Monday, February 27, 2012

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

This chronology is from a Guardian interview with George Dyson, who's just written Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe. One of the central features of the book is to restore prominence to John von Neumann, the great Hungarian polymath.
1936 Alan Turing submits his paper 'On computable numbers, with an application to the Entscheidungs problem' to the Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society.

1941 Konrad Zuse working in isolation in Germany, builds the Z3. He knows nothing about Turing's work.

1944 The first Colossus computer is operational at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, significantly contributing to the allied war effort by doubling the codebreakers' output. It contained 1,500 thermionic valves, was the size of a room and weighed around a ton. In all, 10 Colossus computers were in use by the end of the war.

1945 John von Neumann publishes a paper setting out the architecture of a stored-program computer.

1946 First public showing of the Eniac computer built in the preceding three years at the University of Pennsylvania.

1952 Von Neumann's IAS computer becomes operational and is extensively cloned – there is no patent.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Bell Labs, Innovation for the Ages

Jon Gertner has an interesting article in today’s New York Times about Bell Labs, the place that gave us the transistor and the Unix operating system, information theory and the background radiation of the universe, among many other ideas and devices. It was perhaps the greatest industrial lab America, or the world, has seen. Ever. So far.

in the search for innovative models to address seemingly intractable problems like climate change, we would do well to consider Bell Labs’ example — an effort that rivals the Apollo program and the Manhattan Project in size, scope and expense. Its mission, and its great triumph, was to connect all of us, and all of our new machines, together.
In his recent letter to potential shareholders of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg noted that one of his firm’s mottoes was “move fast and break things.” Bell Labs’ might just as well have been “move deliberately and build things.”

Perhaps the ecology of innovation has changed so much in the last couple of decades that Zuckerberg’s philosophy is the right one. Perhaps not. So far Facebook is only one idea.
And again:

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

As soon as I finished yesterday’s post on Brian Smith’s On the Origin of Objects, I had a thought: THAT’s why the philosophy of computing leads to metaphysics. If your intuitions about computing are dominated by your practice of arithmetic, well, that’s calculation, and calculation is only an aspect of computing has it has evolved since World War II.

Consider the opening paragraph to the Preface of Domain-Driven Design by Eric Evans (xiv):
Leading software designers have recognized domain modeling and design as critical topics for at least 20 years, yet surprisingly little has been written about what needs to be done or how to do it. Although it has never been formulated clearly, a philosophy has emerged as an undercurrent in the object community, a philosophy I call domain-driven design.
In that paragraph the object community is not a fellowship of philosophers, it’s a bunch of computer programmers using languages such as C++ or Java and working in a style that came to be called object-oriented long before the philosophers re-coined the phrase for their own purposes.

But that’s a side-note.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

While crusing the web I came across a 1996 book by Brain Cantwell Smith, On the Origin of Objects. Smith is a computer scientist who was, in fact, in search of a theory of computation but found himself smack in the middle of metaphysics. Interesting, no? Just what computing is, is not exactly clear. And with folks, such a Stephen Wolfram (and he wasn't the first), proposing that the universe is, beneath it all, a giant computer of some sort, well, you can see how chasing down the nature of computation could be interesting.

The publisher's blurb was provocative:
Everything that exists - objects, properties, life, practice - lies Smith claims in the "middle distance," an intermediate realm of partial engagement with and partial separation from, the enveloping world. Patterns of separation and engagement are taken to underlie a single notion unifying representation and ontology: that of subjects' "registration" of the world around them.
That had just a whiff of object-oriented ontology about it, though the book's date puts it before the term was coined.

I found an ontology site that had excerpts from the book, from critics, and from Smith's reply. It had this bit from the book's conclusion:
Overall, the project was to develop what I called a successor metaphysics, one that would honor the following pretheoretic requirements (345-246):
1. Do justice to what is right about:
a. Constructivism: a form of humility, or so at least I characterized it, requiring that we acknowledge our presence in, and influence on, the world around us; and

b. Realism: the view that adds to constructivism's claim that "we are here" an equally profound recognition that we are not all that is here, and that as a result not all of our stories are equally good.
2. Make sense of pluralism: the fact that knowledge is partial, perspectival, and never wholly extricable from its (infinite) embedding historical, cultural, social, material, economic and every other kind of context. The account of pluralism must:
a. Avoid devolving into nihilism or other forms of vacuous relativism, and in particular not be purchased at the price of (successors notions of) excellence, standards, virtue, truth, or significance; and

b. Not license radical incommensurability, provide an excuse to build walls, or in any other way stand in the way of interchange, communion, and struggle for common ends.
Two additional criteria were applied to how these intuitions are met:
3. Be irreductionist -- ideologically, scientifically, and in every other way. No category, from sociality to electron, from political power to brain, from origin myth to rationality to mathematics, including the category "human," may be given a priori pride of place, and thereby be allowed to elude contingency, struggle, and price.

4. Be nevertheless foundational, in such a way as to satisfy our undiminished yearning for metaphysical grounding. That is, or so at least I put it, the account must show how and what it is to be grounded simpliciter - without being grounded in a, for any category a.
Along the way, the account should:
5. Reclaim tenable, lived, work-a-day successor versions of many mainstay notions of the modernist tradition: object, objective, true, formal, mathematical, logical, physical, etc."

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

Crooked Timber is running a symposium on David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years. Contributions so far:
All are worth reading, as are many of the comments. I’ll end with the last paragraph from Bertram’s introduction:
Does Graeber find in utopian and democratic resistance to the Axial empires an historic precedent for the Occupy movement to emulate? Perhaps our best possibilities lie not in grand schemes of societal transformation but in developing the “baseline communism” and the democratic instincts that persist even in the heart of modern capitalism. The anarchist writer Colin Ward used a phrase from Ignazio Silone – “the seed beneath the snow” – to make a similar idea vivid. We cannot take the beast on in a direct assault, and nor should we, but we can work together to develop a more human society within the nooks and crannies of the commercial one.
Sounds a bit like a plug for the Transition Movement, which originated in England and has since spread around the world.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

I have distinct memories of the days when the prospect of digital media everywhere led to thoughts of how easy it would be to preserve everything: Digital Will Never Die! The basic idea was that, as digital is All or Nothing, the signal is strong and clear and so resistant to degradation. All we have to do is just keep transferring it from one substrate to another as the substrates wear out.

Piece of cake.


That's not how things have worked out. David Bordwell has written a useful essay on the nasty problems of digital preservation: Pandora’s digital box: Pix and pixels. The law of unintended consequences strikes again, and again; as Bordwell observes: "It seems likely that digital projection has, in unintended and unexpected ways, put the history of film in jeopardy." There are many problems, more than I care even to list, much less summarize. Let one little paragraph stand for many:
Storing 4K digital masters costs about 11 times as much as storing a film master. You can store the digital master for about $12,000 per year, while the film master averages about $1,100.
For that's what it all comes down to, cost.

Bleg: Subjective Sound, Mad Men and Apocalypse Now

I’m interested in the use of sound to emphasize one point of view in a film vs. other points of view. For example in the fifth episode (called “5G”) of the first season of Mad Men, Don Draper is called out of a staff meeting to the reception area to see one Adam Whitman. Adam is his younger brother, from a past that Draper thought he’d left completely behind. This upsets him a great deal and, on the way back to and into the staff meeting, he withdraws into himself. The sound track underlines this (16:50 – 17:30) by eliminating all other sounds except for moody music. We can see other people talking in the staff meeting, but cannot hear them. All we hear is Draper’s moody mental music and a muffled “thk” as he knocks his cigarette against his lighter—to compact the tobacco, I suppose.

I have no idea how often this device has been used, but I first learned of it in a piece by Walter Murch in which he discusses a somewhat different version of the device in Apocalypse Now. This occurs at the Dolung Bridge sequence. In this case, it’s not what we hear, but what we don’t hear:

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Standard Eye Play


This photo doubles the mystery, I suppose. The basic mystery is, of course, that eye, against the black background. Who? What? Why? Male or Female? Merely curious or Homeland Security?

The photo increases the mystery by providing a background that situates the eye and its immediate background. But the situation is a bit of a mystery. A city, yes (just which city doesn't much matter, does it?), but now, still, almost more than ever: What? Why? It could almost be a composit of two photos, and a crude one at that.

And thus a stunt. Always a stunt. Decontextualized eyes are alway stunts, metaphysical stunts. But whose the orchestrator?

All is revealed below the fold.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

We Need a Politics of Jubilee

What I’m thinking is that the Occupy movement is the beginnings of a politics of Jubilee. But I’m getting ahead of myself. What is Jubilee?

Writing in Leviticus as Literature, the late Mary Douglas observes (p. 243): “Release of slaves and cancellation of debts incurred under the preceding regime were common practice for victorious conquerors, a magnanimity that cost them nothing while their rule was new and their power to enforce it recently demonstrated.”

That, the release of slaves and the cancellation of debts, is the basic idea. But what is proposed in Leviticus (25: 10-11) is more radical:
And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubile unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family.

A jubile shall that fiftieth year be unto you: ye shall not sow, neither reap that which groweth of itself in it, nor gather the grapes in it of thy vine undressed.
Every fifty years a Jubilee and, while we’re at it, lets give the land a rest, a chance to renew itself. As Douglas goes on to observe, however, the doctrine of a Jubilee every fifty years is
much more controversial and difficult to enforce for an established government. . . . Effectively, it prohibits private accumulation and even accumulation by the temple treasury. It ensures that there will be no gross inequality of wealth-holding. . . . Solidarity will not be undermined by resentment of perceived injustice.
Which is exactly what we have no in this country: The 99% have concluded that the 1% have rigged the action in their favor and they’re going to keep things that way, thank you very much.

The banks got their Jubilee. To be sure, their creditors didn’t forgive them, but the Federal Government provided them with funds to pay their debts. That is to say, you and I bailed them out. And now they’re back to raking it in, hand over fist, while we watch our neighbors loose their home. No Jubilee for us.

Maybe it’s time for Jubilee for us all, and for the land to, the oceans and fields, the mountains and the valleys, and all the living creatures around us. Can we really continue letting the corporate-owned Republicrats running the world for the benefit of a few privileged people?

The way I see it the Occupy movement is the opening call for a Jubilee. No specific demands, no specific proposals, just STOP! Let’s everyone speak up, everyone listen, and figure out how to start over again.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Objects and Graeber's Debt

I've been reading my way through David Graeber’s recent book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years. I'm beginning to think it's a major book, one important outside its ostensible subject matter, which, I assume, is something like the history of economics. I'm thinking, for example, that he has discussions which would interest the object-oriented ontologists, though ontology is not at all his subject. But money is, as is debt, and the mystery is whence this stuff? this money, which levels everthing, a leveling that starts long before the dreaded capitalism. He talks of slaves as being people existing without (essential) relations with other people; it's the lack of relations that renders them somehow less than fully human. And he talks of how institutions such as bride-price and wergild set up equivalences between humans and mere physical stuff.

It's one thing to take all this at face value, but accepting received summarization of the historical record. But Graeber wants to know how and why these usages came about?

It's a long book, with lots of stories and examples, from various cultural traditions (Vedic, Islamic, Greco-Roman, Celtic, Norse). While it's relatively free of technical terminology, it has its own density. It's to be savored.

Here's a passage, not chosen at random at all, but simply the passage that prompted me to write this note (p. 198):
In Roman law, property, or dominium, is a relation between a person and a thing, characterized by absolute power of that person over that thing. This definition has caused endless conceptual problems. First of all, it's not clear what it would mean for a human to have a " relation" with an inanimate object. Human beings can have relations with one another. But what would it mean to have a " relation" with a thing? And if one did, what would it mean to give that relation legal standing? A simple illustration will suffice: imagine a man trapped on a desert island. He might develop extremely personal relationships with, say, the palm trees growing on that island. If he's there too long, he might well end up giving them all names and spending half his time having imaginary conversations with them. Still, does he own them? The question is meaningless. There's no need to worry about property rights if noone else is there.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

And Its Application to the Current Mortgage Disaster

I’ve been reading David Graeber’s recent book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years. In the chapter, “Cruelty and Redemption,” he recounts the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35). As an exercise you might want to read the story as one about the recent mortgage mess in the United States. In this version the king is the Federal Government and the first servant, the unforgiving one, corresponds to the investment bankers who sold those bought, packaged, and sold risky mortgages as fancy derivative instruments. The second servant, then, would be all those homeowners to took out those risky mortgages and are now losing their homes. In this reading, there's lots more work to be done to fill out the Biblical model.

Here’s the parable as it’s quoted from the World English Bible in the Wikipedia, which also has some useful interpretive remarks:
Then Peter came and said to him, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Until seven times?"

Jesus said to him, "I don't tell you until seven times, but, until seventy times seven. Therefore the Kingdom of Heaven is like a certain king, who wanted to reconcile accounts with his servants. When he had begun to reconcile, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But because he couldn't pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, with his wife, his children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. The servant therefore fell down and knelt before him, saying, 'Lord, have patience with me, and I will repay you all!' The lord of that servant, being moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.

"But that servant went out, and found one of his fellow servants, who owed him one hundred denarii, and he grabbed him, and took him by the throat, saying, 'Pay me what you owe!'

"So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, 'Have patience with me, and I will repay you!' He would not, but went and cast him into prison, until he should pay back that which was due. So when his fellow servants saw what was done, they were exceedingly sorry, and came and told to their lord all that was done. Then his lord called him in, and said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt, because you begged me. Shouldn't you also have had mercy on your fellow servant, even as I had mercy on you?' His lord was angry, and delivered him to the tormentors, until he should pay all that was due to him. So my heavenly Father will also do to you, if you don't each forgive your brother from your hearts for his misdeeds."

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Music and ADD

Stanford University recently held a symposium on music therapy that focused on musical rhythm. Some of the work dealt with ADD (attention deficient disorder):
Harold Russell, a clinical psychologist and adjunct research professor in the Department of Gerontology and Health Promotion at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, used rhythmic light and sound stimulation to treat ADD (attention deficit disorder) in elementary and middle school boys. His studies found that rhythmic stimuli that sped up brainwaves in subjects increased concentration in ways similar to ADD medications such as Ritalin and Adderall. Following a series of 20-minute treatment sessions administered over several months, the children made lasting gains in concentration and performance on IQ tests and had a notable reduction in behavioral problems compared to the control group, Russell said.

"For most of us, the brain is locked into a particular level of functioning," the psychologist said. "If we ultimately speed up or slow down the brainwave activity, then it becomes much easier for the brain to shift its speed as needed." ...

Thomas Budzynski, an affiliate professor of psychology at the University of Washington, conducted similar experiments with a small group of underachieving college students at Western Washington University. He found that rhythmic light and sound therapy helped students achieve a significant improvement in their grades.

Mad Men

A couple of years ago the cool kids began talking about this TV show, “Mad Men.” It sounded interesting but, as I did not (and still do not) have cable TV, I couldn’t watch it. But I do have a Netflix account and have just watched the first three episodes of the first season. Interesting. I’ll watch more.

It’s only in the last few years that I finally got rid of those narrow ties that I bought in the mid-60s, as narrow as the ties worn by Draper and others. And I remember how the house at the corner of Mayluth Road and Cherry Lane was owned by a divorcee, who ran (owned?) a women’s clothing store. She was an anomaly in the neighborhood, though she didn’t drive a Volkswagen like Helen Bishop. As far as I know, my family was the first one in the neighborhood to get a VW bug, which my father bought as a second car. His company, Bethlehem Steel, disapproved, as it was foreign, made of foreign steel.

I don’t remember any particular cattiness about the local divorcee, but then those conversations wouldn’t have happened in my presence. I do, however, have the sense that this or that woman was know to take an extra drink or two.

All of which is to say that I remember that world. I’d guess I was half a dozen years older than Draper’s daughter, more or less. What I’m wondering is how the show is going to lean on the difference between the world back then and the world now. And, to the extent that it leans, in what direction?

* * * * *

Meanwhile, ”Mad Men” showed up in a New York Times piece about Mimi Beardsley (now Alford). In 1962 she was a 19 year old intern in the White House press office who was promptly seduced by President Kennedy, beginning an 18-month affair.
... she associated the White House not with Camelot but with the sexy, deceptive dystopia of television’s “Mad Men,” in which comely young women service their married bosses, as glasses clink, ashtrays fill and everyone keeps mum about the misbehavior.

“God, I love ‘Mad Men,’ ” Ms. Alford told me. “All of it is exactly what was going on.” When she arrived at the White House as a teenager, she said, she “wanted to be Peggy” — an ambitious “Mad Men” character. But the part she ended up playing was closer the frustrated wife of the lead character, Don Draper. “I think I probably relate most to Betty Draper,” she admits.
I wonder if watching "Mad Men" has helped her think about those years? Perhaps they're so long ago that she doesn't need any help. But then, why would she love the show?

Friday, February 10, 2012

Strange Views, Not so Strange: Cities, Green, and the Rest


Whatever's going on in this photograph, it seems to me, is entirely obvious. It's not usual, of course, for the foreground to be out-of-focus, nor for the blurry foreground objects to all but obscure the in-focus background objects. In fact, you have to look a bit to see anything in the background at all. There's more grass, it looks like some trees, and a building.

As for that building, I'm crippled in seeing it because I know what it is, and I also know that it's the tallest building in New Jersey. Which is, of course, irrelevant. But, if you don't know what building it is, what do you make of it? Do you even know it's a building? I mean, it could be some concrete marker post, couldn't it?

And why take such a photo? Such a non-image, which is, upon reasonable inspection, obvious, is it not? We take many photographs so that we can remember something, whatever it is in the photo. This photo can hardly be about rememberance, can it?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Geoffrey Harpham: In Praise of Pleasure

For the past few years the National Humanities Center has been running an online colloquim on the relationships between the humanities and various sciences. That colloquim is coming to an end with a defense of pleasure and the autonomy of humanistic inquiry by Geoffrey Harpham, director of the center. Here's a paragraph from his essay:
But I confess that I have developed a stubborn resistance to the cause of the unification of knowledge and would be disturbed if that cause were advanced as a consequence of all our work. One of the few convictions I have that has been hardened rather than softened as a consequence of “On the Human” and its progenitor ASC [Autonomy, Singularity, Creativity: The Human and the Humanities] is that the difference between the various disciplines enables rather than hinders the advance of knowledge, and that the humanities in particular represent a precious resource that must not be subordinated to an imperial science. This view has had some support among those who have participated in ASC and OTH, but it has not been a majority position. My immediate predecessor in this space, Alex Rosenberg, has just published The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, and in this and other writings, he has taken a very hard pro-scientific line, arguing that science produces the only knowledge worthy of the name, and that the humanities contribute little more than tissues of meretricious fantasy that might yield some distracting, momentary, and decidedly mere “pleasure,” but are, as he says at the end of his (in my view misguided) Guide, “nothing we have to take seriously,” nothing that qualifies as “knowledge or wisdom.”
There's a list of colloquium essays here. Here's a direct link to my own contribution, which is about cultural evolution.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

I just watched The Dirty Dozen, a 1967 war film with an ensemble cast headlined by Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, John Cassavetes, and Telly Savalas. The premise is simple, if a bit implausible: Marvin is hard-as-nails Major with guts and an attitude who’s tasked with leading a team on a Very Important Mission, one that’s also risky and likely to kill most of the team. His team consists of men convicted of capital offenses and sentenced either to long prison terms or to die. The mission is to destroy a chateau that serves as a rest and conference center for high-level German officers.

Most of this two-and-a-half hour film is devoted to training and a dry run at some war games. The actual mission only takes the last 45 minutes of the film. Of course the mission is a success, and most of the men die. There’s a fairly well-known scene in which Jim Brown, recently retired from a spectacular football career, does some broken field running while stuffing hand grenades down ventilation shafts for a large underground bunker, which was filled with German officers and their women, mostly prostitutes and mistresses I’d guess. As Marvin and his team had already poured gasoline down those shafts we assume that the officers and women were incinerated, though we don’t see and fire in the bunker.

That implied immolation scene was mentioned in one of the DVD extras, perhaps the voice-over commentary, perhaps Ernest Borgnine’s intro, I forget which, as possibly costing the director, Robert Aldrich, an Oscar; otherwise the film was nominated in four categories (supporting actor, editing, sound, and sound effects) and it won for sound effects. It was the top money-maker of 1967. All things considered, it was a BIG DEAL.