Artificial Stupidity :-)

A gripping read on Salon.com about some of the colorful characters behind the 'AI Bubble'

After working professionally with John Sundman for several months, I recently discovered a slice of his literary life. John's Salon.com essay, " Artificial Stupidity" introduces some of the colorful, esteemed and wacky characters behind one of the other great technology "bubbles" of the 20th Century, the "AI Bubble". Beneath the amusing exterior of the essay lies a near-epic drama on human ambition, folly and the unpredictable path of progress.


Waterways of the Information Age

The obvious restated at risk

A blog post by P.T. Withington sparked a water-cooler conversation with Bret Simister and Sarah Allen about the notion that access to the Internet is analogous to proximity to a waterway in prior ages.

Once upon a time, locating on a river or coast was crucial for access to a steady flow of information, goods and services. Owners of such sites enjoyed enduring prosperity. The Internet serves this role today. And the faster the connection to this digital waterway, the greater the flow of information, goods and services. These notions seem rather obvious, given the general recognition of the importance of broadband and the common use of geographic metaphors when discussing the Internet.

Yet some deployers of 802.11 WiFi access points essentially want to improve their own land, and convince strangers to pay for it. Most of us would only co-invest in property improvements in exchange for a share of the return. Otherwise, property owners should be content if their efforts increase foot traffic, a common measure of retail property lease value.

The merchants of Newbury Street in Boston, wittingly or unwittingly, endorse a new variation on the first rule of real estate ('location, location, location'). They can not relocate alongside a river or coast, but they can offer a substitute with similar virtues. By bringing complimentary WiFi coverage to their street, they provide in reality what rivers today only imply -- ready access for all to information, goods and services. This simple act accomplishes for them what it has done for all trade centers -- it makes their vicinity a better place to do business and to live life. Will they be surprised if greater prosperity follows?



Favorite Reads: Jorge Luis Borges, "Ficciones"

Fourth in a series of favorite reads on human nature, society and information technology.

The celebrated collection of short stories in "Ficciones" so impressed me that the author, Jorge Borges immediately became my favorite fiction writer ever. I vividly remember "The Babylon Lottery", about a society addicted to a lottery run by a mysterious company where winning meant the fulfillment of dreams while losing meant death. Of course, my one sentence summary does a huge injustice to the piece, which like all the stories in the book, seems to conjure up our deepest debates about human nature and how we should best structure our society.

My gushing admiration for Borges was shared by Herbert Simon, who devoted a chapter in his autobiography to a personal encounter with the great writer. Quoting Simon ("Models of My Life", Chap. 11 Mazes Without Minotaurs):
"In December 1970, Dorothea and I visited Argentina, where I was to give some lectures on management. In my correspondence about arrangements, I did something I have never done before nor since -- I asked for an audience with a celebrity. For a decade, I had admired the stories of Jorge Borges... I wrote to him...".

I wish I could have been there to witness the subsequent meeting between the great American social scientist and the Argentine literary giant.


Favorite Reads: Christopher Alexander, "The Timeless Way of Building"

The third in a series on favorite reads related to human nature, society and information technology

I marvel at the 'great' architecture of the world, both modern and ancient. I even cherish a baseball autographed for me in 1988 by the renowned architect Frank O. Gehry. Yet I find other places shaped by anonymous collaborators perhaps more inspiring. I refer from experience to the Cinque Terre in Italy, Santorini in Greece, and Lijiang in China. These built environments posess grace and charm beyond description. Each is magically gratifying to stroll through, and draws admirers from throughout the world.

When the architect and design theorist Christopher Alexander speaks of architecture fit for living in, I believe he has such examples in mind. He champions an 'unheroic' architecture, where the people of a community assume primary responsibility for shaping their living environment, applying proven design patterns to suit their aims, perhaps under the guidance of a new type of architect who helps them with the planning, design and building process. Alexander's arguments are profoundly democratic, and represent a dissenting voice within an historically aristocratic profession.

Alexander champions iterative approaches to design and construction as the best means of creating truly livable communities and towns. Though his ideas have been criticised within his own profession as impractical, they have been embraced by software developers, many of whom favor deploying rough implementations of applications quickly, and seek user feedback to shape subsequent revisions. The prevailing modern programming languages support this process explicity. Admirers speculate Alexander will ultimately have a greater impact on computer science than on architecture.


Favorite Reads: John R. Searle, "Mind, Language and Society"

Another of my occassional entries on some favorite reads on human nature, society and information technology.

Since I started my 'favorite reads' list with a founding father of artificial intelligence research, perhaps it is fitting to next mention a famous critic. John R. Searle achieved notoriety for a critique of AI known as the Chinese Room Argument. The ensuing controversy kept a few generations of graduate students and journalists well-occupied.

In "Mind, Language and Society", Searle provides a lay summary of his life's work. The book outlines Searle's efforts to demystify the human mind by removing the cultural baggage which hinders objective analysis of it. For Searle, the mind is an impressive biological organ which in the human species is able to generate language. Language provides the mechanical foundation for our most distinctive talent -- the ability to construct social realities on top of the physical realities around us. While attempting to outline the mechanisms by which humans are able to create stuff like culture, Searle hopes to bring the dispassionate methods of empirical science to a realm often shrouded in mystical terminology.

Searle's ideas about language and the construction of social realities seem especially interesting given the rise of the Internet. People now have widespread access to social software. These new tools simplify the creation of human institutions that may have no physical presence other than the digital bits on a server's hard drive.

It is noteworthy that Searle's social and physical realities seem to parallel Herbert Simon's artificial and natural worlds (see below).


Favorite Reads: Herbert A. Simon, 'Sciences of the Artificial'

This represents the first in a series of occassional entries on some of my favorite reads on human nature, society and information technology.

In 1990, I had the good fortune to stumble upon the late Herbert A. Simon's Hitchcock Lectures at U.C. Berkeley. In a series of three talks loosely related to cognitive science, Simon addressed the schism between the arts and the sciences, and attempted to show how each could advance the other. During one memorable example in support of the above, he demonstrated how visual inspection could solve a physics problem far more effectively than mathematical analysis.

Simon displayed the most stunning intellect I had ever encountered face-to-face. Of course, I was hardly alone in this assessment. By that point, he was already a Nobel Laureate in economics, a recognized 'father of artificial intelligence', and a distinguished 'professor of everything' at Carnegie Mellon University.

A number of years after that encounter, I picked up a copy of Simon's 'The Sciences of the Artificial', an ecclectic treatise originally published in 1969 on the social sciences, human nature and the design of complex systems. The 'natural' world was the world provided by nature. The 'artificial' world explored by the book was the world shaped through the imagination of humans, encompassing cities, social institutions and computer programs. In a compact 216 pages, Simon thus managed to relate information technology to everything.

Full Disclosure: Amazon.com will compensate me with gift certificates for purchases generated from this blog.


Knowledge, search engines and blogs

Comments regarding the impact of blogs on the propagation of knowledge

Some Data Points

Over the last couple of months, I have twice found more reliable information from blogs than from 'official' sites on the Web:

Case 1: a problem with Python XML parsing on Mac OS X 10.2.

Case 2: a problem with a 'hijacked' Microsoft IE Web browser

Case 1 is rather arcane, involving an issue only a very small percentage of OS X users would be concerned with. But since the apple.com site does not permit users to post entries, there is in fact no way for Apple customers to share information via the Apple site. An email to Apple providing this information would probably languish in a low-priority queue, because the issue does not affect a significant number of people. Instead, this knowledge must reach the world via various blogs indexed by search engines.

Case 2 constitutes a growing problem, but is addressed in an overly complex manner on the Microsoft support site, with no mention of easier solutions available elsewhere. A Web search on 'IE Internet Options missing tabs' yields a confusing laundry list of sites with no clear solution. However, a Web search of 'blog IE Internet Options missing tabs' yields a complete personal account of someone's experience with this problem plus her recommendations of resources to help fix the issue, including invaluable referrals to www.spywareinfo.com and a program called HijackThis , which in combination fix the compromised Web browser efficiently.

What's Happening?

Numerous colleagues report anecdotally that blogs often provide more reliable information than official sources. On reflection, this makes sense. In both of the above cases, the pre-Internet method of propagating information involves passing first-hand knowledge through intermediate filters. One of the occassional side-effects is that the explantion from an expert is written or re-written by others with less domain knowledge. This pre-Internet 'work-flow' is obviously streamlined by Web logs. Information can now come straight from the source.

So far, I sense only the benefit -- knowledge is propagating faster, without the delays and occassional dilution introduced by formal publishing processes. I suppose the opposite is also possible -- the propagation of lies, without the protection of editorial review. The unfolding of the blog phenomenon may thus serve as another portrait of human nature. On the balance, I expect the portrait to be flattering.


Encounter with Web Browser 'Hijacking'

It's a relatively benign nuisance in comparison to other types of 'hijackings', so the label is perhaps a bit hyperbolic, but there is a spreading phenomenon known as a Web browser hijacking. By visiting an unscrupulous URL or clicking a hyperlink in a spam email, you can actually lose control of your web browser. Most of these attacks victimize users of Microsoft's Internet Explorer. The attacking code exploits security holes in the browser to reset your prefered home page, add links to your Favorites list and, most dramatically, remove tabs from your IE Internet Options panel. With that last step, the attacker prevents you from resetting your browser options -- a very effective technique to force a few extra page views to their site, until you reinstall your system software in desperation or discover a simpler solution.

So this actually happened to me yesterday -- the hijacking attack changed my default home page to an ad supported portal page, and removed the General Tab under my IE browser's Internet Options, thus preventing me from resetting my homepage back to the original URL ('blank', in my case).

After a few hours of fumbling around the Web, trying to figure out what happened to my computer and how to describe it for a search query, I converged on the following explanations:




Oddly, the best solution came not from Microsoft's support site, but from SpywareInfo, and their amazing online forum, combined with a shareware program provocatively named HijackThis. Volunteers on the SpywareInfo forum have assisted thousands of individuals across the Internet to combat a dizzying array of Web-related programmatic attacks which fall outside the realm of 'viruses' per se.

Following the recommendations of SpywareInfo, I repaired my IE web browser as follows:

[1] Downloaded and ran SpyBotSearch&Destroy

[2] Downloaded and ran HijackThis

Following the HijackThis instructions, I saved the resulting hijackthis.log report and posted it to SpywareInfo's online support forums for analysis by their forum monitors. These individuals inspect the log reports to identify improper Windows OS registry settings introduced by the hijacking attack. You can see the daily action at:


A forum monitor named Tony Klein responded within 30 minutes identifying the two fixes I needed to apply via the HijackThis application. After completing the fixes and rebooting, my IE browser was restored to health. I felt like I was just saved by a 'firefighter of the Internet'.

Life Lessons:

Though I hope never to encounter this nuisance again, the experience has been enlightening.

1. The best information and support on the browser hijacking problem came from non-professional sources, lacking financial compensation perhaps, but not lacking integrity and commitment.

2. In the same sense that 'bio-diversity' makes ecosystems more resilient, 'IO Diversity' may help protect our global information systems. The 'hijacking' attacks referred to above target vulnerabilities in the code base of Internet Explorer. Other Web browsers with different code bases are immune to these specific attacks. Perhaps variety in the code bases of browsers and all underlying software systems may be beneficial for reasons beyond maintaining economic competition.