Thursday, December 13, 2007

Only In America (part 457 of a continuing series)

Near my home in Virginia there is a church advertising a Drive Thru Nativity.

For my British readers, there is nothing I can add that would make this any funnier. Sometimes, satire is rendered redundant.

For my American readers, if you don't know why this is funny, nothing I can say will help you.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

A disturbing thought about Batman

You often see Batman running to the Batcave, and running to the Batmobile, and running to the Batplane... but you never, ever see him running to the Bathroom. Why is that? Adult diapers?

Saturday, November 03, 2007


People say "I only watch the Superbowl for the ads", as if that were something to be proud of.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Artificial Intelligence

I read an article last week in MIT's house magazine Technology Review that purported to prove, once again, that computers will never have "consciousness", however smart they might appear to be.

I could go through the article demolishing it point by point (for example, we don't even have a good definition of what it means for a person to have consciousness, so it's a bit premature to be saying electronics can never have it...), but its really not necessary. The best refutation of the article is simply to note that every purported argument that silicon and software can never "really" think works just as well as an argument that brains can't think.

Forget all the clever solipsisms and philosophizing. Fundamentally, there are only three possibilities:
1. We think with our brains.
2. We think with something other than, or in addition to, our brains.
3. We don't really think, we just think we do.

If the opponents of "strong AI" agree with (1), a simple iterative argument suffices. We note that the brain is a physical (albeit biological) system that obeys the laws of physics and of systems. In this case they need to come up with a compelling argument for why a physical system composed of silicon (or some other material) that exactly mirrors the organization and behavior of the brain wouldn't be conscious. If they refuse to see this, consider a process whereby we take a brain that we all agree to be conscious and replace its neurons, one by one, with their silicon counterparts. Is there a point at which the brain ceases to be conscious? If you argue that it's with the first silicon implant, you would also have to logically agree that anybody who suffered a brain injury that destroyed the same neuron was also no longer conscious, which is clearly absurd. If you claim it's with the last one, that attributes some miraculous properties to the presence of a single biological neuron among billions. And if its somewhere in between... well, whatever point you choose immediately falls to the argument "why not one more or one less?"

If the argument is essentially (2), the opponents of strong AI need to tell us what exactly what it is we do think with, if not our brains. If the answer is another physical (biological) component, we are back in the case of (1) above. If the answer is something non-physical or immaterial, then we are off in the realms of the unscientific, unprovable and supernatural, and this is an argument that literally cannot be debated. Proponents of this position are quite simply assuming the very thing they purport to prove, i.e. consciousness is not material, therefore you can't build one. Not a very convincing argument, I'm afraid.

And finally there is possibility (3). Perhaps the reason the arguments against strong AI are both convincing to many and equally applicable to brains as to silicon is because we really don't think. Perhaps consciousness is simply an illusion conjured up inside our brains as we weave a narrative for ourselves to explain our mechanistic actions. (Although this does beg the question of whose benefit the narrative is for -- perhaps it is simply an irrelevant side-effect of our evolutionary beneficial ability to imagine and predict?). Among serious consicousness researchers, there is a disturbing and growing body of evidence that (3) might actually be the case...

Monday, October 15, 2007

The unlimited carrying capacity of peasants

I was looking at these Pictures of the Day on the BBC and number 7 in the sequence reminded me that nobody has ever empirically established a limit to the carrying capacity of the Standard Peasant. In England in the Middle Ages, for example, when a team of oxen got bogged down plowing a field, three peasants would lift them clear, but the lifting limit of the English has dropped significantly since they stopped digging the canal system by hand.

Lately though I've been wondering, how much money could some of these peasants make if they knew about the world of professional sports? It would make Sunday Night Football a lot more interesting:

John Madden: "And there's Xin Yang in the backfield, the 73 year old, eighty pound NFL rookie, making his first start at fullback for the Oakland Raiders. He looks like a good sneeze would knock him down."

Al Michaels: "He takes the ball and hits the defenders at a slow shuffle. Still moving forward, carrying two linebackers on his back and dragging the nose tackle around his ankles. Finally stopped at the 15 yard line... No, he's up and moving again, with four defenders balanced across his shoulders. Touchdown!"

John Madden: "That's his third rushing touchdown today, a franchise rookie record. He also has the longest kickoff return in NFL history, 47 yards in seven minutes and 12 seconds."

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

So much better than the alternative

Computer failure at United prevents takeoffs. But the funny part is this quote from a spokeswoman:

>Planes airborne during the breakdown were allowed to keep flying, she said.

That's a great relief, but I'm not entirely clear what the alternative would have been?

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Rob the Mobster

My young son loves the TV show "Bob the Builder"... but you never hear much about Bob's unsavory brother, Rob the Mobster. Fortunately, Rob now has his own TV show in which Rob and his gang of machines have all kinds of fun while teaching children important real world lessons. Its a kind of "Bob the Builder meets the Sopranos" concept. Upcoming episodes include:

Fixing the fence: When Rob discovers that his fence has been ripping him off, the gang take him down to the docks and "fix him up".

Cutting the grass. Somebody has been grassing out Rob's operation to the cops. When Rob finds out who it is, he takes him out back and cuts him up a treat.

Mixing the concrete: Rob borrows his brother Bob's cement mixer to pour a foundation for a highway overpass, while the rest of the gang try to guess who will be buried in it.

Expect to see Rob the Mobster debuting on TV this summer.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

World's Worst Job?

The worst job in the world has got to be being No. 2 for Al Qaeda. I don't even know what the job description is, but most jobholders don't last long enough to find out. It seems like every other day, the US armed forces are capturing or killing No. 2 somewhere in the world. The conversations in Al Qaeda's HR department must be going something like this by now:

-- "Hey, No. 7! We have a great promotion opportunity for you! Corner office, chauffered limo, big pay raise."
-- "What's the catch?"
-- "We need a new No. 2. The last one just got captured."
-- "Uh, no thanks. I, uh, I'm only good at the odd-numbered jobs. Try No. 8."

In fact, if Al Qaeda was smart they'd just leave the job vacant and delegate the duties to No. 3. After all, you never see a news story about No. 3 getting taken out.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

How To Mix The Perfect Vodka Martini

I have three basic recipes for Vodka martinis. All of these recipes require a chilled glass, dry french vermouth such as Noilly Prat and a fairly neutral russian vodka such as Moskovskaya. All are finished with a twist of lime.

Dry: Pour one measure of vermouth into a martini glass. Swish it around and pour it out. Then pour 5 measures of vodka into a completely different glass.

Very Dry: Pour 5 measures of vodka into a martini glass. Hold the vermouth bottle up and let the light pass through it and fall onto the martini glass.

Perfect: Pour 5 measures of vodka into a martini glass. Sip, slowly, while reminiscing about the taste of vermouth.

Energy Conservation

Energy conservation: it's not just a good idea, it's the law

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Cover your eyes

This one isn't funny (yeah, yeah...) but I had to get it off my chest. All over the world, men tell women how they should dress. They have a variety of reasons -- that women's bodies offend god, or society, or inflame mens uncontrollable sexual passions -- none of which permit rational debate. And let me say straight away, this isn't a dig at any particular religion or any particular society. Sure, some examples are more obviously visible than others, and in some places the pressure applied is more subtle than the blunt threat of the law. But even in the US today there are offices where women are frowned upon for not wearing stockings; churches where it's an affront for a woman not to cover her hair; and in many supposedly liberal Western democracies it's debatable whether girls should be permitted to wear pants (trousers) to school.

And before those of you who think of yourselves as tolerant and liberated and beyond such pettiness laugh at the silliness of those social conservatives, consider this: throughout the US today, the mere sight of the shape of a woman's nipple is enough to launch the media into paroxysms. And I'm not talking here about a Janet Jackson moment: I'm just talking about the shape seen through clothing! The same is true of many of the more repressed European countries. Did you know that contestants in beauty pageants routinely put band aids over their nipples so the shape won't show through their bathing suits? How obsessive is that?

Anyway, my bottom line here is: if you think that women's bodies or hair are offensive or inflammatory...

...don't tell the women to cover their bodies. Tell the men to cover their eyes.

Sunday, April 15, 2007


Lie and lay. Ensure and insure. Loose and Lose. I hate, sight unseen, people who confuse similar-sounding words.

Does that make me homophonic?

Monday, March 26, 2007

I have to stop reading WebMD

Every time I read WebMD I discover another disease that I'm suffering from. I read the list of symptoms and lo and behold, I have that. According to my self-diagnosis, I have everything from acne to zoster virus. Amazingly, I have stuff it shouldn't be possible to have at the same time. I have insomnia and narcolepsy. I have diarrhea and constipation. I have all the symptoms of both hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism (I may be the world's smallest giant). I also have anxiety disorder and depression (at least, I do after reading WebMD for a while).

I seem to be particularly prone to stuff that's named after people. I think I have Crohn's disease, Graves' disease, and Reiter's syndrome. I also have Reyes' Syndrome -- and he has mine.

I've decided to stop reading about anything that's named after two doctors as those seem to be the ones that are so unpleasant, no one doctor wanted their name associated with it. That rules out Guillain-Barre', Epstein-Barr, Kreuzfeld-Jacob, and Beri-Beri. OK, that last one isn't really named after the Beri brothers, but its still pretty nasty.

Last week my armpit was hurting. According to my self-diagnosis, I have bubonic plague.

Either that, or my t-shirt is too tight.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Clinically Proven

Carl Zetie has been clinically proven to be effective!*

*This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA. Carl Zetie is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

World's Most Pointless Jobs?

I used to think that the most pointless job on the planet was being a referee in professional wrestling. Nothing is apparently against the rules, the wrestlers routinely ignore instructions from the referee, and the only responsibility is to "miss" some incredibly obvious outside intereference that everybody in the audience spotted. Imagine going home and having your significant other ask "so how was work today?". "The usual: I looked the other way while two big sweaty guys in Speedos rolled around with each other."

But watching the Green Bay Packers on TV the other night, I realized that there's a job even less worthwhile: being a cheerleader in Green Bay in the winter. Presumably, these cheerleaders look like all the others across professional sports (no, I'm not going to spell it out for you) but you'd never know it under all the wrapping and padding needed to avoid frostbite, exposure and hypothermia when you spend three hours on a windy night standing around the sidelines at Lambeau Field. I wonder how many of them were thinking "I worked out all summer so I could look like I weigh 220 pounds on national television?".

In fairness, they didn't actually look like they weighed 220 pounds. Instead, they looked like they were wearing fat suits -- you know, the ones that Hollywood recently discovered and thinks are so intrinsically funny that you can make an entire hilarious movie around somebody wearing one without needing to bother with actual jokes or a plot. See, for example, "Shallow Hal" and "Big Momma's House". Or rather, don't see them.