I’m a bit late to the party in starting to tinker with TensorFlow, but nevertheless I’ve been having some product ideas (some dumber than others) for real-world applications of machine learning, and here’s one of the stupider ones:

If you know me at all, you know that one of my hobbies is foraging for wild mushrooms. Going to the forest to forage for mushrooms is a time-honored tradition in Russia and many other Slavic countries.  I also derive great pleasure from sharing this hobby with other people, and telling them how fun, challenging, and rewarding this activity can be.

Therefore, I give you — MushroomHuntr: an Android app that can identify different varieties of mushrooms!  It uses a neural network to perform image recognition in real time, to tell you what kind of mushroom you’re looking at.

Huge legal disclaimer: Do not actually rely on this app to differentiate poisonous mushrooms from edible ones!  The app provides a rough guess of the identity of a mushroom, not a definitive identification.

Under the hood, the app uses the Inception v3 model developed by Google, with the top layer of the model re-trained on a large collection of mushroom images. Many of the training images were taken from Wikimedia Commons, and others came from my personal photos that I’ve taken over the years.

The app can distinguish between about twelve varieties of mushrooms, most of which are native to North America and Europe. All of the trained varieties are common enough to be found easily in parks and forests, to maximize the app’s usefulness for the novice mushroom hunter.

When the app is launched, it automatically enables your phone’s camera, and starts attempting to recognize anything it sees in the image.  Therefore, all you need to do is aim the camera at a mushroom, and see what it says!

To maximize the accuracy of the mushroom recognition, try looking at the mushroom from the side, and bring the camera close enough for the mushroom to fill up most of the frame, like this:


I won’t make this app available on the Google Play Store for the time being, while I continue to refine the model, but if you’d like to check it out, you can build it from source code, or contact me for a pre-built APK that you can install on your device.

But do they believe it themselves?

I’ve been wanting to articulate some more thoughts about a question that’s been on my mind for a while:  do practitioners of alternative medicine really believe what they practice themselves?  I am in fact growing more and more convinced that, not only do they not believe in what they sell, but that it’s also better for their business that they don’t believe it!

In a perfect world, here’s all that needs to be said about this:  Who but a con artist could claim that he can heal people over the phone (or over the internet), or that a dose of water with a single molecule of duck liver can cure diseases, or that the positions of distant celestial bodies have an impact on our daily lives, etc., and then have the nerve to charge money for any of the above?

Unfortunately this is not a perfect world, and there are people who establish entire careers around selling these ideas to anyone who’s willing to buy them.

To begin, it’s worth noting that the modus operandi of alternative medicine focuses mostly on sales and marketing, and glosses over such minutiae as scientific substantiation, unbiased testing, or peer review.

It’s interesting to browse the marketing materials for a particular alternative medicine product, and notice a pattern that repeats itself in all “modalities” of alternative medicine:  The marketing materials begin with grandiose claims of the effectiveness of the product and the universality of its effectiveness, continues with a few (if any) hand-waving theoretical “explanations” of how the product is actually supposed to work, and ends with a brief disclaimer that the product isn’t actually intended to treat any disease, and hasn’t been evaluated by the FDA.

This grossly disproportionate emphasis on marketing should be a cause for suspicion.  If the product actually works, then why does it need such a loud and obnoxious sales pitch? If there was even a grain of possible effectiveness in the product, then it would become readily adopted and welcomed into mainstream medicine, and would no longer need to be called alternative.

Indeed, the one unifying quality of all the alternative healing products I’ve seen is how aggressively commercial they are.  For all their talk about transcending the material world, they sure don’t mind making a physical buck!

Tellingly, the practitioners of these methods are usually very charismatic, and skilled in showmanship and salesmanship, another indication that these qualities take priority over the actual product.

They’re never too embarrassed to hijack the latest buzzwords from quantum physics, and they don’t hesitate to register trademarks on their terminology to make it sound as official as possible.

They don’t bat an eye at the idea of charging four-figure sums to attend their seminars or obtain their certifications, of which there are usually multiple “levels”. Just like any other industry, they organize trade shows and expos — orgies of mind-numbing irony where the practitioners sell the latest brand of nonsense to each other and to passers-by.

Revealingly, many of them retain the idea of a “God”, and infuse it into their treatment. We can guess that this is for the purpose of appealing to the widest possible audience, and reassuring them that they can retain their god, while piling on just one more belief (who’s counting?), since they’re already in for a penny.

What’s also impressive is how expertly they navigate the gray area of almost pitching their treatments as official medical advice. Impressive, yet a bit disappointing:  even the most grandiose claims and the most earth-shattering treatments are followed by the usual fine print disclaimer that it’s merely a supplement to traditional medical care.  What a downer. Fortunately the fine print isn’t legally required to be as large as the promotional text, nor is it required to be at the top of the promotional text;  most visitors won’t read that far before clicking “Purchase.”

All of this leads me to suspect that there must be some level of awareness on the part of the practitioner that what they’re doing doesn’t fully square with reality, and that their primary motive is a financial one.  If the practitioner was as oblivious as his customers, then he would eventually go “too far” with his claims, and make a career-ending mistake, such as submitting his product for testing in a lab, or passing it off as official medical advice.

Many practitioners of alternative medicine complain that scientists refuse to debate them, and use this to promote a narrative that the scientific establishment is conspiring to suppress their work.  But the reality is that most scientists are smart enough to understand how futile it is to debate with such practitioners.  It’s futile because the practitioner’s misunderstanding of science is so complete that the practitioner will spout off nonsensical statements at a faster rate than the scientist can correct them.  It’s also futile because the practitioner has only one goal:  he has a product to sell, and the bigger the audience, the better.  The scientist will therefore do well to limit the practitioner’s potential audience, and the best solution is to have no debate at all.

Love what you do, and show it in what you make.

My kitchen, like many other kitchens, has a built-in dishwasher. It’s an older dishwasher, probably more than ten years old, but it still works perfectly well. It’s also nicely designed on the inside, and has simple and intuitive controls.

However, my favorite thing about the dishwasher is what happens at the end of its wash cycle: it plays this really charming, corny jingle to indicate that it’s done.  It’s just a few notes, and it lasts for just two or three seconds, but for some reason this jingle never fails to make me smile, and after a bit of reflection, I think I understand why:

I like when it’s obvious that the designers of a product had fun making it, and wanted to pass the fun along to the consumer in the form of a “signature” of sorts.  The design of their product is so competent and so mature, that they can go beyond our baseline expectations and appeal to a higher-level aesthetic.

I think that’s the ultimate ideal to strive for:  make the core functionality of your product work so well that you have enough design bandwidth left over to “show off” a bit.  In other words, make your work seem effortless.

Stop it, Stephen Hawking!

Professor Hawking continues to double down on his calls for humanity to colonize space, whether it’s building a permanent colony on the Moon, or on Mars, or even beyond our solar system.  The reasons that he cites for this urgency are that we’re doing irreparable damage to our planet’s climate, and also that there are simply too many of us to be sustained by a single planetary home:  “We are running out of space,” he says, “and the only place we can go to are other worlds. It is time to explore other solar systems.”

To be clear, I fully believe that our top priority should be to mitigate climate change, and that it may be too late to change our habits before the damage becomes irreversible, and that overpopulation is a serious problem for many of our societies.  I do not, however, believe that attempting to colonize other planets is a viable or attainable solution to any of these problems.  For all the loftiness of Stephen Hawking’s statements, I find his reasoning quite a bit myopic.  I’ll also go further to say that by making these kinds of fatalistic, defeatist statements, Hawking and other proponents of space colonization are doing a disservice to the real discourse we need to be having about how to exist sustainably on the only planet we’ve got.


If the problem is overpopulation, then why not focus on solving the problem rather than running away from it?  How about a massive, well-funded campaign to inform developing nations about family planning, or educating women about contraception?  Perhaps Stephen Hawking has given up on the possibility of the world’s governments uniting to achieve such a goal, and perhaps so have I, but then why not admit this explicitly, rather than proposing an absurd non-solution that is even more fictional?

The human population is a thin film that covers a very small fraction of the total surface of the planet.  The point is, why should we think about colonizing other planets when we haven’t even colonized all of one planet yet?  Why don’t we think about colonizing the ocean floors, or the ocean surfaces, or habitats deep underground, or floating cities in the sky?  I’m not a planetary scientist, but I’m willing to bet that any of these options would be much easier to achieve than colonizing another planet.

Why, also, should we think about colonizing other planets when we haven’t colonized one planet sustainably yet?  If we “overflow” our population onto a different planet without solving the problem of how to live on a single planet sustainably, we would simply postpone having to deal with the same problem on the new planet at a later date.  Why not work towards solving the sustainability issue on our home planet first, before considering branching out to different ones?

Climate change

The Earth is, by definition, the most habitable world we will ever find, because it’s the world on which we’ve evolved over millions of years.

To be sure, the damage we’re currently doing to our climate will have repercussions for future generations.  And unless we act now, the damage may be irreversible.  However, no amount of damage we can inflict will make the Earth completely inhospitable to human life, much less life in general.  This is in contrast with every other celestial body in our solar system, all of which are categorically not suited for life as we know it.

If we burn all the coal in the world and melt both of our planet’s polar ice caps, the Earth would still be more habitable than any other planet in the solar system.

If we detonate every single warhead in our nuclear arsenal, the Earth would still be more habitable than any other planet in the solar system.

If the Earth gets struck by an asteroid the size of the Chicxulub impactor that wiped out the dinosaurs, it would still be more habitable than any other planet in the solar system.

It’s simply not productive to set goals for colonizing another planet, when we already have a perfectly good planet right here. All we have to do is improve our relationship with this planet, which begins with education, and will naturally lead to fewer children, less religion, and better environmental awareness.

Interstellar travel

Traveling to another solar system will not happen for us.  It will not happen in our lifetimes, or the lifetimes of our children or grandchildren.  Yes, I do believe that intelligent life will someday leave the confines of our solar system and travel the stars, but that life will not be human (with the exception of Matthew McConaughey).

You may say, “How closed-minded of you!”  But no. I’m an avid appreciator of science fiction, from Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury, to the likes of Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and even Babylon 5.  And I still feel glimmers of idiotic excitement when I read occasional news stories about “breakthrough” propulsion or energy technologies being “researched” at NASA.

However, I’m also armed with a basic but solid knowledge of physics, which tells me how ludicrous or impossible these fantasies are.  Science fiction, at least in relation to space travel, will have to remain fiction for the foreseeable future.

I do sympathize with Professor Hawking’s sense of urgency. And if I had an intellect of his magnitude, maybe I too would feel claustrophobic on this planet.  However, unless he has an actual solution for traveling across interstellar distances (does he?!), I’m afraid his priorities are inverted. Leaving this planet should not be our priority.  Let’s instead figure out how to love this planet the way it has loved us since the bawling infancy of our species, and to ensure that we give future generations enough time to live on it, until they, in the far distant future, are truly ready to leave it.