Monday, 30 November 2009

This "climategate" thing has been pissing me off. Partly because the scientists from whom the emails were stolen were being political, stupid and imprudent, but mostly because it's being used, entirely predictably, to quickly jump to the wrong conclusions. I'm trying, sometimes unsuccessfully, to avoid getting into discussions about it. People who care about the truth and the science and hadn't made up their minds beforehand are able to figure out that this is not nearly as nefarious as skeptics are attempting to spin it. My impression is that those claiming that these emails are a disproof of AGW are not those inclined to take the science seriously or those who already made up their minds long ago. It's hard to find any evidence against AGW in this controversy. So I'm trying to avoid the debate in much the same way that I avoid the "birther" debate or the evolution debate. But in the meantime, the Northwest Passage is now passable, we're rapidly losing sea ice and temperatures increase and we keep twiddling our thumbs and feeling reassured because Matt Drudge laughs when global warming press conferences occur during a snow storm. I can't disprove determined scepticism so for my own peace of mind I'm going to try to leave it alone. But my favorite objection has been the one about the "politicization of science". That climate change sceptics can say this with a straight face is remarkable.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

The Stupak Amendment

I haven't been following the discussion on the Stupak amendment very carefully, so I may have missed some subtleties, but I'm a bit confused by claims I've encountered that it somehow violates a woman's right to choose. Surely acknowledging or establishing the right to do X isn't accompanied by an obligation to have access to X paid for by the government, i.e., by taxpayers for whom X violates their ethical principles. People opposed to drug laws or alcohol prohibition aren't arguing that the government has an obligation to provide drugs or alcohol for its citizens, are they? If I don't believe the government should forbid the eating of meat, does it follow somehow that I should also believe my tax dollars should go towards subsidizing cattle farms?

Friday, 6 November 2009

Preventing Mass Murders

Whenever these Columbine/Austin clock tower/Ft. Hood sorts of events occur, the media orchestrates displays of handwringing and bewilderment about what went wrong and consternation about how we might prevent such things from happening in the future. But isn't the solution, although not easily implemented, fairly obvious? I believe that most of these nutbars who shoot up restaurants or army bases or schools or office buildings before taking their own lives, directly or by "death by cop", wouldn't bother to do so if they knew that despite the horrific actions they'd die in relative obscurity.

If I'm right, this imposes an obligation on the news media and news consumers to stop providing that which motivates the actions of these killers, i.e., fame. News media should just stop reporting the details about these kinds of killers. They could report the crimes but leave out the killer's name and details about the killer's personal life, focusing instead on the nature of the crime and the victims. Other than local media that may have family members of the killer in its audience, how is it in the public interest to learn the details of the private lives of these killers? In discussing these people ad nauseam is the media doing anything other than suggesting to those who are leading failed insignificant lives, that this route at least offers them an opportunity to matter and be noticed?

The obligation also falls on the news consumers. We should stop seeking out and paying attention to such details and perhaps also join together to boycott news organizations that publish those names and details and the companies that sponsor them.

I'm not suggesting a legal ban, but a voluntary ethical code, based on the same kinds of principles that prevent news media from explaining how to build bombs or leaving out certain details of crimes or failing to publicize the names of the victims of some crimes. This information wouldn't have to be top secret, it should remain available to people. Psychology researchers and criminologists, for example, should continue to access it. But if people actually had to go to police information sources and the media failed to broadcast it, I suspect that the main motivation for these crimes would be eliminated.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Off-Year Elections

It's hard to know what last night's election results portend for the Democratic or Republican party. On the one hand, we see Virginia going, very heavily, Republican, on the other, the Democrats won a seat in NY that had been Republican since the Bronze Age. I won't try to interpret these results in terms of what voters think of the Obama administration, possible to spin it either way, I suppose, but I think it is notable that both losers, in VA and in NY-23, seemed to have made a point of distancing themselves from their party. Deeds is a very right wing Democrat and purposefully distanced himself from Obama, and Scozzafava is fairly left wing, relative to Republicans, and ultimately endorsed the Democratic candidate.

So, what are we to make of these things? I suppose the simple lesson is that one ignores one's base at one's peril. Triangulation only goes so far; cynical attempts to grab the swing voters can backfire. Truth be told, I was, in an odd way, pleased to see the third party candidate come as close as he did in NY-23. Not, of course, because he was such a right winger, but because it showed that politics haven't become a matter of simply "supporting one's team", that principles and ideas still matter to some voters.

Tangentially, I think it is notable that the WaPo endorsed Creigh Deeds shortly before the election. At that time polls showed Deeds behind but not 18 points behind. It makes one wonder what a newspaper endorsement is worth these days. This certainly didn't give much evidence that it helps.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Spinning the Semantic Web.

Last week I attended the International Semantic Web (SW) Conference, ISWC 2009. The semantic web project is one that has interested me for a long time because it would be a large scale knowledge representation implementation and because it involves standardizing languages and approaches for doing so. But the semantic web has been taking its sweet time in catching on. Interestingly, I attended a few sessions of the ISWC in 2002 or 2003 and Tim Berners Lee claimed that we were just on the cusp of having it catch on and that it was picking up speed just the way the web originally did. I think that now, in 2009, some momentum is finally beginning to gather. dbpedia is a SW version of, essentially, Wikipedia and there is a way to query it using the SW query language, SPARQL, and the NY Times is "semantic webifying" itself, but the SW has not caught on at nearly the same speed as the web did and I think it is useful to ask why. Some of my thoughts:

a) There has been a tendency to make the semantic web a much harder problem than it needed to be. Last week's conference was full of discussions of generating the inferential closure of hundred of millions of triples (assertions), sophisticated model theory discussions and SPARQL extensions. A new OWL 2.0 spec was released that included n-ary quanitifiers. Those are important questions and issues for knowledge representation, but they're not, I would claim, the things to be focusing on when attempting to get the SW implemented on a wide scale. (A good but abstruse example: Last week I found myself in a discussion over a claim that a many-sorted first order logic implementation of uncertainty representation was preferable over a pure second-order because completeness and compactness were important features of a web reasoning language. Well, completeness and compactness are important features of a logic in the very purest sense of the word 'logic', i.e., in the sense of keeping logic contentless, but not really necessary for a knowledge representation language in such a heavily applied environment. Many argue that SOL is an appropriate foundation for arithmetic and set theory, surely the internet is not quite as pure as those domains.) RSS implemented simple RDF at one point, but even that proved too complex for full implementation, so why are people worried about packing inference into SPARQL and getting n-ary quantifiers into OWL? Any traction the SW is seeing is in FOAF and linked data, it hasn't been for want of n-ary quantifiers that the SW has been mostly unrealized. Linked data focuses on the relatively simple task of linking data and far less on sophisticated ontologies and knowledge representation issues. This gets to the heart of the reason why the SW has been slow to catch on. The utility of the web was obvious to people who didn't have computer science degrees; the SW, not so much.

b) Querying the semantic web is difficult. The standard query language for the SW is SPARQL, but from my experience, even relatively intelligent web searchers, doctors and the like, are barely capable of using quotes or boolean operators correctly, why do we think they'll be able to run complex SQL queries requiring complicated URL UIDs? SPARQL is useful for sophisticated users deeply familiar with the knowledge representation language and ontology that has been implemented, it would likely be much harder to use it for discovery, a key task in much web usage. And yet those involved in "spinning" the SW seem unwilling to give this problem much consideration.

c) The development has been very top down. See (a). The players in the SW are well known and the group is relatively small. We're getting standards passed down for problems that don't yet exist instead of going to the grass roots and trying to solve problems as they arise. Even the venue was evidence of this. The conference was ridiculously expensive and took place at some remote Marriott, completely inaccessible by public transit. Hardly screams "grass roots" or "user input". Tellingly, I heard lots of talk of the need to go out and "spread the word" and "encourage people to use it' or join "meet ups", etc. Or questions about how I get "people to take more interest in the semantic web". People will get interested when we show them it's useful, let's worry more about that and less about methods of popularization reminiscent of an evangelical church.

d) I'm still of the impression that the SW's original sin was to insist that the URL become the means of designating reference. I think it leads to ontological confusion. We use such strings both to point to pages about X and to refer to X itself, not completely unlike using some string to denote me and the apartment in which I happen to be living at some point in time. It's handy and solves what could have been a complicated UID problem but I wonder if it makes the proposed solution seem harder than it needs to be. There has been discussion of this issue amongst those doing the implementing and I wonder if the ontological fuzziness here ends up making the SW fuzzier than it needed to have been.

Anyway, I think the SW will catch on and is catching on, but I think it could have been happening much more quickly if people had mainly concerned themselves with making it useful and workable and less with exploiting it as a funding tool for interesting but ancillary AI problems.