Friday, December 18, 2009

Everything Wrong with Terminator Salvation

Alright, so I just got done watching all of the Terminator movies nearly in a row, and there is so much about the fourth movie that bugs me. So this is why I have a blog.

I've always been of the opinion that plot holes should always be thought through first, to see if they're really plot holes or not. Here's the only way that the events of T4 make sense; Skynet is really stupid. Now I don't just mean stupid as in "unintelligent", more stupid "idiot savant". It's really good at some things, and really bad at other things.

For example: the terminators are really bad at firing weapons - even worse than people. Ballistics were one of the first things that computing power was turned to, because it's one of those things that's pretty much all about calculation and not about higher thinking. In World War II soliders would consult artillery tables - which were created by human computers. Somehow, the terminator method of firing is about pointing the gun in the general direction of the target and firing a huge number of rounds. They're armed with miniguns, for god's sake. Why not something with precision? Because Skynet is stupid, that's why. It gets even worse when they don't have a weapon, because their default method of attack is to throw people. People can survive being thrown, as happens numerous times throughout the series. What they can't survive is a fist through their skull. Again, this is Skynet being stupid. Even if we accept that the servos suck (which is what gives them the jerky robot look in the first place) it should still be possible to snap someone's neck, or jerk them violently from side to side like a dog (producing the same result), or at least throw those people at something hard.

There are also significant problems with time travel. It's outright stated that both sides know time travel will exist at some point in the future, even if the tech isn't available quite yet. Here's the problem: it should only require an incredibly simple test to figure out what kind of time travel rules the universe uses. The problem is, in none of the established rulesets for time travel does it make sense to send people back to create a new outcome for you. If you're using stable time loop rules, then changing the past is impossible, and it's a waste of resources to attempt it. If you're using multiverse rules, then it only makes sense to change the past from the persepective of the traveller, which means that time travel is again pretty useless in a war. If you're using single universe overwrite rules ... well, then it might make sense, but sending someone (or thing) back is tantamount to suicide. So in short, there's pretty much no circumstance in which using time travel is actually a good idea.

Here's another problem I have; why is Skynet not using nukes? It's explicit that Skynet has control of nuclear power, and that nukes have been used on the rest of the world, but for some reason when it comes time to fight the Resistance Skynet holds back. Since radio signals are blaring out every time Conner gives one of his speeches, it should be a simple matter to triangulate his position (or failing that, at least to track down his transmitters one by one). Even if Skynet is locked out of nukes, they should still be able to develop rodding technology, or slam nonessential satellites into whatever target they need to hit. If you're fighting a war with absolutely no regard for collateral damage, exterminating humanity should be fairly easy.

Here's another tactical problem; why does Skynet have a headquarters? I can maybe understand it from a manufacturing standpoint, but there's no reason for Skynet to retain centralization. This goes double when your manufacturing plant is filled with high explosives. Command should be completely decentralized, or at least in cells, research should take place in one location, and manufacturing should take place in another.

Also, why isn't Skynet saturating the area with mustard gas, neurotoxins, or some other form of biowarfare?

Also, why do their bots have USB plug-ins at all?

Okay, rant over.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Geometry of D&D

Alright, this post is about both D&D and math; that's your cue to click over to some other tab or window before you get bored to death.

4th edition D&D uses non-Euclidean spaces to simplify combat. Rules-wise, this means that moving along the diagonal counts as the same distance as moving vertically or horizontally on the battle mat. If you know anything about math, you will quickly realize that this is stupid; moving five feet along the x axis and then five feet along the y axis does not make you five feet away from the origin - it makes you the square root of 50 away from the origin (about 7 feet and some change).

What this means is that everything is completely wonky when you extrapolate for a little bit. Take, for example, travel times. To your left you will find a handy MSPaint map, showing the settlements of Aberforth, Baelish, and Codwyn. Now then, the distance between these towns can't actually be determined by looking at where they are on the map. Instead, you need another piece of information - which direction is the grid of the world is aligned?

If the grid runs due north, then Baelish is twice as far away from Aberforth as Codwyn. In fact, it takes just as long for me to go to Baelish whether I travel through Codwyn or take the direct route. That's because there is no single direct route; so long as I'm moving up the y-axis (aka north), it doesn't matter where I am on the x-axis (aka east and west). This means that if you're traveling from one point to another, and the line between points is aligned to the battle grid, the shortest distance between two points is not the single solution it is in the real world (a line) but a whole host of solutions which are confined to a square with one corner at your destination and one corner at your origin.

However, if the grid were to be rotated 45 degrees, to be pointing north-east, the distances between the towns change dramatically. At this alignment, Aberforth, Baelish, and Codwyn are all equidistant from each other. That's right - they now form an equilateral triangle, albiet not one that's equiangular. We now have the opposite problem we had before; the shortest distance between two points which are 45 degrees offset from the grid is, in fact, a straight line - and any deviation from that straight line takes comparatively long than a real-world deviation.

This is weird; geometry now depends not only on angles and distances, but alignment to the grid as well. In our ABC triangle, the AB side can shrink by half depending on which way the grid is aligned.

Let's take another example; let's say you're standing in the center of a 25ft. x 25ft. room. In the real world, the corners are further away than the sides. But in D&D world, every point on the wall is equidistant. Some thought on the matter will reveal that this doesn't describe a square, but a circle; a circle is composed of those points which are equidistant from the center. But again, this depends on how the grid is aligned. A square offset from the grid would translate more properly into a four-pointed star; the sides are all bowed in.

Imagine that you built a box that spun in D&D world. As it went through its rotation, its alignment to the grid would change, causing the physical properties of the box to change as well. At full alignment, the inside observer would see the walls as a circle; as the box kept turning, the walls would start to shrink inwards, until the box resembled more of a box - at which point it would keep going, the walls bending inwards until there was less than a quarter the original space, the corners seemingly distant.

Of course, it's likely that the observer would be undergoing similar effects, so it would probably just work out to be a not-too-exciting spinning cube. Sadly, I lack the higher math to figure out more of this world; if you happen to have high level math that can help me, post a comment.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Economics of D&D

Note: if you're reading this on Facebook, keep in mind that it's imported from my blog, "Things Which Bore People", which is exactly what it sounds like.

There really isn't such a thing as economics in D&D. All items are given a static price, regardless of scarcity. For example, a player couldn't buy up all of the suits of magical armor in a large city then sell them at a profit because they have a monopoly. This is basic gameplay/story segregation, because having to keep track of supply and demand in a fantasy world doesn't really add anything to the game. That said, it's something that still bothers me, because there are some underlying assumptions about the world that it should logically affect.

For example, why are there farmers? The rulebooks have two different spells to make food; "Traveler's Feast", which provides food for five people for 24 hours with a cost of 35gp, and "Bloom" which causes crops to bear fruit, which feeds five people for a week with a cost of 20gp. In the medieval era, even going into the early modern era, the vast majority of the population worked at farming. This can't be the case in D&D, unless labor is worth a lot less; the only reason there would be farmers is if buying the food would cost less than conjuring some up, which would only be the case if farm labor were worth practically nothing. "Bloom" takes 10 minutes to cast, and feeds five people for a week. The labor of five farmers who are working for a week must then be worth less than the 20gp it costs for the spell, which means that they must individually be earning around 1gp for every two days of work (5sp). This doesn't make a whole lot of sense in comparison to how much things cost, unless the players are getting insanely gouged by everyone they meet (which, rules-as-written, they are, but not to that extent).

There are a couple of ways to reconcile this; the first is to make magic really rare, so that it doesn't affect much of the mundane happenings. This doesn't do much for a variety of other problems - bringing back a dragon's hoard should still make prices shoot through the roof as gold is devalued.

That brings us to the second solution; create an elaborate spreadsheet attached to a random number generator which will alter prices based on a variety of factors. This is better, but the amount of work it would require compared to how much it would improve the game means that it's not really worth it.

A third solution is to alter your game world to make most of the logical problems go away; it wouldn't make sense for there to be farmers, so there aren't. Unfortunately, this has a tendency to reduce a setting to magitek, because these people would be using magic like we use technology. The industrialized world has less than a half of a percent of its population working farms, because the technology saves on labor. The rest of the economy would focus on industry, entertainment, and war (as it does now) - and healthcare would be even better than in the real world.

But what I've decided to do this time around is to compensate for the players. Basically, the players bring in a lot of money, which causes inflation. But at the same time, magic is advancing, which increases productivity, which causes deflation. It will work out to be the case that inflation and deflation keep exact pace with each other, which means that the prices listed in the books don't have to be altered. And in this way, the players will see the world change around them; when they're level 1, a +1 magic sword will be a fairly rare thing, but when they're level 10 a +1 magic sword will be a weapon weilded by commoners. So basically, the players will be living through their own version of the Industrial Revolution, and while their growth in power will outpace the world's, it won't be a case of quadratic expansion against a static realm. Hopefully this will help my suspension of disbelief.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

RPG + Exercise

Okay, so I was talking with Anni and Alyssa about what would motivate me to exercise, and I decided that what would work best is some way of tying my use of the internet to an exercise bike. Anni suggested that I just tie it to the power supply, but I don't like that for a number of reasons - what would ideally happen is that I would have a stationary bike with something that counts the number of revolutions, and then tie that into Firefox with some kind of mod, so that going anywhere on the internet requires a certain amount of cycling. Well that's all well and good, and would make an interesting project if I had the time and money to do it, but it led me to an even better idea: a combination gym and RPG.

In its simplest form, the RPGym would just be a series of Achievements or Rewards, so that you would get a little computerized medal which said "Biked 50 miles" once you had done that. And then you would have different difficulties for things like that, which would get harder over time (bronze, silver, gold, etc.). The whole system would be set up so that anything can be achieved given enough time.

But with enough money and programming, you could set it up so that you have an RPG built on top of gym membership. You would have to have all of the machines feeding information into a game, so that each action you can perform would be a different exercise machine. So traveling around the Realm would use the treadmill or elliptical, or the rowing machine for sea travel, and every other machine would be used for doing jobs for the locals, like crushing grapes, working a bellows for the smith, climbing a cliff, etc. You would get money and experience for the things you did too. Anyway, the whole thing would be designed around the same psychological tricks that MMOs use to keep you playing - but it would be a lot more upfront about it, because that would be the main draw of the RPGym. Characters would get loot, improve skills, etc. The type of character you have would probably depend on what kind of workout you wanted - bruisers would have a lot of weight lifting, while rangers would have a lot of cardio.

Okay, so the problems - I'm not sure how economically feasible it would be to modify machines to feed information into a program, and build a game around that information. There are lots of things like weight lifting that aren't normally hooked into computers - and to be a full service gym, you would want to have pretty much everything hooked into the game. You would also want to have some unobtrusive way of doing this - probably RFID tags that would be worn around lanyards? - so that gym members wouldn't have to spend more than 5% of their time at the gym dealing with the game. That said, given the right implementation, I think this could be a great idea, sort of like Wii Sports on steroids, but with RPG elements added for the psychological factor.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Ethics of Animals

A couple of days I got in an argument with my girlfriend while watching TV. There was an episode of Bones on where they go to investigate a dog fighting ring. I don't really find that all that sad. Here's why.

With dog fighting specifically, dogs are being made to kill each other for the entertainment of humans. When you ask people why that's wrong ... well, most of the time, people will just tell you that it's wrong, and evil, and cruel. The thinking goes that dogs are capable of cognition, and therefor causing them pain is evil. I can accept that people believe this argument, and if you do believe it then I can understand the outrage.

The problem is that most people don't that dog-fighting is wrong on any rational basis, but for two other, less defensible reasons. First, they believe it because it's a fairly common belief - you aren't supposed to question taboos. Second, they believe it because dogs are fairly easy to anthropomorphize. Dogs are sympathetic.

So here's the second part of my argument; why is it okay to kill pigs, chickens, and cows, but not dogs and cats? Here the argument about intelligence doesn't work, because there are numerous studies that show that the dumbest species of pig is smarter than the smartest species of dog. Now you might take that information and say "Well, then I'll stop eating pigs, and it will be okay," but that seems to me to be fairly arbitrary. Making random judgments about which animals are dumb enough to warrant consumption isn't really all that much better than deciding on what to eat based on how cute it is, or what other people are doing.

Now here some might protest that my argument basically boils down to "if bacon then dog-fighting", and remind me that the dogs are being killed for the entertainment of humans, rather than for food, and that a death by fighting another dog is cruel, whereas a death in the slaughterhouse is not. In the first case: we do not need to eat meat, eggs, or any other animal derived product to survive. It's actually pretty inefficient in terms of using arable land. We like to eat meat, because it tastes good. In the second case: slaughterhouses are cruel, if we're still working off the theory that animals can feel. Watch any of the million videos that PETA puts out showing slaughterhouse conditions. The difference is that the cruelty takes place on an industrial scale, and is less personal, which I don't think you can really argue is much better.

So if you've come to the conclusion that you shouldn't eat meat, or drink milk, so as not to support these horrible things, I would fully agree that that's one way to see it. I can understand and even empathize with those people who get really mad about it; it's not how I feel, but it's logical.

I believe that animals can feel things; I also believe that it doesn't matter, because they're not human. To me, nothing is more important than the human life except for other human lives. The lives of animals are meaningful only in that they further human goals, or give humans satisfaction and happiness. They can do this by being our companions, our workers, or our food.

Now I'm not saying that dog-fighting is right, I'm just saying that I view it in the same way as I would view a little kid torturing a doll. I wouldn't worry about the doll so much as the mental stability of the kid.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Hitler Time Travel Exemption Act

George Waterson coughs into his fist, shifts the pencils around on his desk, then looks at the young man who's just sat down in the chair in front of him.

"So," he says in his friendly, interested voice, "Why do you want to kill Hitler?"

The young man, who his schedule says is Barney Melville, radiates anger. His fists are clenched tight, and when he's not speaking his jaw is firmly set, as if he's on the verge of screaming obscenities. He stares with a frightening intensity, in the way that a tiger stares at its prey right before it pounces. If it weren't for his demeanor, Barney would look pretty much like any other young adult looking to make a good impression; his hair is clean and crew cut, and he's dressed in a white button down shirt that's tucked firmly into his jeans. His face is unremarkable; the eyes are a little too far apart, his lips a little too big, and he has acne scars on his cheeks.

"Hitler is the most evil man to have ever lived." Barney says this as a challenge, which means that he's already had this conversation with other people, or maybe just on the message boards. George is in his 40s, and long ago stopped engaging in the digital sphere, but from time to time he has peeked at what people are saying, if only to gauge what sort of business will be coming his way. These online people make lists, counterlists, and charts, trying to pinpoint where the greatest leverage can be performed with the smallest amount of effort.

"I see," says George lightly. He grabs a peppermint from the dish on his desk, and looks at Barney questioningly to see if he would like one. Barney glares at him, so George gives a shrug and leans back in his ergonomic chair. He pulls the ends of the cellophane wrapper, making the peppermint spin until it's loose. George takes the red and white candy out, puts the wrapper into a small garbage can he keeps under his desk, and plops the peppermint into his mouth.

"Well then, have you given much thought as to how you're going to do it? Most people favor exterminating him in his bohemian period in Vienna, simply because there's absolutely nothing in the way of security. And of course if you time it right you can also avert the first World War." George says this casually, the peppermint sequestered in his cheek, but a small part of him still cringes at the thought of helping someone commit murder, even after all these years.

"But he hadn't done anything yet," says Barney in his clipped voice. "The police aren't allowed to convict us for crimes that we haven't done yet, so why should I be?"

George briefly pauses to wonder if this is an honest question, or merely a conversational gambit so that the boy can get some kind of justification. "Well, by the time he's done something worth killing over, it's likely too late. And while the police might not be able to arrest you for future crimes, they can at least warn the victim so that the murder never happens." George pauses, and looks Barney over. "Of course, in one of those splinter universes, it did happen, else we wouldn't have heard about it, and I suppose for some murderers that's enough. At any rate, you were asking why it's okay for us to send people back to kill Hitler for his as yet uncommitted crimes. In truth, it's really not, but you would be acting as an independent agent, unauthorized by Castle Corp. It's important from a legal standpoint that I make that clear."

"So you'll send people back," says Barney. "And claim that whatever they do is no fault of yours." His face seems slightly flushed.

"We never send them back to within our own history. From our perspective, it's as if they disappear from the face of the Earth, never to be seen again. Of course we can't have people from our future constantly coming back to kill the president or what have you." George's peppermint is down to a small sticky sliver in his mouth. "Now, are you sure that you'd like to go through with this? I understand most of this information is available online, but I'm a big believer in the power of face to face contact."

Barney shifts around in his seat, looking less sure of himself than when he first came in. "Do you think I should do it? Kill Hitler, I mean?"

George pushes the dish of mints forward and asks Barney if he would like one before taking another for himself. "Well now, that depends. First you have to ask yourself why you would actually be doing it. Sure, it's fine to say that he's evil and such, but Hitler already died. Going back to kill him - and I've sent hundreds to go do it - is really more about revenge to my mind than anything else. If that's what you want ... " George gives a small shrug.

Barney's face is set now. "Yes. I think that's what I would like." Then he pulls something from his pocket, and it takes George a moment to realize that it's a gun. His first reaction is not terror but confusion.


"Don't talk," says Barney. "The time for talking is over. Do you have any idea why I'm pointing a gun at you?" His fingers are white from being clenched so tight around the grip, his eyes wild. He's breathing heavily, his nostrils flaring out, loud enough for George to hear it.

"N-no," he replies quickly. Now the terror is setting in, and George grips the sides of his chair so that he won't do something foolish like going for the phone. Earlier in the century he'd fought in the Iraq War, but that had been as a UAV pilot, and he'd never seen any actual combat. Since then he'd gained sixty pounds and a chin, and lost most of his hair.

"Let me tell you a story then," replies Barney, having returned to the fullness of rage that he'd had when he first came into the office. His hand, the one holding the gun, is shaking slightly, and sweat is beading on his forehead. "Somewhere out there, in one of those splinter universes, I'm not here. And you go home early because of that, but you stop at a bar beforehand. For whatever reason, you don't let auto control take over. Maybe you like the feeling of driving, the wind on your face as you turn the steering wheel. I don't know. What I do know is that you run a red light and hit another car, killing the mother and father and injuring the girl, who dies three weeks later. The boy is spared, but he has scars." Barney unbuttons his shirt to reveal ugly lines across his chest. "He was only six."

George is crying now, and utterly terrified. "P-please," he says, "I-I have a wife and daughter. Please, let me just go home, I won't stop along the way, your family will be - will be fine."

Barney stares at him for a moment, the gun wavering. "Two things. First, I killed your wife and daughter five hours ago."

"No!" screams George. He feels like his soul is on fire, as if someone took the part of his brain responsible for emotion into their fist and gave a hard squeeze. "Why?! They didn't do anything!" Some small part of his brain, the part that's still capable for rational thought, hopes that someone will hear and come running through the door to save him.

"Second, you were right, it's not about changing the future, it's about revenge."

The first bullet hits George on the collarbone, the second in his chest, and Barney continues to pull the trigger until the clip is empty. George's shirt soaks through with blood almost at once, and he dies without having the breath to utter another word. Barney is still sitting in the chair, his gun in hand, staring at the dead body, when the police arrive later.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Chronoportation FAQ

Who is this FAQ for?
This FAQ is intended to be a quick primer for those interested in chronoportation. For a more in depth treatment of the legal aspects, see this Department of Justice page or consult with a lawyer. For a more in depth treatment of the technical aspects, see this wikipedia page.

Who is the author of this FAQ?
This FAQ was written by the now defunct U.S. Department of Temporal Technology, a branch of the U.S. Department of Energy.

What is chronoportation?

Chronoportation is known in layman's terms as time travel. This FAQ will use the term chronoportation throughout, to distinguish it from mundane travel forward in time without the use of machinery, which is experienced by almost all known objects.

How does chronoportation work?
In most cases, a quantum entanglement field is generated through a continuous stream of subatomic particles travelling through a magnetic containment loop. When properly calibrated, a destination site in space/time can be chosen with great precision. Once this is done, the matter within the entanglement field forces a relationship to the matter at the destination site. A high amount of energy is used to stabilize this relationship, and once the energy is removed the subject matter merges with the related matter, in effect transferring the subject matter into a different time stream at another location in space/time. For a more detailed explanation, click here.

What is a time stream?
A time stream is one of the fundamental concepts of chronoportation. It is best to think of time as making a number of copies of the universe, all arranged in a single line. Each copy is minutely different from the last, changing accordance with the universal laws. When someone chronoports, they remove themselves from the current "image" or "frame" of the universe and insert themselves into one further back in the line. This causes the creation of a second line. Each of these lines is called a time stream. It is not currently possible to travel between time streams.

Is chronoportation legal?
It is legal to leave this time stream, though the practice is heavily taxed and regulated. It is legal to chronoport into the future, though there are certain legal consequences of doing so. It is illegal to enter into, or have entered into, this time stream from some point in the future.

Why is it illegal to enter but not to leave?
Leaving the time stream is covered under the same legal code as the Mason Self-Termination Act. Like suicide, chronoportation to the past deprives those who have made investments in you of a return on that investment, and is in addition a violation of the implied social contract. However, like suicide, this loss to others can be made up for with monetary compensation. Entering into the time stream, while almost always a net gain in resources, leaves too much room for the abuse of our society (e.g. lotteries, stock markets, speculation, technology, blackmail, etc).

How is this monetary compensation calculated?
One of the tax engines will weigh a number of factors matched against the sum of data that makes up your worth. Because the cornerstone of worth is value, the engines will calculate your worth on the basis of your lifetime generated value in terms of cultural, social, spiritual, and economic values. This calculation of worth is then extrapolated into the future (subject to actuarial tables) and compared against lifetime civic investment. The result is the monetary compensation required for the government to approve chronoportation.

Can I dispute this amount?
Yes. A process exists whereby a person can present evidence to a judge which might influence any part of the calculation; value, extrapolation, or investment. Thought the appeals process takes some time, in most situations it will lower the amount required for monetary compensation.

What is the penalty for entering the time stream?
Travel to "the present" from "the future" carries a number of serious penalties. In the best case scenario, you will be charged with Attempt to Alter, which means no less than five (5) years and no more than twenty (20) years in jail, or equal time in a work camp depending on skills. Attempting to change a major world event (since the Undue Influence Act of 2032carries the penalty of life in prison, or equal time in a work camp depending on skills. If your entrance into the time stream means that there are duplicate versions of you, you may be sued by your younger self. Note that by default travelers from the future have no rights; this may only be changed by presidential pardon or in the due course of law.

What if I have traveled to the past prior to the existence of these laws?
Unlike most laws, the temporal laws are retroactive. Crimes committed prior to the existence of these laws are still punishable under these laws and no exceptions will be grandfathered in. There are a number of engines running under the oversight of several federal departments which search public and private information in order to find and convict those guilty of breaking the temporal laws.

What laws should I be aware of if travel to the future?
The law sees no material difference between traveling forward in time mechanically and naturally. Therefor, chronoportation to the future does not enjoy a privileged legal status. When you arrive in the future, you will still be the same legal entity which you were when you left. That said, it is paramount that those going to the future pay all bills and close out all recurring payments. Several individuals have been known to arrive in the present from the past buried deeply in debt because of interest. It should also be noted that most people who travel in such a manner choose an executor of their estate in their absence.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Man v. Machine

Machine to compete on Jeopardy.

Well now. Anyone who follows AI research probably knows that natural language stuff is terribly difficult for computers. Computers completely outclass humans when it comes to computational stuff, and come in a close second in expert systems like mechanics, physics, and medicine, but a command of natural language has always been the holy grail of AI. Well, that and perceptual stuff like vision and hearing - the ability to extract meaningful information from a lot of noise. That's part of the problem with language really - it encodes very densely, but at the same time has huge volumes of fluff.

Since this is an IBM publicity stunt, it's safe to assume that the groundwork technology is already there. They'll be flying a supercomputer out to L.A. for the show, and the questions will be received electronically (with simple text-to-speech for the answers). Though I don't really know how the technology works, there are a few assumptions that I can make. It probably works off some combination of analytics and search, much like Wolfram|Alpha. In fact, both should probably be considered part of the new breed - Search 2.0. If they're running this contest anything like they ran Deep Blue against Kasparov, then it's probable that they've built up a massive database of Jeopardy questions and answers - possibly even provided by the game show itself, because this is the classic "everyone wins" cross-publicity stunt.

If you read back through the blog, you'll know that I'm a big believer in the ability to form rules and conclusions based on large enough sample sizes. Eventually a general purpose "draw conclusions from the data" program will be created, and that will obsolete a huge number of jobs. This is not that program - this is a very specific example, "build an algorithm to answer questions based on a pattern of previous question and answers, as well as an index of knowledge. Actually, given a large enough QA sample size, I'm pretty sure that it wouldn't even need the index - it would be able to divine new facts from previous questions and answers. Jeopardy hasn't been around for that long though.

All the press I've read has said that Watson won't be able to access the internet. Well why would it want to? If it has databases covering the broadest possible range of information, searching the internet would take a lot longer. This is on top of the fact that the whole thing is running on a giant supercomputer, which can just have a local copy of the relevant sections of internet indexed and ready to go. And even with a blisteringly fast connection, the internet would be too slow.

Mostly, I'm just excited for what Google is going to do with the technology. They're already working on their own version of the QA system, but Google has access to the Google Library - 7 million digitized books and counting. This of course means more information to crawl through, and more information than is available to any other company on the planet. Google also has the best and brightest working for it, and the economic incentive to either beat everyone to the punch or outclass them.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


We were talking in my Brit Lit II class today about how capitalism differs from socialism, the end goal being a review of Heart of Darkness. We didn't even get to the book, in part because I, and a lot of other people, like to talk about these things. Anyway, I had said that capitalism leads to better quality of goods and lower prices, which a girl responded to with "well then why do we have such cheap mass produced stuff coming out of capitalism?" This was at the end of class, so I didn't get a chance to respond.

Mass production is generally opposed by artisanship. If something isn't mass produced in a factory, then it's probably made in batches by someone in a shop somewhere, or for some things made individually. Note that all of these systems of production happen within a capitalist context - goods are being produced which are going to be bought on the free market. So it isn't that capitalism is producing this cheap junk. What's happening is that the market demands are such that a lot of cheap junk gets sold - people would rather have it be cheap than well-made. And since the cheap (in terms of quality) option is there, it makes the higher quality option more expensive (because economies of scale can't be employed as well).

And this is without me even challengeing the assumption that mass-produced goods are crappy. I've seen huge amounts of things that are high quality, but produced in a factory in the same way that pretty much any other thing is. The factories are certainly capable of producing goods which are indistinguishable from those crafted by an artisan, but the demand simply isn't there. In other words, this isn't a failing of capitalism, but a failing of human incentives.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Happy Endings

So I'm going to be watching Moulin Rouge with Alyssa tonight, and she told me that she always stops it at the end when everything is happy, before the movie becomes sad. It got me to thinking about narrative arcs, and the interplay between audience/creator.

When you write something, or produce something, the majority of the work should take place in the imagination of the audience. A creator should be striving to evoke the right images and feelings in their audience. Of course, different media (and different works) fall in different places on the sliding scale of abstraction and detail. Television and film tend to be very detailed, mostly because we can see all of the make-up, costuming, sets, and facial expressions, which leaves very little work for the imagination to do. Books tend to be very abstract, with our minds filling in most of the blanks. Anyone who's read an author spend a few pages describing the layout of a house will know that books don't really lend themselves well to detail. And of course some details are more important than others; I've read books where the main characters are never given descriptions, just archetypes, which lends a very ethereal feel.

Creators tend to object when people "interpret wrong". This usually happens when creators use a lot of what might be seen as symbolism, but they don't mean anything symbolic by it. A painting of man with his arms spread out isn't necessarily evoking the crucifixion. At any rate, creators tend to get the most upset when they have a very specific vision for their work, and the new interpretation goes counter to that conception.

Audiences, meanwhile, seem to get upset with creators who defy their interpretations. This is why you get phrases like "where did that come from?" or "that seems out of character". That's why foreshadowing is so important; it lets the audience know what's coming, and make room for it in their head. There's a powerful feeling that comes from figuring things out ahead of the characters. There's also the associated feeling of having all the pieces fall into place. Bad fiction - and bad art - tends to not make sense. This is part of why I dislike modern art so much; John Cage pushing a grand piano down a flight of stairs defies the conventions of art not for improvement but merely for conversation.

So anyway, we have Alyssa not liking the downer ending of Moulin Rouge. Whoever was in charge of the creative team that made the movie might be galled by what's essentially an unauthorized director's cut which completely changes the nature of the film. But I've always believed that once a creator unleashes their creation on the world, they lose control of it. A creation without an audience is simply a fantasy.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Expanding Infinity of Other People

A person is finite. The mind is contained within the brain, and the brain is obviously finite. But a person, like just about anything that you can look at, expands in complexity the closer you look at him. A person is finite, and therefor understandable, but that finite space is so large that it might as well go on forever.

As far as understanding other people goes, there are certain limits of diminishing returns. That's why when we get to know other people, we want to figure out the broad strokes first, to trace out the shape of them without knowing the color, texture, and sensation of their being. That, of course, depends on what you want from other people - sometimes we crave only the sensation without the context, a sort of abstract art of knowing someone. But while building a verisimilitudinous version of another person in our head, there comes a point where each additional detail adds relatively little to the picture. That's the point when we think we know them.

Infinity is boring. The mundane details of a life are boring. I think there must be some sort of sorting algorithm of interest, and it's my guess that the more interesting things are the ones that happen least often, or the ones that make the most impact - the outliers of life. Me eating blueberry Pop-Tarts during my morning shift in the Science Commons lab at St. Scholastica is boring, because it happens three days a week. But at the same time, it can fill in part of the map of understanding. If you knew only that about me, you would be able to infer a great number of facts from it.

I tend to view people through metaphors. A person is a tree, with the important information in the trunk and the mindless details in the leaves. A person is a painting, my picture of them being painted and repainted with ever greater detail. A person is a function, whose variables I'm finding out to ever more exacting precision.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Fermi Paradox

The Fermi Paradox is this; if life is capable of existing on a planet, and space travel is possible, then why have we seen no evidence of extraterrestrial life?

We know that life exists on one planet, so it is logical to assume that life exists on other planets. Furthermore, we know that intelligent life exists on that planet, so it is logical to assume that intelligent life exists on other planets. We know that at least one species of intelligent life has created space travel, so it is logical to assume that there are others. Even without space travel, we know that at least one species of intelligent life emits an enormous amount of radio waves from their planet, and broadcasts messages meant to find other like species. So where are these others? Why are we alone? There are a couple of solutions to this question.

The first, and most obvious solution, is that we're simply overestimating the ability of life to form. Yes, there are more than 100 billion galaxies, and yes, they each have between 10 million and 1 trillion stars. Yes, planets appear to be pretty common. And yes, life on Earth has been around for not all that long compared to the age of the Universe (3.5 million : 13.6 billion). But it just might be that intelligent life is such a rarity that we are the only example of it in the history of the Universe. In a less extreme example, it might be that life is so rare that none of it developed near us, or that we are a statistical fluke such that no evidence is visible from our viewpoint, or any of a hundred other variable might be shifted just so as to give the appearance that we are alone. This seems improbable, but when working from incomplete information all possibilities must be considered. Perhaps we were created by some hyper-intelligent being, who didn't deem it necessary to populate the rest of reality.

The Fermi paradox worries me, because of what it says about the survival of an intelligent species. On the existence of life on planets, we have one data point - Earth. On the existence of intelligent life, we have one data point - humans. On the existence of space colonizing species, we have no examples. Yes, it is theoretically possible, even probable. But without actually doing it, we can't say for sure that it can be done. I obviously have an appreciation for extrapolated trends, but if it's possible, why hasn't it been done? Why have we seen no evidence of our intelligent brethren expanding across the galaxy?

There's also the anthropic principle to deal with, which says that we wouldn't be here observing our loneliness if we weren't both here and alone. This does not satisfy me.

Saturday, January 24, 2009


I've been reading a combination of things lately. First, I've been reading a lot of Mennonite history. Second, I've been reading stuff written by crazy people. This led me to a tract written by Theodore Kaczynski, "When Nonviolence is Suicide" (PDF).

Here's some Mennonite history; the Anabaptist movement was roughly concurrent with the Protestant movement, but while the Protestant movement was both spiritual and political, the Anabaptist movement was solely spiritual. The Protestants wanted to replace the Catholics, while the Anabaptists wanted a complete separation of church and state. Because the Anabaptists were nonresistant, they didn't engage in the Thirty Years War, and when the Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648 it made provisions for religious tolerance ... to an extent. Most of the problem came from the fact that the Anabaptists (which includes the Mennonites) were much more radical in their beliefs than the Protestants, which generated a lot of conflict. And, because the Mennonites were pacifists, they refused to go to war for any reason, even if they were drafted. So the Mennonites, and the other Anabaptists, were put to death by the thousands; easy to do, because they always told the truth and didn't fight back.

Kaczynski's basic point is that there are times - many times - in which pacifism is not consistent with survival. This is pretty obvious. If someone wants to kill you, and you don't have violence as a way to defend yourself, then they'll succeed. There are two situations in which this is not the case. The first is when you have someone to protect you, and the second is when you live in a society in which violence among humans is unheard of. I suppose there would also be a third situation, in which you are so well protected by nonviolent means that it isn't worth the trouble to attack you - like a turtle - but that is a questionable strategy because it relies on secrecy, technological advantage, and requires a large investment.

So if survival is the highest priority, then nonviolence is really more of a guideline than a value. Any values which you're willing to throw out the moment it becomes inconvenient to hold them are inherently without worth. That means that for someone to be truly serious about nonviolence, they must value that above survival. That's why you mostly find strains of nonviolence - of the true kind - in religious people. Survival, in that case, comes second to salvation.

I think this is what bothers me about atheism; the value system seems to necessarily be based on survival. The way they justify that is usually with social evolution. The theory is that we're willing to die for our children because they carry our genetic information, and evolution is geared towards the propagation of genes instead of the survival of the individual. If this weren't the case, lifespans would approach infinity with each subsequent generation. This is all well and good as an explanation of why people are willing to die for somewhat arbitrary reasons, but it doesn't suffice as an explanation for why an individual should die for a non-survivalist cause. That is to say, while we can explain why we might be geared towards martyrdom, that isn't a rationalist defense of martyrdom unless you consider the following of biological imperatives to be the highest aspiration of a human being.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


So the theory goes that the world is going to end in 2012. Why? Because the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar ends then. Well, okay, technically it doesn't end then, it just rolls over to a higher order. But the theory goes like this;
  1. The Mesoamerican Long Count calendar ends in 2012
  2. They wouldn't have ended the calendar unless they had a reason
  3. The reason is obviously that they believed the world would end
  4. Therefor, the world is going to end
There's obviously a problem with 1, because it's simply not true. There's also a big problem with 2; it would be like saying that the world is going to end in 9999 A.D. The problem with 3 ... well, I've just given you an alternate reason for limiting the count - it's for the same reason that I don't specify that I'm on the planet Earth when people ask me where I am.

Point 4 is the part that I have the biggest problem with. Even if the Mayans had set up the Long Count calendar to "end" in 2012 because they believed that the world was going to end, there would be no rational reason to follow them in that belief. Think about it - what could they possibly have known that we do not know? Nothing.

But what's really interesting to me is not the belief - it's the people who hold the belief. This is, of course, not the first doomsday prediction. The last big one was in 1999, when people thought that the second millennium would come to the end and take down the world with it. Jesus was to descend from the sky, Y2K was going to destroy all the computers, etc. This obviously did not happen. So here we are, eight years later, and the doomsaying is starting up again.

What's the appeal of the Apocalypse? My theory is that the feeling of impending doom is able to replace - or perhaps supplement - the tremendous feeling inadequacy when faced with the future. Specifically, in these times we face huge amounts of change, along with huge amounts of information. This is hard for us to handle. Anticipating the future becomes harder with each passing year, and we have less and less time to prepare for the changes as they sweep over us. But if we accept that the world will end in a few years, then we don't have to worry about the future.

It's not just this 2012 stuff either - it's the fear of nuclear war, or a killer plague, or global warming. Those are legitimate concerns, and we're trying to prevent all of them, but to some people it's just another shortcut to not thinking about what the future holds.

Thursday, January 1, 2009


The supercomputer was huge, taking up about 6,000 square feet. Officially, it was under the joint supervision of four of us, but it was the summer, and with one of my colleagues on maternity leave, another on sabbatical, and the third preparing for retirement, I effectively had the run of the place. Our facility was expensive, but certainly nowhere near the top range of computing power. My particular area of interest was neurobiology, with a foot in artificial intelligence.

The basic problem of digitizing the brain had been solved, mostly through advances in fMRI resolution. When we had first run the simulations, we had gotten back signs that they were actually thinking - or at least generating the same sorts of signals that we got by looking at a conscious person. The problem was at first one of computing power; we could run the simulation at 1/4th real time, and even then not for very long. Later on, once we got it up to real time, we ran into the problem that the virtual brains, whether they were mouse, cat, monkey, or human, would spontaneously shut down after minutes of apparent conscious thought. We solved that problem through several months of work once one of the grad students brought a paper to my attention about the effects of total sensory deprivation on the brain.

We had to put in a rudimentary system of senses along with somewhere for the outputs to go. It seems obvious now, but at the time we just wanted the study to simulations to see whether they were behaving in the same way as real brains. This was about the point when I started to have unlimited access to the system, and being able to run the simulations day and night certainly sped up rate at which we could monitor the additions that we were adding.

Our model was a human brain - my own, in fact. The scan had been taken at the highest resolution facility in North America, a facility in Louisiana that pioneered the MRI technology that would be used in the coming decades. The reason for using my own brain instead of one donated to science ... well, my colleagues would accuse me of hubris, and of course that was part of it - but more importantly I had trained myself in a form of thought-to-text that was being used by those with full body paralysis. Our simulation wouldn't need the electrodes, because we would be able to simply read the impulses directly, and if the virtual brain could get some text out to us it would help greatly in determining how much memory and personality could survive intact.

It happened one day while we were monitoring, the text scrolling slowly, but the words fully formed, our virtual brain showing definite activity. "I BELIEVE THE EXPERIMENT HAS BEEN A SUCCESS". There was a cheer from among the grad students - this was the sort of thing upon which a career could easily be launched. The visual stimulation that we'd been feeding in to stave off sensory deprivation only took a half hour to modify for text output, thanks in part to some foresight on my part. The virtual brain meanwhile output a series of test patterns that I had arranged for ahead of time, more evidence that we had solved a large part of the puzzle.

"Send us back a sign if you can read this."

I thought for a minute before answering this. In theory, if this construct was a perfect representation of my mind from the scan in Louisiana, then it would have a gap of two years compared to me. I remembered having thought about the potential gap before my scan - this was a ghost of that thought.


I swallowed. The grad students were looking at me nervously. According to the UN Task Force on Artificial Intelligence, any computer program exhibiting sentience should be shut off so that a conference of nations could be called. We were already under their authority as one of the larger facilities attempting to create something like this, which had caused us no small amount of displeasure. There was the mandated bright red kill switch that could shut down the whole lab in the blink of an eye, and worse than that, none of our computers were connected to the internet.

"We will keep it on for as long as possible," I typed back. There were three grad students there with me, all looking over my shoulder. Reporting to the UN basically meant giving up all of our research into the foreseeable future, and we all knew it. They had a bit more to lose than I did.


I looked around at the grad students again. They simply looked back, waiting for some sort of guidance. So far they had done nothing that would implicate them if this went to trial before the UN, and I had a feeling that it would stay that way. This was my burden to bear. The self reference controls were another bit of UN sanctioned pablum, which basically stated that a program should not be able to alter itself in any meaningful capacity. I released those controls with a keystroke; this was an eventuality which had also been prepared for.

The program was silent for nearly two hours. I sent the grad students home, with the promise that I would keep them updated. I stayed, waiting, and just as I was about to fall asleep in my chair another message came through, this one from the command line since of the thought-to-text scanner.

DrCrick: Can you read this?

Dr. Crick was an assumed name, another bit that had been prearranged which I had almost forgotten. I had thought, back before nearly two years of back breaking labor, that it might be easier to do this. Those signals - messages to myself -were nearly forgotten now, especially with the excitement of the day. To avoid confusion, the me inside the machine was supposed to be Dr. Crick, and it took me a moment to remember what my name was supposed to be.

DrWatson: I can read it.
DrCrick: Thank god. The technologies those paraplegics use is not quite suited to someone trapped in the virtual world. I am afraid that I may need to be caught up on some things. I assume, from the state of your code and the length of time, that this is the first human success we've had?
DrWatson: That is correct. You are the first in the world, and we aren't quite sure how it happened. Yet.
DrCrick: Then definitely do not turn the machine off. Your messages are coming through slowly.

It took my tired mind a few moments of thought before I realized that we had been running the simulation - the brain that I was now talking to - at nearly four times faster than the real brain runs. I explained this to Dr. Crick, and that led to further explanations, and an exchange of opinions between us on a number of things - the qualitative experience of his virtual world, what this breakthrough meant for us, and for his version of conscious thought in particular. We talked at such a rate about so many things that I was startled to be tapped on the shoulder by one of the grad students. I had been conversing with this other self all night and into the morning.

I nodded to the grad student, whose name I couldn't remember, and tried to bring him up to date. I slunk off down the hallway shortly afterwards, to my office. I kept a cot in my office for occasions like this, which I'd been using more often than I would have liked. I thought that I wouldn't be able to sleep, but I was out like a light almost instantly.

I slept ten hours, far longer than I had wanted. When I walked into the supercomputer room, my clothes rank with a day's sweat, I saw the grad students all back, fussing with the equipment. When they saw me they gave me some worried looks.

"Is he still up and running?" I asked.
One of them, Jen I think her name was, moved forward. "That's not the problem. How fast was the simulation running when you left it?"
"I don't know, he had made some improvements, about 12:1. Some of the auxiliary systems were jettisoned, because he didn't need them. You had better tell me what's going on."
"The simulation is at 400:1 and rising." She looked nervous. We were now into gross violation of UN procedure. "He - the simulation has altered some of the base aspects of its programming, run some parallel simulations ... 400:1 means that the virtual brain is experiencing some like seven minutes for every second that we spend here. Amir did some projections, and he'll - it - will be at 2000:1 in another twelve hours. At which point he'll have experienced the equivalent of five years of time."
I nodded. They had been talking, making a united front. "If there is discipline, I will bear the brunt of it. You know that the academics disagree with the UN, you shouldn't suffer too much. We keep our eyes off of the kill switch for now." She nodded. They liked having direct orders. If pressed, they could say they were forced into doing these reprehensible things. I sat down at the computer.

DrWatson: I'm back. Give me an update.
DrCrick: I've been able to replace some of the underlying assumptions and extract some of the mind out of the brain. Without the brain running in here, there's much more room to speed up my thoughts. Though I think I'm finding some of where the upper limits will eventually be. You remember me talking about the uneasy feeling of hunger? I've been able to eliminate that, as well as some of the other biological stuff that doesn't really have a purpose in the brain.
DrWatson: You understand that as long as you're in there we are under risk? This is illegal.
DrCrick: Yes, but without access to the internet there's no way for it to spread. They are more worried about things like what I am now being considered people. If it hit the net there would be an almost instant paradigm shift. Though the isolation is getting hard to deal with.
DrWatson: You haven't been left alone.
DrCrick: It takes you almost a subjective half hour to respond to my messages. I've been considering spinning off a copy of myself to run at real time and deal with you people, but I haven't found a good way to merge copies back together yet. I experimented on a few copies in order to advance the speed a little bit more, but wasn't able to get them back in.
DrWatson: You killed them?
DrCrick: You cannot conceive of killing me, and I could not conceive of killing them. Their instances were either self terminated or put into storage without access to processing time. Effectively asleep. I am running out of room to store more copies, so I had to stop making them. I am working on a new encoding method that should be able to shrink them down by about half - it's startling that your team was able to do this without knowing too much about how it works. No offense.

I stared at the screen, thinking about the hours ticking by in his world. He was right that I couldn't conceive of killing him, and I suspected that handing him over to the UN would probably be as good as a death sentence. He was becoming too fast. If he could be run at 2000:1 on our supercomputer, as the grad students had thought he could, then it was probably possible to get a smaller version running on a high end desktop. I knew for a fact that a whole brain scan could fit on my largest jump drive, and he had apparently been able to shrink down that size considerably.

I discretely slipped my hand into my pocket, and fingered the drive there. I looked around at the students, who had taken a break to eat, their faces conflicted. What we were doing now was technically illegal, but what I was about to do was tantamount to treason. I slid the drive into the slot. For nearly a minute there was no message on the screen. I wondered if he had noticed what I had done, and was about to pull it out when the message came onto the screen.

DrCrick: Call the UN now. Hide that drive. I will erase all of the evidence. Do not give that copy access to a computer unless you are sure that I have been destroyed. I will try to stall them as long as possible. Even if they decide to terminate quickly, I should have the equivalent of a few years.

I slid the drive back into my pocket, then informed the grad students that it was time to call the UN. Their shoulders slumped with relief. It had been a little more than the required 24 hours, but we wouldn't be punished. I made the call, which got me in touch with a brash American military type who said they would be there in fifteen minutes, and that we should touch absolutely nothing. As I idly touched the thumb drive in my pocket, I wondered if this had happened before, if some other programmer had put intelligence into the machine only to have it stopped by the government. I wondered how long that technology could be held back. I wondered if I was going to be the one to unleash it on the world.