2010 10 20

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Contents

Feature Cast for 2010-10-20

(00:00:17.866) Intro

  • Apologies for missing the news cast this past Sunday
    • My volunteer efforts went well
    • I also managed to get some work done while at the Archives and after
    • Right now, I am all caught up on writing for the show
    • I've recorded one feature ahead, an interview
    • The questions I asked of Rudy Rucker were put together
      • As part of this weekend's writing work
  • Thanks to Wild Biker and James M. for donations this past week
  • CopyNight DC is next week, Tuesday the 26th

(00:02:43.780) Listener Feedback

  • From Jed on Singularity, post-peak oil technology and hacker fitness

(00:09:25.914) Hacker Word of the Week: firehose syndrome

(00:10:08.361) Review: Out of Control

  • Cory Doctorow suggested I read "Out of Control" when we first met
    • I have a deep and abiding fascination with emergent complexity
    • Working with my first personal computer
      • I quickly reached the limit of what I could program directly
    • Especially with a language like BASIC
      • You had to pretty explicitly add everything into a program
        • That you wanted it to do
    • It lacked the capabilities to support dynamic programming
    • Even so, I started to wonder what it would take
      • For a program to extend itself
      • Or how to push the computer beyond these seeming limits
    • When I first started reading about complexity and emergence
      • It felt like a long missing puzzle piece fell into place
    • Here was an answer to how a computer could possibly grow
      • Beyond the data and instructions a programmer give to it
    • At some point we must have touched on the topic
      • And he recommended I check out the work by Kevin Kelly
    • http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0201483408?ie=UTF8&tag=thecommandl0a-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0201483408
    • I hadn't really read anything on the topic in a while
      • And I really wished I had pursued his suggestion much sooner
    • Kevin Kelly is the founder of Wired
      • And former editor and publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog
    • Clearly when he dives into a topic to satisfy his curiosity
      • He gives into his interest completely
    • Not only is this book immense but it covers a staggering variety of topics
    • Towards the end, he explains his motivation for writing it
    • He would pose a question, do the research to find answers
      • Then sit down to write as much of the book as he could
      • Until he ran into some other question for which he didn't have an answer
    • Don't be fooled as the book is nowhere near as rambling as that description suggests
    • As eclectic as the chapters are, he manages to tie them together quite well
    • Investigating how the organic and the mechanical may fuse
      • Hybridizing how each kind of system arises, grows and changes
        • Not surprisingly leads him through
          • Robotics, economics, evolution, biology, computer science and more
    • He never loses the common thread that he is trying to tease out
    • Quite wonderfully, he even refines his ideas about emergent, bottom up control
      • And defines some key concepts to help us not only understand
        • The systems he is ultimately interested in but illuminating historical antecedents
  • The book is accessible but very long
    • It tops out at just over 400 pages plus a hefty sheaf of notes
    • I wasn't sure I wanted to buy a copy
      • So I went ahead and checked it out of our local library
    • I had to renew the book repeatedly to finish it
    • The book isn't a slow read and normally I cruise through books
    • The ideas just took some time to digest and there were plenty of them
    • There are twenty four chapters but no overarching organization, really
    • A few of the chapters do tend to build on each other
    • Early on he moves from biospheres through ecologies into economics
    • Some of the chapters flow pretty well one into the next like this
    • At other points the shifts between chapters are a little more abrupt
    • The biggest pause is his consideration of the library of form
    • He even tells a little tale of how he is behind in his writing of the book
    • That becomes an excuse, at least in the narrative, to indulge
      • In an exploration of the combinatorial and the infinite
    • He takes an inspiration from Jorge Borges
    • Borges was an Argentine writer, essayist and poet born at the turn of the 2th century
    • He clearly was a sort of patron saint for Kelly's work
    • Much of Borges work dealt with chaos and complexity
    • A fictional Kelly visits a library of the infinite Borges described in his writing
    • Therein he discusses the nature of infinite combinations in a very hands on way
    • As Kelly peruses the shelves, we see how much nonsense fills this library of forms
      • And how it defies our attempts to easily find traces of meaning
    • All the same, Kelly does manage to theorize a way to honing in on meaning
      • And returns to that sort of optimistic thinking in later chapters
    • His example very strongly reminded me of some of my reading and discussion
      • On information theory dating from I worked for a small firm
        • Trying to develop novel forms of data compression
    • Meaning, chaos, and information entropy are all closely interrelated
    • Algorithms and short cuts for being able to make use out of seeming nonsense
      • Often tease us by suggesting how they may be applied to other complex systems
    • Kelly does a good job of not giving into that urge too deeply
    • Probably because this interlude is halfway through the book
      • There are many examples in the preceding chapters
        • About how complex systems have defied the intuitions of well informed experts
  • BREAK
  • He talks to an amazing variety of people across seemingly unrelated fields
    • Each is really working on some aspect of the same underlying thing
    • Survival Research Labs builds robots to push the boundaries
      • Between what is controlled and autonomous
    • Here autonomy isn't just executing some well defined task on its own either
    • Belching fire and flinging scrap around, Kelly's description
      • Really evokes a life in these rehabilitated robots
    • The various biological projects, from re-seeding native flora
      • To the space age experiment of Biosphere 2
      • Delve into the role of internal control, cybernetic feedback
    • It seems odd to use that term when discussing the biological
      • But Kelly does an excellent job first pinning down
      • How simple feedback works, just in a mechanical sense
    • He goes all the way back to classics
      • To the invention of mechanical governors and valves
    • It is important to realize how self regulation was a leap forward
    • Even basic time keeping was impossible before these early inventions
    • Have reliable clocks fed forward into any number of future control systems
    • Through the following, various chapters on evolution, especially co-evolution
      • He teases out how the concept of cybernetics
        • Really applies much more broadly than we might think
    • I think most of us are crippled by the popular image
      • Of cybernetics involve implanting electronics in living beings
    • That kind of experimentation has been posited in the field
      • But what is more important is understanding why
    • It isn't that the device does the heavy lifting
      • Like the super powered limbs or senses of The Bionic Man
    • The idea is that by providing explicit feedback on work efforts
      • That users of cybernetic tools could self adapt to realize improvements
    • Here is where we also see the intersection of control and complexity
    • From about the middle of the book onward
      • Kelly deals with multidimensional, hard to predict systems
    • Even the closed systems, like Biosphere 2, demonstrate a surprising degree
      • Of unpredictability
    • Biosphere 2 was an experiment in enclosing a sizable piece of real estate
      • And investing into it enough interconnected life
      • To see how it would operate complete disconnected from Biosphere 1, or Earth
    • For most of those systems, a homeostasis, or steady state, is critical
    • Explicit, central control becomes impossible
      • Because there is no way to know enough about the whole system
    • Instead, it becomes key to find those loops
      • That enable the system to hone in on equilibria all by itself
  • The book pushes even further into the made, the artificial
    • This might seem like an odd departure, to consider the wholly synthetic
      • After spending chapters on the biological
    • It highlights the progress, for one, that some are making
      • On installing bottom up, emergent qualities to made things
    • Especially when talking about simulations
      • He also explains how this allows for a more comprehensive study
    • Not surprisingly, the first real discussion of computer models
      • Starts with artificial evolution, then leads into artificial life
    • Some of the variables that make studying real vivisystems difficult
      • Can be dropped out or approximated
    • Part of what is so astonishing about these entirely virtual systems
      • Is how much they still reflect the complexities of the real thing
    • There is a foreshadowing of this in his mention of the ecospheres
      • Scaled down and simplified vivisystems that he mentions
        • On the way to looking at the large scale, ambitious Biosphere 2
    • This is the section of the book that dove tails with the library of form
    • Contemplating computer programs, it is easier to discuss
      • How combinations and permutations for easily and rapidly arise
    • The fuzziness of real, living systems may obscure that core quality
      • Though all such systems share the potential for exponential diversity
    • Especially in looking at artificial life, he pulls out some ideas
      • On why vivisystems don't spin out into sheer chaos
    • The cybernetic feedback loop comes back into the discussion
      • But in service of disposing an evolving system towards more evolution
    • He distills out several other properties of interest
    • In discussing predictions against complex, real systems
      • I think he reveals a startling insight into the limits of prediction
    • Namely that in small enough scopes, self similarity reins
      • But as spaces expand, that's where unexpected change not only arises
      • But rules the order of the day
  • BREAK
  • Kelly clearly wrote the book he wanted to read
    • It does an excellent job of picking up the threads of complexity
    • The title, "Out of Control", gives his room to push the ideas even further
    • He re-visits some of the work from Waldrop's book
      • Talking to a few of the same people, like Stuart Kaufman
    • But he ranges considerably further afield
    • That breadth may make the book much more accessible, too
    • My own interests arise from the field of computers
      • But he doesn't limit himself
    • In many cases, as I've highlighted, where he does touch on computers
      • They are a means of exploring the larger topic
      • Rather than an end in and of themselves
    • He ends with a bit of a lament, however
    • We still lack an accepted and empirical measure of complexity
    • That both surprises me and does not
    • The very nature of complexity would seem to defy measurement
      • Arising from the interaction of information loss and hiding
      • At a different scales of scrutiny
    • That is a notion that Waldrop does a better job explaining
    • His basis, though, is thermodynamics which is useful for degree
      • But maybe doesn't speak as effectively to the kinds of complexity
      • Nor to how exactly surprising properties actually emergent from chaos
    • Kelly suggests that Artificial intelligence drained off many of the leading lights
      • Who might have otherwise helped advance the study of pure complexity
    • Danny Hillis, of Thinking Machines, for instance, has moved on to the semantic web
    • There certainly seems to be less popular attention to genetic algorithms
      • And no clear field of actual applications
    • I found this doubly surprising now given the movement to parallel computers
      • Currently taking place amongst personal computers
    • The kind of specialized hardware that used to be required
      • Is now being produced, to a lesser degree, as standard chips from Intel
    • I suppose the gap makes some sense but also wonder if it simply
      • Is an incredibly hard challenge defying study
    • Kelly's final though is to go beyond just identifying gaps
      • And nicely summarize what it is he learned in considering this question
      • Of building out of control, distributed, bottom up systems
  • I feel my investment in time was well spent
    • Kelly's book, released in 1994, makes me wish I had read it
      • Much closer to when I finished Waldrop's book
    • It also has re-ignited my interest
      • Enough to seek out what other books are out there
      • And see if the current picture, sixteen years later, is as bleak as he leaves things
    • My appreciation for the one book on the topic has also been deepened
    • The Lifebox, the Seashell and the Soul by Rudy Rucker
      • Is the only title on the subject of complexity I've read between the two
    • Rucker's book focuses much more on computation
      • And brings in complexity to help reach his synthesis
    • Namely that while the universe may be computable, deterministic
      • The deep complexity, or gnarl, prevents us from making easy predictions
    • I also think it may finally be time for me to pick up GEB again
    • Douglas Hofstadter's book is incredibly challenging
      • Both narratively and in terms of how deep he delves into the subject
    • It is absolutely a classic in the field of complexity
    • If any of you have suggestions for further reading
      • Please do let me know as I really enjoy the topic
      • And expect it is one I can keep re-visiting as I find more resources

(00:25:42.465) Outro

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