Thinking Machines – two perspectives

I came across a nice essay by Daniel Hillis on Richard Feynman‘s involvement with Thinking Machines. He has shared quite a few interesting points on the development of the first Connection Machine (a supercomputer), and also on the contribution of Feynman to the project. They were also involved in finding actual applications for the very powerful machines, and explored a variety of fields:

In retrospect I realize that in almost everything that we worked on together, we were both amateurs. In digital physics, neural networks, even parallel computing, we never really knew what we were doing. But the things that we studied were so new that no one else knew exactly what they were doing either. It was amateurs who made the progress.

The essay is a very good read, though a bit technical in some parts. It also sheds some light on the drive behind the founders. However, things seem to have gone really astray in the 90s with the eventual bankruptcy in 1994.

This brings me to the other article on Thinking Machines that I read recently which was on the interview process towards the last stages of the corporation.

… The project was a bit abstract, so I asked how it could be applied for business computing purposes. He scrunched his nose and scoffed at the very notion that I’d ask such a question.

As it turned out, Andrew wasn’t the only non-believer. Just as DARPA was about to send more barrel-loads of cash to Thinking Machines, The Wall Street Journal rained on their “subsidized sales” parade. That led to an embarrassed Bush I administration, which led towards an end of support from daddy.

With the impressively inept Sheryl Handler at the helm — the CEO who prioritized things like publishing a cookbook with recipes from their cafeteria instead of, say, trying to sell their increasingly useless Connection Machine — Thinking Machines quickly sank and filed for bankruptcy a short two years later.

I guess it shows how things can go downhill for a corporation unless there are some real world applications for its products. It is quite ironical in this case, as the founding engineers seem to have thought of quite a number of applications (highly specialised though), but by the time the second article, the employees seem to have very little clue as to the machine’s real world usage. I wonder what happened in the decade in between (possible explanation).

Interestingly, the wikipedia page for Thinking Machines lists both the essay and the article.

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Lies, leaky abstractions and children

I recently read the essay “Lies we tell children” by Paul Graham, in which he analyses the way in which adults create an abstracted and somewhat idealised world for children.

I’m using the word “lie” in a very general sense: not just overt falsehoods, but also all the more subtle ways we mislead kids. Though “lie” has negative connotations, I don’t mean to suggest we should never do this—just that we should pay attention when we do.

It is a lengthy, but thought provoking essay, and explores the different reasons for which real information is withheld from children. Reasons could range from just maintaining control to the difficulty of putting information in context.

Due to this, the world in a child’s mind takes a binary form consisting of absolutes – right and wrong, good and evil, black and white. This theme can also be seen quite clearly in movies for children (think of any of the Disney animations). However, during the transition from childhood to adulthood, this binary abstraction of the world begins to leak just like any computer related abstraction. Children begin to see the different shades between black and white, and general inconsistencies in the explanations given to them by adults. Some theories seem utterly illogical while others begin to make more sense. The real world also begins to test many of the ideals taught to them.

In this way, the journey to adulthood is somewhat like the transformation of a black and white world with two shades into a full colour world. Some misconceptions persist into adulthood, with inquisitiveness being the best tool to combat them.

Paul Graham’s conclusion from the same essay:

We arrive at adulthood with a kind of truth debt. We were told a lot of lies to get us (and our parents) through our childhood. Some may have been necessary. Some probably weren’t. But we all arrive at adulthood with heads full of lies.
There’s never a point where the adults sit you down and explain all the lies they told you. They’ve forgotten most of them. So if you’re going to clear these lies out of your head, you’re going to have to do it yourself.
Few do. Most people go through life with bits of packing material adhering to their minds and never know it. You probably never can completely undo the effects of lies you were told as a kid, but it’s worth trying. I’ve found that whenever I’ve been able to undo a lie I was told, a lot of other things fell into place.
Fortunately, once you arrive at adulthood you get a valuable new resource you can use to figure out what lies you were told. You’re now one of the liars. You get to watch behind the scenes as adults spin the world for the next generation of kids.
The first step in clearing your head is to realize how far you are from a neutral observer.

So how many misconceptions have you been able to shake off?