Monday, February 28, 2011

A Few Bad Men, Two Bad Cultures

A recent article tells that the Catholic Church knows that there has been a good deal of sexual assault on nuns by priests, particularly in Africa.

In a world plagued by AIDS, nuns are sometimes singled out as victims because they are perceived as safe. Anyway, it's a horrible thing. Your instinct might be to blame and want to punish the priests who did this. I know I get that feeling. However, I get another feeling too.

There are social forces going on here that exacerbate the problem. The systemic problem is sexism, both in many African countries and in the Catholic Church. The church only allows men to be priests. This would not be so bad, except for the fact that priesthood comes with authority over nuns. There is a built-in sexual power differential in Church culture.

Similarly, in Africa, many countries are very male-dominated (as described in the article). Mixing these two sexist cultures results in a situation that is very bad for women. On top of that there is the fear of AIDS.

If it were just a problem of "a few bad eggs," then you'd expect the abuse rates to be relatively constant across countries. But it is not, pointing to a cultural and geographical influence.

I'm not saying that these men are any less to blame. That's not the point. The point is that if you want to solve this problem, you need to change the systems in which they happen. We live in a time of cultural acceptance, which is a good antidote to the way things were, which was a state of explicit bigotry. However, we should not let the pendulum swing too far in the other direction to complete moral relativism. Sometimes cultures have aspects to them that are bad, given almost everyone's values.

I am reminded of the torture done by Americans. The reaction of the public, and the government, was to bring to justice those who allowed this to happen. Again, it was the "few bad eggs" reaction. As Zimbardo describes in this excellent TED talk, those military people who did these crimes are in part reacting to a system that allows, or even encourages such things to happen.

Pictured: Rollerblading nuns. 
By April Sikorski from Brooklyn, USA [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

2010 Book Wrap-Up

Frost Moon

For me and reading, 2010 was the year I tried to abandon paper. I am already at the point where I will probably ignore a novel that is not available in electronic form. However, for scholarly books, I still prefer paper, for reasons I've discussed in another blog post:

I got a Kobo e-reader, and loved it until it had a software "upgrade" that ticked me off so much I returned the device. My reasons for this I've blogged about too:

I now own an iPad and an iPhone, and I read on those devices. I read novels on the iPhone (using the Kobo or Kindle applications). I actually prefer this to the dedicated e-reading device for a few reasons.
  1. - The screen is self-lit, so I can read in the dark without waking my beloved.
  2. - It's actually very easy on the eyes. I use a black background gray letters. It's very pleasant.
  3. - I can read with one hand, or no hands if it's on a table. 
  4. - It's always with me, unlike the Kobo or an actual book. 
And although I still like paper for heavy reading where I'm making tons of notes, I use my iPad for the middle ground, where I might want to make a few notes, but not a whole lot. This is mostly for non-fiction that is not too heavy (e.g., books like A Paradise Built in Hell).

For a list of all the books I've ever read since 1993, see

Here are the books I read in 2010:

Gods of the Word: Archetypes in the Consonants by Margaret Magnus

The first book I read on the Kindle (iPad application). A book for non-scientists about her theory of phonosemantics.

Handbook of Imagination and Mental Simulation
Keith D. Markman (Editor), William M. P. Klein (Editor), Julie A. Suhr (Editor)
This took me a year and a half to read. Full of stuff very relevant to my research.

Frost Moon (Skindancer, Book 1)
Anthony Francis

This book was written by a dear friend of mine, and I'm so proud of him. Check it out. It's good!
Read this one on paper. Anthony signed it for me and my beloved when we visited him in California.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
Max Brooks

Excellent world-building. Fascinating.  Read on the Kobo device.

The Lightning Thief
Rick Riordan

My beloved and I listened to this on CD as we drove up the coast of California. Pretty good.

Under and Alone: The True Story of the Undercover Agent Who Infiltrated America's Most Violent Outlaw Motorcycle Gang
William Queen

Interesting insight into motorcycle gangs. Read on Kobo device.

The Diamond Age
Neal Stephenson

Read on my Kobo device with great frustration. The chapters are incredibly long, and sometimes when I'd synch the Kobo it would forget my bookmark. As my beloved and I sat by Ashley Pond in Los Alamos, New Mexico, I spent 15 minutes paging through to get to where I was. Infuriating. That said, it's a awe-inspiring book. 

Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets
Sudhir Venkatesh

Listened to this on CD with my beloved as we drove across America.

The Compleat Academic darley, Zanna, Roediger (Eds.)

My book on how to be a scientist is being reviewed by a publisher-- I needed to read all the other scientist advice books out there. 

Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde

The last book on tape I listened to before we sold sold our car. Fascinating world in which you can travel into the realities of different novels. Light-hearted, and creative.

The Mantram Handbook
by Eknath Aeswaran

This guy is my favorite author when it comes to meditation.

Pictured: Frost Moon, by Anthony Francis.

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Monday, February 07, 2011

What I Watched Instead of the Superbowl: Video Dance

I love watching dance, which often means watching it live on stage. Video dance, which is dance made for the camera, is relatively rare, but, I believe, a better medium for dance.

Dance performances typically occur on stage with a live audience. Sometimes these performances are documented on video or film. This is not what I'm talking about.

Video dance is dance made for the camera. It's not just a long-shot of a stage. I think video dance is a better medium for dance for two reasons:

  1.  Dance is tiring, and this places major constraints on what can be done on stage, unlike traditional theatre, because saying lines is not exhausting. Film is better for dance for the same reason film is better for martial arts.
  2.  Choreographed dance requires an enormous amount of rehearsal and effort. There should be more payoff than a few performances. Film can last forever.

It's difficult to describe the concept of video dance to people-- even dancers. They bring up movies like The Company,  or the recent The Black Swan, which are not a dance movies, but normal movies about dance. Most video dances that are made are music videos, and occasionally musicals that are made info films, such as West Side Story.

Last night my wife and I had dancer Natasha Royka over for dinner and to watch some video dance. We watched Lodela. You can see it here (24 minutes):

Even if you only watch the first minute or so, you will see how different it is from documenting staged dance. The camera is placed on the head, the camera is put upside down, there are close-ups of eyelids. This stuff you can't do on stage. You can try to get the same feeling by doing other things, but you can't do them like this.  It's beautiful. A part of me would love to make video dance.

We also watched this Pas de Deux:
Which uses a film technique, but you will note that it is basically documentation: One point of view, the dancers' full bodies are visible for almost all of it.

We also watched some popular dance that I'm a fan of:

Les Twins:
We No Speak Americano:

Saturday we had a much worse dance experience.
We went to see Savion Glover.

Here is a two-minute clip of the kind of stuff Savion Glover does (not from the show I saw, but you'd never know the difference):

Impressive, right? Well, picture that lasting a hour and a half. He has no stage presence, he rarely even looked up, his hands did basically nothing. He was poorly lit, and wore black on a black background. It was a very boring show.

I complained to Natasha, who recommended the Nicholas Brothers. This clip blew me away. This is what I want to see in tap dancing (3 minutes):


I feel a little bad about dissing Glover, but for the opportunity cost. When I think of all the talent in the world, who was the NAC not showing because they had him?

If you are interested in dance or pilates in Ottawa, check out the Natasha Royka Movement Studio.

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Friday, February 04, 2011

Art and Natural Objects

What do you think of this painting? What does it mean to you?

Now that you have an opinion of it, I'll tell you that it was made by a computer program that knows about color and composition and the structure of the human body, but has no knowledge of human emotion: Aaron (McCorduck, 1991). Does knowing this diminish or increase your appreciation of it?

When I talk to people about AIs (artificial intelligences) and art, I typically get a pretty stiff response. Some people claim that computers* cannot make art, either yet or in principle, or that they can't make good art, or that they just would not be happy with any artworks made by computers. Note that this is an informal influence. Formal aspects of a work of art are aspects of the work itself, independent of its history and context. Who made a painting is information related to the art, but seen to be in a different category than, say, where the lines are and what colors are being used.

Unless you're like me and enamored with computers and AI, knowing that a program made the painting above probably diminished your appreciation of it. Usually this is the effect: if a person made it, it's better, and if a person didn't make it, it's worse.

Take a look at this painting:

What do you think?

It was made by an elephant. (

I think people go two ways on this. Some people who like the painting will feel cheated-- that the meaning they thought they saw in it is invalid because the painter had no idea what he or she was doing. Others will be fascinated by the idea that an elephant could do this at all, and perhaps appreciate the painting more.

Like my love for computers, I bet a love for animals, in opposition for a love for art, would determine the direction (positive of negative) of knowledge of the painter.

In some cases, though, having some agent make the object could decrease its value to a person. I came across this parable in De Sousa (2004):

Once upon a time, a man walking on the beach found a pebble that looked oddly like a human face. Amazed at this result of millions of years of random friction by stones, sand, and water, the man took it home. He treasured it: often he looked at it, haunted by its accidental beauty. One day, he showed it to a guest who said "Oh, no, I'm sure it's one of Nick's rejects--that hippie sculptor who carves souvenirs for tourists. He sometimes dumps his botched ones back on the beach." Now the pebble was nothing but the charmless reject of a mediocre craftsman. All the strange wondrous beauty the man had so much loved was gone. 

* I'm using computers as a shorthand for computer programs, of course.


De Sousa, R. (2004). Is art an adaptation? Prospects for an evolutionary perspective on beauty. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 62(2, Special Issue: Art, Mind, and Cognitive Science), 109-118.

 Pamela McCorduck (1991). Aaron's Code. W.H.Freeman & Co Ltd.

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Wednesday, February 02, 2011

What Real-World Problems Can Be Solved with Computer Games?

Above is a very interesting TED talk about computer games, by Tom Chatfield.

I've written before about serious games, and today I have some more thoughts on the subject. The world has all kinds of problems that need solving. Can we get everyday people working on these problems in the context of a game?

Let's take climate change as an example. Let's suppose we make a computer game in which the goal is to fix the climate problem facing the world today. Players adjust things in the game, and you do well in the game if the climate gets better. Sounds great, right?

The problem is this: we don't understand the world well enough to make such a game realistic. Think of how complex the internal model of the game would have to be, including not only the geophysics and chaotic weather systems of Earth, but also economics, pollution, politics, and industry. Hell, you might even need to model the future of technology, which is impossible.

Even if we were to be able to make such a model, there's a good chance that once we did, we would not need people to solve the problem-- an AI doing a smart search through the space of solutions might be faster. As I mentioned in my earlier post, the task needs to be one that people are good at but computers are not. Usually this means leveraging common-sense reasoning or perception.

The reason existing serious games often require agreement between the players is because the computer can't check to see if the player is right. If it could, we wouldn't need the game.

Perhaps a way to do some of these problems is to have plans automatically generated, and people try to agree on their plausibility or implausibility.

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