Blog Category: culture/society

Benoît Mandelbrot, 1924-2010

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I am saddened to hear that Benoît Mandelbrot has passed away. His The Fractal Geometry of Nature excited and intrigued me when I was in high school, though I admit that while I, like many others, examined all the pictures, I read only scattered parts of the text. The talk of his I attended as an undergraduate was the first technical talk by a famous mathematician that I understood, essentially, in full.  The popularity of fractals was due to the gorgeous pictures,  and was aided by the simplicity of some of the underlying mathematics, which made it accessible to so many, and to the connection of fractals to so many phenomena. That fractals appeared at all scales in nature, from galaxies, to coastlines, to trees, I knew from looking at his book, but their tie to economics was new to me. He struck me as arrogant, but in an endearing way since his pride in his contributions stemmed from his intense love of the work and his absolute conviction of its importance. He clearly enjoyed his maverick status as someone who worked in a different way than most mathematicians, and on non-standard mathematics. Although he taught us to look for self-similar patterns throughout the universe, we won’t find the like of him any time soon.

The Wilderness Machine


Tom Jennings in an interesting guy. He’s an artist, and activist, and an internet pioneer. Tom is probably best known as the creator of FidoNet. Currently he works with students at the University of California, Irvine’s Arts Computation Engineering graduate program, where he produces artwork under the name “World Power Systems.” The work is wide ranging but technology seems to be a fairly unifying theme.

Recently the band Arcade Fire worked with Chris Milk to produce an experimental music video of sorts. Called “The Wilderness Down Town,” it either combines information about the viewer into a cool multimedia music video or it crashes your web browser. It’s all done with HTML 5. Viewers are asked to provide the address of the house they grew up in and then to create a “postcard” to their younger selves. When it works it is really very cool. To be fair, if you use the browser they suggest (i.e., Google’s Chrome), it seems to work every time.

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Little Brother

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There’s a provocative little story in this month’s CACM, written by Greg Bear, an award-winning Science Fiction author. It paints a rather bleak picture of a techno-dystopia with a nasty social angle. The picture may seem paranoid, but it’s also easy to see how parts of it are making their way into our present-day reality. What measures can (should) we take to avoid this future?

And what of other societies, where Big Brother can leverage all of this technology as well?

(Apologies for the link to the story: ACM membership is required.)

Overflow overflow?


Ten days ago,  a theoretical computer science community Q&A site went beta and seems to be generating a fair amount of activity. I’m a big fan of MathOverflow, and am delighted to see a similar site springing up for a different field.

Thirty-nine days ago,  a new mathematics site went beta, which initially puzzled me since the mathematics community already has the highly successful MathOverflow site. The difference appears to be that MathOverflow is specifically for research mathematics whereas the new site aims to be broader, allowing more elementary questions.

Overall, I think a proliferation of such sites is great, but it is also confusing. It isn’t always clear when a question is research level or not. There are questions tagged algebra or topology on the CS theory site that are pure mathematics questions. There’s a question tagged  graph theory that had been posted previously to MathOverflow. I am delighted to see that both and quantum computing already are populated with a few questions, but similar questions in these areas received good answers on MathOverflow. It would be a shame if the proliferation of sites lead to less interaction between fields rather than more. I’ll be curious to see how the usage patterns play out over time.

Revisualizing a past FXPAL researcher

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Traces of Gold, by Chris Culy

Traces of Gold, by Chris Culy

Chris Culy, who worked on discourse parsing at FXPAL a number of years ago, is now in Italy working as a Senior Researcher and the Language Technologies Technical Officer at the Institute for Specialised Communication and Multilingualism. He oversees language-related software development and leads a research project on linguistic data visualization. But the real excitement is that he has a solo art show, Revisualizing the visual, opening today.  His work combines his  interest in photography with his  interest in how information is structured and perceived. The software he has written to support his work transforms colors into shapes or uses color information to create rambling colorful paths based on the image. To create effective artworks, Chris carefully chooses the original photograph and tunes the algorithms to it. Don’t miss the video that shows some of this process in action!

Intended to deceive

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The ‘sphere is a-twitter about BP’s buying keywords (e.g., “oil spill”, “BP”, “gulf disaster”, etc.) to place links to their versions of the story at the top of the search results.  ABC News writes:

According to Kevin Ryan, the CEO of California-based Motivity Marketing, research shows that most people can’t tell the difference between a paid result pages, like the ones BP have, and actual news pages.

So we have two issues: one related to BP, and one related to the search engines.

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Turker: Contractor or employee?


On Monday I attended a crowd-sourcing Meetup with the funny (and as it turned out inaccurate) title of The Distributed Distributed Work Meetup. The idea was to hear talks about various crowd-sourcing topics from speakers in Seattle, San Francisco, Boston and New York. Technology didn’t cooperate, and were left to our own devices, which meant to eat, drink, and listen to fascinating and provocative talk by Alek Felstiner on a range of legal questions surrounding crowd-sourcing platforms such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (AMT).

I cannot do justice to the legal issues, in part because so many of them remain unresolved. I will, however, report on a number of questions raised during the talk and on some of the potential precedents for this kind of work. One reason to discuss this topic is that there are some concerns that the Turkers are being exploited by those who pay for the work, as the value of the work to the company sometimes seems much higher than the rate the worker is paid.

Yet many people chose to do this work freely, and seem to enjoy doing it, and certainly there are many companies and individuals, profit-oriented and academic, who benefit from this service. The questions raised in this talk bore on the legal relationship between the organizations or individuals requesting work and those providing it.

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Joining the e-book annals: Alice on iPad

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A lot of people (like me) will use the iPad as an e-reader, among other things. It’s a good opportunity to play around with what a e-book actually can be, since the iPad offers things that Kindle can’t (color, animation…). I vote for more like this, please:

It’s in the iTunes store here.

Towels! and, Open Source Robotics

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“Cloth Grasp Point Detection based on Multiple-view Geometric Cues with Application to Robotic Towel Folding.” Just watch it:

This is a PR2 robot from Willow Garage, being used in a project led by Berkeley grad student Jeremy Maitlin-Shepard. (The paper on the folding application is here.) The PR2 and its cousin the Texai have visited us at FXPAL; we’re hoping to improve our acquaintance soon (stay tuned!).

The very interesting approach taken by the roboticists at Willow Garage is to encourage the development of the robotics community through open source development. They also loan their hardware to other research labs on a case-by-case basis, again to encourage development on their ROS platform.

What is ROS? From the Willow Garage site:

ROS, Willow Garage’s software platform, stands for two things: Robot Operating System, a loose analogy to a computer operating system, and Robot Open Source. All of the software in development at Willow Garage is released under a BSD license at It is completely open source and free for others to use, change and commercialize upon — our primary goal is to enable code reuse in robotics research and development. Willow Garage is strongly committed to developing open source and reusable software. With the help of an international robotics community, we’ve also released all of the software we are building on ROS at in the “ros-pkg” and “wg-ros-pkg” projects.