Starting in the Middle

This was a challenge. Unintentional, of course. Since the creators of television shows made the assumption that you know things you don’t, it’s up to you to try to figure things out. And this is exciting, because every interaction and every plot point becomes a clue for understanding the pieces that you missed. Some shows make it easier than others. But it’s never completely trivial.

It reminds me of life actually. We are thrown in the middle of things without a clear context for understanding what’s going on. We have to make assumptions and try to deduce the nature of things despite the fact that everyone else seems to know something that we do not. Slowly as the story develops, we begin to understand more of what’s going on and what we missed out on. We might have to revise our original thoughts. So this experience of mine was like a metaphor for life.

Due to the nature of television and mistaking unlabeled disks, I’ve had the experience of starting a television show from the middle at many points in time. Despite this always being a rather strange mistake, I’ve grown to appreciate these experience. (Though I don’t do so intentionally.) There’s something exciting about not knowing the context about what’s going on and having to puzzle it out.

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The Difficulty in Talking about AI

Automation and AI are important topics to discuss. One major aspect is what we will do about the increasing unemployment once jobs currently done by humans are increasingly done by automation. Of course, this is a discussion that seems largely unnoticed by the people who should be most concerned.

But among techno-optimists and luddites alike, the main challenge about these conversations is that it’s not clear what the technology is capable of, what it will be capable in any given timeframe, and if there are any limits to it at all. Both parties seem to make the assumption that anything is possible. And that given time, any task can be automated.

Now, I don’t know much about the subject, but I have read a little about the progress of this technology. One of the things I noticed is the fact that the computers have a very narrow understanding about many things. The detection of disease in plants is determined by the color and texture of the leaves. A self-driving car determines the lanes of a road by reducing a photo to a monochromatic image that has a difficult time with shadows. I became aware of the fact that computers have their own set of limitations.

More generally, it seems that since algorithms require some end, open-ended projects would be limited. For example, if you want an algorithm to record what’s interesting during a sports game, then you would need an a priori way of determining what’s “interesting” (which could be conducted with a separate algorithm), but it wouldn’t understand something unexpected if it’s not within the parameters set forth.

Or would it? I don’t know. The trouble with talking about automation is that the details matter, and it’s not clear how much I or the next person knows about the matter.

Some Thoughts on Killing Time at Lightspeed

I can’t think of anything to write about, so I’m going to write about a video game.

The premise of this game is that you’re on an interstellar trip, checking notFacebook, where each time you refresh a year passes by. This reminded me of Makoto Shinkai’s Voices of a Distant Star, which is why I was interested, but the game went in a different direction. Rather than dealing with the difficulty of the ultimate in long-distance relationships, we deal with issues of technology, automatization, and its effects on society such as whether a sufficiently advanced AI should have rights, what rights to privacy are to be expected when a device can record every moment of your life, and intrusive advertisement. All that good stuff.

I have to admit: I was disappointed. It’s short; I spent a total of 2 hours on the game. This is not inherently a bad thing, but while the issues they dealt with are important, there didn’t seem to be any depth or insights that the game was trying to convey. Also, while I am the type of person who gets attached quickly to fictional characters, there aren’t enough details of the player character’s relationships to understand their interactions. There were limited opportunities to interact with the other people, and this doesn’t feel like a deliberate design decision. In fact, the interaction seems to be meaningless, since the results seem to be mostly the same if you don’t interact with the other characters at all.

But enough complaining. I liked the premise of the game. Though, it should be noted that I do like “games” that are more appropriately called interactive reading. And reading notFacebook feeds was a novel and welcome concept. They captured the feeling of scrolling through social media and news feeds well, despite the terminal aesthetic. If you have irrational attachments to fictional characters like me, you’ll likely have some emotions when events affect your fictional friends. When your friend goes to watch a violent riot or starts a romantic relationship with an automaton or goes on a journey to unplug from modern society, they all have some emotional impact (again with that caveat).

So I don’t entirely regret my purchase (I’ve wasted five dollars on worse things before), but I can’t exactly recommend the game, either.

Discovery vs. Invention: A Confusion

I have a strange relationship with philosophy, which I think is the case for most people who have an amateur interest in the subject. Many of the topics and ideas seem fascinating, but many other ideas seem like pointless semantics. In my case, most of the big topics in the philosophy of math are uninteresting. In particular, is math invented or discovered? Or in other words, are mathematical concepts a type of platonic ideal, or are they a construct of human imagination?

I think many mathematicians (particularly pure mathematicians) have to some degree a belief in mathematical concepts as platonic ideals. People who do mathematics for its own sake, myself included, don’t often feel that they are playing an elaborate man-made game, but that there is something organic (for lack of a better word) about the study of mathematics. The emergence of deeper patterns is the main draw for studying mathematics for me.

I suppose it’s the mathematician nature in me that always goes back to the question, “What is existence?” whenever I hear this question. And somehow, trying to determine what existence is prior to what seems like a hopelessly futile task. Regardless of whether material existence is prior to abstract concepts or vice versa, it doesn’t affect how we would go about studying math. It seems to me that these philosophical ideas are two distinct systems of axioms which have different theorems but are the same for all tangible purposes.

But perhaps the main point is that by expressing different ideas for the ultimate questions about reality, we put into context our own beliefs about the matter, and we are made aware of our unconscious assumptions about reality. And we are confronted with the idea that our beliefs aren’t at all universally held.

Thankful

It’s been a difficult year for me, and it’s not looking good for the next year. Nonetheless, in the spirit of the holiday, I am listing ten things that I’m grateful for.

  1. I am fortunate to be able to stay with my family this holiday season. It’s the first time I’ve been home for Thanksgiving for nearly a decade.
  2. I had the great fortune to be raised in a loving home. My parents encouraged me to study hard, yet gave me the freedom to be who I wanted to be.
  3. I had a great time in the summer in Shanghai, despite the heat. I met with so many great people and had lots of great conversations over dinners.
  4. I met many of my relatives this year, many of whom it’s difficult to meet, since they live so far away.
  5. I came back from my postdoc in Shanghai safely.
  6. I made some friends during my time in Shanghai.
  7. I live in relative peace and safety without risk of violence or crime.
  8. Access to the Internet makes me feel connected to the rest of the world.
  9. There are many things worth studying and exploring.
  10. I live in an active democracy, where there are checks on the powers of every level of government with a citizenry ready to defend its country in a peaceful manner.

I hope you all have had a great day.

Thanksgiving is Strange

Some years ago, I posted about how Thanksgiving is a difficult holiday during the school year. I just realized how difficult it is for everyone in general.

Presumably, Thanksgiving is a holiday in which families gather together from across the country and celebrate. First, Christmas is just one month after, which seems to be about similar sentiments. These two holidays which revolve around gathering family aren’t too far apart. In fact, I haven’t been home for Thanksgiving for nearly a decade. Christmas (especially since it was during winter break) and New Years were my family gathering times.

In terms of school days off, it seemed that Thanksgiving day and the day after were off. Since Thanksgiving is always on a Thursday, this means that there’s a nice weekend to get back to work. Of course, it’s difficult to travel from work since no time is given off beforehand. This results in nearly empty classes on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. It seems more reasonable to get Wednesday off. (It’s far less reasonable for a student to take the Tuesday before off in my opinion.)

This is what they (at least in theory) do in Korea with the lunar new year. Three days are (supposed to be) given off: the day before, the day of, and the day after. In China, where the lunar new year (called the Spring Festival, oddly enough) is a huge deal, two weeks are given off (the week before and after). The reasoning I heard about this was that since China is such a large country, people needed more time(!) to travel. And in the Korean version of Thanksgiving too, the same rule applies: the day before, the day of, and the day after are all part of the holiday.

So for a holiday where the point seems to be bringing the family all together, they sure do make it difficult to try to do so.

Limitations in Fantasy Movies and TV

I have a confession to make: I am not a huge fan of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. Yes, I am one of “those” people, who like the books more than the movies (of virtually everything). But at long last, I think I can explain myself. So first, I think that Jackson’s Lord of the Ring trilogy is the best adaptation that could ever have been made. I’m probably exaggerating, but with good purpose.

I think that the major things I love about Tolkien’s book series cannot be adapted to a movie. As I learn a little more about movies and TV, the more I understand that the constrictions that the media have. A good movie tells a tightly told narrative. Meandering is a vice, not a virtue here.

But the story behind Lord of the Rings is, in my opinion, not the main draw of the series. The world of Middle-Earth is. And while the movies provide gorgeous views, real-to-life buildings, and songs in the actual (and appropriate) constructed languages, the mythos and history of the place seemed lacking. Elrond didn’t seem like the wise elf, nostalgic for the millennia gone by, that he did when recounting the elder days. Since the flashbacks were largely treated as exposition, there didn’t seem to be anything legendary or ancient about it, at least not compared to the “current” legendary and ancient times.

All the asides and extraneous bits that made me fall in love with Middle-Earth must be cut from the movies because they don’t fit into the story. Books are free to give a brief aside about people we know nothing about and who make no impact into the greater story. But that can’t happen in a movie. And for good reason, the pace of a movie is forced on you, while you can take as much time as you want when reading.

As another example, I love the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin, but I’m a bit lukewarm on the HBO Game of Thrones series. (I’ve only watched the first four seasons, so no spoilers please.) Not because of the story, especially since I thought certain elements were done better in the TV show than the books. But because of the immense history and all the people who have to be cut or merged in order to work into a story.For example, how many siblings did Tywin Lannister have? The attentive TV watcher might

For example, how many siblings did Tywin Lannister have? The attentive TV watcher might say: one, Kevan Lannister. But in the books, he had four siblings: one sister and three brothers. I had to look that up, but I knew he had more than the one, because Jaime has an extended conversation with his aunt and Tyrion has a memory about his favorite uncle.  The backstory behind all of the major people in Tywin’s generation has been thought through and you can tell, because some non-essential bits are thrown throughout the book. The War of the Ninepenny Kings, which without looking up I wouldn’t have been able to explain, was mentioned enough that I remember the name and know who fought in it.

So all this to say, it seems that being a “book” person is not just some pretentious conceit, but may be part of the media itself.