ScrimismsPresently suffering a dearth of witticisms

December 2006


Books21 Dec 2006

I was reading one of those “Common mistakes newbie writers make” guides, and the author discussed my “personal favorite”: he called it “Failure to deal with consequences”.

If you write a story where they finally do shoot all the lawyers, who’ll try the cases when the guilty are brought to justice? Don’t just ask yourself what if once. After you get your answer, ask yourself what if about the answer, and then ask it about the answer to your answer.

Too often, Science Fiction writers fail to ask “what if” with enough tenacity. When I encounter such an oversight in a book/story/film, I call it a “don’t think” moment, because you either have to turn your brain off and go with it, or have the otherwise enjoyable story ruined.

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A.I. and Games and Musings18 Dec 2006

I stumbled on a rather unusual approach to Computer Go. (Go being a popular Asian strategy game and getting computers to play being the subject of my thesis). Computer Go is an interesting research problem for AI because the “standard” min/max search techniques that have worked so well in Chess and other games don’t work.

There are two important reasons for this. The first: the number of moves available to a player in a given turn is much larger in Go than in other games (roughly 10 times the number available in chess, for example), and so considering all available moves, plus all possibly replies to each one, plus all possible rejoinders to each possible reply, etc., becomes unwieldy very quickly (this is known as exponential growth, a phenomenon found in this approach to all games, but for most games the large numbers involved are still tractable for a number-crunching computer). The second: unlike chess and similar games, the question of which of two positions is better in Go cannot be answered easily. Taken together, it means that in Go, there are many more moves to consider, and greater difficulty in “considering” them. The end result is that Computer Go programs play badly, and often slowly as well.

Various people are working on a technique they call “Monte Carlo Go”. (For an outline of “Gobble”, the first program to use this technique, go here). The basic idea is this: to test each candidate move, make that move and then play out the rest of the game making random moves. Do this several thousand times, making note of the final score each time. Choose the move that scores the best.

The advantages are twofold. One, there is no search through an exponentially-growing game tree, since a fixed number of random games are played at each juncture (though this can still be slow if the number of random games is high enough). Two, move evaluation is easy to perform, since the only positions to evaluate are the end of the game, and all that needs to be done is compute the score and see “who won”.

How do such programs play? Quite badly, even by computer standards. However, the original Gobble didn’t “know” anything but the rules of the game. There have been some attempts to introduce Go knowledge to improve playing ability: for example, an early program by this fellow doesn’t choose moves that fill a player’s own eyes (a usually suicidal move). That program plays slightly better, but seems to play a rather odd game of making small amounts of tightly-defended territory in the middle of the board while leaving the edges to its opponents, thus losing badly.

Putting aside playing ability, this approach to Go, while fairly typically of AI techniques, is completely unlike the way an real Go player operates. Even if a real player had the superhuman ability to play out 10,000 random games per second, doing so would not help them nearly as much as playing normally. Not only is this unfeasible for a human player, it is quite unnatural. When was the last time you solved a problem by trying a bunch of random solutions with random results and then picked the “most promising”?

To paraphrase David Parans, I’m starting to think the name “Artificial Intelligence” is very apt, in that AI it relates to intelligence in much the same way “Artificial Flavor” does to flavour: AI goes to great lengths and fakery to create the illusion of the real thing. This is a bit of a shame since it would be much more productive to learn the real principles of intelligence. And yes, there are such things: if intelligent creatures like ourselves can be created by nothing more magical than the process of natural selection, the principles intelligence itself, while highly complex, are not inherently unknowable. To think otherwise is to believe in eyes but to think Optics is ineffable.

Musings and Photos09 Dec 2006

I love notebooks. I love the promise of the fresh blank pages. I love carrying one around so that it’s always at arm’s reach if I want to jot something down.

Anyhow, tonight I was looking for a notebook to write something in, and in the in the course of poking around, I discovered that all my notebooks seem to be about half full. I never fill them. I abandon them half finished. I can’t help but feel there’s a message about my life in general in there somewhere.

all
Half a pile of notebooks.

Of course, I ended up gathering my various notebooks for the past 8 years or so together to see how well that 50% principle held. It made for an interesting trip through the past few years of my life.

From oldest to most recent:
 

Description: Coil bound, with a Buddha on the front.
Origin: gift from my mom
Date: 1999
Contents: A journal I kept while on a high-school trip to Europe.
Amount used: 80% full.
Reason I stopped using it: I came back from Europe.
Excerpt: (from our day spent looking in tourist shops in the Spanish town of Lloret de Mar): A pushy shop guy tried to sell me a half-price leather jacket for 7000 pts. I declined, and he told me he could give me a better deal because his boss was out to lunch. I was tempted, but decided that I didn’t like the funny criss-cross pattern and plastic zipper. As soon as I lost interest, the price started coming down and the pressure started going up. Eventually we fled the store, with the salesman’s frantic shouts of “My boss is out to lunch!” ringing in our ears. The price was down to 3500 pts, or about $35 Canadian by then. As we stepped on to the street, another salesman at the front of the store offered to cut the price yet farther. Andrew was pretty sure he hadn’t even been following our conversation with the first salesman and didn’t even know what he was offering to sell us, only that he was going to give us a deal.

 

Description: Marbled green cover.
Origin: I think I bought it, can’t really remember.
Date: 2000-2002
Contents: A mixture of notes, story fragments, journal entries, video game ideas.
Amount used: Hard to estimate because I tended to just open it to a random blank page and start writing. I’d say about 50%.
Reason I stopped using it: because of the lack of organization, finding anything in it eventually became difficult and it seemed like a good idea to just get a new notebook.
Excerpt: On one page dated “June 8″ I wrote “Beware of invisible cows!”

 

Description: Basic black composition book
Origin: I bought it
Date: 2002-2003
Contents: Served as my “writing journal” during the creative writing course I took at Mount A. Mixture of musings and story fragments.
Amount used: 50%
Reason I stopped using it: The writing course ended and I felt I had worn out my creative-writing muscles.
Excerpt: Nov 11/02. In the library, mucking about with God, Spinoza and Free Will while waiting for Basse & Von Gelder [ed: an algorithms text-book on course-reserve]. Need to finish my re-write. The rest of the class have done some nice things with theirs. Being in here, in the quiet , with the shuffling and murmurs of other working students and the occasional, almost musical whine of the saw from the construction site outside, I’m reminded of the “bone hoard” level of [the computer game] Thief: large catacombs, ghostly music, wailing undead, not-quite-silent-enough silence. My creative impulses at the moment are towards writing D&D adventures… fantasy appeals to me more than it should these work-heavy days.

 

Description: Basic navy blue composition book
Origin: I probably bought it
Date: 2004-2005
Contents: Journal, research-meeting notes, computer game ideas, early work on my thesis.
Amount used: 50%
Reason I stopped using it: I stopped doing a lot of things in the summer of 2005.
Excerpt: “I can think of a cat, or I can think of a trillion fundamental particles” – Dave, my research mate.

 

Description: Brown journal with Chinese characters on it.
Origin: Gift from dad
Date: 2005-2006
Contents: Thesis brainstorming and journal.
Amount used: 50%
Reason I stopped using it: Not sure. I think because I went to Greece and took a different notebook instead.
Excerpt: Oct 24, 2005: I’m reading Alfred N. Whitehead, The Function of Reason: “Plato and Ulysses. The one shares Reason with the Gods, the other shares it with the foxes.”

 

Description: Purple.
Origin: Gift from Jenn and Martha
Date: 2006
Contents: a little creative writing, my journal from Greece and Toronto.
Amount used: 40%
Reason I stopped using it: I came back from Greece?
Excerpt: Heraklion – March 29/06
I’m sitting on the wall of a Venetian fortress looking out to sea. It’s my second full day on Crete, and the first time I’ve had a chance to pick up my pen. I am, as Andrew predicted, sitting on a ruin, pen in hand, thinking of what to write, of where to begin.

Heraklion is wonderful: a sun-soaked city of 200,000, uneven, angular, flat-roofed buildings piled up on the crumbling walls of the old fortified city. The streets are narrow and winding, and mostly one-way. Every building sports a multitude of balconies at every point.

The fortifications are all relatively new: at her height, Crete was such a fierce naval power that her inhabitants rarely bothered to fortify on land. This was not because they lived in peaceful times: ancient Crete was at war with her neighbours more than any other Greek state.

 

Description: Black with a white apple sticker stuck on the front.
Origin: I bought it
Date: 2006-present
Contents: Journal, thesis stuff, other research stuff.
Amount used: about 25%
Reason I stopped using it: I haven’t…yet…
Excerpt: Sept 14/2006
The other reason not to grow up: you lose your sense of invulnerability. What good is a young person that does not believe he can conquer the world?

Musings07 Dec 2006

spam spam spam

At least they aren’t trying to sell me V14gRa or give me stock tips.

Music and News05 Dec 2006

Harry Manx and Michael Kaeshammer are on tour together. One is the “essential link” between Indian classical music and Mississippi blues (and a big favorite of mine), the other is a boy-wonder jazz pianist. It seemed like an unlikely pairing but it worked very well.

Each played a short set of on their own, and then after intermission they played a set together.

I can’t say enough good things about Harry Manx. His CDs are great but they are nothing compared to hearing him live. I had goosebumps through his whole set, and the crowd response to his songs was huge. You can hear some samples at his website.

I hadn’t heard Michale Kaeshammer before. He’s quite an energetic piano player, and he did a lot of baning on / reaching inside the piano in the course of his set. He also played “with one hand behind his back” a bit – reaching behind him to play some notes on an electric keyboard set up behind his grand piano.

The first thing you realize when these two are on stage together is that they both have the same sense of humor: lame jokes mixed with the absurd.

Michael: “We traced my great-grandfather all the way back to Marie Antoinette. In fact, my great-grandmother traced him there several times.”

Harry: “I think I’m getting a call” *removes shoe, places it to his ear*.

And on and on in that vein.

Their combined set was very good, with a lot of interplay between them. They mostly did Harry’s blues songs with Michael accompanying, but he took the lead on a couple as well. Wonderful show, my only complaint was that it seemed a little short.