Monday, December 19, 2011

Magic, Memory, and the Angels of Information

An interesting essay by Eric Davis exploring the connections between magic and the computer interface-- magical space as cyberspace.
The point of all this, I think, is that magic was once associated with information processing machines, and that our goal with them is to engage an audience with that magic. The idea of being able to build a world with a special formal language is ancient and fascinating.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Generative art links

Philip Galanter has a great list of resources if you want to explore contemporary generative art.

The above image is by Jared Tarbell, who I just learned is one of the cofounders of Etsy! One of the reasons I like his work is the organic quality and colors he uses.  I experimented with dyeing yarn when I was nine or ten years old, and some of his art reminds me of that.

Machinamenta has been published!

The book is available now on Amazon, or on CreateSpace.  I earn more profit if you use the CreateSpace link, but it's more convenient for most people to order through Amazon (if Amazon already has your address and credit card, or if you have the free shipping deal.)

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Role of Lotteries in Decision Making

Why was divination so popular, when their results were essentially random or pseudorandom?

We tend to think of divination methods as inferior ways of making decisions to methods based on reasons.  Despite this, we use randomness to decide many important things in society: who gets into a drug trial, for instance, or who is drafted into the army. Sometimes, the precise quality we are looking for in a decision is the lack of a reason, because reasons introduce bias, and argument, and blame into the process.

A book on this topic is The Luck of the Draw: The Role of Lotteries in Decision Making, by Peter Stone.

Franklin's perceptron

Two layer neural networks are similar to traditional decision making techniques.  In the following passage, Franklin describes a method of multiplying weights by individual positive and negative factors, and using a threshold to determine the decision. (What is missing from this method is a formal way of adjusting the weights depending on how well they work for past decisions.)

Some theoretical justification for such methods is given in the marvelously titled 1979 paper "The robust beauty of improper linear models in decision making" by Robyn Dawes.

I'm curious to see if any divination techniques were, under the surface, actually performing such a weighing of pros and cons. I haven't come across any yet, but it doesn't seem that large a leap to make; the mathematical complexity of astrology or geomancy was greater than this.

"In the affair of so much importance to you, wherein you ask my advice, I cannot for want of sufficient premises, advise you what to determine, but if you please I will tell you how. When those difficult cases occur, they are difficult, chiefly because while we have them under consideration, all the reasons pro and con are not present to the mind at the same time, but sometimes one set present themselves, and at other times another, the first being out of sight. Hence the various purposes or inclinations that alternatively prevail, and the uncertainty that perplexes us.
To get over this, my way is to divide half a sheet of paper by a line into two columns; writing over the one Pro, and over the other Con. Then, during three or four days of consideration, I put down under the different heads short hints of the different motives, that at different times occur to me, for or against the measure.
When I have thus got them all together in one view, I endeavor to estimate their respective weights; and where I find two, one on each side, that seem equal, I strike them both out. If I find a reason pro equal to some two reasons con, I strike out the three . . . and thus proceeding I find at length where the balance lies; and if, after a day or two of further consideration, nothing new that is of importance occurs on either side, I come to a determination accordingly.
And, though the weight of reasons cannot be taken with the precision of algebraic quantities, yet when each is thus considered, separately and comparatively, and the whole lies before me, I think I can judge better, and am less liable to make a rash step, and in fact I have found great advantage from this kind of equation." -- Benjamin Franklin, letter to Joseph Priestly

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Creativity and Nontruth

An interesting aspect of studying machine creativity was learning about the history of the concept of "creativity" itself. The word wasn't invented until fairly recently, and the concept behind it is quite different from how earlier cultures considered imagination and invention.  In that context, I found the following passage interesting:

"Spinoza argued that the biblical prophets, who claimed to have communicated directly with God, were in fact under the sway of the imagination and its images and signs....Although this notion comes nowhere near celebrating the powers of the individual imagination, it defensively marks out that space between faith and reason, centered on nontruth, into which modern fiction and concepts of creativity will be born, and in time strengthen into a pivot of modern culture." -- Simon During, Modern Enchantments.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

On Laws and Automata

We might as well have presiding over this nation a Maelzel automaton, or Babbage's Calculator, wound up by the Constitution to strike certain foregone conclusions, as to have a living representative of the people—a man whose heart, conscience and will have their legitimate place in interpreting and applying the written law to the nation's exigencies—if these feeble notions of the absolute preeminence in a civil war of every doubt or silence or uncertainty in a Constitution made for peace, are to prevail over the necessities of immediate and decisive action.
-- Rev. Henry W. Bellows, 1863, Unconditional Loyalty