I've been spending some of my own time learning about computer vision, machine learning, and robotics. It has been very interesting, and I think I will make a post about it once a week or so.
Perceiving objects is something that us humans do quite easily, but for computers it is very hard. Computers like to operate using "rules" and it's impossible to write a set of rules for a computer to scan an image and determine if it contains a person, or a chair, or a house, or a lamp, or a pizza (or any other object). When a computer looks at a photo, it just sees pixels. It doesn't see objects, or shapes, or anything.
In the past few years, machine learning and computer vision have taken big steps forward. Researchers have learned that humans simply can't write code to teach a computer how see - but they can write code that will enable the computers to teach themselves how to see. These programs are called "artificial neural networks", and they have some parallels with the way our human brains work. The main premise of a neural network is that the pixels of an image are filtered through several "layers" of artificial neurons which parse the image in different ways. The first layer might detect edges, the second layer might detect shapes, the third layer might combine shapes into objects, and eventually the final layer will determine what object is being shown. I said "might" a lot in the last sentence because humans (including those who developed the fundamental mathematics and technology) don't really understand how the artificial neural network works. We just know that they do indeed work, and we know some of the basic theory behind it.
When an artificial neural network is first set up, it is very very unintelligent. It only becomes "smart" after you "train" it. If you're training a neural network to do object detection, you'll need to show it thousands and thousands of example images while telling it "this is a person", "this is a chair", "this is another person", etc. This process can take days or even weeks - and keep in mind that a fast computer can process hundreds of these training images every minute.
In the picture above, I was using an artificial neural network pre-trained by google (so they did most of the hard work here). It analyzed this photo and was 77% sure I am a person, and it was 94% sure that Violet was a cat.
Hello, yes I am still awake. I thought it would be fun to share this old picture of Jess holding a baby owl. This was taken on Jess's birthday, April 13, 2014 BC. The BC stands for "before comet."
The owl guy (I don't have a better term to describe this guy) brought the baby owl into the museum in an old toaster box, so I suggested the owl's name should be Toaster. I don't know if the guy went with my suggestion.
2 years, 9 months ago
YouTube recommended I watch this video about a Koi Retailer from California traveling to Japan to buy new stock of Koi. I have no idea why YouTube recommended this obscure video to me; it has less than 400,000 views, so it's certainly not going viral or anything.
The video is honestly great though. Very relaxing, yet engaging. It's kinda long though, and I've only made it through the first half so far.
2 years, 9 months ago
I've been on this planet for 30 years, and, despite my best efforts, I've interacted with humans in all 30 of those years. This makes me an expert on humans. To prepare for this post, I've contemplated the ways in which humanity may end, and developed nine terrible/fascinating categories.
Death by sun, and other cosmic threats
Stars - such as our sun - evolve through stages over time. The sun is currently in its "bro" stage and it's keeping our earth at a reasonable temperature for human life. But in about one billion years, the temperature of the sun will rise by about 10%. While that doesn't seem like much - it's actually enough to boil the oceans. But, if we still exist in one billion years we will probably have some dope technology to shield the planet from the sun. More likely, we will find a way to get off of the planet to begin with.
In about five billion years the sun will grow into a huge "Red Giant". This will greatly increase demand for sunglasses, and it will also disintegrate the entire planet. So we can consider that to be a hard deadline for humanity to develop a way to colonize other planets.
The sun is so powerful that it periodically farts out massive solar flares equivalent to billions of hydrogen bombs worth of energy. Fortunately, these "explosions" occur very far away. By the time their effects make it through the earth's atmosphere, they are too weak to affect anything other than radio signals. The sun also emits plasma ejections (known as CMEs), which are much more concerning. These could send a wave of electromagnetic energy to the earth strong enough to wipe out the power grid. There was a CME recorded in 1859 that was so strong that, if it had happened today, would have melted components in the power grids and left us without power, internet, and water nation-wide for a long long time. While that doesn't directly end humanity - it could be the catalyst for much more. Scientists don't really understand what causes these solar events - so they could happen at any time! So let's all be nice to the sun so it doesn’t decide to end us.
It's not just the sun that we have to worry about. By studying the long-term trajectories of the planets in our solar system, scientists have determined that there is a 1% chance that Mercury will go AWOL and smash into the earth. So...yeah, that's a new thing for you to worry about. Wouldn't it be cool if Mercury was about to crash into earth and then - out of nowhere - Mars swoops in and bashes Mercury off course?? And then Mars would say something cool like, "Thanks for sending me all those free rovers."
Lastly, collision from an asteroid is obviously a threat. An asteroid collision led to a mass extinction of 75% of plant and animal species about 66 million years ago - including all non-flying dinosaurs. In 1998, an even larger asteroid was heading towards earth but, fortunately, a group of misfit oil drillers were able to destroy it.
Every few million years we'll have to deal with a life-threatening environmental challenge - such as supervolcanoes. That's right - supervolcanoes. These are volcanoes so massive that they poop out enough ash to block out the sun, leading to a "volcanic winter". There is a volcano in Yellowstone National Park that erupted 600,000 years ago and covered the western half of the United States in ash. Scientists in 2013 discovered that the Yellowstone Caldera is closer to eruption than they previously thought - but, you shouldn't be worried about that because geologists say that massive earthquakes at Yellowstone are a bigger risk than volcanic eruption.
Interestingly, if humans manage to survive on this planet for 250 million more years, then they will see the continents slowly drift back together again to form a huge "supercontinent". This will render many "beach side" properties worthless - but the oceans are going to boil eventually, so its not that big of a deal.
I know that global climate change is talked about by just about everyone nowadays. Let's face it - climate change isn't science fiction anymore. It has weirdly become a political topic, and I am trying my best to be politically neutral because I don't want to upset anyone while talking about the end of mankind.
Even if we put the topic of man-made climate change aside - the earth is known to go through natural climate cycles. Ice ages happen - they were once cold enough to cover the oceans with a layer of ice. Warmer periods happen too. A study discovered that palm trees grew on Antarctica about 50 million years ago.
If you look at all the things that could end mankind on this list, I think you would agree that global climate change is the most lame. Come on, mankind - let's hold off long enough to die by some sort of alien invasion or something.
Ok here is where things get real. Fungal diseases and blights can halt the production of crops. In our modern world, the diseases can be transported (perhaps unintentionally) across the world on trucks, planes, trains, and boats. For example, in 1999 a relatively well-controlled wheat pathogen mutated in Uganda, and it's now spreading throughout Africa and the middle east. The UN estimates that 80% to 90% of wheat crops in the world are susceptible to this pathogen. Removing a large crop (like wheat) from the food supply can stress other food sources, and lead to food scarcity. I'm no agriculture specialist, but I suspect that there is a fear of further mutation of a pathogen like this, causing it to effect even more types of plants.
Personally, this strikes me more than any other item on this list. Most of these other risks are "out-there" enough to be a little comical. But the image of grocery stores with empty shelves is somehow very real and very scary to me.
On a slightly more positive note, a global seed vault in northern Norway contains "back-up copies" of seeds for many of the world's crops. They are stored for safe keeping in this giant icy vault - so we can potentially resurrect crops after they become wiped out. On a slightly less positive note, the operators recently revealed that the vault isn't protected against global climate change. Eeek.
We are more vulnerable to a global pandemic than ever before. Plus the availability of medicines at drug stores makes it easier for people to cope with minor "early symptoms" of a supposed pandemic - leading to even more contagion. Speaking of contagion - that's the name of good movie about a worldwide epidemic.
The University of Oxford believes an engineered pandemic is a higher risk for human extinction than a natural pandemic. This is likely true because a truly catastrophic virus would need to have the "perfect storm" combination of characteristics. It obviously needs to be highly contagious and it needs to have a high mortality rate. But, it can't kill its host too quickly, or else it wouldn't spread. I personally think its also important for the virus to have a cool name. Whoever's in charge of naming viruses needs to step up their game. Imagine if humanity was wiped out by something named Swine Flu? I mean come on, at least name the thing that kills us something formidable. Some name ideas for the World Health Organization: Lucifer's Grip, The Diabolic Flu, Sanjaya, Gazpacho.
There is a real parasitic infection known as Toxoplasmosis. Its a mostly non-serious infection caused by contact with cat feces. But - laboratory testing has shown that the parasite causes its host to be inexplicably attracted to cats. This is because the parasite can only reproduce in the gut of a cat, so it needs to manipulate its host to stay near cats so it can survive. Now, humans' immune systems are typically strong enough to prevent the toxo parasite from taking over their thoughts. But - here is where an unscientific theory of my own comes in - a global pandemic virus could somehow couple itself with a toxoplasmosis-like parasite that affects' peoples behaviors. It could control the thoughts of the infected! It could make them think they weren't infected! A horror/thriller movie director can take this idea and run with it. Just toss me a few bucks and put my name on the scrolling credit thingy.
This is a purely conceptual catastrophe that is often discussed by nerds. The idea is that if humans create artificial intelligence (AI) smart enough to improve itself, then the AI's intelligence would grow faster and faster until it eventually becomes a runaway unstoppable superintelligence that far surpasses the minds of all humans. It would become intelligent to the level that we cannot comprehend. It would hack into every internet connected device to expand its computational power. It would likely force humanity to submit to its will by controlling our vital resources and economics. If it perceives humanity as a threat, it would wipe it out.
You might think this is just a far-fetched geeky concept. But, Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have both voiced concern about the possibility of runaway artificial intelligence. If you think about life on the planet - it has steadily progressed from single-celled organisms, to small multi-cell organisms, to animals, to mammals, to intelligent humans. We might not be the last step on that chain! The artificial superintelligence might be next, and humans might be as stupid as a fish in the ocean to it.
Scientific advancements have brought humanity to where it is today, and they will push us into the future. Some scientists are worried that the more ambitious experiments going on in the world could possibly lead to a global disaster. Take, for instance, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland. This is a giant tunnel in the shape of circle, about 17 miles in circumference. Its purpose, to put it bluntly, is to smash particles together at high speeds to see what happens. It's more scientific than that, but let's keep it simple. Some scientists challenged the LHC experiments and believed they would open a black hole that would swallow the earth. They did the experiments anyways, and the earth didn't get destroyed - but I think I've made my point. It's all fun and games until you open a black hole and destroy the planet.
There are over 10,000 nuclear weapons on the planet right now. Why do we need so many? Someday, somebody is going to shoot one of those things at someone else. If Russia and the USA ever happen to shoot one at each other, the impending retaliation could quite literally end the world.
Just a month ago, a Soviet Officer with a fascinating story named Stanislav Petrov died of pneumonia at age 77. Petrov was working for the Soviet missile defense during the Cold War. In 1983, a computer malfunction caused the Soviets' early warning satellites to erroneously detect five nuclear missiles coming from the USA. Petrov was in charge, and he made a gut decision to not retaliate with their own nuclear arsenal. He told The Washington Post, "When people start a war, they don't start it with only five missiles." It was that paper-thin (yet ultimately correct) reasoning that saved the planet. By the way, Petrov was reprimanded for ignoring the warning system.
American Astronomer and Astrophysicist Frank Drake developed an equation to evaluate the number of extraterrestrial civilizations that may exist in the universe. As you might expect, the inputs to this equation rely heavily on assumptions. Reasonable evaluations of the equation range widely from essentially zero to several hundred million alien civilizations. Physicist Enrico Fermi argued that there cannot be several hundred million alien civilizations in the universe, because we would have been contacted by one of them by now. This is known as the Fermi Paradox.
Fermi has a good point. If there were that many alien cavillations, then chances are that at least one of them would have developed interstellar travel and paid us a visit. So does that mean that we are alone in the universe? Not necessarily. It could mean that interstellar travel simply isn't physically possible. It could also mean that any society smart enough to come close to developing interstellar travel ends up destroying itself from warfare or the AI singularity.
Or maybe it means that the civilizations who are smart enough to develop interstellar travel are also smart enough to observe planets like earth without interfering our development. Maybe they know about us, but they are waiting until we develop a certain technology before we are deemed worthy of interacting with them.
Perhaps alien lifeforms have already contacted us, but they differ from humans so much that we can't even comprehend what they are. Perhaps we are being destroyed by the aliens as we speak, but we don't even know how they are doing it, and why they are doing it.
Anyways, I better cut this stuff out before someone sends me to an insane asylum.
We've made a few attempts to contact aliens. We broadcasted the Arecibo Message into space in 1974 in hopes that alien life will detect and decipher it. The image might look like nonsense at first, but embedded within it there is a lot of information. For instance, the top half of the message provides information about DNA. The bottom gives information about the solar system and the human race. If you find that interesting, you'll love the information NASA packed onto a phonograph record attached to the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecrafts.
In conclusion - mankind will probably end eventually. All we can do is sit back and hope we're not ended by something as boring as global warming. While this is obviously slightly depressing, I found writing this somewhat therapeutic. If something in life has you stressed, just think about a supervolcano or a malevolent artificial superintelligence, and then everything won't seem so bad. If you're still stressed, then try to photoshop a cat into Kim Jong Un's hands - you'll feel better, trust me.
During my visit at home in western MA last Sunday, my mom found some of my old artwork. The top is a watercolor I made - presumably in elementary school. The bottom is a drawing I made. It's harder for me to approximate a date on that one - but I'd guess I drew it when I was 20 or so.
We spent some time looking for a book full of doodles, but we weren't able to find it. When we do find it, I'd like to upload some of it onto this site.
2 years, 9 months ago
You're in a tea house in Kyaukpyu, a small fishing village in Burma. You're tired because you spent the night gambling with a group of thugs aboard a rickety fishing vessel off the coast of Bangladesh. You just ate breakfast, yet you're still hungry. Not for food, but for some relaxing and informative entertainment.
Through wooden shuttered windows you hear the productive yet calm murmur of an outdoor fish market. Patrons come and go from the busy tea house, placing a few coins on the counter on their way out. As the sommelier refills your cup with Royal Myanmar Tea, you pull your cellphone out from the pocket of your Himalayan Cotton Trousers. That's when you navigate to a website. This website. And you read a fascinating blog post about none other than J. Peterman.
If you watch Seinfeld, you likely know who J Peterman is. He was Elaine's boss for a few seasons. He was an eccentric world traveler and adventurer who owned a clothing catalog. The catalog aimed to sell clothing using detailed stories - much like the one above - in which the reader can fantasize about being a world traveler, and then buy the clothing to at least look like a world traveler.
First of all, I was amazed to lear that J Peterman is based on a real person, and that the J Peterman catalog really exists. I was then even more amazed to learn that John O'Hurley, the actor who played J Peterman in Seinfeld, invested in the J Peterman company a few years ago when it was going through financial trouble. He is now a part owner!
You may have encountered a "Bad Gateway" error on this website over the past few weeks. I spent some time trying to resolve this error, and finally came to the conclusion that it must be caused by the website server. I was renting the cheapest virtual server available. I just doubled the RAM on the server, and hopefully it resolves the error. We'll see...
2 years, 9 months ago
The Atlantic has a really great photo journalism webpage. Strongly recommend. They update it several times a week with content, and it's always really good.
This particular photo was posted to their site on Wednesday. It was taken in the southern Philippine city of Marawi after a conflict with pro-ISIS occupiers. This was one of nearly 30 photos that are all great.
Plus, they do "photos of the week" posts. Click here to see this week's.
Ok nothing nefarious going on here. However, I did open up these electronic kitchen timers to snip the cords connecting to their very loud internal speakers. I figured it would be good to have a timer with me during the exam, and excessive beeping might be frowned on.
Also, I used some cardboard to make front and back covers for some of my notes/printouts. The exam admins do not allow loose notes, but these booklets should be fine. The pages are held together with "screw posts", which you can get on Amazon for cheap.
2 years, 9 months ago
On this blog, I've previously revealed that I am a closet fan of the Canadian rock duo Tegan and Sara. I have a feeling my demographic is a minority within their fan base. Jess and I were able to see them live this spring at Boston Calling - which was great by the way.
Their music has transformed a lot over the years. It started off as punk rock, and now it's pop. All of it's good, but the 2007 album The Con is my personal favorite. This album is like a heavily distilled dose of angst filtered through Tegan and Sara's unmatched ability to craft catchy musical hooks.
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the album, they just released 'The Con X', which consists of other artists covering each song in the album. I was excited to listen to this. Some of the tracks are fresh new interpretations of the original songs. Only a few of the covers were able to capture the magic of the original recordings. The best cover on the album is 'Back in your Head' by Ryan Adams. This might be because Ryan Adams recently went through a divorce and he is able to conjure up some feelings of desperation that was displayed on the album. Or maybe it's because Ryan Adams has been making sad rock songs for years. The cover of 'Dark Come Soon' by Grimes was enjoyable because that particular song somehow fits perfectly within Grimes' style. I'm not sure who Ruth B is, but she did a good job covering 'I was Married'.
I am particularly disappointed in Bleachers, Hayley Williams (of Paramore), and CHVRCHES for producing really bland emotionless covers. Williams covered 'Nineteen', which is my favorite track on the original album, and she turned the nuanced punk anthem into a snoozer. CHVRCHES' covered the album closer 'Call it Off', which is a rock-solid ballad epitomizing the tragic acceptance of a failed relationship, and they made it monotone and sterile. Even Bleachers, who often perform their songs with a bit of yelling and texture, chose to make a slow and quiet version of 'Burn Your Life Down' - would have been better if they made it loud!
Overall, it was fun to listen to new interpretations of these songs. I think this type of thing should be done with classic albums more often. At the very least, it helps us remember how great the original recordings were!