Friday, December 12, 2008

Escape from Formal Systems

A few weeks ago we discussed this Discover article about the multiverse theory. (As an aside it's just sort of funny how when you've been concentrating on a particular subject all kinds of other, related memes come into your consciousness. Synchronicity, I think, is what Jung would call it). You'll remember that just prior to the publishing of the article I started reading Godel, Escher, Bach. While I didn't finish GEB, the part that I did read added quite a bit to my recent intellectual-religio quest. I was particularly struck by a passage early on in GEB where the author is discussing the differences between human thought and AI vis-a-vis formal systems. Humans have the ability to exit any system at will and survey the results, make judgements, or engage in some other system. Machines can, and often do, act unobservantly, i.e. completely immersed in the system. To wit:

How well have computers been taught to jump out of the system? ... In a computer chess tournament ... one program, the weakest of all the competing ones, had the unusual feature of quitting long before the game was over. It was not a very good chess player, but it at least had the redeeming quality of being able to spot a hopeless position, and to resign then and there, instead of waiting for the other program to go through the ritual of checkmating ... Thus, if you define "the system" as "making moves in a chess game", it is clear that the program had a sophisticated, preprogrammed ability to exit from the system. On the other hand, if you think of "the system" as being "whatever the computer had been programmed to do", then ... the computer had no ability whatsoever to exit the system.
Thus, it's all in how you define "the system". How PoMo.

The discussion of formal systems started to get me thinking about both the field of Physics and again my religious quest. Certainly the search for the grand unifying theory of physics is the search for the ultimate formal system. But my hunt for some kind of religio-spiritual truth was also a quest for the ultimate formal system. And, having just finished an election cycle, the search for, or adherence to a particular political ideology involves a formal system too.

If we ever find a grand unifying theory, two problems seem to arise (maybe three). The first is that it would seem that this unification would be subject to Godel's first incompleteness theorem: complete or consistent, not both. The second issue is that such a unification would be an example of a formal system that we (mankind) could not step out of and consider. Third, there's the fine tuning problem.

Here's something that struck me while reading that multiverse article. Certainly in Christianity (or Judeo-Christianity) we have the concept that Man is created in God's image. From a secular, socio-psychological perspective (or as Nietzsche might say), it's not hard to understand why the Man in God's image meme exists. And on the surface that meme seems incompatible with the concept of the multiverse. But it might just be right on. Going back GEB, if a defining characteristic of human intelligence is that it can, at will, step out of a formal system to make judgements or enter into a different formal system, and if human intelligence is created in the image of God, then God must be able to enter and exit formal systems at will too. But what sort of formal systems would a God deal with? Why not entire universes?

If God created the multiverse (i.e. an infinite set of universes), then ours is just one of an infinite number of permutations. Which helps assuage the fine tuning problem (we, then, aren't really fine tuned so much as just a probability). It also clears up the Man in God's Image meme. God can jump from one formal system (one universe) to the next just as we jump from Minesweeper to Solitaire. We inherit it from Him. And it sort of even answers the Godel Incompleteness problem in that whatever unification we came up with obviously wouldn 't be complete for all the other universes.

Yes, cramming the infinite and the unknowable into our puny linguistic constructs and conceptions is whack and narcissistic.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Secret of 2.0

I've got a separate post coming specifically on Twitter and it's ilk, but there was a phrase in this O'reilly post that really hit me.

"What's different, of course, is that Twitter isn't just a protocol. It's also a database. And that's the old secret of Web 2.0, Data is the "Intel Inside". That means that they can let go of controlling the interface. The more other people build on Twitter, the better their position becomes."

I sort of knew this, but it took this phraseology for me to really get it.

Two things immediately came into my head: 1) I need to ditch tiddly wiki and get some database backed blogging platform (or write my own). 2) Our typical clientele fundamentally does not understand this.

I'm starting to wonder why our community doesn't take a more Google (or even Amazon) like approach to their data. Aggregate it, put out some APIs and see what people do with it. Concentrate on availability, access, and environment/platform and get out of the way. Things like the DIB and DDMS and the rest of the standardized, top-down approach are starting to seem really heavy handed to me.

Solar Rigs

So I was reading this the other day and it got me to thinking: Who cares about the submarine, why don't we have just the "solar islands"? Imagine if we had huge solar islands (submersible even, so when the storms came they could just disappear for a while) in the same way that we have oil rigs. Or even solar islands that have wave/tidal generators on the underside. The downside of most alternative energy sources like wind and solar is that the equipment tends to exist in out of the way places where it's hard to get the produced energy to the grid. Obviously solar islands will suffer from the same hardship. It's just odd to me that we'd go through the effort of extracting oil from beneath the ocean floor, overcoming all kinds of challenges, yet solar islands (or farms) still are not widespread due to the overland distance thing.