Friday, November 27, 2009

What's black and white and read by old people?

Plenty has been written on the imminent demise of newspapers. Rather than reiterate the basic points, I'll just point you at the two best articles I've read on the topic (props to this blog for originally pointing me to these). If you've got others, post them in the comments, I'd love to read them.

The New Republic has an article explaining the dangers of world without newspapers, specifically arguing that deep investigative journalism is crucial for preventing corruption, but isn't being replaced.

Clay Shriky
writes the best general overview of the issue I've read. In particular, he contextualizes with the last big communications shift, the invention of the printing press.

I don't believe its all of for-pay content that's at risk. The latter article in particular is of a quality that could survive behind a pay wall. It's a well-researched, well-written deep examination of a complex issue. Were I to summarize or rewrite the content, something would be lost. It's not just the facts we're looking for in a high quality article, but the way they can provoke our thoughts.

Unfortunately, that's not the norm in newspaper content. Rather, most articles are read for the facts of a current event. We want to know the results on a healthcare reform vote, what outrageous thing Kanye did, who won the game last night. When publishing was expensive, you could derive value from facts. But unfortunately, most facts ultimately hold little value in a rich communication medium.

Once a news source states some fact they've uncovered, the readers can pass the facts along. In the hundreds of thousands of blog filling the internet people are taking in news and spitting it back out, with their own commentary. The abusive case of just reprinting AP articles and putting ads around it is easy enough to deal with. But copyright only applies to the text you write, not the facts in it. One of your readers can rewrite your stories, and then the world will flock to the free source over yours.

The alternative of giving newspapers ownership over the news stories they break is a scary one. Imagine if fox news uncovers a scandal around Obama. Even if we gave them only a day's worth of ownership over presenting the facts of the case, that means that for a full 24 hours the only voice informing the world of what's happening, the only voice setting the tone of the debate going forward, is Fox News. For society to function, everybody needs to be able to discuss what's happening in the world. For that to happen, you can't wall off facts. And if that's true, there's little incentive to pay for facts when you can get them for free immediately afterwards. Of course, that returns us to the core issue of who will discover these facts for us then. It's a tricky issue, but I don't think for-pay news sources are going to remain the solution for long, unless they can start adding something over and above the straight facts.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Did the Uncanny Valley kill the Neanderthal?

I read an article on Seed Magazine's website today about why the Uncanny Valley exists. The term refers to almost humanlike robots and CGI. When they're very cartoony they're cute, when they're extremely realistic we react to them like other humans, but in between they repulse us. The article explains some theories on what is driving our subconscious to dislike these creations (we think they're dead bodies, we really don't want to mate with them, they confuse our understanding of what man is). I'd like to propose an alternative theory.

Imagine you're a rabbit who has suddenly evolved a poisonous bite. What would you do? You could hunt down all the wolves and dogs in the area, and save rabbit-kind from constant harassment. At first, all the other bunnies would treat you as a savior. Without predators, the bunny society would grow and flourish. And then suddenly, all the plants have been eaten and everybunny starves. If the bunny population doesn't die off, it'll do so by evolving to better regulate their population. And if predators return, then suddenly they won't be able to have babies fast enough.

Part of evolution is adapting to your environment. Part of evolution is being able to adapt when that environment changes. Mammals exist because they could deal with a new threat the dinosaurs couldn't. But part of evolution is avoiding having to adapt to a new environment. If you're well suited for the world around you, its in your best interest not to mess with that world.

Thus even if an herbivore could kill all the predators around it, it probably shouldn't. Similiarly, dogs don't eat plants, but if they kill plants they'll be indirectly killing their food supplies as well. An environment is filled with many niches, and animals who leave other niches alone are generally going to have a better shot at survival.

But leaving other niche's alone says nothing about your own niche. When predators outperform prey, the prey dwindle, the predators starve, and suddenly the prey are safe to grow again. There's a feedback loop that seeks equilibrium. If a new herbivore enters the scene, the situation is different for the rabbits. If they're better at eating the mutual food source, there will be less for the rabbits, and the rabbits will die. If they overeat, the new creatures will die off, but so will the rabbits. Thus competition within a niche will tend to have equilibrium points where one of the two species die off.

If an animal looks very different from you, it probably fills a different niche. If it looks exactly like you, you can mate with it. Even if it outcompetes you, it's got enough genes in common with you that your species is still succeeding evolutionarily. But in between, you've got a competitor. Thus there's incentive to help those like you, ignore those different from you, and kill the middle ground. Humans were not always the only hairless ape. If we're so well equipped for survival that we now occupy every corner of the globe, why didn't any other survive? Some evidence suggests humans may have actively killed off neanderthals, not just by outcompeting it for food but by stabbing it with spears.

Returning to the uncanny valley, this would mean that we're bothered when CGI doesn't quite look human because unconciously we think we're looking at a new creature that could somebody replace us. And interestingly, in evaluating a robot, that's a not altogether irrational opinion to hold.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Imagine you're a lake.

Imagine a lake. Peaceful, calm, beautiful. There are trees, acting all tall. The sun's shining down. In the distance mountains chill out. Then suddenly, Splash! Something hits the water. Is a child hiding and throwing rocks? Was that a meteor?

Now picture yourself in the ripples that were created. Now picture yourself as those ripples. Imagine that if you zoom in really really close to one little ripple you see a little droplet of water rising out above the rest. That's my analogy for the sun. There's an even smaller droplet of water beside it, and that represents the Earth. And if you zoom in even closer there are a couple molecules of water. Those represent you.

This tiny aquatic world is different then our own, of course. It's two dimensional. The water itself takes up three dimensions, but most of its just solid. The interesting part, the surface between the water and the air, is two dimensional. If you walk far enough in one direction, you really would fall off the water Earth.

Now imagine little water you looking into a little water telescope. You see all the little water stars extending out as far as you can see. And as you watch one, you notice its getting farther away. Intrigued, you look at another star. Its moving away. Another star? Leaving you! Another star? Same deal! Pretty soon, you're positive all the stars are moving away. This ripple is traveling towards the shore, and as it does so, its radius is getting bigger.

So you take out your water calculator and start thinking. You figure out how fast the other water stars are moving away. You figure out how far away they are now. And from that, you realize that all these stars must have been at the same place some long time ago. You do the math and see, wow, that was 34 seconds ago!

Now you've got an idea of when this watery universe started. The very first moments wouldn't be clear: Everything would sort of converge to a ring of a certain size. If you could study the stars enough, you might figure out the contours of that ring. Maybe its smooth with a few ridges, like a baseball. Maybe its more irregular, like a rock. What was it that caused the universe?

Maybe water you would theorize that perhaps there's a third dimension, and something collided with your two dimensional universe. But ultimately, you could never know what that thing was. It's deep under water now. With all the information in the surface of the lake, you'd only be able to construct a 2d cross section of the object. It was three dimensional and left, and you're only 2d. And even if you could guess at the shape of the thing, it wouldn't tell you about what set it in motion. Did it fall of its own volition? Did somebody toss it?

Now stop imagining, and return to our world. What caused the big bang? What existed before it? If there are more dimensions than 3, can we explore them? Will we ever know these answers?

Saturday, November 14, 2009


It's generally misleading to think about things as they are at a single point in time. The defining characteristic of our universe is change. From the laws of physics through the history of man, from cake batter in the oven to religion is there anything that doesn't change?

I think this idea can be particularly important in dealing with people, especially at the level of societies. Anti-racketeering laws intended originally to give the feds a legal weapon against the mafia have since been used to fight illegal immigration. The Expos even tried to use racketeering laws against Major League Baseball. The zeitgeist of a society is important for the people living in it at that moment, but the repercussions can echo deep into the future. The excesses of consumption in the last few generations may become a folk story used to teach children centuries hence.

Thus its important to understand how a society can change. In America, we have well defined rules built into our government for enacting change. Those tools are only available, however, to our legislatures and governors. Society as a whole has blunter tools to enact change in the government, election mostly, but has a great deal of freedom in defining civil society in an ad-hoc and emergent fashion.

Thus each individual has a set of options available to them to enact change, and differing motivations to do so. At one extreme, armed overthrow of the government has always been available as an option, should it grow dangerously oppressive. But such an action would require an extremely motivated core, a generally sympathetic populace, a popular opinion that does not condemn such actions. History has shown a preference for subtler evolution, but not universally.

Which all leads to my main point: changes at one point in time alter the possible changes at a future point in time. Consider Britain, with its increasing levels of surveillance. Detailed understanding of the actions of each individual in a nation can be used to stifle the emergence of dissent. Individuals really only influence the world by influencing enough other people. If a government could identify those seeking to change it, whether by legal or extralegal methods, they could imprison or otherwise isolate those individuals. Change is still universal, and spontaneous uprising is possible, but the growth of government often either directly or as a side effect limits individuals ability to influence the world. If the government at that time is a positive force, and the limitations on influence are presented as limitations on villain's ability to destroy, people can be willing to accept the restrictions.

Change is like a rug that doesn't fit in its room, though. You can push down the power to change the world in one place, and it grows elsewhere. By restricting the ability of the general population to change society, the resistance to changes enacted by the unrestricted party is reduced. And even if the people with all the power are good now, remember the universality of change. Thus, sooner or later, we can expect those with power to use it for their own ends. The less power society has been left with to resist, the more those in power can exploit.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

When are the robots coming?

Where are the robots? I've heard they're more common in Japan, but at least in America you don't see many robots. When a building is going up, I see humans swinging hammers. When a truck's being unloaded, men are carrying the cases. Are we uninterested in replacing workers with more machines? Is the technology not ready yet?

I'm inclined to feel that the latter is a big part of the problem. Vision is a difficult problem. Humans have remarkable dexterity using their hands. And the current generation of robots are extremely specialized. There was a wave of automation in the 80's and 90's on factory floors and warehouses. After installing multi-million dollars, the warehouses found that any minor change in layout of the factory floor could break the system. Businesses unable to change rarely thrive.

In every direction, you see obstacles to successful robots. Vision, speech, planning, object manipulation, adaption: none of these problems have been mastered yet. But despite this, I think we're very close to a robotics boom.

The key is that these problems are being solved in parallel. We don't have perfect image recognition yet, but as we get closer, any robot can benefit. Researchers are closing the gaps on each problem, and in a very short span of time we may go from all these problems being insurmountable to none of them being so. And once the researchers have solved the problems, the engineers and designers will put the pieces together and make the technology accessible; and countless entrepreneurs will start replacing everyone. Expect to start seeing robots frequently by 2020.