Friday, April 25, 2003

Topics of Interest: A New Kind of Science

Wolfram, Stephen. A New Kind of Science. Wolfram Media, Inc. 2002.

Thursday night there was a reception of technology diehards at Quantam Books in Cambridge prior to Steve Wolfram's talk on a New Kind of Science at MIT. Quantum Books is considered the best technical bookstore on the planet by my former French colleagues who worked on object database technology with me in Cambridge so it was an appropriate venue for Wolfram. Later, he gave a compelling talk to a standing room only crowd in the main MIT lecture hall, Room 10-250. It ended with thunderous applause, although no standing ovation. An intriguing question and answer period followed.

Wolfram is a great promoter and has a software package to go along with his book, a web site, conferences and minicourses, an institute, a summer school, a whirlwind lecture tour, and a growing band of rebel scientists in universities promoting his approach. All of this while he stills remains a successful CEO at Mathematica.

I was in a somewhat altered state of consciousness from being midway through WWII veteran, Col. Philip Corso's book on the UFO crash at Roswell in 1947. Being a West Point grad who spent 15 years in the military, mostly as an Air Force fighter pilot, I had my own UFO experience and found Col. Corso's story credible. The most interesting idea he presented was that Bell Lab researchers were given an integrated chip recovered from the Roswell crash which they reengineered to product the first transistor. The latest microprocessors are probably more similar to that chip than the first primitive transistor created by mimicking silicon doped with arsenic, and I may be communicating to you via an alien technology!

Corso, Philip. The Day After Roswell. Pocket Books, 1998.

In any event, as Alan Kay, the inventor of Smalltalk, points out, interesting discoveries are found by investigating anomolous events that do not fit ordinary experience. This is how his team invented the mouse, the windows user interface, Smalltalk, the ethernet, the laser printer, and the first real workstation. Puzzling over alien technology is a good starting point for approaching Wolfram's work. In fact, he had just come from a talk to string-theory physicists who he said were not hostile to his point of view, but considered it alien.

Wolfram's book is a hefty piece of literature and I had him sign it at the Quantum reception. I'm studying it carefully a small piece at a time. It merits that level of attention. His basic argument is that cellular automata can exhibit complex behavior with a few simple rules. Adding more complexity to the rules doesn't necessary add more complexity to the behavior. For some cool examples of cellular automata, check out The Temple of Alife.

More interesting is his view of conventional mathematics which has been the primary tool for describing natural systems. Unfortunately, complex calculus and differential equations can only adequately describe simple phenomena. You quickly need to move to computer simulations to describe any complex behavior. One you move to computation, simple rules are more useful than calculus for generating complex behavior, such as the growth of a tree or rendering of a natural scene. This is obviously heresy to mathematicians. In a previous incarnation, I was assistant professor of mathematics at the U.S. Air Force Academy and I have some sympathy with Wolfram's position.

This is not heresy to computer scientists who are familiar with cellular automata. In fact, it can be shown that many simple automata are computational complete, i.e. they can generate any calculation that is possible on a computer. Thus the computer can simulate all of the results of calculus and in a sense, cellular automata can be shown to subsume calculus. Calculus is just not as useful in computer science as it is in physics. In fact, Wolfram demonstrated a simple system with few rules that was a universal computational machine.

Many of Wolfram's ideas are forshadowed by Edward Fredkin. A fellow fighter pilot, I first met Fredkin in 1988 when he provided seed money for one of my startups, His view is that the universe is driven by unique discrete events, and a few simple rules generate all the complexity. It is helpful to understand Fredkin's ideas when forming an opinion of Wolfram's work, so check out his Digital Philosophy site.

DAML: DARPA Agent Markup Language

I'm reviewing a long list of web services papers for various conferences and there is a whole new alphabet soup to get familiar with. Web services are the latest incarnation of object technology. They are ill defined at present and much of the ongoing work in the software industry is directed towards rationalizing web services. Let's take a look at DAML which is designed to implement object-oriented XML schemas with semantic content that enables inferencing.

About the DAML Language

The World Wide Web (WWW) contains a large amount information which is expanding at a rapid rate. Most of that information is currently being represented using the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), which is designed to allow web developers to display information in a way that is accessible to humans for viewing via web browsers. While HTML allows us to visualize the information on the web, it doesn't provide much capability to describe the information in ways that facilitate the use of software programs to find or interpret it. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has developed the Extensible Markup Language (XML) which allows information to be more accurately described using tags. As an example, the word Algol on a web site might represent a computer language, a star or an oceanographic research ship. The use of XML to provide metadata markup, such as Algol, makes the meaning of the work unambiguous. However, XML has a limited capability to describe the relationships (schemas or ontologies) with respect to objects. The use of ontologies provides a very powerful way to describe objects and their relationships to other objects. The DAML language is being developed as an extension to XML and the Resource Description Framework (RDF). The latest release of the language (DAML+OIL) provides a rich set of constructs with which to create ontologies and to markup information so that it is machine readable and understandable.

Friday, April 18, 2003

Object Technology User Group Minneapolis: Scrum Theory and Practice

Date: Tuesday, March 18, 2003
Topic: "Agile Software Development with SCRUM with Application to Healthcare Mobile Platform Development"
A distinguished lecture by Jeff Sutherland, inventor of the SCRUM software development process.
Location: O'Shaughnessy Education Center (OEC) Auditorium, University of St Thomas, St Paul Campus
Schedule: 5:30pm - 7:00: Hors d’oeuvres
7:00 - 10:00: Lecture
10:00 - 11:00 Questions and Answers

I had quite an evening in Minneapolis giving a three hour talk to OTUG followed by a discussion period that went to 11pm. My goal was to give some depth to the background and techniques for leading a Scrum development team to people who were already technology leaders. There are so many Scrums going on today around the world that it is easy for people to go through the motions without really understanding the movements. There is Tai Chi by the novice and Tai Chi by the master. They are the same Tai Chi but they are so different in effect that they appear to be two totally different things. I tried to outline the Zen of Scrum for those who are ready to practice.

The slides from the lecture are like the score of the music for the symphony. You can't really hear the music without being there. Yet people are asking for the slides which consist of two presentations. The second presentation was also given at Medtronics to a large group of their developers during the afternoon before the OTUG evening event. The two slide sets are an attempt to articulate a basic principle of Lao Tsu. "How can the project leader do nothing, yet achieve everything?"

Scrum: Theory and Practice
The Pursuit of Technical Excellence: Inventing and Reinventing Scrum in Five Companies

To get people in the right spirit I showed a video of a real Scrum. See the New Zealand team do the Maori Haka chant. For other great Scrum videos, check out the BBC Training Camp.