Sooner apparently means later

In the mean time, here's a fun charge on spring simulator. It uses a naive force-based algorithm to do the drawing. Those among you with a sharp eye will have noticed I named this simulation "Feynman", named after of course the famous physicist Richard Feynman. In his biography - James Gleick's Genius - the author describes how Feynman perceives equations (he has grapheme-color synesthesia specific to mathematical equations. I have written about the general form before). I quote from the book:

In high school he had not solved Euclidean geometry problems by tracking proofs through a logical sequence, step by step. He had manipulated the diagrams in his mind: he anchored some points and let others float, imagined some lines as stiff rods and others as stretchable bands, and let the shapes slide until he could see what the result must be. These mental constructs flowed more freely than any real apparatus could. now, having assimilated a corpus of physical knowledge and mathematical technique, Feynman worked the same way. The lines and vertices floating in the space of his mind now stood for complex symbols and operators. They had a recursive depth; he could focus on them and expand them in more complex expressions, made up of more complex expressions still. He could slide them and rearrange them, anchor fixed points and stretch the space in which they were embedded. Some mental operations required shifts in the frame of reference, reorientation in space and time. The perspective would change form motionlessness to steady motion to acceleration. It was said of Feynman that he had an extraordinary physical intuition, but that alone did not account for his analytic power. He melded together a sense of forces with his knowledge of the algebraic operations that represented them. The calculus, the symbols, the operators had for him almost as tangible a reality as the physical quantities on which they worked. Just as some people see numerals in color in their mind's eye, Feynman associated colors with the abstract variables of the formulas he understood so intimately. "As I'm talking," he once said, " I see vague pictures of Bessel functions from Janke and Emde's book, with light tan j's, slightly violet-bluish n's, and dark brown x's flying around. And I wonder what the hell it must look like to the students.

The idea behind this project was to make an interactive mind mapping application, where no hierarchy is enforced or even implied - unlike most mind mapping software such as XMind. This means a free-form graph layout application. To get the recursive depth, however, each node will also be a summary representation of another mind map/graph, so the user can drill down indefinitely to find more and more detail. What I've coded so far is only a test of the graph layout; I will eventually put in the functionality to create nodes and label and expand them.

In the mean time, a fun emergent game is to try and drag the nodes such that the graph is planar. Just refresh the page to get a new randomly generated graph.

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I'll start writing again... soon

In the mean time, enjoy the new layout.
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Recreational Programming

The result of about 10 hours of recreational programming: a web interface to settle complex bills. This was common when I went on camping trips; people would pay for gas, camping, firewood, etc. willy nilly, and at the end it's always a pain to figure out who owes what. No longer.

Bill Settler

The Evolution of Desire

I finished David Buss' The Evolution of Desire a while back, but I have been to lazy to post thoughts. It's a more scientific look at human mating strategies and their evolutionary/adaptive roots - a The Game backed by evidence, if you will. I will only share two quotes here.

The first one is amusing:

Feigning homosexuality so as not to incur the suspicion of the dominant man and then attempting to have sex with the woman when the dominant man is not around is a rare tactic among humans. Nonetheless, it is interesting that a few college men reported having observed this strategy.

Really? People pretend to be gay to get girls? And it works? Interesting.

The second one is also amusing (emphasis mine):

[The researchers] asked college women how upset they would feel if a man they did not know, whose occupational status varied from low to high, persisted in asking them out on a date despite repeated refusals, in a relatively modest form of harassment. On a 7-point scale, women would be most upset by advances for construction workers (4.04), garbage collectors (4.32), cleaning men (4.19), and gas station attendants (4.13), and least upset by persistent advances by premedical students (2.65), graduate students (2.80), or successful rock stars (2.71)... The same acts of harassment from men who different in status are not equally upsetting.



Conway's Game of Death

Today's Spiked Math gives an interesting twist to Conway's Game of Life, complete with zombies. I was curious what the actual interactions were like, so I modified a NetLogo model to do the simulation.

As in the comic, blue means human, red means dead, orange means zombie.

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Our Upcoming Digital World

Two converging sources led me to write this today.

The first is a duology (or dilogy, to be etymologically correct) by Daniel Suarez, titled Daemon and Freedom (TM). I first heard of Daemon from the Long Now Foundation blog, where the author talked about how the world is increasingly being run by computers. The online preview hooked me, and I've been searching for a copy ever since. I finally got my hands on both books two weeks ago. Michigan's copy of Daemon had been continuously checked out for a long time; I decided to get a copy of Freedom through ILLiad, thinking they would check it out from the Ann Arbor Public Library - I later found my copy came all the way from Yale. They were good reads, techno-thrillers that refuse to be put down. Saying the books are merely techno-thrillers grossly underestimates their scope - Suarez embedded political, economic, and philosophical viewpoints in the narrative - but here I will only address his description of technology and its impact on society.

The storyline of the novels follows a revolution, from a society very similar to our own to one where the digital world is (even more) deeply integrated into the fabric of everyone's lives. This integration is primarily through a computer problem (the titular Daemon, which controls everyone's private information. This consists mainly of three things: a person's unique ID (UID), their credit, and their role and competency in that role. A UID is just that - some name or series of characters which uniquely identifies a person. A person's credit is also a familiar concept: it is the digital currency of the society. Finally, a person's role and competency (or "level") stems from role playing game terminology; it describes what a person is good at, and how good they are at it. For example, the novel often shows articles by high level (say, level 12 or above) journalists.

Each piece of information stored by the Daemon is part of the overall system, but a larger view of the system is needed first. Each member of this new society wears specialized sunglasses, equipped with a head-up display (HUD) and powered by a wearable power source - in most cases, a battery belt. The HUD is a thin client to the Daemon - that is, it only provides access to the system but does not run the Daemon itself. Wireless Internet access is assumed, so the glasses are always connected to the Daemon. It transmits two sets of data to the Daemon: it's current location through GPS, and biometric data of its wearer. This biometric data - everything from fingerprints and iris scans to gait and breathing patterns - is stored together with a person's UID. DNA could presumably be stored as well, although it was not mentioned in the novels. This comprehensive profile of a person makes identity theft near impossible.

The GPS location, on the other hand, allows the Daemon to provide the user with information. Aside from data about people, the Daemon also stores information about objects. These could either be information about locations (think of a history of, for example, the Eiffel Tower) or information about real world objects. The latter is achieved through ubiquitous RFID tags. Pooling these databases together, a user can access information about everything in their surrounding.

A word about RFID tagged objects. In addition to giving information about an object's history (for example), the Daemon can perform other tasks with the help of embedded, integrated circuits in the object. One example is an ownership check: since the Daemon controls the economy (more on this later), it knows who an object belongs to. If an unauthorized person tries to use an object, the Daemon could automatically disable or even destroy the object. Since the Daemon is connected to most digital systems (more on how it did this later), objects could also be given "magical" properties. The books show a ring which will erase the wearer from security camera feeds: the Daemon associates the user and the ring, finds cameras pointed at the users location, and edits the video in real time to cover the user with the background.

Obviously, such an object could be misused - which is where a user's credit and role come into play. Together, these two pieces of information determine what someone is or is not allowed to do. While the idea of credits is easy to understand, role and level requires some explanation. As mentioned above, a person's role shows what the person is capable of doing. This may be production related - the knowledge to use a milling machine, for example - or skill based, such as the knowledge to write programs. The level is some measure of how much experience and how competent the person is with this ability. There is a third piece of data I have not mentioned - a person's reputation. This is again publicly viewable, and is simply an average of how others "rate" their interaction with this person. A low reputation would mean that the user frequently lies, or cheats, or is rude, while a high reputation means the user consistently does their job well. The creation and registration of objects with the Daemon often require several people to cooperate, and any one could refuse base on the others reputation. The Daemon itself performs checks on a person's credit and levels, to ensure that only responsible individuals could use powerful objects like the ring above.

Credit and reputation could be used in another way: to directly influence the society around you. For example, "news" within this society are simply pieces of media produced by users, then rated by other people. The initial rating of a piece of news depends on the reputation and level of the publisher. A person could also use their reputation to create "jobs" - things they want other people to do. Presumably, those who fulfill the requirements of the job - which might be something as simple as transcribing a minute of video - would gain credit or reputation or both.

For a society like the one described to survive, the stability and security of its infrastructure - that is, the Daemon - is crucial. In the novel, the Daemon first gained control as a virus botnet, gaining access to massive computing and storage capability. With this ability, it hacked into the financial and security systems worldwide, thereby forcing the world to accept its presence. The initial selection of people to receive HUD glasses were selected based on highly specific rules; once its members reached a critical mass, newcomers had to be interviewed by members - who are scanned with fMRI for honesty. It is also at this point the Daemon makes its source code publicly available, thus preventing minorities from taking over the system and also allowing the will of the majority to implement new procedures. Finally, the Daemon also executes the punishments in this society, including the removal of credits or in extreme cases, death (through the control of motorcycles with swords).

That concludes the description of Suarez's novel universe.

Before I talk about the second source of inspiration for this post, I want to point out which parts of the novel is science fiction and which parts are existing technology. The fictional aspects are surprisingly limited. The obvious ones include the sword wielding motorcycles, realistic and useful HUDs, fMRI lie detection (although this is a developing field), and (sadly) ubiquitous wireless internet access. Other things which sound fantastical are only fictional in degree: botnets do exist and could potentially harness the computing power to hack commercial networks. RFIDs are embedded in a lot of consumer products - including books, media players, and passports - and the devices needed to read RFIDs are cheap and easy to obtain. GPS is already a widespread technology, and in fact people already broadcast their location through services like Facebook Places, Twitter, and Foursquare. Finally, socially defined value systems are everywhere: Amazon ratings, news sites like Reddit and Digg, and on social networks like Facebook and MySpace. Of course, digital currency has been in use for the past half a century and drives most of today's financial markets. Finally, crowdsourcing is already available to people, through Amazon's Mechanical Turk service (the name of which is inspired by the original Turk, a fake AI).

My second inspiration likes with this later group. I watched a TED talk today by Seth Priebatsch on "The Game Layer on top of the World". Priebatsch is the founder of SCVNGR, an API which allows companies and individuals to build "challenges" at certain locations. These challenges earned the player points, which could be redeemed as coupons for those companies. Although I knew of all the services I mentioned above, it was only with the talk did I realize how near a future Suarez could be describing. Priebatsch's introduced his talk by saying today's social networks are disorganized, despite the potential of harnessing all the information a person puts online. The main difference between our present technology and that of Suarez's - aside from the science fiction elements already mentioned - is the transparency of information. By infecting global financial databases and forcing the system on people, the Daemon had the power to require the transparent broadcast of reputation and ratings. Without this central (and impersonal, unbiased, not-for-profit) force, there will always be concerns of monopoly and anti-trust for any company that gains control.

This was my original topic, by the way: that an open source, transparent program would solve the problems of a Randian utopia I talked about before. I believe that humanity will ultimately become the society described by Suarez, which inherently contains the values of production described by Rand, although policed in a very different form that what Rand envisioned. Technology has grown too quickly for society, especially our customs, to keep up: just look at the debates on net neutrality and digital copyright. Human right issues are related - the Daemon does not care whether you are Caucasian or African American, homosexual or heterosexual, Christian or atheist, but only your ability to give value to those around you.

I don't know what conditions would lead humanity to implement a change like that though.

Last thought: I mentioned that the Daemon's world was opt-in, that you have to decide to meet with interviewers. The current trend of ubiquitous computing is on smart phones, which I have yet to own one. In the novels, the people who stayed with the outside world were left with a dying economy; I wonder what world I will live in if I continue to refuse mobile technology.

HTML5 Canvas 3D

The WebGL standard is developing to allow 3D graphics on the web. Unfortunately, it is currently only available in developmental branches of major browsers. In the mean time, the HTML5 Canvas element provides support for 2D graphics... unless you have a backend library to render 3D scenes. Lookie what I did. You'll need a good browser... anything other than IE will do. Drag the display pane to rotate; use the mouse wheel to zoom in/out.

In other news, I've discovered that I remember close to nothing about 3D geometry.
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Atlas Shrugged (cont.)

I had forgotten about these two points last time. Also, Faye has posted her thoughts on Atlas Shrugged.

Post Script 4: Sanction of the Victim

Although, as Faye suggested, that wealth is most often made collectively in the world at large, this is not true for special circumstances. In smaller groups, especially when the groups are not formed through mutual selection, there are often members who do most of the work and members who barely work at all. I am, of course, talking about school projects. If Atlas Shrugged had an effect on me, it is in my wondering whether I should have been more honest in group evaluations.

Post Script 5: On the Value of Human Life

At the end of the novel, the protagonists take over a torture facility to rescue John Galt. In one scene, Dagny confronts a guard by telling him that she was sent there by the head of state and making him choose between letting her in and obeying his boss' order to keep everyone out. When he couldn't make a decision, Dagny shoots him dead.

This scene, and the following ones, never satisfied me. Although I see the literary need to rescue Galt (and have no suggestion on how to otherwise achieve this), killing to achieve this seems entirely antithetical to the novel. Implied in the killing is that there is no life without thought and that being alive or dead makes no difference in that case. While this may be a valid philosophical position, putting it into action violates more than the value of life: our protagonists are also imposing their beliefs on others and making that choice of life and death for them. It is this latter imposure that I cannot stand. My philosophy leans toward what is said of Voltaire (but actually written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall): "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

New Windows Manager

Switched from Fluxbox to Openbox today, but everything is funtionally the same. The taskbar is pypanel. The readings in the back is from conky. The wallpaper is from a NASA POTD showing the sun's corona during an eclipse.
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Atlas Shrugged

Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?

No, says the man in Washington; it belongs to the poor.
No, says the man in the Vatican; it belongs to God.
No, says the man in Moscow; it belongs to everyone.

I rejected those answers.

- Andrew Ryan, founder of the city of Rapture

The above quote is from BioShock, a first person shooter where the player stumbles upon the ruins of Rapture. The setting of the game borrows heavily from Ayn Rand's philosophy (as the similarity between the names Andrew Ryan and Ayn Rand suggests), especially from the philosophy espoused in her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged. I myself finished the book last week, after my friend Faye prompted me to read one chapter. It was the original book I wanted to read of Rand's, before its unavailability from the library forced me to read The Fountainhead instead. I thought I would start my conversation with Faye by writing this post.

The basic premise of Atlas Shrugged asks one question: what if all the innovators of the world disappeared? Their choice to do so is rational in the setting of the book: the government (and the world in general) has evolved to the point where the work of any innovator is taken from them unfairly. As protest against this policy, the innovators collectively disappear, to show the world what will happen if they refuse to continue contributing their work without appropriate payment. As a consequence of their refusal to work, to "sanction the victim", the world collapses with no one producing anything of value. This is the meaning of the novel's title - those who carry civilization forward, the Atlas' of the world, becomes apathetic to those they are carrying. This is also why the novel was originally titled "The Strike".

Describing the precise moral dilemma that the book presents is difficult. I think the conflict reduces down to these two principles, both commonly accepted morals, which Rand suggests is in conflict:

  1. Men are brothers in life, and must take care of each other. We must ensure that each person is treated fairly, and those more fortunate must contribute to help those less so.
  2. Men are their own masters, and we must create our own destiny. No one else is in charge of our happiness, and we must work to maximize the value and desirability of our future.

In Atlas Shrugged, Rand sets these two morals in opposition. Within the novel, the government puts the needs of the majority over the right of the individual. To ensure that everyone in society is treated fairly, that those who have not risen to the top are given chances to do so, the government routinely limits the output of industries and commandeers its goods for those in need, with the force of the law at its side.

The problem is not that the able - and therefore the rich - are giving money to the poor, but that the poor are not giving value back. Ask yourself this question: if you are required, by law, to give money to pan-handlers who have nothing to offer you in return, would you? If you answered no, consider that this is exactly what taxes and social welfare amounts to. The novel exaggerates this to dystopian degrees, but the scenarios are qualitatively equivalent.

In protest against this philosophy of free-loading, the heroes of Atlas Shrugged retreat from the world to their own isolated village, where the rule of the land is laissez-faire capitalism. Everyone must earn their own living, and trade occurs because both parties want something the other has - in other words, if one person gives another money, it is because the second person has something the first wants. There is no government in the conventional sense: instead of taxes required by law, money is given voluntarily to protect the personal rights of individuals, including their right to property and right to physical well-being. That is the sole function of the government; there is no social welfare, and public utilities such as roads and water are privately owned, its existence prompted by its need. It is the rational self-interest which drives the exchange of money, not the law and its implied threat of physical force.

Rand's novel goes on to show that, without the productive capabilities of the heroes, the outside world collapses. The welfare state cannot help the poor, as there is nothing of value left to give to them. The government attempts to force the producers to return through torture but the producers, showing their willingness to die for the cause, proves that there is no way to force a person to think. The end of the novel suggests that the world has collapsed sufficiently for the producers to reemerge, to establish a society based on their own morals.

For me, the story raises the following questions, which I will address in turn:

  1. Are the two principles mentioned above necessarily in conflict? Is the adherence to the first necessarily destructive?
  2. In The Fountainhead, Rand suggests that a man's work (that is, his happiness) should be his only moral, other people's opinions of it be damned. And yet, here our heroes change their behavior because of other people. Are these two messages in conflict, or can they be reconciled?
  3. Most importantly, how practical is the philosophy that Rand proposes? How should we evaluate its merits?

To answer the first question, I will first ask whether the first principle is necessarily destructive. I argue that, although it maybe not always cause the dystopia painted in the novel, it definitely does is not the most constructive of principles. Consider a decision theoretic viewpoint: if you can give your money to two people, one who will give you something in return and one who won't, rationality dictates that you should give the money to the person who will give you value; otherwise, you will incur an opportunity cost. The reason for this is that trade is not a zero-sum game. This comes directly from Adam Smith: the cost of each person manufacturing what they need is higher than specializing then trading, and therefore both people come out ahead by trading. In contrast, the second give-and-take scenario is zero-sum: what you give away is exactly what the other person receives. Therefore, although not necessarily destructive, the principle of giving is also not the most valuable one to follow.

This answer to the second part of the question also suggests an answer to the first. If we take our happiness to be our only moral, then the extra cost of giving to others compared to trading implies that we are not as valuable as we could be. Since giving reduces our productive capability in the long run, these two principles, if standing by themselves, are directly in conflict.

Here I need to make side notes to address two issues: that of people who absolutely need aid, and that emotion and/or friendship in the world described above.

First, the treatment of people who need aid. Some might object that there are two categories of the poor: those intentionally lazy who pan-handle because they don't want to work, and those truly incapable of work and therefore depends on the welfare of others to survive. Surely the latter group deserve help from people more able than them. That may be, but consider the implication of such a dichotomy. A careful reading of the above suggests that the measure of a person is always measured by their ability to produce (their value), not their ability to consume (their need). Saying someone depends on the generosity of other people implies they have nothing to trade. To put it crudely, someone who can only survive with the help of others is someone who has no worth as an individual, who cannot create anything of value at all. Surely the idea that some people are worthless is crueler than the idea that we must all act in rational self-interest. In fact, such a moral presupposes that everyone has something to offer, something of value to trade; this is the optimism inherent in the philosophy.

Second, the nature of friendship and love. In taking a utilitarian view of human relationships, it might be argued that non-material aspects of life are left out, such as friendship and love. Love is not about a person's value and what one can gain from it; it is precisely about ignoring personal flaws. Rand offers this answer in Atlas Shrugged, as said by the minor villain Lillian Rearden:

"If you loved your brother, you'd give him a job he didn't deserve, precisely because he didn't deserve it - that would be true love and kindness and brotherhood. Else what's love for? If a man deserves a job, there's no virtue in giving it to him. Virtue is the giving of the undeserved."

Is this the reason people love one another, because they do not deserve it? This ultimately reduces to the same pessimistic outlook by those who claim some people need alms, but I will offer another argument. Love and friendship may not be about the material/productive value of a person, but it is definitely about personal happiness. The suffering of an unappreciated friendship and of an unrequited love is obvious, and this stems from love and friendship also being trades: both people gain more from interacting with each other than from being alone. In the realm of relationships, this is the value that each person is offering.

The second question above compares the philosophy of The Fountainhead with that of Atlas Shrugged. Rand, speaking through Roark at his second trial, gives this description of the ideal man:

"[The egotist] is not concerned with [others] in any primary matter. Not in his aim, not in his motive, not in his thinking, not in his desires, not in the source of his energy... Independence is the only gauge of human virtue and value. What a man is and makes of himself; not what he has or hasn't done for others."

The heroes of Atlas Shrugged are all Howard Roarks of their professions. Rand, in an early note for Atlas Shrugged, writes, "In The Fountainhead... the theme was Roark - not Roark's relation to the world. Now it will be the relation." Each of the innovators embody the same philosophy expounded by Roark, and yet their main act - to withdraw from the world - is driven solely by the action of others. Although this seems to directly conflict with Roark's morals, the differences are explainable.

The main source of this divergence is that Roark and the heroes of Atlas Shrugged lived in very different worlds. While both societies disapprove of the character's rugged individualism, there was no government directive against Roark's work in The Fountainhead. Roark could design buildings to the fullest of his ability, while Dagny, Rearden, and others were prohibited from producing by laws which limited their output. In other parts of the speech quoted above, Roark said, "We are approaching a world in which I cannot permit myself to live." That Roark did not withdraw from the world is therefore a matter of degree - he, like Dagny, believed that society can still be saved from collectivism. The implication is that should Roark find himself in "a world in which [he] cannot permit [him]self to live", he would have followed Galt's lead to go on strike.

Further more, one's refusal to carry the world is not the same as a rejection of one's work. While hiding from the government, all the innovators continue producing - their village is powered by the inventions of its resident engineers and entertained by the work of its artists. This is part of the message of Atlas Shrugged and echoes the philosophy of The Fountainhead, that the producers of the world can continue to produce without the looters, while the looters cannot live without the producers.

Finally, despite Roark's society being in a better state than Galt's, Roark himself briefly retreated from it - preferring to take the laborer's job of a quarry worker over letting others butcher his buildings. He returned when he found a client who appreciates his work, as Galt does when the world learns to appreciate his.

The meaning of Roark's life, as he explained to Wynand, is his work. True to his word, his work does not depend on others in any meaningful way, not in an obligation to support looters, nor to deliberately destroy them. In a world where his is actively prevented from producing - and therefore making his life meaningless - withdrawing from that world may be the only choice consistent with his philosophy.

The final question, perhaps the most important one, asks for an evaluation of the philosophy of Atlas Shrugged. Rand's ideal society Galt's Gulch, the village the heroes retreat to, where there is minimal government, each individual works to his fullest capacity, and there is an abundance of resources to be exploited. Although Rand would be horrified by this comparison, the above description evokes another ideal society: Thomas More's Utopia.

In many ways, More's Utopia is the polar opposite of Rand's ideal: there is no personal property, people request goods as they need them, slavery is pervasive (owned by the state), atheists are despised, and women hold a notably lower role than men. But the ultimate goal of both societies is the same: everyone knows their role in society (be it assigned or self-discovered) and works to their capacity. Utopia - which went on to inspire Marxism and communism - has obvious flaws: greedy dictates that some will request more goods than they need, which leads to a race until all state owned property is taken. The flaws of Rand's Galt's Gulch is less obvious.

Consider the equivalent of greed in Galt's Gulch. Since everyone is driven by rational self-interest, and since there is no government to provide social welfare, anyone who refuses to work will have no means to support themselves. Their rationality, therefore, requires them to produce value for trade, the cheapest and only method to acquire all the amenities for living. Because nothing is free, simply greed will not lead to the society's downfall.

There are, however, other forms of greed and sloth. Recall that property rights are maintained by essentially a privatized police force. What if the difference in wealth is large enough such that is it more profitable to rob than to produce? Even with the premise that everyone can produce value, that value may vary greatly between individuals; free capitalism means this variance will result in great economic inequity. When gaining wealth by force is quicker than trading what value one has, society quickly breaks down without the trust and freedom trade requires. Together with the always precarious assumption of general human rationality, Galt's Gulch will not survive for much longer than Utopia.

Both More's and Rand's ideal world can only be sustained by ignoring crucial parts of human nature. Both societies might survive if done in small scale, where everyone involved trusts everyone else completely. There are two ironies in this conclusion for Rand. First, just as the looters cannot force the innovators to produce ideas, the innovators cannot force the looters to be rational or to value property rights as much as they do. Second, and more insultingly, Rand believes in an objective reality, that things are what they are and that individuals are not to create their own reality but to perceive the true one. That Rand believes in the possibility of a society like Galt's Gulch is perhaps the grossest violation of this tenet of her philosophy.

What conclusions can we draw from Atlas Shrugged? As a continuation of The Fountainhead and as a work to demonstrate the relationship between innovators and the world, Atlas Shrugged achieves its purpose beautifully. As Rand's magnum opus, it deserves the attention is has received. Sadly, as a philosophical guide for future societies, there are still flaws to be resolved before Rand's ideal could be realized.

Post Script 1: Atlas Shrugged and the Bible

I think there is an insightful analogy of Atlas Shrugged an objectivist bible of sorts. This works in three senses:

  • as the Bible holds the core tenets of Christianity, so does Atlas Shrugged hold the core tenets of objectivism
  • both are fictional accounts which demonstrate how one's life is to be lived
  • both offer assurance that such a life ultimately results in happiness.

A key difference, however, is that the Bible offers only faith as the proof of its correctness, while Atlas Shrugged (and objectivism) promotes reason - a standard with which objectivism itself could be judged. At least in theory; see Post Script 3.

Post Script 2: On Style

Between The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, I thought the former was better written. In Atlas Shrugged Rand gives away too much of people's thoughts - often punctuating their speech and/or the narration. By making her character's motivations explicit, their actions lose some of the power in demonstrating what they think. In fact, in earlier drafts of The Fountainhead, Rand had written, "Don't dialog thoughts - narrate them". Perhaps because I have selectively reread The Fountainhead multiple times, there were also sections of Atlas Shrugged where the descriptions and/or the characters' actions were predictable.

There is, however, something I thought Rand did superbly: she managed create, in a novel set in "modern" times, the elements of a fantasy. In particular, the three "princes" of the world - Francisco D'Anconia, Ragnar Danneskjold, and John Galt - have an air of breathlessness about them, like the ancient heroes who fantasy protagonists discover are still alive (Zedd of Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series - not coincidentally heavily philosophical and based on Rand's work - comes to mind, but many characters from the Dragon Raja series more closely approximates this). This made their eventual appearance highly anticipated and enjoyable.

Post Script 3: The Ayn Rand Cult

In Why People Believe Weird Things, Mike Shermer talks about an unlikely cult: objectivism. Being believers in reason, the higher echelons of this movement (those closest to Rand personally) somehow developed a creed which upholds that, among other statements:

  • Ayn Rand, by virtue of her philosophical genius, is the supreme arbiter in any issue pertaining to what is rational, moral, or appropriate to man's life on earth
  • The measure of one's virtue is intrinsically tied to the position one takes regarding Ayn Rand and her work
  • It is best not to say most of these things explicitly; one must always maintain that one arrives at one's beliefs solely by reason.

A friend of mine, after learning that I enjoyed The Fountainhead, joked that I pronounce Ann Arbor as "Ayn Arbor". I replied that I liker her philosophy, not her person.


Some Shit

Synonyms for urine: Synonyms for feces:



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Climbing Terms

For future reference, if you climbed a route with one or more the first three, then you ____'ed the route.

Beta Practice Falling Term
Yes Flash
Yes Yes Red Point (no pre-placed pro)
Yes Yes Pink Point (with pre-placed pro)
Yes Yes Yes Hangdog
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Two Truths and A Lie

I just tweeted a very interesting two truths and a lie:

  • P=NP
  • All even numbers greater than 2 are sums of primes
  • The logical conjunction of the above two

I'll leave the solution to the reader. It occurred to me while lying in bed, however, that it should be possible to make a list such that any of the three can be the lie. After a little thought and some trial and error, the following fits the bill:

  • One of the following two statements is false
  • One of the other two statements is false
  • One of the previous two statements is false

Simple, but it works. Neat.

This reminds me of the riddle in Inside Man:

Which weighs more: all the trains that pass through Grand Central Station [in NYC] in a year - or the trees cut down to print all U.S. currency in circulation? Here's a hint: It's a trick question.

Once again, I leave the solution as an exercise to the reader... or you can watch the movie.

EDIT: here are a few more humorous Two Truths and A Lie's I came up with:

  • Water is wet
  • Fire is hot
  • The cake

"well, obviously, the cake is a lie."

  • You think this one is true
  • You think the last one is probably the lie
  • You're not sure anymore


  • Either you won't answer, or you'll answer correctly
  • Either you won't answer, or you'll answer incorrectly
  • You will answer

Interestingly, it's possible to correctly answer this last one. You can figure out how.

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A Year in My Life

As most of you know, I keep a personal journal where I record my thoughts and significant daily happenings. Unlike most people who journal - but probably typical as a Linux guy - I keep my journal digitally as plain text. Because it's searchable, I often include references to previous events and people that I am reminded of. I almost depend on it now as an integral part of my memory, and will sometimes be surprised when some incident I remember wasn't recorded in it.

Anyway, recently I started playing with graph visualization. I discovered Graphviz, which automatically moves nodes arounds to make the graph understandable. Primarily I needed it to do some visualizations for my research, but I then realized that the back references between journal entries are perfect for visualization.

Here's the graph for 2009. There are some extra edges to entries from other years which are not drawn.

That's 99 vertices and 183 edges, out of 110 entries for the entire year. Because most entries only reference previous dates, the dates are earlier near the bottom of the graph. You can see some seemingly important dates in the year, ones which I reference often: 2009-03-08, for example, and 2009-04-05. They can be identified by the high in-degree.

Out of curiosity, I also made a graph for my entire journal, a small version of which is shown below. The full version is 27917x4667 pixels, and weighs in at 20 mb.

The horizontal lines are not indicative of anything - it's just an artifact from how Graphviz works. This much larger graph contains 940 vertices and 1821 edges, out of 1283 entries I've written in the last 8 years. I don't have anything to say about it though.
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BMI on Craigslist

There was a post, w4m, on Craigslist. In it, the author listed that she was 170lbs (I'm not sure if she posted her height), and was looking for someone who's single, under 30, and has no kids.

As tends to happen on any anonymous internet board, someone replied that she was picky. Someone else posted that the requires were not particular at all (which I agree with). Then two other people chimed in to say that 170 is "pretty big" unless "you must be like 7'8?", and that 1"70 is large unless you are REALLY tall".

I was curious, so I looked up the Body Mass Index (BMI), which has the following form:

BMI = (weight * C) / height^2

where C is a constant adjusting for the units.

A BMI in the normal range means it is between 18.5 and 25, with 22 being the average. This gives a height range of [69.14,80.37] inches, with an average of 73.70 inches. The average height for American females above twenty is 64 inches, which results in a BMI of 29.18, firmly in the overweight category and bordering on obese. There is a 3.8% chance of her being within the normal range, as 96.2% of American females are shorter than 5'9.

So, while the Craigslist posters were harsh, they were also, unfortunately, correct.

On a different note, the section of the US female population least likely to be overweight is (sterotypically) the Asian/Pacific-Islander (25.2% overweight/obese). The next least likely (surprisingly) are those with a graduate degree (29.2%). Interesting.

My Research

I've wanted to write this post for a while, but have never found the motivation to do so. There's a workshop this coming week, however, and I am scheduled to present this stuff on Thursday (today... I did okay, I think). So, I decided this is the perfect time to given a non-technical (that is, non-mathematical) introduction to what I do... there truly is no greater motivator than procrastination.

For those of you who don't know, I'm a grad student in computer science at the University of Michigan, specializing in artificial intelligence. Within this field, which is wider and deeper than most people realize, I am looking at the problem of reinforcement learning (RL). The formulation of the problem is simple. An agent interacts with some environment by performing actions. The environment reacts, and may occasionally reward or punish the agent. The goal of the agent is to maximize the amount of reward (or equivalently, minimize the amount of punishment) it gets. Hence the name reinforcement learning: the reward and punishment terminology is borrowed from the theory of operant conditioning in psychology.

Does this problem sound easy? It's not. Let's use a computer game as an example... say, Pong. A Pong agent has two actions available to it: move up and move down. The environment includes the ball and the opposite agent. A simple reward function gives the agent 1 point for winning a game and -1 point for losing the game. Now, put yourself in the role of the agent. You might think, "Oh, just follow the ball by moving up and down, and don't let the ball get past me." Well, you know that, but how does the agent know that? Remember, the agent doesn't know it is in a Pong game - all it observes are a bunch of numbers. The agent doesn't know it will be rewarded for getting the ball past its opponent, nor that it will be punished for letting the ball past it. It doesn't know that the ball will "bounce" when it touches anything - or even what constitutes "touching", "opponent", and "past".

Without any knowledge, the agent will have to act randomly, at least at first. It might get lucky and defend its goal once or twice, but more likely it will let its opponent score and be punished. There comes the first hurdle of reinforcement learning: how does the agent know what it did wrong? The converse is also true if the agent scored - what did it do right? This is called the credit assignment problem, because the agent is trying to figure out what gets the credit (or blame) for the reward (or punishment) it received. Again, remember what while you intuitively know that the agent missed the ball, the agent doesn't have any model of cause and effect to realize this.

To understand the basic solution to reinforcement learning, I must say more about those numbers that the agent observes. For Pong, there might be four numbers: the agent's vertical position, its opponent's vertical position, and the vertical and horizontal position of the ball. Each of these numbers are a state variable, and the different values these numbers can take in conjunction is called the state space - as in "the state of the union", not "the state of Michigan" - because they can describe every situation in the environment. To make reinforcement learning somewhat easier, researchers tend to view tasks as a Markov decision process (MDP). The distinguishing property of an MDP is that the next state of the environment depends only on the current state. For the Pong example, the state space described by the four numbers listed above does not make the game an MDP, since the ball can be moving arbitrarily fast or slow. If instead six numbers are used - the represent the horizontal and vertical velocity of the ball - then the task would become an MDP.

To be concrete, every action the agent takes changes the state of the environment. At each new state, the agent may receive a reward or a punishment, and then it has to take another action, and so on.

Now that the agent has some idea of how to relate one set of numbers to another, it can start learning. In place of human level reasoning, the agent simply plans backwards. Intuitively, if you get punished for being in this state, you know you shouldn't have taken that last action from the previous state. For Pong, this partially corresponds to not moving up if the ball is below you and just about to pass you. This picture is not complete though, because if you are at the top of the screen and the ball is at the bottom, you would not have gotten to the ball in time to deflect it anyway. This means that the faulty action lies further back in time.

Here's what the agent does. The agent remembers the state in which it got a reward or a punishment. Knowing whether this state is good or bad, it knows that the previous action from the previous state is also good or bad. Now knowing about this previous state, and can know about the state two steps back, and three steps back, and so on. That is, the agent learns by propagating the rewards back through the states, so the next time it finds itself in the same situation, it will either avoid that action (because it was eventually punished for it) or do the same thing (because it was eventually rewarded for it).

This was the state of the art 25 years ago.

Before I talk about more recent developments in the field, I want to raise a few problems in the solution above. The shallowest, but also most thought provocative, is this: how does the agent know it's doing its best? Imagine the task is to go from the bedroom to the bathroom to pick up an object. Through pure chance, the agent does this by going through the living room, the kitchen, and the broom closet, despite there being a door directly between the two rooms. Further imagine that the agent is rewarded based on how quickly it gets to its destination (I'm sure you can think of a reasonable, real life scenario for this). How would the agent know that the path it found is the shortest one? This problem is known as the exploration-exploitation problem. It is thus named because the agent needs to explore to know more about the environment, but this often means not exploiting the best action for the agent. In practice, researchers simply make the agent act randomly some small percentage of the time, so it will do its best for the most part but be constantly exploring. For the jargon-philiac, this is called an epsilon-greedy exploration strategy, where epsilon is the small percentage mentioned above.

There are other variations to this general framework which researchers are working on, such as partial observability (what if the agent doesn't know the value of some state variables?) and stochastic actions (what if actions only succeed some of the time?). I will skip the details on these topics and instead focus on what I'm looking into.

Pong, while an illustrative example, is not the most complicated environment for an agent to learn in. For one, there are only a limited number of situations for the agent to be in: in the original pixelated arcade game, there might only be a thousand or so different states. A modern computer running the algorithm I described above would find the optimal strategy (or policy) in less than a minute. Consider instead the rooms example I just gave, where the agent must move from one room to another. There can be an arbitrary number of rooms, and each room itself can be arbitrarily large. Even if the starting and ending positions are unchanged every time the agent must complete the task, it might still take the agent a long time simply due to how much exploring it has to do.

Yet, unlike Pong, this more complicated problem also presents more information for the agent to use. For example, completely exploring one room is useless when the goal is in another room. If you were to give directions to a human, you might tell them to go out of the room, walk down the hallway, and take the last right. Alternately, you might tell them that the thing they're looking for is not in the living room, but in the kitchen. The other person, on hearing these instructions, could then ignore everything in their current room.

What these two instructions have in common is abstraction. The first instruction abstracts over actions (it doesn't say "take 10 steps forward, then 2 steps left,..."), while the second instruction abstracts over states (it's saying that everything outside the kitchen is one room which doesn't matter). Despite this distinction, the two types of abstractions are related: the first instruction is implicitly saying that the current room and the hallway are not worth exploring, and the second instruction can be thought of as the action "go to the kitchen".

My research is related to this idea, although it's a little more specific. Expanding the example beyond rooms, if I'm giving instructions for someone to get to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, I would tell them to get to the airport, take a plane, etc. Each of these "actions" can be further broken down: order a cab, get out of the house, get in the cab,... And even further: walk to the phone, call the cab company,... This is called an action hierarchy, as the first actions "contain" the second ones, which "contain" the third, and so on, until at the lowest level the actions are simply "move this muscle". How do humans break down such a complex task, and can a computer do the same thing?

So far, the state of the art (which is about 5 years old) is "sort of". Given just the MDP assumption, there are proposals for what subgoals should be. The most general ones are different ways of identifying bottlenecks - that is, states which an agent must go through to reach a goal. Think of the door to a room, and in order to get anywhere else you must first go through that door. Other ideas include things like looking at what states you have commonly visited in your experience, or perhaps looking at what you're rewarded handsomely for.

Even knowing what appropriate subgoals are, the agent is not done. Imagine that both the door to your room and the door to the apartment are given as subgoals. How will you know that the door to your room is the first thing to go for, before trying to read the door to your apartment? Depending on the viewpoint, this could either be a problem of restricting the proposal of actions, or it could be one of inducing a preference on different possible actions. This appears to be a slightly easier problem to solve, and I was surprised to find that there is almost no prior work in this area. I intend to look into this question further, and hopefully by the end of the summer I will have some intuition as to what might work and what won't.

Post script: to people not in computer science or perhaps in but not in AI, the problem of action hierarchies might sound insignificant. Despite my previous misgivings about being limited to too specific a field, I find this problem genuinely interesting. Although it may not change the world (yet), I do think its solution will contribute to an understanding of humans and intelligence.
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Can You Hear Me?

I sang this song with the choir back in middle school. We got either second or third place in the Hong Kong wide competition with this.

Although my middle school years were mostly terrible, this song has always stuck with me. It floats into my thoughts every once in a while.

Can You Hear Me?
(By Bob Chilcott)

I look around me as I grow
I'd like to tell you all I know
I see life with all its energy
The city streets, the rush time
This is my world, it's where I like to be
So much to see, so much to find
I sometimes sit and wait a while
See the sun, it makes me smile
Can you see it
Can you see it too

I feel life with all its energy
The joy of waking every day
This is my world, it's where I like to be
So much to do, so much to say
I sometimes sit and feel the sun
Its warmth is there for everyone
Can you feel it
Can you feel it too

My world is a silent one
But it's enough for me
I hear you through your hands
The movement sets me free
But it could be a special thing
To hear your voice
To hear your sing
Can you hear me
Can you hear me too
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I have another post in the writing, but I want so share my discovery that my experiment on Craigslist is no unique. At least two other people have done it before: Simon Owens, whose results were "tame" like mine, and Jason Fortuny, who posted all the replies he got on Encyclopedia Dramatica (both of these are definitely NSFW). I believe several people lost their job over the Fortuny case, and more had to deal with problems in their family.

On the ethics over Fortuny's case, I happen to think he should not be punished. Legal considerations aside, I think the fault lies mostly on the people who replied to his ad for giving personal information to a stranger on the Internet. Without evidence otherwise, the worst case assumption should always be made.

That said, I don't think Fortuny is a shining example of how humans should act, either.
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Prologue to Jurassic Park

I've only written once about the environment and environmental causes, although that was in reference to a larger issue. My apathy is mentioned in passing elsewhere as well. I might have eventually written more on the subject, but I just discovered that the prologue to Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park (now a major motion picture) very articulately explains my views. It is copied below for your enjoyment.
You think man can destroy the planet? What intoxicating vanity. Let me tell you about our planet. Earth is four-and-a-half-billion-years-old. There's been life on it for nearly that long, 3.8 billion years. Bacteria first; later the first multicellular life, then the first complex creatures in the sea, on the land.

Then finally the great sweeping ages of animals, the amphibians, the dinosaurs, at last the mammals, each one enduring millions on millions of years, great dynasties of creatures rising, flourishing, dying away -- all this against a background of continuous and violent upheaval. Mountain ranges thrust up, eroded away, cometary impacts, volcano eruptions, oceans rising and falling, whole continents moving, an endless, constant, violent change, colliding, buckling to make mountains over millions of years.

Earth has survived everything in its time. It will certainly survive us. If all the nuclear weapons in the world went off at once and all the plants, all the animals died and the earth was sizzling hot for a hundred thousand years, life would survive, somewhere: under the soil, frozen in Arctic ice. Sooner or later, when the planet was no longer inhospitable, life would spread again. The evolutionary process would begin again. It might take a few billion years for life to regain its present variety.

Of course, it would be very different from what it is now, but the earth would survive our folly, only we would not. If the ozone layer gets thinner, ultraviolet radiation sears the earth, so what? Ultraviolet radiation is good for life. It's powerful energy. It promotes mutation, change. Many forms of life will thrive with more UV radiation. Many others will die out. Do you think this is the first time that's happened? Think about oxygen. Necessary for life now, but oxygen is actually a metabolic poison, a corrosive glass, like fluorine.

When oxygen was first produced as a waste product by certain plant cells some three billion years ago, it created a crisis for all other life on earth. Those plants were polluting the environment, exhaling a lethal gas. Earth eventually had an atmosphere incompatible with life. Nevertheless, life on earth took care of itself. In the thinking of the human being a hundred years is a long time.

A hundred years ago we didn't have cars, airplanes, computers or vaccines. It was a whole different world, but to the earth, a hundred years is nothing. A million years is nothing. This planet lives and breathes on a much vaster scale. We can't imagine its slow and powerful rhythms, and we haven't got the humility to try. We've been residents here for the blink of an eye. If we're gone tomorrow, the earth will not miss us.

Cross Acting

I don't get in trouble often, but I consider myself something of a rebel. I don't like organizations in the general much - I prefer groups that are more self organized and sustained. Sometimes I do weird things for amusement, like pretending I don't know a secret to see whether the secret holder would divulge it.

This time, I posted a Criagslist ad... in Women Seeking Men.

The primary question I wanted answered was whether men on the internet are really crazy. Some of my female friends have posted ads for fun, and later compared their replies. What they found was that some emails were exact copies of each other - some people just write the same response to everything, looking for a shag. That story had a twist ending for my friend, but that's not my story to tell.

A word on the post: I didn't write the ad myself - I would never have passed as a female writer. I won't copy the post here, but it was itself copied from the blog of a friend. We haven't talked since I graduated from Northwester, and even before then I don't think she knew I read her writing. She is an objectivist before I read The Fountainhead, and the post expresses a related sentiment: her wish for someone who doesn't want only to please her, but someone who can contribute something of themselves to her. In the words of Ayn Rand, a prime mover, not a second hander. Regardless, I never told her I used her writing (if you're reading this, you should email me), so I don't feel right posting her work even with attribution.

First, some statistics. I got 50 replies in total, the first within the hour, the last almost a month later. About 60% replied within 5 days. 12 of the 50 replies had photos attached, and a few more had links to either MySpace pages or some other picture hosting site. A small minority didn't bother to write proper English for the task, and a few more asked questions which made me think they didn't read the post at all. Although it wasn't unexpected, there were several older men who replied. For an ad declaring the poster to be 22, I got a reply from someone 17 years older. It reminds me of what OKTrends found. Of the 50 replies, two were duplicates; the senders sent the same email twice.

My most common reaction (subject to availability bias) is: who do you think you are? Granted, the post is a little self indulgent, but they are still the suitors. What I had posted talks about an intellectual pursuits... and a fair number talk about sex, and how they "know what a women [sic] wants in the sex department" and that "[I] want to be seduced". At the bottom of the pile is a reply that promised to "open that box of hidden desire and fantasy". I want to puke.

On the other hand, I suspect some responders are delusional. One ranted on about hidden treasure. One had a "real" picture of himself tensing up. A few wrote poems.

As for the good... there aren't the many. The ones I like best (again subject to bias, this time of a different kind) were simpler. They mention how old they are, what they do and like doing (somewhat passionately), and invite me to reply. A picture, if one is included, is a simple face shot. Three people mentioned books/authors, one of them being Ayn Rand. Only a single person mentioned something interesting - by quoting an article on the large hadron collider.

Hypothesis: most men who reply to Craigslist personals are douchebags.

Result: Confirmed.

Maybe next time I'll reply to a men seeking women ad (the doucheist one... is that a word?), and see what I get.
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Smashing Cars

I'm kinda unhappy with the latest MythBusters episode, the one about two cars smashing into each other at 50 mph is equivalent to one car smashing into a wall at 50 mph.

The way they tested the myth on a small scale was by swinging two pendulums into each other, with each pendulum containing a lump of clay and an additional weight in the back. The second weight would squash the clay, and from the deformation the impact of the smash can be visualized. It's a pretty clever rig.

My problem, however, is not with the rig; it's with the interpretation of the myth. There are two ways in which the two crashes can be "equivalent": from the perspective of the car, which is what the MythBusters tested, and from the perspective of something in the middle. Since the original myth is about a compact car being squished between two semis, it would seem that this myth should be about the latter interpretation. And in that case, I believe the crashes are, in fact, equivalent.

As an educational show, I think MythBusters should have at least covered this other scenario, and shown how the "myth" is more of an interpretation issue.
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Pascal's Wager, Part 2

I have written about Pascal's Wager before, but I never finished that post. A few days ago I came across a video, which finally closed the case on that argument for me.

The inspiration is this, which I found on Reddit. Most of the video is junk and doesn't hold up to my standards of reason. Something at the end caught my attention though, and I came up with the following argument.

Recall that the problem with Pascal's wager is that, unlike most arguments about God, it's a completely rational. It frames the problem in turns of expected utilities, which is the standard practice in decision theory. The following payoff matrix summarizes the wager:

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

Richard Dawkin's argument, that believing in God has a cost while living, doesn't hold up, as any cost incurred while alive is only finite, and does not offset the infinite payoff of being in heaven.

Pascal's wager is that simple. The video over-complicates and sets up several straw men (eg. Pascal not knowing what God is but then contradicting himself) and ad hominem attacks (eg. Pascal's bias towards Christianity). While the claim that Pascal ignores other gods is true, his wager still works - as long as gods reward belief, the expected utility is still to believe in god(s). The existence of non-god systems (frog's dream, video game, etc), doesn't matter, as they don't offer any utility. The gem of the video is in a 3 second frame: for every unknowable idea that rewards a particular behavior, another unknowable idea will punish that very same behavior.

Here's my new argument. Pascal's wager depends on supposing a Christian god, with the payoff matrix above. Since, however, the existence of the Christian god is unknown, it is equally valid to posit a different god (let's call Him AntiPascal), with different payoffs. In particular, let's imagine a god that will send people to heaven only if they don't believe in any god, and will send people to hell if they do. What does the payoff matrix look like?

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

That's right - everything looks almost exactly the same, except the signs on those infinities switched. By this payoff matrix, people should not believe in gods at all.

So which payoff matrix is right? We don't know. To properly calculate the expected utility of believing in god(s), we need to know the probability of each payoff matrix itself - that is, the probability that the Christian god is real (and has the payoff matrix specified), and the probability that the AntiPascal god exists. Both of these probabilities, it turns out, is unknowable - and therefore the expected utility of believing or not believe in god cannot be compared.

Given the odds, Pascal's wager is not one you want to bet on - there's simply no telling whether you win or lose. While this is no argument against the belief in god, it is no longer the purely rational argument for it either.

The funny thing is, although this argument is new to me, the reasoning behind it is not. As Richard Dawkins himself has said several times, most theists are in fact atheists to all other religions. Real atheists just go one further.
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I clearly haven't written here for a while. I have a post halfway written about an adventure on Craigslist (no, it's not from the m2m personals...), which I will finish eventually. For now, here's part of an email I sent to my family.

I just got done with the semester over the weekend. If you'll remember, I'm taking two classes:
  • Advanced AI. Like I said last time, this course is oriented towards getting students to read current research and to think critically about it. I think the course did a good job of that - we had to read a large number of papers, all over the map in terms of area. It's interesting too to see how different students react to ideas differently, as well as what areas of AI they are interested in. The final project for the course is to reimplement a study, and see whether their claims hold up. In retrospect, I should have chosen a different paper. Mine was on a relatively simple method of understanding how the world around you changes due to your actions. Although it was an interesting paper, the algorithms and methods were not very well specified, which makes it hard to test. It was also short with very few references, so there's no extra material I could refer to either. I finished it, but I would have enjoyed it more if the paper was more substantial.
  • Programming Languages turned out to be more fun than I thought. The basic premise of the course is how to prevent programmers from doing stupid things, and how the computer can automatically detect these errors and notify the coder. We also read a lot of papers here, although a lot of them were older papers. The areas were also more biased towards people without much background, so although we looked at four different methods, we only studied one or two in depth. The final project here was up to us, and I decided to (again) reimplement a paper, this time checking for errors in their presentation. I discovered a few of them, as well as a general problem with the approach it was taking. Because this work is actually someone's thesis back in 2006, everything was documented properly, and I have very little trouble following their work. All this means that I should make my code public when I publish a paper.
It was because both of these projects were due last week that I didn't have time to write this email. I was awake both Monday night and Thursday night writing reports, and so had very little sleep. It was fun though; I felt invigorated by how much work I was doing. There's a quote from Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead (Dominique, for those curious), when a character says, "This is how I want to keep going - if there's a reason for it." That was how I felt on morning after staying up - that having a reason to drive myself that hard is the best feeling.

I'm also done with my teaching duties for now. The final exam for that class was on Friday, so we graded everything by Saturday evening. My discussion sections and the class in general is smaller this semester than the last. I got to know the students a little better, but not in pro[portion to the decrease in size. I did realize something though - that I should spend the first few session actively encouraging the students to talk to each other. It's really annoying when you ask a question and no one wants to answer it. So the discussions were not as lively, there were less jokes, and overall it was a little less enjoyable.

Oh, I got an award for being a good TA last semester, which is nice. It also came with an extra check, which is also nice.

On the research front... I'm really digging in now. For a short while back in February I was really uncertain how everything would turn out. That period of doubt clarified my feelings a little - I'm sure now that teaching would have a part in my future, more so than research. On the other hand, very soon after that, I found a topic that I'm pretty interested in, so much that I spent all of this morning reading. We'll see how it turns out. I got put on the spot today to give a 10 minute presentation at a workshop in three weeks time, which means I really have to get my thoughts together and present a coherent picture of what's going on in the field, and what I want to do.
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Blogspot Spellcheck

Those of you who read my previous post on hangboards before this might have noticed the strange yellow highlighting. It's fixed now, but it turns out that the spellcheck in the Blogger compose box actually modifies the contents, by inserting span tags like these:

<span class="goog-spellcheck-word" style="background: none repeat scroll 0% 0% yellow;">errorr</span>

And so, if you click spellcheck, then publish it without clicking again, those highlights will be published along with the post. The resulting post will look something like this post.
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My roommate and I bought a hangboard (aka a fingerboard) (the Metolius Project ) from our local climbing gym (Planet Rock) about three weeks ago. We're both engineers, and so we decided to design and build a frame to hang the board from. Here's the result:

You can see that the board is simply supported by two A-frames, kept the correct distance apart by two cross members. They're simply built from 2x4's (which I learned actually have a 1.5x3.5" cross section). We had a fun time loading those on a shopping cart to transport them from the hardware store to the apartment. The wider board is a 2x8 (1.5x9.25" cross section). The vertical member of the board is 6 feet long, which puts the hangboard at an excellent height. The base of that triangle is about 42" long, and extends another 30" out for balance. The two A-frames are 42" apart from each other, measured from the inside. The extra space is so we can mount holds on either side, to practice on other holds (for example, vertical pinches).

The construction of the thing took maybe 12 hours in total, spread over three days of spare time (I think). The most annoying part was cutting the angles in the hypotenuse. The angles were cut by hand, which made their tolerance rather loose. We had to sand down the edge quite a bit. The holes shown below were done without any guide to make sure they're perpendicular, but it all worked out in the end.

This is the part of the rig I'm most proud of. The idea is to let the hangboard rotate, so we can practice steeper crimps. The original idea is to move the entire A-frame, locking it in with notches on the base. That would have been a construction nightmare, however, so we came up with this system where just the board rotates. Those holes are 6.25" from the pivot, and there's seven of them going a full 90 degrees.

This is the side of the pivoting mechanism. The center board is held in place by 4 bolts, and the side board is held to the frame by 6 screws each. This view also shows the extra board in the back, which stops the A-frames collapsing sideways. Mounting this board high up keeps it out of the way as we do pull ups, but there's another practical reason. Since the center board is only held by bolts, we can easily take it out and replace it with something else. In particular, if we decide to make a campus board later on, it can use the same holes for tilt, and can extend beyond the A-frame.

We still have a little work to do on it, the most important of which is adding diagonal beams between the frames to stabilize it further. There are also other things like sanding down the corners, clipping some screws on the back of the board, getting a pad underneath, and applying a layer of varnish. The frame right now is fully functional though, and it holds our weight quite well. Although I haven't looked at how other people mount their hangboards (usually just above a doorway, probably), I feel that this is probably the most flexible design you'll find. The flexibility with the angles and the modular design means it can function as a very general purpose climbing trainer.

We intend to have blueprints of the entire thing online eventually, when we're bored enough to play around in a CAD program. If you want to build one in the mean time, feel free to leave a comment and we'll help you out as best we can.

OKCupid is Wrong

I started reading OKCupid's blog about a month ago, when their post hit the front page of Reddit. I don't use the site, but their combination of romance and statistics was intriguing. A new post just came out, and I was procrastinating hard enough to think a little about it. In their post, they argued that men between 22 and 30 should be looking at women 30 and older. They first provided data about what their users say they want, then provided reasons why women of that age are better matches.

There is, however, a flaw in their argument. Their basic error is this: women 30 and older don't want to date men between 22 and 30.

I took a closer look at their graphs, and extracted out the numbers. This is the graph I got:

If this looks slightly different from the graphs on OKCupid's post, that's because it is. Here, I flipped the female match preferences graph along the y=x axis. Therefore, if you're female, you start on the y-axis, and read across to get the average match preference.

Now, on to why OKCupid is wrong. If you look at their "zone of greatness", they marked out this area:

You see the problem: the average person in this area don't want to date others in this area. The blog post was written for men, so their bound might be ignored. The bound for women, however, shouldn't be. And this graph shows that, even if men were willing to date women in that age range, chances are the women won't reciprocate.

In other words, even with the other reasons that women above 30 are great fun, it turns out that they are simply not interested in men between 22 and 30.

What, then, should men (and women) be looking for? Look at the graph below:

Overlooking my horrible circling skills, these are the areas where there is a mismatch between men's preferences and women's preferences. Whereever women's preferences are taller than the men's (or men's preferences wider than the women's), there is an opportunity. Because men accept women of such a wide age ranger, any women who is willing to date someone slightly outside the average range (shown in pink) has an advantage. Comparatively, there are much fewer places where women are interested and men are not (shown in green).

Based on this graph, you can see what age you will have the least competition, but still are still relatively desirable.

One last thing: xkcd should be updated to reflect this data.

Disclaimer: Obviously, I am not affiliated with OKCupid. If any OKCupid staff reads this, and finds my graphs objectionable, please let me know.

Only a Theory

I just finished Ken Miller's Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul. Miller is the author of one of the most widely used high school biology text book, and the lead expert witness for the Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District case. The book, however, was not as much focused on the trial as on the ideas behind intelligence design (ID) and evolution, and some comments by Miller on the intelligent design movement.

Being rather familiar with the arguments of ID, I found the first half of the book a little dull. However, I do think Miller does a good job of taking ID arguments seriously, and analyze those ideas from the scientific perspective. Having heard him lecture at Northwestern's Darwin celebration last year, his examples are not new to me either. But in a book, where he can afford to give longer descriptions of the history of life on Earth, I found myself draw into the subject. For a short moment I wondered what it would be like to see Earth 1 million, 100 million years ago. And then I realized that, although there might not have been skyscrapers or monkeys or ants, there was still rain, and volcanoes, and oceans. And the idea that science can prove all these things did exist so long ago is rather amazing.

Personally, the more interesting part of the book was where Miller explained why he thought ID has become what it is, and what we (as scientists) can do about it. Miller suggests that the ultimate motivation is philosophical and psychological. Quoting Max Ehrmann's poem Desiderata, he wrote,
"No doubt the universe is unfolding as it should" assures us that, however chaotic and disorderly the events of our lives may seem at the moment, we should take heart, for we were meant to be. And, in the eyes of many, that's exactly the problem with evolution - it says that we weren't meant to be and that the way of things are unfolding isn't part of anybody's plan or purpose. [...] The worry is that the universe is not "unfolding as it should" but, rather, that it's just unfolding.
My instinctive response is that, is it such a horrible thing for the universe to exist without purpose? Must your sense of direction in life be derived from some external source, and couldn't you create a direction yourself? This philosophical (in fact, existentialist) argument also applies to the claim that evolution "doesn't put a moral demand" on us, as ex-senator Rick Santorum suggested. But this has nothing to do with evolution.

Miller's reply to the worry is different. He brought up the idea of convergence - that evolution will keep on returning to good ideas. In particular, even if humans as a species might not have evolved, it is almost certain that the niche of an intelligent species capable of changing their environment would be filled. That is, despite the process of evolution being probabilistic, we - as intelligent beings - are in fact guaranteed. This is, the certainty that evolution would have led to something like us, would help quell the worries.

I want to voice another idea though. This quote comes from the video game Max Payne 2, and is more about predestination. Applied to evolution though, it would mean that we are indeed very special:
There are no choices. Nothing but a straight line. The illusion comes afterwards, when you ask 'Why me?' and 'What if?' When you look back, see the branches, like a pruned bonsai tree, or a forked lightning. If you had done something differently, it wouldn't be you, it would be someone else looking back, asking a different set of questions.
The last idea I found intriguing in Miller's book was him mention Allan Bloom's book, The Closing of the American Mind (which I wrote about briefly). Miller quoted Bloom writing:
Openness used to be the virtue that permitted us to seek the good by using reason. It now means accepting everything and denying reason's power. The unrestrained and thoughtless pursuit of openness [...] has rendered openness meaningless. [...] The danger [students] have been taught to fear is not error but intolerance. [...] The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right, rather it is not to think you are right at all.
Miller compares this to the calls for "balance" and "openness" to get ID in public school curriculum. Although that's not the declared goal of the ID movement, "once the supernatural becomes a valid element in scientific inquiry, science will cease to be an empirical search for the truth of the natural world. Like faith itself, "theistic science" will be a subjective window on the world that reflects the innermost convictions of its adherents and not of the outer reality of nature."

This whole affair of injecting supernatural causes into science reminds me of Ellsworth Toohey in The Fountainhead: "Set up standards of achievement open to all, to the least, to the most inept—and you stop the impetus to effort in all men, great or small. You stop all incentive to improvement, to excellence, to perfection."

Without having clear boundaries of what science accepts, science itself suffers. People no longer need to discover the cause and cure of AIDS, when a simple "it's divine punishment" will suffice. Our understanding of the world grinds to a halt, as does our technological advancement - which depends on the rigorous quest for cause and effect. The "Designer" did not create the iPod, nor the internet, nor any of modern technology. All of it is done by men, relying and exploiting our scientific knowledge of the world. Without science, none of that would be possible.

And that is why I truly fear what the ID movement can do to the world.

Into the Wild and The Game

I finished two books recently, Into the Wild and The Game. I haven't read much since grad school started, so it's nice to pick up that habit again. I just want to say a few words about each book.

Into the Wild was an interesting read. The book was a little long for the story - I'm not sure the parts about the author climbing the Devil's Thumb was necessary - but it did bring out the interesting parts about Chris. My overall reaction is that I can understand why Chris left on this journey, although I wouldn't do it. I am persuaded by the author that he knew what he was doing, and had only died because of bad luck. I therefore have tremendous respect for the guy, for being able to survive by himself, both in the fringes of civilization and in the "wilderness", for so long.

The Game was also an interesting read. A lot of it was unnecessary drama, but perhaps that was not surprising. I have seen parts of The Pickup Artist (it wasn't my idea), and it was interesting to know more background about Mystery. As someone who doesn't believe in picking girls up, my eye was more guided to what eventually happened to Neil Strauss. The last paragraph of his acknowledges for Lisa was the most meaningful paragraph to me.

My library copy only had one sentence underlined in the entire book: "The secret to making someone think they're in love with you is to occupy their thoughts, and that's what Lisa had done with me." It wasn't even about picking people up.

My favorite quote from the book is "Never underestimate your capacity to care", which I think says a lot about humans.

I hadn't intended it, but after finishing both books I find their message is actually similar. Both Chris and Neil were unsatisfied with their life somehow, and made moves to change it. At the end though, after following other people's writings (whether they be Henry David Thoreau or Mystery), what they find is not that their old life was wrong, but that they never appreciated what they already had. Chris wanted to go back to civilization and find comfort in people, while Neil was in love with someone who likes his baldness and glasses.

I guess what I'm saying is being happy is both easier and harder than you think.
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Google as a Social Force

Google has increasingly been involved in social and political issues, not just in the US but around the world. Most of you are familiar with the criticism of Google on their privacy policy, with their ability to identify so many people (Google has over 844 million unique visitors per month). A less familiar issue is the problem of network neutrality, or whether internet providers can charge more for people accessing certain sites. Google is part of the Open Internet Coalition which is against ISP filtering. However, questions have been raised as to whether laws should be enacted to make Google content neutral as well.

The latest in Google's involvement in politics is in China. When Google first went into the Chinese market, it complied with government laws about censoring, so that websites about Falun Gong, about criticism of the communist government, etc. would not be listed on Google's search results. Google recently published a blog post talking about a recent attack on Google's services, specifically to get information from accounts of known activists. The post itself does not name the hackers, but as the later part of the post mentions its China policy, it is implied that the hackers work for the Chinese government.

What is particularly interesting about this latest development is that Google, as a business, could have done nothing. Certainly, the attacks should result in increased security measures, but there is no reason for Google to change its China policy. Google earns money mostly from ad revenue, and the more eyeballs an ad gets, the more money Google makes. Google's Chinese site directs a nation of 1.3 billion people to its ads, so if the purpose of a business is to increase profits, Google should keep their Chinese portal open.

That Google is reviewing its China policy, to the extent of considering closing down Google China, is good news. The company with the motto of "Don't be Evil" is touching a lot of legal spheres: freedom of access to information, freedom of speech, copyright... What Google, and increasingly other international companies, decide to do in the face of local government pressure may send a strong signal to the global community.

It is not just that these companies have global reach, but that increasingly the problems one country faces cannot be solved without the participation of other countries. China, without the international scrutiny, would likely increase their censorship. With the recent disastrous Copenhagen talks on climate change, we need companies to put aside short term interests, and consider the effects of their actions on the world as a whole.

In an age where companies have more income than entire developed nations, we need to question what obligations they should have.

EDIT: Ars Technica article about Google's blog post.
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