Before Completion

30 January


I used to be involved in AI (artificial intelligence). I was thinking about the subject a bit today, partly because of a conversation with a student and partly because of the article, Like Minds, in Wired. I got out of the AI field for several reasons. Mainly, I was in the commercial software end and I wasn't enjoying it or making any money. Also, I had no faith in the whole project. The wired article made me recall what bothered me about the field. I didn't believe that intelligence was something that could be built, i.e imposed from the outside. A quote, whose source I can't seem to remember or find says "To be intelligent doesn't mean that you have to eat, shit, and die." I think just the opposite. I think to have general purpose intelligence, you have to do all three.

I have no quarrel with weak AI, the idea that we can make devices that behave intelligently in restricted circumstances. That has been demonstrated quite well. I think general intelligence can't be separated from biology. It's a biological function, an evolutionary adaptation of a species existing in a particular environment. If we're going to make a general purpose intelligent device, my bet is that it will be through some combination of natural and synthetic biology. If we were to make a thing as intelligent as a human, I suspect it would behave a lot like a human.

Would an artificial intelligence worry about its artificial death?
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23 January

It's OK, everybody else was lying too.

From today's Whitehouse press briefing:

QUESTION: Any reaction to the study out from the Center for Public Integrity and the Fund for Independence in Journalism, when they did what they called a count of hundreds of false statements made by the president and top administration officials regarding the threat posed by Iraq. And they counted during the two years after 9/11.

PERINO: I hardly think that the study is worth spending time on. It is so flawed, in terms of taking anything into context or including — they only looked at members of the administration, rather than looking at members of Congress or people around the world.

Because, as you’ll remember, we were part of a broad coalition of countries that deposed the dictator based on a collective understanding of the intelligence. And the other thing that that study fails to do is to say that after realizing that there was no WMD, as we thought as a collective body that there was, that this White House, the president set about to make reforms in the intelligence community to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.

White House Press Secretary Dana Perino attacked the study because it only counted false statement from the administration and not Congress, the British administration or the press. She doesn't deny that they were all lying. The second part of the statement is interesting too. The intelligence before the war was totally wrong AND they lied about it.
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The Secret Museum of Mankind

Published in 1935, the Secret Museum is a mystery book. It has no author or credits, no copyright, no date, no page numbers, no index. The commentary is dated, and racist in the extreme, but the collection of photos of from the early part of the century is truly amazing. It's like walking through a carnival sideshow from long ago.
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A study by two nonprofit journalism organizations found that President Bush and top administration officials issued hundreds of false statements about the national security threat from Iraq in the two years following the 2001 terrorist attacks (link). I guess it's also not much of a surprise that it took this long for them to be called on it. It's easy to beat up on the main stream media (MSM), but isn't it their job to hold politicians to a standard of truth? The did very little of that in the run-up to the Iraq war.
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16 January

Library of Congress uses Flickr to tag photos

This is cool. From Boing Boing, the Library of Congress is now posting photos at Flickr so citizens can tag and describe them. I find this encouraging. It's great to see a government agency embracing the wisdom of crowds.
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15 January

Teaching Creationism

Proponents of creationism and intelligent design (ID) often argue that competing "theories" should be taught in public school along with the standard theory of evolution. Leaving aside the issue of most creationists and IDers confusing, either deliberately or out of ignorance, the common meaning of theory with its use in science, I wonder if they realize what they are asking for. It would be an interesting exercise to review creationism, ID, and the current theory of evolution as scientific theories. I say review, because that's what has already happened. In his book Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith, Philip Kitcher points out that creationism and ID have been tried and rejected by science.

Around the time of Newton, most scientists were creationists, perhaps not young earth creationists, but most believed in some sort of spontaneous creation of species at a fixed time in the past. However, evidence from fossils and geology slowly began to erode the validity of this view as a valid scientific hypothesis. By the time of Darwin, a form of spontaneous creation of species held sway, essentially a form of ID. In fact, Darwin himself considered the issue of ID, and effectively refuted the idea.

Contrary to what the creationists and IDers argue, both theories have been given a chance and rejected. Bring them back into the classroom would just bring back dead science. If given a fair hearing, both theories would be revealed as being contrary to the evidence and rejected again.
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11 January

12 Florida Schools Districts Pass Anti-Evolution Resolutions

/. is reporting that 12 school districts in Florida have passed resolutions stating that they are "opposed to teaching evolution as a fact'’. Part of the problem, in my opinion, is the disingenuous use of the word theory by the leaders of the anti-evolution movement. A scientific theory, as has been pointed out many times, is a testable model of the manner of a set of natural phenomena, capable of predicting future observations and capable of being tested through experiment or otherwise falsified through empirical observation. Newton and Einstein presented theories of gravity. Quantum electrodynamics is a theory. Darwinian evolution is a theory. These, and a number of others, are solid descriptions of the natural world. The leaders of the anti-evolution movement try to make it seem like a scientific theory is just conjecture. They know better, but use the confusion to encourage people like the Florida school boards to try and get their peculiar brand of religion into public school classrooms.

An anti-evolution movement is as silly as an anti-gravity movement.
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09 January

TSA captures 5 year old terrorist

Boing-Boing reports that a five-year-old boy was taken into custody and thoroughly searched at Sea-Tac airport because his name is similar to a possible terrorist alias. This is, of course, beyond stupid, but this sort of no-thinking response to anything is typical of Homeland Security. However, what I found interesting was this comment posted on Boing-Boing. I hope they don't mind my quoting it:

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katerina, a friend (Canadian) told me of his adventures in the rescue and clean-up efforts. A hospital he ended up at was without power. No one could operate the emergency generator. He volunteered and got it going. What struck him most was that absolutely no one there was willing to take the responsibility of even TRYING - for fear of being blamed if it broke or didn't work.

American culture has somehow inculcated this mentality at the most basic levels of service workers. The five year old a the airport was searched because no one dared take responsibility at even the lowest,simplest level. The recent stopping of an ambulance carrying a heat patient emergency (at the Canada/US border) because the guard was afraid to take any responsibility is another example.

I think this poster is correct. It's not just that, as Bruce Schneier points out, we're subject to secuity theater not real security at airports, it's also that no one is willing to ever step outside the prescribed limits of his/her job. Another poster point out that in the US, we keep people locked in their jobs because of fear of loss of health insurance. I think that's correct. To a person with a family, loss of insurance can be devastating. America, land of the fearful?
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08 January

Front runners front running

Network Solutions has been caught front-running domain names. Front running is the process whereby a domain name that has been searched for by a potential domain purchaser is purchased by the registrar, thereby preventing a registrant from purchasing the domain at any other registrar. Network Solutions' front running activities were discussed on /. today. Now, Network Solutions has issued a response. To my mind it's one of the lamest corporate responses ever. Basically, Network Solutions says, "Yes, we're front running, but we're doing it for your good because we don't want someone else to take the domain name." Oh yes! I'm sure this will improve their standing in the tech community.
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Rules of Thumb

Rules of Thumb is just what it sounds like - a collection of general rules, heuristics, for all sorts of subjects. You can rate the rules IN or OUT so gradually the rules should improve in value over time. It's another eat application of the power of crowds.
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07 January

Monads in Perl

I've dabbled a little in Haskel so I'm vaguely familiar with the concept of monads. Monads are a way to maintain state in functional languages. Perl is hardly functional, although with some contortions, it can be used in a functional manner. So why monads in Perl? It already has many ways to produce side effects. I guess the main reason is that it can be done and this article shows how to do it.
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05 January

A hacker by any other name

Bruce Schneier asks Is Sears Engaging in Criminal Hacking Behavior? is distributing spyware that tracks all of your internet usage, including banking, purchases and anything else. All you have to do is sign up for My SHC Community. The fact that they are spying on you is somewhat obscurely described in the EULA, but it's certainly not going to be obvious to most users. As Schneier points out if a kid with a scary hacker name did this sort of thing, he'd be arrested, but this is Sears. In other Sears news, if you register for Sears', you can look up major purchases for any address, not just your own. A goldmine for Sears' competitors as well as nosy neighbors. Someone in Sears' top management needs to buy a clue, but they probably won't find it in the clue department at Sears.

Followup: It looks like Sears has fixed the hole.
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Hearts and Minds

I have tried my best to ignore the Iowa caucuses, but the news about them has been hard to avoid. Last night on CNN some talking heads were opining about the results from Iowa. One of the heads, David Gurgen, made a comment along the lines that Hillary needed to change her message to appeal to the voter's hearts rather than being so analytical. In other words, use an emotional based appeal like the successful candidates, Obama and Huckabee. Just for the record, I'm not a Hillary fan. However, Gurgen's comment, and I've heard similar comments about Hillary's approach from other MSM commentators on outlets like NPR, goes to heart of the problem with the MSM. As John Hockenberry points out in this MIT Technology Review article, the MSM goes for the "emotional center" of the story. Why do we get so many stories about lost white girls (white woman of the month), drunk celebs, and holiday exercise tips? As Hockenberry points out, MSM news reassures the audience by telling it what it already knows rather than challenging it to learn. The "emotional center" also make it easy to manipulate the audience. By appealing to emotions rather than thinking, the audience can be convinced of that Iraq has WMDs and is a threat to them, they need to give up their rights to be protected from terrorists, etc. It also makes the news a fitting tool for the political establishment to manipulate the public. The current administration's manipulation of the public by fear would be impossible without the cooperation of the MSM and its appeal to the "emotional center".

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03 January

Open Source Search

Wikia Search has been getting a bit of buzz lately. It's the new open source search engine project headed bu Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales. A good open source search engine is really needed. We're all too reliant on Google. The problem with Google is that it's algorithms are hidden and thus subject to manipulation by Google, for example, to meet the approval of various governments such as China's. The down side to an open source search engine seems to be that it will be easier for web sites to manipulate their page positions than the hidden and changing Google algorithms. Since you can know how the engine is indexing, it seems that you could adjust your site to get a high page index. Wales has indicated that Wikia Search, a for-profit company, will allow anyone to build a search engine. That would be interesting - If we each had our own engine, tailored to our own wants and needs. Certainly, that would be great for individual web sites, but I think it may be a while before anyone can seriously challenge Google as a general purpose web search engine.

Here is a list of Open Source search tools.
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02 January

My New Year's Resolutions

It's been quite a while since I posted anything here. With the coming of the new year, I've decided to try again and maintain this blog. I'm really not much for resolutions, but a few things should be attempted in the coming year:

1. Blog more often and don't leave big gaps. This blog is mostly just a record of what has struck me as interesting at various times, so I should keep recording.

2. I need to learn more about the liver. My wife has an auto-immune liver disease called primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC). There aren't any good treatments right now, but there are some new drugs under development. One thing that has been puzzling us is that one of the effects PBC is an elevated level of bile acids, but several of the drugs that seem to be effective are bile acids (Ursodiol) or target the bile acid synthesis system. I'd like to understand the mechanism and maybe we can contribute something.

3. More cowbell
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