Jordan Ellenberg reviews Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity by David Foster Wallace here in Seed Magazine. If you want to get a substantive taste of the subtle intricacies of Cantorian mathematics, read this challenging but ultimately rewarding book. But you have to be willing to get used to David Foster Wallace’s eccentric and sometimes bratty prose.
I have become addicted to playing 20 questions at 20Q.net which Robin posted a few days ago. (Try it here, it’s really fun.) It made me think of how few attempts there have been to give computers the kind of commonsense knowledge of the real world that we take for granted, and then I thought of Douglas Lenat’s Cyc project. Lenat is a very interesting figure in AI, who has always done his own thing. I first came across Lenat‘s work as an undergraduate. He had written a simple but clever program that started with some knowledge of arithmetic, then randomly applied a handful of heuristic rules to generate theorems that it then rated on “interestingness”. Lenat described how the program quickly found many basic theorems, including coming up with the Goldbach Conjecture, then produced some new interesting theorems. Later, during the notorious “AI Winter” of the 1980s, Lenat became interested in endowing computers with the massive amounts of common sense knowledge that each of us have of the physical world. This is a project that had long been recommended by such AI luminaries as Marvin Minsky (see here and here, for example), and Lenat called it the Cyc (pronounced psych) project. For example, “Cyc knows that trees are usually outdoors, that once people die they stop buying things, and that glasses of liquid should be carried right-side up.” The information has had to be painstakingly entered using a special language based on the predicate calculus, but is becoming easier to feed data to Cyc as it learns more and more. The good thing is, it only has to be done once, then will be available to any computer than wishes to use it. In addition to a knowledge base, Cyc also contains an inference engine which allows it to deduce other facts from what it already knows. You can learn more about Cycorp, the company that Lenat heads and that is building Cyc, and about the project itself, here.
Monday, August 30, 2004
“Another, more ingenious method of estimating crowd size is by examining the quantity of artifacts they leave behind. To say it less delicately, one way of counting a crowd is to weigh how much garbage it leaves behind. Since sanitation trucks are weighed electronically at the disposal site, it has always been an easy matter to measure the amount of debris left after New York’s famed ticker tape parades down the ‘canyon of heroes.'” More here.
In keeping with the previous posting, which linked to an ethics test that ranked attitudes by philosopher, there’s this, the Belief-O-Matic, which ranks your attitudes towards religion and spirituality according to its proximity to belief systems. (Via normblog.) Ironically, the three that I know best and grew up with are among the furthest from my own views: Orthodox Christianity, Roman Catholicism and Hinduism. (I am disturbed that I’m closer to New Age and Scientology than I am to Catholicism.)
1. Secular Humanism (100%)
2. Unitarian Universalism (98%)
3. Liberal Quakers (81%)
4. Nontheist (81%)
5. Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants (74%)
6. Theravada Buddhism (67%)
7. Neo-Pagan (62%)
8. Taoism (49%)
9. Bahá’í Faith (46%)
10. New Age (44%)
11. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) (41%)
12. Reform Judaism (37%)
13. Orthodox Quaker (35%)
14. Christian Science (Church of Christ, Scientist) (33%)
15. Mahayana Buddhism (31%)
16. Mainline to Conservative Christian/Protestant (29%)
17. Sikhism (27%)
18. New Thought (26%)
19. Scientology (22%)
20. Jainism (19%)
21. Jehovah’s Witness (18%)
22. Seventh Day Adventist (15%)
23. Eastern Orthodox (12%)
24. Islam (12%)
25. Orthodox Judaism (12%)
26. Roman Catholic (12%)
27. Hinduism (7%)
Along the lines of Slow Art discussed by Abbas and in the thoughtful piece by Marko, minimalism in many art forms may also be seen as a reaction to the vast and insurmountable information age. In music:
“Bjork, whose seventh album, “Medulla” (Elektra), will be released this week, has made a career of subtraction. She recorded boisterous rock with the Icelandic new wave band the Sugarcubes, started a solo career with eccentric dance-floor hits and then followed through with a series of albums that have been unpredictably sumptuous or sparse. As early as her 1993 album “Debut” (Elektra), Bjork was poking holes in her music, and since then those holes have been widening into chasms. With “Medulla,” she pushes to a new extreme: most of the music is made with voices alone. While the album might seem to be a conceptual stunt, it finds gorgeous and startling new ways to extend Bjork’s longtime mission: merging the earthy and the ethereal.” This from the NY Times, Sunday, August 29th.
I can’t wait to hear “Medulla”.
Richard Ingram at the Observer finds an intriguing political and ethical question in the story of Margaret Thatcher’s son Sir Mark Thatcher and his attempted coup d’etat against the thuggish government of President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea.
“Listeners to the BBC’s Today programme voted last week that philosophy should be taught in schools. They might usefully begin by considering whether there is any moral distinction to be drawn between Sir Mark Thatcher and the Prime Minister, Tony Blair.
As far as one can see, both men had precisely similar aims – i.e., to rid the world of an evil dictator who was causing his subjects a great deal of misery. In the case of Saddam Hussein, Blair insists that he did the right thing when he and his friend, George Bush, overthrew the tyrant.
Sir Mark, who was arrested, has yet to give the world the justification for his alleged role in the attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea. But perhaps he, too, would maintain that the world would be a better place without President Teodoro Obiang, a man who, like Saddam, has a contempt for civil rights and a liking for torture and execution.”
Daniel Davies at Crooked Timber puts it plainly. “The serious issue raised by this [Ingram’s] joke is, if we accept the logic of the ‘strong version’ of humanitarian intervention, then why should we also say that it is only the job of states to carry out such interventions? Since, ex hypothesi, any special position for states is ruled out by the strong pro-war internationalist liberal stance, why shouldn’t groups of private individuals take action? For example, Harry’s Place has five main contributors, each of whom could probably raise about $200,000 if they took out a second mortgage; maybe they should be ringing up Executive Outcomes and getting a few estimates in on smallish African states. Why leave this to the government?”
Certainly, the non-Spanish volunteers who fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War didn’t leave it to government and are largely seen as heroes for not having done so. (To the extent that it was left to government, in the form of Soviet support for the Spanish Republic, it was a disaster. Enough betrayal and authoritarianism to disillusion thousands of members of the left and disabuse many more of the Soviet illusion.) And until we (here in this part of the world) realized that they were crazy, the foreign mujahadeen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan were given more accoladdes than one thought imaginable for politicized reactionary Islamists.
My own guess is that the fact that there’s not really an “A” for effort in politics leaves the outcomes as the basis of assessment for the most part. If Mark Thatcher had managed to get rid of Teodoro Obiang and the population of Equatorial Guniea consequently had been grateful, the act would’ve validated itself. But I’m not sure.
Some time ago, our own Marko Ahtisaari wrote a beautiful medidative piece on what he has come to call “Slow Art”.
“Slowness can only be experienced in media – be it live or recorded music, film, video, theatre, dance – where one of the measurable dimensions of the artwork itself is time. This is what slowness means, that less is happening in some set period of time.”
It is a short piece and worth reading. Look at it here.
“Recent research on jealousy has been predominantly inspired by an evolutionary psychological analysis of sex-specific differences in the responses to a mate’s sexual and emotional infidelity. According to this analysis, a woman’s sexual infidelity could reduce a man’s reproductive success because of the ensuing risk of inadvertently losing an opportunity to reproduce and of investing limited paternal resources for the benefit of genetically unrelated offspring. A woman’s reproductive success, in contrast, is endangered if she loses a male’s resources and assistance in raising her offspring. A man’s mere sexual infidelity does not necessarily imply the risk of losing his paternal investment. Rather, this resource threat arises if he develops a deep emotional attachment to another mate. As a consequence of these sex-specific reproductive threats, the male jealousy mechanism (JM) is hypothesized to be particularly concerned with a mate’s sexual infidelity, whereas the female JM is hypothesized to be particularly concerned with a mate’s emotional infidelity.”
The issue is looked at in greater depth in this experimental study reported in Evolutionary Psychology.
Incidentally, the best literary treatment of male jealousy I have read yet is in “The Kreutzer Sonata” by Leo Tolstoy, which you can read here.
Fed up with philosophers’ obsession with the ontological status of various objects, real and abstract, Daniel Dennett once asked in what sense the “lost-sock center of the world” exists. (Somewhat like the center of gravity of an object.) Though the L-SC remains a thought experiment, there is, in Scottsdale, Arizona, a place where all the lost and unclaimed luggage from all of the U.S. airlines accumulates. And they sell off the stuff. If you’re the sort of person who is addicted to Ebay, you might want to hunt for bargains here.
Sunday, August 29, 2004
New York City’s best sporting event, the U. S. Open tennis tournament in Flushing Meadows, Queens, begins tomorrow (here are the draws; here’s the daily order of play). This is the year’s final Grand Slam, on the fairest surface (clay is slowest, grass is fastest), so it determines who’s on top to a greater degree than Wimbledon. People complain contradictorily about the state of the game today, some claiming it’s all serving, others saying not enough net play, others that there aren’t enough Americans(!). Don’t believe the hype: the top men’s players show a wonderful variety of styles, strategies, and personalities, and none depend on power alone. Most of the press (what little there has been due to the RNC and the Olympics) has concerned the smooth-operating artist-genius and world number one, Roger Federer; the defending champion and tennis’s most powerful player, Andy Roddick; and the most beloved player in history, the incomparable Andre Agassi (I would love to see him win; to do so he’ll probably have to defeat Federer in the quarterfinal). Still, a couple of other names bear mentioning: Lleyton Hewitt, whose saw-toothed passion compensates for his slight build, is playing as well as he ever has – he’ll likely meet Roddick in the semifinal. Nicholas Kiefer, long ago Boris Becker’s protege, has lately begun playing a similarly tenacious style to excellent effect. And the overzealous, ball-crushing Chilean Fernando Gonzalez arrives at the site of his best previous results carrying an Olympic bronze medal. Injuries and the waning interest of Serena Williams have taken some of the luster from women’s side, especially compared to the late nineties when it was more entertaining than the men’s. Lindsay Davenport is on a heavy roll, but Justine Henin-Hardenne (of the superb backhand and fierce mien) is back from a long layoff and either Williams is talented enough to win. I don’t think any of the Russian brigade can hack New York just yet; my sleeper for the women is France’s unintimidated Tatiana Golovin. If you want to attend, get a grounds pass during the first week and you’ll see amazing stuff all day from courtside.
The RNC protests are in full swing, and if nothing else, attending one may rejuvenate your belief in the existence of civically minded citizens, and lots of them. For lists of events and news from the front, tryhere.
“Need a skull, a dragon or a naked woman? Descend a flight of steps to a dingy corridor and step into Baghdad’s only tattoo parlor.”
Article in Reuter’s.
Friday, August 27, 2004
“This is a leap in thinking that distinguished scientists are already taking – from Sir David King, chief scientific adviser to the government, to James Lovelock, guru of Gaia and arch-environmentalist. Both started out from an anti-nuclear bias but, on the basis of empirical scientific evidence, arrived at the same conclusion. In the age of global warming, opposition to nuclear power is a cop-out rather than a rational or responsible position.”
From this week’s Observer. Outraged comments can be posted in the comments section.
“The judging panel of the Man Booker prize for fiction, one of the literary world’s most prestigious and lucrative awards, today announced its longlist for 2004. The 22 books that made it onto the longlist were chosen from a pool of 132 entries. The most distinguishing feature of this year’s lengthy longlist, which otherwise contained few great shocks, was the number of first-time novelists featuring in it – six out of 22.”
Sarah Crown writes more here in The Guardian.
“We naturally see the world as containing both material objects, which are governed by physical laws, and mental entities, whose behavior is intentional and goal–directed. Some things in the world, such as people, can be seen either way, as physical bodies or as intentional agents. However, as Bloom describes, we tend toward the latter interpretation whenever possible, even attributing intentions to animated shapes on a computer screen if they move in certain ways. According to Bloom, dualism is the product not of nurture but of nature—specifically, evolution by natural selection. It was adaptive for our ancestors to be able to predict the behavior of physical objects and social creatures…”
Ethan Remmel reviews Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human by Paul Bloom, here in American Scientist Online.
Thursday, August 26, 2004
“20Q.net is an experiment in artificial intelligence. The program is very simple but its behavior is complex. Everything that it knows and all questions that it asks were entered by people playing this game. 20Q.net is a learning system; the more it is played, the smarter it gets.”
The game: “Think of an object and the A.I. will try to figure-out what you are thinking by asking simple questions. The object you think of should be something that most people would know about, but, never a specific person, place or thing.”
It’s pretty good. I thought about the color blue, and it managed to guess the answer in about 20 questions.
Following up on Sughra’s post, a debate-discussion between physicians and “naturopaths” on the PBS show Closer to Truth addresses how to evaluate alternative medicine.
The “two sides argue fiercely about the efficacy and dangers of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Three of the guests can see both sides of the issue to various degrees. Only retired physician Wallace Sampson, Editor in Chief, Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine sees the field in black and white ‘…what we’re dealing with in most of alternative medicine is self-delusion.’ His points are cogent: how can standardization occur when naturopathic remedies are effected by such things as growing conditions, time of harvest, and length of storage? Dan Labriola, a naturopathic physician who specializes in cancer and heart diseases actually concurs: what PR company has ever publicized that the use of tests show that certain antioxidants prevent the effects of chemotherapy from killing tumor cells? But scientific testing also corroborates the effectiveness of the natural substances glucosamine and chondroitin for joint and cartilage-related pain. And mold from the common canteloupe provided the first effective immunizations for Polio.”
Watch it here (click on the video images).
“LAHORE – The first time Aziz, a lean, dark-haired 20-year-old in this bustling cultural capital, had sex with a man, he was a pretty, illiterate boy of 16. A family friend took him to his house, put on a Pakistani-made soft-porn video, and raped him. Now, says Aziz (who gives only his first name), he is ‘addicted’ to sex with men, so he hangs around Lahore’s red-light districts, getting paid a few rupees for sex. At night, he goes home to his parents and prays to Allah to forgive him.”
This is from Miranda Kennedy’s piece entitled “Open Secrets” at The Old Town Review.
In the post-9/11, Gulf War world, we have just taken at face value the idea that a terrorist armed with chemical or biological weapons is much more dangerous than those who just have ‘conventional’ ones.
“David C Rapoport, professor of political science at University of California, Los Angeles and editor of the Journal of Terrorism and Political Violence, has examined what he calls ‘easily available evidence’ relating to the historic use of chemical and biological weapons.
He found something surprising – such weapons do not cause mass destruction. Indeed, whether used by states, terror groups or dispersed in industrial accidents, they tend to be far less destructive than conventional weapons. ‘If we stopped speculating about things that might happen in the future and looked instead at what has happened in the past, we’d see that our fears about WMD are misplaced’, he says.
. . .’We know that nukes are massively destructive, there is a lot of evidence for that’, says Rapoport. But when it comes to chemical and biological weapons, ‘the evidence suggests that we should call them ‘weapons of minimum destruction’, not mass destruction’.” (Read on.)
With much of the international news focused on Darfur as the one month deadline given by the Security Council to the government of Sudan approaches next week, press coverage of Sudan has become more in-depth and insightful. Samantha Power, author of The Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, has a piece in the New Yorker.
“[A]s I talked with the policemen inside one tent, a forbidding trio of men on camelback carrying G3 rifles rode by outside. I pointed to the janjaweed and asked the policemen, who were African, if they would make arrests if they learned of attacks on the refugees. ‘We don’t have instructions to arrest them,’ one said. ‘If we captured them, we would be sacked.’ Another added, ‘There are six of us here and thousands of them. They have heavy weapons and modern weapons, and we have these old Kalashnikovs. If we arrest one of them, they’ll come after our families.’ The policemen said that the government had given each of them only one gun cartridge.”
It doesn’t look promising, but intervention is far from a forgone conclusion. And international opinion is far from unified on the Sudan. Read this depressing account in The Daily Star (Lebanon) of the reception of Amnesty International’s latest report on Darfur, which it released in Beirut. (By way of normblog.)
And for those in New York and so inclined to join, the American Anti-Slavery Group is holding a rally on Darfur in front of the United Nations (Dag Hammerskjold Park at 47th Street by the UN) on September 12th, just as the UN convenes. (Also by way of normblog.)