Monday, May 21, 2007

Descriptions have lots of uses

It's 4:30 am and I should be asleep, but birds are chirping, cool air is flowing in through the window, and I'm having way too much fun to go. Why am I having so much fun? The (even more) exciting part of this blog will happen when we start to be able to record knowledge on a web-site or some sort of distributed repository, and that moment is getting closer and closer. Remember, the goal is to optimize life. So much stuff and information is available which I want, or even need, that it's getting hard to keep up. I read or scan about 100 articles each day and soon that won't be enough. Furthermore, many of the articles are beginning to be above my head. That means that I have to read more to understand them, and sometimes that isn't enough! For example, I recently read an article on something called "Mock Theta Functions." Apparently an important mathematical puzzle in "number theory" has been solved about them. But I have never heard of them though I know quite a bit about mathematics. Number theory is important; the fact that computers aren't able to do things like design software, control a robot in an intelligent way or understand complex speech is probably due to something we are missing in number theory. So... Is this "Mock Theta Function" deal something I should spend time learning about or is it an obscure issue not related to anything important to me? I have no idea? Wikipedia says "a mock theta function is the holomorphic part of a weak Maass wave form of weight 1/2" What??? It may take me months to figure out what that means; and what if it turns out to be unimportant to me? What a waste of time. But if I don't learn about it then I won't be able to accurately predict when intelligent computing may happen. If too many things that affect my life begin to go over my head I'll begin to slip behind and someday the World will seem foreign to me.

When we are done here, someone who understands mock theta functions will be able to make a form describing them (like with Wikipedia, but formal) and a program that knows my goals will figure out whether they are important to my agenda. If they are, I can read the form to figure out what they are; I won't have to learn some obscure concepts because the forms will reduce the knowledge to the simple "root concepts" that I alluded to in Discovering a Miracle .

Before I can explain the final form our forms will take, I need to make two observations. The first observation is that our forms should be descriptions of situations.

There are many many types of computer-compatible languages today. Some look like lists of commands the computer should do. Others are like questions. Still others are assertions. I have found that all of these things and more can be done with a form that allows descriptions of situations. How so? Suppose I have a description like "The birds are chirping" I can use that description to say something about the world by asserting it (duh.) But I can also use it to ask a question: "is it true that the birds are chirping?". In fact, I can use a description for many many things. Consider these:
  • I can state beliefs: "I believe the birds are chirping"
  • I can issue commands: "Make it so that the birds are chirping"
  • I can express desires: "I wish the birds were chirping"
  • I can quote: "Roger said that the birds are chirping"
  • What about "I know that the birds are chirping"
Do you recognize some of these uses? Remember the post about recording the state of people? I mentioned that I wanted to describe my mind which holds things like beliefs, knowledge, desires, habits. We won't really be able to have a computer figure out what is important to us unless it can process information about topics like politics or psychology. But these topics are about people! Are you beginning to see why I want the forms to record descriptions?

Actually, there is a vastly more important reason to have a form for people. I have noticed that there are times in my life when I undergo an improvement that I didn't know was available. I mentioned the time (which took many years) I learned that authoritarianism was almost the opposite of love. The "Before learning" and "After learning" versions of myself are very different. How many more things are there for me to learn? I am sure that there are some people who have a good idea of what my next step in life may be. I have a vague idea. But if I could have a simulation or a chart that showed all the possibilities for what I could become, then I wouldn't have to wait until old age to be mister wisdom.

I want to go ahead and show the final form of forms but it will make more sense if I talk about one more thing. Namely, why identity ('='), plus ('+') and times ('*') are important. Don't worry, you won't have to learn about mock theta functions. Right now, though, it is 6:00 am, and even the birds aren't keeping me awake anymore, so it will have to wait until next time.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

King of Kings and Form of Forms

I got a shiny new DVD player the other day and as it ingests the disc, it displays "LOAD" with that nasty LED segment font that was really made for displaying only numbers, not letters. Whenever I see that "LOAD" there is a tiny second when my brain malfunctions and I think it is saying "LORD" because the A looks like an R. For fun I fancy that the player doesn't have motors or lasers or any other technology but rather, whenever a disc is inserted it sends a prayer to God: "Lord, make yonder television display the contents of this disc." (Yes, I'm getting help!)

We're talking about designing a form we could fill out that would let us describe, in detail, what something is, how it works, etc. Is there any advantage to having a form that allowed descriptions like the above? Descriptions involving "spirits?" I think so. For one thing, many many people use such descriptions everyday and a form that couldn't refer to spirits might be written off as scientific hubris. For another thing, allowing spirit language may make claims about religion provable or falsifiable; something both scientists and believers should be happy about.

So here is the BIG question: What will our forms look like? What is the form of a form? We want to set our requirements high, so let us say that our forms will be able to record ANYTHING, including God or a spirit, that could possibly affect anything else. I need an example. Think about a pencil. It has a color, a shape, length, hardness... lots of 'properties.' Can a pencil's color affect anything? Yes, it can affect my eyes and I can detect differences in color. I could say "I'll paint this pencil green if the British are coming by sea but red if they are flying in." In other words, color can be used to store information. Now, let's say that a certain pencil has a property like color, but that property is completely undetectable by anyone, including God. Well, it isn't much use to talk about it, eh? Even if only a spirit could detect it, it would be worth tracking, because the spirit might tell us what it is. Notice what happened there: first I said that the property could not affect us, but that it could affect a spirit who could tell us what it was. Well, that means that the property COULD affect us, doesn't it? I mean, the route by which I learned about it involved ghosts, but I still learned about it.

On to the formation of our forms! So far our forms look basically like this:

Color = {
amount of red______;

amount of green____;
amount of blue_____;

If we want to describe something using this form, we think of all the different modes or "states" that the system we are describing can be in. We will include any state that can possibly affect anything, even if that has to be through God telling us. Then we make a form which lists all those possibilities just like the form above lists the possibilities for all the different colors.

Looking at that format, I really feel a sort of disgust. Maybe it is an acceptable start, but it would be an ugly finish. It reminds me of a pretty version of a computer language called XML. I may explain how awful XML is sometime, but suffice it to say that, like the format for colors given above, XML isn't even close to good enough for our purposes. Neither XML nor the format above meet the level of detail that we talked about in "Discovering a Miracle." What goes in the blanks? How do the ways that something changes get recorded? How would we talk about the past or the present? History counts as knowledge too! We're just going to have to do better.

Until next time!


Monday, April 30, 2007

What is the point?

I'm going to get right to the point today. What is the point of life? Also, who cares? It's easy to answer that second question; I care. Here I am trying to make my life better and more efficient, and it's pretty clear from where I sit that if I don't put some thought into what that means I could spend valuable time or money going down the wrong path. I know lots of people who put energy into something that turned out to make them depressed instead of happy, and I don't want to go there! I'm trying to optimize or even automate some parts of my life, but what parts?

I read about a guy whose girlfriend said that she always wanted flowers, so he spent $20,000 on a lifetime subscription to monthly flowers for her.
That's automation, but it misses the point by more than a little! And what an expensive mistake! I don't want to automate the fun parts like surprising someone with flowers.

If you want to be really overwhelmed by the question of the purpose of life, read this Wiki arti
cle. The easy answers are "to live and love" or "to make a difference." And of course there are different Christian or Jewish ideas: The Golden Rule, or "Relationship with Christ." Islam has "To Worship God." Those are a bit boring compared to "to make myself into a Work of Art." Like a tragic play? or what about "The Scream?" I can see getting to the end of my life and saying "I did it! I achieved my dream of illustrating just how miserable a wretch a life can be." It doesn't fit the mold but if that is what someone wants to do, can I really argue that they shouldn't? Think Oscar The Grouch.

"The meaning of life" is one of those things that you can't really pin down because if you say that it HAS to be this plan or that plan, you will have someone who tries your plan and then regrets it at the end of life. I've known people who tried "love everyone" and felt they gave too much (me!). But here are some guidelines that I go by:
  1. Learn a LOT. This will help you make quality decisions about what can be done. Learn lots of subjects, but also learn skills. Most importantly, learn how people work. How do emotions work to create people?
  2. Understand yourself. If you know your own capabilities and limits you can have confidence. Know how you react emotionally. With 1 and 2 you can see what COULD be done and what you could do. This way you will make the best choice possible.
  3. Using 1 and 2, choose your dream. Really choose; don't just do what you think you are supposed to do or you will regret it rather than relax into it. You can change your mind whenever you want to, but do so decisively. Don't wait for fate.
  4. Go toward your dream. You can change it, but don't give up. And while you are going, don't lose track of how you can fit into the dreams of others. Think of your dream-life as a thread from your birth to your death; a thread that weaves into the dreams of others as you connect with them. What will be your part in the tapestry of dreams?
That's it. That is, so far, how I guide my life. It has issues though. For one thing, it has a really masculine feel. That is fine for me, but I'm sure not for everyone. I'll say more on that soon.



Monday, April 23, 2007

Discovering a miracle

I have seen at least fifty "slide shows" on the Web giving the Top 100 Inventions or Top Ten New Technologies or The Best Discoveries of the 20th Century. But they always leave out a little idea that was almost stumbled on early last century; an idea which in my "humble" opinion is clearly the most important idea produced in the last 2000 years. It isn't a huge shock that it doesn't make the top-ten lists because as an idea, and a subtle one at that, it doesn't work in an e-zine slide show and thus... No ad revenue!

There are certain ideas which, once you really internalize them, create a before and after version of you. When I really grasped, on an emotional level, that authoritarianism and love were almost opposites, I created an "after" version of myself. The process of really understanding it took years, so I can't point to a certain date and say that's when the new Bruce came into being. But the way that I see, and even enter in to, all kinds of human relations is very different and I can never go back. Roles like parenting, governing, pastoring or managing look completely different to me now.

The idea I am thinking of is such an idea. At first, the subtlety of it may seem underwhelming, but when the implications of it worked their way through my conceptual framework I was taken back by how many of the foundational rules-of-thumb I regularly use to organize the World were drastically different. I'll explain the idea here and I'll try to express something about why it is so drastic and why its truth seems almost like a miracle to me and why it is so important to my journey of removing redundancy to shrink the size of my possessions and knowledge while maximizing the functionality of my stuff and my knowledge.

I first began to suspect the miracle when I took a beginning computer programming class some time ago. Before the class I had tinkered around programing in BASIC. But now I was learning C++, a "real" programming language and I thought it would give me great new powers. Then it occurred to me: I could write a BASIC program to process the C++ language, and I could also write a C++ program to process BASIC. Somehow these two languages must be exactly equivalent. It seemed I would get no new powers, but, paradoxically, the idea I had stumbled upon does give new technological powers.

Here is the idea from Wikipedia; and you'll see why it wouldn't make a good slide show:

"Every function that can be physically computed can be computed by a Turing machine."

It sounds like math. And what-the-heck is a "Turing machine?" Alan Turing, one of the people who came up with the idea of computers in the first place, defined an extremely simple computer and it is called a "Turing machine." In essence, it means that as long as no important features are missing, all computer programming languages are exactly the same as far as what programs can be written with them.

Well so what? Any program can be written in any language? Who cares! But the key lies in the realization that computers can simulate anything... anything at all. Here is a quote from that Wiki page:

"This also means that any solvable problem can therefore be reduced to previously solved problems (the Turing machine instruction set) or by definition is unsolvable."

Think about what that means! Any solvable problem can be reduced to previously solved problems. I think this fact is the key to processing knowledge and the key to unlock the secret of how to drink from the fire-hydrant of knowledge flowing at us today. It means that if we understand a few basic principles then any piece of information anyone can produce can be seen as a pattern over those principles.

It's 3:30 in the morning here so I'll leave you to think about whether there is a way to use the idea I just discussed. Click on "comments" if you have any ideas!


Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Form of "Wonder Woman!"

"Wonder Twin Powers - ACTIVATE!"
Remember that show? I don't care that it was against the rules, I wanted to take the form of Superman!" In my last post I floated the topic of filling out a "form" to describe a person. It was a hint at the method I am using to digest all the knowledge flowing out of the wellspring of human creativity these days. I mentioned in my first post that specialization may have been the shiny red bike of the 20th Century, but it doesn't do anything for me. Bill Gates, like most of us, read through an encyclopedia but I want to have deep knowledge of biology, physics, robotics, theology, psychology, sociology, history, politics, art, music, ethics... you get the idea?

If you want to make a process efficient, you have to figure out what tasks are done over and over and optimize and automate them. For gathering and learning knowledge, one of these tasks is internalizing new concepts. First you have to learn that there is a concept to be learned, then you must learn what it is, practice using it and apply it to other concepts. That takes a long time! We have to have an easy form to fill in that gives everything we need to understand a concept or system in one cross-referenced place. What-the-heck kind of form could possible do that? There is an answer that has been around for awhile which I can explain fairly easily, but it involves Kansas and aliens.

Kansas is a flat, dusty place so it is ideal for people who run ultra-marathons because it isn't enough to tell people that you run 50 or 100 mile races, you must also say that you did in in a desert or in the freezing cold at 10,000 feet. My brother is just such a person and as we drove through Kansas toward his race he passed the time by asking me to explain Plato and Aristotle to him. Such a person can keep running though all hope is lost! Nevertheless, he was having a hard time understanding how Aristotle related his "four reasons" to his mentor's (Plato) idea that there are forms of things. When you pull the jargon away from these people's ideas, they really aren't too mysterious. In addition to running in crazy ways, my brother starts small businesses. These days he runs a moody little coffee shop where he and his friends play the blues in the morning. One of his skills is communicating with people who work for him so I asked him this: Pretend you're sending an employee to an alien planet to document how things are done there; you have no idea what you will find. All you can do is give your employee a form and say "whenever you see some technology of interest, fill out this form please." What would be on the form? You see how I got his creative juices going?

Plato said there were forms for types of things. Technically, he probably didn't mean sheets of paper with blanks to be filled in, but concepts; but that is how we wish to record concepts! His big question was "what is the form of the form?" What would a form that could be filled out to describe any other form look like? Aristotle gave part of an answer. He said that there were four important details. Are these details obscure? Are they hard to understand? Not really. My brother came up with three of the four in fifteen minutes. 1) What does it do or what is it for? 2) What is it made of? 3) How does it work? Aristotle added, 4) what changes it i.e., what are its inputs. Since one object may be a 'changer' or input to something else, we get to know what its outputs are for free. It sounds like a plan for a modern gadget! We have: Inputs, outputs, internals, a design and "use-cases!"

Are Aristotle's handy little forms enough for us to capture all the knowledge we need from all the fields that are flowering? To answer that we need to ask what we will be doing with these forms and see if it can be done. Here is what I want to do with them. First of all, I want to have them collected on the Internet in such a way that anyone can add to them. It is a sort of "formal" wikipedia. Next, I want to have problems like incompatibilities automatically pointed out and un-filled blanks (ya: unanswered questions) listed. Third, I want to be able to keep track of which ones I personally know or, in the case of skills, can do, and chart my progress. That is the first "big document" from my last post. I'll add to and refine this process in later posts. For now, let us take a look at the second goal: automatic processing of the forms.

If articles on wikipedia are examples of what we can expect to have "formalized", it is clear that without some kind of automation and lots of short-cuts, my project is doomed. Aristotle again comes to the rescue, or at least he gives it a good shot. If all the forms we produce are filled out in English or another natural language, then we haven't done any better than Wiki, which is, after all, in natural language. Aristotle's amazing idea was that we do not need every aspect of a natural language to fill in the forms. In fact, he was able to reduce so much language to just four sentences (which I shall show you soon) that for two thousand years no one noticed that there were things that couldn't be "digitized". We have these four sentences which can be used like mad-libs. Just replace the X's and Y's with nouns as in the examples on the right side.

  1. All X's are Y's: All people are mortal
  2. Some X's are Y's: Some dogs are pets
  3. No X's are Y's: No cats are fish
  4. Some X's are not Y's: Some cats are not picky eaters
A computer could use Aristotle's rules to check for compatibilities. For example, If it found example number 3 above and also found "Some cats are fish" it could list that as an issue.

Alas, though Ari's system foreshadows 20th Century Logic and even set theory which is considered by some to be the foundation for mathematics, neither his sentences nor his rules, nor his "four field form-for-forms" will work. His system has three major problems:
  1. The system can't automate the processing of information about relationships among several things. So, simulating the work of enzymes is not possible. Neither is it possible to correctly represent "love" which, after all, is a relationship.
  2. The system can't automate the processing of information about how the parts of something work to create a whole. How do the parts of a bicycle make transportation device? (This is related to 1. How do the relations among the parts produce a whole?)
  3. The system is a HUGE PAIN to use. Especially when discussing numbers. I'd like more than four sentence types please!
My standards for what will work are very high because I really want the knowledge without the hassle. If I had to convert wikipedia into those four sentences I would be saving about as much time as using a fully updated copy of MS Windows XP right before the release of Vista! SLOOOOOWWW!

I also do not want to have to use the whole convoluted mess of mathematics with its huge, unwieldy tree structure where objects are described by numbers in matrixes which are based on number theory which is based on group theory which is based on set theory which is based on logic, blah, bla blah, bla blah...

For now, I'm off to sleep.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

We don't know how to write down a person

Have you ever been outside and seen the tee-shirt that says "It's not who you are, its what you wear?" That shirt always makes me laugh because it's so obviously a joke but I always see people with that stern "the youth of today are lost" look on their face. I just want to feel the wind in my hair and the sun on my skin and enjoy the irony of the joke. The youth aren't lost, they're just youth. Listen to this quote...

"I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words... When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly disrespectful and out of control"

Here is another one

"What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?"

One of these is from Plato and the other is from Hesiod -- 2800 years ago! Why do we remember only how good we were? Why can't we somehow record what we are like or what our friends are like. Being able to write down a person's state would be amazing, and for more reasons than merely recording youth culture. If I had a template that could be filled in to record a person I would use three of them. I would fill out the first one to describe someone who knew everything I could imagine and who could do everything I could imagine. This one would be a "possibilities" document -- a sort of 'roadmap' of where I could go. The second document would be an "actuality" document. That one would let me chart where I actually am at this moment; the good, the bad, everything. Perhaps there could be little quizzes I could take that would help me to fill in the blanks. Lastly, I would create a "where I want to be" document. I would fill in the blanks to describe the 'ideal' me -- what I want to become.

Doesn't it seem like such a document would be so complex that it is impossible? It feels like a person is so complex that you could never capture everything in a document. Of course we don't have the technology to scan our brain and infer the tiniest detail about our skills, knowledge, likes and relationships. But think back to when you were really young; before you learned that there are three primary colors because there are three types of sensors in our eyes. Didn't it seem like there were so many colors that you could never really classify them all? I remember imagining that in heaven there would be colors that no one had ever seen -- it had to be so if heaven was as beautiful as I had heard. Even on Earth there could be such colors if we could create a fourth color sensor in our eyes! (I know, someone is designing custom stem-cells that will do that, right?)

When we understand that there are three primary colors for people with eyes like ours, suddenly the infinite profusion of colors on autumn leaves and in the plumage of the birds flying by seems more relaxing. Here is a pattern that I have used which really helps me to see the beauty in the universe and even in the people around me: confusing data + a good theory = relaxing into life. The theory of colors lets us "write down" any color. We don't have a perfect theory of how to "write down" a person. Plato, Aristotle, and that whole bunch had access to a theory that captures some aspects of a person. It's sort of a 'form' that you can fill in. You'll see that those Greeks certainly weren't dumb to have created it, but there is also a lot that their form misses. Let's take a quick look at it.

If the "record a color" form looks like this:

amount of red______;

amount of green____;
amount of blue_____;

then the Greek's "record a personality" form looks like this:

state of body____________;
contents of mind_________;
contents of spirit_______;

It is easy to extrapolate that the body would have sub-entries for body parts and for health, strength, agility, and so on. The mind would have entries for what things you know, what are your skills, and what habits you have for solving problems or otherwise. The Greeks didn't think of the 'spirit' as a sort of non-physical ghost. For them, the sub-parts of the spirit were your dreams or goals and desires. The spirit was what motivated you to action.

Today, people who study personality would say that we have "beliefs and desires." Essentially they've replaced "contents of the mind" with beliefs, and "contents of the spirit" with desires. I like the Greek model better because I think that the mind holds more than beliefs. There are also skills and habits. As for the spirit I think it is useful to distinguish mental desires from spiritual desires or dreams. I have a dream of building a home that produces its own energy and food. But I want money only for those dreams. I don't care about money for its own sake. So I like the Greek form with its body, mind and motivating spirit better than "beliefs and desires." Another thing, what about the body? Hello?

Still, there is a lot that seems to be missing from the Greek model.
The Greek form records people who dream about a house so they use their knowledge and skills to have their body produce one. What about the fear of people who disagree with us? What about the worries that can easily paralyze us in life? And what about the joy?

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Saturday, April 7, 2007

The World in my pocket!

I am drowning in stuff. Even after several prunings and garage sales. Looking into my closet I see an extra keyboard and an extra printer (two are already hooked up!) My tool box had five phillips and five regular screwdrivers of all approximately the same size -- until recently.

I began planning some changes after a strange trip I made several years ago. The trip began with me working with orphans on a farm in a remote Russian village for three weeks. We had a village shower every week but I missed the first one because they called it a "sauna." Russia was having a heat wave and since I'm not anything like a farm boy I felt it was especially hot. I told them I would skip the "sauna." There was much weeping when I found out. Immediately after Russia, I gave a presentation at the Global Grid Forum in Scotland about getting computers that don't trust one another to collaborate. After that I had some vacation in London. Can you see the connection to 'stuff?' Please post if you have ever boarded an old wooden train with enough luggage to support farming, presenting, and vacationing. I'll lead the support group.

On the flight home I began brain storming ways to reduce the amount of stuff I need to as small as possible. I have literally spent thousands of hours thinking about how to reduce my footprint; searching for small but functional products, sewing elastic bands, soldering cables together that I couldn't find on e-bay. I have had an amazing success which I shall share in the hope that others can use my ideas. But there is a deeper meaning to my project. Here we are at the brink of a new century (will it actually start in 2008?) in a World ripe with new technologies, new knowledge, and new possibilities. But it is as if we are drowning in it! Does anyone really know how stem cells work? OK, some people know how to make a few modifications in stem cells but do they also know whether string-theory (the latest theory in physics) is producing results? Does anyone really even understand string theory? And if they do, do they understand the advances in computer science that are making telephone operators obsolete? Do they know why styles are changing every few years now instead of every decade? Have they also kept up with politics, psychology, and philosophy? The evolution of religion?

These pockets of knowledge are growing fast! And they affect us. Imagine how differently one who understands the psychological effects of the authoritarian style and who can recognize traits of personality disorders would perceive American politics from one who has never heard of these things. In the 20th century, specialized knowledge was all the fashion. But I hear the wind of change and I don't feel comfortable going into the next ten years without having a very broad as well as deep knowledge base. (Confession: I am also addicted to learning and self-improvement so there may be bias!)

Here is the problem: Using Google, Wikipedia, social nets and a thousand books to do research whenever something comes up is like trying to catch a rural, wooden train with way too much luggage in tow. But it shouldn't have to be like that. I don't need five screwdrivers of the same kind and I don't need to know set-theory, category-theory, formal logic, and computer science when there is so much redundancy in each of these mathematical frameworks. It is time to clean house! Let me lay out three principles that I have been using as a guide:

Three principles for getting rid of stuff:
  1. I do not want to lose functionality or sacrifice style. If I need two screwdrivers I won't go to one just to save space. And no solar-panel shirts or nylon blue jeans until they look good!
  2. I want to have my convenience. If a PDA could replace my MP3 player but it takes four times as much work due to all the clicking and waiting for the hour-glass and the rebooting, forget it!
  3. I want everything and I want it to go. I want maximum life-style with minimal baggage. Yes, I know you are thinking that it is impossible. I want a grand piano but I want it to fit in my pocket without weighing my pants down. I want everyone to have everything but I want a sustainable, healthy social/eco system. I want to live forever, but I want to eat lots of cheese-cake. I know that it is impossible, but it's a guideline. The idea is to lay out all the possibilities then make healthy, happy choices. It isn't possible to have everything, but it is possible to lay out all the possibilities.
Can I get all the knowledge that will affect me in the next ten years? Can I catch the bullet train with all my stuff in tow? Not in 20th Century mode. But... Well, it's going to be fun innovating a way to drink from the fire hydrant, and I hope you'll join me for the ride!