"I'm Not Convinced We Know Anything"

Brain Rules by John Medina: Weekend Read

Brain Rules by John Medina: Weekend Read

So this weekend I diverged a bit from physics and sci-fi to indulge in something different; biology. And by any standards there’s nothing more fascinating in biology than brain science; okay maybe it’s a tie with genetics :) John Medina’s brain rules is one of those books that would be easily classified as eye opening. It takes the reader through a series of points that completely change the way you think about the brain, and thankfully puts some long held ideas to rest along with other myths.

Being a computer programmer seated at my desk day after day tackling one algorithm after another I’m tempted to think that I’m giving my brain the best exercise. But as it turns out am not doing it any favors sitting all day. Medina points out how physical exercise is a crucial part of keeping your brain fit. This point among others make you realize how you and the whole human species have been doing a lot of things wrong since we moved out of the caves. Reading the book you will probably be convinced like me to want to ask my boss if I can bring my pillow to work for a very important afternoon nap. The beauty of brain rules is that every fact is backed by research replicated by neuroscientists around the world.

The book gives a rather different picture of how perception works than what you will remember from high school. It reveals something much more complex. The communication of the eye with the brain for example is not as simple as portrayed in 11th grade biology books. The process of seeing involves a lot of tasks by different organs, and different parts of the brain including disintegration of the visual information at one point sending it to different parts of the brain, reassembly at another point  etc. The process is so complex and detailed such that things like the color of an object, location, motion are all interpreted by different faculties of the brain. Amazing eh? And there’s a Jennifer Aniston neuron in every one of us?

Most importantly the book calls to action for teachers to work with researchers and redesign the classroom to be more accommodating of the brain as we currently know it. From the many research backed points that Medina brings out you will clearly see why this makes a lot of sense.

It’s an easy read, doable in a day. It’s very exciting since Medina – knowing how the brain works – is good at keeping you engaged with the interesting supporting stories, a good sense of humor and some amazing brain related abilities and disabilities that have been encountered in medicine. Though some disabilities have been detrimental to the subjects, they have been key in our understanding of the most important part our anatomy.

I think physicists have an easier job since they can theorize and point their telescopes to the sky. Brain science is less accommodating of theories since things often turn out to be unexpected and it involves cutting open people’s brains or waiting for someone with a special condition.

All in all I can gladly say I know more about myself after reading this book and how to allow my brain function optimally. And so in conclusion, two words, ‘Must Read!’.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the book vs the movie

The Book
My new most favorite author is Douglas Adams – already got the other four books in this series* for Christmas. His sense of humor is very unique and unlike any other that I have read. His jokes are completely unpredictable , out of this world and they never disappoint. It’s not one of those books that start out funny and the author gets tired along the way leaving the rest of it filled with dry humor that barely make you smile.

It tackles the biggest philosophical questions in a way that keeps you entertained and yearning for more. I wouldn’t say it answers those questions or even attempts a ‘philosophically viable’ argument in that direction but it does encourage one to think outside the box. Like way outside the box.

It’s by far the funniest book I’ve ever read. I kept wondering how they pulled off the movie given the complex nature of his writing. The only way would be doing a seriously funny science fiction that is borderline goofy. The Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy is an easy read and a very short book that you can easily do in one sitting. Maybe two. If you are looking for a good laugh you should definitely give it a go.

Here is one of the funny bits that really cracked me up:  “He had an odd feeling of being like a man in the act of adultery who is surprised when the woman’s husband wanders into the room, changes his trousers, passes a few idle remarks about the weather and leaves again.” You don’t get that kind of humor anywhere else.Makes you wonder how he comes up with things like those. But it is a risky sense of humor as your audience might at times think too hard before they realize it’s a joke. Great work Douglas!

The Movie

This was rather disappointing. I would easily say it’s one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. I watched it after reading the book and was thinking that doing a movie out of it was too ambitious given the nature of the book.

Truth is there’s no way they would have captured the story as it is in the book and portrayed it in a 2 hour movie. I feel bad for anyone who watched the movie without reading the book first because I can only imagine how confused they might have been; most of the jokes are funnier if you remember the context in the book. The movie leapfrogs through the story and misses out on a lot of flesh and other pivotal parts of the story

I love goofy movies like Scary Movie but this I didn’t like. Maybe it’s because of the very high standards set by the book.


Weekend Read: Physics of The Impossible

Wine, music, book action! This weekend has been one of my best as I got lost into Michiu Kaku’s bestseller ‘Physics of The Impossible’. Michiu Kaku is an American Theoretical Physicist and one of the celebrity Physics faces beside Stephen Hawking.

Having watched him in several documentaries and lecture videos his style came across in the book making me feel like I was attending his class.

Physics of The Impossible is Kaku’s 3 group classification of various feats that might be considered impossible even though some have already been achieved in some form and others within reach in the foreseeable future. These range from things like invisibility cloaks to robots to time travel. There are three classes. The Class 1 Impossibilites are those that are not possible today but do not violate laws of physics for example teleportation and invisibility. Class II Impossibilites are at the fringe of our current knowledge and might be achieved after a million or so years e.g time machines. The last category, Class III Impossibilities, do not agree with our current laws of physics as we know them and might change our understanding of everything if ever achieved for instance perpetual motion machines.

The book makes it very obvious how much science fiction has influenced scientific exploration and technology and makes it hard to just dismiss something you see on TV as just for fun. It has actually made me want to watch more science fiction(though it’s all I watch nowadays) but with a more academic eye. In fact before I finished reading the book I was already looking for episodes of Star Trek which is the most mentioned science fiction in the book.

This is a great read and highly recommend it. It’s very enjoyable, he knows how to keep you glued. Unlike some books which towards the end I felt like I was reading just finish, this one got more interesting as I read along. I guess mostly because it veered into the quantum world which I love very much. However I felt at some point that it wrongly rides on the assumption that everything can be explained using Physics. Even though this is arguably close to the truth, sometimes the theme of the chapter is completely lost when the author delves into quantum physics and cosmology while ignoring other applicable fields of study like he ignores Biology in the chapter ‘Precognition’.

One other thing that came across is that ‘Physicists never learn’. It is interesting how they(we) can be at the very edge of knowledge and yet it reaches a point where they declare something impossible. Take Lord Kelvin for example. Kelvin is known to have claimed that heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible despite him being one of the giants of modern Physics and Mathematics.  William Bickerton the New Zealand Astronomer once said “This foolish idea of shooting at the moon is an example of absurd length to which vicious specialization will carry scientists…the proposition appears to be basically impossible.” And new evidence seems to suggest that Einstein was wrong on the speed of light being the ultimate speed that can be achieved. What history should teach us is that we can never rule out something to be impossible, we can only say they are highly unlikely at a certain day and age. But it’s only human to look at history in the eye and dismiss it. Even Stephen Hawking has become guilty of this by saying that A Theory of Everything is impossible.  I like the way Kaku is open about a myriad of possibilities – but I do think that perpetual motion machines are impossible :)

 

 

When does free will kick in?

I’ve always been vocal against the theory that humans have free will.  I want to believe otherwise because it’s only human to do so, I don’t want to feel like everything has been determined already and just waiting for the time. I don’t want to feel like what I think are decisions am making are actually not, rather  in the background they are mathematical equations and solutions are already determined. However, what I feel is irrelevant. What matters is what agrees with evidence. For centuries humans felt the Earth is at the center of the Solar System. And since forever humans have felt that their is life after death despite the lack of evidence or at least a theory that aligns with observation. So let’s put feelings aside for now.

Last Sunday evening I realized I had been at my computer the whole weekend programming. I decided to go out for a few drinks so it didn’t turn out to be one of those weekends that just passed by. They had football on. It was a match between some two European clubs I can’t remember which. When it comes to sport I hardly know anything outside Formula 1 and MotoGP.

Anyway, I’m sipping away at the usual(Smirnoff Ice – I know it’s a girly drink but beer tastes whack), I’m watching football and kind of enjoying it even though I didn’t know which team to root for.  At some point I couldn’t help myself but think scientifically, and my second bottle made me a little philosophical too. I start to wonder what are the chances of a footballer making a move that is completely independent of what he’s been trained to do, his talent, his hormonal situation, his genes, his intelligence and his past experience. The answer is nearly nil. In fact every single move depends mainly on these factors. So at this point nothing seems random to me anymore. I almost want to look at the history of both teams to calculate the odds of which team will win, but then that would kill the element of surprise. Interestingly enough I still enjoy the game even though now it’s like observing Brownian motion (the presumably random moving of particles suspended in a fluid  resulting from their bombardment by the fast moving atoms or molecules in the gas or liquid).  Everything looks random even though looking closer you see patterns that help you predict outcomes. And that didn’t make watching football less fun, it’s still fun just in a different way.

This seemingly random but not quite random human behavior goes beyond football into our daily lives. Almost every action and inaction can be attributed to one of three things: biology, history, environment. I stay up late because I had a coffee earlier. I go for a drink because am thirsty.  I get out of bed because I have to go to work. I take this route because I have a bad experience with that one. I use Safaricom Network because they provide the fastest internet etc. There’s an explanation to why everything is happening the way it is. When I ‘decided’ to got out for drinks last Sunday evening their was factors that led to that. Factors that with the right equations wouldn’t have predicted any other outcome.

Some people say that Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight blog is the real winner of the US presidential election of 2012. While everyone else thought it was too close to call before election night, Nate crunched his data and predicted a 92% chance of an Obama win.  Reelecting Obama was a collective choice the American voters made. Nate used math to predict the outcome of that choice accurately. And this is not the first time he’s done it. He’s also not the only one in the game. It’s actually a whole field of study.

Most people think the ultimate Artificial Intelligence life form will be that with free will. But do we ourselves have free will? I think if we create something with free will we would have created something far more advanced than us humans. I think just because we think we make decisions doesn’t mean we actually do. I think we just react to situations, and our reactions depend on our genetic makeup, history and environment. And we have no more free will than a rock that just sits there.

Wild And Uncontrolled is What The Ecosystem Needs Steve

In an interview earlier today with Richard Hoffman, Steve Ballmer pitched Windows mobile as better than Android and Apple’s iOS saying that the former is ‘wild’ and ‘uncontrolled’ while the latter is highly priced and highly controlled. Now this is the same Ballmer that laughed off the iPhone before it was released alluding that it’s impractical.  iPhone went on to become a very successful product and set new standards for the smartphone world. I’m not going to vouch for Apple here though, I dislike their products as much as the next freedom freak. I actually do agree with Ballmer about the iPhone. However, Android is my friend and the reason I love it is mainly because it is wild and uncontrolled.

According to the latest Gartner findings, Android now has 72% of the smartphone market share. That is up about 20% from the same time last year. It’s  not sheer luck that android is doing so well. It’s also not a coincidence that Samsung became the top phone selling manufacture after unveiling their Galaxy series that are powered by android. Android makes sense to users and developers alike. I developed my first android application before I knew any Java simply because of the huge number of people in the Open source community. Apparently their isn’t any problem I could come across that no one had already come across, posted on a forum and got dozens of answers. And now that I speak Java, things are much easier. Developing for iPhone requires that you first buy an overpriced Mac computer – there are hacks but you’ll still need a Mac.  Despite their sleek UI, awesome UX and stability, Macs just don’t cut it for me. I’d give anything for a little more control in my life, including boycotting Apple products. Developing a Windows mobile app requires you purchase softwares, starting with a Windows OS. Where is the incentive?

If Microsoft can’t recognise the Open Source Community they should focus their energy on surface computing and gaming technology. Android is probably the best thing that ever happened to mobile telephony. Wild and uncontrolled is good for development. Earlier in the week there was news about a $21 dollar tablet(20% price of an iPad) made in the UK targeting students in India. And of course it’s running on Android. Now this is something that wouldn’t happen in a very long time if the tablet industry was owned by the profit centric, anti Open-Source Microsoft and Apple.

Kenyan Politicians’ Walk of Shame

Kenyan politics is fun; when you pretend you are on the sidelines and it’s just a show that has no effect on your well being then it’s one of the funnest things to indulge in. However, it’s depressing when you think that the decisions the politicians make actually have big impact on the development of the country.
I like that the new constitution has brought with it a few new regulations that can cap how much games can go on in the political arena. The introduction of the deadline to form coalitions for example has arm twisted the politicians to shamelessly show how much they care about political seats than anything else.
We have for example Kalonzo Musyoka who ran up and down to various corners of Africa on a tax money spending spree dubbed ‘the shuttle diplomacy’ in a failed attempt to save the asses of Uhuru and Ruto from the Hague. It’s now more obvious that he had vested interests in protecting the war crime suspects – most probably being given a fat seat in the G7 alliance. Now that the Uhuruto have shown him he is dispensable he is back to forming a coalition with the guy he’s been against for the last 5 years. In just the last month he has gone from almost forming a coalition with 3 different parties with very different political views. They say that a wise man changes his mind but at the rate Kalonzo changes his mind, he is nothing but wise, sly maybe.
Musalia Mudavadi the once nearly clean politician has joined the Uhuruto alliance in a race against time to join something, no matter how dirty it is. I’m not saying that Uhuru and Ruto are guilty of crimes against humanity – ICC will be the judge of that in a few months – am simply saying that when you have a coalition made of war crimes suspects that is bent on trying to stop their cases, a coalition of that if found guilty if they form the government might turn the country into something akin to Sudan, a coalition that will go out of their way to fuck up our foreign policy by claiming that the west is interfering (even though such a position might lead economic sanctions that could result in Kenya becoming another Zimbabwe), then it doesn’t matter what kind of visionary you are because your dignity is tainted for life. This might very well be the end of his political career.
I have a lot respect for Raila as a reformist, or rather the closest thing we have to a reformist in a high place of power. But I’m not the biggest fan of his latest decision to have Kalonzo as his running mate. There’s a reason Kenyans refer to Kalonzo as ‘water melon’. It’s not because he is known to eat a lot of the fruit. Kalonzo goes with the tide. You need to watch his statements just for a month to realize how true this is. He is a big liability to ODM especially given how much negative interactions they’ve had in the recent past. I wonder how they would run the country smoothly with that kind of relationship. But then again they are politicians, more unpredictable than electrons. I feel like here Raila just played a game of numbers. From a rational perspective it’s a wise move since one needs the numbers to win, but then again Kenyans are ‘waking up’ and numbers might have a whole new meaning this time round.
I have never voted before except for those few times when someone says ‘by the show of hands…’ Those ones are easy, one doesn’t need to sit down and have a philosophical argument with self on whether democracy works or not etc. But this one is bigger. Today I read an article with a snippet on President Kibaki’s speech that said: “If you don’t register as a voter then how will you participate in choosing the right leaders to govern this nation?” Now am not one to be looking for inspiration from the same guy that says ‘Mavi ya Kuku’ and ‘Kumbaffu’ on a national presidential addresses. However, this simple statement has changed my all life reluctance to vote.
When the sun rises, and the window for making pre-election deals has passed, politicians will be waking up in the morning realizing who they are in bed with and go ‘Did we….? Oh shit!’. You on the other hand are not supposed to just stand by the road taking pictures of their walks of shame. Instead find a registration center, identify the right candidate that addresses your issues, and vote. Because at the end of this process the one thing the Kenyan politicians should finally learn is that numbers are taking new dynamics. It’s all about policies, issues, economy et al. It’s not tribe anymore. We are of one tribe. Kenya.

The Age of Tweets

The current book I’m reading is called The Most Human Human by BrianChristian, where the author talks about what it means to be human from his experience with artificial intelligence. At the beginning of the book he introduces the Loebner Prize, an annual contest that pits humans against computer programs. In the contest the competitors have to prove that they’re human.

That doesn’t sound like a hard task for a human but then think about a human on Twitter. What tells you apart from a robot when you’re reduced to an almost anonymous data point in a sea of millions of others adding to the noise? Twitter is probably the least social social network, where users have very untelling profiles much like the ASL chat room days.

When people ask what Twitter is to me, I mention how I first learnt about Osama Bin Laden’s death on Twitter, a few minutes before President Barack Obama made a speech about it, and before mainstream media picked up the story. Without Twitter, I would have probably learnt about the story a few minutes later on Facebook or less than an hour later on BBC. Maybe if the information was something like an oncoming Tsunami then getting it as early as possible would’ve had practical benefits. However, it wasn’t. I still consider Twitter a great source of news, but most of the time it seems to be nothing more than a plethora of useless information since all the important bits are diluted by the other stuff.

X tweets this, Y retweets, Z replies with an LOL or an analysis with a half-baked philosophical quote or a terrible attempt at a quick comeback condensed to less than 140 characters. Half the time people you are following will be talking about things that don’t interest you. Some of the time they will be having a conversation that you’re not part of. Some of the time they’ll be sharing links of topics that don’t interest you and sometimes sharing content that might be useful to you except there’s so much content on your stream, you can only consume a very small portion of it. Anything you don’t consume is noise. Twitter is not an information superhighway. It’s a miasma of countless loud voices saying different things, each one trying to be heard while paying little or no attention to what other voices have to say.

If there was an experiment to create a social network for AI systems, that social network would look something like Twitter. The chatbots wouldn’t care to know about each other’s personalities at a meaningful level. All they would do is to grab links off the web and post them with a paraphrased version of the title. They would follow event speeches and tweet things like “VP John Doe now talking about web presence.” They would crawl the internet for websites like BrainyQuotes.com and tweet random quotes. And the followers would be able to retweet them and maybe adding internet lingo like OMG!!!, ;)or even ROTFL. And it’s only robots that would be able to consume content at that pace without being confused by the noise.

Twitter is like texting with people you don’t know. It has created people who think they know enough to add to the conversation with authority and tech wannabes who spend the whole day talking. The real techies don’t talk all day, at least not to machine-like humans, but rather to human-like machines and humans.

My opinion is that Twitter fails as a social network. At some point people will realize they’ve learnt nothing on this information superhighway because the information is moving way too fast. But until then I would love it if you tweeted this. :)

Beyond the comfort zone

When we wake up in the morning we worry about getting to work on time, making money, what to have for breakfast among other mediocre concerns. We live in a world that extends to infinity yet all we see, all we care about are the tiny negligible bits. These bits are what our lives revolve around even though right outside the door lies infinity.
Our planet is one of nine planets orbiting an average sized star within a solar system that is 11,820 billion km wide. We’re surrounded by hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way galaxy, some much smaller than our sun, some large enough to stretch from the center of the sun to Pluto. And in between all that are tons of dying stars, black holes with densities so massive they make time curve onto itself, and huge clouds of gas and dust, creating new stars, adding to the already infinite population of the Milky Way that stretches 900 trillion km.
And the Milky Way is only one of hundreds of billions of galaxies, some much bigger, some much smaller, all in a vast expanse that is 400,000 trillion km across, expanding at the speed of light. And as new physics suggests, that may not be the end of it. Our universe might be just one of infinite universes, bubbling through existence. This is almost comparable to the innumerable molecules and atoms that make up the things we see. And just like the billions of galaxies, they require special techniques to be observed. Quite elusive, but when we do observe them we find out that’s not how far down it goes. They are made up of tinier stuff. Electrons, neutrons, protons. And further down, quarks. Bits of matter so small they can fall through a human body without touching anything. They make up a world that defies physics as we know it. They are neither here nor there, they are both here and there and they only exist when we observe them.
What a wonderful world lies outside our comfort zone.

A Spark

It starts as a spark, like the bulb suddenly goes on and the room lights up. Behold an idea that will change the world forever. The innovator salivates, eyes wide open excited at the what can be accomplished. It feels like the ultimate step at transforming reality. This is it! It’s far better than the last one, far more exciting, far more practical and way more useful

Anything that stands in the way of execution is either tossed aside or thrashed with all might. Things that are usually distracting are no longer in sight. They become blurred tiny specks at the bottom of a pile of  tasks that are more exciting than anything else. The more challenging the more exciting. Everything else comes second. The stomach can wait a few more hours, the visit to the barber postponed indefinitely. And sleep? What sleep?

Every bit that works properly is followed by a eureka moment building up bit by bit to the final moment where the world changes forever. And then the moment comes , the climax, every piece coming up together to form a whole,  a wonderful creation, a step into the future…tears, satisfaction, and an eerily strong need to show love. And then the stomach rumbles, the urge to visit the barber comes back, and the bed looks more enticing now more than ever before.

The next day the appreciation is very encouraging. But looking around the world hasn’t changed yet: a reminder that that was just a step, more effort is needed, bigger ideas and a stronger will. So the innovator recoils back to reality…a moment passes…and then a spark!

It’s a New Day

It’s another day. Same places, same people but a different time. In reality no matter how similar it looks to yesterday and more days past, no matter how familiar the environ and the presence of bonds I have created with the people I interact with, the truth is I haven’t been here before. It’s a new day.
The matter looks the same but the interactions are all new to me. I’ve never seen that kid in those shoes, that shirt and holding a banana, walking that street while a white stray dog passes quick behind him being yelled at by Mama Steve all furious at 9.23am. And that moment potentially preceding layers of other moments each a new painting with a deep representation of a new reality. It’s a new day.
A series of billions perhaps trillions or more of interactions out of a possible infinite jungled up together by chance or whatever kind of god one envisions picking up billions of interactions stirring them in a magic pot into a fine unique mix. It’s a new day.
Anything is possible, some of the interactions not great, some extremely awesome, some might change my life forever. Every new second, new interactions, new possibilities. Am I going to keep my fears from yesterday or brush them aside replace them with new hopes, am I going to pull my dreams closer or push them further out into the future? And why does the future matter if it doesn’t exist? Why does yesterday matter when it no longer is? Why ignore today when it is all that is? Why not make that dream come true today? Why not live those dreams today? Isn’t a new day what we yearn for? Well, it’s a new day.