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A Reader’s Guide

e-Book for George Dyson's Turing’s Cathedral

A Very Short Preface

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In addition to explaining the sources of George Dysons book, this issue should focus reader's minds on the dangers of inversting in stock markets which re now all high speed, controlled basicly by secret algorithms at war with each other and place our welath entrusted to what were very different markets 50 years ago at extreme risk.  Readers will learn why they should move their savings from these opaque and unregulated marhkets while they still have it to move.


I became aware of George Dyson all the way back in the late 1970s when I first read Kenneth Brower's remarkable dual biography of George and his father Freeman Dyson: The Starship and the Canoe. George had grown up at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and dropped out of high school transplanting himself to the Pacific Northwest  - for me the romantic home of lush rain forest and huge volcanoes. He set himself up more than 100 feet above the ground in a treehouse in the branches of a Douglas fir and resurrected the design for the Baidarka, the oceangoing kayak adopted from the native Indians by the Russian settlers of Alaska.

George had made his home in the midst of the most beautiful part of North America and something I did not see with my own eyes until 1988. I was a fan of his before I even knew that his somewhat more famous sister Esther even existed. After I wound up at the John von Neumann Supercomputer Center in 1987 and started this newsletter April 1992, I met Esther for the first time on a subway platform in Moscow also in April 1992. And a few years later when Darwin Among the Machines, George’s second book came out, I eagerly devoured that. I next became aware that George was working on the current book about the development of the Institute's digital computer when Sheldon Renan called my attention to 2005 talk he gave at an O'Reilly Conference. In 2007 he accepted my invitation to join my Economics of IP networks mail list.

Earlier this year when Turing’s Cathedral was finally published, I requested a review copy.  It is a truly superb work -- and intellectual history of the ideas of the people who designed and built the Institute for Advanced Studies’ digital computer that operated between 1953 and 1958.  

George has a profound curiosity about how the key technology of the digital computer has come to shape the world in which we live.  I sense that is curiosity is similar to my own in wanting to understand after Sputnik was launched in October 1957 where this mysterious thing called communism came from. In order to understand that I did a PhD in Russian history. My timing was off and that career didn't last. But finally in taking up a career in writing about the Internet after having served an 18 month tour of duty at the US Congress Office of Technology Assessment, my timing was good.

I share another passion with George in wanting to understand how what he calls the origins of the digital universe continue to unfold and profoundly affect all aspects of human civilization everywhere.  Of course my curiosity has been helped by the fact that I've lived for almost 36 years within a short drive and the Institute for Advanced Study and that more than 20 years ago I was the only technical writer -- science editor that John von Neumann National Supercomputer Center ever had.  I have spent the 2nd decade of the COOK Report on Internet Protocol focused on the impact of my version of the digital universe -- namely the Internet -- on global economics, education, society,  and policy.

As a result one of the strongest sources of appeal to me of George's work has been that, in addition to having written a superb history of the origins of the von Neumann machine and its architecture, he has woven a broad tapestry depicting the personalities and ideas not only von Neumann but of all the key people involved.  As he writes George is continually attuned to the the broad metaphysical, philosophical., and economic meaning of this digital universe. I find it personally highly significant that George looks forward as well as back in time. He has done both the retrospective history and a superb job in explaining how these ideas were gathered together, catalyzed and have taken a life of their own, profoundly shaping he world in which we live.

And indeed the subject of life and computers becomes an important topic. Since Georges’ parents are both renowned mathematicians is not surprising that he has taken an interest in computer code as being potentially (metaphorically at least) self-replicating strands of living things or things that have the potential of some kind of life. Influenced by three full years at the Supercomputer Center in Princeton, I have written on computers in medicine and in the research and education network area.  More recently following developments in the research and education network area, I have synthesized my own understanding of what is developing as an e-science-based “global operating system.”

I have been trying to think about where all this is going and found the most fascinating parts of Turing's Cathedral to be George's ideas on what he calls the need for new architectures and the emergence of an “analog” approach involving methodologies going beyond the binary precision of the von Neumann architecture.  Perhaps the binary oriented von Neumann approaches have become commoditized and not terribly exciting any longer. However with increases in network speed, storage capability, and processing power that show no significant signs of slowing down, the opportunity for new approaches is there.  The role of networks in all their complexity tying together the digital universe, something that I assisted Sheldon Renan to explain more than two years ago, begins to stand out more strongly.

Consequently I have zeroed in on George's expression of what he thinks all this means and where it's headed and have followed that by carefully reading the book and paying most urgent attention to his ideas about life and biology in the context of new architectures.

I attended his book tour speech in Princeton on March 19 determined to find out more. I did and this report is the result of my following up leads that were generated by observation of what he was saying and other parts of his to work focusing especially on complex systems and zooming in on his description of the omnipresent omnipotent power of computers in financial markets as it was dissected by the recent Dutch program on the flash crash in which program George participated and which powerfully appealed to my concerns about our lack of ability to undo the financialization of the global economy that has gotten the current system of capitalism into such desperate straits.

Overview of the sections of this report on Turing’s Cathedral

Thus I start this issue with my original review of George's book-- a review that I had finished by his publication date in early March.  I follow that with a transcript of his March 19 talk in Princeton.  In order to put all this into context I found that I needed to take to take Darwin among the Machines off my book shelf and see how that work fits in to the picture.  Darwin covers what he calls the old testament in the story of the rise of the digital universe with Turing as the intellectual transition point between old and new testament where Von Neumann became the architect of our current digital universe.

As a result here is a quick overview of the sections that follow in this July August COOK Report.    The review of Turing’s Cathedral begins on page 8. The section that follows my review of the book is called “George Dyson's Worldview” (pages 14 through 20) and will lead the reader through the perspective from which he develops a systemic approach on how to think about the remarkable fact that the original machine enabled study of everything from nuclear explosions  to shockwaves, to meteorology, to biological evolution and finally stellar evolution.

In this section I focus on the early history of the development of an algorithmic approach to calculation and described what George means by his references to analog computing which in some sense appears to be a combination of network systems of humans interacting with digital machines. That is to say seemingly self organizing systems like Facebook and Google's cataloging of human knowledge.  What happens in other words when a human analog wet brain computer operates inside the confines of a globally defined digital brain constructed by Google. George describes his observation of Google employees in the GooglePlex at Mountain View in 2006 when he went to deliver a talk on the 60th anniversary of Turing's description of his architecture as “observing the  building of Turings Cathedral.”

The next section is devoted to a transcript of George's March 19 Princeton talk (page 21-72) illustrated in first draft largely by photographs that I took from the audience. [George  was kind enough to provide me with his complete picture set on May 11 which I have used to replace my much poorer shots.  This section describes what it was like for George to grow up with any Institute nursery school where Einstein’s secretary was the teacher as well as in the competitive shadow of his sister Esther. As he points out in a very fascinating way, Esther began to study the development of the personal computer with her newsletter and her PC form conferences and I became acquainted with the importance of this these new machines by observing Esther.

The next section Computers and Complex Systems (pages 73-78) sets the stage for the detailed presentation on high-frequency trading. Just as the computers in the chapter on the physicists Alphen's fairytale in George's book taken over society it seems that they now have taken over the equities markets.  I give a short summary of some of the highlights here and how financial deregulation at the end of the 90s enabled the rise of a system of electronic trading that has developed a kind of autonomous life of its own.  I also point out how unbeknown to the vast majority of citizens did a our automated financial markets are gambling upwards of $1 trillion in automated trading divided into time chomps's smallest millionths of a 2nd in a series of markets that have recalled date of the Bank of England calls on mappable and hence on the manageable.

Consequently it seems almost inevitable that this global system of doing algorithms lead on May 6, 2010 to what is known as the flash crash. In the longest section of this report is an illustrated transcript of the 50 minute Dutch program on YouTube Inside the Black Box, (pp 79-125 - on May 11 George also provided me with a high def mpeg 4 of the program this time entirely in English).   The program is a fascinating detective story that unravels the causes of the flash crash where George and three other financial analysts are interviewed. As George points out one of them is an American named Scott Hunsader has his own systems that track the training at high speeds down to the millisecond or even microseconds levels. In a sense I believe that my readers will find this chapter more useful even than watching the YouTube program which I do recommend. But the charts and graphs of the training go by so fast that on first observation they cannot easily be followed. However I have taken screenshots of them and matched them to the text so the reader can see and contemplate in some detail what is being discussed.

The amount of money being spent in what is inherently an unsustainable race to zero is something that should scare everyone stops seriously think about it.  The Dutch program interviews one of the regulators from the securities and exchange commission who claims to have a solution which the technical experts shoot full of holes. At the end of the program George and the 3 professional's are asked by the narrator whether they do any trading in equities. All of them say that they no longer trade because due to the running of the exchanges by computer algorithms with humans largely removed, they consider ownership of equities far too risky. .

George is most fascinated by Scott Hunsader and his company Nymex.   I have focused on his findings in some detail by bringing in some additional material from other sources.  This is a serious problem that has gone unaddressed and all the people say is not a matter of if but merely when it will come back and bite us again.  Even more important is the question of why high frequency trading is the center piece for my collection of essays elaborating on George’s work.  It is, as he says at one point, that time scales on the order of a millionth of a second needed in thermo nuclear calculations may no seem relevant to the average person.  Yet so overwhelming has the reach of the five kilobyte digital universe become that the fate of our wealth is now measured in time increments of microseconds or one millionth of a second.

Next in a short section called Future Opportunities Computing Architecture and Algorithms (pages 127-128) I explain my understanding of George's thoughts on this subject which in the context of his research are extremely important as he talks about the probabilistic approach enabled by Monte Carlo and speculates that Google's AdSense algorithm maybe the most important of the 21st century.

As an example of an analog-based probabilistic approach to innovative new architecture products Visual Recognition for Drones (pages 104-108), I present a short section on the development at MIT of a gesture recognition system to enable drones land on aircraft carriers.

And finally in the sense getting a handle on where all this seems to be heading I present concluding sections the first called called Programming the Global Brain (pages 129-133) that advocates the use of the architectures and algorithms that George identifies in his forward-looking sections of Turing's Cathedral.  The second is a quick look at economic policy changes The Primacy of the economic agenda.  (PP 140-141).  The third short thoughts What we face is a struggle to change that for which we strive. (page 142). And I conclude with a piece: Picking the Human Connectome Data Lock (pages 143-146) on the Human Connectome Project, a mapping effort to understand the wiring diagram the human brain. This might be seen as the ultimate technology feat of the digital universe that if, it ever succeeds, will be unimaginably profound and one that has just begun within roughly the last 2 years.  I present a Conclusion (pages 147-49).  From pages 150-176 I present the parts of Chapters 12 through 17 Turing’s Cathedral that intrigued me the most.  Each chapter selection is followed by one or more pages of my comments on the material.  My comments on Chapter 15 (page 165) are quite extensive.  They are what I had trouble in grasping.  George Dyson Answers (page 177-179) contain brief replies from George to a couple of my questions.  Finally these last comments contain response from Sara Wedeman and Jim Kayne that were very helpful in parsing some of George ‘s later material.


What Are the Boundaries Between Mathematical Systems and Life?

In the forward looking, futuristic part of Turing’s Cathedral, George is very much focused on the boundaries between mathematical systems and biological life as well as the behavior of a non biological system or entities that may be said to exhibit the characteristics of life. As he wrote on pp. 177-78 below:

“Nature seems to have evolved digital coding as a means of error correction in the transmission of analog organisms from one generation to the next. Us analog organisms (as most programmers already know) are now becoming the means of error correction in the transmission of digital organisms from one generation to the next.”

As one thinks about the short paragraph that he sent me above, one wonders about the meanings of error correction.  It could be just mathematical, but I imagine that it is far more than this - namely error correction of behavior within complex systems in the sense that the result of the corrected "error" will be something that helps the organism become more successful within the overall system within which it operates.  He makes very clear that you can use mathematics to prove that the behavior of a piece of code can never be predicted within the range of all possible circumstances.  However, I think that he also means that the behavior of code within a systemically important area such as the current situation of high frequency trading cannot be predicted in all circumstances either.  I would think that the unpredictability of outcomes will also be increased when you have complex algorithms interacting with each other in situations like high frequency trading - or robotics in warfare where one side does not know the algorithm that the other is using.

The complexity of the questions faced becomes vast very quickly.  There are moral issues galore. The common theme is ever more rapid decision making.  This is a decision making that becomes so rapid in situations of vast complexity that it is taking the human out of the loop.  Only the machine can find data, analyze it, and carry out a decision to act on the situation in which it finds itself at a speed where its action will make any difference in the outcome.  As this COOK Report shows doing this in the context of high frequency trading is attractive but dangerous and I would suggest without any long term value except that of gambling.

However, the same types of decision processes are deeply embedded in the function of ever more sophisticated robotics which, when applied to warfare and especially to drones, have the same capacity for error when using weapons or using drones for authoritarian repression of all manner of dissent.  In situations where speed of making decisions in highly complex situations has become the driving factor, humans are taken out of the loop.  The systems they have built act on their own. There might be a benign case where a robot analyzes a complex medical situation more quickly than a human ever could and takes action that saves the person's life.  Nevertheless, the overall direction of the technology is speed in doing things within highly complex situations, speed that takes the human out of the loop because he or she can't keep up. Perhaps this is not so good?

Alfven in the conclusion of the "tale of the big computer" summarized well the situation I have described here -- What if the price of machines that think is people who don’t?  Let's translate slightly -- use of our machines in ways that we find "successful" is taking us out of the loop because our wetware cannot function with the speed of the computer.  In such applications we are left out of the loop because our thinking cannot keep up that of the machine. The ultimate question remains one of: can our regulatory, political, economic, and social systems survive the speed and impact of the change wrought by George Dyson's digital universe?


Executive Summary

A reader’s guide to this small Turing’s Cathedral background book     p. 5
What are the Boundaries Between Mathematical Systems & Life?        p. 6
Overview of the sections of this report on Turing’s Cathedral          p. 9

Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe

What Does all this Mean?                            p. 10
The Mind of John Von Neumann                  p. 11
Next Directions                                          p. 13

George Dyson’s World View

The Basic Ideas                                 p. 14

Analog                                                               p. 15
How George’s Ideas Evolved – in More Detail       p. 16
The Final Question                                              p. 19

George Dyson’s Book Tour Talk

Princeton, NJ - March 19, 2012        p. 21

Why in Princeton?                                                  p. 48

Computers & Complex Systems                             p.  73
On September 14, 2011 Nanex Reported                p.  74

Money and Speed: Inside the Black Box


Inside the Black Box

the Dutch Documentary                     p.   80

Heading – the Flash Crash                                      p.   98
Getting the DATA Faster                                         p. 103
Headline:  Arbitrage                                              p. 106
Headline:  the Investigation                                   p. 107
The Emergency Brake                                            p. 119

As an application for the iPad                                 p. 125

Future Opportunities:  Computing Architecture and Algorithms

in a struggle for uncertain goals              p. 127

Visual (Hand Gesture) Recognition for Drones  
MIT News March 14, 2012                                     p. 129

Programming the Global Brain                              p. 134
What Makes the Global Brain Different?                p. 135
The Need for New Programming Metaphors           p.136
A Call to Arms                                                       p.139

The Primacy of an Economic Agenda

In maintaining a sustainable civilization

Break the Link Between Accelerating Debt and Rising
Asset Prices                                                               p. 140
Jubilee Shares                                                           p. 141
Limit Leverage in Real Estate Purchase                      p. 141

What we face is a struggle to change
that for which we strive                                              p. 142

Picking the Connectome Data Lock   
by Nicole Hemsoth                                                      p. 143

The Big Data Challenges of Connectomics                    p. 144
Inside the Brain Slice Data                                           p. 146

Conclusion                                    p. 147


Appendix: Excerpts from

Chapters 12-17 of Turing’s Cathedral

Chapter 12: Barricelli’s Universe                                 p. 150
Editor’s Comment                                                        p.  155
Chapter 13: Turing’s Cathedral                                     p.  156
Editor’s Comment                                                         p.  157
Chapter 14:  Engineer’s Dreams                                    p. 158
Editor’s Comment                                                         p.  160
Chapter 15:  Theory of Self Reproducing Automata        p.  161
Editor’s Comment                                                           p.  165
Chapter 16:  Mach 9                                                        p. 168
Editor’s Comment                                                           p.  170
Chapter 17: The Tale of the Big Computer                       p.  171
Editor’s Comment                                                           p.  176
George Dyson Answers Some of My Questions                  p.  177