Saturday, June 25, 2011

Design and Writing

"A designer knows he has achieved perfection, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." --Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I've been quite impressed lately with how internet browsers have improved over the past few years. Right now, I use Chrome mostly, but I sometimes open up Firefox to use some of the add-ons in its vast library. The thing that most impresses me is how much screen space has been freed up for the actual web page, rather than the various toolbars and navigation buttons. Compared to the old versions of Internet Explorer and Mozilla's Netscape Navigator, the modern browsers I've had experience with (Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer 7) are beautiful works of design. A lot of the features we take for granted now, like tabbed browsing, seem so obvious it's a wonder that the original designers of the first browsers didn't think of them.

The ever present tension between minimalism and functionality is what fascinates me the most about design, especially in consumer technology, where designers must imbue their products with some artistic flair in order to please the eye. Designers in other areas have slightly different aims, but the basic principles seem to stay the same: make something that works, and make it beautiful as long as it does not interfere with functionality. I think the closest I've come to inhabiting the designer's mindset is through writing. For a while, I tried to make my writing as minimalist as possible, avoiding long words whenever possible, and chopping complex sentences into their atomic parts. Perhaps this came from reading Strunk's Element's of Style and taking it too literally. Don't misunderstand, I am grateful for that book, and for the kind of style that eventually came out of that ascetic phase; however, I came to understand that while minimalism is admirable, it is also tempting to go too far. Einstein once said, "Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler." I think the second part of that exhortation should be emphasized.

Right now, with regards to my writing, I hope to loosen the reins slightly, to occasionally aim for a beauty that lies in complexity. As long as each word still retains value, then my Strunkian sensibilities will not be offended.

And also, this issue that designers and writers face is an example of why it is worthwhile to delve deeper into an activity that lies outside your area of expertise. There is a whole philosophy that has grown around how designers and writers work, and to wrestle with these ideas is to broaden one's repertoire when it comes to problems that seem intractable. "When you have only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail." Figuring out how to sew with a hammer is a really hard problem, but probably not a problem worth solving, since it is really about having the right tools to do the job at hand.

So, when one tries to apply the designer's mindset to other areas, what happens? Well, in art, one runs into problems immediately. How do you define an art piece's functionality? Is it to please the eye? Many artists would disagree. An art piece does not have a set purpose, like a web browser does. Yet I feel that artists and designers have many things in common.

Hah! I raise these questions willy-nilly and do not even begin to answer them. Such is my power.


Friday, June 3, 2011

Godhood in Our Grasp

10 years ago, Professor of Philosophy Nick Bostrom published a paper arguing that there is about a 20% chance that we are living in a computer simulation. The argument goes like this: suppose that consciousness is substrate-independent, which is to say that with a sufficiently powerful computer, one can create and simulate a sentient being. Then at some point in our civilization's development, whether it's 100 years from now or 10,000 years from now, we will possess the computing power to simulate a huge number of minds, even if we only applied a fraction of our computing power to that purpose. Suppose further we decide to run ancestor-simulations, virtual worlds in which we explore our past as it was, or as it could have been. So we boot up the computers, and decide to run, say, a billion simulations of the time period between the years 1900 and 2100.

Here's the punchline: to an inhabitant living in one of these simulated universes, there would be no way to determine whether that universe is real (as in not simulated). If there ever is a bug in the program, and someone discovers that they are indeed living in a simulation, then the simulators can simply erase that person's memory, or fix the problem and rewind the program. There is no way to know for sure whether our universe is simulated or not, but we can reason about the probability that we are: if there is one real universe, whose inhabitants simulate a billion, or a trillion, virtual universes, the probability that we are living in the one real universe is vanishingly small. If we accept every step of the argument presented above, then we must conclude that we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

In the Lab, Midnight

I'm in the lab right now, sitting in the dark and surrounded by the hum of... air conditioning? Air conditioning is the reason why I have to wear long pants and bring a jacket to work in the middle of Arizona summer. The cool air reduces vibrations, which are the bane of any laser physicist's work. And the lights are off so that they don't contribute noise to the data that I'm acquiring from this experiment. Cold and dark--these are conditions that we try to create in order to approach, as much as possible, the ideal world of physics: one in which everything is simple and noiseless. Indeed, there is something other-worldly about being in here at midnight, seeing the green glow of the laser and hearing the neverending hum of the air conditioning.

The first few weeks of summer have passed by like a dream. Even though I've been working here in the lab, there is no regular schedule. During the afternoon, one of the other students may want to use the laser for his own experiment, and I'll have to come back in the evening, or late at night, like a guard assuming his post in the last shift. Almost everyone I know is away from Tucson for the summer. The campus is a ghost town, and I feel like I'm witnessing something post-apocalyptic as I wander across its lonelier alleys. It's not that the place looks especially forlorn compared to any other place. But compared to the hectic, crowded, noisy campus when class was in session, the difference is striking.

Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night, found yourself unable to fall back asleep, and decided instead to read a book, or simply stare at the ceiling? When that happens to me, I feel peaceful, but blank. And right now, that's how I'm feeling.