Sunday, July 29, 2007

Virtual Graveyard

This is a very poetic AP story.
Somewhere deep in cyberspace, where reality blurs into fiction and the living greet the dead, there are ghosts.

They live in a virtual graveyard without tombstones or flowers. They drift among the shadows of the people they used to be, and the pieces they left behind.

Allison Bauer left rainbows: Reds, yellows and blues, festooned across her MySpace profile in a collage of color. Before her corpse was pulled from the depths of an Oregon gorge on May 9, where police say she leapt to her death, she unwittingly wrote her own epitaph.

``I love color, Pure Color in rainbow form, And I love My friends,'' the 20-year-old wrote under ``Interests'' on her profile. ``And I love to Love, I care about everyone so much you have no idea.''

Now her page fills a plot on, a Web site that archives the pages of deceased MySpace members.

Behold a community spawned from twin American obsessions: Memorializing the dead and peering into strangers' lives. Anyone with Internet access can submit a death to the site, which currently lists nearly 2,700 deaths and receives more than 100,000 hits per day.

The tales are mostly those of the very young who died prematurely. Here, death roams cyberspace in all its spectral forms: senseless and indiscriminate, sometimes premeditated, often brutally graphic. It's also a place where the living - those who knew the deceased and those who didn't - discuss this world and the next.
Unfortunately, the actual MyDeathSpace site is much less poetic than the AP story. Allison's MyDeathSpace page is not reproduced on MyDeathSpace. I don't even see a pointer to it. Also, MyDeathSpace has lots of ads that make it look more like a commercial site than a "virtual graveyard." It's too bad because it's an interesting idea — and apparently quite successful. Meghan Barr, the AP writer, seems to get it better than the MyDeathSpace owners. Here's a Google search for her AP articles.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Symposium on Abstraction, Reformuation, and Approximation

Last Saturday, I finished my second conference in a week. This one is SARA (Symposium on Abstraction, Reformulation, and Approximation).

The subject matter ranges from constraint programming to search/planning in AI to the mathematization of related topics.

For quite a while I've wondered why constraint programming hasn't caught on as an problem solving tool. Mainly, I think, it's been the lack of CP systems that are written for non-CP researchers to use. A great deal of work has been going on in CP. There are now a great many solvers, with more being written every day. But there are no CP systems that have interfaces that someone with a real problem would want to use. Also, Integer Programming and related disciplines have established themselves in the engineering community and solve a great many problems already. Two of the invited papers suggest that this will change. (I hope so.) The first was about work on a higher level language called ESSENCE.

It allows one to write in a very high-level language in expressing one's problem. The ESSENCE processor will translate that to a form suitable to one of the solvers, which are more and more powerful these days. For example, here's how the n-queens problem would be expressed.

given n : int(1...)
letting INDEX be domain int(1..n)
find Arrangement : INDEX -> (bijective) INDEX
such that
forall q_1 : INDEX .
forall q_2 : INDEX .
|Arrangement(q_1) - Arrangement(q_2)| != q_2-1

The second talk (by John Hooker) was about a framework for integrating CP, OR, and other constraint and optimization technologies.

The third talk was about real-time planning--also a very interesting talk in which A* has been extended so that one can use it in real time. A great deal of the motivation was to make planners in computer games more effective. The world of computer game is driving a lot of work in both AI and graphics.

In the context of the conference, Abstraction means grouping elements together (at least initially) to get a simpler problem. The Real-time search talk used abstraction by grouping search nodes together into super nodes to find an overall plan, which would then be extended to a concrete plan. This isn't new. The work that was reported made it real time and added refinements.

Reformulation means re-writing from one language to another. The first talk is an example in that the higher level language is re-written into a lower level language (of some solver). It's much like compilation theory.

Approximation is not numerical. An example is finding a boolean expression that is an approximation of the boolean expression that you want to solve but that is easier to solve.

One of the things that struck me is how dense the literature is in computer science these days. So many people have studied so many topics that we now have a fairly deep and wide literature on a great many topics. It's quite impressive -- and very different from the way the world was only 2-3 decades ago. Most of you probably don't remember that period. But for those of us who are old enough to remember, the world is very different.

Microsoft Research Faculty Summit

Last week I attended the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit. I was very pleasantly surprised. There was no Microsoft marketing, and the presentations were at a very high level, including a number of well known outside people. Attendees were all faculty, many from top Universities.

Starting next year they will be holding two biannual events: 2008 will be for new faculty; 2009 will be for tenured faculty. If you get a chance to go I recommend it. It's all expenses paid; a top class hotel; all meals (good food); and very nice treatment.

What struck me technically was the emphasis on multi-core and robotic computing. (Of course there was a lot of work on interactive and collaborative work. But that's not surprising.) What I also found interesting was the rebirth of functional programming. Apparently functional programming is going to be one of the favored approaches to dealing with multi-core computing. MS has its own functional programming language (F#). It's not as pure as HUGS, but it seems quite reasonable. They are doing a lot of work on it, including a very nice IDE. When I teach CS 332F (our functional programming class) I usually tell the students that they should understand functional programming because it forms the basis of programming language theory but they probably won't be writing many real functional programming applications. I think that's no longer true. As you probably know Ruby has a fair amount of functional programming features, and now that functional programming is undergoing a revival as a way to deal with multi-core programming, our students are more likely to be seeing it on their future jobs.

Another interesting development was the breadth of interest in computing in support of other disciplines -- like the new program Raj, Chengyu and I are writing up this summer. That seems to be going on throughout the country. Furthermore, Jeannette Wing (formerly Chair of CS at CMU and now head of the CS section of NSF) was on the opening panel and was pushing what she calls computational thinking. That's the idea that the concepts we in CS have developed are important and useful for everyone to learn. Here's a CMU web page (that still has her picture) that talks about it. It also links to an ACM Viewpoint column and some PPT presentations. Perhaps we should push to put Computational Thinking in the GE core!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

I don't believe the passion

Arianna Huffington is not the only anti-war spokesperson. But she's as good an example as any. In her blog today she writes as follows.
Now that the latest Democratic effort to force an up or down vote on troop withdrawal has failed, it's more important than ever that we keep the pressure on those who are standing in the way of bringing our troops home.
I agree that the war should end, and I agree with all the reasons usually given for ending the war. But I'm not convinced that the passion of those expressing those reasons is real. Why do they feel as strongly as they do? In asking this, I'm not asking for reasons for ending the war, I'm asking for reasons that they should feel as connected to ending the war as they claim to feel.

Huffington goes on to quote from Tom Matzzie of MoveOn.
"Ultimately, as progressives, we have to offer a choice to war supporters in Congress: help end the war or face political extinction. Our primary task has been to create a toxic political environment for war supporters. We do this with a multi-layered campaign that uses the Internet, TV advertising and old-fashioned street organizing to keep pressure on our targets -- especially back in their hometowns.

"In this moment, with 70 percent of the public united in support of a safe exit from Iraq, it is important that Americans understand how they can help end the war. It is no longer sufficient for all of us to illustrate public anger about the war. Our job now is to show that people are angry at the politicians who are blocking an end to the war -- specifically the Republicans who are still sticking with Bush. That is an important distinction that is all the difference. And, if we keep it up, we can end the war."
It's all so tactical. Tactics are fine, but tactics that are not rooted in honest passion feel phony. Is the public really angry about the war? Perhaps those whose friends or relatives have died or have been injured are angry. That's understandable. But that doesn't apply to 70% of the public. One might feel passionate about ending the war if one really cared about how the Iraqis are suffering — and if one believed that their suffering would be reduced if we left. But I don't hear much about that. One might even feel passionate if one had some real vision about how we might be spending the money we are now spending on Iraq. But I don't hear much about that either.

All I hear is enthusiasm about making Bush look bad. I'm all in favor of making Bush look bad. I think he's been a terrible President. But let's at least be honest about it and not wrap ourselves in passion that isn't real.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Three (or more) legal parents?

Elizabeth Marquardt, a vice president of the Institute for American Values, has an interesting op-ed piece.
On April 30, a state Superior Court panel ruled that a child can have three legal parents. The case, Jacob v. Shultz-Jacob, involved two lesbians who were the legal co-parents of two children conceived with sperm donated by a friend. The panel held that the sperm donor and both women were all liable for child support. Arthur S. Leonard, a professor at New York Law School, observed, “I’m unaware of any other state appellate court that has found that a child has, simultaneously, three adults who are financially obligated to the child’s support and are also entitled to visitation.”

The case follows a similar decision handed down by a provincial court in Ontario in January. In what appeared to be the first such ruling in any Western nation, the court ruled that a boy can legally have three parents. In that case the biological mother and father had parental rights and wished for the biological mother’s lesbian partner, who functions as the boy’s second mother, to have such rights as well.

The idea of assigning children three legal parents is not limited to North America. In 2005, expert commissions in Australia and New Zealand proposed that sperm or egg donors be allowed to “opt in” as a child’s third parent. That same year, scientists in Britain received state permission to create an embryo from the DNA of three adults, raising the real possibility that they all could be granted equal legal claims to the child if the embryo developed to term.
The Institute for American Values tends to be branded as a conservative organization, but I think they are a bit more nuanced than that. If multiple adults play parent-like roles in the life of a child, what should the state do about that? Why shouldn't they all have legal rights and responsibilities. I'm not sure.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Source for this?

I have the following on my sidebar.
Science is what we have learned about how not to fool ourselves about the way the world is.
— R. Feynman
It's a great quote, but I can't find a cited source for it. There are lots of web pages that attribute it to Feynman, but I can't find any that claim to know when or where he said it. Anyone know?

Earliest primate ancestor had surprisingly tiny brain

From New Scientist
The earliest ancestors of old-world monkeys, apes and humans had surprisingly small brains, a new study shows. …

This implies that higher primates, or anthropoids, must have still had small brains when Aegyptopithecus lived, about 29 million years ago — which is after old-world anthropoids diverged from their new-world cousins.

The large brains of modern monkeys and apes in the two regions must therefore have evolved independently sometime after that, says Simons.
That seems fairly significant. Why did brains in two different regions of the world both grow so large? Is it something about how monkeys lived that led to a need for larger brains?
The new skull hints at several … features of Aegyptopithecus' lifestyle. The relatively small eyes suggest it was active during the daytime (diurnal), and the well developed visual region of its brain indicates it had acute vision.

The new skull, that of a female, is also smaller and has more delicate canine teeth than an earlier, male skull fragment from the same species - indicating that males were much larger and fiercer than females. Such size disparities only arise in primates that live in groups, where evolution favours larger males who can better compete for mates and defend the group against threats.

All three of these characteristics, however — diurnality, acute vision, and group living — have often been advanced as reasons why primates evolved their large brains. However, Aegyptopithecus, which has all three while still having a tiny brain, argues against these theories, says Simons.
I don't see why Aegyptopithecus's small brain argues against these theories. It suggests that living that sort of lifestyle was possible without large brains. But the parallel evolution of large brains in separate parts of the world also suggests that diurnality, acute vision, and group living encourage the development of large brains.

'Smart' mice

From UT Southwestern Medical Center.
Mice genetically engineered to lack a single enzyme in their brains are more adept at learning than their normal cousins, and are quicker to figure out that their environment has changed, a team led by researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center has found. …

“It’s pretty rare that you make mice ‘smarter,’ so there are a lot of cognitive implications,” said Dr. James Bibb, assistant professor of psychiatry and the study’s senior author.

“Everything is more meaningful to these mice,” he said. “The increase in sensitivity to their surroundings seems to have made them smarter.”

The engineered mice were more adept at learning to navigate a water maze and remembering that being in a certain box involves a mild shock. Equally important, Dr. Bibb said, when a situtation changed, such as the water maze being rearranged, the engineered mice were much faster to realize that things were different and work out the new route.

Dr. Bibb cautioned that while the mice learn faster, studies on the long-term effects of deleting the enzyme, called Cdk5, from the brain are continuing. …

Normally, Cdk5 works with another enzyme to break up a molecule called NR2B, which is found in nerve-cell membranes and stimulates the cell to fire when a nerve-cell-signaling molecule, or neurotransmitter, binds to it. NR2B previously has been implicated in the early stages of learning.

The new research showed that when Cdk5 is removed from the brain, the levels of NR2B significantly increase, and the mice are primed to learn, Dr. Bibb said.

How Gecko Toes Stick

From the American Scientist

The powerful, fantastic adhesive used by geckos is made of nanoscale hairs that engage tiny forces, inspiring envy among human imitators

Kellar Autumn

Geckos can run up smooth walls or cross inverted surfaces with seeming ease. How do they do it? Author Autumn describes recent research in his lab and others that tells the tale. It turns out that gecko toe pads are sticky because they contain extraordinary structures that act together as a smart adhesive. But gecko toes work nothing like pressure-sensitive adhesives (found on adhesive tape), which are soft enough to flow and make intimate, continuous surface contact. Instead, gecko toes bear ridges covered with arrays of stiff, hairlike setae. Each seta branches into hundreds of tiny endings that touch the surface and engage intermolecular van der Waals forces. Together, the 6.5 million setae on a 50-gram gecko generate enough force to support the weight of two people. Furthermore, gecko toes detach within milliseconds, stick to nearly every material, and neither stay dirty nor self-adhere.
See also Kellar Autumn's page, which also includes a slide show on the various ways animals have evolved to adhere to surfaces.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

I love the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

Here is part of their refutation of the claim that the 2003 tax cuts raised government income.
A recent Congressional Budget Office analysis attributes a significant share of the remaining revenue growth (the growth not due to a growing economy) to a large increase in the share of national income going to corporate profits.[5] When corporate profits increase at the expense of other forms of income, some of which are not subject to tax or are taxed at very low rates, revenues rise. In addition, new data from economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez show that the share of the nation’s pre-tax going to the top 1 percent of households jumped dramatically between 2003 and 2005 (the latest year for which data are available). Increased income concentration tends to raise revenues because it puts more income in the hands of those who pay taxes at higher rates.

Supporters of the capital gains and dividend tax cuts cannot claim credit for the revenue growth that resulted from these developments unless they also claim credit for the developments themselves. That is, they would have to argue that the tax cuts caused the share of the nation’s income going to corporate profits and high-income households to increase — and consequently caused the share going to employee compensation and middle- and low-income households to fall. Tax-cut supporters have been notably silent on this score.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Faith Intertwines With Political Life for Clinton

The New York Times has a story on Senator Clinton's faith. I'm impressed. She seems truly to have a personal faith. It's not the way I think about my life, but I seems to give her depth and substance. It also seems to reflect a sense of religion that I find to have a positive influence on public life. As Debora's bumper sticker says: a proud member of the religious left.
“We all have things that oftentimes we’re upset about, or ashamed of, or feel guilty over, and so many people carry these enormous burdens around,” Mrs. Clinton said in a recent interview. “One of the great gifts of faith is to let it go.” …

Mrs. Clinton and others who have known her as a church youth-group member, a Sunday school teacher or a participant in weekly Senate prayer breakfasts say faith has helped define her, shaping everything from her commitment to public service to the most intimate of decisions.

“It has certainly been a huge part of who I am, and how I have seen the world and what I believe in, and what I have tried to do in my life,” Mrs. Clinton said in the half-hour interview devoted to her religious convictions, which her campaign granted only after months of requests. …

“It is both hard to forgive and ask for forgiveness,” she said. “There’s a reason it is talked about in the Bible. It is really hard. It is hard for people to let go of legitimate hurts and slights and disappointments.”
The religious right commentators have attempted to dismiss her faith. I hope her substance and sincerity come through to people for whom "faith" is a litmus test.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Who said

Reality is what's still there after you stop believing in it.
Here's a claim of origination.
Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.
Philip K. Dick, How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later, 1978. Apparently a 1978 (undelivered) speech published as the introduction to a collection of Short Stories, "I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon," Doubleday, 1985 and St Martins Mass Market Paper, Reprint edition, 1987.

Considering how perceptive I find this sentence, I was surprised and disappointed upon reading the essay from which it was taken. It seemed much too concerned with coincidences having religious overtones and implications. The essay lacked the simplicity, insight, directness, and clarity of the sentence.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Couples with frozen embryos would prefer to donate them for stem cell research than to other couples

From (e.g., Huliq: Breaking News) From a survey of couples with unused frozen embryos.
Of 1,020 people who responded by saying they still had embryos in storage, 49 percent said they were likely to donate some or all of them for research. When asked specifically about stem cell research, the portion willing to donate embryos rose to 62 percent.

'It suggests that people are more willing to pursue research when they know more about it and how it might benefit their fellow citizens,' Lyerly said.

She added that research was preferred over donating the embryos to other infertile couples, 'which brings into question the idea that the more you care about an embryo, the more you want it to become a child.'
Many more reports here.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Brainwashing parasites

Amazing. From The Stanford Daily Online.
Toxoplasma gondii (or “toxo,” as it’s cheekily called) is a protozoan famously found in cat poop. …

Toxo can only reproduce sexually in cat intestines. (Sexy place, no?) But the parasite can live in almost any warm-blooded host, including the rat. The shortest distance from a rat to a cat is through the cat’s mouth. The problem, for the parasite, is that rats are terrified of cats — even a whiff of cat urine is enough to send them squeaking for cover.

But all that changes once a rat catches toxo. Amazingly, a toxo-infected rat is actually attracted to cat urine.

The Sapolsky lab at Stanford recently studied this phenomenon. They found some toxo, they got some rats and they bought some bobcat urine. (Who knew that was commercially available?) The Sapolsky lab found that toxo-infected rats have damaging cysts on their amygdalas, the part of the brain involved in fear and anxiety. This would make sense — knock out the fear, and the rats won’t run from cats.

So, are the amygdala-damaged rats completely fearless? Actually, no. It turns out the effect of toxo is astonishingly specific. The rats are still afraid of doggy smells; they are afraid of open spaces; they are leery around unknown foods. But when it comes to cat pee, they can’t get enough.

Weird as toxo is, it’s not particularly unique. Parasitic brainwashing happens all over the animal kingdom. The lancet fluke, Dicrocoelium dendriticum, is a protist like toxo. Unlike toxo, it’s not content with only two host animals. The lancet fluke finds its way through three species in its life cycle.

Adult lancet flukes hang out inside cows. They mate in the cow’s liver (another sexy place!) and send eggs off into the animal’s digestive tract. An infected cow leaves fluke-laden cow pies in its wake.

Next in the lancet fluke’s life cycle are snails with the munchies. Snails evidently snack on cow poo, sometimes with a lancet fluke garnish. Once inside the snail, the parasitic larvae attach themselves to the snail’s digestive tract and develop into their juvenile state. The besieged snail immobilizes these invaders by wrapping them in slime. Slime balls full of flukes are excreted onto the grass, where they await their next host.

The ant is the most pitiable creature in the lancet fluke saga. To a thirsty ant, the fluke-filled slime balls are a source of moisture. The ant slurps up the slimy flukes, obliviously signing its death warrant. The lancet flukes head straight for the ant’s brain.

From then on, the insect becomes restless. Instead of bedding down with its fellows at night, the ant heads for the nearest blade of grass. The erstwhile unadventurous insect clambers to the tip of a blade of grass, holds tight with its mandibles and waves in the breeze until morning. At dawn, it rejoins its nestmates on the ground.

But all is not back to normal. The very next night, the infected ant is back on that grass. This goes on until the blade of grass — along with the hapless ant — gets eaten by a cow, and the lancet fluke is back inside its favorite animal.

This is so science fiction-esque I can hardly believe it. But the mind control doesn’t end with parasites. Sometimes the enemy is your boyfriend.

For example, female fruit flies have a special reason to practice safe sex. Their mate’s semen contains mind-controlling compounds called accessory gland proteins. These proteins make a beeline for the female’s brain, where they send her into a fit of domesticity. She refuses other suitors, even kicking them in the head if they come too close. Her days as a party girl are over, and she’s ready to settle down and focus on egg-laying.

All this mind control isn’t confined only to lower life forms. Toxo, the rat’s nightmare, has been implicated in schizophrenia and paranoia in humans. Eighteen studies found that people with schizophrenia had higher levels of human antibodies to toxo than individuals without schizophrenia.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Family Sues Over Delayed Execution

What's wrong with this picture?
The mother of a condemned inmate whose execution took an hour longer than is typical sued the head of Ohio's prisons on Monday.

It took almost 90 minutes to carry out the execution of Joseph Clark in May 2006. The lawsuit, filed in a Cincinnati federal court, said the execution amounted to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment. Executions last about 20 minutes on average.

A message seeking comment was left for the prisons department Monday but was not returned.

In a separate lawsuit, a group of 15 inmates are challenging the state's injection process, arguing the procedure may cause prisoners to suffer during an execution.

Prison staff had problems finding a useable vein on Clark, and one vein they did use collapsed. The execution team also apparently tried to administer the lethal drugs through the original IV line by mistake, according to written accounts that the execution team is required to submit.

During the first injection attempt, Clark finally pushed himself up and said, ``It don't work.''

During the second attempt at finding a vein, he asked, ``Can you just give me something by mouth to end this?''

Clark, 57, was sentenced to die in November 1984 for killing gas station attendant David Manning in Toledo.

The problems during the execution led the state to change its lethal injection process to ensure that veins can be found more carefully and quickly to avoid similar delays.

But in May, an execution team again struggled to find veins in another inmate's arm. Christopher Newton died nearly two hours after the scheduled start of his execution.

George the tranquil

From a Washington Post article discussing how calm and confident Bush is in the face of the disaster his presidency has become. Bush, not known for being reflective, has apparently been calling a number of people into his office in attempt to understand what's gone wrong.
Amid the tumult, the president has sought refuge in history. He read three books last year on George Washington, read about the Algerian war of independence and the exploitation of Congo, and lately has been digging into "Troublesome Young Men," Lynne Olson's account of Conservative backbenchers who thrust Winston Churchill to power. Bush idolizes Churchill and keeps a bust of him in the Oval Office.

After reading Andrew Roberts's "A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900," Bush brought in the author and a dozen other scholars to talk about the lessons. "What can I learn from history?" Bush asked Roberts, according to Stelzer, the Hudson Institute scholar, who participated.

Stelzer said Bush seemed smarter than he expected. The conversation ranged from history to religion and touched on sensitive topics for a president wrestling with his legacy. "He asked me, 'Do you think our unpopularity abroad is a result of my personality?' And he laughed," Stelzer recalled. "I said, 'In part.' And he laughed again."

Much of the discussion focused on the nature of good and evil, a perennial theme for Bush, who casts the struggle against Islamic extremists in black-and-white terms. Michael Novak, a theologian who participated, said it was clear that Bush weathers his difficulties because he sees himself as doing the Lord's work.

"His faith is very strong," said Novak, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "Faith is not enough by itself because there are a lot of people who have faith but weak hearts. But his faith is very strong. He seeks guidance, like every other president does, in prayer. And that means trying to be sure he's doing the right thing. And if you've got that set, all the criticism, it doesn't faze you very much. You're answering to God."

Horne, the British historian, found himself with Bush on another occasion after Kissinger gave the president "A Savage War of Peace," Horne's book on the French defeat in Algeria in the mid-20th century. Bush invited Horne to visit. They talked about the parallels and differences between Algeria and Iraq as Bush sought insight he could apply to his own situation.

Horne said he is not a Bush supporter but was nonetheless struck by the president's tranquility. "He was very friendly, very relaxed," Horne said. "My God, he looked well. He looked like he came off a cruise in the Caribbean. He looked like he hadn't a care in the world. It was amazing."
Clearly it's the story of Job again. But this time, because God knows how compassionate George is, He is testing George's faith by making the world suffer.