Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Sandra Porter over at Discovering Biology in a Digital World has some computer woes from her Bioinformatics class to relate. All I can say is, I'm glad our Bioinformatics course is run by the Informatics department. Although so far, computer use for that course has been minimal.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

No, I'm not Dead

Just busy. It appear that while I was trying to catch up to uni work (imagine a hamster in a wheel, running as fast as he can, always convinced that he will get there eventually), Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Now, some people are wondering why he won. There's two responses for that.

First, there's nothing more important to peace than stopping global warming. Pandagon has a more elaborate explanation of this point than I'm willing to give.

Second, get some perspective. The Nobel Peace Prize has gone to Yasser Arafat before, and you're complaining about Al Gore getting it? Now, if they were giving it to George Bush, then you'd have something to complain about...

Monday, October 8, 2007

Quantum Confusion

For every computer scientist waiting for the first working quantum computer, there are two that are hoping that that day will never come, because it means that they will have to start developing quantum algorithms. Why is that a problem? Well, have a good look at Shor's quantum algorithm for integer factorisation. Yep, it's not pretty, in fact, I'm not sure I could find out how it works from that article.

Fortunately for me, and other lazy computer scientists, Scott Aaron has provided an easy-to-understand guide to Shor's algorithm. In the process of explaining it, he also debunks some of the most common myths about quantum computing:

Look: if you think about quantum computing in terms of “parallel universes” (and whether you do or don’t is up to you), there’s no feasible way to detect a single universe that’s different from all the rest. Such a lone voice in the wilderness would be drowned out by the vast number of suburb-dwelling, Dockers-wearing conformist universes. What one can hope to detect, however, is a joint property of all the parallel universes together — a property that can only be revealed by a computation to which all the universes contribute.

(Note: For safety reasons, please don’t explain the above to popular writers of the “quantum computing = exponential parallelism” school. They might shrivel up like vampires exposed to sunlight.)

Thursday, October 4, 2007

On Participation During Lectures

I don't speak up much in lectures. That's not because I'm shy (well, not mainly). Nor is it because I have nothing to say. No, I'd say that the main reason is lack of opportunity.

I should start off by explaining that the British lecture system does not encourage participation in lectures. Unlike the American system (I'm told), you're being lectured at, and 90% of the lecturers expect nothing more than polite attention from you. Very rarely are you actively being asked to participate.

That leaves only two opportunities for speaking up: Answering questions that the lecturer asks and asking your own. And to be fair, a lot of people do answer and ask questions. But I have a problem with both.

When it comes to answering questions, the problem is the sort of questions that get asked. Some of them are too hard: I've never been very good at thinking on my feet, so I seldom work out the answer to a hard question in a lecture. Most of the others are too easy: If the answer can be found one line further down on the slide, then I'm not going to bother to tell it to him.

Asking questions presents a different problem. I've found out over the years that I can find out by myself most of the questions that I would ask in the lecture if I look over the lecture notes later on. That knowledge, and a bit of pride, prevent me from asking them during the lecture.

I realise that all of these problems could be solved by changing my attitude, but it doesn't seem worth the effort. I don't get the feeling that more participation will give me a deeper understanding of the material. It just seems like so much wasted effort. And maybe that's one of the flaws of the British system.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Do WHAT for the Forest?

This doesn't have anything to do with machine learning, but I just couldn't pass it up. Fuck for Forest* is a porn site for and by environmentalists. Yep, there really is porn for every niche on the internet. Here's how they describe themselves:
FFF are concerned humans, exploring the power of sexuality, to save nature and liberate life. We know a lot of people are interested in sexuality, including us. We want to have fun with sex, show natural people and collect money for saving nature! We think it is time to pay respect to nature, and give back with love!
I guess the end justifies the, er, porn?

* If you believe that this is safe for work, you probably don't deserve your job anyway.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Skynet can't be far off...

From the scary side of AI comes this report from Wired: The US government is sponsoring research into tracking terrorists on the Web. Now that might sound innocuous, but according to the article:

The University of Arizona's ultra-ambitious "Dark Web" project "aims to systematically collect and analyze all terrorist-generated content on the Web," the National Science Foundation notes. And that analysis, according to the Arizona Star, includes a program which "identif[ies] and track[s] individual authors by their writing styles."

That component, called Writeprint, helps combat the Web's anonymity by studying thousands of lingual, structural and semantic features in online postings. With 95 percent certainty, it can attribute multiple postings to a single author.

From there, Dark Web has the ability to track a single person over time as his views become radicalized.

The project analyzes which types of individuals might be more susceptible to recruitment by extremist groups, and which messages or rhetoric are more effective in radicalizing people.

You can probably imagine what would happen if Writeprint were used to track down real terrorists and made a mistake. Better not type to heatedly in those flame wars. And stay away from "they set us up the bomb" jokes!

I'm not condemning the research as such: The idea of being able to tell who a certain text was written by is fascinating. But the application is worrisome. If this ever becomes a viable tool for counter-terrorism, it should be very strictly controlled.

The Wired article focuses on Writeprint, but a quick look at the website for the Darkweb project shows some more interesting projects:
The Terrorism Knowledge Portal is a search engine created specifically for the domain of terrorism research. [..] It aims to explore governmental, social, technical, and educational issues relevant to supporting intelligent Web searching in terrorism-related research. The portal supports searching of a customized terrorism research database with over 360,000 quality pages. In addition, it provides access to terrorism research institutes, government Web sites, news and presses, and a collection of useful Web resources for researchers.
A terrorism search engine? When is Google getting in on this?
A computer-driven natural language chatterbot that will respond to queries about the terrorism domain and provide real-time data on terrorism activities, prevention, and preparation strategies.
Real-time data on terrorism activities? Good luck with that.

Finally, to close on a lighter note, the Wired article quotes the National Science Foundations on some of the risks of the project:

"They [terrorists] can put booby-traps in their Web forums," Chen explains, "and the spider can bring back viruses to our machines." This online cat-and-mouse game means Dark Web must be constantly vigilant against these and other counter-measures deployed by the terrorists.

Right. Because obviously you instruct your spider to download any file it finds to your servers, execute it and maybe display a skull logo on your monitor as well while the virus deletes your files. I understand your desire to make your work sound glamorous by phrasing it in terms of a battle, but please don't pretend you don't know about basic security procedures.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Three-Toed Sloth has a thoughtful examination of heritability in IQ, complete with disclaimer:
Attention conservation notice: It's long, and it's about something which makes eyes glaze over even as tempers flare up, and it's not funny at all. Worse yet, more is on the way. You could always read it later, but time spent now is gone forever.
The conclusion? IQ may depend much less on your genetic heritage than previously assumed. I find some of his arguments quite convincing.