March 1st, 2003


Five on Reading

1. What is your favorite type of literature to read (magazine, newspaper, novels, nonfiction, poetry, etc.)?
I really enjoy science fiction, and I read a bit of mystery (detective stories?).
As I got back into the habit of reading after starting college, I drew a pretty sharp line between reading for fun and reading to learn (many things are both). I try and balance out the dreck (light fiction, Gaming books, porn, humour) with more serious stuff (tech manuals, math books, physics, history, philosophy, etc). I also like to maintain the illusion of being informed about world events common to intellectuals and academics, and so I read The Week almost every week, and try to make time for The Economist.

2. What is your favorite novel?
I'm drawing a blank here. Cryptonomicon, Snow Crash, Across Realspace,
The Number of the Beast, To Sail Beyond the Sunset, Foundation (which one I don't know) The Magus (Fowlkes) (needs a reread) Satanic Verses (still don't understand), Eric Flint's 1642, The Count of Monte Cristo Alexandre Dumas (pere), and my new favourite is Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Zen and ... is recommend, but could not be mistaken for a novel easily.

3. Do you have a favorite poem? (Share it!)
I rarely 'get' poetry. Frost "The Road Not Taken" is about the only one I can remember right now...

4. What is one thing you've always wanted to read, or wish you had more time to read?

The top of the that list is A New Kind of Science by Stephen Wolfram. There a whole bunch of Computer Security books I ought to dive into, but I can't remember which ones right now ... (The next post is planned to be all about ANKOS, M--a, and such things). OTOH, there are entire fields of study I mean to start in on, and haven't ..

5. What are you currently reading?
Mostly stuff I've been reading quite a while, and haven't gotten back to...
I'm past Erasmus in Barzun's new modern hstory From Dawn to Decadance, I haven't looked at Against the Gods: Risk (an insurance history in quite a while, I am past Napoleon's wars in Strategy (B. H. Hart),
and I will have to restart Plato's The Republic and The Silmarillion, each of which I've tried to hack through more than once and failed. i need to dive back into that Intro Lingustics textbook. I have read the first couple chapters of I Am Spock and If Chins Could Kill while passing time in another person's living room. I started a Mario Puzo novel that way quite a while back ... (and that is how I read book one of Atlas Shrugged), and oh yeah I was reading (over there) on Sturgeon collection that was very good (Microcosmic God, Volume II ?).

Me, Math, M----a, Free Software, and ANKOS ?

In retrospect, my mathematics education ground to halt when I transfered high schools. I struggled through the rest of my math classes after that, learned the calculus, and that's where it stopped. I have often blamed a bad teacher that first year at the new school. Seemingly both a bad teacher and a bad person, her influence always overshadowed the clerical fsckup that put me in her class that year in the first place (Details available but boring).

Before that, in my ninth grade year, I had had Algebra 1X and Geometry (long terms) and Science Projects (one short term). Science Projects was a glorified excuse to hang out with the math team coach and play with cool stuff. We dismantled laserdisc players, removing the optics and mounting them in boxes for laser show purposes. (You need a small rectifier board to produce the micro-current the tube expects. Other than that you clips all the control wires leading to the servos and solder them to speaker terminals. Input from music of just an oscillator makes the laser trace nifty patterns). We fooled around with leftover minis and micros. We looked at cellular automata (Conway's game of Life) and fractals (Mandelbrot) using computer sims, and we learned how to use, and just played, with computer math systems (M--a, and Theorist). I first used M--a on a Quadra minitower crammed full of RAM, and still remember the animation of the sponge soaking through all available memory as it solved problems and graphed, well, anything, including fractals and 4-dimensional geometry. Back them M--a was a new product, and was command line programming only (the palette equation entry which Theorist had then was later added to M--a, and this point actually pertains to the point of this Chatauqua *eg* ).

I went to college, and took classes in the calculus that I already had credit for (to try and get the shit down, and because that was the highest math that little school had). I didn't learn much calculus, (or it didn't stick with me), but I may have learned somethings from the professor, who I am so used to just calling God that I often forget his name. In particular his words to me as I was leaving that school (withdrawing to avoid failing out) were quite powerful. I'm not sure that he isn't God. Actually I am pretty sure that if there is one God, he's a retired Georgia Tech calculus professor living in the North Georgia Mountains, smoking a cigar on his porch every evening... While completely off topic, I'll mention that my ninth grade math teacher died just a couple months back.

The next time I saw much of M---a was while working at the computer store at Tech, during my year there. ( ). It was version two dot something and shipped for three platforms, including linux.
I got a demo disc somewhere and spun it up once or so, but didn't do anything with it .. While i was at schoolat Tech, I heard of many people using MathCad, Maple, MatLab (and yes, Fortran) in their coursework, but never M--a.
I have looked for free software that could do that sort of thing every so often. It has always been a thorny problem in my quest to eliminate non-DFSG free software from my work and play .. (I have fiddled with CAs every now and then, too.) More importantly, I have always wondered why Wolfram, definitely a hacker and a a scientist, did not release his incredible new software for free, or (even cheap?). It's not the sort of question one asks an author or hacker without care, but in the case of ANKOS and M---a, I strongly feel that the impact of the work is lessened immensly by the expense ..

Last year I started hearing about ANKOS, and in particular read a couple magazines pieces about it pre-publication. There was a long detailed piece in Wired written by a long-time friend of the author, who has been privledged to watch the progress of the work and read the final cut. And then there was fluffy material on it's impending release in Time and such.
I have looked over a copy at Borders, but couldn't afford a $50 USD hardback then, and now .. I decided that I would need M--a, and some skill in it's use to work throught the book, try the experiments, and digest properly the paradigm it suggests ( and the paradigm(s) seem quite interesting, and the academic politics too ) and (as per the LJ bio) shove them into my neural nets to watch the fireworks. Oh, and before I can buy even a student license for M--a, I have to finish paying for the laptop I'd run it on .. which I'm making some progress on doing Gunderson runs six nights a week.

In the meantime, I learned a little more math on my own with spotty reading and the rare question to a classmate. I read Gleick's Chaos in high school (second school) before I knew what a differential was (I may still not know that, actually) and have often told people that I am good at theoretical math but no good at calculation.
I have toyed with the idea of reading in mathematics in senior college (my junior college work was in computer science, psychology, and phillosophy). In particular I have recently encountered memetics, and need to grab one of the new books on network theory ...

And then this week on /. :
"Slashdot | Use of Math Languages and Packages in Research?"

Hoping for breadcrumbs that might lead to the grail of the the GPL'd M---a (yeah, right) I slogged through the whole thing last night. I did find some new software, and will post some about my opinions of Scilab, Octave, and .. Maxima after I get it all built and installed (*grumble* fink and Apple x11 header files in-fighting). More interesting was the discussion of the tools various teams, schools and orgs are using for their work. Perhaps most interesting were the little grumbles about Wolfram's (and others') use of public research and even public code to inspire (if not help build) M-----a (and other commercialware products) ... It was asserted in particular that Maxima's ancestor Macsyma, which originated at MIT was basically ripped off to make M--a. This is almost certainly an oversimplification (unless it is just false), but it is veeery interesting...

So, Wolfram begat M--a, and released it's power and light into the world, and charged a small fortune for it's use outside of school, making him rich, and so he founded a company to publish and support the software. Okay, to rake in piles and piles of money and publish books on M--a, but yeah. Now financially independant, Wolfram spends a decade of painstaking research into CAs and network theory (et al), picking back up where his university studies and earlier writings left off. (In true hacker/scientist/mathematican fashion, he had run up against a problem he needed a new tool to solve, and had gotten quite caught up making the new tool ..). He publishes the book throught his company, selling it just above cost (Yes, unfortunately, $46 USD is just above cost for a 1300 page hardback, and it sells out the first printing,
blah blah (go look up the publication details of ANKOS to find out what printing it's on, as I do not care).. And then he puts up a website with the code and some graphics, and starts to try and facillitate a community there ... In the hype wave around the book, he alleges that it will change science forever, and that he hopes that the book, and M--a will enable a new generation of budding young scientists to discover well, he thinks they'll find the seed code for the cosmos, actually. He sees himself as (potentially) a figure in the history of science, blah blah .. He doesn't post the book online
and copyright on the images in the book (and those created by ANKOS Explorer) is strictly enforced. Plans to offer software with the book change by release into a seperate software box (the ANKOS explorer) which seems to contain just the experiments from the book in a custom interface. (In his hypeage, Wolfram himself encourages these new scientist to change the function and fool around with the experiment's parameter and designs ...
This software package is not only not bundled, but costs more than the book does ..
The conclusion I reach here is that the author doesn't believe more than half of his own bullshit, since to do the history-altering, vitally important work he says he is inspiring the masses to undertake they will need:

  • A Mac or some other PC ($500-$5000 USD give or take)

  • A New Kind of Science, ($50 USD)

  • M--a binaries and license ($150-1500 USD)


  • ANKOS Explorer ($70 USD)

  • Internet (WWW) access ($10 - 50 / month USD)

  • books on how to use M---a $50-100 USD)

This let's out a huge swath of the population of Earth (sarcastic understatement). We may as well wait for the Hobbyist Maker so we can all start trying to program
nifty interactive textbooks for our god-daughters. Or skip ANKOS and buy
your kid some Lego Mindstorms. *shrug*. So, I still want to study ANKOS,
and I still want to learn and use M--a (or more likely Maxima), but I am concerned by these issues, and they color my interest in the material, and my opinions of the author.

So, foolishly, I hereby challenge Wolfram to live up to his ideals. I suggest the inclusion of a full build of M--a (student license) with each copy of ANKOS, but would be sated only by a open licence for the book (text and graphics) and the (allegedly vital) M----a package.