Saturday, February 27, 2010


One of my earliest memories, from when I was three or four years old, is sitting on the sidewalk, looking at the house across the street. I believed that monsters lived there.  These monsters looked like ordinary people (in fact I don't recall having met them personally) but what they were supposed to do was the opposite of what we were supposed to do. Their parents told them to be mean to other people, and not to share, and to mess up their rooms. This last one seemed particularly  unfair, as their job seemed so much easier than mine.
There are a couple of things that strike me now, looking back on that:
1. I thought that cleaning one's room was a key part of moral behavior, and that not cleaning my room was immoral. When I read Seventh Son in junior high, the idea that people who invented things and made artwork were good, and that evil was the Unmaker really resonated with me. I think the two had something to do with each other.
2. At age three I was speculating on the possibility that moral requirements are different for people in other cultures, and that other cultures were monstrous. Even much later, into high school, the explanation I gave myself for the way people behaved towards me was that most people were actually trolls.  This wasn't meant literally, but simply to convey that their minds were as different from my own as another hominid species that would think nothing of feasting on human flesh.
For example: why would they drive past me, a pedestrian, and yell out the window rude comments as they drove by?  I understood, intellectually, that this must somehow be an activity that caused them pleasure, since it caused them to laugh, but I was completely perplexed by it on an emotional level. Or in study hall-- why would everyone want to spend the whole time talking, and have to be repeatedly punished to get them to stop?  Why didn't they want to sit quietly and draw aliens in their trapper keeper? It must be that their minds were organized completely differently than my own. And why did they enjoy anything having to do with sports? They couldn't be wrong in an absolute sense, since they were clearly in the majority, yet it never occured to me that I might be strange, only that I was living in an entire world of monsters. This perplexity kept me socially isolated and unhappy in school a lot of the time.
3. The idea that a rule to mess up your room instead of cleaning it was much easier to live by finally made sense when I learned about entropy when I was about eleven. (Not from school, of course.) Everything wants to get messy, and everything we do to fix it makes things worse somewhere else. The concept fascinated me, especially when I learned about the connections with information theory.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Aggregating risk

I'm sure this is common knowledge for finance majors, but it seemed like a surprising conclusion to me.

Suppose you have the opportunity to take a risk-- the price is $1000, and there is a 1 in 1000 chance of winning $2,000,000.  The "expected value" of this is $2000, but I would still argue that it would be a bad idea for most people to take this risk.  It's hard to come up with $1000, and chances are you would never hit the jackpot your whole life.

On the other hand, suppose you have the resources of a bank at your disposal: $100,000,000. If you played this game 100,000 times with that money, you would win around 100 times.  You would be virtually certain of approximately doubling your money. Your chance of not getting back more than you spent is tiny. It would be very foolish not to take this risk.

Isn't it odd that doing something once is a bad idea, but doing it 100,000 times is a good idea?

(Of course in the real world, risks aren't usually independent rolls of the dice like this but are correlated, which explains how the recent mortgage securities crash was possible.)

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Country of Engravings

In that country, a system of trade has developed which is unique among the lands I have visited.  I have had to reconstruct the history, as it is no longer remembered, but it seems it must have been as follows:
Certain artists found it convenient to trade their paintings and drawings for shelter and food. This arrangement worked well, and the artists began to make compact and portable drawings that they could carry on their persons, to use for trade in such places as they found themselves.
A certain artist, an engraver by trade, printed up engravings of a popular sort and used these in place of drawings, finding the production of them more simple.  Others found such a system sensible, and they too became engravers, to the point that much of the country was engaged in creating engravings, and very few in the labors that benefit society materially. When the situation had grown untenable, a solution was proposed that a single printer could handle all of the work, freeing up other artists time to spend on gardening and so forth.  This solution was universally acclaimed, and the work was given to one indivdual, in the employ of society as a whole. To further save effort, he chose to only produce a few engravings, though in such prodigous quantities that there were enough for all who desired them. The artwork itself, though very carefully executed, soon grew unappealing through too much repitition, but the system was so much of an improvement of the previous system that few complained.

The Art Notorious

Johannes Trithemius (1462-1516) was an abbot in Germany. He wrote a three volume work entitled Steganographia. On the surface, it appears to be a magic text, demonstarting through the use of prayers, long lists of the names of angels and demons, and tables of astrological data, one can send messages without any possibility of interception. He became a major influence of later magicians and students of the occult. It was only many years later that people realized that his books were ciphertexts-- encoded messages. The lists of names and tables of numbers stood for letters in secret messages.

Another medieval magic text was the Art Notorious, or Art of Memory. It promised, among other things, to give the reader the power to commit to memory any text, no matter how long. This was done by imagining (or actually) walking through a vast cathedral or magical symbol, and at each stop associating the place with the words to be remembered. It also contained this tongue twister that was supposed to be a prayer/spell to give the reader eloquence:

Thezay lemach ossanlomach azabath azach azare gessemon relaame azathabelial biliarsonor tintingote amussiton sebamay halbuchyre gemaybe redayl hermayl textossepha pamphilos Cytrogoomon bapada lampdayochim yochyle tahencior yastamor Sadomegol gyeleiton zomagon Somasgei baltea achetom gegerametos halyphala semean utangelsemon barya therica getraman sechalmata balnat hariynos haylos halos genegat gemnegal saneyalaix samartaix camael satabmal simalena gaycyah salmancha sabanon salmalsay silimacroton zegasme bacherietas zemethim theameabal gezorabal craton henna glungh hariagil parimegos zamariel leozomach rex maleosia mission zebmay aliaox gemois sazayl neomagil Xe Xe Sepha caphamal azeton gezain holhanhihala semeanay gehosynon caryacta gemyazan zeamphalachin zegelaman hathanatos, semach [106] gerorabat syrnosyel, halaboem hebalor halebech ruos sabor ydelmasan falior sabor megiozgoz neyather pharamshe forantes saza mogh schampeton sadomthe nepotz minaba zanon suafnezenon inhancon maninas gereuran gethamayh passamoth theon beth sathamac hamolnera galsemariach nechomnan regnali phaga messyym demogempta teremegarz salmachaon alpibanon balon septzurz sapremo sapiazte baryon aria usyon sameszion sepha athmiti sobonan Armissiton tintingit telo ylon usyon, Amen.
What interests me about all of these magic books is that they actually would have worked. Trithemius's book did send undetectable messages, the Art of Memory did increase the ability to remember, and the spell for eloquence really would have been good practice for speaking.

What they have in common is that they were magic about the mind. Magic words can affect reality, but only by passing through a mind into a body and out into the world. The act of speaking "I do" creates a real and permanent change in the world if spoken during the proper ceremony, along with the rings of binding.

When people say that magic is only an illusion, or a trick, they're missing the point. Creating the illusion in people's minds is the magic.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

My Painting

(Click image to view full size)

 This combines my sketch filter (for the prominent under-drawing), a watershed algorithm (to reduce the number of colors), a brushstroke filter, and a canvas texture.