Understanding Computational Environments
Four Types of User Interface
Use of the words `Window' and `Frame'
`Voice Recognition' implies two more types of interface
Single Input -- Multiple Outputs [updated]
On computers, a single input can produce multiple output formats.
What might you see in an editor (or `word processor') that
provides two or more different surface expressions at the same
time as a deep representation? In addition, the introduction
of an occasionally useful third term, that of `intermediate
Single Input -- Multiple Outputs [continued]
People mostly work with the `surface expressions' or
`renderings' of a document; they listen to it or read it.
Every document produced with a computer has at least three
such renderings in addition to the deep representation in
which it is stored electronically. Often systems have only
one read-write format for their multiple read-only renderings
(printing on paper being a rendering that is always
read-only). When you have only one such read-write format, it
is better as a deep representation. That way no one
inadvertently comes to think that a computer is a single
output device. Unfortunately, by default, some programs have
you edit a high resolution format for typeset output instead.
Clay Shirky describes software `designed in and for a
particular social situation or context.' This software
does not scale, a problem. But it is cheaper and faster to create.
book on programming introduces this kind of work.
But I focused individuals, while Shirky focuses on groups.
Introduction to Emacspeak,
one of the
Four Types of User Interface,
an Audio Desktop for the permanently or situationally blind.
Purchasing a Computer for the Home
A friend asked me for advice about purchasing a computer
and here is what I came up with. This is not about
particular brands or makes I do not know anything
about them. Rather it is about considering capabilities.
HTML and email are opposite!
The long standing convention for HTML opposes the convention
for electronic mail. The one is "What You See Or Hear Is
Formatted As You Decide" to hear or see; the other is "What
You See Is What Your Correspondent Sent". The latter runs
against reality, which is that some people are permanently
blind and others are situationally blind, such as those who
listen to their email while driving a car. So the convention
cannot be followed exactly. Nonetheless, the convention has
A Danger of HTML Email
Not only is the use of HTML in electronic mail contrary to convention and against the
principle of "What You See Is What Your Correspondent
Sent", for some it is dangerous. I recently received a
message from a server located Nizhny Novgorod, Russia that
claimed to be from eBay. I doubt it was (especially since I
am not an `eBay member'); but I wonder how my late mother
might have responded shortly before she died, when she was
less alert than earlier in her life?
Stopping HTML Email Dangers
To stop HTML email dangers, we need a combination of
alertness, law, and technical action. Some will be alert, but
not everyone. Laws can be made more effective than in the
past. We need to avoid reading HTML mail as HTML, we need
good filters, we need other technical solutions, and we need
to avoid companies and programs with a poor history.
Emacs and VI
Two old and exemplar programs employ fundamentally different
user interfaces. Do people prefer one or other mode because
of the detailed way they write or because of more general
styles of thinking? In VI, an author writes a sentence or
paragraph and then goes back to edit it. In Emacs, an author
edits while writing, often changing a word in the middle.
Cheaply Replace Plain Old Telephone Service
In a May 2004 column, Robert Cringely argued that it is
cheaper than you think to replace land-line telephone services
and simultaneously receive high speed Internet access. He
refers to it as a `disruptive technology.' Clearly, one way
for susceptible companies to defend themselves is to stop
progress by influencing governments. But if progress
continues, users can benefit.
Finding Open WiFi Access Points
802.11b PCMCIA cards in computers, which marketers call
`WiFi' cards, are radio transceivers that enable people to
connect to the Internet and other machines. Other people can
readily receive these radio signals. While flying today with
my nephew, I found that many more `open' access points than I
expected; people could transmit or receive over them. The
practice is like leaving a door unlocked, except I do not
think that many people quite realize this.
Updating an Old Laptop
A fast Internet connection inspired me to update an old
laptop. The download was quick. The installation, which is
going fine as I write this, is taking a long time because the
machine is slow. Even though this is all commonplace, I find
the process amazing.
Reinstalling on old laptop
As forecast, my old laptop died on me. So I took the
opportunity to try out a new live CD, which worked fine, and
to try a beta test version of the new Debian installer. The
latter is installing as I write.
High Resolution Computer Displays
A high resolution computer display is more significant than I
expected. Text and pictures look sharp. Movies look better.
But even my high resolution display fails. We probably will
not be satisfied until computer screens gain six or twelve
times their current resolutions.
A Topical Issue: the United States and Iraq
Here is a synthesis of various of my short, topical essays
concerning the United States invasion and occupation of Iraq.
This work should be shorter and easier to follow than the
Don't Put All Your Eggs in One Basket
A database is a basket. To defend your country,
to make yourself secure, you must prevent a government,
a private company, or any other organization
from collecting your information in one place.
Opportunity, Compassion, and Justice
A topical issue: will the next major political conflict
be over the ways in which a government can provide opportunity?
And if so, which way will be successful? What will be the
consequences of meritocracy? Will one of the political
parties in the United States find the issue a new opportunity?
Rentalists vrs Capitalists
This is a topical question that opposes the preceding:
is it helpful to think of the contemporary US as
a rentalist economy rather than as
a capitalist economy? (This uses the
word rent in the economists' sense of a return from a
differential advantage for production, not as a return from
capital or labor invested.) Should we expect 21st century
conflicts to occur between rentalists and capitalists, rather
than between those who promote different paths
Energy, Information, Opportunity
Energy and information are critical to contemporary states.
In addition, legitimacy is necessary. Opportunity, along with
compassion and justice, will provide legitimacy. In turn,
this determines in part how a civilized state should work.
Persuasion, Legitimacy, and Power
The United States will lack safety unless it gains power, and
it will lack power unless it can persuade foreigners of its
legitimacy. The US gains its chance only by favoring
`opportunity', `compassion', and `justice'. Nothing else will
survive the coming century.
Soldier, Enemy Suspect, Criminal, Civilian
Because of the increased political significance of enemies
who do not wear uniforms to categorize them, the United States
needs a new legal classification to handle people justly.
The current US `Use of Force Resolution' is wrong.
Graceful Winners, Graceful Losers
For democracy to succeed, losers must be willing to lose.
Equally, winners must not push the losers into subversion.
In Iraq, this means that the US occupation forces must protect
its recent enemies, the Sunni, from the desire of the majority
Intrinsically Evil and Balance of Power
For a long lasting, secure, and large government, those who
design its constitution must presume that the people who will
make up the government will be evil. This is a very bad
presumption to make about neighbors, friends, or any stranger
in general, but it helps in government. (In addition,
constitutional designers must make arrangements so that losers leave
and winners do not push the losers too far.)
Persuading Those Not Sure
How the US conducts its efforts against Al Qaeda makes a difference.
It is "about convincing those people that aren't sure who to believe
who is right." Both the current notions associated with war
and those associated with policing fail under modern conditions;
and that supposes competent action.
The Goal was Victory
For the United States in its war against terrorism, the goal
was victory. That is to say, the goal was to enable Americans
again to feel safe. If Americans do not feel safer in October
2041 than they did in October 2001, the war was lost. Since
2041 is so far from the present, the immediate question
becomes whether you judge US strategy as reaching towards
Staying the Course
A topical issue: on 2004 May 24, US President Bush said that
he would continue his Administration's previous policy in
Iraq. To me, this means the Administration has abandoned a
long term goal of US victory, both in Iraq and within the
A Clear Statement of Purpose
Travel provides a metaphor for purpose. If you do not know
your destination, you will never learn whether you got there.
Indeed, you will not even be able to figure out which
direction to go. Lack of United States government clarity
makes a review of its actions in Iraq difficult. By presuming
a straightforward goal, we can judge the success or failure of
What does the US want in Iraq?
In John Robb's Web
log, he asks what the United States wants in Iraq? Robb
notes that inconsistant and fuzzy goals plague the US. I
think the two major US goals were clear, but never spoken by the US
government; and one has since been
From a military as well as civilian point of view,
it makes sense for the United States to return to its
old ideals. These are most likely to bring it
victory in the `assymetrical' or `fourth generation'
style of war it now suffers.
Future US Weakness and French Long Term Strategy
A topical question: what could the French government
in particular, and the European Union in general,
do to advance French and European influence against the US,
without raising military expenditures?
Pearl Harbor, 9/11, and Incompetence
In 1941, the Roosevelt Administration failed to forestall
the Pearl Harbor attack. In the 2001, the Bush Administration
failed to forestall the attacks of September 11.
A topical question: Was there no way that anyone could have
foreseen the latter? Or was the failure a problem of incompetence?
Since the Administration depended on intelligence still
influenced by its predecessor, we have to look at other
actions to gain evidence, one way or the other.
United States Failure and Challenger Success
It never mattered that the US Central Intelligence Agency
failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union, or that it
underestimated the number of Soviet nuclear weapons. For the
25 years after 1975, CIA failings did not lead to disaster.
As a governmental organization, it thrived. But without major
change, the US will fail and its challengers succeed.
`Mobile' and `Immobile' People and Societies
In `immobile' societies, leaders' wealth comes predominately
from the land or what is under it, such as oil. In `mobile'
societies, wealth comes from activities that transcend
geographic location, such as bottle making. Over the past few
centuries, Europe and a few of its former colonies have
shifted towards a `mobile' society, even though much
ultimately depends on agriculture and mining. But other
societies have not. Reuven Brenner inspires this way of
thinking and suggests specific policies for the United states
to follow in Iraq.
Further Thoughts on `Mobile' and `Immobile'
For Americans, Reuven Brenner's categorization insults those
who are `immobile' or come from `immobile' societies. This
weakens thought. But the terms also help. In Paleolithic
times, people were `mobile'; the rise of agriculture saw an
increase in `immobility'. The modern era brings with it
`mobility', but its technology is fragile. Moreover, certain
belief systems, which may be an advantage in the short run,
hinder long term advance.
Torture and Balance of Power
A US government memo from 6 March 2003 tries to justify
torture and other actions by agents of the United States.
These claims are unconstitutional. A US President may pardon
a criminal who commits a crime, such as torture, after he is
sentenced by a court, but not before. Moreover, courts must
follow the US Constitution and law. Governance in the United
States is based on a balance of power.
The US Invasion of Iraq
While I do not think that any of the arguments made publicly
in favor of the US invasion of Iraq persuaded the US government
as a whole or its military, I do think that two other arguments did:
in the short run, to intimidate other anti-US countries;
and in the long run, to change Middle Eastern countries' cultures
enough to make them as safe to the United States. This essay talks
about the second question.
What is Fascism?
I am just starting a book by Robert Paxton called The
Anatomy of Fascism. I already have strong ideas on the
subject. We shall learn what I think.
What is Fascism? A Few Quotations ... [more]
Here are more quotations from Robert Paxton's book, The
Anatomy of Fascism. A few weeks ago, I provided
quotations from the beginning of the book. Here are the rest.
I hope to develop a thesis that connects with my notion of Opportunity,
Compassion, and Justice.
Saddam's Generals and Modernization
According to a story, several of Saddam Hussein's generals
spoke in June 2004. The story's author quotes them as saying
that [w]e knew that if the United States decided to attack
Iraq, we would have no chance .... The war was lost in
advance, so we prepared the post-war .... Our strategy was
not improvised .... Among other points, I note that their
statements (which may be disinformation) fit with Reuven
Brenner's classification of societies into `mobile' and `immobile',
and suggest that the attempt towards a `mobile' society was
End of the US-Iraqi War?
Has the war between the US and Iraq ended? Or are we seeing
an ongoing `assymetical war'? I think the latter, but find
little public discussion of the issue in America. Moreover,
several of Saddam Hussein's
generals speak of the current period as the post-war.
A topical issue: Frank Richter argues that the United States
should not expect any more attacks on its soil. Moreover,
Americans tend to think short term. What if American enemies,
who may well figure they are winning at the moment, decide to
wait a few years, and then attack outside the US? Will
Americans even perceive the event? While I tend to expect an
attack of some sort shortly, I wonder.
Low Budget, Old Plans?
A topical issue: in contrast to an argument that
Americans can to some extent predict that the United States
should not expect any more attacks on its soil, because such
an action would be a military mistake in the summer of 2004, a
friend argues that we shall see the eventual implementation of
old, low budget plans. Moreover, since the movement against
the United States is based on ideas, a military `decapitation
strategy' will fail.
Post-Sale Followup Services
A topical issue: in a dream last night, I found myself
describing the United States invasion and occupation of Iraq
in a business language: what post-sale followup
service did the US fail to provide and what
about repeat sales? Then I applied another business
metaphor to war, that markets are conversations.
Sarin in an Iraqi Shell
A topical issue: the US says it found a small amount of the
nerve gas sarin in a shell in Iraq. Where did the shell come
from? At the end of May 2003, the United States had not
visited approximately 700 suspected sites that it feared
contained chemical, biological, nuclear, or radiological
weapons or the makings of such. As far as I can see, troops
in the US Army could at least have made cursory visits in the
time following the fall of Baghdad. That they did not
indicates a major failing.
Standard Operating Procedures
A topical issue: new US military standard operating procedures
provided a way for Colonel Dicker to analyze what the US has
done in Iraq. It looks to me, in the reversal of an old
saying, that the `phase 4' operations are an effort `to snatch
defeat from the jaws of victory'.
Who Controls Weapons?
When you `think like the enemy', you realize that the kinds of
weapon preferred by a dictator are different from the kinds
preferred by a stateless soldier or terrorist. This is
because the two have different goals and control mechanisms.
A topical question: why is the United States is deploying an
anti-ballistic missile system that uses nuclear warheads?
A Chinese Project Orion
A (probably not likely) topical issue: what if the current
Chinese government decided to adopt a technological method to
gain immediate military parity with the US, rather than depend
more on non-military techniques?
Kinetic Energy Impacters for Taiwan
Another Chinese issue: to provide deterrence
against mainland China, Taiwan could develop and deploy
`kinetic energy impacters' tungsten rods in orbit.
I do not know whether Taiwan will do this
I rather doubt it but it could happen.
Has the Bush Administration Given Up on the Israel-Palestine Conflict?
Writing in June of 2002, I noted that many commentators
figured that the 2002 `roadmap for peace in the
Israel-Palestinian conflict' would fail because it `set the
bar too high'. I offered several reasons why the Bush
administration might perceive such failure as an advantage.
Here is that I wrote then, followed by a brief August 2004
Opportunity and Estate Taxes
A topical issue and its implications: Is it true that in a
conventional, capitalist society, large fortunes tend to
maintain themselves? If so, and if you also favor opportunity
and progress, are estate taxes on fortunes greater than, say
US$10 million, necessary? Is this even more important than it
might be because of the changing nature of the state?
Metaphors, Taxes, and Health Payments
The term `tax relief' uses the same word as that used by
people who talk of a medicine to relieve an upset stomach. It
is a metaphor. Another
metaphor compares taxes to country club dues, a payment for
jointly used amenities. Given that people in the US and UK
both pay roughly the same in taxes for health services (but
not in overall health payments) and given the metaphor that
A Long Term US Deficit
A topical and pessimistic issue: what if the current United
States government deficit continues without the economic
growth and security that enables it to borrow from abroad?
Since the US can continue such a deficit for a generation or
so, a deficit is economically rational for those who plan to
take their money and abandon the country before the advent of
the unemployment, higher prices, higher taxes, and other
suffering that come from the end of such deficits.
`Global Warming', a Bigger Danger If Natural
A topical issue: in August of 2003, US Senator James Inhofe
said that current climate change comes from natural
variability, not human activity. I hope he is wrong, because
if he is right, we must act immediately and vigorously to
restrict human-produced greenhouse gases to compensate for
damaging and costly natural changes. The mainstream,
`anti-global warming' advice gives us more time and requires
Morality, Ethics, Politics
Does the United States face a systemic political problem that
cannot be solved by focusing on individuals? Stirling
Newberry argues that it does. Since people do not want to
watch their representatives, they end up rewarding those who
can lie convincingly, even though they want honest
A topical issue: will Michael Moore's movie Fahrenheit
9/11 help US President Bush win the forthcoming US
election? The movie may convince strong Democrats that Bush
is very bad indeed. Presidential candidate Kerry may fear
that rather than go along with the kinds of compromises that
would gain him additional votes, potential supporters will
stay home. Hence no compromises and no extra votes.
US Democratic Party Failures
A topical issue: over the past few days of September 2004,
people posting on the
`Blogging of the President' Web site have argued that the
Democratic campaign will lose the coming US presidential
election. The discussion is posed as a conflict between
`modernism' and `post-modernism'. I argue this is wrong
because neither offers a believable mechanism for determining
a hint towards what is true.
Responsibility, Frugality, Markets
After current Bush Administration policies fail, the
U. S. Republican party will have to adapt. `Responsibility',
`Frugality', and `Markets' provide the base for slogans that
can also define policies. Moreover, U. S. Democrats could
live with the policies suggested and the political process
within the U. S. improve.
Order, Law, Justice, Democracy
An optimistic essay about people's fundamental political
desires. Without order, you cannot have law. Justice
requires both law and order. Democracy enables a society to
change its government to adapt new laws to new conditions and
thereby preserve justice. Dictatorship, in a monarchy for
example, may succeed during periods of slow change, but the
governmental structure adapts poorly to new conditions. Unless
various governments stop change, or a catastrophe damages us
enough, over the next few generations, democracy will survive.
High Initial Cost/Low Incremental Production
What should we do about a common, modern problem?
Words, Money, and Guns
How to change society?
Periods of Unraveling
What happens after the revolution?
A Period of Crisis
How long will the current crisis last?
Liberty and Resources
When do societies provide liberty for some?
Governance for Software Development and Reproduction
What makes for good statecraft?
Tax, Borrow, or Scrimp
What else can a government do than tax, borrow, or scrimp?
Does a government have any other source of income
than by borrowing or by some form of tax, whether it be
an income tax, an inflation, or a sale of property it owns?
Needful Government Regulation
Competitive, free markets only succeed in a some circumstances.
At the same time, regulators often act against the public.
So what is necessary for a country to succeed?
A Market for Pollutants
Why a market for pollutants is more efficient
than a ban on them, but more difficult to administer.
Such a market fails when a government is corrupt.
Accounting in the Middle Ages
Double entry book keeping appeared in the European Middle Ages.
For this to happen, three new ways of thinking had to emerge,
one of which is monetary `balance'. At the same time, outsiders
would have a hard time seeing how profit could come from balance.
I am not an accountant: this is based on a history I read years ago.
Double Entry Book Keeping
A short discussion of the
two initial purposes of double entry book keeping: reporting
and control. One problem is that as an informational tool,
such book keeping tracks only `internal costs'. Since
double entry book keeping in itself does not encourage
it does not record `external costs', such as pollution.
Sudden, New Technology
What technologies have been a surprise to may people
and what future technologies might do the same?
Low and High Density Alternative Sources of Energy: a Categorization
The traditional `elements', Earth, Air, Fire, and Water,
along with Aristotle's fifth element, Quintessence,
can categorize the types of modern `alternative sources of energy'.
The traditional four depend on low energy density transformations;
the celestial fifth, nuclear energy, is a high density transformation.
What If No Cheap Electricity from Fusion?
Suppose electricity-generating fusion continues to be a dream?
What of the alternatives? Oil can synthesized from coal or
tar. But if the carbon dioxide released by burning fossil
fuels causes trouble sooner than anticipated, or if Senator
James Inhofe is right, which means we must reduce fossil fuel
use even more than mainstream scientists anticipate, we
will have to turn to irregular and expensive alternatives.
A topical issue, made worse by a common response, which deals
with demand rather than supply, and with clashes of interest.
Moreover, attacks that reduce world oil supplies by a percent
or two might occur three or five years apart. The people who
govern rich countries may
fail to perceive a threat and fail to engage in an
expensive, generation-long effort to change their sources.
effort to change their sources of supply.
Over the past half century, the cost of destruction has
dropped compared to the cost of building. It has always been
less expensive to destroy than to build; but over the past few
generations, the cost difference has widened. Assymetrical war is both more
possible now than it was, and more available to those without
the vast resources of the government of a great power.
Xenophobia, Savy, and Xenophilia
Does a pessimistic view of human nature
merit pessimistic expectations for future human action?
Societies as Von Neumann Machines
Although the notion of a self-replicating entity is old,
John von Neumann first suggested a modern, robotic form.
Usually, we think of such entities as `machines',
but human societies reproduce themselves, too.
Do large fortunes tend to grow?
Are competitive, free markets unstable?
I explore these questions through an analog:
the beginnings of a science fiction story in which
you explore an island is full of tentacled entities
whose ecological rules match those of our business society.
Libertarians versus Left-wing Democrats
How are some Libertarians and some Left-wing Democrats similar?
Many think this question prefigures a joke, but I disagree.
I see two similarities, one favoring a rule by thugs, the other
against a rule by men who are like bronze age warriors.
A Three Chamber Government
While I do not think that a `world government' is possible,
a larger government than we now see might occur
if it divides power in a way that appeals to each member country.
Law, Property, and Legitimacy
Why has capitalism succeeded in countries such as the United
States but failed in most of the world? Hernando de Soto
argues that without the ability to borrow from strangers, no
one will be able to build a firm that competes with existing,
large `Western' companies. But strangers will not lend unless
they can seize a defaulter's assets. And without a reliable,
quick, and honest legal system, assets stand for nothing. So
for success, `extralegal' assets, such as houses, must be
converted into legal assets. The only way to do this
successfully is to give the legal system legitimacy by
adapting to existing, actual social contracts.
Business Dispute Resolution in China
A friend suggests that in contemporary China,
anthropologically speaking, people in business think that only
their families are a part of the group with whom they should
be honest. This means that business transaction costs will be
higher and that customers will perceive that markets are
neither fair nor legitimate.
Business Dispute Resolution in India
Earlier, I wrote about the method of business dispute resolution
in China. My same friend who commented on China suggests
that anthropologically speaking, business dispute resolution
in India fits the `tort law' model better and is less
expensive for a society as a whole. This suggests that India
may eventually outgrow China, presuming that lower Chinese
costs for labor, capital, land, energy, and government action
do not overwhelm this one factor.
Succeeding With Worse, or Why Companies Move to China
In their book, The Innovator's Solution,
Christensen and Raynor suggest ways for a company to avoid
losing to a smaller, but faster moving competitor. The same
reasoning explains why some United States companies are moving
manufacturing to China. The analysis also suggests what
American companies that remain in the US will do. It does not
offer any hope for those who wish the overseas movement did
China into Far Eastern Russia in 20 Years? [updated]
Will China peacefully or otherwise take
over the far eastern part of Russia in
20 or 40 years? I wrote this first yesterday,
and have added a few comments.
Developing and Extralegal
A switch in view: rather than think of `the' economy as
national, developed, and legal, think of it as global,
developing, and extralegal. Public servants and private
investors both have reason to make this switch.
Encyclopedias as Trust Based Institutions
Banks and insurance companies depend on trust. That is
because they offer promises of future delivery, not anything
that can be checked in the here and now. Encyclopedias are
also based on trust since, as a practical matter, no one is
able to check their articles. To be useful, you need to trust
that the unchecked articles are good enough.
One Way to Implement Trust
To make it hard for frauds or well-intentioned but faulty
people from destroying its quality, one Web site randomly
selects people to serve as temporary judges. Such a judge
must be a long time regular, willing to serve, and respected
by other judges. Such a person receives a number of points
that expire quickly. After they expire, the person stops
being a judge.
The Petals of Cooperation
What are the political, constitutional changes that enable a
just and sustainable society to succeed? They are consent,
freedom, and law. To evaluate a political proposal, you can
ask whether it protects, preserves, prepares, and provides?
You can investigate the five qualities of a social recipe:
reason, rigor, reality, honesty, and responsibility. And
then, the details ...
Who Gets What?
Currently, capitalist societies transfer income from one
person to another according to four criteria: services or
products rendered, ownership, government edict, and charity.
What should societies do when such transfers mean much reduced
returns to people who produce goods or when machines, not
people, produce objects?
The United States is a strongly isolationist country,
even though it is strongly involved in the world
and now fighting abroad. Will it continue to act alone
or will it join a larger country with
a three chamber government?
Crime and Age
When do crooks go straight?
Trucking, costly and fragile
Just looking at a big highway, it is evident that trucking has
increasingly replaced rail over the past generation. How much
more damage to the roads do these additional trucks cause than
cars? Many years ago, a man from the state Dept. of Public
Works told me a high number. Moreover, trucks and cars depend
on fossil fuels; they cannot run without them. Unfortunately,
fossil fuel production is pretty well fixed; and the amount
produced might suddenly fall.
Conflict over the Goals of a Civilization
At a public hearing I found a clash within my civilization:
what kind of noise to accept or protest? An old friend sought
a special permit to keep a rooster and chickens behind her
house. The protest is over the sound of a cock's crow. Do
you support our current technology or do you hope to supersede
it? Do you view farm animals as workers or as pets? What
New and Old Politics
Over the next few generations, political leaders will come
decide fewer issues. Instead they will permit their political
supporters to decide some of them. They will do this because
otherwise, they will not gain supporters at all.
Medieval Armor and Violence
A museum of Medieval armor and weapons reminded me that many
Medieval soldiers lived in `honor based' societies. The men
were sensitive to how they perceived others thought of them
and would fight if they felt slighted. Modern civilization
grew as these men were superseded by governments in which more
peaceful people gained power.
Unknown unknowns and the Rest
When you do not even know you do not know something, you face
an `unknown unknown'. For most young children, this is the
case with calculus. Then there is a fifth category.... the
disease of experts.
Jared Diamond asked why some societies make disastrous
decisions? He talked about four kinds of failure, each with
its own several reasons: to fail to anticipate a problem, to
fail to perceive it; to fail to try to solve it, and to fail
to solve it after trying. For example, one reason to fail to
anticipate is because of misleading metaphors, as happened in
Iceland with the Vikings.
Mostly, I am optimistic, but today I decided to be
pessimistic. The simplest and least dangerous scenario is
electronic mail that is formatted in HTML. From there I point
to the possibility that we may never be able to generate cheap
electricity from fusion and be unable to create a reasonably
efficient alternative source. I end up with issues of
governance and the causes for societies making disastrous
More than ten years ago, David Perkins published a book that
enables us to judge an educational system. His underlying
notion is simple: that people learn much of which they have a
reasonable opportunity and motivation to learn. This concept
defines the simplest of conditions for good schooling, which
are needed if we wish to avoid
For the past several years, I have been writing fiction. That is why
you have not heard from me. Please write me if you are interested.
As for a previous effort,
Choice and Constraint
has `1' added to its edition number because I added chapters
and changed their order.
Choice and Constraint
is both a description of `what is' ... not a `what is' of
political scientists, but a `what is' that reflects the
current world and a statement of `what can be done'. I turn
to forms of persuasion. Aristotle spoke more than two
thousand years ago. Unfortunately, he is limited. I talk
about modern methods of determination. And I consider what
should be done? The last chapter is now The Petals of
Darwin's Five Laws of Evolution
With the supporting evidence he provided, Darwin's notions
were best described as theories. Now, they have been as well
established as Newton's Laws, so they should be called laws.
(Darwin saw his hypotheses as one conjoined notion,
hence the singular; but they are distinct notions.)
Design Process and Multiples
For the past several thousand years, most people have not only
presumed that a `design' requires a `designer', but that only
an entity can design, never a process. The English language
favors this `folk belief' by making the usual term for `that
which designs' be the word `designer'. This is a mistake.
Moreover, for a unplanned design process to succeed, people
must think in terms of populations, of multiple, rather than
of exemplars or typical cases.
Von Neumann Machines
An essay on von Neumann machines as such rather than as
metaphors for human
societies and economies or as
conceptual tools for
thinking about evolution. A von Neumann Machine is a robotic
self-replicator. It has a minimum number of parts, which
humans can readily understand. In so far as copies are
inexact and circumstances change, new forms become
The Elegance of Darwinian Evolution
While Darwinian evolution is true and cruel,
it is not inelegant, inefficient, or wasteful.
Those judgement categories are irrelevant.
Of course, if you farm, then waste becomes an issue.
But not if you are a forest.
A Species is Not an Organism
Often, I speak of a species as an organism. But it is not.
Nor is an ecology. But sometimes it is useful to imagine the
one as the other. Moreover, since it is easier to think more
clearly about an imaginary self-replicating, robotic factory
than about your own society or your food supply, a von Neumann
machine is a good model.
An Early High Death Rate
and how it effects evolution.
Pre-industrial Kondratiev Cycles
A Kondratiev cycle is a change in prices that lasts 50
60 years. Michael Alexander provides a theory that I find
intriguing why such a Kondratiev cycle occurred in Medieval
Europe, which was a pre-industrial, agricultural society.
He provides some evidence.
Pre-industrial Kondratiev Cycles and `Generations'
Michael Alexander combines his two generation theory of a
pre-industrial Kondratiev cycle with the four generation, 100
120 year, cycle that Strauss and Howe develop in their
work on `Generations'.
Build with Unbreakable Components
Unlike the wood of a sailing ship or the metal of a car, a
number is unbreakable. Computer programs are built from such
unbreakable objects. This enables developers to create complex
entities. In biology, atoms are also unbreakable. So are
sacred postulates and basic laws. Nonetheless programs,
animals, theologies, and law have all become as difficult to
maintain as ships and cars. Entities stop becoming more
complex, stop becoming more prey to rot, only when the
complexity or rot kills enough of them.
Free Lunches, Oil, and Outer Space
Perceptions, Thinking, and Incomplete Evidence
How we perceive
Omission and Commission
Zero-sum situations are bad and best avoided. Likewise, it is
dangerous to allow those who have considerable power to define
a situation as `black and
white' since people like to think within a `container'
metaphor. That mode is one of the four ways people tend to perceive
and think. It is the most simple of the four.
Nonetheless, others sometimes put us into such situation. I
think we should endeavor to act against them, even when the
circumstances are bad, and when the action is dubious,
complex, and its outcome doubtful.
Styles of Thought
Quick now, why ... ?
Understanding Without Proof
Benjamin Peirce famously spoke of a mathematical equation
`that is surely true ... and we don't know what it means.'
Meaning and proof are different. Only recently has anyone
explained the underlying nature of mathematical meaning.
An Electrical Metaphor
The metaphor we use for electricity is so embedded in the
language that we hardly notice: the metaphor is based on the
notion of a flow of water and uses the word current. Yet the
metaphor implies a flow through a solid metal, and what we
measure, initially a weight, later the position of a needle,
is not a measurement of the current itself, but of something
The word `computer' is wrong. In the old days, a computer was
a person who computed, just as a baker was a person who baked
and a typewriter was a person who wrote on a typewriting
machine. However, in the past century and a half, the words
`computer' and `typewriter' have shifted from referring to the
person to referring to the machine. Moreover, we `program' a
computer rather than write `recipes' for it.
Counting in Base 12
I am furious that in the Middle Ages, Christian Europe
adopted an Indian/Arabic base 10 numerical system rather than
the better base 12 system. Base 12 fits the number of Christian
Apostles. It fits the number of eggs in dozen.
In base 12, you can count on one hand.
When the evidence is `suggestive'
An Exercise Using Certainty Factors
How certainty factors might be used to understand
a controversial political situation; and
a practical use for selling robot vacuum cleaners.
Three Aids to Judgement
As far as I can see, in 1700, school children
could have learned three aspects of judgement:
certainty factors, frequency-based probability
judgements, and estimates of of the likelihood
of one-time-only events.
Black, White, and Gray
More complex logics, and how they relate to our perceptions.
Regarding `Black, White, and Gray'
A question asking whether computers already
use certainty factors under the name of Bayesian analysis,
or whether the two are different? If they are different,
which is better for everyday human use?
Influences on me
Ways of thinking about the world.
Quotations from "Ecology, Meaning & Religion" by Roy Rappaport
I mention Rappaport in Influences on me
Here is more.
Homer's Odyssey and Rappaport's anthropology
A presentation by a new translator of the `Odyssey' suggested
to me that Roy Rappaport had made sense when he pointed out a
way to provide law when no laws can be enforced by
governments. I wonder whether this was the case.
Additive and Non-additive Ideas
You can learn more: learning is additive.
But you cannot hold two contradictory opinions
at the same time. You cannot simultaneously be both
a Christian and a Moslem. As statements of truth,
some pairs of ideas are rivalrous, to use economists'
jargon. They are similar to shirts and shoes.
But as learnable ideas, they are non-rivalrous, like software.
A plant, animal, human society, or product may
reduplicate prolifically so long as it is alone.
But it may not survive competition from its own kind.
Virtues that help it in the first circumstance
may be outweighed by faults in the second.
Will Microsoft Windows die as its faults come to
outweigh its virtues?
What is Science?
Science the most robust form of transcultural communication
yet known. It is a way of persuading a person that one judgement
is better than another. But instead of trying to persuade
another by appealing to a common cultural understanding or to
a widely accepted authority, a scientific communication
strives to generate an internal experience. This transcends
culture. Clearly, most such communication is irrelevant;
but sometimes truth is important.
Cats to the Veterinarian
When I was a child, I learned that `God moves in mysterious
ways'. Today, I took the cats to the veterinarian for their
rabies' shots and checkups, an action that to them was
mysterious and unpleasant. What would be the metaphoric
nature of God for a child, if the animal to which he or she
related were a large horse or cow rather than a small cat (or
sheep or goat, which children often tended)?
Horses as Prey Animals
Unlike cats and dogs, which are predators, horses are prey
animals. This makes horses different from cats and dogs.
(Humans are both predators and prey.) I know little about
horses; this is what friends have told me.
Birds' and Bees' Color Vision
Birds see more colors than humans. Their perceptions must be
different. Not only can birds see ultraviolet, they have at
least four types of color sensitive cone cells. Humans have
only three types of cone. (`Rods' are for dimmer, grey, night
vision.) To birds, their plumages may be even more colorful
than to humans, or colorful in different ways.
A Coherent Model Based on Observation
In Plato's dialog, Timaeus provides a coherent model of the
universe that derives in a large part from observation and
only in a small part from cultural presumption. As a theory,
it enjoyed a long run. It outlasted two civilizations, the
Classical and the Medieval. Unfortunately, the observations
were poor and the model wrong.
Old Fashioned Newspaper Format
Years ago, by looking at a bunch of them, I induced the format
for stories written by journalists working for my local
newspaper. Articles were written so that an editor could
delete paragraphs from the end. (This is a well known style,
but I did not know about it then.)
Typewriters, Computers, Telescopes, and Privacy
Secret, Anonymous Communications
A Small Telescope
A correspondent asked which of two small telescopes he should
choose. For astronomy, because of light pollution and lack of
contrast, the better is bigger. You also need to think about
the mount, and the whole optical path.
Calc Embedded mode
A short discussion about using Calc Embedded mode in your mail
buffer in GNU Emacs to solve a complex equation for one of its
Bombs, Language, and Exploration
Science Fiction and Non-fiction, Predictions
The Outcasts of Heaven Belt: a Commentary
`Notes on the use of stereotypes within a genre.' I just
rediscovered these notes I wrote in 1981 about a science
fiction novel by Joan D. Vinge. Among other topics, the novel
talks about two collapses of civilization, although the second
is off-stage and incomplete.
The Economics of Interstellar Trade
Even using the optimistic assumptions of a 3% per year growth
rate for 500 years, interstellar trade will be expensive.
Most `goods' will be more cheaply manufactured locally. Most
`transport' will be via radio rather than by physically
carrying an object.
Innovations After Their Time
Many innovations could have taken place earlier, but no one
thought of them. A hot air balloon, even a dirigible, could
have been built four thousand years ago. Food could have been
rapidly frozen and preserved in an ice house.
Innovations of the Next Half Century (from 1980)
Here are five innovations that I figured would have a large
impact when I wrote these predictions in 1980. All the
predictions were wrong; at least, none have yet transpired.
Yet even in retrospect, none appear impossible and all look
In 1993, Vernor Vinge argued that within two generations,
we will have the technological means to create superhuman
intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be
ended. To me, that notion looks like a millennial religious
concept in modern garb.
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