Tag Archives: musings

Lady GaGa: Transhumanist Icon?

Looking at an amazing BoingBoing post comparing a recording of Stefani Germanotta (Lady GaGa before she became Lady GaGa) playing at a NYU talent show in 2005 and the official video for Bad Romance that recently became available really shows the degree to which one can radically, radically alter themselves with the help of modern technology.
Go watch and have your mind blown.
I suggest reading some of the comments as well, some of the thoughts there are interesting.
Basically, the question is how one goes from the stereotypical “Cute little brunette girl and a piano” performance (most people are comparing to Norah Jones, that recording in particular strikes me as more similar to Sara Bareilles, but listening to Red and Blue definitely brings out the Norah Jones sound), to the absolutely over-the-top haute fashion/burlesque/modern art look and electropop sound everyone knows in less than four years. I happen to be in the tiny demographic that enjoys both, which makes it great fun to look at the connections.

In the 2005 video, she has a normal, albeit impressively powerful and well trained, human voice. In the 2009 video her voice is autotuned, layered, sampled, and distorted into things no human could produce directly. In the 2005 video the instrumentation is easily recognizable piano work. In the 2009 video, most of the instrumentation doesn’t even strongly suggest what sort of physical instrument it might be modeled after. Likewise, in the 2005 video, she looks like a cute little Italian girl in a green dress. In the 2009 video, she changes hair colors, hair textures, (apparent) skin tones, and bizarre illusion-inducing makeup jobs, and runs through a collection of costumes that look like they belong in a creepy scifi movie (5th element-esque strappy outfit? – check. Translucent medical gown – check. Flamethrower bra – WTF? – check.). All this stuff is really pretty cool technical accomplishments, from the DSP wizardry that goes into producing pleasing, but entirely unnatural, sounds, to the bizarre chemical manipulations (or just wigs, who knows if she has any hair left after all that) for the hair, to the exotic materials that go into the bizarre outfits (go browse some press pictures, it gets way worse. bubble dress for fuck’s sake), to the careful psychology to make the illusions happen (huge-eye makeup, low sloped ceilings, carefully controlled perspectives, and bunches of little head-trips I’m not even sure how happen). You can call it un-genuine, but this is expressing yourself with the full capabilities afforded by modern technology, irregardless of the fact that it deeply erodes one’s ability to perceive her as human.

Posted in Entertainment, General, Music, OldBlog | Tagged | Leave a comment


I saw a couple of really impressive examples of Anti-Convergence on the trip to Portland, and ran into a couple pretty good arguments for the concept. The best example was the girl in front of me on the long leg of the flight; she was dual wielding an iPod Touch (or iPhone) for games, and some sort of hard drive based music player for music. The strange thing is, I’m sure the experience of each was better than using the touchscreen as a convergence device as I’m sure Apple intended. Touchscreens are still terrible interfaces for music players. I use, and for the most part enjoy, my n810 as a music player, but the inability to use it without taking it out and looking, like I could with the physical interfaces of it’s predecessors, is frequently irritating.
I ran into several good reasons for not using a single device, because I was (so much as I could) doing so. I was, for several hours, using my n810 as a a music player and ebook reader. The combination keeps the onboard DSP and the screen (with backlight) enabled, which drains the battery very much more quickly than either operation (particularly music only) on its own, to such an extent I had to switch to reading a dead tree book or risk killing my entertainment. The thing is, I don’t need more battery (MOAR BATTERY!) very often, just on a rare, almost always premeditated occasion. Maybe those silly little rechargeable external battery pods are actually a good idea.
This hits both issues; the eggs in one basket problem, where having a single converged device leaves a single point of failure (compounded by my tendency to hack on my gadgets), and the battery tech issue, where the ability to power gadgets is significantly lagging other gadget features right now.
I also always run into a pair of problems with cellular convergence devices; the blooducking assholes in the cellular industry, and the potential for breaking my phone. There is a strong tendency to lock down the ability to hack on devices with phones, and the ones they haven’t locked down are extraordinarily expensive. There is a fairly valid argument for the lock-down, as it is a reasonable concern that users (or some black-hat assholes’) actions could disable the cellular functionality, potentially cutting someone off in an emergency.
Maybe one day there will be a magical converged device (perhaps one of these things with a dual-layer epaper+active screen?), that will fit in a pocket and suffice as a web access mechanism, phone, music player, and ebook reader. Until then, I’ll keep eyeballing all the fancy new widgets, and using my collection of (moderately) reliable old ones (and dead tree books) until there is actually an improvement.

Posted in Computers, Electronics, Entertainment, General, OldBlog | Tagged | Leave a comment

Languages for Computers, Languages for Computing

We had a day of playing with Lisp in CS655 in preparation for the next assignment, and, like every time I am exposed to Lisp, it makes me think about one of my favorite ways of classifying programming languages. The dichotomy is is, as above, “Languages for computers” — Languages that directly manipulate the way computers tend to be actually implemented (Like C and FORTRAN, which have admittedly symbioticly pushed the design of modern computers) and “Languages for computation” — Languages built around a computational model (Like ML and Smalltalk). I’m a much bigger fan for the former.

Lisp sort of falls in-between. Lisp is definitely a “Lambda calculus with sugar” language in conception, but it has at various times actually made sense for the hardware it ran on. Initially, Lisp was implemented on the IBM 704; the CAR and CADR nomenclature for the head and tail of a list endemic to Lisp is derived from the way in which registers could be split and addressed on the 704, and is actually a fairly clever way of efficiently utilizing the available resources. This is also probably why Lisp is case insensitive; the 6-bit, Hollerith-card derived BCD character representation used on early IBM machines only had capital letters. Later on, mostly as a response to the AI communities’ love of writing computationally intensive programs in Lisp, which was (and continues to be) extraordinarily inefficient on most hardware, there were several generations of dedicated Lisp Machines, built with a bizarre tagged architecture specially suited to running Lisp code. These are now a well and truly dead breed, as they were expensive special-purpose machines of the kind almost completely eliminated by commodity hardware in the 90s, but did prove that it was possible (albeit expensive and ungainly) to make hardware that suited Lisp the same way most machines are suited to C and Fortran.

The remainder of this post is sort of an expansion of my griping about ML a few posts back, generalized to “computation” style languages. My first objection is partly personal; I’m much more interested in the way computers actually work, than the (admittedly alluring and elegant) field of computational theory, which frankly has very little bearing on the way computers work, and even less on the way they are used. This does lead to an argument that programs should be written to suit the prevailing hardware rather than the programmer, as they will be run many times but only written once, but that argument can be over-applied to any high level language, and can be mitigated by ever increasingly smart compliers. Another reason I don’t tend to take the “computation” type languages all that seriously is that I don’t really believe in attempting to formally verify programs. My observation is that programmers tend to be pretty good at writing what they mean (possibly excluding fringe cases) in any language they are comfortable with, but pretty bad at figuring out exactly what they intend to write, which is a validation problem, usually made worse by attempts at premature verification. There are a couple notable efforts to formally verify non-trivial programs, like se4l, but these conspicuously tend to be written in languages not designed to support formal verification. To the best of my knowledge there aren’t any formally verified programs large numbers of people actually use on a regular basis (it would be cool if there were; please correct me if there are examples, I’d love to see them).

Posted in Computers, General, OldBlog | Tagged , | 1 Comment


Some reading and writing that started as thoughts from going shooting a few times with some firearm enthusiast friends has evolved into something of a Writing Project about various exploratory examples looking at human competency, polarization in politics, statistics and sampling in human populations, and other things healthy normal people like myself like think about in our spare time. I’m enjoying writing it, I’m enjoying researching it, I’m really enjoying thinking about it; I’m going to put up at least three parts of it as I finish and polish them (which might be a while, y’all know how back burner projects go). Hopefully someone will enjoy reading it. I even have clever titles for some parts, like “Dangerous Hobbies, Competent Humans”, and “(Gun) Politics: Loud Liars From the Fringes.” …Yeah, I’m such an academic that when I get intrigued by something I go off and write what is effectively a research paper about it… for fun. I figure other people might find it interesting, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll manage to start some fun arguments.

Posted in General, Navel Gazing, OldBlog | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Bored Should be Obsolete

The collexion meeting tonight had a discussion basically on the idea that no one should be ever be bored anymore, because there are so many cool things one could be doing. My current list of things I want/need to spend time on, ignoring the mundane:
* Working on my SmartLEDs project [If I remember, I’ll edit to a link to the pending project page once I put it up]; the basics are almost done (software PWM for color mixing, etc.), next I want other people playing with it too and try different sensors and behaviors and diffusers and such.
* Getting started with the LARs stuff my masters project is based around; I think I want my first major contribution to be a behavioral-level software simulator for a full implementation of the proposed architecture. If I’m feeling really bold it might be parallelizable to run on the big machines (or their smaller, older siblings). I suspect before that I will be working on cleaning up my predecessors’ mess, and helping to get their SC paper out the door.
* Continuing to start up my desktop CNC mill project; I want to try to build one for <$200, and I get to write off the time and money guilt as school activity, as the XY table component will serve as the class project in EE572/Digital controls for myself and two other students. I’m getting a good feel for parts and designs, going for something not dissimilar to this.
* Arranging my CGS500 final project, I’m fairly sure I’ll be doing it on UI/UX, and supporting analysis of current and notable historical examples of computer interfaces with articles (using The Humane Interface as a jumping off point for the analysis). I think it would be REALLY fun to do it as a heavily multimedia presentation, with virtual machines running different systems and applications to demonstrate interspersed with the slides, but I’m afraid it would detract from the depth and be difficult to do gracefully.
The consensus was that bored people are boring; there’s really no excuse for not being able to come up with things you want to do, especially with the power of the internets focused through places like make and hackaday to use for inspiration.
I had to type this post TWICE because flatpress failed me when I accidentally hit shift+back and navigated back without saving. Flatpress is really not an ideal engine, the “Post to the date when the draft is created, not when the post is posted” misfeature drives me nuts, but I still can’t fault it for being easy to deploy in space I don’t have to pay for.

Posted in General, Navel Gazing, OldBlog | Tagged | Leave a comment

Cybernetics and the Technological Singularity

Over the last few weeks I’ve seen a remarkable amount of news about cybernetics, and I haven’t been actively looking. The first piece was about a removable replacement eyeball installed in a blind man. The eye is not entirely functional, but does allow for partial (low resolution, spotty, grayscale) sight by interfacing an external camera to an artificial retina. Serious Brain-Computer interfaces like the synthetic retina have been appearing for about a decade, ranging from mostly useless, totally noninvasive devices like the various headband products sold as novelties to life-changing technology like the above.

A one-eyed filmmaker also had a bionic eye implanted. This one isn’t for the wearer’s benefit; it allows for wireless recording to provide a literal view through his eyes. The camera mechanism itself is internal and looks as natural as any prosthetic, allowing the wearer to interact as though he were not wielding a camera.

For the scifi dorks, in the latter episodes of Bayblon 5, G’kar had an eye which worked like the sum of the above; it was removable and wireless, but he was also able to see through it. It seems like that is the real yearning behind both projects; restorative, wireless, and shareable.

The next article I came across was in last month’s IEEE Spectrum, an article on the state of prosthetic arms (apologies if it tries to paywall you, for an organization for technology professionals, IEEE’s web presence is full of suck and fail), written by an engineer who lost his lower arm in Iraq, and was so disappointed by the selection of products on the market he joined the (DARPA-funded) efforts to develop next generation systems. He notes that the market for prosthetics is commercially unattractive, as there is only a minuscule need for any particular part, and suggests the remedy is open standards (for how the various prosthetic parts attach and communicate), and crossover technologies co-developed for mass market segments, such as interfaces with HCI (he says “video game controllers”, which I find horrifyingly disingenuous) and mechanical parts with robotics.

The last encounter was also about prosthetic limbs; (another) TED talk by Aimee Mullins a multi-talented woman who is missing her legs below the knee and uses a variety of prosthetics to adjust her appearance and abilities. The interesting part isn’t the particulars of the legs; it’s the way she and others perceive the legs. I’m going to go ahead and verbatim quote the end of Mullin’s talk, because it sums up the idea at least as eloquently as I could:

The conversation with society has changed profoundly in this last decade. It’s no longer a conversation about overcoming deficiency, it’s a conversation about augmentation; potential. A prosthetic limb doesn’t represent the need to replace loss anymore. It can stand as a symbol that the wearer has the power to create whatever it is that they want to create in that space. So, people that society once considered to be disabled can now become architects of new identities and indeed continue to change those identities by designing their bodies from a place of empowerment.

And, what is exciting to me, so much, right now, is that by combining cutting edge technology (robotics, bionics, etc.) with the age old poetry, we are moving closer to understanding our collective humanity. I think that if we want to discover the full potential of our humanity, we need to celebrate those heartbreaking strengths and those glorious disabilities that we all have. I think of Shakespeare’s Shylock: “If you prick us, do we not bleed, and if you tickle us, do we not laugh.”

What this all naturally leads to, at least for me, is my beliefs about the technological singularity. People usually consider that it will happen in one of two ways, artificial intelligence will surpass human capability (Strong AI), or people will be augmented beyond their current capabilities (Transhumanism, usually via technological augmentation (like this, another TED talk from people at the Media Lab, this one about awesome wearable augmented reality gear)). I believe firmly in the latter; we’re not going to build a better intelligence by trying, usually poorly, to replicate a human in devices which are poorly suited to the job. We can however build devices which are better suited to particular tasks than humans, and, if the interfaces between humans and these devices can be made adequately transparent, use them to augment human(?) capability far beyond current limitations.
My other big thought on the matter is that the singularity won’t be a quantum leap, and isn’t going to be something we know when happens; humans won’t be the top dog Monday night and superseded Tuesday morning; it will be something our augmented “superhuman” progeny look back and try to find a moment to assign as the turning point, just like every other incremental, iterative improvement in technology which has resulted in a leap in society as it permeated into our lives.

Posted in Computers, General, OldBlog | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Rest of the World is More Interesting

While most of America was staring at burly men charging at each other and ads for things they can no longer afford, the rest of the world was being interesting yesterday:

  • * Iceland Elected (imagine the Super Mario coin sound with each word when you read this) a(n?) Apparently Qualified, Gay, Green, Leftist, Social-Democrat Woman as prime minister of their interim government while they restructure after their recent financial crisis. Good job Iceland, Congratulations Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir.
  • * Someone in The West noticed that China is imploding MUCH faster than Chinese officials claim (via BoingBoing). Surprise everyone! Or not. This should at least slow the paranoid ramblings about China getting hegemonic aspirations in the near future, they’ll be busy dealing with their own internal unrest. Couple this with the Satyam scandal news of late; all the favorite threats to America’s ridiculous (but comfortable for a substantial fraction of Americans) international dominance are going to be defeated by their own incompetence. I’m not sure how that makes me feel.
  • * France has decided to prop up their print newspaper industry by buying newspaper subscriptions for all French teens on their 18th birthday. In related news, a few days ago, we learned that its so inefficient to print and distribute traditional newsprint that the New York Times spends at least twice as much each year printing copies for subscribers than it would cost to buy each one a Kindle (For the non-nerds, a Kindle is Amazon’s “Wireless Reading Device”. I’m not particularly found of the implementation, but the idea seems sound. I use my N810 this way.). I shouldn’t have to explain why these facts are incongruous. Death to print media.

This collection of interesting news (and discovering a new musical guilty pleasure) probably contributed to my not getting enough done over the last few days, but isn’t it all interesting?

Posted in General, Music, OldBlog | Tagged , | Leave a comment