Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Wild (movie review)

This Disney/Pixar animation shares the Madagascar premise, but is in some ways more all out surreal.

The chameleon secret agents have the dad lion seriously spacing, thinking he's following his sixth sense when he's really just following them, a far more chaotic lot than the Madagascar penguins (also secret agents).

The cameo dung beetles likewise have a trippy look and feel (Yellow Submarine anyone?).

The father/son dynamic centers around whether either is suited for jungle-based living, complete with polytheistic koala worship and carnivore cults (the hooved ones, jealous of their demotion since Narnia, try to stage a come back -- as if they were ever at the top of our food chain).

Of course I loved the giraffe, and the unlikely crush that develops. Thumbs up for the characters, even if the implausability factor was somewhat overwhelming, even for a cartoon.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Working and Playing in River City

My morning was devoted to data base plumbing, nuts and bolts issues having to do with the flow of clinical information, from points of care to back office research and analysis professionals. Our hospital system has been at the forefront of advances in heart treatments for several decades.

The afternoon related more to Math Forum activities, where I'm busy prototyping what I call Pythonic mathematics, in tandem with colleagues around the world, including in Cape Town and Algebra City.

This evening I get to stay in a school building, maybe catch a movie, have a beer or two. Part of our local McMenamins empire. Check very early posts in this blog for more such allusions.

I heard neocon John Bolton (a UN rep) sounding off in panicky mode on NPR this afternoon. He doesn't speak to the issue of an illegal occupation, on the basis of fabrications and prevarications, by a recalcitrant, uncooperative, defiant nuclear superpower, of Iran's neighbor, which to world ears sounds rather one-sided, I think any objective listener would admit.

Besides, we're looking forward to all those new kwhs flowing into the Iranian grid, which will drive down the price of juice regionally, and make our plans for a new SeaWorld more affordable.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

At the Summit

Helen King, The Shuttleworth Foundation
Alan Kay, Viewpoints Research Institute
(photo by K. Urner in London)

Monday, April 24, 2006

Computer Lab as Playground

The idea of a playground connotes free form, amorphous recess activities, the antithesis of the relatively rigidly managed classroom. But if you think back to actual recess, you're probably aware of cliques, subplots, key personalities, plus the actual equipment (swings, teeter totters...) isn't exactly "free form," as in: there's a right way to swing, or at least a wrong way (getting hurt is no fun).

So a computer lab is like that too: it's possible to get in trouble, mess up, attract peer pressure, make friends, make enemies. The interactions are complex, especially if you factor in broadband and so many relationships with remote others, via IM, elists and the rest of it.

Minimally, we're providing tools of identity. Make yourself a home page, with your picture, let us know you're here. Update your records, synchronizing with the recordkeeping of others. Get your story going. Let the technology give you a boost. A world readable home page, for a few bits of HTML and a fraction of a kilowatt, is hardly a bad deal.

On top of that, it's about problem solving and developing a shared model within which collaborations are possible, and happen often. We share a need for general prosperity, yet differ in our fantasies of what that might look like.

Fortunately, this isn't about monoculture. Computers have the potential to amplify the indigenous, to anchor the key memes, whatever these might be. This is about sharing Eskimo culture, without making everyone Eskimo.

The play space metaphor works best in that it rhymes with workplace on many levels. Students show up at the community TuxLab, queuing for CPU time, we hope not waiting too long (maybe try that Cafe down the street?). But they're not all there for the same sequences. Some want more about cures for diseases, others want to read up on banking.

Alternating with these "open library" times should be the programmed events, the specific scheduled classes offering paced instruction in selected topics. More typical "school" in other words.

But the computer lab itself is used in both modes: lots of free "play time" when you're encouraged to explore your own favorite topics; other time when you've picked from a list, and now stick with it for awhile, learning the discipline (same as in sports, learning judo, kung fu, archery or whatever -- takes practice, teachers, and a dutiful frame of mind).

Sunday, April 23, 2006

More on Namespaces

I'm in Manzanita on the Oregon Coast with family this First Day, having come over the low mountains on Hwy 26 after teaching Pythonic Mathematics for Saturday Academy at Portland State. All seven of my expected students eventually showed (one guy got seriously lost and came in with 30 minutes to go in a 2.5 hour class; a good opportunity to review).

In Python, a namespace is something you import. Complicated machinery lurks beneath the surface, perhaps triggered by common or familiar words, like Dog. If several Python modules define Dog, and you import from them, then watch out for name collisions! Which Dog class are we using? Dot notation to the rescue: ns1.Dog and ns2.Dog remain distinctly identifiable.

For further reading:
More Tech Talk @ Math Forum
Session Two @ Saturday Academy

Friday, April 21, 2006

Another Wittgenstein Essay

Wittgenstein's notion of "language games" compares favorably with the emergent notion of "namespaces" in computer science: in order to disambiguate and avoid gratuitous "name collisions" we must specify the context, using a notation for doing so.

Thusly, what language community A means by 'ego' or 'syndicate' might be distinguished from meanings in community B, much as we distinguish fiction or philosophy titles. A lion in Narnia needn't be the spitting image of Nietzsche's lion in Zarathustra or Wittgenstein's in the PI or whatever, even if there's a family resemblance.

"A failure to recognize context" might be the epitaph carved in the cold stone over the grave of AI, which overpromised and never delivered. But humans netted a lot of useful spin-offs from that push nevertheless, including this "namespaces" business, which may be used to formalize and manage machine world, even if the machines aren't really aware of them on their own.

Wittgenstein's genius was to show that these namespaces aren't just vague fuzzy blobs, as if a context were like an atmosphere or gas (don't just accept such images, question them). Rather, we're talking about intricate machinery, finely tuned clockworks in many cases. So the insight was closer to Einstein's, about the relativity of coordinate systems, even if there's some elemental grammar connecting them all (so-called "constants of nature" and so on).

Per some earlier posts to this list, I think Wittgenstein's later philo is being quite properly appropriated by pragmatic engineer types looking for ways to untangle ostensibly at-odds rule-based cultural practices.

We're able to collaborate at a high level, on such technologies as TCP/IP, so let's take it to the next level. Religious discourse especially might be less violence-prone once informed by this science of namespaces (aka "forms of life"). Religion plus a stronger computer science equals a less rancorous and hostile memepool, or that's the fond hope at least.

As a Friendly delegate to the Parliament of World Religions in Cape Town in 1999, I've long taken an interest in what philosophy might do to diffuse religious tensions, so it's small wonder that I'm seeing ways to deploy Wittgenstein to the front lines in this context. He's quite effective in battle, and not unfriendly to more Asian patterns of thought.

Related reading:  "Language Game" as a Philosophical Term (December, 2013)

Queue Ball

A play on words: they're lined up to go in, but it's a cue ball in pool. Stuff I've got lined up: house exterior paint needs replacing; giant waterbed in basement needs assembling and filling; lawn mower needs replacing plus grounds need professional help; and then there're Brian's condors, their proper care and feeding, in some advanced Pacific Rim's industry's Silicon Forest.

I blew through Trader Joe's this morning, aggregating grist. Tomorrow's a road show (aka gig). One more day in the big city.

Tara took the 140 page Aibo manual to the beach this afternoon -- a little light reading for the car.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Tuesday Night Wanderings

David Tver presented on the number line last night, meaning the so-called real numbers and their breakdown into rationals and irrationals, with the latter forking into algebraic and transcendental numbers. He reviewed Cantor's notion of "countability" as well.

His foray into Ramanujan's "almost integers" such as e**(pi*sqrt(163)) gave me an idea for my upcoming Saturday Academy class.

I was glad to reconnect with Wanderers after my short absence. Jim had some souvenir desert rocks from the Libyan police. Glenn gave me a vintage Spirograph, in good condition, for Tara. Bob McGown recounted some African meteorite adventures. Barry talked about boat hull formation through vacuum-assisted resin injection.

I left a bit early, per plan, in order to get the projector and laptop set up. The rest of the family, including Sam, visiting from over the mountains, had gone out to Old Wives Tales for dinner. When they got back, we watched all the digital slides from our recent Tennessee trip, plus my London trip.

On today's agenda: get a new string of Tibetan prayer flags for the back yard (the old ones are in tatters).

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Home to PDX

Derek retrieved me from Hollywood District per plan, waiting longer than expected because of track construction, meaning I had to go from the Red to the Blue line at the Gateway transfer stop. All this at the other end of a very long day, beginning with the 49 from Battersea to South Kensington, Picadilly tube to Heathrow, Canadian Airlines home, to PDX 4D.

Dawn and Tara were watching a Buffy (some episode about a Ted in Season Two), Mom puttering. Fish in therapy, Sarah psycho. No Nick.

The trip back was less grueling, as I'd regained my airline legs. Had a book, for one thing, and a good one (I've blogged about the author). Tara's also reading one from the same genre (reviewed by me elsewhere). And I had a better angle on the films, so watched most of two of them (Clint Eastwood protecting a president, and Walk the Line). Although the route back was technically more miles in its longest segment, the time went by faster, my head cold gone.

Dawn turns in early, after family chat, including some detailed discussion of Bodies. Tara is playing some ants simulation (but would it run on Ubuntu?). I'm writing in my blog, or keeping a journal, as we Quakers say.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

More from London

I went to the Bodies exhibit at Earl's Court this afternoon, which comes across more as a medical science exhibit than an art exhibit. Viewer couples would sometimes nuzzle, reminded of their love amidst all this awesome machinery.

Then I checked out the human development, and minerals and meteorite sections of the Natural History Museum (plus the gift shop). The latter venue was especially crowded with families from many places around our globe. London is cosmopolitan in that way, another world city.

On television, bodies of the living mix memes with a vengeance, stirring up old fears of new conflicts. A common inspections protocol with a ban on weaponizing fissile materials everywhere would seem a worthy policy goal. WMDs are a crime against humanity, duh.

Making this be about hot button issues just muddies the waters, but then positive futurism is not in vogue these days, at least not on CNN.

The plan is to rejoin my family in Portland by the end of Easter Sunday. Staying this extra day cut the airfare in half. I wanted to give the Shuttleworth Foundation the most bang for its buck, plus a day for sightseeing was fun -- and now I'm ready to be home.

I'm grateful to have access to Nancy's flat tonight, which is full of contemplative books. Just reading the titles is a help. Fears wash through my body too, mixing with jet lag and a cold.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

London Knowledge Lab

Logo turtle
LKL collection

I enjoyed my opportunity to present on Pythonic Mathematics to a skeletal LKL staff; most had escaped for the Easter weekend, or "bank holiday" as many prefer to think of it. No matter, the presentation was videotaped, plus was an education for me.

These UKers seemed genuinely cheered by the generous helping of memes I heaped on their plates, about young pre-college students using Python to cast "math objects" in object oriented code, including all these colorful polyhedra, pre-calibrated per the Fuller School's preferred design.

I had a live Internet connection plus a repurposed version of my most recent OSCON presentation.

Here in the UK, there's a top-down approach to maths which makes the teacher's role pretty much cut and dried. Bold experiments like mine just don't get tried. A dreary inertia prevails. Phillip expressed some nostalgia for bygone decades when people were more into trying new things.

Why do we think programming has to be "hard" anyway?

After the talk, Phillip (Dr. Kent) escorted me to Friends House, where I met Nancy Irving, general secretary of Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC), and family friend. We had dinner together (Italian). I'll be staying in her flat my last night in London, while she's on business in Scotland.

Nancy Irving next to Gandhi statue
(photo by K. Urner)

Monday, April 10, 2006

Launch Pad

edubuntu booting in Derek's kitchen
(click for larger view)

So I'm living out of my OSCON carry-on, lugging a laptop, haven't yet packed the checked baggage. Catching up on my spam : -D. Listened to a little Randi Rhodes on KPOJ while I waited in Razz for Tara. Randi thinks the "nuke Iran" people are really creepy. Duh. I try not to look at the freak shows er talk shows too much.

Not all Americans are idols. Not by a long shot.

I've been doing my carnivore schtick a lot lately. Big Daddy's BBQ for lunch and tonight: Mongolian Grill, whole family (well, not Sarah (NDW = no dogs welcome)).

If I manage to zip by Derek's for some quick BS and a brewskie, I'll snap a digicam shot of Edubuntu, which I burned to CD and which he got running on a recently purchased castaway Pentium (a perfectly good one). I'll upload it to become part of this blog post.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Process Ecology

Dr. Robert Ulanowicz is unaccustomed to speaking to audiences in halls the size of the Schnitzer, with his name on the marquee, but he pulled it off, with a highly philosophical attack on a caricature of Newtonianism, deliberately exaggerated for rhetorical effect.

Reductionism, or bottom-up explanations of phenomena, have never worked very well in ecology or biology, except in niche areas. Now that biology is in ascendency, some scientists are getting more explicit (and less apologetic) about their need for some top-down heuristics. Wholes select the parts somehow. Auto-catalytic bootstrapping occurs in nature, not just in our computers.

Ulanowicz cited Karl Popper a lot, including in the form of a projected quote or two, which I snarfed up with the ISEPP video camera. If your thinking has no room for noncomputable leaps, it won't survive over the long haul, was the gist of Popper's advice here. I think Roger Penrose (our previous ISEPP lecturer) would've approved.

At the Heathman dinner afterward, Terry generously invited me to the speaker's table to share ideas about synergy in connection with Bucky Fuller. I couldn't resist bringing up Wittgenstein though, because of the Popper connection, and because I think such table talk is more of the ecology of mind Bateson was talking about (Gregory Bateson was among the first sources Bob cited in his talk). Here we were: sipping wine, eating salmon, and processing.

Here's one of my favorite quotes from LW's PI:
We are under the illusion that what is peculiar, profound, essential, in our investigation, resides in its trying to grasp the incomparable essence of language. That is, the order existing between the concepts of proposition, word, proof, truth, experience and so on. This order is a super-order between -- so to speak -- super-concepts. Whereas, of course, if the words "language", "experience", "world", have a use, it must be as humble a one as that of the words "table", "lamp", "door". (PI 97)
We use these heavy duty words, but still, they're words, memes, a kind of currency but with biological properties. Some ideas fit better with others. Like, Rick Grote, also at our table, was saying "synergy" and "process" go well together. Like cookies and cream?

And on the topic of Bucky, I tried to give the flavor of his Synergetics: not only did he accept free agency but thought he had 12 ways to go at each juncture (537.50). Saying such a thing'd typically be a career-blowing move for most academic scientists. The peers just wouldn't allow it, at least not in any flagship journal of repute.

Fuller was referring to the 12 vertices of the cuboctahedron of course, thinking of himself as a piece on the board in some isomatrix-based multi-dimensional chess game. The image is more a metaphorical verity than a fact perhaps. I was sharing some of the coin of my realm, banking on Terry's kind introduction, and no one seemed to mind that much, or find my process too offensive.

Indeed, I was in a pretty happy and bubbly mood last night. Our oncologist gave me some hope to feed on, using terms and concepts I'm able to believe in. I love my wife and want her to enjoy a good quality of life for as long as possible. Thinking she might have at least another couple good years with the new hormone treatment was a big boost for me.

I realize that it's a non-deterministic ecology we're talking about, and the humans aren't entirely in control. We serve a steering function but we don't have the final word. Our job is to prove our resourcefulness, to manifest our ability to adapt, less so to dictate or boss.

Along these lines, I mentioned the Tower of Babel story again (one of my favorites), suggesting Dr. Ulanowicz might work it in when addressing more Biblically-schooled audiences. He agreed that his style of science, although still completely naturalistic and devoid of transcendentalism, is nevertheless kindler and gentler with respect to God talk.

I also suggested the process ecology ideas had a Buddhist flavor (I mentioned Nagarjuna's treatise on causality, reminiscent of Hume's). Given Portland sits here on the Pacific Rim, we feel the intellectual currents from Japan. Bob found this observation interesting, having just picked up a book by the Dalai Lama for airplane reading.

Don said Bob reminded him of Gene Lehman. I could see what he meant.

Monday, April 03, 2006


Dawn's rib cage is more painful than ever, so her pulmonologist suggested we head over to the ER for diagnosis, pleurisy suspected.

I've been doing deliveries of bookkeeping data, plus over the weekend washed all the sheets and blankets, while learning about the slave trade in Rhode Island, pre Civil War (using Pauling House wifi).

I was @ Pauling House again last night, labeling an edubuntu CD while chatting with David Koski by cell (four- vs. five-fold symmetry regimes, one of our fave topics of discussion).

I've got seven or eight students signed up for my Saturday Academy class (Pythonic Mathematics), which has been pushed back a week, owing to the upcoming Shuttleworth Summit in London.

I've been watching Noam Chomsky on Amy Goodman's show while we wait for testing outcomes (chest X-ray in progress). Sheesh that guy is articulate; one eloquently loquacious sentence after another without hardly a halt. That's what it means to be an MIT linguist I suppose: good at language.

Tara and I have started sampling Angel, a Buffy spin-off with a partially overlapping storyline. Dawn may catch up when she feels better.

OK, duty calls @ The Neighbors': computer issues. We saw Cirque du Soleil with them yesterday (Varekai), then went to a dim sum place in Chinatown.


Not what we wanted to hear. The CT scan shows the cancer has reappeared in Dawn's rib and likely elsewhere. Our family is swimming in unhappiness and disappointment again. I love Dawn and this family with all my heart and soul. I am eternally grateful to have these people in my life.