The Geek Goes On

Day Two at AAAS Conference

Data to Knowledge to Action: Computational Science in a Global Knowledge Society

I’m taking Sebastian Thrun’s Programming a Robotic Car class starting this week, so I was particularly excited for Peter Stone’s talk “Intersections of the Future: Using Fully Autonomous Vehicles” and boy oh boy did it not disappoint.  Behold the future:

What I found particularly interesting about his system is that it depends on the human passanger not overriding the autodrive.  Most proposed regulation of autonomous cars assumes human intervention is the failsafe instead of instant death, as it would be here.

It’s looking more and more likely I’ll never need to learn to drive!


George Sarton Memorial Lecture in the History and Philosophy of Science: Robert Smith, Making Science Big: From Little Science to Megaprojects

There were some concerns raised in this talk about whether the cheapness of computing power lets people buy their way out of problems that it used to take serious thinking to solve.  I don’t think I buy into this fear.  Knowing how to brute force a solution takes a lot of serious abstract thinking.

The more interesting facet of the talk was the possible mismatch of skills a scientist needs to have to work on big science today.  She needs to be a dedicated creative researcher but also needs to be an administrator and grant writer.  A problem best summarized (in a different field) by Sondheim, natch.

This was all contrasted with the old patron system (or the gentleman of leisure as his own patron variant), but I wonder if that kind of structure might be on its way back.  Google X, the Singularity Institute and other groups seem to recruit brilliant people for passionate work fueled by eccentric, geeky billionaires.


Web Surveillance: Fighting Terrorism and Infectious Diseases
(moderated by Vint Cerf, squee!)

Ok, I’ll admit I enjoyed a lot of this panel in a fairly technical way, so I’ll just share three fun methodology notes:

  1. One of the presenters was using news articles to predict epidemics faster than the clinical data came in (similar in spirit to Google Flu Trends).  To put it very simply, their algorithm parses news articles from all over the world and plots the frequency of flu mentions.  Once the frequency passes a critical value, it sends an alert to epidemiologists that an epidemic is in progress.  Here was the surprise: the trigger value isn’t a constant, it increases over time, recognizing, I guess, that news coverage can be a feedback look, amplifying the flu news even if cases aren’t increasing.  To trigger an alert, the news has to essentially outrace its own normal frenzy.
  2. One paper depended on content analysis of the kinds of links Google and other search engines produced when they were fed certain keywords.  I wonder how salient this kind of study will be as, more and more, there’s no canonical list of search results.  Google and others are trying to specialize and personalize.  In their ideal world, no one sees a list of results that’s not shaped by your previous behavior.  Maybe researchers will go on Mechanical Turk and try and get a sampling of personalized results.
  3. One study of how ideas move across social networks explained they were estimating “the hazard of becoming interested using survival analysis” and I found I became dangerously enrapt.


Beyond Evolution: Religious Questions in Science Classrooms

This one is getting its own post when I get home.  I had some strong opinions.

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  • To preemptively stir the pot, from the summary of the last one:

    This symposium will consider the questions raised by topics such as climate change, the discoveries of Earth-like planets, neuroscience and free will, advances in genetic engineering, and the associated challenges and opportunities for producing a science-friendly and literate public.

    Call me a Catholic, but I’ve yet to see a conflict.

    Unless, that is, by saying, “genetic engineering,” we mean, say, “carte blanche for chimeras,” or, “science friendly … public,” means to refer to religion acquiescing to either, “the pseudoscience of science-flavored metaphysical claims, deriving an ought from an is,” or her twin sister, “because we can we should,” or, the final transformation of science into magic.

    Say it ain’t so!

  • deiseach

    I look forward to your strong opinions, and I may be fuelling their heat by asking : do you think that, possibly, some of the burden might be lifted from science teachers and the curriculum if religion classes or topics were permitted in public schools?

    As far as I can make out (as an outside observer with absolutely no knowledge of the American educational system), the big rows seem to all about fears that religion is being downgraded or forcibly removed from the public arena, and that the only way to roll back what is perceived as a secular agenda is to impose limitations such as messing around with the curricululm?

    I mean, when I was in secondary school during 1975-80, I was taught science by Sister M. Angela – including the Darwinian and Lamarckian theories (here’s a link to the current syllabus and the basic structure is the same as when I was going to school).

    We don’t have these big battles over Darwin and Evolution and What Are the Children Learning in School? even though the majority of schools in Ireland were built and operated by relgious orders of nuns and teaching brothers. I really don’t get why Americans in some areas are so hung up on it – either pro or con, because I think often (for example, this case)it can be a storm in a teacup for both the secular and the religious sides.

    • Well, to be fair, part of the problem is that religion is part of public school curriculum. I remember one point our subject-matter master teacher had us highlight all the points in the state standards where we were supposed to teach about religion. There were a lot.

      CTRL F, an eminently falsifiable way to search for references, revealed 53 references to “religio” in a partial word search for grades K-12, many in major headings. For perspective, these references are concentrated during grades 6-8, which in grades 6-7 spans ancient world history through the Age of Reason, where it promptly splits off in grade 8 for early American history.

      Trouble: Boy, is it taught badly. Writing as a one-time student teacher in the subject of social science, and a lifetime public school student, there’s too much to cover. What gets excised, misrepresented or ignored? Roman Empire, for one, and I’ve seen that short millennium between Nero and Michaelangelo done in a week.

      Worse, we’ve Protestant and Secularist mythologies about that period being taught in the manner of Gibbons, especially regarding Galileo and the like. Think what Belloc was up against in England and why he had to write all those books on the Reformation.

      (Used to be worse: Part of the reason parochial schools were especially popularized and became so good, as a matter of fact.)

      From what I’ve heard about parochial schools these days, they’re just as bad in teaching religion. Considering that they’re supposed to be religious, that’s worse. One parent made the comment, taking their kids out of the parish school and putting them in public school, that he’d, “rather let his kids get their paganism straight up.” Scuttlebutt is that parochial schools are getting better — good thing, too, because we’ll need it.

      • “Short millennium.” Bah. More like millennium and a half. Well, goes to show the quality of teaching, doesn’t it?

        One more point, while I’m at it. Being a huge freakin’ country and massively diverse, we have every continent represented in world history, and represented equally. In part because of this diversity of culture, and in part because Those of Name were all Protestant and Protestants are always breaking away from their fathers in their diverse ways, there isn’t a strong feeling of cultural ties to the past or the intellectual history of the West, much less Christendom. The only religious writers I remember public school teaching me about were Luther, Calvin and Wesley.

        (To be fair, this probably had something to do with preparing us for teaching about the Pilgrims and the First Amendment, but even if in my mind I grant them all the conspiratorial coercive power in the world, I would still find the concentration odd.)

        I don’t know how similar all this sounds to Ireland, but it’s the picture of things over on this side of the pond, at least as far as I’m aware.

        • deiseach

          Regarding the teaching of religion in Irish schools:

          (1) It’s just as bad as in America, probably because of the similar lousy Catholic catechesis over the past thirty years. I was really fortunate in that my primary school education took place when the old-fashioned “learn ’em the Ten Commandments and the Six Laws of the Church” days were still in place, so at least I had a basis for my faith and then, when I did go on to secondary school and the peace’n’justice social teaching was all the rage, at least the bookshelves were full of dusty volumes from the past like Dante and Chesterton and Belloc and Lewis which nobody else seemed to read so I had them all to myself, bwahahaha! 🙂

          (2) The vocations crisis is just as bad here, so the teaching orders are just as depleted, so the schools – even the ones still run by religious orders – are mainly staffed by lay-teachers

          (3) The syllabus for religious education in schools is set by the state and includes the study of other world religions; Christianity is treated broadly, so the education in the specifics of the faith is not done (there is the assumption that the parents are going to teach little Johnny and Mary about saying their prayers and why we believe X, Y and Z, but most parents don’t go into depth like that because they assume the school will do it the way they learned it at school).

          Regarding the evolution versus creation wars: well, being majority (87%) Catholic has its pluses and minuses, but one advantage of being Catholic is that we’re (apparently) theistic evolutionists and as everyone knows, Catholics don’t read the Bible, so we’re not literalists. Capital “T” tradition has as important a place in the interpretation of Scripture, so there is no “Every single word inerrant and divinely inspired in the autograph” attitude to interpreting Genesis, amongst the other books.

    • We don’t have these big battles over Darwin and Evolution and What Are the Children Learning in School? even though the majority of schools in Ireland were built and operated by relgious orders of nuns and teaching brothers.

      The flaw here is the “even though.” The only people cra-ha-hazy over the evolution business culturally descend from American Protestantism and William Jennings Bryan’s Last Stand, dramatized in Inherit the Wind. Which reminds me of grade 7 communications class, where by reading that play, we learned about The Battle of Religion vs. Science as a Very Serious Issue. Lesson learned? Religion is for stupid blowhards, and those darn scientists always catch us flatfooted. Took about a year before pappy set me straight on that, it did, after I spouted my mouth off during a viewing of Contact.

      the big rows seem to all about fears that religion is being downgraded or forcibly removed from the public arena

      Around the same time American Protestantism were putting out those “Irish need not apply” signs and just before, there were a few End-Of-The-World crazes, where the Rapture met Adventism. Once this hit, and everything blew up, lingering eschatological assumptions of the Reformation — albeit a facet of the eternal and universal temptation to interpret the end times as now — found full fruit, becoming a firm feature in the marketplace of ideas which is American Protestantism. Doesn’t flare up too often, every 30-50 years or so.

      Not too long later, given this and the rush of the Irish into Tammany Hall, parochial schools were a practical necessity for authentically Catholic education.

      Perhaps the most notable points in the last century were the Scopes Monkey Trial and the Supreme Court ruling against school prayer. Once the Sexual Revolution blew the lid of things, and all dem Boomers started wanting things, the stage was set for a real big row. The rest, as they say, is postmodernity.

      That said, this current anti-religious liberties craze that’s pretty well infected the executive branch and half of Congress is probably the real deal. That’s why we have the opportunistic other half of Congress, always ready to cash in, and the Supreme Court.

      • deiseach

        My notion would be to leave science for the science classes, and hash out the “does evolution contradict the Bible” in religion class.

        You never know, it might help kids from certain Protestant backgrounds to discover that certain elements of American Christianity are a purely American invention or concern, not part of global and historic Christianity.

        Heck, it might help Catholic kids to learn what the Church actually teaches 🙂 (for instance, I had no idea that we are officially “amillenial” until lurking on American Protestant blogs of an Evangelical bent where the notion of the Rapture was being discussed – in disparaging terms – and people were talking about how they came out of backgrounds of being Dispensationalist, pre-Tribulation, post-Tribulation and so forth, and the ignorant Papist was left going “Huh? Wha?” until I had to look up our official position.

        Even American Evangelicals are divided on the topic; not all of them are literalist six-day Creationists.

  • Ha! I know one of the people on the panel you were strongly opinionated towards! This’ll be good. 🙂 Looking forward to it.

  • keddaw

    I’m always skeptical of these motoring simulations as they completely ignore: engine failures; punctures; brake seizures/failures; pedestrians; animals; etc. I do think it’s the future, just not in the way the model shows.

    • leahlibresco

      They’ve done a fair amount of work on training the dispatcher to recognize problems and react accordingly (having every car ping when it leaves the intersection, so if it doesn’t on time, all other cars are instructed to stop, recognizing crashes using visual or auditory input, etc). When a car breaks down in the middle of the intersection, there will definitely be injuries, but that’s already the case. An automated system prevents all the accidents due to human operator error (the vast majority of accidents today). And an automated system working correctly is much faster and more efficient than the status quo working correctly.