Monthly Archives: August 2012

31 Days – You Are a Siamese Twin

The title is an understatement. You are more like a Siamese triplet — or more.

Before I get to that, have you ever wondered how Siamese twins manage? I recently saw a video of a pair of twins who shared almost everything except their heads. I wondered how they could walk so smoothly with two brains controlling their single set of legs. And how did they decide where to go?

People like you and me are in the same situation, except our potentially conflicting voices are within one head, not two.

Roz Chast - Voice of Reason

Those voices come from distinct areas of the brain. The frontal lobes engage in rational thought. Emotional responses come from the more primitive limbic system. Each region might be telling you to do something different. It’s a miracle that we remain sane, isn’t it?

If that’s not amazing enough, research has shown that humans’ unique intelligence derives from the sophisticated wiring between brain areas, not just larger brains. We have embraced and exploited the cacophony, and are better for it. It reminds me of  democracy — another of this month’s wonders.

P.S. – I wrote this post yesterday morning, but the voice in my head that said I should proofread it at night overrode the voice that said I should post it right away because I might not get to it at night. The warning voice was right. :\

31 Days – Genetic Programming

We’re most of the way through August’s 31 Days of Wonder and I haven’t even told you about one of the coolest things I’ve ever heard of.

Genetic programming is a method of writing software in which the code is evolved rather than intelligently designed. The author does not write code to solve a particular problem, but constructs a system in which bits of code are randomly swapped about and mutated to form thousands of programs that compete with each other to solve the problem.

It’s important to realize that the program as it comes out of the brain of its author is totally stupid. It is not equipped to solve or do anything. Yet, through mutations, recombinations and survival-of-the-fittest tournaments, a solution emerges.

The video below is an example: simulated fish swimming around to get food. Each fish is powered by a program that has only four inputs:

  1. His direction.
  2. His velocity.
  3. The distance to the closest piece of food.
  4. The direction to that piece of food (an angle).

And only two things come out of its brain:

  1. How fast to flap his right flipper.
  2. How fast to flap his left flipper.

Initially, the input statistics are combined using a random assortment of arithmetic operators to produce the outputs. For example, the speed of the right flipper might be given by

R = (2 * fish-direction / velocity + velocity / angle-to-closest-food) * 100 + 1

and the left by

L = square-root(velocity) + 25 / distance-to-closest-food + angle-to-closest-food

In other words, total nonsense. The crucial point is that at no time does the human programmer say to himself, “Now what would be a sensible way to get from the inputs to the outputs?” In other words, there is no intelligent design(One could contend that the entire system is intelligently designed even if the simulated life is not. On the other hand, how much intelligence is really built into a system that just throws things together randomly, with occasional mistakes/mutations? And the idea of survival of the fittest is a tautology.)

Each fish has its own distinct random equations. At each generation, the equations from the fish that are most successful at finding food are randomly chopped up, mutated and recombined. This simulates the process of sexual reproduction, with the fittest individuals surviving to breed and recombine their genes, possibly with a few mutations thrown in. (Mutations are actually rare in genetic programming, just as they are in real life. Most of the evolution comes from the reassortment of existing material.)

With that background, I hope you enjoy the video.

Isn’t it amazing how fish that start out so stupid evolve to look so purposeful? And that they do so with no external intelligence applied beyond (a) an algorithm that randomly recombines “genetic material” and (b) the pressure of natural selection?

Here’s another fun one in which a simulated human evolves the ability to stand. The details are not given but my educated guess is that inputs are the force gravity exerts on each segment of the human, and the position of each segment. The output is the angle of each joint. An individual’s fitness seems to be measured by the average distance his head is from the ground during a fixed measuring period. Only the best human from each generation is shown. It’s almost touching to watch him struggle.

There are many more videos like this on YouTube and elsewhere. Search for genetic programming, virtual evolution, or similar terms.

If you’d like to learn more, a free yet comprehensive place to start is A Field Guide to Genetic Programming, available at that link or from Amazon.

Enjoy and wonder!

31 Days – Birds and Transhumans

Bird Migrationwrote recently about impossible things being accomplished by simple means. When I was young, one of the seemingly impossible feats in the animal kingdom was birds that can navigate over hundreds or thousands of miles. Now we know it’s simple. Birds have a sixth sense. They can “see” Earth’s magnetic field just as easily as you and I can see light. Scientists have even found the magnetoreceptive cells and the neurons they’re connected to.

Tuck that wonder in your mind as I move to another front.

There’s a movement afoot called transhumanism, whose adherents advocate enhancing the human body with various gizmos.

When you think about it, the ways we already enhance our capabilities are myriad. We extend our memories with pencil and paper. We strap ourselves onto bicycles and into cars to improve our efficiency of motion. We improve our eyesight with contact lenses, and our hearing with hearing aids. You could even say that a Google-equipped computer extends our brains to tap much of the accumulated knowledge of mankind.

That’s all great, but it only improves the senses and capabilities we already have, and only as long as we’re using the device in question. Transhumansists aim for more. They don’t just want to improve or repair what we have. They want to make us more than we ever were, and they want it to be permanent.

Finger Magnet

Finger Magnet Implant

One of their first innovations has been to install in humans the magnetic sense that birds have. Well, not quite. So far, the results are primitive: just a piece of magnetic material in the finger that gives a tingle in the presence of a magnetic field. It’s not hard to imagine, though, where this is heading. How long until we have GPSs built into our bodies instead of our cars?

Do you think this is a good idea, or is it “playing God”?

If you favor the idea, what new senses or capabilities would you like to have?Here are some ideas to get you started.

  • Introduce chlorophyll into our skin so we could make supplemental energy from sunlight and water. Could be very handy for troops who have to function at high levels of performance in harsh environments.
  • Modify the body so we could breathe underwater. If lungfish can breathe on land and in the water, why shouldn’t we?
  • Install sensors that can detect minute variations in other people’s skin conductivity, from a few feet away. Integrate the sensors with the circuitry of a lie detector. You could probably detect subtle changes people’s voices, too, and send that data to the lie detector.
  • Flying, of course, but that’s probably less practical than the others.

What do you think?

31 Days – The Monty Hall Problem

The human mind is notoriously bad at probability. We think a medicine that allegedly helped a single friend or celebrity is more likely to work than one that has withstood scientific trials. We think we are more likely to win the lottery than to be struck by lightning (especially if we’ve been good), but the reverse is true. If we have no idea whether an event will happen, we tend to lay the odds at 50-50.

It should come as no surprise, then, that many people would make the wrong play in the following scenario. What would you do?

Let's Make a Deal Doors

Let’s Make a Deal

You’re a contestant on the old game show, Let’s Make a Deal. The host, Monty Hall, shows you three doors and you get to pick one. Behind one is a car; the other two conceal goats. Let’s say you pick Door #1.

Before opening Door #1, Monty, who knows what’s behind all three doors, opens one of the other doors to show you a goat. (He will always open a door, and it will always show a goat.) Let’s say he opens Door #3. He then offers, “You may stay with Door #1 if you wish, or you may switch to Door #2.”

I remember watching this show as a kid, putting myself in the place of the contestant. “What an impossible situation!” I thought. “Which is worse: looking like an idiot if you switch and it turns out to be the wrong choice, or looking like an idiot if you stand pat and that turns out to be wrong?”

What would you do?

The audience is shouting at you. Your friends are watching from home. You’re sweating under the stage lights. Before you know it, time is up.

Are you ready with your answer?

If you guessed that it doesn’t matter because you have a 1 in 3 chance of getting the car in either case, you’re in good company. Most people would agree with you. However, the truth is that switching doubles your chance of winning.

When the smartest person alive, Marilyn vos Savant, explained this in her column, she got about 10,000 letters claiming she was wrong, including 1,000 from PhDs. It confuses a lot of people. In fact, someone has written a whole book on the subject, partly to show how befuddled we get when reasoning about probability.

The best explanation I’ve found goes like this. If your strategy is to always stick with your initial choice, then of course you have a 1 in 3 chance.

However, if your strategy is always to switch, then you only lose in the case where your initial choice was the car. (If your initial choice was a goat, and Monty just showed you the other goat, then switching will always get the car.) Your initial choice will be the car 1 out of 3 times. The other 2 out of 3, therefore, are wins for you. You win 2 out of 3 times by switching!

You might win some money at the bar with this. Get 3 opaque cups to serve as “doors.” Offer to a friend that you and he will each put up a one-dollar stake, so there will be two dollars in play. Your friend will be Monty Hall, putting the money under one of the cups while you aren’t looking. You will guess a cup, and he will offer you the chance to switch after showing you one of the empty cups.

If your friend is like most people, he will think he has the advantage in the game, for he will think that you will win just 1/3 of the time. However, you will win, on average 2/3 of the time. For your $1 investment, you will get an average of $1.33 (2/3 of $2). Not bad for 30 seconds’ work!

Maybe you can sucker your friend in by letting him play Contestant for the first few rounds. He will probably switch half the time and stand pat half the time, which does make it an even-money game. He will think the game is fair, and let you be the contestant after that.

Of course, a few bucks are not worth the loss of a friend. It’s probably best to use your winnings to buy him a drink. 🙂

31 Days – 3 Forest Paintings

If you’ve been following these 31 Days of Wonder closely, you may have noticed that I missed a post on Friday. Here’s an extra one today to make up for it.

I’d like to share with you one of my favorite classical guitar pieces — actually a 3-piece suite called 3 Forest Paintings by KostantinVassiliev.

What always amazes me about music is that the same 12 notes of the chromatic scale are available to everyone, yet most of us could not in a thousand years come up with pieces to match those of accomplished composers. What is it about a good composer’s brain that makes his style unique, and so unattainable by people without his gift? Likewise for the performer, who in these videos is the  very talented Roman Viazovskiy.

31 Days – Sailing Upwind

In keeping with yesterday’s missive on magic, I’d like to invite you to wonder with me at sailing upwind.

It is a kind of magic, isn’t it? The wind is blowing from the north, and you can sail to the northeast – almost right into the wind.

For thousands of years, it did not occur to mankind that this was even possible. We thought we had to delay our voyage until the wind was blowing the right direction. Even when the technique was finally discovered, I’ll bet nobody knew why it worked.

We now know that it relies on the same principle as another thing that was supposed to be impossible: flying a heaver-than-air craft. The principle, of course, is the airfoil, a.k.a. Bernoulli’s Principle. If you can get air to pass more quickly over one side of an object than another, then a sort of suction will pull the object toward the side that has the quicker-moving air. With a sail curved appropriately, and a keel to direct the boat, off you go into the wind!

I wonder…what other “impossible” things might we be able to do with simple but untried techniques?

How about getting to outer space by climbing a cable attached to the equator at one end and to empty space at the other? It’s simple, and will be reality once we can make a cable that is light and strong enough.

What else? Teleportation? Telepathy? Time travel? Maybe none of those, but it’s fun to wonder about.

In the meantime, here’s a fun trick you can do at home.

31 Days – Vanishing Jet

When I was a teenager, I enjoyed giving magic shows at birthday parties. Most of my tricks were purely store-bought, but my favorite was one I put together on my own.

I began by showing a picture frame with nothing in it. I put it on a table, facing away from the audience. Next, a volunteer picked a card from a full deck. I ripped it up in full view of the audience, gave one corner to the volunteer, and put the rest in my closed hand. After some incantations, I opened my hand and the card was gone! Turning the picture frame around, we saw that the selected card was in it, with one corner ripped out. I took the card out of the frame and gave it to the volunteer, who verified that the corner she had retained perfectly fit the missing piece in the card.

What made that trick so effective was that there were several obfuscations along the way. Someone might be able to figure out how I made the ripped-up pieces vanish, but that would not explain the whole trick.

So it is with the stunning illusion I offer for your pleasure today. It’s the famous David Copperfield making a jet disappear. Even with a little background in magic, I couldn’t figure this one out…until I searched the Internet and found other videos that revealed the secrets. So that you can enjoy being puzzled for as long as you like, I won’t point you to those videos. You’ll have to find them yourself.

And now here’s Mr. Copperfield.

We all know that a 7-ton jet did not vanish. That’s impossible, right? So the real mystery is: Where we were so gullible? It makes you wonder, doesn’t it?