log (1999/11/19 to 1999/11/25)

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Thursday, November 25, 1999

Thanksgiving was great (I'm writing this on Friday morning). All the cooking went well, we all ate too much and talked about what we had to be thankful for, and I didn't touch a computer all day except to reinstall AOL 5.0 several times, until it finally worked well enough for the little daughter to check her e-mail.

Wednesday, November 24, 1999

This "Something Interesting" went over well with the little daughter last night:

To have reached you, Miss Chess, this message has travelled half way around the world from the UK, been recycled possibly hundreds of times and finally told to you by your Dad. Its initial journey to him probably took about ten seconds which makes it much faster than I can think about. It still amazes me, anyhow.
It got a very big smile! Thanks to the sender. There are a few more queued up that I may be able to use (although she already knows so much stuff). And you can still send me more!

"I don't want a compact box of translucent plastic. I want a big, evil-looking, orange floating head." Me, too! Somebody, quoted in this posting to alt.culture.cyber-psychos.

CERT writeup of the latest in net-badguy technology: Distributed Denial-of-Service Networks.

Finished Tim Berners-Lee's Weaving the Web, and posted this to Amazon:

Such a nice guy (four stars)

"Weaving the Web" gives the overwhelming impression that Tim Berners-Lee is basically a Regular Guy who was in exactly the right place at the right time. He comes across as a relentlessly enlightened person, beneficent toward all, earnest to the point of humorlessness.

The book tells the story of the past and present of the Web, and Berners-Lee's ideas about the future, at a very high level. It's not a Techie's History of the Web; there are a few annoying technical gaffes, and not much about the bits and bytes. I was surprised to read some non-technical reviewers opine that it was *too* technical. No pleasing everyone, I guess!

I'm not convinced by Berners-Lee's idea that, if only we hook everything together well enough, we will then be able to make computers that understand, that reason, that figure stuff out for us. I think the hooking-together is the easy part, and we'll still be far from real understanding. On the other hand, maybe I would have been a skeptic back in 1989, too, when he was telling people about this crazy thing called the World Wide Web... *8)

Amazon tells me that zero people have found my reviews useful, and two have not. Hmph! "Small n" I say. Also "sour grapes". Amazon is aiming for an epinions-style reviewer-evaluation system, looks like. But what if some of us get huffy and go away? *8)

Undaunted by my 0-and-2 record, and by the 184 people who got there before me, I also posted this review of Brave New World:

Essential (five stars)

Critiquing Brave New World is like a fish critiquing water. Everyone must of course read it, everyone should of course own it. Ironically enough, this book is one of the major things that serve to condition our own Alphas.

OK, so it's sort of cutesy. I couldn't resist!

Jaron Lanier on zombies: read the essay here. I dug this up while we were sitting around yesterday afternoon trying to figure out the nature of consciousness (see my rant the other day about the feller who failed to get it in SciAm).

It's funny and makes some very telling points, but at the same time it's frustrating, because it's not clear exactly who Lanier's making fun of. He can't really be saying that anyone who isn't a Vitalist, anyone who thinks that consciousness can exist in something not made of these particular carbon compounds, is automatically a zombie without any internal subjective experience? But he seems to be saying that in some places.

The essay makes the most sense, I think, if you read it primarily as an attack against a particular strong claim about computers being uniquely able to embody consciousness (i.e. that consciousness can occur only in people and in computers). I can imagine various futurians and post-humanists carelessly saying stuff like that, but IMHO it's not worth the effort he puts into rebutting it. Fortunately, various points he makes along the way are interesting and/or memorable.

On my own favorite theory, that any bit of the world that is sufficiently complex has a consciousness associated with it, he gives a pretty good statement of it, but then dismisses it as too odd:

If computation gives rise to consciousness according to Chalmers' scheme, then each emerged consciousness would in fact carry with it an infinite swarm of consciousnesses that contained it, or almost contained it. All sense of discreteness and locality for consciousness is lost if it is only a byproduct of computation and computation is ubiquitous. Hypothesizing an infinite cloud of slightly differ consciousnesses floating around each person seems like an ultimately severe violation of Occam's razor.
But Occam's razor just says not to multiply entities beyond necessity. Since we seem to have no other better theory that has fewer entities, it doesn't really apply here. Lanier thinks he does have a better theory, but I frankly can't make head nor tail of his "qualia dial" theory (or metaphor, or poem, or whatever it is), and I'd love to hear from anyone that understands it.

Lanier's essay ignores one big challenge for any vitalist: in the "brain is gradually replaced by other stuff with the same information-processing behavior" thought experiment, at what point does he think his consciousness would go away, and why? Not having a good answer to that leads me pretty inevitably to the "infinite hordes of consciousnesses" theory. But then, I like the Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum physics also.   *8)

Tuesday, November 23, 1999

We just figured out Blue's Clues,
We just figured out Blue's Clues,
We just figured out Blue's Clues,
Because we're really smart!!

The first reader suggestion from yesterday's toy was Cat Power's What Would the Community Think. So I went to Amazon, looked it up, read the reviews, listened to a couple of low-fi streaming samples, liked it, and ploink it was in my shopping cart. Gad, what planet are we on, anyway?

I told the little daughter about it as her Interesting Thing for last night, and she thought it was neat. Of course if she reads this when she's like seventeen she'll think it was awfully primitive. "Why would you have to wait for two days for the music to come? Couldn't you just download it?" (I'm assuming that little details like copyright protection will get worked out.)

What else would she say, eight years from now, looking back on this page? "All that text with no semantic markup at all? How did you find anything?!" (Almost done with Tim Berners-Lee's "Weaving the Web"; review to follow sometime.)

Wired continues to be irritating, most likely on purpose. (7.12) has a list of 100 things that we won't need in the 2000's. Some are reasonable, but some are just silly. What does Tim Cavanaugh expect us to replace Usenet with in the next month and a half? eGroups, maybe? And I'd love to see us do better than the Space Shuttle, but I don't see it happening real real soon. Maybe he just means "sometime in the next thousand years"; I'll buy that.

Speaking of the Shuttle, the Chinese space program is heating up; see this fan site in GeoCities for the latest news.

Fark is a fun group weblog that I don't think I've ever mentioned. The emphasis is on strange or stupid or silly stuff from the mass media (for instance, this doggy-fashion story from CNN), along with more mundane links. This morning it has a pointer to Microsoft Monopoly, the Board Game, but aparently so does everyone else, as that site is way slow.

Weblog Watch: "blogs aren't such a big deal" rant on stating the obvious. Via GeneHack, via larkfarm's blog list. Such a lot of smart people there are in the world! It gives one hope.

Speaking of smart (heh heh), having to think of something brief and interesting to tell a bright nine-year-old every night can be challenging! So I thought I'd appeal to the community: give me something short enough not to delay bedtime, novel enough that she won't already know it, and pitched at a level that she'll understand and find cool:

My brain thanks you!

The FBI wiretap thing continues; last Thursday, EPIC, the ACLU, and the EFF asked a federal appeals court to block CALEA (the "phones must be designed for tapping" law). Here is EPIC's copy of the press release.

And finally a funny (large) thing cited on devnull's "HTML o' the Day" (which I wish I could give you a link for, but I have only the foggiest idea where I get it from). "Let's open a dialog on this project, so I can download your status!"

Monday, November 22, 1999

The net (or at least DHCP) is down in the office this morning (the Help Desk says it should be fixed soon), so I have a chance to reflect on just how dependant on the silly thing I've (we've) become. I keep thinking "well, I could --", and then realizing that I can't, because it either obviously or subtly involves the Net.

I can still play music, but that's only because I still use primitive physical CDs for my music. I can still read an O'Reilly book, but it's annoyingly static compared to the online equivalent. I could read fiction, of course, but that's not strictly-speaking what I'm paid for. I can work on locally-stored mail, but I'm reluctant to reply to anything (to, that is, compose a reply to be sent once the net is fixed), since I won't have read any traffic for the previous 24 hours or so, and my reply might be useless because based on information that's out of date.

I can tell you that I'm listening to "Jagged Little Pill", but I can't give you the Amazon link, because I can't get to Amazon to look it up!

Recent surveys indicate that readers of this log like to type odd things into text fields. Experts find this encouraging! You sent in, for instance, one very apposite reference to Prometheus, a couple of Scotch pines, and a brief and very cogent essay on how annoying it is when portals fill up their pages with so much "cack" (great word) that you can't find the stuff you want. Deja.com (which was called DejaNews back when it had a clean interface) is indeed the classic example of this. People do love to be asked their opinions, but not (I suspect) when they're busy trying to do something else.

Well, the network is back, and I'm enjoying Cornershop through the speakers that I went out and bought for half price at Topps next door while waiting for it. So maybe today you can

Oh, and for the reader who asked if I'm going to publish the results of these surveys, the answer is definitely "sort of"! As I'm sure will become apparent...

Sunday, November 21, 1999

NPR the other night mentioned in passing that (because of their numbers and buying power) young teenage girls run the world economy. It's them Orbital Mind Control Lasers stealing my ideas again!

I notice a theme running through some of my rants this week; something about how you can't use the language of a substrate to work on things that live on top of the substrate. You can't do biology by looking at the properties of atoms, even though living systems are made of atoms. You can't do ethics by just talking about physiology, even though people are biological systems. You can't find out about memes by looking just at neurons, even though memes are hosted in brains made of neurons. You can't explain consciousness through a "neural specification", even though consciousness is implemented in neurons.

That is to say, boringly enough, that some properties are for whatever reason emergent, at least in the practical sense that you can't feasibly work on the higher level in the language of the lower level. (I have no opinion this morning about the question of whether or not it's possible in principle.) This doesn't seem like a really deep or controversial point, but people seem to overlook it, and to say silly things as a result.

I woke up an hour early this morning, and used that lovely quiet alone time to work on random stuff. I got basic CGI scripting running in my local HTTP server, so now I can test CGI scripts even when I'm not connected. The CGI support's a real hack, but that's OK since it's just for me. Here, you can admire some of it:

sub runcgi {
  my ($request,$query,$scriptname,$outname) = @_;
  my $formdata = get_http_form_content($request);
  my %oldenv = %ENV;

  %ENV = ();
  $ENV{PATH} = $oldenv{PATH};
  $ENV{REMOTE_HOST} = "example.com";
  $ENV{QUERY_STRING} = $query;

  open SCRIPT, "| perl $scriptname >$outname" or return;
  print SCRIPT $formdata;
  close SCRIPT;

  %ENV = %oldenv;
Trivial, eh? It's fun to be able to run WordURL in the browser, while staying entirely on the local machine. Today it suggests BinocularPhantom.com; I wonder if that's taken yet?

Found and fixed a small bug in glog while I was at it.

Heavens, almost Thanksgiving! I'm off to help work on the shopping list. No survey today; our team of experts is still analyzing the results of the last two...

Saturday, November 20, 1999

Thanks to everyone who sent in their words via yesterday's toy! And for the rest of you, there's still time; don't miss out!!   *8)

Do you like micro-surveys embedded in logs?
John Malkovich / Mariah Carey

People who don't quite get it: in the December 1999 Scientific American, feller name of Antonio Damasio fails to understand why some of us consider the problem of consciousness to be inherently difficult.

He almost gets it right when he says that for us, "detailed observation of living matter... leads not to mind but simply to the details of living matter." But then he attempts to refute this by pointing out that in the future we may have really detailed descriptions of living matter.

The appearance of a gulf between mental states and physical/biological phenomena comes from the large disparity between... the good understanding of mind we have acheived through centuries of introspection... versus the incomplete neural specification we have acheived through the efforts of neuroscience. But there is no reason to expect that neurobiology cannot bridge the gulf.
Sure there is! Even if we had a complete "neural specification", that specification would be irrelevant to understanding how a bunch of atoms behaving according to that specification results in this, this blooming buzzing subjective universe in which I (and, I generously presume, you) constantly swim.

It's not at all clear that neurobiology, however thorough and detailed, can ever tell us anything about that question. Damasio himself shows off a bunch of recent neurobiological results, having to do with localizing various brain functions and finding that the brain contains at least two different meta-levels of self-representation, that very nicely illustrate how interesting facts about atoms can fail to tell us anything at all about consciousness.

When Damasio proudly proclaims that "the brain possesses devices within its structure that are designed to manage the life of the organism in such a way that the internal chemical balances indispensable for survival are maintained at all times", this is a very nice discovery about how living matter works; but what could it possibly tell us about consciousness, about this, about the nature of the subjective?

It's possible, of course, that I'm reading Damasio too superficially, or that the length-limitations of a SciAm article prevented him from getting into the really nitty-gritty stuff. He's apparently written a book, "The Feeling of What Happens", about this subject; I should probably read it. Or just skim through it in Barnes & Noble... *8)

Friday, November 19, 1999

Another week, another chunk of log for the archives. How the time does fly, flutter flutter flutter flutter! (Excuse me, I seem to be a bit fey this morning.)

I keep discovering new Weblogs and journals that are worth a second look. I think I will eventually split out the list of links from the "About the Log" page into a page of its own. It could have a list of other Weblogs, a list of other lists of Weblogs, and probably even a list of other lists of lists of Weblogs! Wouldn't that be useful, though?!

Disaster! Seems that American Science and Surplus (Great Stuff; Unbelievable Prices) has a Website that you can order from. My wallet is in more trouble every day! American S & S is sort of a cross between Edmund Scientific (the old plain-paper version), and Archie McPhee (if you don't know Archie McPhee, click on that link at once). Ah well, it can't be worse than Amazon; nothing could be worse than Amazon...

Genetically-modified foods: Heard a story on NPR this morning on the subject. (Here's a pro link and a con link; both are massively biased.) Technology is generally a good thing; I approve of people finding out how to do stuff, and then doing it. We mess up sometimes, of course, but in general we all end up better off. I think that genetic engineering is definitely something we're going to do, and do in a Big Way, in the not-too-distant future, and that it'll be a big net win for all concerned.

On the other hand, I think the nay-sayers and critics serve a valuable function. They introduce some friction and damping into the system, and slow things down. This is good, because change that happens too fast is dangerous. This insight puts me in an awkward position. *8) While I think that many of the anti-genetic-modification people are wrong about their specific claims and fears, and I think that they tend to play in undesirable ways on the irrational neophobias of the general public, I also think it's good that we have them. Perhaps there's some better way to damp down change, that doesn't involve being wrong and appealing to irrationality. I'll have to think about that.

I really like Geegaw's little one-line "tell me something" toy, so I did one for this page:

G'wan, show me that you exist! *8)


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