Thursday, April 30, 2009

Least Privilege

So, apparently the Conficker worm has been found infecting medical devices on hospitals. It has been found on imaging devices, like MRIs, that were connected to the internet. The funny thing is that, upon inquiring the operators of these machines, they conceded that these machines had no need to be connected to the internet. The my question is... why the fuck were they connected then?! Whatever happened to the principle of least privilege?

The world's network infrastructure and computer systems are not vulnerable just because of software flaws. In fact, software flaws are the easy part to deal with, because they can be fixed. But how do you fix people's stupidity? We could certainly try putting a sign on people identifying their stupidity, but with risk of some moron screwing up the labeling, who knows what the consequences would be :-)

It seems that common sense is not so common after all, and these criminals know really well how to exploit that fact. God forbid what would happen if these guys get control of an X-ray machine, and decides to start playing with it...

Maybe this will be a wake up call, but I doubt it.

Hey, I have an even better idea! Why don't we connect the world's nuclear arsenal to the internet? Wouldn't that be awesome?

The Value of Holistic Thinking

According to an article to appear in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, producing cleaner fuels has turned into a "drink or drive issue". The main problem seems to be the great water footprint that ethanol production has: irrigation of corn/sorghum crops, and also pollution from pesticides used to protect these crops. So, we are trying to reduce the impact of burning fuels upon the air, but we are screwing with our water resources in the process... what can I say? Awesome!

It seems to me this is a consequence of a lack of holistic thinking on our part when it comes to technology in general. Sure, let us have these ethanol-based fuels, that have shown to be cleaner, but... where are we getting the ethanol from? We tend to adopt a very myopic perspective, without looking at global consequences. In the case at hand, all the process involved should be considered as part of the system, especially when you are trying to fix the environment! Then, you can take a global look at what the real impact is, and really determine what the benefits, in terms of reduction of contamination, are. If we are trying to clean the air, but in the process pollute the water... then it seems to me we are being pretty idiotic.

Of course, this is just one study, and the real impact and consequences are yet to be determined, but I just wanted to comment on the technological issue in general :-)

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Endocrinology Consult

Today was the last of a series of follow-ups with specialist, this time with the Endocrinologist to check on my bones. Everything went fine, nothing much to say though since any change in bone density doesn't become apparent in months, but rather in years. So it'd be in about a year when they would make another bone density scan to check how things are doing.

They said they're going to have a more secondary role, and apparently things were not as horrible as they would have me believe before. So, they decreased my calcium intake (from 3,600 mg/day to 1,200 mg/day, that's two pills instead of six), and also my vitamin D intake from 50,000 units a week, to 1,000 units a day. I'm also to start taking Fosamax.

So that was it for the Endocrinology consult. Pretty uneventful otherwise.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Creatine Kinase

I got a letter from KU Med with the results of some blood tests from my visit last week to the Neurologist. It's just a list of numbers for a bunch of markers, each classified as either In Range or Our of Range. My glucose is a bit high, which worries me (the Prednisone causes this, and may make it bas enough to require Insulin shots). The interesting ones are of course the levels of Creatine Kinase and Aldolase. See, these are enzymes that are released into the bloodstream following the breakdown of skeletal muscle. Put in other words, these are part of the guts of muscle cells, and high levels of them in the blood means these cells are being destroyed by some process. In my case that process is the Dermatomyositis.

Both the levels of CK and Aldolase are high. The CK levels were 512 U/L. A normal person, at rest, has levels below 100 U/L. A sprinter after running the 100 m has levels around 200 U/L. So, this means the inflammation process is still there, but it's under control. CK levels in myositis go into the thousands (which is what they were for me when I was hospitalized). So, even though this was high, it's actually low for me, or let's say a bit more under control. The Aldolase level was 12.6 U/L (should be below 8.1 U/L), again high, but not so bad given my condition (myositis gets this number over 20 U/L).

Of course, the fact that these numbers are high indicates that the inflammatory process is there, in-check, but present. I'll take these numbers as good news that the treatment is having effect though :-) I just really hope that I can get to a point where I can be under these conditions, without the Prednisone.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

New Quote

Whining is the recourse of the mediocre - Apolo Imagod

You can quote me on that one :-)

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Pulmonary Consult

Yesterday I had my 3rd follow-up consult, this time with the pulmonary people. They took a chest X-ray and I had the pulmonary function test performed. A couple of hours later, I met with the doctor. All in all, it was good news. My pulmonary function has improved significantly compared to how it was when I was in the hospital. My lung capacity is up, lung elasticity has improved, and oxygen diffusion levels are higher too. That means the treatment is working and lungs could finally take a break from all the damage caused by the inflammation and get better.

I was very happy to see this because, to be honest, I've been very worried about my respiratory functions... I get short of breath just by taking a few steps. When I asked about this the Dr. said: well, they're better, but they're still bad. The problem is that the damage that they took was so severe that the improvement might seem mild to me, in comparison. The good thing is that there is some gradual improvement, and we hope it keeps going that way.

The lung function improvement was the green light needed for the Prednisone reduction plan. So, hopefully, in 6 weeks I'll be down to an average of 30 mg/day.

Friday, April 17, 2009

GTA Flop

So the sales numbers for Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars are out, and as I suspected, they are disappointing. For some reason, everybody was expecting this game to sell great, there were analysts calling figures in the hundreds of thousand, yet I had commented here and there that I didn't think this was going to be the case. And I was right.

The thing is, in my opinion, this is just not the kind of game that DS owners buy. This is a different kind of consumer base. The same thing happened to Mad World on the Wii. Nintendo platforms just don't have any space for M-rated titles. And you can bet all your money that the same thing is going to happen to The Conduit, although I really hope I'm wrong on this one.

Nintendo has built such a psychological profile around their consoles such these M-rated titles seem to be in almost perfect dissonance with the feeling that the consoles are supposed to project. And so, this is what happens. Maybe if developers keep trying and releasing mature titles, eventually this attitude will change, but I don't think they will be willing to keep losing money on this. Too bad for mature gamers though... we will have to keep making do with Zelda, Mario, and the ocasional RPG title :-)

Thursday, April 16, 2009


I had my first follow-up with the Infectious Disease and Neuro-muscular specialists. The Infectious Disease specialist said everything looked fine, so there was no need to follow-up from here on. I have to watch out for any bad signs on my lungs. The Neuro-muscular specialist was a more interesting visit. First off, my diagnosis has been officially set to Dermatomyositis. There was some improvement in muscle strength, although I'm still very weak by all standards. Lung function hasn't improved though, but it hasn't worsened.

Because of the mild improvement in muscle strength, and the fact that lung function hasn't become worse, they decided to try reducing my dose of Prednisone. So, they have lowered my Prednisone from 80 mg/day to 60 mg/day, and I am to follow a plan that will eventually get it down to an average of 30 mg/day, as long as the Pulmonary specialist says everything is fine with my lungs after my visit with him next Monday. The dose of Imuran was increased to 200 mg/day. I am to have another follow-up in 2 months.

So, those are the current plans. Let us hope everything improves and goes for the best.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Gooey Situation

So I finally bought into the hype and got World of Goo from WiiWare. This game won the Game Developers Choice Award for Best Downloadable Game of the Year. And I have to say I am enjoying the game. It's a very interesting concept, the puzzles are challenging, and have a different twist introduced by the physics interactions of the goo...

I haven't finished the game, so I don't have a full picture of the game yet. But, from what I've seen so far, I still can't see how this game could possibly beat Braid as best downloadable game of the year. Can someone explain that to me? I mean, don't get me wrong. I think World of Goo is a great game. I love the concept art, the music, the gameplay... but I think Braid is just much better. I don't know, maybe it's just me... after all this award is given by the developers themselves, and I know the guys at 2D Boy are more popular among developers than the rogue Jonathan Blow, so my only explanation for Braid not winning the award is mere politics...

As far as I'm concerned, there is no doubt: The best downloadable game last year was Braid.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Free Will... Is it really Free?

I've always been a big follower of AI, and in fact as a computer scientist I did some small work in this area. What really catches my attention are the philosophical aspects related to the nature of cognitive processes and consciousness. In this regard I love John McCarthy's seminal papers on this area. I also agree with Marvin Minsky when he says that this aspect of AI has slowly been neglected, and instead modern AI has broken into a series of subfields, each one working on improving what are basically specialized optimization algorithms, losing the focus on what really started the whole thing: creating an intelligent machine. Maybe this is the way to go, and eventually we will be able to put everything back together... but somehow I don't think so.

Anyways, I recently ran into a thesis from a PhD student in Spain, that attempts to model self-awareness using neural networks. The work is very interesting, although not groundbreaking, but at the very least gives a very good survey into current ideas for modeling consciousness. All of this got me thinking back into a bunch of ideas I was having a while back regarding all this, and I've had conversations and discussions with several people about whether or not consciousness can really be replicated (to the point of self-awareness observed in humans), but then I got thinking into free will.

The thing is, if you start pondering about the idea of whether consciousness can be replicated by a machine, or whether strong AI is possible, you really have to get philosophical and start with a simple question: Regarding the philosophy of mind, do you stand on the side of materialism or dualism? If you adhere to the idea that the mind is a result of the physical processes occurring in the brain, then certainly the idea that these physical processes may be replicated by some sort of machinery is a plausible one. Let us say, for the sake of argument, that this is the case, and let us abide by the idea of a materialistic conception of the mind.

So, we have decided that the mind is the product of a machine (the brain), and therefore not separate from it. In this scenario, every cognitive process is the product of a computation, every thought, every decision, every idea. We could certainly view the brain as a machine exposed to a series of stimuli (the inputs), and based on those, producing a series of cognitive effects (the outputs: decisions, thoughts, ideas). If that is the case then... how do we interpret the concept of free will? First of all, let us try and be more specific about what kind of machine the brain would be: is it a deterministic machine or is it a non-deterministic machine?

Let us assume, again for the sake of argument, that the brain is a deterministic machine. This means that, given some pre-determined circumstances, the brain will always react the same. That is, on a given situation, if a person makes a particular decision, given the chance to do it again, if the circumstances are the same, he/she would make the same decision. If this is the case then... do we really have a free will? Under these circumstances, it would seem that free will would be nothing more than an illusion, a subjective perception or rather interpretation of our own congnitivity. Given a particular situation, we would be pre-determined to act in a certain way, no matter what, even if we thought that was not the case, that we somehow had the illusion that we had a choice.

All these ideas have already been tackled in areas like philosophical determinism, but it's interesting to see how they emerge by delving into the intricacies of another field, namely, Artificial Intelligence. Personally, I find this idea of mental determinism (to call it one way) very interesting, maybe a little scary, but that doesn't mean it's not true.

In the end, we would probably not be able to get away with a fully deterministic model for the brain, for we would have to account for the instances in which we just decide to flip a coin (both literally and metaphorically), so we would have to model some non-determinism into it, probably by adding some source of randomness, but the point would be that in that instance, we would always decide to flip that coin.

Hmmmm... I need to think more about this.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Methods and Procedures

Recently I have started to notice more and more people in my field (Computer Science) confusing the terms method and procedure, using them as if they were interchangeable. I just want to set the record straight: they are not interchangeable, they are different things. This confusion, I've noticed, is present mostly in people accustomed to program in Object Oriented Languages, as the closest thing to a sub-routine or procedure in these languages is precisely a method.

A method is not the same as a procedure. OK? A procedure, in a programming language, is a sequence of instructions that perform a certain task. As simple as that. A method, on the other hand, is a concept that only makes sense in OO languages. A method is associated with an object (or a class) and it is the object's way of doing things. I feel like going into a more philosophical discussion about this... but I won't. Suffice it to say, they are not the same, so if you're a computer scientist, and you're reading this, please stop doing this. Use the word procedure where it belongs, and the word method where it belongs... and let us all make a more rigorous science :-)