Sunday, December 31, 2006

Knowledge as a Creole

Sketching out an idea, seeing where it goes... probably shouldn't be taken too literally.


There's a type of human langauge known as a creole.

During the 1800s, there were situations where slaves from various different cultures were brought together to work on farms. They didn't speak speak common languages, so they developed pidgin langauges to communicate: simplified langauges without proper grammatical structures.

But something interesting happened when their children grew up in this pidgin environment. By themselves, the children turned the pidgin into a proper langauge with a proper grammatical structure. These sorts of languages are known as creoles.

Similar things have happened in the development of some sign languages.

In his description of creoles, the psychologist Steven Pinker says "...all it takes is for a group of children to be exposed to the pidgin at the age when they acquire their mother tongue" (The Language Instinct, pp 21 - 30)

Creoles provide signficant insights into children's language development.

Creoles emerge naturally, without explicit decision or design by the children or their parents. There seems to be innate structures and processes in the children's brains that are looking to build a language from the pidgin.

It's like the structures and processes in the child's brain have a plan already sketched out for a language design, and facing an impoverished language like a pidgin, it modifies it and fleshes it out according to the plan.

And in fact, it seems that all language is a creole, in the sense that a child learning their mother tongue is going through the same sorts of processes as those children building a creole. That is, when a child is learning a langauge, they aren't just passively taking in the linguistic elements and deriving the langauge from that, but are actively constructing one according to an inbuilt plan, and only using the available linguistic elements as raw material.

But because in normal situations the child is growing up in environments containing fully-fledged languge(s) rather than incomplete pidgeons, the langauge they build is constrained to match the features of those existing langauges.

Knowledge as a creole

I want to suggest that knowledge is also like a creole, in that the primary means by we acquire it is like language acquisition: it is automatic, happens relatively young, and it is directed by innate processes and structures.

It is primarily responsible for building the knowledge that shapes how we see the world. And like with language-acuquisition, and how we are limited in our ability to learn langauge once we have reached a certain age, our ability to change the way we see the world is limited after we have built our initial picture of the world.

If this was the case, it would help explain why people's worldviews tend to be fairly fixed, and it would also help to explain how worldviews and paradigms evolve over generations.

To see its role in the evolution of worldviews and paradigms, we need to see what happens as we build our knowledge.

Like with langauge, this knowledge-acquisition process is not a passive, simply absorbing the details out there, but is directed by innate processes and strutures that look for certain types of details and build certain types of structures. So it's really less 'knolwedge-acquisition' and more 'knowledge-building'.

To build our picture of the world, we have to integrate lots of different knowledge. This integrative process is not neutral.
Some of the knowledge may be overlapping, covering similar ground, but perhaps from different angles or at different levels of abstraction. Or it may be conflicting. To integrate these it needs to choose certain beliefs over others (not that it's necessairly going to build something that's fully consistent, though).

So in building a picture of the world, and integrating together knowledge, it has to streamline the input it receives. This can clean out dead-wood, like cleaning out beliefs that clearly don't make sense in terms of what we now know, or ad-hoc beliefs.

And this streamlining may actually may make things explicit that were only implicit in the input knowledge. When certain facts are discovered about the world, the middle-aged person who has already built a picture of the world has great difficulty to deeply integrate these facts into their picture of the world.

But the person growing up, building their picture of the world can take these facts as just part of the existing knoweldge and integrate them at a foundational level in their picture. So they may be able to, for example, make explicit consequences of those new facts that were there implicit in the data, but no one else could see before.

I suspect that this could play a role in why ideas often get invented by multiple people around the same time, and help to explain why brainwashing/propoganda efforts are so difficult to undertake in the longer-term.

And interestingly, this would mean that certain ideas can be there, latent in knowledge, for quite some time, until the next generation grows up and deeply incorporates them into their picture of the world.

Norman and Spolsky on ‘Simplicity’

As I’ve mentioned earlier, I think that the currently popular obsession with ‘simplicity’ is a bit misplaced. People's notion of simplicity is quite vague, and what they're talking is not really realy simplicity, anyway. Value attributed to 'simplicity' is often the result of other properties.

Recently there’s been a couple of articles on a similar theme in the blogosphere, one by Donald Norman and two by Joel Spolsky. I’ll take them in turn.

Norman’s article is called ‘Simplicity Is Highly Overrated’. I think highly of Donald Norman, from reading his “The Design of Everyday Things” book, but I think this article is a bit superficial. What he’s really arguing is about what people tend to want -- which he says is appliances with more features -- rather than being about the relative merits of simple or complex appliances.

Spolsky argues that what people label as ‘simplicity’ isn’t really simplicity at all, but something that is both different and more specific: specific sorts of functionality

Devotees of simplicity will bring up 37signals and the Apple iPod as anecdotal proof that Simple Sells. I would argue that in both these cases, success is a result of a combination of things: building an audience, evangelism, clean and spare design, emotional appeal, aesthetics, fast response time, direct and instant user feedback, program models which correspond to the user model resulting in high usability, and putting the user in control, all of which are features of one sort, in the sense that they are benefits that customers like and pay for, but none of which can really be described as “simplicity.”
A lot of people say that iPods are successful because they are simple, and he comments on this:
I think it is a misattribution to say, for example, that the iPod is successful because it lacks features. If you start to believe that, you'll believe, among other things, that you should take out features to increase your product’s success.
To summarise his argument, he thinks that people tend to talk of simplicity as ‘minimal and focused set of features’, yet the only potentially valuable sorts of simplicity -- which aren’t really simplicity per se -- are where there’s a close fit between user model and the program model, resulting in ease of use, or where there’s a ‘minimalistic aesthetic’.
If you're using the term "simplicity" to refer to a product in which the user model corresponds closely to the program model, so the product is easy to use, fine, more power to ya. If you're using the term "simplicity" to refer to a product with a spare, clean visual appearance, so the term is nothing more than an aesthetic description much in the same way you might describe Ralph Lauren clothes as "Southampton WASP," fine, more power to ya. Minimalist aesthetics are quite hip these days. But if you think simplicity means "not very many features" or "does one thing and does it well," then I applaud your integrity but you can't go that far with a product that deliberately leaves features out.
Slashdot has a discussion of these two articles.

In another article, Spolsky refines his point a bit. He talks about the notion of ‘elegance’ meaning 'grace and economy at achieving some task', which is related to simplicity (and, though he doesn’t make this point explicit, what people often really mean when they talk about ‘simplicity’). He says that while ‘elegance’ is valuable, ‘fewer features/capabilities' -- which is often what people talk about simplicity as -- is not so useful.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Sitting straight upright is not the best sitting posture, say researchers

The best sitting posture is not sitting bolt upright, but leaning back, with a 135 degree angle between your thighs and your torso. That’s the judgement of researchers who used a new form of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that enabled them to determine the weight-bearing strain being placed upon the spine. The study was conducted at Woodend Hospital in Aberdeen, Scotland.

Up to 25% medication errors related to illegible dr handwriting

A CNN health article from a while back says:

Experts say up to 25 percent of medication errors may be related to illegible handwriting: A pharmacist misreads an illegible prescription, one drug is mixed up with another. [...]

Also last year the Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, reported that medical mistakes overall -- including those stemming from unreadable notes from doctors -- may cause up to 98,000 deaths a year in the United States. Other researchers later termed those numbers exaggerated, but the authors stood by their report.
The article mentions handwriting seminars being given to doctors, and says the following
"It's good they're doing a seminar, but I'm surprised they're not going with automated bedside and hand-held computers, which cut the errors by up to 50 percent," Inlander said. Such devices require doctors and others to type orders into a computer system.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Paul Graham: Mind the Gap

Paul Graham writes, in an essay named Mind the Gap:

When people care enough about something to do it well, those who do it best tend to be far better than everyone else. There's a huge gap between Leonardo and second-rate contemporaries like Borgognone. You see the same gap between Raymond Chandler and the average writer of detective novels. A top-ranked professional chess player could play ten thousand games against an ordinary club player without losing once.

Like chess or painting or writing novels, making money is a very specialized skill. But for some reason we treat this skill differently. No one complains when a few people surpass all the rest at playing chess or writing novels, but when a few people make more money than the rest, we get editorials saying this is wrong.

Why? The pattern of variation seems no different than for any other skill. What causes people to react so strongly when the skill is making money?

I think there are three reasons we treat making money as different: the misleading model of wealth we learn as children; the disreputable way in which, till recently, most fortunes were accumulated; and the worry that great variations in income are somehow bad for society. As far as I can tell, the first is mistaken, the second outdated, and the third empirically false. Could it be that, in a modern democracy, variation in income is actually a sign of health?
I think the argument he gives is pretty convincing.

There is one bit I’d make a -- relatively minor -- criticism of, though. He consdiers whether it’s unjust that certain kinds of work are underpaid. And though this question is phrased about work in general, his response is really only about work whose pay-level is determined by free-markets, and he doesn't make it very clear that he’s not really answering the general question. There's work like doing basic research, where the pay-level isn't, as far as I can see, determined by free-markets.

The bit in question is
When we say that one kind of work is overpaid and another underpaid, what are we really saying? In a free market, prices are determined by what buyers want. People like baseball more than poetry, so baseball players make more than poets. To say that a certain kind of work is underpaid is thus identical with saying that people want the wrong things.

Well, of course people want the wrong things. It seems odd to be surprised by that. And it seems even odder to say that it's unjust that certain kinds of work are underpaid. [7]
where that note 7 says:
One of the biggest divergences between the Daddy Model and reality is the valuation of hard work. In the Daddy Model, hard work is in itself deserving. In reality, wealth is measured by what one delivers, not how much effort it costs. If I paint someone's house, the owner shouldn't pay me extra for doing it with a toothbrush.

It will seem to someone still implicitly operating on the Daddy Model that it is unfair when someone works hard and doesn't get paid much. To help clarify the matter, get rid of everyone else and put our worker on a desert island, hunting and gathering fruit. If he's bad at it he'll work very hard and not end up with much food. Is this unfair? Who is being unfair to him?
I think it would have been more reasonable to say something like:
Well, of course people want the wrong things. It seems odd to be surprised by that. And it seems even odder to say that it's unjust that certain kinds of work, whose pay-level is determined by free-markets, are underpaid.

Richard Dawkins on “I’m an athiest, BUT...”

Richard Dawkins comments on people saying “I’m an athiest, BUT...”

Scott Adams on Atheists in America since 9/11

Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip, writes: “Is it my imagination or have the atheists come out of the closet (in the United States) since 9/11?”.

Ads Exploiting Their Situation

Some pics of clever ads that exploit the situation they’re shown in. Like a manhole cover painted as a cup of coffee, where the steam rising from the cover makes it look like steam rising from the coffee.

Moderated Comments Stuffup

The comments for my blog used to be unmoderated - anyone could add a comment to a post and it would be added immediately. I'd get sent an email so I'd know this had happened.

At some point a few months ago I turned comment modertation on. I've still been expecting to receive emails whenever someone tried to add a comment, but I've recently realised that it hasn't been doing this.

So I've been thinking that no one has been adding any comments, even though they have - it's just that with the way I've had it set up, I have to go to the 'Moderate Comments' link on my blog's dashboard to see if any comments have been made, and vet them there before they'll appear on the blog (and before I'll be sent an email about them).

So apologies to Ricky and somebody called Dave, whose comments haven't appeared.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Scientist gets award for simulation of E.coli chemotaxis

BBC News reports that Dr Dennis Bray from the University of Cambridge was given the European Science Award for his innovative computer simulations of the bacterium [E.coli]. The simulations are of the chemotaxis systems that "allow bacteria to respond to environmental changes". It "enables bacteria to smell and swim towards sources of food"

There's a few comments in the article about the utility of computational models

"Today, computational sciences are of primary importance in all areas of science," said Professor Edouard Brezin, president of the Academie des Sciences.

"Together with experiment, computer models are now able to provide information which would not be accessible otherwise."

"It's got to the point where you can't progress without it," Dr Bray said. "We're just drowning in data."

"Any little corner of a living cell is just full of complicated machinery and molecules," said Dr Bray.

"There's just no way that one person thinking about it, can work it all out"

Bacterial chemotaxis provides an ideal platform to test computer models because it is one of the few systems where all of the individual components that influence cell behaviour are known.

Hence, discrepancies between what the scientists see in biological experiments and what they see in the simulations allows them to test the models. If there is a mismatch it suggests the model is incorrect and needs to be refined.

These anomalies can also lead to discoveries about the biological system itself.

When the computer simulations reach a point where they mimic an organism accurately, Dr Bray believes they could be used as experimental objects in their own right, rather than using a biological organism.
It's interesting to not, from the point of view of my PhD, the bit above saying that bacterial chemotaxis is "is one of the few systems where all of the individual components that influence cell behaviour are known." It may be a useful source of concrete data for some of the things I'm considering.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Why modern times are probably less materialistic


One of the most common complaints against the modern world is that we’re too materialistic. People look fondly at the past, when people’s lives were less materialistic, and more meaningful.

But I want to consider whether this is actually true. It may sound crazy, but could it be true that people in the past were more materialistic than we are today?

It certainly seems that we do have more ‘stuff’ these days, that we devote more of our time to obtaining it, and that we often seek to make our lives better and feel satisfied by obtaining things.

I want to start by considering that perhaps the reason that we, today, have more material trappings, and reach for them to satisfy ourselves, is simply because, in today's world, we can.

Times were hard in the past, and there simply wasn’t the access to material things like there is today. Surely if people had had the opportunity to have these things, they would have jumped at the chance to have them. To indulge their hunger, to make things more convenient, to have nicer clothes and nicer things. To get easy entertainment.

In a way, their lives had more meaningful elements because they were limited to those options. Given the opportunity, I bet they would have thrown them away, like we have. It's not that they were necessarily more enlightened.

In fact, I think we're probably more enlightened today, because we've had the opportunity to experience 'material fulfillment', and had the opportunity to see it's limitations. It's because we're enlightened about it that we complain so much about its limitations.

Think of a kid whose parents never let them eat ice-cream. When they move out of home and finally have that opportunity to eat as much ice-cream as they want, they gorge themselves on it. And it's nice. But it does have it's downsides, and it doesn't provide a particularly deep sense of satisfaction. Over time they'll probably learn this.

So what I'm saying is that it seems we've moved on, somewhat, from where we were before we had the opportunity to fulfill our material desires. And from this viewpoint we have the opporutnity to try and do something about it. So we can try and build social institutions/conventions/whatever that do provide 'deeper' things.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Laddered Skills - Democracy example

Just quick jotting...
The capabilities or properties of purposeful/designed systems are all laddered. Think of what is required for a country to be a successful democracy. You have to build up through a number of levels.. e.g. it's economics and other instituions have to be developed to a certain stage. It emerges through these things. You can't install democracy simply by things like changing laws. And it's not just a matter of tyring hard enough.

Monday, October 30, 2006

The design process used by Apple’s chief designer, Johnathan Ive

The 37signals blog Signal vs. Noise mentions a Business Week article on Johnathan Ive “the man behind Apple’s design magic.” The article says:

His design process revolves around intense iteration — making and remaking models to visualize new concepts. “One of the hallmarks of the team I think is this sense of looking to be wrong,” said Ive at Radical Craft. “It’s the inquisitiveness, the sense of exploration. It’s about being excited to be wrong because then you’ve discovered something new.”
And the referring (Signal vs. Noise) post says:
Getting Real is all about iterations too. “Be excited to be wrong because then you’ve discovered something new” is a neat way to put it (btw, so is Fail early, fail often).
So lots of trying things out and revision, always trying to find where things could be improved.

Why programming gives you unique skills for understanding the world


Subjective elements in your understanding of something are just ways to gloss over the details how things actually happen. They’re a particular problem because we’re prone to unconsciously using them and they’re hard to spot.

Learning to program helps you develop important skills - in spotting and avoiding subjective elements. Subjective elements have no place in programming. You have to make things happen by writing a descripton that doesn't contain subjective elements.

You start with your picture of something, invariably containing subjective elements, and you have to make it into something fully concrete. The discipline of programming builds your ability to do this. You get better at spotting subjective elements in descriptions, and more agile at thinking of things and situations in terms of their concrete details.

When it comes to think about how things happen in the world, you may or not be able to think about the concrete details of what is going on, and how they bring it about, but you can certainly be better at spotting subjective glossing in descriptions of it.

Visually referencing web-page elements

Think of instructions for setting up something on the computer, like setting an internet connection, or something on the web, like setting up an eBay account so you can sell items.

There are a number of different ways these instructions could be presented. You can have a fully textual description, giving the person instructions on where to go and what to do.

An improvement on this is to include pictures so people can more easily see what they should be looking at.

Even better is to explicitly, visually reference elements of the pictures from the description. So, for example, if there are a number of things a person needs to change on a dialog, visually highlighting each of these items on the picture and number them, so they can be referenced from the text. Or draw an arrow from the text to the item.

What would be even better is if the instructions could directly guide you through the process, and bring up the actual dialogs, rather than showing pictures of them, and highlight the actual items on that dialog. A sophisticated system could detect your state of progress and automatically open up the next dialog/page/etc - as a kind of worlflow.

Essentially, this is about being direct - showing rather than telling. You don’t have to see the instructions in one context and then switch to a different context to the actual web-page/program and then implement what they say. That context-switching requires you to reorient yourself and map what you saw in that description into what you’re seeing in the actual thing.

To do this on the web, you’d need the following sorts of things. A way of directly referencing elements within pages, such as input fields. Ways of visually highlighting these, such as putting a red drop-shadowed border around them. And a way to draw an arrow between a bit of text or an image and one of these items.

I recently saw this post on the 37Signals blog Signal vs. Noise, on the idea of showing things as directly as possible - referencing a page element with a visual annotation. I can't say it was actually the inspiration for the ideas in this post, but it reminded me to write about it.

The post is about how they used direct visual reference on a particular page - or rather, the design process that led them to do this. Rather than describing how you could use the links in the link bar at the top of the page to populate a blank site, and saying what those links were, they just drew a bit arrow to those links saying "Use these links to fill your page".

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Article on the myth of prodigy

An article in the Association for Psychological Science's Observer

“I think we take it as an article of faith in our society that great ability in any given field is invariably manifested early on, that to be precocious at something is important because it’s a predictor of future success,” Gladwell said.
Precociousness is a slipperier subject than we ordinarily think, Gladwell said. And the benefits of earlier mastery are overstated. “There are surprising numbers of people who either start good and go bad or start bad and end up good.”
The other way to look at precocity is of course to work backward — to look at adult geniuses and see what they were like as kids. A number of studies have taken this approach, Gladwell said, and they find a similar pattern. A study of 200 highly accomplished adults found that just 34 percent had been considered in any way precocious as children. He also read a long list of historical geniuses who had been notably undistinguished as children — a list including Copernicus, Rembrandt, Bach, Newton, Beethoven, Kant, and Leonardo Da Vinci (“that famous code-maker”). “None of [them] would have made it into Hunter College,” Gladwell observed.
And when it comes to musicians, the strongest predictor of ability is the same mundane thing that gets you to Carnegie Hall: “Really what we mean … when we say that someone is ‘naturally gifted’ is that they practice a lot, that they want to practice a lot, that they like to practice a lot.”

Automating Optimized Information Display

Ideally, we want to optimise the display of information. Or at least, most non-fiction information.

This is a matter of good communication, and that is largely a matter of efficiency. The information should be direct, concise and relevant. Unnecessary detail should be filtered out.

To do this effectively, you need to understand the target 'readership'. For example, knowing what they already know, so you can filter out details that are unnecessary to them.

Edward Tufte talks about this kind of stuff a bit.

Here's a simple example of optimizing information display - and automating that process: optimized cut-and-paste.

Much of the information you display is originally sourced from other places. I'd like to be able to automate the task of optimising the display of that information for the particular purposes it is being put to.

Say that I want to go to local hardware stores this weekend, so I search for them on the yellow pages website and add the details into my organiser software. The search results would look something like this:

store name
120 Sir Fred Schonell Drive
suburb, postcode
ph: (07) xxxx xxxx
fax: (07) 3371 xxxxx

store name
street address
indooroopilly, postcode
ph: (07) 3371 xxxx
fax: (07) xxxx xxxxx
But as far as my needs go, I can put an optimised version of this into my organiser program like:
store name, 3371 xxxx, street address
store name, 3371 xxxx, street address, indro
I don't need to know the fax or web details, so I filter them out. As for the phone number, in this context, I just need to put the number itself -- I don't need the 'ph:' bit or the area code.

And for the address, I just need to know the suburb, so I can filter out the postcode. And I can abbreviate 'Indooroopilly' as 'indro'. If the street is familiar and I know what suburb it is in -- as with 'Sir Fred Schonell Drive' -- I can omit the suburb name.

Since I can fit all the details of a store on a single line, I do so. And there's no need for here for line spaces between the entries for the different stores, so I get rid of them.

It doesn't come out so much in this small example, but when you're dealing with lots of info, condensing it like this can make things much easier to deal with. The more you can see at once, the easier it is to see the whole and the properties it has, to manage it, and to see any paterns within it.

What I'd like is the computer to help automate this optimization task.

When I cut and then paste something, the program would provide options for optimizing the display of the information.

To do this, it would have to know a bit about how things could be optimized as well as knowing things about me. It could learn the kinds of optimizations I do - like replacing Indooroopilly with Indro. It could learn about what I know, in order to figure out what details I don't need to know - such as that I know all Queensland phone numbers have the '07' prefix, so it can omit them.

To do it well would be quite a difficult task. This post is not about the current feasability of such automation, but just to communicate the idea of it.

I think such automated optimizing of information display is a major area in which software can become much smarter and useful, essentially by becoming better communicators.

Here's some discussion / notes.

Ideally, when it filtered out information in a particular display, it wouldn't actually remove the information, but just not show it - so you could bring it up if you wanted to. Better, at any time you could tell it to adjust the type and amount of condensing you wanted.

Another sort of optimisation is dynamic optimisation to adjust to changes in the display area. If less space is available to display the information, the more condensed it makes it. For example, using 'heavier' abbreviations. Jorn Barger has talked a bit about doing this kind of thing (the above link is to his blog. After a bit of searching I haven't found the specific posts where he talks about this kind of thing).

For example, imagine a widget displaying the progress of a particular task you are undertaking, such as scanning your computer for viruses. You may want to keep track of this progress as you are doing other tasks. How much attention you want to give to it will depend upon what other things you are doing, and, for example, how much spare real-estate there is on your desktop. So you can resize the scanning-widget window to different sizes and it will adapt. Abbreviating things in various ways, and filtering how less relevant details.

Another optimization technique is clearly saying what you're saying, with techniques like 'heads', 'decks' and 'leads'. This makes it easier to find relevant information.

Friday, October 27, 2006

No one wants truly random play lists

Say we’re developing an MP3 player and want it to be able to mix up the order it plays songs. What comes to mind is a randomness -- having a random-play feature. But in fact, what we would really like is not literal randomness, but something more subtle.

A truly random playlist would do things like play the same song a twice in close proximity, or even twice in a row. What people really want is a subjective sense of variety. They want the songs jumbled up, but with repeats a bit more ‘evenly spaced’ so they don’t tend to come across the same song again until most of the other's have already been played.

When we first think of the feature we want, ‘random’ just seems to jumps into our head. Even if we wanted to deliberately think through exactly what we wanted in the feature, the notion of random would come to us well before we were finished.

The seems to happen through some sort of automatic assocition process. Our brains just seems to pick the closest general concept. It seems to be a kind of heuristic.

In such situations, I think you need to expect such things to just come to mind, and to be mindful that they’re often only approximations. And that means not just accepting it as true, and thinking about whether it really fits the situation.

If we do that for the MP3 player example, we can see that we’re after a feature that affects the listener’s listening experience. And if we have that in mind, and think about randomness, and how it will include sequences of same item more than once in a row, and reflect on this in terms of the listener’s experience, we can see that they are unlikely to want that.

This means not just considering what the player is doing, and that feature itself, but also the perception of it -- which is a key consideration here. That’s harder to do, as our thinking is usually directed at what’s there in the world, and it takes effort to also consider the perception of what’s out there.

What I’ve talked about here is an example of the ‘laddered skills’ I spoke a bit about a number of months back. It’s an example of how mental capabilities are laddered.

Skills are ‘laddered’ in the sense that in developing a particular skill, you have to pass through various ‘rungs’ that are pretty inherent to that skill. I had been intending to write about mental capabilities as laddered skills, but that turned out to be a far larger task that I’d expected, and I just haven’t had the time to work on it.

It's an example of it because, at one skill rung, there is just accepting whatever concept jumps to mind, and rung up there is recognising that this concept may be only an approximation and thus in need of evaluation. Also a rung up, is realising that the concepts that jump to mind tend to overlook roles that perception may play in the situation.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Better support for 'touch typing' on mobile phones

I often type SMSs or notes on my phone while I’m walking. Soemtimes because it’s some spare time to do stuff, but also because walking frees up my mind and I often think of things when doing it. I’d like it if I could type them without having to continually look down to the phone to see what I’m doing.

Part of it is having to look down to see what keys I’m pressing. I can usually move my thumb to right area without looking, but not quite accurately enough. It’d help there was tactile identification of the different keys. Perhaps they could have different texture patterns on each of them. Perhaps even the braile codes for the numbers on the keys.

The other part of it is in getting feedback on what you have typed. Rather than having to look down at the screen to see what character I’ve entered, it'do help if the phone could give me auditory feedback and read out that character. This would be particularly useful if I was using the handsfree headset.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Daniel Dennett's policy recommendation

Advice Goddess Blog writes:

"Dennett’s one policy recommendation –- education on world religions (for kids):
Education on world religions for /all/ our children,

in public and private schools, and home schooling
Dennett explained:

Toxic religions depend on enforced ignorance of the young –- and a religon that can flourish in an informed (citizenry) is a benign religion.

Malcolm Gladwell: unfamiliar- and expert- tasks are harder than you'd think

Malcolm Gladwell argues that outsiders tend to underestimate the difficulty involved unfamiliar tasks, especially those involving expertise.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Favourite Recipes: Milanese-style Osso Buco

Milanese-style Osso Buco

This is adapted from an Antionio Carluccio cookbook (can't recall which, though the recipe is on pg 130 of it).

It's richly flavoured, and is much better after a reheat when the flavours have integrated fully.

Osso Buco[1] are cross sections cut from veal leg bones. So they're disc-shapes, a few centemeters thick, with meat surrounding the central bone. He reccomends getting a butcher to cut the pieces "from the middle of the skin where the bone is rounded on both sides and the meat is dense".

  • osso buco (veal marrow-bone), 4 x 4cm thick pieces
  • seasoned plain flour, for dusting
  • olive oil, 4 tbsp
  • small onion, 1, diced
  • peeled roma tomatoes, 800g can, strained of half their juices
  • juice of 1 large orange, and finely grated rind of ½ orange
  • dry red wine, 150ml
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • Gremolata
    • flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped, 4 tbsp
    • finely grated lemon zest, 1 tbsp
    • small garlic clove, 1, crushed
  • Frying the osso buco
    • Dust the osso buco with seasoned flour.
    • Heat the olive oil in a cast-iron casserole
    • Fry the osso buco two at a time on both sides
      taking care not to damage the marrow in the centre of the bone or allow it to fall out.
    • Remove the osso bucco from the casserole and put to one side.
  • The rest of the prep before simmering
    • In the same oil, fry the onion until transparent
    • Add the tomatoes, and cook for five minutes, breaking them up
      in the casserole with a wooden spoon while cooking.
      Keep the heat up high so that the tomatoes reduce.
    • Add the orange juice, the grated rind and the wine.
      Continue to cook fast.
    • Return the osso buco to the sauce.
    • Season the sauce with salt and pepper.
  • Simmer
    • Reduce the heat, cover the casserole and simmer for 1-1/2 hours
      until the meat has begun to come away from the bone.
  • Make the gremolata
    • simply mix the ingredients together.
  • Sprinkle each osso buco portion with gremolata, and serve with a risotto.

[1]It seems that 'osso buco' is actually the name of the dish, and 'veal shanks' are the proper name for the cut of meat, even though they seem to be commonly referred to as 'osso buco'.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Article on working from third-places

USA Today has an article on people working out of 'third-places' like coffee shops. I was interested to see it, as for the past two years, I've been doing almost all of my PhD writing at a coffee shop in Toowong. I usually spend about one and a half hours in there each day, and I find it a pretty good place to work. From the article:

"Working from a place like this is less stressful than being in an office, and I find I get a lot more done," says Karsch, general manager of Spanish Sales Force, a Spanish-language marketing consultancy. "If you can make this work for you, you'll love it." ...

An estimated 30 million Americans, or roughly one-fifth of the nation's workforce, are part of the so-called Kinko's generation, employees who spend significant hours each month working outside of a traditional office.
Some of what the interviewed people say about their experience of it is similar to what I've found:
Akiba Lerner, 35, [is] a Stanford doctoral candidate working on his dissertation on religious philosophy. Although there's an Internet cafe close to his house, he makes the 20-minute trek here for "the good lighting, the right chair and the vibe of the people."
Noah Lichtenstein:
"What I love is that you can dial into the white noise here and focus on work, or pull your head up and people-watch."
And this:
"It's an energy issue," says Katara, founder of Pavia Systems, a company that provides online training programs. He has a home office but prefers to work here exclusively. "At home, I'm isolated. This, it's sort of a surrogate coworker environment."

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Jon Udell: Google Earth live and in realtime

Jon Udell writes:

For years I've entertained a fantasy about air travel that I'm sure many of you share. You're staring out the cabin window, watching the landscape scroll tailward, and some feature catches your eye: a building, a highway, a lake, a ridge. You touch the window and a heads-up display fades into view. It's kind of like Google Earth, but live and in realtime. You summon and dismiss layers of annotation, and you bookmark locations for later study.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Some Articles Suggesting Improvements to News Sites

9 Ways for Newspapers to Improve Their Websites, here.

(1) Start Using Tags.
"The structure of just about every site we looked at more or less followed that of the paper’s print edition. This is great if you are looking to read the print version of the paper but not great if you are looking to see everything the paper has written on, say, Joe Lieberman. Newspapers aren’t taking advantage of the opportunity the Internet offers to remix/categorize content."
(2) Provide Full Text RSS Feeds.
(3) Work with External “Social” Websites.
(e.g. facilities for submitting stories to sites like Digg)
(4) Link to Relevant Blog Entries.
(5) Get Rid of All Registration.
(6) Partner with Local Bloggers.
(7) Offer Alternative Views of Your Content.
(8) Modernize Your Site’s Graphic Design.
(9) Learn from Craigslist.
(10) Make your content work on cell phones and PDAs.

Plus a list of seven more reader suggestions.

And, another article 'A fundamental way newspaper sites need to change' essentially arguing that newspapers need to provide more structured information in addition to their human-readable news stories, to allow that information to be repurposed:

For example, say a newspaper has written a story about a local fire. ... what I really want to be able to do is explore the raw facts of that story, one by one, with layers of attribution, and an infrastructure for comparing the details of the fire -- date, time, place, victims, fire station number, distance from fire department, names and years experience of firemen on the scene, time it took for firemen to arrive -- with the details of previous fires. And subsequent fires, whenever they happen.

That's what I mean by structured data: information with attributes that are consistent across a domain. Every fire has those attributes, just as every reported crime has many attributes, just as every college basketball game has many attributes
The articles gives other examples such as births, wedding announcements, government sittings and their agendas.

The also gives an explanation of what is working against such changes.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Sofa That Folds Into a Bunkbed.

Picture and info: gizmodo and product page.

A Nintendog as a Character in a Game

Wanting a bit more mindless fun in my life, I splurged on a Nintendo DS, and got New Super Mario Bros and Nintendogs. If you don't know, Nintendogs is about caring for and interacting with a puppy, and it's got the formula down pretty well.

I think you could build on that formula, by incorporating a dog like that into a game as a character. One where you also play a particular character. Imagine something like a lighthouse keeper back in the olden days.

Rather than a typical game, it would be more of a slice-of-life thing, with you having day to day things to attend to, like fixing things. Occasionally you'd receive or send letters to other people, or have visitors.

Sometimes more dramatic things would happen, like your character breaking their leg when out doing something. And through of all of this, the dog would be there keeping you company, or being around the place.

So kinda like Nintendogs, but because you'd have more within-game shared experiences with the dog, there would be, I think, more of an opportunity to create a deeper sense of a bond with the dog.

Poseidon Undersea Resort Meant to Open in Fiji

According to this post (which has images of what it's meant to look like), the Poseidon Undersea Resort is planned to open in Fiji:

The underwater portion of the resort will be situated in 13 meters (40 feet) of water and will be linked to land with two piers providing access to two elevators. The underwater facilities will include 24 luxury staterooms, a large restaurant and bar/lounge, a library, conference room, wedding chapel, underwater spa, and the Nautilus Suite which is an ultra-luxury accommodation with stunning undersea views that would impress even Capt. Nemo.
They "expect to begin taking reservations in mid-November, 2006 at a rate of $15,000 per person, per week".

Monday, September 04, 2006

Paul Graham Interview at Techcrunch

Paul Graham interview at Techcrunch. Pretty much his usual speil on startups, though still good, and I thought the following was a nice point:

Most people don’t understand what a social force startups can be. There are a lot of changes that can only happen through companies. One startup I dream of funding is the one that kills the record companies. You know your business model is broken when you’re suing your customers. The new business model must be out there somewhere, and my guess is that the way to beat the bad guys is not through political action (or at least, not only that), but by inventing whatever replaces them.

Monday, August 28, 2006

The Filthy Critic Reviews "How To Eat Fried Worms"

The Filthy Critic reviews "How To Eat Fried Worms". It's been a while since he's given a movie 4/5.

How to Eat Fried Worms is based on the book of the same name. By the way, it's a pretty fucking great kids book. Like it, the movie adaptation gets it just right when showing how young boys act. It's a genuinely rare movie that tries to entertain kids without giving a rat's ass about the parents or whether the people making it will look cool. That's no small feat for the self-absorbed Hollywood grassfuckers. Usually they make movie kids too smart and precocious, or some idealized carbon copy of the way they've seen kids act in other movies. Worms, though, has kids behave like kids.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

16 Common Myths About Atheists

16 Common Myths About Atheists

Thursday, August 17, 2006

CastingWords Audio/Podcast Transcription Service

Jon Udell mentions the audio/podcast transcription service CastingWords. Their website says:

  • URL Podcast transcription is 42 cents a minute. Podcasts are made searchable.
  • Uploaded file transcription is 75 cents a minute. Transcripts are not searchable.
  • Fast turnaround - often within 24 hours.
  • All transcribing is done by people, not machines.
  • Transcriptions are delivered in plain text, HTML and RTF formats.
  • You get an RSS feed of all of your transcripts.

YouTube Wants To Put All Music Videos Online

Slashdot -> BBC News:

Video sharing website YouTube is in talks with record labels about offering current and archive music videos.

YouTube co-founder Steve Chen told Reuters news agency it was hoped that within 18 months the site would "have every music video ever created".

The company said it planned to offer the videos free of charge.
I think that'd be great if it happened. Not just as a resource, but for helping to up the ante for the sort of traditionally-offline content that's put online.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Five Lies, One Truth (about me)

Ricky passed me this task:

Of these statements about me, only one is true. Can you tell which?

  1. I’d describe myself as left-wing

  2. If I could take one show off television, it would be Big Brother

  3. I’d describe myself as right-wing

  4. Some of my relatives are well known people

  5. I don't think much of most science-fiction novels

  6. I dislike pop music

Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Whole is Greater Than the Imagined Coming Together of the Parts

Some quick sketching...

People often talk about the whole being larger than the sum of the parts.

The truth of this is commonly seen as showing that reductionism is wrong, as something new has emerged. This is actaully a radical, extreme version of emergence, known as strong emergence.

There’s no evidence that strong emergence is true, and it’s not a very ‘respectable’ position. The whole isn’t really greater than the sum of the parts, because it isn’t just the sum of its parts: it’s a result of the combination of the parts in a particular configuration.

There isn’t anything genuinely new that emerges. It’s just a matter of the configuration or interaction of the parts. This is known as weak emergence, and seems to be really what people talking about emergence are talking about.

At other times, when people are talking about emergence, they’re not talking about the entitiy itself, but the effects of it. For example, saying that a fantastic painting is far greater than just the canvas and the paint it’s made of. This is making the mistake of overlooking the particular configuration of the paint, but it is also that when they’re talking about the painting they’re really talking about the effect when you are perceiving it.

What I think underlies these mistakes, and what doesn’t tend to be brought up, is that when people are surprised by a whole -- when they are likely to bring up the saw about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts -- they haven’t actually really calculated what the sum of the parts would be. If they had, they’d have known what the whole is. What is really going on is that the whole is greater than their intuitive conception of what the parts would add up to.

(This reminds of the criticism Dennett makes, in Consciousness Explained, I think, of things like Searle's Chinese Room arguement -- and some other philosophical thought experiments, I think -- that they invight you to imagine something, and draw conclusions based on your imaginings, but which you can't actually concretely imagine, but rather just have a vague impression from).

Simulations to Hit Home the Possibility of 'Unlikely' Situations for Drivers and Pedestrians

Just a few quick posts....

I would think that a lot of car and pedestrian accidents occur because people tend to expect only ‘typical’ circumstances - whereas there’s always the possibility of more unusual circumstances they’d brush off as too unlikely, and accidents happen when they do come up for someone.

For example, a lot of people think they can stay in control if they speed. And under normal circumstances they probably can. But they aren’t in full control - there are other elements of the situation that can be unpredictable, like pedestrians and other cars.

I think you could use simulations to help people get a more realistic picture of things. A simulation that schoolkids or people going for their licence could use. In the simulation you’d act as a car driver or a pedestrian who's travelling to some destination.

For example, as a pedestrian as you're walking a long you may have to cross a road that is just off a round-about, and you see a car that has its indicator on such that it’s going to keep on going around the intersection -- and not turn off onto the road you’re crossing. So, on the basis of that indicator light, it seems safe to cross.

But in fact, it does turn off. Perhaps the person changes their mind. Or in their usual habit they’d normally turn off but today they’re going somewhere different, and they get confused.

It would be interesting to also be able to, afterwards, see what was going on from the other person’s perspective to, to hit home how unlikely seeming things can happen.

Another thing that’d give this impact would be if the situations you face were based upon real cases, and after you’d faced them you could read a bit about the situation.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Ultrasonic Tourniquet Concept That Can Stop Internal Bleeding

Technology Review reports:

Called the Deep Bleeder Acoustic Coagulation (DBAC) program, it aims to create a cuff-like device that wraps around a wounded limb. Rather than applying pressure to the wound to stem the flow of blood, the device would use focused beams of ultrasound (sound waves above the audible frequencies) to non-invasively clot vessels no matter how deep they are.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Wiki-ish System For Structured Debate on a Topic -

I'm very interested in the issue of how to effectively represent evidence and arguments, and this looks promising: "is an effort to expand the debate on the weaponization of space through a collaborative wiki-like tool for structured debate on a topic".

The site has a quick tour which explains it well.

"Each side of the debate is broken up into positions which are composed of arguments and their supporting arguments, in a structured argument tree".

There's RSS feeds for changes to arguments, and javascript code to include live arguments (and their related discussions, subarguments, and resources) on your own blog or site.

"The project is part of a larger effort, nicknamed the "Open Debate Engine" [the site is here, but it hasn't been released yet], which hopes to create a hybrid wiki platform that will be conducive to handling larger policy debate topics."

There's some rationale for having the structured format and what's wrong with the existing methods for online debate, here.

I think that improving an argument is often quite subtle, and can't be done without major revision of its structure, rather than by making changes within -- or by adding to -- its existing structure... so I think this is an issue that any site like this will have to deal with.

Some more info, from the about page: is an effort to expand the debate on the weaponization of space through a collaborative wiki-like tool for structured debate on a topic. The project is modeled after Wikipedia, but instead of focusing on developing an encyclopedia it invites users to help edit and expand an 'argument tree' that reflects the various positions in the debate over U.S. military space policy. Users can browse the argument tree or an extensive database of resources, including links to relevant news articles, authoritative quotes, and a comprehensive bibliography of sources.

Monday, July 24, 2006

'A Porch and Flowering Meadow, 6 Floors Up'

I reckon this is's a kinda best-of-both-worlds thing.

Eileen Stukane, David Puchkoff and their daughter, Masha, created a porch and a miniature meadow on top of their West Village [New York City] apartment building.

The 'Super Mario Bros 2' We Got was a Substituion for the Real Sequel

Strange to not have known till now, but it seems the Super Mario Bros. 2 released in most places outside of Japan was actually a slightly reworked version of a game called Doki Doki Panic. The real sequel was deemed to difficult; though a modified version of it was later released here as 'The Lost Levels' on the Super Mario All-Stars game on the SNES.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Favourite Recipes: Chicken in Green Masala Sauce

Chicken in Green Masala Sauce

To me, this recipe is fairly different from the sort of curries you find in restaurants and even in cookbooks of Indian home cooking. The sauce has a fairly light and somewhat fresh taste to it, and is a little sweet. It doesn't have a spicy flavour to it like curries tend to.

It’s quite quick to make, and has pretty broad appeal - so it’s good when you’re cooking for others.

It’s from “Best-Ever Curry: Over 150 great curries from India to Asia” (originally published with the title “Curry”) by Mridula Baljekar. pg 47.

Serves 4

  • sauce
    • natural (plain) yoghurt, 150ml (2/3 cup)
    • fromage frais or ricotta cheese, 45ml (3 tbsp)
    • onions, garlic, ginger
      • spring onions (scallions), 1 bunch, chopped
      • garlic, 5ml (1 tsp), crushed
      • fresh ginger, 5ml (1 tsp), grated
    • other flavourings
      • crisp green eating apple, 1, peeled, cored and cubed
      • fresh corriander, 45ml (3 tbsp - but see note below)
      • fresh mint leaves, 30ml (2 tbsp)
      • fresh green chillis, 2, seeded and chopped
    • salt, 5ml (1 tsp)
    • granulated sugar, 5ml (1 tsp)
  • vegetable oil, 15ml (1 tbsp)
  • chicken breasts, 350-400g skinned and cubed
  • garnishes
    • sultanas, 25g
    • fresh corriander, 15ml (1 tbsp)
      (note: there is also some corriander listed in ‘other flavourings’, above, making it a total of 4 tbsps of it required for this recipe)

  • Blend the sauce ingredients
    • Process the following in a food processor for 1 minute: the apple, 3 tbsp of corriander, mint, yogurt, formage frias or ricotta, chillis, spring onions, salt, sugar, garlic and ginger. Scrape around the outside of the bowl and process for a few seconds more.
  • Cooking the sauce and chicken
    • Heat the oil in a wok, karahi or large pan, pour in the yogurt mixture and cook, gently over a low heat for about 2 minutes.
    • Add the chicken pieces and stir well to blend everything together. Cook over a medium-low heat for 15-17 minutes or until the chicken is fully cooked.
  • Add garnishes.
    • Srinkle the sultanas and the remaining coriander over the chicken (do not mix in, but leave as a garnish).

Serve with Nut Pulao, if you like.

I’ve modified the presentation of this recipe a little, and I've also changed a few of its details. I’ve found an increased cooking time necessary, so I’ve changed that from 12-15 minutes to 15-17 minutes. I also increased the amount of chicken from 225g to 350-400g, as I think the original recipe makes far too much sauce for the amount of chicken in it.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

My PhD Scholarship Application

Here's my PhD scholarship application, from early 2004.

Looking at its content, it does feel quite personal. Largely, I think, because it's so focused on selling myself. Not that I mind it having that focus, as that's what the application required, but it feels a bit funny putting it online.

So why have I? In part because this is the kind of thing I would be interested in seeing if someone else did it. Also because I spent all that time writing it, so it also feels a bit funny keeping it tucked away in a drawer.

I often get asked what my PhD research is about, and it always frustrates me that I can't give a very articulate answer - so this may help a bit for that. Even though two years have passed now, it still provides a pretty accurate description of what I'm doing.

Thanks goes out to the following people. To Bob Colomb for his assistance with the application. To my dad for proofreading the first draft of the application. To Karen Henrickson for helping out on short notice and proofreading the second draft. To Trevor Chorvat for insight into the sorts of things the people evaluating the application would be looking for. And to Zoran Milosevic for giving me the flexibility and support at work that helped make it possible for me to get it done.

Academic Merit and Research Potential

I believe my academic performance demonstrates a strong research potential, in terms of both my overall honours grades and my performance in the most significant research component of the degree, the honours dissertation.

My first semester studying honours was affected by illness, and while I successfully applied for special consideration for the impact of this illness on my study, I believe my performance in the remainder of the course provides a more accurate reflection of my academic merit.

In that first semester, I received grades of six, two fours and a failure, and while the special consideration removed the failure from my academic record it left the other marks standing; this resulted in a grade-point average of 5.33. For the remainder of the course (for five eighths of the honours course load), I achieved the highest possible grades, receiving straight sevens across all subjects. For my academic achievement I was awarded a place on the Dean's List. At graduation I was awarded honours 2A.

My research capabilities are clearly demonstrated by my honours dissertation for which I received a 95% and a grade of seven. My dissertation is now used as (the only) example of dissertation work on the FIT/QUT honours coordinator's web-site, at:

My academic and research achievements led to employment within the IT faculty at QUT, and I believe this employment further reflects and reinforces my capabilities. As a result of my strong performance in an Artificial Intelligence subject, I was offered a research assistant position where I worked on a data mining project that was undertaken for an external client.

I was also offered employment within the faculty to develop all of the content of an online Java bridging course aimed at programmers already familiar with the C language. At the time, the faculty was switching to Java as their primary programming language for teaching, and this course was required for students that were entering degrees after the first year and as a result had not undertaken the introductory Java subjects.

My academic merit and research potential are also demonstrated by my success in gaining employment after graduation as a research scientist. This work is described in further detail, below.

Match with Research Strengths

A strong alignment between the proposed research and the ITEE School's research strengths in data and knowledge engineering and complex and intelligent systems places the proposed research firmly within the province of the faculty's research strengths.

The topic of the proposed research concerns the nature of information. What, ultimately, is information? In brief, what is its fundamental structure and nature, and what material items and processes does it map to in the real world? The intention is to approach this primarily as a fundamental question, rather than as a means to solve an applied problem. It is difficult to think of questions that are more fundamental, particularly to Information Technology, than the question of ‘what is information?’ and yet this question has so far — it seems widely agreed — eluded an adequate answer.

There is a strong match between the proposed research and the ITEE School's research strength in the area of data and knowledge engineering. The School's Data and Knowledge Engineering research group identifies three main research concentrations and strengths; the proposed research primarily matches their Semantic Issues strength, which covers Ontologies and Knowledge Representation.

The question of 'what is information?' can be considered to be largely an ontological one. This provides a clear and definite link between the Ontologies strength and the proposed research. This link is further strengthened by the way ontologies are conceived in the Information Technology domain. In Information Technology, ontologies are primarily considered from the perspective of 'what is the structure of a particular type of information?'. This question inherently requires, and is reliant upon, some conception of what information is.

For these reasons, the group's research knowledge and experience would provide valuable input into the proposed research, and in turn the proposed research could contribute to the group's strengths, such as through its application, in a collaborative context, to applied Ontological research that was being undertaken.
Primary supervision has been arranged with Associate Professor Bob Colomb, whose research focuses primarily within this Semantic Issues component of the Data and Knowledge Engineering research group. Associate Professor Colomb has undertaken research in the area of the proposed research topic and maintains an active interest in it.

Another of the ITEE School's research strengths there is a strong match with is the area of complex and intelligent systems, as embodied by the School's Complex and Intelligent Systems research group. The group's primary aim is to understand the principles that underlie complex systems. In the view of information I hold at this early stage, information arises primarily from the complexities of the perceptual systems of humans (and other information processing agents) — which are complex systems. Thus, the research knowledge and expertise in this group would provide valuable input into the proposed research.

I also believe that the evolutionary perspective, which is taken by many researchers in this group, aligns well with the proposed research; this perspective figures prominently in my intended approach — at this early stage — to understanding what information is and how it can arise. Additionally, I believe that a better understanding of information could provide leverage in understanding the structure and nature of complex systems — as complex systems are often defined and understood through the way they represent and process information.

For these reasons, the group's knowledge and expertise could contribute substantially to the proposed research, which itself could provide leverage for approaching topics within the research group's areas of interest, particularly in analysing and modelling complex and intelligent systems. The match with the Complex and Intelligent Systems research group is realised through the co-supervision which has been arranged with Dr Tom Mandeville. Dr Mandeville is a member of that research group, as well as being a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Economics.

In addition to helping realise the link with the Complex and Intelligent Systems group, Dr Mandeville's involvement would also foster inter-faculty ties between the proposed research in Information Technology, and the Economics faculty, where this research topic is also of interest. Furthermore, Dr Mandeville has done considerable work closely related to the topic of the proposed research.

In summary, there are strong and definite matches between the proposed research and the faculty's research strengths in the areas of data and knowledge engineering and complex and intelligent systems, and these are made operational through arranged supervision with staff members who have research expertise in and relating to the proposed research topic.

Demonstrated research performance

Both my accomplishments while studying and my employment record demonstrate a strong research performance. As mentioned above, I received very high marks for my honours dissertation, and its use by the honours coordinator as an illustration of honours work is a strong recognition of its quality.

While studying, I worked as a research assistant, and after graduating I obtained a position as a research scientist in an IT research center — the Distributed Systems Technology Centre (DSTC) — where I am presently working. DSTC partakes in research under the federal government's Cooperative Research Centre program. As a research scientist, I have three and a half years of research experience, including international collaboration and a number of papers published in well respected forums (as detailed below).

I work on a project at DSTC that undertakes electronic contracts research. The project is focusing primarily on the design and development of an electronic contract monitoring (as in, detecting contract violations) and management system, and consists of five researchers. As an illustration of my level of involvement in this research, I have been entrusted with the primary role in researching and designing our Business Contracts Language, which is used to encode the details of a contract in such a way that it can be monitored by our system.

This language is has several novel features, which include novel constructs for detecting patterns of events (required for detecting occurrences that should/should not occur as per the contract) and a unique model for managing the assignment of contractual obligations to roles, and those roles to people (and other entities).

My research has also involved a number of collaborations, involving researchers located in Australia, the UK, and the US. This has included two months spent earlier this year as a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Kent in the UK. This time was spent investigating electronic contract issues in collaboration with Dr Steven Neal and Professor Peter Linington. This collaboration was undertaken as part of a DEST grant, "Monitoring for B2B Contracts".

The research has also produced a number of publications, and I have been an author on six papers, including a journal paper (to appear in Data & Knowledge Engineering, Elsevier), two in IEEE conferences and one in a Springer-Verlag conference (EDOC 2002 and 2003, DEXA 2002), and two in IEEE workshops (ITVE 2001, Policy 2001). The paper I presented at the 2003 DSTC Research Symposium, "Iterating Over Time", was awarded best paper.

In summary, my research performance has been demonstrated in my honours dissertation and research assistant work, and more recently in my full time role as a research scientist.

Working at DSTC has been a rewarding experience that has, I believe, equipped me with a number of valuable skills. At the same time, I have long held an interest in the proposed research topic — I have been spending some of my own time over the last few years investigating it — and this interest has gradually increased to the point where pursing this topic has become a primary goal. I wish to take on this topic because I want to research something that is deep and substantial, because I want to grow from the challenges of doing so, and because I have strong belief in this topic’s significance.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Favourite Recipes: Mixed Dhal

Mixed Dhal

I quite like Indian food, and have quite a few Indian cookbooks - and this is the best dhal recipe I've come across. Works well as a meal by itself.

It's from the "Indian Cooking" recipe booklet in The Australian Women's Weekly's "Great Cuisines" cookbook series. It's one of those little ones that you can get in the checkouts in places like Coles and Woolworths for around $5.

I've modified the presentation of the recipe a bit.

Serves 6

  • lentils
    • yellow split peas, ½ cup (100g)
    • red lentils, ½ cup (100g)
    • split mung beans, ½ cup (100g)
      You can vary the proportions of each type no problems, even omitting certain types. (though I've never tried it with more of the split mung beans)
  • ghee or oil, 2 tbsp
  • onion, garlic, ginger
    • brown onions, 2 med (300g), finely chopped
    • cloves garlic, 4, crushed
    • fresh ginger, 1 tbsp, grated
  • spices
    • black mustard seeds, 3 tsp
    • black onion seeds, ½ tsp (not essential)
    • ground cumin, 1 tbsp
    • ground coriander, 3 tsp
    • ground tumeric, 1 tsp
    • chilli powder, 1 tsp
  • tomatoes, 2 x 400g cans
  • veg stock, 2 ½ cups (625ml)
  • for finishing
    • cracked black pepper, ½ tsp (not essential)
    • cream, 1/3 cup (80ml) (not essential)
    • fresh coriander leaves, 2 tbsp, finely chopped

  • prepare lentils
    • Rince peas, lentils and beans, separately, under cold water; drain.
    • Place yellow split peas in a small bowl, cover with water; stand for 30 mins, drain.
  • Heat ghee/oil in large heavy-base saucepan; cook seeds, stirring, until they start to pop.
  • Add onion, garlic and ginger; cook, stirring, until onion is browned lightly.
  • Add ground spices; cook, stirring, for 1 minute.
  • Add split peas, lentils, beans, undrained tomatoes and stock; simmer, covered, about 30 mins or until red lentils are tender.
  • Just before serving, add remaining ingredients; stir over low heat until just heated through.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

This news story says:

Under an edict issued by a leading Mogadishu cleric, the five-times daily prayer required by the Koran will be enforced under penalty of death, a move that appears to confirm the hardline nature of the city's Sharia courts.

"He who does not perform prayers will be considered as infidel and Sharia law orders that that person be killed," said Sheikh Abdalla Ali, a founder and high-ranking official in the Supreme Islamic Council of Somalia (SICS).

Monday, July 03, 2006

Cringely: It's time to own our own last mile

Interesting article by Robert Cringely (though it seems to drift off into unrelated stuff towards the end):

Frankston points out that we build and finance public infrastructure in a public way using public funds with the goal of benefiting economic, social, and cultural development in our communities. So why not do the same with the Internet, which is an information infrastructure?

A model in which the infrastructure is paid for as infrastructure -- privately, locally, nationally, and internationally can create a true marketplace in which the incentives are aligned. Instead of having the strange phenomenon of carriers spending billions and then arguing that they deserve to be paid, we'd have them bidding on contracts to install and/or maintain connectivity to a marketplace that is buying capacity and making it available so value can be created without having to be captured within the network and thus taken out of the economy.

One Page Comic 'We Can't Teach You This Because....'

Not bad. Here.

Nice Doonsebury on Intelligent Design


Highly Recommended Paper on Hierarchical Temporal Memory

If you're interested in AI, or just more generally, in the ways in which computers can be applied, I'd highly recommend this white paper (PDF, HTML-sans-diagrams) about the Hierachical Temporal Memory (HTM) technology being developed by Jeff Hawkin's research company, Numenta. I think it's a real step forwards.

I think the name 'Hierarchical Temporal Memory' gives the mistaken impression it's just a storage technology. But it's not really. It's really a generic mechanism for learning and predicting causes. Specifically, a hierachy of causes. The reason they refer to it as a memory is that the system encodes a memory that is, in effect, of the sorts of causes it has come across before, which it uses as part of its prediction. The significance of what it does is explained in the paper.

What HTMs actually are is a theory of the general functioning of the neocortex. Neocortex seems to provide such a generic mechanisms for learning and predicting across hierachies of causes.

I've spoken earlier about Steve Grand's excellent book Growing Up With Lucy, which is actually a very similar theory of how the neocortex works. The thing about this paper is that it goes more into concrete details of how the system works.

If you're interested in knowing who the people behind HTMs are:

The founders of Numenta are Jeff Hawkins, Donna Dubinsky and Dileep George. Hawkins and Dubinsky were co-founders of Palm Computing and Handspring and have worked together for a dozen years. Hawkins is known as the architect of mobile computing products such as the PalmPilot and the Treo smartphone. Dubinsky was CEO of Palm and Handspring, and is CEO of Numenta. Dileep George has worked with Hawkins at the Redwood Neuroscience Institute since the summer of 2003 and has extended and formalized Hawkins' theory of the neocortex.[source]

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Ultrasound Tool Developed For Regrowing Teeth and Bones

According to this story, some Canadian researchers have developed a tool for regrowing teeth and bone (a bit more detailed info here).

It is still at the prototype stage, but the trio expects to commercialize it within two years, Chen said.

The bigger version has already received approvals from American and Canadian regulatory bodies, he noted.

Identifiers for News Stories

Just a quick thought... It would be interesting if you could subscribe to a particular news story, so that you could automatically receive any followups to it.

So if you subscribed to a news story about someone being injured, you could receive followups about how they ended up fairing. In the current dynamics, follow ups tend to be buried under 'the news of the day', or are simply not done.

This would require some sort of identification of a particular story. That in itself would be interesting, if different parties reporting on it were using the same identifier.

I'm not saying that this would be a click of the fingers to get right, but I think that it could be worked out. I think it's pretty inevitable that things will evolve towards making the information we deal with more explicit, and this could be a place for a small step -- of many such possible places -- towards that.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Extreme Hammocking

Extreme Hammocking pics

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Confusing an instance for the concept - in review of memes book

The other day I came across this negative review of the book on memes ‘Thought Contagion’ by Aaron Lynch. The review's main criticism is this: the book is far too freewheeling with the concept of memes, using it make fairly superficial explanations or anything and everything.

But the problem is, while the criticism is really about the book, and how it uses the concept of memes, the review presents the criticism as being of the notion of memes itself. But the review doesn't actually present any criticism of the notion of memes, beyond problems with the nature of Lynch’s particular account of them.

In other words, what the review does is confuse a particular theory of memes with the notion of memes. You could say that it's confusing an instance of a concept for the concept itself. I believe this kind of mistake is very common, though showing other examples is something for later.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Article About Somewhat-Complex Ecosystem Developed Within Second Life

Article about a somewhat-complex ecosystem someone has made for the game Second Life.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Michael Bloomberg's Speech, Defending Scientific Values

New York City major Michael Bloomberg's address to graduates of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, as mentioned in Slashdot. You wouldn't normally expect, from a political person like him, such strong defence of the scientific principles of evidence and truth.

Article on Music Recommendation Engines

After seeing this Slasdot article on music recommendation engines, I've just signed up with, which seems pretty good (see the article for info on the differnet options available). I wasn't really aware of these sorts of sites, and I haven't started playing with it yet, but it sounds pretty cool.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Robert Winston: the virtues of animal testing

A sensible-sounding article by Robert Winston. "Instead of being cowed by activists, scientists should trumpet the virtues of animal testing".

Matt Inglot's on Not Having a "Real Job"

Matt Inglot shares a short anecdote about people's attitudes towards an unconventional career path:

While I was busy learning about business in an unconventional way and doing so from the comfort of home, my friends were also in the process of getting their first jobs. I was then introduced to a mentality that I didn’t really understand, and still don’t. The moment they joined the workforce flipping burgers and stocking shelves they became really helpful in telling me that I should also get a job. When I insisted that I did have a job and enjoyed it very much the response was always “that’s not a real job Matt”.


The fear of somebody doing something different, something with an unsure ending, is so strongly built into society that virtually all the high schoolers I knew instinctively tried to tell me that I was on the wrong path. In reality they were scared, and trying to re-assure each other as a flock that their normal path was indeed the correct one.
I must admit that the way people prefix things with "real"--like "real job", "real music", "real world" etc etc--irritates me. It's usually a lazy, hollow way of criticising the things that are supposedly not "real" instances of the thing.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Research Relating to Miconceptions About Girls and Bullying

Misconceptions can be bad, because they can lead people to overlook real problems. The Daily Mail reports on some recent research that corrects some common-seeming miconceptions about girls and bullying.

Avoiding Conflation of Signifier With Signified By Understanding Why It Signifies

Seeing signifiers as the signified is, sadly, a widespread "cognitive pathology".

Understanding why the item may act as a signifier for the other item is a good way to avoid this problem. It makes you decouple the items from each other.

And since signification is invariably context-sensitive, understanding why the signification occurs allows you to appreciate that it isn't always the case and appreciate when it does and does not apply.

(I have a strong suspicion that always considering 'why' is the key to developing effective thinking skills, but that's an idea that I need to develop more).

Video of Tennis Game Using New Nintendo Motion-Sensing Controller

Aside from Freecell (a card game) on my laptop, I haven't played computer games for years. Mainly this is because I haven't had time for it, but I also haven't been that interested in the games out there (though World of Warcraft looks cool).

Now, for the first time in years, I'm excited about an upcoming computer games thing: the Nintendo Wii (formerly called the 'Nintendo Revolution'), with it's cool motion-sensing controller.

There's a general article about it here, and a video clip of a tennis game for it here. I think that looks really cool.

As Gizmodo says:

Those of you out there who doubt that the Nintendo Wii’s Remote is going to be the best thing ever: If you’re still drinking the total haterade after watching this video of ... playing Wii tennis at Nintendo’s pre-E3 press conference this afternoon, there is no love in your shrivelled heart and not even unicorns and rainbows can save you now.

Dharmesh Shah on Good and Bad Sorts of Simplicity

Dharmesh Shah has written two good articles considering the view that software should be as simple as possible. The articles try to clarify what sorts of simplicity are good and what kinds aren't. (The articles are a response to the 37signals book Getting Real, which is big on the simple-as-possible thing).

The first article argues that software, being focused for users, has to meet their needs, and simply providing the minimal set of features can bring them up short.

The second article is a bit of an elaboration on that. It argues that while software should be made simpler by being 'opinionated' and deciding 'the little details so your customers don't have to' it shouldn't go too far and become 'stubborn' -- stubborn software is not only opinionated but it is inflexible and doesn't provide users the ability to configure the software to their preferences.

This stuff is related to what I've written on the nature of 'simplicity' and 'complexity':

(1) Sketching on Simplicity As Qualitative Perceptual Concept
(2) Notes on What Qualitative Perceptual Concepts Are
(3) Complexity as Qualitative Perceptual Concept
(5) Quick Drafting on Tradeoffs Between Local and Global Simplicity/Complexity
(6) Factors in Tool Complexity/Simplicity: Viewing Value as Additive
(7) Factors in Tool Complexity/Simplicity: Vertical- and Horizontal- Features
(8) Initial- and Standing- Simplicity/Complexity
I also noted down this this comment by Linus Torvalds on this matter of oversimplification.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Forbes's List of 15 Ways to Live Longer

Forbes has a list of 15 ways to live longer. Mostly usual ones you'd expect like get a pet, be optimistic etc, though a few things I found of interest:

#5 Get a VAP

It's estimated that about half of the people with heart disease--the No. 1 killer in the U.S.--have normal cholesterol levels, which raises serious doubt about the ability of traditional cholesterol tests to detect risk. But more advanced cholesterol tests, like the VAP test, made by the Birmingham, Ala.-based lab Atherotech, may remedy that. VAP measures important metrics that traditional tests miss. Regular tests only detect half of the people with heart disease, while the VAP has been shown to detect 90% of heart disease patients. That's important because lipid abnormalities can most often be rectified with medication and dietary changes. And the sooner you start making changes, the better.
Also, intresting to see this much importance put on stress:
"I think stress kills more people than just about anything else," says Dr. David Fein, medical Director at Princeton Longevity Center in New Jersey.


Sounds good, if it works out in practice. As the name suggests, like a mix between a bus and a taxi. You just call up and it will come around and pick you up. Leverages tracking and scheduling technology to best allocate the requests to taxibuses:

GT promises that their system would guarantee 3-minute rapid response based upon computerized itineraries in each taxibus that instantaneously updates upon each new ride request. The computers also have GPS technology that directs drivers to their destination and adjusts continuously to accomodate new circumstances.

'Deliberate Practice' is Where Skill/Talent Comes From Says Recent Research

The New York Times reports on some recent research, by Anders Ericsson at Florida State University, into where skill/talent comes from:

Their work, compiled in the "Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance," a 900-page academic book that will be published next month, makes a rather startling assertion: the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated. Or, put another way, expert performers — whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming — are nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice does make perfect. These may be the sort of clichés that parents are fond of whispering to their children. But these particular clichés just happen to be true.
They see improvement as the result of what they call deliberate practice:
Deliberate practice entails more than simply repeating a task — playing a C-minor scale 100 times, for instance, or hitting tennis serves until your shoulder pops out of its socket. Rather, it involves setting specific goals, obtaining immediate feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Article on Distinction Between Freedom and Democracy

An interesting article on the distinction between freedom and democracy -- how will of the majority can work against important freedoms -- and putting this in the context of the Iraq situation.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Criticisms of a Guardian Article on Technologies Affects on our Brains

The Guardian has an article indicting the effect of new technologies on our brains -- but I think it's criticisms are extremely trite. The article contains fourteen paragraphs, but the actual criticisms are only given three sentences (quoted below) and are not given any jutifictaion.

...the process of traditional book-reading, which involves following an author through a series of interconnected steps in a logical fashion. We read other narratives and compare them, and so "build up a conceptual framework that enables us to evaluate further journeys... One might argue that this is the basis of education ... It is the building up of a personalised conceptual framework, where we can relate incoming information to what we know already. We can place an isolated fact in a context that gives it significance." Traditional education, she says, enables us to "turn information into knowledge."
The flickering up and flashing away again of multimedia images do not allow those connections, and therefore the context, to build up. Instant yuk or wow factors take over. Memory, once built up in a verbal and reading culture, matters less when everything can be summoned at the touch of a button (or, soon, with voice recognition, by merely speaking).
Why do these images not allow these connections? No reason is given.

Does memory really matter less? No justification is given for the claim. Does being able to look up facts really mean that we remember things less? It's not obvious that it should -- for the memorisation processes are pretty unconscious, and memorisation is involves understanding of the content.

Perhaps what the ability to look things up just gives us more leverage?

And why no mentions of how technology may be increasing our cognitive powers? For example, the increasing sophistication of the plots of television programs, requiring greater memory and connecting the dots?

Steve Pavlina on How to Wake Up Immediately When Your Alarm Goes Off

Steve Pavlina gives some sensible sounding advice on how to get up immediately when your alarm goes off. The article is a bit long-winded, but the point is basically this:

Even though you really would like to get up when the alarm goes off, trying to convince yourself of this at the time just doesn't work very well. You're tired, you don't feel like getting up -- and your brain is just too foggy to effectively fight that.

Instead, he suggests forgetting about your conscious mind and training your subconscious mind to get you out of bed when the alarm goes off, by the only way it can be trained: through practice. So practice lying in bed and jumping up as soon as the alarm goes off, and if you practice it enough it'll become automatic.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Paul Graham on Discarding the Assumption that it's all About Us

In this post, Paul Graham starts writing about what drives bloggers to blog but ends up talking about the following. It's a very good read.

...The history of ideas since people first started writing them down is a history of gradually discarding the assumption that it's all about us.

...The idea that we're the center of things is difficult to discard.

...So if you want to discover things that have been overlooked till now, one really good place to look is in our blind spot: in our natural, naive belief that it's all about us. And expect to encounter ferocious opposition if you do.
In relation to my PhD research, I actually think that the reason people haven't been able to understand information is because of this this kind of thing, more specifically taking certain elements of their perception for granted.

This has to do with what I wrote the other day about people not being able to understand information because they are looking for a declarative understanding of it rather than a fully imperative one. A fully imperative one forces you to fully take your perception out of the picture.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Steve Grand: Moving AI out of its infancy: Changing our Preconceptions

An excellent article by Steve Grand, on where he thinks AI needs to go. It's like a summary of the main points in his book "Growing Up With Lucy".

The main points he makes are:

  • The purpose of the brain is to compensate for all the time it takes for the nerve signals to travel to it and back again.

  • Brains don’t make decisions

  • Brains perform coordinate transforms

  • Nervous tissue is a new state of matter

  • The more complex a robot is, the easier it is to make progress