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Archive for April, 2015

We have a problem.

As it stands now the present and near future of economic, social and cultural development primarily derives from computers and programming.   The algorithms already dominate our society – they run our politics, they run our financial system, they run our education, they run our entertainment, they run our healthcare.    The ubiquitous tracking of everything that can possible be tracked determined this current situation.   We must have programs to make things, to sell things, to exchange things.

punchcard

The problem is not necessarily the algorithms or the computers themselves but the fact that so few people can program.    And why?   Programming Sucks.

Oh sure, for those that do program and enjoy it, it doesn’t suck. As Much.   But for the 99%+ of the world’s population that doesn’t program a computer to earn a living it’s a terrible endeavour.

Programming involves a complete abstraction away from the world and all surroundings.  Programming is disembodied – it is mostly a thought exercise mixed with some of the worst aspects of engineering.   Mathematics, especially the higher order really crazy stuff was long ago unapproachable and completely disembodied requiring no physical engineering or representation at all.  Programming, in most of its modern instances, consequences very far away from its creative behavior.  That is, in most modern system it takes days, weeks, months years to personally feel the results deeply of what you’ve built.    Programming is ruthless.  It’s unpredictable.   It’s 95% or more reinventing the wheel and configuring environments to even run the most basic program.  It’s all set up, not a lot of creation.   So few others understand it they can’t appreciate the craft during the act (only the output is appreciated counted in users and downloads).

There are a couple of reasons why this is the case – a few theoretical/natural limits and a few self-imposed, engineering and cultural issues.

First the engineering and cultural issues.   Programming languages and computers evolved rather clumsily built mostly by programmers for other programmers – not for the majority of humans.    There’s never been a requirement to make programming itself more humanistic, more embodied.    Looking back on the history of computers computing was done always in support of something else, not for its own sake.   It was done to Solve Problems.   As long as the computing device and program solved the problem the objective was met.   Even the early computer companies famously thought it was silly to think everyone one day might actually use a personal computer.   And now we’re at a potentially more devastating standstill – it’s absurd to most people to think everyone might actually need to program.    I’ll return to these issues.

Second the natural limits of computation make for a very severe situation.   There are simply things that are non-computable.   That is, we can’t solve them.   Sometimes we can PROVE we can’t solve them but that doesn’t get us any closer to solving some things.    This is sometimes called the Halting Problem.  The idea is basically that for a sufficiently complex program you can’t predict whether the program will halt or not.   The implication is simply you must run the program and see if it halts.  Again, complexity is the key here.  If these are relatively small, fast programs with a less than infinite number of possible outcomes then you can simply run the program across all possible inputs and outputs.   Problem is… very few programs are that simple and certainly not any of the ones that recommend products to you, trade your money on wall street, or help doctors figure out what’s going on in your body.

STOP.

This is a VERY BIG DEAL.    Think about it.   We deploy millions of programs a day with completely non-deterministic, unpredictable outcomes.  Sure we do lots of quality assurance and we test everything we can and we simulate and we have lots of mathematics and experience that helps us grow confident… but when you get down to it, we simply don’t know if any given complex program has some horrible bug in it.

This issue rears its head an infinite number of times a day.   If you’ve ever been mad at MS Word for screwing up your bullet points or your browser stops rendering a page or your internet doesn’t work or your computer freezes… this is what’s going on.  All of these things are complex programs interacting with other programs and all of them have millions (give or take millions) of bugs in them.  Add to it that all of these things are mutable bits on your computer that viruses or hardware issues can manipulate (you can’t be sure the program you bought is the program you currently run) and you can see how things quickly escape our abilities to control.

This is devastating for the exercise of programming.  Computer scientists have invented a myriad of ways to temper the reality of the halting problem.   Most of these management techniques makes programming even more mysteries and challenging due to the imposition of even more rules that must be learned and maintained.   Unlike music and writing and art and furniture making and fashion we EXPECT and NEED computers to do exactly what we program them to do.   Most of the other stuff humans do and create is just fine if it sort of works.  It still has value.  Programs that are too erratic or worse, catastrophic, are not only not valuable we want to eliminate them from the earth.   We probably destroy some 95%+ of the programs we write.

The craft of programming is at odds with its natural limits.   Our expectations and thus the tools we craft to perform program conflict with the actuality.  Our use of programs exceeds their possibilities.

And this really isn’t due to computers or programming, but something more fundamental: complexity and prediction.    Even as our science shows us more and more that prediction is an illusion our demands of technology and business and media run counter.    This fundamental clash manifests itself in programming, programming languages, the hardware of computers, the culture of programming.  It is at odds with itself and in being so conflicted is unapproachable to those that don’t have ability to stare maddeningly into a screen flickering with millions of unknown rules and bugs.   Mastery is barely achievable except for a rare few.   And without mastery enjoyment rarely comes – the sort of enjoyment that can sustain someones attention long enough to do something significant.

I’ve thought long and hard about how to improve the craft of programming.   I’ve programmed a lot, lead a lot of programming efforts, delivered a lot of software, scrapped a lot more.  I’ve worked in 10+ languages.  I’ve studied mathematics and logic and computer science and philosophy.  I’ve worked with the greatest computer scientists.  I’ve worked with amazing business people and artists and mathematicians.   I’ve built systems large and small in many different categories.  In short, I’ve yet to find a situation in which programming wasn’t a major barrier to progress and thinking.

The solution isn’t in programming languages and in our computers.  It’s not about Code.org and trying to get more kids into our existing paradigm. This isn’t an awareness or interest problem.   The solution involves our goals and expectations.

We must stop trying to solve every problem perfectly.  We must stop trying to predict everything.   We must stop pursuing The Answer, as if it actually exists.  We must stop trying to optimize everything for speed and precision and accuracy. And we must stop applying computerized techniques to every single category of activity – at least in a way where we expect the computer to forever to the work.

We must create art.  Programming is art.  It is full of accidents and confusions and inconsistencies.   We must turn it back to an analog experience rather than a conflicted digital.    Use programming to explore and narrate and experiment rather than answer and define and calculate.

The tools that spring from those objectives will be more human.  More people will be able to participate.  We will make more approachable programs and languages and businesses.

In the end our problem with programming is one of relation – we’re either relating more or less to the world around us and as computers grow in numbers and integration we need to be able to commune, shape and relate to them.

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The Symbolic Theft

Shove all of the patterns and symbols into my head, whatever this head is, so that they might mix and match and sort and simmer.   Take these chapters – with their paragraphs and their sentences and their words and their letters and their strokes – all in. Ideas. Voices. Stories. Characters. Facts. Fictions.   Paint, o my minds brush, the landscape these words demand in their conflicted synchronization.

That which we call science and pagan folk mythology and mathematical logic of an intellectual minority and old short stories and poorly edited blog posts and every other means of description form the alternative reality of our reality.  We are at war.   We are in a dance.   Reality will not succumb.   Reality will always demand this love/war.

Symbols

Shout TRUTH! do peddlers of all these ideas.  Truth is always a future away.  Belief in that truth is always two futures and another book away.

The Truth Shall Set You Free.   They once wrote. They once said.  They once transcribed.  They once prescribed.   They never defined that truth.   The ancient scribes of pagan turned Christian history.

They.  Generations of idea burglars.  You are one too!  You thief of stories and ideas and biases.

But.

You will also give generously, gravely, gallantly every letter you steal as you inadvertently blather on your story of stories.   In your email I’ll read a Twain idea.   In an update out will come Buddha.   In a #hashtag, Kurt Cobain.   In that silly “Things Remembered” flask you’ll engrave a Steve Jobs quote.   Sometimes credit will be given, when the creditor is known and adds credibility.  Most times the debt goes unpaid and probably the originator will be all the more happy to not be associated with the missed context.

I read to never be myself.   I read to be everyone else.   I read for you.  I read about you.  I read because I am not you.   I read because I have no ideas of my own.

Ideas only emerge.   They emerge from the interaction of symbols exchanged between people.  Exchange is story.    Story is exchange.

Meaning isn’t in a thing, it’s beside a thing.   Meaning is the exchange of story sold down the river as it shouts to the banks of the onlookers.  What Is This?! They cry.

Pictures are symbols.   Letters are symbols.   Pictures are letters, letter are pictures.   While there is always this war of ideas and the promise that words are dead and pictures won, the word birthed the picture, the picture birthed the word. The songbird and the larynx and the hand birthed them both.  The mind them all.

Or wait.

The body in relation birthed the mind birthed the rest of it.   I thought Darwin explained this all.

Or was it Wittgenstein.

Suit the word to the action, the action to the word.  The bard of bards once might have said, written, drawn, acted.   And so we do.

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A Few Definitions

Culture

A collection of misrepresentations and generalizations about groups of people connected by the contingencies of localized time and space.

Knowledge

Repeatedly applied models of the world that fall apart less frequently than other models.

Data

Anything that isn’t the thing.

Color

A confusion of the senses.

Hope

A justification for doing nothing.

Possibility

A number close to zero.

Book

A device for clouding ideas in cryptic symbolism and convention.

School

A system for extreme procrastination and avoidance of real consequences.

Belief

A frequent denial of complexity.

Free Will

The best political slogan of all time.

Science

A morally disconnected accounting of destructive methods.

Memory

Sensory landfill.

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I often think, “these are strange times.”  As if I know what other times were like and as if they would be any less strange than now.   The thought is completely baseless.  Nonetheless, most days I drift off with a parallax feeling – something is somehow amiss.

Socrates Death

Socrates Death

Three days ago a healthy fever kept me prisoner in bed.  I turned on the TV to distract my burning brain.   For several hours I fell in and out of hysterical sleep as the MSNBC and CNN shows droned on. Finally my hand managed to dump me into the local news.   I managed to catch snippets and sound bytes on various political actions in Arkansas and Indiana and the emergence of movement on Iran Nuclear deals and the various drought issues in California.   Of course that little bit of content was sandwiched between erectile dysfunction ads, more news show promotions, political ads, and a bunch of other nonsense that was so nonsensical it didn’t register at all.

My fever provided an interesting kaleidoscope to consume all this “media.”   I barely recall the specific words, but I vividly recall lots of reddish pink faces, stunted vocal inflections, disjointed rejoinders all trying attempting to rile me out of my feverish funk and to take action – against anything.   I awoke the next morning remembering an angry opera where all the singers sing over each other and nothing makes sense but there’s a frenzy and certainly the frenzy means something because well it’s a frenzy.

This experience and any resulting thoughts aren’t really that enlightening or difficult to analyze.   We live in a cacophony of cacophonies.   We create them for each other, we consume them, we sell them to each other, we seek them out.   Media exists only as a cacophony.   Without the cacophony so many institutions and systems collapse.    Our identities and sense of almost being folds in on itself.   Without mass frenzy who needs a search engine?   Or curation tools? Or talking heads? Or journalists?   Or critics? Or pundits? Or experts? Or “likes”? Or vacations? Or spas? Or meditation centers? Or insurance? Or assurance? Or reputation management? Or pr? ….

The silence would obliterate an industrial turned digital world.  Our senses are now ill suited for the silence or slowness of a world without this recursive self generating cacophony.   The very senses so essential to our survival in what was likely a very competitive environment thousands and thousands of years ago reached what seems to me some bizarre threshold of sensation.  These every more acute senses and brains and bodies needed more than what the fabricated industrial world could deliver.  We needed media to put us back on edge.  Always keep us on the edge.  Something is out there to get me.

This is not the only way to fulfill and engage the senses and the brain and the body.  But by gosh is it the most efficient.   Thinking and engagement are costly efforts that cut into the means of production.   Philosophizing is hard to monetize.  Art shifts perspectives away from commoditization.   Walking is slow.   The mass of humankind should not engage in these activities for they lead to more of these activities.   No, listen to the cacophony and like a slot machine keep pushing the buttons (the handle is too slow), let the whistle sounds and cherry sights keep us in attention without engagement – next time, next time! The human capacity for repetitive motion and thought is nearly boundless if injected with just enough stimulation (throw in a little variation to throw the probability center off).

But it isn’t as Huxley thought it would be – habituation through pleasure – it’s more effective for production to a have a slightly disembodied sense of dread.   Pure pleasure would not keep the right chemicals flowing like dread and fear does.   Our fear of death is stronger than our desire for pleasure.

I contest that the pursuit of truth and knowledge is more powerful and sustaining than fleeing death or enjoying pleasure – but it is a hard practiced reward.  It takes a good deal of effort to get to a point where it sustains and grows.    It requires an upfront investment of the mind, body, and senses.   It forces one to give up the relentless pursuit of capital.

The human creature seeks the real – it can be trained and sustained on the near-real though.   It can hang on the edge of the real for as long as you can keep the cells alive.   But deep down the entirety of a given human seeks the real – the real world, the full view of a tree, the scent of the crisp night, the touch of another human, the lick of a dog, the view without glasses….   Without the real, we will take convincing substitutes and become sufficiently addicted until the senses have weakened and are no longer able to seek the real.

These are strange times.   They are strange because we seem to notice less and less than what the historical documents of the past suggest we were noticing previously.  Though we were ignorant then, as we are now, we seemed to appreciate that ignorance in some enlightened circles.  Instead of hiding from it, some went to their death because of their pursuit.   Now even the enlightened often seek the near-real or the unreal – the media, the virtual reality, the video games, the re-tweets, the parody news, the cable news, the ads as content, the representation vs the actual, the press statements vs a conversation, a political party vs a candidate with a feet on the ground.   That Edward Snowden didn’t cause mass uproar is only one of the main signs of this parallax situation.

We can no longer see the real.  I’m not even sure I can or ever could.

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