Thursday, July 24, 2008

Itchily waiting for my new laptop

Why can't you leave Shanghai already? Are you in love with a MacBook Air or something? Look, maybe I'll take you back there some day. GET ON THE PLANE!

You've been in Shanghai for the last 36 freakin' hours. Get the LED out.


It finally leaves Shanghai...and goes to Anchorage???


Update 2: Now it's in Indianapolis.

Made great time getting there. 8 hours. Must have crossed a couple of time zones, too. Seeing the world before you settle down, is that it?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


As I was bicycling in to work this morning, I was thinking of choice in our society, from the bottom up.

We are all responsible for the choices we make. But we don't determine all the options we choose between. Most options are handed to us by our environment, with no alternatives. And we build our lives over time from how we choose between them.

We're not doomed to be mechanistic. No matter what the influence of our backgrounds, brains and bodies, we can do the work to free our minds and choose. But if the most enlightened man on Earth is presented with a choice of only bread or water, he still won't be able to choose cake.

This holds true whether we're talking about the Middle East or the sale of crystal meth. Give a US kid a perceived choice between either being broke or selling drugs, he is more likely to choose selling drugs. Give a young man in Saudi Arabia a choice between following US-supported leaders who oppress him, or following radical clerics who offer him the chance to strike against that government and ours - and he is more likely to become our enemy. Give either human being a better option, and they are more likely to choose better.

They are still accountable for whatever choice they make, and should be held so. It's just that if we want people to make better choices, then for the long-term pragmatically AND morally it behooves us to present people with a better set of options.

Which brings us to leaders. Until this morning, I thought of leaders merely as people who tell us what to do. Now I see our leaders as people who choose and manage the options which WE choose from. Their choices influencing our choices.

This is an interesting way to see things, as it respects our free will and theirs. We are all equals able to make choices - we're just about different things. And in the US and many other countries, we are fortunate enough to be able to choose our leaders, whose choices then influence our options for future choices.

It's all about choice, always. Choice is life.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Amazon Tribe has language without numbers

Cognitive scientists have discovered an Amazonian tribe called the Piraha have a language that does not have numbers. The closest thing it has to numbers are relative words to compare quantities - words which can mean less, more, "a few" or "more than a few", depending on what's being compared.

Why this matters
The use of words is hardwired into the human brain. We know this conclusively because children who have grown up without human contact have been able to create their own languages. It was thought possible that counting and numbers could also be hardwired into our brains - but this discovery seems to prove that wrong.

What this means for human thinking

From the article:
One other discovery of the project is that the Piraha can perform exact matching tasks as long as there is no memory component to them, but once there is a memory component, they approximate their matches. This suggests that language is a cognitive technology that aids humans in memory tasks.

As I'm understanding this, when the speakers' tasks involve the present, the speakers use their words to exactly match shown quantities. But if the tasks involve a comparison with the past, the speakers change to a relative comparison method.

Comparing with the past, of course, involves the use of memory. From this, these cognitive scientists think it likely that human language was created at least in part to help with memory.

For what it's worth, this makes complete sense to me. Language and memory are very deeply linked together. Thinking back through my own memories, they're all linked up through language. Either it's a concept such as "playing sports", or "first day of school", or it's something specific someone said to me, or a grand achievement or disappointment - which all plays into story, which is all based on language.

Also, and more indicative - I don't have any long-term memories that occur before I learned language. It may be possible that some people really do have pre-verbal memories from before they learned language - but if so, those memories are still more rare and less clear.

The fact that a language lacking in numbers is so incredibly rare - only one found so far out of almost 7000 currently spoken - indicates what real survival value the use of specific numbers gives us.

What this means for our history
Current science indicates that our primate cousins and early competitors, the Neanderthals, also had language. From what we can tell they had a skilled stone tool culture. They also were apparently stronger and tougher than us, and had larger brains (for what that's worth). They were settled in and established for thousands of years before we came across them. So why did they disappear so quickly?

One theory is that our Cro Magnon ancestors were able to supplant them by using language not only to communicate, but also for symbolic and conceptual thinking. The Cro-Magnons thus could imagine possibilities that did not yet exist, and also compare the present with the past in terms of changing needs. Both of these capabilities are key to better planning for the present and for the future.

Numbers would fit in exactly with this sort of revolutionary advantage. In computer terms, developing a concept for numbers would be a specific and actual software change - a language change that enabled us to create newer and better programs for ourselves.

Picture the scene. Neanderthals say: "We're hungry. We saw some deer by the river last time, maybe there's enough of them." Cro Magnons say: "We have 7 people. Our tribe needs more than 4 deer to survive. We only saw 3 deer at the river. I see trails for 5 deer going over the hill - let's hunt them instead."

The idea that human survival over competition is due to software (as in language and concepts), as opposed to hardware (as in genetically inherited brainpower), sure is another nice cup of STFU to any notion of innate genetic superiority of any subdivision of humanity. But what interests me in a larger sense is what this means for humanity's relationship to the Universe.

The Universe appears to be based on numbers and math. It operates according to laws that have specific ratios which can be quantified. Even when it has randomness, that randomness is visible in contrast to the Universe's apparent reliance on number-based laws.

But our understanding of math is not built-in. It appears to be a software-only advantage. Something that was wholly learned, which has helped us to survive.

Which means to me that this is one more way that the Universe wants us to learn and to thrive. It is rewarding us specifically for our learning. It's giving and showing us an ever-expanding cycle - by learning, we can live, and be able to learn better and live better, and move ever further towards a more beautiful horizon.

Among the current lessons the Universe has assigned us: learning to not treat each other like crap, and learning that gasoline might not last forever.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

OK, Google - you're kicking too much ass. Stop it.

I mean, Jesus, guys. This is just ridiculous.

Already you have me in Gmail, Google Notebooks, Google Calendar, Google Docs. This very blog is written on your subsidiary Blogspot. From your Youtube, I can get a quick fix of almost any video I want to see. I mean *anything*. From training videos in Ableton 7 to amateur stripteases. From Noam Chomsky to Don freakin' Knotts.

Then there's Google Finance. Google Health, so I won't forget my own blood type again. Google Reader, Google Analytics, Google AdSense...I'm starting to spend more time in the freakin' Google Operating System than I spend hating on George Bush.

But that's not even enough for you, is it, you unbelievably helpful overproductive info-achievers? No, anthropomorphized Google, you had to go and do this: a language translator that even handles Hindi.

Did you know I'm fascinated by Indian culture? Can you read my mind? Is this some sort of trap? Maybe I should use Google Shopping to find a nice tinfoil-lined chapeau, so I can keep Google Brain from becoming my new overlord until Google God sends me to Pathfinder Purgatory or Lycos Limbo?

Of course, it does many other languages as well, and translates both ways. Far more than babelfish of altavista, which now joins the dusty electron-collections of the past...







And then they had to include an option for native-language speakers to improve Google's translation!!


And - on top of all that, here's the kicker - a FREE widget you can put on your website, so visitors can translate it into any language that they want?

I mean, come on Googlers. Really. What is right with you people???

It's like you're addicted. Seriously, someone needs to stage an intervention here. I know Yahoo would like to.