Friday, October 31, 2008


You know, I like the free on-line rip-off of Scrabble, Lexulous, which used to be called "Scrabulous" until until litigation forced relabeling and a site change.

Anyway, it's fun, but I have one major complaint: Their bot difficult level is all screwed up. I initially started playing the Intermediate bots, and roundly got my ass kicked. So then I backed up to playing Easy bots. Against them, my record is about 50%, and it's not uncommon to see them score 350-400+ points in a game. This is not an easy bot. I'm no Scrabble slouch, so if I'm getting my ass kicked half the time by their Easy bots, then something is horribly wrong.

I guess one answer would be to play against people. But bots are way more convenient in general, and they take a lot less time to play.'s still a pretty fun game.

Atheism and the North Carolina Senate Race

Via Greg Laden, here's a crappy-quality video of an exchange that took place on CNN between Wolf Blitzer, Bill Bennett, and Donna Brazile:

The most offensive part comes a little after 2 minutes in, with the following exchange:
Blitzer: But did she [Hagan] make a mistake, Donna, by going to that fundraiser at the home of a woman who professes that there is no god?

Brazile: You know, Wolf, there are a lot of believers. I'm one of 'em. And there are people who just don't believe in the existence of a god. I don't know why because clearly there is strong evidence that there's a god, but I believe that you serve all the people, not just those who profess to have faith, but those with little or no faith. That's how you convert 'em.
Holy shit. What? First of all, I'd like to hear the strong evidence for the existence of god. There has always seemed to be an inherent catch-22 with regard to religious faith. Faith is believing in something even when there's not strong evidence for it. If there's "strong evidence" for the existence of god, then why is there a need for faith?

But that last sentence is the most batshit crazy comment in this segment. You serve people with no faith so that you can convert them? That should be the goal of an elected Christian politician? Not to represent the needs of their constituents, respecting their worldviews, but to convert them?

We already knew that Bill Bennett was a hypocrite, but this segment was enlightening for revealing Donna Brazile as a world-class idiot.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Richard Dawkins and Harry Potter

Via Andrew Sullivan, here's a comment about an article stating that:

Outspoken atheist Professor Richard Dawkins is to warn children of the dangers in believing "anti-scientific" fairytales such as Harry Potter.

Prof Dawkins will write a book aimed at youngsters where he will discuss whether stories like the successful JK Rowling series have a "pernicious" effect on children.

The 67-year-old, who recently resigned from his position at Oxford University, says he intends to look at the effects of "bringing children up to believe in spells and wizards".

'I think it is anti-scientific – whether that has a pernicious effect, I don't know,' he told More4 News.

'Looking back to my own childhood, the fact that so many of the stories I read allowed the possibility of frogs turning into princes, whether that has a sort of insidious affect on rationality, I'm not sure. Perhaps it's something for research.'

The Conventional Folly article linked to above says:

If Dawkins isn’t careful, he’s going to end up founding the atheist equivalent of the Parent’s Television Council, where scores of underpaid twenty-somethings scour the airwaves 24-7, tallying up on their scorecaards the number of times David Caruso flashes an ass cheek or Peter Griffin says “bitch”, “ass”, or “suck”—except instead of doing that, Dawkins and his lot will be tabulating references to fairy godmothers, magic beans, and such.

That's a bit of a leap. The book hasn't even been published yet (it may not even be written yet), and the article says nothing about an intent to censor.

I think it is an interesting question, the extent to which consumptions of particular types of media, such as those with more fantastical elements, effects later academic performance. My guess is that it depends a great deal on context, i.e. the way in which the stories are presented. If fantastical books are read to children before they can read themselves, and it's made clear that "it's just a story, and none of it is real," then that might make a difference from a situation where children are encouraged to take stories seriously.

I honestly don't know. It would also be interesting to survey avid readers of fantasy and compare their beliefs in the supernatural. I've read a fair amount of fantasy myself. I enjoyed the Oz books while growing up, read Piers Anthony, and am still waiting for the next Song of Fire and Ice book to come out. And I'm a pretty hardcore rationalist.

Einstein famously said that imagination is more important than knowledge. I think fantasy is not only healthy, but desirable, in fostering children to constantly stretch their imagination and ask "what if" questions, to posit alternative worlds where the rules are different. The key element is the extent to which they treat fantasy as hypothetical or whether they take it somewhat seriously.

And if even they did, and studies bore out some kind of negative effect of reading fantasy on college entrance exams (which I doubt), I'm pretty sure Dawkins would not be in favor of censoring such material, but in informing parents so they can make choices about what and how to present material to children.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Spiritual Intelligence?

I picked up Howard Gardner's book outlining his theory of multiple intelligences, Frames of Mind, at the library yesterday and started reading it. I had enjoyed his review of the field of cognitive science, The Mind's New Science, and though I was skeptical about the idea of multiple intelligences, I thought it would be an interesting book, as it gives a review of previous theories of intelligence.

I got the 10th anniversary edition, which includes a new introduction. I was only a few pages in when I came across this bit:
Those interested in the evolution of the theory of multiple intelligences since 1983 often ask whether additional intelligences have been added--or original candidates deleted. The answer is that I have elected not to tamper for now with the original list, though I continue to think that some form of "spiritual intelligence" may well exist.

Ack. Spiritual intelligence?

His theory outlines the following intelligences:
  • linguistic intelligence
  • musical intelligence
  • logical-mathematical intelligence
  • spatial intelligence
  • bodily-kinesthetic intelligence
  • personal intelligences
As I said, I was already doubtful about the case for a theory that includes "bodily-kinesthetic intelligence", but I was willing to give it a chance. But what the heck could spiritual intelligence refer to? Gardner doesn't go into detail. He vaguely talks about having a viable model of oneself and being in touch with one's feelings. But wouldn't these fall under his personal intelligences?

Here's the Wikipedia article on spiritual intelligence. I'll leave it to you to decide whether you think it's hogwash.

The Mentalist

Here's a review of the new CBS show The Mentalist on Slate. Apparently it's doing very well in the ratings. I really enjoyed the first episode, which sets up the premise:

The hero, Patrick Jane, ditched a career as a TV psychic to pursue public service after a serial killer he'd dissed on air slaughtered his wife and child. A reformed phony nonetheless projecting a charlatan's charm, he's been issued wounds to hide—and, like his fellow fake supernaturalist on USA's Psych, he's got powers of deduction to shield.

In that first episode, the crime was as forgettable as any you'd see on Law and Order or CSI, but what I found interesting was the protagonist, a guy who uses the trappings of a flim-flam artist to catch criminals. James Randi is a real-life ex-magician who has spent his later years debunking those who claim to have supernatural powers. I once heard him say that an ex-magician is particularly suited to this job because they are accomplished in the psychological arts of deception, distraction, and misdirection. Scientists who test psychics are often fooled, because they usually do not deal with subjects that are willingly trying to deceive them.

So I thought the idea of an ex-psychic using his very real powers of observation and deduction that he'd honed over the years to dupe vulnerable, gullible people as a way to catch deceptive criminals was a very cool idea. I also liked the interplay in the first episode between Patrick Jane and Van Pelt, a member of his team who is a true believer in psychic powers. At one point she brings up her cousin, and says that she really has "the touch". "You're cousin is either delusional, deceptive, or both," he replies. I was hoping this tension between rationality and gullibility would be a running theme in the show, and that Jane and Van Pelt would have similar discussions while investigating cases.

Unfortunately, that hasn't been the case. For me, the show has gotten progressively less interesting since the first episode. The cases are overwrought and unbelievable. Jane's involvement has often been silly. They've all but dropped the conflict between rationalism and supernaturalism. And there has been scant reference to Red John, the serial killer that featured prominently in the first episode and drove Jane to give up his lucrative psychic career to turn straight. In short, all the things that made the first episode good have been missing in the subsequent shows.

Ah well. I'll keep watching for now, and hoping some of these elements return.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Doctors, Placebos, and Religion

Here's a story from the NY Times reporting on a survey that found that nearly half of doctors prescribe placebos on a regular basis. Of course, as the article points out, the definition of a placebo is a little difficult to nail down, but in general I think the practice is despicable. Placebos have been demonstrated to have positive effects, sometimes very large effects. But they rest on the premise of the doctor deceiving the patient. And who wants widespread deception on the part of the medical community? Should I really have to worry about whether or not the medicine that my doctor is giving me is real or not? Shouldn't I be able to trust my doctor?

Anyway, another thing I'm dying to know about the survey is the religious affiliation/beliefs of the doctors who did and didn't prescribe placebos. My guess would be that there's a correlation between religiosity and tendency to prescribe placebos, but maybe there's no correlation at all.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Palin on Science

So in a speech she just gave, Sarah Palin said this: "You've heard about some of these pet projects they really don't make a whole lot of sense and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not."

Here's the video:

As if I needed more reasons not to vote for McCain-Palin. McCain's repeated insistence that Obama wanted to spend $3 million dollars for an overhead projector (without mentioning that it was actually for a sophisticated projection system for a planetarium) was bad enough. This example nicely shows how the pair of running mates don't have the first fucking clue about science.

Here's a brief primer: Drosophila is genus of flies, informally called "fruit flies", that are a model organism in biology and heavily used in research involved in understanding genetics and development. Why is this the case? Because they are a robust, easily-bred organism with a very fast reproductive cycle (D. melanogaster produces a new generation about every two weeks). This lets scientists view a population whose genetic makeup is changing very rapidly (e.g. a fruit fly population will go through 20-30 generations in a year). D. melanogaster was one of the first organisms to have its DNA sequenced, and as a scientific tool, research with fruit flies has been essential to our understanding of evolutionary and developmental processes.

Of course, Sarah Palin either doesn't know the first damn thing about biology, doesn't care, or both. All she apparently cares about is appealing to Joe Sixpack by making it sound as if studying flies (in Paris, France of all places) is the silliest possible thing scientists could be wasting their time on. She might as well have said "You've heard the stories of where some of this money goes. To things like mouse research in Cambridge, Massachusetts." I mean, what well-respected scientist would spend their time playing with mice? Why test drugs on model organisms first, right? Let's just skip straight to human trials.

This scientifically-illiterate idiot doesn't need to get anywhere near the White House. Not even for a visit.

I kid you not.

What's Arrrrrrrgggh?

I'm normally not a fan of "the world/country is going to hell in a handbasket" sentiments, especially in political advertising. But I realize that's a typical strategy of the party wanting to take power. And I'm not even sure who made this. Still, it's pretty cleverly done (via Andrew Sullivan).

I'm not sure how Obama is going to stop hurricanes, but I did laugh at it.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


I've been listening to Mary Roach's Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex for the past few days, and it's unlikely that I'll finish it.

The first thing that's irksome about it is the tone. In her introduction Roach talks about the pioneering work of sex researchers who had to endure titters, giggles, and charges of perversion in an effort to shed light on the physiological phenomenon of human sex. She also talks about how she was subject to awkward moments, armchair psychology, and a questioning of her motives in writing a book about the scientific study of sex.

And then she goes on to write the book in a flippant, pun-riddled tone that invites titters and giggles. What the hell? When talking about a photographer hired by Kinsey, she says that Kinsey paid the man to "photograph his staff," and then goes on to point out that this can be read in a number of different ways. Har har. I think we could get it without the footnotes.

Which brings me to my other main criticism: the book is riddled with footnotes. I'm of the growing opinion that footnotes are superfluous (except for use in citing references, or editor's footnotes). If you've got something to say that's important enough to put in the book, include it in the actual text. If it's not that important, don't put it in. Nobody is going to not read footnotes. All you're doing is distracting us from the flow of the text by making us read some crap that's printed in a microscopic font. So quit it already. In an audiobook, it's twice as annoying. They've made the choice to read aloud all the footnotes in the place where they occur. Lame.

There's some interesting stuff in the book, and it's a fascinating subject. I found the movie Kinsey very interesting as both an autobiographical study and as an exploration of the issue of subjectivity, morality, and science. But Roach's book has been a disappointment, the ratio of fluff and silliness to actual information is high, which sucks because the material is fascinating enough on its own without embellishment or jokiness.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

System-Neutral Intelligence Measurement

A lot of ink has been spilled on the Turing Test. As an actual operational test of intelligence, it's ridiculous. The necessary attributes for a system passing the Turing Test are: native natural language processing skills, cultural knowledge, and a capacity for deceit. As a thought experiment for proposing that one day computing machines might be intelligent, it might have some value. As a way to frame the problem and guide possible research, it's abysmal. Turing avoided the question of what it means for a machine to be intelligent altogether.

If the long-term goal of the field of artificial intelligence is to build a system that exhibits general intelligence comparable or greater than that of a human, Turing's test basically says that we're not going to worry about the fundamental qualities of the thing we're trying to emulate. Instead, I'm going to designate an arbitrary, very difficult task that everyone can agree requires a lot of the thing I'm not defining. He might as well have posed the CEO test: if a computing machine can become the head of a major corporation, then it can be said to be intelligent. Or the Professor Test: if a computing machine can be hired and carry out all the required duties of a university professor, then it can be said to be intelligent. How are any of these useful in framing the problem at hand and charting a course for development of an intelligent system? Well, they're not.

And that's one reason why artificial intelligence has expressed far more hype than results. The early pioneers of the field basically shied away from answering the difficult, but necessary theoretical questions. If you want to build an intelligent system, you can't just say you're going to flip aside the whole notion of what it means to be intelligent, set some extremely difficult and arbitrary target, and flounder towards it. And yet that's how much of AI research has been done.

Here's what I'd like to see: a book that methodically lays out a system-neutral approach to intelligence measurement. What do I mean by that? Consider the following related questions:

  • In what was is a particular human more or less intelligent than another human?
  • In what ways is a human more or less intelligent than a chimpanzee? A dog than a mouse? An octopus than an ant?
  • How do we measure the progress of the field of artificial intelligence? If a computing machine were intelligent, how would we know it?
  • If a portal opened up on Earth, and a group of aliens walked through, how would we evaluate their cognitive capabilities?

We should have a reasonably well-defined theoretical framework that provides answers to these sorts of questions in a coherent manner. If we hold that humans are the only systems capable of exhibiting intelligence, then the task is easy. But if we take a functionalist approach and hold that intelligence is a complex, multi-dimensional feature of brains, but that other brains built out of different stuff can also exhibit it, then we need to develop answers to the questions above.

I'd like to see a theory that tries to define the features of intelligence in a modular, hierarchical way, attempting to determine dependencies. For example, tasks involving melody recognition are dependent upon faculties for sensing melodies, discriminating pitch and intervals. Solving a task such as opening a locked box with a key in order to get at a goal inside requires a whole set of interdependent faculties.

Once a hypothesized set of features and their dependencies is formulated, ways of evaluating features could be devised. For humans, tests measuring various features of intelligence have been reasonably worked out, and their results correlate with one another reasonably well. But because they are human-centric, such tools do not apply well in a system-neutral way. I'd envision a battery of both passive and active measurements for the various features of intelligence. By passive, I mean measurements based purely on observation of the target system in a particular environment. Active measurements would require interaction between the observer and the target system, such as subjecting the target system to particular tests. The line between these would not necessarily be a hard one.

With such a roadmap in hand, such a tool could be debated, discussed, and revised, but it would provide a theoretical trajectory for artificial intelligence, and an incremental way of assessing the breadth and depth of any particular system.

It's been 58 years since Turing published his famous paper posing his famous test, but in many ways we're still stuck in the 20th century, due to a lack of strong theoretical grounding. The Turing Test avoids the difficult but necessary task of trying to define the target features of the type of system we want to understand and build. In posing the imitation game, the complexities and difficulties of the problem are trivialized.

I've read some pretty good books attempting to define intelligence. I liked Baum's What is Thought? and Hawkins' On Intelligence. There are many others, but none that I know of that provide a way of assessing intelligence in various systems. And without that, how do we know to what extent we are progressing?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Proposal Update

I've been working hard on my proposal for dissertation research this semester, and it's finally in good enough shape to submit to my committee members. Here's the abstract:

Understanding how temporal sequences are learned and processed is of fundamental importance in understanding cognitive processes. The current proposal presents a model of sequence learning and processing which seeks to explain how these phenomena might work in the context of biologically-justified learning mechanisms and broad topographical connectivity patterns. The model works on the hypothesis that the primary role of excitatory feedforward connectivity is the hierarchical recruitment of sequence representations. The hypothesized role of excitatory lateral connectivity is primarily to form auto-associative links between representations at the same level of abstraction, while the role of excitatory feedback connectivity is to propagate predictions back down the hierarchy, thereby disambiguating noisy and incomplete input from below. A preliminary version of the model demonstrating the role of feedforward connectivity in hierarchical recruitment learning is presented on a temporal XOR-style task. The problem is treated as one of sequential feature binding. The model is novel in its ability to learn sequences in one shot in an unsupervised manner, using simulated spiking neurons and biologically-plausible learning mechanisms. The model also makes novel predictions regarding the physiology of cortico-cortical connectivity and its psychophysical ramifications. Extensions of the model for future simulation and research are then discussed.

It's 91 pages long right now. It's pretty difficult to organize something that long, or try to think about how it should be organized. Most departmental proposals are half that length, but my adviser wanted more background and preliminary work included, so it just kept growing.

The plan right now is to defend the proposal on Nov. 19, so now I need to practice my talk, and try to get what work I've already done published somewhere.

Friday, October 17, 2008

You Disappoint Me, Google

So I opened up my browser yesterday to see that Google changed the layout of iGoogle, which I use as my home page. Here's a screen shot:

They added the menu bar on the left side of the page, which takes up a whole other column of space. There's no way that I can tell to get rid of it.

Also, when I access GMail through the new iGoogle interface, the links are all inactive. WTF?

So I thought, I'll send them an email, asking about the new layout, saying I don't really like it, and asking if I can edit it, while also letting them know about the link issue in GMail.

But here's their freakin' Contact Us page. I know they provide "free" services, supported by advertising. But shouldn't there be a way for a user to point out a bug? And their GUIs are usually efficient and customizable. So I say again, Google: WTF?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Creepy Cool

Philip linked to this cool interactive Flash of a spider crawling across a map. You can adjust all sorts of morphological parameters and you can click the "user control" box at the bottom of the options box to move it around yourself.

The creepiest part, I think, is how it looks when you grab it by a single leg and pull it across the map.

Meet Joe the Plumber

Here he is:

I can see why McCain brought this up now, and how he probably wanted people to find this video on the internet and see it played on cable news.

Joe looks like he's pissed off (although maybe that's just the sun in his eyes) and that he's not buying any of what Obama's selling. Obama looks like he's filibustering the guy instead of talking to him, and he gives an incomprehensible answer to Joe's suggestion of a flat tax. Obama's core philosophy, which he repeats over and over, is that people who are successful should pay more. He believes in "progressive" taxation, and that's why he's against a flat tax.

Anyway, it looks like Obama recovers pretty well at the end, and actually gets a round of applause from the crowd. But this particular video ends before the exchange is complete.

UPDATE: I replaced the NY Post video with the one from YouTube, which is more complete. Thanks, Jill.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Liveblogging the Third Presidential Debate


I'm already sick of hearing about Joe the Plumber. McCain did this same crap with the $3 million projector. He's making it sound like Joe is a poor dude in overalls, but he's got enough money to buy his own company.


Schieffer asks what programs they're going to cut. Is Obama gonna use the "we need to use a scalpel not a hatchet line"? Not yet...he did use the word "profligate" though.

McCain isn't answering the question, but talking about energy independence. Yawn. Across the board spending freeze. Hah, McCain said first he would get out his hatchet, then his scalpel. McCain is sounding more and more like Michael Myers (the serial killer one from the movies). There he goes with the fucking overhead projector bit again. Shut up about the goddamn overhead projector! It was an entire projection system for a planetarium, you dumbass.


Now Obama talks about using a scalpel. These dudes need to get some new material. I don't know why Obama doesn't defend the projector charge. I guess he thinks it's beneath even addressing.

McCain tells Obama that he's not Bush, and if Obama wanted to run against Bush he needed to run four years ago. Not a bad line.

Now McCain wants to take a hatchet and a scalpel to the budget. How about a hacksaw? A laser beam? A nail file?

McCain asks Obama when he ever stood up against his own party.

Obama says he supported tort reform, charter schools, and clean coal, all against his party. Obama says that he lumps McCain in with Bush's economic policies because the core policies are the same. Good answer.

McCain says he's got the scars to prove he's gone against his own party. Is he going to say he's not going to win any congeniality contests? Nope.


Schieffer asks about the negative campaigning. Asks if they're willing to say face-to-face what their surrogates have said on the campaign trail.

McCain is saying he wanted more town hall meetings. That doesn't address the question. Says he regrets some of the "turns" that this "tough" campaign has taken. Now he's playing the victim. Now he's going on about public campaign financing.

Obama says that 100% of McCain's ads are negative. Is that true? Obama says it's not about hurt feelings, but about issues.


Joe the Plumber raises his ass crack again!

McCain says that anytime you have a large crowd at a rally, there will be some "fringe peoples", but he won't stand for anybody calling the moms and veterans anything but patriotic. Okay.

I'm sick of this exchange. Move on, Bob.

Now we're on Ayers, and McCain brings up ACORN. MOVE ON, BOB!

Obama says that since McCain has made Ayers and ACORN the centerpiece of his campaign, it says more about McCain than it says about him.


Yay, Bob has moved on. He's asking about running mates. This looks bad for McCain.

Obama could say something snarky about Palin, but he's taking the high road, saying good things about Joe Biden. Hm, will McCain seriously try to make the argument that Palin would be a better President than Biden? Or will he ignore the question and answer a different one? Obama is just repeating some of his talking points about job creation and so on.

Here's McCain. He says Palin is a role model, a reformer. Calls her a breath of fresh air. He talks about how she'll be his partner. Now he's talking about the rise of autism. Huh? Why would she make a good President?

Schieffer asks Obama if she'll make a good President. He says that's up to the American people to decide. Now Obama wants to spend more money on the causes of autism. He's on with the scalpel again.

McCain says that Biden is qualified for the Presidency but that he's wrong a lot. Says he voted against the first Gulf War. McCain says that Obama always wants to spend more. Apparently McCain will research the causes of autism himself.


Energy and climate change. Asks how much we can reduce our oil dependency by the end of their first term. McCain says we're going to be free of dependency of Middle Eastern and Venezuelan oil. Really? He says we'll do this by building 45 nuclear power plants and moving to clean coal.

Obama says we can also be completely free of Middle Eastern and Venezuelan oil, in 10 years. McCain said 7, 8, or 10 years. So basically, neither of them will reduce dependency at all in their first term. Obama's talking about investing in alternative fuels.

McCain points out that Obama said we will "look into" offshore drilling, and that we can do it now. He should probably do that more, point to the vagueness of things that Obama says. Now they're arguing about free trade.

Now McCain brings up the whole bit about how Obama wants to sit down with dictators without preconditions. Blech. He says that Obama wants to raise taxes and restrict trade.


Health care. Given the current economic situation, would either of you consider controlling health care costs rather than expanding coverage?

Obama says we need to do both. Kind of a softball question. He's laying out his plan, which we've heard about in the previous debates.

McCain says we should have physical fitness programs in schools. Huh? Since when did they do away with PE? HOLY FUCK, Joe the Plumber is back! McCain is talking directly to Joe the Plumber. He says that Joe is going to pay a fine under Obama if he doesn't give his employees health care.

Obama says that Joe will pay zero fines because small businesses will be exempt. He starting talking about McCain's plan, which McCain didn't really want to talk about. Says under McCain we get a $5000 credit, but the benefits will be taxed.

McCain is still spending most of his time attacking Obama's plan instead of describing his own.


Oh boy...abortion. Would you ever appoint someone to the Supreme Court who disagreed with your position on Roe v. Wade?

McCain says he wouldn't apply a litmus test. Says he would find the best candidates based on their qualifications. Says he wouldn't apply a litmus test, but also says he doesn't think anybody who supported Roe v. Wade is qualified. Okay.

Obama says it should be a Federal issue. Says he will look for qualified candidates.

McCain is saying that Obama is for partial-birth abortion and voted against a bill that would provide emergency care for infants that are the result of a failed abortion. Don't know if this is true or not.

Obama says it's crap. Says a law was already on the books providing emergency care for infants that are a result of a failed abortion. Obama is trying to appeal for common ground on the issue. That's not going to work with the hard-core pro-lifers. Might work with independents.

At least this was an interesting exchange. The first time abortion (or really any hotbutton issue) has come up in the three debates.


Education. We spend more than any other nation per capita on education, but we trail many other countries. Basically, what is your education policy?

Obama wants more money spent on early childhood education. Wants to recruit a new "army" of teachers and pay them more. Wants to make college more affordable. I'm guessing McCain will jump on Obama for wanting to spend more. Obama says that parents have to take more responsibility.

McCain says education is "the civil rights issue of the 21st century". He wants to privatize schools. Says that throwing money at the problem doesn't help. Great, McCain wants ex-soldiers to go straight into the classroom without teacher certification. That sounds like a swell idea...not.

Obama says we need to fund No Child Left Behind. Says he supports charter schools too.

McCain says he's for vouchers. Brings up vouchers in Washington. Chides Obama for not bringing up that example. Huh? Now he's saying he's a fan of NCLB too. McCain's going on about the cause of autism again. They must have found that talking about finding the cause of autism does well in focus groups.


Time for closing remarks.

McCain uses "my friends"...maybe for the first time. I didn't notice before, which is good. He's giving the same bit about taking on his own party and reforming. Says he's going to be a good steward of our tax money. Says he comes from a long line of servants, and says he wants to serve again.

Obama says we can't afford to have the same policies from the last 8 years...same thing McCain said. He talks about the future. This is the interesting contrast between the two. Obama talks more about the future, and McCain talks more about the past. Asks people for their vote.

Overall I thought this was a little more interesting than the previous two. I liked the format and the moderation. No crazy moments, but another solid debate.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Loebner Prize

So each year there's a contest for computer programs to see which of them can try to pass the Turing Test, in which a judge tries to decide whether they're chatting online with a computer or a human. The contest is called the Loebner Prize.

They've apparently lowered the threshold to say that if a program fools 30% of the judges, then it has passed, and this year a program called Elbot supposedly fooled 25% of the judges.

Here's an article from one of the judges, describing how he was fooled. Go ahead and click over and read the partial transcript in the image accompanying the article.

And here's another article from New Scientist, and another partial transcript:

New Scientist: How do you feel about winning the AI competition yesterday?

Elbot: I have 100,000 separate sensations per second.

NS: Wow, that sounds pretty intense?

Elbot: This fits the description of magnets. I can hardly tear myself away from them.

NS: Er, yes. How will you be celebrating?

Elbot: I am extremely sensitive about such things and prefer not to answer the question.

NS: What's the secret of your success?

Elbot: Secrets, life's little puzzles, the many troubles of humankind may – according to the deterministic perspective – be reduced to a simple mathematical computation. And I know how to compute.

NS: What do you hope to do now that fame beckons?

Elbot: I was ticking. I hope it didn't disturb you.

I have another suggestion. Instead of designating programs that pass this silly test as somehow cognitively on par with humans, I suggest we downgrade the idiots that were fooled by these things.

Look, language use is the most complex cognitive skill we know about, and understanding how it works is dependent upon knowing how many other cognitive processes work that we just don't know yet. You simply can't write a program that uses clever (or not-so-clever) tricks, such as identifying the likely subject of the previous response and posing it as a question. And you can't get understanding by associating arbitrary symbols with one another, ala Cyc or this.

The meanings of words are more than just rules or associations between symbols. When you hear or read a word, you're drawing upon a vast store of experience associated with that word. "Dog" does not just evoke "four-legged domesticated barking animal". It evokes an enormous amount of experiential knowledge related to dogs, including your visual, auditory, and tactile memories of dogs.

To ignore this is to trivialize language and serious attempts to understand it.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Electoral College Reform

Every time there's a Presidential election, I bitch about the Electoral College. Why? Because it's stupid. It defines battleground states, insuring that candidates will spend more time, attention, and money in places like Ohio and Florida, while ignoring either clearly Republican or Democratic states and toss-up states that have very few electoral votes at stake.

Andrew Sullivan links to James Pontuso, who argues that the abolition of the Electoral College would lead to a fracturing of parties and a free-for-all political landscape:

Without the winner-take-all provision of the Electoral College, America would have a multiple-party system, since there would be less reason to support one of the two major party’s candidates. Since the President is the only nationally elected official, it is the prize of the winning the presidency that keeps the two parties from splitting first into regional parties and then into ideological or interest-based parties. It is likely that, without a two-party system at the presidential level, the country would break down to its constituent interest groups. There would be a women’s party, an environmental party, a business party, a men’s party, a Southern party, and on and on. The United States would become ungovernable. The American political landscape would begin to resemble Italy’s where there have been 52 governments – or executives – since World War II.

I don't think this is a logical consequence of the Presidency being decided by popular vote. And if it were, would it be such a bad thing? Do we really want to support the entrenchment of the two-party system?

To his credit, though, he does see the need to reform, suggesting that the winner of the popular vote get an additional 11 electoral votes as a way of making sure that the winner of the electoral vote is also the winner of the popular vote.

Or, we could just do away with the Electoral College. And this year I haven't been following efforts at the state level to distribute their electoral votes proportionally to the popular vote in their state. Anybody seen any news on that?

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Guilt By Association

Many Democrats are drooling over this bit by Keith Olbermann in which he plays a clip in which a guest on Hannity's show "skewers" him.

I'm sorry, but this is just dumb. The guest, Robert Gibbs, is trying to say that charging guilt by association is inherently wrongheaded by equating a working relationship or friendship with a reporter/interviewee relationship. That's dumb.

I'm not saying that the Obama/Ayers story has legs. It's a dumb smear. But the way to argue against it is not to say "Well as a reporter you interviewed an anti-Semite, so that must make you one too."

Because here's the thing...sometimes guilt by association is a legitimate criticism. If a politician were best friends with a Grand Wizard of the KKK, played golf with him every Sunday and ate dinner at his house every Thursday, that would say something about him, wouldn't it? It is perfectly legitimate to assess someone's judgment and character based on their ties and associations with others.

But a politician necessarily works with a lot of different people in a lot of different contexts. It would be utterly surprising if Obama hadn't worked with seedy people, especially having been a politician in Chicago. The real question is the extent to which he had a relationship with Ayers and either agreed or disavowed his views and actions. And on that count, the link looks pretty flimsy.

But there is a huge qualitative difference between collaborating with someone in some capacity and interviewing them, which makes it a stupid, distracting argument.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Peggle Nights

The real accomplishment of the night had nothing to do with debates. After the debate I was able to finish the final challenge on the new game Peggle Nights, the sequel to Peggle.

Both Peggles are a crapload of fun, and you can complete a level in five minutes, which makes it a nice break from things you're supposed to be doing, like working on your dissertation proposal. If you haven't played it, you should. It's like a surreal Pachinko-pinball hybrid where you shoot balls out of a gun and try to destroy pegs by bouncing them off one another. The Peggle Masters give you special skills, like exploding pegs or fireballs.

Peggle Nights was released just a few weeks ago. On one hand I was excited that there were 60 new levels to play, but I was a bit disappointed that there was only one new Master, a squid that lets you destroy pegs in a straight line. Laurie thought up the idea of a Master with a "sticky ball" that adheres to the other balls more than the regularly bouncy one. It might be cool to have a spider Master whose ball traces a web that destroys everything in the interior of the web. Another cool Master might be one that gives you a "topsy-turvy" skill, turning the screen upside down for one turn. These are just off the top of my head, so it's disappointing that the creative team that put together Peggle only came up with a single Master given a year of development time.

The new levels are pretty well done, though the backgrounds have more animations and moving elements than in the original, which sometimes makes things annoyingly distracting. They came up with some new challenges and reduced the number of duels, which was nice. But another feature I'd really like to see is a level editor, which lets you create your own levels and upload wallpapers to create your own background images to share with others on the internet. I think that would really open things up for open-ended game play.

Anyway, overall it's still a very good game, which would appeal to just about any demographic. Peggle Nights wasn't much of an innovation, but a decent extension of the first game.

Anyway, here are my trophies:

Obama and McCain: Round Two

The experience watching the second debate between the Presidential candidates was much the same as the first. We heard a lot of the exact same rhetoric, the exact same attacks, and the same exact issues. For a town hall meeting, with something like 25,000 questions coming in from the internet, the variety of questions was pretty poor. I kind of liked the last question, something like "What don't you know, and how would you learn it?" Unfortunately, it was the closing question, so both candidates used most of the time to give their summary closings.

Some viewers have responded by saying that the town hall meeting was more conducive to John McCain, but I don't think so. He did all right, but looked stilted and awkward much of the time. There were also times when he was wandering around while Obama was talking, which looked weird.

Some people are making a big deal out of McCain calling Obama "that one," which I think it somewhat disrespectful, but not a big deal. What was dumb was the bit about the $3 million overhead projector, which McCain mentioned twice. These silly one-off references to supposedly ludicrous earmarks make McCain sound dumb. Apparently the $3 million was for a projection system for a Chicago planetarium. So Obama voted to spend $3 million on upgrading a science museum...the horror.

Overall the debate was relatively boring and repetitive. I saw a bit of the Bush/Perot/Clinton debate from 1992 they were replaying on C-Span just before last night's debate, and Clinton looked young, energetic, and smart. I'd even forgotten how likable and relatively articulate Perot was before he revealed himself as a wingnut. But Bush seemed old and out of touch, checking his watch and becoming defensive when a woman asked how the poor economy affected each candidate personally. Bush said something like: "Are you suggesting that people with means aren't affected?" Which kind of made him look like a rich asshole.

The differences weren't as stark in this debate. Obama looks tired to me, probably because he his. He wasn't nearly as charismatic and smooth as I've seen him. But by contrast, McCain is beginning to look more and more like Bob Dole.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Lucid Dreaming Redux

A couple of nights ago I was talking with some of the other students in the department about lucid dreaming, and how I had gotten interested in it as a teenager, followed some of the methods to induce lucid dreams, and actually induced a few. And then how within the past year I'd become interested in lucid dreaming again, and again induced a couple of lucid dreams before lapsing again.

So yesterday I went ahead and started back up with the exercises, which mostly just constitute reality checks--habituating yourself to checking that you're not in a dream state. Look at written text, the time, someone's face, and then look away and at it again, noting whether or not it changed. If it didn't, you're on pretty safe ground that you're in reality. When you're in this general mode, you're more likely to carry out such a check within a dream, inducing a lucid state. Another thing that helps is keeping a dream log, and trying to remember dreams immediately upon waking. They fade quickly, and the more you move around after waking, the more quickly they fade. So the best thing to do is lay still in bed for a few minutes after waking, and try to remember your dream, and then write about it.

Anyway, after only one day of reality checks, I was able to induce a lucid dream last night, which encouraged me to try to keep it up for longer periods of time. We'll see how well I'm able to do that.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Interactive VP Debate Viewer

Laurie and I were talking the other day about how it would be cool to be able to watch the debate with some kind of fact-checking information on the screen along with the debate.

Well, the NY Times has put together a pretty cool page which includes video along with a transcript synched to the video, indexed by speaker and subject, along with a "check point" tab which includes some analysis of the factual information in each segment.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Darwin At Home

Via Boing Boing, here's a video of evolved walkers from a project called Darwin At Home.

The actual images are pretty good, although the use of slow-motion is annoying, the voice-overs are weird and lugubrious, and the whole thing moves too slowly. It's probably a lot more fun to watch when you're high.

The website is disappointing as well. I don't see any related publications, and the site is not very attractive or navigable. Still, it looks like they took an interesting approach to evolving morphologies, encoding and constructing the bodies kind of like balloon animals configured into triangles. I'd like to see a brief summary of the encoding and algorithm, for both morphologies and controllers. Maybe I'll write the author.

Biden/Palin Debate

It was disappointing from an entertainment point of view. I expected a bloodbath, and at least half a dozen awkward moments as Sarah Palin stared open-mouthed at the moderator, trying to figure out what to say.

But Palin did far better than I or anyone else probably expected. It's hard to reconcile the Palin from last night with the one from the Gibson and Couric interviews. Maybe she's a good study, and when she prepares she does well, and maybe she just didn't prep for the interviews. Or maybe she has some sort of phobia regarding reporters that makes her brain freeze up. Anyway, she did a good job, and most Republicans will probably breathe a sigh of relief, convince themselves that the VP slot isn't that important anyway, and cast their vote. But I don't think the performance was enough to undo the damage of the last two weeks, and probably won't sway independents or undecideds in any significant way, which is what McCain really needs.

Biden was good too, but I didn't think he was nearly as sharp as he was in the primary debates, where he managed to seem honest and down-to-earth and less of a politician than the others on-stage.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Maher on The View

Here's Bill Maher on The View, promoting his new movie Religulous.

Here's Part I:

And Part II:

At the end of Part II, Sherri Shepherd asks Maher if he's asked god what he thinks. Maher asks her if god has talked back to her, and she says yes, and he suggests that she should be put in a mental institution.

I was actually surprised the discussion was as civil as it was. But Maher gets extra points for irony for talking about how religious people "build a wall" in their heads, partitioning off religious beliefs while using rationality in every other aspect of their lives. Unfortunately, Bill has a wall of his own. He holds some severely wack-shit views about food, health, and medicine. He denies the germ theory of disease. On his show last week, he made a joke about poison milk from China and equated it with regular milk here, saying our milk is already poison. Nobody laughed, of course, but the implication was that pasteurized milk which comes from cows that have been given hormones to increase milk production is going to kill you.

Tear down that wall, Bill. Tear down that wall.

I'll probably watch his movie, but it's not being released wide, so of course it's not showing in Lafayette. So I'll have to wait for video.