Category Archives: technology

Knowledge and intelligence

LTU links to a lecture by Alan Kay on (ostensibly) the history and current state of programming. But he actually talks about confusing our beliefs with reality, the origin of ideas, “tinkering” as opposed to proper science and engineering, the abstraction-concretization-abstraction cycle etc etc.

Something he says about half way though the lecture reminded me in some ways of Rand’s “intellectual pyramid.” He considers knowledge and outlook to be superior, in most cases, to pure brain power, IQ. And he shows this by comparing Leonardo da Vinci to Henry Ford. “[Leonardo’s] IQ could not transcend his time,” whereas Ford had Newton, and those who built upon his ideas, to thank for his success. Kay says: “One of the wonderful things about the way knowledge works [is that] if you can get a supreme genius to invent calculus, those of us with more normal IQs can learn it. So we are not shut out from what the genius does. We just can’t invent calculus by ourself but once one of these guys turns things around, the knowledge of the era changes completely.”

A provocative quote, to end this: “If you take the word engineering seriously, and I do … we haven’t got it yet in software. We really don’t know how to do it.”

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They sat, they surveyed, and …

From Shannon’s 1950 paper [pdf] on programming a chess-playing computer-

… this approximate evaluation f(P) has a more or less continuous range of possible values, while with an exact evaluation there are only three possible values. This is as it should be. In practical play a position may be an “easy win” if a player is, for example, a queen ahead, or a very difficult win with only a pawn advantage. The unlimited intellect assumed in the theory of games, on the other hand, never make a mistake and a smallest winning advantage is as good as mate in one. A game between two such mental giants, Mr. A and Mr. B, would proceed as follows. They sit down at the chessboard, draw the colours, and then survey the pieces for a moment. Then either:-
(1) Mr. A says, “I resign” or
(2) Mr. B says, “I resign” or
(3) Mr. A says, “I offer a draw,” and Mr. B replies, “I accept.”

Digital money

The EFF has an interesting article on something called bitcoin, a pure digital currency not backed by anything, or controlled by any single authority, and with a hard limit on the total cash that will ever be generated. The cash generation scheme is a proof-of-work system, which means it is not “free.” Not surprising, then, to see generation being thought of as “mining,” and people pooling computing resources via mining associations. Digital money is an old idea, and hasn’t been successful, yet, as far as adoption goes. Those that were adopted (they were backed by gold/silver), have been targeted by the US government. From a recent article at LewRockwell

[I]’ve spent much of my time thinking about how to inject a new currency into an existing regime without using force like with the Euro. I was an adopter of The Liberty Dollar, which was an interesting idea until the raid by the FBI in 2007. It highlighted the growing concern with the US Dollar; giving people the illusion of a silver-backed currency while hedging against its own success or failure by buying their coins and storing them away.

E-Gold’s troubles with The Man were equally predictable; thieves hate competition. The Liberty Dollar was being persecuted over a broad interpretation of counterfeiting laws (irony duly noted) while E-Gold was harassed over their customer’s actions, not any actions of their own. The Federal Government is allowed to run the twin Ponzi Schemes of Social Security and Medicare but U.S. citizens are not allowed to engage in commerce with those engaging in similar activities while not actively engaging in those activities themselves.

In other news, water is wet.

The ideal digital currency would be something that is scarce, can’t be generated for free, is decentralized, can’t be tracked or controlled by governments, and something that safeguards the anonymity of both parties to the transaction. What can’t be traced, can’t be taxed. If the currency does become successful, competitors (financial institutions) will no doubt go and complain to the government and demand regulation: it enables money laundering! And terrorism! And pornography of the you-know-what kind! And a multitude of other criminal activities! But there is nothing to raid, and no gold reserves to confiscate. The best that they can do is make the whole thing illegal and go after merchants accepting the currency, thereby driving the currency underground. But that will still leave individuals with some risk appetite trading services and products with other individuals. And surely money is better than barter!

Another IP rant

Found this Stallman short story which occurs in a dystopian future in an Ars comment thread-

For Dan Halbert, the road to Tycho began in college—when Lissa Lenz asked to borrow his computer. Hers had broken down, and unless she could borrow another, she would fail her midterm project. There was no one she dared ask, except Dan.

This put Dan in a dilemma. He had to help her—but if he lent her his computer, she might read his books. Aside from the fact that you could go to prison for many years for letting someone else read your books, the very idea shocked him at first. Like everyone, he had been taught since elementary school that sharing books was nasty and wrong—something that only pirates would do.

And there wasn’t much chance that the SPA—the Software Protection Authority—would fail to catch him. In his software class, Dan had learned that each book had a copyright monitor that reported when and where it was read, and by whom, to Central Licensing. (They used this information to catch reading pirates, but also to sell personal interest profiles to retailers.) The next time his computer was networked, Central Licensing would find out. He, as computer owner, would receive the harshest punishment—for not taking pains to prevent the crime….

Ars reported last month that the RIAA was lobbying for the mandatory inclusion of FM radios in portable electronics. Naturally, the electronics lobby isn’t happy about it-

The Consumer Electronics Association, whose members build the devices that would be affected by such a directive, is incandescent with rage. “The backroom scheme of the [National Association of Broadcasters] and RIAA to have Congress mandate broadcast radios in portable devices, including mobile phones, is the height of absurdity,” thundered CEA president Gary Shapiro. Such a move is “not in our national interest.”

“Rather than adapt to the digital marketplace, NAB and RIAA act like buggy-whip industries that refuse to innovate and seek to impose penalties on those that do.”

But the music and radio industries say it’s a consumer-focused proposition, one that would provide “more music choices.”

It’s very heartening to note that these lobbies “care” about the consumer and the nation so much. De facto perpetual copyrights and submarine patents that allow people to blackmail companies with a successful business model wouldn’t exist without such caring. Of course, one hopes they don’t intend to start suing people listening to their radios, like the British music lobby did a few years ago-

The mechanics working out in the garage have radios playing while they work, and there’s plenty of noise in the garage, so they’re likely to turn those radios up. Customers in the enclosed area next to the garage are certainly likely to hear that music… but is it really a public performance? The Performing Rights Society in the UK certainly thinks so, which is why they’re suing. The repair firm, Kwik-Fit, has a pretty weak response, saying that it’s banned personal radios for ten years. Instead, it should be fighting back on the idea that this is a public performance in any way. Otherwise, you get into all sorts of trouble. If you have the windows open in your home and are listening to your legally owned music (or your TV!) and your neighbor can hear it, is that a public performance?

Is that a public performance? Damn yeah! That’s what former Sony BMG lawyer Pariser might say, given that she said this in court, in ’07-

Pariser has a very broad definition of “stealing.” When questioned by Richard Gabriel, lead counsel for the record labels, Pariser suggested that what millions of music fans do is actually theft. The dirty deed? Ripping your own CDs or downloading songs you already own.

Gabriel asked if it was wrong for consumers to make copies of music which they have purchased, even just one copy. Pariser replied, “When an individual makes a copy of a song for himself, I suppose we can say he stole a song.” Making “a copy” of a purchased song is just “a nice way of saying ‘steals just one copy’,” she said.

In this atmosphere, the world of Stallman’s story seems to be the saner one while ours appears surreal.

“Things go to hell together”

While Crichton’s two-volume dinosaur saga, Jurassic Park and The Lost World, is filled with interesting characters, there are two, one major, the other minor, that stand out because of their philosophical outlook: Ian Malcolm and Jack Thorne—two very practical men, though in different ways. The latter has a disdain for theory, theoreticians and academics, while the former for the “practical” practitioners: engineers, scientists and so on.

Malcolm is a mathematician, specializing in chaos theory, who predicts that Hammond’s dream project, the dinosaur “amusement” park, is “an accident waiting to happen.” His advice that Hammond and his team are underestimating nature, and overestimating their own understanding of it, falls on deaf ears. Every event in JP1, and JP2, is a confirmation of his prediction. Malcolm uses mathematical equations and computer models to predict unpredictability. And Hammond & Co’s response is: “We’re dealing with living systems, after all. This is life, not computer models.” Ironical, because this argument is generally used against models that try to predict the unpredictable. Some interesting passages from JP1-

“[T]he history of evolution is that life escapes all barriers. Life breaks free. Life expands to new territories. Painfully, perhaps even dangerously. But life finds a way.”

and this one, about Benoit Mandelbrot and fractals-

“And that’s how things are. A day is like a whole life. You start out doing one thing, but end up doing something else, plan to run an errand, but never get there…. And at the end of your life, your whole existence has that same haphazard quality, too. Your whole life has the same shape as a single day.”

[…]

“It’s the only way to look at things. At least the only way that is true to reality.”

and-

“[Arnold’s] all right. He’s an engineer. Wu’s the same. They’re both technicians. They don’t have intelligence. They have what I call ‘thintelligence.’ They see the immediate situation. They think narrowly and they call it ‘being focused.’ They don’t see the surround. They don’t see the consequences. That’s how you get an island like this. From thintelligent thinking. Because you cannot make an animal and not expect it to act alive. To be unpredictable. To escape. But they don’t see that.”

[…]

“Scientists are actually preoccupied with accomplishment. So they are focused on whether they can do something. They never stop to ask if they should do something. They conveniently define such considerations as pointless.”

and one of the best passages, in JP1—Malcolm giving Hammond a piece of his mind when Hammond tells him that the park, inspite of all the complex science that went into its creation, was essentially a simple idea—which ends with this-

“I’ll make it simple. A karate master does not kill people with his bare hands. He does not lose his temper and kill his wife. The person who kills is the person who has no discipline, no restraint, and who has purchased his power in the form of a Saturday night special. And that is the kind of power that science fosters, and permits. And that is why you think that to build a place like this is simple.”

Malcolm’s views border on anti-science, and even, perhaps, anti-reason, or at least anti-science-as-it-is-being-practiced-

“But you decide you won’t be at the mercy of nature. You decide you’ll control nature, and from that moment on you’re in deep trouble, because you can’t do it…. Don’t confuse things. You can make a boat, but you can’t make the ocean. You can make an airplane, but you can’t make the air. Your powers are much less than your dreams of reason would have you believe.”

and, his final words in the book when Hammond tells him that the dinosaurs didn’t, after all, escape and destroy the planet-

“You egomaniacal idiot. Do you have any idea what you are talking about? You think you can destroy the planet? My, what intoxicating power you must have. You can’t destroy this planet. You can’t even come close.”

[…]

“My point is that life on earth can take care of itself. In the thinking of a human being, a hundred years is a long time. A hundred years ago, we didn’t have cars and airplanes and computers and vaccines…. It was a whole different world. But to the earth, a hundred years is nothing. A million years is nothing. This planet lives and breathes on a much vaster scale. We can’t imagine its slow and powerful rhythms, and we haven’t got the humility to try. We have been residents here for the blink of an eye. If we are gone tomorrow, the earth will not miss us.”

[…]

“Let’s be clear. The planet is not in jeopardy. We are in jeopardy. We haven’t got the power to destroy the planet—or to save it. But we might have the power to save ourselves.”

Crichton resurrected Malcolm from the dead for The Lost World. And he introduced the minor character of Jack “Doc” Thorne, a former professor of applied engineering who now practices what he taught-

“A platform to observe what?” Arby said.
Thorne said, “He didn’t tell you?”
“No,” Kelly said.
“No,” Arby said.
“Well, he didn’t tell me, either,” Thorne said, shaking his head. “All I know is he wants everything immensely strong. Light and strong, light and strong. Impossible.” He sighed. ” God save me from academics.”
“I thought you were an academic,” Kelly said.
“”Former academic,” Thorne said briskly. “Now I actually make things. I don’t just talk.”

The book has a few paragraphs in the form of a character study on him which explain why dislikes theory and academia so much. Otherwise, he’s used as an action figure rather than an intellectual. But that’s the nature of the book. While JP1 was about dispelling the illusion of control, JP2 is an action-mystery focusing on evolution and behavior. Things are already bad. They can hardly get much worse. But they do…. As Malcolm says while trying to explain the idea of Gambler’s Ruin, “Bad things cluster. Things go to hell together. That’s the real world.”