Friday, February 26, 2010

The Triumph of Unix. Wha-?

Unix? What's Unix? For those of you who already know, you can skip this first paragraph. Unix has always been the operating system of choice for engineering and science. It's a classic hard-to-learn but very powerful system for running a computer.

Doesn't Windows still dominate? Well, yes. But here's a big but.

The internet was born on Unix. That's why URLs have slashes to separate directories instead of the backslashes of Windows (it always bothers me when customer service reps tell me to use backslashes when they read off URLs to me. I always tell them they don't have backslashes, and they don't respond.) That must really irk Microsoft. URLs are basically Unix syntax-- no spaces, domain addresses that end in .com and .edu.

Email started on Unix. Back then it was called E-Mail. You used a program called mail, or a slightly better one called Mail. In 2010, Macs use What will they come up with next? Only time will tell...

Unix was the first OS (as far as I can tell) to use usenames and passwords to get into accounts. Now everybody's doin' it!
(have trouble remembering them all? Make a googledoc at and keep them all in a file called "passwords." )

Linux is getting more user friendly and more popular It's got the same basic interface as Unix distributions. I was tickled when even Wal-Mart was selling netbooks with linux on them.

Finally, Mac OS is basically Unix, under the hood. Jobs based his NeXT step OS for the NeXT machine on Unix. When he got back to Apple in 1997, he basically made MacOS X from NeXT. I belileve it uses a version of linux, Free BSD, under the hood. You can get a terminal window on a mac and type Unix commands!

The Android OS is on 60,000 phones shipping per day as of February, 2010. It's based on linux.

Unix is great for everything but ease of learning and UI. It's great to see its influence.

Pictured is rapper Kook Keith.

I think this is possibly the nerdiest post I have ever written. Except for Kool Keith.
Kool Keith is always ill.

Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Concept Map of the Activity and Interests of the Science of Imagination Laboratory is a website that offers a free concept-mapping service. Today I started a map for my laboratory, and tried to capture all of the interests and activity of it. The links sometimes mean subclass relations, and sometimes just mean relationships.  You can see the map at the link above.

Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

I Will Be a Speaker at TEDxCarletonU

I have been chosen, with four other people, to give a TEDx talk for Carleton University on March 30, 2010.

I am a big fan of TED talks. I watch them every chance I get. They tend to be 20 minute talks discussing interesting ideas, tailored to a lay audience. I like almost all of them.

The TED organization licenses it's brand out to smaller conferences, each of which is called a TEDx. There was a TEDx for Ottawa and a TEDx for Toronto, for example. Each of the five speakers will give a talk, and two actual TED talks will be shown on video. Seating is limited, so if you want to come you must apply. I don't see instructions yet on the site for how to apply, but with hope they'll be coming.

I will be speaking about the science of imagination: how it can be done, and what my lab is doing to understand imagination. Check out my new logo.

Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

I Will Be Giving A Talk at UCF February 16, 2010

I will give a talk on a vision for the scientific study of imagination, then participate in a panel, and then meet with the cognitive science student association at the University of Central Florida.

Someone tweeted about the talk:

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Why Scientists Should Write Books

pictured: Sphaerophoria scripta on a Hawkweed flower (Hieracium sp.)

My man Daniel Saunders turned me on to this article:

It's about why scientists should write books, and not just scientific articles. I agree with much of what it says, but it misses some important points.

Scientific articles are written for your scientific peers. There is an understood jargon. This makes for efficient communication with them, but the cost is that nobody else can understand them. You rely on science journalists to communicate with scholars in other fields and the public. In a book, you can write for the public. Why would you want to do that? First, it's important that the public be educated about scientific matters, so that they can make better decisions for themselves and their governments. Second, it can inspire them to become scientists themselves. I know several people who went into AI because they read Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach. But not only are you able to write for the public, you are writing to scientists in other fields. Cross-disciplinary interaction has been shown to produce better science (Kevin Dunbar's lab found this). By writing books you are contributing to other scientists' general scientific knowledge.

Books can contain book-sized ideas. And you should be thinking of book-sized ideas. If Darwin's big evolution book had been an article, it might not have had enough detail and evidence to be so convincing. If, as a scientist, you commit yourself to writing a few books during your career, perhaps it will encourage you to think of big ideas in the first place. Don't just wait for a book idea to come to you.

There are cultural reasons not to write books, particularly for the public. Carl Sagan got hammered for writing popular books. Others, like Pinker, seem not to have suffered. Psychology has a culture of not valuing anything except journal articles. Books and conferences barely count at all, the the merit system. Play the game, write your journal articles. But don't be a dust-bowl empiricist, don't eke out a living making incremental contributions to your subfield. Especially after you get tenure, think big. Big theories, crazy theories. Throw some spaghetti against the wall.

And don't criticize others for writing books either. With hope this post will have convinced you of its importance, so you won't think badly of them. But even so, beware of prophetic discrimination, which is discriminating against someone through anticipation of others' discrimination (for example, you might not hire someone who writes books because you think others down the line will discriminate against them for tenure and promotion decisions, for example.)

Don't decide whether or not to write a book, decide what your book is going to be about.

Bookmark and Share

Friday, February 05, 2010

Stairs and Why We Ascend Them

My wife Vanessa recently told me about a TED talk she saw that reported habits of octogenarians (those who lived 8 decades). She told me that one of the commonalities was having exercise worked into their lives.

Although views on what makes you healthy seem to change over time (particularly concerning diet), physical activity seems to be uncontroversially good for you.

One of the things I liked about my postdoc at Queen's University was that it was easy to have exercise built into my schedule. I walked to work, and my office was on the sixth floor. That's high enough to be some good exertion but low enough to be doable several times a day. I tried to always use the stairs.

At Carleton the door-to-door walk is one hour. A two-hour round trip commute is too much for me, most days, even if it's gorgeous out, which, for many months of the year, it's not. So I drive. The other thing is that I work on the 22nd floor. Not a walker.

But I got thinking. Why not walk up to the sixth floor and then take the elevator? I'm going to try to do this. I will make exceptions when I'm with someone, or I'm in a rush, or not feeling well, etc. Furthermore, I have an ambition to add one floor every semester. So next semester I will ascend 7 flights of stairs before getting onto the elevator.

With obesity a big problem, there is a push to get people using stairs. One thing that's getting in the way is, believe it or not, aesthetics. People find some staircases inviting and others not. The staircase pictured (One of the two identical symmetrical main staircases within the main hall of the Amtsgericht Berlin in Berlin Mitte near the Alexanderplatz) is gorgeous, and looks (to me anyway) like a lot of fun to go up and down. But modern architectural customs have rendered staircases barren, windowless, hard, and ugly. Why? Because they are fire exits. Fire exits need to be free of anything flammable, and need to have heavy, ugly fire doors. Uninviting.

It's a major modern challenge to make great staircases that people want to use, while at the same time maintaining adherence to fire codes.

Here is a link to some incredibly fun and creative staircases:
Bookmark and Share