Friday, September 3, 2010

The Joke's on the Joker

I will open with--if you'll excuse a quick dab of philosophy before you know what kind of picture I'm painting*- a hacker koan about Marvin Minsky and Gerald Jay Sussman that illustrates the point I want to make.

In the days when Sussman was a novice, Minsky once came to him as he sat hacking at the PDP-6.

"What are you doing?" asked Minsky.

"I am training a randomly wired neural net to play Tic-tac-toe," Sussman replied.

"Why is the net wired randomly?", asked Minsky.

"I do not want it to have any preconceptions of how to play," Sussman said.
Minsky then shut his eyes.

"Why do you close your eyes?" Sussman asked his teacher.

"So that the room will be empty."

At that moment, Sussman was enlightened.

What I actually said was, "If you wire it randomly, it will still have preconceptions of how to play. But you just won't know what those preconceptions are." --Marvin Minsky

So Sussman began working on a program and Marvin Minsky came over and asked him what he was doing? Sussman replied that he was using a certain randomizing technique in his program because he didn't want the machine to have any preconceived notions. Minsky said, "Well, it has them, it's just that you don't know what they are." Minsky continued, telling him that the world is built a certain way, and the most important thing we can do with the world is avoid randomness, and figure out ways by which things can be planned.

I was thinking about the Joker the other day. He might perceive the world differently than most, but he still has to operate within it. If he wants to build some stupid Joker themed robot, he still needs to materials for it, a power supply, equipment to assemble it, and so on. So when he wants to do something, he starts at the same place (desire for the robot) performs intermediate steps that may be quite different, but winds up with the same end result (a robot). In a practical sense, it doesn't matter how he got here from there.

Sure, being quirky is an advantage, but it's not really a super power in complex world of jet-powered apes and time travel, to turn a familiar phrase on its head. I've worked with crazy people, and they spent less time being criminal masterminds and more time masturbating at inappropriate moments and occasionally stabbing me with a fork.

I used to read the Impulse comic book when I worked at Dreamscape. It was about a speedster who had been artificially aged to his early teens, but still only had a couple years of life experience. His personality reflected this. He was goofy, enthusiastic and headstrong. He was being mentored by another speedster, named Max Mercury, whom I mention here only because I think it's cool name.

Anyway, the Riddler came calling one day, and he had a plan where he announced he had planted a bomb somewhere in the city, and was going to drop thousands of easily solved riddles from an airplane, the answers to which would point to the location. His reasoning was that solving them would take enough time that they would delay Impulse long enough so that he could pull off his caper without intervention.

It's been a while since I read it, so here's the exchange, paraphrased.

(Impulse zips on scene)
Riddler: You're back!
Impulse: Yeah, I couldn't figure out the riddles, so I just ran around town and looked under each porch until I found the bomb.
Riddler: Aha, but did you find the second (Impulse zips out) bomb? (Impulse zips back in, holding the bomb.)
Impulse: You mean this one?
Riddler: *facepalm*

Sure, the Riddler's a pretty smart guy (as smart as a guy in green and purple suit covered with question marks can be), but there's a limit to what cleverness can accomplish, when your opponent can perform billions of actions for every one of yours.

This is the flipside of what so many comic fans take as an axiomatic truth, that if Batman has "time to plan", he can accomplish anything and defeat anyone. I liked Grant Morrison's run on JLA as much as anyone, but he did, more than anyone to popularize this line of thinking.

There really is something to be said for brute force.

* Roger Zelazny shout out!

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