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Aug
30
2005
0 comments
The current gas prices remind me of my college years...in activity, not price.

Oh no! An empty tank -- it will need to be filled tonight, because we've got errands in the morning.

Oh noes! I've only got $17 to my name!

For the past week or so, gas has been $2.59/gallon at Bjornson's, which is conveniently a couple blocks from my house.

Oh no! The el-cheapo Ethanol fuel is $2.79 now (regular was $2.89 -- or a $0.30 increase since 3pm today). To avoid my card being declined, I put in just $16 worth, which gets me 5.7 gallons of gas.

Hooray! It made a slight dent in the 30 gallon tank on my van; not a literal dent, mind you -- and barely enough of a level increase to affect the needle. No matter: at the 12mpg we've been getting, this is 60 miles of driving that we didn't have before. Thank you, fuel suppliers driven by submerged-New-Orleans-fears!

Aug
26
2005
0 comments
The AI that breaks the Turing barrier might be a gambler: poker-playing 'bots are gambling online. For new technology to expand, there has to be a moneymaking reason. Up until now, there's been nothing that a person can't do that required a person-imitating machine...well, until online gambling.

In all industries, there has to be a good reason to replace a person with a computer or machine; robots have moved into hazardous and low-error-tolerance businesses, computers do big-math accounting and repetitive menial tasks. However, they can't replace jobs that require a human's unique talents: judges, police, teachers (no matter how tantilizing the idea is in Sci-Fi). Robots even replace eBay buyers: 'sniper software' removes a person's presence at the time an auction closes.

This is because at eBay, from a server's standpoint, the only things that place bids are computer programs. I don't place eBay bids: I fill in browser blanks, which inform eBay of my bid. A computer can be programmed to do the exact same thing at any time: online investment sites provide these programs. There's even a commercial for Ameritrade about a dead guy who, technically, is still trading stocks -- his grieving family logs on to his account to see his porfolio, which displays active trades as they watch. Well, it's not him trading, exactly, but a 'bot that he assigned criteria, by which is analyzes stock reports day and night, and acts in a way the programmer wishes it to. Online investment sites are looked down upon if they can't provide this service. If a computer can get people the things they want without requiring extra effort on the person's part, then software will be assigned complete responsibility without hesitation.

I'll be honest, it never crossed my mind that online gambling would be a venue for AI, but now I'm kicking myself for not having thought of it. Rain Man counted cards like a computer -- why not have a COMPUTER count cards like a computer? However, there's no sense in pitting a computer against a computer...online blackjack, for instance. Two computers can only compete against each other, to a point; after which, it's two related systems reacting to feedback. Blackjack favors the house, so there's no chance for really winning. Roulette, one-armed-bandits, craps...if both sides are computer generated, unless there's a loophole or exploit, nothing significant will happen.

Poker, on the other hand, is merely server-supervised. The pot isn't designed by the casino's servers, nor are the competitor's actions. If we can program a computer to beat chess masters, a poker game with significantly less play-moves and no cut-and-dried 'win' should be simpler: you don't need to have all the aces, you just have to be better than the other hands at the table. You don't need to take every pot; you just need to take in more than you're betting out. A bot, equipped with superhuman ability to calculate odds, has a significant edge on the competition. How do you bluff a computer?

Well, chatting will blow the computer's bluff. While a computer can play poker like a pro, it can't talk across the table like a pro. The other players will quickly catch on that the super-silent opponent who wins all the time probably isn't a real person. Accounts get deleted that way. Money is lost that way. Opponents are wary of betting if they think a computer has been programmed to take it away from them without giving them a fighting chance.

So, now we have something computers can do better at than a human, but a Holy Grail of technology is needed...Artificial Intelligence. Winning an odds-based game is a matter of mathematic probability (it can be taught to a spam filter) -- but an advantage can be gained from talking to the opponents, gauging their mindset. An advantage can be gained by lying to the opponents, projecting either an air of hopelessness or certain success. A bot, however, can't succeed at reading players or lying to players if they're not as convincing as a human sitting across the table. If a simple bot today, programmed to reduce risk of exposing itself and to keep winnings to an unsuspicious level, is profitable to both the software customer and the software company -- getting everyone what they want, without significant effort on the people's time -- the house busts and everybody wins, so to speak.

Well, the house won't like that much -- but the better that bots get at beating Turing tests (that, no doubt, will become harder for certain humans to pass, if designed to catch 'bots), there's no doubt that, someday, an online poker table will be occupied by 5 different bots, by 5 different makers, each with a specialized set of instructions tuned by their owners, competing for real money. Once a computer beats the Turing test, who's to say it'll want to play poker anymore?

I made a little animation for this auction, and D said I should put it up somewhere else -- "whereever you put up stupid little things." Well, what else is a blog for? Here's the stupid little thing:

#

What do you get with a limo full of voice-over artists? Well...um...you get.....a LIMO FULL OF VOICE-OVER ARTISTS! More particularly, they're the movie trailer voiceover artists we all recognize. In a world....where voice-over artists...ride in limos.... #

Old news to you, but new to me: Amazon's A9 search has Fargo street photographs. It appears they were taken around Christmas 2004. Unfortunately, it does not have the houses photographed of anybody I know. Oh well. #

How interesting: someone is using the eBay username I had back in 1999. In 2001 I changed my account to my business name; he appears to have set up his account with the name in 2002. #

Another alternative application for my bookstore ideas. Sugest#

A few days ago I wrote about ideas for improving small bookstores, and it was picked up by Kottke.org and Plastic recently. Interestingly, this blogger suggests applying my ideas to independent music stores. Really, he does have a point; what I wrote does draw more from business ideas than specifically bookselling ideas; it might apply to more small businesses than I thought. #

Here's a nicely done animated video -- to a song about being five and riding with Dad in a tractor. #

A Kentucky radio station has cancelled Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac due to FCC fears over language. The word 'breast' seems to be the most troublesome, given the FCC's problems with women's bosoms. I already think Writer's Almanac is one of the most artistically daring radio shows anywhere; falling afoul of FCC regulations pushes this even further...expect "look what your tax dollars are paying for on NPR!" editorials to appear soon. #

Scoopt wants photos...for commercial reasons. Take a picture of something newsworthy, and Scoopt will market it to news outlets -- potentially netting you some profit if it's newsy enough to buy. It seems to be only UK-oriented so far, but no doubt a US version will arrive soon, peddling neo-paparazzi pics of Britney's cellulite to the highest bidder. #

Artist Tom Phillips took an unremarkable book from the 19th century and added his own twist: The Humument was created, bearing a superficial resemblance to it's original form, but artistically much more prominent today. As a book lover I cringe at book destruction, but this seems to be less destructive and more constructively derivative. #

Aug
7
2005
2 comments
The afternoon was passing by, drawing closer to a self-imposed deadline to get the Minneapolis Sex~Kitten Issue to the waiting public. Work was going well, though, due to limited interruptions and relatively simple work.

The flutter of wings approached my head -- starting out quietly, but as it drew nearer, grew louder, it was clear this was no ordinary fly or beetle. It happened so fast and I was surprised at how much it scared me, but when loud flying things approach a person's head at an enormous rate little can happen except an adrenaline jump. My first thought, very clear in my memory, is "that's a big fucking moth!"

By the time I could turn my head, the flapping had stopped. Facing me from the other direction was an equally-shocked D. Directly between our gazes was a tiny sparrow, resting on the shade of an adjustable lamp used for photographing eBay items. It stood there, unfazed by our presence, flipped it's tail a bit, then flew out through the office door it arrived through.

Our office door, the only entrance or exit, opens out into the basement. The basement! Somehow the sparrow entered the house, navigated the ducts or construction, and found itself in an enormous open, dark expanse -- with one bright exit at the opposite end. Our office.

D and I laughed briefly, then realized we had to figure out how to capture this bird and deliver her back to the outdoors. D had worked in petstores and knew a good way to capture released birds is to wrap them in a blanket. Those birds, however, were relatively comfortable with people approaching them and being handled by humans. This tiny bird, barely larger than my computer's mouse, was not interested in human assistance.

We found two towels in the dirty laundry and held them out, hoping the bird would get close enough that we'd wrap it up, carry it out, and let it fly into the wild.

Five minutes of hilarious antics might have been fun to watch, what with us stumbling over our office materials and the bird knocking things off the tops of monitors as it stopped to rest, but it was becoming apparent the bird was becoming quite stressed and we were not helping the situation. It stood on top of my monitor, beak open to pant heavily, letting out short 'tweet' noises periodically.

I suddenly remembered the office egress window; we'd never tried opening it before, but it had to be possible. I pulled up the venetian blinds before realizing my error: the bird saw a new exit, and tried to head out the closed window. I was mostly in the way, and the window-well outside was ominous, so the bird was not going very fast and seemed merely surprised by running into the glass. The next steps of opening the window and removing the screen occurred with the venetian blinds down.

Finally open to the void outside, I raised the venetian blinds and the bird (presumably watching my activities and waiting to make a break for it) flashed over my shoulder and out the window -- only to reveal more wildlife nearby.

As the bird cleared the window well, a black stray cat recoiled in shock: it seems she had been relaxing under the weeds surrounding the window well and stopped to watch the mysterious window opening so far below. As I worked on the window, her ears and eyes barely peeked over the steel window-well edge.

The bird saw the most reliable path out of the weeds: the path the cat came in on. It barely cleared the cat's head and was out of the weeds before kitty could react. The stray stared down at me with a predictable non-plussed cat look, pretending not to have been surprised yet eager to find out if more birds were going to follow. Sorry, kitty: one bird was more wildlife than we could handle at a time.

In November 1973, Mother Earth News ran an article on parlaying hand-lettering skills in to a career. It's not exactly a much-sought career now that computers do most typographic things, but font creation and typography has grown into a large hobby for designers today. The book the article refers to is still in print: The History and Technique of Lettering, by Alexander Nesbitt. #

I've long marvelled at the 'stipple images' used instead of real photos in the Wall Street Journal -- they're almost synonymous with the WSJ. Noli Novak is one of the artists, and has a webpage of her own to showcase her painstakingly hand-dithered career. #



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