October 2, 2017

Pseudo-Heliocentric Readership Information in Gravitationally Bound Form

Or, how to get 300,000 reads by being persistent [1] and getting results in unexpected places. Let's review our milestones in three cartoons.






The made-up planetary orbits featured here [2] may violate the physics of actual solar system orbits, at least as simulated by Super Planet Crash [3].


NOTES:
[1] Candy, A. (2011). The 8 Habits of Highly Effective Bloggers. Copyblogger, October 25.

[2] Previous readership milestones, in order of distance from central star: 20000, 50000, 100000 (first image), 120000, 150000 (second image), 200000, 250000 (third image).

[3] Featured in the Scientific Bytes and Pieces, August 2015 post.


September 21, 2017

An Infographical Survey of the Bitcoin Landscape


Josh Wardini sent me information on a new Bitcoin infographic that serves as a survey of events over the last 10 years in the world of Bitcoin development and legal regulation. Many interesting factoids in this graphic, some of which were unbeknownst to me. In the next few paragraphs, I will discuss my impressions that are brought to bear by each subset of factoids.




The relationship between blockchain and mining is an interesting one, and underscores the power of blockchain as both a data structure and a secure transaction system. Bitcoin is also its own economic system, complete with social interactions. In particular, the competitive and cooperative aspects of cryptocurrency can serve as a model for understanding the social structure of markets.







This is another interesting feature of bitcoin: the network has computational power to both unlock the value of existing blockchain as well as to create new currency. Bitcoin mining has always been a bit of a black box to me [1], but it seems as though it has potentially two roles in the bitcoin economy. In a Synthetic Daisies post from 2014, I mentioned that the supply of bitcoin is fixed (in the manner of a precious metals supply), but it turns out that it is not that simple. Of course, since then blockchain technology has become the latest hot emerging technology in a number of areas unrelated to Bitcoin and even the digital economy [2].



It turns out the computational systems (unlike people) is not all that hard to understand. However, digital currency, which is based on human systems, is much harder to understand (or at least fully appreciate). In 2013, I did a brief Synthetic Daisies mention of a flash crash on one of the main Bitcoin exchanges. There is a lot of opportunity to use blockchain and even perhaps cryptocurrency in the world of research. If ways are found to make these technologies more easily scalable, then they might be applied to many research problems involving human social systems [3].


NOTES:
[1] So I sought out a few introductory materials on Bitcoin mining to clarify what I did not know: 

a) startbitcoin (2016). Beginner's Guide to Mining Bitcoins. 99 Bitcoins blog, July 1.

* mining consists of discovery blocks in the blockchain data structure, the discovery of which is rewarded through a "bounty" of x bitcoins. From there, inequality emerges (or not).

b) Mining page. Bitcoin Wiki.

* the total number of blocks is agreed to by the community, as is the total amount of computational power of the network. This makes the monetary supply nominally fixed, but is not required by the technology.

c) Hashcash Algorithm page. Bitcoin Wiki.

Despite the clear metaphoric overtones, Bitcoin mining is essentially like breaking encryption in that it requires a massive amount of computing power thrown at a computationally hard problem, but is also has elements of an artificial life model (e.g. competition for blockchain elements).

Water-cooled rigs probably maximize your investment margin....

[2] Of course, there has been innovation in the use of blockchain for Bitcoin and more general cryptocurrency transactions. For more, please see:

Portegys, T.E. (2017). Coinspermia: a cryptocurrency unchained. Working Paper, ResearchGate, doi:10.13140/RG.2.2.33317.91360.

Brock, A. (2016). Beyond Blockchain: simple scalable cryptocurrencies. Metacurrency project blog, March 31.

[3] A few potential examples:

a) Data Management. 1  2




September 11, 2017

This Concludes This Version of Google Summer of Code


I am happy to announce that the DevoWorm group's first Google Summer of Code student has successfully completed his project! Congrats to Siddharth Yadav from IIT-New Delhi, who completed his project "Image Processing with ImageJ (segmentation of high-resolution images)".

Our intrepid student intern

His project completion video is located on the DevoWorm YouTube channel. This serves as a counterpart to his "Hello World" video at the beginning of the project. The official project repo is located here. Not only did Siddharth contribute to the data science efforts of DevoWorm but also contributed to the OpenWorm Foundation's public relations committee.

Screenshot from project completion video

As you will see from the video, a successful project proceeds by organizing work around a timeline, and then modifying that timeline as roeadblocks and practical considerations are taken into account. This approach resulted in a tool that can be used by a diverse research community immediately for data extraction, or build upon in the form of future projects. 

In terms of general advice for future students, communicate potential problems early and often. If you get hung up on a problem, put it aside for awhile and work on another part of the project. As a mentor, I encourage students to follow up on methods and areas of research that is most successful in their hands [1]. In this way, students can find and build upon their strengths, while also achieving some level of immediate success. 


NOTES:
[1] This seems like a good place to plug the Orthogonal Research Lab's Open Career Development project. In particular, check out our laboratory contribution philosophy.

August 25, 2017

Live streaming of Orthogonal Lab content

Research live-streaming: an experiment in content [1].

The Orthogonal Research Laboratory, in conjunction with the OpenWorm Foundation, is starting to experiment with live video content. We are using YouTube Live, and live streams (composed in Xsplit Broadcaster) will be archived on the Orthogonal Lab YouTube channel. The intial forays into content will focus on research advances and collaborative meetings, but ideas for content are welcome. 




NOTES:

[1] obscure reference of the post: a shot of Felix the Cat, whose likeness was used to calibrate early experimental television broadcasts.

August 3, 2017

War of the Inputs and Outputs


Earlier this Summer, I presented a talk on sub-optimal cybernetic systems at NetSci 2017. While the talk was a high-level mix of representational modeling and computational biology, there were a few loose ends for further discussion.


One of these loose ends involves how to model a biological system with boxes and arrows when biology is a multiscale, continuous process in both space and time [1]. While one solution is to add as much detail as possible, and perhaps even move to hybrid multiscale models, another solution involves the application of philosophy.

In the NetSci talk, I mentioned in passing a representational technique called metabiology. Our group has recently put out a preprint on the cybernetic embryo in which the level of analysis is termed metabiological. In a metabiological representation, the system components do not need to map isomorphically to the biological substrate [2]. Rather, the metabiological representation is a model of higher-order processes that result from the underlying biology.

From a predictive standpoint, this method is imprecise. It does, however, get around a major limitation of black box models -- namely what a specific black box is representative of. It makes more sense to black box an overarching feature or measurement construct than to constrain biological details to artificial boundaries.

A traditional cybernetic representation of a nonlinear loop. Notice that the boxes represent both specific (sensor) and general (state of affairs) phenomena.

The black box also changes through the history of a given scientific field or concept. In biology, for example, the black box is usually thought of as something to ultimately break apart and understand. This is opposed to understanding how the black box serves as a variable that interacts with a larger system. So it might seem odd to readers who assume a sort of conceptual impermanence by the term "black box".


A somewhat presumptuous biological example: in the time of Darwin, heredity was considered to be a black box. In the time of Hunt Morgan, a formal mechanism of heredity was beginning to be understood (chromosomes), but the structure was a black box. By the 1960s, we were beginning to understand the basic function and structure of genetic transmission (DNA and gene expression). Yet at each stage in history, the "black box" contained something entirely different. In a fast moving field like cell biology, this becomes a bit more of an issue.

A realted cultural problem in biology has involves coming to terms with generic categories. This goes back to Linnean classification, but more generally this applies to theoretical constructs. For example, Alan Turing's morphogen concept does not represent any one biological agent, but a host of candidate molecules that fit the functional description. Modern empirical biology involves specification rather than generalization, or precisely the opposite goal of theoretical abstraction [3].

The relationship between collective morphogen action and a spatial distribution of cells. COURTESY: Figure 4 in [4]. 

A related part of the black box conundrum is what the arcs and arrows (inputs and outputs) represent. Both inputs and outputs can be quite diverse. Inputs bring things like raw materials, reactants, free energy, sources of variation, components, while outputs include things like products, transformations, statistical effects, biological diversity, waste products, bond energy. While inputs and outputs can be broadly considered, the former (input signals) provide information to the black box, while the latter (output signals) provide samples of the processes unfolding within the black box. Inputs also constrain the state space representing the black box.

Within the black box itself, processes can create, destroy, or transform. They can synthesize new things out of component parts, which hints towards black box processes as sources of emergent properties [5]. Black boxes can also serve to destroy old relationships, particularly when a given black box has multiple inputs. Putting a little more detail to the notion of emergent black boxes involves watching how the black box transforms one thing into another [6]. This leads us to ask the question: do these generic transformational processes contribute to increases in global complexity?

Perhaps it does. The last insight about inputs and outputs comes from John Searle and his Chinese Room problem [7]. In his model of a simple message-passing AI, an input (in this case, a phrase in Chinese) is passed into a black box. The black box processes the input either by mere recognition or more in-depth understanding. These are referred to as weak and strong artificial intelligence, respectively [7]. And so it is with a cybernetic black box -- the process within the unit can be qualitatively variable, leading to greater complexity and potentially a richer representation of biological and social processes.

NOTES:
[1] certainly, systems involving social phenomena operate in a similar manner. We did not discuss social systems in the NetSci talk, but things discussed in this post apply to those systems as well.

[2] for those whom are familiar, this is quite similar to the mind-brain problem from the philosophy of mind literature, in which the mind is a model of thought and the brain is the mechanism for executing thought.

[3] this might be why robust biological "rules" are hard to come by.

[4] Lander, A. (2011). Pattern, Growth, and Control. Cell, 144(6), 955-969.

[5] while it is not what I intend with this statement, a good coda is the Sidney Harris classic "then a miracle happens..."


[6] 

[7] Searle, J. (1980). Minds, Brains, and Programs. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

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