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Sunday, May 30, 2004

Heuristics of Combat
Otherwise known as Murphy's laws of Combat, most of which are derived from Murphy's more general law: "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong." Soldiers often add to this what is called O'Neil's Law: "Murphy was an optimist."

War is, of course, a highly unstable and chaotic undertaking. Combat and preparation are beset on all sides by unanticipated problems, especially during the opening stages of combat, when all of the theoretical constructs, plans, and doctrines are put to the test. Infantrymen are a common victim of Murhpy's Law, and have thus codified their general observations in a list of Murphy's laws of Combat. Naturally, there are many variations of the list, but I'll only be referencing a few rules because I think they're a rather telling example of heuristics in use.

Most of the rules are concise and somewhat humorous (if it weren't for the subject matter) bits of wisdom such as "Incoming fire has the right of way," and though some are indeed factual, most are based on general observations or are meant to imply a heuristic. For instance:
Always keep in mind that your weapon was made by the lowest bidder.
This is, of course, a fact: most of the time, weapons are made by the lowest bidder. And yet, there is an unmistakable conclusion that one is supposed to reach when reading this rule: your weapon won't always work the way it is supposed to. That is also true, but it is worth noting that one must still rely on their weapon. If a soldier refused to fight unless he had a perfect weapon, he would never fight! This is an example of a heuristic which one must be aware of, but which one must use with caution. Weapons must be used, after all.
Perfect plans aren't

No plan survives the first few seconds of combat.

A Purple Heart just proves that you were smart enough to think of a plan, stupid enough to try it, and lucky enough to survive.
These laws refer to the difficulty in planning an action during the chaotic and unpredictable atmosphere of war. To go into battle without a plan is surely foolish, and yet, ironically, the plan rarely survives in tact (interestingly, these laws which indicate a failure of one heuristic, the necessity of planning, have become another: don't blindly follow the plan, especially when events don't conform to the plan). The ability to adapt and improvise is thus a treasured characteristic in a soldier.

I recently watched a few episodes of the excellent Band of Brothers series, and in one episode, a group of US soldiers assault a German artillery battery. Lieutenant Winters, the man planning the attack, instructs Sergeant�Lipton that he'll need TNT the moment his group reaches the first gun (so they can blow it up).

Of course, it doesn't quite go as planned, and Lipton is held up crossing the battlefield. Winters improvises, using what he has available (another soldier had some TNT, but no way to detonate it, so they used a German grenade they found in the nest). Once Lipton finally reaches Winters with the TNT, Winters simply points to the busted gun, illustrating the the plan has not survived.
 
If it wasn't war, the futility of Lipton's actions would have been a comical moment. Instead it is somewhat infuriating. I don't think his TNT was ever actually used, even though all 4 guns were taken out during the battle...

A couple of times above, I've said that something might be funny, if it wasn't about war, which was a point I sort of made in my earlier post:
When you're me, rooting for a sports team or betting modest amounts of money on a race, failure doesn't mean much. In other situations, however, failure is not so benign. Yet, despite the repercussions, failure is still inevitable and necessary in these situations. In the case of war, for instance, this can be indeed difficult and heartbreaking, but no less necessary.
When planning a war, it is necessary to rely on heuristics because you may not have all the information you need or the information you have might not be as accurate as you think. Unfortunately, there is no real way around this. Soldiers are forced to make decisions without all the facts, and must rely on imprerfect techniques to do so. It is a simple fact of life, and we would do well to consider these sorts of things when viewing battles from afar. For while it may seem like a war that exhibits such chaos and unpredictabilty is a failure, such is not really the case. In closing, I'll leave you with yet another law of combat, one I find particularly fitting:
If it's stupid but works, it's not stupid.
Posted by Mark on May 30, 2004 at 06:30 PM .: link :.


Security Beliefs
Last week, I wrote about superstition, inspired by an Isaac Asimov article called "Knock Plastic!" In revisiting that essay, I find that Asimov has collected 6 broad examples of what he calls "Security Beliefs" They are called this because such beliefs are "so comforting and so productive of feelings of security" that all men employ them from time to time. Here they are:
  1. There exist supernatural forces that can be cajoled or forced into protecting mankind.
  2. There is no such thing, really, as death.
  3. There is some purpose to the Universe.
  4. Individuals have special powers that will enable them to get something for nothing.
  5. You are better than the next fellow.
  6. If anything goes wrong, it's not one's own fault.
I've been thinking a lot about these things, and the extent to which they manifest in my life. When asked to explain my actions (usually only to myself), I can usually come up with a pretty good reason for doing what I did. But did I really do it for that reason?

Last week, I also referenced this: "It seems that our brains are constantly formulating alternatives, and then rejecting most of them at the last instant." What process do we use to reject the alternatives and eventually select the winner? I'd like to think it was something logical and rational, but that strikes me as something of a security belief in itself (or perhaps just a demonstration of Asimov's 5th security belief).

When we refer to logic, we are usually referring to a definitive conclusion that can be inferred from the evidence at hand. Furthermore, this deductive process is highly objective and repeatable, meaning that multiple people working under the same rules with the same evidence should all get the same (correct) answer. Obviously, this is a very valuable process; mathematics, for instance, is based on deductive logic.

However, there are limits to this kind of logic, and there are many situations in which it does not apply. For example, we are rarely in possession of all the evidence necessary to come to a logical conclusion. In such cases, decisions are often required, and we must fall back on some other form of reasoning. This is usually referred to as induction. This is usally based on some set of heuristics, or guidelines, which we have all been maintaining during the course of our lives. We produce this set of guidelines by extrapolating from our experiences, and by sharing our observations. Unlike deductive logic, it appears that this process is something that is innate, or at the very least, something that we are bred to do. It also appears that this process is very useful, as it allows us to operate in situations which we do not uderstand. We won't exactly know why we're acting the way we are, just that our past experience has shown that acting that way is good. It is almost a non-thinking process, and we all do it constantly.

The problem with this process is that it is inherently subjective and not always accurate. This process is extremely useful, but it doesn't invariably produce the desired results. Superstitions are actually heuristics, albeit generally false ones. But they arise because producing such explanations are a necessary part of our life. We cannot explain everything we see, and since we often need to act on what we see, we must rely on less than perfect heuristics and processes.

Like it or not, most of what we do is guided by these imperfect processes. Strangely, these non-thinking processes work exceedingly well; so much so that we are rarely inclined to think that there is anything "wrong" with our behavior. I recently stumbled upon this, by Dave Rodgers:
Most of the time, people have little real idea why they do the things they do. They just do them. Mostly the reasons why have to do with emotions and feelings, and little to nothing to do with logic or reason. Those emotions and feelings are the products of complex interactions between certain hardwired behaviors and perceptual receivers; a set of beliefs that are cognitively accessible, but most often function below the level of consciousness in conjunction with the more genetically fixed apparatus mentioned before; and certain habits of behavior which are also usually unconscious. ...

If we're asked "why" we did something, most of the time we'll be able to craft what appears to be a perfectly rational explanation. That explanation will almost invariably involve making assertions that cast ourselves in the best light. That is to say, among the set of possible explanations, we will choose the ones that make us feel best about ourselves. Some people have physical or mental deficiencies that cause them to make the opposite choice, but similar errors occur in either case. The explanation will not rely on the best available evidence, but instead will rely on ambiguous or incomplete information that is difficult to thoroughly refute, or false information which is nevertheless contained within the accepted set of shared beliefs, and which allows us to feel as good or bad about ourselves as we feel is normal.
Dave seems to think that the processes I'm referring to are "emotional" and "feeling" based but I am not sure that is so. Extrapolating from a set of heuristics doesn't seem like an emotional process to me, but at this point we reach a rather pedantic discussion of what "emotion" really is.

The point here is that our actions aren't always pefectly reasonable or rational, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. If we could not act unless we could reach a logical conclusion, we would do very little. We do things because they work, not necessarily because we reasoned that they would work before we did them. Afterwords, we justify our actions, and store away any learned heuristics for future use (or modify existing ones to account for the new data). Most of the time, this process works. However, these heuristics will fail from time to time as well. When you're me, rooting for a sports team or betting modest amounts of money on a race, failure doesn't mean much. In other situations, however, failure is not so benign. Yet, despite the repercussions, failure is still inevitable and necessary in these situations. In the case of war, for instance, this can be indeed difficult and heartbreaking, but no less necessary. [thanks to Jonathon Delacour for the Dave Rodgers post]
Posted by Mark on May 30, 2004 at 05:18 PM .: link :.



Sunday, May 23, 2004

Superstition
On of my favorite anecdotes (probably apocryphal, as these things usually go) tells of a horseshoe that hung on the wall over Niels Bohr's desk. One day, an exasperated visitor could not help asking, "Professor Bohr, you are one of the world's greatest scientists. Surely you cannot believe that object will bring you good luck." "Of course not," Bohr replied, "but I understand it brings you luck whether you believe or not."

I've had two occasions with which to be obsessively superstitious this weekend. The first was Saturday night's depressing Flyers game. Due to poorly planned family outing (thanks a lot Mike!), I missed the first period and a half of the game. During that time, the Flyers went down 2-0. As soon as I started watching, they scored a goal, much to my relief. But as the game grinded to a less than satisfactory close, I could not help but think, what if I had been watching for that first period?

Even as I thought that, though, I recognized how absurd and arrogant a thought like that is. As a fan, I obviously cannot participate in the game, but all fans like to believe they are a factor in the outcome of the game and will thus go to extreme superstitious lengths to ensure the team wins. That way, there is some sort of personal pride to be gained (or lost, in my case) from the team winning, even though there really isn't.

I spent the day today at the Belmont Racetrack, betting on the ponies. Longtime readers know that I have a soft spot for gambling, but that I don't do it very often nor do I ever really play for high stakes. One of the things I really enjoy is people watching, because some people go to amusing lengths to perform superstitious acts that will bring them that mystical win.

One of my friends informed me of his superstitious strategy today. His entire betting strategy dealt with the name of the horse. If the horse's name began with an "S" (i.e. Secretariat, Seabiscuit, etc...) it was bound to be good. He also made an impromptu decision that names which displayed alliteration (i.e. Seattle Slew, Barton Bank, etc...) were also more likely to win. So today, when he spied "Seaside Salute" in the program, which exhibited both alliteration and the letter "S", he decided it was a shoe-in! Of course, he only bet it to win, and it placed, thus he got screwed out of a modest amount of money.

John R. Velazquez, aboard Maddalena, rides to win the first race at Churchill DownsLike I should talk. My entire betting strategy revolves around John R. Velazquez, the best jockey in the history of horse racing. This superstition did not begin with me, as several friends discovered this guy a few years ago, but it has been passed on and I cannot help but believe in the power of JRV. When I bet on him, I tend to win. When I bet against him, he tends to be riding the horse that screws me over. As a result, I need to seriously consider the consequences of crossing JRV whenever I choose to bet on someone else.

Now, if I were to collect historical data regarding my bets for or against JRV (which is admittedly a very small data set, and thus not terribly conclusive either way, but stay with me here) I wouldn't be surprised to find that my beliefs are unwarranted. But that is the way of the superstition - no amount of logic or evidence is strong enough to be seriously considered (while any supporting evidence is, of course, trumpeted with glee).

Now, I don't believe for a second that watching the Flyers makes them play better, nor do I believe that betting on (or against) John R. Velazquez will increase (or decrease) my chances of winning. But I still think those things... after all, what could I lose?

This could be a manifestation of a few different things. It could be a relatively benign "security belief" (or "pleasing falsehood" as some like to call it - I'm sure there are tons of names for it) which, as long as you realize what you're dealing with can actually be fun (as my obsession with JRV is). It could also be brought on by what Steven Den Beste calls the High cliff syndrome.
It seems that our brains are constantly formulating alternatives, and then rejecting most of them at the last instant. ... All of us have had the experience of thinking something which almost immediately horrified us, "Why would I think such a thing?" I call it "High cliff syndrome".

At a viewpoint in eastern Oregon on the Crooked River, looking over a low stone fence into a deep canyon with sheer walls, a little voice inside me whispered, "Jump!" AAAGH! I became nervous, and my palms started sweating, and I decided I was no longer having fun and got back into my car and continued on my way.
It seems to be one of the profound truths of human existence that we can conceive of impossible situations that we know will never be possible. None of us are immune, from one of the great scientific minds of our time to the lowliest casino hound. This essay was, in fact, inspired by an Isaac Asimov essay called "Knock Plastic!" (as published in Magic) in which Asimov confesses his habitual knocking of wood (of course, he became a little worried over the fact that natural wood was being used less and less in ordinary construction... until, of course, someone introduced him to the joys of knocking on plastic). The insights driven by such superstitious "security beliefs" must indeed be kept into perspective, but that includes realizing that we all think these things and that sometimes, it really can't hurt to indulge in a superstition.

Update: More on Security Beliefs here.
Posted by Mark on May 23, 2004 at 09:32 PM .: link :.



Thursday, May 20, 2004

Let's Go Flyers!
I don't write about hockey much, but since my Flyers decided to make tonight interesting with their overtime goal in a must-win game, I figured I was due. I've never really played hockey, so I can't say as though I have a true understanding of the game, but I can follow it well and even though NHL 2004 has eaten my soul, those EA Sports games have always helped me understand the real game better. Fortunately for me, Colby Cosh has been writing really solid stuff on his 2004 NHL Playoffs page. He actually hasn't posted there for a while (no round 3 notes, it seems), but what's there is still worth reading. Here he describes the epic overtime victory by the Flyers over the Maple Leafs, ending the second round of the playoffs:
I have to say that the Toronto Maple Leafs--in dying--made up for 13 games' worth of intermittently lackluster play in the seven minutes of overtime against Philadelphia Tuesday night. If I had to show a foreigner a short piece of hockey footage to help him understand the excitement this game can create, I'd show him that OT. It wasn't just the way things ended, although that right there is a story for the grandkids. Even before the all-century finish, the seven minutes were full of odd-man rushes, wildly bouncing pucks, great saves by Robert Esche followed by heart-stopping rebounds, and other terrific hits.

Then Darcy Tucker, our generation's Eddie Shack, flattened Sami Kapanen with the most devastating, gasp-inducing hit you will ever see in sudden-death overtime. It wasn't "Is there a doctor in the house?"--it was "Is there a priest?". Kapanen, only twenty feet or so from the Philly bench, staged an epic mini-drama--alas, seen only later in replays--as he struggled valiantly to leave the ice, falling three times and losing his grip on his stick. He didn't know his own name during those seconds, but he did the right thing. If he'd stayed down and tried to draw a charging penalty, play would have stopped. Instead, Kapanen was physically hauled over the boards by the off-ice Flyers, and Jeremy Roenick--himself playing with a shattered face and a largely fused spine--vaulted over him to set up a winning two-on-one. You don't get this kind of stuff in baseball.
Tonights playoffs had a similarly exciting feel to it, though perhaps not quite as spectacular as there wasn't as much freewheeling back-and-forth play (but since most of the play included the Flyers in the offensive zone, it was damn exciting for me:P) With any luck, the Flyers will be able to harness that momentum for game 7 and then head for the Stanley Cup.

If the Flyers can pull this off, I think we'll be in for a spectacular Stanley Cup finals. Both Keith Primeau and Jarome Iginla have been obscenely dominant clutch players during the playoffs, and they're both really nice guys. It should make for a great series. But first things first. The Flyers need to win game 7 in Tampa on Saturday! Go Flyers!
Posted by Mark on May 20, 2004 at 11:21 PM .: link :.



Sunday, May 16, 2004

Perfidious Literature
For the past week or so, some perfidious folk have been posting about a list of "great works" that had been circulating the net. I won't go into the details of the list, nor will I denote which works I've read (I've read several, but not a ton and not as much as several of the people who responded to that post), but I did want to comment on their attempt to revise the list to include some science fiction and humor. In addition to the list cited above, they came up with:
HST: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Miller: The Canticle of Leibowitz
O'Rourke: Parliament of Whores
Stephenson: Cryptonomicon
Bester: The Stars My Destination
Heinlein: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
Toole: Confederacy of Dunces
Pynchon: Gravity's Rainbow
Bukowski: Run With The Hunted
Burroughs: Naked Lunch
Hammett: The Maltese Falcon
An excellent list, though I have only read a few of them (and if they weren't in the book queue, they are now). Then they went ahead and asked for some more, with the following ground rules:
First, nothing newer than, say, about 1970. Works need some time to settle into a canon, and we should not be thinking about something written after I was born. Second, philosophy and history should be eliminated from the list unless they have compelling literary value. Clausewitz is terrifically important, but nearly unreadable. Gibbon however, is a delight to read as well as being profoundly ensmartening. Third, light on the poetry. And fourth, no matter how painful it is, no more than one example of an artist?s work unless they are a) Shakespeare, b) writing in two distinctly different genres/modes, or c) both.
With those rules in mind, Buckethead came up with these additions:
Milton, John - Paradise Lost
Chandler, Raymond - The Long Goodbye
God - The Bible
Gibbon - The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Frank Herbert - Dune
J.R.R. Tolkien - The Lord of the Rings
These additions to the original list turn out to be more in line with what I tend to read. In general, these sorts of lists tend to eschew genre, especially science fiction, fantasy, horror, and even mystery, which is why I like the additions so much. So in the spirit of this discussion, I'd like to make a few humble additions.
  • More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon: This exceptional 1953 novel about a group of misfits banding together for survival should be accepted as a genuine piece of literature. It is a powerful novel, and it's just as relevant as Bradbury, Heinlein or Asimov.
  • I am Legend by Richard Matheson: I've mentioned this novel on the blog several times before, but it's worth repeating: This 1954 novel is a study of isolation and grim irony that turns the traditional vampire story on its head. This might be one of the most influential novels you've never heard of, as there have been many derivatives, particularly in film. This is the sort of novel that gets passed over becaues it is a genre piece (and, even worse, it's about vampires!) However, even a short glimpse at it's contents reveals that it cannot be relegated to the obscurity of the horror bin...
  • The Haunting by Shirley Jackson: This 1959 book is a classic that is rightly praised as one of the finest horror novels ever written. Undeniably creepy, but still profound and worthy of a list such as this...
  • Foundation by Isaac Asimov: This was a difficult choice, as there is a lot to choose from when it comes to Asimov. But this is the work he is best known for, and there is a reason for that. When I refer to Foundation, I'm referring to the three central novels (really 1 story made up of 8 short stories collected in 3 volumes, which is why I'm bending the rules slightly to include this one). These were originally written between 1942 - 1949, and they have aged well.
Honorable mentions or novels at least worthy of consideration would include the works of H.P. Lovecraft, Kafka, and Arthur C. Clarke (and I think I might even favor Rendezvous with Rama over 2001, though it's a toss-up). Again, all of these novels are generally passed over in discussions of high literature simply because they are genre pieces. However, whatever respect that science fiction or horror have gained, these works are at least party responsible for...

Just for fun, and to keep up with this perfidious discussion, here are the books I've been reading recently. I tend to read more fiction than non-fiction, but that has been steadily changing as time goes on. In any case, I'm only including the last few... Here they are:

Fiction
The Confusion by Neal Stephenson (current)
Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King
Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
Galveston by Sean Stewart
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson
1984 by George Orwell (re-read)
Red Army by Ralph Peters
Watchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons (illustrator)
Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
Non-Fiction
Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson (current)
Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich
Parkinson's Law by C. Northcote Parkinson
Blind Man's Bluff by Sherry Sontag
On War by Carl Von Clausewitz
There you have it. If you'd like to share what you've been reading lately, feel free to leave a comment...
Posted by Mark on May 16, 2004 at 02:35 PM .: link :.



Sunday, May 09, 2004

Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics
In a few of my recent posts, I've noted that movies often get the physics of space travel and battle entirely wrong:
It sounds like a battle using the weapons and defenses described would be punctuated by long periods of waiting followed by a short burst of activity in which one side was completely disabled. This is, perhaps, the reason so many science fiction movies and books seem to flaunt the rules of physics. As a side note, I think a spectacular film could be made while still obeying the rules of physics, but that is only because we're so used to the absurd physics defying space battles.
Because it was only a side note and would have distracted from the point of the post, I neglected to mention 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is, in fact, a spectacular film that was made while obeying the rules of physics. Of course, the film is long, slowly paced, and unglamorous, but that is only because that's the way things would be in space.

Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics is a website which goes into the details of common mistakes made in movies (presumably to present a more dramatic story). At one point, they speak about how well obeying the rules of physics works for 2001 and they also mention something which leads me to believe that we will be seeing more realistic space travel films in the future:
Arguably, the most dramatic scene in the 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey occurs when the computer HAL locks Dave out of the spaceship and Dave is forced to enter the ship in a dangerously unorthodox manner. Even though Dave sets off explosive bolts, the scene is totally silent because there is no air in outer space. Yet, the scene coveys a sense of utter desperation.

2001 is included in most lists of the top 100 movies of all times (#22 on the AFI list of the top 100 films), has an enduring quality, and cult following because it got the physics of space travel essentially right. It's not a particularly strong movie in terms of plot, action, or pacing. Its best dialog comes from its most notable character, a computer portrayed as a disembodied voice and unexpressive camera lens. Its ending is almost incomprehensible. Still 2001 demonstrates that silence is strongly emotional.

The 1970 movie Tora Tora Tora was nominated for four Academy Awards including the award for sound. It won the award for Best Visual Effects. The movie was a marvel of special effects for its time and was vastly superior in historical authenticity to the more recent movie Pearl Harbor. Yet to modern viewers it has an annoying audio distraction. The bullets make a fake sounding ricochet noise when they hit. In 1970 this was standard practice but now sounds ridiculous. Movie makers would do well to take note of this fact. Movie history itself shows that the public eventually does reject nonsense.
Bad physics is such a staple of science fiction movies that there has to come a time when good physics will become more interesting, if only for the sake of variety and percieved originality. I think there will always be a place for visable lasers and loud exposions in films set in space, but I think the silent, slow, unglamorous space battle could also become prevalent, if done correctly...
Posted by Mark on May 09, 2004 at 09:59 PM .: link :.



Sunday, May 02, 2004

The Unglamorous March of Technology
We live in a truly wondrous world. The technological advances over just the past 100 years are astounding, but, in their own way, they're also absurd and even somewhat misleading, especially when you consider how these advances are discovered. More often than not, we stumble onto something profound by dumb luck or by brute force. When you look at how a major technological feat was accomplished, you'd be surprised by how unglamorous it really is. That doesn't make the discovery any less important or impressive, but we often take the results of such discoveries for granted.

For instance, how was Pi originally calculated? Chris Wenham provides a brief history:
So according to the Bible it's an even 3. The Egyptians thought it was 3.16 in 1650 B.C.. Ptolemy figured it was 3.1416 in 150 AD. And on the other side of the world, probably oblivious to Ptolemy's work, Zu Chongzhi calculated it to 355/113. In Bagdad, circa 800 AD, al-Khwarizmi agreed with Ptolemy; 3.1416 it was, until James Gregory begged to differ in the late 1600s.

Part of the reason why it was so hard to find the true value of Pi (π) was the lack of a good way to precisely measure a circle's circumference when your piece of twine would stretch and deform in the process of taking it. When Archimedes tried, he inscribed two polygons in a circle, one fitting inside and the other outside, so he could calculate the average of their boundaries (he calculated ? to be 3.1418). Others found you didn't necessarily need to draw a circle: Georges Buffon found that if you drew a grid of parallel lines, each 1 unit apart, and dropped a pin on it that was also 1 unit in length, then the probability that the pin would fall across a line was 2/π. In 1901, someone dropped a pin 34080 times and got an average of 3.1415929.
π is an important number and being able to figure out what it is has played a significant factor in the advance of technology. While all of these numbers are pretty much the same (to varying degrees of precision), isn't it absurd that someone figured out π by dropping 34,000 pins on a grid? We take π for granted today; we don't have to go about finding the value of π, we just use it in our calculations.

In Quicksilver, Neal Stephenson portrays several experiments performed by some of the greatest minds in history, and many of the things they did struck me as especially unglamorous. Most would point to the dog and bellows scene as a prime example of how unglamorous the unprecedented age of discovery recounted in the book really was (and they'd be right), but I'll choose something more mundane (page 141 in my edition):
"Help me measure out three hundred feet of thread," Hooke said, no longer amused.

They did it by pulling the thread off of a reel, and stretching it alongside a one-fathom-long rod, and counting off fifty fathoms. One end of the thread, Hooke tied to a heavy brass slug. He set the scale up on the platform that Daniel had improvised over the mouth of the well, and put the slug, along with its long bundle of thread, on the pan. He weighed the slug and thread carefully - a seemingly endless procedure disturbed over and over by light gusts of wind. To get a reliable measurement, they had to devote a couple of hours to setting up a canvas wind-screen. Then Hooke spent another half hour peering at the scale's needle through a magnifying lens while adding or subtracting bits of gold foil, no heavier than snowflakes. Every change caused the scale to teeter back and forth for several minutes before settling into a new position. Finally, Hooke called out a weight in pounds, ounces, grains, and fractions of grains, and Daniel noted it down. Then Hooke tied the free end of the thread to a little eye he had screwed on the bottom of the pan, and he and Daniel took turns lowering the weight into the well, letting it drop a few inches at a time - if it got to swinging, and scraped against the chalky sides of the hole, it would pick up a bit of extra weight, and ruin the experiment. When all three hundred feet had been let out, Hooke went for a stroll, because the weight was swinging a little bit, and its movements would disturb the scale. Finally, it settled down enough that he could go back to work with his magnifying glass and his tweezers.
And, of course, the experiment was a failure. Why? The scale was not precise enough! The book is filled with similar such experiments, some successful, some not.

Another example is telephones. Pick one up, enter a few numbers on the keypad and voila! you're talking to someone halfway across the world. Pretty neat, right? But how does that system work, behind the scenes? Take a look at the photo on the right. This is a typical intersection in a typical American city, and it is absolutely absurd. Look at all those wires! Intersections like that are all over the world, which is the part of the reason I can pick up my phone and talk to someone so far away. One other part of the reason I can do that is that almost everyone has a phone. And yet, this system is perceived to be elegant.

Of course, the telephone system has grown over the years, and what we have now is elegant compared to what we used to have:
The engineers who collectively designed the beginnings of the modern phone system in the 1940's and 1950's only had mechanical technologies to work with. Vacuum tubes were too expensive and too unreliable to use in large numbers, so pretty much everything had to be done with physical switches. Their solution to the problem of "direct dial" with the old rotary phones was quite clever, actually, but by modern standards was also terribly crude; it was big, it was loud, it was expensive and used a lot of power and worst of all it didn't really scale well. (A crossbar is an N� solution.) ... The reason the phone system handles the modern load is that the modern telephone switch bears no resemblance whatever to those of 1950's. Except for things like hard disks, they contain no moving parts, because they're implemented entirely in digital electronics.
So we've managed to get rid of all the moving parts and make things run more smoothly and reliably, but isn't it still an absurd system? It is, but we don't really stop to think about it. Why? Because we've hidden the vast and complex backend of the phone system behind innocuous looking telephone numbers. All we need to know to use a telephone is how to operate it (i.e. how to punch in numbers) and what number we want to call. Wenham explains, in a different essay:
The numbers seem pretty simple in design, having an area code, exchange code and four digit number. The area code for Manhattan is 212, Queens is 718, Nassau County is 516, Suffolk County is 631 and so-on. Now let's pretend it's my job to build the phone routing system for Emergency 911 service in the New York City area, and I have to route incoming calls to the correct police department. At first it seems like I could use the area and exchange codes to figure out where someone's coming from, but there's a problem with that: cell phone owners can buy a phone in Manhattan and get a 212 number, and yet use it in Queens. If someone uses their cell phone to report an accident in Queens, then the Manhattan police department will waste precious time transferring the call.

Area codes are also used to determine the billing rate for each call, and this is another way the abstraction leaks. If you use your Manhattan-bought cell phone to call someone ten yards away while vacationing in Los Angeles, you'll get charged long distance rates even though the call was handled by a local cell tower and local exchange. Try as you might, there is no way to completely abstract the physical nature of the network.
He also mentions cell phones, which are somewhat less absurd than plain old telephones, but when you think about it, all we've done with cell phones is abstract the telephone lines. We're still connecting to a cell tower (which need to be placed with high frequency throughout the world) and from there, a call is often routed through the plain old telephone system. If we could see the RF layer in action, we'd be astounded; it would make the telephone wires look organized and downright pleasant by comparison.

The act of hiding the physical nature of a system behind an abstraction is very common, but it turns out that all major abstractions are leaky. But all leaks in an abstraction, to some degree, are useful.

One of the most glamorous technological advances of the past 50 years was the advent of space travel. Thinking of the heavens is indeed an awe-inspiring and humbling experience, to be sure, but when you start breaking things down to the point where we can put a man in space, things get very dicey indeed. When it comes to space travel, there is no more glamorous a person than the astronaut, but again, how does one become an astronaut? The need to pour through and memorize giant telephone-sized books filled with technical specifications and detailed schematics. Hardly a glamorous proposition.

Steven Den Beste recently wrote a series of articles concerning the critical characteristics of space warships, and it is fascinating reading, but one of the things that struck me about the whole concept was just how unglamorous space battles would be. It sounds like a battle using the weapons and defenses described would be punctuated by long periods of waiting followed by a short burst of activity in which one side was completely disabled. This is, perhaps, the reason so many science fiction movies and books seem to flaunt the rules of physics. As a side note, I think a spectacular film could be made while still obeying the rules of physics, but that is only because we're so used to the absurd physics defying space battles.

None of this is to say that technological advances aren't worthwhile or that those who discover new and exciting concepts are somehow not impressive. If anything, I'm more impressed at what we've achieved over the years. And yet, since we take these advances for granted, we marginalize the effort that went into their discovery. This is due in part to the necessary abstractions we make to implement various systems. But when abstractions hide the crude underpinnings of technology, we see that technology and its creation as glamorous, thus bestowing honors upon those who make the discovery (perhaps for the wrong reasons). It's an almost paradoxal cycle. Perhaps because of this, we expect newer discoveries and innovations to somehow be less crude, but we must realize that all of our discoveries are inherently crude.

And while we've discovered a lot, it is still crude and could use improvements. Some technologies have stayed the same for thousands of years. Look at toilet paper. For all of our wondrous technological advances, we're still wiping our ass with a piece of paper. The Japanese have the most advanced toilets in the world, but they've still not figured out a way to bypass the simple toilet paper (or, at least, abstract the process). We've got our work cut out for us. Luckily, we're willing to go to absurd lengths to achieve our goals.
Posted by Mark on May 02, 2004 at 09:47 PM .: link :.



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