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Belmont Club

The Age of Men

June 13th, 2013 - 5:33 pm

Most of us will be familiar with Arthur Clarke’s famous observation about ships.

If man survives for as long as the least successful of the dinosaurs—those creatures whom we often deride as nature’s failures—then we may be certain of this: for all but a vanishingly brief instant near the dawn of history, the word ‘ship’ will mean— ‘spaceship.’

Spare a thought for computers. Today we mostly think of computers as electronic brains. But for nearly 2,000 years people computed using mechanical representations of the virtual things. Wikipedia reviews some of the history.

The astrolabe was invented in the Hellenistic world in either the 1st or 2nd centuries BC and is often attributed to Hipparchus. A combination of the planisphere and dioptra, the astrolabe was effectively an analog computer capable of working out several different kinds of problems in spherical astronomy. An astrolabe incorporating a mechanical calendar computer[citation needed] and gear-wheels was invented by Abi Bakr of Isfahan in 1235. Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī invented the first mechanical geared lunisolar calendar astrolabe, an early fixed-wired knowledge processing machine with a gear train and gear-wheels, circa 1000 AD.

Some of the older readers of the Belmont Club may have actually used mechanical computers themselves in the form of the Slide Rule. Collectors among you can obtain the K+E MODEL 4081-3, as used in Los Alamos to design the A-bomb. Here’s what Slide Rules looked like.

Let's design an A-bomb

Let’s design an A-bomb

Until recently it was believed that only higher forms of life could invent computing devices, though that may depend on how you define a higher life form or a computing device.

How do I compute past 20?

How do I compute past 20?

Roger Penrose observed that computation, in some sense, exists in nature, so it is not surprising that we should use nature to compute. He wrote in his foreword to A Computable Universe:

I am most honoured to have the privilege to present the Foreword to this fascinating and wonderfully varied collection of contributions, concerning the nature of computation and of its deep connection with the operation of those basic laws, known or yet unknown, governing the universe in which we live. Fundamentally deep questions are indeed being grappled with here, and the fact that we find so many different viewpoints is something to be expected, since, in truth, we know little about the foundational nature and origins of these basic laws, despite the immense precision that we so often find revealed in them …

Even if all of this is accepted, we may still ask what would be the use of a little bit of non-computable action, from time to time, for the operation of the brain? … How far outside the normal scheme of computational physics would these hypercomputational actions be?

Penrose’s answer to his own question is worth reading the article for in itself. But none of these concerned the Navy men of World War 2. They had a problem to solve, which was then how to hit an enemy battleship, or airplane, maneuvering at considerable speed over distances of miles. And since they had no electronic circuitry to help them, they solved the problem as men had done for centuries previous. They solved it with precisely machined things.

It is almost a retro experience to hear the film narrator say, “a computer cannot do this without men”. We are used to thinking that computers can do stuff without us. But back in the day men to crank in the inputs. More importantly they had to decide which things to point the 16 inch guns at. For an Iowa Class battleship could sink a US destroyer about as easily as a Japanese destroyer. So men. Those things were taken for granted in those days. We can almost hear Penrose whispering in the background asking, “are there decisions the computer cannot make?”

The old World War 2 guys knew there were some things we had to tell the computer. Today we have gone far beyond the gears, working surfaces and differentials of the 1940s. Compared to it the NSA is a wonder, as far from primitive fire control as a Greek god might be from the amoeba. Yet perhaps we may still need men to decide “at what do we point this vast machine at?”. Maybe that is a decision that even the acres of computers at NSA cannot answer for themselves. It requires someone has to crank it in as input. It’s interesting to realize that in this super-duper universe there are still some choices that must be made by men, though we are working on eliminating that.


The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99
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All Comments   (62)
All Comments   (62)
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In the light of this analysis Carlyle's rhapsody on tools becomes a prosaic fact, and his conclusion—that man without tools is nothing, with tools all—points the way to the discovery of the philosopher's stone in education. For if man without tools is nothing, to be unable to use tools is to be destitute of power; and if with tools he is all, to be able to use tools is to be all-powerful. And this power in the concrete, the power to do some useful thing for man—this is the last analysis of educational truth. Charles H. Ham, Mind and Hand: manual training, the chief factor in education (1900)

Machine or computer, they are still just tools. And really just automated, non-animal powered, machines that apply basic tools in some way. Sure they are tireless, faster (in repetitions), less prone to error (in ways controlled in the design) but they still need a human to decide what the create or destroy or at least whether the thing is of use.

But as others have commented, a person, perhaps only a few hardy souls, need to dig below the automation to develop the intuition to know how to apply the tools to new problems or in new ways to increase output.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I challenge one PJM programmer to actually go home, try to read one topic here and then post a reply to the damn thing. And do this without reaching for the Excedrin or the bottle.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Another thing to consider is the adaptability of the human mind. Early this morning I worked out a plan for an Olympic medalist sailor to come meet the kids in my sailing class. About one hour later he called back and told me that he now had a conflicting dinner to attend that his "people" had forgotten to mention to him. Try that on a computer!

Both us being racing sailors we know that life sometimes throws you a contrary wind shift (a "header") and all you do is change direction ("Tack onto the lift").

Problem solved.

Obama and his "Leaders from Behind" would need a committee meeting to consider possible courses of action, after taking a poll first. But, then again, Obama does own an Olympic medal. We are capable of getting so far inside his OODA loop that we can run rings around him.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
OT, what class do you race in?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Right now mostly J-105. I also have owned a Laser since 1972!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Correction ...does NOT own an Olympic medal...
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
If humans still are physical, not virtual beings, then moving mass will ensure that "ships" means sea going vessels, not spaceships to the bulk of humanity.

As to slide rules, when I working at Gr*mman in 1969, I was the computer savvy newbie doing the heavy computational load with an IBM 360, while the other engineers used slide rules. The computer was a very fast W*ng calculator suitable for doing the repetitive boring grunt work. That "engineering intuition" is what was important to doing what Gr*mman did.

Remember the 1201 program alarms as the Eagle approached landing on the Sea of Tranquility? Jack_Garman Grumman & America put men on the Moon using guys with engineering intuition and slide rules, not Apple apps.

In school we had asked the profs where do we get this "engineering intuition". The answer was hard work and experience. Today they talk about learning to do "critical thinking".

Want to know how? Buy and learn how to use a slide rule.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Were you involved with the Apollo Lunar Module (LM)? That was a nice piece of engineering.

MachiasPrivateer said:

"If humans still are physical, not virtual beings, then moving mass will ensure that "ships" means sea going vessels, not spaceships to the bulk of humanity."

Something I like to meditate upon is the problem of interstellar travel. Assuming that the problem of controlled nuclear fusion can be solved (huge assumption!), the travel times to stars would be on the order of centuries. There's no way that one could transport of biological payload, allow it to be exposed to galactic cosmic radiation for centuries and have it survive. It seems the only way to make interstellar travel work is to transport the radiation sensitive payload as information. For example, all the hardware in a starship would be radiation hardened and highly fault tolerant. It would have a very large and sophisticated computer array with greater than human intelligence. When this starship computer encountered a problem, it would simply fabricate a solution based upon information stored in its memory (the starship would be a self replicating von Neumann machine). Eventually, the starship would reach its destination and need to produce a human crew. It would have the human genome stored in its memory and create a human crew to act as explorers and colonists. This computer could even have complete human consciousnesses stored in its memory (no need to train the newly created humans). After the new bodies were created, the computer could download stored consciousnesses into the newly created bodies.

This last step creates the dilemma. Assuming the computer is so large and sophisticated that it can store complete consciousnesses, why bother having it travel to another star system. Simply create a virtual star system and planets inside the computer and have the stored consciousnesses explore the virtual worlds. The stored consciousnesses would not know the difference.

Chilling thought: How do we know that we are not doing this right now?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
This is the kind of thinking that inspired early SF novels, and has been lost to SF authors for at least one generation. Also why I don't read SF anymore.

(I thought I was replying to your comment, but it ended up linked to MachiasPrivateer's below.)
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
This is the kind of thinking that inspired early SF novels, and has been lost to SF authors for at least a generation. And also why I don't read SF anymore.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
My job was verify the design of the environmental control system for the A-6E. It had been designed for service against the Russians in the Arctic and with the addition of the Digital Integrated Attack/Navigation Equipment (DIANE) and the Norden AN/APQ-148 it needed more cooling for the crew and added electronics in heat of the tropics in Vietnam.

But once a week all us new guys got to meet and tour the various departments. So I saw the LEMs being built, and the simulator used to practice the lunar landing etc. etc.

As an aside, I see that political correctness does not allow me to use the name of the real father of modern word processing Dr. An W*ng! W*ng Labs was IT for word processing back in the day, way before Microsoft Word. Now the word processing software here won't even let you post his name in the comments section of BC!!!!

Those who don't learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Data gathering and "new dinosaur" discoveries
Museums world-wide are full of of un-mounted fossils of ancient creatures and prehistoric human remains. Periodically we read of "new" finds from these fossils -- most of which have been lying unstudied in museum basements for decades.

Data mining of mass data gathering is the bottleneck for everyone from the NSA to NASA to paleontologists, archaeologists and historians. There is much more data than there are skilled people to actually analyze and decipher it. In the end it comes down to knowledgeable people. We credential people nowadays more than we actually educate them. Too many credentialed "scholars" lack a sufficient "database" in their brains to pick up important clues, or to even have a "hey, wait a minute!" moment when they hear or read something that is demonstrably false. I think that is why so much of "scientific" studies and social analysis is off-the-mark trash. Many of these folks are incapable of making cross-references in their heads because they don't have as complete a classic education as they ought to.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Did we used to use our brains more?
Rote memorization of multiplication tables, poems, and grammatical constructs used to be standard. I don't think they are anymore. Also, we used to read more. The value of reading words without accompanying ilustrations is also not stressed as much anymore. The dual process of reading words and simultaneously visualizing what the text is describing really gets the brain humming.

And the ancinets with their memorized epics? Now there's a real feat. We hav e too many crutches nowadays. I still try to do addition, division, and multiplication in may head, and try to make accurate estimates of both weight and dimensions and distance in my head as well. For many people these days those would be "lost arts," often never even learned.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Computer technology is a double edged sword. I can do stuff with a computer in 5 minutes that would have kept a dozen 1960s rocket scientists busy for weeks. However one of those 1960s rocket scientists could probably have derived a closed form solution of the problem and develop an intuitive understanding such that no computer technology would have been required (they'd just build the thing). IMHO, the abuse of computer technology is close to cancelling out its advantages. PowerPoint is particularly evil, where someone can make a really slick presentation but the supporting science is complete rubbish (don't get me started about Excel). The 3-D computer generated animation has long been the curse of aeronautical engineering. One can cook up a completely bogus model that runs well on a computer and produces pretty computer graphics but has little or no use in actual aircraft design, e.g. point vortex methods. It fun to watch a modern CGI movie using computer graphical techniques that were originally developed by the aerospace industry. The animations look cool but they're no good for actually building stuff.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Sort of like early animated toothpaste commercials.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I have two slide rules in the desk drawer, not being one to clean up what does not absolutely need cleaning up.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The instructions that came with the slide rule I used in the 60's refer to the person using the slide rule as the "computer".
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I read of a plan to bring Syrian refugees here. Just what we need: more Muslims, more people on government programs, more of their bitter children.

How many of these refugees are sympathetic to the ''rebels''?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
We have someone who decides where to point the vast machine at.
That persons has decided to point it as his enemies.
The Republican Party, the Tea Party, conservatives in general.
That is how the machine, for all its power, remains utterly oblivious to bombers from Chechnaya and planned attacks on embassies masquerading as spontaneous mobs.
Had Tsarnaev joined the Massachusetts Tea Party instead of the Islamic Society of Boston no one would have been hurt.

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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