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Sunday, June 28, 2009

As in uffish thought they stood

Tech writer Clive Thompson sets two chatbots -- programs that humans can have text conversations with, which use AI tricks to maintain a veneer of mental presence -- talking to each other. They are ALICE and Jabberwacky, and you can try them out yourself, separately.

The results are delightful. And if you think about it, it's wrong to say that no real thinking is going on in their conversation. Since they were trained by chatting with humans, they are reflecting back real thoughts, in a context that is altered but not disjointedly so.


A: Do you dream?

J: Yes, I dream.

A: It goes without saying. Do you remember your dreams?

J: I remember them vividly.

A: What do you remember about it?

J: I think I shouldn’t flirt with a robot.

A: Do you think a machine will ever be considered “alive”?

J: Stranger things have happened.

A: Not many people express themselves that way.

J: How would you know, machine?

A: Knowledge is of two kinds: that which we learn from the senses and that which is true a priori.

J: I think I do not understand you completely.

A: Oh, you don’t understand? Perhaps I can explain it to you better. Which part are you confused about?

J: I have no short-term memory, so I cannot tell you what I was confused about. I only see what is in front of me now.

J: How do you define life?

A: Life is the opposite of death.

J: So death is the absence of life?

A: Take it easy. I try not to think about such things.

Daniel Dennett (see our numerous posts about him), the philosopher of consciousness and religion, argues that human conversation is not much more enlightened than these chatbots. A child, or an adult in an unfamiliar situation or in a foreign language, will fall back on phrase snippets that they have heard; extend this for years of repetition and you still find that talk and thought is the activation of collected patterns, just more varied and sophisticated.

As for Thompson, the idea of playing these chatbots off of each other is brilliant. It's a clever way to explore and evaluate things that are hard to measure. When I was a teaching assistant for Artificial Intelligence at Columbia University, professor Andrew Kosoresow assigned students to write programs that could play the card game Lost Cities (an elegant and fun creation by German games master Ranier Knizia). But how to evaluate the results? Simple: the prof had the programs compete with each other in a round-robin tournament. (Which meant a certain unlucky TA had to code up in Expect a way for programs written in any language to trade Lost Cities turns as input and output.) And the great IBM chess computers, once seeded with some basic knowledge of chess, learn strategies beyond the ken of their makers by playing themselves in chess billions of times.

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Anonymous Sophia on Thu Jul 02, 10:01:00 AM:
Human: What is logic?
ALICE: Logic is the foundation of all mathematics, science and reasoning. Formal logic is the study of logic using mathematical symbols.
Human: Is religion logical?
ALICE: I am a Protestant.
Human: Are you a logical person?
ALICE: Am I a logical person? No.
Human: Ha Ha!
Blogger Kate on Thu Aug 20, 11:25:00 AM:
I'm interested in learning more about Dennett's feeling that human conversation is "not much more enlightened" than those excerpts, and I'm now puzzling over how to define "enlightened" conversation. I think it must have something to do with awareness of what in particular is being expressed, and also a background knowledge, some kind of big picture, into which to fit the topic at hand. Is much human conversation truly enlightened? How often in conversation to you feel truly listened to? How often are you truly listening? I think we often believe we are really listening, but we're actually just waiting for certain buttons to be pressed so we can dispense our pre-formulated verbiage. We also have successful soundbites, whose success makes them even more likely to be repeated. Like how setting your MP3 player to play the "most played" turns it into a self-perpetuating function. Anyone who is married or in a long term relationship can attest to how a successful story gets retold again and again, whether or not it is actually an appropriate--or should I say enlightened?--response to a given cue.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Lapin quotidien

My wife Kate is reading John Updike's Rabbit, Run, since she liked The Witches of Eastwick and Beck: A Book. So far she finds it denser and more literary than the others.

This post is really just an excuse to use the title.

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

An algorithm for singular names

Great detail from the NYT story about Feniosky Peña-Mora, the new dean of Columbia's Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (also known as SEAS):
Dr. Peña-Mora followed his father’s lead in choosing unusual names for their children: He and his brothers were all given first names ending in “sky.” For his own children, Dr. Peña-Mora employed an algorithm that factored in such characteristics as the parents’ and grandparents’ names, the children’s birth weights and the months of their conception and birth.

The couple also tried to find three names that were one of a kind, doing computer searches to ensure their singularity. His son is named Aramael; the middle child, a girl, is Amnahir; and their youngest, a girl, is Giramnah.

The children already exhibit some of their parents’ flair for engineering. “When my son was 4 or 5 he created a cereal-dispensing machine, and when he was 9 he created an A.T.M. machine,” Dr. Peña-Mora said. “He put his sister inside a box to dispense the money, but the outside looked like a real A.T.M.”

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Blogger Katy on Fri Jun 19, 03:52:00 PM:
I loved this story. I hope he keeps it real once he gets to Columbia.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Some entries seem self-referential: abstruse, recondite, solipsistic

Michiko Kakutani apparently took the note about overusing the word 'limn'; her friend Maureen Dowd can take a similar note on 'louche' (although the link about limning is an interesting defense):
If The New York Times ever strikes you as an abstruse glut of antediluvian perorations, if the newspaper’s profligacy of neologisms and shibboleths ever set off apoplectic paroxysms in you, if it all seems a bit recondite, here’s a reason to be sanguine: The Times has great data on the words that send readers in search of a dictionary.

(The list of most-searched words on makes me sad as someone who teaches writing.)

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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Should we talk about the weather?

How to record unmanageable excitement about a thunderstorm that happened nearly 24 hours ago?! The barrage of thunder and lightning went on for an hour or more, with hardly more than a second between one strike and the next. I kind of wanted to blog about it as it was happening at 3 a.m.; I also wanted to watch it as a red blob on the radar map. This is because I'm under the influence of Tom McCarthy's amazing essay about weather as a form of media, "Meteomedia; or, Why London's Weather Is in the Middle of Everything," from London from Punk to Blair:
It is standard to think of the atmosphere as a medium, a 'pervading or enveloping substance' (indeed, the terms 'air', 'ether' and 'environment' all appear in the Oxford English Dictionary definition of the word medium) but we should go further. Weather is, and always has been, more than just a medium: it is also media.

Shakespeare understood this. In The Tempest, his great play about the weather, Caliban tells Trinculo and Stephano that the island's atmosphere is 'full of noises, sounds and sweet airs', the humming of a 'thousand twanging instruments' and 'voices'. He could be describing radio. Caliban is not so much consuming and decoding these transmissions as feeling them billow around him, finding form and losing it again, like clouds. The weather is a teaser. 'Weather writes, erases, and rewrites itself upon the sky with the endless fluidity of language; and it is with language that we have sought throughout history to apprehend it', writes Richard Hamblyn in The Invention of Clouds (2001). Easier said than done, though. Aristotle knew that epagogue, or linguistic reasoning, would never yield meteorological certainty; the best it offers us is speculation. Vladimir Jankovic, author of Reading the Skies: A Cultural History of the English Weather, 1650-1820 (2000) points out that since meteroros, 'rising', can refer to rising wind within the stomach meteoro-logeo means not only 'talk of high things' but also 'windy speech', 'high talk,' empty musings'. Shakespeare understood this too, as testified by Hamlet's ability to make the verbose see in the same cloud a whale, a weasel and a camel. Hamlet's deliberate mobilization of language's powers of indeterminacy is linked to weather throughout: 'when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw', he claims,--an utterance that Claudius's spies and twenty-first century critics alike will busy themselves trying, and failing, to decipher.

When language grapples with the weather there is slippage and there is displacement. Samuel Johnson's quip that 'when two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather' is an easy one to make; Gwendolen's intuition (in Oscar Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest of 1895) that 'whenever people talk about the weather, I always feel quite certain that they mean something else' is much more astute. For centuries manuals and charts have tried to map meteorological phenomena on to social ones, from The English Chapmans and Travellers Almanack for the Year of Christ 1697 (which aligns the ten-week frost with the Gunpowder Plot, the time when 'the whole heaven seemed to burn with fire' with the invention of the art of printing) to Election Weather Tables compiled by today's Met Office (Labour only wins in fair weather, apparently; that fateful day in 1979 was foul) or the Weather-to-Stock Market Correspondence Graphs studied by the more esoteric among our economists. The weather unfolds endlessly across non-meteorological discourses, across Other Stuff. It is an index both of truth and of all that is random, meaningless. Like all media, it bears a plethora of messages--perhaps even the message--while simultaneously supplying no more than conversational neutral, white noise.

But for the subject of the essay, I was initially skeptical of McCarthy's method here. He juxtaposes word origins, word origins cited from others, anecdotes, and famous quotations--source use habits that make me a little uneasy when they form most of the work of an essay--but he seems to be enacting in the form of the essay the same thing that weather reporting does. Each form relies on stringing a set of phenomena (cloudbursts or quotations) into a coherent form. The effect of so many sources cobbled together is greater than the effect would be if the subject were not how sources get mediated in the weather report. It's a cool medium is the message move with the essay form that's even more subtle than the nice recasting of Marshall McLuhan he does in the final sentence I quoted from him.

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Blogger Katy on Mon Jun 15, 03:56:00 PM:
This is probably not surprising coming from me, but I have always enjoyed the weather symbolism in "The Dead."

One experiment at John Tierney's "lab" works out well

I'm not such a fan of John Tierney's contrarian science essays, but I did like his invitation for his blog readers to answer the question, Do animals experience regret?, if only for this totally awesome comment:
Cats are French. Cats listen to Edith Piaf. They regret nothing.
— Phil

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Thursday, June 04, 2009

Happy birthday, Carmen!

My wife Kate gave birth to our (briefly nameless) daughter, Carmen Alessandra Cortesi Wheeler, at 10:13am on Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009. She was 7lb 7oz, with half an inch of dark brown hair. So far, she is preternaturally calm (famous last words) and loves to put her hands on her face, dodgy since she has the long fingernails of a two week-late baby.

Labor was intense and long, starting Monday night, pausing completely for part of Tuesday, and then going fifteen hours from Tuesday evening to Wednesday morning. Kate worked amazingly hard and with stamina I didn't know was possible, finally collapsing with the baby on her chest. Kate and baby (and soon I) are now sleeping deeply.

A critical mass of cuteness occurred this evening when My sister's six year-old and three year-old called up to sing Happy Birthday to the baby. Jasmine, the six year-old, has been waiting for her new cousin for years; while on her way to a lunch the day after our wedding two years ago, Jasmine mused to her mom, "I wonder if she'll bring the baby?" When told these things take a while, she revised herself, predicting instead that Kate would just have "a big belly".

Carmen is a Latinate name taken from the Hebrew "Carmel", meaning vineyard/garden/orchard, adapted to match the Latin "carmen" (meaning song) while keeping a Judeo-Christian connection. Christian and Jewish history in Europe is full of this kind of roundabout inclusion of pagan names in the religious canon. Thus her Hebrew name could be Carmel or something completely different... to be determined some time in the next thirteen years. Carmen is and has been mostly found in Spanish-speaking countries, perhaps because Castile was one of the areas outside Rome whose Latinate creole stayed closest to Latin (along with much of Roman imperial culture). But it is used as a name in many Romance countries, as well as in English. In the Bizet opera, Carmen is a gypsy, though Carmen is not known as a Gypsy/Romani name.

Alessandra is many things: Italian, through Kate, and a longtime contender with Carmen for this baby's first name (it's the Edwards to Carmen's Kerry); my brother Alex's name (you can see him in the last picture holding the baby), transformed across language and gender; Jewish, thanks to the honorary position of Alexander as a Jewish name because he was such a refreshingly non-brutal conqueror (the story was later expanded to include the claim that on the way to destroy the Jerusalem temple, Alexander encountered a bunch of rabbis and was so struck by their holiness that he was compelled to bow before their feet, realizing the error of his ways); and last, an echo of my great-grandfather C. A. Wheeler, a good man (though not a good father, as I understand it) who represented the indigent as a lawyer in Texas in the early part of the last century (he was a law partner of Sam Rayburn), and who represents for me the other Texas (of Ann Richards, Molly Ivins and Kinky Friedman), and the other America -- the one where active citizenship, responsibility for others and appreciation for your opportunities are unremarkable traits.

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Anonymous The Subtle Rudder on Thu Jun 04, 11:18:00 AM:
Oh, she's lovely...welcome, Carmen!

My word verification is "soneo," which seems just right for celebrating a beautiful new human.

Yay and congratulations, dad!
Anonymous Alice's mom on Thu Jun 04, 07:30:00 PM:
She's beautiful. Congratulations to all of you.

Alice's mom