Wednesday, December 26, 2007

mind's eye

When I imagine something (with my eyes closed, before I fall asleep but after I have started the process of trying to) I see it in my "mind's eye." But I'm not able to reproduce it exactly. It reappears from different perspectives, at different scales, sometimes overlapping or changing but rarely in motion: more like a series of slides projected irregularly onto the screen. Edges are fairly clear, colors and shades not very clear. The speed at which these images are generated based on my effort to direct them is astonishing, compared to how long it would take to create a similar image by hand, or in Photoshop. In the background, dark blue afterimage-like flashes play against a dark grey surface.
Here I have tried to render the image from yesterday's entry as I might picture it in my mind's eye. I am restricted by the format to a rectangular still image. It ought to be rotated at some odd angle and distorted in scale, but I left these things alone so that it can be more easily compared with the image below. It also ought to be darker than is shown here, but even as it is you may need to adjust your monitor to see it at all. Also, the edges are usually lighter than the background, rather than darker as shown here. I'd be interested in hearing if other people's experience of the "mind's eye" is similar, or seeing their attempt at an accurate (rather than poetic) representation.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Lego robot

This is a robot I made yesterday.


Merry Christmas! I just wanted to point you to some news I was excited about a few days back: Nanosolar has begun shipping their solar panels. This is exciting because their panels are printed using a printing press. This means that they are inexpensive to produce: they estimate when things really get rolling, it could drop as low as 30 cents per watt.
Nanosolar's press release

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Sludge Transform

I watched this video in open mouthed astonishment. Every time I thought it couldn't get any better, it got better. The velociraptor puppets are inspired. The dinosaur motions look incredibly real-- and yet in a way, it's better than if they were real dinosaurs because they're robot dinosaurs.
The puppeteering is so good it's almost a shame the surface detail is so realistic. Just like you wouldn't color a work of origami, or the pop-ups of Rabert Sabuda, showing the underlying structure would only make these costumes more beautiful.

Making of the Dubai dinosaur park


Wednesday, December 19, 2007


This is a recent reconstruction of one of the largest winged reptiles. The paleontologist believes that it could run on four limbs and fly from a running start. He estimates the weight at 250kg.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Why Computers Can't Feel Pain

Mark Bishop is one of the few defenders of the thesis that computationalism is false. "Computationalism" is the idea that if you created a computer that accurately reproduced the calculations performed in your brain as you experience color, the computer would actually see color-- that is, have a subjective experience of color. The computer would be a conscious observer.
He points out how this leads to panpsychism: the idea that everything is conscious, including rocks. If you want to avoid panpsychism, you have to also give up the idea that mere computation is responsible for conscious experience.

Why Computers Can't Feel Pain

Monday, December 17, 2007

Unusual categories

In English, we can't say "two breads" unless we mean two types of bread. We have to say "two slices of bread" or "two loaves of bread." Sometimes this gets a little strange, like "two pairs of pants" or "two pairs of glasses" where it would be impossible to have one pant or glass.

In Japanese, it gets a lot strange. Here are a few counter words in Japanese:
chō 挺 Guns, sticks of ink, palanquins, rickshaws, violins
hai 杯 Cups and glasses of drink, spoonfuls, cuttlefish, octopuses, crabs, squid, abalone, boats
chō 丁 Tools, scissors, saws, trousers, pistols, cakes of tofu, town blocks
hon 本 Long, thin objects, rivers, roads, ties, pencils, bottles, guitars, telephone calls, movies
ki 基 Graves, wreaths, CPUs, reactors, elevators, dams
men 面 Mirrors, boards for board games (chess, Igo, Shogi), stages of computer games, walls of a room, tennis courts
wa 羽 Birds, rabbits (because of their ears);

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Leibniz and the beginnings of AI

I had to take a little break from posting for a couple of reasons: the application process for graduate school and my laptop dying the true and final death (as opposed to a blue screen, which is more akin to a fainting spell). (Those also are the reasons for the postponement of the email game, if you were wondering.) But the application was marked complete as of yesterday.

Also, I've been outlining a book. The book would be nonfiction, nominally about toys and games, but wandering off into the same kinds of topics this blog normally covers, i.e. anything that strikes my fancy. More specifically AI and philosophy.

Here is the list of chapters I've come up with:

pop-up books
war games/RPGs

So I was researching pop-up books, and thought you might like to read some of my notes for the chapter.

The first paper engineering was in a book by Ramon Llull. It was designed to be a machine for thinking, an artificial intelligence. Borges points out that "in mere lucid reality... [it is not] capable of thinking a single thought, however rudimentary or fallacious... For us, that fact is of secondary importance. The perpetual motion machines depicted in sketches that confer their mystery upon the pages of the most effusive encyclopedias don't work either, nor do the metaphysical and theological theories that customarily declare who we are and what manner of thing the world is. Their public and well known futility does not diminish their interest."
It consisted of a stack of three concentric disks, of successively smaller size, which could be spun freely. Around the edges of each disk were sixteen terms, which combined made various phrases. By rotating the disks, it was possible to make all possible phrases combining those terms.

Four hundred years later, in the late 1600s, the mechanism fascinated Leibniz, who recognized that while Llulls's choice of terms was capricious and his execution of the idea simplistic, the idea of a machine for performing reasoning by mechanical combinatoric means was not, in itself, unreasonable. Beginning at age 12, he started work on this project which was always the closest to his heart, though it went uncompleted at his death.

The project consisted of a few parts, any one of which would be ambitious:
1. An ontology which contains all concepts expressible by language. An ontology can be thought of as a kind of dictionary, in which all ideas are defined by simpler ideas, until we reach the simplest concepts, the alphabet of thought. (Such an ontology is at the heart of the CYC artificial intelligence project and the Semantic Web.)
2. A simplification and making precise of grammar. Adverbs would be reduced to adjectives, which in turn would become nouns. Verbs would also be reduced to their -ing or noun form. Gender, declension, and so forth would be eliminated.
3. Every simple concept would be represented by an ideogram, a picture that would be immediately intuitive.
This Characteristica universalis would be the perfect language.
"Thus the name of each thing (or, rather, of each idea) would express its definition, and as all the properties of a thing follow logically from its definition, the name of a thing will be the key to all its properties. This does not prevent the same thing from having several other names, insofar as it possesses different properties. However, there will be one that is the key to all the others: the one that expresses the complete reduction of the idea into simple elements. All this is explained by the combinatory, which always serves as a basis for the characteristic: the formula of a concept that is in any way complex can be reduced to "factors" in a variety of ways, but there is only one reduction to "prime factors," that is, to simple elements, and it is the latter that serve as the foundation and explanation of the others.

"Such a nomenclature, in which the name of each thing (or idea) would be an adequate and transparent symbol for it and, as it were, its description or logical portrait, would clearly constitute a sort of natural language, such as Plato dreamed of in the Cratylus. It would be the Adamic language, as it was called by mystics, that is, the nomenclature that, according to Hebraic legend, the first man established in the terrestrial paradise and which men spoke until the confusion of languages at the Tower of Babel (The Logic of Leibniz by Louis Couturat, Chapter 3)."

"Leibniz thought that this supposedly primitive language was certainly unknown to us (Phil., VII, 205). Hermann von der Hardt asked him if the Adamic language was not Hebrew (Dutens, VI.2, 225). Leibniz replied, "Saying that the Hebrew language is primordial is the same as saying that the trunks of trees are primordial"; and he added that the only question is to know whether Hebrew is closer than the others to their common root, otherwise unknown, and that this would be the work of comparative philology (Leibniz to Tenzel, Dutens, VI.2, 232) (The Logic of Leibniz by Louis Couturat, footnote 107)."

"In Sections V and VI of his Discourse on Metaphysics, Leibniz asserts that God simultaneously maximizes the variety, diversity and richness of the world, and minimizes the conceptual complexity of the set of ideas that determine the world. And he points out that for any finite set of points there is always a mathematical equation that goes through them, in other words, a law that determines their positions. But if the points are chosen at random, that equation will be extremely complex ("Epistemology as Information Theory: From Leibniz to Ω," by Gregory Chaitin)."

4. There would be logical operations to act on these symbols, an algebra for logic. This idea was carried forward and eventually became the "For all" "There exists" "The union of" logical operators we use today for mathematics, philosophy, and AI.

5. There would be a mechanical system to perform these logical operations.

The overall system is a familiar one. English, a natural language, is translated into a precise language with simplified grammar and limited vocabulary. This in turn is transformed into binary notation (which Leibniz also invented for this purpose) and fed into a device which performs logical operations on it. The result is that processes which were previously performed by human thought (arithmetic, proofs, if/then statements) are performed automatically. He suggested that "all disputes could one day be settled with the words 'Gentlemen, let us compute!'"

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Mixing Colors of Neurons

This image was created by making the neurons able to express various flourescent proteins. Bioinformatics has turned the genome into a kind of artistic palette.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007


I found Pruned by using Google Sets on a few of my favorite blogs. I found the article on the broken pillar house especially interesting.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Thursday, October 25, 2007


I think using Photoshop has made me immune to certain optical illusions. In this one I see all the men as the same size. I remember looking at this picture before, and seeing them as different sizes, but that's not the way it seems to me anymore. I perceive them as identical 2D cutouts sitting on a picture of a hallway.

This was from an interesting article. If I asked you: How much would you be willing to pay to save the lives of 100 children in Africa? You would name a certain amount. But if I asked you: How much would you be willing to pay to save the lives of 10,000 children? You would name the same amount. In fact, it would be close to the amount you would pay to save the life of one stranger child. It's only when the three questions are asked together do you give answers that would pay more to save the 10,000 than the one.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Some open letters

An open letter to Republicans on global warming:
You picked the losing horse in this race. It's time to move on. Wouldn't it be nice every time the ice recedes over the artic for people to think "Uh oh, I'd better vote Republican?" Here's how to do it.
First, forget about windmills and geothermal and hydrogen-powered cars and living in yurts. Democrats can keep pushing those impractical green-living ideas. Instead, lets do something big. Alternative Fusion. Pebble-bed reactors. Microwave power from orbiting solar. Self-replicating lunar solar plants. Even bio-engineered algae. By funding research in these kinds of things in a big way (the way you would fund a war or a space race) you would:
1. Keep friends at places like Boeing and the energy companies. They'll be happy because you're sending billions of dollars their way.
2. Maintain America's lead in science, manufacturing, and engineering.
3. Increase our defense capability.
4. Win over people who care about pollution, ecology, and that kind of stuff.
5. Attract the best minds in physics and engineering from places like China.

If you're even moderately successful with any of these technologies, you'll:
6. Reduce our dependence on the Middle East.
7. Facilitate the industrialization of the third world, reducing world conflicts.
8. Open up new frontiers for development in space.
9. Win Nobel prizes for this stuff.

An open letter to Democrats on abortion:
Nobody likes abortion. Even the staunchest pro-choice supporters still flinch when someone starts showing pictures. It's a deep-seated, emotional reaction. They just look too much like babies. This problem will not go away, and as long as you support it, you look kind of like monsters. The same thing goes for fetal stem-cell research.
But you don't like abortion either. What you want is for women to be able to choose whether or not to bear or raise a child. So what you ought to do, with all this money and energy that's been going to defend abortion, is create new cheap, easy forms of birth control for women that prevent fertilization in the first place. It's not an easy problem (you have to avoid side effects), but it's not impossible, either. At the other end of pregnancy, work on developing adoption programs and social support to make it easier to make the choice to actually bear the child. Work on stricter programs to hold the fathers responsible. You've already changed society to reduce a lot of the stigma of single motherhood and made it so that women can better afford to raise a child without a father. Get out the message that fathers have the same reponsibility as mothers to raise children. Wouldn't you rather work on these aspects of it?
And if you still think there has to be abortion, don't push for late-term abortions. It looks kind of like you are willing to have children die who could otherwise live, just to make a point. That's how it seems to some people. Instead, talk about how important it is, if an abortion is inevitable, to end the pregnancy as soon as possible (for example, the day-after.) Fund free pregnancy tests. And encourage women to have the respect for themselves to date and marry the right kind of guys (the kind who will not leave women to deal with the birth control and the pregnancy by themselves) in the first place. Encourage people to make smart choices.

Friday, October 5, 2007


Today I saw another bumper sticker asking "What would Jesus Do?" Let's ignore the fact that the two things that annoyed Jesus most were:
1. People commercializing the sacred (aka "the whip incident")
2. People making an outward show of their piety to impress bystanders (I believe the term "whited sepulchres full of dead men's bones" was mentioned)
Ignoring those points, the fact remains that figuring out what Jesus would do is kind of tricky. After all, He was the smartest person who ever lived, according to Talmage. Our mental model of His mental processes is going to be inadequate to the task.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Temple in Jerusalem

I love BLDGBLOG. It's the greatest. In a recent interview, there is a Roman wall carving showing the sack of Jerusalem. It's showing an event from Biblical prophecy from another side. It makes it more real, a stereo viewpoint that makes the flat pictures seem to exist in space. It makes me think about other stories, and what the people involved thought. What did the people in Jericho think when they were attacked by the Israelites? What was the Egyptian impression of the Exodus? I've wondered about the centurion who nailed Christ's hands to the cross: did he realize, as he felt for the gap in the bones in the wrist, that what he was doing would become something sacred?

Monday, September 3, 2007

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Free software

Have you ever wanted to record a video of what is happening on your computer screen? There is a free program to do called AviScreen it that works very well. I use it to make better presentations at work.
Some other useful programs are Neat Image, to remove noise (aka "grain") from images and Superbot, to download an entire website at once. To get rid of spyware, I recommend Spybot.
If you want to know what's taking space up on your hard drive, try WinDirStat.
Let me know what other things you want to do, and I'll tell you what free software is out there. I've tried a lot of it.

Friday, August 24, 2007


Armadillo Aerospace's lander has a flame straight out of Industrial Light & Magic. Armadillo is the company founded with the profits from the video game DOOM.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Steampunk Starwars II

Here is the "Centennial Falcon." It's an ornithopter.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Diamagnetic Levitation

Humans are weakly magnetic. With a strong enough magnet, you can levitate them. This could cancel out extreme accelerations: for example, you could launch someone into space with a cannon if they were levitating during the firing of the cannon. This would require a very strong magnet, but only during the explosion, so you could build a magnet that self destructs (due to overheating.) Perhaps it could be powered by the explosion itself.

Sunday, August 19, 2007


Just a neat website about the future of the past.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Brain Science

An interesting Discover article on "Mysteries of the Brain". I think this is one area that will see a lot of progress in the next few decades. Notice how many metaphors in the article are based around computers.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Blake Ostler

I have recently read bits and pieces of Blake Ostler's Mormon Theology and have found myself agreeing with him. In a review by FARMS, his overall position is laid out, and it very closely matches the ideas that I had come up with, namely:

1. Libertarian, incompatiblist freewill

This means that our choices can change the future. There is no fixed future that can be known beforehand, only a set of possibilities.

2. Conditional prophecies

Because of 1, prophecies in general are conditional on our free choices.

3. God exists within time

God is still a person: he can think thoughts, take actions, feel emotions. All of these are impossible if God doesn't experience time.

4. Choice is an act of creative perception.

I'm inferring a bit here, because I can't find a direct quote. But my idea, which I think he would agree with, is: Creativity, perception, and will are all essentially the same thing. Whenever our nerves bring information to our consciousness, we have a choice about how to interpret it as a perception. This includes our own state of thought and emotion. This interpretation isn't caused by the signal; instead, it's literally new, created information. It is that perception that causes our future actions. For example: when you have two conflicting desires, you can percieve one as unimportant and the other as important. The one you percieve as important is the one that will influence your actions. Creative artwork is an act of choosing to see things in a new way.
An example is the "Necker cube" illusion (the illustration to the right.) You can choose to see it as open to the upper left or open to the lower right. There is a measurable change in the state of the neurons in your brain when you make this choice. All choices, I propose, are this sort of choices.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Watch motorcycles

Some motorcycles made of watch parts.

A Lego creation

This is an ostritch-like robot I made out of Legos.


A slideshow from flickr.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Kauffman's Investigations

A year or two ago I bought a book at the Strand called Investigations. (The author is Stuart Kauffman, who works with Lee Smolin, Roger Penrose, and Fotini Markopoulou-Kalamara on Loop Quantum Gravity.) I often don't know whether a book is good or not while I am reading it. The way you can tell if a book is good is if it comes into your mind for months or years later. This was one of those good ones.

The main idea that struck me from it was: in creative or inventive thought, and in evolutionary development, the space of possibilities can't be defined beforehand.

Evolutionary biologists talk about the "fitness landscape." The idea is that there is some high-dimensional space of possibilities (leg length, tooth sharpness, number of toes, are three of the axes, perhaps) with some regions marked as high fitness and others as low fitness. The organism that is evolving can be pictured as moving through this space blindly, but responding to its local conditions like a ball rolling downhill, so that it ends up in areas of high fitness.

But when you try to actually create such a space (for a computer simulation, for example) you find that you can only label axes that already exist in nature. But nature doesn't just recombine old forms to create new species; instead, entirely new features appear. What seemed a minor, irrelevent detail in any previous species is the critical key to a new ability or structure.

This is exactly like Hofstadter's point about Metafont: you can't capture the space of all possible typefaces with a predefined set of parameters. Instead people invent new parameters with each new font.

(Those who studied math in college are likely to object that technically you could define a space large enough to contain all the possibilities-- for example, the space of 100 x 100 pixel squares contains essentially all fonts. But this kind of characterization isn't useful due to the sheer number of possibilities and the fact that so few of them actually are typefaces.)

This also applies to the space of useful inventions. There's no way it can be precharacterized. It can only be represented as a growing, branching tree.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The problem of evil

Eugene England wrote a powerful essay explaining why bad things happen to good people. It is the only answer I've ever found that makes sense. One thing I like about the essay is that it shows how morally wrong the other answers I've heard so often really are. Here is a long quote where he address the cruelty of the other answers one by one:

1. Pain and loss are God's punishment of the wicked. (Fine, if you are a normally sinful adult, or even a rabbi trying to live righteously, but what about the innocent child born with progeria or "rapid aging," as Kushner's son Aaron was, or struck with horribly painful bone cancer?)

2. The child (or mother) was needed on the other side; God has a more important mission for them. (A loving God would at least take them without pain. Besides, you mean God needs my wife more than I and my six small children do? And more than he needed the wonderful single woman down the street? That's like saying to my daughter, "It's your fault that your mother died. If you had needed her more, she would still be alive.")

3. She is happier there, freed from this world's sin and pain. (Then why keep any of us here so long. Are you saying that I should rejoice and thank God that my daughter was killed in an airplane collision? That it is just my own selfishness that makes my sorrow? That what looks like evil really isn't?)

4. God has some inscrutable purpose in doing this to you; if you could see the big picture, you'd understand. (But that's hypothetical; we don't see any such big picture in 250 randomly gathered lives snuffed out in an airliner disaster. Besides, if a human artist or employer made children suffer so that something immensely impressive or valuable could come to pass, we would put him in prison. Why then should we excuse God for causing such undeserved pain, no matter how wonderful the ultimate result might be?)

5. But suffering can be educational; it even ennobles us. To a primitive, doctors performing an operation might look like they are torturing the patient when they are really helping him. This accident that has made you a paraplegic will also make you more sensitive. (What right do you, [p.95] who can walk out of this hospital and drive a car and play tennis, have to tell me it is in my best interest to be paralyzed? It's obvious that not all trouble and suffering improves people, and if it could, why doesn't your all-powerful God precisely control what he sends each person so that we are all improved, in fact, all made perfect? And if that's what we think he's doing, why should we interfere, why try to prevent suffering or do away with the pain?)

6. Well, God only let this happen to you because he knew you are strong enough to bear the loss of your son. (You mean, if only I were a weaker person, Aaron would still be alive? I have seen many people's faith and lives destroyed by such tragedies. If God is a perfect and all-powerful tester of us, why does he miscalculate so often?)

His answer is to say that God's power to intervene in our lives must be limited. I'd like to know what you think.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Steampunk Star Wars

Of course, Star Wars is already about anachronistic technology. There's a swordfight-- but it's in the future! There's a dogfight-- but it's in the future! Chewie's crossbow shoots plasma. The Star Destroyers are covered in rivets.

Steampunk sets Star Wars in an alternate future of our own past. If you like this sort of thing (Steampunk, I mean) I recommend The Difference Engine, by Gibson and Sterling.
These images are from this forum. I'll post my own addition soon (a picture of an ornithopter called The Centennial Falcon, piloted by a hairy Russian named Subakov.)

Friday, August 3, 2007

The Toys of Peace

While we're on the subject of literature, I thought you might like this, also. The first story, about toys, echoes some of Lesli's sometimes less than successful efforts to get Daniel interested in something other than war robots. I also like the ones that mention wolves.

Christian Bök

I've just discovered a new author who reminds me a lot of Jorge Borges. His name is Christian Bök. They call him a poet, which is right, I guess, though only sometimes does what he writes look like poetry. He invents languages and imaginary sciences. He discovers and creates strange fantasies by ancient authors. He expresses the beauty in structure.

Here's a short snippet of one of his poems.

Fractals are haphazard maps

that entrap entropy in tropes.

Fractals tell their raconteurs

to counteract at every point

the contours of what thought

recounts (a line, a plot): recant

the chronicle that cannot coil

into itself – let the story stray

off course, its countless details,

pointless detours, all en route

toward a tour de force, where

the here & now of nowhere is.

Don’t ramble – lest you dream

about a random belt of words

brought to you by Mandelbrot.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Sitting outside the world

All physical things follow certain rules of cause and effect. One event causes another event, which causes another. These sequences of cause and effect are called causal chains. Science can explore the causal chains by altering the cause and measuring what happens to the effect. If we can find things that don't follow those laws, then those things are not part of the physical world.
The subjective experience of color, sounds, pain, and so forth are caused by physical events. But they are outside the realm of what can be measured. (For example, there is no way, even in principle, to know whether my sensation of red is the same as your sensation of red.) This is because the experiences don't have a causal effect on the world which could be measured.
On the other side, free will choices can not be caused by anything, but they do have effects on the world. If subjective experiences are the ends of causal chains, free will choices are the beginnings.
It wouldn't be hard to build a machine that replaced subjective experiences and free will with a causal chain connecting the incoming and outcoming chain together. If the chain was complex enough or contained random elements, an outside observer couldn't know whether the system was causally connected or not. But we know from our own experience that that isn't the way it works within our own minds. The internal subjective experience would be absent in such a system.
Some people would claim that we can't be sure that such a system doesn't have a subjective experience. But I think we can be sure. There are parts of our own brains' workings that are inaccesible to consciousness. If we build a system that works in the same way as these parts, we can be certain that it won't have conscious internal experiences or free will.
Subjective experiences and the free will choices are connected. It is the presence of a conscious field of experience that makes free will choices possible. Our choices could simply be choices of which experiences to give more weight in the determination of an effect, by freely paying attention to certain aspects of the conscious field more than others. Every choice we make is a creative artwork, where we put the emphasis on what we decide is important.
It's analogous to a video game. Within the computer, everything happening in the game world is deterministic. But the causal chain ends in a display of colors on the monitor. New causal chains begin within the world of the game with the movement of the controller. But we sit outside the world. The colors on the screen don't cause the movements of the controller, but they provide the environment in which coherent choices of how to move the controller can occur.
There is another part to this connection between experiences and will. When we make a difficult choice ("exercising" the will), the choice is difficult because of the pain or discomfort it causes. When people deserve praise for having made good choices, it is because they did the right thing in spite of the pain it caused them. Without the subjective sensation of pain, there could be no working of the will.
The key to all this is that the choices are neither random nor caused. They are influenced by all kinds of things, but in the end are capable of working opposite to every influence.
The discoveries of the last century in quantum mechanics, chaos theory, and algorithmic information theory make such a world seem more possible and reasonable than in the period since Newton where science only knew of the more familiar kinds of mechanical causes. Quantum mechanics tells us that there will always be uncaused events in any system. Scientists believe uncaused quantum events to be completely random, but it is a gap in the system where subtle causes could sneak in. Chaos theory tells us that such minute causes could be amplified into macroscopic effects on the entire brain and from there, the outside world. In fact, neural networks are ideal for such amplification effects. From AIT, we know that even in mathematics, there are effects without causes.
It is reasonable to believe in such a system outside the physical world. We have internal evidence for it that is compelling. It requires the convoluted and unbelievable warping of the evidence to sustain a picture of the world that doesn't include such a supernatural world.

Notes for those with a background in philosophy: by "free will" I mean libertarian free will. By "subjective experience" I mean qualia. In this post I am assuming both as given from experience.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Creation of the Solar System

According to, remnants of the manufacturing process were left behind in shoddy, unfinished work on one of the solar system's smallest moons. I think it's called "flashing."

Another possibility not considered in the article is that we have been grossly mistaken about the nature of planets: that they are a kind of celestial fruit, with a thin peel and a juicy interior surrounding what could be called a "core." They grow over time, and eventually burst in a volcanic epiphany, releasing tiny moonlets that go one to seed other solar systems. The stars, of course, are the flowering bodies. The tree itself, larger than the size of the galaxy, is a hyper-dimensional entity known as Yggdrasil.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The hippocampus contains a region of cells in a hexagonal grid pattern that are used to make an explicit 2D map of your surroundings. Taxi drivers have an enlarged hippocampus because this area of the brain actually grows new neurons with use.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Shuttle liftoff seen from the space station.

Very small and very large Lego models. From this article.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Big Dog Owners

I don't know how many times I've heard this line: "People are often afraid when the ... dog runs up to them ..., but they soon realize she's friendly" I wish these people would realize that just because a dog has been friendly with its owner in the past does not mean it's going to be friendly with a stranger in the future. And unlike, say, an unfriendly parakeet, these guys have rows of teeth designed for tearing flesh.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Negative Dimensional

Ever since I learned about fractional dimensions, I wondered what negative dimensions would be. There is an answer, and a paper by Mandelbrot is how I learned about it. The basic idea is simple:

In 3-dimensional space, the intersection between two planes is a line. You can calculate this as follows:


The planes on the left of the equation are each two-dimensional. The space is three-dimensional, leaving one dimension left over for the intersection: a line.

A plane and a line intersect in a point:


The point is zero dimensional.

What do two lines intersect in?


Solving for x, we find that two lines intersect in a negative-one-dimensional space.

You can find the intersection of this space with yet another line:


In this case, y must be -3. So the intersection of three arbitrary lines in 3-dimensional space is -3-dimensional.

What I'm trying to figure out is what corresponds to polygons and polyhedra in negative-dimensional spaces.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

15 Chuck Norris jokes

Leading hand sanitizers claim they can kill 99.9 percent of germs. Chuck Norris can kill 100 percent of whatever he wants.

Chuck Norris' tears cure cancer. Too bad he has never cried.

Chuck Norris counted to infinity - twice.

Chuck Norris was originally cast as the main character in 24, but was replaced by the producers when he managed to kill every terrorist and save the day in 12 minutes and 37 seconds.

Chuck Norris can speak braille.

Chuck Norris does not sleep. He waits.

Chuck Norris owns the greatest Poker Face of all-time. It helped him win the 1983 World Series of Poker despite him holding just a Joker, a Get out of Jail Free Monopoly card, a 2 of clubs, 7 of spades and a green #4 card from the game Uno.

When the Boogeyman goes to sleep every night he checks his closet for Chuck Norris.

Once a cobra bit Chuck Norris' leg. After five days of excruciating pain, the cobra died.

Chuck Norris does not hunt because the word hunting implies the possibility of failure. Chuck Norris goes killing.

Chuck Norris doesn't read books. He stares them down until he gets the information he wants.

Ghosts are actually caused by Chuck Norris killing people faster than Death can process them.
Chuck Norris can strangle you with a cordless phone.

Chuck Norris can create a rock so heavy that even he can't lift it. And then he lifts it anyways, just to show you who Chuck Norris is.

If you can see Chuck Norris, he can see you. If you can't see Chuck Norris you may be only seconds away from death.

(Image borrowed from the internet somewhere)

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Friday, June 29, 2007

Luck as a Magic System

Luck is a kind of magic that we don't believe in; but it's different from other magic because you have to actively avow your disbelief at a certain age. It is more intimately tied to our society than other kinds of magic. You have to know what the rules of it are to understand scenes in movies, commercials, and cartoons.
I had a dream the other night that I was in a world where luck works, and no one doubted that fact. It had technologies built around it, the same way we have technology that takes advantage of electromagnetism.
I'm not sure where the list of lucky and unlucky things comes from. When I was growing up these things were lucky:
finding a penny
seeing a shooting star
a rabbits foot
a four-leaf clover
breaking a wishbone

these things were unlucky:
black cats
opening umbrellas indoors
breaking mirrors
stepping on a crack

Wednesday, June 27, 2007


Bussard ramjets, like Dyson spheres, are fictional entities that appeared in non-fiction by scientists before they appeared in fiction. Both of them are unworkable as usually presented. Anyway, Bussard has a proposal for a fusion reactor that's rather pretty.

He's actually built a few prototypes of it in his day job for NASA.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Lego Wargaming

Mike and I tried to come up with rules for lego wargaming when we were young. These are probably a little better than what we came up with.

Improved map of the internet

One could improve the map of the internet by having it be a two dimensional embedding of the link distance graph, and then making a zooming interface like Google maps. At some scale, each pixel would be a separate web page. That would make a 30 gigapixel image: 200 feet square at typical screen resolution. Those pages are associated with around a hundred million web sites.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

An unusual language

This is a long article about a researcher in the Amazon who seems to have found a language that contradicts Chomsky's theories about universal grammar. I wish the author had told us a little more about the language and less about the researcher, but I guess that's a matter of taste.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A talk I gave a couple years ago on tithing

Note: This talk quotes extensively without attribution.

Though my talk is also on tithing, I'd like to adress it in the larger context of what part money plays in our lives and those of others. I'm often tempted to think that those who say money can't buy happiness aren't spending it right. We have an odd, contradictory set of beliefs about money. A survey found that 89 percent of people say "our society is much too materialistic." In the exact same survey, 84 percent also wished they had more money, and 78 percent said is was "very or fairly important" to have "a beautiful home, a new car and other nice things."
Is there a relationship between money and happiness? It's really in the last few years that economists have even begun to ask this question. They've explored the idea, hardly radical outside economics but pretty radical inside it, that people might sometimes make mistakes, and that their decisions could actually make them unhappy. What they've found is that once you get out of true poverty, once basic needs like food and shelter are provided, wealthier people report almost exactly the same levels of happiness as those with less money.
Isn't that interesting? Maybe it's not that hard to believe about other people, but it's almost impossible to accept that you, yourself, wouldn't feel happier if you had a little more money. Yet that's what study after study has found. Since 1957, for example, the average household income has nearly doubled. During the same period, the number of Americans who say they are "very happy" has declined from 35 to 32 percent. Meanwhile, the divorce rate has doubled, the teen suicide rate has nearly tripled, the violent crime rate has nearly quadrupled (even after the recent decline), and depression has mushroomed.
Is it any surprise, considering these things, that the group with the lowest rates of depression and highest rates of satisfaction was the Pennsylvania Amish?
"Why," wondered the prophet Isaiah, "do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?"
But, maybe we're looking at this the wrong way. Even if it doesn't really help much to have a lot, it can't hurt, right? There's nothing wrong with having nice things, is there? Well, consider this story, which has been widely repeated by Peter Singer:
Bob is close to retirement. He has invested most of his savings in a very rare and valuable old car, a Bugatti, which he has not been able to insure. The Bugatti is his pride and joy. In addition to the pleasure he gets from driving and caring for his car, Bob knows that its rising market value means that he will always be able to sell it and live comfortably after retirement. One day when Bob is out for a drive, he parks the Bugatti near the end of a railway siding and goes for a walk up the track. As he does so, he sees that a runaway train, with no one aboard, is running down the railway track. Looking farther down the track, he sees the small figure of a child very likely to be killed by the runaway train. He can't stop the train and the child is too far away to warn of the danger, but he can throw a switch that will divert the train down the siding where his Bugatti is parked. Then nobody will be killed —but the train will destroy his Bugatti.
I think we would all agree that it would be a very wrong act for Bob to allow the child to die, even though it will cost him his car. But here's the trouble: we're all in the same situation as Bob. It's not just a good thing to give to charity; not giving to charity when we have the means to do so is casting those in abject poverty to their fate in the same way that Bob would be doing if he made the wrong decision.
For the first time in history, we really have the power to end poverty of the worst sort. Not just keep it at bay, but really end it. How much would it take to rescue the 1 billion people on earth who are this poor? If everyone in the world participated, it would take less than 1% of our combined income to pay for the food and shelter for every person on the planet. That's a tithing of a tithing. We have an awesome power to do good, and a terrible responsibility as well.
Here's another story I found. In the early part of the 20th century, a man grew wealthy from oil and gave large sums to Baylor University to construct buildings and educate young Christians. He gave a great deal of money to his church and even sent his pastor, Dr. George W. Truett, to Europe to preach to the soldier boys during the First World War. Then, in the stock market crash of 1929, the man lost his fortune.
One day, a friend who saw how humbly he was living – and remembered how wealthy he had once been – asked, "When you think about all the money you gave away, do you ever wish you had it back?" He didn’t hesitate. "Friend," he said. "The only thing I have left is what I gave away."
Hopefully, with this context, it won't seem quite so much like a PBS fund drive for me to talk about paying tithing. Tithing was introduced in the old testament, and I think that wouldn't be hard to guess. The rule about 10% seems so law-of-moses, doesn't it? Actually, Christ mentions it once on the New Testament. It's interesting to note what he says.
This is in Matthew 23. Here, Jesus reprimands the Pharisees for giving according to the law, but not according to its spirit: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You pay a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, yet you have neglected the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy, and faith."
Justice, mercy and faith are important, not strict rules about tenths, right?
But then I read Jesus' next statement: "These things should have been done without neglecting the others."
Did you catch that? These things should be done, without neglecting the others. In other words, the Pharisees were right to tithe. But they needed to give not just their pocketbooks, but their hearts.
I'd like to close with a personal story of how the Lord helped has helped my family when we paid our tithing. A few years ago, I was out of work, and had no income except the tiny amount coming in from the state unemployment insurance. We had rent to pay, food to buy, medical bills to pay, all the usual household expenses. It seemed impossible that we could keep from just putting everything on the credit card. And yet, somehow, things just kept working out. I got a bit of contract work. My parents offered to pay for health insurance. We got a big tax return. People purchased computer models I had made years before. I don't even know, really, how it worked-- I was afraid to look too closely in case it would go away. But by the time I got a job almost a year later, we still had very little debt. I think this is how we can depend on the Lord. It's not like we're all going to get rich if we pay our tithing. It's that we don't need to worry about having enough to get by. Somehow, things will work out, one day to the next. And it's not like it has to happen by supernatural, unexplainable ways. The point of tithes and offerings is to put this kind of safety net in place for all of us.
I know that the principle is an inspired one, and is important for all of us.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Blurred Fiction

This is a game played by role players, wandering around in costumes. The artist who designed the props has a site here. It's kind of like a treasure hunt with good props. I think it would be fun to do design a game like this, though it would have to be more mail-based since we're so far apart. There would be (forged) documents you would look through for clues, maybe a fake journal or notebook. I have some ideas how to make it look handwritten and old using the computer, to save myself some work. The forgery aspect of it is the fun part, for me: forgery is a kind of fiction that can be more intense because it engages you on more levels. Anyone interested?

Sunday, June 17, 2007

emotional feedback loops

Emotional feedback loops can occur between two people, such as a fight that gets worse and worse, or falling in love. There are also some interesting loops that can happen with just one person. Something will make me happy, and then I'll notice that I'm happy, and if I'm in the right mood that fact will make me happy. Or if I'm in a dark basement and I start paying attention to the fact that I'm afraid, it will make me more afraid, and soon I'm running in terror and that makes me more afraid. I think when this happens with anxiety it's called a panic disorder. Children crying will be made miserable by the fact that they are crying, and will sometimes even express to you "I can't stop crying!"

Friday, June 15, 2007

Speculative Theology

"The Holy Ghost is now in a state of probation which if he should perform in righteousness he may pass through the same or a similar course of things that the Son has.” (Joseph Smith, The Words of Joseph Smith, p. 245; Sabbath address, Nauvoo, 27 August 1843. Reported by Franklin D. Richards.)
I've often wondered what the story of the Holy Ghost would be like. Would he be born very last, after the thousand years of peace, when the spirit is withdrawn and things begin to descend before the final end? Is the spirit withdrawn because he's physically embodied?
Or would he be born on another world?
Or become part of another Godhead?

Some fun random links

If you have insomnia, or want to waste time.










Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Uncanny Valley of Search

There is a dip in usefulness between current levels of ability and true, human-like search ability. That's analogous to the dip in appeal of too-realistic 3D models of people known as the uncanny valley.

When I use Google, I use it as a deterministic tool. Here's how I find something specific on the web when I don't remember where it is. I perform a search with few keywords, knowing that if it exists on the searchable web, it will be somewhere in there. When I add more words to the search, the number of pages to look through decreases. I am sure this will happen, so I can choose the balance between specificity of search and number of pages.

Once Google gets a bit more sophisticated, this will no longer be possible. The algorithm will become non-deterministic, as adding more words will make it suddenly get a guess at what I "really mean" and suddenly bring up pages that don't contain any of the words I listed but fit the general gist. When that happens, It will be less useful to me than it was before, because I won't be able to leverage it as well by modeling what it is going to do in my own head. For example: Clippy the paperclip in Microsoft Word. When Google becomes freakish, unnatural and zombie-like, they can't say I didn't warn them.

Objective Measure of Newspaper Slant

I like the approach of the authors of this paper. They first automatically identify phrases which occur most often in Republican speeches, and least often in Democrat speeches. Phrases like "Boy Scouts," "War on Terror," and "Death Tax." Then they do the same for Democrat speeches, finding phrases like "Trade Agreements," "American People," and "Tax Breaks." Then, they compare the frequency of use of these phrases in newspapers.
They " find that the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post are similar to one another and to a fairly liberal congressperson; find that USA Today is somewhat closer to the center than these papers... the Washington Times is signicantly to the right of the other newspapers they consider... we identify the Wall Street Journal as fairly right-leaning."
These seem like reasonable results to me.
When I talk about "machine learning," this is the kind of "understanding" that is going on. It is an ability to bring out statistical truths. Obviously in this case the machine had no understanding of anything about the phrases other than their level of political slant. But one could imagine a much more ambitious project to understand connotations of English words in general. If a machine can successfully pull out the same connotations from a sentence a human would, as well as representing its literal meaning, what is missing from understanding? Only the subjective experience, I think.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Retrocausality will have been about to have been being a go!

I've been following John Cramer's activities for about 10 years now. So I was excited to see that he has managed to get money to fund his retrocausality project. Here is a powerpoint about what the project is trying to test.
I personally don't expect the experiment will find evidence of retrocausality-- mainly because I think it would violate free will. I do hope it will shed some more light on the nature of quantum paradoxes.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Objective Reality

Mathematicians often treat mathematical structures as if they already exist in some infinite Platonic space, and they are just discovering them instead of creating them. A few ideas need to be disentangled here. The ideas don't "already" exist before someone discovers them, or "come into existence" after someone discovers them. The Platonic realm is without time, so neither of these ideas could apply to it. Also, the Platonic realm isn't some place; place is also something that doesn't exactly apply. What I mean by "exist" here is somewhat stretched from the usual meaning. What remains is the fact that independent observers, regardless of culture, when exploring the same mathematical structures, will discover the same facts about them. These facts are independent of the individuals involved. If you don't want to call that "existing" that's fine, but it is a lot like reality. It resembles reality in that way.

I think we can argue for the objective "existence" of Justice or Ethics in the same way. To the extent that observers can discover facts independently about the state of affairs, and these discoveries will agree when they overlap and fail to contradict, the qualities listed above have objective, mathematical type existence.

On this view, moral arguments are always resolvable if certain conditions are met. When a disagreement persists, the problem must be a definitional one, failure of one or both parties to follow through moral reasoning to a conclusion, or ultimately assuming certain moral statements which the other person would disagree with.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Modern Mythology

These are entities that we tell our children about, don't really believe in ourselves (most of us, most of the time) are common references in our culture, but aren't from a work of fiction. I imagine a story where they all exist and interact with each other but aren't silly at all. Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Roald Dahl and Piers Anthony have worked in this kind of urban fantasy genre. They play a traditional role of explaining something mysterious with a personal entity responsible for it, but they are all very minor sorts of dieties:

Father time
The stork
The tooth fairy
The sandman

None of these are really good or evil, but somehow outside of all that. Include Santa and the easter rabbit, but they would have to be the older versions, not so cute and cuddly: more hidden, more weird. Thomas Nast was probably the last one to get that right.
The project might be extended to include monsters:

The abominable snowman
The monster under the bed
The bogey man
Loch Ness

Or possibly the elements of the New Age religion:

Crystal Energy Healing
The Pyramids

Or the conspiracy theories:

Aliens and Men in Black
Amelia Earhart
The Illuminati/Masons/Rosicrucians
The Titanic
Project Majestic
The Bermuda Triangle

It's hard to see all this as mythology, because we are right in the middle of it. Then there's the magic of superstitions...

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Rich Dad, Poor Dad

In the book "Rich Dad, Poor Dad," Kiyosaki advises embracing risk as a way to higher returns. I think this is an example of the selection effect. Suppose one hundred people started out in the same way as Kiyosaki, taking risks in the real estate market. 99 of them went broke, 1 struck it rich. Which one, do you think, went on to sell a book on how to make money?
There's other problems with the book. For one, the story is fictionalized-- there apparently never was a "Rich Dad." There was some good advice in the book, but it's so mixed up with the bad I wouldn't recommend it.

Monday, June 4, 2007

More Physics

It has always seemed to me that at some point, physics will start getting easier again. Once we really understand what is going on, there will be an easier way to present it that clears up a lot of the confusion. Anyway, this chapter presents the theory of General Relativity in a simpler way. (Though some of his later points about sets are speculative but presented as fact.) I wonder whether you could present Bohm's approach to quantum mechanics in a simple way that made sense to everyone?

Chalmer's Argument of Perfections

Consider whether statements (1) and (2) are true:

(1) If X is true, then I believe X.
If one does not accept this, then one accepts the opposite: one would be willing to state "X is true and I do not believe X." But that is clearly a contradiction for any particular X. Therefore, we must accept that (1) is true for all X.

(2) If I believe X, then X is true.
The negation of this would be saying "I believe X and X is false." Again, this is impossible to state consistently for any X. So statement (2) is also true for all X.

But (1) means I am omniscient, and (2) means I am omnipotent. Cool, I never knew that!

Time machine

This is a project that allows you to stop or reverse time. You will need:

  • Flourescent strobe lights

  • Flourescent water dye

  • A dripping faucet

I would really like to play with one of these. Be sure to watch the video.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Can machines think?

It doesn't seem wrong to me to say that machines can think. The processing that happens to the visual or auditory signals within my brain before they reach my perception is very much like the same sort of thing that machines do. In fact, I could replace those parts of my brain with prosthetics and not notice the difference, I suspect. But it's unconscious, unperceived thinking. My brain is capable of doing a lot of unconscious (subconscious) processing of ideas, too. The difference is in a robot, all the thinking would be unconscious. You would have to use tricks, deceptions, to accomplish the things that are caused in humans by consciousness (perception and free will.) It isn't hard for me to picture that in the future, a robot could be designed to trick people into thinking it was conscious. But it would still be a trick. The Turing test wouldn't be useful in answering the question "Is a computer conscious?" but only "Can a machine think?" The answer to the second question will be "Yes" but that isn't what we really wanted to know.

Another argument: this web page contains thoughts, stored on a hard drive. If a system rearranges thoughts and produces new thoughts, that seems to me to be a good definition of thinking.

A Hofstadter sort of thought

There are certain true statements that it is morally wrong to go spreading about. The preceding sentence is one of them.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007


When you perceive something, what parts of your brain are activated? This is called the Neural Correlate of Consciousness, or NCC. Here is an interesting paper that presents some recent evidence.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007


Does anyone else feel unsettled about the question "Is the glass half full or half empty?" Half full means half empty. There's no difference. Any difference you see is reading too much into it. It's like when I get into an argument and someone says, "That's what you said, but what you implied was..."
You get a related problem with lotteries. Optimists say, "Well, it's possible!" To which I reply, "No one ever said it wasn't. I just said it's very, very improbable." And then they call me Mr. Grouchy.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Writing about architecture is like dancing about music

BLDGBLOG is wonderful. Just browse through any of the old posts. One random example:

It has touches of Borges and Hofstadter, both of whom wrote monthly columns. I think there is a connection, an ability to come up with ideas quickly but too much impatience to squeeze them all into a novel. And perhaps that's for the best for people like this: too much time refining would have meant so many lost ideas.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Math Question

5 miles per hour is equivalent to 1 hour per 5 miles, right? So how come you can't say 1/5 h/m +1/5 h/m = 5 m/h +5 m/h? Is there some kind of reciprocal for addition?
I think maybe we treat adding sppeds as fractional addition, but it's actually something else that just happens to look like addition of fractions, but isn't, really.

Old Cities

Old cities are full of forgotten places. People build new additions onto the backs of their buildings, wall off rooms, die without transferring property. Subways are abandoned. There is an entire tribe of people who only live in these space between, a splinter group of gypsies that fell between the cracks and shadows of history.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

"The Inner Light" on Broadway

They are going to turn "The Inner Light" into a Broadway musical. Picard, Geordi, and Data will be played by the original actors, but everyone else is going to have to be replaced. The songs on board the Enterprise will be fairly cheesy, but the flute music on the planet will be evoking, and the song Picard's wife sings at the end will be a real tear-jerker. The rocket launch of the probe onstage will be a little over the top. The costume and set design will be better than the original program.


Houseboats are oxymorons. They are permanence made ephemeral. I imagine a neighborhood, a fleet of housebouts sailing around the world, stopping in at every port, sailing up the Amazon, until finally meeting their tragic end as they go over Niagara Falls.