Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Monday, February 13, 2012

A Wrinkle in Time


Fifty years ago today, on February 13, 1962, Madeline L'Engle's classic, "A Wrinkle in Time," was published. Despite having been rejected by scores of publishers who told her the science-laden plot was too difficult for children to understand, L'Engle persevered and for that many of us are grateful.


When the book later won the Newberry Medal, it came to my mother's attention, and she handed it to me, saying, "There's a little girl in here who reminds me of you."


Madeline L'Engle's book changed my life. I wrote about this a few years ago in a post entitled "Thankfully Reading," so I won't repeat the whole story here, but the upshot is that the little girl in the book really was a lot like me. Reading "Wrinkle" led me to reading a lot of other science fiction as was true for many other girls, and, eventually, to a discovery that even more amazing things could be found in the study of actual science.


So, this book was a sort of "gateway drug" for me, I suppose, introducing me to the wonders of scientific dreaming and even discovery.  I would love to thank Madeline L'Engle for this, for persevering with her own dream to see this book into reality, but she passed away a few years ago. 


I'm certain I'm not the only person whose life was changed by this book, and I hope she knew how grateful we all are that she was a writer who never gave up.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Emergence: Complexity From Simplicity



Today’s guest post is by Jochen Fromm, a scientist and software engineer from Berlin, who is the founder of the Complex Adaptive Systems, CAS, group blog. He holds a degree in theoretical physics and has interests in complex systems, emergence, self-organization and, especially, multi-agent systems.
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As John H. Holland explains in the video that follows, emergence is one of the central principles that explain how complexity can arise from simplicity or how order comes out of chaos. It happens when large-scale order arises from small-scale interactions. In complex systems, simple rules can have complex results and small events can have great effects.





Classic examples are flocks of birds and shoals of fish. How they move as one is mysterious and fascinating. The first steps towards understanding this behavior was made by Craig Reynolds in 1986, who programmed the basic rules of bird motion into a computer. His agent-based model "Boids" shows how complex swarms can arise from simple interactions between agents following rules.

The Rules for swarms or flock of birds are simple: stay away from your neighbors, but stay close to the group. A swarm is a group of followers without leader. Global attraction (a move towards the group) is combined with local repulsion (stay away from individuals). Reynolds formulated three basic rules:

·            Separation: steer to avoid crowding local flockmates
·            Alignment: steer towards the average heading of local flockmates
·            Cohesion: steer to move toward the average position of local flockmates

Agent-based models like the boids model are key to understanding the principles of emergence and swarm intelligence (the collective intelligence of swarms). These principles in turn explain how simple rules can have complex results. 





Yet there is also a downside: although simple rules can lead to complex results, in most cases they do not. And not every group moving in synchronized ways is good.

Emergence happens with all kinds of living things that live in groups. An army marching in formation is fascinating, too, but these forms of "forced swarms" are certainly more controversial. Einstein said "that a man can take pleasure in marching in formation to the strains of a band is enough to make me despise him," but people find marching armies fascinating for the same reason they like swarms. We admire the fascinating unity in diversity in moving crowds, flocks of birds or shoals of fish.

The essence of many agent-based models is a conflict. In the boids model, the problem is that the neighbors don’t have the right place or position. Each agent wants to be close to the group, but also wants to stay away from the other individuals. Many small conflicts about the right position in the neighborhood lead to large clusters of similar positions in the form of swarms.

Similar effects occur in models for human society, for example Thomas Schelling’s Segregation Model for ghetto formation and Robert Axelrod’s Dissemination Model for culture formation. In the first model, neighbors are of different races, while, in the latter, neighbors don’t have the same traits. Schelling showed that a small preference for one’s neighbors to be of the same race could lead to total segregation. Axelrod showed that a small preference for one’s neighbors’ traits could also lead to segregated cultures.

There are many other fascinating agent-based models and more complicated forms of emergence. What they all have in common is that the behavior emerges from actions controlled by the rules of the model. The behavior of the whole is more than the sum of the parts.

Emergence and swarm intelligence are not the only principles at work in these systems, however. Path dependence, lever points, frozen accidents and butterfly effects, all subjects for future posts, also help explain how small events can have great effects in complex adaptive systems.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Omega Upgrade

Several years ago, when bluetooth receivers for cell phones first started to appear, I stood in a grocery store listening to someone have a conversation with what seemed to be voices in his head.

Maybe we've gotten used to this phenomenon by now, but what if technology were to advance to the point where you couldn't see the bluetooth receiver? What if the conversations we have on Twitter, Facebook and Google+ began to dominate our world, drowning out face-to-face conversations?

What? It's already happening, you say? I think you might be right.

Today and tomorrow, February 5 - 6, my view of a not-too-futuristic world, "The Omega Upgrade," is available for the Amazon Kindle for FREE. Download it here now. If you don't have a Kindle, you can get a free app for your phone or computer.

And if all that isn't tempting enough, here's an excerpt!


The Omega Upgrade

A girl with purple hair and violet eyes was standing on the other side of the mango bin, talking into the air. “I don’t know why he wants to see you,” she said. “Can’t he just message you? For Pete’s sake, it’s 2019!”
Elaine was startled. It wasn’t so much what the girl said, it was that she was talking. Out loud.
“Maybe he wants to give you something. How should I know?” the purple-haired girl said.
Elaine shot looks around the fruit shop. Nobody but her and the girl were there, except for a short Indian woman over near the checkout turnstile. And she was out of earshot. Who was this girl talking to, anyway?
The fact that anybody was talking at all should have made Elaine happy, since the whole summer had seemed so quiet, everybody walking around in silence in what had once been a bustling Manhattan neighborhood.
Instead, the sound of a person’s voice filled her with an unexpected sense of dread, a foreboding that Elaine couldn’t quite place.
The girl, who looked to be about twenty, stared right through Elaine as she continued jabbering away at the air. Elaine retreated into a spot of shade cast by a large piece of tie-dyed fabric stretched over the fruit stand and pretended to get interested in the mangoes again.
It was clear the girl’s attention was somewhere else—somewhere far away, halfway around the world for all Elaine knew. She had never gotten used to this habit people had of staring at others when they were twittering with somebody. No, not twittering. Did they still do that? Maybe this girl was cogno-texting, or whatever they called it. Elaine sighed. She just could not keep up with this stuff.
Elaine stepped a little to the side to see if, maybe, the girl’s hair was simply hiding the plug. Nope, nothing there. She didn’t seem to have a web connector at all, but was somehow talking into the air like they all did when they were on line, or logged in, or whatever the hell they called it now.
She looked once more at the girl’s earrings, just ordinary glass beads dangling on wire hooks. What would a webplug earring look like anyway?
Elaine shook her head and turned back to the mangoes. She picked up one of the green fruits, a rosy blush spreading across one of its sides, and squeezed it gently, before lifting it to her nose. The unmistakable scent of ripe mango rising from the slightly soft fruit assured her this one was perfect. At least she could still pick out fruit the old fashioned way. Next thing you knew they’d be inventing a nose implant for the detection of ripening fruit.
Across from her, the purple haired girl plucked a mango from the large pile of green fruit and polished it on her overalls. Still talking, she took a bite straight through the mango’s soft green skin, revealing juicy orange flesh.
“Um hmmm…Um hm,” she said, chewing. Elaine stared. Mango juice dripped down the girl’s chin. Wiping at it and stamping a foot, she exploded: “Jeri! Listen to me!  This is getting way too complicated for talk. We have to switch to omega mode.”
The girl tipped her head sharply to one side, and seemed to go into some sort of trance. The mango, still held aloft in her right hand, one bite taken from the flesh, dripped orange juice onto the edge of the fruit stand. She looked like a statue, except for her violet eyes that flickered rapidly from side-to-side.
Was the girl having a seizure? Elaine watched in fascinated horror as a black fly approached the mango, hovered for a few moments, and then began to descend to the surface of the exposed flesh. At the very moment the fly planted its little feet on the orange fruit, the girl tipped her head sharply again, to the opposite side this time. She flinched, dislodging the fly, and took another bite of the mango.
“Feel better?” the girl asked, her violet eyes now steady and clear. “Good. I knew you would. Omega mode is so much better than the mindweb for these really emotional issues. I’m saving my debits so I can get the upgrade to Omega 2.0.”

Read the rest of the story here!