Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Picture Centric Post

My sister Chelsea decided that she was ready to let go of her guitar, and she sold it to me. Its a beautiful Washburn 64DL, blue with gold hardware. The wood grain in it is all swirly, and its a neck-through design. Looks like a cross between an SG and a telecaster, and it plays beautifully (I've reached a point where I can tell the difference). I note that its a lot more responsive to varying the pressure on the string for vibrato, I assume its 'cause of the type of bridge.
My younger sister, Claire, has begun her stringed musical instrument quest with a mandolin. She's a natural at it; I just showed here how the tones were situated on the fretboard and she immediately started playing her clarinet music, sight-reading. I wish I had that talent.
Dad and I spent some time doing final adjustments to my motorcycle, since its been warm enough to ride. We got new tires, and I hacked the back of the seat off:
Here are my two marvelously impractical modes of transportation:
And here's Jude looking rad on my bike:

Friday, December 19, 2008


Super awesome day Wednessday. I spoke with professor Bickle (Chair of UC's Philosophy department) about doing some serious study into cognitive science, and he was very enthusiastic and encouraging. he gave me the names of some people on campus who I could contact that are more deeply involved with the things I'm looking to study (neural networks, reinforcement learning, modeling biological processes, bioinformatics...). He also mentioned that he'd like to get me connected with the head of the Budapest program because he is visiting Indiana University for six months; now theres some serendipity.

I was all charged and energized after the meeting, and I went to Babba Budans to continue studying. Had a good conversation with the barista about the roles humans set themselves up to play and what it means to be free of them.

Then I finished up reading about Eric Baum's Hayek program, it turns out he's already implemented much of what I thought was an awesome and revolutionary idea in terms of using economic forces to act on "societies of mind." He even created "investor agents" to attempt meta-learning by adjusting the populations of agents and mutating them. However, there was no discussion of the "efficient frontier" of agents; the groups of agents that are maximally effective in the face of uncertainty for a given level of risk. The concept may have been overlooked, or it might be implicit in what Baum actually did.

An interesting question is what "risk" means in this context. It might be tied to the amount of computer time it takes to process, it might have to do with whether or not the program finishes at all. I'm also wondering if the populations of agents that Baum's evolutionary process represent such an efficient frontier, without having been explicitly applying that concept. It may be that his approach is another way of finding efficient frontiers in finance; that would be worth researching in itself.

So after reading all that ecstatically, my energy was spent and I fell asleep in my chair at the coffee shop for a half hour. Woke up in time to run home, play guitar for an hour, change, and go to the Southgate house for the Faint show.

The Faint was awesome, I'm really glad Jude got me into them a while back. They were the perfect band to see live and at the Southgate house; they had an awesome light show, their stage presence was exciting, and the music was perfect. Exactly the right mix of electronic and... rock? However you'd like to describe it, it blows your eardrums in a pleaseing way.

I find their website hilarious, by the way. Its a techie band, and they choose to make their home page nothing but a string of their tour date; I appreciate the irony.

Yesterday I went up to dads and put my clubman handlebars on my bike, check out the photo. Actually maybe don't, its a really badly shot and blurry photo. Anyway for posterity's sake, I'll include it.

It went smoothly, except for the fact that the wires on the headlight switch are supposed to run through the handlebars, and the new ones have no such holes. Dad and I ground the casing to make space for the wires to poke through; I felt a little bad about doing that since I believe they're original equipment (and therefore relatively rare, being from '65), but the damage is small and hardly noticable. When I got it all back together and started it (after some difficulty), the engine ran at about 2/3rds full throttle (eg: really fast and loud) at idle, so I was afraid I screwed up the throttle cable and was gonna have to redo it all. Turns out that adjusting the throttle cable is super easy, and I fixed it in a jiffy. It was hard to resist wanting to ride it immediately, but the thought of ice was enough to give me pause. Next thing to do is hack off the back of the seat, try to fix the tank, and give it some absurd paint job.

Regarding Fiction, computers, and politics; I just made the connection between Michael Crichton's remarks (echoing Feynman's) on current-day scientists and policy-makers reliance on computer models for data and an old Issac Assimov story called "The Machine that Won the War". The idea is that some big war's just been finished, thanks to this great computer's abilities. The three protagonists are sitting around discussing this, and each has some reservations about the succesfulness of the comptuer. The first guy says "I can't understand how the computer could have made good descisions at all! The reports I was getting from the feild were so spotty and contradictory that I had to choose what was valid enough to feed into the computer, and half the time I just ended up guessing!.

The second guy, the comptuer operator says "Ha! thats funny, because the data you were feeding into the computer was so bad that roughly half the time I had to interpolate it to fill in the gaps just so the computer would spit out a descision. I felt bad sending these to the feild, but I had no other choice."

They both regard the third guy guiltily, who was the admiral in the feild receving these garbage reccomendations. He grins knowingly shakes his head. He says "The computer's recommendations were so bad that I completely disregarded them. But the war was decided by a computer, in fact, the simplist possible kind..." and he flips a coin.

I'm also remined of some of the things that Eric Baum's posted on his website on the subject. I'm likewise convinced of its hoaxfulness, and it strains the credibility of any knowledgable who takes it seriously. I suppose that the general populace can be forgiven since its been presented to them by authority figures as fact for so long... maybe not forgiven, but understood.

Matt Peterson had some great thoughts on Ruroni Kenshin, and related to his review of Marcuse's "One Dimensional Man" (the review is also a great peice of thought). His thoughts on Kenshin and how it reminds him of both Marcuse and Atlas Shrugged:
"Being part of a movement means either following orders or being a manager. Kenshin doesn't want to give commands because he knows people should make their own decisions. And he doesn't want to senselessly kill any more. Movements to topple irrational and ineffective hierarchies become hierarchies themselves."

For some reason, I've always struggled to verbalize what I think is so great about Kenshin, but I think that captures it pretty well. Kenshin is a powerful individual, and he chooses to use his power for only his own ends. He refuses to be the tool of others. At the same time, he deeply respects other's lives and declines to use anyone as his tool. I think that describes the ideal ethical character.

Monday, December 15, 2008


As I was paranoidly comparing the current political climate with Atlas Shrugged the other day, it occurred to me to wonder how much of this we should be fully expecting, and what other catastrophes we should expect.

I've read about the "coming housing crash" in the newspapers since at least 2004; the only surprise about it is that anyone is surprised. Well, that and the government's response to it; I guess I had naively believed that they'd learned that such mettling is counter productive. So what else can we expect?

Outlawing Gold. Personal ownership of things with certain value diminishes governments' power to tax via inflation. Owning gold was outlawed for this reason, I believe, in the thirties and in the seventies. When/if that happens again, it might be time to head for the hills and buy a bunch of canned goods. I seem to recall from a high school history class something about collapse of empires always being preceded by "debasing the coinage."

A "hundred days congress." When the new president takes power, a raft of "brilliant" plans will be floated to save the economy in every convoluted way imaginable, and Congress will approve anything the president asks for. They'll all get adulterated and re-purposed to things even less sensible than their original purpose, and cost a ton of money. The media will get all twisted up in the details of the plans and will forget that they aught to be condemning the plans' very existence.

All that money will have to be raised through debt, taxation, and inflation. US t-bills already carry a negative effective rate of return; I wonder at what point they will come to be considered something other than "risk free?" and what effect it will have on their rates and their ability to issue them? Presumably they'll have to offer higher rates to get people to buy them, of course, but what if the market for them dries up? I think its drifting that way already...

ooo, and to get real paranoid about it, imagine that some concerned bureaucrat recognizes that posts like this one set negative expectations about the future, having the real effect of changing people's willingness do do things like by t-bills with the expectation that they'll get their money back. This post could be considered "inciting panic," and could be taken down to protect the public good. The Feds (I'm talking federal reserve here) could set up a Google Alerts agent to monitor for negative sentiments like these being posted, and kindly ask the writer to take it down. If the situation gets real dire, they might even try to force the hosting site to take it down when the author refuses. I'd imagine that someone could make a compelling argument that this sort of negative sentiment is seditious and therefore unprotected by the first amendment .
The good news is that I'm pretty confident that at least Google wouldn't comply, given their history of refusing to supply information about their users even when the request is coming in the form of a subpoena.

Add destabilizing forces like this, and its hard to imagine a large-scale collapse not happening. There's even been some buzz about the "need" to update the US's nuclear arsenal in order to maintain a "credible deterrent." How much scarier can the world get? I think in light of the cyberwar threat, I'd rather have them run on vaccum tubes. Theres a double benefit: they probably wont work, and they can't be hacked from the internet. That would make a great plot for a movie.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Exams are finished; and I've thus completed my first quarter of grad school. I was sweatin' it pretty hardcore over the weekend, but I think I've finished the quarter pretty successfully. I spent a total of probably 24 hours working on an ill-fated project for Optimization Modeling; I was trying to model Toyota's all-time buy descision process with binary descision variables (to ATB or not to ATB in a given year), and it turns out Excel's solver totally chokes on my formulation of the problem. I asked my professor: "If my project fails, but fails in an interesting way, am I in good shape for the purpose of the class?" His response was that its better to fail now than later when you're doing it for money, so as long as the write up is good and the failure is a product of having a complicated problem (and not lack of effort), it'll satisfy the assignment.

Anyway, it was an entertaining and instructive project, tieing together the mathematical programming I've learned this quarter with some VBA hackery I tought myself a while back. The lesson: good ideas can be unimplementable; the enabling technology is significant. Also: real problems are hard.

I'm reading What Is Thought, and its excellent. I wrote the head of UC's philosophy department an email today describing some of my interest in cognitive science, asked if I might be able to do some sort of joint degree, and if I could do the study semester in Budapest as a graduate student.

I had a supposedly brilliant idea for the "wear your ridiculous holiday sweater to work" day tomorrow; I was going to bleach half of my old black sweater (down the middle), and do some designs on it. I forgot how bad bleach smells in concentration, so now I've got bleach-soaked hands that I can't get to stop stinking, and half-orange sweater that I don't know if I'll be able to wear. I threw it in the washer in the hopes that that'll make it bearable without destroying it. Otherwise, I might end up wearing a ball of yarn to work tomorrow.

I ordered some clubman handlebars for my motorcycle. I didn't initially realize that the curve was supposed to go downward, but it makes alot more sense now that I realize it, and I'm excited to get them installed. The bike will be pretty effing badass; all low and sleek. I wish I had the tools, time, and expertize to really restore it, but for now I'll settle for dirty, low, and sleek. I've been trying to find a cafe-racer style seat (or the original), but it seems they're a bit rare. I've decided that taking a hacksaw to my current one and sewing the wounds carefully will accomplish what I want pretty well. Along with the giant dent in the tank, it will also contribute to the overal ethos of crappiness, which I find charming.

I discovered that I've accidentally mastered the CAGED chord system on the guitar. I figured out the barre-ing trick for those chords last week, and I realized I was on to something special. No suprise that it's allready discovered and given a neat name. I'm also bordering on the point where I can make interesting variations on scales that sound like "solos." In another year, I think I will be very good. The fingertips on my left hand have become unable to use touch-screens because of the calluses. I'm letting my right-hand fingernails grow a bit so that I can trying doing fingerpicking with them. It'll be interesting to see if I can pull that off without looking bad.

A fictional Idea

Touching on the intersection of crazy people and technology:

Recall that the larger portion of what we experience as vision is generated from internal stimulus; it is hallucinated to fill in the blanks in the actual perceptual stimuli we receive.

Now imagine that what a person experiences as vision is projected back into the world, maybe they've got a brain interface that reads everything coming out of the visual cortex and transmits it outside the body. The effect (for the purposes of this imaginary short-story) would be that people with similar brain-interfaces could receive the output of others' visual experience and add it to their own; in effect overlaying other people's perception with their own. Just imagine that's how it works for the moment.

So: if a person who experienced vivid hallucinations were thrown into the mix, those hallucinations would be shared with everyone they interacted with. They could imagine a person, interact with it, and treat it like an autonomous human being (I'm thinking "Beautiful Mind" here), being unable to tell the hallucination from reality. The catch is that other people would also be unable to distinguish the hallucinations' unreality; and they would treat the others as being real.

Here's a disturbing question: if everyone agrees these imagined people are real, are they?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Some Better-Grounded Ideas

Let’s change the tone from epistemological navel gazing to political commentary.

My optimism on the economy continues to decline. I thought that it was pretty well recognized that no matter how smart, well-meaning, and informed a government is, there is no way it can plan an economy. And yet, even the financial press is judging the appointment of economic planners based on how “smart” and “qualified” they are rather than whether or not there should be such an appointment at all. It seems that in an effort to be sensitive to suffering peoples’ needs (call it “compassionate conservatism,” “liberalism,” or “socialism” if you like), leaders have lost sight of all the hard-learned lessons of the last century.
Central planning doesn’t work. The problem of gathering all the data necessary to solve the production and logistics problems, as well as the actual solving, are infeasible by any human-designed system. Only an evolved system has the power, and the market is such a system.

Government resolution of one crisis necessarily leads to others, and the magnitude of these crises tends to increase.

The best way to encourage prosperity is to allow people to be free to exercise their judgment on their unique situation.

Trying to substitute your (ie government) judgment for theirs leads to downward spirals where people are unable to use their own judgment in crisis because they haven’t had the exercise of using it in smaller emergencies.

In other words, perpetually solving problems for people leaves them unable to solve them on their own; which creates more problems.

So in response, a socially-conscious person might object: “So you suggest doing Nothing?! You would let people STARVE?!!! AAHHH!!! CAPS LOCK AND ITALICS AND EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!!!!”

And, frankly, I sympathize with that sentiment. Its very hard to be an empathetic person and stand by idly when another person is suffering, especially when you have the power to alleviate it. You might make the same point about conflict; it seems immoral to stand idly by when one party is harming another and you have the power to stop it. And thus, the US’s involvement with conflicts around the world.

I’m becoming more convinced that isolationist policy might be the more compelling stance in terms of defense. And people who make that argument about foreign policy should take the same stance on domestic issues.

That is to say: we should not use our government to solve economic problems for the same reason that we should not use our military to solve other countries’ territorial problems. Both are motivated out of good will and a desire to improve the state of the world, but both may be doomed to failure, and for similar reasons.

Keep your electric eye on me, babe

Coming to terms with “humanity as an organism,” and recognizing oneself as a component of it, is especially difficult when you’ve cherished individualism as much as I have for so long. And the more I understand of mind, economy, and programs, the more blatantly obvious the conclusion becomes. I need to read “Individualism and Economic Order” (Hayek).

The real question is: once you’ve got this understanding, what do you do with it? Once you’ve recognized that most of your motivations are derived from either genetic programming or societal forces beyond your control, what do you call your self? All of that is external, either created long before your conception or by meta-human forces.

Do you accept the these things and just roll with them? That’s roughly the Taoist perspective. I suppose you could also say that zen is different, in that it seeks the elimination of the illusion. The only other option, really, is to get immersed in the illusion.

The illusion takes on realness when it becomes a closed loop; when all your points of reference lay inside the worldview you’ve constructed. I think that’s where contentedness is to be found. Opening that loop is troublesome. Certainty evaporates, and the closer you look at things the more misty they become. Like flying into a cloud, or walking into a fog bank. You can’t pretend that you understand, and that is frustrating.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

How to Create Jobs

Leave us alone!

Even the WSJ seems to be on board with what sounds like a very Keynsian plan to "Build infrastructure to create jobs and stimulate the economy." The press releases sound more and more perversely Atlas Shrugged-esque, with talk about creating a post called the "economy-czar" (at least colloquially) in addition to the nationalizations that have already occurred and the ones that are scheduled to occur in January. Who is John Galt?

Funny, as I was typing this I realized a totally unconscious parallel to my own personal plans. I've been talking for the past few weeks of getting my life ordered such that I can support myself on very little money, maybe take some time off to travel the continent. My romantic vision has me following the summer on my motorcycle, guitar strapped to my back, shipping my few necessary possessions from destination to destination in trunks. I'd finally have the time to read the stack of books I've compiled for myself, I could spend lots of time improving my musicianship, and I'd have the opportunity for adventure that a routine lifestyle doesn't offer. I'd also plan on developing some of my ideas on AI into more serious research projects.

To stay engauged and give it structure, I could plan my trip around different conferences that are happening accross the continent, as well as taking classes at universities where I stay for the quarter.

The parallel is that that's exactly the sort of thing the heroes of Atlas Shrugged did, though I didn't have the book consciously in mind at all when I was conceiving the plan. The men (and women) of the mind refused to shoulder the burden of the collapsing society and retired to private lives, living simply and pursuing their passions without the benefit of using societal infrastructure.

Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged, in part, to keep the scenario in it from becoming real. Ahh, well
... is it time to strike yet?


In all its forty-year old glory, here's my motorcycle. I took the handlebar extension and sissy-bar off, so it looks a little less chopper-ish. Next thing is to get the oldschool seat.
I rode it maybe 20 miles on the friday after thanksgiving, first time ever in traffic, and not legally. I was trying to do it all legit, but its tough playing by the rules, apparently. Because I bought it out of state I had to take it to the BMV to get it inspected in order to get a title and plates. My temporary plates expired, and all the trailer rental places were closed. Sheesh. So I just rode it up there anyway.

Anyway, the bomber jacket was a good investment for the purpose of riding in the cold. Its warm enough that I could probably ride through the winter if I were to get some leggings. Maybe some thigh-high striped knit leg warmers to go over my jeans.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Ron Paul

Ron Paul. Man, I would have liked to vote for him.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Great things to do on the weekend

In breif, this is how I've been spending my time this weekend: read Slaughterhouse Five, played guitar for about ten hours, heard Prokofiev's violin Concerto number one in D at the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, spent eight hours on a project for my Optimization Modeling class, read a few chapters of The Portrait of Dorian Gray.

Got a neat app for my phone makes it into an Ocarina, and connects to all the other people around the world playing it. I love both the visualization of music (though this isn't very complex) and the networked, global-sharing idea. Very cool to see and hear music being played by people all over the world... seems like an awesome next step would be to enable people to play together.

I spent a few hours writing some sci-fi as well. I think I'll start a separate blog and start posting bits of story line there.

I stopped by Lindsay's showing of a film at her art gallery, but it was too packed to get in.

I'm seriously considering offering my ideas on market ai mechanisms to the "call for papers" that was posted in Kurzweil AI.

So, what did all that guitar playing over the weekend accomplish? I should note that I got the two books I mentioned as audiobooks, so I was playing guitar while “reading.” Well,
I got an increased degree of mastery over the scales I’ve been learning, and I’m starting to have intuitive understanding of the note-structure of music. And I’m also gaining an appreciation for just how much there is to learn. In terms of things recognizable as songs, I learned ‘Hotel Yorba’ and ‘Little Ghost’, and relearned ‘Blue in the Face’ and ‘One More Cup of Coffee.’ I can even sing (poorly) over all of them! That’s something I’ve never been able to do before, and again I’ve got a lot of development ahead of me.

Office comedy: I’m sitting up in IS doing testing on our software, and a little while ago I overheard some IS folks talking condescendingly about non-IS people and how they “can’t read a data layer.” Just now I overheard the same person perplexed over how to expand a pivot table’s data in Excel. I would help, but it might upset the balance of geekery between IS and PC. Oh… man. Its terrible that that’s funny to me, in several ways.

The dark musing below on “Blood Money and Money-Blood” was written while listening to really good Jazz at the Blue Wisp. I was feeling broody, and it occurred to me that musicians and artists are probably some of the only people who are outside of that paradigm. People who’s actions are fully internally motivated… but then the culture of music and art could be said to be a similar sort of organism, and they probably use their component people in ways that are similar to how business people are used by markets.

So it goes.

The Prokofiev concerto was a wonderful thing, and I feel really lucky to have been there for it. I only just discovered it at DRH’s recommendation earlier this spring (I think he talked about it in I Am A Strange Loop), and I’ve come to know it well over the summer. My iTunes count shows twenty two playings since spring, and my iPod probably has triple that. The serendipity is that I randomly flipped my radio on to the classical station on Thursday, and here was this ad for a piece being played just two days hence. It was moving and awe inspiring, the violinist was marvelously talented, and the music is achingly beautiful.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Another Slice of Happiness

Lindsay Nehls and John ____ opened the Freespace Project on at 639 Main Street on Friday; an incredibly awesome accomplishment. They've got a store front right in the heart of downtown, next to the Aronoff, and (perhaps even more notably) they had a huge turnout. The place was packed, and in evesdropping on conversations I noted a remarkable diversity. There were a lot of artists obviously, but I heard people talking about LSATS, corporate stuff, and so on. Its neat that they're able to draw on a diverse audience. 

 Heath and Dan performed a Bach guitar piece, which was wonderful and a strong reminder of how far I have to go before I can say I'm "good" at the instrument, 'cause they were awesome. They did a couple Neutral Milk Hotel songs and threw in a mandolin, another instrument I've been thinking it like to learn to play. Corey read some poetry, which was cool and weird. I'm unqualified to comment on poetry, so I won't.

They put a few big rolls of paper down and encouraged everyone there to make art. I (predictably) did some swirly colors, a few ambigrams (love/lust, Thought, and my TJMurphy/Extropian one), and a helix with its formula in Cartesian coordinates winding around it. Also made a three sided mobius strip out of clay.

Lindsay encouraged me to finish my sculpture project so she can show it, so on Saturday I got a bunch of foamcore and made a half-turn of the sculpture, optimistically hoping that she'll still show it if its made of foamcore rather than steel. I found a good solution to the problem of getting the rungs to stand at the right angle (and thus for the helix to have the right diameter); a string glued diagonally across the opening. Since each string is at slightly different tension, it makes a sort of melody when you run your finger down it.  

Saturday night I saw Rockn-Rolla, the new Guy Richie film. I didn't even know that there was such a movie coming out, but I started developing great expectations for it around 5 0'clock when Rachael came over and told me about it. Pretty badass, and good filmmaking. My emotions were effectively manipulated (I realize in retrospect); there were points in the movie that built up the awkwardness and uncomfortableness, and for a moment I thought it was just falling flat. Then, ahhh, turns out that was the setup for a joke, and the resolution of the awkward tension makes for… funniness.

Turns out I'm not the best film critic, I'm lacking vocabulary and points of comparison. I liked the movie, at any rate, and I feel like its automatically one of those movies that forever gets alluded to in banter. I also have serious trouble with over-suspending disbelief; EG I decided that I could be a rockn-rolla too for a few moments. I had similar thoughts after watching the Godfather. Illusions of… grandeur? Probably the wrong word, since one of the things I get from the Richie films is the arbitrary chance randomness of underworld people rising and falling. The characters are buffeted about by forces beyond their control, and they behave erratically enough to flummox the plans of the people trying to control them. And that's life for a lot of people, just bouncing from circumstance to circumstance, pretending to have control, and trying to find some way to enjoy it. A dark rumination, perhaps, but the first step to avoiding the trap is recognizing that you're in it (thanks Frank H_).

On Sunday, Dad and I got my motorcycle working! Turns out the problems were: a faulty sparkplug, leaving the key in the ignition drains the battery (and makes it look like there's some major electrical problem), and me not understanding how the fuel petcock works (lol; petcock). The diagnosis and fixing process was therapeutic, its fun to work on a machine that's both simple enough to fix and mysterious enough to be surprising. We poked around, took things apart, cleaned stuff, put it back together, trying to start it between each tinkering. At some point it fired up and ran, to which our reaction was something like: "Um, ok… so why did that work?" I suspect that's what "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" is all about.

Dad's assessment of "a fuel problem" turned out to be true.  There was, in fact, no fuel at all flowing into the cylinders after it ran for a minuet or two because the carburetor float chambers were emptied and the fuel petcock was off. Simple fix, yes, but it took taking the carburetors apart before we realized it. Not immediately obvious when the apparent problem is "not starting" and there're a bunch of other possible causes.

I rode it around the neighborhood, the thing's got some serious power. I never really opened it up, but it pulls pretty hard with just a little bit of gas. Death on Wheels! I realized the merit of effective gloves when I went inside, my fingers were so cold it felt like someone hit each one of my fingernails with a hammer. Ah, if only I had brought it up there sooner!

Friday, November 7, 2008


Check it out: I was gonna go get an SG, but when I went to guitar
center and played a bunch of nice ones, I realized that I'm not good
enough to be able to tell the difference between a cheap guitar and a
quality one. So, I came home, painted my pickguard black, did some
flames, and soldered everything back together on my old guitar. Wonder
of wonders, it does actually sound better now (though that may have
some thing to do with the noise gate I bought for the amp). Looks way
better, though, eh?

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Smashing Pumpkins in Cleveland

The Smashing Pumpkins have had a special place in my heart for a long time. Siamese Dream was on of the first two cd’s I ever owned (the other was the Black album), and over the years I’ve found new ways to relate to their music. The duality of ecstatic happiness and overwhelming sadness is the feeling their music expresses most clearly to me, plus the recognition of the transience of those things. It moves me, in other words.

With that said, I still gained a new appreciation for them at their Cleveland show on Saturday. I never really recognized how awesome a guitarist Billy Corgan is; I’d always focused on the emotivness of his voice, but it turns out he’s a shredmaster also. Its obvious now that I go back and listen to the albums, but I had to see it in person to really make the connection.

There’s really no band that’s a close comparison to them, and I guess for that reason I’d never mentally associated them with heavy metal (that, plus the large number of non-metal songs they do). But they really do metal heavy. I love that deep, dark, driving rhythm…

Monday, November 3, 2008

Further Market-based-AI ideas

A friend commented on my post about about research ideas for market mechanisms in AI. He brought up a couple of excellent points. Here's my reply, which I feel's worth posting:


Excellent question! I've not done much thinking along the lines of inter-agent efficiencies; that will definitely be fertile ground to develop. On the specific question of which agents a given agent interacts with and how those links are established: I agree, your "case 1" wouldn't allow the kind of dynamic flexibility that a market or a mind needs.

To extend the metaphor, one approach to the second case might be to expand the role of the "investor" agents. One of their functions (and methods of earning a return) could be to "fund" new "start-up" agents. There might be a process where agents are generated spontaneously, each of which proposes a set of connections and a transformation. The investor agents could evaluate the proposals and select a few to give a big boost of activation (eg: funding). The unselected ones struggle on, probably failing quickly; the selected ones get to compete on more equal footing with the existing agents.

That could be called the "entrepreneur" method of new connections, another might be the "sales call." Existing agents could propose connections with others, and they would be evaluated by the receiving agent. They might go through a process of "trial shipments," which would determine whether or not the connection lasts. The other side of this scenario would be the "RFQ" model, where an existing agent requests a connection with another (really the same thing, just reversing the supplier/customer relationship).

Hmm. That could get tough to implement pretty quickly, eh? Designing an artificial economy sounds pretty unachievable (for the same reason that "designing" a real economy is unachievable), but hopefully the system could "self-assemble" if the agents could be designed simply enough and market-oriented enough.

Its come to my attention that Opencog (Goertzle's project) is using the "artificial economy" model for attention allocation; I'll have to read up on how they're approaching it.

Im also quite sure that there's been work done on agent based artificial economies outside of the AI feild, so I need to look into that too.

Friday, October 31, 2008

An Entreprenurial Idea

The Avee Idea, stated simply:

1. People have browser-capable phones (already true)
2. The technology needed for cars to safely drive themselves (fully autonomous vehicles) has declined significantly in price to around the one-thousand dollar range. (feasible within five to ten years)

Business model: Create an online auction marketplace (ala eBay) where people can (A:) bid for the use of other peoples’ vehicles and (B:) offer their own vehicle for others’ use.

Set it up such that:
1. Users can request a ride from their phone’s browser
2. The service finds the location of the requester and matches it to the best available vehicle in terms of cost and time-to-wait, which could be adjusted to user preferences.
3. the service instructs the vehicle to move to the requestor’s location
4. when the ride is completed, the requestor pays via online transaction, the owner of the vehicle gets the fare, and the service takes a commission.

1. Demand for flexible and cheap transportation helps drive the acceptance of autonomous vehicle technology.
2. Highway crashes and deaths decrease as adoption of the technology increases
3. Fewer new cars are needed; their market price falls.
4. Market forces exert greater influence on individual’s transportation patterns, since driving at off-peak hours would be less expensive. Thus, highway congestion is reduced.
5. As the population of autonomous vehicles comes to dominate, lanes might be designated for their use where they could operate at the optimally efficient speed, thus reducing pollution. (eg: since traffic jams could be avoided, there wouldn’t be thousands of cars idling at a standstill for hours).
6. A case could be made for privatizing major roads, since the infrastructure would be in place to support an equitable pay-for-use model. This could also have a positive effect on traffic patterns, since variable use-rates could be charged and people would have further incentive to travel at off-peak times.
7. The more efficient use of existing capacity would reduce the need to spend billions expanding that capacity. The tax money currently designated to those future projects could be returned (ha! unlikely) or used to pay off government debt (the sad reality is that it would probably just get used for something else).

From one perspective, this sounds like "privately-owned public transportation", which is a concept I've never heard before. Everyone benefits: people who cant afford cars (or don’t want to waste their money on them) can buy flexible transportation more cheaply than they could ride a bus. The environment benefits, since its more efficient move people around in cars than busses (planning for peak capacity means that busses are empty more often than not). Car owners benefit because their car can do something more than just depreciate when they’re not using it. Oh, and people don't die tragically on the freeway every day.

The thing that I think is so cool about the idea is that all this societal benefit could be attained without involving the government. The only thing required of government is that they not prohibit it. Of course, asking that much may be a strech, but if they can manage it, I think that market forces can take care of the rest.

Here are some previous posts on the subject: my orginal whitepaper, also an ambigram of the word AVEE that could be used for a logo, some thoughts on what the marketing of the service might look like, and an expansion of the acronym.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Avee acronym

An idea from the blue: "AVEE" could be said to stand for "Autonomous Vehicle Electronic Exchange." This gives all the letters meaning and helps encompass the marketplace for transportation as well as the individual vehicles. I think that's a key point: the power and novelty of this idea is in creating a market for people to exchange services, the self-driving-car is just the enabling technology. Come to think of it, internet-capable phones are also an enabling technology, but they've already become so ubiquitous it doesn't even seem necessary to mention it.

My thoughts on Eric Baum's thoughts on the nature of thoguht - Singularity Summit

A speaker at the Singularity Summit triggered some interesting ideas: Eric Baum. His ideas dovetail very nicely with the thinking I've been doing on cognitive architectures, and I'll have to read his book to see whether he's already thought of and included or discredited my idea.

My hypothesis is that portfolio theory from finance (specifically the Markov model) can be used to select the mental agents that continue to be strong and influential in a mind.
The motivation for my hypothesis is an analogy between the "society of mind" idea and the free market. Please allow me to explain: -Firms in a marketplace take in information and material, transform it according to their model of the world, and send it out to other firms and individuals. -Cognitive agents take in information and "material" (eg: other agents' conclusions about the state of the world), transform it according to their model of the world, and send it out to other cognitive agents or agencies.

-The "goodness of fit" of a firm’s model of the world and its role in it is measured by its net income, which is a factor in the valuation of the price of their securities. - There must be some measure of a cognitive agent's "world-model goodness of fit" that is similar to a profit function, where cost has to do with the amount of effort involved in the transformation and "income" has to do with the number of requests made to the agent. I'm not aware of any models that have been made on this point, but I suspect there must already be something very similar in artificial neural network models.
-When many firms exist together, a market can arise for their securities. The value of the securities is determined by their net income and expectations about how that will change in the future; EG how well each firm's "world model" will perform in the face of the uncertain future. -When many cognitive agents exist together, some collection of them must come to dominate and be strengthened; ideally these should be the ones who's output is most valuable for the environment that the agents exist in.

-To balance risks in the face of an uncertain future, an investor can assemble a portfolio of firms that have "world models" (eg; business plans) that counterbalance each other. The idea is that if there's some uncontrollable external event, there might be one firm that benefits from it and another firm that suffers from it. An example is oil companies and car companies: when the price of oil rises, the former benefit and the latter suffer, so holding both securities would tend to balance out the impact of the (locally) uncontrollable rise in oil price. This balancing is the function of the Markov model and portfolio theory in general: it finds how the value of securities have behaved relative to each other in the past and assumes (delicate assumption!) that this will be usefully predictive of how they will behave relative to each other in the future. Thus, risk is reduced to only the totally unpredictable environmental uncertainties. I suppose you could say that one of these unpredictable uncertainties is the possibility that the future world is totally different from the past world, which we know is true depending on the time span you're concerned with. As the rate of change accelerates, this "predictability horizon" gets closer and closer, which is essentially the point of the "singularity" meme. -To balance risk in the face of an uncertain future, minds (natural or synthetic) aught to be able to do the "same thing." That is, judge how well their components have responded to the environment in the past and assemble a collection of them that is maximally robust to uncertainty. I think that if a suitable "profit function" could be found for cognitive agents, the Markov model and other methods of finance aught to apply very well to "societies of mind."

SO! I (like Eric Baum) suggest that we can use market principals to organize synthetic minds. The reverse may also be true; we may be able to use market principals to understand how our own natural minds work. It would be interesting to integrate the three coolest AI ideas I've read about in the last two years. It might be something like this:

1. Have a massive amount of Hierarchical Temporal Memory (HTMs) function as the perceptual layer. They would perceive the external world as well as the output of other agents.

2. Let the HTM's feed Copycat-like non-deterministic agents that seek analogies and make transformations. This may be superfluous, since HTMs are supposed to be able to do that already, but there might be an interesting synthesis.

3. Set these agencies up such that other agencies can monitor their output and strengthen or weaken their activation according to how well they perform; this is the "investor" function. There can be arbitrarily many investors in any arrangement of loops with each other, as well (since they are also agents). Finding some way to limit that combinatorial explosion would be key; I suspect a cost function would limit it effectively.

[See here now for a later post on the issue, which addresses questions posed in the comments to this post]

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

How to save fifty thousand lives a year with effective marketing

Imagine the add campaign for the Avee (read the post below if you havn't heard that word yet). Put together some video clips of people doing all the things they do while they drive: eating, talking on the phone and to passengers, texting, reading email, flipping through their library of CDs or ipod, yelling at their kids, falling asleep, making kids, and so on. Order the clips so that a sense of discomfort is built in the viewer, make 'em cringe at the thought of other people (and themselves) doing those things while they're on the road. Midway though, have a voiceover and text say:
"Whatever you do in your car,"
Then adjust the camera so that the viewer sees that the person is in the passenger seat, and the driver seat is empty. End with the voiceover and text:
"You could be doing it better."
The ad could be conservative and end with a parent reading a book to their kids, or risque and end with a couple of lovers reclining thier seats out of view.

Another approach might be a comi-tragic take on the standard forumla with two people racing eachother on regular streets. There's a Suzuki commercial I've seen recently to that effect, and it struck me how bizzare it was that they're advertizing totally irresponsible and life-threatening behavoir. Anyway. Start the bit out with one person driving all hard, with exciting fishtail turns, heel-toe shifiting, smoking tires and near misses. The other person's all leisurely, seeming to not even pay attention to the road, and going at a moderate pace. Again, tension should be built in the viewer towards the second person's innattention. The second car slows to a stop and makes way for a speeding ambulance, and the second person expresses concern. As it takes off again, it passes the first car which has crashed, and the ambulence who's crew is attempting to rescue the first driver.
This approach might be a bit jarring, and it could be risky to associate a product with unpleasant thoughts about fatal crashes. The purpose is so counter the "driving excitement" idea that car manufacturers have been selling for so long, the idea that there's something sexy about really powerful, fast cars, and that driving your car is an experience that you should really love. A voiceover could say "If you want to race..." (show the wreck) "go to a track."

If you wanted to be really, appallingly jarring, the video could end with the second car passing the ambulence, revealing that the racer has crashed into a schoolbus. The second person's look of concern could turn to abject horror, implying that they were on thier way to pick up their kid who might presumably be on that very bus. The rescuers could be trying to help the kids, and the driver of the first car could be staggering out of the wreck tearing at his hair and wailing at the flaming schoolbus (keeping the driver alive gives the viewer an opportunity to empathize with him and feel the mortification of the crime, rather than just thinking "good, the driver deserved to die.") Eeech, that would truely be a brave commercial, my skin crawls thinking about it. It might be something for MADD to take up. You could throw in some of the Crass song What the Fuck, (eg: "froze, by the horror of your act, compelled to stay... ...what the fuck were you thinking, what the fuck?") though comparing irresponsabile driving to nuclear proliferation and war may be a bit overboard. The irony of using Crass in a commercial would be totally worth it though.

A much more restrained counter to the "driving excitement" meme could show a bunch of richly dressed people in fancy, fast cars; creeping along in stop and go traffic. Some poor schmuk in a Viper could be struggling to manage moving slow enough as he engauges the clutch and the giant motor grabs. A voiceover could say, "How exciting is this, really?"

More relatable: have more average-looking people in average cars set in a drab, gray commute. They move along at a high speed that seems slow, mouths ajar, coffee quivering in one hand, head leaning limply a bit... a flicker off attention and a scowl crosses the driver's face as somone cuts him off, then back to zombiehood. The voiceover could say somthing to the effect of "Feel cheated? Do something more exciting that chauffuer" then have the driver look over to an Avee-driven car with its passenger doing somthing more exciting (eg: anything).

Emphasizing the mechanical aspect could also be a compelling approach: show people reacting stiffly and mechanically - robotically, in a word- to turn signals and traffic lights. The voiceover could say "You're not a machine, why treat yourself like one? Let Avee drive."

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Part of the New Way

Talking with the silicon valley whiz kids confirmed something that I've been wanting to believe for a while; that we're entering an era where openness about good ideas is recognized and rewarded. I've had a few really good ideas (imho) that I've held back from writing about for fear of seeing them taken and used without attribution. However, I like them enough that I'd be happy to see them implemented at all, even if I don't directly benefit from them, and therefore I think I'll share.

For instance, my ideas on the implementation of autonomous vehicle technology. The "cars that drive themselves" idea is clearly neither mine nor very original, but I have some neat ideas about how they might be brought to be. I wrote a "whitepaper" on the subject and did some rudimentary modeling, and I think there's a lot of promise to the approach. Thus:

<<< Transportation Marketplace Whitepaper

This year the DARPA Grand Challenge involves racing a fully autonomous (self-driving) vehicle through a city with traffic, and both GM and Volkswagen are speaking of marketing a fully autonomous vehicle as soon as next year. It’s reasonable to assume that the technology to enable fully-autonomous vehicles will be available to the mass-market within the next five years. The question is: how will it be rolled out?

The obvious answer is to just put the technology on new cars as they’re produced. But this approach could take as much as twenty years to replace the entire vehicle base and there are compelling reasons to encourage the change to happen faster (i.e. 40k vehicle deaths yearly, lost productivity due to traffic jams, the need to spend $25B over 20 years nationwide on highway capacity improvements, environmental damage from inefficient auto use…)
Another approach is to retrofit existing vehicles with the technology. If old vehicles can be converted, as the DARPA contestants have demonstrated they can, there’s no need to sell a totally new platform. What, then, could encourage a large number of vehicle owners to make this expensive conversion? Consider that after a vehicle has taken a commuter to work, it will normally sit idle for nine or more hours until the owner uses it to return home where it will sit for another even longer period of time. If a vehicle is capable of driving itself, it could very well return home to be used by other members of the same family, or it could be hired out for other commuters to use. If the owner is willing to take this latter option and there are a large number of these networked and self-driving vehicles available, an on demand transportation marketplace could emerge.

Assuming a large number of both sellers (the owners of the vehicles who would hire out their cars) and buyers (the people needing transportation, whether to work, household shopping, or school), competitive bidding could emerge. Peak demand rates and odd routes would presumably be more expensive, as determined by market forces, and both buyers and sellers could adjust their transportation patterns to take best advantage of the variable rates.

Why, then, could both buyers and sellers be expected to actually use the service in the first place? Consider the fee for service: a fixed rate will be required to cover fuel and depreciation on the equipment, plus a variable rate that is up for bidding. As long as the rate provides enough income to cover the cost of the seller’s conversion of the vehicle, but is still less than what it would cost to the buyer to acquire a vehicle, both parties can benefit financially. Add this to the prospect of being able to spend commuting time productively (or in relaxation) as well as the long-term potential of improved traffic flow, and we can hope for good market-acceptance.

A key assumption, as noted above, is a marketplace that is large enough to enable competitive bidding and reliable fulfillment on both sides (i.e. sellers can consistently hire their cars out and buyers have transportation readily available; supply and demand are well-balanced). How can this be accomplished? Consider that the initial investment could be borne by a third party, be it a profit-seeking investor or a safety/capacity-concerned government. In such a case, the third party pays to install the technology and earns the commissions on the vehicle’s trips (at least until the cost of the installation is recovered, plus some appropriate profit), the owner of the vehicle obtains an autonomous vehicle, and people who don’t own vehicles obtain flexible and affordable transportation. The combination of private financing, for-profit investors, and (as a last resort) government could enable rapid large-scale deployment on a level that could fulfill this proposal’s need for an active market. The best approach may even be to literally give the technology away for free and earn money from commission on the transaction. If that prospect seems unbusinesslike presently, consider that the price of technology in general deflates at about fifty percent a year; the expensive systems on the DARPA vehicles will soon be available at hobbiest cost.

The really innovative part of this proposal is the marketplace in which the transactions will take place. Imagine a user-interface combining EBay with Google Maps and Paypal, with back-end services that handle the routing, load balancing, and vehicle maintenance scheduling. Add flexible ways to access the marketplace: via smartphone, voice-recognition on a regular phone, SMS, or web browser. Finally, integrate a social reputation rating (like EBay’s) where users can rate how reliable their market counterparts are. These elements together with an installed base of autonomous vehicles create a system that users can take control of and morph to suit their needs.

The success of the marketplace is highly dependent upon network effects; i.e. it’s only useful if there are lots of buyers and sellers. This point has an interesting implication for competitive strategy: openness to market entrants will be more beneficial than building closed systems. If the venture earns money from commission on individual rides, the request for a ride could originate from a competitor, and both could benefit by sharing the commission or charging commission twice.

So what would commission rates be like, and what kind of money could be earned from them? Large sums can be earned from a high volume of small transactions, as Google amply demonstrates. Consider a heavy-traffic market like LA. Assuming only 5% of car drivers could be persuaded to use the service, assuming they make only two trips a day, and assuming they are only charged one cent commission per ride (on top of fuel and maintenance), the venture earns more than a million dollars a year. Each of those factors is likely to be much larger, and there are many other cities whose residents would also welcome a relief from traffic problems. Setting rates around the cost of owning and operating a vehicle and using more ambitious market acceptance rates when considering the entire nation yields a multi-billion dollar business.

Autonomous vehicles are an inevitability. Introducing already-successful information-technology business-models to the concept can yield vast benefits, both to the fast-movers who back the project and society at large. This market-based approach has the potential to reduce emissions, congestion, traffic deaths, and the average cost of travel, while simultaneously allowing vehicle owners and the purveyors of this technology to earn a handsome return on their investment.


My copywriter friend, Rachael Kauffung, even came up with a brilliant and marketable name for the system: the Avee. Get it? A.V. = Autonomous Vehicle, and the name has a charm to it that might help relax some technophobes' fears about letting a robot car drive. It also makes me smile because it reminds me of Snatch (the movie, you cheeky monkey). It Also "borrows" a bit of brand equity from the Evo, though I'm not so sure that's a good thing.

I recognize that there are lots of efforts underway to make the technology feasible, but I havn't seen too many holistic solutions for getting it rolled out. There's benefit-a-plenty to doing it fast (50K+ lives a year! Also money!), and I don't think its out of line to suggest that it could be implemented within the decade, at our lively rate of technological progress and internet-saturation.

So here's to hoping that a person with the resources to make it happen reads this, likes it, and makes it happen. Of course, I'd love to be involved, or to be the conduit for someone's resources to make it happen. I'll do what I can from inside Toyota, but I get the feeling that some entrepreneurial energy is required. I should also point out that all the information used to generate the idea is publicly available and in no way subject to my non-compete agreement (says me).

And for good measure, here's a first-shot at a custom ambigramatical logo:
The V is in the middle, and it reads the same way in a rear view mirror. Now that I'm looking at it, it reminds me a bit of the Mercedes Maybach logo... how's that for being presumptuous! Plus the fact that you can read all the letters of my last name in it (if you really try).

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Ray Kurzweil may be the equal opposite of Woody Allen

If Woody Allen had exactly the opposite worldveiw, he might be Ray Kurzweil.
I get a kick out of Kurzweil's calm, confident optimism. His response to critics seems to follow a comical pattern; "well, actually I Have taken that objection into account, and here's this body of overwhelming evidence that really aught to satisfy any more empirically motivated objections." Must get frustrating having to respond that way so often.

I decided to respond with "artist" when someone asked me what I'm all about at dinner. That's the first time I've ever applied that as a primary label, and it was interesting to see how that colored the listeners' reception as I described my ambigrams and sculpture project. Followed by "I'm also a quantitative analysis grad student. And I work at Toyota." ha, maybe someday I'll be cool.

Speaking of artistry, I made my first-ever sales this weekend. One was a t-shirt sold to my cousin, (thanks Amanda! (she picked the coolest one by far)), the other was more of an award... I won a sandwich for having one of the three best decorated pumpkins at work, LOL. Thx Becky for letting me spoil your son's pumpkin!

I may need to move to San Jose immediately. I was stuck by the youthful energy the whole place has, so many enthusiastic, brilliant kids with radical ideas. I spoke with a guy whose spending a very nice chunk of cash on a sea-steading project (he left Google to pursue this), and a guy who's running a startup that uses custom ontologies to enrich text-data mining software... Meaning that it gives a context for a program to uses as a structure to glean meaning from documents. Very cool.

Also met a couple other former google engineers, all doing interesting stuff. One guy (my age) writes a genetics blog, and one of his readers gave him a stipend so that he can live comfortably while he gets his phd. How cool is that! Btw a blog reader was also the source of the funding for the sea-steading project; so consider this an open invitation to give me a grant/fellowship to pursue any of the ideas I write about.

Another very cool character is Anna from the singularity institute. An excerpt from our conversation:

Me: ah, so you aim to be humanity's savior then, Eh?
Anna: No no, just to reduce the chance that humanity drives itself to extinction with careless AI projects. There's a significant difference.

Her casual conversation was interestingly inflected with her math background, as the comment above subtly hints at. I especially liked her because in response to my sculpture project she said "Thats very Hofstaderian, have you showed it to him?" I was pleased with the casual assumption that it could be as simple as that, that I could just go Show him. Perhaps I'll give you a ring one of these days, Doug.

On that subject, I also had the interesting experience of being able to ask: "are you familiar with the guts of Copycat?" and actually get an affirmative answer. I suspect that can't be Too uncommon, considering that Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies is not an uncommon book (not to mention GEB), but it's certainly the first time I've brought it up in a conversation and had the reference immediately understood by Two other parties in the conversation.

San Jose itself is quite lively and beautiful. I saw quite a lot of dance clubs, I would be interested to see if the more chill sort of music scene thrives there also.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Live Music Visualization Idea

Here's a novel idea for somone to steal and make a bundle on: Imagine an augmented-reality system for visualizing music as its performed live.
-Assume that each member of the audience has glasses or contact lenses that can overlay imagry on the real scene (a technology that will be viable in maybe five years).
-Plug the output of each musician's instrument into a "visualizer," some program that makes a pretty graphical representation of the sound thier instrument makes.
-Set up the stage and the instruments with transmitters such that each instrument can be located in three dimensional space in realtime.
-Send the musical visualization data to the audience's glasses and overlay it on the scene , such that it looks like the music is pouring out of the instruments.

What exactly the music "looks" like can be totally up to the musicians. Imagine the array of expression that they could create with a simple set of tools that uses templates and varies simple parameters! I can imagine drum hits looking like bright sparks, ryhtm guitar looking like horizontal waves, and the lead looking like a spiraling, twisting tower of light. The graphic effects might warrant adding a member to a band to dedicate creativity to that aspect of the show.

In my head, I've been thinking of using this with the sort of standard, three-guitars-and-a-drum-set sort of rock band, but I can imagine very bold artists applying idea to classical music. The visual imagry could be much richer there, but I almost hesitate to suggest it beause it seems like its trespassing on somone elses work. Maybe that could be a new dimension for contemporary composers to explore.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Seems like everytime I read the newspaper, nowadays, I want to throw it. To make a big scene of exploding pages and indignation. Given my stance on the role of government and the virtue of Lassiez-Faire, I've often wondered how the people of the times (particularly the thirties) allowed government to take on the role that it has. I think I understand now, its nothing but a shortsighted self-interest and a lack of skepticism and curiosity. People are concerned about their 401(k)s, and they assume that the talking heads offering solutions to their concerns are well-informed, self-disciplined, and clear-sighted.

The possibility that those same talking heads are bewildered, overwhelmed, and frought with conflicting interests seems anathamatic. People seem to assume that officials' lofty positions have elevated them to a level of unquestionability; "they must know what they're talking about, after all they must have been qualified to make it to their position." History offers an unfortunately large body of evidence against that latter point, I'm afraid. The political party divide exasterbates the issue, turns it into an us-vs-them situation where people end up supporting one side just because they dislike the other more.

I'm reminded of the "parable of the champion coin-flippers." It goes like this: a competition is held to find the best coin-flippers in the land. Ten thousand people assemble and simultaneously flip their coins, all trying for heads. Of course, about half of them succeed. The winners move on to the next round, where they all concentrate really hard on getting "heads," and again, about half succeed. The elimination rounds proceed untill at last there's just a few super-successful coin flippers left over. In anticipations of the final rounds to determine has the most skill in thier art, the press showers the champions with attention, asking for interviews, granting book deals. Some of the coin flippers are academically inclined and publish carefully thought out papers on exactly how they've attained their phenominal streak of winning tosses. They're celebrities, widely revered for their skill. And so on.

The point is that in any unpredictable phenomenon (such as a coin toss) with a large population of people involved in making guesses about it (such as our competition), some portion of them are likely to be right. If the process is iterated, the people who were right more often (even if purely by chance!) derive an aura of credibility from their "success."

"Ok," you might say, "that makes fine sense in the silly hypothetical case, what applicability does your story have in the real world?" Its been well demonstrated that stock (and other) markets follow a "random walk." That is to say, there is no strategy that will consitently predict the next steps of a market based on information about its previous steps. People consistently try, and when they succed for a noticiable period of time (whether or not by chance!), they get that aura of credibility, and people listen to them and take their advice.

"If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?" is the question that the random-walk hypothesis evokes in investors hopeful to prove the researchers wrong. Of course, many of those original researchers are wealthy, and the attained their wealth by following their own strategy. The random walk hypothesis doesn't suggest that there is no successful strategy for investing in markets, merely that you can't consistently rely on arbitrage to make you rich.

The successful strategy is, quite simply, putting your money to work in places more productive than where it currently rests. Money is increased by increasing value, and value is increased through good ideas, hard work, and discipline. The purpose of investing is to enable people who have those attributes to use them to benefit others, and that benefit is the reason that investing is a reward-bearing activity.

Saturday, October 11, 2008


I have come to a point that I'm pleased to call my final product (in terms of design) on my "Meme-Gene/Body-Soul" sculpture project. I'll post some screen shots and renderings below, and also a link (here) to the Sketchup 3D library where you can download the model itself and play with it.

The project was inspired by some of the reading I've done recently, primarily Hofstadter's "Gödel, Escher, Bach" and selections from "Metamagical Themas," and also Dawkin's "the Selfish Gene," Dennet's "Kinds of Minds," Feynman's "The Character of Physical Law," and the book that initiated all this exploration: Kurzweil's the "Singularity is Near"

Please tell me your thoughts on the project. Ultimately I'd like to find someone who likes it enough to help me make a physical instantiation of the idea.

(follow this link for pasts posts on the subject)

What we have here is a model for a sculpture intended to incorporate ambigrams, coding, recursion, and genetics. The helix has ambigrams on the inside of the rungs, where in DNA the unique bits of the nucleotides would be. They are "MEME"/"GENE" (when you look through opposite sides) and "BODY"/"SOUL." The idea is that just as genes are the building blocks and instructions for creating bodies, an analogous argument could be made for the relationship between memes and souls, in the secular sense. On another level, memes and genes can be seen as analogous opposites, as can bodies and souls.

The setting the helix is placed in is, of course, a larger version of itself. This is intended to be a reference to the recursive, self-propegating nature of genes and memes. Further, the order of the ambigram "nucleotides" codes for something in a way thats analogous to how DNA codes for proteins... I'll give some very nice praise to any person who can decode it without further hints!

I'll lend a helping hand and show you the order of the rungs: mbmbgbbmmbmbbbsmmbbgbbbbbggbgbbmmmmbbbgmmmbgbbbbmbbbgbbmmbgbbbm
The same thing is coded on the opposite side, but M->G and B->S.
The following renderings are done with the Podium Sketchup plugin

What follows is some further fancifulness that I haven't been able to model yet. I think what's above stands on its own as an interesting piece of art and it captures much of my intention, but I see further opportunity for expression. For instance:

1. On the small helix, Make the frame out of aluminum tubing, and make the faces out of circuit boards. The circuit boards could be hand-drawn.
2. On the bigger helix, do the same but make the faces out of solar-panel cells.
3. The solar panels will power the installation, causing the helix to rotate and all the electronics to work.
4. A laser (or other very bright, focused light) will be set up to shine through the ambigrams, and it will move on a rail (like a carriage on a typewriter) parallel to the helix such that it is always shining through one of the cut-faces on the helix.
5. Where the laser shines on the solar panels, they will be wired to measure the output of each square centimeter, so that they can register when an amabigram is shone on them.
6. The circuit boards that make up the helix will do actual processing; they will decode the instructions that the ambigrams code for.
7. Since the decoded message is [Spoiler! The text of the message follows in a white font, use your cursor and highlight it to see the answer] the mathematical formula for a helix (x=sin(t), y=cos(t), z=t), the formula can be used to draw virtual helixes on a screen. (I had to give it away so that the following would make sense)
8. The values for x, y, and z can be taken from the output of the solar panels that power the thing. That way the images it produces will vary by lighting conditions.
9. Finally the coup de grace: the installation will emit a wi-fi signal that has the information about the virtual helixes that it's drawing. With a fancy, internet-connected and camera-containing device (like the gPhone or iPhone), the virtual helixes could be overlaid on the real scene that shows through the camera. The effect would be that when you point your phone's camera at the installation, it looks like there is a fountain of swirls and spirals coming off the top of this thing. They could linger and float around like cream in coffee.
10. Sound could be integrated into it as well, with colors and intensities of light being translateinto tones. The sound would also only be available on the "augmented reality" layer; that way it could be really loud and bizzare without disrupting the normal scene.

So on the surface you see a quietly rotating helix with some neat symbolism, look through some technology and you see a bright, loud, big burst of math!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Long but not lost

In abreviated form, here’s a summary of the interesting happenings of the last couple weeks.

Painted a mural, see the post below. It’s a parody of the School of Athens with a few Jungle Book characters, it makes me laugh every time I see it. Mowgli is Aristotle, and Baloo is Plato. Their faces are a little lame, but the overall impression is impressive enough for preschoolers, I should think.

Started classes, lots of study time. I’m pushing the edge of math that I feel comfortable doing, and it takes some concentrated effort. What’s interesting is that I found myself looking back over my pages of notes and work thinking: “this is beautiful.” The visual aspect itself takes on an element of beauty when I understand what the symbols mean and are doing. It makes me wonder, again, about the relationship of meaning and beauty on an observer.

Rendered sculpture with new Sketchup tools (Podium), worked on the setting the installation would be in. The shadow casting idea may not work with anything but sunlight or very focused, intense light (laser?). I’m wondering if a parabolic mirror will provide the effect I want, and if the sketchup plugin I’m using will actually handle all the light-bouncing correctly. I should probably just work in studio 4D; I know for sure that the particle bouncing at least works there. I need to figure out how to get the helix to rotate in that program.

By the way, I’m wavering between having one and two helixes. One works, conceptually, because it is really a double helix in terms of the coding (since the ambigrams have the complementary meaning on the opposite side, the code is repeated with its compliment).

The engineering analysis I contracted out on the sculpture returned questionable results. He said that the minimum material was ¼ inch stainless steel, which is implausibly thick. I might have a little more faith in his work if he had shown me any of the calculations or some evidence that he did more than just eyeball it, but I didn’t see that. I should have pushed back on payment.

I’m also vaguely considering using a different material than plate/sheet metal; I might do the framework then cover it with fabric. That would be easier and cheaper, at least, but I’m unsure of the aesthetics.

Visited Rachael while she was sick. Its been a long time since I’ve been in a hospital; I was a little bit disturbed. They had her in the ER for a little while, and while walking around trying to find ice for her I caught some glimpses of some things that made me dizzy. Strange to observe one’s own unexpected reactions to things one doesn’t encounter normally.

Dinner at Macs twice; Pesto and mushroom pizza is awesome. It does feel different eating at a place like that now; I feel older. The raucousness is charming, but has lost some appeal.

Booked tickets to Singularity Summit in San Jose for Oct 24th! The program of speakers is awesome; I’m excited.

Took my broken motorcycle to “The Shop” to have it diagnosed. Rachael pointed out after the fact that the same shop ripped her off on a battery, and I can expect to get charged way too much. We shall see. If they’re unethical, they’ll get blogged about!

Got Smashing Pumpkins tickets for Nov 4, thanks again to Rachael. I’m excited about this too; though I need to get more familiar with the new album since that’s probably what they’re playing.

Started work on research proposal concerning portfolio balancing in a “society of mind” with a parallel terraced scanning architecture, integrating Hierarchical Temporal Memory networks. This needs to be the subject of many posts, probably.

Watched Streetcar Named Desire, Catch 22, Rushmore, Burn after Reading, and Dan in Real life. Burn After Reading was by far the highlight, though Rushmore is also excellent. Different kinds of humor, dark and unfortunately realistic vs awkward, respectively. Catch 22 is also good, though I feel dirty for having watched the movie before the reading the book.
Skateboarded with Jack. Strained tendon in my foot its cramping my style.
Went to Chelsea’s graduation, went to dinner with her and Mom at Joes Crabshack the night before.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Rendered with freeware!

Here's a rendering done with the Sketchup plugin called Podium of a hypothetical setting for my sculpture. Its very alter-esque.
Unfortunately I discovered in the process of doing this that doing the light-projection-through-the-rungs thing will be all but impossible without something like laser light or really focused and bright light. A parabolic mirror might still do the trick, but I'm going to stray away from it for now.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Mowgli's two-dimensionality limits comraderie

Ch-ch-check it out: my parody of the School of Athens done on a wall
of a headstart center in Falmouth KY.
I'm putting my arm around mowgli's shoulder, in case that's not obvious.
Here's the rest:

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Sport, Skating, and Significance

Balancing on the brink of control and overcoming fear.

The half-pipe, to my mind, is an ideal medium of expression. A wooden, U-shaped canvass to paint with audacity and self-control. Leaving aside the counter-cultural overtones that are often packaged with skateboarding, I believe that it is a sport and art-form well-worth considering seriously. It is an art of subtle control, both of the tools and the self.

I find that at the core of skating, more than any other sport I’ve personally experienced, is the overcoming of fear and learning via experimentation. The self-discipline of endurance training (in sports like distance running) and the refinement of technique (in sports like Golf) are all very well in their own right, but skateboarding is exceptional in that it puts those elements in the crucible of danger. Often one finds that safety lies in the counter-intuitive. One’s normal, deeply engrained reflexes must be consciously observed and questioned, as they are designed for circumstances rather more mundane and are often the causes of failure. Similar remarks could probably be made for sports like hang-gliding, mountain climbing, surfing, sailing, and skiing; and more abstractly about every endeavor that pushes the frontier of human experience.

There are situations where what to do is pretty straight-forward, and the question becomes “can I maintain control of myself sufficiently to do what I know must be done.” For instance, dropping into a twenty-foot half-pipe is effectively the same, technique-wise, as dropping in to a four-foot half-pipe; the difference lies in overcoming the strong fear-response to the prospect of falling twenty feet vs four. One can know, very rationally, that all one needs to do is lean forward and orient one’s body to the surface of the ramp, but the challenge of translating that rational knowledge into action can create paralyzing fear. An analogy could be made to the undertaking of a major project requiring a deep investment of time and resources: one can know what must be done, but must have the strength of character to be able to actually execute the plan. Further, one must know in advance that one has such strength of character in order to be able to initiate the execution; a charming self-referential loop. I would posit that the act of translating knowledge into counter-intuitive action is an instance of the ultimate mastery of Self over instinct and reflex.

“Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed” The skater obeys like a pendulum, and commands like acrobat. Gravity binds, but also enables; it is within a system of constraints that one can act; think of the relation to axiomatic systems.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Meme Machine, By Susan Blackmore

I read the book in the title last week, and it was excellent. It gives a thorough grounding for memetics as a science, and proposes some very compelling hypotheses about the effects of memetic evolotion in human experience. Most strikingly, she argues that the inexplicably large brain that homo sapiens posess is explainable by (and only by) meme-gene co-evolution. That is to say: the presence of memes influenced genetic evolution by selecting for mutations that increased meme carrying and transmitting capacity like language, spatial, and artistic abilities.

Excellent book though it is, I'm a bit wary of her conclusions. She comes of quite pessemistic, viewing memes as agents that control humans while also being at our foundations. Her normative stance is zen-like; we should seek to not be at the effect these memeplexes and just be.

It's not a bad stance by any means, but I don't think its the necessary conclusion. If oneself is primarily composed of an aquired memeplex, is there anything wrong with centering one's identity in that memeplex? Blackmore seems to say that this course is a recepie for conflict and unhappiness, since the memeplex has "its own" survival and wellbeing set at a much higher level of importance than its carrier's. I recognize the potential validity of the argument, but I think that adventerous spirits can play an exciting touch-and-go game with their memeplexes, where both benefit and live on the edge of control.

Heres a link to an article where she discusses the issues breifly: