Sunday, November 29, 2009

Turkey, Divided

Every year I wind up cooking the Thanksgiving turkey. I don't mind it, but it's a tad stressful: it's a long cooking time and it's tough to tell partway through how well things are going. And of course, if you get the dark meat done properly, the white meat won't be done right, and vice versa. The turkey is just a poorly-constructed animal, really.

So this year I decided to fix that. With a nice sharp knife I completely dismembered the turkey. The breast and torso went into the oven with a temperature probe set for 165, with the wings put in upside-down (that is, tips down, limb up) The legs, however, were done on the stovetop -- I browned some pearl onions and mushrooms, set them aside, then scorched the skin side of each leg. I flipped the legs back skin-side up, put the onions and mushrooms back and glugged in some marsala wine, added some black pepper and salt, then set the whole thing to cook on low heat for the several hours the breast spent in the oven.

The white meat came out no better or worse than expected (I'm not a fan anyway), but I was able to cook it exactly as long as I wanted. But the legs just came out fantastic. On top of that, since I cooked them with the lid shut there was plenty of great stuff in there for making gravy, which went very well over everything.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


I just came across a reference to Kanazawa and Perina's recent paper, "Why night owls are more intelligent". Unfortunately I am off-campus until I get back from Thanksgiving break -- so I can only imagine what gratifying secrets lie await in its pages! (OK, it's probably bullshit, but it's the kind of bullshit that justifies all my pre-conceived notions about me being better than everyone else, and isn't that just a synonym for "truth", really?)

What an awesome web we weave

The last thing that you want your robot army to do, when asked "Are you exterminating the human race?" is answer "Yes." Public relations fiasco right there. You can't possibly go on Oprah often enough to make up for that one.

The solution? Make sure your robots know how to lie. Fortunately, there have been great strides in this very field recently. Some folks in Lausanne, Switzerland have been working in evolutionary robotics: they developed a pretty nice platform (the S-bots, shown in that link towing a terrifically tolerant tot) that have a number of general-use actuators and sensors. At the same time, they developed a decent computer simulation of those robots so that they could try out control schemes -- including multiple iterations of an evolved controller.

Note that they have both light rings (three colors of LEDs) and light sensors. The robots are each controlled by a neural network, the inputs for which include input from those sensors, and the outputs drive motors and other actuators. The weights of each node are determined by elements on a single long string, which is treated as genetic material for a genetic algorithm. They run the robots with a randomized genome, and those robots that "survive" (get to a power source) have their "genes" passed on to the next generation (that is, the next iteration of the experiment) Neural networks are a nice handy way to bridge the gap between genetic algorithms and programmed behavior, actually. Anyone who's interested in playing around with these techniques would not do badly to start off with something like this.

Anyway, I haven't read the paper too carefully, but it sounds like the deception involves the fact that the power source (the "food") has one colored light, and the robots can change color to that same color when they are there (thus helping the other robots with different genes) or they can turn off their lights or turn a different color to give themselves a larger relative advantage! Of course, robots that are attracted to both color lights would gain a further advantage, thus increasing the dominance of that particular strain: a bunch of them with the same set of mutations could effectively hide the power source from other robots.

There's more coverage, with more videos at Singularity Hub. If you're interested in the bots themselves, the older swarm-bots have a page here, and the newer version is over here. The papers there are pretty approachable for technically-minded folks not in robotics, I think, but are not quite to the level of general consumption. Good stuff.

I guess the only remaining question, then, is that, having now learned to lie, will robots ever learn ... to love?

The answer is no.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Incidental Food in Science Fiction

I've been thinking a bit about food in fiction. I read a lot, and I cook a lot, and so scenes with food stand out to me. When those scenes are done well, they can really add a lot to characterization and place.

Mysteries in particular tend to be remarkably full of food: You've got the gourmand Nero Wolfe, of course, but Robert Parker's Spenser has a much stronger relationship to his food. Parker's descriptions of food and cooking are quite remarkable, they're plainly written by someone who enjoys good food and knows how to cook. Poirot's habits as well extend to dining, though more often as a way to emphasize his foreignness -- and of course food plays a significant role in several cases as a vehicle for poison or in one case a ruby, or to show how many people sat down to dinner. Important stuff, but for the plot, not for the scene. (I find that Christie pays more attention to coffee than to food, anyway)

It seems to me that food can be a remarkably useful tool to the science fiction writer. But (and maybe my memory is selective here) it also seems to me that food in that genre tends to be super-important/significant, or not really mentioned at all. It figured in Stranger in a Strange Land, of course (in a way I won't give away), and food/drink generally in Dune and other harsh-environment settings. And then of course there's Make Room! Make Room! with its themes of starvation and overpopulation. (You may know it by its very loose movie adaptation, Soylent Green) Vegetarianism plays a similar role in many stories.

In all those, food was important -- too important for what I'm getting at, really. I'm trying to think of science fiction scenes where food made for a memorable scene, characterizing people or place, but not crucial. Anyone have any scenes like that come to mind?

Killing Google $1M at a time?

Mark Cuban wrote a fascinating post on his blog, a scheme to kill Google by offering the owners of the top-ranked sites money to remove themselves from the index.

It's an interesting idea. I see a couple flaws, but they are interesting flaws.

Morally, I think it's abhorrent: it would fundamentally make the Internet a worse place for the sake of cementing an artificial lead by a company that by and large wouldn't do good things with it. Basically, it would be buying rather than earning a monopoly.
However, for a handful of popular sites, that much money could mean the ability to offer a lot of things they currently can't. Moreover, it raises an interesting question: Search right now is built on the backs of the popular sites, under the assumption (mostly correct) that for each site, more traffic is better than less. Advertising revenue is not split with those sites -- they have to find their own funding models, but there is the promise that users who come to a site by being guided by a trusted search engine are more likely to look at ads, spend money, and generally not waste bandwidth.

For one thing, this risks playing out as a large-scale Prisoner's Dilemma. If Microsoft approaches a thousand sites with a million dollars each, then many of them will sit there thinking, "If I defect from Google alone, I get a million dollars... and then very little traffic. Meanwhile, my competitors will get the Google traffic that would have gone to me." For many retailers, if they make the move but Amazon doesn't, then they're sunk. It doesn't matter, though, we can postulate a number that would make it worthwhile. After all, if Bing winds up the top search engine as a result of the bribes, then these retailers won't be losing much money.

But, what if Microsoft ceded to Google the top retailing sites, and went after specific markets? With a scheme like this, Microsoft could potentially make itself the go-to search engine for gaming. EA is hurting right now, a few mil would definitely help their bottom line, and most of these companies develop either for XBox or PC. Game review sites don't exactly operate on great margins, ditto sites that offer forums, walkthroughs, and cheat codes. And something like this could jump-start the indie games movement in a huge way, providing the kind of money most of them only dream of. Microsoft could be seen as a benefactor of the industry in this case, and there would be a lot of spillover: users who bring up a Bing window to look for information on an upcoming game might leave it open to search for someone selling that game.

Aiming at less technical markets, Microsoft could do something similar for sports. Or, it could go after non-English sites. Cornering the market on, say, Italian language sites could be much easier, though probably less lucrative.

IF Comp 2009 Results

The results are in! Congratulations to everyone who is happy with their scores! Given the stiff competition and the fairly slim margin of victory, I think the authors of any of the top games should be proud.

Those of you who are new to IF or don't have much time to play, this is the best time of year to pick up a few games and try them out -- they've already been ranked for you! I haven't played #4, but certainly the top 3 are all very good. (Note, by the way, that Broken Legs, while a great game, is very hard. If you're not going to use the walkthrough, it would be better played with a friend so you can bounce ideas off each other)

Friday, November 13, 2009

A few moments to rest

I was up late last night getting things ready for the movers. The way I figure it, the more I do, the less time it will take -- and the less I will ultimately have to pay them. This is not as good a motivator as you might think. However, the desire to not pay people to move things that I will then immediately throw out is pretty strong, and as a result I have several trash bags ready to go out, not to mention the 180 lbs of computer stuff I brought to WinCycle yesterday.

I slept on the couch, having already basically disassembled my bedroom, so I was woken up by the sun in those big south-facing windows. I'm not much of a breakfast person, but I do generally require caffeine in the morning. I turned out to have one last Starbucks Via packet in my coat pocket, which I prepared using water boiled in a skillet. (Having earlier given away the microwave and the kettle)

The movers will be here in about half an hour. Before they arrive I will need to take out the trash, put away the cleaning supplies that need to stay here, and figure out what I'm going to do with the glass/plastic recycling.

But for now I get a moment of calm in my apartment of seven years, to relax and enjoy a cup of coffee.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Kitchen Gadget Idea

How come nobody's ever made a deep fryer using gallium instead of oil? It's liquid at cooking temperatures (but stays liquid for thousands of degrees), appears to be non-toxic, and doesn't look like it reacts with food or wooden spoons. (It does seem to be highly reactive with certain metals, though, so the cooking chamber would need to be carefully designed, possibly enameled)

It would be an interesting cooking medium. You'd want to avoid food that would really trap it in little pockets, but think of the benefits: no oils would seep into the food, it would have terrific thermal rebound, you'd get nice even browning. Further, handling it would be great -- because it stands such high temperatures you could toss it in a self-cleaning over and burn out any leftover food at 500 degrees. Plus, unlike many other things in the kitchen, it would be obvious whether it's too hot to touch or not: if it's hot, it's liquid, if it's cold, it's solid.

Ok, it would probably poison a whole lot of people. But there are always technical details to be worked out. Come on, people, we can do this!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Be A Dragon, Stomp the World

Anyone with an iPhone or iPod touch should check out Earth Dragon (reviewed here if you want a second opinion)

It's a fun little game where you play a dragon tearing down castles, stomping on its defenders and its cows, and setting anything and everything on fire. It makes nice use of the interface: you wave your iPhone to fly and glide, and tap or slide to wreak mayhem. It's a couple bucks and it's awesome.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Power of a Dollar

Here's a fun little video (h/t to Marginal Revolution) that goes a long way toward explaining the sheer amount of money pouring into politics. The question at hand: How do I sell a dollar for more than a dollar?