May 18, 2006
`I don't believe in natural science.'
From Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel, by Rebecca Goldstein. 2006. Norton paperback, ISBN 0-393-32760-4.
Though Princeton's population is well accustomed to eccentricity, trained not to look askance at rumpled speciments staring vacantly (or seeminly vacantly) off into space-time, Kurt Gödel struck almost everyone as seriously strange, presenting a formidable challenge to conversational exchange. A reticent person, Gödel, when he did speak, was more than likely to say something to which no possible response seemed forthcoming:
John Bahcall was a promising young astrophysicist when he was introduced to Gödel at a small Institute dinner. He identified himself as a physicist, to which Gödel's curt response was `I don't believe in natural science.'
The philosopher Thomas Nagel recalled also being seated next to Gödel at a small gathering for dinner at the Institute and discussing the mind-body problem with him, a philosophical chestnut that both men had tried to crack. Nagel pointed out to Gödel that Gödel's extreme dualist view (according to which souls and bodies have quite separate existences, linking up with one another at birth to conjoin in a sort of partnership that is severed upon death) seems hard to reconcile with the theory of evolution. Gödel professed himself a nonbeliever in evolution and topped this off by pointing out, as if this were additional corroboration for his own rejection of Darwinism: `You know Stalin didn't believe in evolution either, and he was a very intelligent man.'
`After that,' Nagel told me with a small laugh, `I just gave up.'
The linguist Noam Chomsky, too, reported being stopped dead in his linguistic tracks by the logician. Chomsky asked him what he was currently working on, and received an answer that probably nobody since the seventeenth-century's Leibniz had given: `I am trying to prove that the laws of nature are a priori.'
Three magnificent minds, as at home in the world of pure ideas as anyone on this planet, yet they (and there are more) reported hitting an insurmountable impasse in discussing ideas with Gödel.
Leave aside the comment about natural selection, and consider the other two anecdotal quotes attributed to Gödel. They are entirely consistent with Gödel's version of Leibniz's principle of sufficient reason; Gödel's so-called `interesting axiom' which is talked about earlier in Goldstein's book:
All of his thinking is governed by an `interesting axiom,' as Ernst Gabor Straus, Einstein's assistant from 1944 to 1947, once characterized it. For every fact, there exists an explanation as to why that fact is a fact; why it has to be a fact. This conviction amounts to the assertion that there is no brute contingency in this world, no givens that need not have been given. In other words, the world will never, not even once, speak to us in the way that an exasperated parent will speak to her fractious adolescent: `Why, I'll tell you why. Because I said so!' The world always has an explanation for itself, or as (Gödel) puts it, Die Welt ist vernünftig, the world is intelligible.
About Gödel's comments on natural selection, I find it hard to say anything remotely reasonable. Rebecca Goldstein cites an explanation about Gödel's intuitions about Darwinism by Steven Pinker, which essentially states that being a logician, Gödel disliked the non-determinism inherent in the Darwinian explanation. It comes across more as an apology than an explanation. But we do not need any explanation, of course. There is little doubt about Gödel's accomplishments, but like Einstein, the public, and even other scientists, expected these geniuses to provide deep insights (purely intuitive or a priori, by their very nature) on topics outside their expertise. The fault is not with them, but with us in taking everything they said all too seriously.
Update 5/29/2006: This update is meant to clarify one point that might be misunderstood. Unlike natural selection, Gödel's interests did in fact extend quite clearly into physics and even astrophysics. For a Festschrift in Einstein's honor, Gödel reluctantly published a paper that laid out a completely new model for the famous Einstein equations of General Relativity. In Gödel's interpretation so-called "Closed Timelike Curves" could exist, in which time can have cycles and you could revisit the past cyclically (perhaps this is also related to Gödel's interest in the existence of non-standard models in logic). For reasons not entirely clear to me, this interpretation has some link to observations of galaxies where if a significant number of them had a strong preference for spinning in one direction vs. another this would be a relevant finding. In a story that appears much later in Goldstein's book, some astrophysicists who were involved in such observations were asked to confer with Gödel and were taken aback at the sharp penetrating questions he had for them. `I wish we had talked to Gödel before doing our work.' was their comment after this conversation. It still does not explain to me his mysterious statement to John Bahcall above, but I suspect it does not mean what it appears to at first glance.
May 09, 2006
Vladimir the Able
As if Vladimir Vapnik was not cool enough, it turns out according to Vapnik's wikipedia entry that he did his Master's degree in math in 1958 from Uzbek State University in Samarkand.
It's not so cool to explain a joke: but the title of this entry is supposed to be an antonym of Timur the Lame, who is certainly one of the other famous residents of Samarkand.
Update: Thanks to cosma for the new title (originally was "Vapnik the Able").
November 09, 2005
When software bugs attack
Here is an important caveat from the article:
Many people believe the worst bugs are those that cause fatalities. To be sure, there haven't been many, but cases like the Therac-25 are widely seen as warnings against the widespread deployment of software in safety critical applications. Experts who study such systems, though, warn that even though the software might kill a few people, focusing on these fatalities risks inhibiting the migration of technology into areas where smarter processing is sorely needed. In the end, they say, the lack of software might kill more people than the inevitable bugs.
This is presented as an all-or-nothing argument. It is probably rare that smarter processing is so crucial that those using the technology should not insist on being skeptical and really trusting the software they use. This evokes Sean Eddy's note in PLOS Comp. Bio. about ``inter-disciplinary'' research: which should not be construed as the gathering of people from different disciplines, but individual people learning and eventually confident of doing research in multiple disciplines.
October 11, 2005
The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: the Story of Paul Erdös and the Search for Mathematical Truth by Paul Hoffmann
Paul Erdös was easily the most prolific mathematician of the 20th century. Part of this reason was that he did almost nothing else: he spent all his time engrossed in mathematics. He ingested the strongest coffee and addictive levels of amphetamines to ensure that he was continually alert to the possibility of a new theorem even with only three hours of sleep every day. He never married or even had to the best of anybody's knowledge any romantic feelings for anything other than prime numbers and graph theory. In a field of strange geniuses, Erdös was stranger and more of a genius than most.
He wrote or co-authored 1,475 academic papers, many of them monumental, and all of them substantial.
While Erdös' life and his work are fascinating, only the former gets adequate attention in this book. His curious behaviour and his homeland Hungary get a lot of attention by Hoffmann. The history of Hungary in the early 20th century provides a backdrop to the story of Erdös and his family who were Hungarian Jews during a time (as everyone knows) when it not so convenient to be Jewish in Europe.
While Hoffmann selects prime number theory and goes into its history and Erdös' contributions to this field in great depth, Hoffmann all but ignores the tremendous contributions of Erdös to random graphs and Ramsey theory. The latter is mentioned and discussed in the book, but is not covered in the depth that it deserved.
Instead, Hoffmann gets distracted by the colorful personalities of many of Erdös' academic collaborators. Even historical figures in mathematics that formed some of the foundations of the field are covered even though they have but tangential connections to the work of Erdös (their work might have deep connections, but they do so to the work of all mathematicians, and so their selection here is simply opportunistic). The work of Gauss is covered suitably for his proof of the Prime Number Theorem (a theorem about the log-like distribution of prime numbers). This was a theorem for which Erdös and Selberg gave a simpler proof than the original by Gauss. Other mathematicians such as Cantor get a lot of coverage in this book, sometimes not for very good reasons.
Despite these shortcomings, Hoffmann does a good job in introducing the intuitions behind the practice of number theory in mathematics.
It should be noted that the reviewer has an Erdös number of 4.
%T The Man Who Loved Only Numbers %T :the Story of Paul Erdös and the Search for Mathematical Truth %A Paul Hoffmann %I Fourth Estate, London %D 1998 %G ISBN: 1857028112 (pb) %P 302 %K mathematics, biography
Review written: 2002/02/22
October 04, 2005
Startup by Jerry Kaplan
There is a notion of capitalism involving a competition between companies and the best, most innovative products lead to profits. Even before Microsoft publicists bastardized the term 'innovation' there was little novelty tolerated in the computer industry.
Jerry Kaplan tells his story of a high-tech Silicon Valley startup from the inception of the idea to the final gasps when the venture capital dries up and bigger fish in the fond swallow up parts of their company. The book chronicles the rise and fall of his startup company, Go Inc. This was a company that wanted to produce the first handheld computer that would be entirely operated by a pen device. While the company failed, the idea of a pen-based device and the actual technology that was developed at Go found it's way into a future generation of successful devices like the Palm from 3COM and the Microsoft rival WinCe (or the Pocket PC).
The story begins with Kaplan's weekly visit to his PhD advisor Aravind Joshi at the University of Pennsylvania. It sets the tone for the rest of the book, which is told in a similar light-hearted vein (for a tragedy, which is what this is). Some personal details creep in as is common in this kind of autobiographical business story.
The story is told in such a good-hearted manner with little greed in evidence (apart from the usual ambition to succeed) that even those who hate the genre of CEO hagiography and myth will find things to like in this book.
%T Startup %A Jerry Kaplan %I Penguin Books %D 1994 %G ISBN: 0140257314 (pb) %P 322 %K business, computer-science
Review written: 2002/02/22
September 28, 2005
The Code Book: The Evolution of Secrecy from Mary, Queen of Scots to Quantum Cryptography by Simon Singh
There have been many books that have explored the history, the scientific and engineering contributions and the mathematics behind cryptography. One of the most comprehensive early books on the topic was "Secret and Urgent, the story of codes and ciphers" by Fletcher Pratt (Blue Ribbon Books, 1942). More recently, "The Codebreakers; The Comprehensive History of Secret Communication from Ancient Times to the Internet" by David Kahn attempted a detailed history of cryptography. The emphasis in Kahn's book was on the historical details, more or less assuming a familiarity with the mathematics behind the algorithms.
Of late, popular writing about mathematics is better than ever. Many subjects previously thought too obscure have had skilled writers tackle the exposition of these subjects for a layperson audience. As a result, Simon Singh can attempt to explain in somewhat more detail the development of crypographic methods including all the math and the details of the ingenuity behind these methods. But one should keep in mind that this is a book for popular consumption -- those deeply interested in cryptography should pick up one of the many textbooks on the matter and read David Kahn's book for the history. This book is for those who want to read a compelling and important story.
Singh's book is a welcome addition to the selection of books about cryptography. You'll find some stories in Fletcher Pratt's book which don't make it into "The Code Book". And while David Kahn's book attempts to be far more comprehensive by being more than a 1000 pages long, Singh's narrative is trimmer and will inform you about the techniques and the history in a smaller dose.
Rather than concentrating on telling all the stories in the history of cryptography, Singh chooses a few important ones and tells them with their context and without sacrificing details (at least until the last chapters of the book). Many details are relegated to appendices which should not be skipped.
Singh describes the development of cryptographic methods as a result of co-evolutionary behaviour of those who encrypt messages to secure them (usually in a war with lives at stake) and those who are equally compelled to decrypt these messages. At some point, encryption methods seem to be unbreakable and induces a sense of security for the codemakers who think that their ciphers are unbreakable, until new methods are invented for their decipherment rendering the old encryption methods extinct and making way for a search for new forms of encryption and cycle repeats itself.
Singh also includes a chapter about the decipherment of ancient scripts which is unusual for a book on cryptography. But as the name suggests, such methods of de-cipher-ment have a lot in common with the methods of cryptography. Singh picks the examples of the decipherment of the ancient Egyptian script and that of the Linear B script from Crete. Singh avoids the uncomfortable example of the Mayan script to which various cryptographic techniques were applied to no avail, until the linguistic insight of the Russian philologist Knorosov provided success in decipherment.
The narrative also includes the story of the Navajo code talkers. And to drive home the wartime nature of cryptography the narrative includes stories like the following:
If you so much as held up your head six inches you were gone, the fire was so intense. And then in the wee hours, with no relief on our side or theirs, there was a dead standstill. It must have gotten so that this one Japanese couldn't take it anymore. He got up and yelled and screamed at the top of his voice and dashed over our trench, swinging a long samurai sword. I imagine he was shot from 25 to 40 times before he fell.
There was a buddy with me in the trench. But that Japanese had cut him across the throat, clear through to the cords on the back of his neck. He was still gasping through his windpipe. And the sound of him trying to breathe was horrible. He died, of course. When the Jap struck, warm blood spattered all over my hand that was holding the microphone. I was calling in code for help. They tell me that in spite of what happened, every syllable of my message came through.
From Doris Paul's book, The Navajo Code Talkers
The book also includes a detailed chapter on quantum cryptography. Since it is still in its budding stages, it is mostly a description of the pioneers in the field. The descriptions of quantum decryption are admirably done, but the explanations that accompany the story of quantum encryption methods are somewhat rushed and should've been presented as carefully as the earlier methods were.
The most admirable thing about Singh's writing is the attention to detail in the explanation of the various methods. He does not hurry through explanations of the Enigma or even the RSA algorithm. He provides several examples, works through them, and also provides metaphors and analogues to help understanding the algorithm. With this three-fold presentation, almost everyone should find something to keep them interested in the presentation.
There are some missteps in the writing. The descriptions of cryptographic techniques earlier in the book are longer and more lucid while those towards the end of the book seem rushed. Many historical details, especially about Mary, Queen of Scots are included at length, while details of events towards the end of the book from the near future are shortened drastically. There are several typographic errors to do with missing fonts and a few cases of lousy editing -- unforgivable lapses in a book that costs US $25. Also, a quick search on amazon provides several editions of "The Code Book" all of them written by Simon Singh but each with a different subtitle, some of them with 'Mary, Queen of Scots' and other citing 'Ancient Egypt'.
%T The Code Book %T :The Evolution of Secrecy from Mary, Queen of Scots to Quantum Cryptography %A Simon Singh %I Doubleday %D 1999 %G ISBN: 0385495315 (hc) %P 402 %K science, computer-science, cryptography, linguistics
Review written: 2001/10/16
August 12, 2005
The Advent of the Algorithm by David Berlinski
Just in front of the lacy white arboretum the roadway acquires an aneurysm to accomodate a variety of side streets bent ultimately on obliterating themselves by anastomosis.
This is a real quote from this book taken from one of the numerous fictional interludes that are littered throughout this book usually with the author as the protagonist. An idea no doubt borne from the boredom of his editor or his agent (both of whom appear in one of these stories). A review written by Martin Davis succintly describes the experience of reading through this book:
``Overheard in the Park'': A review of The Advent of the Algorithm
This review is presented in the form of an imaginary conversation among three contemporaries of Galileo. Over the course of the conversation, the reviewer's (mostly unfavorable) opinions about the book are revealed. For example, one of the three speakers says: ``Although there is much of great interest in this book, not everyone will be attracted by the interspersed, apparently irrelevant fictions, and I personally was upset by carelessness with the history.''
Martin Davis, American Scientist, July/August 2000, pages 366-367
There is one particular set of ideas that is presented particularly well in this book. The thread that connects Cantor's diagonal argument to Gödel's incompleteness theorem and Turing's recursive unsolvability is presented in a way that those who were not familiar with these concepts before are likely to grasp these difficult concepts and their relation to each other. The related concepts of Hilbert's ambitious program and Frege's logical foundations based on set theory and the subsequent paradox discovered by Russell are covered in respectable detail but might not be as accessible to the novice reader. It isn't clear why most of this discussion, along with a discussion of Peano's axioms and the writings of Leibniz even belongs in this book.
As you try and finish this book you realize that it is a cleverly disguised rant against several positions posing as a popular science book. One would think the notion of recursive functions that arose in logic combined with Turing's work on computability and their relationship to computing machinery itself would be of interest, but not for Berlinski who says, ``this story is itself rather dull'' and moves on inexplicably to describe the differential calculus.
If you feel obliged to read this book because there is little else out there on this topic, stop reading after Chapter 11 -- there are a few glimmers of information beyond this point pasted together incoherently, notably about simulations, Shannon's information theory, neural networks and sticker-based DNA computing, but you will have to wade through paragraphs of rants about big questions with little or no relevance to algorithms. You will learn nothing except that fruity prose can raise your blood pressure.
Berlinski keeps harping on the fact that implementations of Turing machines have access only to finite resources, while humans can deal with infinite representations. Of all the arguments against the strong AI position this is the most ludicrous -- computers are routinely programmed with infinite lists and context-free grammars which deal with infinity just fine. Berlinski, of course, mentions other arguments such as the Penrose `proof' and the anthropic principle as well to bolster his position against the use of the algorithm (or all of physics for that matter) to explain anything.
He also manages to squeeze into one of his many rants later in the book the famous argument of intelligent design by William Paley. You might at this point ask yourself, `Why am I reading about the so-called fallacies of the theories of natural selection in a book that advertises itself to be about algorithms?' Ignoring your pleas, Berlinski rants on, obliterating himself by anastomosis ...
There are many things to hate about this book, but by far the worst is the feeling of intense irritation that an author of this calibre would keep quoting Borges to serve his ends. At one point in this book, the author pointlessly takes a jibe at "Gödel, Escher, Bach: The Eternal Golden Braid" by Douglas Hofstader. That book might have been more fluffy than this one but at least it hung together and made some sense. Two things I cannot claim about this book.
%T The Advent of the Algorithm %T :The 300 Year Journey from an Idea to the Computer %A David Berlinski %I Harcourt, Inc. %D 2000 %G ISBN: 0156013916 (pb) %P 345 %K science, math, computer-science
Review written: 2001/06/14
July 20, 2005
The Tragic Tale of a Genius by Freeman Dyson
© Image courtesy of the Research Laboratory of Electronics at MIT.
In The Tragic Tale of a Genius Freeman Dyson (published in the New York Review of Books, Volume 52, Number 12, July 14, 2005) reviews Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener, the Father of Cybernetics by Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman (Basic Books). (temporary url)
His review also includes information from Norbert Wiener's two autobiographies: Ex-prodigy: My Childhood and Youth (Simon and Schuster, 1953) and I Am a Mathematician: The Later Life of a Prodigy (Doubleday, 1956).
In academic computer science departments there is often a science/engineering split, where one side of the split prove theorems, and the other side build systems to solve 'real-world' problems. Some of the most admired computer scientists like Alan Turing, Don Knuth and Norbert Wiener (to name a few) teach us how to bridge this gap. From Dyson's review:
Wiener was unusual among mathematicians in being equally at home in pure and applied mathematics. He made his reputation as a pure mathematician by inventing concepts such as the "Wiener measure" that have passed into the mainstream of mathematics. Wiener measure gave mathematicians for the first time a rigorous way to talk about the collective behavior of wiggly curves or flexible surfaces. While continuing to publish papers in the abstract realms of mathematical logic and analysis, he loved to talk with the engineers and neurophysiologists who were his neighbors at MIT and Harvard. He became deeply immersed in their cultures, and enjoyed translating problems from the languages of engineering and neurophysiology into the language of mathematics.
Unlike most pure mathematicians, he did not consider it beneath his dignity to apply his skills to the messy practical problems of the real world. He understood, more clearly than anyone else, that the messiness of the real world was precisely the point at which his mathematics should be aimed.
Norbert Wiener is best known as the founder of cybernetics:
As an applied mathematician, he worked out a general theory of control systems and feedback mechanisms, a theory which he called "cybernetics." Cybernetics was a theory of messiness, a theory that allowed people to find an optimum way to deal with a world full of poorly known agents and unpredictable events.
In 1940 he wrote a memorandum explaining in detail why digital language would be preferable for the computers whose existence he already foresaw. But his own contributions to communication theory happened to be written in analog language, for four reasons. First, his work as a pure mathematician had mostly been in analysis. Second, his practical experience with antiaircraft prediction was concerned with analog measurements and analog feedback mechanisms. Third, his conversations with neurophysiologists had convinced him that the language of sensory-motor feedback signals in the brains of humans and animals is analog. Fourth, the transmission of signals by chemical hormones is evidence that the action of the brain is at least partly analog. For all these reasons, Wiener's book Cybernetics, which summarized his thinking in 1948, was written in analog language.
Meanwhile, also in 1948, Claude Shannon published his classic pair of papers with the title "A Mathematical Theory of Communication," ... [It] was mathematically elegant, clear, and easy to apply to practical problems of communication. It was far more user-friendly than cybernetics. It became the basis of a new discipline called "information theory." ... Electronic engineers learned information theory, the gospel according to Shannon, as part of their basic training, and cybernetics was forgotten.
But Wiener was not ignored everywhere. His theories had wide circulation in India and Russia, and he was welcomed personally by Nehru and other leaders in India. Wiener did advocate founding of technical institutes and the encouragement of home-grown technical industries, but I find Dyson's claim that this is why India and to some extent Russia is now strong in information technology as too simplistic.
Dyson also compares this new book about Wiener with two previous biographies "John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener: From Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death" by Steve Heims (MIT Press, 1980) and Norbert Wiener, 1894–1964 by Pesi Masani (Birkhäuser, 1990). About the Heims book, Dyson says:
The Heims biography emphasizes politics. It is mainly concerned with Wiener's activities as a social critic in the last third of his life. It presents the parallel lives of von Neumann and Wiener as a simple struggle between black and white... In a review of the Heims book which I published in Technology Review in 1981, [February/March issue, pp. 17–19] I wrote:
If Heims had been willing [to stay in the background], to present his work as a historical narrative with the protagonists speaking for themselves, he would have made an important contribution to the understanding of the great moral dilemma of our age. Unfortunately, ... he stands at the front of the stage between his characters and the audience, making it difficult for us to hear their voices and to see the drama of their lives [in historical perspective].
And about Masani's book, Dyson writes:
Pesi Masani's biography is from a scholarly point of view the best of the three. Masani was a professional mathematician, born in India and settled in the United States. He collaborated with Wiener and published several substantial papers with him in the 1950s. After Wiener died, Masani edited his collected papers for publication. ... The Masani biography is the only one that portrays him as a working mathematician.
Masani explains Wiener's mathematical ideas with admirable clarity, and he has found and reproduced many historical documents that the other biographers have missed. One particularly illuminating document that Masani reproduces in full is a long and friendly letter from von Neumann to Wiener, written in November 1946, discussing the mysteries of the human brain and the various ways in which the mysteries might be explored. ... Von Neumann's letter shows how far he had come in foreshadowing the era of molecular biology that he never lived to see. The letter also shows how far Heims diverged from the truth when he portrayed von Neumann and Wiener as polar opposites. They shared a passionate interest in biology. Both of them saw a deeper understanding of biology as the ultimate goal of their explorations of the science of computing and information.
So after two biographies, why a new one? As Dyson says:
After Heims has described Wiener's politics and Masani has described his mathematics, what is there left for a third biography to do? This third biography give us a new and intimate portrait of Wiener as a person, and describes his stormy relationships with his friends and family. ... Their aim is to explore the roots of Wiener's lifelong malaise and often weird behavior.
Wiener's personal life was marred by several problems, some of them perhaps because of his genius:
The drama of Wiener's personal life begins with his years as an infant prodigy, tormented by his brilliant but tyrannical father. Either as a result of his father's training or from genetic predisposition, he suffered from violent swings of mood that continued throughout his life. ...
Another major theme of this biography is Wiener's marriage. His wife, Margaret, was a student of his father, and the marriage was arranged by his parents. Margaret was chosen to take over from his parents the job of caring for him and organizing his life. ... She coped with his moods and raised his daughters.
But Margaret was in some respects even crazier than Wiener. She had emigrated from Germany to America at the age of fourteen. She was a fervent admirer of Adolf Hitler and kept two copies of Mein Kampf displayed prominently in her bedroom, one in German and one in English. She made no secret of her political views, to the intense annoyance of Wiener, who was himself Jewish and had many friends who were victims of Nazi persecution. When the daughters were teenagers and began to acquire boyfriends, she made their lives miserable by accusing them of nonexistent sexual delinquencies. ... As a result of her paranoid accusations, both daughters escaped from home as soon as they could and thereafter had little contact with her or with Wiener.
The most tragic episode of Wiener's life happened in 1951 when he was fifty-seven years old and passionately involved in a collaboration with his friend Warren McCullough and a group of young colleagues that he called "the boys." ... Margaret was insanely jealous of McCullough and his boys, and resolved to break up their friendship with Wiener ... she informed Wiener that McCullough's boys had seduced his daughter Barbara when she was a teenager staying at McCullough's house. This story had no basis in fact, but Wiener believed it ... and immediately wrote an angry letter to the president of MIT dissolving all connection between himself and the McCullough team.
Dyson tries to find some balance in this story:
Margaret is now the one who is accused and will never have a chance to answer her accusers. She never spoke with the authors, and left no friend behind to speak for her. The evidence against her is well documented and seems convincing. And still, the reviewer wonders.
Wiener is in many ways a forgotten hero of computer science. I certainly have not read any of Wiener's books on cybernetics: and nobody in contemporary AI seems to bother to read them either. The digital-analog war is pretty much over and no prizes for guessing which side won: Shannon's theories seem highly relevant for research in AI and machine learning today while Wiener's theories are, for better or for worse, left behind.
If you've read this far, you might want to read my review of Steve Heims' biography of Norbert Wiener which touches on Wiener's ethical ideas on responsible behaviour as a researcher. That book was also reviewed by Rudolf Peierls in Odd Couple (New York Review of Books, Volume 29, Number 2, February 18, 1982).
November 12, 2004
The Sciences of the Artificial by Herbert A. Simon
Our speculations have carried us over a rather alarming array of topics, but that is the price we must pay if we wish to seek properties common to many sorts of complex systems.
This quote from the last chapter of this book appropriately sums up the goal and the message of this book. Herbert Simon takes us on a great journey through a possible science of complex systems, particularly artificial systems that are often called `self-organizing'. He conducts this discussion at the very heights of generality taking in diverse fields like architecture, computer science, artificial intelligence, machine learning, economics and social planning.
This book is a must-read for computer scientists. It gives concrete reasons why the word science is part of the name of this field and why it is reasonable to expect that the field itself is split up into hardware technicians, compiler writers, functional programmers, systems analysts, software engineers, algorithm analysts, complexity theorists among many other subfields.
The scope of this book is so expansive that almost any one in this technological and increasingly computational age that we inhabit might get something out of reading this book.
In many conversations with fellow computer scientists I have heard the line `Well, computer science is really not a science. It is more like engineering or a craft like carpentry.' This is a view shared, but usually unspoken, by scientists in other fields, like physics or biology. This book lays out the reasoning why analogies like this are misguided and are a short-sighted view to take especially if you are a computer scientist. It also explains why scientists in other fields are more similar to computer scientists than they imagine.
Herbert Simon is famous in two fields: artificial intelligence and economics. In AI, he is most famous for his work with Allan Newell on the General Problem Solver (GPS). His work on GPS and also his work in economics understandably forms a major part of the discussion here. However, even though whenever he descends into details, I disagreed with him on almost every point in which I had any expertise, the overall picture he paints is such an important one that it is foolish to ignore the goals that he pursues here.
The answers he gives to the questions he raises are very preliminary but the questions are so compelling that I'm sure answers will be found, eventually.
Computer Science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.
%T The Sciences of the Artificial %A Herbert A. Simon %I Cambridge, MA: MIT Press %D 1969 %G ISBN: 026269073X (pb) %G ISBN: 0262191938 (hc) %P 247 %K science, computer-science
Date written: 2000/05/01
August 24, 2004
Takedown by Tsutomu Shimomura
This is a non-fiction account of the famous arrest of hacker/cracker Kevin Mitnick written by the person who tracked him down by deciphering computer system logs and good old-fashioned detective work.
For all its flaws, this modern day Sherlock Holmes adventure is pretty captivating. This is surprising because there are no sympathetic characters in this story. Sherlock Holmes could afford to be annoyingly over-confident and dismissive of everyone else because he was a fictional character. Those traits don't sit so well with Tsutomu, who seems to dislike almost everyone he comes into contact with: from his graduate student Andrew Gross all the way to the NSA. Only Richard Feynman and his love-interest Julia are spared. I wonder if Julia was included here as a parallel with Clifford Stoll's "The Cuckoo's Egg".
Surprisingly, John Markoff does not play the role of Watson in this story as Tsutomu writes this book in the first person. In fact apart from a small part, Markoff has barely any role here. The fact that Tsutomu took over complete control over the description of events is both good and bad. Tsutomu gives a lucid descriptions of the details behind all of the cracking hijinks; the description of the IP spoofing attack and the surprisingly effective X11 screen capture hack itself is worth the price of admission. The technical details are the saving grace of this book. On the other hand, the description of all the events are completely one-sided, biased and Tsutomu has a naive good vs. evil philosophy against Kevin Mitnick. Tsutomu writes himself into a stereotypical Hiro Protagonist role. Not to mention the annoyingly long and pompous sub-title to the book (see the book ISBN information).
Inspite of all these flaws, it's still worth reading. Although read "The Cuckoo's Egg" first; Clifford Stoll is much easier to get along with.
%T Takedown %T :the pursuit and capture of Kevin Mitnick, %T America's Most Wanted Computer Outlaw %T -- By the Man who Did it %A Tsutomu Shimomura %A :with John Markoff %I Hyperion %D 1996 %G ISBN: 0786889136 %P 324 %K non-fiction, computer science
Review written: 1999/08/20
Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier by Katie Hafner and John Markoff
A mainstream depiction of the cracker subculture: this books lacks many of the technical details which make these kind of stories interesting to read.
The book has three short stories about some of the more famous cases of computer crimes from the late 80s to the early 90s. There is the now extremely famous case of Kevin Mitnick (also the subject of another book "Takedown"), the story of Robert Tappan Morris -- `inventor' of the first internet worm, and the chronicles of the German cracker clique called Project Equalizer which formed out of the Chaos Computer Club (who also appear as dramatis personae in "The Cuckoo's Egg").
There is surprisingly little overlap between "The Cuckoo's Egg" and the story of the Chaos Computer Club presented here. The story of Kevin Mitnick (minus the platitudes) is useful as a counterbalance to the story presented in "Takedown" which is singularly one-sided.
There is no ambivalence in the writing: cracking is considered to be a VERY BAD thing and no effort is made to understand why someone would spend all of their time for very little financial gain doing something increasingly considered as terrorism. The only exception made here is for Robert Tappan Morris, which is ironic, because that part of the book seems to be trying to uncover exactly such a double standard.
For another point of view on the hostility against the cracker subculture look at "The Hacker Crackdown" by Bruce Sterling which is freely available online.
%T Cyberpunk %T :Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier %A Katie Hafner %A John Markoff %I Touchstone Books %D 1995 %G ISBN: 0684818620 %P 368 %K non-fiction, computer science
Review written: 1999/08/17
The Cuckoo's Egg by Clifford Stoll
Stoll's story starts with the 75-cent accounting error that first tips him off to the uninvited visitors to the Lawrence Berkeley Lab computers. The online trail that he uncovers is interspersed with details of his personal life (and this is more interesting than you would imagine). The trail eventually leads to Hanover, Germany and to the Project Equalizer plot.
Project Equalizer was an improbable initiative by the KGB to pay the West German Chaos Computer Club members to hack into United States military computers. In the end, the information that the hackers involved uncovered was not judged worth the expense by the KGB, and this book is the story of how Clifford Stoll eventually got the Chaos Club members arrested.
Stoll is ambivalent between his condemnation of the crackers and whether perhaps his liberal ideals are being strained by collaborating with the CIA. Should he be helping institutions which he is not particularly fond of but whose members are easy to get along with since they share his indignation against the crackers. Stoll's argument against the crackers eventually settles on the fact that the crackers are corrupting the fragile trust on which the networks are based on making these protocols increasingly less open in the future.
This is the most entertaining of all the various `cracker/hacker' books that came out of the late-80s.
After reading "Takedown", another cracker pursuit story, it is interesting to compare Tsutomu Shimomura with Clifford Stoll. It is surprising how good-natured Clifford Stoll is as he chronicles how he tracked down the people responsible for cracking into the Lawrence Berkeley Lab computers in the mid-80s. He once calls these crackers `varmints' no less.
For more background information on the Chaos Computer Club, see "Cyberpunk" by Katie Hafner and John Markoff.
%T The Cuckoo's Egg %T :Tracking a Spy through the Maze of Computer Espionage %A Clifford Stoll %I Pocket Books %D 1989 %G ISBN: 0621726889 %P 326 %K non-fiction, computer science
Review written: 1999/08/24
February 11, 2004
"Market dysfunctions in the scholarly communication system"
Many academics who have editorial responsibilities in journals are taking action to counter the huge price increases over the last few years for journals published by commercial presses like Elsevier and Springer-Verlag. There has been an increase of approximately 250% in the price of journals over the last ten years. But that's not the only impact that commercial presses are having on the journals in university libraries.
There are many quality journals published by university presses. But these journals are in danger of being crowded out of the budgets allocated to university libraries. In the last few years, commercial presses like Elsevier are keen on selling contracts for online access to their entire collection. They want to move from the shipping of print journals to the libraries, to the subscription model where the university pays for access to the entire journal collection (back issues as well, for higher prices). Each year, the money has to keep coming in, otherwise access is cutoff. The key to higher profits for the commercial presses is that the entire collection is offered for online access; typically the library cannot pick and choose which journals to access online. The result is that departments have to vote on whether they want to have online access, but this might actually take up the entire budget allocated to the department as library funds leaving little or nothing for journals from university presses.
Academics, in many fields, are not passively accepting these changes in how they communicate their results to each other. There are several cases in which the entire editorial board has resigned from a journal published by a commercial press and in each case a new, open-access journal has been created that usually has the same set of editorial board members.
Here is a short list of some examples:
- "Scientific Publishing: A mathematician's viewpoint" by Joan Birman of Columbia University, published in Notices of the AMS 47, 7 (August 2000).
This article provides a distinction between various journal publishers and provides a case study of alternatives:
- Shop for a new publisher
In November 1999 the complete editorial board (50 editors) of the Journal of Logic Programming (JLP), published by Elsevier Science, collectively resigned and founded a new journal Theory and Practice of Logic Programming (TPLP) published by Cambridge University Press (SFU faculty member Veronica Dahl is an area editor for TPLP). The price reduction for libraries was 55%.
- Start a new non-profit journal
Birman documents the efforts of Warwick University professors in starting Geometry and Topology (G&T) as a free online journal.
- Shop for a new publisher
- "Towards free access to scientific literature," by Kryzystof Apt published in Niuw Archief voor Wiskunde 5, 2 (2001), 251-255.
- Journal of Machine Learning Research was created in response to the pricing of the major journal in the field of machine learning: Machine Learning published by Kluwer. The current subscription rate for Machine Learning for institutions is USD 1148.00 plus 20% for the online version. In contrast, final versions of JMLR are published electronically (ISSN 1533-7928) and freely available on the web, and a paper volume (ISSN 1532-4435) is published 8 times annually and sold to libraries and individuals by the MIT Press. The print version of JMLR is available to libraries for USD 400 which includes the online version.
- In 2003, the editorial board of Journal of Algorithms, published by Elsevier, resigned to form a new journal called ACM Transactions on Algorithms. The history of this move is documented in the following letters:
The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) labels the contemporary trend towards overpriced journals and subscription-based pay-per-view journal publishing as "market dysfunctions in the scholarly communication system". Their web page lists the growing number of open-access journals, where the papers they choose to publish (based on the usual mechanisms of peer review) are freely available on the web.
It is important to note that in many cases, the original journal that was abandoned by the editorial board is taken over by other academics, and in some cases are still publishing vital results in the field. The key here is that in each of these cases, there is an alternative source of archival quality results for that field. The creation of new journals also does not address the price of access to older, seminal results in a field. In some cases, libraries are actually getting rid of older print copies of journals, since now there is online access to those journals (but now as a subscription service).