Moulton's blog

A Dance at the Dawn of Consciousness

October 31, 2020 by Moulton   Comments (0)

The Orenda Project Presents

A Dance at the Dawn of Consciousness

A Mythical Creation Story of the Information Age

Starring the Fawn, the Faun, and a Jaunty Unicorn, with special guest appearance of the Noughty Bit playing the inevitable roll of the heavy heavy heart, plus plenty of oderous and amusing hot cross puns.

Produced by the MuseNet Players, who unbeknownst to ourselves, came forth with the ideas encapsulated in this Creation Myth of the Dawn of Communitas.

"At God's Behest, We Humbly Offer Myth and Merriment Reflected with Mirthful Art."

How I Escaped Going To Prison

December 2, 2016 by Moulton   Comments (1)

Last Spring, I was filling in for a colleague who had been tutoring some high school students in mathematics. My colleague and his wife were spending a month in California when their daughter was giving birth to a new baby. And so I was filling in for him two afternoons a week in Cary Memorial Library in Lexington MA, working with a pair of high school students who were struggling with Algebra and Calculus.

As is my custom, I typically selected one of my math-motif sweatshirts for the occasion.  Like this one:

I Ate Some Pie

As I was coming out of Cary Library late one afternoon, I was accosted by a stranger who asked me to explain the curious mathematical symbols on my sweatshirt. That pedestrian turned out to be a rather gregarious chap named Rob Kanzer who then befriended me and also invited me to come as his guest to a meeting of Lexington Toastmasters.

And so begins my saga of how I avoided going to prison.

Toastmasters is a club where the members learn and practice the art of public speaking. The club has a highly structured meeting format, where the participants take turns in a variety of roles, all of which involve some aspect of speaking in front of a group.

I do a lot of writing (mostly on the Internet), but I rarely do public speaking. It's not exactly a skill that I need or use as a retired science educator. But it occurred to me that I could use some practice learning to become a better listener, and so I agreed to join Lexington Toastmasters for that purpose.

And this is where I took the road less traveled in the annals of Toastmasters. I only joined the local chapter, declining to join Toastmasters International, as their course in public speaking frankly did not interest me.  

All was well for the first six months until there was a change in leadership. The person who had previously been the site's WebMaster became the new Sergeant at Arms, and so I was asked to take on the vacated role of WebMaster.  So far so good.

Since I had only paid up my local dues (and not the portion of the semi-annual dues that normally goes to Toastmasters International), the new Vice President of Membership soon raised a red flag. One seemingly minor detail was that, as WebMaster, I was logging into the web site without being an authorized member in the eyes of Toastmasters International (which provided the servers for the web site).

Joining Toastmasters International (TMI) included a lot more than just paying the portion of dues that goes to TMI. Originally, Toastmasters began a century ago at a midwestern YMCA, to help inarticulate male adolescents learn to become better speakers. I had remarked that the course in public speaking was uncommonly regimented, but this off-putting feature turned out to be a holdover from the educational model the founder, Ralph C. Smedley, had developed a century ago for his demographic of inarticulate adolescents at the local YMCA in Bloomington Illinois.

Indeed, the whole structure of Toastmasters International was similarly regimented, with features that reminded me of Middle School and Boy Scouts. For the life of me, I didn't apprehend why these anachronistic features belonged in Lexington Toastmasters, which is largely comprised of urbane well-educated adult professionals and retirees. To me, these features felt inappropriate, unconstructive, and downright infantilizing.

But that's not the real problem. The real problem is CFAA, the Federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which makes it a Federal Felony to log into a web site without express authorization from the web site owner. Aaron Swartz, a gifted scholar at Harvard, was indicted under CFAA and threatened with 35 years in prison for accessing an archive of academic articles at MIT. He committed suicide rather than face trial at the hands of the US Attorney.

Now I frankly don't expect to be indicted by the US Attorney if I cavalierly log on to the Toastmasters web site in violation of the CFAA. But I'd still be in technical violation of CFAA, and that really is a Federal Felony. While I would not compare my story to the life and tragic death of Aaron Swartz, yet it was his technical violation with CFAA that disrupted the collegiality and congeniality of MIT and ultimately cost him his life.

And so, thanks to the long and violent arm of the Rule of Law, I found that I was obliged to part company with Lexington Toastmasters.

And that's how I escaped the terrifying spectre of going to prison.

The Turtling Test

December 15, 2014 by Moulton   Comments (0)

Museum Entrance 

The Cyberion City Museum welcomes you! In the Computer Museum you will find a one-act play about Alan Turing and computer consciousness. "The Turtling Test" stars Achilles and the Tortoise, who formerly appeared in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, 'Goedel, Escher, Bach' by Douglas Hofstadter. The Children's wing of the Museum currently features Letters From Children Around the World, culled from the KIDS-91 and KIDS-92 Newsletters, as reprinted on KIDSPHERE (formerly called KIDSNET).

Science and Technology Council Mission Statement

Obvious exits: 
Computer Museum .. Curio Shop .. Children's Wing .. Sundial Room .. Out

You head North to explore The World of Computers.

Computer Museum 
Welcome to the Computer Museum. We are proud to present "The Turtling Test" by Moulton, a one-act play starring Achilles and the Tortoise. Please make yourself at home. Thank you for your patronage!

The Great Achilles 
The Venerable Tortoise

Obvious exits: 

The Great Achilles 
You see the famous fleet footed athlete of Greek Mythology.

The Venerable Tortoise 
You see the slow-moving but thoughtful tortoise of Greek Mythology.

Welcome! You're just in time! The show will be starting in 30 seconds.

The Turtling Test, starring Achilles and the Tortoise. The scene is the Computer Museum.

The stage lights come up on Achilles and the Tortoise....

Achilles: Good morning, Mr. T!

Tortoise: Good day, Achilles. What a wonderful day for touring the computer museum.

Achilles: Yes, it's quite amazing to realize how far our computer technology has come since the days of Von Neumann and Turing.

Tortoise: It's interesting that you mention Alan Turing, for I've been doing some biographical research on him. He is a most interesting and enigmatic character.

Achilles: Biographical research? That's a switch. Usually people like to talk about his Turing Test, in which a human judge tries to distinguish which of two individuals is the human and which is the computer, based on their answers to questions posed by the judge over a teletype link. To tell you the truth, I'm getting a little tired of hearing people talk about it so much.

Tortoise: You have a fine memory, my friend, but I'm afraid you'll be disappointed when I tell you that the Turing Test does come up in my work.

Achilles: In that case, don't tell me.

Tortoise: Fair enough. Perhaps you would be interested to know what Alan Turing would have done next if he hadn't died so tragically in his prime.

Achilles: That's an interesting idea, but of course it's impossible to say.

Tortoise: If you mean we'll never know for sure, I would certainly agree. But I have just come up with a way to answer the question anyway.

Achilles: Really?

Tortoise: Really. You see, I have just constructed a model of Alan Turing's brain, based on a careful examination of everything he read, saw, did, or wrote about during his tragic career.

Achilles: Everything?

Tortoise: Well, not quite everything -- just the things I know about from the archives and from his notes and effects. That's why it's just a model and not an exact duplicate of his brain. It would be a perfect model if I could discover everything he ever saw, learned, or discovered.

Achilles: Amazing!

Tortoise: Since Turing had a very logical mind, I merely start with his accumulated knowledge and reason logically to what he would have investigated next. Interestingly, this leads to a possible hypothesis explaining why Turing committed suicide.

Achilles: Fantastic! Let's hear your theory.

Tortoise: A logical next step after devising the Turing Test would be to give the formal definition of a Turing Machine to computer 'A' (which, since it's a computer, happens to be a Turing Machine itself) and ask it to decide if another system (call it machine 'B') is a Turing Machine.

Achilles: I don't get it. What is machine 'A' supposed to do to decide the question?

Tortoise: Why it merely devises a test which only a Turing Machine could pass, such as a computation that a lesser beast would choke on. Then it administers the Test to machine 'B' to see how it handles the challenge.

Achilles: Are you sure that a Turing Machine knows how to devise such a test in the first place?

Tortoise: That's a good question. I suppose it depends on how the definition of a Turing Machine is stated. Clearly, a good definition would be one which states or implies a practical way to decide if an arbitrary hunk of matter possesses the property of being a Turing Machine. In this case, it's safe to assume that the problem was well-posed, meaning that the definition was sufficiently complete.

Achilles: So what happened next?

Tortoise: You mean what does my model of Turing's brain suggest as the next logical step?

Achilles: Of course, Mr. T. I quite forgot what level we were operating on.

Tortoise: Next, Machine 'A' would be asked if Machine 'A' itself fit the definition of a Turing Machine!

Achilles: Wow! You mean you can ask a machine to examine its own makeup?

Tortoise: Why not? In fact many modern computers have built-in self diagnostic systems. Why can't a computer devise a diagnostic program to see what kind of computer it is? As long as it's given the definition of a Turing Machine, it can administer the test to itself and see if it passes.

Achilles: Holy Holism! Computers can become self-aware of what they are?!

Tortoise: That would seem to be the case.

Achilles: What happens next?

Tortoise: You tell me.

Achilles: The Turing Machine tries the Turing Test on a human.

Tortoise: Very good. And what is the outcome?

Achilles: The human passes?

Tortoise: Right!

Achilles: So Alan Turing concludes that he's nothing more than a Turing Machine, which makes him so depressed he eventually commits suicide.

Tortoise: Maybe.

Achilles: What else could there be?

Tortoise: Let's go back to your last conclusion. You said, 'Turing concludes that he's nothing more than a Turing Machine.'

Achilles: I don't follow your point.

Tortoise: Suppose Turing wants to prove conclusively that he was something more than 'just a Turing Machine.'

Achilles: I see. He had a Turing Machine in him, but he wanted to know what else he was that was more than just a machine.

Tortoise: Right. So he searched for some way to discover how he differed from a machine in an important way.

Achilles: And he couldn't discover any way?

Tortoise: Not necessarily. He may have known of several ways. For example, he could have tried to fall in love.

Achilles: Why falling in love is the easiest thing in the world.

Tortoise: Not if you try to do it. Then it's impossible!

Achilles: I see your point.

Tortoise: In any event, there is no evidence that Turing ever fell in love, even though he must have known it was possible. Maybe he didn't know that one shouldn't try so hard.

Achilles: So he committed suicide in despair?

Tortoise: Maybe.

Achilles: What else could there be?

Tortoise: The last possibility that comes to mind is that Turing suspected there was something he was overlooking.

Achilles: And what is that?

Tortoise: Could a Turing Machine discover the properties of a Turing Machine without being told?

Achilles: Gee, I don't know. But it could discover the properties of another machine that it could do experiments on.

Tortoise: Would it ever think to do such experiments on itself?

Achilles: I don't know. Does it even know what the word 'itself' points to?

Tortoise: Who would have given it the idea of 'self'?

Achilles: I don't know. It reminds me of Narcissus discovering his reflection in a pool of water and falling in love with himself.

Tortoise: Well, I haven't finished my research yet, but I suspect that a Turing Machine, without outside assistance, could not discover the complete definition of itself, nor would it think to ask itself the question, 'Am I a Turing Machine?' if it were simply given the definition of one as a mathematical abstraction.

Achilles: In other words, if Alan Turing did ask himself the question, 'Am I (Alan Turing) a Turing Machine?' the very act of posing the question proves he isn't one!

Tortoise: That's my conjecture.

Achilles: So he committed suicide to prove he wasn't one, because he didn't realize that he already had all the evidence he needed to prove that he was intellectually more complex than a mere Turing Machine.

Tortoise: Perhaps.

Achilles: Well, I would be most interested to discover the final answer when you complete your research on this most interesting question.

Tortoise: My friend, if we live long enough, we're bound to find the answer.

Achilles: Good day, Mr. T!

Tortoise: Good day, Achilles.

The stage lights dim. Achilles and the Tortoise take their bows. We hope you enjoyed the show!

Thank you for patronizing The Computer Museum.