Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Encoding meaning with high-dimensional random vectors

My friend/collaborator Ross Gayler sent me this link to a recent talk by our colleague Pentti Kanerva, at the Redwood Center of Theoretical Neuroscience. Pentti is a pioneer in the field of sparse distributed memory, a biologically plausible model of mental representation similar to the Multiply-Add-Permute architecture that Ross and I are working on. The presentation is very accessible and deals with the exciting and open question of what kinds of things suggested by the architecture of the brain, if we modeled them mathematically, could give some properties that we associate with mind?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Moral Machines

Be sure to pick up a copy of the new book by Wendell Wallach and Colin Allen, Moral Machines: Teaching Robots Right from Wrong. The book explores the ethical issues related to the creation of artificial moral agents. Such issues are raised in an article in today's New York Times Science Times: "A Soldier, Taking Orders From Its Ethical Judgment Center" which mentions the book and its authors. Also, check out the New Scientist online article: "Six ways to build robots that do humans no harm." Wendell is a lecturer and consultant at Yale University's Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics the head of its Technology & Ethics study group and is a friend of the IS group. Colin is a Professor of History & Philosophy of Science and of Cognitive Science at Indiana University. BUY THEIR BOOK and check out the Moral Machines Blog.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Christopher Lydon hosts Slavoj Žižek: "One Big Bullshit"

I usually avoid stealing links from other blogs like BoingBoing, but this interview with academic superstar Slavoj Žižek is pure gold. Žižek is an obvious genius compared to whom everyone else in the media and most of academia is a pathetic amateur. Set aside some time and listen to the whole thing – you'll habituate to the lateral lisp after a minute.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Found Electronics

From the remarkable Simon Kirby comes this project synthesizing music, art, and technology.  I missed the exhibit at the Royal Botanic Garden this time; it reminds me a bit of David Byrne's Playing the Building installation in lower Manhattan.  I suspect that Found Electronics will have their work displayed at many venues in Edinburgh and elsewhere in the coming years. 

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Just four dimensions, not one, not ten, not eleven

This article in last week's New Yorker (the issue with the infamous cover) profiles Garrett Lisi, an outsider in the physics community who is bucking the String Theory trend of the past 30 years. He's also a serious surfer and snowboarder. ISers who recall the Brian Greene book we read several years ago may find Lisi's ideas refreshing.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Catherine P. Browman

We are very sad to report the death of our colleague and friend, Catherine P. Browman (1945-2008). Cathe died peacefully at home on July 18, 2008, after a long illness. Her partner, Louis Goldstein, posted an obituary on the Linguist List.

Cathe, one of the pioneers in the field of Laboratory Phonology, is best known for her work with Goldstein and other colleagues at Haskins Laboratories on Articulatory Phonology. She was an early participant in IS group meetings. One memorable evening in the 1980s she led us in Sufi dances that spoke to her commitment to spirituality and group interaction.


An international conference, A Natural-Physical Perspective on Perception-Action-Cognition, was held at the University of Connecticut, June 19-21, 2008, to honor psychologist Michael T. Turvey's "transition" into the next phase of his academic career.

The speakers, primarily drawn from Turvey's Ph.D. and postdoctoral students, presented papers in several of the areas that Michael worked in and contributed to for more than 40 years, including language (Philip Rubin, Robert Remez, Carol Fowler, Betty Tuller, Laurie Feldman, Bruno Galantucci); vision and audition (Claire Michaels, Jim Todd, Geoff Bingham, Larry Rosenblum, Nam-Gyoon Kim, Brett Fajen); dynamic touch and haptics (Chris Pagano, Jeff Kinsella-Shaw, Eric Amazeen, Mike Riley, Kevin Shockley, Sergio Fonseca); and coordination dynamics (Peter Kugler, Bruce Kay, Richard Schmidt, Dagmar Sternad, Rmesh Balasubramaniam, Nia Amazeen). Other speakers and discussants included (Mike Wade, Fergus Craik, Bob Shaw, J. A. Scott Kelso, Guy Van Orden, Reinoud Bootsma, Anatol Feldman, Peter Beek, Karl Newell, Mark Latash, Steve Harrison, Theo Rhodes, Claudia Carello and Michael T. Turvey.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Multiculturalism and the Meaning of Life

It has always seemed to me that the excitement of the humanities comes in the small details and odd combinations and permutations of particulars, not in the "Big Picture" that we've supposedly abandoned at modern universities. So I was delighted to see this offbeat combination of Western and Eastern traditions, with the Meaning of Life defined as "to keep alive what we are doing".

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

John Henry / Forasong

I came across this superb close-reading of the unexpurgated version of John Henry while trying to gain some insight into the lyrics of the song John Hardy, which overlap to some extent (though they describe different men). This sort of careful, historically-researched close reading of texts (from Homer to the Rolling Stones) is what made traditional literary analysis so great, and what I think is so sorely missing in today's theory- and agenda-driven academic criticism.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Video: Simon @ AGI 2008

From our Shameless Self-Promotion Department, here's a video of Simon Levy presenting a paper he co-authored with Ross Gayler, at the First Artificial General Intelligence Conference in Memphis, 01-03 March 2008. As in the previous post on this conference, note the industry logos: Auto Zone in the background, and FedEx on the dais.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Civilization and its discontents

I think that it would be good to have a little change of pace in the IS reading materials, and would like to propose a bold step, based on a couple of suggestions from IS members. I suggest that for the next meeting the topic be something about civilization and its discontents and that the readings include both "1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus" by Charles C. Mann and "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed" by Jared Diamond. This is ambitious. These are both long books. However, they should be easy to read and it will probably be a long time before the next IS meeting.

I also like the idea of a field trip to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. We could go early on a Saturday, hang out in Brooklyn for a while, and then return to my place (or elsewhere) in the evening for the IS meeting.

About all of this, one of our members has commented: "I really liked 1491. Mann's a pretty pedestrian writer, but his subject material is great -- basically a thorough updating of everything I thought I knew about the archaeology of the Americas. I also liked Collapse, though Diamond as a writer occasionally comes off to me as a bit too smugly certain of himself. Still, they are both easy and fairly quick reads, and would make a good bundle together with some apocalyptic sci-fi. BTW, thanks to Elliot for the suggestion and Philip for his copy I have been enjoying Box Nine: a kind of twisted Ellroy take on a Tim Burton style Metropolis, complete with a neurolinguist named Woo and a psychotropic drug that whacks both the speech and pleasure centers. Definite I.S. material!"

Simon sez: "I received 1491 as an unexpected gift last year, and it turned to be one of the best non-fiction books I've ever read. The Diamond book (Collapse) also looks brilliant. Ditto Box Nine, and even the crazy Williamsburg trip. Sounds like we have a winning lineup!"

It looks like a go, so we will next work on possible dates for early fall and then will post an announcement. In the meantime, get reading and have a nice summer!!

Laurie Santos and cognitive dissonance

Laurie R. Santos, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Yale University, was the final guest for the semester at Yale's Mind, Brain, Culture and Consciouness working group at the Whitney Humanities Center. Laurie's research provides an interface between evolutionary biology, developmental psychology and cognitive neuroscience. She indicates that " ... my current work explores what primates understand about physical objects and their motions, how primates spontaneously reason about different kinds of things (foods, artifacts, and animals), and whether or not non-human primates possess precursors to a theory of mind." During her elegant and entertaining presentation, she briefly discussed the recent controversy, raised in a column on April 8, 2008 by John Tierney of the New York Times, regarding a "sneaky logical fallacy in some of the most famous experiments in psychology." This concern regarding research related to cognitive dissonance was raised by M. Keith Chen, an economist at Yale University, and a co-author of Laurie. The following day, Science Blog, provided a challenge to Chen's concerns. We will keep you posted on the academic acrobatics in this area.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Grand Triumph Auto IV

With all the to-do over the horrific misogyny in the recent Grand Theft Auto IV video (NSFW), one vital question remains unanswered: why does the accent of the evil (anti-)hero make him sound so eerily similar to Triumph the Insult Comic Dog?

Monday, April 28, 2008

Vic Thrill (& Curly Oxide)

Buy or download the album on Amazon or ITunes (just buy the first three songs if you're not sure; you won't be disappointed). Possible movie coming out based on the This American Life episode.

I say we have our next meeting in Williamsburg!

Meeting Follow-Up / Planning

Elliot, Mark, Phil, Simon, and Steve met this past Saturday for a low-key IS meeting at Phil's house. We discussed the Alon book and watched Cabin Fever, the latter proving to me much less hurl-inducing than threatened.

We also discussed a few ideas for our next readings: for non-fiction, probably the Nowak book on Evolutionary Dynamics, or perhaps Jared Dimaond's latest. For fiction, Simon suggested a prize-winning first novel by a friend of his, and Eliot has just pointed us toward Box Nine, a linguistic-themed work of science fiction.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Vengeance is Ours

Jared Diamond, whose wonderful Guns, Germs, and Steel we read a few years back, has an extraordinary article in this week's New Yorker (unfortunately, abstract-only online). The article describes the universality of revenge across human cultures, and the psychological harm that comes from not being able to get revenge in rule-of-law societies like ours. The article focuses on the story of a young man that Diamond knew in Papua New Guinea who successfully avenged the killing of his uncle, with apparently positive results overall. Ninety-nine percent of scientists writing about this topic for a modern lay audience would feel compelled to end with some platitude about how "civilization" (or religion) places us above all that; incredibly, Diamond turns the tables on us, with a kicker finale. I'll try to remember to bring a copy to the meeting next weekend; someone else should too, as a backup, in case anyone's interested. Someone suggested another book by him; after this, I'm all for it.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


Gary Marcus was the most recent guest at Yale University's Mind, Brain, Culture and Consciouness working group at the Whitney Humanities Center. Gary is a Professor of Psychology at New York University and director of the NYU Center for Child Language. Gary talked about ideas related to linguistics, cognition, evolution, and the brain, that were drawn, in part, from his most recent book, Kluge: the haphazard construction of the human mind. Kluge is a very entertaining and accessible book. Behind its attractive exterior is a fascinating discussion of issues ranging from optimality through intelligent design.

Gary is amazingly prolific -- take a look at some of his earlier books, including: The Algebraic Mind: integrating connectionism and cognitive science and The Birth of the Mind: how a tiny number of genes creates the complexities of human thought. Also, this past Sunday (April 13, 2008 ), Gary had an article in the issue of the New York Times Magazine called "Total Recall" which was about human memory.

Finally, check out Gary's blog entries on The Huffington Post.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


This week's Times Literary Supplement has a terrific article by gerontologist / philosopher / poet / novelist / critic (!) Raymond Tallis. Tallis ruthlessly debunks the latest kerfuffle in literary criticism, which attempts to tie our appreciation of poetry and other writing to neuroscience, in a necessarily superficial way. (No one can do this kind of deflationary assault like the English can.) Unfortunately, a main proponent of the neuro-silliness is A.S. Byatt, a novelist for whom I otherwise have great respect.

On a more positive note, Tallis could provide us with both a fiction and non-fiction reading for a future I.S. meeting. Perhaps the Spikes book I suggested earlier, plus two readings by Tallis?

Monday, March 31, 2008

Dawkins Rap

Dick to the Doc to the Ph.D.
He's smarter than you; he's got a science degree...

Friday, March 28, 2008

Bainbridge on World of Warcraft

William Sims Bainbridge was the speaker at the March 26, 2008 meeting of the Technology and Ethics working group at Yale University's Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics. Bill is the co-director of the Human-Centered Computing Cluster in the Division of Information and Intelligent Systems at the National Science Foundation. Bill spoke to the Yale Tech-Ethics group about the extensive research that he has been doing recently for a new book project on World of Warcraft tentatively titled Warcraft Culture: Anthropology of a Virtual World. An ISgroup blog entry of August 1, 2007 described the Science magazine cover story by Bill called "The Scientific Research Potential of Virtual Worlds." His most recent book is Across the Secular Abyss: From Faith to Wisdom. He has also written extensively on nanotechnology and the convergence of related sciences.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Talking Brains

Talking Brains is a blog that provides "news and views on the neural organization of language." It is moderated by Greg Hickok and David Poeppel. David is a Professor in the Departments of Linguistics and Biology at the University of Maryland. He is a neuroscientist and cognitive scientist who works on understanding the neural basis of speech perception and many other related areas. Greg is a Professor of Cognitive Sciences at the University of California, Irvine. His research interests include the neuroanatomy of language, neural plasticity, and cognitive neuroscience.

Monday, March 17, 2008


I received a note this morning from my friend and fellow Brandeisian, Elliot S! Maggin. He has decided to put his latest novel online. Elliot is a writer of comics, film, and television, and is best known for being the principal writer of Superman from 1971 to 1986. About the new book, Elliot says, "It's a fantasy story called Lancer and it's been kicking around in my head for a very long time. I thought to write it as a short parable, a graphic novel, a novella, a full-length novel, as a screenplay, and for one reason or other I've never gotten it out the door. I'm putting the first two chapters out there free and clear, the first one today and the second (plans are) two weeks from Sunday. After that, I'll post the remaining twenty or so chapters in two-week intervals for about a buck a download. You'll still be on your honor, but my friends and colleagues are a notably honorable bunch." If you are interested, visit Elliot's website at www.maggin.com and click on the icon on the left of Elliot's webpage (the same picture as the one shown here). I highly recommend anything written by Elliot -- you won't be disappointed!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Possible Next IS Reading

Continuing in our biological direction, with a nod toward our ancient neural nets theme, I would like to suggest Spikes: Exploring the Neural Code, by Fred Rieke et al.

Appendix A.3, on "Wiener Kernels", looks especially promising.

Too Good for IS

At a colleague's recommendation, I just watched Protagonist, a powerful and moving new documentary by Jessica Yu. As in her beautiful Henry Darger: In the Realms of the Unreal, Yu mixes interview footage with other media: in this case, stirring re-creations of Euripidean tragedies using puppets and masks. Fans of Mark Salzman may remember his extraordinary Wu Shu performances at Yale in the late 1980's; this film ends with him describing his life up to the point at which he moved to China to study martial arts full-time.

From the Netflix page for the film: Four disparate lives intertwine with surprising results in this absorbing documentary, an official selection of the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. A German terrorist, a bank robber, an "ex-gay" evangelist and a martial arts student form the unlikely quartet. In her interweaving narrative, Oscar-winning filmmaker Jessica Yu explores parallels between human life and the formal dramatic structure of the Greek tragedian Euripides.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Patrick Nye (1936 - 2008)

We are sad to report that Patrick (Pat) Nye died in Bremerton, Washington on March 7, 2008. Pat stepped down from the Haskins Laboratories Board of Directors in December 2007. He served the Laboratories in a number of different capacities: Research Scientist 1971-1975, Associate Director of Research 1975-1992, Vice President for Administration 1992-1997, Member of the Board of Directors 1996-2007, and Chairman of the Board from 2002 to 2006. A blog (http://patricknye.blogspot.com/) has been created by his family since Pat's friends and relatives live far and wide and most likely won't get the chance to get together to share their thoughts on Pat and his life. They hope that this will provide a way to do that. It is hard to imagine the Laboratories without Pat. He will be missed.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Pandora's Baby

Robin Marantz Henig was the speaker at the March 5, 2008 meeting of the Technology and Ethics working group at Yale University's Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics. Robin is an author and freelance science writer. She read from and discussed her most recent book: Pandora's Baby: How the First Test Tube Babies Sparked the Reproductive Revolution. Robin's writing can also be found in various magazines, including the New York Times Magazine. Examples include Darwin's God, March 4, 2007, about evolutionary theories of religious beliefs, Taking Play Seriously, February 17, 2008, about aspects of play, and The Real Transformers, July 29, 2007, about sociable robots. Keep an eye out for her work and buy her books!

Norman Doidge and neuroplasticity

Norman Doidge, M.D., was a recent guest at Yale University's Mind, Brain, Culture and Consciouness working group at the Whitney Humanities Center. Norman is a psychiatrist, writer, and poet who is presently on the research faculty at the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalystic Training and Research and the University of Toronto's Department of Psychiatry. He discussed his latest book, The Brain That Changes Itself: stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science. The book provides a history of research related to neuroplasticity and discusses a number of controversial individuals and issues. Norman indicated that a documentary related to the book is currently being filmed in Canada. We will keep you posted regarding its release.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Blogging from AGI-2008 in Memphis

I'm writing this from the First Conference on Artificial General Intelligence (AGI 2008) in Memphis, TN.  The conference is a refreshing mix of (1) reviews of the over-promised AI failures of the past; (2) criticism of AI's current narrow focus (game-playing programs, limited natural language processing, search engines); (3) presentations of new projects attempting to achieve general-purpose intelligence; and (4) a nod toward transhumanist / singularitarian speculation.

Highlights so far include a splendid overview of the AGI problem by Ben Goertzel, a clever critique by Joscha Bach of fMRI methods in neuroscience (he showed an infrared image of an internal-combustion engine next to a labeled schematic of the engine -- get it?), and a chilling presentation by Ron Arkin on the increasingly autonomous weaponized robots already being deployed by the U.S. military.  Apropos a familiar IS theme, there was even a perceptive comment by an audience member on the value of a dissipative systems approach to studying the emergence of life and intelligence.

The conference, which is being held in the FedEx Institute of Technology, has also reminded me of how much academic research has come to rely on corporate sponsorship.  The conference auditorium is called The Zone, and is sponsored by AutoZone.  The AutoZone logo is replicated on every seating tier, and the signs outside the entrances read (I kid you not) "The Zone / AutoZone / The Zone, by AutoZone... funding provided by AutoZone".

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Next IS Meeting: Systems Biology

The next IS Group meeting with take place at 7pm, Saturday, 26 April 2008, at the home of Philip Rubin in Fairfield, Connecticut. We will gather at 6:30 pm for a pre-meeting dinner. The theme is Systems Biology.

Main reading: Uri Alon, An Introduction to Systems Biology: Design Principles of Biological Circuits. Chapman & Hall, 2006

Possible supplemental reading: Martin A. Nowak, Evolutionary Dynamics: Exploring the equations of Life. Harvard University Press, 2006.

We may end up devoting a future meeting to the Nowak book, depending on how our next meeting goes. We will also spend a little time at the next meeting discussing a draft manuscript by Simon Levy on modeling recursion in cognitive neuroscience. Contact Simon for further information and to get a copy of the manuscript.

Cabin Fever. Rubin says: "Do not bother watching if you do not have a strong stomach -- we are trying to drive you from the room, to leave more space, beer and food for ourselves." IMDB says: "An offbeat horror tale about a group of five college friends on vacation at a remote mountain cabin when one contracts a flesh-eating virus". See also the Cabin Fever Website.

Simon's review (of the website): "There's a killer in the woods. His brain is squirmin' like a ... somethin' that rhymes with woods. Anyway, they stole that rabbit costume idea from Donnie Darko. So I guess they should've called this one 'Donnie Dorko'! Get it? Shut up!"

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Keep an eye out for the new book by Gary Marcus. It is called Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind, and is scheduled to be released in April 2008. Gary is a professor of psychology at New York University and the Director of the NYU Infant Language Learning Center.

Gary has sent a URL for the upcoming book (http://klugethebook.com/) on which he says: "It's a reader's guide to the kluge that is the human mind: the frailties and foibles of the human brain -- and how they evolved." Check it out.