Archive for the ‘Smart-Ass Remarks’ Category

Scientists solve ‘gavagai’ problem. Not.

Monday, April 21st, 2008

From NewScientistSpace: “‘Babelfish’ to translate alien tongues could be built

Such a “babelfish”, which gets its name from the translating fish in Douglas Adams’s book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, would require a much more advanced understanding of language than we currently have. But a first step would be recognising that all languages must have a universal structure, according to Terrence Deacon of the University of California, Berkeley, US.

[...]Deacon argues that all languages arise from the common goal of describing the physical world. That limits the way a language could be constructed, he concludes.

Deacon argues that no matter how abstract a symbol becomes, it is still somehow grounded in physical reality, and that limits the number of relationships it can have with other symbol words. In turn, this defines the grammatical structure that emerges from stringing words together.

If that is true, then in the distant future it might be possible to invent a gadget that uses complex software to decode alien languages on the spot, Deacon said. He presented his ideas on Thursday 17 April at the 2008 Astrobiology Science Conference in Santa Clara, California, US.

Testing the theory might be tough because we would have to make contact with aliens advanced enough to engage in abstract thinking and the use of linguistic symbols.

The lack of aliens does indeed make that a tough nut to crack. Also, problematic is the lack of a physical “grounding” relation that would serve to distinguish between reference to rabbits, un-detached rabbit parts, and the cosmic complement of a rabbit. Good luck, exolinguists!


Fig. 1. Stick this in your ear hole.

My recollection of Douglas Adams’s description of the Babelfish was that it fed off of the brain-waves of the speaker and secreted telepathic translations into the brain of the listener. Regarding the ‘gavagai’ problem, this is just to kick the problem upstairs: specifying determinate contents for alien brain states is not obviously easier than specifying determinate contents for their utterances.

However, perhaps one can appeal to a strategy outlined recently by Paul Churchland (Churchland, P. (2001). Neurosemantics: On the Mapping of Minds and the Portrayal of Worlds. The Emergence of Mind. K. E. White. Milan, Fondazione Carlo Elba: 117-47.) The gist of Churchland’s suggestion is that the neural activation spaces of distinct brains may be uniquely mapped to one another in spite of large differences between the brains’ fine-grained structure. This is alleged to provide an objective basis for measuring similarities of content in the respective neural representations.

Even if this Churchlandish proposal is correct, huge hurdles remain to harness the proposal in the service of a Babelfish-esque technology. Scanning an alien brain and then adjusting my own to resemble it and thus token representations with similar contents may suffice for me to think like an alien, but it wouldn’t suffice for me to have thereby translated the alien’s thoughts into my own. Consider: if someone zapped a monolingual English speaker with a ray that turned them into a monolingual Chinese speaker, the zapped speaker is no closer than before to understanding how to translate Chinese into English.


Fig. 2. By the way, my Babelfish tells me that the cover of his book says “To Serve Man“. Nice!

Valentine’s Day Reminder

Thursday, February 14th, 2008

There’s no such thing as unconditional love: [link].


Brain Hammers, Hair Circles, Topless Twain

Friday, August 3rd, 2007

Just totally wrong

Originally uploaded by greefus groinks

This post isn’t really about anything, so you should stop reading it now.

1. Brain Hammers

So, it turns out that brain hammers pre-date the Spinal Tap album “Brain Hammer” by quite a few years. Turns out, William Blake’s Tyger got hit with one:

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

And then there’s this: [Link] (SFW)

2. Hair Circles

I was telling my Intro. to Phil. students that good definitions of e.g. “mammal” should apply to all and only mammals (so “gives birth to live young” sucks) and should be non-circular (so defining them as hair-havers sucks if hair is defined as something only mammals have).

Later that day I thought I’d check to see what wacky stuff Wikipedia had to say about mammals and hair and, sure as shit, they have HAIR being an analytic component of MAMMAL and MAMMAL being an analytic component of HAIR. Socrates is gonna be pissed.

3. Topless Twain

Also on the Wikipedia entry for hair is a photo of Mark Twain with his shirt off. Why? That is, why did MT pose shirtless for a photo? Was it for his MySpace page, or something?

Well, here it is:


Unconditional Love

Wednesday, February 14th, 2007

Horned Heart
Originally uploaded by Pete Mandik.

For Valentine’s Day, Barbara Andrew and I were going to hold a debate at William Paterson University on the existence of unconditional love. I was going to argue against its existence, but weather forced a campus closure.

So here is my argument. If you have plans for Valentine’s Day, you better read my argument before you execute them.

My argument will be scientific. I will not consider so-called divine love. Nor will I make the claim that it is logically impossible for there to be unconditional love. I will argue that on a straightforward analysis of love and and a scientific understanding of conditions, human beings are incapable of it.

What is love? We need to make remarks general enough to cover romantic love, familial love, etc.

In the most general sense of love as it applies to contexts in which x loves y, where x and y are both persons, x loves y insofar as x desires benefits for y and does not desire harms for y. For simplicity I will define benefits to include harm-avoidance.

What does it mean for love to be conditional?

X loves y unconditionally iff x desires benefits for y regardless of x perceiving any benefits for x.

x loves y conditionally iff x’s desire of benefits for y depends on x perceiving benefits for x.

An example of conditional love would be if Sally let Jim live in her home, but kicked him out when she discovered that Jim had been stealing from her. An example of unconditional love would be if Sally let Jim live with her even after Jim was caught stealing from her, was later discovered to have killed Sally’s puppy, and even later was discovered to have raped and tortured Sally’s mother.

Now that the crucial terms have been clarified, here is the crux of my argument:

There is no human being that desires benefits for another human regardless of benefits to themselves. Keep in mind that the avoidance of harm is a benefit. For each person who loves another person, there is a finite threshold of harm beyond which they cannot tolerate to continue their love. The threshold may be higher for some than for others. For some it may be cheating while for others it will be torture. But being finite creatures, humans have only a finite capacity to put up with crap.

In summary: Send flowers.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Everyone has four eyes, or: why optometrists are stupid.

Saturday, October 21st, 2006

The Ones that are Held for Pleasure

Originally uploaded by Pete Mandik.

1. Assume, for simplicity, that everyone has two eyes that they see with (apologies, then, to pirates and cyclopses).

2. Assume, for simplicity, that everyone has two eyes that are seen (again, apologies).

3. Eyes that are seen are objective, that is, everyone else can see them.

4. Eyes that you see with are subjective, that is, only you can see with them.

5. Eyes that are seen are spatial (they have locations and shapes) and this is readily observable.

6. Eyes that you see with are nonspatial (they have neither locations nor shapes) since they occupy no position or amount of the visual field.

7. Eyes that are seen with cannot be identical to eyes that are seen since an objective spatial thing cannot be identical to a subjective nonspatial thing.

Therefore, everyone has four eyes.

One Great Thing…

Saturday, September 30th, 2006

One great thing about every generalization I’ve ever made about inexitents is that there exist no counterexamples.