Friday, November 25, 2011

Don't Waste Student Work: TEDxOttawa 2011 Talk by Jim Davies

I gave a talk at TEDxOttawa on October 22, 2011 on my philosophy of education. I am quite proud of it.

You can watch it and get more information about it here:

Thanks to the organizers!

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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

My Calligraphic Art Will Be For Sale at SKETCH to Benefit SAW Gallery

Ottawa residents: I donated several pieces for this benefit. I will be there late, because my beloved's choir is performing that same night. 

Galerie SAW Gallery and Scotiabank present
Galerie SAW Gallery’s ever popular holiday fundraiser, with more than 175 participating artists!
Friday, November 25, 8PM - 2AM
67, Nicholas Street, Ottawa

You won’t know what to choose from the hundreds of works available in every style imaginable! With many works priced affordably, starting at only $10, you have no excuse not to get your hands on some beautiful, tender little drawings for your lovers, friends or family. Be an original this holiday season by sharing with your loved ones the powerful gift of art.

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Monday, November 14, 2011

Publication: Using semantic similarity to predict angle and distance of objects in images

I have a new publication, which is in the proceedings of the Creativity and Cognition conference. My graduate student Sterling Somers presented it, and he did a great job. I'm going to use some of his ideas the next time I present this work.

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What Does It Mean For a Computer Program To Be Creative?

Last week I was at the ACM Creativity & Cognition Conference and in one of the workshops we got into an argument about the nature of creativity (no surprise there).

Some people were saying that for a program to be creative required that it change the search space it was using. To understand this point of view, it's important to understand what artificial intelligence researchers mean by "search space."

For any given task, the search space is a theoretical graph of states of the world that can be reached through action. For example, in chess, each move you can make puts the board into a different state. If you were to link all of the possible moves going from one state to another, then you'd have a description of the search space. In chess, you can't legally move a pawn backwards. So there is no link between the two states of the board that would require that move.  Typically we picture the search space as a graph, which is a bunch of nodes connected by links. The nodes are the states, and the links are the actions. However, the picture of a graph that we might have in our heads or on paper can be misleading, because for any serious domain the search space is unimaginably large. In chess, the number of board configurations is commonly thought to be ten to the 120th power. That means a 1 with 120 zeros after it.

Playing chess is often viewed as navigating this search space.

So, back to the creativity question. When people talk about true creativity expanding the search space, they mean adding states and actions to the space itself.  The classic tale of the Gordian knot is a great example of this. The Gordian knot was a fiendish knot that baffled all of those who tried to unravel it. Legend has it that Alexander the Great solved the puzzle by chopping the knot with his sword (pictured.) He expanded the search space, which had been assumed by everyone else to include only pulling at rope. Personally, I find this about as creative as winning a chess game by strangling your opponent, but I guess I can see the allure of this tale.

Although expanding the search space is undoubtedly creative, requiring an expansion of the space to qualify a thing or process as creative is setting the bar far too high.

For one thing, the search space that human chess players use is the same search space that computer programs use. If expanding that space is required for creativity, then it's impossible for any human to be creative in chess either. The same holds for music composition. If you think of musical notation, there are a finite, albeit enormous, number of ways notes and rests can be arranged on a single page. But nobody would think that creating a new piece of music was not creative.

As for chess-playing computers, they are teaching things about chess to chess experts.

“They make a lot of counterintuitive, even absurd-looking, moves that on closer inspection can turn out to be outrageously creative…By generating countless new ideas, they are expanding the boundaries of chess, enabling top players to study the game more deeply, play more subtly.” –John Watson, international chess master, Quoted in Best American Science Writing 2006, p13, from Mueller’s New Yorker article on AI chess “Your Move.”

Pictured: Alexander the Great cuts the Gordian knot. A public domain image from wikimedia commons.

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Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Doing Things Every Day

I have a list of things that I like to do every day. The list makes me more productive. It also makes me more busy, because doing these things takes time away from other things. In this essay I'll discuss my thoughts on this after doing it for years.

What To Do Every Day

There are a few reasons why you might want to do something every day. The first is that it has a combination of being important and not incredibly fun. You might like to play video games every day, but you probably would not want to commit to it because it's not particularly important, and it's also fun enough so that you don't need extra motivation.

Another reason you might want to do something every day is if the thing benefits from daily repetition.  For example, cleaning up the kitchen every day helps keep the house clean. It's not as though you can do a ton of kitchen cleaning once every three months. It just doesn't work that way. Another example is exercise, the benefits of which you get if you do it often. Another is study and memorization or some other kind of practice such as sports, meditation, or flash cards.

What I Do Every Day

There are pills I take every day, and I try to floss every day, but these little things become routine and are not the kinds of things I'm interested in in this essay. I'm talking about bigger things.  My list changes frequently as I rearrange my priorities.

1. Anki flash cards.
Every day I review flash cards on Anki. I've discussed my reasons for using spaced-repetition learning systems in previous blog entries so I won't repeat them here.

2. Write Three Pages.
I use a website called It's kind of like a blog that nobody else can see. It counts the number of words you've typed and tells you when you've hit 750, which is about the number of words on three pages. Writing three pages every day is an idea called the "morning pages" from the famous book "The Artist's Journey," and I can vouch for its effectiveness. Here's what typically happens: you start by writing like it's a diary. You describe all of your problems and what's bothering you. The first day, you have more problems than can fit on three pages. The next day, you finish, and you have a bit left over. By the third or fourth day, you're sick of writing about your problems. This is when the magic happens. You either start writing about potential solutions to your problems, or you write about other things entirely. Either way, this process actually helps you deal with your problems. I use to compose long emails I've been meaning to write, or blog entries I'm drafting. This one was written on this site too. Of course, if you're any kind of writer you can use it to work on your novel or whatever. Journaling has many benefits-- one study even found that it can improve your grades.

3. Work On My Book
I am writing a book, and writing is one of those things that needs to happen just about every day if you are going to maximize your productivity. Many studies have proven this empirically. Anyway, I used to have "working on my book" be a substitute for my "write three pages" but I changed because there are a lot of non-writing activities associated with working on a book, such as editing, updating references, not to mention looking for publishers and agents and sending out proposals. So I keep the morning pages and working on the book separate.

4. "The Daily"
Every day I do "the daily," which is different for each day of the week. I found that there were things that I needed to do periodically, but not every day. So I reserve a slot every day, and what day of the week it is determines what that thing is. This one's hard to keep up with, but right now the plan is:
Monday: Write blog entry
Tuesday: Look at recent journal RSS feeds
Wednesday: Update Spill that and Lanyard Review Blogs
Thursday: Read "Barking Up The Wrong Tree" Blog
Friday: Do a weekly review (updating todo lists, etc.)
Sunday: Journal keepup

5. TCOB (Taking Care of Business)
This is a catch-all that involves lots of little things. If I have something I need to do that takes less than a half hour, such as reserving a rental car, it goes into a special todo list called TCOB. When I get to do my TCOB, I just spend half an hour going through that list doing those little things. Very satisfying.

I used to do some things every day, but stopped: meditation, studying Chinese, exercise, reading.

When To Do These Things

Morning is better for routine, I find. Why?

1. You have more will power in the morning.
Will is like a muscle. It gets tired when you use it, and extensive use over time makes it stronger. Your will is stronger in the morning, and more depleted in the evening. So if you're trying to get yourself to do stuff that's difficult, morning is the best time. So later, when you lose your energy and can't do the hard stuff, the most important stuff is already done.

2. I have more time in the morning.
I tend to get up early, about an hour or more earlier than my beloved. So I have a great deal of quiet, alone time before breakfast. I walk the dog, and try to get through these things.

3. Evenings tend to fill with social activities and other chaos.
My nights are often very different. In contrast, my mornings are much the same, day to day. Routine is key to getting these things done.

How Long To Do These Things

I invented a system that keeps me very productive that I call the "half hours method."
Every morning I pull out a spreadsheet and fill in what I'm going to be working on for each half hour of the day. I only allow myself to work on anything for a half hour at a time (with few exceptions). I find that if it's less than a half hour, I can't get anything done, and if it's more than a half hour, I'm likely to slack off and check email or something. No matter how much you don't want to do something, if you know that you'll only have to do it for a half hour, it's much easier to get started.

Because I try to do each daily thing for a half an hour, with five things to do every day, it takes me two and a half hours to get through them. It sounds like a lot, but these things are important to me, and I'm happy that I work on them every day.

When To Give Yourself A Break

I just got back from travelling. I went to Switzerland and then to Atlanta, Georgia, for two conferences. It's very difficult to keep up with these things when I'm away, and, possibly, not a good idea anyhow.

For one thing, I now bring an iPad instead of a full laptop computer. I do this because iPads don't run out of batteries as fast, then hold my iTunes stuff in a way I like a lot, and it serves as a TV, book, and notebook, and game player. The downside is that I don't like how Anki works on it (I can't get it to do LaTeX entries correctly) and typing is too much of a pain for much serious work. If I had a Macbook air, I might bring that instead, but I don't, and I might just prefer the iPad anyway.

But even if I had a computer with me, I'm not sure I'd try so hard to stick to my daily activities when I travel. For one thing, I think it's good to have a break. If I'm in a new city, how about seeing the city, or meeting other people at the conference, or, indeed, just taking a break instead of spending two and a half hours "sucking face with a monitor" as my friend Chris Stapleton puts it?  Travel is an opportunity to shake your life up a bit, to see the world from a different perspective.

In the same vein, I'm wondering how strict I should be with myself regarding my upcoming sabbatical. I want to take the time to think about new things, recharge my batteries, get a different perspective and shake things up in my head. Do I really want to spend two and a half hours every day doing these things during that time?

I haven't decided.

Pictured: Three alleged saddhus (Hindu holy men) sitting on the Vishnu Temple of Kathmandu's Durbar Square, Nepal, performing the vitarka mudrā. Notice that they may not be saddhus in the strict sense of the word. This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
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