Uncanny Valley

I just started reading Don Norman's (who teaches at Northwestern) The Design of Future Things. One thing he was concerned with was the interaction between humans and machines, particularly when the machines become more intelligent. Microwaves that "know" when your food is cooked, refrigerators that "monitor" your cholesterol, cars which brake when it "detects" a collision. Norman finds that, while in certain very constrained settings these technologies work great, in the real world they very often fail, resulting in human frustration.

Normal also points out that it's not that the machines are not capable of doing the job, or that our expectations are too high; humans are quite happy with manually over looking the machines. It's when the machines become smart, but not smart enough, that problems occur.

This actually reminded me of another problem, commonly called the uncanny valley. This is a term used to describe how as robots look more and more like humans, people will begin to develop a strong negative reaction towards it. The explanation was that people stop looking for the human like qualities of an inanimate object, but instead look for the non-human qualities in an animate object. Although the theory is not entirely scientific (it was first proposed 1906, way before any kind of human look-a-like was made), it's fairly pervasively talked about.

It occurred to me that this seems to apply not only to appearances and motion, but also to intelligence. By the way Norman described it, when machines move beyond mere suggestion and into actually automating action, there will inevitably be times when the machine misinterprets what is going on, and therefore takes the wrong action. This is a slightly different situation from appearance. Instead, I think it has to do with how the machine goes from being passive and out of the way, to a dumb active agent.

I might say more when I'm done with more of the book.
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Two Articles

Read two articles through my feed aggregator, and I have two questions.

A Wired article asked, "z = x - y + 4.z = y - w - 3.z = w - x + 5. Based on the system of equations above, what is the value of z? A) 2; B) 3; C) 4; D) 6; E) 12." The correct answer is supposed to be A, but isn't the system indeterminant, with 4 variables but only 3 equations?

A CNet article talked about Google giving out free voicemail messages for the homeless. The article had statistics on the homeless - that 40% of the homeless are unemployed (the other 60%, I'm guessing, works as manual labor), and that the average age of a homeless person is 9 years old. What? That's really ridiculous. If 40% of homeless people have children as the article says, that means some of them have two children per individual. Homeless. I'm shocked.
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So I'm safely in my room again, my keys in my pocket (I hope... yes). Here's what happened.

I think I must have laid down my keys somewhere while I placed my tub of (really really good) Einstein's smoked salmon cream cheese in my bag. I found the keys missing (strange way to put it) when I got to the Shedd, but couldn't do anything about it. So I tested stuff, and went luging, and luckily someone on the trip lives in the same dorm, and he let me in. At that time I was hoping my door was unlocked, and that I had simply left my keys in my room, which wasn't the case. I had to get my CA to open the door for me.

Because I don't have keys to the building, and because I had left over bagels and (really really good) cream cheese, I stayed in my room most of Sunday. I did a search of the lobby area, and found nothing. I asked my friend to search his car, and again had nothing. I was sort of resigned by that point that I had dropped them while pulling my bag of coins out to pay the meter at the Shedd.

Monday morning, since I knew I had a busy day ahead of me and won't get back to my room till past 2300, I told housekeeping that I had lost my keys. By university procedure, the lock to your room has to be changed, which was fine. I went out to class, came back at around 1700. The first thing I noticed is that they had already changed the lock; there was a notice on my door telling me my keys are at the house keeping office. Which was helpful, because they had already closed. So I sat in my friend's room for a while, and checked my email.

And found that someone had found and turned in my old set of keys.

So if only I had waited another day to report my lost keys, I wouldn't have had to pay anything for the lock. Perhaps if I had told housekeeping that I'm not sure the keys won't be found, I wouldn't have had to pay. But that is what happened.

Ah well. One can't have everything in life.
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Communication Problems

I think one of the sillier problems people can have are communication problems. Not the kind where you didn't get someone's email, but the kind where you don't tell other people what you want, and then blame them for your lack of happiness. This happens a lot in romance films, perhaps because a lot of people in real life have that problem. I think people just need to grow up and take responsibility.

And guess what? One of my teams is having that problem. Bugger.
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Sound Analysis of Rain

It's raining outside, and I just walked past a tree with a lot of dead leaves on it. It makes the rain seem a lot heavier than it is, because of all the tip-tap-py noise it generates.

I wonder if it's possibly to work out in detail what the tree is just by recording the noise with microphones located all around the tree.
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The Supertheory of Evolution

I recently started reading Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene. While Dawkins is a very prominent , outspoken atheist, I did not in fact pick up the book because of that. I have talked about wanting to model the evolution of morals, or in a less ambitious sense, model the evolution of altruism. The article I had referenced before mentioned Dawkins' book, and that's why I picked it up.

I'm not too far in (I've been busy doing other stuff since), but very early on Dawkins talks about a more general theory, which is an abstract of the theory of evolution as proposed by Darwin. Dawkins proposed that "evolution" can also be applied to inanimate, static objects, like molecules. The more stable a molecule, the more often it will appear in nature, and so in this way it "guarantees" its survival.

I've been thinking about the concept since I read it on Friday, and I'm still mulling over it today. In a way it makes perfect sense, that the goal of evolution is merely to ensure saturation of an object in nature. At the same time, it's hard to apply the word evolution to molecules, when there is no goal, no object, and arguably no form of competition.

I think one concept which has kept me from fully wrapping my head around Dawkins supertheory is that I tend to think of evolution as one thing being "better" than another. Rather, my definition of better is very strictly defined by active competition - for food, territory, ability to avoid predators, etc. Therefore, in animal evolution, the stronger, faster, louder, better camouflaged species wins.

With molecules, however, there is still a sense of one being better than the other, but it's a very objective one. It almost seems like a circular argument to say that something is better if it is more pervasive. My common sense tells me that it's reversing the cause and effect - it will appear more in nature only if it's better, and it is it being better than causes it to appear more in nature. Seeing that statement though, if the "if" is changed to an "if and only if", then it makes logical sense to reverse the two.

Now I think of it, this seems to make much sense in the business world. The brand which is more pervasive is the better one. What is interesting to me is that it would imply some moral standard - since there is a fairly standardized set of morals, it would mean that these morals are "better", or at least more stable", than others.

Which again makes sense. Curious.
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Week of 2008-02-18

Well, I'm in a pretty bad mood. I really want to hit or throw something. This is mostly the f ault of me losing my keys yesterday. The best case, now that I've checked the lobby of my dorm, is that it's in the car that took me to the Shedd yesterday. The worst case is that I dropped them when I took coins out of my pocket for parking, and they're lying in downtown Chicago somewhere.

This really sucks.

As it were, I'm not the only person to lose something yesterday. Someone in our group lost a phone somewhere on the trip. I guess it just wasn't a good day for keeping property.

Other than that, my week
Actually, I don't really care right now. I went down the Shedd on Friday and Saturday, and went lugeing yesterday. Those are the highlights.

I'm still pissed about my lost keys.
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Well, it would seem that I've lost my keys. This sucks.

Which means this week I've lost 2 pens, a sharpie, and those keys. Not a good week for stuff I own.
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Second Person Game

This seems like one of those things a genius would wonder about, and so here I am, trying to be a genius.

What would a second person game be like?

We've all heard of first and third person games. These descriptions refer to the perspective the player is given: either as the protagonist, or as a disembodied camera following the protagonist. Second person, however, would imply that the user takes the perspective of not the protagonist, but someone would would refer to the protagonist as "you".

Taking this definition more broadly first, there are several types of media which currently addresses the protagonist as you. The more well known are those "choose-your-own-adventures" book. Translating that into a game would make it similar to a God game, where you provide all the opportunities for the computer-controlled characters, and watch what they do. Since there are multiple paths through the story (one would hope), it would be ideal if you can somehow configure the protagonists, giving them traits and attributes which will then be used to decide which path through the story they take.

The game will therefore be much closer to writing a piece of interactive fiction than any conventional game. This in fact is also a good description of the second type of existing media: the role of a dungeon master in table top role playing games. The concept is the same, except this time it's other people who are controlling the protagonists, while the "player" controls the story telling, the NPCs, and pretty much everything else in the game.

Taking this concept further, a second person game is a game where the player controls everything but the protagonist. Technically it will only be "second person" if the player controls an animate object (since otherwise it will be third person), but it is still an intriguing idea.

My final question is, what kind of story could this format tell? I could imagine the player being mean, and denying everything the protagonist asks for. For the protagonist to succeed though, the player would have to keep giving ground, or at the very least play a very supporting/passive role. It would certainly be very strange.

What prevents the character(s) the player is controlling from turning into the protagonist?
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Two Songs and Two Movies

I recently discovered two things about two movies I like.

The songs Fleeting Smile by Roger Eno and Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometime performed by Beck (originally by The Korgis) reminds me of the ending of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Jacket respectively, and both songs make me smile involuntarily.
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Lost in Life

I'm feeling a little lost right now.

My projects this quarter are going okay, not great, but it's progressing. But that's not the sense in which I'm getting lost (although I think it contributes). I'm a little worried about what will happen in the future.

When I graduated from high school, I was pretty sure what I wanted to be: a computer science professor, teaching and doing research, most likely in some field of artificial intelligence. I have stuck to that dream job for most of the past three years, except for the past week I began having slight doubts. I'm not sure I'm suited for that profession.

It is not the case that suddenly find myself disliking computers. I still love to program, still love to hear ideas about how to turn a dumb piece of silicon into a reasoning, helpful machine. But I realized that I want to do something more. Not only something more interesting than aggregating search results, but something different.

In other words, something ground breaking.

And that's when I begin to have doubts. I've talked about this with some of my friends before. A lot of the great people in the last century were already great when they were young. Feynman, my ideal of a quirky genius, was already a genius in high school. One of my friends have co-written papers in ACM. While I'm here blogging away, not really helping the community at all.

I sometimes wonder if my smaller projects will be remembered and glorified in a future biography.

At the same time, I feel like my interests are also drawn somewhere else. I have an interest in modeling evolution, currently most prominently in modeling how reciprocal can develop giving the right environments. I like teaching, computer science or otherwise, and have recently taken an interest in finding ways of making computers more accessible to people without a technical background. And then there's design, which is not one of my fortes but still one of my curiosities.

All that, and I graduate in one and a half years. What am I going to do with myself?
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Rowan Atkinson Standup

With regards to posting, it would seem that I'm a little behind. That is, I'm a tight ass.

I'm writing something a little deeper, but hopefully I'll get it done by today. In the mean time, here's something you can procrastinate with: a series of stand up by Rowan Atkinson (aka Mr. Bean).

Transcripts can be found online as well.

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Week of 2008-02-11

This week I:
  • Had a discussion section which talked about entirely irrelevant topics
  • Skipped 30 minutes in the middle of a class to go talk to a professor
  • Skipped class to go observe someone's GSW session
  • Met the spring break group
  • Visited Shedd in vain - except for an airstone
  • Came back just in time to meet with another professor
  • Went ice fishing - we didn't catch anything, so it was more like picnic on a frozen lake. It was a cool experience though.
  • Dove to 15 feet underwtaer multiple times in the name of science - who thought an engineering class would require me to be able to dive and hold my breath?
  • Went rock climbing again
  • Wrote on my blog
  • Wrote on my blog that I "wrote on my blog"
  • Wrote on my blog that I "wrote on my blog that I "wrote on...
Hey, no recursing.
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Buying Books Episodically

From Ars Technica: "Random House is... experimenting instead with selling books the iTunes way, in bite-sized chunks; no longer will you need to purchase that Complete Guide to Astrology when all you really care about is Scorpio."

That's not a bad idea. I could imagine buying chapters of books for research purposes. It would also be really useful for textbooks, especially in classes where I don't really need them. I could just buy the questions required as homework. Textbook publishers won't do that though.

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Gooey Pipes

It's a stroke of fate that I first found this topic in an article from my RSS reader, and now it seems I'll be working on a prototype of such a system for HCI. It's a really cool idea, actually.

First, I should probably explain what pipes are, and how they can be gooey. Pipes, in computer science, are means of transforming the output of one program into another program's input. For example, I could have a program that does searching (grep), and I want to sort the search results (sort), and finally display only the unique ones (uniq). In a terminal, this would be:
grep | sort | uniq
Note the "pipe" symbol, also known as the "vertical bar" or "OR" in most computer programming languages. This is why it's known as a pipe; it also makes sense that information is put in a pipe and literally redirected to another program.

The power of pipes is fairly obvious, but notice that all the pipes above are in text. There is currently no way to provide the same power and flexibility graphically. That is, it would be cool if we could make some GUI gooey pipes.

There are some existing programs which replicates this process in various ways. One is Apple's Automator, which not only allows piping, but also primitive looping. The other is Yahoo!'s Pipes, which only works with online data sources. It would, indeed, be interesting to see such tools being used on the desktop. The article also has a point about putting multiple streams of data together, which is not really possible (unless you write to variables or files) in a terminal.

Let's see what we come up with.
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Dinner Table Conversations

I had two philosophically deep conversations at two recent meals. Only one was at dinner, despite the title of the post, but both contained profound ideas.

The lunch was between someone I had met last year at another meal, and during the latter stages of the conversation one of his friends joined us. I forgot how the conversation started, but the relevant part started with me describing to him what the technological singularity was. I asked him what he thought the future would be like, and him being a fairly religious person, he said that the far future, at the time of the apocalypse, the world will be very different. His idea of it was not the usual everybody dies and goes to heaven though. He had envisioned it as a transformation of the physical world; that is, the earth will still be here, but it will be somehow different. Heaven on earth, I think, is the basic idea. From this, he said he therefore believes that technology will be around for a very long time.

His friend then arrived, and asked a few questions clarifying her understanding of his religion (alright, he's Mormon). My friend explained that he believed humans are literal spirit children of God, and would therefore "grow up" to be like God, with all His powers, including creation. The way I envision it is there's a whole God species, of which we are all spiritual parts.

It occurred to me then, although I didn't say it at the time, that our theories are actually surprisingly compatible. Granted, my not believing in God is a big difference, but I see some of my version of the future being described in his terminology. That a change will abruptly take over all of earth - isn't that exactly what the technological singularity is about? We will not longer be the dominant species, but will instead "share" the world with the machines and its artificial intelligence. Arguably, we will be living under a greater intelligence - that of the machines. And in this way, we have outgrown ourselves and transformed into something bigger: a planet wide machine consciousness.

This (and therefore I myself as the author) probably seems crazy to many of you. Well, I won't be the first person on earth to have strange beliefs.

My friend's friend brought up a good point, however, when I explained the technological singularity to her. As an economics major, she saw change as driven by need. What she questioned was that, since the technological singularity will be in some sense incomprehensible by humans, whether it would be "needed". And if it's not needed, that it wouldn't happen at all.

I haven't thought about that before, and I haven't thought about it enough since to give a good answer.

My dinner conversation was also about religion, as me and one of my friends exchanged our worldviews. He managed to elicit and generalize my reasons for being an atheist into broad strokes:
  1. There is no (perceptual) evidence for God.
  2. Believing in God is not useful.
I have had vague thoughts in the direction of the second idea before, but this is the first time I've realized it is in some sense necessary. There may not be perceptual evidence of quarks either, or of radiation or other phenomenon. However, I and a lot of people take it's existence to be real, because it serves a purpose - quarks explain certain aspects of physics, and radiation helps with cancer and nuclear weapons.

God is different. I don't think God's existence can be taken as real, because I don't see any benefits to believing in God. My friend made me explain what I mean by useful, which I replied by some sort of utility in helping survive, or otherwise make life better. That could be money, power, a sixth sense, whatever. While I have never believed in God, and therefore don't have first hand experience in saying that it's not useful, this seems to be something which we can test for statistically. Is it the case that religious people earn more money, or live a happier life? Nope.

One argument against this is that people who believe in God go to heaven, while others don't (in the most dichotomized case). Well, yeah, okay, but you'll have to prove heaven first.
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Zion National Park

I reinstalled Google Earth today, for fun, after not having played with it since high school. It was fun to explore different places, including where I might be going for spring break.

It was a picture from last year's spring break which brought me the greatest joy.

Here's a picture from the trip:

And here's what I can get from Google Earth:

That's pretty amazing. That's why we all love Google.
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Ginny Ryerson

I watched Rocket Science this Sunday, at a free showing hosted by Northwestern. It was a different kind of comedy drama, as it doesn't have the happy ending. Partially because it was about debate, partially because it was about hermetic nerds, I enjoyed the movie. What lingered on my mind afterwards, however, was the question of what motivated Ginny Ryerson.

Movie spoilers ahead.

Let me give a short recap of what I remember of the movie. Ginny wanted the first place trophy for the state tournament, but didn't get it because her partner (Ben Wekselbaum) just stopped speaking in the middle of his speech. So next year, she goes and recruits Hal Hefner (among other similarly "disfigured" students) to the debate team. She makes out with him at least once, and makes him do a whole bunch of work before transferring to a competing school and joining their team. She also makes out with her new partner. Hal then finds Ben to try and win, without success. When Hal confronts Ginny in the middle of her speech, she justifies her actions as giving him the strength to stand up for himself and fight.

I have thought about several incomplete theories which would explain her actions:
  • Revenge - The most cliched motivation would be that Ginny wanted revenge against Ben and the school. This explanation is a stretch though, as the school had almost nothing to do with her not getting the trophy. She knew Ben didn't go to college, and therefore probably doesn't value the school much anyway, and so would have no emotional lost over the school being ass-kicked in the tournament.
  • Self Worth - It could be that Ginny is really looking for self-worth. This could extend back to the point she tried to get the trophy, as that is the only thing that she's missing from her trophy case. She measures herself by how many trophy she has, and in failing to do that, feels horrible. She tries to find other people who will accept her easily (that is, people who need a social life)... then what? She feels the school couldn't help her get the trophy? I could see the making out being about self worth, it wouldn't explain why she transferred to another school.
  • Desire - Perhaps the most complete theory is that Ginny simply, for whatever reason, just really wanted the trophy. Getting experienced debaters on the team, snogging Hal, then transferring is really all just a ploy to destroy the previously strong school. Snogging her new partner might have to do with making sure he will debate with her. That is, the entire film shows why she forms this plan, and the execution of the plan.
I just noticed that none of the theories portray Ginny motives in a positive light. I wonder if her motives are really as she said, that she wanted people who are "disfigured" to learn to stand up and fight, that she was doing what what Ben had done (by leaving her alone at the finals). That's a very cold way to teach someone though - it reminds of the training school in Ender's Game.

There are several more loose ends about her too. Ginny has a gold pendant of her and Ben that she likes, and tries hard to find. This would imply that they were somehow in a relationship, or at least that she had a crush on him. Since Ben didn't seem to care about Ginny loosing, the latter would seem more likely.

Part of me hopes that, although her motivation for much of the film is negative, she changed at the end. Hal showing up at her school probably surprised her, and not accepting the trophy could signal a change in what she thinks, although she still doesn't want to talk to Hal.

Either way, it is debatable whether Hal or Ginny is the one we should pity more.
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The Better To Know You With

I took this one from a friend. Usually I have little regard for this type of personal trivia, but for some reason this one caught my attention. I think the first question is especially rare: it borders on one of the party games I've played before. "Party game" is not the right term; it was a very intellectual activity, one only the closest friends would enjoy. So here goes.

Ten Anonymous Things You Want To Say To Ten Different People
  1. I wish you would open your mind about certain things. Being right is not about insistence, but about the ability to explain why.
  2. I don't think having the second best is better than not having at all. Hopefully you'll find what you really want one day.
  3. I am glad for all the adventures we've had, although I have to say that having known you for quite a while I still don't completely understand you.
  4. I think (and fervently hope) that respect each other more than we admit. Someday we'll both live happily, I know it.
  5. Somehow we've gotten closer when we've been further apart.
  6. Your childish innocence and naivety makes me happy. I hope my craziness has brought you the same joy.
  7. I've always thought that something was holding us back from something wonderful. But now it's a little too late.
  8. You were an awesome partner to work with, and I know you will do well in the future, even though I don't know you well.
  9. You are a great friend to have stuck with me all this time. We'll have more time together yet.
  10. You'll be fine... You'll be fine.

Nine Things About Yourself
  1. I'm just shy, not antisocial (you can talk to me!)
  2. I do strange sports like rock climbing, horse riding, and broomball
  3. I am a nerd, although I try hard to be a renaissance nerd.
  4. I (think I) write quite a bit more than a normal computer science student
  5. I really want to become a college professor to teach and do research, but I'm still not entirely sure if it's right for me
  6. I alternate between piano solos and progressive metal
  7. I'm cool enough to write my own calendar and not use Google/Yahoo/Outlook. I'm thinking of ditching my Moleskine for a Hipster PDA
  8. I'm a gothic optimistist - I find melancholy beautiful, while believing life is hopeful
  9. I'm a weak atheist

Eight Ways To Win Your Heart
  1. Shine - don't just smile and appear happy, be happy
  2. Be unafraid of difficult and/or impossible things
  3. Try difficult and/or impossible things
  4. Surprise me
  5. Appreciate the small things in life
  6. Be quirky
  7. Be excited about stuff
  8. Defeat all the other contestants

Seven Things That Cross Your Mind A Lot
  1. Computers
  2. (Non)-religion debates
  3. Stuff dealing with the human psyche
  4. Various melodies
  5. Thoughts, ideas, musings, and ponderings
  6. Things that I can be (and hopefully will be) in the future
  7. Electrical impulses

Six Things You Wish You Never Did
  1. Been so indifferent
  2. Cared so much
  3. Spent so much time thinking of regrets when I don't really have any.

Five Turn Offs
  1. Cigarettes
  2. Drugs
  3. Excessive vanity
  4. Insincerity
  5. Self-absorbance

Four Turn Ons
  • Humor, and sarcasm to a (very slightly) smaller extent
  • Confidence
  • Dynamicity
  • Blue hair, blonde eyes, etc.

Three Smileys That Describe Your Life
  1. ___ (o,o)/) )-"-"-
  2. :D

Two Things You Want To Do Before You Die
  1. Solve an important question in an academic field...
  2. ... and have my own Wikipedia article about it (written by someone else)

One Confession
  1. Yes, I copied you. I thought it was cool, and I never had the courage to thank you, so here I am.
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Week of 2008-02-04

This week has been pretty tough for me, for at least the start of the week. All my classes have work due on either Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday, so I usually have nothing to do Wednesday evenings. That said, I've kept myself busy:
  • Gave a review session for the EA midterm
  • Wrote sections of a progress report for my design project
  • Wrote a paper on foundationalism - leading me to stay up till 6 am on Wednesday
  • Watched clips of early computer animation, in an showing titled "Imaging by Numbers"
  • Planned out some details of spring break
  • Went climbing - twice, one on Friday and once today
  • Watched Rocket Science
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How To Do What You Love

I was thinking about one of those personal trivia quiz thingies, and one of my thoughts was that while I'm a nerd, I try hard to be a renaissance nerd. Googling that term gives some interesting results, but I ended up spending time at Paul Graham's site. I've visited the site before, and have also read a few of his essays, but today I spent more time on it.

My attraction to his essays could be from his view the superiority of nerds and intelligence, but I also like his humor.

His essay titled "How To Do What You Love", however, was not about that. It's about, on a more abstract level, how to live a good life, the idea that "work" is not necessarily different from "play". It's an idea I've played around in my head for a long time, and have had discussions about it with other people. Thus, I wanted to see if my idea of the concept was the same as Graham's.

After reading, I didn't find to many points of disagreement. There was however one idea I was taken with. In the essay, Graham points out that one of the harder parts of the problem is figuring out what you love. He writes,
The test of whether people love what they do is whether they'd do it even if they weren't paid for it—even if they had to work at another job to make a living. How many corporate lawyers would do their current work if they had to do it for free, in their spare time, and take day jobs as waiters to support themselves?
That set me wondering, what do I do in my spare time that I don't get external/material rewards for?

Let's start with what I have been considering as my dream job, teaching and doing research in computer science at a university. Whether this passes the test or not depends on how you break down this job:
  • Do I code in my free time? Yes, although less frequently now than I used to. In high school I'm constantly typing on my TI-83+, writing small programs. That was really what started me into computer science (besides a semester course on visual basic, and having been "home-schooled" before in HTML). I still have my proudest creation, a Minesweeper game in TI-Basic. I still code in my free time, but they have been for the most part limited to a few projects. Actually, no, I take that back. I tend to focus on one project at a time, although I tend not to finish them. I played around with NUCollab and a Northwestern Lost and Found system, I helped with NULink, I started a game called Ant Wars. I still write short bash scripts every now and then, and I'm constantly looking for ways to improve my HTML/JavaScript calendar as well as my journal search bash script. So yes, I code in my free time.
  • Do I do research in my free time? This is a somewhat harder question to answer. If by research you mean what I signed up to do, that is, modeling human walking with the BME department, then I'm afraid I don't work on that too hard at all. I could argue though that I did in sign up for it of my own free will, so I'm allowing it to take up my free time. If research is merely classified as "learning stuff you don't already know", then yes, I "research" a lot, especially on Wikipedia. These are not always computer science related, but they tend to be.
  • Do I teach in my free time? Yes. GSW is a big (as in important, not time consuming) part of my life, and it is the only paid "job" I have currently. And I do enjoy it a lot, as I've told someone last quarter that GSW is "sort of my highlight of the week." I also help SHPE and NSBE freshmen prepare for midterms, so this is the clearest one of what I do in my spare time.
One thought about research - people arguably took up their jobs because they liked something about it, as long as they wouldn't go bankrupt or starve otherwise. I can see an argument being made about how people are already "doing what they love" to a certain extent, but that is clearly not what Graham or myself had in mind (I feel so self-absorbed to be putting myself and Graham in one sentence...). I would say that both for my work with WebComm before, and the research I'm doing now, that I don't have to work, but I did it because I want to.

So I seem to be on the right route to doing what I love. But by pulling out computer science professorhood (or is it professorship?), I actually deceived all of you. There's something I've been doing a lot more in my free time than teaching, researching and coding, possibly even combined. It is in fact right in front of you: writing. I've kept a journal since April of 2002, and started this blog September of last year as well. I write an awful amount, and none of this gives me any reward except for satisfaction. Writing is, in fact, my most productive endeavor. As Paul Graham writes,
Another test you can use is: always produce. For example, if you have a day job you don't take seriously because you plan to be a novelist, are you producing? Are you writing pages of fiction, however bad? As long as you're producing, you'll know you're not merely using the hazy vision of the grand novel you plan to write one day as an opiate. The view of it will be obstructed by the all too palpably flawed one you're actually writing.

"Always produce" is also a heuristic for finding the work you love. If you subject yourself to that constraint, it will automatically push you away from things you think you're supposed to work on, toward things you actually like. "Always produce" will discover your life's work the way water, with the aid of gravity, finds the hole in your roof.
I do not, however, intend to be a writer, editorial or otherwise. Coming upon Graham's site is actually an inspiration, because he, like me (again self-absorbed), writes a lot. I don't think I would mind if my life turned out to be like his.

By "don't think I would mind" I mean "Yes! Please! Please! I beg you!" Eheh.
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Why I Write

Sometimes I question why I write on this bloody thing, since only about 7 people a day read this. Although, from the angle that 7 strangers (alright, maybe 4 strangers) is reading this, it's pretty amazing what the internet can do.

Ahem. Anyway (that sounded like one of my friends), why I write. Since November last year I've decided that I would write in my personal journal less often, in favor of writing daily here. I would import whatever posts sounded interesting back into my journal. Since then, I've tended to still write in my journal once or twice a week, but that's compared to the every other day average for the past five years.

I think part of the reason I've decided to do that was that college is presenting me with a lot of new things, new ideas to contemplate. My journal, as I've said before, is mostly for personal stuff, and although I would occasionally write about computer science, that's the limited extent to which I put academics into it. This blog gives me the freedom to jot down fancy ideas I have, so I could reference it later. It's really not so much that I have a separate space for writing, but a different GUI to look at, so my personal and intellectual thoughts are - at least visually - separated.

That, and I find writing fun, and would like to be better at it.

This being a public blog though, I've been hoping that more people would read what I write. A little narcissistic, I know, but I think part of the reason blogs (as opposed to a private journal) are popular is because people want to share their thoughts. Sharing, by definition, needs other people to participate.

In a campaign to make other bloggers feel better about their blogs, I subscribed to several random blogs, blogs which I thought had a personality to them. One of them was also in French, because I would like to get better. This all portrays me as a very shady stalker-ish person, but I promise that's not the case. Maybe I'll comment and introduce myself. I guess, when I say the blogs have a "personality", that's what I mean: they wouldn't mind me commenting, and would be interested in making friends.

One can hope, right?
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Google Apps Team Edition

Google just announced that they have a new version of Googles Apps available: Google Apps Team Edition. While standard edition of Google Apps needs to be hosted by some domain, usually under whatever company's using it, the new Team Edition allows people to use it just with their corporate email address. This means that the company's IT department doesn't need to approve the system first before people can use it.

I see what you did there (and now for a picture of a cat).

Arguably, Google is trying let the employees of a company migrate over to the Team Edition first, then because the IT department wants control, make the company subscribe to the standard Google Apps service. It's kind of like starting a revolution when you can't become join the government; it will create such a big (and uncontrollable) situation for the governing body that they have to listen to you. In this case, the users become so accustomed to Google Apps that the company has no choice but to subscribe to get control.

This is not a bad strategy, but I'm wondering if this counts as a form of the "embrace, extend, extinguish" strategy that Microsoft has been using for the past decade. Although Google is not targeting a standard, the process of entering ("embracing" a company's culture), extending (how employees work), and extinguishing (the company's choice in the matter).

Does this seem like a sound analogy to anyone besides me?
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Early Computer Animation

I just came back from a art cinema thing, where they showcased some early (pre-1970) computer animation. It wasn't as interesting as I thought it would be, but I did have thoughts about that. First, that visualization didn't really develop much in the past 50 years. Second, that distortion of a 2D image can make it seem as though it's 3D and rotating. Finally, I encourage everyone to check out Larry Cuba's Calculated Movements. It would make a pretty cool screen saver.
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Two pranks I thought of in the past week.

1. Build a set of double doors, which swings open in the center. However, in the center there is actually a pole, but it should be really hard to spot. Have the push plates on the door meet at the center, separated by a thin slit which goes through the entire center pole. This will give the illusion that there's nothing between the doors... and when people try to walk through they'll smack themselves nicely on the pole.

2. Another door trick. Put a piece of glass behind a set of automatic glass doors. People'll do the rest.

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Digital Object Permanence

Of my four classes and research, philosophy and HCI makes me think the hardest. And as someone who likes to minimize the work they do, I often just translate those thoughts into posts.

Last week, discussion during the class suggested that people think of paper as a more permanent storage option than magnetic disks. If a document or a book is in paper, it is tangible, whereas it seems much easier for the book to disappear if it's just stored in cyberspace. Of course, people lose pieces of paper all the time, but at least while they have it it's touchable. It was also suggested that people need to get used to the notion of digital storage, that the document or book will still be there when the user turns on the computer again, and won't simply disappear for no reason.

Phrased that way, the problem reminded me of the concept of object permanence. Originally used to describe a concept learned by infants as early as 8 months old, it seems that adults will have the learn the concept all over again when they familiarize themselves with digital technology.

I think part of the problem is that the older generation have not had as much experience with technology and digital equipment. It seems to me that my generation, a generation which has grown up on computers and iPods and various other digital gadgetry, have no problems with the concept. In fact, if a file mysteriously disappears on people's hard disk, they would a lot more surprised than if the file remained where the user last "saw" it.

Of course, at a certain level the concept is the same: what is real remains real over time, if nothing happens to it. This applies to balls that you hide with your body, to paper stored in filing cabinets, to tiny electrons in the hard disk of your computer. Besides familiarity and experience with digital technology, another problem would be that the general population is simply not as educated about how hard disks work. Because the method of storage is imperceptibly small, people lose their sense of object permanence.

All that being said, I don't think paper can be completely replaced by technology... yet.
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Week of 2008-01-28 (and 2008-01-21)

It has been a pretty busy two weeks. I'm not sure if I'll have so much fun (and so much stress!) again this quarter. I...
  • finally got the registrar to add me to my design class, which I have in fact been working my ass off. Which is why I can't sit up straight right now.
  • finished the first "real" version of my resume, and wrote my first cover letter.
  • ...and sent it off to CTY! *fingers crossed*
  • went ice skating, which I haven't done for a really long time, probably since high school. After that we went to a really nice cafe/chocolatier to escape the winter cold.
  • coded up a redesign of Doodle for HCI. I really like the redesign; I think it not only looks nicer, but offers more information at a glance as well. Oh, and the major selling point, the ability to drag on the checkboxes to select multiple times at once. Very useful.
  • went to the swimming pool twice, again something I haven't done in a really long while. It wasn't for swimming though, but to test our pipe-bombing-looking bubble makers.
  • had another adventure at another ice rink with broomball. I think wearing hiking boots makes it easier in a way I can't explain, since I slipped a lot more and fell once, which is once more than I did last time. I'm also wearing down more expensive shoes (I think).
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Focusing Habits

I had the opportunity to watch people work in the past few days (as I am wont to do), and noticed that a number of them like to stick out their tongue while working. Not stick out their tongue to make a silly face, but just keeping the tip of their tongue between their lips.

I'm really curious why people do that. I'm pretty sure it's unconscious, but there should be a biological/neurological reason for people to do so.

Of course, my own focusing habits are nothing to be proud of: I often drool when I'm concentrating really hard on something. I think it's because I'm so focused that my jaw muscles become slack, and saliva builds up to overflow.

Eheheh, I probably shouldn't have told you that.
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Egyptian Heaven

I just finished watching The Bucket List, starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson. Interested readers can check out the Wikpedia page; although the ending is revealed, I don't think it will ruin the movie experience. It's one of the "it's the journey" things.

I particularly liked the part on the pyramid when Freeman's character tells Nicholson's character about Egyptian heaven. He said that in the myth in Egypt is that when you die, you are admitted to heaven based on your answers to two questions: "Have you had joy in your life?" and "Has your life given joy to others?" It's incorrectness aside (I was under the impression that Anubis weighed your soul against a feather... heart, according to Wikipedia), I actually quited liked the two questions.

Have I had joy in my life? Yes! I enjoy life very much. I cannot say anything about having the most joy, or if I will still be joyful when I'm looking death in the face, but I have definitely lived a pretty good life so far.

Has my life given joy to others? Nicholson's character had initially tried to dodge this question, telling Freeman's character not to ask him, but ask them. However, I think part of the power of this question is how its forcing you to be introspective. My life? As an optimistic and slightly narcissistic person, I would say yes. At least, I hope so. I have made people laugh, not like "solved world hunger" or "cured cancer", but mostly small things. I certainly enjoy small jokes and short quiet moments a lot. I wish I could share that joy.
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