Saturday, September 27, 2008

The First Presidential Debate of 2008

You can watch it here at Hulu if you haven't seen it.

I suppose it went about like I expected. There weren't a lot of fireworks, and it was a reasonably sober discussion of the economy and foreign affairs. McCain used a lot of his old, tired lines ("We came to here to change Washington, but Washington changed us", "I didn't win Miss Congeniality", "Sen. Obama wants to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory"). You could tell that his strategy was to talk down to Obama and try to expose him as ignorant and ill-experienced. I don't know how many times he used the phrase "Sen. Obama doesn't understand...", but it was at least 4 or 5. But Obama wasn't having any of that, and he seemed confident and presidential as he described his stances.

On the financial side, I thought Obama's position made a lot more sense, saying that he'd have to postpone some of planned programs, but that no one would know what the budget would be like next year, so it was premature to talk about specific cuts. McCain at one point said he'd "veto everything that came across his desk", which seems not only extreme, but silly. There might actually be a decent piece of legislation that comes across his desk in the next year. But what he said probably appealed to people more than Obama's response.

Obama backpeddled on a lot of things that he said in the primary campaigns, and justifiably so. I'm fairly satisfied that he's intelligent enough to know that he made some rhetorical mistakes early on and that he's learned his lesson. I disagree with his position on Iraq, but I honestly don't think he's going to have a dramatically different policy from McCain. I like that he recognizes that Pakistan and Afghanistan are of primary importance right now.

McCain seemed the less genuine of the two, but he still did a decent job, I thought. Obama didn't hit a home run, but he was solid as well. I'd give McCain a B and Obama a B+.

One thing I thought was interesting was how neither the moderator nor Obama pointed out that McCain nearly didn't even show up for this debate. Obama could have taken a dig at McCain for threatening to skip the debate, but he didn't, probably realizing that he didn't actually need to say anything.

I'll watch all the debates, but I don't see being swayed much by them unless something really unexpected and dramatic happens in one of them. I really am looking forward to the vice presidential debate. Biden was barely given a chance to talk in the primary debates, which were the Obama/Hillary show, but he'll have equal time here. I wondered if going on the attack might backfire, but I think most people will be of the opinion that Palin is running for the 2nd most powerful job in the world, and if she can't take some heat, she shouldn't be in that spot. So I'd expect Biden to tear into her. Historically, VPs are attack dogs, doing a lot of the dirty work while the presidential candidate takes the high road. We'll see what happens, but I'm really looking forward to it next Thursday.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

McCain Cancels Letterman to Save the Economy

You've probably heard by now that McCain wants to suspend the campaign in order to focus on the humongous government bailout of the horribly mismanaged financial industry. He wants to push the debates back...not only the one for the presidential candidates, but also the one for the VP candidates. Gee, I wonder why.

Anyway, he was supposed to appear on David Letterman, but canceled at the last minute so he could race back to DC to orchestrate giving $700 billion to people who have magnificently demonstrated their inability to properly manage money.

Here's Dave going on and on about it:

Dave's not happy.

Look, there was a time when I actually liked and admired John McCain. I would easily have voted for him if he'd won the primaries in 2000. I came into this election season thinking that either of these two candidates would be fine leaders for the country.

But I honestly think McCain is in free fall right now. The Palin pick looks worse and worse, and this latest stunt is simply ridiculous. As Obama pointed out in response to McCain's suggestion that they both suspend their campaigns to deal with the economic crisis...a president has to be able to multitask, and now is a crucial time to hear what the people who want to take over leadership of this country have to say about how to fix problems exactly like this one.

I haven't seen any poll reactions to this crap, but I'll be sorely disappointed if this doesn't make up some of the minds of people who said they were undecided.

The first presidential debate was supposed to be tomorrow night in Oxford, Mississippi. I'd actually support a proposal to give the full time to Obama to lay out his proposals and answer questions for the full duration, if McCain is unwilling to show up.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Lack of Religion and Belief in Hoo-doo (and more quotes by G. K. Chesteron)

Via The Frontal Cortex, here's a story about the results of a survey done by Baylor University researchers which apparently shows that people who believe in mainstream Christianity are less likely to believe in other supernatural phenomena than people who "never worship".

I'd like to find a link to the survey results broken down by question, but the Baylor site is kind of crappy (I think they want you to buy the new book that talks about the results). I can find the actual survey, but the results are either not there or buried among the links. If anyone else finds them, let me know.

This summary from the Wall Street Journal makes me curious for more information:

The Gallup Organization, under contract to Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion, asked American adults a series of questions to gauge credulity. Do dreams foretell the future? Did ancient advanced civilizations such as Atlantis exist? Can places be haunted? Is it possible to communicate with the dead? Will creatures like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster someday be discovered by science?

The answers were added up to create an index of belief in occult and the paranormal. While 31% of people who never worship expressed strong belief in these things, only 8% of people who attend a house of worship more than once a week did.

This is interesting, if true. What it might be indicating is that people who reject organized religion might be doing so for reasons that are not entirely rational (e.g. rebellion against parents, bad experiences in church or with clergy, etc.). And it might indicate that people have a strong affinity for hoo-doo, so that if they're not getting it from a mainstream source, they seek it in alternative sources.

But I'd like to see the individual survey results, because something smells fishy. The numbers are actually the opposite of a Gallup poll from the same time frame:

Participants were presented with a list of ten potential paranormal beliefs:

  • extrasensory perception (41 percent of the respondents acknowledge belief in this item)
  • haunted houses (37 percent)
  • ghosts (32 percent)
  • telepathy (31 percent)
  • clairvoyance (26 percent)
  • astrology (25 percent)
  • communication with the dead (21 percent)
  • witches (21 percent)
  • reincarnation (20 percent)
  • channeling spiritual entities (9 percent)

These results are statistically relevant across lines of "age, gender, education, race, and region of the country," according to Gallup. There is, however, some difference between Christians and non-Christians: the former group scores a 75 percent likelihood of belief, while the latter scores 66 percent. But both groups, as these statistics demonstrate, have a paranormal-positive majority.
(emphasis mine)

These latter results accord more with my own personal experience. The majority of people I talk to about such things tend to believe in ghosts, precognition, ouiji boards, and so on. Not so much Atlantis, Bigfoot, and the Loch Ness monster, but definitely categories dealing with "the spirit world". I simply don't buy the Baylor results that only 8% of regular church-going Christians believe in paranormal things. I think there's some conflation of the results going on here, and there might be some real issues with their methodology.

Anyway, G.K. Chesterton's character Father Brown apparently said: "It's the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense, and can't see things as they are."

And Chesterton speaking as himself said: "When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing - they believe in anything."

Um...right. I'd agree with the premise that if people reject religious thinking on any grounds other than rational ones, they're likely to latch onto pseudoscience and supernaturalism of another flavor. The nice thing about hoo-doo is that it's usually relatively simple to understand the basic concepts, and otherwise shrouded in mystery. People are typically lazy, and prefer a simple, bad hypothesis about the way the world works to one they have to work a bit harder at that may be closer to the truth.

Anyway, Chesterton was full of crap (again). Some people who reject religion open their heads to floodgates of nonsense, but not the ones who reject religion on grounds of reason and common sense in the first place. And if the Gallup poll results above are the more reliable, then Christians tend to be the more gullible in general.

Do We Stand On the Shoulders of Giants, or Kick Them to the Curb?

Laurie's reading The View From the Center of the Universe, and she pointed out to me last night that the authors like to hate all over Thomas Kuhn, saying he is responsible for a commonly-held, mistaken view of science. Namely, that scientific theories constantly replace one another, or to put it in terms of the title of this post, we kick previous thinkers to the curb instead of building upon what they've done. Kuhn laid out his ideas in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and the book has apparently gotten similar criticism since it first came out. But is this really what Kuhn was saying?

The fundamental issue is his notion that new theories, such as the heliocentric model of the solar system, are incommensurable (or incompatible) with old theories, such as the geocentric model of the solar system. But what about cases such as physics or evolutionary biology?

Did Einstein's ideas replace Newton's, or augment them? Well, kind of both. In the theoretical framework of Newton, matter is immutable. In the Einsteinian framework, matter may be transformed into energy. In a Newtonian framework, there is the concept of absolute time...the universe has a central clock, if you will. In the Einsteinian framework, there is no concept of absolute time or absolute simultaneity...whether or not two events occur at the same instant depends on the frame of reference from where the observation is made. So yes, in one sense the Einsteinian theoretical framework is not compatible with Newton's.

On the other hand, we obviously didn't toss Newton's work in the trash can. Many of the fundamental precepts he laid out are still valid in a particular frame of reference. In this sense, Einstein's ideas didn't replace Newton's, but augmented them.

So in a way I think the issue may just be a semantic one, and really not all that interesting. Kuhn was not a relativist, thinking we just bounce around between explanations. In the postscript to the 2nd edition of SSR, he writes:

Later scientific theories are better than earlier ones for solving puzzles in the often quite different environments to which they are applied. That is not a relativist's position, and it displays the sense in which I am a convinced believer in scientific progress.

I also think Kuhn would acknowledge that the achievement of a new paradigm is dependent upon all the work that has come before. Einstein was an anti-establishmentarian, and developed many of his ideas by rejecting some of the most entrenched assumptions in physics at the time. But his theories would have been impossible to develop without all of the work that had come before him.

Maybe Kuhn would disagree with this, and I'm misunderstanding him. If he is, then he's saying something much more radical than what I realized. But I don't think so.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Invariant Representations

I just finished rereading Jeff Hawkins' On Intelligence on audiobook. One of the keys to developing intelligent systems is to enable the system to learn invariant representations of things in the world, and then use current information to make predictions about what's coming next.

An invariant representation is a way of storing information so that if the information appears in a slightly different form, it is still recognizable. For example, you recognize the melody "Happy Birthday" no matter what key it's played in. What let's you recognize it are the intervals.

One example Hawkins uses is the "train station example". Let's say you live in a town a long time ago, and your sweetheart is supposed to come to the town to live with you, and they're arriving by train. Every day you go to the train station, but your sweetheart doesn't arrive. You know that two trains run per day, and you've gotten a letter saying they'll be on the later train. After a couple of weeks of visiting the station, you see a pattern. The morning train arrives at different times, but the afternoon train is always exactly 4 hours later than the morning train. You develop an invariant representation of the train schedule. So if the morning train arrives at 10:14, you know that the afternoon train will arrive at exactly 2:14. If the morning train arrives at 9:27, you know the afternoon train will arrive at exactly 1:27. What you have encoded is relative information, rather than absolute. So given your representation, and the time of the morning train for that day, you can reliably predict when the afternoon train will arrive.

Same thing with vision or audition. If you have an invariant representation of an object, like a dog, it doesn't matter if the lighting conditions are slightly different, or that the dog is near you or far away, or that it's upside down or rotated. Given you invariant representation and information about, say, where the ears are, you can predict where the eyes, legs, and tail are going to be.

This reminded me of the difference between raster and vector graphics.

Raster graphics are bit-for-bit encodings of images. They encode absolute information, about every single bit. Sometimes this is good, but sometimes it's bad, as when you want the image to scale without losing resolution.

Vector graphics, on the other hand, store an invariant representation of the image, and the computer renders objects given certain information.

For example, a circle stored in raster graphics would encode the position and color of every single pixel that makes up the circle. When you zoomed in, the circle would look "blocky". And you'd need a lot of information to store the image.

A circle stored in vector graphics would need to know the formula for the circle, the radius, and other relative information. Then all it would need is the center, so it would know where to render it.

Hawkins makes the claim that AI researchers have not used such an approach, but rely on absolute encoding in order to teach machines to recognize patterns and produce actions, but it would surprise me if the general approach had not been taken.

Friday, September 19, 2008


Slate has an article on audiobooks today. It starts out with this bit of information that I didn't know, about the increasing popularity of audiobooks:

Nearly $1 billion worth were sold last year, meaning 15 percent of all books sold these days are the kind that read themselves.

I started listening to audiobooks hardcore about 7-8 years ago, when I lived in Dallas and had a 30-40 minute commute each way to and from work, and figured I'd give it a try. Now that's all I listen to when I'm in my car, and I figure I can normally read anywhere from 5-10 more books a year by listening to them.

The article gives an overview of the history of the industry, though I don't know how you can mention Scott Brick and not mention Frank Muller, who is probably the single most famous audiobook reader, having recorded over 200 books.

The article also points out the obvious, that the person who reads the audiobook generally makes or breaks it. This is why it's best for someone wading into audiobooks for the first time to check their local library or see if you can find samples online. Audiobooks are expensive (generally in the $50 price range), and it's a risky gamble if the reader turns out to suck.

The article praises the reading of the Pullman trilogy, though I wasn't that impressed. I thought the guy who read the part of the bear sounded brain-damaged, not bear-like. There are some interesting clips of celebrity readers, who have taken more to reading as the industry has become more popular.

Here's a hilarious clip of Brad Pitt butchering Spanish as he reads Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses.

But there are some very good books read by some very good readers out there. Here are a few recommendations off the top of my head:

Einstein read by Edward Hermann
I finished this not too long ago, and though it's long, it was a great read

Anything read by Frank Muller.
I listened to a lot of Stephen King's stuff (e.g. the first four Dark Tower books) read by Muller, as well as Call of the Wild, 1984, and probably some things I can't remember now. I admit I thought he sounded a little hammy at first, but he grows on pretty fast.

Veteran British actor Roy Dotrice did an outstanding job with the first three volumes of George R.R. Martin's series A Song of Fire and Ice. Unfortunately, I think they were only ever released on cassette. Amazon's availability looks pretty poor. If they haven't, they really need to re-release these on CD or via download. Dotrice really brings these books to life.

William Hurt and Stephen King tag-team the reading of King's Hearts in Atlantis, and do a great job.

And I could have sworn at one time I had listened to an unabridged production of Carter Beats the Devil read by Stanley Tucci, although Amazon has a different reader for the unabridged version. Even if it was abridged, this one sticks out in my memory as one of the best read audiobooks I ever listened to, so it's worth it, even though I normally despise abridgments.

And if you think audiobooks are a weird or unnatural way to experience a story, just keep in mind that the oral tradition of storytelling has been the norm for thousands of years of human history. The phenomenon of storytellers writing their stories down, having them printed, and then read silently in isolation by their audience is a recent innovation, and is the exception in human history. Listening to books is a great way to read them, so you should give it a try if you haven't already.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Priming People to Think About Small Change Over Long Time Periods

Here are the choices from a Gallup poll that periodically asks people about their beliefs in religion and evolution:

Which one of the following statements comes closest to your views on the origin and development of human beings?

A) God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.

B) Man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process, including man's creation.

C) Man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life. God had no part in this process.

Over the past 25 years or so, Gallup has given a poll with this question, and the answer with the most respondents has always been A, consistently between 40-50% of the population.

First of all, I think it's strange that they use the more neutral term "human beings" in the question, and "man" in the answers, but I'm not sure how much that's skewing responses.

What I was thinking about was the extent to which responses would differ if you primed people to think about small changes over geological time periods. For example, I'd like to see one group which was first asked a question or series of questions such as:

Which one of the following statements comes closest to your views on the origin of the Grand Canyon?

A) God created the Grand Canyon pretty much in its present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.

B) The Grand Canyon has formed over millions of years by the natural processes of erosion, but God guided this process.

C) The Grand Canyon has formed over millions of years by the natural processes of erosion. God had no part in this process.

You could vary it up slightly, and use other geological or astronomical entities, like Mount Everest or Mars, but I think you get the idea.

I'd hypothesize that people on the whole would be more accepting of the idea of gradual change over long spans of time without the intervention of god if presented with a less personal example than the origin of humans. I think this priming would then shift opinion when people were asked about the origins of humans.

I don't have time to do it, but it would be a fun and informative experiment. Anybody out there think that there would be no difference in the answers between such groups?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Where are Governors Supposed to Get Foreign Policy Experience?

Just to reiterate, I'm heavily leaning toward Obama/Biden this November, and I'll be voting for that ticket unless something very strange happens between now and then.

But I also feel compelled to criticize candidates for things they should actually be criticized for, rather than silly pseudo-arguments against them. And one of those is Sarah Palin's lack of foreign policy experience. I've heard jokingly that Cindy McCain and/or Laura Bush has noted the fact that she can see Russia from Alaska is foreign policy experience, though I'm not sure how serious this was, and I definitely haven't heard it from her.

The point is, how in the hell was she supposed to get foreign policy experience as Governor of Alaska? If we used that as a yardstick for being elected to either the Presidency or Vice Presidency, then we would never elect Governors. But we seem to like electing Governors...Reagan was Governor of California, Clinton of Arkansas, and Bush of Texas. Exactly what foreign policy experience did they build up while serving as Governor of their respective states? You could possibly argue that Reagan and Bush had to deal closely with Mexico, for trade and immigration issues, but that's pretty weak gruel. And if that's the case, then Bill Clinton's foreign policy experience was even thinner.

By all means, criticize her for flipping on her support of pork-barrel spending in her state, her lack of knowledge about particular issues, and her medieval stances on social issues. But criticizing her for lack of foreign policy experience is lame and hypocritical.

Is There a Conflict Between Religion and Science?

So Rev. Malcolm Brown, the head of the public affairs department for the Church of England, has suggested that a formal apology be issued to Charles Darwin by the Church of England. Wouldn't do him much good now, but I suppose it could be accepted on his behalf by all the working biologists.

Here's the actual statement by Rev. Brown in full. Some schools of thought might say that when a religious institution makes such an overture, the polite thing to do is to accept it graciously. Unfortunately, his statement is full of nonsense. Ostensibly he wants to mend the fences, but throughout the essay he continually suggests that science needs to reach out to religion in order to ensure protection against the moral implications and abuses that might arise from theories like Darwin's. This is the old chestnut from Einstein: "Science without Religion Is Lame, Religion without Science Is Blind".

Here's what I'd consider the most relevant section of his essay:

Darwin was, in many ways, a model of good scientific method. He observed the world around him, developed a theory which sought to explain what he saw, and then set about a long and painstaking process of gathering evidence that would either bear out, contradict, or modify his theory. As a result, our understanding of the world is expanded, but the scientific process continues. In science, hypotheses are meant to be constantly tested. Subsequent generations have built on Darwin’s work but have not significantly undermined his fundamental theory of natural selection. There is nothing here that contradicts Christian teaching. Jesus himself invited people to observe the world around them and to reason from what they saw to an understanding of the nature of God (Matthew 6: 25–33). Christian theologians throughout the centuries have sought knowledge of the world and knowledge of God. For Thomas Aquinas there was no such thing as science versus religion; both existed in the same sphere and to the same end, the glory of God. Whilst Christians believe that the Bible contains all that we need to know to be saved from our sins, they do not claim that it is a compendium of all knowledge. Jesus himself warned his disciples that there was more that he could say to them and that the Spirit of truth would lead them into truth (John 16: 12–13). There is no reason to doubt that Christ still draws people towards truth through the work of scientists as well as others, and many scientists are motivated in their work by a perception of the deep beauty of the created world. Nevertheless, it is worth remembering that scientific theories can be overtaken in their turn even as old ideas prove to have an enduring quality. Most of us get by with some version of Newtonian physics and understand little of Quantum Theory. Newtonian ideas suffice for most of our everyday needs – but we now know that we can’t push them too far as there is plenty that they do not adequately explain.

See? No conflict! The Bible tells people to study the world around them, so science and religion are compatible.

Or not.

As I've noted before, the core difference between science and religion, the central element that brings them directly into conflict, is the way in which they deal with epistemology, or how we know things. Religious knowledge is derived primarily from ancient texts, religious authorities, and subjective experience. If you ask a believer in god why they believe in god, they will usually give one or a mix of the sources above.

Science, on the other hand, strives to eliminate human bias as much as possible through the checks and balances of peer scrutiny. Authority counts for very little, and so does subjective experience. You experienced a first-hand insight that your theory of gravitation is true? where's the evidence? I'm much more in line with the philosophy of science described by Kuhn than by the more popular one of Popper. Popper was all about falsifiability. A good hypothesis has to be falsifiable. Kuhn articulated a continuum, as opposed to Popper's binary view of the validity of a hypothesis. You come up with a hypothesis and you try to find evidence that either strengthens or weakens it, rather than outright falsifying it. Either way, the core element to both philosophies is the development of hypotheses and application of evidence to their merit.

This is why science and religion are fundamentally at odds with one another. These two ways of trying to understand the world are neither complementary or compatible. You either base the way you think the world is on the best evidence that fits the best ideas, or because a religious authority said it was that way or you just feel it to be the case.

So I guess we should accept the apology on behalf of Darwin and go about the daily process of trying to understand the world, but I don't see the need for science to reach out to religion, as Rev. Brown suggests. Religion doesn't provide any insights into science other than how not to do things.

Experiments in Meditation

Having read about brain imaging studies that monitor the differences between subjects who are meditating and those who are otherwise awake and alert, and having read about subjective improvements in stress levels and concentration from meditation, I thought I'd look into it and give it a try.

So the first thing I did was look around for a resource that didn't contain a bunch of woo-woo, NewAge (pronounced like "sewage") crap in it. I found this book on Amazon for cheap:

The Calm Technique: Meditation Without Magic or Mysticism

Sounded perfect. Then it arrived in my mailbox and I started reading it, and let's just say I'm not that impressed. It's relatively true to the title, in that the approach is non-mystical, but it still feels flaky.

Here are a couple of examples:

When he finally gets around to having you actually do something, it's a small exercise meant to highlight the difficulty in focusing on one thing at a time. He asks the reader to think about an egg, and nothing else, for two minutes. Presumably he wants you to close your eyes right there, try to think about the egg for two minutes, and then keep reading. Okay, so that's what I did.

Here's what comes next:

Almost impossible. You thought how easy it was. You thought of how you had to concentrate. You wondered if you were sitting the right way and whether your two minutes was up.

Well of course I wondered if my two minutes was up, you fool. You didn't tell me to set my alarm on my watch, or to go to the kitchen and egg timer. You just told me to close my eyes for two minutes. If I don't actively mark the time, how the hell am I supposed to follow your instructions?

Later he talks about preparing the environment for meditation:

You could also burn a stick of incense if you wish. It does contribute to the calm atmosphere of your room (and has been known to affect the psycho-neuro centre of the brain).

No shit? The "psycho-neuro" centre of my brain? Wow...where exactly is that? I've read a fair chunk of psychology and neuroscience, and I have no idea what the hell he's talking about. Actually I do...he's speaking gobbledy-pseudoscience.

This is a shame, because he stresses the importance of keeping an open mind (which I always strive to do), but which is difficult when your bullshit sensors are sounding off. This doesn't mean that the meditation techniques described in the book aren't useful and worthwhile, but the flakiness of the writing makes me skeptical that he knows what the hell he's talking about, and that in turn makes it more difficult to trust him and follow his advice on how to meditate.

So, I did try a session yesterday morning, practicing what he called Zen breathing meditation, which is where you sit in a calm environment with low lighting, close your eyes for twenty minutes (I set a timer this time, so I wouldn't have to think about it), and focus solely on your breathing, counting your breaths from 1 to 4, then restarting the count. I didn't feel significantly different (e.g. more or less relaxed) when I finished than when I'd started. He does stress that it's analogous to exercise, and suggests doing it twice a day for several weeks.

Problem is, I doubt I'm willing to cough up nearly an hour out of every day to practice a technique being sold by a guy who uses phrases like "psycho-neuro centre of the brain".

If I do happen to keep it up, and reach nirvana, I'll let you know.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Art of Negative Campaigning

John McCain basically lost the Republican primary to George W. Bush because he was the subject of a torrent of half-truths and smears, masterminded by Karl Rove. So it's somewhat natural that McCain would realize he has to wade into the sewers and really learn how to sling shit in order to win the biggest office there is.

But now even Karl Rove is saying McCain has gone too far. Yeah? What ad could be so despicable that even Karl Rove would say, "Hmm...wait a minute.."?

This one:

Here are the facts:

  • The bill allowed for parents to opt their children out of such classes, no questions asked
  • He didn't sponsor the bill
  • He did vote for the bill, but it didn't pass
  • The bill included education for kindergartners to learn how to identify avoid unwanted sexual contact from sexual predators

Yes, now I can see why even Rove would wince at such a distortion. I'm not sure it's a moral issue, though. With Rove it's still probably a matter of strategy. The ad was so overt in its distortions that it will potentially backfire.

After being on the receiving end of such a brutal negative campaign in 2000, I expected McCain to ramp up the mudslinging. However, he seems to have taken sleaze to an entirely new level.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Bush Doctrine

I'm less than impressed with what I've seen of Sarah Palin so far, but I do have to defend her somewhat against this particular charge. Here's the panel of Bill Maher's latest show, with everyone but the token Republican slamming the hell out of her for not knowing what the Bush Doctrine is:

Now then, do any of you know what the Bush Doctrine is? Maher and Garafelo act like it's patently obvious what it is to anyone who reads the newspapers. Here's the first paragraph of Wikipedia's entry on the Bush Doctrine:

The Bush Doctrine is a term used to describe the foreign policy doctrine of United States president George W. Bush, enunciated in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks. It may be viewed as a set of several related foreign policy principles, including stress on ending terrorism, spreading democracy, increased unilateralism in foreign policy and an expanded view of American national security interests. Foreign policy experts argue over the meaning of the term "Bush Doctrine," and some scholars have suggested that there is no one unified theory underlying Bush's foreign policy. Jacob Weisberg identifies six successive "Bush Doctrines" in his book The Bush Tragedy, while former Bush staffer Peter D. Feaver has counted seven. Other foreign policy experts have taken the term to mean Bush's doctrine of preventive war, first articulated in 2002, which holds that the United States government should depose foreign regimes that represent a threat to the security of the United States, even if such threats are not immediate and no attack is imminent. This policy was used to justify the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

(emphasis mine)

Palin was asked if she agreed with the Bush Doctrine. According to this article, there is no universal agreement on what the Bush Doctrine actually is. Garafelo says that it refers to the use of preemptive force, but as the article points out, it could refer to increased unilateralism. Basically it's a crappy question. If she asks a clarifying question, she looks stupid. A better question would have been more specific, e.g. "Do you agree with Bush's approach to foreign policy?" If Gibson had wanted to ask her opinion of specific aspects of Bush's foreign policy, he could ask those, e.g. "Do you agree with the use of preemptive force?" Or "Do you think that the US should sometime act without or against the will of the international community?"

I agree with Maher that in general she did look like someone who had been cramming for an exam, and that she didn't do a very good job in the interview. Gibson did a pretty good job of asking reasonably tough initial questions...not so much with the follow-up. I think she'd get slaughtered on Meet the Press, and it will be interesting to see the extent to which she makes herself available for interviews over the next two months, or whether they just roll her out for speeches and luncheons and otherwise hide her in a bunker until election day.

Dumb Quote of the Day

This was the quotation in my Google "Quote of the Day" box today:

If there were no God, there would be no Atheists.
- G. K. Chesterton

This seems like an immensely stupid thing to say. I hadn't heard of Chesterton, so I looked him up. Looks like he was a Christian apologist, so this quote probably actually means what it sounds like.

If this works for god, then does it work for everything?

If there were no Santa Claus, then there would be no people who don't believe in Santa Claus.

If the earth were not flat, then there would be no people who didn't think it was flat.

He's basically saying in a roundabout way that because there are people who don't believe in a thing, that thing must exist. In this case, because there are atheists, god exists.

Think about that next time you claim that something doesn't exist (like unicorns, Zeus, or pixie dust). According to Chesterton's little barb, you're actually affirming its existence by saying it doesn't exist.

Friday, September 12, 2008

How Do We Learn What Things Are?

ResearchBlogging.orgYou probably don't think about it as you go about your daily routine, but you never see the same image twice. That is, the same pattern of light, shadow, and color never fall on your retina in the same way. When you see a friend's face, and you're talking to them, you have the subjective perception of stability and constancy. In reality, your eyes are flitting all over the place. When your eye makes a rapid movement to another location, that's called a saccade. When it sits still for a very short time, that's called a fixation. The average person makes three saccades per second.

Here's a famous image from a study by Yarbus from 1967:

It shows a picture of a female's face, and the eye tracking pattern of someone who looked at the face. When we see a face, we tend to flick our eyes constantly across it, though not in a random way. You can see that we tend to concentrate on prominent features like the eyes, nose, and mouth, which are rich in information that help us distinguish the face from others. You don't spend a lot of time looking at cheeks, because they don't give you as much information as the eyes do.

And while your eyes are constantly moving, most interesting objects, like people, are also in motion. So is your head and body. The successive images on your retina change very rapidly all the time, and yet when you stand in front of a painting in a gallery, it doesn't feel like you're viewing a movie with cuts every third of a second. But that's what's really going on.

So if what we're seeing is a rapidly changing movie, even when we're looking at a stationary object like an apple, how the heck do we learn that all these rapidly changing images relate to the same object?

One idea is that our brains learn to cluster together things that appear close together in space and close together in time. The idea is that, even though your eyes are flitting all over the apple, your brain is keeping track of how far your eyes are moving. If that's a small region, and the successive images occur close together in time, it's a good bet that the thing you're looking at is a coherent entity.

Same for images that vary even more dramatically over time. Think of something like an elephant. You recognize it from far away and up close, even though the image falling on your retina may be many times smaller or larger. You recognize it when it's rotated, even though it may look very different from the front and from the back. You also recognize it when it's upside down. You recognize it if it's painted green, on a cloudy day or a sunny day. Computers fail miserably at learning the recognize objects with this degree of variance. So how the heck do you do it?

Dileep George calls the method by which we group successive inputs into one representation temporal pooling. The paper by Cox et al. that I'll be referring to here discusses the temporal contiguity of input as a way of grouping it together. The idea is simple: Things that occur close together in time are probably closely related, e.g. they're a unitary object or concept.

Cox et al. did a clever experiment. They used artificial objects shown here:

The objects are similar, but they are distinct. What they did was, they had subjects look at a cross in the middle of a computer screen. Then they showed an object, like object A, to either the right or left of the cross, in the subject's peripheral vision. The subject would naturally saccade to the object. Here's a figure showing what a typical trial would be like:

Now, in another condition, the first three steps would be the same. Subject looks at the cross, object A appears to one side, and the subject saccades to fixate on the object. But in this condition, in the very short time it took the subject to saccade, they switched the object from A to A'. When you made a saccade, you're temporarily blind, so the subject is not even aware that the objects have been switched. Here's what that kind of trial looks like:

After a number of such trials, they tested the subjects with a "same/different" paradigm. This means they basically showed them A and A' together and said, are these the same objects, or are they different objects? Subjects from the normal condition found it easier to distinguish between A and A', while the subjects from the swapped condition were more likely to say that A and A' were the same object.

So what does this suggest? That we're more likely to group together images that occur in rapid succession. This type of work is very closely related to the modeling I'm doing for my dissertation work, and I'm going even further and suggesting that that clustering input based on spatial and temporal contiguity is the fundamental mechanism by which we learn...not just visual objects, but music, language, tactile input, and on and on.

Cox et al.'s experiment is a very clever, very nice way of demonstrating how the principle works in the visual domain.

David D Cox, Philip Meier, Nadja Oertelt, James J DiCarlo (2005). 'Breaking' position-invariant object recognition Nature Neuroscience, 8 (9), 1145-1147 DOI: 10.1038/nn1519

Why Do People Vote Democrat?

Jonathan Haidt is at it again over at Edge. He asks: "What makes people vote Republican?" in the way that an entomologist might ask "Why do some species of ticks eat the genitals of their mates?" He implies that voting Democrat is the obviously superior and rational choice, so we need to really delve into why anyone in their right mind would ever vote for a Republican. Here's a taste:

What makes people vote Republican? Why in particular do working class and rural Americans usually vote for pro-business Republicans when their economic interests would seem better served by Democratic policies? We psychologists have been examining the origins of ideology ever since Hitler sent us Germany's best psychologists, and we long ago reported that strict parenting and a variety of personal insecurities work together to turn people against liberalism, diversity, and progress. But now that we can map the brains, genes, and unconscious attitudes of conservatives, we have refined our diagnosis: conservatism is a partially heritable personality trait that predisposes some people to be cognitively inflexible, fond of hierarchy, and inordinately afraid of uncertainty, change, and death. People vote Republican because Republicans offer "moral clarity"—a simple vision of good and evil that activates deep seated fears in much of the electorate. Democrats, in contrast, appeal to reason with their long-winded explorations of policy options for a complex world.

So basically, people vote Republican because they're genetically predisposed to like dictatorial leadership styles. Got it.

If you read the whole thing (which honestly isn't worth it), you can see Haidt bending over backwards to pay lip service to objectivity. But the article is dripping with innuendo and condescension of conservatives.

Having actually voted for Republicans at various times in the past, I can tell you why I did it, and it wasn't because I have an inherited love of authoritarianism. The Republican party has substantial overlap with Libertarians when it comes to certain issues, namely taxes, spending, and certain rights issues, such as gun control. This is why Ron Paul is in the Republican party. Not all Republicans actually follow the precepts of smaller government, more local control, and lower taxes, but that's the platform. Is a working class voter a reflexive idiot for thinking such policies might actually benefit him/her more than Democratic economic policy?

Yet when it comes to issues like freedom of religion, reproductive education and rights, tolerance for alternative lifestyles, and so on, the Republicans are more intrusive and less libertarian than the Democrats. That's why I can't just saddle up with either side. There's too much I don't like about both parties.

But back to Haidt...his approach is lame and insulting. One could just as easily write an article which drips with the same condescension for Democrats. E.g.:

Why do people vote for tax-and-spend Democrats when fiscally conservative, pro-business policies would seem to better serve their interests? Psychological studies show that Democratic supporters show a greater affinity for the soft, permissive parenting of their mothers, rather than the strength of their fathers. In a world full of insecurity in the face of rogue nations and distributed terrorist threats, why would anyone choose soft and nurturing over powerful and determined, unless they held a genetic predisposition for the desire to be cuddled and coddled.

Gosh, do you think Democrats would be as insulted by such a passage as Republicans would be by Haidt's? Hmmm?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Hierarchy and Nested Structure

I've recently been thinking a lot about the organization of structures in 3-dimensional space, and I really would like to take a class on topology.

Anyway, with regard to hierarchy, it seems to me as if there is a qualitative distinction between two classes of hierarchical structures, but maybe the distinction isn't really there at all...I don't know.

Consider hierarchical structures like a tree or a ziggurat:

If you were going to write instructions about how to build such structures, how would you do it? They're constructed by using a root node, like the trunk or the base, and by adding smaller child elements of a similar type to the parent node. Then you just repeat that step a given number of times.

For example, you could say:

1) Start with a cylinder
2) Add two cylinders 50% the size of the original on one end, each facing 45 degrees in opposite directions
3) Repeat 10 times

That would give you a tree structure. You could do the same thing with boxes in order to build a pyramid/ziggurat. If you think about your body, many aspects of it are constructed this way. Your limbs, hands, and fingers are essentially tree structures.

Now consider the following hierarchical structures, such as nested Russian dolls or an onion:

These structures are hierarchical as well, aren't they? But aren't they different from the previous examples?

How would you write instructions for how to build a set of nested dolls? You could go from the top down or the bottom up, but either way, the difference with the previous examples is that each element completely contains its child element. Rather than the child elements being added externally, as in a tree, they're added internally. This is more intuitive if you think of cellular structure. An organ acts as a container for millions of cells, each of which acts as a container for numbers of sub-cellular components.

So some aspects of your morphology are like a tree structure, where elements are oriented relative to the external surface of their parent elements which act as substrates for child elements. Other aspects of your body are like nested dolls, where parents serve as containers to child elements.

I got this insight when thinking about the organization of elements in the neocortex. The neocortex is one big, flat sheet. But it contains many regions, which in turn contain subregions, which contain columns, which contain minicolumns, which contain neurons. So it is essentially a nested hierarchy. But neurons themselves act as substrates for their axons and dendrites, which are essentially tree structures. But neurons are also containers for sub-cellular structures, like the tiny sacs that contain neurotransmitters.

It seems to me that any system for specifying 3D structures that incorporates both kind of hierarchy can efficiently represent any arbitrary structure that has a high degree of hierarchy, such as biological organisms.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Evolution Video Games

The video game Spore just came out. It was in development for years, the brain-child of Will Wright, the guy who did all the Sims games. Supposedly Wright got input from scientists while making the game, but the game is getting mixed reviews from scientists. Some are saying that it actually spreads misinformation about evolutionary processes.

Some of the criticism I've heard is that there's too much tinkering on the part of the user to have the dynamics qualify as anything resembling evolution. Another is that the game has pre-ordained directionality: There are five stages to the game, and they always occur (cell, creature, tribal, civilization, space). Evolution doesn't work this way.

If you want to try a free video game that's a little truer to evolutionary dynamics, here's NERO, Neuro-Evolving Robotic Operatives, developed at the University of Texas at Austin. It's a combat game in which you tune the selection pressure of evolving populations of robotic soldiers in order to develop armies with particular characteristics. For example, in training mode (pictured here), your robots spawn by falling out of the sky and landing in the arena.

You can place obstacles, such as walls, or enemies, such as machine gun turrets, anywhere in the arena. When soldiers die from being shot by enemies, new ones spawn, and the controllers of the offspring are mutated descendants of the other members of the population. You can control the behaviors selected for by adjusting scroll bars. For example, you can control whether your soldiers evolve to be "kamikazes" or "evaders" by adjusting the pressure for them to either run straight at, or avoid gun fire. Once you've trained an army, you cut them loose in a battle situation and see how they fare.

Their morphologies don't evolve, just their controllers, or "brains". And this is really more a case of artificial selection than natural selection. Natural selection is pressure from either external environmental conditions or interaction with other non-human organisms that causes differential survival in a populations. For example, if the environment cools in a particular region over multiple generations of a species that has fur, like a fox, those individuals with thicker fur might be more likely to survive and reproduce, and thus more offspring in the population will have thicker fur.

Artificial selection is when the selection pressure is determined by humans. For example, a farmer is able to sell plumper, sweeter corn at market, so each time he harvests and plants, he picks kernels from the plumpest, sweetest plants to start the next crop. After successive generations, corn in this population has much larger, sweeter kernels than it did several generations ago.

Video games are going to necessarily involve artificial selection. Otherwise, the player would have nothing to do. Evolution by natural selection is an inherently undirected process, and wouldn't much make for fun game play.

I've done some work with evolutionary algorithms, and I enjoy sitting back and watching a population evolve. But I don't think this has much wide appeal. And even though NERO is a cool concept, when I played it, I didn't really think it was all that fun.

Creatures is another game series that was developed in the 90's, but I never played it. There's something appealing about the idea of playing god, determining who lives and dies in an evolving ecosystem based on your decisions, but the interaction is indirect, and its the evolving organisms that are doing most of the work.

So as much as I think the idea is cool, I don't think video games really based on evolutionary processes are going to take the gaming world by storm. However, I think if they are faithful to the science, mini-games based on evolution could be invaluable teaching tools at just about any level in education.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Back With Firefox

After a couple of days of using the new Google Chrome, I've switched back to Firefox. Why? Well, I was willing to orient myself to a new interface. Chrome was fairly slick and intuitive.

What ultimately made me switch back were performance issues. Maybe I'm in the minority of users, but Chrome was generally slower for me than Firefox, and I had particular issues with watching embedded video.

Rotten Tomatoes is a pretty good site to give a new browser a workout. Ever since they overhauled it for the worse, it's chock full of elements and ads that hog resources and take forever to load. But I still go there because as far as I know there's not another site with content like it. Firefox loads RT faster for me than Chrome. Quite a bit faster.

Also, I don't have cable at home. Sometimes I like to watch movies or TV shows through the new Hulu site. Their selection is pretty good, and growing rapidly. I can watch The Daily Show or The Colbert Report the next day. And the interface and quality is quite good. Firefox has no problems. Not so for Chrome, which screws up when switching back and forth between full screen and normal watching mode.

I also like to have multiple tabs and windows open at a time, and Chrome would hang for me when switching between them, while Firefox does not.

It's a beta product, so I'm willing to cut them a little slack, but obviously when it's impacting my browsing habits, I'm not going to switch permanently to it. Maybe I'll have a look at it again when it's a mature release. Until then, I'm sticking with good ol' Firefox.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

What is Hierarchy? Revisited: The Structure of the Cortex

Extending this discussion, I'm still curious about the best way to describe the structure of the cortex in terms of either graph theory or as a data structure.

From what I know of graph theory, the cortex can best be described as:

1) A directed graph (meaning there is directionality between nodes, in this case the flow of information)
2) Cyclical (the flow of information is not in a uniform direction, but cycles or loops through at least some of the nodes)

In terms of data structure, any given node in the cortex can have:

1) 0, 1, or many peers
2) 0, 1, or many parents
3) 0, 1, or many children

Connections (or edges, using graph theory lingo) can occur between any two nodes in the system. However, there is a strong bias in connectivity: It tends to be local. Which means that while there are long-range connections in the cortex, and connectivity sometimes jumps levels in the hierarchy, the bulk of it is between immediate parents, children, and peers.

There does seem to be a bias toward fan-in as you move up the hierarchy. This means that there tend to be fewer nodes in lower levels of the hierarchy than higher levels (e.g. the primary visual cortex is bigger than the secondary visual cortex). But this again is a bias, not true in all instances.

So is there a word or phrase that best captures this particular kind of structure? Network seems too general and anarchic. You could just say it's a hierarchical network with a bias toward local connectivity. My advisor has used the term lattice or lattice hierarchy. I think those are interesting terms, though I'm not entirely sold on them.

Any thoughts?

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Political Conventions

I caught a little of Sarah Palin's speech from last night. She did well, but then, it's not that hard to perform well on your home turf with thousands of your own cheerleaders.

I'm not a big fan of political conventions anyway. They're red meat for the party's base, and I'm not strongly affiliated with either of the major parties.

I want to see some debates. I know they're also somewhat contrived (what isn't, in a political race?). But they allow you to do window shopping with the choices side by side, and if the moderator and questions are halfway decent, you actually get some glimmer of insight into what the candidate is really like, or at least how they'll perform when someone is tearing into them under the spotlight.

I expect Obama and McCain to essentially ignore each other in the debates and stick to their talking points. Obama will probably float up on a little cloud talking about how he wants to make everything wonderful (I'm especially interested in how he handles questions about raising taxes, though...probably by deflecting with an answer about how Bush has put through tax cuts for the rich), while McCain seems more and more like a tortoise...slow and steady with a thick shell. I thought he looked limpid next to the other Republican candidates in the primary debates, but apparently the strategy worked.

I don't expect Biden and Palin to ignore each other. On the contrary, I think (and kind of hope) they'll go for each other's jugulars. If so, those will be fun debates to watch.

I still haven't completely made up my mind on who to vote for, though at this point I'm about 75% toward Obama. The political cheerleading of the conventions isn't going to push me one way or the other, though.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Google Chrome

So I just downloaded Google's new open-source web browser, Chrome, which you can download here.

I'm pretty happy with the latest version of Firefox, but I thought I'd give it a spin anyway. I've done my daily browsing with it, and I'm actually pretty impressed.

The good things:

1) It looks very clean, and maximizes the page viewing area.

2) The first page that starts up defaults to some of your most recent sites, which is pretty cool. But it can also be set to a permanent home page.

3) You can just click and drag the current URL to your bookmarks bar. In general, the interface is very slick and intuitive.

4) The address bar can be used to either enter URLs or as a search engine.

5) Incognito mode is pretty neat. It lets you open a window which lets you browse without accepting cookies or recording browsing history. The guide says this is to allow you to "plan birthday parties in secret" (in other words, it's for guys who want to look at videos of mules having sex with midgets, and not have their wife stumble across it).

6) It's open-source, which means that any programmer can get in under the hood and modify it. Some of the next-gen iterations of the product will probably be really cool.

The not-so-good things:

1) It's not very customizable, which is also kind of a good thing. The menus are uncluttered, but there aren't many options. For example, I'd like a new window to open full-screen, but I don't think that's possible.

2) Speed. Chrome is supposed to be faster than other browsers, but so far I haven't noticed any change in speed. I think the bottleneck for the vast majority of users is their internet connection speed, so I don't really see that page rendering speed is all that big a deal. And yet they're hyping it.

3) It is a beta version. I've already had it freeze up on me a couple of times. Waiting for a bit solved the problem, so it didn't crash the program. The program takes several seconds to recover after closing one of the windows (I prefer new windows for content, rather than tabs). It's annoying.

4) Apparently, one of the main reasons Google even put out a browser was to...make more money. But the way they're doing it with Chrome is apparently that the new browser makes it easier for them to gather information on browsing, advertising, and buying habits. I don't consider this a big deal (unless it impacts my browsing experience), but some might.

Anyway, so far there's more good than bad. I'll keep using it for another day or so before I decide to stick with Firefox or make the switch. My very first impression was not all that positive, but it's starting to make me warm to it, so we'll see.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Post-Gustav Post

Well, I survived Gustav...though it really didn't turn out to be all that horrible, considering it was on a direct trajectory for this area.

I stayed at my girlfriend's parents' house since Saturday evening, and Monday was when we got the worst of it. High winds and lots of rain. Their neighbors' wooden fence got blown down, and lots of branches were snapped off, but all in all it wasn't all that bad. After things calmed, we thought we might be getting another round, thinking we were in the eye and would get the other side, but we didn't really get anything like the first bout, which was probably the top of the eye.

And now I'm back in Lafayette, with electricity and air conditioning and the internet. Though lots of other people in Louisiana are without electricity right now, which sucks. And since I've been off the grid for the past few days, I have no idea what's been going on in the off to the news sites!