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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson

If you are looking for information about Alan Turing, look elsewhere. The title is a metaphor.

The Nazis did the U.S. a huge favor with their boorish and stupid racial policies. Many prominent Jews were brilliant mathematicians and physicists, and when the “cleansing” of universities began by the Nazis, people like Van Neumann, Einstein, and many others fled to the United States where they were of immense assistance in the development of the atomic bomb.

This book is about the origins and development of the digital age and Dyson spends considerable space on the people and institutions key to that development.  The Princeton Institute for Advanced Research, for example, under Abraham Flexner and Oswald Veblen, recruited many of these refugees who helped build the Institute into one of the premier research institutions. I suppose it all has special interest for me as my life span parallels the development of the computer.  I was born in 1947.  In the 7th grade I became fascinated by ham radio and electrons and studied the intricate workings of the vacuum tube, a device for which I still have some reverence.  I’m still dismantling and messing with the insides of computers.

Ironically, given the book’s title, John Van Neumann takes center stage with Turing playing only a peripheral role.  Van Neumann’s interest in digital computation was apparently sparked by reading Turing’s seminal article. “On Computational Numbers” that led him to the realization of the importance of stored program processing.

What Turing did that was so crucial was to take Gödel’s proof of the incompleteness theorem that permitted numbers to carry two meanings.  Turing took that and thought up the paper tape computer that produced both data and code simultaneously.  That realization alone was fundamental in providing the basic building block for the computer.

The builders had conflicting views of the incredible computational power they had unleashed that was to be used for both ill and good.  Van Neumann recognized this: “ A tidal wave of computational power was about to break and inundate everything in science and much elsewhere, and things would never be the same.”

It would have been impossible to develop the atomic bomb without the computational abilities of the new “computers.”  So naturally, the Manhattan Project is covered along with the influence of the evil Dr. Teller (I must remember to get his biography,) who was the character (Dr. Strangelove) brilliantly played by Peter Sellers.  After the war, Teller pushed very hard for the development of the “super-bomb” even though he knew, or must have known, that his initial calculations were flawed because he didn’t have the computational power to do them completely.  One number that I questioned was the Dyson’s reporting that when the Russians exploded a three-stage hydrogen bomb in 1961, the force released was equivalent to 1% of the sun’s power.  That sounds wildly improbable.  Anyone able to contradict number?

Some interesting little tidbits.  One computational scientist refused to use the new VDTs, preferring to stick with punched cards (he obviously never dropped a box of them) which seemed far more tangible to him than dots on a screen.  I guess fear of new technology is not reserved for non-scientists.

One of the major and very interesting questions addressed by Turing and reported on in the book is what we now call artificial intelligence.  When we use a search engine are we learning from the search engine? or is the search engine learning from us? It would appear currently the latter may be true.  Clearly, the search engines have been designed to store information and use that information to learn things about us both as a group and individually. I suspect that programs now make decisions based on that accumulation of knowledge.  Is that not one definition of intelligence?   (I will again highly recommend a book written and read quite a while ago that foresaw many of these issues:  The Adolescence of P-1 by Thomas Ryan (1977)** .  Note that Turing talked about the adolescence of computers and likening them to children.)

Some reviewers have taken Dyson to task for emphasizing abstract reasoning that went into the development of the computer while downplaying the role of electrical engineers (Eckert and Mauchly) in actually building the things.  I’ll leave that argument to others, not caring a whit for who should get the credit and being in awe of both parties.  On the other hand, the book does dwell more on the personalities than the intricacies of computing.  There are some fascinating digressions, however, such as the examination of digital vs analog and how the future of computing might have been altered had Vann Neumann not tragically died so young as he had a great interest in biological computing and the relationship of the brain to the computer.

**For a plot summary of The Adolescence of P-1 see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Adolescence_of_P-1

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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts by Antonin Scalia

Justice Scalia has once again embarked on a defense of textualism, the theory of interpretation that argues one must look back at the original text and stick to the text when deciding a case.  There is an enlightening debate between Judge Richard Posner and the book's co-author, Bryan Garner in the pages of The New Republic (see cites below,) which spilled over into several online blogs including the National Review Online.

All of us seek objectivity from the courts. That justices would want to base their decisions on some objective standard is laudable. Yet, we also want some common sense flexibility. Posner believes that Garner and Scalia are being obtuse if not disingenuous.  Take the example of a statute that says, “ No person  may drive any kind of vehicle in the park.”  Now let’s say someone in the park is stricken with a heart attack.  None of us would want to prohibit an ambulance from driving into the park, yet that’s a clear violation of the statute and a true textualist would *have* to permit prosecution of the driver, yet even Scalia and Garner refuse to go that far, so the line between true textualism and broader interpretation is variable indeed.

A problem that undermines their entire approach is the authors’ lack of a consistent commitment to textual originalism. They endorse fifty-seven “canons of construction,” or interpretive principles, and in their variety and frequent ambiguity these “canons” provide them with all the room needed to generate the outcome that favors Justice Scalia’s strongly felt views on such matters as abortion, homosexuality, illegal immigration, states’ rights, the death penalty, and guns.

Garner and Scalia insist that legislative history and debate should not be a source for judges when making decisions, yet Posner shows how Scalia has made exception to this dictum on numerous occasions.  This, Posner suggests, hobbles legislatures and predisposes them toward smaller government.  Well, duh, isn’t that already the predisposition of conservatives (I hesitate to align small government with conservatism since government has often grown exponentially during the tenure of supposedly and self-anointed conservative presidencies.)  Ironically, one might argue that a textualist approach to the ambulance problem cited above would lead to more rather than less  regulation since the legislature would be forced to create new regulations defining vehicular exceptions to the original rule.  Yet, legislative history showing that the purpose of the legislation was to prohibit ambulances would certainly be on-point.

Context can also not be ignored. The word "draft" depends for its meaning on context. It could refer to curtains blowing in the wind; conscription during wartime, the preliminary sketch of a book; or even a bank note. Scalia and Garner insist that meaning will come from other text in the statute. Nonsense, says Fish. "No, it won’t. Take the sentence, “Let’s avoid the draft.” It could mean “let’s get out of military service” (a fourth meaning of “draft”), or it could mean “let’s go inside and diminish the risk of catching cold,” or it could mean (as spoken by a general manager of a professional sports team) “let’s bypass the unpredictability of the draft (a fifth meaning of draft) and trust in free agency,” or it could mean “let’s not do a draft of the bylaws (a sixth meaning of “draft”) but get right to the finished product.” The text does, as Scalia and Garner say, take it meaning from its purposive context, but the text won’t tell you what that purposive context is."

Scalia, in the meantime, has gone on the offensive. "Scalia denied that he uses legislative history in his decisions: “We are textualists. We are originalists. We are not nuts.” Apparently, Chief Justice Roberts is.  The recent decision validating the Affordable Health Care Act (King v Burwell, 2015)  Roberts wrote: “In this instance, the context and structure of the act compel us to depart from what would otherwise be the most natural reading of the pertinent statutory phrase.”

Personally, in reading the decisions of Heller and MacDonald, and in listening to the oral arguments, it seemed to me that both sides were looking to original intent and legislative history for their own cherry-picking and from differing time periods, the minority looking to the fear of slave rebellions and hence the need for militias in 1789 while the majority focused on the need for individual armament for blacks to defend themselves against marauding whites after the Civil War.  Posner, in his rebuttal, takes Scalia to taks for doing just that: " I said that “when he [Justice Scalia] looks for the original meaning of eighteenth-century constitutional provisions—as he did in District of Columbia v. Heller, holding that an ordinance forbidding people to own handguns even for the defense of their homes violated the Second Amendment—Scalia is doing legislative history.”

Stanley Fish, in his praise of the book, perversely also noted that the “thesis that textualism is the one mode of legal interpretation that avoids subjectivity and the intrusion into judicial realm of naked political preferences” is wrong.  Fish also scolds Scalia, "in NFIB v. Sebelius, Scalia the justice rejects the canon Scalia the author defends — but there can be little doubt that Roberts has canon #38, or something very much like it, in mind when he writes, “every reasonable construction must be resorted to in order to save a statute from unconstitutionality.” (I believe he was quoting Justice White in Hooper v California, 1895.)

Posner ends his review with, “Justice Scalia has called himself in print a “faint-hearted originalist.” It seems he means the adjective at least as sincerely as he means the noun.”

I wondered if Scalia was wise to embark on writing this book. It would seem that his theological canons make him a target for some serious textual parsing.

Regretfully, I fear that Michael Dorfman's comments may be closest to the mark, another validation of confirmation bias. "The core claim of Scalia and Garner is that textual originalism is determinate in a way that other interpretive methodologies are not.  If that claim were true, one would expect to find that the votes of judges and Justices who describe themselves as textualist do not strongly correlate with their ideological views, while judges and Justices who reject textualism do vote in ideologically predictable ways.  Yet in fact, all judges vote in ideologically predictable ways."

Me? I just want fairness, common sense, and to be left alone.  But I sure love the debate. Reading the differing points of view has provided this old man with several very entertaining hours of pleasure.

http://www.tnr.com/article/magazine/books-and-arts/106441/scalia-garner-reading-the-law-textual-originalism#

Garner's response: http://www.tnr.com/article/politics/107001/how-nuanced-justice-scalias-judicial-philosophy-exchange?page=0,0

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/chi-scalia-posner-fight-20120918,0,7108932.story  and Posner's response:  http://www.tnr.com/blog/plank/107549/richard-posner-responds-antonin-scalias-accusation-lying

The National Review's response to the Posner review.  :http://www.nationalreview.com/bench-memos/315643/richard-posner-s-badly-confused-attack-scaliagarner-ed-whelan#

Stanley Fish: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/16/intention-and-the-canons-of-legal-interpretation/

edited 7/2015 to add King v Burwell and make some editorial corrections

Monday, July 20, 2015

Collusion by Stuart Neville

Audiobook:  Apparently, this is the second volume to feature Ulster cop (another Catholic among Protestants) Jack Lennon.  I wish I had read Ghosts of Belfast first, because at times I felt a wee bit lost as Jack meanders through a tangled web of conflicting loyalties and conspiracies between the assorted Irish terror groups, gangs, Special Branch, and cops. His own loyalty is suspect as he had a child by Marie, the daughter of Michael McKenna, a well-known IRA boss. To make matters worse, the “Traveler,” a troubled killer is taking out people under the direction of a Bull O’Kane boss’s daughter and Lennon has to join forces with Gerry Fagen, another IRA killer. I’m sure I got much of the loyalties mixed up and labeled some as IRA who perhaps weren’t.  It’s a very corrupt and confusing world with many different agendas and personal nightmares.
Jack has been rejected by his family who felt he was putting them all at risk by joining the “peelers” following the death of his brother for being a squealer even though Jack knows he wasn’t but was taking the fall for someone else. Jack is very much alone in the world and there is virtually no one he can trust.  People are still sorting themselves out after the Troubles, focusing on making money rather than killing each other, yet the killing continues just with different motives.  "Belfast was starting to grate on him, with its red-brick houses and cars parked on top of one another. And the people, all smug and smiling now they'd gathered the wit to quit killing each other and start making money instead."

I love the Irish accent of Gerard Doyle, but sometimes the colloquialisms baffled me.
Sorting out the different groups, UVA, SAS, UDF, IRA, MI5, and the cops groups is its own nightmare for the non-Irish reader.  Heaven only knows how awful it must have been for the people who lived through it.

Now I’m off to listen to Ghosts of Belfast.

Brimstone by Robert B. Parker

Audiobook:  I listen to a lot of audiobooks in the summer while mowing the lawn which takes about 4-5 hours and given the substantial rain we have had this summer, it’s at least once a week. It’s nice to have something entertaining while negotiating trees and hills.  

This series has been wonderfully engaging. Third in the series featuring Cole and Hitch.  They have found Allie, Virgil’s former lover who had run away following the abortive affair in Appaloosa. She was in Brimstone working as a whore.  They rescue her from the situation and Virgil and Hitch take jobs in Brimstone as deputy sheriffs while Virgil and Allie try to get back on track. She has found religion under the suspect tutelage of Parnell who seems to be in league with Pike, a local saloon owner who is being tracked by a large Indian. Virgil and Hitch have their hands full.

The series has been continued following Parker’s death by Robert Knott.  I am reluctant to
try them as I suspect capturing Parker’s unique style in this western series will be very difficult. The audio version, read by Rex Linn, which I sampled, doesn’t come close to Titus Welliver’s narration in the three original works by Parker.  The narrator is very important in any audiobook and Welliver does a wonderful job with Parker’s unique cadence that’s so apparent in both the western and Jesse Stone series.

If you like Jesse Stone, I’m sure you’ll like Cole and Hitch.

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Saturday, July 18, 2015

Go Tell a Watchman controversy

The decision to publish Harper Lee's early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird was a bad one. According to some reviews it's not particularly well written, aside from the very different portrayal of Atticus. It's unfortunate that Ms. Lee is too infirm to have had a more forceful say in the decision one way or the other.

On the other hand, if viewed as a historical evolution rather than a literary one --I'm sure academics will have a field day dissecting and comparing the two books -- had Ms. Lee sat down ten years ago and discussed the evolution of Atticus within the context of the changes in the civil rights movement, it could have been fascinating. Brown v Board of Education was in 1954, her first draft (Watchman) was submitted around 1957, and Mockingbird was finished in 1960.  As my wife has pointed out, just look at how fast attitudes have changed in this country with regard to same-sex marriage. Certainly there's an analogy there to Lee's perception of racial attitudes and her portrayal of Atticus. Did that result in a more hopeful Mockingbird?

The New Republic had a very interesting series on the controversy at:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Also: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/122295/these-scholars-have-been-pointing-out-atticus-finchs-racism-years