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September 20, 2006

No connection, eh?

CNN:

Saddam Hussein offered asylum

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has offered asylum to bin Laden, who openly supports Iraq against the Western powers.

Despite repeated demands from Washington, the Taliban refused to hand over bin Laden after the August 7 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, demanding proof of his involvement in terrorist activities.

However, in recent weeks, both the United States and Britain have renewed their pressure on the Taliban to expel bin Laden.

But remember...no connection!

Posted by Jeff at 12:16 PM | Comments (3)

The Exact Cost of Diversity

I read this short blurb in Discover Magazine, the September 2006 issue, page 14:

The Exact Cost of Diversity

Life isn't cheap. In evolutionary terms, it's incredibly expensive, says Drew Austin, and ecologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Using a mathematical model, Allen worked out exactly how much it costs to generate a new species. The answer: a staggering 10^23 joules, more energy than is released by all the fossil fuels burned on Earth in a year.

Allen looked specifically at foraminifora - tiny, omnipresent, ocean-dwelling plankton that have been plentiful for millenia. His model took into account both an individual plankton's body size and its metabolism's dependence on temperature to quantify how much energy it takes to fuel all the genetic changes that must occur in order for a new species to emerge. He found that although the amount of energy required is constant, new species form more quickly near the equator because heat speeds up both metabolism and the rate of genetic mutations.

Even Darwin noticed that biodiversity is more plentiful in the tropics. "But the idea that temperature affects speciation rates through its effects on molecular-level processes is brand-new," Allen says.

--Jennifer Barone

Pretty groovy.

Now look up how many species have disappeared over the last 300 years due to human encroachments on their environments (even acid rain far away from human civilization is such an encroachment, as well as any global warming due to the burning of fossil fuels), multiply the number by 10^23, and then multiply by the average cost of a joule of energy, as well as the minimum cost.

Without actually carrying through on that exercise, I suspect that it is very safe to say: Humans are expensive.

Posted by Jeff at 11:22 AM | Comments (0)

September 17, 2006

Currently Reading: "The Mind's I" and "1776"

The Mind's I, Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett

The Mind's I is a book that I've owned for years and I read quite a bit through maybe a decade ago, but never finished. It's a book about consciousness, a conglomeration of pieces written by quite a few different authors, then each piece reflected upon by Daniel C. Dennett (author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea) and/or Douglas R. Hofstadter (author of Godel, Escher, Bach). If there is a strong philosophical bent to your thinking, you may like this one.

1776, by David McCullough

1776, by David McCullough, is a new book to me, and is very interesting. I had no idea how little I knew about the revolutionary war. The book centers around General George Washington, but it employs many different characters. It reads like a novel, but is heavily interspersed with actual surviving quotes made by the historical characters within its pages. It's very interesting and I recommend it to everyone. (It is good enough that I am likely to follow up by reading one of his other books: John Adams.)

More on The Mind's I:

Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas R. Hofstadter, is a book which compares the mathematics of Godel, the paintings of Escher, and the music of Bach to one another. There's a great deal of similarity.

There's a long chapter in that book called, "Prelude...Ant Fugue", which is reprinted in the book The Mind's I.

The chapter, in and of itself, is (supposed to be) a fugue by Bach. The content of the chapter is a dialogue between four characters: Achilles, (a) Tortoise, (a) Crab, and (an) Anteater. The dialogue is about a friend of theirs by the name of Aunt Hillary. Aunt Hillary is an ant colony. She doesn't participate in the discussion, of course, because she's not present. Much of the discussion is about how it is possible that Aunt Hillary can even be referred to as an individual, being as how she's composed of ants, and of how Aunt Hillary can consider Anteater to be such a good friend (which she does) in spite of Anteater being...an ant eater (he doesn't eat colonies, so it's not like Aunt Hillary has anything to fear - but the ants which of which she is composed don't like Anteater in the least!).

Also, the conversation is occasionally self-referential, in that its participants sometimes discuss the very Bach fugue which is composed of their very conversation. That would be like the Bach fugue actually thinking about itself, in some strange way. No, that's not quite accurate...it's more in the other direction...hmm....

Anyway...the whole idea is to make clear the distinction between different levels of description (such as how this picture, at one level of description, is a bunch of photos of soldiers, but at another is a single picture of George Bush's face [note that it is very poor art, given that they just put a bunch of photos together, and then they bleached some of them and darkened others in order to create the light and dark portions of Bush's face; that's pretty amateur]).

Here's an excerpt:

CRAB: We would never have noticed if it hadn't been for you, Achilles

ANTEATER: I wonder if the coincidence of the highest and lowest levels happened by chance? Or was it a purposeful act carried out by some creator?

CRAB: How could one ever decide that?

TORTOISE: I don't see any way to do so, since we have no idea why that particular picture is in the Crab's edition of the Well-Tempered Clavier.

ANTEATER: Although we have been having a lively discussion, I have still managed to listen with a good fraction of an ear to this very long and complex four-voice fugue. It is extraordinarily beautiful.

TORTOISE: It certainly is. And now, in just a moment, comes an organ point.

ACHILLES: Isn't an organ point what happens when a piece of music slows down slightly, settles for a moment or two on a single note or chord, and then resumes at normal speed after a short silence?

TORTOISE: No, you're thinking of a "fermata" - a sort of musical semicolon. Did you notice there was one of those in the prelude?

ACHILLES: I guess I must have missed it.

TORTOISE: Well, you have another chance coming up to hear a fermata - in fact, there are a couple of them coming up toward the end of this fugue.

ACHILLES: Oh, good. you'll point them out in advance, won't you?

TORTOISE: If you like.

ACHILLES: But do tell me, what is an organ point?

TORTOISE: An organ point is the sustaining of a single note by one of the voices in a polyphonic piece (often the lowest voice), while the other voices continue their own independent lines. This organ point is on the note of G. Listen carefully, and you'll hear it.

ANTEATER: There occurred an incident one day when I visited with Aunt Hillary which reminds me of your suggestion of observing the symbols in Achilles' brain as they create thoughts which are about themselves.

CRAB: Do tell us about it.

ANTEATER: Aunt Hillary had been feeling very lonely, and was very happy to have someone to talk to that day. So she gratefully told me to help myself to the juiciest ants I could find. (She's always been most generous with her ants.)

ACHILLES: Gee!

ANTEATER: It just happened that I had been watching the symbols which were carrying out her thoughts, because in them were some particularly juicy-looking ants.

ACHILLES: Gee!

ANTEATER: So I helped myself to a few of the fattest ants which had been parts of the higher-level symbols which I had been reading. Specifically, the symbols which they were part of were the ones which had expressed the thought "Help yourself to any of the ants which look appetizing."

ACHILLES: Gee!

ANTEATER: Unfortunately for them, but fortunately for me, the little bugs didn't have the slightest inkling of what they were collectively telling me, on the symbol level.

ACHILLES: Gee! That is an amazing wraparound. They were completely unconscious of what they were participating in. Their acts could be seen as part of a pattern on a higher level, but of course they were completely unaware of that. Ah, what a pity - a supreme irony, in fact - that they missed it.

CRAB: You are right, Mr. T - that was a lovely organ point.

ANTEATER: I had never heard one before, but that one was so conspicuous that one one could miss it. Very effective.

ACHILLES: What? Has the organ pint already occurred? How can I not have noticed it, if it was so blatant?

TORTOISE: Perhaps you were so wrapped up in what you were saying that you were completely unaware of it. Ah, what a pity - a supreme irony, in fact - that you missed it.

CRAB: Tell me, does Aunt Hillary live in an anthill?

ANTEATER: Well, she owns a rather large piece of property. It used to belong to someone else, but that is a rather sad story. In any case, her estate is quite expansive. She lives rather sumptuously, compared to many other colonies.

ACHILLES: How does that jibe with the communistic nature of ant colonies which you earlier described to us? It sounds quite inconsistent, to me, to preach communism and to live in a fancy estate!

ANTEATER: The communism is on the ant level. In an ant colony all ants work for the common good, even to their own individual detriment at times. Now this is simply a built-in aspect of Aunt Hillary's structure, but for all I know, she may not even be aware of this internal communism. Most human beings are not aware of anything about their neurons; in fact they probably are quite content not to know anything about their brains, being somewhat squeamish creatures. Aunt Hillary is also somewhat squeamish; she gets rather antsy whenever she starts to think about ants at all. So she avoids thinking about them whenever possible. I truly doubt that she knows anything about the communistic society which is built into her very structure. She herself is a staunch believer in libertarianism - you know, laissez-faire and all that. So it makes perfect sense, to me at least, that she should live in a rather sumptuous manor....

This dialogue is also about the differing appropriateness of using reductionist and holistic interpretations of events.

See also: John Adams, by David McCullough.

Posted by Jeff at 11:19 PM | Comments (0)

September 09, 2006

A Learning Guitar Thought Experiment

I just want to get this written out because I think I may be using it in a discussion in the near future:

Deserted Island Music Theory and Guitar Study

Imagine that you, or someone you know, who doesn't know a thing about playing guitar is banished to a deserted island in order to study guitar. He (or she) is all alone living in a grass hut, but remarkably has a computer with a very limited satellite Internet connection which allows him to purchase guitar or music related products from Amazon. They'll deliver anything of music orientation that he wants: books, CDs, concert videos, whatever. Everything, that is, except a guitar. His task while on the island is to learn to play the guitar.

Out in the grass in front of his hut is a large log, a meter in diameter, and sawed exactly in half top to bottom. It's laying on its side with the flat side up. Within the face of the flat side of this log has been carved a perfect replica of the front of a Fender Stratocaster. It's even had a rosewood fingerboard with metal frets built in. It has metal tuning knobs, electronic pick-ups, it's varnished, it's got all of the plastic parts, a metal "whammy" bar - everything. Everything, that is, except strings. Instead of strings, there are white lines painted down the length of the guitar where the strings should be. And, of course, this is only the front of the guitar - the back is not carved out, instead blending into the log. So, not only does it not have strings, but it's impossible to even put a hand around the neck to practice fingering chords or scales. This guitar's only function is to give a clear idea to the island's visitor of what a guitar is like.

The word italicized above, "idea", is an important word here, because the point of this exercise is to think of everything that the island's visitor can learn about playing guitar: he can learn music theory; he can learn the fretboard; he can learn scale patterns; he can learn how all of the individual chords are shaped on the guitar neck; he can purchase and listen to ear training products. He can learn a whole heck of a lot about playing the guitar. What he can't learn, however, are the physical skills required for playing. It's all mental for him, it's all intellectual, it's all ideal.

The point of this exercise is to as clearly as possible separate in one's mind the difference between the intellectual side of playing, and the physical skills, the technique side of playing.

There are people who seem to be uninterested in the intellectual side of music. At the extreme, imagine a person who knows nothing of music theory - he doesn't even know the names of notes! Instead, he has a guitar, he knows how to make sounds with it, he memorizes (plays and remembers) where on the fretboard to place his fingers in order to make all of the different sounds, and then playing, for him, is just knowing what sound he wants to make and then going there with his fingers to make the sound. For him, there's no abstract component to the music. It's all physical: it's the physical act of fretting and striking strings, and it's the physical act of hearing sound. It's all percept, and zero concept.

I'm a person who needs the abstract side in order to enjoy the other side. Without that, it wouldn't be enjoyable at all. I set time aside in my day for "practicing guitar", and often my practice will not involve a single moment of actually touching the guitar. Instead, I'm reading books or using workbooks to learn the fretboard backwards and forwards, to learn scales, music theory, etc. To me, the guitar is a tool to use to bring forth the products of that wealth of knowledge. And, in this sense, a guitar is like any other instrument: the music is what is important, not so much the instrument. Or, put another way, some guitarists are guitarists first and musicians second. Other guitarists are musicians first and guitarists second (and often guitarists as a distant second). The latter are those whom I respect the most. An excellent musician with mediocre skills on the guitar is likely to be many, many times better than a mediocre musician who can cleanly shred on the guitar at 20 notes per second. I just don't "get" those people who want to play the guitar the day they get it. Given the choice in a false dichotomy, I'd prefer to get the guitar and put it under glass for a year while first learning everything there is to know about it without ever striking a string.

But that's just me.

Posted by Jeff at 06:41 PM | Comments (7)

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