technoscience leaving modernity?

The ideas and practices of Artificial Life research, and the interactions between these ideas and practices, are the topics of this thesis. How can the study of life, which ALife researchers see as pregiven by Darwinian evolution, be combined with the study of the artificial, which they see as “man made”? What implications do the combination of “artificial” and “life” have on how they practise their science? We will see that this combination makes Artificial Life a blend of a traditional naturalistic science and what they themselves sometimes call a postmodern science. (Risan 1997: Introduction)

In their introduction Varela and Bourgine emphasise that Artificial Life is part of a longer line of thought. As many other ALife researchers do, they trace Artificial Life research back to the advent of Cybernetics in the late 1940’s (1992:xi). Norbert Wiener defined Cybernetics as “control and communication in the animal and the machine.” (Wiener, 1948) Practitioners of cybernetics in the late 1940’s, as ALife researchers now, were occupied both with making life-like or intelligent computers and robots, and with understanding life and cognitive or mental phenomena. The emphasis that the ALifer in the story above placed on seeing cognition as embodied and embedded, that is, as an aspect of a larger system than the human brain, is something that he shares with many cyberneticians. Gregory Bateson, an anthropologist deeply involved in cybernetics, writes that “the mental characteristic of the system is immanent, not in some part, but in the system as a whole” (Bateson 1972:316). During the 1950’s the cybernetics movement fragmented. Some social scientists, with Bateson as a leading figure, started to apply the systemic perspective to social systems. This “social cybernetics” became particularly popular within family therapy (see for example Bateson et. al. 1956). Within engineering, cybernetics became a technique for making control systems (such as thermostats or goal seeking missiles). The discipline that combined the human/biological interest with the technical interest of the early cyberneticians became known as Artificial Intelligence (AI), today often referred to a bit ironically as GOFAI. The practitioners of this discipline distanced themselves from cybernetics. They rejected the holism of the systemic perspective and emphasised the formal and logical aspects of human cognition. The advent of Artificial Life research at places such as COGS is thus a reintroduction of the early cybernetical notions in contemporary artificial intelligence research.
    ALife-researchers called themselves ALifers and, as a whole, the ALife community. The term “ALifer” was invented a bit as a joke at the first Santa Fe workshop in 1987. The term “ALife community” derives from the English designation of scientific communities (you also have the “anthropological community”). I first learned that Artificial Life existed from a book on the topic, written by the Danish biologist and philosopher of science, Claus Emmeche(2) (Emmeche 1991). (Risan 1997: Introduction)

(2) What interested me most was the re-discovery of cybernetic ideas and practices, the holism and the systemic thinking within established and/or main stream scientific institutions (as Cybernetics, with the advent of AI, had been expelled to quite marginal pockets of science).

BATESON, GREGORY. 1956. “Toward a theory of schizophrenia,” in Bateson 1972.
BATESON, GREGORY. 1972. Steps to an ecology of mind. New York: Ballantine Books.
RISAN, LARS CHRISTIAN. 1997. Artificial life: A technoscience leaving modernity? An anthropology of subjects and objects. TVM Skriftserie 23. Oslo: TMV-Senteret.
EMMECHE, CLAUS. 1991. Det levende spil: Biologisk form og kunstig liv. Munksgaard: Nysyn.
VARELA, F. J. AND PAUL BOURGINE. 1992. Toward a practice of autonomous systems. Proceedings of the first European Conference on Artificial Life. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
WIENER, NORBERT. 1948. Cybernetics. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

where’s the original?

zeph’s pop culture quiz #58
Primary Umbrealla Base
It will be a matter of seconds to identify the movie from which the above screencap stems. But, believe it or not, the building at the left was inspired by a real-life one. Where is the original building located?
    Simply leave a comment with your educated guess—you can ask for additional hints, too. [Leaving a comment is easy; just click the ‘Leave a comment’ at the end of the post and fill in the form. If it’s the first time you post a comment, it will be held for moderation. But I am constantly checking, and once I’ve approved a comment, your next ones won’t be held, but published immediately by the system.]


fallingwater neuschwanstein hybrid

The fictional castle atop Reichenbach Falls as seen in 'Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows' (Ritchie 2011)
This is the fictional castle or fortress atop the Reichenbach Falls where the showdown between Holmes and Moriarty takes place in A Game of Shadows (Ritchie 2011). It was created by the VFX company Framestore. Their first inspiration was the Festung Hohenwerfen in Austria:
Festung Hohenwerfen
But as Hohenwerfen looked a bit too military, the designers threw in elements inspired by Schloss Neuschwanstein in Bavaria:
Schloss Neuschwanstein
And then of course, the basic idea, to my eye, comes from Frank Lloyd Wright‘s Fallingwater:

RITCHIE, GUY STEWART. 2011. Sherlock Holmes: A game of shadows [motion picture]. Burbank: Warner Bros.

xirdalium at wikipedia

No, not my humble blog here, rather the fictional element from which my humble blog here derives its name. It always bothered me, that Xirdalium—most likely an invention by Jules Verne’s son Michel—didn’t shine up in Wikipedia’s list of fictional elements, materials, isotopes and atomic particles. Today I thought ‘enough is enough,’ or ‘there’s only so much a man can take,’ and created the following entry in said list:

Xirdalium. An element ‘a hundred times more radio-active than radium.’ (Verne 1909 [1908]: 125) Most probably it was invented by Jules Verne‘s son Michel, who introduced it to the novel The Chase of the Golden Meteor,’ together with the character Zephyrin Xirdal, a ‘private genius’ who synthesized the new element. In the story Xirdal then uses Xirdalium in a contraption emitting a strong tractor beam able to alter the trajectory of the meteor mentioned in the novel’s title.

This was overdue. Just had to be done.

UPDATE 1 (13 January 2013):
Seems like I have to update the Wikipedia entry. Something just didn’t seem right—a glance on the sidebar to the right would immediately have told me what it was. Here is the paragraph in question from the 1909 first edition of the novel by Verne fils et père:

“This, gentlemen.” he said, “is Xirdalium, a body a hundred times more radio-actice than radium. I am willing to own you that, if I utilize this body, it is more for show. Not that it is deleterious; but the earth radiates enough energy for me to do without adding more. It is a grain of salt thrown into the sea. Still, a little display is not unbecoming, methinks, in an experiment of this nature.” (Verne [& Verne] 1909: 125; bold emphasis mine)

And here is the complete paragraph from the 1908 French original:

«Ceci, Messieurs, disait-il, c’est du Xirdalium, corps cent mille fois plus radioactif que le radium. J’avouerai, entre nous, que, si j’utilise ce corps, c’est un peu pour la galerie. Ce n’est pas qu’il soit nuisible, mais la terre rayonne assez d’énergie pour qu’il soit superflu de lui en ajouter. C’est un grain de sel dans la mer. Toutefois, une légère mise en scène ne messied pas, à mon sens, dans une expérience de cette nature.» (Verne [& Verne] 1908: chpt. 10; italics emphasis by Verne, bold emphasis mine)

As you can see the translator, Frederick Lawton, severely nerfed the radioactivity of Xirdalium—by the factor thousand!

UPDATE 2 (13 January 2013):
All right, I rewrote the entry in the list at Wikipedia and incorporated the two quotes above as footnotes. The entry now reads something like this:

Xirdalium. The Chase of the Golden Meteor. An element which is, in the French first edition of the novel (Verne [& Verne] 1908), about a hundred thousand times more radioactive than radium. In the English first edition (Verne [& Verne] 1909) this has been reduced to a hundred times. Xirdalium was invented by Jules Verne‘s son Michel, who introduced it to the novel, together with the character Zephyrin Xirdal, a ‘private genius’ who synthesized the new element. In the story Xirdal then uses Xirdalium in a contraption emitting a strong tractor beam able to alter the trajectory of the meteor mentioned in the novel’s title.

The first sentence of the following quote I added as a third reference:

To Verne’s seventeen chapters Michel added four more. He created a dominant new character, Zephyrin Xirdal, who in effect takes over the action and the outcome. To succeed in this, Xirdal invents a “neuter-helicoidal current” and “atomic howitzers.” Gregory A. Benford, science professor at the University of California, Irvine, flatly calls these inventions “wholly imaginary physics.” Verne’s original La Chasse extrapolates only from the known and accepted science of his day. Michel violated one of his father’s basic principles in his “hard science” works: scientific integrity. (Walter & Miller 2006: xi)

And for the sake of it, here’s Verne-scholar Brian Taves:

In rewriting La Chasse au météore, Michel expanded his father’s novel from 17 chapters to 21 chapters, and made it more complex from a literary standpoint as well as enhancing the science fiction aspect. Michel adds a technological element to the novel, inserting a major new character, Zéphyrin Xirdal, an erratic scientist who has invented a device that attracts the comet to Earth, and brings it down from its orbit under his direction. Xirdal has selected Greenland for the landing, but becomes so disgusted by the global hysteria and his avaricious uncle’s attempt to manipulate the event for profit that he finally causes the meteor to fall into the sea. The financial markets return to the status quo, and Xirdal retreats to continue his own scientific work. Xirdal is a typical character in the Verne oeuvre, but his invention subtly shifts a major tenet of Verne’s writings. While his father’s forecasts were usually limited to what could be extrapolated from the known science of the day, Michel went considerably beyond these confining bounds of probability. This was true not only of Michel’s version of La Chasse au météore, but also of other science fiction stories he wrote and published under his father’s name, such as “Au XXIXe siècle: Journée d’un journaliste américain en 2889” (“In the 29th Century: The Diary of an American Journalist in 2889,” 1889), “Un Express de l’avenir” (“An Express of the Future,” 1893), “L’Eternel Adam” (“The Eternal Adam,” 1910), and The Astonishing Adventure of the Barsac Mission. (Taves 1999)

TAVES, BRIAN. 1999. Review of: Jules Verne. The Chase of the Golden Meteor. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1998. Illustrated, x+292 pages. $13.00. Introduction to the Bison Books edition by Gregory A. Benford. Extrapolation 40(2): 181-184.
VERNE, JULES GABRIEL [AND MICHEL JEAN PIERRE VERNE]. 1909. The chase of the golden meteor. London: Grant Richards.
VERNE, JULES GABRIEL [AND MICHEL JEAN PIERRE VERNE]. 1908. La chasse au météore, illustrated by George Roux. Les Voyages extraordinaires. Paris: Collection Hetzel.
WALTER, FREDERICK PAUL AND WALTER JAMES MILLER. 2006. “Foreword,” in The meteor hunt by Jules Gabriel Verne. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

wireless devices 1906

Cartoon by Lewis Baumer (1870-1963), first published in Punch in 1906
Kip W unearthed the above wonderful, stunningly up-to-date Punch cartoon (Williams 1955: 164) by artist Lewis Baumer (1870-1963), which first was published in 1906! It’s great historical evidence for how early in the development of a given technology people not only speculate about the future trajectory of said development, but also think about possible social consequences of it.

WILLIAMS, RONALD EARNEST. 1955. A century of Punch cartoons. New York: Simon and Schuster.
via entry at boingboing

weapons not concealed

The Kroger gun stunt sparks 2nd Amendment debate, NBC reported yesterday:

Charlottesville police say the man who showed up at a Kroger grocery store with a loaded gun wanted to make a point. On Sunday, an unidentified 22-year-old man carried a loaded AR-15 into the Kroger store on Emmet Street and Hydraulic Road, sparking not only a scare for customers and employees but also a 2nd Amendment debate.
    Charlottesville police drew their guns on the man after witnesses reported he brought a gun into the store. They restrained the man to ask him questions, but released him after they confirmed he is not a convicted felon, owned the gun legally and it was not concealed.
Police say he was cooperative and did nothing illegal. Officers did find a note in his pocket spelling out his intent to express his 2nd Amendment rights. […]

Now compare this to the following scene from Neal Stephenson’s ‘Cryptonomicon’ (1999):

In the lot of the 24 Jam, Mike or Mark has joined three other elvishlooking sorts in black cowboy hats and bandannas, whom Randy can identify based on the length and color of their ponytails and beards. There’s Stu, a Berkeley grad student who is somehow mixed up in Avi’s HEAP project, and Phil, who invented a major programming language a couple of years ago and goes helicopter-skiing in his spare time, and Craig, who knows everything there is to know about encrypted credit-card transactions on the Net and is a devotee of traditional Nipponese archery. Some of these guys are wearing long coats and some aren’t. There is a lot of Secret Admirers iconography: t-shirts bearing the number 56, which is a code for Yamamoto, or just pictures of Yamamoto himself, or big fat question marks. They are having an energetic and very happy conversation–though it looks a bit forced–because, to a man, they are carrying long weapons out in plain sight. One of them has a hunting rifle, and each of the others is slinging a rudimentary-looking gun with a banana clip sticking out of the side. Randy thinks, but is not sure, that these are HEAP guns.
    This scene, not surprisingly, has caught the attention of the police, who have surrounded these four with squad cars, and who are standing at the ready with rifles and shotguns. It is an oddity of the law in many jurisdictions that, while carrying (say) a concealed one-shot .22 derringer requires a license, openly carrying (e.g.) a big game rifle is perfectly legal. Concealed weapons are outlawed or at least heavily regulated, and unconcealed ones are not. So a lot of Secret Admirers–who tend to be gun nuts–have taken to going around conspicuously armed as a way of pointing out the absurdity of those rules. Their point is this: who gives a shit about concealed weapons anyway, since they are only useful for defending oneself against assaults by petty criminals, which almost never happens? The real reason the Constitution provides for the right to bear arms is defending oneself against oppressive governments, and when it comes to that, your handgun is close to useless. So (according to these guys) if you are going to assert your right to keep and bear arms you should do it openly, by packing something really big. (Stephenson 1999: chpt. 76)

STEPHENSON, NEAL TOWN. 1999. Cryptonomicon. London: Heinemann.

who is calling?

zeph’s pop culture quiz #57
Who is calling?
The public phone is ringing. Who is calling? And a scene from which book is cited thereby?
    Simply leave a comment with your educated guess—you can ask for additional hints, too. [Leaving a comment is easy; just click the ‘Leave a comment’ at the end of the post and fill in the form. If it’s the first time you post a comment, it will be held for moderation. But I am constantly checking, and once I’ve approved a comment, your next ones won’t be held, but published immediately by the system.]

UPDATE and partial solution (29 January 2013):
Detail of the season 2 titlecard of the television series 'Person of Interest' (Nolan 2011-present)
S.A.S. has solved the first part of the riddle. It is the artificial intelligence called ‘The Machine’ from the television series Person of Interest (Nolan 2011-present) calling John Reese (Jim Caviezel) via a public pay phone. The scene is from the end of the final episode of season one, Firewall (S01E23). As a recap the scene is repeated and then continued at the beginning of The Contingency (S02E01). Now the question remains: Which scene from which book is cited here? Hint: The citation becomes even more explicit in the latest episode, Prisoner’s Dilemma (S02E12).

UPDATE and final solution (08 February 2013):
Mona did it, identified and quoted the correct passage from William Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’ (1984)—congratulations! In the scene from Prisoner’s Dilemma (S02E12) I hinted towards, a pay phone rings next to Harold Finch (Michael Emerson) walking on the street. Due to the dramaturgy of the story Finch ignores it and walks on. Then the next phone near to him starts ringing … Here is the complete scene from ‘Neuromancer’, when the artificial intelligence which goes by the name ‘Wintermute’ calls Case, the main human protagonist:

There were cigarettes in the gift shop, but he didn’t relish talking with Armitage or Riviera. He left the lobby and located a vending console in a narrow alcove, at the end of a rank of
pay phones.
    He fumbled through a pocketful of lirasi, slotting the small dull alloy coins one after another, vaguely amused by the anachronism of the process. The phone nearest him rang.
    Automatically, he picked it up.
    Faint harmonics, tiny inaudible voices rattling across some orbital link, and then a sound like wind.
    “Hello. Case.”
    A fifty-lirasi coin fell from his hand, bounced, and rolled out of sight across Hilton carpeting.
    “Wintermute, Case. It’s time we talk.”
    It was a chip voice.
    “Don’t you want to talk, Case?”
    He hung up.
    On his way back to the lobby, his cigarettes forgotten, he had to walk the length of the ranked phones. Each rang in turn, but only once, as he passed. (Gibson 1984: chpt. 7)

GIBSON, WILLIAM FORD. 1984. Neuromancer. New York: Penguin.
NOLAN, JONATHAN. 2011-present. Person of interest [TV series]. New York: CBS.

the coming war on general computation

The copyright war was just the beginning

The last 20 years of Internet policy have been dominated by the copyright war, but the war turns out only to have been a skirmish. The coming century will be dominated by war against the general purpose computer, and the stakes are the freedom, fortune and privacy of the entire human race.
    The problem is twofold: first, there is no known general-purpose computer that can execute all the programs we can think of except the naughty ones; second, general-purpose computers have replaced every other device in our world. There are no airplanes, only computers that fly. There are no cars, only computers we sit in. There are no hearing aids, only computers we put in our ears. There are no 3D printers, only computers that drive peripherals. There are no radios, only computers with fast ADCs and DACs and phased-array antennas. Consequently anything you do to “secure” anything with a computer in it ends up undermining the capabilities and security of every other corner of modern human society.
    And general purpose computers can cause harm — whether it’s printing out AR15 components, causing mid-air collisions, or snarling traffic. So the number of parties with legitimate grievances against computers are going to continue to multiply, as will the cries to regulate PCs.
    The primary regulatory impulse is to use combinations of code-signing and other “trust” mechanisms to create computers that run programs that users can’t inspect or terminate, that run without users’ consent or knowledge, and that run even when users don’t want them to.
    The upshot: a world of ubiquitous malware, where everything we do to make things better only makes it worse, where the tools of liberation become tools of oppression.
    Our duty and challenge is to devise systems for mitigating the harm of general purpose computing without recourse to spyware, first to keep ourselves safe, and second to keep computers safe from the regulatory impulse.

Here’s the full transcript of the above speech Cory Doctorow gave at the 28th Chaos Communication Congress Behind Enemy Lines.

via entry at techdirt