A bit of a discussion broke out at this morning’s session over Shane Legg and Marcus Hutter’s paper, “Universal Intelligence: A Definition of Machine Intelligence” (Minds & Machines, vol. 17, no. 4, 2007, pgs. 391-444, arXiv:0712.3329v1). Following the convention of abbreviated reference to a paper by its authors’ last names, and as Hutter is pronounced “hooter,” this paper is referred to as “legs and hooters.” So there was this back and forth, “As the legs and hooters paper shows …” “You should look more carefully at legs and hooters.” “It can be hard to get you head around legs and hooters.” “We shouldn’t rush to embrace legs and hooters.” I exaggerate slightly, but I would imagine that there are better papers than Legg and Hutter’s on the subject of the definition of machine intelligence; it’s just that those other papers get passed over in favor of one granting a computer nerd the opportunity to say “legs and hooters” in all seriousness in front of a room full of people. I’ll bet that Legg and Hutter decided to collaborate on the basis that such a winning name combination guaranteed their rocket-like ascension in the ranking of most oft cited papers.

More Bold, Writers!

After any far-reaching junket to the library, I usually leave amazed at the flecks of brilliance lost by dint of the sheer mass of information that humanity churns out, like an ounce of gold alloyed in ton of oar. I often have the same feeling about the online world. For every one thing that goes viral, ten acts of genius are buried in someone’s quickly advancing feed.

Thus, today I find Suzanne Marchand, in a Journal of Modern History (vol. 63, no. 3, September 1991, pp. 608-610) review of Michael Burleigh’s book, Germany Turns Eastwards: A Study of Ostforschung in the Third Reich, concludes the following:

Overall, one might conclude that Burleigh has given us a competent, complete monograph that lacks, however, the ironic twists and adventurous spirit which would have made it a truly outstanding book.

Remember, aspiring writers, especially those under sober, academic tutelage: ironic twists and an adventurous spirit can be what separates “competent and complete” from “truly outstanding.”

Group Proprioception Goes Interspecies

Some Seattle artist and I aren’t the only ones who think your pet should be life logging: the British government does too. Reading University has been commissioned to conduct a study of how much wildlife is being destroyed by domestic cats (McKie, Robin, “Special Tags to Measure How Often Cats Kill,” The Observer, 15 February 2009):

“For the first time, cats will be fitted with data loggers that will show their movements, range and behaviour 24 hours a day. We will know when one kills an animal — typically by the way it plays with its prey.

“We will then be able to work out precisely how many animals a cat is killing every year, and from that estimate a national figure. It will be a pretty formidable number.”

Now if they could just get some sort of pattern recognition software to read the live GPS data stream coming off your cat and tweet his kills to your cell phone, then your cat would be twittering too.

Carbon Offsets II

Das Boot (1981)

The company for which I work is located in an otherwise normal seeming building in downtown Washington, D.C., but it’s apparently up-to-code circa 1970s exterior belies a decrepit, crumbling cinder block. The HVAC has gone out somewhere between five and ten times this year. Most immediately, the air conditioning has been out for the last two days — it’s nominally back on today but they must be finessing it and we are loosing ground against the in-pouring solar radiation. The building is a greenhouse. Despite its being in the 90s, at least outside there’s a slight breeze. Inside it’s just dead, sweltering air. I’m in a cube near the window — a window that like in Office Space is mostly obscured by my cubical wall — so it’s particularly hot in my area. It’s like Das Boot in here: we’re dead in the water, stripped to our bare torsos, streaked in diesel fuel and struggling to work in the thinning, stagnant air.

Central HVAC is supposed to be this great civil engineering panacea, but despite decades of experience, I have yet to work in a place where the HVAC system operated well. As a result, employees all take illicit measures. At one point last winter the building management felt the need to reminded the company that the terms of the lease prevented employees from possessing individual space heaters. The accounting / admin. manager sent one of his minions around the office with a giant box to collect up all the offending heaters. But then, just a few weeks later the heat in the building conked out. It was only a matter of time before employees were at the accounting manager’s office door militating for their space heaters back.

So as long as I’m offering my own self up for sale as a carbon offset, I should add to the menu of offsets on offer, that if you are galloping through energy keeping your environs a comfortable, neutral temperature, kick a few bucks my way and I will sit around like our ancestors of generations, exposed to temperatures unregulated by the products of human ingenuity.

Carbon Offsets

Ezra Klein — a meat eater and a foodie, mind you — has had a lot to say about meat consumption as of late. Back in May he went so far as to say, “If I had more will power I’d be a vegetarian” (“View From a Herbivore,” TAPPED, The American Prospect, 8 May 2008). Today (“Why It’s Worth Talking About Meat,” ibid., 21 July 2008) he links to The PB&J Campaign that has the following grouping of factoids:

Each time you have a plant-based lunch like a PB&J you’ll reduce your carbon footprint by the equivalent of 2.5 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions over an average animal-based lunch like a hamburger, a tuna sandwich, grilled cheese, or chicken nuggets. For dinner you save 2.8 pounds and for breakfast 2.0 pounds of emissions.

Those 2.5 pounds of emissions at lunch are about forty percent of the greenhouse gas emissions you’d save driving around for the day in a hybrid instead of a standard sedan.

Hey, that’s pretty cool! Forget about planting a tree: I think I’m going to start positioning myself as a carbon offset! Wanna eat a Big Mack but feel kinda bad about it? Give me five dollars — PayPal button up in the corner — and count on me eating a block of tofu or an undressed salad to make up for your extra 2.5 pounds of carbon. And if you commuted to work and know you’re part of the problem, send ten and rest assured that I rode my bike to work in your stead. But if you play too many video games, I’m not tuning off my computer for you at any pricelevel.

On a related note I have been chuckling to myself and brandishing Will Wilkinson’s comment on why he bikes to work for some days now (“Bikes vs. Cars,” The Fly Bottle, 9 July 2008):

I honestly don’t give a fig about my carbon footprint (and anyway, since I’m not a breeder, I really should get carbon carte blanche).

So while I’m at it, if you have made more of us miserable ecosystem-trammelers and know it was just a guilty pleasure (what, a mirror not good enough for you?), then send money and I will refrain from procreative sex as a carbon offset for your brood.

Bush’s Götzen-Dämmerung; Obama’s Revaluation of All Values

This does even more for me than Hillary Clinton’s drinking habits:

Obama himself went through a period of “devouring” the work of Nietzsche while living in New York. It’s difficult to say what Obama might have absorbed from the German philosopher, mostly because Nietzsche himself is so hard to pin down, but one of Obama’s favorite instructors at Occidental told Mendell that anyone who immersed themselves in his thought would learn “to call everything into question.”

(Miller, Laura, “Barack by the Books,” Salon.com, 7 July 2008)

New York and Nietzsche! Could it be any more élitist? It kinda makes ya see the theme of change in a different light. As Nietzsche said, “… only beginning with me are there hopes again” (Ecce Homo, “Why I am a Destiny,” §1, trans. Walter Kaufmann, 1976).

The Squirrel Path of Naigedajo

Koike, Kazuo and Goseki Kojima, Lone Wolf and Cub, issue 3, The Gateless Barrier, July 1987, p. 39

Before I leave the issue of animals, I guess one more observation.

Our cat is an indoor cat and I like to torment him by enticing the squirrels into the backyard. I leave a trail of nuts along the top of the fence and the cat sits in the window despairing to bury his fangs into the throats of one of those rodents. And for their part, the squirrels love it. They dance and cavort outside the window, just inches from the cat. But there’s more to it than nabbing the nuts with impunity. The squirrels seem to revel in braving death. They will take up position on the fence and lock themselves into some mental faceoff with the cat, the most ready human analog that comes to mind is the contest of will between pitcher and batter in a baseball game (only with death on the line). They stair intently at each other. After a period of fixed stillness, they both begin to twitch their tails in some sort of converging harmonic. There’s this elaborate dance — a dance of death, if you will.

What is surprising to me is the utter level of clumsiness that seems to be effective for a predator. A predator doesn’t have to get the drop on their prey. Frequently enough, prey spot predator and seem to have some sort of prey behavior where they recognize and accept their prey destiny. It’s enough to make me believe in the Inuit practice of killing only the whale that an elder has confirmed has given itself willingly to the village. It’s like Freud’s death drive already present in some common ancestor.

Alternately, last week S. and I were sitting in the back yard and a regular outdoor cat who works a circuit up and down the alley of our block made a stop at our place. The nuts were out and so were the squirrels and I braced myself to intervene to save one of the creatures that I had enticed into harm’s way. The cat leapt up to the fencerail. The squirrels scattered, except one who stood his ground less than a foot away from the cat. This is a tough, gristly, street-smart black cat. He was prone for the kill. We could see the tension for the pounce build in his body. But this squirrel didn’t back down. They stared at each other and both did the tail routine. But after a few minutes of this psychic altercation, the cat relaxed into a submissive position. The squirrel won the faceoff through some means entirely invisible.

I acquired all of my knowledge of Zen Buddhism, Bushido and Kendo as a pre-teen through an intense study of Lone Wolf and Cub comics. And intense study is how I would characterize my interest in these books. To this day I still find occasion to break out some concept or bit of wisdom gleaned back then. In issue three of this most conceptual story, Itto Ogami is hired by town politicians to assassinate a local radical Buddhist priest who is militating for the peasants. When he finds that he cannot deliver the killing blow, the monk counsels Mr. Ogami on why he cannot:

That which is not … cannot be slain. You cannot kill me for I am a leaf of Naigedajo. Forget the self and unite with Mu, Nothingness.

To kill a man, you must first project the aura of death. Your opponent reciprocates, projecting his aura of death — or perhaps an aura of fear. Thus united can you wield the sword. This is Mu. But if no aura opposes yours … that which you project rebounds upon you. It is impossible to make such a cut. If you force yourself, you yourself will be cut.

Like Sensei Splinter, I think that squirrel must walk the gateless path of Naigedajo.

Supply Lines are Getting Longer and Harder to Maintain

George Carlin at Comedy Relief 1986

Speaking of a life devoted to little boxes, this George Carlin bit on the dilemma of consumerism was always one of my favorite comedy routines.

Long before it was popular to be an outspoken atheist à la Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett, George Carlin was blaspheming out a special corner of hell for himself.

Story of a Biker

Here’s how it works with bikes: first you don’t know how and don’t get those guys who dress like Indy cars with spandex diapers (Yglesias, Matthew, “Bikes,” TheAtlantic.com, 6 November 2007). Then some stupid user taunts you about being fat and lazy (Bloix, “comment,” TheAtlantic.com, 13 April 2008). So you buy a bike (Yglesias, Matthew, “Prepare for Bikeblogging,” TheAtlantic.com, 23 April 2008). A mere ten days later: I’d say that was some pretty effective taunt. Next thing you know you start getting all in the activist mentality and really enjoying it (Yglesias, Matthew, “Segway Boom,” TheAtlantic.com, 16 June 2008).