Sunday, September 23, 2007

Halo and Intentionality

Halo 3 is just around the corner and I bit the bullet and upgraded the Xbox to an Xbox360. I also preordered the game and my son and I started going back through Halo and Halo 2 to refresh our memory about the storyline (I know, I know, I'm technically a bad dad in that those games are recommended for mature audiences only...)

That aside, though, my son has been more interested in the backstory of those games than in almost anything else (and he reads extensively). Partly, I attribute that interest to the vagueness of the story exposition in the games, leaving much to imaginatively fill-in. But, also, his interest arises because of the dual embedded themes of the Covenant and Flood in the game. He sees parallels between the religious war of the Covenant and current events, but his interest in the Flood keeps popping up with an odd intensity.

For those who are not Halo fans, the Flood is a parasitic organism that constructs Frankensteinian golems out of body parts. The relation to the alien Covenant is that the Halo (ringworlds) devices were created by an ancient civilization to periodically destroy all life in the universe and cleanse the universe of the Flood, but the Covenant believes that they will send them on The Long Journey if they activate them, paralleling the nihilism of extreme jihadists, in a way.

The Flood, as a parasite, caused my son initial consternation but has also brought about some amazing discussions, including one today during lunch. My wife and I were explaining how viruses were not intelligent but were creatures that simply survive and do not really have a purposeful origin. They are not really malevolent, either, and perhaps the Flood are similar. Malevolence is an attribute that we ascribe to intentionality and parasites are not intentional.

We emphasized a spectrum of lifeforms and described how, for instance, ants have individual nervous systems and also use chemical messages to communicate threats and food sources, and also how, unlike viruses, ants are unique in that only the queen reproduces and so the workers do not derive their individual purpose from reproduction alone, but from supporting the queen in reproducing.

Finding the language to explain this to a nine-year-old was surprisingly difficult, I found. The very idea of non-intentionality combined with intrinsic purpose is remarkably outside our language and intuitive framework of explanation. Children think stuff happens either because it is a mindless, natural phenomena or because it is a result of intentional action. Cats and dogs are intentional. Sunlight and waves are not. Getting into the middle world of what Ernst Mayr called teleonomic (appearing purposeful due to an adaptive algorithm) is surprisingly non-conforming to everyday ideas.

Still, my son was intrigued by the idea that children think so oddly about the world. During our discussion, a sea plane taxied by on the water outside and disrupted the conversation with sheer coolness. We wandered the docks outside the restaurant afterwards and got to peer in the cockpit. Strapped to the pilot's yoke was an aftermarket GPS unit, helping him fly with precise intentionality.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Words gone wild

A friend recently sent me along a quirky little poem that took some time to understand:

A fabulous verb is "to pronk"
The antelopes jump when you honk.
Its synonym, "stot"
Was made up by some Scot.
I think that he must have been dronk.

And its arrival was close behind Word of the Day's minority definition of tattoo:

Tattoo is an alteration of earlier taptoo, from Dutch taptoe, "a tap(house)-shut," from tap, "faucet" + toe, "shut" -- meaning, essentially, that the tavern is about to shut.

Now, here I found a treasure for etymologically-disposed searchers searching for strikes in the literary loam:

OED Appeals List

Could it really be that "poo" only became feces in 1981? And "wife-beater (T-shirt)" only 1993?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Affect and The Natural History of Morality

A must read from Edge on affect, morality, charity and the New Atheism.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Strangeness and Bias

I always come back to the problem of how and why people believe strange things. I am certain that I have believed strange things before, and likely will again, but feel that I have also developed a certain level of critical detachment that helps me to hold ideas contingently. I like to think that I am always "on guard" for the support structure of an argument. So it both worries and interests me when I read the political blogs and my local paper, when I keep hearing the framing efforts of the President to portray the situation in Iraq as entwined with terrorism, and when I hear kids educated in our public schools talking about almost anything.

But really I believe very many strange things, as you will see.

Norbert Schwarz and compatriots at Michigan work extensively on the issue of how our minds process ideas. I first encountered a discussion of Schwarz' work over the weekend as we were driving to lunch and On the Media was on Sirius NPR Talk. I tracked down one of the papers:

Metacognitive Experiences and the Intricacies of Setting People Straight: Implications for Debiasing and Public Information Campaigns

Now, "metacognitive experiences" initially struck me as strange and New Agey. In the paper and broader literature, however, the phrase refers to mental experiences that accompany or affect cognitive processing. Calling it an "experience" seems at odds with most cognitive psychology, but I think the term was chosen because it the mental facilities are still being identified and detangled. Much of this work builds on the kinds of bias studies like Kahnemann and Tversky and others during the heyday of cognitive psychology, but carries it forward to link it to social psychology.

Anyway, the gist of the paper is that "rational" information processing is altered and biased by these metacognitive experiences. One example is an experiment with a facts versus myths flyer created by CDC to combat common myths about flu vaccines. It turns out that over time the myths get incorporated as facts with an alarming rate, essentially reinforcing the myths rather than debunking them. It only takes a few minutes for this to happen! We are prone to regard recall preferentially as factual, it seems.

So we stop off after lunch at REI to get some replacement socks for hiking and general winter applications. As I wander around, though, I notice something intriguingly strange about my own biases. North Face and Marmot brands are superior to Columbia or Mountain Hard Wear in my thinking it seems. But not because of any rational or experiential facts, really, but purely because of a combination of the exclusivity of the brands (Columbia is more of a commodity brand) and because of a name bias that Mountain Hard Wear is just a dumb name. No advertising polluted my thinking, really, because I don't read outdoor magazines. And while I have seen other people with North Face jackets, I can't recall seeing anyone with a Marmot jacket so my bias is not based on associating the products with exemplars per se.

I just believe strange things.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Compression and Focus

I just happened on Greg Chaitin's 2006 Scientific American paper, The Limits of Reason, which the author was kind enough to publish to his website. I first encountered Chaitin in another SciAm article while in graduate school in the early 90s and I found the nascent topic of algorithmic probability so beautiful and profound that I dragged my boss to see Chaitin talk several hundred miles away at University of New Mexico. He kept dramatically grabbing his bald pate during the talk and gradually coated his head with colors from the whiteboard markers he was using. It was immensely distracting but I still got the gist of his arguments.

The odd thing is that I somewhat discovered the same idea of algorithmic complexity as an undergrad, but only in a very limited and intuitive form. I was in a Philosophy of Language class and was worrying over parsing and halting problems, partly informed by all the Frege and Wittgenstein we had been discussing, and partly driven by Godel, Escher, Bach..., the popular text on AI at the time. For my final report, I speculated that an evolutionary algorithm might be able to partially solve the halting problem by guessing when to halt from the productions of the machine and past experiences with other machines. There would be a probability of success at halting, at the very least, I speculated, and the evolutionary algorithm was a general solution.

Anyway, I ended up having to drop by my prof's office to discuss the paper and I recall descending into a discussion about the teleological language we use to discuss evolutionary processes. His face twisted up when I mentioned GEB and we ended with me querying him over whether he didn't like the book because it was popular. I got an A despite myself, I think.

Then, years later, I encounter Chaitin-Kolmogorov complexity and am blown away by the ideas. I trace back into the application to inference and machine learning and discover Ray Solomonoff's work on the topic, published in a series of technical reports at a small research firm called Zator.

Continuing this journey, I encounter Eliot Sober's philosophical treatments that include discussion of Occam's Razor, AIC, BIC and other ways of negotiating inferencing, which leads me to Minimum Description Length by Jorma Rissanen. Soon thereafter I publish a paper on applications of MDL to semantic analysis, showing how compact coding of data streams into trees has similar properties to methods like Latent Semantic Analysis and provides a general way to explain human grammar learning. My boss at the time coins "compression is truth" paralleling Chaitin's "compression in comprehension."

And here, now, Chaitin again adding new spices to this melange as he continues on with his life's work. I envy his focus.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Effective Procedures and Transcendentalism

Newsweek has two articles that are joined together by the thesis that we are reaching a point where computational intelligence built on statistical methods outperforms human decision making and intuition. Effective medicine is the shared topic between the two articles and, in effective medicine circles, the term "algorithm" is used to describe treatment cycles. This takes us back to the classic expert system for blood disease diagnosis, Mycin, that was a glorified decision tree of sorts for searching through the differential diagnosis space based on patient symptoms.

I got a chance to read E.O. Wilson's Consilience on my trip this week and the Newsweek articles resonated deeply with the core of Wilson's strongest claim: that empirical materialism is the only effective way forward to tackle problems in the remaining gaps in the sciences, in ethics, in the humanities, and even the arts. Because if optimal decision making can be automated by what cognitive scientists call an effective procedure and achieve 95% success (for example) in a given application, that level of success is more than likely better than the agreement level between practitioners relying on their own intuitions and experience.

The claim that intuition is somehow unintelligible is essentially a transcendental claim and transcendental claims arise because of ambiguity or skepticism about the validity of other knowledge procedures. I personally attacked this problem in a 1998 paper in which I used evolutionary algorithms to create automatic art forms that were partly random. The randomness was constrained by an abstract complexity metric based on an analysis of the connectedness in the space of production grammars that the evolutionary algorithm searched through. I was essentially creating an effective procedure that mimicked evolutionary epistemology and had randomness and creativity of a certain sort mixed in (though admittedly without the experiential aspect of human art).

In addition to reducing errors, one of the outcomes of effective medicine is that the ability of doctors to be swayed by pharmaceutical incentives is gradually being whittled down because the algorithms constrain treatment options to certain formularies and procedures. Similar efforts have been used to predict the quality of wines based on environmental monitoring and the predictions outperform oenophiles.

So we begin to see the rolling back of transcendental justifications and claims, first in intuitions and then, as Wilson suggests, moving into the realm of the humanities freshly scoured by the scathing wit of the postmodernists.