January 07, 2013

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Podcast for work today

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March 09, 2010

Hey Leon, whatcha reading?

Finished this

a couple of weeks ago. Very solid introductory overview to complexity as an area of scientific inquiry unto itself. The chapter on computing with particles/cellular automata is worth the price of the book all on its own. This isn't a pop science book, either, there are plenty of equations and in-depth commentary on their application. Interestingly, the book is also something of a defense of complexity as a science, noting the strong-enough (even if not universal) correspondence between the patterns established by complex systems, and the commonality of both emergent behaviors and the manners in which they emerge. As noted by the author; to some extent, modern complexity study is the intellectual sibling to cybernetics, and has faced much of the same criticism.

Having studied cybernetics by other names (as it is practiced and taught these days, with names like "machine learning", "data mining", and "automated reasoning"), this book really helped bridge the gap for me between mechanistic local behaviors and complex unpredictable mass behavior, particularly the manner by which groups of things less complex than a toaster can be made to 'compute' when given the correct set of behavioral rules.

Highly recommended, a stimulating read.

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December 30, 2009

Hey Leon, whatcha reading? (GCBC)

I finished this book

at the start of December, and it deserves any hype you may have heard about it (you probably haven't, but you should have). Taubes provides an incredibly detailed exploration of the history of nutritional science, starting in the early part of the 20th century. Ultimately, it ends up being a very well-researched critique of US Government-backed nutritional policies and health recommendations, starting with weight management and proceeding to exercise and a strong takedown of the lipid hypothesis for heart disease. While this isn't a diet book at all, it's not hard to follow Taubes' research to the logical conclusions that Ancel Keys and his cohort of advisers to the senate panel led by George McGovern either missed or deliberately obfuscated.  Study after study of diets with varying macro-nutrient distributions consistently found that diets lowest in carbohydrate produced the most consistent results in lowering the the weights of obese and overweight patients, further that such diets could serve as a treatment for type 2 diabetes, did not result in increases of arterial plaque, and may even prevent cancer and alzheimer's.

Reading the book, I was repeatedly struck by the parallels to CAGW.  We had a tight-knit group of scientists relying strongly on theory and very little on research data, all citing each other, and deliberately locking out and denying funding to competing theories.  It's uncanny.

I definitely recommend the book, even if some chapters are a bit of slog.  Taubes' writing is pretty consistently engaging even when discussing some rather dry elements of the relevant science, and the content is amazing.

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July 30, 2009

Hey Leon, whatcha reading? (WIT?)

I'm glad you asked. I just finished reading this



with which I was quite impressed. Baum builds a very strong, Occam's Razor-based case for how minds, qualia, and thought emerge from the calorically-expensive blobs of tissue encased in our skulls. His argument is strongly rooted in evolution, primarily the need for a brain to acquire the information to make decisions in a particular environment and in real time. That latter is important, because it means that the brain relies strongly on a vast number of heuristic shortcuts, i.e. the sorts of things that make optical illusions possible.  The strength of his argument also rests in what was -- to me -- a new notion, namely that compression is isomorphic to understanding.

To illustrate that, consider the planets in our solar system (add Pluto if it suits you, it doesn't change the point).  If I wanted to tell you where they were, I'd have to send you some set of coordinates for all of them.  If I wanted to tell you where they were a second later, I'd have to send an entirely new set of data, the same size as the initial set.  Unless I know Kepler's laws.  If I know them, I can send them to you first, then send you the initial positions.  Then, barring aberration, I never need to tell you where the planets are again, you can always calculate their position from the initial data and the laws.  Instead of having to convey some fixed amount of data every so often to tell you where all the planets are, I've given you a vast amount of predictive power, the data drawn from which greatly exceeds what I sent you.  The compression of all that data into a finite set of laws which govern it is identical to understanding something about the universe which contains that data.  I'm sure this is an old notion to some, but it was new to me, and I'm still considering how best to exploit it if I get around to any serious AI work at some point.

His conclusion -- for which I believe he makes a very strong case -- is that the mind is composed of a number of summarizing modules, orchestrated by or reporting to a central module, something akin to the "main" function in a C program. This is an important result, suggesting that our continuity of consciousness, the singular feel of "I" and "me", is not a mere emergent property of multiple agents, as suggested by Minsky, but is an agent itself.  Interestingly, Baum suggests that it is not uncommon for the other agents to misinform, or even deliberately disinform this central agent.  Each of the summarizing agents has its own interests (such as they are, influenced by petaflops of prior evolutionary computation and a "desire" to be conserved in future computation) and they are not always best served by honesty.

There's a lot more to it, and I highly recommend the book.  As Baum notes in the opening, in 1944, Schrödinger (and Dirac) published a short book called What Is Life?, expressing everything he/they knew about what life must be, based on what was known by physics at that time.  Schrödinger theorized some sort of self-referential, self-replicating information must be inherent in the smallest structure of an individual cell, since all life spends at least one moment as a single cell.  Nine years later, Watson and Crick confirmed Schrödinger's theory, and a decade after that we knew the basic syntax of DNA.

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July 14, 2008

The Black Arrow, The Third Revolution

The Black Arrow is easily the weirdest book I've ever read. Penned by libertarian author Vin Suprynowicz, it occupies a sort of twilight zone between action/adventure, harlequin romance, revenge fantasy, and incitement to domestic terrorism.

The titular character (The Black Arrow, aka Andrew Fletcher) is basically John Galt as a superhero. He's Ayn Rand's throbbing wet dream: rich, brilliant, utterly lacking in angst, and perfectly ethical, all while trapped in an increasingly unethical world. The setting is NYC in the bleak near future, where citizens are randomly searched on the street, and dissidents frequently vanish without a trace. The narration lays blame on decades of rule by both Democrats and Republicans for the near-absence of civil liberties,up to and including the right to property.

Our (extra)ordinary man, finally pushed too far, decides to fight back... by murdering corrupt politicians (i.e. pretty much all of them). He gathers followers, nails super-hot chicks, and rocks out with his band in a huge concert. If Buckaroo Banzai were 250lbs of hypertrophic beef and had a serious hardon for Freedom with a capital F, he might be within a stone's throw of how absurdly over-the-top this guy is.

In case it wasn't obvious, the writing is pure pulp (the character names will make your eyes roll... a lot). Parts of it I enjoyed so much I felt stupidly embarrassed. Other parts made me cringe. Read as escapist fiction, it's amusing and occasionally gratifying. The bad guys are really bad, the good guys are really good. It almost cannot be read seriously, but the message -- if there is one -- is that it's almost time to "shoot the bastards" as Claire Wolf puts it, and that when "we" do, it will rock. On toast.

Paulbots will likely have to read this book entirely in their bunks.

The Third Revolution by Anthony F. Lewis, is a very different book, but I read it immediately following The Black Arrow, so I always think of one when I think of the other (for good or for ill).  The premise is simultaneously much more and much less radical: a freshly elected Libertarian governor of Montana, strongly supported by his state legislature and state residents, signs legislation nullifying Montana's contract with the federal government.

The setup for that is pretty good, a particularly invasive federal education mandate which has single-digit support in Montana, so it's a lot easier to side with the Montanans in this case than it might have been with, say, South Carolina last time this happened.

There is plenty of good, episodic content from here, detailing the back-and-forth between Montana and FedGov, with decent characterization.  What really stood out to me was that there weren't any "bad" guys here.  All the elected officials have their hearts in the right place, they just have different priorities and philosophies.  Lewis does a fantastic job of painting a strong, adversarial relationship without taking the easy road of making the president or any in his camp into a soulless cretin.

Both of these books hit a lot of really good, pro-freedom themes, but there's a mile-wide gulf between them in how they articulate those themes.   I'm not sure I recommend The Black Arrow, but it's a nice antidote to the ultimately hollow V  for Vendetta.  I do recommend The Third Revolution, though I'm not sure I'll ever bother to read the sequel(s).

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