In this document, I try to answer some common questions about why I do some of the things that I do. If there is some burning question about me that you would like answered, please ask.

Meta Questions

Why do you write and maintain a FAQ for yourself?

Short answer: because I can.

Perhaps because I am a strange individual, and have many odd habits that deserve a few words of explanation. More seriously, there are in fact questions which people frequently do ask of me, and which I would like to give a more coherent and thought-out response than I could without the benefit of a FAQ or similar document.

Thanks to Thomas for suggesting this question.

E-mail and IM Questions

Why do you only send PDFs when I ask for a document from you?

Short answer: to ensure proper formatting on all computers, and to prevent vendor lock-in.

Some other people have written better answers than I have, but the long and short of it is that Microsoft Word is not an acceptable document interchange format. This is true for several reasons:

  • The Microsoft Word formats (including Office Open XML documents having extensions such as docx, xlsx, etc.) are proprietary and thus cannot be implemented by other software without significant legal risk.
  • The Microsoft Word software does not work on Linux, and only partially supported on Mac OS X. Thus, using Word limits my choices in operating systems in ways that unduly constrain my ability to get work done.
  • There is no single Microsoft Word format: each version has its own quirks and bugs, meaning that if you do not have the matching fontset, version and operating system, you will not receive the same document that I intended to send.
  • Microsoft Word has poor support for mathematics, unlike OpenOffice.org and LaTeX. I prefer to use tools appropriate to the task at hand.
All of these problems are solved by sending a PDF: the format is standardized by the ISO (before they sold out), is fixed, well-supported on all modern operating systems and is designed to preserve all formatting. If you require the ability to edit my documents, then I would prefer to send you either LaTeX source code or an OpenDocument formatted document.
Note that I am not by far the only person who feels that the Microsoft Word formats are not  acceptable interchange formats. For more resources on the problems with using Word for this purpose, please see one of the links below:

Why does everything I receive from you have a signature.asc attachment or funky text like "-----BEGIN PGP SIGNATURE-----"?

Short answer: to ensure privacy and verifiability.

As one might guess from the word "signature," these odd habits are related to signing my e-mails and providing some sort of verification as to who actually sent them. More concretely, I use the Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) protocol as implemented by the GNU Privacy Guard software (provided with most Linux distributions, and available for Windows here) to cryptographically sign my e-mails using my private key. Only someone with both my private key and my personal passphrase can make such a signature, but due to the magic of discrete logarithms, anyone with my public key (download) can verify that my signature is legit.

If you use an e-mail client like KMail or Evolution (Windows version), PGP support is built-in, and the signature status of my e-mails should be automatically displayed. If you use the Thunderbird e-mail client, then the Enigmail extension will provide you with PGP support. For webmail users with Firefox, FireGPG adds PGP support to Firefox with special handling for Gmail.

Why do you mark Jabber/XMPP as your "preferred" IM network?

Short answer: to promote open standards, and to enable the use of preferred clients.

The Web, and in a broader sense, the entire Internet, were founded on open standards. Anyone can read the RFCs (requests for comment) available from IETF that define e-mail and use it to make their own e-mail server that seamlessly interacts with the entire rest of the Internet (ideally, anyway-- no one implements specs perfectly). On the other hand, I can only use the MSN Messenger service (or Windows Live Messenger or whatever they call it these days) on platforms blessed by Microsoft, on computers approved by Microsoft, and in ways that Microsoft approves, unless I use a reverse-engineered client (like the excellent Pidgin) that may break at Microsoft's whim. Even worse, the entire existence of the service is entirely at Microsoft's whim, and can be discontinued if they disappear, leaving me high and dry. This infrastructure introduces a single point of failure, and consolidates power in the hands of a single corporation.

Compare to the approach that Google, LiveJournal and many others take to instant messaging. They start with an IETF-approved standard called XMPP (often called Jabber for historical reasons). Anyone can make a client for the XMPP network, and can communicate seamlessly with friends using any other XMPP-based service. While individual servers, such as the Google Talk server, may disappear or be censored, the XMPP network will remain, defraying damage. Thus, unlike MSN Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, AIM, ICQ or Skype, when I use XMPP, I am not tying my fate to the whims of a single company. I am maintaining the principles of a free, open and accessible Internet, and I get to use a client of my choice.

Grammar Questions

Why did you write PDFs above instead of PDF's?

Apostrophes indicate contractions or possessives-- never pluralization.

Political Questions

Why are you so outspoken?

Because I honestly care about those things that I feel affect me and those that I care about, and because I don't believe in keeping silent on important issues.

Aren't you afraid of your speech having impacts on your professional career?

Of course! On the other hand, I've seen enough people fired or reprimanded for what they say in what should have been private forums that I would rather be held back by the things I say in public.

What if you're wrong about something? Shouldn't you be less outspoken?

Short answer: I could be wrong, but don't think I am.

I could be wrong, and in fact, with very high probability, am dreadfully wrong on at least one important political issue. I don't have all the answers. What I do have, however, is a confidence that at least something I say is at least largely correct, and that, on the balance, I am at least more right than wrong, thus beating out a fair coin as a moral compass. I try to back up my ideas and beliefs with data where I can, and I recognize that my data is not always as reliable as I would hope.

None of this, however, should at all suggest that I just shut up about something until I know everything. Were I to do that, I'd never talk at all... there's no subject that I have complete mastery over, and there never will be such a subject. Instead, I simply say what I think I know with the realization that I could always be wrong.

You're so abrasive when you talk about politics and religion! Don't you respect the other side?

Short answer: Respect is earned, and can be lost. I respect those with whom I can intelligently disagree.

It depends! If someone is continuing to espouse the same kind of belief that has repeatedly been shown to disagree with reality (for instance, young-earth creationism), then no, I do not have a lot of respect for the other side. Respect is something that can be earned and lost, and this doesn't stop being true when you talk about politics. On the other hand, since I know I could be wrong, I must have respect for ideas that I think are wrong, but that are at least plausible. Moreover, since I admit that I most likely am dreadfully wrong about something, I must also be able to hold respect for someone with whom I disagree categorically on some issue.

As an example of this last point, I have said loudly and repeatedly that I do not think that science and religion are compatible (not denying that some people are simulntaneously very good scientists and are religious, but only that such people are perfectly consistent). When I say this, I disagree with many people whom I honestly feel are most likely more intelligent than me, and whom are certainly better educated. I am not so conceited as to believe that I have the be-all-end-all answer to the debate, but I do happen to think that facts are on my side. This doesn't keep me from respecting my friends, peers and superiors who disagree with me vehemently on this issue.