One Small Step for (a) Man

“And the Lord God said, it is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a help meet for him.” – Genesis 2:18 (King James Version)

“That’s One Small Step for [a] Man, one giant leap for mankind.” – Neil Armstrong

Instead of a triumphal, feel-good NASA movie like The Right Stuff, or even Apollo 13First Man is really a biopic of Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the Moon. The theme of isolation is very strong. Neil is an “egghead” who would rather work alone, and leaves a social gathering to stare at the Moon from his backyard.

The tension between Neil’s individual journey, and the immense National undertaking that required a huge team of scientists, engineers, and astronauts to essentially invent a space program from scratch can be symbolized by the mangled famous quote from Tranquility Base – The “a” got lost in transmission, almost completely changing the meaning. He is just “a man” taking a “small step”, but one that represents the culmination of a incredible scientific, economic, and social accomplishment of the Human race:

The movie does not shy away at all from the personal and collective hardships that Armstrong faced on his way to the lunar surface. Neil chooses to deal with tragedy by turning inward and closing himself off emotionally. This is contrasted with the reactions of Buzz Aldrin, who likes to deal with horrific events by blurting out unconformable truths.

More than just being historically accurate, the movie takes viewers inside the claustrophobic cockpits, rattling rivets and all.

The complete isolation of Neil is starkly shown with the famous “Earthrise shot”. Every human to ever lived, besides Neil, Buzz, and Michael Collins (whom everyone forgets because he had to stay in orbit around the moon) is in that frame, 230,000 miles away.

Image result for moon surface

Surprisingly, the movie even includes the very real speech Richard Nixon was prepared to give in the event Neil and Buzz were left stranded on the Moon:

Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations.

In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

Even when they get home, the celebrated astronauts are forced into quarantine. In fact, the final shot of the movie is Neil and his wife separated by a glass window. Buzz Aldrin, who is famous for punching a Moon Conspiracy Theorist,

probably put it best with the title of his memoir:

Image result for beautiful desolation buzz aldrin

Overall, I really liked “First Man” for its unflinching look at the sacrifice that is required for greatness, as well as the story of “a” man, who became Humanity’s emissary to the stars.



Who needs a Thneed?

While Dr. Seuss is known as a author of children’s books, he got his start drawing some very pointed political cartoons:

Image result for dr seuss anti nazi

His messages can be seen in even in the stories read by today’s youth. The Butter Battle book is really about the futility of the arm races, while the Sneetches teach a lesson about racism.  The Lorax was published in 1971 and deals with environmentalism. In it, the Once-ler comes upon a pristine habitat, which he proceeds to turn into post-industrial hellscape to produce thneeds (“something that everyone needs”), much to the consternation of the Lorax, who “speaks for the trees.”

The Lorax.jpg

The Once-ler learns too late the costs of his unchecked greed, using one of my favorite literary/cinematic transitions to show the passage of time at the same location.

Image result for lorax pile of rocks unless

Just one year later, a TV adaptation came out. As in the book, the emphasis was on countering the notion that “progress is progress, and progress must grow.” The Once-ler starts his small business to provide for himself and his extended family. But after his company grows to unstainable size, he complains that curtailing industry would mean firing all his employees. I like to call this “supply-side environmentalism,” in which the evils of industrial pollution and the rapacious consumption of natural resources justified as the price of progress or sound economics are combated. Notice that consumers barely appear in the story. The narrative-arc revolves almost entirely around the Once-ler and his relationship with nature – represented by the Lorax.

In the 2012 feature film, the premise was subtly different.

The lorax movie image 01-389x600

The movie opens in Thneedville, a consumer-driven metropolis filled with artificial trees. The main antagonist is Aloysius O’Hare, who “found a way to sell air.”

In Thneedville it’s a brand new dawn!
With brand new cars And houses And lawns!
Here in got-all-that-we-need-ville!
In Thneedville we manufacture our trees
Each one is made in factories
And uses 96 batteries!
In Thneedville the air’s not so clean
So we buy it fresh!
It comes out this machine!
In satisfaction’s guaranteed-ville!

In Thneedville
We don’t want to know!
Where the smog and
Trash and chemicals go

In flashback, it is revealed that is it the consumers who fell in love with thneeds:

This is “demand-side environmentalism,” which asks us to “reduce, reuse, and recycle,” and puts the pri onus on consumers, not industry.

While there is redemption for the Once-ler in all versions, Mr. O’Hare, a cartoonish villain, literally and figuratively, is ultimately overthrown by his own customers once they get wise to the fact that they could get air for free is they just planted some real trees. Here, the protagonist Ted leads the people to the realization that they should “let it grow.”

Incidentally, the tradition of inventing a new protagonist for an adaption based on the name of the author of the source material is becoming rather common:


TedTed Wiggins (Lorax 2012) / Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss)

Image result for elphaba Elphaba Thropp (Wicked 1995) / L. F. Baum

Walter watchWalter (The Muppets 2011) / Walt Disney

Hiding the Seams

“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” -Albert Camus

Every time you sit down to read a book, watch a play, movie, or TV show, or otherwise consume a work of fiction, you have just entered into an implicit contract with the creators. It is a virtual Terms of Service ratified without even a perfunctory click. As in contract law, this meeting of the minds requires something of value from each party: You offer your willing suspension of disbelief, while the artist promises to lie to you. Or at least, to tell a non-factual story that will possibly entertain you for a while, and might even reveal a deeper truth about the human condition. We expect that if we keep our part of the bargain, and refrain from rushing onto the stage when Romeo is about to kill himself screaming “she’s still alive!,” the actors will do their best to stay in character. This is why plot holes or improbable science is so disruptive to the process, since they breaks the illusion of the story, raising the cost we pay to suppress our disbelief. However, in some special cases, a talented artist can take a weakness of the medium, and, in a kind of ninja maneuver, turn it into a strength that also subverts the audience’s expectations.

***SPOILER ALERT for Bioshock, Inception, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend***

In many video games, the player takes control of an avatar and has a great deal of freedom to dictate what happens. But video game makers have to bound this freedom if they want to tell any kind of coherent story. This is why some checkpoints or tasks must be accomplished, or else the player cannot advance. But what one of the main themes of the game is that free will is an illusion? In Bioshock, the game creators cleverly embed the message that your inability to deviate too much from your required tasks was not just a limitation of games in general, but a nefarious part of the main theme.

Andrew Ryan believes that he should be free of coercion by governments and religion because a man chooses, a slave obeys.” The irony is heightened by the fact that, in addition to Jack, almost every character is the game is, at some point, in thrall to some other entity. The little sisters are kidnapped and conditioned to collect ADAM from deceased splicers. Besides the “would you kindly” mind-control wielded by Fontaine, the splicers are also under his pheromone-induced influence. For his part, Jack himself can hypnotize a Big Daddy for protection, enrage foes to fight each other, and even hack turrets and health stations to do his bidding.



The movie Inception takes on the tropes of films, such as plot inconsistences, rules that seem to change without notice, and discontinuous jumps between scenes, and makes them part of the story. In dreams, we also experience these features. Are these just limitations of the medium, or evidence that we are watching someone dreaming?

Sitcoms require an extra dash of suspension of disbelief, since the plots are often driven by “crazy” schemes concocted by the characters. While madcap hilarity, but not serious consequences, is sure to ensue, the motivations would be pretty flimsy in real life if concocted by a actual human of sound mind.

Image result for Hilarity Ensues

But what if, instead of a time-worn trope, this the insane schemes really were the product of mental illness?

In a Purloined Letter worthy reveal, the big twist was hiding in plain sight, or at least in the first word of the title of the show. In the fantastic show  Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the titular Rebecca really does suffer from mental illness, and receives a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder in the third season. It is rare for a show to attempt the difficult balancing act of being funny, while at the same time, exploring the ramification of metal illness and personal responsibility in general, and succeeds in a surprisingly sensitive and nuanced way.

Although some comedies, such as Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Blazing Saddles, make the audience’s suspension of disbelief a part of the finale, they don’t take advantage of it in the same way.

I’ll leave you with a Handy exam trick: “when you know the answer but not the correct derivation, derive blindly forward from the givens and backward from the answer, and join the chains once the equations start looking similar. Sometimes the graders don’t notice the seam.”

Untouched by Human Brains

In one science fiction story, a spaceship sets out from Earth on a long journey to a distant planet. Due to the length of the trip, many generations of passengers are born and die in transit. When they finally arrive at their destination, the descendants of those early pioneers find on the alien world … their cousins from Earth already there, in long-established colonies. These others settlers had left centuries later, but had access to much faster space travel, which allowed them to make the journey in much less time, even considering the massive head-start.

This is how I think of the quiet revolution Google ignited with its AlphaZero learning algorithm, which uses a neural network with general reinforcement learning. On December 6, 2017, it was declared that “Chess changed forever” when it was announced that AlphaZero had crushed the program called Stockfish, the 2017 Computer Chess Champion:

“the programmers of AlphaZero, housed within the DeepMind division of Google, had it use a type of ‘machine learning,’ specifically reinforcement learning. Put more plainly, AlphaZero was not ‘taught’ the game in the traditional sense. That means no opening book, no endgame tables, and apparently no complicated algorithms dissecting minute differences between center pawns and side pawns.”

Humans have been trying to improve Chess strategy for about 1,500 years, and computer programs have been refined for decades. Starting with ZERO knowledge of chess, besides the rules, AlphaZero became the most power chess-playing entity in history after training against itself for… 4 hours!

AlphaZero completely dispensed with all of the usual information chess algorithms usually rely on. These include simple human heuristics (e.g. “a bishop is worth three pawns” or “try to develop your pieces”), databases of openings or endgames, or even move lists from previous games. “Essentially, AlphaZero acquired 1,400 years of human chess knowledge—and then some—on its own, and in a ludicrously short amount of time.”  Unlike with previous programs, this is not a case of methodically tweaking and optimizing a specialized algorithm until it outperformed older versions of itself. Instead, this is a new kind of flexible artificial intelligence that has the potential to be put to use on a huge array of problems is science, healthcare, or finance.

For a brief primer of how neural networks work, since this excellent video:

Since it is untainted by puny human minds, AlphaZero’s “alien” style can be shocking at times:

What’s also remarkable, though, Hassabis explained, is that it sometimes makes seemingly crazy sacrifices, like offering up a bishop and queen to exploit a positional advantage that led to victory. Such sacrifices of high-value pieces are normally rare. In another case the program moved its queen to the corner of the board, a very bizarre trick with a surprising positional value. “It’s like chess from another dimension,” Hassabis said.

Hassabis speculates that because Alpha Zero teaches itself, it benefits from not following the usual approach of assigning value to pieces and trying to minimize losses. “Maybe our conception of chess has been too limited,” he said.

On the one hand, AlphaZero took an “arguably more human-like approach” , since it could only process about 80,000 positions per second, compared with 70 Million for Stockfish. However, since there are no identifiable “rules” AlphaZero is playing by, we risk the “Black-boxification” of our tools, in which we know that something works, but have no access to the internal workings.

One trend I did notice in some of the games released by Google, was that AlphaZero would often sacrifice material to obtain positional advantages over Stockfish. Over and over, Stockfish’s pieces would get blocked in and almost completely negated, while AlphaZero’s pieces would command a huge range of potential moves while coordinating with each other. Simply counting up the “point value” of the pieces remaining on the board is easy and tempting for human players, but perhaps AlphaZero has “discovered” that a blocked-in bishop might as well not be there, while a “good” knight can turn the tide of the game.

Image result for i for one welcome our new insect overlords gif

In a similar way, TensorTip is a medical sensor that tries to dispense with human programming. Using non-invasive monitoring of the temporarily color distribution of the tissue, it tries to measure “…a wide range of physiological and bio-parameters such as blood glucose, hemoglobin and hematocrit, blood PH, oxygen saturation SpO2, blood carbon dioxide, blood pressure, peripheral pulse and more…” based on a huge database of previously accumulated data.

CNOGA Medical Appointed ARTECH To Distribute Their Non-invasive Medical Devices In Italy

As described by the FDA filing:

The Tensor Tip is based on real time color image sensor, real time photographing the fingertip tissue. A color image sensor of the type used in the Tensor Tip enables a wide range of information in the spectral, resolution, dynamic range and time domains enabling further investigation of the blood chromatic changes as a function body physiology. The concept behind this investigation reflects the idea that a change in human physiology condition would temporarily change the blood pigmentation.

There is no small degree of irony in the fact some recent trends, like evidence-based medicine, that have tried to “optimize decision-making by emphasizing the use of evidence from well-designed and well-conducted research” – instead of age-old “professional opinion” or “expert intuition” – might themselves be superseded by black-box neural networks like AlphaZero or Watson. So the debate will continue about how much we really need to understand about what is going on under the hood of our best decision-making tools.



Mario’s Odyssey

I got the chance to play a few minutes of Super Mario Odyssey, and it definitely lived up to the critical acclaim: Capture a.JPG

In this latest installment of the Mario franchise, our Plucky Plumber has with a large array of new abilities, some hat-related, and finds himself set in a huge open world to explore.

By far, the most satisfying  power is the take control of enemies and use their powers to reach previously unreachable areas.

Image result for mario odyssey be a bullet bill

What makes the game so fun, in my opinion, is that it makes the player feel powerful, but that these powers must be mastered in order to use them to maximal effect. This effort get rewarded in the game with secret items. Also, the player directs the order and method Mario uses to collect the items. As Daniel Pink explains in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, work is satisfying when the following elements are present

Autonomy: Our desire to be self directed.

Mastery: The urge to get better skills.

Purpose: The desire to do something that has meaning and is important.

Super Mario can be enjoyed by young children, as well as adults who will practice a certain jump for hours just to collect the last few Power Moons. Extra effort is rewarded with moments of joy:

“Odyssey seeks to strike a balance between structured challenges and open-ended play. It achieves that balance with remarkable consistency. Each level is a toy-filled sandbox, loaded with springs, levers, and buttons for you to bounce, pull, and press. The game feels so fundamentally good to play that it’s easy to spend an hour just doing stuff with no clear goal. Of course, each spring, lever, and button is usually a part of one or more carefully laid-out challenges. I can be messing around one minute, then find myself amazed at how the game anticipated and rewarded me for what initially seemed like aimless experimentation.”

This fight make Mario almost like the monster in a horror movie when you think about it…

It is encouraging the see such a fresh and exciting addition to the Mario cannon.

Speedrunning Evolution

I came across an interesting example of evolution that illustrates some of its important features: video game speedrunning. Instead of going for leisurely enjoyment, players frantically attempt to complete video games in the fastest possible time, gleefully taking advantage of glitches and quirks, some pretty mindblowing, while others take a robot to pull off. Finding and exploiting glitches is considered part of the “optimization,” rather than cheating, as noted:

Many viewers have an expectation that speedruns clear the game using only the tools intentionally given by the developers. This is an explicit constraint on the run brought on by an internal perception of the game. This by itself is not inherently wrong or incorrect, but it is based on an attachment to the game. Speedruns in the unconstrained case are separated from this in that the game itself is no longer regarded as a game, but is instead the medium. The “game” then becomes the optimization problem, while the medium is just a set of implicit constraints. In this sense, there is no such thing as a glitch, provided that nothing external to the medium impacts it.

This YouTube channel traces the history of a number of games, including classics like Super Mario Brothers, Super Mario 64, and The Legend of Zelda. You can also watch attempts on Twitch or see speedrunning for charity World record strategies evolve much like living organisms:

  • Optimization via heredity and mutation. That is, a player can start with a good strategy and refine it with changes.
  • Tons of trial and error.
  • Modularity. A newly discovered approach or glitch can often be used in sequence with previously known techniques.
  • Progress can come in tiny improvements (tweaks) or major revolutions (jumps). As a result, the world record can remain stable for years, then be broken successively several times in one week. This is reminiscent of punctuated equilibrium.
  • Glitches pierce the surface layer of reality to reveal the actual nuts-and-bolts of the games. Some evolutionary adaptations, like photosynthesis and magnetoreception, rely on the quantum-mechanical nature of our Universe.






Dispatches from Tru[mp/deau] Country

I love visiting new cities, and seeing how other people solve problems in different ways. I also like tracing the “path dependence” of history, in which choices and events of the past continue to resonate into the present. During this trip, I learned that investigating even a tiny anomaly can sometimes lead to a major discovery, and also that some cities can remain prosperous by virtue of constant reinvention.

Way Up

Places along the way:

  • St. Augustine FL
    • Founded in 1565. The fortress of Castillo de San Marcos was built by the Spanish to protect their monopoly of natural resource plundering from Pirates and the British.


  • Charleston SC
    • Fort Sumter, which is on a island in the harbor, was the flashpoint of initial hostilities in the Civil War.
  • Richmond VA
    • Capital of the Confederacy and current home of the American Civil War Museum at the site of the historic Tredegar Iron Works.
  • Fredericksburg VA
    • Site of important battle that showed that the Civil War was not going to be as short as many people expected.
  • Instead of claiming that “it wasn’t about slavery,” Southern apologists are now trying the opposite approach: OF COURSE if was about slavery, but you guys were cool with buying all our cotton and tobacco until one day you decided to imperiously and sanctimoniously crash our economy and way of life. As the reasoning goes, it was easy for Northern abolitionists to opine about the immorality of slavery; they were not totally dependent on the “peculiar institution”. The author of “all men are created equal [some exceptions may apply]” Thomas Jefferson said, “we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” I call this the “Captain Renault – I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here” defense. For example, the Constitution (and many of its signatories) condoned slavery, and a litany of compromises were found to keep the agrarian and industrial halves of the country duct-taped together. Even Lincoln thought that Freedmen should not be allowed to vote, and only signed the Emancipation Proclamation in a cynical attempt to boost flagging support for the war. We reject this argument, because the fact that slavery was tolerated, either tacitly or explicitly, does not make it hypocritical to oppose it later.
  • Binghamton
    • SUNY Binghamton is doing well as the result of State Funding for shiny new Engineering and Biotech Research buildings on Campus, as well as a Technology Incubator downtown. However, the city overall is still feeling the effects of factory closures.
  • Howe’s Cavern
    • Pulling on a tiny thread can lead to major discoveries. Howe found these caverns when he was curious about why his Cows stood by a particular rock formation on hot days. The cool air from underground was the reason.


To Toronto

  • Corning Glass Museum
    • R&D by the Corning Glass Company has enabled it to transition from car headlights to iPhone screens. Its Gorilla Glass is light, thin, and highly scratch-resistant. The Main Street of the city of Corning reflects the commercial success that comes with continual innovation.
  • Buffalo NY
    • Very impressive Art Deco city hall

  • Niagara Falls (Canada)
    • A Steampunk homage to the hydropower generated at the falls
  • Toronto Ontario. I noticed some subtle differences in Canada, when compared with the USA:
    • Canadians Love Coffee: There was a Tim Hortons, 2nd Cup, and Aroma all in same food court
    • Law Firm Radio Commercial: “Resolve Amicably”
    • Corn Syrup is “Liquid Sugar” (Lack of Big Sugar Lobby to outlaw this)
    • Temperature adjustment for Gasoline
    • Bus: “Sorry, out of Service”
    • Bus-Only highway lanes
    • “Hydro-Company” instead of “Power Company”
    • There are no more pennies, so if you pay cash, your charge is rounded to the nearest nickel. (Thus, you should wait to see if it will be rounded up or rounded down before you decide to use cash or a credit card)

I was lucky enough to be in Toronto for Canada’s Sesquicentennial, which apparently is celebrated with a giant rubber duck.

The controversial giant rubber duck in Toronto Harbour on Monday. (STAN BEHAL/Postmedia Network)

Way Down

  • Geography is Destiny(?)
  • Pittsburgh PA
    • Built on the location of Fort Pitt, at the river confluence. With water access to the Ohio/Mississippi/Gulf of Mexico/Atlantic network, as well as newly built railroad, steel manufacturing (and theater) took off. Now, it has transitioned to a technology center.
  • West Virginia
    • Very mountainous, for a very particular reason. The major proponents of secession were wealthy planters in Virginia. WV was formed because the Mountaineers, who lived on land not suitable for cultivation, wanted to stay with the Union. Today, this makes the state more reliant on the coal industry.
  • Charlotte NC
    • Build on an early Colonial “Great Wagon Road“, it is now a Financial Hub with many Glass Skyscrapers
  • Savannah GA
    • The settlement was planned with Squares as “Scaffold” for public goods.

“Oglethorpe’s plan for settlement of the new colony had been in the works since 1730, three years before the founding of Savannah. The multifaceted plan sought to achieve several goals through interrelated policy and design elements, including the spacing of towns, the layout of towns and eventually their surrounding counties, equitable allocation of land, and limits to growth to preserve a sustainable agrarian economy”

On this trip, I heard people in Toronto praise their single-payer healthcare system, and radio hosts in Georgia demanding the repeal of Obamacare. Canadians wondered if their celebrity Prime Minister was receiving just a bit too much fawning on a overseas trip to Ireland, while North Carolinians beamed with pride for a President who defended “Western Values” in Warsaw. In conclusion, if you live in a Whole Foods County or a Cracker Barrel County, consider a trip to the other. City-dwellers can learn a lot by driving out on the open road and turning on talk-radio.