Friday, December 14, 2018

From pure effects and observations to social theories

Philosophy in computer science

Sometimes philosophers ask questions that seem of little use, for example:

"If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"

 While pointless to most of us, this is in fact a central question for computer scientists. Let's rephrase for them:

"If effects happen, and are never observed, did these effects really happen?"

The simple answer from a computer science perspective is "No, effects only exist when observed".

The more complex answer would have us questioning things. We might ask:
  • What does it mean to "observe"? 
  • What is an effect? 
  • Can an effect sometime be real, and sometimes not?
  • Is a virtual effect still an effect?
  • Is a virtual observation still an observation?
  • What about the heat generated by effects that are not observed?
  • What has this to do with security vulnerabilities like Spectre and Meltdown?
  • ...

I will not ask these questions, or at least, not yet. Instead, we start with a simple view, which is to state that:
  • Effects are really only effects when the effects, or the effects of effects are observed.
  • Observations are really only observations, if they are observing effects, or observing observations of effects.

Said differently, in the simple view we do not care about:
  • Effects that are not observed, and do not effect effects that are observed.
  • Observations that do not observe effects, and do not observe observations which observe effects.

    With this simple view, the computer scientist is happy to become a philosopher. Given the original question:

    "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"

    The computer scientist extends the question and asks:

    "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does the tree exist?"

    Within the simple view, the computer scientist answer is: "No, with no observers, it is as if the tree does not exist"!

    There is no existence in an unobserved reality for a computer scientist,

    (Now you know why computer scientists walk funny: they are only sure that the ground exists when it meets each foot steps).

    Jokes aside, the simple view of theory says 
    • we only care about effects and observations together, 
    • we ignore unobserved effects,
    • we ignore non-effected observations,

    Philosophy within a bigger world

    Our aesthetic simple theory concerning effects and observations is not really real. And yet it is not far from real. Politician and economists, for example, use it all the time to argue that what is not observable is not real. Technologist are continuously creating new observable realities. And even more impressive are those entertainers that create effects by finely tuning the make-believe observability of what is really not an effect. What is then this "not truth" that is "enough truth" that it affects so much our societies?

    For a start we can note that there is a bit more depth to effects and observations than what we noted above. For example, we note that effects and observation come in different types. Our senses of perception are examples of types of observation. Physics is much the science of studying different kinds of physical effects.  Effects of specific types are often only observable with specific types of observations, and specific types of observations can most often only by effected by specific types of effects. Also, note that some observations need effects to observe, while some effects depend observations to function. In addition, some effects and observations are not possible within certain contexts, while others are only possible within specific contexts. Going further some observation create effects and some effects create observations. Finally, types of effects and observations can be both effected and observed.

    With this in mind, the simple theory is then just the tip of a deeply hidden system that connects as much our reality as our imaginary. To a mathematician it has the looks of a cohomology, to a computer science the looks of interwoven systems of polarities and dualities of semantics, to a physicist a multidimensional interplay of identifiable and relatable particles.

    Philosophy meets the social world

    In a social world, there is no pure effect nor pure observation.  In a social world, effects depend on observations, observations anticipate effects. In a social world, social animals, humans, have a need to be observed, and need to create effects. In a social world, the simple theory is not real: there is no pure effect and pure observation that only exist within their simple complementary relation. And yet the simple theory is still the most important theory to understand because the simple theory can be seen as the boundary, the envelop, of the social world. The simple theory is where the social world stops. In the social world all effects and observations exist. In a social world, effects can be unobservable, observations can be void, and both can even be imaginary. They can also be fake... politics have invented nothing, and in fact politics show us the way to understand the social theory of effects and observations. The outer border of the social theory effects and observations is the simple theory. This boundary is not part of the social world, it only limits it. The social world is one of power and influence. In the social world it is the most observable effects that are the most real. And therefore the never-ending social chatter of people, businesses, and power organizations, all looking to effect and be observed by others.

    The social world is open, it does not meet its boundaries, and therefor never meets the simple theory. An example of this is that it is rude and antisocial to ignore someone, to not observe their effect and by doing so make them "not exist".  However, this last example shows how close the simple theory is to the social theory of effects and observations. In fact, one way to define such a social theory is to say that is not the simple theory!

    Are you a scientist?

    You may ask: "is the simple theory not just scientific truth?"
    Science says that truths are based on facts, and facts are observable effects. Therefore, no, the simple theory is not scientific truth, and is more a mathematical and philosophical thought game. Science does not make things disappear because they were not observed.  However, the simple theory is not far from science. And as we have seen above, it is also not far from a certain form of social theory. The simple theory is therefore a good observation point from which to understand the world. Yet to never forget the broader social context when creating effects.

    All original content copyright James Litsios, 2018.

    Thursday, December 29, 2016

    Innovation, and failure

    Last weekend my dad found an old book of mine from 1979: "A solid state of progress" from Fairchild. I am not sure how I got it, and I had not seen it since ~1985. Here is a picture out of it:
    The book has about 50 "art" pictures of integrated circuits, and that's it. They are all carefully presented, each one with a little marketing blurb, as this is a marketing publications, and the book has a marvelous "old color ink" smell.

    For those that do not know, Fairchild was "the" semiconductor company of the early sixties and from it many were born. Here is a figure that I have copied without permission from someone who redrew without permission a version of a graphic found on page 12 of the in October 2007 issue of The IEEE Spectrum magazine:

    Finding this book after something like 30 years made my weekend, but the reason I wanted to mention it, is because this book brings together a few special themes:

    • Innovation: Wow, Fairchild had a crazy influential team of innovators .
    • Branding:  These pictures are like the Marlboro man. Fairchild semiconductor was part of Fairchild Camera and Instrument. The pictures resonate the camera sensor company, but also with the fact that in those days chips were still "something magical".
    • Failure to change: In many ways this is a story of Fairchild's failure! Branding around "static, beautiful and mysterious pictures" is great for the feelings, but not for the business.  The business of innovation is one of change, and that means that your internal process must stick to what stays even when everything else changes.  
    • Failure in business: How many times have we heard smart competent engineers say "that is not the way we do things", or "I do not know how to use that"? The tricky part of innovation is that unless you embrace it, you are pretty much rejecting it! Yet rejecting change is not going to make it go away. Not to mention that adopting too much change will drain you, and cause failure too.
    So here is the thing, this beautiful book out of the past of the chip industry is both an emotional statement, as it is a historical archive of how not to manage innovation.

    Saturday, May 14, 2016

    Learning to fall

    A style of youtube skateboard videos, is to show someone attempting a trick, to fail over and over, often with repeated falling to the ground, until finally succeeding, and with that success come the end of the video. What a casual observer may not know, is that pavement hurts. And yet, here are these guys (really, mostly guys), that seem to be happy to torture themselves, over and over.
     A few years ago, one of my favorite expressions was “no pain, no gain”.  I would work around the clock, I would “take the crap”, and I would optimistically suffer.

     I still do that! But I do not say “no pain, no gain” anymore. Instead I have come to understand that certain forms of learning are mostly about managing failures while pursuing those potential gains. In some sense, learning is like a game of poker: you need to pay to stay in the game, and that hurts, yet you expect to make that back when you win. And so it is with certain areas of learning, like when learning skateboard tricks on hard pavement, or like when working hard over many years to learn a new area.

     There is an interesting aspect to this story: you can shield yourself from much sensation of pain by becoming “one” with your learning goals. Personal experience is much shaped by how we interpret our senses. And a key learning in life is that we can endure hardships and “move mountains” but we must be sufficiently fanatical enough in our approach that we do truly change our sense of perception. The good thing is that this makes life more interesting, as we we focus our mind into new areas, the bad thing is that if you are not careful, that “change of sense of perception” can alienate you, or cause harm to others