“links” Category

Brains and Boltzmann Machines

The Boltzmann machine algorithm appears to be a good model for important brain processes like learning:

“It’s the best possibility we really have for understanding the brain at present,” said Sue Becker, a professor of psychology, neuroscience, and behavior at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. “I don’t know of a model that explains a wider range of phenomena in terms of learning and the structure of the brain.”

Hinton, a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence, has always wanted to understand the rules governing when the brain beefs a connection up and when it whittles one down — in short, the algorithm for how we learn. “It seemed to me if you want to understand something, you need to be able to build one,” he said. Following the reductionist approach of physics, his plan was to construct simple computer models of the brain that employed a variety of learning algorithms and “see which ones work,” said Hinton, who splits his time between the University of Toronto, where he is a professor of computer science, and Google.

I think this approach—trying to approximately model the brain’s functions—is ultimately going to provide much more understanding our brain than studying actual brains and nervous systems. The latter is absolutely useful, but not only are our tools for doing so remarkably primitive, but even relatively simple brains are monumentally complex, which means it’s fairly difficult to truly understand how they function by directly studying them.

Learning more from computer models may seem counterintuitive, but doing so forces us to actually understand the system’s design, which should indicate more universal principles that can be applied to biological brains as well.

If you can’t tell, I find the brain to be one of the most fascinating things we have to study. We are truly in the early days of understanding how they work, and not only is discovering it wonderfully exciting, but I think it will provide us with the tools to build computer systems and software of an entirely new magnitude, and answer many questions we’ve had about ourselves that have been relegated to religion and philosophy out of necessity.

July 30th, 2013

“Speaking Truth to Stupid”

I missed this, but last year, Jake Tapper captured exactly what’s so grating about The Newsroom in a critique of the show:

But that prompts the question: protect it from what? This is where Sorkin’s high-minded critique falls flat. McAvoy sanctimoniously laments the deterioration of public discourse and the news media’s complicity in it. But if that is the problem, his subsequent actions reveal a commitment to a uniformly partisan solution. McAvoy—and, by extension, Sorkin—preach political selflessness, but they practice pure partisanship; they extol the Fourth Estate’s democratic duty, but they believe that responsibility consists mostly of criticizing Republicans.

That was obvious from the very first episode, with Mackenzie McHale’s rant:

WILL: And what does winning look like to you?

MACKENZIE: Reclaiming the Fourth Estate. Reclaiming journalism as an honorable profession. A nightly newscast that informs a debate worthy of a great nation. Civility, respect, and a return to what’s important. The death of bitchiness, the death of gossip and voyeurism. Speaking truth to stupid. No demographic sweet spot. A place where we all come together.

We’re coming to a tipping point. I know you know that. There’s gonna be a huge conversation. Is government an instrument of good or is it every man for himself? Is there something bigger we want to reach for or is self-interest our basic resting pulse? You and I have a chance to be among the few people who can frame that debate.

Apparently, when the news is framed by someone who believes that the debate over the extent of government and what its proper role is can be accurately summarized as the choice between people who believe government is an “instrument of good,” and people who believe it’s “every man for himself”—and that the former group believes that there’s “something bigger we want to reach for” while the latter believe self-interest is “our basic resting pulse—then that’s a place where “we all come together.”

Tapper shows what this “reclaiming” of the Fourth Estate looks like in a later episode:

In another episode Sorkin pats McAvoy on the back for limiting his coverage of the failed Times Square bomber and resisting the temptation to “hype” a terrorist threat that fizzled. (With no apparent sense of sarcasm, Skinner repeats praise for their restraint from Media Matters and Think Progress, as if those explicitly liberal websites are nonideological arbiters of Edward R. Murrow’s legacy.) And what are the important issues “News Night” covers instead of the piffle of Faisal Shahzad, a homegrown terrorist funded and trained by the Pakistani Taliban? McAvoy instead devotes at least a week of his broadcast to showcasing what a horribly inept and dangerous bunch Tea Party Republicans are as they—gasp!—defeat establishment Republicans in free and fair primaries and elections. It’s all well and good to follow the Koch brothers’ money, but at a time when Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, it’s telling that McAvoy and Sorkin aim their sights at conservatives seeking power—not moderates and liberals wielding it.

That nicely encapsulates what’s so vapid about McHale’s speech: Her character, and the show, is attempting to frame the news in pursuit of their own ideology, while draping it in beautiful platitudes about civility and respect, honoring journalism and rising above the monumental stupidity of dominant media. It’s deliciously cynical, or disturbingly delusional, to frame the news such that your ideology is the source of all enlightened truth and progress, and your opponent’s is the fount of all terrible, retrograde and corrupt, and call that “inform[ing] a debate worthy of a great nation” and “return[ing] to what’s important.”

July 30th, 2013

“Responsible Design” For Connected Devices

Don Norman on connected devices:

A standard response to this dilemma is to put the burden on the individual: it is our responsibility to use technology responsibly. I agree in theory, but not in practice. I know all too well the temptations of distraction—all that fascinating news, all those friends who send me status reports and wish me to respond with my own. I find it easy to succumb—anything to avoid the difficult, dreary concentration required to accomplish anything of value. I’ve often had to unplug my computer from the Internet to complete my work. The providers of these technologies must share the burden of responsible design.

Yes, yes, yes. That’s exactly right. Device makers and software developers all have a responsibility for what their creations allow, or what incentives they create for people. “People should use it smarter” isn’t an acceptable response.

July 29th, 2013

Re-thinking the Link Between Mobility and Inequality

In a thought-provoking piece, Reihan Salam argues that focusing on the link between mobility and inequality can elide a much deeper story:

Yet these U.S. metropolitan areas (Seattle, Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh) have much higher Gini coefficients than Denmark and Norway. By way of comparison, the Gini coefficient (0 is perfect equality, 1 is perfect inequality) for the U.S. is .467, it is .248 for Denmark and .250 for Norway. Seattle has a Gini coefficient of .439, Salt Lake City has a Gini coefficient of .417, and Pittsburgh has a Gini coefficient of .459. If there is a tight association between inequality and mobility, how is it that Seattle and Salt Lake City and Pittsburgh are roughly matching the upward mobility performance of Denmark and Norway with levels of inequality that are subtantially higher? Again, this doesn’t mean that inequality is irrelevant. But if Pittsburgh (.459) and Denmark (.248) are in roughly the same ballpark, it seems that we ought to pay close attention to what Pittsburgh and cities like it are getting right.

Salam emphasizes that while that link is real, we should also focus on a city’s level of integration, which helps to explain the disconnect he explains above. Read it.

July 29th, 2013


Bob Mansfield was removed from Apple’s executive team page this weekend. Apple said in a statement that he will not be a part of Apple’s executive team, but will continue to work on special projects at Apple and report to Tim Cook. John Gruber reports that there’s no intrigue behind the movie—he really is just going to be focusing on special projects.

Erica Ogg writes:

The reason for the reassignment of Mansfield is only one of many questions about what is going on at Apple right now. He’s not the only high-profile executive whose job title at Apple isn’t very clear or defined. While that might be a sign of turmoil, as was the case last year when Mansfield tried to retire, it’s quite possible that Apple is now moving key executives onto secret projects that it won’t reveal until it’s ready.

That certainly seems right. It’s probably better to read this as a result of a greater focus at Apple on new product lines they’re developing, most likely a wearable device. Which is exciting. We’re seeing Apple’s future developing here.

July 29th, 2013

TextExpander touch 2.0 (Sponsor)

Thanks to the people at Smile Software for sponsoring this week’s RSS feed.

There’s a lot to love in TextExpander touch 2.0.

Type faster on your iPhone or iPad using short abbreviations that expand into long snippets, such as email addresses, URLs, and standard replies. Tap in your abbreviation and it automatically expands to the full snippet. You can even insert today’s date automatically with the default abbreviation “ddate”! Use Dropbox to sync your snippets to all your iOS and Mac devices!

New in 2.0: Make customized, boilerplate replies fast and easy using fill-ins. Compose messages and expand snippets in formatted text. Insert macros for date, time, date math, etc. easily when editing your snippets on iOS.

Please note that iOS does not allow TextExpander touch to work in the background (as it does in Mac OS X). But you can expand snippets directly in over 160 apps that have built-in TextExpander touch support including OmniFocus, Drafts, Things, iA Writer, DayOne, Byword, Notesy, Elements, and WriteRoom. See the complete list of supported apps.

Sponsorship by The Syndicate.

July 29th, 2013

Apple’s Building a Speech Technology Team

Apple is building a speech technology team in Boston with ex-Nuance people:

Apple has assembled a small team of notable names in speech technology and is looking to expand those efforts in the Boston area, industry sources tell Xconomy.

Based on their online job profiles, we can say that members of the Apple speech team here are working on Siri, the company’s voice-activated virtual assistant. Details beyond that are hard to come by, however, even for others in the field.

Good news. Relying on Nuance for Siri was never going to work long-term, especially because if Siri is going to be a key component in Apple’s future, then depending on another company for the key technology is not only dangerous, but severely limits their ability to innovate on top of it as well.

July 28th, 2013


Calca is an incredible new calculator for OS X and iOS. “Calculator,” though, is not the proper description; it’s a text editor that allows you to declare variables and do live calculations with it.

What a good idea, and something that should have been obvious before. It’s like writing out calculations on paper by hand, except the calculations happen live.

You’ve got to use it. It’s dramatically more useful than a normal calculator application or spreadsheet for most purposes we use them for. It makes using them laughable when you can use this.

Calca is one of my favorite new applications. Go get it.

July 28th, 2013

How Prices Are Set In Health Care

This is how prices are set in our health care system:

This seemingly miraculous proficiency, which yields good pay for doctors who perform colonoscopies, reveals one of the fundamental flaws in the pricing of U.S. health care, a Washington Post investigation has found.

Unknown to most, a single committee of the AMA, the chief lobbying group for physicians, meets confidentially every year to come up with values for most of the services a doctor performs.

Those values are required under federal law to be based on the time and intensity of the procedures. The values, in turn, determine what Medicare and most private insurers pay doctors.

Pricing signals at work. Or, in this case, not at work. At all.

July 28th, 2013

Evidence That Dolphins Use Names

Researchers have found more evidence that dolphins may refer to each other using names:

For decades, scientists have been fascinated by dolphins’ so-called signature whistles: distinctive vocal patterns learned early and used throughout life. The purpose of these whistles is a matter of debate, but new research shows that dolphins respond selectively to recorded versions of their personal signatures, much as a person might react to someone calling their name.

Our treatment (abuse) of dolphins and whales is going to be one of those things that when people look back on it in the future, they’ll wonder what the hell was wrong with us.

July 24th, 2013

Scanadu Scout

Scanadu Scout is billed as a “medical tricorder”, and if it does what they say it does, that seems like a fair description.

It’s a little device you hold up to your forehead for ten seconds, and it tells you your heart rate, skin and core body temperature, blood pressure and a few other things, too. Pretty incredible.

July 24th, 2013

Tearing Through Arguments for NSA’s Dragnet

Julian Sanzhez tears apart the points made in an “open letter” supporting the NSA’s spying program signed by former intelligence officials. Here’s one excerpt, in response to the argument that collecting our phone records has been crucial to stopping attacks:

The crucial general point to understand about these claims for the efficacy of these programs is that if you have unlimited authority, then that will be what you end up using even if more limited authority would have sufficed. If we had never passed the Fourth Amendment, and the government could get “general warrants,” allowing police to search any home at will, they would never bother getting specific warrants based on probable cause. Then, every time police solved a crime through a search, they could accurately say “You see, we used a general warrant!” But that would be no argument for general warrants. The question to ask is: “Why couldn’t you have done it with a specific warrant instead?”

July 24th, 2013

God Bless Ron Wyden

Ron Wyden:

It is a fundamental principle of American democracy that laws should not be public only when it is convenient for government officials to make them public. They should be public all the time, open to review by adversarial courts, and subject to change by an accountable legislature guided by an informed public. If Americans are not able to learn how their government is interpreting and executing the law then we have effectively eliminated the most important bulwark of our democracy. That’s why, even at the height of the Cold War, when the argument for absolute secrecy was at its zenith, Congress chose to make US surveillance laws public.

July 24th, 2013

Hey, White House: Screw You

Representative Justin Amash introduced an amendment to a defense appropriations bill that would defund the NSA’s authority to indiscriminately collect phone records and metadata. In response, the White House’s Jay Carney said this:

“We oppose the current effort in the House to hastily dismantle one of our Intelligence Community’s counterterrorism tools,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a late-night statement. “This blunt approach is not the product of an informed, open or deliberative process.”

“Blunt” approach? Not the result of an “informed, open or deliberative process?” Are those really the words coming out of this administration—the same administration which has used espionage prosecutions to try to squash the public’s ability to know about secret programs that collect private information of millions of American citizens, secret programs the administration claims can’t be challenged in court?

I try my best to remain level-headed while writing here, but this is the most level-headed thing I know how to say in response to this. Hey, White House: Screw you.

July 24th, 2013

“Zeitgeisty Books Bundle”

Tomely has put together a terrific ebook bundle that includes Jack Cheng’s These Days. The bundle is completely DRM-free, a portion of proceeds goes to charity, and if These Days is an indication of the other books’ quality, it’s a damned good collection.

Plus, this is just a good idea. I love this kind of thing.

July 22nd, 2013