Notes from the Undermind

A collection of random ricochets around the pinball machine of my mind. Keep your eye on the ball ...

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I am the original Speaker to Managers, having earned the title working for Tektronix, Inc. in the 1980's and '90s. Accept no substitutes. I also worked for GemStone Systems, and am a member in good standing of the ex-GemStone Association.

I'm recently retired, and spending my time trying to decide how to spend my time. It will probably turn out to be some mix of photography, making mathematical art, and writing science fiction. Previously I was a professional software engineer, amateur photographer, and occasional poet and artist. I've been a soldier, a peace-marcher, an assembly-line worker, a video studio technician, and an apprentice integrated circuit designer. I've worked in a medical school, a large electronics company, and several high-tech startups. I've raised dogs and children (no success at all with tropical fish). I've never been a short order cook, but I was a lunch counter attendant for a day. I'm politically Left, technically Object-Oriented, religiously idiosyncratic, and geographically Left Coast. I know where the bodies are buried.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Well, maybe not. That's the question I wanted to talk about today: are there aliens or aren't there? And why do I care? Now, I'm not going to get into flying saucers and Grays, Men in Black (does anyone remember that they started as androids sent out by the Venusians?), abductions, or any of the rest of the tabloid fluff. I'm in the middle of reading an excellent book called "What Does a Martian Look Like?" by Jack Cohen, a reproductive biologist (yeah, he's got kids, but that's not what it means ...), and Ian Stewart, a mathematician. The book brings up all kinds of interesting questions about whether there is life on other worlds in the universe, whether some of that life is intelligent, and whether some of that intelligent life has developed technological civilization.

But the book explicitly doesn't ask whether any of that life looks like us, or acts or thinks like us. That's so unlikely that it's not worth worrying about. There are a lot of people, scientists included, who don't see the strength of the arguments in this book. Some think that life must be very improbable, perhaps so much so, that life on Earth is alone in the universe. Others think that there might be other life, but that, by definition, "life" must mean carbon-based oxygen/water metabolism with replication provided by DNA.

Cohen and Stewart don't agree with these views, which they call "parochial". I agree with them, for a lot of reasons, most of which are scientific. But I'm glad there's some reason on our side, because I want there to be other life in the universe, and I want some of it to be intellligent, and even technic. And that's what I want to talk about today.

Why does the existence of life matter to me? Part of the reason is esthetic: I just think the universe is more interesting place if it has lots of varieties of life in it. Part of it is a hope that I'll get to meet an alien, unlikely as that may be. It really doesn't take a great deal of imagination to realize that what we as humans perceive of the universe is a small part of what's out there, and I want to ask somebody else what they perceive.

Maybe most of all, it would be good to know we're not alone. The universe seems to be a vast and impersonal place; the more life there is, the less impersonal it may actually be.

Friday, June 24, 2005

There's another reason to blog.

It's really more important to me than the others I mentioned in my initial post. Blogging at its best is a form of essay-writing, and that is one of the hardest forms of writing to do well. Writing a mediocre or uninteresting essay is easy; just look at the op-ed page of any newspaper. But writing an essay that draws the reader in, convinces her of the importance of the topic, and leaves the reader thinking about the essay afterward, well that's a lot harder. So I'm going to think of my blogging as practice in writing essays. Maybe I'll get good at it.

When I think of great essayists I think most often of people who are considered popularizers in some sense or other. Loren Eiseley, for instance, who introduced at least two generations of readers to the notions of Deep Time and the fossil record. He brought romance to the manual labor of digging, by telling us of what we might find, and how we might feel about it. And there was Stephen J. Gould, more acerbic than romantic, more interested in baseball than camping out, I suspect, but still trying to give us a feeling of wonder at the way the world is constructed. One of the key attributes of great essay writing, though, is brevity, which eliminates a lot of otherwise-admirable writers who excel at longer distance but fail in the sprint. I'm thinking here of Carl Sagan, and George Dyson as examples.

Of course, there's one writer that everyone thinks of as the essayist's essayist, because he quite literally wrote the book on the subject, and that's E. B. White. Wrote some good kid's books too.

The program, then, is to try to emulate White, and Gould, and Eiseley, and see what comes out. There is a potential downside, of course, that the kind of more formal language I'm talking about using won't be appealing to 21st Century blog-readers, and so no one will read my blog more than once. But that's where the ego comes in ... if I didn't have it, I wouldn't be up here dancing.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Why a blog? Same reason as anyone else, I suppose. Take one part ego-boost, one part the urge to proselytize, and three parts white night with nothing else interesting going on. I'm curious to see if I keep up posting; I started a series of journals on my laptop last year, and have been extremely bad about posting in them. It's an old story; I was always behind in putting entries into my lab notebooks in school, and now I'm always behind entering project notes at work.

But it's worth a try. For one thing, I have a lot of interests, and want to see if anyone else shares some of the more esoteric ones. I know just from reading the journals and doing an occasional Google that there is a reasonably large community interested in self-organizing systems, and another in quantum computers, and there are even a few who discuss experimental animation and formal system approaches to art, but is there anyone out there who cares about the philosophy of film aesthetics as applied to software interface design? Or the techniques of shared interactive fiction? We shall see.

So I plan to post irregular rambles through the thickets of my interests, likes, and dislikes. A blog, in other words, with perhaps a bit more of an intellectual bent than most, since I'm widely known as a bent intellectual.

I will make one promise: I will try to limit rants, especially political rants, to a minimum. When other people rant, unless they're quite entertaining about it (jwz, for instance), I get irritated and tend to go elsewhere at high acceleration. So I'll try to be calm, or at least entertaining.

Where to start? Here's a question you might want to ponder (especially now that Spielberg has just released "War of the Worlds"). Why would we want to meet alien intelligences? My primary reason is simple: we need other views of the universe and most importantly of ourselves. Two eyes can not only see more visual field than one, they can see parallax, and therefore infer depth. Yes, it's a simplistic analogy, but until I have an alien to talk to, I can't even tell if the analogy will hold, let alone what other things it might tell me. So I'm optimistic about what we might learn from a being not evolved to live in trees and congregate in troops of a dozen or two for protection and mutual grooming.

The subject of aliens isn't really what I wanted to talk about, though. Given the likely distances involved, and the lack of enthusiasm about SETI on most people's parts, it doesn't seem likely we're going to get a call from ET anytime soon. We may, however, be about to manufacture some aliens right here. The history of Artificial Intelligence (AI to the artificial intelligentsia) is littered with really good reasons to believe we don't have a clue about what intelligence is, let alone how to create it, but, again, I'm optimistic. Up until now, I believe AI's main contribution to human knowledge has been a series of negative experiments regarding the nature of intelligence: we've proved that it's not a lot of things by trying to make intelligence that was of the nature of those things, and failing miserably. Don't get me wrong, this is a useful, and important thing to do, and should not be disparaged. We would know much less about at least our kind of intelligence without the AI research of the last 50 years. But, saying that, how can I think that AI will succeed?

For one thing, the fundamental assumptions about the nature of intelligence and the context in which it operates are changing. And if changing our approach can lead us to something that works in AI, we may be near (by which I mean "in the same century as") to creating intelligent "machines". And if so, we may have someone new to talk to.

So, as I said, ponder this question. What could we learn by talking to some(one, thing) that was very different from ourselves, and thought in other ways?