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!