Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Chunking Language

When we need to copy something we'll shift our focus from the source to our copy, back and forth, until we're done. A simple revelation: the number of symbols we can take in one glance is directly proportional to the information density and our fluentness.

For me to transcribe Chinese, I have to study each stroke; for Russian, a word at a time; in Spanish, whole phrases, and in English entire sentences, or multiple sentences. The more fluent you are, the easier it is to see the effect of information density: it takes more glances to copy from an encyclopedia than a novel.

This effect seems to appear in all sorts of languages: when I first started writing in classical staff notation, I had to count lines and study each note. Over time, I was able to glance at entire measures. Code is another interesting case: depending on how often you write in a language and how verbose the syntax is, you can take in bigger or smaller "chunks" at once.

I'd expect this is all because we can only keep so much in our immediate "working memory" at once, and the more constrained something is by our "long-term memory" the more information we can store (essentially because it's compressed as references). If we can show a more direct relation between our familiarity with a symbol and the speed at which we copy it (or, the size of our chunks), this could be developed into a technique for mining word frequency information.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Redefinition as False Insight

The ever impenetrable Humpty Dumpty, as immortalized by Lewis Carroll:

When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.
Anyone attempting a productive argument quickly discovers the necessity of agreement on basic definitions. Another phenomenon has taken me longer to recognize: the reframing of well-worn words as an attempt at profundity.

A friend once described a situation in his psychology class where the professor had just revealed that the eyes are part of the brain. Of course, the class responded with a subtle confusion — as though something had just changed in the world itself. The standard conception of a "brain" is about some squishy gray matter sitting inside our skull; when you call the eyes part of that system, we express confusion and surprise when our eyes don't become squishy gray matter.

What's sad is how often this happens during conversation with people who are trying to bestow their "deep insight" on others. I should know, I'm probably one of the worst offenders. I call every emancipated leaf beautiful — every forgotten mannequin a tragedy. And I mean "beauty" and "tragedy", just as the professor meant "brain" (ideas like interdependent arising make every minute occurence into an event of apocalyptic import) — but I need to be more careful when I use these kind of words. Unless the other person understands what I mean by them, the words become, at best, nonsense; and at worst, philosophical melodrama.

It's far too easy to use words (especially simple words) to alienate others. It seems wise to, instead, think of our words as gifts — not something we've been coveting, wrapped in our favorite colors and patterns (and "whatever we choose"), but something the other person will appreciate. 1 Corinthians 8:1 is a bit out of context, but the idea still applies:
Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.

Time and Permanence

Seung Sahn, in The Compass of Zen, describes time using the metaphor of a movie:

The film projector moves the frames very quickly, and all of these frames run past the lens very fast, so the action on-screen seems to happen nonstop. There is no break in the movement of things. But actually when you take this strip of film and hold it up to the light with your hands, there is nothing moving at all. Each frame is complete.
The idea, of course, is that reality is nothing but the "now" — that motionless film reel — and our mind is the projector, creating the illusion of time. But there's a very simple problem with this metaphor: the projector can only create this illusion by ordering the frames, and this ordering happens over time.

Instead of associating ourselves with the eternal Now, "Unity" itself, it seems more practical to say that we are a path through Now (just as the projector follows the path of the reel). Rather than being an illusion, time becomes a byproduct of our perspective (which isn't a false representation of reality, just incomplete).

This topic does clarify my primary issue with Buddhism: the origin of our desire for permanence seems to go unconsidered. But if you assume we are one with everything, the reason for this dispensability is obvious: we are essentially permanent entities (rather, entity) deceived by an illusory world — it's trivially true that we'd want to return to reality. (The other obvious solution is to explain it away with psychology.)

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Computability, Ad Hominem, Faith and Reason

Consider the function:

Π(n) = { the position of the first occurrence of n consecutive zeros in the decimal expansion of π if it exists, 0 otherwise }
For example, "0" first occurs at position 32, so Π(1) = 32; the first few values are: 32, 307, 601, 13,390, 17,534... (according to the Pi-Searcher). This function is "computable" in a sense, for a trivial reason: for any given n, it is possible to output the correct integer (because it's possible to output any integer). But this function doesn't really teach us anything — it doesn't demonstrate a necessary relationship between the input and output values.

Now consider ad hominem, one of the most popular logical fallacies. In essence, it works by citing the origin of a belief as evidence against the belief. Sometimes it's just delicate slander, but other times the attack is on the argument itself. If I say "I'm alive because Andy Warhol walks among us.", you might respond "That's ridiculous, there is no relation between those two claims — and furthermore, Andy Warhol has most certainly kicked the can..." It's fine to argue with the soundness of my argument, but the problem lies in the conclusion of ad hominem: "...therefore, you are not alive." (a negation of my conclusion). This might sound silly, but it happens constantly. This would be as ludicrous as claiming that 32, 307, 601... could not possibly be the first three values for Π(n) simply because I haven't provided an algorithm associating those values with the function definition.

This all comes back to the question of where faith is justified. Imagine I've just given you 100 arguments for the existence of God. If you go through each one and explain why the argument is unsound, you haven't disproven God's existence (that would be a case of denying the antecedent — which Popper brings up when discussing falsifiability). Unfortunately, too many atheistic arguments are based on this fallacy. For example, Bertrand Russell employs one of the most subtle forms of ad hominem:
Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly... the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing -- fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death...
For another example, see this previous post.

In short, there's some interesting symmetries between computability, ad hominem, denying the antecedent, falsifiability and questions about the justification of beliefs... maybe it's just me, but I think symmetries help me see more clearly.

Three More Alternate Realities

Under illumination, every object echoes its form through reflection. In an unconscious submission to abstraction, we'll call these reflections "the objects themselves".

However, there exist at least three more worlds that imitate the objects themselves. First, there is a world of shadows — anything that is illuminated also obstructs the light (unless, of course, it is immersed). The second world exists in an empathic form as mirrored surfaces. The third exists as a refractive world — lenses. Whereas direct reflection of light requires only an observer, these three alternate worlds demand an intermediary. They are emergent from objects that play with light — revealing truths about their own character and that of their surroundings through distortion.

Some surfaces elborate on multiple realities. Strange Phenomena attempts to capture the mirror and shadow worlds emergent from the same surface. Some lakes at sunset will yield shadows, the mirrored and refractive worlds... but I have yet to run into a surface that elaborates on all four realities. Perhaps some tinted, half-silvered lens covered in dust?

Friday, February 17, 2006

Brainwashed by Reality

From Wired:

After four days on an intensive Photoshop project... everywhere I looked I had the impulse to correct things, to move the world around in layers.
We underestimate our brain's plasticity... just think about the diversity of roles we can fill. It's not like this is some superfluous yet extraordinary ability, it's essential — from birth we are specializing ourself to our surroundings, assimilating things like language. The difference between our own incessant, passive adaptation and active brainwashing is not necessarily the truthfulness of the beliefs, just their origin.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Hilarious Giving

I stumbled across some naïve thoughts on selflessess from freshman year (2003, unedited for the sake of honesty — there are plenty of ideological mistakes):

...The desire of a selfish relationship is understood, but what of a selfless one? What reason is there to that desire? Perhaps it is only to act on your emotion, and to trust your desire to give. Should we give? Is giving good? The Bible says so, but what sense does it make? To give is to stop focusing inward and focus outward. To do this effectively, we must acknowledge that the subjective mind of others is more important than the subjective mind of the self. An equal good for a greater amount of people? The Lord loves a cheerful giver. Perhaps it isn't the giving that matters, but the cheer. God doesn't love giving, but the mind behind it, the attitude. It is good to follow the desire to give, because it brings forth (propagates) an attitude of cheerfulness...
(This is an excerpt, but there was no "prologue"; i.e.: I didn't put on a "Christian hat" at the beginning — I was just assuming) I find it interesting that the word used in that verse I was thinking of, "God loves a cheerful giver." (Corinthians 9:7) is only used once in the NT: hilaros.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Reimagining the God-Shaped Hole

Pascal once wrote, "There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God the Creator, made known by Jesus Christ." Augustine may have had something similar in mind in his confessions, "...You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in You." The idea shows up in popular Christian literature, and music from Audio Adrenaline to Plumb and U2. Sometimes you'll even hear Christians using this metaphor with nonbelievers.

I'm not in the business of hating on Pascal and Augustine, but the idea seems inconsistent with Christianity. From the Christian perspective, saying there is only a hole in us is a radical understatement — to the point of being false. It implies that we're fine, just incomplete — as though sin left a shrapnel wound, and we just need some extra flesh in a few spots. It makes God our doctor instead of our heartbeat. But this isn't the language Jesus uses to describe the Christian walk: unless you completely die to yourself, you're worthless (e.g.: Matthew 10:37-38).

There is a way to save the metaphor, however. If the "hole" is called "my purpose in life", then the emptiness should filter down to every part of our being — fulfilling Christs' description. This reveals the problem with our natural interpretation of the metaphor: we ignore the crucial connection between who we are and what our purpose is.

Paul presented this point more clearly while in Athens, accounting for the obviously unfulfilling worship, while still calling for a "radical life-change":

When I arrived here the other day, I was fascinated with all the shrines I came across. And then I found one inscribed, TO THE GOD NOBODY KNOWS. I'm here to introduce you to this God so you can worship intelligently, know who you're dealing with. The God who made the world and everything in it, this Master of sky and land, doesn't live in custom-made shrines or need the human race to run errands for him, as if he couldn't take care of himself. He makes the creatures; the creatures don't make him. Starting from scratch, he made the entire human race and made the earth hospitable, with plenty of time and space for living so we could seek after God, and not just grope around in the dark but actually find him. He doesn't play hide-and-seek with us. He's not remote; he's near. We live and move in him, can't get away from him! One of your poets said it well: "We're the God-created.' Well, if we are the God-created, it doesn't make a lot of sense to think we could hire a sculptor to chisel a god out of stone for us, does it? God overlooks it as long as you don't know any better--but that time is past. The unknown is now known, and he's calling for a radical life-change.
This turns Christianity into a memory we're trying to recall (vaguely reminiscent of Plato's form-based epistemology) rather than a hole to be filled. "The haunting awareness of something which is out of reach and may not even exist" as Fernando Pessoa put it; the feeling that "something in me was born before the stars, and saw the sun begin from far away". Pessoa writes:
There was a rhythm in my sleep.
When I awoke I lost it.
Why did I ever cease to live
That erstwhile self-surrender?

I know not what it was, that was not.
I know it lulled me softly,
As though the very lulling would
Make me once more the one I am.

There was a music that over
When I awoke from dreaming it.
It did not die: it still endures
In what inhibits thought in me.
While Pessoa was a borderline nihilist, the same idea appears in theistic authors and songwriters:
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing... For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
(C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory)
Like an ancient memory,
remember how it used to be...
one day we'll wake up from this dream
and we'll stop sleeping,
oh, yo, then we'll see clearly
(Matisyahu, "Warrior")
There's a place where I come from
It's the place where I belong
Where you will never die
Wipe the tears off from your eyes...
(Burlap to Cashmere, "Digee Dime")
It seems that Christianity is less like filling a hole, and more like remembering where we came from.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

War/Dance in Life and Play

Why do so many games advance the war metaphor? Chess is almost synonymous with the idea. Other board games will require players to compete for some limited resource or rack up the most points in some arbitrary currency. Perhaps we simply understand life itself as a war, in which case the interaction in these games is called for — preferred, even. But what if we viewed life through another lens? What if we started to think of life as a dance? Interaction becomes poetic, and the goals change completely. Obstacles disappear — without a hammer, you see no nails — they are turned into dance partner, you would be wasting your time stomping on your partner's feet (the dance accounts for the interdependence of things). I'd like to see more games where the players learn about each other and themselves through some sort of continuous poetic interaction towards a shared goal. You could always think of musical improvisation as that sort of game, or the interaction between a Dungeon Master and the characters in a typical RPG, but how could you apply this idea to something like a visual art or board game?

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Forgotten Pragmatics

Cynics sometimes cite phrases like "bless you", "good luck", "have a good one" and "cheers" as meaningless (of course, these are the same people that would point out my improper use of the term "cynic"). Sure, "cheers" and "have a good one" have little semantic content due to their ambiguity. And it's true, a lot of people don't believe in the reality of "blessings" or "luck" in the first place. But you must consider these phrases in a social context — you can't study a swimming fish while you hold it in your hand. In a social context, these phrases do have meaning: they communicate a simple kindness... acknowledgement and encouragement. The form is irrelevant, but understanding something does not put you above it.

WIll AI ever be "conscious"?

A great overview of the central issues in HLAI, Considerations Regarding Human-Level Artificial Intelligence", by Nils Nilsson, concludes with some beautifully clear thoughts on philosophy of mind:

Will human-level intelligent agents have "free will" or be "conscious"? My opinion is that if they have mechanisms that allow them to consider alternative courses of action and choose from among them based on anticipated consequences, they will have the same kind of free will that we have. Additionally, if they can introspect, name, and reason about these selection processes, they may even claim that they have free will — just as we do. Agents that can discuss these topics with us and make such claims might also declare they are "conscious," and I guess I would have to believe them — just as I believe similar claims from people.