Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Stability

I like to say that "stability is its own reward".  The idea behind this is that many unstable plastic systems continuously adapt until they stabilize.  Once stable, plasticity is limited because it was the instability that was driving them to change.

Usually my context for this is in the realm of neural network learning algorithms.  Some years ago, however, I identified a couple of instances of self-stabilizing systems that exist in the real world.  Each of these tongue-in-cheek examples might also be slightly cyclical -- and cynical.

First example: clearing traffic accidents increases traffic speed.  As lanes are re-opened, average traffic speeds can jump from a rush hour stop-and-go crawl up to maximum posted speed limits.  As speeds increase, however, accidents also increase -- which force commuters back down to speeds that are safe for congested driving conditions.

Second example: state lottery revenues fund education.  As participation in the lottery increases, education increases.  As education increases, participation in the lottery decreases -- because educated people do not buy lottery tickets.



Monday, October 30, 2017

Mortal Terror

The origins of Halloween, or Samhain, are connected to preparing for winter and remembering our dead.  Nowadays many associate Halloween with a good scare.  In celebration of this holiday, I would like to remind you that you will die.

You might be thinking that you still have plenty of time left but I would point out to you that time accelerates as you get older.  Note now how the many anticipated far future dates of a graduation, wedding, major purchase, or relocation have already come and gone.  Now imagine your future self in the nursing home.

In theory, you should be terrorized.  By this I do not mean the mortal terror of an infant separated from its mother.  I suggest instead of a creeping fear of the inevitable that makes you desperate and a little crazy.

If you are still alive in five months with another winter behind you, consider celebrating a different kind of inevitability.  So long as medicine continues to advance, a cure for aging must come.  When it does, will you still be around to partake?


Friday, September 29, 2017

Advancing Tasks Grid

In previous blog posts, I described how I use pushpin magnets as markers to track my progress on recurring tasks.  Today I created a webpage to document my new system which I am calling an Advancing Tasks Grid.

Having played the video game Plants vs. Zombies (PvZ) for many hours, I like to think of my daily tasks as zombies advancing toward me very slowly.  I have to continuously attend to each of them so that one of them does not eventually make it all of the way across my lawn to eat my brain.


Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Motion Detection Bulbs

I replaced all of my incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs. I then replaced the CFLs with light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs. Now I am replacing the LED bulbs in our hallways with LED motion detection bulbs.

We use Energy Ogre so our monthly electricity bill tends to be very low. Nonetheless I feel compelled to turn off any light bulb as soon as it is no longer needed. Rationally I understand that I am only saving a fraction of a cent by doing so but the behavior is compulsive.

A smart home could turn the lights on and off for me as I pass through a room. A downside to this is that it would require adding the special hardware to detect motion and control the bulbs. Plus a smart home is a networked solution which can be hacked.

The new LED motion detection bulbs can operate without a network because each contains its own integrated motion sensor. They independently turn on whenever someone comes near and then automatically turn themselves off a minute or so after the person leaves. Some of them are smart enough to only turn on when it is dark or dim so there is no wasted electricity when the sun is shining through the windows.

My criteria for the LED motion detection bulbs that I buy is that they have to be warm white and bright. To avoid light that appears bluish, I look for bulbs with a color temperature of 3000 kelvin or less.  The bulbs also have to be in the 12 watt range which seem to be bright enough to replace the old 100 watt incandescent bulbs.

It is a bit confusing that some of my bulbs automatically switch on as I approach and some do not. My fix for this is to buy more motion detection bulbs.  At around $12 or more each, I probably would be better off financially just leaving my old LED bulbs powered on all of the time.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Gut Feelings

When you have to make a hard decision with long-term consequences, trust your gut.  Your feelings can tell you what your brain as a whole, not just your conscious rational part, has decided about the future well-being of you and yours.  If it does not feel right, postpone indefinitely.

Where this rule of thumb can lead you astray, however, is when you are not feeling well for other reasons.  When you are despondent about your plans and you want to scrap it all, first ask yourself whether this might be because you are currently sick or exhausted.  Do not assume failure and give up on all of your prior efforts when all you really need is just a few days to recover.

You will be the most optimistic when you are healthy, rested, and untroubled.  If you are not in that state, deliberately hold off on making any weighty decisions.  Until you are feeling better, stick to plan and keep chugging.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Addictive Entertainment

My three-year-old son James and I have been playing the video game Super Mario 3D World a lot recently.  It is cooperative play where we are on the same team but I always have to be very careful not to score more points than him.  Let the wookie win.

Even though we had not met in twenty-seven years, I recognized one of my favorite electrical engineering college professors while we were standing in line at the marina diner recently.  He remembered that I was into playing and programming computer games.  I told him that after continuing my education by earning a Masters in Electrical Engineering, I had abandoned that industry to become a full-time game developer, including writing a book and teaching a university course on the subject.

When I was a professional game developer, I always felt a bit guilty about being a part of the entertainment industry.  If the players were not so busy playing, would they instead be doing real life activities such as building a better world for themselves and their children?  Or are games something you do to keep yourself content and out of trouble in between doing important things such as raising children and earning a living?

Games, unlike other forms of passive entertainment, are interactive and therefore can be won or lost based on player decisions.  Winning a game satisfies our craving for a sense of achievement by providing us with a stream of virtual goals.  I call games "pseudo-work" because they provide the good feeling of productive work but without any of the real-world tangible benefits.

If we repeatedly fail at a game, we become frustrated and quit playing because it is not providing the rush of success that we need as goal-seeking creatures.  Winning every now and then, however, can keep us playing indefinitely because intermittent reward is addictive.  Games are also addictive when they progressively increase in difficulty or complexity as this hooks into our love of learning and mastery.

I think all addictive entertainment, both interactive and passive, should provide at least some long-term benefits to the consumer such as education or exercise.  For example, an avid viewer of a zombie apocalypse television series might incidentally absorb a few tips about disaster preparedness and emergency survival.  By the time a player character reaches level fifty as a magical healer in a fantasy role playing game, the actual player should be able to pass a level one first aid certification.



Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Croft Academy

I mentioned to a friend that my children had their last day of school before summer break today.  He asked what I had planned for them.  I explained to him that in addition to various educational day camps, swimming, and sailing, my children will be participating in Croft Academy.

For my family, Croft Academy is an annual tradition of summer educational activities.  We encourage our children to spend a few minutes each day studying different topics by posting a daily checklist for each child on the side of our refrigerator.  Study areas include common subjects such as art, math, reading, and writing and sometimes student-specific activities such as keyboard typing, computer programming, driving practice, and standardized test preparation.


A major component of Croft Academy each year is Khan Academy.  This is a free website with video lectures and online quizzes on many educational topics.  The website tracks individual progress so that students can advance through the subjects in prerequisite order.

After moving a magnet from the "To-Do" column to the "Done" column for all topics on the daily checklist, the student is then free to play computer games and watch television.  Our school motto, "No fun until the work is done", is captured in this drawing created by a Croft Academy alumna some years ago back when she was enrolled.  As of this month, this former student, my daughter Ada, can now also boast that she is a graduate of the University of Texas at Arlington College of Nursing.


Saturday, April 29, 2017

Year of the Boat

This is becoming the year of the boat for our family.  My seventeen-year-old son Thomas and I have been learning to sail with the help of the Grapevine Sailing Club.  I am also learning how to do boat maintenance and repair.  Thomas used a bosun's chair for the first time under the supervision of our experienced slip neighbors.

Here are some pictures of Thomas learning to be a yachtsman.





Friday, March 31, 2017

Eternal Universe

I just finished listening to the audiobook A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing by Lawrence M. Krauss.  As you might expect, the book does not live up to its title in full but it does give some depth to a number of science concepts that have been floating around in popular culture.  If you like the video How Far Can We Go? Limits of Humanity and want to know more, read this book.

One of the ideas touched upon very briefly in the book is that the Universe could have always been.  By the term Universe here, I mean whatever pre-existed and gave rise to the Big Bang, our current phase of existence, and whatever comes after.  I define the term Eternal Universe to mean a universe that goes on forever without an end and always was without a beginning.

I once attended a debate where a speaker gave the following argument in an attempt to make the  concept of an Eternal Universe that always was seem absurd.  He asked rhetorically, "If time never had a beginning but goes back to negative infinity, how would you ever get to now?"  I was disappointed that his opponent did not respond to this flourish but instead stuck to prepared arguments.

Here is how I would have responded.  Imagine that you are where you are now in some point in space.  You can imagine that this space extends from where you are out to an infinite distance in all directions.  Pick a direction and call that positive infinity.  Point in the opposite direction and call this negative infinity.

Imagine that I now ask you rhetorically, "If space never had a beginning but goes back to negative infinity, how would you ever get to here?"  You might easily reply, "I did not have to travel from negative infinity to get to here because I always was here".  The debater was relying upon the fact that most of his audience was used to thinking of time as something that flows forward in just one direction rather than something that is in all directions.



Sunday, February 26, 2017

Bellissimo

I participated in a Grapevine Sailing Club Frostbite Serices race again this month, this time as crew on a Catalina 30. While drinking hot cider with rum back at the slip after the race, I mentioned that I was in the market for a sailboat and that I had decided on a Catalina but I was uncertain as to which model.  My hostess mentioned that her friends were selling their Catalina 25 and that I could see it right then if I liked.  Three weeks later following a tour of the interior, a marine survey, an underwater hull inspection, and a test sail, I became the proud owner of the 1980 Catalina 25 sailboat "Bellissimo".

The Italian word "bellissimo" appears to translate directly to the masculine form of "very beautiful" which works for me as I have five very handsome sons.  The actual idiomatic use of the word appears to mean wonderful, marvelous, or a beautiful experience.  The previous owner explained to me that it was a familial greeting shared with her Italian siblings and that the word coincidentally included the family name of the orginal owner.

As Bellissimo is over thirty-five-years-old, it is considered to be an "antique" by Texas state law.  Another interesting fact about Texas state law is that Texas is one of the few states where the maximum width for a trailer that you can tow without an oversize load permit is less than eight feet six inches.  In Texas, it is eight feet zero inches, exactly the same as the beam of a Catalina 25.  So now I am in the market for a trailer and a vehicle to tow it.