A Bunch of Good Quotes: Alan Kay / The Early History of Smalltalk

I just finished reading this piece, The Early History of Smalltalk by Alan Kay.  Some of the quotes I really liked from it:

Should we even try to teach programming? I have met hundreds of programmers in the last 30 years and can see no discernable influence of programming on their general abiltity to think well or to take an enlightened stance on human knowledge. If anything, the opposite is true. Expert knowledge often remains rooted in the environments in which it was first learned–and most metaphorical extensions result in misleading analogies. A remarkable number off artists, scientists, philosophers are quite dull outside of their specialty (and one suspects within it as well). The first siren’s song we need to be wary of is the one that promises a connection between an interesting pursuit and interesting thoughts. The music is not in the piano, and it is possible to graduate Julliard wiothout finding or feeling it.

The “trick,” and I think that this is waht liberal arts educations is supposed to be about, is to get fluent and deep while building realtionships with other fluent deep knowledge. Our society has lowered its aims so far that it is happy with “increases in scores” without daring to inquire whether any important threshold has been crossed. Being able to read a warning on a pill bottle or write about a summer vacation is not literacy and our society should nbot treat it so. Literacy, for example is being able to fluently read and follow the 50 oage argument in Paine’s Common Sense and being able (and happy) to fluently write a critique or defence of it. Another kind of 20th century literacy is being able to hear about a new fatal contagious incurable disease and instantly know that a disastrous exponential relationship holds and early action is of the highest priority. Another kind of literacy would take citizens to their personal computers where they can fluently and without pain build a systems simulation of the disease to use as a comparison against further information.

The reason, therefore, that many of us want children to understand computing deeply and fluently is that like literature, matematics, science, music, and art, it carries special ways of thinking about situations that in contrast with other knowledge and other wasy of thinking critically boost our ability to understand our world.

Ideas, Invention, and the Future: Technology Strives Godlike :: Omniscience, Omnipotence and Omnipresence

How do you make calls about new or future technology? Which ideas are worth pursuing? What frameworks can you apply for thinking about this?

I ask my friend Tim, who lays down his theory for predicting advances in technology, and whether we’ll accept or reject something new.

Tim has read a lot of classical philosophy, and also once started a company back in the 90s to make 3D printers (ZCorp), so I really enjoy asking his perspective on the philosophy of creating technology.

This blog post is largely based on an email conversation from back in 2010 that, with Tim’s permission, I am quoting here.

In short: good technology makes us more omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. Bad technology detracts from those things.

Who wrote the frameworks around omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, etc.?

That was Thomas Aquinas, which is easiest in secondary source form (wikipedia etc.)  I probably read it in excerpts or summaries by others.

Aquinas also collected arguments “proofs” of the existence of God, some of which don’t make sense anymore and some are often recycled for “intelligent design” and other proselytizing.

Aquinas seems to have been trying to pin down “what God is” or “what qualities define God”. In this sense, good technology could also be seen as “that which makes us more godlike.” (which I’m going to call dated language, but probably the best thought framework Aquinas had access to.)

That Technology Strives Godlike thinking is useful to predict cultural trends within a worldview that doesn’t acknowledge limits.

“The Singularity” is a good example of such a striving, but a general singularity is a very long way from happening for a lot of reasons, all based in practicalities. If energy, materials, and garbage dumps were costless and infinite, the singularity would be jumping out at us everywhere.

It’s useful to think about real situations when old limits are removed by some new material or technology and physics or economics are no longer the limiting factors.

How did you know to work on 3D printers back then? What changed while you were working on them?

In the case of 3D printing, improvements in CAD and the spread of CAD set the hard market limits of 3D printing as a business, which meant for us, not a limit to early growth at all.

How much did the frameworks for foresight, or for systems thinking, consciously factor into making 3D printers?

Very much in choosing major directions/abandoning distractions. Very little in actually making it work. That was mostly close observation and a willingness to use existing/free stuff.

Nassim Taleb and “Psychology of Selling” are good on risk assessment. Take cheap risks and don’t take any with actual downside consequences.

One of the two qualities of inventorship that currently fascinate me most right now is “systems thinking”. The ability to see how whole systems work together.

I think you’ve identified our new technology “God”.

That’s very important, our new shared religion/culture of “sustainability” acknowledges limits. No one takes seriously the old plan to move to other planets after we trash this one. That’s a big change.

A few think they’ll go to heaven, but most of them want their kids to have a viable planet to live on.

What can I do to improve my abilities in thinking about systems?

The system dynamics people at MIT, Sterman especially, are good to learn from. I have an old manuscript of his that catalogs quirks of behavioral economics and does a better narrative of Easter Island than Jared Diamond. I don’t know if it was published or if that stuff stayed in.

Watch out for astrology – I’ve seen a couple of SD folks go manic with a nearly identical system mania with horoscope connections.

They’re also not so good with politics, so it’s hard for them to get their insights into policy.

Anything I should read that you’d recommend?

All of the mp3s at the Long Now and all the ones at the London School of Economics, except for the psychologists and lit/crit nuts.

I’m reading codecheck.com building code summaries which are beautiful and clear. Makes the code look like pretty reasonable building instructions. Memorize that and know exactly what’s going on in a construction site.

EAGLE has the worst UI of any software I’ve ever persisted in using

Dear Lazywebs,

If you have suggestions, this is one of my present-day problems:  http://electronics.stackexchange.com/questions/30197/placing-a-device-in-eagle

I just added a new library (the adafruit library) in EAGLE comprised of many devices and packages. I can place packages, but not devices (usually devices represent a few different specific packages).

I’m using EAGLE-6.2.0. How do I get the devices onto a board?

This really shouldn’t be as difficult an issue as it’s been proving versus my “try every button” and “googling” problem-solving techniques.  I even tried to solve it by making my own modified EAGLE library (called starfruit, obvi) out of Ada’s devices, which did not solve.  If you have any suggestions I will be pretty grateful!

In the long term, I feel like it should be within our capabilities as a humanity to make tools that are better than EAGLE.

Fabricating Tiny Flying Robots

One of the most underplayed genres of youtube video is “amazing cross-disciplinary research technology narrated in a monotone voice.”  For example this video on how you make tiny flying robots out of composites using techniques from origami and popup books.

I think this stuff is among the coolest stuff being worked on in the world — and I love slash regret that these amazing developments are generally presented in the most ho-hum way possible.  Anyway, check out this 5 min video [via Sawyer]:

It’s a Great Time to Be Alive

Edit: I had not heard of Fareed Zakaria before coming across his talk in a London School of Economics podcast, from which the below quote is taken. I was unaware at time of posting of his positive stance toward the US-Iraq war, and I don’t mean to endorse it by quoting Mr. Zakaria. Also the quote below has some serious caveats — I posted it here in the spirit of being grateful for living in a world that is currently as peaceful as it is.

“In 1986 a very famous American historian, John Lewis Gaddis, wrote an essay called The Long Peace in which he pointed out that at that point, 1986, it had been 40 years since there had been a great power war and that that 40 year period was the longest period in modern history where you had not had a war between the great powers. Well, a generation later not only has the long peace endured, but in fact you can add to it another caveat which is, there is currently no significant military-political competition among the great powers of the world. Which is actually unique in history. You have never had a situation where there is not serious and sustained military-political competition among the great powers.”

Fareed Zakaria’s London School of Economics talk “The Post-American World and the Rise of the Rest” 7/1/09

Human Beings and Random Numbers: Benford’s Law and The Collective Fingerprint of our Brains

Update: Check out Benford’s Law on R-Bloggers (via @BenfordsLaw) for lots, lots more.


Back in spring of 2011 I ran a little data/stats experiment through Mechanical Turk, asking as many people as I could afford to list a random number between 1-100.  I wanted to see if there was a characteristic “human” aspect to picking random numbers generated by a crowd.

Unfortunately that test was made useless by a single spammer in India who figured out how to submit “7” over and over and collect all $15 I’d allocated for the project (“I’d pay $15 to find that out”) and so I ended up observing something else I already knew about humans that day instead.

But, today, I discovered that I may have just been trying to get to what wikipedia calls Benford’s Law.  Somehow I’ve only ever properly studied statistics through high school biology class, and given that Benford’s project happened in 1938 I can only say of my hunch about such a pattern’s existence, “not bad for an amateur!”

Still, Benford’s law and findings remain fascinating to me.  What did he find?

A popular example:

 a list of the heights of the 60 tallest structures in the world by category shows that 1 is by far the most common leading digit, irrespective of the unit of measurement

Isn’t that amazing?


For numbers drawn from certain distributions, for example IQ scores, human heights or other variables following normal distributions, the law is not valid. However, if one “mixes” numbers from those distributions, for example by taking numbers from newspaper articles, Benford’s law reappears.

Two more cases:

This result has been found to apply to a wide variety of data sets, including electricity bills, street addresses, stock prices, population numbers, death rates, lengths of rivers, physical and mathematical constants, and processes described by power laws (which are very common in nature).

Some well-known infinite integer sequences provably satisfy Benford’s law exactly (in the asymptotic limit as more and more terms of the sequence are included). Among these are the Fibonacci numbers, the factorials, the powers of 2, and the powers of almost any other number.

There are even uses in practice Benford’s Law is borne out well enough that the IRS has used it as a basic check to determine whether tax forms contain inconsistencies — if the distribution of first digits doesn’t follow Benford’s Law, something may be amiss — and apparently it can sometimes also be used to test for election fraud. I can’t off-the-cuff conceive of a reason why this should be so, but I’m fascinated.

Via Mathworld, here’s the graph:

thanks Jevgenij!