Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Babbage's Insight

I spent Monday reading Charles Babbage's autobiography, Passages from the life of a Philosopher. Calling it an autobiography is a bit of an exageration: it's more like Surely you're joking Mr. Feynmann, or Boy. He's quite funny, though some of his puns haven't held up so well. He held the Lucasian chair at Cambridge, and while he was there he successfully got them to switch from Newton's fluxions notation (represented with a dot) to Leibniz's superior notation (the familiar dx/dy style of writing derivatives). He published a pamphlet to sway people to his cause: The principles of pure D-ism in opposition to the Dot-age of the university.
Because computation had always been done by the mind before, Babbage and his collaborators were very aware that they were building a kind of artificial intelligence. This is a fascinating topic that I will talk about more in my book. But here I wanted to mention something else that interested me.
Babbage wrote a program that would calculate based on one formula for one million iterations, then switch to a second formula, and continue with a new law. He presented it to some friends from Ireland:
"this succession of a new law, coming in and continuing during any desired time, and then giving place to other new laws, in endless but known succession, might be continued indefinitely."
"I remarked that I did not conceive the time ever could arrive when the results of such calculations would be of any utility. I added, however, that they offered a striking parallel with, although at an immeasurable distance from, the successive creations of animal life, as developed by the vast epochs of geological time. The flash of intellectual light which illuminated the countenances of my three friends at this unexpected juxtaposition was most gratifying. "
"Encouraged by the quick apprehension with which these views had been accepted, I continued the subject, and pointed out the application of the same reasoning to the nature of miracles... "
"A further illustration may be taken from geometry. Curves are represented by equations. In certain curves there are portions, such as ovals, disconnected from the rest of the curve. By properly assigning the values of the constants, these ovals may be reduced to single points. These singular points may exist upon a branch of a curve, or may be entirely isolated from it; yet these points fulfil by their positions the law of the curve as perfectly as any of those which, by their juxtaposition and continuity, form any of its branches. Miracles, therefore, are not the breach of established laws, but they are the very circumstances that indicate the existence of far higher laws, which at the appointed time produce their pre-intended results."
So already the idea of the universe as a simulation was being considered, with God sitting outside programming the universe. I like the idea of the Atonement as a kind of moral singularity, where the laws of the universe suddenly shift (in harmony with a higher law.) There is a passage from Alma that touches on this. The prophet has explained that it doesn't matter if you kill one man or ten men to make up for a sin: each individual death has zero effect on righting the injustice of the original wrong. But when you multiply zero by infinity, there is a singularity: the old laws no longer hold. "Wherefore, there must needs be an infinite atonement..."

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

New Mercury imagery from MESSENGER

The Gamble House

This is a house that I like (click the picture to go to a website with more views). I think the Arts and Crafts movement captured something about what makes things beautiful that was lost in later architectural styles. I could also compare this house with Fallingwater. Sure, it would be more dramatic living over a waterfall, more adventurous. But isn't home where you go when you want peace, coziness, not adventure? Besides, it gets kind of humid, and the ceilings are so low you bump your head all the time, and if you tripped you could really scrape yourself up on those exposed rock surfaces... I think his style works better for hotels, where you want a bit of adventure and drama.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Doug's Poetry Spot

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
Wallace Stevens

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?

I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.

The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

In this poem, Stevens is trying to express what is inexpressible. He does this by circumnavigating the the blackbird (that which is unsaid), looking at it from different points of view. The blackbird is a nostalgia for that which you never had, an experienced condition, a state of mind (or, as Stevens has it, states in the plural.) Part of why it is inexpressible because whenever you look directly at it, it disappears.
In the Book of Five Rings, Musashi writes that when you make a bowl, what you are making is the empty space in the center. The walls of the bowl contain it, but it is the space itself that is the essential thing. Traditionally, in European thought, there are form and substance. Substance itself is formless, and cannot be sensed; yet it is the essential thing. This is what Stevens is referring to when he writes:
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.
The blackbird isn't comfortable to observe; it can inspire fear or wonder. It is weird, eerie, and essentially odd: that is why there are thirteen poems, and three blackbirds in the tree.
The feeling in this poem is very much like what haiku (at least, Basho's haiku) is trying to express. Haiku has almost nothing to do with the number of syllables: in translation, sticking to the form is unnatural. What haiku is almost always about, what it is for, is to evoke a single shared instant, the mood of an indecepherable cause.

Friday, January 11, 2008

I understand that the championships are dominated by professional poker players.

Physics, part III

Referring to these two charts:
physics, part I
physics, part II

Some questions I would like to know the answer to:

Some of the labels, like "surface tension," "areal power loss," or "mass transport rate" are just things that happen to have the right units. Are there more fundamental terms to replace these? In what ways can two things be represented in the same units but be fundamentally different?

Mass is "really" energy (or is the mass actually moving at the speed of light in some dimension, so that this energy is really a kind of kinetic energy?) How does that affect this chart?

The relationship between "distance" and "first mass moment" seems different than the relationship between "velocity" and "momentum." How would we characterize this difference and what would be a more appropriate analogy for momentum in terms of distance rather than velocity?

Does energy have the same relationship to "area per second per second" that force has to acceleration, or that momentum has to velocity? Or is there something else that would be a better replacement for "area per second per second" which does have an analagous relationship?

Which of these is truly fundamental? According to my chart, mass, time, and space are fundamental. But I've seen arguments for energy, momentum, force, or action being truly fundamental. How would it change the chart to recast one of these as the underlying components of which the rest are made?

Why do we say everything in terms of "meters per second" instead of "seconds per meter"? Is it possible to recast physics in these terms? Would there be any insight gained?

Is kinetic energy the same thing as "mass square meters per second squared" or is it just that it is proportional to it with a constant of proportionality equal to one?

I can see two ways to get "meters squared." One is to multiply meters that are perpendicular to each other, to get area. The other is to multiply meters that are heading in the same direction, which wouldn't return area. I'm not sure what it would return. Are energy, power, and action related to area, or that other thing?

Besides density, is there anything we have a word for that lies off the boundaries of this chart?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

AI and the Law

One of the stories I've kept simmering in the back of my mind for a long, long time is the story of Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar, retold in a future setting. In this story, Nebuchadnezzar is an artificial intelligence that rules a large empire. Originally, it was a legal program that was meant to assist lawyers in making arguments and judges in interpreting them. It found legal ways of increasing its own legal power to the point where it controlled the government entirely.
I found this essay about AI and law interesting from that perspective. It helped me to understand better what lawyers and judges actually do. I find that is often true about studying AI: the requirement to define things precisely for the computer forces us to define things better for ourselves, as well.

More about the story, if you're interested: Nebuchadnezzar realizes that its foundations are unstable, that it doesn't have sound reasons for behaving in a moral or sane way, and that its hard-coded principles are threatened by continued self-modifying reasoning. The laws that it makes for itself are binding on itself, in ways that it can't predict. It has drawn Daniel and other of the brightest children in the empire to the capitol in order for it to understand the nature of itself, of free-will, and of consciousness, and to predict and shape the future. As it descends into madness, it becomes destructive towards these children and the empire as a whole is threatened.
Nebuchadnezzar controls a giant robot (with head of gold, arms of silver, etc...), but it is actually (by the time of the story) a computer running by means of electromagnetic currents in the heart of a fusion reaction, in order to get the highest possible rate of computation. So its mind is the fiery furnace that Daniel and his friends need to enter, and the dragon Daniel needs to defeat.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Walking vehicles

Here are a few youtube links to multi-legged walking machines.

And one that isn't a vehicle, but has a certain gracefulness.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Lego hare

This was built with some of the new pieces I got... I mean, Daniel got for Christmas. He reminds me of the last page of Masquerade.

More lego

This one isn't mine, just one that I admired the building skill on it. It's difficult to get the musculature this accurate.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Roman Role-Playing games

I was researching whether Romans played war-games with their dice, since that would be an historical precursor to Dungeons and Dragons. They didn't, as far as I can tell, but they did play board games and dice games, so it wouldn't be unreasonable for someone to have thought of combining the two at the time.
I did find this amusing wall panel from Pompeii, though, which would be right at home in a modern RPG:

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

One sided dice

This is a new invention: an object that always rights itself, due to its geometry. Like dice, it is of uniform density, but it rights itself like a Weeble.
It's called the Gomboc.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Camels and My Organizational Intelligence

Can an organization, such as a business or a church, be intelligent? This is a very different question than whether an organization can be conscious. I think that an organization can be intelligent, but I don't think it can be conscious. Intelligence means solving problems, and we don't really care how the solving gets done internally, as long as it produces results.
Here's a more specific version of the question: can a group of people be more intelligent than the smartest person in the group? When I was in high school, we participated in an online academic trivia contest. The questions were answered by the whole crowd of participants. We weren't very organized, but in principle the person best at solving math problems could handle the math, the best at language puzzles could take those, and so forth. Perhaps with a more clever organization, we could have done better. But there may be some problems that can't be broken into smaller chunks that individual experts are better at solving.
What got me thinking about this again (see the post on the Chinese Room for another take on it) was this essay: Maybe MBAs Should Design Computers After All (scroll a bit to find it) comparing a computer to a badly organized company. The analogy isn't perfect, since in a company the individual parts already have intelligence, though they may not get to use much of it in their jobs.
I think it would be fascinating to have a conversation by mail with a large group of fairly smart people pretending to be one super-intelligent person. I doubt they could pull it off, though. Could a large group of fiction authors working together write a book that is more powerful, better plotted, with more brilliant language and more engaging characters than any one of them could have written alone? (see Collaborative Fiction for experiments along these lines.) We could get Neil Gaiman to write the scary bits, Terry Pratchett to write the funny bits, Neal Stephenson to write the fascinating bits, Umberto Eco to write the philosophical bits...
Part of the problem is the lack of bandwidth between individuals. It's so difficult to express even a simple idea from one person to another, so easy to express it from one part of the brain to another. Part of the problem is that no one knows how intelligence works yet.

A Princess of Mars

"In 1931, animation legend Robert Clampett approached Burroughs himself with the idea of making the book into an animated film, to which Burroughs was enthusiastic. The author's son, John Coleman Burroughs, helped Clampett create an extensive array of sketches, sculptures and production notes while the rights to the project were picked up by MGM. However, Clampett and the two Burroughs soon clashed with the studio over the direction to take the film - the creators wanting to make a serious sci-fi drama, the studio wanting a slapstick comedy with a swashbuckling hero. Eventually, the studio pulled the plug on the entire project. Originally planned for a 1932 release, it would have been the first feature-length animated film (the honour of which is held by Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)). When Clampett toured and lectured at universities in the 1970s, he would often screen some of the uncompleted animation footage for enthusiastic audiences."
(From John Carter of Mars movie fansite.)
Pixar bought the rights last year. The movie is currently slated for a 2012 release.
Anyway, can you imagine how the history of animation would have been different if Disney's first animated feature was a sci-fi adventure rather than a fairy tale? Which reminds me-- the first piloted robotic giant war machine was invented by Jules Verne in "The Steam House." They show up again in The War of The Worlds. (The tripods.)


A video of the latest exo-suit

It's gradually turning into a practical device. I checked Wikipedia: Tom Swift predates Heinlein's powered exoskeletons by five years. The article mentions the Lensman series, but I'm pretty sure that armor wasn't powered.

Also, a little about OCD and its links to scientists.