Archive for August, 2010

Wednesday Wii – Train Your Brain 3

August 25, 2010

Training any neural system, natural or artificial, is hard. Think about how long it took you to learn to walk. Think about how long it took you to become confident behind the wheel of a car, or a truck, or a really big truck. Very often, the best way to learn something complex like this is to do what you did when you learned to walk, you took baby steps.

A classic problem in neural control systems is the truck backer upper problem. Yes, it’s a terrible name. I’m sure there’s something more formal out there in the literature. Ignoring that, the problem is, how do you train a neural net (NN) control system to back up a truck to a loading dock? The usual inputs to the system are the relative locations of the end of the truck and the dock, and the angle of the trailer to the cab. Did I mention that this was an 18-wheeler? Your controls are the brakes and accelerator, and the angle of the front wheels. The goal is to start anywhere in the yard, from any position, and end up with the back of the truck square against the dock. This is something that professional trucking schools spend a lot of time on. NN control trainers too.

Since we can’t explain things to the NN, the way you can to a trainee truck driver, we have to use a simpler, slower approach – baby steps. We start with the truck almost square to the dock, and a few feet away. Even so, we bang the back of the trailer quite a bit. Fortunately, it’s all electrons, so there’s no damage. As the NN learns to square up and move back, we start it from farther away, then from farther away, at a greater angle. By the time we are done, we can start with the truck facing the dock, with the cab cocked all the way around, and still have it smoothly maneuver into position. So, where does the Wii come into it?

Well, nobody’s used a Wii to back a truck, that I know of, but we do use the Wii Fit board as the training device when learning something like┬áthe Dance pose (in countries with longer vowels it’s called King of the Dance pose). This is where you balance on one leg, stick the other one out behind you, and grab that ankle, then lean forward and point your free hand at the screen, like you were practicing for a new career as a hood ornament. The way you do this is to take baby steps, to start with your back end up against the dock, as it were.

When I started, it didn’t matter which balancing pose I was involved in (Tree, Standing Knee), what I was really doing was just lifting one foot off the board and trying not to fall over. Later, I was able to lift it higher, then to (for example) cross my leg in a 4 position. In another six months, or year, or so, I’ll be able to stick my heel in my crotch and make it a true Tree pose. As for the Dance pose, I haven’t tried it yet, and don’t plan to until I can find two spotters who I don’t mind seeing me in my underwear. When I do try it, I’ll begin with baby steps.

Requiem for a Mom

August 21, 2010

My wife’s mother died last night. She’d been failing for months, and finally slipped into a coma last week and never woke up. She was an Iowa farm girl who came west with her husband to build The Bomb at Hanford. She raised two strong daughters and was a good friend. Fare well. All that’s left now is my father, and then we will be the Older Generation.

Career Options for Early Humans

August 17, 2010

The recent discovery of the choices offered by my old career counselor, Uncle Ba, certainly brought back memories.

I had always thought I’d follow in my father’s footsteps — well, not the ones that went into the smilodon cave — but Aunt Ja wouldn’t hear of it. “You are not going to end up a no-good stumblebum like him and Tok,” she yelled. “You want to be a drunken, flat-footed, bug-bit, snake-bit hunter-gatherer all your life?”

Well, yeah. It looked like a fine lifestyle, if you could tell the difference between scree and smilodon droppings.

That was the wrong thing to say. In a trice (I’d spent lots of time at the lore-stone, and knew that was one less than a many), she had me by the ear and we marched (well, she marched, I kindof side footed) over to Uncle Ba. He wasn’t my real uncle, but everyone called him that, because he was always giving advice. He was kindof a shaman, lorekeeper, bee-whisperer, who did counseling on the side, whenever one of his spells gave him hives, or vice versa.

“So, young Ska, you are deciding on your future at last. I am glad. Too many seasons have gone by, and soon you would grow too old, and become unteachable — more unteachable.”

He always talked like that.

“You have come at a good time. Our pre-industrial protoeconomy has many openings for a bright, hardworking lad, but you, too should be able to get a job. I have a list here somewhere.” He unrolled a length of bark with drawings on it. Not Lascaux quality drawings, but good enough for us country folk who didn’t live in limestone canyons. Aunt Ja moved in, to counsel me on the counseling.

“There’s a whole range of jobs in the fashion industries,” he said. “You deal with the manipulation of color and form in the creation of shell ornaments, and fine bandeaux for the upper cave set.”

“I think that’s a terrible choice,” said Aunt Ja. “He’ll end up slicking back his hair, like La, and his boyfriends, prancing about with ocher on his nose and complimenting madam on how good she stinks. Besides, look at his hands. Look at his fingers. They’re so fat he can barely get them in his nose. Can you imagine him weaving something as fine as what I’m wearing?”

She was right. I could barely weave a net from bungee vines, I couldn’t tell burnt umber from burnt bone, and the last time I’d played with shells it had taken her two days to get them out of my ears. She was wearing a very nice bandeaux, though, with a matching string skirt, set off by a hyena-tooth necklace and nose-plug.

“Well, what about one of the professions, then? He could be a dentist. Lots of demand for holes drilled in teeth these days, and not just hyena teeth.” So even he had noticed.

Aunt Ja had to think about this one. Reluctantly, she said “I think we have the same problem we had with the weaving. How’s he going to get both those hands and a drill inside somebody’s mandible?”

I thought I might pull it off, work on it outside, then put it back on, the way you did a hat, but decided not to say anything.

“Ok, ok, (what he actually said was ook, ook, but this is a free translation), there’s another professional job he could do. He could be a counselor.”

“Like you?”

“Oh, no, that would be too much competition, and I’m too old and my arm is too weak to take him on as an apprentice. I was thinking of maybe a new field, like mating counselor.” He reached in his bag and pulled out a slightly curved, carved cylinder.

“Absolutely not!”

“Hmmm. Well that just leaves agriculture. Quite the new thing. People are settling down all over to try it. There’s even some specialized niches that need his ….qualities. I mean, he’s too smart to just have a bang-the-rocks-together-guys job. I was thinking of something like a Jiahu grogmeister.”

Did he just say I was smart? Maybe that was to shock Aunt Ja so she wouldn’t notice what that high-sounding job title meant. Since we were down at the end of his list, and she had run out of options, she agreed. Maybe she was overawed by the idea of having someone in the family with more than two syllables in their job description.

So that’s how I got my job. I spend my days wandering about, collecting big baskets full of rice, and honey and hawthorn fruit — and avoiding the rice snakes and bee stings and thorn scratches. I trudge back and put them into this technological wonder called a clay pot (who would have thought that dirt could hold water?), start a fire, so it is hot on the outside and wet on the inside, put my feet up, and wait for industrial things to happen. Then, when it tastes just right, I invite everyone over, and we trade for stuff.

Even Aunt Ja comes, but I can see she doesn’t approve.

Dad would, though.

More Time Out Than In

August 13, 2010

Depending on how you count things, today is the day that I have spent more time retired from the USAF than I spent on active duty. I was commissioned in ’66, stayed off active duty for a year to get my Masters, served in VietNam (DaNang), England (RAF Mildenhall), Illinois (Scott AFB), Korea (Osan AB), and Washington DC — the Pentagon (DIA NMIC), and Bolling AFB (AFIN) — retiring in 1989. The pinnacle of my career was probably the year I spent leading the DIA briefing team that provided the morning Intelligence briefs to the JCS and SecDef. My whole career was great fun, and an ongoing window on history. I was working with people who cared about their work and who were dedicated, in ways one doesn’t see outside of the military. I never made any of the big decisions, and wasn’t in the room when they were made, but I was in the room next door for a lot of them. I was in the watch center at MAC when the ’73 Arab-Israeli war broke out (and we knew it was serious two days before CIA did), and on the watch at DIA when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. I wouldn’t trade any of those years.

Wednesday Wii – Wii Trips 2

August 11, 2010

Just back from a week long cruise to Alaska. No Wii. No internet ($100 for 250 min or $0,75/min a la carte for a slow connection). Gained 6lb, which shows that a week-long trip to Portland is worse for you than an all-you-can-eat cruise.

What I discovered was, you can’t do yoga on a ship at sea. Well, I can’t. Even tied up at the dock, there’s enough sway that I fall over. As for the non-balance exercises, there’s just not enough room. For Sun Salutation I found myself reaching up, then bending my elbows, because the cabin roof was only about 7′ up. Then bend down, rotate right and swing left arm out to avoid the fixed table and rotate back left while attempting to touch toes. I declined to go up on the main deck and do these exercises while standing on the shuffleboard court (Mommy! Look at the funny man!).