Archive for May, 2009

Why I hate ipods

Friday, May 29th, 2009

As I was walking to work today, I was not listening to an ipod. I never do. In part, I do not use one for reasons of safety. Korean pavements can be dangerous places. Motorbike riders use the pavement as much as the main road, and it is vital that one has all the senses tuned to what’s going on. As well as motorbikes, one hears conversations and shouting, haggling and laughing, and all the other sounds that make up day-to-day life.

Today, my ears picked up on a plaintive melody from a cello soloist. There was so much other sound, from air conditioner heat sinks and the like, that I didn’t devote much thought to it at first. But the melody did not stop as I walked along the street. To walk more that a hundred metres, listening to the same sound, without the volume of the sound varying and without being able to identify the source is a peculiar experience. Listening to the conversation of a fellow walker is easily understood, as is the increasing din when approaching something far off but very loud. But a continuing piece of music, as other sounds rise and fade away, is eerily unusual.

Quickly, I realised that all of the televisions, which can be heard on the street from every shop, were on the same channel. It’s not normal for every set on a road to be on the same show. I was reminded of getting off a coach and walking through the streets of Bangkok on September 11th 2001 and wondering why there were crowds of people outside every cafe, staring in the same direction towards the TVs. My first thought, alarmist coward that I am, was that Pyongyang had done something outrageous and that the melancholic cello was to make the four minute warning somehow easier to absorb. However, the cello solo was part of former president Roh Moo-hyun’s funeral, which I think is occupying the thoughts of Koreans even more that the North’s current sabre-rattling.

A few steps later, I was back in everyday Korea, as a tune from the Wondergirls blared out from some shop’s TV. I couldn’t help asking myself why people deprive themselves of the sounds of the world. Wearing headphones and having complete control over what one hears is like looking at waxed, silicone enhanced and Photoshop-ed pornography during sex.

The Quiet Despair of Loneliness

Friday, May 15th, 2009

Which of these embodies quiet despair of loneliness better?

Songs that Sound Similar

Friday, May 8th, 2009

I heard the track “Pandora” by Cocteau Twins today.

I fell in love immediately. It sounded really familiar. After a bit of brainwracking, I remembered the track “A Wolf at the Door” by Radiohead.

Do I win a prize?

If we are going to make thought unnecessary using technology (that is our aim, isn’t it?) we’re going to need some sort of search engine where we can ask “What else does such-and-such-a-song sound like?” It seems like a common enough question. As the pace at which new media passes over our cerebra increases, the desire for such support will no doubt increase.

How might such a search engine come about?

To some extent, we already have such system. This blog post is part of the system. Everytime someone writes about a song reminding them about another song on the internet, the search engines add that information to the database. I’m not sure how many posts of this sort there are in the world, but over time, a large body of knowledge should fall into place.

One can imagine some sort of wiki springing up along similar lines. There are probably already several good ones already.

Once there is enough data out there connecting songs to others by reported similarity, it’s only a matter of time before someone throws some AI (artificial neural nets? evolutionary computation?) at that data and a fully automatic system that trawls myspace and youtube will be in place.

In the meantime, parallel systems will probably be developed in order to protect intellectual property against plagiarism and copyright theft.

It’s easy enough to see the reasons that would cause an artificially intelligent system that can recognise similarities between songs to come about. It’s not see easy to understand why the human brain has this ability. Why do certain songs make us pause to wonder about what they remind us of? How was this ability useful for our ancestors when they were fighting sabre tooth tigers and woolly mammoths? Why is it so annoying when we can’t remember? Why do we think that it’s important that we do?

Swine Flu Spam

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009

One of the joys of maintaining a blog is the daily checking of the moderation queue for comments. This involves passing my eyes over enormous amounts of spam. I find this a little bit irksome, but I’ve also grown to enjoy it. Not only does it keep me up to date with the names the most popular sexy women, the latest advances in pharmacological science and the category titles of the world’s paraphilias, but it also keeps me informed of what search phrases people are trying to high jack. Predictably, this morning, I cleared out a load of swine flu spam.

How not to fight global warming

Monday, May 4th, 2009

Above is a link to an article on the carbon footprint of the internet. In the comments, we can find the normal luddite opinions. If only people didn’t like the modern world, we could live in pre-industrial simplicity.

It seems embarrassingly obvious to me that if we have any hope of survival, it is in moving forward, rather than backwards. If we think that we can solve the world’s environmental problems by rejecting technology, then we’re sunk. Do the troglodyte commenters on the Guardian really think that the world is going to be able to implement the sort of engineering projects that are going to be necessary for a revolution in the world’s energy industry without the internet? How do they imagine engineers study and design things like solar panels, wind turbines or smart electricity grids? Using pencils, recycled paper and 30 year old text books?

The One Thing Needful

Friday, May 1st, 2009

The weather has been very nice here in Guri today. I’ve just read two articles predicting that this summer will be good for barbecues in Britain.

The Met Office apparently predicted the same thing last year and got it completely wrong. My guess is that they will be wrong again this year. My thinking is not really very scientific, just a willful and immature contrariness coupled with a lifetime of disappointing summers in England.

The sun is at the bottom of its sunspot cycle as well:

Noticing correlations between seemingly unrelated data has always been a rich source of new knowledge. I understand that correlation is not causation, but the reverse does appear to be true. If the expected outcome of a hypothesis does not coincide with the recorded data, then the hypothesis should not be trusted or a least questioned thoroughly.

I watched a lecture last night on Wolfram|Alpha

I imagine that when this goes live, there will be a lot of bloggers who use the data to show relationships that are very questionable. The old line about statistics being used like a drunkard uses a lamp post, for support rather than illumination, will no doubt apply. I am interested to see what all the amateur climatologists who have sprung up since climate change has obsessed the world will come up with. Like everything in life, more than 99% of it will be banal and worthless. It’s the rest that’s intesting. Luckily, the internet provides incredible filters for sorting through enormous amounts of information for finding the most interesting things to think about.

One of the problems that I can see with W|A is that it is closed and proprietary, although users will be able to access the data for free. The company may be able to run profitably. The search engines have done well being run this way. As far as I know, this is a new sort of service that has not been tried before. I hope that the likes of Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft try to build rivals to this quickly.

I hope that the diverse open source communities of the world try to come up with something to compete with it. At this stage, it is clear that a lot of human intervention is needed to get the data into the system. Wikipedia has shown that this is something that people are willing to give up their free time to do. Providing the vast computing resources for an open source version of this project is also a hurdle. I would certainly consider giving up some of my computer’s spare cycles for a distributed and open source version of this came along, and I am sure that I would not be alone. However, the popularity of Google compared to, for example, Yacy shows how difficult it is for these sorts of things to be fully open.

Another development that I hope that W|A brings about is to force universities and other publicly funded research institutions to do more to make all of their experimental data available in machine readable formats. A single open source project that can absorb all of the scientific, engineering, technical, sociological, economic and financial data in the world might not come about, but lots of smaller projects that each try to solve part of the problem might. No doubt, such projects would take pains to cooperate with the other projects.

What developments occur in the next few years in this field are the subjects of anyone’s guesses. As Dickens pointed out in Hard Times,

facts alone do not make a person educated or complete. However, I imagine that everyone being able to ask lots of little questions involving data and relationship between them will have a similar impact to that of Google and Wikipedia. In the past, if we wondered to ourselves “What is the name of the Aztec sun god?” we might not have bothered to go to a public library or even take an encyclopedia of the shelf to find out. Now, we are much more likely to find out about

because it takes such a short amount of time with our modern tools.