Saturday, January 31, 2009

Anathem and Escher

1. Playing with levels of reality 
2. Platonic space
3. Monks
4. Tiling
5. Math nerds
6. Giant icosahedon in space

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Kircher and Electromagnetic Waves

Athansius Kircher set up a series of magnets, each able to spin freely.  When the first was jostled, it set the second one moving and so on down the line, in a wave of magnetic influence.  He suggested this might be used as a way to send messages, and proposed that it was how influences from the planets could propagate through the medium between worlds.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


A Tamagotchi is a kind of digital pet.  I think the most popular digital pet these days is Nintendogs, though I could be wrong.  Basically, they are all the same: if you pet the creature and give it treats, it acts happy and thrives.  If you neglect it or punish it too much, it acts dejected.
The digital creature is not really experiencing pleasure and pain when it is treated in these ways.  We can be sure of this because the code for experiencing pleasure and the code for experiencing pain are almost identical.  And these procedures are so simple that they show up in every kind of program and device, not just those for simulating puppies.A reasonable person would agree that a Tamagotchi does not feel real pain while a puppy does.
The question that no scientist can answer is, how does real pain and pleasure happen in the puppy?  The simulation of the puppy is much simpler than a real puppy, it's true.  But the things that are missing-- comprehension of ideas, more senses, greater motor control, anticipation of the future and memory of the past, and so forth, don't seem necessary for the raw sensation of pain or pleasure.  Even profoundly brain-damaged individuals without any of these abilities can still experience pleasure and pain.
In the future, these simulations will become more realistic in appearance and have more of these mental abilities.  But the key ability-- the ability to actually have subjective experiences-- is still missing. Whatever it is the brain is doing is something different than what the computer is doing.  In the puppy, 
Patting causes pleasure which causes behavior.
In the Tamagotchi,
Patting causes behavior.
Scientists are aware of this "explanatory gap," but to date no one has any way to explain what it is that the brain is doing to create subjective experiences.

Monday, January 26, 2009

State of Mind

The ancient Greeks used the word "spirit" (pneuma) in both senses that we do: 
1. the individual soul (what the psyche is derived from) 
2. the general feeling of a group (a spirit of contention, team spirit, a spirit of cooperation)
So when Plato wants to talk about how the human mind works, and why it makes sense for an individual to do the right thing rather than just appear to do the right thing, it is natural for him to make an analogy between the mind and the city-state.  He says (paraphrasing) "the matter is hard to see.  But the same way we can read something written in big letters easier than when the same thing is written in small letters, we can look at a state (which is much larger than an individual person) and see how things work inside it.  And then we can assume that the analogy holds and the same thing is happening in the makeup of an indivdual human mind." Plato recognizes that a mind is made up of comprehensible parts and has a structure to it, a complex organization like we see in a society. The entire book The Republic is basically developing this analogy.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Best Free Photoshop Plugins

There are millions of free Photoshop plugins out there, but few are actually useful.  These are a few I have found that I really like.

GML Growcut: a very easy way to make selections (the hardest part of Photoshop.) The free version can be found here:

Fast Fourier Transform: there are many tricks you can do with a Fourier Transform.  The key one is removing a regular texture from your image (for example, if it's scanned from a magazine.) You'll need to read a tutorial before you can do anything with this.

Flaming Pear: the ones I use the most are Solidify A, which fills in (in a blurry way) an area you delete from the image, Ghost which turns white to transparent, and RGB->HSL, for when you want to mess with the Hue or Saturation channels.  

Fantastic Machines Paint Engine: The old Beta works fine and is really good for painterly effects. It takes some experimenting with to get the best results.

SAT deblock: JPEG artifact removal.  It really works better than other methods of fixing overcompressed JPEG's. Most blur away the artifacts and leavy blurry patches, but the shape adaptive algorithm only blurs from directions that don't cross edges.

Insta-Sketch Beta: For turning photos into pencil-sketches. Works best on a plain background. He has a few other NPR actions here you could try out, too.

If you want to buy something, I'd recommend Smart Fill from Alien Skin, Buzz Pro from Fo2Pix (defunct?), or India Ink from Flaming Pear. 

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Subtle emphasis

When I read words in bold, it has the intended effect of emphasis, but jolts me out of the reading flow. What the world needs is subtle bold, to convey emphasis subliminally.
One might experiment with subtle variations in word color, italicization, or font (the serifs grow longer as the speech becomes more formal, and sprout little curlicues as it becomes downright florid.)

Saturday, January 3, 2009


I asked my Mom to make a stuffed Hobbes doll for my son Daniel. The idea was to make it look kind of like the stuffed version of the doll from the comic, but with enough of the fuzz near the cheeks to be instantly recognizable as Hobbes. He really loves it and carries it around with him in various floppy ways.

Edit: There have been a lot of requests for my mom to make more of these, but she isn't interested in doing that.  She knows Bill Watterson doesn't want the strip commercialized.