Saturday, June 01, 2002

Chapter 3

Finished Chapter 3 of "A New Kind of Science". This is going to take more than one reading! I am enjoying the clarity of the presentation, though. Simple cellular automata give way to mobile ones and Turing Machines. I can see how he got so interested in the ideas. He must have liked graph paper when he was a kid, too. The generation of complexity from simple regularity fascinates. Let's hope I don't get too obsessed! When I read Mandelbrot's Fractals book I wanted to cover my walls with Julia sets and now I want to make wallpaper out of cellular automata patterns. I especially like the way he uses the binary system to number the rules for the automata. It makes me want to learn binary better. It would make it a lot easier to match patterns. That coding scheme in itself was quite a brainstorm. I'm beginning to think this fellow may be for real!

OK, I'll admit it. It's a bit spooky. I just finished reading Chapter 2 of "A New Kind of Science". It lays out the complex, nay, random patterns that can be generated by simple rules operating on cellular automata. Why does it look so familiar? Something to do with generative grammar keeps popping up in my head. I like this book. It's stimulating, yet understandable to a lay lawyer such as I. I read Mandelbrot's book on fractals years ago, but couldn't keep up. So far, Wolfram hasn't lost me. He contains fractals and everything else, perhaps. Also, when I was a kid I used to love graph paper, doodling all the time. So maybe if I had done more of that, I would have discovered what Wolfram did.
Wolfram and infomercials

After reading the intro to "A New Kind of Science", I feel the way I do after reading the first part of a "get-rich-quick" ad or watching the intro to a multilevel marketing or real-estate infomercial.

"For years, I struggled, barely able to pay my rent or buy food for my dog. Then one day I stumbled on an amazing secret. That secret has changed my life"

Only, Wolfram says his secret will change not just your life but the way men think. It will not make you rich, just more wise than anyone else, and for only $44.95 plus shipping and handling. I can't wait for the secret to be revealed. I love the anticipation. The only problem is that in the dozens of get-rich-quick schemes I have fallen for over the years, after you found out the secret, you didn't get rich, quick or slowly.

The lesson of those scams, of course, was, "you are a greedy idiot". That was a lesson worth learning, but I hope Wolfram has a better lesson to teach.

Thursday, May 30, 2002


Lots of activity over on Slashdot on the topic of the amount of oil left in the world. There were something like 600 posts to a story that Iceland is going to move its economy away from oil. Typical Icelandic iconoclasticism. Well, soon I'm sure they'll be sued for tapping too much of the earth's geothermal energy. Why, if they don't stop we'll all run out of steam!! No more steamboats or steam trains or hot steamy showers!! Stop the madness!!

Actually, though, most of the posts referred to the "refilling the oil fields" story in Newsday. I remember reading decades ago - probably in the mid '70s - about something called the Siljan Ring Hypothesis. The Siljan Ring is a granitic formation in central Sweden that is perhaps the oldest rock formation on Earth. Indications of hydrocarbons coming from wells drilled in that area cast doubt on the theory that oil came from biotic sources - dead dinosaurs and plants. The Siljan Ring is so old that it dates back to before there were animals or even plants. So oil didn't come from dinosaurs or even from plankton and algae in the ocean, but from methane left over from when the Earth was a ball of gas. That meant oil was essentially inexhaustible. The best thing about the theory was that it drove the typical environmentalist crazy. He would stop smoking his joint for a minute and get all wild-eyed. You could tell he was thinking, "Oh, no, what if that's true? The right-wing bastards will be able to drive their Cadillacs over the working classes forever! It can't be!!" Well, hey, guess what, here it is thirty years on. We've got plenty of petroleum, more being discovered every day. And the Siljan Ring Hypothesis, unlike the predictions of Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome, is alive and kicking.
Behavior is computation

I don't know what it means either, but I got it after reading the first chapter of Wolfram's book. The Principle of Computational Equivalence looks like the key idea I'm going to have to figure out. Wish me luck. Oh, and by the way, I did finish the NYT crostic. As usual, it fell apart after I spotted one longish repeated word. I'm starting to remember why I don't do crostics any more. Can't say I didn't enjoy it a little, though.

I received Stephen Wolfram's new book, "A New Kind of Science" yesterday. Despite being warned by another blogger that it may be "all hype", I was intrigued and hopeful. I will report my impressions. The introduction certainly sets up some large goals, nothing less than to revolutionize hard science, social science, even art and philosophy. An odd feature - Wolfram lays out the number of keystrokes he used in the twenty years since he conceived the idea for the book (billions) and the distance he drove his mouse, which came to about a hundred miles. How did he ever figure that last one out? And how does that make his product better? Some bloggers with bloggorhea (new word?!) probably exercised their metatarsals to a similar extent. Maybe the central question for me is: Does this "New Science" create opportunities for composing a new kind of word puzzle? I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, May 28, 2002

Vultus est index animi

So, tell me, why is the above unexceptionable yet curiously cautionary sentiment posted on the message board of a gas station in downtown Tallahassee, Florida, yep, right there at the intersection of Tennessee and Monroe? And on the reverse was "Carpe diem", for which you can at least make the argument that it's familiar. Someone educated is reduced to being a cashier at a gas station, I would guess. Is this a cry for help or a manifesto of identification with the laboring masses? Who can say? Perhaps he now and then even pumps gas, joining a long line of penniless intellectuals. In the Paris of Abelard, poor but industrious students might have lowered themselves to feeding horses, one supposes, muttering Latinisms. It was a surprise, possibly as much of a surprise as seeing that Cox and Rathvon are now composing the crostic in the Sunday Times Magazine. They could have been doing it for years, since I haven't looked at crostics for, probably, fifteen years. But this one was hard! I haven't finished it yet, since it isn't in a NYT Magazine I personally possess. I have to sneak around these days to feed my puzzle jones. sic transit, gloria!