Ming the Mechanic
The NewsLog of Flemming Funch

Wednesday, March 17, 2004day link 

 Functional Programming and Global Minds
Slashdot has a thing on functional programming languages. Which I didn't really know much about. But functional programming might best be compared with how a spreadsheet works, or how the SQL database query language is working. I.e. you specify the structure of the result you want, rather than having to figure out step-by-step how it would come about.

I'm a programmer, and despite useful advances such as Object Oriented Programming, my job would mostly consist of coming up with steps for solving problems. There are big complex problems I'd kind of love to solve, but which I can't, because I haven't figured out the steps that would solve them. So, it is refreshing with different ways of thinking about stuff like that. Where you rather work on specifying the results you'd like to get, and a compiler or interpreter will optimize the best way of getting there. Bugs don't have quite the same meaning when you work that way. You might not get the answer you're looking for in the first shot, but it is not a matter of the whole thing crashing, which is how normal programming is. You adjust your formulas untill you get the type of results you hoped for, rather than spending most of the effort getting your steps to work at all.

Now, how about that for solving big complex problems involving many people. I'm mainly thinking about information sharing in social networks. I hold certain kinds of information and certain skills and I have certain interests. I could use certain things from other people, either generally, or in specific situations, or to solve problems that suddenly come up. Maybe I need an accountant who knows about tax issues and company formation differences between the U.S., France and England. Maybe I need the side window for a 1959 Cadillac Seville. Some things already fit into solutions that people have made. Like eBay would fit for the latter. But what if nobody has spent the resources for piecing together a specific solution. Or if I don't know where it is.

So, the thought is that I might possibly express my needs in a functional way. Well, we're talking about those things that might be put into some kind of reasonably precise expression. I'm looking for this thing, and I'll be willing to pay that much, and I want it by this time, and from somebody within this radius from my house. And that some super parallel distributed interpreter comes along and grabs my query, together with everybody else's, and optimizes them all, so as to use the least possible resources in order to get everybody approximately what they want, if it is available.

Oh, there are lots of problems in that, of course. It is merely an idea. It is not clear how one would express complex requests into an unambiguous query. And I'm not sure anybody would know how to write such an interpreter. But it reframes the problem. One task is to be able to express clearly the types of things people want, and which we expect that computers might facilitate. And the other task is to write the engine that processes all those queries and gives the best possible results. And each of those separate areas would of course be improved as people find better and better ways of doing it.
[ | 2004-03-17 04:02 | 8 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

 The Leisure Society
picture When I was a kid I was very interested in the future. One thing that was pretty obvious, other than flying cars and space stations, would be that by now we'd really not have to work, per se. It was sort of self-evident, even when I was ten. Of course, if we keep being able to do things better and better, more and more efficiently, more and more bang for the buck, more and more automation - then there would be less and less of an actual need for work. It is a simple calculation. The stuff we need could be produced by a smaller and smaller percentage of the population. Which would allow us to spend our time being creative and having a good time.

The reason that didn't happen might be in the same category as why a brand new 3GHz PC isn't any faster than a 4.77MHz IBM PC from 20 years ago. In principle it should be a thousand times faster, and it is, technically speaking. But it doesn't do anything more. It takes longer to start up Word on it than to start WordStar on that ancient relic. And there are many more things that can go wrong, and more one needs to learn in order to use it.

Maybe the reason is in the same category as why my household budget looks about the same, no matter how much or how little I make. There's not quite enough for what I need, and I tend to pay things late. If somebody came along and gave me $10,000 extra per month, I would at first feel rich, and pay all my bills, and put some aside. But gradually I would come to think I needed a bigger version of everything, and I'd invest in some things I wouldn't otherwise have. And pretty soon I would have used it up, and have more regular expenses, and I'd again be a little behind. While still living essentially the same way. You know, in a house, eating food, driving vehicles, wearing clothes, breathing air.

You can probably draw a nice systems diagram of how there are several self-reinforcing loops involved in these scenarios. If there's capacity to make more stuff or do more things, they will be done, and they will create new needs and new ideas about new things that need to be done. The PC of today would indeed run WordStar like lightning, but I'd be missing the graphics, and would quickly look around for other things it ought to do. Voids will be filled. And there's the influence from all the other folks who have some new gadget or feature. If my neighbor has 3D displays on his walls, I'll feel a little left out, even if I was doing great with a monochrome screen at some other point in time.

So, what would it take for progress to actually add up to progress, rather than to staying in the same spot with some slightly different gear?

I think the main limiting factor is not the envy of my neighbor's stuff, but the economics of production. It doesn't have to be that way, but with the way business is currently structured economically, it is quite natural. Economic rewards flow to those who keep the wheels churning, rather than necessarily to those who solve the biggest problems in the most efficient way. There's no economic incentive to constructing the machinery that would give everybody in the world food to eat every day, without them having to work. Even though it would be fairly easy and comparatively cheap to do. But it wouldn't turn a profit. People who aren't working don't make money to buy stuff, so they aren't good consumers. People who aren't working is a problem in the current scheme of things. Something that requires the financing of unemployement payments, which requires that the wheels are churning faster somewhere else, creating profits that can be diverted for that purpose. It is all pretty insane of course.

If you can formulate an economic scheme that clearly measures the actual costs of various approaches, and the value people perceive in them, and which which allows easy financing of the permanent solving of big problems, and gives little value to wasteful and unnecessary work - then it can all change rather quickly. No, I'm not talking about communism. Rather about a free market with a good enough flow of high quality of information, using a different kind of currency. A currency that is built on quality of life, and which doesn't have a built-in accelerating corrosion that encourages fake productivity for its own sake. Rather, a system the encourages the optimization and maximization of free time and creativity.

It is not too late. The future is yet to come.
[ | 2004-03-17 05:55 | 24 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

 What could you do with a chainsaw?
picture BlackBeltJones writes:
From an amazing story about a woman who moved to a small island off the coast of Finland:
"I had to build a new jetty. I modelled it after others that I had seen. I cut down trees from the forest, and built a chest - a wooden frame - at the end of the jetty, which I filled with stones", she says on the shore. "It isn't hard to build a jetty. All you need is a chain saw and a brain."
Which got me to thinking, what would I be able to reverse-engineer in my mind from memory? Anything? I'm going to try and give myself a quiz, and ask Foe to name 3 things which I then have to sketch the workings of from memory, and perhaps then how I would go about constructing them.

The island-living lady in the story works as a translator over the internet, but it's not clear as to how much she relies on the net as a source of knowledge to be able to live alone in such a remote place.

I've thought before about the web, moblogs and stolen knowledge - collecting your memories of things, proceedures, recipes, constructions through your phone might result in not just a lifeblog, but a life-or-deathblog. Of course, in such situations, it might just be easier to use your mobile phone to give Ray Mears a call...

ยป Helsinki Sanomat: Living alone on a small island in the Turku archipelago
The story of that lady is quite a trip. She doesn't seem worried at all about living alone in a just about arctic winter, far away from anybody. But she makes her living on the net.

Anyway, I also have a fascination with knowledge of self-sufficiency, survival and sustainable living. Not that I'm really doing anything about it, but I'm somehow very attracted to gather do-it-yourself knowledge. Knowing how to get by in the wilderness, how to read the signs of nature, how to know what plants are edible, knowing how to make a house out of whatever is around. Or, preferably a bit better than that. Knowing how to re-create civilization if necessary. How to find and melt metals, how to drill a well, build a radio, or whatever. These things are ironically almost lost knowledge in our society. Meaning that it is so specialized knowledge that only few people have it. Oh, I can order a book from Amazon overnight which will tell me most of what I need to know. But what if civilization falls apart and I didn't get around to ordering that book first. Or I'm stranded on a desert island without it. What do I do? It is inspiring when people have the kind of comprehensive and practical knowledge that makes them know what to do, even when most "civilized" people have no clue.
[ | 2004-03-17 13:14 | 15 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

 You are here
picture Julie posted this picture the other day. So, it is at the end of a day. I can see the lights have just been turned on in Toulouse. They've been on in Copenhagen for a bit longer. And I can see there are a lot of people using lights in Holland, where I'm going tomorrow. Would be nice to have this kind of thing live. Except, of course, that it wouldn't really look like that, because of the clouds.
[ | 2004-03-17 14:05 | 15 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

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