TweetFollow Us on Twitter

Winter 92 - THE VETERAN NEOPHYTE

THE VETERAN NEOPHYTE

SILICON SURPRISE

DAVE JOHNSON

[IMAGE 082-084_Dave's_column_re1.GIF]

Many of the things that are important, many of the phenomena that drive the world, are based on very simple rules. Huge numbers of independent entities interacting in a simple way at their local level can exhibit surprisingly complex behavior. The amazing and endlessly fascinating thing is that the end result is not at all obvious if you look only at the local rules.

Weather, for instance: get a bunch--and I meanlots --of gas molecules and water vapor together, and weather just happens (I've heard that really big closed buildings, like hangars and roofed stadiums, experience "weather" inside). As far as the molecules are concerned, there's no such thing as weather; they just sort of bump around and interact with their neighbors, and the result is wind, or clouds, or rain.

Another good example is evolution (one of my favorite topics): throw a bunch of replicating things into an environment with limited but necessary (for replication) resources, and evolution just happens. As far as the replicators are concerned, there's no such thing as evolution; they simply do their best to replicate, and the result is trees, or dogs, or us.

Chemistry is another example that comes to mind: throw a bunch of atoms together, and chemistry just happens. Again, as far as the atoms are concerned, there's no such thing as chemistry; they simply attract and repel each other, sticking together or flying apart, swapping electrons around, and the result is diamonds, or dynamite, or rust.

The examples go on and on, you can find them almost anywhere you care to look. Scientists call it "emergent behavior": simple, local rules, repeated ad infinitum (in time, or space, or even some other dimension), surprisingly often produce behavior that's unexpected, even unpredictable, from just the rules. One of the things I like so much about computers is that they're superlative tools for exploring emergent behavior.

There are three things in particular that make computers so good for this task: they can do arithmetic unsupervised, once they're told what to do; they can do their arithmetic inside a logical structure; and they can do itreally fast.  This combination is extremely powerful and, more important, is unique to computers. Before computers, no one ever saw good pictures of fractals-- though a few mathematicians knew they were there--and the reason is simply that no one had the patience to slog through the incredibly tedious, repetitive arithmetic needed to generate pictures of them. Computers allowed mathematicians to write a recipe for the math, and then just wait a little while for the results. In this sense, computers are a kind of microscope that allows people to see certain thingsfor the very first time.

Today there's a huge and burgeoning branch of research, often and aptly termed the "sciences of complexity," that has only become possible with the aid of computers. Emergent behavior is just one aspect of this larger field. The study of complexity is suggesting all kinds of brand-new approaches in long-established fields. Medicine, sociology, psychology, economics, biology, neuroscience, mathematics, physics--all have been affected. Computers have also given rise to completely new fields of inquiry: artificial intelligence, artificial life, chaos theory, neural networks, genetic algorithms, even the study of computation itself. The list of applications and repercussions seems to be endless.

It's amazing to me still, and probably always will be, that doing arithmetic inside a logical structure is a necessaryand sufficient condition to simulate anything that can be described precisely. (Even things that can't be described precisely can be "precisely approximated"; a fact that makes engineers rejoice but mathematicians gag.) Simply doing arithmetic very fast and automatically produces a blazing, frothing torrent of diversity, a veritable fire hose of creation.

What's even more fascinating to me is that computers themselves are beginning to exhibit many of the properties that characterize complex systems, including emergence. All they do, really, is arithmetic. (Of course, if you want to get down deep, all they do is shove electrons around, but that's a little too abstract, even for me.) But look at all the things computers are used for today, and think of all the things theycould be used for. Admittedly, this progression and diversification is driven by humans--it wouldn't happen without us--but the number and variety of computers and software that exist have arisen without a grand design, without an overall plan. It has truly begun to evolve.

Early computer programs directly reflected the computer's capabilities. Most were basically number crunchers, since at heart the computer is a number cruncher. Computers were, after all, invented to do long, time-consuming calculations quickly and automatically (it helps a lot during wartime). And that'sstill  all they do, but the programs have changed dramatically.

Programmers soon began to abstract their programs away from sheer arithmetic--and thus from the machine--and began to use the arithmetic to simulate other things, both strange and ordinary. Word processing, computer graphics, spreadsheets, databases: all these arrived on the scene. There was (and still is) a wild divergence away from simply doing arithmetic. In theory, according to mathematical proofs, computers can simulateany logical system. There are certainly plenty of logical systems to go around, and plenty more to invent.

So the progress of computing is a kind of human-driven evolution, with human use being the "fitness function" (that is, the function that determines how well a particular entity is doing). Humans also drive the mutation and recombination, since they're the ones inventing and modifying programs. And that's where programmers come into the picture. If we're dealing with an evolutionary process, and we want it to continue as fast as possible (we do, don't we?), we should provide the things that drive evolution most strongly: diversity, large numbers, and strong selection pressure.

Selection pressure is amply provided by the marketplace; applications that aren't useful, or are too expensive or buggy, die quick ignominious deaths. The large numbers that we need are already there, and getting larger. We can help increase them by moving away from the current tendency toward huge, multipurpose, feature-crammed applications and trying to get closer to the concept of independent, single-purpose tools. (Besides, small programs are easier to develop, easier to support, and easier for people to learn.)

This "granulation" also helps increase diversity, in that it breaks up the different functions of an application into independent entities, with "lives" of their own. But even more effective at increasing diversity is thinking of new things. Only by trying new stuff, by constantly exploring the landscape of possibilities, by endlessly diversifying, do we make progress. Today's applications are only the tiniest subset of what's possible.

Admittedly, there are very real practical limits: computers are only so fast (so far); developers need to make a living, so their programs have to sell (excepting, of course, those of you lucky enough to work in research and academia: you can't use this excuse); and, probably most important, programming computers well turns out to bereally hard!  But none of these limits are insurmountable. Computers are getting faster at an incredible rate, new markets are opening up as the number and diversity of computer users increase, and programming is getting easier. (Obviously the joy of programming has very little to do with the mechanics of communicating with the machine: just look at all the assembly hackers and UNIX folks in the world. Come to think of it, maybe a lot of the fun is figuring out how to say what you want with a painfully limited vocabulary.)

A characteristic trait of complex systems is their sensitive dependence on initial conditions. Ask any meteorologist. A tiny whisper of change can cascade into a complete transformation of the system. The evolution of computing is careening along at a very high speed, with a lot of inertia, and in a lot of directions; but a gentle shove in just the right place might profoundly affect the outcome. Where's the right place to push? If I knew, I wouldn't be working for a living. But if we all just start pushing everywhere we can think of, as often as we can, then we're helping computing reach its next incarnation, whateverthat  may be. I can't wait to find out.

RECOMMENDED READING

  • Artificial Life,  edited by Christopher G. Langton (Addison-Wesley, 1989).
  • Chaos  by James Gleick (Penguin Books, 1987).
  • Great Mambo Chicken and the Trans-Human Condition  by Ed Regis (Addison-Wesley, 1990).
  • The Tenth Good Thing About Barney  by Judith Viorst (Atheneum, 1971).

DAVE JOHNSON once spent the better part of a day at the public library researching rock skipping (a.k.a. gerplunking or dapping). He found two official organizations, one annual event, and a handful of articles in various magazines. Although he sent very nice letters to the organizations asking for further information, he never heard from them. The currently recognized world record is 29 skips. Rock skipping is still poorly understood by scientists. *

Dave welcomes feedback on his musings. He can be reached at JOHNSON.DK on AppleLink, dkj@apple.com on the Internet, or 75300,715 on CompuServe.*

 

Community Search:
MacTech Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

How to get a high score in every level o...
Sky Charms is an adorable match three puzzler that provides a decent challenge thanks to its creative level design. It regularly presents something new, forcing you to think on your feet. [Read more] | Read more »
Apestorm: Full Bananas (Games)
Apestorm: Full Bananas 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: ***Launch sale – limited time only!*** Fugitive Apes have taken to the skies in search of revenge after humans have... | Read more »
How to create bigger words in Spellspire
Words have power. At least they do in Spellspire,a game about blasting out magical attacks by making words out of a jumble of letters. And it's a lot of fun. But if you want to be the best, you're going to have to think tactically when you start... | Read more »
Steel Media and DeePoon have partnered f...
Virtual reality is the next big thing, and 148Apps's publisher,Steel Media, wants to know what the hottest upcoming games are. [Read more] | Read more »
Airline Director 2 - Tycoon Game (Games...
Airline Director 2 - Tycoon Game 1.2.1 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $2.99, Version: 1.2.1 (iTunes) Description: Airline Director 2 is a management game set in the challenging field of commercial aviation. As the... | Read more »
Dog Mendonca (Games)
Dog Mendonca 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $4.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: [ Solve a criminal case beyond believe in this supernatural adventure game based on the popular graphic novel trilogy published... | Read more »
Amidakuji Knight (Games)
Amidakuji Knight 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: Ghost leg rules meets RPG!Select the best path and save a princess! A long long time ago, there was a beautiful and peaceful... | Read more »
The 5 best mobile games like Game of Thr...
Everyone's favourite weekly dosage of medieval depression, Game of Thrones, is back for its sixth season. An excellent time for the bloodthirsty! [Read more] | Read more »
How to approach quests in Fallen London
Sitting at over 1.5 million words, Fallen London is filled to the brim with intriguing tales and mysterious characters. From the start, you’ll find a slew of quests ripe for the taking. [Read more] | Read more »
How to survive in LOUD on Planet X
LOUD on Planet X is a hybrid of a tower defense and rhythm game that pits famous indie acts against invading aliens. You need timing and strategy in this game in order to succeed, things can get pretty overwhelming pretty quickly. Here are some... | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

Aleratec Releases Mac Software Upgrade for 1...
California based Aleratec Inc., designer, developer and manufacturer of Portable Device Management (PDM) charge/sync products for mobile devices and professional-grade duplicators for hard disk... Read more
Sale! Amazon offers 27-inch iMac, 13-inch 2.9...
Amazon has the 27″ 3.2GHz 5K iMac and the 13″ 3.9GHz Retina MacBook Pro on sale for $300 off MSRP, each including free shipping, for a limited time: - 27″ 3.2GHz/1TB HD 5K iMac (model MK462LL/A): $... Read more
Apple refurbished 13-inch Retina MacBook Pros...
Apple has Certified Refurbished 13″ Retina MacBook Pros available for up to $270 off the cost of new models. An Apple one-year warranty is included with each model, and shipping is free: - 13″ 2.7GHz... Read more
13-inch 2.7GHz/128GB Retina MacBook Pro on sa...
Take $200 off MSRP on the price of a new 13″ 2.7GHz/128GB Retina MacBook Pro (model MF839LL/A) at Amazon. Shipping is free: - 13″ 2.7GHz/128GB Retina MacBook Pro: $1099.99 $200 off MSRP Act now if... Read more
Apple refurbished clearance 15-inch Retina Ma...
Apple has Certified Refurbished 2014 15″ 2.2GHz Retina MacBook Pros available for $1609, $390 off original MSRP. Apple’s one-year warranty is included, and shipping is free. They have refurbished 15... Read more
27-inch 5K iMacs on sale for up to $150 off M...
B&H Photo has 27″ 5K iMacs on sale for up to $150 off MSRP including free shipping plus NY sales tax only: - 27″ 3.3GHz iMac 5K: $2199 $100 off MSRP - 27″ 3.2GHz/1TB Fusion iMac 5K: $1849.99 $150... Read more
What Does The Refreshed 12-Inch MacBook Tell...
A lot of commentators are complaining that Apple’s update of the 12-Inch MacBook last week is a bit of a damp squib. I don’t know what they were expecting, since it would be very unlike Apple to do a... Read more
Free Wittify Keyboard Now Available On The Ap...
A team of Harvard Business School students have announced that the Wittify Keyboard, a new app utility for iOS devices, is now available on the Apple App Store. The Wittify keyboard and application... Read more
Apple Reports First Year-Over-Year Quarterly...
Apple on TUesday announced financial results for its fiscal 2016 second quarter ending March 26, 2016. The Company posted quarterly revenue of $50.6 billion and quarterly net income of $10.5 billion... Read more
13-inch 2.7GHz Retina MacBook Pros on sale fo...
Take $130-$150 off MSRP on the price of a new 13″ 2.7GHz Retina MacBook Pro at Amazon. Shipping is free: - 13″ 2.7GHz/128GB Retina MacBook Pro: $1169 $130 off MSRP - 13″ 2.7GHz/256GB Retina MacBook... Read more

Jobs Board

*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions - Apple,...
Job Description: Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, Read more
Restaurant Manager (Neighborhood Captain) - A...
…in every aspect of daily operation. WHY YOU'LL LIKE IT: You'll be the Big Apple . You'll solve problems. You'll get to show your ability to handle the stress and Read more
*Apple* Solutions Consultant - … (United Sta...
Job Summary As an Apple Solutions Consultant, you'll be the link between our future customers and our products. You'll showcase your entrepreneurial spirit as you Read more
Restaurant Manager (Neighborhood Captain) - A...
…in every aspect of daily operation. WHY YOU'LL LIKE IT: You'll be the Big Apple . You'll solve problems. You'll get to show your ability to handle the stress and Read more
Restaurant Manager (Neighborhood Captain) - A...
…in every aspect of daily operation. WHY YOU'LL LIKE IT: You'll be the Big Apple . You'll solve problems. You'll get to show your ability to handle the stress and Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.