Digital Philosophy II: Are Cellular Automata Important?

The assertion that the universe is a computer (or rather, a computation) might seem like an egregious category error — computers after all are things made from the ‘stuff’ of the universe. To take digital philosophy seriously we need to get past this non-trivial barrier to comprehension. The idea is that computation is not a metaphor for the universe, nor is the physical evolution of the universe analogous to computation. The idea is that the universe can be said to be a gigantic ongoing computation just as it can be said to be a bunch of particles interacting energetically via some laws. In the first part of this series, we looked at the prerequisite idea that the continuum (or real line) might not be so real. In the next part, we’ll get to the latest ideas, from quantum computing scientists like Seth Lloyd. But before we get there, we need to talk about Von Neumann, Stephen Wolfram and Cellular Automata, an approach to digital philosophy (and physics) that I think is wrong, but nevertheless very illuminating.

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Seth Godin’s Dip and Multi-armed Bandits

Seth Godin, who I first discovered through his bestselling Permission Marketing has made something of a specialty of writing compact and focused books around single clear ideas. His latest, a tiny little book called The Dip, is his most abstract yet, but still fits the mold and develops a single punchy idea. The idea is this: there is a transient dip in the effort-to-returns graph of any project, and deciding what project to quit, and when, in terms of this graph, is a critical skill. It is almost too much of a complex idea for him to handle, but he just makes it. It is interesting to see him arrive at a fresh insight into a problem that has nearly a half-century long history in the context of an academic model of decision making called the multi-armed bandit. His fresh and original take provides some insight the bandit mathematicians never stumbled upon, but at the same time, he seriously underestimates the complexity of the idea, and the difficulty of operationalizing it.

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Meditations on Cataloging the Telluride Library

In the winter of 2001, for a variety of deep and compelling reasons, I found myself faced with the prospect of spending yet another vacation alone in Ann Arbor. Having previously learned everything that being miserable and bored has to teach, I doughtily resolved to explore other dimensions of enforced solitude. So, with an inspiring vision of myself as a latter-day Thoreau in mind, I made myself a plan for living a life of soul-cleansing monastic discipline within the confines of Telluride house for two weeks. [Read more…]

Dan Pink, Howard Gardner and the Da Vinci Mind

Do labels like “broad thinker,” “generalist,” “synthesizer,” “right-brained,” or “conceptualizer” get at aspects of a coherent personality type? Call this mind the “Da Vinci” mind for short. Recently, two rather interesting takes on such minds have appeared: A Whole New Mind (WNM) by Dan Pink and Five Minds for the Future by Howard Gardner. Do you have what these two authors think is the kind of mind that will dominate the future? Are you sure you want such a mind, even if they are right? Let’s get to the answers through some right-brained meandering.

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The Twitter Zone and Virtual Geography

My previous post on the 50-foot-rule led to an interesting exchange with reader tubelite, which led me to a more sophisticated appreciation of the idea behind, and introduced me to the interesting ideas of Dunbar’s number and the Monkeysphere. After mulling the straggling exchange, and starting with tubelite’s insight that the 50-foot zone is really a zone of random background social noise, I came up with a map of modern virtualized society. At the heart of it is the new form of the 50-foot-zone, the twitter zone. Here’s the map.

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Open Innovation, or is Business War?

The catchphrase of Henry Chesbrough’s work on innovation (a doctrine called “open innovation” and described in Open Innovation, 2003, and Open Business Models, 2006), is “not all the smart people work for you.” The key operational message that corporations seem to take away from it though, is “buy and sell intellectual property vigorously and throw some money at universities.” Somewhere along the way unfortunately, a sophisticated reconstruction of the logic of innovation becomes reduced to quick-money recipes. Part of the blame rests with Chesbrough himself, for raising and framing a very important subject, but then being somewhat timid about running with the idea to some daring conclusions. In this article, I am going to rush in foolishly where, apparently, Henry Chesbrough fears to tread. I’ll interpret the idea of open innovation as business is not war, and you’ll see where that line of reasoning takes us. [Read more…]

Digital Philosophy – I: The Real is Unreal

In a previous article, I reviewed some of the troubles ailing superstring theory, as chronicled by two prominent and articulate discontents. Among the more radical suggestions for fixing physics is to get away from continuous models altogether and ask if the universe is fundamentally a discrete entity in some way. Proponents of this view — called digital physics or nearly-equivalently, digital philosophy— take on not one but two terrifying tasks. Not only must they reconstruct centuries of physics built on top of calculus (a fundamentally continuous sort of math) but to finish the job at a satisfying level, take on continuum mathematics itself and reconstruct it in discrete terms. The debate has relevance even further afield, to questions about the nature of consciousness. I’ll talk about three books that develop this approach in an accessible manner, and about one formidable one that I think confuses the issues in pointless distracting ways.

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Ten Years in America

According to my passport, as of August 5th, I have lived in America for 10 years. Somehow, no profound thoughts occur to me. When I try to look back, no grand ethnographic synthesis or thick description suggests itself. Perhaps all the profound observations about America have already been made by Alexis de Tocqueville and the The Simpsons.

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The Parrot

This piece was written in Ithaca, in 2005, and is as accurate a phenomenological report of an actual mental response to real events as I am capable of. At the time I thought — and still do — that a very careful observation of your own thoughts as you react to sensory input is a very useful thing. Not quite meditation. Call it meditative observation. Stylistically, it is inspired by Camus.

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Book Review: Blue Ocean Strategy

I don’t usually write strongly negative reviews of books, because most of the time, when you encounter a bad book, it is usually obviously bad from page 1 on. Intelligent readers don’t need help figuring that out. Blue Ocean Strategy is a bad book, but it is not your usual bad book. It is a dangerous bad book because it takes some thinking to figure out why it is bad, despite its success, and despite the fact that its key metaphor of blue ocean vs. red ocean has made it into the business lexicon and titles of innovation projects. This means that harried workers and managers, even really smart ones, who digest this on a short plane ride, might very well be led down very dangerous paths by it. So here is the first ever skewering of a book on ribbonfarm. Call it a ritual sacrifice. If you already read the book and didn’t find any serious flaws, read on for a detox course. If you haven’t read it, I hope I am able to turn you off. If you still insist on buying it, please use the affiliate link on this page, so at least some good comes from it. A better use of your hard-earned money might be buying me a cappuccino when you are done reading the review. Or buying one of the alternate recommendations at the end.

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