Easing Back Into the Swing (Yeah, Right)

In honor of being home after a long week of travel, time-zone confusion, and waking up in the morning staring at an unfamiliar ceiling wondering what state I’m in, I thought I’d ease back into normal routines by touching on the intersection of my vocation and avocation. Tonight, I read George Dyson’sEngineers’ Dreams,” published in Edge. I’ve known about this story for a few weeks, and have been looking forward to sitting down and going through it. It’s far from a light read. Dyson’s piece sits firmly in the intersection between article, short story, and essay. Stewart Brand wrote this in his introduction to the piece:

This George Dyson gem couldn’t find a publisher in a fiction venue because it’s too technical, and technical publications (including Wired) won’t run it because it’s fiction. Shame on them. Edge to the rescue.

“Engineers’ Dreams” is indeed heavily technical. I’m not an engineer or computer scientist myself, but I spend every working day talking to people who are, trying to understand and translate what they do. I have to say that Dyson’s story stretched my ability to follow technical explanations:

Google was inverting the von Neumann matrix—by coaxing the matrix into inverting itself. Von Neumann’s “Numerical Inverting of Matrices of High Order,” published (with Herman Goldstine) in 1947, confirmed his ambition to build a machine that could invert matrices of non-trivial size. A 1950 postscript, “Matrix Inversion by a Monte Carlo Method,” describes how a statistical, random-walk procedure credited to von Neumann and Stan Ulam “can be used to invert a class of n-th order matrices with only n2 arithmetic operations in addition to the scanning and discriminating required to play the solitaire game.” The aggregate of all our searches for unpredictable (but meaningful) strings of bits, is, in effect, a Monte Carlo process for inverting the matrix that constitutes the World Wide Web.

I follow this just enough to catch a vague glimpse of what he means. In computer science, a Monte Carlo process is a way of using random numbers (think this kind of Monte Carlo) to model the behavior of a process that isn’t actually random. It’s useful because many times it’s easier to use random numbers to try to find things out about the desired process than to approach the problem more directly. The image I get from the paragraph above is of each of my search queries as effectively random, modeling, when combined with everyone else’s search queries, some approximation of the collective intelligence of the world.

The point here is that the image is worthwhile, but requires a fair bit of work and background knowledge.

I’m not sure how this story will read to someone who hasn’t studied computer science in some capacity. I fear it will be incomprehensible, which seems to be the reason it was rejected by fiction publishers (in fact, I think it might even be a difficult read for Wired’s readers, which might help to explain why that publication apparently passed on it. However, it has lovely moments:

Ed developed a rapport with the machines that escaped those who had never felt the warmth of a vacuum tube or the texture of a core memory plane.

And the last line is the loveliest of all. Like many things, this story will reward those with the means and patience to puzzle it out. I do find it interesting to consider the audience for a story like this. I imagine the story would interest the people who are equipped to read it, but I can see why Dyson had a hard time getting it published. This is why I’m glad for the Internet: It’s so much easier to find the right quirky venue for a piece online, I think. We’ll see what I have to say about that if I manage to place the Klingon story I wrote (more on that when I’ve found it a home).

It’s wonderful to be back. I hope you didn’t give up on me while I was gone.

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