Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Two bits 'o good news

The toothache lasted for a few days, but is gone now. Ohhhh, that's a relief [*]. And an even bigger relief: I got the PhD scholarship I had applied for! :-). I'm starting in late February next year.

[*] Well, it's largely gone. Prepare to find out more about my teeth than you wanted to know: it's a long story, but the problem isn't actually a cavity, but a funny shaped gap between two teeth that causes food to get stuck there and from this, gum pain (and don't think that gum pain can't be as big and burly as tooch ache...), which ultimately can't be fixed (short of removing teeth or something equally drastic).

Sunday, December 14, 2003

PowerPoint, Faux Analytical Techniques and Sales Pitches

This article on PowerPoint contains some nice quotes from Edward Tufte on what's wrong with so many PowerPoint presentations: PowerPoint also encourages users to rely on bulleted lists, a ''faux analytical'' technique, Tufte wrote, that dodges the speaker's responsibility to tie his information together. [...] Ultimately, Tufte concluded, PowerPoint is infused with ''an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch.''

Wednesday, December 10, 2003


Ughhhhrr, the last three days I've been captive to a damn toothache. The pain killers don't seem to help much. Last night was, at times, pure, fangs-gleaming agony. I'm really looking forward to that fresh, springtime-air of life without it.

Sunday, December 07, 2003

Honda believes that robots will become its most important business

That's a claim made in this short update on commercial robots. It seems they're starting to take off and be used in real applications outside of factories, such as a 1 meter tall doctors assistant and a sentry robot. As the article explains, much of the drive seems to be coming from economic imperatives brought on Japan, such as an aging population and declining birthrates. The last half of the article goes into some technical details concerning the need for standard components and operating systems for robots - so people can focus on important tasks such as the robot's AI and vision.

Triple Take

To improve my fitness and to loosen up a bit of muscle tension, I've taken to swimming once a week. I usually swim at the UQ (University of Queensland) pool, and lately I've been swimming on Sundays in the later afternoon when the sun isn't so intense and things are quite pleasant.

Last Sunday I was riding down to the pool, which is about 20 minutes from my place. Most of the trip runs near the river, which lends a pleasant something to the surrounds, even if it isn't actually visible most of the way.

I was riding along a long flat stretch of road not far from the university when an interesting sight caught my eye. On the other side of the road about 50-100 meters ahead of me there was an older guy on the footpath.

He was standing side-on to me, leaning in towards some plants -- and there, projecting from his mouth, down and towards the plants was a big, continual spray of water, as if he was one of those water fountain statues, a plant-watering water-statue.

That image held place in my perception for, probably, a few tenths of a second, before being overthrown by the far more plausable notion that what I was seeing was a visual illusion, probably a result of the particular angle and distance I was viewing the scene from, rather than the sight being the University's latest research into genetically-engineered retirees.

The more realistic interpretation was that the water was coming from a hose was being held up by something that was actually further away than the man was, and that the nossle of the hose just happened to line up exactly with the guy's mouth. It was like one of those pictures which starts out looking like one thing then suddenly resolves itself into something else.

I had to laugh when I got a little closer and saw what was really going on. Neither of those perceptions was right, and I experienced a third shift of perspective. I had to laugh because I thought I'd seen -- with my second impression -- the truth behind the illusion, and as it turned out the first one was, in a certain sense, actually closer to the reality.

The water wasn't coming from some source behind him, it did originate from where his head was. At the same time, the water was coming from a hose. The answer? He was holding the hose in his mouth. It was a quite graphic illustration of the ambiguity our perception has to work with, and how interpretations that can seem so right can turn out to be so wrong.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

More Than Words for Snow (2)

I've talked recently about language influencing and shaping thought; here's another example of that.

John: "Come on Fred, we need a real effort here. We need to have that report done by the end of the week, we need to try really hard at it".
Fred: "Okay, but this isn't a matter of how much I want to get it done - this isn't a matter of simply trying hard".
John: "Thomas Edison said 'Success is 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration'"
Fred: "Umm, but... alright, whatever".
Assume that Fred is right, it really isn't possible to finish it by the end of the week. Fred couldn't think of a way to respond, though some of us may be able to. The bare claim that all it takes is effort is there in your face, what can you say to that? Anything you say might make it look like you're trying to avoid putting in the hard yards.

How do you argue that it's not a matter of putting in enough effort? If you put in enough effort anything is possible. Supposedly. Of course, that's not really true, but it is difficult to argue that in such situations - we're talking about a report here, not jumping over the moon.

Success here is referring to two things. There's success-as-hard-work and success-as-finishing-report. Success-as-hard-work is referring to a success that came about as a result of hard work -- a success that exists. Once you have that notion of success in your head, that notion of successes that have come about, it's easy and natural to connect the success in success-as-finishing-report up to it. They're both successes, they can't be successes and at the same time not both successes. Doing so, however, is a mistake.

One -- the success in success-as-hard work -- refers to something that has come about, while the other -- the success in success-as-finishing-report -- refers to something that may or may not come about. As soon as you connect the report-finishing success with the hard-work success you are taking it to be something that exists -- and if a success is there, it's been achieved, it's possible.

This is entirely independent of whether finishing the report is, in reality, possible to do before the end of the week. This linking is, I suspect, what is primarily responsible for that gravitational pull towards agreeing that, yes, it is just a matter of hard-work.

BTW, if anyone who happens to read this has any pointers to web-pages, books, papers etc on the intersection of langauge and thought, I'd be interested to hear about them.

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Thoughts in Few Words (3)

If you want to engage with reality you have to try understanding it