Monday, February 27, 2006

female self-image

I'm not sure why I've been going on about the sexes so much lately, but after this I think I'll quit.

Back in the days of DOS, I did everything computerish. Printer doesn't work, program's wigging out, network doesn't connect, mail's not going through, computer exploded due to grape soda – I was there to fix it by phone or in person. It was actually a pretty fun job, lots of variety, drive around being the white hat, savior of secretaries.

One aspect I saw all too often was women dropping about 10-15 IQ points when I was around. Ordinary stuff they did every day, they would suddenly start hesitating or forgetting. Maybe it was the presence of the "expert," but that's what they did. On the other hand, men would get defensive or competitive, tell me how they do stuff, ask my advice on the home computer. They wanted to be seen as power users.

For many years I had a soft spot and would give whatever level of help was needed, explaining and teaching, recommending they write it down or even writing it down for them. After a while, though, I got disgusted with the IQ drop. I didn't have time for it, for one thing. We bought more computers, the networks were getting more complicated, and my bosses hadn't figured out how to clone me. Or hire a second person.

In the last six months I've been in touch with about eight doctors, mostly medical, over half women. It's very strange to see someone with a Ph.D. not giving herself self-respect, hesitating to use the power of her position in the teaching hospital. They have a hard time acknowledging that they direct a team of interns and fellows and therapists. Some even have a hard time expecting respect from patients. One of these, with a long and musical Indian last name, asked (adult) patients to use "Doctor" with her first name (short, white, and probably not her real first name.) It might make her more accessible, but at the expense of respect. Doctors should go by their title and last name, even if truncated a bit.

I usually automatically like any woman who's smarter than me. Not that I'm any kind of genius, but I was considered gifted as a kid, tested out with 130 IQ points (undoubtedly fallen after years of schooling), write, read, know a little bit about a lot of things, and have a systems mind. I'm ambidextrous, and visually oriented in the way that doesn't mean I watch a lot of TV. I'm comfortable knowing I'm a pretty intelligent person. I don't feel I have to act dumber to be accepted by the opposite sex. I don't feel compelled to smile a lot. I don't deny being smarter than your average bear.

Woman: You're really smart, you know?
Man: Thanks! [note to self: ask her for a date!]

Man: You're really smart, you know?
Woman: Oh, I'm not really. Just [insert excuse].

I feel sorry for women who have been trained (by society or family or whatever) to be modest about their accomplishments. I've tried to build up their egos and confidence by telling them objectively this is what they are: intelligent, educated people who regularly accomplish amazing things, and possess power. I get denials, I get ignored, and once in a rare while someone catches a spark and says "Thanks!" I just wish it wasn't so hard for them to do this, because I'm getting pretty tired of the work it takes.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

my bird's dead

S, who I gave to another falconer about five weeks ago, has died. The falconer, V, had given him a good workout regime to restore his tone, and S was, in his words, flying like a goshawk. (He was always faster than most tiercel HHs.) V went hawking on the weekend with his FHH and S, going after bunnies. The eagle came in and was pumping hard after my bird. S was booking – he'd always been wary of large eagle-shaped things – but apparently wasn't fast enough to evade, or calculating enough to locate a hiding place. V lost sight of them beyond a rock outcrop, and was unable to pick up his signal with the receiver. The next day he found S's remains.

He was my first hawk as a general falconer, and I have to say he was a great falconry bird. Not a perfect hunting machine, but he gave me hundreds of jackrabbits and cottontail, about twelve ducks, a few coots, and five or six pheasant in the nine years I had him. He had a mellow personality, was incredibly well manned, would sit anyone's glove, hooded decently, and was streetwise. Though wary of dogs, he was neither hateful nor terrified of them. In the Harris hawk way, he was a genuine ha-ha-Harris, happily eating ice cream, cucumbers and bagels, and once nicking a french-fry out of my mouth. He was a show-off in the best kind of way: when other falconers were around, he went on his best behavior and never failed to catch something, making me look really good.

I'm glad he died while hunting: being a hawk. I hope he's terrorizing the bunnies in hawk heaven. I'll miss him,
my birdmy Squeaky Muad'dib, 1996-2006.

Monday, February 13, 2006

meanderings on machine intelligence

In the previous post, intelligence is based primarily on learned patterns, the ability to generalize, and the ability to predict. Hawks, according to Hawkins, would not qualify as intelligent because they have no neocortex and are unable to predict (anticipate a certain outcome based on past experience.) He claims prediction, not behavior, is the basis of intelligence.

However, I assure you that hawks predict quite well. They return to perches from which they've caught quarry in the past. They can remember these perches after not seeing them for months. (Eagles are higher up on the intelligence scale, as they have rather good memories.) They remember that specific actions have specific results, and are disconcerted when the results don't happen. They can recognize the content of pictures, though they may have trouble distinguishing them from the real thing. They know what a 'dog' is because it looks like one.

Is this intelligence? Is a neocortex actually required to be considered intelligent? Or is anthrocentricity, or mammalocentricity, making this claim? What do mice have that hawks do not? (Answer: calories.) Humans cannot see infrared or ultraviolet unaided. Would we be perceived as unintelligent by creatures who can naturally see these colors? (Kestrels can see into the UV range, which helps them find mice.)

What do humans have that every other animal does not? Language. The ability to convert ideas and objects into symbols, the ability to agree that a specific symbol means the same thing to all interested parties, and the ability to understand that the symbols can completely stand in place of the idea or object itself. We've had this ability since we were cavemen drawing bisons. And it hinges on the facts that we have well-developed vocalization and that opposable thumb with which to draw symbols. If I tell you that my bird has one white talon, you could probably pick him out of an entire breeding project of Harris hawks. I need not describe to you the color of his eyes or plumage, or give you a photograph (which wouldn't do much good anyway, since all Harris hawks look alike.) I may not even need to tell you which talon is white, or even his gender.

Computers are entirely about symbols: letters and numbers. However, they do not easily understand ideas and objects. They cannot behave in an intelligent manner without humans telling them what bits of reality are important and what aren't. Because only humans have bridged the gap between symbols and the ideas and objects they represent.

The second aspect to this example is that I automatically know which quality is most unusual and distinguishes him from other Harrisi. This is another inherent human quality, a survival skill: notice things that deviate from the norm. Perhaps this is the way to make machines intelligent. Put a bunch of them in a hazardous environment, destroy the ones that don't observe the right details, and let the others to see the result of insufficient vigilance. Of course, they wouldn't care about the deaths of their companions unless they were programmed to do so.

Seriously now, can this bridge between symbol and reality be programmed into a computer? With the fastest processors and a memory capacity as large as can be imagined – no. It's theoretically possible to build a machine with video and tactile inputs, and give it enough basics to interpret the input. You can tell it that reality is what comes to it through these inputs, and it is separate but not entirely separate from the factual knowledge that we program into it. (The jumpy thing on the floor is a dog, and the sacked-out thing in the corner is also a dog. A Jack Russell is a type of dog, that's the jumpy one; the sacked-out one is a Lab. The Lab's name is Woofer and the Jack Russell's name is Tweeter, you are a robot, etc.)

But this would only be a semblance of a bridge. It can make basic conclusions if we program it to do so. It could pick up fifty thousand facts just sitting in an empty meeting room, but it cannot distinguish between important facts and unimportant facts. And the task of defining those distinctions is too enormous for humans to manage. ("Yes, that's a chair. That's a chair too. And this is also a chair. That's a couch. This is a chair....")

Next question: can computers be made intelligent in the way Hawkins defines it, to be able to predict and anticipate? Yes and no. They can predict and anticipate, but again, only as behaviors programmed by humans, because they still don't have the bridge. Hawkins' idea of modeling computers after human brains will not automatically make them intelligent.

It's like handing me tons of girders, wood, and nails and telling me to build an Eichler. Given all the materials and tools, I could build a pretty nice mews (read: shack), but it won't be a liveable house and sure ain't going to be an Eichler. I would need plans, instructions for every simple little thing from where to drill holes for the wiring to how to lay the heating pipes in the floor. Fortunately, I do know how to wield a hammer, which a computer still needs to be told how to do.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

on intelligence: intelligence off

Generally speaking, I tend to be skeptical of things Wired gets excited about. It's just too golly-gee-ain't-we-clever, and gets euphoric over re-invention of yet another wheel.

Predictably, "On Intelligence" gives me about the same level of excitement. I received this book as a gift and have spent the past day reading it. Admittedly, Jeff Hawkins (or his co-writer, Sandra Blakeslee) is adequately readable, but I would not call it engaging. Those who have never read or thought about brains, cognition, or artificial intelligence will finish the book feeling like they've learned something. To everyone else, the book is all old information and old ideas – ground already well-trod.

One encounters afterthought sentences such as "Scientists use the words anterior for the front and posterior for the back," and one realizes that the book's intended audience are high school students. Any other assumption and Hawkins is simply insulting the intelligence and knowledge of his readers.

The writing tends toward windiness, spots of self-aggrandizement, and is glutted with lengthy analogies, several of which are gross oversimplifications. (Toward the end of the book he says without irony, "False analogy is always a danger.") There are in fact so many analogies, it's hard to find the actual ideas. Actually, there aren't that many ideas.

For more readable and far more original concepts, I recommend Julian Jaynes' "Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind", or almost anything by Daniel Dennett on consciousness.

Hawkins misses the point of the Turing test, wishes to see "genuine understanding" in machines, and denigrates all historical attempts (e.g. neural networks) to create it. "Understanding" and "intelligence" are words with many meanings. Turing's imitation of intelligence is based on results: the machine doesn't have to understand what it's doing, so long as the result or response is indistinguishable from that of a human. Hawkins insists a machine must "understand" what it's doing in order to be "intelligent." As true as this may be (using his definitions of these terms), I doubt human-style understanding will happen for centuries, if ever. It's far too complex. Plus, I do not want a machine quoting Orwell or Kafka at me to explain why it wasn't able to do its task, which is what it would do if it really did understand what it was doing.

However, imitation of understanding exists now, and can be further developed. We see its basics in phone systems that interpret spoken commands – our Bay Area's 511 traffic/transportation reporting system is very cool – though it helps when it's programmed to bring in a human when you tell it you want a large chicken pesto pizza with bacon bits. Intelligent? Technically, no. Can it help me pick the faster road to drive? Hell yes, many times. Do I want it to be any more intelligent than that? It would be interesting if it offered to recommend a route – a feature probably fairly easy to program in (source, destination, pick a route by factoring in highest average speed and minimizing additional distance). But if intelligence means it'll tell me I should turn the wipers on because it's raining 10 miles down the road – no. For that, I have my mother.

The only interesting idea put forth (not an idea original to Hawkins) is that intelligence is based primarily on learned patterns, the ability to generalize, and the ability to predict. This is, indeed, all we do, starting from babyhood. We learn the varying tones of voice that belong to one parent or another, the parts of them that change (clothing, hair, makeup) and those that do not, and the fact that when certain sounds or actions occur, certain other ones follow. We see the mobile spinning around and learn that the orange duck is at this spot now, and should be at another spot in a certain amount of time – and if it doesn't, we'll start screaming. We learn subtle things, too: the fear a parent feels when confronted by, say, an aggressive dog, is echoed in or exhibited by certain postures or motions, which are transmitted to the child well before any overt command or words are spoken. (And in this single paragraph I have pretty much summarized about sixty pages.)

Can a machine have sufficient memory and connections to do all that? Hawkins' answer is a bit too smoke-and-mirrors. He describes the qualities of silicon chips, says they're insufficient, then breezily assures the reader that sometime in the future there will be something sufficient. And that it should be modeled on his alternate view of the cortex, described in his most technical chapter, "How the Cortex Works". (Hawkins presents this hierarchy as his original concept, but it is simply the traditional model with more detail added.) How the model and the nonexistent chips will transform into an intelligent system, Hawkins does not say. It will simply happen. That's to be expected – he's a CEO, and details are for engineers.

To quote the immortal Richard Feynman:
What often happens is that an engineer has an idea of how the brain works (in his opinion) and then designs a machine that behaves this way. This new machine may in fact work very well. But...that does not tell us anything about how the brain actually works, nor is it necessary to ever really know that, in order to make a computer very capable. It is not necessary to understand the way birds flap their wings and how feathers are designed in order to make a flying machine... It is therefore not necessary to imitate the behavior of Nature in detail in order to engineer a device which can in many respects surpass Nature's abilities.

Hawkins dips his toe, in a mercifully brief chapter, into the concepts of consciousness, creativity, and reality. It reads a bit too much like a self-improvement book, and is a chapter better skipped. Actually, skip the entire book, please, and read Jaynes and Dennett.

Friday, February 10, 2006

look skyhawker

Strange, ridiculous and completely cool. I've been hawking a field that has both jacks and pheasants, and am mostly having a blast. It's got a load of tall dillweed, all dead and crispy, and some skinny creeks with tules: both ideal pheasant hiding spots. If I go at most once every three weeks, I can get some good flushes. The only trouble with this place is an uncrossably wide canal, and a better field on the other side. That's where most of the pheasants are, but I can't get to that part.

We'd been tromping through these things, and had three flushes, of which only one was any good (the other two started way far away.) P chased the good flush, but was outflown. I had been through most all of it and was pretty sure everyone had gone. I had P on the T-perch and mounted a little hill, then stopped to rest a few seconds while P looked around.

He dropped almost straight down onto something at the base of the hill. Almost instantly came a rattling of feathers, and a big rooster (well, they're all big, I suppose) bounced up into the air. All in the same amount of time to take one step down from where I was. On his way up, the cock started turning towards the safe field. He noticed me just as he was at my eye level – I swear for a moment our eyes met – and he pumped his wings frantically to correct his heading.

With no conscious thought (use the Force, Luke!) I swung the T-perch at him. That morning I had replaced the two-foot wide top (for carrying two birds) with a six-inch top, and the vertical part is 1.5" PVC tube, so this was approximately like trying to hit a baseball with a ruler. Before you say this shouldn't be a problem, I should mention that as a kid I played baseball (by which I include all baseball-like games, such as football) a grand total of four times. I developed my eye-hand coordination from pouring test tubes in my chemistry set, and playing doctor. Fine motor control is no insignificant skill.

I felt a thump of connection in my hands, saw his flight waver. But he was moving away and I obviously didn't hit him in a place that would stop him, like the wing or the chest. I must have caught his rear half, and pheasants are damn sturdy creatures. He kept going, over the canal and down to his tules. I was too surprised at what I'd just done to track him. I've done some silly things, like leaping to tackle quarry, so this shouldn't be unexpected. But I didn't expect to actually connect.

Of course, it would have been mo'betta if P had done the connecting. I'm not sure he actually grabbed the pheasant in the first place – had he done, the cock would have stayed down at least one second. There should have been more thrashing. But it happened just out of my line of sight, so I can only guess.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

my writing guidelines

For long things, make some attempt at a plot outline. You can write in nonlinear chunks, and organize them into presentation order, but this takes some coordination afterwards. You may not want the short reminder summary to appear before you've given the full details.

For short things, have some idea of what you want to say – the overall theme.

Never worry about length until you finish. It doesn't matter how long a story takes to get told: word count has no meaning. A person could write a sentence describing a woman walking from the bedroom to the front door. A person could also write three full paragraphs on the same.

Trim the fat, condense, concentrate your story for the richest and most intense flavor you can put into it. Again, never fear low word count: if concentrated, a story can always be diluted a bit in places. If already thin, adding more words for the sake of padding will make a story flavor-free and utterly worthless. I like most stories where you stop and take a break, feeling like you've been through a lot, and you look at the margin and realize you're on page 30 and still have 220 to go. Lots of novels start out intensely and fritter off into flabby halfway through – avoid this as much as possible. I like a novel to develop like a freight train: building up pieces that come together in the end with power, speed, and intensity.

Include only what has some relevance to your story. This can get pretty broad, honestly: there's atmosphere, describing the location, backstory that influences the character's behavior, background facts, all sorts of things that might be relevant. But each of these has weight, and many are lighter, less crucial, than others. Gauge what's important versus what you can cut without significant loss. Then cut.

If something is light, it's easily given at least superficial weight. Take the color of the flowers in the garden where your characters are sitting, note if they're yellow (for friendship), red (for love), purple (for repentance), or white (for purity). Take an airplane and compare it to a raven or a seagull or an eagle or a dinosaur, depending on what the airplane is carrying, what its portent is. Open windows when hot air becomes stifling. Close doors when someone is refused.

Write a good sentence. Chop, embellish, use your thesaurus, but write a good sentence every time, or at least try. Always write grammatically, and spell and punctuate correctly. It'll make for less editing later. (Unless, of course, misspelling or bad grammar is intentional.)

The past motivates characters in the present. The future is only an imagination, a hope, and these are also based on the character's past and present. Write a timeline of events if you must to keep your characters' lives straight. Think about what influenced them before your story opens.

All major characters must develop and change during the course of the story, unless they are made of lead. Characters should be consistent in their language and behavior. Draw up just enough hints to surprise the reader pleasantly. Never stun them into saying "What?! No way! X wouldn't do that!" Your bespectacled accountant should not suddenly be revealed as a black belt the sentence before he punches out an assassin.

All major characters in a realistic story must have both good and bad qualities. The bad qualities must not consist solely of insignificant flaws like occasionally forgetting to feed the cat.

Avoid stereotypes if possible, but break them only occasionally. If a realistic story is your goal, keep some alignment with reality. If you're writing about a large corporation, 95% have a white male CEO. You can have a woman of color as CEO, but don't make all your CEOs women of color unless you're writing about an alternative universe.

Think your reality through thoroughly. Be consistent.

Stay aware of what the reader knows from start to finish. A writer, having built the plot and cooked up their characters' every twist and turn, can sometimes forget that the reader doesn't know what he or she knows. Readers also forget facts, especially if there are lots, so sometimes an important detail bears repeating. The easiest way to pinpoint these gaps is to have someone else read your work. Ideally, you will have several readers: some to read it quickly, some who are willing to go through it carefully. In an ideal world both types will annotate. The less easy way is to walk away from your story for however long it takes to forget details, then come back and read it afresh.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

what your hawk says about you ;-)

Harris hawkers are laid back guys who like consistent performance in their birds. They tend to be working class, and like to have a good time hawking. The old-style Harris hawker considers a little dope and beer in their hawking bags as essential a tool as their jackrabbit-leg lure. The new-style Harris hawker cannot fly without Harris-hawking friends. That way five hawks can catch one rabbit and five falconers can each say they caught a rabbit.

Microhawkers (sharpies/spars/merlins) are more intellectual – not necessarily formally educated, but thinkers. They tend to be perfectionists, and critical in the evaluative way. They are slightly obsessive and naturally assume being the center of attention.

Peregrine falconers are a mixed lot. Many of them, consciously or unconsciously, choose a peregrine because it's considered the highest, purest, ideal form of falconry – the art of the thousand-foot, 180 mph stoop blows their minds. Being organized and capable of planning are required to train a peregrine well. They also need to have very good eyesight.

People who fly gyrs and prairies are less fussy and more laid back than peregrine falconers. Both these birds will take ground quarry readily, so their owners have to be okay with their bird not always doing the longwing thing. A lot of them seem to be ex-Harris hawkers.

Those who fly redtails after apprenticeship tend to be pleasant, happy people who can put up with being told by every other falconer to get a "real" hawk. Like Harris hawkers, they like consistent performance and a steady temperament. They are the kind who remember their first car with great fondness.

Goshawkers are also a mixed lot, but many are deeply into the performance; they want a fast bird that will take on almost anything. The rest are masochistically excited by the challenge of working with one of the notoriously difficult raptors. Coopers hawk owners are the same, only more so.

Watch out for eagle guys. They have masculinity issues. Women are not stupid enough to take on an eagle. Guys who fly ferrugies are the same, only less so.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

the xx advantage

The flipside of my conflagration post is that women possess qualities that make them better falconers than men. First, women are less inclined to go numbers-crazy – unlike men, they don't believe the quantity of game they catch is a direct testament to their skill as falconers. They're not as driven to compete, they're less compulsed to catch more game than all their friends or announce (read: brag) exactly how many.

Consequently their birds don't get overworked. In my personal opinion, there are reasonable and unreasonable amounts to work your bird. If my bird catches one jackrabbit, we're done (exceptions: a super-easy catch, and film students.) A jackrabbit is 4 to 5 times his weight of 22 ounces. I wouldn't even consider trying to control an 800-pound anything with my bare hands – I know I'd lose even if I had twice the banshee a hawk has. A cottontail, depending on type, is considerably easier at 16-32 ounces, so two or three is not unreasonable to demand. But multiple jackrabbits or a half-dozen bunnies in one day simply isn't fair to him. It leaves the realm of behavior considered normal for a hawk feeding a family, and increases the risk of stress injuries.

Digressing, obviously, but to bring it back to the subject of women, I've met no women falconers who are that demanding, and a number of men who are. Men are more inclined to see hawks as tools, concerned with their performance. Women almost always view their hawks as partners or friends, treat them with more consideration, and are less inclined to quickly ditch a bird they don't like. Hawks like consistency and stability.

Do these qualities make a "better" falconer? It depends on how you define "better," but I consider the aspects of hunting, home, and manning to be equal in importance. As women tend to be better at the last two, when they are equal in the first, I would call the woman the better falconer.