Dec 30, 2014

Thank Google for time travel


Plan A was to start the New Year right by posting every day.

Plan B was to gain some momentum by starting on my birthday, December 30th, and starting the Birth Year right.

And so I posted on December 30th. Then Failed.

So back to Plan A.


Today is January 2, and I've failed.

But Google lets me time travel

Since this post is dated December 31, 2014 it must be that Google has let me go back in time, write this and post it.

Then it must be that I time traveled forward to January 1, 2015, and posted this there.

Either that, or it's still January 2, 2015 and Google has let me backdate my posts.

I'm not saying which.

But I am saying:


Thank you Google.

I'm the sum of the eighth row of Lozanić's triangle years old! Yay?

Yes, it's true. I'm 72.

Besides being the sum of the eighth row of Lozanić's triangle, 72, my age, is:

  • the product of two consecutive numbers, 8 and 9.
  • the sum of four consecutive primes:  (13 + 17 + 19 + 23). 
  • the sum of six consecutive primes (5 + 7 + 11 + 13 + 17 + 19).

And a bunch of other stuff besides. Thanks Wikipedia. And that reminded me to make my annual donation, and then to write a G+ post, which I'll quote below and then link to. 


Because I just spent a bunch of time writing my G+ post, and then wondered if I could render it, and then spent a bunch more time actually rendering it and making it look the way that I wanted to.

And because I'm the sum of the eighth row of Lozanić's triangle years old, and when you're that old, and it's your blog, then you get to do what you want--providing Blogger lets you do it. 

And it does. So I did. So there.
How many Wikipedia pages a year do you read? What's each page worth to you? Well, yeah, not that particular page. But on the average? And in aggregate?
For me, a lot, and I hope for you, as well.
It's worth a lot to have a fairly trustworthy resource for information that you care about? Yes, I know it's not always accurate. It's not absolutely trustworthy. And sometimes it's downright lame. And no matter what attempts are made for objectivity there are issues that are so charged that edit wars have broken out, and sanctions threatened against people who misbehave.
For example: Climate Change ( and ( "The Arbitration Committee has permitted Wikipedia administrators to impose discretionary sanctions on any editor editing this page or associated pages." Meaning: "Be nice, or we'll cut you off."
Wikipedia is not an anarchy, but a community with rational government based on clearly stated principles. The principles are spelled out as clearly as possible, and evolve as the community learns more. What's it worth having a transparent governance model for a site you rely on?  
Yes, there are politics involved. If there are people there will be politics. But the politics are (mostly) polite, and even though I am sure there are some bad actors the ethos of the community is to produce information that is written from a neutral point of view, with  verifiable accuracy, citing reliable, authoritative sources:" ( And that community standard, along with the ability to enforce the standard keeps the politics (mostly) healthy.
The ability to enforce the community standards--that is, to exercise the power of government--is granted to people based on their contribution and the contribution of any Wikipedian can be objectively measured. What's it worth having a government where power is given to people who have objectively demonstrated their commitment and contribution to the community--rather than people whose primary skill is their ability to convince people of their good intentions and to convince people of others' bad intentions?
What's it worth having a laboratory in which his sort of new governance model can be explored and can evolve?
For me it's worth enough to make a substantial money donation every year, and this coming year I intend to back that up with a time contribution.
This is a project I believe is important. This is a community that I believe is earnestly attempting to help us all become more knowledgeable. This an endeavor that I support. It's worth a lot to me.
I hope it is to you as well, and that you will find a way to show your support, financially or otherwise.

Dec 9, 2014

Dysfunction in the society of mind

Today I suffered an episode of mental decompensation. Decompensation is an eight dollar word for a breakdown. Mental decompensation sounds better than mental breakdown, but a breakdown is what it was.
I found myself crying, for no reason that I could discern. Part of my mind was thinking: “Wow! This is kind of interesting. I’m crying. I’m really feeling sad. And I have no idea why.” Another part, the part attached to my lungs and tear ducts and related apparatus was causing my body to sob. Wailing. It was pathetic. And at the same time it was kind of funny.
I've gotten into a daily routine the past few weeks that’s kept me on track and productive. It’s one of the reasons that I’m actually getting shit written, from time to time, rather than having it all stuck in my head. The routine is: wake up; weigh myself; take my ADD pill; get dressed and shaved; have breakfast with Bobbi, drink water and coffee. We go over my rolling to-do list, and then I do my Daily Pages along with my first tDCS session. Then I do stuff on the list for the rest of the day.
Sometimes my Daily Pages will turn into a post. Other times my daily pages will be something that I try to turn into a post and haven’t yet done. Kind of like compost. But I’m making progress on that front. Posts are better than drafts; drafts are better than Pages; and Pages are better than nothing.
Today I didn't do my Pages. Instead, I wrote emails and made a few stabs at writing a few different things, and I found myself unable to focus. I’d start one thing, then jump to another, and another. In between I did a lot of getting up and pacing around. Then the Great Decompensation.
Daily Pages have served two purposes in my life—albeit inconsistently. One is as a morning ritual, a way to get the day started and get my mind focused. The other is when I’m working on a knotty problem, personal or technical. I sit down, pull out my notebook, and I write myself out of the ditch I’ve gotten into. This almost always works.
So, tearfully, I started writing. I tried to give the sad part of my mind a place to express itself: to tell me what it was feeling and why. I alternated between my normal handwriting, for my sane self, and ALL CAPS for the part of my mind that was so very miserable. The ALL CAPS voice expressed sadness, and anger. It wrote that it wanted to die or at least go unconscious, and it could do neither. I told it that death was off the table, but I’d help it (but not the rest of me) go unconscious if that was what it wanted. But, I suggested, we might find a better solution, and I was willing to help.
It ranted: I'M NOT GETTING THE SHIT DONE THAT I WANT TO. Then the sadness went away and the all-caps stopped and I wrote some fairly constructive things about a topic I’ve been thinking a lot about, and that segued into a tDCS session, a fast walk up and down my driveway, and this, which I’m pretty happy with as I write, and which I’m right now thinking I’ll post after fixing grammar and typos in this first draft.
What I wrote about and what I've been thinking about is how the mind works and, in particular, I've been thinking about how my mind works, and how I could organize my mental processes differently to do a better job of meeting my own goals.
The framework for my thinking comes from Marvin Minsky’s book The Society of Mind (Wikipedia summary here, full text here and MIT Open Courseware lecture here). Minsky was one of the pioneers in AI, back in the 60s when computers first came on the scene and AI was not seen as the hard problem that it’s turned out to be.
The early thinking was that the mind was a computer and that creating artificial intelligence was just a matter of writing the right program. That’s true to the extent that any computational problem can be carried out by any computer or system that’s Turing Complete. But more modern thinking about AI and about cognition in general views a mind not as a single computer, but as a collection of individually simple processes that Minsky called “agents.” The agents cooperate, collaborate, and sometimes compete. They operate in different ways, pursue different objectives and produce different solutions. Action is taken when some process, possibly involving other agents, intermediates between agents that solve problems and agents that control motor areas. And shit gets done.
Minsky’s contribution was to think about mind not as a computer, but as a society. Since we understand the way that human societies work, we can use his metaphor to think about the way minds work and how artificial intelligences might be made to work.
In a normal individual, under normal circumstances, the society of mind works cooperatively. Competing goals and solutions are evaluated against each other. Compromises are considered. Substantial consensus is reached. Individual agents in the society of mind may not be satisfied with the consensus, but the degree of their dissatisfaction and the power that they can muster is usually insufficient to disrupt the action undertaken by the majority.
But in some cases things don’t work so well. Sometimes a vocal and disruptive minority rails against the majority decision. Sometimes a vocal minority can create enough internal disruption to block the majority’s choice, forcing either inaction or a less desirable option on the rest of the society.
Think of that as the Tea Party of the mind.
This happens to me. When my own society of mind is working effectively, I think through the options and choose the one that seems best. But sometimes deciding to act on the choice that seems right fills me with sadness or with anger. I may feel so much upset that I’m unwilling to follow my own orders. Or I feel so much mental turmoil that I’m unable to. I find that my ability to control my own behavior is impaired.
That’s what happened to me this morning. There are agents in my society of mind that control my fingers and produce typing when my fingers are touching a keyboard. There are others that translate thoughts into words, and others that translate the words into finger motions, and so on. At the top of my society’s hierarchy are agents that have stuff that they want written. There are some that want to write about politics. Some want to write about technology. Others have ideas about economics. They compete with one another to control or influence the agents that do the actual writing.
And they’re not just competing with one another. There are agents other agents with other intentions. Some will have their way, sooner or later, which is a good thing because if some of them didn’t make me eat, I’d starve, and if others didn't have me go to the toilet, I’d explode.
Perhaps the parts of my mind that want to produce writing are organized a little differently than my earlier description. Perhaps I've got a bunch of agents that want to think about economics, politics, and so on, but don’t give a shit about writing, and I've got another bunch that want to produce writing, and don’t care a bit what the writing’s about. And then there are agents that like editing—that can always find a way to make a sentence clearer or to reorganize words differently.
Whatever. There are agents. They need to cooperate to get things done.
Getting all these agents to work together in a way that provides the greatest satisfaction to the most powerful coalition of agents—or alternatively in a way that forms a coalition with dominant power—is a tough bit of social engineering or mental politicking. Fortunately I have agents that are more-or-less up to the task. They do the job without “me” (whatever I am) having to intervene. And that’s why I seem to be a moderately capable, functioning human being.
Sometimes things go awry, and that’s what happened today. While most of me has been satisfied with most of what I've been doing the past week or so, some part of me was getting increasingly upset, and finally, today, the meltdown.
Because I’d been thinking about the Society of Mind, once I did my Pages and got the disconnected parts of myself reconnected and communicating, I convened a committee to study the problem and make recommendations. Well, no, that’s not really what I did. No committee was convened. Rather an ad-hoc collection of agents got together, attended to the problem and without much effort, the moving hand on the Page produced the following analysis
Organizations get work done when individuals and departments are focused on a defined task, when communication between and among them is effective and supports the task and when disruptive forces and obstacles are removed—sometimes by parts of the organization that specialize in disruption removal and obstacle removal.
When I write, I decided, a set of agents naturally form around that task, and the fact that my writing process is often dysfunctional (from the perspective of agents that want to get actual writing done and completed and posted, or whatever) is because the usual team of agents are incomplete, or include disruptive agents, or because power is not being allocated properly to agents.
Specifically, when I write, the agents include those that have ideas and care about expressing them, those that translate the ideas into words and keystrokes and so on, but also agents that want to edit, and who are given too much power. And most time there is no agent that actually cares to finish the thing and get it posted. Or if such an agent is present, it does not have enough power to accomplish its end.
So having had that insight, and having a fundamentally healthy society of mind, I sat down and ripped this draft out, creating word after word, sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph, a process that delights the agents that love the act of writing.
I finished it in one pass. Reviewed it in another, making only a very few changes (editing agent under control). I had Bobbi check it for typos and for obvious stupidity.
And now, I will move my mouse over to the Publish button and….

Update: You can find the Society of Mind in pdf form here.