Saturday, March 28, 2009


Very different coffee history and preferences from mine (double espressos, occasional macchiato), but the feelings and expression are perfect.

Strings are not Meanings

Strings are not Meanings (edited since original posting): I just linked to a favorable review of our position paper The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Data, it's only fair that I also link to a (brief) skeptical review. I agree with Matt's title, strings are not meanings. But neither are any other objects, and that's where I think we seriously disagree. More on that as I respond to his three cautions.

Data may be unreasonably effective, but effective at what?

I think our paper gave enough examples of the effectiveness we had in mind, but I'll stick my neck out further here. Effective at capturing the relations that underlie meaning in language use.

Despite all the ontology nay sayers, a big chunk of our world is structured due to the well organized, systematic and predictable ways in which industry, society and even biology creates stuff.

Sure the world is structured. But well before taxonomic technologies were invented with writing and spatial indexing of information (see Everything is Miscellaneous), primates including Homo sapiens were pretty well along in figuring out how to exploit that structure (see Baboon Metaphysics, The Origins of Meaning). Taxonomic technology is no more inevitable or everlasting than water or steam power.

Data with no theory is all very well, but reasoning cannot be done without a world of semantic objects.

We did not write about “data with no theory.” That's a straw man that unfortunately often substitutes for original thought whenever these issues come up, as two of us had to note previously, and others did too. As for “a world of semantic objects,” what on earth could that be? Meaning is about relations among states: the state of the computer screen when you read this, the state of my brain when I wrote it, and the state of affairs described by my writing; the state of my brain when I'm writing it, the physical state of some paper and ink involved in my reading Situations and Attitudes a couple of decades ago, and the state of affairs of semantic debate between then and now; and so on. There are no semantic objects, only semantic relations, semantic by virtue of the causal connections among the related states. Jon Barwise, who I had the privilege of discussing these matters with, is sadly no longer with us, but a good sit down with, say, Information Flow, would do wonders for one's semantic hygiene. (Via Data Mining.)

Data in its untamed abundance gives rise to meaning

Joho the Blog » Data in its untamed abundance gives rise to meaning: Seb Schmoller points to a terrific article by Google’s Alon Halevy, Peter Norvig, and Fernando Pereira about two ways to get meaning out of information. Their example is machine translation of natural language where there is so much translated material available for computers to learn from, which (they argue) works better than trying to learn from attempts that go up a level of abstraction and try to categorize and conceptualize the language. Scale wins. (Via Joho the Blog.)

Thanks to David Weinberger for the nice review! I love the poetic post title Data in its untamed abundance gives rise to meaning.

Just this Friday, Tom Mitchell gave a great talk at Google on his group's latest results on decoding the concepts someone is thinking about from their fMRIs. Crucially, the decoding relies on the statistics of associations between concepts expressed by nouns and surrounding action and perception verbs, thus translating between text associations and statistical correlations between activity in different brain areas. Sure, the usual suspects will again tell us that's nothing to do with “real” meaning, just mere associations of flickering bits in our servers and our neurons. Thus “real” meaning echoes the vital force, the flogiston, and the ether before it, “true essences” all.

Last weekend in Tahoe

Route 89 NCongested I-80 West

My blogging backlog is getting worse... Last weekend there was a fast-moving storm that dropped over one foot of fairly dry, creamy powder around Tahoe. I skied Squaw Saturday — decent spring conditions — and Sunday — my best inbounds runs of the season. Too busy skiing to take pictures, but I wanted to capture the beautiful late afternoon light on the snow driving back from Squaw to the Bay Area.

Thanks to:

  • Rick and David from showing me around Squaw, which I don't know so well, on Saturday.
  • The fast-moving Alaskan low that decorated KT-22 with sweet powder, and the following winds that kept refilling East Bowl.
  • Karhu and Dinafit for a powder-skiing setup that works beautifully.
  • The hitch-hikers I picked at the 7-11 by the Backcountry for having the brilliant idea of calling the number of my lost phone Sunday afternoon in Truckee.
  • Truckee Airport fire station, in particular fireman Adam, for finding my phone fallen on the Wild Cherries parking lot and keeping it safe. I owe you the best ice cream I can find.

No thanks to:

  • Out-of-control snowboarder who it me at high speed on the beginner Sunnyside run Saturday, breaking one of my ski poles and leaving a black-and-blue swelling on my right hip, and refused to accept responsibility until I suggested we talk to the ski patrol.
  • The usual clueless drivers on I-80 West who make the traffic worse for everybody with their lane changes and tailgating.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Flying over Tioga Pass

Flying East, Mount Dana on the centerFlying West, Tioga Pass Road lower left

The main flight paths between SFO and PHL cross the Sierra close to Tioga Pass. I couldn't resist trying to capture that wonderful section of the Eastern Sierra, even through very dirty airplane windows.

Thursday, March 5, 2009


TeXgefühl: [...] My colleague Jean-Paul Allouche introduced me to another some time ago: Sprachgefühl. Literally, "language feeling", this word refers to a native speaker's intuitive understanding of the subtleties of his own language. [...] Based on this, I've coined a new word: TeXgefühl. This means "the intuitive understanding of what is proper usage in the mathematical typesetting language TeX". (There is also the related word, LateXgefühl.) [...] Both TeX and LaTeX have some subtleties which beginners find difficult to master. These include constructs that improve the appearance of the manuscript, like knowing to put "\ " after any lower-case letter followed by a period that does not end a sentence, as in "Dr.\ Smith"; if you don't do this, tex inserts too much space between "Dr." and "Smith". Another example of TeXgefühl is knowing to use the proper kind of dots in a mathematical expression -- you should write "x_1,   x_2,   \ldots,   x_n" but "x_1   x_2   \cdots   x_n". (Via Recursivity.)

I'm not sure that I can pronounce the word, but we do need the concept. I'm not so sure that we can successfully teach it, though, to judge from TeX infelicities apparent in most computer science papers I read.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Email Event Horizon

The Email Event Horizon: [...] But most of my absence has an unhappier source.  At an unknown time about three weeks ago, I crossed the Email Event Horizon—defined in General Unproductivity as the point beyond which you could literally spend your entire day answering emails, yet still have more emails at the end of the day demanding immediate attention than you had at the beginning.  Not spam or crank mail, but worthy missives from students, prospective students, high-school students, secretaries, TAs, fellow committee members, conference organizers, visit hosts, speakers, editors, co-editors, grant officers, referees, colleagues … everything, always, requiring you to do something, commit to some decision, send a title and abstract, pick dates for the trip, exercise Genuine Conscious Thought.  (Via Shtetl-Optimized.)

Thanks, Scott, this explains my last five years better than just about any other hypothesis.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Dinner and Baroque music

Went to Berkeley Friday evening for a delicious dinner at Venus followed by an outstanding concert of mostly Baroque music by Jordi Savall and his ensemble Concert des Nations.

I had never listened to Savall live although I'm a long-time fan of his recordings. The subtlety and spatial balance of the ensemble were well beyond what can captured in a recording. The enthusiastic audience elicited three delightful encores.

The LEGO Turing machine

The LEGO Turing machine: [...] here it is (Via Shtetl-Optimized.)