Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Freedom's Crucible

In reference to:

"What I See on the Frontline in Iran: Regime change is now our movement's rallying cry."
- Heshmat Tabarzadi: What I See on the Frontline in Iran - (view on Google Sidewiki)

Reading this sort of statement makes me overcome with emotion. These are the direct words of a person who truly faces imprisonment, torture, and death; and who has the bravery to uphold his principles nonetheless. Not only in words, which are apparently dangerous enough in Iran presently, but in action. My heart is filled with admiration, and my eyes are filled with tears.

I read this article when it was published two weeks ago. Today there's another story: this author and others have indeed suffered the consequences of acting out against their oppressors. They have been arrested, and whether they are alive or dead is unknown. I was moved when I read it originally, but a great deal more so now that its been made evident that his criticisms have been so visibly validated.

The passion for freedom is, perhaps, among the most noble, beautiful and tragic traits a human can express. Noble and beautiful because it is an instance of a human asserting the value of their own existence, their rights, and repudiating the moral legitimacy of those who would take those things away. Tragic because these bright sparks of individuals are so likely to be "consumed in freedom's flame."

Its something that people born into politically free environments, like myself, can only guess and wonder at; we've never been called upon to put ourselves to the test. To those who are put to it and pass: you have my greatest, most heartfelt respect and admiration. I only wish I could do something for you.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Lexical Scoping

Is the name of the magic. It is the part of Scheme (a lisp dialect) that R inherited, and its incredibly powerful. I re-factored a loop I wrote into a vector function earlier; the loop took fifteen minuets to run on 24k data points. The re-factored vector equation returns exactly the same data and runs in milliseconds. The explanation for that defies my imagination.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Deep magic

The mysteries of R are unfolding before me as I work on my masters thesis. I knew when I started this project that what I wanted to do could be accomplished through some creative indexing schemes, and I am discovering them. The process of discovery is itself interesting; I'll encounter a problem and the little syntactical tricks (what few of them!) I know will start swirling around in my head suggesting possible approaches. The solutions that emerge are often very strange-seeming mixtures of ideas that are very far removed from what I would have expected. And as I experiment I encounter new methods and approaches, its wonderful.

They say R has a steep learning curve, but it seems to be the sort where it accelerates a lot after the initial investment. I'm sure that my having studied some other programming languages is helpful, and that the statistical concepts are familiar enough. Its exciting when you learn enough of a language to be able to express creativity though it! I'm finding myself highly motivated now, I'm sucked into the puzzles of the project. I suppose part of what makes it rewarding is that results can be tested continuously, and I can judge their value for myself.

I've hit a wall now though: my masters account doesn't allow SSH access to WRDS, and I'll probably have to wait until after break before I can get the proper permissions assigned. I could use the web interface to get around it, but its clunky and I want to develop the generalizable skill of using SSH and UNIX queries.

Added: I take that back! Apparently all the people needed to make it happen are still at work today, 'cause I've got my account! Now I just gotta figure out how to use it.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A question regarding musicianship and learning

Is there a difference in the way musical concepts are represented in the brains of musicians who learn on stringed instruments vs pianos? This thought occurs to me because the spatial relationship of notes is much more evident on a stringed instrument: the spacing of the notes on the fretboard follows a distinct and simple pattern, the twelfth root of two. This just means that the space between each fret is reduced by a regularly increasing amount as you go up the neck.

I'm wondering if this recognizable spatial pattern causes more visual areas of the brain to be used in playing or writing music, as compared to a musician who's training is on the piano.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Eugene Onegin

I've just finished reading Eugene Onegin, and it was every bit as wonderful as I had been led to expect. In the foreword, Hofstadter notes that he thinks Falen's translation is better than his own, so I'm looking forward to reading that also. There's a rare pleasure, eh? Enjoy a book so much that you regret it's ending, then be able to read it again written nearly completely differently? The only other book I've attempted that with (in small snippets) is Les Miserables, and I found I enjoyed the first translation much more than the second.

I find that I'm very influenced verbally by the things I read. I found myself thinking and writing extravagantly as I was reading Dickens, and now I find snatches of half-formed metrical rhyme running through my head after reading Onegin. I had the same experience with Golden Gate as well, and a couple of stanza's of passable Pushkin sonnet came out of it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Pass go, collect another quarter of even harder classes

My work paid off in my math classes. My reward is that I get to go on to the next level, to do yet more work, and gain more knowledge.

I've begun reading Eugene Onegin as well. It's absolutely brilliant. One small complaint I had about Golden Gate was that the dialog seemed at times a bit fragmented, of necessity in conforming to the rhyming and metrical structure. Onegin overall has much less dialog, and is thereby spared that danger. Hofstadter's translation is, as it says on the back cover, witty and playful; I'll be interested to read the other translations as well so see how they differ.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Winter Break

And so I'm on winter break. I've got my gradschool applications in (for the next degree) and finished the quarter with some measure of success (I dearly hope). So what to do now that I'm free from the bonds of academic duty? What I should be doing is working on my thesis project, and I'm sure I'll get to it before the break is out. What I have been doing is reading. I finished Asimov's The Naked Sun and an anthology of science fiction, read a hundred pages of A New Kind of Science, studied a section of Linear Algebra (some habits become hard to break, evidently), and I've read about a third of Oliver Twist.

Dickens is unexpectedly awesome, by the way. I had been skeptical of assigning him merit as a result of the unpleasant memory of reading an abridgment of Great Expectations in ninth grade, but Oliver Twist is proving delightful. I find it witty and incisive without seeming cynical (like Wilde), its language ornate but purposeful, and its construction of tragedy and suffering is matched in my experience only by Hugo, while lacking the monstrous historical digressions of the latter. Thanks, Erica, for turning me on to it and lending me the book.

In cleaning out my photo library, I came across my pictures of Svetlana Tolonen, my Russian acquaintance from Tampere, Finland. (circa 2004)
She and I look like shiny happy people, no? Its a shame I only spoke with her for a few hours.
I sent her an email, on the off chance that it would go through, and lo! She responded. I smile.

Its interesting to note how strong the influence of Russian culture has been on my life, while Russia itself seems very distant and foreign. Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev are two of my very favorite composers, and Dostoevsky was a favorite author of mine. Ayn Rand, a Russian emigrant, played a huge role in my younger intellectual development, and the effects of her thinking continue to have an impact on me. Pushkin had a big influence on Hofstadter, who's had a big influence on me. I wonder what other significant connections there are?

Added: I suppose this is an example of seletion bias. The influence of Germans, French, English, and Japanese have also been very strong, but it doesn't seem strange in my mind that those countries should have a strong influence. Why does Russia seem more foreign, even more so than Japan? Perhaps 'cause I remember an announcement in elementary school declaring the end of the cold war?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

I am the Alpha and the Omega

Behold, the greatest Captain Sucessor ship ever created!

Probably. I have reason to believe this is true; the game crashes as soon as the Kilo class ships start trying to mimic this one.

Edit: well probably not, but close. There's some links on Farbs' blog of better ships; its mostly the chrono modules that do the trick. Sadly, there were none in this instance of the game. I'm excited for the multiplayer version of this to come out. In the meantime, it would be interesting to have a high-score board that tracks players' ship statistics, like their weight, firepower, speed, sheilds, and chrono acceleration.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Randall Munroe Is my hero

For background, reference:

With that said, I don't see anything immediately objectionable about computational linguistics. Getting computers to interpret natural language is a worthy field of study; perhaps Randall knows some things about it that I don't. Or maybe he's just being funny and he doesn't actually object to it at all. I just like his boldness and confrontationalism.

I feel like I've been too equivocating recently, I've given too many peoples' ideas a free pass just because I don't want to pass judgment on them (and presumably hurt their feelings). I suppose this is an reaction to my objectivist days when I was convinced that I had the proper knowledge to make firm claims about any philosophical subject. Having realized that some of those foundational ideas are definitely wrong gives me pause in criticizing others.

However, I believe that there are two ineradicable facts: reality has a structure, and we can come to know that structure through observation. If the first is not true, then no intellectual endeavor is worthwhile; all concepts are completely arbitrary. Thankfully the evidence from observation tends to support the hypothesis that there is a structure. Any set of ideas that repudiates these facts, postmodernism for example, I am willing to completely exclude from consideration.

Christmas gifts

If any of you readers (esp. family) are thinking of buying me anything for Christmas, donate whatever you would have spent to Wikipedia instead. Its fast and easy, just do it right now:

I'm totally serious. The only things I'm wanting presently are things that cannot be purchased; I've got all the sweaters, nice scarves, movies, gadgets, books, etc that I need. I'd much rather see your money go to the diffusion of knowledge. If you think likewise, please encourage whoever might be giving you gifts to do the same. Donate to whatever you like; Wikipedia just happens to be something that can benefit all people, so long as they have internet access. The diffusion of knowledge is probably the most powerful tool for helping people to attain self-determination.

Note that I've already gone ahead and done this with the money that would have otherwise gone to gifts for you, so don't worry about quid pro quo. In fact, I'll be embarrassed if you buy me something, so save me from that please.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

I love Moore's law

Its hard to even wrap one's mind around what this means. To give a rough idea, consider that current supercomputing experiments doing cortical simulation used less than one processor (core) per simulated neuron. How many years would will it be until there are as many cores on a chip as there are neurons in a brain? Assuming Moore's law continues and is applicable, the answer is around 32. Which means: processing power at least equivalent to the human brain's capacity will be available by 2041 (if they were all working in parallel and wired "correctly").

Also consider that neurons are much simpler and slower than digital processors. Its unlikely that the full power of a single processor is needed to emulate the function of an individual neuron, and I believe the Blue Brain project has had success with more neurons simulated per processor. So the reality is that computers of 2041 will likely be much more capable than a single human brain, in terms of processing power. Kurzweil, oh how you continue to be on-target.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Hurray for Denialists!

The labeling of people who are skeptical about the reality of anthropogenic climate change as denialists is an interesting phenomenon. "Denialist" has strong moral overtones, and reminds me of "Holocaust denialists" or "evolution denialists." The connotation is that the denialists are refusing to recognize something that is overwhelmingly obviously true.

Its almost understandable that people in general would be of this opinion, given the current state of the public debate on the climate change issue. Taking a glance at the Wikipedia pages for "climate change" and "global warming" (which appear high in Google's search results) would leave one with little room for doubt. They cite lots of studies, and appeal to the authority of the people who have endorsed them.

But as someone pointed out (I think it was Eric Baum), science isn't about consensus; its about being right. When there's not enough information to be able to definitively prove what is right, then consensus is the proxy that people use to estimate who might be right. This is the state of the science on global warming. This article makes the case explicitly. If you're compelled to appeal to authority, look at the author's credentials.

The point is: calling people who practice skeptical empiricism "denialists" is dishonest. It is plainly not scientific to assume the veracity of an idea until all testable hypotheses that would disprove it are tested and shown to be insufficient to do so. It takes a person of strong character and integrity to espouse the principle of skeptical empiricism in the face of an empassioned and firmly convinced consensus. So hurray for denialists!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Cognitive Science Applications Statement of Purpose

Cognitive Science Application: Statement of Purpose TJ Murphy

My motivations for wanting to study cognitive science can be summarized in three points. First, I want to understand the fundamental mechanisms of cognition and creativity in humans, and how these mechanisms might be generalized to other systems. Second, I would like to work in applying the findings of the first point to technologies and theoretical tools that can help humanity cope with the growing complexity of the environment we are creating. Third, I believe that success in the second point is vital for long-term human survival and prosperity, as the potential for catastrophic disaster increases with each new and more powerful technology we create. I believe that these are surmountable challenges, and I would like to devote my life's work to helping overcome them. In this letter I will briefly discuss what I have done to prepare myself for this course of action, then relate my present vision for what form that course might take.

My formal undergraduate background is in Finance, where I studied how markets represent and process information about the environment and distribute resources efficiently (to the degree in which they do). Informally, I pursued learning in philosophy and ethics. The synthesis of these disciplines led me to develop research interests in the emergence of learning and adaptive behavior in complex agent-based systems.

After finishing my undergraduate degree, I worked for two years at Toyota's North American headquarters for engineering and administration. I developed an interest in pattern recognition and machine learning as a result of a long-term forecasting model I created, which as since then been used in strategic planing for North American logistics. During my time at Toyota I led the development of an enterprise information system, through which I gained experience in collaborating in cross-disciplinary teams, acting as a project manager, and guiding software development. After the completion of this project, Toyota provided me with the opportunity to return to full-time study. Thus, I resigned from my job and committed full-time to my Masters of Science in Quantitative Analysis (MSQA) program, which I had been pursuing part-time while I worked.

I chose the MSQA program at UC because of its emphasis on understanding and controlling dynamic systems using mathematical models and programming tools such as GAMS, MATLAB, R, Arena, and scripting languages. The program provides a solid foundation in statistical methods and analysis, regression, optimization modeling and analysis, probability, simulation, and data mining. Because my ultimate goal lies in studying cognitive science, I have been supplementing my MSQA studies with other subjects that I think will be germane to to the subject; namely neuroscience, computer science, mathematics, and cognitive science itself.

Three paradigms have influenced my thinking on cognition. They are:

  1. The memory/prediction framework for modeling the function of biological neural networks using Bayesian networks and matrix transformations (from Paul Churchland and Jeff Hawkins),

  2. the parallel terraced scan approach to finding solutions to abstract problems which have a high degree of ambiguity using simple agents as the mechanisms of exploration (from Douglas Hofstadter and Melanie Mitchell),

  3. and the idea of using market mechanisms to allocate resources (such as control of sub-agents or tools to manipulate the environment) to sub-cognitive agents which compete for activation (from Eric Baum and Marvin Minsky).

I believe that these three paradigms share a common kernel. It is my hope to help unify them into a coherent theory of cognition, creativity, concept-formation, and decision making. Moreover, I hope to be able to generalize the result to be applicable to systems outside of the case of biological brains, to include both human-designed artificial intelligence and naturally occurring supra-human phenomena like institutions and markets.

My current thoughts on the subject are as follows. We can observe abstract structural similarities between biological neural networks and economic networks, and I suggest that this similarity in structure implies a similarity in function. My hypothesis is that human markets can be modeled as complex systems of interacting agents (where institutions and individuals can be considered agents), and that individual human minds can be modeled in a similar way (where sub-cognitive brain processes can be considered agents). I believe that exploring this isomorphism can be aided by using the theoretical and computational tools from financial engineering and integrating them with neuroscience. If there is indeed such a deep symmetry between minds and markets, the lessons learned from the agent-based approach to mind could be used to facilitate the operation of healthy and well-functioning markets, as well as to provide new paths of exploration into the mechanisms of analogy, creativity, and general intelligence in biological brains.

More broadly, I am interested in studying the representation of concepts in vector space. Specifically, I would like to explore how concepts are created through abstraction, how concepts map to language, and how concepts are manipulated to perform acts of creativity. I think that studying higher math will be instrumental to this pursuit, including advanced linear algebra, tensor calculus, statistical learning, belief propagation, and Bayesian inference. I would also like to develop my programming skills to a more masterful level so that I can make effective use of this knowledge.

Another field that I would like to become involved with is the study of neural plasticity and long-term-potentiation. I studied this topic with Dr. Bickle at UC, and I think that modeling these mechanisms will be very useful in creating time-continuous Bayesian-inference agents for interacting with the environment. I would welcome an opportunity to do work with neuroscientists, both in the lab and in data-interpretation and modeling.

In terms of my academic career, I am interested both in research and teaching. I take pleasure in exploring analogies between concepts, and I am driven by a sense of scientific integrity to test them for validity. I also love sharing ideas and knowledge, and I think that teaching would help me develop new ways of thinking about old ideas. Moreover, I'm eager to put myself in an environment of diverse intellectuals who can help me find flaws and uncover hidden gems in my ways of thinking.

Lastly, I will return to the topic of why I believe advancement in cognitive science is important. As humanity develops increasingly complex technologies and cultural institutions, the task of understanding them and their interactions will become correspondingly complex and further out of the reach of any given individual or organization. As complexity grows and human understanding shrinks proportionally, the risk of unforeseen catastrophe (eg: our recent financial crisis) will loom larger. If such threats are to be avoided, understanding must be built into the systems themselves. I would like to explore what this means and how it can be accomplished, both for my personal satisfaction and because I believe in its grand, over-arching importance.

We're incredible math

Imagine doing a few million matrix transformations, where each matrix has several thousand dimensions.

You just did exactly that, whether or not you understood what I meant. Neurons form networks, and the places where they connect to each other store information by changing their magnitude, like the elements of a matrix. Neurons themselves sum their inputs, and taken together the output of groups of neurons are matrix transformations of their inputs. So whether or not you can do formal math; you're doing nothing but math whenever your brain is functioning.

The line from the Ghost in the Shell closing song "she's incredible math" (speaking of the main character, to which the characterization more obviously applies) brought the thought to mind. And that was brought to mind by the conversation I just had with my thesis adviser (by the way, I have a thesis topic and an adviser now) where I shared with her my ideas on the mind-market conceptual connections.

Professor Yu has agreed to be my thesis adviser, and she's given me some good direction already. My project is on bankruptcy prediction, and its an offshoot of the class I had with her this summer. In short: my project uses the momentum of measures of firm's health to contextualize their status at a given point in time to help predict whether or not they are at risk for failure.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

So People are Talking About Rand again, Eh?

The surge in popular media mentions of Ayn Rand has got me reflecting on my history with her ideas. Now that I'm asking to be taken seriously by the academic establishment, does making my positions on a topic unpopular in that field serve my interests? The positions exist, and it would be a breach of integrity to pretend that they don't just because they're likely to be poorly received.

"Be responsible for your self; don't tolerate or participate in the abuse of others, and don't tolerate or participate in the abuse of yourself." In paraphrased form, that is the kernel of Rand's inspiration. It's a clear and timeless message that didn't originate with her, but found powerful expression in her writing. It's the idea that defines what it means to be "Liberal" in the original sense, and it would be difficult to state a contrary position that doesn't rely on racism, sexism, imperialism, or some other form of exploitation-ism.

That nugget has been the important part for me, and it has been the part that I've focused on. I would venture to guess that the negative impression that many budding intellectuals have of Rand stems from her not "playing nice," from some Hansonian status-motivation that causes people to be resistant to affiliating with someone who has caused herself to be disliked by a broad class of others, regardless of what she actually has to say.

With that said, some of what Rand has to say (especially about other thinkers and writers) is misguided and ignorant. She derides Hayek and Friedman, who are two of the most powerful voices in support of the same ideas she cherished. But who cares? You don't have to take it all as a "packaged deal." Agreeing with a person on one thing does not commit you to the loyal support of everything else they ever say. Rand was a flawed human being? Ha. Show me an unflawed one. I might even suggest that she deserves some credit for being authentic, for not hiding the aspects of herself that others are bound to dislike just as a matter of social convenience.

Also, I think people are hung-up on her gender. It seems "off" when a woman is as brash and bold as she was, but pretty standard when men exhibit the same characteristics. The fact that Rand isn't celebrated by the feminist movement is, I suspect, solely the product of her distaste for the ideas that get associated with modern feminism.

Other people's views aside: Rand inspired me with in her love of human accomplishment, her conviction, her pursuit of rationality, and her passionate belief that she could positively affect the course of human history. Those things I will take with me; the rest was ephemeral.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Another Figurine

I had started on a male torso last night also. I finished it today, behold:

I left in the oven too long and got a burned stripe on the front. The color was quite nice, and I realized that cooking it longer would be an effective way to give it dark black skin. So: I turned up the heat and cooked each side. I love the result, and its a nice contrast to the pale-skinned female. I don't know that any particular ethnicity has that mix of maroon and dark black in their melatonin, but it looks good and matches the wood on my board.

With these black and white miniatures made, it seemed obvious to put them on the chessboard. They are just the right size, and they make a perfect king and queen. I think I might make a complete set in the same spirit. I'll just need to figure out what makes good analogs to the other pieces while keeping them distinct enough.

Here's an idea: go with the reproductive motif that the nudes hint at. Might be a little lewd by conventional standards, but hey, why not? Pieces might be designed as follows:

Bishop: Phallus
Knight: Uterus
Rook: Egg
Pawn: Sperm

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Google Books

I should be able to read the full text of books I already own in hard-copy on Google Books. Barring that, I should at least be able to search the full text and have the page number where my search string appears displayed. Currently searches only return three random occurrences of the search string.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The importance of failure

In contemplating the connections between computation in neural networks and in economic networks, the question of failure arises.

"Market efficiency" does not mean that prices are always correct, or that every agent is always acting with perfect rationality. It does mean that all information available to the system is incorporated into prices, through the action of agents behaving rationally with their given small piece of information about the environment.

It may not always be clear whether an agent is acting rationally. Their information may come from unreliable sources, while their processing is rational, and this will result in failure. Likewise, they may have good information and bad processing, which will also result in failure. Therefore, failure should propagate backwards through a network until it reaches an agent in the latter condition.

Ideally, this agent would be corrected or removed, and all the other agents that follow it should be able to resume functioning with minimal penalty (unless part of their decision making involves where they get their information from; in which case they should be penalized for choosing a poor source of information). If the failure propagates back to an entity that is not allowed to fail, what happens? The information that the failure would contributes to the economy is lost.

The point is: failure is an important tool for developing economic efficiency. I mention this, of course, because of the current discussion over economic agents that are "too big to fail," and the idea of creating agents that cannot legally be allowed to fail (like social security and the impending health care program). Because they cannot be allowed to fail, they can't experiment with novel ways of incorporating information, which means they cannot develop and contribute to economic efficiency. And since the world is dynamic, their world-model and processing is likely to be wrong eventually (no matter how conservative it is), and so we get stuck with inefficient, broken economic agents that we can't get rid of.

And back to the original point: how do natural neural networks deal with failing elements?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Its my birthday today. I celebrated with a linear algebra exam, calculus, and probability. Its a good thing I've got smart group-mates for that latter class; they're much smarter than me and I'd be lost otherwise. All the calls from family and friends wishing me a happy birthday helped make it a happy occasion, despite my busyness.

I had to miss a finance talk that Dr. Kim recommended I see today on campus, unfortunately. Guy was a nobel laureate, and has some research that Dr. Kim recommended that I read. I'll have to catch up later. Also in the category of things I urgently need to do: finish reading Jeff Hawkins new paper, apply to my phd programs, read the research from Rob Goldstone and Olaf Sporns, and collect my thoughts on the idea that Dr. Bickle inspired and make it into a research agenda.

Outside of academic stuff, Matt and I recorded a cool song tonight. The ever-problematic titling question was solved by this webcomic. Dresden Kodac is beautiful.

Monday, October 19, 2009


Lately I've been hearing a slew of references to Bladerunner as an excellent, groundbreaking scifi movie, so I decided to watch it. I saw it once as a kid, but I didn't remember much of it outside of the "test." I wonder what role that played in the development of my current enthusiasm for AI and cognitive science.

Its very noir, very Chinatown-esque. My favorite line was at the end, when the gotee-guy (who had previouly only spoken in Japanese says) "Its a shame she won't live. But then again, who does?"

Saturday, October 17, 2009


I decided, rather unwisely I'll admit, to read a novel this weekend. Asimov's Robots of Dawn. I was feeling swamped and in need of eloquence and adventure, and old Issac certainly provided.

A few comments, then.

"If the World of Dawn had a quite, sunlit Day, who on that world would clamor for a storm?"

This is a thought of Baley's to himself, reflecting on the peaceful, pleasant stagnation the extra-terrestrial human societies find themselves in. Specifically, he's speaking of the planet Aurora (ie: "Dawn"), the first human settlement. Simple enough statement, but it is a very eloquent summary of quite of bit of story-development. What amused me about this was that Asimov had seemingly been carrying about this little bit of poetry for a very long time; some of his earlier short stories contained references to "Aurora" and its clearly meant to be the same place. It made me wonder if he'd been waiting to use that turn of phrase for years and years, or if it fortuitously presented itself to him as he was writing this latter work.

More broadly, I continue to be impressed by how deeply human Asimov's writing is. The backdrop is technological, but the stories themselves are always much more about probing sensitive parts of human nature (though after all, we are really, really cool technology). His sense of humor and gravity both delight me. I laughed out loud and at length several times during the book, and several times I was impressed by its apparent (though subtle) profundity.

And unlike much of the sci-fi that has followed him, Asimov seems exuberantly hopeful about humanity's future, and confident that we can use technology for positive purposes.

But, now, I should really return to what I'm supposed to be doing; which is math.

Friday, October 16, 2009


Wealth is a place in the sun
and a warm jacket
Wealth is a full fridge
and a working toilet

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Linear Algebra: A

I got an A on a Linear Algebra quiz! The first two had been much harsher.
My Calculus professor remined me to look up the sylabus for the other, harder calculus series, and in the process I discovered that the math department offers minors in mathematics. I think I would actually really like to do this, and I think that I could get it done before next fall.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Status seeking behavior, an economic metaphor

When I was young, I read a book called the Celestine Prophesy. It's mostly mystical new-age pseudo-philosophy in a fiction-wrapper, but it does offer an interesting perspective on how people use tactics to manipulate their social status with regard to others. In the story, this was visualized by unconsciously stealing "energy" from people by being aloof, argumentative, needy, and a few other behaviors.

Mysticism aside, I think those behaviors can be recast in terms of tactics for stealing "status" from others. There's no "aura-energy" involved, just the regard of others towards ourselves and our perception of their regard. These unconscious practices are (rightly) derided in the book as negative-sum games, downward spirals where everyone ends up poorer. This is true of status-seeking behavior also: if the only source of social status one has is leeching it from others, eventually all the "energy" (or status) gets gets burned up.

The Celestine Prophecy's solution, naturally for an Age of Aquarius type book, is love. Just love people for what they are. Instead of leeching energy, people will exchange energy positively with each other and the total energy will grow rather than shrink. Very cozy imagery.

But in all seriousness, I'd like to make an analogy to economic processes. When people support themselves through predation, they can last only as long as there are productive non-predators in the population. These "doves" create value, and without them the "hawks" will end up consuming each other and finally themselves. When predation is suppressed, peaceful producers can multiply the value they produce through specialization and voluntary exchange.

I think a similar set of rules applies to individual-level interpersonal dynamics as well. People whose only source of status comes from robbing others of it can only last as high-status individuals as long as there are productive individuals around. What are "productive" individuals in terms of status? People who attain status through accomplishment, by improving themselves relative to their own former selves or creating new value for others to use.

An irony: a high-status predator may be able survive merely because of their high-status, since humans seek to affiliate themselves with other high-status individuals and rarely question the source of their status. Thus, a person could continuously roll through their attract and burn up new people in order to maintain themselves. I suspect this is what gossip is all about, though totally unconsciously.

But returning to the positive side of the economic metaphor: positive-sum status relationships can be built where each productive member supports the others by vouching for the validity of what the other members say. The support of legitimately high-status individuals for an idea gives it a much greater likelihood of consideration and acceptance, and thereby increasing the status of all involved. Think of this as voluntary association and trade, the result of which in the economic world is more wealth for all.

Snow Leopard

I've just finished installing Snow Leopard, and so far everything seems pretty much exactly the same. Which is good news, since it was already working nicely. It's as they said: painless install, nothing really visually different, but the geeky satisfaction of knowing that its now all 64 bit.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Photo post

Seems its been a while since I synced my phone, and I've got some interesting (imho) pictures to share.

My lips and hand incense burner sculpture:
I noticed an odd phenomenon about the lips: they look perfectly symmetrical when you hold them right-side-up, but totally asymmetrical upside down. Even knowing that they are asymmetrical, I still can't see the asymmetry right side up.

A while back I woke up before the sun rose (this was while I was reading A Neurocomputational Perspective), and went on a long bike ride. I found myself in this cemetary just after the sun came up, it was quite beautiful. Below is the picture of my first glimpse of the sun that morning.

Behold, a wall with interestingly peeling paint.

These are the results of my "shoot a bag of bleach in front of a black shirt with a rifle" experiment. An interesting diversity of results, I think.

Rick and I composed a pretty awesome (and hilarious) Pushkin sonnet in the back of my Philosophy and Neuroscience book. Its about science and mind, and how we're gonna revolutionize the field.

And finally, this totally sweet (if slightly overdramatic) picture I took of Rick for his website. Thats a Neverdie shirt he's wearing, you bes' b'leed it.

Friday, October 9, 2009

... and Fall Dog Bombs the Moon

This morning when I came into work, at 7am, there was a bunch of news about us bombing the moon.

I spent a while figuring out what that was all about and stumbled into some conspiracy-rants about how the Apollo astronauts saw alien ships and bases on the dark side of the moon, but were ordered to keep silent about it. I had a moment of groggily-thrilled belief, then started to notice the pattern of half baked conspiracy theorists (circular citing and untraceable references, glaring grammar errors...), and reluctantly decided to put on my skeptical disbelief-face.

It was in this mindset that I read the headline about Obama's peace prize. It took till the afternoon when a couple other people mentioned it for me to realize that it wasn't a hoax.

Crazy world.

The President wins the peace prize...

So President Obama has won the Nobel Peace Prize.


At first I thought I missed something; some major accomplishment that slid under my study-occluded radar. But no, no, it seems the prize has been awarded preemptively: the prize committee said they gave it to him to help him build momentum and credibility in arms reduction. I suppose its their prerogative to award it however they see fit (though I think Alfred had some preferences on that front) but it seems like such an action will do more to damage their own credibility than boost the president's.

In reading the Black Swan, one of its more cognitive-dissonance inducing eccentricities was Taleb's total contempt for everything and everyone (excluding Hayek) surrounding the Nobel prize. I had only ever heard it mentioned with reverence; the highest honor someone could hope to achieve. Taleb was of a very contrary opinion, and I'm beginning to see why.

It would seem that the Nobel committee has become so convinced of their own good judgment that they believe they can bring new good things to be merely by exercising their judgment. There must be a name for that fallacy.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Life is pretty good.

I've been thinking, I'm pretty outstandingly rich. Certainly not in monetary terms; that number is negative. But in terms of how I get to live even with that negative number... its pretty wonderful. Lets enumerate:

I can nourish myself on kiwis, mangos, eggs, milk, honey, peppers, mushrooms, onions, and Indian food.

I can get around on a bike. Cars, gas, and insurance are things of the past.

My biggest source of stress is studying the fundamental truths of the universe, and trying to uncover new ones.

I've got a healthy body, and the energy to do fun things with it.

My locus of control resides mostly within myself.

I can entertain myself by learning music, and listening to whatever music of the past half millenea I can think to look up (barring lost stuff).

I can talk with people around the world and read their thoughts as soon as they publish them, for free.

I can talk with people in my own neighborhood who are among the smartest people in the world in their field.

I have access to libraries and all of humanity's collected knowledge, for free.

I can use ingenious programs that allow great expression of creativity, for free (or nearly so).

I can (attempt to) write ingenious programs of my own.

I can afford some of the highest technology that has ever existed on earth.

I have good reason to have trust in other people; theft and fraud are sufficiently rare (I say this even though I carry a massive chain for my bike...).

The market is sufficiently developed to place value on my self-development and therefore allow me to get by on a negative number for the time being.

I live in a beautiful place.

I have good friends.

Plenty of reasons to be thankful, eh wot?

Retrofitted Autonomous vehicles become a reality

A while back, I wrote some stuff about a business plan around using vehicles retrofitted to be autonomous in a large-scale electronic auction marketplace.

The first prerequisite of that dream has become a reality: This company is selling retrofit kits that can be installed in under four hours. He notes that it will be a few years before our legal environment changes enough to make it legal for civilian use, and this is the last real barrier to reaping the benefits of getting people out from behind the wheel.

I wonder if that's true everywhere in the world? There's got to be some countries with less sever legal tangles to battle than in the US. I remember reading that Japan had an autonomous bus system in use for some high-profile event. I suspect their legal environment might be conducive to getting such a system implemented. Probably China too; given that they could command from on high that its allowable. I wonder about Brazil? thats a big huge country that I know almost nothing about.

I digress. Its exciting to see that we're significantly closer to autonomous vehicles. Remember: people in cars kill more than thirty thousand other people a year (in the US alone).

Monday, October 5, 2009

Triumph and Tradgedy

I got my official GRE score report back!

______Score___ Percentile
Quant __650______60
Verbal __640 _____92
Writing ___6______98

I'm pretty pleased with the 92 and 98 percentiles. I'm surprised that people seem to score so much better on the quant; my verbal score is lower than the quant, but much higher in terms of percentile. I suspect that could be attributed to a large number of test takers having English as a second language.

At any rate, I had decided that I would go ahead and apply with my current scores if I got a perfect score on the writing section, which I did. Therefore: I shall apply. All I need now is letters. I've got one from Professor Dalziel, and I think Professor Levy would be happy to write one for me... maybe Professor Yu also.

In the tradgedy section: my new battery wont arrive until tomorrow, and my current battery has swollen a full inch out of the case. I'm concerned that its going to break something or catch fire, though I hear that the swelling is an end-of-life protection against horrible explosions. Very frustrating.

The amount of homework I need to do has become vertiginous. I'm ordering Tika Masala again from Krishna 'cause I don't want to spend the time cooking. Time to buckle down!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

60 handwritten pages...

... of notes and assignments in the first eight days of classes. Thats 60 double-sided pages, so more like 120. Granted, linear algebra and calculus tend to take up a lot of space on paper when you do them properly, but I'm nevertheless pretty astounded at the magnitude of my paper-output.

Whats worse: Thus far I've really only done serious work for my two undergraduate math classes. My two graduate math classes are a bit starved for attention (though I'm writing during a break from reading about simulation in Arena).

Dr. Kelton said that there aren't any good open-source alternatives to Arena (which costs $20K) presently, simply because of the nature and complexity of simulation software. I'm naturally skeptical of this, and I wonder if Repast Simphony can do similar things. I suppose I'll need to learn more about both before I can make an assesment.

I was intending on riding my bicycle to West Chester last night, but given that I got only five hours of sleep the previous night, I wasn't feeling too enthusiastic about that prospect. Plus there was a really awesome music festival going on in my neighborhood (called the Heights festival), and I wanted to see a few of the bands. It was put together by Rome of Babas (he's as epic as that sounds), and apparently all his work on it payed off. All the venues were packed, and there was a great diversity of musical styles and people, as well as some fantastic musicianship (I missed the hip hop acts earlier in the evening; I was busy grinding out matrix multiplication).

Hopefully Dad will get my message and be willing to give me a ride up to West Chester. I'd like to impress upon Jack and Claire the importance of being good at math early on by actually studying some of mine in front of them. Also I want to take the head off my engine, open all the boxes that have arrived there, and start monkying with the parts. I also need to pick up my copy of the probability book, my new macbook battery (mine is swelling somthin' fierce), and my copy of Snow Leopard.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


I asked my calculus professor the following question earlier today:

"Is there a mathematical relationship between the inverses of different operations? "

He thought the question didn't really make sense, and I suppose it doesn't. I guess what I'm trying to get at was this: is there a common algorithm for taking the inverses using different operations?

For instance, say we start with the point (2,2).
Its additive inverse, the negative, is (-2,-2).
Its multiplicative inverse, the reciprocal, is (1/2, 1/2)
We could define other inverse operations, but these seem to be the ones that make most sense for the purpose of considering points on a plane (or hyperplane).

The question then is: is there some function or algorithm that you could pass "multiplicative" or "additive" to, and have it return the inverses? I'm looking for the same algorithm to be applied with different parameters, not just a look-up table that specifies different methods (though I suppose that might be the only solution). Specifically: I want to understand how these sorts of operations are possible with neural architecture alone. Is it the same algorithm? Does it use a "lookup table?"

This is all aimed at generalizing Dr. Bickle's result with the "negative echo" phenomenon in visual neural fields.

The following rekindles my faith in and love for technology: its the USPS tracking history for the derailleur hangers I ordered online earlier today.

Bullet Processed through Sort Facility, September 24, 2009, 6:31 pm, DENVER, CO 80266
Bullet Acceptance, September 24, 2009, 4:44 pm, LOUISVILLE, CO 80027

It's already on its way through priority mail. I can imagine it speeding towards me through the clouds now. (I actually ordered two in anticipation of breaking another one)

Broken bike, frustration

My bike broke today. The hanger on the rear derailleur snapped in half. I'm sure it had to do with shifting while going up hill, but I was moderately pissed. I had to walk a mile home, in the rain, in my bike shoes. I then discovered that the bike shop is closed till Saturday for a trade show, so I can't get the part replaced until at least then. So much for investing in a good bike as a reliable form of transportation, eh? Oh well, I didn't go that rout for the sake of facility and luxury.

This was after I got to my Survey of Neuroscience Research class (or the room where it was scheduled to be) and found nobody there. I had worked up the courage to go and try and get into this class that I really wasn't supposed to be in, and they weren't even meeting today. I think the new bearcat email system messed up my forwarding settings, 'cause I would have expected a message about that.

On top of that, the I seem to be having a post-virus allergic reaction like I did last year after being sick for a few days. Not at all cool.

A frustrating day, unfortunately. And yesterday went so nicely...

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Idea for a story

It's a lasting trope of science fiction that when machines attain greater-than-human intelligence, humanity will be obsolete and machines will be hostile towards our existence. Some thoughtful authors have questioned this assumption. Notably (and outside of fiction) Kurzweil suggests that machine intelligence will be modeled on and an extension of biological human intelligence, and that there's therefore no fundamental incompatibility between the two.

It would be interesting to write a story from the perspective of benevolent non-biological humanity, directed towards hostile biological humanity. Imagine a situation where parts of the world advance to a primarily non-biological state and still view themselves as human. They may be regarded with suspicion and distrust by normal humans, if only because they are so far outside of normal human experience. I'm imagining a scenario where biological humans try to wage war against non-biological humans. But being of the benevolent sort, the non-biological humans don't want to do harm, and try to deflect and subvert the biological humans' anger and hostility without damaging either group.

With this background, there might be a short story with the following plot: A group of young men enter a transhuman city with the intent to destroy something important, driven by the ideology of their culture. They believe that transhumanity is evil, and they fully expect to die on their mission. However, they meet no resistance and are frustrated by the ineffectuality of their destruction and the lack of violent response to their actions. They meet other natural humans who try to talk with them, whom the crusaders regard with extreme hostility and suspicion. The crusaders believe the diplomats are some sort of trickery, "golems" in human form sent by the evil machines to deceive. In fact, the diplomats are the children of transhumans who have either opted to stay natural, or are waiting to become transhuman until they reach some level of development.

The diplomats urge the crusaders to stay (after they've exhausted their capacity for violence and are safe to approach), they show them the pleasures that their life in the transhuman cities afford, they attempt to teach them the truths of the high civilization. They waiver, and distrustfully allow themselves to be led deeper. Perhaps some are persuaded, but for the protagonist, it ends in tradgedy. He sees something that reactivates his hatred and fear, and he kills his guide (with whom there had been a love affair), only to find that she is indeed human. With her last breath she forgives him, and before she expires is rescued by her parents and brought into transcendence.

I'm imagining some striking imagery here, both of the horrible and the beautiful kind. His inner conflict grows and grows, and he witnesses her do some technological thing that seems magical. He remembers the biblical verse "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," equates witches with machines, and seeks to dispel his inner conflict by proving that she is a machine. He snaps, takes his knife, and slashes her stomach open. To his horror, what spills out is not synthetic tubes and electronics, but blood and entrails. A machine swoops down on her dying body and treats it with tenderness that seems incongruous between metal and flesh. It lifts her gently into a gurney, settles her comfortably, staunches her bleeding, inserts IV's with care, brushes her hair from her face, grasps her hand, and flies away. Perhaps before it leaves, the machine turns on the protagonist with evident outrage and hostile intent, but is dissuaded from violence by some subtle, barely seen signal from the woman.

The machine will speak to him in a powerful, genderless, synthetic human voice. In will accuse him of killing its daughter, explain how its daughter had voluntarily sought to enlighten him, how she begged it to spare his life despite his horrible crime. "My daughter was good, and you have killed her. She's granted you a mercy that you don't deserve. You've killed her, but she will not die. I can save my child, but your child is already lost." (Implying that she had been pregnant, but neither had known it yet). It will be made clear somehow that the machine is being remotely operated by the parent, who is equally biological as the daughter but with synthetic enhancement.

The protagonist's revulsion shifts from the machines to himself. Maybe he tries to kill himself with the same knife, but as a compromise between its daughter's wishes and vengeance, the machine takes the knife from him and forbids him the release from remorse through death. He flees from the city and returns to his people. He's the only "survivor" of their little crusade, and he's too bitter to talk about the experience. He receives a mixed welcome; some think he was a coward and is ashamed of himself for not fighting, some attribute his recalcitrance to seeing horrible things in the city. He dies alone and misunderstood, thrown out of paradise by his own hand, and unable to be happy in normal life.


I took the GRE again yesterday and it was a smashing success!

Well, I should say more modestly that I got the improvement I was hoping for out of the quantitative section, moving from 560 to 650, bringing my overall score to 1290. I had commented earlier that I'd like to be above seven hundred on both sections, but considering that I only studied for the quantitative section, that goal was unlikely. I think I will take it again before the December deadlines and study for the 700+ goal. I've got the study books, and I'm confident that I can do it. Whether or not I actually need to do it is a separate question, but I'm motivated to do so because its one of the few concrete things that I know I can do to improve my standing.

I'm very interested to see how I did on the writing section; I got a question on the "express your views" part (the contents of which I'm agreement-bound to not disclose) that was able to write very enthusiastically and deeply about, bringing in lots of outside learning and subtlety.

I got to hang out with Erica Waters and some of her friends visiting from IU on Saturday night during Octoberfest. She's a blast, and I enjoyed the company of her friends a lot. We talked about electric submarines, Germany, brewing, grad school, the various and sundry virtues of bloomington... I'd very much like to be a part of their community.

All of my motorcycle parts have arrived in a deluge of boxes at my dads house, and I'm faced with the dual problems of starting classes (tomorrow) and having sold my car (last Saturday); thus I'm afraid it might be a mite difficult to get up there and do all the work on it I was so enthusiastically contemplating.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Bizzare reproductive science

We do strange things in the interest of being humane. This article talks about research into non-surgical animal sterilization in the interest of preventing population explosions in animals like dogs, cats, and (to my surprise) horses. An individual has contributed $75 million to the cause.

I can sympathize with the desire to reduce the amount of suffering in the world, in non-human animals included. But when there are people like Aubrey de Grey out there who have viable plans to dramatically reduce human suffering and who are struggling to find funding for their research, I question the importance of things like animal contraception.

Its also a bit interesting from the standpoint of the gene: we're certainly doing the species' no favors by sterilizing large numbers of their members. But of course, we sympathize with and anthropomorphize the individual cute cuddly animals, not the abstractions that are their genes.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

National debt

Does it seem weird that the federal reserve owns 40% of the national debt? I'm trying to wrap my mind around the implications of that. Our government has borrowed ten trillion dollars (10,000,000,000,000) in the last few decades, and 40% percent of that (4,000,000,000,000) has been lent to the government by the government.

What I'm struggling to understand is when the money that must be created by the federal reserve in order to buy the debt gets spent. Is it when the debt is issued or paid off?
Lets walk through this.
1. Congress spends a bunch of money and issues debt in order to finance the payments.
2. The federal reserve buys 40% of it, which means that congress promises to pay the federal
reserve back later.
3. In order to give congress the money, the federal reserve has to make it. Since its the only entity that can legally do this, it doesn't have to produce value, just money.
So the new money (and the inflation) must be pushed into the economy at the time of the debt's issuance.
4. When the debt comes due, if congress has the money to spare it pays the federal reserve.
5. The federal reserve can then refrain from creating new dollars by re-issuing the dollars that congress paid it.

The problem with step four and five is that as long as congress continues to run deficits, it will not have the dollars to pay the federal reserve, and the federal reserve will not be able to remove the dollars it created from the market, so the inflation it causes will be permanent. In order to cover the old debt (40% of which are held by the federal reserve), congress will have to issue new debt (some 40% of which will be purchased by the federal reserve).

Its Kafkaesque. I'd say its Hoffstedterian, but its less a "strange" loop and more of a "clearly unstable feedback loop" (aka: stupid loop). The fact that the total national debt follows an exponential curve with this setup (with the interesting and notable exception of the Clinton years) should be the furthest thing from surprising, and the closest thing to absolutely horrifying. Remember that "government debt" means "money that every citizen has to pay later."

I imagine that Ray Kurzweil might jump in and suggest that the explosion in our future liabilities isn't such a big deal, because the amount of value we create will outpace our liabilities because technological progress is proceeding at a double exponential rate. I see the merit in that argument, but I worry that the damage done by inflation might derail the technological growth. The collapse of the economic system would be one of those catastrophes that could very well prevent the singularity from happening.

Though, I suppose, if the US collapses, another nation will become the central driver.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Conceptual slippages in typing

I've been noticing that typing errors can provide some interesting material for conceptual slippages, especially in very skilled typists (like myself, I daresay). When I'm typing quickly and trying to express a thought, not focusing so much on the mechanics of the typing, some interesting types of errors occur. Specifically, the substitution of symbols for similar looking or sounding ones. I have typed a zero on the number pad instead of an "o" on multiple occasions. The zero above the o on the keyboard would be unremarkable because of their proximity, but the zero on the number pad is quite distant!

Another interesting error is substituting the phonetic equivalent of a symbol. I just typed "vertue" instead of "virtue," presumably because that first 'i' in virtue is typically pronounced much more like an e, as in 'ver.'

Its an tiny bit of interesting insight into the subcognitive processes underlying the action. I wonder how this sort of approach could be formalized and tested (if it hasn't already been)? What clever things could you do online?

Blog traffic questions

Google Analytics is a wonderful tool, and the many dimensions of data seem to provide at least as many questions as answers. For instance, it seem that at least half of the traffic to this blog over the last month has come from Bellvue, KY, and surrounding areas. Who are you, oh noble viewers from Kentucky, and what brings you to my site? I suspect a good deal of that traffic is from my former colleagues in Erlanger, and some of it may be traffic coming from through KY for some mysterious routing reasons.

Its also interesting to note some of the proper-name search keywords that have been used. I'm pleased to have attracted your attention to my blog!

Whoever you are, I appreciate your visits, and I hope you find some thoughts of interest!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The search for meaning...

... is a dangerous one. Because if you're smart and honest, you've got to realize that there's no final destination. Or rather, there's no single answer that can be agreed upon. There are infinitely many "local maximums" that might suit you just fine, but the ultimate goal lies always further off.

How far is far enough? How long do you trade toil for progress? When do you accept comfort and stagnation?

I wonder how many people have said the same thing, in different terms. I'd welcome commentary to that effect.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


So Rachael and I have broken up again. This time I was the initiator. The catalyst was a fight we had on Friday. She was upset that I hadn't contacted her since Monday, and just plain didn't believe that I was sick enough to warrant not thinking about her for four days. I was upset that she'd be upset about such a thing, and that she didn't believe me about being in fever-delirium/medicine-groggy for pretty much the duration. I was irritated that she needed so much attention from me, and I thought it boded poorly for our future. I tried to put it past me, but I couldn't. It brought to mind all the other unjustified (in my view) arguments we've ever been in, how she's been irritating me. The thought of that irritation carrying on indefinitely was too much.

I told her I need a break. I'm still not sure it was the best course of action, but I felt like I had to do it.

Monday, September 7, 2009


Classes are over, fall is beginning. I've been sick for the past week and a half, I lost a couple days to pure sleep.

I've decided to retake the GRE, and I'm aiming for above 1400. I don't have very far to go on the verbal part (60 points), and I'm perusing the GRE vocab for words I don't know or that have other meanings that don't readily spring to mind. I was caught off guard last time I took it by how many words I was unfamiliar with, as I usually think of myself as an expert-user of the English language. I've got a bit further to go on the quant part (140 points), and I'm finally putting the practice book I bought so long ago to use. I laughed when I realized that I've had it for five years, and I'm just now starting to use it. Nevermind that the math in it is all high-school level. I'm finding it exciting to solve puzzles that are based on simple concepts but are nonetheless challenging.

I'm going to register for a test just before classes start, so I'll be all set for phd applications. I need to figure out who I can get letters of recommendation from. It turns out I waited to long to talk to Dr. Bickle, he's moved to the University of Mississippi. I need to follow up with Dr. Minai!

My motorcycle is undergoing an overhaul. I brought it up to dads, and I'm in the process of disassembling it. Thus far I've succeeded in fixing the timing (which I'll probably have to do again later), cleaning random parts, and breaking off two easy-outs in incorrigible nuts. Hopefully I'll be able to grind those out with a carbide bit...

It's a fun opportunity to learn a mechanical system and to buy parts for it (which is somehow satisfying). I've ordered replacement engine bolts, a gasket set, a tune up kit, a carb overhaul kit, a tail light, and I'm bidding on some of the original mufflers. I need to get ignition coils (probably) figure out what I want to do with the seat and tank, and figure out how to install rear-sets. My dreams were filled with images of painting the engine all black and grinding the edges of the heat fins so that they're sharp and silvery. For some reason that idea really captivates me. I'm also thinking of getting the frame powder-coated either silver or black. That may be overkill, but might as well do it up right while I'm at it, eh?

Rick's motorcycle is languishing. I put a new clutch cable on it (my old one), and I've been trying to fix the master cylinder. Turns out I need special-special pliers: the clip ring that holds it all together is uncommonly deep in the part, and the clip-ring pliers dad has won't fit. The required pliers apparently cost $30. Its also refusing to start now, which is odd since it started effortlessly when we picked it up. The starter motor seems to have somehow died while it was sitting, but I don't know how that's possible. Seems more likely that the gasoline decayed and varnished the carburetors, but that doesn't explain the failiure of the starter motor to turn it over. The kickstarter turns the engine over, but to no avail.

Friday, August 28, 2009


It seems that idea of autonomous vehicles communicating with each other to improve traffic flow has been under development!

Now just add the marketplace idea, and you've got the Avee! hurray!

(search this blog for previous posts on "avee," it was an idea I was really exited about a year ago. It involves creating an online marketplace where owners of autonomous cars can exchange rides with non-owners.)

Monday, August 24, 2009

Using statistics to learn about myself

I'm often at a loss when people ask me what kind of music I like. I listen to a lot of music, and I get all befuddled trying to answer. If I were to let my itunes statistics speak, this is what they'd say:

Artists most played:
Smashing Pumpkins
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Alkaline Trio
Architecture In Helsinki
Maurizio Pollini (Chopin)
The White Stripes
Regina Spektor
Yo-Yo Ma (Bach)
(Rachmaninov and Prokofiev should also be up here, but since they have relatively few peices, they don't make the top ten in terms of song frequency)

Top ten albums by playcount:
Chopin: Etudes Opp. 10 & 25
Joshua Bell: Violin Works By Prokofiev & Shostakovich
Bach: The Cello Suites
Begin to Hope (Bonus Track Version)
Siamese Dream
Show Your Bones
Fingers Crossed
Fever to Tell
Vampire Weekend

Insurance Costs

I commented on Steve Peterson's blog that I opposed heath care reform in principal, on the grounds that no designed system can produce equivalent output to the spontaneous competitive order.

This is a little rash; there are aspects of health care that can be legitimately reformed to remove the influence of planning, and that would potentially have great effect. This article discusses what seems obvious: legalizing the selling of insurance across state borders. I was, frankly, unaware that the restriction existed. But now that I know, it seems a pretty compelling alternative suggestion for lowering costs.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Insight from Hayek

Hayek posits that in order for a planned economic system to yield an equivalent level of production to a competitive system, it would have to be similarly able to process information. The technical capabilities, uses, condition, and location of each individual piece of productive equipment would need to be quantified and collected in a single place where it could be operated upon. This would be a system of differential equations on the order of hundreds of thousands of variables (edit: more like hundreds of billions of variables: "productive equipment" must include every tool, part, machine, natural resource, and human available in the system, each with varying levels of many characteristics), all in constant flux. Setting aside the problems of information collection, which are formidable in themselves, the solution of such systems of equations are insolvable in real time, even on the largest conceivable digital computers. Such problems are NP complete. (edit: we should also note that since humans are included as productive resources, all of their actions must also necessarily be planned, something undesirable if freedom is a value.)

Note that the stated goal above was merely to emulate what the competitive marketplace already does. How does the competitive marketplace accomplish this apparently impossible feat of data collection and calculation?

The answer must be that the price system itself is an instantiation of a system of differential equations via matrix methods. We've seen from linear algebra how systems of equations can be represented in matrix form, and we've seen from neuroscience and learning theory how neural networks can instantiate functions of equations and matrices of data, and thereby do matrix transformations that translate input into predictions and action. My contention is that economic networks similarly represent information in the weights and frequencies of transactions, that firms similarly integrate the input information (demand) and turn it into prediction (capacity) and action (supply). I believe this is a novel hypothesis, a consistent elaboration of previous claims of market efficiency.

The system can solve itself in real time because every element of it is both a processing mechanism and a memory mechanism; its parallel distributed processing. This is also the reason that it can be flexible; as information changes, only the effected portions of the network are recalculated. But since all information is constantly changing, the entire network is eternally in flux. This probably means that it's solution is never at the absolute maximum; indeed a single maximum almost definately doesn't exist. If all exogenous change were to cease (an nonsensical idea anyway) then the system would probably reach a maximum, but it would still probably be in flux as it could slide across all the other possible maximum values as well.

The next question then becomes: why does the system exhibit this maximizing behavior? Given that its composed of simple computational units who are unaware of the global maximizing goal, why did the network come to instantiate its maximizing function, rather than some other function? I imagine that the answer is recursive: the network is maximizing because its components are maximizing; they are maximizing because their subcomponents are maximizing, and so on down to the most basic level possible.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Car Selling

Two people have called about buying my car since I put the add up yesterday! And I'll only loose 4K on it (hurray?).

It's interesting to note how difficult its been to motivate myself to do the few things I needed to do to get it sold. Namely get the title cleared, fix the few paint blemishes, spray some WD40 on the hood release, and fix the mirror. I know very rationally that I don't need it, but I guess the idea of not owning a motor vehicle gives me pause. The virtue of motor-vehicle ownership has been so deeply ingrained in me that I have to make a conscious effort to counteract it. Its an interesting example where a value-judgment that I've consciously and rationally made conflicts with my unconscious values.

Paying it off and seeing the hit to my bank account helped overcome that particular irrationality, certainly.

Hurray for biking! I'm going to Highlands.

Horray! Step on the Road to Serfdom Avoided!

So it turns out the winds of change aren't blowing as strongly as some thought, in terms of health care.
Chances Dim for a Public Plan
This is good! But I note that they're talking about "compromise," which means we can expect at least a little damage to seep through.

Here's another voice that's sweet to my ears:
We Don't Spend Enough on Health Care
The main points: The money spent on health goods and services goes to other people; primarily Americans. Health care is a sector that can't very easily be outsourced to other countries, but its growth can be restricted; and when that happens people will have no choice but to seek it elsewhere (as evidenced by the 400K+ people who visit America every year to get treatment) or forgo treatment. I'm not of the protectionist bent; I don't think its bad to buy things from other people in other countries. But it would be good for our country to have a good industry to support itself with, and what better industry than heath care? We could probably include education in there as well.

It's good that we spend lots of money on something positive! Hopefully this debate will be buried within the next few weeks, maybe we can start discussing constructive ideas, like freeing markets from interference.

Another interesting consequence: the republican party that's become so worthless and incoherent has solidified around opposition to this sort of government control. Maybe they can drop their socially conservative elements and become something worthwhile? Probably not, but maybe.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Externalities & Cash for Clunkers

Oh-ho! Here's an externality to the CARS program I hadn't considered:

"ST. LOUIS, MO ( - The reports of a recovery may be greatly exaggerated. Both consumer confidence and retail sales dropped last month, indicating a recovery from the recession is still a long ways off. Analysts had expected retail sales to rise, spurred by new car sales because of the cash for clunkers program. Apparently consumers cut spending on everything but cars."

So the cost of encouraging the populace to subsidize a dying industry is that all other industries are hurt, eh? Man-o-man, why is it so easy for politicians to pretend like they can get something for nothing?

Here's a suggestion: before any government intervention in the market can be executed, it must include a statement detailing what harm it will cause to balance out its intended benefit. And to be realistic, we should be sure that the stated harm is greater than the stated benefit. Then, if as a public we really think the intervention is still worthwhile, we can execute it.

Control From On High

As a matter of principal, decisions should be made at the level closest to the problem, by the people who have the most information about the problem and who are most affected by its resolution.


Read the following WSJ op-ed on the government's proposed reform of medical services, and judge for yourself how well it meets the principle above.

Perhaps "reform" aught to be put in "scare quotes," eh?

[To summarize the article; the government proposes reducing health care spending by creating guidelines for what procedures doctors should give to their patients. Originally this included the decision to remove life support from patients, but that was so widely criticized that it had to be withdrawn.]

Friday, August 14, 2009

On Indentured Servitude

It's interesting how strongly people currently seem to react against the phrase "indentured servitude," yet how willing they seem to be to put themselves into that position. I'm referring to the acceptance of financial debts, especially for non-productive assets.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


Maybe my favorite comic:

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

On the Healthcare Issue: What Issue?

This is, quite frankly, the first reasonable public discussion I've seen about the debate around nationalizing health care since... as long as I can remember. Hurray for Dean Kamen!

To summarize: the "healthcare crisis" is a manufactured issue. Health care is more expensive now because it is better. People who aren't willing to pay high prices for the breaking technology have the option of using the previous generation of technology, which becomes cheaper every time a new technology replaces it. And the pre-technology "treatment" (comfort you while you die) is still available to anyone who eschews advancement through technology.

Focusing on the fairness of distribution of current resources is counter-productive, and risks being destructive. Especially when fairness is given the Rawlsian "what kind of world would we choose if we could start from scratch and re-make everything" interpretation. Ethicists aught to focus on the world that we do live in, or else what they do can't be classified as science.

Now, that's not to say we should give up on creating a better world. Its to say that our efforts to improve the world should be guided by the same standards as science: hypothesize, test, and verify. Public actions that cannot be put in that framework should not be executed. Note that that includes most public actions.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Bridge Theory - Neuroscience, Economics, Intellegince, and Information Theory

My fundamental hypothesis is that both economics and cognitive science can be integrated into some version of information theory or computer science. This has been stirring in my head for a long time, ever since I learned about the justifications for the efficient market hypothesis. Now, with my recent learning, I think I'm almost ready to start connecting my observations and conjectures.

Here's one: Churchland shows how the Purkinje cells can easily be seen as performing transformations of matrices; it follows clearly from their structure. Can firms in marketplaces be similarly interpreted? Here's my rationale for that bizarre leap:

A firm has many inputs: its suppliers and customers. The prices at each input convey some information about the outside world (moreover, the prices for each commodity are the same across firms, adjusted for transportation cost), these are the "synaptic weights." The relative frequency of the inputs' stimulation is the positive or negative value of the element of the matrix. The input vector is conveyed through the firm's inputs (again, the suppliers and customers), is transformed according the the weights, and is summed and output as the firm's net profit. By considering whole industries, we can get output vectors. Thus: economies do matrix transformations.

This, on the surface, appears to be the same as what we observe in Purkinje cells. Can we therefore conclude that markets have the potential for cognition, assuming that these matrix transformations underlie cognition in biological neurons?

Why is this important as a theory, and not just a metaphor? Part of the reason economics is so "dismal" as a science is that its impossible to test economic theories; all studies must be purely observational (though one might argue that the failure of the socialist "experiments" consisted of "testing"). Free markets seem to serve human ends quite nicely, and while free-market advocates have been around for more than a century, their arguments are not universally accepted by the relevant decision makers. Indeed, we're currently in an environment where free market ideas appear particularly unfashionable. If we could bridge the theories of economics and cognitive science, showing that there is a meaningful identity in the information processing capacities of brains and markets, we could do real scientific testing on simple information processing models. We could test the hypothesis that de-centralized control yields the best possible informational processing capabilities. I would actually expect result to be tautological, if the "parallel-distributed processing" model we recognize to be at work in human brains is accepted to be at the root of economic processes as well.

Maybe then the preponderance of evidence would be overwhelming enough to restrain the controlling hand; finally make the case for limited government. Many have tried, could this be the ultimate argument? Presumptuous of me to even suggest, but nevertheless, I think that it is worth exploring, and that the result could be important.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

WHOOOH!!! Insight from Paul Churchland

Upon Dr. Bickle's reccomendation, I'm reading Paul Churchland's 1989 book A Neurocomputational Perspective, and lo! more gems! One of the questions I prepared for Dr. Bickle (but havn't yet posed to him) is whether matrix multiplication could have a neurological implementation, and Churchland gives it to me on p 99 of his book. Its so simple!

One question I have on Churchland's interpretation: he notes on p 99 that the values of the input vector are coded by the relative change in the frequency of the neuron's firing, as compared with its resting baseline. He later brings up the problematic existence of dedicatedly excititory and inhibitory synapses (p 184), and notes that they don't change sign like artificial neural network synapse weights can. The question: wouldn't a reduction in the relative firing rate of an inhibitory neuron be the equivalent of an increase in the rate of an excititory neuron? Does that mean that they are interchangeable?

In a different vein, I also thought of what might be a neat experiment to help probe the dimensionality of language and what kinds of matrix transformations are going on when people use language. Its pretty simple: just ask subjects to brainstorm single-syllable words and record them in the order they occur (while measuring the time between each word). If the dimensions of each word's concept could be non-arbitrarily determined, one could do a relatively straightforward analysis on what sorts of transformations need to happen to connect a word to the previously given word (or set of words).
Why use monosyllabic words? Partly to reduce the complication, partly because concepts that are more important to survival tend to be represented in smaller words, so presumably you'd get a sample of more deeply salient concepts, and the connections between them could be explored.
I did a small scale study (n=2; myself and Rick), and it the results were interesting. There were quite a few different ways the concepts seemed to get transformed; on the semantic, phonic, and letter level.
A problem in doing the study for real would be in deciding which dimensions any given word falls; there might not be a non-arbitrary way to do so, since there's no guarantee that each word is represented identically in each person's language space. A different approach might be to map the transformations between concepts and try to impute the space in which they exist using that map... is that a sensible idea? I think that would involve some fancy math that I'm presently unaware of.

Musical illusions

When I was younger, I was really really into Metallica. I'd put my speakers on either side of my bed, facing toward my head, and zone out. It was magical. I'm doing the same thing again now, and I've got to wonder if some of my enthrallment comes less from the the music itself, and more from the way its mixed across the stereo channels. It seems that all the instruments are preferentially left or right mixed, and the vocals are equal in both. When I close my eyes, the effect seems to be to create an illusion of open space in the darkness in front of me.

I think its probably similar to the experience people report getting from binaural beats; but I haven't been terribly impressed with what I've heard there.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Quesitons for Dr. Minai and Dr. Bickle

I'm organizing my thoughts on what I'd like to ask my professors, here they are:

Regarding the basics of neural implementation of mathematics:

Is there evidence at the cell level of operations other than vector subtraction being performed in neurons?

What operations, via what cellular mechanisms?

Can the "negative echo" phenomenon observed in saccades be generalized as the inverse of the input, rather than simply the negative? (eg: This would lay the ground work for division through reciprocal multiplication; which would allow for a cellular mechanism of averaging inputs. )

Is "inverse" validly the same concept in addition and multiplication, just applied to different operators? (eg: are negatives and reciprocals fundamentally related by the concept of "inverse"?)

Do the concepts of inversion and transposition have relevance at the cell level?

Are neural representations always row or column vectors, or does the concept of a matrix or a tensor have relevance to neural representations?

Are claims of Bayesian learning trees being implemented in neurons substantiated and/or plausible?

Regarding implementation of vector subtraction to do analogy-making in a simulation:

Suppose that each time we move from point to point in vector-space, both the inverse of the last point and the directional vector for getting there are stored in memory.

When the point and the direction are stored, they are given a high activation value, and this value decays each time we move to a new point.

At each step, all of the previous points and directions are candidates for use in the next action. The next action is determined stochastically by randomly choosing from the contents of the memory, weighted by each of the entries' current activation value.

New target points might come into the system (as if via sensory mechanisms), and they would be given an activation weight just like the previously visited points. Since they will come in with a high activation while all other weights are decaying, they will most likely (but not definately!) be used in the next step.

If a point (whether newly received or previously visited) is selected via the stochastic process, then the inverse of the current point will be added to the new point, the directional vector between them will be found and stored in memory, and the focus will shift to the new point via the directional vector.

If a previously used directional vector is selected via the stochastic process, the system will move from its current point using the previously determined direction, and it will find a new point and store it in memory.

Each time a point is visited, or a directional vector is used, its activation will increase to its maximum.

The more frequently traveled or visited a vector is, the more slowly its activation will decay and the higher the floor of its activation will become (ie: long term potentiation)

Points observed by the sensory process will receive extra activation and obtain LTP if they have been previously visited.

Highly activated vectors might have some spontaneous oscillatory behavior; their activation might spike back to a high level without external input (eg: the "return to origin" attentional vector). This would keep the system from straying too far off into irrelevant territory.

Motivation for this approach:
If the relationships between concepts are stored as abstractly (as vectors), then they should be able to be applied to other concepts (by acting on points). This could lead to the discovery of concepts (points) that have not yet been observed by the sensory mechanisms. If concepts discovered by this process are later confirmed to exist by observation, then they can be regarded as the confirmation or falsification of a hypothesis, and thus should be regarded as a relevant concept and be preserved for future use via LTP. The stochastic process simulates the parallelism of biological neural networks; I'm unaware of a better way of programming this.