Saturday, February 15, 2014


I sent out a tweet a couple days ago:

I should probably clarify a bit: Tadpole is not quite 3. She's going to be defiant, and I suspect that anyone who's got a secret to fixing that has better things to do than give Twitter advice.

What I'm really trying to figure out is how I respond to Tadpole's defiance.  The defiance of a three year old isn't something that can be reasoned with (much, although it's more possible than it was), and since her goal is usually to get a reaction from daddy, my anger and frustration don't have much of an impact besides encouraging her.  As so many parents before me have learned, I'm basically helpless in the face of a cheeky three year old.  My frustration and anger are coming from this helplessness, not what she's doing.

For other difficult interactions, I've built myself a script.  Crying baby? Start swaying and bouncing.  Fall/other hurt: hold her and ask where it hurts (because if she can show me, things are probably mostly OK). Don't want to wrap up an activity: set a timer on the phone, and end things when the timer goes off (Tadpole has learned to react well to timers)

Defiance? I have no idea.  Sometimes she's holding something/in the midst of potty so there's some urgency to restraining her, but often she's just in her head, looking to provoke a reaction from daddy because that's one of many fun activities.

Haters gonna hate, and three-year-olds are going to grin cheekily, look at the roll of toilet paper, look back at you, and unroll the whole roll because they know they're not supposed to.  That's not behavior I can control.  My response is something I can control.  What that response will be, I still have no idea.  Advice on that?

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Computers, bodies, and Star Trek

Inspirations for today's post include the Star Trek: TOS Episode "By Any Other Name" and "Turing's Cathedral" (February's book club read, finished the Audiobook on Sunday).

Essentially, each has me thinking about the relationship between brain/body (and, I suppose something like soul/personality/essence), and the ways those relationships distinguish us from computers.

In "By Any Other Name", the Enterprise is taken over by powerful aliens who create human bodies to accomplish the hijacking.  (Total aside - Spock does a LOT of Magic in this episode, all of it basically irrelevant).  The aliens are highly intelligent, rational, and equipped with a superweapon, so they have no problem taking over the ship, but they're unaccustomed to human bodies.  Kirk is seductive, Bones injects drugs, Scottie introduces the delightful effects of alcohol, and the aliens find themselves defeated and transformed.  Embodied humanity, in this narrative, is more than the sum of thought processes.

In the exact same episode, the aliens dispose of the rest of the crew by transforming them into fragile crystals.  Their body, memories, and personality, the leader of the aliens informs Kirk, are maintained and preserved in this form.  Embodied humanity, in this narrative, can be fully known and encapsulated in some static form, irrespective of environment.  (Another aside, the moment in which Kirk rushes through his ship encountering these crystals might have been affecting and tragic if the camera had held on for a few extra moments).

Meanwhile, most of the way through Turing's Cathedral the question of the relationship between computers and biology has cropped up in a few places.  One contrast is between a calculating machine that fundamentally acts one step at a time (and therefore places a great deal of importance on clock speed) compared to a biological process acting within an environmental continuum.  Another important distinction is between early computers, with unreliable parts but generally uncomplicated & debuggable operations, modern computers with generally reliable parts but highly complex and unreliable operations, and biological processes that occur in environments with unreliable parts and highly complex/unreliable operations.  The gap between a computer and an organism, and therefore the types of processes and correction methods that each uses, is actually vast and fundamental.

This distinction between body and mind has a long tradition in at least Western philosophy (one which I'm hopelessly unqualified to survey or comment on), but the general notion of an ability to separate these two, perhaps joining them via some ineffable "soul", "spirit" or "identity"is appealing and in some ways intuitive.  The potential for artificial intelligence, for a truly deterministic universe, weather control, and artificial life seems tantalizingly close the more these two elements of our self seem distinguishable.

The more that I read about computers, biology, and particularly neurology, though, the more convinced I am that this apparent distinction is dangerous and misleading.  Our bodies are not supercomputers stuck inside a collection of tendons and bones.  (We're not Krang!)  We're embodied in an analog (continuous) universe.  Computers are really cool.  So are people, but we are embodied in (and embody within us) a vast and complex ecosystem that proceeds steadily, not via the ticks of a clock.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Hasty responses to Turing's Cathedral

A few pre-book-club reactions to Turing's Cathedral:

The book reviews the origins of the first computer built at the IAS (Institute for Advanced Study) at Princeton, and the personalities who created it.  In setting the stage for the personalities, it dives back as far as the revolutionary war, but mostly surveys fin-de-si├Ęcle Eastern Europe, the period leading up to WWII, and the and the drive for something that could do the calculations necessary for an atomic bomb.

Within this context, I found two strong themes: first, the physical engineering problems involved in creating the computer, and the abilities that distinguished it from previous computers/calculator. (I am hoping someone has an explanation if the significance of "numbers that do things as well as numbers that mean things"), and second the problems the first computers were intended to solve, and the future applications their designers envisioned.  The book concludes by looking at the way our digital universe has evolved and continues to evolve.

I was most out of my depth in the engineering area.  I don't know what distinguished the MANIAC, understand the mechanics of vacuum tubes, the difficulties of memory allocation in machine language, or have any idea how this relates to modern processors.  I did have two takeaways, though.  I'm much more sympathetic than I had been to the impressive leap between envisioning a theoretical device and the practical reality if bringing that device into existence. (Probably related to my experiments in bread making and beer brewing, which are as close as I've come to any engineering problem.)
Second, the notion of a central "clock" which is really more of a counter/incrementer, as essential to computers.  Instructions are performed at each step of this clock, which means states are allowed to change whenever the controller advances, which means finite spaces can be reused, which is really powerful.  Also means there's a giant gap between the digital, chunky, universe and the continual analog universe.

As far as the problems solved, the book mentions 5, on different timescales: atomic bomb equations, shock waves, meteorology, evolutionary biology, and stellar evolution.
It's an interesting set of problems.  The only real comment I have is how much harder meteorology seems to be than was expected.  I think (getting back to messy engineering), you need the ability to do really complicated messy calculations to scare up something like chaos theory.

I'm ... Skeptical of the attempts to analogize biological and technological evolution and suggest machines are impacting our evolution in the way that biological evolution works.  I think that the distinction between digital and analog is really big. I also think that no technological ecosystem is anywhere near as complex as our own, and I think these are huge qualitative differences between evolutionary environments.  I also think these are justifications for my knee-jerk reaction, so we'll see what I think as things settle.  The flip side is that computers are still in their infancy, are inserting themselves into our world in unimaginable ways, and are clearly highly powerful, addictive, and impact full devices.  Maybe skynet is close? Maybe whatever human-machine evolution develops will be highly unlike skynet.

I listened to this as an audiobook, which was awesome unless the book itself has pictures, because visualizing many situations would have helped.  I'm also really glad this was a book club book, because I need help understanding and processing it.

To the extent that I want to get something out of book club, it's:
I'm glad we're discussing this
Can someone clarify what pre-MANIAC calculating devices were like, and why "numbers that do things and numbers that mean things" is so important
Anything else is gravy.

May edit for clarity, links, and grammar after book club, potentially with a PS unless that turns into a new post.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Preschool Assisted Risotto - A recipe

Tadpole and I made Risotto recently!

Yes, that's Tadpole standing on a bar stool & stirring the rice into the risotto.  Next to her hand is the ladle which she used to ladle the water & stock into the pan as the water bor was absorbed.

Every once and a while I find myself stepping out of an interaction with Tadpole and wondering how this happened.  It seems like we were just practicing siting safely on stools, and now she's standing on a bar stool and stirring rice at a hot stove! Even having seen all of those individual skills appear and come together, this moment just blew me away.

Recipe for preschool-assisted risotto:
Safe and Stable Stool Standing: Tadpole's been working on this pretty much since she was able to reach the top of the stools.  Sitting, standing, with and without assistance, and eventually climbing on  with and without assistance.  I still remember the first time we had a visitor over whose mom let her sit unassisted on a stool.  I was blown away. And terrified to try it with Tadpole.  But eventually we both got brave and did it.  She's been getting more comfortable on the stools ever since.

Stirring: Stirring without making a huge mess, that is.  Getting the spoon into the right spot, moving it around enough to keep things mixing, but not so much that they spill everywhere.  We practiced this a lot with beans, which were pretty much the best toy ever from about 18 months to 2 1/2 (and still in the rotation).  

Pouring Ingredients: We've been practicing this during morning coffee-making for quite a while.  (Back in the day, I'd make coffee at the espresso maker with Tadpole carried in a baby Bjorn and pushing the buttons.  She's been doing more of the steps ever since). She watered the Christmas tree & some plants this year, and helps with baking.  For risotto, I poured the olive oil, but Tadpole handled the rice, wine after I added it to the measuring cup, and ladling the liquid.

Respect for the hot stove: We've been enforcing this since it was clear that Tadpole understood words. For a long time, it was simply a space she had to stay away from.  More recently, though, we've been exploring the boundaries of the stove and the oven.  The stove gets hot, the nearby counter doesn't.  We can look at the oven, but not try to open it, and have to stand back when mommy or daddy opens it.  As she shows that she's understanding a lesson about safety, we get to refine that lesson. In fact, when we started this risotto, Tadpole didn't want to stir: "I will pour daddy.  You stir because that's a hot stove."  There's a parenting win!  After watching me stir, she was interested in trying.  We practiced it together first, then with her stirring by herself before I stepped away to take the picture.

Making risotto with Tadpole was an amazing experience.  She was somewhat excited about it, although I don't think she really drew the connection to making our family dinner that I did.  For me, though, passing this on to my daughter, and watching all of the skills we've been practicing (consciously and unconsciously) come together as she stirred rice and ladled in broth as the liquid was absorbed was pretty much the highlight of my week.  Baby steps, built over literally years, eventually became the ingredients for making family dinner together.

For those interested in the actual recipe, I think we went with:
  • Chop an onion (Tadpole did NOT help with this part)
  • Add a small amount (1-2 Tbsp?) Olive Oil to a pan and turn on medium heat
  • Add chopped onion and stir ~5 minutes until browning
  • Add 2 cups arborio rice & 1/2 cup white wine
  • Heat a container (~4 cups?) stock in a separate pot. Water is fine if stock not available
  • Stir, ladling in more liquid as the liquid is absorbed/boiled off (~30 minutes)
  • We topped off with green beans, parmesan and pesto that R made.  We have previously topped with mushrooms, which Tadpole disapproves of on general principle.
But really, google or a cookbook can give you better directions.  (Of course, if you have risotto suggestions, please let me know.  Especially after this success, I expect we'll be making more)