Thursday, March 31, 2005

Thought for the Day

Computers ended up giving us a whole new cast of bread and butter metaphysicians, people making their living in realms of abstraction with concrete consequences in code. When philosophers cranked up their propositional calculus and modal logic in the golden age of Principia Mathematica, they maybe expected such lines of work would be their legacy. But academic philosophy seems relatively stuck with old tools right now. Computer science is doing more of the heavy lifting. And what would mathematics be today, without Mathematica? Computers have changed the dialog among the disciplines.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Social Security for Condors?

So there's some planning afoot to reintroduce condors (the giant birds) to the Pacific Northwest, as well as to the southwest USA. This plan is unlikely to be successful however. Hunters don't want to upgrade their lead shot to titanium or some such, meaning wounded game that gets away and dies alone only serves to poison these carrion feeders.

Another killer is the poison used against coyotes and such (assurances to the contrary notwithstanding). The mortality rate for reintroduced condors is still way too high, thanks to people not taking significant steps to reduce the factors leading to their near total extinction in the first place.

One of the worst things to happen to condors was Sandy Wilbur, author of a self-congratulatory book about his days overseeing their welfare. On Wilbur's watch, the condor population plummeted, in large degree because he thought their reproductivity was the problem, not their morbidity (two factors account for die-offs: failure to breed; failure to survive).

Finally, Wilbur was given the boot, and his successor, a far more competent field biologist, established the true causes of the condor die-off. Low reproductivity had nothing to do with it.

On another front, government bureaucrats overseeing the salmon runs are hell bent on relocating the Caspian tern population at the mouth of the Columbia River, which picks off a percentage of the salmon.

Field biologists have data indicating that this policy doesn't address the real threats to salmon, but it's much easier to scapegoat the terns, to make their relocation the centerpiece of a bogus "solution," than it is to take more serious measures. Or, if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers does have a credible model of how tern relocation is the answer, then let's see their data.

Intelligent public policymaking depends on making relevant data freely accessible. Science thrives on data. Politics all too often thrives on a lack of data.

When science is safely disposed of, the playing field gets monopolized by self-interested opinion-makers and the winning strategy is to grease the wheels and make the right friends. The public suffers and democracy becomes shallow and farcical. Propagandists have a field day cranking out a shoddy product. The real work of designing a sustainable ecosystem for the longer term doesn't get done.

Science, which harvests and feeds on data, and democracy, which channels data to a concerned and informed public, are natural allies. Politics-as-usual, on the other hand, often works to snuff out democracy whenever possible.

As a political system, democracy is inevitably subversive. We defend democracy by undermining the positions of those who would make policy in a vacuum, in willful ignorance of the relevant data.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Some Political Analysis

I appreciate that putting a focus on social security is giving politicos, especially senatorials, an opportunity to zoom out and talk about the big picture for a change. The president is using a multi- generational time line like a big stick in an alligator's mouth, to hold the jaws open.

Leadership opportunities abound, to mix realism and futurism in interesting new ways; just stick your head down the alligator's throat and tell us what's down there, easy. Obviously big changes are afoot, and technology is racing on ahead, so the American people could use some substantive national dialog.

But the senatorials choose to stick with a strictly literalist or fundamentalist interpretation of "social security" and choose to keep the debate "by the book" i.e. as narrow as possible. For example, they argue about the long term solvency of the program internally, but fail to address the larger issue of a ballooning national debt. They duck, thereby failing to earn their high salaries.

When it comes to bombing campaigns and military action, politicos like to sound bold and full of bluster. But when the debate turns to civilian matters and the long term well-being of ordinary Americans in a peace-time economy, the boldness evaporates and everyone goes for playing it safe. Like, there's always plenty of money for war, but not much else. Funny how that is.

However, this is not a new pattern. We all know that politicos tend to follow more than lead. Another engine for change is the university, where young people with their whole lives ahead of them get some time to brainstorm about the big picture, before becoming submerged in the day-to-day.

Professors stereotypically inspire their youthful idealism, by feeding them a lot of grist for the mill. This is how professors get their reputation for being "liberals" (as in "liberal arts") -- a criminal mindset as some would have it, but historically a big part of what's helped us innovate and adapt.

But I'm not seeing a lot of interesting futurism coming from the professors these days either. They've mostly let this social security opportunity go by, aping the politicos, throwing a lot of numbers around. The deeper issues don't get discussed. A climate of caution prevails.

That leaves Hollywood and the media, including the Internet and the blogosphere (which is where you are now). I see more movement in this sector, plus a way of networking with those student idealists still able to think big picture and outside the box. Unfortunately, a huge amount of energy in the blogosphere goes towards playing petty politics.

I think it's a good thing that Bill Clinton has been out playing golf with the elder George Bush on behalf of tsunami survivors. That helps depolarize a mindset, making it harder for people to pour energy down their favorite political drains, squandering opportunities for personal growth and big picture thinking. Both these guys are showing some real leadership, while the younger Bush goes around stirring up the alligators.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Our Multimedia Archive

"Copyleft" is just geek wordplay on the word "copyright," and in my lexicon serves as an umbrella term covering many kinds of agreement, all sharing in common the goal of making it easier to distribute a work without violating anyone's integrity -- because the authors/innovators intended such unrestricted distribution at the outset.

In the education sector, I'm hoping we'll collaborate on building up an archive of digital works that's consciously designed to encourage future students to edit/recombine, as well as value add. For example, I'll go into the archive and find a clip that well illustrates some mathematical principle I want to explain. But how I connect it to other clips, including to new material, will represent value added. I'll contribute my two cents (figurative talk) back to the archive, and so on.

To produce such educational clips for the public sector is not to surrender your right to hold stuff back for a more select crew. A company might contribute several hours of cool video to the archive, while making it clear "there's more where that came from" but to access the larger corporate stash, you have to do some work for the corporation or university. In this sense, copyleft clips serve in part as teasers, in part as recruiting propaganda, and in part as advertisements i.e. they reflect well on the internal culture that produced them.

Also, to produce clips for the public sector is not to squander all the inhouse advantages you've built up allowing you to make such clips in the first place. The concept of open source software sometimes suffers from this same misapprehension: if it's free, it couldn't have been that hard to create.

But the truth of the matter is it still takes plenty of talent, tenaciousness, commitment, to write the stuff, even if the end results go into some public archive, some shared digital library. And whereas others may definitely learn from your examples, it's not like eyeballing sophisticated code is to immediately unlock all the secrets to writing it. Recognizing brilliance is one thing, while showing it off is quite another.

Some coders contribute to the Linux kernel. Anyone is free to read kernel code. Having global access to this code helps, but the world is still not swamped with kernel programmers.

In other words, I think some people mistakenly suppose that contributing artful works to the commons will somehow deprive them of their elite status as persons capable of sourcing said artful works. On the contrary, artists stand to gain by increasing their audience, developing a following, a reputation. Then, if they want to exchange some of their art for goods and services, versus making it freely available to other studios for editing & recombining, they'll have a stronger currency with which to negotiate.

Of course having one's public contributions boost one's reputation depends on preserving attribution, listing credits. The growing library I'm forecasting strongly encourages this practice. Users, players, other artists, should acknowledge their sources, following the age-old practices of good scholarship.

To piggy-back without giving credit is to freeload. To some extent, that's perfectly OK: every human is born helpless and naked, and needs nurturing, free access to information, without a lot of concurrent demands -- just growing and developing is a full time job. But at some point most develop a natural desire to credit community members, both contemporary and ancestral, for their contributions, and to be appreciated in turn. This is the normal economy of mutual advantaging that we've had going, in one form or another, since the dawn of history and before.

As a Fuller Schooler, I'm keen to amass video clips about the concentric hierarchy of polyhedra, a simple language game involving an assortment of shapes and their relationships. There're lots of artistically distinct styles and scenarios in which this information might appear. Think of Sesame Street and all the distinct treatments of various key topics (e.g. the letter A) have received over the years.

Given my proposal for a 45 minute presentation at OSCON 2005 has been accepted (OSCON = O'Reilly's Open Source Convention), there's an opportunity here to screen some of these clips, with attribution to the relevant individuals, corporations, universities. Maybe the Pentagon Channel wants to put out a few teasers.

Putting on my investment banker hat for a sec, I'd say here's a good way to earn a return. Groups contributing to the Fuller School and by extension to world game, are likely to gain credibility and strengthen their relative positions and currencies for the future. That's just my personal assessment, but it's far from being an uninformed opinion.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Wanderers Meeting 2005.3.1

Last Tuesday's gathering featured Jon Bunce, an accomplished musician, who shared from his unpublished manuscript on chromatic harmony. I'd helped him assemble the PowerPoint slides on previous occasions, using my Brother MFC-8820D (which double-sided laser printer, fax machine and scanner I'm quite happy with).

Jon talked about the tone ratios, the just scale, the division of the octave into 1200 cents, and the equal tempered scale -- just scratching the surface, but given his mostly non-musician audience, we felt in over our heads pretty quickly. He gave us this background enroute to explaining his own way of labeling 352 chords based on the intervals included in them. For example, the 19 three-tone chords, complementary to 19 nine-tone chords, distill to 12 unique values with identifiers like (0 2 0 1 0 0) and (1 1 1 0 0 0).

Listening to Jon reminded me of listening to Stu Quimby, the toy man, who also has a lot of fascinating stuff to say on music theory. Per usual, I started fantasizing about all the DVD clips we could build around this topic, weaving in the relevant math (an octave is a frequency doubling, so stepping up by 12 equal intervals, including sharps, involves successive multiplications by the 12th root of 2).

Per the DVD clips, I met with Ben again, the CS major with background at Sesame Street during the height of Elmo's reign (he'd done classified stuff for the military, coding battlefield simulators and so on, before stepping up to kids' education).

I eagerly pumped him with questions about the size of the Sesame Street vid clip database, whether it was all in digital format, whether all clips about the letter A could be retrieved using some kind of automated query.

I'm interested in this stuff because of the clips database I want to see emerge around more advanced topics, i.e. lets follow these kids on up the ladder with a similar format (video shorts), but tackling harder stuff (e.g. music, group and number theory). Back in the 1980s, I wrote a proposal to then Childrens Television Workshop to do just that. I called it The Videogrammatron.


I'd contract with or hire Ben if I could find the right think tank, but what established institutions outside the Fuller School are taking our kids' educational programming at all seriously nowadays? Like, we'd already have a fleet of bizmos, staffed by master teachers, fanning out across the country, sharing these curriculum clips from juke boxes, holding seminars for teachers and students, were Project Renaissance really being spearheaded by competent management, no?

Wasn't it Education Secretary William Bennett who said our country might as well be under attack by a foreign power, and losing big time, given how dumbed down we all were? At least he put his money where is mouth was, and helped our navam casinos fund tribal projects (actually, I don't know which casinos he helped). Shouldn't the military be interested in this "under attack" possibility? Maybe a foreign ideology is invested in keeping us stupid. I'm worried about Australia.

Congress gives lip service to providing social security (boosting education is obviously a big part of that), but the thinking is all in terms of money, as if wealth magically increases regardless of whether our collective thought processes make any sense or not.

That design science revolution Bucky kept going on about: that was about providing baby boomers (among others) with a comfortable retirement. Did they go for it? Some did, and at great risk, but most paid little attention and now speak some dialect of money which does little or nothing to enhance or amplify the real wealth and life supportive infrastructure of this country. A lot of these highly paid money talkers actually do negative real work i.e. we'd be better off funding their reschooling.

Below decks, the engineers are still making some sense (some of them). But what fills the airwaves and talk shows is just a lot of blather, as if a society could cohere around stock market tickers and interest rates (greenspam) with little to no shared vision of where we're actually headed as a culture. Remember the dot com bubble? Serious Morlock technology was quickly hijacked by a bunch of know-nothing get-rich-quick Eloi, who dumbed it down with their silly IPO games; yet another march of the morons goes into the history books.


Followup: congratulations to wanderer Julian Voss-Andreae (artist/scientist) for getting published in the most recent LEONARDO (Vol. 38, No. 1, pp. 41–45, 2005).