Monday, October 7, 2013

The Braincentric Universe

I walked in slightly late for a “Cosmic/Neuronal Slapdown” Saturday at the New York Academy of Medicine. I had never heard of such a thing, but this was an event sponsored by my friends Penny and Thomas (for this AKA the Brandt Jackson Foundation), and the title of the entire day long meeting was “Festival of Medical History and The Arts”, so I prepared myself for a fun morning. It was and it even involved a banjo. Rather than going through the details of the actual slapdown, I will just say that it was an inspiring competition of cosmological, astrophysical and neuronal imaging. Anyone who knows me also knows that these 3 topics, and even the banjo for that matter, are very relevant to my life. It was brilliantly orchestrated by Lawrence Weschler, and doing the slapping via Macs and projection were Carl Schoonover and Michael Benson. It was as remarkable as you could imagine it to be, with images of stained mouse brains on one side, and Europa on the other looking extremely similar as just one example. If someone had not seen these images before they may not know which were of the cosmos and which were of a brain. There were hundreds of these. Each of them were beautiful and revealing as both artistic and scientific imagery and were almost narrative in themselves as synapses and galaxies formed revealing nature on scales that we can only see through enhanced and sophisticated tools. The actual narrative and the final words of the great film editor Walter Murch spoke to these similarities and to the quest of art and science. More importantly it revealed that the slapdown was not one of imagery but instead one of complexity. It was not about which photos, or even which explanations were better or more glorious. It was really about the place of an animal (and even more specifically in the end a human) brain in relation to the universe. Murch, and I would guess that much of the audience, did something that I have noticed a lot in recent years. They point out that despite humanities small place in a vast and possibly infinite universe, this small material of our brains has more complexity than the universe that surrounds it. This counter intuitive idea has gained popularity for fairly good reasons. We have nearly 100 Billion neurons creating more synapse than all of the stars in the known universe. This certainly seems complex.

Walter Murch made a nice comparison not only about complexity as this numbers game, but also about energy output. He points out that in terms of complexity he feels the brain in comparison to the sun is certainly more advanced, as the sun is rather simple in his opinion, regardless of its importance. What he was curious to find though is that when an equal volume of solar mass is compared to the electricity emitted by a human brain it is very small. This is a very cool observation of course, and I completely see what he was getting at. Still, I think there is something going on in this type of discourse that is almost equivalent to the years of resistance to Copernicus and Galileo. Is it smart people (Ptolemy and Aristotle were very smart of course) trying to keep us at the center of the universe? If not at the physical center, at least analogies such as these keep us anchored to a perception of superior complexity and energy density.
Before I refute these ideas, I want to admit that to a large extent I agree with the premise as it relates to our current state of knowledge. This is especially true if you are comparing pictures, as was done on Saturday. Nebula resembled Neurons so much that if all of the information contained in those images were all we knew or were ever to know, we would basically just count, and the brain would win this slapdown as being more complicated. I am saying complicated as a way to distinguish this word from complexity, which I think of differently (despite Google telling that they are indeed synonyms.) This distinction is why the brain’s importance is scientifically arguable to be. I actually wish that the images did tell the whole story as I make instruments for taking images. I want those images to tell a story, and they do. The story they tell is observational and involves imagination however. We also make software for interpretation and classification so that we are not fooled by our eyes. Those are the most important part perhaps, but with being able to scale deduction of these observations we are lost with a simplistic idea that everything that looks complicated is inherently more complex. I have reduced this before, and this is where it gets tricky (or complicated and complex I guess).

Complexity theory is of course a real thing, and involves modeling by some of the most creative computer scientists and statisticians I know. The Santa Fe Institute is dedicated this study, and the sophistication of complexity models used varies from those which we may have an intuitive sense about, to those that are completely non-intuitive. No matter what types of complexity being addressed (agent based modeling, toy models etc.) there are two basic distinctions that are often made up front. It goes back to the late 1940’s with the work of the mathematician Warren Weaver who described Complexity as either being organized, or disorganized. I am not in any way an expert on either, but in the age of big data we can think of disorganized complexity as something that traditionally involved statistical methods for understanding bulk behavior. The farther away we are from direct reduction, the more we rely on the randomness of disorganized systems. In other words we need a lot of data points to make sense of it. Mathematics has made us better at such systems by the adoption of Chaos Theory which is another enormously large discipline in mathematics that attempts to break down the complexity of disorganized systems into predicable components. Many people are familiar with chaos theory in a colloquial sense from the famous butterfly effect, where a single flap of a butterfly changes conditions everywhere. A chaotic and complex is system is dynamic, and the farther we are from detailed observation the more we rely on complex models. An organized system would appear easier to cope with, but it assumes direct correlations. If randomness is eliminated and a new entity is observed, it is said to emerge. Emergence, along with Quantum energy, are two of the most overused and misunderstood concepts in physics. Complexity theorists use emergence in a way that it allows for a new agglomerated data point which can either be used in an organized or disorganized complexity model.

Having said all of that I will propose a narrow definition of complexity, and it is not my complete argument against the Braincentric universe theory that I am describing. The brief understanding of how others describe complexity here is only to say that perhaps the mathematical necessities of disorganization and the observable predicable aspects of others when combined are where complexity really resides. This means that if we are using imaging anything recorded by a sensor has basically equivalent amounts of data (yes sensors can be different, but astrophysicists and neuroscientist use similar sensors and analyze bit values ether way.) So, while I won’t discard the work of the smarter dedicated complexity theorists, I will use my own definitions, which somehow fall between a disorganized and organized system as I think most do. Rather than talk about the brain specifically though, I will propose some basic axioms, which I know borders on pretentious to do, but I think is necessary to understand my point.
a)      The ability to predict patterns of a given system is equivalent to its complexity. Therefore:
b)      The smaller a single organized object in relation to larger disorganized objects within the same space is more complex as:
c)       The potential for location within that larger space is far greater
d)      Any aggregation of smaller objects results in reduced complexity

This may seem both very easy to understand, and very wrong at the same time, but I want to point out just two examples, neither of which jump straight to the brain and the universe, which I am sorry for. Instead they come from Experimental Physics, which is at least closer to my field. They do take in to account the Murch et al. idea of complexity as being about large numbers and energy.
a)      One bit of science I have worked on is putting nanoparticles in polymers. This seems like a strange thing to do, but there are great practical reasons for such an experiment. In the case of what I and my colleagues have done it was to look at how many of these nanoparticles you could put into the polymer matrix in order to achieve certain “complex” behaviors. Coincidentally (or not) we were looking for ways to generate electricity, and material strength. The results are that if you put a small amount of the nanoparticle in a polymer it is very hard to deal with. There are laws of thermodynamics, polymer entanglements, week polymer-filler bonds etc, which make the location and the control of these particles very difficult to predict. So I call this complex. What we were after was something complex, but this level of complexity put the “mind” of the particle out of our control, so we needed to add more. As a bit of a sidenote, we did not think of this, we were just the first to experiment with it. The theory was that there was a near perfect amount of complexity by which we could achieve. This is called percolation, and refers to a theoretically loading level where flow between particles can occur. In this case the flow of electricity actually takes place without direct contact, but through quantum tunneling. So the goal was to fill with as little of the particles as possible, but allow for percolation to occur. This provides a good idea of complexity which reaches a level (the percolation point) at which the system becomes less complex with additional loading. So this is again an example of increased simplicity with greater numbers, and more energy.
b)      My second example of complexity, is something I am much less knowledgeable about, but still more knowledgeable about than neuroscience (which I know is supposed to be the point of my whole essay, but still..) This week I had two Walter Murch experiences, the first one being early in the week when I saw the brilliant, thought provoking and personally moving film “Particle Fever” at the New York Film Festival. Walter edited this film, and since it contained footage taken over 7 years, his contribution to it must have been profound. “Particle Fever” is an almost existential journey into the lives of a few scientists involved with the LHC discovery of the Higgs Boson.  Readers here have certainly followed this highly publicized discovery, and the multibillion dollar project that produced it. It was the largest experiment in history, with a primary aim of observing the presence of something very small and very import. The Higgs is a key discovery in unifying the Standard Model of Particle Physics, and even now, with it found, the implications remain truly complex. This is to say that with all of the resources of the world physics community, and a very large device (the LHC itself), the particle is more complex than the instrumentation or even the people that it took to produce it.

So after all of this my point is actually incredibly simple (not complex at all). The human brain is tightly packed. There are a lot of relatively small things. Billions as we are reminded. These things are bounded within a very small area. This essentially makes the brain predictable as we can theoretically map all of these points. The brain is not infinite in any direction. We can also use a very old way of placing each brain into a disorganized system, by taking the organization of each brain as an emergent system. When we do this then and compare the small population of earth to the galaxies alone, which move through a potentially infinite space it is impossible to consider a single brain to be more complex. Again we find ourselves small and simple.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Notes on Correlation (my new solo recording)

Finding cohesion and even subject when creating a recording or a work of music has a long tradition. As someone who improvises, there are times when finding meaning before a session or performance is exactly what I try to avoid. Life is rarely lived in the moment, and for me at least, music is an exception. This however does not mean that there is not a greater unity to the music I play. It is after all a reflection of that time and place, and often only in retrospect do I see how the pieces relate to each other and to the other experiences in my life as a whole. The name “Correlation” is meant to be taken literally. I don’t need to spell out the meaning of each track, as the listener can certainly do that, if there is indeed meaning at all. For a scientist this same process happens. I run experiments and only later analyze them to see if the experiment showed anything useful. I, and most scientists, use a variety of statistical models for this. If there is statistical significance that one test relates to another we see a correlation. This recording has a perfect correlation to my life, and as a group these pieces fit into the narrative and emotions of my life in that moment that they were created.
I don’t mean this to be a puzzle for you as listeners, as I would prefer that you just enjoy the music as it fills your life in some ways. If you are however interested in some factors that contribute to the correlation, there are several subtleties. I play in 5 different keys throughout the recordings, but in all of them I am anchored around an A natural, even when that note is not a natural fit in the chosen key. When it is anchored throughout the work however, my hope is that it is not a shock to the ear, but rather like a hidden tonic. It is a home base, even when home may be a different key.
All of this is rather intellectual, while the creation of this music was not. Whatever meaning any of us bring to it now, my hope is that the emotional response is not lost. Also, as with art in general, the correlation is not fixed. All of our perceptions and responses will change in time. The curve fit of will morph as our experiences do, and I hope that we can all rediscover it and ourselves as that happens.

To download this music you can go to I-Tunes

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Reduction on a Summer Day

I was walking from Pioneer Works in Red Hook to my apartment in nearby Cobble Hill talking with the fashion designer turned futurist developer Mari Kussman on a very hot Friday. Though roasting, and with the smell of  rotting fish from the nearby Brooklyn docks in the air, we were overlapping each other in our general optimism for the place we were. We had just come from Pioneer Works, this dynamic transformed factory which is now an art hub  where I have been working with the owners and board to make a nano lab and science initiative which will help realize founder Dustin Yellin’s goal of a true combined innovation space. So we had walked through the Ernesto Caivano exposition, played on the piano, toured the set of a film I am involved with that is directed by Alexis Gambis, and seen the beautiful precision work of those constructing the actual space where our high tech lab will go. There was very little to complain about as there wasn’t a better place where two new friends exploring creative and scientific interests could engage with that morning. In fact this brief tour was kind of a wrap up of a week which was enlightening and somehow still left questions in my mind. They were more existential in nature, or at least existential in a not completely paradoxical, yet strange way. The question was how the combination of pockets of insight could be re and de-constructed in such a way that we could feel both creative and rational. For many years I have thought these things were not at odds, which is one reason I am so attracted to Pioneer Works and all of these various seemingly unrelated activities. Still there is a philosophical emptiness that comes with reconciliation of these vast worlds of expression and thought. So while dangerous in that I stand to misrepresent events that even though recent are polluted by my own moods and preconceptions they may have some resonance. Or perhaps you can participate in the puzzle which has been the 3 year journey of these essays in “Converging Minds.” As a scientist I recognize the metrics as Karl Popper defined them. Progress is made through falsifiable discoveries. That is, it isn’t even real science yet until it has the ability to be proven incomplete. Yet we mark our lives like the papers we write. They are completions for publications that still leave a nagging sense of the incompleteness.

I had only met Mari the week before, and even though we sat across from each other the table discourse was not one which allowed people to have real intimate conversation. This is normal with a group of 12, and this 12 was even more unique, as everyone came prepared with such well-defined and well-reasoned ideas on any discussion that was begun that it took on the feel of a seminar with Korean food and beer. The dinner was organized in order to welcome the economist and prolific writer, Professor Robin Hanson to New York, and the conversation was at such a dynamically high level of pure reductionist philosophy that Spock himself would have had trouble keeping up. If there is a belief, which I actually do have, that a dinner with people smarter than you is a better dinner, then this was a feast for me. A large part of the discussion was unresolved, and perhaps unresolvable, which is how to teach rationality. The nuances of rationality, critical thinking and probabilistic reasoning were ones I hadn’t fully realized when I made two simplistic statements. I had said that teaching rationality could be done in two ways. The first is by teaching statistics to children in primary school.  This was not something that this group would disagree with, though outside of that table I have had many arguments about this, including with my daughter’s own teacher. Never the less this makes some sense. Statistics gives perspective, and therefore it becomes more intuitive to notice outliers in daily life. Belief in ghosts, being attacked by terrorists and a personal God become less likely by learning some specialized math. The second point I made was one that I heard Mari appealing to, which was a call for artistic expression as a way to gain empathy, and empathy in itself when properly understood as a neural mechanism was actually very rational. This was the glue of the discussion that could not dry in such a short time, but did continue even that night via Facebook chats. I had recounted the same story I have told hundreds of times about seeing the Beckett play “End Game” at 14 and realizing that I had been irrational my whole life. This was shocking and terrifying actually, but set me on the course of trying to understand the world differently, not through faith but through experimentation. Is this reductionist though, if an art experiment (a play, composition or video etc) is rarely understood scientifically even by the artist let alone the viewer in the way that a scientific experiment can? Is art falsifiable?

The conversation may have briefly ended but the thought continued. That Saturday I hosted an artist salon for Dominick Talvacchio . Dominick is an understated polymath, as his actual mathematics have been pursued privately and as a teacher rather than in academia. He is also a playwright, a web app developer, a former semi pro baseball catcher and a champion backgammon player, almost none of which I knew before this week. His art though is a distillation of much of this, often taking on meticulous and sometimes minimal form. The party was mostly informal talking and drinking (old school gin cocktails, though that has absolutely nothing to do with this conversation), but we did have a few minutes for me and others to ask Dominick some questions. One that he explored in some detail was the creation of a silk screen (to the left), which is a large reduction of rectangles by individual pixels. As you can see though, this seemly pure mathematical exercise becomes a sea of waves which ignites the imagination as much as any great master work of art. A few of us went to my back garden to continue to talk about the piece while Dominick himself stayed above. One observer pointed out that the universe is not only ordered but also chaotic, for which I took to mean irreducible. For this reason he liked that the waves emerged more than the reduction of the rectangles. It is of course only through the rectangles that the waves emerged, and though creating waves directly is artistic enough, it wasn’t this work.

I thought about that conversation  when Mari and I arrived back at my home from our trip to Pioneer Works. I was about to have a dinner where Dominick would show yet another of his skills as an Italian American chef. I made a coffee for Mari and gave it to her in my favorite Star Trek mug. She looked at the mug and asked who my favorite character was. I said Captain Kirk, likely out of my own desire to be so cool and confidant as Kirk always was. She, the artist, the designer, the promoter of empathy said immediately that Spock was her favorite character. I looked up at the wall where Dominick’s painting still hung and thought about the week. What she was saying was what Dominick’s piece was also saying, and which I couldn’t put into words. It is honorable and even right to reduce. It is essential. Still, even when we do this we remain humanly attached to the result of the reduction not the reduction itself. You can start in either place with art or science, but in the end it reduces to the logical without losing its beauty. Perhaps this is also why I write “Converging Minds”, even though the only mind is this one limited mind. The more I reduce it, the more I understand what it is capable of creating. Perhaps this is what we all do.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

On Fast and Slow Failure and Success

I knew only the most basic business strategy of Tech Pro. This was a company that my parens started in 1983 that much later I owned with them and my cousin. The reason I knew so little was that I was only 9 years old. The reason I knew any at all was that I didn’t have to go far that year to learn about Tech Pro. The room, formally a playroom of sorts, had become the “Tech Pro Room”, as it was home to a new dedicated telephone line,  a computer with 64k of RAM and surprisingly a modem to order parts. Our garage was a workshop where my father took in the first of a series of old instruments from shuttered factories, with the purpose of restoring and computerizing them. The kitchen table was not only where I ate my breakfast, but where I worked on my first start-up job, doing Quality Control testing of Tech Pro instruments. The company was financed through seed money from my parents and a small loan from my grandfather. My parents have pointed out that while this seed money was not a lot of money, it was all of the money they had. This money went directly to buy these old instruments. Within the first year of business the company was modestly profitable. Within the first 5 years, the business was comfortably supporting my family, and had managed to computerize a small industry.  Tech Pro was never large, but Tech Pro was international. It employed a great group of talented engineers, many who did not have college degrees but did have creativity and dedication. Tech Pro took me and my family around the world, and introduced us to most of our friends for 25 years. We then sold the company in 2008.

All of this is likely of little interest to you, as Tech Pro is not Hewlett Packer, Apple or Google. It was just a family business that was able to see technological trends early, and create a thriving business based on them. What is interesting to me is to try to understand why this model is not a particularly common one anymore, and where it falls in the spectrum of “expert” advice from tech industry gurus. My friend and fellow board director of our new company (Nanotronics Imaging) Gerry Ohrstrom,  trying to describe our new business and me in particular said  something like “Matthew is a bottom up guy mostly, but also kind of a top down guy too”, which he of course knows. By bottom up he meant that the company was funded initially by us and through revenue like Tech Pro was.  My father is again my partner. We did follow a bit of the Tech Pro example, but this time I felt that we should bring in outside investors (Gerry included), hence being  top down too. It is too early to tell, but this seems to be a nice mix, though not as clear as the one my parents used with Tech Pro. The goals for the new venture are much larger, and therefore the perceived risk and the cost are greater. At least this story provides me with a good justification for being bottom up and top down. I have though been wondering if this is at all common anymore. It used to be. HP, GE, Intel and most early Silicon Valley companies worked in somewhat this fashion. I told the story of BF Goodrich here, where a man with an idea, some patents, a little money and some helpful investors started a 19th Century business that would become global and very large. The corporate histories of DuPont, Monsanto and countless others of that era are very similar. Despite the overwhelming odds, these companies are still in existence. So why is this model now not considered normal?

I was recently invited to a lunch to discuss an idea a friend has for a science business. I wasn’t the only one invited, but it was clear why I was, since I am the CEO of a science business, not too dissimilar from what the friend wanted to start. The problem with these kinds of meetings that involve any form of advice  is that I am in the middle of the process myself and therefore it is very difficult to have a prospective from the outside, even if it is about someone else’s idea. I have extreme myopia, which I break best from when I am talking about businesses that are completely unrelated to mine. That said, I tried to remember common wisdom about launching a business, which isn’t terribly difficult to do at this moment as I am in the midst of this myself.  I consider my bottom up  and top down approach somehow very old fashioned, and yet very uncommon at the same time. It is not documented as neatly as other models by most contemporary start-up strategists that I have read (though I don’t read all for sure.).  I first assume the things everyone assumes. That is the validity of the disruptive idea (yes, despite saying that I don’t get my advice from gurus, I did read and liked very much the Clayton Christiansen books), the inventions themselves, the basic competitive landscape and all else that seems common sense now.

There is though a view exemplified by the almost cliché concept that since it is not as expensive to start a business as it used to be, due mainly to cloud servers and rapid open source development platforms, everyone should do it. (As a bit of a side note, this is really only true for certain companies. It is still expensive to start companies that make complicated "stuff" rather than those that rely on internet resources only). As the risk is small, the thought is that there is very little downside to trying. Also, because of this a young person can try many ideas in one lifetime, as failure is less risky. Though he may not have been the first to say it, the blogger and prolific book author Seth Godin famously wrote “fail fast and fail cheap. Fail in a way that doesn’t kill you.” This advice was repeated in a recent conversation between Nassim Taleb and Daniel Kahneman, where Taleb stresses this as a fundamental strength of Silicon Valley start-up culture. He was, I believe, thinking of this as a risk mitigation plan. From the Taleb perspective this makes perfect sense. It is true that most businesses fail, and even if the odds were better it would be unlikely that the odds would be so good as to eliminate luck playing a critical role in the success or failure of a business. He is right in this very rational way, and if I wasn’t looking at this from a lifetime on the inside of start-ups, I would take the same rational view. The problem though is not one of expectations from the outside but the one from the inside. It is that position my parents were in in 1983 and that I am in now. It is also the position that more young people ever in technology are in, and from that perspective, every day that we wake up and think about failing fast, or even failing cheap we are failing in a much more profound way than Godin or even Taleb are suggesting. We are failing to risk what we should be risking. For every customer who buys a product that might become obsolete from our failures our failure as a business is a failure to them. This is true for every employee, no matter how much the employee knows she is taking a risk by working for a start-up. We are also failing the investors, even if those investors expect that they may lose the money.

When I think about the cheap part of Godin’s statement, I am reminded by the how little Tech Pro cost to start. Still, it never felt to me like failure was even a mildly uncomfortable option. It seemed dire. Even though my father had excellent career opportunities if Tech Pro did fail, it is hard for me to imagine him thinking about this much as he installed instruments that his customers were relying on. The stakes were too high. Though this is a very personal thing to recall, and may very well have lead me to large enough psychotherapy bills over the years to finance a start-up itself, I remember my mother’s panic the Christmas that Tech Pro was started. They gave me my dream present, an Atari 2600 video console, but not without instilling a feeling of dread which hung over the machine. Mom said “I hope you enjoy this, because Dad just quit his job to start Tech Pro. We may not be able to buy you such a nice gift again.” This comment was not a joke, as her tears were not tears of laughter, but rather it was a statement of commitment. She wasn’t saying this because she felt that Tech Pro would fail. If Tech Pro failed fast and failed cheaply my father would have gotten another job right away, and the following Christmas I would have had another nice gift. Instead the passion became an innovation, the innovation became a company, the company became a responsibility and ultimately that responsibility became success and created far more for far more people than just more Christmas presents for me.

So as I write this I wonder if there is any point of disagreement with contemporary common wisdom. What I come up with is that failure is of course a strong possibility, and that possibility should not stop someone from starting a business. That same failure though, no matter how cheap it appears can never be thought of in those terms. There is a ripple effect in all of the lives we touch when starting a business. That ripple can capsize boats, or guide them like an explorer’s ship to new lands. There is nothing more exciting, but if done right it is both slow and expensive. It is a lifetime that we are lucky enough to likely fail at.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A Cautiously Optimistic View from the Summit

I have struggled with ways to describe the rewards and frustrations of having a technology company located in a small town in Ohio. I have written about my home town of Akron, which was once a center of American innovation and in my experience still has some of the most under-appreciated and talented engineers I have come across. There are however at least a few times per month when I find myself fighting an uphill battle against political complacency, class stagnation, and delusion that can all be poisonous. The struggle is not so much about how I feel, as this is fairly clear. The facts can be found anywhere. Akron, and the even smaller town of Cuyahoga Falls where Nanotronics Imaging (the tech company I am CEO of) is actually located, has had a declining population for my entire adult life. Large industries once sustained it not only as a manufacturing hub, but also with research centers for companies like Goodyear, Firestone, BF Goodrich, ABB, Timken, Lockheed Martin and many more. As the population got smaller so did the opportunities for those scientists and those skilled workers, leaving in its place the support structure of universities, hospitals, stores and excessive real estate inventory. Though I live in New York, I have long recognized this as an opportunity. Where there were great engineering jobs, there are still great engineers. Where there are Science and Engineering programs in universities, there are students graduating who already know the region. This must be the story of much of rust belt America and the European counterparts to it. Detroit is even a more famous example, but I have never worked or lived in Detroit, so I will keep my comments to Northeast Ohio, where my company and my emotions are still so tied. Even with these feeling of the obvious advantages, I have been unable to fully understand why other tech companies don’t see this. I now realize that it is harder than I had expected for reasons that economists and sociologists have understood for centuries.

Adam Smith (1723-1790) , the first political economist, understood the Akron issue before Akron was an issue to be had. Most importantly to this point, Smith assumed that a society thrives by access to technology and the ability to trade it.  A contemporary book by Matt Ridley called “The Rational Optimist”, gives an encouraging and sensitive account of how communities can thrive, and of the pitfalls to avoid that can lead to death. Ridley speaks about the long history of Tasmania, which went through a nearly 7000 year regression in technological ability, and therefore in longevity, starvation and vulnerabilities to the elements, which are indeed huge problems to deal with in the absence of good tools. The Tasmanians, until 10,000 BC were connected with the world, where large populations of different backgrounds could learn from each other and help each other to develop new tools, and even inspire art. The reason for this may seem a bit cynical, but it is more romantic to me than the words will first appear. The reason why it was possible to create new specialty tools was because the market for those tools was large enough. There is the purely commercial aspect of course, but also the fact that creation and invention is meaningless in isolation. With a world to share with, there is a world who will share with you, and therefore there is a vibrant technological economy. The 7000 year regression only occurred when removal from a growing active cross culture trade was cut off.

 This technological age is one of early agriculture, not one of industrialization, and certainly not one where mass international social networks connect the planet through small devices that can be carried around. Still the "Tasmania Problem"  (as Ridley describes it in his book) serves as somewhat of an analogy and even a warning for Ohio and places like it. While I don’t hold out our technology company as being transformative to a region, the idea of it could be. Ohio needs to do everything in its power to avoid Tasmania style regression, and the way that countless cases in history have shown is that technology, inclusion and collaboration with others outside of the village, city, state or country are crucial. This also means collaboration outside of the discipline of expertise in a specific community.

There are many times when I seem to be in rather bad taste in my criticism of Summit County, the Ohio County that encompasses Akron and the smaller town of Cuyahoga Falls where Nanotronics lives. I have considered doing a whole series on these as a defensive vindication of my positions, by including Hume, Jefferson, Paine, Tocqueville, Voltaire, and maybe even the Dali Lama to throw people off a little, but just by mentioning these names here, I am being pretentious enough. It is not just what these other people say, but how the community is feeling. More important to this blog though is how I am feeling, which is that the efforts made by some in the region to be international, are lost in the blind and even dangerous religion of a new type of community based spirituality which could be defined as hyperlocality. I made that word up and it may not be a good one, but involves the well-meaning, extremely diligent hard work of a community that has been in decline. This group is trying to redefine itself by local businesses that appeal to other locals. This by its nature is circular.  In the case of Summit County this means businesses, organizations and individuals who support the only remaining industries, which are also support businesses. More specifically I will propose two stories, both of which won’t use specific companies’ names, and are not 100% “based on a true story”, but are very close. They are as least as true as I understand, and have been represented to me. As you will see with my titles, and descriptions (I tell these in the first person though neither are meant to be a retelling of my own history), neither are meant as attacks, as I respect people and organizations that are following both of these. You will also see that I think however that despite my respect for the intentions of both, I find one of these stories highly flawed and bad for the county (and counties like Summit around the world).

Story of Summit County #1 – a story a of organic sustainability
Though the tire companies have left, the city of Akron has never looked nicer, and we are doing everything we can to keep it that way.  When I grew up Akron was a dirty place. Pollution was rampant. I used to have carbon black that came from tire company smoke stacks on my wind shield. That said my family worked for those companies, and that is why I could afford a college education. Those tire companies leaving was hard for a while, and many people moved out of Summit County as the jobs left. Luckily for us in the wake of that exodus were 2 very good hospitals and within 50 miles 10 good Universities. Really though I don’t need to look 50 miles out to see how my generation is benefiting from a renewed Summit County. The university grounds are cleaner and nicer than ever, and professors are still living in our city. The hospitals are also still very good. What I and my friends are doing is making sure that we are taking this now ecofriendly city (since the industry pollution is long gone), and creating local businesses that are sustainable and attractive. We have organic farms that use no biotech. We sell these in local specialty stores. We have recycling programs. We oppose fracking and believe that we can have a nicer life through conservation. Though I know that I buy from places that are not local, my goal is to support these local businesses, and to create local businesses that will be supported by the others.

Story of Summit County #2- International Technology Incubator
There is enormous opportunity since the tire companies left our county, even though they were so good to our county for so many generations. The benefit has all to do with human capital, and regional legacy. Both of these things will come in handy. A far as people, we have smart, talented engineers from those businesses that left, who would still like to stay in this nice region. We also have great lawyers, doctors, and even university partners if we need them. The population is declining in numbers, which is a bad thing no matter how you look at it. The upside is that in a global economy we are no longer dependent on the growth of our own county to spur the success of our county. We can leverage the talent to create intellectual property and manufacture products and software that are not just the envy of the world, but more importantly allow us to be integral players in the world. By doing this more people may very well move to Summit County as the jobs here will not be made up only of support businesses and businesses to support the support businesses.(The latter of which I find to be putting the cart before the horse). Why do we need expensive organic food stores, which ultimately deplete wealth, (and let’s be frank, they pay wages that are only slightly better off than working at Walmart.) I look at West Orange and Menlo Park New Jersey, the two business homes of Thomas Edison that cared little about those communities’ directly, but by creating the electric light, the phonograph, the motion picture and 2000 other things, made the entire world healthier and wealthier, including those smaller towns in New Jersey. I look at San Jose, where Silicon Valley was born. The modern computer era that we all enjoy was not for the benefit of a region, and had nothing to do with thinking locally. It had to do with invention and the proliferation of those inventions. Now Silicon Valley is richer, but so are all of us, in so many ways, which are not just financial. Summit County should do the same.

As you can probably guess, I strongly support the second story. There are some in our area that are doing these things. John West, my friend and the former Director of Kent State’s Liquid Crystal Institute has helped us and many other companies with grand and successful national and international ambitions. There are others too of course. A rumor is that the area is courting biotech companies, which is one reason for me writing this piece now. Just as these two well-meaning people in the stories above are doing what they are claiming, part of that is a debate over biotech. This is one example where intentions are not everything. If the Organic Sustainability Akronite described above were to win, we will have more low paying, low impact organic food stores, and less lifesaving high paying biotech.

This is much more of a rant than my typical essays, and I apologize if it seems judgmental. It is making a call that I think is rational. It is not however questioning the ideals of those in story one. Well maybe some come to mind that should be called out, such as University Presidents and politicians, but that will be for another rant. Next blog will be back to science, philosophy and free jazz…

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Find Your Inner Vulcan

There is a famous Vulcan puzzle that has a purpose described by Voyager Lieutenant Tuvok as restoring the "structure of harmony". This game is used for the aim of going beyond Zen style Buddhist disembodiment, and instead allows Vulcans to focus on being rational and devoid of harmful emotions. The blocks have a variety of 3 dimensional geometries, that when stacked can easily tumble like a house of cards. Vulcans have the ability to go without sleep for up to 5 earth days, which it sometimes takes for them to complete the task. Other times it is done in a matter of minutes. The interesting thing about this puzzle is that there is no predefined form. It is assembled differently each time. So, despite the rather machine-like construction of these blocks, the outcome is creative. It is a humanoid’s attempt to be a machine, and his embrace of the outcome, that it is not merely a repetitive form, but something unique to that moment.
 As I look at these fictional characters trying to cope with the always present annoyance of emotion, I wonder if this quality the Vulcan is finding in this exercise is not merely mechanistic. What is it about creating unique forms based on that particular moment that makes a Vulcan easier for us as Trekkies to relate to? For some reason the one important human characteristic that I always think of as crucial in our ability to both improve ourselves and thrive as a species is empathy. The Wikipedia definition of empathy states: “Empathy is the capacity to recognize emotions that are being experienced by another sentient or fictional being”. At first glance this definition does not seem to apply  to a solitary act, but I would argue that in a very important way it does. The entire purpose of combining rationality with creativity is an applied discipline. When a meditation that results in variations depending on personal interactions of the day is completed, it is assumed that those interactions play an important role. Therefore to complete the task effectively the Vulcan must possess empathy. While this may be a stretch, it is allowed to be, as we are talking about characters in a TV space drama. The analogies that this suggests however, I think are transferable to us actual humans, not just pointy eared aliens.

This apparent contradiction between the logical mechanistic mode, and the creative empathetic one, is not only one to consider when assembly a starship crew, but also in a technology company, or even an artificial intelligence. I was attending a salon that the social scientist, and bestselling author Jonathan Haidt was a guest speaker for. The group was a libertarian organization called ReasonFoundation, whose name Haidt seemed to suggest, (based on his in-depth research), explains libertarians fairly well. It seems that empathy and rational decision making ability are inversely proportional. Libertarians seem to be the Vulcans of the political ideals spectrum (my words not his). This is in a way similar to very high functioning individuals with autism, such as many people with Asperger’s syndrome, who populate some of the best computer science departments and silicon value development labs. Haidt implies a mutually exclusive tendency between libertarian logical rigor, and a lack of empathy. While he certainly has a lot of research, there may very well be something more fundamental about the nature of humanity that he is missing.

Though I hate to jump around between fictional characters, real people, and robots I am going to do it anyway. Many people, who I promise you, are not all nuts, are considering the programming parameters for creating human-like artificial intelligence. I and many others think that computer technology is accelerating at such a rate that we will be faced with both practical and ethical questions about what and who these future highly intelligence machines should be. The former Singularity Institute, now known as MIRI, has been working on this very issue with full time researchers, and yearly conferences.

 Perhaps there is a something to the dichotomy of empathy and reason that we should consider when allowing our machines to become sentient. You notice I use allow, as I have decided to take a rather libertarian approach to artificial intelligence. As an analogy, humans have programming which is encoded in our DNA. A good generalized AI algorithm also has the equivalent, perhaps not written in ATCG base pairs on a biopolymer, but rather in binary logic, written in C++  and eventually printed onto silicon. We know how to create learning algorithms already. The IBM computer Watson, and most Google products, as well as thousands of others do it. These are machines that start as newborns with pre-programmed tools for learning  and as they age get smarter.  In some ways current AI does better than humans, and in some ways humans do better than computers. 

This is old stuff (well Watson was 2 years ago. I guess that is old in modern tech terms), and easy to understand. What we don’t know about human genomics, and equally don’t know how to do in computer science, is to find, or program that fundamental structure so that pure logical thinking, and empathy can co-exist. The reason that they should co-exist in AI may seem obvious. We would want machines that inherently have superior abilities, such as perfect memories, but also have the heart of an empath, or at the very least the heart of a libertarian Vulcan.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Paper and Pixels

I walked into the Poets House in Battery Park for the first time in December, and realized that I wanted to spend more time there. At first glance I thought that Poets House was  beautiful, but also I didn't think there was much to do there. This was the instinctual response of 21st century  over-stimulation. There was actually a near infinity to discover in that very non-technological world of books. I went last week and read a translation of a Euripides play I had loved in college. I can’t wait to go back.

I am a techno- optimist, but am also conflicted when it comes to my rather nostalgic attraction to books and my passion for technological progress. I would not want to live in any other time. In fact I am one of the 1% of the population who feels that life in the future will be significantly better than the past. In terms of literature, I write poems on anything that is around, whether it is a napkin, a notebook, my laptop or even if I really can’t find anything else, my I-Phone. The tech and the poetry seem unrelated. I was a very early adopter of the Amazon Kindle, and have owned every generation. At a conference I met one of the founders of E-Ink, and I sincerely told him how e-reading has changed my life. Strangely though, I think I haven’t been completely honest with myself. I didn't realize this until I read this quote by the Technology oracle Tim O’Reilly (who has a blog and podcast that i really like) in a Wired Magazine interview where he said,
I don’t really give a shit if literary novels go away. They’re an elitist pursuit. And they’re relatively recent. The most popular author in the 1850s in the US wasn't Herman Melville writing Moby-Dick, you know, or Nathaniel Hawthorne writing The House of the Seven Gables. So the novel as we know it today is only a 200-year-old construct. And now we’re getting new forms of entertainment, new forms of popular culture.”
His facts about the age of the novel are right of course, but a counter argument could be made that the novel is much older than computers, the internet or the cell phone. Would he have the same dismissive feelings towards Turing, or Jobs, or Berners Lee? Would the comment
“I don’t give a shit if computers die.  They are only 50 years old, and it is elitist anyway, as poor people can’t buy them.”
This is rather extreme of course, but progress can be measured in slow motion adaption like evolution, or in rapid frame leaps of insight like Moore’s Law and Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns. These two things do not need to exclude each other, and I am not the only technology minded guy who feels this way of course. I am not certain that O’Reilly has such a complete lack of interest in a nuanced view of progress through knowledge, regardless of how it is gathered. He said in just this week:
“Consider how in 375 AD, after a dream in which he was whipped for being "a Ciceronian" rather than a Christian, Saint Jerome resolved no more to read the classical authors and to restrict himself only to Christian texts, how the Christians of Alexandria murdered the philosopher and mathematician Hypatia in 415, and realize that, at least in part, the so-called dark ages were not something imposed from without, a breakdown of civilization due to barbarian invasions, but a choice, a turning away from knowledge and discovery into a kind of religious fundamentalism.”
This analogy could be used for a society who does not read Moby Dick for instance, as we could enter a kind of Dark Age of societal and introspective reflection.

The computer pioneer Danny Hillis made an interesting remark to this point when writing about search tools. In the near future, and to some extent now, what we read is guided by Google. Hillis warns that
“In the past, meaning was only in the minds of humans. Now, it is also in the minds of tools that bring us information. From now on, search engines will have an editorial point of view, and search results will reflect that viewpoint. We can no longer ignore the assumptions behind the results.”
Perhaps what he is saying applies to literature as well. If an advertising company becomes powerful enough to influence meaning, it can even more easily influence what we read. It is possible that literature can become buried in the abyss of pages with no hyperlinks, and even when it is discovered it is remastered by algorithmic editorial.

One of the best sci-fi novels of recent years is Rainbow’ End by Vernor Vinge. A friend who knows Vinge feels that he is one of the best at predictive fiction. In many cases this is actually a positive thing, as the near future of Vinge can be very exciting. In Rainbows End however there is a bit of a warning when it comes to mass digitization. Vinge does not point a finger at the non-destructive means by which Google creates the largest on-line library, but instead talks of a fictional corporation that uses a technique to digitize which involves shredding library books in order to preserve the content. At first thought this would not be so bad. Cloud servers are backed up, and in a way contain a perfection that the decaying paper which books are printed on don’t. The problem however is that a corporation doing the cataloging is making money some way, and if they are anything like Google or Facebook, advertising is a large part of this money making exercise. We might wonder how this is different than traditional ownership rights by traditional publishing houses, but it is not the same. A publisher and a book store sell a book, and a library loans books, or lets you read them. I saw this funny cartoon about Facebook which makes the same point about being led advertising companies.

I may very well seem old fashioned, especially as I was going through the stacks at Poets house reading bits of Eliot, and poems of Auden. It was a beautiful day, and when I opened those books, it could have been any year in American history. Yet there was a difference in my experience. I realized that everyone visiting Poets House that morning, including me, had our laptops open, and were using the free WIFI they provide. Though I can’t speak for everyone else, I wasn’t on Facebook, or checking Twitter, or even reading the news. I was instead looking up biographical information on the writers I was reading. I wanted to know what the authors were doing at the time they wrote specific poems. I wanted to know where they lived, or are living in the case of contemporary authors. I even wanted to find out how to contact those living writers to see if they wanted to have a coffee. I did all of these things, which without Google, Wikipedia and other online resources would be impossible. These are of course some of the same companies that may very well be making the print books I was enjoying obsolete. If I take this further, I can imagine 1 or 2 years from now having the same WIFI access, but not having to even leave the stacks to learn more. I could use augmented reality glasses or contacts, and do searches on the spot, as i guess i could already do on my I-Phone. As I will do this the work that O’Reilly considers to be irrelevant to modern life  may actually be more relevant personally than it ever was before. Moby Dick will not only be a grand story and allegory of beautiful prose, but technology will be nearly instantaneously creating a context for it, making it more powerful and personal than it ever would have been before. Most importantly though, it won’t be the changing world of on-line content that I will be experiencing. It will instead be yellowing bound sheets a paper, with all of the fixed words and romantic imagery that they bring to mind.