Another Fine Mesh

From Zendegi by Greg Egan:

When they came within sight of the picket line, Martin saw that the usual Referendum! signs had been supplemented with photographs of Ansari and a new slogan that Behrouz translated as ‘Murderers, get lost!’ That soldiers weren’t tearing the signs from people’s hands was no less amazing than if they’d borne the strongest profanities, given that this accusation and advice was meant for the government. Martin took out his new phone and snapped some pictures of the pickets, trying to balance a fervent wish to avoid being seen by the soldiers with a fear that if he looked too furtive the people around him would take him for an informer. One young man did move towards him, scowling, but Behrouz stepped in and whispered an explanation that seemed to satisfy him. He checked the pictures and queued them up for their long, tortuous journey to Sydney.

Even back in his office in Tehran he was no longer able to use the internet; he had to print out his copy and fax it. He’d tried uploading files direct to the newspaper’s computer using a dial-up modem, but the government was degrading international phone lines to the point where the modems just kept hanging up; even the faxes he sent arrived peppered with static and were only legible if he used an absurdly large font. The conventional mobile service was now disabled across the country, and every major city had installed transmitters to jam the frequencies that had enabled the mesh network Mahnoosh had showed him at the demonstration in Tehran. Slightly Smart Systems, though, had left one last option open: infrared.

Their phones could pass data to each other by IR along a line-of-sight path, and whilst the government could interfere with the system in a limited space, such as a stadium or public square, in principle, they could no more jam it everywhere than they could flood the whole country with strobing blue disco lights. The point-to-point bursts of IR carried email and news in much the same way as those services had worked in the days before the internet proper, when university computers had been linked up only sporadically via brief late-night phone calls but, in lieu of fixed landlines, the modern incarnation involved ‘polling’ phones in the vicinity to discover which ones were in a position to exchange data.

Before the restrictions on intercity travel had come in, Slightly Smart email had diffused across the country and over the borders in a matter of days; from Tehran, Martin had sent a test message to his editor and received a reply in four days, probably via Turkey. No doubt there would soon be government programmers working on ways to clog the whole system with spam – and plainclothes police strolling around arresting anyone who responded to their polling signal – but for now the benefits were worth the risk, and a crowd of Ansari supporters was a good place to start. Martin switched his phone to polling mode and parked it in his shirt pocket with the tiny lens of the IR transceiver exposed, leaving it to try its secret handshake on as many passing strangers as it liked.

Blog all dog-eared unpages: Philosophy & Simulation: The Emergence of Synthetic Reason by Manuel DeLanda

Philosophy & Simulation: The Emergence of Synthetic Reason by Manuel DeLanda

This was incredibly hard-work as a read for this bear of little brain, but worth it. Very rewarding and definitely in resonance with earlier non-fiction reads this year (The Information, What Technology Wants, The Nature of Technology)

I’ve put the things that really gave me pause in bold below.

an unmanifested tendency and an unexercised capacity are not just possible but define a concrete space of possibilities with a definite structure.

a mathematical model can capture the behavior of a material process because the space of possible solutions overlaps the possibility space associated with the material process.

Gliders and other spaceships provide the clearest example of emergence in cellular automata: while the automata themselves remain fixed in their cells a coherent pattern of states moving across them is clearly a new entity that is easily distinguishable from them.

This is an important capacity of simulations not shared by mathematical equations: the ability to stage a process and track it as it unfolds.

In other words, each run of a simulation is like an experiment conducted in a laboratory except that it uses numbers and formal operators as its raw materials. For these and other reasons computer simulations may be thought as occupying an intermediate position between that of formal theory and laboratory experiment.

Let’s summarize what has been said so far. The problem of the emergence of living creatures in an inorganic world has a well-defined causal structure.

The results of the metadynamic simulations that have actually been performed show that the spontaneous emergence of a proto-metabolism is indeed a likely outcome, one that could have occurred in prebiotic conditions.

Because recursive function languages have the computational capacity of the most sophisticated automata, and because of the random character of the collisions, this artificial chemistry is referred to as a Turing gas.

An evolving population may, for example, be trapped in a local optimum if the path to a singularity with greater fitness passes through points of much lesser fitness.

Roughly, the earliest bacteria appeared on this planet three and a half billion years ago scavenging the products of non-biological chemical processes; a billion years later they evolved the capacity to tap into the solar gradient, producing oxygen as a toxic byproduct; and one billion years after that they evolved the capacity to use oxygen to greatly increase the efficiency of energy and material consumption. By contrast, the great diversity of multicellular organisms that populate the planet today was generated in about six hundred million years.

The distribution of singularities (fitness optima) in this space defines the complexity of the survival problem that has to be solved: a space with a single global optimum surrounded by areas of minimum fitness is a tough problem (a needle in a haystack) while one with many local optima grouped together defines a relatively easy problem.

from the beginning of life the internal models mediating the interaction between a primitive sensory system and a motor apparatus evolved in relation to what was directly relevant or significant to living beings.

with the availability of neurons the capacity to distinguish the relevant from the irrelevant, the ability to foreground only the opportunities and risks pushing everything else into an undifferentiated background, was vastly increased.

Finally, unlike the conventional link between a symbol and what the symbol stands for, distributed representations are connected to the world in a non-arbitrary way because the process through which they emerge is a direct accommodation or adaptation to the demands of an external reality.

This simulation provides a powerful insight into how an objective category can be captured without using any linguistic resources. The secret is the mapping of relations of similarity into relations of proximity in the possibility space of activation patterns of the hidden layer.

Both manual skills and the complex procedures to which they gave rise are certainly older than spoken language suggesting that the hand may have taught the mouth to speak, that is, that ordered series of manual operations may have formed the background against which ordered series of vocalizations first emerged.

When humans first began to shape flows of air with their tongues and palates the acoustic matter they created introduced yet another layer of complexity into the world.

Says(Tradition, Causes(Full Moon, Low Tide)) Says(My Teacher, Causes(Full Moon, Low Tide))

A mechanism to transform habit into convention is an important component of theories of non-biological linguistic evolution at the level of both syntax and semantics.

a concentration of the capacity to command justified by a religious tradition linking elite members to supernatural forces or, in some cases, justified by the successful practical reasoning of specialized bureaucracies.

Needless to say, the pyramid’s internal mechanism did not allow it to actually transmute a king into a god but it nevertheless functioned like a machine for the production of legitimacy.

social simulations as enacted thought experiments can greatly contribute to develop insight into the workings of the most complex emergent wholes on this planet.

abandon the idea of “society as a whole” and replace it with a set of more concrete entities (communities, organizations, cities) that lend themselves to partial modeling in a way that vague totalities do not.