Category Archives: technology

Free Speech and Spying

I used to think that there was little chance the government would be spying on me.

But then I realized that I correspond with people all over the world by email. Moreover, people all over the world come to this site. Take a look at my website hits from the last day or so: location map of recent visitors
This is pretty typical. A recent breakdown is just over half of the visitors are USA citizens, leaving over 40% to be distributed over the rest of the world.

I’ve noticed lots of different activity on my website. There have been bots (programs) that state their purpose as ‘total website downloaders’, which tend to be from places that don’t have good laws on freedom of speech (I think they are trying to get as much of the internet as they can while they have access). I’ve had hits from Pyongyang, North Korea. I have lots of visitors from China. A posts on game theory was visited by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (probably a bored technician). When I linked to a post critical of the Philosophical Gourmet Report, I had a hit from a UChicagoLaw web server.

With all the recent discoveries about the scope of the US government’s spying—it’s open season on communications to any non-citizen outside the country (which many philosophers are) and 3 degrees of separation from a target (remember, it is thought that everyone in the world is only 6 degrees from everyone else)—it is almost a given that they are monitoring my internet communications in some way. And since they are monitoring me, they are probably monitoring you, too.

I don’t like it, not one bit. But now there is something that can be done about it! Bitmessage is a secure messaging service. It can’t be monitored, at least not in the way they have backdoor access to email. It is encrypted such that only the intended recipient can access the message, and everyone else can’t even know who it is from or to whom it is going. So grab the program and send your first message that the government can’t see! Experience actual freedom of speech, without fear of being monitored, and send me a bitmessage here:

BM-Gu22xaEsuH2NdDabHzTvB4JtV3NSsBNG

Posted in news, products, technology.

Reflections on Frankenstorm

drugs

I don’t normally see cops smoke on duty, but lots of cops were smoking last week.

Beer was being sold for up to $30 a six pack.  Not good beer either.

I overheard a barista at Verb Cafe in Williamsburg say that Tuesday had been their best day ever.  They did twice their sales of a busy Saturday and closed early because they ran out of everything.  He also said he saw a lot more Nouveau Yorkers than normal.

I smelled no more weed on the street than I normally do.  Stoners are consistent.

zombie apocalypse

The Brooklyn half of the Williamsburg bridge had power, but crossing into downtown Manhattan was like regressing into a time before electricity, or more accurately, a time after electricity.  When it got dark at night, it actually got dark.  Anyone who has been to lower Manhattan knows there is a limit to how dark it actually gets: the sheer amount of ambient light prevents real darkness, even in places without street lights.  This no longer held for the few days after Sandy.  Walking the city was passing through endless empty black canyons, devoid of life and filled with remnants of once useful technology.

Every so often I’d come upon a person sitting on a stoop, looking haggard and sucking hard on a cigarette.  When this happened I wouldn’t notice the person till I was already upon them and walking by.  I couldn’t even muster a head nod, not that New Yorkers would be looking for the social interaction, and it was inevitably too late to bother anyway.

My mom called while I was walking back to the bridge a few blocks south of Delancey.  Surprisingly the cell phone coverage held for the duration of the call.  I could hear her voice drop as I described the situation:   The windows are empty and lifeless for blocks, and I can barely make out the sidewalk.  There are no people, or none that I can see.  Sometimes they would show up, but as I said, they were the strays, and would disappear just as quickly.  The cops, wherever they were, were just as cut off as everyone else.  She ended the call quickly.

They eventually got the power down to 14th street and east of Broadway back on.  This returned some of the ambient light to lower Manhattan, but not like normal.  Instead of the sad darkness, a weak, insubstantial haze took over.  It was like being in an old video game where they just colored everything dark, but there were no actual light sources.  You could see things, but it wasn’t like things were lit or had shadows; it was all shadows.  Unlike the previous nights, which hurt in its collapse of basic New York reality, this haze provided an unreality to the situation. It was a transient state, a purgatory, one where you could feel civilization trying to leech its way back.

My friends who live and work uptown were barely inconvenienced by the storm.

banks and power

A bank was robbed clean by Upright Citizens entering the building’s basement and then breaking up through the floor.

I told everyone that if I had a truck I would have ripped up and ripped off those ubiquitous street ATMs that charge $4 a transaction.  I’m actually surprised I didn’t see any of this.

Goldman Sachs had barricades of sandbags around their entrance ways.  Not sure if they were trying to stem the barrage of water only.

They moved the power lines in the city under ground after the 1888 blizzard, which was the last time the stock exchange had been closed for 2 days due to weather.  This was to prevent wind and snow from affecting the power supply.  So maybe the banks will ‘encourage’ our utilities to make the power supply more water resistant.  Cuomo (NY State Governor)  is threatening to revoke the electricity monopolies of ConEd and LIPA due to the power failures.  Floodproofing New York City would be an unimaginably huge project.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see a proposal to actually raise the entire island of Manhattan.  If the banks don’t have battery backup security cameras in a few weeks, though, I will be shocked.

the birds

Fauna in New York is sophisticated.  The animals that live here are either well adapted to living with humans or well adapted to getting out of our way.  However, when I saw a pigeon standing very still near the curb in the street, I felt something was wrong.  A van pulled up and the front wheel missed the pigeon by not even a finger’s width, but the pigeon didn’t move at all.  Then the rear wheel ran directly over the stationary pigeon with muffled bone crunches.

I walked into Washington Square Park and a very obese man followed me in.  I sat on one side of the pathway and he sat across from me.  Often, though not generally, people hanging around in public parks who don’t take care of themselves have mental problems.  Then a large flock of pigeons, which is strange in itself, all descended upon this man.  Standing on him, walking up and down his arms, crowding as close as possible to his body. I saw his face, he looked confused, which I took to confirm my suspicion about him.  He noticed me looking and he spoke, completely lucidly:  “I don’t even have food. What’s going on?  I guess the birds are just as stir crazy as the rest of us…”  He wasn’t crazy at all: the birds went Hitchcock on him, and he was trapped.  I left Washington Square Park.

candles

I only type up my philosophy writing when it is being prepared for general consumption, that is, no longer my own notes.  Otherwise I write with a fountain pen, which I find to be the least intrusive and most versatile writing implement.

So I am at my brother’s place in Williamsburg as Sandy shakes the windows, hoping the power doesn’t go out — the internet and cable TV had failed, but not before we saw the footage of the 14th street power station explosion and cars floating on C.  I lit a candle just in case.

As I am getting ready to go to sleep on his shockingly ludicrous couch (not his fault) I turn off the standing lamp, leaving the candle the only source of light.  I think, “Hey, this is how people wrote in the past.  Every philosopher up till just recent has sat hunkered over a notebook with a bottle of ink, a pen and a candle.  Let’s see if there is anything to it…”

OH MY GAWD.

It is fantastic.  Modern lighting is excellent, but it sprays light everywhere.  Normally this is a good thing: one or two lamps can light an entire room easily.  But for focused concentration, the single flickering point light of a candle melts everything else away.  Romance is good for philosophy.

Posted in news, NYC, random idiocy, technology.

Holy crap, it’s The Matrix for chickens

No, really:

http://io9.com/5885510/holy-crap-its-the-matrix-for-chickens

[Sent to me by my brother. Thanks bro!]

Posted in ethics, philosophy, products, technology. Tagged with , , .

The SEP on the Kindle

Reading on a computer screen is often not pleasant, especially when a lot of reading has to  be done. This is a general problem for philosophy since nearly everything is in PDF format and if you don’t want to print out a tree’s worth of paper you are stuck.

I got a Kindle.  Kindles can handle PDFs, but what I just found out is that Kindles can do the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy quite well.  KindleI downloaded the webpage and then deleted the content from the top of the page down to the start of the article.  Then I used Calibre to convert the webpage into Kindle format.  It looks great and the images come out well.

So I did some poking around, and found out that if you use a Firefox extension called “Download Them All” you can download a webpage and all the links on that webpage, i.e. you could go the contents page of the SEP and then download all the articles linked there.  Basically you could have the entire SEP on your Kindle and be good to go.

Posted in philosophy, products, technology. Tagged with , , .

Aether Propeller?

I was trying to figure out how planes stay in the sky.

So this is what I came up with.

wing

As the plane moves forward, a small vacuum is created above the wing. The vacuum is a low pressure zone which pulls the wing up and the air down to fill itself in (because Nature HATES a vacuum).  This upward pull that the low pressure zone creates we call lift.

I thought, “Hooray.  This isn’t so complicated!  Planes stay up because they create small vacuums above their wings as they move forward, creating an upward force.”

Then I thought, “And this is why planes can’t fly in outer space, because there is no air to displace and create a vacuum.”

Then I thought, “But if there is an aether theory, why not?”

wing2

So as a wing moves through a vacuum, generally we don’t think there is anything to cause lift or drag.  But if we have an aether theory of a vacuum, i.e. there is some substance below what we can observe that our matter exists within, then why can’t we create a vacuum in that substance?

My line of thought was: Air is to Vacuum as Vacuum is to Black Hole.

Can’t we just spin a propeller fast enough in outer space to create lift?  As the prop turns small vacuums in the aether will be created, and, insofar as Nature hates vacuums, a force will be created to fill in this vacuum, pulling the propeller in that direction.

(Someone please tell me how this is nonsense so I won’t go around thinking I’ve come up with a new model of space flight.)

Posted in fun, physics, random idiocy, science, technology. Tagged with , , , .

Video Game Design #5: Modern Art

Most of the time video game designers are trying to make 3 dimensional virtual worlds that are as realistic as possible, or focus upon a particular art style, and tell a story within that world.

What I would like to see is a lifelike 3-D world that has a main character that has special abilities, or levels, taken from modern art.  This means, for example, that a character with Cubist special abilities (or in the cubist level) can flatten parts of the world that they are looking at into a 2-D space, but in this space they have the ability to see around corners, rearrange objects and do all the other funky things that happen in cubist art.

On the flip-side, when using the Cubist skills, the character would lose depth perception, motion would be funky, and other sorts of strange phenomena would go on.

Moreover the character could get skills associated with other artists or artistic movements.  Say there was a Dali  gun: it could stretch the legs of elephants (or any other animal) such that they become unstable.  Or a Duchamp Readymade skill which combines random objects in the world into other objects depending upon the angle at which you are looking at them.  Frankly I think that there are too many different and good ways to go; it would take some effort to really take a few ideas and make them work well.

This would be a great way to combine the ‘new’ media form of interactive video gaming and more ‘traditional’ modern art.  It might even be considered educational.  But if executed well, it would definitely be fun, interesting and visually impressive.

Posted in fun, technology, Wii. Tagged with , , , .

Where Does Probability Come From? (and randomness to boot)

I just returned from a cruise to Alaska. It is a wonderful, beautiful place. I zip-lined in a rain forest canopy, hiked above a glacier, kayaked coastal Canada and was pulled by sled-dogs. Anywho, as on many cruises, there was a casino, which is an excellent excuse for me to discuss probability.

What is probability and where does it come from? Definitions are easy enough to find. Google returns:

a measure of how likely it is that some event will occur; a number expressing the ratio of favorable cases to the whole number of cases possible …

So it’s a measure of likelihood. What’s likelihood? Google returns:

The probability of a specified outcome.

Awesome. So ‘probability as likelihood’ is non-explanatory. What about this ‘ratio of favorable cases to the whole number of cases possible’? I’m pretty wary about the word favorable. Let’s modify this definition to read:

a number expressing the ratio of certain cases to the whole number of cases possible.

Nor do I like ‘a number expressing…’ This refers to a particular probability, not probability at large, so let’s go back to using ‘measure’:

a measure of certain cases to the whole number of cases possible.

We need to be a bit more explicit about what we are measuring:

a measure of the frequency of certain cases to the whole number of cases possible.

OK. I think this isn’t that bad. When we flip a fair coin the probability is the frequency of landing on heads compared to the total cases possible, heads + tails, so 1 out of 2. Pretty good.

But notice the addition of the word fair. Where did it come from, what’s it doing there? Something is said to be fair if that thing shows no favoritism to any person or process. In terms of things that act randomly, this means that the thing acts in a consistently random way. Being consistently random means it is always random, not sometimes random and other times not random. This means that fairness has to do with the distribution of the instances of the cases we are studying. What governs this distribution?

In the case of of a coin, the shape of the coin and the conditions under which it is measured make all the difference in the distribution of heads and tails. The two sides, heads and tails, must be distinguishable, but the coin must be flipped in a way such that no one can know which side will land facing up. The shape of the coin, even with uniform mass distribution, cannot preclude this previous condition. Therefore the source of probability is the interdependence of physical conditions (shape and motion of the coin) and an epistemic notion (independence of knowledge of which side will land up). When the physical conditions and our knowledge of the conditions are dependent upon each other then the situation becomes probabilistic because the conditions preclude our knowing the exact outcome of the situation.

It is now time to recall that people cheat at gambling all the time. A trio of people in March 2004 used a computer and lasers to successfully predict the decaying orbit of a ball spinning on a roulette wheel (and walked out with £1.3 million). This indicates that after a certain point it is possible to predict the outcome of a coin flipping or a roulette ball spinning, so the dependence mentioned above is eventually broken. However this is only possible once the coin is flipping or the roulette ball is rolling, not before the person releases the roulette ball or flips the coin.

With the suggestion that it is the person that determines the outcome we can expand the physical-epistemic dependence to an physical-epistemic-performative one. If I know that I, nor anyone else, can predict the outcome until after I perform a task, then the knowledge of the outcome is dependent upon how I perform that task.

This makes sense because magicians and scam artists train themselves to be able to perform tasks like shuffling and dealing cards in ways that most of us think is random but are not. The rest of us believe that there is a dependence between the physical setup and the outcome that precludes knowing the results, but this is merely an illusion that is exploited.

What about instances in which special training or equipment is unavailable; can we guarantee everyone’s ability to measure the thing in question to be equal? We can: light. Anyone who can see at all sees light that is indistinguishable from the light everyone else sees: it has no haecceity.

This lack of distinguishability, lack of haecceity (thisness), is not merely a property of the photon but a physical characteristic of humans. We have no biology that can distinguish one photon from another of equivalent wavelength. To distinguish something we have to use a smaller feature of the thing to tell it apart from its compatriots. Since we cannot see anything smaller, this is impossible. Nor is there a technology that we could use to augment our abilities: for us to have a technology that would see something smaller than a photon would require us to know that the technology interacted at a deeper level with reality than photons do. But we cannot know that because we are physically limited to using the photon as our minimal measurement device. The act of sight is foundational: we cannot see anything smaller than a photon nor can anything smaller exist in our world.

The way we perceive photons will always be inherently distributed because of this too. We cannot uniquely identify a single photon, and hence we can’t come back and measure the properties of a photon we have previously studied. Therefore the best we will be able to accomplish when studying photons is to measure a group of photons and use a distribution of their properties, making photons inherently probabilistic. Since the act of seeing light is a biological feature of humans, we all have equal epistemological footing in this instance. This means that the epistemic dependence mentioned above can be ignored because it adds nothing to the current discussion. Therefore we can eliminate the epistemic notion from our above dependence, reducing it to a physical-performative interdependence.

Since it is a historical/ evolutionary accident that the photon is the smallest object we can perceive, the photon really is not fundamental to this discussion. Therefore, the interdependence of the physical properties of the smallest things we can perceive and our inherent inability to tell them apart is a source of probability in nature.

This is a source of natural randomness as well: once we know the probability of some property that we cannot measure directly, the lack of haecceity means that we will not be able to predict when we will measure an individual with said property. Therefore the order in which we measure the property will inherently be random. [Assume the contradiction: the order in which we measure the property is not random, but follows some pattern. Then there exists some underlying structure that governs the appearance of the property. However, since we are already at the limit of what can be measured, no such thing can exist. Hence the order in which we measure the property is random.]

————–

If I were Wittgenstein I might have said:

Consider a situation in which someone asks, “How much light could you see?” Perhaps a detective is asking a hostage about where he was held. But then the answer is, “I didn’t look.” —— And this would make no sense.

hmmmm…. I did really mean to get back to gambling.

Posted in biology, epistemology, evolution, fitness, independence friendly logic, logic, measurement, mind, philosophy, physics, Relativity, science, Special Relativity, technology. Tagged with , , , , .

Video Game Design 3: Golf Practice

The Wii has a lot of potential as a golf simulator/ practice program. With the introduction of the Wii balance board the opportunity for using weight distribution has become a real factor, and, though I know nearly nothing about golf, balance and weight distribution during a club swing has to be critical.

Now using the balance board to monitor weight distribution is somewhat obvious. However, very accurate motion sensing from the controller would also be required to really pinpoint the motion of the swing. By some pretty basic reasoning about cost and manufacturing I heard once, it is fair to say that Nintendo is providing middle of the road accelerometers- they are good, but there is still a lot of noise (inaccurate random data) to be dealt with. Lots of noise means that a lot of processing of the data from the motion sensors is required to get a clear picture of what is going on, and if lots of processing occurs, then the nuances of the motion are also getting smoothed over. My solution is to connect the nunchuck controller to the main controller in a rigid way.

Connected Controllers
A mockup of the connected remote and nunchuck in the
shape of a traditional controller.

The nunchuck controller is incredibly light and would add almost no bulk to the main controller, while doubling the number of accelerometers. With double the accelerometers, a clearer picture of the motion would be provided.

Secondly, to get a more complete picture of the orientation of the Wii controllers, the sensor bar which is normally placed near the television should be placed on the floor where the golf ball ought to be. With the sensor bar on the floor where the golf ball should be the controllers would be able to pick up the location of the sensor bar and provide non-inertial data about its velocity. As the controllers swing past the sensor bar, the location of the infrared lights would act as fixed points with which to measure velocity.

A picture of someone on a Wii balance board with
the sensor bar on the floor.

All on-screen menu navigation can be done in the traditional way by using the directional keys; pointer-enabled functions are nice but unnecessary for this sort of game. Moving the sensor bar around the room would be a clever way to also have a swing trainer for baseball.

Posted in design, fun, technology, Wii. Tagged with , , , .

Psychopharmacological Enhancement

The only ways to enhance the mind is to learn or evolve. Since evolution is out of our hands, all that is left is to learn.

Drugs that purport psychopharmacological enhancement do not do what their name states: they may change certain psychological factors but there is no drug that will make you smarter. This would be to eat from the tree of knowledge.

However drugs may be able to let you do things that you were unable previously, but this is nothing mysterious. If you do not breath enough oxygen, you will not be able to run. You get enough oxygen, you will be able to do more things. Now is oxygen a performance enhancing drug? It depends: the World Anti-Doping Agency recently ruled on oxygen tents (tents that vary the amount of oxygen inside) because using these tents can affect red blood cell counts. This example illustrates two things: that there is nothing inherently special about any particular chemical, be it oxygen or a newfangled drug, and secondly, that drugs only affect intermediary situations, not the final outcome.

The first point is that there is no moral dimension associated with the chemicals themselves. If it is possible to use the most fundamental of chemicals required for our survival in a way that could be seen as inappropriate, then any other chemical could be equally accused. If any chemical can be equally accused, then there is nothing unique about any individual chemical that makes its use morally wrong.

The second point is that drugs only have a specific range of effects. In the above example, the oxygen tents affect red blood cell count. An increased red blood cell count can be used to boost endurance, but this benefit will only appear under certain situations. The tents themselves do not increase endurance: they merely increase red blood cells. If a different drug was consumed to weaken the muscles, then the two ‘drugs’ would counteract each other and there would be no change in ability. Therefore it is not a drug that gives people an ability, such as endurance, but a drug may change how an ability is expressed.

The question is (and always was), “What do you want?” Since drugs have no moral dimension nor imbue the user with unknown (super-human) ability, the only issue is of fair play. Fair play in terms of other people and with your own goals. If you want to be able to lift heavy things, then you can use a machine, you can use drugs or you can work hard. Using a machine or drugs is to use someone else’s technology to assist whatever ability you have. If you use discipline to achieve the same results, then the technology that is being used is your own. Therefore if you are trying to play fair with others, then you have to ensure everyone has access to the same technology, be it machine or drug. If you are trying to achieve something yourself, then only you know whether or not using drugs makes a difference.

As we learn what is safe(r), we are going to have a fun future. Nothing changes our natural born ability or the hard work we have put in, but that has never stopped us from trying. Better drugs are on the way and this means options will be open to us that weren’t possible in the past. Good luck, be safe, have fun.

Posted in biology, ethics, evolution, fitness, mind, philosophy, technology. Tagged with , , , , .

Computers, Intelligence and the Embodied Mind

This interview with Hubert Dreyfus (just the parts about computers: part 1, part 2. via Continental Philosophy) briefly outlines one of the major criticisms leveled against artificial intelligence: computers will never be intelligent because our intelligence is based upon our physical interactions in and with the world. Very briefly, our intelligence is fundamentally tied to our bodies because it is only through our bodies do we have any interaction with the world. If we separate our intelligence from the body, as in the case with computers, then whatever it is that the computer has, it is not intelligence because intelligence only refers to how to bodily interact with the world.

As Dreyfus says this problem is attributed to a Merleau-Ponty extension of Heidegger and the only proposed solution is to embody computers by providing them with a full representation of world and body. I don’t think there is generally much faith in this solution; I certainly don’t have much faith in it.

However, this bodily criticism is a straw man. Computers have ‘bodies,’ they are definitely physical things in the world. But what of the physical interactions required for intelligence? Computers interact with the world: computers are affected by heat, moisture, dirt, vibration, etcetera. The only differences are the actual interactions that computers have as compared to humans: we experience humidity one way and they experience it differently. So yes, computers will have different interactions and hence they will never have the same intelligence that we have, but that does not imply that computers cannot have an embodied intelligence. It only means that computer embodied intelligence will be significantly different than our own intelligence. Therefore the above argument against computer intelligence only applies to those people who are trying to replicate perfect human intelligence and does nothing against people trying to create intelligence in computers.

For example, light-skinned and dark-skinned people have very slightly different physiologies. Now I see the above argument as saying that someone of different skin color cannot have the same sort of intelligence that you have because their interactions with the world are inherently different. Sure, everyone experiences things slightly differently due to having different bodies, but to claim that this creates incompatible intelligences is obviously wrong: No one on the face of the earth would be able to communicate with each other due to everyone being physically unique.  Computers may be physically different to a greater extent, but this does not impact intelligence.

The criticism of computer intelligence based upon the need for a body is no more than subtle techno-racism.

Posted in metaphysics, mind, philosophy, science, technology. Tagged with , , , , .