Posts Tagged science

Dream of Tomorrow

Thursday, November 11, 2010
What do you *really* wish you were doing right now, and how soon do you think you can make it happen?

This question almost seems insidiously designed to generate guilt.  And regret.  But maybe I’m reading it that way because of who I am, and not due to anything inherent in the question.  I actually had a lunch conversation with Nagle, Dave H and Nick K about how I don’t feel my current job is quite good enough at satisfying my ambition, despite the fact that I am content and happy with it.  Perhaps in some ideal parallel narrative, Dave Guskin went on to become a renowned physicist and did great works.  I don’t think I wish I was that Dave Guskin, exactly, but some of what he’s accomplishing (assumedly) is in line with what I wish.

I wish I was doing something that was world-affecting in a positive way.  I enjoy working in games and entertainment, but I feel it’s kind of a highest-order (like, high on the food chain) happiness for humanity.  A better way would be to work on lower-order happiness, ways to improve all of our lives for generations to come.  To that end, I think I should get back into physics, but I don’t think I can honestly make anything like that happen for about 3-5 years.  It definitely requires planning of a sort I haven’t been comfortable doing recently.

One good thing I can say about financials: they are an excellent barometer of one’s (financial) independence, and I am far from being able to quit my paying job for a noble scientific (penniless) pursuit.

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“An Epic Time Travel Romp,” says NY Times

Wednesday, November 3, 2010
Describe the plot of the next book you want to read, even if the book doesn’t exist yet.

I have actually been noodling with the following plot for a while, although I originally envisioned it in movie form.  Could be both!  Of course, those of you know who me or who have been reading along know I’m a sucker for a time travel story.  So that is of course the crux of the book I imagine: the protagonist is a time traveler.  The twist is, he (in my imagination, it’s me) doesn’t start the story that way!

I see the plot spanning two parts.  The first is where our hero is still mild-mannered, and finds himself descending quickly into a conspiracy plot but doesn’t know why, a la a Dan Brown novel, or maybe like, one of the Bourne series.  Extremely odd and improbable things happen around him, and he and his allies narrowly escape danger in situations where all of the dramatic build-up indicates it shouldn’t work that way.  Ideally, this phase of the book would be most akin to a mystery/thriller.

The second part begins with our hero capable of time travel.  I haven’t worked out *why* he begins to time travel – I imagine that at least part of the mystery of the first part is mundane/actual conspiracy in nature, and the culmination of that part of the action is heroic transformation into time traveler.  Perhaps it’s like a video game where there’s miniboss (local conspiracy) before big-boss (time traveling conspiracy).  The action in the second half of the book would be explaining what happened and taking on a sci fi/fantasy bent as the hero allies with past-himself (unknowingly) to take on the greater threat and explores the limits of his newfound powers.  Maybe even superhero-esque plot, at this point.

Anyway, that’s the book I’d like to read next.  Maybe I’ll have to write it myself.

p.s. spoilers

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Nadia Drake

Nadia and I went to high school together, and above and beyond being a very intelligent, kinda snarky, lovely lady, she and I were pretty good friends. I recall having lots of fun with her, through numerous shared classes, study groups, movie outings, school dances (I took her to our Senior Winter Ball, which was by far my most fun high school dance experience) and all of the rest of high school stuff. Nadia’s just a great complement to any group, because she has such a great sense of humor and isn’t afraid to speak her mind, but she’s also great one-on-one because of her keen intellect and insight. Add to that her talent as a dancer and a smartypants in general and you’ve got a totally awesome friend.

Nadia also has a wonderful relationship with her family, something I strive to have as well with my family. She and her sister are literally the funniest together, and I recall her home being a warm place for everyone. I love my family, but sometimes I am not really patient or understanding enough with them, and Nadia’s (apparent) easy report with hers is inspiring.

Although we basically lost touch after high school, when I went to New York City for grad school we reconnected a bit and she almost made it over to join me for a sweet concert. Tragically, life and work got in the way and it didn’t work out, but one day maybe we’ll reunite and share more laughs and good times!

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Game Universes: The Why of Gaming

For my last post of Game Design month, I wanted to think through my reasons for enjoying gaming so much.  I have skipped social commitments to play games, I sometimes interact with friends solely through the lens of a game during a meetup, and I (obviously) enjoy thinking about and designing games.  But why?

Games are an escape from the real world, yes, but I don’t think that’s the reason.  More likely, the allure comes from the fact that each game can be a world unto itself.  As a scientist, I understand fundamentally that although I may learn a lot about how the universe works, I will never understand enough on my own to make sense of most of the universe.  In the universe of a game, however, the rules are much more limited and understandable, and that’s enjoyable in and of itself.

But the real draw comes because even very very simple games – those with a handful of easily understood rules – have emergent behaviors, especially when many human players are involved.  At the same time it promises solvability due to its simplicity, its complexity means that truly “solving” some games – the strategy kind, and the social kind – is impossible.  Maybe it’s my personality that is always searching for puzzles to fiddle with that have no final solutions, but I really enjoy exploring the space that games create.  It’s like a little bubble world that often gives insight into the minds and behaviors of the players, the designer and even the greater world around us when the game is a model for something about the real world.

It’s pretty remarkable, really, when you think about it.

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Author Review: Greg Bear

I have been finding that I really like the style and manner in which Greg Bear tells a science fiction story, and didn’t really feel like reviewing each of his books individually, hence the “author review.”  I’m in the middle of City at the End of Time, which I started on my SF trip last week (and which I will hopefully finish on my SF trip next week!), which has themes similar to Anathem with a moderately different plot engine.

To me, one of the key pieces of science fiction is describing with the correct amount of detail whatever technologies are present in the world of the novel.  If there is too much detail, (1) it might be demonstrably wrong from what we know now and there’s bound to be hand-waving involved (which offends the scientist in me) and (2) it gets kind of boring.  If there is too little detail, (1) I am left with a feeling that the author didn’t try hard enough to weave the world and (2) the story feels like it could be driven by magic, not technology (note: some very interesting and very good sci-fi I’ve read is essentially driven by magic; it might still be a failing of those stories!)  I feel like Michael Crichton’s stories are often near the “too little” side of that line, and Bear seems to fall right in the middle (if slightly to the “too much” side).  I am immersed, and begin to imagine how *I* might live in such a world, and I think that’s awesome.

I also really appreciate the pacing of his plot.  The suspensefulness that is often increased and made more useful due to the transportation technology allowed to the characters is a wonderful addition to stories that I generally consider pretty brainy puzzle kind of endeavor.

One point, although most speculative fiction shares this quality: his characters have not been super compelling to me.

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I hold some beliefs that are not falsifiable.  For example, I hypothesize that humans are free-willed, but no currently-imaginable experiment could falsify that statement (prove that it isn’t true).  I think that there are plenty of “reasonable” hypotheses that are worth considering despite the fact that they are not falsifiable, and this post is an attempt to explain why I think that is true.

The notion of falsifiability is intrinsic to the Scientific Method: we advance our knowledge of the universe and the correctness and applicability of our theories by constructing tests for that knowledge and/or those theories.  Tests can only show that a theory is wrong (i.e.falsify it) – this is because any number of possible reasons could apply, and no test can account for all of them.  A test CAN account for one of them, though, by showing “this isn’t the reason, it must be something else.”  There are three very key implied aspects to this application of logic:

  1. A (semi-) objective observation has been recorded (that-which-we-theorize-about)
  2. A predictive, testable hypothesis can be constructed about the observation.
  3. Experiment can be constructed that falsifies AT LEAST the hypothesis in #2.

But there is a deeper question at hand: should the hypotheses for which no tests can be constructed be considered?  Such a premise is “nonfalsifiable,” or as Sam likes to say, “not even false.”  What is the meaning / truth value of such a theory?  “Humans are free-willed,” or “God exists,” are two such hypotheses, where no observation can be recorded relevant to the falsification of the hypothesis.

Still, my argument is that hypotheses like these are worthwhile, and here are my reasons:

  • Humans care about the “fundamental nature of the universe” irrespective of whether it has observable effects on us – one might argue this to be illogical, but humans are not merely logical beings (we have emotions, for example).  Since humans care, it becomes a part of human nature and therefore is worthwhile to consider despite being “unscientific.”
  • There are a lot of implicit assumptions in the use of the scientific method (see #1, #2, and #3 above) and therefore implicit reduction of problem complexity in favor of “solvability.”  Now, as a former Physics guy, I definitely understand the usefulness of “assume the cow is a sphere” thinking… but when it comes to thoughtful analysis of the world around us, we can’t ignore that intrinsic complexity is there and can sometimes be considered in addition to what is “solvable.”
  • I believe all things imaginable are possible, and if something is possible it might one day be observable.  Keeping an open mind and spending some thinking cycles on the possible-but-not-falsifiable better prepares me to handle crazy breaks in prediction later down the line, if they ever occur.  As long as I remain grounded and use the admittedly useful and incredible scientific method as a baseline for observables, I will have a leg up on understanding more chaotic, unpredictable and “basically impossible” future-observables should we ever observe them.

P.S. It is interesting to note once again that “there’s nothing new under the sun”: Hempel pointed out that this construction of the scientific method is more akin to inductive analysis (subject to statistics, not underlying predictable truths), and therefore must be enhanced via crucial experiements, or experiments that are capable of lending POSITIVE (not-just-to-falsify) evidence to theories.  His Raven Paradox is an interesting cautionary thought experiment about the perils of inductive reasoning: if all ravens are black, so therefore all non-ravens are non-black, then a green apple is evidence that all ravens aren’t black.

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Off the Grid

Tomorrow… or I guess, today, since I am posting this early in the morning, I am taking myself offline.  I’ve commented a little on my suspicion that I have highly addictive tendencies, and — surprise, surprise — addiction to information (and the accessibility of information) falls under that umbrella.  I especially feel that lately, with my stress levels up, I have been constantly looking for stress-relief/validation/release in my social circle online and it is not really there to do that (or at least, I feel terrible using the people there for that kind of stuff implicitly).

So, today I’m taking a day cut free.  I have a pretty good schedule of stuff to do that won’t involve any Internet.  I don’t plan on replying to any texts, or checking email, or checking any websites.  I think I’ll keep my phone on for emergencies (and in case I get super lost going to places).  The goal is to see what emotional states are so tied to being 24-7 connected, and whether I value having those reactions or if they are functioning more like needing a fix.

(My guess is the latter, hence the need for a somewhat drastic experiment of “cold turkey” for a day!)

I’ll post again tomorrow about how it went, and what I learned – hopefully, something useful about myself!

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A Metrics World

A former co-worker (thanks Elf!) posted the following link on his FB:

What an amazing undertaking of data analysis!  This “study” corresponds quite closely to two things I was thinking about this morning: specifically, what a time-history plot of my use of tags on this blog would look like (see this graph of usage for something akin to what I was thinking of), and what a time-history plot of people logging on/off of chat clients (which I am seeing minute-to-minute on the side of my screen right now in digsby) might look like over the course of an average day.

I have also had multiple discussions with game designers recently where the foremost on their mind was getting “real” user feedback from analyzing their metric data – their usage of the game system.  How useful is the world according to metrics?  I love that we can do interesting visualizations of the HUGE amount of data being generated on the Internet every second by millions of people… but how useful is the data itself with regard to understanding people’s behavior and/or making decisions about how to interact with people?

It reminds me of my musings on Asimov’s hypothetical field of psychohistory, and also some fundamental ideas about how individuals differ from populations.  It is a well-known pitfall in analysis that when you come up against the barrier of too many dimensions (meaning, tons of different ways to gain perspective on the data), that by choosing a perspective, you are forcing yourself into limited usefulness of results.  What I mean by this is, you can’t answer every question by looking at the data from one perspective – seems obvious, I know!

I worry that if the preponderance of accessibility to this raw metric data increases as it has been recently, that particular perspectives may gain undue weight and skew decisions toward something akin to a majority rule of perspective.

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