Sunday, November 26, 2006

What, he keeps on posting about pluralism and that Sam Harris guy?

These people, on the other hand, don't seem to see religion and religious differences as a problem. In fact, they seem like very nice, reasonable folks.

The Pluralism Project at Harvard
Interfaith Youth Core

IFYC was started in part by Dr. Eboo Patel, who gave a very nice interview on NPR, which I remember hearing on the radio when it was broadcast. He also wrote a This I Believe piece.

Sam Harris still isn't convinced, of course. But you'd think they could come up with a better debating partner for him than Dennis Prager? (there's a fairly interesting email debate between them on jewcy; he must not have read my previous post, Sam didn't, because he didn't address my concerns.)

Genetic algorithms for Dr. Mario Strategy!

It turns out that one Paul Kuliniewicz has decided to build an AI to play Dr. Mario -- or more accurately, to learn to play Dr. Mario and then play it, using, ironically, genetic algorithms. It's called Wallace, and it builds up and breeds different strategies for pushing pills around. This seems like a pretty good domain -- and I suppose puzzle games of this sort are in general... I wonder if anybody's done something like this for Tetris? Other real-time puzzle games?

The interesting thing about this -- he's hooked his evaluation function for evolutionary candidates into the NES emulator. Pretty clever stuff!

Saturday, November 25, 2006

"I know you don't know..."

So this fellow Sam Harris has recently come onto my radar. He's in the Richard Dawkins "religion is pretty immediately harmful and we need to get rid of it" school of thought, and he's published a pair of books (The End of Faith and Letters to a Christian Nation) in which he spells out his position. There's a video of him giving a talk out there, and I think he's a pretty good speaker...

But it might just be because I'm inclined to agree with what he's saying. I've been trying to work this out systematically. There are some very clear ways in which religion-inspired positions can be detrimental to people's health and happiness -- we've got the oft-cited condoms-in-Africa and the stem cell research and the homophobia... and all sorts of positions, say environmental ones, that you would rationally take if you thought that these were the End Times, that Jesus was coming to save the day in the next 50 years or so -- which supposedly almost half the country buys into. And that's just not a healthy belief for people to have, if the rest of us want to establish a sustainable living environment for people in the long-run.

And deep down inside, I think a property of people (for now) is that we want a holy war -- we need something to rally against, some sort of emergency situation to respond to. And we think, "well, this is wrong. These well-meaning people are misled, and it's so pervasive, particularly in this country, and you can't really talk about it..." So they're talking about it, Harris and Dawkins are.

However, I think where Dawkins and Harris fall down is in two major ways:

Firstly, not all religious people take all the purported beliefs of their religion to their logical extremes (and why not is an enormously interesting issue). This is a central point in Harris' argument, and I'm trying to work out what I think about it -- he says that religious moderation and pluralism essentially ropes off faith from rational discourse and makes it okay to believe whatever you want, and nobody's going to question it, which provides cover for extremists... and as moderately-minded folks, we have trouble believing that people really believe this schlock, but he assures us that they do -- and that genocides and jihads really aren't just about economics and education like we want to believe they are, but are honestly religiously motivated.

And yet the world is full of people who identify with one particular faith and still do wonderful things for the world. Many Christians feel the need to be good stewards of the planet, they save the water and the air and the narwhals, they feed the hungry, they provide medical attention all over the world. And many are full of love and hope and tolerance, and they stand up for their gay friends and make beautiful works of art and fill the world with music.

Of course, these people might do these exact same things without religion -- maybe they're just beautiful people. But then, in a world without faith, I wouldn't be writing this post. So it goes.

Secondly: the biblical god is perhaps not in the same class of entities as Zeus or Inari, and I think it's an oversimplification to put statements like "there is a giant diamond buried in my back yard" (an example from Harris) in the same class as statements about the nature of a more abstract deity -- at least without further examination. Now the idea that Jesus is physically coming to end the world soon, maybe that's in the same category as the giant diamond, but what about the proposition that there's an inherent moral structure to the universe, or that your dead friends and family aren't really gone? Or that things Will Ultimately Work Out? ... Of course "I wouldn't want to live in a world where X is not the case" isn't really a knock-down argument to convince us of any of these things.

So anyway, BG, as we'll call it, is something a little different, with a fluid identity somewhere between that of Zeus (the old-testament local sky-god, rooting up the local fertility cults and being mad at some people while briefly favoring others), a mythological sun-hero, and something like a Lucasian Force or the Tao or even identifying with all of the world, like you might find in Spinoza.

Richard Dawkins had quipped that everybody is atheist about most of the gods that have ever been dreamt up -- some of us just go that last step. And I think that's an oversimplification, because for a lot of people, god is just that abstract-orderliness-principle... if your view of god is, like this fellow RJ Eskow puts it, the sheet music of the universe, then this isn't all that different from believing in causality and some initial state of things, is it? And don't a lot of people hold beliefs like that?

I think what Sam Harris really gets at is that it's almost taboo to talk about faith as an absurdity in polite society. Many people get really defensive about their theology, if you bring it up. There's this weird feeling of guilt, at least for me, being an unbeliever bringing this topic up. I don't believe like you believe; in fact, I think you're wrong about some pretty fundamental things and I'm trying to gauge whether it's harmful. And that's where the guilt comes from, I think -- we're faced with the prospect of explaining to our loved ones that they and some large chunk of society hold possibly-destructive beliefs. It feels wrong because we know folks who are nicer people than us (and furthermore more devoted social activists) and it's hard to find fault with them and what they believe -- no harm, no foul, right? Is it so destructive to believe in a universe that has some sort of underlying order to it, that wants, in some sense, for you to be nice to people, wherein you identify the BG with a kind and loving parent?

I mean, it's Wrong, of course. And I still haven't addressed Sam Harris' idea that toleration and letting people believe what they want provides cover for fundamentalists. And the propositions that the wonderful and nice people hold true might even be largely the same as the ones that folks we might label as societally destructive believe in... this is a difficult and tangly problem. The mind is vast and greatly partitioned.

So at a higher level, do we believe in truth and the search for it, or is what we believe pretty much unrelated to any objective world that might be out there? And how can you possibly sit still when you know in your heart that you have this truth that's vitally important for everybody's eternal well-being that snot-nosed AI kids on the internet are calling schlock? Doesn't religious pluralism lead the way to trivializing religion as a whole? The idea that there's some abstract higher truth that's filtered into different societies in different ways is attractive to many, but I think it breaks down when you get into the specifics of what religions are actually saying. Unless everybody's just speaking in metaphors and hyperbole most of the time.

(This last cluster, the "abstract orderliness to the world" has its problems once you try to work out the details, of course. Particularly, it doesn't square with BG as well as many would like -- you start ascribing all of these perfections to BG, maybe with an aim to working out an ontological existence proof and then you're left with The Problem of Evil or justice anyway. Let's leave this to another post, or perhaps a book.)

(although many in Christian contexts have preached against the God-as-the-Force idea in favor of a more personalitied BG, Huston Smith interestingly characterizes Hinduism as encouraging whichever idea about Brahma one personally finds more worshipable)

Here are some interesting blog posts: alls I'm gonna say is that people who argue against Sam Harris seem to mostly rely on ad hominem attacks and the idea that he has a faulty moral compass.

- RJ Eskow: Reptiles of the Mind -- giving thanks for rational atheists
- RJ Eskow: The sad state of atheism today
- Sam Harris: In Defense of Torture (seriously, Sam, wtf?)
- Steven Pinker: Less Faith, More Reason
- Marty Kaplan: Atheists for Cheney

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

GWT and ChucK

So maybe two years ago, our good friend (noted security researcher and computing maven in general) Tim J had been kicking around an idea for developing web applications: he wanted to use a more general interface mechanism, say Swing or GTK, for laying things out, with some other layer figuring out how to express what you put together in terms of web languages. At the time, I didn't see the need...

But Google did, apparently! GWT lets you design webapps in terms of Java, running on your local machine for testing purposes. GWT then compiles them down to Javascript when you're ready to deploy for the rest of the world. I'm probably the last to find out. It's open source; you can go play with it if you want. Pretty crazy.

Also; after rather a while of hearing my friends work with and develop the music-programming language ChucK, I finally took the time to go play with it. At first I tried to use the Audicle -- which is a really pretty IDE, all done up in OpenGL -- but it crashed on my Mac, so I tried miniAudicle instead. That worked just fine, with a nicely intuitive, minimal interface. After just a few minutes, I was making some interesting bleeping-and-booping noises. It was very satisfying! I think I like the square-wave generator best.

ChucK definitely warrants checking out, if you have any sort of urge to make cool noises, or even cheesy music. Graham Coleman, who wrote said cheesy music tutorial and has in recent months been performing live with ChucK in Atlanta, was just now on the radio, and he proceeded to rock the airwaves pretty hard. Hooray!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Enron Email Dataset!

So they might not have really been the smartest guys in the room... but one really good thing coming out of Enron is all those emails. 2.6 gigabytes worth, for your perusal or data-mining, social-network-mapping, and language-modeling pleasure. Thanks, guys!

The corpus is here!
(thanks, CMU!)

Sunday, November 05, 2006

"Here, lemme take a Pikachu..."

So say that you want to pepper your speech with non-sequitur references to some particular topic -- like whenever you use a string of words that rhymes with the name of a Pokémon name, replace that string with the name of said Pokémon.

That wouldn't be that hard -- there's a pretty happenin' metric for finding rhymes, ready to go.

So you'd just have to have a list of the words for the domain you want to substitute in, make sure that you have phonetic descriptions of each of them (Bradley Buda's rhyme metric uses the CMU Pronouncing Dictionary's format)... then run through your input text searching for substrings that rhyme with words in your list with a score over some particular threshold. And hilarity ensues.

A similar technique could be used for generating phrases like "my feet are staying!" for "auf wiedersehen!" -- you could something hill-climbing-like (with a parser in the loop, so as to try to maintain grammaticality) to substitute out common phrases...

The only problem is -- what rhymes with "Psyduck"?