Category Archives: travel

Why am I jealous of poster board?

Because my new poster gets to go to Istanbul, Turkey for next week’s EvoStar Evolutionary Computation conference without me. I just shipped it off this morning.

Combining puzzle-making with biologically-inspired computer algorithms. Because life isn’t already crazy enough.

Click the above image to see the large version of the poster. Or, you can get a copy of the original PDF. And download the entire 10 page paper if you really want to bore yourself.

We decided not to travel to Istanbul for the conference because of the expense and difficulty in getting there. Alas, I will not be able to experience the surreal juxtaposition of the geeky Mario A.I. competition amidst the majestic ruins of the ancient Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires.

My other posters: Evolutionary art (GECCO 2007), Cracking substitution ciphers (GECCO 2008)

I fell out of an airplane: More physical evidence

Yay! Raeford Parachute Center finally sent my skydiving video!

You can read about the experience here.

I fell out of an airplane once.

I’m scheduled to report to the skydiving facility at 10:00AM. A solid, low bank of clouds covers the entire sky. The call comes in at 8:30AM.

“The weather is looking bad today. Do you mind rescheduling your tandem skydive?”

“No problem. How does tomorrow morning sound?”

“That’s perfect. The weather is going to be excellent.”

I’m at my parents’ house with Kathryn and our kids, psyching myself up to jump out of a plane two miles above the solid earth. The cancellation instantly deflates my mounting anxiety. Tomorrow would work out well. The reprieve is nice, but it just means the anxiety will last much longer. It is like waiting your turn to give your report in front of the class, but having to listen to thirty other students go first.

We set in motion the less fearsome plan of taking the kids to Fun, Fun, Fun for arcade games and mini golf. Ten minutes before we head out the door, the phone rings again. Dad takes the call.

I look quickly outside. Sunny as hell. Before another word is said, the anxiety starts to creep back in.

“Hey, Dave; want to jump now? The weather’s good.”


Can’t put it off any more. The skydive is a birthday gift from my parents. It was a remote, fanciful idea until now. Suddenly, the distant idea began to materialize. The little peaks of anxiety arrive more quickly. Palms start to get sweaty.

Kathryn and I pile into the car with the girls, and follow my dad. We pass the Paraclete XP Sky Venture facility along the way, a tall building with a powerful, vertical wind tunnel. People float inside the tunnel, practicing free-fall maneuvers. Kathryn starts to get more excited about the idea of tandem skydiving. She wants to go next!

Wind tunnel inside the Paraclete XP Sky Venture facility

My brain attempts to process my anxiety along the way. For some reason I keep thinking of the title of the self-help book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, a book I’ve never even read. The title alone is enough to keep my mind on the goal.

We arrive at the Raeford Parachute Center, located only a few minutes away from my parents’ house. I had a lot of confidence in the facility. They’ve been in business for over forty years, and have long history of good experiences. The instructors at the facility have tens, if not hundreds of thousands of jumps among them. We park, unload the kids, and look around. There’s the little air strip with a handful of tiny airplanes. A smoky bar filling up with servicemen, bikers, and other thrill-seekers. Jumpers fiddling with their chutes in a covered picnic area.

Raeford Parachute Center logo

We head into the office to fill out the paperwork, and to watch a bizarre old video of a man with a ridiculous four-foot-long beard talking about the legal liability waiver document skydivers are required to sign. This was followed by footage of the same mega-bearded man going through a tandem skydive with Ron Reagan, son of President Reagan.

The paperwork is the scariest part, because you are legally accepting the risk of injury and death. Jumping out of an airplane has got to be easier than parsing legal language. I dutifully checked away my right to sue if I end up being pressure washed off the landing zone.

Nope. Still can’t sue for this.

Roy, the instructor, came in to give me the very brief training. We talk about the gear, safety, and what to expect. He’s probably gone over this training material thousands of times, so he runs through it very quickly. I absorbed as much as I could, while resigning myself to the fact that Roy will be taking care of 99% of the jump for me. I’ll just take on the challenging role of “dead weight newbie”. Roy gives some useful advice:

“Don’t walk into the propellers.”

“In freefall, be sure to smile to tense up your face muscles for the videographer. Otherwise, the wind will push the meat in your face all the way up. It won’t be pretty.”

“Don’t put your arms back here. See this pull? It cuts the main chute away. You DON’T want to do that.”

Roy hands me a jump suit, and a “frap hat” with attached goggles that fit over my glasses. I put it all on. The getup looks strange. I look like a novelty condom. Kathryn laughs at my appearance and takes photos along with my dad.

Tandem skydiving at the Raeford Parachute Center
The frap hat is awesome.

Iris is getting excited as she looks at the walls which are completely covered in fantastic photographs of other skydivers. There are some photos of elderly people doing jumps, including a woman who did a tandem skydive on her 94th birthday. Dad is getting more excited about the jump. His first civilian jump was in 1970. He did a handful of static line jumps before joining the Army, then continued on to do several hundred jumps with the 82nd Airborne. He tells stories about various small mishaps during his jumps, such as landing on a snack bar, getting caught in a tree, and opening his chute too low at 1000 feet and getting grounded by the parachuting instructor. Surprisingly, none of his jumps were as high as the jump I was about to make at 13,500 feet.

Roy returns to help me put on and adjust my parachute harness. “You’ll want to make a ‘special adjustment’ so certain parts don’t get pureed on the way down.” He gives me a cheap altimeter to wear. I give hugs to Kathryn and the girls, and we’re off to the plane, a Pacific Aerospace P-750 XSTOL.

Tandem skydiving at the Raeford Parachute Center
“Insane people: Get inside, now!”

Mila smiles in her stroller, sucks on her feet, and I board the plane.

The plane is designed to bring 17 parachutists up to altitudes of 12 to 13 thousand feet, then return to land, all within 15-30 minutes. After a short wait, Roy and I and the remaining parachutists (all men except for one woman) climb into the low opening and pile into the cramped fuselage. We sit with our backs to the pilot. Roy is sitting behind me. The videographer sits to his right, and the pilot is behind them in the cockpit, working over his busy clusters of instruments. The engine fires up, and we taxi to the runway. We roll quickly under high throttle and the plane peels away from the runway, calming the shaking fuselage. I watch as the ground falls away, and I start to feel a wonderful sense of freedom. Which is kind of strange, considering I’m sealed in a metal tube, sitting nuts-to-butts with 14 other parachutists, doomed to jump out two miles above the ground.

As we continue the twenty-minute climb to 13,500 feet, I periodically glance at my altimeter. The needle creeps up slowly but noticeably. I feel some of the anxiety but a strong feeling of calm is also present. I was more nervous on the ground, thinking about the pending skydive. Perhaps this is an “acceptance” phase, combined with Roy’s efforts to put my mind at ease. No turning back now. Shut up and do it.

After some repeated safety checks, and a briefing on what to expect, Roy asks, “Any questions before we do this?”

I think for a moment. “Do the jumps get better and better after the first one?”

“Oh yeah. Every jump is different. You can do this thousands of times and it’s different each time.”

I can sense some of the other parachutists smiling. They are probably thinking of the unexpected things that come up during their jumps. On our way to board the plane, Roy and the videographer teased another skydiver about landing on the arrow instead of the big landing target the arrow was pointing to.

We hit 5,500 feet and two skydivers are already at the door. The red light turns yellow, and the door is opened. The yellow light turns green, and the two skydivers quickly exit the plane. All I can see of this from my seat in the back is one moment there are two helmeted heads near the door. And the next moment, they are gone.

Tandem skydiving at the Raeford Parachute Center
Having a face-to-face with ol’ Gravity.

The door closes, and we finish climbing to 13,500 feet. The door opens, letting in the roar of the wind, and the light goes green again. The parachutists ahead of us quickly perch on the edge of the doorway one-by-one, and jump away. In a short time, only the videographer, and Roy and I remain. Roy and I are already attached together, an awkward eight-limbed bundle, and we clumsily shuffle our way to the doorway. The videographer is already outside the plane, holding on to a rail. Roy and I set up at the threshold, an insignificant line between apparent safety and insanity. I squeeze my thumbs into my chest straps, and push my head back. The videographer jumps away. Roy rocks forward, then back, then forward again. We fall away in a rush.

Tandem skydiving at the Raeford Parachute Center

The next few moments are chaotic. Strangely, falling out of a plane only feels like falling during those first moments. I get that “stomach in your throat” sensation for a few seconds, then it quickly disappears. Roy stabilizes us and deploys the drogue chute, a small semi-closed parachute, which brings our terminal velocity to 120 miles per hour. He taps my shoulder, which is my signal to spread out my arms and legs. We are now pushing through a thick blanket of air, which feels much more like floating than falling, especially since the ground is so distant and unmoving. It’s hard not to stare at the ground during free-fall. The videographer circles around, positioning himself in front of us, so I look up at him and mug for the camera. I move my hands around in the wind. The wind feels solid enough to push against. It is a lot like sticking your hands out the window of your car when you are speeding down a highway. I must be part dog, because I stick my tongue out, which gave me a small irrational fear that the powerful wind would rip it off. The wind leaks into my goggles, and my right eye starts pushing out tears, distracting me. Roy spins us around a few times, then gets us in position for the end of free-fall. I’ve lost track of time, and I can’t see what Roy’s doing, but he’s watching his altimeter and getting ready to deploy the main chute.

Tandem skydiving at the Raeford Parachute Center
Some dork tagged along for sloppy seconds.

About sixty seconds into free-fall, he pulls the rip cord and the chute unfurls about 5,500 feet above the ground. I’m so absorbed with the view of the ground, and the sensation of being pulled by the chute, that I didn’t think to look up to watch the canopy unfurl. It fills with air and I can feel myself being grabbed and pulled upward with great force. I’m glad this parachute harness can withstand all that force! Being held this high in the air with little more than a few straps feels a bit disconcerting. But I’m comforted by the knowledge that the straps, and the hooks holding me to Roy, are constructed to withstand thousands of pounds of force. The pulling forces come to an end and we settle into a gentle float.

Tandem skydiving at the Raeford Parachute Center
Hey! Who put on the brakes?

Roy gives me instructions; I can finally hear his voice now that the deafening wind is behind us. He hands me the toggles, webbed straps used to steer the parachute, and I fly the canopy for a few moments, enjoying the freedom of flight. The ground is like a tilting table top, pitching and yawing as we drift. Every feature of the ground seems like a small mark on a giant, flat sheet of paper. Slowly, the ground gets closer. Roy’s pointing hand appears and he describes features in the distance. “There’s Fort Bragg over there. There’s Fayetteville. And I think that’s Laurinburg. If you look over there, you can see the edge of the weather that was here this morning. Man, what a great, clear day we got today.”

I can see all the other jumpers glide their chutes ahead of us towards the drop zone. The canopy ride is supposed to last about five minutes. It goes by very quickly, and I’m surprised to hear Roy say he is beginning to position us for landing. We watch the plane that took us up come in for a landing. It looks very small off in the distance. I start to feel queasy, like I have in the past when riding on small planes. I suspect the apparent motion of the ground triggers it, like pitching on a boat does for me sometimes. But I want to enjoy the rest of the ride, so I take a few deep breaths to try to push away the discomfort. We glide past the observation area, and I wave at my family there, but they probably can’t see me since we’re still up high.

Tandem skydiving at the Raeford Parachute Center
Can you see me waving?

Roy circles us around the drop zone. I can see the landing target getting larger. We get closer and Roy says, “OK, now lift your legs and keep them up.” In the brief training, Roy explained that the last thing you want to do on tandem landings is let your feet contact first, dragging behind you, followed by your knees contacting, then your face. Ouch. I dutifully lift my legs and Roy brings us in for a landing. Roy contacts the ground first, then I bring my feet to the ground for the landing which is no faster than a brisk jog. Roy executes a perfect landing – we both remain standing.

Tandem skydiving at the Raeford Parachute Center
*Whew*! The safety of the ground… is an illusion. The drive home is more dangerous!

It is a bit of a relief to be on the ground, but disappointing that the ride is over. Echoes of queasiness chip small pieces of my exhilaration away. The videographer rushes towards us for a post-jump interview. “How was it?” I can think of little more to say than, “Awesome.” Roy disconnects our harnesses, helps me loosen mine, and I head back to my family while Roy deals with his chute. Iris is the first to greet me. She congratulates me on my “bravery” of jumping out of a plane. I give her a big hug, and we meet up with my dad, Kathryn and Mila. We head back to the office to return the gear, and Roy gives me the jump certificate. Back at my parents’ house, Dad finds the old certificate of his first jump. 1970. Almost 40 years before my first jump!

Tandem skydiving at the Raeford Parachute Center
Father and son jump certificates. Took almost 40 years to catch up to him.

It was one hell of a birthday gift!

Disney World trip photos

We recently took a vacation at Disney World. I was determined to get a decent camera before the trip, so I snagged a Canon EOS Rebel XS, an entry-level DSLR camera. The consequence of this is that I took way too many photographs during our trip:

I’m still a newbie when it comes to photography. But I did manage to scrape some decent shots off of the camera during our trip. Below are some of my favorites. Click the photo to see it on Flickr; there, you can click “All Sizes” to see larger versions.

Disney World trip - day 6 - Magic Kingdom

This shot of Cinderella Castle in Magic Kingdom has a postcard-like appeal.

Disney World trip - day 7 - Cinderella Castle floating in the clouds

Cinderella Castle appears to float amid the clouds.

Disney World trip - day 7 - Wilderness Lodge - Ferryboat at dusk

In the waning sun, our ferryboat from Wilderness Lodge to Magic Kingdom arrives.

Disney World trip - day 7 - Sunset over Magic Kingdom

Sunset imparts a golden hue to the Magic Kingdom.

Disney World trip - day 7 - Wishes fireworks show

I like this ominous silhouette of Cinderella Castle during the Wishes fireworks show.

Disney World trip - day 7 - Wishes fireworks show - Flying Spaghetti Monster

Is that the Flying Spaghetti Monster above the castle during the Wishes fireworks show.???

Disney World trip - day 8 - Epcot - Iris gets her face painted at Outpost pavilion

Kathryn took this wonderful shot of Iris getting her face painted at Outpost pavilion at Epcot’s World Showcase.

Disney World trip - day 8 - Epcot - Spaceship Earth at night

Spaceship Earth at night. Ooh, shiny.

Disney World trip - Day 2 - Wilderness Lodge

Posing in our room at Wilderness Lodge before heading to Magic Kingdom.

Disney World trip - Day 2 - Wilderness Lodge

The magnificent lobby of Wilderness Lodge.

Disney World trip - day 3 - Hollywood Studios

Iris reacts to Catastrophe Canyon’s fires and floods on the Studio Backlot Tour at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

Disney World trip - day 3 - Hollywood Studios

Eris riding a pony at Hollywood Studios.

Disney World trip - day 3 - Disney's Beach Club Resort

Night view of Disney’s BoardWalk from Disney’s Beach Club Resort.

Disney World trip - day 4 - Epcot

Iris is happy to arrive at Epcot.

Disney World trip - day 4 - Epcot

Spaceship Earth. Best pentakis dodecahedron I saw that day.

Disney World trip - day 4 - Epcot

Iris and Princess Aurora. Princess Storybook Dining at Restaurant Akershus at Norway pavilion.

Disney World trip - day 4 - Epcot

Cinderella signs Eris’ book. Princess Storybook Dining at Restaurant Akershus at Norway pavilion.

Disney World trip - day 4 - Epcot

Eris at Restaurant Akershus enjoying one of several hundred of her birthday cupcakes.

Disney World trip - day 4 - Epcot

Spaceship Earth meeting resistance from the stubborn palmettos. “Take me to your leader.”

Disney World trip - day 4 - Epcot

Storm brewing over the glass pyramids at Imagination.

Disney World trip - day 4 - Epcot

Iris vs stars at ImageWorks: The What-If Labs.

Disney World trip - day 5 - Animal Kingdom

African percussionists putting on a great show at Animal Kingdom.

Disney World trip - day 5 - Animal Kingdom

Upside-down tree (baobab tree) at Kilimanjaro Safaris.

Disney World trip - day 5 - Animal Kingdom

Gazelle at the Kilimanjaro Safaris.

Disney World trip - day 5 - Animal Kingdom

Giraffe and baobab tree at the Kilimanjaro Safaris.

Disney World trip - day 5 - Animal Kingdom

Upside-down tree (baobab tree) at the Kilimanjaro Safaris.

Disney World trip - day 5 - Animal Kingdom

Taking the Wildlife Express Train to Rafiki’s Planet Watch.

Disney World trip - day 5 - Animal Kingdom

Iris and Pocahontas negotiate a sum of wampum at Conservation Station at Rafiki’s Planet Watch.

Disney World trip - day 5 - Animal Kingdom

Iris chases and scrubs the goat simultaneously at Affection Section petting zoo.

Disney World trip - day 5 - Animal Kingdom

Crazy cat lady on stilts at Mickey’s Jammin Jungle Parade.

Disney World trip - day 5 - Animal Kingdom

The Tree of Life, though fake, still seems naturally picturesque in this setting.

Disney World trip - day 5 - Animal Kingdom Lodge

Incredible lobby of Animal Kingdom Lodge.

Disney World trip - day 5 - Animal Kingdom Lodge

Incredible lobby of Animal Kingdom Lodge.

Disney World trip - day 5 - Animal Kingdom

Expedition Everest roller coaster.

Disney World trip - day 5 - Animal Kingdom

Expedition Everest roller coaster.

Disney World trip - day 6 - Magic Kingdom

Eris and Iris with Piglet. Character Dining at the Crystal Palace.

Disney World trip - day 7 - Wilderness Lodge - Iris and cousin Danielle at Whispering Canyon Cafe

Iris showing her affection for my cousin Danielle.

Disney World trip - day 7 - Wilderness Lodge - posing with my uncle's family

Uncle Craig’s clan.

Disney World trip - day 7 - Walt and Mickey

Solid Walt and his little rodent pal stand over their creation in everlasting tribute.

Disney World trip - day 7 - massive crowd gathers for parade

Massive crowd gathers for the nightly parade and fireworks.

Disney World trip - day 7 - sunset at park docks

Sunset at the park docks.

Disney World trip - day 8 - Epcot - Family poses at World Showcase Lagoon

Kathryn and Iris pose in front of the lagoon. Is Iris trying to get water out of her ears?

Disney World trip - day 8 - Epcot

Mila wakes, sees photographer, kicks photographer.

Disney World trip - day 8 - Magic Kingdom - Cinderella Castle

Cinderella Castle jutting into the clear sky. How much bloodshed have those battlements been witness to?

Disney World trip - day 8 - Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa

Iris investigates the pool at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa.

Disney World trip - day 8 - Character dining at 1900 Park Fare

Character dining at 1900 Park Fare. Cinderella takes a break from magical thinking to pose with Iris and Eris.

Disney World trip - day 8 - Disney's Polynesian Resort

Disney’s Polynesian Resort. Iris and Eris celebrate a successful day of fun.

Flagler Beach, Florida - Restaurant

Restaurant at Flagler Beach. Kathryn be describin’ the size of bilge rats on ye last voyage.

Flagler Beach, Florida - Restaurant

Restaurant at Flagler Beach. Joanie gets Mila to smile and laugh.

If you made it this far, your stamina is remarkable.

Citizen Spies

Thanks to Google Maps, we know that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has an awesome swimming pool, complete with a bitchin’ water slide:

(click to see it on Google Maps)

But Google Maps also shows us the cost of excess.

(click to see it on Google Maps)

This is a very small sampling of the mass graves resulting from the 1995-1998 famines (the “Arduous March”) that killed around two million people.

This hellish tour of North Korean is curated by Curtis Melvin, a PhD candidate who, along with a few fellow investigators, has spent the last two years annotating the maps of North Korea in Google Earth. He was recently profiled in a fascinating Wall Street Journal article.

Go to Curtis Melvin’s site to download the incredible kmz file which will open up in Google Earth if you have it installed.

Interesting perspective on cultural differences

“But only that morning, Lama Tashi had told us about his first encounter with a watch in Tibet. He’d never seen one before when a friend came by with a wristwatch he’d just bought from a trader. “It’s wonderful,” the friend said. “You wind it up and it will tell you exactly when you are going to die. So you can prepare.”

“Maybe good reminder, he said he’d thought at the time, to keep death strapped to your wrist. Later, when the same friend told him of a small box that let you hear the voices of people two valleys away, he didn’t believe him. When someone else added that you could get a box like that, but bigger, that had pictures as well, Lama Tashi felt sorry that anyone would tell that sort of lie to a lama. You find the same sort of outraged disbelief–well founded in cultural ignorance–when Westerners hear about reincarnation for the first time.”

– Kimberley Snow, In Buddha’s Kitchen, p. 85.

Atlanta GECCO trip report

Article sections: Atlanta | GECCO 2008 | Contests | Research


The Atlanta trip was a lot of fun. We stayed in a really nice rental house not far from Turner Field. The McCubbins managed to put up with me for a week and even went so far as to make dinner for me on several occasions. You haven’t had a good meal until you’ve tried their cooking. Mmm, tuna bites, fruit and goat cheese salad, steak, and black bottomed cupcakes. Our friends Jon and Kate are also accomplished cooks – we should host a cookoff between both couples so we can reap the delicious benefits.

Gecco Trip, Atlanta, Day 6 - Our rental house

Our rental house

Between home-cooked meals we sampled a variety of Atlanta dining options. Chris and I ate at Gladys and Rons Chicken and Waffles, a restaurant chain started by Gladys Knight that serves the most delicious fried chicken and waffles I’ve ever had. The waffles are warm and soft on the inside and nice and crispy on the outside. Perfect. And eating there has only amplified my weakness for fried chicken. I also managed to meet up with the Atlanta-based contingent of my LegalEdge coworkers at the Vortex Bar and Grill. While I did not sample the infamous bypass burgers, I did partake of the big-ass mushroom swiss burger, and my brain’s burger receptors were alight with glee. This celebration of manliness was a mere coverup for the earlier, emasculating experience of eating at the American Girl Boutique and Bistro to celebrate Eris’ fifth birthday. Despite the pink/pastel surroundings, bad service, and proliferation of little girls tending to their creepy shark-eyed dolls, we had a great time and the food was really good.

We checked out the Georgia Aquarium and World of Coca Cola during our stay. The aquarium is fantastic; definitely a must-see. The whale shark tank there is a massive, imposing, wondrous display. The Coca Cola museum is fun but they really hammer you with Coca Cola propaganda while you are there. YOU MUST DRINK IT. The tasting room is awesome, though. In it you can try unlimited samples of around 70 different Coca-Cola products sold around the world. We shuffled among dispensers over the sticky floors and tasted all sorts of delicious sugary carbonated water, and occasionally experienced horrid drinks such as Beverly. The tasting room gets you nice and high on sugar and caffeine before you go to the gift shop, which is the only way to exit the museum. A brilliant scheme to coax dollars from your wallet.

Georgia Aquarium / Coca Cola Museum (youtube link)

My trip photos | Chris and Angel’s trip photos

GECCO 2008

According to Nic McPhee’s twitters, GECCO 2008 had 471 attendees from 46 countries. This universal appeal of scientific research is one of things I liked about last year’s GECCO conference, too. This year’s conference, though, was almost as bad as last year’s when it came to feeding the attendees. Food was given out during the two hour poster session where I was presenting my poster, but all the food was gone in less than 20 minutes, and it was not replenished. Boo!


Nevertheless, there were plenty of fascinating presentations and workshops. The keynotes were again from experts in the field of biology, source of many of the great ideas in evolutionary computing. Dr. Martin I. Meltzer, senior health economist at the Centers for Disease Control, gave an interesting keynote talk about developing scientific models to study public health policy and how well we’d react to sudden outbreaks of disease. In particular, he used the example of pandemic influenza. Overall it was a fascinating but extremely depressing talk, since much of it dwelled on how unprepared we are for situations such as the 1918 flu pandemic. Well-known biology professor, popular science blogger, fierce skeptic, and “expelled from Expelled” victim PZ Meyers gave the second keynote talk. He spoke about the importance of development during evolutionary processes (aka “evo-devo”). For example, many animals share the same exact genes but the organisms themselves have vast differences. The differences are due to other important developmental processes outside of the animals’ genes. He talked about some interesting specific examples, such as development of bats and mice. Cretekos et al (2008) recently chopped out a regulatory sequence from bats and stuck them into mice. The mice then developed longer forelimbs, corresponding to the lengthened forelimbs of bats needed for flight. PZ’s blog post explains this in more detail (and with cool pictures!) This example showed that there are many elements at play that create variety in organisms, and many of these elements are strongly influenced by their environment. We are only barely beginning to understand how these things all work together to form life.

PZ’s other interesting example of environmental factors in evolutionary development was Suzuki and Nijhout’s 2006 paper “Evolution of a Polyphenism by Genetic Accommodation”. The researchers were able to evolve environmentally-driven traits in a type of caterpillar. In cooler temperatures, the evolved caterpillars remain black in color. But some of the ones exposed to hotter temperatures turn green in color; all the rest remain black. So the experimenters selected the greenest caterpillars and let them breed with each other. They also selected the black, unchanging caterpillars and bred them with each other. Over a small number of generations, descendants of the green-changing caterpillars more reliably changed colors, while the unchanging caterpillars reliably resisted changing colors in hotter temperatures. Read PZ’s post for more interesting info on how this all works. It reminds me of Ryan Somma’s post about Daisyworld, a thought experiment world in which black and white daisies affect the temperature of their planet as well as their own survival.

Gecco Trip, Atlanta, Day 4 - PZ Meyers keynote

PZ Meyers giving his evo-devo keynote

Here are some other links recounting PZ’s Atlanta visit: PZ blogging about a meet up with his blog readers. Detailed description of the keynote. PZ’s post about his GECCO keynote (including a PDF of his slides).


Chris and I entered the 2D packing problem contest, where you have to evolve a grid of numbers that yield the highest scores for adjacent pairs of numbers. We didn’t win but we did well enough to give a presentation about our approach. We developed an “embryonic” growth technique to evolve the 2D grid, using block-based growth, and something that ended up looking like mold.

Animation of the “mold” evolution technique. Brighter red spots indicate formation of high-scoring areas of the grid. Click to see the supersized version.

Other contests included evolving Rubik’s cube solvers on a massively parallel grid computing platform (the winner gets $1000), evolving L-systems to match pre-existing images, and evolving intelligent agents to search a virtual landscape for food as efficiently as possible. Nobody qualified for the Rubik’s cube contest, and nobody entered the L-system contest. Which is too bad, since they are very interesting problems. And the $1000 bounty for the Rubik’s cube problem remains unclaimed; Parabon is keeping the competition open and is upping the ante to $2000 for GECCO 2009.

There was also the so-called “HUMIES” awards, which is a competition to showcase evolutionary methods that match or outperform human efforts to solve problems. The winning paper used genetic programming to evolve ways to find special algebraic terms that no human has been able to accomplish.

Interesting research

Below is a list of some of the other presentations and papers that interested me:

  • Games: Moshe Sipper spoke about evolving artificial players for Robocode, backgammon, and chess. The evolved Robocode player was able to beat all of its competitors, which were all written by humans. The evolved backgammon player beat “pubeval”, a strong hand-written backgammon algorithm, 62% of the time. Sipper claims the evolved player will beat human players “most of the time”. The evolved chess-playing AI was able to win or draw against Crafty, a hand-written chess-playing program that is a top competitor at the World Computer Chess Championships.
  • Kenneth Stanley discussed “generative and developmental systems”. He explored the question, “how is it possible that 100 trillion connections in the human brain can arise from a mere 30,000 genes in the human genome?” The belief is that biological processes such as embryonic development cause complex things to emerge. If we stole some of these ideas from nature and used them in evolutionary computing, maybe we could solve some really interesting and difficult problems. Dr. Stanley cited the work of Gregory Hornby, who evolved robots and other objects using an L-system grammar. The advantage of using an L-system is you can get complex behaviors out of very compact, simplistic rules instead of describing or defining each part individually.

    Animations of Hornby’s evolved L-system robots. Click the images if they don’t animate for you.

    Dr. Stanley went on to describe a technique to evolve abstract representations for development, based on how evolutionary artwork is made. This was a big surprise to me; I’ve done a little bit of evolutionary art research, so I was happy to discover that there are real uses for the techniques other than just making pretty pictures. Along the way, the technique Dr. Stanley described turned into a side project called Picbreeder where computer-generated art is evolved via an online community. I’ve been wanting to see something like this!

    Sample high-ranked pictures from

  • In the defense applications track, we saw a talk about evolving swarm behaviors for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Some of the swarming, self-organizing, and attacking behaviors are inspired by behaviors of insects such as bees and wasps. Several interesting micro-UAV technologies were mentioned, such as the Black Widow, UAVs with flapping wings (including bat wings), and parasitic (!!!) UAVs such as SilentEyes (it is launched from larger UAVs). Don’t do anything suspicious, or a swarm of these damned things will form a stinging cloud around you.

    Black Widow micro-UAV. Watch out for its poisonous bite.

    In another talk, an Australian researcher described their technique of evolving collective intelligence for UAVs to detect and report bush fires (that’s Australian for “wildfires”). Their challenge was to evolve swarm behaviors so the UAVs have the best possible coverage of the surveyed area, and also so the UAVs can adapt if there are malfunctions in members of the swarm.

There were many more interesting papers, too numerous to describe, showcasing the widespread and diverse applications of evolutionary computing. Some examples include evolving circuits with high testability, automatic defect classification in electronic wafer manufacturing, quantifying quality degradation on voice-over-IP networks, detection of malware (including zero-day virus attacks) using techniques inspired by biological immune systems, evolving color schemes for people with color blindness, investment portfolio optimization, modeling the Milky Way galaxy using BOINC volunteer computing, developing no-loss strategies for tic-tac-toe, finding deadlocks in large concurrent java programs, radar jamming, evolving functions that can detect computer program code plagiarism by students (beware, cheaters!), automatic route planning that takes traffic into consideration, automatic composition of rock music using genetic algorithms (seriously?), interactive evolution of facial composites of suspects in criminal investigations, detection of moving objects in videos, using a bacterial foraging algorithm to detect circles on images (wait, what?), evolving a World Computer Chess Champion-beating chess program by mimicking the behavior of a mentor, and prediction of whether a company will have financial losses.

The list goes on. But I’ve punished you long enough with this mercilessly long post. Long story short: Trip good. Science good. Computers fun.

GECCO @ Hotlanta

I’ve finally finished my crazy Zodiac cipher poster for GECCO 2008 in Atlanta next week:

Click image for biggie size, or get the PDF version. And here’s the 2-page paper if you want it.

Last year, I used PowerPoint (gasp) to create the poster. What a huge pain that was. This year, I used OmniGraffle, by far the best damned diagramming software I have ever used.

It should be a fun conference; I’m excited to hear about the results of all the competitions. Chris and I entered the “2D Packing Problem” contest; alas, our entry did not win. Still, we had a lot of fun trying out different ideas – it was a very fun problem to work on. The other contests should be fun to hear about, especially the Rubik’s Cube Solver contest. Entrants in this contest get to use a commercial grid computing platform to breed Rubik’s Cube solving algorithms.

Vegas Vacation, now in picture form

I have finally finished uploading our Vegas trip photos to Flickr. Check them out via the links below:

Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6

Kathryn and I didn’t expect to enjoy Vegas as much as we did. And we are surprised to find ourselves wanting to return some day for another visit. There must have been something in that blue paint:

Vegas Trip, Day 3: gettings photos taken with Blue Man GroupVegas Trip, Day 3: gettings photos taken with Blue Man Group

Lady Luck, please let the dice stay hot

Our Vegas trip went well and is best summarized by this video:

Vegas trip video. The panhandler’s sign at the beginning is hard to read; it says: “Why lie? I need a beer.”

(youtube link)

A larger high-quality version in M4V (MP4) format is here: (it’s about 280M).

The trip was a blast; it was fun exploring the casinos, sampling the fine dining, enjoying the luxurious spa and massages at our resort, trying out the nightclubs, visiting Hoover Dam, hiking Red Rock Canyon, riding the rides, and seeing the shows (Blue Man Group and Spamalot). One of our favorite moments on the trip was posing with one of the dudes from Blue Man Group (see about 5min 44sec into the video). AWESOME show.

But don’t ever go to Vegas if you are trying to save money. Yikes!