Looking forward to scholar.social’s summer school.

Scholar.social is a Mastodon instance that I joined in April, 2022. The goal of the instance is to serve as a social hub for scholars, researchers and scientists of all kind to connect to each other, and talk to their work and their research.

It has been really nice to be a part of scholar.social these past few months. Conversations there are not as fast paced as on twitter, but they frequently go deeper, and the atmosphere feels much more eager and open.

In the past weeks, some users in scholar.social started preparing the “Summer School”, and online, informal conference where anyone is welcome to present a 15 minutes talk to the community.

To be completely honest, at first I was a bit skeptical. How can a “present anything” conference attract any sort of coherent content? But as I signed up to attend the conference and choose the topics that I wanted to participate in, the titles and summaries turned out to be quite amazing, and I felt myself checking in to participate into more and more of them.

I guess that is the power of an cooperative community? There is no real feeling of trying to show off, or competing for stakes, and everyone seem to be proposing talks about things that really matter to them.

Also the conference website is really pretty, easy to understand, and responsive, and the times of the talk are very well distributed across time zones. All in all I feel myself very much looking forward to this.

Here are just a few of the talks that particularly caught my eye. There are many more, which you can check out at the conference’s webpage.

– “Representations of AI – Why we need to do better”
– “Imaginaries of future energy systems”
– “Frugal computing — On the need for low-carbon and sustainable computing and the path towards zero-carbon computing.”
– “What the news gets wrong about spider bites”
– “Anti-capitalist AI”
– “Clinical trials that stopped due to Covid-19”

And many others! Looking forward to it!

Signs of Sojourner: Mixing Gameplay and Narrative in a cool way.

This year I started a Games Club with some friends. The four of us would play games from the Itch bundles, usually narrative games, and get together some weekend to discuss the games. This has been a super nice exercise, both to get some socialization during Covid times, as well as a chance to play smaller indie games. (I posted about another game I played in this games club before)

This time, I want to talk about “Signs of the Sojourner”, a game which I liked quite a lot.

Title Screen of the

The idea of the game is that you are the owner of a shop at a small village, and you get to wander to nearby communities to find items to stock your store with.

The main drive of the game is the conversations you have with the characters at each community you visit. However, instead of talking to these characters through a dialog tree, the conversation happens through a card game. You and the character you are talking with play cards with different symbols. If the symbol agrees, the conversation tends to agreement, otherwise you and the other character won’t find common ground, and the conversation will usually end in a somewhat hostile tone.

Gameplay image for

This is where the game tries to mix game mechanics and narrative. The most obvious is the “fatigue” card. When you travel for too long, you start to receive these “fatigue” cards, which don’t match with anything. This tries to reflect how your character is too tired from travelling and becomes irritable.

In a more subtle way, every time you talk to somebody, you receive one of the cards that person used. Each area of the game tends to use more of one symbol of another, meaning that the more you visit one area, the more cards of that area will enter your deck, and the easier will be to talk to people in that area (and it will be harder to talk to people in other areas). This mimics a bit the idea of finding your social niche.

I really like how the game does a lot to integrate the mechanics and narrative. For example, which cards an NPC has also tends to reflect how accommodating that NPC is to strangers.

The game is not without its problems. The strategies for “succeeding” in conversations with NPCs are not very clear, and it is very easy to find yourself in a situation where you are failing almost all of the conversations. The game tries to imply through its text that it is okay to not agree with some people, but the interface and sound effects work against that most of the time. It also seems that the conversation options are either “enthusiastically agree” or “rudely shut down”, with no clear way to politely disagree with what another character proposes.

Also, from a technical point of view, the game’s Unity build has a very poor interaction with Wine, which means that it would lock me if I alt-tabbed away from it :-(

However, all in all I really liked this game, and I think this is a great experiment in trying to mix gameplay and narrative together.

The game also has several endings and sub branches. Although replaying it takes a bit too long, this means it can be a cool game to play in parallel with friends and discuss the different paths that each person took.

Starting a Writing Habit (aka that Kurzgesagt video)

A few weeks ago I watched a video on Kurzgesagt about cultivating new habits. I really like the way that Kurzgesagt break down concepts (and also their animations!), and this video really made me motivated to try and pick up some better habits.

I thought that I could try to make programming simple pico8 games as a new habit following their ideas. Since my birthday was quite close, I decided to buy the book that they created in tandem with the video. Also, I have seen so many of their videos, I thought it was about time to give them something back.

Kurzgesagt Habit Journal

The book arrived last week, and it is really pretty and well done. The first few pages of the book is a review of the concepts in their video. Then they have a “tutorial” section where you try to cultivate a simple habit for 9 days. It starts really simple, and every 3 days the habit gets a bit more complex.

After this “tutorial” period, you are invited to create 1-4 habits following the same pattern as before, and record them for several days. If you track 4 habits, the book has space for about half an year of tracking.

So how do I plan to use this book?

At first, I thought that I wanted to turn Pico-8 programming into a habit. I still want to do that, but after reading the book, I decided to start with something much simpler for the introduction: For the first three days, I will start with just sitting down on my computer and writing down my ideas for a single pomodoro.

They really emphasize the idea of start small. I could make it even smaller, and just clean my computer of all distractions for the first stage, and write 2 pomodoros for the second and third stage. I might even make one of those a pico8 programming pomodoro.

Of course, when you decide to “write” stuff, the question then becomes “what to write about.” I have a few loose notes in my ideas folder (under a handy “toblog”) tab, so I could start by clearing those up and actually blogging them. I also have some dead links to fill in, and games that I played in the past. Also re-reading backlog.

A more sustainable solution would be to include the seeding of ideas in my writing process. Maybe as I advance this, I should include some time to write down and organize ideas, and then pick one of those ides to concentrate and write.

Well, one step at a time, I guess. For now, I will write one pomodoro a day (although maybe not everything will become a blog post)

AI Responsibility

TL;DR: We should not compare the abilities of AI with the abilities of Humans, because computers can’t take responsibility for their actions. Every AI system should have a clear name behind it.

Recently I have been starting to think that I’m too grumpy about AI/ML research. Sometimes it feels that every technology news fills me more with dread than wonder, and new research makes me feel more tired than excited. I have been chalking this off to attitude, maybe even burnout. But a recent hype release made me think about why it is actually important to be grumpy from time to time (or more often than not, actually).

Recently a young student and their advisor made waves on twitter by announcing that they had “discovered” a secret language on the Dall-E image generator. Of course, in the end, it was much ado about nothing, encouraged by an advisor who wanted to get hyped and avoid getting scooped. They even “published” their original twitter thread as a paper on arxiv (which tastes sour when arxiv is picky with actual research from people)

Ok, so some people were silly on the internet again. Why does this matter? Well, seeing a lot of people running around saying things like “Dall-e has its own language!” made me think a bit about why it is actually be grumpy about how much we hype AI research in public spaces (AI has language! AI can do Art! AI can replace professionals in field X!).

The thing is that when we don’t make clear the limitations of our AI systems, people naturally start to see AI as human (see the recent talk about consciousness of deep learning systems), forgetting one VERY important thing that AI systems can’t do: Take responsibility for their actions.

Although there is of course a component of corporate greed in that, it seems that a lot of people honestly think that we can leave AI-based systems to do things that influence us without a human being ultimately being responsible for their actions. To put it another way, quite a few people seem to think that we can actually just let AI-based systems go wild at our problems, and use their results unquestioningly.

To give a concrete example, in my university we often discuss what to do to increase the amount of information available in English for international students (and to an extension in Chinese as well). Almost always someone will honestly suggest just using machine translation to everything that we want to make available in other languages.

Now I love machine translation. I use deepl every day to make sure that the Japanese sentences I write are somewhat correct. BUT, it is far away for being the solution for this kind of problem — maybe part of a solution, but definitely not all of it.

Why is that? Any machine translation will get a LOT of small things wrong. When we’re talking about translating official materials, we’re talking about things that are going to be used by some student to decide their life path, and there needs to be someone there to make sure the translation is correct and, more importantly, take responsibility for its correctness. In the end, a human is still needed in the loop.

This reminds me of a question I made during ALIFE2018 to a professor giving a keynote about androids. I asked him what were some ethical issues that he thought was important in android research. He answered that he thought we should make more robots that make purposeful mistakes. For example, that we should make vending machines that sometimes gave the wrong change back (Of course you could ask it to give you the correct change). This would help break the stereotype that machines are always correct, fair and neutral. It would make people trust machines less, check them more, which is super important as AI systems take over more and more parts of our social systems.

One thing that I like a lot about this answer and thought experiment is that it reminds me of how we should think about evolutionary computation and other search-based optimization algorithms. These algorithms are able to solve problems that are too hard for traditional optimizers by abandoning the idea of finding the *optimal* solutions, and settling for a “best effort” solution.

In practical cases, best effort solutions are actually quite good enough! But, sometimes they’re not, so the user needs to make sure to check the solution that comes out of the algorithm. I think this is a very positive thing, and should be standard procedure for any service that is empowered by AI.

(Review) “The Demon-Haunted World, Science as a Candle in The Dark”

tl;dr: The good parts are really good, the bad parts are really bad, but more than anything, the book felt way too long.

This past week I’ve read “The Demon-Hauted World, Science as a Candle in the Dark”, by Carl Sagan. This book that has been highly recommended by several friends I admire, and has generally very good reviews. From the outside, it is an essay about how scientific thinking is necessary for the well being of society as a whole, which is a topic that it close to my heart, so this book has sat near the top of my “to read” pile for ages.

The book begins with a harsh admonishment of the kind of thinking that leads people to believe in histories about UFO and astrology, as well as other pseudosciences. The first chapter of this was interesting. The second was okay. By 100 pages, I was like “okay, believing in UFOs is bad, I got it, can we talk about something else now, like how science is amazing and super useful for society?”. I mean, the first half of the book is not all UFOs, but it sure FELT like it. It dragged.

By page 200, I was ready to give up on the book. I decided to check reviews to see if anyone had similar experiences to mine, and found a lone 2 star review (among a sea of weird “BEST BOOK EVER!” reviews), that echoed my feelings. They agreed that the first half was dragging, but recommended the last few chapters as really interesting. So I decided to keep on reading, with liberal page skipping whenever Dr. Sagan started talking about UFOs again, and I’m glad I did that.

There is a chapter around the middle of the book describing a “skeptic toolkit”, that is really practical advice about how to think about knowledge in a rigorous manner that I might integrate in my “Experiment Design” lectures.

Then there was one terribly colonialist short chapter which hand-waves away the scientific achievements of non-European civilizations as somehow “non-scientific”, without much of a thought of why, to state that “ancient Greece” was somehow the only place where “true science” was born. This was another place where I felt like I wanted to drop the book. “Question everything, except that thought on the back of your mind that tells your civilization is certainly better than what you don’t understand”.

Right after that there is a chapter about science education, where he laments the small amount of time that American children spend on school and praises bubble era Japan education for sticking kids in school for 33 hours a week. That didn’t seem to have worked very well for us in terms of scientific achievement these days, though…

The book does improve after that, though. The Chapter on Maxwell is very interesting and fun — with beautiful, wondrous and poetics descriptions of invisible waves in our daily lives. This sense of honest wonder feels a bit out of place when compared with the tone of the book until now, and I would much preferred if this had been the main tone from the beginning. Being excited about science is much more interesting than bemoaning the lack of it.

The final chapter about science and politics has its heart in the right place, when it talks about the necessity of ethics to be involved in science, and science to be involved in politics: “The unprecedented powers that science now makes available must be accompanied by unprecedented levels of ethical focus and concern by the scientific community—as well as the most broadly based public education into the importance of science and democracy.”

However, he does dabble in “Freeze Peaches” by arguing that “even the most odious argument should be allowed, and faced with debate, not suppression of ideas”, which I guess is easy to say when you’re not part of a demographic that is often denied a platform or free access to information about itself.

All in all, I have mixed feelings about the book. The good parts are really good. The bad parts are really bad. But above all I felt that the book was long and dragging, with way too much UFO bashing. I wouldn’t recommend the entire book to someone else, but it would be really nice if there was an abridged version of the good parts.

In the end, I leave the read feeling a bit personally disappointed. I haven’t really read any new books in the last 4-5 months, other than obligatory readings of textbooks to prepare classes, the minimum scientific papers I needed to read for work, and the occasional narrative game. I guess I’ll reach to my fiction pile for my next read.