Douglas Hofstadter in town [UPDATED]

Douglas Hofstadter Douglas Hofstadter(author of Gödel, Escher, Bach and many other books) is in town this week. He gave a lecture to our Phil.of Mind class at Tufts entitled “What is it like to be a strange loop?”, and he’s talking at the Media Lab in MIT tomorrow.

As to the subject of the talk:
(1) Hofstadter remains fascinated (as he was in GEB) with the interaction of two ideas: feedback loops, and systemic (explanatory) levels. In GEB, you may remember, the strange – and unexpectedly stable – patterns generated by pointing a video camera at the screen displaying its output were a powerful example (and metaphor) for the way these ideas come together. Doug’s about to repeat a number of those experiments: how will the fact that the low-level technology has changed from analog to digital affect them?
(2) My interpretation of “strange loops” is that Doug is talking about feedback loops that cross various kinds of boundaries: between the physical and the cognitive, between the outside world and the I-in-the-world (in terms of action and perception), and across minds (from one person to another).

After the lecture, a bunch of us went out for dinner with DennettDaniel Dennett and Hofstadter. Among the faculty and students, was an old friend, the novelist and tech writerJohn Sundman. He and I worked together at Sun from 1986 until about 1989; John did most of the writing on the first release of PC-NFS, and managed the writing for the 386i workstation program.

[Apologies for the quality of the pictures – taken on my Treo 650 in very poor light.]

Great – now I'm really confused!

Went test driving cars today. First stop was a Toyota dealership a few miles south of us. Their website said they had a couple of 2005 Priuses in stock, but no… they had a pre-owned 2004 (whose owner had traded up to a 2005), they were expecting one from a cancelled order to arrive in a week (“if you’d like to put down a deposit”), and otherwise the delivery time was around a month. (Longer for red – 36% of the Prius deliveries are in silver, only 13% in red.)

But at least I could test drive the 2004. Very smooth, very comfortable. I was a bit tentative, in part because I wasn’t sure what would feel different, but in the end I was very pleased. The system status screen is fascinating, and the sensation of everything shutting down when you stop is… different. Dealership experience? We got a generic car salesman, no overt pressure but trying to weave a web of commitment.

From there we went down to the Subaru dealership where Merry has bought two out of her last three cars. Her regular salesman wasn’t there, but we worked with a young guy who was both an excellent salesman and a complete geek. (We spent almost as much time checking out his PSP and my Treo 650 as we did talking cars.) I was interested in the WRX, but he steered me to the new Legacy GT – the one with the 250 hp 2.5 litre turbo and a Tiptonic-style automatic with shift switches on the steering wheel. Man, that was a fast car! We drove around some nice sweeping backstreet curves and then onto I-95, where I got to check out the acceleration from 40 to 80 fast…. Unlike my tentative, experimental drive in the Prius, I got out of the Legacy with a big, silly grin all over my face. That was fun! (Thanks, Cody!)

So: two great cars, two very different experiences; about the same price. Both Car of the Year winners – the Prius in the US, the Legacy in Japan. Decisions, decisions. Anyway, there’s no rush. Maybe I should test a Mini Cooper.

4th digital camera

I just acquired my fourth digital camera. I got my first in Washington DC many years ago, a relatively simple Kodak. I can’t remember what the second was; I lost it on a business trip. The third was a Fuji FinePix which I eventually gave to my son. And the fourth is a Nikon Coolpix 5600.nikon5600.jpg

I’ve never been a real photography geek; I’ve tended to buy cameras that do the job required as simply as possible. For digital cameras, I’ve had a simple rule: buy the best possible for under $300. The Nikon qualifies. It came with a free 128MB SD card, which I’ve swapped for the 1GB SD card in my Treo 650. This means that I have room for 790 pictures (5.1MP) or 21 minutes of 640×480 video (with sound). That should be enough. (Typical British understatement.)

Catching up (philosophy department)

A good week. First, a thoroughly satisafactory result on my mid-term, made even more so by the fact that it was my first bit of classwork in 30+ years. Dennett’s class on Wednesday was about Kripke (“C-fibers and pain”, modal logic, essentialism reborn), and it was one of those lovely “ah-ha!” experiences. The account of the historic 1971 Irvine summer school was priceless. Great fun.
Then my classmate Richard Dub pointed me at the very useful Online Papers in Philosophy site, and from there I found my way to Megan Wallace’s’ delightful website and her provocative ideas about fictionalism and “slingshots” (not to mention the very useful Wussy/BadAss criterion and the priceless Acutetarianism).
And finally this afternoon I took some vacation time (I’ve accumulated a bit too much – use it or lose it) and went to hear Dennett deliver the 2005 Harvard Review of Philosophy Lecture at Emerson Hall. Excellent turn-out – probably around 200. The subject was familar (to those in his class): “Philosophers, Zombies, and Feelings: The Illusions of ‘First-Person’ Approaches to Consciousness.”. The Q&A afterwards showed how uncomfortable some people were with computational models of mind; how strong the need for human exceptionalism – or perhaps essentialism – is.

Quick blog: death penalty

In response to Ideology, American style, Alec weighed in with“ok, here’s a poser for you and jeff: ‘death penalty‘ – in your enlightened self-interest, or not?”

I find this an easy one. Setting aside the moral issues, which are not significant in the utilitarian calculus implied by enlightened self-interest, I find that there are three stances to be considered:

  • As a general member of society, I find that the death penalty is uneconomic (wastes my taxes), and offers no added societal protection (crime statistics). Since all human systems seem to be fallible, mechanisms for correction should be built in; the death penalty fails this test. It demonstrably distorts the policing and legal systems in countries where it is used, especially “equal protection” provisions. It impedes police work, since convicted criminals are likely to withhold information on additional crimes for fear of execution.
  • As a victim, or someone close to a victim of a capital crime, the death penalty offers me nothing but crude revenge. It will not restore the dead to life, or offer practical compensation. Revenge seems an inequitable basis on which to design a legal system. For example, some victims’ families might object to the death penalty: should the penalty depend on the whim of each family? In any case, enlightened self-interest is not generally assumed to include purely visceral satisfaction.
  • The final stance to be considered is if I, or someone close to me, were accused of a capital crime. (Even if I believe myself incapable of such a crime, I must consider the possibility of a wrongful accusation.) In all cases, the rational thing for me to do is to oppose capital punishment. Even if I were in fact guilty, and believed that I deserved the death penalty, I could always kill myself. I have no reasonable basis for imposing this preference on others who might be guilty, and none for imposing it on those wrongly accused.

That seems to cover it. In addition (and not surprisingly) I view the death penalty as morally indefensible. Just say no.

Ideology, American style

Earlier today, my colleague Jeff Kesselman posted a piece in which he despaired of the myopia of many Americans; of the way in which, at best, they can’t see where their interests lie, and at worst actively work against them. He wrote:

Not long ago I had someone look at me in all seriousness and say, “You don’t have kids. Why on earth do you want to pay for public schools?” Now there are all kinds of good reasons for having top quality schools. Reasons in my self-interest having to do with the health of the American economy, our ability to globally compete, and the ability of the masses to do any kind of justice to this thing we call democracy. For this person though I realized a more down to earth explanation was going to be necessary and I simply said, “If your kid has a good job, he won’t steal my stereo.”

On reading this, I was reminded of the fascinating piece in this month’s Atlantic magazine: the first in a series of articles by Bernard-Henri Lévy entitled In the Footsteps of Tocqueville. I’m going to quote at greater length than usual, because the online copy is for subscribers only; I encourage you to pick up a print edition. Here he writes about visiting the Republican Convention in New York last summer; the emphasis is mine:

These people who say ‘values matter more’; these activists for whom the struggle against Darwin is a sacred cause that should be argued in the schools; this blue-collar man from Buffalo to whom I explain that the promise of the current president to reduce federal taxes will have the automatic effect of impoverishing his native city even more, who replies that he couldn’t care less, because what matters to him is the problem posed by inflation in a quasi-Soviet state. These are men and women who are ready to let the questions that affect them most directly take second place to matters of principle that — in the case, for instance, of the legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts — do not have, and never will have, any effect on their concrete existence. Aren’t they reacting as ideologues would, according to criteria that have to be called ideological?… What’s the matter with Kansas? Since when has politics stopped obeying the honest calculation of self-interest and personal ambition? How can knowledgeable, reasonable, pragmatic men work for their own servitude, thinking they’re struggling for their freedom? That, Thomas Frank, is what is called ideology. That is precisely the mechanism that La Boétie and Karl Marx described in Europe, which we, alas, have experienced only too often. Now it’s your turn, friends. And as we say in France, À votre santé!—To your very good health!

What kind of person could think that a couple of gay men getting married in Provincetown, MA, was more important than putting books in the school library and cops on the streets? The same species that can’t understand why a childless man would support public education, I guess.

To Prius or not to Prius….

I’m thinking of replacing my trusty Mercury Cougar (I’ve had it 7 years), and I’ve been doing some preliminary research. While I’ve always had a soft spot for the Subaru WRX, and the Scion tC looks like an amazing value, and the Mini Cooper is… well, a Mini, the geek in me keeps coming back to the Toyota Prius. Any Prius owner care to supplement (or contradict) the ecstatic opinions of the motoring press? Does that amazing powerplant work as well as they say?
(Of course the fact that my latest fill-up was at $2.29 a gallon has nothing to do with my thinking. It’s the Prius’s optional Bluetooth support….!)

Posted in 1K

Arithmetically challenged Google?

According to the Guardian: “Google is celebrating the first birthday of its free email service Gmail by doubling users’ capacity to two gigabytes, with a promise to boost its email storage further in future.” Sounds good. But why does my Gmail page say that I have only 1479MB? Am I not worthy?:

You are currently using 67 MB (5%) of your 1479 MB.

UPDATE: Thanks to Robin and Mark for pointing out that Google is doling out the additional space a few megabytes at a time. I’m now up to 1540 MB, and there’s a cute graphic on the Gmail login page that explains what’s going on. To infinity and beyond, I guess…..

The angels cheer: "They killed Kenny!"

kennysmall.jpgNo, I don’t normally watch “South Park”. I’m not sure why – we used to have an awesome “South Park” pinball machine here in the Labs. Anyway, the buzz was that yesterday’s “South Park” was going to be a very special one – and it was. Andrew Leonard tells all over at Salon: “But wait! Kenny isn’t dead! Doctors manage to resuscitate him! With a feeding tube! He’s in a ‘persistent vegetative state.’ Heaven is doomed!… The feeding tube is pulled. ‘They killed Kenny,’ the angels cheer! Heaven is saved, as Kenny, using a gold-plated PSP given to him by Peter, defeats the forces of Satan.”

Brilliant. Tasteless? Sure, but it’s a breath of fresh air after the recent media circus.

And coincidentally Kenny popped up again today, over at Boing Boing: trench art from Iraq. (See thumbnail.) Full size pic at Flickr.

Caught by the marketing machine: Moby "Hotel"

On the strength of a slick sampler download from iTunes, I bought Moby’s new album “Hotel”. Oh dear. (British understatement, that.) Kelefa Sanneh wrote an unsparing review of the album in today’s New York Times: This music isn’t just dull, though. Like much of what Moby has produced since “Play,” it’s condescending, too. Much of it sounds like the work of a producer who thinks pop music is supposed to be kind of idiotic, and who thinks pop audiences should be glad that he deigns to give us what we want. Do we like sex? O.K., here’s “I Like It,” four singularly unpleasant minutes of heavy breathing. Do we like songs about how the world is happy and sad and good and bad? O.K., here’s “Slipping Away,” with a wispy beat and Moby crooning, “Open to everything, happy and sad/Seeing the good when it’s all going . . .” – you can finish the couplets yourself. And, knowing that we like familiarity, Moby has his collaborator, Laura Dawn, sing a slowed-down version of the New Order hit “Temptation.”

Fortunately, my car has a 6-disc CD changer, so it was a matter of a click of a button to get away from this stuff to music with real soul – Final Straw by Snow Patrol, or Sunday 8 PM by Faithless. And now Chris tells me I should pay attention to The Futureheads, and from the videos on the website he’s right. And the Pickle thinks I should dive into the Avenue Q Soundtrack and accept that It Sucks To Be Me and Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist. So much music, so little time.