How Hacker Are You?

The following is taken from Appendix B of The Jargon File, which is titled "A Portrait of J. Random Hacker". I've put in bold things that apply directly to me. Why is there a description of me on the internet?


Intelligent. Scruffy. Intense. Abstracted. Surprisingly for a sedentary profession, more hackers run to skinny than fat; both extremes are more common than elsewhere. Tans are rare.


Casual, vaguely post-hippie; T-shirts, jeans, running shoes, Birk-enstocks (or bare feet). Long hair, beards, and moustaches are common. High incidence of tie-dye and intellectual or humorous 'slogan' T-shirts. Until the mid-1990s such T-shirts were seldom computer-related, as that would have been too obvious -- but the hacker culture has since developed its own icons, and J. Random Hacker now often wears a Linux penguin or BSD daemon or a DeCSS protest shirt.

A substantial minority prefers 'outdoorsy' clothing -- hiking boots ("in case a mountain should suddenly spring up in the machine room", as one famous parody put it), khakis, lumberjack or chamois shirts, and the like.

After about 1995 hacker dress styles assimilated some influence from punk, gothic, and rave subcultures. This was relatively mild and has manifested mostly as a tendency to wear a lot of black, especially when 'dressed up' to the limit of formality. Other markers of those subcultures such as piercings, chains, and dyed hair remain relatively uncommon. Hackers appear to wear black more because it goes with everything and hides dirt than because they want to look like goths.

Very few hackers actually fit the National Lampoon Nerd stereotype, though it lingers on at MIT and may have been more common before 1975. At least since the late Seventies backpacks have been more common than briefcases, and the hacker 'look' has been more whole-earth than whole-polyester.

Hackers dress for comfort, function, and minimal maintenance hassles rather than for appearance (some, perhaps unfortunately, take this to extremes and neglect personal hygiene). They have a very low tolerance of suits and other 'business' attire; in fact, it is not uncommon for hackers to quit a job rather than conform to a dress code. When they are somehow backed into conforming to a dress code, they will find ways to subvert it, for example by wearing absurd novelty ties.

Female hackers almost never wear visible makeup, and many use none at all.


Omnivorous, but usually includes lots of science and science fiction. The typical hacker household might subscribe to Analog, Scientific American, Whole-Earth Review, and Smithsonian (most hackers ignore Wired and other self-consciously 'cyberpunk' magazines, considering them wannabee fodder). Hackers often have a reading range that astonishes liberal arts people but tend not to talk about it as much. Many hackers spend as much of their spare time reading as the average American burns up watching TV, and often keep shelves and shelves of well-thumbed books in their homes.


Some hobbies are widely shared and recognized as going with the culture: science fiction, music, medievalism (in the active form practiced by the Society for Creative Anachronism and similar organizations), chess, go, backgammon, wargames, and intellectual games of all kinds. (Role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons used to be extremely popular among hackers but they lost a bit of their luster as they moved into the mainstream and became heavily commercialized. More recently, Magic: The Gathering has been widely popular among hackers.) Logic puzzles. Ham radio. Other interests that seem to correlate less strongly but positively with hackerdom include linguistics and theater teching.


Many (perhaps even most) hackers don't follow or do sports at all and are determinedly anti-physical. Among those who do, interest in spectator sports is low to non-existent; sports are something one does, not something one watches on TV.

Further, hackers avoid most team sports like the plague. Volleyball was long a notable exception, perhaps because it's non-contact and relatively friendly; Ultimate Frisbee has become quite popular for similar reasons. Hacker sports are almost always primarily self-competitive ones involving concentration, stamina, and micromotor skills: martial arts, bicycling, auto racing, kite flying, hiking, rock climbing, aviation, target-shooting, sailing, caving, juggling, skiing, skating, skydiving, scuba diving. Hackers' delight in techno-toys also tends to draw them towards hobbies with nifty complicated equipment that they can tinker with.

The popularity of martial arts in the hacker culture deserves special mention. Many observers have noted it, and the connection has grown noticeably stronger over time. In the 1970s, many hackers admired martial arts disciplines from a distance, sensing a compatible ideal in their exaltation of skill through rigorous self-discipline and concentration. As martial arts became increasingly mainstreamed in the U.S. and other western countries, hackers moved from admiring to doing in large numbers. In 1997, for example, your humble editor recalls sitting down with five strangers at the first Perl conference and discovering that four of us were in active training in some sort of martial art -- and, what is more interesting, nobody at the table found this high perecentage at all odd.

Today (2000), martial arts seems to have become firmly established as the hacker exercise form of choice, and the martial-arts culture combining skill-centered elitism with a willingness to let anybody join seems a stronger parallel to hacker behavior than ever. Common usages in hacker slang un-ironically analogize programming to kung fu (thus, one hears talk of "code-fu" or in reference to specific skills like "HTML-fu"). Albeit with slightly more irony, today's hackers readily analogize assimilation into the hacker culture with the plot of a Jet Li movie: the aspiring newbie studies with masters of the tradition, develops his art through deep meditation, ventures forth to perform heroic feats of hacking, and eventually becomes a master who trains the next generation of newbies in the hacker way.


Nearly all hackers past their teens are either college-degreed or self-educated to an equivalent level. The self-taught hacker is often considered (at least by other hackers) to be better-motivated, and may be more respected, than his school-shaped counterpart. Academic areas from which people often gravitate into hackerdom include (besides the obvious computer science and electrical engineering) physics, mathematics, linguistics, and philosophy.


All the works of Microsoft. Smurfs, Ewoks, and other forms of offensive cuteness. Bureaucracies. Stupid people. Easy listening music. Television (with occasional exceptions for cartoons, movies, and good SF like Star Trek classic or Babylon 5). Business suits. Dishonesty. Incompetence. Boredom. COBOL. BASIC. Character-based menu interfaces.


Ethnic. Spicy. Oriental, esp. Chinese and most esp. Szechuan, Hunan, and Mandarin (hackers consider Cantonese vaguely declasse). Hackers prefer the exotic; for example, the Japanese-food fans among them will eat with gusto such delicacies as fugu (poisonous pufferfish) and whale. Thai food has experienced flurries of popularity. Where available, high-quality Jewish delicatessen food is much esteemed. A visible minority of Southwestern and Pacific Coast hackers prefers Mexican.

For those all-night hacks, pizza and microwaved burritos are big. Interestingly, though the mainstream culture has tended to think of hackers as incorrigible junk-food junkies, many have at least mildly health-foodist attitudes and are fairly discriminating about what they eat. This may be generational; anecdotal evidence suggests that the stereotype was more on the mark before the early 1980s.


Formerly vaguely liberal-moderate, more recently moderate-to-neoconservative (hackers too were affected by the collapse of socialism). There is a strong libertarian contingent which rejects conventional left-right politics entirely. The only safe generalization is that hackers tend to be rather anti-authoritarian; thus, both paleoconservatism and 'hard' leftism are rare. Hackers are far more likely than most non-hackers to either (a) be aggressively apolitical or (b) entertain peculiar or idiosyncratic political ideas and actually try to live by them day-to-day.


Hackerdom is still predominantly male. However, the percentage of women is clearly higher than the low-single-digit range typical for technical professions, and female hackers are generally respected and dealt with as equals.

In the U.S., hackerdom is predominantly Caucasian with strong minorities of Jews (East Coast) and Orientals (West Coast). The Jewish contingent has exerted a particularly pervasive cultural influence (see Food, above, and note that several common jargon terms are obviously mutated Yiddish).

The ethnic distribution of hackers is understood by them to be a function of which ethnic groups tend to seek and value education. Racial and ethnic prejudice is notably uncommon and tends to be met with freezing contempt.

When asked, hackers often ascribe their culture's gender- and color-blindness to a positive effect of text-only network channels, and this is doubtless a powerful influence. Also, the ties many hackers have to AI research and SF literature may have helped them to develop an idea of personhood that is inclusive rather than exclusive -- after all, if one's imagination readily grants full human rights to future AI programs, robots, dolphins, and extraterrestrial aliens, mere color and gender can't seem very important any more.


Agnostic. Atheist. Non-observant Jewish. Neo-pagan. Very commonly, three or more of these are combined in the same person. Conventional faith-holding Christianity is rare though not unknown.

Even hackers who identify with a religious affiliation tend to be relaxed about it, hostile to organized religion in general and all forms of religious bigotry in particular. Many enjoy 'parody' religions such as Discordianism and the Church of the SubGenius.

Also, many hackers are influenced to varying degrees by Zen Buddhism or (less commonly) Taoism, and blend them easily with their 'native' religions.

There is a definite strain of mystical, almost Gnostic sensibility that shows up even among those hackers not actively involved with neo-paganism, Discordianism, or Zen. Hacker folklore that pays homage to 'wizards' and speaks of incantations and demons has too much psychological truthfulness about it to be entirely a joke.


Most hackers don't smoke tobacco, and use alcohol in moderation if at all. However, there has been something of a trend towards exotic beers since about 1995, especially among younger Linux hackers apparently influenced by Linus Torvalds's fondness for Guinness.

Limited use of non-addictive psychedelic drugs, such as cannabis, LSD, psilocybin, nitrous oxide, etc., used to be relatively common and is still regarded with more tolerance than in the mainstream culture. Use of 'downers' and opiates, on the other hand, appears to be particularly rare; hackers seem in general to dislike drugs that make them stupid. But on the gripping hand, many hackers regularly wire up on caffeine and/or sugar for all-night hacking runs.


See the discussions of speech and writing styles near the beginning of this File. Though hackers often have poor person-to-person communication skills, they are as a rule quite sensitive to nuances of language and very precise in their use of it. They are often better at writing than at speaking.


In the United States, hackerdom revolves on a Bay Area-to-Boston axis; about half of the hard core seems to live within a hundred miles of Cambridge (Massachusetts) or Berkeley (California), although there are significant contingents in Los Angeles, in the Pacific Northwest, and around Washington DC. Hackers tend to cluster around large cities, especially 'university towns' such as the Raleigh-Durham area in North Carolina or Princeton, New Jersey (this may simply reflect the fact that many are students or ex-students living near their alma maters).


Hackerdom easily tolerates a much wider range of sexual and lifestyle variation than the mainstream culture. It includes a relatively large gay and bisexual contingent. Hackers are somewhat more likely to live in polygynous or polyandrous relationships, practice open marriage, or live in communes or group houses. In this, as in general appearance, hackerdom semi-consciously maintains 'counterculture' values.


The most obvious common 'personality' characteristics of hackers are high intelligence, consuming curiosity, and facility with intellectual abstractions. Also, most hackers are 'neophiles', stimulated by and appreciative of novelty (especially intellectual novelty). Most are also relatively individualistic and anti-conformist.

Although high general intelligence is common among hackers, it is not the sine qua non one might expect. Another trait is probably even more important: the ability to mentally absorb, retain, and reference large amounts of 'meaningless' detail, trusting to later experience to give it context and meaning. A person of merely average analytical intelligence who has this trait can become an effective hacker, but a creative genius who lacks it will swiftly find himself outdistanced by people who routinely upload the contents of thick reference manuals into their brains. [During the production of the first book version of this document, for example, I learned most of the rather complex typesetting language TeX over about four working days, mainly by inhaling Knuth's 477-page manual. My editor's flabbergasted reaction to this genuinely surprised me, because years of associating with hackers have conditioned me to consider such performances routine and to be expected. --ESR]

Contrary to stereotype, hackers are not usually intellectually narrow; they tend to be interested in any subject that can provide mental stimulation, and can often discourse knowledgeably and even interestingly on any number of obscure subjects -- if you can get them to talk at all, as opposed to, say, going back to their hacking.

It is noticeable (and contrary to many outsiders' expectations) that the better a hacker is at hacking, the more likely he or she is to have outside interests at which he or she is more than merely competent.

Hackers are 'control freaks' in a way that has nothing to do with the usual coercive or authoritarian connotations of the term. In the same way that children delight in making model trains go forward and back by moving a switch, hackers love making complicated things like computers do nifty stuff for them. But it has to be their nifty stuff. They don't like tedium, nondeterminism, or most of the fussy, boring, ill-defined little tasks that go with maintaining a normal existence. Accordingly, they tend to be careful and orderly in their intellectual lives and chaotic elsewhere. Their code will be beautiful, even if their desks are buried in 3 feet of crap.

Hackers are generally only very weakly motivated by conventional rewards such as social approval or money. They tend to be attracted by challenges and excited by interesting toys, and to judge the interest of work or other activities in terms of the challenges offered and the toys they get to play with.

In terms of Myers-Briggs and equivalent psychometric systems, hackerdom appears to concentrate the relatively rare INTJ and INTP types; that is, introverted, intuitive, and thinker types (as opposed to the extroverted-sensate personalities that predominate in the mainstream culture). ENT[JP] types are also concentrated among hackers but are in a minority.


Hackers have relatively little ability to identify emotionally with other people. This may be because hackers generally aren't much like 'other people'. Unsurprisingly, hackers also tend towards self-absorption, intellectual arrogance, and impatience with people and tasks perceived to be wasting their time.

As cynical as hackers sometimes wax about the amount of idiocy in the world, they tend by reflex to assume that everyone is as rational, 'cool', and imaginative as they consider themselves. This bias often contributes to weakness in communication skills. Hackers tend to be especially poor at confrontation and negotiation.

Another weakness of the hacker personality is a perverse tendancy to attack all problems from the most technically complicated angle, just because it may mean more interesting problems to solve, or cooler toys to play with. Hackers sometimes have trouble grokking that the bubble gum and paperclip hardware fix is actually the way to go, and that they really don't need to convince the client to buy that shiny new tool they've had your eye on for two months.

Because of their passionate embrace of (what they consider to be) the Right Thing, hackers can be unfortunately intolerant and bigoted on technical issues, in marked contrast to their general spirit of camaraderie and tolerance of alternative viewpoints otherwise. Old-time ITS partisans look down on the ever-growing hordes of Unix and Linux hackers; Unix aficionados despise VMS and Windows; and hackers who are used to conventional command-line user interfaces loudly loathe mouse-and-menu based systems such as the Macintosh. Hackers who don't indulge in Usenet consider it a huge waste of time and bandwidth; fans of old adventure games such as ADVENT and Zork consider MUDs to be glorified chat systems devoid of atmosphere or interesting puzzles; hackers who are willing to devote endless hours to Usenet or MUDs consider IRC to be a real waste of time; IRCies think MUDs might be okay if there weren't all those silly puzzles in the way. And, of course, there are the perennial holy wars -- EMACS vs. vi, big-endian vs. little-endian, RISC vs. CISC, etc., etc., etc. As in society at large, the intensity and duration of these debates is usually inversely proportional to the number of objective, factual arguments available to buttress any position.

As a result of all the above traits, many hackers have difficulty maintaining stable relationships. At worst, they can produce the classic geek: withdrawn, relationally incompetent, sexually frustrated, and desperately unhappy when not submerged in his or her craft. Fortunately, this extreme is far less common than mainstream folklore paints it -- but almost all hackers will recognize something of themselves in the unflattering paragraphs above.

Hackers are often monumentally disorganized and sloppy about dealing with the physical world. Bills don't get paid on time, clutter piles up to incredible heights in homes and offices, and minor maintenance tasks get deferred indefinitely.

1994-95's fad behavioral disease was a syndrome called Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), supposedly characterized by (among other things) a combination of short attention span with an ability to 'hyperfocus' imaginatively on interesting tasks. In 1998-1999 another syndrome that is said to overlap with many hacker traits entered popular awareness: Asperger's syndrome (AS). This disorder is also sometimes called 'high-function autism', though researchers are divided on whether AS is in fact a mild form of autism or a distinct syndrome with a different etiology. AS patients exhibit mild to severe deficits in interpreting facial and body-language cues and in modeling or empathizing with others' emotions. Though some AS patients exhibit mild retardation, others compensate for their deficits with high intelligence and analytical ability, and frequently seek out technical fields where problem-solving abilities are at a premium and people skills are relatively unimportant. Both syndromes are thought to relate to abnormalities in neurotransmitter chemistry, especially the brain's processing of serotonin.

Many hackers have noticed that mainstream culture has shown a tendency to pathologize and medicalize normal variations in personality, especially those variations that make life more complicated for authority figures and conformists. Thus, hackers aware of the issue tend to be among those questioning whether ADD and AS actually exist; and if so whether they are really 'diseases' rather than extremes of a normal genetic variation like having freckles or being able to taste DPT. In either case, they have a sneaking tendency to wonder if these syndromes are over-diagnosed and over-treated. After all, people in authority will always be inconvenienced by schoolchildren or workers or citizens who are prickly, intelligent individualists -- thus, any social system that depends on authority relationships will tend to helpfully ostracize and therapize and drug such 'abnormal' people until they are properly docile and stupid and 'well-socialized'.

So hackers tend to believe they have good reason for skepticism about clinical explanations of the hacker personality. That being said, most would also concede that some hacker traits coincide with indicators for non-hyperactive ADD and AS -- the status of caffeine as a hacker beverage of choice may be connected to the fact that it bonds to the same neural receptors as Ritalin, the drug most commonly prescribed for ADD. It is probably true that boosters of both would find a rather higher rate of clinical ADD among hackers than the supposedly mainstream-normal 3-5% (AS is rarer at 0.4-0.5%).


Hackers are more likely to have cats than dogs (in fact, it is widely grokked that cats have the hacker nature). Many drive incredibly decrepit heaps and forget to wash them; richer ones drive spiffy Porsches and RX-7s and then forget to have them washed. Almost all hackers have terribly bad handwriting, and often fall into the habit of block-printing everything like junior draftsmen.
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Question of the Week?

The answer to last week's question (Why is Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl" controversial for both females and males to sing?) is two fold. Females is of course the easy part. As for the male part:
  1. The line "hope my boyfriend don't mind it"
  2. The overall perpetuated idea that the singer doesn't like girls (such as "It's not what I'm used to" and "I kissed a girl just to try it").
As for this week's brain teaser:

In the movie xXx: State of the Union, Ice Cube drives a car onto the railroad. The tires then rip, and the car turns into a train (of sorts). Disregarding other issues for the moment (like whether the tires will rip, and whether the width of the car precisely matches that of the tracks), does a car in this situation need to be steered?
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Computer Science in the K-12 Curriculum

ACM recently made a statement to the Obama administration about including computer science in the K-12 curriculum. This only caught the attention of Ars Technica, but those interested should read the original statement (pdf), which is only 3 pages long.

The Ars Technica article does not offer to many opinions, but I agree with their opinion that ACM overstated the benefits of computer science. That "computer science also provides an important skill set for students entering any career area" is indeed hyperbolic, and for ACM to put most of the weight of its statement behind that seems to weaken its argument.

Their point stands, however, that much of what exists as "computer science" in the curriculum is actually information technology. There is a big difference between knowing how to use a word processor vs. how to create a word processor. A similar difference can be found if physics taught you that things fall due to gravity (duh!) and not how specifically gravity causes the position of objects to change.

This analogy with science serves a second point: the advantage of teaching computer science is not to "provide an important skill set" for any career, but because it should be part of common sense. Just as high school students should know biology (although evolution is still under debate ;) and physics to explain the world around them, integrated circuits and computers have become ubiquitous to our daily lives. The addition of computer science to the middle/high school curriculum will serve to fill in knowledge about these devices.

Of course, the more abstract objectives of logic and problem solving skills are still present, but would be treated the same way physics classes treat the scientific method.

The problem as I see it is that too many people think computers operate on magic. How computers operate is mysterious and unknowable, and so people lack knowledge of how to overcome computer problems. I don't expect everyone to get the source code and debug programs, but they should know that computers are deterministic.

In fact, although I think programming would be a very good way to learn about computers and problem solving, I think a large part of a high school computer science curriculum need not be about writing code. From a "common sense" perspective, I think it's more important to learn about the progression from logic circuits to computers, then onto operating systems and finally the applications. Just as people can talk about acceleration and velocity without knowing the precise equations, people should also know how computers work in general despite not knowing how to fix these problems.
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Thoughts on Time Dollars

My mom does some community development type stuff, and she recently asked me to take photos of some time dollars, which she will later use in a presentation. We then got into a discussion of why time dollars are useful, and here's an outline of what we talked about.

Q: Why use an alternate currency? Printed pieces of paper representing some amount of time and work is exactly what current money symbolizes. It seems unnecessary to devise a second system to do exactly the same thing.

A: These people have they skills and the time, but they are not necessarily employable by the outside world and have limited money. By joining the community and receiving some time dollars to start with [think passing Go in Monopoly], they can work towards living better. Since the community trades in time dollars, they can get other members to do things for them with the time dollars they have, and can similarly help others and receive time dollars in return.

Q: This can also be done with real currency though. If people don't have money, they don't have to pay market price. They can agree to pay, say, a dollar for ten minutes of work, and achieve the same results.

A: But then the currency earned can be spent elsewhere. A second purpose of programs like these is to build community, so you not only find out more about people living in the same way, but you're also more actively contributing back. If you don't, eventually you'll run out of time dollars and have to pay the much higher market price.

Q: This means that these programs cannot be widespread, because once they are the sense of community is lost. That seems really counterintuitive.

A: Well, there are programs which have the cooperation with some merchants. For example, some farmers are working with the community to sell their produce at prices half in real currency and half in time dollars. Members are therefore paying less for the food. There are benefits for the farmer too; they may need some help watering the fields, and they can use the time dollars they've accumulated to hire others to do that for them.

Q: That creates a problem though. Since time dollars are initially given out, and anyone can join the program, they are worth less that real currency. By including merchants in the program and offering to sell items half paid in time dollars, you create a conversion rate. Economically, someone has to lose something; from the examples you gave, it seems to be the farmers.

A: I guess that's true, but both parties are doing so willingly.

Q: That doesn't solve the problem of losing real money...

Really, I think the use of time dollars is more psychological than anything else. Creating a new currency just allows people to be open to trade services, at what are otherwise ridiculously low prices. I think there should be regulation with regard to taxation and printing, since there is an implicit exchange rate. Despite all this, however, it just seems like a second consensual mass delusion based on fictitious valueings of abstract assets.
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Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl"

I've decided I will post on the xkcd schedule - every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday of whatever time zone I happen to be in. That will give me enough time to think and write, while being small enough a burden to actually have a life. Not that I have one right now... LOL!!!!1!! jk jk!

For today, a short brain teaser: Why is Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl" controversial for both females and males to sing it?

On a different note, I found someone who shares my view of homosexuality and polygamy.
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The Big Race

 I was going to write a post telling secrets I've (for the most part) kept about myself, but while I don't mind telling secrets to strangers, I find myself lacking the courage to own up to what I write. But this is something I feel comfortable talking about. I feel strongly about this, and probably more revealingly, it doesn't reflect negatively on me (by my standards, at least).

I don't think I'm a racist, and I highly doubt anyone who knows me thinks I am one. I know, however, that I won't past the Implicit Association Test; for one thing, I do grip pens and/or keys in case I need to defend myself (however hopelessly) when I pass African Americans on the streets at night. That probably sounds really bad, although I think that's statistically correct. Please comment and let me know if I'm wrong.

Anyway, I've been raised through a number of cultures. My family is of course Chinese, and I have been through a lot of those custom. Large family dinners for Chinese New Year, Mid-Autumn Festival, and Winter Solstice are common events in my childhood, as are feasts for my grandparents' birthdays. At the same time, when I was at a local Hong Kong school for 2 and a half years in middle school, I never really fit into that culture. Although my primary schooling was with Asian peers, it was in under the British system. I've come to accept the Western philosophy of education, and that as much as my incompetency in Chinese contributed to my hard time. When I switched out for high school, I joined an American school, the culture of which influenced me at my most influenciable time. My social group then was half Asian and half Caucasian, although I was one of the few full Chinese.

Being in an American high school for 3 and a half years has made my thinking more western than eastern. There was a PostSecret card, I think, which had an Asian guy on it. The author, however, wrote "I wish I was white". That expresses some of my thoughts, because my thinking, behavior, and language are all products of western culture. People are often surprised when they hear that I grew up in Hong Kong, usually for my fluency in English but also for how well I blend into America culture.

For other people, being in one culture doesn't make them want to renounce their previous one. I personally have some negative perceptions of the Asian culture. I know these do not hold true for everyone, but I find it pervasive enough that I think it applies to the culture. I also know that these apply to American/western culture, but I think to a significantly lesser degree. I think there is something materialistic about the Asian culture. I don't mean that in the sense of possessing material wealth, but in the sense of personal gain. One would be hard pressed to find Asian parents encouraging their children to be, say, park rangers. There is always a push for social recognition and respect, and success is defined by these values, and not by how content one is with life.

Perhaps due to this tendency, I find Asians to be loud and, for the lack of a better word, tactless. No, both of these are the wrong adjectives. Americans too are loud and rude, but I have a less of a problem with it. No, what I'm trying to describe is a self of composure and detachment. I find it most often in Europeans; they seem aloft and unbothered by things in this world. I've always compared them to marble statues: beautifully cold and elegant. Something about their superiority attracts me too.

And no, I didn't mean that as a statement of romantic preference. It's just something I like about the culture.

Some people reading this might say, "you should be ashamed of yourself. You were born Chinese, and you should be proud of your nation!" Sure. I was raised partially British, too, and now live mostly in the States. I was also born male and attended 4 different schools. Hong Kong has a number of sport teams, as does the US, Chicago, and Northwestern. The truth is simply that, I don't get proud of much anything. Political states, sport teams, these are all very fickle to me. I'm certain if you examine your own life you will find inconsistencies; perhaps you support a sports team not from your state, or find yourself unable to care for the local government. This next one would probably get a lot of people: you're born earth too, but I see very little spirit for the environment and protection of the planet. I just have that apathy on a smaller scale.

Most of all, I find schools, cities, states, and countries to be too fickle. These are very artificial boundaries. Sport teams win and lose, countries rise and fall. I am interested in things grander and more ubiquitous. I want to know how plants and animals work, how the earth is kept orbiting the sun, how humans work together to form organized societies. Our difference in cities, countries, race, all pale in insignificance. I would much rather spend time learning than cheering on the local sports team.

If and/or when I get famous, I will not acknowledge my Chinese ancestry, or my American culture. The one thing I probably will acknowledge is that I am human, the race we are all part of. One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind...

...until, of course, we find other intelligent life. Then I'll proudly represent intelligence.
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Predestination and/or determinism

Wikipedia tells me that there is a difference between predestination and omniscience - that the former is mostly religious, and it implies God not only knows what will happen (omniscience), but had an active role in choosing things to be so. Arguably, if God did create the universe, then his omniscience would imply predestination... unless God didn't intend certain things? But that paints a very unconcerned God, and I don't think that's what most people want.

Anyway, the topic of fate and destiny came up back in June in conversation with some friends. I've been asked to write about this, but I never found the motivation to do so until now.

First, I want to state my belief that history is repeatable. That is, for some paste event, if the same person (in name as well as in time) was put in the same place at the same time, the same things would happen. This is not really a statement about fate, since the person has some freedom to choose what happens, or alternately their "choice" is already determined. This does say something about human behavior though; underneath this statement is an assumption that humans, if put in the same situation, will behave in the same way. That is, a person's beliefs together with the environment can directly predict a person's actions.

This may seem like a very deterministic view of life, but as I've said, that is not the case. Although human action will lead to the next timestep of beliefs and environment, nothing says this is a closed system. The environment may change without human intervention, as it has done so for millions of years before man arrived on the planet. More important, even with free will actions can be deterministic. For example, if a person is in a room and there's a fire, it is almost certain that person will run towards the door. Of course, he has the choice of choosing to stay, of even leap into the fire, but under normal circumstances that won't happen.

I think more interesting is the question of where free will comes from. Macroscopic physics is largely deterministic;given the positions and velocities of air molecules, for example, and the momentum and position of a coin, it's probably possible to calculate how it will land. Only on the very small scale is there something that's random: atomic decay. There is a question of whether something as impersonal as quantum mechanics really means free will. But my problem with random atomic decay has more to do with the definition of random. What appears random to us may not in fact be non-deterministic. Kolmogorov complexity (a course which I dropped) defines a random string as something which cannot be compressed; that is, there is no shorter description of the string than the string itself. Given this definition, it is conceivable that there is a book with the result of every coin toss recorded, and coin tosses merely follow this book in results. The string would be random (incompressible), but the results would actually be deterministic. Parallels can be drawn to a "random number generator" where the numbers are defined before hand by coin toss. The sequence generated are random, but you know the sequence before hand. Something like this.

Besides this free-will, determinism, and predestination thing being unknowable, it is irrelevant. Even if we are predestined to do things, we cannot know what that thing is until we actually do them. For us, it doesn't matter if the future is predetermined or is undecided; we won't know either way. You might think you are destined to change the world, and so lie on the couch all day waiting for that to happen. That, of course, won't help you change the world, and it might contribute a lot to proving you thought incorrectly. We therefore have no choice to be reject predesination/determisn, and try our hardest to do what we want, because this will give us the best "chance" of getting there. Even if the chance has always been none.

So do I believe in predestination? No. It's not provable, and since we can't use it to do other things, it's not helpful either (accept in faith). Kinda like the existance of God, actually, now I think about it.
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Movie Pet Peeve

Unlike a lot of my brethen (males, although probably less than most people think), I do watch romance movies. I don't think they are as stupid as some people make them out to be, but I have a pet peeve: I don't like movies where communication (or lack there-of) causes the tension. I think it's important people be in control of themselves at all times, and not rashly act out of anger. Even more important, however, is being honest with each other, and it's surprising how many films are based on the premise of tension caused by a secret.

Let me give an example. Nicholas Sparks' A Walk to Remember was turned into a film in 2002, starring Mandy Moore and Shane West. The Wikipedia page mentions several differences between the book and the film (as well as the fact that it got negative reviews). The most significant difference in my mind, however, was not mentioned. In the film, Jamie and Landon have a falling out after Jamie tells Landon about her leukemia, Jamie leaving because she doesn't "need a reason to be angry with God". This never happens in the book. Jamie tells Landon that she's dying, and they stay together and face everyone in town. There was sadness, definitely, but no anger. Both Landon and Jamie accept that as reality, and work to make what short time they have better. Although perhaps Jamie shouldn't have concealed her sickness, the book Landon's response is the best I've seen: understand, be calm, and face it. It agitates me when movies show people who overreact to revealed background information. The person you know is no different, and unless they were really good actors, you probably know who they really are anyway.

So, here's a list of movies which use miscommunication and dishonesty to cause tension.

Bad movies:
  • A Walk to Remember - see above.
  • Mamma Mia! - Sophie should have told her fathers the truth (that she doesn't know which of them is the real one). The tension comes from all three thinking they're her father.
  • Hitch - The whole journalist/"date doctor" thing
  • Moulin Rouge - Satine lying to Christian to get her to leave, so she can conceal her sickness.
  • The Prince and Me - Discovering he's a prince doesn't change the kind of person he is.
  • How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days - See Hitch.
I did, however, liked:
  • Definitely, Maybe - April's behavior when Will told her he loved her is borderline, but I think more of the plot is driven by Will's awareness of his love.
  • Stranger Than Fiction - Also self realization. I think the plot would be better if Harold died though.
Also, I want to point out that in the case of The Lake House, the plot itself was bad enough, but also there's a time paradox. Since Alex planted a message for Kate and they stay for two years until Kate sees them, they are living the same timeline. In that timeline, Alex is supposed to have died in the traffic accident; however, the Alex we follow survives. So who died? I have to say, I disliked that the movie didn't make logical sense more than anything else.

On the other hand, here's something which I always thought was a great question. If two people have the same goal, and the goals are not mutually exclusive, why is it so hard for them to understand each other and work together?
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I Miss CTY Bunches and Bunches

It's probably with grad school applications, and my parents talking about graduation and summer plans, I've been thinking about this coming summer a lot.

I suddenly miss CTY bunches and bunches.

At the end of the six weeks this past summer, I thought I had a good time. I wondered, if I went back to Northwestern and facilitated for GSW, whether I will get the same satisfaction from teaching college freshman as with middle schoolers. The latter show so much more enthusiasm for learning - but of course, I spend more time with them and I know them better. But GSW never happened (because of lack of enrollment), and I spent this quarter without teaching.

My introduction to Teach for America probably reawakened the teacher in me. Adding to my confusion of what I want to do research in, I was suddenly faced with the question of whether my broad interests makes me better suited as a teacher than as a professor. Although I TA'ed one subject for CTY, I am more free to talk about different topics, and draw the students deeper into learning.

And then just now I found a tribute video to the Stanford CTY RAs, who are planning a bay area reunion. I held myself the whole time, smiling at the faces of people I haven't seen for 4 months, and wishing fervently I was back at Stanford.

Even barring certain other memorable things, I still want to go back.

But this summer, Stanford's not offering the robotics program. CTY this year, if I do it, will be with different people, at a different place. It's not bad; it just won't be the same.

And right now, all I want is to be wind the clock back to July.
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If I were a CTY Robotics Instructor...

...This is what my curriculum would be like. I think the middle of the second week will result in some free time, since Projects 6 and 7 are really similar. But it's my first solo attempt at a curriculum, and I feel I've crammed more in than what we did before. I miss CTY...

Ice Breakers
More Ice Breakers
Ice Breaker
Behavior Forms
Pre-test / Check Kits
Explain Rules
Robots Presentation
Explain Documentation
Exercises in motion, if, while
Exercises in sensors
P1: Red Light Green Light
P2: Line Follower
Variables Presentation
Exercises in variables
P3: Ping Pong Ball Sorter
P3: Ping Pong Ball Sorter
PP Ball Sorter Demo
Logic Presentation
P4: Alarm Clock
AI Presentation
Random Numbers
P5: Obstacle Course
P5: Obstacle Course
Gears Presentation
Exercise in gears
P6: Race Car
Walkers Presentation
P7: Hill Climber
Bluetooth Presentation
Exercises in bluetooth
P8: Relay Race
P9: Robot Soccer
P9: Robot Soccer
Robot Soccer Tournament
Systems Presentation
P10: Systems
P10: Systems
CAS Presentation
CAS Presentation
Plan Final Project
Plan Final Project
P11: Final Project
P11: Final Project
P11: Final Project
Final Project Demo
Clean up
Real Robots Analysis
Clean up
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Journal History and Tools

When I first started writing in my personal journal (not to be confused with this blog), it wasn't because I want to keep track of what I've done or been through. It was because I wanted to write a journaling program, and needed entries to test said program. I believe at the time I hit a limitation where Java could only read 1024 characters at a time. I'm pretty certain that's not true now, but as I wasn't as good a programmer then, I gave up on the project.

My "test data" lived on, however, and came to be my journal.

In the 6.5 years I've written in my journal, it has gone through several formats. I don't remember what it was when I first started, but around 2005 I turned my journal in HTML pages. I reasoned that I wanted to be able to access this from anywhere, and as long as I have a browser available I can read and search it.

In the next few years I became increasingly uncomfortable with putting P and BR tags in front of my writing. So this past July, I finally broke down, removed all the HTML code, and turned it to text, plain (pun intended) and simple.

To help with my searching of the journal, I have written a bash script. Here's the help:

Usage: journal OPERATION [OPTIONS] [ARGS...]
    -A archive to a datetimed tarball
    -C count the number of entries
    -D DATES ...
        find entries by date
        term frequency
        -c capitalized words only
        -i ignore case
        -n proper nouns only
    -S[i][cd][r DATE DATE] TERMS ...
        search entries for TERMS
        -c only display number of results
        -d only display date of results
        -i ignore ignore case
        -r YYYY[-MM[-DD]] YYYY[-MM[-DD]] resuls must be in given date range
    -T generate tags file
    -W wordcount of journal
    -h show this help and quit

As you can see, this script does a number of things. Let me explain each operation.
  • -A: the archive operation. This puts everything in the directory into a tarball (that is, a compressed Tape ARchive file... go nerds)
  • -C: go 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on for every entry. Really, I don't think I need to explain more.
  • -D: find entries written on certain dates. So for example, 2005-12-25 for Christmas of 2005, or 2005-12 for anything in December 2005, or just 2005 for the whole year.
  • -F: this is a new addition. It lets me see what words I use the most, by counting them and sorting by frequency. The further options, i and c, do exactly that. The proper noun option is interesting: it looks for capitalized words in the middle of a sentence. So it disregards, for example, the "so" at the beginning of this sentence, but would pick up "Tape ARchive" above.
  • -S: the main purpose of this script. It lets me to searching with some flexibility. You can put several words together, say "christmas easter" to find entries that mention both. Since beneath the hood it uses grep, I can also do disjunctive search, so "christmas|easter" would give entries that mention either "christmas" or "easter" or both. The r option, which lets you specify the dates of the entries you're looking for, is a new addition, I believe around this past summer.
  • -T: generates a vi tags file. This lets me do the same thing as HTML in-page anchor links, so I can jump from the reference to an older entry to the entry itself.
  • -W: self explantory.
I actually use this script a lot, whenever I'm looking up things I've previously written.  There are a few things I want to try though:
  • turn the searching into full Google style, to support grouping (the use of parenthesis, so "(christmas and thanksgiving) or easter" would find entries with either the word "easter" or both "christmas" and "thanksgiving". It would also be nice to have the "-" operator, to specify entries without a word.
  • I recently tried to do some linguistics with this by reducing words to it's root/stem. So "reduce", "reduced", "reducing", "reduction" would all be converted to "reduce", and searching for "reduce" would find all these words. I succeed in writing a stemmer (based on the Porter Stemming Algorithm), but it turns out implementing it in Bash is way too slow. I have a stemmer though. I think I might email it to Porter for people's future reference.
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Google Calendar Timezones

This is the first time I've used Google Calendar and traveled between time zones. When I loaded it up, it asked me if I want to change to Hong Kong Time. I clicked yes, thinking it would just change the alerts and such.

Nope. It actually remembers what your events are in UTC time, and displays them in Hong Kong Time. I only noticed when Mythbusters was suddenly at 10;00 on Thursdays...

Once again in so many days, good job Google.
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Shout Out to Genia

I finished my grad school applications yesterday, but I want to thank Genia (the owner of the dinosaurium, link to your right) for her enormous amount of time spent reading and giving feedback on my statements. I am pretty sure without her my essays would be a mess, and I'd end up homeless because I don't know what to do with my life.

Thank you.
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Field Museum

Continuing my tradition of skipping campus during finals week, I want to the Field Museum today. It's the last free admissions day of the year, and it was fun. As with the Science and Industry Museum, some of the exhibits looked kinda old; however, since it's a museum of natural history, that's more acceptable.

I have pictures on Picasa:
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Gmail Spam

I just realized that Gmail, if it thinks something is spam, removes the anchor hrefs. In this particular case, the href was around a link claiming to go to With the anchor tag removed, however, I was wondering how the spammer made money at all, since they give out a cut and paste link.

Anyway, good job Google.
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Learning to Count

Over dinner tonight I over heard a girl ask another, jokingly, "If it's twenty-one and thirty-one and so on, why isn't it tenty-one?" Technically by the same logic it should be "ten-one", since twenty and thirty are numbers by themselves. But she did raise a good question.

Most people know that the numbers we use most often, say, 42, are Arabic numerals. Most specifically, they're in base ten; that, each position represents that many powers of ten. Hence,

42 = 4 * 10^1 + 2 * 10^0 = 40 + 2 = 42

This applies to digits after the decimal point as well:

3.142 = 3 * 10^0 + 1 * 10^-1 + 4 * 10^-2 + 2 * 10^-3 = 3 + 0.1 + 0.04 + 0.002 = 3.142

I would hope that most people reading this blog know of other bases, even if you don't use them. Binary is probably the most raised example

4210 = 1010102 = 1 * 2^32 + 1 * 2^3 + 1 * 2^1 = 4210

You can also use Hex (base 16):

4210 = 2A16

Where you use A=10, B=11, and so on. I once wrote a converter on my TI that goes up to base 36. In any case, from here on, unless otherwise noted, numbers will be in decimal.

On the other hand, there are less commonly used number systems.

42 = XLII

Yes, those are Roman numerals. Each letter has a certain value, and to get the whole you just add them together... sort of. The special case is when a letter of smaller value is to the immediate left of a larger one, in which case you subtract that from the larger. Therefore,

LX = 60 but XL = 40

Most notably, Roman numerals are not positional - that is, the value of each character/digit does not depend on where it is, except in the case mentioned above. So in


the first I and the last I have the exact same value. This is in contrast to


where the first 1 represents 100, the second 10, and so on. It is also important to see the following:

What is 0 in Roman numeral?

The answer is that Roman numerals don't have a representation for zero. Since their numbering system is not position, there is no need to signify the lack of anything for a digit.

And now we have something like this:


Hm. That's a strange one. The proper way to look at this, I think, is to treat "twenty" as one symbol, like how we treat "X" in Roman numerals. It is interesting to look at this:

Decimal: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20
Binary: 0, 1, 10, 11, 100, 101, 110, 111, 1000, 1001, 1010, 1011, 1100, 1101, 1111, 10000, 10001, 10010, 10011, 10100
Hex: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, A, B, C, D, E, F, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14
English: zero, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty.

Notice something strange? If we treat "twenty" as one symbol, then counting in English does not reuse symbols until we reach "twenty-one", which is "twenty" plus "one". All other systems here reuse certain symbols, like the "1" in Arabic numerals and binary, or the "I" in Roman numerals. Instead, in English there are 21 symbols from 0 to 20, then there's a new symbol for 30: "thirty", and 40: "forty", and so on, up to 90 ("ninety") before going to 100 ("hundred").

There's no single symbol for 200 though; rather, "two hundred" is used. This is different from "twenty-one", because we're not adding "two" and "hundred", but multiplying. The next new symbol is "thousand", and the next ones after that "million", "billion", "trillion" and so on.

I'm not sure if this can be counted (no pun intended... at first, at least) as a number system, but it's interesting how different symbols are used and combined to represent numbers.

Then there's the French:

French: zero, une, deux, trois, quartre, cinq, six, sept, huit, nerf, dix, onze, douze, treize, quatorze, quinze, seize, dix-sept, dix-huit, dix-neuf, vingt.

There is reuse of symbols at 17, then a new symbol for 20. 30 is "trente", 40 is "quarante", 50 is "cinquante", and 60 is "soixante". But note that 70 is "soixante-dix", that is, "60-10". It makes sense therefore that 61 is "soixante -onze", or "70-11". Everything is nice up to 80, which is not "soixante et vingt", but "quartre-vingts", literally "four twenties" (also no pun intended).

It should be noted that regionally (in Belgium, for instance), people do say "septante" for 70 and "nonante" for 90. And in Switzerland, some people say "huitante" for 80.

The Chinese system is, of these three languages, the closest to Arabic numbers. Using pinyin:

Chinese: ling, yi, er, san, si, wu, liu, qi, ba, jiu, shi, shi-yi, shi-er, shi-san, shi-si, shi-wu, shi-liu, shi-qi, shi-ba, shi-jiu, er-shi

In Chinese, 0 to 10 have unique symbols, but starting from 11, these symbols are repeated - added if decreasing, multiplied if increasing - untill 100, which is "bai".

I knew all of this off the top of my head (except the French spelling for a few numbers... meh), but those interested can go to Wikipdia's Numerals category to read more on different number systems.
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Complex Systems? Or Learning? Or...?

As you probably know, I've been working on my statement of purpose over the last two weeks or more... Actually, now I don't know if it's a good idea to write about it here, since it reflects badly on my application. But I will go on anyway.

One of the things I needed to put in my statement is what I specifically want to specialize in. It doesn't have to be what I eventually do research in, but it does tie the entire essay together. At first I was thinking of using complex systems, since that was what I've been obsessed with for the past quarter, working with Sugarscape and all. And then I realized I don't really have much to say about that, and I'm not interested in the direct application of complex systems to computer science, which deals with network flow and analysis. You can also do distributed systems, of course, but that's also more hardware related.

So in the middle of writing, I had to figure out what really gets me about artificial intelligence. And the more I thought, the more I leaned towards cognitive modeling. It's kinda funny, because I was more into it during my first two years of college. In junior year I took all information retrieval classes, and have been more worried about making intelligent machines than with modeling humans. But I think that my true dream in AI is learning. Not like machine learning, which is maths and statistics, but learning in the general sense. More along the lines of case-based reasoning and knowledge bases.

I can only hope that's the right choice... funny, I always thought I knew what I was doing, until I actually try to write it down.

On the other hand, When I started writing the statement, the first thing that came to mind on why I chose AI was that I had a God complex. I want to create as God did, and show that He is nothing special. In that sense, somehow my interest in AI and my interest in religion has intertwined. The is something appealing about things like artificial life, where you can potentially create a whole eco-system. I think it says something about religion in a very sciency way.

Anyway, the last thing I'm going to say is that since I'm not applying to Berkeley anymore, I'm only applying to 3 schools. Since there is significant risk of me not getting into any of them, my backup plan is to apply for Teach for America (which, arguably, is equally hard to get into). And if that fails, hiking the PCT. Ah life.
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Homo Universalis

What do Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, and Richard Feynman have in common? Aristotle, Franklin, and Feynman all made contributions to science (the development of logic, lightning rods, and quantum mechanics), da Vinci and Feynman are both artists (Mona Lisa, etc.; Feynman played bongo drums), all of them were writers, Aristotle and Franklin were both politicians.

They were all, in other words, polymaths and Renaissance men. I personally like the term "homo universalis" better, if only because it sounds cooler. According to Wikipedia, there is a difference between the two. Polymaths are people who have achievements in several fields, whereas Renaissance men are closer to an ideal, someone who "develop[s] his capacities as fully as possible" both mentally physically. Despite this meaning, I will use the term "homo universalis" to symbolize what these men present, as "polymath" sometimes has the negative connotation of a jack of all trades.

Aristotle, da Vinci, Franklin are all historical figures (Feynman died in 1988). I would now like to risk ridicule by naming a few people I know who are close to the ideal, although of course a lot less famous:
  • Sakshi Agarwal
  • Mark Bell
  • Stuart Harwood
  • William Stork
These people may not be experts in many different fields, but I feel they truly appreciate a wide span of academic fields. There are a number of other people who are interested in separate subjects in different fields, but are not as enthused as these four. I'm certain some of you reading this will question my judgment; I would love to have a conversation with you about people we know and whether and how they homo universalis.

It is not surprising for me to say, after this long an introduction, that I want to be a Renaissance man. This thought came up very strongly as I was writing my statement of purpose, and had to choose a field to elaborate on why it's important and why I want to study it. I've already mentioned my difficulty choosing between complex systems and symbolic learning, but in truth it's much more than that. Four years ago when I was applying to colleges for undergrad I already knew I was majoring in computer science, but I thought about getting a minor or a second major. I've seriously considered philosophy, mathematics, physics, psychology, and cognitive science, and although I didn't end up doing any of them, I've taken extra classes in all but physics. What I am getting is a certificate in engineering design, which is what my portfolio is for. I have done some art, although it's clearly inferior to a lot of other people's. Of course I need more work in the physical sciences as well as maths, but I definitely need the most work in politics and history, as well as classic literature.

Now that I'm done selling myself to you, I want to point out that from the large number of historical figures, I've only listed four. Similarly, from the many people I've gotten to know, I've also only listed four people. The truth is that homo universalis is few and far between, especially in the modern age when even single fields branch into numerous subfields. In Ancient Greece being a Renaissance man was a lot easier (apart from traveling into the future to be named a Renaissance man). Pythagoras believed that numbers were key to understanding God, and since mathematics was invariably linked to engineering and architecture, mastering mathematics already combines a large number of fields. Of course, during the Enlightenment, people like da Vinci were much more impressive; there was enough branching in human knowledge to so people have to work hard to be experts, but not so much branching that it's impossible to know everything.

Nowadays though, it's much harder to be a homo universalis. There are simply too many fields, and they require too much preparation, to excel at several at the same time. Just within computer science you can do research in knowledge bases, in human computer interaction, in machine learning, in information retrieval. The last can be further broken down in by method, say, linguistics or statistics. In the case of a linguistics approach to information retrieval, what you're studying is arguably an intersection between computer science, linguistics, sociology, and some statistics. This means to master IR, you need to study all four subjects, although only the aspects pertaining to IR. This in turn means, however, that what linguistics you know will not apply to, say, human language acquisition. Even within linguistics, as within all other fields, we specialize for depth while sacrificing breadth.

This is all summarized in the saying, "[in academics research] one learns more and more about less and less until one knows everything about nothing."

There is a problem with this kind of dissection of a topic. While it's true that IR is at the intersection of four or more fields, topics worth studying are not all like this. I think there are more interesting things when they are not so much inter-disciplinary (between displines) as multi-disciplinary (including several disciplines. Here are two questions which I think fit this nature:
  • What is intelligence and how do humans attain it?
  • What is life and how did it start?
There's a lot of philosophy in these questions, such as whether animals are intelligent or whether life is restricted to physical constructs. The first emcompases a large portion of cognitive science, neurology, artificial intelligence, as well as a smaller portion of fields like biology and chemistry. It would be much more interesting if the education system focused not on a discipline, but a question, and the goal of your school is to understand what the question is really asking, and learn subjects which aid in finding the answer.

Here is something I want to address: education. While I admit that today's fields are too diverse and too technical to be an expert at even several of them, I think something can be done at the education level to encourage the development of homo universalis qualities. The Chinese education system, as far as I understand, requires massive memorization of facts, which without the ability to use them is pointless. The British education system, on the other hand, asks students to pick broadly between sciences and literature in secondary chool. At the university level, they declare their majors when they apply, and have one curriculum with relatively few electives. In the US, there is more freedom in choosing what classes in high school, and are generally not required to pick a major until the second year of college. There are also the "liberal arts" colleges, where education aims for "imparting general knowledge and developing intellectual capabilities".

But I don't think any of these are the answer. None of these systems encourage the integration of different subjects, nor the development of interests within each field. The first is not within the definition of a universal man, but it is certainly an important part of excelling in any field. The second, however, is I think the greater sin. Required as one might be to take courses in different subjects, the prevalent attitude is to do the course for requirement's sake. Instead, I think education should focus on the student's curiosity. There has to be something that they want to know: if not how life started on earth, then how to more accurately predict baseball results.

It would be interesting, therefore, to see a curriculum like this. The first day of class, students write down what things they want to know, questions about the world. It can be related to anything, but they must write something down. The actual teaching material will then be determined from this list. I know this is infeasible, as it requires too much individual attention, and much more work on the teachers part. There's also the problem of some students writing things down which are really narrow. However, I think this will help develop students to be much more interested in the world, and for the kid who asks the right questions, really give them the chance to master the different fields.

That last part was really incoherent. In reality, questions like those I listed are almost impossible for any single person to answer, and so the homo universalis in the current age becomes labora universalis. In pursuit of being a better educated individual though, I suggest the following:
  • Read! Read good newspapers, any non-fiction or literature book with a topic you find interesting. Magazines are good too, although it's much easier to pick the wrong ones.
  • Associate with smart people. It really does rub off - because they keep talking about smart things and exchanging ideas. They'll also help you get new ideas, and connect topics which you never think of.
  • Finally, write. Or more generally, produce. It's easy to say "I'm thinking" and leave it at that, but then you have no proof, and you'll eventually forget what you've thought about. It doesn't matter what the thought is; as long as you're thinking and being productive.
"Never let your schooling interfere with your education." - Mark Twain

Extra Reading:
How to Do What You Love - Paul Graham
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Return to Blogging

I'm in the middle of statement of purpose hell right now, but I'm pausing just to say this: I need to start this blog back up.

In the time between last spring break and now, I have posted very rarely, from almost daily in February to only once in July. I know I was on "hiatus", and "didn't have time" to post, so I just neglected this thing.

But as I was looking at grad schools and the professors there, I realized that those days of blogging daily was one of my more creative and innovative days. I forced myself to write, to think, and this blog became a record of that. I had to merge ideas to write longer posts on computer science or religion. I had to find material for jokes, and do research to see if my ideas have been attempted before.

Compared to that, now I barely write. My personal journal has fallen into entries once or twice a week, and most of that is retelling of events in my daily and personal life. While that is illuminating and entertaining for my future self, I can literally feel my "mental muscles" going into decline. If I being on break from this blog allows me to make arguments against thinking, then it's time I'm back to blogging. I need that pressure to keep myself productive.

So keep an eye out. This blog will soon be back to daily postings (in the limit). I expect to start around 2008-12-15, but definitely before 2008-12-20.

Thank you all.
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Daniel Dennet and Memes

I just finished Daniel Dennett's book Breaking the Spell, and after hearing him talk on Thursday, I have a few comments to make.

First, Dennett is an excellent speaker. He is humorous and knowledgeable. My only critique of him is that sometimes you forget why the current topic is under discussion; it somehow makes you lose sight of the his overall point. This is much more obvious in his book, because there's space for his words and thoughts to wander.

Before I go on, let me give two examples of his humor:
  • It is obvious enough why [people use anthropomorphic language to describe God]: it permits them to carry over all the connocations required to make any sense of a personal love of God. One can feel, I suppose, a certain affection or gratitude for a law of nature - "Good ol' gravity, she ust never lets you down!" - but the proper object of adoration really has to be some sort of person.
  • Prolonged exposure to the fumes of incense and burning candles may have some detrimental health effect, concluded one recent study (Lung et al. [I'm not kidding] [sic], 2003), ...
The way he weaves jokes into his story telling is impressive, and it keeps his audience's attention.

A lot of ideas were presented in his speech, and even more in his book, but one in particular stands out. I've explained before Richard Dawkin's interpretation of evolution, and since Dennett makes use of memes in his explanation for religion, the same idea was expressed in his book. This was also mentioned in his speech, which was where this next idea came to me.

Dennett suggested that memes, like genes, evolve. They under go the same process of speciation and differentiation, in genes through enzymes making errors, and in memes by people making errors when doing a ritual (by that I mean any action which the meme consists of). Memes are what are generally called "culture"; lolcats are a feature of the internet community - more specificly, the geek crowd - and by simply mentioning it here I am ensuring the concept passes on.

In his book, Dennett suggests that memes provide another information highway between parent and child, that the child learns cultural behavior from its parent not through genes but through memes. Religion is one of them, and Dennett suggests that as a meme it has adapted by taking advantage of certain human traits, like our tendency to anthropomorphize and to find cause and effect relationships. What struck me was that memes are built on top of genes. Without these biological tendencies, certain memes wouldn't exist; and for animals, without the biological sophistication to support a "culture", memes don't exist at all*. By extension, then, there are probobably evolutionary objects, the existence of which depends on the complexity of certain memes. I wonder if anyone has made conjectures as to what these might be like?

For some reason this makes me think of Spore.
* I'm not sure if Dennett would agree with this point; there are probably behaviors in the animal kingdom, among social animals like great apes and dolphins, which are passed along by the socially. In fact, I can name one: the bubble blowing behavior in dolphins is group dependent, and only dolphins which live in proximity of others who know how to blow bubbles learn how to do it themselves. Since this behavior is not genetic, it is arguably memetic. Perhaps the lower limit for memes is one of communication, not of consciousness.
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No, not the verb, nor the shell, but the quote database. Not so great for the prude or conservative, but hilarious for crude people... like me.

But I came across these two today, and they're neither... at least, not when you read the whole thing.

Have fun wasting your life on!
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Pascal's Wager

NOTE: I wrote this around the end of October, but I never finished it. I have since realized that Pascal's Wager is a valid argument for belief in God, but it doesn't supply any proof of His existence. It would seem that rationality (here defined as maximizing benefits to the individual) argues for God's non-existence and belief in God at the same time. I'm no expert (and even that is an overstatement), but perhaps this is somehow related to Godel's incompleteness theorem despite it not being a direct contradiction?

The first thing you should know is that I'm now a Shelfari user. It's a book keeper's bookkeeping site. I've tried LibraryThing, but that has a limit of 200 books for free accounts. I have another list at WorldCat, but I'm putting only complex systems related books there.

Anyway, if you look at my Shelfari, I'm currently reading Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Dennett is actually speaking at Northwestern tomorrow, as part of a series on evolution. I had planned on finishing his book before going, but chances are I won't have time to do that. For most of the book Dennett develops a theory of why religion exists, and how it came to be as widespread as it is now. He first focuses on why people believe in God, then on why people believe in belief in God. Between these two sections, he spends a short chapter on why for but mostly against God's existance.

While I was reading that, I didn't really pay attention to the arguments he gave, since I've encountered most of them before. Rather, my mind was on another argument I've been having trouble with: Pascal's Wager. The argument looks at belief in God as a utility calculation. Assuming the basic heaven/hell in afterlife, the utility of belief can be summarized:

God ExistsGod Doesn't Exist
Believe in God+Infinity0
Don't Believe in God-Infinity0

Eternity in heaven or hell gives positive or negative infinity, and if nothing happens in afterlife, then there is no value in either belief or non-belief.

Richard Dawkins, Dennett's colleage at Oxford, made the argument there is a cost to believing in God if God doesn't exist: the time spent worshiping and the money paid to churches could be used for something else. However, since the time and money spent is finite, and the time in heaven or hell is infinite, this still doesn't offset the utility in case God exists.

A more interesting argument is that we are all atheists - with regard to at least all but one religion which has ever existed. Because religions are (or at least tend to be) mutually exclusive, the probability of believing in the right God is minimal. In fact, if the above table was modified to say "Believe in the Right God" and "Right God Exists", the previously inifinite utility would actually be undefined. This is due to the number of religions being infinite, and infinity over infinity is undefined (I wonder if you can take rephrase that as a limit, and apply l'Hopital's rule... just kidding).

Another curious note on this argument against the wager is that there seems to be a vague parallel with the lottery paradox in epistemology.

Regardless, this doesn't exactly solve the problem. Even if the utility is undefined, it is still larger than 0 (since both infinities are positive). This means there is still a higher utility to believe than not to believe, and this has been bugging me for the past 2 weeks.

Then today when I read Dennett's chapter, I suddenly realized that Pascal's wager is not actually about the existance of God. It's about the believe in the existance of God, which is something entirely different. As Dennett repeats several times, it's possible to believe in God but believe in the belief in God, and vice versa. That is, one can believe God exists, and yet be ashamed of it as
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Great Spirits

Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds. The mediocre mind is incapable of understanding the man who refuses to bow blindly to conventional prejudices and chooses instead to express his opinions courageously and honestly.
-Paul Edwards quoting Einstein,
on the annulment of Russell's appointment as professor at City College of New York.
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Social Interaction, Russell, and Morals

I haven't written anything of substance for a long time. There have been several things on my mind, from two inspirations:
  • A class I'm taking, titled Social Interactions: The Individual and Society.
  • Bertrand Russell's Why I am not a Christian
Thoughts on my class first. Although I don't have to do anything for this class (my grade is dependent on participation, two- midterms, and a paper), the class frustrates me. Although the topic sounds interesting, it is actually mostly common sense. More annoying is how both the professor and the book make a big deal out of the topic. I know that a lot of my beliefs are influenced by society, and that if I was born in a different culture I would feel and think differently. But then I am told about sociologists who do interviews, who observe conversations of middle schoolers who are "negotiating" their "social reality", researchers who look at the different communities in Chicago and what "reality" is like for them (Harvey W. Zorbaugh's Gold Coast and the Slum, for those interested). I mean, given a theory that people learn "meanings" through society, it makes sense that people would talk about what they learn as they grow up. And as for visiting ethnic neighborhoods: how does that contribute to the study of societies? So far I have not been presented with any higher theories about social behavior, other than that the values of society (and therefore people) change over time. Again, I feel like that's not a particularly hidden truth. More interesting would be theories on how societies came to have influence on individuals, or perhaps even why humans are influenced in this way by society.

This brings up another dissatisfaction, although this applies more broadly to social sciences in general (except psychology and possibly economics): most of the stuff we talk about in class are descriptive. I don't just mean the case studies, but the theories. If you compare the theory of social interactionism, which (as far as I can tell) says that humans define and communicate with symbols and subsequently are influenced by those symbols to change, with the theory of gravity, which says objects exert a force on other objects, the theory in physics is much more powerful. This is because it is predictive; it can says with certainty if two objects exists and there's nothing holding them back, they will accelerate towards each other. Additional theories and equatinos allows calculation of how much force, if and how quickly the objects will move towards each other, etc. As for social interactionism, it's great, but I fail to see how it can predict human behavior. What are the circumstances needed to create symbols? How much power do symbols have, and how much can it change a person? In psychology, there are predictions to a certain extent; the various forms of conditioning (Pavlovian and operant) gives predictions for what will happen, how things are associated with actions in the brain and can be observed through behavior. I can describe the circumstance (ring a bell every time you give a dog food), and the theory will give what will happen (eventually the dog will salivate upon hearing the bell). I have yet to find what social interaction needs in order to predict events; I suspect that is simply not considered.

Also, the professor and the book uses words which I think belong in other disciplines. One I hear way too often is "reality", by which they mean "worldview" but which makes me think metaphysics. I think this is the jargon in the field though, not just the professor and the book.

I talked above about experiments in psychology. The lack of experiments in sociology (or at least, social interactionism; the Stanford prison experiment is an example of a sociology experiment) is result of it's inability to make predictions. Experiments need hypothesis, and by conducting experiments which can't falsify the hypothesis, that's how we know the hypothesis stands. Of course, even if there are hypothesis, it is impossible to set up an experiment with enough people, with the right backgrounds or traits. That is partially why I'm interested in modeling complex systems, especially of social phenomenon. It will be a step towards a more scientific social science.

The other thing I want to talk about is from Bertrand Russell's book, Why I am not a Christian. Despite the title, most of the pieces in there are not targeted at Christianity or even religion, but rather at non-scientific thinking. It could be argued that it just so happens religion is not scientific, and so becomes problematic.

I've mentioned in my Twitter feed (on the right if you're reading this on my blog page and not through RSS) that I was surprised by how similar Russell's views were to my own. The basic idea is that a lot of current policies, activities, etc. are based on convention, and do not reflect recent discoveries in science or developments in thinking. One example would be the idea that what is natural is "good", and therefore (for example) genetic modifications should not be done. But we have already changed so much of nature, the buildings, roads, all city infrastructure. The clothes we wear are not natural, and more biologically, we (or at least most of us) get shots to strengthen our immune system. On the genetic level, we have selectively breed horses, dogs, plants, and in a sense humans by marrying people we think are handsome and/or intelligent. The last one is more properly evolution, since we are modifying our own spieces, but the point is humans have been dabbling, albeit unconsciously, for several millenium. The fact that nature don't have clothing, roads, immunity shots, or selectively bred other spieces, doesn't mean these things are bad.

I want to give another example of convention, and my (and to my great surprise, Russel's) take on it, before talking about morals proper. I have expressed before that I'm uncertain where the idea of marriage came from, and it's usefulness in modern sociey. Then today I read Russell's essay, titled "Our Sexual Ethics". He wrote:
It is clear that marriage, as an institution, should only interest the state because of children and should be viewed as a purely private matter so long as it is childless. It is clear, also, that, even where there are children, the state is only interested through the duties of fathers, which are chiefly financial... If, as is increasingly happening where wage earners are concerned, the state takes over the duties that have hitherto fallen upon fathers, marriage will cease to have any raison d'etre and will probably be no longer customary except among the rich and the religious.
The closeness with which this resembles my view that marriage should only be an economic institution, and the state should not have rule over anything else.

Now, about morals. The above argument on marriage very easily extends to monogamy, which would be included in the morals of a lot of people. Morals tell us what is good and what is bad, and therefore what we should and should not do. But, let me rephrase that (as Russell did), and make a claim that what is good makes people happy, and what is bad makes people unhappy; hopefully this is not too objectionable a claim. One can then argue that, if morals are based on happiness, then a code could be devised such that people acting on said code can maximize happiness. This is the same idea behind sport teams having strategies, so each player (person) in the team (group/society/world) acts in certain ways to ensure the team wins (so everyone is happiest).

The maximal happiness defined above depends greatly on what the bounds of measurement are. If I define myself to be the only goal, then my morals would lead me to do whatever makes me happy, which might include stealing from other people, killing out of anger or in revenge, and numerous other crimes. Beside the fact that these actions are illegal, it is also apparent that these actions cause unhappiness - not to me, but to other people. A moral code, then, needs to expand to include others - don't kill, don't steal, be nice, etc.

A curious note in the above reasoning is that the individual developing his morals must realize that other people are human beings too, and that their happiness is just as important as his/her own. One could create nuclear bombs and kill everyone in the city, but then there wouldn't be anyone to monitor electric plants, or to keep the water system running. The modern individual's happiness is dependent on a lot of conveniences, which without other people cannot exist. That is, in order to continue being happy in modern society, there must be a realization of dependency on others. From the point of view of the society, morals are necessary for sustainability.

And hence the procedure for establishing a moral code is clear. The ultimate goal is to increase happiness, although a number of details still requires though. If everyone is happy, does more people mean more happiness? This in particular relates to suicide, where a extremely clinically depressed individual might kill himself to increase general happiness. Are animals capable of happiness? If so, then animal rights would have to be considered.

I argue that this construction of a moral code is the only correct way of doing so. There could not be a moral code where human happiness does not factor (proof of existence), and once happiness is in the equation then it follows that morals should maximize happiness (proof of uniqueness).

To some people this may sound mechanic, and not what morals are about at all. It cannot be denied, however, that such a set of morals would result in a better world...

Unless one's judgment of the world depends not on human happiness, but on satisfaction of deities - but that's a different argument.
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