ScrimismsPresently suffering a dearth of witticisms

August 2007


A.I. and Games and Musings15 Aug 2007

I’ve been working on my slides for my thesis defense talk, and it reminded me of this particular observation.

The game of Go presents incredible freedom of choice to its players. At any juncture, a player my place his stone on any unoccupied vertex of a 19 x 19 grid. That means there are 361 possible first moves, and for each one there are 360 possible replies, and 359 possible replies to each of these, etc, until the game finally ends, typically about 300 moves later.

So how many unique games of Go are there? The simple way to describe this number is to write 361!

The exclamation point, a rather fitting piece of math notation, is called a factorial, and what it means is take every number between 1 and 361 and multiply them together. Try it on your calculator: it’ll probably explode. The result is roughly 10^700, which is another way to express the same number, but really doesn’t give much more intuition as to its actual size than 361! did. We are way beyond the realm of what humans are capable of wrapping our little heads around.

Consider this: if you decide to take every possible game of Go and play them out side by side on separate boards, you couldn’t do it. You run out of matter fairly early on in the process. There are, after all, only 10^80 atoms in the universe, and if you used them all to build Go boards, you’d still come up woefully short.

Books and Movies and Musings12 Aug 2007

I’d all but forgotten about the 5 novels by Susan Cooper called the “Dark is Rising” series. Written in the 70s, they’re young-adult fantasy about a boy who discovers that he is the last of a race of mystical beings called the “Old Ones” and is thrust into the great battle between good and evil going on behind the scenes of the “ordinary” world. I read them when I was a kid. They probably went a long way to shape my taste in fantasy.

I recently discovered that a film version will be released in October.

Here’s the awful awful trailer:

They’ve taken a moody and eerie and deliberately-paced book turned it into, well, Harry Potter. At least HP has a soundtrack that isn’t generic pop-rock.

It could be have been a fantastic film, but instead it’ll probably a boy-wizard knock-off. The only potential upside I can think of is the casting of Christopher “Last of the Timelords” Eccleston as the mysterious agent of evil called “The Rider”.

I’ve seen enough movies that I think I’ve figured out how Hollywood works.

Nobody makes any fantasy films for a while. Then, a decent director decides to adapt a famous trilogy about hobbits and wizards, and makes it a real labour of love. It’s well received and makes a bajillion dollars. The bajillion dollars gets Hollywood’s attention.

Meanwhile, a series of books about a boy wizard with unkempt hair and a goofy scar makes a bajillion dollars (that’s a bajillion publishing dollars, which is a smaller amount than a bajillion movie dollars, but still significant), so Hollywood makes a movie adaptation. They do a decent job, but the source material is pretty “hollywood” to begin with so it’s hard to go too far wrong.

At this point, the flood-gates open. Unfortunately, instead of thinking “Hmm, a bunch of fantasy novels were well adapted to film and people liked them, lets find some more novels and make apt film versions”, they think “Fantasy is hot! Lets make 10 more movies exactly like the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter! Find some IP to license!”

And along comes Narnia (which I didn’t actually see, but still felt free to comment on), and now, along comes the Dark is Rising. The book is like Harry Potter in that it’s about a boy with magical powers, but the similarities end there. The movie version, however….

Just once I’d like to see a fantasy film that relies on atmosphere and mood instead of flashy visual effects. The Dark is Rising is the ideal basis for such a film. Bah, so much wasted potential.

Meanwhile, the success of “Transformers” (It’s been reported to me that there are people who think Transformers is the best movie they’ve ever seen…), is spawning some more “cartoon giant robot” movies.

That’s right, Voltron is coming to the big screen.

A.I. and Books04 Aug 2007

I’ve just finished reading “Science and the Modern World” by Alfred North Whitehead (he was, among other things, Bertrand Russel’s sidekick on the Principia Mathematica). I’m starting to get a nice little Whitehead collection:

Science and the Modern World is a remarkable book on the history and philosophy of science. It is an adaptation of a series of lectures given by Whitehead in 1925, but it feels as though it could have been published yesterday: I was frequently amazed at how clearly Whitehead expressed ideas that have yet to crystallize for thinkers 80 years on.

For me, the high-point of the book is the end of his chapter called “The Century of Genius”, in which he, in a scant seven pages, lays out exactly how “modern philosophy has been ruined”.

The key to this ruin, he says, is that we treat objects/matter as having only “simple location”—existence at certain points in space, at particular moments in time. He says that this simple (and still widely held) view of matter is responsible for all manner of bugbears from Hume’s problem of induction, to the triumph of a materialistic view of the world that many people instinctively find aesthetically unsatisfying:

“These sensations [cf Locke's secondary qualities: colour, sound, etc. as opposed to primary qualities: mass, shape, etc.] are projected by the mind so as to clothe appropriate bodies in external nature. Thus the bodies are perceived as with qualities which in reality do not belong to them, qualities which in fact are purely the offspring of the mind. Thus nature gets credit for what should in truth be reserved for ourselves: the rose its scent: the nightingale for his song: and the sun for his radiance. The poets are entirely mistaken. They should address their lyrics to themselves, and should turn them into odes of self-congratulation on the excellency of the human mind. Nature is a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colourless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly.

“However you disguise it, this is the practical outcome of the characteristic scientific philosophy which closed the seventeenth century.” (p. 54).

His solution to these problems is to change the focus from the reality of “timeless” objects to a reality of processes unfolding in time. “The reality is a process,” he says, “It is nonsense to ask if the colour red is real. The colour red is ingredient in the process of realisation.”

I won’t replay the whole argument here (Go and read the book if you’re interested!), but it has numerous contemporary consequences. To take two:

First, aesthetically, the objects of reality takes on a much more organic flavour: all of the world is imbued with the same vital energy normally reserved to characterizes living things in their evolution over time (and why should life get special status? We are all made out of the same “stuff” as everything else, after all…).

Second, it has huge implications for Artificial Intelligence (my area: my supervisor recommended the book to me) and related information processing endeavors: our current approaches to modeling information about the world treat objects as static, atemporal things with particular fixed properties. If reality is actually made of temporal processes… well, you can see where our state-of-the-art is in danger of falling far short.

How has this been ignored for 80 years?

Fantastic book. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in the structure of scientific thought and its various implications.

Books03 Aug 2007

While waiting at the checkout I spotted this and couldn’t resist. Here’s a photo.

I post it without making any particular comment. Take a close look for yourself.

I’m not sure what I’ll do with it now that I own it. Perhaps I’ll put it on the shelf with my copy of “Baby Names for Dummies”.

You thought I was making that one up, didn’t you?

I seem to be starting a collection of unfortunately-named guide books.