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January 14, 2013 Leave a comment

If you want to learn how to write computer programs, one of the first steps is to choose a language. There are a huge number of them out there now, and if you’ve been on the internet for any length of time, you may have heard of some of them. Several of the articles that I’ve read for people who want to begin learning programming are particularly unhelpful on this score, because, apparently the enlightened view is that what language you should learn depends on what you know already, and what you want to do. Someone who does not know a programming language may not be in a good position to answer this question and get on to the important part of their learning.

I’m currently learning Java. My reason for learning Java is because it is a language that I have heard about a lot, and I therefore assume it is popular, and because in a number of half-understood articles and websites I’ve read, I seem to understand that I can do some of the things I most want to be able to do using that language, or, at worst, some other language that uses a very similar syntax. And also because I enjoy Stanford’s CS106a course, made available on YouTube.

Another language that is currently in the top three of possibilities for a good language to learn early on is Python.

Here is a website that makes the case for Python as a first programming language:

http://www.cs.ubc.ca/wccce/Program03/papers/Toby.html

On this page there are the following fascinating observations about why everyone should learn programming:

… Anyone who uses a computer to do any significant authoring, whether it be for a website, a spreadsheet, a database, or a traditional programming language, is essentially engaged in a form of programming. Thus, ordinary computer users can become better users and consumers of computer technology by learning how to program, in the same way that the average car user will be a better driver by learning more about how their car’s engine works.

This is not the traditional computer science or engineering perspective. The implicit assumption in traditional computer science is that students are aiming to become software engineers, or want to be involved on a daily basis with the construction of large software programs such as operating systems, databases, or compilers. These are the bread and butter tools of all programming, and are certainly things that software engineers need to know about, but in the new world of programming not all programmers want to be, or in fact need to be, software engineers. Everyone does programming, in the same sense that everyone drives a car. Every day, web developers write mark-up, or a few lines of scripting code (in addition to doing many other things that do not look anything like programming or computer science). System administrators need to write scripts and master the dozens of options for installing and configuring networks and software. Business people use spreadsheets that look very much like a graphical form of programming. Databases and web search engines have query languages that, even if they are not full-blown computation schemes, can be seen as a limited form of programming. Many complex application packages even come with their own scripting languages.

If we agree that essentially all students should learn to program, then the question is what to teach them in their first programming course. …

If you take this understanding of programming as an essential skill for being effective in today’s world, and consider also the observations from my previous post on the subject, then programming, and perhaps Python as a programming language in particular, looks like an essential tool also for thinking and learning.

Let me take just one example. I take for granted that we agree that understanding a number of mathematical ideas is essential to being effective in the modern world. This is true whether you are working on your own to produce a technical or artistic product, or whether you are working for an employer. It isn’t enough to read or listen to someone talking about a math concept, to learn it you have to do it. You have to apply the formulas, you have to work through the algorithms. But perhaps you would understand the formulas and algorithms even better if you could explain them to someone else? Perhaps certain formulas would be more useful if you could run through the steps much more quickly?

“The Art and Science of Java” by Eric S. Roberts

The text for the programming course I’m in the middle of is “The Art and Science of Java,” and in the first few chapters the book gives readers programming projects that deal with concepts in mathematics that I was never introduced to in school. Things like the Fibonacci sequence, factorials and the mathematics of combinations. None of these are very difficult in terms of the steps it takes to produce them. Just adding and multiplying a certain number of times. The programs that implement them are extremely short, smaller than this paragraph.

As I see it, knowing how to write a program is the same kind of skill as the ability to use a calculator or adding machine. An older generation would consider using them equivalent to using a slide rule. Writing your own programs can enhance not only the speed of your calculations, and the scope of mathematical ideas you can use, but also your understanding, as you translate what you know of a process into instructions and terms that the computer can use to produce an answer. As long as we are all going to be carrying around multimedia, GPS-enabled smart phones with touch screens, voice recognition or full QWERTY keyboards, we may as well be able to use automated math and logic to help us answer questions about our world.

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Thoughts on Programming from Douglas Adams

January 8, 2013 Leave a comment

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

During the weeks since I’ve updated I’ve been thinking a lot about computer programming. I’ve decided to learn how to do it. I find it interesting that when I tell people this they sometimes ask me why. And to me this is a shocking question, akin to asking someone why they would want to learn to read and write. It isn’t one that I had given much thought to, though I’ve usually thought that I wanted to learn how to write programs, I’ve only recently done much thinking about why.

In one way, I take it for granted that there is some value to trying to learn anything. But on the other hand, haven’t I said that when you have the power to learn anything you might want to learn that forethought and the refinement of your goals becomes of greater importance? A skill is learned, not merely because it is good to learn things. Why not learn to play the guitar or juggle instead? They could do more to make you the life of a party, after all. No, you embark on the long project of acquiring a particular skill so that you can employ it to achieve some special result there is no other way to achieve. Acquiring the skill of programming is a means, so it makes sense to ask what is the end to which it is directed?

I’ve considered this a great deal over the past month, and have come up with a number of answers. For today, here is an unusual perspective on the craft of programming, and on the personality that successful programmers can grow out of, from Douglas Adams brilliant comedic novel, “Dirk Gently’s Holisic Detective Agency.”

“So tell me, … what you’ve been up to, my dear chap. Something to do with computers, I understand, and also to do with music. I thought you read English when you were here — though only, I realise, in your spare time. … Now wait,” he interrupted before Richard even had a chance to start, “don’t I vaguely remember that you had some sort of computer when you were here? When was it? 1977?”

“Well, what we called a computer in 1977 was really a kind of electric abacus, …”

“There really wasn’t a lot this machine could do that you couldn’t do yourself in half the time with a lot less trouble,” said Richard, “but it was, on the other hand, very good at being a slow and dim-witted pupil.”

Reg looked at him quizzically.

“I had no idea they were supposed to be in short supply,” he said. …

“I’m sure. But look at it this way. What really is the point of trying to teach anything to anybody?”

This question seemed to provoke a murmur of sympathetic approval from [professors]up and down the table.

Richard continued, “What I mean is that if you really want to understand something, the best way is to try and explain it to someone else. That forces you to sort it out in your own mind. And the more slow and dim-witted your pupil, the more you have to break things down into more and more simple ideas. And that’s really the essence of programming. By the time you’ve sorted out a complicated idea into little steps that even a stupid machine can deal with, you’ve certainly learned something about it yourself. The teacher usually learns more than the pupil. Isn’t that true?”

“So I used to spend days struggling to write essays on this 16K machine that would have taken a couple of hours on a typewriter, but what was fascinating to me was the process of trying to explain to the machine what it was I wanted it to do. I virtually wrote my own word processor in BASIC. A simple search and replace routine would take about three hours.”

“I forget, did you ever get any essays done at all?”

“Well, not as such. No actual essays, but the reasons why not were absolutely fascinating. …

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What we can learn about ideas from a book about evolution

December 4, 2012 Leave a comment

The development of the book, “The Origin of Species,” is a subject that might also be useful for examining some things about ways of thinking, knowing and marshaling ideas. The book was its author’s life’s work. Its inspiration and some fundamental facts came to the author when he was a young man who was given an unusual opportunity to observe the natural world in the round. He was given special considerations as a naturalist aboard a vessel sent to circumnavigate the world, primarily for collecting scientific observations meant to serve navigation and commerce. The idea grew, nurtured by conversations, the sharing of information, guesses, deductions, and the results of experiments and surveys of information fostered by a web of well-connected experts and associates. However much information was shared, however, the central thesis was kept secret from most colleagues and friends. He developed it privately himself, and through his own experiments and information gathered from his expert correspondents, he built peripheral supports, slowly and meticulously shoring up the central thesis with a lifetime of work.

The book itself shows the most carefully laid-out argument, it shows a wealth of experimental data brought to add credibility to the claims and implications of the theory. But the book does not show everything. It does not show what Darwin learned, during years of silence by others who spoke, whether rashly or not. It does not show the political canniness that caused him to delay, presenting his thesis to the world while he privately gathered information from far and wide to shore it up.

In the debates about how the internet is affecting our minds, our memory, our intelligence, our standards of knowledge and our standards for discussion I found this opinion about gaining knowledge from the web versus from books:

Knowledge takes on a different shape when its medium is hyperlinked.

Books have favored long-form, sequential chains of thought that lead readers to the author’s conclusion. That’s one useful way of thinking, but it reflects the limitations of paper. The author has to try to keep us on the bus rather than letting us explore more widely because paper knowledge is hard to traverse. The author has to anticipate objections, rather than entering into real-time conversation with readers, because paper knowledge is only made public once it’s done.

And it has given us the overly-simplistic idea that a world as complex and chaotic as ours ultimately reduces to long, knowable sequences of logic.

Networked knowledge instead lives in webs of hyperlinked ideas — some of which may indeed be long-form arguments — that explain, argue, differentiate, and extend ideas. There is more value in these webs of knowledge than there is in the individual expressions…although it’s also true that these webs inevitably include dumb and venal misunderstandings.

And this leads me to wonder, how would Darwin have written “On the Origin of Species” if he had to do so in a climate of information availability and openness, as our own? How would his thesis have fared if he had our speed of correspondence, our ability to disseminate ideas?

I think we can conclude that he would have had to be less meticulous if he had any hope of being known as the originator of his thesis at all.

In many other ways, our kind of information technology and culture probably would have helped. He would have been able to get in touch with relevant experts much more quickly, he would be able to search the literature for answers to many questions instantly. But the same technology that would give him an increased opportunity to find relevant information would also give it to everyone else. It would be a lot easier for characters outside his social stratus to connect with the same experts. It would make it easier for people with a dimmer inkling of how varieties of living things had proliferated to publish their guesses, sloppy and full of misunderstandings as they might have been.

A corollary of this ability to publish without detailed arguments and experimental results, and presumably without some of the same caution, and political canniness that made Darwin wait so long, is that the ideas, once out there, might become harder to censor or censure.

In such a climate, there is no way Darwin could have won any claim to precedence, not if he were the cautious, meticulous thinker is book and its circumstances of publishing reveal him to be. He could have come afterwards, and bit by bit tried to shore-up a theory that would have seemed poorly developed, and full of problems, and might have made it kind-of respectable in time. But the whole method of his work seems to have been dictated, not only by the limitations of the media he had to work in, but in the availability and the reputation of the controversial idea.

The idea of evolution has expanded considerably from Darwin’s time. A few books that mention evolution, but are sure not to be included in the Syntopicon are Frederich Hayek’s “The Fatal Conceit” in which the extended market order is described as a heritage that lies between instinct and reason, “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins, which introduced the word meme, which since the rise of the internet, and LOL-cats, has come into common usage. I also learned from “Cosmos” by Carl Sagan, that some people might consider the development of heavier elements from nuclear reactions in stars, or the development of the modern solar system by physical forces acting on the early planetary disc and earlier primitive planets as a kind of evolution. It is a common observation that Darwinian gradual evolution seems to have been a kind of outgrowth of the young Charles Darwin assessing the geological formations he found around the world in the light of Charles Lyell’s geological gradualism, and that the break with special creation was similar to the break with young-earth catastrophism.

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Autographer – A New wearable camera that takes photos automatically

November 3, 2012 Leave a comment

Autographer wearable automatic camera
This post is meant as a follow-up on my recent post about Jim Gemmell and Gordon Bell’s talk about total recall through a collection of data input and recording devices, and their book about it, “Total Recall.” In the video we hear about, see and see photos from a wearable camera that automatically takes snapshots based on sensor events. The Autographer is the next generation device of this type, based on development of the same technology they discuss. Autographer is said to be scheduled for release this month, November 2012, as of this writing, and is reported to be priced around $650.

We are clearly in the process of growing adoption of technologies like these by a large segment of the population, of Western countries, and the rest of the world is not far behind. And the implications of this are interesting in terms of the consequences for memory augmentation, as well as for freedom and privacy, law enforcement and security issues.

In my opinion, it is already difficult to the point of completely impractical for anyone outside of the TSA, or perhaps a tyled lodge, to prohibit cameras or picture-taking anywhere. This will only make it more difficult. Widespread reliance on wearable and implanted technologies will probably force security checkpoints to come down, or allow more people to go through with technologies passively monitored and often misunderstood. But, while many people like to point out the use of such personal surveillance equipment as a tool for law-enforcement personnel, I see its greater potential as a sousveilance device, which is more likely to serve as a powerful counter force against police-brutality, the credibility of police as reliable witnesses, selective enforcement of laws, and general capricious petty abuses of authority. In fact, it will probably lead to a future in which police are seen as largely redundant.

Police will certainly use these technologies to collect evidence against people for prosecution. But I think it will probably simultaneously force them to a higher standard of behavior. They will be able to turn off their own devices, but as total recall becomes a standard we expect in more situations, gaps in their own recordings will be harder to accept, especially when there is the ever-present possibility that someone else will have recorded what they did not. Most of the reasons for patrolling or interviewing by police officers will seem to become unnecessary when there is a greater vigilance by the non-law-enforcement population, to say nothing of the efficacy of data mining. The age-old question of who watches the watchers, is getting its answer.

The unfortunate effect of this is that it will also tend to force a different standard of behavior on all of us. There is some good to this. People when they are observed are more polite and conscientiously honest, but will probably also experience more stress to conform. I’m afraid that it will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression and many innovative and adaptive behaviors may be foreclosed to us. In my opinion the vastly diminished sphere of privacy and the vastly increased powers of detection that are coming, means that radical liberalization and vastly increased tolerance are essential.

The use of cameras driven by sensors and algorithms to augment the human memory raises questions of cybernetics. These kinds of devices face some of the same problems as do our systems of perception and memory. We are aware that our memories are limited, that they work better on some tasks, as on remembering routes and locations and recognizing images and shapes, and less well on other tasks, like remembering names or numbers. In combining sensors and algorithms into the process of deciding what data to store, we are getting away from the old surveillance-camera idea of passively and objectively recording everything, towards imitating the biological tendency to omit, or discard data depending on a low estimate of its expected significance. The algorithms that our biology relies on to decide what to keep is tested by millions of years of evolution, so what information we might be able to rely on to grade the significance of data that we record is a question we can probably expect to be a difficult one, and one which it will take us some time to get right. One possibility might be to rely on our own judgment of what data is likely to be significant. Doing this consciously will be impractically time-consuming for the most part. Here is a mention of another wearable camera that relies on biometric information as part of its input into the algorithm for deciding what is important.

Though, if Jim and Gordon’s expectations about the storage capacities available to us are correct, the problems of attention algorithms are perhaps more a matter of search and retrieval than they are of deciding which data should be collected or stored. We could have both quick access to significant information, and the ability to replay everything, even the boring parts of our lives, at their full duration.

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FORM 1: An affordable, professional 3D printer

October 21, 2012 Leave a comment
Form 1 desktop 3D printer

Form 1 desktop 3D printer

3D printing is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen at SIGGRAPH, and one of the reasons that attending a couple of times has been one of the favorite things I’ve been able to do. The personal 3D printer is something that a lot of people have been working on, Shapeways made it a mail-order service. RepRap and the Fab@Home projects made advances and other do it yourselfers have been able to come up with things that produce passable results. (One of my favorites was a large Cartesian arm with a blow-drier, which could pass over layers of ordinary, granulated sugar to produce a spiral torus as large as a punch-bowl.)

Here’s the latest, and a very slick project aimed at getting high-resolution 3D prints at home. I’m not sure what they mean by affordable though, since it seems that the media is always one of the largest expenses, and this requires a soak in some kind of hardening fixer. Still, it makes me happy to see progress in this area. One day I may be able to print out a solid model of each sculpt I do in ZBrush, so that I can line them up in a row, or give them out to folks.

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The Three-Legged Stool of Understanding

October 18, 2012 Leave a comment

While asking questions of how to learn, and what is education and what are its legitimate goals, it is important to ask what we should learn.

One of my favorite authors of fiction was the great Robert A. Heinlein, known as the Dean of science fiction. If you know of him through movies based on his work, you don’t know squat.


His greatest novel, in my opinion was “Stranger in a Strange Land.” I first read it in the early 90s, from a new, expanded and uncut hardback edition published by the Science Fiction Book Club. Copies of it in paperback, both of the expanded uncut version and the originally published version fill bookstores throughout the US, even in rural backwaters. As Heinlein was one of the most popular science fiction authors of the sixties, seventies and eighties.

 

 


Some of the best serious essays and some valuable autobiographical information on Heinlein can be found in the book, “Expanded Universe,” a collection of many previously published, and a few unpublished short stories and essays.

Some of the essays in “Expanded Universe” make incisive criticisms of the troubles with education that have been growing in the US for decades, and according to Heinlein, perhaps all century.

 

One of his central observations about knowledge was that the three-legged stool of human understanding is held up by history, languages and mathematics. It was his idea of what made a well-rounded person, as opposed to one educated only well enough to be a farmer, or low-level technician. These branches of knowledge greatly expand our natural capacity, orienting us in time, allowing analysis of current events according to experience, from those like us and through the eyes of those who lived different lives in different parts of the world, and by precision understanding of quantities, even those far beyond those we are equipped to experience.

Do you think Heinlein’s concept of these three legs makes sense? If not, how would you characterize the kinds of knowledge that make the best understanding available to us?

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Cloudy Language – Cloudy Thinking

October 16, 2012 Leave a comment

One of the reasons it has long been difficult to effectively improve our mental abilities, is that it is difficult to properly define what they are. Trying to do so takes us, not only into an immaterial realm where there is nothing that can be pointed to, displayed as an example, or measured with a tape, but even when a faculty of the mind has been precisely defined, and a measurement that corresponds to it can be taken, yet describing what this measurement means can be difficult because it takes us perilously near places where we are predisposed to pitfalls of philosophy; such as, mistaking theory for fact, map for territory, analogy for truth or correlation for causation. Take the following that I found on a website about neurofeedback for ADD and ADHD therapy, and see if you can spot what’s wrong with it:

What ADHD looks like in the brain
An individual living with ADHD typically has a higher than normal ratio of Theta brainwave activity to Beta brainwave activity. This means that the Theta level is high in relation to Beta activity. This clouds the mind and makes it difficult to pay attention and problem solve.

The first two sentences describe one measurement, unlikely to be understood even by non-specialists who are interested in science, redundantly assert that it is correlated with a problem. The third sentence seems to say that this is clearly a mechanistic cause. How can something, “clouding the mind” be understood as anything other than a metaphor? Since when is it grammatically appropriate to speak of people trying to “problem solve” rather than trying to solve problems?

How is attention defined, understood and measured by people researching the mind and brain today?

The Corollary to “You Can’t Do It All At Once”

October 7, 2012 1 comment

A couple of blog posts back I noted that it was finally coming home to me that things worth accomplishing in life cannot be done by a single, sustained marathon of effort, but have to be done piecemeal over time instead. But recent events have made the other side of the coin shine more brightly in my eyes. This corollary, is every bit as important, but I seem to have overlooked it, because the impossibility of the marathon and the power of accumulated piecemeal efforts was such a significant revelation.

The corollary I speak of is the fact that piecemeal efforts add up only if they are made consistently. A large project can be broken down into millions of tiny jobs, tiny tasks, and tiny efforts, and spread over months or years, such that they require no more than a few minutes to an hour per day, but they are only completed within whatever time frame they are spread across by such short periods of exertion, if the piecemeal efforts are made on schedule, and not skipped or postponed until it requires a small marathon of burnout effort to make up the backlog.

The task from which I learned to appreciate the piecemeal approach is thankfully one I have been able to perform consistently, for the most part, and despite distractions, obstacles and setbacks. But I’m beginning to see how much I could be accomplishing in other areas if only I had applied the same consistency.

I’m beginning to learn that palaces, empires, businesses, fortunes, and the mastery of amazing skills, are all built more by consistency, even of small efforts, than by genius or prolonged periods of work. And perhaps consistency is the more difficult side of the coin to master. Because you can hardly begin to see the results of a huge task broken into short tasks distributed thorough time without it. But once you have consistency, it becomes possible to see how a road can be made from cobblestones, or a great pyramid from many blocks placed one by one, how enormous novels and series of novels can all be written one word at a time.

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Moonwalking and Metacognition

October 1, 2012 Leave a comment

I became aware of the existence of elaborate systems of memory techniques in my youth, when I saw an infomercial for Harry Lorayne’s products. I expect everyone to be familiar with a few mnemonics, we’ve probably all heard in school of such phrases as Every good boy does fine, which is a coded message to help you remember the sequence of letters which define the notes of the lines of the treble clef, or FACE, which is a word, an acronym which is meant to aid your memory for the notes that fall in the spaces of the clef. Well Harry Lorayne, and other authors such as Tony Buzan and Kevin Trudeau have all written books or sold audio products or training software to teach people systems for devising their own mnemonics. These are sometimes referred to as mnemonic systems, but the word wold mnemotechnic would suggest what they do is give you tools to build your own mnemonics, and that is pretty accurate.

I doubt any writer I have mentioned can make any claim to originality. In fact, one of the greatest claims they can make that their systems work and are useful is by reference to ancient authority. Books that more directly reference the ancient origins and the practice of such methods in antiquity are “The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci” by Jonathan D. Spence or “The Art of Memory” by Frances A. Yates.

Recent Memory champion Joshua Foer has also written a book giving a good overview of memory systems currently known, and his experience using them to excel in a contest. See the interview in the embedded YouTube link below:

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You can’t do it all at once!

September 28, 2012 Leave a comment

To be able to do something incredible, or have great skill, or great knowledge are things I’ve always wanted. But one of the most powerful things I’ve come to understand lately is; you can’t do it all at once.

For instance, I want to be able to draw or sculpt, I want to know human anatomy in detail, I want to be able to recognize the constellations in the night sky. These kinds of things can be done, these and many other kinds of knowledge can be acquired and retained. But there are a few problems. Some people, like myself, can sustain effort and focus, obsessively grinding one area of knowledge for days or weeks. This comes at the expense of other subjects of interest. Subjectively it seems to be working, as far as the thing I’m currently obsessing over, but that progress is easily undone if the merry-go-round of interests puts some other shining prize before me, and I obsess about this new thing twenty-four hours a day for awhile.

The answer I’ve found is spinning that carousel a full revolution each day. Do a task, recall a detail, and remember that you ingest knowledge by the spoonful, not by the bowlful.

This is how I’ve slowly begun to appreciate structuring my time. I appreciate wake-up routines, ritual, and bedtime. When you understand that you cannot do it all, that there is a point at which continued action becomes unproductive, then you begin to appreciate consolidation, and putting off the continuation of your efforts for another day. You approach your task anew, expecting only to accomplish a small piece now, and the rest in the future.

One or a few bricks can be placed upon the edifice today. In this week it may add up to 70, in a month 210, perhaps and by the year’s end 2,520 bricks are in place! A few more bricks per day, or a slower pace of stacking, and before a few years have passed, I could have multiple palaces! No need for a broken back or days of soreness after strenuous building. No need to neglect one building while I complete another. I could never single-handedly complete it in any shorter time anyhow.

The ease of this building up of knowledge leaves a vacuum. Watch out, or your new obsession might become the design of your daily program!
How many minutes to reading and studying? How many minutes for practice of skills? What other skills can I add? How do I prepare to get the most out of my sessions of effort? When is rest an absolute requirement?

But I think an appreciation of balance is something else I’ve gained. Practicing different skills, and adding knowledge of diverse subjects helps me appreciate how important it is to be well-rounded. It frees me to understand that life should be enjoyed, that humor shouldn’t be neglected, that a little fun throughout life can be as important as spreading other efforts through time.

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Building a muscle that resists temptation?

September 26, 2012 Leave a comment

Building up the muscle that resists temptation?
I believe in exercising my brain. I’ve long been fascinated by mnemonics, memory systems and heuristics to help me think better. For some four years I’ve been a daily user of SuperMemo to help me learn and expand my knowledge.
In recent weeks I happened to see a lecture in a YouTube video from a neurologist at Google Talks who told of how his group was researching the use of game-like computer programs to help people build up cognitive skills. The main buzzword I remember from it was plasticity.
When I saw a TV ad for Lumosity at someone’s house, in which they used the word plasticity, I figured that they might be doing the same thing.
I’ve been on the site as a free user for some three weeks now. I snapped this screenshot from it a while back.
Having little money to spend on entertainment, and having a hard time understanding how a website with a collection of flash games is worth nearly ten bucks a month, I did some further searching, and found similar sites, my favorite alternative is mybraintrainer.com.

The reason I snapped THIS screenshot is because I found the claim amazing, that doing a flash game-like exercise could strengthen something in your mind that could help you resist temptation.
It would seem that questions of temptation, responsibility vs predestination and the mystery of how to know when a temptation is too great to resist may have left the domain of religion to be answered in the domain of neuroscience.
Are we feeling any symptoms of future-shock yet?
Maybe, if we believe them.
This also puts me in mind of an amazing article I read on The New Republic, about how temptation and the ability to resist it is being studied by economists:
www.tnr.com/article/environment-energy/89377/poverty-esca…

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The Four Hour Work Week – Really?

September 8, 2010 Leave a comment

The Four Hour Work Week

I’ve been reading “The Four Hour Work Week” by Tim Ferris. Its a really interesting book that is hard to put into previous categories. Its a sort of self-help book, about personal finance, and ways to make money and live well. Though unlike other popular books of this type, it doesn’t necessarily promise to make you a lot of money, just enough to realize your dreams, which it points out, may cost much less than you expect, especially if you are willing to shift your focus from a desire to own things, to a desire to do things, and if you are willing to be open to doing those things in Brazil, or Cancun, as opposed to in Los Angeles, or Florida, or New York.

The focus of the book is really on duplicating what the author did, creating a product, outsourcing its manufacture and sales, then letting go of your feeling of needing to be active in order to get things done and instead taking a mini-retirement abroad, where you can live cheaply, presumably off the profits of your tiny outsourced company while still challenging yourself it lots of other ways, not related to your career.

Whether you will be able to emulate all of the steps Tim Ferris lays out, and duplicate his success, will depend to a large degree on your experience and imagination, but it will also depend to a great degree on how well you are able to free yourself from the demands that life is currently putting on you, the demands of family and career. Things that tie you to the place you are currently living, and your current lifestyle. But even at that this book could hardly help but be useful, because it also offers some life philosophy, a reality-check on the value of retirement as a payoff for your career, and some breakthrough tips on productivity and personal finance.

Not only is the book worth reading, but the steps Tim Ferris advises are definitely worth trying. You may end up free from previous constraints and financial difficulties, or at least a more confident person and a better negotiator.

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Breaking Taboos – A Knowledge Problem

September 2, 2010 Leave a comment

In the comments to and essay by Paul Graham that I read some time ago, called “Lies we tell Kids” there was an interesting exchange about taboos. One person opined that “if you suspect a taboo is no longer culturally relevant you should probably consider yourself to have a duty to break it to get it out of the way as quickly as possible.”

I imagine they have the idea that cultural progress, (change toward betterment, perhaps even perfection) would be served by bravely discarding an impediment. Someone else, thinking a little deeper on the question responded that that might be so if your goal is to change society. Living successfully within society might require a different strategy. They then suggested that, “Some taboos begin for good reason and just because you suspect that they’re not relevant doesn’t mean that they’re not.

I would suggest that if you suspect that a taboo is no longer relevant, you have a duty find out for sure and learn why it ever was in the first place.”

My take on this is that neither of these suggestions work. Having a duty to find out implies that you are held responsible for being some kind of anthropological savant, a social scientist within your own culture, and that you are expected to get the right answer. This is an impossible demand for anyone.

It is difficult to come up with an analogy, because anything that might have once been simple enough for someone of reasonable intelligence to examine and at once see and be able to fix a problem with, has since become so complicated that only specialists with computer diagnostic equipment are expected to be able to make head or tails out of. And if today’s cars, for example, are that much more complex than the model T, then how much more complex might the expectations and restrictions of human society be? Unlike the model T they were never designed to be understandable to a technician. F. A. Hayek described culture as a thing not even designed, but evolved piecemeal throughout human history and prehistory. A taboo isn’t like some rule your father made up to keep you from spilling something at the table, it’s more like your amygdala. And if it took physicians thousands of years just to come the the conclusion that the head was the seat of intelligence, rather than the heart, and the brain more than just a gland for producing phlegm, shouldn’t you bring a bit more humility to deciding which customs can just be dispensed with?

But that isn’t a pleasant thought, is it? Hacking away at restrictions under the license of the world-spirit gives one the chance to participate in the gratification of our inner wish for more freedom. And it doesn’t sit very well with the rationalist program of 20’th century liberalism either. (It is too early to say what 21st century liberalism will be, isn’t it?)

It doesn’t sit that well with me either, but I’ll know better than to suggest people are able to tell at a glance which of the facets of civilization they are not content with keep the extended order in harmony and which are just atavistic pains in the neck.

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Lies we tell kids – sex in the city vs in the country

August 29, 2010 Leave a comment

Some time ago I read an excellent essay by Paul Graham called, “Lies we tell kids.” I found the text and the comments stimulating enough that I made several private journal entries about points that caught my attention in the essay. Below is my response to one of the points he makes about kids who live in sheltered environments versus exposure to the seedy side of life:
Lies We Tell Kids:

I’d have different worries about raising teenage kids in New York. I’d worry less about what they’d see, and more about what they’d do. I went to college with a lot of kids who grew up in Manhattan, and as a rule they seemed pretty jaded. They seemed to have lost their virginity at an average of about 14 and by college had tried more drugs than I’d even heard of.

This is an interesting anecdote because while Paul Graham is talking out of personal experience, and it fits with most people’s impressions of the experience of growing up in the city vs suburban and rural areas, it has also been convincingly argued against as a rule. I seem to have read that research supports that kids experiment sexually at younger ages in rural environments where there are fewer other activities around to divert their interests. Though I still think that it would be harder to argue against more drug availability, and variety of drugs available in cities vs rural areas. Though it is possible there is more drinking in rural areas I would guess. But even that seems to be a problem when you consider that availability is going to be limited by fewer stores, and more people who know how old the kids are.

But I digress. It is still convincing that these are Paul Graham’s anecdotes from personal experience. One wonders what might be the special features of the situation he relates. Is Manhattan different from other urban areas because more opportunities for sex and drugs are available? Was this experience perhaps more related to cultural factors in play at that time? The hippie movement? Baby boomers breaking with tradition? The rise of counter-culture? Or is the prevailing view, and personal experience right, and the research I vaguely recall wrong?

Update: I did some searching and found some links to articles that discuss studies that show what I thought I remembered. Here are two links to such articles:

http://www.slate.com/id/2192217/?from=rss

http://www2.macleans.ca/2009/04/02/the-differences-between-city-and-country-kids/

The basic thing to take away from these articles are that studies seem to show that rural teenagers engage in sex earlier and more often than urban teenagers, and though no research shows any clear causal link, it is widely supposed that opportunities for other kinds of activities in the cities best explain this.

I think it is important to keep in mind that the absence of studies of these kinds from earlier decades leaves the possibility open that this is a recent development, and that changes in culture could play a significant part in explaining the variance between the results and most people’s expectations, and from Paul Graham’s experience.

The only other thing is that I personally find the moralizing tone of the articles very depressing. I suppose that part of this is due to the apparently epidemiological purposes of the studies mentioned in these articles, but something deep in my spirit chaffs uncomfortably at the assumption that bureaucrats armed with statistical information should be prescribing propaganda to shape young people’s behaviors and curtail some of their sources of pleasure for the good of the nation state. It also seems that statistics create a very powerful illusion of large numbers of average people, who make the choices that they do not because of what’s inside them, what they desire or a unique plan of their own, but for easily counted and possibly controlled factors, like where they live and what their local schools are required to teach them.

I don’t like it that talking about sex always has to mean talking about diseases rather than joy. I don’t like it that starting a family while young always has to be looked at as a public problem or a private crisis. That whole notion seems to be based on one of two wrong-headed assumptions, either that people should not be reproducing, or else that they should postpone it until after years of secondary education, possibly until a secure foothold has been gained in both parents careers, often expected to be a job in a large company. That this life path might mean habituating people to a lifestyle to which the addition of children would be much more of a burden than those young and flexible enough to deal with it, or possibly out waiting a woman’s fertile years does not seem like a serious problem to a lot of moderns.

It should go without saying that I don’t think it is a good idea for unprepared and immature teenagers to try to get pregnant right now, in the current culture. But people who prepare for such a life early, with the assistance of family, the help of sympathetic communities, or other institutions, I think it could be normal and healthy, as it sometimes was in ages past, before statistics started telling us all what bacteria we were.

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A small note on a filmmaker’s speech about art

August 28, 2010 Leave a comment

Some time ago, I stumbled upon this entry from a blog of Jon Jost, who is apparently a fimmaker, and someone who has a few things to say about art. I found this essay he posted, based, apparently on a speech he gave, to be full of interesting ideas and insights, but I certainly don’t agree with all of it. There is a somewhat senseless joke that has been going around, that arguing on the internet is like winning the special olympics, you may win, but people will still think you’re retarded. I think it would be far more true to say that about arguing over the question of what art is. The way we seem to frame the question in modern times make it not worth discussing. There are no right answers, and any definition you attempt is only going to be persuasive for a fashionably brief period of time. Please forgive me for indulging anyway.

Duck Soup or Duck, You Sucker « Jon Jost’s Weblog:

…Artists today remain largely attached to the bohemian concept of art as the function of the alienated loner, and for the most part society encourages this. Art is in these days a business, a matter of marketing, of selling styles, replacing them with new ones as quickly as possible. The substance of art is now, as in almost [all] other realms of life, simply money, of business. That art which is acknowledged is that which makes money and celebrates the making of money, and the rest is swept away. In order to hide this brutal reality we have a kind of kabuki theater in which firm roles are given for each player, be they on or off stage, be they as producer or spectator. The illusion is made that “art” and its corresponding culture is alive, while in fact art is dead but we are loath to admit it, so we carry on with a charade. Young artists pretend to be bohemians….

My thoughts on this are the following:
I think there is both truth and falsehood here. Its true that we are attached to the bohemian concept of the artist, and that young artists are pretending to be bohemians, alienated loners, people who are somehow outside society, looking in, and critiquing it. But the kinds of critiques they so often seem to make, make it ridiculous to say that the kind of art that is acknowledged is that which celebrates the making of money. The young, sensitive, outsiders seem to critique money and the effects of wealth as frequently as anything. But perhaps it is different outside America.

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Welcome to Life Examined

August 23, 2010 Leave a comment

I’ve tried blogging on a couple of other sites in the past. Here I plan to focus more of my energy.

My interests are mostly related to learning and memory, education in terms of effective methods, criticism of current American institutions nominally devoted to it, and an analysis of it in terms of opportunity cost, and how it holds value.

Keep watching and you will probably get a taste from a diverse mixture of philosophy, politics, from a strongly libertarian viewpoint, and inquiries about the best way to live.

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