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.