Oct 262005

It’s a book by Mitchel Resnick. It didn’t get covered in my list of academic books before, probably cause it came onto the scene a bit late for me. If I had gotten 3-5 years earlier, I might be doing Logo right now still.

I imagine that the Logo turtle will be a big part of my life in the upcoming years. Logo was the first programming language I used. Basically, you control a virtual turtle. You get to tell him to move forward, to turn X degrees, to put his pen down, to lift his pen up. And with those commands, you can draw pictures and stuff.

Now a days, they have little toy trucks that you can do the same thing with. My old CTO’s kid had one. It was pretty fun. Trying to figure out how to get it to drive around the living room without crashing into things. But his truck didn’t have a “pen” to draw on the carpet with. It had a horn – that you could blast. I spent the last 5 minutes convincing the kid that a high percentage of the 30 commands the truck could take should be blasting the horn. It’d be more fun that way.

Anyway – Logo turtles based in the real world with a truck is cool. But there are somethings you can’t do in the real world, which make simulations more interesting. Turtles, Termines and Traffic Jams explains some of those simulations.? It is a very good book about complex systems in “massively parallel microworlds”. Basically, he took the Logo turtle and spawned them repeatedly. Thousands of turtles.

And the world that the turtles live in has an environment – where turtles can drop “scents” and sniff for “scents”.? So pheromones used by ants and termites could be modeled. And some “scents” could be special – like a “food” source. And in the model, you could watch as the turtles (modeling ants) self-organize and optimize even – OPTIMIZE – their path.

I mean, we rarely get the chance to appreciate the path ants take while they invade our kitchen. Usually, it is a panic and rush to eliminate their path. But with a virtual world of turtles, you can watch them struggle to find the food (they just walk around randomly) then create a path to the food (which isn’t that direct because they have to follow that random, meandering path that they made to get to the food originally) and then optimize the path (by randomly deviating from the path and when the deviation is shorter, that shortcut gets utilized). It is fun stuff.

Interactive fun stuff. You get to tweak a few parameters and all of a sudden the behavior changes. The paths don’t optimize (not enough random deviations) or the paths don’t get made at all (the scent’s lifespan is too short – no scent trails) or the paths don’t get made at all (the scent’s lifespan is too long – there is scent everywhere). Basically, it is an infinite laboratory.

By creating scent trails that are a straight line and programming the turtles to follow the scent religiously – one can create “highways”. Then, in that process, one can add? some minor collision avoidance routines to the turtles. Now one has safe highways. Its fun to watch traffic flow along these highways smoothly – what a master of urban planning we are!

But instead of everyone using the exact same parameters, add a couple random parameters to the collision avoidance routines (slow down a bit more, slow down a bit later, slow down a bit earlier, etc).? And now, all of a sudden, the traffic isn’t flowing so smoothly. Traffic jams spontaneously appear because of the interactions between the different types of drivers. Whoa – urban planning ain’t easy in the real world!

So, Logo’s a great learning tool – and it was a stroke of genius to go from 1 turtle to N turtles. But even better than that stroke of genius is that Resnick focuses on applying his models to education. Instead of trying to become the best fisherman, so he can publish papers about how good and big the fish are that he’s caught, he’s creating a fisherman school – to try and inspire others to become fisherman and go out and explore – and probably find new types of fish that we had never seen before.

Sal’s gonna be one of those fisherman. Regardless of what he decides to pursue in life later on, he’ll have a fundamental background in modelling multi-agent systems. I think that’s what happens when your dad’s got a tattoo of ants communicating and then did a thesis on the multi-agent systems. I know, I know, he never asked to be born. Well, as they said on Weeds, “Fare is what you use to get on the bus. That’s the only fair I know in this world.” (Well, something like that. And it flows better when said than read.)

But it’ll be fun, because now, instead of just those plain old trucks that are turtles, Lego Mindstorms have full kits that you can use to program Lego bricks. These bricks can have inputs (light, IR sensors – you can effect your Lego car with a tv remote control!, temperature, etc) and outputs (motor control, IR transmitters – you car can turn your tv off, or, here’s one of those leaps from single turtle to many turtles – bricks can talk to each other!) Brilliant!

There’s actually probably a lot more they can do now, I haven’t looked into them for years. I did build a few of the original kits, back in the 96-97 or so – before they were legitimate Lego products.? They were sold as build it yourself kits back then by an MIT grad student. Basically it was a computer that you glued Lego bricks to, then you could snap the bricks onto a Lego vehicle.

Long, long hours in the kitchen in my grad student studio apartment (kitchen had the best light) soldering the circuitry together. Fricken pain in the butt. Cause I’d have to debug the thing all the time to make sure I was building it properly. Anyway, those were the days where instead of paying an extra 60 bucks for the pre-built one, I’d spend 4 days building it myself (and 80 bucks on the equipment to build it…) Once I realized how much more it cost for me to build it than to buy it built, I realized I had to build another one, to bring down the cost.

But I knew I’d have a set of them anyway, cause I wanted to take my simulations off the computer and into the real world. I figured I could use buzzers and microphones on the Lego bots to get them to communicate and that’d be a neat part of the thesis. Well, turns out the motors on Lego bots drown out the buzzers and that makes communication a bit tough. IR really is the way to go, it’s just harder for humans to observe it – so it wouldn’t be as dramatic a demo. There is no better phrase for a PhD student than “future work”.

When I left school in 99, Lego research labs up in San Rafael had a position I was interested in. I think it might have been a dream job – legos, programming, education. But San Rafael was so far away (Catherine was working in Sunnyvale). I don’t regret it at all, mainly because I felt that well, I could just buy Mindstorms and effect kids without working at Lego – just on a smaller scale. And, now I got a kid. Just need to get the Mindstorms kit now…

Anyway, I brought this all up up cause Resnick’s coming to do a little talk at Yahoo! on Friday. I’m excited about it. I know I set expectations high and I continually get disappointed, but I’m a slow learner.

I’m excited about it.

May 092005

I finished reading Freakonomics over the weekend. The ending was slow for me. As I’ve mentioned already, the book stole its own thunder in the intro as a way of luring you it. And so I kept on wanting more thunder and wasn’t getting it. It ended with a fizzle for me. And it won’t change the way I think of the world – it just reinforces the idea that statistics can be used to support any lie.? We knew that already.

And so, I’ve been a little disappointed because it didn’t make me think much. It didn’t challenge ideas, it didn’t encourage me to go out and do my own research. I’ve tried to use some of the points and broader concepts to stir things up with some more traditional thinkers…but my heart wasn’t in it. I’d rather mimic chimps killing each other than talk about how people choose to name their children and what that means for their children (though it is a neat little story about how one guy named one kid Winner and another kid Loser…and Loser is a police chief or something – who goes by the abbreviation “Lou”…and Winner has spent some time behind bars…but the story doesn’t carry the ending of the book enough for me).

Anyway – perhaps I went into the book with too high expectations. Timp raved about it – and since he’s been good for some interesting debates, I had high expecations for the book.? And so while I’m? wondering why I didn’t like the book enough – I had to wonder about how I measure books. Turns out – I think I want them to plant seeds in my head. Seeds I’ll spend time nuturing. Maybe it is because I’m not an economist or a sociologist by trade, but this book didn’t do it for me. What was the last book that did? Inmates running the asylumn certainly is up there – it is the rare book I like giving as a gift.? But then I went back a little further and hit on my turning point book…

Vehicles – a real easy read…yet one that is stuck in my head for good. A turning point in my education…and how I view the world.? Which is what Freakonomics is touted to do. And probably does for people more into people than I am. For me, Vehicles did it. The ideas it conveys are expressed elsewhere too in my readings, but none so efficiently and clearly and enjoyably.? Basically – it says complex behavior arises from interactions between simple elements – my main theme in studies and life. [Now, dedicated biographers of me might argue that GEB was really my turning point book – it was the inspiration of my first tattoo after all. But recently, while cleaning up – I found a copy of GEB and showed it to my father, letting him in on the history that me and this book share – read it on plane to hong kong, first tattoo, scientific writing doesn’t have to be cold, etc and he started to flip through it but never got through it. Vehicles on the other hand I think is a book that is more accessible and can touch a wider audience and in fact, I was pleased to find that we have multiple copies of it at home in our “library” and so for that reason I’ve put Vehicles as my turning point book. If Vehicles touches you, you’ll pursue other readings and GEB will be among them I’m sure. And vice versa. Just that it is probably a whole lot easier to be touched by Vehicles than by GEB. And Feynman‘s book wasn’t so much a turning point either – but instead, it was solidly supporting my idea that quality academic work can be done in strip clubs.? He wasn’t joking about that point…]

Yeah – no brainer. But still, no one wants to believe that in their core…we want complex solutions to complex answers – to justify all our hard work and all the effort it takes for us to figure it out.? To have a simple answer just wouldn’t be as “cool”. And it is not how we’re used to thinking – it doesn’t follow our socially formed collective wisdom (a phrase Freakonomics has got me on). We want our solutions to be complex, to demand a human intelligence to understand, to making being human more unique and precious.

We look at the world biased, through these eyes attached to amazingly powerful computers. We don’t know how to look at the world through a simpler mechanism. To be simply reactive. So when we create models of things, we build them with intent, knowledge, reasoning. We don’t want to build stupid things, we want to build grand, brilliant things.? And that’s what leads plenty of people to ask the wrong questions.? It was how I got frustrated with say 95% of the AI research being done.? And how I irked my mother.

My mother is offended by the idea of evolution – and was even more offended when I described evolution as my favorite romantic notion. I’m all about stupid things building upon stupid things and using a little chance and getting some luck here and there and presto – you’ve got an eyeball. (Presto usually takes several generations).? She prefers the master planner charting out our design. (cite – the blind watchmaker)? She doesn’t want to be related to monkeys.? She wants a purpose to her being to be more than living out some biology experiment (cite – 2001 – book much more digestible than the movie for me). I love being just part of the experiment.

Vehicles helped me see through the mask of “intelligent behavior”. How simple things put into a complex world become complex (that phrasing comes from inmates – where he discusses how + a computer becomes a computer, instead of a better ) – and once something starts behaving in a complicated manner, we love to anthropomorphize it. Giving it feelings and emotions and human qualities is a way to make it more substantial, more important…for most people.? Vehicles showed me how easy it is to fake it. How easy it is to fool the masses. How easy it is for simple systems to appear complex…

That turned me on.

In the end, yeah – both books are about finding the salient factors for phenomena in our world. Ask the right questions to find the right answers, which are often, simpler than we expect and come from unexpected directions…so – Vehicles touched me big time and Freakonomics grazed me.? No big deal. Maybe that says something about me.? Maybe it’ll take time to simmer. Maybe I’ll get into a few good arguements while I misquote stats from Freakonomics. Maybe that’ll change my mind about the book.

Maybe the next book Timp recommends will touch me. I just hope that where ever he ends up, he’s still gonna recommend a book every now and then. Because I think? the people we surround ourselves with and the debates we’re able to engage in wtih them, make us “redefine the way we view the modern world” much more often than books do…

Oh – and how’s them capital letters?