met, notme

I'm giving a guest lecture!

I'm giving a guest lecture on computation and computability and the halting problem! It was impossible to find a good drawing of a Turing machine on the Internet - even on the HMC CS department web pages - so I had to make my own:

Fig. 1 A Turing machine, with an eye to read the
tape, a pencil with an eraser to mark and erase, a state
machine in its belly, a unicycle to move it back and
forth, and a lightbulb to indicate that it's done.

This bizarre machine can compute anything that is computable (if the Church-Turing thesis holds), and can, if provoked, simulate a von Neumann architecture with only a polynomial slowdown. If you ever need to talk about Turing machines, please feel free to steal the image.
met, notme

Hooray! Obama won!

Obama - the candidate for people who wish they weren't as cynical as they actually are.

Obama - the one who, with Alan Keyes, was the natural experiment that led to the measurement of the crazification factor.

Stealing a quote from that previous article, Don't You Dare Kill Obama (... and we know you're thinking about it). The best reactions I have found are this one and this one:

For a mild dose of realism, there's also a surprisingly well written Rolling Stone Article about Obama and the Iowa caucuses. Apparently Rolling Stone feels the need to do actual journalism a few times a year. How exciting!
met, notme

Answering a question from my Dad

Is Kindle the future of reading?


The physical format is, because electronic paper is totally sweet and the extra long battery life is great too. But their system is horribly restricted and locked-down and broken in a few key ways. It's way worse than Apple and iTunes and the iTunes store where you can only play iTunes Store songs in iTunes or your iPod[1]. There's some sort of for-pay conversion service and some other free conversion service where you send them a document and it arrives in Kindle format (something called .AZW that is Amazon's own thing) and you can also load plain text files onto it for reading.[2]

If you want to read a .PDF, which is basically all I would want to do with it, then you are SOL. Amazon, in their mad quest to be not a hardware manufacturer (teeny tiny margins) but a service provider (nice big fat margins) and a publisher (potentially nice big fat margins, but the business accounting practices in publishing are so messed up there is no way to know), has decided that the device isn't really yours. It's kind of yours and it's kind of theirs[3], and if you want to load crap onto it, then it can either be a .TXT file with no formatting whatsoever, or you have to go through them. Basically, it's a good idea that, much like your recent troubles with Windows "Genuine Advantage", contains flaws that amount to Amazon giving you the finger and will probably piss you off too much for you to be able to use it for any length of time (much like Windows Genuine Advantage did).

So you don't want one until someone makes one that won't piss you off constantly. Which could be Amazon if they drop their pretensions of still controlling the device after you bought it, or it could be someone else. If Kindle is the future in all regards, then you and I will probably end up sticking with the past.[4]
[1] Pedants please note that while it is technically possible for non-iTunes things to usefully play .AAC (or whatever they are) files, basically nothing does.

[2] This was all garnered from web research that ended up finding the useful page:

[3] This "your thing is not really yours" is sometimes called "Digital Rights Management" (DRM) or even "Trusted Computing". In the long run it's a broken idea (Prof. Ed Felten has a lot to say about this kind of thing), but in the short term it's seductively appealing to large media companies that don't want to change any of their practices even when faced with radical technological upheaval. Some dystopic fiction and other stuff has been written about this, most notably attempting to get people to call it "Treacherous Computing". Which it kind of is. Treacherous, I mean.

[4] People who prefer physical books are referred to in librarian circles (where the debate between new tech and old books is apparently this massive constant fight) as "booksniffers". In other circles, people who want physical books are called "pervy for paper". As for me, I think of it as simply wanting to have the new book technology be strictly better than the old book technology instead of this weird "it's digital and sexy, but it's also no longer yours" thing that media companies seem obsessed with.
met, notme

Lazy fractal Sunday

40 GOTO 10

Took a total break from even thinking about any kind of work. Played on the computer and read books and relaxed while the rain drummed down outside. It was wonderful.
met, notme

Torture is not okay.

Torture is not okay. It is, in fact, never okay. I was reminded of this when I read this description of a Yemeni man who was tortured into confessing by a despotic regime and then handed over to the US as a terrorist. He then spent 19 months having his mind broken in US "black site" prisons. Then, he was released without charges or explanation or apology or even acknowledgement.

Torture rots the soul. Government-run torture rots the soul of a nation. Guantanamo Bay is now cultural shorthand for being locked up forever and mentally destroyed for no reason and with no recourse. Even the hamster song, sung by children with extra verses they made up, says "If the hamster is caught playing with fireworks / Guantanamo Bay for the hamster". Undoing the Magna Carta by revoking habeas corpus and engaging in extended psychological and physical torture of subjects is evil. It goes way beyond anything that might be considered "wrong" or "misguided". The people who have wrought this upon our nation should be in prison, removed from society so that we may recover from the fallout of their evil deeds.* Instead, not only are they still in power, there's basically nobody out there with any power who is standing up when it matters. Even was-a-POW-and-got-tortured John McCain rolled over and signed onto our current course of action. Without useful recourse, I am stuck complaining on the Internet and signing every petition that comes my way and calling my elected representatives, and wondering what are the long term effects of evil deeds when they are committed by a modern hyperpower.

The consequences will not be nice and they will not be good and they will echo for a long long time. I'm worried.

* - Fallout is definitely the right word here. Think of nuclear ash poisoning the landscape and taking generations to fade away. In the meantime, all that tries to grow there ends up stunted and gone wrong. The only sane responses are to either give up and wait it out in a bunker or to engage in a concerted cleanup effort at no small danger to the cleaner.
met, notme

The Future of Science Fiction is a bunch of fantasy books based on the Bible.

Modern sci-fi has a problem. It can be summed up in two quotes:
[The present is] too complex, with too many huge sci-fi tropes: global warming; the lethal, sexually transmitted immune-system disease; the United States, attacked by crazy terrorists, invading the wrong country. Any one of these would have been more than adequate for a science-fiction novel. But if you suggested doing them all and presenting that as an imaginary future, they'd not only show you the door, they'd probably call security.

--William Gibson

The other is not from a sci fi author, but instead from a conversation between Stanslaw Ulam and John von Neumann, as related by Ulam:
One conversation centered on the ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.
Science fiction authors have this horrible problem, which is basically that the future they imagined (minus easy space travel) is already here, but is more shlocky than they anticipated, and the future human condition that lies ahead is, with non-zero probability, by definition unimaginable due to our tiny human brains. Into this void steps Charles Stross (cool enough to have had a vi-powered website since 1993) with his novel Singularity Sky, and the blurb on the back is that Where Charles Stross goes today, the rest of science fiction will follow tomorrow. Well, if that's true then the future of science fiction is to sidestep all this singularity stuff and to instead tell the story from the point of view of the unmodified humans who are still just people, but are now surrounded by this unimaginably complex system capable of astounding feats and asserting bizarre rules which it enforces with an iron fist.

Basically, it looks like the future of sci-fi is looking more and more like we're going to see lots of variants of Left Behind that substitute the word "nano" every time the Left Behind series (I imagine) uses the world "holy". As in, "Be careful, that thing has a nano-weapon which will annihilate you from the face of the earth!" I'm not sure how I feel about this, but it seems like the most plausible way of writing about an unimaginable future - just tell the story about the normal people and treat the unimaginable parts as mostly magic. But it also means that, unlike the sci-fi of the past, the heroes of these future stories are now going to be mostly luddites instead of technophiles, because the technophiles will have already been taken up by the rapture uploaded their consciousness and the luddites are the only ones that have a story to tell that is easily relatable to our current condition.

met, notme

Half-staff American flag

It seems like the flag has been flying at half-staff a lot recently. I haven't been able to dig up any data on how often this has been the case, so I'm asking you all: Do you know of any reference where I can see when, for the past few years, the flag was to be flown at half-staff? I see it so often that we are either living in extremely tragic times, or the whole thing is getting trivialized. Perhaps a bit of both, or perhaps I just remember the half-staff times because they stick out in my mind, but I really don't know. Anybody got any data?
met, notme


I like Halloween. But mostly I really like staying home and handing out candy and eating the candy I should be handing out.

This year I realized that I had a nice confluence of technology, and so I used the projector to project the mirror-mirror-on-the-wall face onto the blinds of the front window. Now people have to walk in front of an animated talking face to get candy. I love it! It has a nice setting to let it be microphone sensitive, which is just great. So far it has sung along with a bunch of songs and narrated an entire episode of "This American Life". I also carved a pumpkin.

In order then, the pictures are: the face, the front of the house (with porch light turned off), and the pumpkin.
Floating face from Snow White & the Seven Dwarves The front of the house The pumpkin

In somewhat unrelated news, I have decided to take one picture a day for a year. It's been fun so far. You can watch my progress on Flickr if that's your bag.
met, notme

Determining who the asshole is, and visualizing impersonal statistics

In any given situation, the person who is claiming that something is the end of the world is almost certainly an asshole. This is a handy rule of thumb, and applies pretty well across the board, with the possible exception of people talking about global thermonuclear war or other extinction-level threats (large asteroids, etc).

Also, the recent news that nobody seems to be talking about is that according to every peer-reviewed independent study, we have now killed more than 1,000,000 people in Iraq, either directly or indirectly, since 2003 as a result of this war. That is a lot of people - one six-thousandth of the world population, and 4% of the population of Iraq. Visualizing this from an Iraqi point of view resulted in this map. But honestly, this sort of number is way past "visualization" territory. Our government has, in the past 6 years, spent more than $500,000,000,000 on a stupid war, and this war has caused more than 1,000,000 people to die.

One million people. Dead. For what?
met, notme

Sierra Summer Trip

Between August 30 and September 8 I went on an 8 day backpacking trip through the Sierras with my dad and brother. It was completely fantastic.

For those that know the area, we came in over Pine Creek Pass, went down to the John Muir Trail, south through Evolution Valley, over Muir Pass along the JMT to the Bishop Pass Trail junction, and then out on the Bishop Pass Trail over Bishop Pass. It was a wonderful route, and is highly recommended.

Pictures and a google map of our route and a day-by-day log of the journey and much much more may be found at:

Also, that website I made for the trip is pretty spiffy, if I do say so myself.