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Sunday, September 25, 2005

Feedback and Analysis
Jon Udell recaps some of the events from the Accelerating Change conference. Lots of interesting info on the Singularity theory, as both Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil were in attendance, but what caught my eye was this description of how the eye works with the brain:
The example was a six-layered column in the neocortex connected to a 14x14-pixel patch of the retina. There are, Olshausen said, about 100,000 neurons in that chunk of neocortex. That sounds like a lot of circuitry for a few pixels, and it is, but we actually have no idea how much circuitry it is. ...

We are, however, starting to sort out the higher-level architecture of these cortical columns. And it's fascinating. At each layer, signals propagate up the stack, but there's also a return path for feedback. Focusing on the structure that's connected directly to the 14x14 retinal patch, Olshausen pointed out that the amount of data fed to that structure by the retina, and passed up the column to the next layer, is dwarfed by the amount of feedback coming down from that next layer. In other words, your primary visual processor is receiving the vast majority of its input from the brain, not from the world.
I found this quite simply amazing. The folks at the conference were interested in this because it means we're that much closer to understanding, and thus being able to artificially reproduce, the brain. However, this has other implications as well.

So the brain gets some input from the eye, but it's sending significantly more information towards the eye than it's receiving. This implies that the brain is doing a lot of processing and extrapolation based on the information it's been given. It seems that the information gathering part of the process, while important, is nowhere near as important as the analysis of that data. Sound familiar? Honestly, I haven't been keeping track of intelligence agencies of late, but the focus on data gathering without a corresponding focus on analysis certainly used to be a problem, and I think this finding is just another piece of evidence that says we need to focus on analysis.

This also applies to the business world. Lots of emphasis is placed on collecting sales data, especially on the internet, but unless you have a large dedicated staff to analyze that data, you won't end up with much in the way of actionable conclusions...
Posted by Mark on September 25, 2005 at 05:31 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

MP3 Players
So I have recently come into the market for an MP3 Player. I know, probably a few years too late, but I figured it's time to take the plunge, as the CD changer in my car decided to stop working and a few hours of listening to the dreck that is referred to as "radio" these days is enough to motivate me to spend tons of money to just make the pain stop.

So the primary goal for this device is going to be an MP3 Player. Naturally, there are all sorts of other features and gadgets that come along with most of the good players on the market, but I consider most of that stuff to be nice to have, but not a necessity. There has to be a way to get the player working in my car (I'm not too picky about that - those FM transmitters should do the trick) and I'll probably be carting the thing around everywhere as well. Rather than run through all the features, I'll run through the candidates and their features. As of now, I'm leaning towards the 20GB iPod Photo.
  • 4GB iPod Nano: I started looking at players just a few days before Apple announced the Nano, and I have to admit that it gave me pause. It is quite different from the other players in this list, and it certainly has a lot going for it, but the 4GB storage space is just too small. Well, it's certainly an improvement on my current situation, and this little player certianly has a lot going for it, but there was one other factor that makes me hesitate on this, and that's the forthcoming iPod phone that is speculated to be in development (i.e. not the Motorolla ROKR.) I'm guessing they could pack a few gigs onto the phone, and that would be a nice supplement to the full blown players I'm considering below (and it's worth noting that this need not be an iPod phone - Sony has some interesting Walkman branded phones right now. With a little improvement, they could be mighty attractive). Still, a part of me really wants a Nano, so I guess there's still a small chance I'll end up with one... (The physical size in the player might be worth the lack of storage space)
  • 20GB iPod Photo: This has pretty much everything I'm looking for, and then some. By all accounts, it's a well engineered and designed piece of work, and everyone I know who has one loves it. 20GB is a good size, and it allows photos and other file storage, which could be useful. It also has some productivity software like a calendar and todo list, which is nice (depending on how it works). I think one other big consideration when it comes to the iPod is the simple network effect: so many people have iPods that there is a good market for quality accessories. This is important, because I'm looking to use my player in the car, which would require some accessories.
  • Cowon iAudio X5: This one has almost everything the iPod has, and some interesting features. It comes in 20GB and 30GB in comparable prices, and it has some advanced functionality that includes an FM Tuner and even the ability to watch video. However, there are some things that appear to be lacking when compared to the iPod. For instance, it requires an adapter to attach AC, line-in, and USB cables. The controls and design seem nice, but it doesn't seem like anyone can approach the iPod on design. Still, it definitely seems like the best alternative to the iPod out there, and it looks great on paper (though I guess there's still a nagging question of how it will perform in practice). I don't know much about the accessories that are available, but they seem somewhat less complete than what's available for the iPod.
  • Creative Zen Touch: This player is comparable to the iPod Photo and the X5, but anecdotal evidence from a friend makes me want to stay away from this one. This seems like a good case of a player that looks good on paper, but doesn't work as well in practice.
One thing the iPod really has going for it is that I've actually used it and I like it. It's well designed and elegant, which is why I'm leaning towards it. Any advice on the subject would be appreciated, however, as I'm certainly no expert.
Posted by Mark on September 18, 2005 at 08:28 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.

Spam Fighting Update
A few weeks ago, I installed Movable Type 3.2. One of the supposed big enhancements was improved tools for fighting spam in both comments and trackbacks. At the time, I wasn't sure how well it would work, but after a few weeks, I can say that this system is great! Not a single spam comment or trackback has made it through (several hundred attempts were blocked) - and this is with almost no configuration on my part (much better than MT Blacklist on all fronts). This is mostly due to the inclusion of the SpamLookup plugin in the release. If you run a Movable Type blog, I highly recommend upgrading to 3.2 or at least installing SpamLookup.
Posted by Mark on September 18, 2005 at 08:20 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Lots of Stuff
A little short on time this week, so here's a bunch of links:
  • Glenn Reynolds has two excellent posts: A 9/11 Retrospective and a roundup of lessons learned from Katrina.
  • NASA and the Dream, and How To Get Back To The Moon: An excellent essay about the history of the Space Program and where we should be going from here.
  • The Old Negro Space Program: On the lighter side of things, this is a hilarious parody of a Ken Burns style documentary... (via Polytropos)
  • The gods are a) Angry, b) Happy, c) Indifferent, d) Bummed about the lousy weather.
  • Why Most Published Research Findings Are False: As The Economist summarizes:
    THEODORE STURGEON, an American science-fiction writer, once observed that “95% of everything is crap”. John Ioannidis, a Greek epidemiologist, would not go that far. His benchmark is 50%. But that figure, he thinks, is a fair estimate of the proportion of scientific papers that eventually turn out to be wrong.
    If Sturgeon's law is relatively accurate, that would mean that Science is doing pretty good... It seems that a lot of people these days have pretty inflated expectations when it comes to a lot of things, and science is definitely one of them. Witness the "CSI Effect":
    Prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges call it "the CSI effect," after the crime-scene shows that are among the hottest attractions on television. The shows —CSI and CSI: Miami, in particular — feature high-tech labs and glib and gorgeous techies. By shining a glamorous light on a gory profession, the programs also have helped to draw more students into forensic studies.

    But the programs also foster what analysts say is the mistaken notion that criminal science is fast and infallible and always gets its man. That's affecting the way lawyers prepare their cases, as well as the expectations that police and the public place on real crime labs. Real crime-scene investigators say that because of the programs, people often have unrealistic ideas of what criminal science can deliver.
    It's a problem similar to the unglamorous march of technology; the achievements of science are great, but they are also abstracted enough that people begin to lose sight of some of the issues - and science works because of those issues, not in spite of them (which is the point). [thanks to Patton from the Ministry of Minor Perfidy for the original links. Bruce Schneier also mentioned the CSI effect on his blog a while back...]
  • Hogwarts Security: A little while ago, I examined some of the security measures in the latest Harry Potter book, using Bruce Schneier's 5 step analysis process. Schneier himself is now looking at the issue:
    ...can you really render a powerful wizard helpless simply by taking away his wand? And is taking away a powerful wizard's wand simply as easy as doing something to him at the same time he is doing something else?
    I always assumed that the dewanding issue only really affected the students because they hadn't learned how to go wandless, but now t hat he mentions it...
That's all for now.
Posted by Mark on September 11, 2005 at 09:32 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

The Pendulum Swings
I've often commented that human beings don't so much solve problems as they trade one set problems for another (in the hope that the new set of problems are more favorable than the old). Yet that process doesn't always follow a linear trajectory. Initial reactions to a problem often cause problems of their own. Reactions to those problems often take the form of an over-correction. And so it continues, like the swinging of a pendulum, back and forth, until it reaches it's final equilibrium.

This is, of course, nothing new. Hegel's philosophy of argument works in exactly that way. You start with a thesis, some sort of claim that becomes generally accepted. Then comes the antithesis, as people begin to find holes in the original thesis and develop an alternative. For a time, the thesis and antithesis vie to establish dominance, but neither really wins. In the end, a synthesis comprised of the best characteristics of the thesis and antithesis emerges.

Naturally, it's rarely so cut and dry, and the process continues as the synthesis eventually takes on the role of the thesis, with new antitheses arising to challenge it. It works like a pendulum, oscillating back and forth until it reaches a stable position (a new synthesis). There are some interesting characteristics of pendulums that are also worth noting in this context. Steven Den Beste once described the two stable states of the pendulum: one in which the weight hangs directly below the hinge, and one in which the weight is balanced directly above the hinge.
On the left, the weight hangs directly below the hinge. On the right, it's balanced directly above it. Both states are stable. But if you slightly perturb the weight, they don't react the same way. When the left weight is moved off to the side, the force of gravity tries to center it again. In practice, if the hinge has a good bearing, the system then will oscillate around the base state and eventually stop back where it started. But if the right weight is perturbed, then gravity pulls the weight away and the right system will fail and convert to the left one.

The left state is robust. The right state is fragile. The left state responds to challenges by trying to maintain itself; the right state responds to challenges by shattering.
Not all systems are robust, but it's worth noting that even robust systems are not immune to perturbation. The point isn't that they can't fail, it's that when they do fail, they fail gracefully. Den Beste applies the concept to all sorts of things, including governments and economic systems, and I think the analogy is apt. In the coming months and years, we're going to see a lot of responses to the tragedy of hurricane Katrina. Katrina represents a massive perturbation; it's set the pendulum swinging, and it'll be a while before it reaches it's resting place. There will be many new policies that will result. Some of them will be good, some will be bad, and some will set new cycles into action. Disaster preparedness will become more prevalent as time goes on, and the plans will get better too. But not all at once, because we don't so much solve problems as trade one set of disadvantages for another, in the hopes that we can get that pendulum to rest in it's stable state.

Glenn Reynolds has collected a ton of worthy places to donate for hurricane relief here. It's also worth noting that many employers are matching donations to the Red Cross (mine is), so you might want to go that route if it's available...
Posted by Mark on September 04, 2005 at 11:02 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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