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Apr 4, 2007, 1:39p - Technology

I've been on leave from work since the middle of November, so I've had the past 4 months to pretty much do whatever I want. Except for the time between graduating from college and starting to work (which lasted 4.5 months), this is the longest period of true independence I've ever had. So it seemed worthwhile to reflect on that a bit.

I spent November and December applying to neuro grad schools, which basically meant working on my personal statement, learning which professors at the various schools seemed most interesting, and bugging my valiant recommenders to submit their recommendations :) Most significantly, I spent nearly 3 weeks continually studying for the Biology GRE, which I figured I should take since I hadn't done much biology since high school. January was an off-month where I felt that I could actually do more random activities, so I read a slew of books in the first few weeks. I also spent time working on an application I'm developing for the Treo, which basically lets you listen to streaming radio, specifically Pandora, on your phone. I haven't made too much progress, only about 15% done. It's looking doubtful that I'll finish before grad school, but there's a sliver of hope.

February was monopolized by grad school interviews, visiting 7 schools during the month. I checked out Baltimore, Boston, the Bay Area, San Diego, and Pasadena. All told, I think I did more than 50 interviews, and by the end of it, I didn't want to talk to anyone for a really long time :)

March came, and again I felt that grad school was no longer dominating my free time. Jessica and I are going on a month-long survival school in June, so I started training for that by running 2 miles/day. I also learned a ton about neuroscience during the interviews, and was inspired to setup some "classes" for myself. I have a bunch of textbooks I've never read lying around, so I've slowly been working through them. Right now I'm "taking" 3 classes: Computational Neuroscience, Electronics, and Artificial Intelligence. It's actually quite hard to maintain the discipline - I made syllabi and everything, but after 2 weeks I was already a week behind. Last week I also rebelled and didn't do anything from the syllabus, reading other books and watching videos about the brain and consciousness instead.

I guess I'm torn. One part of me wants to learn all this stuff and more and be super-productive and structured, and the other part just wants to take it easy, be spontaneous and unconstrained by the structure of a schedule, and do things at his own pace. I worry that the first person suffers from a lack of consciousness and only the second person is truly conscious, because when I get into hyper-productive mode I go deep into my brain and only very rarely peek out. Maybe I should give the first person the first 2 weeks of each month, and then let the second person do whatever he wants until he gets tired, and then loop back to the first...

Yesterday was one of my hyper-productive days, where I ended up forgetting to eat lunch because I was too busy working on something. I got back from a run and sat down in front of my laptop at 11am, and the next thing I knew it was 4pm and I was hungry and I had a headache. I was working on an exercise from the Artificial Intelligence textbook, and luckily that period of non-conscious bustling resulted in something at least mildly interesting, which I call Attack of the Microscopic Vacuum Cleaners. Note that it only works in Firefox and Safari, because IE doesn't support the <canvas> object. It's a very primitive microworld, but it was fun to do because I learned something new (how to use the <canvas> object and javascript) and it's really easy to modify and share.

Ahh, how I savor the fruits of labor sold only to thy self...

Read comments (6) - Comment

omar - Apr 4, 2007, 9:10p
that vacuum thing is pretty hypnotic if you set it to full coverage of dirt.. it's like the game dig-dug (see

what does it have to do with microworlds? is there some simple probabilistic model that determines where the vacuum will go?

as for your "two people" problem.. you think that's the right split, as opposed to focusing and being super-productive and structured during the work day (say the morning hours) and the second style later in the day? or maybe give yourself a day a week to think about more general things, and let your mind wander. my mind usually does that at night, though i've hoped to schedule more hours for that wandering..

nikhil - Apr 5, 2007, 9:56a
yeah, there's a super-simple probabilistic model for where the vacuums will go. the vacuums and dirt are placed randomly on the board, and on 10% of its moves each vacuum can randomly change direction. of course you could easily implement as clever a strategy as you can think of.

the problem with splitting time within the day is that my mood generally tends to be stable across the day - so if I feel like being spontaneous, that's how I feel during the entire day. and if I feel hyper-productive, I'll feel that way all day long until the wee hours of the morning. so i don't think the intra-day split would work for me.

jessica - Apr 7, 2007, 1:50p
i couldn't help but peek into your source:

   for(x = 0; x < worldSize; x++) {
     this._loc[y][x] = empty;
     if (Math.random() < percentDirt) {
       this._loc[y][x] = dirt;

do you think god used something similar when he created the world in 7 days?

nikhil - Apr 7, 2007, 1:58p
i don't think god likes logic, even with a dose of randomness thrown in. i'm sure he prefers to be much more unpredictable.

jessica - Apr 9, 2007, 11:15a
but, logic can be unpredictable...

nikhil - Apr 9, 2007, 12:23p
'tis true, as demonstrated by the simple microworld. but i suspect, but don't know for sure, that greater unpredictability, like that seen in an individual (observed introspectively and through behavior), social collection of individuals, or nature in general, may not be the product of such a straightforward logic system.

more tangibly, how does the percentDirt value get set initially, and how does it change over time and space? in other words, i find it staggering that we live in a world where, for our purposes, the natural "laws" don't seem to be changing at all. we may just be measuring over too small a time scale, but such a static world seems a bit strange to me...

more importantly, perhaps, is how does your knowledge of the laws change your behavior within the logical system? if i know how i'm supposed to act given the rules, i may act differently just to spite them. of course, there's a huge difference between a social rule and the law of gravity... i guess it boils down to whether you believe that free will truly exists - if you do, it could be a potent source of unpredicability in individuals and (possibly) nature.

this could be manifest in code along the lines of

  fw = truly_random_number_generated_by_free_will_equivalent;
  fw2 = truly_random_number_generated_by_free_will_equivalent;

  if (fw > threshold) {
    // check to see if line fw2 is defined;
    if (!codeAt(fw2)) {
      randomly generate n lines of code starting at line fw2;
    jump to line fw2 and continue execution;

of course there would need to be some mechanism to ensure some level of overall stability, but perhaps something like this type of scheme could work? i guess it's still code so still follows the rules of logic (cause and effect), but perhaps it would achieve a better level of unpredictability? i guess much of this depends on whether *true* randomness can be generated...

as Penrose likes to say, the world is likely deterministic (logical) but not computable ahead of time...i'm still trying to wrap my head around that one.

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