Thursday, July 15, 2010

Stephen Wolfram discusses “Computation and the Future of the Human Condition”

As found on the Wolfram Blog, Stephen Wolfram provides a transcript of his talk “Computation and the Future of the Human Condition” delivered at the H+ Summit @ Harvard on June 12, 2010. I found it interesting. Unfortunately for me, just as when I read his book A New Kind of Science (NKS), I think I can grasp the general ideas, but I can’t make the intellectual leap necessary to understand how to apply them to solving problems. I think I can see some of the outlines of what may be involved, but the full outline, and the all-important details of implementation remain beyond my reach. Frustrating.

Below is a brief excerpt dealing with ideas he’s discussed at length elsewhere, so it may not be the best choice of an excerpt. On the other hand, it may be good for piquing the curiosity of those without much exposure to Wolfram’s thinking.

[...T]o make a prediction, we have to be able to somehow out-compute the system that we're trying to predict.

Well, for systems like idealized planets orbiting a star, that's always been possible.

We don't have to trace every point in each orbit; we can just have a little computation that jumps immediately to the answer.

In effect, we can computationally reduce the behavior of the system.

But will that always be possible?

The Principle of Computational Equivalence implies that it won't.

And in fact it implies that even among very simple programs in the computational universe, it's common to find computational irreducibility.

The exact sciences have always avoided systems that work like this.

But they're all over the place.

We've always implicitly assumed for our science that we as observers or predictors of systems are much more computationally sophisticated than the systems we're observing or predicting.

But the Principle of Computational Equivalence says that this isn't true.

And that instead we are just equivalent to the systems.

So that we can never expect to outrun them.

And to find out what they do we have no choice but to simulate each step in their behavior, or in effect just to watch how the behavior unfolds.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

“Rotating Spiral” becomes a Google “Chrome Experiment”

My combination of Javascript and SVG that produces a rotating spiral graphic (“you are getting sleepy... very sleepy”) has been accepted by Google as an official “Chrome Experiment.” You can find the Chrome Experiments main page at, and my spiral experiment at

I’ve also submitted several other of my Javascript/SVG experiments. I thought the rotating spiral was the weakest of them, so I was surprised, but pleased, when it was accepted. Hopefully, some or all of the others will ultimately be accepted as well. And, for anyone who doesn’t want to wait, you can find all of my experiments on my Automatons page – with one notable exception: my MazeWars SVG game. Unfortunately, it can’t be run as a stand-alone application – it requires someone to setup a game server.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Gus Grissom Gets His Way

From Rockets, Missiles, and Men in Space by Willy Ley, 1968 edition, pg. 390:

Except for GT-III the Gemini spacecraft were not given names as the Mercury capsules had been. GT-III did have a name; it was called the Molly Brown. The name was chosen by the command pilot of the flight, Virgil Ivan Grissom. Grissom (generally known as “Gus”) had had to swim to safety when his Mercury capsule Liberty Bell 7 sank after the second suborbital flight. At the time GT-III was being readied, there was a successful musical show on Broadway called The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and Grissom had decided that if a name could help to keep his second capsule afloat that would be the one. NASA officials were a bit reluctant to accept “Molly Brown” but when Grissom suggested “Titanic” as his alternative choice they gave in.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Government Secrecy, Andrew Jackson Style

Here’s a dose of perspective on government secrecy for this July 4th. I don’t mean to suggest that today our government can be as open as it was in Andrew Jackson’s (or Lincoln’s) time, but the following provides some perspective on how much the openness of our American government has decreased over the course of the past 150 years. To be sure, we’ve added some improvements, like the Freedom of Information Act, but, as we saw during the Bush administration, the various organs of our government have, or can take, far too much leeway in their interpretations of their obligations under that act. And, more generally speaking, because an informed electorate is critical to the success of a democracy, the less an electorate knows about the activities of its government, the less durable their democracy becomes.

From Secrecy by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, pp. 82-83:

Openness in deliberation and not least in diplomacy came to be seen as something of a democratic virtue, even an aspect of [American] national character. In 1860, one of Andrew Jackson’s early biographers reported an anecdote that cast the general as the very embodiment of this virtue. When Jackson was told that one Augustus, a servant with the run of the White House, might be smuggling presidential papers to the general’s opponents, Jackson responded:

“They are welcome, sir, to anything they can get out of my papers. They will find there, among other things, false grammar and bad spelling; but they are welcome to it all, grammar and spelling included. Let them make the most of it. Our government, sir, is founded upon the intelligence of the people; it has no other basis; upon their capacity to arrive at right conclusions in regard to measures and in regard to men; and I am not afraid of their failing to do so from any use that can be made of any thing that can be got out of my papers.”

Apocryphal or not, the anecdote bespeaks what appears to have been a widely shared sentiment. Then with the onset of the Civil War we observe the surely unprecedented notion of openness as an instrument of foreign policy. On December 3,1861, at the beginning of the second session of the Thirty-Seventh Congress, Abraham Lincoln accompanied his State of the Union message with 410 pages, all promptly printed, of dispatches to American ministers abroad. The dispatches dealt with the Confederate states’ efforts to obtain recognition from foreign powers, notably Spain, France, and Great Britain. It was a fateful enterprise in which assertive openness was considered the most effective policy, and there is reason to judge that this proved to be the case. Openness communicated our threats as well as our entreaties, and it did so, in the case of Britain, not only to Whitehall but also to an increasingly literate and volatile public. The United States was dealing with insurrection at home; did Her Majesty’s Government, did the British people consider that this same misfortune might befall England, or Ireland?