The Longest Now

Reffer Madness, part I : In My Cites
Monday October 06th 2008, 3:55 am
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A ‘reference’ in a written or artistic work can have many different, sometimes conflicting, connotations.  A ref can be used

  • to identify general influences on a work
  • to name sources from which it draws an analysis
  • to credit original authors when their work is directly reused
  • to uniquely define a work that was referred to briefly in a text
  • to identify specific influences or sources of axioms and assumptions for a work which are integral to its argument or presentation

All of these connotations are commonly confused with one another in a single volume, sometimes within a single paragraph.  Citations and references have a standard format which does not account for the depth or degree of their influence on the text.  An exact quote will often receive the same ref as a bibliography entry indicating a general influence.  The use of a set of assumptions as “the standard way of approaching this problem” will receive the same ref as an amusing tangent.  As a result, if one has additional information about cited sources — for instance, a database that indicates the general reliability or currency of a source — it is difficult to know at a glance when this extra information invalidates or adds to information referring to a source.

This loss of information in refs weakens their value, especially their aggregate value when trying to iterate a process of determining reliability, or determining when a work should be revised and updated.

We can change all of this. You and me, and a handful of others — starting with how citations are used in major wiki publications and academic works.  Two of my friends, Benny Hill and Meta-Montfort, are working with me to devise a brief standard for better citation practice that we can share with you.  Stay tuned for tomorrow’s episode of…  Reffer Madness

Premature projection: weakening powerful ideas in two easy steps
Sunday October 05th 2008, 3:12 am
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Michael was talking to me today about the importance of capturing narrative for transmitting education.  And the way this came out was from an email conversation about narrative in software (and before that, from a conversation about the amount of time teachers spend developing lesson plans to engage a new software interface, when such things aren’t produced within it).  This made me cringe, in a way that I often do when a deep idea is projected onto whatever noun is at hand.  In this case, software (and Sugar in particular) was the proxy for the set of […] tools and interfaces and communications shared over the course of a school session.

I see this happen most frequently when people are possessed of a Powerful Idea and want to share it.  It is natural then for the power of the idea to be projected onto whatever circumstance (programming language, computing as technology, or subject matter) was foremost in their mind when it came up.

One of the reasons that educators and technologists who care about OLPC and constructionism clash over definitions of necessary learning experiences is that each projects too soon their own inspirations onto software on the one hand and classroom / interpersonal dynamic on the other.   If we can find a way to separate and give full attention to powerful ideas in their own right, before deciding how they must be pursued and passed on, hopefully we can make our investigations into them useful ouside the context of whatever implementations we have in mind.

In particular, the larger discussions of how to capture and share different levels of connectedness in the process of learning : a piece of knowledge, a sequence of facts and discoveries, a series of problems, a topology of concepts and thinkers, a narrative of exploration…

The power of elegant prose
Sunday October 05th 2008, 12:42 am
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I discovered writer Robert Ebert‘s blog just in time for his well-turned and generous observations on the Beijing Olympics this past summer.   He has long since passed from my list of favorite critics into my list of favorite writers, an artist whose work transcends the specifics of his trade and touches the root of human nuance and communication. (Aside: such artistry is surprisingly orthogonal to quality of work, and those with deep perception regularly produce careless or incomplete work, as do we all.) 

So it was a lasting pleasure to see that not only does he have a changeable personal blog to complement his regular cleanly-patterned column of film reviews, but also that he explores the medium for real conversation, with well-moderated and replied-to comments that expand his two-page posts a hundred times over.  Three cheers for that. 

As for those story reviews, I find a number of them (in moderation – don’t eat more than twenty at once, Molly, you’ll be sick to your stomach) a rewarding echo of the spirit-cleansing of a great story proper.  And they never fail to make me mindful of the power of one’s use of time to guide the use of times to come. As Ebert says of his art,

We are all allotted an unknown but finite number of hours of consciousness. Maybe a critic can help you spend them more meaningfully… I am only trying to define what I aspire to. I have learned most of what I know about movies from other critics, and by critics I mean everyone who has ever given me an interesting insight into a film.


Field failure: macroeconomics
Saturday October 04th 2008, 11:32 pm
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Macroeconomics is less than a century old.  It has suffered from a lack of predictive power and difficulty reconciling its ideas with the more testable and tangible ones of its micro cousin.  Its claims and schools have guided many global scale political, military, and financial changes.  Like man, I imagined since college that it was simply passing through field adolescence; only recently have I seen it as suffering from repeated field failure.

What does it mean for an entire field to fail?  You can believe that the universal elements are fire, air, water and earth, and generate useful elaborate rules of thumb with some predictive power.  You can found a field on the notion of spontaneous generation, including crocodiles being generated from rotting logs, and both cultivate increasingly-refined correlations and produce testable lemmas and hypotheses starting with these ideas.  Some of these hypotheses can be proven — a hypothesis inspired by false assumptions can well be true — further developing the field.  But when extremes or boundary events cannot be explained by a field’s axioms; when the founding principles of a field cannot withstand scrutiny; or when there is no macroscopic description of the world consistent with its concepts : then it slowly becomes clear the field has failed.

No field is ever acknowledged as failed within a generation; even when a breakthrough or mistake is so tremendous as to shake it to its foundations.  But individuals do recognize it, and repeated observable failures lead to rapid change and growth of understanding.  Macroeconomics has experienced many minor setbacks and confusions in the past, sometimes written off as a result of the field’s youth.    The differences between different forms of capitalism, orcapitalism v. socialism, or what have you are coming to seem like approaches that are appropriate for different circumstances, not foundational differences between two religions, one of which is Always Right and the other which is Forever Wrong.  


Field failures
Saturday October 04th 2008, 11:28 pm
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For a couple of months now I’ve felt a particularly strong wave of realism, or pessimism, depending on how you gloss it.  At least, that’s how it seemed at first. But as the impulse crystallizes over time, perhaps its better to say it is macroscopism : a sense of large-scale long-term consequences and implications, and a sense of the void in short-term successes or losses within a long-term process that remains unchanged.

In some cases, an entire field is built up around principles and assumptions which haven’t had their usefulness assessed — or which are discovered to be invalid — on some important scale; on a global scale, or on a very small scale, or under a meaningful set of boundary conditions.  I refer to this as field failure.  A carefully-constructed field can immediately rectify the situation by reframing its axioms and recalculating its key theorems and propositions.  A field built more on philosophy, debate, and force of personality is just as likely to be unwilling to admit a failure has occurred (or even could occur!).  Instead, prominent field members may attack the suggestion that such a failure has occurred, avoid clearly stating axioms in a way that allows direct challenge, or highlight local predictive successes of the field as though that invalidates the discovery of a systemic failure.

This is like announcing the resolution of an error in a 100-page angle trisection proof, making it “more correct”, when a 3-page counterproof exists demonstrating that no such proof can ever be correct.

From this perspective, I will highlight field failures I imagine as they arise — starting with a branch of economics.


Relativistic religion
Saturday October 04th 2008, 7:43 pm
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A group of old friends of mine (of mixed Maldenite religions) are as good at pilpul as anyone in the known  universe, and no slackers when it comes to universal laws.  A few weeks back, on a long day full of troubled memories and hurricane worries, it was refreshing to step into a conversation whose combination of surrealism and science felt like home…

Are you at Alpha Centauri, or is the chometz?  If the latter, I don’t
think the location of the chometz matters.  If the former, then this
reduces to the (admittedly difficult) problem of figuring out when
Passover begins and ends in other star systems.


Why I genuinely like Sarah Palin
Saturday October 04th 2008, 9:34 am
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She’s no nonsense, has no chip on her shoulder, has a sense of humor.  Bright and persistent though no policy fiend or wonkette.  Videos of her from before the nomination are more telling than recent appearances — not artificial, just herself.  ( Examples: sports reporting and personal history | on difficult supreme court decisionson citizenship and responsibility )

That’s still compatible with being humanly vindictive, devoutly unscientific, a compulsive fabricator (I’ve noticed a lot of that in both parties and at every level — this, or at least the ability to say something with total confidence regardless of its truth, must be selected for in our [societal, international] political process), unprepared for the international scene, and a terrifying potential C-in-Ch.  I hope she survives the election season with her dignity and political karma intact.

As for recent embarrassing appearances — conventional wisdom suggests any interviews or public appearances in a major election require extremely careful locution to avoid falling afoul of bad soundbites… something brought to the fore by the fallout from just a few public speeches.  The brilliant Brian Williams,  one of the few people I know who grok what it means to give a truly neutral description of something, gave a pitch-perfect description of this yesterday night in this Letterman chat.


How Wikipedia Works site launched
Wednesday October 01st 2008, 3:34 pm
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How Wikipedia Works now has its own website, with the online source-viewable version of the text (required under the GFDL).    This version of the book still has a back cover text, as the print version did, so it’s not quite compatible with Wikipedia.

A separate version, licensed without cover texts — with simpler formatting and editable, not required to be a perfect source replica of the print edition — will hopefully be online soon.

The one remaining copy of the book I now have in Cambridge has been in some demand; hopefully I’ll get another batch soon to send out.

Rick Rowley @ the RNC
Wednesday October 01st 2008, 3:30 pm
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Props to Rick, who was filming for Amy Goodman of Democracy Now when she was arrested @ the RNC for being a journalist.  (I still have a copy of his and Jacqui Soohen‘s compelling Black & Gold documentary from many years back.) I hadn’t realized that an AP reporter @ the RNC was arrested as well.  Now that’s something!

Scale of responsibility
Wednesday October 01st 2008, 4:20 am
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There is responsibility for self, for family, for dynasty.  For community, state, nation.  Local ecosystem,  environment, planet.  Foundations, infrastructure, superstructures.  Habits, memes, social and legal norms.  And all of these on the scale of weeks, years, centuries.

When you are responsible for safeguarding and monitoring long-term infrastructure health and development, you should know when to be on high alert.  You should know what your contingency plans are in an emergency.  And you should be self-aware about how much time may be needed for implementation.  When you have to resort to quiet threats, rather than understood emergency plans that get tested in the absense of a crisis, you’ve already lost.

Everyone in charge of handling economic emergencies suffered from a deadly lack of preparation, leading to gross irresponsibility.  They are selfishly hoping to salvage their own face, in the face of the destruction of the life’s-work-equivalents of millions of people, rather than discovering the elegance of a true large-scale solution.  Noone has been honest enough to step back, publicly admit their own failure — pass on what killed you to those who come after — and try to correct to a completely new plan and more realistic worldview.

Bonus chatter :

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