Subscribe to Computing Intelligence

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Animal Intelligence

As I mentioned in my last post, things haven't gone particularly well for me recently. As part of an attempt to ease myself back into the hustle and bustle of not feeling shut down, I picked up one of the popular science books on my shelf that I have been meaning to read for over a year now: Synaptic Self by Joseph LeDoux. It didn't hold my attention for long for a variety of reasons (some of them not entirely its fault), but one thing that quite bothered me about LeDoux's style was his habitual grouping of human beings in one set and all other animals in another. Such a species-centric view is quite widespread within general discourse, but it is also unfortunately rife within the field of neuroscience where there really is no excuse. As far as I can tell, it is a carry-over from the western theistic philosophers (Descartes and his ilk) that continues to pervade our thinking for no good reason. In the same way that angry evolution-deniers splutter indignantly that their ancestors "weren't no ape", there seems to be a general antipathy toward the suggestion that human beings share their realm of cognitive functions with other animal species.

The reason such an attitude bothers me more when it comes from a neuroscientist than a layman (though it still irks me coming from those without a neuroscience background) is because your average neuroscientist really ought to know better. The vast majority of our knowledge of neurophysiology comes from non-human species which we then extrapolate to ourselves. For example, we know more about the visual cortex of the macaque monkey than we do about the human visual cortex. For such an extrapolation to work, however, we must necessarily share the same domain as those species from which we take our starting data. Of course there are cognitive differences between species, but I think the quintessential human ingredient, the nature of humanity if you will, that people have been searching for in literature and the sciences for centuries only exists if one is willing to attach reams and reams of caveats, addendums, and qualifications. Claiming sole ownership of an ethereal conscious soul that imparts a whole new level of cognitive function for the human race is quite simply unsupported specieistic bullshit.

I could go on at length about this topic, and I am actually fairly surprised I have not mentioned it before since it is something that has been on my mind since the very beginning of this blog (my selected internet pseudonym, after all, is intended as a somewhat sarcastic allusion (hidden within the Russian language) to the apparent love affair a predominant number of neuroscientists seem to have with the human brain). Despite the temptation to ramble on, however, I really should be studying tonight, so I am going to end my rant here. I will most likely pick it up again in the future, particularly if readers take exception to any of the unqualified vitriol I have haphazardly spewed here (for example, I know a lot of people seem to hold Descartes in quite high esteem). In the nature of full disclosure, I did make up the word specieistic, and I apologize for my unimaginative cussing. It may still be a while before I am back to my usual self, so my writing for the next little while might be a little cumbersome.

Note: This discussion was subsequently expanded upon here.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


I have had a pretty awful time of things in the last few days. Posting in the next little while will be sporadic at best, but writing does sometimes help me calm down and relax, so we will have to see. For those who actually enjoy my writing and look forward to reading my pieces, I apologize. Please bear with me for now and don't forget about my little corner of the internet.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

"You, sir, are a mouthful"

There are two general 'facts' people know about the German language: it is harsh sounding, and it has extremely long words. I would actually disagree with the first part, or at least I think German tends to get a harsher representation than it deserves. This is because most German in popular culture is from war movies, and if people are running, shooting, and worried about killing other people or being killed themselves, they tend to be yelling rather harshly (especially when cast on the villainous side). There is a lot more to the German language than angry men shouting "Schneller! Schneller!" Perhaps Kari can weigh in here with her opinion (if she's still around...), as she has been living in Austria for almost a year.

That said, they do have some ridiculously long words. In their defence, that makes their sentences a lot less wordy, because the reason the words are so long is because German tends to simply stick words together to make new ones. Take, for example, the word for speed limit:
That is a pretty long word. However, what if you want to talk about the maximum speed limit?
Those are pretty impressively long, but I came across a term while studying for my neuroanatomy exam that seems to give them a run for their money. It is the pontomesencephalotegmental complex. Why does it have such a ridiculous name? The answer, basically, is to describe where it is. The ponto part means it is located within the pons, while the mesencephalo part means it is within the midbrain (so it is located at the border between the pons and the midbrain), and the tegmental part means that it is located near the midline (within the tegmentum). The thing is, though, that people are fairly lazy. So, while the pontomesencephalotegmental complex is an informative name, nobody wants to have to say it (except perhaps when one is trying to be impressive at parties). It therefore is usually shortened to PMTC. Of course, this laziness is not unique to anatomy, but happens all over the sciences. People who write a lot of proofs get used to the fact that wrt = "with respect to", ow = "otherwise", and a small coloured in square = QED = Latin for "I'm done". Likewise in anatomy, people get sick of saying "dorsal" and "ventral" all the time so they become D and V, respectively.

This kind of shortening doesn't usually bother me, except when physiologists and anatomists get so comfortable with their acronyms that they forget to define them. I have had several lectures in physiology courses where I have had only a vague idea of where in the brain we might be talking about because everything is just an ugly jumble of capital letters. For example, SN is the subthalamic nucleus, but how is one supposed to know that it doesn't stand for the substantia nigra if one doesn't already know that substantia nigra is usually abbreviated SNr? Therefore, if there are any physiology professors out there who read my blog, I urge you to doublecheck your lecture slides and see if you use any undefined acronyms. You might not even care if your students know that structure specifically, but I would bet you that somewhere out there is a student who doesn't know that you don't care and is therefore wasting a great deal of time trying to figure out what that small collection of letters means.

Note: I seem to have misplaced my German-English dictionary and my German is rather rusty, so the German word examples were pulled from this site.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Solution to Puzzle Number Three

It seems to have been enough time, now, for those who were going to send in solutions to have sent them. So, here is the solution to puzzle number three. The puzzle was solved by Scott, who once again first solved it himself and then wrote a computer program to power through and solve an optimal solution. I wondered if anyone would do that (I considered it myself to check my own solutions, but I decided it was too much work to figure out how to link in a dictionary database. Clearly, Scott is a little more computer-savvy than I), but I figured if somebody did do it, it would be Scott. Nice to know I was right...

Anyway, just as a reminder, the puzzle was to find a series of transitory words linking the following pairs:
1.) some -> curb
2.) bare -> bear
3.) dread -> pried
by changing one letter at a time.

For the first pair (some -> curb), Scott and I came up with the same solution, which is apparently one of three optimal solutions according to Scott's program:
some -> come -> core -> cure -> curb
The other two possible paths are:
some -> sore -> core -> cure -> curb
some -> sore -> sure -> cure -> curb

The second pair is a little more interesting, with Scott impressively coming up with one of two optimal solutions on his own (with the apparent help of a dictionary):
bare -> barm -> berm -> beam -> bear
Barm is the layer of yeast which floats on the top of fermenting alcohol, and berm is a bank of earth or other level surface set against a steep slope (like a terrace, if I understand correctly). Berm is also apparently a term used primarily in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana to refer to the shoulder of the road (which finally explains what word people were saying when I lived in western PA... four years and I never quite figured that out).
I had actually come up with the other optimal solution for this problem:
bare -> bark -> berk -> beak -> bear
but rejected it because I didn't think berk was a word. I guess I should have taken the time to look it up in a dictionary, because it apparently means a stupid person who is easily taken advantage of.

The third pair, both Scott and I again came up with the same solution, which in this case turns out to be non-optimal (his program came up with two optimal paths). The solution we came up with was:
dread -> tread -> triad -> tried -> pried
The two optimal solutions are:
dread -> dreed -> dried -> pried
dread -> dreed -> preed -> pried
I had never before heard both dreed and preed, but dreed is the past-tense of dree, which means to suffer or endure (it also is an adjective which means tedious or dreary). Preed is likewise the past-tense of pree, which means to try, test, or taste.

So, now my vocabulary has been expanded upon a little bit, and it is time for me to start thinking about puzzle number four.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Oh, that pesky liberal bias of reality...

I was taking a brief break from my project report writing to watch an episode of the Daily Show online. When it pointed out some of the inevitable idiocy of the Fox News Channel, I thought I'd have a look at what Wikipedia, that fetid pit of "liberal" online scholarship, and Conservapedia, the love-able, hug-able, hate-filled alternative to an unbiased look at reality, had to say about it. My astute readers may recall that I have written previous tirades against Conservapedia as well as just laughed at its stupidity, so, with full disclosure, when I set out to compare the representation of Fox News between the two sites I fully expected to find something like this.

Wikipedia opens with a rather plain description of the corporation itself (how it fits into the overall corporate structure of the world and its present viewership), followed by a brief overview of the channel's history, and finally ending its introduction with a rather tame note:
Critics and some observers of the channel say that Fox News Channel promotes conservative political positions. Fox News Channel publicly denies any bias in the channel's reporting.
Of course, over at Conservapedia there is no letting mundane and boring facts get in the way of the ideological crazy, so their article leaps straight in with the opener:
The Fox News Channel is not as conservative as it pretends to be...
Like many things written at Conservapedia, that statement makes so little sense it is laughable. Fox News, after all, officially claims to be "Fair and Balanced", which precludes them from pretending to hold any sort of ideological bend. Of course, Fox News isn't much better journalistically than Conservapedia, so their claim of "Fair and Balanced" doesn't hold much water in my books either.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Little Bit of Ludicrousy

I spotted this video over at Deus Ex Malcontent, and thought it was worth posting.

I think it is amazing how someone can be angry and worked up enough to go to a rally without having done any thinking through of the issue. When asked why he thought Obama was a fascist, the best that guy could come up with is "Because he is"? Right...

Edit: Of course, when making fun of the lack of thought of others I had to go and make a grammatical error in the title... it should be "A Little Bit of Ludicrousness"... apparently, ludicrousy is not a word.

More Musings on Computational Neuroscience Paradigms

A couple months ago I posted a brief description of two overarching paradigms in theoretical computational neuroscience. During the course of writing my final project report, I addressed the same subject in slightly more detail. Since I seem to have strayed from my purported task of publishing pertinent computational neuroscience posts, I thought I would reproduce the two paragraphs in question here. I aready sent them to a friend of mine in biophysics who I know from one of my physiology courses, and he mentioned that I didn't address a couple things that I had never heard of before... so please keep in mind that this is all relatively new content for me, and the paragraphs I post here might simply be the pedestrian musings of an undergraduate amateur. Of course, they could also be brilliantly insightful, but I think the amateur option is a little more likely.

Anyway, here are the paragraphs:
Within the field of theoretical computational neuroscience, there are two general forms in which the problem of cognitive function is mathematically cast: as an adaptive control system and as a dynamical system on the edge of chaos. As with many competing fields of academic thought, disdain from adherents of one mode is often expressed for the ideas of those in the other camp. Fundamentally, the two interpretations are quite similar, as an adaptive controller functions on a dynamical system. However, proponents of the view that the brain functions as a system on the verge of chaos argue that the well-behaved systems generally analysed within the context of control theory fail to take into account the entire activity of the brain and therefore fall short of the goal of generating an accurate physiological model for cognitive function. These proponents also point to the efficacy of mathematical techniques from chaotic and dynamical system analysis to interpretations of electroencephalogram (EEG) readings, which serves as support for the near-chaotic dynamical system interpretation of the brain.

I would argue, however, that while an adaptive control experiment such as the one being implemented here seeks to isolate and investigate a specific cognitive task irrespective of the rest of the neuronal activity (or, in the case of the simulated robots used in this study, assuming no other neuronal activity), such a blinkered approach is not necessarily done out of ignorance of the larger issues of overall cognitive interconnectivity. Rather, I posit that the near-chaotic nature of the global brain behaviour arises out of the necessity of having many simultaneous well-behaved and sometimes contradictory control loops operating as one. The phase transitions apparent in EEG readings could arise from the necessity of transitioning from one set of precedent control loops to another, and a full understanding of the underlying control loops themselves can thus still further our overall understanding of cognitive function. While admittedly ad hoc, I hope this reasoning may serve to at least somewhat mollify those detractors who would dismiss adaptive control as a convenient tool of engineering misapplied to neuroscience. Continued exploration of adaptive control and implicit supervision can therefore have benefits for the field of theoretical computational neuroscience in addition to direct practical benefits in robotics.
I have removed the references, but if anyone is interested in what I am basing the discussion on, let me know and I will send you the appropriate articles.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Monday morning quotations

It's the week before exams, the week my final project report is due, and I'm going a little crazy. Maybe some words from the wise (or at least those who came before me) can help ease my mind a little.

"Like two skeletons copulating on a currugated tin roof." - Thomas Beecham describing the harpsichord, English conductor, 1879-1961

"The dullard's envy of brilliant men is always assuaged by the suspicion that they will come to a bad end." - Max Beerbohm, English critic and essayist, 1872-1956

"Other people have a nationality. The Irish and the Jews have a psychosis."
"There's no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary."
- Brendan Behan, Irish dramatist, 1923-64

"The more foreigners I saw, the more I loved my homeland." - Du Belloy, French dramatist, 1725-75

Sunday, April 12, 2009

"In a garb of black, we must pay respect to the colour we're born to mourn"

It came to my attention a couple days ago that there has been a sad loss this past week. Dave Arneson, one of the creators of Dungeons and Dragons, passed away. With Gary Gygax's death having happened only last year, it would seem an era of geek gaming has come to an end.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Some of the worst logic I have ever seen...

I don't know how many of my readers are aware of a new law that recently passed in Afghanistan that, essentially, writes into law the sexual submission of wives to husbands. I was reading an article about that this morning as I drank my tea, and the last line struck me with its sheer ludicrousness.

Mr. Mohseni argued that women and men are very far from equal in today's Afghanistan and should not be treated as such. He pointed out that many rural women are illiterate and would not be able to find work if they were asked to provide some of the family's financial support. Men are typically the breadwinners in Afghan households, expected to provide for their wives and children.

“It is not possible for all women to pay the same amount of money as men are paying. For all these expenses, can't we at least give the right to a husband to demand sex from his wife after four nights?” he said.

Really, the husband has the right to demand sex any night, but the wife should have equal right to refuse his demands (and vice versa). Justifying misogyny based on an inequality of education is one the worst lines of reasoning I have heard in a while. Also, this Mr. Mohseni clearly is one of those men who has never had to do any housework, because I am pretty damn sure that wives in Afghanistan, even if they are illiterate and not earning any money, don't lounge around all day in opulent luxury.

A Boggle Board I Liked

While I have had nominations before for nerdiest post I've ever written, this one might be a tough contender for dorkiest, saddest, and most trivial. You see, I was trying to relax my brain without getting sucked into anything too time consuming, so I decided to play a couple rounds of Boggle (if you've never played the game before, it's a great game and a description can be found here) with myself (so I wasn't actually playing, but was more just seeing what interesting words I could find until it seemed like I had exhausted everything). Judge me all you want, but while doing so I came up with the following arrangement of letters:


While the board arrangement was amusing enough thanks to the fact that the first word that jumped out at me was 'whore', even more exciting than that was that this board contained not only the word 'teeter' but also 'totter'. It's kind of fun when things turn out nicely like that.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Quotations to end the week

Here are a few pearls of wisdom on which to end the work week.

"What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself." - Roland Barthes, French writer and critic, 1915-80

"To me old age is always fifteen years older than I am."
"Vote for the man who promises least; he'll be the least disappointing."
- Bernard Baruch, American financier and presidential adviser, 1870-1965

"I hurry to laugh at everything, for fear of having to weep at it." - Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, French dramatist, 1732-99

Crunch Time

My readers may have noticed a change in both output of posts as well as content over the recent past. The increase in posts is mostly because writing inconsequential material is a form of stress relief for me (if only writing my assignments had the same response!), while the prevalence of personal anecdotes or quick responses to other content on the internet is because those simply get written faster and therefore get finished before the mounting stress of knowing I'm not working overtakes the stress relief inherent to sitting down and writing. I have several substantial posts started that have been sitting in my collection of drafts for a couple weeks now. The thing is, I have my final project report due this coming Thursday, and then exams starting the following week. I am therefore unlikely to finish anything of any sort of merit in the upcoming little while (but, once exams finish, I am getting my wisdom teeth removed so will likely have a few days of lying around in bed with nothing to do but finish those posts). If you enjoy my questionably amusing anecdotes and other trivial thoughts, however, there will likely be a flurry of those in the next little while as I desperately seek moments of procrastination (like this one). So please bear with me during the end of semester busy period, and the more interesting stuff should be back in a few weeks. I will also continue posting puzzles and quotations (and so far I've only had one response to the most recent puzzle. I know there are more of my readers who are good at word games (Kari... Kim... I'm looking at you two), so send in your solutions by email before I post the solution and you lose your chance at being immortalized in the solution post as a puzzle-solver).

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Speed Scrabble

The other day I was hanging around the computer science student union while waiting for class when people started playing a game I had never heard of before called Speed Scrabble. While there is an entry on Wikipedia about a game called Speed Scrabble that bears a great deal of resemblance to the game played yesterday, there is enough of a difference that I will describe how we played in detail.

The game involves no board and, as far as I could tell, two full sets of letter tiles from the Scrabble game. These were placed face-down on the table, and each player selected fifteen tiles and placed them (still face-down) in front of them. Of those fifteen, eight tiles were placed to one side. On the declaration of "Go!", the seven remaining tiles were flipped and one proceeded to try and arrange their individual seven letters into words. As soon as one person used all seven letters, they would exclaim, "Go!" again and everyone would draw another one of their tiles. Once all fifteen tiles were flipped, whoever successfully used all tiles first would win. Because words that have already been formed can be broken up and their letters rearranged at any time, and because there is no score (other than perhaps counting the number of times you win), the beginning rounds may seem rather arbitrary and pointless (after all, it is really only the final round that matters for victory). It was interesting, however, to note that this was not actually the case. A good construction allowed one to have most letters already engaged, and thus with only a slight amount of finagling new letters could be added to the set. Of course, there was still a strong element of luck, as flipping an 'X' or 'Q' on the last turn could spell doom for even the most elegant and robust of setups.

Before I continue, there are a few additional rules to note. We used, for the most part, standard Scrabble rules about word construction. However, we played with the 'sissy rule' that if one drew a Q and had no U, he is allowed to push the Q to one side and draw a new letter from the central collection. However, if one does have a U (even if it is buried deep within an excellent word that one would really rather not break apart), the Q must be retained and played. The other major rule change was that one could have multiples of a word. For example, one could do this:


If I am not mistaken, that is not allowed in normal Scrabble play. One of the contentious areas of the rules, as always, is what words are allowed. While it is easy to rule out proper nouns and blatantly foreign words, archaic words or words adapted from other languages (such as quo from "Quid pro quo") were a matter of debate. This arose at one point in which I had spelt the word "DOGE" (the head of the Venetian city state in the middle ages), and it was ruled by the other players as not allowed. After the game, however, one of the other players agreed that it was a grey area when I asked him if "TSAR" would have been allowed (or, if you need to use up a 'Z', "CZAR" or "TZAR").

Anyway, back to the actual playing of the game. During the first few rounds I was enamoured with the idea of making one long main word with only a few tiny branches off. While such a strategy has some merits, what I found later to be much more effective was utilizing as much as possible nested structures of shorter words, like the construction shown below (please ignore the underscores, it is to avoid my white space from disappearing):

_ C
_ H I T
_ E _ I
_ D E N

This allows one to raid one or two letters easily without destroying the rest of one's words, for example if, in the above construction, one draws a 'D' tile. You can then remove an 'I' easily from either 'HIT' or 'TIN' and use that with the 'N' at the end of 'PAN' to make 'DIN' coming off the top.

Anyway, rather than blathering on about a silly word game I should be doing some work. I quite liked this game, though, because of its portability (all one needs is a container for the tiles) and relative simplicity. I'm also quite a fan of word games like this and Boggle because they tend to help build vocabulary (even though they are fairly restricted to short words, it is amazing how many words one can still learn through playing them (like 'doge')).

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Sneaky, Sneaky

It has been an exasperating day. While I will leave out most of the details (I doubt anyone cares to hear about the minor annoyances with which I have been plagued), I thought one of the stories at least deserved to be told. It was only two days ago that I complained about a particularly brazen request for me to do another student's work. While I found that story vaguely amusing in its audacity, I now have another story of attempted use of the marginal products of my intellect, only this one is as conniving as the other was blatant (and, somewhat ironically, comes from the same course as the first. What is wrong with the people taking that course this year?).

Last week I received an email from some person (let's call him Mr. D) I had never heard of before, saying he had gotten my email from a friend, and was currently working on the final assignment for the course in question. Mr. D then went on to claim that the assignment was different from last year's, but he wanted to see my solution to last year's anyway so he could see the approach I used. I was a little perturbed by this email, especially since I had actually already seen a copy of this year's assignment and it was virtually indistinguishable from last year's. The lack of specifics on who exactly had given him my email also gave me some misgivings, so I decided to let the email sit for a few days while I decided what to do. Before I reached a decision, however, this fellow decided no response meant it was a good idea to resend his message to make sure I had seen it.

I decided to respond to the second one, if only to figure out who might have given this guy my contact information. I told Mr. D that I had read the assignment and it was fairly similar, so I wasn't comfortable just sending him my code (though I also pointed out my code did not actually work completely, and therefore might not help him much). I did say, however, that if he had any specific questions or wanted to send me his code, I would take a look at it and see if I could help him out (as has happened before, this might actually have ended up in me sending him the code he so desperately wanted to receive if it could be illustrative of an answer to a specific question). I also asked him who had given him my email address.

His response was kind of startling. Apparently, the subject of my aforementioned Monday rant had just mentioned my name in passing, and Mr. D went ahead and searched for me in the university directory (I didn't know that existed in any sort of publicly search-able way). Seemingly unaware of how this could sound mildly disquieting, he then compounded the creepiness by asking for my phone number since it was easier to ask his questions over the phone rather than through email. In what seemed like a genuine manner, though, he asked if I could at least send him my code after the due date since he was very interested in the subject. While I'm not sure that my code would bring anything of value to the table, I brushed off the creepy parts of the email and latched onto the last (decidedly less creepy) request, saying that was no problem.

I thought that would pretty much be the end of it, until Mr. D sent me another email today saying, "Please try to send the material Thursday night / Friday morning so I can look over it before I start focusing on other courses." The thing is, and Mr. D should have known I would be aware of this considering the number of other people I have contact with in the course (including the professor), they have an extension on the assignment until Sunday. Sending him my code Thursday night or Friday morning is in no way sending him it out of interest's sake, and I imagine Mr. D is very well aware of that. Sneaky, sneaky, Mr. D. Your clever scheme might have worked, too, if it weren't for those meddling other students who are emailing me to ask legitimate questions.


It has been a while since I did a Google search of my own name (I'm not that narcissistic...), but a couple days ago my girlfriend and I decided to throw my name in and see what came up. That is how I first discovered the disconcerting website known as PeekYou. It apparently trawls the web looking for freely available information about someone, and then compiles this into a people index. I'm not sure where it got its information about me, but it knows my name and hometown (which, for some reason, it also thinks is my location). It also knows I'm male and gives my age at 22 (off by a couple... I'm not sure why). Then it has a strange line of 'descriptors' in which it says, "Student canadian atheist". While I am annoyed grammatically at the capitalization of student and corresponding lack of capitalization for Canadian, I'm also confused at how it found those three seemingly random bits of information out, and nothing else. Now I'm going to be wondering all day just where on the internet this thing found me...

I've Been Published!

I have been published! Unfortunately, that announcement cannot actually be followed by a story regaling my readers with my lofty scholastic achievements. Instead, it is more of a meek, inconsequential kind of publishing that will likely never be mentioned in any sort of professional development sense. It all starts a couple years ago when I was on my work term. Working is quite different from school. While school tends to consume one's life utterly, work seeks to regulate ones productive hours (whether or not there is anything to do during those hours). During a particularly dry spell at work (my workday pretty much consisted of me watching a machine run for eight hours and noting any faults that occurred), I was feeling quite starved for intellectual stimulation. Listening to podcasts and free lectures offered online helped somewhat, but I also sought creative outlets in addition to absorbing input. One such manifestation of my energies was a logic puzzle (the kind where one is given a series of clues and must sort out all the relationships), which I sent to Penny Press on a whim. At the time, they told me it didn't fit all their submission guidelines and therefore wasn't suitable to print (I had too much information provided in the clues making it too easy). Today, however, my mom sent me a confused email reporting that apparently my parents just received a cheque addressed to me for an amount of $25 from Penny Press for a "Logic Problem (Easy)". So, either their standards changed and there is an easy logic problem that I wrote printed in some random puzzle booklet, or someone made a mistake. Either way, I'm $25 richer and quizzically amused. Maybe once my final project report is done I'll take a break and write another logic puzzle. Exams don't really need to be studied for, do they?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Some more evidence that machine vision is hard

Nearly a year ago, I made a post talking about the woefully difficult task of visual processing, and it is a theme I have continued to discuss in my series on top-down visual processing, particularly the third (and most recent) instalment. Well, now it is time to take a sojourn out of the ivory tower of academic discussion (a phrase which I, of course, use ironically) and giggle at some real-life examples of failed automated vision tasks involving iPhoto's facial recognition software. The examples have all been submitted to a Flickr group where they can be perused at one's leisure.

I think this one is my favourite:

Monday, April 6, 2009

I am not amused

While in my last post I mentioned the need to get back to work (specifically to modifying the simulated environment in which I am putting my robots), events have conspired to distract me for a little while longer. You see, I am annoyed. Last year, I took a course which I greatly enjoyed. I have talked about it quite a bit to other students, so there are many people who are aware I took it. As it is being offered again this semester, I happen to know (sometimes quite vaguely) several people taking the course, and have therefore been getting gradually increasing amounts of email asking for help (I suppose because I am known to reply to requests for help). As with all times when I offer help to other students, I try my utmost to keep from crossing the line from helping to cheating. To keep the story short, the last problem set they are working on this year is almost identical to the one last year that I attempted. My program never actually worked completely, but it had a fairly reasonable structure and had at least part of the problem solved. In the course of helping one of those 'vaguely' known students currently taking the course, I sent him a copy of my code, explaining that there was a problem in it that I had never solved, but that it should provide him with some explanation for the trouble he was having with setting up the problem and organizing his program. Imagine my surprise and annoyance, then, when I get an email this evening acknowledging that I had most of the problem solved, but asking if I perhaps had an idea of how to correct the snag that remained preventing the program from working completely. Leaving out the fact that I explicitly told him I had never figured out what the problem was and that I haven't worked on the code for a year, I am still indignantly pissed off that he would ask me to provide him with the entire solution to his problem set. The only reason I shared the code with him in the first place was because it wasn't working, and would require a full understanding of the problem to fix (which he shouldn't be trying to do in the first place, since generating his own program to solve the problem is the primary exercise of the problem set, and when I sent mine to him I assumed standard student programming etiquette of never reproducing other peoples' code in your assignment without express acknowledgement). Anyway, I think I'm done this rant... I am annoyed, but I also thought it was a vaguely amusing story out of sheer audacity. Sometimes people surprise and confuse me.

Brain Day Wrap-Up

For those paying attention to my personal life, a couple weeks ago I did two Brain Day presentations. The second presentation had several differences from the first, as the first day was at quite a poor school in front of a relatively small (19 students) grade 3-4 split class and the second presentation was at a much wealthier school in front of a large (33 students) grade 6 class. On a personal note, visiting these schools was the first time I have ever been to a Catholic school before. It was actually quite surprising the amount of religious paraphernalia which adorns the walls and permeates the daily rituals (both schools started the day with the Lord's Prayer, while the second school followed that with two more prayers). With all the highly publicized fighting over secularization of the schools that goes on south of the border, sometimes I forget that we have our own fuzzy line to draw up here. Personally, I don't know enough about the organizational reasons for the existence of a Catholic school system in addition to the public school system, but from my current (mostly ignorant) standpoint it rubs me the wrong way. Although there may be a good reason for its existence, I think there should be a public school system and a private school system. The private schools can be religiously motivated (though I would still expect them to adhere to an approved curriculum), but if a school has public funding it ought to be wholly secular. Religious studies classes are different than starting every day with prayer. Anyway, this is getting off topic...

Another thing which surprised me was that both schools started the day with our national anthem. I asked my girlfriend (who went to public school here in Ontario), and she says she also remembers singing the national anthem every day as well. Unless my memory serves me quite poorly, at my elementary and intermediate schools in British Columbia I only remember singing the national anthem at assemblies (I believe we also practised singing it in music class, but I think that was mostly just because it was a song that most students conveniently knew). It is a minor point, but still something I find interesting. Perhaps Ontario is just more patriotic than the west.

I am off still topic, however, so I will move beyond daily rituals of religiosity and patriotism. One thing which surprised me about the experience is how draining I found it to be. As I have heard said before, teaching is as much about crowd control as it is about imparting information (at least at the primary and secondary school level). While I do greatly enjoy disseminating information, I remain much more comfortable doing it on an individual or small group level. I suppose part of that rests in my difficulty with multitasking interpersonal interactions. While I can mentally keep track of multiple unfolding strategies in games like chess or Diplomacy, or keep track of the inner workings of multiple sections of computer code when programming, simultaneously dealing with more than one person at the same time horribly flusters me. If I am on the phone and someone in the room starts talking to me, I inevitably lose track of both conversations. When this is increased to dozens of students all vying for attention at the same time, it felt like a constant struggle just to keep track of what I was saying and where I had to go next in the presentation.

Another conundrum of teaching which I failed to think about before was the difficulty of dealing with problem children. While I remember going to school with rather hyperactive students, I don't ever remember feeling like I could not get attention from the teacher when I required it. I was also self-absorbed and egotistical enough not to notice that other students perhaps did not feel like that. Oddly enough, this problem seemed most pronounced in the smaller class we presented to first. There were several exceedingly quiet students who simply never got a chance to get attention because there were several of their peers who did not stop talking, whether it was asking a meandering question or blurting out some inane happenstance. One girl actually asked me in a very meek voice how to spell 'light'. While she may have been in grade 3 rather than grade 4, it still shocked me. What I only realised after the fact was that the only reason I had the chance to answer her question and tell her how to spell 'light' was because my partner was presenting at the time and dealing with the more hyperactive students. In a normal situation with only a single teacher, I doubt this little girl and the other students like her get any direct attention. They simply keep their heads down and drift by.

I don't know what the solution is, because constantly punishing the students who act out is likely to simply exasperate and frustrate everyone involved. They usually don't understand just how disruptive they are being, and neither do they truly understand that they are cheapening the educational experience for their quiet compatriots. However, doing nothing is hardly an effective solution.

I'm not sure this post really had a point, and it kind of meandered all over the place, but I'm going to publish it now and get back to my actual work. Perhaps those who are wiser than I can chip in on some of the topics I briefly alluded to, whether it is religion in schools or how the more effectively administer education to children. As it is, I will continue with my life plan of only entering into the educational system after all the difficult work of formation has been completed by other people and my students have already become respectful young men and women.

Puzzle Number Three

Since the first two puzzles were fairly mathematical (or at least numerical, in the case of the first one), I decided to make the next puzzle a word-based one. This is a word game I remember playing in elementary school, but I think it is still a fun mental exercise. The premise of the game is that you must transform a word into another word by changing one letter at a time, and all transitional forms must be words themselves. So, for example, sod could be transformed into can by sod -> sad -> cad -> can. The challenge is to find a pathway with the minimum number of transitions.

Since these are relatively simple, I will give three pairs of words.
1.) some -> curb
2.) bare -> bear
3.) dread -> pried

Some Monday Morning Words of Wisdom

"Cocaine habit-forming? Of course not. I ought to know, I've been using it for years." - Tallulah Bankhead, American actress, 1903-68

"God has been replaced, as he has all over the West, with respectability and airconditioning." - Imamu Amiri Baraka, American poet, 1934-

"Does history repeat itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce? No, that's too grand, too considered a process. History just burps, and we taste again that raw-onion sandwich it swallowed centuries ago."
"Love is just a system for getting someone to call you darling after sex."
- Julian Barnes, English novelist, 1946-

Also, in my last instalment of quotations, I asked if anyone could guess who the David Bailey quotation reminded me of (plus, the fellow's name makes me chuckle since it is also the name of the head of the U of T physics department). Well, no one did guess, so I'm just going to tell you... Gob Bluth! I hope I'm not the only person around here who sees references to Arrested Development everywhere (even when the 'reference' was said decades before the show aired...).

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Buffon Needle Problem: The Solution to Puzzle Number Two

I will admit, I have been a little disappointed by the lack of attempts to solve puzzle number two. So far, no one has attempted to send in solutions, either incorrect or correct. Rather than waiting around, I assume in vain, for people to send me attempts, I decided it was about time I posted what I find to be an elegant and fascinating solution.

To briefly reiterate the problem, one is trying to come up with an empirical estimate of π based on repeatedly dropping a rod of length L onto a floor with parallel floorboards separated by distance D. I have generated a quick diagram of the situation in Paint (this computer does not have any actual image editors on it other than Gimp which I am still learning how to use, so please forgive the rudimentary ugliness of the diagram), which also introduces the value of x which is the distance from the centre of the rod to the nearest floorboard edge.
Clearly, x can range from 0 to D/2. As one assumes a uniform probability for the position of the rod, the probability density function of x is 1/(D/2) = 2/D. Things are a little less clear when outlining the properties of the random variable θ, as the most obvious choice (for me) would be it can range from 0 to π. This will, however, cause problems later due to the properties of the sine function (namely that sin(0) = sin(π) = 0), so it is best to define θ as the measure of the acute angle. It can thus range from 0 to π/2, and, also assuming uniform probability, the probability density function of θ is 1/(π/2) = 2/π. Since θ and x are independent, the overall probability density function for the needle can be found by multiplying the two independent density functions together, yielding 4/πD.

Since we are interested in the number of times the rod crosses the lines between the floorboards, we need to determine when that happens. With a little bit of geometry, it is fairly clear that whenever x < (L/2)sinθ the rod crosses the floorboards. Thus, to find the expected fraction of crosses, we need to integrate the probability density function 4/πD over the two random variables, first integrating from 0 to (L/2)sinθ with respect to x and then from 0 to π/2 with respect to θ (if anyone knows how to write integrals in html, I would appreciate it if you could tell me). First, integrating 4/πD with respect to x from 0 to (L/2)sinθ results in 2Lsinθ/πD. Integrating this result with respect to θ from 0 to π/2 yields 2Lsin(π/2)/πD = 2L/πD.

Thus, the expected ratio the number of times the rod crosses the division between floorboards divided by the number of times it is dropped is 2L/πD. As one repeatedly drops the rod and counts the number of crosses, the value will converge to this expected value. Since the length of the rod and the distance between the floorboards is easily measurable, it is a simple computation to achieve an estimate for π.

This is actually a physical example of a branch of computational techniques known as Monte Carlo estimation in which a series of random or pseudorandom samples are used to estimate a result. I find it extremely fascinating, and I think it has a measure of profundity that should not be lightly dismissed. The fact that one is able to simply count a binary event and use that ratio to find an estimate for a much more complicated value is absolutely amazing (of course, it should be immediately obvious that one will never be able to find the actual value of π with this method as the estimate will always be a ratio of number of crosses over number of trials and thus will always be a rational number). Probability and statistics is an amazing branch of mathematics, and it is something I wish I were better at.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Battlestar Galactica, You've Fallen So Far

Warning: Possible Spoiler Alert.

It's been a while since this little video came out:

When it did, I remember Battlestar Galactica had gone through a couple rough patches but it was still an amazing show. The miniseries and the first season were exceedingly enjoyable, and the start of the second was good too. All that has changed, now. The show is over, and all I can think is, "What the hell?" Sure, the assault on the enemy cylons' base to rescue Hera was full of action and some exciting minor character death, but then there was almost an hour of pedantic, anti-science, pseudo-religious melodrama. I was really hoping the last episode would save my thoughts of the show, but instead it went the other direction. Am I alone in my disappointment?