The bipolar Internet

In a recent Atlantic article, Jaron Lanier discusses the bipolar nature of the Internet.

The Internet …  was influenced in equal degrees by 1960s romanticism and cold war paranoia. It aligned the two poles of the bit to these two archetypal dramas.

Lanier argues that the Internet is polarizing. Just as bits are either on or off, the Internet encourages all-or-nothing options. With regard to privacy in particular, Lanier says that you can be totally anonymous or totally open, but it’s difficult to be anywhere in between.

Douglas Rushkoff makes a similar argument in Chapter 3 of his book Program or Be Programmed. Rushkoff argues that because computers ultimately work with 0’s and 1’s, the Internet inevitably forces people into yes-no decisions.

Lanier and Rushkoff have valid points, but I have a couple reservations.

First, I don’t see why the emergent properties of the Internet should be binary just because the underlying technology is binary. For example, I don’t imagine the Internet would be much different if computers were built on electronic components with three possible states rather than two. But I would concede that binary technology makes a good metaphor for discussing the binary choices one must often make on the Internet.

Second, I’d say that modern life forces us into discrete decisions, but this is much older than the Internet. Mass production requires limited options. If a cobbler is going to make a pair of shoes for me, he can measure my feet. But if I’m going to buy a pair of shoes from a store, I have to pick a size. Also, bureaucracies require information to fit into forms, though that was true of paper forms before the advent of electronic forms. Perhaps the Internet accentuates the need to make discrete decisions, though I’m not convinced.

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Dumb and gets things done

Someone once asked Napoleon how he decided where to assign soldiers. Napoleon’s reply was that it’s simple: soldiers are either smart or dumb, lazy or energetic.

  • The smart and energetic I make field commanders. They know what to do and can rally the troops to do it.
  • The smart and lazy I make generals. They also know what to do, but they’re not going to waste energy doing what doesn’t need to be done.
  • The dumb and lazy I make foot soldiers.

But what about the dumb and energetic? “Those,” Napoleon replied, “I shoot.”

The Napoleon joke comes to mind when I hear praise for somebody because they can “get things done.” Should we make them a field commander or shoot them?

Joel Spolsky says that the ideal programmer is someone who is smart and gets things done. But what about people who are dumb and get things done?

When Ross Perot ran for president in 1992, his supporters exclaimed “He can get things done!” So I’d ask “What does he want to get done that you’d like to see happen?” I don’t recall ever getting an answer.  What he wanted to get done didn’t matter. (I’m not saying that Perot’s platform was dumb. I’ll stay out of that discussion. I’m only saying that it could have been dumb and some people would not know or care.)

One time I heard someone praised as a good teacher. Not knowledgeable, but a good teacher. I objected that if someone is ignorant but a good teacher, does that mean they’re effective in conveying their ignorance? Wouldn’t that be a bad thing? No, all that mattered was that he was a good teacher.

Computer programs consists of lines of code, and lines of code consist of characters. So it’s good for a programmer to be proficient in producing lines of code and characters. Of course it’s more important that they produce lines of code that are correct, maintainable, and that accomplish something worthwhile.

Why would someone support a presidential candidate without knowing their positions? Why would someone want their children to have an ignorant but effective teacher? Why would someone want a programmer who is proficient at producing bad code?

I don’t think anyone wants these things, though they do lose sight of their goals. People like charismatic presidents, good teachers, and productive programmers. But it’s too easy to fall into reductionism, focusing on elemental components and losing sight of the big picture.

Leaders need to make things happen. Teachers need to teach. Programmers need to write code. These basic skills are necessary, but they are not enough.

There’s an active conversation here (59 comments currently, several of which arrived as I composed this post) on how much typing speed matters. I believe the discussion is lively in part because it touches on the issues in this post, basic skills versus larger goals. Participants are coming from varying levels of abstraction, from keystrokes to software engineering. Some are arguing bottom-up, some top-down. I find the dynamic of the discussion more interesting than its content.

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Reading as inclination leads

The following quote has stuck in my mind for many years:

A man ought to read just as inclination leads him: for what he reads as a task will do him little good.

I first ran across the quote in Spivak’s Calculus in college and have largely followed its advice ever since.

I did not, however, remember that the author of the quote was Samuel Johnson. This morning I was reading James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson and was pleasantly surprised to run across his quote in context.

Idleness is a disease which must be combated; but I would not advise a rigid adherence to a particular plan of study. I myself have never persisted in any plan for two days together. A man ought to read just as inclination leads him: for what he reads as a task will do him little good. A young man should read five hours in a day, and so may acquire a great deal of knowledge.

This passage made me feel better about having skipped over large parts of the biography that I found tedious. Perhaps Doctor Johnson would approve.

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Scientific opposition to the war on cancer

On December 9, 1969 the Washington Post ran a full-page ad that began

Mr. Nixon: You can cure cancer.

If America could put a man on the moon, she should be able to cure cancer. And why not? Well, because cancer research isn’t rocket science. (Actually, rocket science isn’t science; it’s engineering.) The science necessary to put a man on the moon was well known; the science necessary to cure cancer was not.

President Nixon was eager to comply with the request for massive funding for cancer research. However, many scientists were opposed to the idea. Cancer researcher Sol Spiegelman, for example, believed such a push was premature.

An all-out effort at this time would be like trying to land a man on the moon without knowing Newton’s laws of gravity.

James Watson warned

… we must reject the notion that we will be lucky. … Instead we will be witnessing a massive expansion of well-intentioned mediocrity.

How many scientists today would argue against a funding increase for their area of study?

Quotes taken from Emperor of all Maladies

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Bayesian methods at the end

I was looking at the preface of an old statistic book and read this:

The Bayesian techniques occur at the end of each chapter; therefore they can be omitted if time does not permit their inclusion.

This approach is typical. Many textbooks present frequentist statistics with a little Bayesian statistics at the end of each section or at the end of the book.

There are a couple ways to look at that. One is simply that Bayesian methods are optional. They must not be that important or they’d get more space. The author even recommends dropping them if pressed for time.

Another way to look at this is that Bayesian statistics must be simpler than frequentist statistics since the Bayesian approach to each task requires fewer pages.

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Big data is not enough

Given enough data, correct answers jump out at you, right?

In some ways I think that scientists have misled themselves into thinking that if you collect enormous amounts of data you are bound to get the right answer. You are not bound to get the right answer unless you are enormously smart. You can narrow down your questions; but enormous data sets often consist of enormous numbers of small sets of data, none of which by themselves are enough to solve the thing you are interested in, and they fit together in some complicated way.

Bradley Efron, quoted in Significance. Emphasis added.

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College math in a single symbol

From Prelude to Mathematics by W. W. Sawyer (1955):

There must be many universities today where 95 percent, if not 100 percent, of the functions studied by physics, engineering, and even mathematics students, are covered by the single symbol F(a, b; c; x).

The symbol Sawyer refers to is the hypergeometric function. (There are hypergeometric functions with any number of parameters, but the case with three parameters is so common that it is often called “the” hypergeometric function.) The most commonly used functions in application — trig functions, exp, log, the error function, Bessel functions, etc. — are either hypergeometric functions or closely related to hypergeometric functions. Sawyer continues:

I do not wish to imply that the hypergeometric function is the only function about which mathematics knows anything. That is far from being true. … but the valley inhabited by schoolboys, by engineers, by physicists, and by students of elementary mathematics, is the valley of the Hypergeometric Function, and its boundaries are (but for one or two small clefts explored by pioneers) virgin rock.

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Rice/NASA land deal

Rice University donated the land for NASA’s Johnson Space Center. However, there were strings attached. According to Rocket Men,

If NASA gives up manned space flight, however, under the terms of its lease , it will have to relinquish Houston’s Johnson Spacecraft [sic] Center back to Rice University.

I imagine NASA will always at least talk about putting people in space so they can hold on to their land.

Update: Here’s a newspaper clipping about the deal. I don’t know where it’s from or whether it’s accurate.

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After two days, I’d turned into an idiot

Ever wonder why astronauts schedules are crammed with activity? A simple explanation is that time in space is a very limited commodity and so they naturally want to accomplish as much as possible. While that’s undoubtedly true, there’s also another reason.

Early in the space program, a NASA psychiatrist spent two days in an isolation tank with scuba gear to experience simulated weightlessness.

I thought a little, and then I stopped thinking altogether. … incredible how idleness of body leads to idleness of mind. After two days, I’d turned into an idiot. That’s the reason why, during a flight, astronauts are always kept busy.

From Rocket Men.

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