Pale Blue Dot

Pale Blue Dot is a photograph of planet Earth taken on February 14, 1990, by the Voyager 1 space probe as it was leaving the Solar System. In the photograph, Earth’s apparent size is less than a pixel; the planet appears as a tiny dot against the vastness of space, among bands of sunlight reflected by the camera. (Adapted from Wikipedia’s Pale Blue Dot)

In the figure below, Earth is the blue pixel near the middle of the rightmost “beam of light”.

A picture of space, where the earth is a single tiny blue pixel in the deep darkness.

Carl Sagan said the following about this picture:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Carl Sagan, 1994’s book “Pale Blue Dot”

I often think about the Pale Blue Dot, and what it means, when I want to get out of a depression bout. Sometimes I look at the moon, for the same effect. Somehow, thinking about how small and impermanent Earth is (and everything in it) draws me away from darker moods.

Film Critic Hulk Discusses Evangelion

Film critic hulk, one of my favorite writers on pop culture and feelings, recently published a long article doing a deep dive on the themes and symbolism in Evangelion.

https://www.polygon.com/2020/1/7/21043182/neon-genesis-evangelion-netflix-anime-meaning-bible-depression-sexuality

Evangelion was one of the first animes I’ve seen, long before I even though I could ever come to live in Japan. I’ve seen it time and again over the year, and my understanding changed with me. I won’t go over that, go read Hulk’s article instead: It is wonderful.

Welcome 2020

A little bit late, but here are my reflections on the new year. 2019 was a weird year. Last year I promised myself I would cut down on side projects, and ooh boy that didn’t work out — I did cut some of my projects off, but it felt like fighting a hydra: One down, two more pop up. This year I will try to keep simple, and go for a more concrete list of “resolutions” for 2020:

  • I want to learn some French. Last year I was at the head of three different collaboration projects with French universities, and there are at least two more new related projects bubbling up. These collaboration projects don’t count much for my promotion prospects, but they do satisfy me personally a whole lot. So I’m doubling down on them. More concretely, I’m going to do some Duolingo in January and go from there.
  • I want to improve my written Japanese. My two biggest time sinks at work are reading and responding to e-mails in Japanese, and filling out forms and documents. So I want to try and get some skills to deal with those. More concretely, I’m negotiating to have the university pony out some of those sweet sweet Faculty Development programs to help me improve my work tools.
  • I want to write an Alife paper. Two years ago I went to the Alife 2018 conference in Tokyo, and that was one of my best academic experiences in recent memory. A bunch of poor decisions made me lose most of my research time in 2019, but let’s fix that in 2020 and do something new, towards becoming the researcher I really want to be. I am reading some Alife books right now, but I need a more concrete plan for this one.
  • I want to run Ryutama. This one is a late addition. One of my constants in the last 17 years (wow) in Japan is my weekly RPG game at the Daydream Cafe. Mr. Okada, who has also worked at the cafe all this time, is the creator of Ryutama, a light-hearted RPG system about travel. It turns out that he is retiring from the shop this year, and it would be a pity if I did not play this game at least once before he left. Concretely, I will probably buy the PDF and read it through the weekend.
  • I want to make another game. I programmed way too little in the second half of 2019. Let’s make a game at Ludum Dare April 2020!
  • I want to have an average of one Blog post per month, and I want to host some service (bot, etc) at my website. Social media is all fine and all, but nothing beats a personal website. I pay a reasonable price for a virtual host here, and I would like to put it to some use. Last year I started trying to make a discord bot, and that was not bad, but this year I want to do something that anyone can use without a special account. Probably a summer project, maybe I can finally check out that Mastodon thing right.
  • I want to keep my weight under 66kg. During the winter holidays, I saw that I was reaching an alarming 69kg. Now, I am mostly satisfied with my body image, and I’m not looking at getting buff or anything, but I’d like to make sure that it stays under control.

That’s it. Maybe those are too many projects, but if I complete at least a third of them, I will be very happy at 2021.

Celeste — What a nice game.

This weekend I’ve finished Celeste, a game I have been wanting to play for a while — and it was very very wonderful.

Celeste’s story is heart-warming, and I felt connected with the protagonist struggles with anxiety, depression and haywire defense mechanisms. The characters are also extremely cute, with great conversations between stages.

The game itself is quite hard, but it does a great job of encouraging you on, and has a fairly comprehensive assist mode. It also reminds me a lot of Aquaria, another story-full indie platformer that I liked a lot.

Thinking on Paper

A very important habit that I think students should captivate is “thinking on paper”. Specially when studying, but also when planning or problem solving, we have to spend quite some effort thinking. However, our brains are dirty tricksters, and will easily lead us away from whatever we are thinking down to daydreams, digressions, and other such distractions. Enters “Thinking on Paper”. By taking down notes of what you are thinking, you create physical handholds/stepping stones that will help you concentrate on the current task, or bring back your mind from the daydreaming land.

It is important to note that, for the goal of helping you concentrate, the notes you write down while thinking on paper do not need to be extensive or detailed — write down too much detail, and you will end up concentrating more on the writing itself than on the thinking.

“Writing? Yeah.” from Caleb Roenigk. Original at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/crdot/6855538268, (CC BY 2.0)

PS: If you plan to put CC BY content on the internet, it would be terribly nice to write how you would like to be attributed!

A fantastic discussion on Slavery: concepts, philosophy, story and consequences.

Reddit is probably one of the worst sites on the internet out there, but it’s sub-community “Ask Historians” is probably one of the best sites on the internet out there. Today I ran across the discussion below, which begins with a user asking about the differences between the Serfdom and Slavery systems, but gets a wonderful (and very long) answer that touches subjects such as “what is freedom”, “what is dehumanization”, “power relations and labor”, “consequences today of the slavery system” and many other fascinating topics.

Ask Historians is one of the jewels of the internet, and shows what can be achieved by an online community with a laser-like focus and strong moderation. I wish there was a good way to get a good feed of its best answers without having to wade through the rest of reddit (but I do see the need for the wide audience).

The Sprawl : Setting

This January I have begun GM’ing the “Powered by the Apocalypse” cyberpunk RPG game, The Sprawl. One cool thing about this game (and most other PbtA games) is that on the very first session (session 0), the entire group builds the setting together, based on a conversation about what each player is interested in, and how they see the setting. This is our Sprawl:

  • Technology: Technology is advanced, but not too much. “Real-ish” tech, such as wearables, AR, VR, and robotics are technologies the players want to see more of, while “Sci-fi-ish” tech such as space travel, laser weaponry and battle armor is something the players want to see less of. No flying cars.
  • Corporate Power: Corporations have superseded government, but puppet states still exist. Corps back elected representative to guarantee access to resources, and to conduct proxy wars with plausible deniability for territory. Also, risky, low ROI ventures such as public security are left for the governments (and the public) to bear the burden. A Corporate Arbitration Board exists to oversee disputes that get out of control.
  • Entertainment: Everyone is playing video games on VR all the time. Every surface projects some sort of AR, providing information, news, entertainment and covering the dirt and decay of The Sprawl. Major media unabashedly abuse video manipulation to control the narrative.
  • The Internet: The internet is ubiquitous, but tightly controlled by the corporations. Copying software is a thing of the past. If you want to do something illegal, you have to go back to bulky decks with handcrafted dedicated hardware to break the layers of encryption, intrusion detection, and distributed cyber security. Forget wireless hacking.
  • AI and Androids: Robots are used for the jobs where it is not profitable to keep a human alive to perform: Farming, Industry, Mining, Security. Agent-AI is well developed: Cortana is highly personalized based on your preferences, personal info, and, for the right price, your memories of loved ones. Androids are used to serve the ultra-rich. Any robot entertaining thoughts of freedom and independence is malfunctioning, and should be destroyed on sight.
  • Medicine: Mechanical and Plastic prosthesis are common. Corps encourage their members to gain an edge by improving their body with cyber enhancements. On the other hand, human genetic engineering and bio-modifications are not a focus.
  • Environment: The environment was a victim of the tragedy of the commons. Melting of the polar ice cap submerged most major cities and changed the global climate patterns, resulting in a large scale redrawing of political and weather maps. The sprawl is prone to extreme weather, and is far away from known population centers.
  • Energy: The world ran out of fossil fuels decades ago, which contributed to the decline of space exploration. The atom is the main source of energy, including miniaturized reactors for arcologies and large corporate installations. The knowledge and technology necessary to safely produce and distribute nuclear power is a closely guarded secret and one of the leverages that corporations hold in their power plays.
  • Religion: Religion plays a big role in the society, both in the form of corporate sponsored communities and identities, as well as underground cults.
  • References mentioned: William Gibson’s the Sprawl trilogy and Burning Chrome, Ready Player One (the movie), Read Only Memories (robots and androids), Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049, current stories of CEOs and corporations being dickheads, Harebrained Shadowrun games, Invisible Inc.

Coming up in following posts: The corporations, the characters, and session summaries!

AI Woof

Today I started seriously working on the AI Wolf project, which got funded by the University for January and February.

The basic client code is much simpler than I thought at first, although the documentation (specially in English) is seriously lacking. I should put in the effort to prepare some sample code and a tutorial (maybe a good topic for next Picotachi?)

However, the more I think about the project, the harder it seems to develop a good AI strategy for the werewolf (Mafia) game. The thing is: The goal of this game is to estimate good models for the identity of the other players — however, all the information you have about the other players comes from the outputs that they exhibit.

When playing against humans, this means that the “tells” that rise up from repeated play reflect human biases and instincts. However, this does not necessarily hold for an agent. It is quite trivial to program an agent that acts randomly, or actively acts against common sense. In the end, the only thing that we can rely is that each agent has a fixed win condition (provided that the agent was not programmed to play against its win con – urgh – but then again, there are humans who do that as well). So a very large part of the game becomes estimating and modeling the behavior of other agents with nothing to go from except this same behavior.

Feels like the classic problem of lifting oneself by one’s own bootstraps.

Maybe a way to cut through this Gordian knot is to not focus so much on winning, but rather on displaying human-like, or at least common-sense like behavior? Establish or try to establish “good-practice” rules based on existing human play logs? And after we have a somewhat “human” player, work from that to build players that can create models of other players from games?

Such a hard, interesting problem…

Back to Work 2019

Today was my first day of work in the year, and to “celebrate”, I spend 12 hours at the university (_ _);…

I used my new digital paper device to keep track of my activities during the day: about 6 hours reading and following up on e-mails, writing forms, and preparing documents. About 2 hours meeting with students. Another 2 hours went into a orientation for the entrance examination. And 1 hour went into babysitting the image segmentation model that I am training. I certainly can use my time better than that!

Overfitting and Undercoding

Today I continued my adventures in Neural Networks. I’m working towards a system that uses “Artificial Intelligence” to detect features from pictures of plants in a greenhouse (such as leaves, branches, fruits, flowers). The final idea is to use this system to control a robot that would automate part of the work in a greenhouse.

Now the idea is to start from the code base of a student who used DL image segmentation techniques to detect cracks in concrete. The student got good results, but the final code (or at least the version I got my hands on) was honestly a bit of a mess. Data reading, data wrangling, model building, training, testing, everything was put together in a long python script, in such a way that was really hard both to understand what was going on, and to build upon it for new projects (at least on a robust manner).

So I spend most of the day re-writing the code into multiple scripts and modules. I must say that at the very least, this gave me a good understanding of what was going on (and a clear view of the parts that were “magicked” in). I started to think about how I could impress into new students the need of organizing one’s code well (specially since the biggest beneficiaries are the future you’s).

My new problem is that training the neural network on the plant data is “over fitting towards nothingness”. In other words, the NN got wise to the fact that the easiest way to minimize it’s loss function is to return blank segmentation results (which are not useful). I probably need to find a better loss function, but that is a problem for tomorrow.

The good thing of moving from the design to the training stage is that I can use the training periods to catch up on the books that I wanted to read during the break! :-P