The power of words

Quite often in a discussion I’ve heard the phrase “semantics”, as if the meaning of words didn’t really matter in a discussion. Words are the building blocks of complex ideas, and if we don’t have a solid agreement on what they mean, then how can we hope of ever transmitting our message? We might not need to use a specific meaning offered by a dictionary, we might not even need to use a real word, but we need the idea to be packaged in a neat container–a word–which we can send back and forth multiple times in a conversation.

Words do more than simply package ideas in a singular conversation; they can serve as Eureka moments; the first time an idea is not only realized, but packaged, captured like an exotic Pokémon. People might have had Eureka moments before the word “Eureka” was widely used, but it wasn’t until the coinage of the idea that our collective minds became fully aware of such phenomenon.

Have you noticed that when you learn a new word, it suddenly appears everywhere? You probably saw and heard such word many times before in your life, but you never paid any attention to it. It’s called the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, which maybe you have never heard of before, but now that you have; ironically–it will pop up everywhere 🙂

It’s hard to explain how our minds work (or the current scientific understanding of it); but if I attempt to summarize; it’s all about recognizing patterns, and feedback loops. That’s why the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon makes so much sense: we can’t recognize a pattern we haven’t seen before, but once we identify it; our brain will try to see the world through different lenses in order to check if the pattern applies, if it does; the feedback loop will reinforce the idea so we can recognize the pattern better in the future.

So it makes sense to think that language affects our worldview, which is the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. Imagine we didn’t have a word for “thought”, how would you describe a thought? It’s hard to describe a mind if you don’t have the word “thought”, so it is to describe “believe”, “remember”, “forget”, and dozens of other ideas related to thoughts.

This is not merely a theory (or rather; a hypothesis); we know it happened in Nicaragua in the Seventies because there were no schools for deaf people. When the first school was established dozens of people without language gathered, and they slowly created their own sign language. However, their language was very rudimentary. The second generation of kids learned the language from the first generation, but they added new words. These new words did not merely amplify their vocabulary; they changed the way they thought. The first generation merely focused on describing events, the second generation talked about feelings, thoughts, ideas. They got better at thinking about thinking, in one generation, simply because of language.

There is an test called the Sally-Anne test; it is used to measure the ability of a person to attribute false beliefs of another; something that cannot be done without theory of mind. The test goes as follows:

Sally takes a marble and hides it in her basket. She then “leaves” the room and goes for a walk. While she is away, Anne takes the marble out of Sally’s basket and puts it in her own box. Sally is then reintroduced and the child is asked the key question, the Belief Question: “Where will Sally look for her marble?”

Fully functioning adult persons know the answer: Sally would look in her basket. But young children answer differently: Sally would look in Anne’s box. They don’t understand that Sally’s worldview is different than their own; they don’t understand that each person has a different worldview, a mind different of their own. The ability to understand that each person has a different mind is called theory of mind; something so incredibly simple most people take for granted, is actually a gift that young children don’t have, neither do most animals. And it turns out the first generation of Nicaraguan kids didn’t have this ability either, even after they became adults, even in their fifties. Language is the tool that helps us understand other people’s minds; it is words like “belief”, “mind”, “point-of-view”. The second generation of Nicaraguan kids had these words, and with them they easily acquired theory of mind.

Imagine the first time somebody used the word “empathy“. Surely the concept of empathy existed long before the word was coined. However, like many patterns; it was elusive, hard to explain, and thus hard to identify, discuss, mold, evolve. How can I say “the most basic level of empathy arrives with theory-of-mind” if I don’t have the word “empathy” at my disposal, and for that matter, the word “theory-of-mind”?

The word “economy” wasn’t widely used until after the 19th century, and again; surely people understood the concept of economy long before the word, but they couldn’t exactly discuss it. How would you say “the economy is bad lately”? How would you discuss different economic models, like capitalism, or communism? How would you measure something that doesn’t have a name, like using the GDP? The answer is: you couldn’t, and they didn’t. It was the word that gave people such power, in a way the word “economy” changed the world. Certainly there were many other factors revolving the industrial revolution, but the coinage of the word “economy” was instrumental.

A more recent example is the word “meme“. Again; memes existed long before the word, in fact; words themselves are memes; they spread around society like viruses. Curiously enough the word “meme” wasn’t coined until the word “virus” sank into wide use, which could only happen after viruses were discovered, at the end of the 19th century. It is no coincidence that the word “meme” was coined by an evolutionary biologist–quite familiar with viruses.

But words do more than expand our understanding of the world, they change it, shatter it, shift it. Consider the word “gender“. Previously the word “gender” was fixed to the word “sex”, so a male is masculine, and a female feminine. Today we’ve been forced to change that notion, mainly due to transgenders. So a transgender man might have been born with a female biological sex, but considers himself to have a masculine gender as far as society is concerned. This paradigm shift hasn’t settled still with many people, which consider both gender and sex to be the same thing. Inevitable society will have to change its worldview, otherwise transgender people couldn’t fit, and they must.

An even more dramatic shift happens with the word “person“. The concept of personhood has changed dramatically through history, in many cases excluding certain races, or considering one sex less of a person than the other. Today we accept that all people regardless of sex or race should be considered full persons, and the people that don’t accept that are considered bigots; sexists, or racists. So grand of us, isn’t it?

But that’s still not enough. Consider a human being so psychologically disturbed that he lacks any consideration towards other beings, incapable of empathy, even without theory of mind… Is he a person? How about a dog that truly loves his human companion, cares for him, would risk his life if the need arises, and would miss him to death if he was gone.. Isn’t he a person? Indeed; many dog lovers would attest that their dogs are better beings that many humans, and they might be right. A dog doesn’t care for race or sex, and in that sense he might be better than many family members that gather at your typical Thanksgiving.


Personally, I see empathy as the essence of person; if you can’t feel another person’s suffering, then what good are you in a society? Every dog owner has seen the expression of tilting the head to one side; it’s an attempt dogs make in order to understand humans’ emotions (probably because they have trouble seeing our mouths due to their snout), they do this because they are empathic; they understand their human might be sad, even if they themselves feel happy. Contrast this with a human infant, who is barely able to see anything beyond his own hunger, and certainly doesn’t have a theory of mind. Who is more of a person? Why should the word “person” be fixed to the word “human” then?

When you see from this vantage point, you realize that if it’s hard to say a human infant is truly a person, then it’s even harder to call a human fetus a person, which is barely distinguishable from a chicken embryo–both in terms of physiology and mental processes. Certainly less of a person than a fully functional adult woman, whose life might get ruined by abortion laws.

Thus the importance of thinking about the meaning of words, specially important ones like “person”, regardless of how firm you think you have your grasp on it. Because of the way minds work; it’s much more difficult to change the meaning of a word, than it is to learn a new one; it’s much easier to recognize a new pattern than it is to change an engraved one, thanks to feedback loops–much like a drop of water falling on a rock millions of times–the damage is already done. But if you don’t do that paradigm shift, you might end up in the wrong side of history, just like your bigoted, racist and sexist ancestors, you might end up being the bigoted family member in a future Thanksgiving, facing your son’s spouse which might be–let’s go for a long shot–an artificial intelligence; not a human, but still a person, as worthy of our respect as any other.

MeeGo scales, because Linux scales

To me, and a lot of people, it’s obvious why MeeGo scales to a wide variety of devices, but apparently that’s not clear to other people, so I’ll try to explain why that’s the case.

First, let’s divide the operating system:

  1. Kernel
  2. Drivers
  3. Adaptation
  4. System Frameworks
  5. Application Framework
  6. Applications

“Linux” can mean many things, in the case of Android, Linux means mostly the Kernel (which is heavily modified), and in some cases the Drivers (although sometimes they have to be written from scratch), but all the layers above are specific to Android.

On Maemo, MeeGo, Moblin, and LiMo, “Linux” means an upstream Kernel (no drastic changes), upstream Drivers (which means they can be shared with other upstream players as they are), but also means “Linux ecosystem”; D-Bus,, GStreamer, GTK+/Qt/EFL, etc. Which means they take advantage of already existing System and Application Frameworks. And all they have to do, is build the Applications, which is not an easy task, but certainly easier than having to do all the previous ones.

Now, the problem when creating MeeGo, is that for reasons I won’t (can’t?) explain here, Maemo and Moblin were forced to switch from GTK+ to Qt. This might have been the right move in the long term, but it means rewriting two very big layers of the operating system, in fact, the two layers that differentiate the various mobile platforms for the most part. And this of course means letting go of a lot of talent that helped build both Maemo and Moblin.

For better or worse, the decision was made, and all we could do is ride along with it. And maturizing MeeGo, essentially means maturizing these two new layers being written not entirely from scratch (as Qt was already there), but pretty much (as you have to add new features to it, and build on top).

Now, did MeeGo fail? Well, I don’t know when this UI can be considered mature enough, but sooner or later, it will be (I do think it will be soon). The timeframe depends also on your definition of “mature”, but regardless of that, it will happen. After that, MeeGo will be ready to ship on all kinds of devices. All the hardware platform vendors have to do, is write the drivers, and the adaptation, and they already do anyway for other sw platforms.

Needless to say, the UI is irrelevant to the hardware platform.

So, here’s the proof that the lower layers are more than ready:

Just after a few months of announcing MeeGo IVI, these guys were able to write a very impressive application thanks to QML, and ignore the official UI.

The OMAP4 guys went for the full MeeGO UI. No problems.

Even though Freescale is probably not that committed to MeeGo, it’s easier to create demo using it (Qt; Nomovok) rather than other platforms. It’s even hardware accelerated.

Renesas also chose the Nomovok demo to show their hardware capabilities.

MeeGo 1.1 running on HTC’s HD2

One guy; yes, one guy. Decides to run MeeGo on his HTC, and succeeds. Of course, he uses the work already done by Ubuntu for HD2, but since MeeGo is close to upstream, the same kernel can be used. Sure, it’s slow (no hardware acceleration), and there’s many things missing, but for a short amount of time spent by hobbyists, that’s pretty great already.

This is one is not so impressive, but also shows the work of one guy porting MeeGo to Nexus S

And running on Archos 9. Not very impressive UI, but the point is that it runs on this hw.


So, as you can see MeeGo is already supported in many hardware platforms; not because the relevant companies made a deal with Nokia or Intel; they don’t have to. The only thing they have to do is support Linux; Linux is what allows them to run MeeGo, and Linux is what allows MeeGo to run on any hardware platform.

This is impossible with WP7 for numerous reasons; it’s closed source, it’s proprietary, it’s Microsoft, etc. It’s not so impossible to do the same with Android, but it’s more difficult than with MeeGo because they don’t share anything with a typical linux ecosystem; they are on a far away island on their own.

Nokia; from a burning platform, to a sinking platform

I’ve been thinking a lot about this decision to use WP7 from Nokia, as I’m sure many people have, but I’ve wanted to wait for the dust to settle down before blogging, so here’s what I think; it doesn’t make any sense from any point of view.

Technically, there is nothing that can compare to the linux kernel, which works on everything; supercomputers, mobile phones, TVs, routers, web servers, desktops, refrigerators, etc. Not only does it work, but it works well, much better than everything else. As an example, the work that has been done to scale linux’s vfs to many processors (64) does benefit embedded, because some operations are more granular. Or the work on power management lead by embedded helps web servers, where decreasing power consumption is also very much wanted. This creates a environment of synergy never seen before, where even competitors work together. Linux won the kernel race, and its use would only increase; the ones that try to fight against it would only fail miserably.
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Open Source and a new kind of management

I’ve been watching some videos from Dan Pink, an American writer that concentrates on the science of motivation and I think they’re actually very interesting for most people, but specially reassuring for FOSS people…

If you ask an artist why they became an artist, a lot of them will say: I can’t do anything else; I have to do this… It’s the same thing. — John Yodsnukis

Dan Pink argues that for most of the tasks of the 21st century (which are more right-brain thinking), carrot and sticks (extrinsic motivators) don’t work, instead, intrinsic motivators should be used.

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How to explain FOSS to normal people, or: What does mountain bikes, rap music, and FOSS have in common?

Amazing talk: Charles Leadbeater: The rise of the amateur professional

These are my favorite quotes:

  • How do we organize ourselves without organizations? … You don’t need an organization to be organized.
  • One of the reasons [this view] is wrong, is that the ideas are flowing back up the pipeline. The ideas are coming back from the consumers, and they’re often ahead of the producers.
  • Big corporations have an in-built tendency to reinforce past success. They’ve got so much sunk in it, that it’s very difficult for them to spot new markets. Emerging new markets then, are the breeding grounds for passionate users.
  • What we are seeing is a complete corruption of the ideal of patents and copyrights; meant to be a way to incentivize innovation, meant to be a way orchestrate the dissemination of knowledge. They are increasingly being used by large companies to create thickets of patents to prevent innovation taking place.
  • The reason why despite all the efforts to cut it down, to constrain it, to hold it back… why these open models will still start emerging with tremendous force, is that they multiply our productive resources, and one of the reasons they do that is that they turn users into producers, consumers into designers.