Attic, part 14

It was dark. And cold. There were scrabbling noises somewhere off in the distance, and a slow miasma that was not as much sensed as felt. A deep pulsing emanated from the pit beneath, and clawing figures scrambled for purchase on unseen slime covered rock.

Amelia no longer had use for thoughts of time. A moment stretched to eternity, and eternity promised naught but an unbroken landscape of inescapable despair. It had not always been thus. There had been sunlight once, laughter and kindness and the voices of other souls. She bristled at the memory, for that world was a dream, and nothing left but bitter ash.

But a voice was calling now, as if from a great distance. Amelia recoiled back in upon herself. This was new, and newness meant fear. She still felt the bitter sting of betrayal, deep and abiding, and in the darkness of her soul she knew one thing, and one thing alone. There could be no truth, no salvation, no purchase on the slime covered rock.

This could be a novel idea.

I saw a delightful talk this week by Gary Marcus, giving examples from his book Kluge, the haphazard construction of the human mind. In this particular talk he highlighted various quirks and ambiguities in natural language.

For example, he pointed out that even seemingly simple sentences can be difficult for people to parse, if those sentences don’t conform to the way people think. My favorite of his examples along these lines was: “People people left left.”

That wonderful sentence is only four words long (sentences don’t get much shorter than that), and follows the standard rules of grammar, yet seems incomprehensible to many quite intelligent people. Although it’s grammatically correct, it doesn’t correspond to the way people think. In case you’re having trouble understanding what the sentence means, I’ll describe it more completely in a few days.

Some the many other fun examples he gave included inherently ambiguous sentences such as: “The spy shot the policeman with the revolver”, and “Put the cup on the towel on the table.” For each of these sentences there are two perfectly plausible yet entirely distinct meanings.

These ambiguous sentences got me thinking. Might it be possible to write an entire story — perhaps a novel — in which the meaning of every sentence was similarly ambiguous? I’m sure it would be very difficult (and maybe you’d have to be a little crazy to try). But such a novel would be a fascinating thing to read. One possible first sentence is the title of this post.

Attic, part 13

The next day — Jenny could not believe it was merely the next day — she found herself the focus of attention as the four of them sat around, taking stock of the previous day’s events. Well no, she corrected herself, only three of them were sitting around. Sid was actually standing on Mr Symarian’s desk, in his usual spot.

“Jenny, is there is something you are not telling us?” Mr. Symarian was asking.

“I’m sorry Mr. Symarian, I didn’t expect anything like this,” she said. “I’ve missed Grandma terribly since she’s been gone, and I thought this whole finding a key thing was a sign that I could reach out to her in some way. When Sid appeared, I thought it meant there was a real chance.”

“Except,” Josh said, “you were expecting somebody nice.”

Jenny nodded. “Exactly! Grandma was just about the kindest, sweetest person you could ever imagine. That’s why we all loved her so much. She didn’t have a mean bone in her body. But yesterday, when we conjured up that, that … thing … it felt all wrong. Like it wasn’t really Grandma at all. I mean it was her, but it wasn’t her. If you see what I mean.” Jenny looked around expectantly.

“Yeah kid, I get ya,” Sid nodded. “You’re close to Grandma, you got some kinda bond thing, like you’re connected. You figure that’s gonna continue, even after the old lady kicks it. I’d figure it the same way if I was in your shoes. Not that I would wear shoes.” he added hastily.

“But why does it matter,” Josh asked. “Your grandmother’s gone. Why would you care about a picture on a table?”

“Because it means she’s not gone,” Jenny said. “It’s not like she’s in heaven or whatever. Something’s happened to her — something bad. Sid, are there bad demons that could do something like this?”

Sid rubbed his wings together thoughtfully before replying. “I gotta level with you here. We ain’t all as good hearted as me. And we certainly ain’t all as good looking. Like the man once said, sometimes you gotta take the meat with the gravy.”

“Are you sure you got that last part right?” Josh asked.

“Quiet Josh!” Jenny said. “This is serious. I think we have to rescue Grandma.”

“Well,” said Mr Symarian. “That means we will need all the tools we can get to reach out to her and pull her from the Astral dimension. Let’s start with the basics. Jenny, what was your Grandmother’s first name?”

“Her name,” Jenny said, “was — is — Amelia.”

Five important people

The first time I ever went to India — to attend a conference in Goa — the person who had invited us arranged for several of us foreign visitors to take a small tour of Mumbai the day before our respective flights back home. He arranged for a taxi driver to take our little crew — two Americans (including yours truly), a German grad student, and a professor from England, on a tour of the sights.

One thing that made the entire adventure slightly surreal was the fact that our taxi driver spoke nothing but Hindi, whereas none of us spoke any Hindi at all. So we ended up being driven around Mumbai — which means madly careening from one location to another at top speed, missing oncoming cars and random pedestrians by mere inches — until at various points the driver would suddenly stop, which would be our cue to get out and try to figure out where we were. Then, we’d pile in again and careen off to the next mysterious stop.

Sometimes we could figure it out from context. One stop was clearly a famous market of some sort — an opportunity to purchase gorgeous silk scarves and other raiments in astounding shades of turquoise and saffron, all at exhilaratingly low prices.

Another stop was a Hindu temple, no doubt one of great importance and significance — just not to us. In any case, it was exceedingly beautiful. Among other stops were a lovely park of some sort, a large government building, and a rather spectacular train station that clearly dated back to the days of Queen Victoria.

But one stop in particular had us stumped for a while. We were let off by our driver at what looked like an ordinary house. Nothing fancy, just a simple entry hall and some furnished rooms, all slightly musty and old fashioned.

I went with the German grad student, a very likable young man with whom I’d had some splendid conversations in the preceding days, to wander through the house, as we both valiantly tried to figure out where we were. Then we came upon some framed black and white pictures on the wall, and suddenly realized that we were standing in the house where Mahatma Gandhi used to live.

As we contemplated the photos of Gandhi shaking hands, greeting various world leaders, and generally setting the stage for his magnificent non-violent revolution, we were filled with a sense of quiet awe at the way this exceptional man had managed to accomplish so much.

I turned to my young German friend and — without really thinking about what I was saying — remarked “Wow, wouldn’t you say that Gandhi was one of the five most important people in the twentieth century?”

There was a long pause, and then the German grad student replied, rather sheepishly, “Yes, we also had one of those. But it didn’t turn out very well.”


Attic, part 12

The four of them peered down at the slowly swirling form upon the table top. At first it was indistinct, mere shadow and outline, but gradually an image began to take shape. Jenny realized that she was still chanting. She had long since put down the notebook; the strange words were now coming from her mouth of their own volition.

Suddenly the words stopped, and she found herself staring in silence. The image, fully formed now, was of a woman in profile. The woman was almost young, and it was clear that she had once been beautiful — that she might still be beautiful, but for the expression on her face. It was an expression of pure cold hate, and utter distain.

As she gradually came to understand what she was seeing, Jenny could feel the hairs begin to rise on the back of her neck. “No,” she said, in a small quiet voice, slowly shaking her head. “No, it’s not right.”

She looked up at Josh, and he looked back at her in confusion. “This is not right!” Jenny repeated, her voice rising. “Grandma was not like this, not at all. It’s all horribly wrong.”

Without saying a word Josh came around the table, passing Mr. Symarian and Sid without looking at either of them. He put his arms around her. Jenny seemed to go limp in his embrace, letting herself be held. She buried her face in his shoulder, and began to cry.

The iPad is paper

The moment you actually look at an iPad, you realize it isn’t a computer at all. It’s paper.

This is not a device to do your work on. You don’t use it to program, or to write your term paper. No, it’s certainly not a device for the technorati. Which is great news for the technorati (although they don’t yet know it). Because it means that “computers” have finally made the great leap to a true consumer item, and therefore the cultural reach of your computer program (if you understand the terrain) is about to vastly expand.

I’m not saying that we’ll all be using an iPad in the future. Google will soon be coming out with its higher-resolution Android based competitor, with a built-in camera. Then Apple will leapfrog over that. Meanwhile some other company, perhaps HP, will do something different, and the battle will be on.

But it won’t be a battle between competing computers. It will be a battle over something much more interesting.

In the early days of the automobile, you couldn’t drive unless you were also a mechanic. To start your car in the first decade of the previous century, you needed to turn a big crank. If you didn’t do it right, the crank would spin back hard and perhaps break your arm. The monstrosity that was an early car was marketed as a dream of universal personal transport, but those early versions were anything but. The dream was of fun, but the reality was work.

And I would argue that the presence of the keyboard, the very fact that a notebook computer is a clamshell that needs to be opened, is a signifier that it is not built for fun, but rather is primarily a work device — much closer sociologically to that big old computer that sits on your office desk. Microsoft’s valiant attempt nine years ago to come out with a tablet PC was doomed not through any individual failure of concept or execution, but because it was a computer. Whether or not it came with a keyboard, it was still fundamentally a machine for knowledge workers to get their work done.

But the iPad is the first of a series of devices that are precisely not about getting work done. It’s not the iPad itself that is exciting, it’s the bold statement by Mr. Jobs and company that is inviting us to play with and consume information — not as an adjunct to work, but as a fundamentally valid activity in its own right.

When I look at an iPad, I don’t see an iPad. I see a device that doesn’t exist yet, of which the iPad is merely a harbinger. I see really cheap flat tablet shaped displays strewn around the rooms of houses and workplaces. I don’t care which tablet is which, because they are all interchangeable. I don’t need to bother taking a tablet from one room to another, because my data is all in the Cloud anyway.

If I’m reading the day’s news, having a video chat with friends, or seeing a film, and I want to go to another room, or across town, I know there will be another tablet there. When I pick up this new tablet, its built-in camera will recognize my face, and I will be able to resume whatever activity I was engaged in before.

This is not a computer. This is paper, the way we’ve always dreamed it would one day be.

Attic, part 11

Josh came back with a big smile on his face. “Folks, I’ve got an idea. It came to me while I was … um, thinking about ideas.”

Jenny giggled. “We should take more bathroom breaks, What’s your idea?”

Josh turned to Mr. Symarian. “You said this usually works for you, which means there’s something different here. I think it’s because Jenny is supposed to read the spell.”

“Well,” Mr. Symarian said, “that would be most unusual. There are great powers involved, ways of doing things…”

“Kid’s makin’ sense,” Sid interrupted. “The way I see it, this is her caper. First she found the key, then she brought you the scroll. That’s the whole Megilla right there, if you ask me. Maybe it’s time we aughta take a back seat and let the little lady drive.”

“Very well,” their teacher said, a bit stiffly. “This is highly irregular, but it seems our little orange friend has a point.” At the mention of the word “orange” the demon shot the teacher a withering look, but chose to say nothing.

“OK, then” Jenny said brightly, hoping to diffuse the tension. “Let’s try it. Mr. Symarian, where do I sit?”

In a few minutes there were once again seated around the table, their faces lit only by the flickering black candles. Jenny began to read the strange words from the little notebook. As soon as she started to speak, she could feel the book begin to grow colder in her hands. By the time she had finished the second paragraph a sound had risen all around them in the darkness, an elusive and papery sound, like many voices whispering from far away.

Gradually the voices grew closer, louder. The air in the middle of the table began to shimmer. Jenny looked up in alarm. To her surprise, she found herself continuing to speak the incantation, the words just coming to her now, as though she had always known them. She could dimly see Josh staring at her from across the table, a strange look upon his face. In the darkness between them something seemed to be moving in lazy slithering circles. A shape was slowly forming…

Getting to know your robot

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the “programming without math” question, and my views have been shifting since my earlier posts on the subject. I think now that I underestimated the significance of the comment by Andras:

“As computing is drastically transforming our society, I think great minds need to look at transforming ‘programming’ to be more engageable and useful to a wider audience.”

The blocks world with snap-together tiles that I was playing with earlier is really quite close to the standard “procedural” paradigm for programming, in which you need to explicitly tell the computer what to do, and in what order. I now think the hurdle for that is still too high, because it fails my fifth of vodka test. In a nutshell: for 90% of the population to embrace something, it has to still be fun to use after you’ve imbibed a fifth of vodka. That’s true of the Apple iPhone and most popular TV shows, but not of any existing programming language — which tend to be notoriously intolerant of errors.

It would be great to have the sort of interface that science fiction writers fantasize about when they create imaginary robots. George Jetson doesn’t need to type in code to get Rosie the Robot to know what he’s talking about, and Luke Skywalker doesn’t require some long-ago-and-far-away Jedi version of Java to give instructions to R2D2. In both cases, they talk to their robots. This may be a fantasy, but it also might contain seeds of a necessary truth.

For certainly anything that will be used by most people will need to be very error tolerant. We need to give people an environment for talking to robots that allows users to make mistakes, and yet still more or less works. People are quite good at learning to find their way through fuzzy systems that respond with some level of consistency (that is in fact a high level description of every toddler’s experience of the world).

And that means that there will need to be a strong element in the system of what programmers call “declarative programming”. You, the user, are allowed to give general rules for what you think your robot should do, and those rules don’t need to be arranged in a rigid order. This is more in line with the way people usually think. If you say “I like my songs arranged with the sad songs first,” then your robot should generally know to put the sad songs first on your song list. You’re not giving it explicit instructions how to do this. Rather, you’re giving it a general rule to influence its behavior.

Generally this means that there will be some kind of software running inside the robot that does “constraint solving” — given constraining rules to work with, the robot comes up with solutions that fit those constraints. There is already an entire subfield of computer science concerned with declarative, constraint based programming, but the available languages, such as CLIPS, Soar and Prolog, are considered tools for A.I. researchers, and generally require an expert user.

While we’re on the subject of A.I., it is important to reiterate that computers are not people. As Ben Shneiderman is fond of pointing out, a computer is closer to a pencil than it is to a person. Our robots might one day develop the sort of “reasoning” process that we associate with humans (many brilliant people have been valiantly trying to climb that mountain for decades now) but there is no guarantee this goal will ever be achieved, and certainly no assurance it will happen in our lifetimes.

Even the software “robots” that the folks at Google incorporate into their Wave project (software agents that lurk behind the scenes to interactively modify and update your screen widgets), are very literal minded, and are generally programmed the old-fashioned way, through a procedural AppBuilder language that is essentially a gloss on such “expert” languages as Java.

In order to create robots that are accessible enough that most people can explain things to them, I think we will need to go back to some of the ideas I discussed two years ago when talking about Theory of Mind, and the great work in this area by Lisa Zunshine and others (about which there was a lovely article the other day in The New York Times). In other words, we will need to develop a Theory of Mind about what robots can and can’t do.

So this is going to be a two way street. Yes, we need to make future robots more accessible to the 95% of the population that is now left out, by adding natural language interfaces that allow people to talk to their robots declaratively (ie: “I like my songs arranged with the sad songs first”). But we will also need to gradually teach people a Theory of Mind about robots, so that we humans properly understand the peculiar nature of this strange new species that we will be learning how to talk to in the years to come.

Attic, part 10

Josh was getting uncomfortable. Mr. Symarian had been reading from his little black incantation book for a good fifteen minutes and it didn’t seem like anything was happening. Except maybe that the candles had burned lower, but Josh was sure that didn’t really count.

None of this would have been a problem — Josh was as up for a good supernatural adventure as the next kid — except that he really, really had to go to the bathroom. He wondered idly whether it was ok to interrupt a ritual invocation of dark spirits to announce something like that. He was sure the spirits wouldn’t care — they probably didn’t even have bathrooms in the afterlife, or wherever dark spirits hung out. But it just didn’t seem quite, well, appropriate.

To get his mind off things, he tried to think about other occult situations, in books he’d read, to see if anybody had ever had to go to the bathroom. There was that one series of books, the one with the annoying wizard kid, where there was some ghost of a girl who actually haunted a bathroom. But Josh was pretty sure nobody in the book every actually used that bathroom. Which made sense, given that a haunted bathroom pretty much guaranteed you wouldn’t get any privacy.

He had just about managed to screw up his courage to speak out and openly express his need, when Jenny spoke up first. “I don’t think this is working,” she said.

Mr Symarian looked at her with an injured expression. “It’s always worked before. I’ve been doing this spell for centuries…”

“Euphemism,” Sid interrupted. “‘Centuries’ was a euphemism, kids. Right teach?”

“Yes, well,” Mr. Symarian said, blushing. “Merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.”

Jenny was sure she’d heard that somewhere before, but she couldn’t quite place it. She looked to Josh for support, and noticed for the first time that he seemed rather uncomfortable. In that moment she had a flash of understanding. “Mr. Symarian, would it be ok with you if we took a bathroom break?”

“Why yes,” their teacher said, “I think that would be fine.”

Josh wanted to kiss Jenny, but that would have to wait. Right now he needed to head for the door. By the time Mr. Symarian had finished his sentence, Josh was already gone.

“Sheesh!” said Sid. “And they say we demons dematerialize fast.”

Inverse forensic science

I was delighted to read this week that the frozen body of Walt Disney was successfully revived (cf: J Inv Forensic Sci 2010 Mar;55(2-6)). Many of you know that when the great animation pioneer passed away on December 15, 1966, cryogenic technology was used to preserve his body in a state of latent animation. A novel slow-freeze process was employed, with the highly respected cryogenic specialists Drs. Joseph Plateau and Pierre Desvignes flown in from Paris to oversee the operation.

At the time this was considered a major breakthrough in inverse forensic science, the first such method in which the cells were prevented from crystalizing. It is generally believed that unwanted crystalization during cryogenic preservation causes massive rupture at the cellular level, thereby diminishing the chances of a patient’s eventual revival to nil.

Fortunately, Mr. Disney, or “Patient WD” as he was referred to in (J Inv Forensic Sci 1967 Apr;12(3-7)), was the first recipient of this highly controversial new method of cryogenic preservation, originally developed by Drs. Thomas and Johnston of the renowned Buena Vista Institute. The process involved a novel technique in which the patient was transferred to a state of “Cryogenic electrolytic latency” (Cel). The underlying rationale at the time was that as technology developed further, scientists would eventually develop effective methods of reversing this process.

That time has apparently arrived. In a breakthrough that has thrilled inverse forensic scientists everywhere, Patient WD was successfully revived last month at the Buena Vista Regional Medical Center, through a technique that chief attending physician Dr. Stuart Blackton is calling “Cel re-animation” (Dr. Blackton, the first physician board certified to perform such an operation, drew on techniques originally developed for his well known HPFF phase protocol). Mr. Disney is reportedly recovering with family.

Dr. Felix Messmer of the Max Planck Institute — whose groundbreaking theoretical work led to the invention of the CAT scan — was willing to speak on the record about the implications of the recent operation. “In the years since Mr. Disney’s departure, we have developed highly advanced methods of 3D visualization — techniques that would have been inconceivable back in 1966. And yet, as today’s results clearly reveal, it is never too late for Cel animation.”