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.