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

Alfred 3.2.1 - Quick launcher for apps a...
Alfred is an award-winning productivity application for OS X. Alfred saves you time when you search for files online or on your Mac. Be more productive with hotkeys, keywords, and file actions at... Read more
OmniPlan 3.6 - Robust project management...
With OmniPlan, you can create logical, manageable project plans with Gantt charts, schedules, summaries, milestones, and critical paths. Break down the tasks needed to make your project a success,... Read more
Backblaze 4.2.0.990 - Online backup serv...
Backblaze is an online backup service designed from the ground-up for the Mac. With unlimited storage available for $5 per month, as well as a free 15-day trial, peace of mind is within reach with... Read more
AppDelete 4.3.1 - $7.99
AppDelete is an uninstaller that will remove not only applications but also widgets, preference panes, plugins, and screensavers along with their associated files. Without AppDelete these associated... Read more
Apple GarageBand 10.1.4 - Complete recor...
The new GarageBand is a whole music creation studio right inside your Mac -- complete with keyboard, synths, orchestral and percussion instruments, presets for guitar and voice, an entirely... Read more
Adobe Lightroom 6.8 - Import, develop, a...
Adobe Lightroom is available as part of Adobe Creative Cloud for as little as $9.99/month bundled with Photoshop CC as part of the photography package. Lightroom 6 is also available for purchase as a... Read more
iMazing 2.1.3 - 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
Little Snitch 3.7.1 - Alerts you about o...
Little Snitch gives you control over your private outgoing data. Track background activity As soon as your computer connects to the Internet, applications often have permission to send any... Read more
OmniPlan Pro 3.6 - Professional-grade pr...
With OmniPlan Pro, you can create logical, manageable project plans with Gantt charts, schedules, summaries, milestones, and critical paths. Break down the tasks needed to make your project a success... Read more
Apple GarageBand 10.1.4 - Complete recor...
The new GarageBand is a whole music creation studio right inside your Mac -- complete with keyboard, synths, orchestral and percussion instruments, presets for guitar and voice, an entirely... Read more

Latest Forum Discussions

See All

Galaxy on Fire 3 and four other fantasti...
Galaxy on Fire 3 - Manticore brings the series back for another round of daring space battles. It's familiar territory for folks who are familiar with the franchise. If you've beaten the game and are looking to broaden your horizons, might we... | Read more »
The best apps for your holiday gift exch...
What's that, you say? You still haven't started your holiday shopping? Don't beat yourself up over it -- a lot of people have been putting it off, too. It's become easier and easier to procrastinate gift shopping thanks to a number of apps that... | Read more »
Toca Hair Salon 3 (Education)
Toca Hair Salon 3 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Education Price: $2.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: | Read more »
Winter comes to Darkwood as Seekers Note...
MyTona, based in the chilly Siberian city of Yakutsk, has brought a little festive fun to its hidden object game Seekers Notes: Hidden Mystery. The Christmas update introduces some new inhabitants to players, and with them a chance to win plenty of... | Read more »
Bully: Anniversary Edition (Games)
Bully: Anniversary Edition 1.03.1 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $6.99, Version: 1.03.1 (iTunes) Description: *** PLEASE NOTE: This game is officially supported on the following devices: iPhone 5 and newer, iPod Touch... | Read more »
PINE GROVE (Games)
PINE GROVE 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $1.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: A pine grove where there are no footsteps of people due to continuous missing cases. The case is still unsolved and nothing has... | Read more »
Niantic teases new Pokémon announcement...
After rumors started swirling yesterday, it turns out there is an official Pokémon GO update on its way. We’ll find out what’s in store for us and our growing Pokémon collections tomorrow during the Starbucks event, but Niantic will be revealing... | Read more »
3 reasons why Nicki Minaj: The Empire is...
Nicki Minaj is as business-savvy as she is musically talented and she’s proved that by launching her own game. Designed by Glu, purveyors of other fine celebrity games like cult favorite Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, Nicki Minaj: The Empire launched... | Read more »
Clash of Clans is getting its own animat...
Riding on its unending wave of fame and success, Clash of Clans is getting an animated web series based on its Clash-A-Rama animated shorts.As opposed to the current shorts' 60 second run time, the new and improved Clash-A-Rama will be comprised of... | Read more »
Leaks hint at Pokémon GO and Starbucks C...
Leaked images from a hub for Starbucks employees suggests that a big Pokémon GO event with the coffee giant could begin this very week. The images appeared on Reddit and hint at some exciting new things to come for Niantic's smash hit game. | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

12-inch Retina MacBooks, Apple refurbished, n...
Apple has restocked a full line of Certified Refurbished 2016 12″ Retina MacBooks, now available for $200-$260 off MSRP. Refurbished 2015 models are available starting at $929. Apple will include a... Read more
Holiday sale: 12-inch Retina MacBook for $100...
B&H has 12″ Retina MacBooks on sale for $100 off MSRP as part of their Holiday sale. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY sales tax only: - 12″ 1.1GHz Space Gray Retina MacBook: $1199 $100... Read more
Apple refurbished 13-inch MacBook Airs availa...
Apple has Certified Refurbished 13″ MacBook Airs available starting at $849. An Apple one-year warranty is included with each MacBook, and shipping is free: - 13″ 1.6GHz/8GB/128GB MacBook Air: $849 $... Read more
Apple refurbished iMacs available for up to $...
Apple has Certified Refurbished 2015 21″ & 27″ iMacs available for up to $350 off MSRP. Apple’s one-year warranty is standard, and shipping is free. The following models are available: - 21″ 3.... Read more
Apple’s Education discount saves up to $300 o...
Purchase a new Mac or iPad using Apple’s Education Store and take up to $300 off MSRP. All teachers, students, and staff of any educational institution qualify for the discount. Shipping is free: -... Read more
Back in stock: Apple refurbished Mac minis fr...
Apple has Certified Refurbished Mac minis available starting at $419. Apple’s one-year warranty is included with each mini, and shipping is free: - 1.4GHz Mac mini: $419 $80 off MSRP - 2.6GHz Mac... Read more
Twenty-Five Years Of Apple Laptops – A person...
Among many other things, the often tumultuous 16th year of the new century marked the 25th anniversary of Apple laptop computers, not counting the optimistically named 16-pound Mac Portable of 1989.... Read more
Landlordy iOS App Adds Support For Appliances...
Riga, Latvia based E-protect SIA is releasing major update (version 1.8) to its Landlordy app for managing rental business financials on the go. Landlordy is iPhone and iPad app designed for self-... Read more
Holiday sale, Apple iMacs for up to $200 off...
B&H Photo has 21″ and 27″ Apple iMacs on sale for up to $200 off MSRP including free shipping plus NY sales tax only: - 27″ 3.3GHz iMac 5K: $2099 $200 off MSRP - 27″ 3.2GHz/1TB Fusion iMac 5K: $... Read more
Holiday sale: Mac minis for $50 to $100 off M...
B&H Photo has Mac minis on sale for up to $100 off MSRP free shipping plus NY sales tax only: - 1.4GHz Mac mini: $449 $50 off MSRP - 2.6GHz Mac mini: $629 $70 off MSRP - 2.8GHz Mac mini: $899 $... 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
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions- Trumbul...
Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, you're also the Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions- Philade...
Job Description: Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions- San Ant...
Job Description:SalesSpecialist - Retail Customer Service and SalesTransform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, Read more
*Apple* Products Tester Needed - Apple (Unit...
…we therefore look forward to put out products to quality test for durability. Apple leads the digital music revolution with its iPods and iTunes online store, Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.