Tag Archives: books

For Your Chinese Room

Tic-Tac-Tome is a 1400 page policy for playing tic-tac-toe. Like a giant Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, the reader chooses a location to move to, and turns to the appropriate page to see the counter move. Of course, the book plays optimally, and so “the only winning move is not to play.

The book fits perfectly the Chinese Room argument. In the thought experiment, a Chinese speaker writes messages in chinese and slips them under the door to a locked room. Responses, also written in Chinese get passed back under the door. The responses are so convincing, that the Chinese speaker is convinced he/she is conversing with an intelligence that understands Chinese. Unbeknownst to those outside, a person that does not speak Chinese collects the papers as they slide under the door, consults a giant lookup table of inputs to outputs and then copies the prescribed response to another piece of paper and slides it back, never understanding the inputs or the outputs. The question is then, whether Chinese speaker is conversing with an intelligence or nor, and if so where does the intelligence lie?

Personally, I find the whole “Is it live, or is it Memorex?” argument rather quaint and tiresome. Something that’s only worth discussing while riding in my atomic powered self-driving car while smoking a bowl of the finest hashish. AI always struck me a bit like a magic trick. From the outside, it looks amazing (Wow! You made an orange float in the air! Amazing!), then you find out how it is actually done, and then you’re disappointed because your fantasy has been dashed (You just shoved your thumb in it! You suck!). Personally, I think this says more about us, and our willingness to be misled than anything else.

Voynich Manuscript

A few of years ago or so I became interested in the art of grimoires. The woodcuts of regular geometric shapes overlaid over demons or simply naked people. Codes. Magic. Dark conspiracies. Grimoires have it all.

The ultimate book of magic is the enigmatic Voynich Manuscript. Discovered in 1912 in an antique bookshop, its authorship and meaning has never been clear. Written sometime between 1404 and 1438, its drawing appear to describe plants, biology, cosmology, and medicine. The text is either some sort of encryption, or maybe even meaningless asemic text.

I first heard of the Voynich Manuscript overhearing a rather bizarre conversation between two older gentlemen at Sureshot coffee in Seattle the summer of 2008. One man was discussing some occult conspiracy of an that involved the Voynich Manuscript, an medieval immortality cult of serial killers, and the Zodiac Killer. I think Bohemian Grove entered in to it as well.

Forma Urbis Cairo

BLDGBLOG writes about Nina Burleigh’s book about the French in Egypt during Napoleon, Mirage. In it, Burleigh mentions how each neighborhood in Cairo was walled off from each other. Only small gates, sometimes, just a single gate for a neighborhood interconnected the city. A city of cities if you will. Napoleon ordered that the entire city be mapped.

[I]t was deemed so daunting that at first the engineers hoped the order [to map Cairo] would be rescinded” – but, of course, “it was not.” Edme-François Jomard, the cartographer in charge of the project, wrote: “The city is almost entirely composed of very short streets and twisting alleys, with innumerable dead-ends. Each of these sections is closed by a gate, which the inhabitants open when they wish; as a result the interior of Cairo is very difficult to know.” Jomard, Burleigh writes, would spend his time “knocking on gates that hid whole neighborhoods.”

When I read this, I thought of two things. First, it sounds like 18th century Cairo was almost like Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley. Only if you knew where you were going, and knew the password, would the hidden areas be open to you. The other was the Forma Urbis Romae.

The Forma Urbis Romane was an detailed marble map of Rome circa 200 CE. It outlined every street, alley, doorway, and stairwell in the city. Not just public areas, but the internal plans to the buildings as well. Unfortunately, a majority of the map was destroyed and used for lime and other building materials. Today, only about 10% remains.

I’ve always had a soft sport of maps every since I was little. Whether the map was a real location, or a fictional one, a map always filled me with wonder. It was a window to an adventure. With a map, I’m prepared to go.