26 April 2005

James barks

Since the snow melted, James wants to spend every possible moment outdoors. Olivia and I have no problem with this. We go for walks. We regularly hit two, three parks a day.

On Sunday night there was a dog in the second-story window of the house across the street. He barked at us, and James said, “Arf, arf, arf,” and pointed at him.

He woke up at 4:00 Monday morning and crawled around the bed saying, “Arf, arf, arf.” We don't have a dog, but our son wakes us up in the middle of the night barking.

I took him downstairs and carried him around for about half an hour until he went back to sleep. I hope that doesn't become a routine; he woke up early this morning too. While I was carrying him around he barked at the birds chirping outside.


Disconcerting day at work.

I woke up at around 4:45, spent about 45 minutes getting James back to sleep, took a shower, and drove in. I got a large cup of black coffee and spent a few hours at my desk squinting. Coffee wakes me up if I'm sleepy, but it also makes me shake and puts a strange edge on the world. Today wasn't the best day to be under the influence, as I had a 10:00 meeting to meet the new VP of Engineering.

The new VP. My boss's new boss, responsible for about 30 people in all. It's his second week, and he's making an effort to sit down and talk with everyone for half an hour or so. He seems like an interesting guy, so I was looking forward to it. I had jotted down a few notes so I would have something to talk about. I got them organized and wandered over to his office.

Then something weird happened. The VP listened very carefully to everything I had to say, took notes, remarked that I had just brought up all the major things he had learned about the situation in Engineering since he'd started, and that he could have saved a week and a half by talking to me on the first day; and added that unless I kicked and screamed, I was inevitably going to end up in management. (I'm sure this was intended as a compliment.) He had other nice things to say, too. It was a strange and very flattering meeting.

Maybe the coffee was making me paranoid, but I spent most of the morning wondering what to make of it.

In the afternoon the VP dropped by my office (God knows how he found it) and mentioned that everybody says I'm brilliant. “You probably don't usually get that kind of feedback,” he said. He's right, I don't. From what I hear, I'm an idiot.

I have to wonder what is going on.

What to do, except make some kind of crazed, doomed effort to live up to a favorable first impression?

15 April 2005

Compression and Surrealism

Come to think of it, the thoughts below suggest a fun new compression scheme.

First, some background. JPEG is a common lossy image format. It has a problem: JPEG artifacts, noticeable image distortion as a result of having thrown away some details. All lossy compression schemes lose information, and since a compression scheme never really knows what information is safe to discard and what isn't, they all have artifacts. But it seems that if a compression scheme had an idea of what chaos is, and what it looks like, then chaotic details could be discarded without losing anything a human would ever notice.

It would amount to including a macroscopic charactarization of some parts of the image. JPEG, for example, has a particular problem with tree branches. But if the file format included a way to encode, “ all right, the whole background of this image is tree branches,” and a few parameters such as the colors and thickness of the branches, then JPEG wouldn't even need to bother trying to encode all those sharp lines and angles. The JPEG viewer would fill in the background with exquisitely rendered random branches.

It's fun to consider how this idea could be taken to ridiculous extremes. The brightly colored background of a sports photograph could be filled in with randomly generated fans. As JPEG has trouble rendering corporate logos (too many sharp edges and fields of solid color), you could randomly generate those too. They all look more or less the same anyway. A dias could be filled with randomly generated politicians; a movie poster with explosions; a gallery with randomly generated modern art.

Anyway, this would result in much better compression: either fewer artifacts for a given file size; or much smaller image files; or a combination. But the resulting image would be part authentic and partly fabricated based on a high-level description of the original.

Arguably this is the direction our media culture is going anyway.

Entropy and compression

A computer scientist might observe that entropy is information content. To describe the insides of a hot air balloon exhaustively (setting aside the Uncertainty Principle for a moment) would require notes about the position and velocity of every air molecule. The crystalline structure of ice would save us a lot of writing, as the possible variation in position and velocity of the individual molecules is much less. Pound for pound, steam contains more information than ice. And so it is with digital information. A GIF or PNG file of a highly chaotic image is much larger than an image that consists of just a few colors and shapes.

Yet somehow it doesn't seem that way to us humans. We have one-syllable words for both ice and steam. Steam doesn't seem so much more complex.

This is because we generalize. We throw away low-level variations in favor of high-level order.

In a high-entropy situation, a lot of the details are, almost by definition, unobservable at the macro level. This means we probably don't care much about them. Lossy compression is the computer science equivalent. If we wish to compress a large amount of chaotic data to a manageable size, we can discard information about details we consider irrelevant. This is what lossy compression schemes, like JPEG, attempt to do.

(I'm not very sure of the technical details here. Still reading about it.)

Evolution and chaos

My view of life on Earth is that it is an accumulation of order made possible by the tremendous influx of energy from the sun. What do I mean by order? I'll get to that in a minute.

Poormattie's view is that life is a random development in the rampant chaos that is the universe: an eddy in a river, or bubbles on a stormy sea.

As always it seems to me that poormattie's opinion is more correct. But the two views aren't as opposing as they seem. In part, the distinction has to do with how one defines chaos and order.

In statistical thermodynamics, entropy is a function of the amount of variation that could happen on a microscopic level without really affecting the macroscopic properties of things. To my mind, entropy is chaos; lack of entropy is order. For example, consider steam and ice. Steam is made up of water molecules careening through space at high speeds and colliding into each other. An individual water molecule in steam could basically go off in any direction it wanted, and the difference would be unnoticeable from a macroscopic perspective. But the individual water molecules in ice are locked into position within a crystal. No variation is possible. Steam has greater entropy than ice.

For a very different and probably completely inappropriate example, Utopian fashion is extremely regular. There can be no deviation from the standard on an individual level without changing that society-wide uniformity. So Utopia has low fashion entropy. It is a highly ordered society.

This definition ignores higher-level order. Entropy is only concerned with the variation allowed individuals at the smallest observeable level. So although life certainly appears chaotic from the perspective of poormattie just looking around at the state of the world, it's hard to say whether the presence of life indicates a state of higher or lower entropy.

13 April 2005

Evolution and long life

G.D., a coworker, introduced me to a radical new idea today.

I had been under the impression that evolution cares little for individuals who are too old to reproduce. Their survival is irrelevant to the propagation of their genes. So they die before long. That is, a species doesn't evolve for greater longevity, beyond child-rearing years. There's no evolutionary advantage to it.

A consequence of this, or so it seemed, would be that natural selection is not working very hard in the rich world these days. Most people in America and Western Europe live long past child-raising age. Natural selection requires inferior genes to go out of circulation through death. No death, no evolution. (Evolution is still happening all the time, but mainly through other mechanisms: sexual selection, for example.)

But this view makes the longevity of humans, modest though it may be, something of a mystery. Especially for women, who typically reach menopause in their forties. (A healthy 50-year-old American woman still has, on average, 30 years ahead of her.) Nature wastes nothing. It seems implausible that people would continue living for decades after evolution no longer had any use for them.

It turns out that women and men whose mothers are alive and nearby start having kids sooner and have more children on average than people whose mothers aren't there. And their children are more likely to survive to adulthood.

Why we die, why we live

Grandmother's footsteps - A much better article. Expensive subscription required.

Kicker: This means natural selection is hard at work even today. According to studies of 18th- and 19th-century records, women who die at the tender age of 50 have on average four fewer grandchildren than women who survive to 70. Even after your kids grow up and move out, evolution is still watching.

08 April 2005


I'm not much for breakfast food. The ideal jorendorff breakfast is a ripe juicy pear accompanied by a slice of raisin spelt bread toasted and topped with Kupel's cream cheese.

Kupel's is a Boston bagelry that makes the world's best cream cheese. I've never been there myself. I buy the cream cheese through a coworker, D.J.L., whose mom goes there every week. For a time I had the name confused. I thought it was “Kegel's Bagels”. A Kegel is actually a pelvic floor exercise. Thanks to D.J.L. for straightening me out on that one.