Saturday, March 24, 2007


Data is my favourite character on Star Trek: The Next Generation. He's the science officer, an android - super strong and super smart - and the objective observer of humanity. He's like Spock on steroids. Data is the ideal human: analytical, rational, open-minded, and about as unbiased as anyone can get.

He knows how to solve problems, learns from them, applies this information to novel situations - just like we would hope to do. From putting two and two together to conducting breakthrough experiments in physics, robotics, biology, or even cat food design, Data is a renaissance man of science.

Emotions don't get in the way of his calculations. They don't make him stupid or unreasonable or make him lose focus. Without these cumbersome feelings, he can jump straight to the heart of the matter and resolve problems with ease.

More than all these impressive feats, it is his approach to life that is his most compelling quality. Data's silly quest to become human (why? he's way better than we are already!), of "learning, changing, growing, and trying to become than what I am", means we, as real humans, have no excuse to simply allow ourselves to stagnate.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Wedding Pictures

A friend of mine is a really good photographer and a contributor to the UT newspaper, The Daily Texan.

Commerican1917 (6:09:07 PM):
Commerican1917 (6:09:11 PM): joe's pics
My Mother (6:09:16 PM): i saw that 2 days ago

She's quick.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Is It Better to Receive or Dispense Injustice?

It is better to receive injustice than it is to perpetrate injustice. This can be explained using abstract models, as well as cultural and historical references.

Game theory simulations of the Prisoner’s Dilemma using computer programs over many iterations suggest that the tendency to forgive and refrain from retaliating or initiating harm may be advantageous. Of all the particular strategies, the most adaptive and successful algorithm was known as “Tit for Tat”. The program would abstain from the betrayal option until it had become a victim. It would retaliate in the next iteration, and, if the opponent did not betray that turn, would forgive. This approach was very successful against the other ones, including the completely ruthless and completely altruistic algorithms.

Many cultures endorse a policy of pacifism. Christ supposedly stated in the Sermon on the Mount, “But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also;” and: “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Metta and Ahimsa, non-violence, are core tenets of Buddhism and Jainism, respectively. As social creatures, it may be an evolutionary trait to forgive or abstain from (retaliatory) violence because doing so contributes to the cohesion and thus survival of the group.

Past instances of this situation can be found throughout history. Recent and egregious cases might be the concentration and death camps of Nazi Germany or the gulags of the U.S.S.R. Although Stalin and Hitler approved of the killing, they personally did not commit each act of violence. Somewhere between the desires of these dictators and their realization, several people were offered this simple choice: perform some violent act on someone else, or have violence visited upon you. Every higher-ranking person threatens the lower ranks, and, perhaps in fear of their lives, goons and lackeys all down the chain of command obey orders to harm other people. Thus miserable acts are committed. Were each underling to make the choice to refrain from violence, the cycle would stop entirely, as every higher rank (save the very top, i.e., Hitler, Stalin) would no longer threaten the lower ranks. Unfortunately, this ideal is not always practical or achievable. Self-preservation and a groupthink mentality undermine otherwise forgiving and pacific behavior. Relying on situational ethics to determine a suitable course of action would therefore be preferred.


Thursday, March 08, 2007

What Is Knowledge?

Knowledge is analogous to language. Both undergo translations, experience loss of data, and rely on the relation between particles to impart meaning.

A lavish concert in an opulent theater contains plenty of information. The vaulted and molded ceilings, the gilded walls, plush seats, soft carpets, the gently stirring crowd, and of course, the music, all comprise the entire experience. There are subjective elements to it as well, like the elation at the soaring notes, the allure of light perfume, or the annoyance at the coughing person a few seats down. This complete concert can be captured or stored in some other medium, like digital film or music. Doing so is a matter of converting the information present in the setting (the language of it) into another language (the 1s and 0s of electronic media). A camera can record the lights emanating from the stage that silhouette the conductor. A digital recorder can piece together the many vibrations of the strings and horns, making them bits in circuitry.

Much of the information present in the setting would be lost when it is converted from one language into another. Digital media cannot represent the elation or the annoyance. It can’t feel the plush seats and the soft carpet. No camera can view all angles at once, or represent depth. These sensations are necessarily lost, as this new data format does not recognize them. The whole theater is not reproduced in its entirety.

The human mind, too, could be considered a recording device, with its own language or data format. Knowledge can be represented in the brain by connections between neurons. The connections between these neurons are important as they relate to each other. Simultaneous understanding of several words is a prerequisite for understanding a new word found in the dictionary. A word is only meaningful if it has a context and can be linked in some way to other words. A word without a definition is meaningless. Likewise, a bit of knowledge can only be meaningful if it can relate to other bits of knowledge. A pre-existing network of associated neurons is necessary for the acquisition of new information in the brain, just as a previously constructed set of linguistic building blocks is necessary to comprehend a new word.


Sunday, March 04, 2007

Made In China

Humans must produce. Our labor must be applied to something that can be used by someone else. It is not just that we are dependent on the labor of others (we are), but also that we would be horribly dissatisfied with ourselves if we did not. Unfortunately, some of the things we make for each other are a bit more permanent than we are. Items and buildings can be passed down, generation to generation. If everyone has everything they could ever need, there is no need for anyone to make anything. When this happens, the economy stagnates. People become willing to sell their labor for ridiculously low wages, a race to the bottom which only the employers win.

China is our best trading partner for this very reason. China is an old country, a highly populated country, a highly refined country. Sure, many areas are without indoor plumbing and electricity, and there is a massive gap between wealth and poverty, but with all those people, all that untapped potential, China can mobilize itself very quickly. It has reserves of energy ready to be utilized. Rather than offer their labor to the benefit of their countrymen, many Chinese citizens work in dank factories for meager wages to make cheap plastic goods for unappreciative and wasteful Americans.

A few questions arise then. Let's assume that the workmanship of a Chinese laborer is just as good as that of an American laborer; that the manufacturing process is essentially the same. Why is the labor of a Chinese worker worth less than that of an American worker? Why would Americans need to go all the way to China to get the goods that could just as easily and effectively be made here? Doesn't this take more energy, total, to make the goods in a far away place and then have them shipped to their ultimate destination? Who stands to gain from this arrangement?

America has safety standards, minimum wage laws, schools, roads, hospitals, all the great civil services and legal systems that protect us from undue harm and exploitation. America is still a fresh country, lacking the thousands of years of development China has had. We had more black slaves than white people (as if there is a difference) in the southern US for over a hundred years, stealing their labor. Companies that sell goods want to buy them for the cheapest price. Because of the disparity in wages, the goods made in China are so cheap that even after the transportations costs have been applied, the company still makes a handsome profit. (I could quickly go on a tangent and explain how the relative monetary values of goods in relation to the amount of non-renewable fossil fuel that went into making them is inaccurate because the price does not reflect the limited nature of the supply and negative consequences of their utilization. [Second aside: Did you know that China jump-started its economy with the gratuitous and uncaring wholesale mining and burning of its enormous coal reserves? The goods we buy from factories powered by coal help to "fuel" this process.]) In short, the people who benefit most from this arrangement are the ones who get the profit, and it should come as no surprise that they are responsible for the hypocritical trade agreement we have with China.

We protest the abuse of humans that we know happens in China. We lament how little freedom they have, how oppressed and mistreated they are. We would hope that everyone can have it as good as we do (do we, really?). We do not fully realize that our purchases of the goods they make goes to maintain this system of oppression which we loathe. We enjoy the cheap goods, but can't stand to have such working conditions within our sight. So we get someone else to do it.

I like to think of it as outsourced slavery.