Contraception? Evil. Kids getting their hands on Daddy’s guns and blowing holes in each other? The price of Freedom. U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

“the proudest products of our little world”

Ah, the “who speaks for Earth?” parlour game. It’s up there with “which historical figure would you like to have for dinner” and “if you could be a fictional character for a day” for entertaining displays of merrily frivolous erudition. Who—drawing, if we like, from all human history—should be our representatives to an alien civilization? What, in our fantasy, would the aliens appreciate, and who embodies those qualities? Danny Inouye? Lyudmila Pavlichenko? Honinbo Sansa? Sappho? Eratosthenes? Josephine Baker? Emmy Noether? Malcolm X? Alan Turing? Ahmes? Yoko Kanno? Srinivasa Ramanujan?

And what do our choices say about ourselves, about the way we codify canons and build cultural capital?

Per this entertaining development, I’m reminded of something the science writer Timothy Ferris once wrote:

Imagine that we here on Earth have made contact with an interstellar network and have downloaded thousands of simulations from its memory banks. All over the planet people are putting on VR helmets and immersing themselves in the art, culture, and science of alien worlds. We in turn have uplinked whole libraries’ worth of Bach, Beethoven, Shakespeare, Lao Tzu, Homer, Van Gogh and Rembrandt, Newton and Einstein, Darwin and Watson and Crick, the proudest products of our little world. Yet we appreciate that our wisdom and science are limited, our art to some degree provincial. There may be an audience somewhere among the stars for Virgil and Dante and Kubrick and Kurosawa, just as there may be some humans who genuinely enjoy the poetry of the crystalline inhabitants of Ursa Major AC+ 79 3888, but it is apt to be a limited audience. Our movies and plays are not likely to find a wide popular following in the Milky Way galaxy—any more than many humans settling down on the sofa after dinner are likely to watch an infrasonic opera that lasts ten years, the cast of which are alien invertebrates who dine on live spiders.

Continue reading “the proudest products of our little world”

Can Stephen Wolfram Catch Carmen Sandiego?

Via Chris Granade, I learned we now have an actual implementation of Wolfram Language to play around with. Wolfram lauds the Wolfram Programming Cloud, the first product based on the Wolfram Language:

My goal with the Wolfram Language in general—and Wolfram Programming Cloud in particular—is to redefine the process of programming, and to automate as much as possible, so that once a human can express what they want to do with sufficient clarity, all the details of how it is done should be handled automatically. [my emphasis]

Ah. You mean, like programming?

Wolfram’s example of the Wolfram Programming Cloud is “a piece of code that takes text, figures out what language it’s in, then shows an image based on the flag of the largest country where it’s spoken.” The demo shows how the WPC maps the string good afternoon to the English language, the United States and thence to the modern US flag.

English is an official language of India, which exceeds the US in population size, and of Canada, which exceeds the US in total enclosed area.

The Wolfram Language documentation indicates that “LargestCountry” means “place with most speakers”; by this standard, the US comes out on top (roughly 300 million speakers, versus 125 million for India and 28 million for Canada). But that’s not the problem we were supposed to solve: “place with most speakers” is not the same as “largest country where the language is spoken.”

Even the programming languages which are sold as doing what you mean still just do what you say.