Sunday, May 31, 2009

Grammar lesson for all spammers

I'm always amused by the errors in the e-mail messages sent out by spammers. Here's one I got today.

Your mailbox quota has been exceeded the storage limit which is 20GB as set by youradministrator, You are currently running on 20.9GB. You may not be able to send or receive new mails until you re-validate your mailbox.

To re-activate your account please click the link below

Thanks and we are sorry for the inconveniences.

Local host

If it were written by one of my students, they would receive the following from me.

Your mailbox quota has been exceeded the storage limit which is of 20GB, as set by your_administrator,. You are currently running on 20.9GB. You may not be able to send or receive new mails messages until you re-validate your mailbox.

To re-activate your account please click the link below

Thanks, and we are sorry for the inconveniences inconvenience.

Local host

Feel free to suggest any other corrections.

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Saturday, May 30, 2009

Mom's away: Night 1

Success. Lauchy woke up just once (3am); I shoved the soother back into his mouth, and he went back to sleep. We got up this morning at 6:15. Compare this to one week ago... he was waking up 2 or 3 times a night to be breast-fed! And I'm not good at breast-feeding (at least, as the feedER).

He had lots to eat for breakfast. Muffin, milk (from sippy-cup), grapes, Goldfish crackers.

Things went a little downhill from there. He was somewhat crabby after breakfast. Rubbing his face, clinging to my pantleg. Those are the signs that he's TIRED. So, I put him back in bed at 7:15am. And he's sleeping. Hmmm... not sure what this means for the rest of the day. Just go with the flow.

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Weight log: 174.6 lbs

My weight this morning,

174.6 lbs.

I forgot to mention, Saturday is my day off. I can eat as much as I want. Usually, what this means is that I go to bed so full that I feel sick. That helps me appreciate the hunger that I feel throughout the rest of the week.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The belief trap, and how to get out of it

I was at a conference recently, and one of the keynote speakers was Thomas Ray, a zooligist who made his mark in the 90's with a surprising computer model of evolution called Tierra. However, his talk had nothing to do with that project, but rather introduced us to his new line of research: studying the subjective experiences reported when different neuro-receptor systems in the brain are stimulated.

He described the results for 30 receptors. One really suprised me. He said something to the effect of, "67% of the experimental subjects reported that the experiment was among the most significant religious experiences in their lives", and "30% reported the experiment as the MOST significant religious experience in their lives". Shocking, since the experiment really had nothing to do with religion at all.

It is remarkable how a particular molecule can cause a person to believe that there is an omnipotent being out there looking over us. Kinda makes you question your own beliefs. If a molecule can do that, then any of my dearly-held "certainties" might actually be the effect of some chemicals in my brain.

As a skeptic, this is indeed the conclusion that I must draw.

However, that's not to say that we can never gain traction on reality. Ever since birth, you've been building your own internal model of the world, and it's probably served you very well so far. For example, you avoid throwing yourself head-first down flights of stairs because you can predict that the outcome be unpleasant. Maintaining such a mental model is in your best interest for survival (all those who failed that test are no longer with us). But what can be said about those questions for which common experience offers less visceral feedback? Things like, "Does my lucky hat help to guide my team to victory?", and "Does sticking needles in my body align my chakras?"

Here's where science parts company with everyone else. What is the one thing that we all have in common?


That is to say, we all live in the same universe (well, except for this guy). And we can all agree on observations of things that occur in this physical universe. For example, when we look at a thermometer, we can agree on the temperature. This suggests that there should be a corpus of phenomena that we all agree on, and that body of knowledge must be based on objective observation.

There is such a body of knowledge, and it's called science. And I would argue that science is the ONLY such collection. In other words, if there is a claim that cannot be observed or repeated, then it's outside of science, and outside the body of agreed-upon knowledge. Conversely, if something can be demonstrated repeatedly, then it's welcomed into the annals of science with open arms. This global consensus is the reason that science holds such a prominent position in society. Let's face it; anybody can come up with whacked-out claims of flying spaghetti monsters or people being raised from the dead. Demonstrating those claims to everyone else, however, is the challenge, and the wall that separates superstition from reality.

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Weight update: 175.2 lbs

My weight today

175.2 lbs.

The drop of 0.6 lbs. should not be taken too seriously. It's most likely due to hydration and amount of stuff in my GI tract.

I am recording what I eat on, as well as the exercise I do. It tells me that if I want to lose 1.5 lbs. per week, I should eat about 2000 calories (technically, kilocalories) per day. After a while, I will post a graph showing my caloric intake. It'll be fun (in a nerdy way) to correlate that to my weight loss.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Caloric accountability: How to lose weight

It's hard to eat less, and get my ass off the couch and go out for a run or swim. But it's sooo much easier when I tell people I'm going to, and expect that they'll ask me about it later. So, these blog entries are my way of being accountable for my weight.

I weighted myself this morning:
175.8 lbs.

OK, for a 5'10" guy, I'm not fat. In fact, my body-mass index (BMI) is 25.2. That's right on the cusp between "normal" and "overweight". I guess I'll go out on a limb and say that I'd like my BMI to be 23 by the end of the summer. That requires me to weigh about 160 lbs. Stay tuned for updates.

Hey, I just noticed that it's lunch time. Woo-hoo!

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Your brain is an embodied computer

I was thinking this morning (in the shower, if you must know) about brains and neural networks. Let me first just say that I believe the brain is nothing more than a network of neurons exchanging little electrical impulses. In particular, I reject the notion of "the ghost in the machine", or any other explanation of behaviour or consciousness that invokes a non-material entity like a soul or cosmic will. As far as I'm concerned, good ol' physics and chemistry is enough to 'splain it all.

By extension, then, a computer-modeled neural network could also be used to model the brain. We call these programs "artificial neural networks".

It struck me that human brains take years and years to develop. An infant has a neural network (brain), but it's not wired in a way that enables the baby to be a self-sufficient contributing member of society. Not yet, anyway. So the baby plays with blocks, blankets, food, and sometimes plastic bags... all as constructive input to train their neural networks. A neural network -- as implemented in the human and many other animals, at least -- is a pattern-searching-and-predicting machine. It's function is to incorporate experience into some sort of internal model, and use that model to predict the outcome of events and help its owner to survive and thrive. This training happens over a long period of time. It goes like gangbusters in the first few years of life, then slows down somewhat. But a human isn't even trusted to survive on their own until the age of 16 (in Canada, anyway). That suggests that 16 years of training is the minimum for a productive human being.

So, if we hope to produce useful neural-network computers, will we have to train them for 16 years? No, I don't think so. In fact, training on the order of days seems more palatable.

Why is there such a huge difference in training time? I put it down to two reasons:
  1. (uninteresting) An artificial neural network would probably only be trained on a specific task, while a human is faced with understanding "reality as we know it". That's a much larger and more complex task, so naturally takes longer.
  2. (interesting) An artificial neural network makes adjustments (learns) by changing numbers in the computer's memory. Real brains, on the other hand, have to actually alter their wiring.
Number 2 is the one that struck me in the shower today. Though I'm not a neuro-scientist (as you'd probably guessed by now), I suspect that changing the wiring in the brain takes longer than changing a number in computer memory. The benefit, though, is that the brain is a fully parallel-processing machine, while a computer can really only model the behaviour of one neuron at a time. So, when it comes to making snap decisions, like how to move to catch a ball without spilling your coffee, a real brain kicks ass because many parts of the neural circuits are doing their part at the same time. A standard computer would have to operate the artificial neurons one-by-one. This would be too slow, and the computer would probably take the ball in the crotch and spill the coffee on its keyboard.

My suspiscion (without knowing the current evidence, at this point) is that sleeping is the slow process of incorporating the day's lessons into the wiring of the brain. And I like the word "incorporate" here, because it derives from the Latin word corpus meaning "body". Hence, incorporating knowledge is the activity of representing that knowledge into the physical body.

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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Multi-National Mennonite Inc.

My wife, kids and I piled into the van and headed to the St. Jacobs Farmers' Market; it's a produce and trinket market where local farmers and craftsmen peddle their wares. At least, that's the idea. Maybe it was even like that once long, long ago. It has maintained a nugget of that ambiance, including Mennonites in traditional garb. But upon closer inspection it's quite something else. Take, for example, the Mennonite woman in a plain monochrome dress and bonnet... selling Crocks and Crock knock-offs. Unless the Ahmish have a highly-developed injection mold technology, I'll have to conclude that a good portion of their business is strictly retail. Other examples? How about raspberries from California? Blueberries from Florida? And oranges?!?!

I can't help but picture a stylishly dressed business high-roller talking on his cell phone on the 92nd floor of an office building in Manhattan. And his name is Jakob.

Friday, May 22, 2009

First day of the rest of my career

Well what a ride it's been. Just yesterday, I spent the whole morning making my case for tenure. You see, I am a university professor, and getting tenure is like finally getting past the probationary period for your job. Except our probation lasts about 5 years! And by the time you reach it, you are probably pushing 40 and have a wife and kids. Losing your job at this stage of life can be quite traumatic.

So, you spruce up your CV (curriculum vitae) and hand it into your department. That's accompanied by a process to choose outside people who could act as references and offer their opinions on how good you are. The department solicits letters from some of those external referees, then looks at those letters in combination with your teaching and research record, then finally comes to a decision: yes or no. In my case, it was "no".

Luckily, it's a multi-level process, and the next level up (the faculty-level committee), overturned the decision, and I was back on track. However, in these mixed-opinion cases, the president makes his decision in line with the department's decision. Hence, as of Jan. 26, I had officially been denied tenure.

What does that mean? It's pretty much all-or-nothing. Either one GETS tenure and is guaranteed job security for the rest of their career, or one is DENIED tenure and has to leave their job within a year. So, as it stood, I was facing changing jobs within the next year (and in THIS economic climate).

As one would hope, there is an appeal process for tenure. Naturally, I appealed my negative tenure decision. Then it becomes a miniature court case with a 3-person jury (a tribunal) consisting of other professors. Choosing the tribunal members is very much like jury selection; I suggest a list of names, as does my opposition (the university, represented by the top-top-top brass... the president himself or the VP Academic and Provost). We each get a chance to "OK" people on each others' lists, and the tribunal is chosen from those names.

My hearing was yesterday morning. I gave my opening statement. Then we called a handful of witnesses. For each witness, we each got a chance to ask questions (me, my opposition, and the tribunal). Then I gave a brief closing statement, and it was all over. After that, the tribunal deliberated.

At 4pm, I received a phone call telling me that they had come to a decision... to GRANT TENURE.

I'm not a religious man (to say the least), but "Thank you Lord Jesus!" came to mind.

For the last 5 years, I had been playing it safe, dabbling in the low-risk research projects. It's like splashing in the wading pool while your friends body-surf. But now that's all behind me. I have tenure. I am free to pursue my interests no matter how risky or abhorrent. I have many ideas that have laid dormant since my undergrad days.

Today is the first day of the rest of my career.