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How Mortal These Fools Be...

5 replies on 1 page. Most recent reply: Mar 3, 2004 7:56 AM by Anand

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Ken Arnold

Posts: 27
Nickname: arnold
Registered: Apr, 2003

How Mortal These Fools Be... (View in Weblogs)
Posted: Apr 30, 2003 8:28 PM
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Summary
...Wherein we explore what it means to be a computer, or computation, or computrons, or a computer programmer, and why Ken is even touching a computer when he's on vacation.
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So here I am, sitting in a house overlooking the Carribean in the Bahamas, and it occurs to me to wax philosophic as I wane stressed. Primarily, I suppose, because if I don't write anything, I won't have any excuse to make you jealous. But also because in this environment, petty details of damn near anything don't matter much. Except figuring out how to run a consulting business from here...

So here's what I've been thinking about between sips of coconut rum: We're tool users, right? And programmers are tool users of the most intense sort. All our working and hacking lives are tools.

Okay, this is not at all unique -- this is the human condition, really. Any 16th century housewife lived all her life with tools. So did any 19th century factory worker. Or any soldier of any army.

So let me take another crack at it. It isn't that we live all our lives using tools. Nor is it the rarer fact that we can build our own tools. It's that our tools are so freakin' fungible. Our whole universe, from the bits on up, is a consensual hallucination. Any order imposed on top of the electrical impulses is just and only what we want it to be. The fact that some series of magnetic pluses stored on some platter on some disk somewhere somehow turn into these magical letters in your chosen font on your screen -- laptop, desktop, handheld, cell phone -- is a conspired hallucination of mind-boggling proportions.

It's all become so widespread it's easy to forget. Just consider the lowly bit itself. Electrical impulses within certain tolerances are considered ones. The absence is considered zero. What's up with that? Well, it's useful. But it's arbitrary. The Java Ring, handed out with great fanfare at the second JavaOne, was powered on by sending it a stream of "one" bits. That gave it the power to get going, and it was powered by inevitable "one" bits that came along anyway in further communication. (The idea of a "second JavaOne" must have been powered more libationary activities.) Sending some hardware a string of ones to give it energy -- how sideways is that?

Why are bytes 8 bits? Why is 01010001 a 'Q'? Or is it? There are many other 7 and 8 bit character codes. And in compressed text... And in binary files... And...

I could go on, but my little island has no internet access, I don't keep that much data on my laptop, and anyway it isn't (believe it or not) my real subject.

So our tool world is made of this mad accretion of consenting circuits and humans. It is what we agree it to be. Where we don't agree, it's nothing, just line noise. Just think about people who think that XML is the magic bullet of world communication. Lo and behold, the semantics still matter: What does mean to you? Is it the same as it means to my schema?

And if you want to hallucinate a new meaning for some set of electrical impulses, more power to ya.

Mathematics lives in such a virtual universe, but I can't think of any other field with this much flexibility. And the more abstruse and hallucinatory math becomes, the more esoteric and rarely useful it becomes. Yet as we add more abstruse hallucinations we become more useful, not less.

We hallucinate that ASCII is characters, and we get text processing. We hallucinate that other bits, otherwise segregated, mean RGB (and sometimes alpha), and we have colors. We hallucinate that bundles of bits represent packets, and we have packet collisions until we further hallucinate how to deal with them, and then we have networks. We hallucinate that POST represents some request and <P> starts a paragraph and we have the web (and the world gets an investment bubble, which is a different kind of hallucination entirely, for which you must consult John Kenneth Galbraith).

Sometimes the hallucinations are bad trips, but we're stuck with 'em anyway. Everyone has their list of nearly irrevocable bad dreams it's too late to change, at least within one generation. Windows, DOS, CRLF vs. LF, the keyboard placement of the control key, yada, yada, yada. Name 'em and weep.

But even these provide a basis on which to do other things, good things, new hallucinations we can all live with and build on. If nothing else, the bad stuff provides the rope with which which to hang itself. The pure flexibility of the clay we mold means that we can potentially build new stuff that accepts the old stuff as just stuff of a different sort. And thus the new subsumes the old and, in the fullness of time, the old stuff can wither and die, or at least decline into decrepit senility, tended by specialized consultant who keeps the old Model T going for the customer who can't be weaned.

When we sit at the computer and program it we are more truly masters of our fate than most people ever can hope to be.


James Patterson

Posts: 16
Nickname: jmep
Registered: Mar, 2003

Re: How Mortal These Fools Be... Posted: May 1, 2003 11:51 AM
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Although I believe the venerate Mr. Arnold has had a bit too much of that coconut rum, I rather like this construal...a lot. I'm a mathematician at heart and the uselessness of my interests is exactly what spurred me toward programming. Hallucinatory or not, and I concur with the former, I work with axioms, theorems, and hypotheses, mixed with traditions, superstitions, and predictions, to produce something more than the sum of its parts. So it may be "thought-stuff" but it is also poetry and little else carries as much value as aesthetics!

?The programmer, like the poet, works only
slightly removed from pure thought-stuff. He
builds his castles in the air, from air, creating
by exertion of the imagination."

- The Mythical Man Month by Frederick Brooks

Enjoy your vacation!

Ken Arnold

Posts: 27
Nickname: arnold
Registered: Apr, 2003

Re: How Mortal These Fools Be... Posted: May 4, 2003 4:07 AM
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> Although I believe the venerate Mr. Arnold has had a bit
> too much of that coconut rum, [...]

"Too much ... coconut rum"
"Too much ... coconut rum"
"Too much ... coconut rum"

I'm sorry, I'm having trouble parsing that statement. Is that like "too much chocolate" or "too much lovin'"?

> Enjoy your vacation!

Already over, but I'm now in Melbourne and having a fun time because they can't distinguish between work and pubs.

More meat next time, I promise.

Gregg Wonderly

Posts: 317
Nickname: greggwon
Registered: Apr, 2003

Re: How Mortal These Fools Be... Posted: May 5, 2003 12:33 AM
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But Ken, I have to ask. If we figure out a new hallucination, will we then know which container holds the matter of the universe, and why there is matter at all, let alone a place for the matter to be?

Ken Arnold

Posts: 27
Nickname: arnold
Registered: Apr, 2003

Re: How Mortal These Fools Be... Posted: May 7, 2003 1:46 AM
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> If we figure out a new
> hallucination, will we then know which container holds the
> matter of the universe, and why there is matter at all,
> let alone a place for the matter to be?

Isn't the question really how all the matter in the universe can be in a container? I mean, what's the container made of?

"You can't have everything. Where would you put it?"

Ken

P.S. Of course really the important question is "Where can I get another beer"...

Anand

Posts: 1
Nickname: conundrum
Registered: Mar, 2004

Re: How Mortal These Fools Be... Posted: Mar 3, 2004 7:56 AM
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The question then arises - how can we know that it is
a hallucination ? is the meta class a class ? (excuse my Smalltalk conditioning). Well it is if we want it to be
actually, mathematics post Godel has captured this nicely;
assume x; and through certain logical derivations within the frame of context; reach y. make no claim of universal truth as it cant ..
slightly more on topic, wouldnt it be nice if one were had tools that one could extend/modify to ones hearts content ? and i am not talking about color and font and that kind of visual stuff. Smalltalk, Python and Perl come to mind
Enjoy your writings Ken. thought i would chime in with my own ascii shapes.
trivia question: how did humankind (the roman descendants at least) come up with shapes like 2 3 or 4 or 5 ? 1 one kind of sees - the other shapes ?

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