Is the Universe a computer?: I don't understand
it, but I'm pretty sure people are drawing some false analogies from it.
Why So Soon?
Why is this issue of JOHO coming so hard on the heels of the previous one? Why is it only too long rather than psychotically over-stuffed?
Because I'm trying something new: Less is more frequent. Maybe. We'll see.
Pardon me while I make a bigger fool of myself than usual. In fact, I'd like to make fool of myself in two stages. First, I want to tell you what I don't understand, in the process getting much wrong. Then I want to tell you what worries me about the topic I don't understand and am wrong about. Sound like fun? Here goes!
The universe is a computer. So suggests Stephen Wolfram and others, an idea explored by Kevin Kelly in the December issue of Wired. Reputable experts in physics and in computer science, some of whom are geniuses, take this idea seriously. I want to take it seriously too, but I can't get past my initial "Say wha'??"
Unfortunately, Kelly's article skips over the part I find hard. He quotes John Archibald Wheeler, who said in 1989 that "Its are from bits":
Every it - every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself - derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely from binary choices, bits. What we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes/no questions.
Kelly elaborates by talking about how oxygen and hydrogen bond to form water:
As they merge, each seems to be calculating the optimal angle and distance at which to attach itself to the others. The oxygen atom uses yes/no decisions to evaluate all possible courses...Every chemical bond is thus calculated.
So how did we get from "seems to be" to "is"? What possible sense does it make to say that an atom calculates all possible angles and makes decisions? Kelly is brilliant and this logical lapse is so glaring that it must not be a lapse at all. I must be missing something.
I think about bits as symbols. Perhaps that's part of my problem with going from saying that the world can be described as information to saying that it is information. With a normal computer, we humans have decided that we'll take a low electrical state as signifying a zero. Without a human, the bits of a normal computer are just voltages. Presumably, the Universe as Computer (UAC) idea doesn't take bits as standing for anything. At least part of UAC's appeal is in the way it explains how complexity can arise from simplicity, a point Wolfram makes visually with his illustrations of the changes in state of "cellular automata." Bits are the ultimate simples, consisting of nothing but two distinct states: they are binary but not symbolic.
But if the It Bits (the ultimate constituents of the universe) are binary but not symbolic, then I don't understand what we're talking about since (as far as I as a layperson can tell), the real world is an analog world in which things are generally continuous. Doesn't the oxygen atom swing through intermediate positions as it gloms onto the hydrogen atom? Where can I find an It Bit? No, really, I mean that as a question. What the heck are we actually talking about?
So: Are we assuming that Its are Bits because it lets us explain the universe as a computer? Or is there some other reason to think so? Is this falsifiable the way new paradigms are? New paradigms traditionally are accepted not because of a single experiment but because they explain previous anomalies and open up rich new areas of explanation. Is that happening in this field? Or is the field so far rich only in suspect analogies, such as oxygen atoms that evaluate possibilites?
I have to admit that it makes me suspicious when the scales fall from our eyes and the brand new paradigm we discover just happens to mirror our latest technology. For example, around the time of steam engines, humans started to feel themselves "under pressure" and started to "vent their feelings" and "let off steam." The reshaping of apperception along the lines of new technology happens often enough to make one into a dialectical materialist, or maybe just a fan of McLuhan.
But, let's accept the new paradigm: The universe is a computer. Unlike with quantum mechanics, we ordinary humans who hear "The universe is a computer" think we know what it means. The perpetrators of this new paradigm thus have to be very careful not to let us ordinary mortals understand it too quickly. Does UAC mean that there is a giant programmer somewhere? Since we think of computers as the ultimate rule-based machines, does the new paradigm mean that the universe is even more deterministic than we'd thought? Or is just explaining the determinism differently? This matters because 99.999% of us are guaranteed to conclude that UAC means life is more programmed than we'd thought: it will feel like we're moving from an indeterminacy in which God plays dice with world to a determinism as inevitable as the processing of a set of punch cards.
More important, is UAC really "just" an analysis of reality into ultimate, two-state simples and their rules, or do these simples in fact stand for something else, the way low-voltage is taken to stand for a zero? If the latter, then the popular takeaway of UAC will be further alienation: The Matrix was right. After all, if the Bits that are Its are symbolic, then (as is the case with computers in general), the software is independent of the hardware. Kelly suggests this when he defends the idea that "All things can compute" by pointing to the wacky, non-silicon materials people have built computers out of. If that's what we mean by UAC, then there's an enormous disconnect between the world we live in and reality; the known universe is a simulation that looks like it is based in matter and energy and emergent organization but could in fact be the result of a gigantic Tinkertoy set being manipulated by a gigantic Danny Hillis. [Wolfram seems (to my ignorant mind) to imply the opposite when he says that computing the result of a simple rule that leads to great complexity requires you to step through all the steps; you can't just plug numbers into a formula.]
So, on the ignorance front, I'm probably posing a corruptly binary question (how ironic) that assumes that there's a difference between a simulation and reality. But on the fear front, I'm pointing to a real concern: The popular conclusion from UAC will be the ultimate Berkeleyian Idealism. loosening the already frayed conceptual tie we have to our own bodies. It will lead to an even bigger sigh of "Whatever!" than we're experiencing now.
Now, my fears in no way are an argument against UAC. I wouldn't dare since my veil of ignorance is 40 layers thick. They are, however, a taste of the confusion and anxieties UAC is going to sow in the minds of those of us terminally unable to grasp its meaning. And it's a warning that those who do understand it need to explain this topic as free of metaphor and false argument-by-analogy conclusions as possible.
Here's an idea so obvious that it's either been done or there's a good reason why it hasn't been done.
My worry about digital ID is that even with the most user-centered technology — the sort the Eric Norlin and Doc Searls are championing— inevitably users will be faced with a Hobson's choice: Although the technology allows us to release only the ID information that we want to, vendors will insist that we give them more than we want to in order to do business with them. So, we need more than technology that gives us control. We need a marketplace that lets us exercise that control.
So, suppose vendors were encouraged to agree to a set of statements such as these:
The "You First" Digital ID Pledge
1. Your digital ID is yours. You own it. Only you get to decide who knows what about you.
2. To do business with us, you need only give us the minimum information required to complete the transaction.
3. If we then want more information about you, we will explain clearly what we want, why we want it, what we will do with it, how it benefits you, and any ways it might not benefit you.
4. We recognize that if providing us with additional information benefits us, we need to compensate you for that information in some way that we both freely agree on.
5. We respect your privacy absolutely. We will never share what we know of you with anyone else without your explicit ("opt-in") permission.
If you agree to this, you get to put this button on your site that, of course, links to a web page that explains the details.
What do you think?
Now we see what Google is made of.
Google got to be the #1 brand name world-wide, beating Coke and Osama not by out-spending them or by having a catchier jingle. No, they did it the way (frankly) Cluetrain said: by having value and values. So far — despite some fear-mongering recently — Google seems to have earned our trust. It's one of the best examples of a company adopting the "End-to-End" principles I talked about in the the previous of JOHO.
But Blogger offers such a temptation to go wrong. What is Google's business case for the purchase? The purchase of Deja.com gave Google content that drew more users and, more important, gave them more pages on which to sell ads. Google's ad policy maintains its value and its values: the ads are unobtrusive and are listed in order of their utility to users (based on clicks). But with Blogger, there are two tempting ways Google could violate the trust they've earned: They could start charging for all Blogger accounts, and they could weight searches towards Blogger blogs.
Weighting searches would clearly violate the principle that has built Google's presence: rankings that try to reflect the Web's own preferences. Charging for all Blogger accounts would violate the implicit bond that has made Google not only known and used but loved, for it would make the Web a worse place overall. Google's record so far has been great: Whatever the business reasons for rescuing Deja, the purchase also preserved the UseNet archives, making the Net a better place. And, of course, the superiority of Google's searching ability has made the Web a far better place than it was before.
Many companies get stupid when they get big. So far, Google has bucked the trend. Let's hope it doesn't give in to the temptation to get stupid now.
Just posted: Saltire takes a much grimmer view of the acquisition. Doc Searls replies.
From Betsy Devine's blog comes a link to Linda Kim Davies' home page. It's a Flash site and my first reaction was impatience and annoyance. Images and words fade in, leaving me feeling like Bob (or was it Ray?) in the Bob and Ray interview with the president of the Slow Talkers of America Society. Likewise, her essays appear one slow-fading paragraph at a time. "What right does she have to take my time this way?" I thought.
And then I realized how stupid I was being. Or how webby. I'm acting as if I've been made the Lord of Time, that I have an inalienable right to control the pace and editing of what I experience. The sequential, non-random arts demand we trust them with our time, a non-recoverable, non-fungible chunk of our lives. When they squander it, we feel robbed. But when they do more with that time than we could have imagined, not just our ideas and feelings but our lives ourselves have been made more valuable.
On the other hand, I wish Linda Kim Davies would put in a list of links to her photos.
Michael Rogers in Newsweek Online discusses Links by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, Howard Rheingold's Smart Mobs and my book. About mine he writes:
"Small Pieces Loosely Joined" by David Weinberger is subtitled “A Unified Theory of the Web.” Weinberger isn’t quite serious about his subtitle. Rather, he provides a thoughtful explication of the phenomena that any such theory should unify: from the design of e-commerce sites to why the phrase “All your base are belong to us” swept the Web. Of the three authors he’s the most overtly philosophical, with chapter titles like “Space” and “Time.” And he makes an interesting point: the idea of the Web is in some ways more important than the mechanism of the Web. The truly transforming impact of the Internet will occur when the linking and virtual existence that we experience on the Web starts to alter how we understand and manage society itself.
He liked Links and Smart Mobs, too. So do I.
The Phi Beta Kappa Key Reporter also has given Small Pieces a nice review.
In its monthly list of "Wired, Tired and Expired," the new issue of Wired lists "Loosely Joined" as tired.
I believe that according to the terms of the Geneva Convention on Lost Luggage, I am therefore entitled to claim that "Small Pieces Loosely Joined" must have been wired at some point, albeit implicitly.
Woohoo (by implication)!
Michael Jackson in a recent documentary Jackson denies having had any plastic surgery to his face except for two operations on his nose because "it helped me breathe better so I can hit higher notes."
Looks we'll have to go to Hypothesis #2: There is a God and Michael Jackson has really, really pissed Him off.
Our middle child turned 18 last week. And what has she been looking forward to doing now that she's attained her majority? Getting a tattoo? Buying cigarettes? Checking a pornographic movie out of the video store?
No, she went out and got herself a subscription to Nickelodeon Magazine for Kids without first getting the permission of her parents.
(If you haven't figured it out, she's very funny.)
Before approaching me in the real world, please certify that you have read Jonathan Rauch's "Caring for Your Introvert." It'll save us all a lot of heartache and misunderstanding.
A Freudian mishearing:
Our 6th grader has been doing a unit on poetry, including having to write poems in the style of Walt Whitman. I find this degrading to Whitman: When they study da Vinci, are they supposed to do oil paintings in the style of da Vinci? Apparently writing like Whitman is something that any 6th grader can do. Jeez.
Anyway, my son started to tell me about a poem a friend of his wrote as an assignment. My son said: So-and-so's "'Song of Myself' poem." I heard: "Song of My Cell Phone."
I telephone myself;
And what I assume you shall assume;
For every ring tone belonging to me, as good belongs to you.
Too bad Happy Tutor's reappropriation of the Cluetrain Manifesto didn't take the opportunity to fix #74, the most obviously wrong thesis in the batch:
We are immune to advertising. Just forget it. [original]
We are immune to advertising, whether corporate or political. Just forget it. [Tutor]
If only. Yesterday the guy behind the desk at the auto repair shop complained lightly, "People think I'm the Shell Answer Man." It has to be at least 20 years since the Shell Answer Man ads were on TV, but there he is, still stuck in our heads. Marketing shrapnel. And when my wife and I went to buy a new washing machine, I entered the process sure that Maytag is a reliable brand.
No, we're not immune. But the Internet does give us a way to check whether we're thinking clearly or it's just the shrapnel talking.
Jane Black has an excellent article at BusinessWeek on the real causes of the drop in CD sales. Her conclusion:
... it seems irresponsible for music-industry officials to present these sales statistics as proof that piracy is overwhelmingly responsible for the industry's woes while conveniently ignoring the economic and technological context that puts those numbers in perspective.
Collection agencies scare me because they get to write bad things about me on the permanent record my high school principal warned me about. So, when I received a letter from a collection agency today, it made me nervous. It seems I owe AT&T Worldnet the mighty sum of $16.95.
The nice guy I spoke with at the collection agency cut me off in mid-outrage as I said that I'd never received the original bill. It turns out that the $16.95 was the final charge for a Worldnet account I cancelled a year ago. AT&T had sent the bill to my worldnet email account...yes, to the account that I'd cancelled.
"I get this all day long," the collection guy said.
Middle World Resources
Last week I heard two presentations that might have been arranged one after another on purpose. The first was an endless walkthrough of all of Microsoft Project's features. "We looked at how teams actually work together," the presenter said, and then apparently they decided to see how much of the humanity well-designed software could squeeze out of the process. We saw endless grids, timelines, pie charts, warning flags and drill downs that together constituted informational white noise.
The next presenter talked about how the Pentagon rebuilt itself after 9/11. A "slab to ceiling" renovation was already underway, but the team dedicated itself to restoring the hole in their lives within a year of the attack. Contractors and architects worked together, rather than positioning each other to take the blame for overruns in time and budget as is the usual custom. The "ends" were empowered and given incentives to succeed. Spirits were high. And Walker Evey, the ex-NASA guy who headed the project, showed true leadership.
Now, I have every confidence that the Pentagon restoration project used plenty of Gannt charts, timelines, pie charts and grids to coordinate the activities. For all I know, it used Microsoft Project. But it succeeded because of leadership and dedication...and because its managers didn't made the common business mistake of confusing the measurement with the measured.
[Note: Please don't bother writing to tell me that you don't like the Pentagon or what it stands for. Neither do I. But if you can't appreciate either the suffering the attack inflicted or the admirable aspects of the restoration project, then, well, you might want to do some yoga to try to get the kink out of your self-righteousness.]
Let's go from the utilitarian to the extravagant.
First, there's the humble Nokia Monitor Test that you can download here. It'll put up a series of squares, patterns and colors so you can adjust your monitor. It's also, surprisingly psychedelic if you're really desperate.
Then there's the series of show-off pieces you can get from ATI that take full advantage of the new Radeon 9700 Pro card that you got by lying just a little to your wife about the inadequacy of your current graphics card, maybe even implying that the current card was actually broken. (I'm going to Hell anyway. I might as well have a great graphics card while I wait.)
These demos put the card through its technical paces, but since I couldn't tell a trilinear filter from a three-hole outhouse, I just want the graphic buzz. And you get that with all of them, including the woodland scene with reflective balls and the chrome ants marching around the moebius strip. But most of all you have to see Animusic. As you watch the catchy little tune being played by an animated robotic orchestra, you'll be entertained. But when you realize that you can use your mouse to move through the scene at will, your jaw will drop. Too cool.
"Syberia": Lovely to look at ... and a pain in the frigging ass to play.
"Syberia" is an adventure game. It opens in a tiny Alpine town, home of the world's most charming automata. You are a comely and highly professional lass out to close a deal with the automata factory's owner. But mystery ensues...something about a lady who may be dead or not but in any case used to draw pictures of wooly mammoths in a cave in the forest.
Oh, the mystery ensues all right. It ensues and ensures. Hur after pointless hour you ensue your ass off fetching a large and entirely arbitrary set of objects in precisely the right and arbitrary order. Failure to do so means that you will have to traverse the entire freaking landscape yet again. You can run but you can't just go from A to D without first passing B for the twentieth time and C for the thirtieth. And every time you think you're at the end of a chapter and the !@#$% train is going to leave the !@#$% station, the no-longer-charming a-hole of a conductor — an automaton, of course — tells you about some other random hurdle you must jump. And to jump it, you have to go back to D through B and C and don't forget to give the retarded little Momo character a good thwack on the back of his annoying little head.
Thank goodness for the Universal Hint System. If I have no idea where to get the ink for the stamper for the permit for the train, UHS will tell you just enough to keep you from going back to the dam where Momo is waiting with another of his long boring stories.
This game is so annoying it might actually force me to go read a book.
Two nights ago, Bush's speechwriter was on The Daily Show, the Jon Stewart fake news program that's funny because it blurts out the truth. The speechwriter explained with glee how he came up with the phrase "Axis of Evil." He originally wrote "Axis of Hatred," but his boss (not Bush) took one look at it and said, "No, it's the 'Axis of Evil,'" repeating it a few times aloud to see how it sounds.
This constituted the debate over whether these countries actually are evil and the effect classifying them as such would have. A couple of lobes short of The West Wing, eh?
See them all here.
Thanks to Gary Stock for the link.
Demonstrating a remarkable lack of irony, the Republican Team Leader site that was caught astroturfing letters to the editor (write a letter and get GOPoints redeemable for attractive GOP logo-wear) is now urging members to astroturf the Boston Globe in response to the Globe's editorial against the Team Leader's site's astroturfing. (Yes, that sentence does make sense.)
And, quite wonderfully, the pre-composed letter you can click and send is in fact the original letter about President Bush "demonstrating genuine leadership."
I find something moving about this collection of photos of peace rallies around the world. [Thanks, David Isenberg]
Peter Jung has a new blog that so far is about politics and has a sense of humor. If you love da Dubya, you will not like his site.
BTW, from this site I learned that Joe Lieberman called the commuting of all death sentences in Illinois "shockingly wrong." He added, "It did terrible damage to the credibility of our system of justice." Yeah, Joe Orthodox thinks that acknowledging the fallibility of human judgment is a terrible thing. (FWIW, Jewish law makes applying the death penalty just about impossible. On purpose.)
Scott Bradner, one of the people who crafted this Internet thing we know and love, has an excellent article on the striking absence of the user/customer in Sony's and Microsoft's dreams of living room dominance.
Phil Becker has a helpful update on Palladium, the Microsoft project to provide "secure" computing. Its name has now been changed and, more important, it is going to be made a standard part of Windows over the next few years. In fact, the fact that Microsoft has moved from the "hot" name "Palladium" to a name that can be neither pronounced nor remembered — "Next-generation Secure Computing Base" — indicates that Microsoft wants to lower the project's visibility and make it sound not like a product but like a service that will be buried inside of its Windows brand.
Here's a balanced article on the impact of Palladium on colleges and on Fair Use and the enforcement of the UCITA.
Eric and Andre Durand have written a white paper for PingID about federated digital ID. This is from the abstract:
While existing identity management solutions can help reduce the inefficiencies associated with managing users, roles, permissions and access to information, there are a growing number of applications that require the inter-company (federated) exchange of identity-based information (e.g. single sign-on, web services etc.). This document explores the complexity, requirements and merits associated with wide-scale deployment of identity federation, including strategies for pooling resources and the creation of standardized business frameworks for assuring quality, maintaining security, managing liability, reducing risk and resolving disputes.
In fact, there's lots of intellectual foment goin' on over at DigitalID World. Don't forget to sign up for a newsletter. (Hint: When the sign-up form requires that you give your real name, don't use Bogus McBogusman. That's mine.)
I just got a copy of The Wireless Networking Starter Kit by Glenn Fleishman and Adam Engst. I've thumbed through it and it looks like a clear and lively explanation of everything you wanted to know about goin' wifi. Maybe now I can find out how the PPPoE bone connects to the Tx bone.
Jonathan's newish blog at Corante has a manifesto that says it all. Cool!
Ray Bid writes to alert us to the online diary of a backpacker, Marlowe Bidforth, who is trapped in Borneo and at this point must be assumed to be dead. I also assume that the site is a spoof.
Why aren't we seeing more fictitious weblogs? I don't mean RageBoy's postings about being a babe magnet, but a genuine form of narrative fiction: daily postings from a fictitious character.
You can watch a debate over the "broadcast flag" copy-protection proposal. The debate on Feb. 5 featured: Fritz Attaway, Motion Picture Association of America; Jim Burger, Dow, Lohnes & Albertson; Mike Godwin, Public Knowledge; and Andy Setos, Fox Entertainment Group. (I haven't watched it yet.)
(Note: It requires Real video. If you haven't installed Real before, be warned that it is sneakily and persistently opt-out.)
Larry Lessig's conference on Open Spectrum in Stanford, CA, March 1-2, will feature a moot court case arguing the issues in front of Michael Powell, Chair of the FCC. There will be a live feed. (I wish I could go to the live event. It sounds fantastic.)
Alex Golub has written some Lessig fan fiction. The idea is funny enough. The execution actually works. The story begins:
Grand Inquisitor and Supreme Arbiter of Earthling Law Lawrence Lessig leaned back in his ultra-schmancy executive chair and sighed heavily
This is part of Alex's Small Ensembles blog-fiction.
[Thanks to One Pot Meal for the link.]
Have you yet seen the pencil carvings? Oh, sure, they're flashy in a show-offy sort of way. But I've been doing the same thing for years, and I only use the sharpened nail of my left pinky. For example, here are two of my recent works:
Anatomically precise human skeleton carved into a #2 pencil
Anatomically precise Donald Rumsfeld
The Lucrative Project has released a new version of its code:
Lucrative is based on Ben Laurie's Lucre project. Lucre is a system of blinded digital cash. It is unlinkable and untraceable: the bank cannot record the coins it issues to customers, and cannot identify which account is paying which, except by traffic analysis.
This is 'true anonymous digital cash' folks.
Lucrative is building a server anyone can use to build their own digital bearer instrument underwriting business.
First I've heard of it (which puts me at least two releases behind)...
Anyone with a grain of sense is at least conflicted by Halley's Alpha Male series. If you hate what it says, I'm not going to try to argue with you — as an Omikron Male (my math scores pulled me down), I'm pretty durn uncomfortable with the throwback sex roles — although I will tell you that Halley isn't writing it because she's anti-feminist. Hah! I know Halley. Something much more interesting is going on.
Read her latest. Two memories vividly recounted, connected by the outwardness of day trips and the inwardness of casual love. Told through details. Personal and specific yet illuminating beyond its subject. Risky in Halley's exposure of herself. Risky even in its style.
It's not just good writing. It's brave writing. If nothing else, give Halley that.
The Happy Tutor has started a blog focusing on "Philanthropy, Democracy and Weblogs." He's posted there a remix of the Cluetrain Manifesto, applying it to democracy in corporate America. Democracy is a conversation and — just as important — corporations aren't citizens. (And if they were, we'd hate them.)
The Tutor's rendition tends towards the hyperbolic — unlike the staid and measured tones of the original. He doesn't think corporations are capable of reform, and thus he replaces the chiding tone of the original with a call for heads on pikes. And the truth is that the four authors of the original varied on whether "the end of business as usual" (the book's subtitle) meant reform or revolution. (I personally didn't think, and still don't think, that we're going to see the collapse of the large corporation as a form of business life, but I've never been right about anything.) Ultimately, I think the theses ended up calling for corporate change and not corporate dismemberment mainly for rhetorical reasons, although I'm not sure I'm speaking for my co-authors on this: the manifesto tried to express some thoughts latent in the Web body politic about what was going on, and you don't get to explain yourself to someone if you're also screaming "Die, you bastard!" at him.
Anyway, take a look at what the Tutor hath wrought.
David Spector, on a mailing list, points us to some parodies of the inadvertently absurd Homeland of Office Security site, Ready.gov.
I recently said that Mac the OS X uses bayesian probability to filter spam. I said that because I read it somewhere on the Internet. (Damn Intermenet!) Kevin Marks not only wrote to correct me — the Mac uses Latent Semantics — but also cc'ed Tim Oren who then blogged a brilliant explanation and analysis of the two techniques. Thus has my stupidity made us all a little smarter.
Don't thank me. It's what I do.
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