Monday, December 26, 2005

Paul Graham: Good and Bad Procrastination

Paul Graham writes:

The most impressive people I know are all terrible procrastinators. So could it be that procrastination isn't always bad?

Most people who write about procrastination write about how to cure it. But this is, strictly speaking, impossible. There are an infinite number of things you could be doing. No matter what you work on, you're not working on everything else. So the question is not how to avoid procrastination, but how to procrastinate well.

There are three variants of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on (a) nothing, (b) something less important, or (c) something more important. That last type, I'd argue, is good procrastination.

read the rest...
Once again, pretty good.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Article: 'The Probabalistic Age'

Chris Anderson writes:

Q: Why are people so uncomfortable with Wikipedia? And Google? And, well, that whole blog thing?

A: Because these systems operate on the alien logic of probabilistic statistics, which sacrifices perfection at the microscale for optimization at the macroscale.

Q: Huh?

A: Exactly. Our brains aren't wired to think in terms of statistics and probability. We want to know whether an encyclopedia entry is right or wrong. We want to know that there's a wise hand (ideally human) guiding Google's results. We want to trust what we read.

read the rest...

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Understanding Cooking - Erica De Mane's "Pasta Imrpovvisata"

I've always wanted cooking books that focused less on exact recipes and more on helping the reader getting a good understanding of how to cook, so they can better 'stand on their own two feet' in the kitchen.

So I was pleased when I came across Erica De Mane's "Pasta Improvvisata: How to Improvise in Classic Italian Style" at the local library. So far it seems pretty good.

The focus on understanding the recipes is done under the rubric of being able to improvise with them.

Still, I think it leaves open more scope for helping the reader to get a deep understanding of how to cook (and not, BTW, as a replacement to experience, but as an augment to it), and I would like to go into more detail on my thoughts on this in the future.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Talkman PSP Game for Learning Chinese, Japanese, Korean and English

Talkman is a game for learning Chinese, Japanese, Korean or English for the PSP. According to this review, it's pretty good.

It focuses on everyday language, tests your voice input through the microphone, and will translate situational phrases into the language you choose.

I wouldn't mind something like this for learning Chinese, though I don't have a PSP. At the moment I'm learning it using the Pimsleur CDs, which are also quite good.

Some Firefox Extensions I Downloaded

Some Firefox extensions I installed, after reading this article 'The Firefox Hacks You Must Have'. Seem pretty good so far.

A delicious extension.

Down Them All
Adds new advanced downloading capabilities to your browser.
DtA lets you download in just one click all the links or images contained in a webpage; to refine your preferences you can use fully customizable filters, and select just the kind of files you really want to download.

Nuke Anything Enhanced
Allow hiding of almost anything -for example before printing - via context menu "Remove Object".

Tab Mix Plus
enhances Firefox's tab browsing capabilites. It comes included with features such as duplicating tabs, controlling tab focus, undoclosetab and many more

Saves your tabs, so that if you quit your browser, or it crashes, you come back up with the content of your tabs perfectly preserved.

Quote Related to Software As Tool With Unpredictable Uses

Just noting down this bit from the article "Question (is) Everything: Design that answers unimagined questions" by Michele Tepper:

Thomas Pynchon, offering advice to aspiring writers, said that "as a corollary to writing about what we know maybe we should be getting familiar with our ignorance." Pynchon's advice resonates not just for writers but for thinkers and creators of all sorts. Getting familiar with our ignorance as product designers should mean, among other things, that we accept that our creations will wind up as the answers to questions that haven't been formulated yet, and that we find ways to let users write what they know on our creations as well.
...Just a note for myself, related to the topic that software is a tool, and you should acknowledge, when designing it, the fact that you can't predict the sorts of situations it will be used in, the kinds of uses it will be put to.

Javascript Imagine Resizing and Wrapping For HTML Pages

Say you've got a bunch of photos arranged in a grid on your webpage -- this javascript code allows them to be smoothly resized. It also line-wraps the images, to take up all of the horizontal space.

Quite nice.

Follow the link to see an interactive demo.

Torvalds Mention of Oversimplification

I commented earlier on the notion of simplicity, and one of the things I talked about was how it can, deleteriously, become treated as an end in itself (I also had a followup to that post, where I talked a bit more about the nature of the sort of concept 'simplicity' is), so I was interested to see a post, mentioned in Reddit, in which Linus Torvalds complains about some of this sort of oversimplification. He says:

This "users are idiots, and are confused by functionality" mentality of Gnome is a disease. If you think your users are idiots, only idiots will use it. I don't use Gnome, because in striving to be simple, it has long since reached the point where it simply doesn't do what I need it to do.

Yes! Toasted Sandwiches, Hello-Kitty Style

That's fantastic. I love it.
(via Reddit)

btw, the site that item is on, Cute Overload is just that. Cute pics of little puppies etc.

Making Shotglasses Out of Ice

How to use a larger cup with a smaller cup inside it to make a shotglass out of ice. I haven't tried it myself, but would be interested to have a go sometime.

(via Reddit)

Friday, December 09, 2005

Helpfully-Hard-to-Turn-Off Flying Alarm Clock

The Blowfly Alarm Clock, via Gizmodo:

When the alarm activates, it spins a propeller and flies up above you making ridiculous noises. The only way to stop it is to wake up, grab it, and set it back down in its docking station.
No idea how well it works. Also not clear where you can buy them from.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Some Yabbering on Review of 'Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture'

I have real problems with the terms left-wing and right-wing. In most circumstances, they're far too vague. Mostly, they're just sloppy collections of political beliefs or attitues that we tend to associate with left-wing or right-wing people.

The worst thing is that, in so much of our culture, 'left-wing/right-wing' is as granular as things get. You're either left-wing or right-wing, and we're going to eagerly throw you into one of those categories as quickly as we can.

I'm not sure how to describe my own views, but there's certainly a lot views from both sides that I disagree with, and some views on each side that I do agree with.

Having said that, I just read a review of Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture, by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter. Sounds somewhat interesting, I wouldn't mind reading it sometime. I'm not necessarily saying I agree with they say.

In the following bit rocounted from the book in the review, there is some stuff I would agree with:

The real problem [with the transformative Left] is that it rejects attainable reforms that would deliver tangible benefits, in favor of either inconsequential countercultural gestures or vast, sweeping projects no one can possibly enact, or even explain. Protecting the environment, for example, is not easy but Heath and Potter argue that it is simple. Pollution is a negative externality, a cost created by factory owners and car drivers but borne by air breathers. The solution is that "all externalities should be internalized" through taxes and tradeable pollution permits. Earth-friendly self-restraint will be promoted far more effectively by taxes that "compensate the farmer whose groundwater gets contaminated thanks to run-off from your garbage in the local dump" than it will by a hundred lectures about the lofty virtues of conservation and recycling.

Environmentalists' reactions to this effective solution, however, range from grudging acquiescence to strident opposition:
[Pollution] permits don't force CEOs to reevaluate their attitude toward nature, or to abandon their single-minded pursuit of profit. They represent, in the eyes of many environmentalists, 'the commodification of nature....'[People] should conserve energy out of virtue [these environmentalists think], rather than because of the size of their electricity bill.
This position, Heath and Potter write, is "just warmed-over countercultural mythology—the critique of mass society in ecological disguise." Thus
the preferred solution to environmental problems is pretty much the same as the countercultural proposals to correct consumerism: individual responsibility through moral education, and individual action through enlightened lifestyle choices. Plant a tree, ride a bike, compost your kitchen waste and save the earth.
Sensible and attainable solutions are dismissed—they can be carried out by people who aren't cool, devaluing the psychic premium now enjoyed by the practitioners of conspicuously correct consumption.

Discovery That Cancer Spreading Involves The Sending Out of 'Envoys'

MSNBC reports that scientists at Cornell University in New York have discovered that:

Instead of a cell just breaking off from a tumor and traveling through the bloodstream to another organ where it forms a secondary tumour, or metastasis, [...] the cancer sends out envoys to prepare the new site.
tumor cells can mobilize normal bone marrow cells, causing them to migrate to particular regions and change the local environment so as to attract and support a developing metastasis.
The research is reported in Nature.

Eric Grohe's Impressively-3D-Looking Building Murals

Here. For example, from this

to this

There's a Strange, Kinda Eerie Quality to this 'Face Panorama'

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Complexity as Qualitative Perceptual Concept

I spoke recently of 'simplicity' as a qualitative perceptual concept, so it should be no surprise that I see 'complexity' as one as well. This post uses 'complexity' to illustrate how it's problematic when you start trying to reason on the basis of such concepts.

A number of people seem to think that for a system to becomes intelligent and self-aware, it just needs to cross some threshold of 'complexity'. Some people seem to talk about CYC in these sorts of terms. That's treating complexity as a kind of 'thing', as if it was a kind of substance, that you can just increase the quantity of.

But it's not just what we would perceive as complexity, per se, that is behind intelligence and self-awareness, but processes that undertake highly specific tasks. That is, it's not any old complexity, but very specific kinds of complex organisations. What you need to understand is what sorts of things those organisations are doing.


I seem to be always noticing
my fingernails are long again
when it feels that I cut them recently

Okay, so this is not meant to be a call for help or something deep and meaningful :-), just a thing to capture one way I perceive the passing of time, and how from that perspective it seems to glide past.

I Don't Think We Realise How Big We Are

Some quick sketching of a way of picturing the consitution of our bodies and brains....

Think of the size of a person compared to an apple. Apples are relatively small, you can hold them in your hand. Something like a fridge is on par with our size. But then there's things like cars and aeroplanes and buildings, which are all larger than us.

And then you can go up in scale to mountains and cities, and oceans. And then again, taking another step outwards there's planets and solar systems. Even our solar system is a speck within a speck (and so on...) in the universe. In our daily lives, and in deep time and space, human beings seem fairly small things.

I think this is part of the reason why many people find it difficult to believe that living things like ourselves, or things with mental lives like ourselves, could be just made out of matter life everything else. When we look at other things on similar size scales to ourselves, there's nothing else that packs in anywhere near as much complexity or sophistication directed towards some purpose. It's difficult to imagine how something as small as a brain could contain our entire mental lives.

But calling our brain 'small' is really just a statement relative to the sorts of scales we are designed and are used to perceiving and considering. Yes, our brain may be so infinitesimal compared to a galaxy, but I don't think we realise just how big, in more meaningful terms, a thing a brain or a body is.

Brains and bodies are made from molecules, and there are vast, vast numbers of molecules involves in any small part of a body of brain, arranged in specific ways in order to bring about the processes of life and cognition. There are trillions1 of cells in the body, and each one of which is a vast complex of "interacting parts". If you view the body from the perspective of an individual cell, it is an incredibly big and complex structure.

UPDATE, 2017: as a thought experiment, consider if the atoms in a typical ant (assume it's 5mm long) were blown up to be 1cm in diameter.  How large would the ant become?  I think the answer to this would help us appreciate just how big and complex even "small" things are.  I posed that question on Quora, and the answer I got was that it'd be approximately 500km long.

[1]. I belive this is correct, though I am not absolutely sure. In any case, it is an undisputably huge number.

Lack of Visible Alternatives Used as Evidence for Purely-Speculative Explanations

Just a quick note that purely-speculative explanations are often justified by an appeal to the lack of alternative explanations. (Sometimes this is in the form of Dawkin's "Appeal to Personal Incredulity".) The problem with this is that it assumes you have complete knowledge and understanding of possible explanations, which is pretty impossible for us finite beings who can't see the future. If you look at history, you can see both how common, and invariably wrong, such claims are.

Potential- and Actual- Explanation Evidence in Relation to Purely Speculative Explanations

In recent posts I've been talking about purely-speculative explanations, which are meant to be explanations that have no supporting evidence. If the explanation was true then it would account for the phenomenon; except we don't have any independent reason to think that it actually is true.

In the most recent of the posts, I tried to -- amongst some other things -- clarify what I meant by evidence for the explanation. I tried to point out that I meant evidence that shows that this particular explanation, out of all the possible ones, is the actual explanation for this phenomenon; but I wasn't happy with my attempt, and this post is an attempt to further clarify.

In that earlier post, I said

One thing I would try to clarify regarding evidence, is that I mean evidence for that points out that the explanation really is the explanation. I think you can make some distinction between between evidence that it is the correct explanation, and information that makes it appear a good or compelling explanation. Whenever there is some phenomenon to be explained, there are always a number of potential explanations, and evidence for a particular explanation is something that actually points to it as the one that is actually true.

For example, say there is some lettuce on the table has been eaten, and there are a number of possible explanations for this. You might believe that the pet rabbit ate the lettuce, and you might back this up with the claim that rabbits like lettuce. It might be true that rabbits like lettuce, but it's not really evidence that the rabbit actually ate the lettuce. Hmm, I'm not sure whether this example really clears things up, but I don't really have time to try to better what I mean.
I would try to clarify that by saying that there are two classes of evidence: potential-explanation evidence, or evendence indicating that this thing could be an explanation, and actual-explanation evidence, or evidence indicating that this thing is the explanation.

First, I can say what I mean by potential-explanation evidence. For anything to count as an explanation, the very least we need to do is show that it could be a potential explanation. The rabbit eating the lettuce is a potential explanation because we think that the rabbit could have had access to it, and it's the kind of thing rabbits do. As is the explanation that a person saw it and put it in the bin.
On the other hand, there would be some 'explanations' that we would probably say are not even valid as potential explanations. That is, explanations that have no potential-explanation evidence, and that have evidence counting against them. For example, if we said that the flower-vase on the table zapped the lettuce leaf with its death-rays, or that lettuce simply dissapears after more than an hour outside of a fridge. Sometimes it might be less clear cut. For example, the explanation that the dog ate the lettuce leaf, when you know that the dog hates to even touch lettuce.

Potential-explanation evidence says that in principle this thing could be the explanation, but it does nothing at all to diminish the likelyhood of alternate explanations. Saying the rabbit likes eating lettuce makes the rabbit a possible explanation, but it gives you no reason to think that it couldn't have just been a person who came into the room, saw the lettuce leaf and threw it in the rubbish bin.

Actual-explanation evidence gives you a compelling reason to think that the actual case of the phenomenon was one and the same as the given explanation. Actual-explanation evidence is not foolproof, of course. It doesn't show, in any absolute sense, that the explanation is correct. Rather, the distinction between it and potential-explanation evidence rests of the basis of your judgement, or that according to some standard of judgement, and what you think makes something either plausible as an explanation or compelling as the actual explanation. I wouldd say that simply being aware of these two types of evidence can help improve reasoning.

I would note that I don't think the distinction between these two types of evidence is the same as that between direct and circumstantial evidence. Circumstantial evidence can be just as strong as direct evidence, and can provide evidence that an explanation is the actual explanation.

I think the importance of making the distinction between these two types of evidence is this: evidence that something is a potential explanation does not count as evidence that it was the actual explanation, and adding more potential-explanation-evidence does not make it any more likely that it was the actual explanation. We can not say that one potential explanation is more likely than another simply because we have more potential-explanation-evidence for it. We are all familiar with cases where something can seem very compelling as a potential explanation and yet not be the actaul explanation.

Sometimes we have to make decisions based upon incomplete information, where we have little or not actual-explanation evidence, and in that case we may use potential-explanation-evidence. That's okay. But we shouldn't think think that the potential-explanation-evidence is actual-explanation evidence. And I think that's where a lot of people run into trouble. They think that if they accumulate more and more potential-explanation-evidence, they are providing more evidence that the explanation is the actual case.

In relation to the notion of purely-speculative explanations, I mean explanations that have no actual-explanation evidence.

(just a note to remind myself to talk later about the distinction/ambiguity between evidence as facts vs evidence as facts+interpretation)

How Google Gets the Most out of their Knowledge Workers

Eric Schmidt and Hal Varian talk about "Google: Ten Golden Rules"

Getting the most out of knowledge workers will be the key to business success for the next quarter century. Here's how we do it at google.
The following is a cut-and-paste point-format summary:

Hire by committee
Cater to their every need
Pack them in (put team members within a few feet of each other)
Make coordination easy
Eat your own dog food
Encourage creativity
Strive to reach consensus
Don't be evil.
Data drive decisions
Communicate effectively.

There are several problems that we (and other companies like us) face.
One is "techno arrogance."
A related problem is the not-invented-here syndrome.
Another issue that we will face in the coming years is the maturation of the company, the industry and our work force
A final issue is making sure that as Google grows, communication procedures keep pace with our increasing scale.
At Google, operations are not just an afterthought: they are critical to the company's success, and we want to have just as much effort and creativity in this domain as in new product development.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Response to Ricky on Purely-Speculative Explanations

This is a response to Ricky's comment on my earlier post 'Perceptual/Cognitive Models Made From Purely-Speculative Explanations'. The comment said:

Interesting article. However, to my mind speculation, even pure speculation as you call it, doesn't necessitate the complete absence of evidence. Rather, speculation is usually performed on the basis of inconclusive or insufficient evidence rather than no evidence at all. Claims made in the total absence of evidence are more closely tied to blind faith or madness. I think most dictionary definitions of the word speculate would agree with this.
Ricky, thanks for taking a critical eye to the post. Though I agree that people tend to associate the term speculation with the notion of speculating on the basis of some limited or inconclusive evidence, at the same time, I think the concept of speculation is compatible with, and includes, situations where there the speculation is not being made on the basis of any evidence.

I had a look at what the Merriam-Webster dictionary says, and I think it does cover cases where there is no evidence for the speculation. There are three relevant meanings (there's a fourth meaning, but it has to do with business risk):
1 a : to meditate on or ponder a subject : REFLECT b : to review something idly or casually and often inconclusively
1 : to take to be true on the basis of insufficient evidence : THEORIZE
2 : to be curious or doubtful about : WONDER <speculates whether it will rain all vacation>
To me these are compatible with having zero evidence for the speculation. You can mediate or ponder on -- or 'to be curious or doubtful about' -- the cause of a phenomenon without having any evidence that the speculative cause is the actual cause. Having zero evidence is the limiting case of 'to take to be true on the basis of insufficient evidence'.

I think one severe limitation of my post was that I didn't make clear enough what I meant by 'evidence' for an explanation. It's a very difficult matter. (I actually think that the evidence for a belief is really a matter of the more general issue of justifications for beliefs, and what the strengths are of different sorts of justifications in different sorts of situations).

One thing I would try to clarify regarding evidence, is that I mean evidence for that points out that the explanation really is the explanation. I think you can make some distinction between between evidence that it is the correct explanation, and information that makes it appear a good or compelling explanation. Whenever there is some phenomenon to be explained, there are always a number of potential explanations, and evidence for a particular explanation is something that actually points to it as the one that is actually true.

For example, say there is some lettuce on the table has been eaten, and there are a number of possible explanations for this. You might believe that the pet rabbit ate the lettuce, and you might back this up with the claim that rabbits like lettuce. It might be true that rabbits like lettuce, but it's not really evidence that the rabbit actually ate the lettuce. Hmm, I'm not sure whether this example really clears things up, but I don't really have time to try to better what I mean.

There's a transitive condition here, as it's easy to have "evidence" which itself is just pure speculation with no evidence for it.

And while it may be difficult to say what constitutes evidence, sometimes it is quite clear cut that there is no evidence, or at least that there is none according to some standard of what constitutes evidence, which the person with the belief may even claim to accept.

One other thing about my original post - although I presented a pretty negative take, on purely speculative explanations, I should also have mentioned that they aren't bad per se -- they're bad when the belief holder doesn't realised or won't admit that the belief is purely specultive. Sometimes they are necessary. When you're trying to explain a phenomenon, you may come up with some explanations that are, at least initially, purely speculative. But of course, the next task is to see whether there is any evidence for or against them.

Friday, December 02, 2005

ToastaBags - Make Toasted Sandwiches in Your Toaster

These reusable bags are made out of woven fiberglass. I have to wonder, though, how many toasters are have wide enough slots to fit the thickness of two pieces of bread plus fillings.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Perceptual/Cognitive Models Made From Purely-Speculative Explanations

Some sketching...

If there is no supporting evidence for a belief, then a belief that it's true is pure speculation. We can denote beliefs with no supporting evidence, and any claims expressing them, as being purely-speculative.

If I don't know what is currently in my laundry, and I say that there is a pink elephant in it, I have no reason to believe that this is actually the case and I am making a purely speculative claim.

It's often hard to say a purely-speculative claim is wrong -- how do I know that there isn't an elephant in my landry right now? -- but if we can see that the claim is purely-speculative then we are unlikely to give it much credence.

We might expect that it'd be obvious if a claim was purely-speculative, but in fact I don't think that's always the case. I think that it is less obvious when the purely-speculative belief is an explanation of some phenomenon, and even less obvious when that purely-speculative explanation consitutes our perceptual/cognitive model of the phenomenon.

I think a far greater proprotion of our knowledge than is commonly believed is in fact not knowledge in the normal sense, but explanations. Much of our memory is like this. As is a lot of what comes to mind when we want/need to justify something. I think what I'm more concerned with here is the case when we observe a phenomenon and develop an explanation for it. A purely-speculative explanation does not have any supporting evidence. By definition, a purely-speculative explanation will involve some entities or properties or behaviour that we can not or have not seen.

Sometimes this is fairly subtle. There were many purely-speculative explanations of those points of light in the night sky that we know as stars -- explanations in temrs of gods, pinholes which light shined out of, et). We can see those points of light, but of course we can not see them and their context clearly. The explanations invoked invisible things in or associated with them.

Most historical beliefs about the nature of the natural world are purely-speculative explanations.

I think it is harder to see a belief is purely-speculative when that belief is an explanation. Or at least, such beliefs are easier to take on board. Historically, it's clear that people were Damn-Sure about all sorts of purely-speculative explanations. You could probably even say that people hold purely-speculative beliefs with even more vigour than ones that have supporting evidence.

I think part of their appeal is simply that they provide an explanation. This can simplify matters, bring order to disorder. And it can, without too much effort, be seen as a kind of evidence for it -- evidence for its correctness because it accounts for something.

But, you might ask, doesn't the fact that it provides an explanation actually give it some level of credance? That seems to be a fairly widely held belief, but history shows that purely-speculative explanations are much more likely to be wrong than right.

In fact I think it's quite easy to come up with a false purely-speculative explanation. To account for the phenomenon it just needs to invoke entities/properties that "just are". That is, some sort of essence. Often, this involves intetional agents of some sort. Why does the sun move across the sky? Because there's a god who pulls it across with his flying chariot. Intentional agents that just do stuff are a commonplace occurrence in our everyday lives, and from that it can seem reasonable to invoke them elsewhere.

I think that once we get used to an explanation, it can be come habitual, and we can start to efforlessly start thinking of the phenomenon in terms of that explanation. It can become an integral part of our perception of the phenomenon.

An explanation is buried most deeply when it essentially consitutes the perceptual/cognitive model of the phenomenon. I think that in such cases it just seems like you know the nature of the item. It doesn't seem be that what you have is just an explanation to account for phenomena, and a purely-speculative one at that (i suppose you could say that it's not just purely-speuclative explanations that are problematic in this situation, though I expect they are more common, because if you've got at least some evidence I think you are much more likely to be aware that you're dealing with an explanation).

Our perception is such that we tend to project our perceptual/cognitive models out onto what we -- to use vision as an example -- 'see'. We treat them as part of what is out there, as if we are directly perceiving them.

In vision, we don't really just 'see' some 'raw' image, just blobs of colours at different positions in the visual field, we 'see' a perception of the scene in terms of our perceptual/conceptual concepts. We see lines, objects, depth. We don't just see a face arranged in a particular configuration, we see an 'angry' face. And so on.

We even 'see' hidden things. If we catch part of a coke can, our mind fills in the missing part of the coke logo. We perceive things about poeple's states of mind from their words and facial expressions. It's all unconscious and automatic. What is completely invisible to us can see to be quite real and 'there' and seem quite tangible to us. (Information, as it is usually conceived, is such a thing -- we can see encodings of information, but no one has ever seen information itself -- and I would suggest that it is purely speculative, but that's another story).

Sometimes our perceptual/cognitive models can actually affect what we perceive. Like when we're reading something in a book or a sign and we actually mistake a word for what we were expecting to see. Analogues of this happen in what we hear. (Note that if we're not consciously on the look out for these misperceptions, we can easily not take note of them when they happen, so we shouldn't necessarily expect that we would be able to recall them having happened to ourselves).

When a purely speculative explanation consitutes our percpetual/mental model of a phenomena -- whether we have developed it ourselves or picked it up from someone else, or it is innate -- it can become its own justification. We invoke the entities of the explanation all the time as part of our mental descriptions of what is going on. We lose sight of the fact that this is not what the phenomena is like, but just an explanation, and it becomes simply how we see that phenomena -- so of course it is right. The belief in its correctness is based on a circular argument.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Notes on What Qualitative Perceptual Concepts Are

In the last post, I wrote a few notes on 'simplicity' as a 'qualitative perceptual concept'. Here I want to write a few more notes on what I mean by a qualitative perceptual concept.

These are very rough notes, and no doubt not very intelligible to anyone else.

We perceive things in terms of concepts. Our perceptual/cognitive systems perceive items in terms of concepts. These concepts are not there directly in terms of the items, but are part of a 'model' of the nature of things in the world. In terms of interactions, there is a task and there is how it realises it, and there are properties of this.

A perceptual concept is really a specific set of concepts and properties with certain values. It's like a template. When a particular item matches this template, we say that the item has this perceptual concept.

What this means is that a perceptual concept like simplicity is something we know through its effects. We don't necessarily know exactly why something is 'simple' and what 'simple' means. It is qualitative because we do not have conscious access to the details of the template.

'Simple' is a perceptual concept that really has to do with how we stand in realtion to the item; it's not an intrinsic property of the item. Whether we would call an item simple depends on our percpetual and cognitive properties.

There are other percpetual concepts that do actually have to do with the item itself. For example, something that is intelligent is not something to do with the perceiver (of course, different perceivers may dispute whether something is intelligent or not, but this doesn't mean that actual intelligence of something is related to the perceiver). For such concepts, our perception can notice that there's there's this property there in the item, but knowing the effects, as we do with perceptual concepts, is quite different to actually knowing what in the item causes it to have that property. That is, we don't know what intelligence actually is.

Sketching on Simplicity As Qualitative Perceptual Concept

I read this Fast Company article The Beauty of Simplicity

Marissa Mayer, who keeps Google's home page pure, understands that less is more. Other tech companies are starting to get it, too. Here's why making things simple is the new competitive advantage.

And I thought I'd write up some thoughts regarding the notion of 'simplicity'. This is really just a collection of notes, some initial sketching.

In software development, software user-interfaces and design, there's a lot of talk around about simplicity. In the latter two categories, Google's main page and Apple's iPod are common examples. I think this is, on the whole, good, but sometimes I also think Simplicity is treated as a fairly mindless slogan.

As a concept, 'simplicity' is what you could call a qualitative perceptual concept. We look at or interact with something and we get this qualitative feeling that it is simple. But we have trouble going past this qualitative feeling and expressing exactly what it is that gives it simplicity. I think this level of understanding is a bit too vague for pratical terms.

Simplicity seems to be associated with the number of features the item has. But I think that's only a rough correlation, and it's not really what causes things to be 'simple' or 'complex'. Simplicity is not simply having fewer features, and complexity is not simply having more features.

I think that what we call simplicity is really a matter of good design: design that gest the right trade offs for our perceptual and conceptual capabilities, for the sorts of uses we put the software of device to, etc. What we really need is a concrete, sharp understanding of what creates good design, and what doesn't.

The problem with qualatative perceptual is when we start to reasoning in terms them, especially if we are not critical enough when doing so. If we start reasoning back from our qualiatative picture of simplicity as number of features, we start concluding things like a larger number of features as being out-of-hand bad.

Making this worse, when we come to realise recognise something as important, we can be too eager to apply it. It's like saying that when all you've got is a hammer, everything becomes a nail. We start to see it as an end in itself, not simply as an important factor among others.

We tend to associate sophistication with complexity, but these are not necessarily the same. I’m reminded of what Edward Tufte says in his book Envisioning Information, that to make information simpler and easier to digest, the simple-minded view is to give the user less information, where in fact, giving them more information can actually make it easier.

Also, when we're thinking in terms of such qualitative concepts, there's no check on things becoming too subjective. For example, we can falsely attribute out difficultites conceptualising and getting the hang of something that works differently to its complexity. It might not be any more complex. The problem is, when we talk about simplicity and complexity, we're talking about our experience, not the thing itself.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Article: Turning academia into a cafeteria

In the LA Times, Russell Jacoby writes that "offering students a buffet of bogus 'choices' only undermines intellectual integrity and corrodes academic freedom."

The following are some of the main points.

...We live in a choice-addled society. The jargon of choice, a second cousin of diversity and multiculturalism, undermines intellectual integrity and coherence. "Choice" and "diversity" are universal passwords that unlock all doors. Who can oppose them without appearing authoritarian?


The notion was seductive, but it opened the way to teach anything and everything in the name of airing a dispute. Were television situation comedies great literature? Teach the conflict.


But the jargon of choice and diversity actually corrodes academic freedom, which once referred to the freedom of college instructors to teach what they considered salient, subject to the review of their peers, not outside authorities. Today, it increasingly means the freedom of students to hear what they — or their parents — want.


As attractive as these principles seem to be — diversity, choice, alternatives — what do they actually mean in the classroom? Must an astronomer teach astrology? The course on early Christianity include militant atheists? A class on the Holocaust, the Holocaust deniers? A lecture on 9/11, the conspiracy theorists? These "other viewpoints" all have a bevy of experts behind them. The few qualifiers tossed into the proposed Academic Bill of Rights, which specify that diverse views be aired only "where appropriate," do not undo the damage.


Mesmerized by the jargon of choice, we forget a basic principle: Truth itself is partisan.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Brainiest Kid or Biggest Repository of Superficial Knowledge?

There's this tv quiz show "Australia's Brainiest Kid". It's for schoolkids in their early teens, and they pitch it as being about braininess or intelligence, but its really about 'general knowledge', which really means superficial knowedge of facts.

It may be 'just a tv show' but do we really need more things reinforcing this confusion of general knowledge for intelligence? It's a confusion that seems pretty common in our community, and also entrenched in a lot of ways in our education systems -- both to quite negative effects, I think.

The sort of knowledge that's important is more universal and deeper, including such things as principles and details of how systems work. Facts play a part in such knowledge, but it's mostly peripheral. They're required in learning the deeper knowledge, and you'll know them as a result of knowing that deeper knowledge.

Why Does the ID Movement Claim a Creator is the Only Alternative?

The Intelligent Design movement claims that lifeforms are too complex to have been created by natural selection. I don't belive they have a valid argument, but if they believe there's unaccounted-for complexity, why don't they consider the possibility that it's the result of some other, as yet unknown, naturalistic mechanism? After all, our current knowledge is hardly complete and final. Why is a creator the only acceptable answer?

Ooo, ooo, Duck-shaped Mini Vacuum Cleaner!

Finally. Cute though.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Example of System Properties, Not Intention, As Cause - American vs European Working Hours

More of a note for myself than anything else. According to this New Yorker article, the reason Americans work more hours than French or German people is this:

European labor unions are far more powerful and European labor markets are far more tightly regulated than their American counterparts. In the seventies, Europe, like the U.S., was hit by high oil prices, high inflation, and slowing productivity. In response, labor unions fought for a reduced work week with no reduction in wages, and greater job protection. When it was hard to get wage increases, the unions pushed for more vacation time instead.
It's an example of the properties of the system being responsible for the result, rather than it being direct result of intention.

Large Collection of Optical Illusions

A fairly large collection of optical illusions.

(via Reddit)

Edward Tufte's Presentation Tips

Edward Tufte's presentation tips.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Bill Burnham's take on Google Base As Gigantic, RSS-fed, XML Database

Bill Burnham speculates on the recently announced Google Base

"Google intends to build the world's largest RSS "reader" which in turn will become the world's largest XML database."
"...once Google assimilates all of these disparate feeds, it can combine them and then republish them in whatever fashion it wishes. Google Base will thus become the automated engine behind a whole range of other Google extensions (GoogleBay, GoogleJobs, GoogleDate) and it will also enable individual users to subscribe to a wide range of highly specific and highly customized meta-feeds."

Is the Lack of Suit and Ties That Bad?

The Sydney Morning Herald reports IT workers dubbed 'worst dressed'

(via Slashdot)
"I think the way in which you present yourself is very important to building relationships and is integral to business and personal success," she said.
Nothing wrong with wanting to look good. But I do have a bit of a problem with the emphasis on what might be called 'business style'. That's trousers, long sleeve shirts, ties, suits, etc. That article seems to criticise the IT field's lack of emphasis on business style:
"Because the majority of IT people are not in front of customers all the time, they tend to slack off," she said
Help-desk staff were named as the worst offenders, followed by those working in technology start-ups, many of whom had continued to wear T-shirts to work as a consequence of the casual web culture of the '90s.

"The internet is now such a massive industry but people haven't caught up in terms of their dress," she said.
It seems to me that business style is really a symbol, representing the business 'class', as oppposed to manual laborours, students, and so forth. It's a symbol that we associate with a certain sort of businessy behaviour and attitutes, with connotations of 'proper', serious and kinda staid behaviour. We feel it's somehow improper for a business person to be wearing more casual clothing.

What I don't really like about it is that it's all about appearance rather then substance, and in particular, it's criticising someone just because they don't conform to what's considered the proper appearance. It seems a very primal form of pressure to conform.

Related to this, Paul Graham writes:
A company that made programmers wear suits would have something deeply wrong with it. And what would be wrong would be that how one presented oneself counted more than the quality of one's ideas. That's the problem with formality. Dressing up is not so much bad in itself. The problem is the receptor it binds to: dressing up is inevitably a substitute for good ideas. It is no coincidence that technically inept business types are known as "suits."

Drug Addiction Example of Attributing Properties to Physical Inputs

New Scientist, reports: "Gaming fanatics show hallmarks of drug addiction"

(via Slashdot)

I think we're meant to be surprised by that. We're supposed to think that the game is somehow acting like a drug. But unlike a drug there's no physical thing you're addicted to, there's not chemical substance with addictive properties. At most, calling it an addiction, like drug addiciton, is mere analogy.

This is good example of how people tend to attribute a property associated with some 'input', in this case, addiction, to be the result of the input having that kind of property. That is, if something is addictive, it's because the input has the property of 'addictiveness'. But often the properties are really more to do with what we do with thoes 'inputs'. Sleeping tables don't make you sleep because they have some 'sleepyness' property (I mentioned an example of this kind of thing, concerning carcinogens, in this post - scroll down to the paragraph starting with 'The second section moves from...').

Addictiveness has to do with our pysiological/psychological processing of 'input', and there's no reason to assume that a 'physical' input like a drug is fundametally different from a 'non-phyiscal' input like a computer game.

I think this case is also an example of how people think of physical 'things', in this case, drugs, as somehow more 'real' than -- supposedly -- non-physical things, in this case, playing computer games.

Cringely's Speculations on Google - Super Content-delivery System

Robert Cringley speculates that Google is planning to have having their own fibre networks and datacenters everywhere, so they can provide content much faster than anyone else. The interesting thing is what this could enable.

(via Slashdot)

Sunday, November 20, 2005

The Effect of the Internet and other Technologies on the UFO movement

In the article "Internet Killed the Alien Star", Douglas Kern contends that the reason the UFO movement, which was so big in the 90s, has been largely killed off these days, is because of the internet and other recent technological developments, such as camera phones.

He cites the following reasons. I don't think the article provides solid evidence that these are the sole or magor reasons, but it seems credible to me that they are important factors.

With webcams and camera phones everywhere, why is there still zero tangible evidence? With improved communications technologies -- including cell phones and instant messaging systems -- it ought to be possible to summon throngs of people to witness a paranormal event, and yet such paranormal events don't seem to happen very often these day.

The instant publishing capability of the internet removes a lot of credibility from the idea that there are conspiracies to suppress UFO information. With the internet it would be pretty difficult to stop its dissemination -- such as something snapped on a camera phone and instantly published -- so if it exists, where is it?

The speed and ease of information dissemination means that hoaxes get uncovered much faster -- though he doesn't explain exacly why this is -- and so does news of this. The notion that UFO material may be falsified/hoaxed is much easier for people to swallow these days. He notes that on the internet "wild rumors and dubious pieces of evidence are quick to circulate, but quickly debunked".

He doesn't mention this, but I also wonder whether the prevalence of email scams has made people more critical (as I've considered previously)?

Adam Bosworth on Applying Lessons From The Web To Dealing With Data

Adam Bosworth writes in ACM Queue: "The Web has much to teach us about managing and modeling distributed data. It's time we began listening." Specifically, how we can apply these lessons to improve Relational Databases, and how RSS 2.0 and Atom apply these lessons to XML.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Zubbles - Coloured Bubbles

Popular Science's Best of What's New 2005 reports on, amongst other things, Zubbles

bubbles that are "nearly opaque, with a single vibrant hue" and they don't leave a stain when the bubbles burst.

Easy Eater

My friend, Dan King's dining venue site

Easy Eater -

launches on Dec 15, but is accepting listings now. Easy Eater "allows visitors to easily search a detailed, accurate, and up to date online directory of dining venues". At present, the main focus is dining venues in the Sunshine Coast area of Queensland.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Better Birth-Control Design

In Jorn Barger's words, the "first sane condom-design ever".

This is not the main point of the article, but something I wanted to comment on:

The thing that Andrew told me— and explains in his article— is that all those world health and family-planning organizations that promote birth control around the world are not recommending these condoms because the powers-that-be think they're a hedonistic frill.

The world of STD-prevention is SO FUCKED UP. Condoms should be made as easy, pleasureable, and cost-free as possible, distributed en masse to men the world over.
Isn't that ridiculous, but telling about the way some people think.

Another Example of Assuming Psychological Causes

Another example of the tendancy to assume environmental or, more commonly, psychological causes, for misfortunes, in this case, illnesses. This one is from a review of Walter Gratze's The Curious History of Nutrition:

Though Gratzer appears more interested in anecdotes than in theory, you can't read this book without spotting a theme: We blame psychology and environment for everything, until science comes up with the real cause. Scurvy, blight of the 18th-century sailor, was attributed to low morale, bad air, and all kinds of other folderol, until it was finally proved to be a vitamin C deficiency.

Kansas' Attempt to Redefine Science

MSNBC reports that the Kansas Board of Education has decided to change science standards to be in favour of intelligent design teaching. But there's something else they've done as well:

In addition, the board rewrote the definition of science, so that it is no longer limited to the search for natural explanations of phenomena.
Now that is something to be scared about. Science is natural explanations of phenomenon.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Software as Language

Jon Udell notes that hackability is a key concept behind so-called Web 2.0 applications (such as Google Maps and Flickr). But he also recognises that the term has some unfortunate connotations. In the mainstream, it's associated with illegal hacking into systems, and in general the term implies a workaround, which doesn't really capture what's going on with hackable applications. He suggests the term Democratizing Innovation (which is the title of a recent book).

I think there's an alternative way to conceptualise hackability. To me, the concept underlying hackable applications, and the democratization of innovation that can enable, is software as language.

A programming language provides building blocks -- a set of functions, including those for managing control flow, and a grammar that says how they can be combined -- and when you write a program you create a higher-level set of building blocks which you organise in a specific arrangement.

The idea of software as language is to not just provide the user with the software system as the fixed, specific arrangment, but to give them access to the building blocks so they can use them in their own arrangements and as something to build upon.

In other words, rather than giving them a program, you're giving them a language that they can use to compose their own programs and solutions.

Naturally, you want to design things to facilitiate composition using the building blocks. Such as with the idea, that Jon mentions in the article, of user-innovation toolkits.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

More on False Neutrals

I've talked about false neutrals before in this post

Here's another example. I was watching this news item on tv, that was talking about the possibility that Australia could have a very big dependence upon China within 20 years time. One of the opinions on this implied that since there is a lot of uncertainty in predicting such things, it was a fairer assumption to think this wouldn't be the case. It's a false neutral because it's assuming, without any justification, that the present state -- a smaller dependence on China -- is more likely in the future than the predicted state.

I think that part of what's going on with false neutrals is this. Rather than considering each of the possibilities on their own merits, we're framing the things in terms of the prediction. This is an example of structure capturing - evaluating things from the pov of the current 'subject' of our thoughts. And then from this framing, we're conceptualising it as a zero-sum game. In a zero sum game on entity's gains are the other's losses. Wikipedia describes it as "a situation in which a participant's gain (or loss) is exactly balanced by the losses (or gains) of the other participant(s)".

In the context of the false neutrals situation, the gains and losses translate to certainties and uncertainties. If the prediction is uncertain, then, we reason, this must mean the alternative, the status-quo, must be more certain.

Why would we conceptualise it in this way? Well, I suspect that zero-sums are a pretty general heuristic that our brains apply. I'm not going to try and think of other examples right now, but I do think it is fairly commonly used. I can see why it might be useful to assume that a zero-sum applies, in the absence of any better understanding of a situation.

Another way to think about false neutrals is in terms of how conservative a claim is. I don't mean conservative in the political sense, but in terms of how speculative the claim is. A false neutral is something we falsely think is the most conservative option.

On this basis, here are some other sorts of false neutrals. (apologies for the following being fairly abstract, because it's not illustrated with examples, but unfortunately I don't have time at the moment to try to think up examples).

We tend to think that the most conservative standpoint is the one that is closest to the "known facts".

We also tend to think that the viewpoint left over, when we shoot down some speculative claim, is the more conservative.

Both of these beliefs false. Of course, sometimes the most conservative standpoint is the one closest to the facts, or the alternative to some speculation, but these beliefs are false as general rules.

Why? Because they do not involve considering the actual nature of the supposedly conservative claim, as is required to see how conservative it actually is. In the first case, we may have good reason to belief that the currently "known facts" are very incomplete, and we may know that they are unlikely to be representative of the true picture. That is, we may know that the current picture is likely to be a quirk of our current state of affairs.

In the case of shooting down a speculative standpoint, the alternative to that standpoint may itself be quite speculative. It's quite often the case that the alternative is something that is widely held, and thus is considered 'quite reasonable', but is in fact very speculative and unjustified.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Article: Texting teenagers are proving 'more literate than ever before'

The Times reports:

Fears that text messaging may have ruined the ability of teenagers to write properly have been shown to be unfounded after a two-year study revealed that youngsters are more literate than ever before.
Makes sense to me. People who think texting will reduce literacy often seem to do so on the grounds of poor spelling and the heavy use of abbreviations, which are pretty superficial and fairly irrelevant matters as far as true literacy is concerned.

And it's not so surprising that it would improve literacy, since writing is a skill, and the more practice you get, the better you get at it. And in texting those skills are often exercised with content that is non-trivial to express -- describing events, thoughts on things, social interactions, etc.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Having Historical Overlays for Google Maps

I've been reading Betrand Russell's "History of Western Philsophy". It's full of names of places that no longer exist. In one sense, my mind does think of these places as simply something that does not exist anymore, as if they were something totally of the past, that can only be read about.

I only vauguely see them as having existed in actual geographical places that are, of course, still around today. But thinking about that makes me curious about where they were in terms of modern day localities.

Maps usually depict a geographical landscape in terms of two or three (with the addition of elevation) spatial dimensions. And they often contain other dimensions of information overlaid over that: political boundaries, the names of countries, roads etc. Sometimes they show population densities and other statistics. I was thinking it would be nice if something like Google Maps had a capability to overlay information relating to the historical dimension. (I don't whether capabilities like this are available in any software, though I imagine it's not there in anything readibly available like Google Maps).

I can imagine, for example, the map user-interface having a date slider allowing you to control the time, from the present back to a few thousand BC, say. Moving the slider would change the political boundaries, place names etc overlaid over the map in order to reflect their status at that point in time.

(Going further out on a limb, it would also be interesting if you could, for a particular point in time, not just show a fairly objective view of the globe, but how it was seen by different cultures, in terms of which parts of it they knew, how it was divided up. Of course, there would be lots of difficulties in trying to do this. For example: different people within a culture would have thought different things; we probably don’t really know exactly how much of the world different cultures knew about; and what they did know may have been fuzzy and hard to render in a map, to name some issues).

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Trip Tip

Tricks of the Trade, via Robotwisdom:

When going on a trip, bring along your oldest socks, underwear and sleepwear -- the clothes you should have gotten rid of months ago. Then, afetr you wear them, just throw them out. Now you won’t have to carry dirty clothes around, nor wash them when you get home.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Exemplars of Non-Fiction Communication

Non-fiction works are often poorly written, but there are some standout exceptions. These are the best non-fiction communicators I've come across -- people with a writing style that's pleasuable to read and gets the points across clearly. That is, good examples to learn things from.

Of course, I can only comment on those who I've read (which is substantially more than just these people, and does range beyond the subject-areas they represent :-)).

Paul Graham. Graham has got a pretty amazing style. What makes it stand out is his ability to draw out non-obvious conclusions from simple premises and to present them with real impact.

Richard Dawkins. Very good at clearly and simply communicating ideas and concepts, and a very clean, elegant writing style. From memory, I think The Blind Watchmaker is probably his best book from a communication perspective.

Steve Grand. Explains things well and a pleasure to read. Growing Up With Lucy, the second of his two books, is probably the best one to look at.

Clay Shirky. Also quite good.

Some other people who are pretty good: Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, Edward O Wilson.

The following concern some specific aspects of communication.

Jorn Barger. Pretty good at writing very short, one-line descriptions for his blog links.

Dennis Dutton. Quite good at writing one or two sentence descriptions for his blog links - in a way that entices the reader to check them out.

Jon Udell. Pretty good at presenting things that people might have a reservation about -- because it is new or different, for example -- in a way that'll make them less likely to feel that reservation. (I'm not sure this best captures things, I think I'd need to read some more of his stuff again...)

Scott McCloud. Very good at expressing ideas -- in comic book form. The idea that comic book form must somehow inherently involve superheroes doesn't make sense, and his book Understanding Comics he uses the form to convincingly demonstrate this with a non-fiction consideration of the properties of the form.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Stereotyped Science

I think that what most people associate with the term 'science' is, I'm afraid to say, little more than a stereotype. Very little of those associations seem to come from actual knowledge from the sciences or of what scientists actually do, but from heresay, from things labelled as 'science' or 'scientific' simply to give them prestige, and though media reporting on science. This article at Guardian Unlimited talks about the latter, and how it it is not only of a general low quality, but biased in the sort of picture of science it portrays. It's quite good, I think, and quite damning, too.

(via Slashdot)

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Jon Udell: Audio Synaesthesia

Jon Udell writes:

After listening to a bunch of podcasts on long bicycle rides this summer, I've noticed a weird synaesthesia effect. When I first listened to Jim Gray's discussion of asynchrony I was at mile 23 of this route. When I listened to it again and transcribed the quote for my blog, I saw that landscape again. It works the other way too. If I repeat a route, I remember what I heard along the way...

Reseach on How Bystanders Affect Buying Behaviour

EurekaAlert reports on some research from the University of Alberta:

Through a series of carefully controlled experiments at a campus bookstore, researchers learned that consumers will, in every case studied, spend more money to buy a brand name item when someone they don't know is standing near them at the time they choose their purchase. Consumers also tend to spend more money when a group of people is standing near them but are more inclined to buy cheaper items when no one is near.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Paul Graham Article: Inequality and Risk

Paul Graham on "Inequality and Risk". About the benefits, and prime importance, of encougaging people to take economic risks -- and what this has to do with inequality. "...It sounds benevolent to say we ought to reduce economic inequality. When you phrase it that way, who can argue with you? Inequality has to be bad, right?..." As pretty much always, his conclusions seem pretty contrarian, but are very well argued.

Certainly there is a need for arguments that are laid out like his one is. We need to get beyond the simplistic arguments about economics and politics our society seems mired in, in which policies/strategies/whatever are justified or attacked on the grounds of whether they superficially sound like they'd benefit/disadvantage some particular part of the population. We need to start evaluating them on the basis of actually looking into and working out the details of what effect they would have, without prematurely reaching decisions based on superficial critiera.

Jaron Lanier on Anti-Intellecualism

Jaron Lanier writes about the anti-intellectualism in today's society, the need to overcome it, and suggestions on doing so. One of the topics he focuses on is spiritiaulity and how it can mesh with a naturalistic worldview.

I think the way he approaches these topics is pretty on the mark, and I agree with a lot of his points -- which surprised me a bit, because I don't remember being that impressed by the stuff of his I'd previously read, over at

Friday, August 26, 2005

WiMAX Coming To Australia, Sooner

According to this article, "Australia will become the world's testbed for WiMAX". If you haven't heard of it, WiMAX allows wireless networks covering very large areas. Brisbane, where I live, is one of the locations for the testbed. (via Slashdot)

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Positive and Negative Processes, Outcomes as Substances, And Function/Purpose

More as notes for myself than anything else, and probably not that comprehensible to anyone else, coz a lot of the stuff left unexplained... an example that brings together some different threads I've picked up on.

Degree of intelligence and depth/accuracy of understanding about how things are and work is commonly seen as the result of a positive, or constructive, process. That is, you gain intelligence and understanding by thinking about things, by reading, solving problems etc. The level of the results is seen as proportional to the amount of time you invest in these activities.

I suspect that this is incorrect. I suspect that 'negative' processes are very important as well, perhaps more so. The 'negative' processes work to avoid certain beliefs and ways of thinking, rather than to explicitly add new ones. They are filters, that (hopefully) weed out poor ideas and poor ways of reasoning.

This seems to be the case because of the following reasons. It takes a lot of time to develop ideas. Anyone who's done any research -- spent time working on a PhD, for example -- ought to know this. We might imagine that we get our views about things by sitting down and thinking them through, but who actually does this except on rare occasions?

I think that we tend to either get our knowledge from others, or by seeing what our intuitions tell us (as opposed to explicit reasoning). If this is the case, being able to fiter out bad reasoning is important. This includes spotting assumptions and avoiding them. I think there's more than enough correct ideas out there - if only you can avoid the bad ones and spot the good ones.

There is an asymmetry between developing ideas and filtering them out -- which is esentially the assymetry that Karl Popper noted between verifying statements and falsifying them. Without going into details, it's much easier to falsify things. You can shoot down an argument by spotting a single flaw in it.

Another reason why a negative, filtering process is important is that -- I strongly suspect -- bad ideas and bad forms of reasoning do a lot more damage than good ones do good, and that there are more ways of having bad ideas than good ones (more bad ideas out there). For example, I think that bad ideas that you may hold may be better at stopping you from picking up correct ideas, than is the case vice-versa.

(you might find it of interest that I think this stuff applies to the problem of understanding what information is, which is what I'm doing my PhD on. I think the main difficult does not concern any positive process of gaining some major new insight, but in a negative process of filtering out all of the presuppositions and red-herrings)

Now, actually the main thing I want to point out is how this is an example of where when people imagine something they, unless they know better and are aware of avoiding it, tend to only consider the positive, constructive, factors influencing an outcome. Thinking about intelligence/knowledge is an example of this.

And I think this 'habit' comes from seeing such outcomes as 'things' or 'substances'. If intelligence is a substance, then it comes about from positive processes that create it, and this view is less condusive to seeing it as being influenced by negative processes. Whereas it can be a property of some process, a differential relative to some typical value in a population, a perceptual thing etc.

And I think that relates to what seems to be the very common 'habit' of seeing the world solely in terms of the functions and purposes of things. The functions/purposes are seen as like essences. That is, their are functions for bringing about that outcome (spending time thinking of things has the function of incresing knowledge/intelligence) - that is the positive, constructive processes have the function of the outcome. Whereas under this sort of view, it is hard to see conceptualise such negative, filtering process, in terms of that function.

That Sweet Siren Sound

Sirens are designed to capture our attention, which is why a good siren makes us feel uncomfortable, and why a good siren sounds annoying. Those effects are reallly enhanced when that siren is ringing every two minutes, all frigging day long.

Like the one that’s been asserting itself on my existence today. It’s been a fixture in my day since it woke me up in the morning, and a constant companion as I’ve been trying to do work throughout the day (loud music unfortunately does not drown it out).

I’m not sure where it’s coming from, but I suspect one of the local schools, and a sportsday or something. I’m starting to have fantasies of baseball bats and smashed-up siren speakers.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Article: The Monster That Wouldn’t Die

Not a bad article on the uncritical use of the frankenstein myth. (via ALDaily)

Turn Any Flickr Photo Into a Magazine Cover

This page can turn any flickr photo into a magazine cover, with the text of your choosing. Very nice. (via Robotwisdom)

The Size of Populated Australia?

Just a thought. Australia is a pretty large country, but most of the population is dotted around the coastline. A lot of it is desert or otherwise uninhabited, or quite sparsely populated. I wonder how large an area is taken up by just the parts that are at least moderately populated? If we considered just those parts, how big a land mass would we have? What countries would it be comparable in size to?

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The Differences Betweeen Fictionalised and Real Police Investigation?

There's all these police investigation shows on tv at the moment (all the different CSIs, etc). I'd like to see a documentary that looks at how their potrail of police investigation differs from the reality.

I think that could be quite interesting (and I say this even as someone who's not really into those shows). Surely, there are differences; but how many, and in what ways? It would be interesting to know this in concrete detail.

And it would probably do us some good, as I imagine that for a lot of us, our main conception of police investigation comes from such shows.

I have no idea whether there is anything like this out there.

(and of course, a similar idea could be applied to medical dramas, etc).

Monday, August 15, 2005

Living the Dream

Oh man, talk about living the dream! Most of us may dream of packing up our jobs, setting off on an around the world trip and doing funky dancing at the major tourist sites, but Matt Harding has actually done it, and has compiled his experiences in a video.

 Posted by Picasa

Monday, August 08, 2005

Fulltext of Brights Press Release

The fulltext of this press release.

Individuals unite via Internet to press their case for civic justice

CONTACT: Mynga Futrell
The Brights' Net
Phone: 916-447-2170

July 12, 2005 (Sacramento, CA, USA) -- The Brights’ Network recently launched its revised website ( ). The new information and action hub serves people in 115 nations. It links to "Brights sites" in five languages. Brights have a naturalistic worldview, free of supernatural and mystical elements. The international Internet constituency of Brights is speaking up for civic justice.

Brights advocate "a level playing field" for citizens having a religious or a naturalistic worldview. A just society welcomes the presence and participation of both. The noun "Bright" resonates with the Enlightenment. In that optimistic era, people had confidence that, with reason and science, we could create a just society.


The Brights' Network hub registers as Brights persons who are free of belief in any supernatural forces. The U.S. alone has millions of such individuals — skeptics, humanists, agnostics, atheists, Christians (who follow Jesus’ moral dicta free of supernatural belief), rationalists, secularists, and many others.

People who have naturalistic worldviews bring thoughtful and principled actions to bear on matters of civic importance. The Internet constituency of Brights wants public recognition of that reality.


Society has progressively become more civically inclusive regarding ethnicity and sexual orientation. Still, deep prejudice exists at all levels of society regarding those who do not claim to be religious.

Math professor Herb Silverman ran for governor of South Carolina, USA, in 1990. He jokingly called himself "the candidate without a prayer." By making known his naturalistic worldview, he had zero chance of being elected. Being a straightforward fellow, Herb made his outlook clear, faced the slings and arrows, and lost honorably.

Herb's campaign slogan was funny, but the situation is not. No matter how excellent a candidate's character and qualifications, divulging a naturalistic worldview is politically fatal. (In some nations, revealing a naturalistic worldview is fatal, period.) Hope of winning elective office hinges on utmost silence or, worse, a violation of conscience to imply, however mildly, that one is a "persons of faith."

Herb Silverman is one of the Brights seeking change in the civic values that lead to such situations.


It is time to open access to political office and usual forms of societal and civic participation to all deserving persons. No religious litmus test is acceptable or appropriate for civic suitability. Ethical actions are not a monopoly of the religious.

Paul Geisert, Co-Director of the Brights' Net states: "In the United States, capable citizens like Herb Silverman are socially and politically marginalized. Many would like to contribute in leadership capacities. But they 'don't have a prayer' unless they conceal their views or feign a modicum of religious belief. We believe many religious people will recognize this problem and support change. It's reasonable. It's fair. It's necessary. We know there are principled people who hesitate to speak out. We invite them to learn more about the Brights."

Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell
Co-Directors, The Brights' Net
Phone: 916-447-2170
Email: (media kit available upon request)

The Ubituitous Twentieth Century Collection

update, 7.12.08: related: Brewster Kahle's TED talk (video) about "building a truly huge digital library -- every book ever published, every movie ever released, all the strata of web history [...] all free to the public"

Something to ponder. I imagine that data storage will become so cheap, and so large in capacity, and that data transfer will become so quick, that someone will end up building a collection of every single song recorded in the twentieth century, and that everyone will end up with a copy of that collection. Or access to it that is equivalent to having a copy of it. Imagine if you could have a copy of something like this and easily give a friend a copy -- it could spread pretty quickly, I think. And of course the same reasoning doesn’t apply to just songs, or just stuff from the twentieth century.

Avocado and Sweet Chilli Tuna Sandwich

Having discovered the wonders of sweet chilli sauce with avocado, here's some recipes from the world-renound kitchens of explorer street.

Add layers of these ingredients in this order:

  • avocado slices
    • sprinkle with salt and pepper
  • some sliced spanish olives; not a major ingred, so easily optional
  • cheese
  • tuna mixed with sweet chilli sauce

Cheese-divided Avocado Salad, with Sweet Chilli Sauce

  • cut an avocado in half lengthwise, place each half cut down and cut each of them into vertical slices across their width.
    • make the slices, say, about 1/2 cm thick
  • the next step is to place slices of cheese between the slices of avocado
    • you can make the cheese slices approx the same size as the avocado slices
      • and probably a bit thinner, so they don’t overwhelm the milder avocado
    • tasty cheese works fairly well for this, and I imagine that mild cheese would as well
  • sprinkle some sliced spanish olives on top
  • sprinkle a little salt and pepper, then drizzle some sweet chilli sauce on top of it all

Friday, August 05, 2005

F. Scott Fitzgerald Line on What Makes Intelligence

An F. Scott Fitzgerald line that I saw mentioned -- in an incdental way -- on Slashdot:

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."
Spot-on, I think. Or, at least, I think it's a good test.

I think that, to a large extent at least, intelligence involves an ability to control and manipulate your thought processes -- and that test checks for a high-level of that. It tests your ability to be able to hold an idea, not simply as a belief which is directly connected up to your attitudes, opinons and actions, but as a piece of passive information that you can subject to evaluation and thought.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Difficulties in Later Learning of 'Technical' Languages?

I'm wondering, since we have trouble mastering a spoken language if we start learning it after the end of puberty (or thereabouts, as I understand it), does this apply to what you might call 'technical languages' such as the concepts in something like statistics or other branches of maths? Is it that if we learn them later in life we are not able to think with them as dexterously? Even though we treat these things as distinct from spoken language, it's not obvious (to me at least) that the brain necessarily should. I'm wondering what research has been done into this, or what knowledge might give us clues to the answer?

'Inner voice' as General purpose Intra-brain Communication Mechanism?

No time to write this up properly.... I wonder if one of the major reasons for our 'inner voice' is as a general purpose means by which information can be communicated between the various brain 'modules'?

It seems likely to me that the information 'vocalise' through our 'inner voice' is processed and filtered through to all parts of the brain that would normally receive information about the sounds (and thus speech) that we would hear through our ears. This would mean that if the brain can internally produce information and turn it into speech the 'inner voice' that all these areas of the brain can be informed of that.

Though I don't have time to try and think of what the reasons for this are, this seems more likely to me than always having all of these special purpose communication channels through the brain (perhaps it is because that might be duplication? Also, note that I'm not trying to deny the existence of special purpose communication channels).

I have heard that the 'inner voice' was likely to have been a later evolutionary development than the ability to hear and process language or language-like statements, and this intra-brain communication usage would thus have been one of the benefits it could have brought.

I don't know what might have been written about this idea already, and all I can say is that I have read a few things that I think ought to have mentioned such an idea if the author had been aware of it.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Example of Thought Substituted With Judgements Based on Perceived Characteristics

The italicised text in the following quoted passage is pointing out an example of the lazy substitution of thought with judgements based on perceived characteristics. That is, it's showing a case where, rather than thinking about whether a certain classification (in this case ‘art’) is appropriate in a particular case, we simply make this discision by looking for certain characteristics that we take as markers for that classification. We'll automatically perceive something as being, or not being, of that classification on the basis of the presence or absence of these characteristics.

We are right to shrink from the very idea of a "funny" book. There should be no such genre. We should expect laughter to be integral to the business of being serious. We are back in a new dark age of the imagination. We read to sleep. Either we refuse the idea of art altogether (something we do with every page of a Dan Brown novel we turn), or we confer integrity on it from outside, allowing it to be art only by virtue of the pre-determined importance of its subject matter, or the acceptability of its attitudes. This is a species of censorship to which we have all acceded. (my emphasis)

The article this passage is quoted from is here. I actually have only skimmed through it -- it's just that that sentence caught my eye.

Sunday, July 17, 2005


All times come

(...sounded idea whose lines I might be repeating here)

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Venter, Kurzweil and Brooks on the Cutting Edge of Biology

A long but exciting article on how Craig Venter, Ray Kurzweil and Rodney Brooks envisage the cutting-edge path being marked out in the combination of biology and information technology. For example, Venter talks about some very interesting techniques being developed to attack cancer.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Room for Rent - Toowong

Large room in furnished two bedroom unit

  • Room has built-in wardrobe / storage space, nice views from window
  • Unit furnishings: fridge, microwave, stove, utensils/cooking equipment, espresso machine, couch, dining table, washing machine; (single bed for room can be supplied if required).
  • Located in Explorer Street, 10 mins walk from buses, trains and shopping center
  • Share with PhD student in mid twenties - i.e. me :-)
  • Male or female
  • Students from abroad welcome
  • Non-smoker preferred
  • Available 21 July
$115 / week, plus bond and utilities

Contact: 0403 939 167 / 3371 8052 / gmail: james.cole

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Facade - a one-act interactive drama

Facade - a one-act interactive drama. Sounds interesting.

"Facade calls itself a one-act interactive drama, and is an attempt to create realistic 3D AI characters acting in a real-time interactive story, where you can talk to them via a natural language text interface. The player is cast as a visiting longtime friend of Grace and Trip, a couple in their early thirties, and ends up in a verbal crossfire resulting from their failing marriage." (via Slashdot)

It's available as a free 800MB download, or on 2 CDs by mailorder.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Genetic Algorithm Deathmatch

Seeing this Slashdot story on this use of machine learning in a computer game, made me wonder if anyone has tried to do anything like use genetic algorithms to control and evolve AI players in something like a Quake deathmatch?

Chuck a bunch together with random algorithms... the players that survive longer get duplicated and modified. The appealing thing about that is that the players would be in a fairly complex environment, which might help drive towards fairly complex behavior, and that it could be fully automated - the players, the selection and modification. The complexity of the environment includes the 3D environment, other AI players, their strageties, how they handle the various types of situations that come up, etc etc.

I'm not that interested in spending the time to seriously look into this but I did this google search, which seems to include a few such things, such as the work described in this paper.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

A Less Obvious Use of Logging Information

I think a lot of good things could come if applications kept more detailed logging information, as Jon Udell has talked a bit about recently. Imagining the sorts of uses such logging could be put to is difficult, however, I think, and this post is simply about one posisbility.

Temporal organisation of, and access to, of information seems to be pretty powerful. We seem to fairly good at associating things with a time period, or at least a position relative to other temporal items.

I was trying to find some things I'd written somehwere in all my PhD-related files, sometime mid-late last year, but there wasn't any easy way to find them because the temporal information in the system is too meagre.

Windows keeps the date of the last update to a file, but that is not very useful for this purpose. A simplified explanation of why is that even though the majority of the text in a file might have been written back then, I might have made some minor update or change to the file at any time since then, so the date of last update is not really a very good indicator of when text in the file was written.

What I need to be able to do is ask the system when the majortiy of the text (say 70% or more of it) in the file was last updated. Without going into all the sorts of technical issues, if you kept detailed logging information about changes to files, you could do this.

User Interface Principle: Operations Applicable to Representations in Any Context

Here's a user-interface principle: if you can do some operation X to some reprepresentation of some thing, A, in some context, then you should be able to do X to any other representation of A in any other context, unless there is a reason not to. My impression is that in most programs, which of the representations of an item you can perform an operation on is a fairly ad-hoc.

Here's an example of where I'd like such a design. I use Winamp (v5.04) to play MP3 files, and when you search for files, you can right click on an item in the results and choose to move that file to after the current song (being played) in the playlist. But if you right-click a file that's in the playlist itself, there's no option to move it to after the current song, which I often find frustrating.

I'm not up on writings on UI stuff, so I have no idea what might have been written about this kinda idea...