Sunday, May 03, 2015

How to make a lot of money as an artist

An artist friend asked me, "How can I make a lot of money?"

"Make something people will give you money for," I said.

"It can't be that easy," my friend snorted.

"Who said it was easy?" I snorted back.

My friend is a musician, who follows his heart, without much regard for what other people want. He's an artist. Almost by definition that makes him an independent individual, unmoved by the suggestions of friends and family to follow a more lucrative career. Like many artists I have come to know he is rebellious, self-centered, stubborn, and driven by a vision other people cannot see. It's what makes his contribution potentially so valuable.

As a businessman and economist, what I find most fascinating about the profession of an artist is that she makes a career out of communicating her vision. Like an inventor, who tries to make money from an idea, artists try to make money from a perspective. And if the perspective is valuable and easy to reproduce, the supply will outstrip the demand, lowering the price towards zero, moving most of the benefit away from the artist and to the consumer. So, just as in the case of inventors in a competitive economy, the number of artists is only limited by the lower profits (poverty) the artists will tolerate. Those that want to make more money will have to find other occupations to supplement their income.

Now, just as with any other business, if one can create monopoly power, making a product so unique that it is not reproduced, and one's product is something that consumers are willing to pay for, then the sky is the limit. However, in order to be such an artist may require two compromises: (1) sharing the wealth with others who can help create monopoly power (such as distributors who control access to sales channels), and (2) producing art that consumers are willing to pay for, perhaps compromising the artist's original vision.

With the increasing role of the internet, it will be interesting to see what happens to the companies that have traditionally controlled the distribution channels. They are struggling at defining their value to consumers in the face of a plethora of talent flooding the market through internet channels such as YouTube. Will artists benefit from the more open marketplace? It's not clear. What is clearer to me is that the number of artists reaching consumers is likely to increase, swelling the ranks of "starving" artists, probably bad news for the artists, perhaps good news for the art consumer.

How to change the world? Vote for the future with every dollar you spend!

I recently saw an article about social capitalism (The Opinion Pages - Op-Ed Columnist David Brooks - How to Leave a Mark The comments reminded me of something I tell myself when I want to change the world:
If I want to change the world, a world driven and shaped by economic forces, then communicate using the language of the world: vote for the future with every dollar I spend.
What does that mean? Well, for starters, I have to remember that what I buy is telling manufacturers what I want them to make. So being more conscious of what I buy, conscious of the consequences of my purchase, helps me choose the world that I want to be leave for my grandchildren.

This is really good news. In other words, every dollar I spend is a dollar I am voting for the future. I get to vote on the future every single day. I don't have to wait for an election. Every purchase is election day.

This is really bad news, too, since most of my training, the way I was brought up, was to consider purchases as a reward for my hard work. Ever since I saved my paper route money for my new bicycle, I have learned that if I do something for someone else, I can get paid. And the money I get can turn my hard work into something I want. But what I did not learn was how to manage my responsibility for the consequences of my buying. At no time did I consider what kind of world I was encouraging when I bought my shiny new bike. I didn't think of how the people were treated who made the bike. I didn't think of how the resources were acquired to make the bike, or what would need to happen to dispose of the bike. I didn't think of any of the consequences of my purchase, other than the smile on my face as I rode it down the street.

So it's ironic when I point my finger at the "big bad companies" that are tearing the world apart to compete, or who are treating people as if they were just another commodity resource, and the environment as if it was a garbage can. It's especially ironic since I know that companies in a competitive economy will respond to purchasers much faster than politicians respond to voters.

When, and how, will I begin to vote "responsibly"? How do I find out if a product has been manufactured in a way that I want? How do I know if the product will encourage a future I want to leave for my grandchildren?

In today's internet-connected society, is there a way I can get ratings on products to know how well they match my own preferences for the future? Will enough people "vote" responsibly to make a difference?

And I can't just say that it's too complicated and stick my head in the sand. As a good friend and mentor reminded me, I'm already voting for the future every time I buy something. The only question is which future I am voting for.

How Humans are Limiting Machine Learning

I've started refreshing my knowledge of predictive modelling and am reminded of something that has always struck me with the way we teach students about machine learning: we, not the machines, do most of the thinking.

How can this be so? Don't machines learn by themselves? 

I'm reading about "supervised learning"(1), where the model is based on observing variables and looking for a relationship between the variables and some known outcome. The goal is to find a way to predict the outcome based on the observed variables. Well, I guess the machine is learning, but my experience with learning has a lot more to do with figuring out HOW to look at something -- how to aggregate, weight, and disregard in the presence of an enormous quantity of variation, finding patterns buried in noise.

But in most cases, we limit the machine in what it can learn because we limit what the machine can observe. WE choose what the machine pays attention to, and then tell it to do the best it can do. It is like putting blindfolds over my eyes, then telling me to learn to predict where a ball will land based on wind-speed, sound, and air temperature instead of giving me eyes to see the ball.

For the first time since machines have been invented, we are finally taking off the blindfolds and giving machines more to look at by using the internet as an input. The internet has the requisite variety(2) to become a sense organ. And hence the mad dash to make sense of all this internet data. "Data-miners" are pounding larger and larger data sets through machine learning algorithms.

But who is writing the algorithms to specify the models? How are we teaching machines to learn on their own? What are we asking them to learn? Are we giving them the eyes to see? Or are we limiting their learning?

And what happens when the machines learn faster and better than we do?



Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Why do emotions impact memory?

Emotions were an early form of communication between human beings (and other species as well). It was valuable to survival if one member of a species could express danger in a way that another could be recognize.

Emotion helps weight observation memory, making it easier to retrieve memories which carry more emotion.

Learning is more efficiently transmitted through emotion because emotion was one of the earliest forms of communication. Learning transmitted through language does not carry the same impact.

What if being in here, in this virtual reality, I were able to predict what happens out there, in the real world?

"Why would I ever want to think like you?" 
"To be able to see choices, choices which are not visible to you because of your attachments."

As attachments are built with experience, then this might be a way of  describing the lifetime of a human:

Age 1-12: Age of ego and dependence
Age 13-25: Age of self-awareness and independence
Age 26-50: Age of awareness of others and interdependence
Age 51+: Age of ever-increasing awareness of all (infinitely large) and individual impact (infinitely small) 

How can I change my rate of understanding?
How can I recognize my attachments?

A. Change the rate of interaction between self and not self; and/or
B. Change the rate of imagined interaction

How does the rate of exposure to experience depend on the rate of absorption and redirecting of attachments? Is it just a linear training function? What role do emotions play in increasing/decreasing the impact of exposure to experience? Do highly charged emotional situations contribute to faster/deeper learning? Am I able to create the experiences that open my eyes and allow me to alter attachments?

On free will

Free will exists within the limitations and incomprehension of prediction. Uncertainty only disappears at the limit (as the amount of information and the complexity of the model approaches the information content of the system). My imperfect knowledge prevents me from knowing the future with certainty. In some definitions of free will, that uncertainty is the door to free will. However, doesn't free will really mean I may choose however I want even with (and perhaps in spite of) complete certainty?

So, I can experience free will either through my uncertainty and my limited ability to predict the future, or I can experience free will by making choices independent of my certainty of the future.

If I know everything (which I believe is impossible, but this is a mind experiment, so just give me this), and I make my choices based on the toss of a coin, aren't I exhibiting free will? But wait, if I know everything, I know the outcome of the coin toss, which means I didn't leave my choice to chance. In fact, if I know  everything, there is no way for me to make a random choice.

Hmm... Herein lies the fallacy of the dichotomy of truth, the belief that things are either true or false. These kinds of arguments are an invention of the limited thinking of human reasoning. I prefer to believe that all statements have a probability of being true or false, where some statements may have a probability of being  true of 1. Under this hypothesis, the truth of a statement may be known with varying certainties, which vary across people and over time based on varying levels of knowledge.

The more we understand about a system, the less freedom the system has. However, those elements within the system, which are limited in their understanding of the system, have the experience of free will.

Entropy is the measure of free will that humans give to a system.

Free will lives in the white noise of our understanding of ourselves. As such, free will approaches zero as understanding approaches the information content of the human brain.

Free will is the inverse of understanding and meaning. Free will is indistinguishable from entropy? Free will is the creation of meaning where no meaning exists. Free will is a probability function, where the smaller the causation, the greater the free will. Free will is making choices where there are no choices, inventing options where there were no options. Perhaps our free will is most manifested in our commitment to imagining the world differently than we experience it.

The Discipline of Being Human

As I search for the meaning of life and my purpose, I have come to appreciate the value of reminders of mindfulness. So I put here a list of disciplines which I practice, when I remember, in the hopes that these will turn in to habits:

1. Live life to its most fulfilling
2. Practice the discipline of being human.
3. Embrace my responsibility to the others.
4. Demand the best from every human being.
5. Respect and honor all life, for it is life which gave birth to human beings.
6. Strive to understand everything, knowing I never will.
7. Relish my own life, because every living thing offers something unique.
8. Fight for the survival of life itself, but be prepared to sacrifice my own life for the survival of others.
9. Live a purposeful life.
10. Experience the "life" in every living thing.
11. Never grow jaded with the wonders of life.
12. Experience my senses, refine and teach them the infinite subtleties of diversity.
13. Embrace variety as the source of life itself.
14. Cherish the few moments I am given in my own life.

As a gourmand eats to satisfy his love of food, and a gourmet eats to satisfy his love of taste, I will be a gourmet of life, not a gourmand. The discipline is in the caring for more than just myself.