Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Hacks versus Technique

Some of the key insights in initial web-based tools were extremely clever ways to solve the problem by not directly solving it. For example, image search can be very well done by looking at image tags, filenames and text around the html that pointed to the image. Searching audio and video content via closed caption text that came with it. And how do you tell two songs are similar? The mother of all methods: collaborative filtering. Works great with anything, and in most cases you are interested in finding something relevant rather than similar. With all due respect, let us call these methods Hacks. They are great hacks, mind you.

One could do image processing, or audio signal processing, or figure out representations that help compute relevance. Lets call these approaches to directly solving the problem Technique. But Technique was easily beat by Hacks, as 1) they dont work so well in general, 2) they require too much computational resources and/or rich representation of the problem domain.

But it seems like Technique is making a comeback. Some examples: Nexidia.com is a profitable company that does speech recognition to make audio databases searchable. Its major revenue source is providing analysis of call centers. There is a lot of processing happening, but running on clusters made out of standard boxes. Pandora.com searches through music by a direct analysis of music. A common insight in both of these tools is offline processing to create representations of the domain that are easily searchable.

At this point, Hacks are still winning, but its nice to see Technique back in the running. Progress is a healthy competition between Hacks and Technique.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

"Fire David Nason" petition for misrepresentation of Vonnegut

If you care about misrepresentation of Vonnegut in the recent articles by David Nason, please go sign the Fire David Nason Petition. If this appeals to you, please forward this to other people. The body of the petition is cut-and-pasted below:

To: The Australian, http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/

This is a request to ask you to fire your employee, Mr. David Nason. Mr. Nason has written inaccurate, disrespectful and biased articles about Kurt Vonnegut. Kurt Vonnegut is a great writer and a great human being. David Nason says that "(a) I found Vonnegut's book average; (b) I found his conversation limited; and (c) I found his views on terrorists dopey."

Of course, Mr. Nason is free to believe in anything. But as a journalist, he has a responsibility 1) to do his homework/research, 2) to substantiate his beliefs on facts, 3) and to make reasonable opinions. He violates all of these three and remains adamant about his position. He mentions proudly as to not having read the book prior to the interview in [1], and his articles reflect his lack of knowledge of Vonnegut’s oeuvre. A key theme in Vonnegut’s writing is a warm concern for humanity while being pessimistic about the ways of the present. Given everything Vonnegut has ever said or written supports that, it seems likely that Mr. Nason is misinterpreting Vonnegut, and quoting him out of context, either intentionally or not.

Vonnegut once suggested the idea of a Hippocratic oath for Scientists. If there would be one for Journalism, Mr. Nason’s current work would violate all of it.

[1] Darkness Visible, November 19, 2005
[2] US author lauds suicide bombers, November 19, 2005


The Undersigned

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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Vonnegut misquoted

To the editor:

Regarding David Nason's article of 19th November, "US author lauds suicide bombers," it is completely out of context and innacurate caricature of Kurt Vonnegut's opinions. It is very clear that David Nason is fully unaware of Vonnegut's sense of humor, and it almost seems he had an agenda in misquoting Vonnegut and developing his own theories of what Vonnegut might have intended. Please issue a retraction, if such a thing is possible, as it is shameful for your newspaper to have printed such nonsense. In order to understand the blunder that David Nason has committed, please point your readers to Vonnegut's recent article Cold Turkey. Thanks a lot.

Praveen Paritosh

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Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Katrina and blogs

It seems silly to ask this: the Asian tsunami was very well covered on blogs, to the point that it became an example of how blogs can provide reporting thats useful and orthogonal to conventional journalism. People blogged about missing people, about generating volunteers, donations, etc. The SEA-EAT blog was the best place to know about what was happening by the minute. How come Katrina isnt being blogged enough about from people closer to it? A more personal account is always more vivid and compelling.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Science's Ignorance

The Science magazine celebrates its 125th anniversary this July, with a set of 125 questions that Science knows that it doesnt know the answers to. "The ground rules: Scientists should have a good shot at answering the questions over the next 25 years, or they should at least know how to go about answering them. We intended simply to choose 25 of these suggestions and turn them into a survey of the big questions facing science. But when a group of editors and writers sat down to select those big questions, we quickly realized that 25 simply wouldn't convey the grand sweep of cutting-edge research that lies behind the responses we received. So we have ended up with 125 questions, a fitting number for Science's 125th anniversary." 9 out of these 125 are questions for Cognitive Science as I construe it, and they are reproduced below. The editorial board at Science expects most of these to be solved by Neuroscience. Surely Neuroscience provides us with very powerful tools, but Cognitive Science comprises of many powerful tools and methods, and the emphasis on Neuroscience is probably more indicative of the current fad that magazines like Science and Nature are following rather than anything else.

1. How Are Memories Stored and Retrieved?
Memories make each of us unique, and they give continuity to our lives. Understanding how memories are stored in the brain is an essential step toward understanding ourselves. Neuroscientists have already made great strides, identifying key brain regions and potential molecular mechanisms. Still, many important questions remain unanswered, and a chasm gapes between the molecular and whole-brain research.

2. Why do we sleep?
A sound slumber may refresh muscles and organs or keep animals safe from dangers lurking in the dark. But the real secret of sleep probably resides in the brain, which is anything but still while we're snoring away.

3. Why do we dream?
Freud thought dreaming provides an outlet for our unconscious desires. Now, neuroscientists suspect that brain activity during REM sleep--when dreams occur--is crucial for learning. Is the experience of dreaming just a side effect?

4. Why are there critical periods for language learning?
Monitoring brain activity in young children--including infants--may shed light on why children pick up languages with ease while adults often struggle to learn train station basics in a foreign tongue.

5. Is morality hardwired into the brain?
That question has long puzzled philosophers; now some neuroscientists think brain imaging will reveal circuits involved in reasoning.

6. What are the limits of learning by machines?
Computers can already beat the world's best chess players, and they have a wealth of information on the Web to draw on. But abstract reasoning is still beyond any machine.

7. What gave rise to modern human behavior?
Did Homo sapiens acquire abstract thought, language, and art gradually or in a cultural "big bang," which in Europe occurred about 40,000 years ago? Data from Africa, where our species arose, may hold the key to the answer.

8. What are the roots of human culture?
No animal comes close to having humans' ability to build on previous discoveries and pass the improvements on. What determines those differences could help us understand how human culture evolved.

9. What are the evolutionary roots of language and music?
Neuroscientists exploring how we speak and make music are just beginning to find clues as to how these prized abilities arose.

(These make for fine questions for the qualifiers :))
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Sunday, May 01, 2005

Palindromes: a masochistic experience

Todd Solondz's new movie, Palindromes is currently playing in theatres. I think Solondz is a genius, one of the best and bravest filmmakers alive. For me, seeing his movies is a very difficult and emotionally exhausting experience, and at the same time very engrossing. Solondz is deeply interested in "perversions" -- pedophilia is a recurring theme. An overarching futility is another theme that repeats. The good, the beautiful are not disconnected and found somewhere else, but found right in the trenches of the ugliness and futility. If thats what he was saying in Happiness, I agree with him wholeheartedly. It requires a certain amount of courage, relentlessness to see the truth like this. But then what? I loved Palindromes, and I wonder if Solondz tried to say so much that the movie is a little hard to understand. But who cares about understanding? His movies are a masochistic experience, and you just feel the pain all along, with moments when it is sharper than others.

Well, he does reveal something that I would like to see his characters realize, the freeing realization after facing the truth. From the directors notes of the movie --
"But can we change? Optimists tend to believe in the possibility, with the implication that things will change for the better. The idea that we cannot change suggests that we cannot improve, and no one wants to believe this, though some may take comfort in the corollary: we cannot become worse. The question is in what way is change possible? And in what way not? Are we in some sense "palindromic" by nature, impervious to change, no matter how much, paradoxically, we change? Some may find the idea that we never change a bleak and deterministic way of thinking. And yet the inability to change is in many ways freeing, freeing from, amongst other things, the imperative to change. And to accept one's inability to change can be a form of consolation: no one is immune; everyone must be who he is. There may be a sense of doom, but there is also the possibility of grace. It's all a bit of a conundrum. But art, however it may be defined - if it is, in fact, definable (and perhaps it is definable only insofar as it is defined by what it is not) - has no meaning if it is not transformative. Of course, at the same time, it has yet to make anyone a better person - or a lesser one. If someone argues otherwise, then it isn't art."
Maybe his next movie?

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Friday, April 15, 2005

CTA service cuts don't make sense

On the face of it, this puzzles me: How can a 55 mil cut in an organization whose budget is about 1 billion cause such a drastic effect? Among others, they are laying off 2000 employees which if make 20,000 a year is already 40 mil right there. Some back-of-the-envelope calculations forthcoming.