I’m sure I’ve covered this before, probably several times over, but the idea seemed novel again, so I thought I’d write up another post. I’ve already pointed you to this article, but I really advise reading it, if just for the ‘hm’ factor. It’s about Mr. Wozniak, a guy who basically has turned over his life to an algorithm that he’s discovered. Apparently, it makes him into a happy genius. I would call that a plus!

That’s kind of the point of this article. Well, more so looking at religion as a set of rules, and wondering if we could do better. For all the religious folk out there, you can look at this as the closest thing I’ll ever as to the benefits of exoteric religion (esoteric religion, more commonly known as mysticism, has a lot of uses, and you look forward to plenty of adulation from me regarding that!). When I say ‘exoteric,’ I mean all the outer stuff: the rules, mores, customs, and rituals that most (though not all) ‘religious’ people practice.

Back to the point: the way I see it, religion is a set of useful rules that limit the amount of chaos in a person’s life. Don’t know what to eat? The Torah tells you to avoid pork, but everything else is golden! Don’t know if you should drink? Mormon’s, forget drinking, especially coffee! Almost all religions have a giant list of ‘commandments’ (more than ten, believe it or not) that tell their followers what, or what not to, do (some of which probably come from OCD founders, but that’s a post for another day! [a day about a year ago, in fact!]). This can be incredibly useful. It eliminates arbitrary choices that don’t ultimately matter, therefore freeing the followers up for more important tasks: you know, like converting more followers!

I for one am very partial to this side of religion. It doesn’t take someone very long to realize that I have a splash of an obsessive nature to me. I do a lot of things by the numbers, and can get antsy when the numbers don’t work out. I have a tendency to try and leave from a place at the same time every day (it’s all about efficiency!), to try and keep everything in a very well-defined place (neatness is next to godliness), and any of many other ‘OCD’-lite activities. I basically have all the hallmark signs of someone who should just love religion. Unfortunately, I also have one little quirk that spoils the whole ‘blissful ignorance’ thing for me: I like doing things differently from other people a little too much. For example, I’m a vegetarian. I use a Mac. I’m a humanist. I’m a non-theist that believes in reincarnation and astral projection. Basically, I try to take every label and turn it around. Which is just another way of me trying to ‘stand out’ while not standing out. Anyway, that’s a digression. My point was that I’d be religious if not for my non-conformist streak.

Which makes me wonder: where does that leave me? Though I already know that answer to that: it leaves me with the role of making my own arbitrary rules. Something I’ve been doing for a long time, usually unconsciously, and largely to my own benefit. But for someone like Mr. Wozniak, the rule making has become a conscious effort. Even more so, it has become a science. And he’s discovered that computers make much more reliable gods than our minds ever could.

Which makes sense: if there’s one thing that todays computers are good at, it’s reliability. If you tell a computer that 2 + 2 = 4, it will tell you that back until you tell it otherwise. It won’t try and change things up because it’s bored. It won’t rationalize that today, maybe, just maybe, 2 + 2 might equal 7. If you want a fair referee, leave it up to the computer.

Doesn’t that make computes a far better arbitrator of arbitrary rules, then? They don’t get jealous (have you read the Old Testament) or spit out non-sensical statements (have you read the writings of Paul?). They’ll just follow a logical path and give you the right answer. 90% of the time. Which is better than a coin flip, and definitely better than a schizophrenic prophet.

So here I’m making a prediction: more and more we’ll turn our daily, random choices over to computers. Research continues to show that choice, up to a point, is healthy. But past that point, it’s just darn annoying. Why not let computers make those stupid decisions for us, using their algorithms? Algorithms, by the way, that we program in.

I’m the last person in the world that would normally turn his authority over to anybody, let alone a computer. But the more we know about our nature, the more it makes sense. I guess if religion won’t go away, we can at least make it make more sense.

Here’s to Computerism!

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I don’t know if there’s anything to this story, but if there is, this could be big.

John Kanzius figured out a way to combine nanoparticles and radiowaves in the fight to end cancer. Basically, radio waves that hit metal cause the metal to become excited (think of how MRI’s work), which causes it to heat up. Organic material will not become excited by the radiowaves. So, if you selectively inject metal into the cancer areas, you can toast the cancer, leaving the healthy surroundings intact.

The real interesting part (okay, so, all of this so far has been pretty interesting) comes in with the nanoparticles. A lot of cancers can metastasize and spread throughout the whole body, leaving the ‘inject metal here’ option off the table. But if you coat gold nanoparticles with an antibody that would attach to the cancer cells specifically, you could inject a person with these particles and then let the radiowaves do their magic.

Again, I’m no expert, but this idea really sounds like it could work. Noninvasive, non-lethal treatment to cancer would be a major breakthrough.

Keep this guy in your sights. I see a Nobel coming in the future!

Disclaimer: Or maybe not…

I learned something interesting last week in my neuroscience class: apparently there’s something exceedingly special about carbon that allows it to imbue us with ‘consciousness,’ something that silicon will never be able to do!

(Please note the sarcasm!)

We have these debates in Behavioral Neuroscience, and last week’s addressed the question: “Will AI ever develop a mind?” Loaded question, sure, because what the heck is a mind, anyway?

But you an imagine my shock when I was told that computers will never have a mind because, well, they’re programmed! I could have sworn that we’re programmed too, just by billions of years of physics instead of a few decades of human intervention.

And then I brought up the fact that, assuming evolution (which one might think is a safe assumption, but with this crowd, who knows!), billions of years of molecules just bouncing around managed to lead to our intelligence. So why not allow for a few hundred years of human intelligence to lead to an artificial kind?

That question, which I felt deserved some contemplation, got brushed off like so much crap. Apparently the concept that our intelligence arose out of an unintelligent universe just doesn’t hit home, even with a group of evolution-believing folks. I mean, I understand that it’s hard to grasp, but it’s still worth bearing in mind: our intelligence, again assuming evolution, came out of the random bouncing around of atoms!

Too bad that these folks are going to be on the leading edge of neuroscience research. I guess they’ll have to leave it up to the physicists and chemists and computer scientists (you know, the real scientistists! :) to keep their heads too far out of the clouds (or their asses).

Note: At this point I’d like to make it clear that I’m not that mad at the people in my course. Confused, yes. Annoyed, sure. But angry? Nah. It’s just… the failure of so many people to grasp the true implications of evolution combined with cosmology baffles me. Though I suppose it shouldn’t: I used to think that exact same way just 4 years ago. And the fact of the matter is, we’d like to think we’re somehow special. But more and more we’re realizing that we’re not. And that’s okay.

Given the chance to observe our behaviors, computers can run simulations, modeling different versions of our path through the world. By tuning these models for top performance, computers will give us rules to live by. They will be able to tell us when to wake, sleep, learn, and exercise; they will cue us to remember what we’ve read, help us track whom we’ve met, and remind us of our goals. Computers, in Wozniak’s scheme, will increase our intellectual capacity and enhance our rational self-control.

The reason the inventor of SuperMemo pursues extreme anonymity, asking me to conceal his exact location and shunning even casual recognition by users of his software, is not because he’s paranoid or a misanthrope but because he wants to avoid random interruptions to a long-running experiment he’s conducting on himself. Wozniak is a kind of algorithmic man. He’s exploring what it’s like to live in strict obedience to reason. On first encounter, he appears to be one of the happiest people I’ve ever met.

Extreme knowledge is not something for which he programs a computer but for which his computer is programming him.

Philosopher William James once wrote that mental life is controlled by noticing. Climbing out of the sea and onto the windy beach, my skin purple and my mind in a reverie provoked by shock, I find myself thinking of a checklist Wozniak wrote a few years ago describing how to become a genius. His advice was straightforward yet strangely terrible: You must clarify your goals, gain knowledge through spaced repetitions, preserve health, work steadily, minimize stress, refuse interruption, and never resist sleep when tired. This should lead to radically improved intelligence and creativity. The only cost: turning your back on every convention of social life. It is a severe prescription. And yet now, as I grin broadly and wave to the gawkers, it occurs to me that the cold rationality of his approach may be only a surface feature and that, when linked to genuine rewards, even the chilliest of systems can have a certain visceral appeal. By projecting the achievement of extreme memory back along the forgetting curve, by provably linking the distant future — when we will know so much — to the few minutes we devote to studying today, Wozniak has found a way to condition his temperament along with his memory. He is making the future noticeable. He is trying not just to learn many things but to warm the process of learning itself with a draft of utopian ecstasy.

– From The Memory Master, Wired Magazine

This quotation brings up two points that warrant future contemplation: (1) the use of gods, systems, and computers in granting humans peace of mind, and (2) the unpalatability of ‘genius’ when we really think about it.

I’ll add those two things to my system for future contemplation. :P

What I’m about to write isn’t about fame or success or celebrity or the media. That’s my business.

This is about us all.

This is about a level of self consciousness so high in my generation, that it’s actually toxic.

This is about the girl in her bedroom who poses in front of the camera she’s awkwardly holding in her outstretched hand. She’ll take a hundred photos until coming up with one she’s happy with, which inevitably looks nothing like her, and after she’s done poring over images of herself, will post one on her myspace page and then write something like ” I don’t give a f*ck what you think about me.”

This is about the person trying out for American Idol, who while going off about how confident they are that they were born ready to sing in front of the world, are trembling so badly they can hardly breathe.

This is about me, the guy who walks through a throng of photographers into a restaurant like he’s Paul Newman, but who leaves a “reject” pile of clothes in his closet so high that his cleaning lady can’t figure out how one man can step into so many pairs of pants in a week.

This is about a young guy who maintains a celebrity blog that subsists on tearing other people down but who has wrestled with a lifelong battle for acceptance as a gay man.

This is about us all. Every one of us. Who all seem to know deep down that it’s incredibly hard to be alive and interact with the world around us but will try and cover it up at any cost. For as badass and unaffected as we try to come off, we’re all just one sentence away from being brought to the edge of tears, if only it was worded right. And I don’t want to act immune to that anymore. I took the biggest detour from myself over the past year, since I decided that I wasn’t going to care about what people thought about me. I got to the point where I had so much padding on that, sure, I couldn’t feel the negativity, but that’s because I couldn’t feel much of anything. And I think I’m done with that.

I’m not the first person to admit we’re all self conscious, Kanye was. But what I want to do is to shed a little light on why we’re all in the same boat, no matter the shape of the life we lead: because every one of us were told since birth that we were special. We were spoken to by name through a television. We were promised we could be anything that we wanted to be, if only we believed it and then, faster than we saw coming, we were set loose into the world to shake hands with the millions of other people who were told the exact same thing.

And really? Really? It turns out we’re just not all that special, when you break it down. Beautifully unspectacular, actually. And that truth is going to catch up with us whether we want to run from it or not. The paparazzo following me to the gym ain’t gonna be Herb Ritts and the guy he’s following ain’t gonna be Bob Dylan. It’s just a matter of how old you are once you embrace that fact. And for me, 30 sounds about right.

What now, then? I can only really say for myself: Enjoy who I am, the talents and the liabilities. Stop acting careless. In fact, care more. Be vulnerable but stay away from where it hurts. Read. See more shows. Of any kind. Rock shows, art shows, boat shows. Create more art. Wear hoodies to dinner. Carry a notebook and hand it to people when they passionately recommend something and ask them to write it down for me.

Root for others.

Give more and expect the same in return, but over time.

Act nervous when I’m nervous, puzzled when I don’t know what the hell to do, and smile when it all goes my way. And never in any other order than that.

And when it’s all over, whether at the end of this fabulous career or of this life, which I hope takes place at the same time, I should look back and say that I had it good and I made the most of it while I was able. And so should you.

– From John Mayer’s Blog

Amen.

5. They haggle with their teachers for extra points.
As a teaching assistant, I would have been rich if my pre-med students gave me a dime every time they nagged me for partial credit on questions that they had gotten completely wrong.
4. They use questionable tactics to get good grades.
Some of them may turn to study drugs like adderall, dexedrine, provigil, and ritalin. Others will beg upperclassmen for copies of old exams, which give them an unfair advantage over their classmates.
3. They horde leadership positions and then run organizations into the ground.
To pad their résumés, they run for the presidency of science clubs and volunteer organizations, and then fail to fulfill their responsibilities because they are too busy studying.
2. They game the system to get good grades.
By strategically dropping any class that is not going well and carefully picking courses taught by the easiest professors they ensure themselves a good grade point average.
1. They are not motivated by curiosity.
If they ask a question in class, it’s often to find out what will be on an upcoming exam. Some of them volunteer to work in a lab on real research projects, but they don’t give it their all because they have no passion for scientific inquiry — it’s just another line on their résumés.

– From Wired.com

All in good fun, of course. It’s just… there’s SO MANY pre-meds here at Ursinus. So I saw this and couldn’t help but laugh. WITH you! :P

April 18, 2008

Handlebars by Flobots

I can ride my bike with no handlebars
No handlebars
No handlebars

I can ride my bike with no handlebars
No handlebars
No handlebars

Look at me, look at me
hands in the air like it’s good to be
ALIVE
and I’m a famous rapper
even when the paths’re all crookedy
I can show you how to do-si-do
I can show you how to scratch a record
I can take apart the remote control
And I can almost put it back together
I can tie a knot in a cherry stem
I can tell you about Leif Ericson
I know all the words to “De Colores”
And “I’m Proud to be an American”
Me and my friend saw a platypus
Me and my friend made a comic book
And guess how long it took
I can do anything that I want cuz, look:

I can keep rhythm with no metronome
No metronome
No metronome

I can see your face on the telephone
On the telephone
On the telephone

Look at me
Look at me
Just called to say that it’s good to be
ALIVE
In such a small world
All curled up with a book to read
I can raise funds open up a thrift store
I can make a living off a magazine
I can design an engine sixty four
Miles to a gallon of gasoline
I can make new antibiotics
I can make computers survive aquatic conditions
I know how to run a business
And I can make you wanna buy a product
Movers shakers and producers
Me and my friends understand the future
I see the strings that control the systems
I can do anything with no assistance
I can change the nation with a microphone
With a microphone
With a microphone
I can split the atoms of a molecule
Of a molecule
Of a molecule

Look at me
Look at me
Driving and I won’t stop
And it feels so good to be
Alive and on top
My reach is global
My tower secure
My cause is noble
My power is pure
I can hand out a million vaccinations
Or let’em all die in exasperation
Have’em all grilled leavin lacerations
Have’em all killed by assassination
I can make anybody go to prison
Just because I don’t like’em and
I can do anything with no permission
I have it all under my command
I can guide a missile by satellite
By satellite
By satellite
and I can hit a target through a telescope
Through a telescope
Through a telescope
and I can end the planet in a holocaust
In a holocaust
In a holocaust
In a holocaust
In a holocaust
In a holocaust
In a holocaust

I can ride my bike with no handlebars
No handle bars
No handlebars

I can ride my bike with no handlebars
No handlebars
No handlebars

We separated chlorophyll from spinach leaves yesterday in p. chem lab. In two weeks, we’re going to do a study on the effect on fluorescence of chlorophyll concentration. To quote Brett, “Hm, I wonder what that will be?”

Anyway, back to this week’s lab. We had to crush up the spinach leaves using a mortar and pestle, and then flush out the chlorophyll using ethyl acetate (which, by the way, smells a heck of a lot like acetone… ie not good). Then we centrifuged out all the icky parts, pipetted off the ethyl acetate + green stuff, and did some column chromatography (think of the kind of chromatography you’ve done with pens, but with a much longer plastic tube and with a lot less fun). I managed to screw up packing my column twice, though I just went ahead with the second one.

The entire time, I kept thinking, “Why am I doing this?” I clearly have no aptitude for lab sciences. And yes, it’s totally something I could work on and become better at (I had no ‘aptitude’ for riding a bike until Dave taught me last summer), but I wonder if there’s a point? Shouldn’t I focus on my strengths, rather than try to polish away my weaknesses?

It’s a little too late for me to change my major now. I mean, I’ve already taken all the courses I’ll really hate (or, well, mildly dislike), and I’ve only got 3 more labs total, two of which I’ll finish off next semester. Might as well see the major through, and focus on taking a different course in grad school.

And I think that course will have to do with computer modelling. I like math, I like the physical sciences, and I like computers. I don’t know why it took me this long to put those three things together and realize, “Hey, they totally have jobs out there for people who like those things… and there probably aren’t too many people like that in the first place!” Like I’ve said earlier, that might have been something I should have figured out at the end of high school. But I suppose better now then after I’ve entered a graduate program in chemistry. It’s never too late to change my mind [evidently something I like to do, as you can observe by reading posts under the ‘my major’ tag]!

Which brings me to another blinding flash of the obvious, to quote David Allen: I’m at that point in my life where I’m, you know, an adult, and should be making decisions based on my best interests. And those interests are encompassed by (a) what I find pleasurable and (b) what I find meaningful. And at no other point in my life will I have quite the same amount of power over its future direction than I do now. It might be useful to start paying attention! (I probably had a lot more leverage when I was choosing colleges than I do now, but unfortunately I don’t have a time machine. If anyone does, please feel free to call me at 555-555-5555). I don’t want to end up one of those ‘typical Americans’ that hates his job. Especially when I’ve had every opportunity afforded me to pick a career that I’ll love and excel at.

Looks like 6th-grade-me had a lot more going for him than I give him credit for. At least, he paid a lot more attention to my strengths and my likes than I have recently.

Time to go back to my roots. Now excuse me as I go play with Python.

I’ve had a hectic week up til this Thursday. I had a presentation to prepare about Dewar benzene (don’t ask) and a P Chem test to study for (you can ask about that one). Okay, really not that hectic. Other than my complete unwillingness to start the Powerpoint for the presentation because I ‘didn’t know what I want[ed] to say’ (key lesson from that one: just start saying what you think you’ll need to say, and then make the slides to go along with that… makes for an easier time and a more interesting presentation!). During the beginning of this week, all I kept thinking was, “Man, I can’t wait until Wednesday night, when all of this will be over!”

And then Wednesday night came, with all those tasks done! Nothing to do! Huzzah!

But wait, nothing to do… Having nothing to do kind of sucks. That’s when I realized I hadn’t been looking forward to doing something else so much as I was looking forward to being done doing all the school work. The schoolwork, however, did one thing well: it filled up that long day.

Now, a ‘normal’ person might go out drinking, or perhaps go on a hot date to fill in that void left by the end of a hectic week. Ha. ‘Normal.’

I decided to take up learning Python, a programming. I highly advise it to anyone interested in learning programming for the first time, or, like me, interested in taking it up again after a few years of absence mean, what other language is named after Monty Python’s Flying Circus? Even C++ doesn’t have that sort of pedigree!

Plus, it’s the language most commonly referenced at xkcd. So if you want to understand all those witty programming jokes, you’ll have to pony up and learn to code!

Besides, it beats sitting around and winning about ‘not having anything to do.’ I’ve spent enough of my life that way!

So, good luck with whatever it is that you choose to pursue with your non-work related time! Remember, active engagement beats passive consumption 9 out of 10 times! And 70% of the time, it works all the time!

April 16, 2008

I know elite is a ‘bad word’ in politics and you want to go bowling and throw back a few beers. But the job you’re applying for, if you get it and it goes well, they might carve your head into a mountain! If you don’t actually don’t think you’re better than us, then what the fuck are you doing?! If we were elected president, do you know what we would do at the inaugural parade? Head out of the limo sunroof! “Hey Joey, what’s up you douche bag! Look at me! This thing’s got TV and Pepsi! Woooh.” In fact, not only do I want an elite president, I want someone who’s embarrassingly superior to me!

– Jon Stewart, regarding Obama’s ‘elitist’ comments