Dec 31, 2009

Surreal Xmas Films

And we're back. Seems like in September, some wicked kids removed my batteries and left me outside in the rain to rust. Least that's what it feels. Maybe more on this later.

Over the years, I have, I don't know why, developed a cherished tradition of watching surreal films around Christmas. Maybe this is because it brings back memories of watching, as a kid, often somewhat surreal, at least from a kid's perspective, animated films on the 24th (think Animal Farm). Maybe it's because I feel the surrealism of Christmas itself (virgin, manger, kings, star, etc.) is completely lost on my surrounding.

A good point to start ist The Yellow Submarine (UK, 1968), (tvtropes). They showed this on Austrian public TV when I was in grade school (ca 1985), but for me, it got "pinned" to the Holidays in 1991, when I watched it on the afternoon of the 31st of Dec. in a hotel room in Hamburg, where I was with my mom to celebrate New Year's Eve with a harbor cruise (Austrians...). The Yellow Submarine features good music, superb animation, and, unique among the films mentioned here, a plotline more coherent than the average dream.

Fast forward to Christmas 2003, which is where I watched Angel's Egg (Japan, 1985), (tvtropes). I had the strangest feeling then, that I had already seen this, as a kid, around the time it was first released, which is highly unlikely for too many reasons to name. I really like re-watching this one almost every year.

But I will never again watch Jan Svankmajer's adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, (Czechoslovakia, 1988), which I rented from Blockbusters around Christmas 2005, when I was in Palo Alto. Set in a filthy, claustrophobic, apartment building in the Eastern Bloc, using stop-motion to achieve the creepiest imaginable effect (putting glass eyes in animal skulls, and animating them as disembodied skulls), this film put me in a mild shock-like state for days. You can find some scenes on youtube, but be warned.

Compared to this, Die Reise ins Glueck ("Journey into Bliss", Germany, 2004) by German dilettante director Wenzel Storch, is only mildly disturbing. Eight years in the making, the film features fantastic backdrops and stage props (most of them scrounged, or outright stolen), terrible acting, and a scene showing the mating of a sentient snail-shaped ship and a church, which, of course, results in the formation of a time-machine. I gave this, as a present, to a friend of mine, this Christmas. I think I'll opt for a tie next year.

The most surreal of all films in my list, however, is the Star Wars Holiday Special (USA, 1978) (tvtropes). I tried watching it this year, but, but ... Bea Arthur?!?!? This film is chock full of "Wait. I can't believe they did that." moments. And the advertisements fit seamlessly into the overall strangeness ("Tobor is robot spelled backwards"). If you've ever wanted to catch a glimpse of a parallel Universe, this is as good a substitute as you can probably get.

Sep 3, 2009

That Is So Amazingly Amazing I Think I'd Like To Steal It.

Makoto Shinkai's 5cm per Second is one of my favorite movies. Shinkai's storytelling, visuals, and sound effects show incredible attention to detail, and have made him the new top dog amongst Japanese animators.

Enter the Chinese Communist Party Propaganda Department, an their latest gift to mankind, "Soul's Window" (心灵之窗), a “moral anime,” featuring, "themes of selfless dedication to party and state...[]... and the heroic actions of the People’s Liberation Army ." (Hat tip to Sankaku Complex!)

The attentive critic may find some resemblance between Soul's.. and 5cm..:

See the many more screenshots like these at Sankaku Complex. This may be the biggest thing since the Great Lion Theft.

You can watch what seems to be a trailer for Soul's Window here or here.

Or you can watch Shinkai's one-minute short "A Gathering of Cats", which is approximately a Zillion times better, here.

Jul 20, 2009

Eight Ways To Spot A Mediocre Scientist.

It's easy to spot a poor scientist. Lack of publications, inability to communicate, and blatant incompetence are hard to overlook for more than a few hours. Sorting the mediocre from the first-class, however, is much more difficult. Brilliance sometimes looks like biasedness, and vice versa. Sub-par people may still publish good papers through a combination of luck, the right working environment, the right supervisor, and good funding. Eloquence can mask shallowness (for a while.) On the other hand, smart guys may be too young for a strong track record (or may have been unlucky), may be deliberately soft-spoken, may use self-deprecating humour, or may agree to stupid statements out of politeness.

One would need to have excellent insight into the relevant field in order to recognize true outperformance. If you're teaming up with a collaborator across domains (e.g. a computer scientist teaming up with a linguist) you will lack this level of insight. (If not, why team up?) Getting stuck with a mediocre scientist as a collaborator, student, supervisor or colleague is guaranteed to cause frustration, a dent in your career, lots of extra work, and mild to severe psychological damage. Over the years, I learned, the hard way, that mediocre scientists (henceforth MS) share some traits among themselves, which can serve as a early warnings:

1. Monologue
The MS likes to elaborate. Droning on and on, the MS will not have time to listen. Make casual, but relevant, statements, and check later whether he remembers any of them. Look for email responses to simple questions of over four pages in length.

2. Quirky Categorization; Meta-Theory
The MS has usually developed idiosyncratic systems of categories for several domains. He regards these, as well as his general meta-theory of scientific insight, as absolutely essential in order to get any work done. Without using those categories, nothing makes sense. Anyone not using his "system" (i.e. everyone except himself) has no chance to make real intellectual progress. He will, however, freely share this insight with anyone (remotely) interested (cf. point 1).

3. BSing outside of his Speciality
When discussing topics outside of his field of expertise, (which he will be eager to do, cf. point 1), the MS will quickly talk some form or another of utter BS, like, e.g. US per capita GDP being hundred times bigger than global average. The MS may be aware, and admit, that he has only the most casual knowledge of the domain in question, but will nevertheless deliver his statements with utmost certainty (cf. next point).

4. Preaching, Teaching
The MS is sure of what he says. Absolutely. He has had this discussion a hundred times before, with people smarter than you, and none of those people were able to provide solid counterarguments to his position. Sure, some tried, some tried really hard, but after a few hours of discussion, or a few 5-page-long email exchanges, their arguments all melted away, and they admitted defeat. Or at least stopped responding. Check the archives. The MS is as sure of his access to privileged knowledge as a maths teacher in front of grade-schoolers, and it shows.

5. Misses Appointments
When working with you, the MS will be late, will, at first, rush, to make up for the time lost, but then slow down, and suggest having a coffee or two together. Then he suddenly realizes he needs to be elsewhere, and leaves early.

6. Belittles Textbooks, People, Publications, Institutions, Methods...
Nothing is good enough for the MS. He will give you an earful about the textbooks being confusing, too detailed or too superficial, everyone except himself lacking true insight (cf. point 2), publications being based on flawed methodologies, institutions funding the wrong kind of people, and so on and so forth. This is not the usual whining of the underprivileged - he himself may have good funding. It's more of an aesthetic complaint.

7. Doesn't Follow the Literature
When Caliph Umar the Great ordered the books of the Library of Alexandria to burned for heating bathing water, he is said to have stated that "they will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, in which case they are superfluous." (Wikipedia says this is a hoax.) The MS, however, has an analogous view of the literature in his field (the "Koran" being his own work, in particular his meta-theory, cf. point 2). Pick his brain, and you will find he's completely unaware of publications which could help him a lot in his efforts.

8. Would Prefer to do His Own Stuff
The MS is an independent spirit. He will not compromise. He will not team up. He demands flexibility. He will not precommit. He will not allow anyone to "interfere" with his work. He'll play it by ear. While all this can also happen with a truly great mind working in a destructive environment, in combination with the seven points above it's an indication that you have an MS in front of you.

May 15, 2009

Carving Up Reality.

In a wonderful choice of words, the Wall Street Journal yesterday mentioned in an article that Agilent Technologies Inc. "[...] makes machines to analyze DNA, chemicals, sound waves and other items [...]".

May 9, 2009

Not to mention that *Kolmogorov complexity is completely irrelevant to intelligence*.

Michael Vassar, the President of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence recently gave an interview on Accelerating Future where he favorably mentions Marcus Hutter's work on AI:

AF: Why should someone regard SIAI as a serious contender in AGI?

Vassar: The single biggest reason is that so few people are even working towards AGI. Of those who are, most are cranks of one sort or another. Among the remainder, there is a noticeable but gradual ongoing shift in the direction of provability, mathematical rigor, transparency, clear designer epistemology and the like, for instance in the work of Marcus Hutter and Shane Legg. To the extent that SIAI research and education efforts contribute to rigorous assurance of safety in the first powerful AGIs, that is a victory as great as the creation of AGI by our own researchers.

Now that's an interesting contrast with earlier statements by Eliezer Yudkowsky and Ben Goertzel, co-founder of and Director of Research at the SIAI, respectively:

I seriously do NOT think there is any practical value to be gotten out of trying to create a pragmatic AGI system by "scaling AIXI down." Ben Goertzel, 2007

To sum up: (a) The fair, physically realizable challenge of cooperation with your clone immediately breaks the AIXI and AIXI-tl formalisms. (b) This happens because of a hidden assumption built into the formalism, wherein AIXI devises a Cartesian model of a separated environmental theatre, rather than devising a model of a naturalistic reality that includes AIXI. (c) There's no obvious way to repair the formalism. It's been diagonalized, and diagonalization is usually fatal. The AIXI homunculus relies on perfectly modeling the environment shown on its Cartesian theatre; a naturalistic model includes the agent itself embedded in reality, but the reflective part of the model is necessarily imperfect (halting problem). (d) It seems very likely (though I have not actually proven it) that in addition to breaking the formalism, the physical challenge actually breaks AIXI-tl in the sense that a tl-bounded human outperforms it on complex cooperation problems. (e) This conjectured outperformance reflects the human use of a type of rational (Bayesian) reasoning apparently closed to AIXI, in that humans can reason about correlations between their internal processes and distant elements of reality, as a consequence of (b) above. Eliezer Yudkowsky, 2003

AIXItl is a different story. It's computable, and is vastly less useful than Novamente. It's a ridiculous algorithm really, since at each time step it searches an infeasibly large space of possible programs. It's useful purely for theoretical purposes. Ben Goertzel, 2003

Not to mention that *Kolmogorov complexity is completely irrelevant to intelligence*. Eliezer Yudkowsky, 2008

Apr 16, 2009

Solomonoff Induction Breaks Egan's Dust Theory

Greg Egan’s 1994 novel Permutation City, which features unlikeable characters, wooden dialogue, and a depressing storyline, is one of the most thought-provoking works of science fiction ever written. It’s basically a book-length expansion of Egan’s “Dust Theory”. The related Church-Turing thesis implies that I couldn’t know whether I’m made of real atoms or just accurate computer simulations of atoms. The Dust Theory expands this to the case where the output of the atom-simulation undergoes a permutation – I still couldn’t tell what’s happening in the “basement”. Since any pattern of sufficient length can be permuted to a simulation of my atoms, and therefore my subjective experience, I can never discern from the “inside” whether I’m made of atoms, of simulated atoms, or of a random pattern of black-and-white flowers in a field on a small planet orbiting Betelgeuse.

My argument against the dust theory is that it does not explain anything. I believe I’m made of atoms because that explains a lot, that is, it compresses a description of my perceptions given my actions. (This is an informal paraphrasing of Solomonoff induction.) In fact, I believe I’m Manuel, who is such-and-such a type of guy, because it explains an awful lot of the stuff I’m perceiving, and doing. A world model with a “basement” not of physical atoms, but simulated atoms on a small turing machine, has about the same Kolmogorov complexity as the original model, so my take on that is “who knows?”. But if a theory makes it necessary to specify an extra permutation in the end ... if the permutation is to be Martin-Löf random, its complexity is to be about equal to the length of the string to be scrambled. Whoah, that’s a lot of extra bits! Each extra bit reduces the theory’s prior probability by 50%, so that’s pretty much off the table.

That’s also why I don’t buy into the “We are in Digits of Pi” theory. Granted, pi itself has a small Kolmogorov complexity, but in order to explain my perceptions and actions, in sum N bits, one would have to specify a region that lies some 2^N digits behind the comma. That’s much more costly (N bits) than the “atom” or “Turing machine” based theories above (K(N) bits), and is therefore, by virtue of Solomonoff induction, a stillborn theory.

One of the reasons Egan’s Dust Theory is appealing at first glance is that he introduces it through permutations of low Kolmogorov complexity which nevertheless look “complex” to the human mind. (The general case, which he – I think –doesn’t explicitely state, is known as the pseudo-random number generator.) The big step from there to arbitrarily complex permutations – almost all seemingly random patterns cannot be created with a pseudo-random number generator – is swept under the argumentative rug. I admit the sweeping is not done deliberately, as Egan doesn’t seem to know about Solomonoff induction.

For the record I do believe in Tegmark’s mathematical universe theory. I also believe my laptop’s harddisk contains mostly random data (courtesy 7zip, matroska, and others.) And, yes, I also believe a tiny fraction of myself is in a field of lowers somewhere (not Betelgeuse). More on this soon, hopefully, in a post I’ve been struggling to write for two years.

Mar 27, 2009

Michel Djerzinski

On March 27th, 2009, in the early afternoon, he went to the main post office in Galway. He sent one copy of his manuscript to the French Academy of the Sciences in Paris, and another one to the British journal Nature. What happened thereafter remains a mystery. The fact that his car was found close to Aughrus Point naturally lead to speculations about suicide - something that came to no surprise to Walcott and the technicians at the center. [...] Many witnesses attest to his fascination with this distant edge of the Western world, constantly bathed in a soft, shining light, where he had come so often, where, as he wrote in one of his last notes 'the sky, the sea, the light converge.' We believe that Michel Djerzinski went into the sea.

Michel Houellebecq's Atomised is one of the books most dear to me. I recognize myself in the novel's main character, Michel Djerzinski, who shares many biographical aspects and character traits with me, like, to give a few examples, our close relationships to our grandmothers, our research work in biophysics, our grim view of the human condition, and our relentless attempts to engineer a posthuman species of sentient beings.

As you can read above, today is the day where Djerzinski, having completed his breakthrough theory of SENS, disappears "into the sea". (The book was published in 1998.) I originally had plans of traveling to Galway on the occasion, maybe stay for a few days at the coastguard station outside of Clifden, where Djerzinski took residence during the last years of his life, and take in the atmosphere. Nevertheless, I decided otherwise.

For a certain kind of books, and a certain kind of young men, there exists a considerable risk that the books seriously mess with the young men's self-perception. My guess is that Atomised is one of those books. I love Atomised, and I see an almost creepy similarity between myself and the protagonist, but I clearly understand today that I am not Michel Djerzinski, and should feel no need to resemble him even more than I already do. What helped me understand this (besides from aging ten years), was coming across several other fictional works in which I could also profoundly recognize facets of myself; Thomas Bernhard's Ungenach, and, more recently, Makoto Shinkai's 5 Centimeters Per Second, are just two examples.

So rest in peace, Michel, and thanks for leading me along the way for a while.

Mar 26, 2009

Hibernation Redux

The local newspaper ran a story a few days ago on the accumulated hours of sunshine that we had in Wels, Austria (where I'm located) from Dec. 21st and March, 21st.

What made the fact newsworthy was that the number, due to constant fog and cloud cover, came down to seventy. The nearby city of Linz got 140 hours.

Just to put this into proper context: According to the statistics available from the BBC, the long-term average of total hours of sunshine for January, February, and March, is 180 for St. Petersburg, 210 for Rekyavik, 270 for Stockholm, 420 for Fairbanks, and 600 for San Francisco.

No surprise I've been in deep hibernation mode once again ...

Mar 12, 2009

Quote Of The Day

"The Japanese government outlawed the practice of self-mummification in the late 19th century."

(Found on Pink Tentacle.)

Feb 24, 2009

The Leibniz Drive

Every aspiring Mad Scientist must invent at least one scheme for an FTL drive. So here's mine.

My proposal does not use any speculative physics, such as wormholes or large amounts of negative mass. It is based 100% on physical laws we know today. What I propose, however, is the application of molecular nanotechnology on a very large scale.

First let's make it clear what we want:

Goal: A galactic empire in which Cpt. Cabonza and his motley crew can travel from Arghra V to Balubius II in one day.

We now add the following insight (which, as far as I know, has not yet the status of a physical law)

Insight: Information cannot travel faster than the speed of light.

We derive a conclusion from that:

Conclusion: Cpt. Cabonza's journey must not carry any information from Arghra to Balubius.

Now we know what we have to do in order to construct a scenario where FTL travel is possible:

Plan: Make physical reality an epiphenomenon of a pre-synchronyzed, parallel, redundant, computing process.
In practice that means each star system consists solely of programmable matter. The surface dynamics of that programmable matter, and that of any star system reachable by FTL drive, is pre-computed in a "hidden layer". To repeat: all connected star systems simulate the whole of the "Empire", but control only the "local" manifestations of physical reality. This includes any inhabitants, sentient or otherwise. Balubius can therefore let Cpt. Cabonza pop out of immaterial nothingness one day after Arghra disassembled him (motley crew and all).
Information coming in from outside the empire to Arghra can potentially break this pre-established harmony. It is therefore necessary to funnel any such information through "gateways", which retain the physical carrier of the information for as long as it takes to disclose the information to all connected system (in the case of a galaxy, ~50.000 -100.000 years). After this time, the carrier is released, and is allowed to interact with the "pre-informed" star systems. This does not mean the carrier has to come to a stop - it just has to cross the gateway region sufficiently below lightspeed. (I just retconned the Zones of Thought!)
I will add a FAQ here as questions come up.

Jan 30, 2009

Soviet Animation

My neighbour told me stories of the beautiful animated films the Soviet occupation forces showed in their improvised cinemas in the years after the second world war. Thanks to Al Gore I was able to quickly learn a bit about the History of Soviet Animation.

If you think all animation was like Worker and Parasite from The Simpsons, you may be in for a surprise.

The Magic Flower (part one). 1948.
Beautiful, fluent animation, based on rotoscoping (or, in Russian terms, eclair).

The Magic Flower (part two). 1948.

The Magic Flower (part three). 1948.

The Humpbacked Horse (part one). 1947.
The lack of subtitles makes the story somewhat hard to follow here. Reading the Wikipedia entry helps a bit.

The Humpbacked Horse (part two). 1947.

The Humpbacked Horse (part three). 1947.

The Humpbacked Horse (part four). 1947.
Huh ? The Phoenix looks a lot like Tezuka's Phoenix (drawn in1954) ! The God of Manga a plagiator ? Hmm, no, apparently there exists something like a global consensus on how a Phoenix is supposed to look like...

The Humpbacked Horse (part five). 1947.

The Humpbacked Horse (part six). 1947. Yay, whale island !

The Humpbacked Horse (part seven). 1947.

The Humpbacked Horse (part eight). 1947.

Girl and Dolphin (with substitles). 1978. The matter of dolphin intelligence, or sentience, was indeed vigorously studied in the Soviet Union. I fondly remember reading a Soviet book from the Seventeed on that topic during a voyage to Spitzbergen on a Russian cruise ship in 1990...

Bandar-Logs, from The Adventures of Mowgli. 1973. This adaptation of the story is quite close to Kipling's dark, violent vision.

Jan 20, 2009

Every Time.

  • Every time a physicist plays God, we get one step closer to making catgirls reality.
  • Every time Schroedinger thought about catgirls, Gernsback frowned and sighed "God..." while leafing through a bad manuscript.
  • Every time someone calls the Singularity "The Rapture of the Nerds", some catgirls get physical with each other.
  • Every time you ask about Tipler in a lecture on General Relativity, you'll get frowned upon.
  • Every time a bookstore clerk files "The Call of Cthulhu" under "Science Fiction", a lonely physicist googles for catgirl pictures.
  • Every time a lonely science fiction fanboy feeds his cat, he fantasizes about studying physics and finding a proof for God's non-existence that'll show those stupid theologians.
  • Every time a physicist complains about poor characterization in an SF novel, a catgirl quotes Nietzsche.
  • Every time God checks on his Catgirl Planet, he reminds himself to have a look again at that Monkeyboy Planet soon.
  • Every time you mention catgirls into a discussion on applied theology, a physicist writes some Permutation City self-insertion fanfic.
  • Every time a catgirl tries to understand Permutation City, God finds himself in the dust.
  • Every time a catgirl tries to understand physics, nyaaa!

Jan 13, 2009

When Will The Singularity Occur ?

Now and then I get asked about estimates of how long it will take us to get to the Singularity. Now Ray Kurzweil has demonstrated that this question can easily be answered by plotting various trends on a log-linear scale. Let me demonstrate how this works.

First, we notice that the average age of winners of the Turing Award, the most prestigious award in computer science (the "Nobel Prize" of this field), has been steadily increasing since the time of its inception in 1966:

Donald Knuth is apparently somewhat of an outlier. We will nevertheless include him in our further analysis.

We now switch to a log-linear scale, which is a much more scientific way of looking at trends, and try to fit an exponential trend to our dataset (including Donald Knuth):

We can now easily extrapolate this trend to the middle of the century.

We learn that by 2050, the average Turing awardee will be a centenarian, which is quite realistic given the expected progress of anti-aging technologies over the next decades.

Now, when the Singularity occurs, Ray Kurzweil will surely get the Turing Award for having foreseen it, either that year or the next, depending on circumstance. We therefore add him to our diagram (note that Ray ages linearly, or, on his own account, even sub-linearly; for fairness, and out of scientific rigor, we just plot the time from his birth in 1948.)

If you squint, you can see that crossover occours around 2035. Therefore, the Singularity will either happen in 2034 or 2035.

Coming soon: posts on "What is the computing power of the human brain?" and "What's the best programming language for writing an AI (like, while I finish high school) ?".