Thursday, February 16, 2006

Talkin' trash

A couple of good articles from Alternet. First, it seems that for neo-conservatives, anyone who refers to the Bush administration's "lies" about weapons of mass destruction is a "Bush-hater". They're just talkin' trash. But in an entirely different context, that's a good thing to do!
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Sunday, February 12, 2006

Consciousness (or, I'm way out of my depth)

To me, perhaps the greatest mysteries concern consciousness. For example, I wonder if, perhaps, consciousness is the bridge between the physical and the spiritual.

Consciousness is wrapped up in concepts like the mind and self awareness. On this last point, various questions arise. Why are humans self aware? To what extent are animals (like the dog in the cartoon above) self aware? Can computers become self aware? (Assuming they're not already!)

I recently rented A.I. Artificial Intelligence, a 2001 movie directed by Stephen Spielberg and based on ideas by Stanley Kubrick. I have to say that I was disappointed. Although aspects of the movie were quite impressive, it didn't give me much to chew on.

So once again, I appeal to you, gentle readers for enlightenment, or at least some opinions!

Update 14Feb2006: After writing this post, a friend suggested that I look at work by Karl Pribram, an eminent brain/behaviour researcher. So I sent Professor Pribram an e-mail — and he very kindly sent me one of his recent papers! The paper, titled "Consciousness Reassessed", is heady stuff (pun intended, tee hee): it touches on neurophysiology, perceptual psychology, quantum physics, coding theory, and philosophy.

Along the way Pribram cites related work by all kinds of luminaries: Russell, Bohr, Poppper, and Crick to name a few. Yes, Francis Crick, who later in life turned his attention from DNA to neuroscience. In 1994, he published a book titled The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, which Pribram characterizes as taking "an eliminative reductionist, materialist stance". Pribram writes:
"Many of the problems that fuel the current discourse on consciousness are due to the acceptance of a radical reductionist stance. Take Francis Crick’s view (Crick 1994) that if we knew what every neuron is doing we would dispense with folk psychology. But what every neuron is doing is a complex process composed of synapto-dendritic fine fibered transactions, circuits, modules composed of circuits and systems composed of modules. The complexity of our experience can also be hierarchically organized into levels of organization, scales of processing, that must be taken into account if we are to relate the organization of our experience to the organization of the brain (see, for instance, King and Pribram 1995)."
(That last reference is to a book with the engaging title Scale in Conscious Experience: Is the Brain Too Important to be Left to Specialists to Study?)

Crick's book does sound interesting, though. At Amazon they let you see the first four pages. It starts with a quote from the Roman Catholic catechism:
Q: What is the soul?
A: The soul is a living being* without a body, having reason and free will.
The asterisk is Crick's. In the footnote he writes:
"As a small child my wife, Odile, was taught the catechism by an elderly Irish lady who pronounced "being" as "be-in'". Odile heard this as "bean." She was extremely puzzled by the idea of the soul of a living bean without a body but kept her worries to herself."

Update: 18Feb2006: In the comments, Mike points out that a sense of humour may be related to consciousness. It's an interesting point. In science fiction movies, robots are often portrayed as being humourless. Consider, for instance, the android Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Here is an article on the neurology of humour. And I wonder if any of this has to do with mirror neurons, about which there's been quite a bit of excitement lately.
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Saturday, February 11, 2006

Good stuff

Hooray for the weekend! And what better time to think about good stuff? I've been saving up items for this list for a while ...

First up: Chance magazine, co-published by the American Statistical Association and Springer-Verlag, is about statistics and the use of statistics in society. Go to their site and click on "Feature Articles" in the left-hand panel. There's a bunch of interesting stuff. For example, an article presenting research on whether automobile airbags save lives (it suggests they may not). And with the Winter Olympics on, how about an article on testosterone abuse among athletes?

Next on the good stuff list, check out one of my favorite blogs — it's funny, thought provoking, and well written. You know, if you look at the TTLB Blogosphere Ecosystem, you'll see that a few blogs are hugely popular. But it's been my experience that there are some hidden gems out there. Many people who don't read blogs seem to think that it's a big waste of time. And sure, there's a lot of junk out there. But it's not all that hard to find the good stuff.

Related to the blog is the podcast, and related to the podcast is the video podcast. Have you watched Rocketboom? It's a highly entertaining and unpredictable 5-minute weekday report produced in New York City. They recently held an auction on Ebay for a week of advertising on Rocketboom: it went for $40,000!

I have to admit that I love a good deal. And there's no better deal than free. For mysterious reasons (i.e. what's the business model?), there are some wonderful free services on the internet. Two of my favorites are protopage, which is a fabulous customizable homepage, and openomy, which provides you with 1 GB of free file storage! I highly recommend both.

And last on my list, I've nearly finished reading an excellent book, The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz. It explores the surprising ways we make choices and how they make us feel. Unlike some social science books written for a popular audience, Schwartz is neither self aggrandizing (like the author of Freakonomics), nor does he overstate his case (like the author of The Tipping Point). Perhaps best of all, he provides practical suggestions on how the research findings he details can be applied to improve the quality of our daily lives.

So that wraps up my list of good stuff. Please feel free to contribute your own in the comments. And have a great weekend!
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Sunday, February 05, 2006

Pet peeves

The following things drive me crazy.

Ambiguous date formats. What does 06/05/04 mean? Would that be June 5th, 2004? Or maybe May 6th, 2004? Or maybe May 4th, 2006? From time to time people say—with a straight face, no less—"... but that's the international standard!" Enough already! Dates should be written in an easy-to-read, unambigous format like 05-Jun-2006, and software should default to this. I wonder what the cumulative cost to humanity of ambiguous date formats has been? (Perhaps similar to the total cost due to the MS-DOS convention of having filenames with no more than 8 characters followed by a 3-character extension? How much frustration could they have saved by making it 16 characters instead of 8?)

Speaking of dates, how about the fact that the boxes videotapes and DVDs come in don't usually list the year the movie was released. Or if they do, it's in microscopic print. I guess they don't want you to realize the movie is 10 years old. But other information is usually hard to find too, like the running time and the aspect ratio.

Speaking of DVDs, the onscreen menus on DVDs drive me nuts! Why on earth couldn't they have just designed a good, standardized interface for all DVDs? Instead, every DVD's menu is a puzzle. Ok, some of the menus are kind of artistic, but you know, I can live without that.

Even more maddening is the evil "no, you can't do that" thing on DVDs, that sometimes won't let you skip a preview or something. I bought the !@#* thing—I should be able to skip whatever I want!

And then there's CD cases where the songs are listed without the track numbers. Oooh, how sophisticated—not! It's actually useful to know that a particular song is track number 13. Otherwise, every time I want to play the song I have to count through to figure that out. Or remember that it's number 13—as if I don't have enough trivia in my head already.

Whew! There ... that feels better. If anyone else would like to join in the therapy session, please do. Or if you disagree with something I've said, please correct me!
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Friday, February 03, 2006

It's movie night at Log Base 2!

And tonight's flic ... Enemy of the State, a 1998 movie starring Will Smith and Gene Hackman. I picked it up the other day for $7.99 (Canadian dollars, eh). The link above is to reviews of the movie at Rotten Tomatoes (an excellent site if you're not familiar with it). On the Tomatometer it scores a 70%, which would suggest that it's a reasonably good movie. Which it is. But given the recent revelations about NSA monitoring of telecommunications within the USA and internationally, the Tomatometer needs a little recalibration ... say an additional 20%? So rent this movie!

Don't worry, it's lots of fun. You gotta love Will Smith, and Gene Hackman is--as usual--top notch. John Voight plays the baddie with verve. And several other well-known actors (like Jack Black and Gabriel Byrne) have minor parts. It's a Jerry Bruckheimer co-production, so there are some wicked action sequences. Woo-eee!

Stealing from the box, it's "a dynamite thriller" (Rolling Stone), but it's also a techno-geek-fest (GPS tracking, 23 GHz transmitters, and directional mics), and a buddy movie (there's good chemistry between Smith and Hackman) with a dash of light humour skillfully blended into the mix. There's lots of other good stuff, but I'm sure that's been well covered in the reviews you can read via Rotten Tomatoes.

Although the action never let up, the plot was predictable enough that I had time to ponder the technology. Some of it was pure Hollywood fantasy. A fuzzy security camera image from a bad angle? No problem: just sharpen it, and then (!) do a 3D rotation to get a better view. On the other hand, the wiretapping and traces seemed quite believable. Other times, I just wasn't sure. Can they really take those fancy satellite videos on the fly?

Of course the intellectual meat of the movie is the concern that we're becoming a surveillance society, with security cameras wherever we look (and more importantly, where we don't), sophisticated electronic eavesdropping, and linked databases of personal information (like financial records and employment history) that Big Brother can access with a keystroke. Throw in a murderous conspiracy, and--voila!--an engaging movie experience.

But this movie was released in 1998, and the conspiracy had to come from a rogue NSA bigwig hungry for power. Watching the movie today, we have a somewhat different perspective. If you can get past the "high-powered suspense thriller where nonstop action meets cutting-edge technology!" (I'm stealing from the box again), the movie seems remarkably prescient.

If I can quote from box one more time, the byline on the front says "It's not paranoia if they're really after you." Well, they're really after you.

Update 12Feb2006: This is just too weird!

Update #2, 12Feb2006: It just gets better and better: the NSA website has a privacy policy!
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Thursday, February 02, 2006

Ethical investing Socially responsible investing

There were some excellent comments on my recent post about ethical investing. Following up from one of the comments, I learned that the term "socially responsible investing" is considerably more popular (Google count about 453,000) than "ethical investing" (Google count about 169,000). See, for example A related buzzword, more from the environmental perspective, is "sustainable"; see, for example this blog.

In the course of my web surfing, I learned about the World Economic Forum, who describe themselves as
"... an independent international organization committed to improving the state of the world by engaging leaders in partnerships to shape global, regional and industry agendas. Incorporated as a foundation in 1971, and based in Geneva, Switzerland, the World Economic Forum is impartial and not-for-profit; it is tied to no political, partisan or national interests. The Forum is under the supervision of the Swiss Federal Government."
They have a "Global Corporate Citizenship Initiative", from which several reports are available. One of them "... finds that the mainstream financial community places little emphasis on social, environmental and ethical issues in its investment decisions. Yet a company that profits while doing harm to the community is likely to suffer in the long run."

My friend Jordan pointed me to the work of Meir Statman of UC Santa Clara. You can download copies of many of his papers from his website. For example this paper (in pdf) on the composition and performance of "socially responsible indexes".

So the plot thickens ... perhaps. As usual, I welcome your thoughts on the subject.
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