Sex and technology

Several years ago, I designed a gizmo that was intended to allow people to control sex toys through an Internet connection. The idea was that you’d fire up a chat client, the person at the other end of the chat would have one of these things, and that person would plug some sex toys (up to three of them) into the gizmo. While you were chatting, you could switch the various toys on and off.

I actually tried building and selling these things, a project that was something of a flop–in part because of some design shortcomings, and in part because I don’t really have the money or resources to do something like this properly. I called the gizmo “Symphony,” and lost money on the project.

The Symphony design actually started as a phone-sex gadget; in the original conception, you’d plug the gizmo into your phone jack (remember those?), plug your telephone handset into the gizmo, and talk to someone on the phone. If your partner pressed buttons on the touch-tone phone, he could switch the sex toys plugged into the gizmo on and off.

For that reason, the Symphony works on DTMF–the shrill noises you hear when you push buttons on a phone. Basically, it’s nothing more than a DTMF decoder (that recognizes the buttons), a series of bi-stable latches, and three relays. When you push the buttons on the phone, the relays switch on or off, depending on which buttons you push.

In fact, there’s a schematic of the Symphony below this cut

I don’t get it

Resident Evil:Extinction is playing in theaters near you1 right now. I mean, right now, even as I type this. joreth and I saw it a couple days ago.

It is a post-apocalyptic movie about the end of the world, which features zombies. And Milla Jovovich.

Now, think about that for a moment. It’s a movie about the end of the world, and it has zombies in it. And Milla Jovovich.

How do you make that suck? How does that happen? I don’t get it. That should be a no-brainer combination. It should not be possible to make that suck. The end of the world! With zombies! And Milla Jovovich! How in the name of God can that not be a guaranteed recipe for teh awesome? How, how, how do you take those ingredients, and end up with a movie that’s boring?

1 Provided you live near a theater that’s playing Resident Evil:Extinction.

Your daily dose of teh ky00t

This is Liam.

Liam is cursed with that same irresistible urge that gave us hairless naked apes the iPod, the steam engine, and nearly complete domination over all the earth: curiosity. If I place a box anywhere in my apartment, even if it’s simply a bottled water box that is set to go out with the trash, Liam will not rest until he has been over, under, around, and through it. He’s compelled, you see. He loves novelty, and he wants to know what it’s all about.

He’ll usually sleep in any box I put on or near the floor, at least for a few days. When it ceases to be novel and interesting, he grows tired of it and returns to sleeping at the foot of the bed with me. Like us naked apes, he’s curious and also fickle in his attentions.

Curiosity is a pretty sophisticated trait for an animal whose brain is smaller than my fist and not very wrinkly. In terms of raw processing power, a dozen Liams put together would compare pretty poorly to an IBM Blue Gene/L supercomputer, a much more computtionally powerful, yet singularly uncurious, piece of equipment.

Liam is actually pretty sophisticated in many of his behaviors. A couple weeks ago, he made a face at me.

It happened while I was eating frozen TV dinner apples. Microwave baked apples are tasty and delicious, and I make a point to eat them regularly. Five minutes in the microwave and you can have a small black plastic tray of bliss.

So there I was, sitting by my desk playing World of Warcraft and eating microwave baked apples, and Liam hopped up onto the desk and, brazen as you please, reached into my black plastic tray of bliss with his paw, hooked out a small piece of apple, brought it up to his nose, sniffed it suspiciously, licked it, and made a face at me. He shook the apple off his paw in disgust and wrinkled his nose at me.

Then he watched me eating the apples for several minutes, stole another bit of apple, sniffed at it even more suspiciously, and made another face at me.

There are many ways one might respond to this. One might say “Aww! How cute!” (And really, it was.) One might say “Hey! That’s my food! Don’t put your paw in that!” (And really, I did, though I knew even as I said it that it was pointless-an exercise more for my benefit than for the cats. We naked walking monkeys are kind of insecure in our position that way.) One might push the cat off the desk sternly. (And really, I didn’t have the heart to, because i dote on the cat so. A pushover, I am.)

Or, if one’s inclination runs that way, one might sit back and ponder the surprising degree of cognitive prowess the cat possesses.

I mean, seriously, think about it.

The cat recognized that I was eating something. We take that for granted, but there’s a lot of intellectual horsepower being brought to bear on a task of that sort. First, it means that he was able to map a projection of himself onto a projection on me well enough to be able to determine what kind of activity I was engaged in, and to recognize that it’s an activity he also engages in, despite great physical dissimilarities between us. That, at its foundation, means he was able to recognize the difference between himself and the rest of the world, and to recognize that some things in the world are more like him than other things in the world, to recognize those things when he sees them, and to recognize patterns of behavior common to he and I even as he recognized that I am distinct from him. Human babies take rather a long time to sort all this out.

Then, he was able to make an inference–namely, that what I was eating might be something e would like to eat as well. He made this inference in the absence of other cues, such as smell; he is, after all, a carnivore, and he is uninterested in a tray of baked apples just sitting by itself. (I know; I tried. What can I say? I was curious, too. He probably thinks they small like rotting plant matter.)

When he made this inference, he was able to formulate and then implement a plan of action, which shows at least a very limited ability to plan, even if only in a simple way.

When he obtained a piece of apple and decided it was just as revolting as it smells, he was then faced with a conundrum; this stuff was revolting, but clearly I was eating it (and with great gusto and no small amount of satisfaction, I might add). So he was willing to re-evaluate his original decision, and put it to the test again–something, the cynic in me begs to point out, that appears beyond the cognitive grasp of many people I know.

A couple of weeks ago, in a repeat of the I am not Sir Edmund fucking Hillary debacle that left me stranded on the balcony with a rope in my hand, Shelly went onto the porch to do some tidying up and the door locked behind her, trapping her until I came home for lunch.

Liam, in another example of cognitive dexterity (the only kind he has, I fear, as he is a stunningly clumsy cat), recognized that she was trapped, and became highly distressed and agitated. That shows empathy–the ability to map himself onto her and to respond as if he was the one in the distressing situation. He also knew that the door’s latch was to blame, and pawed and batted at it in a charming but unsuccessful bid to release her. Lack of opposing thumbs, and all that.

A Blue Gene/L system has, at very rough estimation, approximately the same processing power as a human brain. The Blue Gene/P supercomputer, currently in development, will well and truly trounce human beings in terms of processing ability. However, the architecture is very, very different. Modern computers are just really big, really complex Von Neumann machines, bound by the fact that the processing and memory are distinct entities which interact with one another in a series of discrete state changes.

A brain cell can roughly be mapped onto a transistor in the sense that it has only two discrete states, “firing” and “not firing,” but the architectural similarities pretty much end there.

Still, they are both finite state machines with memory, handwaving and nattering of Roger Penrose aside. And it is an axiom of state machines and formal language theory, which I will leave as an exercise to te reader to explore further, that any universal Turing machine, which is a finite state machine with memory, can, given sufficient memory, emulate any other universal Turing machine.

Which means that, given sufficient cleverness on our parts, it should be possible to take these wonderful brains of ours and emulate them in these crude computers of ours, without loss of fidelity.

Handwaving and nattering of Roger Penrose aside. (“Look! Consciousness is a quantum phenomenon! I don’t know anything about quantum physics, neurophysiology, consciousness, or cognitive science, but consciousness is a quantum phenomenon! I have no proof of this, so watch as I wave my hands!” But I digress.)

And, of course, when you emulate one kind of machine (yes, I said it, brains are machines, deal with it) on another kind of machine, if the host machine is sufficiently faster than the emulated machine, the emulation of the emulated machine is faster than the real thing.

Chew on that for a while.

I love Liam. He’s very sweet, and he is a constant little reminder in my life of figment_j. I continue to be impressed by the range of cognitive flexibility we take for granted, even in relatively unsophisticated animals, and I can hardly wait until we start building machines which can exhibit the same kind of cognitive skills.

We’re not there yet, but we will be soon. When IBM makes a supercomputer that has Liam’s level of cognitive prowess, the Singularity will well and truly be nigh.

Some thoughts on ethics

On another forum, I am engaged in a conversation regarding ethics, which came about as a result of a conversation around the ethics of cheating in a monogamous relationship (or by violating the agreed-upon terms of a polyamorous relationship).

A surprising (to me, anyway) number of the people involved in that conversation hold that ethical constraints apply only to first-order consequences of one’s actions, but not to indirect or second-order consequences; for example, it is not ethical to cheat on a partner, but if you are the person a cheater has sex with, your actions are not unethical, because you are not violating any agreements with the cheated-upon person.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about the nature of ethics and responsibility as a result of that conversation, and I’ve put together a series of questions designed to examine a person’s ethical system, and look for contradictions in that system.

The first four questions concern the ethics of lies of commission and lies of omission. The next three questions concern being the active participant in a series of actions covering a very large range of common moral perception. The next six questions re-visit those situations from the perspective of a passive beneficiary of those actions and of an active beneficiary of those actions; that is, does one’s ethical responsibility vary if a person benefits from an action after the fact, or if the person receives the same benefit by creating the situation before the fact? The last two address something I’ve seen commonly: people often find that their assessment of the ethics of an action changes with their assessment of whether or not an injured party is a “good person” or a “bad person.”

I’m interested in seeing the results of many people’s answers to these questions. So, onward!

A call to Linux geeks

Okay, so my sex game Onyx is available for Mac, Windows, and Linux. I keep several Linux virtual machines handy for testing and debugging–Ubuntu, Fedora, and so on.

I’m maintaining some of my Linux systems, and I go to install some tools associated with my virtualization into Mandriva, formerly Mandrake Linux, one of the various Linux flavors I keep handy.

I type:

sudo sh /mnt/cdrom/

and it responds with

bash: sudo: command not found

WTF??! Mandriva’s defult install doesn’t include sudo? Isn’t that, like making a motorcycle that doesn’t include a seat, or a house that doesn’t include windowpanes? How in the name of all that is holy do you release a Linux distro without sudo? Am I missing something here?

Without any intended irony…

…it’s time to gush about a movie.

Now, normally, I don’t gush about movies. Movies are passive entertainment, and normally, I don’t gush about passive entertainment. There are a few exceptions; The Matrix, for example, is not so much “passive entertainment” to me so much as “holy scripture,” which I pay homage to in some of my LiveJournal icons…but I digress.

In any event, last weekend, while I was down visiting Shelly in Tallahasse, the time seemed right for some passive entertainment. She and slouchinphysics had wanted to see some comedy or other about some kind of comedic thing involving comedy, which escapes me at the moment, but through a fortuitous combination of good (or bad, depending upon your viewpoint) timing and the fact that Shelly still had a great deal of homework to do instead, we instead saw Shoot ‘Em Up.

Which is a comedy.

A comedy with a really, really, really high body count.

I have not had this much fun at a movie since Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Take everything that is excessive and over-the-top about the entire action/adventure genre, throw in some references to old school Looney Tunes, and crank the knob up to 11. Even one of the trailers for the movie is R-rated:

This trailer gives you a very good sense of what the movie’s like. Take what you see here and make it an hour and twenty minutes long, and you have the movie, in a nutshell.

The reviews of this movie have been mostly lukewarm (or worse), with reviewers, who clearly belong in aforementioned nutshell, complaining that the movie lacks a sense of humor. To which I say, did we watch the same film? Were the reviewers addled on crystal meth and Mad Dog 20/20? Do these folks not recognize humor unless it’s accompanied by a laugh track and a cute yapping dog? For fuck’s sake, the villain’s name is Mister Hertz! I could not stop laughing through this entire flick; it’s so loopily, zanily, recklessly over the top that anyone who takes it seriously…well, deserves to.

I mean, c’mon. Clive Owen quotes Bugs Bunny and then kills someone with a carrot. You can’t get enough of that for my entertainment dollar! And when the camera pulls back at the end of the skydiving scene, it’s just absolutely priceless.

zensidhe, datan0de, if you guys haven’t seen this movie yet, you really need to.


“Atrocity is recognized as such by victim and predator alike, by all who learn about it at whatever remove. Atrocity has no excuses, no mitigating argument. Atrocity never balances or rectifies the past. Atrocity merely arms the future for more atrocity. It is self-perpetuating upon itself — a barbarous form of incest. Whoever commits atrocity also commits those future atrocities thus bred.”

–Frank Herbert