03.11.08

malleability of time

Posted in Random thoughts at 10:52 pm by ducky

A post by Scott Rosenberg took me to a NY Times article that included this nugget:

Another ingenious bit of research, conducted in Germany, demonstrated that within a brief time frame the brain can shift events forward or backward. Subjects were asked to play a video game that involved steering airplanes, but the joystick was programmed to react only after a brief delay. After playing a while, the players stopped being aware of the time lag. But when the scientists eliminated the delay, the subjects suddenly felt as though they were staring into the future. It was as though the airplanes were moving on their own before the subjects had directed them to do so.

I have heard people be spooked about dreams where it would make logical sense for something to happen, and then that event would happen in real life (waking them). For example, someone saying, “answer the phone” in the dream, followed by the real-life phone ringing. I have wondered for a long time about whether the brain shuffles the perception of time in order for the ringing phone to make more sense; the joystick experiment gives my theory some more plausibility.

When I was in college, two guys I knew messed with people’s perception of time. They took a sequence of photos something like this:

  1. Dave at the top of a well-known 12-story dorm with a patio on the roof.
  2. Dave standing next to the railing and waving at the camera.
  3. Dave with one leg over the railing.
  4. Dave standing on the roof but on the opposite side of the railing, holding on to the railing.
  5. Closer-in shot of Dave with his hands off the railing (and his feet not visible).
  6. Closer-in shot of the railing with no Dave.
  7. Shot taken from above of Dave sprawled on the sidewalk below.

A perfectly healthy-looking Dave would show this sequence to people, who would be completely flabbergasted. (The way Dave told the story, it seemed like a little TILT light would flash over their heads.) How could he possibly be hale after a twelve-story fall? And the photos proved that he fell! Some people quickly came to the conclusion that he must have a twin who committed suicide, and refused to budge from that conclusion.

In fact, the truth was much simpler. After shot #5, Dave climbed back over the railing and went downstairs. His buddy took shot #6 of the bare railing, and then waited for Dave to get down to the sidewalk. When Dave got downstairs, he sprawled on the sidewalk and his buddy took shot #7.

People really wanted to stitch the images together into a continuous story, but anything could happen in between the photos. All you knew was what happened at those discrete points in time when the photos were taken; everything in between was up for grabs.

This relates to how I understand wave-particle duality. (Stick with me for a second!) In the classic wave-particle duality experiment, you have two slits in a wall, a particle (e.g. photon) gun on one side of the wall, and a sensor on the other side of the wall (e.g. film). You send the particles through the slits one at a time, as slowly as you like, and you will get a diffraction pattern on the film. How is this possible? What are the particles interfering with — you’re only sending the particles through one at a time!

Well, where do you know what is happening with the particle? Where there is some sort of measurement event — at the gun and at the film. What the particle does in between is its own business. Just as you can’t see Dave going down the stairs from the photos, you can’t see what the particle does in between the gun and the film.

Furthermore, the only entropic events are at the gun and at the film. Entropy is important because it is what determines the direction of time.

My mental model of what happens in the two-slit experiment is that the particle is free to move backwards and forwards in time in between the gun and the film and so it interferes with itself. I also imagine the particle as being a three-dimensional string in four-dimensional space-time; the string is stapled at the gun and at the film, but in between it is loose to wiggle around as much as it feels like. (I have no idea how this relates to how “real” physicists think of it, but it is a mental model that makes me happy.)

Okay, now back to the phone ringing in the dream. We sense that A happened before B because our brain essentially “tags” entropic events as happening “before” and “after”. But I suspect that there is nothing that forces our brain to tell us the truth. Dave’s buddy might have taken picture #7 first, then #6, then #2-5, then #1, but when Dave presented them in the order 1-7, he caused our brain to come to a conclusion that was entirely false. Similarly, I bet our brains can do a little bit of rearranging when the phone rings.

And just like I couldn’t tell if Dave presented the photos out of order, I will never be able to tell if my brain presents impressions of the world out of order.

P.S. Props to the late Larry Rubin, who explained to me the idea of photons interfering with themselves.

P.P.S. Sorry this post was so long; I didn’t have time to make it shorter.

02.21.08

open source funding models

Posted in Hacking, Random thoughts at 9:05 pm by ducky

Paul Ramsey posted recently that open source was funded by four basic types:

  • The altruist / tinkerer
  • The service provider
  • The systems integrator
  • The company man

He continued by saying, “Notably missing from this list is ‘the billionaire’ and ‘the venture capitalist’.”

I have to quibble a little bit.

Mitch Kapor personally financed (most of) the Open Source Applications Foundation, which pumped quite a bit of money into open source projects.

Obviously a lot of it went into the Chandler project, but some went into various framework projects in order to make them work well enough to use.  For example, OSAF supported someone full-time for several years to improve the Mac version of WxWidgets.

There is also a fair amount of work done by people who made a ton of money and are now tinkering.  I know personally a few people who made boodles on IPOs, retired, and now spend their time on open-source projects.  While you could say that these are in Paul’s “tinkerer” class, these people can invest a lot more energy than someone on nights and weekends is likely to.

I will acknowledge, however, that the fraction of open source work financed by rich folks is probably small.

However, I think Paul is missing some significant sources of open source financing.  Paul’s definition of “company man” talks of people who have a little bit of discretionary time at their work.  Maybe it’s different outside of Silicon Valley, but I don’t know many people who have much discretionary time at work.  On the other hand, there are a fair number of people whose work leads them to contribute to open source in the course of their work.

  • Sometimes they use an open-source project in their work, find that it has some bugs that they need to fix to make their project work, and contribute the fixes back.  This is self-interest: they would rather not port their fixes into each new rev of the open-source project.  My husband said that his former company contributed some fixes for Tk for this reason.
  • There are a few companies who use a technology so much that they feel it worthwhile to support work on that technology.  Google pays Guido von Rossum’s salary, for example.
  • I don’t know what category to put Mozilla into, but it makes money from partnerships (i.e. Google) to finance its development.
  • There is a non-zero amount of money that goes into open source — directly or indirectly — from governments and other non-profit funding agencies.  For example, the Common Solutions Group gave a USD$1.25M to OSAF; the Mellon Foundation gave USD$1.6M.  This made perfect sense: it is far cheaper for university consortia to give OSAF a few million dollars to develop an open-source calendar than it is to give Microsoft tens of millions every year for Exchange.
    • While I don’t have hard data, I bet that a fair amount of open-source work gets done at universities.  All of my CS grad student colleagues work with open source because it’s cheap and easy to publish with.  While they might not release entire projects, I bet I’m not the only one who has fed bug fixes back to the project.

02.20.08

Elephant parchment?

Posted in Art, Random thoughts at 10:05 pm by ducky

BTW, one of the things that I love about living at Green College is that there is always someone around who knows the answer.  Over the weekend, I got fixated on a big empty wall at our host’s place, and decided that it needed a huge forgery of a medieval map.  But it needed to be BIG to fit the wall.

Medieval maps tend to be about the size of a sheepskin because, well, vellum was made from sheepskins.  They just didn’t have six foot sheep.

I started wondering what kind of story you could make up about how it was so big.  Elephant parchment?   And this got me to wondering how big a piece of leather you could get from an African elephant… so this morning I asked Jake at breakfast.  Jake tracks elephants in Kenya, of course.  (Don’t you routinely have breakfast with elephant trackers?)

Based on his estimates, I could get a rectangular piece around six feet by twelve feet.

Jake also told me that they make paper out of elephant dung.  Elephants, not being ruminants, pass fiber through undigested and in great form for making paper.  Even better for my medieval map forgery!

Update: While it isn’t hugely common, leather is made even today of sealskin and walrus skin, so presumably you could make parchment out of it as well.  Walruses are about 3m long; the biggest elephant seal on record was almost 7m long.

I found some evidence that Canadians successfully made leather out of the skin of white (beluga) whales.  Belugas measure up to 5m long.  If the skin of belugas is similar to that of blue whales, (32m long), then it seems like the maximum size of a piece of parchment is probably around 30m long.  That’s one big piece of parchment!

02.07.08

The next president

Posted in Politics, Random thoughts at 11:38 pm by ducky

Mitt Romney dropped out of the US presidential race today. That pretty much guarantees that the next president will be one of John McCain, Hillary Clinton, or Barack Obama.

This pretty much guarantees that my country’s leadership will cease accepting torture on 20 January, 2009!

That realization made me very, very happy.

Now we just have to get my fellow citizens to cease accpting torture…

01.24.08

$7B is a lot of money

Posted in Random thoughts at 9:02 pm by ducky

What I don’t undertsand is how you could ring up losses of seven billion (that’s billion-with-a-B) dollars and not siphon some off for yourself?

If you see that you are going to lose that much money, it’s a pretty safe bet that you will be in an enormous amount of trouble afterwards.  Probably the only way you have a prayer of getting out of it is to divert a large chunk of that to yourself and use the money to make yourself invisible.

Maybe this fraudster had read about Leeson, knew that Leeson ultimately got caught, and figured that running was futile.  Maybe he figured that he had lost so much that he was guaranteed to get caught and go to jail; if he took money, then maybe his sentence would be longer.

01.19.08

Western medicine

Posted in Canadian life, Random thoughts, Too Much Information at 9:11 pm by ducky

Western medicine is amazingly good in some ways. They can sometimes cure things you didn’t even know were wrong with you.

The docs discovered my mom’s PMP on a CAT scan they did looking at what they think was diverticulitis, an annoying but generally easy to treat disease. I believe that she is totally recovered thanks to that early diagnosis. Me, I went to the doctor because I had a bump on my arm, and they ended up checking me out for cancer. (It wasn’t, but it could have been.)

I went to the doctor for three pretty innocuous things. I might not have gone if there were only one, but three together pushed me over some sort of tipping point.

  • The most important thing was that a bump on my arm — which the docs had told me was fine but to keep an eye on — looked different. The skin around it was peeling slightly.
  • One was that my urine output didn’t seem as “forceful” as it should. My brother-in-law had had fibroids in his urinary tract, and the thought crossed my mind that I might have something similar.
  • The last one was so trivial that I honestly can’t remember what it was.

They said my bump was infected slightly. They said that when the infection died down, they could take it off if I wanted. I did and they did.

They seemed far more interested in my urine output, and that ended up causing a cascade of diagnostic tests which culminated in them taking out a polyp six weeks ago. While it turned out to be nothing, there was a non-zero chance that it could have been cancer, where early detection probably would have saved my life.

And that underperforming urine stream?  That thing which seemed too trivial for a visit to the doctor on its own?  It got robust again all on its own.

I am just astounded at how random life is. In only a slightly different version of the universe, I could be saying, “A bump on my arm saved my life.”

the brain is really strange

Posted in Canadian life, Random thoughts, Too Much Information at 8:22 pm by ducky

The brain is really strange. Or maybe I should say, “my brain is really strange”.

The surgery that I mentioned in my last posting was to remove a tiny little uterine polyp. While polyps are almost always benign, I knew that uterine cancer was really nasty. (The Wikipedia article on uterine cancer seems to indicate that it’s usually only nasty if you are post-menopause, but I didn’t read that article until I researched this posting.)

So five months ago, when their diagnostics first surfaced the possibility of a polyp, I could have been really freaked out about it. Fortunately, I am really good at denial for health/safety issues: I once hid away a fear of heights, I was unfazed by a good friend’s 7 cm breast cancer tumour, and I took my mother’s PMP in stride.

Unfortunately, I am not good at denial when it comes to bureaucracy. I was actually quite anxious about the bureaucratic aspect of the prospect of uterine cancer. I was worried that if I got cancer, I would be disqualified from getting Canadian Permanent Residency. I’d have to leave Canada when I graduated, and that would put me in the US without health insurance and with a history of cancer. This seemed absolutely horrible to me.

Intellectually, I realized that it was rather strange to be worried about losing a visa than about losing my life, but that’s how my brain worked.

Perhaps partly this is because I have seen a lot of friends and family have really seriously hugely awful bad things happen to them, and almost all of them pulled through. The friend who had that 7cm breast cancer tumour five years ago is not just alive but very active. Mom had surgery that required 40 stitches and is — as far as anyone can tell — completely recovered. A high school friend got multiple meyeloma, which is one of the deadliest, deadliest forms of cancer there is. One friend got throat cancer three years ago and is still talking.   Another friend got leukemia, was in remission for three years, and has been fighting again for about two years. Even cousin Ellen was in remission for three years after (criminally) late treatment of her breast cancer.

On the other hand, I’ve seen lots of snafus with paperwork. Constantly. All the time. (Like how the Canadian government couldn’t figure out for the longest time that I spell “Kaitlin” with a “K” and not a “C”!) So in some ways, it is easier for me to believe that bureaucracies would destroy me than that cancer would destroy me.

01.18.08

nausea or euphoria? hmm…

Posted in Random thoughts, Too Much Information at 10:56 pm by ducky

I had minor surgery recently that I wasn’t particularly looking forward to.  It required a general anesthetic, and in my two previous experiences with general anesthetic, I had real trouble with nausea. I basically woke up, rolled over, and threw up.

This time, however, when I woke up, I had no nausea at all.  I felt surprisingly good, and was actually even chatty when I woke up.  I continued to be chatty and happy and only a little tired for the next few hours.

In fact, on the drive home, at one point, Jim remarked, “Honey, you’re high!”  Surprised, I took stock, and had to agree.  I can’t actually speak from experience — I don’t drink, and I have never taken any controlled substances that weren’t prescribed.  But I could tell that I was in some kind of an altered state: I was gregarious, garrulous, and euphoric.  (For those of you who know me, I should say more gregarious and more garrulous.)

What was going on?

One of the nice things about living at Green College is that there are people who can answer just about any question.  Chris, one of the med students here, explained that anesthesiologists usually use usually a mixture of IV and gaseous drugs to knock people out.  Sometimes, the gas can diffuse into the tissues  surgery at the time of application and then come out later.  (He said that about one percent of patients pass out again in the recovery room!)

One of the gases that they commonly use is nitrous oxide.  So basically, I was high on laughing gas!  It only lasted a few hours, but was much more pleasant than the throwing up I usually do.

01.17.08

Sita Sings The Blues

Posted in Art, Random thoughts at 10:08 pm by ducky

A friend of mine from high school, cartoonist Nina Paley, has finished an animated feature film called Sita Sings The Blues. It’s a retelling of a classic Indian myth called the Ramayana, but with a few Western twists.

Sita For those of you who have never met me, I am not exactly voluptuous. Most of my life, “string bean” was accurate. Now I’m kind of a string bean with a pot belly. Sita, on the other hand, is one voluptuous babe, see image at right.

Sita has been accepted by a Berlin film festival, which is good news. However, the Berlinale only accepts films that are on celluloid, and it costs a pile of money to make such a physical artifact. So Nina is soliciting donations/loans in order to make a print.

(Why does the Berlinale require celluloid when DVDs are higher quality? My guess is either that theatres don’t have the equipment to display DVDs or that they use the financial barrier to weed out the entrants who aren’t really serious.)

Nina is in my tribe, so I’m lending her some money. As a perk to people who loan her money, she’s giving them each a credit in the film — you know, the names that scroll by at the end. She said she would let me have whatever credit I wanted. (I presume there are some limits in taste, decency, and common sense. For example, it would be really insensitive of me if I asked for the credit of “Mohammed”, and stupid of her if she complied.)

“Snake wrangler” was one credit idea she came up with. Jim and I had fun thinking up possible credits: “Best Boy”, “Head Gripper”, “Pixel Casting Director”, “Fire Control Technician”, “Assistant to Sita’s Assistant”, and so on.

The credit that we finally came up with? “Sita Body Double”.

01.13.08

interesting article on morality

Posted in Politics, Random thoughts at 11:36 pm by ducky

I recommend this interesting New York Times article on morality by Steven Pinker.

The first highlight is that there are about five main components to morality: don’t harm others, be fair, support your in-group, respect authority, and be clean/pure.

The second highlight, for me, is that liberals and conservatives place different weights on the values:

The ranking and placement of moral spheres also divides the cultures of liberals and conservatives in the United States. Many bones of contention, like homosexuality, atheism and one-parent families from the right, or racial imbalances, sweatshops and executive pay from the left, reflect different weightings of the spheres. In a large Web survey, Haidt found that liberals put a lopsided moral weight on harm and fairness while playing down group loyalty, authority and purity. Conservatives instead place a moderately high weight on all five. It’s not surprising that each side thinks it is driven by lofty ethical values and that the other side is base and unprincipled.

This passage reminds me of both George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant, which discusses different value weightings by liberals and conservatives, and The Seven Cultures of Capitalism, which posits that people have generally the same values but different value priorities. Those are also good books and worth a read.

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