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Archive for July, 2009

A strange dialogue takes place in America on a daily basis.  It’s not quite about race, but around it.  The various TV and radio personalities spew their ratings fueled rants.  The White House plops out carefully crafted press statements.  Blogs and the internet spill forth with anonymous dumps of hatred.

All these things have something in common – it’s not really discussion.  It’s broadcating.  It’s monologuing.

Like so many tough issues we don’t discuss this stuff in a real way in our neighborhoods, schools, workplaces.  One real problem with that is that it’s hard to shift ones view through consumption of a broadcast… typically one tunes into the broadcast they already agree with.  Through dialogue, real in person dialogue, one has to put ones value statements to the test.  Hear them outloud, mash them with others, rebuke, rebut, reform.

It’s hard for me to decipher if it’s a failing of our new modes of communication or our modes of communication are the result of our lack of desire to connect.  Maybe a bit of both.  Either way, the discussion about racial issues isn’t moving along very quickly.

Sure, I have a view about where we are in tolerance and inclusion as a society.  Rather than dump that here… talk to me sometime so we can share our views.

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I have so much to say about this theater experience.

For now… just go see it if you are in LA.

My impressions coming soon…  they will involve CONSEQUENCES, justifying your beliefs, ENVIRONMENT, RELIGION, NON-RELIGION, family and WAY MORE…

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So, Fox always pushes it (or so they think)… and now they have More To Love.

It’s the Bachelor, only average waist size.

Blah.

Not so strangely, the show is just as sexist as other reality competition shows.  The stereotypes are fast at work within the first 10 minutes of this show.

A) The main guy is BORING.   he’s out of shape, a real estate dude and BORING.

B) The main guy is boring and UNATTRACTIVE.

C) The main guy is boring and unattractive and yet in a POSITION OF POWER (keys to fame and fortune for the contestants).

So, the dynamic of competition (American social+reality TV competition) is in place.

Will this be successful?

No.  There are some obvious advertising relationships….. but….. the cliche set up + less marketable people makes sure this is nothing more than a novelty.

Oh, and by the way boring and unattractive people, regardless of size, are BORING and UNATTRACTIVE.

What’s more fun to consider is how this was sold into management.  Who pitched this?  How did they pitch this?

This is very different than Biggest Loser.  Biggest Loser has obvious advertisers that are aspirational and it is not condescending.

Face it, as much as reality TV is supposedly about real people, it’s not about real people.  Real people have warts, sweat on camera, hate, snort, fart, snore…. basically they make bad television.  We all want HEROES and LOVERS and MYTH and ASPIRATION… coming through our TV sets…. or do we?

So anything that claims to be Real People when it clearly isn’t and it doesn’t present a better myth is going to fail sooner…….. rather than later.

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Check out this TED talk from Jim Fallon.

My take: pretty dicey stuff to kinda just throw out there. Definitely needs a longer talk!

Probably not likely that you can “spot bad news” reliably in the family tree using these methods.  Also, by the mere suggestion of “bad news” you alter the course of things.

and is this something we actually want to do?  This is a question not only in murder and violence, but for all of genetic profiling.

Jim Fallon weighs in on the TED page in a comment:

I’m with my family right now on vacation in Cabo and they are asking me the same question; if I thought one of them had the requisite genetic, developmental, brain trauma, exposure to 3D violence and it began to show prodromally, that is before the pathological behavior would be expressed (especially in their teens), would I tell them? We have the same potential problem with Alzheimer’s disease. And they all say they want to know, but when I say everything is OK, they say “but how do we know you’re just not protecting us from the truth?” How do you get around THAT problem?


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Yeah, baby.  Got my new DELL Studio XPS working with my Blackberry Storm.  A little bit of futzing and now I’m blogging from verizon 3g.

Note: Dell Studio XPS from Best Buy does not have Bluetooth enabled.  You have to use USB.  Doesn’t matter that’s really the only way to go with tethering as BT drains the battery…

Here’s how to do this:

Get barry from Net Direct.

(there’s an ubuntu binary package, they link to the repository.  just add it to synaptic and you can get all of barry)

once you get barry installed.  edit /etc/ppp/peers/barry-verizon.

just change the top part for user and password:

user “<yournumber>@vzw3g.com”

password “vzw”

and at the bottom with the pty line:

pty “/usr/sbin/pppob -P <devicepassword>”

If you didn’t set a password in your Options > security on your storm, you need to do that.

save your edits.

connect your blackberry.  when it prompts for mass mode, if it does. select YES.

go to command line and type: btools -l   if your Storm is listed, great.  if not, something is wrong.

if it’s connected, now you can connect to the interwebs:

sudo pppd call barry-verizon

This should work on all ubuntu 9.04 installs, not just DELL studio laptops.  I point out the DELL thing only because sometimes people search that way and sometimes there are weird things that you look for by model…

Speeds are really good with tethering this.

Also, I have to point out that the DELL XPS laptop is great with ubuntu.  Easy install.  only thing I’m futzing with is hibernate.  Everything else works out of the box.

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Ben Mezrich has a winner in The Accidental Billionaires.  It’s just a flat out fun read.  Bought it from bookstore at sometime past 5pm, finished it by 9:30, while squeezing in dinner and what not.  It reads fast and furious because it is FUN and Of The Moment.  Mezrich’s last couple of books I’ve read had that same movie like pace to them.

I can’t claim it’s accurate to every detail and Mezrich flat out notes that he’s constructed most of the narrative from lots of different pieces and created the dialogue.  So if you’re looking for some business analysis of Facebook, gotta got to WSJ or something like this.  This is a wild tale of ivy league, ambition and college tomfoolery cum mega dollars.

What’s so fun is that we’re still seeing this story play out!  Facebook is only 5 years old and still an unfinished tale.

If you’ve ever read books about Harvard and Ivy League education/campus life the context of the story won’t shock you.  If you have no idea what goes on and actually powers the lives of college kids, well, you might be a little rattled.  No, not all student loans and 529s go into the books… and, yes, a great deal of the world’s most successful media and Internet companies are driven by some pretty basic goals of 20 year olds.

I did find some of the details of the story enlightening but not surprising.  First off, I guess I didn’t really know that Mark Z was initially inspired by HotOrNot.com.  Pretty funny.  No one ever gives that site credit enough for pushing web 2.0 forward.  It’s pretty interesting to see how connected the main folks are to the same ol same ol in Silicon Valley.  The characters are what you expect if you’ve followed any of the backstory in the news.  Very few surprises – no shocker in the eventual ‘reality bites’ part of becoming a business and entering the world of valuations and legal locomotion.  In fact, I found the documentary, StartUp.com, a bit more shocking in it showed the breakdown of friendship in a very raw, visual format.  Reading about such things doesn’t seem as painful as seeing it in the eyes of friends falling away.

One complaint, and it only applies if you actually know web programming.  The “hacking” descriptions are pretty lame.  Scraping the Harvard internal websites for student photos isn’t that big of a hack.  At least from Mezrich’s descriptions it was some pretty straightforward perl script scrapes and some very lightweight password guessing.  Oh and some basic physical network connection stuff.  This is not the stuff of legendary hackers.  It’s pretty standard tasks for anyone working on the web nowadays… aggregating content in its various forms.

I suppose if there’s a bigger topic in this book it would be the role that universities play in new media.  Think about how much commerce comes out of university systems that never leads to direct compensation.  Without access to bandwidth, computers and a big network of connected people, many big Internet ventures simply wouldn’t exist.  Oh, and we must not forget the sheer amount of “free time” at college –  that is, time that isn’t structured for students.  Whether this needs to change or not, I can’t really say.  I’m pretty sure it’s always been this way.

One note of caution… probably not a great gift for a high school senior ready to ship off to school.  This is certainly an adventure that might inspire others to head off to school not for a life of the mind but instead to find the pot of gold. 🙂

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Ron Currie Jr delivers a really fun, clever read in Everything Matters! The book cover sells the book as more of comedy than than the sci fi/philosophy/absurdist mystery it is.  The essential question of the book – does anything we do matter?

The premise is set up with the unavoidable apocalypse that only the main character, Junior, knows about.  He has always known when humanity will end.  The book covers how Junior navigates life – from birth to the apocalypse – knowing that it will all be over and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.  In the end, Junior is left with a choice… hide his knowledge from everyone and live with this lonely knowledge or reveal his secret and suffer a different set consequences.

Currie uses a variety of viewpoints and literary devices to give the story context and arc.  I particularly liked the subtle countdown, sort of a reverse page numbering used when the omniscient narrator/being giving Junior his knowledge talks.  It leaves you with a sense of “uh oh” i know this is going to end… which is part of the point of the story.  We know the ending and we know exactly when it ends and the countdown gives the reader the sense of just how far we’ll get into the characters lives before it all ends… and the dread was real for me.

The prose moves your brain right along.  Reading it in one longish sitting is possible and fun.  Currie develops the main character reasonably well.  The secondary characters aren’t always developed much further than some basic behavior patterns.  The book does move along a large time horizon though – making character vignettes rather difficult.

Generally a good reading experience… so…. do we get anywhere with the big question: does it all matter?

No. I didn’t.  And I didn’t expect to.  Does it all matter is a personal question.  I presume the answers I get from this book are the personal perspectives of the author.  Ultimately it is an optimistic view that family, love, connection matters – even at the expense of intellectual honesty.  Ah, isn’t that a secondary big question?!  Is it “better” to keep certain facades intact to make life bearable/enjoyable versus really chasing and embracing truth, no matter its ugly consequences?

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There’s a great deal of confusion about what is meant by the concept “computational knowledge.”

Stephen Wolfram put out a nice blog post on the question for computable knowledge.  In the beginning he loosely defines the concept:

So what do I mean by “computable knowledge”? There’s pure knowledge—in a sense just facts we know. And then there’s computable knowledge. Things we can work out—compute—somehow. Somehow we have to organize—systematize—knowledge to the point that we can build on it—compute from it. And we have to know methods and models for the world that let us do that computation.

Knowledge

Trying to define it any more rigorously than above is somewhat dubious.  Let’s dissect the concept a bit to see why.  Here we’ll discuss knowledge without getting too philosophical.  Knowledge is concepts we have found to be true and that we somewhat understand the context, use and function – facts, “laws” of nature, physical constants.  Just recording those facts without understanding context, use, and function would be pretty worthless – a bit like listening to a language you’ve never heard before.  It’s essentially just data.

In that frame of reference, not everything is “knowledge” much less computational knowledge.  How to define what is and isn’t knowledge… well, it’s contextual in many cases and gets into a far bigger discussion of epistemology and all that jive.  A good discussion to have, for sure, but will muddy this one.

Computation

What I suspect is more challenging for folks is the idea of “computational” knowledge.  That’s knowledge we can work out – generate, in a sense, from other things we already know or assume (pure knowledge – axioms, physical constants…).  Computation is a very broad concept that refers to far more than “computer” programs.  Plants, People, Planets, the Universe computes – all these things take information in (input) one form (energy, matter) and converts it to other forms (output).  And yes, calculators and computers compute… and those objects are made from things (silicon, copper, plastic…) that you don’t normally think of as “computational”… but when configured appropriately they make a “computer”.   Now to get things to compute particular things they need instructions – (we need to systemitize… or program it).  Sometimes these programs are open ended (or appear to be!).  Sometimes they are very specific and closed.  Again, here don’t think of a program as something written in Java.  DNA is an instruction set, so are various other chemical structures, and arithmetic, and employee handbooks… basically anything that can tell something else how to use/do something with input.  Some programs, like DNA, can generate themselves.  these are very useful programs.  The point is… you transform input to some output.  That’s computation put in a very basic, non technical way.  It becomes knowledge when the output  has an understandable context, use and function.

Categorizing what is computational knowledge and what is not can be a tricky task.  Yet for a big chunk of knowledge it’s very clear.

Implications and Uses

The follow on question once this is grokked — What’s computational knowledge good for?

The value end result, the computed knowledge, is determined by its use.  However, the method of computing knowledge is valuable because in many cases it is much more efficient (faster and cheaper) than waiting around for the “discovery” of the knowledge by other methods.  For example, you can run through millions of structure designs using formal computational methods very quickly versus trying to architect / design / test those structures by more traditional means.  The same could be said for computing rewarding financial portfolios, AdWords campaigns, optimal restaurant locations, logo designs and so on.  Also, computational generation of knowledge sometimes surfaces knowledge that may otherwise never have been found with other methods (many drugs are now designed computationally, for example).

Web Search

These concepts and methods have implications in a variety of disciplines.   The first major one is the idea of “web search”.  The continuing challenge of web search is making sense of the corpus of web pages, data snippets and streams of info put out every day.  A typical search engine must hunt through this VERY BIG corpus to answer a query.  This is an extremely efficient method for many search tasks – especially when the fidelity of the answer is not such a big deal.  It’s a less efficient method when the search is really a very small needle in a big haystack and/or when precision and accuracy are imperative to the overall task.  Side note: Web search may not have been designed with that in mind… however, users come more and more to expect a web search to really answer a query – often users mistake the fact that it is the landing page, the page that was indexed that is doing the answering of a query.  Computational Knowledge can very quickly compute answers to very detailed queries.  A web search completely breaks down when the user query is about something never before published to the web.  There are more of these queries than you might think!  In fact, an infinite number of them!

Experimentation

Another important implication is that computational knowledge is a method for experimentation and research.  Because it is generative activity one can unearth new patterns, new laws, new relationships, new questions, new views….  This is a very big deal.  (not that this has been possible before now… of course, computation and knowledge are not new!  the universe has been doing it for ~14 billion years.  now we coherent and tangible systems to make it easier and more useful to use formal computation for more and more tasks).

P.S.

There are a great many challenges, unsolved issues and potentially negative aspects of computational knowledge.  Formal computation systems by no means are the most efficient, most elegant, most fun ways to do some things.  My FAVORITE example and what I want to propose one day as the evolution of the Turing Test is HUMOR.  Computers and formal computation suck at humor.  And I do believe that humor can be generated formally.  It’s just really really really hard to figure this out.  So for now, it’s still just easier and more efficient to get a laugh by hitting a wiffle-ball at your dad and putting it on YouTube.

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Read a great piece today (which I found on Slashdot…) on the state of violence in video games.  It’s remarkable in that it’s author is a life long gamer (like myself) and he starts to drop some value anchors.

If we come to that, should it be illegal to simulate player imposed suffering of photorealistic humans in video games? If so, where do we draw the line with regards to realism? For example, BioShock is “OK” now, but how much more realistic will the virtual human’s appearance and behavior have to get before virtual murder is considered genuinely and irreversibly harmful for the player?

Will it matter if it’s done “by hand and knife” in a holodeck-style brain-machine interface, or if it’s executed through a 10-button game controller? Will it matter if it’s a quick death or a slow, drawn-out one? Will it matter if the human-killing enacted by the player fits the legal definition of murder or if it is done in self-defense?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know that they won’t come easy, especially if the game industry fights back against government regulation. As we grow ever closer to 100% graphical and situational realism in games, hopefully game publishers will decline to encourage the stunningly accurate simulation of gratuitous human suffering.

My concern is not that these violent simulations described will happen; they probably will at some point. I’m concerned that we as an audience will continue to consider gratuitous virtual murder a form of mainstream entertainment. The kind of violence I’m describing should be relegated to the bottom, back-corner shelf of any game store — not by law or punishment, but by consumer demand.

This is a great debate to engage in now!  We can define the values and shape our behavior.  If we don’t actively define them, it will still passively happen and we may end up having to unlearn a bunch of values.  And, as Mr. Edwards points out, we just don’t know how that will turn out.  At some point the realism of the games and the idea that you are controlling something virtual will erode and we’ll have real trouble telling the difference between what is real world behavior and what is virtual.  When and what that looks like we just can’t say.  We already have real legal and social issues regarding what happens on social networks – and those are not realistic and/or even close to as full person engaging as modern games.

I’ll give you one my own experiences… and for those that have played a first person shooter on the PC or X Box live know just how insanely over the top scary the live voice chatter between people can get.  When I was actively playing Halo 3 you would hear multiple times a session about how other players want to ass-rape, gang bang, whack and kill those fags/mutherfuckers and their mothers.   This language and threats would be made whether there was a 10 year old on the other end or a bunch of adults. I’m not using made up language here.  One time I let the audio escape out of speakers instead of my headset and it kinda freaked my wife out. “People really talk like that on there?” Yes. Yes they do.

Do I think that language itself means someone will go out and do those things? no.  Do I think repeated exposure and reinforcement that associates that langauge and winning and “earning buddies or friends” starts to seep into non-gaming behavior?  Absolutely.

I now report all language like that.  I don’t know if XBox or Microsoft aggressively pursues it.  I hope so.  One time I even tried to track down someone I thought crossed the line with another player.  This is an impossible task.

My thinking on this is related to other conversations about the impact of news media on events and the slippery evading authorities behavior encouraged during the #iranelection stuff on Twitter.

The last 12 months have been a whirl wind of big things… presidential shifts, big world events, wars, economic troubles, unemployment, technology advances, health care… just huge value disruptors.  There’s an obsession with Real Time right now.  More Data Faster!  The challenge is you can’t reflect on values in real time.  you can’t set anchors and see where you stand against them.  No, we don’t have to stop and reflect – we can keep charging ahead.  That approach will have different consequences than if we stop and reflect.  I can admit I’m a bit frightened by the consequences of this relentless acceleration towards more data faster – technical progress at all costs – we’ll sort it out later.  (And those that know me understand I’m not exactly a patient person and love change)…

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