Two really cool book metablogs

Both of them scour the Recently Changed list at and pick up links to books.
Weblog Bookwatch has lists of recently reviewed books, shows you which weblogs have reviewed the books, and which other books those blogs reviewed. Bookwatch collects links to Amazon, Powells, and Barnes and Noble.
AllConsuming.Net does a similar search, but prioritizes its lists based on recently mentioned books, so it’s more of a zeitgeist-tracking tool for those who want to keep up with blog fashion. Also lets you publish a pretty list of books to read, with pictures.
For hours of surfing delight. I’ve been addicted for years to Amazon surfing; start with a subject, look for related books based on recommendations, reviews and lists; and build a list of books to read. Then again, I’ve been addicted for many more years to libraries and bookstores; the vice hasn’t changed, only the medium.

Tuning out the customer

It is nice to see the mainstream press discussing music industry policies as anti-customer rather than repeating the industry’s piracy message.
And it’s also great to read Jerry Michalski saying it, since he’s been thinking and talking about these issues for years now.
Perhaps is helping to change the terms of the debate. The recent Boucher and Lofgren bills describe their goals as protecting the rights of customers to traditional fair use of media.
The good thing about using the term “consumer” in this context is that an individual hears the word and thinks “that’s me”, and my rights to things that I have in my house are being taken away. It becomes an area where politicians can take a populist stand. It takes the discourse out of the realm of abstract and technical legal principles and rights. It’s great that there are lawyers fighting these issues in the courts, and more power to them. But the language of lawyers doesn’t get people to identify and take action.
What the term “consumer” leaves out is Jerry’s “co-participant” message, which the Fortune article quoted but didn’t seem to understand. Personal music sharing, fan sites, etc. are ways for individuals to participate in the creation and sharing of culture. People’s desire to contribute could be embraced into media business models, instead of repelled as invasions into the territory and property of the media industry.
It is also pretty weird to read the characterization of Jerry as a “cyberspace libertarian” — he just doesn’t fit that image of a scruffy maladjusted coder who rants in favor of guns and drugs and abolishing the government!

Steven Weinberg on Wolfram

Physicist Steven Weinberg writes about Steven Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science in the New York Review of Books.
Mostly he writes about why particle physics is better than other kinds of science: “although these free-floating theories are interesting and important, they are not truly fundamental, because they may or may not apply to a given system; to justify applying one of these theories in a given context you have to be able to deduce the axioms of the theory in that context from the really fundamental laws of nature.”
Weinberg disclaims this opinion, but he repeats it often enough that it’s clear which side of the flamewar he’s on. Weinberg thinks science should offer one fundamental theory of the world. He is not interested in the idea that there might be different levels of organization in the universe, so that the algorithm that modeled plant growth, say, was different than the algorithm that modeled competition among species in an ecosystem.
In fact Weinberg doesn’t seem convinced by the idea of modeling. “Take snowflakes. Wolfram has found cellular automata in which each step corresponds to the gain or loss of water molecules on the circumference of a growing snowflake. After adding a few hundred molecules some of these automata produce patterns that do look like real snowflakes. The trouble is that real snowflakes don’t contain a few hundred water molecules, but more than a thousand billion billion molecules. If Wolfram knows what pattern his cellular automaton would produce if it ran long enough to add that many water molecules, he does not say so.”
The whole trouble with complex systems is that they are programs that you need to run fully, with identical initial conditions, to get the exact result. If a model can be used regularly to make predictions about a real-world system — even if the model doesn’t duplicate the system — it seems to me that model is worth something.
The most interesting thing Weinberg says that Wolfram should do but doesn’t, is to offer a definition and measure for complexity. A very clever, erudite and witty person named Cosma Shalizi claims to have done this in his doctoral dissertation. Which I have not read yet, and my undergrad-level math may not be sufficient to understand.

The US public shows signs of sense

According to this CBS/New York Times poll:
“The public overwhelmingly wants to get the United Nations’ weapons inspectors back into Iraq and allied support before taking any military action. Americans also want a congressional vote before acting – and think members of Congress should be asking more questions about the implications of war with Iraq.”
“Americans are concerned about the wider implications of war with Iraq. They believe such a war will result in a long and costly military involvement; they believe it will lead to a wider war in the Middle East with other Arab nations and Israel; and that it could further undermine the U.S. economy.”
Given President Bush’s approval ratings, it’s nice to see that American’s haven’t become completely foolhardy and bloodthirsty; people want our government to think about the consequences of its actions.
Another good sign of this comes from some non-scientific polls from the Wall Street Journal.
The self-selected respondents in Journal audience are typically moderate-to-right-of-center, and are more than willing to have partisan opinions about things like whether the Democrats can replace Toricelli in New Jersey.
But they’re cautious about Iraq, too. As of a few weeks ago, respondents to the Journal poll didn’t think that the administration had made a good enough case about invading Iraq.

Handy PC Utility

FreeRAM XP Pro from YourWare Solutions. Automatically frees memory on Windows machines, enabling them to work somewhat longer before inevitably crashing.
Of course, I ought to upgrade to Windows XP or 2000. But that would mean setting aside the time to troubleshoot the upgrade; so I live with chronic Win98 memory leaks, and use FreeRam as a palliative for the symptoms.

Kurzweil’s take on “A New Kind of Science”

A few days ago, I wrote about Tom Ray’s neat dispatch of Ray Kurzweil’s contention that computers will soon be smarter than we are. To give Mr. Kurzweil his due, here’s a link to a lovely essay critiquing Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science.
Wolfram’s book became a controversial best-seller based on the author’s claim that computational methods enable a revolutionary approach to science. Many people have criticized the book because Wolfram is an egomaniac who claims to be smarter than everyone else on the planet; because he doesn’t go through the traditional scientific peer review process; and because the sprawling, self-published 1192-page tome really could have used an editor.
Kurzweil ignores the gossip and the copy-editing, and deals with the ideas. Kurzweil’s essay analyzes two of Wolfram’s revolutionary claims: that computational approaches based on cellular automata can explain life and intelligence, and that they define physics.
A quick definition: cellular automata are a type of logical system composed of simple objects whose state is determined by following simple rules about the state of fellow objects; like junior high school girls who will wear tomorrow what the popular girls wore today. The results of many cellular automata are quite boring. Either they fall into a steady state, where nothing changes (class 1), or a simple pattern repeats tediously (class 2), or they twitch forever without any detectable pattern (class 3) But some cellular automata (class 4) are much more interesting. A class 4 automaton generates a complicated pattern that, in Kurzweil’s words, “is neither regular nor completely random. It appears to have some order, but is never predictable.” A class 4 automaton can be used to convey information, and hence can be used as a “universal computer.”
Do cellular automata explain life?
Wolfram argues that because cellular automata can generate behavior of arbitrary complexity, they therefore explain living systems and intelligence. Kurzweil neatly explains that just because cellular automata can generate complex patterns, doesn’t mean that life and intelligence will automatically follow.
In Kurzweil’s words, “One could run these automata for trillions or even trillions of trillions of iterations, and the image would remain at the same limited level of complexity. They do not evolve into, say, insects, or humans, or Chopin preludes, or anything else that we might consider of a higher order of complexity than the streaks and intermingling triangles that we see in these images.”
As discussed in this essay on artificial life, the software for life is based on a layered architecture with many components and layers: evolution, growth, metabolism, ecosystems. Just cause we can program computers — using CAs or any other method — doesn’t mean that we know how to build every kind of software in the universe.
Do cellular automata explain physics?
Wolfram claims that cellular automata provide a better model for physics than traditional equations, and more than that, the universe itself is one big cellular automaton.
Kurzweil puts Wolfram’s claims about physics into context, as part of a school of thought whose advocates, including Norbert Weiner and Ed Fredkin, argue that the universe is fundamentally composed of information. Particles and waves, matter and energy, are manifestations of patterns of information.
The way to go about demonstrating this hypothesis is to use cellular automata to emulate the laws of physics, to see if this generates equivalent or better results than the existing sets of equations. The mapping is apparently easy for Newtonian physics; workable but not particularly elegant for Einstein’s special relativity, and potentially an elegant and even superior way to represent quantum physics, because CAs generate patterns that are recognizably regular, whose details are impossible to predict.
In summary, Kurtzweil thinks that Wolfram’s thesis regarding physics is plausible, but it has yet to be proven, and Wolfram hasn’t proved it.
One thing I don’t understand about this hypothesis is why it proves that the universe IS a computer. If you prove that computation is a better model for physical phenomena, how have you proven that the model is reality itself? A equation can predict where a ball will land, based on the speed and direction of its flight, but the ball itself isn’t an equation. Some day, I’ll take a look at Kurzweil’s book The Age of Intelligent Machines, which covers this topic, and see what I think.
With Kurzweil’s synopsis as a guide, I’ll take a stab at reading Wolfram’s tome. Not because I think it will contain the answer to every question, but because I expect an interesting exploration of cellular automata, and an interesting take on the information hypothesis to physics. Bills proposed to protect fair use

A couple of congresspeople have proposed laws to restore customers rights to make copies of digital media for personal use, to share with a family member or friend. The bills repeal restrictions on the rights of “fair use” imposed by the DMCA’s draconian enforcement of copy protection policies.
There’s a sensible discussion of the bills on SlashDot. The level of SlashDot discussion about these issues has improved greatly in the last few years, from knee-jerk antigovernment libertarianism and simple ignorance of government to a greater understanding of how laws are made and how to influence the legislative process.
The bills are being proposed at the end of the Congressional session, so they are unlikely to get passed this year — but that’s ok — I hope they spark more press coverage and good discussion. I hope the SlashDot conversation can coalesce into an advocacy group of tech-savvy people who influence the creation of more sensible laws. I hope these ideas become mainstream common sense, so politicians can be populist about making sure ordinary people can lend a recording to a friend, the same way we can lend a book to a friend.

Machines won’t be reading Plato any time soon

Tom Ray wrote a very nice essay critiquing Ray Kurzweil’s argument that machines will soon be smarter than we are.
The first point is plain logic. Kurzweil observes that following Moore’s law, computers will have more processing power than the human brain within a couple of decades. Ray points out that the power of software is not improving at anywhere near the same rate. There’s plenty of evidence that complicated software is outstripping our ability to design and maintain it effectively.
The second point is more subtle. Kurzweil argues that it will be possible to implement human intelligence in silicon, simply by reverse engineering the brain and mapping its neural connections into software. Ray notes that there are many aspects of human intelligence that depend on subtle properties of chemistry, for example, the delicate balance of hormones that influences temperament and mood, shaping our decisions, communication, and art.
It may be possible to create AI. Ray, who created the “Tierra” artificial life ecosystem, believes that the most promising method is to create digital a-life systems and let them evolve on their own. If such intelligence evolved, it would be different than human intelligence, depending on the very different properties of its technology and environment.
At any rate, the mechanisms to create artificial intelligence aren’t obvious, and there isn’t any reason to believe that it will happen any time soon.