Edsger W. Dijkstra’s Blog

One of the blog parlor games is to come up with unlikely blog-like precursors. Doogie Howser, M.D. is a favorite. I’m going to propose computer scientist Edsger W. Dijkstra.

I’m a big fan of “Real Programmers Don’t Use PASCAL” which contains a few direct derogatory references to Mr. Dijkstra and is generally opposed to his views on computer science. I guess I like it more for it’s computer geek-heroic tone. Since I am mostly a proponent of system and method, I am on the side of Mr. Dijkstra. But anyway, from the Wikipedia page on Mr. Dijkstra:

Dijkstra was known for his essays on programming; … He was also known for his habit of carefully composing manuscripts with his fountain pen. The manuscripts are called EWDs, since Dijkstra numbered them with EWD as prefix. Dijkstra would distribute photocopies of a new EWD among his colleagues; as many recipients photocopied and forwarded their copy, the EWDs spread throughout the international computer science community. The topics are mainly computer science and mathematics, but also include trip reports, letters, and speeches. More than 1300 EWDs have since been scanned, with a growing number also transcribed to facilitate search, and are available online at the Dijkstra archive of the University of Texas

Mr. Dijkstra’s “blog,” EDW is hosted here.

Ouroboros to Mise en Abyme

A few unsystematic thoughts on Ouroboros and mise en abyme:

  • I almost mentioned Douglas Hofstadter’s book, I Am a Strange Loop, in last week’s post (“The Mythical Economy,” 23 July 2008). He could have gone with Ouroboros on the cover too, but instead he went with mise en abyme.

    Or maybe he couldn’t have gone with Ouroboros. While Ouroboros is, on a superficial level, obviously a strange loop and a symbol that could be seen as self-referential, a peek at the index of Hofstadter’s book at the entry for “video feedback” — a technological mise en abyme — shows that he has a thicker analogy in mind:

    video feedback, 65-71; as candidate for strange loop, 103, 187, 203, 361; epiphenomena in, 68, 70-71; fear of meltdown, 56, 57; fractalic gestalts of, 204; lack of “I” in, 203; lack of perception in, 75-77, 187, 203; lack of symbols in, 203; lack of thinking in, 203; locking-in of patterns in, 70; parameters of, 65-67, 69, 75; reverberation in, 67-68; two systems entwined in, 210-211, 253-254; vanilla loop in, 208

  • While I’m amused at the notion of an Ouroboros economy, I can’t really think of any real correlate to the slightly humorous image. Unless maybe something like a naturalistic notion of the human economy, wherein the human economy is nature parasitic upon itself. The destruction of the biological world as giving birth to the artifactual or the cybernetic world. Ouroboros reborn for the Twenty-first Century!

  • The thing that’s really causing me to bring up mise en abyme is some thoughts on how people think about the future. People are faced with the need to decide and nearly all decisions that people make are, when not completely about the future, at least future-oriented. People’s thoughts about the future are divided into two closely related activities, carried out in tandem: planning and prediction. Prediction occasionally becomes an activity of its own, but for the most part prediction is an activity carried out in service of the more pragmatic planning.

    Planning is a branching strategic game. It works like this. I have a goal whose attainment is not simple: it involves a number of steps and it could be thwarted at any one of them. I start with my known situation and have a vague idea what the path to my goal would be and I make a series of hypothetical decisions. I test the soundness of a hypothetical decision by predicting the outcome of such an action. That is, I imagine a potential future.

    In the first round, the one inaugurated in the present, I know what my options are because they are present. In the second round and in all subsequent rounds, I must employ prediction to imagine what options I will have to choose from because from then on I am dealing in an imagined future. I repeat the hypothetical decision, predict, test, simulate new options algorithm down until I reach the last round whose decision results in the attainment of the goal.

    When I make predictions about the future, I rarely make a single prediction, since prediction, especially the sort of intuitionistic variant that people employ for the purpose of most of their planning, is not a very reliable. So I predict a range of possible futures. And in each possible future I face a range of possible decisions that I can take. Predicting and planning branch. Most of these I abandon in favor of the most fruitful seeming paths. But if a path dead-ends, I back up until I find the probable fateful decision that sent me down the path to the dead end. I recollect the other options at that possible future and imagine my way down another branch. I also generally flag a number of contingency plans. I went with this predicted future, but as things actually unfold, if it turns out that I predicted wrong, I have a plan ready for that other branch too.

    When I have what I imagine to be a satisfactory path from present to goal, I lock in each decision hypothetically made into “what I’ve decided upon.”

    This is a pretty systematic model and not necessarily exactly how most people make plans. People rarely sit town and carry it out algorithmically from beginning to end. More frequently people engage in this activity in fits and starts, not taking the problem from start to finish, but working on pieces that strike them at various occasions throughout their day. They absentmindedly do it while at their work computer, or do it extremely quickly while laying a joint plan with a partner over the telephone. Or maybe they try to be thorough about it and make a list on a notepad so they can see what’s done and what still in need of attention. Whatever the case, I think that ultimately this is what people are doing.

    The important point for mise en abyme is that near future decisions can only be locked in once more distant future decisions have been validated. Each step is dependent on the one after it having been made first. One starts the planning and predicting from the present and works one’s way forward, but one decides, as it were, backward, from the future to the present. Predictions and plans regarding the immediate future include as a part within them predictions and plans regarding the immediate future, which in turn contain predictions and plans about the distant future and so on. My thoughts about the future are mise en abyme insofar as they contain within them further thoughts about more distant futures.

    What one is doing in this process of planning for the future is conducting is a depth first search of potential futures. And depth first search is canonically thought of as recursive.

  • Mise en abyme seems to have a lot more analogistic or systemizing potential. Scale symmetry (e.g. fractals) along with all the related phenomena that can be grouped under that pattern seem coterminous with mise en abyme. Hegel’s logical schema seems like a highly abstract instance of mise en abyme, where each intellectual system is subsumed into a higher order intellectual system.

  • Perhaps there is a historical development of the conceptual depth and sophistication of the idea of self-referentiality. Ouroboros is simple cyclicality, though extrapolated into a notion of infinity or eternity. Homunculus is a limited instance of scale symmetry. Modern formal recursion are the culmination.

Relativism and Conflict

Ezra Klein references Nickolas Kristof’s column yesterday as bringing “striking clarity” on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but the clarity is all in Mr. Klein’s interpretation (“Tough Love for Israel?,” The New York Times, 24 July 2008; “The Dual Realities of Israel / Palestine,” TAPPED, The American Prospect, 24 July 2008, respectively):

But he [Kristof] offers a counter-fact: “B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, reports that a total of 123 Israeli minors have been killed by Palestinians since the second intifada began in 2000, compared with 951 Palestinian minors killed by Israeli security forces.”

When Jews talk about the ethics of the Israeli response, they tend to emphasize the recklessness and cruelty of Palestinian terrorists. The words most often heard are “target civilians.” The Israelis are right, in other words, because they carry out limited military operations against discrete targets, which sets them ethically apart from members of Hamas who murder innocents because it’s an effective tactic. That is indisputable.

Palestinians, by contrast, speak of the war in terms of absolute costs: They have suffered more, buried more, seen more of their freedoms and land and dignity taken from them. To them, it seems insane to condemn Palestinian tactics when the Israelis have killed so many more innocent children. That too is indisputable.

Both sides are right. There’s a passage in Aaron David Miller’s excellent book The Much Too Promised Land that makes this point elegantly. “The prospects of reconciling the interests of an occupied nation with those of a threatened one seemed slim to none,” he says. In many ways, that’s the essential truth of the conflict: The two sides don’t judge themselves similarly. The Israelis see themselves as threatened innocents, not oppressors. The Palestinians see themselves as an occupied and humiliated nation, not aggressors. The Israelis see themselves as inexplicably under attack, and acting only in defense. The Palestinians see themselves as losing a war against a much stronger, and demonstrably more brutal, occupier.

This is all true of Israel / Palestine and an important point to keep in mind when trying to understand the claims and counterclaims of the parties.

What Israel needs is, as Mr. Kristof calls it, tough love. What that means at a more operative level is the U.S. needs to provide Israeli moderates with additional reasons they can point to in opposing Israeli extremists (messianic Jews, settlers, etc.). The Palestinians aren’t the only ones whose country is being destroyed by the extremists in their midst.

In addition to pointing out some salient facts about the nature of the particular dispute in question, this is a perfect real-world example of relativism. Most people think of relativism and think it means amorality, or moral capitulation, or a dispensing-with of any notion of the facts of the matter. But what I think this explanation shows is that relativism is compatible with an objective account of things — or that relativism as an ethical theory is well compartmentalized from any particular metaphysical substratum. And relativism is a theory that provides a very good account of many disputes in the world. People aren’t necessarily in dispute over what is true and what false, or the proper moral criteria. For instance, no one in this situation is necessarily disputing the numbers killed or whether killing is right or wrong. The facts of the matter or the morality of any individual act considered in complete isolation is not in dispute. What is in dispute is the proper context in which to weigh the facts and adjudicate the contending claims of moral priority. It’s a question of interpretation. Different sets of acts of violence become at least plausibly justifiable depending on which gestalt narrative one adopts. Change total narrative and the moral weight of the various acts shifts around.

This is the way it is in almost all disputes. The rhetoric that people deploy usually very quickly leaves behind particular matters of fact or the morality or immorality of specific acts and it becomes a contest of dueling grand narratives. A conversation about a particular environmental harm becomes one about the tragedy of the commons and evil corporations versus the road to serfdom. A conversation about a reproductive decision becomes one of recidivist patriarchy versus the suicide of Western culture. The fact of the matter is that no one can quite see individuals as individuals and consider their actions as such. Everyone sees all people as deeply embedded in social structures and patterns and duty-bound to speculative forces of society and history.

The Mythical Economy

28 July 2008, BusinessWeek, Ouroboros and Moloch

BusinessWeek decides to portray the economy as Ouroboros, the serpent swallowing it’s own tail. Oddly enough, I’ve had Ouroboros on my mind quite a bit lately.

And they decide to portray Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as Moloch.

Moloch whose buildings are judgment! … Moloch the stunned governments! …
Moloch whose blood is running money! …
Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs! …
Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks! …
Moloch! Moloch! Robot apartments! invisible suburbs! skeleton treasuries! blind capitals! demonic industries! …
They broke their backs lifting Moloch to Heaven!

Carbon Offsets II

Das Boot (1981)

The company for which I work is located in an otherwise normal seeming building in downtown Washington, D.C., but it’s apparently up-to-code circa 1970s exterior belies a decrepit, crumbling cinder block. The HVAC has gone out somewhere between five and ten times this year. Most immediately, the air conditioning has been out for the last two days — it’s nominally back on today but they must be finessing it and we are loosing ground against the in-pouring solar radiation. The building is a greenhouse. Despite its being in the 90s, at least outside there’s a slight breeze. Inside it’s just dead, sweltering air. I’m in a cube near the window — a window that like in Office Space is mostly obscured by my cubical wall — so it’s particularly hot in my area. It’s like Das Boot in here: we’re dead in the water, stripped to our bare torsos, streaked in diesel fuel and struggling to work in the thinning, stagnant air.

Central HVAC is supposed to be this great civil engineering panacea, but despite decades of experience, I have yet to work in a place where the HVAC system operated well. As a result, employees all take illicit measures. At one point last winter the building management felt the need to reminded the company that the terms of the lease prevented employees from possessing individual space heaters. The accounting / admin. manager sent one of his minions around the office with a giant box to collect up all the offending heaters. But then, just a few weeks later the heat in the building conked out. It was only a matter of time before employees were at the accounting manager’s office door militating for their space heaters back.

So as long as I’m offering my own self up for sale as a carbon offset, I should add to the menu of offsets on offer, that if you are galloping through energy keeping your environs a comfortable, neutral temperature, kick a few bucks my way and I will sit around like our ancestors of generations, exposed to temperatures unregulated by the products of human ingenuity.

Carbon Offsets

Ezra Klein — a meat eater and a foodie, mind you — has had a lot to say about meat consumption as of late. Back in May he went so far as to say, “If I had more will power I’d be a vegetarian” (“View From a Herbivore,” TAPPED, The American Prospect, 8 May 2008). Today (“Why It’s Worth Talking About Meat,” ibid., 21 July 2008) he links to The PB&J Campaign that has the following grouping of factoids:

Each time you have a plant-based lunch like a PB&J you’ll reduce your carbon footprint by the equivalent of 2.5 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions over an average animal-based lunch like a hamburger, a tuna sandwich, grilled cheese, or chicken nuggets. For dinner you save 2.8 pounds and for breakfast 2.0 pounds of emissions.

Those 2.5 pounds of emissions at lunch are about forty percent of the greenhouse gas emissions you’d save driving around for the day in a hybrid instead of a standard sedan.

Hey, that’s pretty cool! Forget about planting a tree: I think I’m going to start positioning myself as a carbon offset! Wanna eat a Big Mack but feel kinda bad about it? Give me five dollars — PayPal button up in the corner — and count on me eating a block of tofu or an undressed salad to make up for your extra 2.5 pounds of carbon. And if you commuted to work and know you’re part of the problem, send ten and rest assured that I rode my bike to work in your stead. But if you play too many video games, I’m not tuning off my computer for you at any pricelevel.

On a related note I have been chuckling to myself and brandishing Will Wilkinson’s comment on why he bikes to work for some days now (“Bikes vs. Cars,” The Fly Bottle, 9 July 2008):

I honestly don’t give a fig about my carbon footprint (and anyway, since I’m not a breeder, I really should get carbon carte blanche).

So while I’m at it, if you have made more of us miserable ecosystem-trammelers and know it was just a guilty pleasure (what, a mirror not good enough for you?), then send money and I will refrain from procreative sex as a carbon offset for your brood.

Anti-Humanist Architecture

I like Charles Mudede, I think he’s a pretty unique guy, but comments like this (“La Defense,” SLOG, The Stranger, 15 July 2008) make my fantasies of an architecture holocaust all the more vivid:

We see that the best buildings have in their design no humans in mind. All the better if the work is alien, monstrous, indifferent–anything more other than what we are already. A work that strives for the inhuman strives to be closer to the truth, which consistently turns out to be inhuman.

That’s all fine and good, but for the rest of us, we thought we were going shopping, commuting, trying to renew some government mandated piece of documentation, when in addition to all the rest of the litany of the day’s petty insults, we have to have an encounter with the monstrous truth as well. One may have thought that alien and indifferent were good for avant guard philosophy books, but apparently they’re a good arrangement for the DMV flagship office too. Thank you, architecture.