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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

living with networks

Whenever I hear that something is "on the internet", or to "buy it on the net", or search "the net", a little feeling of hopelessness creeps in. I guess the reason is that this view of the internet as an undifferentiated ocean out there, serves a role as a panacea. Or maybe the problem is the identification of the internet as a place, which to me seems to inevitably devalue our physical world. Now there have been video games and virtual reality games of varying degrees of simulation and imagination since when, the '80s?
This is the view of the internet as "cyberspace".

The problem is that to the extent that it makes sense that we exist in this space, we certainly have to change, and this change sometimes feels forceful, like its not recognized the level of discomfort resulting from these changes, and not dealt with in a delicate way.
Of course we can revisit the philosophical questions of life, and what it is, and of consciousness and what it is. And like all technologies, they can actually give new perspective on old philosophical questions. In the sense that one doesn't have to work as hard in "what if" statements.

I recently read Vannevar Bush's rather prescient article from 1945 Atlantic (available here, -- I found this thanks to John Jowett again). He describes the ways in which various technologies pushed forward will link us together, and make examining "the record" more powerful. It is somehow satisfying to see "the internet", or something like it, described at a much earlier date. It gives a new head space in which to think about it, not seeing its current incarnation as inevitable.

Monday, September 28, 2009

few thoughts

A little more on the previous topic.
First, Jodi Dean discusses the UC strike, in a rather abstract way.
Here, she says that the crisis in universities is that universities are a part of the capitalist system, designed to create whatever type of labor capital needs. But supposedly "capital doesn't need us anymore". Is this really true? Does she mean that computerized systems can do everything that people can, and perhaps better? I think this goes too far, and is a mistake in some way, but I may also misunderstand what she's saying. Not that I really want "capital" to want me so badly, or even that I quite know what "capital" is. (Oh, looking at this more, I see that she is actually critiquing that view of the university... I should read this more carefully...)

I've been trying to create systems for myself, and then follow through on them. Every time I start following a linear procedure, something in me tells me that this is dehumanizing, and I ought not to be doing this. I know there's something wrong with this. The most healthy of people have working systems they are a part of, and being a part of that system will certainly involve following linear procedures.

On this topic, I should quote from Karl Popper (stolen from here)
As I wrote many years ago at the very beginning of the debate about computers, a computer is just a glorified pencil. Einstein once said "my pencil is cleverer than I". What he meant could perhaps be put thus: armed with a pencil, we can be more than twice as clever as we are without. Armed with a computer (a typical World 3 object), we can perhaps be more than a hundred times as clever as we are without; and with improving computers there need not be an upper limit to this.

Karl Popper, The Self and Its Brain, p. 208

The French seem to really like bureaucracy. But it also seems to me to be a functional bureaucracy- one that really involves people. Something about this is reminding me of how Americans sometimes see nature, in terms of something totally separate, totally wild. This idea of not separating ourselves from our systems quite so much is also hitting me in terms of how I've seen Europe. I've seen it as a place of history. Its tempting, as in the case of nature, to see contrast civilization with the wild. Likewise, we can contrast living, modern places, with places steeped in history. But Europe, with longer experience of dealing both with nature and a longer history, maybe has developed a different, more interactive approach here.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

People and computers

Sometimes it feels like we are designing/(haphazardly pushing forward) a world in which we have no part. Its moving faster and faster, and one wonders whether a different creature- perhaps some digital descendant of ours is better fit to survive here.
We can think of previous revolutions such as mechanical and chemical. In the end we still found a role for ourselves. We found ways in which to buffer ourselves and take advantage of the power of these new technologies. We created cars and airplanes to travel fast and still be in relative comfort. And we don't have to use these fast technologies.
Here's an interview with Ray Kurzweil. Actually he kind of pisses me off. Notice at around 2:30, he is asked the question of what we can do to prepare for the change. He doesn't answer the question, instead, he seems to revel in the predictions of how fast things are changing.
For him, the human brain is something to copy, source material for something else. That's ok, but why do we want to do this? Why just build and build and build. Ok, there's a certain inevitability to some of it. But what's more interesting to me, is people and how they interact with these changes. There's a cheapening effect. Where's the depth? Sure, he might say that the power is there for even more depth. But shouldn't we start with the depth that we have and try to increase that? Where is literature and art and experience of nature in this kind of vision? Its just faster and faster and faster? I guess this is just another kind of conversation to have.
But for me, the thing to remember is that there's no reason why things have to be worse. We don't need to just try to get faster stuff for its own sake.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

work vs. research

My new project involves developing a beam optics code based around a spreadsheet. The job is basically to convert this program from Microsoft Excel and Visual Basic to something based on Open Office Calc. Now, despite the fact that open source is nice, and open office seems to be pretty quality stuff, there is something decidedly unsexy about spreadsheets. They suggest doing a large number of small, not particularly interesting calculations. An emphasis on detail, an office setting, and a sense of the mundane come to mind.

But this area of beam optics and particle tracking is a mess. There are multiple codes with lousy interface and difficult interconnection. People become experts at particular codes, and this is what accelerator physicists do. The expertise, however, is often more in the technicalities of the mess- the bureaucracy of the multiple organizations and the history of the field, if you like. Its called research, or physics, or dynamics, or something exciting, just to motivate people to do this rather boring work.

Thus, to me, developing an optics code based on a spreadsheet is confronting this fact about this field honestly. We are managers of many small formulae, doing rather well-known things.
The point is that perhaps this project will allow one to more easily separate what is well known from what is a bit more difficult. In other words, we can train people to do those parts of this work that are already figured out. The operators in the control room should be able to change the quadrupoles to reduce the emittance, or affect a change in the optics to reduce the beta function, or play around with the weights on the non-linear dynamics properties. This isn't research, but it still takes effort, care, and can be done well with pride.

So I see this project less as a research project, and more as providing a tool that will separate out the known from the unknown- give people a tool with which the known aspects of this field can used, in the same sense that knowledge in finance, medicine, or nutrition might be utilized.
At the same time, in order for a field to be healthy, there must be this transition of knowledge into the arena of easily available, well known information. I think this is the value and nature of science, as described in "Laboratory Life" by Latour and Woolgar for example.

I don't want to say that there is no research to be done in this field, but just that there is a lot of known stuff, and it should be made easily available. It may not be popular with those who would rather keep the mess of obscurity. But I think its necessary if there is to be development.