Endless Imitation

I’ve often wondered about how things we create so often attempt to “represent” things that are already created. From Object Oriented Design to Database Theory to Human Computer Interaction, there is a theme that I’m only beginning to see, and that is our search for doing things like they are done in the natural world. Sometimes it’s using the examples of schools of fish or clouds of flying grasshoppers to elucidate dense transportation problems. Other times it’s as simple as organizing a set of data the way a tree organizes its leaves for sunlight. As one of my favorite poets writes of little children this way:

Behold the Child among his new-born blisses,
A six years’ Darling of a pigmy size!
See, where ‘mid work of his own hand he lies,
Fretted by sallies of his mother’s kisses,
With light upon him from his father’s eyes!
See, at his feet, some little plan or chart,
Some fragment from his dream of human life,
Shaped by himself with newly-learned art;
    A wedding or a festival,
    A mourning or a funeral;
        And this hath now his heart,
    And unto this he frames his song:
        Then will he fit his tongue
To dialogues of business, love, or strife;
    But it will not be long
    Ere this be thrown aside,
    And with new joy and pride
The little Actor cons another part;
Filling from time to time his “humorous stage”
With all the Persons, down to palsied Age,
That Life brings with her in her equipage;
    As if his whole vocation
    Were endless imitation.

William Wordsworth – Ode: Intimations Of Immortality From Recollections Of Early Childhood

I just finished reading a most interesting article entitled Turing’s Cathedral where George Dyson visits Google on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of John von Neumann’s proposal for a digital computer. All of it is interesting. This part I really liked:

Fifty years later, thanks to solid state micro-electronics, the von Neumann matrix is going strong. The problem has shifted from how to achieve reliable results using sloppy hardware, to how to achieve reliable results using sloppy code. The von Neumann architecture is here to stay. But new forms of architecture, built upon the underlying layers of Turing-von Neumann machines, are starting to grow. What’s next? Where was von Neumann heading when his program came to a halt?

As organisms, we possess two outstanding repositories of information: the information conveyed by our genes, and the information stored in our brains. Both of these are based upon non-von-Neumann architectures, and it is no surprise that Von Neumann became fascinated with these examples as he left his chairmanship of the AEC (where he had succeeded Lewis Strauss) and began to lay out the research agenda that cancer prevented him from following up. He considered the second example in his posthumously-published The Computer and the Brain.

“The message-system used in the nervous system… is of an essentially statistical character,” he explained. “In other words, what matters are not the precise positions of definite markers, digits, but the statistical characteristics of their occurrence… a radically different system of notation from the ones we are familiar with in ordinary arithmetics and mathematics… Clearly, other traits of the (statistical) message could also be used: indeed, the frequency referred to is a property of a single train of pulses whereas every one of the relevant nerves consists of a large number of fibers, each of which transmits numerous trains of pulses. It is, therefore, perfectly plausible that certain (statistical) relationships between such trains of pulses should also transmit information…. Whatever language the central nervous system is using, it is characterized by less logical and arithmetical depth than what we are normally used to [and] must structurally be essentially different from those languages to which our common experience refers.”

Or, as his friend Stan Ulam put it,” What makes you so sure that mathematical logic corresponds to the way we think?”

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