Sunday, June 25, 2006

A conversation with Danny

"Danny showed me his video parser. I gave him a .3gp video of my son, newly arrived back from snowboarding in Canada. The video, from my camera-phone, was tiny and grainy. Danny's program read frame after frame, displaying each magnified pixel map. It was incomprehensibly to my eyes.

"The program does standard things like edge-detection, object-inference and finally scene-reconstruction. It's based on the detailed models of people and objects stored in its object-database. The parsed result is a high-resolution 3D animation model similar to those we use to generate video games. We can then invert the process and render this model at any resolution we choose."

Danny showed me his processed video based on my original postage-stamp movie, but it was now rendered on a high-definition TV screen. And it was perfect.

"You do realise the implications, don't you?" Danny said. This cinematic version of your video is a reconstructed reality, a kind of 'informed hallucination' based on your original coarse and tiny video. And that too was a kind of hallucination of reality, formed from pixels illuminated by your camera lens.

"And as you sit there looking at me, your brain is doing just the same thing" he continued. "You have no access to the 'real me'. Your 'view' is entirely reconstructed from retinal images on the back of your two eyes: tiny, noisy and upside-down neuronal 'bit-maps'. It looks like you're seeing the world, but you're hallucinating a view based on retinal image processing."

He grinned. "Intellectually you know it, but you don't really believe it, do you?"

Miffed, I replied. "You're sitting there looking at me and being amused. Consider this - the 'you' being amused is just the activity of 100 billion neurons doing their thing behind your eyes. 'You' are no more than the sum of their activity. How does that work, d'you think? And do you really believe it?""

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Some 'Learnings' (sic)

In the sense of Vernon God Little.

1. Be a 'yes' person.

Trade little favours with other 'yes' people (in the sense of the 'Favor Bank' in 'Bonfire of the Vanities'). 'No' people are both high maintenance and incur too-high transaction costs to get them to do stuff well. 'Yes' people get the world's work done.

2. You can look stupid talking to lay people

How many times have you discussed something technical with a bright person who knows nothing about the area? As you run an internal translation system to filter acronyms and too-hard concepts, and work on generating appropriate metaphors on the fly, your conversational partner thinks you can't really understand this stuff all that well.

You are then joined by someone else who is also an expert. You switch gear - now you are motoring! Your original conversational partner is amazed: they now have no idea what you are talking about, but they see you flying rather than crawling. Your reputation is back.

I have been on both sides of this divide.

3. Building your reputation takes time.

How many times have I fallen into the trap of wanting to impress someone, and therefore hitting them with a lot of intellectual firepower - kind of hosing them. Although it's a truism, it is also true that less is a lot more. Understated competence allows people time to assess the evidence and to make their minds up. After a week or ten days, they may start to trust you and you may acquire a reputation. Attempts to short-circuit the process fatally undermine it. Patience and the Tao!

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Lyme Regis

This week-end we camped close to Lyme Regis. This little seaside town on the English south coast dates back to Saxon times - today it looks rather Georgian, like Bath.

At the west side of the enclosed harbour is a seawall about twelve feet high called 'The Cob' (see picture above, where I'm standing on the uneven surface).

It's been there for a long while.

Jane Austen was in Lyme in 1804 and her later novel, Persuasion, had the dramatic scene where Louisa, one of the female characters jumps off the top of the Cob, supposedly into the hands of Captain Wentworth, the male lead character. Missing, she sustains concussion and the event helps to precipitate the happy ending whereby Wentworth gets to marry the heroine Anne.

Clare, pictured above, shows steps leading to the top. We took our courage in both hands and climbed up using this route. A fall from the top would really be no joke.

Our banal camping movie is here.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Why big companies are more competent

As Adam Smith noted, the division of labour is limited by the extent of the market. There are not many specialist rocket scientists, brain surgeons or carrier network architects who can make their living within the economic confines of a small town.

But one could equally state that the division of labour is limited by the extent of the company. A large company making economic profits can afford specialists and can allow them to work with some autonomy - freed from the immediate need to make the next dollar, euro or pound. This is not just a complex way of describing traditional R&D: large companies also do better with large scale product development as well as support services and systems integration, if they are in a somewhat competitive market.

The smaller company may enjoy freedom from group-think and an incentive to innovate, but it is the large company which brings the innovation to the mass market. A number of possible causes have been proposed for this phenomenon, but look to Adam Smith’s insight for the real reason.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Laptop problem (cont.)

The problem reported a few days back recurred in a different way recently. At random intervals, the laptop would freeze as the CPU was taken over by an unknown process. Using ctrl-alt-delete to open the task manager was no help at all. Various tasks such as iexplorer were flagged at 98-100% of CPU but stopping them (eventually) did not solve the problem.

Too many times, I would have to kill the machine dead by holding down the power button.

I rather feared that the spectre of a full XP-reinstall would be forced upon me. But I decided instead that the problem was with the Microsoft Indexing Service, via cidaemon.exe. This was, after all, exactly where I had had the problem before.

I therefore turned the service off using the control panel (administrative tools - services - indexing service => disabled). I use Google Desktop to search for local files anyhow.

Postscript: no sooner was I celebrating 24 hours of the problem apparently being cleared when it recurred! I have noticed, though, that whatever process is grabbing 100% of the CPU then releases it after a few minutes. So I walk away from the problem, get a green tea, come back and restart the machine. Seems to work provided life is not too urgent!

Friday, June 02, 2006

Video old and new

Clare has managed to push my family tree of male ancestors back to a John Seel, born in Oldham, Lancashire, in 1847. We have no idea what he looked like.

A while ago there passed away the last generation of which this could be true. Consider the .wmv movie of Adrian Seel, here. As I was taking it, I was conscious that despite the poor resolution and 2D technology, it is easy to anticipate a future technology - based on 3D modelling - which could transform this video into a high-resolution 3D object: all the information required is either there, or can be extrapolated.

Technology forecasting: take something which would be good to do, and where in principle we know it can be done. It will happen - 10-20 years max.