succession of universes.

The desire to know which outcome is probable has been one of the driving reasons for astronomers to try to find out just how much stuff is in the universe. I've talked about this before, so I'm not going into detail here. Suffice it to say, the search for matter has led scientists to determine that there's more out there than we can see. Part of it is something called dark matter; most of it is called dark energy. What the two have in common is that we don't know what either is.

Dark energy is the current darling of the skywatching community. It appears to be causing the expansion of the universe to be increasing rather than slowing, as one would intuitively expect. An accelerating expansion leads to some potentially strange outcomes.

One of the strangest is coming out of Case Western Reserve University (just so you know, your extremely humble author graduated at a very humble level from Case Institute of Technology, class of 1970; Case Tech is now part of CWRU). Lawrence Kraus and Robert Scherrer (out of Vanderbilt, which apparently doesn't have as good a publicity department) have proposed that ultimately radiation will, well, radiate away, leaving some very old matter scattered about an immense universe.

Fundamentally, matter won't decay fast enough to replace the dwindling radiation energy. There will still be such energy, but matter will be the dominant stuff of the future universe. But bits of matter will be so widely scattered as to be invisible to one another.

All this depressing outcome is due to the accelerating force of dark energy, which, according to Kraus and Scherrer, will begin to "accelerate the most distant galaxies and stars beyond the speed of light." What that means is that some parts of the universe will be beyond observable range of others. The long range outcome of this is a cold, scattered universe where an observer perched on one of the remaining bits of matter won't be able to see any others.

In fact, the scientists say that some objects that could be seen when the universe was about 7 billion years old aren't visible any more. In around 10 trillion years, only the local cluster of galaxies will be available for any astronomers still around in that distant epoch to observe. Eventually, all matter will have followed the expansion of space until all the stuff is out of sight of all the other stuff.

In an attempt to be properly apocalyptic about all of this, Mr. Krauss says, "The future is bad. A universe with dark energy is the worst of all possible universes for the long-term future of life."

And you though global warming was bad.

Of course, all of those doom-and-gloom depends on understanding how dark energy works in the long run. This is the same dark energy that we haven't directly detected and can't actually describe in physical terms. To show how fuzzy the concept is, in the article, cited above, I mention a study (near the end) where a study of distant supernovae seemed to indicate that dark energy had been at work for 9 billion years or more. The only fly in that ointment is that the study disagrees with the principle that dark energy was once an attractive force that later flipped into a repulsive force, which is fundamental to the dark energy theorists.

I also recorded that another physicist has offered a theory that doesn't require dark energy to account for the apparent repulsion of the universe, because there is no actual repulsion. It's an illusion created by the effect of local mass concentrations (like clusters of galaxies) on the immense voids between concentrations. The universe is expanding, yes, but local clusters are contracting as well, having less effect on the void areas, creating an illusion of accelerated expansion.

Dark matter is faring better, as at least one Chandra observation seems to indirectly indicate the presence of some unseen dark matter in a galactic collision (as I reported here). However, like dark energy, no dark matter has been directly observed. And, so far, the properties of dark energy and dark matter are purely conjectural. So, while Krauss and Scherrer may have an interesting model, that model rests on a lot of assumptions which may well be overturned in the next few years. That is, of course, the essence of scientific progress.

In other words, we're still very much in the dark, but the light is out there somewhere.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Hindsight

Forecasting is very difficult, especially if it's about the future. For this reason, he who lives by the crystal ball soon learns to eat ground glass. ~ Edgar Fiedler

There are no shortage of lists of predictions of the future that didn't work out quite how the predictor thought they would. You can find some here, here, and here. In fact, this blogger even had some previous fun with IT predictiions. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, so making fun of some prognostications is fairly easy. It begs the question, though, as to how supposedly intelligent people come up with these ideas.

Interestingly, many of the predictions in these lists tend to have been negative, in the man-will-never-fly mold, rather than optimistic ones that never occurred. For example, there were the visions of flying cars, domed cities under the ocean, settlements on the Moon and Mars (by 2000 or even earlier), and abundant energy from nuclear or solar power. The negative predictions, at least where science and technology are involved, tend to be a denigration of a new invention or theory.

For instance, Thomas Edison, proponent of direct current, said of George Westinghouse's alternating current scheme, "Just as certain as death, Westinghouse will kill a customer within six months after he puts in a system of any size." Edison himself was on the receiving end of this comment from a committee of the British Parliament: "...good enough for our transatlantic friends ... but unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific men."

Of course, much of this comes from either ignorance (when a non-technical person or group is offering the criticism), vested interest (like Edison), or sour grapes because the scientist or engineer didn't think of it him or herself. Some of comes from a sincere belief that the new theory or invention just isn't going to work.

But what of the wonders that never happened? Consider the flying cars.

If there's one thing my wife is disappointed about, it's that we don't have flying cars. Personally, I'm happy about it. Consider the problems associated with the air being filled with vehicles. People who can't drive properly where lanes are marked clearly aren't going to follow air lanes. There's also the problem of what happens if you have an engine problem. In most cases, there's no slowing down and pulling over; you crash and burn. With technology as it currently stands, flying cars are impractical.

The dream I've been carrying for years is the car that runs on an autopilot, allowing the driver to relax and leave the driving to the car. There are two ways to approach this. First you can implant cables in the road that are followed by devices in the vehicle. Couple this with controls that keep a safe distance between vehicles and maintain the speed limit, and you have a relatively simple system.

The problem with this is that you need an infrastructure put in place to provide the vehicle guidance. There is a considerable cost in this sort of implementation, even if roads are repaved relatively frequently, for planting cable and piping a signal down those lines. The alternative is a car that has sufficient sensors to drive itself without such an infrastructure. But, you still need to have lines painted and upgraded signs, involving more infrastructure improvements.

There is the additional issue of those who would override the automatic systems to speed through traffic, no doubt causing wrecks just as such drivers do now. So, even though we probably have the means to provide some sort of automated driving, without some sort of legislation and driver re-education, it would be difficult to implement.

Difficult, but hardly impossible.

The lesson in this is that the dream predictions often overlook practical obstacles that have to be overcome. Just as the nuclear power advocates forgot about the costs associated with dealing with the radioactive wastes, we neglect to think about those annoying side issues that have to be addressed before a dream prediction can come true.

That doesn't mean that we should smirk at the dreamers. Even impractical dreams can lead to practical advances. What we need to do is change our attitude about overcoming the obstacles. It seems that we always can think of reasons why an idea won't work, but we seldom turn to ways to overcome the negatives. Rather than laughing at the extreme ideas, we should think about their potential.

It's more fun to chuckle about the naysayers who were wrong than to have to wish for what might have been.