Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Summer Fun

Wow, the summer sure goes fast! I've been busy with my daughter, who turned one year old in June. She's changing every day, and is so obviously aware and intelligent that I'm in awe. We're planning on homeschooling her, and are wondering who will be teaching who!

On the geek front, I ran across Cambrian House lately. They're a company that wants to generate ideas from the Internet community, build a product, and reward all the community contributors from the profits. It's an interesting idea, and one that deserves to work. Whether it will or not is another matter. The barrier to entry for anyone with an idea is high enough these days that this business model is quite attractive.

Plus, you have a like a company with style enough to deliver 1,000 pizzas to Google's headquarters, and to run a "Guess the weight of a goat" contest.

Since I like the concept, I contributed a few ideas of my own. The way it works is that the community votes on ideas by comparing pairs of ideas and saying which ones they like the best. This community rating system is supposed to separate the ideas that are good from the ones that are not so good.

You can also click the links directly below to show support for my ideas. This contributes to the idea's total rating in some undefined way. On the page that comes up, you'd click "Yes, Please add my support to this idea!" assuming you do support the idea.

Support My Idea at Cambrian House -- this would be a site for what's turning into the average computer user. A person buying a computer who has no built-in knowledge of how the Internet works, and needs the basics spelled out for them. Most guides out there in Internet land assume a base level of knowledge already.

Support My Idea at Cambrian House eNonymous Community -- this would be an online community where you're expected to lie about who you are. You'd get to craft an online persona and play the role as well as you could in this community, knowing full well that everyone else was doing the same. A bit wacky, but it could be fun.

Support My Idea at Cambrian House Trusted Recommendations -- you'd build a trust network by linking to other members, and rating how much you trusted their opinions on different topics. For example, you might trust your friend Joe's opinion about automobile dealers, but not his opinion on books to read. As you do things in your life, you'd enter your recommendations, and your friends would be doing the same. You can search your trust network for the highest rated recommendations in a category the next time you need a recommendation. If everyone does it, it works out well.

I'll be following Cambrian House over the next year to see how they do. Hopefully they'll do much better than the recently deceased Blue Security spam solution, another neat idea that deserved to succeed.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Google Web Toolkit

So, I have this huge to-do list this summer, and recently added writing some AJAX applications to the list.

Now, I like the way that the AJAX techniques allow web pages to be more interactive, stateful, etc. But I wasn't at all looking forward to fiddling around with Javascript on the client. Javascript has evolved far beyond its original purposes, and isn't that fun to use for a large application. So I'd been procrastinating at starting the AJAX applications.

Luckily, I procrastinated long enough for Google to release their Google Web Toolkit. The GWT is basically a framework that makes writing the client side of an AJAX application far easier than it previously was. Instead of fiddling with Javascript, which varies from browser to browser, you write the client in Java. Once you've written and debugged it in Java, you run the client code through the GWT compiler, which take the Java code and spits out Javascript.

What's even better is that the GWT provides a bunch of user interface widgets that would have taken me years to get right working in Javascript. So now, in my summer AJAX projects, I can focus on the application itself, and not worry about fiddling my summer away figuring out user interfaces in Javascript.

Life is good!

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Betrayed by Spring

This early spring has been lovely, but brought an unexpected drawback.

I actually had to mow my lawn in May, rather than waiting for June. All the flowers had gone to seed, and even some of the grass had gone to seed. All you could see of our cat as she walked through the backyard was her head. It's about that time that Lisa starts suggesting it's time for the first mowing.

So, I mowed. But first I had to pick up sticks. One downside of having so many mature trees in our yard is that the yard is littered with sticks. The smallest I let the mower chop up, but the larger ones need picked up. I had about two wheelbarrow loads full of sticks by the time I was done.

Then I mowed. I have to admit, a freshly mown lawn does look good. I think for us, it looks especially good because of the contrast between the ragged, natural look, and the freshly mown look. I don't quite understand our neighbor across the street who mows twice a week, rain or shine. Seems like artificial turf would be easier to maintain.

On the summer to-do list front, we created a new flower bed for some mother's day lilies Lisa was given by a friend of hers. The new bed looks pretty professional, if I do say so myself. That's mostly due to Lisa's detailing of it. I haul stone, dig, and mix soil, and she comes along and makes it look like a garden instead of a disaster area.

Unfortunately, I've added at least three or four technical projects to my to-do list. Make my brain stop!

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Free, At Last!

I've officially submitted grades for the spring semester, and now have a summer of total freedom stretching ahead of me.

Well, okay, I am teaching an online class for another university. And my wife has that long list of projects to be done. And I have my own list of projects. And I have four classes to prepare for in the fall. Where am I going to find the time?

Seriously, this should be a fun summer. My daughter will be one year old on June 6th, and she'll be toddling around before too long. She loves to be outdoors, so I think we'll spend plenty of time outside this summer. I need to buy a new tent so we can try camping (our current tent is a three person tent, which means it's barely big enough for two adults) in the backyard.

On the subject of freedom, I recently came across the Topfree Equal Rights Association. When the subject of women being topless comes up (which isn't all that often, so I must not live an exciting enough life), most women I talk to are still surprised that it's legal for them to do so. This is despite the public demonstrations that have been held in our own city on the subject.

I find it fascinating what a hold cultural conditioning has on us, that we may hear about something and immediately dismiss it as irrelevant. There are so many fascinating ideas out in the world that are hard to understand or accept because of cultural conditioning. It'd be nice if grade schools taught open mindedness and critical thinking as part of the core curriculum.

But I guess if we taught kids how to overcome cultural conditioning, they'd have nothing to rebel against later in life.

On a side note, if you were a student of mine this year at Muskingum, and will be in Columbus on May 20th, I'm holding a bonfire get together and you're invited. Send me email to get the details.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Blue Security, Again

I'd posted here earlier about Blue Security's opt-out list for spam.

Recently, Blue Security was the target of a denial of service attack, allegedly by a spammer who decided that Blue Security was too dangerous to continue its opt-out list. There's been a fair amount of controversy about the incident, some of it targeted at Blue Security for what seemed to be poor handling of the attack itself.

I won't get into the details, because I haven't done enough research to know what actually happened. But, I think it's worth looking at the logic of the situation. The spammer responsible obviously sees Blue Security as cutting into his business. So he decides to attack Blue Security, and as a sideline also start a spam campaign targeting Blue Security's customers.

First off, who actually clicks on spam and buys anything? Nobody who subscribes to Blue Security would do so. And anyone who would isn't going to mind getting spam. So the logic of Blue Security cutting into a spammer's business is a bit dodgy. If anything, Blue Security is helping spammers to clean their lists so each email on the list represents a better candidate for their products. Not that that means much to an email spammer, since the cost of sending a single email is negligible.

Second, what's the likely result of sending even more spam out to the world? It seems like it would draw more attention on the problem of spam, and prompt more action against spam.

The logic all around seems to be a bit flawed, which might make me wonder if there isn't something more going on, except for the fact that most of what you hear in the news seems to be based on flawed logic. It's certainly possible this is all some ploy by Blue Security to raise interest in their opt-out list, but unless they're about to go public with stock, I don't see the point.

I guess it's just a crazy world.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Google's Summer of Code

Any computer science students reading this should go directly to and read about what Google's doing this summer.

But, if you're still reading this, I'll recap. Google is funding student work on open source projects. Basically, open source projects register with Google and specify defined tasks they want to have completed on their projects. Students apply to complete a task, and if they're approved and actually complete the task over the summer, Google pays them money.

You may not get your college to actually count this as an internship, but you'll get some great experience, earn a little money, and support an open source project at the same time.

So why are you still reading this? Go apply!

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Jay - 6, Weedy Bushes - 0

I did another stint at digging up weedy bushes this weekend.

It was an odd weekend. I woke up early each day, and then by lunch was dead tired. So tired I did something unheard of for me, which was to take a nap. I don't normally nap, since I wake up from them feeling worse than when I did before the nap, but this weekend I napped both days.

True to form, I woke up feeling pretty bad, so I went into the yard and dug up more of the weed bushes that have taken over the woods. Between Saturday and Sunday I managed to get rid of half a dozen of the more annoying of the bushes, including one that had completely overgrown our walking path. Now we have a big hole in the woods that we'll have to fill with something more manageable.

On the geek-front, I finished up a program I'd been working on to make playing board games by email a bit easier. I used Game Maker to write it, which allowed me to get it done in record time, but made some aspects of the program pretty slow (such as doing a flood fill of a screen region). So I downloaded Irrlicht, which is primarily a 3D graphics engine but it also is supposed to do 2D well. Over the next few weeks I'll look at rewriting the program in Irrlicht so it isn't so slow.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Lawn Envy

Spring time brings out some interesting behavior.

We live in a suburban neighborhood, and one of the spring time rituals is the first mowing of the lawn. Each year, the men in the neighborhood seem to compete to see who can be the first to mow their lawn. This year I think someone got the prize by mowing their lawn in mid-March.

Lawn-care seems to be contagious, too. On an otherwise relaxing weekend, all it takes is one person to mow their lawn, and before you know it everyone else is out mowing their lawn, too. I'm not sure if they think their lawn looks bad now that someone else's is mown, or what, but it's a definite phenomenon.

We tend to take the minimalist approach to lawn mowing. We mow the first time each year after all the flowers scattered through the yard have died. That's usually in mid-May. We then mow once a month, whether it needs it or not, until the last mowing, probably in October.

We've found the trick to taking this approach is to not fertilize the grass, and to learn to enjoy all the other sorts of ground cover that will grow when you don't use chemicals on your lawn. We have the loveliest clover through part of our front yard, and some sort of other leafy ground cover in the backyard. Our grass grows pretty slowly, whether due to the lack of fertilizer, or all the other ground cover taking up nutrients, I'm not sure.

A side-effect of all this non-grass ground cover is that we get fewer dandelions in our yard than our neighbors do. Which is a shame, because we like dandelions.

Friday, April 21, 2006

A Game of Thrones

There's a board game called A Game of Thrones that some friends of mine love to play.

Normally I stay away from tactical war games. In high school, my group of friends loved to play tactical war games, the more detailed the better (at least that's what it seemed like to me at the time). And I played, but never did very well in them.

Lately, I've been playing A Game of Thrones, and it's a nice change from the ultra-detailed war games I played in high school. The game is detailed, but the focus is not so much on simulating an actual war, as trying to capture the feel of a series of novels the game is based on. Diplomacy among the players is not only expected, but almost mandatory.

Another interesting aspect of the game is that it's difficult to actually eliminate a player. Units retreat when defeated, and the boundaries of kingdoms ebb and flow over time as territory is retaken. You win the game not by eliminating the other players, but by positioning yourself so that on the last turn of the game (turn 10), you can ensure you hold the largest number of cities on the board. You can also win by holding a certain number of cities (7 cities for a 5 player game, 6 cities for a 6 player game), but I think that's relatively rare.

I still don't do extremely well at the game, but it's fun to play. I'm doing better in a play by email version of the game with those same friends, so there's definitely something to be said for having more time to think about all the ramifications of a move.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Sleeping Out

I'm not sure what term is the opposite of sleeping in, but that's what happens to me more often than not.

It's the scenario where you get up in the middle of the night, maybe to go to the bathroom, or feed the cat, or whatever, and you discover that it's only 23 minutes until your alarm goes off. That's enough time to make you drag during the day, but not enough time to do you any good if you go back to sleep. Just enough time, in fact, to do a blog entry before starting your day.

To make it worse, I'm not a morning person. I'll cheerfully stay up late without blinking an eye (okay, maybe an eye blink or two when I get tired), but getting up early feels like it takes way too much energy. But, since my body's normal wakeup time is about 8:00am, most jobs require me to get up early, especially the current one with an hour's commute.

Okay, enough whining about my schedule, it's time for me to start on my commute.

Monday, April 17, 2006

April Showers

Wow, I'm way behind on my blogging. The good news is that it isn't a sign of being less interested in blogging, but more a sign of being way too busy elsewhere. Or is that a bad sign?

We've been getting lots of rolling thunder and rain lately. We're glad to see our ten month old daughter doesn't mind the thunder. We both love that sort of weather, so it would have been strange if she didn't as well, but you never know. It's strange enough that she seems to like the sunny weather, which we don't.

Our semester at Muskingum is drawing to a close, so in a few more weeks I'll have more time than I know what to do with (yes, that's wishful thinking). My summer project list already has about a dozen tasks on it, and there are half a dozen more that will get added before too long. Building a tree house is the most fun task on the list (that's one I added myself).

To keep with the geeky flavor of the recent posts, here's a link to The Onion Router,, for those of you who value your privacy far more than most.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Interesting Science Gizmos

It's been some time since my last entry. Spring at college is a strangely downbeat time, as everyone is ready for the summer break and tired from working hard through the fall. So as the critters and flowers are getting ready to explode into action, students and faculty seem to be gearing down.

I found a great site filled with science gizmos lately, while looking for interesting activities for my daughter. Okay, she's only 10 months old, so I'm probably looking a little too early, but I'm glad I did. The site is, and you have to love a catalog that has a Leonardo Da Vinci action figure.

The Giga Ball ( is one of my favorites. I may have to buy one just to have around in five years when my daughter will be ready for it (although, at the rate she does shoulder rolls on the bed, she may be ready pretty soon!)

There's also a section on the site with enough ideas for science experiments that should keep any child busy up through middle age. I can only imagine what havoc I could have created for my parents if I'd had access to this material way back when.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Full Moon Madness

I don't know if it was the full moon or not, but it certainly seems like some sort of madness descended on the Internet lately.

I participate in a number of email lists on various topics, and this past week the majority of them descended into flame wars over various silly topics. It wasn't even so much people arguing principles as people becoming annoyed at the way in which another person was communicating.

Flame wars tend to raise the traffic on email lists quite a bit, although the value of the content drops quite a bit. So I've been skipping any discussion that has more than 20 emails in it lately, because it's a good bet it's degenerated into name-calling and comments on other people's characters.

It's an interesting study in psychology and sociology, the way the Internet allows us to behave in ways we never would if we had to look the other person in the eye while doing so.

So, full moon, or just Internet rudeness? I don't know, but I'm hoping it levels out soon, so the email lists can get back to normal.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

USB Stick Goodness, Part II

Okay, the downside of a 2GB USB stick is that it takes quite a while to completely backup the files to a hard drive. And while the Travel Drive I have seems reliable, I've had USB sticks corrupt files before, so not doing a backup isn't an option.

So I went looking for software that would keep the USB stick and the hard drive synchronized, by copying over only those files that have changed. What I found was Allway Sync, at

Allway Sync will manage changes to files in both directions, so if you forget to synchronize and update files on the hard disk, you can still update the hard disk with changes from the usb stick and vice versa to get them in sync again. Obviously, it can't know what to do if you've changed the same file on both the USB stick and the hard drive, so it may just let you know that it's found a problem.

But if you use the hard disk solely as a backup for the USB stick, then it becomes extremely easy to just run Allway Sync now and then to quickly update the hard disk from the stick. The product even makes sure that files you delete from the USB stick get deleted from the hard disk.

It's still not a quick process, since Allway Sync has to do some analysis of the differences between files, but it's much quicker than a straight copy of everything on my 2GB USB stick.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Spring Break!

I'm officially on spring break right now.

Since I was paid to be a computer geek for years, and now get paid to teach other people how to geek, it's a nice change to have some time to be outside. I usually forget, in the press of getting things done during the normal semester, to take time to just enjoy being outdoors. I spent some time today in our woods doing some cleaning up. Picking up broken branches for kindling, digging out some weed bushes that have gotten out of hand, that sort of thing.

It didn't take too long, since our woods is only about 60' by 90'. We have a long lot, and the back third of it is natural woods. Nearly everyone else in the neighborhood had cleared out the trees and planted grass long ago, but we were lucky enough to buy one of the two houses that still had some natural woods left.

Lest you think I'll be spending the entire week enjoying myself, I do have grading and lecture notes to work on before the week is out. But I like to take a couple of days to do absolutely nothing except what I'd like, to cool down from the hectic pace of working.

The rest of the week will probably end up being busy, since I have a list of about a dozen major tasks I'd like to accomplish while I have some significant free time. I doubt I'll get them all done, but by the end of the week I'll probably be ready to go back to work!

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Spam for Google Mail

No, this isn't a rant on how Google's spam filter works, it's an observation on how two different technologies can come together in unexpected ways.

One technology is Google Mail's spam filter. Nothing new about that, and Google's spam filter probably isn't any better or worse than any other. It does tend to put most spam into a folder labeled, appropriately enough, Spam (okay, it's not a folder it's a label, but you get the idea).

The other technology is Google's context sensitive advertising, which displays ads relevant to the text of the message you're reading. Normally, these ads display only when you're actually viewing a message, but recently Google Mail started displaying some ads, along with the headlines of RSS feeds, in a banner on all the pages. So you can get context sensitive ads based on the titles of messages, or even based on the labels you're viewing.

Lately, every time I look at what's in my Spam label (because sometimes it does put real messages in there), I'm treated to ads for "spam casserole", "spam primavera", "spam roast", etc.

So if you're ever in the mood for a good spam recipe, get a Google Mail account and take a look in the spam folder.

Monday, February 13, 2006

USB Stick Goodness

At the risk of spamming my own blog, I'll make a second post today.

This is one I've been meaning to make for some time, but have always forgotten about. In September, I picked up a 2GB Memorex Travel Drive USB stick. I'd been using a 512MB USB stick, and ran out of room, so I decided to skip the 1GB stage and go right for the most space I could afford.

Naturally, with all that space, I had to see how much of it I could fill up, so I started sticking anything and everything I could think of that might be useful. YBook went on first, along with several SF novels downloaded from the Baen Free Library. Personal files went on next, followed closely by lecture notes for classes I'm teaching and have taught in the past.

I was still woefully short of filling up the 2GB, so I went looking for an easy way to put Apache, PHP, and MySQL on the stick. I'd done it with my previous stick, but it involved editing configuration files and wasn't an ideal solution. After a bit of web searching, I found someone who'd done the same thing, but also wrote a small application that starts everything up and shuts it all down when you're done.

It's called WOS, available at I've been using it for a while now, and it works much better than my hacked together version. Starting WOS automatically starts up Apache and MySQL, and included in the download are both PHP4 and PHP5, the one you use easily selectable in the WOS settings dialog.

Everything's configured for relative paths, so it doesn't matter what drive letter your USB stick ends up with, it all works. About the only drawback to WOS is that it uses port 80 for the web server, which won't play well if you already have a web server running on the machine. That isn't a problem for the machines I'm typically using this on, so I haven't needed to go back into the Apache config file and change the port number.

So, now, if I find myself with a few free moments, I could either stare out the window at the snow flurries in the parking lot, or I could start up the web server and make a little more progress on those web development projects I keep meaning to finish.

So how am I doing on filling up the 2GB? Well, I also backed up a web site I run to it, and downloaded the latest JDK (just in case I found myself with time for some Java development), and a copy of Game Maker (just in case I found myself with time for game development).

I'm still about 300 MB short, but I figure I'll need some room for data files, so I think I'll stop there. At least until I feel the need to get a 4GB stick.

Opt-out Lists

A few years ago, we signed up for opt-out lists for telephone solicitations and for postal mailings. The lists were a great idea...telemarketers and mass mailers theoretically used the lists to prevent contacting people who weren't going to buy anything anyway.

It worked pretty well, too. Lately, though, with our daughter born in June, we didn't have any time or energy for shopping for Christmas, so we did all our purchases through catalogs. Now, we're getting more and more catalogs in the mail from places we've never heard of, and even more telemarkter calls.

I'm not sure what happened, but we'll probably need to add ourselves to the opt-out lists again, and hope that the deluge lessens.

Recently, I ran across Blue Security's opt-out list for email spam. The idea is the same as the other opt-out put your email onto Blue Security's opt-out list, and spammers don't send you email since you're not going to buy anyway. And we all know spammers are intelligent, reasonable people, right?

Yeah, if that's all there was to it, the Blue Security opt-out list would quickly become a target for the most intensive spamming ever known. Blue Security has taken it one step farther, though, and allows members of the opt-out list to report spam that has arrived at their mailbox. Blue Security then tries to determine which merchant the spam would benefit, and then sends an email to that merchant with a complaint.

That's right, for every spam email you get, you can get one sent, anonymously, back to the merchant who would benefit from the spam.

Suddenly, spammers complying with the opt-out list makes more sense. Merchants aren't going to use spammers who result in tons of complaints coming back to them, which encourages spammers to use the opt-out list to clean their mailing lists before sending spam.

Blue Security also has a tool you can download that integrates with the big three webmail services, so you can easily report spam you receive. You can also just forward spam email to a special email address you get when you sign up. You can go to for more information.

I've recently signed up, and am actually looking forward to getting some spam to report!

Sunday, February 05, 2006


Okay, how about a bit of geek fun? Skype is a fun little program that allows you to talk to anyone else in the world running Skype using a headset with a microphone. Suitable headsets are pretty cheap these days, and Skype makes the whole process easy.

So, let's say that your family is in another state, but has a computer. You can call them using Skype from your computer to theirs for free. The cool thing about this is that, if you're a geek type, you're already paying for a fast Internet connection anyway, so Skype truly is free.

But, the folks at Skype weren't content to just have you calling computer to computer, and they also have a for-cost service that allows you to use your computer to call out to any regular telephone. The way it works is that your computer calls one of their computers close to the city in which the person you want to call lives, and then makes a local call to the telephone in question. You end up paying a lot less than regular long distance (it's about 2 cents per minute in the United States).

As if that wasn't enough, you can also buy a phone number from the Skype store that lets people with regular phones call your computer. The coolest thing about this option is that you can choose a phone number in several different countries. So, I could be sitting in Ohio, and my computer could have a phone number that's local to Paris, France. That'd really only be useful if I knew anyone in Paris, but it's still cool!

As a community building tool, Skype is interesting because you can set your status to "Skype Me", which means you're sitting at your computer wishing you had someone to talk to. Someone else can search the Skype directory for people with that status, so you might get a random call from another person looking to talk.

While none of the features of Skype are anything revolutionary if you've been following Voice Over IP over the years, they've put it all together in a very professional package that leaves the core feature, computer to computer telephony, absolutely free.

Now if I just had someone to call!

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Self-defeating Emotions

I'll probably be accused of getting way too introspective in this blog lately, but I've been thinking a lot lately about self-defeating emotions.

We all have them, to one degree or another. I'm talking about the sort of lack of self-confidence that tells us it makes more sense to do the wrong thing, and be secure that we know it's wrong, than try to do the right thing and be uncertain. It can be as simple as not knowing how to pronounce a word, and saying it wrong because you're not absolutely sure how to really pronounce it (but are sure that how you said it is wrong).

Or the person who really wants to be loved, and treats the person you want love from badly, hoping they reassure you in return by continuing to love you.

There are lots of other examples, but they're all ways that we act contrary to what we really want, because we're not brave enough to risk the failure of getting it.

Okay, so enough depressing introspection. Why am I thinking about this sort of thing? Because I'm thinking about what I'm really teaching my daughter about how to be a well-adjusted adult. She observes everything that happens around her, and is putting it all into her subconscious for later use in developing emotional reactions to what happens in her life.

I'd really like to make sure that I'm not setting her up with the same issues I have. Like any parent, I'd like my daughter to be better than me, and have bigger and grander issues than me. ;-)

Seriously, it's worth taking a hard look at what your behaviors teach your children, if you have any or are thinking about having any. It isn't always pretty, but the action of introspection can help you to identify and, perhaps, break out of the patterns you've set for yourself.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Machine & Infant Learning

My 7 month old daughter started talking just recently.

Okay, so we can't understand what she's saying, but she's got the cutest way of saying it! It sounds a bit like "gnab gnab blah", repeated over and over again. She's clearly processing our speech and working it into her neural pathways, trying to reproduce it.

The whole process of infant learning has been wonderfully fascinating to watch. They come into life with very little other than an amazing capacity to learn and integrate what they observe from their environment, and work their way upward from there. There's a field of AI that maintains that's the way we should teach computers to think, too, by building in the ability to learn, then putting them into an environment and teaching them how to solve a series of problems.

The main problem with that is our limited understanding of how infant learning actually takes place. The traditional view of an infant is that they're relatively stupid, and learn slowly. Having observed my daughter as she's gone from infant to baby stage, I can say with confidence that infants are incredibly smart and able to learn quickly.

There's been some research going on in this area. There's an article on ScienCentral News about research done in how quickly infants can learn, while others have done research showing that infants have complex emotional responses from the start (sorry, I've lost my link to that one).

What all this means for machine learning is that we can only scratch the surface of what's possible, since we don't understand the complexities of infant learning yet. Theoretically, if we understood infant learning completely, we could then model that in a computer to create a computer that could learn how to interact with its environment.

Anyone want to raise a baby computer?

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Evolution of Intelligence

I'd read a science fiction story lately that talked about a possible cause for intelligence arising in early humans. The idea is that for thousands of years, humans went around with basically the same brain structure, but not really advancing in intelligence, until suddenly (at least in evolutionary terms), intelligence started advancing. The story talked about one possible cause that, like most science stories, isn't too likely, but undoubtedly there was some mechanism for intelligence to start advancing.

I've also been reading about brain development in infants, since we have a 7 month old daughter. It's been suggested that listening to classical music will help an infant's brain development, by stimulating neural connections and pathways that otherwise wouldn't form. The same could be said for any complex stimulus, such as complex patterns of colors, complex shapes, etc.

It struck me that the evolution of intelligence could have been caused by a sort of cultural bootstrapping. Bootstrapping is when you start out with a relatively simple technique that allows more complex techniques to be developed. So what if, way back in the dawn of prehistory, someone developed a slightly more complex form of music, or art, or mechanics, something just a cut above the natural tools they'd used before then.

Could that have stimulated neural development in their children, such that those children were then able to create something a bit more complex than their parents, and so on down the generations until we have the level of intelligence that we have today? It certainly seems plausible enough.

If that's true, then I have to wonder what the next advancement will be that will stimulate further neural complexity in our children. And will the children be exposed to it early enough to make a difference?

Such are the thoughts you have when you commute an hour to work.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Geek Humor

Starting a new semester is always a bit like jumping off a cliff, hoping to sew together a parachute before you hit bottom. Each week you're writing lecture notes for the next week (or for the next day!), and trying to make sure that what you're asking students to do is actually possible.

Now and then, though, you get time to do some aimless wandering on the web, and I ran across this geeky holiday humor piece that computer programmers will enjoy.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Starting a New Year

My break between semesters is just about over, and a new year is starting.

The Christmas break is always a bit hard for me. I teach at two schools. At one school, spring classes start the first week of January, at the other they start the second week of January. So I basically have two weeks of Christmas break before I start back to the first school.

Into that two weeks I try to cram as much enjoyment of my family as possible. Amelia is just about 7 months old now, and this was her first Christmas. She loved tasting all her packages and, with a little help, tearing the paper off of them. Once she had the paper off, she tasted the presents inside the package. ;-)

In those two weeks, I also have to prepare for the coming semester. For classes I've taught before, that means updating the syllabus with new dates, fixing any problems in the lecture notes I found the previous semester, and generally improving the class as much as I can. For classes I haven't taught before, that means coming up with a syllabus from scratch, and at least the first two weeks' worth of lecture notes to start.

This year I decided to take the two weeks with no classes at all to just relax and enjoy family. Then, when my first school started back, I also started preparing for the second school. Which means that this week I've been running around like crazy trying to get everything ready.

Luckily, the class I'm teaching for the first school is an entirely online class. This means I don't have to lecture, and have only online office hours that I have to do at a certain time each week. Otherwise, I can fit in responding to questions however works best for me.

Unluckily, I'd rather spend time with my daughter than doing any of this, so it's been a challenge for me to make time for the class preparations with Amelia around. Especially since I know that next week I start back to full-time face-to-face classes, with about a little over an hour's commute one way to get there.

I can't complain too much, though, since I have both a beautiful daughter and a job I love. Now, if only there were more days in the week!