Friday, August 29, 2014

[tt] WSJ: Roots of a High-Tech Revolution

Roots of a High-Tech Revolution
http://online.wsj.com/articles/roots-of-a-high-tech-revolution-1409066696

Chuck Hull, the inventor of the 3-D printer, learned determination growing
up on a Colorado farm; strenuous chores and building model planes led to a
passion for engineering

Updated Aug. 26, 2014 11:51 a.m. ET

Chuck Hull, 75, is co-founder and chief technology officer of 3D Systems.
He is the inventor of the 3-D printer, which recently celebrated its 31st
anniversary. He spoke with Marc Myers.

I didn't know it at the time, but growing up in a remote area of Colorado
was perfect training for an inventor.

I was born in Clifton, Colo., in a small, one-story, two-bedroom farmhouse
that was down a dirt road from the main highway. My father had built it on
10 acres that my mother's father had carved out of his 40-acre farm and
given to them after they were married.

As a teen, my days were spent at school or doing farm chores. I was
responsible for things like cleaning and digging irrigation ditches,
helping with the fall harvest and chopping firewood. When the chores were
done, there were lots of things to do, like hunting, fishing and hiking.

My fondest memories were working on airplane models at our living-room
table. I loved the process of laying out all the parts and working
meticulously to finish something that would turn out perfectly.

In the middle of the room was a wood-burning stove for heat. I slept in
the living room--my favorite room in the house because the family gathered
there. My sister, Mary Rene, who was four years older than me, had her own
room.

During the early years of World War II, my family had to move to Gateway,
about 50 miles away. In Gateway, my father worked in a mill that ground
down uranium ore for the government. Back then, Gateway wasn't much more
than a wide place in the road in a scenic red-canyon area of Colorado. The
first place we lived was in an Army tent that the company provided to new
employees. Then we shared a small house with another family. But in 1944,
when the mill closed down, all the men who had worked there were drafted
into the Army, including my dad, so the rest of the family returned to our
Clifton farmhouse. My father suffered a great deal of trauma in the war,
and when he returned home in 1945, he had trouble sleeping. But he was
vocal about his experiences, which helped him let go of them.

Eventually, my father developed breathing problems from his time at the
uranium mill and had difficulty working. Around 1950 he leased the
farmland to another farmer, but we continued to live in the house.

By the time I graduated from high school in 1957, I no longer saw myself
as a farmer. My teachers encouraged my passion for science and math, and
urged me to think about a career in engineering. When I left for the
University of Colorado, I knew that's what I wanted to do.

In college, I was trained to see problems and find ways to solve them. By
the late 1970s, I developed several technical industrial inventions while
working for the DuPont Co. in California. But in 1980, I decided it was
time for a change. I took a job at a smaller company that specialized in
using ultraviolet light to process tough coatings for tables.

Mr. Hull's first successful test of his invention resulted in an
optometrist's eyecup, made in 30 minutes. 3D Systems
Sometime in 1982, I realized that ultraviolet technology might help speed
up the process of turning plastic-part designs into working prototypes.
The company was intrigued and gave me a lab where I could work during my
off hours. In those days, transforming prototype designs into plastic
parts was time consuming. It could take months to go from blueprints to
injection moldings. So I started developing a way to harden acrylic
photopolymers faster by exposing them to ultraviolet light.

Within six months I developed an idea for a machine that could turn a
design generated on a computer into a hard-plastic prototype in minutes.
When a test I ran worked, I immediately called my wife, Anntionette, at
home and insisted she come over right away. Back then we lived in a
two-bedroom apartment a couple of miles from the lab. When Anntionette
arrived, I showed her the prototype my machine had created in just 30
minutes--a small blue eyecup used by optometrists. She was amazed and
still has that cup. It was the birth of the 3-D printer.

I guess my drive as an inventor came from that farmhouse. Farm life taught
me the importance of sticking to something and seeing it through. All of
the farmers I knew were self-reliant and never doubted that what they
believed was possible if they put their shoulders into it and kept at it.

Today, my wife and I live in a large house outside of Santa Clarita,
Calif. I have a workshop in a hangar a couple of miles away where I tinker
with real airplanes and any ideas that come to mind. Our house isn't as
exciting as that tent back in Gateway, but it's a lot more comfortable.
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[tt] WSJ: Todd McGrain: Can Science Bring Back the Passenger Pigeon?

Todd McGrain: Can Science Bring Back the Passenger Pigeon?
http://online.wsj.com/articles/todd-mcgrain-can-science-bring-back-the-passenger-pigeon-1409269840

Mr. McGrain, artist-in-residence at Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, is
author of "The Lost Bird Project," (University Press of New England,
2014).

Plans to 'de-extinct' the species with DNA should not distract us from a
commitment to conservation.
Aug. 28, 2014 7:50 p.m. ET

On Sept. 1, 1914, the last passenger pigeon, Martha, died in her cage at
the Cincinnati Zoo. The centenary of this extinction offers a moment to
remember this lost bird and reflect on humankind's role in its decline. It
is also an opportunity to consider ways of addressing our current
extinction crisis.

When Europeans first arrived in North America in the 16th and 17th
centuries, passenger pigeons accounted for up to 40% of the land birds
there. They flew in flocks, numbering in the billions, sometimes eclipsing
the sun from noon until nightfall.

The passenger pigeon's geographic range stretched from the Northeast and
Midwest into Canada and south to present-day Texas. The huge flocks fed on
beechnuts and acorns. Passenger pigeons roosted in colonies that covered
forests for hundreds of square miles. Females laid a single egg. Both
parents shared the responsibility of incubating the egg and feeding the
new hatchling.

Hunting a flock, circa 1875. The last passenger pigeon died 100 years ago.
The Granger Collection, New York / The Granger Collection
Before the young birds could fly, the adults abandoned the nests, leaving
the fledglings to fend for themselves. Fluttering to the ground, the young
pigeons spent several days foraging for worms and insects until they were
strong enough to fly. For the fox and other ground predators this was a
period of easy hunting, but with millions of birds hitting the ground
simultaneously a large percentage of the young passenger pigeons survived.

My first introduction to the passenger pigeon was through John James
Audubon's "Birds of America." This book was a fixture on the coffee table
of my childhood home. The passenger pigeon was one of the images I loved
best. In time I came to learn of this bird's once remarkable presence in
the American landscape.

Passenger pigeons were hunted for as long as there were people living in
North America. Hunting for immediate consumption had little effect on the
sustainability of the species until the second half of the 19th century.
At this time the geographic range of the pigeon was dramatically
transformed as large swaths of forest were converted to agriculture. It is
difficult to quantify the total effect the agricultural revolution had on
the pigeons, but it was certainly significant. The destruction of the
flocks caused by market hunting for the nation's tables is much easier to
calculate.

In 1851, about 1.8 million passenger pigeons were shipped to market from
Plattsburgh, N.Y. By 1878, more than one billion passenger pigeons shipped
to market from Petoskey, Mich. Professional pigeon hunters killed the
birds in every conceivable way. Messages sent across the newly installed
telegraph lines allowed hunters to track the movements of a flock and set
up ambushes in advance of its arrival. The railroad was the modernization
that was most significant for ensuring the profitability of these hunts.
As long as the supply remained the trains could deliver the wild meat, and
with urban populations rising and demand high, there was little to
discourage hunters.

Laws eventually limited the hunting of passenger pigeons, though they were
mostly targeted at recreational hunting, and even these limited
restrictions were rarely enforced. As populations diminished at the turn
of the 20th century, efforts were made to breed the birds in captivity.
These efforts failed and with Martha's death the passenger pigeon ceased
to exist.

The nonprofit Long Now Foundation has a project that seeks to "de-extinct"
the passenger pigeon. The plan is to extract DNA fragments from preserved
passenger pigeons, create a clone and use band-tailed pigeons as surrogate
parents. With a lot of money and technology being directed at this
challenge we may see this plan unfold in the coming decade.

This concept has some appeal. We caused the extinction of the passenger
pigeon with the strength of the early industrial revolution. Perhaps we
can bring it back with the strength of the biotech revolution.

However, once the new genetic clone is manufactured, the keepers of this
new bird will face the significant challenges that all captive breeding
programs confront. A lab-produced passenger pigeon would have no parents
of its own species to teach it how to behave like a passenger pigeon.
There is also the problem of genetic inbreeding, a particularly difficult
issue with a bird that required huge numbers to survive. If a viable flock
were successfully bred, successful reintroduction into the wild would be
threatened by the fact that the old passenger-pigeon habitat of hardwood
forests has been dramatically diminished.

But the promise of bringing back the passenger pigeon may have yet another
unintended consequence at least as significant: It may offer a convenient
way to discount the permanence of extinction and in so doing lower the
perceived stakes for species that are currently threatened. This could
undermine our commitment to conservation efforts aimed at preventing
species loss.

Successful species preservation--of endangered birds like the piping
plover and the peregrine falcon, for instance--will require continued
focus on thoughtful land-use management, regulations to prevent
over-hunting, habitat preservation and pollution prevention. It will also
require efforts to mitigate the effects of invasive species brought here
by humans, and the effects of climate change. A commitment to traditional
conservation strategies should be the legacy of the passenger pigeon.
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[tt] [Bitcoin-development] RIP Hal Finney

----- Forwarded message from Matt Corallo <bitcoin-list@bluematt.me> -----

Date: Thu, 28 Aug 2014 20:21:30 +0000
From: Matt Corallo <bitcoin-list@bluematt.me>
To: "bitcoinj@googlegroups.com" <bitcoinj@googlegroups.com>, "bitcoin-dev >> Bitcoin Dev" <bitcoin-development@lists.sourceforge.net>
Subject: [Bitcoin-development] RIP Hal Finney
Message-ID: <53FF8F4A.5000801@bluematt.me>
User-Agent: Mozilla/5.0 (X11; Linux x86_64; rv:31.0) Gecko/20100101 Thunderbird/31.0

I'm sure many of you have already seen this, but Hal Finney passed away
on Tuesday. While his body is being cryogenically preserved, we should
all take a moment to thank Hal for everything he did for the cypherpunk
community, specifically helping hugely in the early days of Bitcoin as
well as PGP.

Matt

http://lists.extropy.org/pipermail/extropy-chat/2014-August/082585.html

------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Slashdot TV.
Video for Nerds. Stuff that matters.
http://tv.slashdot.org/
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Thursday, August 28, 2014

[tt] WSJ: Best Buy Predicts Rough Holiday Season

Of special interest to me, since BestBuy gift cards are the best bonus
items I can get with my credit card. (It's $1 for every $100 spent using
the credit card.) I have $400 or so stacked up, so I'd better spend them
before the store goes under.

Any recommendations for a PC laptop with touch screen? I bought a Windows
8 desktop but not with a touch screen. I'm sorry I didn't shell out the
extra money, since it has a bunch of nice features.


Best Buy Predicts Rough Holiday Season
http://online.wsj.com/articles/best-buy-net-drops-less-than-expected-as-realignment-starts-to-pay-off-1409051898

Electronics Retailer Says Online Traffic Picked Up, Though Store Traffic Fell
By DREW FITZGERALD and MICHAEL CALIA
Updated Aug. 26, 2014 1:49 p.m. ET

Last year Best Buy's profitability suffered over the holiday season after it
implemented heavy discounts to attract cost-conscious customers.

Best Buy Co. on Tuesday predicted another hard-fought holiday season,
anticipating deep price cuts and lower sales as the battle for shopper dollars
intensifies both online and in stores.

The electronics retailer said weak consumer demand and aggressive competition
should keep pushing down sales over the next two quarters, setting the chain up
for its third-straight year of declining overall revenue. In the quarter ended
Aug. 2, sales at U.S. stores open at least 14 months fell 2%.

"You cannot expect the same kind of growth rates that you saw a few years ago,"
Chief Executive Hubert Joly said in an interview. The company's shares fell
6.9% to $29.80 on Tuesday.

Last year over the holidays, retailers slapped on heavy discounts to entice
cost-conscious consumers, a strategy that hit end-of-the-year profitability.
Best Buy reported a surprise sales drop last holiday season, sending its shares
tumbling in January. Its view three months before the holiday-shopping season
kicks off suggests that tough times may lie ahead.

Market Talk

No Ghost of Christmas Past for Best Buy Holders Best Buy shares nearly
quadrupled in 2013 on turnaround hopes after shares had crumbled the prior two
years. But the bloom fell off the retailer's rose in January, when it said its
fiscal fourth-quarter operating margin would be worse than anticipated even
though BBY said it was ready for a big-time promotional environment. It ended
up cutting prices even more to keep up with competitors, resulting in the only
earnings miss of CEO Hubert Joly's two-year tenure. That nightmare reoccurring
in investors' sleep is why BBY is down. The company is preparing for the
promotional environment to be similar to last holiday season, though CFO Sharon
McCollam says BBY is planning to have "better internal promotional
effectiveness." (kevin.kingsbury@wsj.com)

No Smartphone? Best Buy Would Like to Meet You Best Buy brass didn't work any
big sales bump into their fiscal third-quarter projections even though new
iPhones have historically dragged millions of customers into stores. That's
part prudence about a device few have seen and part acknowledgment that most
U.S. consumers already own a decent smartphone. BBY executives aren't naming
names during the conference call, but they make clear the entire mobile sector
isn't what it used to be. "The penetration of smartphones in the country is
already high, so how big of an impact is it going to really have?" asks CEO
Hubert Joly. Apple investors might be wondering the same.
(andrew.fitzgerald@wsj.com; @drewfitzgerald)

Market Talk is a stream of real-time news and market analysis that's available
on Dow Jones Newswires

Best Buy's forecast marks the starkest warning yet from a store of its size
that the retail industry might suffer this holiday season. But other chains,
including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. WMT +0.29% and Target Corp., have tempered
their expectations for the year because of weak consumer demand.

Earlier this year, Best Buy pledged to invest in its online operation to help
combat the difficulties it faced last year. That appears to be working but at a
cost. The company clocked a 22% gain in online sales, but executives suggested
the shift to the Internet could also be sapping growth and hitting margins.

Online buyers haven't been adding as many electronic accessories and service
contracts to their shopping carts, which has hurt the company's sales and
overall profitability.

The company vowed to do a better job promoting its products this time by
sprucing up its website and ramping up online marketing that targets individual
customers.

Among the possible bright spots for Best Buy is the expected debut of Apple
Inc.'s new iPhone this fall. In years past, other retailers have credited new
iPhone releases for jolting their performance after the devices gave shoppers a
reason to pay stores a visit.

This time around, "we're not making that assumption," Mr. Joly said. Company
executives said the smartphone market is too saturated to count on a meaningful
sales boost from new device launches.

Best Buy also tempered expectations for a sales windfall from the next wave of
ultrahigh-definition television sets, which have seen prices decline but remain
too pricey for a typical consumer.

In the recent quarter, Best Buy's overall sales fell 4% to $8.9 billion. Profit
for the period fell to $146 million from $266 million a year ago, when a legal
settlement added $229 million to its bottom line.

To deal with sagging sales, Best Buy is on a cost-cutting campaign. In the
quarter, the company found $40 million more of annual expenses to trim helped
by shipping more online purchases straight from stores and reducing returned
items.

In addition to shoring up its U.S. sales and operations, the company has sought
to trim expenses and scale back its foreign interests.

Last year, Best Buy sold its stake in Carphone Warehouse Group DC.LN +0.12%
PLC's European business back to Carphone Warehouse in a deal worth about $775
million.

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal reported in June that the company was
exploring selling its Chinese business, where increased competition has weighed
on sales. The company didn't address its plans for that business on Tuesday.
Best Buy recently closed some Chinese locations, which contributed to a 12%
decline in international sales.

Write to Drew FitzGerald at andrew.fitzgerald@wsj.com and Michael Calia at
michael.calia@wsj.com
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[tt] NYT: Richard III's Rich Diet of Fish and Exotic Birds

Richard III's Rich Diet of Fish and Exotic Birds
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/26/science/richard-iiis-rich-diet-of-fish-and-exotic-birds.html

By DOUGLAS QUENQUA

A chemical analysis of the teeth and bones of King Richard III
reveals that his diet was decadent even by standards of medieval
royalty.

During his two-year reign, 1483 to '85, Richard III feasted on
expensive freshwater fish and such exotic birds as swan, crane and
heron, the study said. And he was consuming vast quantities of wine.

To see how the king's diet evolved, researchers from the British
Geological Survey and the University of Leicester analyzed the
chemical isotopes in two teeth, one rib and a femur from his
remains, which were discovered under a parking lot in Leicester in
2012. The teeth, which form at childhood, provided evidence of his
early diet; the femur, which regenerates slowly throughout one's
life, offered an average of his last 10 to 15 years; and the
fast-regenerating rib told of his last two to three years before his
death in battle.

By analyzing the carbon, nitrogen and oxygen isotopes in each bone,
the researchers, who reported their findings in the Journal of
Archaeological Science, were able to deduce what he ate, how much he
drank and even where he lived at various times.

"His diet was pretty rich throughout his life," said Angela Lamb, a
geochemist with the British Geological Survey and an author of the
study. But higher levels of nitrogen in the rib suggest that later
in life, "he was eating a lot of wild fowl or freshwater fish, two
foods that were at the high end of the luxury market in the late
medieval period."

An earlier study of the remains found that Richard had advanced
tooth decay.
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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

[tt] NYT: Claire Cain Miller: Delivery Start-Ups Are Back Like It's 1999

Claire Cain Miller: Delivery Start-Ups Are Back Like It's 1999
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/24/magazine/delivery-start-ups-are-back-like-its-1999.html

Claire Cain Miller is a reporter for The Upshot, The Times's new
website about politics and policy.

Last year, I was excited to hear about a new start-up in San
Francisco that delivered cheap bottles of wine within an hour. It
was called Rewinery, and it was fantastic. I ordered a $5 malbec one
day and a $10 chardonnay the next, delivered by bike courier for a
modest fee. Already, San Francisco was crawling with bikes, inching
up the hills, shuttling sushi and groceries and new clothes, all
summoned with the tap of a finger. But Rewinery was the first of the
delivery start-ups that made me feel the way I felt back in 2000,
when I could order a video and a pint of ice cream to my doorstep
from Kozmo.com. Rewinery felt too good to be true.

It was. One day, seeking refreshment, I opened the app to find that
Rewinery had gone out of business.

In the tech crash of the early 2000s, on-demand delivery services
like Kozmo and Webvan weren't just among the most colossal failures.
They also became a sort of grim joke, symbolizing the excess that
portended the bust. Afterward, conventional wisdom hardened:
Web-enabled delivery was not a good business because it simply cost
too much to build warehouses, manage an inventory and pay drivers.
There was too little opportunity to recoup expenditures in delivery
fees; people will pay only so much for toilet paper to be delivered
before they decide to fetch it themselves.

Deep Thoughts This Week:

1. Delivery start-ups, the joke of the tech-bubble bust, have
returned.

2. Still, past failures loom large.

3. Smartphones have made everything easier.

4. Except for those last few miles.

But something is in the air of late, making hindsight blurry.
Despite the early demise of Rewinery and the shrunken ambitions of
others, such as eBay Now, similar start-ups with names like Caviar,
SpoonRocket and DoorDash have raised half a billion dollars in
investment in the last year, according to CB Insights, which tracks
venture capital. Even Louis Borders, the founder of Webvan (as well
as the Borders bookstore chain, another Internet casualty), is at
work on a grocery delivery start-up. Uber is using the $1.4 billion
it just raised to expand beyond delivering people to delivering
things. Meanwhile, venture capitalists joke that every other
entrepreneur they meet pitches an "Uber for X," bringing goods and
services on demand: laundry (Washio), ice cream (Ice Cream Life),
marijuana (Eaze) and so on. Investors are stuck wondering whether
this is 2000 all over again, or whether this new breed of delivery
start-ups can succeed where the last crop so famously failed.

John A. Deighton, a Harvard Business School professor who wrote a
case study on Webvan, likes to compare the delivery business to
shining shoes. "You make as much profit on one shoe as you do on a
thousand shoes," he said. "There's just no scale." In years past, it
was difficult for Deighton to even teach his students about Webvan,
because its fatal flaws were so obvious. They didn't understand how
the euphoria of the dot-com boom could have obscured its
shortcomings. But in the last year, he has been asked to teach it
three times. "Something has changed," he said.

The biggest change is that the companies are trying to improve
same-day delivery with software--and, at the same time, are
distancing themselves as far as possible from the physical supply
chain that killed their ancestors. They have dispensed with
warehouses, trucks and full-time drivers and instead have become
middlemen, whose sole role is to connect customers with couriers.
But the one piece of the puzzle they have failed to eliminate is the
hardest part of logistics, and the one Deighton says makes the
entire business model unravel: the last few miles of the journey,
getting small-ticket orders to far-flung houses.

The entrepreneurs and investors behind these companies say software
can solve that, too, with algorithms that minimize the amount of
time it takes couriers to pick up orders and maximize the number of
deliveries they can make.

"The reason it is such a good idea now is the exact same reason it
was so horrible before: the network effect," said Nabeel Hyatt, a
venture partner at Spark Capital, which has invested in Postmates, a
courier service that delivers from any store or restaurant. Not even
half of American households had an Internet connection in 1999;
today 98 percent have access to a connection. And it certainly helps
that customers and couriers all have smartphones. This means a
higher density of users and potential users, who can instantly reach
couriers whenever they are in need, eventually leading to scale.

In the '90s, Webvan built several $35 million, 350,000-square-foot
distribution centers. By contrast, Instacart, which offers one-hour
grocery delivery in 12 cities, has just 70 employees in a small
office in San Francisco, all of them engineers and administrators.
They never touch the food--instead they contract with "personal
shoppers." "We literally don't have any warehouses, we don't have
any trucks," said Aditya Shah, Instacart's general manager.

Of course, the couriers still need to be paid. "The complicated part
is not getting customers, it's getting the product to the
customers," said Paulo Lerner, Rewinery's founder, who fled San
Francisco for Brazil. "If they charge a lot, it loses the appeal. If
they charge less, it has a lot of appeal, but at the same time, they
are running on losses."

Instacart charges as little as $3.99 for grocery shopping and
delivery. Yet Shah said its shoppers make about $20 an hour, plus
tips, which makes profitability seem unlikely, even with the
smartest algorithms routing shoppers through grocery stores and city
streets. When I told him that, he sounded a lot like Borders back in
Webvan's heyday: "We're really well funded, so that is not something
we're as worried about," Shah said. "Growth is the most important
factor."

That growth-first philosophy is hardly unpopular in Silicon Valley,
where a focus on expansion at the expense of profit has worked well
for web businesses. Delivery start-ups are trying to bridge the
digital and physical worlds--and that's when things get expensive.
"It's a hard category--outside the Internet, where everything
magically happens," said Lerner, the Rewinery founder. "This is real
work, hard work. "

Josh Lerner (no relation to Paulo), who runs the entrepreneurial
management unit at Harvard Business School, is similarly dubious.
"Someone is paying for it, but it's definitely something that seems
to defy the laws of introductory economics," he said.

The question comes down to how much people are willing to pay to be
lazy. To economists, laziness isn't necessarily a bad thing. To the
sympathetic onlooker, these companies could be a step on the path to
the world prophesied by John Maynard Keynes (and even "The
Jetsons"), in which technology advances to the point that chores are
replaced by leisure time. But even this suggests a gloomy outcome:
On-demand delivery could create a two-tier economy--the people who
can afford to hire others to do their errands and the people who do
them. That is, unless Amazon succeeds in automating grunt work out
of existence. (It already has robots that pick items off shelves and
pack them in boxes; it wants to have a fleet of delivery drones.)

Or it might be useful to listen to Fred Wilson, the co-founder of
Union Square Ventures, who lost a lot of money on Kozmo. "I wish we
knew the answers to these questions, but we don't," he told me.
"That's what's kept us out of this market." He still signs up for
new delivery start-ups as a customer, though. After all, the worst
case is that we'll go back to doing the same thing I did when
Rewinery went under--running out to the store.
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Monday, August 25, 2014

[tt] NYT: James Gleick reviews Vikram Chandra: Geek Sublime

James Gleick reviews Vikram Chandra: Geek Sublime
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/24/books/review/geek-sublime-by-vikram-chandra.html

James Gleick is the author, most recently, of "The Information: A
History, a Theory, a Flood."

GEEK SUBLIME
The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty
By Vikram Chandra
Illustrated. 236 pp. Graywolf Press. Paper, $16.

For the last half-century we've had a popular notion that our
intellectual culture is sundered in two--the literary and the
scientific. "The two cultures" is the bumper-sticker phrase for this
view. It dates back to a hugely influential 1959 lecture, also
published in book form that year, by C. P. Snow--"a moderately
able research chemist who had become a successful novelist," in the
historian Lisa Jardine's not very adulatory description. According
to Snow, on one side were the humanists, on the other the
scientists, and between them lay a shameful "gulf of mutual
incomprehension."

Which side are you on? Snow offered a litmus test: If you can't
describe the second law of thermodynamics, you're just as illiterate
as any boffin who can't quote Shakespeare.

In the 21st century, the two cultures are still with us, but the
fault lines have shifted. Plenty of people can talk about
thermodynamics and Shakespeare with equal facility; for that matter,
no one has ever explained the second law better than Tom Stoppard in
"Arcadia" ("You cannot stir things apart"). You're probably
comfortable with scientific expressions like "litmus test." The
question now is, can you explain a hash table? A linked list? A
bubble sort? Maybe you can write--but can you code?

Vikram Chandra is a wonderful novelist and apparently knows his way
around an algorithm, too. His new book is an unexpected tour de
force, different from anything he has done before. It has the oddly
off-putting title "Geek Sublime," which disguises its ambition: to
look deeply, and with great subtlety, into the connections and
tensions between the worlds--the cultures--of technology and
art. The book becomes an exquisite meditation on aesthetics, and
meanwhile it is also part memoir, the story of a young man finding
his way from India to the West and back, and from literature to
programming and back.

Chandra offers a far more complex view of clashing cultures than
Snow ever did. He has lived inside more than just two. As a student
and budding fiction writer, he supported himself programming
computers in Houston and discovered the hypercharged culture of
America's Silicon Valleys. The code warriors have a self-conscious
mystique--masculine, aggressive, cool. But beyond that, some think
of themselves as artists, striving not just for efficacy but for
beauty. "Hackers are makers rather than scientists," the programmer
Paul Graham declared in a manifesto.

Programmers feel an exhilarating creative mastery, and Chandra
captures it. "I work inside an orderly, simplified hallucination,"
he writes, "a maya that is illusion and not-illusion--the code I
write sets off other subterranean incantations which are completely
illegible to me, but I can cause objects to move in the real world,
and send messages to the other side of the planet." Still, does that
make them poets?

Programming was not always such a manly field, by the way. It was
originally a field for women, and not just because it was invented
by one, Ada Lovelace, in the 1840s. The human "computers" on the
atomic bomb project at Los Alamos were women; so were the "Eniac
girls" coding for John von Neumann in the 1940s. Chandra recounts
the "masculinization" of the industry through male-oriented aptitude
tests that led to an influx of what one analyst called "often
egocentric, slightly neurotic" programmers disproportionately
equipped with beards and sandals. It reminds him of something quite
different at first blush: the gender politics of the British Raj.

The colonizers deployed a rhetoric of effeminacy against the
colonized. "The British 'cult of manliness' had been an essential
component of the creed of Empire," Chandra writes. "Intelligence and
intellectual capability were inextricably intertwined with
masculinity; women and all others who exhibited symptoms of
femininity were fuzzy-headed, illogical and easily overcome by
emotion; they were incapable especially of scientific reasoning and
therefore self-knowledge and progress. The state of the world--
women without power, Englishmen ruling Indians--bore out the truth
of these propositions." Two cultures, indeed.

When I studied linguistics in college (way back in the 20th
century), "generative grammar" was all the rage. This was the
algorithmic syntax put forward by Noam Chomsky, who proposed that
all natural languages have an underlying structure that can be
teased out and modeled as a rigorous system of rules. What no one
told me was that generative grammar had been invented earlier in
India--2,500 years earlier, in fact.

Sometime around 500 B.C., the ancient scholar Panini analyzed the
Sanskrit language at a level of complexity that has never been
matched since, for any language. His grammar, the Ashtadhyayi,
comprises some 4,000 rules meant to generate all the possible
sentences of Sanskrit from roots of sound and meaning--phonemes
and morphemes. The rules include definitions; headings; operational
rules, including "replacement, affixation, augmentation and
compounding"; and "metarules," which call other rules recursively.
Sound familiar? Panini's grammar of Sanskrit bears more than a
family resemblance to a modern programming language. As Chandra
says, the grammar is itself "an algorithm, a machine that consumes
phonemes and morphemes and produces words and sentences." This is
not a coincidence. American syntactic theory, Chomsky channeling
Panini, formed the soil in which the computer languages grew.

Chandra begins a journey into what he calls the Sanskrit cosmopolis:
"the Sanskrit-speaking and writing ecumene which, at its height,
sprawled from Afghanistan to Java, across dozens of kingdoms,
languages and cultures." This might be considered his intellectual
heritage, but European colonialism and its aftermath left Sanskrit
marginalized. It bored him in school: "Sanskrit--as it was taught
in the classroom--smelled to me of hypocrisy, of religious
obscurantism, of the khaki-knickered obsessions of the Hindu far
right, and worst, of an oppression that went back thousands of
years." The official language was Hindi, and he writes in English,
"the language of the conquerors."

So before he can come to Sanskrit, Chandra turns instead to the
programming languages, a bestiary of which he lovingly describes:
from the crude early PL/1 to Microsoft's dorky Visual Basic, the
fashionable Clojure (which "all the really hip kids are learning")
and the "esoteric" Malbolge, named after Dante's eighth circle of
hell, and with good reason.

Then he starts writing his first novel, "Red Earth and Pouring
Rain," with its poet protagonist, and wonders: What makes a poem
beautiful? Back he goes across the cultural divide, to the Tantric
texts of the first millennium and the cosmology of Abhinavagupta, in
a quest for aesthetics that coding can't fulfill.

Poetry and logic live in different places, after all. Poetry has
patience. It reaches into a dark vastness. But computer code has
powers too. "It acts and interacts with itself, with the world,"
Chandra says. And it changes us along the way. "We already filter
experience through software--Facebook and Google offer us views of
the world that we can manipulate, but which also, in turn,
manipulate us. The embodied language of websites, apps and networks
writes itself into us."

Must one learn computer programming, then, to qualify as literate?
Of course not. It doesn't hurt to be aware of code, though. One of
these days code will be aware of us.
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