Monday, March 31, 2008

Calligraphy on Display, April 2008

Two of my pieces of calligraphy (Davies (shown above) and Explore) will be on display during April, 2008 at the main branch of the Ottawa Public Library on the corner of Laurier Metcalf street.

Two others (To The Willow and Life Finds A Way) will be on display at the display case at the Nepean Centrepointe Branch Library.

It's part of the Calligraphy Society of Ottawa's annual exhibit.

All of my pieces on display are for sale.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Controlling Pleasure

Blog: Pleasure Centers

When I was in college I believed in "psychological egoism."
It holds that people always act in their perceived self-interest, even when appearing to do things that are altruistic.
I now reject this view because it's vacuous, unfalsifiable, and for the most part useless.
It is a way to look at human beings, and in one way it's useful: at the brain level, it's probably true. That is, for every action we decide to take, it's probably because of some expected reward.

What's interesting is that it's an expected reward from the brain itself. Let's say you're trying to accomplish something, like raking a lawn. When you accomplish it, you perceive that you've accomplished it. The perception of accomplishment causes a reaction in your brain that gives you pleasure. This pleasure acts as a reward, making acting in a similar way in the future more probable. This is a kind of operant conditioning called "positive reinforcement."

Note, though, that the pleasure comes from a chain of events. You affect the world through your actions, you perceive an accomplishment, and you feel pleasure. The last two steps are completely inside your own brain.

This means that we certainly do not have direct control over the pleasure-giving parts of our brains. If we did, we could just make ourselves feel extraordinary pleasure whenever we wanted to. But we cannot. I can raise my hand at will, or sing a song whenever I want to, but if I want to give myself an enormous surge of pleasure, nope. We have to work to try to make our pleasure centers pleasure us by acting in the world! I find this thought rather startling.

Evolutionarily, this is very important. If we could experience pleasure just by willing it, we probably would not do much else. Imagine, for example, if people could be outfitted with a button on their chest. Whenever this button gets pressed, the person feels an enormous surge of pleasure. Imagine you had the option of getting this button installed in your own chest. Would you do it?

If you hadn't ever asked yourself a question like this before, your initial reaction was probably an enthusiastic "yes!" followed by a more careful consideration of what having such a button would do to your life. Why try to work to accomplish anything if the reward you get for accomplishment can be achieved by just pressing the button on your chest? Indeed, you might imagine yourself just pressing the button all day long. Sound a little like drug addiction? It does to me too. As Marvin Minsky says in his "Society of Mind" book, drugs are a way of feeling like you've accomplished something without actually doing anything. I would not get the button. It does not jibe with my values.

So there is evolutionary pressure to not be able to simply will yourself to feel pleasure. The pleasure-granting system must be outside the control of what we normally think of the "executive controller" in the mind, or indeed any of the decision-making systems we have. Evolution made it hard to get pleasure. Evolution made only certain things give us pleasure: food, sex, warmth, companionship, etc. Those who had to work to feel pleasure were more likely to reproduce.

Certain meditative traditions claim that you can feel elation and joy from long meditative practice. I believe it. But I have to wonder if what they're doing is rewiring their brain so they have a little more control over the pleasure center. I don't want to say too strongly that meditation might be like drug use, but, well, maybe meditation is like drug use. You're feeling pleasure and accomplishing nothing. In fact, not only are you not doing anything, many traditions encourage you to try not to even think about anything.

Other, non-meditative traditions give this the venerable title "wasting time."

I feel similarly about most media. When we feel pleasure from reading, or playing games, or watching movies or plays, we are tricking our minds into thinking what we're seeing is real. It's not real, it's a simulation. Our brains did not evolve to distinguish between movies and real life. You know at a very high level it's just a movie, but much of your brain thinks it's real. If it didn't why would you ever get scared, happy, sad, or turned on by a movie? Indeed, when people are not moved by a story, it's often because it was "unrealistic."

On the other hand, it was a great advantage to our species to be able to learn from stories we heard, so we didn't have to learn everything the hard way. Evolution had a tough job, trying to get us to be able to learn from narratives and watching others while not allowing us to trick our pleasure centers too easily. It sounds like a tricky balance.

It's a little disturbing to think that meditation and reading novels is a little like taking drugs. But it's something I want to watch out for. I have values about productivity, about making the world a better place, and I want to feel pleasure from working toward satisfying these values, and keep an eye on how much pleasure I'm getting just by tricking my mind.

Pictured is someone meditating. Or wasting time, depending on your tradition.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

When More People Are Better

Certain places are better if there are fewer people there. This is
true of national parks and museums. Administrators of places like this
are in an interesting bind: they want to attract more visitors, while
at the same time they know that the more people show up the worse the
experience is for those who do. Other examples of places like this are
airplanes, roads, the beach, and grocery stores.

Other places are not like that. Dance clubs, parties, city parks, and bars are
like this, for the most part. There is a point where there are too
many people, but more often the complaint is that the place is "dead."
As a result people all tend to go on the weekend, because that's when
everyone else is going.

This also is true of many virtual spaces. In the 90s everyone I knew
was using, then people started getting into, and now the hot thing seems to be As far as
I can see they are all just tweaks on the same concept, but I find
myself using facebook more now simply because there are more people in my
social circles
using it. I never get messages through my friendster account anymore.

I think scientific institutions are of this latter kind too. It
might be nice if finding a place to do science is like finding an
undiscovered beach, but the truth is that you can do better science
if you're surrounded by other great scientists. As a result, I want to
be at the best scientific institution I can.

I was reading an article in Discover (Pitock, 2007) that describes the
scientific environment in Muslim countries. Over the centuries Islam
has varied in how permissive it has been to science, but one of the
things that makes the west so great is that it's much more open to
scientific inquiry. For the most part, you don't have to worry about
whether or not your ideas conflict with religion or politics.

There are exceptions, of course. You can get into trouble if you even
suggest that women or minorities have some sort of innate mental
differences, and even sometimes physical differences.

It doesn't surprise me at all that there's a brain drain from the east
to the west. Since the west is ahead right now, it's hard for the east
to catch up. It's a rich-get-richer scenario. Once everyone goes to
the west, you have no (career-related) reason to ever leave.

When I think about where I'm going to go on sabbatical, I sometimes
fancy going to some second- or third-world country, but ultimately I
remember that I would be much better off going to MIT or Carnegie

But what about the good of these poorer countries? Well, I could
consider going to these countries as an act of charity. As a scientist
trained in the west, I can help foreign institutions by publishing
papers with their universities listed in the credits, as well as help
train the graduate students there with my expertise.

One of the great things about science and technology, however, is that a discovery
anywhere tends to help people everywhere. For example, medical
discoveries only need be made once for everyone to benefit from
them (e.g. that germs cause many diseases and that cleanliness can
prevent disease). So it doesn't matter if all the breakthroughs come from one area of a twenty mile radius: in general it does not affect how the world responds.

So is it better to work at a better place to help all of humanity or
to go to a less-fortunate place to help them more immediately? I see
it as a short-term/long-term trade off. We need people discovering more
efficient ways to grow food (long term), we need distribution, soup kitchen
managers, and people ladling soup to the destitute (short term).

So ultimately I think one should maximize one's potential to affect
positive change. If you're a better mentor than researcher, then
perhaps the less-fortunate country would be the right choice. If
you're completely anti-social but good at discovery, sabbatical at
CMU (pictured).


Pitock, T. (2007). Science and Islam. Discover. July, 36--45.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

When You Meet Someone, The First Thing You Think To Say Is Probably The First Thing Everyone Says

I'm an artificial intelligence researcher, and when I introduce myself
as such I get the same joke over and over again. I've mentioned this
in a previous blog entry:

People always point to their friend and say "That's what he has" or
refer to themselves, "that's what I have." Then there's the inevitable
complaint from some humanities student about how AI will take over the
Earth or is impossible.

When I was studying psychology, people would always half-jokingly act
scared and suggest that I was going to analyze them or their
dreams. This was even more irritating because Georgia Tech's Psych
department didn't even have a clinical program. I'm sure many, many
jobs have this kind of thing going on. You have to deal with the same
jokes, the same comments, over and over.

My man Daniel Saunders put it well: "When you meet someone, the first
thing you think to say is probably the first thing everyone thinks to
say." In other words, don't say it. You think you're clever, and you
probably are, as much as everyone else is, and that's the problem.
Unless it's extraordinarily clever, they've probably heard it, as they
say, a million times.

Monty Python makes fun of this phenomenon it the travel agent sketch:

Tourist: My name is Smoke-too-much

Bounder: Well you'd better cut down a little then.

Tourist: What?

Bounder: You'd better cut down a little then.

Tourist: Oh I see! Cut down a little then.....

Bounder: Yes...I expect you get people making jokes about your name
all the time.

Tourist: No, no actually it never struck me before.

Bounder: Anyway you're interested in one of our adventure holidays?


Anyway, that's the advice for this entry.

  • If someone's name is "Michael Jackson," don't start singing "Beat It."
  • If someone is a proctologist, don't make a disgusting joke.
  • If someone studies business ethics, don't say "isn't that an oxymoron?!"
  • If someone does math, don't tell them you hate math or how much you sucked at it in high school. No one cares, you self-obsessed bore.
  • If someone is an intern at the White House, don't ask them if they blow the president.
  • If you meet a doctor (in a social context), don't tell her about a problem you're having.
  • If someone has a double-major in two seemingly disparate disciplines,
    don't comment on it.
  • If someone's in a fraternity, don't tell them right off the bat about how you disapprove of them, or ask if they've raped anyone lately.
  • If two people are twins, don't ask if they can tell each other apart. The idea is so absurd it's not even funny the first time. And believe me, your time won't be the first. Also, don't ask them if they have telepathy.
  • If someone's a lumberjack, don't sing the Monty Python song.
  • Don't tell psychologists that you bet they're reading your mind or analyzing you.
  • If someone's name is the name or in the chorus of a song, don't start singing it (e.g. Roxanne, Celia).
  • When you hear someone's major, especially if it's in the humanities, don't ask "what are you going to do with that?" Most people's jobs have nothing to do with their major. Also, it's okay if people don't know what they want to do with their lives when they're still in college, so knock it off.
  • If someone's birthday is on or near Christmas, don't ask if they get fewer presents. Of course they do.

When I do these things and get caught I'm apologetic and terribly

I'd love to hear your experiences with this in the comments, giving or
receiving. What's your job/major, and what do people always say when they
hear it?

Receiving these remarks requires more patience than a New York City
ER. I've recently figured out why (this may be obvious to many of you,
but I just realized it). You correct someone, or you tell them "I've
heard that a million times." Then someone else does it, and you say it
again, or laugh again. Eventually you get really irritated and tempted
to yell at them. Why? Because at some level it feels like it's the
same person saying it to you over and over, and why can't it get
through their thick head?
You forget it's a new person saying it,
who is no more more deserving of your rage than the lucky first person
who just happened to do it before you got so irritated.

On a positive note, what should you say when someone tells you
their job (since in our culture that's kind of how we introduce
ourselves)? Remember that people are interested in the details of how
they do their jobs. So never ask questions like "What's that like?"
Ask specific questions, like "How much of your time is spent on the
road?" or how they solve certain problems.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Big Screens

I saw a Bill Buxton talk in 2004 or 2005. In it he said that within six years computer monitor square footage would be cheaper than whiteboard square footage. I'm looking forward to year 2011. This may be true. I've always been a fan of big screens (actually, I'm a fan of big screens on the desktop, small screens for laptops). Recently I found that a study was done showing that big screens really help your productivity. You could be 52% faster.

Right now I have a decent-sized screen, turned vertically. The screen can be turned in any direction, but for the most part I keep it vertically oriented. Here's why: most of the stuff I deal with is vertically orgainzed: email, documents, programming. The only things that a horizontal monitor are better for are watching movies/videogames (which I don't do at work), and certain webpages.

However, it's been my dream now, for several years, to have a huge monitor. I mean like wall-covering. If you think that sounds like too much space, think about why a big desk is better than a small one and you'll start to understand. It's easy to processing and understand things when they're spatially organized.

Big monitors are expensive, so I've been holding back. I'm thinking of getting an additional monitor to put beside the one I have.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Insensitivity Training reviewed in Ottawa Metro

I started doing improv with a group a while back. We perform in Ottawa at the Bytown Tavern 9pm every Sunday night ($2 cover) . We just got a good writeup in a local paper, "Metro."

If this link dies, check the comments to this post; I will try to put a link to a pdf there when the above link dies.
Pictured is me in the improv show. I have no recollection of what I was doing in this shot. Also in the shot are my fellow improvisors Mitch and Sloan.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Spread of Correlation

I was just reading Discover magazine (March, 2008) and came across a review of a book that looks very cool. It's On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not by Robert A Burton.

I immediately went to to put it on my wish list.

Then amazon brought me to the page where it shows you other things bought by people who bought the book you just looked at. I saw another interesting-looking book: Big Brain: The Origins and Future of Human Intelligence by Gary Lynch and Richard Granger. Right up my alley.

I went back to reading Discover to find that this Big Brain book was reviewed on the same page. It struck me, for the first time, that the proximity of the book reviews in some media (magazine, podcast, radio interview, etc.) might actually cause people who buy one book to buy the second. Then this correlation gets reported on amazon. Fascinating!

Friday, March 07, 2008

Art: "Remembrance"

Here is a calligraphy piece I did around remembrance day last year.