Monday, July 29, 2013


Driven by the somewhat egotistical notion that my writings should be readable, I did a pretty drastic redesign of the blog’s template (while resisting the urge to move to Wordpress or write my own software from scratch). Feedback welcome, but I think it’s a big improvement. Out of the dark ages!

This wanted to be the new epigraph, but it was way too long:
Just as the body (its organs and functions) has been chiefly known and revealed not by the prowess of the strong but by the disorders of the weak, the sick, the infirm, and injured (health being incommunicative and a source of that vastly mistaken impression that everything proceeds as a matter of course), it is the disturbances of the mind, its dysfunctions which shall be my informants. More than the all too excellent mental skills of the metaphysicians, it is thee dementias, the backwardnessess, the deliriums, the ecstasies and agonies, the breakdowns in mental skills which are really suited to reveal us to ourselves. 
– Henri Michaux, The Major Ordeals of the Mind (and countless minor ones)

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Infrastructure of Intention

So I am starting a new and rather different job tomorrow. In preparation for that, I have been ruminating on an topic for the last few weeks, trying to turn it into a post before I start and get immersed in a new and probably overwhelming environment.

This idea is nicely captured by the phrase "The infrastructure of intention". That is to say, living things, social systems, technologies, all embody purpose in various ways and all these purposes have various ways of interacting with each other and wouldn't it be great if we could find some better ways of both analyzing these extremely important processes, and improving them? I didn't get very far with this essay because the ideas are just way too big for a blog post, and kept threatening to grow into something dissertation-sized.

Fortunately in goofing off from addressing it I ran into this post by Robin Hanson, which very helpfully reminded me that questions are typically more interesting than answers. So, here are some questions around the idea of intention and computation, some of which have been dogging me for decades. Some managed to get into my actual dissertation, and some others may be addressed in this new gig, but we will see. I'm just a computer programmer, which means most of what I do is just informational plumbing, and it doesn't leave that much time for grandiose theorizing. But high and low have their ways of coming together on occasion.

So, the questions (and pointers to people who have spent more time thinking about them then I have):
  • What is the nature of purpose? (Cybernetics, particularly Gregory Bateson)
  • How do humans (and animals manage their various divergent intentions? (Freud, Tinbergen, Minsky)
  • Can inanimate things have purpose? (Latour, Bennett)
  • How do individual goals relate to social structures and institutions? (all of sociology and political science, at the moment particularly Charles Tilly and Mary Douglas)
  • How does goal-directed behavior work in human activity that is clearly non-functional in any simple way, like religion and art? (Evolutionary psychology)
  • Can/should/how can software embody and extend human goal structures (the CSCW field, but originating maybe with Doug Engelbart)
  • What would the world look like if computational infrastructure actually supported goals in a powerful way (lots of science fiction, mostly with a dystopian flavor, but for a somewhat more cheery spin, Bruce Sterling's story Maneki Neko)
Big fucking questions, aren't they? And quite out of scale compared with my ability to provide answers, but they won't leave me alone.

Thursday, July 04, 2013


This year Independence Day comes at a moment when I am in something of a liminal state in respect of my professional life. I’m not becoming independent, but may be switching masters. The best I can do at this point in my life is throw off one set of chains and immediately strap on another. I do admire those who can be free agents rather than employees; the latter always has a feeling of serfdom. But unless you really have fuck-you money you always are serving somebody. And that’s not entirely a bad thing, god knows. I am rather bad at serving, and at this point I am starting to actually feel somewhat sorry for all the bosses who’ve had the unenviable job of trying to manage me. 

All normal people learn how to submit, how to take up a place in a hierarchy, how to serve. That’s what keeps society running. But what an enormous strain on the soul it is. No wonder people turn to anarchism, music, drugs and other forms of rebellion. My own rebelliousness feels like a leftover adolescent quality, and I am way past the age where it is seemly to act like an adolescdent. But without it I am quite literally nothing, I can’t accomplish much unless I am in some way doing it against the grain, on my own terms. If that sounds like bragging, it isn’t meant to be, just an accurate statement of how things are with me. A successful rebellion might be worth boasting about, but rebelliousness is just a pain in the ass for everyone.

I hasten to add that I don’t have that much personal grounds for complaint. My working conditions and rewards are pretty damn good compared to the bulk of mankind. And the new job is quite promising along several dimensions. But work, workplaces, commerce, and money remain what they are.

Previous Independence Day posts: hereherehere