27 January 2014

He who fights the future

Over a hundred years ago a Scandinavian philosopher, Sören Kierkegaard, made a profound observation about the future. … “He who fights the future,” remarked the philosopher, “has a dangerous enemy. The future is not, it borrows its strength from the man himself, and when it has tricked him out of this, then it appears outside of him as the enemy he must meet.”

We in the western world have rushed eagerly to embrace the future—and in so doing we have provided that future with a strength it has derived from us and our endeavors. Now, stunned, puzzled and dismayed, we try to withdraw from the embrace, not of a necessary tomorrow, but of that future which we have invited and of which, at last, we have grown perceptibly afraid. In a sudden horror we discover that the years now rushing upon us have drained our moral resources and have taken shape out of our own impotence. At this moment, if we possess even a modicum of reflective insight, we will give heed to Kierkegaard’s concluding wisdom: “Through the eternal,” he enjoins us, “we can conquer the future.”

The advice is cryptic; the hour late. Moreover, what have we to do with the eternal? Our age, we know, is littered with the wrecks of war, of outworn philosophies, of broken faiths. We profess little but the new and study only change.

—Loren Eiseley, The Firmament of Time, 1960.

ORD Camp 2013

Last year I spent a weekend at ORD Camp, a Chicago unconference populated by hackers of all descriptions.

There was a heady mix of 3d printing enthusiasts, robot-builders, programmers, drinkers, dreamers, proud Chicagoans, and werewolves. Everyone brought a talk, or an activity, or at least a bottle.

I couldn’t make it this year. Here’s what I remember from 2013.

  • Christina Pei brought lockpicking sets and gave everyone a chance to use them. It’s not hard to pick a Master key lock with two simple metal tools! I found out about The Open Organization of Lockpickers (@toool). And I learned that it is legal to own lockpicks in 49 states, the one exception being my own home state of Tennessee. (Note that many cities have their own lockpick possession laws, so the rest of you are not necessarily out of the woods.)

  • Strangers host and producer Lea Thau crammed a two-hour-plus workshop on storytelling into 40 minutes, leaving time for attendees to write—and then for a few to tell—true stories of their own lives. Awesome.

  • Human cannonball Kate McGroarty (@KateMcGroarty) did a mile-a-minute improv workshop. I learned: you can define a character just by choosing a funky shape for your spine. Or the way you walk. Also, the best gift you can give your improv partner is a name. Marvel at the speed with which your mind fills in a character for: “Earl”. “Anastasia”. I think my wife and I are going to host an improv party at our house. When did we stop being shy people? I blame Kate.

  • Third Coast International Audio Festival artistic director Julie Shapiro’s session was called Choose Your Own Audio Adventure. Lights off, bunch of nerds in a room listening to beautiful short scraps of audio and voting on what to play next. One example: Radiolab’s story of what happened on day 86 of Aleksander Gamme’s trek to the South Pole (just the first 5 minutes).

  • Jim Blandy’s session, live-coding the lambda calculus, was as virtuosic as you’d expect, if you know him.

  • Around a table, I asked Louis Wasserman what kind of math he studied before he got into programming, and he said combinatorics. What little I know of combinatorics (I said) is a few counting techniques, and the proofs for those always seem really ugly, with a lot of tricky case analysis. To counter that notion, Louis showed me a surprising proof of a theorem about complete subgraphs. I hope I get around to blogging it here later. It’s dead sexy.

  • And I got to chat with Jennifer Brandel, lead producer of WBEZ’s Curious City and organizer of Dance Dance Party Party. The common thread here seems to be: these are beautiful, beautiful things that could totally happen in your city.

Even with all that, my favorite parts of the trip are not even on the list, because they’d be boring to you. Meeting people I’ve wanted to meet for a long time. Listening to music.

Honestly I spent most of the time at ORD Camp sick or else in introvert people-overload. But the event is still unfolding in my head. It was unique, and I’m grateful for it.

Here, have a list of books

Someone linked me to an image, “Top 10 Books I Want My Kids To Read”. It’s now a dead link, but this isn’t about that particular list anyway.

The books on the list were not children’s books. They were books the author hoped his children would read, eventually. How, then, does such a list differ from “Ten Books I Would Recommend To Anyone”?

  1. You might choose books that act on the mind, hoping they will help fulfill your parental responsibility.
  2. You might choose books that tell your kids who you are, and why.
  3. You might choose books that are special to your family.

I guess in the first category, I’d pick some of these:

  • Silas Marner by George Eliot. It’s not superb, but good enough, and it’s about how what you do changes you morally, even if your motives have nothing in particular to do with morality. Morality tales that resonate with one person often ring hollow to the next person, so this is no slam dunk.
  • A Tale of Two Cities. Amazing.
  • The Gospel of Luke. It’s just good, and the message is about love.
  • The Handbook of Epictetus. (However, I do also recommend this every time anyone asks for book recommendations.)

I’m tempted to put in a pair books about science and how it works. Maybe The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan and the book I’m reading now, The Firmament of Time by Loren Eiseley. But I’m not sure those rise to the level of the others, and it’s not like I’m well read enough in this area to make good picks.

In the second category:

  • Ox-Cart Man. This book tells more about me than anything. All the nerd stuff you see in my life is window dressing; the implicit moral background to this poem is where I’m really coming from. (Sorry to disappoint you!)
  • The Handbook of Epictetus. This again? Yes.
  • The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein. I don’t know if I should recommend this. I haven’t tried to read it lately. I read it at an impressionable age and was impression’d.
  • Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder. If you can square this pick with the Heinlein pick, you understand me better than I do.

This list doesn’t make a very flattering self-portrait. I’m moralistic but I’m not sure what is right.

In the third category:

  • The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. Rhyme and reason for all ages.
  • The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber. Rich verbal liquor in a fairy-tale-shaped container, and not a moral in sight.

That is only nine.

I don’t think any book I’ve ever read is indispensable, but books are indispensable.

20 January 2014

Lisp Machines

I’m doing some casual research on Lisp Machines. I find myself wishing for the patience of a reference librarian. Or just a very patient friend to lend moral support.

Dead links everywhere. Decay is a natural thing, and on the whole I am grateful that the Web decays. It just doesn’t suit my purpose at the moment.

As recently as 2007:

A wiki has been set up to capture some notes about using lispm's
and the unlambda emulators.  Contributions are welcome and
encouraged.  Thanks to Dan Moniz for setting it up and all who
have contributed.


Tim Newsham

The link is not exactly broken, but the wiki doesn’t work anymore. Imagine two bits of software, once friends, one still alive, one mysteriously vanished who knows when.

But soon enough, the message itself will vanish from the web too; and this message you’re reading now; and in time, the Blogger service. Gone the way of the Lisp Machine itself, interesting to some, gone over the horizon of what’s worth preserving.