Friday, May 30, 2008

Oh hai ... I can has writing novels now?  

... we're over 30 posts in a month now.  Mission accomplished, and without even using fake fill-me-up posts like this one.

There are a few topics left, but they can wait till June.

I can has novel writing now?
-the Centaur

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For the time being...  

... we're going back to the setting that makes Qumana put in extra line breaks.

Because if I leave that setting on, apparently Blogger reformats all of my old articles, removing the line breaks.

Not good enough.  Not good enough at all.  It's easier to fix the twenty or so Qumana articles and to use shift-breaks in future to accomplish my will than reformat all 200 previous entries in my blog, so Blogger wins.

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Me too me too  

So my buddy Gordon has beat me to the punch (yet again) by finding the site FaceStat, which does wisdom-of-the-crowds rating of pictures.  His came out pretty good; I used one of my favorite pictures of myself, which turned out ... not so much.

tailless lizard

Ok, so I already knew my beloved missing cat is more attractive than me.  But did the crowds in their infinite wisdom have to put down "repulsive" for my level of attractiveness?  Sure, maybe they're referring to the prominent surgery scar on my arm.  But that doesn't explain why the crowds thought I was "definitely not to be trusted."

Stupid crowds.  I didn't want your wisdom anyway.

-the Centaur

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1. You threw the game! Put up a half-way flattering picture. Have Sandi choose a pic for you and try again. Bet you get much better results.

2. On the trustworthiness issue: covering your face (even with a cat) is a grade-A sign of deception.
# posted by Blogger Gordon : 5:50 AM
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Just a little bit more than you want to...  

In my life, I've often found it necessary to work hard to get what I want.  (Whether this is the right thing to do is another matter).  But how much is too much, and how much is enough?

Sometimes I've been in startup and crunch mode where I had to work weeks or months on end, sometimes to good end, sometimes not.  Once I even worked thirty-six hours straight when a surprise bug forced a rearchitecture of a key software component - but the work was clear to do, the results easy to test, and the deadline ultimately easy to meet.  But you can't do that all the time, and from time to time I've had to look at what I'm doing and dial it back.  I find if you're not working so you spend most of the time ready and refreshed, you don't have the jazz to go to crunch mode if you have to.

Other times I've had so much going on - recuperation from illness, moves, life issues - that I've had to look at my work and say: hey, buddy, you need to do more.  I've never had a boss tell me that that I can recall; I try hard to figure out when to tell that to myself.  In the end, I want my employer to feel like they're getting their dollar's worth, so they keep on giving me the dollars; and I don't want or need supervision in order to do that, I want my employer to get that level of performance for free.

But if you feel like you need to get more done, how do you do it?  Go to crunch mode?  And if you're in perpetual crunch mode, are you trapped there?  Is there really no way out?

No, and no.  In my experience, when things are going well at work --- when it's not an actual emergency --- you need to put out just a little more effort than you want to to really get things done  That's it.  Not a huge amount; not crunch mode, not ten hours a day.  Actually not much at all.  It might take you an hour - even just a few minutes - to:

  • Drop in on your boss and give him a status update, or get one on something pending

  • Take the time to compose that email to your co-worker summarizing the meeting he coudn't make

  • Re-run the unit tests, and identify the bug you're going to start on tomorrow morning

  • Package up that small changelist and send it to your coworker for review

  • Go visit that collaborator you haven't heard from in a while and find out how he's doing

  • Write your Monday morning report ... Friday afternoon

If I take on a big task at the end of the day, I end up tired and drained and go home late, often defeated.  You can actually create for yourself a perpetual crunch by wearing yourself out so much you make mistakes!  If on the other hand --- right when I'm tired and worn out and want to call an early end to my day --- I instead hunt around for the small tasks, the little things I need to do but have been putting off, I find I can do two or three of them.  Or maybe one, small, self-contained programming task.  It usually takes between an hour or two to nail all of these things that I can.

The result? I feel energized, rejuvenated.  Instead of leaving tired after seven hours feeling like a slacker, or defeated after ten hours feeling like a loser, I go out on a high note after eight to nine hours feeling like a winner.  When you do this, you realize that no, there really isn't anything more you can do in the day, and that all the little grease-the-wheel tasks you just did just made your tomorrow clearer, cleaner and brighter.  In fact, often those little tasks are much more useful to your work and everyone else's  than if you started some "big task" that you wore yourself out on not making progress that you'd have to practically restart, exhausted in the morning.  You become more responsive, more effective, and get more done.

All it takes is to realize:

I don't want to work any more today, but if I do just a little bit more, I won't have to work any more today.

Or maybe this should be phrased, do some more of the little bits.  This strategy works far better than when I'd club myself in the head at the end of the day with big tasks so I could feel like I was "getting things done".  Now, I am getting things done - leaving work today, for example, with eight former "Next Actions" now tossed over the cube wall to co-workers and comfortably sitting in the "Wait For" state, and two more sitting even more comfortably in "Done" --- and knowing I can come in to work Monday morning not worrying about my weekly report, all those emails or anything else; just the two or three big tasks on my plate, the way for which I cleared before I left today.

This isn't how Dad did it, but it has been working out pretty well so far.  I'll keep you posted on how it goes in the future.

-the Centaur



So by my math...  

... I've done 29 posts in 30 days, so I have a little catching up to do to meet my post-a-day-in-May goal. But actually I have the following options:
  • Work hard to finish the articles I haven't written yet
  • Write a few short lame posts to finish out the month
  • Leave the month unfinished as a way of motivating me to do future blog posts
  • Recognize that I have many more important things I'd rather do, like writing novels
  • Bail on the goal on the grounds my wrists are hurting, which they are.
Or I could write a short self-referential post that actually counts towards my total while not killing my wrists or taking too much time from my novel-writing.

Hmm ... tempting.

-the Centaur



Thursday, May 29, 2008

A lot of my friends are already on Twitter...  

... and apparently use it regularly.

I got my first a computer when I was ten years old (and had actually done some programming before that). When did I turn into such a Luddite?

Oh yeah, that's right ... I went to grad school. :-P

-the Centaur




One consequence of finishing a paper is that there's a bit of debris left over...

the piles

Fortunately, now that my library is more organized, it's easier to reshelve:

the mess

No, seriously! Take a look:

the categories

I wuv my library. It feeds my ego. Or do I mean my head? Or both...

-the Centaur

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Ego? No. Head? No. It's your _backplane_.

That's just not human. And I mean that in the best possible way.

Congrats on another paper finished.
# posted by Blogger Gordon : 3:52 AM
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The Marauder, Captured...  

... on film at least:
tailless lizard
Fortunately we have a tiger to keep us safe...



Monday, May 26, 2008

I want to say something snarky about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull...  

... but I'm not.  I really respect what Messrs. Ford, Spielberg and Lucas pulled off and I really enjoyed it, so I shouldn't say anything bad.  And as a couple of friends pointed out, they worked hard to make the movie accurate: they used the 48-star flag as was flying over America at the time of the movie; they used period-appropriate villains (Communists) and monsters (aliens) and I've even heard that they used shots more typical of a 50's B-movie.


A friend who hates a lot of modern movies described the 48-star flag bit as "the only good thing in the film, if it can be called that."  A lot of us made fun of him saying, of course he'll hate the movie ... but when The Last Crusade came out, he hated that movie right away, whereas I was lulled into enjoying it for at least 15 minutes - and that movie has aged very badly (more like milk than cheese, no offense to Messrs. Ford, Spielberg and Lucas).

On some fundamental level, I can take Raiders of the Lost Ark seriously ... and the rest of the movies, I can't.  And I don't think it's just "saw it when I was young" or any such nonsense ... I will argue that the on-call troupe of swinging monkeys that appear in Crystal Skull are somehow goofier than anything that showed up in Raiders, and that cheapened the movie without aiding it.   In fact Crystal Skull has oodles of the same X-marks-the-spot goofiness that makes Last Crusade so embarrassing to watch.

But at least it was a *pretty* movie and was nowhere near as astonishingly gawdawfully craptacular as the Temple of Dumb. And I had a lot of fun, and there are scenes in it which I will probably remember for the rest of my life, particularly the "this is how they should have done it in the Mummy Returns" ending.

But, I recall the snark I made before seeing Kingdom: "Wouldn't it be nice if they made another Indiana Jones movie? Cause they haven't made one yet." At this point, I tend to think, yes, at this point they have now indeed made a second Indiana Jones movie, and I'm glad. Maybe 15 minutes from now, I will go over to my buddy's side and think they still haven't.

Or maybe not. After all, I'm the guy who saw Phantom Menace 10 times in the theater, so what do I know from bad?
-the Centaur



Sunday, May 25, 2008

I've got 2 hours ...  

... so do I blog or work on my next novel?

Sorry guys.  Work calls.

-the Centaur



Wednesday, May 21, 2008


So on this last paper ... I spent a year and a half working on the project, six intensive weeks implementing our software doing a crash-course implementation on a testing platform only available for a short time, put the project on hold for a bit during that whole dot-com dancing, and then spent many evenings over the last six months ... and most of the evenings over the last month ... putting together a 10,000 word paper.

End result?  I'm unsatisfied.  I feel like I and my colleagues busted our balls to get this done, and I'm satisfied with the text of the paper qua being a paper ... but scientifically, I think we'd need to put out another 50% more effort to get it up to my standards of what's really "good".  We needed to do many more evaluations (not that we could, as we lost our testbed) but even given that I think the whole paper needed to be more rigorous, more carefully thought out, more in depth.

It's like I had to work my ass off just to get it to the point where I could really see how far I had to go.


-the Centaur



Time Capsule One-Point-Oh'd a Little Too Early?  

SO I'm running out of [backup] hard disk space at home now that both my wife and I are computing, and I splurged and got a Time Capsule, Apple's svelte new wireless hard drive, on the theory that I could attach it to my existing wireless network but keep the physical box in a different room so it would be less likely to be stolen if we had a break in. After all, "you can rest assured that it works with other certified 802.11n draft 2.0 products. And it’s compatible with Macs and PCs that use 802.11a, b, or g technologies."

So,what's the problem?   It doesn't work, that's the problem.  The wireless part, that is.  The Ethernet works fine, the hard drive works fine, the blinking light work fine ... except they picked amber and green as the working/not working colors! Gee, thanks, guys! I know those colors are supposed to be ok for most color blind people but really they look the same!  You obviously three bulbs behind the light (amber, green, blue) ... would it have killed you to give all three their own window?

Fume ... so ANYWAY, the Time Capsule gives you three options: take over your wireless network, join an existing wireless network, or go wired.  Well, I couldn't put it in a different room with option 1, and option 3 meant that I would physically have to be able to connect my laptop to the Time Capsule, so I went with option 2. 

And every time I set it up on the network, the Time Capsule disappears.

After repeated retries, hard resets, and careful readings-over of the manual, the PDFs (identical) and the Apple support site (containing the identical PDFs) I figured out that if I hooked the Time Capsule up via Ethernet, I could still access it and debug the problems.  And then I found that there were many problems, but that the software would not actually allow you to correct them - that is, you could change the settings of the Time Capsule in the Air Port Utility, but Air Port Utility would not actually communicate them to the Time Capsule when you tried to apply them; instead it would claim the problem was unresolved.  So there was no way to actually fix the problems ... you could only hit Ignore instead.

Upon some more digging, I found this tidbit on the Apple web site:

Time Capsule doesn't like being part of an existing network (despite what the manual and online material suggests). I've just spend ages, including 75 minutes on the phone with Apple Support to finally work out that Time Capsule simply won't join my existing Apple Extreme network.

I'm lifelong Mac user. This is the first time I've been really disappointed by a Mac product... the product ships with out of date software, does not set up easily, and simply won't do what it says it's supposed to.

If it's not too late for you... don't buy one!

Half a dozen other messages seem to confirm that this is a real problem.  Charming.  If only I had listened to Tim Bray:

I ran out and bought a 1TB Apple Time Capsule, breaking a self-imposed rule: Never buy release 1.0 of anything from Apple. Now I’m being punished.

Well ... at least it has 1 terabyte of storage, and Time Machine, the accompanying backup software, appears to run flawlessly (not that I've tried it yet, so how would I know?  But it looks pretty!) 

[fixed forced grin]

-the Centaur




....finished with our chapter submission to the Handbook of Research on Synthetic Emotions and Sociable Robotics.  The book won't come out for another year and a half, AFAIK, but the due date for chapters was yesterday.  Breaking my normal tradition, I'm not going to put up the abstract right now as the chapter is in for blind peer review.  For the past month this has been ... well, you don't want to hear me whine.  But trying to put out a scientific paper at the same time as blogging every day is ... bleah.  Obviously, the paper had to win.

Now, back on track.



Sunday, May 18, 2008

You're a Tiger  

You're a tiger.
You hide
in the tall grass.

You're a tiger!
You hide
in the tall grass.

I scritch behind your ear
and you fidget for me
Can't I see
you have important work to do?

Go now,
defend our home
from the flitting birds

and the tiny lizard
tailless marauder
you bring home again and again
held delicately in your jaws.

-the Centaur

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Friday, May 16, 2008

Two great papers on experimental design by Norvig  

So I'm working on a scientific paper that is trying to report the meagre results I got on a project that was canceled halfway through. While doing so I came across the following articles by Norvig, which hopefully will be useful in attacking my own assumptions and make the paper stronger:

Warning Signs in Experimental Design and Interpretation:

When an experimental study states "The group with treatment X had significantly less disease (p = 1%)", many people interpret this statement as being equivalent to "there is a 99% chance that treatment X prevents disease." This essay explains why these statements are not equivalent. For such an experiment, all of the following are possible:

  • X is in fact an effective treatment as claimed.
  • X is only effective for some people, in some conditions, in a way that the experiment failed to test.
  • X is ineffective, and only looked effective due to random chance.
  • X is ineffective because of a systematic flaw in the experiment.
  • X is ineffective and the experimenters and/or reader misinterpreted the results to say that it is.
There is no way to know for sure which possibility holds, but there are warning signs that can dilute the credibility of an experiment.

The companion paper:

Evaluating Extraordinary Claims: Mind Over Matter? Or Mind Over Mind?
A relative of mine recently went in for minor surgery and sent out an email that asked for supportive thoughts during the operation and thoughtfully noted that since the operation was early in the morning when I might be sleeping, that

It doesn't matter, according to Larry Dossey, M.D. in Healing Words, whether you remember to do it at the appropriate time or do it early or later. He says the action of mentally projected thought or prayer is "non-local," i.e. not dependent on distance or time, citing some 30+ experiments on human and non-human targets (including yeast and even atoms), in which recorded results showed changes from average or random to beyond-average or patterned even when the designated thought group acted after the experiment was over.

I was perplexed. On the one hand, if there really was good evidence of mind-over-matter (and operating backwards in time, no less) you'd think it would be the kind of thing that would make the news, and I would have heard about it. On the other hand, if there is no such evidence, why would seemingly sensible people like Larry Dossey, M.D. believe there was? I had a vague idea that there were some studies showing an effect of prayer and some showing no effect; I thought it would be interesting to research the field. I was concurrently working on an essay on experiment design, and this could serve as a good set of examples.

The only thing that I quibble with is the term "extraordinary" in the title of the second article. In my experience, "extraordinary" is a word people use to signal that something has challenged one of their beliefs and they're going to run it over the coals, which Norvig does with the efficacy of intercessory prayer in his article (in a very balanced and fair way I think). However, part of the point of Norvig's very evenhanded essay is that these kinds of problems can happen to you on things that you do believe:
After reading Tavris and Aronson's book Mistakes Were Made (but not by me), I understand how. Dossey has staked out a position in support of efficacious prayer and mind-over-matter, and has invested a lot of his time and energy in that position. He has gotten to the point where any challenge to his position would bring cognitive dissonance: if his position is wrong, then he is not a smart and wise person; he believes he is smart and wise; therefore his position must be correct and any evidence against it must be ignored. This pattern of self-justification (and self-deception), Tavris and Aronson point out, is common in politics and policy (as well as private life), and it looks like Dossey has a bad case. Ironically, Dossey is able to recognize this condition in other people -- he has a powerful essay that criticizes George W. Bush for saying "We do not torture" when confronted with overwhelming evidence that in fact Bush's policy is to torture. I applaud this essay, and I agree that Bush has slipped into self-deception to justify himself and ward off cognitive dissonance. Just like Dossey. Dossey may have a keen mind, but his mind has turned against itself, not allowing him to see what he doesn't want to see. This is a case of mind over mind, not mind over matter.
So, at least as working scientists are concerned, I would suggest Norvig's second essay should be retitled "Evaluating Claims."

Or put another way, with all due respect to Carl Sagan, I think "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" is a terrible way to think for a scientist: it prompts you to go around challenging all the things you disagree with. In contrast, I think claims require evidence, and for a scientist you must start at home with the things you're most convinced of, because you're least likely to see your own claims as extraordinary.

This is the most true, of course, for papers you're trying to get published. Time to review my results and conclusions sections...


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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

No Joy of Xi  

So I had this great article planned on my new work setup, which involved a combination of GNU Screen, XEmacs, gnuclient, and a few shell scripts, including my new favorite, xi.

The idea, you see, was to start a GNU Screen session on your workstation.  Screen is a terminal based program which lets you "attach" to a running command line prompt, so you can start Screen at work, go home and pick up right where you left off.  I used to run the editor XEmacs inside Screen, so I could go to a talk and resume my editing session on my laptop. However, this means running XEmacs in no-window mode, where it loses many features. 

The first brainflash was to use XEmacs' gnuclient utility, which also lets you "attach" to another program from the command line, this time to a running (x)Emacs.  Normally this pops up a new window, but I found a version of gnuclient for XEmacs which lets me run in no-window mode.  So I now start XEmacs, start Screen, run gnuclient, and now I can connect to the same editor anywhere.

The next step was to set up scripts that run these with the configurations I want - myscreen, myxemacs, mygnuclient; not strictly necessary but I can wrap the programs with a little sugar so they always run the right way, do the right thing, and fail with graceful error messages.  I'd done this first with myx11vnc, which has odd and weird options I can never remember.

But I digress ... and I'm still short of my real goal.  You see, other than losing features in XEmacs in command mode, one thing that was really bugging me was that I continually switch back and forth between vi and Emacs at the command line.  I prefer Emacs, but vi is faster to load and type, so I use it for quick jobs ... but it has an almost entirely different set of control keys, which can get confusing. The problem has gotten worse since I've temporarily retired the use of Eclipse at work until some bugs are worked out in a new loader system ... so now I just use XEmacs and vi, without the palate cleaner of a CUA-compatible editor ... and thus end up really confusing myself.

What I really want is an Emacs as easy and convenient as vi, so I can run it anywhere.  Gnuclient is about that fast since you don't need to open an Emacs, but typing mygnuclient is painful and can't even be done with tab completion with half a dozen my* programs sitting around in my bin directory.

But wait ... why not call mygnuclient ... 'xi'?

Well, I can, and do.  And the result is now I have a fullfeatured Emacs-compatible editor at the command line, fast to type and fast to load as vi, with the added bonus of all my Emacs macros, all my open files, and the history of whatever I was working on.  Calloo, callay, he chortled in his joy.

But a lot of the particular details of this depend on my work setup.  And I don't blog about the details of my work.  (Note no code samples.)  So I started to replicate this behavior on my new Mac OS X laptop with Aquamacs so I could show you how this is done without giving away any proprietary trade-secrety things.

But Mac OS X is not Ubuntu, and Aquamacs is not XEmacs.  Aquamacs is a version of Emacs, as it turns out; and Steve Yegge's delusions aside, Emacs is perennially just a bit behind of Emacs in all the features that matter to me.  No, Steve, I don't care what your experience is; all I know is that in my experience Emacs keeps on leaving me twisting in the wind so I've learned NOT to rely on it, not when I've got XEmacs - but Aquamacs' slick Mac OS X changed that equation.

I really like Aquamacs; it uses the Mac-only command key for all the typical Mac keyboard shortcuts, and the remaining option keys for Emacs.  It really is the best of both worlds, and I wouldn't want to give that up ... but Aquamacs isn't compatible with gnuserv.  It's version, emacsclient, does not have a no-window mode because Emacs's multiple TTY support is less well developed than XEmacs. There's a patch, but it isn't here yet, and I'm pretty sure it's only compatible with vanilla Emacs, not the Aquamacsy goodness I want.  So no 'xi,' not on my laptop yet.

None of this is unsolvable.  I'm convinced I could make it work.  But not the easy hour or so of hacking it took to make this work on the Ubuntu version, and not in the time available to me to make my "every day in May" blog posts.  So you'll have to wait a while to hear the Joy of Xi told properly, in all its grody, replicable detail.

-the Centaur



the consequence...  

... of making things easier on Qumana was to make things harder on Blogger.  Apparently the setting I turned off on Blogger to prevent the extra carriage returns in Qumana means that Blogger posts will come out all mooshed together.  Sigh.

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Pleasure and Pain, Fiction and Science  

I really enjoy writing fiction, but I find writing science painful. And I just realized one reason why: stories are narratives, and since I write stories in chunks of scenes, the incomplete narrative can still be absorbingly interesting - like surfing past a few seconds of a movie on TV.

But papers are hybrid beasts: they report data and argue about what we can conclude from it. Since I write papers by core dumping my data then refining the argument, what I'm subjecting myself to when I edit my paper is a poorly argued jumble based on a quasi-random collection of facts.  It's not all bad - I do work from an outline and plan - but an outline is not an argument.

This hit home to me recently when I was working on a paper on some until-now unreported work on robot pets I did about ten years ago. Early drafts of the paper had a solid abstract and extensive outline from our paper proposal, and into this outline I poured a number of technical reports and partially finished papers. The result? Virtual migraine!

But after I got about 90% of the paper done, I had a brainflash about a better abstract, which in turn suggested a new outline. My colleagues agreed, so I replaced the abstract and reorganized the paper. Now the paper was organized around our core argument, rather than around the subject areas we were reporting on, which involved lots of reshuffling but little rewriting.

The result? Full of win. The paper's not done, not by a long shot, but the first half reads much more smoothly, and, more importantly, I can clearly look at all the later sections and decide what parts of the paper need to stay, what parts need to go, and what parts need to be moved and/or merged with other sections. There are a few weak spots, but I'm betting if I take the time to sit down and think about our argument and let that drive the paper that I will be able to clean it up right quick.

Hopefully this will help, going forward. Here goes...

 -the Centaur

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Why I'm not donating to the Myanmar relief effort...  

... even though I really, really want to:
In Myanmar, food aid only at the junta's behest
Wealthy Burmese who want to donate rice or other assistance have in several cases been told that everything must be channeled through the military. This angers local government officials like Tin Win who are trying to rebuild the lives of villagers. He twitched with rage as he described the rice the military gave him. "They gave us four bags," Tin Win said. "The rice is rotten - even the pigs and dogs wouldn't eat it."

The UN high commissioner for refugees delivered good rice to the local military leaders last week, but they kept it for themselves, Tin Win said, and distributed the water-logged, musty rice. "I'm very angry," he said, adding an expletive to describe the military.

For the ruling generals, who have been in power for over four decades in Myanmar, the driving motivation of handing out assistance is to show that they are in control and the benevolent providers for the nation, analysts say.

Everyone, do what you think you have to to help these people. Here's a link to the Red Cross's efforts. But I'm afraid it's not helping. I haven't found out how to help out the victims of the China Earthquake, but obviously that's a lot less people who need help.


-the Centaur



Sunday, May 11, 2008

A Nice Problem To Have  

So my friends are reading Frost Moon and giving me feedback, which I'm letting pile up while I get other work done (and so my committment to what I just wrote can evaporate to the point I can read it objectively). But I've already started the sequel, Blood Rock.  I wrote a lot of Frost Moon in the Barnes and Noble Writing Group at Steven's Creek, but I've avoided reading Blood Rock there because I thought it might be a spoiler for my alpha readers who were still reading Frost Moon.

Now I know holding the new chapters back was a good idea.

My mother-in-law just finished Frost Moon and said "I can't wait for more!". So I sent her the first chapter of Blood Rock, which she immediately printed out intending to read it.  But Sandi's dad got to it first.  He's read part of Frost Moon, but had stopped and was waiting for his wife to record it on tape so he can listen to it on his long over-the-road trips. But he sees Blood Rock lying around, picks it up, and BAM! page one, gets a huge spoiler for the ending of Frost Moon.

There are obvious spoilers in the first chapter of Blood Rock: the central character of the series is still alive, as are other people whose fate was in doubt.  I was worried that people would find that out, but in all truth you could guess that from the fact that it's a book in a 'genre' series and not a 'literary' one-shot novel.  It's going to be a story about someone's continuing adventures, not about the unfortunate events leading up to someone's untimely death.

But there are also NON-obvious spoilers: who the main villain was, what he was doing, and what happened to him.  I won't go into any more details, but suffice it to say these are MUCHO spoilers if you haven't finished the first book.  I hadn't been worried about that, but in hindsight this is blindingly obvious.  So I am very glad I didn't read this at the writing group!

As my mother-in-law and father-in-law both pointed out, it's rare for a book in a series to give away the ending of another book in the series.  And so I need to be careful about how I refer to the past.  While I can't hide the end of Frost Moon - it's integral to the plot of Blood Rock - I can instead hold these revelations back to the last possible minute.  And now that I think of doing that, it seems like it will make the point when I refer to it even more of a shock.  Nice.

I've never had this problem before.  It's a nice problem to have... :-)




The great bit bucket in the sky...  

So after my essay on intellect and will, Jim posted an interesting comment, to which I replied ... a long-ranging reply which could have been a blog post in its own right. SO I finished the reply, hit preview to check it out, and then hit view blog. Note that none of those steps involved "publish" ... so the whole essay disappeared.


These browser based apps still leave something to be desired. Anyway, it was really witty and acknowledged all of Jim's good points while carefully highlighting my areas of difference in a subtle yet engaging way. You should have been there ... *sigh*. Will rewrite it (in Qumana so I don't lose it) and will post it as a new article shortly.

-the Centaur

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Saturday, May 10, 2008

A Blogging Bookmarklet  

As part of making my "Blog a day through May" and "Distract Myself From Writing This Paper" tasks easier, I hunted down this Blogger bookmarklet which which enables you to select some text on a page and then with a single click get a micro-Blogger window so you can edit and send a post (like this one):
What is BlogThis! ?: "BlogThis! is an easy way to make a blog post without visiting blogger.com ... Clicking BlogThis! creates a mini-interface to Blogger prepopulated with a link to the web page you are visiting, as well as any text you have highlighted on that page. Add additional text if you wish and then publish or post from within BlogThis! ... just drag the link below to your browser's Link bar. Then, whenever the mood strikes, click BlogThis! to post to your blog:
This isn't the only bookmarklet out there. There's also one for Google Bookmarks, Steve Rubel at MicroPersuasion has his own list of key bookmarklets, and Irregular Shed shows us how to make your own. I know these work in Firefox but I suspect you can get this to work in other browsers as well.

So check out these links, and if you find yourself doing any of these common tasks in less than a click and the associated commenting/typing time, add yourself a bookmarklet and save a few minutes of your life.

-the Centaur

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Worthy of human treatment ...  

Once as a child I asked a Jesuit whether dolphins should be treated like people if they turned out to be intelligent.  I think I phrased it in terms of the question "whether they had souls", but regardless the Jesuit's answer was immediate and clear: yes, they have souls (and, by implication, should be treated like people) if they had two things - intellect and will.  Years later I read enough Aquinas to understand what he meant.  But when I tried to regurgitate my understanding of these concepts for this essay, as partially digested by my thinking on artificial intelligence, I found that what came up were new concepts, and that I no longer cared what Aquinas thought, other than to give him due credit for inspiring my ideas.

So, in my view, the two properties that a sentient being needs to be treated with respect due to other sentients are:

  • Intellect: the ability to understand the world in terms of a universal system of conceptual structures

  • Will: the ability to select a conceptual description of a desired behavior and to regulate one's behavior to match it

In this view, part of the reason that we treat animals like animals is that their intellects are weak and as a consequence their wills almost nonexistent.  While animals can learn basic concepts and do basic reasoning tasks, it's extraordinarily difficult for them to put what they can learn into larger structures that describe their world - for example, it takes years of intensive training for chimps to learn the basic language competencies a human child gets in eighteen to twenty four months.  Without the ability to put together "universal" structures that describe behavior, your cat can't describe behaviors much more sophisticated than "I'm not allowed in the art studio" and hence is vulnerable to all sorts of hazards and prone to all sorts of misbehavior because they simply can't understand that, for example, it's not a good idea to go out after 2am since their owners won't be awake to let them in.

Similarly, children are wards of their parents because they haven't yet learned the conceptual structures of what they should do, and lack the self-regulation to guide themselves to follow what they have learned.  Violent criminals become wards of the state for the same reason - either they didn't realize that it was a bad idea to hurt their fellow man, or more likely didn't bother to regulate themselves to achieve it.  A similar problem occurs for a variety of neurodiverse people who, for one reason or other, are not able to regulate their behaviors well enough to manage their lives without the assistance of a caregiver (though having various kinds of self-regulatory dysfunctions is not necessarily a sign that someone does not have a sophisticated intellect, and there are a number of autistic people who would argue that we are too quick to discriminate; but I digress).

Regardless, so intellect and will are ideas that bump around in my head a lot.  Can something understand the world it's in in abstract terms, and figure out its relationship to it?  And given that understanding, can it decide what kind of life it should lead, and can it then actually follow that life?  Anything that can do that gets a free pass towards being treated with respect - if you have those fundamental capabilities I'm inclined to treat you like a fellow sentient until and unless you prove me wrong.

We may seem to have gotten pretty far from souls here.  But for the Christians in the audience, think about intellect and will for a moment.  Something that had intellect could learn who Jesus was, and something with will could decide whether or not to follow him.  And it wouldn't matter whether that was a neurotypical person, an autistic person, a talking dolphin or an intelligent machine.  For the atheists in the audience, this may be an easier sell, but the point actually is still the same: something with a truly universal intellect could evaluate a system of beliefs that it was presented, and with a selfregulatory will decide whether or not it was going to agree and/or follow that system of beliefs.

Thinking out loud here...

-the Centaur



I would rather you'd defined "respect" rather than intellect and will. I was seriously wondering what you meant by it until I read your examples of "wards of the state." Do you mean freedoms?

I'm actually working on an article now about when AIs should be treated ethically, and for me the core of it is their ability to feel pain, sadness, pleasure, and joy. It sounds as though you're assuming animals can feel these things, and perhaps you're right, but if a being cannot feel any pain, suffering, or dissatisfaction whatsoever, it's hard to justify the need to treat them ethically, including giving them freedom or respect.

As a thought experiment, does Commander Data (in emotionless mode) need to be treated with respect? What's the harm in NOT doing so?

Without the emotional and sensation angle we'll be in danger soon of requiring treating things like the agents in panicking crowd simulations with respect. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T5VZFxRJ6ss
# posted by Blogger Jim Davies : 5:24 AM
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How hard it is...  

... to keep up the pace of daily blogging when you have Real Life to do!  I'm working on a scientific paper (and several novels and stories and a comic) and already this month have come up with three blog posts - Delusionaries, Biblical Spam and the Joy of Xi - which are too complex to just dash off, so they've been languishing.  If I get a chance I'll tackle one of them tomorrow after the next draft of the paper is done.  Until then ... post!  And let the chips fall where they may.

-the Centaur



Friday, May 09, 2008

Forces of Evil on the March  

Yet another wacko has popped up with a scheme to control on other people's lives to make himself feel happy:

Chef Wants To Outlaw Out of Season Vegetables

Celebrity British chef Gordon Ramsay said restaurants should be fined if they serve out-of-season fruit and vegetables. "I don't want to see asparagus in the middle of December. I don't want to see strawberries from Kenya in the middle of March. I want to see it home-grown," he said after raising his concerns with Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

"Fruit and veg should be seasonal. Chefs should be fined if they don't have ingredients in season on their menu," he told the BBC on Friday.  ... "There should be stringent laws, licensing laws, to make sure produce is only used in season and season only," he added.

I'm not going to bother going on about how this would have killed my hardworking father's business shipping produce had such a law been passed in America.  I'm going to even devil's advocate for a second.  The outcome he wants ... eating foods in season prepared locally ... is actually a good thing.   Eating foods that are in season creates variety.  The "local foods" movement takes this further, reducing the cost to ship vegetables.  For example, the excellent Hopland Inn serves food from only a hundred or so miles away, and Google's Cafe 150 is named after the maximum radius of its ingredients.

But many other things we like to eat are NOT local, are NOT in season, and are NOT Gordon Ramsay's business.  Everything he is complaining about is phrased in terms of what he wants to see, and he wants us to pass a law, enforced by people with guns who will come to take your money, to enforce his whims in the presence of no concrete harm?

Ah-ah-ah.  I don't think so.

Tongue in cheek, what is it about Britain that breeds this kind of totalitarian control mindset?  They don't have a recent history of dictatorship, but everyone from Alan Moore to George Orwell to P.D. James keeps writing stories where England goes to hell in a totalitarian basket.  But I guess if I had the experience of these English writers, with springloaded Gordon Ramsays popping up everywhere calling for stringent regulation of everything from seasonal fruits to the proper time for tea, I could see myself popping out a dystopia.


(ObDisclaimer: I have no evidence that Gordon Ramsay is not a nice, decent, humane person, nor do I know that England is populated by an army of springloaded Gordon Ramsay clones popping up everywhere with random totalitarian proposals.  Those were jokes, in case you were wondering; almost all the people I've met from the British isles have been nice).



The local food movement is well-intentioned, but the energy saving aspect of it is not obvious. The Economist magazine argues that in many cases it's more energy and more pollution when you eat locally. How could this be?

Because of scale. If you've got a huge airplane full of bananas, that get brought to the store in a huge truck, you might actually be using less energy and causing less pollution per banana than if every banana you eat is locally brought to you, say, on the back of some local farmer's pickup truck at a market. Pickup trucks are so inefficient that it actually might be cheaper (in terms of financial cost and cost to the environment) flying them in from South America.

As usual the Economist does not cite a scientific study to show that this ACTUALLY happens, but nor have I seen studies on the local food support-side either.

This thought experiment just points to the fact that we should not accept it blindly-- whether or not it's cheaper and better for the environment is an empirical question, not a philosophical or common-sense one.
# posted by Blogger Jim Davies : 10:57 PM
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... if you have a blog draft hanging around for a long time in Blogger and finally publish it, it gets published at the date that you initially started it and not the date it was actually published.  Interesting...




Wednesday, May 07, 2008

I've heard memory is unreliable but this takes the cake...  

Researching another story I came across this tidbit:

Eyewitness Memory is Unreliable
Australian eyewitness expert Donald Thomson appeared on a live TV discussion about the unreliability of eyewitness memory. He was later arrested, placed in a lineup and identified by a victim as the man who had raped her. The police charged Thomson although the rape had occurred at the time he was on TV. They dismissed his alibi that he was in plain view of a TV audience and in the company of the other discussants, including an assistant commissioner of police. The policeman taking his statement sneered, "Yes, I suppose you've got Jesus Christ, and the Queen of England, too." Eventually, the investigators discovered that the rapist had attacked the woman as she was watching TV - the very program on which Thompson had appeared. Authorities eventually cleared Thomson. The woman had confused her rapist's face with the face the she had seen on TV. (quote taken from Baddeley's Your Memory: A User's Guide).

It simply staggers my imagination that someone testifying about unreliable eyewitnesses would then get accused of something by an unreliable witness ... who herself had been watching him talk about unreliable witnesses and got confused!




The moonwalking bear turned out to be the rapist.
# posted by Anonymous Anonymous : 9:50 AM
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Extra Spaces  

Qumana is a great blog post editor, but it has an interesting property that makes its posts appear weird on my web site.

If you hit return, it wraps the whole paragraph in a HTML "p" tag <p>like so</p>.

Which is nice, in theory it's how you're supposed to use the "p" tag, but ...

It puts huge spaces between paragraphs in my blog.

I'm not sure why this is happening.  Some CSS error in my stylesheet?  Some translation ... WHOA!

I just did "view source" on the published blog, and found extra <br> tags after each paragraph in the published blog!  So THAT's what is happening... now, of course, the question is WHY, since they don't show up on Qumana's Source View.
Here's seeing if switching from "Enter Starts A New Paragraph" to "Enter Starts A New Line" does the trick.
9:56pm hit return.
-the Centaur

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It turns out there is a Blogger setting to convert carriage returns to
tags! Turning this off removes the extra spaces in Qumana. A couple older posts get weird formats because of this, but that's an easy fix.
# posted by Blogger Anthony Francis : 10:12 PM
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Artificial Intelligence, Briefly  

Who am I?  What do I do?  Why?

I am an artificial intelligence researcher.

I study human and other minds to aid in the design of intelligent machines and emotional robots.

I believe emotions are particularly important for robots because, unlike intelligent machines which normally run as computational processes on a general computer maintained by some other agent, robots have physical bodies with physical needs that they themselves are in part responsible for - and an emotional system's functions are to evaluate how our current situation meets our needs, to trigger quick reactions to get us out of harm, and to motivate us to pursue long-term actions to improve our lot.

I pursue artificial intelligence because right here, right now its techniques help me construct better software artifacts and deepen my understanding of the human condition, and because I hope that creating human level intelligence and beyond will improve the lot of human kind and further the progress of sentient life.

I think these things often, but I never say them.  Time to change that.




Monday, May 05, 2008

Regurgitating Slashdot...  

... does not constitute true "blogging," unless you really have something new to say about the topic.  Same goes for the tip you just found on Lifehacker.  Perhaps, the curmudgeon in me says, keep the "me too"s and "+1"s to yourselves?

But, I'm a hypocrite; half the tricks I learn and shiny sparklies I find, I only get because some other blogger has read it  (out of the dozens of other blogs I don't subscribe to), decided it was good, and regurgitated it into my waiting Google Reader.  So keep it coming ... I guess.  But I still need something more than "check out what I saw on Slashdot."

-the Centaur



I feel that way about my main blog. The problem was I was finding so many cool little things, but often would not have anything new to say about them. I would either post them to facebook or think of the specific friends I wanted to share them with and email it. I would always forget somebody.

Eventually I decided that my main blog would only be for my thoughts about something, and I created a new blog (Jim Davies Identifies These Things As Cool) for regurgitation. At least people know what they're signing up for.
# posted by Blogger Jim Davies : 5:04 AM
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Don't Get Overly Ambitious  

If you're going to blog once a day for a month, it's important not to get overly ambitious about the articles you're going to write each day.  I started off with the idea I'd finish all the waiting blog posts I had sitting around, write down my definitive thoughts on several key topics, et cetera.

The outcome of this bright idea? Well, sitting "right next" to this article in Qumana is a blog entry on "delusionaries" which proved too big to chew in a couple of small bites.  So I'm going to spit this one out, cut it up into smaller bits, and try again.  Stay tuned.




Sunday, May 04, 2008

How Easy It Is To Fall Off the Wagon!  

Not even the first week and I skipped a blog entry.  Shame on me - and I was even online yesterday.

It's very easy to "fall off the wagon" - to decide to change how we want to live our lives, but then let our day-to-day habits, plans, and interactions carry us through a course of actions that contradicts that.  A Christian theologian would make some noise about the fallibility of man; a cognitive scientist would natter on about automatized behaviors, capture errors and the illusion of conscious will.  But the long and the short of it is that we're really bad at this.

I can point to a number of wagons I've fallen off repeatedly: regular exercise, martial arts training, doing the physical therapy exercises for my knee, calling all my friends at the beginning of the month, taking the laundry out of the dryer as soon as it beeps.  But other wagons I hang on to tenaciously: feeding the cats twice daily, watering the lawn, attending the weekly and monthly writing groups.

At first blush this is the diference between things that have immediate feedback (mewing cats, wilted plants, written stories) and those that don't (it can take months to notice changes in your waistline).  But I find that this even applies to things that don't have immediate feedback - like writing my "weekly snippets" at the Search Engine That Starts With a G, a performance tool that I regularly use even though I'm the only one that apparently reads them.  True, if you don't send snippets you get reminders about it; but most people ignore them, just like I ignore many, many other automated reminders I get.  So that's not it either.

So some wagons are easy to fall off of and others are easy to hang on to.  Why is that? I could go off and do a typical blogger speculation, but let's leave it at this for a moment: why are there some things that are so easy to decide to do (or not to do) regularly, while other habits are so hard to make or break that it seems nearly impossible?

'jes wonderin,
-the Centaur



Invisible May 3 post! Oh noes! :-)

I think the missing element you're looking for is ENJOYMENT! I bet you like/love writing group and maybe even weekly snippets. But exercise is hard and usually dull and nobody enjoys limiting their portions.
# posted by Blogger Gordon : 6:48 PM
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Friday, May 02, 2008


Created via Automotivator, which I found after seeing a Livejournal post (itself found via Planet Lisp) in which its creator, Zach Beane, created a motivational poster for all the smug lisp weenies:

I may not program in Lisp much anymore - probably less than once a month or so, compared to my Top Five (currently Javascript, Java, C++, Bash and Python) - but I do now have this poster hanging in my office at the Search Engine That Starts With a G. Already it's gotten quite a few questions ... :-)

So, on the note of doing things wrong and personal insignificance ... here's some random bits about some changes in the works.  This is one of the first blog posts I've done on my new Macintosh, which replaces my beloved but fried Blue Slab of Coolness and my beloved but stolen old Powerbook.  Having used it for a month or two now, I do so wuv my my Mac and it's crappy user interface, which does just enough right to almost make me ignore its massive gaffes (like switching between two windows and the screen suddenly reshuffling the z-buffer heights of all open applications).

But it's really flipping over into usability thanks to a trick I learned combining Spaces and VMWare, letting me switch back and forth between Windows Vista and Mac OS X Leopard with ease.  (Apparently the new MacBook Pros are some of the best laptops to run Windows Vista.  Who knew?)  VMWare is slick because it lets you run Windows Vista on your Macintosh in a virtual machine - it's even smart enough to use the partition set up by Apple's Boot Camp dual-boot solution - but it really didn't get hyper useful until I learned the Spaces trick.  Spaces (a warmed over version of the virtual desktops feature popularized by the X Window System) lets you create several "virtual desktops" you can switch between via control arrows - and once you do that, you can give one of them to Vista in full screen mode.

I can't remember the blogger who recommended this trick to me (Mossberg? Some Lifehacker article?), but using Space's control-arrows to switch desktops actually has proven easier in practice than using VMWare's (admittedly hyper-slick) Unity mode.  Unity, like Parallels' Coherence mode, sounds great because it puts your Windows windows on your Macintosh desktop like any other Mac app.  However, using Spaces to put Vista on its own desktop means the Mac apps and the Windows apps get their own OS desktop features like the taskbar, destktop icons, etc.  Looking at the Lifehacker article on Parallels I linked to above, I suspect that I could make Unity work much better; but this is working well enough for me to get stuff done now.

Also this is a first post using Qumana, new blogging software which narcissistically inserts some adware which you can see here to the lower right. --->

Powered by Qumana

Qumana has been so nice to me so far (WYSIWIG mode, automatically snarfing URLs out of the keyboard when you insert links, etc., etc.) I'll leave the ad in just this one time. 

SO click on some links above and give our "sponsors" some love. :-)




It turns out you can turn off the Qumana ad with a Preferences setting. FYI.
# posted by Blogger Anthony Francis : 10:13 PM
  can anyone help with a XP SP3 question?

(at least) 3 programs -- having worked without problems before -- work(ed) not after the sp3 install:

1. ms access seems in a deadlock

2. leechftp gets "welcome" from the remote ftp server (password accepted) but says "not connected" in the task manager and shows no remote contents nor remote tools

3. firefox says a dll is missing (repaired after a new install of firefox)
# posted by Anonymous haymolauth@yahoo.com : 3:28 AM
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Thursday, May 01, 2008


Recently I heard a friend say "2008 was the year the bloggers died" - because almost all of his friends who were bloggers stopped posting. Well, shame on us. SO, in the tradition of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) I announce Anthony's Blog Writing Month (AnBloWriMo) in which I will attempt to put up one post per day for the next month. Hopefully this won't amount to boring all of you to tears, but will instead serve as a useful reminder to me to get my backlog moving again. Of course, those two things aren't mutually exclusive...

Here goes - this counts as number one.
-the Centaur



Cool! Daily 'taur updates. I think I'll play too. Think of it as Artist's Way Daily (web) Pages.
# posted by Blogger Gordon : 8:50 PM
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