My Spinal Tap Moment

No, I didn’t turn it up to eleven.

The whole thing kicked off a week ago when my beautiful and talented wife Marie Anne Chiment asked me if I could print a half-dozen Metropolitan Police Helmet Plates for one of her shows (The Pirates of Penzance, for Philly’s Maugkingbird Theatre; 8/20 to 9/4).  We’d been talking about 3-D printing and so it wasn’t an out of the blue topic.  Even so, the very idea was more than a little intriguing.

As luck would have it, I found a 3-D model of the helmet plate online, at TurboSquid.  A quick upload to Shapeways (a job shop) and I congratulated myself on how easy-peasy the whole thing was.  All in all, it took something like eight minutes to research the idea, find the model and place the order.  Welcome to our Brave New World.

It was supposed to take two weeks to be done but to make matters even more pleasing, the box showed up on Saturday; only four days after we placed our order.  Matters took a left turn, however, when we opened the box.  For a start, it seemed like there was nothing in there except a whole lot of bubble wrap.  I was about to toss it all and call the company to complain that they sent me an empty box when Marie noticed there was a tiny zip-lock envelope inside.

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Handling Poison; Messages, I Mean

A poison message, for the uninformed, is a “queued” message that can’t be processed for one technical reason or another.  Doesn’t sound like much of a bother, but due to the way that queues operate, they can muck up the works if left unhandled.

Azure WebJobs does a decent job of handling poison messages out of the box. Basically, you’re given five tries (by default) to process a given message.  If, for instance, the database you’re trying to write to is unreachable or maybe the instructions embodied in an message were somehow malformed then the message would be automagically moved to a “poison” queue for further processing; but only after five failed attempts.  As to any further handling, it’d be up to you.

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I Need a [Web]Jobs

Once again, with the new formed buds of spring a-budding, it only natural for a young man’s thoughts turn to . . . WebJobs.  OK, probably not.  But this (not quite young!) man has a good reason to be thinking of such things: I’m giving a WebJobs presentation at Philly Code Camp 2016.1 later today.  The session will be more than a little hands-on, but I also have a smallish deck, with a number of highlights and resource links, that you can download: Batch Processing with Azure WebJobs.

For the uninitiated, WebJobs can be thought of the newish Azure tech that (most usefully!) enables workflow for the modern web.  Think image processing, shopping carts, database administration, Monte Carlo simulations, app “glue,” process control, AI, custom testing, IoT facilitation, site scraping, backups, pipelining, log ingestion and more.  Even better, WebJobs are super-simple.  You can be up and running in minutes, but more importantly, the “hard” stuff rarely takes more than hours.

If you work with the cloud: run, don’t walk.

 

Be Careful When You Feed the Lunatics

One of the hazards of being an outreach-minded astronomer is having to deal with a never-ending stream of lunatics.  Whether it be the overly-fervent gal who got supper-pissed when I failed to agree with her that asterisms were galaxy-sized corporeal beings or the octogenarian who called  out the cops because he was sure that I was using my telescope to peep at him through his solid walls, I’ve had more than my fair share of encounters with both the grossly misinformed and the all but barking mad.  As a rule, though, I tend to take such crackpots in my stride.

The people who drive me bonkers, though, are the supposedly sane and well educated; fellow citizens who hold the most outrageous and improbable beliefs even though a modicum of sense and introspection should serve to dispel them one and all.

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Koza’s Ant (A Modern Take on the Canonical Genetic Programming Problem)

Koza's Ant EvolverWe’ve all had those less-than-notable-at-the-time yet ultra-significant inflections in our world view that in later days loom large.

I had one of those “moments” in 1993, on an otherwise ordinary fall day when I’d squired my not-yet wife to an unmemorable building on the Northwestern campus, in Chicago.  Marie is a Set and Costume Designer so I have to imagine that we were there for some sort of rehearsal, or maybe a design meeting; something about Orpheus Descending at the Chicago Lyric Opera teases at my memory, although given the remove of 22 years the details have faded.

One thing I vividly remember, though, is reading Steven Levy’s “Artificial Life:  A Report from the Frontier Where Computers Meet Biology;” a book I picked up at the campus bookstore while waiting for Marie to finish whatever she was doing.  She must have been at it for hours because I managed to gulp down something like half of the thickish volume before she emerged from the building.

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An Open Letter to Nick Bostrom

Nick:

Let me start by complimenting you on a bravura performance.  I’ve read dozens of books and articles on ASI but Superintelligence is clearly in a category of its own.  I have no doubt that your work will stand as the definitive reference in the field for some time to come.

On the other hand, I do have a significant objection; if only to the work as a whole.  You make a compelling case for working together to mitigate the unprecedented peril of ASI—a sorely needed case, truth be told!—but I can’t help but think that, even so, your book is suffused with too much optimism.  To resort to bad haiku:

Fearsome ASIs
Can undoubtedly be tamed
We will make them safe!

At the risk of being a Cassandra, I fear that such optimism is entirely wrong!

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