Friday, December 30, 2011

I promised not to think about this...

Politics and Economics...

But the low hanging fruit is so over-ripe that I just can't resist.

First. Politics. A couple months ago the IEEE membership magazine, Spectrum, had an extensive article on a small portion of the Afghanistan Follies from the standpoint of a power engineer. It seems that the royal we have sunk around $55 BILLION into winning hearts and minds out there by rebuilding (or perhaps just building) infrastructure that we probably destroyed in the first place. The article describes in excruciating detail how unmitigatedly fubar the power plant portion of that activity is. The author, Glenn Zorpette (Re-engineering Afghanistan, IEEE Spectrum, October 2011) does a good objective reporting job but just can't resist one editorial paragraph towards the end:
As a reporter, I have over the years dug up the occasional isolated and carefully concealed incident suggesting incompetence or wrongdoing. But I've never reported on anything quite like USAID in Afghanistan, where the examples of ineptitude, poor decisions, and apparent impropriety sometimes seemed to come swarming at me like targets in a video game.
Which pretty much sums up the general flow of the article.

From a more global perspective what is interesting is that the USAID behavior described is more in keeping with the political systems nominally "in-charge" in that part of the world, i.e, it's hard to tell if you're looking at incompetence or corruption, both poorly concealed by layers of bureaucracy. Basically Afghanistan has colonized the United States. I think the tightly knit Cheney-Academi (ne Xe Services LLC, ne Blackwater USA, ne Blackwater Worldwide)-Halliburton axis speaks for itself in this respect.

Moving on to Economics then... The author of one of my favorite Santa Fe Institute working papers: W. Brian Arthur, Inductive Reasoning and Bounded Rationality, or The El Farol Problem -- possibly the only economic theory based on bar-hopping behavior -- recently wrote an article for Mckinsey Quarterly about the emerging online economy which was excerpted on Dec 18, 2011, by the S.Fe New Mexican newspaper: Hidden in cyberspace. He waxes with poetic Modernity on the beauties of the new economy while freely admitting that it doesn't really produce much of anything tangible -- place arguments about improved service and efficiency here -- and in fact is reducing the need for human labor. Jobs be disappearing while population be rising:
There's a larger lesson to be drawn from this. The second economy will certainly be the engine of growth and the provider of prosperity for the rest of this century and beyond, but it may not provide jobs, so there may be prosperity without full access for many. This suggests to me that the main challenge of the economy is shifting from producing prosperity to distributing prosperity. The second economy will produce wealth no matter what we do; distributing that wealth has become the main problem.
The problem is by no means insoluble. The good news is that if we do solve it, we may at last have the freedom to invest our energies in creative acts.
What a wonderful Pure Socialist Ideal!! Unfortunately, as the 99% seem to be attesting, the Redistribution of Wealth is not happening for most of the Wealth of Nations.

But Wait! There is a solution! 

Bureaucracy! Since we, as a nation of (d?)rugged individualists, are rather frightened of just giving folks the stuff they need to survive, why don't we instead give them all jobs pushing regulatory compliance paperwork around? Who says work has to be productive to be (economically) rewarding? While incompetence and corruption have a place in any wealth distribution schema, bureaucracy can be our real savior. Open the floodgates of pointless regulation before it's too late!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

AI Class 10 -- My Final Answers...

Thank god it has come to a close. I put my answers in and checked them twice hoping that Santa will be nice. (No you don't get to see them until the window closes -- extended by another day which I am going to ignore.) Since I have put it all behind me, I figure now is the time to complete my whining ...

There are 59 little boxes to be filled in correctly or not, and as I might have expected 16 of those involve using the hated IMPLIES (=>) logical operator -- who's only use I have been able to ferret out is to be able to tell someone he is a liar once you've discovered that fact ( T !=> F). But thanks to a friendly co-student who pointed out the logical equivalents table on page 249 of the (mostly irrelevant to the course) textbook, I now have no fear of the Implications.

As usual there are a couple of just impenetrable questions for which no clarifications seem to be forthcoming. The most amusing of these is on Planning (at this juncture I should mention that I also hate Planning and Scheduling because it brings back PTSD memories of being repeatedly forced to Plan and Schedule un-plan-able R&D tasks in one of my former lives) where we are given a list of Actions with Preconditions and suchlike and a list of possible Resources that we might have at our disposal, then asked which Resource sets will satisfy the Plan. However the voice-over description of the problem seems to interpret one specific Precondition in two ways, either needing exactly X of something or needing at least Y of something else. The amusing part is that all this formal Planning and Scheduling (crap, not to be pejorative or anything) is supposed to remove the ambiguities from the process.

And five (5) more questions about basic geometric optics and cameras -- if you didn't understand it in high-school physics you are not going to get it now -- so I guess they are there to boost the test scores. So I guess I'll probably mis-copy some answer again and fail them.

On the plus side, the first question is about the Tower of Hanoi puzzle which my grandfather made for me and I solved when I was about 10, and only one of those little boxes reeks of ambiguity so I should have a couple of gimme points there. game... I was barely inspired by this class and that mostly by accident. As one of my friends who was auditing it said, it's more of a "Oh, so that's how they do that..." set of disconnected topics than a coherent presentation. This may be necessary in an introductory class, especially one meant to be technical rather than a survey. But it leaves me feeling that I now know a smattering of Artificial Intelligence with an emphasis similar to that of Artificial Ingredients rather than anything about Intelligent Behavior.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Bad X Day for Lupe

Sorry I missed the actual day this week due to AIClass issues and basic inattention to detail...

The Mexican-born actress Lupe (Spitfire) VĂ©lez (July 18, 1908 – December 14, 1944), went on to a better world. Velez was quite popular, married to Johnny Weissmuller for a while, and enumerated among her lovers John Gilbert and Gary Cooper. Then her career went sour, she fell victim to money problems and she became pregnant. In the midst of a depression, she decided to end it all. She ordered lots of flowers, had a last meal of her favorite Mexican foods with friends, and then, in a silver evening gown, surrounded by candles and flowers, she lay down upon a couch and swallowed most of a bottle of Seconal. She planned for the authorities to find the elaborate scene and be awed by her stilled beauty. Unfortunately, the spicy food and pills didn't sit well in her stomach. She ran for the bathroom to vomit, slipped on the smooth tiles, jammed her head into the toilet and drowned.
From the "Grim Reaper's Book of Days" by Ed Morrow (Citadel Press)

Thursday, December 8, 2011

AI Class -- Homework 7...argh...again...

Oops, I did it again, Britney... Copied a number off my worksheet incorrectly and missed an easy question. One of the GDM algebra questions I was whinging about last time. But not even an algebra error. Oh well.

However this brings me to preview my post-game analysis. While I have learned a lot of "interesting" things and have some appreciation for the effort the professors put into this, I have a few issues with this class and the medium in general:

  • Technical stuff -- I guess mostly unavoidable, but hey, these guys work for Google man...
    • Crashes and hangups making the videos inaccessible and delaying the homework. Better now but still not perfect;
    • YouTube playback: If you pause the video the headings and controls cover part of the screen so if you want to do a screen grab you have to slip it in while the video is running and the instructor's GDM pen is not waving over the stuff you want to grab. Also if you miss pausing right at the end of the video you have to go back and reload everything. And really annoying, to re-view the Quiz Explanations you have to re-take the Quiz or else learn to maneuver through raw playlists somehow.
  • Online Pedagogy -- The medium is/was not quite ready for Prime Rib...
    •  Sometimes the lesson videos are not clear, and sometimes they are just wrong. If I was in a classroom I could wave my hands around and ask, "What did you really mean there? Did you mean Min but say Max? Or did I mis-apprehend?" Usually the mistakes are corrected with text annotations and the corrections are appearing in a more timely manner, but you just never know. I guess it keeps me on my toes;
    • At the beginning there was NO feedback mechanism. If I had a question or brain-fade on something there was no way to get clarification, except from other students who might be just as clueless. Now there is a forum which some apparently official folks monitor sometimes, so, if I can phrase a question correctly I have a small chance of getting an accurate explanation. Part of the small is that most questions seem to overlap with the Homework or Exam questions and thus can't be answered until after the fact.
    • That homework thing... Jah, I make stupid mistakes. If there was a recourse I could possibly make the point that it was a stupid mistake and get some credit for at least thinking correctly. Of course I still can't figure out why I care about getting a grade anyway.
  • Style -- Some things are just annoying...
    • Definitions. Definitions. Definitions. Especially Partially Observable Stochastic Rationality. I'm still not sure which way the wind blows on some of that because the definitions are, and are admitted to be, a bit arbitrary. The one that still galls me is calling a card draw Partially Observable (rather than Stochastic) because the deck is already shuffled but in an unknown order -- so reshuffle the deck each time, eh? Then being graded on my understanding;
    • I mentioned Professor Thrun's habit of using lecture Quiz questions to introduce the next lesson rather than reinforce the current material. This is supposed to encourage me to think for myself. It doesn't;
    • I also mentioned his delight in tedious arithmetic. I'm really not sure if there is a better way to pound in the concepts. I do understand more of what I'm doing now, so maybe tedium works;
    • I think many explanations would have been clearer if the class was taught by a grad student who was closer to the horrors of learning it for the first time. For me, Logic, Planning, and Particle Filters were explained in a rather high level manner and then Homework or Exam questions asked for specifics and mechanics that were taken for granted.
Anyway, it's continuing to be a learning experience so I guess it's not all bad.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Bonbon l'Bubba B'day

Another milestone for the bunny: 7 years and counting:

Is breakfast ready yet?

And his birthday present? A trip to the vet for a checkup.

The good news is he's doing pretty well and got a nice mani-pedi. The bad news? No treats, eat more hay. Just like my doctor...

Thursday, December 1, 2011

AI Class 7 -- Homework is pissing me off...

I find it a little hard to believe, but 1/3 of the current homework questions are about doing basic high-school algebra using equations for stuff that is only peripherally relevant to image processing technology. (Ok. Ok. They are all about cameras and focal lengths and such, and maybe if I hadn't spent years peering through a 4x5 view camera I could get -- positively -- excited about them). I would treat them as gimme-points except I'm likely to make some stupid transposition error and fail them all.

I guess it really is an artificial intelligence test (emphasis mine).

Plus there's a question about image convolution who's answer seems to depend on being able to correctly interpret a mumbled-aside comment in the relevant videos combined with prior-knowledge of how it actually works in the so-called real world (or maybe I'm over-thinking again?) Getting that one wrong will cost me another 1/3 of the total score.

But the real question is: Why do I care?