Saturday, May 30, 2009


My new bike:


My professor for my Matlab programming class told us that we needn't come to lecture if we felt like we were ahead; we could just turn in the lab assignments. I took his advice, and I'm still fine on the labs, but it turns out I missed A crucial announcment: the midterm. 
So now instead of having a definate A, I can get only a C. And I can only blame myself and my un-robust email-checking habits. 

I'm gonna go talk with him on monday to see if I can do something to compensate. Maybe he'll be impressed with my minsweeper game. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Proposed law of bicycle security

(Weight of lock needed to keep bike safe)= 1/(weight of bike)

That is: the lighter your bike is, the heavier the lock you need to carry in order to keep it from being stolen. The implication is that once you get a carbon-nanotube bike, you'll need to carry a tank around to lock it up in.

With that being said, I compensated for the theft of the Cannondale Road Warrior I bought a month ago by buying a Felt Z8 and a chain lock that weights easily twice as much as the bike.

It looks like this:
Except that its red and (sadly) deficient in argyle. I was thinking of "camoflauging" it by giving it a really bad spray paint job and tossing it in the mud... but its a really nice looking bike.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Visualizing music

K so here's an idea. The idea of music visualization is really interesting, but even the best programs don't really do a good job of it. iTunes's new visualizer is beautiful, but the connection to the music is superficial. I think this will probably always be the case for any attempt to make map something from auditory dimensions to visual ones. The music was created first, and it's bound by it's domain's constraints.

But what about creating new music with the constraints of the two domains specifically integrated? This way the composition will interact with the constraints and with itself through the constraints to make something that makes sense and appears to have meaning.

How to do this? Imagine you've got a sort of physics simulation where you can make heavenly bodies interact. You have a palate of objects with certain characteristics; the characteristics are represented both visually and with sound. As they interact, they alter each other's characteristics, and you can see and hear the change.

Still with me? Lets imagine specifics. To start, you could have a base line. A steady thump could be represented by a sphere in the middle of empty space; its diameter would change with its amplitude. If its at rest, it will continue to thump away. But if its moving in the three dimensional space, its X Y and Z coordinates could control some aspect of the sound it makes; maybe like its pitch, vibrado, and volume. Introducing other objects would make these characterestics interact with eachother in ways determined by the object's direction, mass, energy... all sorts of notions borrowed from physics.

This would be a fun thing to make, even if the music that resulted wasn't very good. I wish I had the skills! I wonder what it would take? If there's existing physics simlation programs in something like matlab, maybe you could map the variables to midi output?

Has anyone done anything like this already before?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Ships within ships

I've got an active population of demons,
Sometimes I try to understand their reasons,
but they seem to change with the seasons,
So mostly they just do as they please.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

GRE Scores

And the results are in! I got back my GRE report today, so I can finally see the percentiles.

-------Score Percentile
Verbal : 660 94
Quant : 570 42
Writing: 5.0 77

So: I should probably study a bit more for the quant and take it again. Still, I'm trending in the right direction (in comparison with my GMAT).

Monday, May 18, 2009

An idea!

Its becoming increasingly difficult for me to explain what kind of music I listen to without just naming the groups. I wonder if that's the case for a lot of people with abnormal tastes, or if true aficionados develop better vocabulary to talk about it. The latter is probably true.

How about this for a fun little program: let a program read your iTunes or Pandora music listening history and then explain to you what kind of music you like.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Classic corporatisim

I saw this sign on my last day of work, and I thought that it captured my discontent nicely.

How do people get conditioned to be motivated by the prospect of wearing blue pants? Its incredibly odd...

I got a visit from the ghost of corporate future last night, so I decided to cut my own hair.
All in all, I think you'll agree that it worked out better than I could have reasonably expected. I like the creepy intensity in this picture.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

An extended metaphor

I'm like a zoo animal, released back into the wild. I spent the last two years in cozy captivity, working on things just barely interesting enough to hold my attention for just enough reward to keep me from having reason to complain. Two years, evidently, isn't long enough to accept it as a way of life, but its been long enough to dull my killer instincts.

The idea, I think, wasn't too poorly motivated. I figured if I could establish a good career, I'd be able to support my creative ambitions without having to worry about selling them; I wouldn't be the slave to others' opinions of the stuff I created. I could let myself run wild and uninhibited! Consequences be damned, for I'd be self-sufficient! Smashing! What could be better than simultaneously shunning convention and succeeding materially and intellectually?

Ah, but it's harder than I once thought. As material success mounted, my mind atrophied. All-consuming passion for radical ideas faded into passive acceptance of the massive inevitability of the course of history. With just enough vision to recognize the magnitude of humanity's challenges, one's individual contribution appears vanishingly small. Better to accept the small pleasures that life affords than burn it away trying to save a sinking ship... right?

How many fiery young souls fall into that death spiral? Quite a few, I should think, and having come so close myself makes me shudder. I'm thinking of a metaphor that illustrates the dynamics. Imagine all the paths you could take in your life, think of how the possibilities branch out and define some network growing in a sphere around the instant of your birth. Infinite possibilities! But only one path will be taken. How far will you get from the start? Assume for a moment that the distance is some important measure; you can define it for yourself, just imagine some positive value. You might imagine birth and death occupying the same place of "zero-distance-from-center" in this little imaginary universe. A reasonable goal might be obtain the furthest distance -the highest possible level of energy- before inevitably crashing back to nonexistence. Why not? Ultimately one goal is as good as the next, but a distinctive one seems appealing. Why? I don't know, but I suspect it has something do do with life's fundamental imperative to turn dead matter into living matter.

Among these infinite possibilities, how does one choose? Lucky for you and I, at least in terms of our ability to act, our choices are more constrained than we'd like to believe. We've got company in the space of possibilities; among our neighbors are peers on random walks like ourselves, and we exert influence on each others' directions. Sometimes we collide and send each other spinning askew, sometimes we sync up and spiral off in some direction with each other. Collections of such eddies form and take on a life of their own; pulling in new participants as their present ones leave or die. These become the massive objects whose gravitation defines the course of most of our lives: cultures, institutions, philosophies, and religions; they vie for dominance and trade oblivious individuals back and forth like electrons in molecules. Individuals near the edges are subject to the pull of competition and are buffeted back and forth, those nearer the nucleus gradually fall closer and closer in, gaining more isolation from the environment until they are as alike their compatriots as they can possibly be; their orbits perturbed only by universal changes.

Its not really fair to call such a fall a "death spiral." After all, the agglomeration of individuals that makes up the institution might be traveling in a positive direction, and the individual might be privileged (in their own personally defined terms) to become a part of it. And maybe each of the individuals are of such high energy and unique personal direction and internal complexity that rather than becoming more alike through their interactions, they each become more different. Ahhh... now that sounds like a ball of souls worth being a tangled up in!

Returning now from pseudo-philosophy meditations and pop-physics motivated imagry, I'll come to a point. I've been distracting myself from these sorts of thoughts for a few years with concreities like car payments and performance reviews. Concretes are much easier to deal with; answers exist and they have closed form: its just a matter of filling in the blanks with income, assets, and liabilities. Much harder to deal with are questions like "what is a positive path for my life to take?" "What is my standard of value?" "What am I living for?" The questions themselves aren't even well defined, but finding ways of expressing them seems like a worthwhile way to spend a life.

And that, friends, is what makes life exciting. I've spun off of my spiral towards cohesion with a great (but dieing) cultural institution, and I've conserved some of the momentum from my fall and shot of to (hopefully) higher heights. My redirection is largely thanks to having colided with a small, highly energetic and chaotic collection of individuals that seem to interact via paradox as much as similarity. I hope that you'll have such an opportunity as well. The fact that you've got this in your hands is a good start. The question becomes: do you have the courage to leave whatever comfortable orbits you're in and accept an uncertain direction? From my experience: its worth the trouble.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

That didn't take long

Remember a few posts back when I was cynically forecasting the doom of free speech in America with regards to posting whatever you want to a blog (or really any other electronic media)?

Well, sorry, to say, such things seem to be coming to pass. Granted what's below is only a proposed law, and it seems extremely unlikely to pass (and even more unlikely to withstand its first test of constitutionality), its still pretty appalling that such things are being proposed in America, where we should expect out elected representatives to be at least familiar with the constitution.

Weekend Update

This weekend: I studied data mining for twelve hours, discovered that Quake Live went live a while back, took the GRE, wrote a pretty interesting research proposal for data mining, went to a dance party at North Side Tavern, bought a Pizza Pan pizza from a couple of guys standing outside Fries Cafe, saw an awesome performance at the CAC for 44, went to a Taste of India event, and jammed very productively with Matt.

So, more detail. I've been struggling with the book that Dr. Yu assigned for data mining. I'm learning from it, but its written at a very theoretical level and I have a gap in trying to implement it in R. I found a book online thats at a more applied level, and going through its case studies has been very helpful: .

Quake has long been a favorite vice of mine, but I havn't played in probably five years. They've just implemented an online version of the game; pretty awesome in that it runs in a browser with better graphics than the original Quake 3 had. Fun times, but gotta keep myself from playing it too much.

I took the GRE Sunday afternoon. I figured that I need to have a baseline to compare myself against and I would like to be able to have a score that I can use on applications that request them. Much as it would be wise to study real hard for it and try to maximize my score, I figure I have plenty of other very interesting (and difficult) things that I would have to forego if I were to concentrate on that. Plus I feel like its the honest thing to do to represent myself at my native, uninflated level of capability. With that said, I got a 660 on the verbal and 570 on the quantitative. Not top tier, I realize, but significantly better than I did on the gmat (in terms of quant). I looked up UCSD's GRE stats for cognitive science (just for the sake of comparison)... apparently their 2005 class had something like 680 verbal and 760 quantitative. 760 is incredible. I looked up the GRE distributions by declared feild of study, and 760 is above the mean even for people who are studying mathematics at the graduate level. Amazing. Well, every program I've looked into says that they don't have a floor score for admission; that they take the full profile of the applicant into consideration. I'll have to develop a very attractive overall profile, eh?

For data mining I'm doing a project with census data that attempts to determine the demographic factors that best predict economic success. I included some other incisive questions touching on the social cost of affluence: does economic success correlate to other positive measures of lifestyle? The results will be interesting.

Saturday night I went to Dance MF; the acronym standing for the colorful euphemism you might guess. The played a great mix of music and there was an active population of uninhibited dancers moving in all sorts of fun and creative ways. Not sexual ways, interestingly enough, just fun and creative. I wore my cowboy boots, and I danced blisters into my feet. They played a mix of Zero (the Smashing Pumpkins song)... I was super excited for that.

On the way home, passing fries cafe, some guy was standing by the side of the rode with a stack of boxes waving and yelling at cars. The following conversation ensued:
Me: "Are those guys selling pizza!?"
Rachael: "Its just some drunk guys yelling at cars, forget it"
Me: "No, I think they had pizzas! Are you hungry? I could use a pizza"
Rachael: "I really don't think thats what's going on..."
Me: "I'm gonna go ask. He'll probably be like 'no, I'm just some drunk guy yelling at cars'"
Rachael: "..."

Turns out, to our (eventual) mutual delight, they were indeed selling pizzas. Five bucks is probably too much for a small Pizza Pan pizza (considering they'll give you three large ones for ten more dollars), but the comedy made it worth the premium.

Stepping back chronologically, Saturday evening I left work a bit early to go see a show at 44. "Science and Garfunkel" and "Fists of Love" played, both were awesome. The first was a solo act with a beautiful mustache. He had tons of electronic equipment, and as he was setting up I was wondering what he could possibly be using it all for, and if it was worth it. Turns out, it definately was. He had a boomerang, and he did some really creative things with it, creating a whole song structure on the fly with simple sounds, then doing really good guitar riffs with it. It was neat to see experimentation and creation happen live, right in front of me. Very cool. Fists of Love were also excellent, the last few songs in their set really grabbed me. They said that they're recording soon, so I'll be excited to get a copy of their stuff.

Sunday afternoon after the GRE I randomly saw a "Taste of India" sign for an event that was just about to happen. I love Indian food, so I went and called up Matt to join me. He and Jude and I had some delicious things I don't know the names of, saw some kids do some traditional Indian dances, then went back to Matt and Jude's place to jam. We did some blues stuff and riffed off of each other better than we ever have in the past, I think. We're building up to something good!

So yeah, it was a pretty fulfilling weekend.

Programming and Neural Networks

My Fundamentals of Programming class has changed in an interesting direction. The former professor has stepped aside and the head of the Biomedical Engineering department has taken over. This is exciting for several reasons: first, he's promised to post all of the lab assignments online so that those who are ahead of the curve can do them all at once and be done with the class. Second, he's one of the professors that Dr. Bickle recommended to me as good contacts for learning more about cognitive science, and he studies reinforcement learning. Third, (and related) he mentioned a project he worked on where they made a program that learned to play tic-tac-toe by playing against humans. It started out making random moves, but eventually learned the game well-enough to play against humans to a draw every time.

I sent him the following questions:
"On the tic-tac-toe game you mentioned, was the learning done with artificial neural networks? Could it be done with just nine input nodes and nine output nodes (mapped to the game board) and some larger number of hidden nodes? I imagine that using such a setup and reinforcement learning (with back-propagation(?)), the program would come to store every possible game state and would play a human player to a draw by recalling the stored "best" move from memory for each situation. Did the program you mentioned take this approach?"

I think that this is within my reach in terms of programming abilities. It would be fun to try to make it work, maybe with my minesweeper game.

If you have MATLAB, you can play the game by downloading the M File here. Even if you don't have MATLAB, you can download it and admire the code in a text editor. I'm trying to figure out how to compile it to make it run as a standalone program, but it seems unlikely that anyone would want to download an EXE from my blog anyway.

Friday, May 1, 2009


I have a "Fundamentals of Programming" class in being taught in MATLAB. I signed up for it because I wanted to get to a level of programming where I have confidence with it, the level where I can truthfully answer affirmatively if someone asks if I can program.

The class is at a little lower of a level than I was hoping, but honestly that's probably good since I have other (grad) classes that I should be focusing on. Even so, it's accomplished the goal: I feel like I'm proficient in the language and that I can solve arbitrarily complex problems with programming languages. I've had two encouraging programs... the first assignment was to simulate a baseball game. We had to simulate random pitching outcomes, keep track of base running, and scoring. It seemed like a totally unreasonable proposition at the outset, but once I got comfortable with the idea and the approach, it was a lot of fun, and I could have made it much more interesting if I wanted to spend more time on it (eg: realistic probability distributions for the pitching outcomes, some handling of forced outs on bases, maybe even some graphics that plot the trajectory of the ball and the base runners...). I had to force myself to stop playing with it.

Some students complained that the professor was taking an overly-high-level approach, and wasn't discussing actual MATLAB syntax, so he got into a specific example of finding the number of non-zero neighbors for a randomly distributed logical (one/zero) matrix. As I was figuring this out, it occured to me that it looks quite a bit like the ol' windows game MineSweeper. So I proceeded to spend a few hours programming a MineSweeper game. Its pretty cool. Its almost fully functional; the only thing I havn't implemented is the feature where the entire safe space is revealed if you click in a large empty area. At any rate, its playable, and I shouldn't spend any more time playing with it. Once I figure out how to make it into a freestanding program (playable outside MATLAB) I'll post it online. It's funny how much more entertaining it is to play a game I made myself, rather than the much slicker professionally made one.

dolla dolla bill

My parting gift from my former employer cleared today. Thus, I have positive net worth for the first time.  It'll be temporary, I'm quite sure.