In Wild Air

July 2, 2017 — July 2, 2017

making things

Published in a more lovely form by In Wild Air

Dan MacKinlay is a musician and mathematician. He researches semi-parametric time series analysis at the University of New South Wales, a research description so broad as to excuse work on automatic music listening, earthquake prediction, and neural networks, all of which are meticulously blogged . He has just come back from developing interactive music for the webcam in Switzerland, and electroacoustic death metal in West Java, and is now intermittently soundtracking Tactical Space Lab in Sydney. Before that: an obscure haze, from which figures emerge then recede without ever fully resolving.

1 Culture: UNSONG

There’s so much music I want to suggest that I can’t do any of it. So I’ll talk about a book.

UNSONG by Scott Alexander, is an online opus about kabbalah as computer science. In the UNSONG world Apollo 8 crashed into the celestial sphere surrounding earth, and nature reverted to kabbalistic Judaism. Religions are bugfixes for a broken reality: Uriel descended to Mount Sinai to warn humans never to boil goats in their mothers’ milk, because doing so triggered bugs in the code that was holding the universe together. Now the commerce is run on the magical names of god, copyright over these words is license to harness the power of creation, and awful, grimace-inducing puns are weapons of literal mass destruction.

I’m mentioning this book not just because that description is already catnip to me but also, the author introduced me to the term anti-inductive: “things such that if you understand them, they get more complicated until you don’t,” which neatly summarizes both productive artistic dialogue, all my favourite music, and the merciless Red Queen Race of hipster fashion, oh and probably In Wild Air.

Anyway, he finished writing the book last month. Great time to read it.

2 People: Ruby Payne-Scott

The supervisor I originally approached for my PhD died during the application process, which is the most emphatic “no” I’ve yet received. I was stoked to get even temporary interest, because Peter Hall was a revolutionary figure in statistics and probability theory. He has already been thoroughly eulogized, though. I want to recall his mum:

Ruby Payne-Scott was one of the co-inventors of radio astronomy, back in the 40s when Australia was leading that field, but we kicked her out of the field she built.

She was a decorated and published physicist as an undergraduate, which wasn’t enough to surmount the disadvantage of being a woman… until World War II made it untenable to ignore skilled scientists, and she was roped into the top secret radar research program.

When the war ended, she worked for CSIR (the CSIRO predecessor) pointing radio receivers at the sky - this was an idea that grew from wartime research that had discovered solar radio emission while looking for Nazi radar jammers. And boom! Humans were listening to the chatter of the universe.

Just after the war Australia was involved in all kinds of interesting science; They were constructing the first musical programmable digital computer and simulating skyscrapers and listening to the sun, because why not? The future was happening here.

For Ruby it came a cropper because she married. The Commonwealth government force women out of the civil service upon marriage, so she hid her husband for 6 years — while she was under surveillance by ASIO for communist sympathies. When she got pregnant in 1951, she had to fess up, to the husband I mean. The CSIRO’s advanced technology did not extend to maternity leave. She vanished from science forever.

Sure, the rules have changed now, but Australia’s maternity leave and child care affordability are still an embarrassment by the standard of most developed nations.

3 Places: Kasepuhan Cipta Gelar

If you use the Ciptagelar toilet image, it’s by Kang Yoyo Yogasmana.

I wanted to rant about Kasepuhan Cipta Gelar, an adat… uh… thingy… best translation is probably traditional kingdom. A traditional Sundanese kingdom in West Java on the (no joke) Misty Mountain. I spent chunks of 2016 working there, through the Common Room Networks Foundation

Big stuff has happened in Indonesia, the tides of history. Colonialism and empire the cold war and despotism and that Mel Gibson flick with the short photographer in. Cipta Gelar has sidestepped all the worst bits.

They claim to be the last remnant of the Padjajaran kingdom, exiled in 1570. So these folks have spent half a millennium picking and choosing the tastiest bits from the globalisation buffet. When the green revolution and all the standardised commercial rice came to Indonesia they ignored them and grew their 130 varieties of sacred rice in their own way. Which they document on instagram by smartphone. They keep their own calendar. They have hydroelectric schemes to power the handmade television station, which broadcasts drone flyovers of the valley and interviews about the fine details of sacred harvest festivals. Religiously, they flagrantly mix selected highlights of Islam and ancient Sundanese rice goddess worship. (Are you allowed to describe your own religion as “syncretic”? At least one villager does.) They challenged the Indonesian state in court for management rights of their sacred forest to preserve it, and one of the last populations of javan gibbons, from rapacious Jakarta logging.

This isn’t a travel tip. They don’t need visitors, and they aren’t a paradise. I mean, they lack infrastructure, and education system and they could do with better medical care. (Or could they? When I was coughing on the combination of cooking and cigarette smoke that stopped my nostrils in the kitchen, I was told not to worry: “Cigarettes don’t give you cancer. Not here.”)

I do want to hold them up as an example of the kind of place that is neither crushed by the wheel of history, nor separatist. They have maintained their metis against state rationality. I want to steal that trick, somehow.

4 Things: Earplugs

What I carry around, even when I lose my manbag full of all my other essential items, is a pair of decent earplugs.

Loud music is my passion and I don’t like it sounding like turds, like it does with foam earplugs, and moreover I don’t want my ears to be destroyed so that will sound like turds in the future (and any music where you have to raise your voice to be heard is doing damage.)

For $20-30 you can get musicians’ earplugs, which make music at loud parties safe, and don’t sound awful and muffled. They are not perfectly acoustically transparent — not like the fancy $200 ones - but seriously, how hi-fi an experience do you want at 110 decibels? Ebay yourself some now.

Etymotic ER20s have the best case - it goes on your keyring and doesn’t fall apart in your pocket, but the Alpine Party Plugs are probably the most comfortable.

They last about 6 months, I mean, they might last longer but I lose them after about 6 months.

5 Ideas: The Multi-Armed Bandit

I want to translate an idea which is banal in my field, invisibly part of the everyday 21st century experience, and laden with gothic horror.

You remember how we used to study rats in cages learning to pull levers? A multi-armed bandit is the amped-up, mathematically super-powered version of behaviourism. The modern metaphor eschews rats for gamblers at the casino, and the levers are not attached to food pellet machines but to pokies. A pokie is a one-armed bandit in yank speak, so the model gets its name from the collective noun.

The setup: you, the gambler, have a bunch of pokies, each with possibly different, and unknown, odds. Maybe some win more than they lose, on average. Or not. (While researching this I learned that non-metaphorical Australian pokies lose you, on average, just under 20 cents in the dollar.)

You put the coins in a slot, pull the conceptual “arm” and see if you get money back. Over time, you get more money back from machines and less from others, so you might try to concentrate on the machines that make you more money. maybe eventually you find the best possible pokie and play that one. But if you choose just one pokie too soon, you are maybe missing a better one. This is the explore-exploit tradeoff - the balance between sticking with a good thing and finding a better thing, and I think an interesting vocabulary tool for when you have dilemmas over research, or romance, or finding furniture on Gumtree.

It turns out that with a bit of modern mathematics and lot of modern computation, these models are powerful. If you attempt to design the best possible learning rules for the conceptual gambler, you end up producing fancy famous AIs such as the recent Go-playing and Atari-playing robots. Point the fancy algorithm at the simulated Atari, put a virtual joystick instead of a pokie lever in its virtual hands, and it will learn to beat human players at pong. These particular game-playing examples are études and PR fluff, though.

What I see, day to day, is the ubiquitous industrial application, specifically: teaching machines to play humans like a video game. Advertising, social media feeds, newspaper headlines, all use bandit models. These systems are designed to get maximum profit out of us by treating the various options (ad placement, headline wording, Facebook wall content) as different “levers” to pull. That is, these are the models that make Facebook as addictive as actual poker machines to actual humans. Multi-armed payoff machines are what we look like in the GPU eyes of the machines of commerce, and they are better at playing the pokies than we.

So that’s the grinding mechanical pressure, I feel bulging out behind every Facebook update, which is one reason I haven’t found it fun for a while.

6 Wildism: Sauntarians

I like saunas, but The Australian Sweat Bathing Association take getting sweaty and naked to the next level. This new non-profit has a far reaching agenda including a range of goals from practical to sublime, such as

  • to construct not-for-profit community bathhouses
  • to promote the cause with a local portable sauna in Australia
  • to design carbon-neutral off-grid saunas for global humanitarian purposes
  • to get the words “thermovangelism”, “saun”, “Saunatarian” in the Oxford English Dictionary, and
  • to found of an international journal of sauna studies

If you join, you can get a towel, a t-shirt, and waterproof thermovangelism cards. I joined.

7 Upcoming

Did I mention Cipta Gelar released a karaoke pop VCD? They did, and I’m coordinating the remix album, the Hitek Lotek project with an assortment of with Australian musicians. We’ve just finished mastering; launch party is some time in 2017, plus new collaborations to come in 2018.