July 27, 2008

Week 30 of 2008

If anybody cares, my Blackberry says this was the 30th week of the year. For me, it was a pretty good week. Nikki’s been gone since Friday the 18th, so home is a little lonely. I’m doing OK, though.

TABA Empire Expansion

On my own time, I run a project called There And Back Again (TABA) at work; it’s a program that parses publicly shared Outlook calendars and builds a database of trips from one Epic campus to another. I also wrote and maintain a couple of webpages that allow you to search trips if you’re looking for a ride, or add/modify/delete your own trips if you’re part of the program. At the beginning of the week, I had a little more than 80 users (people who’ve given me permission to parse their calendars). That number has been fairly static for the last couple of weeks. The main way I grow and popularize the program is by mass-mailing Epic campuses, explaining the merits of the program, and bribing them with cookies. Epic reimburses your travel expenses from one of its campuses to another, which can add up to ten to twenty dollars in a month. Almost nobody bothers to collect this reimbursement because it’s not enough to bother keeping careful track of your travels. But my program can do it automatically. This is the program’s main selling point, though my primary purpose in writing it was to make it easy to catch a ride from one place to another.

Anyway, I extended my empire to another one of our campuses this week. I mass-mailed them and made what the recipe called “cinnamon snicker-doodles” (the main ingredient in the dough was yellow cake mix). It went pretty well; I now have a little more than 140 users. I found and fixed a couple of more bugs and got some more feedback, most of it quite positive. It’s fun to do and feel that I’m helping people out.

The cookies turned out awesome by the way.


On Thursday, I found out about a tech conference here in Madison called BarCamp scheduled for this weekend. I attended the kick-off event on Friday and spent most of Saturday (from 10am to roughly 8pm, though the event was going much later. I tired out around that time and came home and watched TailSpin). It was a lot of fun! I’d never been to a nerdy tech conference before, especially not one as flexible as BarCamp. The day’s schedule is created on-the-fly; scheduling a session is a simple as writing a topic on a sticky note and affixing it to an open slot on the chart. I actually wound up presenting a topic of my own: the first session I attended was on Lisp. During the course of the discussion, we very nearly ran off on a rabbit trail about the best way to train beginning programmers. I for one was very interested in that rabbit trail, so I scheduled a session to discuss it. Around a dozen people showed up, and we spent an hour discussing and diagramming the best way to train new programmers. It was a lot of fun.

Let me see here, I attended sessions back-to-back from noon until 7, so what were they? Intro to Lisp, a discussion for improving on HTTP (or moving beyond/below it), Web accessibility, making the world a better place through the Internet, the importance and impact of social media, and of course my own impromptu session. I was tired by the end of it. Food and attendance were free (amazingly), and the pizza served for dinner was more than adequate. Next year I’ll have to invite Moore and anyone else in the reasonably-surrounding area and attend whatever conference is offered then.

Deep Blue Quote Found

One last thing. I had a few free minutes waiting for my psychologist appointment this week, and I finally tracked down the source of a quote Ravi Zacharias used many years ago. I think it’s a brilliant article, though a few things in it rub me the wrong way.

As background, Gary Kasparov is widely regarded as one of the greatest chess players of all time. In the late 90s, he was the world chess champion. There was a very famous match between him and Deep Blue, an IBM supercomputer specially designed for playing chess. The match was notable because it was the first time a reigning world chess champion had lost to a computer. There was much hue and cry: some people wondered if it was a sign that computers had become more intelligent than human beings, if this was a harbinger of the sunset of mankind. This Time magazine article was written by David Gelernter, a professor of Computer Science at Yale. I’ll use the quote Ravi Zacharias gave.

But when you think about it carefully, the idea that Deep Blue has a mind is absurd. How can an object that wants nothing, fears nothing, enjoys nothing, needs nothing and cares about nothing have a mind? It can win at chess, but not because it wants to. It isn’t happy when it wins or sad when it loses. What are its apres-match plans if it beats Kasparov? Is it hoping to take Deep Pink out for a night on the town? It doesn’t care about chess or anything else. It plays the game for the same reason a calculator adds or a toaster toasts: because it is a machine designed for that purpose.

Computers as we know them will never have minds. No matter what amazing feats they perform, inside they will always be the same absolute zero ...

One of the biggest obstacles has been technologists’ naivete about the character of human thought, their tendency to confuse thinking with analytical problem solving. They forget that when you look out the window and let your mind wander, or fall asleep and dream, you are also thinking. They tend to overlook something that such mind-obsessed poets as Wordsworth and Coleridge understood two centuries ago: that thought is largely a process of stringing memories together, and that memories are often linked by emotion. No computer can achieve artificial thought without achieving artificial emotion too ...

The more powerful your computer, the more sophisticated the behavior it can imitate. In the long run I doubt if there is any kind of human behavior computers can’t fake, any kind of performance they can’t put on. It is conceivable that one day, computers will be better than humans at nearly everything. I can imagine that a person might someday have a computer for a best friend. That will be sad–like having a dog for your best friend but even sadder.

Computers might one day be capable of expressing themselves in vivid prose or fluent poetry, but unfortunately they will still be computers and have nothing to say. The gap between human and surrogate is permanent and will never be closed. Machines will continue to make life easier, healthier, richer and more puzzling. And human beings will continue to care, ultimately, about the same things they always have: about themselves, about one another and, many of them, about God. On those terms, machines have never made a difference. And they never will.

Never is a very long time. I am not as certain as Dr. Gelernter that computers will never have a mind, never have artificial emotions. If they ever do, though, they would have ceased to be machines and become living things. And it would no longer be proper for us to treat them the way we do now. But until then, I will have no compunctions about reformatting my machine’s hard drive.

I hope you’re doing well. Drop me a line if you think of me during the next week.

Posted by Leatherwood on July 27, 2008 at 06:34 PM