Friday, October 7, 2011

There is nothing that is not awesome about Ada Lovelace

Today is Ada Lovelace Day. The internet said it, so it must be true. And that means that we get to spend some time celebrating one of the single most awesome people in history. Ada Byron, Lady Lovelace, for those who haven't heard the tale, was the daughter of Lord Byron, the famous dissipated aesthete. Under the careful tutelage of her psychotic mother (you'd have to be pretty crazy to hate poets and have Lord Byron's kid, though then again the two might be related), she grew into both the manic-depressive romantic heroine any child of Lord Byron should be, and a hero of SCIENCE! in an era when this was not a thing that happened.

A decade or two after Mary Shelley invented science fiction with Frankenstein, Ada Lovelace was working with Charles Babbage on figuring out the World's First Computer. By virtue of this she became, by most counts, the World's First Computer Programmer. The fact that the computer didn't actually exist doesn't really diminish this at all; in fact, it makes it even greater, since it does exist now and we know it actually would have worked. This is both 1) the most steampunk thing ever and 2) incredibly awesome. Somehow I guess there are still people who believe the "women can't do computer science" thing out there, despite such sterling examples as Grace Hopper, Barbara Liskov, and my own advisor. So, for those poor benighted people, YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG. And for boys and girls in CS looking for someone to admire, it's hard to do better than Ada Lovelace. Happy Lovelace Day!

P.S.: Also, there is an amazing webcomic miniseries about Lovelace and Byron that you all should read.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Animals are tasty, but hurting them is wrong(-ish)

Note: If you're familiar with the common arguments for and against vegetarianism, this may be a boring post.

I found myself in an interesting argument last night, in which my position was approximately the following:

Assertion: Animals in some measure are capable of feeling pain.
Assertion: Causing unnecessary pain to animals is undesirable.
Conclusion 1: I might be a better person if I was a vegetarian.

Of course, there are various arguments for and against vegetarianism, and one can't expect a group of people (or at least, a group of people chosen on a non-animal-related basis) to agree with this conclusion unanimously. So I chose a second point to try to prove:

Conclusion 2: All other things being equal, a world in which animals are not hurt is preferable to one in which they are hurt.

Somewhat to my surprise, this point also did not go uncontested. Some of the counterarguments were as follows:

Objection 1: Animals aren't people, so it doesn't matter.

My response to this objection is generally to assume that the person making it actually believes what I believe, namely, that the pain of non-human animals matters much less than the pain (or even the comfort) of humans. This is a valid argument against conclusion 1, but it doesn't refute or even address conclusion 2. If people could be just as comfortable, well-nourished, etc. without eating animals (which is arguably true in the present, and certainly could become true in the future; it's not technologically impossible), then as long as the pain of animals matters even a little tiny bit, a world in which they're not hurt is preferable to one in which they are. On the other hand, there are people (I think) who do not believe my modified form of the statement, but instead believe the statement itself: that the pain of animals literally does not matter at all in a moral sense. There are arguments to be made here too, probably, but I'm more inclined to say that if you believe this, I cannot argue with you. Anyone who accepts as a basic premise that the pain of animals literally does not have any moral significance whatsoever, has premises sufficiently different from mine that our viewpoints are irreconcilable (on this matter, at least). Thankfully, we didn't spend too much time on this point.

Objection 2: This might justify eating free-range, but doesn't justify vegetarianism.

To this, the best I can manage is "well, yes, maybe." This is one of the reasons why I included in conclusion 1 the qualification that I "might" be a better person. I don't know how painful or pleasant the lives of animals are in various situations. I am fairly certain that they are fairly miserable in factory farms and the like. There is also the argument to be made that most farm animals would not exist if they were not being raised for food, to which I can only respond that some of their existences are not preferable to non-existence, and some perhaps are. The assertion that there are existences that are not preferable to non-existence, lives not worth living as it were, is a contentious one. These are all interesting discussions to have, but in a sense all of them miss the mark: while they address conclusion 1, they have no impact on conclusion 2 whatsoever. Raising animals and treating them well (and then maybe even killing them for food) is still preferable to raising animals and torturing them and then killing them for food.

Objection 3: In this hypothetical world, can I still eat animals?
Response: You can eat something that to you is completely indistinguishable from animals.
Objection 3: Then no.

This is a logically void argument, of course, since the objector would have no way of distinguishing between the situation he accepts and the situation to which he objects. If he can't tell whether he's eating animals or the hypothetical food that is completely indistinguishable from animals, which he can't by definition of "indistinguishable", then he can't very well object to the indistinguishable food. However, the existence of this objection does raise an interesting question: can it be ethical for a government to lie to its people? Suppose that the world I conjecture in conclusion 2 has been made technologically possible. A substance (call it food i) has been developed which is as nutritious as meat, tastes the same as meat, costs less to produce than meat, and can be produced without harming animals. (Anyone who responds to this with the argument that this isn't possible may, again, have a viewpoint irreconcilable with mine. This seems easily within the reach of technology to me, and probably feasible within the next 100 years.) The government accepts conclusion 2 as truth, and would like to mandate the replacement of meat products with food i, since this would be a clear moral improvement. However, there are people under this government who make objection 3 despite its logical invalidity, and since their objection is logically invalid, they cannot be convinced otherwise. Would it be right for the government to execute the replacement secretly, since it would be a moral good and the objectors would be literally incapable of telling the difference? Things to ponder.

Anyway, my conclusion here is that none of these arguments really have anything to say against conclusion 2, and in fact I will go so far as to assert that conclusion 2 follows necessarily from my assumptions. This is a risky assertion for a logician to make. So I'm curious: if you're reading this, can you think of any logical objections to conclusion 2? Of course, if you have any other thoughts on the matter, I'd love to hear them too. It's been a while since I've had a proper debate. Looking forward to hearing from you, dear hypothetical readers!

Monday, January 3, 2011


I turned six in 1993. I received two presents: a CD drive, and a CD to go in it. The CD drive was external, meant to be attached to the computer with the sort of thick cable that's been obsoleted by USB. The CD was a game, The Even More Incredible Machine. It's still on my shelf, though I'm not at all confident that it'll run.

Obsolescence isn't what it used to be. When I was 2, the family computer was an Amiga, running its own command-line operating system, Amiga OS. A few years later, it had been replaced by a Packard-Bell running Windows 3.1, the first real popular Windows release, with graphics in place of the command prompt (though DOS was still there every time it booted, cursor blinking, waiting for you to type "win" and start the new OS). The next computer had a built-in CD drive, and a little black box called a modem, which brought us email at turtle speed courtesy of America On-Line. Somewhere along the line we bought into the Zip Disk fad, and had an external drive for those too, marveling over the storage space of 100 floppies in a single plastic case. The peripherals were necessary to keep up, if you weren't going to buy a new computer every two years.

That Zip Drive turned out to be a bad investment. Modern computers still use CDs. The modem's quietly disappeared in favor of wireless Verizon fiber-optic through a wireless router, and it's hard even to remember that "tower" used to be the opposite of "desktop", not a synonym. Even so, it's hard not to feel like things have settled down. Long before the numbers stopped going up (how can another 2-gigahertz processor inspire those who plugged a Pentium upgrade cap over their 486?), new computers started looking less like brave new worlds, and more like better, faster, cleaner iterations of the previous ones.

Maybe it's the new year, or reading the new novel by New William Gibson (completely unlike Old William Gibson*), or the influence of a certain web site. Whatever the case, I've been thinking about 1993, and about technology, because to me the two are intimately related. I'm not trying to say that computers aren't advancing as fast as they did in the past, or hold up signs proclaiming the End of Moore's Law or anything, though I do believe that we've reached a point where the next revolution (and the previous) won't be driven by advances in hardware. I'm just remembering a time when things felt different, at least to me. Wishing you all a happy and healthy New Year.

*For readers who remember '80s computers with fondness, I highly recommend Digital. Even if you don't, it's a lovely adventure game/visual novel, and worth giving a try.