Archive for December, 2011

Inventing Modernity: Charles Babbage and Ada Byron King

December 27, 2011

Just about 200 years ago, a group of youthful British math aficionados were kibitzing. At the time, things like logarithm tables were indispensable but required immensely onerous computations (prone to error, moreover). Queried the young Charles Babbage, “Couldn’t a machine do this?”


An excellent – and timely – question. For most of human history, our sole energy source was our own muscles. Eventually we harnessed animal energy; horsepower was ten times greater than manpower. But the real quantum leap was just starting in Babbage’s day, when we could tap the power in fuels, and commenced developing the machines to exploit and multiply it. Thus began humanity’s climb – slow at first, then rocketing – up from meager subsistence.

I’ve been reading about Charles Babbage (1791-1871) in James Gleick’s book, The Information, a history and analysis of information’s role in the development of human society. Babbage was a (half?) mad genius whose story reads like a Steven Millhauser phantasmagoria.

Part of the Difference Engine

Babbage set out to design, and then actually build, the calculating machine he’d dreamed of, calling it the “Difference Engine.” It may not sound very sexy to modern ears, but what he envisioned was way ahead of his time, and consequently hugely difficult to actually engineer. Through decades of obsessive devotion to the project, Babbage was never able to achieve a fully operating device that realized his vision. And meantime, his vision transmogrified into what he wound up calling the “Analytical Engine” – something much beyond a glorified adding machine.

You can see where this is going. Gleick’s book mentions the Jacquard Loom. That made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It was just a simple little innovation: fitting a loom with a card in which holes were punched in a configuration that would direct the loom’s moving parts to create a desired color pattern. This, from my modern perch, I recognized as the first tiny embryo of a concept that would transform the world. Babbage wasn’t privy to that history when he first saw a Jacquard Loom; but the hairs on his neck stood up too because, presciently, he too grasped the profound implications.

Portrait by Margaret Carpenter

Babbage’s collaborator was Ada Byron King (1815-52, Countess of Lovelace, the poet Byron’s daughter), with a prodigious intellect at a time of huge barriers to female intellectual achievement. But, brainstorming together with Babbage, with his ideas for the “Analytical Engine” and extrapolating the Jacquard system, it was Ada Byron King who – in the 1840s! – actually invented computer programming.

Or at least she invented the concept. It virtually defied expression, when there was nothing remotely resembling a computer, and they didn’t even have the words for talking about such things. Nobody else knew what they were talking about either, nor could anyone else see its value.

Why am I telling you all this?

Most of us take modernity for granted, rarely pausing to contemplate its stupendous achievement. Indeed, it’s chic to mock it, even denounce it, as a Faustian bargain we should repent.

But I for one am ever mindful of the titanic efforts and creativity of human beings across time that were required to give us the cornucopiae enabling us to live so hugely better than our forebears.

The story of Charles Babbage and Ada Byron King exemplifies this. They struggled mightily, and ultimately failed, to properly conceptualize, let alone realize, their grand idea. Much more had to happen first, much more effort and discovery, before their vision could bear fruit. And oh what fruit.

Gleick’s book also relates the history of the telegraph. We imagine that Morse one day just up and invented it. Not so; the idea went through a very tortuous history of false starts and dead ends, and gigantic problems to be solved, by numerous people, before wires finally started carrying messages. And of course, that idea of transmitting information has metastasized far beyond what anyone could imagine in Morse’s time.

Thus goes human progress: an almost infinite synergistic complex, not of leaps, but of baby steps; but millions of baby steps turn into leaps, like droplets of water coalescing to create a thunderous ocean wave.

And so we sit down with our modern “Analytical Engine” and press a button, and summon forth . . . well, as Arthur C. Clarke remarked, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Local Food From Cave 73

December 23, 2011

“Buy local,” “Eat local,” and watch your “food miles.” So say earnest people who sincerely want to live responsibly and make a better world, helping both the environment and neighboring farmers.

The general sentiment is admirable. But, as so often, the specific policy is actually misguided.

First, regarding environmental impact, “food miles” are relatively unimportant. Modern technology makes food transport so highly efficient that its cost, and carbon footprint, are not a big part of a food item’s overall profile. Far more important, environmentally, is the manner of production. It’s better to produce a food where climate and other factors are most favorable, and then transport it, than to produce it locally: to grow lettuce in sunny California and ship it to Maine than to grow it in an energy-guzzling Maine hot-house. This is true even if the best production site is half a world away. (One study found it more energy efficient for Brits to buy apples, lamb and dairy items from New Zealand than from British farmers.)

But there is a mentality that simply hates the idea of products coming from all kinds of foreign places; as if it’s somehow lamentable that a car is today made from parts crafted in 18 different countries. Maybe it’s romanticizing a supposedly simpler time when everything you consumed or used came from nearby (and life was pretty wretched, partly in consequence). And maybe it’s the deeply embedded ancestral human xenophobia and distrust of strangers. Thus the hostility to globalization in all its manifestations. Not much anyone can do about it; but the “local food” thing does provide at least one way to strike a blow against globalization.

And, in fact, this strikes a blow against non-local producers – many of them actually poor people overseas – whose poverty anti-globalizers are also always bemoaning (and blaming on capitalism). “Eat local” helps keep poor foreign farmers poor. (And that poverty is far worse than anything in America.)

The locavore movement deems it admirable local loyalty to buy your neighbor’s products rather than others. Likewise do many feel that buying something made in China betrays our own kind, whose jobs are being poached – rather than feeling they are actually helping some poor peon in China become a bit less poor. (Why else would Chinese peons flock to these “sweatshop” jobs?)

Carl Reiner with Mel Brooks as the 2000 year old man

Thus I find the whole locavore and anti-globalist attitude small-minded and ugly. Its tribalism reminds me of Mel Brooks as the “2000 Year Old Man” recalling how cave-dwellers invented national anthems. This (in full; sanitized version) was his:

Hooray for Cave 73!
Everybody else can go to Hell!

It also reminds me of the Biblical injunction, “Love thy neighbor” – which was meant literally, applying only to your own tribe-mates. All other people could be freely slaughtered (as God himself often commanded). Yuck.

The rise of an integrated, globalized world economy is beneficial, for both people and the environment. It’s good when a car’s parts come from 18 different nations. Promoting production in the places where it’s most efficient makes more and better goods available to more people, with actually smaller environmental impacts. And, by enabling more people to participate in the global economy, and to benefit from the resulting efficiencies, it gives the average world citizen a better quality of life.

Sure it’s imperfect and there are downsides; some lose jobs or pay; but the gains of the winners – people in rising nations, as well as consumers everywhere – are vastly greater. Globalization reduces world poverty. Period.

It also helps to overcome the Cave 73 (and Biblical) mentality. Adam Smith commented that an Englishman who’d suffer torments about the loss of his little finger would sleep like a babe after the earthquake deaths of a million Chinese – because he did not know them. Well, today, because of globalization, we do know them. It is making for a world in which we not only trade with each other more, but understand each other better, trust each other more, care about each other more, and help each other more. To me that’s a better world.

Think globally. Act globally. Eat globally. Rise up from Cave 73.

Idiot America?

December 17, 2011

Charles Pierce’s 2009 book, Idiot America was a Christmas gift. So I read it. Basically it says anyone who doesn’t share his views – on politics, science, religion – you name it – is an idiot. No, worse – a lunatic. (He’s politically leftie, anti-fundamentalist, probably an atheist but unwilling to say so.)

Pierce posits Three Premises of American culture: 1) any theory is valid if it sells (books, or candidates); 2) anything can be true if proclaimed loudly enough; and 3) a) Fact is that which enough people believe, and b) truth is determined by how strongly they believe it.

The two parts of Premise 3 are kind of redundant, as indeed are Premises 2 and 3. But, of course, premises must come in threes.

I fail to find this informative. Facts are facts and beliefs are beliefs; two different animals. Beliefs can be wrong. Duh. Pierce is giving us here not social science but merely rhetorical snark. And his premises are all (including both parts of #3) – if taken literally – as plainly false as any of the notions the book so relentlessly (and repetitively) excoriates.

And, yes, he calls people he disagrees with not just idiots – but also lunatics, crazy, insane, out of their minds, mad, and so forth. Pierce’s book is actually just a less sophisticated entry in a long line of insufferable tomes by lefties diagnosing non-leftie viewpoints as forms of mental illness. (The latest is Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind, laughably arguing that conservatism is about nothing but keeping “the lower orders” down.)

Exemplifying Pierce’s shtick is his attack on “Intelligent Design” (or so-called “Creation Science”) believers. Now, I too happen to think creationism is wrong. But unlike Pierce I do not think its adherents are idiots or lunatics. How and why people can become ensnared in such beliefs is actually a very complex, fascinating and important subject, which Pierce pretty much ignores amid all his invective. Michael Shermer provides far more enlightening analysis in his books, Why People Believe Weird Things, and The Believing Brain.

 One key factor, for instance, is confirmation bias – we embrace information that supports our pre-existing beliefs and shun contrary information, creating self-reinforcing feedback loops. Thus liberals and conservatives, believers and atheists, come to inhabit divergent mental universes. And, as Shermer explains, smart people are actually more likely to believe untrue things because they are more skillful at rationalizing their views!

So I try to stay mindful that, just as I feel certain regarding evolution versus creationism, others (some smarter than me) feel every bit as certain of their contrary view. I can say that one view is based on evidence and the other on moonshine. But so would they. How do we resolve this epistemological divide? Ultimately perhaps we cannot, because no human mind has a direct pipeline to truth, it’s always mediated by a great complex of fallible mental processing. This gives me at least a modicum of intellectual humility.

Not Charlie Pierce.

What really frosted me about this book was that for all its trumpeted devotion to “facts,” “truth,” and “reality,” Pierce repeatedly plays fast and loose with them. For example, he has the field day one might expect from a leftie regarding the Iraq War, harping on weapons of mass destruction. Pierce tells it as though all intelligent people knew from the get-go there were no such weapons and war supporters were idiots about this. Excuse me, that re-writes history. Practically all serious observers believed Saddam had the weapons, for excellent reasons. It was wrong, but not stupid (or a lie). And Pierce’s account omits any of the war’s larger context. Reading it, you’d suppose Saddam was running his country quite nicely, hurting no one and minding his own business until we barged in like a gang of home invaders.

I know some people do see it that way. They’re not idiots; but I think that view is as mistaken as any of the “idiocies” flayed in Pierce’s book. It’s confirmation bias again; indeed, Pierce’s book itself is a monument to his own confirmation bias.

Pierce quotes Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in a discussion about the TV show “24,” remarking that Jack Bauer may have broken the law in using torture to save Los Angeles from a terrorist attack, but he (Scalia) doubted a jury would convict Bauer. Then, a few pages later we find this: “Antonin Scalia . . . citing a fictional terror fighter as a justification for reversing literal centuries of American policy and jurisprudence. . . ”

Obviously, that’s a gross twisting of Scalia’s words. This is what I mean by Pierce’s playing fast and loose. It treats his readers as — dare I say it – idiots.

But of course the book’s very title casts this country as a nation of idiots. Some Americans just love to hate America. And some pose as tribunes of the common people while regarding them with smug contempt.

Time For (Yet) Another Russian Revolution

December 11, 2011

Recent Russian parliamentary elections were blatantly rigged. Putin’s ruling party got just under 50%. This shows his regime is not only corrupt but incompetent.

Oh, for the good old days of Soviet elections, with their solid 99% results!

"Make him an offer he can't refuse"

Now thousands are on the streets protesting and demanding change. Putin not long ago said that anyone so demonstrating should – should – expect to have their heads whacked.

Like the good mafia don he is, Putin does rule by whacking. The list of pesky journalists and lawyers who’ve been murdered grows ever longer. Each time Medvedev, the puppet president, solemnly declares the perpetrators will be found and punished. Of course they never are.

Medvedev also keeps giving platitudinous speeches about the need for democracy, reform, modernization, etc., while Putin chortles mordantly behind the curtain.

Putin & Medvedev

Now the puppet will be whisked away and the puppet master will reoccupy center stage. Despite all Russia’s political roiling, and the anemic (and phony at that) 50% vote for Putin’s party, in upcoming presidential elections there’s no sign that a candidate opposing Putin will even be allowed on the ballot.

Putin runs a gangster regime whose total raison d’etre is power and lucre. Oil and gas revenues substitute for any genuine economic development. This Putinism was exemplified by the affair of Yukos Oil, once actually Russia’s most modernized and transparent enterprise. That didn’t save Yukos from being effectively stolen by Putin’s kleptocracy, with Yukos’s leader Khodorkovsky tossed into a Siberian prison (on absurd charges) where he remains. (See my 4/25/10 post.)

This is not what Communism was overthrown for – any more than Communism was what Czarism was overthrown for.

Poor Russia. It’s said that Russians are by nature obtuse and servile, caring nothing for politics, accepting autocracy so long as they’re merely fed. What rubbish. Russians have been endlessly beaten down. But haven’t we learned that nothing can finally beat the humanity out of people?

Workers of Russia arise! You have nothing to lose but your chains!

The Postal Service Mails a Suicide Note

December 5, 2011

The U.S. Postal Service has announced a plan to close hundreds of mail processing centers, to stem its red ink. This will delay all deliveries, and virtually eliminate any next-day delivery for ordinary mail. Meantime, there has already been a round of post office closings, and a further round is in process.

For me, running an active mail order business, this is a big deal. My local post office was closed in April. Though initially told my P.O. Box could be moved to another (equidistant) post office with no address change, this was not done. The address change (which they botched) was a major hassle. And now that I’ve settled into the new post office, it too is on the chopping block. I’ll be moved again, to a smaller post office, rather farther away, with inadequate parking, and likely longer lines.

The Postal Service’s financial trouble is understandable. The internet is eating its lunch. I used to mail over a thousand pricelists annually that I now send by e-mail. And many customers now pay me electronically too.

But surely the answer is not to keep mindlessly raising prices and degrading service. That’s a death spiral. The higher the prices, the poorer the service, the greater the inconvenience, ever more mailers will look ever harder for ways to avoid using the Postal Service altogether. Netflix, for example, has had a nice thing going with its quick turn-around, and must be contributing mightily to postal revenues. Kill next-day delivery and you probably kill Netflix – or at least the Netflix service using the U.S. mail. Great thinking, Postal Service guys.

Of course one doesn’t expect great thinking from a bloated quasi-governmental quasi-monopoly bureaucracy.

Here’s some more great thinking it has produced. In the past, postal rates were based on weight and distance. Now they’re based on weight, distance, size, shape, and thickness, a crazy-quilt of different rates that nobody can really apply properly. (And, when they change prices, just try getting them to provide you with the new rate charts.)

Rule One for any business: make it easy for customers.

Actually, if service must be cut (and it probably must) the no-brainer would be to end six-day delivery. At least that would not be a serious imposition on mailers like me. While eliminating Saturday delivery has been discussed, I have a better idea: Tuesday. Cutting Saturday would create a 3-day gap between deliveries (and a Monday pile-up); Tuesday, only a 2-day gap. Further, because so much mail is already delivered on Mondays, Tuesdays are very light mail days. Yet all the carriers still have to make their rounds. Eliminating this would be a huge and sensible efficiency.

But the problem is that any such change requires Congressional approval. ‘Nuff said. Even if Congress were not so dysfunctional anyway, why would a Congressperson risk the inevitable “He voted to cut your . . . “ campaign ad? Acting responsibly carries little political reward in today’s America, it seems.

It’s easy to make mock, but this is serious. American “exceptionalism”? I’d be happy with American normalcy. Fact is, in a lot of ways, we are on a path to becoming a second rate country. Normalcy among advanced nations in today’s world, in things like rail service, airports, broadband, and other aspects of infrastructure, is at a higher level than what we’ve got. Normalcy is a health care system that costs less than ours and produces outcomes as good or better. And normalcy for a first-rate country does not encompass a shambolic postal service that’s in a death spiral.