All posts by wankongyew

Suicides of AI Pioneers

The biggest death is the news today might be that of Heath Ledger, whose performance I must say that I enjoyed in Brokeback Mountain, but the most intriguing ones for me are in this new article in Wired magazine that goes into the details behind the suicides of two pioneers in the field of Artificial Intelligence within a month of each other in 2006. Both persons, Chris McKinstry and Push Singh, were each brilliant in their own way and incredibly obsessed with AI. McKinstry clearly had suicidal tendencies all along but Singh had seemed to have a stable disposition. It’s sad to think that Singh might have been influenced by McKinstry.

I also found the fact that MIT has a reputation for high suicide rates among its students interesting. In a way, I guess that this shouldn’t be terribly surprising. Driven, intelligent people can be prone to sudden mood swings, add a highly competitive and demanding environment into the mix, and suicide can seem like an easy way out for stressed individuals. Given that Ledger’s death today will probably turn out to be a suicide as well, we should all take this as a lesson to take a little time out once in a while. Life is short enough as it is, and we should all enjoy it while we can.

A Game: Call of Duty 4

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Hollywood action blockbusters like National Treasure hold little appeal for me these days, and games like Call of Duty 4 are a big reason why. After all, why watch a big name actor go through the familiar paces of fighting against impossible odds when you can be the star and do it yourself? The Call of Duty series, or at least the installments that were made by Infinity Ward, have always emphasized the cinematic aspect of the gaming experience, and true to form, their latest effort is probably the most refined example of the video game as interactive action movie on the market today.

Everything in this game from the slick loading screens that double as mission briefings to the constant running commentary of your ever present companions and the relentless linearity of the campaign serves to reinforce the impression that this is gaming Hollywood-style. The great thing about Call of Duty 4 is that it mostly works. When your squad members are screaming at you to get on with your mission objectives while the nearby explosion of a grenade is ringing in your ears and you see wave after wave of turbaned generic Arab terrorists coming at you and there’s shooting and confusion everywhere, you really do feel like living an action movie.

Continue reading A Game: Call of Duty 4

Scientists Protest Over Pope’s Planned Speech

Pope Benedict XVI recently got in the news again when he cancelled a speech he was due to give at the La Sapienza University in Rome due to protests by professors and students. The protesters objected to having a prominent religious leader giving a speech in a secular and public institution and referenced a previous speech made by the Pope, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in which he seemed to defend the Inquisition’s verdict against Galileo in 1303, probably the most well-known case of science being persecuted by religion in history.

As far as I can tell, the rector of the university was willing to offer both parties space to voice their respective views, but the Pope decided to cancel instead, which as physicist Marcello Cini, one of the leaders of the protest, noted, was a very smart public relations move on the Pope’s part. The mainstream news coverage of the event sympathizes heavily with the Pope and the popular angle is that the Pope was denied freedom of speech by anti-religious scientists. But from my point of view, it looks like the Pope was willing to speak only if he were the only one allowed to speak, so who’s he to play the freedom of speech card?

Zombie Bird

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I spotted this picture over at the Quartertothree forums and you can see a larger version of the photo here. The picture speaks for itself and it is seriously freaking me out. I thought at first this must be a digitally manipulated photo or something but people are saying that it is completely plausible. Someone please tell me that this is not actually possible!

Books: The Baroque Cycle

Now, I have long been nonplussed by Isaac’s Alchemical research, but as years have gone by I have perceived that he would achieve a similar triumph by finding a single common underlying explanation for phænomena that we think of as diverse, and unrelated: free will, God’s presence in the Universe, miracles, and the transmutation of chymical elements. Counched in the willfully obscure jargon of the Alchemists, this cause, or principle, or whatever one wants to call it, is known as the Philosopher’s Stone, or other terms such as the Philosophic Mercury, the Vital Agent, the Latent or Subtile Spirit, the Secret Fire, the Material Soul of Matter, the Invisible Habitant, the Body of Light, the Seed, the Seminal Virtue.

– Neal Stephenson in The System of the World

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For a book written by Neal Stephenson, I had a hard time getting into Quicksilver, the first book of his Baroque Cycle. This is astonishing because of how much I enjoyed and how quickly I devoured his earlier books, Snow Crash and The Diamond Age. Quicksilver and its subsequent volumes The Confusion and The System of the World, appear at first glance to be a different beast entirely. For one thing, the events chronicled in the novel take place from roughly the middle of the 17th century to the beginning of the 18th century. For another, real historical figures from the period in question play a central role in the story and while most of the exploits described in the novel are fictional, they are skillfully interleaved with real historical events. For these reasons, ever since the publication of the first volume, debate has raged amongst fans and readers on whether or not it even constitutes science-fiction.

Continue reading Books: The Baroque Cycle

Monsters’ Den

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Monsters’ Den is a newish, free to play, flash-based game that replicates an old-fashioned party-based dungeon-crawler. You control a party of four characters out of a total of five different classes and take them through multiple levels of a dungeon, killing monsters and getting loot. Each character has detailed statistics and different skills, which you get to upgrade every time you descend to a lower level of the dungeon.

The thing about Monster’s Den is that despite its simplicity, it has a surprising amount of depth. Do you customize your warrior to be a sword-and-shield tank or give him a huge two-handed warhammer to go to town with? Do you play your mage in the traditional way of staying in the back and flinging spells or have him front and center with protective spells and a magic-enhanced sword? With a loot-colouration scheme that seems lifted straight from World of Warcraft (green, blue and purple items with a decent variety of different bonuses), savable games and plenty of abilities to experiment with and enemies to fight, it can be pretty addictive. My only complaints are that the default difficulty is perhaps a little too easy and there aren’t enough different classes to play around with.

Between this and the flash version of Portal, it’s amazing to see how far flash games have come. They make a good argument that 2D games aren’t dead and that good gameplay can overcome skimpy graphics.

Counterknowledge

The Telegraph recently published an extract of an interesting new book by Damian Thompson on what he calls counterknowledge: wacky ideas and theories that are unsupported by empirical evidence, but are believed by many, and thanks to modern telecommunications technology and the internet, are flourishing as never before. Some of the examples cited include: the conspiracy theory that the Bush administration planned and executed the 9/11 terrorist attacks; that the plot of the popular novel The Da Vinci Code in which Jesus and Mary Magdalene sired a dynasty of Merovingian kings is true, and that the Catholic Church knows about this and is covering it up; and the fatwa issued by Islamic leaders in northern Nigeria stating that the polio vaccine is really part of a U.S. plot to sterilize Muslims.

In many cases, you might think that the theories spouted by these cranks are harmless enough, except that sometimes they’re so widely believed that they cause serious harm, such as the spread of polio caused by parents who now refuse to vaccinate their infants. And when even a minister in President Sarkozy’s new French government, Christine Boutin, remarks that it is possible that Bush might have something to do with the 9/11 attacks, you realize that this isn’t a problem that’s confined to poor countries or uneducated people. I can think of plenty of other examples such as South African president Thabo Mbeki’s reluctance to believe that the HIV virus is the cause of AIDS; the formerly popular idea that the 1969 moon landing was faked in a movie studio; and, yes, even Chinese beliefs in qi, feng shui and any number of other superstitions.

As the extract notes, there are a number of reasons why such beliefs can take hold including encouragement by Left-wing multiculturalists who insist that minorities have the right to believe in things that are patently untrue and postmodern philosophers, again usually Left-wing, who insist that science and technology are products of Western culture and are not objectively true. In the developing world, opposition to Western science is seen as opposition to the political, intellectual and scientific elite of the Western world and a way of upholding the dignity and validity of their respective cultures.

In response to the conspiracy-minded, I refer to the now familiar quote by Robert J. Hanlon: “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.” As my recent viewing of a particular South Park episode indicated, believing that the Bush administration orchestrated the 9/11 attacks means ascribing an almost superhuman level of competence to President Bush and his officials. As for those who argue that science is a cultural phenomenon that is inherently Western and therefore not objective, I say that reason, logic and the scientific method are the best tools that humanity has to discover the truth and they belong to all mankind. As Ayn Rand would say, our reason is the very thing that makes all of us human. Only a fool would deprive himself of science’s benefits just because someone else got it right first.