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

Geekbench 4.1.1 - Measure processor and...
Geekbench provides a comprehensive set of benchmarks engineered to quickly and accurately measure processor and memory performance. Designed to make benchmarks easy to run and easy to understand,... Read more
iMazing 2.3.3 - Complete iOS device mana...
iMazing (was DiskAid) is the ultimate iOS device manager with capabilities far beyond what iTunes offers. With iMazing and your iOS device (iPhone, iPad, or iPod), you can: Copy music to and from... Read more
TeamViewer 12.0.81279 - Establish remote...
TeamViewer gives you remote control of any computer or Mac over the Internet within seconds, or can be used for online meetings. Find out why more than 200 million users trust TeamViewer! Free for... Read more
Safari Technology Preview 11.0 - The new...
Safari Technology Preview contains the most recent additions and improvements to WebKit and the latest advances in Safari web technologies. And once installed, you will receive notifications of... Read more
PDFpen 9.1 - $74.95
PDFpen allows users to easily edit PDF's. Add text, images and signatures. Fill out PDF forms. Merge or split PDF documents. Reorder and delete pages. Even correct text and edit graphics! Features... Read more
GraphicConverter 10.4.3 - $39.95
GraphicConverter is an all-purpose image-editing program that can import 200 different graphic-based formats, edit the image, and export it to any of 80 available file formats. The high-end editing... Read more
Fission 2.3.2 - Streamlined audio editor...
Fission can crop and trim audio, paste in or join files, or just rapidly split one long file into many. It's streamlined for fast editing. Plus, it works without the quality loss caused by other... Read more
EarthDesk 7.2 - Striking real-time anima...
EarthDesk replaces your static desktop picture with a rendered image of Earth showing correct sun, moon, and city illumination. With an Internet connection, EarthDesk displays near-real-time global... Read more
Things 3.1.1 - Elegant personal task man...
Things is a task management solution that helps to organize your tasks in an elegant and intuitive way. Things combines powerful features with simplicity through the use of tags and its intelligent... Read more
iDefrag 5.2.0 - Disk defragmentation and...
iDefrag helps defragment and optimize your disk for improved performance. iDefrag Features Supports HFS and HFS+ (Mac OS Extended). Supports case sensitive and journaled filesystems. Supports... Read more

Latest Forum Discussions

See All

Aero Effect (Games)
Aero Effect 1.0.1 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $1.99, Version: 1.0.1 (iTunes) Description: Race an aerodynamic thingy through a maze of animated, geometric peril and plunge into a mysterious grid of pixels, all while... | Read more »
Linelight (Games)
Linelight 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $1.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: Linelight is an elegant, minimalist puzzle game set in a universe of lines. Its puzzles will awake your mind as the music flows... | Read more »
Fighting Fantasy Legends (Games)
Fighting Fantasy Legends 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $4.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: Create your own adventures in a dangerous land of monsters, treasures and traps. From renowned authors Steve Jackson... | Read more »
Knight Fever is a new take on the classi...
Knight Fever lands on the Google Play, and you won’t want to miss it if you’re a devoted RPG fan. Developed by indie creatives Buff Studios, the game looks like a retro RPG with some exciting new twists. | Read more »
Steam Panic (Games)
Steam Panic 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $3.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: Steampunk puzzle in which you spin the playfield to put yourself back together. Dear Reader,Enclosed is a copy of my bizarre 1935... | Read more »
Time Crash (Games)
Time Crash 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $2.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: Time is about to Crash! It’s up to you to save the city! Time Crash is a 3D first person runner which lets you play as a powerful... | Read more »
Galaxy of Pen & Paper (Games)
Galaxy of Pen & Paper 1.0.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $4.99, Version: 1.0.0 (iTunes) Description: *** NO IN-APP PURCHASES! ****** PREMIUM FOREVER *** THE ULTIMATE ROLE-PLAYING SIMULATION GOES TO SPACE! | Read more »
Niantic reveals more Pokémon GO legendar...
Oof. Pokémon GO Fest Chicago was pretty much a fiasco, huh? Niantic is feeling the heat from fans for their first big event that ultimately ended in failure. So much so that they've released a much longer apology that gives a full run down of... | Read more »
The 5 best life-saving apps for dog owne...
While it's true that dogs are man's best friend, they're also a pretty big responsibility. We want to give our dogs the best lives, but with busy schedules that's not always easy. Luckily, though, there are a bunch of quality apps out there that... | Read more »
Mix and match magical brews in Miracle M...
Miracle Merchant, the charming fantasy card game by Tiny Touch Tales, is arriving next week. The development team, which also brought you Card Crawl and Card Thief, announced the game's launch with a pleasant little trailer that showcases the game'... | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

27-inch 3.5GHz iMac on sale for $100 off MSRP...
Adorama has the new 27″ 3.5GHz iMac (MNEA2LL/A) on sale for $1899 including free shipping. Their price is $100 off MSRP. Adorama charges sales tax for purchases in NY & NJ only. Read more
Seven Cities, One Phone: OtterBox Sends iPhon...
Plenty of people have trekked around the world, but what about a globe-trotting iPhone? OtterBox is sending an iPhone around the world to capture the adventures of a diverse set of global ambassadors... Read more
L-Card Pro App May Spell End For Paper Busine...
OrangeTreeApps, LLC has announced the release of L-Card Pro 1.1, an update to their business app for iOS and Android devices that introduces eco-friendly, affordable, electronic business cards on the... Read more
Clearance previous generation iMacs, Apple re...
Apple has previous-generation Certified Refurbished 2015 21″ & 27″ iMacs available starting at $849. Apple’s one-year warranty is standard, and shipping is free. The following models are... Read more
27-inch 3.4GHz iMac on sale for $1699, save $...
MacMall has the new 2017 27″ 3.4GHz iMac (MNE92LL/A) in stock and on sale for $1699 including free shipping. Their price is $100 off MSRP. Read more
Photographer Explains Choosing Dell Laptop Ov...
Last week photographer and video blogger Manny Ortiz posted a video explaining the five most important reasons he settled on a Dell XPS 15 laptop instead of a MacBook Pro for his latest portable... Read more
Sale! 10-inch iPad Pros for $50 off MSRP, no...
B&H Photo has 64GB and 256GB 10.5″ iPad Pros in stock today and on sale for $50 off MSRP. Each iPad includes free shipping, and B&H charges sales tax in NY & NJ only: – 10.5″ 64GB iPad... Read more
WaterField Designs Upgrades TSA-friendly Zip...
San Francisco based designer and manufacturer Waterfield Designs has unveiled an upgraded and refined Zip Brief. Ideal for the minimalist professional, the ultra-slim Zip laptop bag actually holds a... Read more
USB 3.0 Promoter Group Announces USB 3.2 Upda...
The USB 3.0 Promoter Group has announced the pending release of the USB 3.2 specification, an incremental update that defines multi-lane operation for new USB 3.2 hosts and devices. USB Developer... Read more
Save on MacBook Pros with Apple Refurbished 2...
Apple recently dropped prices on Certified Refurbished 2016 15″ and 13″ MacBook Pros with models now as much as $590 off original MSRP. An Apple one-year warranty is included with each model, and... Read more

Jobs Board

*Apple* Solutions Consultant - Apple Inc. (U...
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
Senior Software Engineer, *Apple* Online St...
Job Summary The Apple Online Store is looking for an experienced, self-driven, detail-oriented software engineer who can join our team to help build highly scalable Read more
Frameworks Engineering Manager, *Apple* Wat...
Frameworks Engineering Manager, Apple Watch Job Number: 41632321 Santa Clara Valley, California, United States Posted: Jun. 15, 2017 Weekly Hours: 40.00 Job Summary Read more
Senior Software Engineer, *Apple* Online St...
Changing the world is all in a day's work at Apple . If you love innovation, here's your chance to make a career of it. You'll work hard. But the job comes with more Read more
Frameworks Engineering Manager, *Apple* Wat...
Frameworks Engineering Manager, Apple Watch Job Number: 41632321 Santa Clara Valley, California, United States Posted: Jun. 15, 2017 Weekly Hours: 40.00 Job Summary Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.