Do computers think?


The online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has just published David Cole’s update to the entry on The Chinese Room Argument.

The thought problem was posed by John Searle almost 30 years ago and has been a lightening rod for discussions about theories of consciousness and AI ever since.

For those unfamiliar with it, the argument is not against the notion that machines in general can think – Searle believes that minds are built on biological machines, after all – but rather against certain projects in AI that attempt to use computational theories to try to explain consciousness.  Searle’s argument is that computational models are a dead end and that thinking machines must be investigated in a different (apparently “biological”) way.

Of course, if biology can be reduced to the computational model (for instance) then Searle’s argument may be applicable to all machines and we will have to search for consciousness elsewhere.

Here’s the crux of the argument, from the SEP entry:

“The heart of the argument is an imagined human simulation of a computer, similar to Turing’s Paper Machine. The human in the Chinese Room follows English instructions for manipulating Chinese symbols, where a computer “follows” a program written in a computing language. The human produces the appearance of understanding Chinese by following the symbol manipulating instructions, but does not thereby come to understand Chinese. Since a computer just does what the human does—manipulate symbols on the basis of their syntax alone—no computer, merely by following a program, comes to genuinely understand Chinese.”

If this sort of problem excites you, as it does me, then you may want to examine some of the articles about and around consciousness collected on David Chalmers’ website: .

What can one do with Silverlight?


The ComponentArt Summer Silverlight Coding competition is about to wrap up in a few hours.  It has managed to garner approximately 80 entries – all with publicly accessible Silverlight sites.

In the process of hosting this contest, Miljan Braticevic has achieved a wonderful thing – almost as a side-effect.  He has gathered a fantastic gallery of Silverlight applications which answer the often unvoiced question: What can one actually do with Silverlight?

If you are simply looking for ideas or, more to the point, trying to find a way to explain to your boss what Silverlight is, go here: .

The contest entries run the full gamut of mapping tools, social networking, dashboards, standard web site alternatives and games.

I do not envy the judges the task of bequeathing their golden apples.

Craft and Exposure


With Silverlight 3, Silverlight seems to have reached a critical stage – that is, people are starting to criticize it.  This is a good thing since it means we can now talk about the reality of Silverlight rather than the promise of Silverlight as a technology.

Some recent comparisons have been made between Silverlight and Flash by Michael Lankton as well as Silverlight and HTML + JQuery by Dave Ward, a truly great developer.

One topic that hasn’t been broached, I believe, is the comparison of Silverlight and WPF.  For some die-hard WPF developers I know, Silverlight just seems like a crippled version of the technology they love.  This is somewhat unfair.  Silverlight has definite limitations when compared to WPF; it also, however, is able to reach a much broader audience because it is browser-based and platform neutral.  Until a mono version of WPF is implemented, Silverlight is going to be the main way for .NET developers to get their state-of-the-art applications onto their Mac using friends’ computers.

This reminds me of a comment I heard Derek Jacobi, the great Shakespearean actor, once make to the effect of:

“I do movies for the money.  I do television for the exposure.  But I do theater for love of the craft.”

As much as I have always enjoyed windows development and have cursed the many tricks and hacks one must know to do web development, web development was still always fun because people had a greater appreciation for what one did.  In part this is because web applications simply reach a wider audience.  It is also due, I think, to the fact that users are much more savvy about the web and the way they feel it should look than consumers of desktop applications.

And so those lessons might be applied to how we look at the relationship between Silverlight and WPF.  WPF allows one to practice one’s craft – which is an enjoyable but mostly solitary affair.  Silverlight, on the other hand, provides the developer with exposure for his work – and this is no bad thing. 

The Beatles Rock Band


Scott Hanselman, perhaps the current reigning rock star in the Microsoft development world with an incredibly popular blog, Computer Zen, has approximately 17.5 thousand followers on Twitter.  William Shatner, a television actor currently up for an Emmy, has 114 thousand followers.  Colin Meloy, lead singer of a band I like, The Decemberists, has 910 thousand Twitter minions.

As involved as I tend to be in the life-world of software development – and despite its significance in the technological transformation of business and society –  I sometimes have to admit that it is a bit marginal.  Not only are my rock stars different from other people’s.  They are also less significant in the grand scheme of things.  By contrast, the biggest rock stars in society are, in fact, rock stars.

While it would be nice if we treated our teachers, our doctors, our nurses like rock stars, I am actually missing President Obama’s speech on healthcare tonight in order to play the just released Beatles Rock Band with my family.  According to this glowing review in The New York Times, it is not only the greatest thing since sliced bread – it is possibly better.  [Warning: the phrases cultural watershed and transformative entertainment experience appear in the linked article.]

The game is indeed fun and traces out The Beatles’ careers if one plays in story mode.  We had in fact gotten to 1965 before my 12 year old noticed the chronology and exclaimed, “Oh my Gawd.  They are so old.  I thought they were from the 80’s or something.”

This got me thinking incoherently about the fickle nature of fame which quickly segued into a daydream about sitting in the green room after a concert while my roadies picked out groupies at the door to come in and engage me in stimulating conversation.

Sometime in the 1990’s my philosophy department was trying to lure Hubert Dreyfus, then the leading interpreter of poststructuralists like Derrida and Foucault in America, into our university.  Apparently everything was going swimmingly until the haggling started and we discovered that not only did he want the chairmanship of the department but he also wanted a 300K salary and merchandizing rights to any action figures based on his work.   300K is a lot of money in any profession, but it is an uber-rock star salary when you consider that most American academics supplement their meager incomes by selling real estate and Amway.  Negotiations quickly deteriorated after that.

I’m not saying, of course, that Hubert Dreyfus doesn’t deserve that kind of scratch.  He had his own groupies and everything.  The problem is simply that our society doesn’t value the kind of contributions to the common weal provided by Professor Dreyfus.

Perhaps a video game could change all that.  I could potentially see myself playing an XBOX game in which I kiss-butt as a graduate student (as I recall, I in fact did do that) in a foreign country, write a marginal dissertation, get a teaching position somewhere and then write a counter-intuitive thesis in a major philosophy journal (the kind with at least a thousand subscribers, maybe more) such as “Why Descartes was not a Cartesian”, “Why Spinoza was not a Spinozist”, “Why Plato was not a Platonist” (true, actually) or “Why Nietzsche was not a Nihilist” (at the beginner level).  With the success of that article, the player would then ditch his teaching position at a state college for a big-name university and gather graduate students around himself.  He would then promote his favorite graduate students to tenure track positions and they would in turn write glowing reviews of all the player’s books as well as teach them in all their classes.  It’s called giveback, and the game would be called Academic Rock Star.  I really could potentially see myself playing that game, possibly.

There are rock stars in every field, and one might offer suggestions for other titles such as Financial Rock Star, Accounting Rock Star, Presidential Candidate Rock StarMicrosoft Excel Rock Star, Blogging Rock Star.

Perhaps the reason Microsoft has not picked up on any of these ideas is because – just as we all secretly believe that we will one day be rich – we all secretly believe that becoming a rock star in our own industry or sub-culture is attainable.

No one really believes, however, that he can ever become like The Beatles.  Consequently we settle for the next best thing: pretending to be The Beatles in a video game.

Three Silverlight Contests Hath September

There are three Silverlight contests in the month of September.  Each is, interestingly, sponsored by a different set of control vendors.

Due September 14th (link): Telerik Silverlight Contest – Telerik is offering a $500 Amazon gift card for a two page written case study of an application that uses their RadControl suite.  According to the contest announcement, you must:

    1. Build an application with the RadControls for Silverlight (you can even use the trials)
    2. Create a 1 – 2 page case study describing your project
    3. Submit the case study by September 14th, 2009

Due September 19th (link): DevExpress, Infragistics and Telerik are putting up prizes for a contest hosted at You must write a Silverlight control to enter the contest. First prize has a combined award of $700 in gift cards as well as licenses for the control suites of each of the sponsors.  The Silverlight Show is also a sponsor.  According to the contest announcement, you must:

1. Controls must be designed to work with Silverlight 2 or later. Silverlight 1 Entries will not be accepted or evaluated.

2. All entries must be received between now and 12:00 AM ET, 9/19/2009 12:00:00 AM. Entries received after this date will not be accepted or evaluated. The deadline may change at any time for any reason.

3. Contestants must provide the control source code as part of the submission. The source code should be provided as a ZIP archive and should include the following items:

  • A single Visual Studio 2008 Solution containing each of the solution projects.
  • A Silverlight Application project that contains the custom control.
  • A Test Silverlight Web Project that will host the Silverlight control. The host web project must demonstrate the control in use.
  • The code must compile. If the code does not compile, the entry will not be evaluated.

See the contest rules page for a complete list of instructions.

Due September 22nd (link): ComponentArt is also hosting a Silverlight contest in September for Silverlight applications.  The Grand Prize in this contest is $10,000. 

  • The use of ComponentArt products is not required to participate in the Summer Silverlight Coding Competition. The contest is open to the entire Silverlight developer community.

  • Each Entry must be a Silverlight 1.0, Silverlight 2.0 or Silverlight 3.0 application. Each Entry must be accessible through a public URL. If authentication is required, a demo username and password must be provided.

  • The Entry must not contain any content or material that is obscene, sexually explicit, defamatory, or otherwise inappropriate as determined by ComponentArt at its absolute discretion.

  • Each Entrant will be required to provide their full name, email address, physical address, and country of residency.

  • ComponentArt employees are not eligible to participate in the Competition.

  • Each Entry must be of the Entrant’s original creation, created solely by the Entrant(s), must not infringe the copyright, trademark, privacy, publicity, or other intellectual rights of any person or entity.

  • Participants using third party libraries, controls and/or code in their application, are required to identify the applicable third party components.

See the contest page for a full list of rules.

I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable suggesting that anyone slack off from their day jobs for this.  At the same time, however, the incentive has never been better to take a week off and hone your Silverlight skills.

I don’t see any rules that disallow submitting the same basic project for all three contests — hence tripling your chances of winning something — so here’s a sample strategy for doing that:

1. Start working on a cool Silverlight app for the ComponentArt contest.

2. Along the way, you will need to build some cool controls.  Take the coolest one and submit it for the contest.

3. Rewrite your application using some Telerik controls and submit a write-up for the Telerik Silverlight contest.

If by some chance you manage to win all three September contests, you will have made $11,200 as well as control suites worth an additional $3000 or so.  Really not so bad for a couple of weeks worth of work.