Saturday, June 15, 2013

Viking wealth

Today on Facebook I saw a photogallery with the question "Benefit yard sale for tornado victims or viking invasion?"  This year part of my tiny television intake was the entirety of the series Vikings on the History Channel.  In one dramatic scene the anonymous denizens of the hero Ragnar Lothbrok's tiny fishing hamlet were slaughtered by a jealous king.  I wondered if the vikings had a functional equivalent to the benefit yard sale subsequent to such an attack.  One extraordinary fiscal dynamic present in the plot of Vikings is the interface between the belief and precious metals economy.  Both the king and the usurper, Ragnar, believe that living according to the practices and ethics of nordic mythology and traditions would either please the gods (which might elicit favor) or directly benefit themselves in the afterlife.  For Ragnar this means being both valiant and brutal on the battlefield while seizing treasure from foreign lands.  For the king this means seizing the booty of Ragnar's successful raiding expedition and burying it so that he will have wealth in the afterlife.  I am fascinated by imagining the way the belief structure of the characters actually would effect an economy.  When the rich bury precious metals, the law of supply and demand dictates that it should increase the value of unburied instances of that resource, therefore favoring the poor who presumably are more concerned with a more immediate (and therefore verifiable) set of concerns which can be addressed with silver coins.  The "benefit" to the "economic" wealth of poor vikings is however illusory because while the market value of each silver coin they hold is greater (after part of the market supply is removed), some of the supply has, in fact, been removed.  Abstract or symbolic currency can assume a market value which is inverse to real value which is illustrated (in our example) by the destruction of silver coins.  The burying of the coins is fundamentally destructive, yet it increases the market value of other coins.  I cannot seem to recall the part of my economics classes where they taught us that markets can encourage the destruction of goods.   In another episode of the series a raiding party led by Ragnar seizes the religious symbols of a Christian monastery, in the name of Odin, because Odin favors the brave with a special heaven (Valhalla) for those that die on the battlefield.  The belief vs. reality conversion for the prior sentence would take too long to discuss but we can at least make some net observations.  Of imagined value, market value, and real value, real value apparently has the lowest entertainment value.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Spring time in Salem

No second act they say...
Senescence says otherwise.

Be advised that
 just because it is only 142 characters
  doesn't make it a lie,
   just poorly qualified.

Like me.
Not suitable for employment.
Not polluted by joys unbent.

Spring time in Salem,
smells like London,
after rain.

Spring time is not heaven,
awaiting the condemned.

Spring time is not solemn.
Or an end to pain.

Spring time is fresh,
a rebirth of the flesh,
an offer to return,
to try once more,
to find a way to mesh.

We are no longer lilies,
nor do we yet have the time,
to aspire to that higher ground,
occupied only by the sillies.

Now we are like oaks,
a season is not yet a joke,
but lost moments,
are no longer cause,
 to have a stroke.

So it is with great regret that I inform my readers,
I have no regrets for those terrible things I said,
when we last spoke.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Intelligent Living Home: as a source of food, goods, energy, and information.

The best solution for the future will be to leverage at home manufacturing to offset the requirement for shipping and roads. The result will be that people will spread back out. Like walking across ice, the population can defuse its impact by diffusing manufacturing, food and energy production. The future will not look like 1970's resorts, it will look like primeval forests or nature itself [1]. The future will be the story of the individual reclaiming autonomy from civilization, reclaiming self-esteem from imposed uniformity, and reclaiming constructive and system thinking from the yoke of reductionism.

In our arboreal prehistory the trees provided both a sheltering canopy and frequently our means of sustenance. With sufficient diversity the forest could provide a myriad of complex organic chemicals. Medicines, nutrition, cover and a myriad of resources were available at close range within the primeval forests. If we try to imagine the development of inventions like rope, fibers, and thread it is obvious that natural objects like vines could have provided a example of the virtue of the form. Diversity supplies not just exotic chemicals but a ready supply of morphological adaptations which can either be employed directly as tools or abstractly as examples.

Spatial diversity may provide a needed opportunity to buck some powerful trends.

Newton asked if the moon falls, not if moons universally empower the emergence of the idea of otherworldly beings by providing visual evidence that other worlds are 'terrestrial' to any intelligent species that can look skyward. Neither the consideration of the element or the whole should be neglected. Formal reductionism has, throughout recorded history, permeated our culture and perhaps most obnoxiously it has manifested as the standardization found in manufacturing. Bricks were among the first manufactured products. Forms impose shapes on bricks and those bricks impose shapes on buildings and therefore the patterns that people follow and the civilization itself. I would wager our minds are deeply affected by orthogonal geometries and the constraint of tessellation. Not to decry tessellation, even unkempt mangroves form a honeycomb when viewed from the air. Late in the twentieth century people generalized the abstraction that it is very useful to mimic biology in design [2]. At about the same time, a similar perspective, regarding the limitations of reductionism emerged among the varied disciplines that had formerly been averse to complex systemic analysis and Gestalt notions [3]. If we think of an ecosystem as an engine of adaptation that produces combinatoric variations on compounds of light elements and physical topologies, we can start to imagine an ecosystem as a source of variations not just to gene pools but to the minds of their occupants. When Tom Ray created the first artificial ecosystems it became obvious that complexity accrues in complex interdependent ecologies[4]. Think of the reduction in novelty among the minds of a population which resides in a mostly static manufactured monocultural landscape. Every source of inspiration is constrained from its inception by the requirement to be linearly extruded or cast with nasty tell-tale seams. What a horrid source of soul crushing allegory the common uniform brick and its macrocosm the wall[5]. Walls preserve socio-economic divides that tend to create the need for walls. And so they grow and continue to divide, defining the polarities of their times, China, Berlin, Arizona. If architecture weren't so useful it would certainly suffer a PR problem. Early in the nineteenth century authors of the transcendental literary movement in America had already begun to celebrate the “return to nature” which is frequently referenced within our culture [6]. By the 1970's many computer scientists and systems ecologists began looking at nature not just as a source of psychic respite but instead as a supplier of useful variations and efficient aggregator of that information [2]. From the perspective of a cognitive psychologist these two phenomena are not entirely separable. Juergen Schmidhuber insists that compression progress is equivalent to the evaluation which is used by humans to generate our sense of interest [7]. When we see a tree, if we intuitively recognize that the proportions of the lengths of its branches follow an arithmetic progression like the Fibonacci sequence or that the proportion of the widths and the angles of separation from trunk to limb to twig follow a fractal or recursive design, it follows that we will derive a sense of pleasure from those realizations. What happens next is nearly magic: we cease to be able to derive pleasure from the stimuli because all of its regularities have already been employed in prior compression steps. We become enured to regularity, it is doomed to being temporarily satisfying. The capability to reduce complex signals to sub-symbolic representations and the behavior of losing interest after that process occurs probably causes the constant novelty seeking which is responsible for both the physical spread of our species across the earth and our remarkable technological progress. This adaptation likely arose because our ancestors were tested by a complex ever-changing ecosystem for millions of years[4][8][9]. Chalmers established the fact that a diversity of problem tasks will lead to the evolution of a more generic learning capability [9]. By extension I contend that the same applies to meta-learning. Schmidhuber claims that the ability to reduce novel regularities out of our cognitive intake is satisfying. This seems to comport with ideas presented by Emerson and Thoreau [10][11]. I would like to go further, I believe that systems like those found in nature can be engineered and that we can design the satisfaction nature provides, into buildings, by making them living things. I believe we can engineer systems that are net positive with respect to useful information and that the best place for such a system is surrounding a human rather than isolated in an ivory tower. Imagine a rooftop cabbage patch that solves math problems.

Imagine if your home was also your principle tranducer of energy. Imagine if your home was spatially capable of occluding you from your neighbors but close enough that you can easily meet in a commons. Imagine that your home and local environment provided a variety of foods and raw materials. Now imagine that your home grew, not just spatially, but grew in terms of complexity, like a garden not just of vegetables but of ideas and activities themselves. Straightforward feedback circuits supplanted many of the tedious activities of the nineteenth century, but the introduction of Artificial Intelligence will allow us to not only automate the agriculture/manufacturing/energy complex of tomorrows homes but additionally supply imagery, sounds, flavors, odors, sensations, and even the mental and physical challenges, that are best suited to human fulfillment.

What if such machine/home/living things can self replicate? I believe we are surprisingly close to being able to bring about a number of valuable societal trends by utilizing self replication that utilizes ubiquitous resources along with open source design. Resource independence is not out of reach. Be warned, addressing the mental and spiritual health of people empowered with this type of technology is probably just as important as solving the initial problems of greed, starvation, and energy dependence. Jumping from one set of problems to the next isn't progress, it simply indicates a preference for novelty.

[1] Rachel Armstrong.

[2] John H. Holland. 1992. Adaptation in Natural and Artificial Systems. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, USA.
[3] John H. Holland. 1996. Hidden Order: How Adaptation Builds Complexity. Addison Wesley Longman Publishing Co., Inc., Redwood City, CA, USA.

[4] Ray, T. S. 1994. An evolutionary approach to synthetic biology: Zen and the art of creating life. Artificial Life 1(1/2): 179-209. Reprinted In : Langton, C. G. [ed.], Artificial Life, an overview. The MIT Press, 1995, 179-209.

[5] Pink Floyd (The Wall, 1982)



[8] Correy A. Kowall and Brian J. Krent. 2007. A simulation of evolved autotrophic reproduction. In Proceedings of the 9th annual conference on Genetic and evolutionary computation (GECCO '07). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 340-340. DOI=10.1145/1276958.1277028


[10] Ralph Waldo Emerson. 1836. "Nature"

[11] Henry David Thoreau. 1854. Walden.