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.

Japanese stories

Kwaidan is a marvellous book of Japanese ghost stories.

Illusory asimultaneity

A previously unknown link between time and light.

Worlds within worlds

I found this large map of the "World Islands" near Dubai. It's a set of artificial islands to sell as real estate. I wonder if this map is on the island version of Dubai? Can you see a microscopic copy of it there on the table?

There was a relief map of Salt Lake in Liberty Park. They had a plaque on the location of the sculpture within the sculpture.

If we all made one of these in our back yards, the world would become a fractal of itself.

Monday, May 21, 2007

How Wikipedia will wake up

This AI system reads news stories to learn and answer questions about the stories in natural English.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

I got this at a garage sale. Now if anyone calls and asks, "Do you have Prince Albert in a can?" I can reply, "Why, yes I do!"

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Ambient Occlusion

This picture looks like it's shaded correctly, but if you look carefully you'll realize that the light isn't coming from any particular direction. "Ambient occlusion" is a fairly new way to do shading in computer graphics to get results like this. It basically simulates light coming equally from all directions, like on a cloudy day. This is more realistic than you would think, since a surprising amount of light comes from bounces off other surfaces in the scene, rather than your direct primary light source. But you don't need to simulate all those bounces-- that's called radiosity and it takes a lot of computation. Instead, just look at the angle each patch of the scene forms with nearby patches. An area that is in a valley (like under the eaves of the house) will tend to be shadowed.
You can get this same effect when painting a minature. When you're done painting it, give the whole thing a coat of thinned black paint. Then pat off the paint. Some paint will get stuck in the wrinkles and not come off when you pat it.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The life cycle of a chess colony

Chess colonies are black, though the albino variation is almost as common. The individuals have a roughly cylindrical segmented body plan. The queen is the largest and strongest member of the colony. She deposits her eggs in a special sack in her mate, the drone or "king." There they are fertilized and carried until they hatch. (This resembles the reproductive behavior of seahorses, which chess colonies are distantly related to.) Since the king is loaded with the eggs, he cannot move very quickly and the colony acts to defend him. If the king dies, the colony will quickly follow.
An egg hatches into a larval stage called a "pawn." These larvae are slow moving and spread outward from the colony, foraging for food. When they have grown large enough, depending on the local environmental conditions, they will mature into one of the specialized forms, including three warrior forms in addition to the queen and king already mentioned. Each of these forms has a distinctive head shape and movement behaviors.
These colonies are very territorial and will viciously attack other colonies they come into contact with, until they have killed the king.

*Japanese and Chinese chess colonies have somewhat different behaviors and life cycles.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Circle of Life

Penguin llama, penguin on Obama.
Penguin llama, penguin on Obama.

Physics part 2

seconds^-3jerkarea per second^3
seconds^-2angular acceleration / frequency driftaccelerationarea per second per second
seconds^-1hertz (units per second)velocityarea per second

These two charts are a kind of cheat sheet that encodes formulas like F = mA and E = m v*v. It's interesting that the times are all inverse powers, but the distances are all positive powers. An exception would be if you added density to this chart. Improvements or additions to these charts would be appreciated.


seconds^-3areal power losslinear power losspower
seconds^-2surface tensionforceenergy
seconds^-1mass transport ratemomentumaction
massfirst mass momentmoment of inertia

Monday, May 14, 2007


This page gives the true history of Rock, Paper, Scissors. It was once a game where you held out from zero to five fingers, and the winner was decided by who had the lowest number-- with the exception that five beat zero. The numbers 1 through 4 were redundant (playing 2, 3, or 4 is a strategic mistake) so the game was reduced to only the throws 2 (scissors), 5 (paper) and zero (rock.) The game was originally invented in China, was popular in Japan by the 1700s, and was virtually unknown in the West in the late 1800s (judging by books of children's games) but commonly known in Europe and the U.S. by the early 1900s.

Here is some additional history:

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Maslow's heirarchy of twaddle

Maslow's "hierarchy of needs" is nonsense unsupported by experiment. Question: Do people turn to religion when they are fat and happy, or desperate, hungry, and tired?
Some other things in the same pile: "outside-the-box" creativity builders, emotional and multiple intelligences, Bloom's Taxonomy, Freudianism, Myer's-Briggs types, and the right-brained/left-brained dichotomy.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Hearing for sight

This project is a way of translating vision into sound. It translate height into pitch and x-position into stereo. It sweeps across the scene once per second. This is a proposal for another way to do it.
Our brains are good at figuring where in space a particular sound came from. We can make earphones that can reproduce these sounds as if they were coming from certain points in space.
There are too many things in the scene for them all to emit sound. It would be a cacaphony. We need to pick out the points that would give us the most information. Those points are the corners. Imagine if a tiny bell was placed in each corner of the room. Using image compression techniques, all the information in a scene can be summarized by the corners. Also, the corners don't change as you walk around an object or change the lighting. As you approached the bell or turned your ear toward it, it would grow louder. The volume of a corner could be proportional to its corner-ness (The image shows how this might work. That's Peter Kovesi's phase congruency for corner detection, by the way.)

We can listen to different voices in a party by directing our attention to them. In the same way, if the sound coming from a corner is rich enough (not just a beep, but more like a voice or a melody) we can get additional information from it about the properties of the object it is coming from such as color or texture. This part would need to be experimented with.

Text detected in the room could be read aloud by the system at its own location in space.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

I don't mind; it doesn't matter

It's a standard trope in the kind of movies they used to show on Saturday afternoons: two people exchanging minds. In cartoons, it's usually done with electrified hemispheric caps; live- action films tend to go with a modified cross-fade. It brings up the problem of personal identity.
What is being transferred in a mind-switch is something non-material. But memories (including skills and habits) are encoded in the physical structures of the brain. So the transferred mind would not remember ever having been in a separate body. I may be swapping minds every day, and not noticing, because my memories always tell me, whatever body I am in, that I have always been in this body.
I think there would be a difference that is noticeable over time. I think that the transferred mind experiences qualia, and also makes free choices that are not causally determined by what is in the brain. These choices include moral choices. A good person would not become evil just because they suddenly have new evil memories and habits.
It might take some time for this change to show up, because of the force of habits. The difference may be subtle. The mind would not know that a switch had occured, but looking back at its (adopted) memory, it would find itself unable to understand why it had acted the way it did. It would be very much like what we describe when we say someone has "experienced a change of heart."
It could also be that the mind would literally "see the world differently." (This is the inverted spectrum argument.) The mind would not realize that the memories were inconsistent with the present perception because when it pulled up a memory of green grass to compare, the memory would cause the mind to experience its current green qualia rather than the other mind's green qualia.
After we die, our memories and skills would be left behind to decay along with the physical matter of the brain (barring divine intervention.) Those things are part of our bodies, not our eternal being. Believers in reincarnation should not expect to retain memories of past lives.

Monday, May 7, 2007


His problem, he realized finally, was that (all assertions of economists to the contrary) his preferences were not transitive. Because he was lazy, he preferred doing nothing to doing good. Because he was easily bored, he preferred doing evil to doing nothing. And because he had a guilty conscience, he preferred doing good to doing evil. Sometimes it took him months to go through the cycle. Sometimes it all happened in a single afternoon, as he started off helping his neighbor move, got tired and went home to watch the American Idol marathon, got bored and started vandalizing Wikipedia, and then felt guilty about it.

The Chinese Room Argument

"So it was that under Prince Cheng's direction, the beureaucrats created the Sage of Seven Floors. Illiterate peasant farmers were gathered from the entire province. A few were assigned the task of recieving the mail and setting the incoming letters into type. The rest were each given a set of complex instructions with inscrutable purposes for how to organize and rearrange the fragments that were passed to their desks. The characters they manipulated were not printed on paper, but the printers blocks themselves were passed around, as many of their directions involved rearrangement or substitution of these characters. Over the years, some of the workers learned to read a few of the characters, but because each was only given fragments of a message to work on, none ever saw more than a small part of the picture. Yet because of the cleverness of the divisings of the beureaucrats, the Sage produced wise and beautiful answers to all the questions that were sent to it. For as a team of weak men can pull a great stone that could not be pulled by any giant, so the farmers as a group were said to be wiser than any single man."

Thursday, May 3, 2007


Osterhase was the pet of Eos-Aster, the dawn star. It is her image we see in the moon. She was once a bird, but was changed into a rabbit by her unpredictable mistress. She still lays eggs that are more beautiful than any precious stones, each one unique.

Sites I try to read every week

Science Fiction authors' blogs:
Orson Scott Card
David Brin
Neil Gaiman

Myst brothers' blogs:

News sites:
this week's finds


Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Ars Combinatorica


"Hello, Mary."
She looks up at me. Her eyes are large and black. Her hair and lips are black, too, and her face very pale. She is wearing a grey sweater and black jeans. She smiles at me.
"Just a minute," she says, "I have to do this blood test." She pricks her finger with a tiny metal thorn. A drop of blood forms. It looks exactly like ink. She guesses the question I am about to ask. "My blood cells contain melanin and other pigments," she says. "It's all part of this..." She gestures around the room, taking in the grey books, the white carpet, the black furniture. Her whole life, she means.
"Do you mind?" I ask, turning on the voice recorder. It had to be painted before I was allowed in. The red light was removed.
"Not at all," she says, as she finishes her test.
"What's that you're reading?" I ask, gesturing at the papers on her desk.
"Oh, some new papers on neuroscience, art theory, philosophy. I try to keep up to date."
I ask some more questions about her work, her life at the Institute, her friends. Finally I ask her the question.
"I've thought about it, of course," she says. "That's what my work is all about. I feel apprehensive, sometimes excited, sometimes a little scared. I'm not sure what people will want me to say, even when it's over. How will I be able to tell them what it means to me? How will it solve anything?"
She shows me her paintings. They are done with Chinese brushes and black ink. There is a stormy sea, and a dove, and a raven. The last one shows Noah, climbing out of the ark, looking up and wondering.

How information and energy are connected

We talk about conserving energy in our households by turning off lights. But energy is always conserved, it’s a law of nature. What we are trying to conserve is usable energy. What’s the difference between usable and unusable energy? The answer is that usable energy is energy where we know what direction it is headed. Unusable energy is energy that we no longer know what it’s doing. What has been lost is not energy but knowledge. We are trying to conserve not energy, but knowledge of the truth. Since our lights can’t run on the one kind of energy but they can run on the other, you could say that they don’t run on energy, but truth.