Friday, September 28, 2007

Research and Development Funding By Country

There's a very cool website
that shows maps of the world, where the size of each country is changed according to measures of that country. For example, the map above is research and development (R&D) funding.

Most enlarged, perhaps, is Israel, which spends a whopping 5% of its GDP on R&D; that's nearly twice what the US spends (Ruvinsky, 2007). Note that Japan is also very big. The entire continent of Africa almost disappears entirely.

I'm living in Canada now, and I'm disappointed to see that Canada has been shrunk quite a bit.

The website is fun to explore. The map for poverty

is, as you can see below, about the opposite of the R&D map.

Makes sense, you might say. They have more important things to spend money on, like the basics of their populace's welfare. Maybe so, but maybe not. It could be that cutting spending on R&D helps the country's present while dooming its future: "Basic research in the 1920s laid the foundation for the microelectronics industry of the 1950s; physicists' discoveries in the 1950s led to the nanotechnology of the 1990s." (Ruvinsky, 2007)


Ruvinsky, J. (2007). Planet science. Discover, October, 2007, 42--43.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

There's A Better Way (To Think)

I read a lot of science magazines in my spare time. The books I like to read the most are popular science books, with a few technical science books thrown in there. I've been doing this for years. In addition, my job is to be a scientist.

Needless to say, I know about a lot of studies. And since I'm in AI and Cognitive Science, I end up reading about a lot of studies about people. This is great, because, it turns out, people are the subject people most like to talk about. I end up having a lot to contribute to conversations.

However, this can be a problem.

The problem is that most people don't read about studies at all. I'm sure you've talked to people like this-- hell, you might be a person like this: the stuff you read, the stuff you watch just doesn't mention scientific studies.

What will happen is someone will bring up an interesting topic for conversation, expecting people to weigh in with their opinions and talk about it, but I mention a study that basically settles the issue. Sometimes people are delighted, but sometimes I get the impression they feel I've brought a machine gun to a fist fight: as though it's bad manners to mention the studies because the intention was to bring up a conversation topic. It's not fair to bring in science-- all they have are opinions, rumours, arguments and anecdotes. The way I see it, we shouldn't debate a settled issue; there are plenty of unsettled ones to chat about.

It's even worse when someone says something that's flat-out untrue, like that the SAT is biased against certain minorities. Once someone said that human beings are the only animals who kill when they don't need to. I know that cats, both wild and domestic, stalk more than they pounce, pounce more than they kill, and kill more than they eat. My bringing this up was met with irritation. Granted, I can be less than perfectly tactful when I mention these things; it gets under my skin when people spout untrue common wisdom. But still!

But you don't have to be a genius to know about scientific studies. Psychology Today and Discover magazines are written for the public. They're very readable and full of reports on actual scientific studies. Much of what I bring up in these conversations can be found in these magazines which can be found in any magazine shop.

Even when people read they often read opinions, editorials, and I sometimes get the feeling they just don't know that there's a better way to get at knowledge than through argumentation. And if you don't know anything about how studies are done, you have very little imagination about what studies can be done.

For example, I've heard people rhetorically ask "well, how can you measure happiness?" as though the very idea of it is patently ridiculous. It seems to me that if they spent a few minutes trying to think of how you could measure happiness they could think of some pretty good ideas, like, say, asking people how happy they are.

It's not a perfect measure, but it's better than throwing up our hands and giving up. Don't we all, every couple of days, ask someone we care about how they are? And not in the polite way as a greeting, but really to know? And don't we take what they say basically at face value when they say "I'm kind of depressed today" or "I'm feeling great!"? That's a rough measure of happiness.

It's my opinion that most people don't really understand how science can answer many of the questions they have about the world, and lack the imagination to think of how the studies could be done. This results in their not ever looking to science for the answers to these questions. There's a better way to think, to know. I marvel at the idea of the quality of conversation this world could enjoy if more people were aware of this.

Of course, that's just my opinion. It should be tested.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Expectations of Form

I'm currently reading Film Art (Brodwell & Thompson, 2008), and in it the authors suggest that form is the overall system that the artwork creates in the mind of the audience. The reason we get frustrated when a song or story is not completed is because it violates our expectations of form. To demonstrate form expectations they do a little Hofstadterian exercise, a version of which I will repeat here.

What do you think the next letter will be?


Even from this one letter, you would probably predict that the next letter is B, so that the sequence would read AB.


Ah, we were right. AB it is. That's satisfying. What's next? C?


Oh dear. This is discomforting because it does not follow a pattern we recognize.


Oh, here we go. We can now see a pattern: as each letter appears, it appears one more time than the last letter. We are again comforted.


Damn. Discomforted again. What is the pattern?


Well, we got it wrong, but now we can see that we have a comfortable symmetrical pattern.

I just had this idea five minutes ago, and it may suck, but here goes: for art that reveals itself over time (such as music, novels, and film), we can get great pleasure by violating expectations of certain patterns but eventually revealing more complex patterns.

We can see this in the progression in the letter string above. We keep thinking we see a simple pattern, then we are confused, but eventually it all falls together to something more beautiful.

Don't you think ABBCCCBBA is more interesting, more beautiful than ABCDEFGHI?

So how might this work in, say, a story?

You start the story with what appears to be a typical pattern of other stories.

Then you violate that pattern, temporarily violating the audience's expectations.

As the story progresses, however, a new, more complex order emerges which is ultimately more satisfying.

It's a new idea, and I'd love to hear anyone's thoughts on it. Perhaps it could be the basis of an AI story or music composer.
Pictured is a snapshot of colors from a slide projector, reflected on the celing with flexible reflective surfaces. Thanks to Daniel Saunders for setting it all up.
Bordwell, D. & Thompson, K. (2008). Film Art. Eighth Edition. McGraw-Hill: Boston.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Movie Food: Tacos

I am a big fan of Taco Bell. Close friends of mine know the sound I make when I want it-- an imitation of the old "BONG" sound from the TV ads of long ago. Unfortunately, Taco Bells are scarce in Ottawa.

The closest one is about a 20 minute drive. There is one, however, in a movie theater. It's stripped down, yes, but at least I can get a double-decker taco supreme.* So I go to the movies and get dinner at Taco Bell.

So I'm starting to think of tacos as movie food. In a few years I'll be like "Popcorn?! At a movie?"

Tacos are not that weird. In Hong Kong they sell dried squid at movie theaters (Bordwell & Thompson, 2008, p40).

Speaking of popcorn, I have been told I make the best popcorn ever. Here is my recipe:

Get a big pot and put about a centimeter of olive oil in it.

Heat on medium-high until a drop of water sizzles in it.

Cover the bottom of the pot with unpopped popcorn.

Put a lid on it, but release it occasionally to let the steam out.

As it heats, hold the lid down and shake it vigourously on the stove, back and forth, about every twenty seconds.

When the popping slows, take the pot off the heat.

Put the popcorn in a bowl.

Pour melted butter over it.

Put salt on it, and almost as much cayenne pepper.

* The double-decker taco supreme is a beef taco with sour cream, cheese, and lettuce in a hard corn shell which is wrapped in a flour tortilla, with some refried beans between the corn and flour tortillas. I put mild sauce on it.


Bordwell, D. & Thompson, K. (2008). Film Art. Eighth Edition. McGraw-Hill: Boston.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Twister (film)

On September 2, 2007, I worked very hard all day, and when I got home
I decided it would be a good idea to watch the movie "Twister" and
count the number of times any character said "Come on!"

It's a strangely pro- and anti-science film. The heroes have this new
technology they're all proud of, called "Dorothy" but then..

Bill: Jonas! Son of a bitch!

Melissa: Who is that, honey?

Bill: Jonas Miller. He's a nightcrawler. {He pulls alongside Jonas' window, they both nod their heads, acknowledging each other}We all started out in the same lab, but Jonas went out and got himself some corporate sponsors. He's in it for the money, not the science. He's got a lot of high-tech gadgets, but he's got no instincts. And he doesn't have Dorothy.

And in a movie in which the hero disses corporate sponsors, all cans
of soda are Pepsi.

Later we see the hero, Bill, picking up dirt and letting it fall from
his hand and looking at the sky. Meanwhile Jonas, that dirty rat, sits
in a diner looking at computer screens. It's so ridiculous. Also,
Jonas's vehicles are all black, you know, because he's the bad

I don't mean to complain too much, there are some many moments in the
film that are absolutely thrilling.

All told I counted 46 "Come on!"s. If anyone else wants to count, go
ahead and post it as a comment. I can't be the only one with "Twister"
on VHS, can I?

Mayne next time I'll count the "let's go!"s. I suspect the number will
be comparable.

Friday, September 07, 2007

The Signal (film)

I just heard that some actor friends of mine from Atlanta, Justin Welborn and Anessa Ramsey, starred in a movie made in Atlanta that got sold to Magnolia pictures. It's a horror film called "The Signal." I'm so proud of them!

You can see the trailer here

or at:

and the film's myspace page at:

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Food For Your Mind

An important aspect of creativity and using intelligence effectively is the ability to look at things in different ways. Marvin Minsky, an artificial Intelligence pioneer, said once that one of the wonderful things about the intelligence of physicist Richard Feynman was that he could always think of a new way to look at a problem. This notion is a part of my own research theme-- that changing the way you look at things can get you past impasses in your thinking.

It's likely that some of your ability to do this comes from your inborn fluid intelligence, but much of it comes from exposure to new ways of looking at things from your experience. As a scientist, I try to expose myself to all kinds of ideas.

For the last few weeks I've been trying to watch a TED talk every morning. TED is an organization that hosts talks by people with great ideas. Just this morning I watched a talk so incredible it almost made me cry. Neil Gershenfeld talked about the future of fabrication, and how it was getting more personalized. Anyone interested in poverty, computers, or the future should watch this talk. An embedded link follows.

He talks about how MIT students are getting great design ideas from third-world children. It makes me sad how people starve their minds from interesting ideas. I see people in the checkout line reading those horrible gossip magazines and I want to just shake them-- don't they know there's a world of wonderful ideas out there? And I don't feel it just for their own personal well-being. There are serious problems with this world; it inspires me to think of what we could come up with if more minds were nurtured properly. What splendid ideas would grow out of such a fertile landscape?

I highly recommend to every reader to catch a few TED talks, to do something, at least once a week, to expose your mind to something totally new. You just might be capable of more than you think.