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Mon, Jun. 9th, 2014, 09:05 pm
Lost in Spacetime

In the last few weeks I rewatched the last two seasons of Lost. This is the sort of thing I do from time to time, and it was the first time I'd watched all of season 6 since the show ended. Right after the finale aired in 2010, I was quite upset with it. With the entire show now in the increasingly distant past, I wanted to write a more carefully considered review.
Serious spoilers. Do not read unless you've watched through the end of Lost. Seriously, it's a great show. Don't spoil it for yourselfCollapse )

Mon, Jun. 9th, 2014, 08:53 pm
Don't panic

I'm making a livejournal post for the first time in over 3 years. Please remain calm. I'm making this post because I'm about to make a longer post, which I would post to facebook, except that it's way too long for facebook. (I know, facebook sucks, I hate facebook. Every hates facebook. Let's all post on facebook about how we hate facebook.) Don't expect this to be a regular occurrence, unless it is.

My topic, naturally, is a television show that went off the air over 4 years ago.

Wed, Feb. 16th, 2011, 10:30 pm
Hunt Write-Up

Finally getting around to writing something about the Mystery Hunt:

This was a tough year writing the hunt for me. I ended up putting a LOT of time into it, which I hadn’t expected at all at the outset. In the comments on my hunt wrap-up post last year, I wrote:

I'm going to be much [busier] this year (graduating + probable post-doc + applying for faculty jobs) than I was in 2005 (M.Eng student + TAing + slacking off my first semester at Cornell), so I probably shouldn't spent too much time on hunt. Which isn't to say I won't.

I suppose that's a pretty good summary of my year, actually. I went in thinking that I'd be busy graduating and starting a new job, so there was no way I'd have as much time to devote to hunt as I did in 2005/2006, but then I couldn't quite stop myself from getting more and more involved, and eventually hunt completely stole my mind. I think I was expecting that I would write 5 or 6 puzzles, which is about the same number as I wrote for S.P.I.E.S., and that hopefully I'd come up with puzzle ideas that would be relatively quick to write. In the end I wrote more like 10, depending a bit on how you count, and I put in a lot of time in other ways too.

The beginning of my downfall was the council. The very first thing we did after we won last year was to elect a board of 3 people to run everything, with the idea that they'd appoint people to all the other positions (this was dr_whom, jcberk, and Andrew). Then in late March the board decided that they wanted more people involved in some of their discussions, and also so more people would be generally clueful about what was going on. This group was the council, and for some reason I decided to join it. The original conception for the council was nice, but the problem was that we'd have these semi-regular council chats, and we'd realize that we needed someone to do job X, so someone on the council would usually be assigned job X, simply because they were there. And so what began as an advisory council became more like the group of people in charge of stuff.

We realized at some council chat back in April or May that jcberk, who was running testsolving, needed help sending out metas to testsolvers, and I volunteered. Thus I became a testing admin. This turned out to be a lot of work, especially because jcberk became pretty hosed at various points over the year, so I ended up doing a lot of the testing management. It also meant that I got to see a lot more puzzles move through the process than I probably would have otherwise. Consequently, I know this hunt far better than any other, even S.P.I.E.S. Not that I’m biased or anything, but I think it’s awesome. Mostly the stuff other people did.

I'm happy with the puzzles I wrote for the most part, though there are too many that I feel could have been absolutely fantastic if not for this or that, and as such they're just okay. Oddly, I have only one puzzle that I'm the sole author of, whereas last time all 5 of my puzzles were just me. Part of this may have been moving to Boston in the fall, which led to more collaboration. Something else I discovered this year is that I’m apparently incapable of writing a puzzle without writing code. Literally: I used some sort of customized computation for every single puzzle I worked on this year. This is probably indicative of the kinds of puzzles that I tend to dream up, or possibly that I’m actually bad at writing puzzles and compensate with computing power.

Various puzzles and aspects of hunt that I contributed to, and some thoughts on them:

spoilers withinCollapse )

Congratulations again to Codex. I can’t wait to lose their hunt next year.

Sun, Jul. 25th, 2010, 01:18 am
Things that are bad for no reason

Things are not always the way I want them. I try to accept that not everyone is perfect, that people try their best to do things well, and if they fail it's not because they wanted to. Maybe they had good reasons for doing what they did. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt enough to look for their reasoning, even if I disagree with it.

Example: commercials at the movie theater before the previews. They're really annoying. They get in the way of having a conversation with your friends, they're almost always advertising stupid products, and if not then they're produced in this idiotic Entertainment Tonight fashion that makes good products look bad. But I get why they're there. The relationship between movie studios and movie exhibitors is a strange one: the studio gets almost all the money from the box office; meanwhile hollywood is constantly inventing new expensive technologies that they want theaters to install. If they don't, they'll loose business to their competitors. So exhibitors go looking for extra sources of revenue. That's why popcorn is so expensive. And if they can make a bit of extra money by selling advertising before the movie starts, which doesn't cost me anything directly, and by doing so they can charge a little less for a ticket, I can deal with that.

But, sometimes things are not the way I want them, and I literally have no idea why.

Example: DVD menu animations. I'm talking about the stuff you have to sit through before you get to the main menu and can hit "play" so that the movie finally starts. I can get my head around the FBI warnings, and the previews, and even the stupid thing trying to convince me that downloading a movie from the internet is exactly the same as stabbing someone in the street and stealing their car. But once you get past all that, and they want to show the menu, why not just show the menu and let me click the buttons immediately? Instead you usually get a little animation, with the camera flying through a bad CG version of the set, with maybe a clip or two playing from the movie in the corner, which nicely spoils the movie for you if you haven't seen it, until finally, after 30 extra seconds, they let you push the buttons. See, DVD manufacturers, I know this is confusing, but you don't need to advertise the movie anymore, I've already decided to watch it. The reason you know is that I put the DVD into my DVD player. That should be a clue.

So, yeah, can anyone come up with an explanation for why this is done?

Here's another one: The lack of official videos for Comic-Con panels. Comic-Con happens every year. Right now, in fact. I've never gone, because I don't live in San Diego. But every year there's lots of cool panels that happen, with cool people talking about cool things in an environment with low barrier between creative people and their fans. Plus, it's quite clear that, even though back in the day this event was actually a comic book convention, recently it's been pretty unambiguously hijacked by studios intent on stirring up enthusiasm for their upcoming movies and TV shows. I have no problem with any of this. I enjoy enthusiasm. I don't even really care if it's somewhat artificially created by studios, because my decision to engage in said enthusiasm is always my own; no one else can make me be excited about something. So, like, this is awesome. You should all go watch it.

But, let's think about what I just linked to. It's a YouTube video made by someone in the audience with a hand-held camera. Now, clearly no one minds that these videos exist; in fact, if the studios want to whip up excitement, surely they'd want as many of these videos to exist as possible. They wouldn't do these things if the only intended audience were the people in the room. Clearly they want those people to tell their friends, and one of the ways people tell their friends these days is to put things on YouTube. But there are official cameras at the event! The reason I know is that they have this big projector showing a close-up of the panelists, so that people in the back of the auditorium can see. You can see the projected image in the YouTube video. In fact, that's all you can see. The person with the hand-held camera could get a better video by shooting the big screen than by trying to shoot the panelists directly. So, an official video exists. Or could exist trivially. It would be better quality, have better audio, be better in every imaginable way. You could put it in some official YouTube channel, or put it on a website and even sell ads on it. I don't care. Why don't they post videos like this? Aaaargh!

What else is bad for no reason?

Wed, Jul. 14th, 2010, 08:42 pm
See, I did something in the last five years

I just submitted a complete draft of my thesis to my committee. Some statistics:
  • Pages of actual content: 227
  • Pages of references: 9
  • Pages of pre-content: 14
  • Total pages: 250
  • PDF file size: 1,398,047 bytes
  • Latex file size: 428,488 bytes
  • Word count: 68,299 [this was calculated somewhat sketchily. Sorry, it's hard to know what a word is when there are equations]
  • Figure count: 22
  • Table count: 1
  • References: 97
  • Footnotes: 1
  • Numbered equations: 322
  • Chapters: 6
  • Sections: 42
  • Subsections: 58
  • Subsubsections: 0
  • People acknowledged: 77
  • Hours of sleep last night: 2

Here's a wordle:

Wordle: Adversaries in Networks

Mon, May. 24th, 2010, 12:27 pm
No More Lost

Well...Collapse )

Sun, May. 23rd, 2010, 04:57 pm
The End

From this week's New Yorker:

I had an idea that I would post about my 10 favorite episodes of Lost before the finale aired tonight. But when I started thinking about my favorite episodes, I realized that with only 10, I'd have to leave out too many of my favorites. So, for your reading pleasure, in reverse preferential order, here are my 20 favorite episodes of Lost, at least so far:

My 6,000 word love letter. Spoilers through the most recent episode.Collapse )

Wed, May. 5th, 2010, 01:59 pm
The Cost of Television, part 2

A long long long time ago, when I was but a first year graduate student, still uncertain about what the hell I was doing in Ithaca and whether I'd made a huge mistake, my 7th LiveJournal post ever was called The Cost of Television. It was about my journey to get television on my computer, and how the product I bought was pretty wretched. Oh, how times have changed. Wait, no, that's not right. They haven't changed at all.

Some years after that post, I got sick and tired of the lousy TV tuner card I'd bought, and I got a better one. It was the Elgato EyeTV Hybrid (actually not the one they sell now, an earlier version). This is the one I still use, and the software it came with is considerably better than the earlier one, expect for one small problem.

Last night I got home at about 8pm. Plenty of time before Lost at 9pm. But apparently there'd been a power hiccup, and my computer had shut down. So I had to boot it up and then open the EyeTV software to watch TV. No problem, right? Wrong. See, this program has this lovely feature that it takes 2 and a half hours to start up. I'm not kidding. You open it, and it sits there, spinning the MacOS color wheel, for 150 minutes, or thereabouts. For no apparent reason. And with no way to stop it.

At about 8:30, when I realized that this stupid program wasn't going to finish whatever the hell it was doing any time soon, I realized I had to do something. So I pulled out my new laptop, and tried to see if I could install the software there. Maybe on the laptop it would take less than 150 minutes to start up? Well, it did, but then when I plugged in the TV tuner, the program quits suddenly. AAAARRRGHH!!!

By this time it's about 8:50. Now, I know what you're thinking. Oliver, it's just a TV show. Even if you miss it tonight, you'll be able to watch it tomorrow on abc.com or iTunes. Be patient! Yes, these thoughts were in my head. Sorry, I'm pathetic. I need to watch Lost as soon as its available.

I looked online and discovered that there's actually a new version of the crappy EyeTV software, but naturally it's not free. I was reminded of my postulate that the main purpose of software is to be crappy enough to convince the consumer to pay for a new version. But, I had no time, and I needed a solution. So I payed $30 for a piece of software that I desperately didn't want, and it's started downloading. 115 MB. Not going to finish by 9pm. When I watched the clock tick from 8:59:59 to 9:00:00, the file was only 30% downloaded.

Finally around 9:15 it finished downloading, and I installed it. And it worked! Quick, switch to ABC!

So I watched the last 45 minutes of last night's Lost, then the first 15 minutes this morning. Spoilery Thoughts on 6.14Collapse )

By the way, apparently they're extending the Lost finale to 2.5 hours (just enough time for EyeTV to open). This seems strangely familiar. So we get 5.5 hours of Lost-related material on May 23 (remember, that's a Sunday, not Tuesday), not including Jimmy Kimmel's thing.

Fri, Apr. 30th, 2010, 08:49 pm
Telling Mortals Apart

I was just reading a draft of a paper my adviser sent to me. This is a paper that we're in the process of writing. It has four authors, but the vast majority is actually written by him and me. A week or two ago I wrote up a quick version with what I thought were the most important parts, sent that to him, then he filled in a bit more, and sent it back to me. So it's a little hodge-podge in that this bit here was written by me, that bit there written by him.

Reading it, I had the odd realization that I could tell instantly which parts were him and which parts were me. Like, completely. I know exactly which words he wrote and which words I wrote. Even parts of it that I don't completely remember writing, I can tell. I'm not sure how. Moreover, everything that's written by him sounds good, much more professional, more confident. My stuff feels dry, unpolished, pedantic. I read it and can't help but feel that anyone else reading it will say "gee, it's odd that it keeps alternating between good and lousy."

I'm reminded of that scene in the Lord of the Rings when Bilbo reads a poem in Rivendell, then asks the elves if they can tell which bits were written by him and which by Aragorn. Of course they can't, they say, how could you tell two mortals apart? Bilbo retorts that hobbits and men are quite different indeed, and anyone who can't tell them apart hasn't been paying attention.

So, ye immortals, I ask you: can you tell apart the writing of two mortals, one a graduate student and one a tenured professor? One of these sentences was written by me, one by my adviser. Which is which?

  • If this is small, then by injecting the vector a, the adversary is able to move the measurement residual by only a small amount in the elements corresponding to the measurements that were manipulated.

  • Therefore, if both x and x+c are valid network states, the adversary's injection of data a when the true state is x will lead the control center to believe that the true network state is x+c, and vector c can be scaled arbitrarily.

Wed, Apr. 14th, 2010, 09:16 pm
The Tortoise Approaches

It's time to cut my hair.

I've had long hair, usually in a pony tail, for about 10 years, and maybe that's enough. I like having long hair: I like that it's unusual for men, I like the feel of the wind blowing through it (at least, when I'm facing upwind), I like when other people play with it. But, it's time. My hairline has been slowly receding for awhile now, and I vowed many years ago that I wouldn't be one of those guys who can't admit he's going bald and somehow manages to convince himself that he can pull off the long hair even though he's a cue ball on the top of his head. Plus, I'm graduating soon, and, much as I hate to use this as a reason, I think I'll be better served in my career with an appearance that's taken a little more seriously by the arbitrary but definitive standards of our society.

I've also been putting this off for awhile. Indeed, I started writing an early version of this post on May 18, 2009. I know because I saved it as a draft email on Gmail, thinking I'd come back to it later. It's still sitting there. Once I cut my hair, I can't imagine I'll ever grow it out again, so there's an earnest finality to the whole thing that breeds procrastination. Next week I'm going to visit Boston, partially to meet some of the people I'll be working with next year, and I'm thinking that I should get it cut this weekend so they'll meet the new me.

I don't know exactly how short I want to cut it. I think fairly short, but nothing like a buzz-cut. Just your average boring male slightly balding head of hair.

Anyone want to talk me out of it?

Tue, Apr. 13th, 2010, 06:18 pm

Holy shit.

Wed, Apr. 7th, 2010, 12:04 pm

Okay, I've decided that I can't keep having opinions about episodes of Lost and not telling anyone about them. So, about last night's episode...

SpoilersCollapse )

Wed, Mar. 24th, 2010, 09:06 pm
The Future is Now

After a bit of consternation, I've figured out what I'll be doing next year. I'm going to be a postdoc at MIT. Wooo hoo!!! *does the the-future-seems-bright-and-shiny-even-though-it-only-means-more-work-and-stress-but-I'm-not-thinking-about-that-now dance*

This means, among other things, that I'll be looking for housing in Boscambervillingtonline, starting probably in August. If you know anybody looking for a roommate, I may be interested, though I'm considering getting a 1 bedroom (see, postdocs get paid more. Mmmm... slight piles of money...).

I'm also going to be visiting Boston in late April to meet some of the people I'll be working with, and also hopefully to figure out housing. Whee!

Now, to the small matter of the thesis...

Sat, Mar. 13th, 2010, 04:08 pm
Our Parrots Our Selves

When I was a freshman in college, LSC brought Douglas Adams to MIT to give a lecture, mostly about his wonderful book "Last Chance to See". callyperry once observed to me that, surely, even he would have found it amusing that a lecture with this title came less than a year before his tragic and premature death.

I discovered much later that this lecture had been in the planning stages for several years, and it was only due to a series of unexpected and frustrating delays that it did not happen 6 months or a year either, in which case it would have been before I got to MIT, so I wouldn't have seen it. I remember thinking it was one of the best events I'd ever been to, Douglas Adams being so witty and sharp and insightful; it was one of a chain of things that convinced me that MIT was the coolest place in the universe, and it had the side effect that LSC seemed like one of the cooler parts of it. I've long wanted to find a video of that lecture to see it again. I believe that such a video does in fact exist, but, as far as I know, it's not doing much more than gathering dust in the LSC archives.

It finally occurred to me recently that he must have given essentially the same talk in other places, and that maybe a video of one of those talks was available online. Without much trouble at all, I discovered that there was. Here's a version of talk, given at UC Santa Barbara. It's 90 minutes long, but I cannot possibly recommend it highly enough. He is simply glorious:

Watching it again, I'm struck by a few things. Aside from it being hilariously funny, I love the way he tells the story, especially because he takes an hour to tell it, but only because it's a story that demands that much time. I always love it when I hear stories that absolutely justify their length, because when you get to the end, even though it seemed a little bit like he meandered in the middle, in fact, everything he said was in the service of just a few points.

Douglas Adams was someone who genuinely bridged the Two Cultures, being primarily a writer who was also highly interested in science and technology. Those who know him merely for the Hitchhiker's Guide are missing a lot, though I'm often surprised by how many of his other interests finagled their way into his more popular work. I cannot hope to summarize all of his points; you should just watch the video. But I do want to dwell on one, one which, interestingly, I had forgotten about. I think it's quite profound, but a little subtle, and I wish more people would take it to heart.

The primary subject of the lecture (and the book) is some expeditions he made to find some of the most endangered species in the world. His most superficial point is that it is a tragedy that all these species are disappearing, and that, as much as we can, we need to support efforts to keep them from vanishing entirely. But, not to belittle the amazing work that goes into desperately trying to keep them around, I think he's talking about these animals to make a much broader point, because these species can tell us something about ourselves. This is something he does in his science fiction as well: he constantly gives us characters who look at the human species from the outside, and this allows us to recognize the absurdity in our own society, and we laugh because we see ourselves in a new way. The same is true of these species: if you can get into the head of one of these animals that has a vastly different way of experiencing the world than us, we can learn something about ourselves.

Take the Kakapo, a very rare New Zealand flightless parrot. He discusses in detail the bizarre mating ritual of the kakapo, and how it seems to be designed to reproduce as little as possible, almost as if the creature were daring us to keep it from going extinct. At the MIT lecture, I vividly remember laughing uncontrollably when he talked about the low frequency nature of the male kakapo's mating call, and how difficult that makes it for the female to find him, just like your subwoofer. He says about the kakapo mating ritual:
It seems like absurd behavior to us, but it's only because its environment has changed in one particular and dramatic way that is completely invisible to us, and its behavior is perfectly attuned to the environment it developed in, and completely out of tune with the environment it now finds itself in.

What's happened is that, until recently, New Zealand had no natural predators. Without predators, you don't need a very high reproduction rate to propagate a species, and it turns out to be a bad idea evolutionarily to let your reproduction rate get higher than it needs to be. Thus, the kakapo reproduces very very slowly. The arrival of Europeans in New Zealand suddenly introduced all these predators, so the very very slow reproduction rate of the kakapo couldn't possibly be enough to counteract the numbers of animals that were being eaten by cats and dogs and rats, which is why the kakapo is now in such danger (there's about 120 left, which is actually about twice the number from 15 years ago, so yay). The problem is that the environmental change occurred so quickly, that the kakapo couldn't possibly adapt to it, so it continues to do the only thing that it knows to do to successfully propagate its species, which is to reproduce very very slowly. What it can't know is that the thing that it thinks is the best way to respond is actually the worst possible way to respond.

But, see, that's us. In the early history of the human race, we learned that the best way to propagate our species was to take twigs and rocks from our environment to make tools, to take whatever combustible materials we could find to make fire to keep us warm, to take whatever berries we could find to eat, to kill whatever animals we could to cook, and so on. But what we didn't realize is that the reason that this strategy for survival was so successful is that if it hadn't been, we wouldn't be here to be doing it. It was very easy to get ourselves into the state of mind where we think that because there's all this great stuff around us that we can just take and use for so many great purposes, it all must have put there for us, and therefore we're justified in doing with it whatever we want. But that's completely wrong: it wasn't designed for us, we were designed for it. (Where I'm using the word "designed" in a convenient but very dangerous way: I mean that we evolved to become proficient at surviving by making use of our surroundings, not that we were designed by any kind of "designer". Except for the spaghetti monster, of course.)

What's happened, though, is that things have completely changed, such that what was once a good strategy for survival, has now brought us to a precipice. Once you have 6 billion people, all over the world, you can't just go on taking things from your environment however you like, because suddenly, if you're not careful, you can irrevocably damage that environment, such that it will no longer provide for you the things you need from it. So, let's look at that quote from Mr. Adams again:
Its behavior is perfectly attuned to the environment it developed in, and completely out of tune with the environment it now finds itself in.

"It" could just as well refer to the human species as the kakapo.

We had a strategy that worked so well for so long, and the change that makes this strategy a bad one has occurred so suddenly, that it's very difficult to modify our behavior accordingly. The continuing existence of the belief that our surroundings are so well suited to us, that they must have been put here for us, probably has something to do with religion, but the point is that the source of this belief goes much deeper than that, so blaming religion is a little too simple.

Here's my point: those of us who, say, want to do something about global warming, would do well to recognize that what we're asking of our fellow human beings is no small thing. We are saying that they should change their fundamental belief about the relationship between the human species and its environment. When Al Gore was on the daily show a few months ago, Jon Stewart said something like this to him, and Gore just kind of laughed him off. But that's wrong. We're not just asking that we put a cap on carbon emissions. It's more than that. As long as those on the side of science continue believing that the argument is about this renewable technology or that cap-and-trade bill, and not about the underlying perspective shift, we're going to continue to fail.

Mon, Mar. 8th, 2010, 05:14 pm
Fun with LaTeX

Thing I learned about LaTeX today:

The newline command \\ has an optional argument that inserts additional spacing before the next line. So, for example, \\[1in] adds an inch of space before the start of the next paragraph. This has the interesting side effect that if, say, you're trying to make an array with some stuff on the second line in square brackets, like this:


then LaTeX will think that the stuff in the square brackets are actually the optional arguments to the \\ on the previous line, and give you a really confusing error. Fun, huh? To fix this, you can do something like add {} after the newline, so it doesn't get confused.

This public service message has been provided by the Oliver-really-wants-to-finish-this-stupid-paper department.

Wed, Jan. 20th, 2010, 02:23 pm
0 mod 5

In November, Metaphysical Plant (my mystery hunt team) had a puzzle party. I happened to be in Boston at the time, so I went. I showed up too late to solve any puzzles (they'd done the P&A, I think), but we ended up hanging out for another two or three hours, had dinner, and chatted about team organization and such. I continue to believe that organizing ourselves into a cohesive fighting force is one of our principle stumbling blocks as a team, and by the end of that party I started to have the feeling that we might be as well organized this year as we had been in 2005, when we first won. It was feeling a lot like 2005, actually: there was a sense that people really wanted to win, more than we have for the past few years. It would be my 10th hunt; 2005 was my 5th (I'm on a five year cycle, see). Also, we were growing by quite a few people, including some very good solvers. All this led me to tell mollishka, whom I had dinner with the following day, that I thought we might just win this year.

On Saturday afternoon/evening, it was really seeming like we were getting to the point where we had access to most of the puzzles that we knew would exist, and given the rate we were solving, I predicted that the hunt would end between midnight and 6am Sunday. (This was, by the way, not exactly a novel prediction. Everyone seemed to be making it.)

I was 2 for 2. We found the coin at 5:50am Sunday.

YAAAAAAY!!!! We won the mystery hunt!!! Like, the MIT Mystery Hunt. *does mystery hunt winning dance* (you don't actually want to know what the mystery hunt winning dance looks like. I invented it at 6am).

My congratulations to Beginner's Luck for running a very clean, well planned hunt. I once created about .17% of a hunt, and that was hard. Making a whole one, making it mostly bugless, and with a relatively small team, must be very very hard.

First, some general comments, then some stuff about specific puzzles (puzzles have now been posted, but apparently not solutions):

Comments, comments, comments, and some spoilersCollapse )

Fri, Dec. 18th, 2009, 07:23 pm

Last night I saw the last episode of Angel. That concluded my 28 month expedition to watch all 7 seasons of Buffy and all 5 seasons of Angel. And now there's no more Joss Whedon out there (well, except for a few more episodes of Dollhouse that are trickling out, which anyway aren't as good as the earlier stuff). Very sad.

Now again, as I posted a while back, here's my updated list of TV shows for which I've watched every episode:

  • Star Trek: the Next Generation
  • Babylon 5
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
  • Crusade
  • Sports Night
  • Firefly
  • Friends
  • The West Wing
  • Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
  • Arrested Development
  • Slings & Arrows
  • Battlestar Galactica
  • Lost
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Angel
  • Dollhouse

So now I'm up to three shows not in the "sci-fi, fantasy, or Aaron Sorkin" genre.

Fri, Dec. 4th, 2009, 05:25 pm
Red Balloons! Money!

I haven't seen anyone else post this on LJ yet:

DARPA is giving away a bunch of money if we can find some red balloons that they'll release tomorrow. Go here to join the MIT team. Then invite everyone you know to join too. If someone finds a balloon, that person's inviter, as well as their grand-inviter, their great-grand-inviter, and so on all make money. So join and invite as many people as you can.

It's kind of a brilliant strategy. And, also, red balloons!

Mon, Oct. 19th, 2009, 01:25 pm
Me me me Meme

In lieu of a real post, which might require thought and time, and I seem to have neither, here's a meme, from laura47:

The problem with LJ: We all think we are so close, but really we know nothing about one another. So I want you to ask me something you think you should know about me. Something that should be obvious, but you have no idea about. Ask away.

Then post this in your LJ and find out what people don't know about you.

Fri, Sep. 11th, 2009, 02:17 pm
My belief system about the nature of the universe may be in crisis

Two posts in two days. Try not to faint.

My provocative subject, while definitely true, is true only in the most literal sense; not perhaps in the way it sounds like it is. Let me explain.

Worldview Manager is a program based on an idea by Scott Aaronson. The idea is that it asks you a bunch of questions about your opinion on a variety of topics. It knows that certain sets of answers to questions are logically inconsistent with each other, so if you answer in an inconsistent way, it will tell you, tell you why, and let you adjust your answers accordingly. The hope, I guess, is that people are opposed to holding inconsistent views, and if they are pointed out, they might change their minds. I'm not sure that's actually true, but let's go with it for now.

One of the topics, for example, is libertarianism. After I filled out the questions, it pointed out to me that my belief that no group should be denied a right granted to another group is inconsistent with my belief that children should not be given the right to vote. This reminded me of a not-that-great episode of the West Wing which brought up the argument about whether children should be able to vote, which I remember thinking about a bit, and the more I think about it the more I'm not sure about it. But anyway, that wasn't the big problem.

Another topic is Quantum Mechanics, which I thought I had a reasonably good understanding of (I've taken 3 courses on it, actually), but I guess maybe I don't. One of the statements that the Worldview Manager asks you whether you agree with is:
A: Quantum mechanics applies only to the microworld; for large enough physical systems we must switch to a different, classical description.

Now, it seems perfectly obvious to me that this is false. How absurd would the universe be if it said "okay, this interaction consists of 17 particles, so I'll use quantum. But this interaction over here consists of 18 particles, so I'll use Newtonian mechanics"? How can we possibly determine where "the microworld" ends and "large physical systems" start? I suppose the universe is probably absurd, but I would be very disturbed if it were absurd in this way.

So, I told it that I disagreed with this statement. But then a little later it told me that there was a logical inconsistency, and after playing around with several of my answers, I couldn't get the inconsistency to go away. Eventually I discovered why. The following are three other statements in the program (I'm labeling all these statements by letters):
B: Quantum mechanics is about our knowledge and information, not directly about ontology (i.e., what really exists).
C: There is a single wave function for the universe, which has been evolving unitarily since the big bang.
D: Mixed states, as the most general representation of an agent's knowledge of a quantum system, are more fundamental than pure states.

And then, from the explanations it gives for why there are logical inconsistencies, I extracted the following (it never gives you all these at once, so it took a while to figure out what was going on, but I'm saving you that trouble):
  • One of A or C is true.
  • B implies not C.
  • One of B or D is true.
  • D implies not C.

Taking these together,
not A implies C implies not D implies B implies not C

In other words, if A is not true (which is what I think), both C and not C are true, so there's an inconsistency.

Now, I have a number of problems with this. First, it seems kind of sleazy to ask a question for which it will only actually accept one answer. Second, how can there be no consistent belief system under which A is not true. I mean, suppose I believed that Quantum Mechanics was a lie in its entirety, and Newtonian Mechanics governed everything. That's certainly not true, because it disagrees with experiments, but it is a logically consistent belief system, no? And in that belief system, it seems one would disagree with A. Finally, A is just not true!! Any idiot can see that!

The big problem, I think, is that I have no earthly idea what statement D means. What does "more fundamental" mean? So I don't understand why B or D must be true, or why D implies not C. Also, is it possible that I'm misunderstanding what they mean by A? Is there actually a non-absurd universe in which it's true? And do we live in that universe? Um.. help?

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