Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Victorian Data Processing

This sounds great. When I wrote my dissertation, I was aware that "computer" originally referred to a human agent, but didn't really know that such computers had already been organized into large scale distributed processing networks.
Victorian Data Processing - When Software Was People
Martin Campbell-Kelly

To most people the phrase Victorian Office conjures up an image such as in Dickens' A Christmas Carol - with Bob Cratchit, the solitary clerk, seated on a high stool, quill-pen in hand. Indeed, many Victorian Offices were like this, but by the 1850s a quite different type of office was emerging - the industrialized office employing several hundred clerks. These offices were the ancestors of the modern computerized bureaucracy. In these huge organizations, clerks performed tasks that would later be done by office machines, and are today performed by computers.
In this paper the historical and economic context of the development of the industrialized office will be described. The paper will include a "tour" of a number of Victorian data processing organizations: the General Register Office, the Railway Clearing House, the Central Telegraph Office, the Prudential Assurance Company, and the Post Office Savings Bank. The data processing techniques and labor processes will be explained, and the changing gender and structure of the workforce described.
The Victorian Office can be viewed from today’s perspective as a collection of human agents, obeying procedures stored in the organizational memory. Parallels are drawn between today’s software and Victorian clerical processes in terms of dependability, evolutionary change, and the boundaries of determinacy and autonomy. Some general conclusions will be made about the nature of "information revolutions."
From a workshop on the origins of computation.

Unfortunately in a truly retro move, the paper does not seem to be available online without a subscription.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Is this the right room for an argument?

For reasons that are obscure to me, I've been spending a lot of time sniping on the blog of Wesley Smith, a bioconservative and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute. Partly I just like to argue, for reasons no more noble than those of someone who picks fights in bars.

On the other hand, the underlying issues (what defines personhood) are of genuine intellectual interest to me. I also feel like I've discovered yet another hidden agenda of the Discovery Institute, that somewhat meshes with what it is chiefly known for. That is, most of what they do is putting a thin veneer of supposedly respectable science on top of creationism. In Wesley's case, it's putting a veneer of concern for human exceptionalism over an anti-abortion, anti-choice agenda. Whereas the ID debate rages on in numerous blogs and other places, nobody else seems to have taken up this part of the battle yet. In the course of these debates I found that the Discovery Institute is funded by some extremely scary Dominionists, which I didn't know before.

Arguing over there has also led me to take a closer look at some transhumanist sites, since that seems to be the polar opposite of bioconservatism, and is a lot more interesting.

Anyway, my collected jibes can be seen here.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

So it goes

I normally don't do these dumb web quizzes, but this one hooked me, and I can certainly live with the result:

I am:
Kurt Vonnegut
For years, this unique creator of absurd and haunting tales denied that he had anything to do with science fiction.

Which science fiction writer are you?

Amazon/WorldCat connector

Hack of the day: putting a WorldCat button on Amazon book pages. Details here.

I don't imagine Amazon would approve of this, since it's main purpose is to aid in using my wishlist as to cache my books-to-read list, then fulfilling it for free at the library rather than through spending money at Amazon.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

One Thing About Science

So the Guardian asked a bunch of scientists "What is the one thing everyone should learn about science?" I guess I would pick Darwin's theory, as a number of respondents did, because it can be instantly understood yet the implications are vast and not always obvious. You couldn't teach someone quantum physics or even Newtonian physics in a hour, but you could get them bootstrapped into Darwin in that time.

A more original response: science is about making powerful abstractions about the world. Part of doing science is knowing what facts to pay attention to and which ones to discard in order to make a powerful theory. Physics is possible because scientists were able to learn how to ignore friction and air resistance and pay attention to more fundamental properties. Abstractions are powerful and necessary but they leave stuff out, so don't mistake your theories for reality.

Here's a response that amused/annoyed me:

John McCarthy Emeritus professor of computer science at Stanford University, and inventor of the term 'artificial intelligence'

Find the numbers, and compare them. As the physicist Lord Kelvin said in 1883, in a lecture to the Institution of Civil Engineers, "when you can measure what you are speaking about and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind".

It annoyed me because McCarthy is the inventor of Lisp and cofounder of symbolic AI, a school which mostly ignored numbers and quantitative techniques. Maybe it's unfair to McCarthy, but I blame him and his fellows for letting me feel I could neglect numerical techniques for the longest time, and now I feel like I'm scrambling to catch up.

Programmer, debug thyself

Back when I was in graduate school thinking about AI and Minsky's Society of Mind, I had vague notions that this stuff would be useful for practical psychology -- it could actually help people to make them aware that they are a collection of disparate agents with divergent goals. I thought about making software that would let you visualize and model your own agents, but never really took the idea anywhere.

Well, here's a programmer named Phillip Eby who has morphed himself into a self-help guru, with ideas that if not derived from SoM are pretty much completely in tune with it.

Now, when I say you're just a subroutine and that your animal nature is the kernel, this doesn't mean that we are robots or machines or that we don't control our actions. Far from it. I mean, however, that we are deluded when we think we directly control our actions, and therefore ascribe intention to our actions that doesn't exist.

Why does anyone do anything?

In fact, we frequently do things for reasons that are entirely opaque to us, and then make up reasons later to explain them, because nobody wants to admit that they don't know why they did something. Nonetheless, none of us know, because it's not in our process space to know why the kernel switches in this process at this time, and that process at another time. We can reverse engineer things, and we can use our "supervisor calls" to inject new programs into kernel space, sure, but we don't run in kernel space and we never will.

And yet, we all mostly go around pretending as if we did run things in our mind and body, which then leads to all sorts of screwed-up thinking - "delusion and ignorance" as the Zen Buddhists call it. We mistake kernel notifications for our own thoughts. We think our actions somehow reflect on us, when in fact they may reflect nothing more than a poorly-written script that the kernel is running. This is like trying to eat pictures of food: it might fill you up, but it's ultimately unsatisfying.

Well, this is all good stuff. But does it work? My resistance to self-help is extremely high, and when he starts talking about Self 2.0 like this:

About a month and a half ago, I pulled off the most successful hack of my own mind, ever. You could call it a personality transplant, or maybe an identity theft. It was so successful that it almost seems wrong to say that I was the one who did it, because the "I" who actually performed the hack isn't there any more, and this "I" is someone different
that's when I balk, and this quote from Dostoevsky comes to mind:
Now I am living out my life in my corner, taunting myself with the spiteful and useless consolation that an intelligent man cannot become anything seriously, and only an idiot can make anything of himself.
That's me, an Eastern European underground man condemned to live in California with sunny self-improvers.

Oh yeah, and the other thing that makes me less than fully enthusiastic is his offer to vacuum up to $2500/year out of your pocket for his advice and insight.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Methadone of the masses

From a discussion at Pharyngula about whether it is despair (or more generally, hard times) that explains people's attachment to religion. I had this to say:

Marx had it right:

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
If you wonder at the resistance of the proles to the replacement of God with Darwin, well, just imagine how well an opiate addict would react to the suggestion that he really ought to switch to herb tea. Actually strike that: trying to replace religion with scientific naturalism (Darwin included) is like trying to replace opiates with universal acid.

Personally, I am in favor of some kind of methadone -- that is, something that binds to the religion receptors but is itself relatively harmless.

"Universal Acid" would be a great name for a blog, but it's taken.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Me and MLK

The day after MLK's day, I am thinking about a very remote linkage I have to the man -- he was a guest of the liberal synagogue in Evanston that I went to as a youth. This happened a few months before I was born:
Highest-profile visitors: On Jan. 13, 1958, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at Beth Emet, delivering an address, "The Desirability of Being Maladjusted." Beth Emet and Rabbi David Polish, the founding rabbi of the congregation, offered him a platform when few were willing to do so. "It was the first place he spoke at in the city of Chicago," said executive director Bekki Harris Kaplan.
I like the title. I read somewhere that King had to stay at the rabbi's house because no hotel would put him up back then.


I watched Idiocracy over the weekend, thought it was pretty funny but didn't rise to the genius level required of a real cult film.

Then I saw this real-life version and realized it's a goddamn piece of prophecy.

Monday, January 15, 2007


MLK day today. A time to remember that religion can, on occasion, be a force for good. I am pretty much an outsider to religion, but I have to admire it's ability to organize and deploy what Gandhi and MLK called "soul-force". The soul may be a fiction but clearly it's a fiction that can have effects in the real world.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

God's-eye view

Gary Drescher insists that we take the worldview of physics seriously and apply it to ordinary life, producing some profoundly non-intuitive results -- the flow of time is illusory; the universe is constantly splitting into multiple copies; we have no free will. None of these are new ideas but Drescher combines them with a ruthless seriousness into a worldview that I've labeled ultramaterialism.

Today it occurred to me that the first of these is perhaps the easiest to understand but the hardest to reconcile with everyday experience. Physics tells us that the universe is composed of four-dimensional spacetime, with time being simply another dimension. So all moments of time exist as spacelike slices of spacetime (or frames of a movie) and the fact that we experience time serially is a mere artifact, rather than an intrinsic property of the universe. So not only is the universe deterministic, everything event from Big Bang to Grand Gnab has (in some sense) already happened.

Drescher has some interesting explanations for why we might experience time serially (and in only one direction), involving entropy among other things, but I don't fully understand them and wil have to reread that chapter a couple more times.

But one thought strikes me: while this is a resolutely non-theist view of reality, it seems that God has been exiled from the universe only to reappear in the subjectivity of the observer and reader. Who else but an omniscient and eternal God could perceive the universe from beginning to end as an unchanging seamless whole? Drescher's book labors to take us out of our human perspective and take a more godlike view of the universe. Author and reader are, by taking this radically un-embodied perspective, almost blasphemously usurping the role of God while denying his reality.

I don't mean this to be an argument against naturalism or for the reality of God (heaven forbid). It's more of an observation of a phenomenon something like conservation of subjectivity -- that is, no matter how hard we try to make a completely mechanistic object of the universe, some notion of a subject slips back in through the back door. Exile God from your thinking and you end up unknowingly writing His vantage point into the foundations of your theory.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Gone to meet Eris

Robert Anton Wilson has departed this universe (although he may still be around in the one next door).

RAW was one of the main influences on my youthful self, and probably explains my distaste for fundamentalists of any stripe.

Here's an electronic epitaph from William Blake:

Now I a fourfold vision see,
And a fourfold vision is given to me;
‘Tis fourfold in my supreme delight
And threefold in soft Beulah’s night
And twofold Always. May God us keep
From Single vision & Newton’s Sleep!

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Nice day for an apocalypse

It's time for another doom post; various portents and omens have been crossing the threshold all day.

First, some old reliables:

James Kunstler takes advantage of the warm weather on the East Coast to worry about the really warm weather that might come in the summer. He prophesies food shortages:

My guess is that the weird weather we are getting will increasingly affect crop yields. With populations growing, and weather anomalies increasing, grain surpluses worldwide are now at their lowest point in decades. All the major grain-growing regions have suffered either significant drought (US, Australia, Ukraine, China, Argentina) or flooding (East Africa, India) in recent years.

John Robb warns against "catastrophic superempowerment" (there's the new word of the day), which basically means technology getting into the hands of those who wish us ill. Specifically, he is worried about bioterrorism. Nuclear technology turns out to be difficult and expensive and require scarce expertise. On the other hand biotech is trending towards being extremely cheap and simple. He puts a black twist on another catchy new phrase, "tinkering networks", which is usually used by enthusiastic theorists of open-source and the like:

Not only will large events be more likely, we will likely see the development of a fat tail composed of small events by careless practitioners as tinkering networks develop to take advantage of this newfound superempowerment. Finally, as we saw with Phishing networks, some of these tinkerers will naturally flow into criminal networks that will actively produce weapons of bioterror for profit, and thereby become critical contributors to the global open source war now underway.

Next, on a lighter note of doom the Idiocracy DVD is out today!

Finally, a bold offering by a new name (to me anyway) in doomsaying, Dmitry Orlov, who tells us in Closing the 'Collapse Gap': the USSR was better prepared for peak oil than the US, that we fat-assed Americans are much less prepared to weather a catastrophic economic/social/climactic collapse than the USSR was.
Slide [6] An economic collapse is amazing to observe, and very interesting if described accurately and in detail. A general description tends to fall short of the mark, but let me try. An economic arrangement can continue for quite some time after it becomes untenable, through sheer inertia. But at some point a tide of broken promises and invalidated assumptions sweeps it all out to sea. One such untenable arrangement rests on the notion that it is possible to perpetually borrow more and more money from abroad, to pay for more and more energy imports, while the price of these imports continues to double every few years. Free money with which to buy energy equals free energy, and free energy does not occur in nature. This must therefore be a transient condition. When the flow of energy snaps back toward equilibrium, much of the US economy will be forced to shut down.

Slide [7] I've described what happened to Russia in some detail in one of my articles, which is available on I don't see why what happens to the United States should be entirely dissimilar, at least in general terms. The specifics will be different, and we will get to them in a moment. We should certainly expect shortages of fuel, food, medicine, and countless consumer items, outages of electricity, gas, and water, breakdowns in transportation systems and other infrastructure, hyperinflation, widespread shutdowns and mass layoffs, along with a lot of despair, confusion, violence, and lawlessness. We definitely should not expect any grand rescue plans, innovative technology programs, or miracles of social cohesion.

Slide [8] When faced with such developments, some people are quick to realize what it is they have to do to survive, and start doing these things, generally without anyone's permission. A sort of economy emerges, completely informal, and often semi-criminal. It revolves around liquidating, and recycling, the remains of the old economy. It is based on direct access to resources, and the threat of force, rather than ownership or legal authority. People who have a problem with this way of doing things, quickly find themselves out of the game.

Read the whole thing, as they say. The gist is that the US hypercapitalist society is going to be much less adaptable to new conditions than was the grungy, corrupt, crony-based culture of the USSR. This guy and Jim Kunstler would get along well.

Now I'm going to go hide under the covers.

Monday, January 08, 2007

New words and new worlds

Jargon of the day: slurl, a url that points to a location within Second Life. Which, btw, has open-sourced its client, a smart move and consistent with their strategy of becoming a platform and not merely an application. This is exciting for me, since I don't have the patience or video-game training to use the VR interface. I imagine somebody now will make a client that makes the world appear like a 90's era text MUD, which is much more accessible and appealing.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

I'm Big in Japan

My Linkback hack has been percolating around the web ecology and apparently has gotten some traction among Japanese social-bookmarking sites. I wish I knew why, but I'll take whatever attention I can get. And it gives me an excuse to quote Tom Waits:
I got the style but not the grace
I got the clothes but not the face
I got the bread but not the butter
I got the winda but not the shutter

But I'm big in Japan I'm big in Japan
But heh I'm big in Japan

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Every human grouping is on the web

And we are working on getting every possible intersection of human groups, such as this lovely find: the Mormon Transhumanist Association. The mind boggles. I'm sure the lesbian midget catlovers group is out there somewhere too.

Monday, January 01, 2007


The word "ultramaterialism" has been rattling around my brain for a few weeks. I came up with this while trying to characterize the worldview of a certain class of thinker, exemplified by Minsky, Dennett, and most recently Gary Drescher in his recent book Good and Real. These people could all be called materialists or naturalists, but in some sense their mission seems to be pushing the materialist view farther than it has gone before. Minsky was one of the inventors of AI and his late work has been devoted to finding ways of breaking down minds into networks of small machines. Dennett has applied philosophical analysis to consciousness and free will, and Drescher's work in a way synthesizes the philosophical rigor and problem space of Dennett with the technical rigor of an MIT-trained engineer.

Drescher's book, which I'm still digesting, might epitiomize this tendency. In his strict mechanist worldview, there are essentially no selves, no freedom of action. The flow of time is itself illusory (we're really just embedded in an unchanging spacetime), and hence your life is not only deterministic, it's already happened.

Strictly speaking ultramaterialism is just the same as naturalism, which seems to be growing as a movement among non-academics as an "applied philosophy". So it may not make sense to introduce this a new term. But the connotation of ultramaterialism is different. Naturalism sounds rather nice and innocuous -- we think nature is rather pretty and friendly, made out of trees and scenic vistas (although this is a recent development in human history). But hardcore materialism is actually a rather disturbing philosophy. It has at least the possibility of being deeply anti-humanistic, since it holds no privileged position for persons, and doesn't believe in autonomy or moral agency.

This is not to say that the ultramaterialists are antihumanistic, or bad people. On the contrary, they are all seem like pretty decent folks, and they are making sincere efforts to preserve human values in the face of the rather pitiless mechanical universe they are exploring. But to some extent their decency is independent of their scientific thinking -- it's ungrounded, or emerges from somewhere other than their philosophy. Drescher tries to derive ethics from his pure materialism -- I don't know if he succeeds, haven't processed that part of his book yet.

The problem I see with ultramaterialism is not that it is wrong, but that it is too impractical. Say Drescher's scheme to derive morality is successful -- will it have anything to say to practical everyday ethical decisions? What about answering questions such as the morality of abortion and end-of-life decisions, which hinge on rights and what exactly counts as a person? I don't really expect that a pure materialist philosophy can say much to these questions, although I'm prepared to be proven wrong. But even if it can, it's too much work to derive ethics from complex utilitarian calculations, as opposed to the alternative of taking them from cultural institutions (like religion). Culture is a bundle of evolved heuristics, and most people, even bright people, are forced to rely on their culture for both moral principles and factual matters -- they can't really take the time to figure everything out for themselves.

While I'm not religious myself I think I can appreciate the fear that religious people get when presented with the materialist worldview, which cheerfully undermines both tradition and intuition, leaving only machinery behind. Drescher has taken on the task of reconstructing ethics in a mechanical universe, but to believe him you have to follow a fairly complicated chain of reasoning. Not only that, you have to trust that other people will follow the same reasoning, a scary and dubious prospect.

That's why I prefer my term to naturalism -- it makes it clearer that there is something radical going on here, something disturbing. I doubt it will catch on.