Still here, still kicking

At a party recently, a lot of people commented that they haven’t seen or heard from me in a while.

Suffice to say that life has been extremely challenging for about 6 months. I prefer not to go into that any further here.

Unfortunately, that means that most of the topics uppermost in my mind aren’t really suitable for blogging either. I do post on twitter, and twitter may yet be the death of this blog, although you can see my last few tweets and link to my twitter page in the right-hand menu-bar of this page (provided you’re seeing the page).

…so here’s a nerdy non-sequitur, from the WAREHOUSE:

My wife finds awesome things. 🙂

 

Euphoria over a world made right

It just struck me that it has been a little while since I blogged, and now, in a strongly elevated mood, seemed like an excellent time for a quick, rambly squirt of where-the-hell-I’m-at.

This is my first post as a married man. So far it is most singularly excellent. I am still waiting for the bit where it feels like we’re married in any stereotypical sense. Eventually there will be a bumper Wedding round-up post with innumerable pictures and stuff, but that sounds like more work than I have time for tonight.

This morning, I pointed several workmates at Hunter S Thompson‘s inimitable Song of the Sausage Creature, a work which I have blogged about before. I think I introduced it as the greatest ever expression of the peculiar madness which makes one a motorcyclist.

Walking home this evening, I marvelled at how cold it was, and how unspeakably pleasant it was to loaf along in my warmest jacket with the zip zipped up, my evil little device squirting undiluted genius into my ears. Some specific genius tonight: Escape Pod, Yoko Kanno, and Zeros and Ones from Year Zero. Very good.

As I walked, at one point I was struck by the overpowering smell of ganja in the street, and I fancied to myself a story of a great person whose final request was that they be cremated on a cold, still, night with Melbourne’s cold-air inversion well-and-truly in effect, along with a kilo of their best weed, so that all of Springvale might inhale them and feel peace and contentment.

Bye for now.

Transcending Evolution

For this post I have added the ‘upsight’ category, to borrow a term from Neal Stephenson’s rather marvellous Anathem.

My upsight today was realising not only that humanity are in the process of throwing off the influence of evolution, but also to see just how broad that influence really is, and from that, why it will cost us so dearly in the short term, and reward us so profoundly in the long.

Evolution, as far as I can see, is a combination of a random process, e.g. genetic recombination, with a non-random selector (e.g. darwinian ‘fitness’). In other words, for the problem of survival and propagation, evolution is all about trial and error.

Trial and error works. It can take a long time though, especially if the cost of error is death, and the process can be alarmingly expensive. As such, evolution is all about very very long stretches of time.

Trial and error is also susceptible to capture by local maxima. Imagine an isolated species of moss whose entire evolutionary fitness is determined by how high it climbs. Lets assume this imaginary moss can only spread its spores a meter or so at a time. Successive generations of this moss will slowly climb the hill on which they originated, eventually reaching the peak. They will do well on that peak, but not as well as they might do on the mountain range across the valley, a few kilometres away.

One simple game-theoretic or computing answer to this is a gimmick called simulated annealing. That’s where, instead of always seeking greater fitness, you occasionally do something randomly much worse, go in a random direction, on the offchance that it will lead to a greater win in the long term.

Those who are still awake at this point will immediately observe that this is exactly what evolution does: random mutations are mostly bad. Only one random swerve in umpty gazillion leads you to develop lungs and crawl our of the sea, but that’s how it works, right?

Yes and no. The problem with simulated annealing lies in the size and frequency of those jumps. If our moss has simulated annealing of, say, a ten meter jump roughly every hundred generations, it could take a very VERY long time to get off the hill and reach the mountains. The hill is more likely to go volcanic before that ever happens, and wipe the moss out. Suppose we give it a hundred meter jump every ten generations… Now it will reach those mountains in no time. This is true. It will go almost everywhere in no time flat. Unfortunately, it will also become extinct, since it has effectively ceased to climb hills at all; a feature which we defined as vital to its survival in the first place.

Biological evolution can only allow so many changes per generation, with a fixed limit to how far those changes can go. More than that, and a species will degrade over time, and eventually fail.

This puts many advantageous and even vital changes out of reach of biological evolution.

It has been pointed out to me that this is an over simplification; visualising simulated annealing in this few dimensions is inherently misleading. I stand by my point though; that the jumps are necessarily too small, as follows:

To give an example, the first sea-creature to grow legs and lungs gained exclusive access the whole land-area surface of the earth. It is entirely possible that its genes are in all of us, and most mammals. The first creature to evolve superorbital flight, radiation hardening, vacuum-tolerance and some kind of re-entry and landing mechanism could colonise Mars, Venus, and conceivably every other planet in the universe. That would be a much, much larger evolutionary win, but it can obviously never happen. Not that way. Pure trial-and-error will never lead to a lateral jump that big.

So, something different happens: we think.

You could argue very plausibly that our thinking is just a radical new form of evolved fitness, exactly the one described above, but that would be overlooking the nature of evolution: it is random. In addition to trying the good change, it will (must) always try nearly every possible bad one.  Thinking lets us do better: not only can we see in advance that many bad ideas are bad (and avoid them), we can also do diabolically clever things like theorise about how a system works, and work backwards from an outcome to the possible solutions which might lead there. Not only can we solve problems many orders of magnitude more quickly and cheaply than trial-and-error, we can select among solutions and choose the best one. The cavernous gaps between mountains present no obstacle to choosing a mountain if one can see all the mountains and immediately perceive which one is tallest.

This is a radical change, but it isn’t just biological evolution lying in the dust.

Consider naturopathic or herbal medicines as opposed to the newest pharmaceuticals (ignoring the awkward transition phase in between):

To discover a natural medicine, you just seek out new plants and substances, and try them. You ingest them or brew them, or plaster them on your skin. Some of them help. Many of them make you sick. Some of them kill you. It can be systemmatic, careful, and make use of educated guesses, but in the end it’s trial and error.

By comparison, most recent medicines are the result of a deductive process: we examine the problem at its most fundamental level, where biology becomes complex, shifty chemistry. Once we understand the problem, we theorise ways it could be solved, and work backwards from those solutions towards known, feasible chemicals, treatments, and eventually, products.

This is a triumph. I’m making a note here: HUGE SUCCESS!

It’s not just medicine either. Primitive man is both troubled and endangered by thunder and lightning. He invents a wrathful sky-god who hurls spears from the sky, and from this, elects to stay inside shelter when storms come. This approach increases his chances of survival, but is incomplete: he has no way of knowing about times and places when it is safe to go out into the storm. He will make various wrong conclusions when his tall, pointy places of worship to the sky-god are struck by lightning and catch fire.

Benjamin Franklin forms a number of plausible theories about what the lightening and thunder are, tests them, and comes up with a very robust explanation involving electrostatic discharge. Lightning rods are just an obvious product of this understanding, little or no trial-and-error is required. There is no need to line up thousands of people in hundreds of thunderstorms to determine the circumstances under which it is safe to go out in a storm; these insights come to us fully formed from the supported theory, and can be applied immediately.

I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this.

Our lives are still riddled with trial-and-error. Some of it is fun, and will probably remain part of being human forever. Other parts are just baggage of our evolutionary heritage.

Those parts’ days are numbered. Science is coming. Thank goodness.

Update: Sabik has helpfully pointed out a whole bunch of places where I was either factually incorrect, talking crap, or just subtly out of line. For example, I mistook Benjamin Franklin for Thomas Edison. Burning-elephant-ooops. I have done my best to revise this post to take these myriad goofs into account. Many, many thanks. I suppose I should write a sequel post now, and call it ‘Transcending Evolution Engineers”. 🙂

Less than zero

IT Managers, if you learn nothing else in your entire career, learn this:

An unskilled programmer is radically worse than none at all.

A programmer with twice the skills of another will probably get TEN TIMES AS MUCH DONE!

Even with good programmers, adding people to a project doesn’t always help, and it can harm. A lot.

That’s all.

Learn only this, and in my experience, you will already be a better-than-average IT manager.

Ma-wij!

It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows us that on the 10th of April this year, E and I will be officially Wed! This is proving to be a challenging thing to organise, and one of those challenges is compiling a guest-list. Guest lists are horrible things! Frought with taboo and instilled with ridiculous levels of social significance.

The Princess Bride - Peter Cook

…which makes the things I’m about to say all the more rude. Um. Sorry.

Most of the people who read this are on the list, if comments are anything to go by, but a handful of people who probably expect to be on it aren’t. This does not mean that E or I don’t like you. It may, however, mean that we don’t get the feeling that you’re a friend to our relationship, or to both of us as a couple. Pardon my bluntness, I’d rather be blunt than lie to you about this, or leave any doubt.

I say this in the hope that, when the invitations go out, their presence or absence shouldn’t be shocking news to anyone.

Mostly though, I hope to see you there.

Crying Tired

There’s a certain state of mind which I’ve met from time to time: you get there through repeated sleep deprivation combined with stress. You only need a very small amount of stress.

I call this state ‘crying tired’ because when you’re there, you feel perpetually right on the brink of tears. Even when there’s absolutely nothing to be sad about, when things are going well, there’s that tight desperate sensation of Just Keeping It Together, for Appearances’ Sake.

The oddest things can help or make it worse: if you’re tired for a reason, you can blame that reason. Often I’ve found myself railing against whatever kept me from sleeping, or taking pride in whatever I achieved while I wasn’t sleeping. Either way, it helps.
Conversely, if the insomnia was entirely your own stupid fault, this makes things worse.

I have to wonder if the first unsettling touches of alzheimers feel like this: you’re not doing anything out of the ordinary, but everything is profoundly harder. Your own simple notes seem like the inscrutable wisdom of someone you could never hope to emulate.

The fact that your own lack of restraint led to this just serves to enhance the pervasive sense of hopelessness.

Simple, achievable work helps. Perspective helps. Caffeine only helps up to a certain point… and once you start down the dark-brewed path you need to stay on it, or it will hasten the inevitable crash.

Eventually, sleep will help, you tell yourself.

A Sense of Proportion

I am frequently concerned that my sense of proportion is out of whack.

Specifically, I obsess about trivia, get angry (or frightened, or saddened, or depressed) about things so trivial as to barely exist at all, even fleetingly.

To remedy this, I have a number of strategies:

  • Really angry/sad music. Pink Floyd at the peak of Roger Waters’ crushing control covers this really nicely (Wish You Were Here, Animals, The Wall, The Final Cut). These songs talk about lives that are Worse Than Yours in a compelling way. If that fails, the right bit of Nine Inch Nails at sufficient volume can drive out any unwanted mood. I have yet to discover any state of mind that can remain intact through a full (loud) playing of The Downward Spiral. And the good part? These are someone else’s problems!
  • Read the news. World news will always tell you about something bigger than you. Your problems are tiny, fleeting.
  • To unwisely quote Fight Club: “Stop trying to control everything and just let go! LET GO!” Abandon your illusion of control. Closing your eyes and saying “I give up” or “I quit” can help.

Mostly though, I find that a good sense of proportion is exactly what it sounds like: considering all things in terms of scale. You are one person in twenty million Australians, a mere drop in the six-billion-odd humans infesting this tiny rock, in this undistinguished solar-system, orbiting a small unregarded yellow sun, far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy… 🙂

Another way to see things is to consider the severity of Your Problems in the classic ‘things could be worse’ sense. If your a quantitative type, and you find these comparisons with national or global problems a bit meaningless, try this. The Holmes and Rahe Stress scale is something I’ve blathered about before (back when my egomaniacal rants lived in a mailing list, rather than on a blog) it helpfully categorized the severity of the stress in your life in absolute terms, then gives you a number which more -or-less tells you if you’re making a mountain out of a molehill.

It also illustrates nicely how small things can pile up…

Changing topic (and format) completely:

  • Long time no post. Again. Sorry. Likely to happen again? Yes.
  • Am now officially finished probation at new job. Huzzah!
  • I am going to Linux Conf Au (which is not in Au…?!) next year. Are you?
  • I have finally succumbed to Twitter. Behold my glorious sidebar!
  • Tuesday next week I move on to the next logical step in my career: I go to work in a supermarket. (Coles Central, Melbourne Central)
  • Moustache came and went. Raised some dollars. Glad it’s gone.

Babah now!



Culpable Blog Neglect

It has been much too long since I last wrote anything here. There are some good reasons, but they themselves are news deserving of publication, so:

  1. I have a new job! If you have seen neither hide nor … um … absence-of-hair of me in the city recently, that’s because I no longer work there. I’m still a sysadmin, but now I work for a certain Very Large Australian Supermarket Chain. This has a number of awesomenesses to offset the loss of decent coffee and plentiful company that the city provided: A five minute commute, Real work which is mostly not thrown away when complete or shortly beforehand, Innumerable systems which, while oppressive, mostly work and are (in some cases) actually documented! This is so different from my former employers as to have resulted in a fair degree of culture shock.
  2. I have been variously sick… I always associated “bronchitis” with an extreme form of the-hacking-crud, but I have come to know it rather as the slight pervasive nagging illness that makes one lastingly tired and miserable and will not die.
  3. …and broken. I recently attempted my first Big Motorbike Tour with my brother (Heffa) and two of his work colleagues (lets say SM and SJ). It was to be a week-long ride through some of the most beautiful parts of Victoria, pausing in such scenic places as Myrtleford and Raymond Island before joining the Barry Sheene Memorial ride from Bairnsdale to Phillip Island (it concludes with a lap of the Grand Prix circuit there). The last three days of this trip were to be spent at the 2009 Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix.
    It did not go badly, or even horribly badly.
    It went disastrously.
    Before we even began, we were forced to abandon our original route because, as we were told, the unseasonal depth and frequency of snow on mount Hotham meant the mountain was closed to motorcycles, period. We revised our route to go further east and less north, but less than an hour into the ride my elderly little bike suffered a snapped clutch cable. My noble brother, SM and SJ spent two hours seeking a replacement (the first of which failed after about 20 meters).
    That fixed, we were mostly OK for several hours, and had a rather fun ride through Healesville to Marysville. We dodged a bullet in Marysville by detouring for petrol (we had no excuse for imagining that there would be petrol for sale in Marysville this year). Around Reefton, however, it began to rain. A failure of planning contrived between me and my brother led to both of us getting soaking wet despite our rainproof gear, and I almost gave up in Warburton. Alas that I did not.
    By around 5pm, we had almost made it to the tiny town of Noojee when, in my soggy and confused state, I took a corner slightly too fast and rode into a patch of slippery leaf-mush, slid off my bike and bounced down the road a little way. Miraculously though, I was merely bruised, my riding gear and bike largely unharmed. After many enquiries of “are you sure you’re ok?”, we all remounted our bikes and rode on… for about ten more minutes.
    We were not yet outside of Noojee when the final blow was struck. SJ, spooked by my recent road-surfing attempt, was checking his mirrors at the precise moment that my brother (not far ahead of him) abruptly stopped to check the map.
    The result was a spectacular high-speed collision.
    My brother was unharmed, but SJ was not so fortunate, severely breaking his leg and largely destroying his bike.
    The rest of that wonderful week was spent recovering at home, feeling stiff, sore and systematically disheartened. SM and Heffa eventually went on to the GP, and I hear, had a whale of a time. SJ was eventually released from hospital.
    A restful recuperative sojourn  it was not.
  4. A recent brush with RSI, perennial adversary of IT workers everywhere, plus my new employer’s all-too-efficient zeal for preventing ‘recreational’ computing among their employees have led to a whole new layer of dust on my home PC and most especially on this blog. I have sympathy for Pah, and am cautioned by his example: RSI is to be taken seriously.
  5. For all my methodical obsessing about the latest and most innovative and forward-looking PDAs, I have finally sold out to The New Evil, and purchased an iFool. It has had its ups and downs, and I will write more about it in another post, eventually. Suffice for now to say that the availability of a WordPress app for it has not led to a revolutionary increase in my ver-blog-bosity, but it has led to a resurgence in my use of LikenessTome, and finally driven me to sign up with Blather.
  6. Now that E has (we hope) finished being Examinatized (YAYZ!), our plans to be wed next year have become steadily more and more palpable. More on that later too.
  7. [last-minute edit] I almost forgot: I have once again signed up for Movember, and will be sporting facially-mounted industrial abrasives again in the name of mens health, free burgers and vile humour. Please PLEASE PLEASE Sponsor Me!

That is all.

Gaming Renaissance

Lately, as a consequence of following Boingboing, I have been catching their periodic round-ups from their gaming-centric spin-off site, Offworld. As a consequence, I have observed what seems to me like a wonderful thing: a renaissance in classic gaming!

Two free games in particular have struck me recently with their sheer mind-blowing awesomeness, so much so that I am compelled to blog about them: Glum Buster and Music Catch.

Glum Buster

Justin ‘CosMind’ Leingang’s Glum Buster is random. I would not be the first to say so, if I said that the alien, unexplained sideways-scrolling nature of the beast strongly reminds me of the classic Another World. That said, this is nothing like Another World…

Glum Buster: The Red Tree

Glum Buster seems to revolve around the life on an anonymous little guy in what looks like a little yellow raincoat. One day this guy steps out his door and meets (spawns?) his evil doppelganger, who proceeds to suck him into a series of alternate/alien dimensions, where things are frickin’ strange!

The game is at pains to give you the minimum possible advice about how the controls work, and absolutely none about what they’re for. That part is a matter of exploration, changing anew with each little level. Occasionally, it seems as if a sequence of levels is progressing along some pattern, in terms of how each stage works, but then it will throw you again as it convolves in some previously unthinkable axis.

Beautiful and gentle, I can’t help thinking as I play that this game is what Hayao Miyazaki would have made if he were a hobbyist programmer, and not an animator.

Music Catch

Reflexive’s Music Catch 2 is a flash game with a non-free downloadable counterpart and, I gather, an iPhone port. It’s addictive, but without that arm-scratching, crack-addiction dementia that one tends to get from PopCap games.

Music Catch

It’s a concept alomst too simple to describe: wave your mouse pointer around. Collect as many as possible of the (numerous) blue things, and especially the yellow things, while avoiding the red things. Purple things provide a temporary ‘vacuum’ effect which only sucks up good stuff.

While complete, that description overlooks nearly everything that’s good or original about the game. In particular, it overlooks the feel, and it overlooks the music.

Music is central to the game: The things one collects or avoids are generated with a rate and distribution governed by the music. The downloadable game doesn’t have levels, it has tracks, and it will let you create your own new levels without limit… by selecting your own MP3s.

The resulting feel, with the thing-generating surface slowly revolving around the field of play, is hypnotic and serene, even when the music and the pace of the game are respectively driving and hectic.

Music Catch ably maximises the oldest heuristic for the quality of a game: It is very very easy to play, and very, very hard to master.