Wetmachine Blog: metaphysics

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Jobs. Ritchie. McCarthy. What’s God up to? When do you think it will be out?

The 40th Anniversary of Lisp was 13 years ago. I remember being mostly relieved that the old man didn’t attend my presentation, as it wasn’t really very good. But I’ll remember McCarthy. I haven’t programmed Lisp on a computer in a decade, but I still think in it. About a week ago, I had a sudden urge to play with it again. Here’s the coolest thing I ever wrote in any language, with comments removed. It’s sort of a y-combinator for a fixed-point of three levels of eval/apply.

(defmacro eclipse::WITH-UNIQUE-NAMES (vars &body body)
  `(let ,(loop for var in vars
	       collect `(,var (make-symbol ,(symbol-name var))))
     ,@body))

(defmacro eclipse::REBINDING (vars &body body)
  (loop for var in vars
	for name = (make-symbol (symbol-name var))
	collect `(,name ,var) into renames
	collect ``(,,var ,,name) into temps
	finally (return `(let ,renames
			   (eclipse::with-unique-names ,vars
				`(let (,,@temps)
				   ,,@body))))))
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Tech Changes Our Understanding of Ourselves

While genetics mapping changes how we define ourselves, common everyday technology is changing how we recognize what we are thinking. Change the tech, change the results. Telephone polls are now (recognized as) invalid. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127937110&sc=ipad&f=1019

I imagine that with web polling being so much cheaper, and more expensive options not valid anyway, we’re going to see a lot more completely meaningless American-idol polling. At what point does that become micro-elections? Will polling evolve from something that influences democracy, into a new structurally changed form of democracy?

Sent from my iPad

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When Is the Truth Wrong?

Answer: When it is missing the point.

Spoiler: This ends up being about the iPad.

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Dial Tone

William Gibson has said, “I think in a very real sense cyberspace is the place where a … telephone call takes place.”

David says he thinks of Croquet as the dial tone for Cyberspace.

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Because You Can

Ever since Shelly’s “Frankenstein”, the distinguishing characteristic of science fiction (as opposed to fantasy and other literature) has been the postulation that beings can change the circumstances of the world in which they live. We can alter the human condition, for better or worse. An idea of the last few decades has been that we can create an alternative reality for ourselves that is better than the one we inhabit in the flesh. For example, the movie “Avatar” has the characters access an improved natural world through a virtualized experience.

This terrific short blog applies this idea wonderfully to learning and collaboration. “The real power of a virtual immersive environment is the ability to transport the learner or collaborators into an environment that is ideally suited for the learning or collaborating that needs to take place and this usually requires an altering of the spaces.”

In principle, we can abstractly virtualize such an experience with 2D photographs, or even 1D text, but that doesn’t tend to cross the threshold of immersion that is necessary for deep learning and deep collaboration. As this commenter on the above puts it, “In most 2-D meeting tools, the data is the center of focus, not the human. Think about a Web meeting. The leader is simply showing participants slides. But the participants are not interacting with the information, nor one another.” Simply reading about nature or viewing it from a helicopter was not enough for the characters in Avatar, they had to “be” there and interact with it.

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Discrimination Fades? Who Do You Want to Be Today?

The virtual world is fertile ground for exploration of social and identity issues. Like the crucible of competitive sports controversies, synthetic worlds let us burn away irrelevancies to reach abstract truths about, e.g., gender and sexuality. The computer-as-laboratory lets you control the environment and change one variable at a time, and every possible interaction and gesture can be recorded for examination.

Social worlds are the most numerous and have the most users, and so provide the most opportunity for study. Although the examples are still from social worlds, this article is the first I’ve seen that addresses avatar gender in the workplace. My take-away is, “On the internet, no one knows you’re a dog of the wrong gender.” Men can be women if it helps a sale. Women can be men if it helps a negotiation. Otherwise, it’s just not a big deal.

I suspect, though, that we can do even better. I think we’ll see a Village People effect in which we will become both more aware and more comfortable with differences that are now still scary to many people.
< %image(20090829-Gray-Lego.png|202|384|Abstract avatar, with optional badge photo and without face photo.)%>< %image(20090829-avatar-choices.png|311|432|Choice of animated avatar from dropdown list.)%>< %image(20090829-Casual-John.png|159|403|Informally popular pre-designed avatar choice.)%>

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NOW they get it. NOW they don't.

I find two of Microsoft’s current ad campaigns interesting. One asserts that computer technology is all about connecting people, particularly synchronously (as opposed to asynchronous stuff like email, file sharing, and wikis). If you replaced the Microsoft logo at the end with Qwaq’s, I think it would fit my company perfectly. They get it.

But now they’re running another series of adds that dismisses search engines in favor of what they call a decision engine. I don’t want Microsoft to make decisions for me, but I sure do want information much closer to real time. On Friday we saw first one green Chinook helicopter go by our office windows, and then another, and then I think a Huey. What’s going on, I asked of the office in general, as they shouldn’t be training on such a windy day over a populated area. So Keith searched. He figured Google was too old-news, so he immediately went to Twitter. Someone had posted that there were helicopters going past their office windows to the nearby San Carlos field for tomorrow’s helicopter air show. This week a fellow on Colbert interviewed the editor of the New York Times. “Here’s today’s paper,” he said to the editor. “Show me one thing that happened today.”

I figure Wide-Area-Networked computer systems have only been around for a little more than ten years. Most of the realtime applications have been dedicated, structured, proprietary systems. But for people to truly connect, to truly work together, they need to be able to pull arbitrary things together in real time — things that the designer of the system did not specifically envision and provide for. Real time arbitrary search(*) is one example, but the general theme is realtime, unstructured, multi-person, multi-media, multi-application collaboration. It’s going to be huge.


(*) When Web search started, realtime search referred to getting answers to a query in realtime. It wasn’t about the age of the underlying information. Now realtime results are the expected norm, and we can safely use the phrase “realtime search” to mean that the information is live.

I don’t know what to call this general application collaboration: multidimensional, multi-facetted, unlimited, live, organic, unconstrained, …

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Being Seen

I’d been wondering whether anyone on our company’s Board of Directors knew who I was. I know a couple but it turns out most didn’t. But just before the last board meeting I ran into a director that I’m sure I had never been introduced to. He said, “Hi Howard” as we passed.

The only thing I can think of is that he must have recognized me from my avatar. I don’t remember now what I had worn when I had briefly participated in previous meeting. It could have been a photo- or video-faced “Lego man” or it could have been a custom avatar.
<%image(20090530-howard-lego.jpg|227|261|Video-faced Simple Avatar)%><%image(20090530-howard-jake.jpg|227|261|Custom Business)%><%image(20090530-howard-john.jpg|227|261|Custom Casual)%>

I haven’t been very interested in avatar appearance, but I guess there is value in having people build some personal familiarity without physically meeting. I don’t want cold-calls via virtual worlds, but I suppose that a scheduled virtual meeting or happenstance encounter in a virtual reception builds a stronger tie than email or telephone. I wonder how that will play out for sales and relationship-building in the future.

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True and False

The world as we know it is a fictionalized version.

Today’s papers carry the obituary of Hubert Van Es. Apparently, after shooting the famous photo of the last helicopter out of Saigon, this van-dyke wearing Dutch photojournalist was a fixture in the Hong Kong press-club bar for the next 30 years, complete with Hawaiian shirt and floppy press-corp hat, cursing away in accented English. It seems the most clichéd of what we consider fiction really does capture something true. But what of the things we consider fact? The photo of the throngs lined up to board the helicopter is remembered as being on the roof of the US embassy. According to the Washington Post obituary, an editor mis-captioned what was actually an apartment building. But dig some more and it is said that the building was the home of the CIA station chief and his officers, and that the people turned away were employed by the US. So reality is close to the truth. Maybe close enough, maybe correct in a way but not precisely accurate.

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What I did with Tea Time

Guy Steele is a sweet guy who doesn’t give folks a hard time. But I have heard him several times lament that many computer science conferences are filled with variations on the same paper, which he lampoons as, “How I cataloged my CD collection with Lisp.” (I think he started saying this back when they were called record collections. I haven’t seen him in years and I suppose the routine now refers to MP3s.)

I’ve just been wrestling with a problem, and I’m so charmed with the Tea Time solution that I’m willing to sound like a college student that just learned how to do something mundane with his new profound toy. Call me a hack.

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