.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

on what we should spend our efforts

a little while back, I got into a conversation with a friend, Alex, about research. we were both sort of bemoaning the directions that AI is pursuing/has pursued. I was making the argument that building a general learning machine, or general human-like intelligence, or whatever you want to call the grand vision for AI, isn't necessarily the best use of our time. not only does it seem (at least currently) like an untenable goal, but I'm not entirely convinced that creating such an intelligent machine would be of use. Alex then asked on what research efforts we should be spending our human, monetary, and temporal resources. after a bit of consideration, I came up with three things. what follows is roughly a transcript of the chat log from our conversation. I've added a few things, but this is largely how my side of the conversation unfolded.

ok, I think there are three main areas where I'd like to see work done

1) the mind-body problem, reconciling objectivist/subjectivist myths, and breaking out of Cartesian dualism

2) interdisciplinarity and epistemological pluralism

3) sustainable design, environmental psychology, and reducing/reversing global climate change

1) is something that's sort of plagued science for hundreds of years - how does our subjective experience of consciousness arise from the physical reality of our brains. we've done lots of brain mapping, but we're still pretty far off from understanding how what we experience as daily life is linked to our physical world. I might posit that the physical world can only explain so much, and that seeing a strong Cartesian split between the mind and the body (me in here vs the world out there that I'm studying) as science tends to do might be harmful in gaining a better understanding of the world. we should look for ways to advance our understanding that might not fit into the traditional scientific paradigm. this is sort of a segue into 2).

2) has to do with advancing knowledge. any theory is a lens; some theories put certain aspects of a situation into focus while they blur or entirely occlude others. rather than trying to come up with a single theory or model for the entire world (quantum-gravity in physics (or string theory or whatever), a theory of complex systems, etc.), we should look for ways that different theoretical approaches can complement one another. all models all wrong, some are just more wrong than others (that's a quote from some George Box, a statistician).

3) is really, to some extent, the moral imperative of our time. there absolutely no doubt that we are very rapidly nearly destroying the livability of this planet. if we want a home for our children and the future of our species, we absolutely need to put as much effort as possible into salvaging the environment. this is both from a technical standpoint and from a social standpoint. video cameras are smaller, lighter, faster, have more battery life, take higher quality pictures, and are cheaper than they were even 2 or 3 years ago, yet we don't see this level of innovation with cars. other countries have improved fuel efficiency, but in the US... let's just say that the model-T got 28 mpg. we can do better. cars are a convenient example, but it's not just cars, it's alternative energy in general. but it's not just a technological solution for the problem. society has to support this and, as a whole, think it's really important. I bike almost everywhere that I can; I choose dr's offices and stores that are within biking distance; I live close to campus. my girlfriend bikes to work at least 3 days a week. if everyone made small changes like this, it would have almost as much an effect, if not more so, than government regulation. if every person changed one bulb in their house from traditional incandescent to energy efficient, it would reduce annual emissions by something like 10%, and that's just one bulb. understanding individual and social motivations to engender these sorts of changes will, I believe, be crucial in preserving the environment.

after that, we got into a discussion about how the general thinking machine of AI's grand vision might be a useful, integral, or possible necessary part of achieving parts of each of those goals. however, that unfortunately got cut short and we never resumed the conversation. however, I thought that archiving the above here would be sort of a good way to capture/archive what I think is important right now, as well as hopefully generate some discussion with those who might (dis)agree.

Labels: , , , ,

Friday, April 20, 2007

do the friday shuffle

meta started doing this a couple weeks ago, and I thought it was a cool idea, but never remembered to do it myself. basically, go into iTunes, fire up party shuffle, let it select from your entire library, and list the first ten songs that come up. here are mine for today.

Boy on a String :: Jars of Clay :: Jars of Clay
All My Life :: Foo Fighters
go go cactus man :: Yoko Kanno, :: Cowboy Bebop OST 3
Turpentine Chaser :: Dashboard Confessional :: Swiss Army Romance
A Minor Variation :: Billy Joel :: River of Dreams
The Squid :: Zox :: Take Me Home
Saturday :: Fall Out Boy :: Warped Tour 2005 Compilation
Little Humans :: Logan Belle
Destination Ursa Major :: Superdrag :: Regretfully Yours
Again :: Off White Noise :: Our Demo
Kefka's Theme :: Nobuo Uematsu :: Final Fantasy VI

Off White Noise was a great indied band from UCF where I went to college. they're now tearing it up in Boston, where at least two of the band members (I think) are/were in grad school. I actually did some trombone playing for a recording of one of their songs before we all left Orlando. cool guys, check them out some time.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

someone with a clue

I just read a great piece about the horrible VA Tech shootings (via Liz Losh). the author, Siva Vaidhyanathan makes some great points.

As a culture, we are very bad at thinking about technology. We look to it either as something to fear or as a panacea for the flaws of the human condition. Technology is neither. It is merely an extension of our own wills and capabilities.

this is great, especially since I'll be presenting a paper in a couple weeks entitled "Questioning the Technological Panacea" that critiques a rhetorical trend to portray technology for the solution to any sort of problem, be it social, economical, educational, whatever. I'm not arguing against technological solutions, but rather that we might be better served by a pause for consideration before blugdeoning every problem we see with the technology hammer. not only as a culture are we bad at thinking about technology, but perhaps even the technology designers are rather bad at it in their own way.

it goes on

After 9/11 we wasted billions on biometric and data-mining technologies to protect ourselves from rare and limited dangers like hijackings, anthrax epidemics and chemical weapon attacks. Yet we defunded efforts to attack real killers like cancer and real lifesavers like public transportation.

beautiful. I don't know if the point could be made better.

go read the rest of the piece, it's all good stuff.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

76 trombones

when I was 9 years old, I began playing the trombone. I played through the later part of elementary school, all through middle school and high school, and minored in music in college with an emphasis in trombone performance. unfortunately, when I got to grad school, I wasn't able to keep up with practicing, but I take it out from time to time just to remind myself how much I enjoy playing. recently, when recounting to Danyel how I played in trombone choir in college, how the tonal range of a trombone is strikingly similar to that of the human voice, and how in high school I played with a group called 76 Trombones in allusion to the Music Man number (which, for the 4th of July, did have damn near 76 trombones on stage together), he couldn't help but chuckle. "dude," he said (I'm paraphrasing here), "I understand that the trombone is a completely serious instrument, but imagine in everything you just said, replace 'trombone' with 'kazoo' and you'll have some idea how it sounded to me." I understand that people don't usually think of the trombone as the most sonorous instrument in the orchestra, but it really is a beautiful sound when played well.

turns out, this seems to be the general perception of trombones. in a recent LA Times article, the author says that a group of 22 trombones playing a bossa nova arrangement of "Fly Me to the Moon" is "surprisingly mellow and full." why should it be surprising? I guess the general populous just has this picture of trombones being more of a gag-style instrument than something that actually belongs in the London Symphony Orchestra. what a shame.


Monday, April 02, 2007

an etymological interlude

so, the academic unit where I'm doing my Ph.D. is called the Department of Informatics. I'd never really thought about it until a little while ago, but what do you call someone who does informatics? biology is practices by biologists, chemistry by chemists, mathematics by mathematicians, statistics by statisticians, therapy by therapists, etc. so, what does one call a practitioner of informatics? I think there are two distinct possibilities:



this quandry was started when David Kay, for whom I was TAing last quarter, used the former term. it threw me off guard, as it took me a moment to parse it. after having done so, I thought, how cumbersome. first, how does one pronounce that? he said it with a small emphasis on the first syllable and a large emphasis on the fourth, the same emphatic pattern as mathematician. this isn't too bad, but it ends up making the "o" pronounced with that soft vowel sound denoted by an up-side-down "e," which I think masks the root word "information." I think the latter alternative, with an an emphasis only on the third syllable, is easier to pronounce, is clearer about the proper pronounciation, and pays clearer homage to the root word.

when I started thinking about that, I said, hm, I wonder what the etymology of information is. turns out it's from a participial form of the Latin informare (which is actually the origin of "inform," the root for "information"), meaning to form into, implicitly to form into a shape. I thought this was particularly striking, especially when one considers the way that one interpretation of informatics, according to Bill, is "the process of transforming data into information." the etymology would seem to indicate not only that informatics could refer to the process of informing, but also the study of that process. interesting indeed.

however, this gets us no closer to the goal of determining the proper form of the word to refer to one who practices informatics. so, I looked into the two suffixes, -ist and -ian. on first glance, it seems that -ist is more appropriate; "one that performs a specialized action ... a specialist in a specified art, science, or skill," as opposed to "one relating to, belonging to, or resembling." dig a little further into the etymology. -ist is from the Latin noun-forming suffix -ista, -istes, which is from the Greek agent noun suffix -istEs, and I believe an agent noun is exactly what we're trying to form. -ian, on the other hand, is from the Latin -ianus, meaning of or belonging to, hence noun forms like "Bostonian" or "Washingtonian." however, -ianus was, it seems (see the third bullet point under that link), used to refer to the original family name of an adopted person, quite literally indicating from whom they had come and to whom they belonged. why, then, do mathematician, statistician, physician, and a number of others use the -ian (or its derivative, -ician) suffix? it could be that these are fields to which one can belong or from which one can come, in a way that fields that get the -ist suffix are less focused on being a well-defined group and more focused on the object of study. in this way, it would be appropriate to say that someone was from mathematics, but not that someone was from physics. however, I suspect that this is far more likely an etymological artifact than as aspect that carries great amounts of meaning.

given all these considerations, I think that "inforamiticist" is a much more appropriate, if not accurate, form of the word. what do you think, which form do you prefer? or would you possibly suggest an alternate formation?

Labels: , ,