A weblog by Will Fitzgerald

Monthly Archives: September 2007

As simple as possible, but no simpler

Search on the web for “as simple as possible, but no simpler” and the web will tell you that Albert Einstein said this. Einstein said a lot of things, and a lot of things are attributed to him; knowing whether he, in fact, said a particular pithy quote is a bit of a problem.

I spent a good couple of hours this morning tracking this down, and I think that the Wikiquote page on Einstein gets it right. He did write:

It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.

Unfortunately, the original source, although online, is behind JSTOR’s paywall, although I was able to read it because I was searching online while at Kalamazoo College’s Upjohn Library. In the Wikquote discussion page on Einstein, another similar quotation appears, but in slightly different variants. “JeffQ” asked if someone would look up the exact quotation in the “Autobiographical Notes” Einstein wrote for a 70th birthday Festschrift called Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist. I trucked up to the third floor and found the quotation. The original is in German:

Eine Theorie ist desto eindrucksvoller, je grösser die Einfachheit ihrer Prämissen ist, je verschiedenartigere Dinge sie verknüpft, und je weiter ihr Anwendungsbereich ist.

with the translation (by the book’s editor, Paul Arthur Schilpp) on the facing page:

A theory is the more impressive the greater the simplicity of its premises is, the more different kinds of things it relates, and the more extended is its area of applicability.

Wikiquotes notes that this is similar to Occam’s Razor:

Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem (Entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity).

which, apparently, Occam never said. But (according the Stanford Encyclopedia on Philosophy article on simplicity by Alan Baker), Aristole said:

We may assume the superiority ceteris paribu of the demonstration which derives from fewer postulates or hypotheses

and it gives similar quotes from Aquinas, Kant, Newton, Galileo, Lavoisier, and (of course), Einstein (not the faux quotation, but another altogether).

The article’s rewrite of Entia non sunt muliplicanda praeter necessitatem is the delightfully logistic:

Other things being equal, if T1 is more ontologically parsimonious than T2 then it is rational to prefer T1 to T2.

So, what is the simplest way to express Occam’s Razor? I think “as simple as possible, but no simpler,” which we must attribute to the wisdom of the crowd rather than to any one person, is about as good as one can get.

What's the opposite of 'hype'?

There must be an antonym for ‘hype.’ To hype something is to engage in hyperbole about it: Apple products have generated their share of hype. (For example: Steve Jobs said, “We made the buttons on the screen look so good you’ll want to lick them.”) I don’t mean ‘anti-hype’ in the sense of telling the approximate truth about something, desengaño or dis-illusionment. But after the IPhone announcement, Steve Ballmer said, “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.” Ballmer was deliberately understating the case. In rhetoric, meiosis comes pretty close. And diss comes pretty close, too, though both of these lack that ‘the person doing this should really know better” connotation of ‘hype.’

Anyway, I got to thinking about this after listening to Marketplace’s piece on the company I work for, Powerset, in which Leo LaPorte “explains its efforts” to Kai Ryssdal.

Example 1: LaPorte says, “I just want to point out that artificial intelligence has been a horrendous failure since the day the term was coined.” Well, the term was coined approximately 50 years ago, and, although there have been very significant failures in AI, there have been plenty of successes as well (see, for example, the list on the AAAI website, and its article on the “The AI Effect“).

Example 2: LaPorte (having been asked about AskJeeves) says, “AskJeeves is a very good example. They’re still around, they’ve been around as long as Google, they’ve spent a lot of money on advertising. But they’re still a distant second.” In other words, a company is only successful if they have more than half the market share; and an implication that Powerset claims it can beat Google in market share. As far as I know, Powerset has never claimed we can take away Google’s lead in the search market place–we are working on things which we think are better than some of Google’s approaches in core search, but this isn’t a claim that we can beat Google in market share.

I’d have a little more respect for the Marketplace commentary if they’d managed to spell our company name correctly. You know, you could have googled it to get it right, Kai.

The Young Geek, Mocked by His Crush, Fantasizes About Future World Domination, When He'll Have Cyborg Raping Powers

Jonathan Coulton is “a musician, a singer-songwriter and an internet superstar.” He wrote a sweet, goopy song called Code Monkey that I like, as well as a song about the Mandelbrot set. But he also wrote a song called “The Future Soon.” It it, the protagonist sings:

Last week I left a note on Laura’s desk
It said I love you signed anonymous friend
Turns out she’s smarter than I thought she was
She knows I wrote it, now the whole class does too

But I know that I’ll forget the look of pity in her face
When I’m living in my solar dome on a platform in space.

Ok; this is garden variety young geek fantasy; perhaps even socially and emotionally useful, in that it might propel him to greater things:

I’ll probably be some kind of scientist
Building inventions in my space lab in space
I’ll end world hunger I’ll make dolphins speak

But then the fantasy turns, and he’s training a ‘warrior robot race’ and becoming a cyborg himself. And regarding Laura:

I’ll see her standing by the monorail
She’ll look the same except for bionic eyes
She lost the real ones in the robot wars
I’ll say I’m sorry, she’ll say it’s not your fault
Or is it?
And she eyes me suspiciously
Hearing the whir of the servos inside
She will scream and try to run
But there’s nowhere she can hide
When a crazy cyborg wants to make you his robot bride

This is “beyond creepy,” as a friend wrote.

I guess I just want to go on record to say that, as much as I music by and about my fellow geeks in general, and Coulton in particular, this song is “beyond creepy” in its male misogynist revenge fantasy. In many ways, [male] geeks really are taking over power, and you know, like geek hero Spiderman says, with great power comes great responsibility. The least we can do (and it is not very much) is to disavow rape fantasy songs.