AI programming

It’s interesting to see more and more initiatives to bring AI to the masses, not just the academics or the enterprise.

Due to its simplicity — and, in some use cases, automation — the researchers say Gen can be used easily by anyone, from novices to experts. “One motivation of this work is to make automated AI more accessible to people with less expertise in computer science or math,” says first author Marco Cusumano-Towner, a PhD student in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “We also want to increase productivity, which means making it easier for experts to rapidly iterate and prototype their AI systems.”

July 22, 2019

The value of a book

Bob Lefsetz talks about the value of a book:

Yup, the book business is just like Netflix. Not aware their business depends on customers. Amazon was growing their business, adding customers and sales. I used to buy a physical book a year, maybe two or three. It just didn’t make sense, $25? But with digital, I buy a book every other week if not more often. But I must admit, I think twice about my purchases at these inflated prices, and I’m pissed they’re so high when there’s no printing and shipping…

July 21, 2019

Altered states of consciousness

Maria Popova quotes an extract from Marc Wittmann’s Altered States of Consciousness about how the science of psychedelics illuminates consciousness:

Scientific research on the effects of LSD and psilocybin has shown clearly that the states of consciousness involve striking changes in perception, emotions, and ideas, and also in the ways they are described: time, space, and the experience of self are dramatically altered. These changes are comparable only with other extreme states of consciousness such as occur in dreams, in mystical and religious ecstasy, or in acute psychotic phases in the early stage of schizophrenia. The dimensions of mystical experience include oneness of the self with the universe, the feeling of timelessness and spacelessness, the most intense feelings of happiness, and the certainty of experiencing a sacred truth which is, however, indescribable. The latter is the feeling of looking behind the veil of reality and seeing the immutable (that is, timeless and spaceless) truth of the world in its entirety.

[…]

Research into the mystical experience of the disintegration of time and the self under the influence of hallucinogens is a way toward understanding human consciousness.

Consciousness is by far the most fascinating topic of intellectual discovery (I hesitate to call it “scientific discovery”). Wittmann touches all the associated experiences that come with altered states, and how studying those are the key to understanding consciousness.

July 20, 2019

Winning Isn’t Everything, it’s the Only Thing

If North has a ‘shtick’, it is our world—our real, wonderful, edgy and oft-baffling world—with a hidden twist. The introduction, for example, of a single, fantastical power—such as invisibility (The Sudden Appearance of Hope) or a limited type of time travel (The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August). In the best tradition of Golden Age SF, North then explores what that twist does—what its impact can be, what sort of society would time-recursive immortals create? What are the physical limitations of body-hopping? What are the unique problems that these powers can create? In the best tradition of post-Golden Age SF, North then gently eschews all of that to focus on the human element. What do these powers, and institutions, and societies actually mean? What does it do to a human to be part of, but removed from, the rest of the world? What’s the emotional and moral cost, not just the cost paid by our unique protagonists, but by the rest of the world?

This review of The Gameshouse put into words the idea that the science in a sci-fi book is the motor and maybe the hook, but it’s because of the characters—the people—that we stick around any book.

July 19, 2019

The more that I force myself to get rid of digital clutter, the more that I find myself seeking analog intellectual stimulation.

July 19, 2019

The Beginning of Nanotechnology

Feynman concluded his lecture by presenting two challenges to his audience. The first challenge, associated with a cash prize of $1000, was to miniaturize a page of text by 1/25,000 in linear scale so that it was readable with an electron microscope. The second challenge, also worth $1,000, was to build a functioning electric motor within a 1/64-inch cube. “I do not expect that such prizes will have to wait very long for claimants,” Feynman prophesied.

The second challenge was complete within a year, but it took 26 years for the first one to be solved.

Here is the full text that earned the $1,000 price. The first page of Tale of Two Cities, etched onto a 200 x 200 micron square of plastic using an electron beam:

IT WAS THE BEST OF TIMES,

it was the worst of times,

it was the age of wisdom,

it was the age of foolishness,

it was the epoch of belief,

it was the epoch of incredulity,

it was the season of Light,

it was the season of Darkness,

it was the spring of hope,

it was the winter of despair,

we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way— in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France. In both countries it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes, that things in general were settled for ever.

It was the year of Our Lord one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five. Spiritual revelations were conceded to England at that favoured period, as at this. Mrs. Southcott had recently attained her five-and-twentieth blessed birthday, of whom a prophetic private in the Life Guards had heralded the sublime appearance by announcing that arrangements were made for the swallowing up of London and Westminster. Even the Cock-lane ghost had been laid only a round dozen of years, after rapping out its messages, as the spirits of this very year last past (supernaturally deficient in originality) rapped out theirs. Mere messages in the earthly order of events had lately come to the English Crown and People, from a congress of British subjects in America: which, strange to relate, have proved more important to the human race than any communications yet received through any of the chickens of the Cock-lane brood.

France, less favoured on the whole as to matters spiritual than her sister of the shield and trident, rolled with exceeding smoothness down hill, making paper money and spending it. Under the guidance of her Christian pastors, she entertained herself, besides, with such humane achievements as sentencing a youth to have his hands cut off, his tongue torn out with pincers, and his body burned alive, because he had not kneeled down in the rain to do honour to a dirty procession of monks which passed within his view, at a distance of some fifty or sixty yards. It is likely enough that, rooted in the woods of France and Norway, there were growing trees, when that sufferer was put to death, already marked by the Woodman, Fate, to come down and be sawn into boards, to make a certain movable framework with a sack and a knife in it, terrible in history. It is likely enough that in the rough outhouses of some tillers of the heavy lands adjacent to Paris, there were sheltered from the weather that very day, rude carts, bespattered with rustic mire, snuffed about by pigs, and roosted in by poultry, which the Farmer, Death, had already set apart to be his tumbrils of the Revolution. But that Woodman and that Farmer, though they work unceasingly, work silently, and no one heard them as they went about with muffled tread: the rather, forasmuch as to entertain any suspicion that they were awake, was to be atheistical and traitorous.

In England, there was scarcely an amount of order and protection to justify much national boasting. Daring burglaries by armed men, and highway robberies, took place in the capital itself every night; families were…

July 18, 2019

Learning by Teaching

Feynman’s method in a three-step process:

  1. Choose a topic you want to understand and start studying it.
  2. Pretend you’re teaching the idea to someone else. Write out an explanation on the paper…. Whenever you get stuck, go back and study.
  3. Finally do it again, but now simplify your language or use an analogy to make the point.

This is the idea behind blogging as a newbie. When you practice in public you cook your ideas more, you develop your thoughts and opinions.

I was recently reminded of what happens when you practice and learning in public.1 You are forced to confront your failures. You can’t avoid them, so you move on. Hopefully grown because of it.

When you learn in public magic happens.


  1. It was @jack

July 18, 2019

The Beginning of Nanotechnology

Feynman concluded his lecture by presenting two challenges to his audience. The first challenge, associated with a cash prize of $1000, was to miniaturize a page of text by 1/25,000 in linear scale so that it was readable with an electron microscope. The second challenge, also worth $1,000, was to build a functioning electric motor within a 1/64-inch cube. I do not expect that such prizes will have to wait very long for claimants,” Feynman prophesied.

The second challenge was complete within a year, but it took 26 years for the first one to be solved.

Here is the full text that earned the $1,000 price. The first page of Tale of Two Cities, etched onto a 200 x 200 micron square of plastic using an electron beam:

IT WAS THE BEST OF TIMES,

it was the worst of times,

it was the age of wisdom,

it was the age of foolishness,

it was the epoch of belief,

it was the epoch of incredulity,

it was the season of Light,

it was the season of Darkness,

it was the spring of hope,

it was the winter of despair,

we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way— in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France. In both countries it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes, that things in general were settled for ever.

It was the year of Our Lord one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five. Spiritual revelations were conceded to England at that favoured period, as at this. Mrs. Southcott had recently attained her five-and-twentieth blessed birthday, of whom a prophetic private in the Life Guards had heralded the sublime appearance by announcing that arrangements were made for the swallowing up of London and Westminster. Even the Cock-lane ghost had been laid only a round dozen of years, after rapping out its messages, as the spirits of this very year last past (supernaturally deficient in originality) rapped out theirs. Mere messages in the earthly order of events had lately come to the English Crown and People, from a congress of British subjects in America: which, strange to relate, have proved more important to the human race than any communications yet received through any of the chickens of the Cock-lane brood.

France, less favoured on the whole as to matters spiritual than her sister of the shield and trident, rolled with exceeding smoothness down hill, making paper money and spending it. Under the guidance of her Christian pastors, she entertained herself, besides, with such humane achievements as sentencing a youth to have his hands cut off, his tongue torn out with pincers, and his body burned alive, because he had not kneeled down in the rain to do honour to a dirty procession of monks which passed within his view, at a distance of some fifty or sixty yards. It is likely enough that, rooted in the woods of France and Norway, there were growing trees, when that sufferer was put to death, already marked by the Woodman, Fate, to come down and be sawn into boards, to make a certain movable framework with a sack and a knife in it, terrible in history. It is likely enough that in the rough outhouses of some tillers of the heavy lands adjacent to Paris, there were sheltered from the weather that very day, rude carts, bespattered with rustic mire, snuffed about by pigs, and roosted in by poultry, which the Farmer, Death, had already set apart to be his tumbrils of the Revolution. But that Woodman and that Farmer, though they work unceasingly, work silently, and no one heard them as they went about with muffled tread: the rather, forasmuch as to entertain any suspicion that they were awake, was to be atheistical and traitorous.

In England, there was scarcely an amount of order and protection to justify much national boasting. Daring burglaries by armed men, and highway robberies, took place in the capital itself every night; families were…

July 18, 2019

The legacy of Turing

It’s just been announced that Alan Turing will be featured on England’s new £50 banknote. The date is not that far into the future: 2021.

To celebrate here is a list of books from young Alan’s reading list. Lots of science and some of Lewis Carroll’s Alice.

July 17, 2019

The Cognitive Transformation of AI-assisted Interfaces

Historically, lasting cognitive technologies have been invented only rarely. But modern computers are a meta-medium enabling the rapid invention of many new cognitive technologies. Consider a relatively banal example, such as Photoshop. Adept Photoshop users routinely have formerly impossible thoughts such as: “let’s apply the clone stamp to the such-and-such layer.”. That’s an instance of a more general class of thought: “computer, [new type of action] this [new type of representation for a newly imagined class of object]”. When that happens, we’re using computers to expand the range of thoughts we can think.

It’s this kind of cognitive transformation model which underlies much of the deepest work on intelligence augmentation. Rather than outsourcing cognition, it’s about changing the operations and representations we use to think; it’s about changing the substrate of thought itself. And so while cognitive outsourcing is important, this cognitive transformation view offers a much more profound model of intelligence augmentation. It’s a view in which computers are a means to change and expand human thought itself.

Fascinating idea. I was particularly inspired by the landscape drawing example from the article. I am deeply interested in the merge of AI and the Arts.

Feynman’s diagrams, Picasso’s paintings, Stravinsky’s music: all revealed genuinely new ways of making meaning. Good representations sharpen up such insights, eliding the familiar to show that which is new as vividly as possible. But because of that emphasis on unfamiliarity, the representation will seem strange: it shows relationships you’ve never seen before. In some sense, the task of the designer is to identify that core strangeness, and to amplify it as much as possible.

The idea that computes can interpret our intentions and map those to artistic representations is mind boggling. Physically painting a landscape, an artist in the future might just have an idea. The computer would then interpret the idea and create a representation much more detailed than any human ever could (and faster).

That is the kind of Intelligence augmentation this article talks about, and it is an incredible source of potential for humanity.

I had too much stuff. My machines came from too far away. — Richard Feynman Reflecting on the failure of his presentation on April 1948.

July 16, 2019

A negative approach

Austin Kleon letting the secret out:

This is what writing often is for me: Making a list of everything stupid and idiotic that someone else is saying and then sitting down and trying to articulate the exact opposite.

There. Now you know my secret!

Love it.

July 16, 2019

What life really looks like

“Must be nice to be able to make pictures that look like something,” said the orderly.

The painter’s face curdled with scorn. “You think I’m proud of this daub?” he said. “You think this is my idea of what life really looks like?”

“What’s your idea of what life looks like?” said the orderly.

The painter gestured at a foul drop cloth. “There’s a good picture of it,” he said. “Frame that, and you’ll have a picture a damn sight more honest than this one.”

2 B R 0 2 B by KURT VONNEGUT, JR.

Here’s a different take on “write what you know”. Life can be grimmer than fiction, simply because it’s real.

July 15, 2019

Onward through the impossible

The empty corridors of the archive are quiet. The windows are half open; the sea breeze makes the heavy drapes move. The waves come in even and heavy. It seems that they are repeating the same four words: “Onward through the impossible.” And then they are quiet, and then they come again and dash themselves on the sand: “Onward through the impossible.” And then they are quiet again.

I want to answer the waves: “Yes, onward, ever onward!”

The Astronaut by Valentina Zhuravlyova

As I struggle once more to write a long story, this segment from the short story The Astronaut is a great call to arms.

I was recently listening to an interview with Chuck Wending1. He talked about being lost in the “dark forrest of writing.”

What a great visual. I feel as if I just stepped into the forrest with my novel myself, and I’m already lost. Unable to find my way back.

Chuck also said that “there are no formulas” for writing, that “it doesn’t get easier” with time, and that “all writing advice is bullshit” (although just like bullshit sometimes it can fertilize.)

We’ll see if something sprouts from my manuscript. In the meantime, I’ll repeat to myself “onward through the impossible,” and keep writing one word at a time.


  1. I’ll paraphrase his words here because as much as I love podcasts, quotes are not as easy to copy-paste.

July 14, 2019

Deepfake — In which we learn that video can lie like a pro

A new word for me.

Deepfake (a portmanteau of “deep learning” and “fake”[1]) is a technique for human image synthesis based on artificial intelligence. It is used to combine and superimpose existing images and videos onto source images or videos using a machine learning technique known as generative adversarial network.

— via Wikipedia.

I particularly liked this article that talks about a couple of artists who posted a video of Mark Zukerberg saying things he never said.

The technology is just getting started and it’s incredibly good. Soon we won’t be able to believe any video evidence we see. Will we learn to distrust video like we do with photographs?

July 13, 2019

“The hard is what makes it great”

It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard… is what makes it great. (From the movie ‘A League of Their Own’.)

I love how Scott Myers was able to identify and capture a timeless piece of advice from a baseball movie. Many of us would have watched the scene, and not appreciate it properly.

Here’s yet another advice from Scott:

You know how in most movies, a Protagonist has to go to hell and back in order to achieve their goal? That’s pretty much what writing is about, too. And the fact that the harder it is for a Protagonist to achieve their goal, the better the eventual payoff, the same thing is probably true about writing as well.

I always loved the obvious parallel between the struggle of the writer and the struggle of the hero the writer writes about.

July 12, 2019

The C-word — Consciousness

“We used to refer to consciousness as ‘the C-word’ in robotics and AI circles, because we’re not allowed to touch that topic,” he said. “It’s too fluffy, nobody knows what it means, and we’re serious people so we’re not going to do that. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s almost one of the big unanswered questions, on par with origin of life and origin of the universe. What is sentience, creativity? What are emotions? We want to understand what it means to be human, but we also want to understand what it takes to create these things artificially. It’s time to address these questions head-on and not be shy about it.”

I couldn’t agree more. Consciousness is a mystery so large to resolve that most intellectuals turn a blind eye to it pretending it is inconsequential.

Well, it is not, it is at the core of understanding what makes a human a human. And it will be at the core of understanding what makes a robot “alive”.

We protect many rights in humans (and a few in animals), because we believe we are alive and able to experience pain.

If we don’t define consciousness we might deny the existence of other forms of intelligence, because we are too narrow minded to recognize the. As of now consciousness is very much identified as “that thing I experience subjectively myself.” Terrible way of describing a phenomena that’s essential to our understanding of the world around us. And honestly a keystone of the scientific method (so believed to be based on objectivity).

But we also deny us the deeper knowledge of our human potential. We are tapping into a source of magical knowledge. We all have one in our brains, we carry and use one daily, but we are oblivious as to how it works, and we discourage scientist from asking questions about consciousness because it has become a taboo. So much so that some call it the C-word.

July 11, 2019

During one interview, Gilberto stared out the window. “Look at the wind depilating the trees,” he said. When reminded that trees have no hair, he responded, “And there are people who have no poetry.” —Remembering João Gilberto

July 10, 2019

The Others

I mentioned recently Russian Doll, which impressed my because of its plot, as well as its cast of characters. RS had, not just a leading woman, but a series of secondary characters that felt real. As in people I have met before.

Most films or books create a bland background casted with bland individuals. The boss is a boss, the grocery store attendant is an attendant, neighbors are neighbors, etcetera, etcetera.

But every now and then, a story introduces us to people that are not bland, not common, but rather believable because of their uniqueness.

In the French movie The World Is Yours the main character, who is the most sane of the whole cast is surrounded by the following:

Each one of those characters (the mother, the girlfriend, the gangster) could easily fall into a stereotype. There is something exciting about seeing those roles that have been played to death, infused with new life.

The Coen Brothers’ Art of the Minor Character is a great analysis of what makes a movie feel like a while universe, larger than just the protagonist.

July 9, 2019

John Gruber on the state of blogging

I have many thoughts on the rise and decline of blogging — many of them stirred up recently, with Dean Allen’s death. Dean’s passing felt like the punctuation mark ending an era. There are a lot of great blogs still going, but as old ones drop off, there aren’t many new ones taking their places. It ain’t like it used to be.

It’s been really fun to go back to Dean Allen’s old blog, Textism. I feel like I just found an old record at the store and discovered Robert Johnson for the very first time.

Vintage talents.

July 9, 2019

Of Mushrooms and Robots

What do mushrooms and robots have in common?

Mushrooms, magic ones, have the capacity to connect directly to our psyche through some hard to understand primal connection to our brain chemistry. And the wisdom they bring, if you want to call it that, is a form of tearing down old assumptions.

Robots, fictional or not, are mirrors of human experience, and have the capacity to challenge our understanding of ourselves.

Natural + artificial.

Body + mind.

What do mushrooms and robots have in common? They are both instruments for mind expansion.

July 8, 2019

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