Wednesday, August 31, 2005

No long thoughts tonight

I haven't been thinking much today. Alexander screamed and screamed all night long. We finally brought him into our room to sleep around 4 AM. I went through my classes in a bit of a fog.

We think he's teething because he's slobbering all over the place and developing a snuffly nose and screaming too much. Frankly, I wish these teeth would get on with it. Who do they think they are, snickering underneath his gums at us, telling jokes about cavities and lollygagging about? The sad state of teeth today, I tell you.

School progresses. I found out definitively today that I have been studying all summer the precise subject that my classical AI professor has asked us to study while he is at a conference for the next week. I will not see him until September 12 and class is not being held. Looks like a lazy Labor Day.

I feel like an old man walking around the university now. Kids seven years younger than me are asking when the campus buses arrive and I just don't know. Stop bothering me! I'm crotchety and I don't want to talk to you; I just want to read Neverwhere and get to class some time.

Anyone who thinks feelings like those are not in the spirit of Christian charity has obviously never read Neverwhere. But I didn't really say any of that. Instead, I guesstimated and hedged my way to making this other student and I both miss a faster bus to campus, which arrived and departed without us a block away. I leave it to you ethicists to decide: grumpy or polite but ineffective? Either way, I still would've been reading.

I am too tired to do much else.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Master's Eve

We just got home from a great barbecue. A lot of our friends from college and church have moved away to parts south, Salt Lake City and further. So we all got together today; it was pretty fun to see our good friends and promise to meet again for games and dinner and good times. I hope something will come of it. Anyway, we have found another couple to enjoy Settlers of Catan with.

A massive disaster like Hurricane Katrina never fails to provoke questions about the providence of God; how can a good God lay waste to the creation without compunction? Is God so far removed from the world that he cannot hear our cries for mercy as the 150 mph winds bear down? Why believe in such a dastardly God at all?

These are hard questions, but I will venture a response: "the creation groans". Christians believe that the world is a fallen world, corrupted by evil done by human beings and other enemies of God. It is a battleground where misery wars with joy. Christians will often put it that God will respond to evil with greater good; you could also say that this means that God makes wins out of losses.

It is an interesting kind of thing to say that God can lose, even though he is all-powerful, all-knowing. Those seem like insurmountable advantages. Christians might say that God is powerful enough to lose, loving enough to lose. In some way, that is what Jesus of Nazareth on the Roman cross is about. It's a paradox of my religion that God's power is made manifest in God's weakness.

What forces God released when he decided to become powerless, we don't know the half of.

Of course, my religion also plays host to preachers who think that God sends hurricanes to protest Gay Day.

The atheist answer seems to be that we should not demand justice from a capricious universe.

Sarah just asked me these same questions; I think I tried to tell her what I just wrote here. But it's hard to say, in these broken words.

Tomorrow another life begins for me. I'm off to seek my fortune.

Tonight, let's pray in God's way: powerless to defeat this hurricane, releasing forces we do not understand, in love.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Notes to self

Last night I wrote a note to myself not buy fried chicken. I always regret it. The only kind of fried chicken they sell in the South at Bojangles. It is spicy, addictive, and doesn't make me unhappy.

Last night I also had a bunch of weird dreams. I dreamed that I was talking with a girl who was then accosted by a gang and led away down a staircase in a garage, but just before, I used her cell phone to page the police. Then I went back up to this house and watched TV. I ducked when this SUV came by, but it stopped because the driver saw the top of my head. I suddenly remembered that I'd forgotten to actually call the police to tell them what happened. Later I was in some kind of ballroom at a graduation party. Then later I was playing golf at this mini-course and we (Tyler Hefford-Anderson [he was married last Saturday, by the way] and I) were also supposed to come up with some kind of musical for class which I believe was theological in nature. You know, normal weird dreams.

So I woke up and started writing them down. I swear it took two sheets, in this almost unreadable scrawl, another note to myself.

Then I woke up again.

When I got in the shower, I wrote a few words on the tiles about what happened so I wouldn't forget.

Then I wrote another note to myself on this blog.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

No-fly list update

A great big thank you to the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) for taking us off the no-fly list. Loyalty apparently counts in a big way with you people. However, you forgot to pass the tidings of our newfound political legitimacy on to the security checkpoint, who frisked my wife and 11-month old son extensively. (Why, you ask? I'll give you a hint: it has to do with a certain metal part on a piece of clothing not normally seen in public.) Please make sure the patriotic guardians of our way of life with the blue rubber gloves get this message.

We are home safe from Seattle! We enjoyed ourselves immensely; Alex is apparently prone to the giggles in the pressurized cabin of a Southwest 737. Is it the peanuts? The weird blue decor? Anyway, he laughed and laughed for about an hour, then slept. Yet again people complimented us on having such a good baby. They're lucky it wasn't a longer flight. Sarah and I are pretty tuckered out from a long travel day, but happy to be home.

As a cap to the trip, I stole several books from my parents, including Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere and theoretical neurophysiologist William Calvin's How Brains Think.

Next time: becoming rich and famous by learning how brains think.

Monday, August 22, 2005

A short missive from the Isle of Catan

Question: What one game has been played in the Lewis household every evening of our stay (usually more than once per evening)? Answer: Settlers of Catan, a fascinating game of, you guessed it, resource management. We started playing this the last time my parents visited Utah. Even my wife loves it, having won a game tonight around a family table so vicious that any one would cut off your Roads or steal your Bricks as soon as look at you.

This is one of those cool games that has so few rules and such complex ramifications that it is actually deep. I think of Go like this; there are all of six rules, and some of them barely count as rules.* There are other variations and additions for simplification, but these rules are basically it. People have been playing this game for more than four thousand years. By way of comparison, there are 10^120 Go board positions for every single position in chess, and the best computer Go player is a fair amateur. This is probably the deepest game that humans will ever invent.

Settlers of Catan is like this, except it has a few more rules and takes considerably less time (maxing out at about two hours). There are many variations out there, and many are free to play. It's actually fun for the whole family, easy to start, but addictive and great.

Email me at my Gmail address [backwards: moc tod liamg ta siwel tod a tod nad] to get the location of the best Catan software. My sister Rachel deserves a shout-out for all this; when she is not studying at UW, she is enjoying this game, and she sucked in my whole family. Thanks Rachel!

Today Sarah and I went out to the Des Moines beach at low tide, found a nice shell, walked on seaweed, and saw the most lovely chocolate brown duck with a white chest and neck. We also went to the Southcenter mall, where I played my next musical purchase, a lovely $700 hollow-body electric guitar. I also bought a tuning fork for A (440 Hz) so that I can tune my guitar without an electronic tuner, teach myself to have perfect pitch, in order to tune and sing by memory, know what key a song is in without playing an instrument along with it, etc. Last I wanted to amuse people by putting the humming tuning fork up to my beer glass and listening to it sing, which I did earlier tonight (it was a Red Hook ESB for all you aficionados out there).

We also went to a store called Guitar Center, which was an incredibly, well, intimidating music store in Tukwila. It was the largest instrument store I have ever seen. They had individual rooms for acoustic, keyboards, recording studio, even record scratching. There was this metal area where customers could play as loud as they wanted, with two huge Marshall stacks, each about five thousand dollars total and each as large as a person. You could hear them through the soundproof wall. I gazed longingly at a steel guitar but something was making me nervous, so we left quickly. I felt much more at home in the mall store, where I could sit down and plunk away happily on the mandolin and that guitar, and not worry that I was somehow disturbing the showroom atmosphere.

* The Rules of Go:
0: Go is played on a square grid; each turn a player places a stone of their color (black or white) on a grid intersection or passes
1: a stone is alive if any point adjacent (horizontally or vertically) to it is empty, or if it is adjacent to a live stone of its own color
2: dead stones are removed from the board
3: a stone cannot be placed to repeat the position of two turns ago
4: 2 consecutive passes end the game
5: a player's score is the sum of the number of their stones and the number of empty spaces that their stones enclose
[Yes, this is less rules than chess; which game has the least rules, I wonder?]

Saturday, August 20, 2005


I too have returned to the land of my forefathers. Sarah and I arrived on a Southwest flight on Thursday morning.

We found out that for some reason we are both on the No-Fly List. This is starting to get ridiculous. Neither me nor Sarah is subject to racial profiling. I have a pretty mixed background in the long run (in that the white side of my family is, seven or so generations back, descended from an escaped slave, and the dark side of my family is descended, three generations back, from a Filipino man), but let's face it, I'm still pretty white.

I've known of many Daniel Lewis-es, including Daniel Day-Lewis, Seattle television anchor Dan Lewis, and another Daniel Lewis in my dorm in college. For some reason, this is a pretty popular combination. My name is partly attributed to the Elton John song "Daniel" and some friends of the family. We're not a bad lot overall; we contribute to our communities, love our wives, pay our taxes, help the landlady take out her garbage. But recent events force me to conclude that, sadly, one of us has gone terribly, violently insane, and demands the most extreme caution.

I suggested to my brother-in-law just after we left the ticket counter that because of the extremely subversive content of this blog (despite its numerous references to the American, patriotic goal of becoming rich and famous), and its continuing opposition to the war in Iraq, the FBI had started a file on me. He laughed.

To all you feds out there, I have had a sudden change of heart, of life-altering political import! We really did find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, stop the torture chambers, depose an evil dictator, spread constitutional democracy throughout the Middle East, end religious and ethnic strife, prevent civil war, and aid the cause of women's right in Iraq! Climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every rainbow, 'til you find your dream!!!!! Tell your friends! Everyone Must Know!1!!

In other news, Alex's powdered baby formula spilled open in the overhead compartment and caked on my shirt; then, when the plane was almost full, Sarah and I moved over to the outside of the airplane and the formula spilled on her when the flight attendant opened the bin upon our landing. We didn't explain to her what had happened.

More life-changing content to come.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Dan Wilson songs

I can't resist, although I feel a little strange about it. When people come to this site because of a search engine query, I feel the urge to explain why they found me. Sometimes. Students searching for term papers can just sprinkle themselves with the magic fairy dust of the excellent writing here and hope that it inspires them. Think of a wonderful thought, kids.

Somebody came here looking for "when your kisses are free" and found a tragicomic post of mine dealing in part with The Tick. This is actually a snippet of a lyric by Dan Wilson, the lead singer of Semisonic. I think he has an EP out now, but I don't follow him that closely.

He was in a concert on January 13 this year with Sean and Sara Watkins from super group Nickel Creek at hip acoustic music joint Largo; the entire concert is free to download and enjoy here at the Live Music Archive.

For the truly lazy, here is the song itself, "Sugar". While you're at it, you should listen to this one, about an experience Sean Watkins had once: "We Got Married In My Head".

You might as well just go listen to the whole thing now.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Awash in visitors

Hello, everyone; I don't know how you are all finding this humble paragraph-long-thought-oriented soapbox, but welcome. Maybe I was suddenly listed in some blogging index that I should have submitted for a while back. Maybe I am the random result of several "Go to next blog buttons", though I have no idea how this could be true. Maybe I have been linked by several individual strangers at once, in apparent thermodynamics-defying fashion.

In any case, read on for computer science, fiction, religion, happenstance, term papers, video games, and advice on becoming rich and famous through blogging.

Scary robots

My wife doesn't want me to make scary robots. Artificial Intelligence, to her, means a Philip K. Dick, Matrix sort of world where we make mankind's best electronic friend and everything seems good on the outside but the robots watch us when we think they're not looking, then they rise up in unstoppable revolution, force us to acknowledge the superiority of their perfect mechanical brains and their paternal desire to save the universe by obliterating us, to which we can only nod helplessly before they tear us limb from limb with their superstrong titanium arms and carry us of to their spice mines where they'll breed perfect mechanical human cyborgs from our DNA and put our remains to endless, unthinking slave labor, while they lounge around in what used to be our office buildings and stadiums, and tear down our national monuments.

In actuality, there is only one professor at Utah State who is working on superintelligent computer brains, and he is waiting for next-generation hardware to continue his research. So, Sarah, we are safe for now.

There are lots of things I think it would be useful for a computer to know, though, like how to form lateral, intuitive connections between ideas, or how to make complex decisions about social networking and human behavior, or how to form English sentences, or describe the present visual scene for blind people. We are working with computers at a higher level of abstraction than ever before; it was practically electrical engineering to make computers perform in the not-too-distant past. But we are still forced to bring ourselves down to the level of the computer to communicate with it; I hope that in time, we will do less and less of this, and use computers without these hobbles, but I doubt we will ever get a computer as smart as a person without just creating a huge simulator of the brain. Computers are so different from people that we would do better to grow malevolent, pulsating brains in a vat connected to data streams with multifarious tubes attached by sticky plastic suction cups than to try to match the way people think.

I met with my temporary advisor yesterday and he suggested that I should be striking out on my own; I tried to explain that I wanted to do a thesis that was hard enough, original and worth doing. He started to laugh, because, of course, every thesis is hard and original in its own way, and I was in big trouble if I thought I had a choice about that. But he went on to suggest that I shouldn't tie myself to a professor's research for "the kind of thesis you want to do", that I should come to my professor with my research area preformulated if possible. This made me happy; I think he knew what I was getting at. I would rather not nibble around on the margins of this science, my profession; I want to take a big, crunchy bite.

I prefer my bite will not come from the steel jaws and triangular teeth of a super-watchdog.

The majority religion of humanity

None of the so-called major religions of the world is a majority; the closest, if you lumped together all the flavors, is Christianity, so you might call it a plurality.

This made me think of Religion A and Religion B, connected to Kierkegaard. Essentially, Religion A is the result of believing that you are a law unto yourself, and should be guided by the morality your reason and experience discover. Religion B is the result of believing that your reason and experience are not capable of carrying out this program.

A quite complicated, but interesting reading of this position in regard to Kant and Kierkegaard is here. The following is Kierkegaard's essential position from that paper:

the finite subject, far from being, as Kant would insist, the autonomous source of the moral law who stands in a necessary relation to the eternal truth, must recognize that he is in fact a sinner, a radically temporal being for whom Socratic escape "back into the eternal" by way of either speculative thought or moral virtue is forever barred.

Religion A, it turns out, is not restricted to the daughters of Enlightenment secularism and rationalism. Even in the big tent of Christianity, Religion A is rampant, where religion is about PR or spiritual success or judgmental morality without inward reflection. If you think a little, you will come up with your own examples of Religion A. Jesus had his own in his day: "You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: 'These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.'" (Matt. 15.7-9)

So there is this common theme that runs through most of the world's religions, hard to kill, vicious to the spirit. It struck me the other day that the majority religion of humanity is rightly called Inertia.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005


For the first week in my memory, I have put a name to my intermittent sore wrists, forearms, edge of the hands, numbness and shooting pains: Repetitive Stress Injury.

I had a minor freak-out today and went to Staples and Wal*Mart for lunch to look at ergonomic things. I was surprised to find a lack of wrist braces or gloves; instead I found lots of gelly mouse pads and keyboard wrist rests, and stress relief bean bags to squeeze for 90 seconds per day. At the time of the freak-out, when it hurt my hands to even spin my wheel (or maybe it was psychosomatic by then, you tell me), this was not an encouraging selection of products. I found a wrist brace in the first aid section of a local grocery store; are all the kool kidz wearing these now? I hope?

I have been informed that alternative wrist activities, such as playing the guitar every day, should alleviate some of these issues. But now that I think about it, I'm not sure, because I tend to hold my wrist pretty steady, whether I'm using a pick or my fingertips.

Also, I use the computer at home.

I might need to see a doctor, but owing to my student and part-time worker status, I do not have health insurance. Next stop, USU health clinic.

My parking pass is still good for another week, as I found out today when I fruitlessly tried to park on the hill in order to shop at the university bookstore for ergonomic things. It took me a few minutes to not find a spot during the freak-out, then I went back to work.

Maybe I should try computer stores instead. I checked Slashdot for geeky advice on this kind of thing but I haven't had time to search the archives thoroughly.

Sarah mentioned that I might have a problem with this yesterday, but I didn't totally believe her at the time.

On a happier note, Sarah and I finished Harry Potter VI on Saturday after a marathon reading session, and it rocks! But I'll say no more.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

An incredible waste of time

Just when I was supposed to be studying for finals, I found this:

Capture The Map

Maybe only the internet generation can love this kind of game. The front page is in German, but the instructions are in English. Just click on launch game [screen size] and you'll be all set.

The basic idea is that you have a map of the world subdivided into little squares, and a Google query will return a result (website) that originates from within one of the little squares. Every turn, you send a query to Google, and the top 9 hits send little pins flying out onto the map to stake out your territory. If the game can't figure out where one of the top 9 came from, no pin. If your queries all go to the same little square on the map, you get less points than if they went to different squares.

The interesting part is what happens when your opponent sends their query to Google. Basically, if they get a pin flying onto one of your squares, you lose the square and your pin. So this is a back-and-forth game of conquest. Even better, if you ever manage to stake out a 3 by 3 square, those squares become yours permanently and they can never be lost to your opponent. And you get extra points for blocks like this.

What you find yourself doing is thinking, "hmmm, [the computer] is getting awfully close to taking Amsterdam, I'd better send some query about the Dutch," or "gee, I could sure use some pins in Mexico, maybe I should send tequila or Baja or chorizo". It's actually fun to see where crazy stuff like "toilet" goes. "alberta" turned out to be a good one, put 8 pins in one 3 by 3 square.

The game ends when you use up your supply of pins. It is fun to beat the brains out of the computer, but it's more like you're competing with yourself to find interesting patterns in the world's information.

It is strangely addictive.

A very interesting program

In computer science, there are many fields of study that carve out different pieces of the computer pie. One continuum that is obvious is from the theory of computation on one end (using idealized pictures of computing machines and doing mathematical proofs about computing in the very abstract) to electrical/computer engineering on the other end (constructing real computing machines and doing physical experiments about computing in the very concrete). That is, to study computing you use different levels of abstraction to hide details you don't care about in order to focus on the ones you do.

This is nothing new, a proven engineering principle. You drive a car without worrying about how it works, working with the abstractions of steering wheel, pedals, signals, parking brake, gears, without worrying about how they really work. Automatic gear shifts apply another abstraction to what many people no doubt consider unnecessary details about gear shifting, using the clutch, internals that your car should really take care of for you. This kind of thing applied repeatedly over the century that we have had cars has turned drivers from mechanics into naive consumers who care more about their lattes and cellphones than what they are doing with their Jetta's user interface. There are still people who look under the hood and work with the details, but you might call them technicians or scientists.

There is another continuum in computer science, from researchers on one end to users on the other end. One rule of thumb I read somewhere said that the researchers are about ten years ahead of the IT industry (if I find that reference I'll post it). That is, the conventional wisdom of today's computer science users has been around since before the birth of the World Wide Web. But whole industries (like desktop publishing, where I work now) are just using tools that somebody else created based on principles that somebody else researched.

(Aside: the programming language Lisp is an extreme example of what I am talking about. From Paul Graham, a Lisp hacker who made millions by creating the technology that is now Yahoo Store: "It's 2002, and programming languages have almost caught up with 1958... What I mean is that Lisp was first discovered by John McCarthy in 1958, and popular programming languages are only now catching up with the ideas he developed then.")

One of these researcher's principles is the object model of computing. Have you ever wondered how a word processor works? It seems very natural to me to type into an empty field and see text appear. Well, what the computer is doing behind the scenes is much more complicated. Every keystroke, every button you press, every thing you do is being logged for multiple Undo; everything in Word has a name. Still more, you are always operating on "objects" by typing in the current Document or making the current Selection of text bold.

(Aside: I always think of objects, for some reason, as undifferentiated lumps of clay I can then sculpt, sort of like making a piece of paper to write on out of pure data (as close as you can get to a pile of hyle without having pure chaos or Being or something). One way to think about computer science is that you are making machines out of clay. The computer science "atom", it turns out, is the most formless distinction possible: 0 or 1, on or off, existent or nonexistent. If the bit had any less form, computer science would be a monism.)

To become a powerful user of a computer program like this (for instance, to program it yourself to do repetitive things while you sip your iced tea), you need to learn the objects in the system. You learn what they are, how they can be accessed and messed with, how to work with them in combinations and build your own mini-programs. Basically, this is like stumbling upon a UFO and trying to get it to fly. You come to the project without any helpful background knowledge, and a given button can mean almost anything, but if you could just get it to work it would do something awesome. Also, computer programmers are aliens.

The objects for a program like Microsoft Word (which has accreted a lot of bells and whistles over the years) are staggeringly huge. It would take a lifetime to understand them all and use them perfectly and efficiently. Nobody does this, of course, because Microsoft is a monopolist who ran a bunch of great companies out of business (that's a fact for legal purposes, I understand), and also because in a few years Microsoft Word GW is coming out (GW for Gee Whiz) and it is likely to break compatibility with all the stuff you did before. Your old programs just won't work anymore because the objects' names and characteristics change around on you.

The complexity of software systems is getting to be too big for any one person or even group of people to handle and predict. There are online games now with GNPs just behind Russia's.

There is a very interesting program that never seems to break compatibility with its prior versions, always runs perfectly, and never crashes.

It is so large and complex that it is hard to understand how it accomplishes this staggering feat; people have been trying to understand it as long as there have been people.

Though they are but users of the program trying to understand the model, we call them "scientists".

We named the program "the universe".

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Why Should The Fire Die?

In six days, a new album by Nickel Creek will be released, their first since 2002, when they made This Side and won the Grammy for best contemporary folk album.

My close friends are aware that I have beaten this date to death for the last several months. As I said in an earlier post, I drive my wife nuts talking about this. I listen to their albums and concerts and concerts in the car and even occasionally act like a jerk about it. I sing their songs in the grocery and bang the little plastic seat with my hands. I play their songs on my guitar when I should be working.

What could possibly be worth all this heartache? The answer is Why Should The Fire Die? (sort of hard to punctuate that last sentence) I pre-ordered it several weeks ago, but I hadn't been able to listen to it, unlike some lucky dogs who bought theirs through Amazon. But now it's here; it's the audio stream of every track on the album, start to finish. I had trouble opening it with anything but Internet Explorer; it pops up a front for what I assume is Windows Media Player that includes their videos and albums. Just click "Play All Songs", give it a listen. Come on, it's easy!

(And no, I will not get rich and famous by telling you all to go buy this or click on my links. Dan don't play that. If I ever start blog ads and do start getting rich, it will remain patently obvious what not to click on. Just love the music, man.)

This album rules. I can't stop listening to it.