25 May 2007

ok go vids

I am a little old for all these new internet fads, but I just have to say that the Ok Go videos are the reason why YouTube should exist.

Junior year in college, one of my friends told me I would like Ok Go, and after that I used to listen to them. So when I saw this video on Mtv-U I was totally psyched, and of course I loved it.

a million ways to be cruel

And now that the treadmill video is out...can anyone ever beat it? Can they even make anything better themselves?? Note: as I post this right now, there have been over 17,600,000 views of this video on youtube.

here it goes again

When I saw them play at the This American Life tour a couple of months ago, one guy said it's his sister who choreographs the videos! She rocks.

20 May 2007

artificial intelligence

Tons of technologies around us use some form of artificial intelligence. Science fiction media usually gives us the impression that AI is just a robot that can walk and talk like a human, but really AI is the practice of getting a machine to do something humans currently do, like make decisions or classify objects and rank their relevance. Mathematics, computer science, statistics and signal processing all play roles in the field of artificial intelligence-- we give it many names like statistical learning, machine learning, estimation, classification....etc.

Let me give you some examples... Spam filters try to classify email as spam. Netflix or Amazon (and others) try to suggest new products based on what you and others like. Alarm systems decide when a home has been broken into and notify the police. GPS boxes for your car give you directions and then adjust to your own choices or mistakes and give you a new route to follow. Google tries to find the best website match for your search terms. Translators try to find the best match from a set of words in one language to a set of words in another.

For a long time, certain learning algorithms have focused on improving algorithm performance with a limited amount of "training data"-- data you have ahead of time that you already know how it should get classified, for example. So if Netflix has some data where you told them what movies you were actually interested in, then this is training data. You can use that information to teach your algorithm your preferences. Or, you can use the training data as "testing data", to see if the algorithm predicts a movie that you actually do like.

Now, however, google is showing us that the real way to go is not to improve the algorithm carefully--but instead to give the algorithm a ridiculous amount of training data. As you increase the amount of training data, all of the algorithms can just do vastly better-- way better than any new-and-improved AI algorithm does on a small set of training data. So for example, google is working on a translation service, and they are looking for every multilingual journalistic publication out there. Wherever they can find the same stories in two languages, google algorithms can try to learn how to translate between those two languages by learning. You might wonder, what if some of the translations are wrong? Well if there are enough data, then those incorrect translations will get lost in the heap, and the algorithm will still do well.

In my field of sensor networks, we are collecting data and hope to create technologies that can make all kinds of decisions for us-- hopefully, better decisions than we could even make ourselves, because they incorporate both human knowledge and a vast resource of collected data. For example, in the santa monica mountains nature preserve, rangers are collecting a lot of data using sensors. Because of it, they are better able to decide on properties to buy and add to the reserve for the best plant and animal preservation, building codes for developing property nearby, and developer requests.

(I don't know where I am going with this. But here you go.)

10 May 2007

Generation M

I just read part of this good article on how to parent "the media generation." I feel really lucky that I used email and IM starting when I was 16 and that I was right on the bandwagon and thick into technology when friendster and google happened.

There are two main thoughts I had to supplement the article.

First of all, media technology may be the way of the future, and kids are learning early online social skills, research skills, and creative skills--ie, they are "playing in information" as the article says. However, from being in the workplace after college I saw a problematic form of performance metric in our jobs-- hours with your butt in the chair. 15 years ago, when you sat down in your office job, the only thing you could do to distract yourself is pick up the landline phone. Otherwise you had to just sit at your desk and either daydream or just get your work done. No one can daydream all day, and anyway if you stare out the window all day people get suspicious. So it was easier for people to get work done because there was nothing else to distract them.

I think that now it is possible for people to sit at their desk--and in fact look quite busy-- all while using internet and networking media technology. And this practice is not only bad for the company, but it's horrible for the person practicing it-- work becomes a constant struggle to learn how to focus.

I believe virtual worlds and multitasking are not better, only alternatives to real worlds and focus. In the end I think both will be needed. And for someone to teach their media kid how to focus, I think one of the best ways would be to find something cool and exciting on the web-- and print it out and take it to a quiet place where there are no distractions. For example, your kid could learn how to design sound canceling headphones or practice drawing.

Secondly, the article refers to "cell phone etiquette" as if this is something which has been defined by my parents' generation. The truth is, kids often don't care if their friends answer their cell phone on the first ring, interrupting the conversation (even at the dinner table!). Etiquette is not something set in stone, but instead something that involves being sensitive to how the people around you feel about your actions. I think old fogies (I unfortunately have to include myself here) will just have to accept the fact that what makes them uncomfortable may not make other people uncomfortable, and to teach their kids to have some sensitivities to all the different types of reactions. For example I think (hope) it's still safe to say that you shouldn't answer your phone at Thanksgiving dinner or at dinner with grandma, but otherwise you might just teach them to extend a courteous, "Do you mind if I answer this?" the first time it happens in uncertain circumstances.

08 May 2007

Try the Cenozoic

Get away from my time machine, future man!

matlab for men

A friend of mine wrote to the creator of the site "Matlab for Men" and asked him why he chose this name. She told him she feels the name discourages cooperation among engineers of all genders and reflects poorly on the international image of Sharif University.

A student of the creator (who my friend cc'd) replied in earnest trying to defend the name's creativity, and she forwarded that response asking us what we thought. Here are my responses.

Date: Sat, 5 May 2007 11:08:21 -0700 (PDT)
If it were an American writing this email to you, I would feel comfortable assuming that "Matlab for Men" means "matlab only to be used by real men" in the fully chauvinistic sense. I would spam them everyday and get my friends to do it until they could come up with something actually creative (bc I don't think it is creative, if this is the true original meaning).

However, I really don't know how this translates. Perhaps they really did mean "Matlab for Humans" when they wrote it-- implying that they are giving useful working advice to real people for how to use matlab.

He seems genuine in wanting to make you feel like it's not offensive, but I find it amusing bc in English there are gender neutral/incuding terms for a few of the examples he's offering, like cowgirls, businesswomen or businesspeople. From my experience you would never call a cowgirl a cowboy, for example. Not because it's offensive but because it's inaccurate. (And besides, the Dallas Cowboys are all men.) This is opposed to words like mankind and human which have the word "man" inside but have always been defined to mean all people. Again-- all of this is solely from the English language perspective. I think you could suggest to him that he changes the name to "Matlab for Mankind"--which sounds great and is actually creative.

I have always understood how people think that some women are being picky when they ask for a change of vocabulary in order to be technically more equal, when in reality the word is mostly used equally for both genders anyway. This guy's example of "freshman" is a good one-- if we all started getting riled up and saying you have to start saying "freshpeople", it would be silly.

However, I do think that if all people were somehow magically able to let go of the issues attached, then clearly the best choice would be a gender neutral or gender including vocabulary. Then men who run the front podium at a restaurant would not be called "hostess" or men who help you on the airplane would not be "stewardess"...the "ess" ending implying female.

There is nothing wrong with wanting it to stay the old way that everyone is used to, but there is also nothing wrong with wanting the neutral case. And once something is changed, it soon becomes "the old way that everyone is used to" anyway.

Date: Tue, 8 May 2007 09:38:48 -0700 (PDT)
I just wanted to let you know that I had one further thought this morning about this email. It irritates me to no end that he said twice that you should not "segregate yourself" and not use the website because of the name. This is one of the most detrimental things that someone in a position of power can do-- preemptively blame the victim for the disadvantages they will face.

In fact, for every one woman who says they refuse to use the website because of the name, there are ten women who feel discouraged and ashamed to use that website. The segregation is happening because of HIS choice, not because of yours.