Thursday, April 29, 2004

Simple and Effective Lecture-theatre Interaction

PAUL CARON, a law professor at the University of Cincinnati, uses them to break through what he calls the "cone of silence" in his classroom. For Wendy Tietz, who teaches accounting at Kent State, they are a way to encourage teamwork and give credit for class participation. Melissa Wilde, a sociology professor at Indiana University, says they help her students feel a connection to the subject.

For these and other professors across the nation, the newest aid in the classroom is a small wireless keypad, linked to a computer. Students answer questions not by raising their hands but by punching buttons, with the results appearing on a screen in the front of the room... [read the rest at New York Times ...there's some intesting consequenes of using the technology.]

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Richard Dawkins on Science Writing: Next Step, A Nobel Prize for Literature?

Novelists may win the plaudits, but they don't have all the good stories...
Richard Dawkins gives advice to entrants to a competition for young science writers.

...Choose science, and you have something important to write about....Not just important but fascinating. Not just fascinating but open-ended: you'll never run out of subjects, where the effort of simplification repays the writer as richly as the reader. Einstein said: "Everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler." Any fool can oversimplify. Far from talking down, flatter your reader. Don't apologise for elitism, encourage your reader to join the elite. Don't shrink from choosing the exact word that says it best, even if it drives your reader to the dictionary. A dictionary never harmed anyone, and a word can excite by its very unfamiliarity... [read the full article on Edge]

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Thoughts in Few Words (5)

Before I can begin I must clarify my thinking.

(Previous thoughts: 1, 2, 3, 4)

Thursday, April 22, 2004

Thoughts on Our Thinking Tendencies, Redux [-]

A few days ago, I talked about how it seems we have a tendency to see situations in terms of certain types of things ("subjects", such as the game of football) rather than in a "contextualised fashion" (such as the importance put on the game of football, rather than the game of football itself). Writing that has helped me clarify my thoughts, and here I present my current views.

I would describe those ideas in terms of the following. There is in inherent degree of difficulty associated with perceiving a particular type of thing (a physical object, relationship between things, etc etc). The degree of difficulty of perceiving a type of thing can stop us from doing so. We seem to have an inherent capability for perceiving particular types of things (physical objects are of course one example), and I believe we have to learn (though it may not be though explicit learning, perhaps just experience) how to explicitly perceive the more difficult types of things.

What we explicitly perceive in a given situation is, in addition to what we can explicitly perceive 'innately', those types of things we have 'learned' to see, modulo what we can't see because of our present cognitive load - after all, we only have so much mental capacity (I'll have to try coming back to this issue in the future and be more precise).

There are some questions that need to be answered about this. What governs the degree of difficulty? I'm not sure, but I would think the two major factors would be: temporal resources required for the processing required to perceive that type of thing, and secondly, our evolutionary history (where the temporal factors are really a subset of the evolutionary factors). I give that as a second factor because of the role evolution played in shaping our mental capabilities. Also, what are the different types of things that are there to be perceived? Both these things also deserve a fuller treatment in the future.

These difficulties in perceiving certain types of things can be seen as 'constraints on perfection', to use Richard Dawkin's term (or at least seems to be his). That term is the title of a chapter in his book "The Extended Phenotype" in which he gives the various reasons why an evolutionary adaptation may not be able to come up with an ideal 'solution'. An example of such a constraint is the need for the adaption to modify the current design of the organism rather than being able to go 'back to the drawing board'. In this context, a 'constraint on perfection' is a constraint on thinking that draws it away from the ideal.

The Illusion of Unlimited Free-Will

I'm not really going to talk about the issue of free-will here. I'm going to talk about the conception of unlimited free-will. The difference between the two is that, with free-will -- at least in terms of common conceptions of it -- you are free to make your own decisions, whereas with unlimited free-will you can always have 100% full control. In unlimited free-will, your all-powerful will is a resource you have at your disposal, and you just need to show enough determination or resolve to apply it. And should you not be able to muster this determination this is a because of some weakness, some lack of resolve, on your behalf. With the distinction between the conceptions of free-will made hopefully made clear, the rest of this post will be concentrating on the notion of unlimited free-will.

I'm not sure how many people explicitly subscribe to the view of unlmited free-will, but I do have the impression that most people tend to implicitly belive it. I suppose I won't need to say my view of unlimited free-will, becuase I've given the game away with the title given to this post -- I think it's an illusion.

It certainly feels like unlimited free-will exists. You're trying to cut down on fatty foods, but, damn it, those chips as tasty little buggers. You know if you'd just had just exercised a bit more willpower you could have held back. You know you're definitely capable of exercising that level of will -- in fact, you've done so plenty of times in the past. Sometimes you've exercised an enourmous level of will power. There was that time that you could have easily gotten away with a tidy sum of money that you almost certainly would have gotten away with -- it was so tempting, but you knew you had to hold back because it was the right thing to do. So if you can hold back then, you could hold back when it comes to some measly chips!

If you have the capability to exercise an enourmous amount of free will, an amount of free-will that is potentially large enough to overcome any desire, then it would seem you do have some sort of unlimited free-will. I'm going to argue that this is in fact wrong. It is an illusion. My argument is basically this. Your mind is a battleground between a number of drives and desires. They are not necessarily all against each other, but at least certain gruops will be in conflict with each other. You have your inbuilt, instinctive desires, to do with food, mating, and so on. And you have your concious desires (to be pedantic, I think 'desires deriving from experience' might be more accurate, for they don't necesarily have to have been conciously chosen or conciously accessible, but I think that's besides the point). The role these opposing forces -- with instinctual and concious desires on both sides -- play in decisions you make is the key to my argument.

In my view, will does not spring from some source of your "resolve", as if this resolve was something you just had. We should pause for a moment to consider this "resolve" (or whatever you want to call that ability you have to apply your will), because the notion that will comes from your resolve is very circular, and this should give us reason to be suspect of it. Saying that you've got something like resolve from which your will power springs is really saying you've got the will to apply your will. Where does this original will come from? Where do you get the will to apply it? And so on, and so on... I suspect the only way you'd be able to resolve this regress would be to resort to some sort of mystical explanation.

Rather, in my view, your will arises from the battle between conflicting desires. The temptation to steal some money is pushing you in one direction, but pushing back against it in the other direction is the your desire to "do what's right" and the concern you might get caught. You don' t have some well-sprint of resolve to apply your will to overcoming this temptation, you simply have a stronger desire to do the right thing and to avoid being caught. That is, I'm saying what we call resolve comes from the strength of the forces opposing the desire or temptation. There is no pure source of this resolve -- it is simply whatever oppposing forces populate your mind. There is no single source of this resolve either -- your resolve against any particular temptation will simply be whatever forces opposing that particular temptation there are in your mind.

Even supposing my argument might be correct, what good does it do to claim unlimited free-will is an illusion? Wouldn't that just diminish our feeling that we are in control, and if so, what good could that do? If you're thinking that pushing this view is not a good idea, I can tell you that I'm afraid I think exactly the opposite! I think that the notion of unlimited free-will has been extremely destructive and counterproductive, strange as that may sound. In short -- becuase I don't have time to try and explain myself fully at the moment -- I think it provides a great excuse for all kinds of things (because you can just blame people for not exercising their will, which they could if they really wanted to), and it's a major barrier to actually doing something to build up your will-power (rather than doing something that could diminish the forces on the side of temptation and to strengthen the forces on the opposing side, you're just meant to "try harder", whatever that's meant to mean).

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Integrated Language Tools

When I was growing up, I hardly ever looked in a dictionary. It didn't seem worth the effort, having to walk out to the living room to get it, spending the time to find the entry and then having put it back again. Nowadays, having a permenant Internet connection, if there's a word I don't know, I'll immediatelly look it up in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. The point is, convenience can make a big difference.

Despite the utility of on-line dictonaries and thesauri, I think there's a lot further we can go. We could provide integrated access to all the various types of language tools out there - domain-specific dictionaries, idiom dictionaries, slang dictionaries, cliche dictionaries, translation tools, etc [*]. Ideally, we could simply select a particular word, phrase or body of text and immediately access any of this language-related information. No doubt such integration will come.

* In addition to all of the language tools I'm aware of, I think it would be very useful to be able to access more specific information on the relationships between synonyms. For example, if synonyms could be ranked in terms of how general or specific the concepts they describe are relative to the current term.

Having 17cm Scissors Left in You After an Opeartion

Last night on tv I saw a shocking report about a woman, Pat Skinner, who had 17cm surgical scissors left inside her after colon surgery, and had to put up with it for 18 months until the problem was diagnosed. She's now trying to take legal action, and is -- surprisingly, you'd think -- having troubles doing so. The story has been covered by various news sources, including TheAustralian, and TheTimesOfIndia.
The transcript of the show I watched is available at the 7:30 Report Website.

The thing that really struck a nerve with me was how much trouble she had getting people to belive she was in real pain and that there was something wrong. But it's not just her - so many people over the years have had real, serious problems, and yet people thought they were just making it up. Worse than just having to put up with the problem, they were treated like fools for having it. Fibromyalgia is one example
(unfortunately, I couldn't find the excellent site on it I'd read a few years ago).

Here's an except from the report I saw on tv:

ANDREW GEOGHEGAN: Pat Skinner complained to her specialist and her GP.

She couldn't stand, sit or lie down without being in extreme pain.

PAT SKINNER: I did complain and I was told, you know, it takes time.

This was the thing I kept hearing.

It takes time to recover.

I think they thought that maybe I was making a fuss.

I think, yeah.

ANDREW GEOGHEGAN: You felt guilty about that?

PAT SKINNER: Yeah, I think they felt, well, you know, you're going through depression.

ANDREW GEOGHEGAN: Pat Skinner was put on anti-depressants and given counselling which was particularly galling given that she had worked as a professional grief counsellor herself.


DON SKINNER: My wife instigated the X-ray.

That's the amazing thing that in all this time, not one person would suggest the fundamental thing like an X-ray.
As you can see, this sort of thing really gets to me! I strikes a particularly strong personal nerve because I've had really chronic health problems (related to my jaw alignment) that went undiagnosed for many years, and the problems that have come from it -- the extent of which no one really belives. In my view, most people try to pigeonhole you into whatever categories they're used to seeing, and if they can't, then either you're making it up or its your fault. People have a really strong tendancy to blame things on your personality, rather than even accept that it could be something you don't have any control over.

Monday, April 19, 2004

Thoughts on Our Thinking Tendencies [-]

A quick write-up of some thoughts on some tendencies we seem to follow in our thinking. Nothing rigorous.

Two people are in conversation. Person A makes a comment to Person B about their country's favourite sport. Person A says that people in the country are way to devoted to the sport, and place way to much importance on it. Person B responds claiming that just because Person A doesn't like the sport, they can't say that it's right or wrong.

While Person B's response may be right in its own way, it is flawed as a response to Person A's point. Person B's response is framing the issue as an aesthetic one, and implying that Person A was saying it was wrong to like or play the sport. What Person A was saying was not so much about the sport, however, but about the level or importance or devotion accorded to it (e.g. because the level of devotion given to it draws resources away from more important issues).

I think Person B's mistake is quite a common one: I think we have a stronger tendency to perceive issues in terms of the subjects involved -- the sport itself -- than to see it in a "contextualised" fashion -- the importance accorded to that sport by the society. In the case of Person A's statement, they're talking about a property of the relationship between the sport and the society.

I'm not sure yet exactly how I'd define "contextualised", but by it I mean things like: seeing things as a system, and seeing the properties of the system, seeing the processes going on, seeing the relationships between the elements of that system, and seeing the nature of our own perception of the system.

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Things and Talking About Them

Jon Udell writes, on songs, movies and other things: "We crave access not only to intellectual products, but also to other people's experience and understanding of those products." Absolutely! And moreso, in my case.

I think I enjoy movie reviews (Filthy Critic, The Movie Show) more than the movies themselves. I've spent so much time on sites like reading book reviews, and I used to spend a lot of time in newsagents reading music and computer game magazines.

I think I like the discussion about things so much, partially because its like a form of gossip, and partially because it builds up a sense of anticipation about things, which is much easier to do than its fulfillment.

Friday, April 16, 2004

The Google Operating System

Kottke, quoting Rich Skrenta:

Google is a company that has built a single very large, custom computer. It's running their own cluster operating system. They make their big computer even bigger and faster each month, while lowering the cost of CPU cycles. It's looking more like a general purpose platform than a cluster optimized for a single application.

While competitors are targeting the individual applications Google has deployed, Google is building a massive, general purpose computing platform for web-scale programming.

This computer is running the world's top search engine, a social networking service, a shopping price comparison engine, a new email service, and a local search/yellow pages engine. What will they do next with the world's biggest computer and most advanced operating system?.

Our Digital Prostheses' Expanding Awareness

Two recent news items:

AT&T Wireless has announced a music recognition service (DailyWireless, via Slashdot). If a song's playing on the radio and you want to know its name, you can use your mobile to dial the service number, hold the phone up to the sound for a while, and voila, it'll tell you the song name. According to the DailyWireless article, it's pretty accurate.

You're in a big city, you're lost and you want to know where you are. With the software service being developed by Cambrige researchers, you can take a photo with your mobile of where you're standing, send the photo to it, and it'll tell you where you are (and give you directions for where you want to go, and so on. NewScientist). The system has some useful capabilities, because from the picture it can tell which direction you're facing, and can incorporate this information into the directions (e.g. "Turn 90 degrees to your right, walk 100 meters...").

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Thoughts on the Algorithmic View of Reality [-]

Here I'm continuing on with the topic of viewing reality through algorithms, which I talked about in my last post.

Finding decent examples and building a vocabulary/model to talk about them is what I'm trying to do at the moment. Here's some in-progress thoughts. I'll call the view that gives prominence to objects over algorithms the Objectual View (and the alternative view the Algorithmic View).

Characteristic of the Objectual View, things happen as a result of a directly perceivable cause-and-effect, where we can see that an object or a group of objects is causing some thing to happen. Typically, the cause follows directly after the effect - that's why we can directly perceive it. The Objectual View seems to be the way we're designed to see the world; we have to learn to see it through the Algorithmic View.

In the Algorithmic View, things still happen as a direct result of cause-and-effect, but the chains of cause-and-effect are less visible. I haven't yet nailed a clear picture of what's going on, but I can describe some of the cause-and-effect relationships that might be present in these cases. Unfortunately, I'll have to leave an explanation of these relationships for a later point in time. These are cause-and-effects that cross over levels of organisation, effects that accumulate through some chain of interactions, effects that run, or seem to run, contra to the "purpose" of an object (in the case of entities with intentions, these are often 'ecnomic' in nature). Often the effects will be temporally distributed from the causes.

When considering the Algorithmic View against the Objectual View, I think I can, as a first cut, distill it down to the following. There are various rules of cause-and-effect working at various levels of reality. Rather than cause and effect being two points connected by the arrow of causality, we could visualise it as a tree, with causes being leaves, combined causes being branch points, and the ultimate effect being the trunk. Rather than connected points of cause and effect spanning a distinct chunk of time, the tree, from leaves to trunk, may span physical distance, time and lie across the workings of unrelated proceses, and it can do so, and still result in the ultimate effect, as long as that distance, time, and those unrelated processes, are not enough to throw out the algorithm and stop it from causing the effect. That is, the algorithm is not 'implemented' by a single thing, and can be very dispersed (that is, by interactions that occur here and there, with all sorts of things happening inbetween). What we have touble appreciating, is that they doesn't need to be any co-operation, any working towards the effect.

Another way of thinking about this is that there are various ways that Algorithms can be implemented by lower-level entities, and these range across a spectrum from 'most direct' (two end-points connected by cause-and-effect') all they way to very 'dispersed' implementations. As we move across this spectrum towards the more dispersed implementations, we are loosening the constraints on how directly the algorithm is being implemented.

It's clear that this kind of thinking has been around for a while. Emergent systems, emergent laws, systems-based thinking all share this type of view. It crops up in places such as evolutionary theory, economics and no doubt many more! What I'm wondering, though, is how strongly it has been reduced to its essential nature and how forcefully (that is, directly and explicitly) that nature has been stated?

Oh, a part of the picture I've missed out in the above description is how these algorithms can exist in the first place. That's definitely part of what makes it hard to see things in this way. I'll try talking about that sometime soon.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Perceiving Reality Through Algorithms [-]

Recently it occurred to me that a lot of my thinking seems to be grounded in perceiving reality primarily in terms of algorithms rather than objects. Most people seem to do the opposite. I would argue -- and I will try to in the future -- that reality really is most accurately seen as a bunch of algorithms, and that it is wrong to give a special status to contiguous objects. It might seem that I'm talking about the fundamental nature of reality here -- at the level of physics -- rather than everyday reality, but that's not what I'm trying to do. I'm talking about reality on "all levels". Take economics, for example. A lot of economic thinking requires perceiving of things in terms of algorithms, and often runs contra to the more intuitive perception of reality in terms of individual objects. I think there's a lot of other examples, too, but I'm not going to try and develop a list right now.