Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas, Believing In Santa Claus, and Thursday

As an athiest, people ask me how I can celebrate Christmas. My answer
is that I celebrate the secular version of it. My family has always
had goodwill, decorated trees, gifts, etc. There's no mention of
Jesus, no going to church, etc.

People respond to this, sometimes, with bemused incredulity. They
mention that the word "Christ" is in the very word "Christmas," and
that it's meaningless without the religious aspect.

Such people are doing a serious injustice to the power of culture, and
the effect of the secular parts of Christmas that we all enjoy.

Ever had drinks after work every Thursday?
Are you worshipping Thor and Jupiter every time you do?
Or the Germanic deity Freyja every time you practice a casual Friday?

Of course you are not. The origin of the word does not completely determine
its current meaning.

There's plenty about Christmas that has nothing to do with Jesus's
birth. The tree, gift-giving, a celebratory dinner, family getting
together, as well as lots of stories: Frosty, Rudolph, and of course...

Santa Claus

I have a couple of friends who were not raised to believe in Santa
Claus. Often these friends don't want their kids to believe in Santa
either. Most people who were raised with the idea of Santa want to
pass on this tradition. The anti-santaists talk about misleading
children and breeding mistrust. But I don't know anyone who doesn't
trust their parents as a result of the Santa myth.

They also talk about belief in Santa as being corrosive to critical
thinking. I can't believe this happens either. I would eat my hat if
someone found even a tiny significant difference in critical thinking
ability between those who believed in Santa as a kid and those who did

They compare it to religion. Well, I would not want to tell my kids
there was a Santa if I thought there was the slightest chance of them
believing in him as an adult. But I don't know a single adult who
believes in Santa.

I don't want to tell my kid there's a God because they will grow up in
a world filled with people who actually think there's a God. This
community gives the very idea legitimacy.

So the standard critiques don't hold water, as far as I can see.

I feel sorry for the people who never believed in Santa. It inspired
my imagination. It's a celebration of being a child.

Anyway, Merry Secular Christmas to all, and to all a good Tuesday
(named after the Norse God of war, Tyr).

And now for a blog entry beyond your imagination!

I always groan when a film is advertised as being "beyond your
imagination." I'm a creative guy, and these advertisers don't know me,
and what they're really trying to impress upon me is merely that the
filmmakers have a broader imagination than me. I take some small
amount of offence, since often the film is very much within the bounds
of my imagination.

There's an interesting bit of folklore regarding the audience's
imagination. In horror movies, it's said that showing less of a
monster is more effective, because "what the audience thinks might be
there is more scary than anything you can show them." Though I think
this subtlety is effective, I think this is not the reason.

For one thing, most of us have not experienced horror directly. Have
any of you been hunted by a fanged monster, or chased by a psychopath
trying to kill you? Most of our ideas about what's horrific come from
the media to begin with. So when we don't know what's out there, out
imagination grabs onto these bits from movies and newspaper
stories. So what they imagine is stuff they've seen before which was
scary enought to dredge up again. So if nobody showed us anything
horrific, our imaginations wouldn't have much material with which to
make us scared.

This reminds me of when I was a little kid. An uncle wanted to scare
me so he took off his belt and held it menacingly. "Do you know what
this is?" he asked with a wicked look in his eye. "It's a belt!" I
said happily, having never heard that belts were used to beat

I can also think of terrifying film moments where the monster is shown
completely. Showing the ghost at the end of The Ring is scarier
than it would have been not showing the ghost, I'm quite confident.

If you've got lousy special effects, of course, it might be better to
not show the monster in full lighting, because it would look
fake. Technology has overcome this problem, for the most part.

Rather, I think the main reason not showing the monster often works is
because because darkness is scary all by itself.

The Blair Witch Project is an interesting case. It's a very scary
movie, and the ghosts are never really even shown. However, it's tough
to say whether it movie would be more or less scary if the monster
were ever shown. I think it depends, of course, on the design choices
with the monster itself.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

"I just found out there's something wrong with my brain... Thank goodness there's nothing wrong with my mind!"

What is the difference between the mind and the brain? Surprisingly, scientists who study human behavior/minds/brains don't agree on the answer to this question.

The answers people have are below:
1) The mind is the software that runs on the brain, which is the hardware. The mind as software view is mainstream cognitive science. Most cognitive scientists look at the mind/brain difference basically this way. I am one of these cognitive scientists.

2) The mind and the brain are the same thing. Specifically, there is not mind, there is only brain. This is the identity theory of mind.
Elimative materialists and radical behaviorists believe this. The Churchlands (Paul and Patricia) and a whole lot of dead behaviorists fall into these groups, respectively. This means a rejection of the cognitive science philosophical position of functionalism. And as a result, it suffers some problems. For example, if an alien visited Earth and was walking, and talking, feeling and emoting, but had no brain, we would still want to say the creature had a mind.

Non-scientists can sometimes hold a third view,

3) The mind is a non-material substance; the brain is material. This is what Descartes thought, and a lot of people (though not all) who believe in souls and new age bullshit. One of the many problems with this view is the famous mind-body problem, which is basically this: how does a non-material substance interact with a material substance?

View #1 has a similar problem, the "mind-brain problem," which, as of this writing, is not a term popular enough to warrant a Wikipedia entry. I think it's effectively solved with the software-hardware description. Now that we have computers and computer programs that run on them, it' s quite easy to understand how the mind might interact with the brain.

Most people hold view 1 or 3. I was just reading an interview with Oliver Sacks in Discover Magazine (Kruglinski, 2008). In it Sacks talks about a case in which a woman who can't perceive music (she hears it as noise) finds out that it has a neurological basis. She was relieved to find out that it's not "just in her mind" (quoting Sacks here).

Okay, so it's not just in her mind, but my goodness, it's surely in her mind too. If you can't make out music, believe me, sister, there's something wrong with your mind. So sad! Imagine never being able to appreciate the genius of Hello Nasty.

Descartes's dichotomy of the non-material mind and the material brain still lingers on in our cultural understanding of psychology. One place I think it arises is in the "problem" of free will. Your brain determining how you react to an environment is not a troublesome notion if you think that the brain running your mind is all you are. People say "but my brain controls me!" As though the "me" were some spirit. Your "me" is just the software running on the brain. Your brain and mind determining what you do is your exercising of free will, at least in any meaningful sense of the term.

Pictured: Someone using their mind. And brain.


Kruglinski, S. (2008). The Discover interview: Oliver Sacks. Discover, January, 2008, 72--78.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Poetry: This City Is Made For Us

My poem was just published in the online literary journal "Bywords," in their December, 2007 issue.
You can check it out at

I just found out the poem will be featured in the Bywords Quarterly Journal as well. I am officially a published poet!

Added Monday, December 17:

Bywords is hosting an event in Ottawa called "Bywords Warms the Night" at which I will read this poem.
Location: Chapters bookstore, 47 Rideau St., Ottawa, Ontario
Time: 2pm, January 20, 2008

Pictured are some tulips I photographed in Ottwa in the summer of 2007. The poem in question is about how much I love this city.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Bottled Water Controversy

There's a controversy going on right now in Canada regarding the use of bottled water in government. A group, primarily for environmentalist reasons, is trying to get a rule in place that bottled water is not used in government buildings. I suppose they probably mean not sold in government buildings, nor put out when events are catered.

It turns out that bottled water is less regulated than tap water, in terms of safety. That means, given some random bottle of bottled water, it need not, legally, be as healthful as water you get from the tap. The argument goes that tap water is at least as good as bottled.

In addition there are environmental reasons not to use bottled water. It's just water, for crying out loud, so why bottle it and ship it and then throw it away? The shipping, creation, and disposal of bottled water uses a lot of energy, which means more pollution. Drinking water shipped in from Fiji, for example, is a huge waste of energy.
(Ironically, bottled waters also get criticized for not being spring water. I hear people complain about Dasani being from the tap (they add minerals.) From an environmental perspective, it's better that it's from the tap, though it is deceptive to call it "spring water," which, in all fairness, Dasani doesn't do. )

So environmentally, it sounds like a no-brainer, right?

The bottled water companies have argued with this, and they just might be right: bottled water competes with soda (pop, as Canadians and people from Rochester say), not tap water. People are drinking bottled water instead of Pepsi, not tap water.

This has interesting environmental implications, if true. If people are choosing bottled water over Coke, it means that if bottled water isn't an option they'll drink Coke. A bottle of Coke is no better for the environment than water, and it's worse for your teeth and weight. I know that sometimes I've seen a tray of drinks, and if I was very thirsty, I'd just get water instead of Crush or something. Bottled water may be less likely to be healthful than tap water, but it's very probably better for you than Crush.

If, on the other hand, people drink bottled water as an alternative to tap water, then yes, it is wasteful.

There's probably a bit of both going on. It calls for scientific study. Interviewing people on their habits of drinking water of various kinds could shed some much needed scientific light on the subject.

Anybody know of such a study?

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Intelligence: Artificial vs. [real | natural]

I'm watching Jeff Hawkins's TED talk and I recommend it. However I am
annoyed by the same thing that annoyed me when I read his interesting
book On Intelligence: his use of the term "real intelligence."

He's got this theory of the brain and what intelligence is and how it
works. In his mind it's different from the way AI researchers frame
it, so he wants to distinguish himself from it, so rather than calling
what he does "artificial intelligence," he calls it "real
intelligence." It's manipulative rhetoric and I disapprove.

The term "artificial intelligence" is a little unfortunate because the
word "artificial" has multiple senses. The intended meaning is
that it is made by people. In this sense the opposite of
"artificial" is "natural." AI is different from your mind in that the
former is artificial where your mind is natural.

The other sense of "artificial" means, basically, "fake." The
opposite of this sense of the word is "real." Along with
this sense come the feelings that artificial things are worse than the

So the rhetorical move Hawkins makes is to deliberately misinterpret
the intended sense of "artificial" and distinguish himself from
that. The effect is to make AI look like a sham, a crappy imitation,
worse than real, a pale imitation. His company is making AI, just like
lots of other people, but he doesn't call it that. Just because his
AIs are inspired by brain theory doesn't mean they are not human-made.

So if you're reading this, Jeff Hawkins, shame on you. That said, your
book is pretty good otherwise.

It's part of a disturbing phenomenon. The term "artificial
intelligence" has kind of a bad reputation (for a bit of discussion on
this topic see my other post at
People then want to distance themselves from the term. I think it's

I tell people proudly that I'm an
artificial intelligence researcher and try to deal politely with
hearing the same joke over and over*, as well as the reactions of
fear** and skepticism***. I try to make AI sound as good as I can.

Sometimes words need healing.

* The joke follows the same strategy Hawkins uses: they point to their
friend and say "that's what he's got" or some such. Christ on a crutch
I'm sick of hearing that joke. The deliberate misinterpretation of the
sense of "artificial" is forgivable in a joke, but not in a scholarly

** People often say "that's scary." The movies people tend to watch
that feature AI often involve the AI being evil: The Terminator
movies, War Games, The Matrix movies, Alien, Battlestar Galactica, I
Robot, 2001, etc. I encourage people to think R2D2, not the liquid metal T-1000.

*** People sometimes flat out tell me AI is impossible. It always
amazes me that people with no training in AI or psychology can be so
sure of themselves about this. They will eat their words someday.