Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Digital Plague

While on my trip to DC, I finished reading Jeff Somers follow up to The Electric Church, called The Digital Plague.

It's got the same main character, a hired killer named Avery Cates, set in a cyberpunk dystopian future. I didn't enjoy this one quite as much as the first one, though it was still quite good. They're written in first-person, which is done well. But what keeps the narrative really chugging along is that Somers writes relatively short chapters in a serial cliffhanger style. At the end of each chapter, either someone's about to die, or some twist is revealed. It's a nice style that makes the book read very quickly and makes it feel fast-paced.

The first book concerned the efforts to forcibly convert everyone in the world to become members of The Electric Church by kidnapping them and forcibly implanting their consciousnesses into monks, which are souped-up droids. Cates thought he executed the leader of the church, and earned a huge payday as well. In this second book, he's intentially infected with a plague made from tiny robots, that spreads rapidly and likes to chew people up from the inside. The book is well-written, tightly-paced, and filled with interesting characters. At times I had issues with the description of action, but I cut the author some slack...it's difficult to describe convoluted actions scenes.

So overall Plague is a nice complement to the previous book, and it's nice to see that the series apparently has legs...an excerpt for the next book, The Eternal Prison, is included in the back of this latest book.

A Typical Scene From Batman

Via The Speculist, here's a typical exchange between the Joker and Batman from The Dark Knight:

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Dark Knight

I went to see The Dark Knight this afternoon. It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be.

It was worse.

I think the thing has been overrated mostly due to Heath Ledger's death, which is a bit ironic, since both his character as written and his performance are the best things by far about the movie. It's unfortunate that just about everything else about the movie sucks.

I was trying to remember the last time a movie villain was far more intelligent and interesting than the hero, and I can't. The most striking thing about this film is how utterly stilted, boring, lame, hammy, and flat-out stupid Batman is compared to The Joker. Batman glares through his batmask and spews out wretched dialog in a raspy, gravelly, and ultimately silly performance.

In the first part of the movie, he drastically underestimates The Joker, and when he does start paying attention, he says The Joker is "just like every other criminal." It takes Alfred to lecture him on the fact that some bad guys aren't like all the others. But should he really need this lecture? Was the guy he fought in the last film "just like every other criminal"? When Batman does get around to taking The Joker seriously, he's always at least 3 steps behind him. When Batman does take action, it's always with his fists or with his vehicle.

[spoilers ahead]

I actually got the feeling that The Joker wouldn't have been caught at the end unless he wanted to be.

Anyway, the souped-up Prisoner's Dilemma at the end was just ridiculous, but it was actually topped by the even-more-ridiculous bit about Batman taking credit for killing 5 people (including 2 cops), so that Harvey Dent could live on in people's minds as some kind of pristine martyr. The whole thing seemed pointless and stupid (why not just blame the extra deaths on The Joker? In many ways, he was the person responsible for their deaths). But no, we had to get some bullshit line about Batman "being able to take it", and then the worst lines in the whole movie at the very end, when Batman says something like "People deserve better than the truth...they deserve to have their faith upheld."

Excuse me while I vomit all over my shoes.

The movie was obviously trying to make some socio-political comment about the dangers of surveillance (with Batman's goofy universal cell-phone sonar set-up). But then it ended with a line about how people can't really handle the truth, so they need to be lied to to make them feel all warm and fuzzy. What a crock of dogshit.

The fight scenes were poorly shot and edited, the whole ending segment with Two-Face dragged on too long, and the movie itself overextended its welcome. But I might have been able to forgive some of those transgressions if its central message wasn't just idiotic to the core.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

End of CogSci08

Well, the conference is over, and I'm beat. I'll be in transit most of the day, and I'll be typing up summaries of the more interesting talks that I attended here. Overall I was disappointed in the conference. There didn't seem to be near as many talks that were related to my interests (which is partly a function of who submits stuff for a given year). But the conference was also not extremely well-organized. They did a better job of ending things by dinner time, but the actual blocks of talks were not organized in a very coherent manner. I was told that they tried using an AI to organize the blocks, which might explain it.

On the other hand, it was nice to see Jill, and we had a good trip to the zoo, but didn't have a chance to see much else here.

Anyway, I'll see you all when I'm on the ground again in Lafayette.

By the way, here are a few of my pet peeves for the trip:

1) Speakers that move their head away from the mic intermittently, so you can only hear half of what they're saying

2) Airports that don't have free wi-fi access

3) Big hotels that have elevators that basically hold 5 people at a time

4) Speakers who only present their data numerically, instead of making a nice, clear graph

5) Speakers who use microfonts on their slides, rendering them unreadable, and hence, completely frackin' useless

6) Speakers who go over their allotted time and don't leave time for questions, and cause the last speaker to go over

Friday, July 25, 2008

Off to the Zoo

I'm just going to have to write up most of the conference after the fact, based on my notes. I just don't have time to do it during the conference, unless I live-blogged the talks, and I don't really want to do that.

I enjoyed Shimon Ullman's Rumelhart Prize talk. This morning I attended a talk for a paper that Noam Chomsky was a co-author on, but honestly it just looked like a restatement of a decades-old argument that was weak to begin with. And I attended a symposium of work related to Ullman's, all dealing with visual processing. I'll write up more detailed synopses of these talks...but probably not until I get home.

And this afternoon we're taking a bit of a breather and going to the National Zoo, which is only a few blocks from the hotel.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

CogSci 08: Day One

I missed the plenary talk this morning, mostly because they've scheduled all the plenary talks for the wee hours of the morning, and this one started at 8:15am.

So the first session I attended was a symposium of related talks on conceptual primatives. Jerome Feldman was the chair, and he first said a few opening remarks to frame the other talks. He talked about how the symposium was in the context of Unified Cognitive Science, which means that evidence from multiple subfields would be needed to address the question of the nature of conceptual primitives.

He gave a URL for a working list of possible conceptual primitives, but I wasn't able to jot it down. It is probably in the proceedings, so I'll look for it later. Among the examples were things like:


He said that they were advance a "theory neutral" approach, and the only question asked of him was to clarify what he meant by "theory neutral". He said he couldn't clarify it, because it was a self-explanatory term. Fair enough, but I was still wondering what he meant by "conceptual primitive". I assume he means a concept whose representation cannot be broken down any further and represented as a combination of other representations. But who knows? I can definitely see how some of the concepts listed above could be represented as combinations of other concepts. If this isn't the meaning of "primitive", then what does it mean?

Anyway, the first actual speaker was Leonard Talmy. He started out by saying that every language has two subsystems:

open-class - morpheme classes that are large and easy to augment (e.g. the roots of nouns, verbs, and adjectives)
closed-class - morpheme classes that are small and difficult to augment (e.g. bound inflections and derivations, and free prepositions, conjunctions, and determiners)

He said his talk would focus specifically on closed-class forms that relate to representing space. He talked about a methodology of choosing a figure and ground and a particular closed-class form and determining what the constraints are for using that term. The extended example he gave was board (figure) laying across (the closed-class spatial term) a road (ground). He gave several examples of situations where it is entirely appropriate to say "The board lay across the road" and situations where it is not.

For example, if the board is actually perpendicular to the road, it wouldn't be acceptable to say it is laying across it, but something like "The board is sticking out of the road." But he also said a constraint was that the board is touching both sides of the road, in which case you would say "The board lay over one side of the road." But I wouldn't have a problem saying a board lay across a road as long as it almost reached the other side, even if it didn't touch it.

He also said the axis of the figure needed to be horizontal, such as "The spear hung across the wall" vs. "The spear hung up and down on the wall." But that doesn't seem to hold for his own example of the board and the road. Both of these work for across:

But I get the basic idea that there are constraints on the usage of particular terms...that's what makes them distinct concepts. I'm not sure how this helps us narrow down conceptual primitives, whatever those are.

I need to get to the next session, so I'll wrap this up for now. There were three more speakers, and I'll have a separate entry for some or all of what they covered as well.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Thinking in Deep Time

So we made it to DC in one piece. I'm here, and I'm tired, but after a good night's rest I promise to try to do a decent job of blogging the CogSci conference. I've got my packet and the schedule looks like it has some interesting stuff.

Anyway, I was just reminded of one of the dumb arguments creationists use, which is when they concede that they believe in microevolution (i.e., small changes) but not macroevolution (i.e. speciation). Sure dogs and trees and mosquitos change over time...but they're still dogs and trees and mosquitos.

To this I say: learn to think in longer time spans, people.

Sure mountains and canyons and lakes erode and change shape over time. But they're still mountains and canyons and lakes, right? I mean, who has ever seen a mountain actually thrust up from the earth's crust? That must mean that mountains and canyons and lakes were created exactly as they are, right? Because we've never seen one form before our very eyes. Because one has never been created in the laboratory.

As with geological formations, so it is with biological species. It takes a while to evolve from a single-celled individual to a complex, bilaterally-symmetrical, multicellular organism. But guess what? That's what happened.

Anyway...off to a find a decent restaurant in the area.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Hitchens Discovers Blind Salamanders While Watching TV

This article, in which Christopher Hitchens thinks he has stumbled across some sort of creationist silver bullet, is pretty funny. He was watching an episode of Planet Earth, and they came to a part about cave-dwelling animals that had lost such traits as pigmentation and eyes. This is a very old example of how species evolve, not only by increasing in complexity, but as in this case, simplifying.

I guess this is Hitchens first encounter with such an idea, though you'd think if he were fairly well-versed in evolution this wouldn't come as some kind of epiphany. He dashed off an email to Richard Dawkins, and got this reply:

Vestigial eyes, for example, are clear evidence that these cave salamanders must have had ancestors who were different from them—had eyes, in this case. That is evolution. Why on earth would God create a salamander with vestiges of eyes? If he wanted to create blind salamanders, why not just create blind salamanders? Why give them dummy eyes that don't work and that look as though they were inherited from sighted ancestors? Maybe your point is a little different from this, in which case I don't think I have seen it written down before.

If Hitchens' point is that vestigial traits are evidence for evolution, then of course it's been written down...about a million times. I'm not sure what the heck Dawkins is talking about. If his point is different from this, I don't know what it is.

So as for being some kind of novel argument against creationism, I'm afraid it's as old as the debate itself. It's a good argument...but it's nowhere near new. And it's certainly not a silver bullet. Creationists can always give some version of "if god wanted to make a salamander with useless eyes, then that is what he did." This is on par with saying that the devil buried dinosaur bones, but its silliness doesn't keep people from employing it.

Home Again, Then Out Again

The New Orleans trip was fun. I did indeed shove a couple of beignets in my face.

But I'm already heading back over there tomorrow. We're flying out of New Orleans, heading for Washington DC and the Cognitive Science Society Annual Meeting. I really enjoyed the conference last year. True to the spirit of cognitive science, there really is a wide range of theoretical and experimental work displayed relating to cognition. The problem is, as with most conferences, you can't see everything you want to.

But I'll blog about the stuff I am able to see and take decent notes on.

Saturday, July 19, 2008


I finally finished reading Walter Isaacson's biography of Albert Einstein, and it was extremely good. I highly recommend it.

Isaacson does a good job of explaining Einstein's resistance to the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics, the idea that some or all elements of the universe are in an indeterminate state that is resolved by the act of observation.

Einstein rejected this interpretation throughout his life and to his death. He held to the tenet of realism, the idea that the world is in a definite state, even in the absence of observation. Most people have heard of Schrödinger's cat, but don't realize that the ideas for such a paradox came mostly from Einstein, whose own example was a keg of gunpowder hidden from observation which paradoxically exists in an exploded and unexploded state.

But apparently the vast majority of physicists currently hold to the Copenhagen Interpretation, with a smaller number holding to a Many Worlds explanation, with a very small minority still in Einstein's camp (I can't seem to find the stats on this right now, though).

Now Einstein never said that quantum mechanics was wrong. He just said it was incomplete.

Typically we use statistics to describe the degree of certainty we have about the state of the world. If a dealer shuffles a legal deck of cards and deals them into two piles of equal size, what is the probability that the ace of spades is in pile #1? It's 0.5, right? This is a description of the extent of our knowledge about the system before observing the relevant variables. If we pick up the piles and flip through them, then we have certainty about the location of the ace, and a statistical description is no longer needed.

What's weird about quantum mechanics is that it asserts that the statistic description is the complete one. In other words, the ace is half in one pile and half in the other. It exists in an indeterminate state, simultaneously in both places, until an observation takes place.

So what Einstein was arguing was that a statistical description was still a description of the limits of our knowledge about the system, while his opponents argued that the statistical description was complete description of reality.

I'm afraid I find it very hard to swallow the Copenhagen Interpretation. I should probably defer to the majority of experts in the field, but I'm afraid I can't...at least until I get a satisfactory explanation why the statistical description should be interpreted as complete, and not as an approximation.

There are a number of experiments which are meant to verify the Copenhagen Interpretation, including the Double Slit Experiment and the Beam Splitter Experiment. Every account I've seen describes the results as "weird", but fail to give a satisfactory account of what is actually going on (at least to me...maybe I'm just being stubborn).

One of the main problems I have with an observer-defined reality is the same problem Einstein had. What constitutes an observer, or an observation? Is a piece of recording equipment an observer? Einstein asked about a mouse. If you show a mouse the readout on a piece of machinery measuring the location of a particle, but don't look yourself, does this resolve the indeterminacy of the system?

And what about the state of the world before life arose? There was a time when there were no observers. Was the world in some kind of constant state of flux? If matter really is in a completely different state before observation, then how did such a fluctuating state give rise to life in the first place?

Another thing I haven't heard explained to my satisfaction is exactly what the act of observation is supposed to do to a system. Here's another example: active and passive sonar. When something like a submarine uses active sonar, that means they generate their own sound waves, and read the information that bounces back from objects the waves bump into. With passive sonar, the submarine doesn't generate its own waves, but relies on sounds that are already bouncing around in the water.

Now I could see how active observation would alter the state of the system being observed. You're injecting a new dynamic into the system when you're bombarding it with sound waves or photons or any other active process. But how exactly does passive observation affect a system?

Maybe there are answers to these questions, and I'm just not smart enough, or haven't read enough, to wrap my head around them. Maybe nobody knows.

For now, though, I'll remain in an indeterminate state.

The Beignet

We're heading to New Orleans today to a party with my girlfriend's relatives and later to see an old friend of mine from my undergraduate days.

Hopefully while we're there we'll stop in at Café du Monde for some beignets and café au lait. What is a beignet (pronounced "ben-yay") you ask?

They're basically fried hunks of dough, somewhat like a donut, somewhat like a sopapilla. And they're loaded with a generous pile of powdered sugar.

If you've never had one, you're just letting the best in life pass you by.

What's strange it that they really tend to be a very local phenomenon. I live in Lafayette, which is not far from New Orleans. But while there are plenty of donut shops here, there isn't a single place devoted to beignets. There are a couple of places in town where you can get them, but they're just not the same as the ones in New Orleans, and they're just not popular here.

Anyway, if you do ever get a chance to eat some, here's a simple word of advice: While eating a beignet, do not breathe through your nose. If you're breathing in as you lift it to your nose, you will get a snoot full of powdered sugar. If you are breathing out, you will douse your friend in a cloud of powdered sugar. So just hold your breath, take a bite, and enjoy.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Naturalistic Dualism

In one of the coffee breaks between sessions at GECCO, I was introduced to the concept of naturalistic dualism, which is a stance on the nature of consciousness. The term was coined by David Chalmers, and is described here.

If I understand the basic idea, naturalistic dualism holds that consciousness:
  • Is not a reducible phenomenon
  • Cannot be explained in terms of function
  • Is fundamentally different from anything physical or any function of anything physical, and is therefore a qualitatively different entity from anything else in the known universe
If anybody knows more about this philosophical stance and I'm screwing it up, please correct me in the comments.

Here are some sections from Chalmers paper. See if this makes sense:
Purely physical explanation is well-suited to the explanation of physical structures, explaining macroscopic structures in terms of detailed microstructural constituents; and it provides a satisfying explanation of the performance of functions, accounting for these functions in terms of the physical mechanisms that perform them. This is because a physical account can entail the facts about structures and functions: once the internal details of the physical account are given, the structural and functional properties fall out as an automatic consequence. But the structure and dynamics of physical processes yield only more structure and dynamics, so structures and functions are all we can expect these processes to explain. The facts about experience cannot be an automatic consequence of any physical account, as it is conceptually coherent that any given process could exist without experience. Experience may arise from the physical, but it is not entailed by the physical.
I don't get how it is "conceptually coherent" that any given process could exist without experience. The process that gives rise to experience cannot exist without giving rise to experience.

Look, we can't explain how consciousness works. But every single phenomenon that we now understand in physical terms was once thought to be some utterly mysterious, qualitatively different stuff, usually couched in supernatural terms. The history of science is the account of the majority of people thinking that phenomenon from lightning bolts to disease was some mysterious result of supernatural workings. A few brave, skeptical people thought, "Wait a minute...maybe there's a reasonable explanation for that." And then they did the hard work to try to figure it out.

Now Chalmers has a response to this:
It is tempting to note that all sorts of puzzling phenomena have eventually turned out to be explainable in physical terms. But each of these were problems about the observable behavior of physical objects, coming down to problems in the explanation of structures and functions. Because of this, these phenomena have always been the kind of thing that a physical account might explain, even if at some points there have been good reasons to suspect that no such explanation would be forthcoming. The tempting induction from these cases fails in the case of consciousness, which is not a problem about physical structures and functions. The problem of consciousness is puzzling in an entirely different way. An analysis of the problem shows us that conscious experience is just not the kind of thing that a wholly reductive account could succeed in explaining.
This is if you buy his argument that conscious experience is not the kind of thing that can be explained in terms of physical structures and their function. Which I don't.

This seems to me to be a very counterproductive agenda, especially to a scientist, and especially to a scientist bent on trying to figure out how the mind works.

Terminator Salvation

So they're making yet another Terminator movie. Here's the production blog for Terminator Salvation, starring Christian Bale as John Conner. Here's a blog with a teaser trailer (the movie is coming out next summer).

Apparently the premise of the movie is that the nuclear holocaust happens (despite all the attempts in the movies to stop it), and we see John Conner fight the first generation of Skynet's terminator production line. Cool idea...I was always hungry for more scenes set in the post-apocalyptic future in the other movies.

But I have to say...I don't understand why Christian Bale keeps getting cast...as anything other than a humorless cinder block. The man has absolutely no personality. He's utterly flat on screen. He is a handsome man...no doubt about that. But he has the charisma of a dead trout.

The Dark Knight is getting rave reviews, and I'm actually kind of looking forward to it...but not at all because of Bale. I'm interested in the other actors in the movie, but I think Bale is the worst Batman since Val Kilmer. When he's Bruce Wayne, he's a stale, brooding gazillionaire. When he's Batman, he's a hammy, hoarse-throated bore with too much eye shadow.

So I'm not looking forward to him as John Conner. Though he will probably be better than Ed Furlong.

The Cost of Nuclear Power

Via Andrew Sullivan, here's a post from the New Republic blog citing a report to the Senate by Joe Romm saying that "nuclear power is still far more expensive than a lot of the other alternatives to fossil fuels."

The article talks about how heavily subsidized nuclear plants in the US have to be and how the cost of the electricity they produce doesn't make them worth it.

Which makes me wonder...how the hell do the French do it?

In France, as of 2002, Électricité de France (EDF) — the country's main electricity generation and distribution company — manages the country's 59 nuclear power plants. As of 2004, these plants produce 99.8% of both EDF's and France's power production (of which much is exported), making EDF the world leader in production of nuclear power by percentage. In the same year, 425.8 TWh out of the country's total production of 540.6 TWh was from nuclear power (78.8%).

France is the world's largest net exporter of electric power, exporting 18% of its total production (about 100 TWh) to Italy, the Netherlands, Britain, and Germany, and its electricity cost is among the lowest in Europe.

So why can't we do what the French do?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Evolution of Robotical Organisms

During the poster session, I met a very nice fellow by the name of Peter Krčah, who had a poster and some videos displaying his work, which is an elaboration of work done by Karl Sims back in 1994.

The work involves evolving the morphologies of artificial creatures along with neural networks that control locomotive behaviors such as walking and swimming. Peter's website is here.

Here's a video demonstrating some of his evolved individuals:

In turn, this sparked some ideas that I've been working through relating to encoding and evolving 3D morphologies. I think it's cool work, but I definitely think it can be refined into more powerful and sophisticated representations. The creatures move in a way that evokes biological movement, but their morphologies are still very blocky and artificial.

Anyway, go have a look around Peter's site. It's fun stuff.

PZ Myers' GECCO Talk

Update: Myers has posted his notes and slides.

PZ Myers gave his keynote address at GECCO on Tuesday morning, July 18th. Fortunately (or maybe unfortunately), he didn't breathe any fire, sacrifice any children by plucking out their heart, or butt-rape any consecrated crackers on stage.

Instead he gave a pretty darned interesting talk entitled "Developmental Perspectives for Understanding Evolution," which was basically an overview of evo-devo, with mention of some interesting recent experiments. The main argument of the talk, and evo-devo in general, is that you have to understand development to understand evolution.

One of the early slides had these two quotations:

"Everything is the way it is because it got that way." --D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson, 1917

"Evolution is the control of development by ecology." --Van Valen, 1973

Myers then went on to talk about how development is a hierarchical process that is essentially a series of binary decisions. Cells divide and differentiate, and when they do so they make choices that determine, and thus restrict, their fate. This whole bit reminded me of the most interesting part of the panel talk at last year's GECCO with Lewis Wolpert, Richard Dawkins, and Steve Jones. I didn't attend, but I have a link to the video here. The bit I found most interesting was when they were arguing whether or not it was possible to evolve a mouse with wings (which also has a wierd synergy with parts of Myers' talk, as we'll see later).

Anyway, then he talked a bit about epigenetics and the role of the environment in development, and talked about how the patterns that form during development are not directly encoded by the genes, but are an emergent effect of the process of development. He stressed that this doesn't mean that genes aren't important, just that the environment is important as well.

Then he talked about the opposite concepts of plasticity, which he defined (short version) as the ability of an organism to react to an internal or external change, and canalization, which are constraints which restrict the amount of change. As for the concept of evolvability, the capability of an organism to change, he said he didn't really believe in it as a distinct concept.

A discussion of toolbox genes then followed, in which Myers talked about how biologists used to assume that the difference in the DNA between organisms like a fly and a whale would be enormous, qualitatively, but as it turns out, about 80% of the genes in such animals is carrying out very similar functions, like determining where on the head the eyes are going to be constructed. The PAX-6 gene is a toolbox gene for use in building eyes, and both flies and mice (and by implication many other organisms) use this same gene for doing the same thing. Citing Putnam, Myers said that only about 15% of the genes are unique to an organism, in terms of their function.

Then he talked about genetic assimilation and accomodation (which Myers actually talks about at length here). He also mentioned the Baldwin Effect.

At this point in the talk he started to give some concrete examples, which was a nice way to illustrate a lot of the theory he'd been discussing. He talked about how a species of sheep that lives in a colder environment may, over time, evolve a thicker coat of hair. Or, perhaps if the climate is variable, the sheep evolves such that in warmer conditions it grows at thinner coat, and in colder conditions, it grows a thicker coat. The difference is between a kind of hard-wired trait, and one that is plastic, and can adapt to the changing environment.

Another example was from a 2006 paper by Suzuki and Nijhout, Evolution of a Polyphenism by Genetic Accommodation. Basically, the experimenters were able to artificially select for higher plasticity in the larva of the tobacco hornworm, Manduca sexta. They were able to manipulate the evolving population such that after only a short number of generations, individuals were able to change their color depending on temperature (go read Myers' post on it for all the details).

Then he brought up another cool example of the role of regulatory genes, from work by Chris Cretekos involving the differences in development between mouse and bat forelimbs. Myers' blogged about this work too. Go check it out. There are cool pics of bat embryos. Basically the researchers were able to remove regulatory genes that enhance the expression of the gene PRX1, which controls the growth of forelimbs. They spliced this regulatory sequence from the bat into the mouse, and measured the effects. Myers warned us that we weren't going to see images of mice with bat wings, and not to be disappointed. I was, a little. Instead, the mice grew longer forelimbs. Nothing like a bat's, but still longer. They also deleted this sequence in the mice and measured the result, and found that there was little to no effect, which suggests a fair amount of redundancy in the regulatory genes that mediate such kind of growth.

In conclusion, he reiterated that:
  • Multicellular organisms are coherent arrays of patterned elements
  • Organization is the product of interactions between genes, cells, and the environment
  • Both evolution and development are dynamic processes, unfolding over time, not static lists of parts
The Q&A followed. I didn't take very good notes for that part, but one thing I noted was that he admitted up front that he wasn't that familiar with the field of evolutionary computation, which is fine. Though I wish he had attended a couple of sessions, especially those related directly to the topic of his talk. There was a tutorial on Generative and Developmental Systems that I really would have liked to have heard his reaction to. But in general I would have liked to have heard his reaction to some of the approaches and encodings, even if he wasn't familiar with the intricate details...just a critique of the overall approach.

But it was a good talk...better than most keynotes I've seen at GECCO in the past. In studying and trying to model cognition, I've developed a more profound respect for the role of time, and of trying to understand the extent to which certain cognitive functions have evolved to be highly plastic and which are less adaptive during our development. Myers spoke directly to these kinds of issues, and gave a very informative overview of many important concepts in evolutionary biology today.

Then he pulled a live baby out of his briefcase and bit its head off.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Out of Atlanta

I'm heading out of Atlanta and back to Lafayette today...looking forward to an entire day on the road.

I saw a couple of interesting talks at GECCO, but very little that's of direct interest to my research goals right now, so as I said before, I probably won't be attending it again. I'll do a brief write-up of some of the things I saw and was thinking about in a separate post, and I still intend to devote an entire post to PZ Myers keynote speech. But I've either been too busy or too tired to do that while at the conference, so it will have to wait until either tonight or tomorrow.

See you when I'm back in Louisiana...

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Blended Mouse

In several of the talks here at GECCO, the issue of complexity has come up. In one talk I just listened to, the speaker discussed three general measures of complexity:

1) Shannon Entropy, or degree of uncertainty
2) Kolmogorov complexity, or the amount of description needed to fully specify something
3) Functional complexity, or how complex its interactions with the environment are

He argued that functional complexity should be kept separate from other measures.

But here's one strange example. Let's say you take a mouse. It has a high degree of regularity in its morphology. It's bilaterally symmetric, hierarchical, and highly modular. Now, if you took that mouse and dropped it in a blender, so that its molecules were distributed randomly in space, by the first two measures above, that blended mouse would be more complex than the intact mouse. However, its functional complexity would be much lower (i.e., a live mouse can run around and do lots of things that a blended mouse can't).

For the things we're interested in either understanding or engineering, I think excluding functional complexity is probably wrong.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Live From Atlanta

I made it to Atlanta in one piece. I'm here for the GECCO (Genetic and Evolutionary Computation Conference). The drive was about 10 hours. Fun. There was some congestion in Baton Rouge, but other than that it was just a long-ass, boring drive. I had Isaacson's biography of Einstein on audiobook to keep me company, and I'll probably finish it on the ride home on Wednesday.

I stopped by the Pharyngula gathering on the way in. I didn't stay long. I was exhausted from the drive. But I did get to meet PZ in person and talked to a few interesting people, including the guy who runs this site: What's the Harm? It's a site that tries to catalog accounts of people who have suffered financial ruin, bodily harm, or death at the hands of pseudoscience and religion. I haven't really had a chance to look at it much, so I can't really comment on it.

I'm staying in student housing at Georgia Tech, which is a big step up from the hostel I stayed in when I attended GECCO in 2006 in Seattle. I at least have a private room here.

I've only had a chance to attend part of a workshop session this morning, so not much to comment on yet. GECCO is the first conference I ever attended, but my research interests and focus have moved relatively far from the focus of this conference, so this will probably be the last one I attend. Still, we'll see how it goes.

Friday, July 11, 2008

TAAH Flashback: Plant a Fucking Flag

Originally posted on Thinking as a Hobby, 2/3/2003 (I just finished watching the series When We Left Earth, so this was on my mind):

Check out this blog from James Lileks (via Instapundit, whose page over the last few days has been essential reading on the Columbia disaster).

NPR had an interview with one of those people who think we should not send people into space, but rely entirely on robots. As I pulled into the parking lot at the mall he casually asked 'what can a man do on Mars that a robot cannot'?

PLANT A FUCKING FLAG ON THE PLANET, I shouted at the radio. Pardon my language. But. On a day when seven brave people died while fulfilling their brightest ambitions, this was the wrong day to suggest we all stay tethered to the dirt until the sun grows cold. Are we less than the men who left safe harbors and shouldered through cold oceans' After all, they sailed into the void; we can look up at the night sky and point at where we want to go. There: that bright white orb. We're going. There: that red coal burning on the horizon. We're going. And we're not sending smart toys on our behalf - we're sending human beings, and one of them will put his boot on the sand and bring the number of worlds we've visited to three. And when he plants the flag he will use flesh and sinew and blood and bone to drive it into the ground. His heartbeat will hammer in his ears; his mind will spin a kaleidoscopic medley of all the things he'd thought he'd think at this moment, and he'll grin: I had it wrong. I had no idea what it would truly be like. He'd imagined this moment as oddly private; he'd thought of himself, the red land, the flag in his hand, and he heard music, as though the moment would be fully scored when it happened. But there isn't any music; there's the sound of his breath and the thrum of his pulse. It seems like everyone who ever lived is standing behind him at the other end of a vast dark auditorium, waiting for the flag to stand on the ground of Mars. Then he will say something. He might stumble on a word or two, because he's only human.

But look what humans have done. Again.

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Religion and Science

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. In 2005 he wrote an excellent essay entitled "The Perimeter of Ignorance" in which he talks about how historically, many famous scientists invoked god when they reach the limits of their own understanding. He begins:

Writing in centuries past, many scientists felt compelled to wax poetic about cosmic mysteries and God's handiwork. Perhaps one should not be surprised at this: most scientists back then, as well as many scientists today, identify themselves as spiritually devout.

But a careful reading of older texts, particularly those concerned with the universe itself, shows that the authors invoke divinity only when they reach the boundaries of their understanding. They appeal to a higher power only when staring into the ocean of their own ignorance. They call on God only from the lonely and precarious edge of incomprehension. Where they feel certain about their explanations, however, God gets hardly a mention.

However, he recounts the anecdote of when Laplace presented his work to Napoleon that explained aspects of the movement of bodies in the solar system that Newton's work had not sufficiently explained:

According to an oft-repeated but probably embellished account, when Laplace gave a copy [of his manuscript] to his physics-literate friend Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon asked him what role God played in the construction and regulation of the heavens. "Sire," Laplace replied, "I have no need of that hypothesis."

Tyson gives other examples of this phenomenon, and then talks about it in its extreme, virulent forms, such as the organized efforts of Intelligent Design.

Another practice that isn't science is embracing ignorance. Yet it's fundamental to the philosophy of intelligent design: I don't know what this is. I don't know how it works. It's too complicated for me to figure out. It's too complicated for any human being to figure out. So it must be the product of a higher intelligence.

What do you do with that line of reasoning? Do you just cede the solving of problems to someone smarter than you, someone who's not even human? Do you tell students to pursue only questions with easy answers?

There may be a limit to what the human mind can figure out about our universe. But how presumptuous it would be for me to claim that if I can't solve a problem, neither can any other person who has ever lived or who will ever be born. Suppose Galileo and Laplace had felt that way? Better yet, what if Newton had not? He might then have solved Laplace's problem a century earlier, making it possible for Laplace to cross the next frontier of ignorance.

Science is a philosophy of discovery. Intelligent design is a philosophy of ignorance. You cannot build a program of discovery on the assumption that nobody is smart enough to figure out the answer to a problem.

Here's a video of Tyson talking about these topics at Beyond Belief:

I plan on reading Tyson's Death by Black Hole soon. I'll post review(s) as I do.

How I Would Have Rewritten Hancock

Unfortunately, I saw Hancock yesterday. The first half of the movie was pretty good. The second half makes me wish I had one of those machines from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that let's me target and erase specific memories.

I'm not going to write about the second half (I'm trying to purge it from my memory). Instead I'll describe the set-up and then talk about how I probably would have written the second half.

The set-up is actually pretty good. It makes me think that the movie started out as a high-concept pitch and then got written by committee. "Imagine Will Smith as a homeless, drunk, anti-social superhero..." That was probably enough to get the movie made right there. They probably figured they didn't actually need to write a good script because Smith's star power alone would pull people into the theaters. Unfortunately they were probably right.

Hancock lounges around on benches staying drunk, but occasionally rouses himself to actually intervene and do some good, but his efforts end up having mixed results. He catches the bad guys, but usually causes millions of dollars in collateral damage as a result. Plus, he's rude and smelly, and he insults everybody, so everybody hates him.

Then one day he saves a PR guy from being killed by a train. The PR guy takes him home to dinner and offers to help him repair his image. On his advice, Hancock starts to turn over a new leaf. He surrenders himself to prison, gets clean and sober, and goes to counseling. When the Chief of Police calls for his help, he shaves, gets a new suit, and saves the day at a bank robbery.

Then the movie goes off the rails.

So here's how it should have gone...

First, there was a scene in prison in which Hancock literally shoves one inmates head up the ass of another, and for some reason I believe they were playing the theme song to Sanford and Son when they showed the actual shot. It was a bizarre, unfunny, and grotesque scene. Cut it.

Then have the mastermind of the bank robbery actually be...a mastermind. Make him an intelligent, evil guy...an actual force to be reckoned with as a counterpoint to Hancock. Hancock defeats him initially, and puts him away in prison. While in prison, the bad guy develops a plan to avenge his defeat and destroy Hancock. Maybe he's able to get access to the prison hospital and find Hancock's medical records, and he figures out a weakness.

Meanwhile, Hancock is struggling to fit into his new role as clean and straight good guy. He's tempted to fall off the wagon. He's not any happier now than he was before.

And then the bad guy breaks out of prison, kidnaps someone Hancock cares about (maybe the PR guy's kid), and forces a confrontation. The bad guy exploits Hancock's weakness, and almost kills him, but Hancock prevails.

At the end of the movie, he finds some middle ground between being a drunken misanthrope and a squeaky clean superhero. Maybe we have a final shot of him back on the bench from the beginning of the movie, in normal clothes, trying to decide what to do with his future.

Maybe it's not Shakespeare, but it's about a thousand times better than what did happen. Oh, and the movie would have been way better without any attempt to explain his origins. That's one mystery I would have been fine not ever uncovering.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Jackson Says He Wants to "Cut Obama's Nuts Off"

Apparently while waiting to be interviewed, Jesse Jackson was caught on a "hot mic" criticizing Barack Obama for "talking down to black folks". Then he said he wanted to cut off Obama's nuts, and gave a little twist of his fist.

I don't think this will hurt Obama. If anything it will probably help him. Still, it's funny:

Information is Never Lost?

Here's the latest installment in my apparent inability to understand the technical concept of information.

In an interview with Leonard Susskind, in which he recounts a famous dispute with Stephen Hawking, Susskind says:

Stephen Hawking once said something about black holes that apparently upset you. What was it?

Stephen said that when a bit of information falls into a black hole it is permanently lost to the outside, despite the fact that he also proved that black holes evaporate and eventually disappear. That claim touched off a crisis in physics, a clash of basic principles like no other since Einstein was young.

The problem that upset me is that the most basic principle of physics—the principle that underpins everything including classical physics, thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, energy conservation, that physicists have believed for hundreds of years—is that information is never truly lost. It can be scrambled beyond recognition, but it is never completely erased.

Hawking's claim was outrageous, but he had very good reasons for it. So good that it took more than two decades to figure out why he was wrong. And the question led to a tremendous paradigm shift in the way we think about space, time, matter, and bits of information.

But if information is "scrambled beyond recognition" isn't it lost? Maybe there's a difference between theoretically lost and practically lost.

What happens when a library burns down? Is Susskind saying that all the information written on all the pages is theoretically reconstructible from the ashes?

And Stephen Pinker is no mathematician or physicist, but I liked the definition he gave in How the Mind Works:

Information is a correlation between two things that is produced by a lawful process, as opposed to coming about by sheer chance. We say that the rings in a stump carry information about the age of the tree because their number correlates with the tree's age. The older the tree, the more rings it has. And the correlation is not an accident, but is caused by the way trees grow. Correlation is a mathematical and logical concept. It is not defined in terms of the stuff that the correlated entities are made of. Information itself is nothing special. It is found wherever causes leave effects.

So if information is the remnant of a causal relationship, then how is it that information is never created? Aren't there new cause/effect relationships happening all the time? In Pinker's tree example, isn't novel information being created as the tree grows and creates more rings? If information is simply being transformed in this case, what is the transformation?

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Why Two Things Never Really Happen at the Same Time

I'm still reading and enjoying Walter Isaacson's biography of Einstein. He hasn't yet gotten to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics and Einstein's famous quotation "God does not play dice", but you can see some foreshadowing of why he might find it so distasteful.

In describing Einstein's theory of Special Relativity, Isaacson uses the following example (let's see if I get this right...if you're interested in the subject you should definitely browse around and make sure I didn't screw up this explanation). Let's say Joe is standing at point X when two lightning bolts strike at A and B:

The light from both strikes reaches Joe at precisely the same time, so he perceives the events as occurring simultaneously. So we can safely say that lightning struck the two places simultaneously, right?


Bob is traveling at a very high, constant velocity toward point X. He is directly on X when the lightning strikes occur. However, the light from the lightning strike at A will reach him sooner than the light from lightning strike B because of his motion toward A and away from B. So from his frame of reference, the lightning will strike A slightly before it will strike B.

Thus, there is no such thing as absolute simultaneity. You can only describe two things happening at once in relative terms. What determines whether two things happen at the same time depends on how fast an observer (or measurement device) is traveling relative to them.

I think I got that right.

And I think this is part of the reason why Einstein had such a problem with "spooky action at a distance", the idea that two particles that are entangled could affect one another simultaneously regardless of how far apart they were. As far as I understand, this phenomenon has been tested in the lab, at very short distances, but there are criticisms. However, if two particles were entangled, and one stayed on earth while the other was transported to the moon, and then the spin of one was modified and it affected the spin of the other...that would certainly be strong evidence.

I'm looking forward to Isaacson's account of Einstein and quantum mechanics.

Atheist Soldier Sues the Army for Discrimination

This story is getting more mainstream coverage now.

Army Spc. Jeremy Hall was raised Baptist.

Like many Christians, he said grace before dinner and read the Bible before bed. Four years ago when he was deployed to Iraq, he packed his Bible so he would feel closer to God.

He served two tours of duty in Iraq and has a near perfect record. But somewhere between the tours, something changed. Hall, now 23, said he no longer believes in God, fate, luck or anything supernatural.

Hall said he met some atheists who suggested he read the Bible again. After doing so, he said he had so many unanswered questions that he decided to become an atheist.

His sudden lack of faith, he said, cost him his military career and put his life at risk. Hall said his life was threatened by other troops and the military assigned a full-time bodyguard to protect him out of fear for his safety.

In March, Hall filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Defense and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, among others. In the suit, Hall claims his rights to religious freedom under the First Amendment were violated and suggests that the United States military has become a Christian organization.

The CNN story mentions two instances, one where he was told to leave the table at Thanksgiving after not joining in prayer. The other was when a fellow soldier yelled "Do you believe in Jesus now?" after he was nearly killed in an attack. But they don't mention the incident that Hall says actually sparked the lawsuit, which he describes in this interview:

Hall tried to organize an atheist meeting, and his commanding officer showed up. After the short meeting, the officer berated Hall and told him he was in violation of several codes of conduct. That seems like a pretty clear violation of the First Amendment.

Now I know that the military isn't like civilian life, and you obviously don't enjoy the full spectrum of freedoms that people outside the military do. But is does a soldier forfeit his freedom of religion when he puts on a uniform?

I also understand about unit cohesion, at least in philosophy. The idea is that soldiers who have more in common will act more effectively than a hodge-podge group who have a lot of differences. This was an argument in favor of keeping homosexuals out of the military (or at least not asking them if they were homosexual). I haven't seen actual studies on this, but I don't find it hard to believe that uniformity among soldiers in a unit actually makes them more effective in many ways.

This raises several questions. Is effectiveness more important than principles? America generally acknowledges diversity as a strength. Should diversity be reflected in the military as well?

I can also understand the conceptual overlap between Christianity and the military. They are both top-down ideologies. Do what you're told, and you're not given a lot of latitude in which to interpret the commands from above. I can see that a Christian military commander might not fully trust an atheist with little respect for divine authority (he might just decide he doesn't have respect for earthly authority either!).

Actually, if the military decided that being an atheist made you unfit to serve in combat, most atheists (except those yearning for military action) would probably be fine with it. That would mean that all the gung-ho believers could line up for the hail of bullets and bombs.

But in the end I don't think we'd want to live in a country with a military that supports that kind of discrimination. The military has learned to incorporate minorities and women into their ranks. They can deal with a few infidels too.

Philip's Blog

My friend Philip just started blogging again over at One Without Faith. He's already got a couple of nice posts up reviewing Sam Harris' The End of Faith.

Go say hello.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


July is a busy month for me. I've got two conferences to attend.

The first is GECCO (The Genetic and Evolutionary Computation Conference), in Atlanta, Georgia. I'm driving, which should take about 10 hours. Luckily I still have half of the Einstein biography I'm listening to on audiobook. I'm presenting a poster on work I blogged about briefly here, showing the differences in rates of new species appearing and old ones dying in environments where there is selection pressure vs. environments without selection pressure. I also looked at how complexity changes in both situations. I'm leaving on Saturday, but I should have wireless access and I plan to blog my conference diary, so stay tuned.

Then I have a week before I head to my next conference, The Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, from July 23-26 in Washington, D.C. There I'll be presenting a poster on a framework for modeling the neocortex that incorporates aspects of function, evolution, and development, arguing that these are all tightly coupled and therefore modeling them together should yield new insights into cognition. Again, I plan to blog that conference, as I did last year:

CogSci 2007: Day One
CogSci 2007: Day Two
CogSci 2007: Day Three

Monday, July 7, 2008

Teach the Controversy

Links to these t-shirts have been making the rounds for a while, but they are cool.

Yeah, I want one. My favorite is the devil burying dinosaur bones.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Straight Dope Hates All Over the Flat Tax

Cecil gets asked about the flat tax, and it turns out he's not a fan:

As a general proposition, the wealthiest Americans do pay the bulk of the individual income taxes collected in the U.S. That's a point worth making, since the belief that the rich pay zip while the little guy gets slugged is the impetus behind the "flat tax" proposal, the stupidest idea to come down the pike since pet rocks.

He then cites some statistics like this one showing that the rich bear a large percentage of the tax burden:

The top 3 percent of filers, those making $100,000-plus, paid 40 percent of the taxes.

So what information is he leaving out? He's not saying what percentage of their income rich people are paying.

It could very well be the case that the top 3 percent of filers pay 40 percent of the taxes, but that they're still only being taxed at a rate of 18%.

According to this story:

Warren E. Buffett was his usual folksy self Tuesday night at a fundraiser for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) as he slammed a system that allows the very rich to pay taxes at a lower rate than the middle class.

Buffett cited himself, the third-richest person in the world, as an example. Last year, Buffett said, he was taxed at 17.7 percent on his taxable income of more than $46 million. His receptionist was taxed at about 30 percent.

Cecil's entire argument rests on the percentage of total taxes that rich people pay, rather than demonstrating whether or not taxes really are "progressive" (a shitty word, if you ask me).

If you simplify the tax code, treat all income equally, and tax everyone at a flat rate sensible enough to still fill our coffers, it would be a simpler, fairer, more transparent tax system.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Top 10 Reasons Why America Kicks Ass

In honor of our nation's official birthday, I give you my...

Ten Reasons Why America Kicks Ass

1) We don't have a queen.

2) Our military-industrial complex can kick your military-industrial complex's ass.

3) We've won the most Nobel Prizes.

4) We can call our leaders douchebags and not get thrown in prison.

5) We don't have a national church (though we're dangerously close to having a national religion).

6) We can buy a .44 magnum if we want.

7) We have the world's largest economy.

8) Our movies gross more worldwide than anyone else's (even though most of them suck).

9) We've never been invaded.

10) We landed on the freakin' moon.

Engineering Biofuels

Fareed Zakaria interviews Craig Venter, the leader of the successful private initiative to map the human genome, about his current efforts to engineer microorganisms to produce fuels.

Zakaria: How are you going to create the fuel of the future?
Venter: We think multiple fuels of the future are going to come out of biology, by manipulating the genetic code of simple organisms to convert things like sugar or sunlight or carbon dioxide into fuels that people are very familiar with, like diesel fuel and gasoline.


How close are you to creating an organism that can produce fuels in this way?
We think the first fuels are maybe one to two years away. We're definitely thinking in terms of years, not decades.

You always have to take predictions with a grain of salt, but this guy has gotten results before. I hope they really are making good progress.

Poker: Human vs. AI

Having defeated humans at chess, AI programmers are looking for other game domains that require more human-like skills. Good candidates are Go, Bridge, and Poker.

Right now there's a human vs. computer poker competition taking place:

Developed by an artificial intelligence group at the University of Alberta in Canada, Polaris will be pitted against several professionals at the Rio Hotel between July 3rd and 6th. Its human opponents will include Stoxpoker.com coaches Nick Grundzien and Ijay Palansky along with Matt Hawrilenko, all of whom have well over $1 million in lifetime winnings from playing poker.

They tried this last year, and the program did reasonably well, but didn't win. The reason poker might be a better benchmark for AI is that in involves making decisions with incomplete information (e.g., your opponents hands). It also requires probabilistic reasoning (unlike chess, which is completely deterministic). Also, it has been shown that any optimal strategy in poker requires some bluffing, which makes sense. If you can gain an advantage by misrepresenting your strength (either under- or over-representing) you're going to lead opponents into giving you more of their chips. But knowing when and how to bluff is difficult.

So it's an interesting story, but I thought this quotation near the end was pretty dumb:

"It's possible, given enough computing power, for computers to play 'perfectly,' where over a long enough match, the program cannot lose money," said associate professor Michael Bowling. "Humans will always make some mistakes, meaning the program will have an advantage."

I ran into this same fallacy when I read a paper about Tic-Tac-Toe several years back, in which they argued that a program that never loses at Tic-Tac-Toe is "playing optimally". Well, no. If you want to define it that way, good for you, but it's a very poor definition.

To play "optimally" or "perfectly" doesn't just mean that you avoid losing, but that you maximize wins against weaker opponents. I don't think we'd call a poker player that never lost money but just barely made money a "perfect" player.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Columbia Brain and Mind Symposium

Via The Brain and the Sky here's a link to a symposium on the brain and mind that was held at Columbia University in 2004.

There are some great speakers, and the cool thing is that they've apparently just been adding videos of the talks. In addition, they've included slides and transcripts of the talks, which is very, very nice.

Check it out.

Torturing Mice

About a week ago, for the first time, I saw a mouse (or maybe a rat) scurry across my kitchen floor at night. The pesticide people spray once a month, but that's apparently only for insects. So I told the front office, and they said they'd send a maintenance guy around "to put down traps."

The maintenance guy showed up holding two of these glue board traps. If you've never seen them before, they're basically a think plastic pan filled with glue. You can bait them with food, or just put them in a common area where the rodents traffic.

The rodent gets stuck in the glue, and they usually die in one of two ways: starvation/dehydration or they try to chew their own leg off and bleed to death. Charming, huh?

I'm no bleeding heart or anything. I used to hunt when I was younger, and I don't have a lot of love for a pest that's invading my living space. But I also know that rodents have fairly sophisticated nervous systems, and they're most likely capable of a fair amount of pain and suffering. No need to torture the things. So I thanked the maintenance guy and then promptly threw the glue traps in the trash.

If I'm going to kill the rodents, it'll be with good old fashioned snap traps, which have a much better chance of killing them instantly.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Hitchens Gets Waterboarded

And he concludes:

I apply the Abraham Lincoln test for moral casuistry: “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” Well, then, if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.

Ann Althouse says:

But if Hitchens is willing to submit to it as an experiment, it can't be the worst torture. We can easily think of many tortures that he would not have accepted for journalistic purposes and that no one friendly to him would have perpetrated.

Well, no shit. He didn't say it was the worst torture, just that it is torture. I still remember reading Tom Friedman's From Beirut to Jerusalem, in which he describes the horrible torture methods used by the Syrians, including a chair with the hole in the seat in which a heated spike would slowly be risen up into the subject and then pulled back out.

I don't think Hitchens would go that far for a story, but that doesn't mean that waterboarding isn't torture.

He also brings up the subject of the quality of information derived under torture:

It may be a means of extracting information, but it is also a means of extracting junk information. (Mr. Nance told me that he had heard of someone’s being compelled to confess that he was a hermaphrodite. I later had an awful twinge while wondering if I myself could have been “dunked” this far.)

I don't think confessing you're a hermaphrodite is that big a deal. I wonder how long it would take to get him to confess in the existence of god, though.

Via Instapundit.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Obama Trying to Jump the Shark

In an attempt to see how much he can pander to the religious vote, Obama has decided to back Federal funding for "faith-based" programs.

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said he would spend at least $500 million a year to promote community aid programs run by faith-based groups.


And get this part:

Obama, 46, an Illinois senator, called for rules to ensure that the council wouldn't breach the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state. Federal money could only be spent on non-religious activities and groups couldn't discriminate when deciding who will get their aid.

Hey Obama...if you really want to make sure that there's no breach of the separation of church and state how about not giving my fucking taxes to religious organizations?

Man, it's going to be a long, hard slog to the election in November. I'd nearly made up my mind, but occasionally McCain will say something that appeals to me, and Obama will pull a boner like this.

Please make him stop.

Is Democracy a Religion?

Well, no...of course it isn't.

But that was the discussion question for the group at the UU church I attended with Jill this morning.

There were perhaps twenty people, and we burned a good fifteen minutes on introductions, and another five on UU testimonials for the new folks, before we got to the topic at hand.

It could have been an interesting discussion, unfortunately there was little said in direct response to points that had been previously made, people preferring to deliver their own laborious, discursive monologues on the subject. Too bad.

I raised my hand a couple of times anyway, initially saying (as I've noted here before) that inherent in the definition of a religion is some underpinning of supernaturality (i.e. belief in a god or gods). If the definition is spread beyond that it basically becomes too watered down to be of much use in discourse.

Judaism? A religion. Islam? Yep. Fly fishing? Um...no.

To talk about fly fishing metaphorically as a religion, sure...but not in the literal sense.

Of course, I was among Unitarians, so some of them didn't like the oh so narrow box I was putting religion in. One fellow said that a religion is a system of thought that deals with absolutes.

It seems to me, though, that any system of thought that explains origins, morality, etc. without supernaturality is instead a philosophy.

Otherwise, what does it mean to say that someone is "a religious man"? Simply that they've thought about absolutes? I don't think so. Religiosity entails belief in a higher power, in supernaturality, whatever form that might take.

As a system of thought, as I've noted here before, religion also, by its character, approaches the concept of truth from the perspective that it is received.

Truth is not something you sift out of existence methodically, through trial and error. No, from the religious perspective truth is inherent in holy writings, through the lips of holy men, or perhaps directly from god on high.

This is the essential defining characteristic of religion that I find so distasteful.

And yet I haven't talked about democracy at all. Well, it's quite obviously a political philosophy, a system of ideas about the way people should be governed. And that is, that to the greatest extent possible, people should govern themselves (or each other...depending on how you look at it). If you've read this blog much at all, you know I'm a strong adherent of democratic philosophy.

In fact, I'm one of the few people I know who thinks America should be much more democratic than it currently is. I believe the more diffuse, and the less hierarchical, power structures are, the more fair and just they become.

But am I a religious man?

God forbid.

Originally posted 1/5/2003

Carl Sagan on Recognizing Truth

I thumbed through a copy of Carl Sagan's The Varieties of Scientific Experience in the bookstore yesterday (it's also on my Amazon wish list).

I pretty quickly flipped to the back of the book, where they had included some transcriptions of questions that people had asked Sagan when he'd delivered the speeches in the book. There's lots of good stuff there, but I particularly liked this exchange:

Questioner: How do you recognize the truth when it is upon us?

Carl Sagan: A simple question: How can we recognize the truth? It is, of course, difficult. But there are a few simple rules. The truth ought to be logically consistent. It should not contradict itself; that is, there are some logical criteria. It ought to be consistent with what else we know. That is an additional way in which miracles run into trouble. We know a great many things--a tiny fraction, to be sure, of the universe, a pitifully tiny fraction. But nevertheless some things we know with quite high reliability. So where we are asking about truth, we ought to be sure that it's not inconsistent with what else we know. We should also pay attention to how badly we want to believe a given contention. The more badly we want to believe it, the more skeptical we have to be. It involves a kind of courageous self-discipline. Nobody says it's easy. I think those three principles at least will winnow out a fair amount of chaff. It doesn't guarantee that what remains is true, but at least it will significantly diminish the field of discourse.

Ah, it's too bad Sagan is dead. He was one of the clearest voices of reason.

To summarize...three general guidelines from distinguishing truth from hooey:

  • Check for internal consistency
  • Check for external consistency (does it jive with the best available knowledge?)
  • Be as unbiased as possible

This is sort of a truncated version of Sagan's Baloney Detection Kit from A Demon-Haunted World, and it's a nice summary.

But, Dirty Harry is Cool

Mark Harris in Slate takes a look back at the Dirty Harry movies, and doesn't like what he sees.

The movie's most inflammatory sequence is not Harry's famous, twice-delivered "Do you feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?" monologue. It's the scene in which Harry traps Scorpio and then tortures him to learn the whereabouts of his latest victim (who, unbeknownst to Harry, is already dead). "Rights. … I have rights," Scorpio shrieks, sniveling as Harry's foot presses down on his bleeding leg. Because of Harry's literal overstepping, the killer eventually goes free; he then hires a large black thug to beat him up so that he can work the easily duped court system by filing a false police-brutality claim. While the city's brass wants to bargain with Scorpio, Harry knows the only solution is to hunt him down and kill him. Which he (spoiler alert) does.

In other words: Of course this is a right-wing fantasy. Ideologically, Dirty Harry was a well-calculated sop to the group of Americans that Richard Nixon identified in 1969 as the "Silent Majority" (though neither word was entirely accurate), those for whom everything about the period, from burning ghettos to women's lib to anti-war marches represented steps toward barbarism.

Harris fails to mention that the torture of Scorpio was a "ticking time-bomb" scenario. Scorpio had kidnapped a little girl, ripped out some of her teeth and mailed them to the police as proof that he had her, and had stashed her somewhere. Harry thought the only way to save her was to torture Scorpio. Was this justified? I thought it was interesting cinema, because the main character had to make a choice between the law and the life of the girl.

And then Harris leaves out the very end of the movie. After Harry kills Scorpio, what does he do? He throws his badge into the water. There are multiple ways to interpret this action, but I think one clear implication is that he realized that he couldn't function within the confines of the law and still be true to the people he vowed to protect. If this makes Harry fascist, then what does that make Batman look like?

Another significant ommission of Harris' is the fact that in the original movie Harry never kills anyone who isn't either holding a weapon or making a move for a weapon. He doesn't indiscriminately blow bad guys away. He gives them a choice, to gamble with their lives by picking up a weapon to kill him, on the chance that Harry's gun is out of bullets.

The implication of the films is that the system has become bloated and bureaucratic to the point where it protects criminals more than citizens. In that sense it's reactionary. But the character isn't an assassin with a badge. He's more lawful that most movie superheros, and he's at the other end of the spectrum from Bronson's character in Death Wish.

He's just a decent guy with a giant hand cannon trying to protect the honest, hard-working people of San Francisco.