Sunday, October 30, 2005

Yikes, a whole week

I've been busy, as you can probably guess. No new books to report having completed. I started A Tale of Two Cities. I have no clue how I read this in high school. Even now, with ten years of good reading under my belt, I stumble over the rhythm of Dickens' words and the almost excessive extravagance of his words and imagery. Maybe I just bleeped over the words I couldn't pronounce, like Linus reading The Brothers Karamazov. And also, I didn't pay such careful attention to the author's choice of words and how they sound or even what they were saying, when I was 15. Back then, I read like a child, only wanting to know what happens next. Now it is more alive to me. Or, most likely, maybe it is stupid to think you can read Classic English Literature in the commercial breaks for South Park.

I don't watch much South Park because I am too busy. But I caught a great episode, "Christian Rock Hard," a rerun from a couple of years back. The boys are starting a band, but Cartman sucks, so the other guys kick him out, and he bets them $20 that he can get a platinum album doing Christian music before the other guys get a platinum album. Then he takes pop songs and replaces the word "baby" with "Jesus", a testament to the blandness of most Christian music these days. But the love songs Cartman picks are about, ahem, adult situations. I laughed and laughed. Cartman gets his million records sold to the adoring CCM community, but the Christian music execs give him a "myrrh" album instead of a platinum album. Cartman loses the $20 bet that he sold all those records to win (and he spent all the money from his recording contract on an enormous celebration of his winning the bet). He can never go platinum (but he can go "double myrrh", what a great line). In anger, he curses Jesus in public and his audience evaporates.

There is a parable in the Gospels about reserving judgment of others until the Judgment Day exposes all people for what we are, at Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43. Here is a good homily on it. I was thinking about this today because it came up in the sermon (we were visiting Aldersgate Methodist in Brigham City). I will have a profounder thought on this later, I hope. But one of the reasons I like that South Park episode is that Cartman has his Day of Judgment for his hypocritical salesmanship of slop to the naive Christians.

I am creating a backlog of promised postings: Hubris, Gay Marriage, and now the Final Judgment. And I also need to do one on our awesome pumpkins. But that's it for tonight.

Update [11/8]: Yikes. I was rereading this post and noticed a misuse of word that I just hate. I have been somehow infected by this word. It is "testament", as in "a testament to the blandness of most Christian music these days.", meaning "evidence of". Hmmm... I just looked it up on Google, which sent me here, and it turns out "evidence of" is now an accepted usage. But that says to me that the word has deteriorated from "statement of belief; credo" and "will". Another casualty of the mush-mouthed MTV generation, I guess.

Sunday, October 23, 2005


As Machiavelli says in The Prince,

"Let him act like the clever archers who, designing to hit the mark which yet appears too far distant, and knowing the limits to which the strength of their bow attains, take aim much higher than the mark, not to reach by their strength or arrow to so great a height, but to be able with the aid of so high an aim to hit the mark they wish to reach."

In other words, try too hard.

That is the story of these first several weeks of my semester. I have finally yielded to the wisdom of my betters and agreed to drop a class. The time pressure has been too much; I barely saw my wife and child last week, much less entertained all my loyal readers ("example of letters of invitations to a musical", I am talking to you). I am readying a long thought on homosexual marriage, having been inspired by some other blog post somewhere.

Today at church I got to explain to a friend, who is teaching the class, why I was dropping. He was cool about it, for which I am grateful.

I have been reading more interesting books. I just finished A Grief Observed by CS Lewis for the first time, and it was quite revealing and sharp; he wrote it after his wife died. But I think I should've known that book-reading is not the only barometer of success.

I'll take suggestions for my first new book. Email me at the address depicted in this picture.

I feel sad that I wasted a great word like hubris on a title to a short post like this one, so I'll write on Hubris, Part II soon.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

A large hard drive

Utah State University's remodeled science library opened recently (also replacing the old generic library, I understand). I was interested in reading the artificial intelligence journals about learning. I couldn't find any. I looked up Artificial Intelligence in the catalog and found out it was in this thing called BARN. I looked at the map of the library and noticed this BARN thing on several different floors. Oh, I thought. There's stacks or something. So I tried the first floor, but that corner of the building was under construction, so I figured I couldn't get in.

I wandered around on the second floor where the current journals and newspapers are, but I couldn't find it, so I checked the map again. BARN, this big rectangular thing in the corner of the map, it was there. I wandered around stacks and journals and study rooms until I finally got to a study area where a woman was reading something in a chair. There were these windows to my right, and I expected to see more study rooms. I looked and everything clicked.

"There are shelves, Neo... endless shelves." My first impression was "human beings are no longer born... they are grown," as I stared out at a four-story-tall warehouse of books. I was behind a window in a wall, so I didn't have vertigo. While I watched, a robot almost like a little forklift wheeled out into the distance, then raised the entire belt to a distant shelf, a miniature little cube of shelved, bound journals, lifted it out of its rack, then carried it down to an exit point and slid the shelf off the robot arm, presumably to be processed by a human once it reached the outside. I watched entranced for a moment, realization washing over me. If anyone had been watching, I would have been embarrassed. But I just thought it was extremely cool.

A few other thoughts occurred to me. First, it might be harder to read for my thesis if every article request required robotic assistance. I don't know what the policy is about checking out multiple journals at once, but I might have to check a few out, return, check a few more out. Maybe photocopy a lot. I haven't found out yet how inconvenient this will be. Second, this thing is like a large hard drive. It seeks out data (in blocks of large predefined size), moves an arm to retrieve the block, brings it back into a more accessible area where a librarian can give it to you (call it a cache), and then a bit of that block of data is actually used for real work. There are more metaphors too, like system call and address space and seek time. And you are a CPU in this scenario. Third, and connected, I find it interesting that we have followed a computer-science model pretty closely to work with our ink-and-paper information. Even our analog is becoming digital. To quote The Matrix again, "Whoa."

I didn't read the map very carefully, or I would have known that BARN means "Borrower's Automated Retrieval Network".

It's a pretty cool new library, but I have started to wonder if I will need to take trips to Salt Lake City and the University of Utah to carry out this research of mine. Or maybe I will become the Interlibrary Loan's best customer. I just don't know if there are enough books here.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

I get letters

Searches, that is. To this point I don't know if I have succeeded in communicating much on this blog. Maybe indirectly. I get few comments and no emails. But the name of this web site causes a certain class of people to find me. All of the examples are within the last 12 hits on the blog, people searching like this:

"example of letters of invitations to a musical"

Dear Patron of The Arts,
Come see ___[lead actor]___ and ___[lead actress]___ light up the stage at ___[theater]___ in this ___[adjective]___ production!
Art Purveyor

"sample moving memo letter"

Once more unto the paper jam, dear friends, once more
Or fill the toner up with our Cubiclish dead!

"free letter of explanation"

This letter does not explain this sentence, which means what this phrase says, which is that this sentence does not explain itself, but the rest of the sentence explains the beginning of the sentence, and this is the rest of the sentence.

"examples how to make a letter for a child go out for vacation"

Free subscription to Letters and Papers for the first reader who can parse this search. "child go out"? Or "letter for a child" "go out for vacation"? "go out" "for vacation"? None of the beads on this string make sense to me.

"sample letter explain poor credit rating"
"sample letter escape situation"

Seriously, these ones make me sad and I don't plan to make fun of them.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Victory in the spam war

Attention: we have won the spam war completely, at least in my mailbox. We can't declare total victory until middle-aged men stop clicking the links for C1A7i5, and we all pray they do, but Spam Assassin has obliterated spam for me.

How do I know? I received a spam today. Huh? Am I being paradoxical? Not at all, just read what I received:

Re: Bernardo Hansley Meidictions
[omitted a few headers]
brexis $um $xenacra $traecia
170 30 pi161 90 pi 135 30 pi
llslls lls
get additional info

If I can't even read the advertisement or figure out what it is for, why send me the email? There were no links or pictures. It didn't cost me any brain cells to delete this piece of trash. Maybe Thunderbird is doing some work for that too.
Aux armes citoyens
Formez vos bataillons
Marchons, marchons
Qu'un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

How Brains Think

Actually, as fascinating as the subject is, I don't totally care. But I am reading How Brains Think, by William H. Calvin, and not just for my neuroscientific education. I have zeroed in on a broad research area for my MS, and it has to do with thinking. So, I am learning evolutionary explanations for how this pile of meat feels conscious and how learning works. It is challenging me, but I don't mind. So Nick, since you lent me this book 5 years ago or so, I hope you are happy to know that I got around to this eventually.

My research topic revolves around learning and thinking. I had been chewing over topics in artificial intelligence, and came up with it walking down the hill after a lecture by the resident network security professor at USU, Dr. Erbacher. Basically, the department is trotting out all the professors to talk about their research. I have been listening carefully to all of them to see if they like to think about what I want to study.

So far the closest to my interests has probably been the lovable, a bit wild-eyed professor Hugo de Garis, who wants to bring about Ray Kurzweil's Singularity and phase out the human race in favor of superintelligent machines. He makes artificial brains by evolving neural networks at hardware speeds, using FPGAs, and then downloads them to PCs that can run the programs. He is making a mine-seeking robot dog for DARPA, but he is mostly just interested in the brains. He gave a spellbinding, wide-ranging lecture on his research and the coming Singularity (when artificial intelligence will be evolving too fast for us to predict the future of the technology or even [horror movie organ interlude] the human race).

My topic was inspired indirectly by Dr. Erbacher though. He visualizes network traffic by changing connection logs and data flow into pictures. This makes it easier to spot patterns and detect network attacks. His lecture was excellent too, but one thing bothered me: his visualizations depend on a human looking at the picture and interpreting it (as far as I understood him). I thought afterwards about whether computers can interpret things, even things they've never seen before. I came around to the idea that computers should be able to create abstractions, but can't.

I think I talked about this earlier, but the trend in the way we interact with computers is toward higher-level abstractions. You used to have to speak 1s and 0s to work with a computer; as time has gone on, we have created ways to summarize a lot of those 1s and 0s when we talk to computers. Among many other things, this trend makes it easier over time to create useful software and information.

Unfortunately, it has up to now been all on people to pull the computers into intelligence. Even learning approaches to artificial intelligence, which have shown some great success, have run into a ceiling, summarized as follows by Stuart Russell and Peter Norvig in Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach.

Very powerful logical and statistical techniques have been developed that can cope with quite large problems, often reaching or exceeding human capabilities in the identification of predictive patterns defined on a given vocabulary. On the other hand, machine learning has made very little progress on the important problem of constructing new representations at levels of abstraction higher than the input vocabulary.

In other words, computers are not creative in the sense that they can find patterns in disparate ideas, name them, and reuse them to think about a problem in a simpler manner. If we want computers to have a knowledge base to draw on to solve problems, we have to put it all in by hand.

What would a computer do if it could make up words? Learn like a person, but voraciously, at DSL speeds, by reading the Wikipedia? Reveal hidden mysteries? Talk back?

Anyway, I think that is what I want to do for the next two years. That's why I'm reading How Brains Think: I actually need to know, in order to make a computer create abstractions. Was it safe to unleash me on this problem? God alone knows.

That is, if any of the professors will take me.

Note: is a liberal religious community site that spun off of Daily Kos. I like it quite a bit. I posted the following comment there; it explains a little why I consider myself a Protestant but not an evangelical. I added a few explanatory notes in square brackets.

I have bobbed up and down in my Christian faith over long periods of time. I am a Christian today because I think Jesus died and then lived again, but the beliefs surrounding that belief have been morphing slowly, ever since I became a Christian at age 18.

Once, I considered myself an evangelical because I believed it was truly important to believe certain things about X, Y, and Z; if you didn't, you were in a precarious, possibly deadly position. The evangelicals believed that too, so I fit right in. I tried to define truly important beliefs sharply, to find real traditional orthodoxy. It was a big project for me to learn what all Christians have believed, to come to my own mere Christianity.

I understood the futility of this endeavor a few years ago. I was leading a Bible study and met one of the guys in it by chance one day. I explained to him that I'd spent a lot of time taking apart the engine of Christianity, analyzing it to pieces, and very little time putting the engine back together, slapping it in the car and driving. I realized it was true as I was saying it, so I had a new project: to live out my Christian life with less emphasis on true belief than on integrity, true action.

Down the road, I realized that it was foolishness to set myself up as a judge of the orthodoxy of other beliefs, and thus a judge of other people who believed those things. I could trust God to manage his details, to see truly what I glimpse darkly. I also didn't understand the meaning of the line in Romans, "For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all." [Meaning at least that God's salvation works in mysterious ways, and questions of heaven and hell are too deep for us to know.]

Another realization came when Fred Clark of Slacktivist said, in a post on Left Behind, that evangelicals lack metaphor [not evangelical people necessarily (Hi Dad!), but evangelical ideology]. The more I thought about it, the more I thought it was true. That was probably my decisive break with evangelicalism.

I still consider myself a Protestant Christian, but I don't feel guilty about voting for Democrats. Or thinking subversive thoughts about God, Jesus, and church. Or asking hard questions of my faith. Life has been much better ever since.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Religion and a-religion

Posted this at Daily Kos:


One prejudice some secular Democrats could do without is this: religious people must have blind, irrational spots where their religion touches reality, while secular people have thrown off the shackles of the oppressor and stopped drinking the narcotic Kool-aid of the masses, and are such great Vulcan logic machines that if you prick them, they bleed green.

In other words, religious people have failed where freethinkers have succeeded, to find objectivity and a rational way to live in the world. As Maher put it [on Real Time with Bill Maher: "That - people of faith - and when I hear 'people of faith' I think, well those are people who suspend rational judgment for nonsensical ******** that they believe." ... "No - I had a mental block when I was a child when they taught me this nonsense and when I got to be an adult, I got over it." ], he grew up, but I never did. Pardon me if I'm not convinced; let me just point out that the same claim may apply in reverse, equal and opposite: religious people have found a rational way to live in the world while freethinkers have failed.

Without prejudging the outcome of a debate between religion and a-religion, just think about how unhelpful these equal and opposite arguments are in formulating the basic questions about life, the universe, and everything.

It's up to religious people, like me, to counter that prejudice by talking about what real religion looks like (and not sounding like idiots in the process), and to reject our fellow believers' truth-avoiding behavior.

It's up to non-religious people to take seriously the rumors that religious people can think, and to take with a grain of salt the rumors that religious people are so far-gone in their distorted faith that they are willing to ignore evidence that contradicts their faith in order to retain a sense of peace and integrity about their place in the world. I'm not saying you will never run into people with a distorted religion; I live in Utah, after all, where a lot of people grow up believing a religion just because it's what their mother and father believed and they know in their heart that it's true.

But there is a middle ground for religious politics. Here is a mission statement for religion we should all be able to agree is sorely needed and sadly distant from religion in public life in America:

"Religion is patient, religion is kind. Religion does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. Religion is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Religion does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. Religion always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres."

No matter what religious stripe you paint on your sleeve (including transparent, or paintless), "Religion does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth" ought to be the hallmark of religion in politics for the Democrats. The differences between this and the religious politics of the right are obvious.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

A short note

I am feeling a little better. I started rereading The Magic of Recluce by L.E. Modesitt. I read it in high school or so and enjoyed it, but I felt like I didn't understand it exactly. This book spawned a series that is still going strong a decade later. I stopped reading it when I got to one that spoiled the surprises for me, Fallen Angels, I think it's called. Hover over the note [SPOILER ALERT] to see why.* On rereading, I am enjoying myself more and the spoiler seems more obvious to me.

It has felt a lot better to be reading some fiction. I got some work done last night too and I felt like I might be able to manage this school business.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

It came from beneath the sermon

The last couple of weeks, I have had trouble concentrating during the sermon. Maybe I am missing things that would be really valuable to me, I don't know. But instead of staring silently at the pastor, I decided to write.

Here's clips of things I wrote:

[on emotion and worship]

But emotions are made for the outpouring of our hearts to God and others. They betray our inner life that we keep masked. When we are finally so angry that we can't contain it, we yell or slap the table. When we are so sad, we weep. When we are amused, we laugh.

... When we can't contain it any more, we praise him with our lips and our lungs, we sing him songs. We talk about him without stopping. We betray the life we have kept masked, strip away veneers of dignity and sufficiency, strip away our silence and our rationality...

[on truth and storytelling]

... arguments about true and false rest on truth, not truths. We cannot beat against facts with theories or reason from the general to the specific.

If this is all Hume was saying, it's not much. Scientists don't claim to beat against the facts. Theories are not true. Approximations to the truth have degrees of truth. Stories are truth-telling, but not true.

But who would say there is no knowledge in science or wisdom in stories?


[on journalism and narratives]

Beware anyone who tells stories in narrow contexts. They are shielding their interpretation from the facts. There is no such thing as a competing narrative. Stories do not compete: instead they are adequate or inadequate to the facts. When you hear about competing narratives, you are hearing about a large story pared down to selective, narrow facts.

Journalists write articles nowadays that purport to give equal time to competing narratives, or equal criticism to competing parties. They do this by selecting slices of truths in order to maintain the appearance of objectivity. But the truth is that objectivity is faithfulness to the whole story, the large story, all the facts. Objectivity means that truth resides in the facts, not the theory that opposite narratives are equally true, or the theory that opposite parties are equally sinful or deceptive. ...

I can't recommend inattention to everyone, but I know it's not always the worst thing in the world.