Friday, June 27, 2008

FOX smears Obama

FOX's smears against Obama are out of control. I just signed a petition telling FOX that their use of racism and prejudice is not okay. Would be great if you signed too.

First, a paid FOX commentator accidentally confused 'Obama' with 'Osama' and then joked on the air about killing Obama. Next, a FOX anchor said a playful fist pound by Barack and Michelle Obama could be a 'terrorist fist jab.' (Seriously!) And then, FOX called Michelle Obama 'Obama's baby mama'—slang used to describe the unmarried mother of a man's child.

Nearly 100,000 folks have signed a petition that will be delivered to FOX. You can sign here.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Annals of University Bureaucracy

The complete text of an email—that included no links—from the CSULA administration to the entire campus.
from Office of the Vice President of Administration and Finance and CFO
date Tue, Jun 24, 2008 at 11:59 AM
subject Administrative Procedure 430

Campus-wide email – Do not reply

The following Interim Administrative Procedure has been uploaded to the CSULA web site:

AP 430, Interim University Regulatory Training Requirements, effective date 06/19/08

Please update your department manuals accordingly.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Jig-saw puzzle: to recognize vs. to do

In the Meno, Socrates spoke of the apparent paradox that we can recognize something that we have a harder time creating. In computer science this is often thought of as the P =? NP problem. There are many problems for which one can tell in Polynomial time whether a proposed solution is actually a solution but for which no one knows of a way to solve a typical instance of the problem in less than exponential (non-deterministic polynomial) time. The prototypical example is to find a set of values for Boolean variables that cause a Boolean expression to evaluate to true. Given a proposed set of values, it is trivial to determine whether the expression evaluates to true. But in general it is very time-consuming to find such a set of values or to determine that no such set exists.

That was brought to mind when a common-place intuitive example of this sort of problem occurred to me: a jig-saw puzzle. It's easy to tell whether a given configuration of jig-saw puzzle pieces is the correct one. But given a box full of pieces it may be a very time-consuming task to put them together correctly.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Yahoo! ! diversity

A New York Times story included the following paragraph listing executives who recently left Yahoo!
"Today’s news is that three more of Yahoo’s best executives are leaving the company: Qi Lu, Brad Garlinghouse and Vish Makhijani. That follows the departure of two executive vice presidents, Jeff Weiner and Usama Fayyad. …

Hilary Schneider is expected to take some of Mr. Weiner’s responsibility.
I find the diversity of the names heartwarming—although it's too bad only one woman was mentioned. There are some things this country does well—and benefits from it.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The wheels of bureaucracy …

Sen Carl Levin (D. Mich) is the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. His opening statement at the June 17, 2008 hearing describes the history of the use of interrogation techniques by the US DoD. It's quite amazing.

One particularly striking feature is how bureaucratic it all was. The proposed techniques were passed up and down a number of chains of command. It's a good thing that so many people were involved in reviewing the policies. Many had the courage to object.

The account makes it clear, though, how far the military moved away from treating people like people. It was only at the end of Levin's statement when he quoted a statement by Gen. Petraeus that there was any mention at all of treating people humanely. Most of the discussion was about legal issues, as if the concern was not whether it's right to inflict pain but only whether it's legal. There was no discussion at all about the subjective experience of the prisoners, no attempt to understand what it must feel like to be treated this way, only whether the techniques would be legal and effective. It was like listening to two guards discussing the relative merits of different makes of thumb screws. Should we buy Brand A because it's cheaper or Brand B because it's more sturdy? A study is needed to assess the comparative ROIs and make the right purchase decision.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Political Play: No show hands of hands, please

Great AP story.
CHICAGO (AP) — It's a cardinal rule in politics: Know your audience.

Democrat Barack Obama, speaking in a high school gymnasium this week in Kaukauna, Wis., said nearly a quarter of Republican John McCain's proposed tax cuts would go "to households making over $2.8 million every year."

He asked for a show of hands from those in that category. Not one went up in the crowd of more than 1,000.

A few hours later, at a $28,500 per person fundraiser at the opulent Chicago home of Sara and James Star, Obama took the same jab at McCain's tax plan. This time, however, he wisely skipped a show of hands from his 60 donors.

Compiled by Charles Babington

'Herds' of wary cars could keep an eye out for thieves

From New Scientist Tech
A new approach to car alarms gets vehicles to watch each others' backs like a herd of animals under threat from predators.

The security system relies on networks of cars constantly gossiping with their neighbours using concealed wireless transmitters. The cars raise the alarm when a thief tries to make a getaway with any of their number.
This is a great idea. It relies on strangers to help accomplish a positive goal. The basic idea is that when parking a car, the car joins an ad hoc network of other parked cars. Any car that moves without authoritatively signaling that it's going to move causes the other cars to raise an alarm. See the details in the story or the original paper.

What I like about it is that it relies on the overall goodness of strangers. It assumes that when one parks, most of the other cars will perform as expected. Society depends on that in general. Society doesn't work because the police keep us all in line. Society works before for the most part people are honest. If there are more honest people than dishonest people a society will work. Otherwise it won't — at least not in a way that we find comfortable. (There's a nice agent-based model about that, but I don't recall the exact reference.) A similar strategy is why some of the the wisdom of crowds effects work. It's also why it's better to be out in a crowd than out alone.

So this technique takes advantage of general honesty to let things (which are proxies for their owners) protect other things.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


Obama has a new website to fight the smears.

Tune-Deaf People May Hear a Sour Note Unconsciously

From NIH
Tune deafness [occurs] in an otherwise normal, uninjured brain,” said James F. Battey, Jr., M.D., Ph.D., director of the NIDCD. “[THis may make it possible to use] tune deafness … to study consciousness.”

A person who is tune deaf is unable to perceive pitch, reproduce melodies, or identify deviations in a melody. According to geneticist Dennis Drayna, Ph.D., one of the study authors, not only is music not enjoyable for people with tune deafness, many of them don’t fully understand what music is. “For severely affected tune-deaf people, Yankee Doodle is no different than traffic noise in Manhattan. It’s fairly meaningless to them,” he said."

Volunteers [half tune deaf and half controls] listened to 102 familiar melodies, roughly half of which were correct, and half of which contained [an] errant last note. The researchers then sifted through the EEG data to isolate the brain’s response to a specific stimulus—in this case, the right or wrong note.

Of principal interest were two signals that brains normally generate when they are presented with a stimulus that doesn’t match what the brain expects to hear, such as the wrong note in a song. The first, the mismatch negativity (MMN), is a large negative signal that occurs roughly 200 milliseconds after the unexpected stimulus is heard; the second signal, the P300, is a large positive signal occurring roughly 300 milliseconds after the unexpected stimulus.

Because tune-deaf people consistently don’t recognize when a wrong note is played or sung, the researchers hypothesized that their brains would not generate the MMN or P300 signals, and as expected, this was true for the MMN signal. However, in the case of the P300 signal, tune-deaf volunteers were processing the wrong note in the same way as the normal participants, even though they weren’t consciously aware of the deviation. [emphasis added] Other brain signals demonstrated that correct notes were being processed equally well for both tune-deaf and normal volunteers.
I didn't know there were brain signals for unexpected stimuli.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Job creation?

Paul Krugman has a nice graphic comparing job creation under Bush and Clinton.

Can we regain our mojo?

I like Thomas L. Friedman's style of patriotism. Here he is on Obama clinching the Democratic nomination.
Every once in a while, America does something so radical, so out of the ordinary — something that old, encrusted, traditional societies like those in the Middle East could simply never imagine — that it revives America’s revolutionary “brand” overseas in a way that no diplomat could have designed or planned.

I just had dinner at a Nile-side restaurant with two Egyptian officials and a businessman, and one of them quoted one of his children as asking: “Could something like this ever happen in Egypt?” And the answer from everyone at the table was, of course, “no.” It couldn’t happen anywhere in this region. Could a Copt become president of Egypt? Not a chance. Could a Shiite become the leader of Saudi Arabia? Not in a hundred years. A Bahai president of Iran? In your dreams. Here, the past always buries the future, not the other way around. …

Yes, all of this Obama-mania is excessive and will inevitably be punctured should he win the presidency and start making tough calls or big mistakes. For now, though, what it reveals is how much many foreigners, after all the acrimony of the Bush years, still hunger for the “idea of America” — this open, optimistic, and, indeed, revolutionary, place so radically different from their own societies.

In his history of 19th-century America, “What Hath God Wrought,” Daniel Walker Howe quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson as telling a meeting of the Mercantile Library Association in 1844 that “America is the country of the future. It is a country of beginnings, of projects, of vast designs and expectations.”

That’s the America that got swallowed by the war on terrorism. And it’s the America that many people want back. I have no idea whether Obama will win in November. Whether he does or doesn’t, though, the mere fact of his nomination has done something very important. We’ve surprised ourselves and surprised the world and, in so doing, reminded everyone that we are still a country of new beginnings.

Perhaps China won't take over after all.

Edge has received notice from the publisher that acquired PRC Chinese language rights to What Is Your Dangerous Idea?: Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable that the book 'can't be published in China because some content is not accordant to Chinese regulations, for example, some content about religious, soul.' [sic]

Monday, June 09, 2008

Alan Wolfe's review of Jean Bethke Elshtain's Sovereignty: God, State, and Self

Here's how Alan Wolfe begins his review of Jean Elshtain's Sovereignty: God, State, and Self.
Who gets the final say? This simple question is at the heart of religion, politics, and psychology. If I am a believer, God's decisions are authoritative: If he says that I shall not kill, I am obligated to follow his commands, fallen into sin though I may be. Political leaders, by contrast, claim that their word ought to be the last word: If I receive a tax bill from the government, pay it I must, or I risk going to jail. No to both, says the radical individualist: Modern psychology teaches that I am the captain of my own ship, quite capable of steering it in any direction I choose.
Elshtain thesis is apparently that we have moved first from letting God be in charge to letting the state be in charge and then to insisting that we are autonomous beings. Elshtain claims that we would be better off letting God be in charge. Wolfe criticizes Elshtain's arguments, claiming that she paints too rosy a picture of life when God was in charge and too dreadful picture of life when we think of ourselves as autonomous.

What surprises me is that Wolfe doesn't mention the possibility that this isn't a choice. If there is a God then God is in charge whether we like it or not. Since as far as I am concerned there isn't, this isn't an option for us. Whether or not to let the state be in charge is also not an option. Deciding to let the state be in charge is a decision of an autonomous being. So it's still the individual who makes the choice. Wolfe apparently got so carried away with Elstain's distorted (according to him) view of history that he missed the main issue. (If the review accurately reflects the contents of the book, then Elstain appears to have missed it also.)

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Iran vs. Israel

Thomas Friedman has a way of putting things. Here are parts of his column comparing Israel and Iran.
In the first quarter of 2008, the top four economies after America in attracting venture capital for start-ups were: Europe $1.53 billion, China $719 million, Israel $572 million and India $99 million, according to Dow Jones VentureSource. Israel, with 7 million people, attracted almost as much as China, with 1.3 billion. …

Iran has invented nothing of importance since the Islamic Revolution, which is a shame. Historically, Iranians have been a dynamic and inventive people — one only need look at the richness of Persian civilization to see that. But the Islamic regime there today does not trust its people and will not empower them as individuals.

Of course, oil wealth can buy all the software and nuclear technology you want, or can’t develop yourself. This is not an argument that we shouldn’t worry about Iran. Ahmadinejad should, though.

Iran’s economic and military clout today is largely dependent on extracting oil from the ground. Israel’s economic and military power today is entirely dependent on extracting intelligence from its people.

Israel’s economic power is endlessly renewable. Iran’s is a dwindling resource based on fossil fuels made from dead dinosaurs.
[Emphasis and paragraph break added.]

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Cult of Deception

Normally I find Maureen Dowd too predictable. But I like the way she introduces her discussion of Scott McClennan's book in today's column.
Although his analytical skills are extremely limited, the former White House press secretary — Secret Service code name Matrix — takes a stab at illuminating Junior’s bumpy and improbable boomerang journey from family black sheep and famous screw-up back to family black sheep and famous screw-up.

How did W. start out wanting to restore honor and dignity to the White House and end up scraping all the honor and dignity off the White House?

It turns out that our president is a one-man refutation of Malcolm Gladwell’s best seller “Blink,” about the value of trusting your gut.

Every gut instinct he had was wildly off the mark and hideously damaging to all concerned.

It seems that if you trust your gut without ever feeding your gut any facts or news or contrary opinions, if you keep your gut on a steady diet of grandiosity, ignorance, sycophants, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, those snap decisions can be ruinous.

Put a Little Science in Your Life

Brian Green has a nice piece in today's NY Times.
The reason science really matters runs deeper [than cellphones, iPods, personal computers, the Internet, CT scanners, M.R.I. devices, pacemakers, arterial stents, stem cells, genomic sequencing, personalized medicine, longevity research, nanoscience, brain-machine interface, quantum computers, and space technology].

Science is a way of life. Science is a perspective. Science is the process that takes us from confusion to understanding [paragraph break and emphasis added] in a manner that’s precise, predictive and reliable — a transformation, for those lucky enough to experience it, that is empowering and emotional.

To be able to think through and grasp explanations — for everything from why the sky is blue to how life formed on earth — not because they are declared dogma but rather because they reveal patterns confirmed by experiment and observation, is one of the most precious of human experiences. [paragraph break and emphasis added] …

Like a life without music, art or literature, a life without science is bereft of something that gives experience a rich and otherwise inaccessible dimension. …

As every parent knows, children begin life as uninhibited, unabashed explorers of the unknown. From the time we can walk and talk, we want to know what things are and how they work — we begin life as little scientists. But most of us quickly lose our intrinsic scientific passion. And it’s a profound loss. …

[One of the most important reasons for this loss is that] in teaching our students, we continually fail to activate rich opportunities for revealing the breathtaking vistas opened up by science, and instead focus on the need to gain competency with science’s underlying technical details.

In fact, many students I’ve spoken to have little sense of the big questions those technical details collectively try to answer: Where did the universe come from? How did life originate? How does the brain give rise to consciousness? Like a music curriculum that requires its students to practice scales while rarely if ever inspiring them by playing the great masterpieces, this way of teaching science squanders the chance to make students sit up in their chairs and say, “Wow, that’s science?” …

Science is the greatest of all adventure stories, one that’s been unfolding for thousands of years as we have sought to understand ourselves and our surroundings. Science needs to be taught to the young and communicated to the mature in a manner that captures this drama. We must embark on a cultural shift that places science in its rightful place alongside music, art and literature as an indispensable part of what makes life worth living.
My question is whether most people will really respond to science as Prof. Greene thinks they will. If you ask, "Where did the universe come from? How did life originate? How does the brain give rise to consciousness?" my guess is that most people will either fall back on a religious answer or say that it's too complicated to think about — and what difference does it make anyway.

I teach a course on computer ethics. Most students don't seem to be interested in such questions as: How should we approach intellectual property? What are the responsibilities of software developers? What is privacy? How much privacy do we want to ensure? Can we ensure it, and if so at what price? What if we can't? Is it every ethical to break into a computer system? Should we fear developing computers that are smarter than we are? or even the more general ethical issues like: Is it ethical to kill one innocent person to save 5 innocent people?

These are not science questions—in fact science stays as far away from these questions as possible. But they raise fascinating issues. Yet in class there is often very little interest in discussing them. This sort of response shows the same lack of intellectual curiosity as I suspect most people have toward the big questions of science.

I'm afraid that Prof. Greene over estimates most people's inherent curiosity. Too many of us are more like George Bush the incurious than Brian Greene the knowledge seeker. (I give George W. Bush credit for one useful achievement, the popularization of the word incurious.)