All my blog pipes are clogged

It seems that there’s been a lot of hype lately about blogs selling out and the more personal touch being lost (so much so, that it’s not even worth linking to articles). It’s as if there’s this big trend and direction that we’re attempting to extract for where things are headed. To me, the partition between a blog with a personal twist and a more professional media one is quite clear (and it certainly doesn’t have to happen when you’re sponsored by a company).

For the obviousness it’s worth, I certainly prefer the random thoughts over the “professional updates”, and there’s of course still room for both.

Return from hiatus

So after a bit of a break from logging, I’m back. The home page has gotten a new look: that is, this log is my new home page. A significant addition is the start of a del.icio.us account (from which rss feeds are made available for particular tags or the bookmarks page in general). On the side bar you can see the tags I use often. I will also be using del.icio.us for bookmarking preprint papers of interest, so it serves a few handy functions for me. Satisfying a request, I will be extracting tags from del.icio.us for a new bookmarks and shoebox page shortly.

Let the psycho-robots rise.

One of my favorite profs from school has resurfaced with a web log. Known for his robotics and vision work (e.g. Sony Aibo), he’s currently spearheading the Animate Arts program at Northwestern.

One of his recent position papers presents some examples from psychopathology that may be valuable to look at when developing AI for interactive narratives. He argues that this is a good playground for thinking about these examples in concrete computational terms and that current architectures aren’t particularly designed for this type of play.

The first example is self-medication:

What’s interesting about self-medication is that although it is generally caused by some outside stressor, its goal is not to alleviate the stressor, so much as to regulate one’s own affective response to the stressor. If you get drunk because your spouse left you, the goal of drinking isn’t to get your spouse back, but to restore some sort of emotional equilibrium.

Although we can always add the rule to an agent’s program that says (IF NO-DATE EAT-ICE-CREAM), current architectures don’t account well for the systematicity of this general phenomenon. Not everyone will eat ice cream in response to perceived rejection, but nearly everyone will respond with some sort of self-soothing behavior.

The next example he brings up is limerence (the pattern of obsession, idealization, and fear most commonly associated with “falling in love”):

One of the most paradoxical characteristics of limerence is driven in large part by uncertainty. People don’t become limerent toward those who indicate unambiguous interest or rejection toward them, but toward those whose behavior is ambiguous or inconsistent…. Once limerence begins, perceived rejection by the beloved actually increases the amount of time spent in limerent fantasy rather than reducing it (although sustained rejection will reduce and ultimately eliminate it).

this is interesting for AI because current architectures don’t allow agents to [satisfy] goals (albeit temporarily and unsatisfactorily) through fantasy.

He notes how authoritarian personalities can predict behavioral patterns associated with group affiliation and how social rank, though this particular aspect was far less clear on my reading:

Authoritarianism also predicts certain aspects of behavior. For example, when asked to choose punishments for others’ crimes, high authoritarians will in general choose more severe punishments than low authoritarians, and report greater pleasure in administering the punishment. However, their assignment of punishment will depend on the identity of the perpetrator; an accountant who started a fight with a “hippie panhandler” will be given less of a punishment than if the subject is told the hippie started the the fight with the accountant.

Modeling these traits computationally requires build[ing] reasoning systems in which (1) reasoning processes depend on the social status and affiliation of those being reasoned about, yet (2) the system itself is unaware of such dependencies.

Don’t really appreciate the reasoning for item (2) up there…. I also feel that although this is a position paper on perhaps a more esoteric subject, I got little context about what the current AI architectures look like, or at the very least, a few more concrete details on how they’re inappropriate for this type of thinking. Nonetheless, I think his point is that these things are important to start exploring at a computational level when considering AI models for narratives…interesting.

He also has recently posted an essay, “What is computation” that definitely seems worth a glance when I get the chance…it is written at an introductory level and should therefore be accessible to anyone interested.

Desktop client vs. web app for web services

The release of Google Gears will hopefully ignite some interest in focusing more on the distinction between a web application for a web service (i.e. essentially a GUI that runs completely within your browser communicating with a server hosting a web service) and a desktop client for a web service (e.g. Google Talk, ecto, IMAP clients, etc.).

While keeping the browser as the center of application activity has the benefits of being cross-platform, easily accessible, and having “the same look and feel wherever”, it would seem that we have gone through great pains simply to account for differences in browsers and to make the process a little more manageable.

This of course raises the question of how valuable a within-browser application is, especially for a well established company like Google. Would it be more valuable (though it will likely take more resources) to focus on desktop clients for web applications–clients that play friendly with the host operating system and desktop environment? Somewhat impractically, what if Mac Mail, for example, had a Google plugin where a few interface changes like conversation views (web applications like Gmail are of course not just a protocol for data exchange, they provide an interface specification) and Mac address-book synchronization took place? This kind of thinking isn’t unheard of.

Gears certainly gives us a little more of a practical playing field for designing web applications to be resilient to “flaky” network activity. Though the underlying principles are not completely unexplored, it will be nice to see progress on the application-design standpoint. The various decisions on how to handle the synchronization activities from a UI perspective will be challenging. For example, it is fairly intuitive that the level of “local” activity and roughly the “rate” of synchronization has basic relations to the “collaborativeness” of the application. For highly collaborative applications (e.g. Google Docs), much emphasis would need to be placed on network storage and fast synchronization, whereas for more personal applications this is not the case. Getting this kind of application to work “intuitively” well, and better yet, withstand critique are both tall orders.

In any case, it’ll be interesting to see where things head…whether the browser takes the monopoly for many apps or not. Microsoft’s solution appears to be still heavily focused on the browser, and I too find GNOME’s proposed plan a bit unclear.

Two friends, two more web logs

I have recently discovered two of my good friends from school have recently made web logs. Mark is a math grad student at Cal Poly.  He was an EE as an undergrad.  He’s slept through more midterms than me, and somehow takes the Putnam on a whim only to score remarkably well and gets unexpected awards from the math department. When away from math, he codes some particularly diverting javascript games, is on the development team for Fluxbox, and can occasionally be found sitting on a lawn chair in a tree.  His log is far more entertaining than mine.

My other friend recently completed his CS graduate degree at Chapel Hill and has just started at Google.   His log is a bit more sporadically updated, but perhaps he’ll keep the world updated with his tomfooleries at Google in his log.

The spirit of this log (and welcome!)

Not so long ago, a friend brought up to me that the Atom feed on my home page that I edited by hand was infrequently updated even though I frequently added thoughts to my home page. My initial intent was to post only very significant changes, but the more thought I gave to the subject, the more I realized that the a web log with user comment capabilities and a significant user base is a good thing to participate in, and the personal home page is better for organizing the chronological information as I see fit. I feel that many bright people have web logs of interest to me and they have benefited me. In the rest of this post, I will try to explain (1) why I appreciate the way web logging has evolved from my perspective, and (2) if I’m fortunate enough to gain a reader or two, what you can expect of the quality of the entries to come. This entry in particular will avoid referencing other material and stay focused on my personal motivation for beginning the log.

A little history

This is not my first attempt at web logging. I used to keep logs in raw HTML on my server followed by spending some time with MovableType. I’ve spent many years learning how Internet news scoops, forums, and logs are truly used and feel that there are certain simple truths when approaching the subject. Trying to keep a system that kept all my thoughts categorized, organized, and consistent in one data store frustrated me at times. I have stubbornly (better now than never) come to accept the roles that certain web services play so I can use them to my advantage. It is OK to have duplicated information not all in one beautiful framework. The world is messy, our thoughts our messy, and the way we present them should aim to be valuable, and just a little less messy, but certainly not perfect or even close to it!

(Warning.) For some quick background so you know what kind of crank you’re dealing with, being actively interested in the sciences as well as computers in high school, I went on to pursue a B.S. in computer science at Northwestern University. During the day, I’m in gov. service and deal with computer-related problems from mundane to very technical. During the evenings, when I get the chance, I like to exercise my drive towards the physical sciences and the statistical laws that govern so many systems not nearly as explored as we would like them to be. Consequently, I have geared myself towards a track of research that tends to relate those two topics.

Some of the content you can expect

Most recently, I’ve been interested in complex networks as they relate to physical structures–more specifically energy landscapes of many kinds. I’m also interested in hash-based data structures and the nature of the transition from discrete to continuous shapes in geometry. Most of the technical articles you will see on this log should relate to that. Though I don’t expect a huge comment-base, if you have relevant thoughts in response to especially the technical subjects, I’d appreciate it. I don’t promise pristine referencing, but I will try my best–especially on technical subjects–to be thorough with references.

While I promise no fleeting 2-sentence blog entries, some entries may be non-technical or avant-garde/controvertial/even stupid in what they suggest. I’d like them to be about something–maybe topics more close-to-home about family and friends will hopefully be of interest to some.

Why web logging makes sense

Let’s knock out some of the stupid criticisms of web logging services that I’ve run into. The first and most foolish responses to them are, “why not just keep an HTML file?” and “why post thoughts like that to everyone anyway?” To answer the latter, in the cases where little is being discussed and too much trolling going on, this is a reasonable criticism. I feel entries with little thought put into them and too much emotion sometimes stir controversy that is often not even worth arguing about and personal forum/comment battles ensue with little to be gained. But if that criticism has to do with posting undeveloped thoughts that aren’t “articles”, per se, I’d have to disagree whole-heartedly. The best learning goes on when simple, obvious questions are answered by people who are more knowledgable and when those knowledgable people are read like human beings with lives, charisma, and flaws, and not as almighty authorities. It is exactly that potential for mutual improvement why I think it’s reasonable to post a thought every-so-often to the world to see if they have anything to say, or just to let something out there.

My response to the first criticism is simple. Web log services provide two things that your HTML file on your server doesn’t help with: (1) a community of people partially networked and (2) technical features that help facilitate bulletin-board discussion amongst that community. Features like comments, trackback, and automatic syndication allow people to keep up with each other’s thoughts and motivate discussion in them, and the interfaces, as ghastly as they can be, certainly make writing them easier than in HTML (and this comes from some time attempting to do the opposite).

Finally, I think web logs have a unique role in discussion on the net in the sense that unlike a forum, most web loggers have their identities revealed. Folklore of anonymous statements and hacking galore can be fun, but sometimes I like to cut the bullshit and see who I’m talking to, what their background is, and why are they honestly interested in responding to my thought.

In the end, a log is just a log…that’s why I often don’t call web logs “blogs” because of the loadedness of the term, but certainly I’ve seen a strong growing community of very bright people beginning to actually have discussions and the communities naturally form from social communties that already exist with the addition of a little help from your friendly search engine. (Better algorithmic methods to derive community structure from existing web logs and the content of their entries is a topic for another article, but they’ve been brewing, so they may find themselves an entry.) This new intensification, most notably in the academic specialties, is what motivates me to become a more frequent web logger myself. For better or worse, my shit is out there, and I’m hoping, for lack of a better system, it may be for the better.