Archive for the 'philosophy' Category

Always impressed by Neal Stephenson.

October 19, 2008

I’m just back from a trip and many notable things occurred.  In no particular order:  I bought and read Anathem on my Kindle; I gave a 3 ½ hour presentation and I met someone in person whom I admire hugely.  Thus the last 4 days have been eventful.  This is meant to be an introduction to some thoughts rather than a dear diary.

Every time I read Neal Stephenson, I am brought to face my own intellectual shortcomings.  He is a true mental giant.  His books show that he thinks more productively in a day than I do in a year.  It is a tough reality to face.  Reading a 900 page book like Anathem requires commitment from even strong readers.  Writing it is unimaginable to me.

His work entertains me but more importantly, it inspires me to work harder to know more.  His online acknowledgment list provides a great place for me to start.

He’s going to be in Toronto on October 30th.  If I weren’t so busy right now, I would go.  I wonder what it would take to bring him to Cleveland?

Twitter Nodes.

April 12, 2008

Last night, I had a video of David Allen running, I was reading blogs on blog mad and blog explosion and I was reading what people were saying on Twitter.  So I had audio input (I wasn’t really watching the video) new blog material from a variety of sources that I would not ordinarily read and the latest micro-blogging from people across the world.

Twitter is sort of like reality TV except that it’s real time.  Jaffejuice said that “Twitter is like a police scanner except you can talk to the police.”  I like that except we’re all the police.  I think it’s more like the Borg from Star Trek.  It gives you the latest information; the latest sensory input from organic nodes throughout civilization.  It is like a human botnet whose job it is to report what is happening at the moment.

Of course there is a lot of noise.  There are a lot of people talking about a lot of things in which I have no interest.  That’s why I was listening to Mr. Allen and reading blogs.  The combination of activity was far better than television or movie watching.  It was even better than playing a videogame.  It satisfied my relentless desire for new material.

I’ve written in the past how we are all nodes.  We get more connected every day.  But not all of us speak the same language and not all of us have the same interests.  Some of us are, sadly, quite annoying.  And when a node annoys me, I unfollow it.  I’ve done this three times so far and by the count of followers that I have, some people have unfollowed me as well.  This does not surprise me in the least.  I am an acquired taste.  Take this blog for example, while there are a fair amount of readers, I will never be Robert Scoble.  And that’s fine.

Virtual Navel Gazing.

April 11, 2008

I haven’t updated in a long time.  Mostly it’s been an issue of energy.  I have been putting all of my daily energy into real-life activity.  I have neglected my virtual life.  Even now, I’m lying here, in a hotel room only managing to write this with the magic that is voice-recognition software.

I’m still in playing with new technology.  My solar powered Bluetooth headset is waiting for me at home.  It is my fondest hope that I’ll be able to use that with this voice recognition software so that I can dictate from a distance without a cord.

Perhaps by beginning to write here again I will unleash the energy I need to blog with abandon.  At any rate, it’s a start.

I have been playing with Twitter a lot.  I was on Twitter a year ago, when it first came out.  I got bored with it pretty quickly.  But now there are a lot more people on it and it is genuinely fun.  Plus, I’m using my real life persona with it.  That’s different too.

I created this Internet persona some four or more years ago so I could have some level of anonymity.  However, it’s also a pain.  To the extent that I can use new media and social media in real life, it is far more enjoyable.  That’s another reason why I haven’t been writing much here.  The bang for buck isn’t as great.

Conversely the more I participate in Internet friendships and activity with my real identity, that identity begins to be subsumed into the cloud.  In other words, instead of a schizophrenic Internet life/real-life the two begin to merge.  Someday maybe I’ll abandon Thaed altogether.

It sounds heavy but what it really means is that I spend more time plugged into my laptop.  In fact my laptop becomes my constant waking companion.  I’m liking that a lot.  I dwell less in the basement but spend more time online.  What could be better than that?

Weizenbaum and Artificial Intelligence.

March 15, 2008

In the Wall Street Journal of all places, I read that Joseph Weizenbaum had died. He created the ELIZA computer program that simulates human interaction. While not a sophisticated program, it is always mentioned (and always will be mentioned) in discussions of artificial intelligence and Turing tests. With his simple program, Weizenbaum immortalized himself as an AI pioneer.

Even though artificial intelligence has its critics, it is already ubiquitous. Just today, I called UPS and spoke at length with a computer. It used voice recognition technology quite effectively to identify my package number. Even now, I am writing this with NaturallySpeaking 9.5. This voice recognition program is inherently based on artificial intelligence algorithms.

But artificial intelligence is not voice recognition alone. AI “perceives its environment and takes actions which maximize its chances of success.” Weizenbaum, clearly a gifted man, gave up computer programming and the field of artificial intelligence altogether later in life. In a way, he was better off than two recent leading authorities in the field. However, based on what I’ve read about him and his work, he really felt that humans shouldn’t rely on machines for decision-making. Of course, now, we do that every day. Pilots use AI to fly airplanes. People rely on AI in their cars without even knowing about it. At some point, people will rely on AI to make decisions about their lives. In one’s PDA, one will have a virtual psychiatrist/business planner/personal coach always at one’s fingertips. I suspect that Weizenbaum would not approve of this, but I think it’s better than, say, relying on Astrology for that same advice.

Weizenbaum was particularly put off by the fact that when ELIZA came out, people really took it seriously. Some people really couldn’t distinguish a simple pattern recognizer from a human being. If you have played with ELIZA, you may find this hard to believe. But remember it came out in 1966. No one had much experience with such things back then. No one had much experience with computers at all. This is how far ahead of his time Weizenbaum was.

At the same time, I think his dismay at how stupid people can be was misplaced. Artificial intelligence, in the form of an interactive program designed to pass Turing tests has not progressed much in the last 42 years. That is not to say that artificial intelligence has not progressed much, it has. However people have not built an interactive program designed to mimic humans with much more efficacy than ELIZA does. There have been some recent attempts and perhaps this is now becoming vogue once again.

Instead of worrying about people who can’t distinguish a computer program from a real person, think about how much these people can be helped. Look how many of the videos on YouTube are made by people who cannot see the consequences of their actions. A quick check with one’s personal digital mentor, might prevent the disastrous outcome from the typical “hey y’all watch this” YouTube adventure. Or Weizenbaum, who was clearly smarter than I am, could be right and such AI development could lead to a Terminator-style apocalypse. I suspect, however, no matter the outcome, such AI is inevitable in time.

Reductionism and good weather.

October 20, 2007

Lately, I’ve been on a kick where I reduce every experience in my life to its essence.  For example, take travel.  To me, travel is only important if it is specifically necessary.  I frequently travel to faraway places for work.  For work, it makes sense.  People are willing to pay to fly me somewhere to do something.  That’s fine.  Travel for vacation makes a lot less sense.  There’s not much reason for me to travel for fun.  The things I think are fun are all indoor activities that I can do best at home.

This is what I mean by reductionism.  Some people like parasailing.  To  me, it makes no sense.  It’s just danger coupled with wind and height.  Some people like camping.  To me, it is discomfort that you do voluntarily.  I’ve never been into self punishment.

Now, the only exception I can see for vacation travel in the winter is to go somewhere sunny and warm.  Mind you, since I’m not likely to go outside anyway, it’s not mandatory.  But there is something to the seasonal affective disorder problem.  Cold weather sucks.  Even if you stay inside most of the time, you have to go out to get food.  Plus, even inside, cold weather dries everything out.   It’s not fun.  Last winter, for example, I went to Key West for a weekend in the winter.  It helped a lot.

I’ve been to paradise, but I wouldn’t want to live there.  Hawaii has the best weather I’ve ever experienced  Yet, Internet there isn’t the greatest and you have to pay so much for the cost of living.  Many people have pointed out to me that living in Cleveland makes sense for me.  The cost of living here is very low, Internet service is great and I have a great job.  Sure I have to deal with snow in the winter, but honestly, Cleveland suits me.

Mr. Rogers did not contribute to American narcissism.

July 14, 2007

Professor Chance picked on the wrong American Icon in his rant against narcissism.  Students that try to argue up their grades are really a tradition.  It’s nothing new.  Rudeness, vulgarity and disrespect are definitely societal problems.  However, Fred Rogers was part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Mr. Rogers didn’t hurt anyone by telling them they are special.  My thought on it is that it was more about people having intrinsic value as human beings.  Let me be specific: if people have intrinsic value, then they should not be abused or harassed or tortured or killed.  To me, it’s not about entitlement.  That’s an entirely different social ill.  Fred Rogers was far deeper than that.  His message was more global.  Look at how people treat each other across the world.  Look at the violence.  Rogers is so far removed from the petty social ills that Chance discusses, it’s not even the same universe.

Fred Rogers was a humanitarian who consistently worked toward furthering the causes he believed in his entire life.  He is a giant among those who would help others.  Frankly, if you are going to try to criticize him, you had better have better ammo than some glib accusation.  Then again, attacking an icon is a great way to get attention.

I have always believed that you need to work for what you get in life.  So I am no fan of the spoiled.  However, blaming a guy who is probably as close to a modern day saint that we’ve had in the last 50 years for negatively impacting our society is crazy.  Also, let’s look at another theme of his show: respect.  Each character, each person, everyone on Mr. Rogers Neighborhood treats everyone else with respect.  Do we have too much respect for one another today?  Also, in addition to teaching that people have intrinsic value, Rogers taught that you should recognize those who help you through life.  This is from Wikipedia:

“Daytime Emmys, the Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Rogers. The following is an excerpt from Esquire Magazine‘s coverage of the gala, written by Tom Junod:

Mister Rogers went onstage to accept the award — and there, in front of all the soap opera stars and talk show sinceratrons, in front of all the jutting man-tanned jaws and jutting saltwater bosoms, he made his small bow and said into the microphone, “All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are. Ten seconds of silence.”[5]

And then he lifted his wrist, looked at the audience, looked at his watch, and said, ‘I’ll watch the time.” There was, at first, a small whoop from the crowd, a giddy, strangled hiccup of laughter, as people realized that he wasn’t kidding, that Mister Rogers was not some convenient eunuch, but rather a man, an authority figure who actually expected them to do what he asked. And so they did. One second, two seconds, three seconds — and now the jaws clenched, and the bosoms heaved, and the mascara ran, and the tears fell upon the beglittered gathering like rain leaking down a crystal chandelier. And Mister Rogers finally looked up from his watch and said softly, “May God be with you,” to all his vanquished children.”

That is about as far away from narcissism as one can get.

I submit to you that Rogers telling you you’re special is a voice of hope in a very violent and hostile world.  Rogers was a man of great humility and he commanded respect by his devotion to humanity.  Plus he turned me on to Cardigan sweaters and occasion specific shoes.  In all seriousness, Fred Rogers deserves more than Professor Chance’s criticism.

The Universe is a big place and we are very small (but we can still have a good time).

June 2, 2007

I thought I’d link to another blog today.  This blog post is particularly poignant, not for the religion/anti-religion stuff (and especially the tiresome comments) but for another human being being awed by the staggering size of our galaxy and the universe itself.  Moreover, it is an expression of being in awe while simultaneously understanding our minimal significance in it.  The tie-in to Lovecraft is wonderful too.

There are ways around the depression that comes with truth.  Embracing what we are helps:  highly evolved, curious apes with big pleasure centers.  Even though like Percy Shelley says all we ever do will amount to dust, we can still have fun in the doing.  Realizing potential is an end in itself.  In fact, that, and loving each other is all we have.

We Are All Nodes.

February 11, 2007

When I write something here, it is duly indexed with all of the other material on the web. My ideas wait for someone who is looking for something, anything, concerning a particular topic. They happen upon what I’ve said on that topic and it may add value or it may not, but it is information created, stored, transmitted and received. I, in turn, take what I need from the web daily. To say that it’s expanded the way I think is an understatement. It’s changed the way my brain works. No longer to I need to retain trivia. Practically any fact I could ever need is at my fingertips.

In a sense, people have always been nodes of information. We’ve just never been so connected like this before. It seems to me that the distance between the nodes has been shrinking. From smoke signals to pony express to talking face to face, information has been moved from person to person with varying degrees of efficiency. Now, not only is information created, but it’s stored outside of a mind, outside of a book, outside of anything we’ve ever had before and perfectly organized on top of it.

This whole process even has different means of expression. There are blogs, and wikis and web pages. And let’s not forget cell phones, they spread information too. Everything is seemly instantly available. Except that it’s not.

That’s the next step: instantaneous communication of the nodes. It’s the creation of a brain within a brain. It’s a true collective unconscious in the form of a bio-mechanical linking of everyone’s minds. It might be your thought, but as soon as you think it, it’s my thought too, if I need it. If I have an observation or thought or I reach a conclusion that another person needs, it will be there. That’s the ultimate incarnation of the concept that information should be free. Not only will it be free, it will be compelled upon us. Like some sort of shared processing program like Seti-at-home, humans will start working, perhaps unconsciously together, at some greater goal.

Perhaps it will be to create a means to improve our lot or perhaps it will be to make another Dukes of Hazard movie, but whatever the result, we will all be closer than ever before.

Gadgets and Super Powers.

January 1, 2007

It occurred to me the other day that my adolescent desire to be greater than my fellow men is why I like gadgets.  Call it a Batman complex.  Batman has no super powers.  He does have a utility belt and a whole lot of other stuff.  He is the consummate gadget guy.

Admittedly, no cell phone is going to make you a superman.  An iPod is not going to help you leap tall buildings anytime soon.  Having a really fast laptop is not going to make you invulnerable, even to viruses.

Yet the coolness persists.  Given my sedentary proclivities and the fact that I generally abhor the outdoors, life saving gadgets aren’t even really likely to help me much.  For example, I could take to wearing a Kevlar vest every day, but all that would accomplish is making me buy new clothes and probably making me sweat more.  I’m not Batman, after all.

I think GPS units are really cool, but if I have to drive anywhere further than 4 hours, I fly.  If I’m going somewhere I’ve never been, I take maps and I never veer off main highways.  Since 99% of the time I’m going to and from work or perhaps to a store, my need for a GPS is slight.

My Blackberry does give me the power to be away from my office and answer email and that’s important.  My iPod lets me listen to informative podcasts while I’m driving so that’s a plus in the advantage column.  My Nintendo DS lets me waste time while I’m not near a computer.  It’s certainly not an advantage, but it can be entertaining.

Someday, a gadget is going to come along that really does give a person an advantage in modern life.  I’ll be first in line for that one.  Of course after everyone gets one, it won’t be an advantage anymore, it will be a requirement.  Until then, there’s always something new to play with.


November 12, 2006

Our lives are made up of moments strung together.  How small an increment of time can change your life forever?  There is the extreme involving sudden violence, but what about just in terms of interaction between other people?

What does it take to change course in life?

I would posit that change from within is the hardest and rarest form of change.  I would also argue that that sort of change, be it in terms of losing weight, getting an education or ending a relationship is not something that happens immediately.

In the category of things happening to a person in life, change can be deep and immediate.  This requires no heroics and the choices made following what life hands you are nothing like those changes from within.

Such is the type of change that I’m dealing with at the moment.  It is a delicate and transitory time.  As I sit here now, experiencing the full meaning of it all, it is almost enjoyable.  Yet, there has been much stress and it really has only begun.  Change still may not happen, but it seems more and more likely.  I am standing at the top of a hill and now I must leap to another hill even though I may fall a bit in the process.

Let’s hope it’s not too far.