MRU  MBIG

 

Math, Religion, and the Universe

Stephen Harris

2004

ďMath, Religion, and the Universe.Ē  Not that I know that much about any of those things.  I decided that should be the title of a book Iím going to write, maybe this is it.  Maybe itís not.  Why do I have writerís block?  I had a million different ideas to start off this with, but theyíre never there when you need them.  I had a recent tragic experience.  It was a horrible experience, not just for me, but for those around me, wait a minute, no, it was also the spark of a whole lot of great experiences.  Like half of everything in the universe you donít get forests without forest fires.  Growth, rebirth, itís childrenís stories, itís the story of the Bible, itís the story of Terminator 3.  Itís hard to beat Arnold Schwarzenegger going around doing impossible feats like crashing through buildings on the end of a crane thatís swinging around while a maniac robot from the future is driving the thing like a maniac.  I said maniac.  What strange series of events led up to that?  How does it come to be that you can plop down $10 or however much you pay for movies and see and hear the thick accented governor of California do impossible feats while pretending to be a robot from the future?  And to be honest if that was the first movie I ever saw in my life I would believe in maniac robots from the future.

I had no idea I knew how to write.  Over the past week I have filled a journal cover to cover and started another one.  Where does that come from? 

Integrity.  I try to live my life with a lot of integrity.  But how do you do that?  What does it mean to be honest?  Is it possible?  Is this how philosophy books read?  I havenít read many of them so I donít know.  How long can I write like this?  When does it start to get boring?  I remember seeing a really clever movie called ďSlackerĒ.  It followed tangents of interactions between the characters as they went about their varied lives.  It gave an interesting perspective, but once you got the idea, the rest of the movie seemed less interesting.

How does it come to be that I seem to be able to write a book and I never knew that I was capable of writing?  I think it is kind of like this really cool piece of technology that I saw at Burning Man.  There was this vertical rod that was lined with little flickering lights.  It was sort of hard to look at, kind of like a strobe light.  Even so you can still sweep your eyes in front of it so that it makes a trail on your retina, just like when you swing a burning ember from a campfire around on the end of a stick.  If you fling the burning campfire stick around fast enough you can draw pictures with it, visible pictures.  It is the same principal that makes a TV work, the only difference is that a TV uses a fancy liner on the inside of the CRT as a canvas instead of your retina.   Anyway, so there was this flickering rod and when you use it to sweep a trail on your retina it doesnít just leave a streak it leaves a picture of the Mona Lisa.  Not some crude line drawn Mona Lisa rendition, but a detailed picture.  So how is it that this Mona Lisa drawing contraption works on the same principal that allows me to write a book that I didnít know I could write?  Iíll get back to that.

Itís not magic, itís science, but how is science not magic or vice versa?  I was thinking about how every once in a while you hear about such things as a fence post that looks like the Virgin Mary or equally astounding, crop circles appearing overnight.  What I think is cool about things like that is not that they defy physical explanation, on the contrary, itís that they do follow the laws of physics yet appear not to.  I remember taking physics class in college.  I had this awesome physics professor, he loved to do all sorts of wacky experiments.  One day he gave a demonstration of gravity.  And youíre probably thinking oh yeah, you donít need a wacky physics professor to do that, just fall off a log.  The interesting part is that there is gravitational pull between every particle in the universe, or at least I think there is.  Forgive me, I donít really claim to know anything, and physics certainly is something.

So on this particular day Professor Sprott gave a different demonstration of gravity.  He had this apparatus that allowed him to change the distance between four heavy balls made out of lead or something.  And by changing that distance the gravity between them caused two of the balls to swing ever so slightly one direction or the other.  He used a laser pointer attached between these balls which makes it sound like something more lurid than a physics experiment.  None the less it worked like a giant multimeter that measured gravity and moved a little red dot on the back of the lecture hall back and forth.  Gravity is all around us, it is just hard to notice most of it because the earth sucks so much as the saying goes.

I remember trying to solve the Rubikís cube years ago and how I tried and I tried and I got pretty close to solving it but the last bit I never could quite get.  And for a Rubikís cube, if it is not solved it can look pretty messy even if itís close.  Then somebody showed me a trick and that was all it took.  Within a year or something of people being baffled by that damn puzzle, the next thing you know there was some lame game show where kids would see how fast they solve that thing.  Someone could do it in like 45 seconds, crap, I just saw a picture of a robot made out of legos, thatís right legos, that can solve the Rubikís cube.

In my religion, keeping in mind that in my religion everyone has their own religion, and I would never intend to force my religion on anyone else, but anyway, in my religion 9/11 was an example of god punching the United States in the eye.  I donít mean to suggest that we deserved it, because there is no way to know that, but it happened none the less.  And if god is everything, then god did it.  Why would god or anyone do that?  Maybe the United States provoked it?  Maybe these tough old religious countries take too much offence?  Whatever the reason, I feel like I got punched in the eye.  Maybe we all got punched in the eye.

Have I figured something out?  Or am I just on an edge of something that other people will understand a lot more than I do.  Like a fractal, like the Rubikís cube.  None of these are my ideas.  I remember years ago my good friend Josh asked me to write a paper about holographic theory as he called it.  It is the idea that everything is just a twisted version of everything else, just like everything else.  Wait a minute, that sounds like what Iím writing about now, would I have thought of that if Josh hadnít asked me to write about holographic theory, would I have even thought of that if I hadnít seen the movie ďThe MatrixĒ or ďThe Last SamuraiĒ?  Really what Iím writing is just a bizarre reflection of the world around me, which is exactly what everyone else writes about. 

The more things change the more they stay the same.  Is it coincidence that describes not only societal patterns but coastlines and fractals as well? 

Why am I here?  Thatís what I canít figure out.  Once you assume there is a universe with physics and crap, then I can see how eventually somewhere somehow life forms.  I suppose out of all of those places where life is formed itís reasonable that at least some of them, say anywhere from 1 to 100 billion of them, wind up having political structures and religious figures with self fulfilling prophesies and what not.  The debates of nature versus nurture are really flip sides of the same coin.  I know I stole that from someone.

Coincidences are not unlikely, theyíre inevitable.

Is it a coincidence that if you had enough zebras running through a narrow opening between forests of trees, that from above it would look a lot like blowing smoke?  Is that where the ďblowing smokeĒ saying came from?  Well not that exactly, but couldnít it be an externality?  I think that is economics speak for something mutually in common, oh, wait, maybe everything has something in common?  If everything does have something in commonÖ.

A lot of people, including maybe everybody, think of the US as this soulless byproduct of greed or something.  But itís not really that, itís more like a big 2 year old.  Itís just this big clumsy clown that is trying to help everyone but winds up kicking them instead.  I feel like a got a cosmic punch in the eye, and at some level I had it coming.  Itís kind of like knowing that I worked at a large company with lots of quality people that the world views as evil.  Never mind that this Microsoft machine of evil gave me a dream job that I didnít think was possible.  And never mind that this larger supposed machine of evil called the United States has been trying to tear it apart. And then youíve got the rest of the world trying to tear the United States apart.  And eventually our solar system will be torn apart by the rest of the universe.  Itís all a funky fractal dance.  You can back up.  Never mind that this Ďmachine of evilí, um, which machine of evil?  Letís start with me, cause letís face it I sure seem like a machine of evil, why else would I have worked at the evil Microsoft machine in the evil United States machine and loved it, well at least in between the really crappy parts?  So why is it that my wonderful yet evil life took such a sharp turn?  Does it have anything to do with 9/11?  Of course it does.  How could it not?  Maybe I am just a cog in the wheel, maybe we all are.  A religious people punched us in the eye, and they did it hard.  Is that what was necessary to get through to us?  Maybe, probably not though, but none of that changes the fact that it happened and I know something got through to at least me. 

I remember Mom used to say ďDonít let the truth of the story spoil the beauty of thy words.Ē  I think she was quoting Shakespeare or maybe it was Uncle Craig.  Anyway, I used to think it was just an excuse to bend the truth.  Which of course it is.  Never mind that the ďtruthĒ is already bent by nature. 

I graduated from the University of Wisconsin.  The last class I took as an undergrad was called Environmental Ethics.  It was basically a bunch of stuff about how if weíre not careful weíre going to trash the planet.  I would have preferred if the message was more like, if weíre not careful we might trash the planet.  Maybe that was the message and I just misinterpreted it?  How careful is nature?  How careful are humans?

Nature tries everything, why wouldnít it try religion?  And not just one religion, but many of them?  And all of them tied up in this simultaneous state of competition and cooperation.  Coopetition as Iíve heard it called.  How is that not the nature of everything?  Is there any way that could have anything to do with the pervasiveness of duality in so many things?  It there any way that it couldnít?

 

Chapter 1

So how is it that I come to find myself at the age of 35 writing some book that I didnít know I could write?  And how is that related to the same principal that makes a TV work?  Itís hard to put into words, so Iíll just tell stories and hope that they help illustrate what Iím getting at.  More often than not, they do.

I like to think of the universe as shaped like this funky smoke.  Which I would see as no coincidence that it is so similar to ashes to ashes, dust in the wind, or funky smoke.  Or is it a coincidence?  What is a coincidence?  Are there coincidences when shooting a game of pool?  Is it a coincidence when both the cue ball and the 8 ball go in on the same shot?  Or is that just some function of the way you took your shot?  Could it be both?

My brother Jonathan said a line years ago now famous in our family to both of our parents who happened to be bickering about something.  He cut them short and said ďDoes just one of you have to be right?Ē  I have already received an abundance of wisdom from my young children.  Often wisdoms are easy to hear and understand, yet ironically easily forgotten.  Ironically again, the wisdom may sink in, itís just that it is also easy to forget where it came from.

So where did my new found ability to write come from?  I guess that begs the question of ďwhere did I come from?Ē  That makes me think of the childrenís book by the same name.  It was this cartoon kids book that explained sex to some level that was considered sufficient for most kids.  Itís a fine book, it drives home some concepts nicely.  But still Iím not sure where I came from.  I have some guesses based on stories Iíve heard, remembered, read, seen, and for a few other factors too.

So where did I come from?  It would seem that the atoms that Iím made out of have been around for a while.  Also, many of my atoms seem to come and go, at least a few times a day by eating, if not constantly through breathing.  So Iím the being born of the food I eat and the air I breathe and my parents and the food that they ate and the air that they breathed andÖ.  That seems like a reasonable biological explanation, albeit some details are left out.  I suppose they probably drank water and stuff too, and they fed me, and they clothed me, and they taught me, and they raised me.  Maybe what I am is a product of both biology and environment?  Iím reading ďThe Blank SlateĒ and I know that Steven Pinker has a strong concept of this idea.  As do a lot of people.

I was just thinking that to tell my life story it would make sense to start at the beginning, whatever that is.  But then I thought I could tell it backwards as well and converge in the middle.  In fact I could write the book in that fashion and through the magic of modern word processors have it read in chronological order.  In addition, I canít spell so save my life, and grammar is more just a set of guidelines than strict rules anyway.  Never mind that the rules are there for a reason, and to completely ignore them would be as wrong as applying them inappropriately. Would I have been able to write this book in a way that people could understand it if it werenít for the invention of the modern computer?  It looks like by cooperating with this infernal machine I got most of the spelling right, but those last two sentences didnít pass the grammar test.  I wonder why?

 

Chapter 2

So why am I writing this?  Why?  What prompted me to write this so called book?  HmmmÖ  Maybe I just needed to try.  Thatís all any of us can do anyway.  But the weird thing here is that when I try to explain what I think happened.  When I try to take into account all of the factors that led up to me typing this, the more it makes sense.  And thatís the weird thing.  Itís a weird story, but it seems to make sense.  Weird.

Although I do enjoy reading a book from time to time, Iím not a big reader.  I never wrote much.  Each year Iíd refine our Christmas card letter thing.  I always took pride in making it concise yet still conveying a lot of information.  How you say something is part of what you say.  But other than that, I never did well in English classes.  I had low verbal scores on tests like the SAT and the GRE.  Granted my other scores were high.  Still seems weird that I seem to be able to write a book?  How is that?  Is it some sort of act of God?  Could be?  What would make it an act of god?  That somehow God made me write this?  In my admittedly naÔve interpretation of the Bible, I would agree that God made me write this.  How did he do it?  It isnít like I have this possessed hand that just started scribbling words.  Could it be that standardized tests may quiz you on a lot of fancy words, but really donít indicate how good you are at writing?  So itís sort of like the man who was asked if he knew how to play the violin.  He said, ďI donít know, Iíve never tried.Ē 

This seems reasonable.  I have some hidden, undiscovered talent, like Iím sure everyone does.  It doesnít come to the surface until my life kind of pops.  Iím sure most people experience some sort of growth when their life pops, granted sometimes if the pop is too big the growth gets wiped out.  That would kind of seem to settle it, that couldnít be an act of God, there is a reasonable explanation for how I came to write this.  But what I donít get is how having a reasonable explanation for it makes it any less of an act of god?

For some reason I think people find a rigid definition of God comforting.  It only makes sense.  The universe is such a mysterious thing.  Any guidance that can be gained by the wisdom of others should both be utilized and questioned.  How does one accomplish that?  Itís an art, like everything.  Iím not sure I even like the word utilized here.  It has this connotation of exploitation.  If you think of a better word feel free to use it instead.

What does it mean to be alive?  Iíve heard a lot of arguments as to what it means for something to be alive or not alive.  Most of these debates about what it means to be alive leave me unconvinced.  What is alive?  What isnít?  Clearly humans are alive, other animals, plants, algae, bacteria, fungus, lichen, protein, DNA, the phone system, oh wait, maybe not the phone system.  Although in a lot of ways it does have a life of its own.  DNA though, that must be alive, itís in every living cell.  But really theyíre just these super long molecules.  So if DNA were alive, then it would seem that other molecules would be alive too.  Maybe just the really long molecules?  So how long does DNA have to be to be considered alive?  What about viruses?  Virus are really just short strands of DNA or RNA or the NRA.  Whatever theyíre made out of, they seem to act a lot like something thatís alive.  But when you look closely at it, it becomes less obvious whether it is alive, sort of like the phone system.

I claimed before that writing this is related to this art exhibit I saw consisting of a line of flickering lights that can somehow draw the Mona Lisa on your retina.  Itís like a TV signal without a TV, like a flickering row of lights without sweeping it across a retina, like having something to say but not recording it.  That seems somehow related.

Patience.  Patience is a quality I seem to have a lot of.  On the surface it seems that may be a bit self righteous to say.  So Iím a patient person, I know lots of patient people, that doesnít make me so special.  But the thing is, even thinking like that presumes that patience is a good thing.  There is a saying ďtoo much of a good thingÖ.Ē  How much is too much?  Patience seems like a good thing.  How much patience is too much?  Humans were not designed to be infinitely patient, so it would seem that there is some level of patience that is indeed too much.

I remember as a kid being teased for being afraid of spiders.  In fact this morning I was just coaching my son on not being afraid of spiders.  But even if youíre not afraid of spiders, chances are you were at least at some point afraid of a snake.  Itís sort of like heights.  I have a healthy respect for heights, but if that kept me from going up stairs that would be a problem.  Itís like spiders and snakes, itís probably best to be afraid by default, probably.  My point is that succumbing to fear is usually not the best idea, despite the fact there is usually plenty to be afraid of.

 

Chapter 3

I was just sitting here thinking about the universe as I do from time to time.  And I remember doing exactly that when I was probably 12 years old.  I used to look at the stars and think about how far away they are, and then Iíd think about how big all of space was.  So letís say that the universe had some Ďsizeí.  Letís call it googolplextra large.  So to measure the full length of the universe youíd need some measuring stick that was at least googolplextra large in length.  It would probably be better to have one that was googolplextra-extra large because usually measuring sticks are bit chipped on the ends so itís best to start measuring at one.  So weíve got this giant measuring stick, ignoring the fact that it doesnít quite Ďfit in the universeí, it would pretty much be impossible to be Ďstraightí whatever that is.

Now Iím sitting here looking out the window on New Yearís Day, 2004.  Everything looks dead even though itís not.  Thereís a tree without its leaves that is kind of swaying back and forth in the wind.  Behind this tree is a row of houses running down the other side of the street, and behind that are several towering evergreens looking very fractal in nature.  The leafless tree swaying back and forth reminded me of the movie ďPiĒ.  It came out a few years back.  Itís this black and white low budget film festival zinger kind of movie.  There were several shots of dead looking leafless trees swaying back and forth.  And what the shots illustrated was the regular nature of nature.  The branches move in a particular pattern, kind of like a pendulum, kind of like a sine wave.  But itís not quite a sine wave.  There is a bit of extra jiggle there from the wind.  So I suppose it would be a sine wave if it wasnít for the wind, but if it wasnít for the wind it wouldnít be moving at all.

This makes me think of those car commercials where they show some fancy looking car in a wind tunnel.  Sometimes thereís someone standing nearby wearing a lab coat and holding something to make them look scientific, like a clipboard.  And of course there is this fast moving stream of smoke running over the fancy looking car showing how sleek you must feel when you actually drive it.  Of course cars are much more aerodynamic than trees.  And that same smoke blowing across a leafless tree on New Yearís Day would not look like a sleek streak across a sports car.  It would be a jumbled mess of swirls jumping around as the tree moves.  Itís like this funky dance that the tree is having with the wind, like this funky dance that everything has with everything else.

But the universe is really big, well at least compared to me, or even the earth.  And the earth is pretty much just flinging around in this ďvacuum of spaceĒ.  Sure, sometimes a rock hits earth and wipes out all of the dominant species in the blink of an eye.  The dinosaurs were cool sounding and all, but what did all those 100ís of millions of years of world domination get them?  A big rock to the earth I guess, and to be outlived by insects and alligators and what not, and to eventually be replaced by these humans as the dominant creatures on earth.  If I was a dinosaur Iíd be pissed.  No, I suppose Iíd be dead.  The fact is that I am actually one of these so called humans and someday Iíll die, maybe even by a meteor, although thatís really unlikely.  But when I do die I doubt Iíll be pissed, well Iíll probably be pissed when I see it coming, but once itís done there is just my aftermath.  Perhaps literally.

But I digressÖ the universe is big, mostly empty, and the earth is flinging around this nearby star called the SunÖ.  It would seem that the Sun probably isnít just sitting there either.  I wonder what itís flinging around?  I suppose itís flinging around the center of the Milky Way, which Iím sure is flinging around something else.  Thatís a lot of flinging.

So letís say that we wanted to send a message across the universe.  Not super far, just like across a narrow part or something, how do we go about doing that?  I remember a few years back the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence or Institute or just SETI for short launched this project for using spare cycles on PCís not being used for surfing the net.  What they did is made a screen saver application that everyone was free to download and install on their computer.  So when I wasnít using my machine, the screen saver would kick in, it would contact a server over at SETI and download a bunch of data that it would analyze and upload the results back again.  What a cool idea.  Just writing about it makes me want to go install the latest version.

If itís so cool why isnít everybody running a SETI application?  I was working at Microsoft when SETI first released this thing.  There were so many people at Microsoft alone doing this that Microsoft allocated dedicated servers just to handle the added network traffic.  Now I donít remember the last time I saw or heard of anyone running the SETI application.  It would seem that people lost interest.  I did.  After a couple of weeks of looking at the data lines being drawn on my computer screen, I got bored.  Besides, the likelihood of my computer actually stumbling across an alien was pretty remote.  The problem is that in order for this scheme to actually work everyone on the planet would probably need to be running this thing, and not for like a couple of weeks or even years, but more like their whole lives.  And even then the chances of finding alien life would be small.  But the thing is, in another 10 years there could be the capability of all of todayís worlds computers compressed into a cell phone.  When you think about it like that it doesnít really make any sense to waste too much effort with todayís computers trying to find E.T.  And the thing is it could be that even if computer technology reaches some limit of capability in the amazing year 1,000,000 that might not be enough to find life elsewhere, even if it exists.

I just read those last couple of paragraphs to my brother and his wife.  Movies are a passion of theirs and we wound up talking about the movie ďContactĒ that came out a few years ago which if you didnít see it was a story written by Carl Sagan about SETI and how the first contact from extra terrestrial intelligence might play out.  In the movie it would seem that these aliens are a lot smarter than we are.  Not just because their message contained these schematics for how to build a billion dollar machine to communicate with them from ďbillions and billionsĒ of miles away as Dr. Sagan always liked to say, but in the movie they actually got the attention of this Jodi Foster or whatever her characterís name was.

So this gets back to the question of how do you go about sending a message across the vacuum of space to intelligent life that might not even be looking for any messages?  So far, as humans weíve done a mediocre job at best of sending such a message.  We send messages into space constantly, but unless youíre a Mars probe sent there by NASA looking for a signal from earth, or an alien that happened to make a TV with a dish antenna aimed straight at us, or the thing that eventually finds the Voyager probe before it gets sucked into a star, youíre probably not going to get our messages.  And those messages weíre sending certainly donít contain any instructions for how to make a billion dollar communicator machine.

So anyway, in this movie ďContactĒ the message at first glance appeared to be a drum beat, something that any human if not a variety of animals should be able to recognize if they heard it.  And as humans weíre also able to count these beats and in that fashion it would seem that these aliens were counting out some numbers in much the same way that a horse might tell you how many bales of hay it wants by stomping its hoof.  But instead of asking for hay the aliens in ďContactĒ were showing the earthlings that they not only new how to count but they counted out a series of prime numbers.  That would kind of suggest that these aliens were not hoof footed horse like creatures asking for hay, but rather intelligent folks that have some concept of mathematics.  In addition each beat contained a bunch of other information including sounds and pictures and schematics for a billion dollar communicator machine. 

 

Chapter 4

In my religion, remembering again that in my religion everyone has their own religion, so in my religion god messed with me, just like it messes with everyone, except this messing happened to me.  I had a religious experience. 

Our neighbors had a toga party.  It was super fun.  I had just grown my goatee shortly before that and apparently beard disguises sometimes really do work, because only a few of our neighbors recognized me and I was often referred to as ĎJesusí.  And the fact of the matter was that I really did sort of look like a typical Jesus painting.  Not sure if that really qualifies as a religious experience.  But then again Iím not sure how it couldnít be.  It seems to me that perhaps every experience is a religious experience.

Granted I did have another experience that was kind of like the toga party, but without the togas or the party.  I had this realization that in my religionís interpretation of Christianity everyone is Jesus.  Well, more like a reflection of Jesus.  And when sporting a toga I apparently look like how people think he looked.  Which in all likelihood isnít what he looked like at all.

So this guy Jesus was supposedly born of godÖ had a messageÖ not obvious how to get that message out.  These days heíd probably have a website.  In fact, if he didnít have a website he probably wouldnít wind up being the ďReal JesusĒ I suppose.  I wonder what would go on his website?  Probably some stuff about God and stuff.  These days Iím pretty sure heíd need some detailed medical records to convince anyone of the whole virgin birth thing.  Even if he did have medical records they can still be faked.

 

Chapter 5

Somewhere along the way someone drew a simple line drawn fish that somehow became synonymous with Jesus.  You can still see them in churches and attached church related things like on the backs of cars.  Then people started putting words and stuff inside them and thatís when things went crazy.  For a while there were a million different flavors of these fish riding around on the backs of cars.  Thereís one that has a couple of legs added to it with ĎDarwiní written inside it.  That was pretty clever.  I personally had one that said ĎPhishí inside it.  I liked the quasi-redundancy.  But I think the best one that I saw was slightly oversized and said ĎJesusí on the inside of it, but it had its mouth wide open with big jagged teeth and it was about to eat a small version of the two legged ĎDarwiní fish.  Iím a little confused as to what the message is, and thatís what I like about it.  It seems like they could be suggesting that Jesus, as the higher life form, somehow devours Darwin, ironically in a very Darwinian fashion.  Itís kind of hard to tell whether the folks that made that one are from the Jesus camp or the Darwin camp.  It would be awesome if they were from the Darwin camp, because most of the people sporting it are probably from the Jesus camp.

 

Chapter 6

During my 7 year stay with the Microsoft machine I had a number of different roles.  When I was first hired in the mid 90ís it was to work on a new database query engine that Microsoft was planning on using in all of their products that needed a database engine, which is probably most if not all of their products.  In graduate school I had the experience of writing a query optimizer.  As far as Iím concerned it is by far the most interesting part of a database management system.  It turns out that a good number of people in databases felt the same way because when this new team got reorged into Microsoftís bread and butter database product.  It turned out there were more than enough PhDs lined up against my Masters to build this new optimizer and I wound up relegated to esoteric backwards compatibility issues and other comparably mundane sounding tasks.

I gradually faded into Microsoft SQL Server obscurity.  Once I stopped being thanked for my largely thankless role I jumped off the database ship and I found myself a position in Microsoft Research doing funky Star Trek kind of stuff.  It was the height of the .com boom of the late nineties and research money seemed to be more or less free.  So the next thing I know Iím learning how to write computer vision software with the lofty goal of giving computers artificial sight.

How does one go about teaching a machine to see?  Start with the eyeball I suppose.  These days half the cell phones you buy have cameras on them.  I guess the eyeball part turned out to be easy.  Iím of course not about to swap out my eyeballs for video cameras.  Yet.  It might be cool to get some new eyeballs that can see infrared or something, or maybe ones that record what you see and feed that into your new fangled TV and maybe give you some highlights from your day, or remind you to put something in your calendar like ďget more milk.Ē  If your refrigerator didnít already notice that you were out of milk maybe your fake eyes saw you run out and in cooperation with your new fangled TV will get milk automatically onto your shopping list or maybe the shopping list that SomeGroceryStore.com keeps for you and maybe even handles stocking your fridge for you.  Sounds sort of like having a milkman, or living inside a robot.

It turns out that there are quite a number of effective yet error prone techniques for machines to recognize people and activities.  At Microsoft I worked on the narrow subset of computer vision which was to try to track the physical location of people in a restricted space.  But then we found that we wanted to keep track of where other things were too besides people, like computer displays and keyboards and furniture and walls.  And before too long I found myself on the slippery slope of trying to model the physical universe in a relational database.  Just categorizing everything into types of things is a slippery slope.  Why are there so many slippery slopes?

 

Chapter 9

I was just thinking how god talks to me constantly.  Unfortunately it speaks this strange dialog of something that seems to have something to do with quantum mechanics and physics and string theory and everything built on top of that, like airports and laptop computers.  So sometimes it says things like release 197,876,342 molecules of serotonin from that neuron I made fire, you know like a microsecond ago, and then after that write some stuff on your computer, but get the numbers all wrong.

You ever wonder why there were only 10 commandments?  It seems like thereís probably one or two more that would have come in handy too, or why not a billion of them?  A billion would probably be too confusing, but for humans 10 would probably make sense.  That way we could count them on our fingers and that would help us keep track of them.  If there were a couple more that were really that important weíd probably sprout a couple more fingers given enough time.  But then again why isnít there just like one or two commandments?  Theyíd probably have to be long and confusing commandments like ďdonít kill anyone, unless their trying to kill you, and even then you might think about using a non-lethal defense like a headlock or if youíre not strong enough try something else that seems like it might work, but if you do kill them in spite of that try to get a good lawyerÖ.Ē

Since I wrote that last paragraph I got on a plane that is now heading to Hartford from OíHare.  Iíve been sitting here waiting for the plane to take off so that I could get some ideas written down.  Somebody in the seat behind me kept touching the top of my head with his newspaper, so then after the plane took off I leaned my seat back just to kind of get in his face.  He shifted around and managed to get the top of his newspaper kind of jabbed into the colic on the top of my head.  I figured oh well, eventually heíll take it away.  But eventually I was allowed to get out my computer which served to get my head away from the newspaper, and as I was reaching for my bag to get my computer the guy by the window asked me to move so he could get out to use the lavatory.  I stood up and saw the guy behind me, and it turned out that he appeared to be a rabbi, not that I could recognize one for sure, but he was wearing the little hat.  Kind of funny that I was reaching for my bag to write some things about physics and religion and people with newspapers and so on and the guy behind me bugging me with his newspaper looks like a rabbi.

So what the hell is god telling me with that little stunt? 

You may have noticed that sometimes I capitalize God and sometimes I donít?  When I refer to my concept of god I donít capitalize it, it just doesnít seem to make sense to.  I also call it it.  That last sentence has two its in it in a row.  The computer doesnít like it and has underlined it in red like a school teacher corrects your grammar.  If I had set some option in Word I bet it would have ďfixedĒ it automatically and completely changed the meaning in the process.  Heck, in a few years maybe you can get a hacked version of Word that actually does your homework for you.  Maybe I can keep writing and by the time I get to chapter 1,008 my new computer at the time will just take up from where I leave off.

I remember talking to my old friend Gregg some years ago about how he was banking on somehow migrating his soul into a machine before he dies.  It might not be that outlandish, the boundaries between man and machine are getting thinner and more seamless every day.  It will probably still be a while before Greggís concept of becoming a cyborg with memory packs in his hat is a reality, but I bet if a robot from the future observed his life there would probably come a day when another robot from the future could do a pretty accurate interactive simulation of Gregg.  Version 1 would probably be more like talking to Gregg on a video phone as opposed to the version that you can play tennis with.  The plane Iím on is to go visit Gregg in Massachusetts.  Coincidence?  I hope itís the original Gregg and not the video phone version.

It seems to me that god talks to everyone, itís just that itís so boring much of the time.  Itís stuff like ďwake upĒ, ďyouíre hungry, find some foodĒ, ďgo have sexĒ.  Oh wait, sex rocks!  Alright, now godís saying ďlay off I invented sex didnít I?Ē

 

Chapter 10

I got into this heated debate with my friend Jake about science and religion.  His view was that science and religion are two different beasts and that eventually science will win out over religion, which ironically made science sound like a religion itself.  He argued that science was based on math which he viewed as cut and dry, thus making science superior or at least closer to the truth than religion.  But what if given enough time science and religion would come to the same conclusions, or at least conclusions that were so similar that religion would be considered a science and vice versa?  Besides, math is not that cut and dry.

So this discussion led me to formalize my belief system.  It turns out that my belief system seems to be based on one simple assumption, and that is that if the universe consisted of one single particle trucking through space you could deduce where that atom is at any point in time simply from what time it is.  Of course position seems to lose meaning in a universe with no reference points.  So letís say that we have two particles in the universe.  The same thing still applies, given the time, any time, one could deduce the positions of both of those particles, at least now they have a reference point, namely each other.  And no matter how many particles there are in the universe, letís say there are n particles in the universe, then my previous statements also apply if the universe had n+1 particles.  Based on my knowledge of math that is whatís called an inductive proof that the universe is deterministic.

So when people start talking about math, inductive proofs, and so on most people kind of get a glazed look and assume that math is beyond them and then ascribe some great truth to it because there are institutions full of people that have been studying it for centuries if not millenniums and a lot of them seem to agree with each other, but as it turns out a lot of them also disagree and fight with each other.  Kind of sounds like religion.

How can a mathematical proof be wrong?  What would make my little proof here that the universe is deterministic wrong.  Math proofs canít be wrong, can they?  Isnít that really what math is about?  Actually math proofs are as true and only as true as the assumptions that they are based on.  This one is based on the assumption that two particles traveling through space in a universe consisting only of those two particles would be deterministic or at least something close to it.  I believe that to be true, but I am neither a physicist, nor an oracle and my assumption may be false and I encourage anyone to convince me one way or the other.  Until then I will base all of my assumptions on the fact that I believe that to be true.

 

Chapter 11

Iíve been having a series of rare coincidences over the period of about the last 3 months.  When one coincidence happens it usually makes us laugh, make a joke, jinx.  A couple times in a row, thatís really funny.  More than that, it gets a little creepy, and once you get past creepy it becomes expected.  Over the last couple of weeks itís been on the order of an average of 2 to 3 noteworthy coincidences per day, and the more it happens the more it makes sense that it is happening.  I hope it continues for a long time because Iíll miss it when it stops.

Iíve always liked the idea of having a calling.  I never really knew what it meant.  I never felt that I had a calling.  I seem to be able to do most things that I set my mind to, but that doesnít seem like a calling.  It doesnít exactly roll off the tongue either.  ďMy calling is to do most of the things that I set my mind to.Ē  If I was a politician and I said that, I wouldnít vote for me.  And then out of what should have been someplace obvious but seemed like nowhere came a calling.  It is glaringly obvious yet allusive and self defeating.  It mocks me.

I just realized another coincidence.  I started having this strange religious experience.  One that Iím not sure I like even being called a ďreligious experienceĒ because it is like it is too literal to be a real religious experience, whatever that it.  If I were to design the nature of my own religious experience I probably wouldnít throw in a bunch of silly coincidences.  But then when I think about it I wouldnít be having a religious experience if I didnít remind myself of Jesus ďpicturesĒ.  If I happened to remind myself of Elvis perhaps Iíd be having an Elvisian experience?

So a few months ago I start having this all too literal religious experience, for lack of a better description.  Then I start having all these strange coincidences, and now there is this Mel Gibson mega-blockbuster film coming out which as Mr. Gibson put it, is how it happened.  I wonder if they got the local vegetation right?  Even if they did their homework into what the local vegetation may have looked like, it wouldnít be exact.  So this film is trying to show something.  I havenít seen it yet, so Iíll just guess based on all the hype, and there is plenty of that.  Biblical hype if I may be so bold and literal to say.  How do you tell a story, any story, exactly as it happened?  Letís say CNN was there 2000 years ago covering the actual crucifixion and they put together a news segment on it.  And letís say that they knew it was going to be a big deal, so they had a good handful of cameras there.  Better yet, letís say that there were a pile of mini spy cameras planted around town that managed to capture some good footage of the event.  Because in all likelihood, half a dozen CNN camera crews would have been so distracting that I doubt any crucifixions would have happened that day. 

So letís say that we had a pile of high resolution video complete with surround sound from 20 cameras placed discretely around Jerusalem.  What would come of all that footage?  Of course it would have been combed over for the last 2000 years and CNN in cooperation with NBC, HBO, Miramax, the United States, the Catholic Church, and every other academic, religious, and governmental institution on the planet could produce a month long mini series using only original footage and audio.  It still couldnít explain exactly what happened.

I just surfed the net to find some info on ďThe Passion of ChristĒ and found an article from last fall telling about the actor playing Jesus getting struck by lightning during the filming of the movie.  And to I think Iím having a ďreligious experienceĒ?  Can you imagine being dressed up like Jesus, complete with cross, thorny crown, the highest quality gore money can buy all over you, and then to get struck by lightning?  Holy crap!  Apparently an assistant director also got struck by lightning during the filming, twice!  Maybe people get hit by lightning a lot around there?

It would seem that his apparent religious experience dove tailed nicely into mine.  What are the chances?  From my perspective it seems mighty unlikely, although with all that is going on in the world including a mega blockbuster movie about the crucifixion of Jesus it seems I might not be the only one to have had some sort of post 9/11 religious experience recently.  Everyoneís religious experience manifests itself in different ways.  Of all the folks alive today who happen to bear a resemblance to some visual conception of the evolved historical figure known as Jesus, it is inevitable that some of us would have some vaguely yet textbook type of religious experience.  What I find so interesting about it is that for me it seems to be this sort of melding of everything Iíve been taught and learned and observed.  Everything Iíve ever learned is wrong.  Someone has told me that before, or at least something like it.  How could everything Iíve ever learned possibly be wrong?  Iím sure there is some sort of truth out there, perhaps.  So letís say that everything that everyone has ever learned is indeed wrong.  How is it possible to believe that statement?  To believe that statement is to have learned something, and by its own declaration it is wrong.  So if that statement is wrong it would seem to follow that I must have learned something by now that is true.  That would be a much easier answer.

Itís this sort of boiling up of lack of understanding, which ironically smacks of understanding.  

 

Chapter 12

Iíve been playing chess a bit lately.  My chess game is ok.  Anybody that knows anything about chess can usually beat me pretty easily, but sometimes I get lucky.  My buddy Jake is probably a better player than I am.  A nice thing about chess is that you donít have to be that evenly matched to still enjoy the game.  In fact apparently Jake played this giggly teenage girl at a coffee shop who proceeded to slay him at chess, laughing at the moves that Jake was making.  ďWhy would you do that move?  Hehehe  Jake is a smart guy who knows how to play chess, but this girl knew how to play chess.  How is it that this girl who doesnít have anywhere near the life experience of Jake can clean his clock at chess?

I remember when Kasparov was playing against IBMís Deep Blue some years ago.  There was all this hoopla about it; or rather it was all hoopla.  I think Deep Blue won one game, but Kasparov called out human tampering whatever that is, especially considering that the machine was made by humans, in their quest for hoopla surrounding whatís known as man against machine.  I bet Deep Blue could beat that giggly girl that beat Jake.  I bet that girl could ride a bike better than Deep Blue, but in another 2 to 10 years there may be a computer that no human can beat at chess.  Chess shmess.  I doubt there is any one person alive today that could do a better job of accounting than the massive database engine that Wal-Mart uses which can probably handle anywhere from hundreds of thousands to millions of transactions per second while doing a pile of other stuff too.

Iím still mighty impressed that it takes a giant multibillion dollar company like IBM to even come close to beating a chess champion at a finite game.  It seems like it will be a lot harder to teach a machine to ride a childís bike than to win at chess against Kasparov.  Meanwhile Sony and Honda are launching their own version of man against machine.  They are both throwing a lot of energy into humanoid robotics.  Sony has this little two foot tall humanoid robot that walks and talks and picks itself up, which is not far at all from one that picks up after us.  Before that will probably be one that kind of follows you around that you talk to and it talks to you.  That one is already being made.  And not only will it know your name, it will know your schedule and remind you to do things, like go out and buy the new robot model that can now pick up after you.  It will listen to you and answer your questions, kind of like Google, but instead of a few key words it will have a context of your conversation allowing you to make more sophisticated, yet casual queries.  More like talking to a person whoís been in the house since you got home, participating in conversation while wirelessly mainlined into the collective consciousness we know as the Internet.  It seems like it might be a better idea to just cram all of the killer features that donít require locomotion into a really small package that fits inside your cell phone.  Iím sure there are people working on that too.  The features creep in.    

What is conventional wisdom?  How does wisdom become conventional?  How does the conventional become wisdom?  For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  In schools this is taught in physics as Newtonís Third Law of Motion.  I was never given any reason to question it.  In fact I still donít, because as far as Iím concerned it doesnít matter whether it is actually true even if there is such a thing as actually true.  It would seem to be true enough that very few people really question it.  And for those few super physicists out there that donít think it is true I wonder what would be gained by debunking Newtonian physics.  What if everything gets debunked?  And in the end, whatever that was that debunked everything will also be debunked.  The universe is undebunkable

Everything falls apart.

 

Chapter 13

Where did the word metaphor come from?  What does it mean?  In grade school I was taught that a metaphor was like a simile but instead of saying that something is like something else, itís saying that something is something else.  Why are there so many metaphors?

As I write this I review and revise what I have already written, changing its meaning but meaning to change.  Donít believe anything that you read.  Or is it everything? 

I almost tried starting at the beginning of my life, but I donít really remember that part of my life very well.  Who knows maybe through the magic of word processors this will wind up at the end?  If there is an end.  Or not.

I guess that wasnít the end.

 

Chapter 14

I remember seeing some early computer animation for the first time sometime in the late 80ís.  It was called ďState of the Art Computer AnimationĒ.  You couldnít call it something like that anymore, it would need to be called ďState of the Art Man and Machine AnimationĒ or just ďLord of the RingsĒ for short.

The late 80ís wasnít that long ago, and although ďState of the Art Computer AnimationĒ was no ďLord of the RingsĒ, it was impressive for the time, at least to a computer geek like me.  It was a collection of very short clips of computer animation.  It was too time consuming and costly to make them very long.  One was a single point of view of a coastline, complete with crashing waves.  Despite the fact that the water looked a little metallic, it was pretty dead on.  And thatís when something started to dawn on me.  It made perfect sense.  A coastline is based on the physics of water, rocks, and sand which is based on the same math that the physics of silicon, electricity, and software is based.

Religion is perhaps one of many ways in which the universe becomes self aware.  It is also one of the first in terms of the evolution of human thought.  How in the hell could god possibly talk to anyone, let alone everyone?  How could god explain itself especially to earlier cultures?  How could god tell us that smoking cigarettes is bad for us?  Perhaps it would create an awareness about the negative impact of cigarettes that would ultimately manifest itself in the form of a warning on the side of the pack.  A problem is that it would seem that god doesnít know whether cigarettes are bad for us or not because the nicotine gives us a pleasurable buzz, yet thereís a warning clearly written on the pack.  Granted if you smoke too many of them the buzz stops coming and instead you just get agitated when you want one, then ultimately lung cancer.  I think there is a message of moderation in there somewhere.

 

Chapter 15

A while ago I was contemplating the fact that I had just bought a $39 box from Best Buy that had in it a VCR, a DVD/CD player, MP3 player, TV tuner, etc. and that it could easily be in the ranks of an 8 track player within the next few years.  How could it be that this box exists at all let alone that it also costs so little and will be obsolete so soon?  Thatís when I decided it was a manifestation of god.  And this is how I came to that conclusion.

When I stopped to think about it I realized that this VCR/DVD/CD/MP3 box is a manifestation of humans.  And if humans are a manifestation of god and the concept of manifestation is transitive, which I donít see why it wouldnít be, then that would indeed make that box I bought at Best Buy a manifestation of god.  Or is it God?

 

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