Help find Morgan Dana Harrington

Einstein on map making, and the connection of art and science.

“One of the strongest motives that lead persons to art or science is a flight from the everyday life. With this negative motive goes a positive one. Man seeks to form for himself, in whatever manner is suitable for him, a simplified and lucid image of the world, and so to overcome the world of experience by striving to replace it to some extent by this image. This is what the painter does, and the poet, the speculative philosopher, the natural scientist, each in his own way. Into this image and its formation, he places the center of gravity of his emotional life, in order to attain the peace and serenity that he cannot find within the narrow confines of swirling personal experience.”

– Albert Einstein


“This morning I was awoken by my alarm clock powered by electricity generated by the public power monopoly regulated by the US department of energy. I then took a shower in the clean water provided by the municipal water utility. After that, I turned on the TV to one of the FCC regulated channels to see what the national weather service of the national oceanographic and atmospheric administration determined the weather was going to be like using satellites designed, built, and launched by the national aeronautics and space administration. I watched this while eating my breakfast of US department of agriculture inspected food and taking the drugs which have been determined as safe by the food and drug administration.

At the appropriate time as regulated by the US congress and kept accurate by the national institute of standards and technology and the US naval observatory, I get into my national highway traffic safety administration approved automobile and set out to work on the roads build by the local, state, and federal departments of transportation, possibly stopping to purchase additional fuel of a quality level determined by the environmental protection agency, using legal tender issued by the federal reserve bank. On the way out the door I deposit any mail I have to be sent out via the US postal service and drop the kids off at the public school.

After spending another day not being maimed or killed at work thanks to the workplace regulations imposed by the department of labor and the occupational safety and health administration, enjoying another two meals which again do not kill me because of the USDA, I drive my NHTSA car back home on the DOT roads, to ny house which has not burned down in my absence because of the state and local building codes and fire marshal’s inspection, and which has not been plundered of all its valuables thanks to the local police department.

I then log on to the internet which was developed by the defense advanced research projects administration and post on and fox news forums about how SOCIALISM in medicine is BAD because the government can’t do anything right.”

For Whom the Smell Tolls

I noticed some similarities between my baby daughter’s name, and the name of a famous band. And so this was born:

If the logo survives the vetting process, Spreadshirt will put one of these in the mail to me shortly:


Add these to your reading list

These are some of the odd books unearthed for the Diagram Prize which is awarded each year to the book with the strangest title.

Yes, these books are real.

All Dogs Have ADHD

Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind

Beyond Leaf Raking: Learning to Serve/Serving to Learn (Essentials for Christian Youth)

Bombproof Your Horse

Curbside Consultation of the Colon

Excrement in the Late Middle Ages: Sacred Filth and Chaucer’s Fecopoetics

Fancy Coffins to Make Yourself

The 2009-2014 World Outlook for 60-Milligram Containers of Fromage Frais

How Green Were the Nazis?

How to Shit in the Woods: An Environmentally Sound Approach to a Lost Art

Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings

The Big Book Of Lesbian Horse Stories

Living With Crazy Buttocks

Malformed Frogs

Oral Sadism and the Vegetarian Personality

People Who Don’t Know They’re Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It

The Art and Craft of Pounding Flowers: No Ink, No Paint, Just a Hammer

I Was Tortured By The Pygmy Love Queen

Reusing Old Graves: A Report on Popular British Attitudes

Proceedings of the Eighteenth International Seaweed Symposium

Squid Recruitment Dynamics

The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification

Tattooed Mountain Women and Spoonboxes of Daghestan: Magic Medicine Symbols in Silk, Stone, Wood and Flesh


“I’m struck again by the irony that spaceflight – conceived in the cauldron of nationalistic rivalries and hatreds – brings with it a stunning transnational vision. You spend even a little time contemplating the Earth from orbit and the most deeply ingrained nationalisms begin to erode. They seem the squabbles of mites on a plum.”

Carl SaganPale Blue Dot

There is no Koopa.

Want to make $500?

All you have to do is make Mario come to life with an artificially intelligent computer program. And he has to survive as many randomly-generated game levels as possible from the Infinite Mario Bros project.

Piece of cake!

A contest entry. From the entrant: “Here’s my attempt at an AI for the Mario AI Competition. You can see the path it plans to go as a red line, which updates when it detects new obstacles at the right screen border. It uses only information visible on screen. I’ve included a slow-motion part in the middle where it gets hairy for Mario. :-)”

Here is the same intelligent agent playing a longer level.

These agents will be unstoppable once they replicate in the Matrix.

United we stand

You enter a contest. A million dollars is at stake. Forty-one thousand teams from 186 different countries are clamoring for the prize and the glory. You edge into the top 5 contestants, but there is only one prize, and one winner. Second place is the first loser. What do you do?

Team up with the winners, of course.

The Netflix Prize is a competition that is awarding $1,000,000 to whomever can come up with the best improvement to their movie recommendation engine. Their system looks at the massive amounts of movie rental data to try to predict how well users will like other movies. For example, if you like Coraline, you may also like Sweeney Todd. But Netflix’s recommendation engine isn’t great at making predictions, so they decided to offer a bounty to anyone who could come up with a system that has a verifiable 10% improvement to Netflix’s prediction accuracy.

The contest recently ended with two teams jockeying for the prize. During the two and a half years the contest has been active, several individuals and small groups dominated the contest leaderboard;, with competition among 41,000 teams from 186 different countries. The competition became fierce, resulting in coalitions forming. The team “BellKor’s Pragmatic Chaos” formed from the separate teams “BellKor” (part of the Statistics Research Group in AT&T labs), “BigChaos” (a group of folks who specialize in building recommender systems), and “PragmaticTheory” (two Canadian engineers with no formal machine learning or mathematics training). Another conglomerate team, “The Ensemble“, is made up of “Grand Prize Team” (itself a coalition of members combining strategies to win the prize), “Vandelay Industries (another mish-mash of volunteers)”, and “Opera Solutions“.


At first, it looked like BellKor’s Pragmatic Chaos won. But now it looks like The Ensemble won. Netflix says it will verify and announce the winner in a few weeks.

Who the hell cares? Why is this interesting in the slightest? Ten percent seems so insignificant.

Well, predicting human behavior seems impossible. But this contest has clearly shown that some amount of improvement in prediction of complicated human behavior is indeed possible. And what’s really interesting about the winning teams is that no single machine learning or statistical technique dominates by itself. Each of the winning teams “blends” a lot of different approaches into a single prediction engine.

Artificial neural networks. Singular value decomposition. Restricted Boltzmann Machines. K-Nearest Neighbor Algorithms. Nonnegative matrix factorization. These are all important algorithms and techniques, but they aren’t best in isolation. Blending is key. Even the teams in the contest were blended together.

United we stand.

Each technique has its strengths and weaknesses. Where one predictor fails, another can take up the slack with its own unique take on the problem.

BellKor, in their 2008 paper describing their approach, made the following conclusions about what was important in making predictions:

  • Movies are selected deliberately by users to be ranked. The movies are not randomly selected.
  • Temporal effects:
    • Movies go in and out of popularity over time.
    • User biases change. For example, a user may rate average movies “4 stars”, but later on decide to rate them “3 stars”.
    • User preferences change. For example, a user may like thrillers one year, then a year later become a fan of science fiction.
  • Not all data features are useful. For example, details about descriptions of movies were significant, and explained some user behaviors, but did not improve prediction accuracy.
  • Matrix factorization models were very popular in the contest. Variations of these models were very accurate compared to other models.
  • Neighborhood models and their variants were also popular.
  • For this problem, increasing the number of parameters in the models resulted in more accuracy. This is interesting, because usually when you add more parameters, you risk over-fitting the data. For example, a naive algorithm that has “shoe color” as an input parameter might see a bank that was robbed by someone wearing red shoes, and conclude that anyone wearing red shoes was a potential bank robber. For another classic example of over-fitting, see the Hidenburg Omen.
  • To make a great predictive system, use a few well-selected models. But to win a contest, small incremental improvements are needed, so you need to blend many models to refine the results.

RMSE (error) goes down as the number of blended predictors goes up. But the steepest reduction in error happens with only a handful of predictors — the rest of them only gradually draw down the error rate.

Yehuda Koren, one of the members of BellKor’s Pragmatic Chaos and a researcher for Yahoo! Israel, went on to publish another paper that goes into more juicy details about their team’s techniques.

I hope to see more contests like this. The KDD Cup is the most similar one that comes to mind. But where is the ginormous cash prize???


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.

On Existence

“He saw that even in an age of science and unbelief our ideas are dreams, styles, superstitions, mere animal noises intended to repel or attract. He looked around the ring of munching females and saw their bodies as a Martian or a mollusc might see them, as pulpy stalks of bundled nerves oddly pinched to a bud of concentration in the head, a hairy bone knob holding some pounds of jelly in which a trillion circuits, mostly dead, kept records, coded motor operations, and generated an excess of electricity that pressed into the hairless side of the head and leaked through orifices, in the form of pained, hopeful noises and a simian dance of wrinkles. Impossible mirage! A blot on nothingness. And to think that all the efforts of his life – his preening, his lovemaking, his typing – boiled down to the attempt to displace a few sparks, to bias a few circuits, within some random other scoops of jelly that would, in less time than it takes the Andreas Fault to shrug or the tail-tip star of Scorpio to crawl an inch across the map of Heaven, be utterly dissolved.”

John Updike, in his story Bech Panics.

When I came across the stark snippet above, it made me think of similarly stark passages spoken by Wolf Larsen in The Sea Wolf by Jack London:

“What do you believe, then?” I countered.

“I believe that life is a mess,” he answered promptly. “It is like yeast, a ferment, a thing that moves and may move for a minute, an hour, a year, or a hundred years, but that in the end will cease to move. The big eat the little that they may continue to move, the strong eat the weak that they may retain their strength. The lucky eat the most and move the longest, that is all. What do you make of those things?”

He swept his am in an impatient gesture toward a number of the sailors who were working on some kind of rope stuff amidships.

“They move, so does the jelly-fish move. They move in order to eat in order that they may keep moving. There you have it. They live for their belly’s sake, and the belly is for their sake. It’s a circle; you get nowhere. Neither do they. In the end they come to a standstill. They move no more. They are dead.”

“They have dreams,” I interrupted, “radiant, flashing dreams–”

“Of grub,” he concluded sententiously.

“And of more–”

“Grub. Of a larger appetite and more luck in satisfying it.” His voice sounded harsh. There was no levity in it. “For, look you, they dream of making lucky voyages which will bring them more money, of becoming the mates of ships, of finding fortunes–in short, of being in a better position for preying on their fellows, of having all night in, good grub and somebody else to do the dirty work. You and I are just like them. There is no difference, except that we have eaten more and better. I am eating them now, and you too. But in the past you have eaten more than I have. You have slept in soft beds, and worn fine clothes, and eaten good meals. Who made those beds? and those clothes? and those meals? Not you. You never made anything in your own sweat. You live on an income which your father earned. You are like a frigate bird swooping down upon the boobies and robbing them of the fish they have caught. You are one with a crowd of men who have made what they call a government, who are masters of all the other men, and who eat the food the other men get and would like to eat themselves. You wear the warm clothes. They made the clothes, but they shiver in rags and ask you, the lawyer, or business agent who handles your money, for a job.”