The Emotion Machine, Marvin Minsky's first book since Society of Mind almost 20 years ago, is slated to be released September 5th 2006. (I remember talking with him about this book back in 1994 — it's been a long time coming!)
You can also read a draft of the book on his website...
Leonard Susskind has a nice quote on the recent anti-science frenzy we've seen the past few years. This is from his chapter / essay called The Good Fight, published in Intelligent Thought: Science Versus The Intelligent Design Movement:
What is the reason for the recent upsurge of antiscientific passion? My own view is that it is, in part, a result of the anger, fear, frustration, and humiliation suffered over the years by the losers in the culture wars: those who would have kept women in the kitchen, blacks in the back of the bus, and gays in the closet. It is also a consequence of the deep and terrible universal fear of old age and death. But I don't believe these emotions, by themselves, could have created the antiscientific backlash of recent years. The fault may well lie in the ease with which these emotions can be cynically manipulated. It is pretty clear that the battle was engineered by provocateurs who may not even have wanted to win the battles they provoked. What seems much more likely, in view of the gingerly way that politicians have skirted such issues as Roe v. Wade, is that the provocateurs want to lose the battles and in that way keep the anger and humiliation at fever pitch.
Professor Deb Roy at the MIT Media Lab has launched what sounds to me like the biggest "record absolutely everything" type project to date. He and his wife had their first child nine months ago, and have outfitted their home with 11 ceiling-mounted omni-directional cameras, 14 microphones and a 5-terabyte disk cache in the basement to record all their daily interactions with their new son. (As you might expect, they've also got several systems in place to maintain privacy, including easy-to-access off and erase buttons.)
Previous projects of this nature have been designed with the eventual goal of becoming memory aids (notably EuroPARC's Forget-Me-Not, Ricoh Innovation's Infinite Memory Multifunction Machine, and Microsoft BARC's MyLifeBits), as training data for context-aware applications (Brian Clarkson's Life Patterns) or as performance art (Steve Mann's Wearable Wireless Webcam). In contrast, though Deb is interested in the memory augmentation aspects of the project, his main purpose is purely scientific — he's using this Human Speechome Project to build up a huge data bank that he can later mine to better understand how human language acquisition works:
"Just as the Human Genome Project illuminates the innate genetic code that shapes us, the Speechome project is an important first step toward creating a map of how the environment shapes human development and learning," said Frank Moss, director of the Media Lab.
Once at the Media Lab, the data is stored in a massive petabyte (1 million gigabyte) disk storage system donated by several companies: Bell Microproducts, Seagate Technology, Marvell and Zetera. To test hypotheses of how children learn, Roy's team will develop machine learning systems that "step into the shoes" of his son by processing the sights and sounds of three years of life at home. The effort constitutes one of the most extensive scientific analyses of long-term infant learning patterns ever undertaken.
Update 5/31/06: For more info see the paper, to be presented at the 28th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society in July.
As I'm sure everyone knows, last week the US Senate voted to make English our "national" language. All through this debate I keep thinking back to when my dad was a professor at Georgia Tech Lorraine, Georgia Tech's campus in Metz, France.
Back in 1997 Georgia Tech Lorraine was sued for violating a French law forbidding the sale of "goods and services" in France in any single language other than French. The lawsuit was brought by two French organizations, the Défense de la Langue Française and Avenir de la Langue Française Defense de la Langue, because the campus (which taught classes only in English) did not have a French version of their website. I remember smugly thinking how idiotic it was that the French had organizations dedicated to the "defense" of the French language, and how much more sensible we Americans were. Of course, I should have realized my smugness would be short-lived: the French may be known for their jingoism and petulant national pride, but the US has always envied that title.
So now I have to wonder — how would the Senators that voted for "defending our English language" react to the accusation that they're acting, well, French?
Apple and Nike are pre-promoting the Nike + iPod Sport Kit, a Nike shoe with a built-in pocket for a pressure sensor that wirelessly sends your pace to your iPod Nano. The iPod will then provide "workout-based voice feedback" and "Nike sport music content." Due out in late June for a suggested retail price of $29.
(Thanks to David Merrill for the link...)
If you're a SF Bay Area local, this Wednesday Joel Birnbaum (head of research at IBM in the 70s and HP in the 80s) will be speaking in Mountain View on The History of the Future of the City. I'd be going, but I'll be in Boston for the MIT Media Lab's Things That Think Spring Event.
(Thanks to Perlick for the heads-up...)
It's a common belief that Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs) are more interesting than their single-player counterparts because of the ability to socialize in the game. A paper presented at this year's ACM Computer Human Interaction conference, "Alone Together?" Exploring the Social Dynamics of Massively Multiplayer Online Games, offers a different spin on that. After installing /who-bots on several World of Warcraft servers and watching people's play habits, researchers from PARC and Stanford University concluded:
"Our observations show that, while MMOGs are clearly social environments, the extent and nature of the players' social activities differ significantly from previous accounts. In particular, joint activities are not very prevalent, especially in the early stages of the game. WoW's subscribers, instead of playing with other people, rely on them as an audience for their in-game performances, as an entertaining spectacle, and as a diffuse and easily accessible source of information and chitchat. For most, playing the game is therefore like being "alone together"— surrounded by others, but not necessarily actively interacting with them."
Some other interesting tidbits from the paper:
Players who never grouped tended to level up about twice as fast as those players who grouped more than 1% of the time. (The paper doesn't mention this possibility, but this makes me wonder whether these anti-social players are actually farmers working in a virtual sweatshop.)
Median guild size was only 9 (6 if you include "one-person guilds"), and the 90th percentile of the distribution is only 35 active members.
Guilds tend to be sparsely-knit social networks, with a guild member tending to ever see only one in four other guild members and only playing in the same zone as one in ten. (Again the paper doesn't say, but I imagine this statistic is influenced by people playing multiple characters in the same guild, which already forces some exclusion since people can't play more than one character at a time.)
Guilds tend to have one or two groups of tight-knit "core" players who play together regularly and are all of roughly the same level. This is probably a result of the level treadmill and the fact that people of radically different levels can't really adventure together — which means people who get out of synch with other guildmates can't adventure with their friends anymore and are more likely to quit the game or find a different guild.
(Thanks to Amy Bruckman for the pointer!)
In case you haven't been keeping score, the Bush administration claims they don't need a warrant to:
So far the administration's response to criticism that such warrantless surveillance is illegal has been to threaten the people with leaking evidence of their criminal activities with prosecution, no doubt trying to ferret out the whistleblowers by trolling through the phone logs of every reporter who's mentioned the subject.
Update: fixed typo.
Declining to answer questions about revelations that Vice President Dick Cheney argued for allowing the NSA to intercept entirely domestic telephone calls and e-mail without warrants, his spokeswoman simply responded:
"As the administration, including the vice president, has said, this is terrorist surveillance, not domestic surveillance."
The response follows last week's revelation in USA Today that the NSA has secretly collected the phone records of tens of millions of terrorists currently living in the United States.
An inexcusable number of security flaws have been found in Diebold voting machines the past few years, but a new report from BlackBoxVoting documents what Ari Rubin and Ed Felten at Freedom to Tinker say is the worst one yet:
A report by Harri Hursti, released today at BlackBoxVoting, describes some very serious security flaws in Diebold voting machines. These are easily the most serious voting machine flaws we have seen to date — so serious that Hursti and BlackBoxVoting decided to redact some of the details in the reports...
The attacks described in Hursti’s report would allow anyone who had physical access to a voting machine for a few minutes to install malicious software code on that machine, using simple, widely available tools. The malicious code, once installed, would control all of the functions of the voting machine, including the counting of votes.
I've been thinking lately about Stephen Colbert's uneven performance and audience reaction at the this year's White House Correspondents Association Dinner. (If you haven't seen it yet the video is still floating around the the Net, though C-Span has their own limited-time Real Media feed and is asking other websites to remove their links.)
I tend to agree with Colbert's message and politics, but in this post I'm more interested in how humor works and doesn't work than the message itself. Something I love about both Stephen Colbert and John Stewart is how they're willing to step outside of their characters and actually analyze what they do as comic, but I think that hurt Colbert that night. Rewatching the video, I still liked Colbert's message but I thought his performance was just as uneven as the audience's reaction.
The great part of his act, when it works, is that he plays a Bill O'Reilly type and then either makes plain that type's underlying messages and underhanded motives or just plays at being inept and catching himself in metaphors that don't work. But that evening he didn't seem to convincingly inhabit that character. First he told the joke about "somebody shoot me in the face," which cast him as a comic telling jokes rather than as an inept pundit. That could have been OK, since he hadn't really started, but I think the killer was when he messed up his "the glass isn't half empty, it's 2/3 empty" joke. I thought he was quite respectful by saying "it's important, Mr. President, to set up your jokes correctly..." but that joke was a pivotal one — it was the joke that would have both cemented his beginning rant about how great Bush was and that set himself up as being incompetent about his attempted praises. As it was, he was suddenly seen as a comic again, just as he was about to launch into the really biting part of his act where he lashed out against the press itself. Suddenly his mask was stripped away and instead of playing The Fool in the guise of an overly harsh pundit he became a Stephen Colbert speaking in a fighting-words tone and lecturing the press on how they should behave. Still ballsy of him, still something that needs to be said... but for me and I think that audience it lost a lot of the humor it could have had.
Honestly, I never expected something this sensible (albeit obvious) to come out of a Big Music executive's mouth:
"If we can convert 5, 10, 15 per cent of the peer-to-peer users that have been obtaining our product from illegitimate sources to becoming legitimate buyers of our product, that has the potential of a huge impact on our industry and our economics," Kevin Tsujihara, president of the Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Group, said.
Context: Warner Brothers has inked a deal with BitTorrent to help them sell online movie downloads. It sounds like they still want to charge monopolistic prices ('cause hey -- they're a government-protected monopoly) and I wouldn't be surprised if they include DRM that forces paying customers to enjoy their viewing experience while locked in a small cupboard and peering through a keyhole, but it's a start!
For those of you in the Boston area, there's a day-long Workshop on Data Surveillance and Privacy Protection at Harvard on Saturday, June 3rd. Registration is free (though you need to register to attend), and it looks like a good set of speakers. (Link via Simson Garfinkel.)
My latest project: attach laser pointers to my dumbek drum so I get a mini-lightshow shinging on the drum head every beat. Total cost (with the exception of the dumbek) was about $5.
The question shouldn't be "Why was Stephen Colbert so rude?" The question should be, "Why is the press gathering to toast a sitting politician in the first place, socializing with the government officials they're supposed to be covering?" How cna you sit there in your formal wear over boeuf and cabernet and maintain an arms-length distance from the person less than an arms-length away from you? The problem with the White House Correspondent's Dinner on Saturday was not the Master of Ceremonies it was the ceremony itself. Democracy requires a vigilant press. It doesn't much need the Friar's Club.
Guest-blogging for Larry Lessig, Tim Wu asks why movie studios pay for the rights to newspaper stories:
In 1997, the New York Times reported on the story of Tim “Ripper” Owens, who rose from being a lifelong Judas Priest fan to becoming the actual lead singer of Judas Priest...
Great writing and a great story. Good enough to inspire the 2001 film Rock Star, starring Mark Wahlberg and Jennifer Aniston, for which, I am told, Warner Bros. paid the New York Times for the movie rights.
But wait -- what movie rights? According to basic copyright law, and as interpreted by the Supreme Court, the facts of Ripper Owen's life are free to be used by anyone. There is, according to the law, almost nothing to purchase. Reading the story out loud during the film would be a copyright violation, but under U.S. law, little else would borrow the expression as opposed to the facts.
It's a question I've asked myself a couple times in the past few months. The first time was when I saw a booth selling old historical photos at a local arts festival. The company, Photos of Old Amercia, had claimed to have a copyright on each of the photos, even though the woman in charge said she mostly found old pictures from libraries and collections and usually never had any clue who the original photographer was. Some of the photos have been retouched, and Photos of Old America would own the copyright on those changes. However, near as I can tell the company is itself violating the copyright on most of these photos, figuring (correctly) that they'll probably get away with it.
The second time was when I learned about Zorro Productions, Inc., which decades ago bought all the rights to Zorro, the legendary masked hero first introduced by Johnston McCulley in The Curse of Capistrano in 1919. Apparently if you want to make a play, movie, book or even appearance at a local mall about Zorro you have to license the rights from Zorro Productions first. But what rights? The copyright on The Curse of Capistrano expired ages ago and is in the public domain, as is the 1920 Douglas Fairbanks classic movie The Mark of Zorro. That leaves trademark law, which (in theory anyway) only applies so far as consumers might be confused as to the source or producer of a product or service. Raise your hands out there if you knew Zorro Productions, Inc. owned the licensing rights to Zorro™ before now, or would assume when you went to a Zorro™ movie that it would be protected by that company's good name.
Unfortunately, in practice it doesn't seem to matter what the law actually says. By licensing these non-existent rights, powerful companies like Sony Pictures gain a powerful threat over potential competitors, namely the ability to scare away financiers and potential partners with a simple cease-and-desist letter. When it comes to intellectual property, might makes rights is all too often the true law of the land.
Where's Zorro when you need him?
This week's On The Media has a piece on the new website www.healthnewsreview.org, a non-profit site launched last month that rates health news on criteria such as whether the story discusses cost, efficiency and potential harms of treatments, compares to alternative treatments, reveal sources of their information, etc. Ratings are performed by a review board of doctors and other health experts.
If I were to write a kind of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying kind of guide to giving demos of your research, it would probably include the following list of things to avoid:
Never one to take the easy route, my current research project contains every one of these features. No matter how many successful trials I run, I never really know whether this time it'll go boom.
From a short article in Left Lane News about how car thieves are using laptops to circumvent keyless-entry locks:
The expert gang suspected of stealing two of David Beckham’s BMW X5 SUVs in the last six months did so by using software programs on a laptop to wirelessly break into the car’s computer, open the doors, and start the engine...
While automakers and locksmiths are supposed to be the only groups that know where and how security information is stored in a car, the information eventually falls into the wrong hands.
This should come as a surprise to no one. What concerns me more is that such software is no doubt available not just to "expert gangs" but also the equivalent of script-kiddies who normally wouldn't even be able to figure out how to hot-wire a '69 Buick.
(Thanks to Regis for the link...)