Sunday, June 18, 2006


I remember Bram covering the Gambler's fallacy once: "A real gambler will lose ten times and think, 'I'll bet again, I'm due for a win!', then win ten times and think 'I'll bet again, I'm on a streak!'" This is vaguely reminiscent of a statistic from Sam Harris, "a poll conducted by The Washington Post found that 80% of Katrina's survivors claim that the event has only strengthened their faith in God." I'm curious how many of these survivors are part of the 87% of Americans "who claim to never doubt the existence of God"?

Engraved on the Palms of My Hands

A passion for infinity by any means possible: Ludolph van Ceulen, a German from the 1500s living in the Netherlands, spent his life solving for the perimeter of a 4,611,686,018,427,387,904 (262) sided regular polygon. With some modifications to an equation from eighteen hundred years earlier he calculated π to 35 digits, more than doubling the accuracy of his contemporaries. It took a century for anyone to usurp his effort, which was engraved on his tombstone.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

God is an Abstract Expressionist

In John Kotselas' book "Socrates in New York", God is referred to as the "Natural Artist" (as opposed to man, the "Artificial Artist", who simply imitates God's work). It's entertaining to read Norvig's classic "Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach" in light of that terminlogy:

...Most human learning takes place in the context of a good deal of background knowledge. Some psychologists and linguists claim that even newborn babies exhibit knowledge of the world. Whatever the truth of this claim, there is no doubt that prior knowledge can help enormously in learning. A physicist examining a stack of bubble-chamber photographs might be able to induce a theory positing the existence of a new particle of a certain mass and charge; but an art critic examining the same stack might learn nothing more than that the "artist" must be some sort of abstract expressionist.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

The Shadow of It

Timothy J. Keller once gave a lecture titled "The Significance of Tolkien". He discusses J.R.R. Tolkien's work and the origin of the various names and languages in the books. The following is somewhere between a quote and a paraphrase.

Everybody ... even his best friends (except Lewis) thought the Lord of the Rings was too bizarre. Many of you know, it flew completely against the canons of what you might call "modernist literature". When he wrote it, there was no category for it. Fantasy was essentially invented by Lord of the Rings. Here's my main thesis: he did not really write fantasy. Peter Jackson, the director of the films said, "You have to understand, Tolkien was not writing fantasy. He was writing mythology for the first time in centuries."

The basic inspiration for Tolkien's stuff was linguistic, which means he was not exactly making things up, but he was reconstructing a linguistic and imaginary past that could have existed. A person who is a pure fantasy writer just says "I'm thinking of a story and I'll make stuff up. There's a woman, what will I name her? I'll name her this, or that." That is not how Tolkien worked. He would get a name, and ask, "What does that mean? Where would that name have come from? What kind of person would have that name? What kind of story would that person have been in?" For example, he would be writing and up would come Faramir. He would not say "ok, what kind of character do I want Faramir to be?" he would say, "who is this guy? I need to find out."

He was rediscovering an imaginative world which is the root of all Northern European culture, thinking, and mind. There's reverberations of these words still in our heart. He was trying to ask... what was it that happened way way back, what experience, what being, what kingdom, so that even today we remember the shadow of it?

Tolkien said, there is a kind of very sad and yet very joyous story: you can call it a romance, you can call it an epic, a quest, you can call it even a fairy tale, that modern people said "we're past that now, we don't believe in hope we don't believe in good and evil." And Tolkien said, deep down inside we all need those stories. We need a story that tells us how bad things are, and we need a sudden turn in the story, that snatches victory from death and through suffering overcomes everything.

The Lesson of the Moth

Don Marquis, 1878-1937, wrote a series of poems based on a cockroach "Archy" in which the soul of a poet was trapped. Archy would "climb painfully upon the framework of the [typewriter] and cast himself with all his force upon a key, head downward, and his weight and the impact of the blow were just sufficient to operate the machine, one slow letter after another." Of course, Archy couldn't operate the shift key, so his poetry was in lowercase:

i was talking to a moth
the other evening
he was trying to break into
an electric light bulb
and fry himself on the wires

why do you fellows
pull this stunt i asked him
because it is the conventional
thing for moths or why
if that had been an uncovered
candle instead of an electric
light bulb you would
now be a small unsightly cinder
have you no sense

plenty of it he answered
but at times we get tired
of using it
we get bored with the routine
and crave beauty
and excitement
fire is beautiful
and we know that if we get
too close it will kill us
but what does that matter
it is better to be happy
for a moment
and be burned up with beauty
than to live a long time
and be bored all the while
so we wad all our life up
into one little roll
and then we shoot the roll
that is what life is for
it is better to be a part of beauty
for one instant and then cease to
exist than to exist forever
and never be a part of beauty
our attitude toward life
is come easy go easy
we are like human beings
used to be before they became
too civilized to enjoy themselves

and before i could argue him
out of his philosophy
he went and immolated himself
on a patent cigar lighter
i do not agree with him
myself i would rather have
half the happiness and twice
the longevity

but at the same time i wish
there was something i wanted
as badly as he wanted to fry himself


The Tiger and The Goats

My former Asian Philosophies professor, John Koller, has written an excellent arrangement of an old Indian story that describes the bondage incurred when one confuses visible reality with ultimate reality:

The tiger's mother had died, and the poor little tiger was left all alone in the world. Fortunately, the goats were compassionate and adopted the little tiger, teaching him how to eat grass with his pointed teeth and how to bleat like they did. Time passed and the little tiger assumed that he was just a little goat.

But one day an old tiger came upon this little band of goats. They all fled in terror, except for the tiger-goat, now about half-grown, who for some unknown reason felt no fear. As the savage jungle beast approached, the cub began to feel self-conscious and uncomfortable. To cover his self-consciousness, he began to bleat and nibble some grass. The old tiger roared at the little tiger in amazement and anger, asking him what he was doing eating grass and bleating like a goat. But the little tiger was too embarrassed by all this to answer and continued to nibble grass. Thoroughly outraged by this behavior, the jungle tiger grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and carried him to a nearby pond. Holding him over the water he told him to look at himself. 'Is that the pot face of a tiger or the long face of a goat?' he roared.

The cub was still too frightened to answer, so the old tiger carried him to his cave and thrust a huge chunk of juicy, red, raw meat between his jaws. As the juices trickled into his stomach the cub began to feel a new strength and a new power. No longer mistaking himself for a goat, the little tiger lashed his tail from side to side and roared like the tiger he was. Having achieved Tiger-realization, he no longer took himself to be a goat.

The Wind

Dr. Bach-y-Rita is a neurologist who has developed a device that allows blind people to see. The machine works by transmitting information from a small camera to a laptop, which then sends electrical signals to a small electrode matrix. Depending on how bright a spot on the image is, that point on the matrix has either more or less current. By placing this electrode matrix on your tongue, and attaching the camera to your forehead, your brain associates the stimulation with sight sensations. During one of their tests, an assistant encourages a subject, blind mountain climber Erik Weihenmayer, to try looking at a candle. Immediately, another assistant becomes excited and both Dr. Paul-y-Rita and Dr. Kamm describe some past experiences with subjects and the candle:

"So my question to you is: did you expect the candle flame to be taller shorter? Again, we've had all sorts of remarks from children. For example, one said, 'Why is the flame so small? When I hold my hand over my birthday candles I can feel it all the way up.' So he was expecting the flame to go all the way up." - Dr. Paul-y-Rita

"I have one subject, Allison, who absolutely loves the wind; and, when I showed her the flame, she was like, 'Is that what wind looks like?'" - Dr. Kamm

What Our Cats Have Taught Me

My sisters have two cats, Smokey and Bandit. When they were younger, their behavior seemed completely foreign and humorously enlightening. I kept a few short notes to myself, trying to learn from them (late 2004):

If people are holding you back from doing what you know is right, find a way past them. Sure, it could inconvenience them, but you have to stick to what you know. If that screen door is closed, claw away with all you have when no one's looking. If it's creaky, you've found a weak spot: give the door a good headbutt and you're free. If you're lucky, it might take your master a while to notice your emancipation. Once you're free from social constraints, roll around in the dirt and taste sweet victory.