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 Probabilistic Age'

[Update: the article can now be accessed here]

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, which indicates that this thing could be an explanation, and actual-explanation evidence, which indicates that this thing is the explanation.

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 disappears 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 likelihood 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 cause 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 would 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 actual explanation.

Sometimes we have to make decisions based upon incomplete information, where we have little or no actual-explanation evidence, and in that case we may use potential-explanation-evidence. That's okay. But we shouldn't 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 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 holder of the belief doesn't realise or won't admit that the belief is purely speculative. 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.