Archive for February, 2010


Monday, February 8th, 2010

I’m fascinated by the concept of a “compensated spokesperson.” The basic idea, as I understand it, is this. A company has some product they are trying to push, so they hire a well known actor to shill for them. Everybody knows that the actor is doing it for the money — after all, there is a big disclaimer that says we are watching a “compensated spokesperson”. It doesn’t get more obvious than that.

Generally these companies like to hire an actor known for playing trustworthy characters. After Sam Waterston spent some time playing a highly ethical Assistant D.A. on “Law and Order”, he got hired as a pitchman by the TD Waterhouse banking group. More recently, John Roland went from a long career as a legendary NY TV news reporter to the “compensated spokeperson” for Wilens & Baker, a law firm in serious need of a public relations face-lift after having been censured by the NY Judiciary for being nasty to its own clients.

There are a lot more examples of this, and it’s always the same. Some trusted face that you know from TV or the movies, somebody you may have grown up watching as they battled fictional bad guys, becomes the public face of a company that wants to borrow some of that honorable Mojo, and is willing to pay for the privilege.

Yet here’s the interesting part. Everybody knows that this is all a complete crock. Essentially a company is telling its public: “Hey public, we’re going to try to convince you we’re the good guys by hiring an actor, and we’re even going to tell you that we’re paying them to shill for us, but we think you’re so stupid that you’re going to believe us anyway.” In effect, the company is telling its potential customers that it believes them to be mindless, knuckle dragging, drooling morons, who wouldn’t know a bald faced lie if it jumped up and bit them on the keister.

Now, you would expect that the public would respond to this kind of thing with utter disgust, massive boycotts, deliberate avoidance of any product peddled in such a ridiculous manner. But actually, it works. People turn on their TV sets, see Sam Waterston, or John Roland, or William Shatner, or Tiger Woods (well, um, until recently), and they believe! The use of a compensated spokesperson has been proven, time after time, to increase trust in a product or company. It turns out that we really are mindless, knuckle dragging, drooling morons.

Well, have you ever had the thought “Boy, if I had all the money in the world, what I’d really like to do is…”?

One of my fantasies — maybe something I’d do with that second billion — would be to hire all of those compensated spokespersons, and pay them to talk about what they really think of the product they are shilling for (it’s amazing how creative you can get with money you never expect to have). It wouldn’t be dishonest or anything. Just a general sort of consciousness raising, a kind of karmic compensation. It could even become a spectator sport. People could see some well-known actor (as in “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV”) peddling a product, and then the next week they public would get to hear what the actor really thinks of the product.

On the other hand, such a project might not be necessary if all compensated spokespersons were all as cool as the late great Antonio Carlos Jobim — composer of “The Girl from Ipanema” and other immortal Bossa Nova songs. In the Brazilian beer wars, two rival brands — Brahma and Antarctica — would each spend a fortune battling it out in the marketplace of public opinion, a kind of alcoholic Coke versus Pepsi. For many years Jobim, a living legend in Brazil, made a hefty sum as a paid spokesperson for Brahma. He’d even work its brand name into his song lyrics.

But when he was asked about it, he said: “Yes, it’s true. I get paid to promote Brahma. But I drink Antarctica.”

The legend of Jake. Canto the second, verse 2:

Sunday, February 7th, 2010

“That’s evident,” said Jake, somewhat bemused.
“Like everyone,” he said, “I am a bot.”
“You are indeed,” she said, “but I am not.”
“Not what?” replied our hero, all confused.
The concept she was trying to explain
Was so outside the universe he knew
That as she spoke, his puzzlement just grew
He felt troubled in his cybernetic brain
“Look,” she said, “I am a human being.”
“I do not know this model type” said Jake,
“Perhaps some newer bot? A recent make?”
“No!” she said, “You’re looking, but not seeing.”
      “Well then?” inquired Jake, “What do you do?”
      “We create robotic droids,” she said. “Like you.”

Forever font, continued

Saturday, February 6th, 2010

Thanks for all of the thoughtful comments on my Forever font post. For those who requested it, here is the font in an easy to transcribe form:

The font can also, by the way, be helpful for displaying a reasonable amount of text on a very low resolution screen, so it might find use in very low cost or low power display devices, such as a future smartphone designed to cost less than ten dollars, which would be useful in large parts of the world where today’s smartphones are unaffordable. If every kid has a smartphone, the challenges of attaining universal literacy can be approached in new and creative ways.

But let’s talk about those future people, the ones who might not even have the concept of electricity. The other day my colleague Murphy Stein and I were discussing the underlying challenge of developing modern technology specifically for the purpose of transmitting knowledge to fellow humans in a less technologically advanced future. We found ourselves circling back to the asymmetry between producer and consumer — what advanced knowledge artifacts might we produce here in the present to compensate for the limits on how those artifacts can be consumed in the future?

Ideally we wanted to do better than the information density of paper, but not rely on the rediscovery of the magnifying glass. One idea we came up with is to embed many different pages on each sheet of paper, so that you would see a different page as you looked at the paper from different directions. No magnifying glass required.

There are various ways of doing this. One way is to use scratch holograms — since these can be illuminated by the Sun (the one light source we can assume future humans will be able to access). They are also less fragile than regular holograms. One can also use Benton holograms (those rainbow holograms you see on credit cards), although these can only encode different images in one angular dimension, which seriously limits the number of different page images you could practically embed into one sheet.

Another possibility is to use integral imaging, the brainchild of Gabriel Lippmann back in 1908. In this approach, each page would be covered with many thousands of tiny plastic hemispherical lenslets. Looking through one lenslet from any given angle you can only see a tiny, highly magnified, speck of the underlying paper. If there is ink at that spot, the entire lenslet will appear black, otherwise the lenslet will appear white. If you print the right pattern behind the array of lenslets, then one piece of paper could contain a hundred different pages of text, each appearing when viewed from a particular angle (say, ten choices of view angle in each of the horizontal and vertical directions), as an array of visible black and white dots.

This last approach is particularly well matched to the Forever font. When you look at an integral image you see patterns of discrete dots — exactly the right sort of display on which to read the Forever font.

The legend of Jake. Canto the second, verse 1:

Friday, February 5th, 2010

Jake was too astonished to reply
Transfixed, he simply stood in silence, gawking,
Confident that had he started talking
He would have gotten stuck somewhere at “Hi”.
For never in his life had our young bot
Beheld a vision of such sheer delight
This strange new robot was a lovely sight
For she was everything that he was not.
Her armature was delicate and svelte
Her cover plate a soft and glowing pink
He found it was becoming hard to think
He thought his circuits were about to melt.
      And then she spoke again — her voice was sweet.
      “Are you a real robot? That’s so neat!”

Forever font

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

Questions about “robots after the humans are gone” have gotten me thinking more about what might eventually become of our human knowledge-verse, which in turn led me to various on-line discussions about the potential long-term advantages of archiving on paper. So now I’m thinking about that.

Certainly digital media possess vastly greater bandwidth than old-fashioned print. On the other hand, it is not clear that any given digital storage medium of today will be readable far in the future. In theory, future civilizations could examine our magnetic tapes, compact discs and flash storage devices, and reverse engineer them to find out what was going on way back in the twenty first century. But such a theory assumes that future civilizations will have a lot in common with our own.

In the event of some disruptive calamity, it is not clear that surviving humans will have digital computers, but it is highly likely that some existing languages will survive. In such circumstances, as civilization gradually pulls itself together, books will be continue to be useful.

But what about that limited bandwidth problem? A printed book will typically contain around 2000 to 3000 characters per page. If we really want to help those future generations get a good start, we might want to do better than that.

One on-line discussion I saw talked about using ink on paper to print in binary format — essentially using paper as a digital medium. If you print only 1’s and 0’s (as tiny dots and spaces), you can get about 500,000 bytes — equivalent to 500,000 characters — on one side of a single sheet of paper.

This is great, but it assumes that future humans will be able to decode binary. If those folks don’t have any computers, that might be a very big assumption indeed.

So I started wondering whether there might be some way to compromise, a way to retain some of the advantages of text (readability forever into the future, as long as language itself doesn’t die) while picking up some of the benefits of binary encoding (far higher storage density).

I came up with a text font that might do the trick. The Forever font is composed of little on-off patterns of printed dots, just like a binary encoding on paper. But unlike a binary pattern, it is directly readable by humans. The result is not quite as compact as binary encoding — it takes about twice as many bits. So rather than being able to fit 500,000 characters on a page, you would only be able to fit 250,000 characters.

Still, going from 2500 characters per page to 250,000 characters per page is not too shabby — it lets you replace every 100 pages with a single page. You could store an entire reference library in a single book.

Below you can see the font at three different scales, together with the equivalent binary (ASCII) encoding. In each case, in the binary encoding the two lines of text are side-by-side, whereas in the Forever font they are arranged one below the other:

Each Forever font character is four dots high, and from one to five dots wide (the more frequent characters tend to be skinny). To achieve the full 250,000 characters per page, you would scale down the font so that each dot is as small as possible — about 1/300 of an inch is the limit for ink printed on ordinary paper. Of course you would need a strong magnifying glass to read print this small. So in practice, you’d start with large and easily readable text at the top of each page, and then gradually taper down the text size on subsequent lines. That way it would be clear to the reader that there is indeed text to be read in the tiny sized print.

One could object that future civilizations might not have access to a magnifying glass. On the other hand, it is reasonable to assume that the convex lens will be rediscovered well before the digital computer. Meanwhile, the need for a magnifier will be immediately self-evident to anyone who sees a size-tapered page of text in Forever font, and this need might even prompt some innovation.

Another advantage of the Forever font over binary encoding is its robustness. Paper can be damaged, and printing at small sizes is inaccurate. If noise creeps in to the position of the dots (as shown in the lower text, below), the binary encoding becomes undecodable, whereas the Forever font is still readable:

The fact that the text appears as visually identifiable words and characters (which people are quite good at recognizing) — together with that extra factor of two in space — results in a far more robust and error-resistant encoding than you could get from the binary encoded version.

The legend of Jake. Canto the first, verse four:

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

Jake awoke to find himself inside
Some sort of large mechanical device
Making sure to check his circuits twice
He found nothing amiss, except his pride.
Quite relieved to see he wasn’t dead,
He knew there was still much to understand
It isn’t often that a giant hand
Lifts one into the air from overhead.
He set about examining the place
Just where he was, he really could not tell.
He hoped he’d find some other bots as well
Perhaps a friendly cybernetic face.
      No sooner had this thought formed in his head
      When a lovely face appeared. “Hello,” she said.

Robot god

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

In yesterday’s poetic verse I touched glancingly on the idea of a robot praying. I didn’t incorporate this notion for any philosophical reason, but rather because it fit well with the character and the situation.

This morning I awoke to find this concept nagging at me. What would it mean for a robot to pray? A believer might say the idea is absurd, since a robot has no soul. A non-believer might engage the topic from a completely different perspective, by asking the question: Is a tendency toward metaphysical belief a necessary consequence of any human-level intelligence?

In the case of a robot, this question becomes even more complicated. Suppose we take it as a given that the robot acknowledges humans as its creator. There are then two possibilities: either the creators are still around to be observed, or they are extinct, and are therefore the stuff of legends and conjecture.

In the former case, I find it hard to believe that humans would be able to play the part of divinity for any length of time. To a robot with sufficient sentience to even want to engage in prayer, humans would be seen as all too frail and imperfect. Veneration might be appropriate (even deeply flawed parents are often venerated), but certainly not prayer and pleas for divine intervention.

If the humans are truly gone, then I can indeed see them being effective in the role of answers of prayers. After all, the entire basis of Judeo/Christian/Islamic religion is engagement with a God that can neither be seen nor heard. It is the very absence of a perceivable God makes such religions possible. After all, if you could see your deity walking down the street, what would be the point of faith? And if religion were based on even the slightest shred of perceivable evidence, then it could be refuted. This could seriously compromise the immense power of its institutions and officers.

So the fact that the robot in my poem can be moved to prayer is a strong suggestion that its human creators have died out, leaving the robots to face the universe alone, with no easy answers.

One take-away here is that the true power of religion lies in its disconnection from reality. People do not find religious ecstasy through evidence — they find it through faith. Which means that if you are a deity, and you want to create a meaningful religious experience, you should have the good sense not to exist.

The legend of Jake. Canto the first, verse three:

Monday, February 1st, 2010

He wrestled with a mounting sense of fear
As slowly did he roll across the floor
Slower still he exited the door
Where looming darkness now was drawing near.
Before the spreading spectral shadow’s fall
Jake did bravely choose to stand his ground
Listening quite closely for some sound
But heard no sound — he heard no sound at all.
Till all at once a rustle overhead
Direct above the place where he did stand
And looking up, he saw a giant hand
Descending through the dark, a thing of dread.
      Before he even had a chance to pray
      Our brave young hero fainted dead away.