Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Understanding the self

Journal entry from 2/21/12

Like Dean Young says about Keats's Ode to a Nightengale:

"The self is not a fixed thing, rather a movement:  A collection of arrived-at and abandoned impulses and conflicting conclusions, one X over another." (The Art of Recklessness, pg 54)

But as much as our self wanders throughout the day, we, like Keats being dragged back to his forlorn self, always return to that place where we lay our head on the pillow.  Our routines bind us to an identity and give us an illusion of control in a constantly changing world.

Part of our fear of algorithms finding our patterns is that we cannot, or don't want to, break out of them.  Besides, if we do break out, how long before we fall back in?  Do we converge on an invariant identity, categorizable, well-defined, predictable?  Is it even possible to ever break out?  Breakouts become patterns of their own, part of the overall texture of a pattern.

But behold!  We break free, forth into the darkness or the light, ever-changing world where we try new things, jumping off the dock into green water, skiing through the trees, propelling ourselves into space, falling in love, adapting to change, creating new ideas, new things, new ways of being.  In the big picture, we are unpredictable, and in the microcosm of a moment we are as well.  It is only in the quotidien cycle of waking and sleeping, following our routines, that we are most predictable.

So then the most unpredictable we could be would be to change daily or weekly or cyclic habits.  But who would want to?  It is the cycle that gives us a sense of stability.  The predictability is good, reliable.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Christine Miller

"Death is not a fearful thing, it's living that's treacherous."

That is a quote by Jim Jones that I pulled from the second track of the amazing debut album from Cults, who pulled it from the notorious and profoundly sad Jonestown Death Tape.  I hadn't really thought much about the Jonestown disaster since I was little, when I remember seeing the pictures of the bloated bodies and the purple Flavor Aid in a book about photojournalism.  (Actually, come to think of it, that book introduced me to several major atrocities.)

After discovering the SDSU Jonestown website, "Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple," I came across this incredibly sad and fascinating story of Christine Miller.  She alone stood in dissent of Jim Jones's horrific scheme, but she was ultimately suppressed by the crowd and possibly murdered by lethal injection.

Read.  Listen.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Apostrophes of possession with proper nouns

add 's to the singular form of the word (even if it ends in -s):
the owner's car
James's hat (James' hat is also acceptable. For plural, proper nouns that are possessive, use an apostrophe after the 's': "The Eggleses' presentation was good." The Eggleses are a husband and wife consultant team.)

"James' hat" may be acceptable, but it is clearly wrong.  James's name is James, and there is only one of him.  I will grant that the intention of the apostrophe in that phrase is disambiguated by the fact that the word hat is singular.  However, there would be no need to refer to that implication if the writer's use of apostrophes was consistent between singular and plural nouns.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Elegy for Reason

you pantsed me
and then I pantsed you back
you pantsed me and then
I pantsed you back and then
I pantsed your mother
said one little god to the other
and then I pantsed the president
said the little drummer
I pantsed your brother
said my sister
what does it all mean
what does it all mean
you pantsed a honey bee
you pantsed a honey bee

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Art from a Machine

In a recent episode of Radiolab, Jad and Robert sampled some of the more intriguing views of Alan Turing.  One of Turing's most exciting insights was that we humans are essentially just biological machines.  From there, they entertained a brief discussion on whether or not a machine could ever produce a work of art.

To create a work of art, a machine would need to have an understanding of concinnity.  That is the perfect union of all parts of a work of art: its form, its function, its ability to inspire new thoughts, its originality (novelty), etc.  Concinnity is the harmonious involution of all those things that make a piece profoundly beautiful.  But a machine could pass a Turing test and still not be capable of recognizing beauty on any level.  Nor could it necessarily be capable of empathy.

"The highest accomplishment of the human consciousness is the imagination, and the highest accomplishment of the imagination is empathy."  - Dean Young (The Art of Recklessness)

I do agree that we are biological machines, albeit marvelously intricate and wildly capable ones, the likes of which have never been seen before on this or any other known world.  However, simply because a machine can be mistaken for a human in casual conversation does not mean that it is capable of anything more than that very thing.  In fact, Turing concedes as much in his paper "Computing Machinary and Intelligence", which is where he first proposed the test.  The point of the Turing test is to prove that a machine is capable of thought, for that definition of thought given in the paper's introduction.

Now we are at a point in time when we are seeing machines capable of testing that barrier more earnestly each year.  It will soon be broken through, but we will have still only barely scratched the surface of the field of Artificial Intelligence.  I think that when the test is finally passed for the first time, there will be a frenzy of sensationalistic media coverage about "machines that can think," "human exceptionalism," etc.  But that will be a classic misinterpretation of scientific results.  The question that most people who are not AI researchers will be thinking is can we make a machine that behaves like a human being, not can we make a machine that is capable of passing the Turing test.

For me, and I'm sure many, the true test of a machine's ability to behave like a human will be to feel empathy and interpret beauty.  It may be possible that one is a necessary condition for the other.  Those are barriers that I do not think we will live to see breached, although I would be excited to be proven wrong.

Put in that perspective, it seems like being able to build a machine that could hold a convincing conversation should be mere child's play.  A vastly more impressive accomplishment will be building a machine that is capable of works of art, and even more that is capable of building other machines that are capable of works of art, ad infinitum.  Of course, even then it will have been a HUMAN accomplishment.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Exercise as an expression of self-loathing

Like you, or unlike you, I sometimes find myself trudging under the weight of some anxiety, which after some time trenches into an open pool of guilt and irrational self-loathing.  These days when that happens I think of forcing myself to exercise because I don't enjoy exercising just for the sake of it.  So it begins as an act of aggression against a guttering mind, a self-destructive behavior, but in the process it often rekindles the mind and strengthens the body.  Somehow I am actually drawing on the angst to press myself.  It's a little sadistic, but also masochistic.  I am both the dealer and the recipient of pain, pushing myself to run further, faster, longer, proving, disproving.

But isn't that how all exercise is?  And of course who REALLY enjoys exercising just for the sake of it?  Isn't it always this push and pull of sadomasochism?  Somewhere in our minds we're disgusted with who we are becoming, so we use exercise as a weapon against that person, which requires overpowering the body's inclination to remain comfortably at rest.

I suspect that most successful people in this world and throughout history have found motivation in creating distance between themselves and that which they have considered revolting, namely failure in themselves or others.  But in focusing on that failure as a means of inspiration, we're really embracing it.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Some things I've learned about running

1) You don't like doing it? Nobody likes doing it. Just shut up and go.

2) You don't have 30 minutes you can spare? I don't believe you.

3) You really don't have 30 minutes? The President finds time to exercise. So can you.

4) If you get out there 3-4 times in one week, it actually starts sucking less, and after a couple weeks, your body actually starts craving it.

5) Just run until you can't run anymore. You don't have to kill yourself over it, just go. Every time you go you're doing yourself a favor, and next time you'll be able to go further.

6) If you let more than three days pass between runs, you'll regress. See rule #1.

7) Unless you really enjoy running, which I don't, you don't need to run more than about 3 miles at a time to be fit. If you still have some time after that, you should move on to other things, like core strengthening, flexibilty, balance, and power (that's the actual order of my priorities).

Sunday, March 04, 2012


Ceviche is one of those dishes that I could never have enjoyed as a Missourian (let alone as a West Virginian) twenty years ago. It is only because of our modern food supply chain that I can purchase fresh cod and fresh octopus at Whole Foods in Brentwood, along with a bag of limes, oranges, lemons, cilantro... It really is breathtaking to think of all the amazing foods we have access to these days.

Here is a story that could only happen in our time. Strolling through Whole Foods yesterday, I thought to myself hey, I want to make some ceviche. So out comes my smart phone and, after a 30-minute discussion about work with a colleague who happened to be wandering through the same place and time, I finally googled "ceviche". Within seconds I was reading a recipe for classic Peruvian ceviche.

I bought 1 lb of fresh cod (of which I actually only used about 3/4), and 1/2 lb of fresh octopus, which I had the fishmonger at Whole Foods clean for me (which was great that she offered, since I have no idea how to clean an octopus). In place of the rocoto chili, I used three large sliced Bird's eye (Thai) chilis. In retrospect, I should've used twice as many. The heat didn't come through very prominently.

Because the limes were actually a little dry, it took me the entire bag of medium-sized organic limes to squeeze out just 3/4s of a cup of juice. So to keep the ratios consistent, I only put in 3 oz of orange juice and 3 oz of lemon juice.

The thinly sliced onion is actually a very important aspect of this recipe, because it provides a crunchiness to the final dish that would otherwise be just a lot of soft, pickled fish.

I let my fish "cook" (technically "denature") in the marinade for nearly 3 hours, which is the maximum amount of time recommended. I served it on some slightly toasted french bread with thin slices of avocado.

Now here is the real ULTIMATE kicker, which I know absolutely must be a prerequisite in Peru, because it is so perfect... I had remembered seeing on an Anthony Bourdain episode that the marinade itself, called the Leche de Tigre (the tiger's milk), is considered the ultimate hangover helper. Plus, I mean just consider what it is. It's just begging to be consumed. I mixed 2 oz of the leche de tigre with 2 oz of Don Cesar Pisco Puro, which is an excellent Peruvian unaged brandy (pisco), over ice, flavored with a bit of cilantro, shaken, strained... YUM! I had to have two.

Clearly the cocktail is not shown above, where I actually ate (a second round, next day) on Crispini crackers with a modest dressing of Sriracha. Coconut water does go well with the dish.

The only changes I would've made to this recipe are perhaps a bit more salt and twice as much heat.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

God's Reasons

Why would God create man and then give him free will and say Worship me or Die! If you tell me that he has reasons, then that implies that we could deduce his reasons through logic. But the conclusions are not attractive.

"Ignorance is not bliss. It is unconsciousness and slavery; only intelligence can make us sharers in the shaping of our fates." - Will Durant

Monday, February 20, 2012

Green Programming and Fundies

A few years back I started writing a blog entry about Green Programming, in which I attempted to define a philosophical position that views inefficient code as a moral failure. As a programmer, you are responsible for ensuring that your software runs efficiently, just as you are responsible for recycling your recyclables and conserving water.

It makes me remember that morals are sourced from a given worldview, and what may be considered moral by one person, like recycling, may be considered frivolous by another. For instance I know that some people view the world as a place of temporary existence on the way to an afterlife where everything on the planet is created and declared by their god to be at their disposal with no need to worry about exhaustion. Of course this is despicable to someone who doesn't believe in their god and sees them leaving their trash all over the place and making the world a progressively dirtier and sicker place to live, where ultimately they will effect the end of the human race by making our world too toxic to survive in.

On the other hand, that would be gravy for them, because they look forward to the end of the world. With that in mind, what is it that prevents them from simply destroying the world ASAP? I guess a person would not want to sacrifice their own salvation in order to bring about the apocalypse by destroying the world, since it is already promised to them anyway, and they should in fact endure the trials levied against them in preparation for the End of Days.

Also, and this is really my main point here. . . They should want to enjoy a long life in this place that was given to them by their god, and likewise they should show their god their worthiness by leaving this place as beautiful as they found it. If I build a house with the intention of letting my children live in it, and I promise to take them into my much more glorious house after judging how they live in the house I built for them, I would be more likely to take them into my house if they treated the house they lived in with due care and respect for both the place and each other.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

America's Decline

To say that America is not declining is absurd. We're declining in both form and substance. Our government is in a perpetual deadlock of petulant brinkmanship and our level of social and cultural dialogue is embarrassing. This was punctuated for me on Friday in the comments of astronaut Scott Carpenter, who spoke at an event celebrating 50 years since John Glenn's historic flight, saying "There are lots of reasons behind our current predicament, but what it boils down to is the simple fact that when John and I went to work for this country, the United States was recognized around the world as a can-do nation. We have become viewed around the planet as a can't-do nation and I deplore that."

Why have we become this way? I think one of the primary factors is that the increasing complexity of modern society has rendered a large segment of our population feeling out of control and incapable of comprehending the technologies that operate this world. When a person feels out of control, he or she tends to clamp down, back up, reassess the situation, simplify, attempt to regain some semblence of control. In many cases, I believe, this is resulting in hebetude and withdrawal from meaningful social discourse.

This feeling of helplessness in the face of drastic global issues such global warming, economic collapse, serial killers, school shootings, genocide, human trafficking, environmental disasters, war and its atrocities, mass media, the 24-hour news cycle and its instant dissemination of every little hiccup, no matter how petty or grotesque, in excruciating raw detail, is causing people to react on a primal level. We are dealing with social issues that are beyond our understanding. Our primal minds cannot cope with the scale of these issues. We're treating issues that affect the whole of human civilization with a social intelligence that is overwhelmed by the nuances involved. Our primal instincts want to take over.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Precogs exist, but they're not people. . .

They're algorithms.

Pattern recognition algorithms can know things about you before you do. Tracking your daily routine: where you go, what websites you access and when you access them, your purchasing habits, your eating patterns, your social engagements, your work habits, etc., which thankfully are all in disparate and disconnected databases, if they're tracked at all, could be unified and mined to profile your psyche for comparison with other people's habits and mental states so accurately that it could actually provide foresight to actions that you have not yet even considered taking.

The amount of data we store about ourselves - all of which can be considered behavioral data in some way - is so vast that we absolutely depend on pattern recognition algorithms to make sense of it.

Today our algorithms are primarily based on statistics. Numbers can be mathematically analyzed for normality and variance. What other considerations could make pattern recognition algorithms more effective? Like the human brain making a discovery, a prudent algorithm will consider many patterns when learning about behavior. Even pruning data, like the human mind forgets, can be an important factor. How should an algorithm decide when it's time to forget old data, or lessen their priority?

We can even employ several algorithms at once to produce independent results that can then be analyzed by a supervisory meta-algorithm. The work can be farmed out to several different computers, several different databases, as long as this meta-algorithm is orchestrating the work.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Thoughtful Conservatism

Knowledge is a journey, and many bright people tire and quit the journey after they have advanced past provincial jealousies but before recovering their receptiveness from vain and hypocritical liberals. That is what leaves people stranded in thoughtful conservatism. They become so contradictarian, they actually come to oppose their own natural will to empathy, trapped in the role of devil's advocate.

They have thought their way past rudimentary tribalism, but then become frustrated by the fops and skanks found gathering in the intermediate spaces of liberalism. The distastefulness of that scene causes some wise people to turn to another track entirely rather than pushing past to the more difficult but rewarding worldview of order from chaos: systems theory. The interconnectedness. Grey Murkiness. Soft paradoxical forgiveness that is human behavior.

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