Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Haskell class wrap-up

[From the old-posts-that-I've-sat-on-for-entirely-too-long-for-no-apparent-reason department...]

Back in December, I finished FP101x, Introduction to Functional Programming. I'm stoked that I finally learned me a (little) Haskell, after wanting to get around to it for so long.

The first part of the course was very straight-forward covering the basics of programming in the functional style. But the difficulty ramped up quickly.

A couple of labs were particularly mind-bending, not just for me judging by the message boards. Both were based on Functional Pearl papers and featured monads prominantly. The first was on monad parser combinators and the second was based on A Poor Man's Concurrency Monad. Combining concurrency (of a simple kind), monads and continuation passing is a lot to throw at people at once.

The abrupt shift to more challenging material is part of a philosophy of "teaching the students to fish for themselves". So is introducing new material in the labs rather than in the lectures. This style of teaching alienated a number of students. It's not my favorite, but I can roll with it.

Just be aware that the course requires some self-directed additional reading and don't flail around trying to solve to homeworks without sufficient information.

More Haskell

Now that the class is over, I'd like to find time to continue learning Haskell:

One reason I wanted to learn Haskell is to be able to read some of the Haskell-ish parts of the programming languages literature:

Monday, January 12, 2015

Brave Genius

Brave Genius is an unlikely dual biography of a biologist and a writer who shared a friendship and a common philosophy. Both were active in the French resistance to the German Occupation and both would later receive a Nobel prize. Sean B. Carroll forges an inspiring story from seemingly incongruous elements: the desperate defiance of a few in an occupied country, the exhilarating pursuit of an open scientific question, and a lonely stand on the moral high ground.

In 1940, Jacques Monod was a newly married father of twins and a researcher at the Sorbonne. Albert Camus, having already published a couple of books of essays, departed his native Algeria for France in March of that year to find work.

On May 10 1940, German troops crossed into Holland and Belgium. Panzers raced towards the Atlantic coast severing Allied lines and stranding French and British troops in the low countries. French defenses collapsed and Germans arrived in an undefended Paris on June 14. The armistice signed on June 22nd marked the beginning of four years of occupation.

During those years, Camus edited and wrote for the underground newspaper Combat urging resistance to the occupation. As the tide of the war turned, Monod organized sabotage attacks and armed resistance ahead of the approaching liberators.

“I have always believed that if people who placed their hopes in the human condition were mad, those who despaired of events were cowards. Henceforth, there will be only one honorable choice: to wager everything on the belief that in the end words will prove stronger than bullets.” Camus, Combat (November 30, 1946)

François Jacob, André Lwoff and Jacques Monod were awarded a Nobel prize in 1965 for their work on the control of gene expression, elucidating the regulation of the lac operon by which bacteria switch on metabolism of the sugar lactose.

In his writing, Camus confronts the absurdity of the human search for clarity and meaning in a world that offers only indifference. The attempt to derive meaning and morality without resort to mysticism links Camus's philosophy to Monod's scientific work, which provided some of the first direct evidence that life is mechanistic rather than the result of some magical "vital force" and that its workings could be understood.

“The scientific approach reveals to Man that he is an accident, almost a stranger in the universe.” Monod, in On Values in the Age of Science (1969)

“One of the great problems of philosophy, is the relationship between the realm of knowledge and the realm of values. Knowledge is what is; values are what ought to be. I would say that all traditional philosophies up to and including Marxism have tried to derive the 'ought' from the 'is.' My point of view is that this is impossible.” Monod

Carroll, a biologist himself, embeds philosophy and science into the personal lives of his protagonists and the geopolitical events unfolding around them. Both men did brilliant work in the darkest of times, and did so not by retreating but by fully engaging at great risk with the struggles that faced them. The book serves as a warning of what happens when good people overlook the malfeasance of their leaders, but also as confirmation of the resilience of intellect, creativity and humanity.


Sunday, January 04, 2015

The Master Switch

The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires was described as "essential reading" by my boss's boss. If you're at all interested in the interplay of technology, economics and politics, I think you'll agree.

Author Tim Wu is the originator of the term "net neutrality" and a law professor at Columbia. He has written a fast-forward history of the information technology industry focusing on the people and corporations that have, over time, controlled the commanding heights of the information economy. The book examines the cartels that held sway over telephone, radio, film, and television leading up to the question of whether the internet will also come to fall under similar domination.

The cycle is the author's term for the progression of any given technology from the wide-open wild-west early days through a process of integration and consolidation to an end state of oligopoly or monopoly. This stasis eventually gets disrupted by newer technology or government intervention, leading to another open phase and a new round of the cycle, empires rising and falling in the process. "The one-time revolutionaries always become the next generation of dictators. That's why we need, in technology, another generation of revolutionaries to upend them."[1]

Open vs. closed systems

The book revolves around the virtues and vices of open and closed systems. Open systems are more adaptable and democratic but have trouble matching the stability, security and efficiency of closed systems. Open systems embrace the advantages of decentralization as espoused in different ways by Friedrich Hayek and Jane Jacobs. But, integrated centralized systems can be reliable and convenient.

Closed systems, of course, appeal to empire builders such as Theodore Vail who created the AT&T Bell System. Wu's knack for sketch biography is put to good use profiling these power-hungry moghuls and the often utopian upstarts that seek to dethrone them. We meet titans, like Vail, and get a glimps into the sometimes contradictory character traits it takes to control an information empire, for example: David Sarnoff, who ruled the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and NBC; John Reith, founder of the BBC; Adolph Zukor who started Paramount pictures and Ted Turner creator CNN and former head of Time Warner. We also meet hackers like early radio enthusiast Lee De Forest and supressed inventor of FM radio Edwin Armstrong.

The capture of the Internet?

The American system attempts to carefully balance power within the government, but takes a laissez faire approach to private power. If Wu is right and we let things take their natural course, the openness that now characterizes the Internet - the "integrity of the Internet itself as a reliable, independent, and open structure"[2] - may be lost to a period of lockdown. Network effects, the power of integration and economies of scale favor the monopolist. Consumers may decide to favor consistency and convenience over openness and choice only to regret it later. If this is the case, the internet will not remain open automatically but only with concerted effort.

The remedy Wu proposes is a principle of separation akin to the separation of church and state or the separation of powers within the branches of the American government. The common carrier obligation of all infrastructure providers implies net neutrality and opposes verical integration across layers of the network stack. Technology leaders would be expected to self-regulate based on a sense of public duty. The FCC should pursue enforcement with an eye to the special role of information technology in a democratic society. Anti-trust regulation is the back-up, when it's time to bring out the big guns.

Fight on

The Master Switch gives a deeper perspective on the great game playing out in the technology sector. After reading it, you'll recognize the historical themes threading through the open-source movement, the Apple vs Google skirmishes or 2012's battle that defeated the SOPA / PIPA acts. The fight over the future of the Internet is surely not over.