Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Seventh Seal (movie review)

This much-written-about classic by Ingmar Bergman is embedded within every film school curriculum and overview documentary I would suppose.  The Story of Film:  An Odyssey, certainly cites it.  For all that hype, had I ever see this movie start to finish?  Not for credit certainly.

The plot is set in medieval Sweden and appropriately follows a formula, popular at the time (and later), of a small troupe on a pilgrimage, eventually braving dangers together, and in this case, witnessing a witch burning in progress.

The fragility and ineptness of the entire belief system of the day is exposed, almost to the point of comically, in a somewhat Monty Pythonic (satirical) manner ("bring out your dead!").

Ironically, they are being punished by God, for being so forgivably clueless.  Fools are not exempt from the laws of nature however, and Death reaps souls aplenty.

The pilgrimage begins with the Knight and Squire, just back from the crusades, soon joined by Death, who stalks the Knight throughout the film, playing him at chess.  The Squire turns out to be the most learned and free thinking of the bunch and challenges the Knight's belief system in a teasing manner.

The Squire is chivalrous in rescuing a Damsel in distress, from a wicked thief who used to be something of a church authority, the one who encouraged the Knight and Squire to venture abroad on their crusade in the first place.  The Damsel joins the party, as does a troupe of three actors:  the Clown, his beautiful young Wife, their Director, and the baby Michael.

The Clown is perhaps closest to God in having visions all the time, which make him seem the most foolish, though his Wife listens and loves him.  The Clown is in good physical shape given he practices his moves all day, though his juggling is pathetic, what we see of it anyway.  He hopes Michael, their son, will grow up to become a juggler too.

The Wife is not so sure that's a good career choice for their boy.  Maybe he could be a Knight?  The Knight warns that's not much fun either.

The Knight is beset with existential concerns.  He wants answers.  What was the point of his pointless crusade, at the end of the day?  Helping the church burn women at the stake?  The Squire is especially repulsed by the whole business.

The Knight is initially open to the idea the "witch" might have some answers, given her supposedly close relationship with the Devil.  Then he sees she's just delusional, shaking her own faith as well.

In challenging Death to a game of chess, he delays his own demise long enough to win a reprieve for the small family he comes to care about.  The Clown, his Wife and Baby, escape Death for now, thanks to a combination of the Knight's nobility and the Clown's psychic powers.

The world (Sweden) is not a nice place, beset with the Black Plague.  Many are sure these are the End Times.  When Death arrives at the Knight's castle, where our party (minus the Clown family) has gathered, the Damsel seems most drawn to her next world, meeting Death with a look of anticipation.

The Knight rejoins a loyal spouse, who tended the castle all these years, awaiting his return, and yet he is far from overjoyed.  He's too tired to be capable of much emotion.  After his epiphany over cream and strawberries with baby Michael's family earlier, he has become exhausted.  He knows this small party is doomed (the chess game did not go well) and so remains emotionally distant.

There's a subplot with the Director, seduced by the Iron Smith's spouse.  These two, the Iron Smith and his unfaithful Wife, also join the party, rounding out the characters and providing contrasts.  Compare married life for these two versus that of the Clown and his significant other.

The different personality types, at different places along life's journey, all travel together, with Death on the heals of each one.  Like a medieval audience, we learn from these characters, confronted with challenges and adventures.  We feel called to contemplate our own life's journey.

Closing on the theme of Life as Chess (a strategy for winning over death for an interval), let us hear from Benjamin Franklin circa 1750 on the value of learning it:
“The Game of Chess is not merely an idle amusement; several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired and strengthened by it, so as to become habits ready on all occasions; for life is a kind of Chess, in which we have often points to gain, and competitors or adversaries to contend with, and in which there is a vast variety of good and ill events, that are, in some degree, the effect of prudence, or the want of it. By playing at Chess then, we may learn”  [ source ]

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Cultural Illiteracy

Special Type

When businesses moved from file cabinets stuffed with mostly typed and hand-written documents, to digital media, most adults got left behind.  Basic reading and writing was relegated to SQL and/or noSQL, which in turn lives behind web forms.  Spreadsheets are "what if" or "read only", like most web pages, making cube farmers the new peasants, illiterate and outside the bastion, not part of the 0.01%.  If a spreadsheet is also writable, then it's too mutable to matter (unless "what if").

In other words, if you're ignorant of SQL, you're incapable of even the most basic clerical functions associated with our current global / local civilization.  You're a peasant (cube farmer?) in the older sense, not like in Cuba where an agrarian engineer might use NumPy on Linux to map out the plantings and compute the return.  Not all peasants are digitally challenged.  But in the USA, where public schools usually share nothing of SQL, the depth of ignorance is deep.

Case in point:  I've always used CenturyLink for Internet access, including as an ISP back to US West days, then through the Qwest period.  I recently upgraded from DSL to optical fiber, but guess what?  I'm treated as a consumer of Prism TV services and no static IP is available in my network.  They don't expect me to host a computer or serve web pages from my house?  Why?  Because I'm just another dumb American who knows neither how to read nor write (in the business sense).

If you're just another dummy, then what you want piped to your house is News Weather and Sports so you can lie there like a couch potato, get fat, and die.  Woo hoo, what a great life that was, right?

Back in the day, the ancient Egyptians had a pyramid society (pun intended) with peasants at the base, then craftsmen, then military, then finally scribes and inner circle courtiers surrounding the Pharaoh.  Switching to China, we imagine the Emperor, surrounded by eunuchs.  The scribes were the ones who knew the SQL of their day.  To peasants, record-keeping was what it seemed like to us, a lot of cryptic hieroglyphics.  But the eunuchs knew the power of clerical work (clerking) when it comes to effective admin.  Fast forward:  So why do you think they call it "Unix"?  That's a joke for insiders.

We've returned to such a society.  The cube farmers who just use Microsoft Excel all day are piss ignorant with no scribe-level business skills.  They're mostly kept alive in meaningless jobs (feeding pens) so they'll consume and pay bills in a service economy.  The economy depends on pointless shopping and meaningless services.  If your life develops enough meaning to where you can't be trusted to mindlessly consume then you're a threat and a good-for-nothing.  Preventing the spread of static IP is a first line of defense against literacy making a come back.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Techno-Morality: A Linus Pauling Memorial Lecture


How is techno-morality different from morality more generally?  The virtues Dr. Vallor ticked off sounded familiar:  courage, humility, wisdom, magnanimity... I'd add fortitude, the ability to persevere in the face of adversity.

For example, when I tried to upgrade my copy of PyDev recently, the Python developers' plug-in for Eclipse, the screen dump showing error messages might have demoralized a lesser version of me.  But with the right mental attitude, I was able to focus on the documentation and "just do it" as they say around NikeTown.

Being a geek requires cultivating a kind of athleticism, along with a kind of self-congratulatory mechanism that are together conducive to making repeated attempts.  If at first you don't succeed, try, try and try (and try) again.

But who said being a geek was what Shannon was interested in?

I'd say she is one though, interested or not, that much was clear.  She mentioned liking to study the The Walking Dead for its philosophical insights, and I can see why.  That show pushes us to vicariously experience "life at the limits" as Walter Kaufmann would say.

Underground comics have been for ages a place to study the philosophical implications of a society gone off the rails or pushed to extremes in one dimension or more (Batman's Gotham is another paradigm use case).

Lets put it this way:  when the Internet first hatched from its dinosaur ARPA egg and started to reach the teaming masses, a need for "netiquette" or "Internet etiquette" was born.  But etiquette is so much lesser a word than "virtue" or "code of ethics" or even "code of conduct".  Netiquette includes such style guidelines as staying away from ranting in all uppercase letters in one's communications, a practice derogatorily referred to as "shouting".

Etiquette connotes manners, civility, not making a fool of oneself, whereas Ethics goes deeper and reflects character in a more telling way.  We all see a need for Netiquette, i.e. rules of the road, noticed if broken, so how much more so, then, should we accept a need for techno-ethics more generally.

To answer my opening question, then, what Dr. Vallor was acknowledging and addressing is the exploding set of possibilities, hitherto science fiction, technology might realize or has realized already.

Our decisions, vis-a-vis our technologies, are having more complicated ripple effects such that our powers of judgement are called upon as never before.  An ethical sense is what stands between a life worth living, and everything turning so ugly (as in The Walking Dead) that going on has become of questionable worth.

Fermi's Paradox is that we just aren't seeing many signs of intelligent life out there, and this becomes hard to explain given how hard we're looking.   "Where are all the people (intelligent life forms of any kind)?"

One possible explanation is developing high technology is almost always a prelude to a kind of crisis or singularity that removes said civilization as a source of positive radio noise.  Are we seeing evidence (in the silence of space) that species of our abilities are fated to be short-lived?

Shannon is ultimately in the business of risk assessment or even triage.  Looking ahead, at possible threats, such as a cosmic body smashing into the planet, what does it make sense to fear most, fear a lot, fear less?

Having a "fear profile" that maximizes one's chances takes discernment and homework.  For example she didn't think AI robots were about to stage a coup as the more intelligent / entitled half.  Much more likely, our cavalier reliance on silly algorithms would take us out.

We're more likely to perish thanks to machine stupidity than smarts, in other words.  We'll shoot ourselves in the head, figuratively speaking, i.e. start a nuclear war, simply out of carelessness.

The future is seemingly more opaque given complexity which is where the humility comes in.  Even as Vallor was outlining some of her own chief fears, she was quick to back off claiming that her perspective was the last word.  She made no claims to omniscience (refreshing, in a philosopher).

The audience was very engaged as questions of ethics with regard to technology are prevalent and galvanizing.  She had been to a middle school earlier that afternoon and the kids were eager to articulate about the issues.

We can all point to use cases, such as a doll that records what children are saying to it so that adults might listen in later.  Is that an invasion of privacy?  What is "right sharing" as Quakers might say?

What is characteristic of philosophy when it comes to ethics is there seems a less well-developed set of pathologies where an absence of ethics is concerned, in comparison to what the medical profession has crafted.  When it comes to the anti-virtues, what has philosophy to compare with DSM V?

What shocks many a virtuous adult about the Internet is its lewdness and carnival atmosphere, its peep show / freak show aspects.

Such noir aspects of cyber-life are as likely to attract the attention of psychiatrists as philosophers.  But then spin doctors of all stripes are attracted by extreme phenomena.  For every virtue, a host of sins beg for our concerted attention.


Sunday, January 10, 2016

Critical Path


I'd join this reading program, hosted by the BFI, led by one of its board members, however I'm booked for a gig of my own that same evening.  Malesh.  Another time maybe.

Critical Path comes between Synergetics and Grunch of Giants, and follows the Hegelian pattern of some Pure Logic giving rise to History (a narrative telling, with a point of view, or many, polarized, and partially overlapping), which latter telling seems pretty twisted, leaving us worried Synergetics might not be the last word in the logic department ("ongoing corkscrewing" more likely -- it's not defining itself as a terminus).

Or is complaining about "weird and twisted" a deliberate miss-framing of a poetically licensed work?

Like what's this about humans specializing towards Idiocracy, passing monkeys going the other way, towards Planet of the Apes?  How did we get beamed here as information again?

Fuller's stars don't just shine at night, they program, for lack of a better word.  Lets at least agree their information is structured, if only spread out over signature frequencies.

The elements "talk" (broadcast) and why shouldn't they?  Spectrometers pick up information on what stars are made of.  Clearly the stars do inform the planets, in ways more than just by helping to drive photosynthesis.

In later chapters, Fuller definitely plays the Cold Warrior, moving his chess pieces around his global World Game board.

But then isn't "cold war" just more "cryogenics" in a synergetical sense, something meticulous and computational, like game theory?

How much of this is more smoke and mirrors?  How much enciphered?  Is "explorations in the geometry of thinking" a little bit like living through Lost?

They're always taking us down blind alleys, these tale-twisting bardic old people (Tribal Elders).  Some level of suspicion is not out of place, if only as a defense of a personal namespace.  We each give voice to a Universe, Carl Sagan a case in point.

Bucky shares lots of good inventions.  Like that's a really cool idea for a Geoscope in view of the UN building in NYC.

His plan for the US Expo Pavilion in Montreal was similar but ended up featuring the pure geometry of the dome (a slice of a geodesic sphere actually) instead.

The District of Columbia (WDC) crowd grew leery of Expos after that, given their fall from sophistication in some new cycle of American thought.

The USG peeled off from the Worlds Fair organization, following a different drummer, following Orlando perhaps i.e. Disney's EPCOT would be the permanent tribute to America's exceptionalism.  Or did America vanish into the singularity of Tomorrowland even before the USSR did?  Let historians debate such questions.

The Geoscope / Mapparium now have their software incarnations ala Google Earth and Terraserver, with ESRI providing a Dymaxion-skinned view, not a requirement, where global data is concerned, but certainly a nice-to-have.

Some schools of hermeneutics consider it impossible to have "literal truths" about the uber-murky past or future, not because we don't know the literal truth so much as our language is not designed to express it.

The box we think in is pretty strict and quickly stops makings sense when outside of.  These schools see myth not as a substitute for truth, but as an encoding for which no key is yet available, but yet may prove decipherable to some degree, to professional oracles and others similarly predisposed.

The stuff about humans and dolphins inter-twined is meant more as a friendly arm around a fellow mammal, a set of species the seagoing have long spun yarns about.   

Critical Path has its whales, required in any oceanic myth aiming to spring up from first principles, embracing at least some of what we know.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Home Economics

A pattern for me, when thinking about concurrency, is to gravitate to cooking in a large well-equipped kitchen with multiple chefs.  I should thank Dave DiNucci for connecting these dots for us at a Wanderers presentation.

I folded laundry while watching the "wicked smart" CBS Evening News (alluding to the last story about seeking the authentic Boston accent).  Meanwhile, I shouted to my dog downstairs that I'd be back down shortly (she gets lonely, and can't walk, let alone climb stairs).  All multi-tasking.  Reality runs in parallel even if we imagine "now" time slices in sequence, integrating the differences.

The Gathering of Western Young Friends was also influential, in developing my appreciation for an institutional kitchen.  This group of Quaker-Pagans sought out remote retreat center camping facilities that would allow the customers to take over logistics in a big way.

We brought in our own supplies and orchestrated the meals.  It helped that a few of us (not me so much) were serious foodies, the kind with their own knife rolls.  Some had cooked professionally.

Fast forward to Food Not Bombs.  When one joins a food prep team as an anonymous stranger, with others on the team also unknown to one another, with the ingredients for that day also somewhat luck of the draw, then collaboration powers inevitably get developed (unless there's a breakdown).  People have an ability to self-organize, given optimum conditions (e.g. the prospect of a healthy meal as a reward for task completion).

I was able to book our Quaker meetinghouse on Stark Street for a year of such experiments.  We pulled it off every Thursday.  My house was a hub for bicycle trailers coming and going.  We had some room for inventory, both at my house and in the meetinghouse basement (just a single box in the latter location).  My blogs chronicle this chapter and suggests one's habits have a way of perpetuating themselves, have a kind of inertia of their own.  Isn't that why we call them habits?

The most powerful habits are habits of mind, which may encounter the least resistance.  Physical habits maybe change, but in thought we have freedom, including the freedom to get stuck in a rut.  Learning to get free of thoughts that comprise a mental prison more than a path to liberation is a life-long challenge.

We need fast reflexes to get by.  Habits of thought are not in and of themselves "bad" so much as "potentially worth countering" -- usually with other habits.  We learn to consciously cultivate new habits as a way of dampening obsolete ones.

In team sports, coaches strive to impart the habits associated with team work.  In my essay on Home Economics for MathFuture, I stress the similarities between athleticism and multi-tasking with others in a well-equipped kitchen.  Sailing a boat likewise requires working as a crew.

Every successful enterprise needs team players with an ability to work together, developed over time through practice.  Home Economics, as much as any team sport, might become a basis for infusing these skills more widely through what we call school.

Jay Rinsing Burley

Friday, January 01, 2016

Think Outside the Box

Those of us working in the neighborhood of Common Core and STEAM (STEM + Anthro, or Art in most accounts), might appreciate "outside the box" as a fine meme to build on.


What do you picture when you picture a box?

No doubt a rectilinear affair no?  Not a tetrahedron certainly.  But why not?

The tetrahedron is the paradigm container, with minimal edges and faces.

Forget practicality, think about conceptuality.

We'll get back to practicality, with the same Cube in a spanking new context.

We might spin it as "break free from the box" in the sense of the box's shape

We're free of our stereotype of "a box".  The blinders have come off.

What difference does it make, to be free of the "box shape"?  Think about it.