Archive for October, 2008

We humans are quite full of ourselves

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

It is one of the conceits of our race that we are quite full of our own intelligence. Hopefully, one day we’ll run across a vastly more intelligent species and be put in our collective place. But until then, we’ll keep on calling our own intelligence the best thing since sliced bread — something, I should point out, that our intelligence invented, and still thinks itself mighty clever for having come up with.

Orcs are a classic fantasy villain race.  They are anthropomorphic, but vastly lacking in intelligence in comparison to humans.

Orcs are a classic fantasy villain race. They are anthropomorphic, but vastly lacking in intelligence in comparison to humans.

In nearly every fantasy universe, humans are the smartest creatures around. Even elves, the high variety of which are frequently portrayed as wiser than people, are really just humans with pointy ears. If you don’t believe me, just ask a half-elf, or a quarter-elf, or a third-elf. Now compare that against all of the stupid races in fantasy universes: goblins, orcs, trolls, ogres, etc. They’re all so dumb one wonders how they even manage to put their armor on in the morning.

To make up for their incredible stupidity, these creatures are also given incredible strength. The human protagonists in the story must therefore rely on their cunning, their wit, and their intelligence to triumph over the enemies. Even magic is nothing more than a form of intelligence made physically manifest — the art of spellcasting is portrayed as an academic endeavor, in which the most studious become the most powerful. The concept of fantasy magic is the ultimate in human intelligence navel-gazing.

Even in non-fantasy media, the protagonists typically defeat their human rivals by outsmarting them. The movies in which the protagonist defeats his nemesis simply by beating on him more powerfully are few and far between — and of those that do exist, most of them involve sport, an activity so frequently fetishized by commentators that all connections to reality are lost. You simply can’t have a compelling story without a triumph of the mind. It’s understandable, really: while our eyes merely gaze at the movie screen, it’s our own mind that is truly watching it, and minds do harbor sympathies for other minds.

We value human intelligence so greatly because we are the only beings on the planet who possess anything close to it. When we triumph over a lion, a bear, or a hippopotamus in nature, we do so not by brute force, but through our intelligence. In one-on-one hand-to-hand combat, a fight against an elephant isn’t remotely fair. Allow the human use of a simple hand-held weapon such as a spear and the odds tighten considerably. Now give him a modern weapon that represents the apex of human intelligence — say, an F-22 joint strike fighter — and the elephant is easily reduced to a cloud of pink mist that has no chance whatsoever of retaliating against the human roaring away at Mach 2 a couple miles above it.

It is no surprise, then, that our fantasy worlds mimic very much the real world. Even though we make our villain fantasy races anthropomorphic (an orc is frequently portrayed as being a human with prominent boar features, for instance), even though we give them the ability to speak language, they represent nothing more than the animals of our own world, which we are used to accustomed to dominating completely. Are the fantasy creatures more intelligent? Certainly. It’s not a fair fight if the man-sized enemies don’t use weapons. But ultimately all that they really are is animals. No wonder fantasy story lines follow the races of player characters: humans, elves, dwarves, gnomes, and others — all of which are pretty much the same as humans, sharing the same relative physical weaknesses, but possessing the same mental prowesses.

So it makes sense that human intelligences are most entertained by the dealings of other human intelligences, and that is thus what our fictions focus upon. It makes sense that in our fantasies we conduct battle against either humans or animals, because that is all we really know about fighting against in our own world — except in fantasy even the animals frequently look like humans because we really are that obsessed with ourselves. Yes, we humans really are quite full of ourselves, but seeing the complete lack of alternatives, who can blame us?

Random sacrilegious thought of the day

Tuesday, October 14th, 2008

Playing “Clue” with a group of Mormons is no fun. The answer is always Jehovah in the watchtower with the nine-inch nail.

Web nostalgia

Tuesday, October 14th, 2008

If this does not bring back nostalgic memories, then you, sir, have not been on the interweb nearly long enough.

Why the William Ayers “controversy” keeps failing to gain traction

Sunday, October 12th, 2008

Pardon my dumb-foundedness, but I just don’t understand why the McCain/Palin campaign and other Republicans keep on pushing the “he associates with former terrorist William Ayers” attack line against Barack Obama. Okay, that’s not quite true; I understand why they’re pushing this line of attack — they’re out of any good ideas for America’s future, and it does work on their rather ignorant base — but what I don’t understand is how they think this line of attack will be successful in the greater scheme of bringing more undecided voters into the fold and win the election. Let’s look at the charge objectively, okay?

William Ayers committed his terrorist attacks when Obama was eight years old and living in Indonesia. Obama hadn’t even heard of him at that point, let alone supported his philosophies. They wouldn’t go on to meet for another twenty-seven years, by which point William Ayers had long since stopped being a terrorist and had become a respected university professor. The two met when they served on the board of a non-profit education-focused community group. And as a potentially mitigating factor in defense of Ayers, the US government wasn’t exactly on a hot streak during the Vietnam War; the Weather Underground has to be understood in the context of the larger anti-war movement that rose up to oppose it. Yes, the Weather Underground used tactics that are never acceptable — but so did the government at the time. No ones hands are clean in this.

The American public overall isn’t being persuaded by this line of attack. Calling Obama a terrorist sympathizer as an attempt to paint him as un-American (how McCarthyist!) is too sleazy for all but the most rabid conservative. It simply isn’t gaining any traction; when McCain started pushing this narrative, Obama started gaining in the polls. But the silliest part of this line of attack is that, if it actually held any merit, it could just as easily be used against me, to disqualify me from ever holding any elected office. What’s that? I’m connected with a former terrorist? You betcha!

I went to Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Maryland, a notoriously liberal area. One of my best and most memorable teachers was my eleventh grade history teacher. She would frequently get distracted during lessons and start recounting stories of her anti-war activities during the Vietnam era, and we all loved her for it. We learned more from her than from any textbook. And her life story was amazing, leaving her with a wealth of personal stories that never left us bored: after her anti-war activism, she became a Catholic nun, then ended up leaving religion altogether, married a black man in a time when that was very uncommon and looked down upon, had a mixed-race child, ended up getting divorced, then ultimately became a teacher. We all respected her greatly because, unlike most other teachers, she treated us like adults and told us the unfiltered truth. At one point when she was telling us a story of how her, her husband, and their child were racially discriminated against, she and half the class were crying. But it was her activities during the Vietnam War that I’d like to focus on now.

My teacher was involved in a radical anti-war group. The very pinnacle of her activism occurred when she, along with a group of college students, broke into an Agent Orange munitions factory at night and destroyed a lot of the manufacturing equipment. Attacking the machineries of war during wartime? That easily qualifies as terrorism, probably even treason. They were caught on their way out and spent awhile in jail. Finally, thanks to an amazing bout of luck and a sympathetic judge, my teacher got off with a misdemeanor charge instead of a felony (her co-conspirators weren’t so lucky), which was very fortuitous because a felony would’ve precluded her from ever becoming a teacher.

So, yes, I personally knew a “terrorist”, and what’s worse, unlike Obama with Ayers, I don’t even disagree with her actions. Unlike the Weather Underground, which targeted and killed people, my teacher targeted the equipment involved in making a chemical of war that was used in extremely unethical ways by our military against a civilian population. I can’t really fault her for that. So you can excuse me for not feeling sympathetic for McCain’s line of attack on Obama, not even by one whit.

The greatest depression of our times

Friday, October 10th, 2008

On the bright side, we can say we’re living through the greatest depression of our times. That’s one way to look at it, right? It’ll seem all romantic a couple of decades down the line. For now, it just Hoovers. Everyone I know — and we’re by no means rich — has lost a lot of money in the recent economic downturn. All of my friends at work contribute the maximum matched amount into their corporate 401K accounts, and everyone has also lost more value than the amount contributed by the company — that’s down by over 33%.

The only silver lining to this is that now we’re getting lots of stocks through our 401K plans really cheap. It probably doesn’t make up for the downturn in the first place, but having an economic recession at the beginning of your career is definitely better than having one at the end of your career. Small comfort to those near retirement age though, of course (like my parents).

A lot of people have been asking my take on this crisis, which is flattering, but I don’t know much more about the root causes of it than anyone else — nor really what a good solution would be. All I can say is that if you have a high risk tolerance, you’ll be able to get a lot of stocks really cheap at the moment. Wait until the market stops its nosedive, of course, then make your move. Other than that, I guess we can all continue to hope that things will get better sooner rather than later, for the sake of humanity as a whole. This just isn’t an American depression: with the interconnectedness of today’s markets, it’s a global depression, and if things keep on going on like this, it will seriously impede humanity’s march of progress. So that’s the bigger picture to keep in mind in all of this.

A philosophy of ethics in the age of digital intelligences

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

I think about the future a lot. Okay, that’s a lie — I think about the future all the time. I place the blame on the vast quantity of science fiction books I read during my formative years. But it really has been the highest privilege imaginable to watch the future unfold right before my eyes these past twenty-three years, even if it hasn’t always happened quite as we imagined it would. And the best part is, it’s a privilege that never ends! Just looking at what’s on my desk right now, I have 500 GB of storage in a hand-portable format. Take that back to just one decade ago and no one would even believe it.

The encroachment of the future upon the present has been occurring at an accelerating rate, too fast for any single person to keep up with it all. Take any given scientific field — only the experts in it are even aware of all of the groundbreaking research, while people outside that field are entirely clueless (witness the recent unfounded public backlash against the Large Hadron Collider, for instance). This lag time between initial discovery and general synthesis of knowledge isn’t getting any shorter, even as new inventions continue coming along at a breakneck pace. It’s a recipe for severe discrepancies between disparate areas of knowledge.

One area we haven’t normalized with scientific progress yet is ethics. Our legal system, for example, is built entirely around the assumption that humans are the only intelligent actors. Harm inflicted against humans is thus either caused by other humans (whether intentionally or not), by accident, or by nature. The latter two do not merit punishments (though in some cases compensation is awarded), while the first category is dealt with mainly through punishments that are geared to work on people, such as incarceration. But as computers continually grow exponentially more powerful according to Moore’s Law, the categories begin to break down.

Look at the case of Robert Williams, an automotive factory stockroom worker who in 1979 became the world’s first robot fatality when a robot’s arm, entirely lacking in any sort of safeguard, smacked into him at full speed, killing him instantly. The courts (rightfully) considered that robot as a simple tool, and the jury found the robot’s manufacturers negligent and awarded Williams’ family $10 million. Even today, robot fatalities are dealt with in the same manner: they are either declared to be entirely accidental, or the manufacturer of the robot is found to be at fault. They have yet to find the robot itself, acting intelligently and on its own, to be at fault.

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A first-hand lesson in software optimization

Sunday, October 5th, 2008

The player is a striped bass, one of the arch predators in the bay.

The player is a striped bass, one of the arch predators in the bay.

One of my major computer science projects in college was creating an educational videogame for elementary school children called A Day in the Bay. We had eight people on the team, though only three of us (myself included) were programmers. It was a self-directed project, and we pretty much figured out things on our own as we went along. I’m not kidding about that last part — check out the CVS revisions for all the gory details. We not-so-seamlessly morphed our custom game engine through a couple completely different game types as our project evolved, and by the time we completed the final project, the overall structure of the code was rather incompatible with how it was being used.

But despite all of the problems, the most important programming lesson I learned from all of college came out of A Day in the Bay. That lesson was how to seriously optimize software, and it would’ve been entirely impossible to learn in the classroom, or even in a month-long programming project.

When we started writing our game, we were very laid back about it. We developers had gaming-caliber computers, and we only cut back on features when the game started lagging for us. So you can imagine our shock when we first tried testing the game on the many-year-old computers in a local elementary school’s computer lab. Oh, and our game was written in Java. Beginning to see some problems now?

The game was completely unplayable. We’re talking frame rates in the low single digits. We had to heavily optimize the game for performance in a short period of time. We did so by cutting out most of the game’s simulationist features. Our game, as originally envisioned, simulated an entire cross-section of the Chesapeake Bay, including plants, small fish, the larger fish eating them, etc. We had to keep track of thousands of fish and have all of them take actions in real time. We even had a state diagram for each fish which determined if it was running for its life, hunting for food, or just chilling out. Needless to say, it wasn’t working on the school system’s hardware.

So our first optimization was to establish a virtual boundary that was roughly one-and-a-half screen lengths in diameter around the viewable area. No processing time was spent on any of the creatures outside that rectangle. They were frozen, and only simulated when the player swam near them. This optimization wasn’t enough, though — we still had to keep track of thousands of in-game objects, which was overflowing the memory available to us on the classroom computers.

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