Thursday, December 18, 2008

Where Am I?

In I am a Strange Loop[1], Doug Hofstadter ponders where one's "self" is located while being mentally absorbed by a situation that is located in a different place than one's body is currently residing. A simple example being that of reading Jane Austin while sitting in a chair. Another example being remote-controlling a robot on the moon. He asks the question "Where Am *I*" (where "I" is his shorthand for soul/self/consciousness).

It reminded me of my very first days exploring the World Wide Web in 1994.  I explained to my family, as I gave them a guided tour of my new toy "Netscape", that we could "visit" places all around the world!  Look, here we go to the South Pole[2] or Australia[3]!  Because in those early days, the web server and the content were actually physically in those places, and because the browser was hardly more than a remote terminal program, it really was like remote logging in to computers around the world, which felt very much like being there. That made switching from one site to another feel like teleporting instantly from one continent to another.

These days, the content about a place, versus the server serving the content, versus the location of the many cached copies (e.g. Akamai), and so forth have blurred "where am I" so much as to be meaningless and not even contemplated anymore.  But in the early days, there was a real sense of "I am in Antarctica now!".

[1] "I am a Strange Loop",2007, Hofstadter, Basic Books


Saturday, January 5, 2008

Shakespeare is (not) Shakespeare

[Ed. Note. This is part two of a series found on "Existential Programming, the blog": "A Rose is a Rose is (not) a Rose"]

In the early part of the book The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker, the problem of what-a-name-names, is explored with the example of Shakespeare. Pinker distinguishes between Shakespeare: the historical figure, and Shakespeare: the author of numerous plays like Hamlet
attributed to Shakespeare.

In my earlier post, it was somewhat easy to see that there were multiple aspects to Superman because each aspect already had its own name; Superman vs Clark Kent. With Shakespeare however, it is much more subtle because the different aspects have the same name: Shakespeare. Additionally, we are not used to thinking that they are different aspects that can be independent of each other, any more than we think of Cher-the-person and Cher-the-singer as being independent things. But, as discussed in the book, many people over the centuries have debated whether the author of Hamlet, et al was really Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, Queen Elizabeth, etc.

The interesting thing is that because Shakespeare is SO ingrained as the name of the playwright that even if Sir Francis were to be proven the author, the headline will be "Bacon is the REAL Shakespeare!" which is absurd because clearly, Shakespeare-the-historical-figure is the "real" Shakespeare. Changing the human associated with the author-of-Hamlet concept will not change the concept's name; it will remain "Shakespeare's Hamlet (written by Bacon)" and not "Bacon's Hamlet".

So, when assigning ID#(s) to putatively single entities, flexibility should be built in to allow ad-hoc collections of attributes of any entity to be grouped and named and referenced separately. Otherwise, the system would not be able to represent the statement: Shakespeare is not Shakespeare, Bacon is.