Monday, May 24, 2010

Cities and Brains

I was reading an interview with neuroscientist Henry Markram (Kushner, 2009), in which he says

"Even though the neocortex is the most is the most advanced region, it's got more order and organization and therefore is actually more tractable. If you go into the brain stem or other subcortical areas of the brain, the neurons have no distinguishing features. They're all kinds of shapes."

This reminds me of cities. Old parts of cities are convoluted, haphazard. They were made for the conveniences at the time and had no planning. Newer parts of cities are planned. They are often sensible grids. You can see this in the pictured map of Manhatten. 

I don't know if this analogy means anything, but analogies like this have made scientific advances in the past. Older parts of the brain are more haphazard, just like older parts of cities. Was there some analog to planning going on in brain evolution?


Kushner, D. (2009). The Discover interview: Henry Markram. Discover, December, 61--63, 77.Bookmark and Share

Monday, May 17, 2010

Just Because You Meditated for 30 Years Doesn't Mean You See the World As It Truly Is

Buddhists claim that through meditation you can achieve enlightenment. A part of that enlightenment is seeing the world as it truly is. Meditation reduces activation in your brain's parietal lobe, which is the area that allows you to distinguish your self from your environment. Let's say that long practice of meditation allows you to willfully reduce parietal lobe activation.

Why do Buddhists think the feeling of a loss of self, that the world is one, is the true reality? Why is the world as experienced after arduous meditation and getting your brain to work differently, thought to be the way the world is?

Let's say I created an exercise that allowed you to turn off your visual areas. Would you let me claim that this is evidence that the world, or at least light, doesn't really exist? And that doing this exercise allows you to experience the world as it really is?

In both of these cases you're training your mind to shut off the detector in your brain that makes certain distinctions. Shutting down a part of your brain doesn't tell you anything special about the world.

The attributionist view holds that we have a bias to misattribute psychological experiences to supernatural ones. This occurs with sleep paralysis and the belief in aliens and succubi, near-death experiences, and, I believe, in meditation too. 

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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Are we in a never-ending cycle of new social networking sites?

I remember loving Friendster. I remember liking Myspace. Now I love Facebook. Each time it kind of feels like there's no room for any other. And each time it gets replaced (for the most part) by something new.

I read a theory (I think it was in Wired, but I can't find it now) that held that we go to a new social networking site when too many people are on the one you're currently using. So you go to a new, up and coming one, where you'll just connect with your real friends. Of course, eventually, everyone goes to the new one, and the cycle repeats. I don't know if this is true, but it's an interesting theory.

So now I read
which is reporting as news that someone is trying to make a new social networking site because "Facebook is so...Facebook."  The developers don't like how Facebook is using our personal data to monetize Facebook. I suppose they think social networking should be free.

It was only in September, 2009, that Facebook actually started making any money.
That's 5 years and many millions of dollars later. Just in time for people to get sick of it!

Maybe Facebook is selling information about us that it shouldn't. But I get the sense that people feel entitled to free social networking sites, complete with email and video and image hosting.

But they've got to make it profitable, or we won't have it anymore, folks.

Of course, maybe soon after it's sustainable everyone will have jumped ship to a new site that feels like an exclusive club.

For now.

Pictured: A composite photograph of Italy. Why not?

postscript: I realize this entry is not as good as my usual ones. Thank you for bearing with me. Even Einstein expressed trivial opinions once in a while. But not John von Neumann. Now there was a genius! 

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Monday, May 10, 2010

What To Do With Your Zillion Conference Bags

As an academic, I'm going to conferences all the time, and just about every time I do I get some canvas bag, often with the logo of the conference on it. Not knowing quite what to do with them, they pile up at my house.

One easy thing to use some of them for is groceries. Save the ocean and don't use disposable plastic bags, please.

One of the bags I particularly liked, so I started using it as my daily bag, what I use to get from school and back every day. I didn't like the logo on it, though, so I painted over it. When I make acrylic paintings, I always end up with some paint left over on the palette, and I use that for random things like binders and boxes. I threw some of that paint on this bag, and now it looks very cool, with abstract colors. A designer recently complimented me on it.

I thought about the excess bag problem and came up with a partial solution. Whenever there is something in abundance, try to think of some way to use it. One thing that's really annoying is emptying and filling bags every time you go someplace.

What I've done is dedicate certain bags to certain activities, and always keep them packed with the stuff for that activity.

I'll give you some examples of what we're using bags for in my household.

1. Singing. My wife is in a choir, so we have a bag for it. It contains her binder with her music, a pencil, and a water bottle. When she goes to rehearsal, she just grabs the bag and goes.

2. Art. I keep a bag with a pad, pens, pencils, erasers, pencil sharpeners, etc. When I go visit the art museum, or the park, I often take it with me for when I feel inspired.

3. Role-Playing Games. I have a group of tabletop role-playing gamers. We're about to play a game of "All Flesh Must Be Eaten," a zombie survival game. I keep in it sunglasses (for the walk over), a bag of dice, a folder with my character sheets in it, a notebook for taking notes, and chocolate.

4. Busking. My wife and I sometimes go swing dancing in the Byward Market for fun, and get a few bucks in tips while we're at it. We have a backpack with the boombox, a bottle of water, a hat, sunscreen, etc.

5. The Car.  There's a bag in the car that is always in the trunk. It holds things for the dog (collapsable water dish, dollar-store collar and leash, poop bags), a handheld fan, equipment for listening to the ipod on the radio, a wrench, flashlight, etc. (While I'm at it, here's another tip for the car: keep a phone book in it, for getting phone numbers but more importantly for getting addresses to put into your GPS. Use last year's if you use the new one in the house.)

6. I still have lots of bags left over, so I'm making another bag now for the car as an overnight bag. It will hold underwear, toothbrush, etc. in case we get stuck somewhere overnight, or want to spend the night for whatever reason. 

7. Picnic. Blanket, plates, Frisbee, travel chess set, etc.

We keep most of these bags lined up in a space near our door, near the umbrellas. It has the following benefits a) it makes use of these endless bags, 2) it serves as a physical reminder of what you need for these activities, so you don't have to remember, iii) it's very convenient to just grab the bag and go on your way out the door.

Using the same idea, I keep everything I'd ever need to travel with in my suitcase. When I go to take a trip, I take out the thing I won't need (don't need a universal stopper and bungee cord for washing clothing if I'm just going to Atlanta). When I get back home I put them back.

pictured: A southern elephant seal in South Georgia, probably howling in anguish because he doesn't know what to do with all his seal conference bags.

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Saturday, May 08, 2010

I'm trying to write an ambitious book, here

I'm currently trying to write an ambitious book. It's broad in scope. I'm trying to tie a lot of things together, and as a result I have to talk about a whole lot of topics in which I am not an expert. Luckily, I have a lot of friends who are scholars of various sorts, and I can ask them for advice. For example, I can ask a social psychologist and an epistemologist philosopher whether there is any evidence that people tend to believe the things they hear as a default, unless they have some reason to disbelieve. Or, I can ask an English professor if there is any evidence that the second-person point of view, in fiction, brings people into the world of the novel more than other points of view.

Sometimes I get a straight answer with a single reference. This is ideal. I state the fact, cite the paper, and move on.

Often, the issues that I'm asking about a bit thorny. Complicated. And the experts I'm asking know the ins and outs of the complications. The problem is that sometimes I'll ask about the truth of a fact and I will be referred to a 50 page journal article and two books. This is a little exasperating, since the fact I'm asking about is one of hundreds I need to make the points I want to in my book. I simply don't have time, nobody does, to get into the details of the answers. I just need to know, generally speaking, whether I can treat what I want to say as true or not.

Some people, I expect, don't like this. Granted, the world is complicated, and the details are important. Some people should, indeed, be well-versed in those details. But not everyone. If books of wide scope are to be written at all, there needs to be a brief description of the state of the art for writers to use. Some things, of course, do not have straight answers. Sometimes the truth is sufficiently complicated such that the kind of summary I'm asking for is senseless (e.g. the statement "Humans are inherently good.''). But I think these kind of statements are rarer than people realize. And expertise in an area often makes one so sensitive to the nuances of the arguments and evidence of the field as to render the expert unable to summarize it as an outside observer might. They know each doughnut so well they can't tell you the nature of the doughnut shop. 

I firmly believe that books of the type I'm trying to write are important. Science, and scholarship in general, is fragmented, and there are often few incentives for understanding anything outside of your subfield, let alone your field. At the same time there's a recognition that this segmentation results in duplicated efforts and a narrowness of how problems are approached that can hinder progress. Books, being long, can take a little time and try to draw things together.

When I get referred to a book, it's really not that much help. I can't take the time to read the book. If I read deeply into everything I'd never get my book done. In these situations I'm a little stuck. I can ignore the fact, and try not to state it at all; I can state the fact and not cite it (hoping for the best); or I can try to ask someone else, which is usually what I do.

I wonder if the people I'm asking think that I really want to get into the details (Do they think that my whole book is about this one topic?). Or if they think that more reading is more, rather than less, helpful. Or if giving me a short answer would require too much of their time. Would they rather have me spend days reading a book than spend a few minutes explaining it to me? I wonder.

When people ask me about something that I'm an expert in, I try to give them a simple answer and only go a level deeper if they pursue detail. Here are some examples of questions and answers I get a lot as an AI expert:

Q: Will computers ever be intelligent?
A: Some computer programs are already intelligent, by most cognitive scientists' definition of "intelligence." As to the question of whether or not their general intelligence will ever surpass that of human being, there are smart people on both sides of the issue, and it remains contentious in AI and cognitive science.

Q: Why can't I just tell my computer what I want it to do?
A: Getting computers to understand language has proven to be very difficult, and the problem is not solved. Solving it will require knowledge of language that we don't yet have, and giving computers common sense reasoning, which has also proven to be very difficult.

The moral: if you can, give simple answers until asked for more detail. 

Pictured: An Eastern Grey Kangaroo (Macropus giganteus) joey feeds (suckles from inside its mother's pouch) as the mother shows her affection. Happy mother's day.
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Tuesday, May 04, 2010

My Calligraphy in the Chinatown Remixed Show, opens Saturday

My calligraphy (
will be in this show.  The opening will be this coming Saturday, May 8, 2010. My particular work will be at the Yang Sheng Restaurant on the corner of Somerset and Bronson Streets.

CHINATOWN REMIXED 2ND ANNUAL ART FESTIVAL; Exhibits in unexpected spaces
Ottawa, ON May 8th - June 8th, 2010 -- The Chinatown Remixed Collective presents its 2nd annual art exhibition in Ottawa's
Chinatown, a multi-cultural village with an Asian flavour. Exhibits in unexpected spaces: come see original art in the barbershop, gift
shop, opticians, cafes and restaurants.

This month-long event kicks off on the 8th of May from 2pm-5pm with over 50 simultaneous Vernissages. ( to view the official
Chinatown Remixed  Poster visit: )Art Walking Tour maps will be distributed along Somerset Street West
(or from where participating businesses open their doors to art lovers and offer complimentary nibbles.
You'll be delighted by street performers between venues where you can speak directly to the artist and get first hand insight into
their work.

A Garden Mural in Chinatown!
The Chinatown Remixed Collective in partnership with the Chinatown BIA and local business is
commissioning a Garden Mural to add colour and flowers all year round. This year, Remixed is seeking a mural artist and needs your
input. View the artists' proposals and vote for your favourite at the Shanghai Restaurant anytime during the festival. The winning artist
will paint the mural on the East-facing wall of the Royal Treasure Restaurant in June.

Paintings, photographs and sculpture add a new dimension to Chinatown for the month. This artistic mash-up of culture, art and food
promises something for every taste. Come out and experience Chinatown like never before.
Openings/Vernissages: Saturday May 8th, 2pm - 5pm.

Keep abreast of the event online; we're @chinatownremix on Twitter and view our facebook fan page ( to view
images or upload your own.

The Chinatown Remixed Collective is an Ottawa based, not-for-profit, non-incorporated art collective working in collaboration with
the Somerset Street Chinatown BIA. Our mission is to nurture the VISUAL ART community in Ottawa and to bring businesses and
artists together.

For more information, contact: The Chinatown Remixed Collective

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