Data Privacy and the Patriot Act

The Globe and Mail has a story U.S. Patriot Act could affect data on Canadians, B.C. privacy head says by Rod Mickleburgh (Saturday, October 30, 2004 – Page A13 ) about a report by the BC privacy commissioner that concludes that if BC outsourced their health data management or storage then the FBI could get access to that data due to provisions in the Patriot Act. Basically the Patriot act gives US agents the right to ask US companies for access to data they store even if protected by another countries’ privacy regulations. This is likely to affect US companies bidding on services abroad. I suspect we are going to see a slow move among countries to avoid dealing with US telecommunications and data management companies.
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Roell on Knowledge Worker

Martin Roell has an extended and thoughtful blog entry on the term “knowledge worker”, Das E-Business Weblog: Terminology: “Knowledge Worker”. It starts with a reaction I had to his paper that I blogged earlier (see Roell: Distributed KM.) He then surveys some deeper discussions of what is at stake and ends up with a pragmatic point about communication in business (which he, not I has to do) and the importance of being understood by managers. Setting aside the pragmatics, here is a list of alternative terms that overlap in interesting ways,

  1. business person (what’s the difference between knowledge worker and business person?)
  2. epistemologist (someone who studies knowledge)
  3. philosopher (someone who loves wisdom, but doesn’t necessarily possess it)
  4. sophist (someone who thinks he is wise, but probably isn’t)
  5. office worker
  6. clerk
  7. computer (in the old sense of someone who does computations)
  8. manager

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Hacking: Historical Ontology

One of the books I read on vacation was Historical Ontology by Ian Hacking, who I met once or twice when I was a grad student at U of T. (Neither of us understood what the other was up to, but that’s another story.)
While Hacking doesn’t do the philosophy of computing, he does philosophy of ideas, especially mathematical and scientific ideas. Historical ontology (or “dynamic nominalism”) is the name for his style of reasoning that he acknowledges is from Foucault.
His work is important to the philosophy of computing in a number of ways. First, he describes a style of historical analysis that we need to practice on the concepts of computing. It is looking at thick concepts and their instruments. Second, his historical ontology is the critical mirror to the simulation view of computing. The simulation view is that you understand by simulating objects or modelling virtually. Object oriented programming is a deeper version of this – programming is the defining of objects and behaviours, a description of a possible world – historical ontology is the analysis of such possible worlds. Object making vs object understanding.
Thus what he says about how we invent things (or construct them) has an explicit application to computing. In some science cases he argues that we invent physical things; for example when we create a new element that was potentially there, but doesn’t exist in nature. He pushes this further to a paradoxical view to the effect that as we invent (or develop) the concepts for things we, in effect, bring them into existence (as something to be thought about.)
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Grey Goo Meme

When does a meme get a life of its own? Nanotech guru turns back on ‘goo’, by Paul Rincon for the BBC, is a story about how Eric Drexler’s concerns about the phrase he coined in 1986 in Engines of Creation for a disatrous epidemic of nanobot replication which turns everything into “grey goo”. Stephen Strauss in The Globe and Mail (Sat. July 24, 2004, p. F9) writes about how the meme travelled – A far-fetched theory that won’t come unstuck. Prince Charles and others at the ETC Group in Winnipeg are trying to divert the meme away from disaster to questions that need to be asked now about biotechnology. (See Nanotechnology Publications, ETC Group – these include briefs on the Nonotech and the Precautionary Prince.)
This meme could get a big boost in popular culture when the movie version of Michael Crichton’s Prey comes out. Prey is one of Crichton’s better works (books like Timeline seem written as movie scripts, not science fiction to be read) and it dramatizes an out-of-control nanotech development with interesting implications for identity. When it comes out as a movie we could see Grey Goo go Global. So lets track the meme with some Web stats. Below are the stats for today (July 25th, 2004). After the movie comes out I will repeat the queries and compare.
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The fold in web design and Deleuze

Reading Deleuze The Fold on the baroque and Leibniz, I was struck by how the word “fold” is also being used in web design for the break in a web page between what is seen on a typical screen when you load a page and what you have to scroll for. See Designing “Above the Fold” (Web Design in a Nutshell, 2nd Edition). (Thanks Carolyn Guertin for drawing my attention to this.)

How is the fold related to the interruption? Does the computer interrupt the flow by folding it into discrete objects or does the flow present itself folded?

Lena and Imaging

Supervising a Ph.D. student in engineering who is working on imaging I came across (again) the Lena image that is used as a standard for image engineering. I must say that I thought the repeated use of that image distasteful, so I did some research and found The Rest of the Lenna Story. I’m not sure now what to think about the ongoing use of this. On the one hand it is now a standard of sorts which allows comparison among techniques. It has also become a part of the culture, for better or worse. On the other hand Playboy still owns copyright and students should be discouraged from using copyrighted materials, even when it is unlikely that they will be sued. Finally, it is distracting to have to look at images meant to titillate.

As with all these things, to complain would probably provoke the community into digging in its heels around censorship. Why doesn’t someone come up with a better image?

Latour; The Last Critique

Harper’s Magazine for April 2004 has reprinted an essay by Bruno Latour on “The Last Critique” that examines the role of critique. Latour starts by noting how “social construction” has been coopted by the right to undermine calls to deal with global warming. The right uses critical arguments to call good science into question in a way not anticipated by critical theorists. The problem is a general one with the left – what do we do when our methods are used against us? What do we do when criticism and dissent become reactionary?

What I don’t understand is Latour’s turn at the end to Turing. He sees in Turing’s paper on AI a way forward for critique.
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Robot by Moravec

Just finished Hans Moravec, Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendental Mind. The book starts with a short history of robots and AI. There is a chapter on the computing and the mind where he predicts that we need something like 100 million MIPs (and a comparable amount of memory) to match the human mind’s processing. He answers critics to the effect that AI was oversold by arguing that AI has been stagnant partly because they were not using fasther computers. He then extrapolates from advances in robotics to science fiction claims about transcendental minds. I have to admit I started skimming when he went off the deep end – he may know his science but he isn’t that good on the sci fi. The chapter reviewing Turing’s responses to claims that artificial minds would not be possible is a good review of the arguments, but the rest of the book is a poor version of Kurzweil’s Age of the Spiritual Machine. Read on for quotes…
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