Epistemic Flatland

Imagine that you had to develop a working toy model of reality that captured not the entire facts of the matter as they are in our world but instead was required to model solely the epistemological[1] part. You might imagine the world as a boundless two-dimensional spatial plane, something like Flatland[2] perhaps. Let us call this toy model Epistemic Flatland. I am not suggesting an infinite plane, perhaps the plane wraps around on itself like the surface of a sphere, in such a way that it is finite but with no edges. On the plane “live” two-dimensional beings that have two sense organs, one for input, one for output, and a rudimentary “brain” with the faculty of language.

What internal machinery would these toy beings need to perform basic cognition and recognition. What internal machinery would these micro-inforgs[3] require to “speak”, make simple judgements and perform elementary logical operations, perceive and make sense of their world? Would these beings exhibit emotion and display affect as they each internally simulate their own little world and have their expectations met and thwarted? Each being or system would have a permeable boundary that encloses its internal structures and separates the system from its environment but allows data and information to pass through. It seems like an impossibly complex micro-world to construct; it seems like a thought experiment whose realization in the actual world is an impossible task. Nonetheless it is a thought experiment that I have found illuminating and instructive to play with.

In software engineering confounded programmers routinely ask for help with non-working code on web forums. A common request by the peers of the perplexed is for a minimal working example[4]. That is to say a snippet of the entire whole is requested that demonstrates the piece of non-working code or markup is requested. All other non-impinging details are stripped away to reveal the essential workings of the problem. What I am suggesting is that the grand project of epistemology is nothing else but to construct Epistemic Flatland. How much of this world (our universe) can we strip away and yet retain beings with the features of basic learning, basic cognition, basic pattern-matching and semiosis? The beings would not have to be recognisably human in any way but they would have to exhibit the recognisably epistemic features of human beings: language, subjectivity, and so on. How much “cheating” would be allowable, how atomic would this micro-world have to get in other words.

I believe that there could be value in creating a global challenge with a substantial monetary reward the better to spur research (something akin to the Millennium Prize Problems) with Epistemic Flatland as the goal.

Imagine if this universe we find ourselves in is just that minimal working example, perfectly coincided with it! And imagine further if we could prove that situation to be the case.

obligatory wikipedia links :)

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistemology

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flatland

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inforg

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minimal_Working_Example

plugins and packages and extensions and bundles, oh my!

I’ve had a gripe about open-source (okay, free software!) package management for the longest time.

I would give a kidney (I swear I nearly would) if my OS’s package manager managed all my packages.

But it does you say?

No. I just spent the last 10 minutes installing a plugin (Vim-Ruby) for Vim. First I decided which Vim package manager I should use. I chose Pathogen fairly arbitrarily. Then I checked whether Ubuntu itself packaged Pathogen. Yay, it does. Then I checked whether the Ubuntu version is fairly up to date. Yay, it is. Then I installed Pathogen via Synaptic hoping that it will stay current. This is not always the case. Ruby gems (and their attendant package managers (yes, plural!) Rubygems and Bundler) are a big not always the case. Then I install Vim-Ruby like so:

git clone git://github.com/vim-ruby/vim-ruby.git ~/.vim/bundle/vim-ruby

And then I have to remember to keep this up to date independently of apt.

Why, can’t sub package manager’s hook into the system package manager? I want to be able to go to one place to install a blob of code, be it a system level package, a language level package, an editor level package, a browser level package. Last I checked:

PHP             Pear
Ruby            Rubygems, (mention not RVM...)
Python          Eggs
Haskell         Cabal
Chrome          Extensions
Firefox         Add-ons
Eclipse         Aaaaaaargh
Vim             Pathogen
Emacs           ELPA (? I don't know, I'm a Vim guy)
Perl            CPAN
LaTeX           CTAN

There has to be a better way people. Even if it’s just exposing each plugin/package/extension sub-system to a central registry so that they appear centralised in Synaptic. I think I may have blogged about this before. In a fevered dream.

I’d be grateful for any corrections and more subsystems to add to the list, probably should make a wiki.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the enormous coordination problem. But if we can do it at the OS level, can we not do it at the subsystem level. I guess it’s mostly programmers that’ll encounter this, or maybe it isn’t? There must be a better way.

The Different Types of Open

I used to think open beat closed and that was that. Linux goodWindows bad. Open better. Closed worse. One type of open. Simples.

A neat and easy dichotomy, open versus closed source, one type of open, what’s not to get?

Take the word better and apply the is/ought distinction to it. Not that simple it turns out. The free software movement is predicated on the notion that proprietary software is anti-social and, to put it bluntly, immoral – it is worse in the ethical sense. The open source camp take a more pragmatic approach – they say that proprietary software is a worse way engineering-wise to build software. I won’t go into the fine details here, I’ve done so elsewhere. But you get the idea.

Now the free software foundation defines software to be free (open if you will) if the software adheres to four freedoms

  • The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Mostly this gets boiled down to having access to the source code. The source code is open to you. For now let’s just pretend that these finer distinctions don’t matter.

For the longest while I thought that this was the openness that mattered. Initially it came from the desire to being able to tinker (pragmatic) but then once I saw how proprietary software could lead to abuse I began to take a more moral stance. But I’m not a zealot, I run Ubuntu which has non-free bits and have run MacOSX in the past and will use Windows in the university. But generally speaking I have drunk the FOSS kool-aid.

But actually, in the first place, for the longest while I had no conception of this distinction. It was something I luckily managed to learn. Partly from being a dilettante developer and tinkerer. Partly fortune. Most people never come to conceive of the divided state of affairs in software in this manner.

It was with the release of iOS and the iPhone and the Apple Store that I realised that there is for sure more than one type of open. Say I develop an app for the iPhone. I need to pay Apple money and get their permission and abide by their rules to get my app in front of users. Wow. I don’t think this was ever in Microsoft’s DNA. That is why proprietary (rather than closed) software is a better moniker for software where one does not have access to the source. Because DOS and Windows have never precluded 3rd party developers from their platform in that way (give or take secret APIs and breaking the software of direct competitors: *cough* DrDOS *cough*by way of example). So in a way DOS back in the day and Windows were open to some extent and so calling them closed misses the mark, proprietary (or non-free) is more apt. Hence the PC revolution. Nowadays Android allows what is called side-loading. Android is not only more open because the source code is not proprietary but it is more open because you can side-load. MacOSX has always allowed this so Apple has made its mobile offerings more restrictive than it s desktop and server offerings (because they are aware that the paradigms are seen as different and there would be a geek revolt). Thems are nice handcuffs Apple. So this is kind of freedom 0, being able to get the bloody app onto your device in a fairly hassle-free manner. Jail-breaking does not count. Let’s call this open loading.

Now Microsoft has long made its document files opaque binary blobs. Let’s call this open formats. Software is data and code. Data gives us format tussles. Code gives us source tussles. And what about opaque binary network protocols? Let’s call this open wiring. Again, the internet is the internet because the wiring is open from the bottom of the stack to the top. As opposed to Netware, say, or SMB.

I think that it is safe to say that a lot of battles have been won in relation to open source, loading, formats and wiring. Let’s call these collectively open platforms.


The free software movement started way before the web was a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee’s eyes. (That reads badly, never mind – this is off the cuff.) I want to talk about two other types of open that become apparent in a radically networked world. The first is the openness that federation brings. The second is the openness that Karl Popper referred to in The Open Society and its Enemies.

Let me make this clear. The postal service is open because it is federated. The plain old telephone system is open because it is federated. Email is open because it is federated. Internet relay chat (Irc) is open because it is federated. Don’t get me wrong. I have a fixed line or mobile telephone provider but I can switch if I’m unhappy and the person I’m calling does not need to have the same provider. By this way of thinking Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Skype, Viber, WhatsApp, Line, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, Snapchat, ICQ, Apple iMessage, Microsoft WhateverItIsCalledIDoNotActuallyKnow, and on and on, I’ve probably forgotten a whole bunch, are not open. We can clearly see from this that social networking and instant messaging are not open. Let’s call this open social.

I think that it is safe to say that the defenders of openness haven’t even gotten to this battlefield yet. This is an exaggeration, sure – a rhetorical flourish. There is Diaspora* and the Freedom Box and SIP and Jabber and so on but we’re a long long way from the Android of open social.

Let’s call open platforms and open social together open ecosystems. To my mind if you use Linux and email (and irc) you’re more or less using an open ecosystem but you don’t have the key parts of social like following and un-following and rating and sharing and so on. What social networking and instant messaging desperately needs is radical federation and it can’t come soon enough for this despairing digital voice.

Since Snowden began revealing what “intelligence” agencies do in the dark we have been getting a steady drip-drip of troubling revelation after revelation. It would in truth be just too depressing to even begin to enumerate the ways in which our notions of our digital lives as private have been eviscerated. (My editor promises me that that sentence will be put through the wringer.) Government (or the State) argues that there must be a certain amount of secrecy for it to function effectively. I think the defining political challenge of our time in the era of digital technology is to figure out how transparent government needs to be.

When we have open ecosystems and open government then we’ll have an open society. I think while we’re waiting for open government we need open ecosystems plus pervasive and strong and secure encryption. I believe Popper argued that only open societies can do science. I think that claim has been falsified by all actually existing nation states. I think science happens despite the lack of openness in society. I don’t think we’ll get open societies without open ecosystems and ubiquitous and rock-solid encryption. It would be interesting if we were able to perform sociological simulations that could give us a blueprint for which types of societies nurture openness best. I know that sounds like total pie in the sky but maybe we’ll be able to perform such magic sooner rather than later.

Does anyone out there have any other types of open they’d like to share?

(1st draft, getting it out there, pointers to typos and brain-farts gladly accepted)

I wish someone had told me

that The Road by Cormac McCarthy is the unholy union of The Stand by Stephen King, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainance by Robert M. Pirsig and Hunger by Knut Hamsun.

Except I think that King does post-apocalyptic ghoulishness better and more scary, Pirsig does father/son road trip better and more philosophical, and Hamsun does starvation better and more funny.

You can probably see from this how I practically failed English Lit. as an undergrad.

    Do I have to finish the book, Papa?
    Yes son, yes you do.
    I'm scared Papa.
    Dont be son, The Stand by Stephen King is hella scarier.

Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Exodus, chapter 22 שְׁמוֹת

כ וְגֵר לֹא-תוֹנֶה, וְלֹא תִלְחָצֶנּוּ: כִּי-גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. 20
כא כָּל-אַלְמָנָה וְיָתוֹם, לֹא תְעַנּוּן. 21
כב אִם-עַנֵּה תְעַנֶּה, אֹתוֹ–כִּי אִם-צָעֹק יִצְעַק אֵלַי, שָׁמֹעַ אֶשְׁמַע צַעֲקָתוֹ. 22
כג וְחָרָה אַפִּי, וְהָרַגְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בֶּחָרֶב; וְהָיוּ נְשֵׁיכֶם אַלְמָנוֹת, וּבְנֵיכֶם יְתֹמִים. 23


Concept Juice & Book Shape

I am setting this idea free into the universe in the hope that someone will help me.

Man is shaped by his tools and media. This is a bit abstract, a bit vague. Let me give you an example the is directly relevant to my life. I have to write a thesis. A thesis has a certain shape and form. Certain un-get-around-able conventions. English is read from left to right and from top to bottom. One proceeds from the start and works ones way linearly through the thesis. A thesis is a scholarly work, it contains notes (be they footnotes or endnotes), it contains a table of contents, acknowledgements, and so on. There is a rigid paratext. The content itself is restricted to non-fiction, must have a degree of originality, must push back the boundaries of knowledge somewhat, should refer inter-textually to the scholarly universe.

Even though we now use electronic typewriters we (academics) still produce PDFs to be sent to the printer to be converted into a stream of linear pages to be bound. To be sure there is non-linear structure to a thesis what with sections and sub-sections, a tree-like structure.

But what if we were to set the thesis free? To allow it to be pathologically non-linear if necessary, to be recursive, to contain computational elements, to be (though I’m told the term is passé) interactive? What then?

Concept Juice is going to be a Ruby on Rails web application. It’ll allow me to play with the stuff of thought. (Not at all ambitious then.) My hunch is that Concepts will be typed, as in intuitionistic type theory(ITT). Don’t ask me to explain why I believe that or what I mean by that. That’s for another time. Also, a problem – I don’t know how to code ITT. So I’m asking the universe for help. Essentially think about Concept Juice like a mind mapping software where topics and sub-topics are replaced by typed entities. Because I can’t get my head fully around ITT I’m going to cheat and just make concepts Ruby types for now and convert them to ITT later. I’m also going to allow for vague types and families of vague types meaning that you can have two concepts that you haven’t pinned down but they’ll be regarded by the system as similar because they are of the same vague type if you see what I mean. I don’t know what it would mean to have a concept with no type or a nil or null type, I’d love other people’s thoughts on that.

Book Shape will know about scholarly works and will exist as a library, a ruby gem. It is fed a stream of pages (a path is traced through a thicket of content) and that path has very definite pages: a cover, a title page, an edition notice, one or more pages for a list of figures, one or more pages for a table of contents, one or more pages for acknowledgements, one or more pages for a foreword, one or more pages for a preface, one or more pages for the actual content, a bibliography, endnotes, an index. Book Shape generates a LaTeX project (XeTeX flavour I imagine) and from there a PDF can be generated.

Fly into the world pretty ideas.

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Inspiration from l33t speak by Lola Jones

Really the End of History

Francis Fukayama was right but not in the way he thought he was right. In his 1989 book, The End of History, Fukayama famously argued that liberal democracy and capitalism have won (so to speak) and so that, by consequence, we are entering into an era where local, regional, and global governments are and will continue to be liberal democracies and that their economies are and will adhere to free market capitalist ideals. He talks about countries and nation states ‘getting on the escalator’ – note the upward trend in that metaphor.

History is a nightmare from which we struggle to waken. That communities in conflict remain in conflict because they cannot drop their historical baggage and unlink the historical chains that bind them to the past should be obvious to anybody after a moment’s recollection. History will be at an end when a negative attitude towards the historicization of the past prevails in very much the same way as the project of negative ethics treats moralism with a high degree of suspicion.

Fukayama’s thesis concerns just two social systems, the political and economic. These are important institutions but society is not dominated by these institutions. Note that Fukayama is making a social claim when declaring that history in its entirety is at an end when certain economic and political orders have prevailed. Fukayama’s thesis is part assertion and part prediction. That assertion, into which discipline does it fall? That prediction, into which discipline does it fall?

Those who argue with Fukayama’s thesis are falling into the same trap that Fukayama has fallen into. They are arguing over details. Everyone has their own favourite economic system and political system. Everyone identifies with a certain way of distributing power and property – these ideological commitments shape every one of us. The system that wins out is perhaps the system that has the better propaganda. And what better propaganda to claim, that ideologically speaking, your side has won and so the other sides should put down their ideologies. This is the trap, we must transcend ideology. The end of history is marked by a future where history loses its grip on our minds, not a future where my economic and political team has overcome your team.

Incidentally (though it does not affect my main point) Fukayama’s thesis commits a couple of errors within its own world-view. First it commits the error of thinking that democracy (as such) and capitalism (as such) go hand in hand ideologically speaking. Just because you grew up where the river flowed west-to-east down the valley does not mean that every river one encounters in life will flow west-to-east. This is just a feature of your natural local geography. Why would you think it applies globally? Secondly to believe that the political joke that is the Western liberal democratic project in any way resembles unanimous direct democratic ideals is laughable – to claim that the crony capitalism that infects the markets today is an honest stand in for regulated free market capitalism is to show yourself as worryingly blinkered.

So it goes.

History will be at an end when we wake up from history, only this is true – everything else is ideological nonsense and sleight of hand.

Let Me Show You What I See (part II)

In the last post a while back I gave a run-down of Rosenbloom’s attempt to build secure foundations (if I may use that overworked metaphor) for the digital humanities. Read his attempt. Read my recap. Proceed.

First off, what have we learnt? We have learnt that in order to be heard at all one must be published in Digital Humanities Quarterly, uh, this is obviously the first take home point.

But seriously … the first point of criticism that I will make is that though Rosenbloom leans heavily on the philosophy of science it is interesting that philosophy itself must necessarily fall outside of the four great scientific domains as he conceives them. But I’m sure Rosenbloom would agree that the philosophy of science has helped increase his understanding of this problem space and was in some way a bridge to his conceptual framework. If this is the case then philosophy is at once scientific (using Rosenbloom’s definition of scientific) and yet outside every great scientific domain. What are we to make of this?

Second off, the contrasting of understanding versus shaping seems to have echoes in the more standard contrasting of theoretical with practical or in another way the formal with the applied. Again, what are we to make of this? The formal sciences are often seen as a great scientific domain, but in Rosenbloom’s conception of things they all seem to fall under computing science. I’m not saying that he is wrong, I’m just saying that in the usual way of seeing things, they are seen as their own separate thing.

Third, and this is more of a meta-point. It occurs to me that really we should settle these debates in the digital humanities using methods from humanities computing if we were to stay true to our motto, “shine a computational light on problems in the humanities”. I have an idea how that might happen but that is for another day. The debates in the digital humanities inhabit a problem space in the humanities surely, traverse this problem space with computational methods I say.

Let’s proceed the more traditional route for now though. Which is words on a page, digital and virtual though that page may be. What exactly is the problem? Why is Rosenbloom even putting forward a conceptual framework in the first place? It is because institutionally and methodologically digital or computational methods challenge, or at the very least cause us to revisit the methodological issues of the humanities. This feeds into the perennial crisis in the humanities. I will demonstrate how I make that link. Whatever the purported crisis in the humanities is claimed to be I claim that really what the humanities suffers from is a deep-rooted methodological and epistemological angst. In less highfalutin and less obscurantist jargon the humanities does not know how it must know what it must know.

If you think that a strange viewpoint let me present to you the birth of the humanities. Because it is here we should look. It is here where the Rosenbloom’s of the world should look. I asked our coordinator, Brendan Dooley, in a kind of jokey aside at a tedious academic meet n greet, “where-from the humanities”. I did not at all expect the answer I got. Chalk it down to my endless ignorance, my dismay at which drives me to dithering procrastination. Dooley said Petrarch. I had not expected Petrarch. But Dooley is a professor of Renaissance History and this is exactly the factoid that should reside in his nonce. Curiously though, as coordinator of the digital humanities programme here I do not recall Dooley having ever shared this salient factoid. But then again, maybe nobody had asked, “where-from the humanities”.

What the majority (that’s a hedge, I’m guessing that it’s actually all) of the arguments in the debates in the digital humanities fail to do is enquire into the origins of the humanities. Granted we must give an account of the digital but we must also give an account of the humanities and that means giving an account of the origins of the humanities. That is the way to proceed. That it took me two years to ask the question myself is worrying. Maybe humanities scholars (I dislike the term ‘humanists’ for some unknown reason) are so acquainted with the origins of their own meta-discipline that my enquiry is seen as trite or pointless. But sometimes the best questions are exceedingly obvious, at least superficially.

It turns out that Petrarch is called the “father of humanism”. This is interesting. It makes us realise that the humanities hasn’t always been a feature of the academy and that there was a period when it came into being. I won’t dig too deeply into the historical intricacies (me, a historian? never) but I will say that up until Petrarch or thereabout what was thought to be the proper object of study was theology or law or logic: things of this nature, austere, absolute, you get the idea. A change occurs around this time: man is deemed to be worthy of study in his own right. How to do this? By studying the works and history of man. And how does one do this? Mainly by literary and artistic criticism and the compilation and study of histories. I really should read up more on this era but it is my feeling that what could be called the humanist turn which eventually led to secular humanism and the loosening of the grip of religious temperament in Europe at least had its origins in ideas that crystallised around about the time of Petrarch. This is important. Petrarch also coined the term, “the Dark Ages” which enabled the term Renaissance. This is how meta-narratives are built. And meta-narratives, like most narratives, are fictions.

Crisis, what crisis? Really? Is there a crisis in the first place? Yes. But don’t focus on percentages or totals graduating or any of that. Crisis, which etymologically speaking derives from decision is an apt designator in this instance as it highlights the indecision that has in part debilitated the humanities project and by extension an indecision which the digital humanities has inherited. What is significant about the digital is not some kind of paradigmatic revolution. What is significant about the digital in the context of the perennial crisis in the humanities is that this refocussing on methodology gives us a space in which we can step back and look at what it is exactly the humanities is meant to be all about in the first place and how it is meant to be going at what it is about. All this requires philosophical insights. Strange then that philosophy departments are housed administratively and institutionally with humanities departments.

Science went through the same wringer. Of course it did. I am most emphatically not setting up that tired dualism. If something proceeds by the scientific method it is scientific. Up until now I am guessing that the methodological crisis in the humanities has been located by commentators within the qualitative/quantitative debate. Where qualitative is a shorthand for the human and messy and quantitative is a shorthand for the numeric/machinic and precise. I reject this duality, again this is talk for another day — this is not how I would characterise the science/humanities debate.

Nowadays we reject theological explanations. We demand scientific explanations. The same tectonic move in the history of ideas that can bring about these altered worldviews and demands also allows us to consider man as worthy of scrutiny. If we are to take the scientific approach however we would study man and his relations and society with a ruthless objective dehumanising gaze. But that is not how we go about things. What we have done is assert that we can “know man” or in other words “explain ourselves to ourselves” by looking at our literary, artistic, architectural and historical works. Generally, this was done initially by reading verse and history. The practise developed from there. Take note that the novel form was developed after the humanist turn. This is not a coincidence, nothing in the history of ideas happens out of coincidence.

For one who does philosophy I am mentioning history a lot. I have become as deeply suspicious of the historical project as Plato was suspicious of the poets. I think Plato missed a beat though, the poets never claimed to stand in for the reality they were imitating whereas historians (all hand-waving aside) do. History, narrative history is as much a product of literature as the novel is. I am not denying that things happen and that in happening they can be recorded. I merely want to point out that the story that I construct about my own life is just that, it is a story, it is not me. It’s just a nice fiction that I overlay on my actual being whatever that is. History is an accumulation of memoir and purported event. For the longest time I held fiction and reality in opposition such that reality partakes of the real or true and thus fiction must partake of the unreal or untrue. But fictions are neither true nor false. Fictions are as real as reality is real, they just generally have less footnotes.

My point is (to crib from Rorty’s playful characterisation of philosophy as “a literary genre”) that history is not something very far removed from the rest of literature. It is a literary genre that pretends to strut about the stage as fact. Mostly what history-as-narrative does is create and sustain collective identities. This is what I do when I construct the story of my own life, I create a narrative thread upon which to hang my identity.

Properly when we speak of history we should say which history: political history, economic history, history of ideas, popular history, and so on like this. That history until Marx was predominantly aristocratic history is undeniable in retrospect. The science of the past is archaeology, not history; the science of man is anthropology, not sociology.

What is undeniable also is that the digital humanities have finally breached this methodological beachhead. That disciplines like computational stylistics use wads of raw text as their proximate object of study highlights the textual nature of the humanities. We were always meant to use the text as a vehicle to get to the “human condition”. That is the entire methodological premise behind what happens in the humanities. We study Holden Caulfield and Lolita in the same way we study Julius Caesar. And not only that, we recognise now that a mere sliver of actual-existing humanity is immortalised in text. And only a sliver of all fictions become canonised. Characters like Holden Caulfied and Lolita are the emperors of our time.

I don’t deny that the desire to turn the microscope on ourselves is very powerful. I would question however our deci-millennial attempt. Literature does many things. I think the humanities has always fudged the many different functions of literature and art architecture. There is much consolation and despair and beauty and ugliness to be mined in the word- and art- and built-hoard of humanity.

I thought I could say what I wanted to say and I see now that I couldn’t. Oh well.