Monday, February 25, 2008

Matters of Thought- Part 1

"[E]very copy is unique, irreplaceable, but (since the Library is total) there are always several hundred thousand imperfect facsimiles..." --Jorge Luis Borges, The Library of Babel

I don't know how this happens. Every couple of years, I fall into some book or conversation that purports to open windows onto the workings of human consciousness. I'm not sure that I like the subject exactly, and I may even hate it. For me, it's like that itch you notice it bugging for your attention for a long time, and when you break the urge and gouge up your skin in hopeful relief, you don't really feel any better. The deep fundamentals of mathematical and cognitive philosophy have a habit of annoying the fuck out of me, partly it's the language, and partly goofy notation, but mostly it's because my brain aches when it's knotted around in order to try and contemplate itself. As a rule, I just try to avoid them, but Oxford mathematician Roger Penrose has been taunting me from my bookshelf for seven years now with Shadows of the Mind. The basis of the book is an attempt to use Gödel's incompleteness theorem to show that consciousness can't be a product of a consistent formal mathematical/logical system, and from there move to some bizarre quantum theory of consciousness. I'm going to mostly concentrate on the first part here.

Wikipedia has a pretty decent discussion of incompleteness, stating it (not in the mathematician's own words) as,

"For any consistent formal, computably enumerable theory that proves basic arithmetical truths, an arithmetical statement that is true, but not provable in the theory, can be constructed. That is, any effectively generated theory capable of expressing elementary arithmetic cannot be both consistent and complete."
Basically, any set of theories which manages to conclude that "this set of theories can not be proven" contradicts itself, and is therefore inconsistent. (Also, everything I tell you is a lie.) Sounds reasonable, but the philosophical consequences of it get a little funky. In its least mind-bending application, Gödel's statement says that there are any number of mathematical truths that can't be proven by a system of rules. It also suggests that there will always be more axioms (unprovable starting points) to add, and any algorithm that operates by a mathematical set of rules--a computer program, say--will not be able to deduce any of those new axioms, including (and especially) the one that says it can't reach them all. Penrose takes this to mean that no Turing machine (i.e., a computer that operates according to a set of rules) will ever achieve the status of a human thought (or for that matter, human language). Why? Because humans can infer truths such as Gödel's theorem, that's why. Cognition can't, therefore, be a mathematically consistent process, and we'll never be able to fake that sort of thing using a computer.

This bothers me. It's not the idea that formal systems must be incomplete, it's that notions of inconsistency must be so rare and intolerable. In those increasingly rare times I act like an engineer, I'm constantly working in the realm of consistent enough. Engineering math works that way: it's good only over some range of underlying values, and only to the extent that the assumptions are valid. You can never quite capture every aspect of a physical phenomenon into a theoretical model and still have the model compute. The natural world quickly leads you past solutions that are analytic (that is, that can be solved by symbolic math), and even as you turn to numerical methods of problem-solving (that is, chunking the model up into approximate pieces, and keeping track of them all with a computer), you still need to limit your interpretation of the world in terms of mathematical logic that is possible to manipulate, and this always proves smaller than the world itself. Even revolutionary models like quantum mechanics rely on constructing equations in such a way that they can be partially solved, with just sufficient accuracy to get their points across. That's practical math for you, and I don't know if it's a correct extension of Gödel's theorem to say that as you specify a system more accurately, then your logic must become necessarily less consistent, but it's in the same vein. Actually, it's starting to sound more like quantum uncertainty than anything else, and that may well be somewhere close to where Penrose is heading*. I'll see over the next several days. (Even if he's not going there, some amazing conceptual beasties still lurk just beneath the Planck length.)

Computers are algorithmical by definition, but are they in practice? What is the relationship between the universe and math anyway? You can see how basic ideas such as natural numbers (one rock, two trees, three eggs, hrair bunnies) and basic arithmetic (addition, multiplication, etc.) are readily correlated to observable properties of the Universe, but I'm going to take a step beyond that correlation and assert that computations and ideas don't merely represent physical objects, they are in fact physical objects. Your conception of the number 3, say (or of Gödel's theorem), is a pattern of electrical impulses, probably a dynamic one, stored in or circulated around the knot of nerve cells in your head, which, when the power's turned on, can interact with many of the other nervous sparks, some old, and some freshly arrived from the senses, and churn around in fantastically complicated ways. Likewise, the concept of a 3 can be stored in that pile of blocks over there, as many beads on an abacus, so many divisions of a slide rule, or so much charge distributed over so many transistors. Algorithms are things too, objects on a tape, capacitated electrical charges, whatever. The ideas behind them are contained in all those networks of neurons, which are also things, and in the coded instructions for neurons that we leave everywhere for ourselves (such as these electromagnetic doohickeys that I'm directing at you right now, not to mention the modulated acoustics and the blobs of ink of produced by generations of philosophers and fools. There is no Platonic spirit realm of pure ideas--we approximate all of them over and over again, never quite the same but usually close enough, in accordance with a common outline of a wiring scheme and all of our own ubiquitous clues. Algorithms are arrangements of somethings too--Turing machines are worthwhile conceptual aids, but their instructions can clutter up the shadowy cave as much as anything else. Actual computers, just like brains, are really only algorithmic enough.

I'm not really going too far past Penrose here. His point is that thinking can not be based on sound algorithms. I'm saying that I don't think computers are algorithmic either, nor is the universe, not quite.

[Part II will discuss some ways to make computers that are more like brains.]

*Or not. I'm told that despite the profundity regarding the incompleteness theorem, his physics of consciousness are not widely accepted.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Review of America The Book by Jon Stewart*

*and about a dozen other Daily Show writers.

It reads like MAD magazine for twenty-somethings. I don't think this is wholly a bad thing: Some of the jokes got audible laughs, and the usual gang of idiots went far toward molding me into the sarcastic twit you have before you today. No, I just wish I read America the Book when I was still an irresponsible twenty-something.


(I am so just not feeling it lately)

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Review of Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

I originally met most--okay all--of the "buds" from this book project in Slate Magazine's discussion group, the Fray. Over the past year or so, I've been weaning myself off of it, because even though I continue to enjoy the virtual company of many of its denizens (or keep meaning to anyway), the forum itself lost that feeling for me of being a fun place to visit. Partly, it was because of the games of status that a magazine of ambivalent quality kept playing with its network of forums (I've had crazy girlfriends that loved and hated me as much), partly there's the house brand of online malice that would occasionally bubble throughout the boards, there was a smidgen of annoyance at the habits of the local trolls too (but that's the same anywhere), and a big thing was the awareness of a bigger world out there, even for blogging dorks. Back in the day, nobody surfed the Fray as purposefully as did Ender, which makes him seem like an odd person to vocally mount a charge to break through its boundaries, but a year or so ago, that's what he did. These days, you can find him here, trying to parlay his online manipulation skills into something more profitable, evidently by writing about a giant mutant chicken or something. A book selection for this guy is too obvious a choice to ignore, and it led to some interesting speculations as to what he was once trying to do with the Ender persona. More about that shortly.

In the decades before he became known as a tendentious political whacko, Orson Scott Card wrote decent science fiction novels, and Ender's Game is, if not his best, probably his most well-known. It's not bad, delivering something in excess of my expectations anyway. I'm not the sort of reader to go in for barracks philosophies, nor for alien space battles, but this novel kept the interest up for its entirety, and contained characters that I cared about. It centers on a child, Ender Wiggin, who is lucky enough to get such an astounding grade on his career aptitude test that, at six years old, he's drafted directly into military school. It's not just any junior academy, but rather an intense and futuristic training program designed to identify and select kids with both incredible reflexes and that ineffable leadership quality that inspires tactical innovation, confidence, and obedience among the ranks.

If the premise looks silly (and it does--we're talking zero-gravity Laser Tag as the best hope to groom sophisticated military minds here), Card gets away with it in context. These aren't just any kids, but carefully-screened early prodigies selected for capability and maturity, and their environment is built to encourage those things. The school is regimented, isolated, and nearly adult-free, and the kids are given something close to the life-or-death authority of real soldiers, constantly exposed to violent propaganda and unforgiving decisions. It produces adult behaviors,* but their inner childlike sensitivities are still revealed to the reader by authorial exercise. History has ample evidence of children behaving as murderously effective bastards, and even though your horrible memories of middle school might seem like a starting point, children have been soldiers for as long as there has been war. The evil of it, at least from a more enlightened cultural perspective, doesn't negate the truth that kids can do this sort of thing, and certainly have. A different sort of writer (possibly a better one) might have analyzed these labyrinthine moral contexts for hundreds of pages, but Card moves this novel forward as three-quarters adventure story, and whatever doubts arise do so from Ender's own exculpatory point of view, and the briefly revealed conflicts of the administrators.

Child abuse isn't the only horror presented in this story; what they're training for is a civilizational war, a dishonorably pre-emptive one, with an ultimate resolution that is an abomination beyond description. The conflict itself is born out of the inability of two species to communicate with one another, and like most of the underlying ethical poses, it feels more honest for the brief spotlight that the author gives it. Card solves these dilemmas for the purposes of his story--every horror is conducted out of real necessary, every authoritarian abuse is verified as the lesser of evils, and every crime is repented, forgiven, inevitable, or committed without knowledge--but beyond the narrative, the ethical framework is left hanging, I think wisely, because exploring the depths of criminality here would require a much different sort of book. (The author, whatever political views he'd reveal 25 years later, deserves an ounce of credit for raising them.)

(Parenthetically, it's my opinion that the third-person omniscient view is a root of much of the world's evil. It legitimizes shoot-but-cry narratives, allowing the depth of thought to weigh equally with the depth of consequence. It pretends that the moral calculus in any heinous act is fully known. It gives us a template on which to write our many apologia.)

Old science fiction is sometimes trippy to read because badly predicted technology has a habit of growing absurd as time proves it infeasible, and the stuff that was spot-on has a tendency to become invisible to modern readers. Orson Scott Card gets some geek cred for being the first writer (to my knowledge--Ender's Game was published in 1977) to accurately guess what video games, simulators, and the internet would eventually look like. There's an entertaining subplot in which Ender's brother and sister (they're as precocious as he is) scheme to take over the world by gaining political influence through, basically, their blogs. It's funny, given the unpaid internet writer's place in the contemporary opinion heirarchy (sort of like the wart on the asshole of the American body politic--occasionally uncomfortable, but hardly life-threatening), especially considering the inflated sense of worth of, say, your average Daily Kossie. This subplot is of special interest in the context of this book review too, as the plan that these children outlined for global domination is strikingly similar to the one that Ender the poster would later use to gain power within the Fray, building anonymous nicknames, generating issue-driven contention, and gradually convincing the public of his credibility. Whether he succeeded is an open question. The Slate Fray, at least for a while, was better than many other interactive forums, competitive in a way, with approval awarded to good communicators and interesting posts. I'd always figured it was the editorial policy of awarding official brownie points that made it this way, but what the hell, maybe it was abetted by the internal subversion to a higher degree than I'd ever given it credit. Ender's Game as a manual to turn one backwater burg of the internet into the novel? Good times.

*Except cursing. Even though everyone says fart all the time, and the word "bugger" is mentioned in 1129 separate instances, nary a shit or fuck to be found.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Random Roundup

I don't usually like to act like a blogger, devotee of original, independent content that I am. Still, sometimes blogging happens. Here's a selection of hat tips and comments from last week, some I wrote, others I didn't quite get to in time.

1. You'd be a fool to miss this one
You'll be surprised as me to know that Fool's Gold, starring the ineluctable (no really, what do you say?) Matt McConaughey, is the number one movie in America. I'm not sure if I believe in Matt's astounding acting chops, but the teaser, in which Kate Hudson whales on him with a three wood, makes it look almost worth spending ten bucks on.

2. Anarchy Ma'am, if you can keep it
IOZ's running a provocative series of posts (again), and this expands briefly on my comments there, perhaps tangentially to his point, which usually tends more towards consciousness than prescription. The opener from his latest one: "Those who complain most loudly about the modern nation-state nevertheless leap to its defense at the mention of other possible arrangements." Do other arrangements really work out?

I've talked about it a lot lately, and I'm sick of talking about, but here it is again. I see empire, in whichever form, as significantly a result of factors such as population pressure, resource pressure, and habitual living standards, and if it's not exactly inevitable, then the State looks like a comparatively stable and natural way for crowded humans to organize themselves. I don't imply a whole lot of scholarly observation there, but I think there's a reason that China these days looks a lot like the U.S. looks a lot like Europe. Interconnected burbclaves sound great, and the pizza delivery sure is a lot of fun, but why should I expect that organization to ultimately go other than the route of Communism or, all too likely, of the federal Republic? Even if we were to somehow arrange the population in a way that kept the S-word out of its vocabulary, then the Party, the Company, or the Church all look rarin' to take its place. (And haven't they from time to time?)

(On the other hand, I respect the idea that it's wise, in a historical sense, to knock the empires down periodically. Not that I relish living in those times. IOZ's arguments about the scale of atrocity have merit.)

I would like to be convinced of feasible alternate arrangements, frankly, and that's one reason I keep reading. And there again, this primitive thinker sees technology as a necessary step to weight the equation toward anything less ghastly than a nation-state. I'm not talking brains in jars here, it'd surely be less ridiculous than that. The birth control pill was a good start, and though I hate to romanticize it, the internet is another seed of a means to allow people to associate voluntarily. Easy access to high-powered weapons? Urm, I don't think I'm ready to go there...

Maybe a free, magical source of energy would do it.

3. Cut the baby in two!
Another hat tip to IOZ, also expanding slightly on a comment.

Cato mastermind Robin Hanson says we should cut our health care spending in half. He's got something of a point in regards to end-of-life spending (but don't you dare bring this up in the eleventh hour with me or mine!), but I'm not sure how Hanson arrives at free entitlements as the best sector to axe. I might have gone for what the rest of the civilized world is doing differently so as to spend half of what we are, presumably avoiding the USAn insurance bureaucracy, but I doubt that shit flies at Cato. Hell, even medicare, which insures the old and infirm exclusively, is at the very least competitve with private care that excludes the poor and chronically ill, even after the rationalizing. (I owe hipparchia a nod for some of those tidbits, but I couldn't find the cite.) I'm not crazy about replacing private insurance with a government committee, not in principle, but it sure does seem to be cheaper.

But Hanson and the liberals both judge wrongly, I think, in overemphasizing life expectancy as a figure of merit, especially since it doesn't even vary all that much between nations of any particular study. Health buys more than years, and a shorter alotment of them can be due to unrelated shit like having to drive everywhere. I'm thrilled that the arthroscopic knee surgeries and carpal tunnel scrapings are probably going to be there when I need 'em, and unless I plan to cross a lot of streets, those aren't going to affect the life expectancy. I'm liking the idea of happy pills too.

4. Another movie I won't bother to see.
All I've got to ask is... how much lipstick we talkin' here?

(Nah, not really. She's cute.)

5. Pho-cking off now
Here's to the chemistry of roasting ginger: Damn, that's delicious. Thanks to the steamy kitchen, via Jim Henley.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Finding the Funky Kink

"There are two types of people here: people who play instruments, and musicians."

I'm sure it's a quip that gets uttered any time both types of people gather together in the same room. In this particular case, it was some toothless codger at my mother's fiddle club, a talented old bastard stuck among a group of screeching, caterwauling octogenarian farts that celebrates more funerals than gigs. I've heard their practice cd and I'm sympathetic to his aphoristic feeling, even if it stings. The sound of them recalls all the joyless horrors of high school band sessions, and my mind fills in the details of a harried, underpaid director, hopelessly trying to flail three dozen instruments into the same time and the same tune with his little wand as the musi players all saw away with an urgent confused focus or with blithe, individual abandon. It's not an inappropriate venue for my poor dear Mum (who, I'll emphasize, is not reading this) as she hardly feels it in her at all. Even now that it's inexplicably become a family thing, she still hasn't found that funky kink in her soul, the smirking, expectant, excitable little asperity of animus that coaxes music into being, or responds to it. You can imagine the mindset that got her auditioning solo in front of all those geriatric cranks, that certain combination of stubbornness and cluelessness. It runs in the family. And she impresses the hell out of me.

Still, I'd much rather be the musician in that epigram. It's not because I'm a particularly aspirational sort of person (really kind of the opposite), or because I'm particularly good at it (I'm not), but it's a growing torture to have this body of understanding looming so close to the edge of my apperception. It's like a familiar face I can't put a name to, or a missing phrase that will perfectly express my thought--or maybe like that enthusiastic but retarded little psychic drummer that was happy enough to keep my jerky internal rhythms going at their own idiot pace for thirty years before noticing the sounds around him, and who is now deluded to think he can march the body to that external time, or even worse, maybe has the idea he can express our own oddly syncopated thrumming to outside minds--and it taunts me just out of my reach. If I get nothing else out of music lessons, maybe I'll convince myself to eradicate these sorts of shitty metaphors from my vocabulary.

I'm up to two of 'em so far (lessons that is, already in double digits with the language thing), and I think they're great. I don't know how good a teacher I have (certainly he's a hell of a player), but I appreciate for now the loose approach we've been going at it, focused more on opening up paths than on inflicting instructional drills. I can go ahead and wade through the drear on my own, and playing (nervously) along with someone (much) better after I've been getting some pointers lifts me right up. I'm almost annoyed that I have to pay someone fifty bucks a pop to show me where the door is, but there you are.

An example of what I mean: in the middle of teaching me this one riff, I ask him about the rhythm he's backing me up with, and it breaks off on a tangent about the chord shapes I know, and some of his more arthritic variations. "I like the chop chords, but these barre ones sound nice sometimes. Is it important to practice them in general, you think?" "Dude, it's good to practice everything." It's like I needed permission. But as importantly, it's like I needed to be told the point of developing more than the usual default shapes.

This tidbit kicked off a quest to develop some better understanding of music theory. It had gotten to the point in the various intermediate and introductory manuals where it was more difficult to keep explaining the simplified version than to just come out with a reasonably comprehensive approach to the subject. I needed a little more of the why of it, and a little less ad hoc explanation. (I sometimes had similar problems with undergraduate engineering courses.) That five-minute tangent is also providing a new appreciation for contortionism as I twist my fingers through sixty pages of mandolin chords. I don't expect to memorize them all, but it's great for limbering the digits and feeling out the constructions by ear and hand.

The frustrating thing on a mandolin is also one of the things that makes it simpler to play than an instrument where you can theoretically reach everything. With only four (pairs of) strings and only so many physically possible ways to wrench your knuckles, the number of chord voicings is limited. In almost every case, you're stuck playing an inversion, or for anything past the seventh degree, with a chunk of the middle cut out. I find both of these things to be a little maddening, because they can sound very different to my primitive ear, and the right voicing, in the right context, can be the difference between euphony and cacophony, even when you're plucking the same basic notes. I mean, how do you know? You could learn the half-dozen fingerings for each of the eighty-three motherfuckers I've had named to me so far, and there's still no guarantee you're a musician. There's more to knowing the tones and the shapes, more even than knowing when to use them. There's this business of the funky kinks: that killer intuition for what sounds right, and much as I think the book-learning can augment musicianship, build it up to dizzying levels in fact, it sure ain't the source of it.

There are a couple of keys on a mandolin that lend themselves to strumming with hardly any input from your fingers. On his blog, Claude Scales featured a musician a month or two ago, some pie-faced, but still rather handsome, chap (must be the hair) grooving out a Canadian folk tune in the key of G. He sings well in his style, but I'm hesitant to call anybody who's showing off something even I can pick up in half an hour as a mandolin player. What even took me that long is that I didn't immediately recognize the chord he sneaks in between the G and the C, the one that gives the song it's real character. It feels like an anticipatory lift, a ride over a swell just big enough to change the view for a moment before sinking back into the usual pattern, temporarily vertiginous, but well in control. It's exactly the thing that makes it feel like a sea chantey instead of the all the bluesy redneck versions of the same Island tunes, what puts it on the shores of Nova Scotia in fact, and not in the hills of Appalachia. The open (unfretted) chords lend to that feeling too, as does his non-percussive rhythm strumming. The sound flows instead of stomps. I doubt the Bard of Cornwall is a theory nut--based on his videos, he only seems to know four or five chords and play in one or two keys--and I doubt in my thick mando tome, I'll find a picture of the Gorton fisherman next to a chord progression with that major seventh in it. He hit that fret, I imagine, for no other reason than it felt right. I could read music theory all fucking day long and never make that leap.

It's not different in any field. The reason I remain a mediocre engineer or chemist (or whatever the hell it is I do) is that I don't find so much satisfaction from scratching the itch that it justifies the depths of scientific monomania. (My employers only make this worse.) It's too easy to yank the tension out of my internal geeky knot. I'm undoubtedly less musically inclined, but here I find it more rewarding. If you find one of those funky kinks, I guess the best thing you can do is stroke it, get the joy out of it you can.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

"Something I'll never be able to perfect"

Dig the initials.  Dig the shamrock.
It just says Keifus, 35-year old Hawaiian organ donor
For Christmas, my parents gave me a photo album documenting the process of creating the "Keifus" mandolin. I wish they had a better feel for those modern, digital, cameras, because the blurs and the thumbprints detract a little from the representation of the whole creative experience. As brilliant as the old man may be--and he is--it's still a little more comfortable to give up the goods (and the faces) behind the process to some tech-savvy strangers.

Here's one dude going through the closing steps of gluing the faces to the sides, doing the finish, and providing some requisite 21st century nattering. Enjoy...