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Not a MacBook Air Review

I travel a lot. On average I'm on the road every other day, usually on the cheap, using mostly public transport, carrying everything on my back. On a typical trip, I take thousands of photos and write thousands of words of occasionally technical prose.

In short, I have a need for a laptop that is very light, small but with a high-quality screen, powerful enough to run serious image editing software and IDEs. When the original MacBook Air came out in early 2008, it seemed quite close to an ideal machine for me, so I bought one. It was quite good, but had a few glaring defects: although thinner than nearly all other laptops at the time, it was still relatively big in the two other dimensions; a single USB port is not nearly enough when you use external hard drives and card readers; battery life was unimpressive, and charging took forever.

In late 2010, Apple revamped its Macbook Air line and came up with a whole-new 11" model. Again I bought one, customized with all available options (1.6GHz processor, 4GB RAM, 128GB storage; 1329€ or $1399.) I think it's fair to say that I've used it extensively: in the few months I've owned it, I carried it to France, Thailand, Indonesia, Nepal and the United States. I relied on it to write research papers on transatlantic flights, edit photos of Javan volcanoes in the very 4WD carrying me away from said volcano, and blog from a tent on the slopes of the Earth's 8th highest mountain. I'm using it right now to write this post, in a very nice pub in Greenwich Village.

My verdict? It has all the qualities of the original Air, which I liked very much, and fixes everything I didn't like. It is at last small enough to fit in places where a conventional laptop would not; it has two USB ports; a full charge takes about an hour, even while doing resource-intensive jobs like editing photos in Aperture. In short, while it's not quite a perfect tool for the job, it is much closer to perfection than any other computer I have ever used.

So, you'd probably guess I've been recommending the 11" MacBook Air to everyone who asked or didn't ask that question known to geeks everywhere: "What computer should I buy?"

You'd be wrong.

As good as the Air is for what I do, it does sacrifice quite a bit in the name of portability, and for many users these trade-offs are probably not the right ones. Someone looking for a computer that lives in his briefcase and follows him to work might be better off with a full-sized laptop. While I suspect the optical drive is pretty much at end-of-life in consumer laptops, as of today many people use it very much. If you only need one computer and like to watch DVDs on it, well, the Air doesn't do that. It's also expensive. Someone who wants a travel computer just for emails and blogging might be better off with a conventional netbook, if only because traveling with a $300 no-name netbook is much less stressful than with a $1500 shiny thing that screams "steal me".

Which brings me to the main points of this post: if you're a geek who's regularly asked for gear recommendation by — for lack of a better word — laypeople, don't ever forget that what may be the perfect tool for you might also be a terrible choice for most other people. On the flip side, if you're usually the one asking the question "What computer/camera/cellphone should I buy?", pay attention to the very first thing your geek friend says in response. If it's anything other than "Well, what do you want to use it for?", you'll be better off ignoring everything he says and looking for someone a little less self-centered.


Minimalist Travel

Eight years ago, as I was preparing for my first trip across the Atlantic, I bought a large beige Samsonite suitcase. I packed several kilos of batteries, cables and adapters, 12 books and 22 full changes of clothing. This turned out to be quite sufficient for the three weeks I was to spend in the United States. While having pretty much my entire wardrobe and library at my disposal every second of the trip did bring me considerable happiness, it also had its drawbacks. Even before taking off, I had to distract the check-in girl with loud tongue-clicking noises while she weighed the suitcase just to avoid overweight fees sufficient to compromise my long-term financial stability. Lugging around that much stuff made every hotel change not unlike moving apartments. I was also disheartened to find out that, for all practical purposes, wheeled suitcases become entirely un-wheeled as soon as the floor isn't perfectly flat, i.e. the second you step outside the airport.

Despite these gripes, I still own that suitcase. Four years ago I filled it with every piece of clothing I had worn since puberty, plus every utensil in my kitchen, shut the lid and moved to Switzerland carrying little else. On shorter trips though, I quickly switched to a hiking backpack, although at first without packing significantly less. It made the wheels problem disappear and motivated me to stay reasonably fit. However, from trip to trip I became increasingly disinclined to carry, well, much of anything.

Yesterday I packed for two weeks in New York, Boston and Paris, and here's everything I'm taking:

So basically five sets of underwear, two pairs of trousers, two long-sleeved t-shirts, two dress shirts, one suit jacket and an embarrassingly bright Scooby-Doo tie. (There's a formal event planned.) A couple cameras, memory cards, hard drive, spare batteries. Cell phone, iPad, and laptop. (A very small laptop.) That's it.

All of these fit comfortably in a Deuter Futura 28 backpack with room to spare. This mid-sized hiking daypack is very comfortable to wear, even fully loaded when it's hot and damp, and also fits perfectly under the seat of most airliners. I'm also carrying a ScotteVest tropical jacket, for additional capacity, although it is at present largely empty.

Obviously I'll have to hit the cleaners a couple times per week, and I won't impress anyone with my incredibly varied and creative wardrobe, but on the other hand I'll never have to wait for bags at the airport, nor store luggage at the hotel and make detours to get it back, nor indeed lose any time at all in the morning trying to decide what to wear. All things considered, it makes for a much more comfortable trip.


Rebutting the Rebuttal

If you've ever spent any time on message boards or discussion groups, you're no doubt familiar with the peculiar format debates adopt on the internet: every poster but the very first quotes the previous message nearly in full, chops it down to chunks of one or two sentences, and inserts point-by-point rebuttals of everything the previous poster said. I don't like it very much. It encourages people to focus on minutiae, unfairly punishes the smallest mistakes, and most often leads to overly tedious, ridiculously long posts devoid of any substance. So I try to avoid being sucked in these kinds of debate most of the time.

Sometimes though, it is simply way too tempting. As when, for example, someone feels the need to insert the following in his "rebuttal" of one of my posts:

Warning: I’m going to wreck these arguments with cold, hard facts. If this offends you, please stop reading. It is not my intention to offend you, but as one would say: you are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.

Setting aside the almost superhuman arrogance of someone who is so convinced he's right he feels the need to soften the blow for the poor souls who might be hurt by his razor-sharp logic, to me this kind of boastful "disclaimer" is a sign of weakness. It's just like when someone says at a party: "We're having so much fun!". That's the kind of thing people only say out loud when they're in serious doubt inside. 99% of the time, when someone feels obligated to say otherwise, the party sucks, and so does the logic.

Only one reaction to my previous post addressed the science/facts of the talks under dispute. […] most people find the actual science far to difficult to address directly. […] Looking at Tipler alone required me to go through endless papers […] Not many people will make time for something like that.

Indeed most people don't make time for that, but they're right not to do so. Thomas Goorden is no doubt aware of the vast difference in understanding between him and those who gave up physics after high school. The latter have vaguely heard of orbitals and they've seen Young's slit experiment and they think they know what quantum physics is all about, but compared to someone who has an undergraduate or master's degree in physics, they know nothing. Mr Goorden, on the other hand, seems to know a few things about theoretical physics, certainly more than most people, including me.

However, in my experience, an understanding gap just as wide exists between people who merely hold a master's degree, and the PhD students who are actually publishing papers in the field. Just like a master's degree teaches you that most of what you learned in high school is wrong, getting a PhD makes you realize that most of those master's level courses were incomplete, and what you thought you understood was wide off the mark. It seems to me the PhD is the first level of education where you can genuinely claim to know something scientifically. The scope of what you know is very, very small, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot on the sphere of knowledge, but for the first time you genuinely understand it. Everything you were taught in high school, and most of what you learned as an undergraduate, on the other hand, are mostly lies-to-childrens.

But the line doesn't even stop here: a third gap exists, again just as wide, between young researchers and seasoned professors, who have done research in their domains of interest for twenty years or more. Thusly they have gained a deep knowledge of a given scientific field, and its interconnections with surrounding disciplines, which is likely the bare minimum for having intelligent thoughts about something so mind-bogglingly complex as a Theory of Everything. Mr Goorden is right in saying that quantum mechanics is harder than most people think, but cutting edge research in cosmology is yet orders of magnitude more complex than even he seems to realize. His suggestion that the couple days he spent skimming papers is enough to have an intelligent discussion about the underlying science is frankly comical. That would take twenty years, and there are no shortcuts.

Even a casual reading of the "scientific" debate between Mr Goorden and James Redford confirms that this is indeed the case. It reads very much like a dialogue between two people who think they know what they're talking about. I can't really blame them for that: the physics of the current proposed theories of everything are some of the most intricate and unintuitive pieces of knowledge ever devised by mankind, and it is impossible for anyone but a seasoned expert in this field to even attempt to understand what is going on, never mind discuss it intelligently. And that is precisely my point: Mr Goorden, like everyone but a handful of humans on this planet, simply doesn't know enough to discuss the underlying physics.

To his credit, he seems somewhat aware of this fact. By his second reply in the aforementioned email exchange, he apparently realizes he can't win on physics, so he chooses to attack Omega point cosmology on the basis that Mr Tipler lives in the United States. (I swear that's what he's saying. Check for yourself if you don't believe me.) This is, of course, a complete non sequitur, but some people might find the underlying argument Mr Goorden is trying to set up superficially attractive:

  1. Frank Tipler's theory supports Christian theology
  2. Christian theology is false
  3. Therefore, Frank Tipler's theory is false

Well, I hate to be the one who has to break this to Mr Goorden, but you cannot do that. The argument uses a reductio ad absurdum, i.e.: if a proposition logically entails a contradiction (a statement known to be false), then it follows that the proposition itself is false as well. It is structurally sound (logicians use it all the time), but, in this case, using it against Mr Tipler theory requires that either:

  1. you prove, from first principles and observation only, that God doesn't exist, or at least that if He exists He cannot be described as a trinity. (Good luck with that.) Or,
  2. you accept the above as self-evident, i.e., on faith.

In short, as he realizes he cannot win the rational argument, Mr Goorden falls back on the exact sin he's accusing Mr Tipler of: letting personal beliefs (in this case, apparently, strong atheism) creep into what is supposed to be a scientific discussion.

Let's move on to what Mr Goorden says more directly to me:

[R]oughly 3 separate arguments rose up in favor of Tipler and Hameroff[…]:
  1. They have published papers.
  2. Smart and famous people have said something positive about it.
  3. One should have an open mind about science and at the very least consider the alternatives.

Hoping you don't mind me starting at the end, number 3 is actually the exact opposite of what I've written. I never said science should be distrusted or that other practices can also provide good answers. What I argued for was the importance of keeping an open mind within the framework of science. I apologize for any misunderstanding, although I tried my best to make the next-to-last paragraph of my post as clear as possible on this point.

Let's move on to the other two:

The first two arguments can actually be taken together. They are so called “arguments from authority”, which is a very well known logical fallacy. It is, simply put, a rhetorical technique to be avoided, especially in this variant.

These are, again, the words of someone who almost knows what he's talking about. The argument from authority is a rhetorical fallacy, more precisely an informational fallacy. (It cannot be a logical fallacy in the mathematical sense because most formal logics have no concept of "authority".) What it means is: the fact that an authority figure endorses a given statement does not prove the truth of that statement, because even authority figures can sometimes be wrong. Had I said that Roger Penrose's endorsement (or the fact that Mr Hameroff has published peer-reviewed papers) proves his theory is right, Mr Goorden's point would have been a devastating blow.

But of course I said no such thing. I used the "authorities" only to support the idea that Mr Hameroff's theory might be worthy of attention. I didn't say the theory was entirely right. I don't think it is entirely right. However, the fact that it is deemed of interest by at least part of the scientific community suggests that it might be, at the very least, interesting. This is not fallacious. What the "argument from authority" fallacy means is that you cannot end a debate with "Superman says A is true, therefore it is." It is however perfectly OK to start a discussion with "Hey, that superman chap thinks this guy's crazy theory might be right, whaddya make of that?". Again I tried my best to make this distinction clear in my original article, by saying for example: "[Roger Penrose's endorsement] does not make Mr Hameroff's theory right, or even scientific", but in case I wasn't clear enough, I apologize for the misunderstanding.

And so Mr Goorden writes eight paragraphs giving reasons why Mr Hameroff's theory is likely to be wrong. I cannot fathom how this serves a rebuttal to my post, where I never claimed the theory to be right. My next-to-last sentence reads: "I'd say [Mr Hameroff's theory is] likely to be wrong." (Again, I humbly apologize if that sentence seems unclear to anyone.) Since Mr Goorden apparently likes to point out rhetorical fallacies, even where, as in the above, no such fallacy is present, he'll be happy to learn that what he's doing here is called a "straw man argument".

Anyway, ferreting out all the logical errors and biases in Mr Goorden's article is clearly impossible in a post of reasonable size, so I will stop here and try to weave the various strands into some kind of conclusion.

Much of this claimed rebuttal of my last post addresses Lynne McTaggart, even though I have never, to put it mildly, rushed to her defense. Mr Goorden asserts all three talks can have negative consequences, a claim he's only able to support in the case of Lynne McTaggart's. He's not above crass dishonesty, as evidenced by his pimping of one of his sources as "a co-author of Stephen Hawking" while simultaneously dismissing the opinion of another of the über-physicists's co-authors, Roger Penrose, as absolutely worthless. He expends quite a lot of copy on long digressions on climate change, intelligent design and vaccines, all completely unrelated to the subject at hand. Only in passing does he mention Stuart Hameroff, who's the only one of the trio I explicitly defended. All in all, it isn't clear what Mr Goorden's post is a rebuttal of, but clearly it's nothing I have written.

Getting down to substance, most of Mr Goorden's criticism boils down to attacks on religion, where, by the way, "religion" has an unusually broad definition. Yes indeed, Frank Tipler is a born-again Christian, but so what ? Is Mr Goorden really saying only atheists can do good science ? Lynne McTaggart can hardly be described as religious: new-agers hold many meta-physical beliefs, but they don't belong to any organized cult or religion. I could find no source for Stuart Hameroff's religious beliefs, possibly because most people don't think a scientist's religion is relevant when discussing his science. (Yeah, I know, crazy idea.) Roger Penrose is an atheist.

In the end, when you comb through Mr Goorden's arguments, getting rid of the unspoken biases and the shoddy logic, his position seems to be:

  • TEDx should be a forum for accepted, validated and consensual science, not the cutting-edge stuff that is necessarily controversial and likely to be at least partially false
  • TEDx should refrain from inviting any speaker who might say anything that conflicts with a purely materialistic and atheistic worldview

There is nothing wrong with holding any or both of these opinions, but one has to recognize them for what they are: expressions of taste. Write them, share them, shout them, but don't try to build up a scientific-looking argument that says everyone has to agree with you. Anyway, I doubt it's even possible to defend such personal preferences on purely objective, scientific grounds. Mr Goorden has certainly tried very hard and, as I have argued in this post and the preceding one, failed. I, for one, hopes dearly that TEDxBrussels will not follow his advice.


Of Science and Open Minds

The recent discussion about Lynne McTaggart's TEDxBrussels talk left me with a few unsaid thoughts, but I figured a third post on TEDxBrussels would be, if not beating a dead horse, at least akin to abusing a crippled pony. On the other hand, now that Thomas Goorden has come out against TEDx inviting not only McTaggart but also Frank Tipler and Stuart Hameroff, this post has become necessary.

Sadly I arrived too late to see Frank Tipler's talk and I haven't read his books, so I have no opinion on the guy or what he talked about. I'll only say I'm skeptical of anyone dismissing his work because it "runs counter to the second law of thermodynamics". Mr. Tipler is a tenured professor of mathematical physics, so I'm pretty sure he's heard of that law.

I did however see the other two talks criticized by Mr Goorden, and while I believe Lynne McTaggart is completely wrong for TEDx, I think Stuart Hameroff is absolutely perfect. There is a sometimes small but extremely important distinction between having wild ideas and being pseudoscientific. Progress is made by people thinking out of the box and coming up with stuff that seems crazy at the time but is later proved right. Of course, most wild and crazy ideas turn out to be wrong, but they need to be proven wrong. If one dismisses out of hand every idea that seems outlandish, acquiring meaningful knowledge becomes impossible.

On the surface, Mr Hameroff and Ms Taggart have many things in common. They both espouse theories that stand outside scientific consensus and even seem to defy common sense. Neither of them are physicists, yet they both claim quantum mechanics as a foundation for their theories. Despite these similarities, I'd describe Mr Hameroff as a provocative scientist and researcher, and Ms Taggart as a fraud and a potentially dangerous one at that. Why?

Firstly, it bears mentioning that the work Mr Hameroff talked about at TEDx was done in collaboration with Roger Penrose. You're welcome to call it pseudoscientific, but if you choose to do so, realize you're not only attacking him and the TEDx Brussels organization, but also a Wolf prize-winning mathematician and co-discoverer of Hawking radiation. Of course, that doesn't make Mr Hameroff's theory right, or even scientific — Isaac Newton was a genius scientist, and still he was dead wrong about alchemy — but it should make anyone think twice before dismissing it as worthless rambling.

If all I had to present in Mr Hameroff's defense was his endorsement by a distinguished scientist, my case would be very weak indeed. I'll give three further arguments for Mr Hameroff's scientific credibility: his having submitted his ideas to peer review, his attempts at establishing falsifiability, and his efforts to distinguish between evidence and conjecture.

I won't spend time discussing why the first two points are important and I leave checking their veracity as an exercise to the reader, because to me the last one is the most significant. Is it possible to present highly exotic and speculative ideas while preserving your scientific integrity? Of course it is. The only requirement is that you honestly say this is what you're doing.

Stuart Hameroff and Roger Penrose are working on a theory of consciousness, i.e. an attempt to explain why it is that we experience life as conscious agents. This is largely an unsolved problem. As far as I know, the only scientific consensus is that consciousness is an emergent property of the material nervous system of humans and a few animals. All that means is that scientists by and large believe consciousness will eventually be explained without appealing to a metaphysical "soul". The phenomenon of consciousness can, in principle, be understood by studying the biological body, without any appeal to the supernatural.

However, as of 2010, nobody really knows what mechanisms in that body bring forth consciousness. All we have are vague and unproven theories, also known as "wild guesses". This is perfectly normal. The surface of the ever-increasing sphere of knowledge is by definition made of questions we don't know the answer of. So we make guesses. We then use reason to infer the consequences of these guesses and see if these consequences fit observed reality. If they do, we slowly gain confidence that we're guessing right. Accepted theories, like evolution or quantum chromodynamics, are those guesses that have been studied so much and have been found to fit reality so closely and so often that they're accepted as "true". Pending further developments, they are our best explanation for how the world works. For a theory to become accepted, however, takes time. Often, a very long time. While this is going on, many different guesses are "outstanding" at the same time, and we're not sure which will turn out right (if any) and which will be proved wrong.

Mr Penrose and Hameroff's theory is just one of many guesses we have at the moment. Its main distinguishing feature is its claim that quantum effects inside the brain play a role in the appearance of consciousness. Is that the case ? We don't know. But neither do we know for sure that quantum effects play no role in consciousness. Up to now the theory has yielded very few testable predictions, but Mr Hameroff is trying to make more. Experiments will be made and we'll see how it pans out. Until then, we have no right to dismiss the theory without proving it wrong. It is thus unfair and fallacious to accuse Mr Hameroff of pseudoscience because his theory is unproven. All theories start out unproven. For as long as a theory remains neither proven nor disproven, no matter how wild it seems, a scientist can discuss it without being pseudoscientific. At least, as long as he's making it clear he's only conjecturing, which Mr. Hameroff does.

Just as unfair is attacking him because his theory has spiritual implications and he's not afraid to talk about them. Many solved and unsolved scientific problems have spiritual, philosophical or moral implications. (Just a select few: the finiteness of our universe ; whether it is time-cyclical, condemned to a heat death, or something else ; the age of our planet ; the moment consciousness appears during a fetus' development ; the relation between cognitive power and the capacity to feel distress and pain.) Can't scientists discuss these issues as well as the underlying science ? Of course they can. They're humans after all, and humans benefit greatly when they exchange their ideas about any great problem. As long as the scientist draws a clear distinction between his science (facts, models, experimental data, etc.) and its philosophical implications, he's faithful to the scientific method. Stuart Hameroff does that. Lynne McTaggart doesn't.

By the way, I would have had no problem at all if Ms McTaggart had given a purely philosophical talk. As I recently learned from Nassim Taleb, the original meaning of "belief" comes from the Latin "credo", meaning "to trust". A "believer" in this sense doesn't necessarily think that the subject of his belief is literally true, but he chooses to live his life as if that was so. Seen in this light, the Field really isn't too bad. Believing that everyone and everything is engulfed in a field that can be influenced by thought seems to me a better foundation for an ethical life than, say, believing Josef Ratzinger is the infallible emissary of God on Earth. Had Lynne McTaggart talked only about the philosophy of the Field without claiming experimental evidence for it, her talk would still have been boring, but at least it would have been harmless.

My rationale against Ms McTaggart speaking at TEDx isn't that New Age philosophy is uninteresting or that TEDx should be more like an academia-style scientific conference. It isn't and shouldn't be. However, the misrepresentation of a collection of meaningless anecdotes as a campaign of scientific experiments does more than insult scientists: it hurts public understanding of science. Lynne McTaggart props up her theory by pretending her observations amount to scientific evidence, and in doing so she sullies the concept of scientific evidence in the mind of everyone who takes her half-seriously. I don't believe it's possible to have an understanding of what hard scientific knowledge is, and yet sit through her talk without tasting vomit. This offense alone should be enough to disqualify her from a forum dedicated to Ideas Worth Spreading.

That being said, pseudoscience is not the only thing that harms scientific progress. I'm convinced Thomas Goorden wrote his post with the best intentions at heart. It contains a lot of useful advice on spotting pseudosciences and I must say we seem to agree with each other much more than we disagree. However, I think his post has the potential to do more harm than good. By lumping together pseudoscience with scientifically sound but unusual ideas, he's giving fodder to those who accuse scientists of being close-minded and arrogant and acting like they have all the answers even when they don't.

Good scientists aren't at all like that. They know they have more real answers than the "spiritual" know-nothing pseudoscientists, but they're also aware that scientific progress means knowing less and less about more and more, and they're always looking forward to the next revolution. They know we will eventually find out stuff that will invalidate most of what we think of as true today, and they're okay with that. Actually they're more than ok, they like it. They're even eager for the little revolutions, and thus keep their ears wide open for original ideas. Crazy theories that might just turn out to be right. They don't accept anything uncritically, but they do listen to everything, attentively, and make an effort to put aside all preconceived notions and personal beliefs before they evaluate a theory. In short, they keep their minds open as wide as can be, but they're not letting their brains fall off.

Is Stuart Hameroff's theory right ? Probably not. It is a statistical reality of research that the vast majority of new ideas eventually turn out to be erroneous. However, we don't yet know that it is wrong. It's way too early to cast it out as useless. It is an elegant idea which is endorsed by one of the few people on Earth who have a decent claim at understanding quantum mechanics. I'd say it's likely to be wrong. But I'm still glad TEDx gave me the opportunity to learn about it.


I'm Moving!

I'm moving the blog over from Blogger to SquareSpace. I've been on Blogger for four years now, and I've become somewhat tired of it. It's a very decent solution out of the box (especially considering it's free) but any customization is awkward and time-consuming. I considered going the full self-hosted Wordpress route, but I've done enough website administration in the past to know I'd rather avoid it if at all possible. SquareSpace seems to strike the right balance between effort and customizability for me. It also has many nice features for photographers, which came in handy since I needed to get my portfolio online quickly.

I'll probably be fiddling with the design for awhile, but apart from that the transition should be seamless. If you're following this blog in a newsreader you probably haven't noticed anything yet, and if everything works out as it's supposed to, you won't.

Thank you for following this blog, and here's to years of happiness in our new home :-)

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