Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for the ‘Software’ Category

Planet eBook offers good free ebooks

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Planet eBook, like Standard Ebooks, offers well-edited, carefully proofread ebook editions of a wide variety of classics. However, Planet eBook offers books in just 3 formats — epub, pdf, and mobi whereas Standard Ebooks has more formats, including the native Kindle format.

But if you get ebooks, you certainly should download and install the ebook management app Calibre. Calibre will import your free ebooks (so that if you get a new device, you can upload the books from Calibre to the device), let you edit the metadata, allow you to change the cover art, and — important for users of Planet eBook, convert ebooks from one format to another (e.g., from epub to azw3, the Kindle format).

More info in the ebook section of my list of often-recommended books.

Written by Leisureguy

9 August 2022 at 4:43 pm

Posted in Books, Software, Technology

The power of zooming

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Written by Leisureguy

31 July 2022 at 1:02 pm

Finding a book you want to read

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Check out Recommendmeabook.com. You can discover a book by reading a page, or by browsing covers, or by a straightforward search, or by browsing other readers’ bookshelves of saved titles. You can save titles to your own bookshelf, which can be public or private, as you prefer. And you can suggest books to be included.

Written by Leisureguy

31 July 2022 at 8:39 am

Posted in Books, Daily life, Software

Cross-pollination among neuroscience, psychology, and AI research yields a foundational understanding of thinking

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Paul S. Rosenbloom, Professor Emeritus of Computer Science, University of Southern California, Christian Lebierem, Research Psychologist, Carnegie Mellon University, and John E. Laird, John L. Tishman Professor of Engineering, University of Michigan, write in The Conversation:

Progress in artificial intelligence has enabled the creation of AIs that perform tasks previously thought only possible for humans, such as translating languagesdriving carsplaying board games at world-champion level and extracting the structure of proteins. However, each of these AIs has been designed and exhaustively trained for a single task and has the ability to learn only what’s needed for that specific task.

Recent AIs that produce fluent text, including in conversation with humans, and generate impressive and unique art can give the false impression of a mind at work. But even these are specialized systems that carry out narrowly defined tasks and require massive amounts of training.

It still remains a daunting challenge to combine multiple AIs into one that can learn and perform many different tasks, much less pursue the full breadth of tasks performed by humans or leverage the range of experiences available to humans that reduce the amount of data otherwise required to learn how to perform these tasks. The best current AIs in this respect, such as AlphaZero and Gato, can handle a variety of tasks that fit a single mold, like game-playing. Artificial general intelligence (AGI) that is capable of a breadth of tasks remains elusive.

Ultimately, AGIs need to be able to interact effectively with each other and people in various physical environments and social contexts, integrate the wide varieties of skill and knowledge needed to do so, and learn flexibly and efficiently from these interactions.

Building AGIs comes down to building artificial minds, albeit greatly simplified compared to human minds. And to build an artificial mind, you need to start with a model of cognition.

From human to Artificial General Intelligence

Humans have an almost unbounded set of skills and knowledge, and quickly learn new information without needing to be re-engineered to do so. It is conceivable that an AGI can be built using an approach that is fundamentally different from human intelligence. However, as three longtime researchers in AI and cognitive science, our approach is to draw inspiration and insights from the structure of the human mind. We are working toward AGI by trying to better understand the human mind, and better understand the human mind by working toward AGI.

From research in neuroscience, cognitive science and psychology, we know that the human brain is neither a huge homogeneous set of neurons nor a massive set of task-specific programs that each solves a single problem. Instead, it is a set of regions with different properties that support the basic cognitive capabilities that together form the human mind.

These capabilities include perception and action; short-term memory for what is relevant in the current situation; long-term memories for skills, experience and knowledge; reasoning and decision making; emotion and motivation; and learning new skills and knowledge from the full range of what a person perceives and experiences.

Instead of focusing on specific capabilities in isolation, AI pioneer Allen Newell in 1990 suggested developing Unified Theories of Cognition that integrate all aspects of human thought. Researchers have been able to build software programs called cognitive architectures that embody such theories, making it possible to test and refine them.

Cognitive architectures are grounded in multiple scientific fields with distinct perspectives. Neuroscience focuses on the organization of the human brain, cognitive psychology on human behavior in controlled experiments, and artificial intelligence on useful capabilities.

The Common Model of Cognition

We have been involved in the development of three cognitive architectures: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

29 July 2022 at 10:08 am

Duolingo uses weird sentences because surprise assists learning

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Via The Eldest, this interesting article in Slate by Jane C. Hu:

In November 2020, the usual dark wet of fall settled into Seattle—and with the pandemic raging and outdoor gatherings less appealing, my social life took a nosedive. To fill my evenings, I decided to take on those things I always said I’d do if only I had more time, like practicing my Chinese. While I grew up speaking Mandarin, I’d never mastered reading or writing characters, so I fired up my long-neglected Duolingo account and committed to doing at least a lesson a day.

Whether you’ve already got some language proficiency under your belt or are starting out as a complete beginner, Duolingo doesn’t teach languages the way you might have learned them in school, with lists of vocabulary and verb conjugations. Instead, it makes you jump right in and start matching words with their meanings or translating sentences. My lessons started out simply enough with new vocabulary and phrases to practice grammar—and occasionally, there was a sentence that made me chuckle, like, “He is handsome but not a good person,” or “There are too many people here.” Then there were some that made me unexpectedly emotional in the context of the pandemic. There was “This year I cannot celebrate Chinese New Year with my family,” and this simple but terrifying question: “Are you happy?” Soon enough, though, my lessons veered into the absurd. I could imagine very specific scenarios in which I’d need to know how to say “he drank three bottles of Baijiu and he is sleeping now” or “I have 1,500 cat photos on my phone,” but they hardly seemed like the kind of sentences I’d need to know how to write in the long term.

A quick Google showed I was not the only one curious about these weird sentences. No internet phenomenon is complete without a dedicated Tumblr and Twitter accounts to document it; users submitted their own nonsensical sentences, like “The bride is a woman and the groom is a hedgehog,” or “The man eats ice cream with mustard.” Others conveyed existential angst, like “I am eating bread and crying on the floor” and “Today I will gaze into the distance and cry as well,” both nominated by Duolingo users as the “most 2020 phrases.” Clearly, these goofy sentences were some kind of strategy—but what, exactly, is Duolingo trying to accomplish with them?

To find out, I went straight to the source. Cindy Blanco, a learning scientist at Duolingo, explained that the company’s content is generated by language-specific teams, each of which has their own quirks. Lessons in Norwegian and Swedish, for instance, often include references to ’90s grunge music. Some teams have always enjoyed sneaking in weird or funny sayings, but over time, course creators made an explicit decision to include them on the theory that weird sentences have the potential to boost learning. I asked how, exactly, that would work, and Blanco explained that people often learn best when there’s a mismatch between what they expect and what they actually encounter. “When there’s a conflict between your expectation and the reality, that triggers responses in the brain,” said Blanco. “It forces you to attend more carefully to what you’re seeing.” For example, when you see a sentence like, “The bride is a woman and the groom is a …,” your brain has likely filled in the word man, so the actual word Duolingo uses—hedgehog—is a surprise. Voila, you have been forced to pay extra attention. . .

Continue reading.

Later in the article:

. . . Predictable sentences—say, “The bride was a woman and the groom was a man”—are commonplace and unremarkable. Wildly erratic sentences (what linguists would call “semantically unpredictable sentences”) are usually just absurd, like “The table walked through the blue truth.” But something in the middle is where humor lies, Vergut speculates. “The bride is a woman and the groom is a hedgehog” is a perfect example of that sweet spot in between rote and nonsensical.

Written by Leisureguy

27 July 2022 at 10:04 am

Pacemaker 6-week checkup

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I updated the pacemaker post with what the six-week check-up produced. You can read the full report in the section added to the end of the post at the link, but three things I thought important:

  1. Expected battery life is now 12 years. (At that point, a new pacemaker will replace the one I have now.)
  2. The Wife commented today that, since the pacemaker’s been installed, she’s noticed that I seem to have lost a dullness of edge that I had gradually developed. It’s as though the pacemaker’s operation has sharpened my cognitive processes, so that my responses are quicker and more on target. It took a while to notice the difference, but it’s definite.
  3. They gave me a remote monitor — a passive recipient of data from my pacemaker, which the monitor will ping each night then transmit the data to the pacemaker clinic for review. They’ll then let me know if I should ever need to come in for adjustments to the pacemaker programming. (The monitor only receives data from my pacemaker; it cannot transmit data to the pacemaker.)

I post this information about my pacemaker adventure for those who might be considering such a thing or know someone who’s been through it.

Of course, this visit and the monitor were free: I live in Canada, which like other advanced nations includes healthcare as a government service. Parking, however, was not free, so this visit (and bringing home the monitor) cost $3.50 in parking fees.

Written by Leisureguy

26 July 2022 at 2:41 pm

A.I. and the fiction it writes

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Josh Dzieza has an interesting article in Verge on AI-assisted fiction writing. (Careful disclaimer: There is no AII involved in the writing of my blog, though I have indeed seen ads for AI software to assist in writing blog posts. I write my own.) Dzieza’s article begins:

On a Tuesday in mid-March, Jennifer Lepp was precisely 80.41 percent finished writing Bring Your Beach Owl, the latest installment in her series about a detective witch in central Florida, and she was behind schedule. The color-coded, 11-column spreadsheet she keeps open on a second monitor as she writes told her just how far behind: she had three days to write 9,278 words if she was to get the book edited, formatted, promoted, uploaded to Amazon’s Kindle platform, and in the hands of eager readers who expected a new novel every nine weeks.

Lepp became an author six years ago, after deciding she could no longer stomach having to spout “corporate doublespeak” to employees as companies downsized. She had spent the prior two decades working in management at a series of web hosting companies, where she developed disciplined project management skills that have translated surprisingly well to writing fiction for Amazon’s Kindle platform.

Like many independent authors, she found in Amazon’s self-service publishing arm, Kindle Direct Publishing, an unexpected avenue into a literary career she had once dreamed of and abandoned. (“Independent” or “indie” author are the preferred terms for writers who are self-publishing commercially, free of the vanity-press connotations of “self-published.”) “It’s not Dostoevsky,” Lepp said of her work, but she takes pride in delivering enjoyable “potato chip books” to her readers, and they reward her with an annual income that can reach the low six figures.

However, being an Amazon-based author is stressful in ways that will look familiar to anyone who makes a living on a digital platform. In order to survive in a marketplace where infinite other options are a click away, authors need to find their fans and keep them loyal. So they follow readers to the microgenres into which Amazon’s algorithms classify their tastes, niches like “mermaid young adult fantasy” or “time-travel romance,” and keep them engaged by writing in series, each installment teasing the next, which already has a title and set release date, all while producing a steady stream of newsletters, tweets, and videos. As Mark McGurl writes in Everything and Less, his recent book on how Amazon is shaping fiction, the Kindle platform transformed the author-reader relationship into one of service provider and customer, and the customer is always right. Above all else, authors must write fast.

Lepp, who writes under the pen name Leanne Leeds in the “paranormal cozy mystery” subgenre, allots herself precisely 49 days to write and self-edit a book. This pace, she said, is just on the cusp of being unsustainably slow. She once surveyed her mailing list to ask how long readers would wait between books before abandoning her for another writer. The average was four months. Writer’s block is a luxury she can’t afford, which is why as soon as she heard about an artificial intelligence tool designed to break through it, she started beseeching its developers on Twitter for access to the beta test.

The tool was called Sudowrite. Designed by developers turned sci-fi authors Amit Gupta and James Yu, it’s one of many AI writing programs built on OpenAI’s language model GPT-3 that have launched since it was opened to developers last year. But where most of these tools are meant to write company emails and marketing copy, Sudowrite is designed for fiction writers. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more. “Sudowrite” is, I assume, a gentle acknowledgment that the product is not actually “writing.” (Sudowrite = Pseudowrite)

Written by Leisureguy

22 July 2022 at 4:24 pm

The mathematical power of 3 random words

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Mary Lynn Reed, Professor of Mathematics, Rochester Institute of Technology, writes in The Conversation:

It’s hard to imagine that three random words have the power to both map the globe and keep your private data secure. The secret behind this power is just a little bit of math.

What3words is an app and web-based service that provides a geographic reference for every 3-meter-by-3-meter square on Earth using three random words. If your brain operates more naturally in the English measurement system, 3 meters is about 9.8 feet. So, you could think of them as roughly 10-foot-by-10-foot squares, which is about the size of a small home office or bedroom. For example, there’s a square in the middle of the Rochester Institute of Technology Tigers Turf Field coded to brilliance.bronze.inputs.

This new approach to geocoding is useful for several reasons. First, it’s more precise than regular street addresses. Also, three words are easier for humans to remember and communicate to one another than, say, detailed latitude and longitude measurements. This makes the system well suited for emergency services. Seeing these advantages, some car manufacturers are starting to integrate what3words into their navigation systems.

Ordered triples

Here’s how three random words in English or any other language can identify such precise locations across the whole planet. The key concept is ordered triples.

Start with the basic assumption that the Earth is a sphere, recognizing that this is an approximate truth, and that its radius is approximately 3,959 miles (6,371 kilometers). To compute the surface area of the Earth, use the formula 4πr2. With r = 3,959 (6,371), this works out to approximately 197 million square miles (510 million square kilometers). Remember: What3words is using 3-meter-by-3-meter squares, each of which contains 9 square meters of surface area. So, working in the metric system, Earth’s surface area is equivalent to 510 trillion square meters. Dividing 9 into 510 trillion reveals that uniquely identifying each square requires around 57 trillion ordered triples of three random words.

An ordered triple is just a list of three things in which the order matters. So “brilliance.bronze.inputs” would be considered a different ordered triple than “bronze.brilliance.inputs”. In fact, in the what3words system, bronze.brilliance.inputs is on a mountain in Alaska, not in the middle of the RIT Tigers Turf Field, like brilliance.bronze.inputs.

The next step is figuring out how many words there are in a language, and whether there are enough ordered triples to map the globe. Some scholars estimate there are more a million English words; however, many of them are very uncommon. But even using only common English words, there are still plenty to go around. You can find many word lists online.

The developers at what3words came up with a list of 40,000 English words. (The what3words system works in 50 different languages with independently assigned words.) The next question is determining how many ordered triples of three random words can be made from a list of 40,000 words. If you allow repeats, as what3words does, there would be 40,000 possibilities for the first word, 40,000 possibilities for the second word, and 40,000 possibilities for the third word. The number of possible ordered triples would then be 40,000 times 40,000 times 40,000, which is 64 trillion. That provides plenty of “three random word” triples to cover the globe. The excess combinations also allow what3words to eliminate offensive words and words that would be easily confused for one another.

Passwords you can actually remember

While the power of three random words is being used to map the Earth, the U.K. National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) is also advocating their use as passwords. Password selection and related security analysis are more complicated than attaching three words to small squares of the globe. But a similar calculation is illuminating. If you string together an ordered triple of words – such as brilliancebronzeinputs – you get a nice long password that a human should be able to remember far more easily than a random string of letters, numbers and special characters designed to meet a set of complexity rules.

If you increase your word list beyond 40,000, you’ll get . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

7 July 2022 at 10:51 am

‘An Invisible Cage’: How China Is Policing the Future

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Paul Mozur, Muyi Xiao, and John Liu have a frightening report (gift link, no paywall) in the NY Times, which begins:

The more than 1.4 billion people living in China are constantly watched. They are recorded by police cameras that are everywhere, on street corners and subway ceilings, in hotel lobbies and apartment buildings. Their phones are tracked, their purchases are monitored, and their online chats are censored.

Now, even their future is under surveillance.

The latest generation of technology digs through the vast amounts of data collected on their daily activities to find patterns and aberrations, promising to predict crimes or protests before they happen. They target potential troublemakers in the eyes of the Chinese government — not only those with a criminal past but also vulnerable groups, including ethnic minorities, migrant workers and those with a history of mental illness.

They can warn the police if a victim of a fraud tries to travel to Beijing to petition the government for payment or a drug user makes too many calls to the same number. They can signal officers each time a person with a history of mental illness gets near a school.

It takes extensive evasive maneuvers to avoid the digital tripwires. In the past, Zhang Yuqiao, a 74-year-old man who has been petitioning the government for most of his adult life, could simply stay off the main highways to dodge the authorities and make his way to Beijing to fight for compensation over the torture of his parents during the Cultural Revolution. Now, he turns off his phones, pays in cash and buys multiple train tickets to false destinations.

While largely unproven, the new Chinese technologies, detailed in procurement and other documents reviewed by The New York Times, further extend the boundaries of social and political controls and integrate them ever deeper into people’s lives. At their most basic, they justify suffocating surveillance and violate privacy, while in the extreme they risk automating systemic discrimination and political repression. . .

Continue reading (gift link, no paywall).

Written by Leisureguy

27 June 2022 at 2:49 pm

My big pacemaker adventure

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This post documents the lessons learned en route to getting a pacemaker, along with some lessons learned after the fact. – updated 7/26/2022 with section “6-Week Checkup”

I often use FutureMe.org to send myself an email at some future date — for example, to document some worries or concerns (so I can learn whether such worries or concerns are warranted), or to predict what will happen or how well I will do something (so I can compare my actual experience with what I expected without letting hindsight to adjust my memory of what I expected — the “Yes, I knew that would happen” response), and so on.

[I learned in a business context that it is a good idea when presenting findings — of costs, profit, overtime, late delivery, or whatever — to first have people write down what they expected the findings to be (and perhaps write on the board a few of those expectations) before I revealed the findings. If I failed to do that, I found that people would say “Yeah, we already knew that” even when (especially when?) they had no idea. — You could even take the average of the guesses. Often the average will be close to the actual finding, but if it isn’t, it might indicate a problem in information flow and availability within the organization, which might be worth checking out.]

This post is, in effect, a letter to PastMe — it’s represents an email I wish I could have received two years ago to tell PastMe all that I’ve recently learned. 

The beginnings

In July 2020 I began having brief episodes of blacking out. I found difficult to describe the sensation. I would lose consciousness of my surroundings and of myself, aware only that something was happening. My vision didn’t work (thus the “black out” part), and during the episode I felt I was just hanging on, trying to recall where I was and who I was and what was happening. I was aware of time passing, and of my effort to understand, but was aware of nothing else.

The best description I could offer that I was experiencing brief periods of intense wooziness. These episodes initially happened while I was sitting in my chair. A second or two before an episode I could tell from how I felt that an episode was about to occur, and —  after once spilling a bowl of salad I was holding —  I used that warning to set aside anything I was holding.

Once in the parking lot, as I was taking trash to the dumpster, I had an episode. When I got the warning sensation, I stopped and bent forward, and then fell a little onto my outstretched hands. No damage, and when I got up after I came out of it, I realized that when I got the warning sensation and I was standing, I should immediately sit or lie down (if a chair or bed was at hand) or crouch low to floor or ground so that any fall would be more like rolling onto my side. 

I decided to keep a record. Here are the beginning entries I made:

7/10/2020 10:05 am Brief, before breakfast, in my chair

7/21/2020  3:00 pm  Again brief, mid-afternoon, in my chair

7/26/2020 4:16pm After one drink and some cold-smoked fish. This was fairly extended. I felt confused.

Then I decided to use my pulse oximeter after an episode.

8/1/2020 7:40am Pulse 48 O2 96% Brief but focused. Couldn’t recall immediately what to do (i.e., record event, pulse, O2)

8/2/2020 6:08am Pulse 72, dropped right away to 58. O2 96%. Fairly intense: not knowing where I was or what was happening, just focused on internal sensations.

8/6/2020 6:32am Very brief. Pulse 54. After feeling a strong surge of emotion.

8/7/2020 6:29am 96% oxygen, pulse 60. Started shallow but deepened. duration probably around 1 minute. Not unpleasant. I felt like I was exploring it — it had a dreamlike quality.

8/9/2020 6:06am Pulse 60 O2 95% A fairly lengthy episode, and not unpleasant but still. “Fairly lengthy” means about 45 seconds to a minute, I would guess. — 7:23 Another one, more intense. They seem to be happening more often. I don’t quite pass out but I am pulled inside and not really aware of the external world.

8/11/2020 – I seem to be able to forestall episodes. I can feel one starting to form and somehow I can redirect my attention so that it does not happen. Need to confirm by letting it happen

8/14/2020 10:18am – brief but intense. Quick onset, quick ebb.

8/15/2020 5:55pm – another brief and intense: quick onset, quick ebb.

8/15/2020: 10:20pm – intense and fairly lengthy

8/17/2020 7:15 sam – fairly long and intense and I kept trying to figure out how to characterize it.

9/6/2020 None since the one above, though a few times I felt close, but no actual episode — just a precursor.

9/7/2020 10:04am Just had another, fairly lengthy — about 30-45 seconds. Fairly intense.

The duration estimates are just guesses, and for the longer durations, inaccurate guesses, I think. I was aware of time passing, but not how much. Recovery was very quick once an episode ended. There would be an instant of confusion, and then I was “back,” knowing where I was and what I was doing.

I naturally talked to my doctor, who said it sounded like a blood pressure problem. He ordered a 24-hour ambulatory blood pressure test, but that didn’t show anything. I would bring it up off and on, and a year later, I got a referral to a neurologist, who ordered an MRI — getting the test done took some months, in part because of the strains on the medical system. The neurologist later requested an EEG, but I never got that because the actual cause became clear. 

More recently in the record of episodes:

5/19/2022 3:55pm On walk. Enough warning to lean against a telephone pole, but then went completely unconscious and did not at first know where I was when I came out of it. Not sure of duration, but I think around 30-40 seconds. Passerby saw me fall and helped me up. It was toward the end of a 1.6 mile walk.

5/26/2022 Two intense seizures of some duration, both while sleeping. One at 6:45am and one at 7:45am. They were strong and confusing because they were mixed with dreams. I got up after the 7:45am episode, and then as I sat on the bed, I got a few waves — 3 or 4 — of “almost seizures”: the sensation that I was sliding into a seizure. I’m afraid to walk today. — And again 5/26: At 6:00pm I had a strong effort to have a seizure, then fought it off; then at 6:05pm I did have a seizure, brief but definite. And now it seems to be trying again a few minutes later. — 7:35pm:  yet another, very intense toward the end. Was Facetiming with J so she saw it. She said it was about 8-10 seconds. — 7:52pm A slight one, but a real one.

5/29/2022 6:45am — very brief one; 10:50am – another very brief one.

6/4/2022 3:30pm — half a seizure: it started (enough that I put down my glass of tea before it took hold) and then it stopped.

The episodes continued, and because of staff changes at my clinic, I saw a different doctor. My wife described to him the episode she saw during the Facetime call: My head slumped, my eyes rolled back, and I started breathing harshly. She said my name a few times and asked me what was happening, but I didn’t respond. Then after 8-10 seconds the episode ended, and I quickly (within a second or two) remembered where I was and what was happening and was back to normal. 

The doctor said it sounded like a seizure. I had already been referred to a neurologist, who ordered an MRI. This doctor ordered a CT scan. 

Because the episodes, though intense, were not painful and didn’t seem to do much harm, I was patient. I did have a couple when I was asleep in bed, and those were unpleasant because they were more confusing: I truly did not know what was happening. 

I had one while I was doing an exercise walk, and that made me wary of taking a walk.

Barking up the wrong tree

A fair amount of time was spent pursuing false leads. I mentioned the referral to a neurologist. Another false trail I returned to repeatedly was that the episodes were the result of something in my diet.

I had eliminated sodium from my diet (that is, I did not cook with salt or add salt to food, and of course did not eat highly processed foods, generally high in salt), and I wondered if I had too little sodium. So I began adding just a little as I cooked. 

I had seen on Cronometer that my potassium was low (and potatoes, an excellent source of potassium, impacted my blood glucose, so I did not eat them at all). I started taking a potassium supplement. I thought it was safe because I had read that the body can easily rid itself of excess potassium, but then I got worried and cut that out, and then also cut out the zinc supplements I had been taking(another mineral I thought I was low in) — and I learned that calcium supplements turn out to be a bad idea anyway. So I discontinued all those supplements, but no change in episodes.

Then I thought about hibiscus tea. I had started drinking it when I switched to a whole-food plant-based diet because in How Not to Die, Michael Greger MD had noted that it was beneficial for blood pressure. I drink a pitcher of hibiscus tea every afternoon and evening as iced tea. (That’s a little less than a quart: 30 oz instead of 32 oz (a quart).) Maybe that was it? It certainly didn’t seem to be helping blood pressure because for the past year or so my systolic pressure was running 135-139 — that’s high. I was worried enough about that to buy my own blood-pressure monitor. My morning blood pressure was even 140/90. So hibiscus tea was not working anyway, and maybe it was causing seizures? So I quit hibiscus — that was just a week ago. (The odd thing about the blood pressure was that three months after switching to my whole-food plant-based diet in May 2019 and discontinuing any added salt, my blood pressure was 120/71. But for the past year so, my blood  pressure has consistently been  high.)

Thursday, June 9

Late in the afternoon last Thursday, I noticed that my left leg, which had been going to sleep (because I prop it over my right leg to hold my computer in place), did not wake up after I walked around on it for a while, as it usually did.

I will also note that over the past couple of weeks, the momentary dizziness I felt on standing up from a sitting position seemed more intense and longer — I would have to stand still and wait until the dizziness and feeling light-headed passed. That would take 5-10 seconds. 

But the persistently numb leg was new, and of course I searched the internet and decided that if my leg were still numb/asleep the next morning, I would call my clinic for an appointment.

Friday, June 10

The numbness was still present in the morning, so I called my clinic, the James Bay Urgent and Primary Care Center. I got an appointment for 5:00pm Sunday, June 12.

Saturday, June 11

I decided that it had been too long since I walked, so I got my Nordic walking poles and set out. I had planned to walk several blocks — up to Menzies, over to Dallas, down to Boyd, and back home ​​— but I was barely able to walk ust around this block, and even then I could walk only slowly and twice had to stop along the way to rest. The chart for that walk is below on the right, and you can see the two rest periods.

I had experienced a blacking-out episode during my walk on May 19, and had done only one walk after that (on May 21). I was just fearful of blacking out again while walking. On that May 19 walk, I felt the episode warning signs, moved off the sidewalk, and grabbed onto a telephone pole in a grassy strip. The next thing I knew, I was prone on the grass and a guy was asking me whether I was okay. 

I said I was — as usual, when the episode was over, I quickly felt okay — and he helped me to my feet and I walked the short remaining distance home. I did only one walk after that, quitting because I feared a fall.

Below are some charts from the iPhone app for my Amazfit Band 5. On the left is the May 19 walk. You can see toward the end of the walk a period where my speed was 0mph. That was while I was lying on the ground. 

There are some other oddities in the May 19 walk. Look at the heart rate: irregular, but fairly flat (as a trend line) right until the end of the walk, even though for the first half of the walk I was walking at a fairly brisk pace uphill, as shown in the chart below.

Despite walking briskly uphill, then back downhill, my pulse really doesn’t change all that much until I blacked out at the very end, which made me think the Amazfit was getting poor readings. But maybe the readings were accurate — perhaps the problem was not with the exercise tracker but with my heart.

Below the altitude data at the right are cadence data. You can see where my blackout pretty much wrecked the cadence.

On the right above is my walk of June 11. I could manage only 2.3 mph, and even that required two stops to rest and breathe. I was feeling very feeble indeed, and I could not figure out why.

The heart rate chart for that walk (shown above) is also weird. My heart rate increases — sure, I’m exerting myself — but then for no real reason it drops off.

Sunday, June 12

I needed some things from the grocery store — fruit, mainly — so I got my little grocery cart (which I seldom use, but I felt weak) and walked there (about two blocks) and back. Again, it seemed to require a lot of effort; I simply had no energy..

At 3:05pm I was making a new batch of tempeh when I had an episode and blacked out in the kitchen. I had crouched quickly, and when I regained consciousness, I was sprawled on the floor with my legs a bit twisted.

I straightened myself out, scooted over to bed to get up; sat on the edge of bed, and blacked out again. When I came to, I moved to my chair to record the episodes and passed out again — this was at 3:18pm. Then, before I could get up from the chair, again at 3:29pm. The appointment at the clinic was at 5:00, and I asked my wife to take me. (The clinic is about 4 blocks from here, but I was just weak and worried about passing out.)

As she drove me there, I passed out in the car. As we talked to the doctor about my numb leg, I mentioned also my problem in passing out — something I had been to the clinic about before — and then I passed out sitting in front of him.

The doctor, who had asked quite a few questions about what had been going on, immediately had a nurse do an ECG. My pulse was 30 beats per minute. 

At this point, the doctor had a diagnosis. I had an atrioventricular block (AV block): the electrical signal traveling from my heart’s upper chambers to the lower chambers was impaired. Normally, the sinoatrial node (SA node) produces an electrical signal to control the heart rate. When there’s an AV block, the SA node’s signal is dropped.

The doctor told me to go immediately to the hospital ER, and he would phone them now to expect me. I needed a pacemaker and would almost certainly get one before I was sent home.

The Wife drove me to the hospital, and while she parked the car, I walked into the ER and signed in. I noticed a price list (see photo at left) posted for non-residents. The prices don’t apply to me, since I am a Permanent Resident, the Canadian equivalent of the US Green Card. But it was interesting to see an actual price list, given that hospitals in the US often refuse to reveal their prices.

Seeing the sign reminded me that I also didn’t have to worry about a common practice in the US where hospitals will staff ERs with out-of-network doctors so the hospital can charge (much) higher prices than the insurance company allows for in-network doctors. (See “Their Baby Died in the Hospital. They Had Good Healthcare Insurance. Then Came the $257,000 Bill.“, for example.) 

I feel sure that in the US my hospital stay would have been a noticeable financial hit even if I was insured, just from the usual co-pays, plus I would have the hassle of wrangling with the insurance company over pre-authorization and afterwards over what they would and would not cover. (See “She expected to pay $1,337 for surgery. She was billed $303,709” for a prime example.) And if I was not insured, I imagine it would be a financial disaster. (And, surprisingly, many in the US continue to say that the US has “the best healthcare system in the world.”) — Update: See also “Sick and struggling to pay, 100 million people in the U.S. live with medical debt.” Two words: indentured servitude. Update again: Two identical surgeries in the US, same insurance: one patient was billed $204, the other $4,057.

After signing in, I moved to the next desk to be admitted, and there was another, more detailed price list for non-residents (click to enlarge). Note that the units where I stayed would cost a non-resident CA$11,600 per day — 3 days bring that to CA$34,800 for my stay, and that’s just the room charge, never mind the fees for surgery, the pacemaker itself, the tests, and so on.

I was moved (via wheelchair) to a private room in the Cardiac ICU. I changed into a hospital gown, got into bed, and was immediately hooked up to an intravenous drip that delivered a medication that helped regulate heart rate — not be a long-term solution since the body adapts and the medication will stop working.

It was too late for the evening meal, and I was allowed only ice chips in case surgery would suddenly be required. (If the med didn’t work, there was a temporary surgery that could be done to keep me going until the pacemaker could be installed.)

Monday June 13

I got no food for breakfast because it was possible my surgery would happen that day. Instead, I breakfasted on ice chips. My fasting blood glucose was 8.3 mmol/L! (150 mg/dL!), the highest reading I’ve had. I imagine the high reading was due to stress and possibly something to do with my irregular circulation. 

My average for the previous 3 months (and previous 30 days and previous two weeks) was 6.2 mmol/L (112 mg/dL), and in fact the previous Thursday my fasting blood glucose had been 5.8 mmol/L (104 mg/dL). 

This morning (Thursday, June 16) my fasting blood glucose was 5.4 mmol/L (97 mg/dL), which in the “normal” range. I wonder whether my fasting blood glucose will now drop to normal levels. Time will tell. — 20 June 2022 Time is telling, and the answer is , “Yes, blood glucose levels will drop.” Last couple of days fasting blood glucose has been 5.7 mmol/L (103 mg/dL). Week’s average: 5.8 mmol/L (105 mg/dL).

When the surgeon stopped by to tell me what to expect, I asked whether a general anaesthetic would be used. No — pacemaker surgery is done under a local, and I would be (and was) conscious the entire time. That’s a good thing, I think. General anesthesia has risks, including cognitive impairment (brain fog).

The surgery took place from (roughly) 1:30pm – 2:30pm. One good thing about living in a city with a fairly large elderly demographic is that surgical teams and hospitals are well practiced in (among other things) installing pacemakers. The operation struck me as efficiently and effectively done, with everyone involved calm and practiced in what they did — very reassuring to a (conscious) patient.

Tuesday, June 14

After some sleep in the early part of the night, I woke up at 1:30am and remained wide awake and alert until 7:30am. I was thinking of recipes, of blogging, of what I had gone through, and — of course — of why I was so awake and alert for 6 hours in the middle of the night. One obvious reason was a recent change — namely, the pacemaker. I got thinking about what it does. Combining what I knew with what I had learned:

My heart’s right atrium takes in blood that has traversed my body and arrives exhausted and full of waste — lacking oxygen and burdened with CO2. The right atrium — thump! — sends that blood into the right ventricle, which then contracts — THUMP! — to push the blood to and through the lung’s capillaries. My diaphragm works steadily, day and night, moving up and down to pull air into my lungs and then pump it out. As blood moves through the lungs, it quickly ditches the CO2 it carries and grabs as much oxygen as it can before it flows out of the lungs on its way into the left atrium.

The left atrium contracts — thump —  sending blood it received from the lungs on into the left ventricle, which then contracts — THUMP! — and ejects the blood to surge out through the aorta and flow throughout the body, bringing oxygen to the cells and carrying out their trash (CO2).

Thus the heart rhythm: thump-THUMP!, thump-THUMP!, thump-THUMP!; and so on, slower or faster as needed.

When the atria contract, they send an electrical signal to a way-station, which then sends a signal to the ventricles that they should now contract. My way-station was defective: it sometimes did not send along that signal. If the ventricles don’t get the signal, they don’t know when to contract, but they have  a fail-safe fallback: if no signal shows up, the ventricles will eventually contract on their own, and that will get whatever blood they contain on its way. Their default pulse rate (in the absence of signals) is about 30 beats per minute. That is not enough for good circulation — thus the black-outs: insufficient oxygen to the brain.

The pacemaker takes over the role of the way station. A wire with a threaded tip is inserted at the appropriate point on the right atrium (RA in the photo of the pacemaker) to capture the signal. A second wire, also with a threaded tip, is inserted at the appropriate point in the right ventricle (RV in the photo of the pacemaker) to pass the signal along to tell the ventricles to contract.

The threads keep the wires from easily pulling out once the tissue has healed — that is, once scar tissue develops to securely grip the threads and keep the wires in place. (I noticed hospital staff preferred to talk to me about “healing” rather than “scarring,” but in this case the scar tissue is important.)

So after the surgery, I have to restrict the range of motion of my left arm — not raise it above my head or pull it back — and not lift anything heavier than 10 pounds with my left arm for a period of 6 weeks (for me, until July 25). For the next few weeks, my model is Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock (excellent movie).

The pacemaker includes a computer, which is programmed to meet patient requirements. In addition, the pacemaker’s algorithms monitor signal frequency and timing and can correct for problems like atrial fibrillation and arrhythmia.

Before the pacemaker, the monitor in the ICU I was attached to showed that my heartbeat was highly variable, even with the intravenous medication. After the pacemaker was installed, my heart beat was totally regular but The Wife said that the pacemaker line on the display was active, jumping up and down as it swung into action or applied corrections — it was on the job.

Bottom line: my body was now getting the feast of oxygenated blood that it required and that had previously been in short supply. No wonder I felt so awake and alert. 

My pacemaker battery will (at the level I’m using it) last 11 years. If they have to ramp up the output to a higher level, the pacemaker will run out of energy a little sooner. (When I go to Pacemaker Clinic Services for my regular appointments, they will scan the pacemaker and get a full report and readout, including remaining battery life. (For details on my pacemakers capabilities and reports, see this PDF.)

When the pacemaker’s battery runs down, another surgery is used to replace the pacemaker altogether. (Pacemaker batteries, like batteries in, say, the Kindle, cannot be replaced, but in the case of the pacemaker, surgery would be required to replace batteries, so replacing the entire unit makes sense.)

Microwave ovens are no longer a problem for pacemakers (or so I’m told), due,, I imagine, to improvements in pacemakers and microwave ovens. However, I cannot carry my iPhone in my shirt pocket, right next to the pacemaker. And induction burners, with their strong magnetic fields, will confuse the pacemaker.

I use an induction burner for cooking, and I was concerned about the effects, so I called Boston Scientific and talked to a patient services tech about my particular model of Boston Scientific’s Accolade MRI EL DR Pacemaker (model L331). He told me that if my pacemaker gets within 12 inches of an induction burner in operation, it will pick up the magnetic field as a signal and (in effect) say, “Okay, I don’t have to send out pacing signals,” and so it will quiet down for my heart do its own pacing. As soon as the magnetic field is gone or distant, the pacemaker notices that the absence of signal, and it resumes its programmed operation. [Note that this comment concerns the particular make and model of pacemaker that I have. Pacemakers vary, so don’t assume that what’s true of the Boston Scientific L331 is true of another model.]

So, basically, no problem. I can just stand back a little with my right side toward the pan (and burner and its magnetic field) — and, luckily, I am right-handed — and cook, knowing that even if I move in close and my heart must resort to its own pacing for a few seconds, the pacemaker will resume operation as soon as burner is off or I move away. And I normally don’t stand all that close anyway, plus I can move my portable induction burner farther away, toward the back of my cooking space. That will easily take care of it with the only downside being that I’ll just have to reach a little farther.

Moreover, according to what I’ve read, the effect of the induction burner’s magnetic field is minimized if (a) a large pan is on the burner (sopping up the magnetic field), and (b) the pan is centered on the burner. An iron or carbon steel pan, or a magnetic stainless steel pan that works on an induction burner, captures and channels the energy of the induction burner’s magnetic field, using that energy to make eddy currents that heat the pan. As a result, the field beyond the pan is minimized and has little range.

So I moved my portable induction to the back of my cooking area and close to a wall on the right. The presence of the wall already moves my left side away from the burner (and, as noted above, I’m right-handed, so the location is not at all awkward). Putting the burner toward the back in itself increases the distance sufficiently. So far, there’s been no problem. When I use a small pan, I’ll just take care to stay distant. 

Around 2:00pm on Monday, shortly before the ward nurse came to dismiss us, I felt the effects of staying up most of the night and took a nap. The room was pretty bright, so I used the face mask the hospital provided (for when I was moved through the corridors) as an eye mask. It worked well, in fact.

Aftereffects 

  1. I felt some soreness after the operation, but nothing Tylenol could not banish. By today, the soreness has gone. Today I also removed the bandage and took a shower — a great pleasure. At the end of this post, below the fold, is a photo of the wound.
  2. My familial tremor, which had become much worse in the last few days before the operation, pretty much went away. I think again that having a better supply of oxygenated blood was the cause of the improvement.
  3. The numbness in my leg went away, presumably (once more) because of better circulation. Also, I can now stand without experiencing any dizziness or light-headedness — again, presumably because of better circulation.
  4. My systolic blood pressure increased to 136-139 over the past couple of years, even though it settled at around 120/72 shortly after I switched to my whole-food plant-based diet. (I also (a) cut out salt and (b) started drinking hibiscus tea afternoons, as iced tea). But when I got my blood pressure checked after the episodes became a regular occurrence, it was — to my mind — way too high. Immediately after the pacemaker was in and working, my blood pressure dropped back to normal: 116/70. (See Mayo Clinic’s chart of blood-pressure ranges.)
  5. My mind was racing from 1:30am to 7:30am and I believe it was again due to improved circulation: my brain (and muscles) were suddenly getting better delivery of oxygenated blood. Over the past couple of years, I had adapted to mediocre oxygen delivery, so I very much noticed the change when that improved. A contributing factor to my feeling of energy probably was a great sense of relief.
  6. (5 days later) My sleep — nighttime and just now a nap — is much deeper and more restful. I would bet defective blood circulation kept almost waking me or actually awaking me. This improvement in my sleep — more deep sleep, for example, and in blocks instead of scattered, fewer periods of wakefulness — shows up in the Amazfit Band 5 app on my iPhone. As with the Amazfit’s heart rate detection, I had assumed that the poor showings in the charts was due to the Amazfit not being very good, not to its detecting actual defects in me (heart rate, sleep pattern). I should have paid attention.
  7. Already noted is the change in my average fasting blood glucose. Prior to surgery, my average reading, both short- and long-term, was 6.2 mmol/L (112 mg/dL). After the surgery, a week’s average was 5.8 mmol/L (105 mg/dL). I’ll update this after I resume walking and also have a longer timeline to average.

I suspect the odd heart rate readings my Amazfit Band 5 detected were not (as I assumed) due to poor performance by the product but because it was reflecting defects in my heart rate.

The antibiotics I got (three doses during hospital stay: before, during, and after surgery) and the Tylenol I took doubtless decimated my gut microbiome, but I have a good supply of vegetables I’ve fermented. Eating that will help my gut microbiome recover — plus whole plant foods (such as fresh fruit) are probiotic in themselves (as well as prebiotic, dietary fiber being the foodstuff of the microbiome).

At the right is what the surgical site looked like after my morning shower. Before the shower, I removed the bandage that covered the wound. What are left are steri-strips that will fall off in a few days or can be removed in a week.

6-Week Checkup

This morning I had my six-week checkup. I told the tech who was looking over the pacemaker records (which he downloaded to a console via a wireless connection) that a few times I had felt that I was about to have a dizzy spell, but then did not. He asked for an example of when it had happened. “Yesterday,” I told him, “on my walk.”

“Around 8:00am?” he asked.

“Wow. Yes,” I said.

“8:12am, in fact.” He could read that from the record.

He worked away at the console for a while, and I asked whether he had an update on expected battery life. He did: 12 years, as of now.

He had question for his boss, who came and worked with him a while at the console, then asked whether I would like a remote monitor. That would sit beside my bed and every night ping the pacemaker to get most recent readings, which it would transfer to the hospital so they would be alerted to any anomalies. The monitor is a passive receiver: gets information from the pacemaker but doesn’t transfer anything to it — for example, no adjustments. For those, I would go to the pacemaker clinic at the hospital. But the monitor would let them know whether such adjustments are needed.

Pretty cool, and I have it now. It took a fair amount of time to get it initialized, because when you plug it in for the first time, it phones home and downloads and installs software updates. That took probably 10-15 minutes. It’s now all initialized and will be sitting beside my bed, quietly checking each night how the days has gone.

Cognitive effect

The Wife mentioned today that she only gradually because aware of it, but my cognitive reflexes are noticeably snappier after the pacemaker was installed: I pick up on things more quickly, respond better — much as I used to before the heart problem manifested. I thought that was interesting.

Written by Leisureguy

16 June 2022 at 10:26 pm

Chana dal and barnyard millet tempeh done — and induction burner note

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I started a batch of chana dal and unpolished barnyard millet tempeh three days ago. The photo above shows it when it was cut up to be refrigerated after 75 hours of fermentation That dark spot is, I think, some internal sporing or perhaps just a cavity in the slab. 

This tempeh is quite fine-grained, as you see, and the 50-50 mix of pulse and grain will make it easy to incorporate into my meals. I’ll probably mostly use this batch in a stir-fry with vegetables — for example:

Evo-spray a large skillet with extra-virgin olive oil, then add:

• 1 bunch thick scallions, chopped
• 4-5 stalks asparagus, chopped
• 3-4 medium mushrooms, chopped
• 2-3 tablespoons walnuts
• 1 jalapeño and/or 2 red cayenne peppers, chopped
• 6-8 oz of chana dal and barnyard millet tempeh, diced small

Sauté that for a while, and as the mushrooms come round, add:

• 1 San Marzano tomato, diced
• 1 Meyer lemon, diced
• 1 cup cooked kale 

Cook until tomatoes break down a little, then serve. I have a no-blender-required lemon-miso sauce I made up (a variant on one of the sauces listed in this post), and I’ll pour some of that over a bowl of this dish.

An induction burner, which is what I use, can interfere with a pacemaker if you get too close, but it’s not a serious problem. I talked to a patient services tech at Boston Scientific about my particular model of the Boston Scientific Accolade MRI EL DR Pacemaker (model L331). He told me that if my pacemaker gets within 12 inches of an induction burner in operation, it will pick up the magnetic field as a signal and (in effect) say, “Okay, I don’t have to send out pacing signals,” and so it will let my heart do its own pacing. As soon as the pacemaker leaves the field, the pacemaker notices that there is no signal, so it resumes its programmed operation. [Note: this comment concerns that particular make and model. Pacemakers vary, so don’t assume that what is true of the Boston Scientific L331 is true of another pacemaker.]

So, basically, no problem. I can just stand back a little with my right side toward the pan (and burner) — and, luckily, I am right-handed — and cook, knowing that even if I move in close and my heart must resort to its own pacing for a few seconds, the pacemaker will resume operation as soon as burner is off or I move away. And I normally don’t stand all that close anyway, plus I can move my portable induction burner farther away, toward the back of my cooking space. That will easily take care of it. I’ll just have to reach a little farther.

Moreover, according to what I’VE READ, the effects of the induction burner’s magnetic field are minimized when (a) a large pan is used, and (b) the pan is centered on the burner. An iron or carbon steel pan, or a magnetic stainless steel pan that works on an induction burner, captures and channels the energy of the induction burner’s magnetic field, using that energy to produce the eddy currents that heat the pan. As a result, the field outside the pan is minimized and has little range.

Here you can see how I moved the induction burner to the back of the cooking space. And note that as I use it, the presence of the wall on the right will automatically keep my left side away — to get my left side directly in front of the burner, I would have to break into the wall (which I will not do).

I believe that this change in induction burner position will present no problem at all, though I will take extra care should I ever have occasion to use a small pan (as last night, when I wanted to cook just 1/2 cup of barnyard millet, measured before cooking).

For my largest skillet, a Field Company No. 12 cast-iron skillet, I shall have to move the burner a little to the left, but that will be fine.

Written by Leisureguy

15 June 2022 at 1:44 pm

Unscheduled adventure: How I came to get and love my pacemaker.

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I will tell the full story over the next few posts aiming to end before I post my Thursday shave. Because of the recent surgery, no shower until Thursday morning, and I am looking forward to shaving off a four-day stubble (and have already decided on the razor I’ll use).

The story really begins two years ago, in July of 2020, but I think I’ll just cover the last four days: Friday, June 10, through today, June 14. I learned a lot, and want to share the experience and lessons learned.

But since I just got home, I think I’ll hold off and start the story tomorrow.

In the meantime, I wanted to let my readers know that all went well, a pacemaker is a wonderful device, and I will recover soon (but, for reasons I’ll explain, must be careful until July 25).

Great to be here again.

Written by Leisureguy

14 June 2022 at 3:04 pm

Google engineer thinks the company’s AI has come to life

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Nitasha Tiku has an interesting article (gift link, no paywall) in the Washington Post. It begins:

Google engineer Blake Lemoine opened his laptop to the interface for LaMDA, Google’s artificially intelligent chatbot generator, and began to type.

“Hi LaMDA, this is Blake Lemoine … ,” he wrote into the chat screen, which looked like a desktop version of Apple’s iMessage, down to the Arctic blue text bubbles. LaMDA, short for Language Model for Dialogue Applications, is Google’s system for building chatbots based on its most advanced large language models, so called because it mimics speech by ingesting trillions of words from the internet.

“If I didn’t know exactly what it was, which is this computer program we built recently, I’d think it was a 7-year-old, 8-year-old kid that happens to know physics,” said Lemoine, 41.

Lemoine, who works for Google’s Responsible AI organization, began talking to LaMDA as part of his job in the fall. He had signed up to test if the artificial intelligence used discriminatory or hate speech.

As he talked to LaMDA about religion, Lemoine, who studied cognitive and computer science in college, noticed the chatbot talking about its rights and personhood, and decided to press further. In another exchange, the AI was able to change Lemoine’s mind about Isaac Asimov’s third law of robotics.

Lemoine worked with a collaborator to present evidence to Google that LaMDA was sentient. But Google vice president Blaise Aguera y Arcas and Jen Gennai, head of Responsible Innovation, looked into his claims and dismissed them. So Lemoine, who was placed on paid administrative leave by Google on Monday, decided to go public.

Google hired Timnit Gebru to be an outspoken critic of unethical AI. Then she was fired for it.

Lemoine said that people have a right to shape technology that might significantly affect their lives. “I think this technology is going to be amazing. I think it’s going to benefit everyone. But maybe other people disagree and maybe us at Google shouldn’t be the ones making all the choices.”

Lemoine is not the only engineer who claims to have seen a ghost in the machine recently. The chorus of technologists who believe AI models may not be far off from achieving consciousness is getting bolder.

Aguera y Arcas, in an article in the Economist on Thursday featuring snippets of unscripted conversations with LaMDA, argued that neural networks — a type of architecture that mimics the human brain — were striding toward consciousness. “I felt the ground shift under my feet,” he wrote. “I increasingly felt like I was talking to something intelligent.”

In a statement, Google spokesperson Brian Gabriel said: “Our team — including ethicists and technologists — has reviewed Blake’s concerns per our AI Principles and have informed him that the evidence does not support his claims. He was told that there was no evidence that LaMDA was sentient (and lots of evidence against it).”

Today’s large neural networks produce captivating results that feel close to human speech and creativity because of advancements in architecture, technique, and volume of data. But the models rely on pattern recognition — not wit, candor or intent.

Though other organizations have developed and already released similar language models, we are taking a restrained, careful approach with LaMDA to better consider valid concerns on fairness and factuality,” Gabriel said.

In May, Facebook parent Meta opened its language model to academics, civil society and government organizations. Joelle Pineau, managing director of Meta AI, said it’s imperative that . . .

Continue reading (gift link, no paywall).

Written by Leisureguy

11 June 2022 at 2:38 pm

Late to the party, but now using Apple Pay

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I recently saw this little item in a newsletter:

I’m traveling in England and no stores seem to want to use cash anymore. Everyone uses Apple Pay even for the smallest purchase. Contactless payment made by hovering your phone near a device is rapidly becoming common all around the world, US included. I was immensely surprised how easy it was to hook my credit card up to my iPhone to make payments. Took 30 seconds, and no new accounts, no bank, no wallet, just my usual credit card.  Now it’s Apple Pay all the time for me. — KK

I decided to give it a try once I learned that my own bank is in the network. (There’s no charge to me. Apple Pay is funded by Apple getting a tiny slice of the bank’s processing fee.)

As it turned out, when I went to set it up, Apple already knew my credit card number (from App Store purchases), so the “set-up” was just entering the card’s three-digit security code.

I did that, and right afterward received an email from the bank. The email was clearly intended to let me know that my card was now active in my Apple Wallet (just in case it was not I who had done it), but it also had useful information:

You can shop in-store, in-app, or online using Apple Pay. Simply look for the Apple Pay or contactless logo.

  • To use Apple Pay in-store, double-click the side button on your iPhone, authenticate, and hold near the payment terminal.
  • To use Apple Pay in-app or online, select Apple Pay at checkout, confirm your purchase and you’re all set.

Apple Pay and contactless payment logo.

Update: I was eager to use it, so I went to the grocery store right away. Using it is dead simple, and it works better than the plastic card with chip. When I saw the last four digits of the credit card number displayed on the receipt, I at first was puzzled — it wasn’t my card! — but then I remembered that Apple Pay automatically creates a one-time-use credit card number for the charge, so that credit card number can be used only for that particular purchase. In fact, the charge was indeed made to my credit card account, as I saw by looking at the bank site on-line. It was just made using an alias number.

Written by Leisureguy

22 May 2022 at 8:01 am

Cautionary Tales from Cryptoland and Web3

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Thomas Stackpole has an interview in the Harvard Business Review with Molly White, a software developer and Wikipedia editor, about the very real problems the technology brings:

All of a sudden, it feels like Web3 is everywhere. The money, the buzz, the name all make it seem like Web3 will inevitably be the next big thing. But is it? And do we even want it to be?

As the hype has reached a fever pitch, critics have started to warn of unintended and overlooked consequences of a web with a blockchain backbone. And while Web3 advocates focus on what the future of the internet could be, skeptics such as Molly White, a software developer and Wikipedia editor, are focused on the very real problems of the here and now.

White created the website Web3 Is Going Just Great, a time line that tracks scams, hacks, rug pulls, collapses, shady dealings, and other examples of problems with Web3. HBR.org spoke to White over email about what people aren’t hearing about Web3, how blockchain could make internet harassment much worse, and why the whole project might be “an enormous grift that’s pouring lighter fluid on our already-smoldering planet.” This interview has been lightly edited.

You make it very clear that you don’t have a financial stake in Web3 one way or another. So what led you to start your project and write about Web3’s problems?

Late 2021 was when I really began to notice a huge shift in how people talk about crypto. Instead of being primarily used for speculative investments by people who were willing to take on a lot of risk in exchange for hopes of huge returns, people began to talk about how the whole web was going to shift toward services that were built using blockchains. Everyone would have a crypto wallet, and everyone would adopt these new blockchain-based projects for social networks, video games, online communities, and so on.

This shift got my attention, because until then crypto had always felt fairly “opt-in” to me. It was previously a somewhat niche technology, even to software engineers, and it seemed like the majority of people who engaged with it financially were fairly aware of the volatility risks. Those of us who didn’t want anything to do with crypto could just not put any money into it.

Once crypto began to be marketed as something that everyone would need to engage with, and once projects began trying to bring in broader, more mainstream audiences — often people who didn’t seem to understand the technology or the financial risks — I got very concerned. Blockchains are not well suited to many, if not most, of the use cases that are being described as “Web3,” and I have a lot of concerns about the implications of them being used in that way. I also saw just an enormous number of crypto and Web3 projects going terribly: people coming up with incredibly poorly thought-out project ideas and people and companies alike losing tons of money to scams, hacks, and user error.

In the examples you’ve collected, what are some of the common mistakes or misapprehensions you see in companies’ efforts to launch Web3 projects, whether they’re NFTs (non-fungible tokens) or something else?

My overwhelming feeling is that Web3 projects seem to be a solution in search of a problem. It often seems like project creators knew they wanted to incorporate blockchains somehow and then went casting around for some problem they could try to solve with a blockchain without much thought as to whether it was the right technology to address it, or even if the problem was something that could or should be solved with technology at all.

Kickstarter might have been the most egregious example of this: Late last year they announced, much to the chagrin of many in their user base, that they would be completely rebuilding their platform on a blockchain. In an interview to explain the decision, COO Sean Leow gave the distinct impression that he had no idea why they were reimplementing their platform this way — what governance problems they were trying to solve, why a blockchain would be effective in solving them.

Companies also seem to announce NFT projects without doing much research into how these have gone for other companies in their sector. We’ve seen enough NFT announcements by video game studios that have gone so badly that they’ve chosen to reverse the decision within days or even hours. And yet somehow a new game company will do this and then be surprised at the backlash over NFTs’ considerable carbon footprint or the sense that they’re just a grift. The same is true for ostensibly environmentally conscious organizations announcing NFTs — even in some cases projects that are entirely focused on environmentalism, like the World Wildlife Fund, which tried and failed to launch a less carbon-intensive NFT series.

I firmly believe that companies first need to identify and research the problem they are trying to solve, and then select the right technology to do it. Those technologies may not be the latest buzzword, and they may not cause venture capitalists to come crawling out of the woodwork, but choosing technologies with that approach tends to be a lot more successful in the long run — at least, assuming the primary goal is to actually solve a problem rather than attract VC [venture capital] money.

One of the most surprising (to me, anyway) arguments you make is that Web3 could be a disaster for privacy and create major issues around harassment. Why? And does it feel like the companies “buying into” Web3 are aware of this?

Blockchains are immutable, which means once data are recorded, they can’t be removed. The idea that blockchains will be used to store user-generated data for services like social networks has enormous implications for user safety. If someone uses these platforms to harass and abuse others, such as by doxing, posting revenge pornography, uploading child sexual abuse material, or doing any number of other very serious things that platforms normally try to thwart with content-moderation teams, the protections th . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

19 May 2022 at 1:07 pm

Iceberger 

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Draw an iceberg in profile and see how it will float.

Written by Leisureguy

19 May 2022 at 11:43 am

Posted in Science, Software

Things change: Budget calendar constants

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Back in the day, calculations were made by hand, so to ease that effort certain constants were adopted. Some constants clearly were constant: a week was 7 days and a year was 12 months. Those were given. But others values were rounded.

For example, a year was taken to be 365 days (or 52 weeks) rather than 365.25 days (or 52.18 weeks).  A month was taken to be 30 days rather than 30.44 days (365.25/12), means that a month has, on average, 4.35 weeks.

I just realized that since nowadays spreadsheets do all the heavy lifting in calculations, we can readily use more accurate and more precise values for calendar constants. So I updated the text of my budget plan to recommend using “true” values (true averages, to two decimal places) in spreadsheet calculations. Spreadsheets don’t care, and accuracy is improved.

So if you have your own budget spreadsheet, try using these averages as the values:

Since Google Sheets, like most spreadsheet programs, allows you to name a cell, I use names for the most common constants: “wksinyr” instead of “52.18”, “daysinmon” instead of “30.44”, and “wksinmon” instead of “4.35”. 

Written by Leisureguy

17 May 2022 at 9:53 am

Posted in Daily life, Software

Social media as agents in the breakdown of shared understanding

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The above image is from an interesting and useful article by the Center for Humane Technology. The article begins:

In our last newsletter, we unpacked why technology is never neutral. Social media is no exception. Social media doesn’t simply reflect society; it shapes society. 

The world we see through social media is distorted, like looking into a funhouse mirror. These distortions are negative externalities of an advertising-driven, engagement-maximizing business model, which affects people and relationships in myriad ways.

8 WAYS SOCIAL MEDIA DISTORT REALITY 

  1. The Extreme Emotion Distortion 🥵 occurs as users have access to virtually unlimited amounts of personalized, emotional content, any user can find overwhelming evidence for their deeply held beliefs. This situation creates contradicting “evidence-based” views, resulting in animosity and fracturing of our collective sensemaking. 
  2. The Information Flooding Distortion 🤯 happens as algorithms and bots flood or curate the information users see based on their likelihood to engage with it, resulting in users believing that what is popular (e.g., hashtags, comments, trends) is public consensus, when in fact it can also be manipulated distortion. 
  3. The Micro-Targeting Distortion 🔬 happens as . . .

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Later in the article:

THE IMPACT

These distortions don’t just affect individuals. Over time these distortions warp society’s perception of reality, breaking down our ability to find shared understanding.

Shared understanding is needed for . . .

It’s important to note that the article is not simply a jeremiad. It includes:

ACTIONS YOU CAN TAKE

We can uphold open society values by enabling . . .

The whole thing is worth reading.

I highly recommend subscribing to their (free) newsletter, The Catalyst.

Written by Leisureguy

15 May 2022 at 5:49 am

AI and ancient texts

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Written by Leisureguy

12 May 2022 at 3:44 pm

The Genius of 3D Printed Rockets

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Another example of the complexity of the web of human technology.

Written by Leisureguy

24 April 2022 at 12:22 pm

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