From the archives: Science

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IBM’s double jeopardy

Tuesday, 8 February 2011 — 4:09am | Computing, Journalism, Science, Television

A few weeks ago, Colby Cosh—a friend of a friend of sorts who ordinarily writes reasonable things for a chap who still thinks the Edmonton Oilers are a real sports team—penned an article in his Maclean’s blog about Watson, IBM’s Jeopardy!-playing machine (“I’ll take ‘Cheap Publicity Stunts’ for $1000, Alex”, 16 January 2011), that I found to be dreadfully uninformed. The thrust of his argument is that Watson is a corporate “gimmick”—a fancy plea for media coverage by the faceless villains at IBM, with nothing of scientific interest going on underneath. Keep in mind that by the standards of this article, nothing in the “perpetually disappointing history of AI” will ever be interesting until we’ve graduated from tightly delimited objectives to Big Problems like the Turing Test:

Every article about Watson, IBM’s Jeopardy!-playing device, should really lead off with the sentence “It’s the year 2011, for God’s sake.” In the wondrous science-fiction future we occupy, even human brains have instant broadband access to a staggeringly comprehensive library of general knowledge. But the horrible natural-language skills of a computer, even one with an essentially unlimited store of facts, still compromise its function to the point of near-parity in a trivia competition against unassisted humans.

This isn’t far off from saying that particle physics will be perpetually disappointing until we’ve observed the Higgs boson, or that manned spaceflight is merely an expensive publicity stunt that will never be scientifically interesting until we’ve colonized the Moon: it leans heavily on popular culture as the ultimate barometer of scientific achievement, and it requires both ignorance of methodology and apathy towards specifics.

Colby and I had a five-minute skirmish about the article on Twitter, which as a format for debate is unwieldy as piss. I promised a proper response as soon as I cleared some other priorities off my plate. Those other priorities are still, to my annoyance, on my plate; but having finally paid good money to register my copy of MarsEdit, I’m thirsting for a scrap.

This topic will do as well as any. Reluctant as I am to swing the pretentious hammer of “I know what I’m talking about,” this really is (as the idiom goes) a chance for Faramir, Captain of Gondor, to show his quality. Computational linguistics happens to be my onetime research area, popular misunderstanding of science happens to be one of my favourite bugbears, and Kasparov’s anticomputer strategies against Deep Blue happened to make a cameo appearance in the meandering slop of my master’s dissertation. None of this matters a great deal, mind you. One should never be dismissive of journalists from a position of relative expertise; they’re the ones people actually read, and it’s vital to engage with what they say.

(It is a little game we play: they put it on the bill, I tear up the bill.)

Continued »

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Constance Naden’s deep Darwinian lays

Friday, 7 January 2011 — 5:57pm | Literature, Science

Given my longstanding interest in the use of scientific and mathematical language in literature, it may come as a surprise that I have only recently discovered the poetry of Constance Naden. Naden died very young in 1889 at only 31 years of age, hence her relative obscurity, but she was nevertheless extremely prolific throughout the 1880s as a poet, philosopher, and scientist. Her work was significant enough to elicit the praise of William Gladstone, who dubbed her one of the eight finest women poets of the nineteenth century, alongside such luminaries as Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Emily Brontë.

You can find Naden’s writings online in the posthumously published The Complete Poetical Works of Constance Naden (1894), a volume that includes translations of Schiller and Goethe, among others. It seems as though she was something of a polymath.

My introduction to Naden’s work came by way of this audio podcast of a lecture delivered by John Holmes at the Royal Society, who spoke on Charles Darwin’s influence on the ideas and concerns of Victorian English poets. (This is the subject of Holmes’ recent book, Darwin’s Bards: British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution.) In the lecture, Holmes speaks briefly on “Natural Selection”, a playful comic poem about a palaeontologist who is scientifically delighted to find that his beloved has been whisked away by an all-singing, all-dancing “idealess lad”. This poem belongs to a quartet entitled Evolutional Erotics (1887), in which Naden explores the collision of love and the scientific mind. Another poem in the set, “Scientific Wooing”, brings science into the register of high romance in a manner that might be construed as ironic (but then again, might not be):

At this I’ll aim, for this I’ll toil,
And this I’ll reach—I will, by Boyle,
By Avogadro, and by Davy!
When every science lends a trope
To feed my love, to fire my hope,
Her maiden pride must cry is “Peccavi!

I’ll sing a deep Darwinian lay
Of little birds with plumage gay,
Who solved by courtship Life’s enigma;
I’ll teach her how the wild‐flowers love,
And why the trembling stamens move,
And how the anthers kiss the stigma.

I am reminded here of the tensor algebra pastoral from one of the great masterworks of science fiction, Stanislaw Lem’s The Cyberiad:

For what did Cauchy know, or Christoffel,
Or Fourier, or any Boole or Euler,
Wielding their compasses, their pens and rulers,
Of thy supernal sinusoidal spell?

Cancel me not – for what then shall remain?
Abscissas some mantissas, modules, modes,
A root or two, a torus and a node:
The inverse of my verse, a null domain.

Continued »

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Suggested reading, resuscitative edition

Thursday, 30 September 2010 — 4:44pm | Assorted links, J.R.R. Tolkien, Journalism, Literature, Music, Science, Video games

This space has suffered the longest drought of real and substantial content in its brief history, and I find it encouraging that several of my readers have seen fit to remind me of the fact. I could lay the blame upon the drain on my verbal facilities known as my masters dissertation, or perhaps my summertime adventures sans ordinateur, but the truth is a far more familiar one: the articles I’ve sketched out in my head are too big to write down. They will show up someday, if only in unfinished fragments pretending to stand alone; so keep an eye on the RSS feed and when they arrive, we may promptly rejoice together.

Link-dumping has never been an adequate stand-in for commentary of my own, and if you want to read what I read you are better off checking Twitter (the only circumstance where that is ever the case). Nevertheless, here is a slice of the pileup.

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Suggested reading, spine-tingling edition

Monday, 19 April 2010 — 12:38pm | Assorted links, Film, Harry Potter, Journalism, Literature, Mathematics, Science

Last week here in the United Kingdom was Chiropractic Awareness Week, so let’s all be aware of the good news: the British Chiropractic Association has finally dropped the battering ram of its libel action against science writer Simon Singh, who had the nerve to call some of their purported treatments bogus. (I guess you could say the BCA backed out.) The lawsuit specifically targeted Mr Singh (as opposed to The Guardian, which published the contested article) in order to drain his resources with the abetment of Britain’s libel laws, and the case has become a cause célèbre exposing this country’s need for libel reform. Be sure to read Singh’s reaction to the news and Ben Goldacre’s column on the wider problem.


  • J.K. Rowling, writing in the capacity of a former single mother living on welfare, isn’t buying what David Cameron is selling. In a somewhat frivolous response, Toby Young leaps on the Tory nostalgia of the Harry Potter books, pointing to Hogwarts’ Etonian idyll while somehow neglecting to mention the conspicuously nuclear families; but anyone who paid attention to Rowling’s finer points (which doesn’t include Mr Young, I’m afraid) knows full well her politics aren’t what he thinks they are.

  • Film editor Todd Miro savages Hollywood colour grading for taking us into a nightmare world of orange and teal.

  • Roger Ebert articulates his controversial belief that video games can never be art—not for the first time, though it’s nice to finally see him elaborate on it in one place. I’m of the opinion that the entire semantic quagmire is easily evaded if we adopt an instrumental definition of art. Regardless of whether video games are even theoretically comparable to the great works of other media, our only way of getting at qualitative findings about creativity and beauty in game design is to borrow from the language of art, so we may as well consider them as such.

  • While on the subject of aesthetics: over at Gödel’s Lost Letter, R.J. Lipton’s fantastic computing science blog, are some germinal sketches of how one might study great mathematical proofs as great art.

  • The International Spy Museum briefs us on Josephine Baker, the actress-heroine of the French Resistance.

  • Paul Wells visits the Canadian forces in Kandahar and reports on the shift in the tone and strategy of their counterinsurgency efforts. This is one of the best pieces of journalism I’ve read on the present state of the war in Afghanistan and I can’t recommend it enough.

  • Strange Maps documents two wonderful specimens of literary cartography: back covers of mystery paperbacks, and a poster for a Shakespeare conference in France depicting a town that looks like the Bard.

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The greedy strategeme, pt. 1

Thursday, 15 April 2010 — 1:37pm | Board games, Science, Video games

Civilization veteran Soren Johnson, one of the foremost designers of strategy games and AI today and certainly one of the best writers on the subject, often remarks that the theme of a game is not to be confused with its meaning (slides here). Diplomacy may cast its players as the great powers of pre-1914 Europe, but it’s about simultaneity. StarCraft may put you in charge of Heinlein-esque space marines and alien civilizations, but it’s about asymmetry. If the theme and mechanics harmoniously cohere, then the mechanics can shed light on the theme in the way that art sheds light on the world. Pre-war Europe is an intriguing setting for Diplomacy because in all their backroom double-dealing, the empires didn’t take turns. Aliens are a good fit for StarCraft because you can map anything onto aliens, be it the collectivist swarm-by-numbers ethos of the Zerg or the judicious high-tech investment of the Protoss.

I am partial to this view, predominantly for reasons of aesthetics. If we are to conceive of game design as an art form, it does not suffice to decompose games into the artistry of constituent parts—the music, the models and sprites, the cinematic sequences, on rare occasion the writing. The aesthetics have to come from the specific properties that make something a game, whether it is played with a board and dice, a deck of cards, or a mouse and keyboard—and those properties come from the mechanics.

But that’s neither here nor there; I won’t elaborate today. Instead I want to turn to my favourite of Johnson’s examples: the evolution game. For your fill of Darwinian game mechanics, look not to Spore (which Johnson worked on), a game that is nominally about evolution from microbe to intergalactic juggernaut, but is actually about special creation. Back when I first played it, I wrote, perhaps a tad generously:

Let’s not bury our heads in the sand: by placing creature design into the player’s hands instead of leaving it up to random mutation, Spore inherently owes a lot to intelligent design. There’s still room for a real game about evolution in the Darwinian sense, where you set certain environmental constraints and preconditions, let a species run loose, and see if it survives in an ecosystem full of other models—kind of like how some engineers pit robots in mortal battle, but with adaptation.

Spore is a lot more creationistic than I gave it credit for; consider that the functional components of your custom-made species—the mouths, the horns, the flagella—are interchangeable parts from a specified, modular set, which is precisely what we would expect from a designing agent but not at all what we would expect from natural selection. But never mind all that. The evolution game exists, says Johnson, and it’s called World of Warcraft.

I would contend, however, that the Darwinian features Johnson ascribes to WoW are equally prevalent in most games with competitive and highly interactive player populations, provided there is sufficient strategic depth worth talking about. WoW is an evolution game because its core mechanic is community. Where there is a community of players and a developed metagame of optimal practices, strategic decisions are memes that compete for survival. Let’s call them strategemes.

Strategemes include everything from chess openings to Scrabble vocabulary: they are transmissible units of knowledge that players learn, study, and adopt—and crucially, copy. Copying them is not seen as unfair, but as an advantageous and often essential behaviour. They leave room for mutation, and we can perceive a frequency distribution of variations over a population of players and games.

But where does natural selection come into play? Let’s look at the exemplar we get from Johnson: the WoW talent tree.

Continued »

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A Link to the Past (older posts) »