Desert of My Real Life

{April 17, 2010}   The Common Cold

I have a cold.  It is a very common cold.  Nothing special.  Just enough to make me want to sleep at 2 in the afternoon.  We can land humans on the moon and yet we can’t cure the common cold.

Coincidentally, yesterday’s RadioLab podcast was indirectly about the common cold.  The podcast was about complexity and the limits of human understanding.  When we have complex systems, with many parts that interact and affect each other in complex ways, it is difficult for humans to make sense of the chaos.  Despite its commonness, the common cold is one of these complex systems.  The way that the cold virus interacts with the genes and proteins and other parts of the human body is extraordinarily complex.  The human brain cannot make sense of such a large number of interactions.  We have a limited capacity for understanding these kinds of interactions.

And so, according to RadioLab, we build robots.  My sense is that these are artificial intelligence tools which map the interactions and attempt to create mathematical equations to model those interactions.  And we have been successful in creating the equations that model those interactions.  The problem is that we don’t understand the equations.  We recognize that the equations are correct in the sense that they can predict the future.  That is, given new data, they can predict the consequences on other variables in the system.  These kinds of tests are common in neural networks, an artificial intelligence technique that attempts, in a limited sense, to model the human brain.  One of the ways that we test whether a neural network has been created correctly is to measure its ability to generalize, to predict the results of new data.  The problem with neural networks is that they can’t tell us WHY they predict what they predict.  Instead, they create mysterious, almost mystical equations to predict the consequences of new data, to predict the future.  But we can’t understand these equations.  We know that the equations tell us that when one variable goes up another variable goes down by some fractional amount.  But we don’t understand why.  We cannot make sense of the equations.  And so researchers are pushing our tools to explain themselves.  To tell us why one variable goes up when another goes down or vice versa.  Interesting.

And still, I have a cold.  I know how this virus manifests itself in my body.  But no one yet understands why.   Or how to cure it.

{April 5, 2010}   Wii Streaming

A few months ago, Liz bought a Roku so that she could stream Netflix content to her television.  She complained slightly about the $80 price tag for a device that can only do one thing.  But overall, she has been very happy with the Roku.  Netflix has been pushing its users to watch content instantly, without the need for the shipping of a DVD.  Watching instantly is really a win-win situation.  We content consumers win because we don’t have to wait for the US Mail to deliver our DVDs to us and then back to Netflix when we’re done.  It’s a big win for Netflix if we watch instantly because shipping costs have made the company the largest customer of the US Postal Service.  If we watch instantly, no DVD needs to be shipped and therefore, Netflix saves that postage cost.  I’ve watched some content directly on my laptop but I don’t find it as compelling as watching the content on my TV.  But I also didn’t want to spend money on another stand-alone electronic device.

Netflix has the answer!  They have recently sent me a DVD to put into my Wii (which I already own as those of you who have laughed at my Wii injury know) so that I can access my Netflix queue via the Wii.  I set everything up this afternoon, which was amazingly easy. Within a few minutes, Iwatched my first instant content in all its surround-sound glory.  Set up might take longer if you don’t already have your Wii connected to a wireless or wired network.  But if it’s already set up to automatically connect to your home network, the rest of the set up involves the simple insertion of the Netflix DVD into your Wii.  The content that I watched this afternoon suffered no network delays making it indistinguishable from watching on a DVD.  Actually, it might be better to watch instantly since I sometimes get DVDs from Netflix that are so scratched up and dirty that they are virtually unwatchable.  And the amount of content that is available for watching instantly is quite remarkable.

The only complaint I have about the experience so far is that navigating my Watch Instantly queue is a bit different than navigating through it on my computer.  It seems as though items should appear on the Wii in the same order that they appear on my computer but things looked different enough that I don’t think the order is the same.  But that’s a minor complaint since I haven’t really managed my Watch Instantly queue with the same attention to detail that I’ve used on my DVD queue.  Maybe that will change as I switch to using the Wii more often.

And, by the way, Happy Birthday, Liz!

et cetera