Notes from the Publisher

August 16, 2008

Funny / Medical Research on Sword Swallowing


HT to YORF for this one.  It appears that medical researchers have begun looking into the side-effects of sword swallowing.  This authors must have been laughing hysterically as they wrote the paper:

We excluded cases in which injury was related to swallowing items other than swords, such as glass, neon tubes, spear guns, or jack hammers.


Some let the sword fall abruptly, a manoeuvre known as "the drop," controlling the fall of the sword with the muscles of the pharynx, and some invite members of the audience to move the sword. 

Shivers.  I don't think I'll take that up as a hobby.

On a more serious note, there was a comment on the paper which I thought was very interesting for medical science:

Having recently undergone an extremely uncomfortable endoscopic exploration of my own oesophagus and stomach I have learned that I have a small hiatus hernia. This perhaps explains why I still have ‘the worst’ acid reflux despite my religious use of esomeprazole 40mg and an array of ‘lifestyle’ measures. I read the sword- swallowing article with great interest especially the discussion on how sword swallowers must train themselves to voluntarily exert control over normally involuntarily controlled sphincters. I wonder if sword swallowers could teach GORD (gastrooesophageal reflux disease) sufferers to control their lower oesophageal sphincter thereby giving themselves relief of sometimes very resistant symptoms? 

Very interesting indeed.

August 15, 2008

General / If You're Going to Make a Microfiche Scanner...


If you're going to make a digital microfiche scanner to use with a computer, you should at least be kind enough to make it work at a high enough resolution to actually read the text!

August 09, 2008

Projects / New Project - Evolving Algorithms


Bartlett Publishing has just launched a project called Evolving Algorithms to determine the limits and requirements of evolutionary algorithms in computer science.

This project is essentially created to be a little like Avida, except with a much narrower focus.  Avida attempts to be several things at once, and winds up not being very good at any of them.  It attempts to model biology by making the organism self-replicating and using lots of biology metaphors in its production, it attempts to model cost theory through its use of environmental limits, and it attempts to model the possibility of evolution by mutating programs and seeing if they can evolve new algorithms de novo.

The problem is that it doesn't do any of these things well.  Despite the fact that Avida is a Turing-complete system, it can't even detect the evolution of an algorithm that requires those constructs!  The only construct that requires looping is the copy loop, and that is precoded in the original organism!  So, for instance, it can't even in theory give selection value to, say, a factorial function.  I was greatly disappointed when I found this out.  Likewise, it doesn't model biological cost theory well, because it gives an inordinate fitness advantage to new functions (for a good model of cost theory, see Mendel's Accountant).

Don't get me wrong, Avida was a great system to spur interest in this field.  This program probably wouldn't exist without Avida - we probably wouldn't have thought of it on our own.  However, the problem is that many view Avida as being able to answer their questions (which it generally can't - especially on cost theory or evolvability) instead of simply being the first iteration of a dynamic series of research questions.  

So, what we would like to research are the prerequisites for evolving new algorithms, not just logic functions.  Therefore, we are starting this project in order to determine what is required in order to do this.  We are chucking cost theory, non-teleology.  We know we are including teleologial concepts into evolution, because the question we want to answer is, in order to solve problem X, what prerequisites are required in order to construct a solution?

Therefore, the new project will have an easily-modifiable instruction set, a more flexible machine model, and a probably more teleological method of defining fit/unfit organisms.

Again, the new project is at


August 03, 2008

Politics / Generative, Rhetorical, and Historical Roots of Politics (Moral Politics, Pt 1)


This is the first post of a series on the book Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think.  I am blogging as I read, so parts of this may wind up being different than where the author is ultimately going.  In any case, the discussions in Moral Politics provide a good springboard for discussions.

The main idea in Moral Politics is to identify how conservatives and liberals process their political beliefs cognitively, and what the difference is. This is not problematic, per se, except that I think that the author is overgeneralizing the words we use to describe politics to the way we really think about politics, and along the way is missing some important distinctions. 

The fundamental thesis is that conservatives think in terms of a "Strict Father" morality - one that is based on discipline and self-reliance, while the liberals think in terms of a "Nurturing Parent" morality - one that is based on mutual respect and providing for others' needs.

Now, there are several causes for our political beliefs.  I think the three most important are:

  • Generative - these are the first principles of politics (the specific principles used vary from system to system) which are combined, elaborated, and applied systematically to create a political system.  This could also be referred to as ideological.
  • Historical - these are the associations that are built up through history.  For example, two groups may be historically related in a political system even though they have little in common anymore.  Perhaps in their history they persued common paths, but now their link is no longer in their generative theories but simply because their organizations have grown so closely together.  This can also happen when two groups face a common enemy.
  • Rhetorical - these are the words used to communicate politics (whether generative or historical) to others (whether to other politicians or to the public at large).  Interestingly, rhetoric can itself become a cause - kind of a substitution for a generative idea. 

Now, when communicating with others (i.e. rhetoric), the most important thing is to establish a common frame of reference.  If I were communicating with physicists, I might try using analogies from the laws of thermodynamics.  If I am communicating with computer scientists, I might use analogies related to data gathering or representation.  However, in all these cases, the analogies are used to explain the ideology using a common reference point, not as a substitute for the ideology. 

The fundamental problem with Moral Politics seems to be that the author is approaching rhetoric as being able to identify the fundamental causes of politics.  I think that is fundamentally erroneous.

The reason why family is often used as a metaphor for political action is that everyone is the product of some sort of family.  Therefore, the most inclusive type of analogy that can be used is that of family.  The author seems to want to be using family structure as the core of political belief, and then specifying the branches and alternatives as modifiers within the scope of the notion of family structure.  Instead, while the examination of family morality rhetoric may be interesting and useful, I think that thinking of it as fundamental is a non-starter.  This is more useful information if you want to know how to convince a group of people to believe in your political ideology - you need to know what sorts of analogies make sense to them - but it is not quite so useful in determining either the source of an ideology nor whether or not it should be followed.

The real difference between conservatives and liberals in America is secular verses theistic models of government.   And, interestingly, you actually find that as far as generative models go, liberals are closer to libertarians thaneither one is to conservatives.  But we'll save that for later.