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Antarctica - Rothera British research station is situated North in the West Coast - about 13000 Kms from Europe. Ian MacNab postcard came from there.

In the era of instant messaging, I know this would sound awkward to you all. From Borneo to India, from Chile to Russia, over the years I have received postcards from friends all over the world. Just for curiosity, I specially love those coming from very remote locations. In 1995 I have even once send a postcard to myself, while being at the Nepalese-Tibet border. Being at 6450 meters high in the Himalayan range (Kathmandu was 5000 meters bellow me in the “valley”!) I decided to check how many days my postcard will take to arrive in Paris (back then I was living there). I knew that my postcard will need a few hours from Kathmandu to Paris via airplane (though I did not ask for air mail on purpose), however the problem was to arrive in Kathmandu at all. After spending 3 months in Nepal, India, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia I finally returned to Paris and to my surprise the little postcard needed just 1 month and 7 days to arrive from the top of the world into Europe. Anyway, that was my record at that time.

Well, today that record as just been beaten! A few hours ago, I received a postcard coming from… Rothera Research station – British Antarctica Survey (67º34´S, 68º07´W): Adelaide Island, Grahamaland. Yes, in Antarctica! How come?! Let me start by the beginning. From time to time I enjoy playing chess online at GameKnot (not these last months though, due to a lot of work). Over GameKnot I have played chess against, from Theoretical Physicists in Germany up to Taxi drivers in New York (one of my best online chats ever), from steel workers in Denmark up to American soldiers fighting over Iraq. About 4 months ago I played chess against Ian MacNab. Ian is the chief scientific expedition guide from the British Rothera research station. So while playing a game with him (at that time he was enduring the long cold Antarctica night) I decided to challenge him also with a postcard correspondence experience. Ian replied me back online saying that postal correspondence with Rothera was extremely difficult, since it’s mainly done through sporadic research ships, while they could only arrive when ice allows. So, I am glad he now writes: […] It’s summer here now – lot’s of sun, it will soon be 24 hours of daylight! […].

Ian’s “chessman – Antarctica guide” postcard was shipped on Oct. 1, when the winter in Antarctica officially ends. It arrived today from the South Pole, constituting a new postal record, at least for me: 1 month and 19 days long. It’s now time to reply him back with a warm Lisbon postcard. But I wonder if it will not take longer? After all, somehow distributed, postal services around the world would have to collectively cooperate and digest this “weird” address, deciding a optimal path into Rothera. Through Chile, Argentina, or maybe South Africa. Who knows? Anyway, thanks to postal services around the world, Ian will now receive along with text, a hard, difficult nevertheless funny chess problem on the back of my postcard!


Figure – A sequential clustering task of corpses performed by a real ant colony. In here 1500 corpses are randomly located in a circular arena with radius = 25 cm, where Messor Sancta workers are present. The figure shows the initial state (above), 2 hours, 6 hours and 26 hours (below) after the beginning of the experiment (from: Bonabeau E., M. Dorigo, G. Théraulaz. Swarm Intelligence: From Natural to Artificial Systems. Santa Fe Institute in the Sciences of the Complexity, Oxford University Press, New York, Oxford, 1999).

The following research paper exploits precisely this phenomena into digital data.

[] Vitorino Ramos, Fernando Muge, Pedro Pina, Self-Organized Data and Image Retrieval as a Consequence of Inter-Dynamic Synergistic Relationships in Artificial Ant Colonies, in Javier Ruiz-del-Solar, Ajith Abraham and Mario Köppen (Eds.), Frontiers in Artificial Intelligence and Applications, Soft Computing Systems – Design, Management and Applications, 2nd Int. Conf. on Hybrid Intelligent Systems, IOS Press, Vol. 87, ISBN 1 5860 32976, pp. 500-509, Santiago, Chile, Dec. 2002.

Social insects provide us with a powerful metaphor to create decentralized systems of simple interacting, and often mobile, agents. The emergent collective intelligence of social insects “swarm intelligence” resides not in complex individual abilities but rather in networks of interactions that exist among individuals and between individuals and their environment. The study of ant colonies behavior and of their self-organizing capabilities is of interest to knowledge retrieval/ management and decision support systems sciences, because it provides models of distributed adaptive organization which are useful to solve difficult optimization, classification, and distributed control problems, among others. In the present work we overview some models derived from the observation of real ants, emphasizing the role played by stigmergy as distributed communication paradigm, and we present a novel strategy (ACLUSTER) to tackle unsupervised data exploratory analysis as well as data retrieval problems. Moreover and according to our knowledge, this is also the first application of ant systems into digital image retrieval problems. Nevertheless, the present algorithm could be applied to any type of numeric data.

(to obtain the respective PDF file follow link above or visit

Gum election in the public streets of Berlin – “Who sucks the worst? Vote with your gum“. Several weeks before the election on United States, this rather simple but extraordinary concept spread from NY city to San Francisco, from St. Louis to São Paulo, from Berlin to Sydney within a few days. This kind of remembers me one of my friend’s (Ivo et al’s) project – Stick Me!, due to some similar features. Even nowadays my own refrigerator has one Stick Me! sticker over it and I really enjoyed participating on it in the past via one very quick and humble “Stick Me Mate” proposal, while playing blitz chess with friends at a bar nearby my house.

A bunch of people (promoting Collective Intelligence?) is using the environment as a way to communicate (like over any chessboard). Communication is indirect, but still they communicate through the alterations and patterns they impose on the environment itself. Meanwhile, imposing a mark or sign somewhere, increases the probability of a second response later in time – a response to a stimulus (as ants put their pheromone marks on the ground). Though here however (on both projects) only positive feedback is used.

In fact, Mother Nature has conceived a very outstandingly simple and better strategy: their signs and cues vanish in time, simple as that! For instance, pheromone, a chemical substance segregated by ants and termites evaporates in time. Over here however, there is no evaporation at all working on (societal agents are not entitled to use negative feedbacks or using vanishing marks), which can curse it’s own dynamic – unless someone destroys the posters, of course. Amazon book recommendation system, works as well this way, that is by uniquely making use of positive feedbacks (people that bought this X book also as bought Y, etc). Unfortunately, Amazon system along with his wish lists could not integrate that someone who bought the X book did not bought Z (while others have done it), which basically leads to a snow-balling effect that does not self-organize in time (adapts) to new potential good-reading books. What you end up seeing is just the overall majority consensus, the “minimum common multiple” as I sometimes call it, who tends to over-look and underestimate some high potential new-coming solutions (over this precise context, good books coming in). Amazon should instead look carefully to some scientific works on collaborative filtering. Instead the consequences are this: check here for a real user feedback on what Amazon is suggesting, or in fact not suggesting at all.

Not only their system tends to adapt slowly, since the only thing it’s promoting is nothing else but memory (exploitation, which could be achieved by positive feedbacks), as he is not learning (exploration, which could be achieved by negative feedbacks), when we know that on the contrary, a delicate compromise between both is in fact of huge importance. The difficult but possible systemic trick is to remember the past as simultaneously innovating. If as a whole the system only remembers the past, no innovation is possible causing dramatic consequences when the “environment” changes. This could lead to stagnation. On the other hand, if too much systemic pressure is put on innovation itself, energy is lost, leading the system to explore the universe of possible solutions in a quite “”stupid” trial-and-error like random manner. Some dynamics between one thing (memory) and the other (learning) could be checked here (figs. 4,5,6,7 and 19), along with their speed.

After all a gum or a sticker is nothing else than a tag -as web blogging tags and internet tag clouds are. My question is – Could they vanish over time as I believe and propose they should? Having that question in mind, while looking at these precise public street projects, there are also other conceptual bridges we may found, as far as I recognize.

Let me refer at least 4, with the help of some passages below from other texts: (1) Hobo signs and codes (as well as the bottom-up like emergence of norms and ethical codes between them), (2) the role of Positive and Negative feedbacks briefly discussed above, (3) Swarm Intelligence and of course, (4) Stigmergy. In what specifically regards Hobo signs let me say that they are quite clever. Since they are done with chalk! So, rain and erosion could erase them, little by little, day by day. Thus, solutions that were good in the past, but no longer exist or that are partially vanished over time, tend to be replaced by new fresh ones, appropriated for the present, only loosing part of the whole systemic memory, serving us with new stimulus (we tend to respond to those fresh ones), allowing a continuous adaptation to reality. As I said in the past over a scientific invited lecture (not the right place to say it, though!), signs, quotes, delayed desynchronized dialogues and phrases over the doors of public bathrooms follow similar trends and tend to be stigmergic. In what regards the following four passages, I leave to you the connection between them (sorry for this now long food for thought post):

(1) […] Synergy, from the Greek word synergos, broadly defined, refers to combined or co-operative effects produced by two or more elements (parts or individuals). The definition is often associated with the quote “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” (Aristotle, in Metaphysics), even if it is more accurate to say that the functional effects produced by wholes are different from what the parts can produce alone. Synergy is a ubiquitous phenomena in nature and human societies alike. One well know example is provided by the emergence of self-organization in social insects, via direct (mandibular, antennation, chemical or visual contact, etc) or indirect interactions. The latter types are more subtle and defined by Grassé as Stigmergy to explain task coordination and regulation in the context of nest reconstruction in Macrotermes termites. An example, could be provided by two individuals, who interact indirectly when one of them modifies the environment and the other responds to the new environment at a later time. In other words, stigmergy could be defined as a typical case of environmental synergy. Grassé showed that the coordination and regulation of building activities do not depend on the workers themselves but are mainly achieved by the nest structure: a stimulating configuration triggers the response of a termite worker, transforming the configuration into another configuration that may trigger in turn another (possibly different) action performed by the same termite or any other worker in the colony. Another illustration of how stimergy and self-organization can be combined into more subtle adaptive behaviors is recruitment in social insects. Self-organized trail laying by individual ants is a way of modifying the environment to communicate with nest mates that follow such trails. It appears that task performance by some workers decreases the need for more task performance: for instance, nest cleaning by some workers reduces the need for nest cleaning. Therefore, nest mates communicate to other nest mates by modifying the environment (cleaning the nest), and nest mates respond to the modified environment (by not engaging in nest cleaning); that is stigmergy. […],

in Vitorino Ramos, Juan J. Merelo, Self-Organized Stigmergic Document Maps: Environment as a Mechanism for Context Learning, in AEB´2002 – 1st Spanish Conference on Evolutionary and Bio-Inspired Algorithms, E. Alba, F. Herrera, J.J. Merelo et al. (Eds.), pp. 284-293, Centro Univ. de Mérida, Mérida, Spain, 6-8 Feb. 2002.

(2) […] To cope with the difficulty of hobo life, hobos developed a system of symbols, or a code. Hobos would write this code with chalk or coal to provide directions, information, and warnings to other hobos. Some signs included “turn right here”, “beware of hostile railroad police”, “dangerous dog”, “food available here”, and so on. For instance: a cross signifies “angel food,” that is, food served to the hobos after a party. A triangle with hands signifies that the homeowner has a gun. Sharp teeth signify a mean dog. A square missing its top line signifies it is safe to camp in that location. A top hat and a triangle signify wealth. A spearhead signifies a warning to defend oneself. A circle with two parallel arrows means to get out fast, as hobos are not welcome in the area. Two interlocked humans signify handcuffs. (i.e. hobos are hauled off to jail). A Caduceus symbol signifies the house has a medical doctor living in it. A cat signifies that a kind lady lives here. A wavy line (signifying water) above an X means fresh water and a campsite. Three diagonal lines means it’s not a safe place. A square with a slanted roof (signifying a house) with an X through it means that the house has already been “burned” or “tricked” by another hobo and is not a trusting house. Two shovels, signifying work was available (Shovels, because most hobos did manual labor). […], in Hobo, Wikipedia.

(3) […] Swarm Intelligence (SI) is the property of a system whereby the collective behaviors of entities interacting locally with their environment cause coherent functional global patterns to emerge. SI provides a basis with which it is possible to explore collective (or distributed) problem solving without centralized control or the provision of a global model (Stan Franklin, Coordination without Communication, talk at Memphis Univ., USA, 1996). […] (here)

Hobo or tramp markings at Algiers entrance to Canal Street Ferry across Mississippi River, New Orleans.

Hobo or tramp markings at Algiers entrance to Canal Street Ferry across Mississippi River, New Orleans. Ferry is free for pedestrians or on bicycle. "X" means "OK", slashed circle "Good way to go". (via Wikipedia above).

(4) […] – Positive feedback, f+: in contrast to negative feedback, positive feedback generally promotes changes in the system (the majority of SO systems use them). The ex-plosive growth of the human population provides a familiar example of the effect of positive feedback. The snowballing auto catalytic effect of f+ takes an initial change in a system (due to amplification of fluctuations; a minimal and natural local cluster of objects could be a starting point) and reinforces that change in the same direction as the initial deviation. Self-enhancement, amplification, facilitation, and auto catalysis are all terms used to describe positive feedback. Another example could be provided by the clustering or aggregation of individuals. Many birds, such as seagulls nest in large colonies. Group nesting evidently provides individuals with certain benefits, such as better detection of predators or greater ease in finding food. The mechanism in this case is imitation : birds preparing to nest are attracted to sites where other birds are already nesting, while the behavioral rule could be synthesized as “I nest close where you nest“. The key point is that aggregation of nesting birds at a particular site is not purely a consequence of each bird being attracted to the site per se. Rather, the aggregation evidently arises primarily because each bird is attracted to others. On social insect societies, f+ could be illustrated by the pheromone reinforcement on trails, allowing the entire colony to exploit some past and present solutions. Generally, as in the above cases, positive feedback is imposed implicitly on the system and locally by each one of the constituent units. Fireflies flashing in synchrony follow the rule, “I signal when you signal”, fish traveling in schools abide by the rule, “I go where you go”, and so forth. In humans, the “infectious” quality of a yawn of laughter is a familiar example of positive feedback of the form, “I do what you do“. Seeing a person yawning , or even just thinking of yawning, can trigger a yawn. There is however one associated risk, generally if f+ acts alone without the presence of negative feedbacks, which per si can play a critical role keeping under control this snowballing effect, providing inhibition to offset the amplification and helping to shape it into a particular pattern. Indeed, the amplifying nature of f+ means that it has the potential to produce destructive explosions or implosions in any process where it plays a role. Thus the behavioral rule may be more complicated than initially suggested, possessing both an autocatalytic as well as an antagonistic aspect. In the case of fish, the minimal behavioral rule could be “I nest where others nest, unless the area is overcrowded“. In this case both the positive and negative feedback may be coded into the behavioral rules of the fish. Finally, in other cases one finds that the inhibition arises automatically, often simply from physical constraints. Since in SO systems their organization arises entirely from multiple interactions, it is of critical importance to question how organisms acquire and act upon information. Basically through two forms: a) information gathered from one’s neighbors, and b) information gathered from work in progress, that is, stigmergy. In the case of animal groups, these internal interactions typically involve information transfers between individuals. Biologists have recently recognized that information can flow within groups via two distinct pathways – signals and cues. Signals are stimuli shaped by natural selection specifically to convey information, whereas cues are stimuli that convey information only incidentally. The distinction between signals and cues is illustrated by the difference ant and deer trails. The chemical trail deposited by ants as they return from a desirable food source is a signal. Over evolutionary time such trails have been molded by natural selection for the purpose of sharing with nestmates information about the location of rich food sources. In contrast, the rutted trails made by deer walking through the woods is a cue, not shaped by natural selection for communication among deer but are a simple by-product of animals walking along the same path. SO systems are based on both, but whereas signals tends to be conspicuous, since natural selection has shaped signals to be strong and effective displays, information transfer via cues is often more subtle and based on incidental stimuli in an organism’s social environment. […], in Social Cognitive Maps, Swarm Collective Perception and Distributed Search on Dynamic Landscapes.

Stick Me! sticker in plain nature over Aljezur, Algarve (South of Portugal). Unknow author. Copyrigthed nature or a way of saying I was here. I am connected. You could also be connected ?!

Stick Me! sticker in plain nature over Aljezur, Algarve (South of Portugal). Unknow author. "Copyrigthed nature" or a way of saying "I was here. I am connected. You could also be connected. We are all connected" ?!

Barack Obama and family

Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”, Barack Obama.

[...] People should learn how to play Lego with their minds. Concepts are building bricks [...] V. Ramos, 2002.

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