Welcome My Friends

The fog was so dense it was like a cloud had descended to obscure the world. Everything was reduced to wisps of light and dark and the ubiquitous fog between. The drip, drip, drip of condensation from the tips of tree branches kept the cobblestone paths slick. Occasionally the glow of a neon sign would herald a shop of some sort but it soon faded as you wandered on aimlessly.

The fog dissolved the most cheerful, resolute attitude and turned it into a homogenous gray blob of apathy. It had been like this for days, weeks probably. Relentlessly, without a moments respite. Occasionally there was a buzzing overhead as if an entire hive of bees was flying in formation overhead. Aside from that there was an eerie silence permeating the entire area.

I first noticed a feeling of being watched. I looked around but saw no one or nothing watching. But the feeling persisted so I hid behind the next large tree I saw. Moments later, a strange creature emerged from the fog. It looked a little bit like a very long dachshund until you started counting legs. The thing was like a canine centipede. It must have had two dozen legs in all.

It came creeping to of the fog, nose to the ground and feet pounding. It followed my trail until it realized that I had gotten off the beaten track. It looked up but by the time its front end stopped and saw me hiding behind the tree. The rest of its legs hadn’t gotten the message and kept coming. It ended up in a writhing heap in front of my ersatz hiding place. I laughed in spite of myself and the poor thing finally got its feet back under it and scurried back into the fog from whence it came.

This in no way prepared me for what happened next. Sitting on a park bench behind me was a tall man in a white suit with a top hat. He was smoking a cigarette stuffed into a long holder but from the smell it wasn’t tobacco he was smoking.

I started to say something to him but he just put a finger to his lips and nodded his head no. He indicated the bench next to where he was sitting as if to invite me to sit with him. I thought about it for a moment and then had a seat. He clapped his hands three times and a troupe of little men about two feet tall came running and tumbling into the clearing in front of us. They were dressed in dark gray suede suits with black shirts under them. They were perfectly proportioned, just scaled down by a third.

Next, from out of nowhere they produced florescent yellow balls and were juggling among themselves while still tumbling and doing various acrobatics. They stood on each other’s shoulders making towers three high and continued juggling. This went on for fifteen minutes until all of a sudden, they all ran off single file into the mist.

I couldn’t help but applause and the man in the top hat joined in. Then he stood up, tipped his hat at me and turned around three times and faded away.

I never figured out where any of them came from or went to for that matter. I go back to the area every spring in the hope of seeing them again. But some things are pure magic. They happen once and then never again. You have to live in the moment and appreciate every one of life’s little miracles.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Pay Attention. There Will Be A Test.

There is a technique in engineering known as biomimetics. It is a practice where a designer patterns the behavior of an artificial system after biological processes. An example of biomimicry was the early attempts at designing a flying machine by studying the way that birds fly. The successful application of this approach has bloomed in recent years and yielded many phenomenal devices and processes. One of particular interest to me is the genetic algorithm.

A genetic algorithm mimics the operation of DNA to encode behavior as small snippets of code that can be randomly combined to produce individuals that run that code in a specific environment. The performance of each individual is evaluated against some fitness criteria and then a new generation of individuals is constructed by randomly recombining the components of individuals from the previous generation favoring the contributions from the more successful individuals over the less successful ones. The cycle then repeats some arbitrary number of times or until an individual is “bread” that meets some target fitness level according to the fitness criteria.

Surprisingly good performance is often obtained with relatively few iterations. The behavior produced in this way is not necessarily intelligent. Intelligence implies sophisticated mechanisms for problem solving that involves dynamic adaptation of generic cognitive capabilities to an unanticipated spectrum of problems. Genetic algorithms do produce impressive behaviors though.

I saw a video on the internet today that talked about how some plants used clever tricks to co-opt more intelligent species assistance to accomplish their objectives. The example was given of a plant that had a broad leafy substance that looked like a female insect’s genitals. The male insect attempted to copulate with the plant thus pollinating it without the plant having to expend any energy producing nectar to attract it.

There is a site on the internet called IFTTT (IF This Then That). It allows you to set up conditions that the site monitors for a given value and a set of consequences that the site will execute if the trigger condition is observed. It seems to me that this is the sort of mechanism that is ripe for establishing behaviors that are very clever, perhaps even profitable, without having to resort to actual full blown general artificial intelligence.

And the next step might be, a site that treats IFTTT recipes that are themselves used as snippets in a genetic algorithm. The key thing that would need to be developed would be a fitness function that would judge the generations of individuals until some success criteria was achieved.

I may have to do some hacking myself. I understand that various online stock tickers have IFTTT interfaces. I could build an interface to various news sources and run a genetic algorithm that attempts to pick stocks based on the news sources. I wouldn’t be the first to try it and probably not the first to make money that way if I got it to work.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

The Lady or the Beast

I sat at the bar nursing my bitters and listening to the fiddler set his fiddle on fire with the speed of his fingers and the heat of his bow. I had been sitting there all evening walking the thin line between mildly buzzed and full blown pissed. I had been watching a young lady sitting at a table in the corner. She had a single glass of wine sitting in front of her all evening. I never saw her so much as take a drink.

The bar maid stopped to ask if she needed anything every now and then but she always smiled and nodded no. As I sat and watched her, she sat and watched the door. It was as if she were waiting for someone. Several times the local wolves on the prowl attempted to make a move on her but she always shook her head and gestured toward the door.

One particularly persistent predator kept approaching her time and again but she was equally as stubborn at rejecting his advances. The evening wore on and finally the bartender announced that they would be closing in half an hour. The young beast ordered one last beer and took it to the end of the bar where he could sit behind his prey and watch her every move.

The patrons started trickling out in pairs and threes. Soon there were no  customers left in the place except the wolf, the lady and me. The lady handed the bar maid a large tip as she got up to leave. She left the glass of wine untouched. As the door closed behind her, her stalker grabbed the glass of wine, downed it and followed her out the door. Afraid for her safety, I threw some cash on the bar to cover my tab and followed him.

It was a moonless night and the street lights cast narrow cones of lights with vast expanses of dark in-between. In the distance, a coyote howled. I could see the silhouette of the lady pass out of the border of the light at the end of the block. Romeo was attempting to be stealthy and gave her a fairly long lead. I kept him in my sight but I wasn’t anxious to get so close that he picked a fight with me.

As I was coming into the pool of light at the end of the block I heard a commotion in the dark up ahead. I decided if I was going to be of any assistance I would have to move quickly. I ran headlong into the dark so fast that I fell over something laying across the path. It knocked the wind out of me for a minute but I was pumped full of adrenalin at this point so I soon pulled myself together and got on my feet to see what it was I had tripped over.

I was afraid it was going to be the body of the lady but as I lit my lighter to see what it was I saw the face of the dandy with a blank stare in his eyes. I looked closer and saw that his throat had a big gash ripped out of it. He was laying in a pool of his own blood. I could hear a low panting noise in the dark beyond the reach of the light from my lighter. I could see the red reflection from two eyes. As whoever or whatever it was became aware of my attention, they turned and ran deeper into the night. I chose discretion and ran back the way I had come.

The news the next day said a local boy had been mauled by a bear. I had my doubts about that. I never saw the lady again.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Aesthetics and the Age of BMIs

I’ve written about Artificial Intelligence a lot in this venue. I have presented the potential danger that unconstrained amoral emergent artificial intelligence may pose. I have mentioned the alternative of building Brain Machine Interfaces (BMI) that allow us to merge with machines, hopefully before they achieve emergent AI on their own.

Another concern has crossed my mind of late. It is the question of what it means to be human. Is it really as great as we imagine it to be? Is it something that will be compromised by merging our brain function with computer prosthesis? Will empathy survive the transition from biochemical thought processes to electronic ones?

And what about sensory perception? Will enhanced perception change our perspective on the universe and out place in it? Will we be overwhelmed by the volume of stimulus and become incapable of exercising our human judgement regarding the virtually unlimited possibilities that become apparent as a result of it?

I begin to appreciate the concerns of the Luddites when the industrial revolution threatened the way of life that they enjoyed with no clear promise of what it would be replaced with. I’m not taking a Luddite stance here, just saying that it is understandable what they were feeling given the context of the current looming AI revolution.

This concern began when I started thinking about the contrast between rational writing processes as opposed to intuitive ones. Intuition is a result of poorly understood electrochemical activity in the brain. I believe it is an inherently perceptual phenomena and is predominantly emotional instead of rational, at least in its human embodiment.

When you hear music or see a painting the emotions that well up in you are far from rational. You can think about the reactions and try to analyze them. Analysis doesn’t go very far toward allowing an artist to create a new work that has similar profound effects though. At least it hasn’t up until now.

Perhaps the availability of direct brain communication will make artistic endeavors seem archaic, something practiced by folk archivists for the sake of remembering what narrow bandwidth our communication channels had prior to high fidelity BMIs were available. I think there will always be something special in the process of translation from a personal thought or feeling into a physical manifestation of that experience.

Will artistic expression be given a broader canvas upon which to manifest itself with the advent of high fidelity BMI interfaces or will it fade into obscurity due to lack of interest? Only time will tell. I think it’s important for us to start thinking about such matters before they become fate accompli.

Perhaps a new generation that has never known a time before BMIs will not see a need for artistic expression. I think those of us that have grown up before BMIs become a reality will always value artistic expression as an external abstraction of our feelings that exists outside of ourselves, available for interpretation and re-interpretation by each person that perceives them.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Ramble on the Processes of Writing

I can think of two ways to approach writing a blog post, or anything for that matter. The first is to approach it rationally. Make a list of potential topics, choose one or two, make an outline, do some research, then sit down and write according to the plan. This is probably the safest way to ensure that you write something that is at least of some minimal quality.

The other way is to approach it entirely from a place of intuition. You sit until a topic occurs to you or until you get impatient and just start without one. You write whatever comes to mind. You look something up if it matters to you. You stand ready to pull the plug on a piece that is going nowhere and start again. I usually save the stillborn attempt in case it catches my fancy some other time.

This second approach is often labelled “seat-of-the-pants” in the circles where writers discuss their processes. I get the analogy to piloting but I think the term is unnecessarily dismissive. In the case of piloting you are navigating your way through a landscape that has an objective existence. You probably have some idea where you want to go. In any case, you can look at where you are going and decide based on objective observation whether it is where you want to be.

Writing is qualitatively different to that. There is no objective pre-existing landscape to navigate. Whether you take the rational first approach or the intuitive second approach, you are making it all up as you go.

If you are trying to write about something that is predominantly factual, you would probably be best served to do at least some minimal amount of research and planning. If you are making everything up as you go, its not as important to plan.

The one point where this is not the case is when it comes to plot. It may happen that you will wander around and tell an interesting tale but if you don’t have any idea what the ultimate point of the journey is you are going to end up, as I have on multiple occasions, with a disappointed and perhaps even pissed off audience.

So the point here is that you have to court your muse at least to the extent that she gives you an end to your story. I’ve talked to other authors and they have told me that they often set way points that they use to steer their story toward a given outcome without dictating the entire journey beforehand.

Creativity is a strange phenomenon. It balks at excessive planning but thrives when given constraints within which to operate. A pre-imagined ending is probably a good constraint within which to work. Goodnight all.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Beatle Mania, 50 Years Later

One of my guilty little pleasures is my SiriusXM subscription in my car. The model of car that I bought had the deluxe stereo package and it came with a 3 month trial subscription. At the time I was commuting an hour and a half to work every day. I was sold on a subscription before a week had gone by.

That was almost five years ago and every year I try to talk myself out of renewing but of the subscriptions that I have I probably use this one more than most of the others. I don’t have a long commute any more but I listen to Sirius every time I go anywhere in my car.

This week Sirius started a new channel that has made me an even bigger fan of the service. You may have seen the ads for it on television. It is called the Beatles channel and it plays songs from the entire Beatles catalog including those recorded by the individual members after the breakup. It also plays music by musicians that influenced the Beatles like Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry for instance. It plays covers of Beatle tunes by various artists, many of which I was unaware. It plays short documentary clips about various details of the Fab Four. I also caught a little bit of a show where Little Stephen of the E-Street Band was playing his favorite song of each Beatle. I suspect we’ll have more different content as time goes by.

I was about to go through the process of deciding whether to keep my subscription for another year. This channel has just tipped the decision for this year at least.

So, why am I so excited about a Beatles channel anyway. Several reasons come to mind. Foremost among them is the fact that I grew up listening to the Beatles. The first LP that I ever owned was bought with Green stamps and was Beatles 65. The first song that my garage band learned was Eleanor Rigby. You begin to see a pattern developing here.

The Beatles weren’t the only band I listened to but as the years went by and my musical taste broadened, the Beatles remained in the core of my musical pantheon. I listened to the Rolling Stones, Simon & Garfunkel, Ten Years After, and Jefferson Airplane/Starship. As my musical taste matured I found myself listening to Santana, Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, and Ricky Lee Jones.

Beatles song have a particular quality to them. They infused our culture so completely and for so long that they have become markers that bring to mind events in your life when a particular song was playing. For example, I associate Rocky Raccoon with the Saloon at Guntown Mountain the first night that I worked there. The rest of the cast was feeling me out and the fact that I knew Rocky Raccoon seemed to cinch their opinion of me as a competent guitarist.

I remember how upset I was that they were breaking up. It was a slow motion affair. The decision had been made and put in motion before the sales of Let it Be and The White album had even begun to peak. We didn’t have any idea of how prolific the individual members of the band would be after the break up.

I said there were a lot of reasons. I’ve really only given two are three. There are more but I’ll give it some thought and write about them another time. By the way, I wrote this blog post listening to… The Beatles, of course.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Love the One You’re With

Twenty five years ago the computer industry was fraught with religious wars. There was the OS war that purported to be about which OS was the best for a personal computer. Similarly there was the programming language war. And, last but most certainly not least, there was the text editor war over which was the best editor for entering text into a computer.

There are many more options in each of these categories now. And, people still have strong opinions about which option they prefer. The religious zealotry has largely subsided though. People are finally more focused on getting the job done than they are finding the absolute best way to do something on a computer.

I have my opinions, particularly when it comes to text editors. Text editing is my bread and butter. I write programs, documents, and stories with a text editor. For years I was an emacs snob. Actually, it was more a matter of muscle memory. I had used emacs for so long that I no longer had to consciously think of a command, my fingers just type it when I thought about wanting to execute it. I have joked about muscle memory but it is true, I am immediately more productive when I sit down to a machine with emacs installed on it.

But part of the job of a senior developer is to help more junior developers figure out ways to be more productive. I could have taken the time to get emacs installed on the lab machines. There is a process and I’ve been told to feel free to do it. But on further consideration I have decided that I push past my comfort zone and learn more about the vi editor, or more specifically the vim editor.

Vi has been around since soon after the rise of the unix operating system. It was written by Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems. It is notable if only for the fact that it is delivered on practically every unix distribution in the world. It has a reasonably rich command set. I wanted to get past the point of having to look each one up in order to use it so I started using it to develop the various test cases that I am responsible for verifying.

I have only been using it in this capacity for a couple of days but I can report that it is much more capable than I would have thought. Over the years all the major programming text editors have added features like intelligent code formatting and keyword highlighting. Code highlighting can be very useful for calling attention to inadvertent typographical editors in your program.

There are other editors in the running today. For instance, gedit is the graphical text editor bundled with Linux. Atom is a saucy little editor written in javascript, formatted with CSS, and capable of syntax highlighting with the best of them. It has recently been upgraded to ease integration with GitHub.

These days the choice has boiled down to the answer to these questions: What editor does everyone else use? What are most of the developers on the project use to? What features are you most familiar with and which ones fit the type of uses you intend to demonstrate?

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.