Epistemology? We Don’t Need No Stinking Epistemology!

What is thought? We don’t really know. There are a lot of theories. There are a lot of assumptions. For instance, we assume that what we perceive with our senses have some grounding in an objective reality outside of ourselves. Further, we assume that there are other people, besides ourselves, that perceive the same objective reality with their senses.

But how does a network of electro-chemical reactions somehow emerge as the complex process that we label thinking. We can’t even agree upon what constitutes the base criteria for judging a process rational thought. In the past we chauvinistically maintained that only humans were capable of rational thought.

Recent experiments with animals from whales, through various primates, studies of dogs and cats, and even crows have demonstrated mental abilities that were once claimed as evidence of conscious intelligence and the exclusive domain of humans.

Alan Turing posed the functional test for intelligence. A person interrogates an entity through an electronic connection and asks them any questions that he likes. He then guesses whether he is talking with a person or a program solely on the basis of their answers. If the program consistently fools the interrogator, it is judged intelligent. By that measure, we have already produced programs that can pass the test.

And yet we still have no clear definition of intelligence and the program that occasionally passes the Turing test is only nominally intelligent. The lack of depth of its so called intelligence is eventually exposed.

So why am I asking these questions? I am trying to figure out why when I try to think, I just get frustrated but when I relax and go with the flow I write coherent, if not brilliant, blog posts. Is it a universal admonition to be here now? Is it evidence of something larger than ourselves? Or is it just a statistical expression of the fundamental laws of physics amortized over millennia of combination and recombination?

I guess I’ll climb out of my navel now. I really am interested in the answers to these questions. I’m not just asking them to seem like I think deep thoughts or anything like that. I think that coming to terms with some of the ramifications of such questions and their possible answers is part and parcel to becoming a good writer.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

According to Descartes I Am

I like self referential things. For instance, this morning I was thinking about thinking. I started out by describing how I think about something I want to write about. It turns out that writing about something is one of the best ways to think about it. It provides transparency. If you can get your thoughts on paper as you think them then you can review them after the fact. You can rearrange them so that they make more sense. You can catch errors and edit them out. And the best part is that you can do it without trying to keep everything in your head all at once.

But as I was thinking about these things it occurred to me to ask what the different types of thoughts are. That was a bigger question than I had anticipated. As I started making a catalog i discovered that there was a correspondence between items on my list and the senses. We use our senses to collect data about the world. We see, hear, touch, taste, and smell things and that is how we know what is going on around us.

My original thoughts were focused on language and writing. As I expanded my thinking to incorporate these other kinds of thoughts it became obvious that there was a lot of work to be done to make it as easy to manipulate thoughts about touch, taste, and smell as easily as we have made it to manipulate the written word and sound. Computers can be used to help provide that transparency but we will have to imagine how they can help and experiment with them to invent new tools.

It seems that we have used writing and drawing pictures to record our thoughts about most things for centuries. Only recently have we become able to record sound and play it back any time we want to hear it. Our ability to make video and film records of our world are also very recent. I suppose it might be argued that sculptors work in the realm of touch. But is that adequate to capture the range of ideas that can be expressed that way? How might we record smells and tastes?

There are many dimensions to these questions about thinking. Questions are the most important aspect of thinking. You have to ask lots of questions and keep asking until you stumble across the good ones. Don’t get sidetracked by trying to answer your questions too early. You might not get around to asking the really profound ones if you do.

Contemplating How We Create

Some days when I sit down to write, I just want to get my words down as quickly as possible so that I can get on with the things that I have planned for the day. Today, I am in less of a hurry. It is paradoxical that since I’m not in a hurry, I am able to express my thoughts more quickly and clearly than I usually can. I think it is, in part, giving myself permission to think about what I have to say. This may entail periodic pauses to think about the next thing that I want to say. So long as I don’t get lost in thought, that’s okay.

Actually, depending on whether or not I am productively daydreaming, it is even okay if I get lost in thought. Sometimes that’s how new ideas percolate up to the conscious level of our minds. We just have to carefully pay attention as it emerges. My ideas often come as snippets of images. I’m also very influenced by music and other sounds in my environment. I am sometimes distracted by them so there is a constant tension between inspiration and distraction. That is probably the case all of the time. Who is to say when a distraction may become the focus of the inspiration? It has happened to me as  often as not.

Being able to recognize those inspirations and experiment with them dynamically is what Brett is talking about in so many of his presentations. I want to use the tools that he demonstrates in his presentations. They illustrate an exciting approach to thinking about things. At one point Brett made a distinction between two styles of programming, engineering vs. authoring. I have always though of what I did as authoring.

I have always been concerned about writing programs that communicate with others. It is interesting that Brett is more concerned with building tools for people to communicate their ideas. It is a different approach to using the computer. He does have thoughts on how to program as well. It is a strange fractal idea, communicating ideas about the tools that you are using to communicate.

I’ve always felt that thinking was a fractal activity. I think that is why artificial intelligence is such a hard thing to achieve. I use the term artificial intelligence here with what I consider to be its typical connotation. Without the ability to think about the way you think and to modify the way you think dynamically, you aren’t really intelligent, are you?

I have experienced the pleasure of exploring a system interactively. It is patently obvious to people that approach programming from that direction that immediate reflection of the consequences of your changes is essential to productive development.

When you are creating, you often don’t really know where you are going with an idea. You start off in some direction and see what happens. The journey informs the destination. As you get to one place, the next place suggests itself. This happens whether you are writing a song or a novel, solving a packing problem or creating an algorithm to sort a multidimensional array.

Another aspect of creating is that it is rarely about manipulating symbols. Even writers work from inspiration that is something other than the words they write. They imagine something in terms of images or sounds or other sensations. They translate those experiences into words that attempt to communicate them to the reader. Words often fall short. Pictures are usually more expressive.

And then, there is the dynamic experience. It may be a picture that you can change by clicking on it or a song that you can affect by waving your hands in a particular way. There is often a computer involved but it isn’t absolutely necessary. A Rubic’s cube teaches you a lot about mechanical geometric transformations. A musical instrument teaches you a lot about music. These are all examples of dynamic media for creating dynamic experiences.

The main reason that we overlook the dynamic nature of computers is that we are stuck in a pen and paper mind set for solving problems and expressing the solutions. This is a truth that has been laying under the surface of my consciousness for decades and I  have only just been able to understand it, thanks to the work of Brett Victor. I need to reflect more on how to incorporate it into my daily work. I need to keep my eyes open for insights that will inform my choice of a principle to champion.

I haven’t said anything about that yet. It is probably best left to someone else who has discovered their principle to explain it. I just know that deep solutions are not focused on a particular problem but rather on how we go about solving all problems.

I sometimes think that the best of my blog posts are channeled instead of being written. I’m not sure where they come from but it is more like reading something that someone else is writing than writing it myself. This post has been an imperfect rehash of a lot of the ideas that I have learned from watching the Brett Victor videos online. It is interesting to note that although the principle that he walks away with is uniquely his own, many of the ideas that he bases his work on are from other visionary pioneers. He credits them in his work.

Professional Principles

I’ve been watching a lot of videos of presentations given by Brett Victor. This particular video was particularly inspiring. It helped me understand something about myself and my relationship with my work that I hadn’t been able to put my finger on before now. I realize that you may not have an hour to spend watching this video right now. If not, please consider bookmarking it and having a look at it later. I’ll try to give you a few clues as to why you might want to do that.

In this talk, Brett talks a lot about having a guiding principle that motivates  his work. Most of us just go to work and do the best we can to produce the work that is assigned to us. This is a valuable way to live your life but it leaves people like me unsatisfied. I want to create things. I want to discover new things that haven’t ever been discovered before. I want to change the way we do things for the better. This entails a lot more thinking and introspecting than just showing up and doing the work that is assigned to us the same way that it has been done by everyone else that has done it before.

Brett talks about his principle and gives examples of how he has modified the tools he uses to comply with his principle. He also gives an example of another person’s principle and how he worked to apply it and ended up changing the face of modern computing. I have a  yearning to do this kind of work. I’ve got a lot of introspection to do in order to figure out what the principle is that I want to champion.

Watch the video. Brett is much more eloquent than I am in explaining what he means and that will help you to understand my ramblings here a little bit better.

Where Have All the Statesmen Gone?

My daddy had a doctorate in rhetoric. He taught speech in high school. I learned much about the art of public speaking and persuasion from him. I was reviewing the article on Rhetoric on Wikipedia tonight. I was reminded of many of the mechanisms of persuasion, the syllogism, the enthymeme, ethos, pathos, and logos. These building blocks of public speaking have been taught to our public speakers and statesmen since before Aristotle wrote the book Rhetoric in ancient Greece.

When I was a boy, I could listen to the politicians of the day make speeches. I could read transcripts of their speeches in news papers and journals. I  haven’t heard any speeches lately. Our modern politicians speak in sound bites. They convince with one liners instead of well reasoned and crafted arguments. We don’t have a long enough attention span for that.

We used to have statesmen in this country. Individuals that served in the federal government because they felt it was their duty as citizens to represent their constituents and promote their interests and welfare. But somewhere along the line something changed. Now there are no statesmen. There are just self serving, greedy, puppets that do whatever their handlers tell them to.

It goes back to what I said about the eroding standards of education in a prior post. We want everything to be handed to us, predigested. We don’t want to think. We have been taught to regurgitate what we have been told. We don’t question whether it is the truth or not. Statesmen encouraged people to think about what they were saying. Our politicians just want to buy your vote with whatever empty promise they think will sway you.

I’m going to vote in the election this fall. But I sure miss the days of the statesmen. I guess that is the mark of growing older, missing the good old days of your youth. What will the youth of today miss when they grow older?

It’s Turtles, All the Way Down

I have a strange geography in my head that only has a cursory relationship to the actual geography of Paducah, Kentucky and its surrounding area. I walked the streets of Paducah so I have a direct sense of where things are and how far apart they are. I drove the roads of western Kentucky and southern Illinois so I have a relative sense of how far apart things are there. When those two gestalts get mixed you have a warped sense of distance.

I walked five and a half miles in Madison, Alabama last night. I walked down roads that I have driven for years. I have a new perspective on them now. It gives me the same kind of warped sense of distance that I was describing that I had of Paducah. It is born of the perception that, when you are driving in a car, it is an extension of your body. Even though it’s capabilities far exceed your own.

When I think of it, I have the same kind of warped perception of the rest of the world. It seems that the places that I haven’t been are compressed into near nothingness while the places that I have been are scaled according to how I have experienced them, whether on foot, by car, or by airplane.

That must be why they say that travel expands your mind. It has to grow to encompass the new geography that you have added to your experience. In a similar way, books add virtual geography to your mental landscape. I have to admit that the universe of Star Trek, Star Wars, and Dune are as real to me as this universe ever was.

Music occupies a strange geography comprised of a completely different set of dimensions. Instead of east, west, north, south, up, and down, music has dimensions of key, modality, pitch, tone, volume, and harmony. I’m sure I’ve overlooked some of them but they are just as tangible to me as the physical dimensions of geography.

By extension, I can imagine geographies of flavors and smells, of tactile dimensions, or of shape and color. But there is one mental geography that I travel in that may not be quite as universal. I also have a geography that inhabits my head. It is a geography of software.

This strange geography is composed of places with infinite layers of interpretation. It exists in my imagination and is built out of bits and bytes, addresses and registers, data buses and input/output ports. On top of those analogs of hardware constructs are abstractions like variables, queues, stacks, objects, dictionaries, and myriads of others. These pieces are cobbled together into active algorithms that are the machines that inhabit this strange mental geography.

We have problems with nomenclature in this strange geography of the mind. It is constructed out of abstractions that are intended to be metaphors for the real world phenomena that they represent. The difficulty arises when different people use the same metaphor to describe two different abstractions. Or just as confusing, use two different metaphors to describe the same abstraction.

The situation is made even worse by the fact that we have a penchant for bundling up a collection of abstractions and encapsulating it in an opaque black box that is embedded in other, higher level abstractions. As the programmer unwraps those black boxes to attempt to understand the system, the fractal nature of the system becomes clear. Each layer of abstraction is a universe in its own right.

Having realized this, I struggle to decide what to do with it. It informs my private conviction that the universe is quite likely a simulation that runs on some immense computer in a laboratory in some quiet corner of another simulated universe. This recursive embedding of simulation inside of simulation may go on indefinitely. There may not even be a reality as we conceive of it. We may all just be dreams within dreams of a disturbed super computer.

It makes as much sense to me as the other creation myths that we have been asked to accept on faith throughout the ages. In the final analysis I think that the best that we can do is to love each other and be kind to each other. The universe is whatever it is and is most definitely beyond our limited understanding. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t try to understand it as best we can. But we should be humble about our fundamental inability to comprehend its enormity and strangeness.

A Philosophical Ramble (tl;dr?)

I read a blog post that my friend Dave Winer wrote. (By the way, go read it or else this post won’t make much sense to you.) At least I consider him my friend. I don’t really know him. We haven’t sat down face to face and talked. But I feel like I know him. I have read his blog for fifteen or twenty years, it’s been long enough that I don’t remember exactly how long. I have benignly stalked him on the internet. I was curious to find out more about this person that wrote so engagingly and had so many interests similar to mind.

I discovered that we were almost the same age. His birthday is a month or so before mine. We grew up in the same era. He grew up in New York, Michigan, and Silicon Valley, as far as I’ve been able to determine from reading his writing and what the bibliographical information that I’ve been able to dig up on him says. On the other hand, I grew up in Paducah, KY, Carbondale, IL and Huntsville, AL. Even so, we apparently have many things in common, e.g. programming, liberal politics, and an interest in communications.

But I don’t really know him. I would like to know him better. But when you get right down to it, nobody ever really knows anyone. The best you can expect is that the people around you know some part of you. We tend to think that people are the same from moment to moment when actually we are constantly evolving, becoming someone else. The person that someone comes to know becomes someone else. Or do they?

I think, I am myself but the very concept of self is questionable. Am I, myself, the same person that I perceived myself to be ten minutes ago? How about an hour ago? A day, a week, a month? Who were all those people? What happened to them? Are they still a part of who I am now? If I forget something that happened to me, do I lose a part of myself? These are profound questions. If I struggle to know myself, how can I expect that anyone else can know me?

When someone writes a kind piece about the aspects of you that they remember, it is to be cherished. They are not eulogizing you. You are not dead yet. They are telling the things that they know about you, the things that you have shown them of the self you were when they knew you. I understand the desire to be known for who you have become. But does that mean you should deny who you have been?

By the way, Dave, I have been following your new work. I’ve been learning from you. I was as blown away by Electron as you were. Thanks for the tip. I was working on a single page web app written in Javascript that I moved over to Electron when I saw how easy it was to do. I haven’t followed your work as closely lately as I did for a while. But I’m back reading your posts daily now. I’m even blogging regularly myself.

I don’t know what my Facebook followers are going to thing about this post (both of them :-)). Maybe they’ll think a little bit about identity and friendship the way you have incited me to do. Thanks for your presence in the world, the work you do, and the part of you that I have come to know. I can hope for more but I will treasure all that you give us.

The Erosion of Educational Standards

The tone of this blog has always been conversational. It seems less pretentious to structure the posts like a conversation, albeit one sided, rather than use the stilted formalism that is advocated by most English teachers. It is not that they are wrong; learning to write within traditional formal constraints is good discipline. At one time, it sent the message that the author was educated.

These days it seems that most writers, particularly technical writers, paid little attention in English class. Or maybe it can be explained by a process of slowly eroding standards. Each new generation of teachers held their students to a more lax standard than that to which they were held.

Another factor is the lack of respect that English receives in the public school system. Science, math, history, all seem to have more direct relevance to success in a modern world that values technological prowess over rhetorical skills. You get the behavior that you reward.

When my grandfather was a teacher back in the first half of the twentieth century, he advocated teaching to mastery. In other words, the student did not move on to new material until they completely mastered the material at hand. There were no such thing as “social” promotions. This resulted in extremely well educated students.

Somewhere along the line, we decided that everyone that puts in the time should be able to get a diploma. This is a bad idea. It cheapens the achievement of those who work hard and master the curriculum to relax our standards and certify those who haven’t earned it. It engenders an attitude of entitlement.

It is also a bad idea for another reason. It has reduced the stature of American secondary education. Students from other countries are still held to traditional academic standards. Consequently, they out perform American students on standardized tests. This isn’t an indictment of the American students’ abilities, rather an indication that they were never challenged to meet their potential. My dad often said, “Always expect the best from your students and they will rarely disappoint you.”

The third and most important factor in the decline of American secondary education is that we refuse to pay for quality educators. Our teachers are so poorly paid that most of the teachers that we end up with are those that can’t get a better paying job in industry. There are some teachers that teach for the love of teaching; those whose salary is a second income or that are independently wealthy. But it is hard to make a living as a secondary teacher most places in America. We are trusting these people with our children. Why aren’t they the best paid professionals in our society?

There has been a movement to hold educators accountable for the education of our children. While I agree with the concept I think it has been poorly thought out and executed. By putting the emphasis on performance on standardized tests, we are forcing teachers to teach students to pass the standardized tests rather than to master the material. By threatening teachers with penalties including loss of their jobs if the students don’t pass the standardized tests we are creating fearful school environments that are actually detrimental to learning.

If we want to reclaim our world supremacy, we must start by paying the right kind of attention to our public school system. Better pay for teachers, less emphasis on numbers, more emphasis on qualitative analysis of student achievements are all part of this right kind of attention.

The Beginning of a Series of Opinionated Posts

One of the philosophical principals underlying Ruby on Rails is that software should be opinionated. I have been thinking about what that means a lot lately and have decided that being opinionated is a good trait in general. I have decided that I will be opinionated and share my opinions with anyone who will listen. In particular, I will share my opinions here.

I have concluded that software engineering is at best a misnomer and at worst a detriment to the development of quality software. Engineering is a philosophy of creating physical artifacts that has been developed empirically for the last two or three centuries. Software is not a physical artifact.

When I have a physical artifact and I give it to you I no longer have the artifact. When I have a piece of software and I give it to you, I still have it. Your having it doesn’t reduce the utility of my having it. When I design a physical artifact, I want to get all the details right before I build it because materials are expensive. When I design software, the easiest way to figure out the details is to create a prototype and then iteratively improve it until it is right.

The point being that building multiple versions doesn’t incur large material costs. These are only two of many reasons that software development is very different from the process we know as engineering. Calling Software Development Software Engineering raises inappropriate expectation in those that don’t understand Software Development.

I’ll rant on this topic more later but I’m going to call it a night right now.

Musings on Quo Vadis

I’ve been thinking a lot lately. With the current state of my bank account, thinking is a very inexpensive pastime. I’ve reached a point where I know quite a lot about myself, my profession and living in general. What I’m still trying to come to terms with is translating what I know into action. I’ve also had problems reconciling what I know with what I feel. My psychologist tells me that is because the limbic system takes much longer to achieve stability than the frontal cortex does. This means when you’re angry, you stay angry long after you’ve resolved the issues that made you angry in the first place. I suppose there was probably some kind of survival benefit of this at one time but it doesn’t seem to be nearly as useful in the modern world.

I am approaching a time when I can take early retirement from my job and draw a pension large enough to pay most of my bills. I’m too young, IMHO, to consider really retiring, as in quitting work and living the life of Riley. I don’t think I’ll ever really want to retire in that sense. Instead, I am considering what I want to do now that salary is not a major consideration. I have been thinking about what I enjoy doing most as well as what I can contribute to the world. I still haven’t achieved my initial goal of financial independence. I really don’t want to be rich. I just want to have enough money so that money is not hampering me from doing whatever it is I want to do. Perhaps that is at the core of why I am not financially independent yet :-).

Whatever I decide to do, I have this gut feeling that blogging is going to be part of it. Blogging is a way of getting your thoughts out where you can see them and doing it in a public forum helps keep you honest with yourself. I need to get in the habit of writing something here every day. It doesn’t have to be big, just regular.