All posts made the week commencing Sunday 9 Mar., 2003:

Various extracts from Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate (at, as a way of noting ideas that trigger other ideas, mainly.

one | The inherent logic of morality is pointing at the internal consistency of numbers and saying the same may be true in ethics. In non-zero-sum games where participants are capable of formulating a strategy, does our conception of morality simple follow? (Makes me think of morality ladder functions, to move from person-to-person to social rules, as in the science mentions in Starship Troopers.)

two | The portions of the mind: a tentative list of the mind's instinctive cognitive faculties and the intuitions on which they are based. In summary, Pinker contends that the following ship with every brain (intuitive versions of each):

  • Physics
  • Biology or natural history
  • Psychology
  • Spatial sense
  • Number sense
  • A sense of probability
  • Economics
  • Database and logic
  • Language
  • More emotional components: fear; disgust; morality

three | A quote from the Pope on converging discoveries, which is as good a way as any to define a successful theory.

four | A lovely passage on nonrival goods, which suggests two very fruitful ways of thinking:

  • Nonrival goods (that is, goods that can be duplicated for no cost. Know-how rather than cake) may have been part of humanity's makeup since the earliest days.
  • The idea of social cognition (which allows people to cooperate without being cheated). A system which can't be gamed. The bizarre arms race which results from having to be smart enough to fool something just as smart as you are comes to an end with a truce: your internal state is represented on your outside to a certain degree. And, there's nothing you can do about it.

(Thoughts so far about The Blank Slate: I found the first three parts - the first half of the book - a little tedious, but it's picked up now the rebuttals and justifications have ended. It's not a book with which I agree entirely (the inherent logic of morality is particularly shaky given what lengths Pinker goes to to make everything else robust. And we'll not mention his sloppy thinking around direct genetic modification. The rest convinces me far more than not), but it's challenging and thought-provoking. Which is the important thing.)

Hypertext links having weight [via Joho the Blog]. Links as vectors complete with magnitude. Your browsing has a direction and momentum that carves out a space. So if you always follow link-then-link then the subsequent link will be in the same direction. We need a topology that fits over the screen that affects your mouse cursor, so some links (in the same direction) are easier to move towards than others. (Example: Clicking a link is like propelling yourself in a certain direction with a certain velocity. This direction/velocity is determined by the link author and your own behaviour. On the target page, you retain your browsing momentum. Links in a different direction are harder to move towards. This is attained by putting a third dimension over the page which changes how easy it is to move your cursor. Perhaps.)

Thought experiment. Imagine there's a fifth dimension in which senses can flow, but physical structures can't be built. That is, line-of-sight isn't impeded by walls, and doors don't work (for blocking sight/sound). How would society be different? Containers would be indicators only; a building would be a hint to other autonomous beings not to intrude (how would this change evolution? Would the moral structures to support this become hardwired at a low level, a tacit agreement to ignore the fifth dimension becoming encoded in the genes? Or would it become an arms race? Or maybe it'd be gamed?). Walls are invisible, like forcefields. Or maybe like a topology: traversing a landscape of buildings is like crossing chasms and scaling cliffs. You'd have to be aware what was on the other side of a wall, space would be leaky. Or rather, the environment would be more insistant. Privacy becomes a question of distance. (Two similar thoughts: If you could see Paris from here, how big would it be? And: If you were on Europa, Jupiter would hang in the sky about twenty times the width of the Moon, or four palm-widths held at arm's length.)

The behaviour of highly meshed systems is why I'm unsure about direct genetic modification. Change by selective breeding uses the mechanisms that have evolved to change the genome by environmental feedback (set methods?) -- the data return path from the phenotype to the next iteration. New GM methods play with the genome itself, editing private variables. Who knows what they're used for.

Scientists develop brain prosthesis for rats: "Scientists do not know exactly how the hippocampus works. So the Californian team simply copied its behaviour. Slices of rat hippocampus were stimulated with electrical signals millions of times, until scientists could be sure which input produced a corresponding output. Putting the information from each slide together, the researchers were able to devise a mathematical model of a whole hippocampus. The model was then programmed on to a chip".

Today's fresh Upsideclown is on the sameness of things: "Over the top of my laptop I look out the window, trying to think whether the people walking down the pavement in ones and knots of twos and threes look like the pattern of buses arriving, birds settling on a wire, the global tempo of earthquakes. Or maybe just people, walking". Read Climax state.

Three articles:

  • World of Ends. Easy-to-read, and good, nature of the internet piece. (Pretty spot on. My concern is the concept doesn't mesh well with the way most people understand, and this article doesn't bridge the metaphor sets. But it will convince the people who are almost there and that's getting the message out to a lot more people, one of whom quite possibly being the ideal translator.)
  • The Pentagon's New Map, military strategy in terms of the two identified geopolitical types: the highly-connected Functional Core (the globalised West; the world's strongly connected component) versus the Non-Integrating Gap (disconnected; that bit not pulled into equilibrium by Le Chatelier's Principle). Interesting paradigm.
  • Tom Coates' take on where these two ideas meet. Insightful, and there are some excellent comments.

Is there a world for the study of the behaviour of abstract machines?

It seems Homo sapiens have recently been through a period of very small total population, which has caused low genetic variability among the species now. From The Genetic Archaeology of Race: "...sometime in the period 100,000 to 200,000 years ago our ancestors went through a severe genetic bottleneck. Perhaps an environmental change drove ancient people to the brink of extinction. A more likely scenario, however, is that a relatively small group, numbering fewer than 20,000 at times and probably living in eastern Africa, was isolated for many thousands of years from the many groups of archaic human beings scattered throughout Africa, Europe, and Asia. The people who emerged from this genetic bottleneck had traits never before seen in human beings. They had lighter builds, new ways of interacting among themselves, and perhaps a greater facility with language".

There are a number of possibilities of how the Homo sapiens bottleneck occurred, with a number of expansion models. (And what is a human, anyway?)

Schrodinger's wave equation is used to model particles as waves -- waves of what it's not known, but probability is related. Although the meaning behind this equation (and all of quantum physics) isn't really understood, it's enormously successful. And knowing it, and knowing how simple it is, is an odd feeling -- an awe being able to see the universe at a number of levels.

A history of the wave equation: "Classical physics -- that is, Newtonian mechanics and Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism -- seemingly accounted for all observed natural phenomena. It was a deterministic universe. The planets, eternally whirling with their inscrutable precision; the ebbing and flowing of the sea's tides; the oscillations of a pendulum; the way bodies exchange energy and momentum; waves of light propagating through space -- do they all not obey a deterministic model? Some claimed that given the initial conditions of the universe, all of its future behavior could calculated. Alas, as so often occurs in science, a crisis arose that was fatal in nature to classical physics: it failed to account for certain important phenomena. This was the ultraviolet catastrophe".

75 years of the Schrodinger's wave equation (which is rich in links) celebrates the Erwin Schrodinger too. It seems he was a wide thinker: "While in Dublin, Schrodinger also published 'What is Life?' where he claimed that cellular function may be explained according to the laws of thermodynamics; he wrote that the basis of life could be understood through chemical and physical properties. (Although this major aspect of his discourse was later proven to be incorrect, 'What is Life?' still became an intellectual component of the groundbreaking work regarding the function of DNA performed by Crick and Watson.)"

These 3d animations of Linux kernel development [via Slashdot thread] show the growth of sourcecode and dependencies like nothing else. The guided tour of Linux-2.4.5 gives a great intuitive picture of the comparitive complexities of different portions of the code -- Lion's Commentary on Unix is a good complement to this (reading the surprisingly tiny piece of code responsible for a file node or the boot sequence gave me an emotional response similar to learning about Schrodinger's wave equation).

Better is the animation of the growth of Linux from 1.2.0 to 2.4.1. You can really see where the complexity comes in, which portions of code are similar to which others. Incredible. And even if all of this makes no sense, the animations are still beautiful to watch -- to have this kind of data available to model for other systems!

What are the differences between a vocabulary, a taxonomy, a thesaurus, an ontology, and a meta-model? [via Catalogablog]

This page of links about muds and online game design (collected by Raph Koster) is particularly good, and points to a number of studies about the early multiplayer online game, Habitat.

Stewart Butterfield has Koster writings and more massively multiplayer online game links.

Piles of excellent reading material.