Category Archives: Essays

Everything’s an Algorithm (well, almost everything)

I started out at Ohio State University majoring in Fine Arts. Two years later, I switched majors to Psychology. When I graduated OSU, I went looking for a job, thinking I’d combine my fine arts background with the psychology I’d learned. Five out of five companies I interviewed showed little interest in fine arts, psychology, or any combination thereof. It was 1969 and all the companies were looking for computer programmers back then, so I went to work for Sears, Roebuck and Company as a computer programmer.

Sears had an excellent training program and I fell head over heels in love with computer programming. I remember my first day of training. We were told to draw a flowchart that would direct a hypothetical robot to enter our office building, go up three elevators, get off on the 47th floor, and go to our office cubicle. We hadn’t learned any computer language yet, so we had to write our instructions for the robot using basic English commands that wouldn’t lend themselves to misinterpretation, like “walk straight until you reach the first elevator” or “press the button with “47” printed on it”.

I later found out, after reading Donald Knuth’s “Fundamental Algorithms” (The Art of Computer Programming Vol 1), that a flowchart is a graphic representation of an algorithm. Knuth stated that algorithms were similar to processes, methods, procedures, or routines, but also possessed the following attributes:

  • finiteness: algorithms have to terminate after a finite number of steps. They can’t go on forever;

  • definiteness: operations (steps) have to be rigorously and unambiguously specified for every possible case;

  • inputs: data may or may not be given to an algorithm before or during its operation;

  • outputs: data generated by an algorithm’s operation that bears some relation to its input;

  • effectiveness: an algorithm must be able to be precisely performed within a finite period of time and must be exactly repeatable.

These attributes imply that not everything is an algorithm as the title of my post suggested.

Algorithms are the cornerstone of all computer and robot programming, including machine learning and artificial intelligence. The implementation of algorithms requires that the operations, cases, inputs, and outputs specified for each algorithm be converted to a format that can be processed by a specific machine or operating system. Computer hardware is built to perform certain basic operations efficiently. Unfortunately, the formats a computer can “understand” are usually incomprehensible to the average human. Computer software allows general or special purpose algorithms to be written by humans (or other machines) to operate on a specific set of computers.

Remember that algorithms are processes, methods, procedures, or routines with extra attributes. We’ve implemented them on computers and robots. Nobody ever said that algorithms are limited to just those systems though.

What about cellular organisms, bacteria, fungi, plants, and animals? What about human beings? Why couldn’t we substitute plastic for flesh, organs, and muscles, metal for bones, gold and wires for nerves, or vice-versa? What about life itself, the brain, consciousness, or love? Could there be an algorithm for life, consciousness, or love?

It seems reasonable to me to assume that life, consciousness, and love possess the following attributes:

  • they are processes;

  • the processes are probably composed of a finite number of steps;

  • the processes probably have inputs and generate outputs.

but life, consciousness, and love are currently missing a couple critical attributes:

  • we don’t know all the operations required or the cases in which those operations occur;

  • we don’t know how to go about encoding the algorithms to make them effective.

Maybe we don’t need to know all the operations involved in life, consciousness, and love. Maybe we just need to know enough to create viable processes or processes capable of bootstrapping whatever else they need whenever they need it.

There are more questions on this subject than answers. I’m ok with that. There’s no known algorithm for whittling a huge block of ignorance down to a beautiful piece of knowledge or for whittling a piece of goodness out of a huge block of evil. That’s probably because those are processes that go on forever,

or at least as long as hope springs in the human breast.


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Adventures and Normalities

The only way you’re going to have an adventure, good or bad, will be when you are alone. The reason is that two or more people make a normality.

A normality is a mutually agreed worldview and set of rules and beliefs establishing the boundaries of possibility and safety. Once we agree about what kind of world we live in, we get to decide what is or is not possible, proper or improper, acceptable or unacceptable, true or false, beautiful or ugly, visible or invisible, etc.

An adventure is everything a normality is not. You don’t know what kind of world you’re in. You don’t know the rules. Maybe there are none. An adventure is boundless. Anything is possible. There are no safety nets, no guarantee of safety. You may or may not survive a war, a revolution, a pogrom, or a holocaust. You might discover and explore a new world and come back home famous and rich beyond your wildest dreams or you might be tortured and die far from home, unknown or forgotten. You might marry the love of your life or be rejected.

An adventure is deeply personal. Although you may share an adventure with someone else, your foxhole buddy, your squad, your company, your battalion, what happens to you all, happens to each one in a very different way, the fears and the loves, the successes and the failures. No matter how many people are killed, only you can die your own death. No matter how many people fall in love, when you fall in love, it’s you and no one else that falls in love.

In a battlefield, army buddies will try to turn the adventure of combat into a normality, into something safe or boring. It’s just a way of trying to deal with the terror of war. There’s a limit to how much terror an individual soul can take. Shutting down the terror works, until it doesn’t work anymore, until its insistence can’t be ignored.

I remember back in 1983 riding through Beirut on the way to our base in the Shouf mountains in a convoy of Safari trucks. We called them duce-and-a-halfs when I was in the US Army. Now I was in the Israeli Defense Forces. The truck sides were open, a guy behind a machine gun on each side, and the rest of us, bullets chambered, weapons looking for targets. I tried to look as mean as I could and didn’t talk during the whole trip. When we finally pulled into our base in the mountains overlooking Beirut, the soldier sitting next to me said in Hebrew we’re safe now. No need to be afraid anymore. I told him I wasn’t afraid before but, the truth was, I didn’t feel any safer inside the base than outside of it. At night we went to sleep in full battle gear with rifles under our thin mattresses on metal cots, serenaded by the Druze and the Christians lobbing mortar shells over us at each other. During the day I had to lay field phone cable a mile or so from Syrian shooting positions.

People often wish wistfully for an adventure. I think they’re highly over-rated. That said, I believe adventures bring us closer to reality than normalities.


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A Plea to Reform Jews

The two subjects that should never be discussed in polite society are religion and politics; but society has not been polite for an awfully long time. If you are easily offended by religious discussions, you’d best skip this post and move on to another one.

A thoughtful analysis of religiosity will show that the road between the states of disbelief and belief are bi-directional; that is, one may start off as a non-believer and convert to a true believer, or one may start off as a true believer and become a non-believer. Of course we can imagine all sorts of permutations and combinations derived from a wide range states in between. One may even start out in one direction and turn back towards the opposite direction or even stand still wherever he/she happens to be between the two end-states.

I’m talking about the possible, not necessarily what may or may not be desirable in someone’s eyes.

I’m a non-believer, somewhere between an atheist and an agnostic. I don’t really have enough evidence about the existence of God as He/She/It is commonly defined (Creator and Prime Mover of the Universe) one way or the other. I would prefer to exist in a Universe in which God exists, but I don’t have any evidence that I’m in such a Universe. Of course I wouldn’t prefer to exist in a Universe in which God, as commonly defined (Chooser of one people over another ignoring the rest of His Creation, Creator of Heaven for true believers and Hell for non-believers, and Tester of peoples’ faith by commanding them to sacrifice their children) existed. I would prefer and follow a God who loved all his creation equally, who was fundamentally rational, and who was ethical; who was patient with questioners and doubters, and provided us examples we could live by.

I was raised as a Reform Jew. I grew to appreciate many elements of it over time. Much of what I wrote above about my preferences for a God are derived from what I learned from Reform rabbis in sermons, weekly religious classes, and frequent family discussions. There were some things I disagreed with, like the moral of Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice Isaac on the improvised altar on Mount Moriah. I thought Abraham should have stood up to God and rejected His command to sacrifice his son. How many people since Abraham have heard voices commanding them to kill their spouses or children? We hear lots of voices in our heads but we are not supposed to act uncritically on them. Anyway I learned that moral arguments were acceptable.

I would say that, for me, Reform Judaism was probably the last (or the first, depending on which direction you’re going) gas station on the long road of religiosity between belief and disbelief.

From what I had been exposed to, it became clear to me that Reform Judaism was an enlightened, tolerant, and liberal religion. We studied the other religions around us in order to understand the differences and commonalities between us. That orientation spilled over into the daily lives of Reform Jews. When I came across Voltaire’s famous quote from his letter to Monsieur le Riche, “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write”, it came naturally to me to accept it as an ethical and worthy statement. It was the kind of thing we were likely to hear in a Reform Jewish sermon.

I continued to grow within Reform Judaism, often comfortably but sometimes struggling with some aspect or other, through high school, college, the US Army, marriage with a beautiful Israeli sabra (native), and raising our son in America. Then we decided to pick up our roots and make aliyah (immigrate) from a Democratic country (USA) based on a written constitution, majority rule and minority rights, and the separation of Church and State to a Democratic country (Israel) without a written constitution, majority rule but without minority rights, and no separation of Synagogue and State.

When I arrived in Israel I found that the ultra-Orthodox Jewish rabbinate and religious parties maintained de facto control over marriage, divorce, burial rights, access to the Wailing Wall (Western Wall of the Temple Mount), Jewish conversion, etc. That’s all part of the political status quo, an unwritten agreement that maintains whatever the situation was current at the time that the ultra-Orthodox agreed to support Ben Gurion in his bid to establish a Jewish state. Ben Gurion was desperate. Without the support of the ultra-Orthodox and the ultra-ultra-Orthodox, he felt he would not be able to claim that God promised the land of Israel to the Jews. It was written in the bible that all modern monotheists hold holy. Ben Gurion apparently didn’t believe the Holocaust would be enough to persuade the geopolitical powers that be that the Jews deserved to have their own land. In Haifa the buses and businesses are open during the Sabbath; in Jerusalem they are not. Now the status quo is not good enough for the ultra-Orthodox; they want to codify it into law. They want the Israeli Supreme Court to accept the status quo as axiomatic.

Other things I discovered after arriving in Israel were that Reform Judaism is just about the most despicable thing that exists, worthy only of being spit on or stoned, desirous of diluting the blood of the Jewish people, misleading them, and attracting believers away from Orthodoxy to Reform. Frequently, on slow news days, you’d hear reports of veiled or unveiled threats made over phone to Reform rabbis and cantors, stones thrown through Reform temple windows, and spray-painted slogans on temple walls. The police never found the perpetrators. I used to mention how I felt about it to my local friends, but I soon discovered a lack of empathy on that score. It appeared that even among traditional believers and non-believers, the ultra-Orthodox propaganda against Reform Jews was taken as in the case of “where there’s smoke there’s probably fire”. I learned to keep my particular brand of religion to myself.

As time went on I found my belief in Reform Judaism eroded, along with my belief in Judaism or any other religion. There are too many reasons to go into why it happened in this post; maybe another time.

This is just so that you will know where I’m coming from.

Reform Jews comprise roughly 80% of American Jewry; Conservatives roughly 15%; Orthodox the remainder. American Jews have been very generous and charitable, but Jewish American support (financial and political) for Israel has been declining over the years (1997 – 2017).

In spite of the fact that there are many reasons why Reform Jews around the world would rather not give their hard-earned charity and support to Israel or would prefer to redirect their funds and support to more democratic or pluralistic groups in Israel, Israel needs your support and funds now as much as ever. People outside the Middle East (including the Americans) seem to believe that Israel is invincible; after all, they have won every war since gaining their independence in 1948. Those same people don’t seem to realize just how close Israel came to losing the October War in 1973.

I appeal to your tolerant and liberal hearts to give what you can to support Israel as it is today, good, bad, and the ugly. If any enlightened, liberal, or tolerant voice is raised in Israel and it becomes known, hinted at, or public record that that voice received special funding from overseas, that voice will lose its legitimacy here.

I appeal to you to remember the words of Voltaire and take them to heart in our case: I [may] detest what you [say or do], but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to [say or do so]”.

According to Maimonides’ Eight Levels of Charity, “The greatest level (of charity), above which there is no greater, is to support a fellow Jew by endowing him with a gift or loan, or entering into a partnership with him, or finding employment for him, in order to strengthen his hand until he need no longer be dependent upon others”.

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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The Stone Conjecture

Today I was listening to my favorite Saturday morning radio broadcast, Dr. Yitzhak Noy reading and commenting on interesting newspaper articles from around the world. I had just come back from walking Daisy and tuned in to the tail end of an article he read about these strange bursts of radio energy and how some astronomers at Harvard had suggested they might be alien space travelers zipping around our galaxy at close to the speed of light.

Well, since I didn’t think Harvard was your usual source of unsubstantiated “Abducted by UFO” headlines, my curiosity was piqued and I Googled some key words and phrases I remembered from the article Dr. Noy had talked about and found Fast Radio Bursts Might Come From Nearby Stars from 2013 and then Harvard Scientists Theorize That Fast Radio Bursts Come From Alien Space Travel from a couple weeks ago (March 9, 2017).

Why was I intrigued? Although the conspiracy theories about incarcerating little green beings with elongated heads in Area 51 or UFOs coming to us from millions of light years away just to make crop circles, mess with our minds, and leave before we can talk to them may very well be true, I tend not to believe them because there seem to me to be many alternate explanations that could be offered that would be just as good if not better. Remember Occam’s Razor. The simplest explanation of those available to us is most probably the correct one. Here’s what intrigued me about the Fast Radio Bursts: since 2007 when they were first discovered by astronomers, nobody had ever come up with an explanation of how they could occur naturally. In other words, there were no other competing theories. The Harvard researchers went one step further and used currently accepted engineering principles to show how an alien technology could propel space craft weighing a million tons at 20% of the speed of light and be visible to us in the frequency and amplitude our radio telescopes recorded.

Anyway, I didn’t want to talk about this particular speculation about Fast Radio Bursts. If you want, you can read the articles yourselves. But the articles did get me thinking about what other kinds of conjectures might be made.

So, without further ado …

The Stone Conjecture:

  1. Life is probably pretty common in a mature universe. The first generation of stars after the Big Bang were made of relatively simple elements, but subsequent generations of stars were composed of increasingly heavier elements in a variety of configurations. Atoms of various elements bound together into increasingly complex molecules, giving rise to organic molecules. When the circumstances proved adequate, organic molecules combined into organelles and cellular structures igniting the engine of life. Cells differentiated into colonies of specialized organs giving rise to plants and animals on our planet to adapt to its ecosystem. When the variety and complexity of these adaptive systems reached a critical mass, consciousness arose and then self-consciousness. The same kinds of processes probably happened with other kinds of systems in other kinds of ecosystems randomly occurring around our galaxy and others throughout the universe. A system beyond a certain level of quantity, variety, and complexity would be unlikely to remain integrated in a dynamically changing ecosystem over a certain period of time without developing self-consciousness. Entropy would cause the system to break down. This is what happens when we die.
  2. Given #1, self-conscious life that developed significantly before us would possibly be significantly more advanced than us. The stars in the center of our galaxy probably gave rise to civilizations far more advanced than civilizations in our solar system located pretty far out along an arm of our galaxy. Our local star was created long after the stars clustering around our galactic center. What I’m talking about is only orthogonal to the Kardashev scale.
  3. There may be more dimensions of space than the three we perceive. Given #2, an advanced civilization might know whether there are more than three dimensions and take advantage of those dimensions in traveling from one point to another or they would perceive only the three dimensions of space that we perceive.
  4. Given #3, if space spreads out over more than the three dimensions we perceive, then an advanced alien civilization would either know the short cuts through higher dimensions from one point to another or know how to warp one of the observable dimensions to access hyperspace.
  5. As far as we can see with our telescopes pointed in every direction from the vicinity of our planet, there is something: meteors, moons, planets, stars, and galaxies. What we can’t see is probably dark matter. These are all potential obstacles for us to travel in a single vector at or near the speed of light. In other words, in order to avoid running into these obstacles we’d probably have to slow down our speed significantly and jinx up, down, left, or right, to go around.
  6. If there are only the three dimensions we perceive, then traveling through the galaxy at close to the speed of light would require tunnels of emptiness through our galaxy. Tunnels of emptiness through our galaxy or any other would not appear naturally. It might be an indication that an advanced civilization had ploughed that tunnel to allow near light speed travel. Travel between galaxies at light speed could probably be made without tunnels because the space is mostly empty. Of course there is the issue of dark matter, but current theories posit that matter does not interact with dark matter. See Why Doesn’t Dark Matter Interact with Ordinary Matter.

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Roll Over Maslow

Some of you have heard of Maslow’s Pyramid, a diagram representing a man’s or woman’s hierarchy of needs. The pyramid is divided into five levels from the wide base to the narrow apex.

The first and lowest level at the base of the pyramid represents our Physiological needs: the physical requirements for human survival, air, water, and food. The inability to satisfy needs at this level means death for the individual.

The second level just above the first represents our Safety and Security needs: the absence of war, natural disaster, violence, abuse, and the requirements for personal security, financial security, health and well-being, and protection from the adverse impacts of accidents or illness. The inability to satisfy needs at this level can engender post-traumatic stress disorder and other extreme psychological coping mechanisms.

The third level represents our need for Love and Belonging: being part of a family, having friends, and having a significant Other with whom one can be intimate, both sexually and non-sexually. Not satisfying these needs can lead to loneliness, anxiety, or depression.

The fourth level represents our need for Esteem: status, recognition, fame, prestige, attention, strength, competence, mastery, self-confidence, independence, and freedom.

The fifth and highest level at the top of the pyramid represents our need for Self-Actualization: to become the most that one can be. Whatever one can do, one must do.

During Maslow’s final years, he posited a sixth level, above all the rest, which he called self-transcendence: giving oneself to some higher goal outside oneself, in altruism and spirituality, thinking about the ends rather than the means, to oneself, to significant Others, to all mankind, to other species, and to the Universe.

The most basic needs must be satisfied before the higher needs. Each level of needs depends on the satisfaction of the needs of the previous levels.

But then I thought about what an amazing species we really are and how there are those among us who could flip Maslow’s Pyramid over on its head, so that the highest levels become prerequisites, pre-conditions, for what were previously the lower levels, that our need for self-transcendence precedes and overrides our need for self-actualization, which overrides our need for esteem, which overrides our need for love and belonging, which overrides our need for safety and security, which overrides our physiological needs.

Yes, there are people like that.

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The Truth about Fiction

Animals are realists. All the species except for us. There are a couple significant differences between the rest of the animals and us that are probably related to each other.

The first difference is that animals are born with the knowledge of how to make use of all their bodily functions and how to get along in the world whereas we are born with only a partial knowledge of our bodily functions and how to get along in the world. Animal instincts are transferred and stored in their genes. Sapiens’ knowledge is acquired through our senses, stored in the brain, and transferred by means of language. Animals are capable of learning varying amounts of information but could probably get along with nothing more than their instincts for most of their lives. Sapiens have instincts too, but not enough to survive on.

The second difference is that animals have only rudimentary languages, if at all, for conveying only real concepts, commands, and warnings whereas we have highly developed languages for conveying representations of internal and external realities, as well as fictions. Fictions include assertions that may or may not be true, that haven’t been proven yet, that we’d like to be true, that we wish were true, that we want to believe are true, that we want others to believe are true, that were once thought to be true, that we are willing to accept for the moment as true, or that are patently false.

Examples of fiction include stories, myths, religious dogma, beliefs, astrology, political propaganda, rights, duties, lies, traffic lights, metaphors, hyperboles, scientific conjectures and theories, histories, nationalities, communities, races, cultures, civilizations, money, corporations, gender roles, purpose, meaning, romance, and our world views. Examples of reality might be hungry, lion, waiting, and waterhole.

I’m reading a fascinating book called “Sapiens, a Brief History of Humankind”, written by Doctor (of Philosophy) Yuval Noah Harari. One of the interesting points he makes in his book is that animal species cannot aggregate and cooperate in groups composed of more than a few hundred individuals whereas Homo Sapiens can and in many cases do aggregate and cooperate in groups numbering millions or more. Harari attributes this capacity of Sapiens to get such massive numbers of individuals to live, work, and fight together to their ability to convey fictions with their languages. Our fictions unite us, keep us together, and direct us towards common goals far more so than our reality. If a lion enters our camp, it’s every man for himself. As we say, you don’t have to run faster than the lion. You just have to run faster than the guy in front of you. If you want to kill a mastodon, you don’t need more than a hundred or so men with spears to surround it and bring it down. If you wanted to launch a Christian Crusade to take Jerusalem from the Muslims back in 1099, you’d need thousands of foot soldiers and 300 knights and if the Muslims wanted to take Jerusalem back, they’d need even more soldiers and horsemen, which they were able to muster easily. For the Christians, God was on their side, but for the Muslims their God was greater, or Allahu Akbar (الله أكبر).

Lest we conclude that civilizations would be a lot better off without their fictions, Harari goes on to point out that every social structure comprising more than a few hundred individuals would break down without the fictions that organize them. Many large groups enforce religious beliefs or official party lines, such that non-believers are subject to violence and/or death, for the groups to survive. If, however, enough members of a group stop believing the organizing fictions, that group will cease to exist, as will any benefits accrued by members of the group.

Remember Kant’s Categorical Imperative? Kant’s criterion for whether an action was moral or not was derived by asking what would happen if everybody were to perform that action. If the answer were that society would survive or even thrive, then it would be considered a moral action. If, however, the answer was that society would break down, then it would be considered an immoral action. For example, is it moral to steal from a person? No, because if everybody were to steal from each other, then society would break down. Is it moral to give charity? Yes, because if everybody gave charity, society would survive or thrive. It’s a lot more complicated than that, but you get the idea. If not, read the link above.

So the bottom line is I shouldn’t attempt to persuade people to give up their fictions. If I did, society would break down, people would stop working at their jobs, drive through red lights, crash into each other, babble meaninglessly, commit crimes, acts of violence, and suicide, starve, get sick, and die. As a matter of fact, I should probably keep my opinions to myself.

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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Message in a Bottle

Nothing is more desperate, more poignant, more romantic than a message in a bottle. You visualize a beautiful young woman or a handsome young man on a lost island writing a letter, possibly with a description of the constellations he sees in the night sky, tracking them in their arcs from sunset to sunrise, possibly including an inventory of the few remaining supplies, and possibly mentioning the young family waiting at home, the love that was abandoned or passed up, or the wrong which was never admitted.

You visualize these things written on a ragged scrap of parchment rolled into a cylinder, stuffed into a bottle, sealed with a cork, and cast in a long arc over the waves crashing against the beach, into waters moving in a deeper current away from the island toward someone also handsome or beautiful who will find the small bottle floating between the waves in the immenseness of the ocean stretching from horizon to horizon, someone who will be able to decipher the strange markings on the parchment, someone who will care enough to drop everything and change course, setting sail for the lost island where the desperate writer waits before it is too late.

And what is the Voyager 1 space probe, launched from Earth in 1977, reporting back to us all it sees until 2025 when it will continue its blind inertia towards the star Gliese 445 somewhere in the constellation Camelopardalis about 40,000 years from now, carrying a gold-plated audio-visual disc in the event that the spacecraft is ever found by intelligent life forms from other planetary systems, but a message in a bottle cast into the endless seas of space, even smaller and darker than a bottle floating between the waves on a moonless night?

But if it is found, the Voyager 1 that is, will the finders be smart enough to decipher our strange markings? Will they be kind enough to come rescue us from our loneliness and ourselves? Will they laugh at our primitive efforts or even recognize them as worthy of scrutiny? If they do come, will they come in peace or will they come as we do, wreaking havoc and extinction upon us? We are the most destructive species that has ever lived on our planet. Are we the norm in our galaxy or in our universe? If not, then how do we expect our alien rescuers to welcome us into the family of worlds? But if so, then we should cease shining our beacons at the stars and our explorations of distant worlds before they detect us and come to root out the risk to the universe while it is still small and confined.

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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