Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Emperor's New Mind

I recently re-read Roger Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind. I read it first in 1990, soon after it came out, and I still find it a stunning book, despite disagreeing with Penrose's speculations about consciousness somehow being boosted by quantum effect.

What makes the book so great in my view is that, in order to make his point, he has written an incredibly accessible textbook about a large number of topics in mathematics, physics and computer science. Penrose doesn't dumb down anything: he assumes the reader is an intelligent layperson, and explains each topic without compromise (though without getting into the technicalities of proofs).

Mathematical/computer topics include the theories of computability and algorithm complexity, Gödel's theorem, the Mandelbrot set, Turing machines (there's an appending with several pages of ones and zeros encoding a universal Turing machine -- I haven't checked it, but I'm sure that Penrose did), the Church-Turing thesis, and so on. In physics, he explains Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism (this was the first time I understood it), Phase space, special and general relativity, quantum theory, cosmology, black holes, space-time singularities and more. The table of contents reads like an overview of modern "hard" science. In the mean time Penrose also manages to explain Penrose tiling (the nonperiodic tiling of the plane, which he invented in the 1970s), the physics of nerve signals, Platonism, and important topics from the modern history of mathematics like Hilbert's program and Bertrand Russel's Principia Mathematica.

It's not surprising that Penrose shows prominently in the acknowledgments for Neil Stephenson's novel Anathem (in fact finding it there made me pick up my copy and start re-reading it).

Despite all this, I disagree with Penrose's claims about consciousness. Penrose does a good job separating his opinions on this topic from the science he presents, and in the end he cannot prove his hunches about consciousness any more than I can mine. Personally, I think that evolution is a perfectly fine explanation for our brains -- in other words, Richard Dawkins did a better job convincing me than Penrose. (I cannot recommend Dawkins' books enough -- you can skip The God Delusion though, just stick to his many excellent works about evolution and memes.)

Monday, December 8, 2008

In the Cloud or Not?

Some people love the cloud. (As in cloud computing, e.g. Google App Engine, Amazon EC2, Microsoft Azure.) Others hate it. They gripe about lock-in, proprietary APIs and so on. (I would provide links to examples of both attitudes, but I don't have time right now, and you can fill those in yourself easily. :-)

I wonder if, apart from the field being young, the differences of opinion may be similar to the different attitude towards home ownership: some folks hate renting, citing landlord conflicts, noisy neighbors and so on. Others hate home ownership, due to the outsize financial commitment and risk (all too clear to many these days), the never-ending maintenance (new roof, new fence, new furnace, new bathroom, new kitchen, it never ends). I'm kind of in the middle myself, having had good landlords in the past, and disliking the maintenance effort/cost for my own home these days, but enjoying the independence.

Obviously cloud computing would be more similar to renting, while traditional datacenter ownership to home ownership (though without the aspect of building up wealth through ownership :-). Someone else can take the analogy further, and compare different styles of cloud services to different ways landlords can run their business. (E.g. with Google App Engine you get carpet and furniture as part of the deal, and meals delivered as an option, while Amazon EC2 rents out bare concrete units where you can do as you please. There's a market for both.)

If that's the case, we should expect that the love/hate posts will never stop, and we'll never convince all haters to love the cloud. But there will be plenty of business for the landlords from those who prefer not to own their own servers, and we might as well cater to them rather than be discouraged by the cloud haters.