I just read Karl Popper's paper "What is Dialectic?" in the Conjectures and Refutations collection of his writings, and it seems like an excellent example of the interaction between language and thought and the problems that can be thus caused. I'd highly recommend taking a look if you're interested in these matters.
Monday, May 31, 2004
Sunday, May 30, 2004
Another excellent, forward-looking but practical article from Jon Udell: Smart logging can capture a wealth of compelling data. The trick is in deciding what to log. Also an accompanying, and equally good, weblog post, elaborating on the state of logging in Windows.
Posted by James at 10:37 pm
Monday, May 24, 2004
"You're being illogical"
"Your argument is illogical"
"My argument is completely logical"
Logic, or a lack thereof, seems to the standard mark of evidence held up for or against an argument. So, it supposedly goes: an argument is invalidated by being illogical, validated by being logical. If someone is drawing an invalid conclusion or presenting an invalid argument, it's because there is a fault in their logic. This explanation, I want to argue, doesn't always make sense.
Logic can certainly take the blame in some situations. For example, a person may take p to be true and ultimately know that if p is true then q must also be true, but still deny that q is true. Or they may beg the question, by assuming the conclusion they're trying to justify. But frequently, mistakes can't be blamed on logic.
Perceptual problems and inaccurate knowledge can be at fault. I won't talk much about the former here, but will note that Edward de Bono has (see his book "I am Right, You are Wrong"). Logical rules such as "if x then y" (e.g. "if the afternoon sky is red then the weather will be fine in the next day") represent knowledge about the world. They say that the world is such that a red sky in the afternoon is an indicator that the weather will be fine the next day. "if x then y" is an encoding of knowledge.
Flawless logic can lead to mistakes, if the knowledge encoded by statements such as "if x then y" is inaccurate. While it may seem obvious that flawed knowledge can lead to mistaken conclusions, this reason seems frequently overlooked. Someone may be accused of overlooking a simple fact, but in cases where there's a more subtle problem with their knowledge of how the world works and is, their mistake is far more likely to be attributed to being illogical.
This actually takes us back to the issue of perception. I'm sure we've all experienced situations where a conclusion seems obvious to us, but not matter many times we enumerate the facts and outline the chain of reasoning, the other person just don't gettit. The conclusion that's usually drawn is that the person is "illogical", as if there's some problem with their logic.
Illogical they may be, but more frequently, I think, they just have different knowledge of the world. The other person's logic may be impeccable, but they may have quite different knowledge -- quite a different view of the way it is and works -- giving them no reason to accept your conclusions and leading them to different ones. They're perceiving the situation differently. Thus, effectively criticising their view would require criticism of their underlying beliefs (knowledge) about the world.
It would be useful to investigate the frequency of the various causes of mistakes in reasoning. The conclusion that I've drawn from my experience is that perceptual and knowledge problems are far more common than logical problems, but this is something for systematic investigation to determine (it may have already done so!).
What I can say is that when we see that statements like "if x then y" are primarily encodings of knowledge, it's easier for us to see that any long chain or reasoning is primarily composed of knowledge, and thus that if we're looking for the causes behind mistaken conclusions, knowledge should be a big potential candidate.
Sunday, May 23, 2004
A PhD student has developed for their thesis the first robot capable of folding origami (EurekaAlert).
As the article points out, Origami folding is deceptively simple and requires quite complex movements, particularly to deal with the supple flexibility of paper. Origami folding requires the simultaneous coordination of multiple sets of motion. As the student's supervisor says "Origami defies description by our current mathematical tools".
I think this work highlights the current state of the art in robotics and how far we've got left to go, and it suggests that if we if we can tackle some of these more fuild types of movements, a lot of intresting capabilities will be opened up to us.
Monday, May 17, 2004
The Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics  makes more sense to me than the Copenhagen interpretation. The latter seems a too ad-hoc -- why should reality give the notions of 'measurement' and 'observer' such fundemantal status? I can't say I know that much about quantum physics, but then -- and assuming my understanding of the Copenhagen interpretation is accurate -- my criticism is not based on the details of the physics.
A stronger way of framing my objection occurred to me recently (and I've been wondering what, if anything, has been written about it). This is the view that the Copenhagen interpretation goes against the theory of evolution. Surprising as it may seem, the theory of evolution should have the higher priority, for it is more fundamental. It would be easy to misinterpret my statement that the theory of evolution is more fundamental as saying it's more fundametal than quantum mechanics. That's not what I'm saying. I'm saying, I think it should be considered more fundamental than any type of interpretation of quantum mechanics, which themselves are not reliant on the details of quantum mechanics (or at least the Copenhagen interpretation doesn't seem to be).
I'm not here to argue the validity of the theory of evolution nor of its universality, as plenty of people have done a good job of that, notably Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett; I'm going to take it here as a given. From an evolutionary viewpoint, our universe started out with no real organisation, just "random interactions", and through evolutionary forces working over the progression of time the organisation we see in the world today has been constructed. This means that concepts such as observers, measurements and consciouness once did not exist, and have come into existance through the piecemeal construction of evolutionary forces.
From this point of view, the Copenhagen interpretation seems too arbirary. The Copenhagen interpretation makes it seem that the workings of nature presuppose the existance entities that did not appear on the scene until things were well underway. Now, I know this doesn't say demonstrate that the Copenhagen interpretation is wrong, but I do think it highlights something people don't think about when considering how we might interpret quantum mechanics, and I do think it makes the Copenhagen interpretation seem a lot more arbitrary.
 interestingly, Hugh Everett, the developer of the Many-Worlds interpretation, was the father of Mark Oliver Everett, "E", from the band the Eels.
Wednesday, May 05, 2004
In my last post on this topic -- of how language can shape thought -- I promised a follow-up, but this isn't it! I have been working, here and there, on that followup, but it's taking longer than I had thought, and it's not done yet. (The first two posts on this topic can be found here and here).
This post centers around a simple example. Imagine that person A has presented the following argument to an audience:
If a person's argument has property Q, then it is an invalid argument, and as such, is worthless.Person B raises an issue with this, and after explaining it, sums up by saying "If something's has Q then it's worthless".
We can look at the two statements in logical terms. A's comment is "If has Q, then invalid argument, then worthless". B's comment is "If has Q, then worthless". The content of B's statement can be derived by A using standard logical operations. In logic, if we have a statement saying "X then Y then Z" implies that "X then Y". Thus, B's comment says nothing that A's didn't. B's comment seems such an obvious consequence of A's that it seems a little pointless for them to have even said it.
But B knew what they were doing. In fact, Person B had a distaste for A's idea, and was using their comment to hold up A's argument as being silly. I'll explain why in a moment, because before I can do so I need to divulge something I've been holding back about A's argument. A's argument is such that the connection between the premise "If something has property Q" and the conclusion "is invalid argument" is not intuitively obvious.
An intuitively obvious connection won't require any explanation. If I say that "If you leave your door unlocked at night, then there is a greater chance your house will be robbed" the connection between the premise and the conclusion is intuitively obvious. But if I say that "eating certain high-fat foods can help you lose weight", hardly intuivtively obvious, you'll be wanting some explanation to show how that could be, otherwise, it's likely to sound a bit ridiculous.
The logical structure and truth of a statement is unaffected by the obviousness of the connection between the elements of that statement. That B's comment is a derivable consequence of A's is no way effected by the not-at-all intuitively obvious connection in the first step of A's argument.
I'm almost ready to put it all together now. I can now return to the statements made by A and B, and present them again in light of what we now know. In A's talk, they spent a fair bit of time explaining why that not-at-all intuitively obvious connection between "If something has property Q" and the conclusion "is invalid argument". Some people may have been convinced, but others not. After explaining why this they are thus invalid arguments, A went about explaining if something's an invalid argument then it's worthless.
Having heard A's reasons, an audience member was in a position to understand why "If has property Q" then "is invalid argument" (whether they bought this argument is another matter), and they were also in a position to see why "If is an invalid argument" then "is worthless". Thus, as a consequence of this, there were in a position to see the argument as a whole, and that "If has property Q" then "worthless" (which happened also to be what B said).
We can now see why B's statement was meant to ridicule A's argument by making it look silly. If A had just said "If has property B then it's an invalid argument" without explaining why, it would've sounded ridiculous. B's is making A's argument sound even worse, by making it look like A's simply stating "If some has property B, then it's worthless". B's statement left out all the supporting argument, and just presented to statement to the light of intuition. To intuition, the conclusion that "is an invalid argument" sounded ridiculous, but the conclusion "is worthless", which is a much stronger conclusion, consequently sounds even more ridiculous.
...and I'd spend some more time working on this post, to try and make the point clearer and to flesh out some conclusions, but it's getting quite late (it took me about an hour to write the post you see here, so it's now ten to one in the morning). I'll leave you with a point I hope to flesh out more in the future: the content of a statement matters, but so does the form in which it's presented.... that latter may not matter when it comes to content, but it does when it comes to interpretation... interpretation can make a big difference... interpretation matters.
To footnote or not to footnote? That's a question commonly faced by non-fiction writers. There's a number of answers to this, all of which address the issue of how to deal with information that's of relevance but which clashes with the main flow of the text. I want to describe an approach I haven't seen before (which may or may not already exist), but first I'll recap the approaches I'm aware of.
I can think of five different approaches, most of which are variations of a few basic themes. If footnotes at the bottom of the page are not included, a reference may still be included in the text, but the note itself may be relegated to the end of the chapter or the end of the book. Alternatively, such notes are left out altogether, and yet another solution is for notes to be included at the end of the chapter/book but not being referenced in the main text. In this case, the text the note applies to is identified by a page number and sometimes a short quote to identify what the note applies to.
Now for the approach I haven't seen before. It follows the same line as the "no references in text, but the notes are included at the end of the book" approach. With that approach, the quote of text included with the note can help you to know what the note applies to, but it usually doesn't include enough information for you to appreciate the note in full, so you have to skip back to the relevant page then go back and read the note. The approach I'm suggesting ought to avoid the need for this skipping back and forth.
The idea is to make the notes section self-contained. The entry for each note would, as a lead in to that note, recap on all the relevant ideas from the book. This way we still avoid breaking the flow of the main text, but in addition we also avoid breaking the flow when reading a note. I'd also suggest this notes section be placed at the end of each chapter, so its there for you to read immediately after reading the chapter. Done this way, the notes section would have a narrative feel, like the author was recaping on what they'd been talking about in the main text and pointing out where what they said there needs qualification, references to further information, and so on.
So I guess the question is: is this approached used anywhere, or has it been tried but found lacking in some way, or is it still waiting to be tried out?
Tuesday, May 04, 2004
Scientists at Kings College in London have been able to, in mice, "coax stem cells to grow into teeth within only a few weeks" (ChannelNewsAisa).
The article says that "[t]he procedure entails taking stem cells from a living being, nurturing them in a laboratory until they form a ball of new cells known as a bud, and inserting the bud into the gum where the new tooth is needed". The scientists who developed the technique hope to "make the technology available to the general public within five years".
Monday, May 03, 2004
Eugene Eric Kim has written A Manifesto for Collaborative Tools, in which he argues that there is a pressing need to improve our collaborative tools, and this need boils down to being "people-centric when designing and building applications, and [working] with other developers to make our tools more interoperable." The article elaborates on these themes and points to some directions for addressing the issues. He ends with a handy list of references to related work. I agree that it's an important issue, and I think he has some worthwhile things to say. Some of my comments on it follow.
Regarding interoperability, this is how we should be trying to make tools work: "[y]our PIM application may already allow you to link a person's name in your calendar to that person's contact information within the same application. However, it should also allow you to link to that person's contact information in another application, to the email with directions to the meeting place, to the document containing the agenda, to the instant messenging transcript where you arranged the meeting, and so forth, all independent of the tools or file formats being used."
I think his notion of a shared conceptual framework, as a solution for the interoperability issue, is an important one. To illustrate this notion, while there a numerous relational database systems, they all have at their core the relational model, and can all speak SQL. Kim suggests that a shared conceptual framework for collaborative software "would provide a common vocabulary for thinking about and discussing these tools, and would also reveal opportunities for standardization". He goes on to provide some good examples of the elements that could go into such a framework, including backlinks ("links from other documents pointing to the document in question"), fine-grained linking, and a standard document model ("do for documents what relational algebra and SQL did for databases").
Kim suggests that XML, in itself, is not the best way to provide the kind of features he talks about. His criticism of XML is of it being a syntax for representing information: "[t]he syntax used to express a document is ultimately irrelevant. What's needed is a standard way to express and manipulate the fundamental constructs of a document, regardless of the syntax". He then explains why a better solution would involve "a standard language for expressing graph-like data models (such as RDF) and standard APIs for manipulating these data models". In such a solution "the actual syntax of the data would be rendered mostly irrelevant". What it would enable us to do is "things such as [creating] a link from a word processing document to a function in source code without having to translate either document into some intermediate format."
Kim notes a useful bit of practical advice in relation to user interfaces. As Kim points out, the user-interface is one obvious way to make software more people-centric. When considering why the software user-interfaces are not better, he claims that "[t]he problem with usability is not a lack of good ideas; it's that most of these ideas never make it into real applications" and suggest one solution would be for [r]esearchers [to write] plugins for widely-used open source applications, such as the Mozilla Web browser, instead of developing prototypes from scratch", also suggesting that "[o]pen source developers should be scouring academic publications for ideas, rather than simply duplicating the user interfaces in commercial products."
A minor niggle, but I was a bit surprised to see him make a rather unfair claim against the semantic web idea "[w]hile the futuristic applications promised by the Semantic Web have failed to crop up, some of the resulting work is quietly making an impact in different ways" - unfair, because if we're talking about its practical impact its clearly still rather early days!
Posted by James at 11:28 pm
(Added, 23.5.04: Paying attention to initial impressions of phenomena helps preserve an accurate account of them. Without such recording, our later recollection is typically a gross simplification yet we rarely realise that they are. Thus preservation is important if we are attempting to explain the phenomena, for we want a detailed and accurate account of what we are to explain, or similarly if we in some way need to reason about the phenomena. Too often people will look back at their recollection of a phenomena, thinking it is accurate and sufficiently detailed, while it is not, and end up developing an explanation that only covers toy situations and is useless -- often even as a starting point -- for explaining the real things in the world).
Lafcadio Hearn, quoting Basil Hall Chamberlain, in Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan
Do not fail to write down your first impressions as soon as possible, they are evanescent, you know; they will never come to you again...I didn't actually come across this quote through that book (which I haven't read), but through its mention in Peter Carey's "My Life as a Fake". I think its point is of importance in trying construct a coherent picture of anything, particularly your own thoughts. I'm not sure yet how to make my point, and my main purpose in jotting down this quote is so as to not forget it.