Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Book Review: Java EE6 Pocket Guide by Arun Gupta

A good programming book should cover three things: what the technology is, how the technology is used, and the why of the "what" and "how". As a pocket guide, Arun Gupta's Java EE 6 Pocket Guide could never have been more than just a brief overview on what is a sizable and extensive framework, the book does admirably in condensing down key features explaining what they are as well as demonstrations of their basic use. Gupta writes with clarity and with understanding.

The lack of depth does start to show with the illustrations of examples. They are merely snapshots of the various components in action. Combined with the well-written explanations, this might constitute a sufficient overview for someone trying to make sense of unfamiliar code (we've all been there), but it would be hard to see the practicality of such examples beyond that.

To give an indication of the content, I'll summarise one section where I'm quite familiar with the API (EJB). The Stateful Session Beans, it first gives a brief overview of what they are, then drops into a coding example of how to define them. Then there's another paragraph that goes through the relevant points from the code. After which there's further highlighting of other relevant annotations, then how to access them from the client.

The two areas I could see this book being useful is first for people who are trying to come at a Java EE system without prior familiarity with the language. Java developers making the professional crossover would fit into this category. This could also apply for people familiar with some aspects of the Java EE architecture who are needing to venture into unfamiliar territory. The other area would be as a cheat sheet for Java EE for those not wanting to rely on Google to get specific information on specific components.

This book will not teach you Java EE, but it will help those looking for a nice practical overview of unfamiliar features. And as a reference guide, it might be helpful for quick information about specific features written in an accessible and no-nonsense way.

This book was given freely as part of the O'Reilly Reader Review Program. The book can be purchased here.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Evolution and the God Debates

One of the most important aspects of any debate over a scientific issue is to separate out the science from the implications of the science. As non-experts, we aren't in a vantage point to comment on the scientific validity of certain propositions, as we lack the relevant expertise that would allow us to adequately assess the science. Thus any debate where we as non-experts try to comment on scientific validity is going to be a distraction from the real issues associated with the debate.

As non-experts on evolutionary biology, most of us aren't really affected by the debate over how natural selection works, or whether genetic drift is influential in the divergences between related species. Likewise, whether stochastic factors drive speciation doesn't matter to how we perceive evolutionary theory. Those are issues for experts to fight over in the peer review literature, and even if we think that we know the answer, our musings are not going to make a bit of difference because we are not part of the conversation biologists and philosophers are having with regards to evolution.

What we are interested in, however, and what we can have a say on, is how these facts fit into particular conceptions of how the world works.

It's easy to conflate the truth of evolution with the perceived implications of evolution, but it would be wrong to do so. As far as any debate ought to be concerned, it's only with the latter that we should concern ourselves with. If those particular implications are unpalatable, then too damn bad. I personally don't like the implications of what Nazism says about the human condition, but that doesn't give me recourse to deny the holocaust! And if I were to then deny the holocaust, people should rightly point out that my prejudices are seeping into my assessment of the history. As disturbing as I find the notion of genocide, it's a fact I have to live with*.

In terms of the god debates, arguments over evolution have been part of the conversation. I think there are three main reasons for this. The first is sociological, that there are many biologists who are also atheists taking part in the discussion. So there's the temptation to see the battle over evolution as being between atheists and theists, rather than as being an issue of science. Supporting this is that evolution-accepting biologists who are also theists such as Ken Miller and Francis Collins are attacked by other theists as being atheists themselves. In terms of ID, Philip Johnson's Wedge Strategy is built around changing the debate over evolution to a debate over the existence of God, though I wouldn't presume the strategy is a product of that line of thinking rather than causing that line of thinking.

The second issue would be a matter of theology, that evolution directly contradicts certain interpretations of creation accounts. It wouldn't matter in this case what the science says, because the supposition is that the biblical account of creation would be God's truth as opposed to the fallible truth of Man. There are a number of interpretations of the creation of man on this account, but what they all have in common is that they are based on scripture and have mankind as a special creation of God.

The final issue would be the philosophical inference to design, that without recourse to a particular theology, we would still have philosophical grounds for making an inference from the appearance of design in life to the cause of that design being the foresight and actions of a designer. We see a watch, we (reasonably) infer a watchmaker. We see something analogous to a watch in the natural world, so why wouldn't we then infer something analogous to a watchmaker as bringing about that order? Conversely, an atheist could argue that processes don't require a designer at all. Evolution by brute fact is one such process. So if evolution is true, then any designer would be superfluous.

With each of these three reasons, it's important to remember that such arguments are largely (if not wholly) tangential to the question of the science of evolution. In the first case, Philip Johnson and other ID proponents argue that science has been hijacked by philosophical naturalism, and thus biasing science away from design explanations. It's not a question of the validity of the science of evolution, but a question of the scientific enterprise itself. There are problems with Johnson's argument, but I won't go into detail here. In the case of theological issues, what the science says can be of no consequence to that view since Genesis is not a scientific text. It's only with the philosophical analogy to design that there's some overlap, namely whether the science has a coherence to it. And to that, again it's the science that would drive the arguments rather than the arguments driving the science.

What we are after, in effect, is a means of understanding the science in light of propositions in the god debates. If one is after a defeater argument for theism or atheism, then the science will prove a disappointment. The science may be able to rule on specific proposition (such as the age of the earth), but it requires further arguments beyond the scope of the science to make any sort of forceful point. The science of evolution does not imply atheism, just as the overturning of evolutionary theory does not imply theism. For both propositions, further argument beyond the science is required. The science itself should be left to the scientists.

*Some people take exception to analogies between holocaust denial and evolution denial on the grounds that the holocaust is morally repugnant, and its that moral repugnance the evolution-proponent is trying to capitalise on. But that would be missing the point that's being made. Holocaust denial is a view that is supported by a minority of scholars, and there are more scholars in the historical community who deny there was a holocaust than there are biologists who deny evolution. In each case it's a tiny minority, but the point would stand about non-experts trying to take a stance on the issue left for experts. On what grounds would we have, beyond our own prejudices, for favouring the extreme minority view among scholars?