Oh, the places I went

Edit 25/2/15: Fixed the location history link.

Did you know that if you opt into Google location services on your Android phone (I’m sure Apple/iOS do something similar) you can view a map of all the places you – or rather, your phone – has been using the Google Location History tool? Since a smartphone loses a great deal of its utility without your agreeing to location sharing, chances are if you use an Android you’ll have a map of your own to look at. I guess this is cause for alarm but it’s nice to know that I have the ability to at least view – and manage – the information I hand over.

You can only view up to 30 days of history at a time, so I used my data from June to August last year to construct a composite map of my brief travels in Europe. Everything is there: New Haven to JFK, JFK-FRA, FRA-LHR, LHR-EDI, the train back down to London; FRA-TXL, then meandering slowly down to Mannheim with a stop in Prague to visit my friend; after setting up in Mannheim, weekend visits to cities in Baden-Württemberg, and one logistically challenging but very successful trip to Denmark; finally, the flight back to the US and bus back to New Haven. This map reminded me of little details I’d already forgotten about – not a good sign for my memory, I guess…

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I thought this was a very fun data set to look at, although it’s obviously also another instance of the weird narcissism that quantified-self movement leads to when taken to an extreme. My movements during the academic year are less interesting, reflecting the small Yale bubble I live within, with an occasional trip to Boston or New York for choral performances, as well as cycling to neighboring towns down my bike trail of choice.

I thought briefly about how this related to infosec and privacy, but because I’m not European, I wasn’t particularly bothered by the location tracking: it was something I’d consented to, after all. (I do remember being initially annoyed at how Google was strong-arming me into giving up data.) If anything, seeing this map was reassuring: it lulled me into believing that my data was only being put to benign uses like helping me relive my tourist memories. I’d definitely like to discuss these issues more, though, which is why I was saddened today to find out that a class I didn’t sign up for (because I thought it was a really intense crypto course that required background) is a really fun discussion-based course that debates these exact issues.

Discussion-based computer science course sounds like an oxymoron and also the sort of thing I’d love to take. On Thursday I’ll be attending a talk by Peter Swire on why computer scientists need to play a larger role in public policy. It’s supposed to be very good – I’m looking forward to it.

In other academic news, I’m taking a class on medieval manuscripts this semester, and it’s been pretty fun so far. It’s my first “real” humanities course; I considered a military history course last semester, but it was too intense and required an intimate familiarity with the history of Europe despite being billed as an introductory class. Look at this cool manuscript I briefly examined on Monday! It’s a really narrow and long (1.73m) scroll – that’s my hand in the picture.

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Last Friday I finished writing my first humanities paper for this class’midterm evaluation, and it was much more difficult than I expected – even after two discussions with the teaching fellow to get an idea of the arguments I’d be advancing. I’ve always known in the abstract that I’m not yet as well-rounded as I’d like, but only while struggling to say interesting things about a seemingly boring old book did it really strike me how little I know about thinking and argumentation in this manner. I pointed out my discomfort with the vague and subjective nature of my argument to the teaching fellow, who responded (misrepresenting the nature of science I thought) that English [scholarship] is about thinking, not finding the right answers.

If all goes well, I’ll be done with my computer science major next semester, and I’m hoping to use a good chunk of the remaining credits on more humanities classes, as well as bringing back cognition and linguistics, which have fallen slightly by the wayside this past year.

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Humility in the face of mathematics

Our professor for Fractal Geometry, Michael Frame, a wonderfully sweet and somewhat melancholy man who worked extensively with Benoit B. Mandelbrot, likes to make lectures more interesting by telling us bad jokes, Mandelbrot stories and existential musings on life.

It’s 11/11 today, which started as an ironic celebration of young-adult singlehood in a culture that has an odd relationship with romantic relationships, namely, that they should be avoided at all costs before college, as long as a partner and multiple babies spontaneously manifest by age 30. Alibaba and other clever merchants have turned it into the Chinese equivalent of Black Friday. Happy 11.11, I guess. I’d like to share something a little less depressing and blatantly consumerist.

Our professor for Fractal Geometry, Michael Frame, a wonderfully sweet and somewhat melancholy man who worked extensively with Benoit B. Mandelbrot, likes to make lectures more interesting by telling us bad jokes, Mandelbrot stories and existential musings on life.

Today’s Mandelbrot story was that back in the 40s or 50s, when Mandelbrot was studying at Princeton under John von Neumann, people were fond of walking around (and driving) lost in theoretical contemplation without paying much attention to their environs. Once Mandelbrot nearly ran over three people who meandered into the path of his vehicle. The three were Albert Einstein, John von Neumann, and J. Robert Oppenheimer, who were a little cross but went on their way.

Most of the class had been about cellular automata: fun little machines, if you can call them that, comprised of very simple rules that are applied iteratively to 1s and 0s. Rules as simple as “a 0 to the right of a 1 changes into a 1 on the next timestep”.  You give it a certain starting configuration, start it, the automaton follows the rules, and things happen. Apparently at least four known cellular automata are Turing-complete. That the automaton is Turing-complete means that it is capable of universal computation – in theory, capable of executing every possible computer program that could ever be created. This is a very powerful claim that looks far less important than it actually is.

Today’s existential thought was hence that every text in the history of Earth – the works of Shakespeare, the speeches of Churchill, the first words you spoke, the last words I will say – every image – every video – every sound – could be created on one of these simple, stupid machines, if you just had the right combination of initial conditions and enough time. It’s quite remarkable, really.
He ended with a sentence that I quite liked, and have added to my to-calligraph list.

“We should have a little humility in the face of mathematics.”