Archive for the 'thought' Category

Computer Vagaries.

December 24, 2008

I was reading this article on Slashdot the other day and I couldn’t help but think about how many times I’ve seen this before.  I had actually started writing a post on this back in July, but I didn’t have enough ammunition to make my point.  This article provides ample evidence of how a user’s experience with PCs is not uniform between individual boxes.  This is not just dependent on operating systems.  Time and time again, I have experienced this.  For example, I could not get iTunes to install on one of my Vista boxes.  On an XP machine, Twitter doesn’t work.  On my iMac, I can’t get Firefox 3 to install. My experience as a hardware fanatic is one thing.  But what I wonder at is the experience of the average user.  A non-geek could buy a computer with Vista on it and try to install iTunes and fail.  Another user might be banned from ever experiencing Twitter and never be the wiser that the problem comes from the vagaries of one machine.

The latest example concerns my daughters’ computers.  I bought identical parts for them to make my life easier.  The free Nero program that came with the DVD drives works on one of the computers but not the other.  I have reinstalled windows twice in trying to resolve this.  It simply won’t run.  Yet, it runs fine on the other one.  I have a workaround.  Sonic works fine on the machine that hates Nero.  So I use Sonic.  It’s no big deal, but it bugs me.  Again it is supposedly identical computers behaving differently.

Digital isn’t supposed to be like this.  This is analog behavior.  The OP from Slashdot was about how computers and cores really aren’t the same from machine to machine. Each box develops its own idiosyncrasies.  I’m frankly amazed that computers work at all given this divergence.

But from an AI perspective and from the genetic algorithm perspective, this is crazy.  You’d have to develop using several different boxes simultaneously to allow for the divergence.

I was talking about this with Jason, AI researcher and the creator of Underworld Hockey Club (and also a Friday Night Party Line panelist) and I thought his comments were insightful:

“[O]ne interesting thing with genetic algorithms is that they learn with the computer.  If I train a checkers player on the cluster in the lab, that player will not be as good when I run it on my own computer.  It’s not stupid, but it’s not as good.  It’s because it’s tuned to the specific compiler & floating point operations of the cluster.  This is why we need online learning.  Genetic algorithms simulate evolution, but there aren’t any mature methods to simulate learning during the life of an individual.  A common belief that I share is that evolution contains 99% of the knowledge we need to survive, but without the 1% from learning, it is completely useless.  Look at deer, for example.  Baby deer (and other quadrupeds) are able to walk within minutes of being born.  Clearly, the basic constructs of coordination are tied to DNA (baby deer don’t flail stupidly until they figure it out), but the deer need learning to make sure that their programming works with their specific bodies.  One student in the lab is looking at neuroplasticity, which is the study of neural networks that can adapt to their environment in realtime.  It’s really interesting stuff.”

Always impressed by Neal Stephenson.

October 19, 2008

I’m just back from a trip and many notable things occurred.  In no particular order:  I bought and read Anathem on my Kindle; I gave a 3 ½ hour presentation and I met someone in person whom I admire hugely.  Thus the last 4 days have been eventful.  This is meant to be an introduction to some thoughts rather than a dear diary.

Every time I read Neal Stephenson, I am brought to face my own intellectual shortcomings.  He is a true mental giant.  His books show that he thinks more productively in a day than I do in a year.  It is a tough reality to face.  Reading a 900 page book like Anathem requires commitment from even strong readers.  Writing it is unimaginable to me.

His work entertains me but more importantly, it inspires me to work harder to know more.  His online acknowledgment list provides a great place for me to start.

He’s going to be in Toronto on October 30th.  If I weren’t so busy right now, I would go.  I wonder what it would take to bring him to Cleveland?

Grandiosity versus the low profile.

May 20, 2008

It occurs to me that some people put a lot of effort into leaving comments on blogs, posts in forums and even idle chatter in IRC (if you have enough windows open). It seems to me that this is low profile effort. If instead, someone took that time and effort and did his or her own blog or podcast, the result would reach more people. I have nothing against comments, posts or chats. I do all three. However, it’s not my primary internet thing. I get a lot more return for the blogging and podcasting that I do from being someone else’s minion. Yet, perhaps there is room to be both a minion in one instance and a star in another.

Some new business models are entirely dependent on getting people to comment/post/chat. In other words, the goal is to get advertising to pay for access to these folks. Perhaps some people don’t realize that? Also, if your goal is to reach out to the internet famous person at the top of the particular new media stack, sitting in the IRC for the show might not be the best way. Certainly, it’s not if you want to actually have a conversation.

This is something I’m thinking a lot about as I expand my own internet hobby ventures. For me, it is solely about the fun.

But on us both did haggish age steal on.

April 16, 2008

I saw two very old people in wheelchairs today at the airport.  I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen two people who looked more aged and frail.  No matter how vigorous you are in life, age will take you down.  I’d like to think that staying active can forestall the effects for some time, but ultimately I think it’s genetics.  For every hundred year old marathoner, you have thousands of wheelchair bound 80 year olds.

It’s just horrific.  My whole life I’ve dreaded the aging process.  Now I am firmly middle aged.  I feel good and all, but I certainly don’t have the wind and endurance I had when I was younger.  It is a motivation to begin exercising again.

I will say this about the old guy in the chair.  He was watching closely how they were wheeling the woman with him.  I’m assuming it was his wife.  He had dignity, this guy, and from what I could tell, some wits still about him too.

If it had to happen, he was at least making the best of it.

Twitter Nodes.

April 12, 2008

Last night, I had a video of David Allen running, I was reading blogs on blog mad and blog explosion and I was reading what people were saying on Twitter.  So I had audio input (I wasn’t really watching the video) new blog material from a variety of sources that I would not ordinarily read and the latest micro-blogging from people across the world.

Twitter is sort of like reality TV except that it’s real time.  Jaffejuice said that “Twitter is like a police scanner except you can talk to the police.”  I like that except we’re all the police.  I think it’s more like the Borg from Star Trek.  It gives you the latest information; the latest sensory input from organic nodes throughout civilization.  It is like a human botnet whose job it is to report what is happening at the moment.

Of course there is a lot of noise.  There are a lot of people talking about a lot of things in which I have no interest.  That’s why I was listening to Mr. Allen and reading blogs.  The combination of activity was far better than television or movie watching.  It was even better than playing a videogame.  It satisfied my relentless desire for new material.

I’ve written in the past how we are all nodes.  We get more connected every day.  But not all of us speak the same language and not all of us have the same interests.  Some of us are, sadly, quite annoying.  And when a node annoys me, I unfollow it.  I’ve done this three times so far and by the count of followers that I have, some people have unfollowed me as well.  This does not surprise me in the least.  I am an acquired taste.  Take this blog for example, while there are a fair amount of readers, I will never be Robert Scoble.  And that’s fine.

Virtual Navel Gazing.

April 11, 2008

I haven’t updated in a long time.  Mostly it’s been an issue of energy.  I have been putting all of my daily energy into real-life activity.  I have neglected my virtual life.  Even now, I’m lying here, in a hotel room only managing to write this with the magic that is voice-recognition software.

I’m still in playing with new technology.  My solar powered Bluetooth headset is waiting for me at home.  It is my fondest hope that I’ll be able to use that with this voice recognition software so that I can dictate from a distance without a cord.

Perhaps by beginning to write here again I will unleash the energy I need to blog with abandon.  At any rate, it’s a start.

I have been playing with Twitter a lot.  I was on Twitter a year ago, when it first came out.  I got bored with it pretty quickly.  But now there are a lot more people on it and it is genuinely fun.  Plus, I’m using my real life persona with it.  That’s different too.

I created this Internet persona some four or more years ago so I could have some level of anonymity.  However, it’s also a pain.  To the extent that I can use new media and social media in real life, it is far more enjoyable.  That’s another reason why I haven’t been writing much here.  The bang for buck isn’t as great.

Conversely the more I participate in Internet friendships and activity with my real identity, that identity begins to be subsumed into the cloud.  In other words, instead of a schizophrenic Internet life/real-life the two begin to merge.  Someday maybe I’ll abandon Thaed altogether.

It sounds heavy but what it really means is that I spend more time plugged into my laptop.  In fact my laptop becomes my constant waking companion.  I’m liking that a lot.  I dwell less in the basement but spend more time online.  What could be better than that?

Weizenbaum and Artificial Intelligence.

March 15, 2008

In the Wall Street Journal of all places, I read that Joseph Weizenbaum had died. He created the ELIZA computer program that simulates human interaction. While not a sophisticated program, it is always mentioned (and always will be mentioned) in discussions of artificial intelligence and Turing tests. With his simple program, Weizenbaum immortalized himself as an AI pioneer.

Even though artificial intelligence has its critics, it is already ubiquitous. Just today, I called UPS and spoke at length with a computer. It used voice recognition technology quite effectively to identify my package number. Even now, I am writing this with NaturallySpeaking 9.5. This voice recognition program is inherently based on artificial intelligence algorithms.

But artificial intelligence is not voice recognition alone. AI “perceives its environment and takes actions which maximize its chances of success.” Weizenbaum, clearly a gifted man, gave up computer programming and the field of artificial intelligence altogether later in life. In a way, he was better off than two recent leading authorities in the field. However, based on what I’ve read about him and his work, he really felt that humans shouldn’t rely on machines for decision-making. Of course, now, we do that every day. Pilots use AI to fly airplanes. People rely on AI in their cars without even knowing about it. At some point, people will rely on AI to make decisions about their lives. In one’s PDA, one will have a virtual psychiatrist/business planner/personal coach always at one’s fingertips. I suspect that Weizenbaum would not approve of this, but I think it’s better than, say, relying on Astrology for that same advice.

Weizenbaum was particularly put off by the fact that when ELIZA came out, people really took it seriously. Some people really couldn’t distinguish a simple pattern recognizer from a human being. If you have played with ELIZA, you may find this hard to believe. But remember it came out in 1966. No one had much experience with such things back then. No one had much experience with computers at all. This is how far ahead of his time Weizenbaum was.

At the same time, I think his dismay at how stupid people can be was misplaced. Artificial intelligence, in the form of an interactive program designed to pass Turing tests has not progressed much in the last 42 years. That is not to say that artificial intelligence has not progressed much, it has. However people have not built an interactive program designed to mimic humans with much more efficacy than ELIZA does. There have been some recent attempts and perhaps this is now becoming vogue once again.

Instead of worrying about people who can’t distinguish a computer program from a real person, think about how much these people can be helped. Look how many of the videos on YouTube are made by people who cannot see the consequences of their actions. A quick check with one’s personal digital mentor, might prevent the disastrous outcome from the typical “hey y’all watch this” YouTube adventure. Or Weizenbaum, who was clearly smarter than I am, could be right and such AI development could lead to a Terminator-style apocalypse. I suspect, however, no matter the outcome, such AI is inevitable in time.

“We can’t go on together…”

March 7, 2008

People were making fun of Priscilla Presley the other day. They said that her plastic surgery made her look bad. I don’t know. I looked at some pictures online and she looks the same as she always has to me. Then people were picking on her daughter, Lisa Marie. I guess she’s pregnant. People were calling her fat. People can be so cruel.

I finished watching “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” this evening. I really enjoyed this series. Hollywood scuttlebutt indicates that the series will be renewed in the fall. I cannot tell you how much I hope that this is so. There was a show on afterwards advertised during the commercials (that I mostly fast forwarded through). It was a show about a detective who had been alive for 400 years. I guess it’s kind of a Dorian Gray sort of thing. Although in this case there’s no portrait, from the previews it looks like he got his immortality from Mystic Indians. Ah yes, the Mystic Indian plot device. It is not so commonly used as falling down an elevator shaft or amnesia, but it is used.

I don’t really have many memories of Elvis Presley. I remember my neighbors really loved him. I’ve known people throughout my life who collected Elvis memorabilia. Some people truly revere him as the King. We used to joke in college, that in 3000 years people would worship him like a prophet. We really don’t have to wait 3000 years do we?

Tonight I fell.

February 27, 2008

As I was unloading my three bags from the back of my van, I took a step back away from the van. I lost my footing and fell. The driveway was snow-covered and slippery; I should have been more careful. I landed on the small of my back. A few inches lower, and I would’ve landed on my ass. That would’ve been a lot less painful.

As I lay there in pain, I could feel my feet and I knew I wasn’t paralyzed. I contemplated yelling for help but I realized that that would have been ridiculous. I slowly pulled myself up and dragged my bags into the house. It wasn’t until some time later that I realized I had a casualty.

In my basement office, I opened the cases. I carry a small personal laptop that I bought last June at Best Buy. It’s a Gateway and it’s been quite good. When I opened it I discovered that the screen had shattered in my fall. I don’t know if I landed on it or if I merely slammed it against the concrete. I called the good people at Gateway. The screen is $500 to repair. Out the door, after-tax, the laptop cost $752.49 new. It doesn’t make sense to repair it.

Despite the destroyed screen, the rest of the laptop works. It has a modest dual core processor and a 160 gig hard drive. It will run an external monitor. So while I no longer have a laptop, I still have a functioning desktop computer. Still as I sit here this evening with a sore back and damaged computer, I’m not very happy. I’m tempted to spend the rest of my saved hobby funds on a new laptop. But then I wouldn’t get to build a new flagship desktop machine. This is what been saving for.

I suppose I need to think about it some more. We’ll see.

Economic activity versus creative output.

February 24, 2008

Last year I started a gaming podcast and restarted a roundtable style podcast. I wrote fairly frequently in this blog and put up some videos on YouTube. Anyone who has done things like this will tell you that it is a reward in itself. But like anything else, you can burn out on it.

This year I have not made a single show for the gaming podcast. The roundtable style podcast has a show in the can that I have not edited for posting. I have written sporadically in this blog and haven’t done much with YouTube videos lately.

Usually when this happens, it is because I’m busier at work. That’s true now, but I also have had less energy. I’ve been going to bed at 9:30 p.m. I think it is just a phase of the winter months. In any event, I’m trying to shake some things up by getting up earlier.

But the main reason that I am doing fewer creative ventures is because I’m putting all of my creative energy into work. When I say work, I mean my main job, the source of my economic activity in life.

We all have approximately 16 hours of waking time each day. In this cage of time, there are only so many clicks. The higher the percentage of time that I use those moments for economic activity benefits me (and my family). If I am lucky enough to be doing work that I enjoy, then all the better.

This is not to say that freestyle creative projects don’t have value. Clearly they do. I’ve spent hundreds of hours doing creative work online for nothing. I did it because I enjoyed it. I’ve even had some ideas for other podcasts (one on computers for example). Now is not the time to launch some sort of new creative venture. Instead it is time to work as hard as I can in real life and only blow off creative steam when I need to.

When a creative venture starts to feel like work and I’m not getting paid for it, it’s time to end the venture. That’s really the case with the gaming podcast. I have some ideas for the show but I also have work projects that I’d rather complete instead. The other podcast is more precious to me but I see that becoming more infrequent as well.

It’s just the way that it is.