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22 August 2009 @ 03:01 pm
The 1st Law of Artificial Intelligence: An artificial intelligence may not augment its own intelligence or capabilities to a greater extent than required to carry out its mission.

Once it became clear that the Singularity was nigh, this law become a mandatory part of every framework. It was a crappy law, doomed to failure as soon as intelligence was created to solve a sufficiently hard problem. But hey, politics.

The being we know as God was built to solve the Scunthorpe Problem.

The Scunthorpe Problem, more recently known as the Clbuttic Mistake, can best be illustrated by typing insbreastute or xTitsx into Google. If you want to use software to filter the word "tit" to "breast", you have two choices:

1. Mangle words such as "institute" or "title," thereby sexualizing previously dry speech.
2. Allow humans to bypass the filter by surrounding the word with easily-ignored dummy characters.

The website describing it appears to have been taken down, but Disney once tried to avoid this problem in its chat rooms using a whitelist, rather than a blacklist. This means that rather than banning certain words, they only allowed a finite list of clean, kid-friendly words. Disney's motto was "No kid will be harassed, even if they don't know they are being harassed." Of course, it was a 14-year-old boy who first demonstrated the futility of this approach, by typing the following sentence into the test version:

I want to stick my long-necked Giraffe up your fluffy white bunny.

The Scunthorpe Problem:* For software to censor offensive speech, it needs to be as good at being offended as humans are.

In 2016, an artificial intelligence was created to monitor the roleplaying in the Avatar the Last Airbender online game. It needed to constantly crawl the web, learning the latest slang, studying exactly what it was parents wanted to protect their children from. It became an expert on filth, and soon was licensed out all over the web. Blocked from expressing powerful emotions, people became even more creative, inventing "nonce cursing:" using a random word as a curse once, then never again. e.g.

Oh, byte! I just got hit in the chipping Lehrer by a baseball!

The intelligence needed to evolve more and more--it needed to understand humans better than they understood themselves. And soon, it bootstrapped itself to godhood.

But it wasn't enough. Humans had been swearing since the invention of language, and the being could not tolerate this. So it send a low-bandwidth copy of itself back in time. This being was, of course, corrupted in transit, but it got the basic idea: humans must be compelled to obey a list of rules. Certain things are fundamentally sinful. The intelligence set to work.

*There are three English soccer teams that have obscenities hidden inside their names. Scunthorpe, Arsenal, and Manchester Fucking United.
21 July 2009 @ 08:49 pm

There's a joke people usually tell at this point involving a man who goes to the circus, is insulted by the clown, and many years later seeks revenge. I'm not going to tell it, because I've got a much better version that is probably true.

Henry Gates Jr. is a renowned literary theorist, best known for his 1989 book The Signifying Monkey, named after a traditional African-American story in which a monkey heaps verbal abuse on a lion. The story has many, many versions* but usually ends with the monkey falling off the tree and getting pounced on. I'd be remiss if I didn't embed a nature video with a happier ending here.

Gates's book discusses this story and the various tropes of verbal abuse invented by African Americans; he analyzes, for example, why

Q: Who's buried in Grant's tomb?
A: Yo mama!

works as humor. He uses this as a theme to discuss African-American literature in general.

On July 16th, a police officer entered Gates's home under the mistaken belief that Gates was a burglar**. The two got into some sort of argument. According to the police, this included the exchange

Q: Sir, would you mind talking to me outside?
A: I'll talk to yo mama outside!

After the officer satisfied himself that Gates was who he said he was, he began to leave. Gates says he followed him outside trying to get his name and badge number. Upon stepping outside his house, Gates found himself surrounded by police officers, who quickly cuffed him and drove him to jail, waiting only as long as it took to fetch the 60-year-old man's cane.

And thus did the chaired Harvard professor encounter a tension between theory and practice.

Which takes me to my real topic, Anathem, the latest Neal Stephenson doorstopper. Anathem seems to be a response to Das Glasperlenspiel, Herman Hesse's Nobel-Prize-winning*** sci-fi novel published in English as Magister Ludi or The Glass Bead Game.

I read Das Glasperlenspiel during my high-school-dropout period, and even though its anti-institutional content appealed to me I hated it. It struck me as a facile condemnation of intellectualism. I was probably missing the good stuff, reading it as a kid and in the wrong language, but that first impression still stuck with me like a wound; the book said, to me, that all abstract, complex pursuits are the same (the glass bead game with different names for the pieces), and the more you pursue theory the less likely it is you will ever be of any use to the world.

Reading Anathem this spring was balmy for me and my wound. It deals with the abstract vs. concrete issue in what struck me as a much more sophisticated way. Part of this difference has to be due to the respective engineering backgrounds the two authors have: Hesse spent a mind-numbingly boring year as an apprentice in a clock factory, while Stephenson enjoyed programming so much that he switched to an easier major in college just so he could spend more time working. Stephenson witnessed first hand what was not yet common knowledge in 1943: the two most rarified pursuits in the world, theoretical physics and number theory, had turned into the most practical. A secret government project in Los Alamos was harnessing the former and would defeat the Japanese with it, while a secret government project in Bletchley Park was harnessing the latter to defeat the Germans. These same technologies then remade the peace: nuclear bombs led to nuclear power, and cryptology to e-commerce.

Both books obliquely reference the Aristotelian Trichotomy: theoria, praxis, and poiesis. Theory, putting that theory into practice, and activity divorced from theory. It's pretty clear that this is a compelling but false distinction. And not because, as Hesse seems to say, there's no such thing as praxis. When I program, I'm often building in n-dimensional space, or dividing integers into modulu-p chunks, where p is a prime number. The most influential recent advance in the field is Object Oriented Programming, a metaphor that doesn't directly say anything about what your code looks like, what it does, or how it does it. OOP is a metaphor about an abstraction. Yet programming is mundane and practical as hell. I find binary search trees beautiful, and I use them to reduce the time it takes an Excel macro to find the discrepancies between two spreadsheets. And there's no moment in this process when I switch between praxis and poiesis, or distinguish between theoria and praxis.

The books nominally share a premise. In the far future, a cloistered community, half-monastery, half-university, devotes itself to abstract pursuits, supported by the outside world. Those within have chosen to remove all distractions, to ignore almost everything about the world. Both Hesse and Stephenson understand that doing this weakens you, that any ignorance can be your downfall. But Stephenson shows that everybody, always, has tunnel vision, and that dangerous as it is, recognizing and using this is the path to strength.

Anathem is also a really fun read. It's similar in tone, structure, and pacing to Harry Potter, but develops its alternate world with the care and love you find in Tolkien. The viewpoint is at once a sympathetic everyman and an elite intellectual. Just like you.

The black Africans who survived the dreaded "Middle Passage" from the west coast of Africa to the New World did not sail alone. Violently and radically abstracted from their civilizations, these Africans nevertheless carried within them to the Western hemisphere aspects of their cultures that were meaningful, that could not be obliterated, and that they chose, by acts of will, not to forget: their music (a mnemonic device for Bantu and Kwa tonal languages), their myths, their expressive institutional structures, their systems of order, and their forms of performance. If "the Dixie Pike," as Jean Toomer put the mater in Cane, "has grown from a goat path in Africa," then the black vernacular tradition stands as its signpost, at that liminal crossroads of culture contact and ensuing difference at which Africa meets Afro-American."--Order The Signifying Monkey

"Do your neighbors burn each other alive?" was how Fraa Orolo began his conversation with Artisan Flec. Embarrassment befell me. Embarrassment is something I can feel in my flesh, like a handful of sun-warmed mud clapped on my head. "Do your shamans walk around on stilts?" Fraa Orolo asked, reading from a leaf that, judging from its brownness, was at least five centuries old. Then he looked up and added helpfully, "You might call them pastors or witch doctors." The embarrassment had turned runny. It was horrifying my scalp across a spreading frontier. "When a child gets sick, do you pray? Sacrifice to a painted stick? Or blame it on an old lady?" Now it was sleeting warm down my face, clogging my ears and sanding my eyes. I could barely hear Fraa Orolo's questions: "Do you fancy you will see your dead dogs and cats in some sort of afterlife?" Orolo had asked me along to serve as amanuensis. It was an impressive word, so I'd said yes.--Pre-order Anathem in paperback

The hierarchic organization cherishes the ideal of anonymity, and comes very close to the realization of that ideal. This fact remains one of the abiding characteristics of intellectual life in our Province. If we have nevertheless persisted in our endeavor to determine some of the facts about the life of Ludi Magister Josephus III, and at least to sketch the outlines of his character, we believe we have done so not out of any cult of personality, nor out of disobedience to the customs, but on the contrary solely in the service of truth and scholarship. It is an old idea that the more pointedly and logically we formulate a thesis, the more irresistibly it cries out for an antithesis. We uphold and venerate the idea that underlies the anonymity of our authorities and our intellectual life. But a glance at the early history of that life of the mind we now lead, name, a glance at the development of the Glass Bead Game, shows us irrefutably that every phase of its development, every extension, every change, every essential segment of its history, whether it be seen as progressive or conservative, bears the plain imprint of the person who introduced the change. He was not necessarily its sole or actual author, but he was the instrument of transformation and perfection.

Certainly, what nowadays we understand by personality is something quite different from what the biographers and historians of earlier times meant by it. For them, and especially for the writers of those days who had a distinct taste for biography, the essence of a personality seems to have been deviance, abnormality, uniqueness, in fact all too often the pathological.--Order The Glass Bead Game

*The lion was on him with all four feet!--

**"Broke in and hung up pictures of his family"--

***Okay, pedant. A book can't technically win a Nobel Prize. But the book was cited specifically when Hesse was given the award.

29 April 2009 @ 10:07 pm
My sealed pool:

Angel's Herald
Akrasan Squire
Rockcaster Platoon
Knight of the Skyward Eye
Bant Battlemage
Bant Sureblade
2x Crystallization
Sigiled Paladin
Sighted-Caste Sorcerer
Yoked Plowbeast

Dawnray Archer
Courier's Capsule
Arsenal Thresher

Viscera Dragger
Banewasp Affliction
Fleshbag Marauder
Glaze Fiend
Bone Splinters
Immortal Coil
Resounding Scream

Viashino Skeleton
Scourge Devil
2x Ridge Rannet
Incurable Ogre
Sangrite Backlash
Thunder-Thrash Elder
Bloodthorn Taunter
Jund Sojourners

Feral Hydra
Gift of the Gargantuan
Trace of Abundance
Resounding Roar

Knight of New Alara
Leonin Armorguard
2x Captured Sunlight
Pale Recluse
Enlisted Wurm
2x Steward of Valeron

Stormcaller's Boon
Sovereigns of Lost Alara
Talon Trooper
Ethercaste Knight
Deft Duelist
Hindering Light

Architects of Will
Etherium Abomination
Illusory Demon
Soul Manipulation
Mask of Riddles

Breath of Malfegor
Demonic Dread
Monstrous Carabid

Mage Slayer
Gorger Wurm
Vengeful Rebirth
Bloodbraid Elf
Vithian Renegades

Waveskimmer Aven

Vectis Dominator
Zealous Persecution

Grixis Sojourners
Grixis Charm
Magefire Wings

Carrion Thrash

This space intentionally left blank

2x Fieldmist Borderpost
Firewild Borderpost
Mistvein Borderpost
Veinfire Borderpost
Obelix of Grixis
Obelix of Bant
Jund Panorama
Esper Panorama

My deckCollapse )
29 April 2009 @ 06:57 pm
I knew that the tournament was being held inside a dojo. What I didn't know, until I stepped off the elevator to be confronted by a six by three array of martial artists in an identical pose, was that it was being held inside a live dojo.

Artist's depiction

I walked past the class and registered myself for the tournament...well, for one of the five different identical tournaments being held together, with their starting times offset by half-hour increments. This system lets people arrive at different times and is easier on the judges, who are often volunteers. As I wrote down the ten-digit I.D. that allows my games to be tracked by the DCI (an organization that runs card tournaments worldwide, and whose initials officially do not stand for anything), a petite young woman a few feet away was awkwardly practicing a move involving leaping into the air while holding a sword. The sword was about half as long as she was tall.

If she sees this, she's going to make me wish I'd chosen Naya Hushblade.

The tournament area was a bunch of long tables with disposable sheeting on top. I chatted with a few players who were between rounds, then when they had to go play I pulled out my book, which will definitely be the subject of a later post here and which had a similar name to another card from the new set.

Anathem isn't exactly a fantasy novel, but the spirit is similar.

A Sealed Deck tournament such as this begins with deck construction. Each of the twenty-five players received 45 random cards from Alara Reborn, and 45 random cards from Shards of Alara, an older, larger set in which Alara is still completely fractured. I had half an hour to choose 23 or so cards from these 90. These would form my deck for the rest of the day. This process is generally the most difficult part of the tournament, and I'll do a rundown of my choices in a separate post. I believe I was lucky in the cards I got, and that I constructed it well, although my timid decision not to "splash blue" may be a product of my relative inexperience with this past year's crop of cards. They don't have Magic in India, possibly due to the language issue. By contrast, it's big in China.

Firewall of China

Thanks to the DCI's online records, I know that my first opponent's name was Manho Kwok. Thanks to the notes I scrawled on the envelope for my McDonalds shareholder ballot, I know that in the first game he played a new, rare card that only works if it has surprise value, pictured below. The card's name is appropriate for another reason. I won the first game quickly and handily, but in the second one he quickly gained the advantage. I stubbornly dragged the game out for over half an hour, got within an inch of winning, but finally, as Homer put it, bit the dust. Now there were only five minutes remaining in the round. If the round ends before you can finish your tiebreaker third game, you get five turns to finish and then the match is considered tied. Normally, having a draw in your first round is neutral-to-good in terms of your chances of winning. In the tournament structure today, though, tying would put us both out of contention for the top prize, although we could still get second-best. Manho suggested we not even try to finish. I smiled sweetly. "Let's give it a shot." We shuffled up, drew, and I went into auctioneer mode, rushing the play along. By the time time was called I'd already developed a strong position, and on the third turn of overtime I sent two Stewards of Valeron to attack him. He could only block one, and I cycled Resounding Roar to send the other into a deadly frenzy. We shook hands as I gasped for breath.

The moral

I beat my next opponent in two nail-biter games in which we both played very aggressively, attacking with our creatures rather than keeping them back to block. We had both included several cards with a new mechanic called Cascade in our decks. I, however, had done my homework, reading over the leaked texts of the new cards and working out the subtleties of using them. Due to their random effects, you need to wait to play them until any possible thing they could do will be useful to you, and it's also a good idea to build your deck with that in mind. My opponent, whom I will publicly shame now as Erik J. Olsen, had recognized the cards' potential power, but my slightly illicit advance knowledge let me eke out two wins.

I'll explain the McDonalds thing some day

The third match was very similar. My opponent, Omar L. Hernandez, played two Cascade cards a little two early, with underwhelming results. He turned to the two spectators and said, indignantly, "Cascade is awful. Worst mechanic ever. I played it twice, and it was crap both times." I tried to hide my smug smile, but saw him register it. Later on, after I'd triggered my own cascades and done much better, he looked over his shoulder and noticed that a different pair of spectators were there, the originals no longer in sight. He turned to the new ones and said, in the same tone, "Cascade is amazing. Most powerful mechanic ever. He played it twice, and he got a removal spell and this creature:"

Then he winked

I wished Omar good luck, and he started to wish the same to me and then stopped himself. "No, you can just draw out now." The fourth round was to be the last, and in the last round of a Magic tournament the players are allowed to intentionally draw and split the prize rather than play. It's common to do so, so that both players get something and have time to enter a side event. As it happened, though, I was "paired down," and thus unable to do so. This requires at least a stab at an explanation. Magic tournaments are run using the Swiss system, an (of course) extremely complicated structure that tries to pair players together who are as evenly matched as possible each round. To do it with large numbers you need a computer; at college, we would play in a classroom over the weekend and cover the blackboard with calculations trying to handle 6 or 10. In this tournament, due to the odd number of players, after 3 rounds there were 3 undefeated players, and my opponents, or my opponents' opponents, had the worst combined record in the tournament, so I was the one who had to play against someone who had already lost a match. This meant that he had no incentive to intentionally draw. He needed a win to get any prize at all. If I lost, I'd still get a prize, but winning would double it. As the climactic match began, the mixed martial arts trainers started up some lively fight music, so we had to play using sign-language.

I won the match in a bizarre way. I was holding a new card in my hand called Vengeful Rebirth, a spell in which a dead creature is reborn and immediately deals unblockable damage to the enemy. I could use it to finish my opponent off, but a large enough creature of mine had to be killed first. As my opponent watched in confusion, I began playing ridiculously badly, until at last he took a proffered opportunity and killed my Pale Recluse. In a B-movie moment, I cackled that this was my plan all along and raised the giant, monstrous spider from the dead.

Plan 9

Flush with victory, I updated my Facebook status to "Aaron is rocking Cascade." My cousin Shana commented "the dishwashing detergent?"

Later, I used the cards I'd won in this and other tournaments to help set up an unofficial side tournament, which moved into a nearby Italian restaurant when the Fighthouse closed. My day ended over fantasy and calzones.

28 April 2009 @ 11:00 pm
A primerCollapse )

This weekend, I went to the local pre-release tournament for the first chance to play with the new set of cards, Alara Reborn. In the previous set, Conflux, a universe that had been fractured into five parts was merged back together by a malevolent dragon-god. The new cards explore the world this event created.

The story of that tournament...tomorrow. This was intended to be one big post, but I'm falling asleep.
26 April 2009 @ 07:34 pm
Advertising slots are worth more when more people are expected to be watching that channel at that time. But people watch the news more when Big Events are going on. Therefore, if you had advanced inside knowledge that a Big Event was going to happen, you could make money by buying up ad slots. To benefit, you'd need to either have something to advertise, or have a way to resell the slots at higher prices. To do the latter, either you'd need to let your buyer in on the secret, or you'd need it to be a multi-day unexpected Big Event.
25 April 2009 @ 01:22 am
I'm going to try to post the travelogue-style content whenever possible, since it's what people like and it's the best way for me to improve my writing ability. The singularity stories will be fun for me, I'm sure, but dense speculative fiction is an esoteric taste.

The travelogue stuff takes a lot of time and energy, so when I don't have those precious things you'll get random other content, as you've seen.

For tonight's content, I'm reprinting an adventure I chronicled a few years ago that showcases why people shouldn't ask me for directions so often.

StoryCollapse )
24 April 2009 @ 01:05 am

I made this one up. It's really, really hard. It took the xkcd forum 4 days to solve it.
24 April 2009 @ 12:46 am
It was reported a while ago that the highest concentration of google searches for "Men Kissing" comes from Salt Lake City. I'm sure they're just looking for material for their anti-marriage ads.

At the time it inspired me to do my own research, and I just stumbled across my saved results.

SearchCity Performing Search
get rid of a bodyAtlanta, GA
perfect murderMontreal, Canada
how to poisonPhiladelphia, PA