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Thursday, July 22, 2010

"She stole my heart and my cat": great moments in syllepsis

I was imagining highly specific and unlikely Scrabble games, anticipating some moment when I could modify a smug opponent's ZEUGMA into HYPOZEUGMA, PROZEUGMA, DIAZEUGMA, or MESOZEUGMA, or even make a HYPOZEUXMIS of my own--this is why I'm bad at Scrabble--and checked out the Wikipedia page for these rhetorical terms. The examples of syllepsis using idiomatic phrases are a motley crew, from Alanis Morrisette to Antonin Scalia. I want to see some tracked changes of the article to see how examples have been added because Eve 6 was certainly not among my first thoughts for how to illustrate the device:
* You held your breath and the door for me.
--Alanis Morissette, "Head over Feet"

* I got a part-time job at my father's carpet store, laying tackless stripping and housewives by the score.
--Warren Zevon, "Mr. Bad Example"

* I took her hand and then an aspirin in the morning,
--Eve 6, "Girl Eyes"

* "Oh, flowers are as common here, Miss Fairfax, as people are in London."
--Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest (Cecily is making a catty remark to Miss Fairfax, a Londoner, by using "common" in two senses, namely "numerous" and "vulgar" as in the expression "common thief.")

* "The Russian grandees came to Elizabeth's court dropping pearls and vermin."
--Thomas Babington Macaulay

* "Are you getting fit or having one?"
--From the television program M*A*S*H

* "You are free to execute your laws, and your citizens, as you see fit."
--From the television program Star Trek: The Next Generation

* "I called her a whore and myself a cab."
--Michael Salinger, "Girl on Girl"

* "She was a thief, you got to believe: she stole my heart and my cat."
--From the film So I Married an Axe Murderer

* "[She] went straight home in a flood of tears, and a sedan chair."
--Charles Dickens

* "Just a dissipated creep who wears a Rolex on his wrist/On her nerves, too much cologne, and down her power to resist./ Did she turn down the wrong hallway, his advances, or the sheet?"
--Bob Kanefsky, "The Girl Who Had Never Been ..."

* "... and covered themselves with dust and glory."
--Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

* "You can leave in a taxi. If you can't get a taxi, you can leave in a huff. If that's too soon, you can leave in a minute and a huff."
--Groucho Marx, from Duck Soup

* Come the (computer) revolution, all persons found guilty of such criminal behavior will be summarily executed, and their programs won't be!
--Numerical Recipes

* My teeth and ambitions are bared; be prepared! - Scar, from The Lion King with lyrics by Tim Rice

* The levees were broken and so were the promises. - Anderson Cooper, Dispatches from the Edge

* The word “Arms” would have two different meanings at once: “weapons” (as the object of “keep”) and (as the object of “bear”) one-half of an idiom. It would be rather like saying “He filled and kicked the bucket” to mean “He filled the bucket and died.” Grotesque.
--Justice Scalia's majority opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller, rejecting the notion that the phrase "bear arms" was used as an idiom in the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution.554 U.S. ____ (2008), slip op. at 13.

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Blogger J-C. G. Rauschenberg on Thu Jul 29, 02:17:00 AM:
I'm not sure if it counts as syllepsis, but I love these two lines from Berryman that remind me of many sylleptic phrases:

Animal Henry sat reading the Times Literary Supplement
with a large Jameson & and a worse hangover.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Google voice gives great oral

Google Voice is something I can't live without -- it's one of the few significant advantages an Android phone has over an iPhone. Thanks to its ability to transcribe my every phone message, I no longer even listen to half of my messages, since many are doctors' offices confirming appointments or other folks just leaving me a phone number to call back. Numbers are very easy for Google Voice to transcribe correctly.

Not so for everything else, especially the type of stop and go banter that fills most phone messages. Listening to my messages while following the Google algorithm's best guess at their content makes me realize how few complete sentences are spoken by callers.

Still, it's hard to believe you couldn't gin up an algorithm that could do better than Google Voice does on many of my calls. Of course, that would mean I'd lose Google Voice's unintentional comedy. Witness this surprisingly provocative message from the post office (my emphasis):
Voicemail from: Unknown Caller at 8:47 AM

Yes, Hi Good Morning. This is calling from the post office, the mailman will be. Yeah, Hello Baby. Ohh. Peggy shop on another 20 minutes. Thank you.
Or take this helpful update from my father, who is apparently on ecstasy:
I'm still kind of into the weather that has just come back this evening and and we might. She will want to get some of the like. Here at something like that. So, but I'm pretty well over the sky. I don't know. Spoke to sort of city. There's just a little bit tired fun it so I don't do anything right. Yeah. we should check in to the prices of storm door Of, snirtstorm security guards at Home Depot.
I had never even heard of the word "snirtstorm", which apparently is the combination of snow and a dirt storm, and seems to afflict the northern Midwest. (In fact, is such an unusual word that it is a great ingredient for Googlewhacking -- I found one with "snirtstorm parabola".)

But seriously, I'm no expert on voice recognition algorithms, but I think it's a pretty safe bet that if you think a human has said "snirtstorm", you had better go with your second best guess instead. Although I do appreciate the creative capitalization of words in mid-sentence.

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Blogger Alexis on Thu Jul 22, 06:13:00 PM:
That is hilarious! I love "snirtstorm."

But on the serious point, what Google is trying to do is the Holy Grail of speech recognition: large-vocabulary (free text) speaker-independent recognition. Accuracy for large-vocabulary speaker-dependent recognition is very good (Dragon NaturallySpeaking, which trains to your voice) and accuracy for small-vocabulary speaker-independent recognition is also quite good (telephone systems, command-and-control systems) but combining unlimited text with highly variable humans is a huge challeng. Google does remarkably well in this tough area. So it may be "hard to believe you couldn't gin up an algorithm that could do better than Google Voice does on many of my calls", but it's true. I don't think there's anything better out there for the task they're undertaking right now.
Blogger Ben on Fri Jul 23, 09:56:00 AM:
That makes sense -- considering how inaccurate Dragon can be for me even when I'm speaking slowly and clearly, I shouldn't expect Voice to be that accurate when both the speaker and the speaking style are more unpredictable and noisy.

But there are times when I feel sure I could improve Voice. Most obvious to me are the times when I know what the correct translation is just by looking at the transcription... at these times, I think the Google Voice people might do a better job if the word in question were left completely silent or beeped out, because then they would have to develop their contextual prediction and not rely so heavily on the audio.

Eg: the other day, my mom left me a message that began "Hey Dad, It's mom hate doing sweetheart." Leave aside that my name is Ben (known to Google since my account is linked to a Google Profile) and so an ambiguous opening word that sounds like both "Dad" and "Ben" should be resolved in favor of the latter. Is there any question that the word "hate" should not be "how you" or "how are you"? That is a correction well within the reach of current research.
Anonymous Tove on Tue Aug 03, 05:25:00 PM:
So funny! It reminds me of the actual stoner, deliciously surreal lyrics at the end of the Beach Boys "Heroes And Villains:"

I've been in this town so long
So long to the city
I'm fit with the stuff
To ride in the rough
And sunny down snuff I'm alright
By the heroes and--
Heroes and villains.
Anonymous Anonymous on Sat Dec 11, 09:08:00 PM:
It could be hate leaving sweetheart.

Google does use contextual prediction. Most of the grayed out uncertain phrases on my google voice messages are extrapolated from one word it got wrong.

I really don't care if a program can figure out how to write a grammatically correct English sentence "inspired" by my voice mail if half the words are wrong. It seems like that's what you would get if you went overboard on contextual prediction.

Anyway, my latest voicemail apparently said "I want to come, pull harder." so I'm going to go pull on something. Bye ;D

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Albuquerque's West Side keeps sprawling beyond what street-namers can imagine. My mom was driving me out there a couple of years ago and I had a joke ready for every major street we crossed...

"This side of Paradise..."
"Somewhere over the Rainbow."
"The end of the Universe."
"At the edge of the Galaxy."

...until she told me to stop because all of the streets look the same when they've run out of names.

One of my high school classmates posted this sign of the apocalypse: "UNIVERSE CLOSED PLEASE USE RAINBOW."

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Blogger Katy on Wed Jul 14, 02:53:00 PM:
There's a strange part of Central Islip, New York, which is strange in general, where the streets are named after trees. Some of the trees are tropical. Central Islip is a run-down part of the middle of Suffolk County--it is not tropical. My favorite is Banana Street.,+Central+Islip,+Suffolk,+New+York+11722&gl=us&ei=SQc-TNLkDsSqlAe3tM33BQ&ved=0CBMQ8gEwAA&t=h&z=16
Blogger Katy on Wed Jul 14, 02:58:00 PM:
AND... I noticed that the streets running perpendicular to the tree streets are TREE PART STREETS, including Bark, Root, and Branch. North of that is a neighborhood with streets named after major streets in Brooklyn (DeKalb, Nostrand, Fulton, and so on) and a few in Manhattan for good measure (Columbus, Lexington). I guess we know where that developer was from.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Kasparov: the "strange sensation" of android chess

I'm compelled to excerpt at length Garry Kasparov's recent essay in the New York Review of Books in which he surveys the state of chess computing, and its implications for artificial intelligence and human-computer interaction.

It's always dangerous to draw to confident a connection between a thinker's scientific works and her politics (though I detect a consistency of mantra and inflexibility in both versions of Noam Chomsky). But it can't be a coincidence that the most prominent intellectual in modern chess is also one of the greatest democratic dissidents in Russia, a place where it is even more dangerous and lonely to be a dissident then it was during much of Soviet times.

Kasparov touches on a common complaint about artificial intelligence: that it has fails to replicate the human way of thinking. He writes:
The AI crowd, too, was pleased with the result and the attention, but dismayed by the fact that Deep Blue was hardly what their predecessors had imagined decades earlier when they dreamed of creating a machine to defeat the world chess champion. Instead of a computer that thought and played chess like a human, with human creativity and intuition, they got one that played like a machine...
Eric Siegel, a brilliant lecturer who taught me AI at Columbia, used to explain that there were four kinds of artificial intelligence, which were usually conflated into one -- to great confusion. You could get a computer to produce results that seemed human, such as the Eliza psychologist chat bot; you could get it to produce valuable insights that would not be confused in all with human ones, such as an information kiosk that is helpful to humans but never pretends not to be a machine; you could get it to be human-like in its thinking, such as systems like Wolfram Alpha, which build up knowledge using logic and building blocks of information; or you can have it be specifically computer-like in its thinking, such as a weather predictor which uses Chaos theory to detect impossibly obscure patterns.The public expected that by developing a machine whose output -- grandmaster-level chess moves -- had a quality heretofore only known among humans, researchers would be forced to develop AI that was human-like in its thinking.

There are other forms of AI than those that Siegel listed, however, and Kasparov was drawn to use his role on the main stage of AI to define and explore these.

From the article:
It was my luck (perhaps my bad luck) to be the world chess champion during the critical years in which computers challenged, then surpassed, human chess players. Before 1994 and after 2004 these duels held little interest. The computers quickly went from too weak to too strong. But for a span of ten years these contests were fascinating clashes between the computational power of the machines (and, lest we forget, the human wisdom of their programmers) and the intuition and knowledge of the grandmaster. chess, as in so many things, what computers are good at is where humans are weak, and vice versa. This gave me an idea for an experiment. What if instead of human versus machine we played as partners? My brainchild saw the light of day in a match in 1998 in León, Spain, and we called it “Advanced Chess.” Each player had a PC at hand running the chess software of his choice during the game. The idea was to create the highest level of chess ever played, a synthesis of the best of man and machine.

Although I had prepared for the unusual format, my match against the Bulgarian Veselin Topalov, until recently the world’s number one ranked player, was full of strange sensations. Having a computer program available during play was as disturbing as it was exciting. And being able to access a database of a few million games meant that we didn’t have to strain our memories nearly as much in the opening, whose possibilities have been thoroughly catalogued over the years. But since we both had equal access to the same database, the advantage still came down to creating a new idea at some point.

...A month earlier I had defeated the Bulgarian in a match of “regular” rapid chess 4–0. Our advanced chess match ended in a 3–3 draw. My advantage in calculating tactics had been nullified by the machine.

...Even more notable was how the advanced chess experiment continued. In 2005, the online chess-playing site hosted what it called a “freestyle” chess tournament in which anyone could compete in teams with other players or computers. Normally, “anti-cheating” algorithms are employed by online sites to prevent, or at least discourage, players from cheating with computer assistance. (I wonder if these detection algorithms, which employ diagnostic analysis of moves and calculate probabilities, are any less “intelligent” than the playing programs they detect.)

Lured by the substantial prize money, several groups of strong grandmasters working with several computers at the same time entered the competition. At first, the results seemed predictable. The teams of human plus machine dominated even the strongest computers. The chess machine Hydra, which is a chess-specific supercomputer like Deep Blue, was no match for a strong human player using a relatively weak laptop. Human strategic guidance combined with the tactical acuity of a computer was overwhelming.

The surprise came at the conclusion of the event. The winner was revealed to be not a grandmaster with a state-of-the-art PC but a pair of amateur American chess players using three computers at the same time. Their skill at manipulating and “coaching” their computers to look very deeply into positions effectively counteracted the superior chess understanding of their grandmaster opponents and the greater computational power of other participants. Weak human + machine + better process was superior to a strong computer alone and, more remarkably, superior to a strong human + machine + inferior process.
Most sci-fi set in the future features computer intelligences which completely trump humans at solving problems, at least ones that don't require emotion. But the experiment Kasparov inspired suggests that the pairing of humans and machines might be superior at certain types of problems for a very long time. We already have some computer algorithms that farm tasks out to human minds, such as Web scraping bots that need help to decode scrambled-text CAPTCHAS, and can get it quite cheaply in the Third World. The day may come when a programmer can make a function call and specify that it use human intelligence rather than machine intelligence, and trust a system like Amazon's Mechanical Turk to farm out the task and return a result.Interestingly, Star Trek is an exception to this sci-fi rule. The computer which manages the Enterprise is powerful, but the crew never asks that it suggest solutions to problems. (This has an obvious advantage from a plot standpoint.) The android Data is a computer intelligence which goes beyond the ship's computer's limitations; in fact, he is capable of all four forms of AI that Siegel described, and he is able to suggest a possible avenue of inquiry, then tap at a computer keyboard at an inhuman pace, announce that it has some particular probability of success, and then express doubt in an unmistakably human way -- going through all four forms of AI in a single scene. The Borg, on the other hand, are a Kasparovian intelligence: rather than simply construct machine agents, they use organic creatures and link their minds together in a decentralized network with no artificially intelligent core.

and then there is Isaac Asimov's classic short story "The Last Question", which introduces an entirely new possible form of AI, which I won't give away.

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Blogger rpmcsweeney on Tue Jul 13, 11:13:00 AM:
I always thought "The Last Question" served nicely as a bookend to Clarke's "The Nine Billion Names of God":
Blogger Katy on Thu Jul 15, 11:51:00 AM:
What about the Star Wars droids? We've been rewatching the movies lately, and my childhood questions about the droids remain unanswered. They're capable not only of learning, but also feeling and thought. That didn't make sense to me when I was 8, and it doesn't make sense to me now.
Blogger Ben on Sat Jul 17, 07:14:00 PM:
... Or maybe just a simulation of feeling. Our abilities to project human experience onto animals and inanimate objects is boundless. R2D2 clicks and whirrs and beeps and we conclude it must be sad. That's very promising for our ability to relate to robots, and it's already being used with robots to therapeutically reach senile and autistic people.