Monday, May 29, 2006

Periodic Reviewing of Journal Articles

Through Queen's Library webpage I can access PDFs of many journals going for years back. There are probably around 20 or 30 journals that I cite from most often. I just realized how easy it is to look at the titles of every paper published in a journal for the past 50 years or so.

So my plan is to take the time to work through these journals, downloading papers and making notes regarding which project ideas the papers are important for. I'll go back as far as I feel is important. After this is done once for a journal, then all I have to do is keep up.

I also have a plan to review the most recent year of articles in all of these journals every year. I put a repeating date (Feb 12) to review the journals into my palm pilot. This way I will feel comfortable that important journal papers will not slip past my notice. Attached to the date is the list of journals I will review. I can keep this list updated. I suppose I can do this for conferences too, if they have online archives.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Episode I vs. Episode IV

As a huge fan of the Star Wars prequels, I'm always interested in figuring out exactly why the prequels don't work for most people. People complain about them, but I am always skeptical about what they say. I'm always thinking that what people say they don't like about it are not the real reasons they didn't like them. Perhaps there is something wrong with the films that you can't express, and when asked you just say what you can describe.

But enough of that. I was talking to Montica last night and we did a kind of side by side comparison of Episodes I and IV in terms of Anakin and Luke's story, which are enormously similar. Both started in crappy positions on Tatooine, both got identified by their talent and taken away to be trained as jedi. So what's the problem?

I think we hit on it. Anakin is just not likable in Episode I. Even though he's a slave, which is supposed to be worse than being a farmer with loving guardians, Anakin seems to have it pretty good. We know he's a slave, but you couldn't tell that without hearing the lines. He doesn't even seem particularly frustrated with his position. We don't see him abused, we don't see him really even wanting very badly to leave. Compare this to Luke, who keeps going on about how he thinks he'll never get off the planet. People relate to that because we know what it feels like to be stuck.

Anakin was just too young, too. Wouldn't it have been better if he were thirteen? And the acting had been better? Since Episode I was supposed to be Anakin's story, we really lose out by not liking and rooting for him.

I've also heard a few times that the prequels are missing a Han Solo-type character. I agree, and I think there was a missed opportunity with Qui-Gon Jinn. He's kind of a rebel, but this only comes out very subtly in a few lines like when Obi-Wan tells him he'd be on the Jedi Council if he played by the rules more. He takes Anakin on when he's clearly too old-- Wouldn't it have been a better film if he were a real rabble-rousing pain in the council's neck, but they had to keep him around because he was so great?

I think Jar-Jar annoyed people, but they would have been much more forgiving if the main characters had been more likable. In other words, I don't think the movie would have made people happy without Jar-Jar. He's just something concrete and annoying that people can point to.

In case people are wondering why on earth I like prequels so much, it's basically becaue they flesh out what I consider to be an interesting world with a fascinating plot. I think the characters are mediocre and the acting laughable in places, but in general I feel, for me, that the good far outweighs the bad. I just watched Episode IV: A New Hope yesterday, and frankly I feel it's thin on world creation compared to the other films in the series. I also like Michael Crichton's books, so you can see how important character isn't to me.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Learning Styles

I always thought the idea of people having different learning styles was bullshit. More specifically, I figured if you were good at learning in one medium, you'd probably be good in others. I asked a Ph.D. in education about this yesterday and she said there was something to it.

She sent me a link to a site where you can test your learning style with a short, 13 question survey.

I tried it. Turns out I have a slight Aural preference. I love the spoken word. I prefer to think of it as an "aural fixation." And talking dirty as "aural sex."

If you take the survey, leave a comment and tell me how it evaluates you.

Canadian English

Lots of people ask me about the differences I've seen between American and Canadian English. There's a better description on wikipedia but I'll write here the differences I've noticed. Note that my experience is limited primarily to southern Ontario, and my comparisons are to Standard American English, like that heard on the news.

Canadians often ask because they don't seem to really hear it. Most say this is because they watch so much American TV and movies. They're used to hearing it that way. But when a Canadian says a word or phrase with a Canadian accent, I notice immediately.

They flatten lots of their "a"s .
I've heard "pasta" where the first "a" sounds like the "a" in "pat."
"Java" where the first "a" sounds like the "a" in "jack."
"Drama" where the first "a" sounds like the "a" in "Dramamine." This allows for terms like "dram club," which would sound too weird with the American pronounciation.
One friend of mine (I won't mention names to protect Daniel) says "taco" where the first "a" sounds like the "a" in "tack."
Perhaps the weirdest is "Dana" where the first "a" sounds like the "a" in "Daniel."
"Tonya" is pronounced differently from "Tanya" where the first "a" sounds like the "a" in "tan." In American English these names sound the same.

They put "eh?" at the end of sentences where Americans often put "huh?" As in, "That's pretty big, huh?" Canadians would say "That's pretty good, eh?" I hear the lower class people do this more often (mostly in this hockey card shop where I but cheap CDs and VHS). They also use "hey?" the same way. I hear this more at Queen's. One of my ex-girlfriends didn't like it, and asked me to pinch her when she said it.

They pronounce "about," "house," "out," etc. differently. Some Americans think they pronounce "about" as "aboot," but I've never heard this. I cannot describe how it's actually pronounced with text because there are no American English words I can think of that have the same sounds. For my Canadian readers, Americans pronounce it ah-bow-t where the "bow" rhymes with "cow."

They say "grade 8" instead of "eighth grade."

They use the word "random" a lot. My friend Kris said I was the most "random" friend she had, meaning I had stuff in my apartment that didn't go together. Sometimes people will start emails with "Random." to indicate that what they are saying is out of the blue. People will describe movies that have no rhyme or reason as "random." Someone's liking of a CD might be called "random" if it's unlike the other CDs they like.

Few Americans know the slang meaning of "cougar." It means an older woman who endeavours to pick up younger men. I read about it once, but never heard it used in conversation until I moved to Canada, where I hear it constantly. Right now it's one of those words that seems to evoke a laugh just by using it. I've heard Canadians use it to refer to older women at a bar, even if they have made no effort to pick up younger guys.

Around here anyway Canadians say "pop" for carbonated soft drinks, as opposed to the American "soda." If you order "soda" in a Canadian bar, they think you mean soda water.

They pronounce "fragile" with the last syllable sounding like "isle."

They say "project" and "progress" with the "pro" sounding like the "pro" in "golf pro."

On a test, if a question is worth three points, they say it's worth three "marks." I hear this is British.

The first syllable in "sorry" sounds like "sore."

A winter hat is a "toque" or a "touque" and is pronounced "tuke." Jamal said it was lame that Americans called it a "winter hat," until I pointed out that she called winter jackets "winter jackets."

Sometimes the call napkins "serviettes."

They apperar to be brand loyal in some weird ways. Any kind of macaroni and cheese tends to be called "Kraft Dinner," because the Kraft brand of mac and cheese is called that. I told Jamal we called it "macaroni and cheese" and she said "weird."

The only instant messenger Canadians use is MSN messenger. My American friends are split between AOL and Yahoo! instant messengers. They don't even refer to the practice as "instant messenging," it's "MSNing" as in "I MSNed her." Microsoft must love the Canadians.

Monday, May 15, 2006

A Very Special Deep Blue Day

Deep Blue Day 2006 was fabulous. It was the best ever. Daniel came over, we wore blue, and we watched "Game Over," a documentary about the match (see my Deep Blue Day article below). We were both rooting for the computer, of course, but after seeing what a whiney, immature, sore loser Kasparov was about it, we were practically jumping out of our seats when Deep Blue made a great move. See the photo for a dramatization.

Next year will be the 10 year anniversary. Going to have to have a big blow-out for it. And I think somebody should get a bunch of pop artists together to make a AI research benefit album called "A Very Special Deep Blue Day."

Friday, May 12, 2006

What can one do that really makes a difference?

The Onion is so brilliant, and often makes great points. For example see

The article is about how futile most people's efforts are at helping the environment. And though it's a caricature, the article is, in essence, mostly correct.

What's that? It's not really helping the environment much to compost? Damn right it's not. I mean, it makes a bit of difference. A bit. But not much. It's better than voting, which makes, in terms of elections anyway, no difference. But that's a rant for another day.

It's not that I believe people should not strive to make the world a better place. Indeed, it's the guiding principle of my whole life (see
It's that if you look at the things you spend your time doing, there is great variation in how much good those things do. And if you're working for a better world, you should be maximizing your positive effect. Try to win a few victories for humanity before you die.

You might be thinking that all we can do is our little part. Well, for many people, that's true. But others have a chance to make large-scale positive changes to our world. Politicians and scientists come to mind. It only took one person to discover antibiotics, or that washing your hands saves women's lives in childbirth, or the world-wide web. If you have a chance to make a change of this nature, with such incredible ramifications, then what are you doing wasting your time sorting your recycling bin?

What I don't like is any complacency as a result of doing a bunch of little things, if it keeps you from striving for doing something earth-changingly great. So please don't feel smug and satisfied about the tiny things you do to help the environment or social welfare, unless little things are all you are capable of. And if you have not tried to make large scale changes, you really don't know, do you?

Happy Deep Blue Day

In 1997, Deep Blue became the first computer system to defeat a reigning world champion in a match under standard chess tournament time controls. You can read about it at

I like to celebrate this day every year by wearing blue, drinking milk, and talking about Deep Blue. It's an interesting case in AI because it's a great example of how AI is perceived as a fanishing science-- that is, as soon as a computer program can do something, that something is no longer perceived as demonstrating intelligence. As a result, AI researchers wrying joke that AI stands for "Almost Implemented."

There are three reasons people perceive AI as a failure. The first is that the goal posts keep moving. There was a time that calculation, and doing lots of arithmetic, was perceived as very intelligent behavior. Now that nobody blinks when their watch can do calculations faster than any human being, it's hard for people (AI researchers included) to think of calculating as intelligent. The goal posts moved. Whoops. We'll have to kick farther. This is true also of chess. Naysayers used to say a computer could never play grandmaster-level chess because it required real intelligence. Well, in 1997, we had an objective outcome. A computer program could indeed beat a grandmaster. Well, the naysayers were quick to change their tune, just as they always do: Now playing chess is no longer an act that requires intelligence. Whether or not there is validity to this I will adderss below.

The second reason is related to the first. People have a mystical view of intelligence, and once we fully understand how a computer is doing something, it fails to have mystery, so it does not qualify as intelligence anymore-- it's just search, or it's just cranking through an analogy. How do people do the same things? We don't know. Maybe they are doing heuristic search sometimes-- we just don't know! Intelligence will not be de-mystified until we better understand how people think. When we can reduce human thought to "mundane" algorithms like search or connectionism, maybe the naysayers will grumble some acceptance of artificial real intelligence.

The third reason is that we were too optimistic in the 1950s about how easy AI would be. We made bad predictions that I think people are only just starting to forgive us for. I won't go into this reason more because it's not important for this essay, but yes, some of the blame falls on us.

So, Deep Blue. Intelligent or not?
Although Deep Blue had a great deal of chess knowledge, its main power comes from algorithms created long ago in AI. The reason, some will say, that Deep Blue won was because it had enough computing power behind it, not because it was intelligent. As though any fast computer could beat Kasparov!

Here's another way to look at it: The algorithms we came up with long ago were good-- they were the right ones. It's just that they were ahead of their time. The computers of the time were not powerful enough to really show off what they could do. But since we came up with the algorithms long ago, we no longer get credit for them. Is that fair? (hint: "no.")

Another objection to Deep Blue is that it considers many more moves than Kasparov. It's more of a brute force search, so people want to discount it for this reason. It seems pretty certain that it uses different algorithms than does, say, Kasparov, but is this a good reason to say it's not intelligent?

Intelligence is one of those weird words. Do airplanes fly? Yes, they do, even though they don't flap their wings. Do boats swim? No, they don't. Not in English anyway. In Russian, boats do indeed swim. Similarly, intelligence is one of those words for which people disagree on whether a system that does an intelligent act differently than a human should be considered intelligent. Do we really want out opinions on whether or not computers can think to be dependent on the nature of people's commonsense notions of what intelligence means? In English?? (hint: "no.")

So the question of whether or not Deep Blue is actually intelligent is, at present, not an empirical question. Someday it might be.

So acknowledge this, have a drink of milk, wear blue, and celebrate Deep Blue day. Whether or not you want to call AIs intelligent, they are landing our airplanes, optimizing prices, giving you recommendations on, understanding our voices on the phone, checking to see if people are forging our checks, teaching us about chess end games, and beating our chess masters. Cheers.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Evolution of the Scientific Method

My main man Anthony Francis ( suggested an interesting talk online at
Google TechTalks May 9, 2006 Kevin Kelly.

Here are some notes from this inspiring talk...

He charts the evolution of the scientific method:

200 BCE indexing and cataloging in libraries and such
1000 CE collaborative encyclopedia
1600 laboratories, measuring, recording data
1609 observational tools
1590 controlled experiment (Francis Bacon)
1650 sharing information and observation (Society of Experts)
1665 necessary experiment repeatability (Bolton)
1675 peer review
1687 hypothesis/prediction (Newton)
1920 falsifiability (Popper)
1926 statistics, randomized design (Fisher)
1937 placebo concept invented
1946 computer simulation
1950 double blind refinement to experiments
1962 study of the scientific method itself (Kuhn)

(He didn't mention it, but Galileo I believe was the first to use quantification-- turning observations into numbers for analysis. I'll send him an email about it...)

China made technology sometimes 500 or 1000 years before the west, but did not invent science. They had paper, printing, gunpowder, compass, iron plow, vaccinations, petroleum and gas fuel, etc. You can get pretty far without science.

Science is the process of changing of how we know, not just learning new things.

Science will change more in the next 50 years than in the last 400, according to current trends.

Biology will be big. Currently it has the most funding, scientists, results, economic value, is the most ethically important, and has the most to learn. You can look at the world's 100 million genomes as having learned stuff for 4 billion years. That's a lot to learn.

Information is growing at 66% per year (physical production is at 7%).

Zillionics: the field of study of zillions of things.

In the future most of the data will be from simulations, not observations of the natural world. The core of future science is theory, simulation, and observation. They feed each other.

Science is getting much more communal. Soon there will be a thousand-author paper.

There is a Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine. Some places are insisting you report your negative results as a prereq for publication.

Triple Blind Emergent Trials: 24 sensory info of people. You extract controls afterward. Neither the observer, researcher, or scientist is aware that there is an experiment going on.

Distributed experiments like Seti at home are going to be big.

You can imagine all of science as a single machine (1 billion PC chips, 1 million emails per second, 8 terrabytes of traffic per second, etc.). It's close to the complexity of the human mind.

Imagine Van Gogh born before paints were invented-- likewise there are geniuses around today for which the technology has not yet been invented.

Good questions generate more questions than it answers. Science creates ignorance more than knowledge.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Hip hop: Alphabetizing CDs (nuts)

My friend Gavin Bell told me that one way you could tell a wack record store is if they put DJ Jazzy Jeff under "D" and MC Lyte under "M."

My CDs are alphabetized by artist and then in order that the albums came out. Most of the time it's straightforward, but in the hip hop world alphabetization, like many things, gets a little weird.

I'll start with the easy ones...

MC Hammer. Of course, under "H." Particularly since he changed his to "Hammer." We would not want to put them in two places now would we?

Salt-N-Pepa. We don't know Salt's last name (maybe it's "Shaker") so it will have to go under "S." I saw her speak on TV once and they displayed her name below her: "Salt." Cracked me up. She makes less sense without the Pepa. Can you imagine her going solo? "Did you check out the new joint from Salt? Yo, she and Pepa had a nasty break-up. New album's called "Pepa Don't Preach.""

Snoop Doggy Dogg. Should it go under "D" assuming his last name is "Dogg?" No. Ol' Dirty Bastard goes under "O;" you would not refer to his late greatness as "Mr. Bastard." That's just wrong.

Da Brat. Under "D" or "B?" I ended up putting it under "B," since it's truer to hip hop, I feel. Plus "Brat" is more descriptive of her than the "Da." Duh.

Foxy Brown. Not sure about this one. I suppose Brown is her last name, so it should go under "B?"

Tupac Shakur. It's the brother's name, so under "S," right? But his stage name is sometimes just "Tupac" and sometimes he goes by, not Tupac, but "2Pac." Does he go under "T," "S," or "2" (which comes before all letters and before 3 6 Mafia and 50 Cent)?

Bobby Digital. It's an alias for the RZA (pronounced "Rizz-uh"). So it goes under "R" or maybe "D," but probably not "B."

Mr. Pookie and Mr. Lucci. I guess "P?"

Master P. The word "Master" doesn't quite seem as innocuous as "Mr." or "Dr." or "Da." So it goes under "M," after to Masta Ase. "Masta" comes before "Master," dumb bell.

Dr. Dre. Goes under "DR" with no decisions to make. Good lookin' out, Dre!

Eric B. & Rakim. "E" or "B?" Gavin says that using last names is a bad idea in general with hip hop, and I'm starting to think he's right.

Kool G Rap. "K" if you don't consider "Kool" to be an article in this context, "G" if you don't think it's his first name, and "R" if you think "Rap" is his last name.

A Tribe Called Quest. I guess since "A" is an article, it should go under "T," but I think I actually screwed this up in my collection...

Lord Jamar. Also
Lord Finesse and Lord Sear. I'm thinking this is like "Master" (and "Masta") and would go under "L." Same goes for any future rapper whose name is "Lawd" something.

Comment with more fun examples if you think of them. I love hip hop. :)

Fire Extinguisher Training

I took a 3 hour fire extinguisher training course recently. I tried to get by buds Jamal and Daniel to go, and I was shocked that they weren't interested. Then I told my dad and he thought there was nothing to learn, because how to use one was so obvious. Anyway, it was awesome and I recommend it to anyone.

Answer these questions for yourself:
1) How much time should you spend trying to extinguish a fire before you give up and get the hell out?
2) Fire extinguishers should be used in short bursts, or a continuous stream?
3) What kind of extinguisher should you not use on a liquid fire (e.g. burning gasoline)?
4) When getting out of a burning building, does it help to have cloth covering your face? What else should you do while running?

In the training we saw a video about how fast fire spreads. It was a dorm room with the smoke ventilated out of it. The room gets so hot after four minutes that other stuff in it spontaneously combusts. Even more disturbing is another video I saw long ago that didn't take out the smoke. It was a burning Christmas tree, and within 30 seconds the smoke completely filled the room. You couldn't see shit.

After the videos we all got to put out a gasoline fire! I don't understand how someone could pass up an opportunity to do this. Now to answer the questions...

1) 30 seconds. If you haven't put it out by then, you probably won't, and the extinguisher is probably close to empty. Fire increases in size very quickly, so get out. Always pull the fire alarm before trying to extinguish the fire.
2) A continuous stream. Fire will spread to where you just got rid of it, destroying all your progress. Push the fire away from you, continuously spraying back and forth, from the point nearest you to the farthest, at the base of the flames. Hold the extinguisher upright at all times.
3) Never use a water-based extinguisher on burning liquids. It is liable to dangerously spread it. Many extinguishers are not water-based.
4) In a burning building, most people die of smoke inhalation or heat, and not the flames themselves. Covering your mouth with cloth, wet if you can, is great. Also, run with your head low to the ground. Standing up might be deadly.